Monday, April 4, 2016

Grimdark Critters and Eldritch Horrors: Reads for a Sick and Sleepy Day

There are advantages to being sick, not the least of which are being able to eat ice cream as a meal and catch up with all the shit you’re usually too ashamed to watch on Netflix (Hello, Murder Maps). Illness is a great excuse to cozy up to some fine reading material, and boy did I ever take advantage last week. The key to a proper sick read is hedonism, and my two selections hit all of my guilty pleasure buttons.

The Builders

                                        The Builders by Daniel Polansky
Confession time. I was one of those little girls you’d see constantly toting around novels about animals. Like most, I started off with your softball stuff (think Black Beauty and Where the Red Fern Grows), but I quickly moved on to critter genre fiction. It didn’t matter what the package was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Bunnicula, Redwall, Watership Down, I read it all. Critter fiction was my crack. I gleefully polished the bench in the principal’s office many a time just because I couldn’t stop reading some giant Brian Jaques novel while I should have been filling out yet another stupid goddamn worksheet. (No apologies. No regrets.)

Time passed and critter fiction faded into the fond, distant memories of childhood, probably because most of it, Watership Down excluded, failed to make the leap of sophistication into adulthood with me. Imagine my delight, then, when I picked up a slim novella promising grimdark critter fantasy.

I nearly squeed out loud. In the library. With strangers watching.

The Builders is at heart a simple revenge story. Years after a revolution that overthrew the legitimate monarch of the Gardens, the losing powers behind the fallen monarch gather together under the leadership of a mouse named the Captain one last time to get their own whatever the cost.

As the action progresses, it becomes clear that the Gardens are in a bad way. Order is kept, to be sure. But it is kept by totalitarian means. The prisons are empty because there is only one punishment for disobedience in any form: death. The architect, a skunk named Mephitic, is propping up the Younger, who is too dissolute to care about the actual running of the kingdom.

Ultimately the Captain and his crew are every bit as bloody, brutal and manipulative as their ascendant counterparts. I ended up seriously questioning whether the Gardens would have ended up being a damn bit better under the aegis of the Elder and the Captain. It’s a chess game played between psychopaths, and yet it’s so much fun to watch unfold.

As with all good revenge stories, The Builders ends in blood. It’s viscerally satisfying and brutal, and at only 219 pages, I left wanting more. Can I say right now that this is actually a good thing? Because it is. I’m more than a little sick of the current trend of five hundred plus page multi-volume monstrosities. Give me something with all the fat trimmed away any day of the week, something lean, vicious, and close to the bone. I don’t want to be sick of the company of my favorite characters. Polansky didn’t fail me here, for which fact I am deeply grateful.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling

 Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling by Michael Boccacino

Imagine Lovecraft’s Elder Gods decided to put on people skin suits and play at being human for a little while. Add a ghost story and a dollop of Victorian Gothic romance and you have the ingredients to Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling. It’s the perfect book to read under mounds and mounds of blankets with a steaming hot cup of tea close at hand.

                Let’s start with the positives. The writing is just lavish. Boccacino really excels at fleshing out all the uncanny details that make up both the human world of Everton and the alien world of Darkling House and the Ending. He doesn’t spare any of the senses. And I do love an author who recognizes that horror can even be woven out of taste.
                In Charlotte Markham, the narrator of the novel, we have a strong woman who is driven by her growing feelings of love for her employer, the widower Mr. Henry Darrow, and her young wards, Paul and James. She’s driven by her feelings, but she is in no way dominated. Charlotte remains independent and decisive. She retains her agency in what proves to be a very deep, very dangerous chess game played between two opponents who think of humans, when they think of them at all, as vermin or playthings. Along feminist lines, I love this character to pieces.

                Then there’s the fusion of genres. For me, ghost story + Victorian Gothic Romance + Tentacled Abominations = Win. Pretty much always, actually. I would read the shit out of this novel a second time just to get a second hit of this sweet, sweet genre mashup.
                The one criticism I have is that the middle of the novel does tend to drag a bit. I feel that this is the one place where the author allows the plot to dictate Charlotte’s actions, and it ended up throwing me out of the story a little. But the doldrums didn’t last long, and the rest of the book had me riveted, so no big loss.
                I actually loved this book so much I went right to GoodReads to see if Boccacino’s published anything else. Sadly, it’s a no. I really hope he’s got something in the works, man, because I need another fix soon.