Confession time: I was a scared kid growing up. And I mean fucking terrified. My imagination was fertile, and it tended to grow dark twisted things with thorns that were poisonous to my thoughts, vines of blackened fish-hooks that would creep over me like ivy and ensnare my mind, body, and soul.
My early encounters with anything of the ‘horror’ variety would take on a life of it’s own, finding a nest in my kid brain where it could grow into something much more monstrous. Thinking back to my childhood, there were several experiences that left a deep and dark impression on me. For instance, I watched ‘Jaws‘ at far too young an age (and my parents had to cancel my swimming lessons because I refused to get into the pool after that). I accidentally switched channels on the TV one night and came across the famous eye-gouging scene from ‘Blade Runner‘. Didn’t sleep for days as a result, wouldn’t let anyone (even my trusted family) touch my face for a month.
I recall ‘Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark‘ as the first book to ever visit this type of sheer dread on my little being. It had such a notable effect, giving me nightmares for weeks. It turned out that horror movies were pale in comparison to the terror my own mind could conjure up after listening to creepy stories matched with with hideous artwork. Alvin Schwartz undoubtedly helped set me on the path I’m on now as an author of thriller/horror fiction.
My grade two teacher read it to us in class, showing us the illustrations in between stories (the unbelievably arresting art of Stephen Gammell). Never in my young life had I been read anything like it. At home my parents read Roald Dahl to me, far different I must say. But during story time at school I could feel fear eating at me, the discomfort welling up from my gut to my heart as I tried to digest horrors I’d never been presented before. This was the first time I’d ever experienced a book that made me sweat and squirm and hold my breath.
I’m sure the publishers didn’t know the kind of effect this book would have on impressionable children when they brought it out. But let me assure you, it had the power to shape the future of some. And I owe a debt of gratitude to such a fine work that didn’t hold back, despite the young audience it was created for.
*This was one of the ‘10 Books That Stuck With Me‘ piece I wrote.
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I stumbled upon this gem completely by chance in a bookstore a few years ago. I’d never heard of the book or the author before, but I was completely hooked upon reading the first few pages. The sharp, visceral story is set in Las Vegas and focuses on a character trapped between his toxic friends and the pitfalls of sin city. It’s about a man dealing with the complexities of who he once was and who he wants to become. Disturbing and heartbreaking at times, McGinniss’s style and story are exactly what I want to get out of a novel: compelling, effective, and masterful.
The writing is lean and crisp, often winding you like a gut punch. The characters are deliciously flawed. The tale is tragic. It’s a look into a warped mirror of sorts, a reflective slice of real life that seems strange because far too many people don’t want to acknowledge this kind of story exists. Las Vegas is a brightly lit black hole sucking in the money and souls of all who come close, neon lights attracting people like moths before burning them at the blackjack tables and slot machines. For the young growing up in and around Las Vegas life can be a foreign existence, something so alien from the rest of the country that it seems unrecognizable. There are just as many scams in the city’s workplaces and communities as there are along the Vegas Strip. Money makes people do crazy things, and a gambling town can operate more like a free-range asylum where everyone is out on a weekend pass.
‘The Delivery Man‘ is storytelling at some of its absolute finest. I’m actually insulted (if not horrified) that more people don’t recognize the level of talent that is present within these pages. McGinniss’s skills are well-honed and I envy his level of craftsmanship. He doesn’t just tell you a story, he makes you feel it, under your skin, through your flesh, and down in your bones. Whenever someone asks me to recommend a fantastic book written by a talented author that I personally love, I inevitably tell them about this novel. I’ve always felt Joe McGinniss Jr. knocked one out of the park with ‘The Delivery Man’, but sadly I think it sailed over too many people’s heads.
This book was one of my ‘10 Books That Stuck With Me‘. Check out which others made the list here.
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Quite possibly the most chilling and horrifying book ever written, ‘Blood Meridian‘ is a unnerving glimpse of humanity at its worst during one of the most savage periods in history. McCarthy opens our eyes to the unforgivable evils and trespasses our species made all too often and all too easily in a new world, a novel that shows us the true price we paid in bodies and blood for the expansion of the ‘Wild West’.
Unlike most of Cormac’s other work, ‘Blood Meridian’ is not a particularly easy read for either style or subject matter. If your want to experience the work of this true literary master, I certainly wouldn’t start with this book (Try ‘The Road‘, or ‘No Country For Old Men‘ to get your feet wet). Generally, I only advocate that people read well-written work that is fluid, pacey, and has total command of the language. But there are a handful of exceptions where I honestly believe that a good deal of effort is also required from the reader. ‘Blood Meridian’ is one such book. You will have to work to get through the pages, but it is rewarding in ways you might not anticipate.
The brutality in this book is harrowing, and also true of the time. There have been countless analyses of it, and I won’t get into the many themes, messages, and interpretations it offers. I will say that it does fall under the category of ‘required reading’ for everyone. This book was not written for anyone’s enjoyment. It wasn’t written for entertainment. It was written to open your eyes to a hell on earth that humans willingly created, to open your ears to the beating of black hearts.
If this book doesn’t shake your faith in the human race, then nothing will.
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When you hear the name Denis Johnson, you inevitably think of Jesus’ Son, the book that put the man on the map. But ‘The Stars At Noon’ is another masterful work from a true talent that should not be missed.
This is a novel about being trapped out in the open; one American woman’s paranoid escape attempt from a corrupt country while she tries to stem the erosion of both her sanity and soul. Set in Nicaragua in the 1980s, we experience the story through the main character as she is allowed to exist within the country, but forbidden to exit it. Supposedly a correspondent, her actual background and reasons to be in Nicaragua appear shady at best, as are the majority of the people she comes in contact with. Her entrapment/abandonment starts subtly, but it isn’t long before she must try to flee using whatever means necessary: sex, manipulation, crime, bribery and beggary. The desperation and dismay feels so prominent on the page, it’s enough to make you want to avoid ever traveling to any region in the world that has an ounce of instability.
It’s no secret that Denis Johnson holds rank as one of the best writers in the business, and he delivers another compelling and unnerving piece of fiction that should be on everyone’s must-read list. ‘The Stars At Noon‘ is a walk in a frightened, yet cunning woman’s shoes. It makes for a thrilling and uncomfortable story about being stuck on foreign soil while being increasingly perceived as an enemy by people who are more than capable of killing you. The lengths we will go to when backed into a corner is a hard swallow, particularly when we all know it’s true.
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If ‘The Speed Queen‘ proves anything, it’s that Stewart O’Nan is one hell of a storyteller… and also that hard drugs inevitably lead to a downward spiral that can crash land you in the most unexpected and vicious situations imaginable.
This tale is told from the perspective of a death-row inmate awaiting her impending doom. Anticipating a phone call from the governor to stay her execution, she records one side of the story, her ‘truth’ about a killing spree she was involved in with her husband and girlfriend. This novel is a fast and unsettling read, straight from the horse’s mouth. To call the inmate, Marjorie, an unreliable narrator would be an understatement, but you want to believe what she’s trying to tell you. In some ways she’s a victim, and in other ways she does the victimizing. ‘The Speed Queen’ is violent and brutal at times, but not unnecessarily so. Within these pages is a surprising mix of love, life, family, and the hopelessness of being stuck in the middle of nowhere America with a desire to escape that translates as more of a daydream. Sometimes the easiest way to escape is chemically. Do it enough, and you can never come back from it.
Some people are dealt bad hands, and some people play their hands by their own rules. There are folks that just can’t exist conventionally in this world, don’t compute what ‘normal’ is. This murderous trio are the definition of that, and the author gets inside Marjorie’s head in ways that both scare you and soften you. Yet another fantastic novel and author that never got the recognition they deserved. Stewart O’Nan is razor sharp, a writer who carves the fat from the prose and leaves a lean, delicious portion to consume.
Be warned, unexpected turns rarely come with road signs.
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The writers I enjoy most are men of few words. So much can be said with so little when done right and it’s a testament to the mastery of the written word when an author achieves this. Like Cormac McCarthy, Pete Dexter’s prose has just as much to do with what is left unsaid, as with what has been spoken. Both men have an acute sense of southern darkness and weave worlds out of flesh, bone, and bleak realities. Never a word wasted, this novel is a lean and fast read.
‘Paris Trout‘ is a story from more than a half century ago, and takes place in a part of the world that was dragged into the future kicking and screaming. Georgia in the middle of the 20th century was particularly cruel outside of white male dominion. The kind of inhumane trespasses and general treatment of black people was shocking and upsetting, and more importantly, it wasn’t actually that long ago either…
Paris Trout, the main character, is a man from another time too, a time where overt racism was commonplace, celebrated, and often deadly. He cannot adapt with the changing times, does not abide by updated laws that now protect people equally regardless of skin color. He meets this new world with righteous indignation and increasing hostility. Soon, Paris is lashing out at anyone he perceives as weaker, and is shocked when he discovers he can’t kill a minority as freely as he once thought.
‘Paris Trout’ is the story of one person’s slow descent into madness, an insolent and hateful man being told he can no longer conduct business in the manner he has known his whole life. His defense lawyer and wife are the two people who bare witness to his increasing insanity as he fights a new world that won’t tolerate the likes of him much longer.
This is a disturbing tale told by a master storyteller. It will get under your skin, regardless of color. By the end it will leave you feeling like you’ve chewed long and hard on a particularly rotten piece of America’s history.
It’s very hard to swallow. And very necessary too.
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Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite works of all time. Denis Johnson is a major influence of mine, and Jesus’ Son had profound effect on me.
This was the book that showed me how far you could stretch your prose and still have it sound dynamite. A drug-addled mix of loosely interconnected stories, reading it is like navigating a string of dreams, both blissful and bad. The spectrum of themes is considerably wide, and the narrative draws you into worlds where you can feel as uncomfortable and out of place as the characters themselves. This is a book that actually makes you feel ‘high’ in some spots. The shifting line between chemical-fueled fantasy and uneasy reality isn’t just blurred, it’s burned down to almost nothing.
Jesus’ Son features everyday kind of people who have slipped down notch or two into the gutter and lost their grip on normality. Much of the time they have nothing to do, nothing to be, and little to live for. It’s bleak and beautiful at the same time, a trip through the entangled emotions of folks living simple lives complicated by poor choices.
Everything from love and loss to happiness and sheer horror is covered in this book. One moment the writing is slick as oil, the next it is jagged as broken glass. It’s downright chaotic in places where the mental states of the storytellers are in question. You know the main characters in this book are all unreliable narrators, but you still believe every word they say, because the stories Johnson tells are just that convincing. He’s a master writer, balancing poetic passages with crisp, visual prose. This book is nothing short of a masterpiece.
If you haven’t read it yet, read is ASAP.
*This book was one of my selections for my ‘5 Books That Made Me A Better Writer‘ piece.
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Thick, dense, and sprawling… not my usual fare, but I simply could not put this book down. ‘Any Human Heart‘ is one of those rare long novels that pulls you in and holds you tight throughout its many pages. Exceptionally well written, William Boyd has a rare gift for effective and robust prose. ‘Any Human Heart’ has it all: love, laughter, pain, torment, tears, successes and failures. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
The novel is the life story of an Englishman named Logan Mountstuart who was born at the turn of the 20th century and died close to the end of it. Told through journal entries from his early childhood all the way to his dying days, the book is deeply personal and heartfelt. Eighty-five years on this earth, and Logan experienced enough for several lifetimes. He was well-educated, well-traveled, and by the end of it well-versed in human emotion, conflict, and fallibility. His paths in life take him all over the world, to places both wondrous and dangerous. Along the way he has many relationships of many different kinds with an array of people. During his travels he comes into contact and rubs shoulders with some of the most famous and notorious names of the century, although he never becomes one himself.
‘Any Human Heart’ certainly turned out to be something unexpectedly special. Regardless of what type of genres you typically enjoy, I highly recommend this tale of one man’s life lived to the fullest.
Donald Barthelme is one of the most inventive, surrealist, post-modernist writers out there, and that’s saying something. Whether you actually enjoy his work or not is another matter entirely. Personally, I found ‘City Life‘ quite touch and go. I wanted to love it, but more often than not I was steered toward the opposite.
First published in 1970, this collection of short stories is very much a product of its time, but I didn’t feel that it stood up to the test of time as a result. The works are an extension of 60s culture, a ‘Beatnik-ish Book’ if you’re looking for a label. His use of language is to be applauded, but it didn’t stop a good deal of it from falling flat on its face. One short story, aptly called ‘Sentence’, which is comprised of a six-page run-on sentence, is a prime example of just how exhausting this stuff can be at times. Nothing says you can’t be super-intelligent and super-annoying (or boring) while you’re at it.
There were stories I liked, and stories I didn’t care for. At no point did I find myself loving or hating any of them in particular. To be honest, much of this material started to blur together after awhile. Surrealism can go too far, and ‘City Life’ is a good demonstration of that. A few tales were quite memorable in a broad sense, yet for the life of me I can’t recount much about them. That’s how erratic and nonsensical the writing was.
By no means is there a lack of talent in this book. To be clear, Barthelme is the complete opposite of a mediocre writer, but this collection was too lukewarm too often for my taste to be singing its praises.
‘City Of Thieves‘ is a rare book, one that fires on all cylinders and almost never missteps. It’s a modern textbook example of how to write a great novel.
Stories often have their strengths and their weaknesses when all is said and done. They can rely more on character than plot, or vice versa. A story might be strong, but pacing is a problem. Dialogue might come off unrealistic, although narrative hits the mark. In short, most books are a balancing act. There are things done right, and things that could have been better.
Benioff’s third offering is perfectly balanced. There are no pros and cons, no strengths to rely on. The entire work is solid from beginning to end. This is a damn-near perfect novel and Benioff is a damn-near perfect storyteller. That’s pretty much all you need to know.
Set in Leningrad during WWII, ‘City Of Thieves’ is a hard look at the best and worst of humanity, often hilarious and harrowing at the same time. To say any more would be to give it away, but City Of Thieves should be required reading for every fan of fiction. Darkness and light entwine in these pages, opening your eyes and affecting your heart. And although it’s fiction, it is based on historical fact. Just knowing this type of tale occurred in the real world is enough wind you. You’ll laugh, you’ll gasp, you might even cry. This is one book that will play on your mind long after you’ve put it down. I couldn’t recommend it enough.
*This book was one of my ‘10 Books That Stuck With Me‘ piece.