Disturbed and Vicious by Kevin O'Brien
I've really come to love O'Brien's storytelling. My first taste was The Last Victim, which I talked about in a previous post. After that I was quick to snatch up his most recent novel, Disturbed, when I saw it at the store (even though the paperback has a purple cover that clashes a bit on my shelf). If you go strictly by the cover you'll know it's about a serial killer terrorizing people who live in cul-de-sacs, but there's a lot more going on here. Like O'Brien's other books, it features a female protagonist and a lot of interpersonal conflict, in this case within a mixed family. And being part thriller and part mystery, I found myself taking notes on the players and their motives, not because it's necessary but because that's part of how I enjoy a book with as much activity, and as many suspects, as this one. There are a lot of strings floating around and it's fun trying to guess how O'Brien will tie them up, and he does so in a thoroughly satisfying manner.
And Vicious was even better. Again, the cover only tells part of the story. It's about a killer who targets mothers with their sons, but it's also about grief (the protagonist, Susan, is recovering from the accidental death of her husband and eldest son), and trust (there are a number of characters here who may not be what they seem) and survival. It's tense and genuinely posed some moral dilemmas I hadn't expected (regarding the circumstances of her new fiance's disappearance), and the way O'Brien wraps it all up is fantastic. Vicious is my favorite of O'Brien's novels so far.
Full Dark, No Stars and Everything's Eventual by Stephen King
The stories in this book are strong. The situations are strong, the violence is strong, and the writing is strongest of all. Only one of the four tales is really supernatural, "Fair Extension," in which a dying man makes a deal with the devil. The most memorable thing about it is King's description of the latter that reveals his true identity; how his shadow isn't quite right and he seems to change right in front of us without actually changing. The other three stories are crime stories, and they're gems, too. You have murder and madness within a family in "1922," the grim joy of revenge in "Big Driver," and the horror of finding out secrets in "A Good Marriage." My favorite is "1922" because it is told in the first person from the perspective of a man who kills to keep his land, chronicling the downward spiral that follows. The writing is superb:
Here is something I learned in 1922: there are always worse things waiting. You think you have seen the most terrible thing, the one that coalesces all your nightmares into a freakish horror that actually exists, and the only consolation is that there can be nothing worse. Even if there is, your mind will snap at the sight of it, and you will know no more. But there is worse, your mind does not snap, and somehow you carry on. You might understand that all the joy has gone out of the world for you, that what you did has put all you hoped to gain out of your reach, you might wish you were the one who was dead--but you go on. (pg. 42)That, to me, is the most terrifying passage in the entire book.
I also read an earlier collection of stories called Everything's Eventual. There's a broad selection of genres in here, including another chilling encounter with the devil and a sort-of-sci-fi piece related to the Dark Tower series. You've got a suicidal salesman and a possessed painting, along with "1408" which was turned into a movie starring John Cusack. But my favorite of the bunch, and maybe my favorite King short story of all, is "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe." It's about a man meeting with his soon-to-be ex-wife and her lawyer at a cafe to settle some figures, but their lunch is interrupted by a man's violent mental breakdown. A lot of what happens is senseless, because random violence in real life is. And we see it all through the eyes of a non-party to that madness and whatever caused it, which is a brilliant way to tell such a story, I think, rather than trying to explain everything. All we're left with is what the protagonist is left with: the experience and speculation. It's amazing. King is amazing.