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.