About Children Who Kill

Baby Teeth

By Zoje Stage

Literature and life have bestowed upon us some very disturbing children, the likes of fictional Rhoda Penmark (The Bad Seed) and Damien Thorn (Omen), and real-life killers Mary Bell (England, 1960s), Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden (Westside Middle School Massacre, Minnesota, 1998), and Jasmine Richardson (Canada, 2006). Contemplating the idea of children murdering children and adults will alarm anybody, but to believe that your own darling seven-year-old daughter is attempting to murder you, well that’s the stuff of horror stories. And it’s the plot of Zoje Stage’s very good debut psychological thriller, Baby Teeth. It’s the kind of novel that is sure to give you the shakes, especially if you have little ones running around your house.

Stage tells the story by alternating between daughter Hanna and mother Suzette, and in her very capable hands the method proves especially effective both in maintaining a very high level of tension and moving the plot along at a quick pace.

Hanna holds a special affection for her father, a young architect busy in his own firm and gone for most of every day. She’s quite the good little girl when daddy appears. For her mother, though, Hanna holds nothing but contempt and eruptive hatred. A cunning child with an above average IQ, she reads, researches, and gives thoughtful consideration to the various attacks she launches against her mother, each one escalating until she goes too far in her zealous quest to push her mother out of the house, or life entirely.

Suzette, for her part, is a conflicted young mother. She has endured a difficult life, suffering for a longtime with undiagnosed Crohn’s disease, and with an inattentive and self-self-absorbed mother. Once diagnosed, life improved for her and became nearly perfect when she met her husband Alex in college. Her fears will probably feel familiar to many readers, among them that she might be alienating her husband and fostering the bad behavior in Hanna. Her moods swing from fawning over her child, to viewing Hanna as a rival for Alex’s attention, to wishing her child dead, making us a bit suspicious of her, especially early on. At heart though, less readers get the impression she might be a really bad mother (a thought she tortures herself with regularly), Suzette hold the best interest and health of her child foremost.

Nerve shattering might be the best way to describe the sensation you’ll feel throughout the novel. So, then, why the “until” reservation? Because the ending will feel like a letdown to some readers, this one included. However, you’ll also recognize that given Suzette’s and Alex’s characters, Stage has written a very logical ending, and maybe sets us up for a yet more terrifying sequel. Imagine a ten or twelve-year-old Hanna, closer to the typical age of children who kill.

All in all, though, you’ll find Baby Teeth a really terrific and terrifying psychological thriller. Stage has authored a novel you really can’t put down, no matter how much you’d like to escape the tension. w/c

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Is This the Fastest Paced Psycho Killer Novel Ever?

Intensity

By Dean Koontz

It’s been years, literally more than we care to count, since we read Intensity and, testament to Koontz, we can’t get the terror of it out of our minds.

It’s one of those rare thrillers that when started you can’t, and we mean this literally, you can’t stop reading. After Intensity, we went on to read many of Koontz’s works. Some are better than others; however, none compare to this for sheer galvanic … well there is no other word … intensity.

However, what we like best are psychological thrillers and dramas that put you directly into the mind of the killer or the victim, allowing you to experience, as much as you can vicariously, what they are feeling.

After Intensity, you might consider these books, a couple of which we’ve mentioned before: John Fowles’s stellar first novel, The Collector, concerning sociopathic Fred Clegg, who kidnaps his girlfriends and imprisons them; Deborah Kay Davies’ True Things About Me, the first-person tale of a woman led over the edge by a sudden fit of sexual compulsion (often brutal, so you are warned); and I, Killer, detailing the decline of a haunted predator who tumbles into his own version of hell. w/c

Get Your Pants Scared Off

Creep

By Jennifer Hillier

If you’ve been yearning to have a galvanic response to a thriller (and really, who isn’t?), get your hands on a copy of Jennifer Hillier’s first suspense novel. You’ll find it compelling from the first sentence to the last twist at the end.

It’s compelling for many reasons, not the least of which is that it proved an intelligent take on the serial killer genre, pitting social psychologist prof Sheila Tao against her own graduate teaching assistant Ethan Wolfe. Don’t fret; this is not a reveal, as you know from the beginning that Ethan is a control freak, and early on he seeks his revenge on his lover, Dr. Tao.

Nobody’s perfect, certainly not the good prof. She is a recovering sex addict, now engaged to an almost to-good-to-believe fellow, successful, wealthy banker Morris Gardener, himself a recovering alcoholic. But, obviously, she hasn’t fully recovered: case in point, her three-month affair with Ethan. Well, life isn’t perfect, is it?

When she finally breaks the affair off, he loses it, kidnapping her and holding her prisoner, with threats of death. She has much to fear, because a serial killer stalks the streets of Seattle, the novel’s setting, and she sees evidence that implicates Ethan.

Much of the novel, and the best part, is Tao’s psychological dueling with Ethan, to preserve her life and, hopefully, to escape her captivity.

While she tries to stay alive, fiancé Morris hires a private detective, a former cop, and the two suffer their own trials and tribulations as they frantically search for her.

Creep will keep you on the edge of her seat and turning pages until you finish, in spite of its need for a bit of editorial paring. w/c

Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

The Face of the Terrorized

The Face of the Terrorized: Sean Duffy (R., WI)

So, what is terror; or more precisely, what is the goal of terrorists? Is it to kill lots of people? Sure, if you can get your hands on a particularly horrific weapon, such as a dirty bomb. You could kill many people, sicken many more, and put infrastructure out of commission for a very, very long time. Certainly something like this is entirely possible. And maybe there are terror groups out there with the contacts and logistical skill to acquire, sneak in, and detonate such a bomb. Just the idea makes you quake in your shoes.

Therein lies the power of terror: the very thought of the unimaginable will probably spur you on to agreeing with activities under the guise of security you might not otherwise ever countenance.

Or is the goal of the terrorist just that: instilling enough fear that you will give up what you hold dear in exchange for the hope of safety. Survival, after all, is a human imperative.

A terrorist, however, doesn’t need a bomb to accomplish his mission. Nowadays, he doesn’t really need to conduct many terror attacks, either. A few here and there will do the job. Why? Because of the very idea expressed above: keeping people frightened enough to forfeit what they at least claim to value as barter for survival. You lose when you give up your values for the mere promise of safety, since, logically, guaranteeing physical safely is impossible.

No, this tradeoff is not rational. People capable of rational thought know that they are more likely to be injured or killed doing most anything else—driving to work, walking in a field on a stormy day, even slipping in the shower—than be shot or blown up in a terrorist attack. But terror is a weapon designed not kill as much as it is to stimulate your visceral fear of death. It’s like when occasionally you awaken in the middle of the night in momentary terror with the thought, “I’m going to die. I really am going to die someday.”

So, then, what does terror look like? If you were watching CNN Tuesday morning (2/7/17), you got a glimpse. Alisyn Camerota interviewed Congressman Sean Duffy, who appeared at various points unhinged, at other times illogical, and often lost at sea. All as he attempted to defend the banning of groups of people from entering the U.S.A. with the idea of preventing a handful of evildoers and bad hombres (to use a couple of recent presidential terms) from sneaking in to wreak havoc in our cities and heartland. Is Duffy really afraid? Who knows for sure, but what we do know is he is trying to scare everybody else, and doing a pretty poor job of it apparently.

Take a look, and keep in mind that you are looking at exactly what terrorists want, what has them laughing, what inspires them back in the redoubts.

Camarota interviewing Congressman Sean Duffy on CNN, 2/7/17. w/c

The Monsters Among Us

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”

Twilight Zone, Season One, March 4, 1960

Several things have made the original Twilight Zone among the most memorable television series ever aired. First, it never failed to entertain. That’s first and foremost, for without this crucial factor present, Rob Serling could not have successfully delivered any message then or now. Second, nearly every episode had something significant to say about the human condition. It’s rare to find such a program, or even such a book, play, or film. And third, the Twilight Zone continues to speak to every generation that watches it. That’s because the anthology series dealt with topics we can’t ever seem to resolve. We live with them from generation to generation.

Case in point: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Recall the time. We were in the throes of the Cold War. We feared nuclear conflagration. Anyone who lived during the period, your parents and grandparents, will testify to its palpable nature. Nevil Shute’s bestselling novel On the Beach riveted readers in the late 1950s. Two years after the airing of the “Maple Street” episode Burdick and Wheeler’s Fail-Safe scared the hell out of the nation.

What makes “Maple Street” such a brilliant episode for today, for each and every one of us, is how it speaks directly to our current situation. Like almost nothing else, it perfectly dramatizes our worst fears, our worst instincts, and the very goals of our current enemy, the Islamic State. “Maple Street” is the very definition of terror, of how to turn a nation against itself, how to drive it into giving up everything it holds sacred, the values upon which it was founded. As the alien perpetrators comment at the end, you don’t have to invade a nation to conquer it. You simply instill terror, terror that turns neighbors against neighbors.

And isn’t that exactly what is happening today? We turn on our televisions and hear our political leaders and wanna bes rant, spouting nutty ideas, ideas that will surely bolster people’s worst ideas about us. Reasonableness, thoughtfulness, calm reason, let’s toss these out the window in favor of, as the residents of Maple Street do, running from one house to next in search of the enemy, in unconscious bidding to the enemy.

You can find “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” on DVD collections available from your public library and streaming services. Take a look and think about how it speaks directly to our times.

And then keep this closing voiceover in mind when people are losing their heads around you:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill — and suspicion can destroy — and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children — and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is — that these things cannot be confined — to the Twilight Zone.” w/c

Joyce Carol Oates Shares Nightmares

The Corn Maiden

By Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is among our best and certainly most versatile writers, one who not only can scribble persuasively in most any genre but also plumb depths often lacking in the efforts of others. You can regard this mostly very good volume of “nightmare” tales as a prime example of the extra value she injects into the common fright tale.

In “The Corn Maiden,” she reaches beyond the obvious terror of a child kidnapped by a demented classmate to explore a working mother’s fear for her child and her own fitness as a mother, as well as the effect on a falsely accused teacher. The longest, best paced, and most heart-pounding story in the collection.

“Beersheba” and “Nobody Knows My Name,” while different also share a quite ingenious connection; that is, our inability to definitively understand what is stirring in the mind of another. In the first story, a nearly forgotten daughter returns to extract satisfaction from her father. In the second, a little girl, apparently normal on the outside but horribly psychotic inside, deals with her newborn sister.

“Fossil Figures” and “Death Cup,” too, share a connection, that of two brothers of two very different natures, separated for years, who come together to end their lives side-by-side. What differentiates them and how they reach their endings together is something you will enjoy discovering yourself.

“Helping Hands,” concerns a widow trying to come to terms with the early and surprising death of her husband (originally published a few years after the death of Oates first husband, Raymond Smith). So blinded by her loss and by her need to project and receive love, to be cherished and cherish, she cloaks a war veteran working in a disabled veteran’s donation shop with virtues we clearsighted readers feel can’t be real, leading us to fear for her.

In the final story, “A Hole in the Head,” a plastic surgeon with insecurity issues, a ruined marriage, and suffering from financial desperation, allows a patient to seduce him, against his better professional judgement, into performing a bogus procedure on her, trepanning, the drilling of holes in the skull to release evil spirits. And, indeed, evil emerges, but of a quite different sort than the doctor expected.

While the stories vary in quality, overall the collection will leave you properly disturbed, maybe even give you a nightmare if you dwell on their underlying ideas. w/c