Audiobook Review: Niceville by Carsten Stroud

18 09 2013

Niceville by Carsten Stroud

Read by Ann Marie Lee

Random House Audio

Length: 14 Hrs 41 Min

Genre: Gothic Horror/Crime Thriller

Quick Thoughts: Niceville is Stephen King meets Carl Hiaasen, a dark fantasy meet absurdist crime thriller told in multiple subplots that come together in a phantasm of gothic horror, dark comedy, and long buried family secrets.  Stroud creates his story in layers, slowly blending many storylines, weaving them together in an intricate pattern that isn’t fully revealed until the stunning conclusion.

Grade: A-

As a horror fan I learned early on not to trust the seemingly idyllic. Monsters and killers and the like are scary sure, but in a smack you in the face obvious sort of way. When I read a book, or watch a movie where some monster eviscerated a couple of stupid kids who decided to experiment sexually in their car in the woods, I am more annoyed by how these kids became a cliché, and feel they probably deserve to be gutted with a hook. It’s disgusting and bothersome, but not truly scary. So much of what goes for horror these days is really gore, set to be nauseatingly disgusting, but not something that will linger nibbling around your soul for years to come. What I truly find scary is the idyllic small town. You can have your monsters and demons sucking souls and torturing virgins. I’ll take my white picket fences and well maintained lawns. No matter how you dress it up, these seemingly idyllic towns are a simmering cauldron of witchcraft, interdimensional portals and dark secrets of gothic import.  You can make it all nice and pretty, with a throwback morality and small town charm, but I know that when you name your town Pleasant Gardens or Happy Valley, the only thing truly happy is the ancient being that lives beneath the surface of the town that subtly changes and influences its denizens to commit atrocities. I’m no fool. I’m from Philly, a city where brotherly love is typically the last thing on the table, so I know the more innocuous the town name, the greater the secret horrors that lie beneath it are.  Give me a town called Hell’s Gates or Cthulhu Hills, I will expect a strong community full of upstanding citizens who mind their own business unless a neighbor needs help, than they are quick with a kind word and a strong back. Yet, if your town sign says, "Welcome to Happy Town" I’m turning my ass around as quickly as friggin’ possible, you sick, sick bastards.

When a young boy goes missing, only to turn up comatose in an impossible place, CID officer Nick Kavanaugh is unsettled and begins to look into the high number of strange abductins that occur in the town of Niceville. A year later, a daring bank robbery and brutal slaughter of State Policemen sets off a series of events that shakes, Nick, his wife Kate and the citizens of Niceville to their core, events that have their roots in Niceville’s dark secret history. Niceville is Stephen King meets Carl Hiaasen, a dark fantasy meet absurdist crime thriller told in multiple subplots that come together in a phantasm of gothic horror, dark comedy, and long buried family secrets.  Stroud creates his story in layers, slowly blending many storylines, weaving them together in an intricate pattern that isn’t fully revealed until the stunning conclusion. It’s wonderfully done, full of so many fully realized despicable characters it was hard to pick which one you most wanted to get their due. While Niceville has plenty of likeable characters to cheer for, it’s the lowlifes and scumbags that steal the show. From the embittered women hating loser to the calm, cool and collected sociopath, each complicated scheme of one character finds a way to interact and derail the complicated scheme of another. While all this scheming, backstabbing and craziness is taking place, Stroud adds in a whole other level, a dark fantasy, both gothic and historic that is full on creepy to its core. Niceville has echoes of Stephen King’s Derry, but with a unique mythology all it’s own.  With all these balls in the air, you would think eventually the author would drop one, allowing it to all unravel into a messy clump of yarn, but he never does. Stroud manages to keep all his balls in the air, like a maniacal juggler laughing at you while you think he’s laughing with you.  Even though much of the story reveals itself slowly, I was never bored. While I was intrigued by what was happening in one area, I was equally fascinated by what could be happening in another. I was amazed that Stroud never lost me. Once I warmed to his story telling style, he had me enthralled and fascinated no matter what turn the story took, and I never once felt lost or confused, just filled with anticipation of what could happen next. Niceville was the rare story that managed to creep me out and make me laugh. Stroud creates some of the most memorable characters, and puts them through a a dark twisted wringer, yet still managing to pull out one heck of a multifaceted story.

The only area that left me a bit confused was the audio production. There was nothing truly wrong with Ann Marie Lee’s performance. I thought she had a strong grasp on the characters, and was quite pleasant to listen to. She moved the story along nicely, and never let anything drag. Her character voices were well delineated, which was quite a feat with so many characters. There wasn’t a single moment where I was confused to what character was speaking, nor did I need to be told by the author which POV I was in. Overall, I thought she did a good job with the Omniscient POV, where in many ways it felt like the true narrator was the town of Niceville. BUT… yeah, there’s a but. First off, I don’t think she was quite the right narrator for this novel. I am not sure why they cast a female narrator for a book where the majority of the characters where male, and snarky male scumbags at that. She did an amazing job with these male voices, but sometimes I felt the dark humor of the tale was muted by her performance. A narrator can alter the very feel of a novel by how they turn a phrase, and I think Niceville was full of a dark comedy that didn’t shine through Lee’s performance as much as it could have. I thought she had the creepy aspects down pat, but some of the absurdity of the tale lost its effectiveness. Overall, I came away thinking that Ann Marie Lee was an amazing narrator, just maybe not quite the right narrator for this story.

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