Reading: Gods, Ghosts, and Grim Death

Looking for some reading material to wile away the hours of this, the twilight of your life? Well fret you not, dear reader, because your humble blogauthor has got your back.
Often­times, antholo­gies are mixed bless­ings, almost always padded with a few duds (like SNL, only with a much high­er hit-to-miss ratio). The ven­er­a­ble Tesser­acts series, how­ev­er, con­tin­u­al­ly bucks the trend, pro­vid­ing a show­case for Cana­di­an genre writ­ing that nev­er fails to enter­tain.
Wrestling With Gods, the 18th col­lec­tion, is a boun­ti­ful cor­nu­copia of sci-fi, fan­ta­sy, and hor­ror yarns that con­sid­er, stretch, warp, and repack­age the con­cept of the­ol­o­gy. Wrestling is not a whole­sale con­dem­na­tion of reli­gious belief, as many might sur­mise (Canuck­ian authors being, as I’m sure you’re aware, left-lean­ing rad­i­cal com­mu­nis­tic tree-moles­ters); rather, it is an inci­sive exam­i­na­tion of how ques­tions of faith impact us all.
High­lights include: “The Harsh Light of Morn­ing”, David Jón Fuller’s mix of vam­pirism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the hor­rors of the Cana­di­an Indi­an res­i­den­tial school sys­tem; Der­win Maks’ study of free will and A.I., “Mecha-Jesus”; the weird­ly won­der­ful glad­i­a­to­r­i­al com­bat fan­ta­sy of Alyxan­dra Harvey’s “The Faith Cir­cus”; and Janet K. Nicolson’s “A Cut and a Prayer”, a Philip K. Dick-ian amal­gam of Islam­ic faith, the search for mean­ing, and brain surgery. Wrestling With Gods is a win­ner through and through; you’ll be pon­der­ing the sto­ries for days after­wards.

 

Ah, Andrew Pyper, you nev­er fail, do you? With The Damned, Canada’s genre mae­stro (The Demo­nolo­gist, The Killing Cir­cle) once again deliv­ers unto us a fine­ly tuned hor­ror thriller laden with vivid char­ac­ters and weird events.
Dan­ny Orchard has an unusu­al claim to fame; he has returned from the dead more than once. Hav­ing writ­ten a best­selling mem­oir on the pri­ma­ry expe­ri­ence — a fire which also took the life of his twin sis­ter Ash­leigh — Danny’s life is now a sedate and lone­ly affair. This is not by choice; Ash was a ter­ri­fy­ing psy­chopath in life and is, as Dan­ny has learned, even worse in death. And when Dan­ny falls in love and decides to take a chance on hap­pi­ness, Ash is more than a lit­tle dis­pleased.
Even by the stan­dards of Pyper’s pre­vi­ous works, Ash stands out as a superbly evil cre­ation, a mas­ter manip­u­la­tor who charms the world even as she ter­ror­izes her fam­i­ly. Pyper excels at throw­ing real­is­tic char­ac­ters into impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tions, nev­er los­ing focus on their human­i­ty as his dia­bol­i­cal imag­i­na­tion forces them into cir­cum­stances that would men­tal­ly crip­ple most of us. At its heart, The Damned is a tale of fam­i­ly dynam­ics, of the pow­er bio­log­i­cal bonds hold over us, to the point that they may super­sede our moral stan­dards. You’ll read The Damned for its nerve-rat­tling inten­si­ty, but you’ll remem­ber it for its under­stand­ing of human­i­ty.
If you require a one-word descrip­tion for Paul Tremblay’s new nov­el, I’d sug­gest Unset­tling. Unnerv­ing, Haunt­ing, and Freaky are more than apt, but Unset­tling ful­ly cap­tures this bril­liant for­ay into fam­i­ly dis­in­te­gra­tion, real­i­ty tele­vi­sion, and exor­cisms. 
A Head Full of Ghosts is the tale of the Bar­retts, a New Eng­land fam­i­ly strug­gling with the acts of men­tal­ly unsta­ble daugh­ter Mar­jorie. As told by younger daugh­ter Mer­ry (a unre­li­able nar­ra­tor?), Marjorie’s actions twist her per­son­al­i­ty into a pret­zeled mess: at times she appears to be a ful­ly aware trou­ble­mak­er; at oth­er times she resem­bles a schiz­o­phrenic; and, most dis­turbing­ly, she some­times throws out hints of demon­ic pos­ses­sion. Seek­ing answers, the father descends into reli­gious obses­sion, bring­ing in doc­tors, priests, and ulti­mate­ly a real­i­ty tele­vi­sion crew to doc­u­ment the events (and pro­vide a much-need­ed income). 
That we can­not pre­cise­ly deter­mine the truth of Marjorie’s con­di­tion is what dri­ves both the hor­ror and the tragedy. Tremblay’s skill at bal­anc­ing his char­ac­ters with the ambigu­ous­ness of their sit­u­a­tion results in an (here’s that word again) unset­tling exam­i­na­tion of the innate fragili­ty of the fam­i­ly unit. Despite the fan­tas­ti­cal nature of the tale, Trem­blay takes great care to present it as an emi­nent­ly relat­able sit­u­a­tion; if you were to change demon­ic pos­ses­sion to can­cer, the pow­er of the sto­ry would alter very lit­tle. I admit that A Head Full of Ghosts con­found­ed my expec­ta­tions, as I had pre­sumed this to be a, well, a nov­el of ghosts (poten­tial­ly a whole head­ful of them). I do so love it when I’m wrong; this is a mas­ter­ful­ly unset­tling nov­el by a writer work­ing at peak pow­er.