Hello, GoH friends! It is I, Dustin, gracing y’all with my presence once again for another installment of Recent Reads, where I share with you my thoughts about my most recently read books. Sadly, your boy’s been in a bit of a slump moment so now everything is just pouring out. But I thought, f**k it, I just have to share with you about these books that I read that frankly, don’t seem to be getting a lot of attention that they deserve. So without further ado, here’s Bethany C. Morrow’s Cherish Farrah, Three Terrifying Bestselling Novels by John Saul, Bryan Michael Ellis’ Still He Kills, and The Damnation Game by Clive Barker. Let’s get into it!

Cherish Farrah by Bethany C. Morrow

First published in 2022, Cherish Farrah is a social horror novel by author Bethany C. Morrow that places the reader squarely in the headspace of Farrah, a Black teen who yearns to be in control of every situation she is in, making every interaction with everyone a strategic game where she must come out on top. Farrah’s carefully crafted world comes crumbling when her family encounters money troubles. She worms her way into living with her best friend, Cherish, and her family. Cherish’s family is unique in that she is a Black girl like Farrah, but her parents are an affluent white couple. Farrah dubs Cherish as White Girl Spoiled, meaning that Cherish is brought up with the privileges afforded to her parents. The closer that Farrah gets to the family and the longer she stays with them, the more she discovers sinister schemes that make her think she might not be in control after all.

This book is a slow-burner to beat all slow-burners. It spends a great deal establishing elements such as characters, background details, and whatnot with seemingly no connective tissue. Or so we’re made to believe. Bethany C. Morrow does a great job leaving specters of doubt peppered throughout the narrative that give you hints that something is not right. She doesn’t litter these hints liberally and blatantly, they’re subtly woven into the story, which largely works since we’re placed in the shoes of an unreliable narrator, Farrah, who thinks she has everything figured out.

One of the main themes featured in the book is control, majoritively having it, losing it, and believing you have it. At first, Farrah seems like such a super-genius character. She’s able to make snap assessments of people enough to estimate how she can work them in her favor. She doesn’t even think of what she’s doing as estimates, she thinks she knows exactly what she’s doing. Farrah takes pride in being in control, so much so that she refuses to see when she doesn’t have it. I think this is a great element of the work as the character is not some fantastical and precocious wunderkind, she’s a teenage girl. She’s aware of the things that run the world like money, and privilege, including entitlement, afforded simply by the color of one’s skin. However, she often doesn’t take into account that these forces of the prerogative have been around for ages, taken advantage of by adults who’ve been in the game longer than her. It’s an element of the book that I think I’ve only scratched the surface on. I’d love to come back to the book sometime and re-read all the little nooks and crannies that may have gone over my head the first time.

There are plenty of subtleties in the book, which is where the tension mostly comes from. This isn’t a book where a madman comes in and whacks someone over the head. Like how Farrah envisions her social interactions, this is a book where knowing to read the room is to know how volatile a situation is, even if the participants are serving you food with a smile. The world of the rich that the novel presents isn’t so much preoccupied with hierarchies in the traditional sense. In Cherish Farrah, the ones in control are the ones who seem the most human, the most reasonable, and the most seemingly aware of their privileges and/or lack thereof.

As initially mentioned, the book is indeed a slow burn, and you don’t really get a true confirmation that something evil is afoot until around the climax, which is where the book dials up the level of violence. This sort of explosion meshes so well with what was established before. The novel practices so much restraint but not because it’s just saving up the violence for the end, it works because it shows us how the polite society of the rich can be sinister on its own without having to lift a finger, and how those close to members of such societies can weave the privileges afforded to them. This makes the conclusion feel like such a catharsis, a buildup of what was given to the reader before, finally given a release. It’s not any less disturbing, mind you, but it strangely feels satisfying. Did Farrah manage to maneuver me as the reader as well?

Three Terrifying Bestselling Novels by John Saul 

Friends, I’ll have to be honest with you, it was tough for me to formulate my thoughts on the books that are included in the collection. They’re all good but reading three John Sauls in a row is not for me. I hesitate to even go too much in-depth because I know Mr. Saul is such an icon and I am but a mere young reader and, let’s face it, amateur reviewer but I have to say what’s on my mind in the spirit of honesty.

I thought these books were surprisingly disturbing and transgressive. They really involve a lot of children being in peril. Sadly, I didn’t really find myself connecting with the characters of these books. It’s like– I don’t know what else to talk about these books. They were absolutely fine but they just didn’t click with me, if that makes sense. That said, I would still recommend checking these out when you get the chance. John Saul is an unsung gem of the genre. I enjoyed his Hellfire more than these books but they’re still worth reading.

Still He Kills by Bryan Michael Ellis

As we progress forward, some relics of the past are still ever present. One of these outdated notions is homophobia, which is ever present and hard to read in Bryan Michael Ellis’ 2022 slasher novel, Still He Kills. It’s a book that delivers the gruesome promises that a slasher story could make while also presenting a love story that dares to defy the odds against it.

In Still He Kills, a young man is made the pariah of his small, backwoods town after he is outed in a tragic event that has led to him being bullied and beaten. It should come with a heads-up that this book does contain very heavy themes including homophobia, and violence against queer people of the physical and emotional kind.

The man is taken to a breaking point as his only friend grapples with his own feelings toward his best friend. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, stragglers fall prey to a twisted murderer who will mercilessly slaughter anyone that gets in his way. When our protagonists — along with a group of others — cross paths with this maniac, it is an event that will change their lives forever, much more than they already have.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It had me hook, line, and sinker. The main character, Tyler, was very endearing and I really felt for him for every hardship he endured in his town. The budding romance that he has with his best friend Ethan was also pretty sweet. It takes up a large chunk of the plot so I really got to see them as fully fleshed-out characters. I love that these are out-and-out queer characters who take the center stage in a traditional slasher story. While the dramatic aspects that Tyler has to deal with thanks to their town’s homophobia are things we’ve seen before in non-horror novels, Bryan Michael Ellis shows Tyler and Ethan’s experience to be just as harrowing. Not only do the men have to deal with their town’s homophobia but they also have to grapple with how their families take the news. Tyler gets the worst of it with his dad and I just wanted to see him be free and happy listening to his classic music.

It’s not all doom and gloom as we see the two men bond and their relationship blossom as the story progresses. Let me tell you, this book is unapologetically queer as it gets as it doesn’t hold back on the romantic and erotic aspects that queer readers like myself would come to appreciate. This book, I felt, really ticked most of the boxes I want to see in a horror novel, especially in a slasher novel. It’s a solid queer romance that meets gory, gruesome slasher.

We get a taste early on of how nasty the slasher violence can get but as we reach the final section of the book, the action really takes off. While the roster of weapons is limited, the execution of the kills has plenty of variety, mostly thanks to a sickle that our killer uses. Eyes pop out, blood is spilled and splattered. There’s plenty of bloodbaths to be had amidst the sweet and tender kisses.

I barely have any complaints or criticisms about this book. While it’s not exactly a new creation, what with being a slasher and all, it is quite the unique concoction of a proudly queer horror story. That said, I did find that some typos were noticeable but it was very easy for me to overlook as the story flowed fast and the prose was meaningful yet easy to breeze through. While I don’t take issue with this next aspect of the book, it is worth noting.

In the slasher genre of horror, it’s common to have characters there that are mainly to pad out the body count and the same thing happens here. The book delivers a great mix of characters aside from Tyler and Ethan that have a bit more meat to them, characters that we just met but are easy to root for, and finally, certain characters that you just can’t wait to see on the chopping block.

During the heavy slasher portions, the book takes a big, bold turn that is gut-wrenching to read but really throws a wrench towards this reader’s expectations. As much as I want to see the characters we love make it out alive, this is also a slasher novel after all, and some sacrifices must be made. The book ends on a note that leaves you wanting more and begging for a better, brighter future.

To me, it’s a testament to the author’s skill as a writer to have held my attention (this is one of the fastest books I’ve read), while showcasing a dark but beautiful love story meets slasher that’s bloody and gruesome, and isn’t afraid to take risks. I hope to see more from Bryan Michael Ellis, including maybe a Still He Kills 2.

The Damnation Game by Clive Barker

When the release of the 2022 Hellraiser reboot was drawing near, my curiosity for Clive Barker content was at an all-time high. I’ve never read The Hellbound Heart and I was on a race against time to grab myself a copy from Book Depository (free delivery, momma!) to, hopefully, read the source material just before seeing the new movie. Sad to say, it’s already been a few days as of writing since the date I’m due to receive the book has passed, and guess what? The book is still not here.

I’ve already seen Hellraiser (2022) and loved it so now that curiosity I had blossomed into an outright reinvigoration of my appreciation for Clive Barker. Beforehand, my experience with his work, like with most folks, is through the original Hellraiser movies, which more likely than not, had an influence on my love of horror. The first Barker book I read was Coldheart Canyon and I thought that one was okay. But at the moment, like the foolish souls who seek out the Lament Configuration, I needed something to satisfy the cravings that the movie brought out in me so I grabbed the most intriguing and unread Clive Barker book I had in my library: The Damnation Game.

The Damnation Game is a 1985 horror novel, of course, written by Clive Barker. From what I understand, it is among his most popular works next to the Hell Priest’s written adventures. It tells the story of one Marty Strauss, a convict who gets a shot at freedom and riches when he’s hired to be a bodyguard for an aging rich man, Joseph Whitehead. Little does he know that the old man has dabbled with dark supernatural forces that are now looking to collect a debt that’s long due being paid to them. Escalating series of events propels Marty and other people involved with Whitehead n grave danger that proves there’s more to fear and there’s more beyond the sweet release of death.

Clive Barker mentions in the introduction of the edition that I have that the book is a redo of the Faust story. While I definitely agree with what he said that there’s greater value in a story’s execution than just plain originality, I’m going to have to say that he’s selling himself a bit short because I could only find hints of Faust in The Damnation Game and about 99.99% Clive Barker. It’s either that or I’m uncultured and don’t know much about the Faustian tale at its most basic. I say this about this novel because not only do I find it to be an effective read, but it’s a pretty unique one as well, as I imagine Clive Barker’s works to be.

I cannot deny that he has a delicious way with the written word. It’s like when someone refers to a gorgeous piece of cinematography in a film as something you can hang on a wall as a standalone painting, that’s what reading this book is like. The writing is absolutely bloody brilliant, it’s like prose made into poetry. Granted, some of Mr. Barker’s choice of words had me running for a dictionary but the context clues help. Mr. Barker has an eye for making depraved situations seem beautiful without losing what makes them so scary. There are descriptions in this book about people’s skin falling off, for example, that are told with so much, sinewy, specific detail that just “roll off the eyes”, so to speak.

That’s another thing I like about the book. The pacing is good. The author gave me enough time to get to know the characters, the lay of the land, the situations, the relationships — all that good stuff — before getting into the nitty-gritty. I like that he doesn’t overdo it. I think it’d be pretty easy to fall into gore porn territory but Clive Barker just knows how to keep it classy without losing the edge of the story. He knows when to go all out on the gruesome details and when holding back and being subtle produces the best effect, letting this reader’s mind fill in the blanks.

I was hooked from the first lines down to the end. Even when there’s not a lot of spooky s**t that happens, the story is plenty engaging and that’s largely thanks to the compelling characters of the book. Most of the major players are complex characters who aren’t just straight-up good or evil. Even the main baddie of the story — who I won’t spoil — I found sympathetic from time to time. You get why these characters do what they do, and it’s these mindsets and actions that put the plot into motion. This reminds me: there is violence against animals in this book so I wanted to give that heads-up to some of y’all.

In the end, The Damnation Game exceeded beyond a mere Faust retelling. Clive Barker has succeeded in telling a layered story that’s not only compelling in its execution, but it’s also wholly unique and unlike anything I’ve ever read. I suppose that can be expected in Clive Barker’s works! While I’m still waiting on The Hellbound Heart to make a stop at my address, this novel has proven to be a very worthwhile commitment, and I am glad to have read it. I highly recommend this for anyone looking for a horror read that delivers the gory goods while still giving the reader a literary treat.

I should obviously read more of Clive Barker’s works and I welcome any recommendations that come my way.

 

And that’s it! I thought this was a pretty solid round of Recent Reads! You can grab these titles online or through your local bookstores. Cheers and take care! Until next time, friends.

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