It’s a tradition for horror authors to write at least one coming-of-age tale that takes place during the golden years of the author’s youth. December Park is Ronald Malfi’s thrilling and heartbreaking contribution to the trend. It should come as no surprise that Malfi would manage to produce something that doesn’t feel derivative or even comparable to the work of other writers within the genre. When children begin disappearing from the coastal community of Harting Farms, rumors spread that the missing children are victims of a singular, sinister figure, the Piper. After one girl is found dead, Angelo Mazzone and his friends take it upon themselves to investigate the disappearances, believing that they are uniquely suited to unravel the mystery and locate the monster stalking the streets of their small town. The author authentically captures the period of the early-to-mid 1990s, and the young men populating his narrative feel like boys we might have known and befriended during those years. Each boy’s personality is distinct and fleshed-out, clearly setting them apart from one another while avoiding generic archetypes. As much a story of self-discovery and friendship as it is about the hunt for a murderer and the discovery of his identity, it’s likely the author utilized Angie’s character as a stand-in for himself. A gifted writer and avid reader who shyly worries that his friends will think less of him if he embraces his talent and takes the necessary steps to fulfill his potential, Angie underestimates the bonds between himself and his closest friends. The teenage years are a minefield of uncertainty and insecurity, and Malfi hasn’t forgotten what that felt like as he crafted the tale he tells in December Park. The heartbreaking conclusion is one that he successfully avoids telegraphing while navigating with attention to detail that keeps it from feeling contrived. Upon reaching the end, so much of the story up to that point is cast under a wholly different sort of bleak and somber darkness. He invites us all to join him at the corner of Point and Counterpoint, where we can watch the story unfold, not knowing what’s coming but filled with dread and tension the whole time. Eric G. Dove provides excellent narration, carefully providing each character with a voice all their own and drawing us into the world of Harting Farms.
Todd Love finds a new way to surprise his readers, both in the pure dialogue construction of this narrative and in the shockingly sad twist revealed at the conclusion. But this isn’t one of those twists shoehorned in for the sake of taking the reader by surprise, the hints are there throughout the story, if only we knew to pay attention. A conversation takes place between two old friends as a former detective, Lloyd Andrews, evaluates his life and the mistakes he’s made. Reflecting on the events that transpired when he successfully ended the killing spree of The Barrhaven Cannibal, he needs to unburden himself to the only person he knows will understand. If you’re looking for something different, I can assure you that Last Day should make your list. I can imagine this performed on a stage, a contrast between stark shadows and light, and I’d love to see that happen. Imagine it for yourself when you check out Last Day.
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When Allison Decker is shot and killed in a senseless act of violence, her husband’s life is irrevocably changed. But the true extent of his life’s transformations doesn’t begin until he discovers something seemingly innocuous in a box of his wife’s belongings from work. A receipt from a motel in a small town he’d never heard of, from a trip he didn’t know Allison had taken, is all it takes to send Aaron down a path he’d never have imagined possible. Worried that his wife might have been cheating on him, Aaron begins unraveling the threads of a double-life Allison was leading, and infidelity might have been a relief. Instead, Aaron finds himself stumbling along in the footsteps of the woman he’d married but hardly knew. The truth of Allison’s activities will uncover lies and horrors Aaron could never be prepared to face as he stubbornly and desperately struggles to understand the woman he loved and lost. In the end, we’re forced–along with Aaron–to acknowledge that we might indeed be guilty of haunting ourselves. Malfi crafts a well-orchestrated mystery that leaves the reader guessing right up until the conclusion. As we join Aaron Decker on his journey of discovery, we’re left reeling with each new revelation alongside the protagonist, forced to question how well we ever know someone and how dark the depths of one’s character might be. Joe Hempel’s narration of the audiobook is superb, and he captures the confusion, fear, and frustration Aaron feels as he persists in his fool’s quest to solve a mystery Allison may have already solved before she was tragically unable to fulfill her life’s mission.
A little competition can be a good thing. Whether it’s your hobby or occupation, rivalry can be a healthy motivator to push yourself to excel. It’s perhaps a bit less healthy when talking about two serial murderers leapfrogging over one another to produce a more gruesome and intricate tableau, but who are we to judge? The night can be dangerous, but it’s so much worse if you happen to be a secondary character concocted by the combined imaginations of Whiston and Ericmore. Whether we’re talking about power tools, sex toys, or construction equipment, these two will find a way to utilize it in the most gruesome manner possible. Am I talking about the characters or the authors? Is there a line that separates them? Much as their respective characters seek to outdo one another within the narrative, the authors of this deliciously violent story compete the perpetrate increasingly cruel and vicious acts on the page. It must be said that these two work well together in that respect, as any reader will be delighted to discover. But is it possible that one of these killers is more than they seem? Is there a grand design of malevolent intent taking shape before our eyes? You’ll have to read it for yourself to find out.
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Ronald Malfi’s Bone White is as devastating as it seemed like it might be. When we learn that Paul Gallo’s brother, Danny, had disappeared near Dread’s Hand, Alaska, only a year before a serial murderer wandered into town and turned himself in, we hope for closure as the best-case scenario. The author teases us with the potential for a happy-ish ending, only to string us along through a tale that crosses back-and-forth over the lines between supernatural and superstitious, thriller and horror. Embedded within the larger story of Bone White, Malfi introduces us to multiple, smaller tales that would make for fascinating stories in their own right. This attention to detail and world-building for the remote Alaskan wilderness setting makes the story all the more engaging and impossible to set aside. As we’re dragged through the cold and snow near central Alaska, it’s something you begin to feel in your bones. It’s not just the chill of the environment that gets under your skin, but the chill emanating from the locals who live insular lives with no interest in the outside world or having intruders from the outside digging through their secrets and the fears that underpin them. Paul’s tension and frustration are palpable, and anyone would likely feel the same if they knew their search for the truth about their missing sibling was being stymied by the superstitions and mistrust of the only people who might have the answers. The narration provided by Charles Constant is terrific, his voice weaving the fantastic writing into a thoroughly captivating experience.
The Brick Slayer provides us with an in-depth study of a series of home invasions and killings that transpired in Los Angeles and Chicago in the late 1930s. The title comes from the killer, Robert Nixon, using bricks to incapacitate the victims. As interesting as the crime details might be, the vastly more interesting component of this particular narrative is the focus on the trial and the socioeconomic elements that contributed to the conditions of Robert Nixon’s life. It’s fascinating to think that Richard Wright’s Native Son was largely inspired by the circumstances surrounding Robert Nixon’s admittedly reprehensible acts and the reaction of those in law enforcement and the media to such horrific crimes committed by a young African American man. The barely suppressed racism of 1930s America seemed to be on full display throughout the investigation and subsequent trial, but it’s the more subtle and insidious racism of American culture that may very well have set Nixon down the path he ultimately found himself traveling. Schechter’s insightful case studies are always profoundly interesting, but this one perhaps more so than many others, simply because of the tangential aspects of the society and culture at large during the years when these things took place. Steven Weber’s narration is superb and well-suited to the Style of Schechter’s writing.
Harold Schechter’s The Pied Piper tells the sordid tale of Charles ‘Smitty’ Schmid, Jr., The Pied Piper of Tuscon. A strange, diminutive man, Schmid developed a carefully crafted bad boy image and a demeanor reminiscent of Elvis Presley that aided him in drawing attention and devotion from other loners and outcasts. With the assistance of two of these friends circling in his orbit, Schmid committed his first murder in 1964. He didn’t stop there, murdering two sisters only a little over a year later. Bragging about these killings whenever the occasion arose, he displayed neither shame nor remorse over what he’d done. Schechter’s portrayal of Schmid and his friends is less than flattering, though much of what he shares seems to be descriptions of these people from either Schmid himself or others in his circle or involved with the case. It’s interesting to see so much detail packed into such a short narrative, and it was fascinating to learn more about one of the lesser-known serial killers from the annals of American criminal history. Steven Weber provides terrific narration, proving again to be articulate and eloquent in his delivery of the story.
Little Slaughterhouse On the Prairie shares the story of the Bender family, contemporaries of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family in Kansas during the late 1800s. A family of serial killers operating an inn in the remote, seemingly endless fields and plains of Kansas, the Benders were responsible for an unknown number of missing persons. Like something out of the fictional Splatter Western tales published by Death’s Head Press, the Benders were a monstrous family. Inviting guests into their inn for dinner and sleeping accommodations, those guests would frequently be greeted with a sledgehammer to the head before being further mutilated, robbed, and disposed of on their sprawling homestead. Men, women, and children alike fell victim to the predations of the Bender clan. The mystery of where the Benders disappeared, and what might have happened to them as they evaded justice was the primary focus of this narrative. Unfortunately, Schechter doesn’t seem to have any answers, even after all of his research. Ultimately, we’re left with more questions as multiple theories are proposed, some more appealing than others. Steven Weber’s narration is, again, fantastic. His delivery of these gruesome, historical details is satisfying and articulate.
After disappointing documentaries focused on Richard Ramirez and the Elisa Lam disappearance at the Cecil Hotel, I was hesitant to sit down for another Netflix true-crime documentary. I’m pleased to say The Ripper more than makes up for the frustration of those other two recent documentary series from the streaming service. Gone is the transparent, painful hero-worship of the police involved in the investigation I found so agonizing to sit through during the Ramirez documentary. Similarly missing is the fixation on incompetent, repeatedly detrimental “contributions” from amateur sleuths in the Cecil Hotel documentary. What we’re left with is a straightforward documentary about the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, the appropriately named Yorkshire Ripper, and the difficulties plaguing those attempting to investigate the crimes (difficulties often produced or amplified by the investigators involved). The most interesting aspect of this documentary is that it showcases just how awful the people leading the investigation were at their jobs. The Yorkshire Ripper title applied to the unknown killer seemed to have intensified a series of biases held by these men, nudging them down dead ends and imaginary lines of inquiry. In the minds of those in charge, this man was simply another prostitute killer like the Whitechapel ripper of a century before…even though there was little to no evidence supporting numerous early victims being associated with prostitution at all…beyond the assertions of the investigators speaking to the press. Latent and widespread misogyny, refusal to look beyond anything that fit a pet theory, and fixation on letters and tapes supplied by someone wasting their time directly and unambiguously led to more murders being committed by Sutcliffe than he would have successfully committed if they’d simply worked with the facts they had in front of them rather than distorting their perception of the facts to fit the preconceived notion of who the killer was and why he was committing these terrible atrocities. It’s fascinating to see this investigation from the outside, in retrospect, because there’s no reason the case couldn’t have been closed years earlier than it ultimately was. Sutcliffe had been interviewed by investigators a total of nine times during the investigation and one of the cops involved was concerned at just how well Sutcliffe matched a sketch of the assailant from one of the attempted murders. Instead, his superiors ignored his report because there was a single-minded fixation on a certain accent the killer was expected to speak with. Where the Ramirez documentary spent so much time praising the superstar detectives involved in bringing The Night Stalker to justice, The Ripper spends a lot of time following the case only to finally display just how botched and bungled the investigation was when they finally had their man in custody. It was a matter of a good cop acting on a hunch–a cop who was not associated with the investigation–that brought Sutcliffe to justice. This one is worth watching. It delves into the lifestyles and living conditions of post-industrial England and the underlying conditions that made it not only possible but perhaps even easy, for Sutcliffe to perpetrate the crimes he committed. Similarly, it provides a fantastic argument against linkage-blindness and confirmation bias in these sorts of investigations.
Normally, when I’m reviewing an audiobook, I wait until the end to comment on the quality of the narration. I have to make an exception here. Mikael Naramore’s narration of Vronsky’s fantastic history of serial killing is perhaps the most perfect match-up I’ve ever witnessed in an audiobook. The most important element is that he so perfectly captures the wry, often sardonic humor of the author. I was disappointed to see that Naramore didn’t further narrate other titles from Vronsky, because there’s no chance in my mind of another narrator embracing and conveying the strange blend of casual discourse and in-depth history lesson to be found in all of Vronsky’s texts. I’ll surely give the other audiobooks a chance, as my significant other and I listen to these while we’re out adventuring, but I feel a sense of disenchantment in advance that is unfair to the other narrators who’ve worked on Vronsky’s books. Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present is a mouthful of a title, to be sure, but it’s a fitting title for such a densely packed deep dive into the history of serial killers throughout recorded civilization. Spending a period focusing on the development of the triune brain, as proposed by evolutionary neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean in the 1960s (which, while oversimplified based on our current knowledge, is still a rather useful tool for understanding the way our brains work and how they sometimes malfunction), Vronsky discusses the four Fs that defined the existence of early man (and still define the existence of most life as we know it). Feeding, Fucking, Fighting, and Fleeing are still the core behavioral motivators underlying our daily lives, but with trappings of civility and leisure tossed into the mix. There’s some analysis of why and how homo sapien became the dominant hominid and the potential role of necrophobia in that success. There’s surely some strong argument in opposition to his theories and hypotheses regarding how and why early man survived while other competing branches of the same evolutionary tree did not, but none of them are any more likely to be valid or accurate. It’s all conjecture and educated guesswork when we’re talking about things like that. From there, we move on to the meat of the book, detailing early records of “lycanthrope” lust murders from early history, evaluating these past instances through the lens of the present, and applying our current understanding to these things. It’s truly fascinating and well worth the time, reading or (in my case) listening to Vronsky’s meticulous considerations of mass murder cases from centuries ago. Arguably, the most rewarding aspect of this book is the author’s discussion of Diabolus In Cultura, the combination of cultural factors and arrangements that contributed to the growing numbers of serial killers and the periods wherein we’ve experienced surges of what we would classify as modern serial killers. It’s never one thing, isolated from other elements, but rather a concatenation of sorts that produces a surge of individuals prone to that sort of behavior. Fair warning, as the end of the book approaches, and Vronsky is discussing the “Golden Age of Serial Killers” here in America, spanning from the mid-1960s through the 1990s, there are some rather long lists involved. They can become more than a little tedious but are essential to capturing a full understanding of what he’s trying to convey. That was the one section of this book where I’d have preferred to be reading rather than listening to the narration.