A Murder of Crows by Reed W. Huston

murder of crowsWith this short story, I discovered a tale with what seemed to be an overused premise erupt into something far creepier than I’d ever expected.

The Concept:  C+
A sweet young couple and their adorable little cat move into a new home, which the husband becomes convinced is being watched by swarms of creepy, telepathic crows.

It’s not the most original horror premise out there, but the author’s blurb made it sound just eerie enough that I figured it was worth a shot.  I didn’t know this when I started reading, of course, but it’s not the beginning that makes this story special—it’s the deliciousness of the ending.

The Execution:  B+
How exactly does one go about trying to make a horde of crows give a reader chills in a world in which Hitchcock’s The Birds is so well-known?  Huston gives it a surprising amount of justice, buffeting the reader expertly back and forth between scenes of cute banter between Danny and Rebecca and scenes of bewildering avian menace.  The tonal whiplash from the idyllic romance and the inexplicable dread serves to emphasize the crescendo of sinister elements in the story.

The Writer’s Voice:  B
Huston can certainly turn a phrase, and he clearly has a knack for spookiness.  There were a few little things that bothered me—a few overused words and a lack of delineation between official narration and direct thoughts of the narrator, for example.  But the first-person narration helped smooth over a lot of those minor quibbles, allowing me to get into Danny Jackson’s head and feel his dread.

The simplistic, sometimes awkward phrasing to represent the telepathic communication of the crows was a nice touch, as well, adding to the confusion and the creepiness.

The X-Factor:  A
The ending, the ending, the ending.  The ending!  It’s all about the ending!  I was interested as I read, and my interest grew steadily as the situation escalated, but during those last few pages I was reading so fast I kept accidentally skipping lines.

It’s not a perfect ending, I suppose, but it was so messed up and so unexpected that it hit me pretty hard.  It has to take a good amount of skill to pull off such a great twist in the conclusion of such a brief story, but Huston demonstrates that he’s up to the task.

The Sentence for Murder:  B+
This is a quick sample of tautly wound horror.  It starts off as nothing earth-shattering, but I’d be surprised if A Murder of Crows doesn’t surprise you in a few ways by the time you finish it.


Bears of Glass by N A Shoemaker

Bears of Glass, the opener of a new series called Nightmares in the Dark, is the first young adult book I’ve read in a while.  And though I’m not exactly in the target demographic bears of glasshere, it’s not hard for me to see that I would have gobbled this thing up when I was in seventh grade or so.

The Concept:  B
At first glance, this book might be standard horror-for-children fare.  Young Ryan Jacobs, plagued by eerie and increasingly vivid nightmares, takes an unexpected family vacation to a remote location.  There, his nightmares worsen and become indistinguishable from reality until he’s eventually fighting for his life against a group of huge grizzlies.

I mean, it’s a solid concept. It’s scary, and the bear angle probably makes it a little outside of the ordinary.  Most of the story is driven by the mystery surrounding the dreams and a strange figurine of a bear.  The reader is as confused and as curious about what’s happening as the narrator.  The story doesn’t have to rely on frightening imagery to keep you interested, although there’s plenty of that too.

The Execution:  A
I’ve personally never seen a bear outside of a zoo, so while I’m sure bears are terrifying, I don’t think I was white-knuckling it through these pages quite as much as anyone with an actual bear phobia.  Nonetheless, the story is woven skillfully, without much extra fat to trim.  What I really liked about the execution was the atmosphere and the somewhat realistic depictions of the familial relationships.

Ryan’s nightmares are appropriately chilling and foreboding, but the atmosphere really kicks into high gear in the second half of the book as the visions of the monstrous bears start to become real.  Shoemaker makes excellent use of his cabin-in-the-woods setting, allowing the trees and the bears and the fog to curl around the reader as much as they curl around poor hapless Ryan.  Then the lightning.  The sounds.  The destruction.  The blood pumping.  There’s a few solid chapters in a row with such a tautly horrifying narrative climate that you can’t really stop reading at least until that particular section is over with.

And while I’m by no means an expert on young adult literature, I felt that Ryan’s nuanced feelings for his family members were a breath of fresh air.  I think there’s too much Ugh, Dad is such a loser and Ugh, my little sister is soooo annoying in kids’ books, and it was encouraging to see that, while Ryan does find his little sister annoying, he also tries to help her stand up to a bully at school.  He clearly cares for his sister even though they often don’t get along, and I’d hope that this kind of complicated relationship is both more realistic and more rewarding for younger readers.  I think Ryan exhibits a similarly complex relationship with his parents and his uncle, but it’s more pronounced in his dealings with his sister Riley.

And the ending…well, that certainly keeps things complicated, just in a whole different way.

My only major criticism of the execution is the somewhat frequent errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  There were many of them, but most of them were pretty minor, so they didn’t really pull me out of the story much.  And considering that this is Shoemaker’s first self-published work, it’s probably a relatively low-budget affair with no room for a professional editor.  I’m almost four novels into my self-publishing, and it still remains a low-budget affair for me.  So, you know…people in glass cabins shouldn’t throw grizzly bear figurines.  Or something like that.

The Writer’s Voice:  B+
Bears of Glass is narrated in first person by Ryan, which makes it easy to quickly identify with the character.  It also helps draw us into his fears, thereby intensifying the terror and the suspense.

What I particularly enjoyed about the writing itself was the frequent use of italics to signify a more closely guarded thought or more deeply held distress.  It was as if every time the narration switched into italics I knew I was getting the full story instead of merely whatever Ryan was comfortable sharing.   It was a nice touch, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that technique used quite so liberally or quite so effectively.

There were, however, a few descriptive sections that got a little repetitive, reusing key words like bears and fog and lightning.  But that was mostly during the parts that would defy any attempts at interruption.

It’s also worth noting that Bears of Glass is clean—there’s no swearing, no oblique references to anything sexual or drug-related or anything like that.  And while there is some violence, there’s not much gore and there’s nothing gratuitous.  Parents should have no qualms about letting their middle school kids read this.

The X-Factor:  A-
The glass figurine of the bear is the X-Factor.

This is what kept me reading.  The visions of rampaging grizzlies were scary and all, and the confusion over how much of it was real and how much of it was Ryan’s crazed imagination was interesting, but what was the deal with that figurine?

It seemed to possess some paranormal power and every time it appeared on the page I was paying close attention for any hint as to its significance or its purpose.  The ending was wild enough that I’m still not sure I have any idea, but that little thing was enigmatic enough to keep me wanting more.

The Waking-Up-in-a-Cold-Sweat:  A-
Bears of Glass is an excellent offering from a new and promising writer for young adults.  Mysterious, ominous, twisting, and frightening, it hits all the notes you’d expect or demand from a horror story.  It’s enjoyable enough to read as an adult—but fifteen years ago, I’d have read this thing cover to cover twice in the same day.