Two horror shorts by Jason Arnopp

A few months back, I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks, a fiendishly clever and twisted piece of unreliable narration that tells of the title character’s last days, in a posthumously edited manuscript that…well, it’s hard to explain. The short version is, Jack Sparks gripped me from the get-go, creating a rich world all through a compelling narrator’s voice, then plunging me into a twisty, unpredictable, bizarre story of ghosts, haunting, and the supernatural. So, finding out that Arnopp had not one but two short pieces available for incredibly low prices online, I wanted to check them out and see if Arnopp was a one-trick pony or not.

51kdfssa4ilBased off of A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home, the answer is definitely not. Taking the form of an anonymous letter written to a new homeowner, the letter tells the story of the home’s previous occupant, who came to realize that they were feeling less and less well-rested the longer they lived in the house. And then, there’s the night she wakes up in the middle of the night and understands why. Entirely crafted in the second person, A Sincere Warning features so much of what made Jack Sparks so great – great, unsettling horror, yes, but also a wonderfully complicated narrator whose voice tells you more about them than any exposition ever could (and who begins to reveal more and more the longer the letter continues), written with supreme control and a wonderfully natural feel. The second-person narration works better than you’d think, adding to the unease, but really, this one is a testament to how good Arnopp is as a natural writer of dialogue, making it all feel real and plausible. It’s slight, sure, but that comes along with the tight length, and really, it’s hard to argue that adding more would have made it any better. Still, it means it’s a bit of a popcorn read – it’s just a good one. (Also, apparently you can have the story sent as an anonymous letter to a friend, which sounds like an amazing idea.) Rating: **** ½

28961798But once I finished A Sincere Warning, I found that Arnopp offered a free novella for signing up for his newsletter. As a result, not long after, I found myself reading American Hoarder, which finds an unnamed narrator discussing the fabled “lost episode” of the titular reality TV show. You can guess from the title what kind of show this is, and Arnopp has a lot of fun giving us the perspective of a jaded, long-suffering professional on shows like these, with discussions about the ideal arc of the show (initial help leads to first effort, which has to relapse, which has to try to redeem), the best houses, the most disturbing collections, and so forth. But we know, given the nature of most of Arnopp’s work, where this is going – and it won’t be pretty. Hoarder doesn’t work quite as well as Warning does – the horror here feels a little more abstract, and the ending of the story doesn’t really give a great final sting so much as it feels a little confusing. (The ending of the main story, anyways; there’s a nice little stinger that will appeal to fans of Jack Sparks.) Nonetheless, I still enjoyed American Hoarder; once again, Arnopp’s knack for bringing voices to life is really great, and how much he’s able to really build not only this character, but the whole setting of the story, in such a short time makes for a solid read. It’s not his best, but it’s still a good story, and the writing is so enjoyable that I’m fine with some of the weaker plotting. Rating: ****

A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home (Amazon) | American Hoarder (

The Warren, by Brian Evenson / *****

30199444I’m a huge fan of Brian Evenson, an author whose works I find unsettling, thought-provoking, unconventional, and incredibly well-written in a way that’s hard to convey. At times coming across like some weird fusion of Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, and Gene Wolfe (to whom this novella is dedicated, which makes sense, given the massive unreliability of our narrator(s)), Evenson writes genre fiction full of fractured protagonists who don’t always understand themselves, grappling with themes of identity, morality, and religion, all while following his dark stories to their inevitable conclusions. More importantly, he’s not interested in holding the reader’s hand; Evenson is an author who immerses you in his characters’ heads deeply, only giving us the limited scope of the world that they can perceive, and expecting his reader to engage with the text to think about what’s happening and character motivations.

All of that comes together beautifully in The Warren, a tight science-fiction novella following a confused survivor named X and set in a post-apocalyptic world whose nature only gradually becomes clear. (Fans of Evenson’s might feel like there are connections to his previous novel Immobility, though reading that book isn’t necessary to appreciate The Warren.) But really, The Warren isn’t about its world so much as it is about its protagonist – or, should I say, protagonists. Because what becomes very evident, very quickly, is that despite his thought that he’s the last surviving member of his kind – and what kind that is, exactly, remains open to debate – there must be someone else alive in this world, because things keep happening that he doesn’t remember doing.

The exact nature of what’s going on with X doesn’t take long to become clear, but it’s worth experiencing it cold, the way Evenson intended, because only then can you start to realize just how meticulously crafted and careful the narration of this book is. Written with Evenson’s usual masterful, stark prose, The Warren makes its debt to Gene Wolfe clear, giving us a narrator who is massively unreliable on multiple fronts, not all of them in his own control. But despite these elements of confusion, what’s in doubt isn’t the plot or what’s going on, but rather, what it all means. Evenson uses the character’s existential confusion to address any number of issues – the nature of consciousness, what it means to be a “human” or a “person,” the construction of an identity – and plays with them in fascinating, thoughtful ways.

The Warren won’t be for all tastes; Evenson has never been an author who’s interested in answers and spelling things out, and even by those standards, The Warren is cryptic, giving you just enough to draw you in and leave you thinking, but never offering much concrete or decisive. If you’re fine with that, you’ll love this; for me, I admire the book’s refusal to give easy answers to questions that have no answers to them. And with Evenson’s crystalline prose, his complex characters, and the compelling confusion of his story, what you have is a knockout of a little novella that’s deeply satisfying for those who are up for its uncertainties.


Night of the Living Dead / *****

909_bd_box_34x490_originalI’ve seen George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead more times than almost any other horror movie (with the possible exception of Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the few films I put on equal footing with Romero’s stone cold classic). Every time, I worry that I might enjoy it less, that this might be the time that I question whether my love of it is unjustified, and every time, I love it even more, finding more and more evidence that the original Night is one of the greatest horror movies ever made – a film that’s undeniably of a time fraught with anxiety and fears about racial unrest and an unpopular war, and one that reflects those worries, making it impossible to look away.

It’s this aspect of Night that I found myself thinking most about on this rewatch (which, incidentally, was also my first watch of Criterion’s new 4K restoration – it is a knockout, plain and simple, and a revelation). In so many ways, Night of the Living Dead is a film that bridges two eras of horror. We begin in the 1950’s, with camp, exaggeration, and mannered performances; we end in the 1960’s, with no justice, no easy answers, and no flinching from the nightmare of the world. (A lot of spoilers are going to follow; this is more of an essay than a review.)

Look, for instance, at the opening scenes of the movie. A brother and sister arrive in a graveyard to pay their respects to their long dead father. The film looks cheap and B-movie level, at best, at this point. The performances are broad, the dialogue mannered, the banter overwritten. That first zombie attack? It’s ridiculous. It’s a man basically playacting as Frankenstein(‘s monster), with a death that’s so bloodless we don’t even know if it’s actually a death, followed by a hurried, not particularly urgent escape.

So far, so good. This is familiar territory for 1950’s monster flick fans. A lot of fun; in theory, it could be scary, but mainly, it’s silliness, and a good time at the movies.

But then the film starts to change a little. Just a little, though. Sure, there’s Barbara, portrayed by Judith O’Dea in a mannered, B-level performance of hysteria, anchoring the movie squarely in the genre of the 1950’s. Nonetheless, there are signs that things aren’t quite what we think. A surprisingly graphic corpse rotting upstairs. The arrival of our new hero – Ben, an African-American man, whose blackness feels revolutionary, and yet the film leaves it uncommented upon. More than that, there’s the sharp contrast between O’Dea’s performance and that of Duane Jones, who feels more naturalistic, grounded – more in line with the naturalistic feel of performances we were starting to see in the new Hollywood wave. Still, setting aside these brief moments, the whole thing generally feels like a low-budget monster movie, and that’s no bad thing. For a while, our characters are talking inside a house, rather than fighting zombies. They’re making plans, and the glimpses of the zombies are brief and sporadic.

Obviously, the film is going to change, and change drastically, after the end of the time in the house. On this watch, though, I was more and more aware of how Romero was gradually tossing in more and more elements of 1960’s film, letting them sit in sharp contrast to the 1950’s elements. The cast continues to split, with most of our protagonists turning in 1950’s square performances, but there’s a greater and greater sense of divide between them and Jones. That finds a mirror all the way down to the various newscasts, which vacillate between War of the Worlds-style commentary and visceral newsreel footage, the latter of which features yet another grounded, realistic performance by George Kosana, playing a local sheriff who’s leading zombie-killing posses.

What’s more, there’s a creeping dread that what’s outside isn’t as safe as we thought it was. The news reports start drifting from 1950’s cheese (“The dead have begun to walk!”) to more brutal, disturbing claims of cannibalism and mutilation. The brief zombie forays get more violent, with one intruding hand being slowly torn apart by a hammer. There’s a sense that the child downstairs might not survive the night. In other words, there’s a slowly growing sense that the rules as we know them aren’t applying anymore.

And then, our heroes make an effort to fill up a truck with gas, and all hell breaks loose. Our teenage couple dies – not in a bloodless knock to the head like Johnny in the opening’s scene, but in a ball of flame that burns them alive. Ben is nearly left to die thanks to the cowardice of the surviving white male lead. Suddenly, the film isn’t fun anymore. People are dying, and not in safe ways.

All that before the zombies literally tear the victims apart, chewing and feasting on their flesh in gory, graphic ways – ripping the flesh off of severed hands, fighting over slippery intestines, and worse, thanks to the truly disturbing foley work.

Even in a day and age where zombie gore is nearly passe thanks to shows like The Walking Dead, there’s something shocking and unforgettable about Night‘s gore, and it’s in no small part because of how long the film takes to get to it. Before the gore, there’s been a sense that we’re in an old monster movie. After the horrifying death of the teenagers and their graphic dismemberment, though, we can’t hide from this world anymore – the rules as we know them seem to have been thrown away.

What could be more appropriate than that for a movie made in a decade where the facade was ripped off of race relations, forcing Americans to grapple with their own complicity in oppression and cruelty? Or for a decade in which footage was coming through on the nightly news of wartime violence, uncensored and unedited, to say nothing of the wartime crimes being committed?

From there, there’s no going back. A child brutally and graphically murders her mother, stabbing her over, and over, and over, and over, until we just want it to stop. Ben – our hero, our protagonist, the one decent man – kills a man, not because he’s a zombie, but because he almost let him die. It’s murder, plain and simple, and even with Ben’s successive killing of a mother and child because they’ve turned, there’s a sense that we’ve crossed another line, one in which morality is gone, too. Barbara? She doesn’t make it either, pulled away by her own brother. Even those we love turn against us in Night, making us question whether we can truly know what’s in anyone’s heart. And in the midst of all of it, we catch a glimpse of that zombie from the opening scenes. He’s unchanged – still lurching, no more graphic than he was – and yet, he’s not funny anymore. None of it is. Is it just part of the way the film comes full circle, ending where it began? Or is it a darker comment on how this horror has been underneath the surface all along, and we’ve just been blind to it – the same way so much of America was blind to the horrors of war, or racial intolerance?

And then there’s the ending. Not giving his an audience even a moment to relax as he builds to the unforgettable final moments, Romero fills the scene with loaded images: cops holding back straining German Shepherd dogs, wandering patrols in grassy fields picking off people one by one. It’s impossible to see these patrols and not find them horrifying, no matter if intellectually we tell ourselves that they’re hunting zombies – it’s too close to what we’ve seen on the news every night, and the enjoyment they’re feeling is too nauseating,

Too nauseating, even before they shoot Ben as an afterthought. No big music sting. No teased hope. Just a short, brutal death – a betrayal of any hope that good might win, and an image whose resonance hits home even after 50 years. (Maybe more so, in a world after countless examples of black men killed for the color of their skin.)

And then, Romero cuts to newsprint-style credits, but even there, there’s no escape. We watch as Ben – our hero, the voice of reason, the survivor – is impaled by hooks, tossed on a blazing inferno. The still images give way to a towering inferno of corpses.

Cut to black, and our journey is complete. We started in the world of the 1950’s. Threats were childish, and we could joke about them. The world made sense. Heroes would win, villains would lose, and order would be restored. There were risks and uncertainties, sure, but the world tended towards justice. White heroes would thrive, would be brave. Villains were easy to identify.

But we end in the 1960’s. We have met the enemy, and he is us (an “us” that might be “humanity in general,” or just “suburban white people”…or maybe both). Racial violence is impossible to ignore. The authorities are not our saviors. The world doesn’t make sense. Death is ugly. Humans are cruel to each other. You can try to cling to the old ways – like Barbara did, acting as though this is nothing but men in rubber suits and it’s all going to be fine – you won’t make it. But even those who adapt, like Ben, sometimes have no chance. And sadly, even fifty years later, every bit of it still hits home relentlessly. Authorities still kill black men without remorse. Men with guns kill and feel like big men because of it. War makes every brutality acceptable. Humanity is willing to turn on itself at a moment’s notice. In other words, despite us “moving forward” as a human race, every bit of the ugliness and nastiness uncovered in the film is still relevant and trenchant today.

And that’s far, far scarier than any zombie ever could be.


Hellbound: Hellraiser II / ** ½

mv5bmzixzja2mzatztu5ms00n2fjlwi2ndqtngmwyzqxmge1ndlmxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtqxnzmzndi-_v1_sy1000_cr006471000_al_Man, do I wish this movie was 2/3 as long as it is.

Let me back up for a moment. I’m a big fan of the original Hellraiser, both as a low-budget, unsettling horror film and as an adaptation of Clive Barker’s work. I think that there are few authors out there like Barker, but movies have always struggled to match his surreal imagination, boundary-pushing horror, and blurring of lines between morality and pleasure. Barker was never an author interested in conventional horror stories, and any effort to turn his work into something more easily pigeonholed usually ended up disastrously.

All of which is to say, I wasn’t really expecting Hellbound to be any good. It’s not as though Hellraiser really needed a sequel, and knowing how the later films essentially turned Pinhead and the Cenobites into generic slasher villain tropes – thus missing every appeal of the original film and novella – I assumed Hellbound was just the first step down a long path of mediocrity.

Which is probably why I got so frustrated by the film’s final act, because up until then, Hellbound is way more interesting than you’d expect it to be. Yes, it still feels like an unnecessary sequel – it picks up right after the events of the original, and follows Kirsty’s fears that her stepmother Julia can be resurrected the same way Frank was in the original – and can sometimes feel a bit like a retread, with characters sometimes just going through the motions to keep the original plot cycling through again. And yes, there’s undeniably a sense of “missing the point”, with the filmmakers clearly not interested in Barker’s blending of pain and pleasure and instead going full on torture and gore.

And yet, Hellbound manages to capture the unsettling, otherworldly, Lovecraftian feeling that Barker sometimes managed. The glimpses of the other world that we get here are genuinely unsettling and strange; Pinhead and the Cenobites are still forces of malevolent nature, incomprehensible to human understanding; the horror is still visceral and truly horrifying. (I try not to be an old man about movies too often, but there’s little denying that Hellbound‘s effects largely work because of their practicality. The latex body suits are tactile and horrific in that texture, giving it all a physicality that computer effects never could. And the same can be said for the matte paintings, which are moodier and stranger than CGI could often create. I’m not saying all CGI is bad – far from it – but the first two Hellraiser films are testaments to the power of practical horror effects.)

All of which makes it all the more frustrating when Hellbound goes so far off the rails that the word “off” doesn’t even do it justice. Up until the scene in which of the film’s antagonists meets what seems to be his final fate in a hellish box, I was into it. But within seconds after that, character motivations veer wildly, physical behaviors make no sense, power struggles become unclear, and the film loses any sense of coherence, clarity, or any purpose beyond gore and violence. It makes for an exhaustingly awful, pointless, and truly incomprehensible final act, and it’s so bad that it takes away from how surprisingly solid, if unoriginal, I found the rest of the movie. If you love the original Hellraiser, you might be surprised by how good Hellbound is for a while; just trust me when I tell you that it’s time to turn the movie off after the aforementioned scene – that is, unless you want to be able to pinpoint the exact, precise moment a film implodes.


Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King / ****

34466922One of the fun things about reading books that are co-authored is the chance to see how well (or not) author’s sensibilities blend together. Look, for instance, at how Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett each brought their unique sensibilities to Good Omens, creating something that felt truly like a fusion of their voices. And it’s not as though Stephen King is a stranger to co-authoring; even setting aside his short works with his other son, Joe Hill, there’s the double punch of The Talisman and Black House, wherein King marries his voice to that of another horror legend, Peter Straub.

Now, I haven’t read any of Owen King’s solo work, so I don’t know how well Sleeping Beauties represents a true fusion of their voices. But there’s undeniably a lot of Stephen King here, most notably in the rich pacing, which is something that I think Stephen King does better than almost any author I can think of. Like almost no other author, King has a way of starting sprawling and calmly, and slowly tightening the noose until the climax is all but inevitable and stopping reading is a fool’s errand. And that’s definitely the case with Sleeping Beauties, which starts simply enough – one day, women around the world are simply not waking up, but instead, seem to have become wrapped in silken facial cocoons as they sleep; what’s more, you do not want to remove the silk, trust me – but builds and builds to catastrophic levels, with a double-barrelled climax that takes place on two different planes of existence and absolutely flies, for dozens of pages.

More than that, Sleeping Beauties is rich with interesting themes, using its gender-affecting story to explore gender dynamics and relations between the sexes. Even the locations are rich with subtext, from a women’s prison full of no shortage of victimized women to small town politics, from female police officers to attractive reporters being judged by their surface, the Kings manage to take on the issues seriously and thoughtfully, rendering the women characters every bit as sympathetically as the men, even considering the fact that they’re two white dudes. (One can’t help but wonder if the book would change at all with a female co-writer – say, King’s wife?) And as the Kings interweave their massive cast of characters, their story manages to be about male rage and female empowerment, about the clash between “traditional” values and more modern ones, all while telling a gripping apocalyptic tale about a world in which all that’s left are a bunch of dudes – and anyone who’s read Lord of the Flies knows how this could go, pretty easily.

For all of that, there’s something off about Sleeping Beauties, some indescribable X-factor that kept me from being as gripped with the book as I wish I was. There’s a lot I liked here, but it also drug more than most King books I know, and you can’t help but wonder if Owen King’s voice simply isn’t as propulsive as his father’s, or as gripping. It doesn’t help that Sleeping Beauties‘s cast is so sprawling (opening with a list of characters that goes on multiple pages and feels a bit overwhelming), and ultimately, feels like a few threads could have been trimmed. (I’m thinking especially here of a late-book thread about two drug-dealing brothers who escape from prison thanks to the lack of focus on the penal system in the wake of this disease.) It’s a book I still enjoyed, and whose richness I appreciated, but I never really come to love it the way I hoped I would.


Near Dark / The Brides of Dracula

b63e645c8ea65d9562fd5352bc208716It’s been a few years since I first saw Near Dark, director Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the vampire genre, and I’ll concede that it’s got a few more flaws than I remembered. The first act, in which an aw-shucks cowboy sort named Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) falls in love (well, lust, probably, if we’re being technical) with a mysterious girl he sees one night is fine, but it undeniably drags a little bit, especially if you know where it’s all going. Their patter is a bit off, their connection a little tenuous, but it works, as a setup to what you might assume will be your typical vampire romance story (at which point I will remind you of this hilariously misleading cover for Near Dark that always makes me laugh when I picture the faces of those who watched it based only off of their assumptions).

But not long after Caleb gets bitten, he finds himself captured by the girl’s “family” – a crew of violent sociopaths, whose need for blood finds its outlet in brutal crimes. And they expect Caleb to join in, which leads to one of the most intense and harrowing sequences I’ve ever seen in a vampire film, in which the clan locks the door on a roadhouse and sets their inner beasts loose. (It’s a scene that’s always reminded me of The Devil’s Rejects, in many ways, and I’d be surprised if Zombie didn’t use the roadhouse scene as inspiration for some of his films.) And that’s before an incredibly tense hotel shootout where the beams of sunlight through the punctured wall are just as dangerous – if not more so – than the bullets.

Near Dark is a nasty, violent, and wonderfully smart genre film, one that serves as a welcome counterpoint to 1987’s other big vampire film, The Lost Boys. Where that film so much steered into the “attitude” of the vampires, but turned them into sulking wannabe goths, Near Dark makes no excuses or apologies for its creatures, turning them into living avatars of death and violence. They have opted out from society, and their abilities allow them to live the lives they want to live. And while The Lost Boys housed its appeal in the idea of “hanging with the cool kids,” Near Dark offers Caleb the chance to drop out of society and live like a god – unapologetically.

Yes, Near Dark drags a little at times; yes, the final act feels a little tacked on and odd, and the “happy” aspects of the ending feel a little forced in. And yes, Bill Paxton has it cranked way past 11 here, chewing on the scenery so much that it’s a wonder there’s any left. (Luckily, his enthusiasm and sense of fun is pretty infectious, if I’m being honest.) But that second act is near perfect, and the way the film handles its vampiric lore (never mentioning the word “vampire,” never addressing weaknesses or abilities directly, and just letting everything be inferred and implied) is smart and satisfying, treating its audience with respect and assuming they’ll be able to keep up. And that one-two punch of the roadhouse and hotel is so good that the wait through that courtship is more than redeemed, delivering a genre film that pulls no punches and handles its story with stylistic flair, a nasty glint in the eye, and more intelligence than you’d assume. Rating: ****

brides-of-dracula-movie-poster-1960-1020144019I’ve only just started to dip my toes into the long list of Hammer horror films – the output of horror staples from the legendary British studio known for its Gothic sensibilities, atmosphere, and craftsmanship, as well as a bit of camp. Back in 2015, I did a triple feature of Hammer Dracula films, and walked away thoroughly enjoying it all, and starting to see the appeal. But among the ones I missed during that session was The Brides of Dracula, Hammer’s first sequel to the original Dracula. So when I got the chance to see a Hammer film on the big screen, how could I pass that up?

The Brides of Dracula is about what you’d expect from a Hammer film, even sight unseen, if I told you the basic setup. A beautiful young teacher is riding on a carriage through the wilds of Transylvania; she stops in a town where everyone gets nervous at the arrival of the town matriarch, who lives in a castle up the hill; the teacher goes up to the castle, despite the best efforts of the town people…you can imagine where this goes from there, right? Of course you can.

But none of that conveys a number of things about Brides, least of which how fun it all is. Filmed in lush color, with detailed and gloriously gothic castles as our backdrops, director Terence Fisher pitches everything just so, making some of it wryly funny while playing nicely with atmosphere at every chance. (There’s a great bit involving a girl looking into the mirror and seeing nothing behind her that shouldn’t work, but does; even though you know what’s going on, it’s still so well-staged and crafted that you don’t mind a bit.) And, of course, there’s Peter Cushing as traveling vampire hunter Van Helsing, bringing his box of science and vampire lore to bear against the apparently not-dead Dracula (though, sadly, not played by Christopher Lee this time).

The result is a wonderful piece of 60’s horror, one that does everything you’d hope from the genre – great visuals, a nice sense of style, more atmosphere than you’d hope for, and a clever enough script that actually moves along at a great pace. There are even some genuine surprises along the way (the final method to defeat Dracula is, like my friend pointed out, essentially what would happen in a ludicrous adventure video game, but that didn’t keep me from laughing in pleasure as I saw what the film was going for). And the chance to see a Hammer film on the big screen is almost always worth taking. Rating: ****

IMDb: Near Dark | The Brides of Dracula

The Woman, by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee / ****

9209879Jack Ketchum – whose real name was Dallas Mayr – was an utterly unique, brutally intense horror writer, one whose work was unlike almost anything else out there. Ketchum, who died last week, was an author who was fascinated by violence – its effects on the human body, yes, but also the things that can lead people to commit such horrible acts. His novel Red, for instance, traced how a man could be treated in such a way that could lead him to horrible acts of revenge, while The Lost followed damaged characters until a public nightmare is unleashed. And while Ketchum made his name with the nightmarish cannibal tale Off Season, he’s probably most well known – and most infamous – for The Girl Next Door, which holds the rare distinction of being one of the most upsetting, horrific, disturbing books I’ve ever read. It’s a fictional retelling of the Sylvia Likens murder, a case I advise you not to Google unless you’re prepared for the horrors to come. And this is not exaggeration. Suffice to say, it’s about a girl who is kidnapped and held in a cellar, and the way people around them slowly find themselves open to horrific acts of cruelty and brutality.

It’s hard not to think of The Girl Next Door when you read The Woman; despite the fact that it’s technically a sequel to Off Season (well, technically, it’s a sequel to that book’s sequel, Offspring), the plot can’t help but recall that book’s nightmare scenario. An alpha-male real estate agent goes hunting one day and spies “The Woman” – the sole survivor of Off Season‘s cannibal tribe. Operating off of some base instinct, he decides to capture her and bring her to his basement, displaying her for his family…and as you might imagine, things get very, very bad, very very quickly.

So why would Ketchum revisit this story, and what should make any reader want to come back to it? Because, without giving too much of the story away, The Woman isn’t so much a story of captive brutality, but an entry in the “rape and revenge” genre. In some ways, the book feels like a response to The Girl Next Door, a chance to settle the scales, to give the victim of The Girl Next Door the chance to pay back her crimes in a way that book’s victim never could.

Mind you, Ketchum (and co-author Lucky McKee, who made his name with the great horror film May, among others, and is known for his feminist ideas) has more on his mind than just brutality and horror. The Woman is a savage indictment of male privilege and toxic masculinity; it’s a book that believes in rape culture, in the awfulness of the male gaze, and demands that such crimes be answered for in full. That gives the book some heft and weight, even if there are times when the book’s horrific elements sometimes distract from it (I’m thinking particularly of a late-book revelation about the couple’s first child, which feels over the top and out of place).

The Woman is a fascinating book – a fusion of Ketchum’s gory cannibal horror and his fixation on violence; it mixes Ketchum’s unflinching look at human cruelty with McKee’s desire to speak from a female perspective; it marries the darkness of The Girl Next Door with a desire for cosmic justice full of anger and violence. The result probably isn’t Ketchum’s finest book, but it’s a good one, and in some ways (ironic ones, given how brutally and graphically violent the novel can get – and trust me, this gets brutal) more accessible than his most infamous pieces of writing.