I'm reading through three lists of best horror with two friends (DeAnna Knippling and M.B. Partlow), posting reviews as we go. (For more information, including a list of the books, see this post.) To see the books I've reviewed so far, you can view the list at the end of this post where I rank them.
This week I'm reviewing My Soul to Keep, by Tananarive Due.
I really wanted to like this book. There were historical elements that were fascinating, and I enjoyed how those were wrapped in with the story. I was intrigued by the storyline. However, the story was too much about emotions. Which sounds weird, probably, but what I mean is that we were in the character's heads way too much, and there was a lot about their internal struggles and, yes, their emotions at any given moment. There's character driven and then there's character infested. The plot felt secondary to me.
My Soul to Keep is about an African immortal and the human woman he's married. She has no idea he's immortal or that he has lived many lifetimes. When he feels his secret is threatened, he shows a sudden lack of conscience and starts killing, devastating his wife in the process.
The husband, David, is so sensitive and emotional that I pulled back from him right away. (And, yes, I would have pulled back from a female character who was the same way.) He was needy and possessive of his wife, and my abuse-meter was twitching. While he didn't abuse her (not in the classic sense, anyway), I was uncomfortable with his level of neediness and his discouragement of her pursuing a coveted career in publishing. He's not supportive of her career in journalism or her dreams. In addition, he keeps making decisions for her. Another thing that triggered the abuse-meter. He doesn't feel she can make the right decisions, so he takes that power away from her. He thinks he loves her, but I didn't see love in his actions. I saw desperation and selfishness. There was nothing about him that made him appeal to me. The first chapter is all about his emotional agony over their dog being seriously ill, so his level of sensitivity is established right off. Everything rubbed him raw, both emotionally and physically. Which, in turn, rubbed me raw.
I couldn't feel empathy for David, and I could only sometimes feel empathy for Jessica. I wanted her to be strong and independent. She had all the makings. But allowing her husband to be controlling and discourage her from what she wanted bothered me. The fact that she saw no problem with his behavior also bothered me. While she does take their daughter and run when she realizes something isn't right, it took her a long time to get to that point. However, her character arc is significant, and she does learn strength in the end.
As often seems to be true these days, I preferred the secondary characters to the primary characters. Jessica's sister was the type of woman I wanted to see at the helm of the story. Jessica's friend and co-worker is a great guy with a sense of humor and the desire to encourage and aid her in her dreams.
The biggest issue is that I was reading this because it's on the best horror lists. There were moments where I was horrified by the actions of David, because he kept targeting innocents, and because he did so soulessly. Due hit the softy in me, but it was the type of horror I feel when watching the evening news, not the kind I seek out for escapism. David wasn't scary; he was a selfish, needy ass. He was like Dr. Frankenstein, taking others' lives into his hands to experiment with them against their will, and without a Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder to tell him this wasn't okay. Everything was about what he wanted, how things would impact him. Blech.
There are elements of the supernatural (outside of the immortality), but these are peaceful and comforting. They are not part of the horror. Religion and history are entwined with the storyline in wonderful ways. Seeing the history of the world from the eyes of a man who began time in Africa is a departure from the norm. History was a different place for someone of African descent, and rarely do we get to see that kind of world in this type of story. He traveled the deserts of the Middle East, he was a slave, and he was a jazz musician in a questionable time. To put this together with a tale of an immortal man was clever and intriguing, but not enough to carry the story through. It held so much promise that I think I fell too hard. Perhaps my review is doubly harsh because of that.
Her writing and description were strong, so it isn't that she can't write. It just wasn't the book for me. The pacing was far too slow for me. The plot was underdeveloped. The main characters were well developed, but not as likable as I needed them to be. And I was deflated from the eagerness I approached this book with. Those who enjoy character driven stories might see this book in an entirely different way than I do (it has excellent ratings), but I need more plot to keep me interested, and characters that make me want to invest myself in the story line. And I definitely need to feel like we're going to get somewhere with the story eventually.
My new rankings:
1. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
2. The Bottoms (Joe R. Lansdale)
3. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
4. The Year’s Best Fantasy: First Annual Collection (Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling)
5. Those Who Hunt the Night (Barbara Hambly)
6. Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror (Ellen Datlow)
7. The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)
8. The Wolf's Hour (Robert McCammon)
9. Berserk (Tim Lebbon)
10. Best New Horror, Volume 1 (edited by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell)
11. The Tomb (F. Paul Wilson)
12. Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy)
13. The Imago Sequence (Laird Barron)
14. My Soul to Keep (Tananarive Due)
15. From the Dust Returned (Ray Bradbury)
16. In Silent Graves (Gary A. Braunbeck)
17. The Cipher (Kathe Koja)
18. Drawing Blood (Poppy Z. Brite)
19. The Doll Who Ate His Mother (Ramsey Campbell)
20. Hotel Transylvania (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro)
If you are curious about any of the ranked books above, you can click on the title to read my review.