Buried artifacts, lost treasures, ancient puzzles — archaeological excavations make for frightening fiction, especially when their unearthings wreak havoc on those living in the present. It’s easy to forget that Pazuzu — the demon who caused so much mischief in “The Exorcist” — emerged from an archaeological dig in Iraq.
Eric LaRocca’s debut novel, EVERYTHING THE DARKNESS EATS (Clash, 224 pp., paperback, $16.95), opens with a similar cursed discovery. It’s 1944 in Wales, and a primitive drawing surrounded by ancient hieroglyphics has been found in a cave. When asked about its meaning, Heart Crowley, the treasure-seeker behind the excavation, replies that it is an “invocation,” then promptly proceeds to make everyone’s head explode, “bright scarlet ribbons fountaining.” Indiana Jones meets “Hellraiser,” anyone?
Crowley’s sinister path continues in the village of Henley’s Edge, where he draws the locals into his dark scheme: Ghost Everling, a man mourning his dead wife; Nadeem Malik, a Muslim cop whose family has been threatened; Gemma, whose daughter, Piper, is blind. LaRocca’s characters embody a broad spectrum of human desire, from the old woman attracted to Crowley to Everling, who is bisexual, to Malik, who is gay.
LaRocca’s writing is as lush as a baroque painting. A strawberry rhubarb pie is “a human artery in full bloom,” and a woman under Crowley’s spell feels her body “hardening like cooling beeswax.” But LaRocca’s true talent lies in his ability to bring his readers into the lives of his characters — a mother’s desperation to help her blind child; a widower’s mourning; a gay couple’s fight against discrimination. It’s through such explorations that readers can enter other lives, and feel empathy for those who are like us, and those who are not. That, LaRocca’s novel seems to argue, is the point of fiction — to crack open the shell of otherness and explore all that’s inside.
LaRocca’s talent is even more pronounced in his story collection, THE TREES GREW BECAUSE I BLED THERE (Titan, 204 pp., $19.95). The short-story form, by definition an act of compression, distills LaRocca’s vision to its essence. The stories collected here are by turns confident, brutal and breathtaking.
In “You’re Not Supposed to Be Here,” a gay couple are tricked into playing a sadistic game, one that brings to light their most hidden secrets and undermines everything they love. In the brilliant “I’ll Be Gone by Then,” a woman must contend with caring for her aging mother, “an affliction” she “wouldn’t wish on anyone,” a situation that reveals the depths of fear and repulsion we all feel when confronted with the body’s decadent decline. “She’s smaller than I remember from when I saw her last … I can hardly recall such a loathsome scent shadowing her — a stench as vile as rotted flowers.” And yet, by the end of the story, this daughter longs for her mother. The contradictory feelings that LaRocca evokes, and the internal tensions of his characters, make “The Trees Grew Because I Bled There” must-read horror.
Cynthia Pelayo’s THE SHOEMAKER’S MAGICIAN (Agora, 306 pp., $27.99) is an homage to the supernatural, to horror films and — perhaps most of all — to Chicago, a dark, cold place of “cursed and haunted things.”
“Chicago isn’t the home to that one creepy unkempt cemetery where people claim to see spirits rise,” Pelayo writes. “Chicago, the entire city, itself is the heinous and menacing thing that sprung from a swamp.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that the crime at the center of the novel occurs at a historic Chicago theater. And the murder is, as one says in the Midwest, a doozy. “This is deviant,” a detective notes as he surveys the scene, where a woman has been killed with a stainless steel popcorn scoop and candy from the concession stand — Reese’s Pieces, Skittles, Twizzlers — lies scattered about her body. “This is disturbed.”
A vintage horror film poster has been pinned to the woman like a calling card. A clue left by the killer, it is “the star of the show, and the body on display and everything to come is just a side character.” The novel keeps this promise. The narrative weaves through various characters’ perspectives — a detective on the case, his horror influencer wife, their son with autism spectrum disorder — but ultimately focuses on “the possibility of a cursed film, the idea that images flitting across the screen can compel us into some wicked action.”
Pelayo’s collision of magic and history is so smart and sophisticated that you’ll find yourself Googling the nonfiction that forms the bedrock of her tale. While a few moments seem forced — a deadly car accident comes out of nowhere, creating a tone and texture so different that it feels tacked on as an afterthought — “The Shoemaker’s Magician” is a delicious foray into the occult.
Riley Sager is in high form in his latest horror-inflected thriller, THE ONLY ONE LEFT (Dutton, 382 pp., $28), a dizzying Gothic whodunit that revolves around the Lizzie Borden-esque massacre of the Hope family in 1929. Fifty years later, in the 1980s of Walkmans and Duran Duran, Kit McDeere is hired to care for the only surviving member of the Hope clan.
Kit arrives at Hope’s End — a Gilded Age mansion “wide as a cruise ship” that’s perched precariously atop a Maine cliff — to find a world frozen in time, with the carpets still stained by the blood of the murder victims. When she discovers that the elderly Miss Hope is ready to reveal what really happened all those years ago, and had, in fact, already written a “tell all” for a previous caregiver, all of the elements are in place for a propulsive mystery.
The story, which cuts between Miss Hope’s typed first-person account and Kit’s overly chatty perspective, rests on a high-wire act of deceptions, camouflaged identities and (sometimes convenient) forgetfulness. Sager’s signature breakneck pace, with twists that stretch believability just to the snapping point, will please his many fans.
Zoje Stage’s latest novel, MOTHERED (Thomas & Mercer, 301 pp., $28.99), opens with Silas, a psychotherapist at a state hospital, pondering his latest patient. Grace has murdered her mother in an incomprehensibly coldblooded fashion, stabbing her 91 times: “The details of her case made it all the more confounding as to how someone so frail had committed an act of such brutality.”
Grace, an out-of-work hairdresser, spends her time online catfishing “young women who would take her advice,” a hobby that gives her a sense of power. When the pandemic strikes, her mother, Jackie, moves into Grace’s Philadelphia home, piercing her daughter’s self-imposed isolation. When Jackie hangs up a photo of Hope, Grace’s dead twin sister, it becomes apparent that a past tragedy is at the heart of their acrimonious mother-daughter relationship.
While the setup is intriguing, and the pandemic-era setting brings a rush of vertiginous PTSD, Stage leaves too much unexplored. Who is Grace? What motivates her? When the police ask why she has murdered her mother, she says, “I had to kill her! She was contagious!” It’s a confession that says everything and nothing at once. Grace remains unfathomable — to the psychotherapist puzzling over her case, and to us.
Danielle Trussoni is the author of five books. Her new novel, “The Puzzle Master,” will be published later this month.