The Hobgoblin of Little Minds by Mark Matthews

NetGalley and the publishers provided me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The first thing — the very first thing — that struck me about The Hobgoblin of Little Minds, before I even started reading it, before I even looked at the cover or researched the author Mark Matthews, was its title. The phrase is mentioned quite a few times in the text, and it is by no means a throwaway title. It means something to every character in this engrossing horror novel. It was coined by the poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, taken from his 1841 essay Self Reliance. In it, Emerson states that “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A quick search on the internet explains this in layman’s terms for me: basically saying that just because you’ve thought the same thing for most of your life, or performed the same actions, it doesn’t absolve you of the importance of critical thinking, and the necessity of changing your mind and opinion when better information comes to light. (Sounds like a lot of politicians could use this advice here, but we won’t go there.)

Emerson’s metaphor takes on new life (literally) during the course of this novel. Told in a somewhat non-linear way, beginning in 2002 and ending in 2018, The Hobgoblin of Little Minds centres around five main characters. Kori Persephone Driscoe, who’s father Peter has been in and out of psychiatric institutions, serves as our introduction to Mr Matthew’s insane and dangerous world. Kori’s mother is about to hightail it out of Detroit and set up home with her new partner in Florida. Kori doesn’t want to go, and instead visits the hospital where she last saw her father. Anyone from Detroit will be familiar with Northville Psychiatric Hospital in Northville Township,Wayne County, and former Governer Engler’s closure of the hospital for economic reasons. Patients and staff were moved on elsewhere. Kori visits the abandoned building, already the subject of blogs and videos which suggest it’s haunted, and finds that nothing is what it seems anymore.

Peter has been the subject of genetic medical experiments by his doctor, the mysterious Dr Ziti. She is an expert in mental illness, and because of her own family trauma as well as a God Complex, she invents a pharmaceutical that she hopes will harness Peter’s bipolar disorder into something she can use. Basically she Dr Frankenstein, Psychiatrist. But Peter isn’t her first attempt at harnessing this disorder. Her previous failed attempts are chained up in the tunnels under the hospital, and when Kori finds them and her father, the narrative takes a number of strange and disturbing detours.

Maya, a Black woman, traumatised by her mother’s suicide, and subjected to heinous treatment by her local pastor, lands on Dr Ziti’s doorstep, and is partnered up with Peter in a bizzare and horrifying experiment; the result of which is the book’s fifth character, whom I will leave for you to find out more about. I’ve gone far enough into spoilery territory, and wish to go no further.

Mark Matthews

Over the last few years or so, there has been a plethora of vampire and zombie novels, movies, and television shows, but few if any on what we call werewolves. I want to point out that Mr Matthew’s monsters aren’t classic werewolves in the Lon Chaney, jr. vein; they are their own creation, but follow similar patterns of behaviour. The Hobgoblin of Little Minds is as much about how mental illness affects the families of those who endure bipolar disorder as it is about the victims of this illness themselves. Dr Ziti sees that classic attempts to treat sufferers of bipolar disorder don’t work anymore and that it’s time for something new, something extreme. She sees the foolish consistencies of those in the field who preceeded her. But she has an agenda of her own, a deeply personal one.

The Hobgoblins of Little Minds is at times a violent novel. There is one scene that literally had me crossing my legs, but the victim in question deserved their end. Hat’s off to the author, though, who had me enthralled from the first page, and I finished the novel over two nights. (This is a book to read in the dark, trust me.) It’s the terrifying offspring of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and H.G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. It also raises questions on medical ethics, and how it can be that sometimes the people we trust to help us won’t always have our best interests in mind: which is something equally as terror-inducing as anything you’ll read in these pages.

Northville Psychiatric Hospital: source MLive.org)

It’s worth reading the author’s Afterword at the end of the book. Mark Matthews offers us his experience in the field of mental illness and treatment and how he came about to write his book. I found this very informative. If you want to learn more about Northville Psychiatric Hospital, you can check out the links here and here.

Colony by Benjamin Cross

I’m a sucker for a monster movie. During these dark winter months, with so much going on in the world, I have found some solace in fictional monsters. One of my all-time favourites is John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), itself a remake of Howard Hawk’s classic from 1951. I love the setting, the isolation, the unknown that’s ‘out there’ and ‘within’. It was the perfect movie for its time, and nearly 40 years later, I wouldn’t change a single frame.

Author Benjamin Cross’ debut novel, Colony, captures a lot of that movie’s effects, especially the sense of dread and aforementioned isolation, but is individual enough to not be a retread. It’s to his credit that he not only brings his own talents to the page, but also his extensive experience in the world of archaeology. A native of South Wales, Mr Cross has travelled all over the world, exploring ancient sites in Cambodia and Peru. A noted environmental consultant, he wears a couple of hats during the course of this book.

Callum Ross is an archaelogy professor based in Scotland, with a particular fondness for skipping stones with his son Jamie along the banks of Loch Ness. He’s trying to build a relationship with Jamie, because his job had him spend far too much time away from home. The softly-softly approach appears to be working, until a colleague appears out of the blue offering Callum a gilt-edged opportunity to travel to the Arctic and help a multinational company explore Harmsworth Island, one of hundred of islands on the Russian archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Explaining to his son that he’ll Facetime once a week doesn’t cut it with Jamie or his ex, but Callum goes anyway.

He’s reunited with an another colleague, Dan Peterson, a Texan who ribs Callum by referring to him as Dr McJones. The rest of the contingent is made up of scientists from Russia mainly, and one Canadian. There is also a suspiciously large number of Spetznaz, soldiers for hire representing the Russian Federation. Things begin intriguingly enough with the discovery of the mummified remains of a man who’s been perfectly preserved for millenia by sub-zero temperatures. Callum’s companion Lungkaju tells of a myth that has been handed down through generations of a hero sent out by his people to kill a monster. Think Beowulf, only in a colder climate. The mummy’s injuries suggest this is the hero, and that the monster got the better of him.

Benjamin Cross

Then we meet the monsters.

Colony is a frenetically paced novel that brings to mind not only The Thing, but also Michael Crichton’s classic techothriller Jurassic Park. (We’ve all seen this movie, right?) The concept that we share our planet with species that we haven’t yet discovered isn’t a new one. Scientists have always supported the theory that in parts of the world that one would deem uninhabitable or unexplored, there must be creatures that have evolved over eons that we’re not aware of. Benjamin Cross takes us to that place, and then runs riot. Callum and his companions not only have to deal with monsters that want to kill them, but there are saboteurs in their midst who for reasons of greed and idealism want to destroy Harsmworth and everyone on it. When monsters aren’t ripping humans apart, the bad guys are setting off explosions and murdering in cold blood. There is a lot going on in this book, and Mr Cross does well to balance the action with some decent characterisations, even if the dialogue contains more expostion than it needs to. But this is only a minor criticism of a book that held my attention from the first page. I really enjoyed it, and I want to see what the author does next.

PS: There’s a clever coda right at the end that’s worth hanging around for. Call it a post-credit scene, perhaps?

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 5-8

(Chapters 1-4 can be found here)

Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans. For Edmond Dantes, fresh off a boat and well on his way to success in his career on the seas and so close to marrying the lovely Mercedes, his elation at being around family means he’s completely oblivious to the conspiracy which will take him away from everything and everyone he holds dear. Things are about to go pear-shaped for the young Frenchman.

At their betrothal feast, during which they will marry (because why wait?), Edmond and Mercedes enjoy their special day, lavishing plenty of attention on Old Dantes, Edmond’s ailing father. Edmond is anxious to get the old man back to health. Meanwhile, Caderousse and Danglars consider their lot in life, seemingly unaware that the third leg of their Tripod of Conspiracy has taken it upon himself to deliver the letter Danglars forged and carelessly threw away to the king’s attorney. So it’s a surprise even to them when Fernand does turn up, followed soon after by some royal guards, who take Edmond into custody without telling him why. It’s only then does it dawn on the two men that Fernand took the bull by the horns. Caderousse and Danglars think it’s in their best interest to say nothing.

We are then introduced to yet another conspirator. Gerard de Villefort is an ambitious prosecutor, acting as assistant to the king’s attorney. He’s having a betrothal feast of his own, due to marry Renee, the daughter of the highly influential Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Meran. Over dinner, it is revealed that Villefort’s father is an infamous supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, M. Noirtier, but that his son does not share his views and is a staunch royalist. Indeed, his job has required him to sentence a handful of Bonapartists to the guillotine. Renee is horrified that her betrothed’s career requires him to show little mercy, but he promises her to do better when the situation calls for it. Villefort is then called away to deal with a man who’s been brought to his house for examination.

That man is Edmond Dantes, who’s understandably bewildered by what’s happening to him. Villefort is informed of the facts of the matter: that an anonymous letter marked for the attention of the king’s attorney has laid accusations against Edmond, and that he’s in possession of incriminating material that needs to be looked at urgently. When Villefort first sets eyes on Edmond, he’s convinced of the man’s innocence. We would breathe a sigh of relief, but that would only make The Count of Monte Cristo a much shorter book than it actually is. Villefort’s initial examination, however, reveals nothing criminal, just a naive young man taking on the responsibility of another’s mission: the late Captain Leclere.

Then comes the clincher. Just as Edmond is about to be set free, Villefort sees that the letter in Dantes’ possession is addressed to M. Noirtier, Villefort’s father, and he panics. If word of this gets out, his career and life is ruined. So he makes a split second decision: he swears Edmond to secrecy with the false promise of impending freedom; he burns the letter in the fireplace; and places Edmond into custody for a “few hours”. Later that night, Edmond is taken by boat, out through the harbour, past where Mercedes lives, and drops him off at the Chateau d’If, an island fortress that doubles up as a prison. Edmond has nowhere to go but inside, where his jailer awaits with bread, water, and a bed of straw. Subsequent attempts to gain a meeting with the prison governor lands him in the dungeon in a short space of time.

City of Forts by Jason Beech

Growing up where I did, a suburban town within a bus ride of Dublin’s city centre, wasn’t tough, really. You could say I was born and raised in a “good” part of town. There was little trouble, schools were good, families looked out for one another; there was a community spirit that lives to this day, I believe, although I haven’t been back for years. Growing up often means moving on, moving away, sometimes to a better life, sometimes not. Luck and ambition comes into it. The 1970s and early 1980s were challenging for a lot of families around me, but if you were provided, as I was, with a decent education and a start in the jobs market, then you were already winning. Then the crash happened. And it kept on happening.

It’s still happening, for many families all over the world. Jason Beech‘s novel, City of Forts, tells of one such family, who live in an unnamed town near an unnamed city, somewhere in Midwest, USA, who are in danger of falling into the cracks of society. Caitlin Nardilo is a single mother to Ricky and Brett. She holds down three jobs so she can keep food on the table. Her husband has long since headed to the Coast and is almost completely absent from their lives. Ma doesn’t know that when she heads out to work, Ricky, 13, leaves his younger brother alone in the house for the day so he can escape to the City of Forts with his friends Liz, Bixby, and Tanais. The City of Forts is a piece of land upon which there is an disused factory and a series of abandoned houses. The four friends lay claim to this place and make it their playground. It’s the final summer before they all go to high school. Ricky is in love with Liz, who for her part is unsure about where her life is going to go. Bixby is on the run from social services, having fled his foster home, and is now among the ruins. Tanais is a young Black girl, new to the group, but still figuring out if she belongs with the group or not. They are from the Town, but the City looms nearby, offering hope and menace in equal measure.

We get used to seeing them act around each other. They make do with what cards life has dealt them, and there’s a certain sense, especially with Ricky, that this is going to be as good as it gets. Then, at the very start of the story, Liz falls through a floor and literally lands on a dead body. Not knowing what else to do, because calling the cops will only lead to them being denied access to their secret playground, they decide to bury the body, but not before Ricky steals the money from the dead man’s wallet and takes a look at his ID. This course of action brings the group to the attention of Tarantula Man, the leader of a local criminal gang, the Ghost Boys, who wants to know what happened to his friend. The children are in danger, but don’t trust an adult to help them out.

Ricky’s only saviour is Floyd, a homeless man who seems to be the boy’s guardian angel. Then there’s Mr Vale, and his son Charley, who seem to want to help, but may have an agenda of their own.

Jason Beech has an amazing way with words and characters. His evocative turn of phrase, and his ability to guide us through this story from Ricky’s point of view is breathtaking in its simplicity and execution. You can sense the impending doom from the very first chapter, and this feeling never goes away even in the novel’s quiter moments. City of Forts is beautifully paced throughout, and every character is given their moment to shine. By the time the book comes to a close, each of their lives have changed, not always for the better, it has to be said. Each of their actions demand consequences. Jason Beech is wise enough to allow his characters grow and become young adults. What they do with this new-found maturity is a story for another day. City of Forts is a compelling coming-of-age story, that crosses over into crime fiction, with teenage characters that are likeable and frustrating, just as they should be.

The Count of Monte Cristo: Chapters 1-4

Greetings, dear reader. I wrote in a previous blog that it was my plan to read Alexandre Dumas pere‘s classic adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo over the course of the next couple of months, taking it three or four chapters at a time. Well, the time has come. Today, I will focus on the opening four chapters of this mammoth 118 chapter long novel. As stated earler, the edition I’m reading from Canterbury Classics, and was published in 2013. I picked it up from Amazon before Christmas for about $15. It has a soft faux-leather cover, and it’s pretty.

The story begins on the morning of February 24, 1815. The date itself is important for historical reasons, but it’s not yet apparent to the characters we meet in these initial chapters why this is. Edmond Dantes disembarks the merchant ship Pharaon at Marseilles. He’s had an eventful journey which took in unscheduled stops at the islands of Monte Cristo and, more importantly for the story, Elba, where a certain former emperor of France lies in exile. Dantes lands there because his fatally ill captain, Leclere, wishes to deliver a package to Napoleon’s marshall. In return he is to take a letter to Paris. Dantes, out of fealty to his captain, agrees to continue this mission when Leclere passes away from a brain fever. Dantes is a good man, but he doesn’t ask the obvious question, and this lands him in huge trouble on home soil.

In double quick time, we meet the Conspirators, and their individual reasons for wanting Dantes out of their lives. Because Dantes acquitted himself well when his captain died (he’s the ship’s mate when we’re introduced to him), his employer wants to make him captain. For one so young (Dantes is barely in his twenties), this is a dream come true. M. Danglars, the supercargo (representative of the owner on board the Pharaon), took a dislike to Dantes from the off and is none too pleased about this rapid promotion. When Dantes goes to see his elderly father, he is horrified to find out that the money he left with his dad to take care of himself while Dantes was at sea, was given instead to their neighbour Caderousse, a drunkard, because of a debt he and Dantes had. The elder Dantes was forced to live on 60 francs for three months. There’s not even a bottle of wine in the house. When Caderousse finds out that Edmond is back, he sees another opportunity to squeeze the man and his father for more money.

Edmond is still unaware of how his return to land and his apparent rise up the ranks sits badly with some of the men around him. No sooner has he said hi to his dad, he’s away to Catalan to meet up with the love of his life, Mercedes Herrera. Unfortunately for Edmond, he has a rival for the young woman’s affections, her cousin Fernand Mondego. He urges Mercedes not to marry outside her Catalan community, but she’s not having it. She practically falls into Edmond’s arms when he interrupts their awkward conversation. Mercedes expects the two men to become fast friends, but neither men like the cut of the other’s jib (and that’s putting it mildly).

As Edmond and Mercedes look at each other all doe-eyed and begin planning a quick wedding, Fernand, Caderousse, and Danglars drown their collective sorrows over several bottles of wine at a nearby tavern. So how do they solve a problem like Dantes? Simple: they plan to set him up. They realise killing him is out of the question because Mercedes implies that if anything were to happen to Edmond, she would take her own life. Danglars forges a letter to the king’s attorney, telling of Edmond’s planned trip to Paris to deliver a letter on behalf of the usurped emperor. Fernand takes the letter and heads off to the capital, ready to accuse the young man of treason.

So we’re off to a flying start, and we’re only 28 pages in. Dumas wastes very little time in setting up his tale of adventure, betrayal, and revenge. We know Edmond is in for a boat-load of trouble, and we’re unable to warn him and Mercedes. The plot is afoot, and the next few chapters await us.

2020 and All That.

2020 has been the most challenging year many of us have ever faced. Even if we haven’t lost someone close to us, we know someone or a family who has. It’s been a lot. But while the new year won’t bring us a hallelujah moment immediately, it’s important to note that although the light at the end of the tunnel is still far away, we’re moving ever closer to it. We still have to take care of ourselves and those around us, and not do anything silly that could jeopardise our futures.

I’m not going to get all introspective. We each have our own stories to tell about year about to pass, some more heart-breaking than others. But we’re still here. We survived so far. And 2021 is right around the corner.

I’m not one for New Year Resolutions. In fact I got very little done during the year, and it was only in the last month that I put myself in front of my laptop and created this blog. I count that as a win. I read plenty of books, and my TBR pile is gargantuan. But I’ll get through most of them.

Authors and their agents have begun emailing me and DMing me on Twitter, politely requesting reviews for their currently published and upcoming books. I’m cockahoop with joy about this. I intend to get through as many as I can, taking into account I’ve got my own stuff to do this year. (Yes, 2021 will be the year I finish my own novel’s first and, if I’m diligent, second draft of the novel that’s been in my head and computer for years.) I owe it to myself to do this. So, I’ve plenty to look forward to. I think we all need a goal for 2021, even if that goal is personal rather than professional.

I hope that we can, sometime in 2021, go see a movie, eat out at restaurants, and be close to family and friends. We’re human, and there’s nothing more human than being around other people who make us feel good. A lot of us haven’t seen our parents, grandparents, andsignificant others for a long time. But we need to hold out just a little while longer. The wait, I know, will be worth it. We have to do better for ourselves and each other. Also we need to be kind to ourselves and each other. Events of the last year have changed us: it is my hope that they’ve changed us for the better. Time will tell.

So, for my part, I will continue to read, write, and take better care of myself. I have a feeling 2021 will be a banner year for me and the people I love and care about. Let each of us do our part. Live. Learn. Love. Read. Listen to music. Dance and sing. Let us be responsible. Let us welcome in 2021 with hope, but never forget the lessons of 2020.

Happy New Year to you and yours. I’ll see you on the other side for more book reviews, book-related essays, and of course, my attempt to read The Count of Monte Cristo a few chapters at a time. Stay tuned.

Alter Ego by K.A. Masson

Any book that name checks Matt Johnson’s The The, and in particular Uncertain Smile, has got to have a lot of things going for it, right? In fact, this book, Alter Ego, the debut thriller from English writer K.A. Masson, is peppered with plenty of musical references throughout its taut narrative, with two of the story’s main characters at one point going through their Spotify playlists and cranking out some banging tunes, with no decade being left out. But it was the The The reference that sat with me. I haven’t listened to this band for some time, and when I’m done writing this review, I will queue up Soul Mining and get all nostalgic.

(Image: heyitscarlyrae.com)

Alexandra (Alex) Kendrew is a single mother who lives with her young son Ned in suburban London. Estranged from the boy’s father Sean for some time when the novel begins, Alex trawls dating websites looking for love and someone to settle down with. She’s a freelance photographer who juggles her professional and personal life, and during the course of the story, drops balls on a regular basis. Some of her friends question her lifestyle choices and parenting skills, but Alex knows what she’s doing.

Or does she?

When Alter Ego begins, Alex is arrested for the attempted murder of her boyfriend Mal Russell, who was brutally stabbed the night before in the flat he shares with a friend. Alex has been identified by said friend as the woman who she admitted to the flat and subsequently stabbed Mal. Alex doesn’t believe what’s happened to her. There is no way she could’ve done what she’s accused of. She was at home with Ned. The detectives investigating the case don’t believe her, and lock her up in a cell while they collect enough evidence to charge her. Alex’s arrest happens in the first chapter, so there’s an immediacy to the story already. What the author does next is take us back four years and work us through Alex’s life until the time of her arrest.

Alex hooks up with a couple of men she met online, some better than others, but lands on Mal, who appears to be the man of her dreams. Things go pear-shaped quickly when Ned wanders in and catches them in an private but awkward moment. As Mal still holds a candle for a recent ex, he ghosts Alex shortly afterwards. She is distraught, but manages to pick herself up off the floor when Adrian comes into her life. Then things take a really nasty turn, with Adrian turning out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not for the first time, Alex is left with a mess to sort out, but desperate to not be alone, she jumps at the chance of salvation when Mal comes back into her life.

I’ll leave it at that for the plot, for fear of giving too much away. I would prefer to leave you in the more than capable hands of K.A. Masson to take it from here. I had to remind myself that Alter Ego is a debut novel, because it reads like Ms. Masson has had a number of novels under her belt already. She is masterful at holding the story together despite having to fill in a lot of blanks over a four year period. The tension rises with each chapter, and I confess to reading the last third of the book in one late night sitting. I had to find out what happened, and I wasn’t disappointed.

K.A. Masson

One proviso, though: Alex as a character may not appeal to those who prefer their main characters whiter than white, with nary a blemish to their name. But for me, it was important to relate to Alex as a woman troubled by her past and fearful of her future. At times she is the author of her own misfortune, making the same mistakes in dating time and again, without really learning from past behaviour. This is a completely human characteristic. We want things to go well for ourselves, and when our friends point out our failures, we can sometimes take this criticism as a personal insult rather than a learning moment. Ms Masson does well by giving us a deep insight into Alex’s thought processes with her tight first person point of view. We see what Alex sees; we feel what she does; and we want her to do better. She could — and this is something to keep in mind — be an unreliable narrator. Not everthing that happens is what it seems; the same applies to the people around her.

Alter Ego is an intelligent psychological thriller with moments of violence that will make you uncomfortable. Domestic violence is a blight on modern society, and the author brings a lot of research into her story. I seriously look forward to what she writes next.

I wish to thank NetGalley and the publishers for supplying me with a copy of Alter Ego in return for an honest review.

Gotta Read A Classic

Back in 1982, Adrian Gurvitz, a British singer-songwriter, recorded a song called Classic. If you remember the 80s well (and I do), you might know this tune. In it, Gurvitz says he’s going to write a classic novel, in his attic, as a way of dealing with his broken heart. It’s a nice song, and it sat with me at the time. I too longed to write my own classic, having had my heart broken so many damn times. I may still do, though my heart is set fare, fully mended and settled with Her Ladyship.

Going back further in time, I’m sure most of you had to read classic novels as part of your curriculum. I recall drudging through Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in particular. But one English teacher recommended the class read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Richard Adams’ Watership Down as side exercises. I enjoyed these better. Since school, though, I’ve found it difficult to read literature from bygone eras. My attempt to read Moby Dick failed more than once, and the less said about James Joyce’s Ulysses the better. I hadn’t the stomach for either of these classics.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I would like to, at some point, read Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m sure we’re all reasonably familiar with the basic story. Edward Dante is wrongly accused and convicted of treason by jealous rivals, and sentenced to life imprisonment on the island of Chateau d’If. Following a brave escape, he comes into great wealth, takes on a new identity, and then spends a number of years plotting revenge against those who betrayed him. I’ve seen the 2002 movie version and I enjoyed it. Now, 18 years later, I’m about to take on the book itself.

I ordered a copy online and it arrived yesterday. The edition I have was published in 2013 by Canterbury Classics, and is 1,055 pages long. The book contains 118 chapters, and if I get through it, it will be among the longest titles I’ll have ever read. (I think the longest book I’ve read is Stephen King’s complete and uncut edition of The Stand, which clocked in at 1,152 pages.)

So here’s the plan, dear reader and follower: I would like to read The Count of Monte Cristo along with you, if you’d like. I will read at least two or three chapters at a time, then post my thoughts and review each time. It’ll be a challenge that will kickstart 2021, and if I’m successful in my endeavours, I will continue the trend with another novel, many one that some of you will chose for me. There will be a post at least once a week, aside from my regular reviews and articles. I’m looking forward to it, as well as being slightly daunted by what’s ahead. But at least it’s not Ulysses. Come along for the ride. I would appreciate the company.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you and yours a safe, merry, and healthy Christmas. Watch out for each other. Don’t do anything foolish, and I’ll see you all on the other side. Take care and be well.

James

Childhood Christmas Books

I think I was about six or seven years old when I found out there was no real Santa Claus. I shrugged when the realisation hit me. It came about when I found a bag of books and toys hidden in my parents’ wardrobe (don’t ask me what I was looking for at the time; I can’t remember). My mother found out and came clean. To be honest, I was more interested in the books.

I can’t recall what titles they were. I just know that at the time I read pretty much everything Enid Blyton wrote, from The Famous Five to The Secret Seven, and beyond. (I stayed away from Noddy because he just wasn’t my thing.) I loved the adventure, the derring-do, and the sheer upper-class Britishness of Blyton’s books despite me being Irish, and I don’t think there was an Irish writer at the time who did what Blyton was doing. I am ready to be corrected, though. This is just my memory.

Every Christmas I would get books from my parents. About a month before the holidays I was given x amount of money to spend on books, and I would walk up to a nearby shopping centre where the only bookstore within a manageable distance was located. The store was called Books Unlimited and there I found a corner of joy in a world that was at the time, in the mid-to-late 1970s, going mad. (SPOILER: It’s still going mad.) As the seasons passed, my reading tastes changed. I left Enid behind and graduated straight to adult class literature. Smugglers Top was replaced by the Orient Express and mysterious goings-on at Styles. I devoured Agatha Christie, who is to this day, the best-selling crime novelist of all time. My wife and I would listen to podcasts dedicated to Dame Agatha’s books, particularly All About Agatha, hosted by Kemper Donovan and Catherine Brobeck. My wife would also listen to Christmas themed stories on audio at night time. (I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard Hercules Poirot and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding this month.)

Later years would see me pick up every action thriller written by the great Alistair MacLean. I’m sure many of you will have seen the movie adaptations of some MacLean’s books, especially The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, but the books are where it all began. He was a prolific writer, and while his characters and dialogue would be considered tropish in this day and age, you can imagine the thrill I got when I started a new story. At the time, there was no writer like him, even if the likes of Len Deighton and Hammond Innes were, without question, better at the craft.

Then, with the popularity of horror fiction coming in the wake of the blockbusting success of The Exorcist and The Omen, I read books of terror and dread into the small hours of the morning. I discovered Graham Masterton, who still publishes to this day. (In fact, I have a new book by Masterton on my NetGalley shelf, which I will read and review ahead of its publication this coming February.)

So, for me, Christmas was as much about new books as it was about food and family. And I love to think back to how it all started, with Enid, with Agatha, with Alistair, and how I looked forward to finally getting my hands on the books that had been bought by me and for me in the run up to Christmas Day. This year I can’t wait to open up the present I bought myself. More on that later.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark is an author I’m reasonably familiar with. Every now and again I like to read novellas, and because my chosen genre within this format is invariably horror, science fiction, and fantasy, I always find I’ve a lot of titles to choose from. By far my most favourite novella is Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, his revisionist and masterful retelling of HP Lovecraft’s short story The Horror at Red Rock. Lovecraft is well-known for his racism and xenophobia, and Red Rock is risible reading and is justifiably disdained. LaValle retold the story from the viewpoint of a Black man and put right everything that was wrong about it. I wrote a review some time back for MTR Network, which you can read here. P. Djèlí Clark may have written a story to knock LaValle off the top of my list, though. Ring Shout is as good a read as you can get, but it’s not a comfortable one: nor should it be.

(Image: cavalierhousebooks.com)

The setting is Macon, Georgia, 1922. It is Jim Crow South. Our lead character is Maryse Boudreaux; she hunts monsters called Ku Kluxes, and she has a sword enchanted with the spirits of kings, chiefs, and slaves from centuries past to aid her in her quest. Their pain, anger, and hate fuels the sword, igniting it with righteous fury and the desire for retribution. P. Djèlí Clark creates an alternative history where the premiere screening of D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation calls into this world demons from another dimension who use White people’s hatred of Black people as a way to gain a foothold on Earth. There’s the Klan, and then there’s the Ku Kluxes: both separate but connected. Maryse and her friends roam the county and kill as many Ku Kluxes as they can. A wonderfully rounded-out supporting cast includes Sadie, a sharpshooter who carries her Winchester (Winnie) with her wherever she goes; Chef, a cheerfully queer WW1 veteran who’s the group’s explosives expert; Emma, a German girl who spouts Marxist philosophy but knows what it’s about; and Nana Jean, the community’s matriarch who is pure Gullah from start to finish. Clark doesn’t need to translate her dialogue for us; we need to do that for ourselves.

Then there’s the Aunties: Ondone, Margaret, and Jadine — they seem to be from the world the Ku Kluxes came from, but enlisted Maryse when she was a child to be their champion. They appear to Maryse in dreams and visions, helping when they can, but knowing that whatever happens, it’s Maryse who gets to make the final choices. Traumatised by the events which took the lives of her family, Maryse and her friends find themselves in a race against time. Butcher Clyde, who describes himself as Ku Klux management, intends to use Maryse as a pawn to bring an even greater evil into the world, with yet another screening of The Birth of a Nation, this time using Maryse’s lover Michael George as bait.

(Image: blacknerdproblems.com)

The Shout of the title is a chant and ritual that helps create Mama’s Water, a bootlegged liquor that’s potent in magic and mysticism. Nana Jean oversees its production, and it earns the community enough money to keep everyone going. Clark is brilliant in how he allows us to catch up with Gullah traditions, but yet keeps the story moving at such a pace that you’ll be hard-pressed not to finish it in one or two sittings. As I said earlier, Ring Shout is not a comfortable read, for many reasons. It’s a horror novel first and foremost, and the violence is frightening but creative. Like Victor LaValle’s novella, this is a story about Black people living and dying in a world where White people want them dead. It’s about how Black people survive despite the threats against them. There are no White saviours in Clarke’s story, nor should there be. When Butcher Clyde tries to use Maryse’s rage to end White domination, but bring a greater evil to power, Maryse’s choice is the result of centuries of Black repression. It’s powerful, intense, bloody, and cathartic. It’s also a beautiful thing to read.

P. Djèlí Clark has written something majestic. I read a previous novella, The Black God’s Drums, and was very much taken by it. He has another, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, which I will read very soon. I’m also looking forward to his debut novel, A Master of Djinn, which is due out in 2021. He’s a writer to watch out for.

P. Djèlí Clark