April 2023 Horror Round-Up

April 2023 Horror Round-Up

Sundial - Catriona Ward (Macmillan) * Pick of the Month*

Catriona Ward has created one of the most enticing, addicting, and frankly devastating horror novels of the year, while also crafting one of the most incisive meta-narratives about the generational consequences of abuse. Ward’s prose is reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness monologuing found in Stephen Graham Jones, yet with an eye to sharp clarity and linguistic concision. Her novel Sundial traces two stories simultaneously, one about a woman in an abusive marriage trying to manage the emerging sociopathic tendencies of her oldest daughter, and a second about the same women’s wrenching past. Sundial is a classic thriller, straying from strict genre fidelity and leaning into mystery, suspense, and disbelief. Sundial’s pacing gives it a classic “page turner” feel and maintains the deepest secrets until literally the last pages. Yet despite the runaway intensity of the storytelling, it is more so a crushing account of the lengths it takes to break generational trauma and free those you want to love.

American Jesus -  Mark Millar (Image)

The third volume of American Jesus, Revelation, was finally released in its trade format, which concludes the series (nine issues in total). The story follows the return of Christ and their battle with the Antichrist, told with Millar’s trademark bluntness and lack of subtlety. But it is the frenetic perspective, the conflicting political impulses throughout that makes American Jesus so frantic. The first arc tracks a teenage boy who begins to take on certain powers and it is revealed that his mother was a virgin and he is being kept by a large church network who believe him to be the Second Coming. But in the final pages you find out that he is, in fact, the Antichrist, and then that he is about to be trained by his father Satan to take up his evil mission by forcing him to undergo years of gang rape. This is the beginning of what becomes a jarring sequence of events where Millar’s own perspective seems just as confused as his characters. The actual Second Coming arrives in the form of a similar scenario with a young Black girl, who’s family is murdered and who gives birth (again, sans the sex) in a Waco, Texas compound inspired by the Branch Davidians. As this returned Christ is raised we find out that the entire world and its institutions have been captured by satanists who are controlling governments, banks, the Vatican, and every major country and have orchestrated suffering on a massive scale to initiate the End. These satanic globalists even, for example, constructed Washington D.C. into the shape of a pentagram to better wield their demonic power, and they drink the blood of babies and engage in other ritualized cruelties. Millar is clearly drawing on the fringes of Christian conspiracy theories like Q-Anon that have been growing rapidly, and while this could be a commentary on their threatening nature, he also often frames those fighting the conspiracy as having a certain moral uprightness. The conspiratorial populism of the Christ figure seems to be lauded by Millar in some sections, and the book frames the anti-government militia as the ones who are actually correct in their conspiratorial musings. This juxtaposition is an attempt at moral ambiguity, but Millar seems to reject any responsibility for using this material. I agree that it is exciting to use some of the most fringe conspiracy theories in apocalyptic fiction to unpack what we have been living through the past few years, but it is also playing with a loaded gun and it is not entirely clear what Millar is trying to say with his use of the motifs. That said, the series has been enjoyable and has enough religious strangeness to keep genre readers amused. As strange as the series was, even more remarkable is that it is apparently being turned into a television show for Netflix.

Black Helicopters - Caitlin Kiernan (TorDotCom)

Black Helicopters is an expanded edition of a chapbook written by Caitlin Kiernan and released to acclaim in 2012, now re-released as part of a trilogy by TorDotCom. The first book, Agents of Dreamland, was one of four Lovecraftian novellas released by Tor and the only one that was genuinely horrific. We met a nondescript deep state actor, an opiate raddled suicide cult survivor, and something larger and more frightening than any of them could dream of. That novella was classic Kiernan, one of her best uses of the Mythos, combining well-worn genre tropes with truly engaging characters. Black Helicopters as a sort of sequel is also a great example of Kiernan’s Lovecraftian impulses, except this one brings her tendency towards prolix exposition, confusing plotting, and scattershot characters to the fore. While there are some really interesting set-pieces in here, particularly what seems like the book’s central event where an alien changes the entire biosphere of New England, the chapters are so disconnected that I would be hard pressed to tell you what actually happened. There are mystical twins. One spy lives for centuries. There is a future where Lovecraftian horrors have taken over, and another where humanity lives in the stars. For those who feel more comfortable taking a ride with few signposts, you may enjoy the textures and mood of her Apocalyptic snapshots. But if you prefer tighter prose and storytelling, this is not Kiernan at her strongest. Considering the strengths Black Helicopters actually does, and how successfully Agents of Dreamland weaved together the strands of Mythos, the third novella in the series, The Tindalos Asset, seems strangely attractive. Maybe the disjointed rambling of Black Helicopters had an effect on me, after all.

Maroons: A Grievers Novel - adrienne marie brown (AK Press)

adrienne marie brown has released a half dozen interesting books in just the last few years, and Maroons may be one of her best. It is the sequel to last year’s Grievers, which launched a new trilogy and the Black Dawn series at AK Press. In a Detroit beset by a catastrophic virus, few have chosen to stay. For those that have, they negotiate, through their overwhelming sadness, what kind of new society can be built in the rubble. Building on the series’ focus on the consequences of trauma, brown takes her time in Maroons by allowing her characters the emotional space to grieve. It is only through that process that the new relationships, and the community that they try to build, can be born from. Grievers was more comfortably set in the Apocalyptic horror genre, which is part of what gives Maroons its profound optimism: the survivors of this terrifying ordeal are putting the pieces of their brokenness back together and building something beyond what presaged the destruction. A maroon colony is a commune built by renegades outside of society, and brown’s vision is equally plausible and prophetic. The book’s finale perfectly opens the door for the third, and final, book of the series, and centers some big questions the text wrangles with: If we try to build a new world in the ashes of the old, who is going to try and stop us? And what will we have to do to survive?