Sunday, April 28, 2019

31. The Babysitter by Andrew Coburn [Part 3 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

The Babysitter both disappointed me and exceeded my expectations.  It disappointed me simply because it is not at all the genre I assumed based on the cover and title.  It exceeded my expectations because it is a brooding, hard almost noirish mystery that is quite good.  It's a great find and was an enjoyable read but It doesn't fit into this series at all!  I guess part of my assumption about its genre was that I found it with The Crib and The Babysitter (parts 1 and 2 of this now badly named Maternal Anxiety Horror series) both of which are clearly horror novels.  Does this not look like a horror novel cover to you or could it also be mystery?

The Babysitter starts in media res with a stunned John Wright being interrogated by police in his own home after returning from a night out to find the babysitter dead in the hallway her head bludgeoned in and their 14-month old baby missing.  It's the 70s and John and his wife Merle had left their ad-copywriting jobs in Boston to come to one of the bedroom communities surrounding it.  We learn quickly that the babysitter, whom John met at the local college where he taught, had actually lied about her name and background.  Her real identity is a mystery as is the fate of the baby.

The authorities who arrive are manifold and useless at best.  The FBI are particularly malevolent and the couple feels they have to act on their own.  Their investigation takes them to various interesting locations around this part of Boston.  The location is strong here and there is a cast of characters similar to Denis Lehane book, though toned down.  The backstory, as it plays out is intriguing and takes the reader into some dark places to meet some pretty low characters.  It has a desperate, brooding atmosphere.  It's a hot summer and there is an aggression in all the dialogue and everyone seems uncomfortable. The style is laconic so I felt a bit distant at first, but after a while as the plot got more complex and interesting, it felt appropriate for the mood and it drew me in.

The Babysitter does close this series with a bit of a whimper thematically.  The sacrifice was worth it, however, for an obscure and enjoyable discovery.  I will now return to my regular non-programmed reading schedule.

The NYT Book Review should have clued me in that this wasn't horror.

Friday, April 26, 2019

30. The Nursery by David Lippincott [Part 2 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

Now this is more what I expected when I started this mini-reading series of mass market horror paperbacks with a maternal anxiety theme.  It is lurid, silly and kind of nasty, definitely targeted at the "babysitters and housewives" market.  However, like The Crib, this one also does not actually provoke much maternal anxiety.  It is much more aligned with the social critiques of young women's independence and sexuality of the time.

We start with 17-year old Jennifer Delafield of Park Avenue, with a controlling, envious mom and an easily manipulated dad.  She is finishing up at Mrs. Chambers School for Girls and soon to be at Smith, when she decides in angry rebellion to elope with her 20-year old boyfriend.  They drive to Chiver, Maryland a town whose industry is built on marriage due to laxer laws. Hidden off the main strip of tacky neon marriage establishments with cheap promotions, they find a beautiful old Victorian named Blossom House with an amazing orchard and an elegant little sign indicating Justice of the Peace.  The couple that greets them, Henry and Harriet Griggs, is odd, but friendly.  He is a charming round man with white hair while his sister is gigantic.  After the brief ceremony among the blossoming apple trees, the couple invites them to share a celebratory drink.  Things go downhill.

So first of all, this book is not subtle at all.  The basic narrative I shared with you above is actually way more spoiler-free than the actual first few chapters of the book.  The author straight up tells you stuff.  So we know already that Harriet Griggs was brutally fatshamed in school and treated like shit by her dad and thus hates all men and pretty girls.  [You can't totally blame her with lines like "To Jennifer it was remarkable that so large a woman could move so softly, but she remembered hearing once that fat people could be incredibly light on their feet and therefore made good dance partners—as long as you remembered to judge them by their dancing and not their appearance."  Where in the early 80s did she learn that?!] Each chapter starts with an excerpt from Harriet's diary.  It is really simplistic and obvious stuff.  Also, the point of view jumps around quite a lot, revealing perspectives and diffusing any intrigue.  You will have a scene with Jennifer worrying about something and then dismissing it in her mind and in the next paragraph Harriet's thoughts which reveal that Jennifer should be worried (and then some!) and often even a line from the author saying basically the same thing.  It is almost like a bad voiceover in a low-budget horror movie from the 60s.

I spend a lot of time on it because this approach is very different from what I am used to reading and I suspect more in line with this sub-genre.  It does not detract much because the real pleasure here is in the bonkers set up.  Basically, the old couple drugs the drinks, separates the newlyweds and put Jennifer in an upstairs cell that is gussied up to look like a little girls bedroom.  Harriet sits on her and shaves her pubes (because she refuses to do it herself) and then forces her into this contraption that flattens her breasts.  After a few days of isolation, she is introduced to the rest of the third floor, 11 other young women all forced to pretend like they are 12-year olds.  It's creepy and gets creepier when cuddly Henry comes around. Yikes!

The rest of the narrative is Jennifer trying to deal with her situation, while we slowly learn about the backstory and some of the other girls.  The pacing of the suspense is inconsistent, but the upstairs scene is like a crazy jail narrative, with alliances and power struggles between the girls while they also try to deal with their captors.  Quite entertaining.  The ending is absolutely bonkers.  Like really so preposterous and crazy that I had to exclaim out loud.  [So bonkers that I am going to share it with you at the end of this post.]

This is really not my jam.  I am into action, not cruelty; fighting not torture and I like a happy ending.  I'm simple.  This book is not extreme, but the money shots here are all around cruelty and torture done to the main character (and her husband).  Aside from the shaving, she gets starved, beaten and dentisted (this is the perfect moment for a Joe Bob Briggs-like roll call of shit that happened) as well as having to deal with creepy Henry.  And of course there is psychological torture.  Gaslighting is Harriet's M.O. as she tries to break each girl down and especially Jennifer.

I am also not sure what the message is here.  There is clearly an emphasis on the parrallels between Jennifer's complaining that her parents kept her in a prison compared the real prison she ends up in.  Her sexuality and independence seem to be set up for some of punishment, but she is also quite strong-willed and demonstrates some virtue and character development in befriending one of the other girls who used to be a prostitute. 

Oddly, there is an empty link floating out there in some bookseller databases for a The Nursery 2: Jennifer's Revenge.  There is so little actual data and the date is the same as this one, that I suspect it is just wishful thinking.  Anybody know if there really was a sequel?

The Ending
So Jennifer starts to win over the other girls and together they work to disrupt the Griggs' control over them, with the ultimate goal of her escaping and freeing the rest of them.  The visit of lowlife Cousin Larry (who renovated the third-floor prison for Harriet and Henry) almost disrupts their plans, but Jennifer improvises and manages to make it out of the third floor.  There is hiding and chasing and then she gets out.  Stunned and stumbling in daylight, she sees a rental car parked along the road with the door open and still running.  Desperate, she jumps in and starts to drive.  She's free, finally free!  But wait, from the backseat, Cousin Larry pops up. He'd been hiding there (and we knew something was up because the author keeps having Harriet tell us how the escape is all actually a part of her plan to finally get Jennifer) and has a can of gas and his zippo.  I told you it was crazy.  So as Jennifer is driving, he pours the gas on her and lights her on fire.  She can't get out because the inner door handles had already been loosened and they fall off, but guess what neither can Cousin Larry!   That's right, Harriet's master plan kills two birds with one stone, by eliminating hateful Jennifer and Cousin Larry who knew too much.  The car, burning from the inside, goes screaming into town and gets plowed by a semi.

Already my jaw was on the floor, but wait, there's an epilogue.  The scene begins at a plastic surgeon's office, peeling away the layers of bandage from the face of a young girl.  Jennifer did not die in the crash!  She ran burning and stumbled into a kindly young doctor's office.  The doctor for reasons that make zero sense, did not tell anybody and instead healed her and then found the best doctors to reconstruct her face.  She has totally lost her memory and falls in love with her saviour.  She doesn't want to know about her past because even thinking about it starts to make her panic.  They decide to get married and find a lovely old house.  As she approaches the door, she starts to freak out, but then the door opens and it is some other couple.  Phew.  The nice doctor (who lived minutes away from Blossom House) and the amnesiac reconstructed girl live happily ever after.

There is a final epilogue after that which is the Griggs, who have now moved to Big Sur, changed their last name and still do the marriage business.  It was not directly implied nor contradicted whether or not they were still also doing the kidnapping business.  Very weird final moment, though:

Certainly impossible for me to know.  Is this some horror trope?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

29. The Crib by Paul Kent [Part 1 of the Maternal Anxiety Horror trio]

I found The Crib in the fruitful St-Viateur free shelf, along with two other thematically similar 80s horror paperbacks, The Nursery and The Babysitter and several V.C. Andrews.  At first, I only took one of them, but back at home the missed opportunity of such a find started to gnaw at me.  I was somewhat inspired by the paperback community on Twitter as well, as I thought they would appreciate seeing at least a picture of them.  So the next time I was on St-Viateur, I checked the shelf and fortune smiled upon me as both other books were there.

 Maternal Anxiety Horror trio

At first I was just going to take a picture of them, but once I had them in my hands and saw their beauty as artifacts, I couldn't let them go. You really have to love the parallels in these three books, published across the span of a decade (The Babysitter 1979, The Nursery 1983, The Crib 1989).  As well as the obvious thematic similarities, they are all named The "something" and all written by authors with really boring white guy names.  And once I had them, I realized I can't parade their covers around without actually reading them.  Turns out The Crib was so much fun, that I've decided to read them in baby stage order (Crib, Nursery, Babysitter) and share my findings here.  So I present you the first ever Olmans Fifty Three-Part Maternal Anxiety Horror Special

We start with The Crib itself.  The first half was at worst competent and it held my interest until things started to pick up in the second half.  It ended up quite exciting with a complex and well thought out back story.  The entire premise is sort of obvious and you figure out quite quickly what is going on (though not the precise details, which are cool), but that didn't spoil the fun.  The Crib far exceeded my expectations and is going to be a keeper.

Dr. Stuart Rice is an epidemiologist who used to be a practicing surgeon.  One night in April, his wife wakens him to his neighbours' desperate call; their child has stopped breathing.  From this dark beginning, Stuart is reluctantly drawn into investigating the baby's death, perhaps as his only way to help.  He learns that other distant members of the same family had also lost babies to SIDS, at statistically disproportional rate than should be normal.  The research and work that Stuart does as he digs deeper into the patterns of baby deaths is the competent part of the first half.  Some may find research and investigation action dull and I don't know how accurate it was, but I enjoyed the inside peek at how the W.H.O. organized and distributed its data in the 1980s, the discussions with his buddy the M.E., his visits to the public library, meeting with the new data academics where he actually gets a database programmed for him!  All this rational attempt to explain is entertaining enough to get around the basic fact that it is obviously the crib that is doing this.  At times you are kind of banging your head against the book going, dude, it's The Crib!  What is truly hard to swallow is that anyone would want to re-use a crib that a baby had died in, but especially one where thirteen children had died, all on Easter and each of their names is carved into the wood slats of the crib!  I know it was the 80s where we weren't so obsessed with child safety, but come on.

Despite this whopper, The Crib maintains your suspension of disbelief.  And it gets fun.  The narrative here is much more akin to a men's action book, though more cerebral, than true horror.  Stuart is characterized as a hunter or predator, honing in on the solution to the mystery.  His narrative as he goes farther afield the closer he gets to the truth is alternated with the back story of the piece of wood going backwards in time as it travels across the world and history to its origin.  If I tell you the wood used to make the crib was around 2,000 years old and seemed to have some kind of dark stain on it, do you think you might have a sense of what that might be?  You learn that info and more a quarter of the way into the book and it's not until the last page that what the reader has long since known is thrown out like a shocking reveal.  Dr. Rice seems smart but perhaps sometimes can't see the forest for the trees.

The Crib is imperfect, but well put together and ultimately entertaining.  Turns out Peter Kent is Canadian, an ex-doctor who wrote and lived in Vancouver.  I think this is his only book, which is too bad.  Also turns out that it is kind of collectible.  Paperback copies on Abe Books in good condition going for $30-40!

Friday, April 19, 2019

28. A Comedy of Terrors by Michael Innes

I believe I found this book in the free shelf on St-Viateur.  I've seen Michael Innes name around a lot, but have never actually read anything by him.  I took this one on the appeal of the British parlour mystery.  It definitely delivers on the sub-genre, being about an upperclass family meeting on their estate that is now surrounded by business and industry.  Unfortunately, the book itself just wasn't all that good. The writing was overly complex, trying to be more classical but, at least to my ear, ended up being convoluted and counter-intuitiive.  The plot was weak and without any emotional punch:  an uncle gets shot through the window but doesn't die; the family all snipe amongst each other so any of them could have done it but nobody has a really strong motive.  Some of the characterizations, in particular the two smug, superior youngest members of the family, were funny and at times the nasty wit made me chuckle.  I suspect that Innes may have been trying on a style here.  It didn't work for me.  I will check up on him and see what else I can try.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

27. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wile

Not the version I read; I liked the cover
It's interesting finally actually reading Oscar Wilde.  I am familiar with his life and career, the plot of Dorian Gray and his pithy witticisms and always felt highly of all three.  After reading the book, I still think highly of the first two, but all the quotes that seem so spot on when read out of context feel forced to me in the narrative.  This is my bias, but I felt like all right dude, I get it you are really witty and have all these clever aphorisms about the stuffiness of 19th century England but can we just get on with the story.  I am being even more unfair because had I probably never heard them before and read them here for the first time, most would have seemed quite brilliant.  Living in a day where the sort of moral uptightness of the Victorian age has been replaced by a thoroughly Dorian-Gray-esque excess of consumer capitalism, his words also feel misplaced.

I shouldn't start off with such negativity, but wanted to get it out of the way.  The rest of the book is really amazing and no question that this book's classic status is well justified.  The portrayal of Gray's descent into immorality is possibly the template for all future descents we read in literary and genre fiction today.  Wilde is fairly subtle most of the time.  The worst factual thing that Gray does is smoke opium, but the locations, the characters and their dialogue and the suggestions of worse that Wilde weaves together evokes powerfully the dark night of the soul that tempts us all.  The violence and aftermath are also so intense and nasty that one wishes Wilde had veered into doing straight up genre fiction himself.  He would have crushed it.

So yeah The Picture of Dorian Gray is a literary classic.  I would further argue that it is a foundational text in the thriller/crime genre and you would do well to read it if that genre is your jam.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

26. Cinnamon Skin by John D. MacDonald

I found this first edition hardcover in one of those little neighbourhood book exchange.  I love John D. MacDonald but I don't seek his books out because they are so readily available and I like to keep them as fallbacks for when reading choices are limited.  I am also wary of the later Travis McGee books.  McGee is a philosopher and MacDonald does a lot of social observation and commentary via McGee's voice.  His perpetual bachelorhood seems forced by 1982 and you get a feeling that John D. himself senses he is a bit left behind.

Cinnamon Skin starts off convoluted, with a lot of back story referring to a previous book where his friend Mayer had his spirit broken by a psychopath, plus another doomed McGee love affair.  There are a lot of characters and narratives in the first few pages and I was slightly offput.  But once Mayer's niece and  new husband get blown up on his boat with a not very credible Chilean extremist group claiming responsibility, things get going.  You know the explosion isn't what it seems and the unraveling (and investigating) of what really happened is quite cool.  McGee and Mayer travel to weird little corners of poor white America and Mexico and get involved in a bunch of mini-adventures.  The ending is a bit of a letdown as the rich psychological profile of the target of their investigation that MacDonald developos so nicely is not fully exploited in the climax and I felt a bit of a letdown. 


We learn quite early that the husband wasn't actually on the boat, and as they dig into his past, they learn so little about him that he becomes their target.  In their hunt for him, it is slowly revealed that he has been serially falling in love with woman under a different identity each time, killing them and absconding with their money.  His psychosis was caused by a sex-ravenous Mexican-Italian stepmom who seduced him. His dad caught them, killed her and either shot himself or the son shot him.  McGee meets with an old psychologist friend, who explains how that kind of trauma could turn someone into a serial killer (he later gets a verbal agreement with her for some friends with benefits).  The straight-facedness of this very implausible explanation was a bit much.  It looks Horny Stepmoms as a theme has been around long before PornHub made it a trending topic,

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

25. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

I feel a bit cheap counting these Binti books separately.  They really should be read in a single volume.  I think there is a single volume version out there and I believe Okorafor wrote them separately, but the most popular version are these slim volumes that you could read in a day. 

As the title states, Binti returns home after a year at space university.  She has found her way there academically, if not socially,  after her initial struggles and triumphs.  The trip home poses greater challenges and risks.  She brings Okwu with her, the meduse (a jellyfish like race) that contributed to the massacre of everyone but Binti on the ship to Oomza University.  You learn that there had been a war between the white earthlings and the meduse and this was the first time one had come to earth in peace.  Binti is sort of a galactic celebrity because of her survival and plea for peace with the meduse, but her family is very traditional and her leaving has created a lot of resentment.  Things are complicated.

A lot goes on in this book and at the beginning the style and pacing was a bit too declaratory and fast for me, but I think that is what the young adults enjoy.  It gets much deeper as you learn more about her family and background culture and quite intense as she heads out into darker and more mysterious territory in the deserts outside her home and ends in a cliffhanger.

Looking forward to the third and final book in the series.