As we all know, its no secret that I love horror stories. It started out with me being addicted to The Scary Stories books as a kid, along with books by RL Stine and Christopher Pike. Then I graduated to Stephen King (I think I was reading a King book a week there for a bit, could not get enough of him). Then I was off King for a bit, but got introduced to the awesomeness of HP Lovecraft. And then back to King again in my mid twenties, where I could finally appreciate the nuances I missed as a kid. So it goes, as they say.
But recently I have had the pleasure of being introduced to Michaelbrent Collings. It takes a lot for a writer of to impress me these days since a lot of what I have read is either too predictable or is a bad knockoff of some guy with the initials SK…
But this is not the case with Michaelbrent Collings. Collings is a breath of fresh air. I have now read a few of his works, and I am impressed. I do see some striking similarities to certain other writers in Collings’ work, but make no mistake about it. Collings’ style is distinct and uniquely his. I was reminded of this once again, after reading Twisted, his latest work.
Twisted is a modern ghost story. There are some Gothic elements, but the story is squarely set in 2014 and in an unnamed suburb, close to a major city. The bad economy is mentioned, along with the financial strain experienced by a young family struggling to provide for their children. These elements add a layer of credibility to the horror part of the story.
The story centers around Blake, his wife Alyssa, their school age son Mal and infant daughter Ruthie. The story begins with the birth of Ruthie. Ruthie is born with a rare birth defect, which places stress on the family. We also learn that Blake is a self-employed architect, but his business has taken a nosedive, which places even more stress on the family, as the bills continue to pile up, adding even more to a stressful situation. Blake is a loving father and husband, but is also troubled, as he suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of his father, and was forced to commit unspeakable acts to survive.
To make matters worse, one night Mal’s room becomes infested by centipedes. Mal becomes trapped in his room by the pests, but Blake is able to rescue his son, and the family takes refuge in the living room for the night. Blake does not escape without any battle scars, however, as the centipedes attack him, leaving ugly bites on his feet and legs. The next morning, the family calls upon the services of a pest control service that they really cannot afford, and also escapes the house for a few days while it is being fumigated. The family finds a house to rent for a few days, and attempts to settle into their temporary home with the horrific memory of the centipede attack still fresh in their minds.
When the family moves into their temporary dwelling, things begin to get odd. A courier named Ralph delivers a package to Blake, but runs screaming from the house once the package is dropped off. We learn that Ralph is cursed with the ability to see spirits. The spirits do not usually bother him and are more of a nuisance than anything. They do not even look him in the eye most of the time. However, once Ralph encounters Blake and his family, this changes. The ghosts slowly become more menacing and are able to manifest themselves in more troubling ways.
Alyssa and Blake find some interesting artifacts in the rental house. One is a music box that seems to have a mind of its own. Another is a photo album of children from another century. However, this is not an artifact worthy of a program on the History channel. Rather, it is an abomination, as it contains pictures of children that died in a gruesome manner. Objects also appear and disappear. The strangeness reaches its peak when all of the telephones in the house begin to ring, with no explanation. While Blake and Alyssa do not necessarily believe in the supernatural, they become frightened and leave the house, spending the night in a cheap motel.
Things settle down a bit once the family arrives at the motel, but not all is well. Blake has been having flashbacks to his horrible childhood. Alyssa has what is later determined to be a vision of Blake hitting her. However, she wakes up with not a mark on her, and begins to question her sanity, along with the well being of her family.
Finally, Blake, Alyssa and their children are able to return to their home. The fumigation has been successful. However, all is not well. Alyssa receives a threatening note in her mailbox from someone or something, letting her know that she will never be left alone. Blake continues to have flashbacks to his horrible childhood. The scary events reach their apex when Mal sees a ghost who happens to be a child who died a gruesome death. Blake is then overtaken by the spirits, and seeks to do harm to his family. Ralph the courier then appears again, and Alyssa flees the house with her, as her family has been possessed by the spirits that haunt the house.
Ralph then takes Alyssa to a graveyard, as that is (ironically) one of the few spots where spirits do not bother him. He then uses a scrabble game as a kind of Ouija board, so that Alyssa may gain information on what is haunting her family. She learns that her house belonged to a 19th photographer by the name of Matthew Hollis Sr, who resided there with his son, Matthew Jr. However, she also learns that Matthew was a special kind of photographer. In fact, Matthew was a gruesome photographer. Matthew killed children and then photographed them, getting a sick kind of thrill from this. Matthew first killed his wife, and then his son Matthew Jr, in order to keep them quiet. Matthew Sr was then killed by the parents of his victims, in a manner similar to Freddy Krueger from Nightmare on Elm Street. Alyssa learns that the house is haunted by both father and son, and that Blake has been possessed by Matthew Sr. Blake’s memories of his abusive father and horrible childhood make him vulnerable to the evil spirit of Matthew Hollis Sr.
Ralph tells Alyssa that spirits can either be dispatched by giving them a funeral and paying them respects, or by burning the remains. Since Matthew Hollis Sr was an evil man, it becomes clear that the only way to dispatch his spirit is by destroying his remains. Alyssa heads back to her home to complete this task and save her family. Ralph remains behind, but he questions his courage. It is also revealed that Ralph was a victim childhood abuse himself, and his mother is also deceased.
Alyssa heads back to her home and finds her son Mal and Ruthie there. She sends Mal along with Ruthie to the safety of the neighbors. Mal appears frightened and goes willingly, eager to protect his little sister.
Alyssa then searches the closet in Mal’s room for the remains of Matthew Hollis Sr. She finds the remains, along with her husband Blake, whose body has been completely possessed by the spirit of the evil man. Alyssa also finds the skeleton of the man, and fights to bring his remains back to the house. She is successful and sets fire to the remains. Since the house was recently treated for insects, trace amounts of the pesticides remain. The house catches fire, but Alyssa is able to escape with Blake, who is no longer possessed. Alyssa remembers that the spirit of Matthew Jr also haunted the house, but assumes that his spirit was trying to warn them of his father and was therefore a benevolent spirit.
Blake and Alyssa are then reunited with Mal and share a tearful family moment. All is presumed to be well. However, that is extremely far from the truth. It is revealed that no spirit ever had any good intentions. Consequently, Blake, Alyssa, Mal, baby Ruthie and even Ralph the cursed courier are then swallowed up by the evil, with no salvation in sight.
I have so many thoughts about this book, and trying to articulate them will be tough, but I will attempt to do so anyway.
First of all, I really did enjoy this book. The action starts almost from the beginning and gets the adrenaline pumping. I do enjoy slow burns, but I also appreciate the quick start that leaves one on the edge of his/her seat right from the beginning. I was frightened from the first few pages of the book, which is not something that happens very often.
And then there is the imagery in this book. In particular, the centipedes. Collings not only had them invade a little boy’s bedroom, but he also gave us detailed descriptions of the bites on Blake’s leg. This was some wonderfully gruesome, stomach churning imagery, and Collings pulled it off perfectly.
As mentioned before, there was also what I consider to be some Gothic imagery in this book. In particular, a music box that will not turn off is mentioned frequently. This was another effective image, as there is something unsettling about old fashioned music boxes (I hate them, personally) and it worked very in setting the mood for the book.
We are never given a lot of info about the main characters in the book (Blake and his family, Ralph or even Matthew Hollis Sr) but they are effective characters. In particular, Collings’ description of the problems that Ruthie the baby suffers from are poignant. The family’s financial situation is also something many people can relate to, given the state of the economy in recent years. As stated before, these situations add another element of realism to the story and also make us root for the characters’ survival.
Another element of this story that caught my attention was the focus on family and the survivors of abuse. We are actually shown three different families: Blake’s family, the Hollis family and glimpses of Ralph’s relationship with his mother. All three are very dysfunctional. Blake is a good husband and father, but suffered horrible abuse at the hands of his father. Matthew Hollis Sr was a serial killer masquerading as a photographer who killed his wife and son so that his secrets would not be told. Ralph was also abused by his mother, who forced him to get tattoos as a child. Blake is also fearful that he will repeat his father’s sins, in a manner similar to the discussion in the essay Lime Twigs and Treachery by Henry Miller. Again, this detail on all of these family situations provided yet another element of the realistic in this book.
The ending to this book is one of the darkest, bleakest and dare I say twisted endings I have ever encountered in any book. In other words, this ending was fabulous. Collings really had me fooled the last few pages of the book. I thought that for once, that the good people would win and triumph over evil. But Collings went for the jugular and crushed that hope fairly quickly. This was an ending that made me gasp when I put down the book. This ending was also a great reminder. As children, we are taught that the good guys are the ones that win. We expect the monsters to be bested. We expect that anyone abused as a child will learn and never inflict that kind of pain upon their own loved ones, despite the statistics that show a correlation otherwise. There is no room in our world for the harming of innocents, especially infants that are only days old. However, in the real world, things do not always work out so nicely. Often, people succumb to their demons. Good guys lose far more often than we would like to admit. Good people get trapped in past cycles are unable to escape. Michaelbrent Collings, in his book Twisted, uses 19th century serial killers, nasty centipedes and an innocent baby to drive this point home to us and remind us that evil is alive and well, and might just be waiting for us around the corner.