The Hollowing, Robert Holdstock
One of a series, unfortunately, I have read none of the previous books. This presented no problem as I quickly got the hang of what was happening in the mysterious Ryhope Wood, and the strange Mythagos that live there created from memory. This is a tough book to rate. Based on an imagined world and the style of the author’s world-building I’d have to give this 4.5 out of 5, but on enjoyment I only liked the book, not loved it — maybe a 3.5, as I found it somewhat wandering. Still, I cannot fault this imaginative work, the creation of a magical world blended with mythology and anthropology. I may check out Mythago Wood in time, as that is the first novel, and seems more highly rated.
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (audio), M.C.Beaton, read by Penelope Keith
I’ve always wanted to dip into the world of Agatha Raisin, but never had the time. When I saw Penelope Keith narrates most of the series, I opted to listen to them. Not the best writing, but these are purely entertainment and the performance was perfect. Easy reading, dated in parts regarding social views (but that’s fine and the author wrote the first book in 70s). Although predictable, there’s something about Agatha’s sharp personality that’s difficult not to love. Possibly, those who love the books would like to be her, if only occasionally.
Ordinary Horror, David Searcy
Oddly, although I read this in October, I plucked it out of a mountain of books at random and understood it was literary, not horror, despite the title. On one level, this story is excellent and for the first few chapters I was engrossed by the strange plant Mr Delabano puts in the ground, but by the halfway point I felt bombarded by a sense of isolation. No doubt this is may be what the author intended, as the book is about the isolation of suburban life, but the style weighs heavily and didn’t seem to follow any path. The pace varies, plodding, sometimes enjoyable. If you’re looking for riveting and exciting, this may not be the book for you. It’s more one of social commentary. The writing likely deserves a 4/5 even though the author goes too much in to the minutiae of Mr Delabano’s life, but my personal enjoyment lingers around a mere 2. As for the grand payoff I’d heard about, I was disappointed. At one point, I wondered if the old man would end up killing his often unwelcome neighbours, but this didn’t happen. A lot is obscure. I’m sure there are many passages that will speak to some but bore and confuse others. You’ll never really know if the strange plant influences Mr Delabano’s neighbourhood, or if he is simply going mad under the weight of loneliness.
The Scarecrows, Robert Westall
Reading this acclaimed YA novel as an adult, without being told Simon’s age, I would have found it difficult to pinpoint. At times, he seems older; other times younger than his 13 years. This is a book about coming to terms with loss. Simon cannot accept his mother has moved on. The ghosts of the story are many but of the psychological kind. Simon’s hate haunts the book as do the characters. Simon idolises the memory of his father, and moments when his inner demons get the best of him both torment him. Whether the ghosts of the ruined water-mill are real is another matter, but they’re real to Simon. The book’s full of tension and misery. Alas, I found it hard to like Simon and hence care about him because of his early attitude in the book where he doesn’t care what happens to his hamsters, even though he cares far more about a stray cat and her kittens later on. It’s a slight point, but one that may annoy some modern readers. Still, the book is compelling and I can see why it’s award-winning, mostly owing to the writing and the atmosphere the author creates.
Fear, L.Ron Hubbard
I can imagine when this first appeared it caused a few chills if not scares, but the book really relies on a shock ending, one that’s maybe not so shocking now and one I guessed at shortly before it occurred. It definitely reads like an old classic, so anyone who likes M.R.James may well like this. The events leading to the end are seriously strange. At times, it feels as though the world is melting around the central character and all because of four missing hours and a lost hat. I enjoyed the story, but was not at all fearful.
The Keep, Jennifer Egan
Taken at random from my ageing to be read mountain, this book wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s no gothic atmosphere about it, and some of the narrative jolts you out of the book until you realise the narrator is not who the third person opening leads you to believe. Once I understood that, I quickly got the hang of it. There are three main characters — Danny, a New Yorker visiting his cousin Howie in a castle ruin Howie wants to turn into an exclusive hotel; Ray, a convict undertaking a writing class; and Holly, a once drug addict, now teacher of creative writing. The book is an interesting idea, though the story didn’t offer all that it promised. There are too many interesting threads that lead nowhere and I failed to find the end satisfying because the Holly’s decisions make little sense, especially as she has children. I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it. I’ve seen some say the author perfected her style in later books, which sounds interesting, though I may or may not try one.
20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill
I took some time over this book, not because I wasn’t hooked, but because I dip in and out of books of short stories. If you’re expecting to get Stephen King type stories (Joe Hill being his son), think again. There’s an element of that — after all, Hill has read his father’s stories for years, but these are undoubtedly from his own imagination. Hill is not a replica of his father. This collection shows what writers can achieve when they truly think outside the box without fear of having readers wonder what the hell they just read. And yes, I wondered. There’s horror here, but that’s not all. Sometimes the most disturbing moments are the most ordinary. Abraham’s Boys sticks in the mind, as does Voluntary Committal, which makes a nice novella to end the collection. The Black Phone film took the best from the short story found in this book, and built on it — a slight disappointment here for me because I saw the film first. My Father’s Mask has to be the most open to interpretation and I’m unsure I liked it. You Will Hear the Locust Sing is truly strange, as is Pop Art, yet the latter stays with you. In the introduction, Christopher Golden calls it transcendent. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it has a peculiar haunting quality and it’s not horror or a ghost story. This is a difficult collection to recommend, as enjoyment will depend on the open-mindedness of the reader to accept extraordinary stories.