Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



The 2014 Round-Up

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for my annual retrospective of what’s gone on at Reader Dad. There’s a lot to cover this year, so without further ado…


As the reading year closes, I have read 65 books this year, more than every year except last year, but I had an excuse for getting so much read last year! Of those, a massive 43 were by authors that are new to me (and a large percentage of those were 2014 debut authors). It feels like I’ve read a lot of crime this year, but when I look back on the list, I discover that my reading has been much more varied than I thought, covering everything from epistolary humour (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) to cannibalism (Season To Taste by Natalie Young), epic fantasy to Hitler satire. The list contains six translations, some of which you’ll find in the lists below and two re-reads, which are becoming a rarity these days when there are so many new books to read, and so little time in which to read them.

The big focus of the blog this year, aside from the reviews of dark fiction, was the #CarrieAt40 project that kicked off in April to celebrate Stephen King’s forty years as a published author. I’m delighted by the reaction, and would like to personally thank everyone who provided an essay: Keith Walters, Book Geek, Alison Littlewood, John Connolly, Bev Vincent, Sarah Langan, Mark West, Lloyd Shepherd, Steve Cavanagh, Simon Clark, V. M. Giambanco, Mason Cross, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Lotz, P. T. Hylton, Neal Munro, Simon Toyne, Lou Sytsma, Michael Marshall Smith, Kealan Patrick Burke, Andrew Pyper and Rob Chilver. I must also thank my good friend David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for putting me in touch with Mr Connolly, and Graeme Williams at Orion Books for putting me in touch with Andrew Pyper. Thanks, too, to Mr King’s publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, who were extremely supportive and especially the wonderful Hodderscape folks who were angels when it came to publicity. Special thanks have to go to the lovely Philippa Pride and Kerry Hood, Mr King’s editor and publicist, respectively, at Hodder, for their support, and to Anne Perry for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

#CarrieAt40 comes to an end at the end of the year when I will be closing the Big Vote. Response has been lacklustre so far, so rather than the “definitive” answer I’d hoped for, I’ll be presenting the favourites as they stand. Please feel free to point everyone you know at the vote in the meantime, and maybe in the next week and a half we’ll get close to that “definitive” level.

And so to the important bit: the list of my favourite books of the year. Last year’s approach seemed to work well, so I’ll be using the same approach this year: my favourite debuts, and favourite non-debuts of the year. As always, the list contains books that were first published in 2014, and they’re listed in the order in which I read them, so no significance should be attached to their position in the list. Oh, and please don’t take the “ten” literally! As always, links will take you to my original review, where it exists.


SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND by Natalie Young (Tinder Press)

At once gripping, wholeheartedly gruesome (Young seems to revel in the fact that just when you think you’ve experienced the worst there is, there is always something more still to be eked out of this incredible scenario) and darkly comic, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is one of the most original novels you’re likely to read, ever. With an attention to detail that is slightly scary, given the subject matter (Young has obviously done some thorough research), and the ability to make you want to simultaneously stop reading, and read faster, Natalie Young has done the unthinkable: she has taken an ordinary human being, placed her in an extraordinary situation, making her the villain of the piece in the process, and still manages to make the reader love her, root for her, want to see her succeed in her endeavours and, most importantly, get away with it. Often – and I know you’ll pardon the pun – hard to stomach, Season to Taste is like nothing you’ve ever read before, and pays dividends for those willing to stick with it and forge through the discomfort. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, and is guaranteed to stay with you for many years to come. I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited to see what Natalie Young has up her sleeve next; let’s just hope it doesn’t involve dinner.

RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes [trans. Jamie Bulloch] (MacLehose Press)

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker [trans. Sam Taylor] (MacLehose Press)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.

THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.

THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma [trans. Agnes Broomé] (Head of Zeus)

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.




I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.

THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton (Mantle)

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans. Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe (The Borough Press)

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve readThe Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.



2015 should see a return to the usual schedule of reviews and guest posts, despite the fact that I’ve already read the best book of the year. Despite that, it’s already shaping up to look like an excellent year, with the return of Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and an announcement early in the New Year concerning Joe Hill. The year also brings with it new Daniel Polansky, the follow-up to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, to name but a few. Don’t forget that the #CarrieAt40 Big Vote closes at midnight on December 31st, so do please vote, and spread the word.

All that remains is to thank the publishers and publicists who have been so kind to me this year, and have kept me stocked up with wonderful reading material. Thanks also to the authors who take time out to write guest posts or answer interview questions, and to all those (mentioned above) who provided essays for the #CarrieAt40 project. And thanks to you, the readers, who make it all worthwhile; without you, I’d just be talking to myself, and I already do far too much of that.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and a happy, safe and prosperous 2015 to each and every one of you.

#CarrieAt40: The Stephen King Vote–Update

A brief update on the current state of play with the Big #CarrieAt40 Stephen King Vote.

I have updated the novels section to allow readers to vote for Revival, which is almost upon us and which looks set to become an instant classic. I’m also setting a firm end date of 31 December 2014 for closing the vote. The current top threes in each section are listed below. Don’t agree? Then be sure to VOTE! Make sure your voice is heard.


Third: ‘Salem’s Lot

Second: The Stand

First: It

Short Stories

Third: The Raft (Skeleton Crew)

Second: Graveyard Shift (Night Shift)

First: Children of the Corn (Night Shift)


Third: The Body (Different Seasons)

Second: The Mist (Skeleton Crew)

First: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Different Seasons)


Third: Secret Windows

Second: Danse Macabre

First: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

There are two months left to get your vote in and have your say, so don’t miss out. Ready to go?


Vote Here!

#CarrieAt40: The Stephen King Chart

Just when you thought all the #CarrieAt40 madness was over, it’s time to reveal the next phase. To celebrate Stephen King’s 40 years as a published author, we’ve created a survey to try and determine – according to his fans – which are his most important, enduring, or just plain entertaining works.

The survey is split into four sections, for Novels, Short Stories, Novellas and Non-Fiction, and you can choose as many or as few titles in each category as you like. I’ll reveal the top entries in each category later this year.

Thanks to everyone who has responded to the survey so far, and for all of the feedback. I have finally found what I believe to be the easiest way to present the information to make life easier for you, the voter. The latest incarnation of the survey can be found at


Please, if you haven’t done so already, cast your vote, and spread the word.

Many thanks!

#CarrieAt40: Start at the Beginning by ROB CHILVER


On the web:

On Twitter: @robchilver

As a bookseller, I often see young teenagers hovering around the horror section shelves. On some occasions they stride confidently towards them, certain of what book to pick while at other moments, they waver halfway, around the ‘K’, a wide expanse of books to choose from, unsure which to select. With Stephen King, his many, many books have becomes household names – The Stand, IT, Pet Semetery, Salems Lot, but with a career so vast and varied, where in his back catalogue do you start?

For me, you always start at the beginning. You always start with Carrie.

I first heard about Carrie while at school; its reputation spreading from class to class almost telepathically (but fortunately not telekinetically). It was a book that had to be read for what horrors lay within its pages. Already before reading it, it came with built-in scares and as I approached the desk at my local library, clutching the highly in-demand paperback and sliding it over, would the librarian let it out to me? Would its reputation prevent me from reading it? Would I even like what I found inside? Fortunately the date stamp hit the card and I had two weeks to enter Carrie White’s world before the next reader requested it. What a time I had…

Thinking back now, Carrie spoke to us all at my secondary school. My fellow young readers had seen enough American television to get around the differences between ours and the Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School and could see the similarities between ourselves and Carrie. School is a time when as a teenager you are often struggling to find yourself, wanting nothing more than to fit in and Carrie White is an outcast from the beginning. But what was also scary about Carrie was that even at home, when you are supposed to be safe, her home life was unnerving and unsettling. Our parents are supposed to love and protect us but in Margaret White, she becomes a terrifying figure of authority that should be guiding and protecting us in our formative years. Nothing feels safe as Carrie’s story unfolds.

King also dazzles us with his varied storytelling technique, one that I had not seen before. Told with a mixture of newspaper clippings, letters, magazine articles and excerpts from other books, the narrative technique adds another sense of realism, cementing us firmly in Carrie’s world and Chamberlain in Maine. Suddenly telekinesis and pig’s blood becomes all the more real.

For such a slim book, Carrie packs in a lot of scares within its pages and even today still resonates with its readers. If you are looking where to start with Stephen King, start with Carrie as it is one hell of a beginning.

Rob Chilver works as a senior bookseller at a university branch of Waterstones. While this is great for getting an inside track on new releases, it goes without saying that his views are all his own and not those of his employer. He’s also the web wizard and editor of the Adventures With Words weekly podcast. He’s a big fan of James Bond and thrillers as well as American literature, which he studied at UEA and the University of Kent.

#CarrieAt40: Forever Young and Bloody by ANDREW PYPER

demonoligst ANDREW PYPER

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On Twitter: @andrewpyper

Turning forty, that at once arbitrary but inarguable line between youth and mid-life, invites all manner of introspection, almost all of it unwelcome. I know, I had my turn at it a couple years ago. And no matter how strenuously and logically you tell yourself (and others, your fellow timebound mortals, the company that misery loves) that it’s a meaningless designation, that there’s nothing you can do about the ever-accelerating carousel of birthdays so you might as well ignore them, you nevertheless find yourself at some vulnerable moment, staring into the abyss (or the mirror) wondering How the hell did that happen?

How the hell did Carrie become middle-aged? The same way I did. And it only makes sense, seeing as I grew up with her.

The protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel wasn’t in my same year (thankfully so, as I wouldn’t have survived the prom) but she was only a few years ahead of me, cool and forbidden and dangerous. I read the novel that told her story too young, which made the impression it left on me all the deeper. And then, approaching manhood, came Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand. I was growing up. And Stephen King was becoming the most influential fiction writer of his generation as well as mine, the dazzled punks swimming after the brilliant light of his comet tail.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow novelist of a similar age to mine. We surprised ourselves by asking a question you’d think novelists would have had securely answered at the outset, but most have left unanswered – or carefully avoided – the whole way along. What do we wish our books to do? Be written about in serious ways in serious places? Change lives? Sell a ton?

After giving it another round of drinks worth of thought, I landed on something that felt accurate and true to me: I hope my novels create their own world, their own mythology. Redefine the shape of the Western imagination in some necessarily small but undeniable way, so that we can never think of, say, the fear we have of being pulled under the water as we swim alone in a lake, or the suspicion that demons are real and walk among us, in the same way we did before. To create stories that create us.

To do, in other words, what Stephen King has done.

Carrie is forty and the fact that we know this, celebrate it, universally deem it an occasion of note, isn’t just because it’s a famous book, but because it’s part of us whether we’ve read it or not. The rage of adolescent isolation expressed as repressed mental violence that, finally, explodes into fire: this pre-existed Carrie, but now it is Carrie.

As we get older, it’s generally harder to absorb new tweaks and revisions to our formative mythologies. The early novels of Stephen King won’t have the same meaning for a young reader today as they did for me – the world is different, and the imaginative tools we use to see it are different too. But the very idea of “world” is a construction, and fiction has always had a hand in assembling its parts. And now, down there in the dark basement, a brick in the foundation, is Carrie.

We age. But she is forever young.

Andrew Pyper is the author of six novels, most recently The Demonologist, which is a #1 bestseller in his native Canada and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel. His previous novels include Lost Girls and The Guardians. The Demonologist is currently in development for feature film with director/producer Robert Zemeckis and Universal Pictures.

#CarrieAt40: Ghosts of Smoke & Fire by KEALAN PATRICK BURKE


On the web:

On Twitter: @KealanBurke

When I was eight years old, I snuck into my mother’s bedroom while she was shopping, and swiped her copy of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery from her nightstand. This simple act of thievery opened the doors of horror, writing, and imagination to me in a way that no other book (mostly abridged classics, Hardy Boys, and Alfred Hitchock’s Three Investigators series) ever had. I read the book by flashlight late at night every night for the next week, and by the time I was finished, finally knew without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to be when I grew up. When my mother discovered—as all mothers will when the transgressions of their children are so poorly concealed—that I had read the book, rather than chastise or punish me, she suggested a system wherein she would read the books first and vet them before letting me read them. This progressed to her sharing her adult library card with me, but, being a single mother juggling two jobs, the vetting idea became a chore to uphold. I was reading a book, sometimes two a week, and she couldn’t keep up. So eventually she just let me read whatever I wanted to.

omnibusThe next book I acquired was a three-volume Stephen King collection, one of those NEL omnibus editions so popular back in the day. It contained Carrie, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. I read Carrie first, and found of them all (The Shining would be my favorite), this was the one that struck a chord with me. No, I was not an awkward, ungainly pariah with nascent supernatural powers, nor was I bullied at school. Instead, I was a nobody, one of those ghosts the other children neither picked on nor invited into their cliques by virtue of my nonexistence. I was the wallpaper, the shadow without a presence to cast it. I was simply there, and had I not been, the absence would not have been noted by anyone but the teacher at roll-call. Instead—and maybe this went some way toward explaining my intangibility—I had a head full of fantasies and a wild imagination full of conflicts and characters, motives and monsters. I was the loner and for a while I would go home after school and find myself following poor Carrie’s treacherous journey through her own gauntlet of adolescence, and I felt for her, feared for her, wanted her to have a happy ending. But of course, this is King, and in King’s world, as in life, more often than not there are no happy endings. Instead, Carrie allows her powers to consume her. She becomes wrath, and while I had no desire to wipe out my school (would they even have noticed?) or my fellow students, I understood why Carrie did. Did I believe it right, or fair? I couldn’t say. For me, it didn’t come down to right or wrong. It was more a matter of inevitability, a metaphor for the larger idea of nobodies becoming something, even if that something is monstrous. Regardless of who or what you were as a child or a teen, Carrie White is us. She is puberty, that hostile confusing place where there are more questions than answers, where ugliness wars with beauty, where identity is a shadow in the fog, a time of harsh lessons and terrible truths, a Boschian landscape not all of us survive. Most pull through and become the characters in their own exciting, tragic, terrifying, and wonderful novels. Others…

Others tear the world down around themselves rather than climb that ladder up to an unknowable fate.

For those of us who were in the chrysalis upon our first discovery of King’s novel, we have, unlike Carrie White, endured, escaped intact, but not without a critical and necessary education. Life is hard, childhood is harder, and there isn’t a one among us who doesn’t know the feel of the flames.

Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of five novels, including Kin, and Nemesis, and over two-hundred short stories and novellas. His short story “Peekers” is currently in development as a motion picture at Lionsgate Entertainment.

#CarrieAt40: Bringing the Weird Home by MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH


On the web:

On Twitter: @ememess

There’s no doubt that horror fiction — and commercial fiction in general — would have been very different without the novel Carrie. Of course there were writers who’d blazed the trail — Richard Matheson and Ira Levin are two obvious examples — but in terms of bringing the weird home to where real people live, into recognisable places and spaces, King has been a game-changer with no equal. Carrie managed a double cultural whammy, too, as Brian de Palma’s engagingly flashy movie version was a striking encapsulation of the times, and the iconic image of the ethereal Sissy Spacek drenched in blood is hard to forget.

Carrie was actually nothing like the first King I read (I joined at The Talisman, and then worked back) but without its runaway success it’s unlikely he’d have written those later works — and without them, I very likely wouldn’t be a writer. One of the truly scary things about life is how your own can be wholly turned around by things outside your control…

Michael Marshall Smith is a novelist and screenwriter, and the only writer ever to win the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story four times. His novel The Intruders is currently in production as a TV series with BBC America, starring John Simm and Mira Sorvino. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, with his wife and son.

#CarrieAt40: Fear by LOU SYTSMA

skpodcast LOU SYTSMA

On the web:

On Twitter:  (Lou Sytsma) @OldDarth
                  (The Stephen King Podcast) @SKingPodcast


For over four decades, Stephen King has been the choice of many a Constant Reader to be our Guide into our deepest fears. But we didn’t put our trust in King freely. He earned it.

With each new work, King spun another engaging tale of fiction. They are often tales of impossible events. But they are rooted in the lives of everyman characters living in everyday worlds we could relate to.

Like many other posters here, my first introduction to King was not via Carrie but Salem’s Lot. My recollection of earlier years is a fog shrouded landscape akin to what King described of his own memories in his On Writing book. Many cherished memories that stay with me today are stranded islands in a sea of fuzzy ones. One of the few true memory beams that run between them is that of being one of King’s Constant Readers. Just knowing that King knew we were out there made me feel part of a special group.

I read mostly Science Fiction back then with the occasional foray into Fantasy and Horror. Most Horror fiction I cannot relate to. There is either a lack of plausibility or believable characters. Or both. My belief is that Horror is the hardest genre to write for. I also believe the best horror is about the monsters inside each of us. King wrote about the type of horror I was interested in and in a manner that made his stories and characters seem almost real. He is one of the few writers that makes the pages disappear and swallows me whole into the story.

Carrie’s need to establish her own identity and to be acknowledged during a time of great personal change struck a chord with me and many others. It was also about how the forces of prejudice and bullying can forever thwart or extinguish such growth. Carrie is a book about universal themes that exist not only in the past, but today, and will continue to do so in the future.

When I got to Carrie, I don’t remember if it came after The Shining or not. I want to say before but it doesn’t really matter. Between those three early books, King established his amazing ability to create indelible characters and tell stories of fiction that carried a never spoken but always felt core of truth to them.

CujoAnd King repeats that trick in book after book. Most people know who Carrie is. The Dead Zone has been coined into the popular lexicon. Cujo has become the go to name for menacing or rabid dogs.

The Stand blew me away with the scope and the character juggling act King pulled off, but it was Dead Zone that cemented his ability, in my mind, to mix the fantastic with reality because it was so intimate. To create an everyman character with the ubercommon name of John Smith, take away his normal life path and replace it with one where he can stop a modern day Hitler from launching Armageddon; that blows my mind. The arc from the commonplace to the fantastical is brilliantly done as Johnny follows his tragic arc with the seams between the two masterfully blurred. Dead Zone is an amazing mix of the epic and the personal.

I mentioned Fear in the opening because that is what King is best known for. But it is the exploration of what Fear does to people that has made him the enduring writer he is. Fear cannot exist without Love. And those two feelings drive everything else that we feel and do. That is what King writes about. Plus he always adds a dash of fun and/or humor to his writing. Often overlooked but very important.

What does the forty year anniversary of Carrie mean to me? It marks the start of a forty year open invite from Stephen King. An invite to his Constant Readers to join him around his story telling campfire to spin us a new yarn. This year, like last year, King has put that invite out twice. Upcoming are Mr. Mercedes and Revival. These are great times for King fans as King rarely disappoints.

Thanks to Matthew Craig for giving me this opportunity to do some fan gushing – King Style!

Lou Sytsma has been a King Constant Reader for forty years. For more Stephen King thoughts check out his podcast – The Stephen King Podcast – jointly presented with Hans Lilja over at the Lilja’s Library Website. A website dedicated to Stephen King that has been running since 1996. You will not only find all the episodes of the podcast there but lots of Stephen King related material.

#CarrieAt40: Dancing to Stephen King’s Tune by SIMON TOYNE

The-Tower-Simon-Toyne SIMON TOYNE

On the web:

On Twitter: @simontoyne

When I was asked to write a piece about when I first read Carrie I had to fess up that I had never actually read it. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe it was because somehow I knew what the story was about and had seen pictures of Sissy Spacek drenched in blood and was probably a bit scared. It’s odd that it slipped through the net as, like most writers of my generation and most readers too for that matter, Stephen King is the benchmark. Even people I knew at school who didn’t read, read Stephen King. I’ve read tons of King, I read The Stand twice and it’s over a thousand pages long – and yet I never got round to Carrie.

DeadZoneMy own introduction to the court of the King happened aged around ten or eleven via a second-hand copy of The Dead Zone that my local library was getting rid of it for 10p. It had a picture of an American style license plate on the cover with the name of the book spelled out in embossed letters. [Editor’s note: Google is being singularly unhelpful with regards tracking down this cover,  so here’s the US first edition cover instead.] The plate was bashed and a little burned and hinted at violence, as did the title whereas Carrie was a girly girl’s name and I can’t remember what the cover looked like. Maybe if the library had been selling an old copy of Carrie I would have read it then but it was The Dead Zone that got me first and Carrie just slipped through the cracks somehow until it became one of those books that sort of missed its slot, one that I knew I should read and would undoubtedly enjoy but just never got round to. The Secret History is another one of those for me, but that is, quite literally, another story.

Also Carrie became much bigger to me than just a book. I picked up so much lore about it that maybe I became worried that the thing itself would be a disappointment. I knew, for example, that when Brian De Palma was looking for young actors for his film version he shared casting sessions with another young director needing unknowns for a little space opera he was prepping called Star Wars. I’ve often wondered if the other Carrie (Fisher) auditioned for Carrie White and if John Travolta tried out for Han Solo and whether if he’d got the part we might all have been spared Battleship Earth. One can dream…

I also know that King’s wife Tabitha fished the first two or three pages of Carrie out of the bin after he had decided it wasn’t working. I know he then sold the paperback rights for $400,000 dollars and this was in the mid 70’s when that was a LOT of money rather than just a lot. I know that when he sold it he was living with his young family in a trailer and struggling to make ends meet. Maybe I was so weighed down with baggage that I felt like I’d already read it or didn’t need to.

Anyway, now I have read it.

And it’s good.

It doesn’t feel like a forty year old book at all. The collage technique of using different narrative scraps to tell the story feels very modern and assured, like a literary pre-cursor to the found-footage movies that squeeze their scares out of the notion that all of it might just be real. Some of the scraps that make up the collage are slightly less successful than others, it has to be said, particularly the extracts from memoirs of the survivors that read more like diary entries than genuine autobiography. These fragments are so short, however, they never derail the pace. In fact in the main it’s a very spare book, especially for a writer known for his doorsteps. There’s almost no fat in it, like it’s been very carefully crafted then edited really tightly, something many of his later books lack I think. Don’t get me wrong I still love the man and worship at his hem etc. but I do tend to find myself skipping great chunks of some of his later books. I do the same in Dickens so it’s not exactly a diss. I just find, sometimes, I’m not quite as enthralled by the architecture as the author is and am just hungry to find out what happens next.

What really struck me about Carrie, though, reading it forty years after it was published, is that it is so obviously a Stephen King book. His voice is already there, fully formed or formed enough so that you can hear who it is straight out of the blocks. He’d written three other novels before Carrie and it shows. There’s a sure-footedness to the voice that feels bedded in and comfortable. He’d already found his rhythm and the book hums along with it. And we’ve all been dancing to his tune ever since. Amen to that.

Simon Toyne was born in the North East of England in 1968.

After nearly twenty years working in commercial television he quit his job and took seven months off to write a novel. It took two and a half years to finish it. Fortunately Sanctus got picked up by an agent and then by lots of publishers all over the world. He has no idea what would have happened if it hadn’t. He is now regularly compared, both favourably and unfavourably, to Dan Brown, even though he does not possess a tweed jacket.

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