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Worlds Without End Blog

The Horror! The Horror! – Tom Piccirilli Posted at 3:09 AM by Charles Dee Mitchell


Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. In this series Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog for more genre goodness.

Tom PiccirilliThe less Tom Piccirilli encumbers his novels with plot, the better they are. At least that has been the case in his five early horror novels I have read: Hexes (1999), The Deceased (2000), The Night Class (2001), A Choir of Ill Children (2004) and, Headstone City (2006). The novels are by no means short of grotesque and often unpleasant incidents. But Piccirilli works by accumulation not by character arcs and interwoven themes. His theme is consistently that of a young man, in his late twenties or thirties, who must come to accept his role in society, whether it is the gangland of Brooklyn or a backwater town somewhere in the American South. But the novels are not traditional bildungsromans. This is not in the world of David Copperfield or Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. These are nightmares.

Headstone SityDemonic evil, ghosts, astral projections, some handy knowledge of witchcraft, and alternate realities are daily issues for Piccirilli’s protagonists. In Headstone City, Johnny Danetello endures frequent visitations from the dead, ranging from the girl he could not save from an overdose to his mother to "the boy with the damaged head." Caleb Prentiss, an alcoholic upperclassman at a small, snowbound Midwestern university, wants to find out more about the girl murdered in his dorm room over winter break. He is often accompanied by his sister who committed suicide; and, when he receives the unasked-for blessing of the stigmata in both palms, he leaves bloody paths across the snowy campus. Thomas, the central character of A Choir of Ill Children has too many issues to go into here, but one involves the care of his brothers, triplets conjoined at the frontal lobe.

A Choir of Ill ChildrenPiccirilli’s locales are sharply observed locations that could exist nowhere but in his novels. In addition to the snowbound campus in The Night Class and the swampy town of Kingdom Come in A Choir of Ill Children, Piccirilli delineates in Hexes the town of Summerfel – Summerfell! – a small town dominated by an asylum named Panecraft, a lighthouse undermined by tunnels containing some unspeakable horror, a local hangout called Krunch Burger, and a rich man’s house that is more like a castle than a mansion. If you don’t like things in Summerfel, you can always move the next town over to Gallows. Headstone City takes place in an imaginary neighborhood of an otherwise identifiable Brooklyn, a neighborhood where the decaying mansions of stars from the earliest days of silent film surround the enormous cemetery of the title. The neighborhood is still run by some goonish gangsters who have mostly moved their money into legit businesses but who still, guided by a misplaced enthusiasm for their once glorious past, enact the occasional bloody vendetta against one another.

The Night ClassSeveral internet customer reviews complain that these books make no sense, but I think those readers are looking for the wrong things. Like a coherent plot. Piccirilli is a lot of fun to read. There is always that central character who knows a bit more than those around him; whether it is more effective magical spells or just that so much of what is going on is bullshit. When Piccirilli brings more plotting into the mix, things tend to go wrong. The Deceased turns into little more that a pretty good horror movie, with girls, who I assume have large breasts, running around an old house during a thunderstorm. The gangster story that runs through Headstone City is not as resolved or effective as the weirdness that underlies it.

But these books are just the kind of fun I hoped modern horror novels could offer. They are literate, amusing, at times really icky, and never slow down. I understand that Piccirilli’s recent novels are more straightforward crime stories, so I hope he has worked out those plotting issues. On the off chance that anyone reading this might actually pick up a Piccirilli novel, I recommend starting with the best, A Choir of Ill Children. If nothing else, you will learn a really interesting new use of the word "vinegar."


Engelbrecht   |   06 Jul 2012 @ 04:40

Charles, I’ve been following and enjoying your Horror series! I’m glad you found a winner this time – Piccirilli sounds like someone whom I’d like. In fact, I’ve had his A Choir of Ill Children and A Lower Deep on my to-read shelf for years now, maybe now I’ll feel motivated to actually get to him! I share your low opinion of Ramsey Campbell (from your previous horror post), but there are plenty of interesting and literate alternatives out there. Who are you reading next?

Charles Dee Mitchell   |   06 Jul 2012 @ 15:44

On Potato Weather I have already written about Richard Matheson and Kathe Koja. Koja is an interesting discovery, now known for YA fiction. Coming up is Joe McKinney, who just won the Stoker award for a zombie novel called Flesh Eaters. What’s the deal with Zombies? Definitely read Choir of Ill Children by Piccirilli. I also have A Lower Deep on the shelf, as well as some of his newer mysteries, but have not gotten around to them.

Wilma   |   13 Jul 2012 @ 02:46

Zombies supposedly are symbols of revenge, adolescent angst, puritanism, sexual excess, frustrated ambition, the desire for immortality, consumerism, scientific irresponsibility and suburban stress. It is hard to find a decent read in this sub-genre that doesn’t regurgitate the already repetitiveness of what has gone before. Much like the overexposure and flood of vampire books. For cretins that shun sunlight, it’s ironic how they hog the spotlight. I want a good zombie story to have some kind of twist, something that sets it apart from the classic ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ I recently found Brian Keene’s ‘The Rising’ and David Wellington’s ‘Monster Island’ decent reads. If you’re interested in comics, perhaps ‘The Walking Dead’ series might hold an attraction. It’s a good story with stunning artwork by Tom Moore of Marvel’s Ghostrider and Punisher. ‘Pride & Prejudice & Zombies’ is also different. Back to topic: the novels ‘Hexes’ and ‘Choir’ are both superior to his award winning ‘Night Class.’

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