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 Only Good Indians
Author: Stephen Graham Jones
Release Date: July 14, 2020
Genres: Horror, Native American, POC, Diverse, Supernatural
Star Rating: 5/5
Disclosures: I bought this book of my own accord.
How many sides are there to the truth, really?
As an estranged group of Native friends find themselves alone in sanity-rending situations, that question arises again and again. In The Only Good Indians, everyone struggles to get a look at the objective truth for long; the task is made nearly impossible by the dubious veracity of stories and perception from the past, whites, and the people around them. It’s a clever subversion of the Rashomon style of storytelling, which normally has multiple characters describing one point in time: the cast of characters have sections from their point of view, as the inciting factor of this story moves itself steadily forward, showing just enough of itself to create confusion and a feeling of impending doom. Each protagonist is truthful about their past deeds and their beliefs, though they’re obviously biased—it’s the world and others around them that the reader can’t trust.
The less you know about this book going in, the better. Jones captures the frenetic thought patterns and twisting logic of its characters with grace and quietly building dread, which can only be cheapened by knowing too much. However, it’s never so esoteric or confusing to turn a reader off; for every little bit of evidence that doesn’t add up, there’s a dozen insights to be drawn from the interactions between its characters, the worldly anxieties that plague them even when they’re in mortal danger, and the way each one has learned to cope with the thousand little cuts that come with growing up on a reservation.
In terms of genre, there’s a subtype of horror for anyone to like in this: The quiet, creeping kind when things aren’t just right. The heart-wrenching, emotional class when something is never able to be undone. The gaslighting, trembling-hand type of horror when you can’t trust your own senses anymore. The existential dread of everything in your world falling apart, while the days still go by as usual for everyone else. And, lastly, the sort that makes you feel glad that you’re safe, reading in your cozy spot, with all of your skin and bones just where they’re supposed to be.
I rarely would describe a book as perfect, but I really can’t think of anything that could improve upon this title. I would recommend this to anyone who loves horror, but especially anyone who cares about diverse voices in literature, the connections between fellow humans, and a perfect mix of hope and tragedy.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Now You’re One of Us, Asa Nonami
Content warnings: gore, violence, racism, xenophobia, drug addiction.
Author: Joshua Marsella
Release Date: May 11, 2020
Genres: Supernatural horror
Star Rating: 4/5 stars
Disclosures: I bought and read this book through my Kindle Unlimited subscription.
I picked this up after seeing some buzz about it on Twitter—I’m always excited to support and find new horror writers, especially indie authors. I’ve been disappointed doing so several times, especially when newer authors write books with prominent female characters, but found that Marsella, in his first published work, was able to write flawed, but developed, believable, and human main characters.
Scratches follows an isolated mother and son, Janet and Connor, who move into her delapidated, inherited childhood home out of financial need. They have a dynamic of yearning to connect with each other but pulling away out of pain, which escalates with time in the house--especially after Connor begins to sleep in the foreboding basement, which his mother refuses to enter.
The novella does a fantastic job of examining two people who need each other, but fail to communicate as they suffer from intergenerational trauma. The tension between the two builds along with their internal anxiety and guilt. While some books subject their female characters to horrific happenings out of moralistic punishment or a grab at sympathy, this isn’t the case at all with Scratches. Janet comes across as someone that all of us have probably known, and felt for, at least once in our lives—particularly for those who grew up in poverty or a dysfunctional family. She originally closes herself off so much that Connor feels isolated and burdensome, much like she did as a child; however, the narration slowly begins bring all of her pain, shame, and anger out into the open with the progression of the plot.
Likewise, Connor is acutely aware of the invisible eggshells that coat the floor of their ramshackle dwelling. Despite the poor conditions of the house’s basement, he moves his bedroom downstairs to avoid further stressing and annoying his mother, which provides the catalyst for both the internal and external changes in both of their lives. Connor behaves very believably like a kid in his circumstances, and there’s an artful balance drawn between a kid who’s had to grow up too quickly and a child who’s emotionally unprepared for healing the family’s wounds.
The few things that distracted me from the story were some stylistic choices and a few grammatical errors. The plot moves quickly, but in the beginning of the book, the length of the chapters is much shorter than later on, which feels a bit choppy. The dialogue feels less authentic than the internal descriptions of the characters, especially the comic book shop clerk—to be fair, though, dialogue can have a steep learning curve, and this is his first novel. I would be excited to read a second work from Marsella, and think that just a little copy-editing and perhaps reading his dialogue out loud could catapult him into a force in the world of indie horror.
Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill
Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
Several stories in Ghostly, Audrey Niffenegger
Content warnings: sexual assault, wartime violence, child abuse, alcohol abuse.
Reviews of horror, nonfiction, and other genres from a life-long lover of books.