What is the Male Equivalent of Trashy Romance?

Perhaps it is a bit narrow-minded of me to make broad generalizations about gender. Particularly in this day and age, when there is a heightened awareness in the genre community regarding gender diversity. Sexual diversity. Ethnic diversity. And so on…

But the fact remains, by and large, that the romance genre is primarily produced and written for women. The genre itself is hard to define, spanning Puritan love stories to BDSM erotica. A portion of this genre is what we could call trashy romance — novels that have little redeeming quality in terms of character/plot development, literary merit, or meaningful themes. These novels serve more to entice the reader with wish-fulfillment and gratuitous sex scenes.

I think men read a lot less widely in the romance genre. Maybe because men are visual creatures, often seeking images rather than emotional connections to fulfill their passions. But that certainly isn’t a rule, nor is it a claim that men have higher tastes in literature than women (I actually suspect the opposite is true).

lonesomeThe subject of a male equivalent of trashy romance came to me while reading the novel, Night in the Lonesome October, by Richard Laymon. This horror novel tells of a twenty-year-old college kid who is dumped by his first love who then embarks on a series of nightly journeys. His travels confront him with some of the most vile humans and most alluring women. Female characters play little more than the role of fulfilling the protagonist’s inner desires while the male characters are stumbling blocks, preventing the protagonist from achieving his goals. The novel is far from erotic and it certainly isn’t romantic. Sexual exploits are purposely visual (blunt) in description and serve to titillate the reader amidst the several try-fail cycles that burden the protagonist.

Despite the paper-thin character sheets, I found this novel impossible to put down and I read it in less than a 24-hour span. Based on my comments, I cannot recommend the novel, but found myself reading page after page after page. The main character, Eddie, is a young man that many can relate to, from the onset being rejected by the woman of his dreams. He is a little reckless and seems to have little trouble finding a replacement for his ex. Even when threatened by more powerful opponents, Eddie is able to demonstrate resourcefulness to escape their hold on him.

Overall, this novel has no prevailing themes worth mentioning and frankly speaking, I cannot give it a higher status than trashy. But it still appeals to the base emotions of the reader. There are some brief attempts at wit and scholarship, but one cannot ignore the fact that Eddie is an imbecile, even if we do care for his livelihood.

So to answer the question at hand, what is the male equivalent of trashy romance? I would posit that it is adventure/horror stories where women are objects of affection with little to no agency. Violence and sex are often gratuitous with little effort in trying to suspend the reader’s disbelief. I suspect that it is this type of novel that many of the leading voices in genre fiction are trying to purge from its repertoire, but alas — they still manage to gain a readership.

I don’t mean to bash on Richard Laymon. In fact, I found his novel, The Traveling Vampire Show, to be a great coming-of-age story that I still recall with fondness years after reading it. Furthermore, I have never stopped reading a novel of his that I started and I doubt it ever took me longer than a week to finish one. I wish I could share the same affection for Night in the Lonesome October, but there comes a point — for me, at least — where I need intelligent actions on the part of the protagonist and deeper character development (and plausibility) on the part of the romantic interests. If you are looking for a fast-paced, cheap-thrill horror novel, this one is addicting. But after gorging myself on the literary equivalent of Hostess Twinkies, I must search for something a little more nutritious for my next read. I wish I could tell you that I am giving up on Twinkies, but hey — everyone has their weaknesses.


The Return of the King — Part II

Last month, I wrote about my first experiences reading Stephen King. I recently have been reacquainting myself with his earlier works, first with Carrie and most recently, with The Dead Zone. I never had read The Dead Zone before, but was a huge fan of the movie, starring Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, and directed by David Cronenberg.


The Dead Zone is about a man named Johnny Smith, who falls into a coma and awakens years later with psychic abilities. When he comes into contact with another person, he often will gain knowledge about significant events in their past, present, or future. This becomes a burden for Smith, who often focuses on the deaths he isn’t able to prevent rather than the lives he saves.

A second character arc tells of a bible salesman-turned-politician named Greg Stillson. He has deep-seeded emotional issues, which begin with hurting animals and progresses into a violent confrontation with a teenager. Johnny meets Stillson and foresees him becoming President, which will eventually lead to the deaths of millions of people.

The primary conflict of the story deals with the age-old question — if you could travel back in time, would you kill Hitler before he took power? It seems logical that most people would say yes, but for Johnny this is a difficult decision. While Stillson is on a path that will kill more people than Hitler, he is yet to commit a crime. Johnny must decide whether he should play Judge Dredd or quench his gift and let fate prevail.

It was a true joy to read this novel. Published in 1979, The Dead Zone is King’s fifth novel (seventh, if you include his writing as Richard Bachman). His earlier novels are where I feel he was his strongest, still unpolished, but filled with strong characters and emotion. It is also interesting how some of his personal viewpoints seep through the pages — his contempt for conservative politics and the religious right are transparent. In Carrie and The Dead Zone (the two King novels I have read this year), Christians are depicted as violent lunatics. Many of these undertones escaped me in my younger years, but now read as being caricatures, nearly to the point of absurdity at times. Despite this fact, I don’t find these viewpoints to be distracting from the story and are only sprinkled throughout the text.

Another note to add is that The Dead Zone was made into a television series; however, I have never made time to watch it. I see that it is available on Netflix, so I may add it to the queue and give it a watch. I have some exercise equipment in the basement (TRX suspension training) that has been neglected and I think I need a TV show to get me back in the groove again. Seeing that I love the premise of this story and the many angles that could be approached from it, the television series may be worth a shot.

As for picking up more of King’s novels, I have some other books in my queue right now, but I plan on hitting The Shining and Salem’s Lot next.


Review: The Association by Bentley Little

609731Title: The Association

Author: Bentley Little

Rating: 2 star

Publisher: Signet


I recently became acquainted with Bentley Little with his novel, The Store. The plot was not profound, but it still managed to deal with high concept themes like consumerism and personal liberty in a fun and accessible way. Having enjoyed it, I sought out another title of his and found myself reading The Association.

Like The Store, there is nothing complex about the premise of this novel. A young couple moves into a private subdivision in Utah. Days after taking residence, they find sporadic love notes from the association politely reminding them of the infractions they have made against the CC&R’s. The couple grows suspicious when they find dead animals on their property and their landscape vandalized. But this is only the beginning. The association is the law and they will stop at nothing to display their total control over the residents’ lives — even if it means killing people in the process.

I don’t have a lot good to say about the novel other than I finished it. That’s actually saying something, since I often dump books on a dime if they are not pulling their weight with me. It was likely Bentley Little’s approachable, fast paced prose that kept me going the whole way through.

For those who have read The Store, you will find the plot of this novel extremely similar. Rather than a Walmart-like store taking over a community, it is an association. Rather than having characters respond with sense and action, the residents in the association are senseless and passive. Neighbors are murdered, the inside of their home videotaped, and thousands of dollars are liened against their home, yet our witless protagonists, Barry and Maureen, fail to take any real action. Not until the novel’s end is the president of the association truly confronted. At no point do they legitimately try to escape the hostile neighborhood. Out of principle they stay at their home, thinking wallpaper will help protect them from hidden cameras and (even though spies secretly come into their house on a regular basis in the middle of the night).

The suspension of disbelief occurs not with the implausibility of the association having unlimited powers. It occurs because nearly every character in the novel is a fool. It occurs because at so many points it is obvious that the couple needs to involve someone other than Deputy Dolittle, who clearly is in cahoots with the association. It occurs because at every turn Barry and Maureen’s life is in imminent danger and they continue to do nothing but whine and try to resist the association’s power over them. They burn association letters and paint their house the wrong color and chalk it up to defiance while neighbors are clubbed or sawed to death.

For those looking to read The Association, I recommend skipping it and picking up The Store. If you’ve already read The Store, don’t bother with a sub-par derivative.

Review: What Makes You Die by Tom Piccirilli

17213457Title: What Makes You Die

Author: Tom Piccirilli

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Apex Book Company

Format: Electronic ARC (provided by publisher)


Look at the coffee-stained book cover. Tommy Pic, the novella’s protagonist, is scratched in red. He’s a thirty-something B-Movie screenwriter, recently released from the mental facility. His latest script, What Makes You Die, is a horror movie that he hopes his crummy agent can sell.

At the bottom of the manuscript/book  cover is a komodo dragon. He has no name, so perhaps his image is there bearing co-authorship. Or perhaps not — Tommy Pic once tried to cut the dragon out of his intestines with a steak knife. Tommy’s mental issues are such that he can never really trust reality. He suffers from bi-polar disorder, manic depression, and possibly PTSD. Despite his mental instability, Pic has managed to eek out a living and has sold a few manuscripts that have become movies.

In the process of trying to put the pieces of his life together, Tommy Pic meets a woman named Eva in the nearby occult bookstore. A relationship develops between the two and at one point he wonders if she is even real. During an overnight rendezvous, Pic finds a large portion of his manuscript completed, yet he has no memory of writing it. Even if he did, there wasn’t enough time to write it.

The plot of What Makes You Die continues with a series of uncertain realities and numerous flashbacks with one goal in mind. Can Tommy Pic finish his manuscript and get back on his feet? Or more importantly, can he remember what he wrote?

Tom Piccirilli’s writing is short and punchy, reminiscent of the biting prose of Chuck Palahniuk. Told in a first person narrative, we are brought into the depths of a foggy, but seemingly truthful narrator, who despite his lack of education is well acquainted with Shakespeare. The subject matter of the novel is often dark, but fortunately doesn’t tread too far into the gory details of the tragedies in Pic’s life.

Part of what makes the novella particularly poignant is the fact that Piccirilli is in the process of fighting (hopefully recovering from?) brain cancer. Tommy Pic, who has the author’s namesake, suffers from a mental disorder that is in no way mocked or trivialized. Pic writes and writes, battling his illness at every turn. I don’t know to what extent some of the emotions and realizations about his writing career are autobiographical, but as a reader, I couldn’t help but project these struggles onto the author. This is only conjecture — Tom Piccirilli has authored more than twenty novels in a few different genres and has become a success and well-recognized name in the field (primarily in horror).

What Makes You Die is witty and ominous, filling the reader with a mix of hope and dread as Tommy Pic reveals his past and present struggles. As a novella, the story reaches its proper length, long enough to unveil Pic’s character, but not too long as to require several subplots. While I longed for a few loose ends to be tied up a little better (better understanding the events with his childhood friend, his father, and a stronger conflict/resolution with Eva), the story was compelling to read. For those looking for a a shorter-length character study with dark horror-esque themes, dare yourself to venture with What Makes You Die.

Review: Island by Richard Laymon

201644Title: Island

Author: Richard Laymon

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Leisure Books

Format: Paperback


Rupert Conway is on a deserted island with his girlfriend Connie’s family when their boat blows up. Then one by one, the men on the island start to be knocked off, leaving Rupert, a sex-crazed college kid, alone with three beautiful sisters and their exhibitionist mother. It sounds like paradise for Rupert aside from one thing — the killer’s still loose and Rupert is next on the hit list.

Like most Laymon novels, Island is good, campy horror. The entire novel is actually a first-person diary entry of Rupert, but reads more like a novel than an epistolary collection. Rupert is sort of a loser and even his “girlfriend” can’t stand him. He gets caught ogling the most attractive sister, Kimberly, on several occasions and even the sisters’ mother. Connie pulls no punches in her snide criticisms of Rupert, adding to his pathetic persona throughout his journal entries.

What Laymon does particularly well is create characters that the reader cares about. I am reminded of Stephen King’s The Shining in this novel. You see, the island (like the Overlook Hotel) seems to make everyone a little crazy that we are never fully convinced who is good and who is bad.

What begins as innocent lustful desires in Rupert gradually turns into sadistic horror and the last third of the book is not for the squeamish. But this lust is not just gratuitous and it becomes a prevailing theme throughout the novel. Rupert’s sexual fantasies are hyperbolically brought to life in the actions of the killer and as he confronts this evil, he sees his own thoughts betraying him.

This book was very difficult to put down, but near the end, very difficult to read as well. Once one makes it past pages that might have been better off left unread, there comes an ending that is completely surprising, yet fitting.

While there are no literary awards going to what really amounts to an escapist horror novel, Island is an exciting, fast-paced read. The characters are likable and the twists and turns left me on the edge of my seat (figuratively speaking — I am much too lazy and read while lying on the couch).

For those who like horror, especially in the style of Bentley Little or Richard Laymon, Island will not disappoint.

Review: Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

MockingbirdTitle: Mockingbird

Author: Chuck Wendig

Rating: 4 star

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Audio (purchased from Audible.com)

I had a rather tepid review of the first Miriam Black novel, Blackbirds. The book had its issues — an overuse of crassness for the sake of shock value and some inconsistencies, I felt, in Miriam’s abilities at changing the future. But in my review, I was dead wrong when I said that Blackbirds was not a “particularly memorable read.” Here I was, months later, wanting to give the series another shot. Not so much for the plot, but for the character of Miriam Black. She is absolutely unforgettable.

You see, Miriam isn’t a run-of-the-mill, cardboard cutout protagonist. She’s edgy. She’s cool. She lives in the cracks of society where most of us don’t dare to venture. Oh, yeah — she has this unique ability to tell how and when a person is going to die after touching their skin.

In the first novel she was single — a drifter with ever-changing hair and a real hard attitude toward the world. In Mockingbird, she is trying to live a more stable life. Her hair is back to its natural chestnut and she has a place of residence (albeit a trailer on the Jersey shore). In fact, she even has a job working as a cashier, scanning items with her gloved hands in an effort to suppress her gift.

As one can expect, Miriam’s stable life doesn’t last long. It’s just not her and after a run-in with her boss, she takes off her gloves (literally) and goes after her. Through this confrontation, she sees that a killer is about to go on a shooting spree and she steps into her newfound role as heroine. A gritty and scrappy, take-no-prisoners heroine, that is.

Miriam later becomes acquainted with a hypochondriac teacher named Katie at a troubled girls school who wants to know if she is about to die. To Miriam’s surprise, Katie is about to die — of pancreatic cancer of all things. The teacher’s death is but a blip of what is going to happen at this school. Miriam accidentally reads the death of one of the school’s students and learns that a serial killer is loose and this girl will be one of his victims. With the help of her one-eyed trucker boyfriend, Louis, Miriam embarks on a journey to save this girl and rid the world of a terrible monster.

In the first novel, Miriam comes to grips with her hard, loveless attitude toward pretty much everything. She uses her gift for good rather than her selfish devises (originally believing that events are controlled solely through fate). In the second novel, she understands that in rare circumstances, she can circumvent fate’s hold. But it is hard work and rather than embrace her gift, she tries to conform to society. Whether or not to use her gifts is the first bit of complexity in her character.

She also fights her internal feelings of self-inadequacy, preferring to leave Louis for his own good, rather than dragging him down to the low depths of her morality. She was once uncaring for anyone, but now is willing to form friendships even when it leads to future hardships. Throughout the novel, Miriam reluctantly forms relationships, even with the foreknowledge that it will cause pain in the end.

Mockingbird reads like a superhero novel in that she has supernatural abilities and acts as a vigilante to stop an archnemesis. Her archnemesis, who is unknown throughout much of the book, also has a certain ability that makes Miriam aware that she is not alone in the world. Some might even consider her heroics a mission of revenge, bearing many similarities to the comic book and movie hero, Eric, from The Crow.

The biggest question that remains with me is when can Miriam change fate? After reading two novels, it seems that she can only change fate when the reader has an emotional stake in a person’s death. While this is convenient in plot development, I would really like for Miriam to understand her gift a little bit better (note: see comments for what I oversaw in the novel — spoiler warning) 

There are some unanswered questions that still remain (in a good way) — are there supernatural forces outside of her that are giving her and Louis visions or is it all inside her head? Does she have telepathic abilities to communicate?

After a hesitant start to the series, I will be reading future Miriam Black novels, hoping that Mr. Wendig will continue to push deeper into Miriam’s psyche and abilities — explore who she is on a deeper level and not hold back as she tries to distance herself from those around her. Good improvement in this novel and if you liked the first one, you will definitely like the second.

Review: The Store by Bentley Little

Title: The Store

Author: Bentley Little


Publisher: Signet

Format: Paperback

Before we had kids, I would often go down into our basement on one of these wintery, cold mornings and watch a movie. Occasionally, there’d be one of those campy horror movies that has a premise that sounded a bit silly, but you watch it anyway. You’d want to turn the channel, but you can’t. It’s not that it’s that bad — it’s actually good and you enjoy the characters and the story even though it is completely unbelievable.

This was my experience reading Bentley Little’s, The Store. The novel takes place in a rural town when a Walmart competitor named simply, “The Store” begins to build on what was once preserved wildlife. The protagonist of the story, Bill Davis, sees dead animals on the property as construction begins, which he recognizes as an omen for worse things to come. Some in the town are excited at the prospects of The Store putting them on the map, while others have their reservations.

When The Store opens, both of Bill’s daughters seek employment. In fact, as The Store begins to strong arm its way into a monopoly on the city, it becomes the sole place of employment. There are some people who oppose what The Store is doing and some of them wind up missing or dead. Bill Davis refuses to back down from The Store’s oppressive and supernatural power and will stop at nothing to save the town and his family from complete ruin.

There are many who will comment that this novel is making a statement on consumerism and the degrading of society through corporate power. I suppose that is true, but it isn’t really Little’s statement on society that makes the novel interesting. What makes this novel effective is that it is the corporation that is the source of fear. Horror often devolves into a person trying to escape a one-dimensional killer. That in no way represents this novel. Bill Davis’s fear is that his town and family’s way of life is threatened. He fears the enslavement of those around him driven by their lust for consumerism.

The Store capitalizes on these fears by taking over the government, schools, and police force. Death is only a penalty for those who resist the new way of life and there are many (particularly Bill’s daughter, Sam) who embrace what The Store is doing. She was a popular, beautiful girl at the top of her class, but finds herself willing to throw away everything she has and believes in to rise the corporate ladder. This contrast between Bill and Sam reaches a pinnacle where there is no turning back for either of them.

There is nothing genius about this novel and it reads like a paperback you might find in an airport kiosk. It has short scenes and is full of dialog, but I really like what Bentley Little has done. He has taken a broader and deeper subject and made it into a no-apologies horror novel that in no way tries to be anything more. It is one you will read very quickly and in the end, probably won’t think a whole lot more of it than realizing it was a fun read.

Even though the premise and many actions of the people in the town are totally unbelievable, the novel continued to work for me. The stark contrast between Bill and his daughter also worked even though their actions did not fit what any reasonable person would do in the same situations. If you are looking for a horror novel that isn’t about serial killers, vampires, or werewolves, give this one a try. It is horror the way it should be written — not at all pretentious and appealing to the feeling of dread and fear of the unknown rather than the cheap use of glorified violence and gore to shock the reader.

Review: 14 by Peter Clines

Title: 14

Author: Peter Clines

Narrator: Ray Porter


Publisher: Permuted Press/Audible Frontiers

Format: Audio (purchased from audible.com)


It’s ironic that the blurb on the cover draws comparison between 14 and the TV show Lost. I hadn’t noticed the blurb when I first listened to the book, but had already wanted to draw a similar comparison, but probably for a different reason.

Lost begins with a plane crashing onto a mysterious island. The individuals who survive the crash don’t know one another, but they band together as they encounter a series of strange occurrences. There are several clues given to the TV viewer as to the nature of the island, but by the third season, I began to fear that most of these clues were nothing but red herrings. Over the next few seasons there were a few interesting character conflicts and moments of tense action, but largely I found myself growing impatient. Many fans suspected the island to be a form of purgatory and the show became a waiting game for the payoff at the end.

14  begins with a man named Nate Tucker moving into a low-rent apartment. He immediately notices some peculiarities including some glowing roaches creeping through his unit with an odd number of legs and a light fixture that makes every light bulb a black light. Nate ends up befriending his neighbors and learns that they too have their own unique oddities. The tenants band together to discover the source of the strange events in their apartment. Soon they discover that some stones are better left unturned.

Seeing the glowing reviews for 14 puts my response to the novel in the minority. One review on Amazon called it the most enjoyable science fiction novel aside from Asimov’s Foundation series and others declare it just plain frickin’ awesome. On a positive note, the novel had an interesting premise and I liked the blend of horror and mystery. The characters, however, were quite flat. They were extremely sociable with one another, but seemingly lacked much of a social life on their own. There are equal numbers of single men and women in the novel and the casual hook-ups that seem to lack credibility.

Clines’ writing is effective in carrying the story along, not lyrical in its presentation, but descriptive nonetheless. There is a lot of dialog in the story, which really speeds the pacing up, compensating for parts of the story that seemed to lag. The audio version was narrated by Ray Porter, who spoke with good characterization and emotion, but his accents were a little ambiguous.

I think my biggest problem with the novel was that I essentially figured out the premise of the novel a quarter of the way through and like Lost, the entire middle portion of the story had me waiting for the characters to catch up. I had no emotional involvement with the romance that develops between Nate and Veek and the self-referencing Scooby-Doo method of crime solving left me wanting. Clines threw in a few subtle pop-culture references that helped keep a minor interest, but generally speaking, the story left me lukewarm.

I don’t think I can recommend this book (unless you are someone who actually thinks the show Lost had a brilliant ending). It’s not that it’s bad — it’s not by any measure — but it didn’t inspire me on frankly any level. If you are looking for an easy horror read with Lovecraftian influences, perhaps this is for you. Judging by the amount of positive reviews, this is a novel that struck a chord with many readers. Unfortunately I was not one of them.

Review: The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon

Title: The Traveling Vampire Show

Author: Richard Laymon


Publisher: Leisure Books

Format: Electronic


It has been over a decade now since The Traveling Vampire Show won the Bram Stoker Award for best novel. I had never acquainted myself with Laymon before, which is surprising considering that in my teens I devoured any Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel I could get my hands on. Evidently (if one believes Wikipedia) he was popular in Europe at the time, until he signed on with Leisure Books in 1999. So here I am, twelve years later, reading my first Richard Laymon novel.

The Traveling Vampire Show is a coming-of-age story about three sixteen-year-old friends: Dwight, Rusty, and Slim (Frances). It is told in first person through Dwight, a good-natured, albeit horny, teenager. The object of his affections is a girl names Slim, who is a tomboy in every sense aside from her looks. She is gutsy and loyal, even to their annoying friend Rusty, who is overweight,  insecure, and constantly spewing out inappropriate remarks.

The story begins when the three teens encounter a flyer advertising an over-eighteen traveling vampire show. Even though they suspect it is a farce, the show features Valeria, a gorgeous and stunning vampire. Believing that they won’t be able to get into the show, they head over to Janks field in mid-afternoon to see if they can catch a glimpse of her before the midnight show. A stray mongrel attacks them, injuring Slim and separating the three. Little did they know, it was only a portent of things to come.

The Traveling Vampire Show is the kind of novel you can read in a day. The action is non-stop and the pages are filled with dialog. For me, this is a good thing, although I normally find books written like this to be a little shallow. I don’t make any claims that this novel is an exception, but in terms of writing horror, Laymon does an excellent job of building suspense. He is patient in unveiling what is truly behind the vampire show and leads Dwight on a winding path of discovery. We get some back history of the troubles at Janks field and learn of Slim’s difficult upbringing. Throughout the course of one day, the true natures of each kid is revealed when they are confronted with danger and their companions go missing.

The novel is as much about growing up as it is about the vampire show. Dwight is in love with Slim and through the adrenaline of their day, he discovers that the feeling is mutual. They are left alone for much of the day and there is an awkward sexual tension that continues to build throughout the novel. Dwight is extremely shy in this endeavor, but Slim is more forward and takes advantage of his bashfulness with coy seduction. Maybe for a teenage boy these descriptions would be tantalizing, but for me, much would have been left better unsaid. They are teenagers after all and their forbidden lust is not approached with the skill of an author such as John Updike.

As a coming-of-age story, it is easy to draw comparisons. Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life and Stephen King’s The Body (Stand by Me) are two that come to mind, but I do not think that this novel reaches the same level of excellence that these two achieve. Slim is a character that is easy to fall in love with — she is cool, attractive, and dependable. Rusty, on the other hand, is an annoying third wheel and when his younger sister, Bitsy, enters the picture, the twosome becomes tiresome.

I can’t applaud this novel as being the stuff that should be award-winning, but it is an easy, enjoyable read. I actually would rank it about 3.5 stars, but since I don’t do fractions it gets rounded up. If you can put up with the incessant leers and deviant thoughts of teenage boys, the buildup of dramatic tension makes this a true horror novel (it’s not the presence of a vampire that defines it within the genre). If you enjoy reading authors like Dean Koontz or Stephen King, give Laymon a try. I will likely be checking out some of his older works.

Review: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Title: Blackbirds

Author: Chuck Wendig


Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook


Take a broken, drifting female protagonist — a bit misguided, but tough as nails. Maybe you compare her to Lisbeth Salander (you know, the heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy), but instead of having a hacker-level of tech savviness, she has an ability much like Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone — she can foresee the cause and time of death of everyone she encounters. Throw in some punk frat boys, a gentle giant trucker, a con man and some of the vilest, sadistic people you have ever come across and you have the cast of Blackbirds.

Before I give my thoughts on the book, I think it is necessary that I give a bit of a warning. This book is crass. I’m not talking about several four-letter words being used here and there. This book taught me words that I would have been much happier never knowing the definition (e.g. blumpy). The experiencing of reading Blackbirds is akin to watching the torture porn as seen in the Saw franchise. My comment is more of a warning than a judgment, so let’s begin the review.

Miriam Black is a twenty-something woman with the unique ability to see how and when a person dies whenever she comes into contact with them. Because of past events, she sees this as more of a curse than a blessing. We don’t really come to terms with how she gained this ability, but we learn that it isn’t something she was born with.

She is somewhat of an antihero throughout the first half of the novel. She wanders somewhat aimlessly, stealing money from people whose death she foresaw in previous encounters. When a large, benevolent trucker helps her out during an altercation along the roadside, she is changed. She sees that she is responsible for his death and makes it her personal mission to make sure that it doesn’t happen.

Chuck Wendig’s talent in this novel lies mainly in the narrative voice. The novel is primarily (though not exclusively) told through Miriam’s viewpoint. Her vile thoughts are almost masculine in nature, often drifting to excrement and genitalia, but she is spunky and resourceful — someone the reader can cheer for. There is a trend in fiction for gritty characters and Miriam epitomizes this character trait. She’s cynical and filled with angst, but inside there is a dim light that wants to overcome her internal darkness.

Much of the novel deals with Miriam’s interactions with the various people she meets. We are told the death stories of dozens of characters (some of which leave little to the imagination) and each of these encounters has a burdening effect on Miriam. She grows distant, accepting fate for what it appears to be.

Blackbirds is not the first novel to tackle fate versus free-will, but to be honest, I really don’t tire of the subject. The whole novel hinges on her ability to change the future, which experience has taught her is an impossible task. She has already come to terms with this fact, which makes her keep her distance from others — not wanting to be the cause of anyone’s death (our first glimpse of good in her).

The pacing is quick and the novel is short, making it quite easy for me to finish it in a day. The book is much like what you’d find in an old Stephen King novel, which for me brings back many memories. I enjoyed reading the story, cringed in several places and the ending left me somewhat satisfied. Aside from the vulgarity, I would not call Blackbirds a particularly memorable read, but it was a good book to pick up after making my way through some 600-page marathons as of late. For those who want to read a dark, gritty supernatural thriller (and have the stomach for the vile), Blackbirds is a fast and exciting read.