Disclosure: I was given a free copy of this ARC (in unedited proof form) in exchange for my honest review. The following may contain affiliate links.
Title: Voodoo Heart
Author: John Everson
Release Date: October 20, 2020
Genres: Supernatural horror
Pages: 256 pages
Star Rating: 4.5/5 (rounded to 5)
John Everson’s newest novel feels like a 1970’s giallo wormed its way into the grime and booze-soaked charisma of New Orleans. Its troubled protagonist, Detective Ribaud (also known as “Cork"), investigates a string of late-night disappearances in which the victims leave behind a blood-soaked bed and intact heart. Although his wife was the first to vanish, the case becomes more and more personal as he gets closer to the heart of the mystery.
I love horror and thrillers set in the South, and New Orleans is a city steeped in things that make for a great atmosphere: poverty, liquor, French romanticism, a cruel history, and of course, voodoo (alternately spelled Vodou). Vodou and a similar Southern practice, hoodoo, have always fascinated me for a reason that I rarely talk about: my family’s history and escape from an extreme Pentecostal/evangelical faith, which made the lives of my mother and her sisters a living hell. My mother and her sisters once went away to a parishioner's farm for a weekend, where a chicken was butchered and served for dinner. The chicken feet were found stashed under my aunt’s bed later, bound with string to some other items, and my mother and her sisters were gravely punished for what was judged as a grisly prank. I heard this story several times until, as an adult, I found out via research that the feet were likely to be a talisman of protection in the hoodoo faith, and that one of the workers at the farm likely knew what my grandfather was up to, and risked quite a bit to try to help my mom and aunts.
So, what does this have to do with horror? Too often, Vodou and associated practices are portrayed as devious, near-Satanic practices in film and other media. The 1987 film Angel Heart is a great example, in which the rituals are used only to harm, and to depict Lisa Bonet’s character as exotic, dangerous, and untrustworthy. Voodoo Heart handles this much more sensitively—the novel shows the light and dark side of practices found in New Orleans and distinguishes more serious practice from the shtick of tourist shops. There is also much more of the history of Vodou practice and popularity than you would find in the average novel that includes it as a plot point.
The imagery in the book is as striking as you could expect from its cover, and it’s balanced by the emotional impact of the disappearances as well. Everson’s Detective Rimbaud isn’t the stone-cold detective that you see in bestsellers; his doubts, guilt, and horror are like a fruit expertly muddled into the liquor that is the blood-soaked, swampy, disturbing images of its plot. I never really found Rimbaud likable—the one sour point in the novel, for me, was his propensity to sleep with women in precarious or abusive situations, ignoring how much danger it could bring them. Still, the book is so well-written and beautifully atmospheric enough that I solidly recommend it – especially if you enjoy media like True Detective's first season, HBO’s Sharp Objects, or Jim Thompson’s work.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran
Nightfilm, Marisha Pessl
Content warnings: mind control, gore, alcohol abuse, mentions of domestic violence and sexual assault
Title: The Fear
Author: Spencer Hamilton
Release Date: August 11, 2020
Genre: Psychological horror, post-apocalyptic
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Jacqueline (“Jack”) and Ashley move to Austin in order to start a new life together, away from their toxic families. But after Jack is attacked by a homophobe their first night in the city, she begins to see him everywhere, and Ashley is unable to tell if her wife's sightings of him are real or psychosomatic. Just as Jack is able to cope again, the coronavirus shutdown happens—and Ashley begins to see the attacker, too.
Disclosure: I bought this book of my own accord. Affiliate links may be in the review below.
Title: The Beauty
Author: Aliya Whiteley
Release Date: January 16, 2018
Genres: Horror, Post-apocalyptic
Star Rating: 4/5
Who would you trust to help rebuild humanity, if you had the chance?
The Beauty begins in a grey, bleak lowland at the ends of civilization—literally and figuratively. A group of men and teenage boys struggle to survive in the Valley of the Rocks, a small community surrounded by woods far from the cities the last generation fled from. All of the women in the known world died of a mysterious fungal disease, and the only evidence of their existence is the small graveyard outside the encampment. The group’s leader only values enduring hardship and remembering the group’s reasons for separating from society in its beginning. He forbids its imaginative young storyteller, Nate, from telling stories of what could be in the future—especially when bright, unusual yellow mushrooms begin to sprout from the graves of their buried mothers, wives, and teachers.
Whiteley’s novella feels like a fever dream became sentient and decided to write a cryptic, horrifying social commentary about the staying power of gender roles. Like the fungal sickness, a malign bitterness spreads and propagates via the men who were once close to the group’s women before they died. Several of the group’s older men insinuate to its young protagonist that his memories of his mother before her death are not only inaccurate, but rose-tinged and naive, with a heavy implication that she deserved to die. There’s never an explicit reason given for this remark, but their paranoia and avoidance of talking about the fungal sickness hints that they blame the women for falling to the disease—either out of fear that the men might eventually lose their immunity, or out of anger for dying and leaving them behind. The marked hostility of the older men toward the women in their memories, and their reactions to what may be a chance to repopulate, feels chillingly familiar to any reader who’s experienced misogyny or veiled sexism.
Power and its corrupting effect are also explored, in a way that’s reminiscent of Lord of the Flies (affiliate link) but still fresh. In addition to the social horror throughout, there’s enough revolting imagery, tension, and shocking events to balance out the intellectual implications of the book. My reasons for giving only 4 stars are minor, compared to the book’s positives: the ending is satifying, but I feel happens a bit too quickly, and with less tension than I anticipated after such a slow burn of a build-up. The edition I’ve reviewed also contains the short story “Peace, Pipe,” which is solid and well crafted, but underwhelming after the brilliance of the main novella. I would recommend this to any readers who are fans of smart horror, dystopian literature, or cutting social criticism.
Chaos Walking series, by Patrick Ness (YA) – start with The Knife of Never Letting Go (Extremely high recommendation!)
Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell
Content warnings: gore, disease, loss, grey areas of consent, implied sexual violence
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.