The season of goodwill has long been associated with ghosts and ghoulishness too. Jerome K Jerome noted this dichotomy in the introduction to Told After Supper, his 1891 collection of light-hearted spooky tales: “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.” Fairy lights cast deep shadows, it seems, and there are certain shivers even a blazing hearth fire can’t banish.
And so we turn to Andrew Shaffer’s Secret Santa (Quirk, $15.99), a love letter not just to the tradition of yuletide frights but also to the horror fiction boom of the 1980s, when spine-tinglers by the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub and Anne Rice routinely topped the bestseller charts.
Set in the middle of that decade, the novel follows book editor Lussi Meyer as she joins prestigious but stuffy publishing house Blackwood-Patterson one freezing December. She aims to revive the company’s fortunes by adding crowd-pleasing horror titles to its list but is immediately beset by a series of mishaps that at first seem like pranks gone wrong before they take a more sinister and violent cast. The blame clearly lies with a “Percht”, a hideous, evil doll with its roots in German folklore, which has been given to Lussi as a Secret Santa gift.
Shaffer writes with a keen eye for the tropes of the genre but also a sharply ironic sense of humour, as one might expect from an author who has penned a mystery series featuring Barack Obama and Joe Biden as hard-bitten crime-fighters. For instance, an intern is injured when a teetering slush pile of manuscripts falls on him, while a copy editor becomes the victim, literally, of his own pencil.
Secret Santa provides chuckles and chills in equal measure and does not ask to be taken too seriously. By contrast, Jonathan Sims’s haunted house tale Thirteen Storeys (Gollancz, £16.99) is as sombre as they come. The dwelling in question is Banyan Court, a development in Tower Hamlets built by rapacious billionaire Tobias Fell, who now lives as a recluse in its penthouse apartment. One by one we meet a varied selection of residents, each of them experiencing menacing apparitions. Their individual stories all end the same way, with a dinner invitation from Fell, and the final chapter details events of that meal as the guests assemble for a blood-soaked denouement.
Sims has a good grasp for how to generate unease — the sense of things going unaccountably awry, or happening at the periphery of one’s understanding, or being just plain wrong — and builds up the oppressive atmosphere within Banyan Court skilfully. The novel’s climax, if a little exposition-heavy, nonetheless draws together the threads of the preceding chapters with aplomb and delivers a cathartic pay-off after the long, slow accumulation of dread.
Back to lighter fare: David Wong’s Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick (Titan, £8.99). If nothing else, Wong — a pseudonym for humorist Jason Pargin — knows his way around a catchy title. He is also responsible for books named John Dies at the End (2007), This Book is Full of Spiders (2012) and Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits (2015).
The new novel is a sequel to the last of these and reintroduces protagonist Zoey Ashe, who has inherited a criminal empire from the father she barely knew. Now she runs the city he founded, Tabula Ra$a, a lawless high-tech desert town where everyone is watching everyone online and cybernetic enhancements that grant the user superpowers are readily available. There’s also a malcontent underclass intent on overthrowing Zoey through a campaign of harassment, starting with accusations of murder and cannibalism.
Wong pokes fun at incels and white supremacists, and witty lines abound, but beneath the froth there’s substance here, embodied by Zoey herself. For all her sarcasm and her flip attitude she’s an earthy character with real heart, giving the book’s social commentary a moral anchor.
If Wong wants to leave you with a smile on your face, Adam Roberts would like you to die laughing. His It’s The End of the World (Elliott and Thompson, £14.99) is a fascinating survey of the apocalypse in popular culture, from the Book of Revelation through Mary Shelley’s The Last Man to The Walking Dead. His erudition is thorough and his breadth of reading considerable, as one would expect of a literary scholar and laurelled SF novelist, but he brings a wittily jaundiced eye to the material, too. Fear of global extinction is really, Roberts argues, fear of one’s own death, and the sensible approach to this is to joke about it.
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