So I quit reading horror before most of you were born, aka the lean years for Stephen King fans. All thirty of them. This sucks for a bunch of reasons, but on the plus side, I’ve been able to really enjoy second contact with both major and less major names and voices that have sprung-up since, or that I missed previously.
Which is to say, this is the first book I’ve read by Jeff Strand—and it won’t be the last, and it’s exactly what I had hoped to find when I returned “home” to horror.
I’m going to skip the plot, because… I mean, most people can read a paragraph, so the plot’s covered elsewhere. But the elements of the plot would simply fail under other conditions. It would be too (sub)genre-crossing without this, or too violent and twisted without this; too absurd without this… but Strand’s genius is his weaving together of “extreme” scraps with just the right kind of thread.
In short (not a spoiler, honest; there’s not even a cat in this book, although I guess technically I just spoiled everything for the must-have-cat crowd) say a lead character wants or must fantasize about torturing a cat. Not cool, right? Especially not cool if it’s a couple of pages of different ways to, uh, skin the cat. How can a scenario like this work? Absurdity and humor, that’s how.
Maybe a few jaded readers won’t like that, because Strand is so ridiculously funny at times, there’s a risk of breaking immersion while you wipe your eyes and nose. Me? I’ll take it. His dialogue is almost always excellent, and he uses long passages of absurdity fearlessly.
Strand knows how to write, how to plot, and most of all, he knows the sort of expectations and “I see where this is (maybe) going” habits of the genre, and is, in Sick House, happy to twist or betray those to keep it fresh. There are no typos, there are few to no dull or dead spots, and the story is vaguely familiar until it’s… not.
It’s hard to do humor, and it’s hard to do scary… and it’s an order of magnitude harder to do both in the same chapter, simultaneously. Strand does this, and often. Excellent.
If there’s a complaint that isn’t a “personal preference” on humor and horror, then the complaint might be the (relatively) weakly-drawn antagonists.
The book is too enjoyable to risk spoiling, but I’ll simply say this: there are a couple of time and POV hops near the beginning that are well-written and engaging and harsh and that help set-up everything thereafter, but I felt the fear factor dropped somewhat when the antagonistic “stuff” were clearly something already met in prior chapters… and thus “known” from earlier, which cut the tension and suspense somewhat.
That said, the book remains an absolute page-turner, is funny and gory and cruel, and overall is exactly what I was missing when I took an extended hiatus in the 1990s.
[ Update: having now read another book of Strand’s, it’s even more notable to say this is not the apex of his skill. Buy them all. ]