Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Garcia-Moreno

Certain-Dark-Things-632x960I really enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s previous novel, Signal To Noise, so I had high expectations of this one. Once again, it is set in contemporary(ish) Mexico, but the previous book’s empathetic descriptions of adolescent first love and attendant heartbreak have been replaced by something far darker. This is a world where vampires are real. In Mexico they run the drug cartels, and are violent, lawless criminals, much feared across the country. Mexico City itself is protected by walls and checkpoints. It is supposedly a vampire-free zone, but practice is far slipperier than theory….

The main viewpoint character is Domingo, a teenage street kid who supports himself by picking litter. He encounters the glamourous Atl, a vampire on the run but bent on revenge, and falls under her spell. The book charts their relationship as they struggle to escape the city and avoid the frankly nasty Nick Godoy, a vampire of a different subspecies who is obsessed with catching Atl.

There’s a lot to like in this book. The sense of place is outstanding, and the atmosphere of Mexico City is very well rendered. The vampire taxonomy is interesting, with plenty of opportunity to explore further should Ms Garcia-Moreno write any more books in this milieu.
Domingo is a very sympathetic character, naive and likeable, and pleasingly upbeat despite the crappy hand life has dealt him. I did think that sometimes the reality of exactly what Atl really is was glossed over. She is by no means an out and out good guy (not least because she’s not a guy at all, but you know what I mean), but looking at her through Domingo’s starstruck eyes we have to put that together ourselves. That said, her transgressions are hugely overshadowed by the psychopathic sadism of Nick, the real villain. Make no mistake, this is a very violent book, but it’s also a gripping noir thriller with an exciting climax in a location I don’t think I’ve ever seen used this way before. It’s a fresh and original take on the vampire genre, and well worth a read.

[reviewed from an advance copy provided by NetGalley]

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My Best Friend’s Exorcism, by Grady Hendrix

29106178This is an excellent tale of teenage friendship and demonic possession. As young girls, Abby and Gretchen become fast friends. As they hit their mid teens, Gretchen begins to change, sparked by a night of youthful experimentation that goes wrong. As you might expect, it takes a while for Abby to realise that this isn’t adolescent petulance, but rather that her best friend has been possessed by a demon. Once the satanic penny finally drops, she becomes caught up in an all consuming struggle for Gretchen’s soul, aided by an unlikely troupe of Christian bodybuilders.

There’s a distinct 80s nostalgia to the settting, with all kinds of namedrops and references, only some of which meant anything this side of the Atlantic, but the intent is clear. This also has a lot of the flavour of classic 70s religious horror movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. It’s a fast moving engrossing book that kept me turning the pages. I really cared about whether or not Gretchen could be saved, and I found the portrayal of the all encompassing friendship between the girls quite moving. Other highlights of the book include a genuinely spooky phone call, a climax that is over the top in all the right ways, and a poignant final chapter. A special shout for the depiction of Charleston – Hendrix evokes a decaying swampy atmosphere that fits the narrative perfectly. This is his second novel. I’ve always been tempted by the first (Horrorstor – a novel disguised as an IKEA catalogue!), and now I’ll definitely pick it up.

The Fireman, by Joe Hill

downloadWhen news broke that Joe Hill’s new book was about a disease-inspired end of the world, it was hard not to think of his dad’s epic The Stand. I dismissed that as a hopelessly lazy comparison, at least to begin with (more on this later). The Fireman is a very different book in scale and mood. Civilisation may be collapsing across the world, as populations fall prey to Dragonscale, a spore that infects its victims, paints beautiful patterns on their skin, and then causes them to combust, but this book focuses entirely on New England, and the story of school nurse Harper Grayson, pregnant and infected. It’s one small story in a global catastrophe, which keeps the stakes low but very personal. Harper’s unhinged husband (wrongly) blames her for infecting him and is bent on carrying out a suicide pact he thinks they’d agreed on. She is determined to live and bear her child, and so escapes, whereupon she falls in with a small community of infected people who may have found a way to live with Dragonscale. One of these people is the titular Fireman, a mysterious fellow with an English accent and a dirty fireman’s jacket. He is notable for being able to somehow control the Dragonscale fires, and he starts a slow burning romance with Harper. Life in the colony is peaceful and safe, but there are serpents in this particular Eden, and it won’t be long before they rear their heads. Because, let’s face it, it would otherwise be a pretty boring 700 pages, wouldn’t it?

Beyond the immediate narrative, there’s plenty to get your teeth into here.The workings of the disease are not unlike social media, with strong parallels with the behaviour of Twitter mobs. It’s interesting to read the book as a fictional counterpart to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed as an examination of how people can become lost in groupthink and chasing the approval of their peers with no regard for right or wrong.
This is also a celebration of the power of story. It’s full of references to Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Doctor Who, Fahrenheit 451 and more. A key family name throughout the book is even Storey, for heaven’s sake, which leads to the wonderful line: “All the rest of us flutter round you Storeys like moths around candles”. Of all stories though, the one that looms biggest behind this one is The Stand. As I said up above, it seems lazy to say that just because of the author’s genes, but the parallels are too many to be anything other than deliberate. A world ending disease, a deaf mute called Nick, an obnoxious teen called Harold, a quasi-religious leader going by the title Mother….I’m not quite sure what Hill means by this. Respect for his parent? A cheeky proclamation that a baton has been passed on? At any rate, it’s safe to say he has not forgotten the face of his father.

Above all, it’s a hopeful book. In the midst of disaster there are many small moments of humanity, people helping each other out, trying to form new societies and just being decent. We are a long way from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road here, as is acknowledged in another literary nod. It’s no Wyndhamesque cosy catastrophe though (and I only just twigged that the Camp Wyndham in the book must be named for John Wyndham!). There’s no flinching from the reality of mass death, the villains are pretty unpleasant and there’s some fairly graphic gore. But this is a book about engagement with the world, about love, and about the need to survive in the worst of circumstances. Hill has been well known in the genre community for a while now, but I’d love to see him break out with this one. It’s a terrific book, one which deserves to be read.