Over the years, I’ve read what may amount to hundreds of strange, eerie, and downright scary short stories. Poe, Bierce, E.F. Benson, Robert Aickman, Stephen King, M. R. James, Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman… when they’re done well, I love them. So when I saw Eva’s enthusiastic review of John Connolly’s collection, Nocturnes, several years back, I added it to my TBR list.

The collection is fairly long — fourteen stories and a novella — and I found it a bit hit or miss. All of the tales were fairly well-written, but some of them were spine-chilling and original, while others were mere pastiches, and one of them was way, way over the top, past scary or disturbing into disgusting and distressing. (Naturally, your mileage may vary, and as Stephen King has said, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”)

For me, the worst story, the one I just referenced, was the first: “The Cancer Cowboy Rides.” It’s about an entity that can transmit fast-growing terminal cancer by touch. It had the feel of a particularly nasty Stephen King story to it, but less heart, and with that introduction to the volume, I struggled with continuing. However, the best stories were worth it: “Miss Froom, Vampire,” the only story with even the faintest tinge of humor to it, and “The New Daughter,” a genuinely frightening story about a man who has something ancient and alive in the burial mound in his back yard — something that is insidiously attacking his children.

There were several stories in the collection that were obvious homages to M.R. James (“The Shifting Sands”) and Lovecraft (“The Wakeford Abyss”) and Benson (“The Inkpot Monkey”). Those were fun to read: it was a bit like playing a spooky version of Authors.

As I read (I am a diligent reader of short stories, and always read straight through from beginning to end), I saw a couple of troubling patterns emerge. First was that, out of the fifteen stories here, seven of them deal in some way with the abuse, torture, or murder of children. This reminded me of the open letter to Peter Straub I wrote a while back. I get it, I really do: the mistreatment of children is the most horrible thing we can imagine. But after a while, it becomes your one-trick pony.

The other pattern I saw (and I don’t want to harp on this, I really don’t — I read the entire book hoping to find something to use as a counterexample) is that, with the exception of the established wife of the main character in the novella — someone he has written about before and will again — there is not a single positive female character in any of the stories. There are hatchet-faced bitches, there are stupid women, there are fat women, there are nasty unpleasant ex-convicts, there are female demons and monsters and succubi and vampires and witches, and there are daughters who want to kill sons, but there are no point-of-view women and not a single pleasant reliable woman in sight. I will say that some 19th-century horror writers perform similar tricks, but this book was written in 2005.

So. Hit or miss, for me. Has anyone read any of his other books, in order to give them a recommendation?

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18 Responses to Nocturnes

  1. Lisa says:

    Not to recommend, no. On the enthusiastic advice of the staff at my favorite indie bookstore, I bought Connolly’s The Gates. The first couple of chapters seemed such a pale pastiche of Terry Pratchett’s books that I wondered if it was deliberate – but either way it wasn’t something I was interested in reading.

    • Jenny says:

      He does seem to enjoy pastiche, as I said. I don’t see anything wrong with that if it’s a good pastiche (not parody), and some 19th-century horror writers are ripe for that. But I’d like to read a fresh take on things, honestly, like Kelly Link or Elizabeth Hand.

  2. joyofbooking says:

    I haven’t read his short stories, but I loved The Book of Lost Things. It’s dark and creepy and heartwarming at the same time.

  3. Hrm — not my speed although the King quote you shared cracked me up!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, isn’t he funny? I love King. That quotation’s from Danse Macabre, his nonfiction book about the horror genre.

  4. Kristen M. says:

    Felt EXACTLY the same about this collection as you did — very hit or miss. The cancer story was THE WORST. But I loved The Book of Lost Things even though it is sad and creepy and The Gates is absolutely hilarious (and has a kid protagonist who is awesome) so I was surprised by this collection. I would say to give one of the other books a try. I haven’t read any of his crime novels but I wasn’t a big fan of the novella in Nocturnes so I didn’t see the point. I actually got rid of my copy of this one though it has one of my favorite book covers. :P

    • Jenny says:

      Kristen, I’m so glad you felt the same way about that cancer story (*shudder*). But thanks for the recommendation. I’ll probably put that on my list to try, because the stories that were good, were really pretty good.

  5. Eva says:

    You know, I read Nocturnes waaay back in 2007, and I suspect from what you mention that I wouldn’t be as enthusiastic about it now. I also loved Book of Lost Things, but I read it during the same time so I don’t know what I’d think of it five years later.

    • Eva says:

      It’s funny how much I’ve changed/evolved as a reader. It’s sometimes tempting for me to take down old posts that I probably wouldn’t agree with any more, but that seems like cheating. ;)

    • Jenny says:

      I know what you mean! When I read it, I thought you might change your mind at least a little if you read it again. But if we never changed or evolved as readers, that would be much sadder!

  6. nymeth says:

    I also really loved The Book of Lost Things (but like Eva I read it in 2007 and I’m not sure what I’d think of it now). I keep hearing mixed things about his other books, though, so I don”t know if he’s an author I want to try again.

    • Jenny says:

      I am not very excited about trying another book of his, but that’s mostly based on this one. I might try The Book of Lost Things if I stroll past it at the library. :)

  7. I’ve read and enjoyed The Book of Lost Things and I’ve had this one on my wishlist for a long time. However, I do have a problem with the continued abuse of children, and the lack of positive female characters is troubling.

    Thanks for the honest review!

    • Jenny says:

      It’s partly the lack of originality that troubles me, and I always have problems with people who can’t write well-rounded characters. But everyone has their own pressure points.

  8. I really loved The Book of Lost Things so I’ll probably check this one out.

  9. Lynn says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I love John Connolly and have read everything he’s written with the exception of The Gates. That’s on my TBR list. Like many of the people here, I thought The Book of Lost Things was terriffic and it has an ending that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Very touching. But I also love his Charlie Parker detective series. It’s an interesting mix of crime drama with a touch of the supernatural. As the books progress, the supernatural becomes more pronounced. There are two reoccurring characters in this series that I absolutely love, Angel and Louis, who have some very funny dialogue, which helps break up a little of the tension in the novels. Okay, so Louis was a hitman and Angel a thief, but they are very helpful friends to have in Parker’s line of work. And, like Dexter, they only use thier skills on very bad people. There is violence and a couple hardcore murder scenes not for the faint of heart. In the first of the series, Every Dead Thing, there is a particularly disturbing murder scene and, yes, a child is killed. Otherwise, I don’t remember child violence becoming a theme in his books like it does in Nocturnes. I also don’t think you’ll find many positive female characters in this series with the exception of Parker’s girlfriend, who is likeable, bright, intelligent, and practical, but, hey, at least there’s one!

    Bottom line, if you like Stephen King, you will probably like John Connolly. But, like King, Connolly is not too proud to occasionally go for the gross out. On the disturb-o-meter, I’d say Silence of the Lambs gets a higher score than Connolly. Start out by reading Every Dead Thing. If you don’t like it, you won’t like the rest of the series.

    Hope this helps.

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