With Thanksgiving (finally) behind us, it's time to settle into the end of the year and get cozy with a good book (or six). I usually take December off from writing to catch up on some reading, and while others are enjoying heart-warming holiday romances I am - as usual - erring on a bit more of the darker side. Be it a Yuletide fantasy, a dark romp with Krampus, a little holiday irreverence, or some holiday screams, here is what I am reading (and in some cases rereading) this December.
The Winter Riddle by Sam Hooker
I've been looking forward to this one all year. An antisocial winter witch teams up with a less than jolly Santa? Yes, please. It also helps that it's written by my friend and fellow author, the always brilliant and ceaselessly hilarious Sam Hooker, responsible for the Terribly Serious Darkness books. Review to come. Get your copy.
Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom
I love the myth of Krampus, and what I heard of this book last year when my husband read snippets of it aloud (between his fits of laughter), so decided to give it a go myself this year. If you're looking to pitch Santa back up to the North Pole, or otherwise want to terrify your kids, consider Krampus. Review to come. Get your copy.
Hark! The Herald Angels Scream by Christopher Golden
I'm a big fan of short story anthologies, and bought this when it released in October. As noted by the anthology's editor, there is darkness at the heart of the season, and we've long been telling ghost stories about it. I cannot wait to dig into this. Review to come. Get your copy.
A Christmas Blizzard by Garrison Keillor
What's better than a slow-burning holiday tragedy penned by a curmudgeonly author? Nothing. This is one of those stories I read every year - a wonderful farce delivered only as a storyteller as masterful as Garrison Keillor could spin. (#protip: Listen to a few back episodes of A Prairie Home Companion so you can get your narration voice straight before cracking this one open). Get your copy.
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
Another annual read, this story speaks to my inner Luther Krank--someone who is over the holiday insanity and just wants to go relax on a beach somewhere. The book that inspired the film Christmas with the Kranks, if you've ever just gotten sick of holiday madness, this one will make you giggle and still manage to give your Grinchy heart a little boost, too. Get your copy.
Old Christmas by Washington Irving
Stay in your lane, Charles Dickens, and leave Olde English Christmas to Washington Irving, the author who brought us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. If you've not read this true Christmas classic, it's time to leave Scrooge to count his coins and read this oft-forgotten classic instead. (#protip: Get the illustrated version.) Get your copy.
My lifelong love affair with Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles is rather well-documented.
After two books of alternating points of view--Prince Lestat (2014) and Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis (2016)-- Rice, and Lestat, are back in the newly released Blood Communion. In a first person narrative flouting more dialogue than previous books in the series, the eleventh installment in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles sees the charmingly insufferable vampire continuing more or less the same path he’s been on for the past few centuries: seeking a beautiful respite and fame for his unquenchable ego, and comforting himself with insincere self-flagellation every step of the way. Indeed, told completely from the perspective of The Brat Prince himself, Blood Communion is exactly the sort of epicurean tale you might expect from the vampire who simultaneously laments each of his numerous mistakes while continually ignoring any wisdom that might prevent him from making his next.
It is Lestat de Lioncourt in all his pompous, velvet-cloaked, self-indulgent glory, and we love him—and Rice—for it.
For those of us loyal People of the Page who have tired of worrying how, if, or (for-the-freaking-love-of-Akasha) when Amel’s consciousness might be extracted from Lestat or about the motives of the replimoids (in fact, there is mercifully little mentioned about Kapetria or Amel until the final few pages), this is the story we have been waiting for. Once again, the ever self-absorbed and easily besmitten vampire romances himself through his own panderings, all the way from a superficial infatuation with newcomer Dmitri Fontayne (or Mitka, as he prefers), a former lover of none other than Pandora, who beguiles Lestat with his fragile hands, impressive wardrobe, and well-furnished home (sound familiar?), to the quickly dispatched Baudwin. This latter is ultimately ended by his maker, a newly introduced ancient Gundesanth (Santh), who, as it turns out was a member of the Queen’s blood priesthood and companion of Nebamun (known now as Gregory). Alas, it wouldn’t be fitting for a new addition in the Vampire Chronicles if it didn’t introduce and subsequently forget new characters at lightning speed.
"[blood communion] is Lestat de Lioncourt in all his pompous, velvet-cloaked, self-indulgent glory, and we love him—and Rice—for it."
In an installment that is most reminiscent of The Vampire Lestat (1985), Rice’s latest, lushly-written addition to the Chronicles acts as a sort of bookend to the series Louis kicked off, returning us back to the mortal days of Lestat. It is, also, perhaps the most unabashed love letter from Rice in all her glorious descriptions of Lestat. We revisit some of the most impactful, character-shaping moments of his personal history—Claudia's death, the conversion of Gabrielle, the tryst with Memnoch, et cetera—and see the culmination of these moments arrived as Lestat finally achieves the proper nobility he has desired since his mortal days in his family’s crumbling castle in France.
Though the novel lags in the beginning and feels somewhat rushed toward the end, there are moments of intense action and violence in Blood Communion, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Queen of the Damned. Two such scenes of note involve the ill-fated Rhoshamandes (yes, finally) and his beloved Benedict. It is Lestat himself who cheaply head butts and then rips the former’s head from his ancient body, subsequently ingesting and then vomiting back Rhosh’s eyes. The second gruesome death of note (although it happens prior to Rhosh’s) is when poor Benedict terminates his own immortality (shortly after delivering Lestat an actual throne) in a gory exit that makes the stage scene of the young French woman in the Théâtre des Vampires look positively G-rated.
Of course, Rhosh’s eventual demise has been long awaited, and Lestat honors though does not participate in Benedict’s. However, if you’ve ever expected The Brat Prince to actually face consequences—from condemning poor Claudia to short-lived immortality, to destroying the Théâtre des Vampires (something over which Armand is still deliciously bitter), to teaming up (albeit-temporarily) with the blood queen Akasha, to continually and incessantly ignoring the insight and caution of Louis, Armand, Marius or any of the other blood drinkers Lestat clams to love yet never actually shows any affection—or to perhaps grow into the maturity of a centuries-old vampire, it isn’t happening here. Not even and perhaps especially not know that he enjoys the role of crowned Prince, a position he ceaselessly wrings his hands over (and which is constantly reinforced by vampires who, after Akasha, might know better!). Instead, any maturity we might find in Lestat is tempered by his own grandiose musings as he comforts himself with his progress in establishing the court, hosts decadent balls and ceremonies, restores his ancestral home—Chateau de Lioncourt—and the surrounding village, considers and then bestows the Dark Gift to his lead architect, and still manages to come out of yet another challenge to his dominance not only the winner, but somehow improved. He is, for better or worse, the same bratty blond vampire he has always been—just maybe a little less repentant about it.
But then so are the rest of the vampires. The always-dramatic Armand. The ever-inconsolable Louis. The incessantly-brooding Marius. Gabrielle, who remains as elusive and temporal as Pandora. But perhaps therein is Rice’s subtle nod to a simple truth—the suggestion that despite all its flaws and all its imperfections, that no matter how long removed from the realm of the living, no matter how well preserved in velvet and beautiful immortality, the human condition persists within us all.
Blood Communion is the necessary next step of the Court as we have come to know and love them, and it is Lestat de Lioncourt as we simply can’t live without him.
All hail Prince Lestat!
In what could rightfully be deemed a revival of the horror genre, two things have happened of late. The first has evidenced itself cinematically, with new spine-tingling features coming to screens in the veritable gush of Stephen King stories-turned-films on streaming platforms and Hollywood both (Gerald’s Game though, sigh) alongside a swarm of other new horrifying literary adaptations, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (originally published in 1959), revivals of nostalgic, spooktastic series like Goosebumps (I previously wrote on the same here), new installments in the Halloween franchise (the film that quite literally cut its teeth biting off what’s since been known as the slasher genre), and a general enchantment with watching all things existing on the spectrum of terror—from true-story haunting series like Netflix’s Haunted to cooking shows (and not the scary Gordon Ramsey kind, unfortunately). Even Halloween, which didn’t reach 2017’s record high in spending last month, did achieve an impressive $9b, a significant amount being spent on costumes—and pet costumes. (I feel the need to remark Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas’s Gomez and Morticia Addams costumes, which, if you have not yet seen them on the Internet, are spectacular).
Of course, we don’t only like to watch horror or dress up like it, but we like to read it as well. The last year has seen the publication of several spectacular horror titles, among them Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls and The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager. Thus, the second shift in the revival of the horror genre has been a call, not to the directorial or theatrically inclined, but to the writers—particularly to the women of horror fiction, a historically underrepresented group in the genre (I’m speaking of adult horror, sparkly vampires don’t count). From boutique indie publishing houses with open calls looking for stories by (or about) ladies of shivery goodness, like Stangehouse Books, to new bookish review and author fan groups like the Ladies of Horror Fiction who tweet, podcast, review, and otherwise champion the women’s horror writing market, the invitation to join the club of horror writers has grown wide, inclusive, and unabashedly interested in producing work that has the ability to scare the hell out of all of us.
So, to keep us in a steady supply of creepy new stuff to make our blood run cold, while King is offering rights to his short stories for $1 to film students via the Dollar Babies program, the publishing community is serving up its own set of opportunities. And if there’s one thing that those of us saddled with the sometimes-competitive-and-often-masochistic author gene simply can’t resist it’s a chance to show our stuff in a battle of writing wits, namely, a contest—maybe even one that could put us in the running for the coveted Bram Stoker award (I’m just saying).
This year, Inkshares, the publisher of speculative fiction which has produced two standouts—in 2017, Scott Thomas’ Kill Creek, a debut literary horror that was selected by the American Library Association’s advisory committee as the horror book of the year, shortlisted for the Bram Stoker, termed “the horror debut of 2017” by Barnes & Noble, and is in development for television at Showtime, and this year Christopher Huang’s A Gentleman’s Murder, which, in addition to receiving a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly, is in development at Endeavor Content with the former heads of HBO and Showtime—has just opened a call for submissions for its second-annual Horror Novel Contest.
I’ll go ahead and mention that both Inkshares authors of the aforementioned titles have had their books licensed by major houses in foreign territories and gotten their cold, skeletal fingers on significant five-figure advances. Not accomplishments to snub a nose at for sure.
It’s also worth pointing out, just for the record, that both authors are men. So, ladies of horror, let’s make this year’s contest one for the books (pun!). Seasoned or aspiring writers alike, whip out your pens, pencils, or whatever writing device you use, and start (or finish) that horror book that’s been whispering dark thoughts in your ears. Whether you’re a Morticia, a Lily, or an Elvira herself, ready your best horror manuscript and get your submission on. The horror genre is back—just check out this article by my literary agent Italia Gandolfo—and this time it’s ours.
Submissions are open now through December 14th (I’ll say it again for the folks in the back--submissions are open until December 14th) and are open to anyone with a partial or finished horror manuscript. Inkshares will be accepting at least three novelists for publication and rights management. Full submission details and other nuances of eligibility here.
Originally published 11.6.18 on The Nerd Daily
Before Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), before Stephanie Meyer (Twilight), even before J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter, incase you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years), there was R. L. STINE.
Few things say “horror” to 90s kids like recalling memories of curling up in front of the TV on Saturday night to catch an episode of Are You Afraid Of The Dark?, the Canadian horror fantasy-themed anthology Nickelodeon series that made spooky campfire stories a weekly event, and reading Goosebumps books, usually harvested from those most magical of school day events: the Scholastic Book Fair. At a time when girls in my peer group were busy reading series like The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High, rare would have been the occurrence to find eight-year old me without my nose stuffed deep in the pages of a Goosebumps book (the very first installment, Welcome to Dead House, residing squarely beside the quintessential Stine classic, Night of the Living Dummy, as my personal favorites). Nothing horrified my mother more than finding me still reading in bed past midnight, armed with a flashlight and shivering with eager dread under a blanket as I sped through the pages of a Goosebumps novel. “You’ll give yourself nightmares,” she’d often warn, and I did—I’m still a little uneasy around ventriloquist, er, dolls—but I also kept reading.
I wasn’t alone in my fascination with these books, with their neon covers and catchy harrowing titles like A Scarecrow Walks at Midnight and The Werewolf of Fever Swamp. The Goosebumps series—along with myriad spinoff series written by Stine, including Goosebumps Series 2000 (1998 to 2000), Goosebumps Gold (never released), Give Yourself Goosebumps (1995 to 2000), Goosebumps HorrorLand (2008 to 2012) and Goosebumps Most Wanted (2012 to 2016)—have sold more than 400 million copies since 1992. During a particular prosperous time in their mid-90s heyday, Goosebumps were flying off the shelf at a rate of 4 million copies per month, a speed unmatched until we met Harry Potter in 1997.
When the first Goosebumps movie hit theaters in October 2015, I found myself curious, excited, and frankly a little nervous. While the recent remake-revival of everything 80s and 90s was fun at first, I will concede it started getting a little hard to watch when Lisa Frank merchandise reappeared at Hot Topic and a remake of The Magic School Bus showed up streaming on Netflix. I watched the trailer for Goosebumps (2015) and thought to myself, please Hollywood, you’ve taken my sticker collections, trapper keepers, and Ms. Frizzle, please don’t destroy my childhood books, too. (Much of my anxiety was relieved when I saw that Jack Black had signed on to portray Stine himself. I don’t know why, but I think it had something to do with every Jack Black movie ever made.)
Of course, I went and saw it, dragging my then-nine-year-old son along with me. He was, admittedly, disinterested, going along with it only because it “might be cool.” In hopes of converting my son into a Goosebumps-kid, I picked him up a tattered old copy of one of the newer installments--Zombie School, I believe—at a secondhand bookstore, and although it had never left the bookshelf since it arrived at our house, I was still hopeful. We saw Goosebumps, and it was everything my childhood self could have ever dreamed it would be. All the classics came out to play, led as you might expect, by Slappy himself. There were twists, emotionally resonant characters, and just the right amount of absurdity and nail biting. I loved it.
And then came the sequel.
I was terrified. Not in the Goosebumps kind of way, but in the holy crap they’re going to remake the remake and they’re going to ruin it kind of way. My son, now 11, however, saw the preview and demanded we see it at once. I balked. Read some early notes. Checked to see if Black was still involved with the project. Whined a little about how sequels destroy dreams. Then, one day as I was organizing my son’s bookshelves I came across that secondhand copy of Zombie School. Its pages were falling out. The cover had detached itself and was now hanging off the book’s spine like the decaying flesh of one of the title characters. There were dog ears and highlighted passages, the kind that only appear after you’ve read a story a whole bunch of times and fallen completely in love with it.
At long last, my son, who has morphed into a sternly devout reader of series limited to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Spy School, was becoming a Goosebumps kid. We went to the bookstore, and in the kid’s section—one I rarely visit—I was amazed to discover a massive stand of all-things Stine. Standing at that blissful kiosk I almost forgot that I am a fully-grown woman who reads Stephen King anthologies for breakfast. I had to stop myself from going home with a few old favorites, even though I really wanted to read Ghost Beach again. I started to feel hopeful about the remake-sequel of Goosebumps. The next week, the book fair came to school, and my son came home with a copy of the novelization of the new film.
I quit fussing and bought the damn tickets.
If the first Goosebumps film was the thing all of us 90s kids’ had been waiting for, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween was the thing we all worried about. The overly silly storyline was busy desperately trying to be original while still borrowing as many iconic Goosebumps characters as it could. If managing that messy kludge of doom wasn’t already bad enough, all of this was forcefully shoved against a Halloween backdrop like an unwitting kid in a school portrait, ignoring any potentially better suited plot that might have been leveraged from the 150+ actual Goosebumps stories. One particular standout scene—which usurped a ridiculous amount of screen time—involved a small army of demonic gummy bears that congealed themselves into one fanged gummy beast. It remains a mystery whether this goofball scene got so much real state because someone ran out of ideas to fill the hour and a half film, or because some writer had a particular fascination with the idea of a herd of little squishy candies blobbing together into one very large, very toothy gummy blob. In fact, that may be the single best way to sum up the movie itself: a lot of gummy fang instead of any real bite.
Silliness aside, there were some pretty decent scenes in the film—like when Slappy calls upon various Halloween decorations, from rubber rats to zombie masks, languishing on a discount department store shelf to come to life—and some pretty decent spooks for a family film—like (again) Slappy creeping into the bedroom of a sleeping girl, his shadow towering over hers with questionable intent. The most enjoyable aspect of the film isn’t found in the plotline itself, but perhaps in its character cast—though Black himself was only allotted a measly and completely unnecessary ten minutes to revive his role as Stine, sigh. From a single-mom, to an unassuming and vaguely nerdy main character, an entrepreneurial best friend who is equal parts comedic relief and the friend we all wish we had, a stereotypical bicycle-gang of preteen bullies, and a teenage sister navigating everything from bad boyfriends to college applications, this group might have been lifted directly out of any real world neighborhood and put into a twisted, over the top scenario that is too silly to be scary but still manages to give you—dare I say—goose bumps—assuming you’re eleven years old.
Realization hit me walking out of the theater. While I was busy rattling off reasons the film failed cinematically, why it didn’t live up to the expectations set in the first, why it just didn’t remind me of my childhood love affair with R. L. Stine, my son turned to me and asked the question I had been waiting to hear ever since I caught him reading in bed with a flashlight: “What’s your favorite Goosebumps book?” he asked. “Maybe I’ll read it next.” Sweet, shivery bliss filled my heart, and a sinister smirk even Slappy might have approved of crossed my face. I looped my arm around my son’s shoulders and steered him back toward that Goosebumps book kiosk waiting for us in the children’s section of the bookstore.
Suddenly, I found myself really, really happy with this nonsensical, Jello-for-storyline movie because while it didn’t do right by us old school readers, it did something I think might be even better. It’s reinvigorated a new generation of kids to pick up a Goosebumps novel, hide under bed sheets with a flashlight, and enjoy a case of the shivers. After all, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween wasn’t made for us 90s kids to relive our Goosebumps glory days. It was made for the kids of those 90s kids. To let them worry just a little bit about stuff that goes bump in the night. To scare the ever-living hell out of them every time they look at a ventriloquist doll. To give a new generation of readers goose bumps.