Holy Ground

I came across the coroner’s obituary last night.

As I typed it, I realized what a New Orleans-like thing it was to say; and it made me smile a little bit. The coroner in question wasn’t currently serving New Orleans; he had retired in 2014 after ten terms in office, and his name was Dr. Frank Minyard. He played the trumpet, and was actually a gynecologist rather than a pathologist. Was he good coroner or a bad one? A little of each, I would gather, based on the obituary by John Pope you can read by clicking here.

But he was, like so many New Orleanians used to be, quite a character. New Orleans has always been a city full of characters, which is why so many people write about New Orleans, and write about it well. Not only can you probably get away with writing anything crazy-seeming about New Orleans; chances are if you dig a little into our history here, you’ll inevitably find crazier shit than anything you could dream up on your own. I have to say I have really been enjoying reading up on our local history here.

Hurricane Sally came ashore earlier this morning, and it had continued turning enough to the east that we didn’t get much of anything here in New Orleans. The panhandles of Alabama and Florida (in particular Mobile and Pensacola) are an entirely different story; my heart sank down into my shoes (well, my slippers) on seeing footage and images from that section of the Gulf Coast. Hurricane season is so emotionally exhausting, really; all that stress and tension and worry, and then when it goes somewhere else the enormous guilt one feels about the relief that your area escaped unscathed while others are losing everything–including some lives–is horrible, just horrible. It’s oddly gray and hazy-seeming outside the windows this morning, with the crepe myrtles and the young live oaks in the yard on the other side of the fence doing their wavy dance thing they do when the wind blows; the sidewalk outside also looks wet so we must have gotten some rain as well overnight, but not enough for me to notice anything as I slept through it all. (That’s the other thing about hurricanes, particularly the ones that come ashore overnight; you go to bed wondering what you’ll wake up to find in the morning–or worse yet, disaster will rip you out of a deep sleep.)

So, yes, this morning I feel very emotionally drained; well rested, but exhausted emotionally.

And then, of course, once the danger has passed, you have to reset yourself and get back to normality–whatever the hell that is, or what passes for it, at any rate.

Yesterday’s entry in the Cynical 70’s Film Festival was The Omen, which was a huge hit back when it was released in 1976 and spawned two sequels, Omen II: Damien and The Final Conflict. I had never seen the sequels, and I think I originally rented the film–I don’t think it played at the Twin Theater in Emporia–but I did read the book (the book was written by David Seltzer, who apparently, according to the opening credits of the film, wrote the screenplay; which came first? I don’t care enough to look it up) and of course, was put in mind of it by paging through The Late Great Planet Earth, which laid the groundwork for the movie. Obviously, it’s about the anti-Christ, who is Damien Thorn; the movie opens with the Robert Thorn (played with an almost wooden-like quality by Gregory Peck) arriving at a hospital in Rome only to be told that the child his wife has given birth to has died; he worries about her mental stability and how she will handle the news–and so a priest offers a substitute baby whose mother died giving birth. (And this is the first place I called shenanigans on this rewatch; one, he is about to start a lifetime of lying to his wife and two–was there any need to tell Robert Thorn his child died? If the idea was to have the Thorns accept the anti-Christ into their home as their child, wouldn’t it simply make more sense to swap the babies, so neither of them knew? Because how could they have been so certain Thorn would accept this literal deal with the devil?) The movie is paced fairly well, and it moves right along–there’s not a lot of gore or blood and guts, but it does beggar credulity at more than one point–and perhaps I am looking at it with jaded eyes some forty years later, but both Peck and Lee Remick, who plays his wife, seem to just be phoning it in for the paycheck and there’s also the element of their age; they seem to be fairly old to just be trying to start having a child at the opening of the movie. (I think the book plays this up more, stating that Kathy Thorn has suffered innumerable miscarriages leading up to this birth and it has shaken her mental stability; kind of hard to do that on film but it certainly would have made his motivation in accepting this needless deception–again, they could have just as easily substituted the baby without having to go through this entire risky rigmarole.) After finishing, I looked for Omen II but it’s not streaming for free anywhere; I then watched The Final Conflict, which was simply terrible (outside of Sam Neill, who was terrific and charismatic as an adult Damien, saddled with an incredibly bad and far-fetched script).

The movie does fit, however, with the Cynical 70’s Film Festival, because here we have yet another conspiracy, one in which some members of the Catholic Church have turned to Satan to try to bring about the end times as well as the birth of the Antichrist–because whereas in the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, it would have been unimaginable for such a film to be made, but also to be believable; who would have ever believed such a thing was possible? Of course, both book and film of Rosemary’s Baby set the stage for The Omen, but both were later 1960’s, when things were starting to change, times were getting more cynical, and so were people. Rosemary’s Baby changed almost everything, both in the world of novels and film, in showing that horror was both bankable and mainstream. The early 1970’s saw the publications, and enormous success, of books like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Thomas Tryon’s Gothic horror masterpiece The Other, and eventually, Stephen King’s out-of-nowhere bestseller Carrie. Soon Peter Straub would publish Ghost Story and Carrie would become a hit movie, triggering a horror revival that brought both the literature and the films into the mainstream. This revival didn’t lose steam until the 1990’s, and frankly, I think horror is on the verge of another revival.

I could be wrong, of course. I certainly have been before, but I am seeing some really terrific work as well as amazing new voices–over the past year alone I’ve read some astonishing work by new-to-me writers, and I only wish I had more time to read everything I really want to. Paul Tremblay is amazing, and so is Bracken MacLeod, Christopher Golden, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, among others; I’m seeing a lot of new and interesting looking titles being announced or reviewed almost every time I turn around.

I guess today is Wednesday? I am really not sure, living in this weird world that comes with hurricane watches, where it is very easy to lose track of dates and times and what day of the week it actually is. But a quick glance at Weather.com assures me that all the other storms out in the Atlantic basin pose no threat to Louisiana, so I guess we can relax for a little while, at least.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

Come Go with Me

I’ve always enjoyed horror as a genre, both in film and in novels. One of the greatest joys of the last decade or so has been the rise of horror television, with terrific shows like American Horror Story (despite its many flaws), The Exorcist, Castle Rock, and so many others. I suppose even The Walking Dead sort of counts as a horror program.

I do not consider myself to be anything more than a horror fan, frankly; I am not an expert, I’ve not read (or watched) everything, I’ve never done any comprehensive studying of the genre. I don’t know what are tropes or stereotypes or what-may-have-you, unless they are so obvious it’s like being hit in the head with a baseball bat. The Haunting of Hill House is one of my favorite novels; Stephen King is one of my favorite writers; I could watch all four Scream movies a million times without ever getting bored or not being entertained–I even enjoyed the MTV television series called Scream, which had nothing to do with the films.

I know so little about the genre that I’m not even sure of the sub-genres contained within; I could write pages about the sub-genres in crime fiction, but horror? I’d be hard-pressed to even name them.

I’ve written two vampire novellas (“The Nightwatchers” and “Blood on the Moon”) and an entire gay erotic vampire novel (Need), and a ghost story novel (Lake Thirteen) and a monster novel (Sara), and I suppose Sorceress would be considered gothic horror–I certainly followed the blueprint for Gothic novels with that one, which was kind of the point. And while there are any number of horror short stories in the files, as well as aborted novels, I’ve never really had much luck in publishing horror. Crime is the genre I know best, and you should always, as they say, write what you know; I always fear my horror attempts are ridiculously derivative of Stephen King–but then again, steal from the best.

I also don’t have a much time to read as I would like, and as such, I tend to primarily read within the crime genre, branching out into horror only occasionally–writers like Bracken MacLeod, Paul Tremblay, Christopher Golden, Michael Rowe, and some others spring to mind–and the pile of unread horror in the TBR stacks continues to grow, it seems, by leaps and bounds every year as I never seem to get around to reading any of them.

But this year, as I’ve noted, I’ve made a conscious effort to read more diverse writers, and the end result of that has been me finding any number of terrific writers I might not have read had I not made an effort, had I allowed myself to continue with the ease of white privilege and simply reading other white writers.

I only regret not making the effort sooner.

certain dark things

Collecting garbage sharpens the senses. It allows us to notice what others do not see. Where most people would spy a pile of junk, the rag-and-bone man sees treasure: empty bottles that might be dragged to the recycling center, computer innards that can be reused, furniture in decent shape. The garbage collector is alert. After all, this is a profession.

Domingo was always looking for garbage and he was always looking at people. It was his hobby. The people were, not the garbage. He would walk around Mexico City in his long, yellow plastic jacket with its dozen pockets, head bobbed down, peeking up to stare at a random passerby.

Domingo tossed a bottle into a plastic bag, then paused to observe the patrons eating at a restaurant. He gazed at the maids as they rose with the dawn and purchased bread at the bakery. He saw the people with the shiny cars zoom by and the people without any cash jump onto the back of the bus, hanging with their nails and their grit to the metallic shell of the moving vehicle.

I’m not sure where I first heard of Silvia Moreno-Garcia; I am friends with members of the horror writing community on social media, and we have friends in common; so I am sure I heard of this book first from one of our mutual friends on Facebook (I have also purchased her next novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow). I decided, as always, to read horror in celebration of Halloween; alas, illness and being overly busy has limited my reading lately, and as such, outside of my annual reread of The Haunting of Hill House, the only horror I was able to squeeze into October was Certain Dark Things, and this is not, by any means, to be seen as any kind of judgment of Ms. Moreno-Garcia’s consummate skill as a storyteller; this has everything to do with me being tired, ill, and unable to focus as a result. Those moments when I was able to focus was when I was able to read this book; and it is, quite frankly, a pleasure and a treasure.

Certain Dark Things is set in a Mexico City that teems with ugliness, darkness, poverty and corruption. As I read the descriptions of the city, I couldn’t help but think damn I bet she could write some brilliant noir set in this version of Mexico City–like I said, my mind always reverts to crime fiction–but this Mexico City, this world Moreno-Garcia has created, is steeped in reality and actual Mexican history–of which I know some, but not nearly enough (my interest in history is colored by, sadly, the white supremacy of American educational systems; focused primarily on the United States and Europe, with some Egyptian thrown in for good measure).

Moreno-Garcia also throws everything anyone who’s ever read about vampires into question from the absolute beginning of the book: perhaps because of Stoker’s Dracula, and every film/television adaptation of some form of it ever since, I have a tendency to always think of vampires as being eastern European/Transylvanian in origin; almost every vampire novel or story I’ve read has been almost entirely white. I myself, when writing my own little vampire stories, fell victim to these same tropes (although I did have Creole witches, which upon new reflection is also kind of problematic). So Certain Dark Things also opened my mind; why would supernatural/paranormal creatures always be white? Are there no supernatural/paranormal creatures or beings from other, non-white cultures?

There are two main characters in the novel: Atl, the female vampire, descended from a long line of vampires going back to Aztec days (and not your typical, Transylvanian vampire, either), and Domingo, a poor young man of the streets who sorts through garbage looking for things to sell to support himself. In this world, there is, like in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, an awareness that vampires and other creatures like them exist; so Domingo isn’t as terrified when he encounters Atl as he might be, were their reality still in question. Domingo is drawn to Atl, wants to help her and be with her, but it’s not in a romantic way, nor is it a product of being “glamoured” (as Harris called it in her work), either; it’s more along the lines of Atl being the first person to truly see Domingo, and appreciate him, and recognize his humanity despite being of the streets.

And that’s very powerful.

Atl herself is on the run. In this new world Moreno-Garcia has created, Mexico City is an independent city-state where vampires aren’t permitted; she has run there after the annihilation of her clan of vampires in north Mexico. She is on the run and needs to get out of Mexico completely; she has run to the city to hide and to try to find the means to get out of the country. There are many different kinds of vampires in this world; with different abilities and different powers.

There’s a third character, Ana Aguirre, a single mother who works as a police detective in the city, dealing with corruption and sexism every single day, not taken seriously by her superiors, and trying to do whatever she can to ensure a good future for her daughter. Ana is also a strong character, defined and complex; her inner struggle over her own integrity warring with what is the best thing to do for her daughter is masterfully described, and very relatable.

I’d read an entire series about Ana Aguirre in this world, frankly.

Moreno-Garcia doesn’t over-explain this world, either; but somehow, with sparsity of description and a minimal approach to the past few decades that changed the world as we now know it, she manages to create an entire world that is completely believable and easy to become immersed in. The story moves quickly, the characters growing more depth from each experience they have, and it’s all too soon over.

I would love to read more books about Atl and her world; I’d love to read more of Moreno-Garcia’s work.

This is a truly terrific work. I highly recommend it.

Do They Know It’s Christmas

Good morning, Friday, and how are you today? A four day weekend—one I have been waiting for, it seems, forever– is just over the horizon and about time, I must say. I am very tired this morning–this week and next I have to work eight hour days on Fridays instead of my usual half-day, because of the holidays, so I am up earlier than normal and quite frankly, I DON’T LIKE THIS–and I am having dinner with friends this evening, so it’s not a normal Friday for me.

But dinner will be fun, so there’s that. Yay, fun!

I am also hoping to get to see Aquaman this weekend, finish reading the book I am currently reading, and move on to another. I got some lovely books in the mail this week as gifts (thank you, generous gift-givers), so I am looking forward to reading some of the others. I also want to reread both The Shining (it’s been years) and Bracken MacLeod was talking about Pet Sematary recently, which made me realize that is one of the Stephen King books from his early period which I’ve not read more than once. The book disturbed me deeply, and I remember recoiling from it as I read it feverishly; it’s a very dark book–even for King, who’s not exactly known for light-and-fluffy–and I am thinking–thanks to Bracken–that I should revisit it now, in my fifties, to see if my own change in perspective and growing up (a lot) since I was such a sallow teen will change my opinion of the book. I also think I might spend some time in 2019 revisiting some of King’s work.

As the end of the year draws nigh, I generally start reflecting back on the year that was, wondering if I’ve accomplished all the things I set out to do and if I achieved any of the goals I set at the beginning of the year. I know I did some, and I also know I failed at others. The Short Story Project was a lot of fun, and I think I am going to sign up to do it again some in the new year; focusing on reading and writing short stories is a lovely thing, and even my blogging about terrific short stories gets even one person to buy an anthology or read a story, it’s a win.

One of the things I’m definitely going to do in the new year is diversify my reading list. I have a number of books in my TBR pile by non-white writers, and I need to start reading those books and writers. Is it an unconscious bias that makes me grab a book by a cisgender straight writer? Possibly and probably, and that’s where systemic bias comes into play; bias we don’t even think about is just as wrong as bias we do think about. It’s even more insidious, because we think we don’t have bias but it’s there, lurking in our subconscious, waiting waiting waiting…and that’s just wrong.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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The Longest Time

I went to bed early on Monday night, around ten, because I was tired, and woke up yesterday around four. I stayed in bed, and managed to drift back to sleep again, but was wide awake around five-thirty, so I decided to get out of bed and get my day started, figuring at the very least I’d be so tired last night I’d have no choice but to go to bed early. It worked; I was in bed just before ten, and am awake, shivering, at my computer this morning. It is twenty degrees outside this morning, and was so cold and windy and wintry last night we left the heat running overnight, which we never do. (Mainly for the outdoor cats; the vents run under the house so we figured they could shelter from the storm under the house and if they huddled near the vents they’d be warm.) I am going to brave the cold for the gym this morning; I can’t get over how much better I feel for one day of weight-lifting, stretching and cardio.

I also wrote a short story yesterday; rather, finished one I started Monday: “Neighborhood Alert.” I’m going to let it sit for a few days before looking at it again; I have some other writing and editing to do, and I find that letting things sit for a while is enormously helpful. I rather like the story, if I do say so myself. I am going to work on another one today as well–the title is “The Trouble with Autofill” (changed from “Sorry Wrong Email”) and of course, I have a lot of other writing to do. Heavy sigh. I do prefer being busy, though.

The Short Story Project continues apace. Last night, after an episode of Broadchurch, and before I went to bed, I read two stories, both from single-author collections from ChiZine Press (another bucket list item: be published in some form by ChiZine–they do wonderful stuff, and they publish my friend Michael Rowe), one by Christopher Golden, the other by Bracken MacLeod.

I read Bracken’s story first, from 13 Views of the Suicide Woods, “Still Day: An Ending”:

The morning breeze passed between the blanched, lifeless trees rising like fractured bones jutting from the forgotten marsh. The only sign of its passing, a light and silent ripple on the surface of the shallow water. The clear sky reflected brightly, blue above and blue below. The facets of the wind on water on water sparkled like diamonds in the light. A lone blue heron sailed from its nest, searching for something to eat, unconcerned with the line of traffic creeping by a hundred yards away. Drivers sat in their cars with the windows up and radios tuned to the recap of last night’s game at Fenway or NPR or empty morning talk, paying no attention to the wetlands beside them, staring ahead, squinting against the rising sun as they ate, shaved, checked e-mail, made calls, and put on make-up. All focused on the toad ahead, the day ahead, the growing anxiety of sitting still with so much to be done. Not a single one looked toward the trees or the water. They were blind to the calm and elegant wood that had once been living trees growing up over a hundred years. Before they were born, before the road was built, there was the fen and the trees and the water and sun above shining on it all.

The heron flew back to its nest unnoticed.

The woman lay in the water, unseen.

Nice, right? Bracken wrote one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Stranded, which was a Stoker Award finalist I believe and seriously, one of the might chilling and terrifying things I’ve read in years. I’m really looking forward to his next novel. I have a previous work of his somewhere in my TBR pile, Mountain Home, which I need to get to as well. ANyway, this story, which is incredibly short, and may not even be a thousand words, opens this collection and it’s beautiful and sad and a lovely contrast between the magic of nature and the artificial construct of human life; the rushing around like busy little bees in our hive and how we ignore what’s around us; also the startling contract between those who are alive in traffic and the peaceful, dead woman floating nearby, unnoticed, in the water. We don’t know anything about the woman, or how she wound up in the water like the Lady of Shallott, but is she any more dead than those stuck in traffic and not noticing the world around them, so focused as they are on what’s to come rather than what’s around them? An excellent start to this collection; I am looking forward to reading more of these stories.

I’ve also been enjoying Christopher Golden’s work; I greatly enjoyed Ararat and Dead Ringers, and Snowblind is in my TBR. I had read one of his stories, the first one, in this collection from ChiZine Tell My Sorrow To The Stones, “All Aboard,” during one of my past years’ Short Story Months, and greatly enjoyed it; last night I read “Under Cover of Night.”

Long past midnight, Carl Weston sat in a ditch in the Sonoran Desert with his finger on the trigger of his M16, waiting for something to happen. Growing up, he’d always played Army, dreamed about traveling around the world and taking on the bad guys–the black hats who ran dictatorships, invaded neighboring countries, or tried exterminating whole subsets of the human race. That was what soldiering was all about. Taking care of business. Carrying the big stick and dishing out justice.

The National Guard may not be the army, but he had a feeling the end result wasn’t much different. Turned out the world wasn’t made up of black hats and white hats, and the only way to tell who was on your side was looking at which way their guns were facing. Weston spent thirteen months in the desert in Iraq, and for the last three he’d been part of a unit deployed to the Mexican border to back up the Border Patrol.

One fucking desert to another. Some of the guys he knew had been stationed in places like El Paso and San Diego. Weston would’ve killed for a little civilization. Instead he got dirt and scrub, scorpions and snakes, land so ugly even the Texas Rangers had never spent that much time worrying about it.

This a well-crafted story about a combined National Guard/Border Patrol/DEA operation about stopping illegal aliens smuggling drugs into the country. Golden captures the voice of Weston perfectly; the grunt with no illusions about who he is or what his job entails, seeing no glory in shooting and killing people but it’s just a job to him. His relationship with the rookie he shares a ditch with at the start of the story, Brooksy, is perfectly rendered–can he trust the trigger happy fool with the crazy eyes who thinks gunfire is beautiful? And the raid begins, but something else even more horrifying is going on than the shootings and arrests and poor souls being forced by a drug cartel to mule cocaine or heroin across the border (they are doomed either way–the cartel herders will kill them or they’ll fall into the hands of the DEA)–there are screams crossing the desert night, and soon Weston becomes aware there is something else out there in the darkness with them, something infinitely more terrifying.

The suspense builds beautifully, and the denouement…well, it’s a lot more horrifying, and says so much that needs to be said, than I was expecting. Brilliantly done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Hazy Shade of Winter

Saturday!

I drove over to the West Bank this morning to get the car serviced (its very first oil change!) and then made groceries on the way home.  Paul gets home this evening, and there’s some light cleaning that needs to be done. Once that’s finished I intend to spend the day finishing Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red; I got further into it at the Honda dealership while I waited for the car, and it really is something. I mentioned the other day that I thought of it as Southern Gothic more than anything else; but truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve ever read anything quite like it before. It makes me think of Megan Abbott (not just because she wrote the intro to this edition), and Faulkner, and James M. Cain’s The Butterfly, and even a little bit of Harper Lee. It’s truly extraordinary.

 I think I’ll reread The Great Gatsby next; then I am going to take a stab at some Hemingway, just to see. I’m also going to read some short fiction–I’ve got Bracken MacLeod’s collection Thirteen Views from the Suicide Woods, and Laura Lippman’s Hardly Knew Her, and some anthologies lying around that I really should read more of; short stories are always a pleasant respite, I find, and since I am planning on working on short stories for the next week or so while the WIP rests, reading some great short stories seems to be in order, doesn’t it? I had a great idea for another story last night while watching clips of old LSU games on Youtube last night; kind of inspired by Tomato Red, if I am going to be completely honest. I really do think I should start writing about Alabama some more…and my old ghost story y/a that’s been brewing in my mind since I wrote the short story in 1989 might just be the ticket.

I also got some new books: Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven, Mary Stewart’s Rose Cottage (one of hers I’ve not read), Phyllis A. Whitney’s Amethyst Dreams (one of her later novels; I stopped reading her around The Singing Stones),  James Ziskin’s Styx and Stones, and Tim Blanning’s Frederick the Great King of Prussia. I’ve been wanting to read a bio of the most successful gay European monarch in history for quite some time; this biography is rather acclaimed and also openly explores the Great King’s homosexuality in great depth, apparently–previous biographies glossed over his relationships with men, and other ‘interesting’ bits like banning women from his court, making his Queen live elsewhere, never having children, etc etc etc. I first read of Frederick when I was a kid, in Genevieve Foster’s George Washington and His World, and deeply empathized with the young Prussian prince who just wanted to read and study music and art and philosophy, but was forced by his father to be ‘more manly’, and was miserable as a result.

I could relate, even at eight years old.

But I am really looking forward to reading this; I may make it my non-fiction read once I finish The Affair of the Poisons. Frederick was fascinating in many ways; he was considered one of the three ‘enlightened despots’ of the late eighteenth century (the others being Joseph II of Austria and Catherine II of Russia), and he made Prussia into the preeminent military power of Europe–yet was still cultured, loved music and reading and poetry and philosophy and art.

And now, I suppose I should get that cleaning done.

Here’s a hunk for you for Saturday:

 

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Alone Again, Naturally

Saturday! Tonight LSU takes on Ole Miss in yet another crucial game for the Tigers. Heavy sigh. I have a lot to do today–cleaning, errands–around football games, and I am going to start reading another book while editing some short stories and–hopefully–working on the revision of Bourbon Street Blues.

But yesterday, I finally had the time to devote to Bracken MacLeod’s amazing Stranded.

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The void churned and swelled, reaching up to pull them down into frigid darkness, clamoring to embrace them, every one. A cold womb inviting them to return to the lightless source of all life, and die, each man alone in its black silence.

The sea battered the ship, waves crashing against the hull as the ship’s master tried to quarter–turning the vessel into the waves to lessen their impact. While he struggled at the helm, the crew scrambled to get into their gear. The men grabbed sledgehammers and baseball bats, rushing to the aid of their fellow deckhands like a medieval army mustering to stand against the cavalry that would break them, line and bone. Noah wrestled with his waterproof gear, trying to pull on his pants and jacket, jamming hands into clumsy gloves that would combat frostbite for only so long. The ship pitched and Noah lurched in the passageway, trying not to lose his footing, trying not to be thrown to the deck before he was even out in the storm. He shoved his foot into a boot, staggering away from his locker as gravity and momentum conspired to bash his skull against the bulkhead. He careened into the wall, feeling a pop and a blossom of pain in his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and shoved himself away; he had to get on the cargo deck with the others. He couldn’t be defeated before he even got outside.

The key to writing excellent horror, to quote Stephen King yet again, is to write about what scares you. Conversely, I think the most effective horror fiction is written about what scares and unsettles the reader. The opening to this exceptionally fine novel is a perfect example of why I will never board a ship and have absolutely no desire to ever go on a cruise. Is there anything more unsettling than not having solid ground beneath you? Every earthquake I experienced in California was horrific for that reason–when you can’t trust the floor beneath your feet not to move….shudder.

I’m not necessarily as afraid of cold as I dislike it intensely. I grew up in Chicago, spent my teens in Kansas, and as an adult, one horrible winter in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis; just can’t handle the winters; it didn’t help that the particular winter I spent there was one of the worst in years). The rest of my life has been spent for the most part in warm-weather climates; I’ve only visited the cold on trips. I don’t like being cold, really. So, of course, books set where it’s cold always affect me (Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is one example–I still shiver not only from the scares in that book but from the images of the snowbound town; there was one by I think a British writer set in a ski lodge that was also horrifying but I can’t remember the name of the writer–he was recommended by a friend; Christopher Golden’s Snowblind, which I haven’t gotten to yet; and so many others….)

So, Stranded takes place on a freighter, in the winter, in the Arctic Sea, bringing supplies to an oil rig. The main character, Noah Cabot, is kind of the scapegoat on the ship, the Arctic Promise; no one seems to like him very much and the ship’s heirarchy really hate him, yet at the same time he is enormously likable to the reader. There’s some deep pain inside of him, this son of a family of long-time Maine fisherman, who went away to college in Seattle, but MacLeod plays his cards about Noah’s backstory perfectly, like a card shark reeling his victim in, card by card. And before you know it, the ship is beset; frozen in by the ice, trapped, with all of its communications not working. There is a weird fog, and everyone on the ship seems to be coming down with some kind of ailment. Out in the distance they can see the shape of something…maybe it’s the oil rig… and Noah, as one of the only men on board not affected by the strange sickness, is selected to help lead a team of men across the ice to whatever that shape is out in the distance.

And then the real fun begins.

The premise of the story is really enough to keep the reader intrigued enough to keep turning the pages–these are some serious stakes here–but MacLeod is a master at pacing, and knowing when to drop in those precious moments of backstory so that the reader becomes even more vested in the characters he is reading about. I kept trying to guess what was going on–I did figure one thing out–but I was almost always wrong, which is gratifying as a reader. The atmosphere is gothic and spooky, and the way MacLeod uses the freezing weather to amp up the tension is spectacular; not to mention his way of making the individual characters unique enough to be distinctive–not an easy task when you have as many minor characters populating a short novel like this.

I had read and deeply enjoyed MacLeod’s Mountain Home after I had met him at World Horror Con here in New Orleans whenever that was; I am really looking forward to reading his other novel, White Knight. His transition from noir to horror was seamless and exceptional; a mark of a truly gifted writer.

BUY THIS BOOK.

And more, please.

And now, back to the spice mines.