Classic Horror and True Romance

poorthingsA Book Review of Poor Things, by Daniel Barnett

Find it on Amazon HERE.

Anyone who has read my reviews for a while knows that I’m a huge Daniel Barnett fan. I was thrilled to hear that his latest book, Poor Things, might fall into the YA spectrum. Barnett’s writing is pure poetry, and this one is his goriest, grittiest yet. I’d say it rests rather precariously on the young adult line, and it would certainly appeal to adult horrorphiles, because this author never pulls any punches and his hits can be brutal. Poor Things is bloody and frightening, with language not meant for virgin ears. Parents, if you think your little miracle isn’t ready for something along the lines of Stephen King’s scariest tales, this isn’t their book.

For more mature teens: dive in. Poor Things is also beautiful and touching, a poignant coming of age story.

Main character Joel has it coming from the first pages, as the bullying, arrogantly jocular older brother to a wimpy, pimply, book-reading nerd. You’ll know immediately if you can’t handle Poor Things, because Joel loses everything (including that little brother) in a violent car crash before you can even blink. The change in him is swift and soul deep, and we experience this story through his new life as a crippled nobody in a tiny mining town.

This life changing event, this one tragic moment, serves to destroy and create. It’s a common theme with Barnett—tear it all down, build it all back up—and something worth pondering for any young reader, especially in those days before the brain has developed enough to understand consequences. Physically incapacitated by his broken body, Joel’s mind speeds ahead: “Adolescence is an earthquake, one that feels like it will never end while you’re living it, and eventually there comes a choice. You can crawl under your desk and hide, or you can stand up on top of that shaking desk and dance.”

He isn’t the only character I fell in love with, not by far. The heavy metal loving tomboy with a white-blonde buzzcut, Ash, is one of the strongest female supporting characters I’ve met in a long time. She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s tough, and she’s best friends with the biggest dork outcast in school. Ash is all soft underneath, and yes, though Joel is paralyzed from the waist down, there is the possibility of romance. It’s hard to say who is the hero of Poor Things, because throughout most of the book, Ash saves Joel’s derriere again and again. Without her, he could never have…sniff…well, you’ll cry at the end, too.

The town of Honaw itself has enough personality to be thought of as another character–an odd and mildly disturbing one from the beginning. Or, rather, the thing which lies beneath Honaw engineers that creep factor. Okay, that’s it! I can’t say any more or I’ll give it away. Yet, bells and whistles aside, this is a classic monster tale. No monster I’ve ever imagined, however. Only Daniel Barnett could imagine such a strange, sad, dangerous beast from the depths of time, and only this guy could make me love that thing by the end.

This review was written for YA Books Central. Check it out HERE to find out more about the book and the author.

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Humanist Horror, Graceful Gore

A Book Review of The Safe, by Daniel Barnett

(Buy it here on Amazon. Find it on Goodreads.)

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This beautifully horrific novel is set in an asylum for the criminally insane, the dirty secret of small-town New England where “the dark was greedier…than the city, more over bearing, fattening itself on every unguarded inch of mud and bark and stone.” You’ll find plenty more quotes from The Safe in my review, because Daniel Barnett weaves poetry through the darkness at every turn. Eloquent language is the only brightness at Harbrook Hill and the contrast makes the asylum seem even more bleak and tragic, suspense lurking in every chapter. The building is an ancient, stinking, live thing, an anteroom described as the passageway between the skin and the meat. Even the air around Harbrook Hill is menacing: “The morning wind had claws.”

We’re introduced to this forbidding place as its new resident, Walter Hosler, arrives. He’s a huge, black, silent bear of a man. People shrink from his presence and the memory of his crime–a crime that everyone knows well, because the murder happened right there in their small town. One person asks Walter what he did with his wife’s head. That night, half of Harbrook Hill burns to the ground, at least one patient succumbing to the fire, and somehow Walter is involved. Shortly after, he beats the crap out of a guard and winds up with his own teeth jutting out of his lip for the offense. Yet, he stays silent.

It’s hard to feel sorry for such a man to rot out the rest of his days in a psychotic prison…until you get to know him. And like him. Barnett accomplishes this through flashbacks from Walter’s memory; summer sunshine and carnival cheer flash into view, a welcome reprieve from the oppressive, threatening atmosphere of the first couple chapters. Walter recalls an adolescent “date” at a county fair with his late wife, Alva: “Boys had on sweat for shirts; girls wore two-piece swimsuits under their clothes, as if expecting a lake to well up from the ground and demand a fast strip. Young children darted and kicked soccer balls and played tireless games of tag, while everyone else went about slow and dazed, moving to the tune of the cicada’s drone in a dance called the summer shuffle.” What follows is one of the most realistic, tender love scenes I’ve read in years—a complete surprise in the middle of a horror story!

But don’t forget, this is a horror story and not at all for the faint of heart. Barnett’s gore is as shocking as his romance, but not for novelty or brevity. There’s plenty of it and it can be gruesome indeed. We do find out what happened to Walter’s poor wife, why he’s called Safe-Man, and why he’s being haunted. The man/monster that is haunting him—tormenting him with “suicides” in every cell surrounding Walter’s—is a unique creation of nightmare, phobia and creature-legend. Barnett describes the thing just enough to form a concrete image, yet leaves enough to the imagination to raise hackles in the dark. The thing is terrifying and unstoppable; you know he will get to Walter before the book is through and you know it will be violent.

However, this author’s violence can be sensual as well. He describes a car crash as, “like climax, an eruption. The shudder of metal, ripples in steel, mimics the body before orgasm.” Pain becomes divine, when, “sparks erupted in the dark, dozens of them, stars going nova across the nightscape. His body was a cathedral of pain, and the pain was wonderful, terrible.” And, no surprise to me by the time I reached the last few pages, this story has a wonderful ending, full of peace and hope. You may not believe that while you’re in the depths of it—deep, dark depths—but trust me, every bit of this book is worth the read.

Oh, To Read A Cat’s Mind

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A Book Review of Sharon, by Eden Rose Archer

(Buy it here on Amazon.)

This author doesn’t speed you through her story, though she begins with the end and gives you a puzzling crime that tugs at your brain immediately. Instead of rushing through what you might at first assume would be an action-packed whodunit, she brings the audience back to wander around in the victim’s shoes, pre-crime, increasing the tension as we near the mysterious…Accident? Murder? Runaway? We’re not even sure there was a victim. Heed the title as sufficient warning.

All we know is what Detective Jone Macy sees upon entering Sharon Smith’s apartment: a cat has been terrified by something it saw (neighbors also heard screams), and a woman appears to be missing, but there is very little evidence to be found and what evidence remains is inexplicable. The detective is stumped and so are we, but we have faith that Archer will explain it all—and quickly, the book is only 43 pages—so we read on. We’re rewarded by being presented with a vibrant, complicated, realistic character with whom to identify, Sharon. We get to know her recent personal, humiliating history, and her thoughts and fears—and since she’s portrayed as a successful, attractive woman, that helps us to love her. The poor thing has insomnia at night and each passing day gets weirder, bringing first odd remarks from strangers and a constant chill (she thinks the heater is simply broken wherever she goes), then hallucinations, and finally physical contact from a being that seems to be non-local, or of another realm.

Archer takes us back to Detective Jone once more, and though she is becoming increasingly frustrated about her inability to solve the mystery, she seems like a tough gal a reader can feel confidence in. By the time the story reaches (or re-reaches) the climactic scene, Archer has built up such suspense that I thought I might go as crazy as ‘ole Jone. She’s given glimpses of something terrifying “watching” and circling our heroine, and that something is about to…

I’m not going to spoil the ending—one simply has to experience it, because it is an experience. At first, I swiped through the last couple pages, knowing there had to be a sequel, an epilogue, something more. Seeing nothing, I was reminded of a high school friend I once knew who threw our assigned reading material across the room upon reaching a frustrating conclusion. I stroked my Kindle and promised not to break it. Which gave me time to ponder. Did I not know what happened to Sharon Smith, or did I not want to know? What had I been expecting—for Eden Rose Archer to reveal to me the deepest secrets to the Universe and beyond? I read too much Deepak Chopra, I suppose. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Archer had supplied all I needed to let my mind soak in her conclusion, for hours. She let my imagination run away with her ending, and I made it my own.

This story was written with such concrete, engaging language—and an especially good representation of a that scared kitty (don’t worry, the cat makes out pretty well)—that I would recommend it for the pleasure of reading great prose…even if you do have the tendency to throw books.

–Sarah Wathen