Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Women in Horror 2015

Since February is the month dedicated to celebrate women in the horror genre and today is IWSG day, I've decided to merge both good causes. As always, remember to check the rest of the participating blogs for more inspiration and positive vibe. Just click on the dedicated page in this blog and follow the links.

When I first heard of the Women in Horror Month a couple of years ago, I wondered why would we even need such a thing. I mean, it isn't like anybody is stopping women from publishing what they want, right? Well, yes. I don't know a publisher who will not publish your story--if it's good--just because you have breasts. BUT, and this is a big but, I was surprised to discover a few people openly state they wouldn't buy horror books written by female authors. Why? "Because what do women know about horror?! They should stick to writing romance!"

That's how I jumped into the boat, determined to stop this stupidity from spreading. Then I realized the problem might be more complex than dealing with a few neanderthals... If you ask any random person to name five horror writers by memory, they'll most certainly mention King, Hill, Straub, Koontz, after those it gets really hairy. Few extra names will stick, maybe a few classics like Poe, Stoker, or Shelly.

Only one woman in that list, and she hasn't written anything in centuries.

People I confronted with this question responded by telling me it's not their fault they can't name but one; there simply aren't any female horror writer superstars. To which I ask, "Have you heard of Anne Rice, Daphne Du Maurier, or Shirley Jackson?"

But maybe they are right and we aren't giving enough recognition to the female voices in the genre. A month dedicated to celebrate them seems like a good place to change that. And so, I compiled a very short list with a few examples of outstanding female horror writers, both published by small houses as well as by any of the Big Five. 

Do yourself a favor and pick one of their books.

Kathe Koja: Recipient of the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards as well as the Deathrealm Award for Strange Angels. Koja has published 14 novels, a collection of short stories, and numerous uncollected stories.

Charlee Jacob: Nominated for the International Horror Guild Award and Bram Stoker Award, she has won the latter in two different occasions. Jacob has published 8 novels, 11 collections (short stories and poetry), and participated in several collaborations.

Caitlin R. Kiernan: Considered by scholars as one of the front faces of Weird Fiction, Kiernan's work has won 4 International Horror Guild Awards, 2 James Tiptree, Jr. Awards, 2 Bram Stoker Awards, 2 World Fantasy Awards, and a Locus. She doesn't consider herself a horror writer, though... "[...] I've said I don't write genre 'horror'. A million, billion times have I said that. It's not that there are not strong elements of horror in a lot of my writing. It's that horror never predominates those works. [...] I don't think of horror as a genre. I think of it--to paraphrase Doug Winter--as an emotion, and no one emotion will ever characterize my fiction."

Lucy A. Snyder: Recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Poetry and Short Fiction, Snyder has published more than 60 short stories in a variety of magazines, anthologies, and collections. On top of 4 novels, she recently released her first non-fiction book. Students of Seton Hill University's MFA program are also lucky to count her as their mentor.

Gillian Flynn: With only three novels published, Flynn might look like a weak link, but her 16 awards for screenplay adaptation prove the idea wrong. She considers herself a feminist and will fight for the right of every woman to be inherently bad. To hell with the cliche of an innately good, nurturing female.

Joyce Carol Oats: To attempt a short synopsis of Oats's awards and publications is to attempt the impossible. She has won every award in existence but the Nobel, for which she has been constantly mentioned. Examples? O. Henry (2), National Book, M. L. Rosenthal, World Fantasy, and Bram Stoker (2) Awards among many others. She has been awarded several Honorary Doctorates, and nominated for three Pulitzer prizes. Her work often deals with rural poverty, sexual abuse, class tension, female childhood and adolescence, and, since 1980, the supernatural.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Year in Books, 2014 Edition (Part 2)

Believe it or not, we're 23 days into 2015 and all over the net people is still talking about their resolutions--or lack thereof--and just generally taking stock of the year that's just gone by. I always assumed the subject to die down within the first week of January, but I guess I was wrong. Which is good, 'cause I was feeling kind of odd, talking about the list of books I read in 2014. Like that was soooo three weeks ago... And I guess if your here to get the scoop on my second half of the list, it's still a somewhat interesting subject, right? RIGHT?!

Anyway. For me, books can never be out of trend; listening (or reading about) what others read and what they though of those books is the primary way my TBR pile grows into Babylon-Tower-y proportions. So I hope you feel the same way, too. I hope you will find enough in this list to inspire you to try a new genre or a different author. I hope you will, too, share your love of books with me. Imagine yourself with a blanket on your legs, a cup of coffee in one hand, and a book on the other while a mesmerizing fire rages in the fireplace.

Now, ain't that a pretty picture?

7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson - A classic haunted house story, I had heard so much about The Haunting of Hill House! I came to it with reserve, though, expecting the narrative and scary elements to not have aged well. And yes, I didn't find it Stephen-King-balls-to-the-wall scary, but Jackson's tale is less about the ghosts and much more about the human characters. As such, The Haunting is a wonderful exercise in character study. Every little detail shows us how fragmented and disenfranchised has Eleanor become. And the ending is just perfect in its muteness, blunt delivery. If you're in the fence about the horror genre and don't enjoy simplistic blood and guts plots, this is a book for you. Not a single drop of blood in sight. Not. One.

Blurb: The Haunting of Hill House is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly place called Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers--and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

8. Nathaniel by John Saul - This is a hard book to review. I read it for the first time in my teen years but I remembered almost nothing of it, except that at the time it seemed incredibly slow and boring. So, I decided to give it a second chance (because I didn't learn with my previous experience re-reading John Saul's material). This time, the gambled paid off. Kinda. I enjoyed the book, it was fast moving, interesting, with a real mystery at its heart. What I hated was the blatant sexism in the story. It drove me nuts to see the main character--a recently widowed woman with a young boy--being manipulated and put down by every male character in the book. And she wasn't the only one. Every female character in the story is treated like a child who can't be trusted with her own decisions. So yeah, a difficult book to review. Because the book is about 40 years old, I'm willing to say it reflects the reality of small-town living at the time. Because I'm a realist, I shake my head and wonder how many people today wouldn't find a single thing wrong in this book.

Blurb: For a hundred years, the people of Prairie Bend have whispered Nathaniel's name in wonder and fear. Some say he is a folktale, created to frighten children on cold winter nights. Some swear he is a terrifying spirit returned to avenge the past. Soon, some will learn that Nathaniel lives still. He is the voice that calls young Michel Hall across the prairie night, drawing him into the depths of the old, forbidden barn. A voice he will follow faithfully beyond the edge of terror.

9. Savage Night by Jim Thompson - Jim Thompson is the golden boy of Neo-noir literature. His main characters are cruel criminals that can kill a child in bed and a gun-holding mobster in the same breath. He describes their stories as they are getting to the end of the line, which makes for feverishly violent tales related by unreliable narrators. Savage Night is no exception. I spent the most part of the book wondering who should I really root for. Plot twists come left and right, and the ending could not be more surreal if David Lynch had written it. But reader beware: You'll feel dirty when you're done with this book. (I mean murder-dirty, not porn-dirty. Just sayin')

Blurb: Is Carl Bigelow a fresh-faced college kid looking for a room, or is he a poised hit man tracking down his victim? And if Carl is really two people, what about everyone around him? Savage Night is Thompson at his best, with plot reversals and nightmarish shifts of identity.

10. The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers - Ah, the stories that have been spun out of this anthology... Chambers's only experiment into horror has come to the modern masses in the most fashionable of ways: Via HBO's True Detective sloppy use of its mythology. And though I could write a whole post about what is wrong and the only two things that are right (spoiler alert, it's Harrelson and McConahey) about the show, this is not the post to do it. So I'll just say that if you're reading this collection of short stories hoping to make any sense of the murderous plot of the series, well, you'll be deeply disappointed. Chambers was in fact a very prolific, sought-after ROMANCE writer. Yep, that's how he paid his bills, and if you keep reading beyond your disappointment, you'll notice. The opening tale, The Repairer of Reputations, is a superb tale of madness and revenge. The following four are enjoyably dark, but then we reach The Prophet's Paradise, which is poetry, and it just breaks the mood. For me, this was the point where the balance started moving toward romance. To me, the last four stories are just sappy and overindulgent, but to each one its own. However, being that The King in Yellow is actually free to read and available in digital format, I see no reason why so many professed genre lovers haven't read the most influential piece in horror history. Did I mention The King in Yellow inspired Lovecraft to write the Cthulu mythos? Because he thought he could do it better than this lazy, undereducated a-hole (I'm paraphrasing here), but that's not the point.

Blurb: With its imaginative blend of horror, science fiction, romance, and lyrical prose, Robert W. Chambers' The King in Yellow is a classic masterpiece of weird fiction. This series of vaguely connected stories is linked by the presence of a monstrous and suppressed book which brings fright, madness, and spectral tragedy to all those who read it. An air of futility and doom pervade these pages like a sweet insidious poison. Dare you read it?

11. The King in Yellow and Other Horror Stories (Anthology) - Yes, I admit it! I fell victim to HBO's commercial machinery! How could I not? They put together this new anthology with every story ever written within the King in Yellow mythos and then stamped the cover with imagery from the show. To be honest, it was the idea of having the whole mythos under one handy book that sold me on it. Searching for every story individually is a pain, so I cracked. Sue me.

It opens with Ambrose Bierce's take on Carcosa, followed by Chambers's most relevant stories to the subject, and closes with Lovecraft's The Whisperer in Darkness, which is pretty chilly no matter the commonalities to the theme here. And though there are plenty of stories inspired by the King in Yellow, Carcosa, or the Yellow Sign, this is were everyone interested ought to begin.

Blurb: HBO's True Detective re-introduced the world to the disturbing vision of Robert W. Chambers' classic story collection, a set of linked tales that includes excerpts from the fictional play "The Yellow King", which purports to drive mad anyone who reads it. In this specially formatted ebook version, we've also included additional stories that relate to the preoccupation of Rust Cohle and the killer(s) he stalks.

12. Horns by Joe Hill - I'm a confessed fan of the King, everybody knows it, yet I raised my eyebrow at the supposedly prodigious writing abilities of his children, specially Hill's. As a writer, the easiness with which the progeny of famous scribes get big contracts gets me. It's not their fault, I know, but more often than not they'll get contracts not based on their mastery of words, but on their last name. Even if they don't write under it, because if sales are bad, the real name can always get somehow leaked to the press... Ask JK Rowling. So, after much begrudging, I decided I needed to check Hill's books for myself before getting on my soap box. And boy, has he got it! Horns is a quirky mix of dark humor, supernatural elements, an excellent premise, and a superb execution. I don't think many writers could've pulled this one up. Horns is an entertaining page-turner that turned me into a Hill fan. Now I can't wait to read The Heart Shaped Box!

Blurb: Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with one hell of a hangover, a raging headache... and a pair of horns growing from his temples.

Once Ig lived the life of the blessed, he had it all, including the pure love of Merrin Williams. Then Mertin was gone - raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances, with Ig the only suspect. He was never tried, but in the court of public opinion, Ig was and always would be guilty. Now Ig is possessed with a terrible new power--he can see people's darkest desires--and he means to use it to find the man who killed Merrin and destroyed his life.

13. Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell - If you read horror, you know who Ramsey Campbell is: The English version of Stephen King, a trail-blazer and outstanding figure in the genre. Ancient Images is not Ramsey Campbell at his best, though. Though interesting, the story never catches on, and there's a shadow lurking after the heroin in every single page. Wanna try this master? Short story is where he shines the best.

Blurb: A colleague's violent death and its apparent cause - a stolen copy of an old, never-released Karloff/Lugosi film - set film editor Sandy Allan on the trail of the film's origins and history. Mystery surrounds the movie, and as Sandy learns of the tragedies which haunted its production, she finds herself threatened by an ancient force protecting secrets deeper than the suppression of a 50-year-old movie.

14. The Oval Portrait and Other Short Stories (Anthology) - In honor of Halloween, I dedicated the whole month of October to read every single short story that landed on my computer, and believe me, there's tons of award-winning authors with free stuff on the net. From Lucy Snyder's sci-fi erotic fest Mandala Amygdala, to Bradbury's The Velt; the amount and scope of these stories is too vast for me to review each one. Instead, I leave you with a link to a few of my favorite ones. You're welcome.

15. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - I read this one at the same time that my 9 year-old, so we could talk about it and discuss it like our own little book club. It was a fantastic experience that doubled my enjoyment of the story. She is averse to scary stories, so it shocked when she picked The Graveyard Book at the library. Ghosts are a major part of the story, there's also murder, and plenty of mystery, but it never gets overwhelming or too scary. An excellent read for the group age at which is directed; for moms and dads, don't overanalyze it. Fun all the way through!

Blurb: Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy. He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead. There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy. But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack, who has already killed Bod's family...

16. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald - For some reason I had the idea that The Great Gatsby was a romantic tale set in the 20s. You must imagine, then, my surprise to find a very sad tale of egotistical people that use and abuse people for entertainment without regards for the consequences of their acts. More than a tale of the roaring 20s and its overindulgence, I found it to be about Gatsby's insecurities and his need to be loved even if he couldn't love himself. Sad story indeed, even more so because it repeats itself all around us every day.

Blurb: Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning-- 

Gatsby's rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.

17. Ghost Story by Peter Straub - Ghost Story has to be my second pick for the best book of the year. It is a great story that has NOTHING to do with the movie. It keeps you glued to your seat and wondering what's going to happen, and more than once my heart skipped a beat. Straub's voice is compelling and easy to follow. Before you know it, he drops you in the middle of a dark, abandoned house with a monster looking for you. Read it, I tell you!

Blurb: For four aging men in the terror-stricken town of Milburn, New York, an act inadvertently carried out in their youth has come back to haunt them. Now they are about to learn what happens to those who believe they can burry the past -- and get away with murder.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Year in Books, 2014 Edition (Part 1)

Many people take their reading pretty seriously, so far as to make a list of the books they are projecting to read in the following months. Now, I'm not that organized, nor am I able to make up my mind so far in advance. Instead, I select what I'll read next pretty much on a whim from one of the many piles of books I have lying everywhere, or from the increasingly unmanageable list of digital books hiding in my iPad. I do, however, set a numeric goal for each year: At least one more book than the previous year but at least one less than what I actually wanna read. Say, last year's goal as I set it in Goodreads was 16 books, then I read 17. Now the new goal is 18, but I really want to read at least 19. Yes, I know, silly. Oh, but the feeling of surpassing your determined goals!!

Anyway, as part of this little reading challenge of mine (and Goodreads), I shoot to read one book in French and at least one in Spanish, and I always share with my blogger friends a short review of my year in books. So, to keep up with the habit, you have here my 2014 in books.

*Note: Because I don't want to bore you to death, I'll make this a two-part endeavor. The second and last part will be up next Friday. Hope you enjoy it!

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier - A classic story of betrayal, insecurities, and skeletons hidden in dark closets, I found the story of Rebecca too rambling and way too slow. I fell in love with Du Maurier's prose, however, and it was the beauty of her style that kept me reading 'till the very end. The opening sequence, in particular, is an example of superb writing. I also understand that I came to the story expecting a modern thriller and so, the outdated world views of the characters were bound to annoy me. Don't misunderstand me, Rebecca is a great story, you just have to remember it was written decades ago.

Blurb: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderey again." So begins Mrs. Maxim de Winter's long road down memory lane. From her humble beginnings in Montecarlo as lady companion, to her rise by marriage to one of the richest estates in the Cornish coast. Married to a man she barely knew, the young bride arrived at the grey stone manse known as Manderley only to be drawn into the life of the first Mrs. de Winter, the beautiful Rebecca, dead but never forgotten. Her suite of rooms untouched, her clothes ready to be worn, her servant, the sinister Mrs. Danvers, still loyal. Obsessed with unraveling Maderley's secretes, the second Mrs. de Winter soon began a search for Rebecca's real fate... and changed the course of her life forever.

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King - The sequel to one of King's most well-known books, The Shinning, was hailed everywhere as a return to the author's old scary style. I jumped into this book happily awaiting the horrors that would make me keep the lights on at night, and I was disappointed, but only in that sense. Doctor Sleep is a great book, agile and, contrary to King's standards, short and to the point. Yes, I'm aware the book is 500 pages long, but coming from the man who wrote a 1100-pages-long opus, 500 is really not that much. I don't know if decades of reading and watching horror fiction have hardened me, but nothing really scared me in this book. I still enjoyed it like a school-girl, though, and if you are a fan of the man, you will too.

Blurb: In Doctor Sleep, the now middle aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist on The Shinning), a recovering alcoholic who has spent his life running away from his gift, finds himself the unlikely protector of young Abra, a girl with unparalleled abilities that have caught the attention of a band of murderous paranormals.

Cry for the Strangers by John Saul - One of the books I read in Spanish in 2014, I remembered Cry for Strangers like a thoroughly disturbing story. I had read it for the first time more than twenty years ago. Once again I found that the younger me was more easily impressed than the present me is. I detested this book. It is way too long, boring, and for hundreds of pages at the time, nothing happens. In the end it is all for nought as the conclusion is far from providing any answers or resolution. Reader beware... not all the books you remember fondly should be read again.

Blurb: Clark's Harbor was the perfect coastal heaven, a miracle worker that seems to liberate a small boy, an outsider, of a life-long frenzy. But now his sister is haunted by fearful visions. One by one, in violent and mysterious ways, people are dying. But never the townspeople. Only the strangers. There's a howling that comes from the sea, a deadly cry, a Cry for the Strangers...

Boy's Life by Robert McCammon - This is easily my pick of the year. A fantastic story full of memorable characters, evocative prose, and a tantalizing premise that delivers. If you haven't read McCammon before, let Boy's Life be the story that'll turn you into a life-long fan.

Blurb: Zephyr, Alabama is an idyllic hometown for eleven-year-old Cory Mackenson. A place where monsters swim the river deep and friends are forever. Then, one cold spring morning, Cory and his father witness a car plunge into a lake. A desperate rescue attempt brings his father face to face with a terrible, haunting vision of death. As Cory struggles to understand his father's pain, his eyes are slowly opened to the forces of good and evil that surround him. From an ancient mystic who can hear the dead and bewitch the living, to a violent clan of moonshiners, Cory must confront the secrets that hide in the shadows of his hometown, for his father's sanity and his own life hand in the balance...

Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers - I'm not usually into self-help/autodidactic books, but I won this book years ago (I can't remember where or why for the life of me) and so I decided to give it a try. Well, I'll be damned, I actually learned a lot! The author goes through hoops to explain and exemplify his points, which allows the reader to really absorb the teaching. I'll be applying these lessons forever. 

Patriarch Run by Benjamin Dancer - A self-pub book, the author asked me to review the book not because of the genre (this is a thriller a la Jason Bourne), but because some of the characters have a strong Mexican identity. I have to say, Dancer did a great job. The story is told out of sequence and from different POVs, which keeps the reader completely focused and trying to guess how the present piece will fit in the general picture. In light of all the hacking going around in the last few months, the digital threat at the heart of the plot will make you tremble. If you like your stories full of action, complex characters, and realistic plot twists, this one is for you.  

Blurb: Billy discovers that his father might be a traitor, that he was deployed to safeguard the United States from a cyberattack on it military networks. After that mission, his father disappeared along with the Chinese technology he was ordered to steal--a weapon powerful enough to sabotage the digital infrastructure of the modern age and force the human population into collapse.

So what do you think? Next week I'll finish up with my list and reviews but in the mean time, do share your own list of 2014 books. Was there one book you particularly enjoyed? One that you hated? Recommendations are always welcomed!

Monday, January 12, 2015

About Dreams and Resolutions

So, the bell has chimed for the last time for 2014 and 2015 has come to pick up the slack. Everybody who isn't talking about the Golden Globes is talking about their resolutions for the year that's just begun. Through the years I've learned hard resolutions just don't work for me. Instead of focusing my energy into designing a plan with hard numbers (like, say, "To write X amount of words daily"), I aim at doing better than the year that has just ended.

I appreciate the value some people find in doing such plans or resolutions, and if it works for you then all the more power. However, most people keep kinda recycling the list of things they want to do, but for some reason they just never have accomplished. This practice, in my opinion, discourages people who feel that they will never get these specific goals so why even try. Let's be honest, a writer can never write "the perfect" story, no reader can ever read all the books in their TBR pile, no woman will ever consider herself thin enough, and no human ever will sleep enough, eat healthy enough, or exercise enough. These are empty endeavors, so why not instead measure yourself not against your dreams, but against the actual you?

It is an excellent idea to take this time to pause and weight the good and the bad of the last twelve months. Are you satisfied with the way things went? Where did you go wrong? Where did you go right? These are valuable questions that can help you find out the areas where you need to work, and to celebrate your accomplishments. To write more than last year, read more than last year, and eat less than last year is something doable. To become the next Stephen King and look like Kate Moss by the summer is not.

And so, I kicked off 2015 with very simply, yet challenging plans: To finish my novel's 1st draft, to submit more than ten stories through out the year, to make it to at least one writer's convention, and to read at least 18 books. This will be the year I try to break the genre barrier by submitting to literary journals as well as horror magazines, I'll keep developing my craft by enrolling in a creative writing class/course, and I'll participate in the April A to Z Blogging Challenge.

So, there. It seems like I'm going to be a very busy writer... because 2014 was totally relaxing! Wish me luck!

What are your plans/resolutions for 2015?