Thursday, October 17, 2013

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Gran, Sara. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

This was October's Connecticut mystery book club read. What an appropriate title for October (although I actually read it back in September).

I've never been to New Orleans, but I've always wanted to go. It's one of those American cities that mesmerizes me because it seems much older than it can possibly be, a city that must be at least 500 years old and teeming with all kinds of good and bad spirits, the two sides constantly struggling for control. Sara Gran's first Claire DeWitt mystery didn't disabuse me of this notion.

Gran's New Orleans is seedy, romantic, gothic, mysterious, evil, spooky, passionate... She's done a wonderful job of painting the city in a way that brings countless numbers of adjectives to mind, many of which are polar opposites. Having never been there, I'd say she's also done a wonderful job of capturing the city in all its complexity. And something about her brought Caitlin Kiernan to mind, even though the two authors are not of the same genre.

You'll get no unbiased review here. I loved the book from the minute I started reading it. Claire DeWitt is an interesting sleuth who, with the exception, maybe, of "the cozy", draws on all types of fictional detectives, rolling them into one to produce someone truly unique. Much to my surprise, I also found her truly believable, which she probably wouldn't have been in the hands of a less talented writer. She's part hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe (although with the 21st-century twist of turning more to drugs than to booze to numb all the horrors her chosen career forces her to face), part whacky Stephanie Plum and her ironic sense of humor, part Charlie Parker and his insight into the supernatural, and there's a little Hercule Poirot, since her mentor from the grave is a French mastermind. She's even a bit like Mary Russell, although she never apprenticed with the Great Detective himself the way Mary did with Sherlock Holmes. Claire, instead, apprenticed with another apprentice, who is also now dead and lives only in Claire's memory, dreams, and hallucinations.

Claire, who grew up in New York (Brooklyn, to be exact) is a former resident of New Orleans but is living in California when she's called back to the city that is swarming with her ghosts, to help find out what happened to a lawyer who disappeared in the aftermath of Katrina. With the help of some of those ghosts of hers, her own wit and ingenuity, not to mention consultations with the I Ching and the occasional hallucinogen, she manages to figure out that this "nice guy", just like this "nice city", might have had a seedier side. Along the way, she meets some interesting new people and reconnects with some old. I, for one, was quite surprised to discover whodunit and why.

Happily, there's a new Claire DeWitt novel. I'm quite content to add this series to my growing pile of mystery series I read.

Monday, October 14, 2013

50 Scariest Books I'VE Read

Thanks to Susan, I discovered this. The scariest thing about the latter is that, despite being a lifelong fan of horror and the supernatural, I've only read 17 books on the list of 50 (well, and part of 2, both of which spooked me so much, I had to put them down and never picked them back up again). Even scarier is that I'd never even heard of some of them. Maybe I haven't been reading that many scary books after all; maybe I can't really claim to be a fan; maybe I'm a mere piker when it comes to the spooky. No coward, I, I decided to face this fear head on, think of all the scary books I've ever read, and see if I could even come up with 50 to name as the scariest.

Happily, I discovered I'm no piker. I came up with tons of scary books and had to try to figure out how to narrow the list down to a mere 50. The first thing to do was to take a cue from the originator and include only one book by any given author. That made it a tad bit easier, but still, this was no easy task. I finally found myself boiling it down to books I remembered keeping me up at night; or those propelling me go downstairs to be with others, if the other members of the household were downstairs and I was upstairs alone (or vice versa); or encouraging me not to look out windows; or inspiring me to lock myself into rooms where I felt (sort of) safe. That meant including some titles that aren't necessarily horror classics, or that don't even fall into the horror genre, but just that, for whatever reason, scared the bejeezus out of me when I read them. I'm sure some of them wouldn't scare me in the least if I were to reread them. Others, however, I've read multiple times and can depend on to do the job when I'm in a masochistic sort of mood and actually want to feel the need to lock myself in the bedroom and dive under the covers.

I share with you my list (in alphabetical order by title), which does overlap with the "50 Scariest Ever" list. In compiling it, I've thought about how (like everything else about reading) subjective "scary" is. Vampires have terrified me all my life. Zombies? Not so much (except for the movie Carnival of Souls. Why, I don't know). I'd love to know which of these books others have read and found scary and which they haven't.

(I'm way too lazy to go find cover images for all 50 books, so, in keeping with a good supernatural tale, you'll just have to conjure up your own images.)

1. 1984 by George Orwell. Yes, the world he painted can only be described as horrific.

2. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson. Okay, now we know that it may all have been a hoax, but I didn't know that when I read it in my early teens. To this day I don't take too well to gatherings of 3 or more flies on windowsills.

3. Best Ghost Stories of J. S. Le Fanu by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. A longtime fan of Uncle Silas, which didn't scare me at all, I made the mistake of reading this when Bob was away, and I was all alone. Lots of things went "bump in the night" in my house that night.

4. Best Stories of Algernon Blackwood by Algernon Blackwood. All the stories are good, but on really, really windy nights, or when I'm racing against time to get off a hiking trail at dusk, it's "The Wendigo" that always comes to my mind and sends shivers up my spine.

5. Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe. Dungeons and Dragons game players and murder in my home state of North Carolina? Nothing scary about that, right?

6. The Bog by Michael Talbot. If books were classified the way movies are, this one would be a B movie. Completely predictable and stupid and about something that shouldn't have scared me at all, and yet, when a friend urged me to read it back when it came out, it spooked me to death.

7. Broken Harbor by Tana French. All of French's novels have had a spooky element to them, but this one was the one that got to me the most.

8. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt. Ridiculous to think I'd be scared of doll-sized figures wielding sharp weapons, but I was. Maybe it's the psychology or the voodoo (which has scared me since I was a kid).

9. A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur. Well, I guess dolls can be very scary, and the doll in this book was one of the scariest I'd ever encountered when I first read it as a child. She was still scary when I reread it as an adult.

10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Not scary so much as just so damn creepy and horrific that I didn't want to be alone while reading it.

11. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Forget that it's Christmas and has such a feel-good ending. Marley's ghost is damn scary. 

12. Coraline by Neil Gaiman. It's those blank, button eyes. 

13. Couching at the Door by D.K. Broster. Some ghost story collections are uneven. This one isn't. I may be wrong, but I recall being spooked by all of them. 

14. The Deep End by Joy Fielding. This is probably a really dumb book, but when it first came out, I read it, and it terrified me with that whole telephone-caller-is-even (really, really)-closer-than-you-think-thing.

15. The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Loraine Newman by Gerald Brittle. I'm still amazed that something so hokey had me so terrified. All I can say is don't read it at night if you have a dog who might suddenly start barking at nothing (or if you have a Raggedy Ann doll in your house. I was glad I didn't).

16. Dracula by Bram Stoker. No, it shouldn't have been scary. I knew the story when I finally got around to reading the original. Stoker was not the best writer of his time. Still, it got me (and did again when I listened to it while jogging through the woods one fall).

17. Dracula's Guest: A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories. If you want to feed a fear of vampires with plenty of blood, read this one.

18. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Reread it last year to see if it's really as scary as I remember. Yes, it is.

19. The Falls by Ian Rankin. Just enough of a hint of the supernatural and things like grave robbers to send many shivers up my spine.

20. Famous Ghost Stories edited by Bennett Cerf. It's a short collection, but it has so many of the classics that can keep me awake if I read them too late at night (Oliver Onion's The Beckoning Fair OneThe Monkey's Paw by W.W. Jacobs, The Phantom 'Rickshaw by Rudyard Kipling, to name a few). 

21. Ghost by Katherine Ramsland. Some of this was quite stupid (okay, a lot of it). Still, parts of it spooked me (a lot).
22. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James. James was the master. When I want to study the craft, I return to him. "The Mezotint" will always have me staying in one safe room and avoiding looking out windows at night.
23. Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton by Edith Wharton. Maybe it scared me so much because I never thought of Wharton as a writer of the supernatural, so I was surprised by her ability with the genre, or maybe it's because, like Henry James, she had such a good handle on "Is it a ghost or all in your mind?" Whatever the reason, it kept me awake at night. 

24. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. This was one that spooked me so much, reading it when I was on a business trip by myself, that I had to put it down. I've been meaning to try it again ever since.
25. Green Man by Kingsley Amis. The ending was over-the-top, but parts of it made me wary of trees (and, again, looking out the window at night, especially in areas heavy with trees) for a while.
 26. The Haunted by James Herbert. The surprise is, yes, surprising. The movie also scared the crap out of me.

27. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. Every time I read it, I think, "It can't possibly scare me this time. I know it too well." I'm wrong about that. Every time.

28. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi. This is the stuff that keeps a teenager up, reading until the wee hours of the morning and then, wide-awake, unable to sleep, hearing all kinds of strange noises in the house.

29. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. See Helter Skelter, only substitute teenager with forty-something who lives out in the American middle of nowhere.

30. The Killing Kind by John Connolly. Some very weird stuff that is very scary when you're reading it in Maine.

31. The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Sprezi. I listened to this one while out walking and remember constantly looking over my shoulder. It's terrifying on two levels: serial killer + being falsely accused of something while living in a foreign country.

32. The Omen by David Seltzer. It led me to believe that there isn't much that's scarier than a scary child. (Oh, and see Helter Skelter and that part about being a teenager up all night.)

33. The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell. Got so spooked by it (fog is scary) that I couldn't finish it.

34. The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I don't really remember why I found this one so scary. I just remember that I did.

35. People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck. A well-known psychiatrist writing about the psychology of evil and his belief in demon possession? You know how you study abnormal psych and begin diagnosing everyone you know? Imagine when the "disease" is evil and possibly demon possession, and you'll get an idea of where this one took me.

36. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories edited by Michael Newton. Ghost story collections can be hit or miss, but this recent collection was pretty much hit, and the ones that scared me (that I hadn't read before, and even some I had, like the aforementioned "The Monkey's Paw") really scared me.

37. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg. A study in evil, more terrifying in what it suggests than in anything that actually happens.

38. Psycho by Robert Bloch. You thought the movie was scary (which it most definitely was)? Read the book.

39. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. I found this one so much scarier than Silence of the Lambs. I think it mostly had to do with the way the killer chose his victims.

40. Rules of Prey by John Sandford. I don't really know why, but John Sandford scares me. Maybe it's his ambiguity when it comes to defining good and evil. But that ambiguity shows up in plenty of mysteries that don't scare me. Anyway, I won't read him when I'm alone (just like I won't watch Criminal Minds when I'm alone).

41. Salem's Lot by Stephen King. Word to the wise: don't read this one when you're fifteen-years-old and baby sitting, a sleeping toddler being the only other one in the house with you.

42. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Before there was Erin Morgenstern and The Night Circus (which had its moments), there was Ray Bradbury and Something Wicked this Way Comes (more than just mere moments), discovered in one's teens.

43. Strange but True: 22 Amazing Stories by Donald J. Sobel. This was a Scholastic book I got circa age 9. I blame it to this day for my addiction to horror. I reread it a few years ago, and yes, I can understand why.

44. Tales of Horror and the Supernatural by Arthur Machen. Includes plenty of good tales, but the one that scared me the most was "The Terror", a perfect study in mass hysteria.

45. This is the Zodiac Speaking by Michael D. Kelleher and David Van Nuys. I'm surprised I didn't buy a gun to protect myself while reading this one.

46. Threshold by Caitlin R. Kiernan. Nobody, but nobody writing in the 21st century does "here's a nightmare: is it real or not?" better than Kiernan (and I loved the Beowulf connection here).

47. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Still the ghost story to beat all ghost stories.

48. The Undead edited by James Dickie. Another one to feed the imagination of someone who's vampire-obsessed.

49. The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski. One of those books that makes you glad you're not a Victorian woman surrounded by men defining how sane you are (or are not).

50. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe. Good old Edgar is another one to blame for my early addiction to the spooky unknown.

(And one to grow on). Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I know, I know, call me a wimp, but that scratching at the window? I still don't like to hear branches scratching at a window.

Okay, I can see the pattern here. If you want to scare me include one or more of these elements (either real or imagined): ghosts, vampires, serial killers, demon possession, scary dolls, and maybe, if the conditions are right, a bog monster (especially if it's scratching at a window with long, bony, gnarly-nailed fingers).