‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix or a bad trip you want to turn around from?

Before I start writing this blog post, I just have to release the urge to burst into song.. 🎤 ‘I wanna dance with someboooody’🎶. Yes, I have been possessed by Grady Hendrixs’ writing. It is the only thing that can explain exactly why I would feel like busting out cheesy 80s songs, of the likes of Whitney Houston (sorry Whitney fans, but it makes me cringe). Nonetheless, my memory has been ignited and the sounds of my youth are now everywhere! And thank goodness it is, because something is needed to offset the abject terror that this natty new novel pulls off. How many times do you read a novel that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, whilst also scaring the bejeezus out of you?

This book has been on my radar for quite some time. The premise sounded like just my kind of read- spooky, quirky and a little bit unusual. Heathers crossed with The Exorcist (whatever, Heather). Needless to say, I have been waiting patiently for release date. Imagine my delight, then, when the lovely @cyn_murphy of Twitter and Point Horror appreciation fame pointed me in the direction of an ARC (advanced reader copy). Our shared love of teen horror could only lead to one logical conclusion, in this current nostalgic climate towards such things : a shared read-along! Like a mini-book club via the Internet we simultaneously tweeted our fear and joy as we worked through its glittering pages. What a delight it was to know that someone else was also feeling the same way I was about this brilliant book! Grady Hendrix even tagged along with a few choice comments (book God, that he has now become). I hope he realises what gold he has produced and continues to create, in the same vein. Can I get an ‘I ❤️ Grady Hendrix’ badge please..

While it is difficult to pin down exactly what it is that makes this book so magical, with its unusual blend of ingredients (without spoiling the plot), what is apparent is that Hendrix must be a very insightful writer to draw such unexpected elements together and to make them sing. By his own admission, he used his wife’s letters, in order to understand more closely the precise nature of teenage female friendship and perhaps this is what speaks the most to me when I read it. The intensity. The love. The fallings out. All the pent up angst. Heightened sensitivity and emotion. The struggle to find yourself and your place in the world. It all translates to the experience, bourne forth and lightly worn throughout the narrative. It feels genuine and this marks the skill of a great writer: he stands in someone else’s shoes and makes us believe what they see and experience. I take my lace- gloves off to him.

One thing I will say is this, Grady Hendrix has pulled off an endearingly ambiguous read, full of latent hormones and repressed emotions. He knows how to alternate abject fear with laugh out loud moments- enhancing both for the better. I wanted to hide under my duvet at pivotal moments, shake my fist with rage and rub my mascara- streaked face clean and crimp my hair, sneak out of my house for a nighttime adventure in my local woods (not really) and wonder what had happened in the morning. He has made the 80s cool again and banished all of the negative associations our youths hold, by showing us the great bits and the things we have built from these times (thinking of my own enduring friendships, with people that have grown with me). Perms are no longer the living embodiment of hell! However, you will never be able to listen ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ by Tiffany again, may want to ditch your phone and here more will NEVER want to speak to anyone called Andy ever again.

By the power of Genesis!

‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel or are we all mediums?Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Since joining in with the online book community (via WordPress, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram) a whole new world of bookish inspiration has opened up to me. Not only do my feeds draw my attention to a much wider pool of potential reads than my previous haphazard methods allowed (because stumbling upon a title or hearing about it from someone you know only takes you so far) but they also introduce genius new ideas about how to share your bookish love. I am enjoying #tuvalusbookschallenge on Instagram because of the interesting places it takes me in my own reading repertoire (and of others) thus forging new bookish connection on lots of levels. I have been inspired by @georgia_bowers, @Cyn_Murphy and @ChelleyToy on Twitter to revisit my own teen reading, namely Christopher Pike, due to their enthusiasm and exploration of the Point Horror series (such an interesting prompt due to the reflection it provokes about how we and our taste/ understanding of books evolve throughout our lives). Yet it is my latest WordPress discovery that has completely fired me up, via two of the blogs I follow: Alifeinbooks and From First Page to Last.

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If your eyes are open, you may be surprised at what you see. Selective occlusion benefits no one.

Here a movement seems to be forming based around the notion that certain novels are ‘quiet’ and that for whatever reason escape wider readership. Maybe due to less airspace or share of their publishers’ limited marketing budgets and maybe because they then haven’t been noticed by readers much like myself, that have bumbled around in a haphazard manner inefficiently discovering books I may like to read (check out the brilliant ‘Under the Reader’s Radar- celebrating the quiet novel’or ‘Blasts from the Past:So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor’ on these respective blogs for my precise inspiration). Either way, what an interesting idea. I for one am all in. Sharing books/writers of note from our shelves is something I will totally be endorsing.

Which brings us nicely to ‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel. While ‘Wolf Hall’ gets all the Booker praise, it is this Mantel tome that I nervously hold a candle up for (it is ‘Beyond Black’ after all). To me it overshadows its more favoured brother, in more ways than one. It exists in the dark, murky hinterlands of both our society and our consciousnesses. It remind us that we ignore much of what goes on around us- whether of the horrors lurking in grey, urban anonymous spaces or in the reasons behind people’s behaviour that we choose not to consider. It challenges us not to retreat into our own warm, santised havens and to instead be brave and look at such peripheral, uncomfortable matters more closely so that we may understand and then confront our fears for the benefit of all. This novel is acutely aware of all of the hidden layers that exist all around us that intersect our interactions. Masks come out. Personas are delivered. What we see is sometimes only very limited and certainly not the full picture. While I understand that this is perhaps necessary- connecting with such ‘blackness’ all the time would be exhausting, it is precisely because Hilary Mantel chooses to lift up this veil and direct us readers into such a world, and then engage wth such thought processes that I admire this work so ardently. We do all need to open our eyes, even if it is only to allow us more direct access to our humanity: to become more compassionate and understanding when we are confronted with something uncomfortable or ugly.

The vessel through which  Mantel chooses to disseminate these important ideas, is the thing that lifts this novel from merely preaching (which would switch anyone off) to engaged contemplation. It also showcases just how versatile and skilled she is as a writer. While there is much to appreciate in terms of literary ability- both in the prose and the characterisation- it is the plot execution that I admire the most. She  not only understands the perfect way to explore these personal and societal darkness eps (as demonstrated in the story concept- Alison Hart, shady medium, is plagued by ghosts from her past and the other side) but she also knows how to tightly order events in order to maximise the stories’ effect on us as readers. If she didn’t the novel would remain a blackly comic exploration of mediumship and the big-business world of making contact with departed loved ones for comfort, which in itself would be enough to enjoy this book! Sending up the likes of Derek Acorah, camp- pantomime ‘medium’ from the shambolic ‘Most Haunted’ (emphasis on sham) is genius, it tempers some of the darkness making it much easier to stomach. Relenting darkness is too much for most palettes. Like Shakespeare, Mantel clearly grasps this fact- if you want your audience to ruminate on difficult questions, some added humour is an effective lubricant. Having a flawed central characte fulfil this role just adds to the complexity of this novel- mirroring the complexity of thought required to consider the uncomfortable issues it seeks to address.

While I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Beyond Black’ it must be acknowledged that it is equally horrifying and scary. Any comfort drawn from thinking the dead or unknown cannot harm you, is soon blown out of the water. That there is no rest or comfort to be found anywhere is both bleak and necessary- for some place offer none and certain people cannot obtain any from the ghosts that haunt them (real or imaginary). Yet the really inspiring aspect of this novel is that Alison does begin to attempt to tackle hers- offering hope to us all. Perhaps we can all get a lid on the things that haunt us?  Perhaps we can find a comfortable place where we can at least fight the lid down on our internal monsters and get some peace. Even if we are all medium-not noticed, too mundane, not bright and sparkly and perfect enough to grab attention.

I urge you to grab this ‘blast from the past’, ‘this quiet novel’ and make its voice loud. Hilary Mantel is now a much deserved literary giant- she may well be on peoples’ radar- but I suspect it is ‘Wolf Hall’ that people reach for. Reach for this rich psychological exploration instead and learn something meaningful about the way we and our society avoid the difficulty and uncomfortable aspects it contains. Be brave! Slay your own Maurice.

‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver or avoid isolated cabins if you know what is good for you…

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Icier climes have always held me in their magnetic sway. Whether this is because the thought of being wrapped up in thick woolly jumpers and multitudinous layers, to repeal the biting cold, makes me feel reassured that I will soon be safe and warming when I return indoors. Or whether it is because the thought of them evokes the idea of magnificent beauty with all the ice, clear skies and dancing light shows they offer, thanks to the Northern Lights. Or indeed whether Narnia, Frankenstein, Captain Scott and the sinking of the Titanic have all impressed their magic in my minds eye… One thing is certain. The reading of any book that promises to evoke such a setting will immediately take preference when it comes to selecting titles that I would like to read (just ask my groaning TBR pile).

‘Dark Matter’ clearly offers such a setting. It also offers up a ghost story. If you know anything about me by now, then you know I am a sucker for a such works! As I am sure any reader will attest though, sometimes great premises do not always live up to the hype. Not so with this tome. It delivers with a strange, pared-back abundance of brilliance. Much like Susan Hill, Michelle Paver knows how to craft a gripping ghost story. It wears its mastery lightly, building its tension slowly in a measured fashion that allows your fear to ratchet to unbearable heights without any obvious awareness of how this is achieved. It is genuinely chilling. My senses were heightened and I was transported to the overwhelming isolation that the location, emotional state of the central protagonist and the solitude that the circumstances of the plot afforded. It also factored in just the right amount of ambiguity necessary, for the eventual denouement of this sorry tale.

Otherness was key to this story, on many levels. Societally. Individually. Alien landscapes. They all added to the unraveling of this unsettling story (of the deliberate sort- as this is what Michelle Paver clearly intends so that we truly feel the fear of the central character). What was surprising to me, was the detail with which she explores the reality of living in Artic Lands as we confront our fears, through the eyes of Jack Miller. While our imaginations conjure giant icebergs, crisp sub-zero temperatures and eternal winter, what we don’t allow for are the massive swings between hours of daylight or darkness that also occur. How distressing must it be to be plunged into either mostly daylight or mostly darkness (emphasis on the latter). This must surely add to any escalating departure from sanity, merely from the difference of experience that it offers someone used to less extreme daily oscillations of light. The acute, accompanying isolation that adjoins this sensory- depravation must be every but as horrific as Paver conveys. I have chills just thinking about it.

While this icy fear is all consuming, and a barometer of great success, in terms of the effect that a well executed ghost story will muster, we must also give pause to the structural mastery used to mirror it’s very tight plotting. I found the use of a journal, as a means of delivering this story with further incremented fear, to be an astute addition. Not only did it frame the fear, by allowing us to access Jack’s vulnerability and unease but it also was a nod to that other Artic horror, ‘Frankenstein’. This subtle association adds another layer of meaning to our understanding of ‘Dark Matter’ as it links the desperate, lonely, hopelessness conveyed by Mary Shelly in her work in a subliminal way. It also reminded me of Sarah Moss’ ‘Cold Earth’ (which is Scandi-crime before it was ever a popular cultural theme) and it’s equally barren and relentless plot/landscape. All this hopelessness is foreshadowed, and I think exploited by Paver to great effect while we edge toward the climax of this gripping ghostly tale. My only caveat is this: think very carefully about where you read this story, as it will transport you. Make sure you have something warm and comforting to hand, to reacclimatise you once you have finished- or your own sleepless nights will follow…..

You have been warned

‘Ghostly’ by Audrey Niffenegger (ed) or be careful if your torch backlights it’s pages

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Read at your peril: torchlight reveals it’s haunting properties in ways fragile imaginations cannot take

 

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Behold: A book ghost!

 

 

Now Audrey Niffenegger clearly knows a thing or two about the dark, macabre and the gothic. Hanging out in Highgate Cemetary can only result in a more fervent eye toward such matters- something that any reader of ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ or ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ would eagerly concur with. If you want a brooding story with an unsettling tone and haunting sense of yearning then she is your author! Imagine my delight, then, last Halloween when it became abundantly apparent that she had curated and illustrated an anthology of haunting stories. If you are beginning to know anything about me, then it will come as no surprise that I was straight into my nearest bookshop to snatch up a copy of ‘Ghostly’ as fast as my greedy and expectant mitts could cooperate (basically immediately)!

It will also come as no surprise to you that this rapid determination, could not follow through when it came to said reading. Not because this collection somehow diminished in appeal (as if) but purely because I always have an astronomical to be read pile, that just keeps increasing like some sick, but albeit pleasurable joke. While I did tuck in with gusto, somehow I got waylaid- something it took several months to rekindle. This is not because the selection was somehow lacking. Indeed, Niffenegger has weaved together the selected stories with real sensitivity. They ebb and flow with a respectful reverence toward their accordant subject matter, in a way that both heightens and draws contrasts in meaning as one story ends and the next begins. It really must be noted that this is a mark of her skill. Great ghostly stories are often placed in such anthologies: rarely do they weave together in such a manner. Rarely do we then consider them as a whole- for ghost stories, in their usual short- form are written to be enjoyed alone in more ways than one. No, instead my pause was garnered by the particular effect the centrepiece of this collection rendered on my poor senses: Oliver Onions’ ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ rendered me mute and unable to continue.

As anyone who has encountered a particularly powerful story will testify, sometimes you must cease and allow your subconscious the space to process and recover from such an unexpected effect. While I am not entirely sure why it held such magnetic sway, well apart from the psychological malaise it infused via its central protagonist and the brooding, oppressive atmosphere that seeped through its pages and into my psyche as it’s dank, maudlin environs overpowered those that resided in its pages, what I do know is that it felt better to wrap myself in less affecting prose and allow myself to detangle from its grasp. Yet, like all compulsions it was only a matter of time before I once more immersed myself in this tome and surrendered myself to whatever awful fate may befall me.

Perhaps such an extended pause was really about allowing myself time to process the explicit mastery encountered in this particular tale. The best of any ghostly fiction must surely recognise that success comes from creating the requisite atmosphere to compound our uncertainties and fears- which it must do in such a way that does not reveal to us how it drawn us in or suspended our disbelief. Confusion and uncertainty are then key ingredients. That Niffenegger would include this story in exactly the position that she has in this collections’ chronology only further highlights the mastery and knowledge of this genre AND of how fear works. This reveals her skill in all its glory. Such confidence then also allows the full range of writing that this genre can muster to sing together and educate us- showing us all the directions that great ghost stories can take. Who could not enjoy the humorous departure of a bachelor haunted by the fear of marriage in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’ (light relief at just the right moment). Or the art of the twist in the masterfully short ‘Click-Clack the Rattlebag’. Kelly Link’s ‘Tiny Ghosts’ just makes me want to read her work voraciously (especially after scoring a promotional copy of ‘The Summer People’ from Canongate- which was bloody excellent): who says ghosts are in charge of the scares! Enough said.

While I could explore EVERY included story in miniatuae, it has to be A S Byatts’ haunting ‘The July Ghosts’ that had the most emotional impact. The beautiful prose adeptly explains the yearning that loss brings with it, so lightly that you cannot help by be moved. It truly is haunting. In many way, Niffeneggers’ own work draws much from this approach- it makes you wonder how influential she has been in informing her particular style of writing. In any case, it has certainly made me want to read more of Byatts’ work. In much the same way that Niffeneggers’ particular proclivity for weaving has made me eager to see how she will continue to weave her own writing. Let us not forget the beautiful artwork that also compliments and provokes us as readers: from the smoke -like wisps of the cover to the deceptive sway of the feline fatale.

Just be careful if you read by torchlight. Your eyes may deceive you if you turn the pages too quickly: behold any book ghosts that may reveal themselves…