Nat Cassidy’s Mary: An Awakening of Terror – After losing her job in New York, a chance call brings Mary back to her hometown to take care of her sick aunt Nadine. However, this is not a welcome change of pace as Mary has been suffering in silence from ghastly visions of her own body decaying and the town brings up painful memories from the past. It does not help that Mary soon finds herself surrounded by the ghosts of murdered women, thrusting her back into her past to discover why they are plaguing her and the mystery behind the mangled apparitions that are inexplicably drawn to her.
What makes Nat Cassidy’s Mary such an enticing read is the author’s ability to balance shocking material through a strong character.
The following book review contains mild spoilers for Mary’s character..
Certainly, the book has elements of body and supernatural horror with Mary having visions of her body decaying while haunted by the ghosts of past victims, yet these subjects become disturbing because of who Mary is as a person and not because of the sensational imagery Cassidy is so skilled at crafting. Instead, Mary’s life of extreme introversion, always trying to make herself as small as possible, transforms these visions into a personal reflection of suffering.
The result is a very approachable form of horror storytelling, where it is easy to get wrapped up in the mystery of Mary’s background and her internal struggles. These elements are equal to indulgences in macabre material in evoking a sense of dread from the reader. This broadens the appeal to not just the hardcore horror readership.
To touch on the more horror-heavy elements, Cassidy brilliantly taps into the paranoia of his character, and the description of bodily decay or mangled ghosts manages to both play on Mary’s own insecurities while being very graphic in detail. This is a case where psychological horror would fit the bill better in describing the horror elements, despite it being very focused on elements that may seem more apt in horror that is hyperfocused on the degradation of the body and mind.
This is further echoed in the relationships of those around Mary, as the visions, arguably, play a secondary role in her own internal strife. Monologue plays an integral role in the story, and Mary’s interactions with the townsfolk and her overbearing aunt, Nadine, create a sense of tragedy in the character that rivals the intensity of terror.
This approach also does lead to the one negative in the work. Mary is a difficult character to empathize with at times as her immensely introverted nature gives the character a slightly nihilistic edge (at points).
As the story progresses and more is revealed about her past these ruminations begin to make sense, yet Mary is a hard character to connect with on a personal level–even as an introvert myself. This may vary by reader, and as the book reaches its conclusion after a few meticulously constructed twists this becomes an afterthought.
Furthermore, Mary is a complex character, and even if there is a lack of connection on a level that evokes empathy/sympathy she is a fascinating persona that reflects the immense talent of Cassidy in bringing Mary to the pages.
This release certainly takes some intense twists in the story, and while I would love to explore how the elements of horror transform to even switch from the early genre of supernatural horror into something deeply sinister, the narrative is best left to be discovered by the reader. Regardless, the book will certainly draw in readers of both horror and mystery with how it develops–that experience is definitely best left as unspoiled as possible.
Coming away from “Mary: An Awakening of Terror“ the only critique I could muster was how Mary does not always feel like an empathetic character. Though, whether this was the point is moot when looking at the exceptional skill Cassidy has to weave a mystery with heavy macabre tones that keep the pages turning. A deeply disturbing read that works for both fans of horror and mystery, “Mary“ is a unique exercise in terror where social interactions hold as much weight as a bloodied apparition–a must-read!
Barbara Comyns’ Who has Changed and Who has Died (1954) – Misery and Malice in a Small Village – The Willoweed family life is defined by misery made worse under the scrupulous eye of an embittered matriarch, Grandma Willoweed.
The cranky and controlling woman holds power over the family through an inheritance that they are dependent upon. Her son, Ebin, takes her abuse in order to keep a home while unemployed but often passes off his own insecurities onto his three children, Emma, Hattie, and Phillip, through insults and abusive behavior.
Consequently, when tragedy befalls the small town in the way of madness induced through sickness, the Willoweed’s become drawn to the situations for their own morbid and selfish reasons–both as a means to celebrate others’ downfalls and to escape their own misery.
Billed as a ‘tragicomedy’, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” is a deceptively bleak novel that hides under a thin veneer of dark humor.
In fact, those unfamiliar with prose or media that relies heavily on uncomfortable and amoral characters to push comedic elements will likely find the work entirely off-putting.
At the same time, the playfully crass nature of the work does not lie in shock value as death is never graphically conveyed, and instances of abuse spare morbid details. Instead, repulsion from the audience will come in the form of a moral repulsion from her character’s inner dialogue that is largely harsh, uncaring, and vindictive.
A prime example of amorality on display is Ebin’s observation of the passing of a woman in town instantly invoking a sense of disgust at how her sex appeal has declined in the throes of death over empathy for her suffering. This is just one of many observations that will make the readers feel repulsed by the family unit, particularly Ebin and Grandmother Willoweed.
Comparatively, the children of the family do maintain their innocence to a degree but even their broken-down spirit under the cruel matriarch transforms them into meek and awkward personalities to the point that their sorrows become rather mundane.
The work can be compared to a lot of ‘dark comedic’ literature from Europe that loves to focus on tragic characters, yet the book lacks any social commentary that gives it that edge that allows the work to at least be reflective of some societal woe.
The family lives and dwells in misery and carries few redeemable qualities, a fact that only compounds as the town delve into madness and people start dying.
Undeniably, Barbara Comyns is a deeply talented writer of demented prose, and the world she creates is really easy to get absorbed in despite the morbid, bleak nature of it all.
Where the book does carry redemptive qualities through the author’s ability to create characters that are deeply fascinating to explore, flaws and all.
Ebin Willoweed, who is perhaps the worst of the bunch, born of privilege has become petty, embittered, jealous, and often takes it out on his kids through weird mental games. Notably, his abuse of Phillip in beatings and abandoning him in odd places in a way to push him to be more masculine is an obvious pathetic compensation for his own emasculation at the hands of his mother. Despite Ebin being so despicable, Comyns still manages to make him an intriguing car wreck by meticulously defining his fallacies through both his own perspective and that of others in the family.
Make no mistake, as miserable as the book can be it is still a captivating read and worthy of exploration if you are one of those readers that find themselves mysteriously drawn to tragic and deplorable characters.
Furthermore, the light flairs of comedic prose through peculiar observations on how the family appears both to others and how they interpret the world is conveyed with a sharp intellectual wit.
There is an audience for this book, but it is one that you need to be willing to seek and be comfortable with.
Personally, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” did appeal to my own sense of dark humor and there were points in the book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
At the same time, the pain of those in the book seemed rather… meaningless.
Ultimately, this is what really pushed me away from the overall experience, at the same time I am really excited to check out more from Comyns because of the aspects that worked I adored, and am hopeful her other work will capture more of that magic out from underneath the morbid lense.
Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (2014) Floating In and Out of Suffering; told through an experimental narrative, a young mother on the verge of death is visited by the voice of a young boy asking to scan her memories, to find when the ‘worms’ first appeared.
Spoiler Warning* For The Fever Dream Book Review
This leads the woman, Amanda, to recount the last few days at a vacation home, her run-in with another mother with a dark story, and the reflections on her own role as a mother of the young Nina.
All the while, the reader is slipping in and out of the story between conversations with the young boy. Fever Dream is a surreal and deeply disturbing tale of sickness and the trials of motherhood.
The most terrifying thing in Samantha Schweblin’s debut novel is the complete breakdown of a mother’s ability to protect her child as she slowly begins to lose control of her body.
The novel speaks often of this concept of an invisible tether that binds the mother to her child to always keep a safe distance in case anything happens. The way that Schweblin explains the way Amanda keeps this in mind, releasing it or drawing it tighter depending on the scenario gives a constant sense of pervasive unease as she longs to draw her child close but lacks the ability.
As someone who has not experienced motherhood, it is an effective way to convey the invisible bond that you experience with your own family or friends who have kids.
Fever Dream cuts to the most intense fear any parent can have, not just losing one’s own kid but losing the ability to protect the one you cherish most.
Adding to the sense of dread is a story steeped in obscure folklore, soul transference, and an idea of an incompatible disease defining a small town controlling the way it runs. There are certain scenes introduced that show the area that Amanda chose to stumble on has built their town around acceptance of the death of mind and body due to some disease that afflicts their children.
The way the prose tackles the story, flowing in and out, allows quick glances into key moments in Amanda’s nightmare.
For a short novel, Samanta Schweblin manages to convey suffering on a large scale, both personal and cultural suffering.
The land is poisoned to its core and Amanda gets involved in an inescapable nightmare of a lifetime of others feeding into superstition.
After a car crash, Ogi awakens to find himself barely alive, caught in a vegetative state unable to communicate or move. After learning from the doctors that his wife did not survive the crash his sole surviving family member, his mother-in-law, begins to take care of his every need. However, when she discovers her daughter’s notes that point to past transgressions of Ogi. The mother-in-law begins odd obsessive behavior which aims to push Ogi to the brink of insanity — left to slowly rot with minimal care.
Being judged for one’s own actions can be a horrifying experience in itself, let alone adding in the nightmare of being trapped in a broken body unable to defend oneself against the onslaught. Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a horror/thriller existing in this realm of perverse uncomfortableness, having a caregiver slowly transform into a menacing force with full control over the life of another.
The book has been compared to books like Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Stephen King’s Misery.
And one can push even so far as to say it challenged the depressing body horror of titles like Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
While the book does capitalize on the unease and horrors that come with captivity, both in one’s own body and by an exterior force, The Hole is unlikely to reach the same level of accolades heaped upon the previously mentioned titles. However, that does not mean the book is without merit or that it pales in comparison of a familiar formula.
*Slight spoilers ahead
Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole, undeniably, excels at capturing the waking nightmare of slow, meticulous abuse at the hands of another. Ogi’s internal struggles, a mix of reflecting on the past and trying to rationalize the current scenario he is in, paints a really tragic portrait. This is also heightened by the character’s humanity, as a man who is aware of the mistakes he made and is still trying to do well. As his mother-in-law learns of his marital problems the reader is aware of the narrative, as she understands it, is very one-sided.
Furthermore, Ogi is aware that his actions were wrong but also that his wife was not without blame. This is approached in a very mature practical manner, as Ogi explores the harsh reality that sometimes people just drift apart. Notably, the image he had of his wife when they first fell in love faded as they changed, him finding her dull and uninspiring is not so much born out of cruelty but two people drifting apart. Ultimately, The highlight of the novel has to be Hye-Young Pyun’s exploration of Ogi as a character through internal dialogue, painting the portrait of a man who does not deserve punishment, yet can also be seen as deserved from a third party.
However, where The Hole begins to slightly falter is in the development of other characters and dialogue, the change from self-reflection to being present in the room with others never holds the same profundity of Ogi stuck in dark ruminations. The mother-in-law, though intimidating feels more like the embodiment of justice over being a character unto herself.
There are also moments of narrative convenience, and even the set-up of the mother-in-law finding the notes of her daughter seems a bit contrived, in the sense she meticulously collected and recorded any argument, action, or negative word that she felt reflected her husband poorly. His status among peers and not having any family of his own also feels shoehorned in to capture that sense of isolation in an immediate fashion. It does make the situation grave and more tragic, yet Ogi can feel very one-dimensional at points due to the ambiguity of the situation and his lack of personal life beyond his wife.
Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a deeply engaging read, that will draw fans of thrillers in with its frightening scenario and dread-inducing prose in exploring internal dialogue. It does feel a bit rough around the edges and some of the scenarios feel contrived and underdeveloped, but the overall experience is one of extreme discomfort that is certain to make the right reader squirm in all the right ways.
Ha Seong-Nan’s Bluebeard’s First Wife: 11 Tales of Everyday Sorrow: selected as on of the top ten books of 2020 in Publishers Weekly, Ha Seong-nan’s “Bluebeard’s First Wife” is the second collection of stories from the South Korean Author to be translated to English. The previous collection, “Flowers of Mold“, set the stage for an author who dives into misery with an unapologetic honesty. “Bluebeard’s First Wife” carries on the same motifs of the previous work, all the while cementing Seong-na a wonderfully, unique literary voice.
The eleven tales contained in this release offer brief moments that act as a profound turning moment in life, whether it be the loss of a partner who wonders off, an unplanned pregnancy after a night of partying, or the loss of a pet leading to a search that causes neglect of duties, all the stories take place over the course of a few, traumatic, days. What makes each of these stories resonate with the reader is the way that Seong-nan delivers her stories: told in frank language that is conveyed as if it is a personal account from the person who is struggling. consequently, the writing does not contain pithy language and emotions are expressed very matter-of-fact.
It is the approach to her writing that makes these tales really resonate with the reader, the words almost coming across as a dark confession from a stranger. A prime example, in the phenomenal “On That Green Green Grass”, Seong-nan is able to completely breakdown the nuclear family trope after the kidnapping of a family pet puts a suburban family’s ideal existence into disarray through the matriarchs personal account of events. This short, above all else, demonstrates the authors’ ability to lead the reader on an emotional journey as the chain of events evokes deep moments of empathy for how each family member copes from the perspective of the exhausted wife.
While doom and gloom is the modus operandi in the world of Seong-nan, that is not to say that the work is just pure indulgence in misery. The author can express a playful wit in entries such as “A Quiet Night”, which sees a failed carpenter slowly become mad by the neighbors upstairs–forming an odd relationship with a disgruntled family where their every movement becomes timed. However, the indulgence in fantastical elements offer the most engaging departure from the emotionally fueled work. The short “Pinky Finger”, manages to morph an unsettling cab ride into an absurdist tale of magic induced vengeance.
However, the biggest highlight in the collection comes from the closing piece, “Daisy Fleabane”. The story is of a young girl reflecting on the past, but the reader is soon informed, through an inventive story device, that daisy has long since deceased with her body swirling below the river she would visit with her father on camping trips. It is a story that combines tragedy, horror, and experimental narratives in a brilliant and engaging fashion–an ideal conclusion to the collection that summarizes the wide skillet of Seong-nan as a writer.
Overall, the stories across “Bluebeard’s First Wife” demand a lot of emotional commitment from the reader.
The themes explored capture both deep universal tragedies and personal turbulence that can come from a simple misunderstanding. The book will challenge you, but it is certainly worth the challenge.
This title is, perhaps, most comparable to the popular South Korean novel “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang, containing the same flow of language and knack for hyper-focusing in on minute tragedies and broken personalities. if that work piqued your interest I would highly recommend checking out “Bluebeards First Wife”.