The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Horns, by Joe Hill ****

hornsjoehillI have to start with three things the reader should know. Then I’ll get on with it.

First, if you are looking for Stephen King II, you won’t find it here. The horror genre is the only thing I can see to connect these two gents, besides DNA. Well, if we’re picky, they both choose New England settings all or most of the time. But this writer does not use his father’s voice or style.

Second, if you have deeply held beliefs that include supernatural events, beings, and/or places, including the possibility of a bad afterlife, you may be offended by this book. He is bold, and puts it right out there in the first few pages. If you’re thinking of buying it and it may or may not push your buttons, read the first chapter before buying, or look at the first few pages online. You’ll know right away. (A taste is in the quote below).

Last but not least, if like me, you have a genuine phobia of snakes, step aside. They didn’t show themselves till the last half of the book, and I was hooked by then. If this book had been out there ten or fifteen years ago, I would have had to give it up because of them, & it would have disappointed me, because the plot is engaging and also because I paid for the book. Once they show up, they show up a lot, in vivid detail. I skimmed where I could during their scenes and read the rest a little quickly, and I got through it without the nightmares that used to plague me.

Okay. So that’s out of the way. I will tell you, I like the guy’s writing. It isn’t seamless, doesn’t mesh fluidly like the finest artists produce; I found a couple of forced elements at the end, and there is a dream sequence that is way too long and that the writer leans on way too hard to explain the list of questions he’s piled up. That said, this is a very fun ride.

The plot feels original to me, perhaps because I have never seen anyone address this subject matter with wry humor. It is cynical yet engaging. Who hasn’t wondered what hell might be like, should it exist? “Hell” is the title of the first section, and we see it immediately. Here’s a sample from page 9, which is really the third page of the story itself. He is looking at a roadside memorial, the type you see along the highway where somewhat met with mortality and their loved ones have been drawn there. It is his sweetheart that has died, and the protagonist is hung over, physically altered (title), and he sees what has been left for his beloved:

“Someone—Merrin’s mother probably—has left a decorative cross with yellow nylon roses stapled to it and a plastic Virgin who smiled with the beatific idiocy of the functionally retarded.

“He couldn’t stand that simpering smile. He couldn’t stand the cross either, planted in the place where Merrin had bled to death from her smashed-in head. A cross with yellow roses. What a fucking thing. It was like an electric chair with floral-print cushions, a bad joke. It bothered him that someone wanted to bring Christ out here. Christ was a year too late to do any good. He hadn’t been anywhere around when Merrin needed Him.”

At some point, the reader must wonder… how much of his thinking is really him, and how much of it has to do with the growths on his head? I won’t tell you, but ultimately, Hill lets us know to some degree.

If there is an echo of any writer, it is that of Michael Chabon, who is quoted twice, once at the beginning of the book, and once later, where he uses a quotation from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union about guilt. (He does not cite the work, only its writer, but I recently read it and recognized it). There is some of Chabon’s playful language and the way that he teases us with the plot, but Hill is his own writer, and it’s just as well, because no one will ever be able to replicate what Chabon does. Were Hill to try, he would find himself kneeling at the feet of the master (Chabon, not the devil, LOL).

I loved this story, warts and all, and suspect that this writer will do some really fine things in the future. As an early literary effort, this is strong.

I should add that because I am not religious at all, nothing here that is said about God or Satan disturbs me; it may be an obstacle to others, but Hill is gutsy and true to himself in his writing, even if it costs him readers. The language is crafted skillfully, and I suspect it will remain so throughout his career.

In an age of virtually unchallenged censorship, it is refreshing to see a man tell his story the way he wants to tell it.