Blood and suspense fill the pages of new works

The problem with being a hero is that you have to lose everything first, then sacrifice everything you have left. Park ranger Richard Sundstrum is that hero in Scott Johnson’s “Ungeheuer,” due out in April.

During a prolonged drought in central Texas, four young cavers find an underwater cave entrance in the river and inadvertently release…something. At the same time, Richard and his young son are camping by the river just two weeks after Richard’s wife died.

The couple’s trip is cut short when Richard is called in to help investigate an “animal attack” that killed all the staff and diners at the Grist Mill restaurant. What follows is a grueling marathon of violence, gore, and death for the characters as well as the reader.

What sets this novel apart from other blood fests is the structural complexity. Although the third-person narration gives us a relatively objective overview of the massacre, Johnson alternates perspectives between the main characters. He often uses a sound effect to signal to the reader that the action rewinds a few minutes and begins from another character’s point of view.

The gruesome and heart-pounding action will appeal to fans of the horror genre. However, the central Texas setting and settings, suspense, and a few surprises will appeal to all readers.

Those who prefer ghosts to monsters will enjoy Isabel Cañas’ “The Hacienda,” which premieres May 3. Although it has been compared to Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, it is closer to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 “Mexican Gothic”.

Beatriz marries the young and handsome widower Rodolfo to escape poverty and the cooking of her cruel tia. She moves into her hacienda on a remote maguey plantation and soon discovers that no one else wants to live in the house, and in fact, the house doesn’t want Beatriz either.

Young Padre Andrés tries to help Beatriz “cure” the house of strange voices and apparitions, but must hide his native powers from the Inquisition and his fellow priests. He also has to hide his feelings for Beatriz.

This title was a fun and chilling read that transports the reader to 1820s Mexico, just after the revolution and subsequent social unrest. Beatriz and Andrés each narrate chapters alternately, including Andrés’ flashbacks to his youth and why he was banished from the hacienda by Rodolfo’s first wife.

Colson Whitehead’s latest episode, “Harlem Shuffle,” isn’t a hero’s journey and doesn’t offer anything supernatural, but it does have plenty of suspense and not a bit of bloodshed.

Furniture dealer Ray Carney isn’t twisted; he’s just leaning a bit in a city where anyone who doesn’t probably isn’t breathing. Carney is satisfied with his sideline in radios and televisions that have fallen off trucks, and occasionally a strange gem, when his cousin Freddie implicates him in a hotel heist.

The heist puts Carney on the radar of the local mob as well as the “bent” local detective. Shortly after Carney settles back into his old routine, he gets scammed by a Harlem banker, which of course forces Carney to exact revenge, just like his con man father would have done.

Whitehead approaches Carney with more than a little humor. When a “colleague” sends another con man who has come to pick them up, Carney rolls the body up in a “luxury Moroccan rug” and delivers it to the local junkyard. Near the end of the novel, when he and the co-worker go to ransom Cousin Freddie, the mob attorney overseeing the “deal” is seated in an office furnished with “Templeton’s new office drop line”.

Whitehead’s graceful prose captures 1950s and 1960s Harlem: “That first heat wave of the year was a rehearsal for the summer to come. Everyone a little rusty but it came back, their parts in the symphony and assigned solos. Around the corner, two white cops sealed the fire hydrant while swearing. The kids had been running in and out of the spray for days” (p 21).

The novel traces mid-20th century changes to New York City and its skyline as well as Carney’s maturity from petty fence to spiteful criminal to lightly stooping businessman. It is a fun and rewarding read.

The conversation

If you have a recommendation, question, want to add to the conversation, or read more reviews, please visit my blog at ByTheBookBTX.blogspot.com or email [email protected]

Bennett is a retired English and journalism teacher. She sits on the board of the Bastrop Public Library.

Calvin W. Soper