I’ve never been comfortable writing critical book reviews. I stopped years ago. I’ll be critical of a book in conversation, but I don’t write those reviews because the fact that something doesn’t work for me only means it doesn’t work for me. If I read a book that I enjoy, whatever criticism I might have of it, if any, is irrelevant, I think. I’d much rather recommend it in the hope that someone else will enjoy it, too. You might even enjoy it more than I did. Or you might hate it. That’s the way it works. But at least I haven’t criticized and possibly scared you away from a book you might otherwise have read and loved. I guess it’s kind of like that old saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” And this is the only time I practice it, so enjoy it while you can. These are some of the books I’ve read in the past year that have stood out in the crowd.
I’ve read some wonderful stuff lately by writers I know. Like Hal Bodner, whose The Trouble with Hairy takes us back to West Hollywood — well, it’s Hal’s West Hollywood, anyway, the West Hollywood of his previous novel Bite Club. I’ve spent very little time in the real West Hollywood and really know nothing about it, but I think I’m pretty safe in saying it doesn’t actually have a vampire and werewolf problem. But, hey, like I said, I’m not familiar with the place.
I’ve been critical of the horror genre — and I’ve included myself in that criticism — for focusing too much on the iconic creatures of the genre’s past. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, that sort of thing. I have nothing against them, don’t get me wrong. I cut my horror teeth on those guys and still have enormous affection for them. But they can only be updated, re-updated, re-imagined, re-re-imagined, revamped, repainted and redecorated so many times before they start to wear a little thin, both as interesting characters and as metaphors.
But Hal has proven they aren’t dead yet. He has managed to breathe new — and hilarious — life into them by putting them in a place we’ve never been before and surrounding them with witty people on whom I enjoy eavesdropping. I may find a book quite funny, but I seldom laugh out loud while reading. Books that have made me laugh out loud include, among others, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Paul Zindel’s Pardon Me, You’re Stepping On My Eyeball, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Howard Stern’s Private Parts, Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren (although technically, that one wasn’t supposed to be funny) — and Hal Bodner’s two WeHo novels. He blends that humor beautifully with some genuine suspense and chills. I recommend both books. Hal is currently at work on the third, Mummy Dearest, and I’m looking forward to it.
I read some noir in the past year, two great writers in the genre from the mid-20th century, writers I’ve read before and will read again. Gil Brewer was heavily influenced by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), and that influence is palpable in Wild to Possess (1959) and A Taste for Sin (1961). But Brewer’s books have a frenetic insanity that Cain never approached. I don’t think anyone did. His books are crazy. In a good way.
David Goodis wrote some of the best tortured noir ever put to paper. The Moon in the Gutter (1953) and The Blonde on the Street Corner (1954) are two perfect examples of that. I’d read them before, but they’re good enough to read again. You will not find likable characters in these books. In fact, they’re populated by some pretty unsavory and even repugnant people, all of whom live in a bad part of town. Unfortunately for Goodis, he wrote what he knew. But the astonishing thing is that he can make you feel for them. They might be ugly, violent people, and they might do some pretty despicable things, but they’re still human beings.
My most recent dip into the horror genre was Erik Williams’s Demon (2011). I met Erik at last year’s Killercon in Las Vegas, along with the entire group of writers of which he’s a member, Snutch Labs, an impressive bunch of disgustingly talented writers. Their collection, Tales from the Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station, is among the best I’ve read in a while. Demon is a swiftly-paced novel that kicks ass all over the place. Erik makes excellent use of the war in Iraq as the backdrop for his story of an ancient supernatural battle between good and evil, and he combines the two elements with a flair for action that gives the novel plenty of gritty tension. There’s a lot here to please lovers of traditional supernatural horror, but the time and place give it an urgency and added danger that make the pages turn even faster.
Earlier this year, I watched a movie starring Sean Connery called Wrong is Right, which I hadn’t seen since its initial release in 1982. I enjoyed the movie back then, but I remember what an angry reception it received. Critics jeered at the idea that terrorists could get away with setting off bombs in an American city. In the movie, the terrorists strap bombs to themselves, then jump from high places, like the top of a building, and then they blow up. It was mocked by critics as a lunatic notion. Could never happen. I enjoyed the movie again 30 years later and noticed it had been based on the 1979 novel The Better Angels by Charles McCarry. The movie takes a sharper turn into black comedy than the novel, but it’s a crackling good read that made me want to find more of McCarry’s work. He’s been compared favorably to John le Carre and Len Deighton, and I can see why.
You think you had a bad teacher in high school? Read Eric Red’s first novel, a thriller called Don’t Stand So Close. This is the same Eric Red who wrote one of my favorite vampire movies, Near Dark. He’s written and directed films and now he’s turned to fiction with a timely novel — the last few years seem to have yielded a lot of news stories about female teachers getting caught in sexual relationships with their teenage students. But not like this. Not yet, anyway.
The Devil’s Coattails: More Dispatches from the Dark Frontier is a collection edited by my friends Jason V. Brock and William Nolan that doesn’t have a set theme and isn’t grounded in any particular genre. It is a celebration of weird fiction and great writing that hits you with one strong piece after another from a stellar lineup of writers. “The Moons” by Ramsey Campbell, a poem by William Nolan, a memoir by the late, great Norman Corwin, an illustrated children’s tale by Paul J. Salamoff with illustrations by Antoine Perkins, contributions by Gary Braunbeck, John Shirley, Richard Christian Matheson, and so many others — it’s as much an experience as a collection.
I read the best true crime book I’ve ever read this year. I couldn’t put the goddamned thing down and when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about how much I wanted to get back to it. Steve Hodel is a former Los Angeles police detective who, right after his father’s death, began to suspect the man might be a murderer. But not just any murderer — the killer of one of the most famous victims in American crime, Elizabeth Short. In Black Dahlia Avenger, Hodel painstakingly presents every detail of the case he has built, and it reads like a dark, gritty novel. The book was originally published in 2003, but I read a more recent update that included new information compiled since the book’s initial publication. It’s a story that takes place in Los Angeles in the Golden Age of Hollywood and even has in its orbit some famous names, like director and actor John Huston and surrealist artist Man Ray. And if you’re a fan of bizarre conspiracy theories, there’s a good deal of overlap between a couple of popular ones and this story, although Hodel doesn’t pursue that (if you’re not familiar with these conspiracies already, you won’t find them here). But what kept me slapping those pages over was the haunting emotional heart of the book — the horror of learning such sickening things about one’s father does not leave one unscathed. The case Hodel put together even convinced the Los Angeles District Attorney. He’s written other books on this subject that I haven’t read yet, but they’re on my list.
I started this blog with a book that made me laugh out loud, and I’m going to end with another. David Sedaris’s collection of essays from 2000, Me Talk Pretty One Day, made me laugh until my face was wet with tears. Each piece builds with bigger and bigger laughs in a way that seems effortless. I kept trying to pay attention to how he did it, but always lost sight of that as I surrendered to the sheer joy of reading the damned things. I’m going to keep my copy handy, because it’s the kind of book I will return to repeatedly during those times when things aren’t going so well and I need some laughs. I recommend you do the same.