Ginger Nuts of Horror
Kirsty Rice was born and raised in Erskine and has always had a creative streak.
Throughout her childhood she was drawn towards the more expressive subjects on the curriculum and in 2006 shipped off to Dundee University to study art. In 2011, whilst making clay jewellery in her spare time, Kirsty was drawn to photography more so out of necessity than interest; as visually stunning as her jewellery might be, it wasn't going to market itself!
This dip into photography slowly took hold, becoming passion and her fondness for all things creepy, dark and macabre has only grown, too.
Fair to say, her love of horror films, literature and exploration of alternative themes has helped inspire and shape her work over the years. Through her time working on location as well as in her home studio, her interest in photo manipulation came to the fore; allowing her to create dark and sinister pieces from out of the everyday.
Always on the lookout for new locations (and props), her long suffering boyfriend endures the wicked selection of seriously spooky porcelain dolls that often accompany her on her frequent trips to abandoned buildings and forgotten ruins throughout Scotland.
Avoiding the trappings of a one-trick-pony, Kirsty incorporates various themes into her work, from abstract macro to far-flung scenic shots presented in an unusual light. She enjoys bringing focus on the unseen details of her subject, magnifying these for the viewer. Her pride and joy, however, is her collection of dolls, each one with its own set of expressions and, she would insist - personalities. The appeal of these creepy little urchins? An accessible and willing subject that, despite their primary use as a children's toy or ornament, are portrayed in horror and folklore as demonic harbingers of pain and bad luck. Such ingrained juxtaposition makes for a piece that provokes conversation in an audience.
Kirsty also enjoys pitching her camera at barren locations; forests, abandoned buildings or demolition sites which mix well with her bespoke post processing technique giving these pieces an ominous, otherworldly feel. The forest will lay idle, waiting for something to happen. This, she feels, gives her viewer opportunity to expand on the subject, using their imagination to interact with the piece; filling in the blanks to make it all the more personal.
Kirsty will be trading at Loch Lomond Comic Con on the 28th and 29th April, and at Edinburgh Horror Con on the 12th and 13th May.
KirstyRiceArt offers original artwork that would look great above your mantle (or even in your dungeon!) and will slake the thirst of the dark art or horror fanatic in your life. You can find a full selection of prints, cards and artwork on Etsy at www.kirstyriceart.etsy.com
Tod Browning’s Freaks
This write up will contain spoilers for Tod Browning’s Freaks. In my defence, the movie was released in 1932 . Still, if you don’t want to be spoiled, this is your warning - turn back now.
Bit of a hybrid review/trip report here. On Monday the 5th March, I travelled to Northampton’s Errol Flynn Playhouse to watch a screening of Freaks in the company of living legend Johnny Mains (who has written what promises to be the definitive book on the subject, to judge by the unearthed material we glimpsed in his post-screening presentation). Throughout, I’ll weave in thoughts and facts gleaned from that talk - based on what I remember, so for whatever I get right, thank Johnny, and whatever I get wrong, blame me.
It was a treat to get to experience the movie for the first time on the big screen. The Errol Flynn Playhouse is a lovely cinema, complete with comfortable reclining seats and actual table space either side of the chair - small luxuries that transformed the elbows-in multiplex experience into a more relaxed affair - one that really allowed me to become engrossed in the film.
And pretty soon, captivated.
The plot is simply expressed, and standard melodrama fare - trapeze artist Cleopatra is having a clandestine love affair with strong man Hercules, but is also toying with the affections of Hans, a dwarf performer at the circus. When she discovers he is wealthy (as a result of his distraught former fiance, Frieda, accidentally revealing this as she begs Cleopatra to leave Hans alone, wrongly assuming that was the reason for her seduction in the first place) she conspires to marry Hans, and then poison him, in order to claim his wealth. However, at the wedding party, she becomes sufficiently drunk that when the Freaks perform a song welcoming her into the tribe (and yes, it’s as weird - weirder - than it sounds, but also sweet, somehow) she snaps, revealing her true contempt for them all. Hans realises she is poisoning him with his ‘medicine’, and fakes illness, until the clan can take it’s revenge.
Before I go any further, a word on the problematic use of the word ‘Freaks’, here. I am using it as shorthand, as the movie does, to describe the real-life circus performers the movie features - performers who in many cases had physical disabilities, and in some cases mental disabilities, and all of whom made their living (or, in many cases, made several other people’s livings) by appearing in circuses all over America. I am using it because it’s the parlance of the time, not because I think it’s a good or appropriate word to use in a modern context. One of the things this film smacks you around the face with is just how our attitudes towards disability have transformed in the last 80 odd years, and how brutal this ‘within-living-memory’ movie now seems in some respects.
In fact, fuck it, let's talk about it now, as we’re here - this movie was made in 1932. Hitler is still a year away from becoming Chancellor, but the movement he leads is already gaining significant electoral success and power.
Why am I talking about Nazis? Well, because it’s a relatively underreported fact that the Nazis road tested a lot of the mass murder techniques they’d later aim, with such brutal ferocity, at the Jewish population of Europe, initially on the disabled population of Germany. Using predictably vile propaganda that willfully misinterpreted Darwinism, they justified the ‘cleansing’ of anyone deemed ‘infirm’, and as a result, hundreds of thousands of disabled people were murdered by the Nazi state.
This would begin only a few short years after Freaks was released.
I’m not saying this to excuse the issues with Freaks, exactly - and there are a few - but rather to provide some context for just how hostile the general environment was when the film was released. Eugenics had been an utterly mainstream preoccupation since at least the Victorian era (with even renowned socialists like HG Wells approving of the idea, in principle).
In that regard, and for it’s time, Freaks is nothing short of revelatory. At least half of the films 60 minute running time stars the disabled performers, and they are treated with a level of humanity by the script that would have been unusual even in their day jobs. They have friendships, and courtships, and fallings out and petty jealousies and reconciliations. They are, in other words, portrayed as fully human. In 2018, that feels like a low bar so shocking as to be embarrassing - but, again, in 1932, it’s practically revolutionary.
They are also captivating to watch. The courtship of the siamese twins (played by Daisy and Violet Hilton) is especially well played, with one suitor intensely disliking the other twin - and the moment when both twins suitors are introduced to each other is a comedy of manners that’s kind of breathtaking in both its audacity, and in its simple human sweetness.
Elsewhere, Harry and Daisy Earle as Hans and Frieda are just wonderful - Hans with his heartbreaking pride that prevents him from seeing the brutal, callous manipulations of Cleopatra, and Frieda, whose simple dignity and love for Hans is in stark contrast to the cackling cruelty of his seducer.
In fact it’s telling overall that the ‘normal’ characters are by far the least interesting of this ensemble cast, and ultimately (with the exception of the cruel Cleo and Hercules), irrelevant in terms of the plot. While those actors may have been given star billing on the publicity and movie posters, the actual movie belongs foursquare to the titular performers. They are utterly compelling, from the early slice of life scenes, to the set piece wedding feast, all the way through to the mud soaked, stormy finale.
It’s one hell of a climactic scene, too, as they take their revenge on the real monsters - vicious would-be murder Cleo and her glib accomplice. The image of the massed group, crawling through the mud towards a cowering, whimpering Hercules is one that will linger very long in my memory, and the decision to cut away before the final vengeance is enacted for me highlighted the horror of the moment deliciously.
I’m still not sure, overall, what I think of the film - even with the illuminating and brilliantly passionate talk that followed - but I can see why the movie has it’s ardent fans. It’s certainly a phenomenal piece of cinema, and a genuine one-off. One of the many fascinating facts that I learned from the presentation following the movie was that this movie was Tod Browning’s passion project, the one he made once his direction for Dracula meant he could write his own ticket, and it single handedly destroyed his career on release. And again, for it’s time, it was amazingly, perhaps uniquely progressive.
There’s still, for me, an exploitative edge to proceedings that I find troubling. In particular Schlitze, and the performers playing his siblings. Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder which led to him having a very small brain and skull. Schlitzie was a circus performer throughout his entire life, an attraction at freak shows the length and breath of the US. Schlitzie was reported to be an affectionate and exuberant personality who loved being the centre of attention.
Schlitzie also had the mental age of a four year old.
Part of me can’t get past that, and the enormous and obvious issues this presents in terms of consent. For me, it renders any profit generated for others (and as a four year old, how much is the concept of money going to mean to Schlitzie?) by definition exploitative - up to and including his appearance in this singular film.
On the other hand, Schlitzie apparently and by all accounts loved to perform, and his most unhappy period was the one in which he spent extended time in a mental health facility.
And I don’t know what to do with any of that. ‘It’s complicated’ feels both trivially banal and deeply inadequate as an observation, but it’s what I am left with.
Well, that and Shlitze’s amazing smile, immortalized forever in the frames of Tod Browning’s Freaks - a face, a look of joy, that I will never, ever forget.
Yeah. It really is fucking complicated.
To celebrate the launch of his new collection of short stories author C.M. Saunders makes two stops at Ginger Nuts of Horror, here with his excellent article on Childhood fears and with a fascinating entry in our Five Minutes With Series of Interviews
We all have our little ticks and quirks. It’s one of the things that makes us humans such weird and unique life forms. Over and above the usual ‘failure’ and ‘death’ fears which are part of the human condition and we all have to deal with in our own way, there are a few other things I am, and always have been, a bit wary of. Some of these ‘fears’ are rational, some less-so.
There is a theory which suggests that the inherent fears we harbour result from bad experiences we had in past lives. In other words, it’s baggage. I’m not sure I believe in reincarnation as such, but I do believe in the existence of some kind of universal consciousness, some vast well to where our ‘life force’ returns when our physical body dies. This same ‘life force’ is then recycled. Sometimes, remnants manifest themselves as fully-formed memories or, more likely, primitive instincts, irrational fears, or weird aversions. There are numerous theories pertaining to this, Carl Jung was a well-known advocate, and the archaeologist Fredrick Bligh Bond claimed to have tapped into an eternal font of knowledge he rather poetically dubbed, ‘the great memoria.’ In the 1950’s, a scientist called Dr James McConell carried out a series of controversial experiments on flat worms. He trained one batch to navigate a maze, then ground them up and fed them to another batch. These ‘new’ flatworms then also knew how to navigate the maze, ostensibly proving the existence of ‘transferred memory.’
Anyway, enough speculation. What am I scared of? Lots of stuff. First up, deep water. This, I can trace back to falling in a river as a kid and having to be dragged out by a neighbour. It wasn’t a pleasurable experience, so I’ve pretty much avoided deep water ever since. People aren’t supposed to be in the water, that’s why we don’t have gills or fins. I never learned to swim, and have no plans to.
I’m not a huge fan of heights, either. Because if I’m on something high, I might fall off and hurt myself. That, to me, isn’t irrational. It’s common fucking sense. I am constantly amazed by mountaineers, rock climbers, base jumpers and the like. I don’t admire their courage as much as I admire their blatant disregard for their own personal safety. It’s all fun and games, until it isn’t. I have the same attitude to all extreme sports. If you get buzzed from doing these things, great. I wish you the very best of luck. But don’t complain if something goes wrong and you end up dead, disabled or disfigured. You brought that shit on yourself.
Perhaps predictably, probably my biggest childhood fear was ghosts. Though none of us can claim to have ever seen anything with our own two eyes, I grew up in a house where lots of strange shit happened. For starters, my mother collected porcelain figures, and kept them in wall-mounted glass-fronted cabinets. Like most collectors, she was fastidious. Each one was positioned just so. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, she would regularly accuse me of moving them around. Like I would be interested in playing with little porcelain figures. Pfft. I was well into my toy soldier phase by then. Eventually, she fitted locks on the cabinets, and you know what? The damn things still moved around when nobody was looking.
In those days, we had an old Rediffusion telly. The kind you had to open the panel on the front and use knobs to tune into the channels. Almost every day we would have to re-tune it because the knobs would move out of position every night. Perhaps this thing’s most impressive feat was taking apart the plug on the kettle, re-wiring it, then putting it back together again. I shit you not.
All the activity, if that’s what it was, stopped suddenly when I was still very young. Soon after, our next door neighbour came over for a chat and casually mentioned some of her ornaments being moved around. She had a son a few years younger than me, lending credence to the theory that poltergeist activity is often attached to children of a certain age.
I keep meaning to write all this up as a story. Maybe one day. Anyway, these experiences soon they morphed into a deep-seated interest in the paranormal. The very first thing I ever had published was a feature about the Devil’s Footprints in a short-lived magazine called Enigma back in 1997. I’ve been seeking out mysteries to write about ever since.
Perhaps my most bizarre ‘fear’ are things with lots of legs and/or pincers. My absolute worst nightmare would be a man-sized (or bigger) earwig. Fuck that. You’d have to be mad not to be afraid of a man-sized (or bigger) earwig. With the little ones, though, which thankfully are far more common, I wouldn’t call it fear exactly. It’s more of a repulsion. This extends to most bugs and creepy crawlies. The bigger they are, the more they freak me out. I lived in China for a few years, and there, it’s not unusual to come across bugs the size of your hand. I’ll never forget the morning I woke up to find a three-inch cockroach crawling through my chest hair.
I don’t believe in ‘conquering’ your fears. Like when you hear about arachnophobes holding giant tarantulas in their hands and claiming some sort of victory. Sorry, weirdos, but you haven’t conquered anything. You’ve just managed to endure extreme discomfort for an incredibly short period of time. But you know what? Nothing’s changed. You’ll still be arachnophobic, only now you know exactly what it feels like to have a massive spider crawling over your flesh. That’s something that is sure to haunt your nightmares.
“Remember that time you held a giant tarantula and let it crawl all over you?”
“Yeah. It was fucking gross.”
In many ways, fear is just our body’s self-preservation system in effect. Rather than presenting something that needs to be overcome, our fears should be respected. They keep us safe. Or at least, safer. Just be thankful you aren’t a flatworm who finally succeeded in getting out of a maze only to find your reward was being ground up and fed to your friends.
Ginger Nuts of Horror in conjunction with St Martin's press are giving you the chance to win a copy of Glimpse the latest novel from Jonathan Maberry.
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A chilling thriller that explores what happens when reality and nightmares converge, and how far one will go to protect the innocent when their own brain is a threat.
From New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Maberry comes a novel that puts a bold new spin on the supernatural thriller.
Rain Thomas is a mess. Seven years an addict and three difficult years clean. Racked by guilt for the baby she gave up for adoption when she was sixteen. Still grieving for the boy's father who died in Iraq. Alone, discarded by her family, with only the damaged members of her narcotics anonymous meetings as friends. Them, and the voices in her head.
One morning, on the way to a much-needed job interview, she borrows reading glasses to review her resume. There is a small crack in one lens and through that damaged slice of glass she sees a young boy go running down the aisle of the subway train. Is he screaming with laughter or just screaming? When she tries to find the boy, he's gone and no one has seen him.
The day spins out of control. Rain loses whole chunks of time. She has no idea where her days went. The voices she hears are telling her horrible things. And even stranger things are happening. Unsure whether she is going insane, Rain sets out to find answers to long buried questions about an earlier life she has avoided for years--in what may be the most dangerous collision of all, that between reality and nightmare.
How far will one person go to save someone they love?
Read on at your own peril...
My childhood fear is simply, of home. It’s an odd one, I’ll grant you.
Home is meant to be the place we go to in order to feel safe. To feel ‘at home’ somewhere is a synonym for feeling secure, rested, at ease. But not for me.
I grew up in an old house on the edge of bogland, a beautiful and isolated place. All around me were fields, trees, weeping willows. It was too far to walk anywhere, so once you were there, there was no means of escape. It was fine during the day, especially if it was summer and I could roam around, or even in winter if I had a book to escape into. But at night the real terrors came.
I was a very anxious child. And a morbid one. I suffered from years of vivid, technicolour nightmares. I dreamt of funerals, of being chased by shadowy figures, of scenes of blood and torture from local stained glass windows. It didn’t help that I knew our house was over two hundred and fifty years old and built on an old graveyard. It didn’t help that there was still the custom of waking the dead in their homes, meaning that I saw my first dead body in a parlour before the age of ten. It didn’t help that at home folklore was taken as seriously as Catholicism. My grandmother would talk composedly of hearing the banshee. My aunt had seen a ghost, not once, but several times.
And I think you know, it might be an Irish thing, that acute anxiety that surrounds home. For nearly two hundred years, home was a place of dispossession, eviction, transience. Today Irish people are obsessed with owning homes, a legacy of colonial centuries where security of tenure was impossible. We see this reflected in contemporary Irish creative work, the sinister homes of Patrick McCabe’s novels, the reimagined, disturbing sculptures of Alice Maher and Dorothy Cross. We see it in our customs and traditions that survive, houses laden with a mix of pagan and Catholic icons from horseshoes to St. Benedict medals to Sacred Heart images to ward off evil, fire, transgression. In folklore, home is ultimately a vulnerable place, open to attack; a notion that still survives strongly.
And so, night after night, I learned the painful truth, that home could be a place where you were alone with your greatest fears. During the endless nights I would sit up, watching the old wardrobe in my room, which was inclined to creak open in a manner both sudden and alarming. What I didn’t realise then is that while the home forms our first experience of a safety perimeter it’s also the space within which we have our earliest experiences of discomfort, fear, anger and discord. During the day the home perimeter was fixed, but at night the spaces within it were more difficult to define. Every night as the light dimmed, home changed from familiar to unfamiliar; rooms seemed larger and darker, corridors were endless. And this is where my anxiety bloomed.
Instead of sleeping I’d read. Firstly, I read fairytales, but they didn’t help. In these cautionary tales children are stolen, cursed, betrayed by their families. That was too close to home. So I started reading horror. My parents were exasperated, pointing out over and over that what I read was giving me nightmares. I knew better. I knew that while ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ terrified me, it was an external locus of terror. I fell in love with the dreamy, escapist aesthetic of horror. It had no bearing on my real life; its fears were confined to the covers of my books. The real terrors – that my father would crash the car, that the house would catch on fire, that I’d see a ghost sitting in the corner of my room – these were the ones that couldn’t be appeased.
Years later, I was to discover books that mapped this domestic Gothic world for me; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Serena Mackesy’s Hold My Hand, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. They all spoke to me, with their haunted interiors, their protagonists plagued by strange dreams, odd noises, and manifestations that couldn’t be explained.
Looking back, I feel a genuine stir of compassion. I could cry for that anxious child I was; haunted by fears, afraid of ghosts, never at home, perpetually ill-at-ease. But I realise now that this discomfort fuels my writing. As one of my favourite artists, Aideen Barry puts it: ‘I think one of the things that enables me to make work, is that I am never at ease, I never feel I am at home and I am rarely comfortable where I am. This causes me to constantly question why that is, why do I not belong and how can I address these feelings’ (Gilsdorf 2011: 1). And that, at least partly, is what my reissued collection, The Unheimlich Manoeuvre, is about. It’s also, of course, based on Freud’s essay, The Uncanny, of 1919, where Freud puts the idea of the haunted house at the centre of the concept of the uncanny, homes haunted not only by spectres, but memories, secrets and anxieties that recur repeatedly.
For me this fear of home, this fear set in home, has never really gone away. The most unsettling things I can imagine aren’t improbable and far away. They’re not set in space, nor in ancient history. They’re right here, at home.
The sound that might be a footstep outside my bedroom door. The strange creaks of subsidence in the middle of the night. The possibility that someone – or something – might be here.
Close to me.
In my home.
The Folded Land is the second book of the Relics trilogy. Relics was book one, and next year's The Edge will be book three. This makes The Folded Land, undeniably and irrefutably by all laws of maths and reason, book two. And that's fine.
But it's also the middle book of the trilogy, and any writer will tell you that a middle book is always a tough one. Book one has established the world and rules, the characters and their arcs, and it has hopefully left readers wanting more. Book three will bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, giving characters the resolutions they demand and deserve to end the story.
Book two needs to do a lot more than just bridge the gap.
I've read trilogies where the second book feels something like a pause, or which often expands and pads out a story where no real expansions and padding is needed. I never wanted The Folded Land to feel like that. In my head, these three books have always been standalone adventures in a wider world. There's a background story arc of course, but it's the spine upon which the more diverse stories are expanded and hung, a connecting thread that I hope will offer as much enjoyment as the individual books and their tales.
I thought a lot about The Folded Land before starting it. To begin with, I knew it was going to be set somewhere other than London (the reasoning behind the USA setting is subject of another blog post). That in itself would make it distinctive, because I think Relics is a very 'London' novel. I also knew that as well as characters familiar from Relics––Angela and Vince, Lilou and Mallian, and of course Fat Frederick Meloy––I needed to introduce new characters and, in some ways, make it as much their story as well.
I think that this introduction of new point of view characters give The Folded Land a very fresh feel. We're still following the story of the amazing Kin and their possible exposure to the wider world, but in doing so from fresh eyes (a new character), there's still that sense of wonder which I think gave Relics such a powerful feel and atmosphere. Sammi was a fun character to write, especially because of her link to a character readers will recognise from the first book.
And Gregor is terrific fun. I love writing bad guys, and Gregor is one of the baddest.
So, The Folded Land is the Difficult Middle Book, but one in which I've done my best to incorporate much of a standalone story, an adventure that can be told and enjoyed independently of Relics and forthcoming third book The Edge. The bigger, wider world is still there, and The Folded Land is the solid core of the story. Without everything that happens in this book, the events of The Edge––still to be written, but taking a very definite shape in my head––would be very different.
The Folded Land awaits you. Step inside.
Exploring The Labyrinth
In this series, I will be reading every Brian Keene book that has been published (and is still available in print), and then producing an essay on it. With the exception of Girl On The Glider, these essays will be based upon a first read of the books concerned. The article will assume you’ve read the book, and you should expect MASSIVE spoilers.
I hope you enjoy my voyage of discovery.
2. City of the Dead
Written alongside Terminal, City of the Dead is a direct sequel to The Rising. In the foreword to the Deadite Press Author's Preferred Text edition of CotD, Keene with typical candor explains that initially, this was the book he didn’t want to write. As he’d said in his introduction to The Rising, though a lot of reader feedback for that novel complained that the end was ambiguous, he felt it was pretty clear that Jim and his son were dead (with Frankie and Martin likely not far behind), and he didn’t want to go back to it.
As I noted in my previous essay, about The Rising, I can see his point. Certainly the ending of the book didn’t feel ambiguous to me, and it wasn’t immediately clear to me where another novel length story was going to come from. Perhaps more fundamentally, given the emotional state The Rising was written under (”I wrote it as a form of therapy… quite frankly, I wrote it to keep from killing myself...” - The Horror Show with Brian Keene, Episode 6), you can see how Keene might not have been relishing returning to that world and it’s characters - especially as he also had Terminal vying for his attention (and indeed he wrote both novels at the same time - Terminal in the mornings, CotD in the afternoons).
That said, he also notes that once the writing got underway, he increasingly found himself caught up in the narrative of City of the Dead. He also discusses his ‘pantser’ approach to writing novels, with a premise, opening sentence, and a vague idea of the finale - other than that, he’s making it up as he goes along. He describes his growing pleasure with discovering the novel on the page, and how looking back, it was one of the most fun writing experiences of his career.
Jim Mcleod, editor in chief for Gingernuts of Horror, describes City of the Dead like this:
The City of the Dead proved that Keene's zombies were probably the most important development in the zombie genre for our generation. And cemented Keene's place in the pantheon of writers we should be paying attention to.
As for me - I had a blast. Again.
I wasn’t expecting to, to be honest. I can be quite militant about stories ending at natural break points. I was a big Buffy fan back in the day, but I’ve only seen seasons 6 and 7 once, and looking back, I wish that I hadn’t bothered - the finale of Season 5 was written as the show closer, and it works perfectly as that. And my position on RoboCop sequels is even more militant. Given that, and my feelings about the ending of The Rising, I shared Keene’s antipathy about returning to these characters. But that feeling melted away almost instantly once I started turning the pages.
You can almost feel Keene’s enthusiasm catch on the page, as the book unfolds. The action in the first third of the book is relentless, as Frankie, Martin, Jim and Danny try, with the help of neighbour Don, to escape from the trap they’ve backed themselves into. Set piece flows into set piece, with the same cinematic qualities and flare of the last third of The Rising, albeit on a smaller scale - though interestingly, despite that, the stakes feel higher, as I’d come to really care about these characters by this point.
A particular highlight for me was the moment the cast have to cross to the attic window of the neighbour’s house across a ladder, while the zombies (some of them armed, remember) swarm below.
It’s a classic movie scene, and Keene put me right there, heart in mouth, as the characters made their way across - and when Danny made the mistake of looking down, and froze at the halfway mark, I was far too caught up in the sweaty tension of the moment to be worried about the relatively predictable nature of the event.
Sidebar: I’m only three books in (including Clickers), but one thing I’m already discovering; for me, as a reader, I’m far less bothered by cliche than I might have supposed. Because the freeze-halfway-across thing is an absolute staple of pulp storytelling, be it action or horror. What I’m learning is simply this; that doesn't bother me, as long as the story is well told and I believe in and care about the characters. Because an eight year old freezing in that moment of existential dread may be predictable, and dramatically useful, but it’s also, well, realistic. Not only did the moment not bother me, I was totally caught up in it, freaking out right along with Jim, and hoping like hell Danny wasn’t going to end up in that pool. It’s only now, a month or so later as I sit to write about the experience, that it’s occured to me that this was an absolute stock horror/action moment.
There’s probably a lesson about storytelling in there somewhere.
In the event, it’s Frankie that ends up taking the unscheduled high dive, and I gotta tell you, I was pissed about that. Frankie became one of my favourite fictional characters somewhere between her escape from the Zoo and her cold turkey session in the sewers - but at the same time, this is my second Brina Keene novel, and I know damn well he could quite happily kill her off. It’s an enormous strength of the storytelling, as I think back on the novel, actually - in The Rising Keene makes it clear that no-one is safe, and it gives sustained action sequences like this one a considerable extra layer of bite (pun intended).
It’s also a brilliant bit of misdirection, as Frankie takes injury after injury, seemingly fatally wounded… and then it’s Martin who is killed as the car crashes. The moment worked well for me, underlining the peril the group were facing, and of course Jim having to smash the head of his friend in with a rock as he turns is a reminder of the merciless nature of The Rising’s world.
I really cannot emphasise enough how ferocious the pacing is in this sequence, especially following the car crash. The peril is enormous and sustained, for a second almost convincing me that Danny was going to get ripped apart, and Frankie’s back-from-the-dead intervention was a pure punch-the-air moment (did I mention she’s my favourite yet?) The desperate scramble to the parking garage, the last minute rooftop rescue… It’s just pure adrenaline, and by the time the characters were pulled aboard the chopper, I was almost as out of breath as they were.
Two other narrative strands also develop as this sequence unfolds. The first is the reintroduction of Ob, a leader of the Sissquim, who featured prominently in The Rising. His initial sequence I wasn’t wild about - his delivery of a gloating monologue to a captive prisoner, explaining more about the Sissquim and their background, felt like a clumsy info dump to me - especially with Ob having become a POV character. I’d have prefered to learn his background more organically, perhaps as internal dialogue as he planned his next move. It’s particularly annoying because the mythos itself is such an interesting one, and I wished there had been a more elegant way to introduce it.
That said, the loss of Ob’s body, and his subsequent locating of a new host (during which we learn how that process works, and Ob gets an update on the global progress of the Sissquim) worked well for me, and his subsequent plans to complete the purge of New York City felt appropriately sinister - and, of course, neatly and plausibly put him back on a collision course with Jim and his people.
And then there’s the small matter of Ramsey Towers.
Again, in the intro to the book, Keene discusses the similarity between his setting of Ramsey Towers and the plot of Romeo’s Land of the Dead. And his basic explanation is, hey, it was 2005 - with Bush starting his second term, the founding of the DHS and the Patriot act, megalomaniac American despots (albeit paternalistic ones), with dead eyed second-in-commands who wielded most of the real power and smarts were very much the order of the day.
But I have to say, reading this in 2017, having a eponymous tower in New York, owned by a billionaire with a tendicy to masterbate while staring out of his top floor office window at the city below, utterly delusional and convinced of his own brilliance, even as the entire world crumbles around him… was it Twain who said ‘history may not repeat, but it does rhyme’? Because, damn.
Anyhow, leaving aside the genuinely unsettling effect of reading a book written in 2005 that nonetheless seems to be a dead-on satire of the 45 President of the USA and his isolationist fantasies, there’s so much to enjoy in the setup. The legend of the ‘impenetrable’ tower, at least according to its owner (even as his number 2 is more clear eyed) serves as a nice thematic microcosm for the mythos as a whole - a small, fragile chink of light and warmth we call society, surrounded by a consuming darkness that could sweep it all away at any moment (and also, the meaning of The Tower as a symbol in tarot) - but also works well on its own terms. The idea that someone post 9/11 would want to build a siege-and-bomb-proof tower in Manhattan rings plausible (especially a billionaire real estate developer - would he’d gotten the idea before forming an exploratory committee, and yeah, okay, I’ll stop now). The power dynamic between delusional Ramsey and hyper competent Bates is quickly established, as is the atmosphere of a fragile, frighteningly vulnerable order barely holding together.
Similarly, seeing Jim and the gang explore the community that’s rescued them, Jim in particular feeling his way around the edges of it, trying without being impolite to see what’s really going on, is well told, and the Jim/Danny relationship is just heartbreakingly well drawn. The situation is a parenting nightmare, and I found it affecting to see Jim trying to negotiate the impossible task of helping his son prepare for life in this new world, while still needing him to be a kid, as much as possible. It really is possible to see the outline of the Carl and Rick relationship from The Walking Dead being sketched out here, albeit in a more compressed form, and the whole sequence rings painfully true.
As with the climax to The Rising, I was really impressed by how well the final third of the novel flowed. Keene deftly introduces elements - the truly twisted doctor and his captive zombie, the increasing morale problems with the guards, Ob’s gathering of his forces and planning, and the power struggle at the very top between Ramsey and Bates - and weaves them together deftly, switching between groups to heighten the sense of dread and impending violence. It’s really skillful storytelling, particularly when you consider it was for the most part being discovered on the page.
And when the dam bursts, the onslaught is every bit the equal of the previous finale - action packed, relentless, and brutal. Again, Keene’s flair for cinematic action is put to great effect, relentlessly chewing through characters (often literally) as the dwindling band of survivors makes a last desperate bid to escape via the sewers. Again, I’m reminded what I love most about good pulp entertainment - this commitment to utterly command my attention as a reader, through sheer force of incident, character, action - and what a joy it is to read, done well.
The final confrontation with Jim and Ob is suitably high stakes, and Jim’s sacrifice to save his son feels earned, especially knowing Danny will have Frankie to protect him. That said, I did find the coda ending hard to take. I can’t argue with it in narrative terms - it’s the right, probably the only real ending the story can have, and at least Danny and Frankie get to go out relatively quick - but it still landed like a suckerpunch in the moment. It’s early days, but it feels like with both this book and The Rising, there’s a nihilism at the core of Keene’s work - a notion, crudely, that we’re all fucked, and that our journey to our final destination is unlikely to be peaceful or pleasant.
That makes for uncomfortable reading, at times. But it also makes for great horror. And City of the Dead is another great pulp action horror novel - brimming with thrills and spills, blood and guts - and also a raw humanity, real characters in impossibly bleak circumstances, pushed beyond any reasonable limit and making the best choices they can.
It’s pulp, sure - in the best possible meaning of the term. But it’s also got a lot of heart, and so far, that’s what elevates Keenes work, for me.
I look forward to seeing if that theme continues in Terminal.
check out the other entries in this series