Book Review – “The Changeling” by Victor Lavalle

 

The ChangelingAs I was wading knee-deep through The Changeling, my primary thought was, “How is this book not a bigger deal? How was it not talked about more when it came out??” I was in the thick of it, and I couldn’t help marvelling at how simply good it was. A little research showed me that the book did get a fair bit of acclaim, but not nearly as much as I would have expected for a book this . . . showstopping. It’s not often that I’m flabbergasted by a novel, but this was one of those times when I was just blown away.

The Changeling tells the story of Apollo Kagwa. He is raised by his single mom because his father mysteriously vanishes when Apollo is four, leaving Apollo with nothing but a recurring nightmare and, later, a box of ephemera – including the book Outside Over There. As an adult, Apollo, a rare bookseller by trade, is deeply in love with his wife Emma, and they are expecting a baby. But he is still grappling with the effects of his past, the nightmare resurfacing as he eases into the idea of fatherhood. When the baby arrives, all seems to be well, though neither he nor Emma, now a part-time librarian, is particularly flush with cash. When Apollo starts taking the baby, Brian, with him to work, Emma starts receiving increasingly disturbing third-person, candid pictures of Apollo and Brian from Apollo’s phone. The photos disappear shortly after they arrive, and the last one comes with a terrifying message. In a short period of time, Emma begins to experience what appears to be some severe symptoms of postpartum depression, as well as exhibiting some alarming behaviors that set Apollo on edge. It all culminates in one gut-wrenching scene, when Emma finally reaches *ahem* her boiling point (I’m so sorry) and disappears. An angry and bewildered Apollo then sets out on a quest to find Emma, and to salvage what is left of the life he has known so far.

There is so much going on in this book that it is nearly impossible to categorize. Horror, fantasy, fiction, allegory, fairy tale, folklore, mystery…. I finally settled on “horror”, but that still doesn’t exactly feel right. The Changeling is unsettling, and horrific things happen, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any one category. It is a truly unclassifiable work of fiction. That’s what seems to make it such a wonderful mystery – it’s impossible to speculate about what comes next, or to guess who is culpable for the events that unfold, because the reader’s perception is Apollo’s perception, and he doesn’t know what the hell is going on either.

Many of the story’s elements are meant to confuse, and I loved that about it – the more fantastic mysteries tend to have very rational explanations, and the traditional mysteries have wild, often folkloric explanations. Moreover, we are seeing and experiencing it all through Apollo’s eyes, at first disbelieving, then incredulous, then finally resigned. When I thought I had something figured out, I realized that there was much more to the story than I had ever anticipated.

There is also a lot of subtle social commentary here surrounding race, class, and our dependence on technology. Apollo is half black, and his best friend an confidante Patrice is black. The two men constantly have to think about their actions, how they are perceived by the world, whether or not they are going to be stopped by the police, and what that might mean for them. These worries are just part of their lives, and it’s such a subtle thing, but so realistic. A lot of the story also focuses on the reach of technology, and who we are consciously and unconsciously letting into our lives. This facet of the story felt like very real modern-day horror to me.

One of my personal favorite aspects of The Changeling is that Victor Lavalle’s love of books is evident in every page. Outside Over There, one of the creepier Maurice Sendak books, is the most important book in this story, for various reasons. There are also several literary references hidden throughout the story like tiny clues. I love a good treasure hunt, and was delighted every time I came across one. The references are relevant to the particular events of the story when they appear, which feels like an added bonus if you catch the reference. (My two favorite finds were a nod to Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and a quick but deft allusion to Wuthering Heights.) I’d like to reread The Changeling at some point, if only in an attempt to identify more of those references. I know I missed a ton of them simply because I didn’t expect them, or even really register one until I was smacked over the head by it.

I would be doing the book a disservice by trying to explain everything, so I am being purposefully vague about the intricacies of it. The Changeling is something best experienced personally, and if you step into this story with an open mind, you will not be disappointed. Please, do yourself a favor and go read it.

Recommended For:

Anyone who likes horror, folklore, and smart novels. Also, there is a little bit of gore, so also recommended for those who are not excessively squeamish (I am a wuss, but the quality of the writing and story line definitely outweighed the cringe factor for me).

 

Book Specifics:

Author: Victor Lavalle

Publish Date: 2018

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Genre: Horror? (See above)

Format: Paperback

Pages: 431

ISBN / ISBN13: 9780812985870

US Price: $18.00

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Book Review – “The Winter People” by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter PeopleI am a wimp. I don’t like scary things in general – I can’t even watch horror movie commercials without getting freaked out and paranoid that something sinister is hiding in every dark corner of my house. I do like the general spookiness of Halloween-time, but I’ve typically gotten my Halloween fill by watching themed competition shows on Food Network, or from cheesy “scary” movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Occasionally I’ll branch out and watch something fantastic like Suspiria or the A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, or read something truly frightening like The Shining, but I typically can’t do modern horror.

That being said, in the past few years I’ve really started to gain interest in more horror-type things, like the old and new TV/movie iterations of It, and, more recently, things that fit into both the horror and mystery camps, like The Winter People. Something about reading a spooky mystery in October really appealed to me this year, so I just went for it. This book is a supernatural horror/mystery about the power of lore, waking the dead, and how far we might go to get back what we’ve loved and lost.

Set in the fictional town of West Hall, Vermont, the story takes place both in 1908 and in the present day. The 1908 storyline centers around Sara Harrison Shea, who has just lost her beloved daughter Gertie and is in the deepest throes of grief. These sections are mostly told through Sara’s diary entries, and in them we learn that she has lived an unlucky life, losing her entire biological, immediate family by the time she’s an adult (except for the one sister who got married and skipped town). She lost her mother at birth and was raised by her father and “Auntie,”  a witchy woman who is famous for doling out remedies to the townspeople who venture out to see her. Auntie lives in a cabin close to a gigantic hand-shaped rock formation dubiously named “The Devil’s Hand,” and she is full of all kinds of innate gifts and knowledge. When Sara is little, Auntie writes down and seals the instructions for how to wake the dead, specifying that Sara should not break the seal until she needs to. Young Sara can’t imagine when she’ll ever need that ability. I think you can imagine when Sara needs that ability.

In present-day West Hall, 19-year-old Ruthie and her 6-ish-year-old sister Fawn live with their mother in Sara’s old house, almost completely off the grid. When their homey, hippie, dependable mom disappears one day, Ruthie and Fawn take it upon themselves to figure out what might have happened to her. In the process, they uncover secrets about their house, their family, and Sara Harrison Shea. Some of the creepiest things happen in and around the house; the girls find lots of hiding places, a secret passageway or two, an ominously boarded-up closet in their mother’s bedroom, and a copy of Sara’s diary, which was published by her niece Amelia after Sara’s untimely and gruesome death. A more minor but still important storyline in the present day involves a woman named Katherine whose husband recently died in a car accident close to The Devil’s Hand. When Katherine finds and reads her husband’s copy of Sara’s diary, she is compelled to move to West Hall to figure out what might have happened to him, and to find out if his death was truly an accident.

There is a barren, eerie atmosphere to this book. Lots of snow, silence, woods. Glimpses of movement in between trees and by The Devil’s Hand. Scrabbling sounds in the closet. The feeling that you’re being watched at all times. A disturbing, off-putting sensation permeates the entire thing, and I had an increasing sense of alarm and confusion as I got closer to the end. This, to me, marks great writing. Experiencing every bump, scratch, and shadow right along with the characters, panicking at the disappearance of little Gertie, feeling a sense of dread at the closed and boarded closet door. Jennifer McMahon’s storytelling pulls you right in.

Maybe I’m just sensitive because my grandparents had a closet in their room that held some weird energy, but the closet thing in particular freaked me out for days. There is one scene with a plate being dragged into the closet, and for some reason it was as vivid, mesmerizing, and horrifying as if I were watching it on a screen. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. It didn’t help that I had no idea what the hell was really going on through 75% of the book – that definitely added to the sense of panic, and made the whole plot all the more terrifying. Grade A, chilling stuff. At least to a wimp like me.

But. I was honestly a little disappointed by the ending. Once the truth of the situation was revealed and everything fell into place, nothing was quite as scary as it originally seemed. I guess I didn’t expect all of the mysteries to be solved so succinctly – I expected to be left with some level of unease at the end. As with most mystifying things, once we’ve gotten an explanation, the allure fades a little. The good thing, though, is that the creepiness and chilling beauty of the first three quarters of this book more than make up for the neat ending. I still can’t shake the image of that closet, or what might be scrabbling around in it.

I might be a relative horror literature newbie, but I know good writing when I read it. This is good.

 

Final Impression:  

Well, now I’m afraid of closets.

 

Recommended For:

Horror literature lovers. Anyone who likes eerie, atmospheric books.

 

Book Specifics:

Author: Jennifer McMahon

Publish Date: 2014

Publisher: Anchor Books

Edition: First Anchor Books Edition (2015)

Genre: Fiction

Format: Paperback

Pages: 382

ISBN / ISBN13: 9780804169967

US Price: $15.95

 

Book Review – “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell

vampires-in-the-lemon-grove
goodreads.com

I was never too keen on short stories growing up. I’ve always liked getting completely immersed in lengthy novels, losing myself in another world, and the short stories I was reading always felt too . . . well . . . short to get lost in. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of short stories. In my humble opinion, a well-rounded reader should be able to at least appreciate written work in all forms (I still struggle with reading plays, but can appreciate their merit). I recently read this beautifully written article by Junot Diaz on LitHub about the beauty of the short story, and it deserves a read; it really reflects how I’ve been feeling lately about them. Earlier this year I read The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction for the first time, and each story in the collection completely blew me away. My ill-advised, half-formed opinion about short stories not providing a world to get lost in was shot to hell. And I’m so glad it was, because I probably would never have given Vampires in the Lemon Grove a real chance otherwise.

This collection, by Karen Russell of Swamplandia! fame, is dark, hilarious, introspective, and eerie. Each story includes a supernatural element, which gives the reader the unsettling feeling that virtually anything can happen at any time in these stories. Nobody is constrained by the rules of this world, and it can be off-putting, but in the best, creepiest way. The stories were all very, very good, but in the interest of time, I’ll only talk about three I loved and one I thought was just okay.

Reeling for the Empire is about a group of girls in feudal Japan who are basically sold by their fathers to a mysterious businessman in order to make money for the family and serve the empire by reeling silk for one year. In reality, these poor girls are enslaved indefinitely, turned into humanoid silkworms who must spin their uniquely-colored silk constantly to avoid death. The one girl who actually volunteers to go, as opposed to being sold, is the one who starts shaking things up in the factory after she finds out what is expected of the girls. This story is just bizarre, perfectly imagined, and exquisitely executed. Russell takes an outlandish premise and (dare I say) spins it into a story that explores the strength of women and the power of unity.

In The New Veterans, a massage therapist takes on a new client – a young veteran fresh from the front lines, who has a full-back tattoo memorializing the day a colleague died in a bombing. As the therapist works on this young man, she mysteriously finds herself able to physically manipulate his massive, intricate tattoo and slowly taking on his memories and, consequently, his PTSD. The more she works on him, the less he remembers and the more he physically and mentally heals – for better and for worse. I don’t pretend to know what veterans have to live with on a daily basis, but this story presents a different take on the traditional narrative about what civilians know and think of what homecoming soldiers deal with in everyday life. For me, it emphasized the fact that although we can listen to stories, unless we’ve actively engaged in battle or lived in a war-torn country, we can never truly know what that experience is like.

The final story in the collection, The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis, is the story that haunted me the most. In it, the main characters, a group of bullying teenage brats, come upon a scarecrow that seems like any old scarecrow, until they look at it a little closer. After a bit of teenage-boy joking and general tomfoolery with the scarecrow, the boys begin to realize that it very closely resembles a boy they used to bully who just disappeared one day – Eric Mutis. What is so freaky about the scarecrow is that the more they look at it and the closer they get to it, the more it appears that someone has transformed the real Eric into something made out of wax, glass, and straw. The description of this scarecrow straight up freaked me out. It has dead, staring, but humanoid eyes, and later we find that the body is stuffed with the same grass-like substance Eric used to put in his bunny’s cage. These boys used to really go after poor Eric, both physically and mentally, and through flashbacks we find that despite it all, he was still kind to them. Eric was treated like trash by his peers and teachers alike, and when he just stopped showing up for school one day, they all quite literally forgot about him. Heartbreaking. It is revealed that he had a troubled home life (to what extent we don’t know), and now it seems he may have come to a terrible fate. And because these boys harassed him instead of protecting him, they are all partially responsible. I think I’d have to reread this one to fully grasp the entire subtext, but I found it to be a rumination on bullying and what happens to kids like Eric who fall through the cracks every day. This story was mesmerizing and terrifying all at once. I loved it.

The story I liked the least was actually the most overtly comedic of the bunch. Reading Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating is like reading a football-tailgating manual, only the teams are whales vs. krill. Dougbert is rooting for the little guy, hoping that this year the krill will overpower the whales. He is also actually mourning the dissolution of his marriage, and it’s hilarious to read. This story is objectively a good and funny one, it’s simply just out of place in this collection. I think it’s more fit for the amazing website McSweeney’s than for this particular book.

Part of what sets this collection apart and makes it so enthralling is the latent supernatural element, which left me unsure of what was real and what wasn’t most of the time. These stories are quite a departure from what I’ve read in short stories before, and on the whole they are so layered and complex that I felt like I only picked up on a fraction of their meanings. As with horror movies, it’s not knowing what’s around the corner that is the worst, and also the most captivating thing about this collection.

Recommended For:

Readers who like short, engrossing narratives, supernatural tales, and a dash of horror in their stories.