Keely's Review of HUG CHICKENPENNY by S. Craig Zahler
Hug Chickenpenny is one of the most surprising books that I have read this year. When I opened the Night Worms July 2019 subscription package, I was rather indifferent to this one. The cover art is incredible but, I had no idea who the author was, and the title did not strike an immediate chord with me.
I am constantly months, sometimes years, behind everyone else when it comes to reading what has just been released. Sure, I scoop up new releases from authors that I love or releases that are “highly anticipated” but, they end up sitting for a while. They are forced to wait for their turn. I picked up Hug Chickenpenny with the intention of reading a novel that I had not already seen 5,000 reviews floating around for and I am SO glad that I did.
This story is about an orphan named Hug. Just as the title suggests, his appearance and entire anatomy as a human is rather anomalous. In fact, as I was reading brief descriptions of his appearance here and there throughout the story, it was hard to believe that a person could even survive such defects. As if looking wildly different from all your peers when you’re a child isn’t traumatic enough, this little guy is playing with the worst possible deck of cards from the moment of his birth.
Hug is placed in an orphanage immediately after his birth. He is subjected to a vile woman who eventually becomes the headmistress and at some point, falls under the supervision of a teratologist, Dr. Hannersby. What is Teratology? If you Google this area of expertise, you will find two definitions. For the purpose of this story, we’re going with the second definition, this doctor studies weird organisms. Not only does this doctor study them, but he also collects them. Normally, I find it very distracting when younger children’s narratives are clearly well beyond what they should be just to appeal to an adult audience. While not entirely believable in this case, it somehow did not bother me that Hug’s vocabulary at such a young age was outstanding. He spent a portion of his young life with a man that seemed to enjoy using language that confuses everyone around him. When you read the chapters with Dr. Hannersby in them, you will absolutely need a dictionary.
Hug’s luck flip flops back and forth. His whole life isn’t miserable but to the reader, the universe always seems to find a way to give him the short end of the stick. This story was heart-warming. Not in a basket of puppies or long-lost love found sort of way. This child has every reason in the world to explore the diversity of every four-letter expletive known to man in moments of frustration yet, his catchphrase is “darn it”. It’s heart-warming in that sort of way.
While this is not the horror fiction that I love, this story was such a breath of fresh air. Zahler does an incredible job of weaving heavy topics into this story without making them feel overwhelming. It’s dark and it will pull your heartstrings in both directions.
*Editor's Note: Ashley and I had 2 FANGORIA titles we wanted to buy for our FANGORIA anniversary package: Our Lady of the Inferno by Preston Fassel or Carnivorous Lunar Activites by Max Booth III. FANGORIA was running out of both books and wouldn't commit to printing all the books we needed for the package and asked us to choose between two other books from their line-up that we never heard of before--we're glad we chose Hug Chickenpenny. We've only heard amazing things. -Sadie
Kallie's Review of A SICK GRAY LAUGH by Nicole Cushing
Noelle Cashman’s paranoid psychosis and depression have gone into remission. She sought out help from a doctor after she finally had had enough. The only issue? How can she keep up with writing her dark and hopeless books if she is no longer dark and hopeless? Staring out the window of her office, she realizes that her small Indiana town is dreadfully gray. Not just the weather. She sees a gray snotty film over everything that everyone around her seems to not notice. A Sick Gray Laugh follows Noelle as she tries to find the cause of the Gray she sees everywhere. The Gray that is threatening to swallow her whole and never let her out.
Okay, I normally do not like to start with my star ratings. I like to give my reasoning first. But this book is a special case. I am giving this book three stars. Three even stars. No half or quartered stars that need rounded up. Usually, when I give a book three stars, I will not recommend it. But here’s the thing, upon reflecting on A Sick Gray Laugh, I’m NOT changing my star rating, but I AM recommending it. I know that sounds weird but just let me build my case before you exit out of this page.
There are three parts to this book and for what I’m trying to get across to you to make sense, we have to talk about them out of order. The second part is seriously tough to get through. It’s basically a dull history lesson of Naumpton, Indiana. Now, I like a history lesson as much as the next person, but for it to skip from what we were reading in part one to this study of the town, it just made part two feel that much duller. I usually read a book this size in about two days. But this one took me over a week because that middle part really just took so much will to pick up reading again. You can’t skip it as it is crucial to understanding a good bit of the third part of the book. And the second part is completing what the entire first part talks about. You have to get through it. You just have to push yourself through that part because the rest of the book is wonderful.
Part one had me hooked immediately. I live in Ohio, so when Noelle talks about this Gray that covers everything and makes things dull, I could kind of understand. Part one had such a neat premise and the really intriguing idea of using epidemiological strategies to find the source of this Gray that is consuming the town. Those strategies are finally put to use in part two, but you already know how I feel about that. Part one also makes you grow really attached to Noelle. Most people have had, or know someone who has had depression. So when she talks about her symptoms and wanting to get better, I really connected to her. I was happy that she decided to try to get help. I was so ecstatic that she started to rejoin her life, just as I would be for any of my friends that wanted to seek help for their depression. Noelle is an interesting character with a lot of depth and I really liked her.
Part three starts and even Noelle tells us about how part two is anticlimactic. But she also says what I told you earlier. That you need part two for this book to be complete. We then follow her down a path of absolute madness as she tries to figure out the cure for the GRAY. I liked part three the most because, IT. GETS. CRA-ZAY. There isn’t much more I can say about part three without spoiling the book, so I’ll leave it at that. The writing in this book is engaging. The whole book is from our unreliable narrator and it often feels like an authorial intrusion. Noelle is constantly asking us questions. When she goes into her CDC style hunt for patient one of the Gray, she tells us that she wants to sound smarter and wants to use bigger words to make this search seem more formal. I loved it. I loved the way the narrator talks to the reader like a friend and confidant.
This book, to me, teeters on the line of being horror or not. I know there will be some people who pick this up and don’t feel that it’s a horror and just a work of fiction. And there are some who will pick it up think it’s the greatest horror that they have ever read. I like to lean toward it being a heavily psychologically focused horror. So you may be asking, “But Kallie, this sounds like a pretty good review. Why did you put such an emphasis on the whole three-star thing in the beginning?” Well, it’s because of part two. I appreciate that the book acknowledges that the second part is anticlimactic and there is no build-up or tension. It is written out in black and white that part two is just a series of facts. But, for how well the rest of the book is written, I feel like just telling us that that part is boring, is one big cop-out. Parts one and three were great, but they did not at all makeup for part two. Yes, I know it had to be there for the rest of the story to make sense. But it is so dull compared to the rest of the book. It just could have been done better.
So, yes. A Sick Gray Laugh is still getting three stars from me. The good just didn’t make up for the bad in my rating of the book. I can’t, in good faith, give it any more stars as a reviewer. It deserves three stars. Part two oozed out those two would-be stars when it was giving a history lesson at a snail's pace. I am still recommending this book to anyone who has an appreciation for the type of horror that is slow and creeping and will make you question your own sanity and the sanity of those around you. Just power through part two before it feels like the Gray has gotten hold of you.