December 2003

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Stocking Stuffers

'Tis the season, and all that. In lieu of a longer one-subject column this month, I'll point out a few of my favorite potential Winter Holiday of Choice gifts. Besides, you can't possibly expect a poor Bookslut columnist to write 700+ words on just one topic in a post-Thanksgiving tryptophan-induced haze, can you?

Comics

Comics, in this post-Sandman age, have produced some amazingly mature and frightening tales, as well as some fantastically gory stuff. But amidst all the serious horror that publishers like Vertigo and Dark Horse are putting out (really, if you need someone else to tell you to buy Fables or Y: The Last Man, you're never going to be convinced), and all the critical acclaim given to them, two of the more genre-bending books are worth noting this year.

The only new book from this year that's pulled me in is Peter David's Fallen Angel, a book that nicely toes the line between the horror and super-hero genres, something that plenty of books try -- Spawn, anyone? -- but with mixed results (John Ostrander's run on Spectre in the '90s was the last to do so really well). Fallen Angel tells the story of Bete Noir, a mysterious city where almost none of the characters are who they appear to be. The titular heroine (a schoolteacher named Lee by day), is in bed (literally) with the town's mysterious crimelord; her bartender friend seems to know a little too much (first hand) about Nazi Germany; and one visitor to the town almost, by a certain light, resembles a certain Caped Crusader.

Part of what makes this book work is that David spends time walking the line between genres, moving from noir to horror to superhero, while carefully balancing the action (which is not officially set in the DC Universe) with small glimpses of the characters' backgrounds. But what makes it really enticing to horror readers (especially ones who might not care that the lead character might very well be Supergirl, or recognize other DC references dropped into the book) is David's nicely-paced development of the plot and characters, slowly bringing out the mystery of the city's dark background and residents. Good horror doesn't have to be rushed, a lesson many other writers could benefit from.

My other favorite horror-themed comic of the year is one that I was a latecomer to. Richard Moore's Boneyard is a mix of humor and horror, something that can drive me nuts when it's executed poorly. Fortunately, Boneyard (published by NBM) is nearly flawless. Michael Paris, our hero, has discovered that the plot of land he's inherited is actually a graveyard inhabited by all sorts of creatures, from skeletons to werewolves to vampires. Of course, in spite of what the townsfolk say, it turns out that the "monsters" aren't quite the evil bunch that they're supposed to be.

It's not a totally original concept ("nice" monsters are practically cliche), but Moore makes his monsters into fun, interesting, and distinctive characters. The relationship between Paris and Abbey, the vampire, has developed slowly, as Moore has done a great job of writing real sexual tension, instead of tossing characters into bed with each other as soon as he could. And the over-the-top humor of some of the characters has nicely interplayed with some of the more serious plotlines (we've already encountered Beelzebub and Lilith as nemeses). As light horror goes, there are few books that are this much fun.

Airplane reading

A few years back, Bentley Little was poised to be the Next Big Horror Writer. After a few truly impressive novels (notably The Ignored), he's settled into something of a rut. But what a fun rut it is. Little finds some seemingly-benign institution -- Wal-Mart, homeowner associations, the Post Office -- and writes about it as if it were the embodiment of evil. His latest, The Policy, takes on the insurance industry in the same manner. It's formulaic, but it's also a heck of a fun read, as anyone who's dealt with the bureaucracy of a typical HMO wouldn't take much convincing to believe that some of these companies are run by Satan. I'd love to see Little move away from this formula (and the second-rate Stephen King formula he copped in last year's The Return) and get back to his earlier style. But in the meantime, at least his books are still fun. Here's hoping the next one isn't The Columnist.

Adaptations

Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate was one of the worst horror movies of the 90s. But the book he mangled on film, Arturo Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas, is one of the most intelligent horror novels of that same decade. The basic story, a shady book broker who gets caught up in a search for an occult manuscript, is the same, but Perez-Reverte's wonderful novel has an entire second plot (the titular one) involving an Alexandre Dumas manuscript, and the intertwining of the stories enriches both plots, leading to a much more coherent novel. Ignore the DVD, and make sure this book ends up in someone's stocking instead.

Here's hoping that one of the items listed here can make a horror fan you know happy this season. As for what this columnist wouldn't mind finding under the tree, that new (and extremely excessive and almost certainly not worth the money) Hill House edition of American Gods is something I wouldn't turn down, no matter how wrong I think it is for them to gouge the fans.