"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Friday, 30 November 2012

Harbinger by David J. Bright

A thick fog has descended on the small, quiet town of Rowley. This is no ordinary fog, however, and no matter how hard the inhabitants try, they cannot leave town. With the fog thickening rapidly and urged on by the mysterious murky cloud, the towns folks’ hate and anger bubbles to the surface. Not only do they have to be afraid of what each of their neighbours are now capable of, but also of the dark deadly monster lurking within the sinister grey shroud...

Harbinger is almost a psychological study of what might happen to a small town when long-standing hate, conflicts and jealousies are brought to the surface, wreaking havoc in a town and turning its once good-natured inhabitants against each other.

The novel started out strongly and the first chapter was brilliant; it hooked me and left me eager to read more. It opens with a man venturing outside to embark upon his daily jog when he notices an unusual amount of ominous fog has settled over the town. The tension builds slowly, and it is a very intense and exciting prologue. After the opening, however, I found the plot to be rather slow and it doesn’t pick up again until about the midway mark, about 200 pages through the novel.

Harbinger is overall very well written, with the exception of spelling and grammar errors on most pages, but these would be down to editing rather than Bright’s talent as a writer - nonetheless I found them annoying. The dialogue is a little forced and awkward at times, especially where the central character - Ben - is concerned.
The horror aspect is enjoyable and has plenty of gore to satisfy fans of the genre. However, on top of the high level of terror and blood involved, Harbinger also contains a facet which I rarely enjoy in horror novels - romance. I really disliked this aspect of the book, and although I can appreciate that it was important to the plot, it ruined the novel for me. The romantic aspect felt incredibly forced and unrealistic - Ben and his long time ‘friend’ Elise go from constantly assuring their parents that they are ‘just friends’ to not being able to refrain from declaring their love for one another every few minutes, which was irritating as well as cheesy.
In conclusion, for a debut novel from a 22 year old, Harbinger is a success. Bright clearly has oodles of writing skill and I think this is a novel that a lot of horror enthusiasts will enjoy. It is well written and has a very unique and interesting premise that forces you to consider the condition of mankind - with a strong message that hate and jealousy have sufficient power to destroy people, perhaps even more so than the monstrous Harbinger itself, and I appreciated this added depth. I would have really liked this book if it wasn’t for the contrived and cringe-worthy ‘romance’ between Ben and Elise, plus the fact that the conclusion fell a little short for me. Other than these two gripes, Harbinger is worth a look.
Rating: 6/10

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Off Season by Jack Ketchum

When a group of friends stay in a lonely cabin on the coast of Maine, they are unaware of the horrors that will ensue when they unwittingly catch the attention of a local family of cannibals who live in a nearby cave. Silently stalked by the animalistic tribe, the group of six rapidly diminishes...the cannibals are hungry, and they won’t stop until they have fully sated their appetite for human flesh!

The premise of Off Season is familiar, and the story is reminiscent of numerous cannibal stories such as The Hills Have Eyes. However the unoriginality of the plot can almost be forgiven by the brilliant writing; Ketchum succeeds at making the situation feel real and scary, albeit a little bit B movie at the same time. Ketchum’s descriptions of the cannibals are fantastic; he paints them almost as a pack of vicious, powerful animals, and some of the things they do are incomprehensible and shocking. In particular the ‘recipes’ described - such as sausages made from human-meat - were inventive and gruesome.

Despite there being an abundance of visceral horror in this novel, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the level of gore - after the hype surrounding Ketchum’s debut novel I was expecting something a little more extreme than what I read. For the majority of people though, Off Season will push their limits; it is definitely not for the squeamish. The original release of Off Season in 1980 had much of the gory parts cut out and it even had a completely different ending - something which Ketchum discusses in his ‘Afterword’ to the novel - yet it remained highly controversial in spite of this. It was interesting to read about how much the novel was changed before its initial publication, as Ketchum outlines some of the specific sections that were cut or edited. However this unexpurgated edition, first published in 1999, is much closer to Ketchum’s original manuscript, and has all the gross stuff added back in.

The characters are quite one dimensional and I kept forgetting who was who at the beginning, but this doesn’t really matter considering so many of them die, and this isn’t a character-driven plot. An aspect of this novel I really like is that as a reader it is impossible to predict who will survive - characters who you think will live probably won’t, and vice versa. Off Season starts with a bang and doesn’t let up until the final page, making for an engrossing read.

To conclude, Off Season is a good read if you’re after something shocking, gory and disgusting, but not much more than that. Once the mayhem begins, a fast pace is maintained that keeps the reader interested throughout, and is very well written as to render this almost clichéd subject matter feel new again.

Rating: 7/10

My other Jack Ketchum reviews:
The Girl Next Door

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The Witches is a children’s book which tells the story of an orphaned boy living with his Grandmamma, who delights in warning her grandson of the terrors of child-eating witches through the medium of some rather scary stories. One day the boy becomes entrapped in the room where all of the witches of the UK are holding their annual meeting, led by the fearsome Grand High Witch herself. Overhearing their vicious plot to turn all of the children of England into mice, the boy is caught by the evil witches and swiftly transformed into a mouse himself. With the severe disadvantage of being a tiny rodent, the boy and his Grandmamma concoct a cunning plan to eradicate the witches from the planet.

The story is well wrought and imaginative - it is inventive how in Dahl’s world the witches look exactly like regular women. The way that Dahl makes the tale appear as though it happened in our own world, playing on childish fears and presenting the witches to us as real, normal women not only makes the book much more terrifying, but also may teach children that though a stranger may look nice and friendly they might not be!

“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.But this is not a fairy tale. This is about REAL WITCHES... REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ORDINARY JOBS.That is why they are so hard to catch.”

“For all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now. Or she might be the woman with the bright eyes who sat opposite you on the bus this morning. She might be the lady with the dazzling smile who offered you a sweet from a white paper bag in the street before lunch. She might even - and this will make you jump - she might even be your lovely school-teacher who is reading these words to you at this very moment. Look carefully at that teacher. Perhaps she is smiling at the absurdity of such a suggestion. Don’t let that put you off. I could be part of her cleverness.”

The Witches is quite dark; like most of Dahl’s work there is a sinister aspect to it and the book certainly has the potential to scare young children. For example at the beginning the boy is being told a story about what witches do with children, and his Grandmamma tells him that one girl became trapped inside a picture for the rest of her life, which I found quite creepy.

The characters are lovely and charming; the boy and his adorable Grandmamma, the detestable Grand High Witch and greedy little Bruno Jenkins make up a compendium of delightful personalities. The close relationship between the boy and his grandmother is heart-warming and one a lot of children will be able to relate to and appreciate.

The Witches is a really delightful, fun and light-hearted story that can be enjoyed by young and old. It is scary, funny and incredibly endearing, with an inventive plot - and on top of all that the illustrations by Quentin Blake are wonderfully charming.

Rating: 8/10