Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****

This is the fifth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, and Wolves of the Calla (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”

Also, this time I’m going to have a special book-only spoiler section called “The Clearing at the End of the Path,” because there’s one aspect of this book that I wanted to discuss at length, but didn’t want to spoil for people who hadn’t yet read the book. (If you’ve read it, you probably know what it is.)


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As I approached Song of Susannah in this re-read, I’m not going to lie; I was a bit anxious. Over the years, Song of Susannah has been held up as the nadir of the series – a mess, the point at which the meta commentary became too much, the book where King’s ambition stretched too far. And in some ways, I’ll grant some of those points. There’s no denying that Song of Susannah sometimes feels like too many books in one, nor that it feels…well, weird. And that’s saying something, given how strange this series is already, and how disjointed the books are almost by design. But more than most, Song of Susannah swings for the fences, going between the surreal to the action-packed, from the nightmarish to the esoteric, often without even a hint of a change coming. And that doesn’t even get into the main thrust of the narrative, which somehow has to explain a truly baffling pregnancy that…well, I can’t even begin to explain this one to you, because King doesn’t quite either, despite the number of pages he devotes to trying to hash it all out.

And yet. (Come on. You knew an “and yet” was coming.)

And yet, by god, broken down to its individual pieces, Song of Susannah WORKS. There’s no denying that King’s ambition cranks up dozens of notches here (and I’ll have lots to say about the major one – and the most controversial one – in a book spoiler section below, before I get to series spoilers), but it’s easy to forget how much King has a way of making even the most bizarre and dysfunctional concepts somehow work when you’re lost in his worlds. On paper, most of Song of Susannah shouldn’t work, but as we immerse ourselves into the heart and soul of these characters, and King brings his worlds to vivid, intense life, it’s hard to remember your complaints while you’re carried along.

More than that, Song of Susannah has some truly great scenes waiting for you, most notably a climactic section that may rank as one of the most disturbing, horrific things King’s ever written – no small feat, that. But it makes sense, because King’s horror usually has at least one foot in the real world, one foot keeping things grounded. But in the world of the Dark Tower, all bets are off – there’s no reality to keep it tethered. And what results is genuinely horrifying and disturbing, with some of the darkest, grimmest images I can remember King writing – an ending (setting aside the coda, which I’ll address in those book spoilers) that leaves you dying for more in a great way. More than that, even with the weird, sometimes disjointed approach that finds us sometimes leaping from scene to scene, King retains that command of momentum and pacing that makes him one of the best writers around – and that goes double here, as King barrels us toward the ending of this series.

But maybe what I really love most about Song of Susannah is the way that it makes King’s ambition for this series plain, crystallizing something that’s been a theme for some time. Song of Susannah, in other words, is the book where it becomes most clear that in many ways, this is King’s most ambitious and career-defining work, in his own mind, and that the book is as much as about him as an author as it is these characters. It’s something that’s been a part of the series since the beginning (if you remember, it’s one reason why I advocate for the original cut of The Gunslinger, because it makes King’s evolution as a writer part of the text of the series), and even more so over the past few, as the ideas of story and storytelling has become more and more intrinsic to the plot of the series as a whole. The idea of stories – why we tell them, how they inspire or define us, how they motivate us – is only more and more relevant as the Tower series progresses, and Song of Susannah starts turning that from subtext to text, as characters grapple with their roles in stories that they had no idea they were a part of.

Does Song of Susannah spend alternately too long on some explanations (Mia/Susannah, I’m looking at you) and not enough on others (how Susannah knows the importance of a street preacher, for instance)? Undoubtedly. Does it suffer from “middle book” syndrome a bit, bridging between the setup of Wolves of the Calla and the payoff of The Dark Tower without sometimes knowing how to define itself? Most definitely. And is there a bit of me that resents spending so much time in this penultimate book of a great series on one of its weirdest, most nonsensical plot threads, to say nothing of the fact that most of it is devoted to maybe my least favorite member of the ka-tet? (Again, I’ll get into why in the spoiler section below.) Yup.

But for all of that, so many of the individual pieces of Song of Susannah work so well that I can overlook that. Any book that features that horrific sequence in the Dixie Pig, the fantastic shoot-out, that eerie scene where they meet a sort of god, and our first glimpses at what lays in the blasted lands near the Tower…when your book has all of that and more, I’m okay with the weaknesses, especially because all of them work so well thematically, and they’re so well told. And more than anything, when a book leaves me this ready to jump into the final volume, even after I’ve already read it…well, it’s doing its job, isn’t it?

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The Clearing at the End of the Path (book spoilers follow – no series spoilers) Continue reading “Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****”

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle / *****

9780812995947One of the things I most love about Victor LaValle’s work – and there’s a lot there to love – is the way he so ably mixes complex, relevant themes with original, strange tales on genre fiction, allowing the two to play off of each other. From the racial explorations and secret societies to Big Machine to the class and mental explorations of The Devil in Silver, LaValle grapples with difficult, important questions, all while crafting narratives that subvert your expectations and embrace their genre roots wholeheartedly. LaValle’s most recent – and most celebrated – work, The Ballad of Black Tom, did both of these things, telling a Lovecraftian horror story that also served as a critique of Lovecraft’s toxic racism.

All of which to say, it’s not a surprise that The Changeling has more on its mind than simply a crackling good genre tale, though it’s undeniably that. Nor is it surprising that the novel speaks to concerns of race, of ethnicity, of class, and even of toxic masculinity. What is surprising, though – and part of what makes The Changeling so excellent – is that LaValle’s focus is on something as intimate, heartfelt, and earnest as fatherhood. Yes, LaValle is still fascinated by bigger social issues – there’s a huge way in which the book is about fatherhood in the face of gender expectations of our modern world – but at its core, this is about something universal and fundamentally human.

It’s also, of course, a fantastic piece of genre fiction, one that starts simply enough – with the meeting of a boy and a girl – before slowly turning into something far darker and stranger. It’s the story of a rare book dealer named Apollo, his librarian wife, Emma, and their first child. It’s a wondrous moment in any parents’ life, but as Apollo basks and glows with pride, Emma starts to feel less and less comfortable and more frightened – and then things take a horrific, nightmarish turn.

What follows is a strange, unsettling journey into something that lays beneath the polished veneer of modern parenthood – into fears and anxieties, into toxic relationships and vicious misogyny, and even into old legends and fairy tales. And if you know the significance of the title, some of it won’t be a surprise, but much still will…but what ultimately results is almost a dark, primal fairy tale, one in which archetypes battle and morals are unclear, where lessons are taught and the cruelty of the world is laid bare. That it somehow manages to be a fairy tale and simultaneously an intensely contemporary story is only further testament to LaValle’s skill and ability to mix genre.

Just as he did in Big Machine and The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle effortlessly swings between grounded, realistic fiction and strange, inexplicable horror, horror that’s all the more effective for how abrupt his shifts are. Because, yes, The Changeling is a fairy tale about parenting, but it’s also a horror story, both about the evil that humans do and about something darker and more primal – and it’s quite possible that the human evil is far, far worse, especially as LaValle carefully positions it into our modern world (when one vile character starts spouting off about “beta males” and “cucks” late in the book, it feels horribly inevitable).

But what makes The Changeling work is that more than any of those things, it’s the story of a man who loves his son and would do anything for his family. And that lets the book hold up all of the social commentary, all of the thoughtful points, all of the allegories, because more than any of that, it works as a story of a man driven by love – a character we care about, and whose trials and challenges resonate with anyone who’s ever feared for their child.

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“The Little Sisters of Eluria,” by Stephen King / ****

6356190A Dark Tower novella released in the long period of time between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla (and ultimately collected in King’s Everything’s Eventual), “The Little Sisters of Eluria” is hard to pin down. It’s a Dark Tower story, but it’s a prequel to The Gunslinger, taking place while Roland was still hunting for the trail of the Man in Black. That means…well, it means a lot of things. It means there’s no ka-tet to be found, but also no Cuthbert; this is Roland, alone and already hardened by the events of Wizard and Glass. It means that the world has moved on, but not as much, and that Roland hasn’t made it to the wastes of The Gunslinger, though he may be near the edges.

But most importantly, “The Little Sisters of Eluria” differs from the main Tower books in two key ways: that it’s a novella, which reduces the scope, and that it’s a horror story – the only truly single-genre piece of the series. And given that King has a gift for short form horror, that’s all the more promising.

And luckily, though “Little Sisters” is inessential other than for Tower completists, it’s a gloriously unsettling little tale, one where King can take advantage of his fantastical world to give us a glimpse of the dark shadows lurking at its edges. The result is a lot of fun – a unique take on a classic monster archetype, as a wounded Roland tries to recover from a mutant attack in a hospital where patients seem to disappear rather than leave. There’s no huge shocks here – it’s clear early on what kind of creatures we’re dealing with, but that’s okay, because the details are what matters. And as King reveals the doctors that have been healing the patients, or follows the Sisters on their feedings, or as he turns the knife for a nicely nasty ending, “Little Sisters” is constantly weird, unsettling, and gripping. Nothing profound, nothing deep, but a solid horror gem nonetheless.

For all of that, it feels like a Dark Tower story only vaguely – almost more of a side story in this world, one that happens to feature Roland. Nonetheless, there’s something compelling about seeing more of Roland’s world, especially parts that are further from the Beam and the Tower. It reminds us that this isn’t just a world of one man; it’s a world in ruin, and as it’s collapsed, darkness has found its way into the cracks. And, as always, a solo Roland is most compelling when he’s wounded and less capable; to watch this unstoppable powerhouse forced to think his way out, instead of shooting his way out, is always interesting to see.

Is it a true Dark Tower story? Not of the main arc, and even fans may find themselves forgetting it when they think of the whole saga (I certainly had). But it’s a great little horror story, and a nice tale of Roland beyond the boundaries of his quest. What more do you want to tide you over while you prepare for the home stretch?

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A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly / **** ½

71mvwmg4azlThere are basically two ways to review A Game of Ghosts: one is by comparing it to just about any other thriller out there, and the other is by comparing it to the rest of the Charlie Parker series. On the former scale, as usual, John Connolly reminds you that he’s one of the greatest thriller writers working today, and blows just about any of the others out of the water; on the latter, it’s a solid, engaging entry, but not among the best of the series.

As usual for the Parker series, A Game of Ghosts blurs the lines between the crime genre and supernatural horror; while the book opens with Charlie Parker being tasked with tracking down a missing private detective, it doesn’t take long before the story spirals outward into a malevolent cult whose female members are in touch with vicious, dangerous spirits. And, as usual, Connolly doesn’t just deliver gripping action set pieces and a complicated crime saga; he’s also genuinely terrifying throughout, giving even the hardiest readers chills and unease as he plunges deeply into what he’s called “the honeycomb world”. As for the question as to whether his supernatural entities or his villains are more evil and horrifying…well, that’s up for debate.

A Game of Ghosts is the 15th novel in the Parker series, and it’s not an ideal spot for new readers to come in, even though the plot is entirely self-contained. But the best parts of A Game of Ghosts come as Connolly adds to the complex ongoing mythology of his world, whether it’s the increasingly odd aspects of Parker’s daughter Sam, his tenuous and uneasy relationship with federal authorities, or some unexpected developments with regard to that strange, tobacco-stained figure only known as The Collector. Even better, though, are the character beats; while the ongoing saga draws me in, the horror unsettles me, and the writing moves me, it’s the characters that I love, and that wonderful trio of Parker and his friends Angel and Louis continue to bring out life and friendship in wonderfully strange, dark ways.

For all of that, though, A Game of Ghosts often feels like Parker barely needs to be in the book; indeed, near the end of the book, Parker makes the comment that he feels like he’s constantly playing catch up with everything that’s going on. It reminds me of the earlier entry in the series The Whisperers, which again felt as though Parker was merely an observer – or maybe “witness” is a better word. Much happens here, and there’s little denying that Parker is a central part of it all, but it almost feels as though he’s reduced to a passive role in the novel rather than driving the story along. That this is perhaps intended by Connolly (and, given that Parker frequently comments that he feels that much is being kept from him in all of this, it seems likely) doesn’t quite stop it from being a bit frustrating.

Even so, A Game of Ghosts is a Charlie Parker book by John Connolly. And what that means is that it will be riveting, darkly funny when you least expect, intense, morally complex, terrifying, and disturbing – often all at the same time. And while all of that is happening, you’re also getting beautiful writing, complex characterization, and fantastic plotting. In short, it’s another brilliant read by one of the best authors that a lot of people aren’t reading. And if it’s not quite my favorite in the series, that’s okay; I’d still read even the weakest Parker book multiple times, and hold it up as a knockout.

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A Time of Torment, by John Connolly / *****

A brief note: I actually read A Time of Torment a year ago, when it was first released, but apparently my review never actually published, or perhaps was eaten by some Internet goblins. Since I just finished Connolly’s newest novel, I figured this would be as good a time as any to get it put back up here.


     “I used to think this was all about good and evil,” said Rickett, “but it’s not.”
     “No?”
     “There’s a kind of evil that isn’t even in opposition to good, because good is an irrelevance to it. It’s a foulness that’s right at the heart of existence, born with the stuff of the universe. It’s in the decay to which all things tend. It is, and it always will be, but in dying, we leave it behind.”
     “And while we’re alive?”
     “We set our souls against it, and our saints and angels, too.” He patted Parker on the shoulder. “Especially the destroying ones.”
     Parker walked to his car, got in, and started the engine. The past is more real than the present, he thought, and we carry our histories with us.

– John Connolly, A Time of Torment


a-time-of-torment-9781501118326_hrI’m going to be straightforward here: John Connolly is one of the best writers working today. Period. Full stop. His prose is astonishing – it displays a poet’s ability with words, a gift for finding beauty even in the most nightmarish of places. (That quote above? It’s an aside – not even a major moment of the book. That’s how good he is.) But he also has the soul of a horror writer, creating some of the most disturbing, unsettling, and truly nightmarish characters, settings, and entities that I have ever read – and I am an avid horror fan, to put it mildly. And in book after book, Connolly has delivered gripping plotting, unsettling horrors, a great sense of humor, and a gift for writing that is unparalleled.

And even with all of this, A Time of Torment may be his best work to date. And that is no small feat.

A Time of Torment is the latest (#14!) in the Charlie Parker series, an ongoing series which defies easy description. Nominally, it is a crime series, one that finds Parker investigating cases and dealing with horrific crimes, often accompanied by his friends Angel and Louis. But that quick overview doesn’t quite prepare you for the darkness and true evil that lurks at the core of the Parker books, which have become an examination of good and evil, of morality, of the nature of human cruelty, and more than that, an unblinking look at human depravity and insanity. And as the series has continued, the lines between “reality” and the “supernatural” have blurred, often overlapping until there’s no clear distinction between the two.

But A Time of Torment is different from the rest of the books – and that difference lies in Parker. Parker’s inner war with himself – his nature, his choices, his actions – has anchored every one of the Parker novels to date, and Connolly’s willingness to engage with his character’s guilt (and lack thereof) has been part of the series’ greatness to date. But the events of the last few books have changed Parker irrevocably, forcing his hand and turning him from an unwilling member of this battle and into a hunter. And A Time of Torment finds him embracing that role, searching for the source and heart of the evils that have beset him, and using those around him in an effort to cleanse this world.

It’s a dangerous, ruthless new version of Parker – and given that Parker wasn’t exactly weak to begin with, that’s saying something. And yet, he’s undeniably the same man; A Time of Torment opens with Parker tracking down a man who is responsible for a series of murders, and rendering his own judgment against him. But that’s only the start-up for A Time of Torment, which finds Parker helping a man who worries that he has angered a small West Virginia community known as The Cut – and perhaps an entity known as “the Dead King”.

From there, A Time of Torment unfolds with the relentlessness of a nightmare, as we see not only what the Cut is capable of, but the evil that it seems to inspire in those who inhabit it. More than that, though, we see what Parker looks like when he is on a mission, as he, Angel, and Louis slowly focus in on the Cut with the precision of a laser, but the devastation of a force of nature.

A Time of Torment is part crime story, part thriller, and part unsettling horror novel. The crimes and murders at the core of the book are horrifying beyond words, and the glimpses Connolly gives us into the hearts of these men disturbing. But even with that, what grips you about the Parker books is the riveting plotting, which displays Connolly’s incredible gift for starting with a simple incident and letting it expand until you feel that you’ve entered into a whole second world, one filled with shadows and creatures best left unseen. And his depiction of the Cut ranks among his best examples of this, bringing to life a community that defines itself in opposition to the world around it, and enforces its own rules with ruthless force – all while being infused with the constant presence of some thing at its core that corrupts everything around it.

Indeed, it’s that incredible sense of atmosphere and dread that makes Connolly’s books so strong and stand out so much. Yes, his books can be surprisingly funny – there’s a recurring plot thread involving Angel’s obsession with restrooms that never stops being hilarious every time it pops up – but what lingers is the sense of a world, one where evil is very real, where there is a corrupting influence in our reality…and yet, also a world where there is a force of good. But when that force of good comes in the form of the violence and destruction that Parker brings, that becomes a source of ambiguity – a shade of gray where Connolly excels.

Here’s the thing, in short: A Time of Torment just may be the best book Connolly has written yet, and that’s in a career where he has written some of the best thrillers I’ve ever read – and I am a voracious, obsessive reader. To miss this book is to miss a masterpiece, plain and simple. Should you start at the beginning of the series? Almost definitely – but whatever the case, read this book, and be scared, excited, moved, and terrified.

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The Waste Lands, by Stephen King / *****

This is the third entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three. As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


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In a lot of ways, I’m glad The Waste Lands was already out when I started reading The Dark Tower. Yes, the strange, alien nature of The Gunslinger is intriguing, and yes, The Drawing of the Three immerses us into its cast of characters incredibly well. But for my money, it’s really here, in the third volume of the series, that it feels like the quest for the Tower truly begins. The players have assembled; the ka-tet is formed; and now, the march to the Tower truly begins in earnest.

That makes it sound as though nothing has really happened in the past two books, and that’s not the case at all; it’s just that the first two books are largely about immersing us in this world and letting us get to know our cast of heroes (maybe “protagonists” is a better term). But in The Waste Lands, we finally begin moving along the path of the Beam, and we begin to see what’s left of Roland’s world – and what he means when he says that it’s “moved on”.

The Waste Lands, more than either of the previous two novels, taps into King’s strengths as a horror writer, whether in a harrowing sequence set in a malevolent house or introducing us to a machine that’s lost its mind somewhere in the past centuries. The book absolutely pulses with unease and tension, pushing our heroes more closely together and making the threats more palpable. In The Gunslinger, we felt that Roland could pretty well take care of himself, and we had few worries. But now, there are bonds of friendship and love, and even Roland has been wounded by this world – and we’re early on. King uses that tension and unease masterfully, forcing our heroes to fight for their survival and become active participants in this quest and the fight to survive this mad, broken world that they find themselves in.

More than that, though, The Waste Lands is King’s best effort at world-building to date in the series. It’s the first time we get a sense of what this world is truly like, with discussions of some of its mythology, people reacting to the sight of the last gunslinger with awe and unease, and a sense of some of what’s happened to this world since its peak. We see huddled colonies of elderly, marauding gangs of bandits, and desolate, horrifying wastes warped by some unimaginable conflict. It’s the book that truly began to build what I think of as The Dark Tower for me, and in many ways, it’s the one that made me truly love the series.

But it’s also the first book in which King starts to build the complex cosmology and mythology of the Tower, establishing not only the links to “our” world in more explicit ways, but introducing some of the threats that are pursuing Roland on behalf of darker forces. It’s here that we learn the importance of the Rose, or start realizing who the Ageless Stranger may be, or realize just how important this quest is going to be.

Mind you, The Waste Lands does all this while telling an exciting, rocket-paced story. The first half largely revolves around the completion of the ka-tet and the rescue of a lost friend; the second finds the group moving along the path of the Beam into the broken city of Lud and into the Wastes beyond. There’s a lot that happens here, and it’s a welcome reminder of how well King writes action/suspense pieces, especially as he cuts back and forth between different parties, using their perspectives off of each other masterfully and leaving us in doubt sometimes about the accuracy of their beliefs. The Lud section especially is absolutely fantastic, giving a sense of dread and insanity that leaves you uneasy for chapters at a time, even before you meet the chief villains of this place.

And of course, no discussion of the book would be complete without mentioning the introduction here of Blaine the Mono, one of my favorite characters of the series – the mad train whose insanity and malice makes him instantly horrifying, even without a true physical presence in the book. That King uses Blaine to set up the infamous cliffhanger at the end of the book works only because Blaine has instantly solidified himself as a threat, both mentally and physically, to our characters; the fact that the cliffhanger is so maddening is even better, even though I would have disagreed with it while I was waiting for the next volume.

In short, it’s one of my favorite entries in the series – it’s exciting, engrossing, moves the story along, and deepens both the world and the mythology of the series. And more than anything else, it’s the one that truly hooked me into the world of the Dark Tower.

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“All Things Serve the Beam” (series spoilers follow)

Continue reading “The Waste Lands, by Stephen King / *****”

It Comes at Night / **** ½

it_comes_at_night_xlgLast year, at the Chattanooga Film Festival, I caught a phenomenal film named Krisha, written and directed by a newcomer named Trey Edward Shults. Telling the story of a family’s Thanksgiving that gets crashed by a long absent relative, it was a searing piece of drama, filmed with a natural talent that blew me away and telling an emotionally powerful story in an exceptional way. In short, it was one of those debut features that leaves you knowing that you just saw the birth of a new talent, and someone worth keeping an eye on.

Now comes Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, which offers up no end of surprises, even before you actually see the film. For one, I wouldn’t have expected Shults to make the jump to bigger budget, wide release films so quickly; even more surprising, though, is the fact that Shults has left behind domestic drama for the tougher genre of horror. That’s a tough genre, and while Krisha was undeniably tense and emotionally fraught, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a horror film from Shults.

What I got, though, was superb, marrying the “family under pressure to the breaking point” themes of Krisha with the paranoia and isolation of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and using shadows and silence to phenomenal effect. It Comes at Night is the story of a family who’ve isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods; while the specifics of what’s happened to the rest of the world never become entirely clear, it’s obvious that a disease has wiped out much of the population, and left the rest fending for themselves. But when the family gets discovered, questions of trust and loyalty come into play, and the characters are forced to deal with a simple question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Shults’s strengths as a writer and director are evident from the get-go here, especially as regards the performances, which are uniformly excellent, with nary a missed step in the batch. Joel Edgerton is one of the only “names” you might recognize, but he’s rarely been better, getting a role that befits his masculine practicality and gruffness. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the film’s de facto lead (as much as there is one), uses his youth to phenomenal effect, internalizing the horrors around him as he attempts to make his peace with the violent world he’s forced to live in, and figure out his own moral compass.

But as great as the performances are, what really floored me here was Shults’s command of mood and tone. This feels like a low- to mid-budget film; the scares are few, with more reliance on an atmosphere of dread and unease than on jump scares. More than that, Shults keeps us in the head of his characters more than we realize, leaving us questioning people’s motivations and understanding the stakes at any given moment. The result is maybe more of a psychological thriller than a true horror film, but the lines are blurred, and the film’s use of night and darkness leave no doubt as to where its genre roots lay. And it’s in keeping with Shults’s independent-film roots all the way to the film’s ending, which is destined to leave some mainstream audiences grumbling and unhappy, but which floored me pretty well.

It Comes at Night is going to be one of those cult horror films soon, one held up alongside The Witch and The Babadook and others as a reminder of how the decade was home to a rich new burst of creative, interesting horror movies. And more than that, it’s a sign that Shults is a talent to be watched; with his first two films, he’s hit two home runs. You better believe I’ll be there for attempt #3.

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