Supernatural adventures for girls and women.

[reading] Review of BEAST OF BARCROFT by Bill Schweigart

Book: BEAST OF BARCROFT by Bill Schweigart (Amazon)
Genre: Adult paranormal horror
USA Release Date: currently available
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
Summary: Ben McKelvie believes he’s moving up in the world when he and his fiancée buy a house in the cushy Washington, D.C., suburb of Barcroft. Instead, he’s moving down—way down—thanks to Madeleine Roux, the crazy neighbor whose vermin-infested property is a permanent eyesore and looming hazard to public health.

First, Ben’s fiancée leaves him; then, his dog dies, apparently killed by a predator drawn into Barcroft by Madeleine’s noxious menagerie. But the worst is yet to come for Ben, for he’s not dealing with any ordinary wild animal. This killer is something much, much worse. Something that couldn’t possibly exist—in this world.

Now, as a devilish creature stalks the locals, Ben resolves to take action. With some grudging assistance from a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and the crackpot theories of a self-styled cryptozoologist, he discovers the sinister truth behind the attacks, but knowing the Beast of Barcroft and stopping it are two different animals.

Recommended?: No. I wish I could recommend it, because at times it is a super entertaining story, with a main male character who was a billion times less irritating than when I read and reviewed NORTHWOODS (which is actually the sequel). For a lot of this story, it is creepy and wonderful, and I absolutely adore the main female character, Lindsay Clark, who is an awesome lesbian zoologist.

And then the part of the book came that I was braced for: the introduction of the rich white cryptozoologist and his sidekick Indian. I knew this was coming, because Alex Standingcloud, who is during this book estranged from his Ojibwe family, plays a huge role in the second book, which is set, in part, on his reservation. I really like him in the second book, and the little we get to see of him here in the first, he’s just as great, but his whole purpose in the story is to show up as the Magical Indian: he’s there to bring information about Native American beliefs and lore, get hurt helping the white dude hero, and disappear off screen when his work is done. And that is such a tired old trope. So is the use of Native American beliefs to drive the horror.

JK Rowling was recently deeply criticized for her cultural appropriation of Native American beliefs, and a lot of what was said about that is applicable here, too. Dr. Adrienne Keene talks about this extensively at Native Appropriations: Magic in America Part 1: Ugh and Magic in North America: The Harry Potter Franchise Veers Too Close to Home.

So, this is where I’m going to perform what Audra Simpson calls an “ethnographic refusal,” “a calculus ethnography of what you need to know and what I refuse to write in.” In her work with her own community, she asks herself the questions: “what am I revealing here and why? Where will this get us? Who benefits from this and why?”

I had a long phone call with one of my friends/mentors today, who is Navajo, asking her about the concepts Rowling is drawing upon here, and discussing how to best talk about this in a culturally appropriate way that can help you (the reader, and maybe Rowling) understand the depths to the harm this causes, while not crossing boundaries and taboos of culture. What did I decide? That you don’t need to know. It’s not for you to know. I am performing a refusal.

What you do need to know is that the belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that. My own community also has shape-shifters, but I’m not delving into that either.

What happens when Rowling pulls this in, is we as Native people are now opened up to a barrage of questions about these beliefs and traditions (take a look at my twitter mentions if you don’t believe me)–but these are not things that need or should be discussed by outsiders. At all. I’m sorry if that seems “unfair,” but that’s how our cultures survive.

The other piece here is that Rowling is completely re-writing these traditions. Traditions that come from a particular context, place, understanding, and truth. These things are not “misunderstood wizards”. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

This is applicable beyond just Rowling’s work, and beyond skinwalkers. This is applicable here, to BEAST OF BARCROFT, and that Schweigart chose to take this path ruins an otherwise really fun and interesting book.

Things I loved: Lindsay Clark, bad ass curator at the National Zoo, lesbian, and all-around hero. Officer Stacy Cushing, bad ass officer and all-around hero. Great, tense scenes and a fast, interesting story. Good, engaging storytelling (except for that big giant problem).

Things I loathed: First character we meet is Manny Benavides, who is, I believe, a Hispanic man, an animal control office, kind and good at his job and well loved by his family — and who is immediately killed off so the white characters can take center stage. Obviously, the use of the Native American beliefs is a problem. Lots of low key sexism that is both pushed back against and supported by the text at the same time. And a huge amount of bullshit over the mental health crap and ableism throughout, particularly his belief, fully supported and encouraged by the text, that he needs to come off his depression meds in order to be really present in life and to be the hero. Which is seriously fucked up.

(Also, the damn dog dies in the first chapter. I hate when that happens.)

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[reading] Review of NORTHWOODS by Bill Schweigart

NORTHWOODS coverBook: NORTHWOODS by Bill Schweigart
Genre: Horror, though the publisher lists it as urban fantasy
Series: Second book, first is THE BEAST OF BARCROFT
USA Release Date: February 16, 2016
Source: Arc provided by the publisher, Hydra, via NetGalley
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Recommended?: Yes, with the caveat that for all its diverse characters, the presentation of the Ojibwe people and the use of Native American beliefs as monster-bait can be frustrating. The story is interesting, though, a fast-paced adventure with monsters and gore and a team-as-chosen-family that I really started to love by the end.

Note: Links to the books are Amazon affiliate links.

Summary:

Some borders should never be crossed. From the author of The Beast of Barcroft comes a waking nightmare of a horror novel that’s sure to thrill readers of Stephen King and Bentley Little.

Ex–Delta Force Davis Holland, now an agent for the Customs and Border Protection, has seen it all. But nothing in his experience has prepared him for what he and the local sheriff find one freezing night in the Minnesota woods.

Investigating reports of an illegal border crossing, the two men stumble across a blood-drenched scene of mass murder, barely escaping with their lives . . . and a single clue to the mayhem: a small wooden chest placed at the heart of the massacre. Something deadly has entered Holland’s territory, crossing the border from nightmare into reality.

When news of the atrocity reaches wealthy cryptozoologist Richard Severance, he sends a three-person team north to investigate. Not long ago, the members of that team—Ben McKelvie, Lindsay Clark, and Alex Standingcloud—were nearly killed by a vengeful shapeshifter. Now they are walking wounded, haunted by gruesome memories that make normal life impossible. But there is nothing normal about the horror that awaits in the Northwoods.

Review:

When I first saw NORTHWOODS on NetGalley, I was immediately drawn by that cover, which is both interesting enough to make me want to read the story, and a great throwback to the cheesy monster horror movies that I love. There’s a lot in the summary that appealed to me: a monster in the Minnesota woods, cryptozoology, a team previously formed in the hunt for a shapeshifter and now dealing with the trauma of that, and I was excited to have the chance to read it.

This is very much a plot-driven story – as you might expect from a book about monstrous murders in the deep winter woods — but Schweigart has also created some fine characters here. Though I haven’t read the first book in the series, THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, I had no trouble immersing myself in the story, in large part, I think, because it opens with a new character, Davis Holland. Davis is a Black man who has seen too much war both as Delta Force and as Customs and Border Protection, and he is my absolute favorite character in the book. He balances federal and local law enforcement politics well, mostly with ease, but when it comes back to bite him in the ass, he doesn’t let anything stop him from protecting his new home.

I was also very intrigued by Lindsay Clark and Alex Standingcloud, though less so by Ben McKelvie, who generally comes across as the standard straight white guy asshole protagonist readers are supposed to root for. Lindsay is a white lesbian, smart and sharp and shaken by what happened to them in the previous book; Alex has been mostly estranged from his Ojibwe family, particularly his father, until he has to recover from the events of THE BEAST OF BARCROFT. Now the monstrous has come home to roost, and Alex is struggling with his own identity while trying to figure out what is killing people around him. While all three are dealing with their trauma, it feels particularly real when Lindsay and Alex are alone in the woods and dealing with their trauma in different ways.

There are multiple monsters in NORTHWOODS, terrible, frightening, and wondrous, and watching these two teams – Davis and his friend, Sheriff Gil Ramsey, work together from the first chapter, and Lindsay, Alex, and Ben come into the story from a different angle – try to figure out what has gone wrong, and how to save the people in the local towns, intrigued me enough I read the book in one sitting. The descriptions are sparse, but it works with the pacing, and I liked blunt writing style quite a bit.

The part I had the hardest time with was the Ojibwe characters and the use of Native American lore for monsters, which also occurs in THE BEAST OF BARCROFT, as referenced in this book. It often comes across as appropriative, and I am leery of books written by white people that use Native American religious belief as actual real life monsters. I also thought John Standingcloud’s dialog was off in the pacing and word choices. (John is Alex’s father.) I’m not sure about the use of “Standingcloud” as their last name, either; all references I can find to it use “Standing Cloud,” and I can’t confirm it is usually an Ojibwe name. I can’t speak to whether the details are correct – there is quite a bit about Ojibwe burial rituals, for example – but generally they seem, to me, to be done with respect and not there for exploitation. However, the Red Cliff reservation is real, as is the Red Cliff Band, and there is no indication from the author that he worked with anyone from the reservation so as not to cause harm with his writing.

There is also a spoilery thing that happens which I found infuriating. I will put it at the end of the review, so you can skip it if you choose, but it is related to this concern.

Summary:

I enjoyed the hell out of the story, and I liked that the characters were so diverse, though at times, it felt like a surface diversity, with no real weight to their experiences as men of color or a white lesbian to give them depth. I am leery of the use of the Ojibwe people, and particularly the Native American religious beliefs as a background for the monsters, particularly with the new information the characters receive at the end. In many ways, the Ojibwe characters are there as background for the white characters to learn what they need to know about the monsters, and that’s a pretty shitty use of the Magical Native American trope (which does not require actual magic, but is more about the deep spiritual wisdom provided by the character to the white main characters). I really do want to read more about Davis, Alex, and Lindsay, though Ben and the rich white cryptozoologist can spend 100% less time on screen and I’d be happy, and I’ll be picking up THE BEAST OF BARCROFT to see where it all began.

SPOILERS BELOW

I am furious that a huge part of the ending is the death and resurrection of the great white savior, Ben, while John Standingcloud and a number of unnamed Ojibwe men sacrifice themselves so the white people can live. The fact that Alex and Davis both survive salvaged this a little, but it really drove home the fact that the Ojibwe people were really there to be background for the white people a lot of the time, and there is a point where Alex literally tells the rich white cryptozoologist that he is the savior, he has to live, so Alex and Davis will stay behind to make sure the white man and the white woman can escape, which is so much bullshit I almost couldn’t finish the book.

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