January 2005

Adam Lipkin

fear factor

Airplane Reads

There's nothing wrong with a good, fun paperback read that lasts just long enough to kill the time spent flying from Atlanta to Arizona. Horror fans are lucky, as solid, fun novels of haunting and monsters are in abundance, and this year has seen some doozies.

I'll start with Bentley Little's The Resort. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a huge fan of Little's work. He's developed a nicely cynical world view, he's willing to cross just about any line in his stories, and he's deft at bringing characters to life. In The Resort, he plays with one of his regular themes -- the idea of an ordinary institution hiding a dark secret. In this case, instead of the satanic insurance agency of The Policy or the evil corporation behind The Store, we get an Arizona spa which seems wonderful at first, but which hides some mysterious secrets.

Little may be predictable, but he's loads of fun. We know that each of the guests we focus on will encounter more and more mysterious happenings that can't be explained. We know that various "accidents" will prevent anyone who wants to leave from making it to safety. And we know that most of the people we meet will meet painful and bloody deaths by the end of the book. What makes a Little novel worthwhile is the imaginative ways in which he offs his victims, the surreal events that often have no explanation (the church service in The Resort has some moments that never make sense, but which are endlessly amusing). Although Little has shown little (sorry) inclination to experiment as a writer since The Ignored (the high point of his career), he has learned to recognize and avoid his weaknesses, and the ending is one of his best.

Scott Nicholson will, someday, be one of the bigger names in mainstream horror. When I reviewed his novel The Harvest earlier this year, I commented on his ability to bring Appalachia to life. His ability to do so continues in his latest novel, The Manor. The novel is a nice merger of the classic haunted house concept (in this case, a retreat for artists at an old mansion) and the trappings of Southern Gothic literature (dark family secrets, an eerie countryside, etc). Nicholson's Appalachian setting manages to place a new sheen on both of these oft-reworked archetypes, filtering them through local folk magic and superstition.

But, as with Nicholson's previous novels, what makes this book really shine is his ability to create believable characters. Unlike so many authors, Nicholson manages to throw Appalachian locals, Northern cityfolk, and Southerners together without resorting to stereotypes. Our primary heroes -- Anna, a dying parapsychologist, and Mason, a poor sculptor -- have a chemistry that most horror writers don't even attempt to pull off, slowly letting the tiniest hint of a relationship unfold, instead of merely hopping into bed -- and declarations of love -- by chapter three. The rest of the artists at the colony are also well-fleshed out, making it harder to figure out who will become ghost fodder, and making those deaths more than just ways to drive up a body count. Nicholson's writing keeps getting better with each book, and I'm eagerly looking forward to his next one.

The holidays may have passed, but good holiday horror novels are rare enough to be worth seeking out even in January. Christopher Moore, one of the best and funniest writers alive today, has released a perfect seasonal novel, The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. It answers the question that we've all been wondering: What if an angel, attempting to perform a Christmas Miracle, unleashed a horde of ravenous zombies on a town instead? Moore returns to Pine Cove, CA, the setting of Practical Demonkeeping and The Lust Lizard of Melencholy Cove, giving us characters from both of those novels as well as Tucker Case, star of Island of the Sequined Love Nun, and Lamb's Archangel Raziel in the titular role. With one or two minor exceptions, however, you don't need to be familiar with Moore's earlier works to enjoy this one. Although shorter than Moore's previous works, The Stupidest Angel packs a lot of dark humor into its pages, and I can't recall laughing this hard at any novel in a long time.

Finally, on the comic book front, there were a tons of great books this year, as DC's Vertigo imprint and indy publisher IDW continue to specialize in the genre, and every publisher from Dark Horse to Image has at least one horror-filled title out there. But my favorite horror work is a sleeper work from Warren Ellis (whose comics don't usually go unnoticed). His Ultimate Nightmare, published over at Marvel, isn't just a typical Ellis blend of creepy horror, conspiracy theories, and sharp dialogue. It manages to set that horror in Marvel's Ultimate Universe, bringing such non-horror characters as Nick Fury and the X-Men into the story, without ever making it feel that the presence of the heroes is forced. Ellis's writing here is reminiscent of his work on Stormwatch years ago -- possibly his best work until now. Mixing real "bigger than life" heroes into a dark world where you can't simply beat up the bad guys has allowed Ellis to put together one of the best mini-series Marvel's put out in ages.