This year proves fertile ground for new kinds of horror — scary books that go beyond the splash-gore of Clive Barker or the pokey-fanged love of Tanya Huff and L.A. Banks. Even Stephen King is up to something new. Frankly, simply by his status as one of the most prolific horror writer in America, I was prepared to dismiss Stephen King’s latest tome, Duma Key, as a carbon copy of all the books that have kept him solvent for years. Yet despite some fairly standard hauntings and the usual eerie isolated house, this story is a grabber-keeper. Its newly divorced and maimed anti-hero, Edgar Freemantle, makes a fresh start in Florida and combats his inner rage with his art. Another artist resident on the Key makes her presence known as Edgar is drawn to explore an abandoned estate. What he finds hiding there will make you think twice about the power of art and the chemistry of psychiatric dysfunction.
Stephenie Meyer’s first book for adults, The Host, posits a near future in which alien “souls” take over the bodies of sentient beings all over the galaxy. On earth, the aliens have virtually taken control and only hidden conclaves of humans remain. Melanie Stryder, a dissident, is captured and a compelling soul called Wanderer is inserted into her spinal column (and this part is riveting). Melanie’s inner person fights Wanderer and neither seems destined to win. The infiltration of a sympathetic alien in a community of humans causes a myriad of problems that maintain the adrenaline rush all the way to the end. Meyer’s characters crackle with emotion: the love/hate relationship between the highly evolved souls and the combative humans is quite compelling. The question at the end is: Who owns our souls? Where does the soul go when the body dies?
Werewolf novels are beginning to give the myriad recent vampire novels a shove toward the door. Late at night, who doesn’t worry about that amorphous evil lurking inside us, waiting to emerge, to hunt, to devour? Playing on our fears, authors like Nicholas Pekearo and Toby Barlow posit very realistic instances in which just maybe everyday people could change. The Wolfman, by Nicholas Pekearo, features a werewolf detective, Marlowe Higgins, who tracks down killers and gives them their just deserts. And yes, the reference to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe is intentional. What makes this werewolf story unusual is the author’s spare style — a relief from the usual emotional fare of reluctant werewolves — and his bleak, realistic portrait of elemental justice meted out by a moral monster. Even more unusual of these two horror novels is Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth. The free verse style, sans connecting articles, evokes the canine thought process and propels the reader through the story. You literally cannot stop reading this one and the tension mounts as you realize, before he does, that the main character (and perhaps eventually almost everyone) will soon be making a big change…
Ever since Hannibal Lector ate his way into our nightmares, writers like Thomas Harris have inundated us with psycho serial killers picking victims to pieces in print and on screen. Readers and movie watchers numbed to the suspense, violence and relentless pace of these stories are hard to shock and easy to bore. Luckily there are three brand new mystery/thrillers to shock and appall. First, try Inger Wolfe’s The Calling. A crocked mono-maniac whose pattern of what seem like mercy killings with a sick twist stymies police until eventually one beleaguered detective tracks him to his lair and nearly joins his victim chain.
Second, Peter May’s new book, The Killing Room, the third mystery featuring forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell and the Chinese detective Li Yan. Buried in a Shanghai building, eighteen mutilated corpses attest to a sick killer on the loose. Campbell’s gruesome discovery that the victims were subjected to pre-death autopsies points to a murderer with surgical knowledge, but the logical suspect doesn’t fit the profile. This one’s a shocker and a great keep-you-up-all-night (and then some) page-turner.
And finally, you cannot help but be riveted by the talented David Hewson’s new mystery thriller, Garden of Evil. Right from the start this creepy puzzler set in modern Rome captures your full attention with a petty crook’s good deed gone awry. While attempting to return medication from a purse he stole, the thief happens upon a strangely erotic scene of violent death in an artist’s studio and then gets himself killed. Enter the redoubtable Nic Costa, hero of five previous incredibly creative Hewson mysteries, and even he is taken aback by the weird combination of two unrelated deaths and the Caravaggio painting of sexual depravity standing nearby as part of the scene. As clues emerge (and grisly discoveries arise), the discovery of a powerful elite society in which life mimics and twists art connecting the Medicis to a group of the modern indolent upper crust shocks Nic nearly as much as it will you.