Vroom Vroom

suicidemotorclubI have to admit I almost didn’t read this book for a stupid reason: I kept seeing an ad for it on Facebook. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘Another self-published writer hawking his stuff on Facebook. Ugh.’ This is how I know I probably won’t be a published writer. I don’t like to pimp my work out. I feel like one of those pimps with a gold-fish in the heel of his platform shoes, a purple fedora with an Ostrich feather dangling off it, and a voice that could melt steel: “Hey, guuuuuuuurl. You wanna read my short story? Leave the money on the dresser.”

But then I was processing new books and The Suicide Motor Club by Christopher Buehlman turned up. I sighed the sigh of a billion sighs and thought: ‘might as well take a peek at it.’

I am glad I did.

Granted, I am super high on Benadryl as I’m writing this so maybe I’m seeing the novel through Benadryl colored glasses. And that little dragon running by with a cat on its back isn’t helping. Someone’s at the door. I smell pennies. The lights just flickered. I smell burning toast.

Oh….Benadryl.

Picture it: a deserted stretch of road on Route 66 in New Mexico, 1967. In the dark heart of the night a car full of psychopaths preys on those passing through this lonely stretch of nowhere. They pull up alongside other cars and snatch people away. Sounds kind of acrobatic for humans, huh? Well they aren’t human. They look into your eyes and can convince you of anything. Want to kill your husband? Go ahead, the rifle is in the hall closet. On top of a high-rise? Get up on that ledge and drop because you’re a bird.

One night while roaring up and down the highway looking for cars to wreck, they pull alongside a car with a woman, a man, and a small child. Quick as an eighth grader sneaking a cigarette behind the cafeteria dumpster, they grab the boy from the car and intentionally run it off the road where it crashes, killing the man but leaving the woman barely alive. Nobody questions a wrecked vehicle along the side of the road. Bad things happen on empty roads. You drive by a wreck and a secret sick fascination compels you to look for bodies by the road.

Fast forward two years later. The woman, Judith, has physically recovered from that horrible night but in her brain she’s been plotting revenge. Not knowing whether her child is still alive or was killed immediately after being grabbed, she becomes a nun. This is the first step of her revenge. Waaaaay drastic measure. She gets contacted by a group made up of people whose loved ones have been snuffed out by the carload of vampires and are bent on seeking revenge. Yeah, I said vampires but don’t worry about it. These vampires do not sparkle or feel love. This is basically the group:  a bunch of people who were assholes when they were alive and are now undead, but still assholes.

Except there’s one vampire who walks a fine line between good and evil, whose vestiges of humanity throws Judith for a loop. Kinda threw me too. I like my vampires evil as can be. I don’t want any of those vampires who loathe their existence and rail at a God for letting them become monsters. Not God’s fault. He was probably on a conference call with Pat Robertson and Jim Jones.

While reading this I would sometimes have to close the book and stare off into space for five minutes. How is that different from what I do with every book I read? Usually when I stare at a wall I’m thinking about what I want to eat, is it going to involve putting on pants, and do I have to interact with other humans. Reading The Suicide Motor Club made me put the book down and stare at the wall both in awe and in frustration. I’ll never be able to write like this, damn it. This book is up there with Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire mixed in with a little bit of Stephen King and a pinch of the hilarious Christopher Moore.

So there you have it. A car full of marauding monsters not unlike the ‘Squeal like a piggy’ psychopaths from Deliverance except instead of rape, they will drain your body of blood and leave you on the side of the road next to the burned out hulk of your car. End of story. Okay. You can go now. Get out of here before I throw some holy water on you and throw a cross at your head.

You Spin Me Right ‘Round, Baby, Right ‘Round

The_Exorcist_1971I’ve been afraid of many things during my life, but for some reason the idea of being possessed by a demon has always horrified me. It’s right up there with nuclear winter and Donald Trump becoming president. With all the other evils in the world, I have to worry about demon possession because let’s face it: I don’t think I have a soul. If there’s some wisp of a soul it’s pretty weak and I’m almost 100% certain it’s gas.

William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, was a comedy writer. Probably still is. I don’t know. I’d have to look it up. He read an account of a teenage boy who had been showing symptoms of an odd and inexplicable illness. The boy’s bed would levitate and he would rise from the bed like Lazarus from the dead at a beer pong competition. Words would be written on his skin-but from the inside. The kid’s parents were a mess. Was their boy gravely ill or was it a spiritual matter?

They called in a couple of priests to do an exorcism on the boy and whip bang, old Split Hoof was out of there. Later, there was a story that the boy had been molested by his aunt. Whether the ‘possession’ was a side effect or a cry for help, I don’t know. Maybe in the 1940’s (and sometimes now) it’s easier to talk about being possessed by a demon than it is about sexual assault.

The story stuck with Blatty for years and the outcome was The Exorcist. Here’s the lowdown: Father Merrin is on an archaeological dig in Iraq and uncovers a small statue of a demon he’s come up against in the past. He knows – in the way that priests and prescient children seem to know – that evil is nearby. In the movie, this whole part never made a lot of sense to me, but then again I was six when I first watched it, so a lot of things didn’t make sense.

In the novel, Regan MacNeil is a sweet 12-year-old daughter of a movie star. Regan’s father isn’t in the picture and the mom, Chris, is an actually with-it famous movie star single parent. She and Regan have a very close bond. But while her Mom is filming a movie in Washington, DC something strange is beginning to happen in their house and to Regan herself. Weird noises are coming from the attic. The housekeeper convinces Chris there are rats up there because hey, who would hear scratching noises in the attic and think ‘Is that you Satan?’ (By the way, demonic possession is never by Satan himself in a lot of books and movies. He’s too busy juggling campaigns and suicide bombs and which Kardashian is going to have a “hard” year because her nude selfie didn’t break the Internet).

Regan begins speaking in a language she’s never spoken before. She vomits green stuff. GREEN stuff. That ain’t natural. Chris thinks her daughter is going through a period of pre-teen angst over the divorce of her mother and father. She does what every mom does, takes her kid to get tested for everything and when the doctors can’t find anything wrong, well, maybe her kid is having a breakdown. It doesn’t occur to Chris to search for spiritual support. She is an atheist. Luckily, the place where she’s wrapping up filming is rife with Jesuit priests. She turns to Father Damien Karras for help.

Father Karras is enduring his own struggle: his mother just died and he’s having a bout of ‘Are you there God, it’s me, Damien.’ He sees Regan as a psychologist at first, shooting down the idea of demonic possession until there is no other explanation. I guess once a little girl brags that your mother’s soul is in hell and you actually hear the weak voice of your mother coming from her mouth, there’s not much else to turn to. So he goes to the bishop and the God Network begins to gossip and Father Merrin gets wind of it and says “Hey, that’s the asshole I battled long ago in Africa!”

exorcistfilmRegan is aggressive and speaking in tongues and using swear words that would make a sailor blush. Yeah. This is beyond psychological. What ensues is not only a battle for a young girl’s soul, but also for restoring faith – not just religious but in humanity. What I loved about the novel was the fact that Blatty didn’t shy away from things he knew would be controversial – much like the 1973 adaptation of his novel that shocked and sickened theatre goers. There’s a scene with a cross and….well….if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. You’re going to a movie called The Exorcist, people! Not Fluffy Puppies on Clouds. And yeah, I even liked the restoration of faith stuff in the book, not the Roman Catholic ritual of Exorcism (although that is pretty gnarly) but the idea that dark matters can be overcome. At least for a little while. Or shipped off to the next unsuspecting soul.

But I do embrace my own darkness and demons, isn’t that right, Beelzebub? Bubs? Oh damn. He’s been exorcised again. Damn it.

Revenge Rhapsody

revenge

I have a brother who is two and a half years older than me. When I was in school, he was always 2 grades ahead of me. The older I get, the waters of my childhood get a little murky and I don’t recall things the way they exactly happened-just that they happened. But one thing sticks firm: the bus ride home from Lowell Elementary school, a bully named Sheldon, and my seemingly fearless brother.

Sheldon was a typical bully because he picked on smaller kids-boys and girls. The rumor was he used the tears of his victims to mix with his after school glass of Kool-Aid. Every day after school on the bus Sheldon would start threatening me, promising that when I got off the bus he would beat me up. I think Sheldon may have been dumber than a bucket of hair because he never seemed to realize that my brother made sure he got off the bus first and he would stand, arms crossed over his chest as I hopped off the bus with Sheldon on my heels. Short story long, my brother always had my back. He was my protector. Then again, a few hours after making sure the bully didn’t get me, he’d sit on me and fart until I cried but since I was his little sister, he was allowed to torture me.

premeditatedIn Josin McQuein’s Premeditated, Dinah is as close to her cousin Claire as any sister would be. They grew up together and made plans for the future that involved being around each other. Then Dinah’s family moves away, leaving behind not only her cousin but her two best friends as well. Dinah’s mother is a real bi-….nag. She harangues Dinah and her father, criticizes, yells, and tears them down any chance she gets. In fact, I thought the lady was bonkers and at some point in the book was going to be fitted with a jacket that makes her hug herself and get three rounds of meds a day. Dinah has no real relationship with her mother and can’t figure out why her father puts up with her mother’s behavior, let alone stay married to the woman.

And then the family gets a phone call that Dinah’s cousin Claire has slit her wrists.  The act in itself wasn’t enough to kill her, but Claire somehow lost her balance and cracked her head against the sink or the bathtub. She’s now in a coma and there seems to be little hope she’ll come out of it. Dinah’s on the first plane back to her home town to be with her cousin and her aunt and uncle. Dinah searches her cousin’s room for any clues and finds her diary. In her diary Claire wrote that she met someone over the summer, fell in love, gave herself to, and then was dumped the next day. The boy who did this goes to the prestigious Lowery Private School where Claire would have entered as a freshman had she not tried to kill herself.

Armed with the name of the boy who treated Dinah’s cousin like a piece of garbage, Dinah dyes her black hair blonde, takes out all of her piercings, dons a plaid skirt and knee socks and enters the elite private school bent on exacting revenge on Brooks Walden. With the help of her two best friends, Brucey and Tabs, Dinah attempts to bring the rich kid down with a revenge plan that could ruin his present and future life. But Dinah finds herself grudgingly liking Brooks. And she likes his best friend Dex, who she can see herself spending more time with. Can she avenge her cousin even though she’s confused about who the bad guy really is?  How far does Dinah have to go to set things right? Is Brooks the monster she believes him to be? Will Claire come out of her coma and if she does how damaged will she be? Will I ever remember to refill the ice-cube tray?  Just seeing if you’re paying attention.

Take everything you know about revenge, put it in the kitchen sink, and throw a match on it. Because you haven’t seen revenge until you read Premeditated.

They Sure Look Like Ants From Up Here

I have always wondered what it would be like to be so far down the rabbit hole of love that you don’t need to doubt it. I’ll admit it; I’ve never been in love. Not proper love, not the kind where you fall asleep at night assured that love is going to be there in the morning. I’ve also wondered what it would be like to be abducted by aliens and told I’m the deciding factor for whether the world ends or not.

wearetheantsThis is what happens to Henry Denton in Shaun David Hutchinson’s We Are the Ants.

Henry lives with his mother, his brother Charlie and his Alzheimer’s stricken grandma in Florida. He and Charlie’s father split years ago and they haven’t heard or seen him since. Charlie’s kind of an asshole, but not in the regular way older brothers are assholes to their siblings. His treatment of Henry verges on physical abuse. Charlie’s flunked out of college and gotten his girlfriend Zooey pregnant. Zooey is pretty cool and an amazing influence on Charlie. Think “You make me want to be a better man.”  Their mother is an exhausted waitress who chain-smokes while trying to keep her world together. Grandma is slowly losing the thread of the story.

And Henry keeps getting abducted by aliens. It’s been happening for years, ever since he was little but nobody believes him. He calls the aliens sluggers because they look like, well….slugs. They aren’t big on communication and ‘talk’ to Henry by gesturing at pictures.  Fortunately, they’re not big on anal probing. They usually drop him off miles from home either naked or in his underwear. Aliens either have a wicked sense of humor or the idea of pants is ridiculous to them.

They do, however, want him to make the biggest decision of not only his life but the entire planet’s life: push a giant red button and the world continues, don’t push it and life ends. They give him 144 days to make the decision. The world as we know it will end on January 29, 2016 at 20:03 GMT. Most people would automatically say “I’m pushing the button because I want humanity to continue to thrive. There’s so much living to do. There might be a cure for cancer or stupidity out there. I can’t end the world.” I fall somewhere in the middle: “Meh, I might not push the button and let this ridiculous world keep going or I might push it and let’s all get on with the afterlife.” Then again, I can’t make a decision to save my life. Don’t ask me what time I want to go to lunch because I’ll freeze and blurt out “1964!”

But Henry seems to have a very good reason to want the world to end. His boyfriend, Jesse, killed himself last year and left no note, no reason explaining why he did it. What hurts almost as much is that Henry also lost his best friend Audrey who completed their trio. He won’t speak to her even though she tries to become his friend again. She has her own demons to deal with and a secret she’s not about to admit to anyone.

Henry is unpopular at school, his nickname being Space Boy because everyone thinks he’s nuts for saying he’s constantly getting abducted by aliens. Uber popular Marcus is a jock and a bully and secretly in the closet. When others are around, he mercilessly picks on Henry but when they’re alone he acts like he wants to be with him. And why does Henry allow it? Because in a weird way, he thinks he needs to be punished. His boyfriend killed himself and he thinks maybe it was his fault. How many of us have done THE stupidest things because we thought we didn’t deserve any better? Did you see how fast my hand went up? I think I broke the sound barrier.

Henry’s life is a mess and now, Diego Vega moves to town and Henry starts to wonder, does he deserve to love and be loved again? What’s Diego’s story? What happened in Colorado that forced him to move to Florida? Is Diego even gay? Why does Henry have all these feelings? Is he being disloyal to the memory of Jesse?

As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, Henry is constantly getting abducted by impatient aliens who want him to decide if the world should continue or if it should end. When I was 16 my hardest decision was Cocoa Puffs or Lucky Charms for breakfast. Okay. That actually is still my hardest decision some days and I’m now almost 40. Oh man. Now I want some Lucky Charms. Where was I? Oh yeah. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Do I have to pay REM for using those lyrics? Only if I earn money with this blog post?  Oh, okay. Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.

So what should Henry do? Push the button because he believes in love and life and the future? Or ignore the button because humanity is doomed to misery and he’s doing everyone a favor by letting the world end? The decision rests heavily on a teenaged Space Boy.

Guard Your Heart

impossibleknifeofmemorySometimes I read a book and think how I want to write about it on the library’s blog. Yes, I actually do think about what I’m writing. Kinda. It usually goes like this: “Book good. Book make Jennifer happy. Book make reality disappear. Jennifer tell about book.” Evidently, I’m a Neanderthal in my head.

So I’m going to tell you about it.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, Hayley Kincain has one more year of high school to get through and then….what? Go to college? Not when her father, a vet from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, is suffering from PTSD so fierce that she sometimes wonders if their lives are going to end up like a news story: murder/suicide. For the last five years it’s been Hayley and her father Andy on the road. Andy was a long haul trucker who homeschooled his daughter on the road. In subjects such as history and warfare she’s way ahead of her classmates. Not so much in math (Don’t worry Haley. I’m almost 40 and I haven’t used algebra once in my life since high school. I figure X should get its sh*t together and try to find Y itself). After being on the road so long, Andy decides to move Hayley into his childhood home. This is where he does drugs and drinks and suffers from severe bouts of PTSD that leave the house in ruins and the dog hiding in another room.

Now a senior in high school Hayley has to navigate friendships, who she can trust and who she won’t let past her barriers. Even her best friend Gracie doesn’t know what goes on in Hayley’s home, that she often has to clean up the puddles of puke from her father after a bender or that a friend of his who likes to hang out at the house gives her the creeps so she disappears until she’s sure he’s gone.

In walks Finn. He’s this goofy dude that Hayley hasn’t given much thought to since starting school but he’s always joking with her, inviting her places. He’s into her but she’s thinking “Nah, my dad has severe issues. He left the war but the war never left him. Why would I even think about trying to have a normal life, a normal relationship?” But you can’t help who you fall in like with. Not love. Like. That’s very important to Hayley. Most of her grades are pretty good but Hayley is combative, often correcting her teachers and she gets sent to the intrusive guidance counselor who threatens to contact Hayley’s father but Hayley can’t have this.

Andy’s erratic behavior is escalating and he refuses to go to the VA hospital for treatments, blows off his appointments, loses job after job or just doesn’t show up for work. All the other seniors are applying to colleges and awaiting acceptance letters. Part of Hayley wants to apply to a college but the thought of leaving her father on his own keeps her from imagining a real future. She sees her life spreading out before her, the years stretching on with her still living at home and taking care of her broken father. Trish, a woman who helped raise Hayley and put in her own time with Andy’s demons, tries to make a return to their lives. She had been like a mother to Hayley (whose own mother died when she was a baby) but Trish up and left one horrible night years before, something that Hayley can’t forgive. Trish had a drinking problem as well. Her fights with Andy often became physical. Hayley will do anything to keep her out of their lives.

Between keeping her father sane, keeping herself in school, and dealing with the possibility of no future, Hayley’s will to keep going is staggering. I don’t know how she does it, how she puts herself in ‘move forward’ mode. I know myself. I know I would be “Okay. Thanks. I’m done. Where’s the nearest roof I can jump off?” Laurie Halse Anderson creates characters so real you expect to bump into them at the grocery store.

Love, war, ghosts, survival. There’s even a little redemption thrown in there. The Impossible Knife of Memory has everything that a person wanting to get lost in a book is looking for. Book good. Book make happy.

Dark Dreams Bought and Sold

bazaarofbaddreamsI’m not overly fond of short stories any more (which is weird because all I ever do is write short stories that usually end up as long as a three-hour Uncle Morty War Story in which Morty gets his World Wars mixed up and tells you he shot the Archduke Ferdinand) but when Stephen King comes out with a new book of short stories, I eat them up. His newest collection is titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Throughout most of his writing life, King has set his novels and stories in Maine. Over the last few years he’s begun setting them in places like Florida. Reading them kind of feels like mom and dad sold your childhood home and moved away while you were at college. The stories are still good but they don’t feel like…home.

Many dismiss King as a horror hack churning out stories about monsters under the bed or clowns terrorizing children but they have it all wrong. Sure, in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams he writes about monsters like in the story “Mile 81” where a car (with hints of his novel Christine thrown in) eats people at a rest stop. King also writes about weird happenings like in the story “UR” where a man decides to bite the bullet and buy a Kindle. This was when Kindles first came out and there were a couple features on them that were ‘experimental.’ He finds out just what that means when he orders nonfiction books about historical events that never happened-in this version of the universe.

But King also writes about everyday life as shown in these stories from his latest collection:

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”: after a man lunches with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, they get into a road rage incident that has unforeseen consequences.

“Morality”: What does a financially strapped married couple do to get out from under the weight of debt and job loss? The unthinkable becomes possible.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”: A couple of octogenarian poets rekindle an old love during a picnic while a van full of kids and two down on their luck women barrel down a freeway.

“Premium Harmony”: The love is gone from this married couple and the wife’s damn dog is still in the back seat.

kingDo you want some straight up old school King terror? Try these shorties in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:

“Bad Little Kid”: Dennis the Menace has nothing on this supernatural punk, but can anybody else see him?

“Afterlife”: A man is dying from cancer. Is it the end or just another beginning?

“The Little Green God of Agony”: In 1999 Stephen King was run over by a van while out for his daily walk. He should have died. Instead, this story (along with many novels and stories) came out about a man who claims he can take physical pain from people and make it his own.

I sat up way late into the night reading this book. See, that’s the beauty of a Stephen King short story: you read the first few pages and think ‘Where the hell is he going to go with this?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know, man.  I just don’t know.’ He’s a wildcard. Wildcard!

I Already Forgot to Remember

thegreatforgettingThis is how James Renner’s The Great Forgetting opens: a Scoutmaster finds an ape-like arm, with a watch still attached to the wrist, at the memorial site of the crash of Flight 93, a plane hijacked on 9/11 but diverted from its intended course when the passengers overtook the terrorists onboard and crashed the plane into a Pennsylvania field. The Scoutmaster takes it to the coroner who was at the crash site all those years ago.

The coroner studies the arm and tells the man someone must be playing a prank on him. If it was an arm from the crash (and he very much doubts it is) it’d be nothing but bone. Many remains from that crash were vaporized on impact. The watch is engraved with a name that sounds familiar to the coroner. He checks the names of those aboard Flight 93 and the name on the watch matches the name of a man who died when the plane crashed.

But why does it look so ape-like?

Jack Felter, a history teacher, is headed home for the summer to help his sister take care of their ailing father, a former pilot in the Vietnam War who has a violent form of dementia. Jack’s childhood best friend Tony has been missing for two years. A psychologist working at a mental hospital, Tony was accused of funneling money from the hospital and disappeared. Tony’s wife, Sam, was Jack’s first love. She believes that Tony committed suicide and is now at the bottom of a quarry and wants Jack’s help finding the body. This is where the plot really takes a turn for the bizarre.

It seems Tony was acting strange even before he left, becoming more and more paranoid, boiling all of his drinking water and delving into conspiracy theories. He’d been an intense kid, but Jack hasn’t seen him in years. Jack reluctantly agrees to help Sam out, figuring he’ll ask around and get her questions answered, then return to his life in another town.

Jack heads to the mental hospital where he meets 16-year-old Cole who was Tony’s patient. Tony told Cole that one day his friend Jack would come for a visit. Cole begins telling him a story: There’s a group of people who have come up with a program called The Great Forgetting. They want us to forget important things like world events. They keep resetting time. They put fluoride in the water to make us forget. Start boiling your water.

“What day do you think it is?” Cole asks Jack.

Jack looks at him with that condescending indulgent smile sane people give to those they deem bat poop crazy and answers “It’s Tuesday, June16th.”

Cole says “It’s Wednesday, the 17th”. Boil your water, he tells Jack.  Begin to remember.

Cole is the only one who knows where Tony has disappeared to and thinks that finding him might save the world. Unfortunately, some very nasty things are not only after Jack and Cole but want to hunt down Tony as well. Jack and a motley group head for a secret bunker under the Catskills which leads them to a forgotten island in the Pacific and eventually the truth about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared without a trace a year ago.

The Great Forgetting is a fantastic book about time travel, enduring love, and setting things right. If you crave paranoid conspiracy theories with a little sci-fi thrown in, this book is the one!

I gotta boogie on out of here. I have 8 gallons of water to boil. I want to remember.