Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, by Ramsey Campbell

(hb; 1976)


Clare Frayn, a responsible twenty-something school teacher, is driving her slightly-younger, wilder brother (Rob) home late one night, when a man darts in front of her car, causing her to crash her car. Clare's brother is killed; not only that, his severed arm is taken by the shadow-man, who disappears immediately after the crash.

Clare discovers who the shadow-man is, when she begins, without police help, investigating the shadow man's past: he's Christopher Kelly, a young thief and murderer, with a tragic and supernatural childhood, and a predilection for cannibalism.

Clare is aided in her investigation by an opportunistic, self-important crime writer (Edmund Hall, a former childhood classmate of Kelly's), George Pugh (a middle-aged cinema owner whose mother was murdered by Kelly), and Chris Barrow (an actor whose cat was killed and partially eaten by Kelly).

This is an off-beat, low-key, and creepy novel. The characters, most of them oddly charming, are amateurs -- and quite lucky -- when it comes to finding their killer. The pacing is less psycho-thriller than real life; the nasty horrific bits, which punctuate the story with sharp regularity, utilize restrained-but-vivid imagery and taboo subject matter (cannibalism, black magic, matricide) to deliver its shocks.

Worthwhile, strange read.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Dearly Devoted Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

(hb; 2005: second book in the Dexter series)

From the inside flap:

"Dexter Morgan has been under considerable pressure. It's just not easy being an ethical serial killer -- especially while trying to avoid the unshakable suspicions of the dangerous Sergeant Doakes (who believes Dexter is a homicidal maniac. . . which, of course, he is). In an attempt to throw Doakes off his trail, Dexter has had to slip deep into his foolproof disguise. While not working as a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Police Department, he now spends nearly all his time with his cheerful girlfriend, Rita, and her two children, sipping light beer and slowly becoming the world's first serial couch potato. But how long can Dexter play Kick the Can instead of Slice the Slasher? How long before his Dark Passenger forces him to drop the charade and let his inner monster run free?

"In trying times opportunity knocks. A particularly nasty psychopath is cutting a trail through Miami -- a man whose twisted technique leaves even Dexter speechless. As Dexter's dark appetite is revived, his sister Deborah (a newly minted, tough-as-nails Miami detective), is drawn headlong into the case. It quickly becomes clear that it will take a monster to catch a monster -- but it isn't until his archnemesis is abducted that Dex can finally throw himself into a search for a new plaything. Unless, of course, his plaything finds him first."


The second book in the Dexter series carries the same winning elements of the first: a seemingly-light toned narrative, a witty first-person narrator (Dexter), characters who aren't all that they seem to be (and are revealing new shades of themselves), and a macabre plot that moves at an exciting clip, providing an interesting counter-element to Dexter's mild, kind-hearted, sociopath-filtered tellings.

Good follow-up to Darkly Dreaming Dexter, worth your time.

Followed by Dexter in the Dark.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Half Moon Street, by Anne Perry

(hb; 2000: twentieth book in the Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series)

From the inside flap:

"Superintendent Thomas Pitt cannot immediately ascertain exactly what segment of society the dead man riding the morning tide of the Thames cam from, but the sight of him is unforgettable. He lies in a battered punt drifting through the mornging mist, his arms and legs chained to the boat's sides. He is clad in a torn green gown, and flowers bestrew his battered body.

"Is he, as Pitt fears, a French diplomat who has gone missing? Or merely someone who greatly resembles him? Pitt's determined search for answers leads him deep into London's bohemia to the theatre where beautiful Cecily Antrim is outraging society with her bold portrayal of a modern woman -- and into studios where masters of light and shadow are experimenting with the fascinating art of photography.

"But only Pitt's most relentless pursuit enables him to identify the wildfire passions raging through this tragedy of good and evil, to hunt down the guilty and protect the innocent."


Another excellent entry in the Thomas & Charlotte Pitt series. Perry freshens the formula by focusing on characters who normally don't get as much "air time" in the series.

Charlotte Pitt is away in Paris with her sister Emily, and Emily's husband, Jack; Gracie (the Pitts' maid) is away on vacation with the Pitts' young children. This situation allows Caroline Fielding (Thomas's mother-in-law) to take a more direct, if inadvertant, hand in helping Thomas solve this case, which may or may not be an international incident (Thomas's professional specialty).

That's not the only storm brewing: the arrival of a not-so-distant, previously-unknown relative (Samuel Ellison) from America provokes Mariah Ellison (aka, Grandmama, Caroline Fielding's former mother-in-law) to panic and fury -- and possibly the revealing of a dark family secret. Will Caroline find out what it is before her family -- and her still-young marriage -- is shattered?

Check the series out.

Followed by The Whitechapel Conspiracy.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay

(pb; 2004: first book in the Dexter series)

From the back cover:

"Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep's clothing. He's handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He's a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likeable: he only kills bad people. And his job as a blood splatter expert for the Miami police department puts him in the perfect position to identify his victims. But when a series of brutal murders bearing a striking similarity to his own style start turning up, Dexter is caught between being flattered and being frightened -- of himself or some other fiend."


On Hole's 1994 album, Live Through This, Courtney Love sang "I fake it so well/I am beyond fake." Love might well have been singing about Dexter, an amiable serial killer who has a ghostly resemblance of a conscience, given his adherence to the "Harry Code" (the set of rules laid out by Dexter's adoptive father, Harry, on how to be a "good" person and still indulge the "Dark Passenger" that lurks in Dexter's head). Dexter, by his own admissions, seems to care about certain people around him -- namely his sister, Deborah (who's a cop, like Harry was), and Cody and Astor (son and daughter of Rita Bennett, the woman he's been dating for two years, for the sake of "cover").

This is a fast, difficult-to-set-down read. On the surface, given Dexter's relatively breezy tone, it'd be easy to pass this off as a pleasantly-written, hip serial-killer read. But it's more than that -- Dexter is a unique and memorable serial killer, who deserves to be remembered along with other top literary slashers like Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), Hannibal Lechter (Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, etc.) and others.

This is a slyly subversive work, challenging readers' comfortable notions about society, and the (possibly) true nature(s) of those who surround us -- especially friends and family members.

Superb, clever, burn-through read, with a chuckle-worthy end-line.

Followed by Dearly Devoted Dexter.

The Dexter book series (thus far, it numbers three novels) inspired a still-running Showtime/cable series, Dexter, which began airing on October 1, 2006. Michael C. Hall plays Dexter Morgan. Julie Benz plays Rita Bennett. Christina Robinson plays Astor. Preston Bailey plays Cody. Jennifer Carpenter plays Debra Morgan. James Remar plays Harry Morgan. Erik King plays Sergeant James Doakes (the cable-series equivalent of Sergeant Albert Doakes in the book series).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Night of the Triffids, by Simon Clark

(hb; 2001)

From the back cover:

"The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndam's extraordinary bestseller, is one man's description of doomsday: almost the entire population has become blind, and the world has a new master -- the monstrous triffid plant. The novel ends with its narrator, Bill Masen, leaving the British mainland with his wife and four-year old son to join a new colony on the Isle of Wight.

"Simon Clark takes up the story twenty-five years later.

"In the 29th year since the fall of the old world, David Masen, the now grown-up son of Bill, wakes one morning to discover that the world has been mysteriously plunged into darkness. The few sighted people have their artificial lights, but once more the triffid has the advantage. . .

"Setting off to seek the cause of the darkness, David finds himself stranded. Eventually rescued and taken to New York, he discovers a very different sort of colony: prosperous and technologically advanced. But all is not as it seems. This sophisticated society hides an evil secret -- and David is about to come face to face with an old enemy from his father's past."


Clark's sequel to John Wyndam's The Day of the Triffids hews closely to the even-handed tone of the original novel, all the while expanding on the concepts and characters created by Wyndam.

When David Masen, son of Bill and Josella Masen, is taken to New York (after crash-landing his plane on a vegetable-based, triffid-filled island) by his American steam shipping rescuers, the tale turns even more surreal, with shades of Escape From New York thrown into the plot mix. Not only that, the triffids are evolving into terrifying new forms, forms that allow the triffids to overcome previously-effective barriers that protect the remaining humans from triffid sting-attacks.

Author Clark twist-ably builds on this increasing surreality, keeping tight focus on Wyndam's source novel themes -- man's arrogant war-like nature, evolution (triffid- and human-related) and science, and, of course, terror.

Clark also builds well on Night's characters, a few of whom originated in Day, while introducing compelling new characters.

Some of these new characters resemble, temperament-wise, characters from Day, namely: Kerris Badekker, David's love interest and daughter of General Fielding (Kerris resembles Josella Playton-later-Masen); Christina Jane Schofield, a feral, triffid poison-immune teenage girl discovered on David's strange-vegetable island (she resembles the little girl Susan from Day); and General Fielding, an overly-ambitious, militaristic Tetrach (governor) of one of four Manhattan Island-based sectors. (Fielding bears a resemblance to the brutal, efficient Torrence from Day.) Sam Dymes, co-leader of the United Liberty Confederation (a rebel faction opposed to General Fielding's eugenics-based plans), resembles Coker (from Day).

My only complaint about this novel is that the opening paragraph of the Night is too much like the opening paragraph of Day -- not only does it seem like Clark is trying too hard to emulate Wyndam's dry-wit style (at least initially), but Night's opening paragraph is clunky and confusing. (The opening paragraph in Day is clever and quotable.)

This is a minor complaint, though, as the rest of the novel is excellent, a can't-put-it-down science-fiction thriller.

Worth owning, this. Not only that, it'd make a kick-butt film, too.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The White Buffalo, by Richard Sale

(hb; 1975)

From the inside flap:

"At the center of [this] story are two very different heroes: the nervous, elegant and deadly master of triggernometry who has come to the Wyoming Territory in the wake of General Custer under an assumed name and who is really Wild Bill Hickok -- scout, gunman, a living legend -- in pursuit of his last adventure; and an Indian, 'Worm,' Nadonaissioux mieyebo, soon to be called Crazy Horse, one day to fight at Little Big Horn.

"The two men share the same dream: to kill (or be killed) by the last of the great white buffaloes, whose mystical presence haunts them both. Their search for this fabulous (and all too real) creature takes both men through the lonely highlands of the West in its last days of wildness; to small towns full of impoverished gold rushers, whores and killers; to Army camps; to the high mountains and grassy plains and Indian settlements, until finally the two most legendary figures of the West -- Hickok and Crazy Horse -- meet in a stunning and terrifying climax before the maddened charge of the White Buffalo himself."


Sale intertwines legends, great characterizations, action and an exciting -- if dying -- era into resonant and unique storyline. Making this story even more thrilling is Sale's use of semi-poetic turns of phrase and interesting Old West-related facts (which don't slow the pace of the story one whit). This is, hands-down, one of the best (and most original) Westerns I've ever read.

By all means, check this out.


The resulting film was released stateside in May 1977.

Charles Bronson played Wild Bill Hickok (aka, James Otis). Jack Warden played Charlie Zane. Will Sampson played Crazy Horse (aka, Worm). Clint Walker played Whistling Jack Kileen. Slim Pickens played Abel Pickney. Kim Novak played Mrs. Jenny Schermerhorn (aka, Poker Jenny). John Carradine played Amos Briggs (an undertaker). Shay Duffin played Tim Brady. Ed Lauter played Tom Custer. Martin Kove played Jack McCall.

J. Lee Thompson directed the film, from a script by source-book author Richard Sale.

<em>The Letter, the Witch and the Ring</em> by John Bellairs

(pb; 1976: third book in the Lewis Barnavelt mysteries . Drawings by Richard Egielski .) From the back cover “Rose Rita [Pottinger]...