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Tag Archives: horror fiction

Wrapping Up for Christmas

To look at this blog, you’d think I hadn’t read a book since February. That isn’t true, but it’s close enough to being true that I really have to find a convenient time warp where I can catch up on reading without having to cut back on anything else. For the record, though, I’ve read the following (excluding books that I’ve completely forgotten I read):

Revival – Stephen King

Cover for Stephen King's Revival

Electricity: Not necessarily our friend.

Stephen King works in the modern tradition of bestselling horror, which to my mind began with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, though you could track it back further to some of Richard Matheson’s early, lower-profile novels like I Am Legend. But it was Levin’s runaway bestseller and the movie that followed that seemed to break the dam open and led directly into William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which led into…a long line of Stephen King novels that’s continued from Carrie through whatever his most recent book is. (It’s hard to keep up.) The modern horror tradition places a strong emphasis on settings that are familiar almost to the point of banality, which the author uses as a means of creating a suspension of belief so profound that you’ll buy into whatever unexpected curve ball he or she pitches out of their word processor to shatter the banality into terrifying shards, like Rosemary’s neighbors turning out to be a coven of Satan worshippers or Carrie turning out to have telekinetic powers brought on by her first menstrual period.

Revival, however, is King’s homage to the older generation of horror writers that he (and I) grew up reading from an age when we were young enough to accept outre settings that were nothing like the world we lived in. It’s specifically an homage to, and in many ways an updating of, Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella “The Great God Pan,” which is about individuals who have managed to glimpse the true nature of reality that lurks behind the shallow scrim of the mundane, a reality so different and so much more terrifying than the world they thought they lived in that it drives them mad when they discover it.

King, as is often his wont, carries the story’s setup to such verbose extremes that I began to worry that he was losing track of the horror element that Machen had been considerably more focused on. Those worries turned out to be needless. Almost every scene in Revival pays off eventually and turns out to be essential to what follows. Whether what follows is worth the wait is a matter of taste. The glimpse of the reality beyond reality at the end is indeed terrifying and I find that it’s come to haunt me even more in retrospect than it did while I was reading it. To accept it, though, it’s necessary to have your belief suspended so tautly that nothing can possibly yank it down. Thankfully, mine was up to the challenge. The novel threatens at times to become a slog, as you learn more about the relentlessly ordinary protagonist than you really want to know, but it never quite bogs down completely. Then again, I’m a long-time fan of old-time horror, so nothing was going to prevent me from getting to King’s take on it. And I’m glad I waded through the sometimes interminable exposition required to get there.

This, I should note, is one of those first-person stories where the most interesting and significant character isn’t the narrator but a secondary character who wanders in and out of the narrator’s life. (H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror novella “The Thing on the Doorstep” is similar.) And if there’s anywhere that the book falters it’s in the believability of that character, who crawls farther out on a limb of eccentricity every time we meet him. There are moments toward the end when it feels like King is fighting to keep him just grounded enough that the reader’s acceptance of him as a real person won’t turn into a hot air balloon and float away, but it’s touch and go for a while. In the end King pulls it off, but by that time I was so thrilled to see him finally get to the story’s ultimate revelation that I was ready to believe anything King told me.

The title, incidentally, has multiple meanings, one of which is simply King’s revival of old-school horror. I’ll leave it to potential readers to discover the others. (There are at least two more.)

The Brilliance Trilogy — Marcus Sakey

Cover of Written in Fire

Book three of the Brilliance Trilogy

I reviewed the first two books of this trilogy, Brilliance and A Better World, in earlier installments of this blog. To summarize: I loved them. A lot. But I reread them in preparation for the third book, Written in Fire, and I was thrilled all over again. Sakey pulls off the whole Brilliance enterprise — the adverb is unavoidable — brilliantly.

Collectively, the series is about a civil war between genius-level mutants called brilliants and the ordinary humans who feel like they can no longer keep up with their intellectual superiors. I was impressed not only by Sakey’s believable depiction of the mutants but by the way he gives each of the three books its own slow-rising plot arc, with each one not fully starting to grip until about halfway through, at which point they become impossible to put down. He manages to sustain this through the entire three-book serial arc as well, except the peak comes in the final third, which is a hat trick that I wish other writers of trilogies (see below) could pull off as deftly.

There’s a touch of deus ex machina in the way the final novel is resolved, with Sakey setting the resolution up in advance but not in a way that’s totally believably in retrospect, letting everything hang on a moment of hubristic boasting by one of the characters that I think the character would have been savvy enough to avoid. But everything else about the third novel is so compelling that I’m more than willing to forgive this lapse. Sakey’s mutants are fascinating, but the one that stands out is the frighteningly vivid Soren, a sympathetic bad guy who sees time move 11 times more slowly than other human beings, even other mutants, do, which makes him horrifyingly dangerous, because he’s thinking 11 times more rapidly than the hero, but also isolates him from his peers in a way that leaves him open to manipulation by the book’s real villain, who orchestrates much of the apocalyptic chaos of the final scenes through the charismatic way he makes people like Soren think that he actually cares about them even while he uses them to achieve his own ends.

Sakey’s greatest strength is that he makes every character’s motivations feel genuine and in many cases sympathetic, even when what they’re motivated to do is appallingly wrongheaded. He leaves a hook at the end that could be used for a sequel, though Sakey says he has no intention of writing one. However, he’s been letting other writers play with his carefully constructed world and, though I haven’t read any of the non-Sakey spin-offs, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t continue where this novel leaves off.

I’m not sure I want to revisit this world, though. Sakey does such a satisfying job of telling the story that I’m worried I might see some lesser writer mucking it up. For all intents and purposes the story has now been told and told well, and that’s how I want to remember it.

The 5th Wave Trilogy – Rick Yancey

Covers for the 5th Wave trilogy

From the sublime to the tedious.

When I reviewed the first, eponymous novel in this series I raved about it. Yancey’s characters were complex, their relationships were compelling, their moments of self-revelation felt meaningful and Yancey’s writing frequently rose to the level of unexpected poetry. When I reread it to bone up for the rest of the series the poetry was still there but the rest seemed a bit flat, probably because I remembered too many unexpected twists from my first time through. It still stands pretty well as a complete work, though, and I’m sad to report that, except for the threads Yancey leaves dangling at the end, it should have remained a standalone experience.

The Infinite Sea, the second book of the trilogy, tells two stories, each of which could have been wrapped up in a couple of chapters instead of stretched out to half the length of a novel. Much of the time Yancey seems to be padding his way toward book three just so he can do the full triple-book treatment that seems to be required now in YA fantasy and science fiction whether the stories merits it or not. As much as I enjoyed them, I blame the Hunger Games novels (or perhaps the Twilight series, which I haven’t read) for that. There are entire scenes in The Infinite Sea that feel like they’ve gone on forever even when you realize that Yancey is going to make them go on even longer and if I hadn’t been as determined to finish this trilogy as I’d been to finish Sakey’s, I probably would have put the book down partway through (virtually speaking, because it’s on my Kindle, which I’d still have to pick back up to read something else) and moved on to more promising pastures. But I figured the third novel had to be better.

And it is. The Last Star picks back up with characters from the first book who vanish for long sections of the second and starts telling a real story again, but it still feels padded with unnecessary dialog and scenes that loop back so frequently to the same repetitive arguments that I wanted to tell Yancey just to get it over with (or possibly shoot me) to put me out of my misery. He finally does — get it over with, not shoot me — and the fact that I can’t even remember how it ended probably says more about how weary of the book I was by that point than any specific criticism I could make — if I could remember enough to be critical. I do remember that the climax was designed to bring tears to my eyes, but I was too sick of the characters by then to muster even a slight layer of optical mist over whatever it was that happened to them.

The 5th Wave should have been at most a duology and I’m not sure Yancey shouldn’t just have made the first novel longer and wrapped it all up there. Still, the first novel remains worth reading, though you might want to take a pass on the sequels and imagine your own resolution. It’ll probably be better than the one Yancey supplies. Or at least briefer.

Borderline (The Arcadia Project) – Mishell Baker

The cover of Borderline

The borderline between well-written characters and well-worn premises.

This is the book I’m reading now, in bits and pieces of snatched time, mostly before I fall asleep at night. It has a fascinating beginning setting up a fascinating heroine that unfortunately leads into a well-written but overly familiar detective procedural with an interesting if not entirely original fantasy overlay that doesn’t quite lift it above the pedestrian level of detective procedurals in general. But Baker’s writing is excellent, her wit sharp and lively, and I’ll read it through to the end. It’s not giving me the sort of thrill I got out of Sakey’s frequently noirish take on mutantkind, but maybe it’s unreasonable to demand that every book hit notes quite that high.

As with King’s Revival, the title has more than one meaning, though the more interesting one is that the protagonist suffers from borderline personality disorder. This is the main element that lifts the novel above the level of standard fantasy noir, but as the book goes on her psychological diagnosis begins to seem more and more like an excuse for the sort of snarky first-person narration that detective fiction writers have been using since Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep. The book’s depictions of Los Angeles and the film industry are quite good, though, and at this point are holding my attention more than the heroine’s mental disorder or the physical problems resulting from a suicide attempt that occurred before the novel begins. (Both of her legs are prosthetic, a detail that’s handled so believably that I wonder if author Baker has personal experience with it or is just really good at research.)

If the novel surprises me by transcending its fairly predictable underpinnings, I’ll write about it again later. Otherwise, I’ll only say that the novel is worth reading if you don’t have anything more compelling at hand or if you just like procedurals, a form of fiction I used to read by the bucketful. At some point, though, I think my bucket overflowed. Maybe yours hasn’t yet.

Back From Hell and Seriously Pissed: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Book #14 for 2012: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

There’s a certain kind of hardboiled crime story that practitioners of the genre, both writers and filmmakers, turn to when they want to tell a story that’s particularly violent and has a strongly motivated protagonist. It’s the one where the main character — you wouldn’t exactly call him the hero — is a guy who hung around with a rough gang of criminals when he was younger and was betrayed by them when they abandoned him to the police or just left him for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get revenge on those bastards in especially gruesome ways.

Movie fans will recognize this as the plot of John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of my favorite crime writers ever. The protagonist of The Hunter was a guy named Parker, no first name, who went on to be the protagonist of a whole series of books that Westlake wrote under the Stark pseudonym.

It’s also the plot of Richard Kadrey’s novel Sandman Slim and you can tell that he was influenced by Westlake’s novel because he names his protagonist Stark and one of the villains Parker. And to remind us that he’s not the only person who’s ripped off this plot — heck, even Westlake was probably ripping off this plot, possibly from Shakespeare — he makes reference in the text to other variations as well, like the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The difference in Sandman Slim, which is written in the tough-guy noirish style pioneered in the 1920s and 30s by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is that the thugs are sub rosas, magic casters who live among human beings but aren’t entirely human themselves, and they didn’t send Stark to prison or leave him for dead. They literally used magic to banish him to hell — alive. While there, he fought monsters in Satan’s arena for the amusement of Satan’s generals and learned the skills of hellion magic, which is a lot nastier than the sub rosa kind. Now, with the help of the demon Azazel, his sponsor in the arena, he’s back on earth, mad as, um, hell and prepared to tear his former friends into eternally damned pieces.

Sandman Slim (the name our protagonist somehow acquires) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both what is currently called an urban fantasy novel (to distinguish it from the Tolkien kind of fantasy) and an extremely violent hardboiled crime novel. Having once been a huge fan of this sort of novel in its more conventional form, I enjoyed it, though I have to say that the genre doesn’t hold as much interest for me now as it did when I was in my 20s and used to gobble down books by people like Hammett, Chandler, Westlake and Ross MacDonald like they were popcorn. Still, Kadrey (who has also written more conventional science fiction and fantasy) comes up with an interesting enough fantasy take on the genre to keep the book readable and inventive throughout. (There’s even a touch of Lovecraftian horror as the story goes on.) I especially like the way he uses my adopted hometown of Los Angeles as the prime setting for a war between heaven and hell (neither of which seems much nicer than the other) and a major gathering place for the sub rosa. Peacekeeping in the heaven-hell war is performed by a group of supernatural cops called The Golden Vigil, who have been around longer than civilization itself and now work with Homeland Security, and by the end of the book they’ve recruited Stark, who is both a nasty fighter with conventional techniques and an even nastier fighter with magic techniques, to do some freelance work for them. This gives Kadrey an excuse to turn Sandman Slim into a series, and he’s already written two more volumes with more presumably on the way.

I’d recommend Kadrey’s work less to people who enjoy fantasy and more to those who like their crime novels fast-moving and violent. Kadrey does a very good job of combining the fantasy and crime genres, but Sandman Slim will go down a lot easier if you’re less into hobbits and more likely to enjoy seeing a wiseass crimefighter covered with ugly hellion scars decapitate a man who goes right on talking and making wiseass comebacks while unattached to his body. Yeah, it’s that kind of book — and, yeah, I guess I’m the sort of person who enjoys it.

Going to Hell in Florida: Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!

Book #4 for 2012: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I’m not quite sure how to describe Swamplandia! (The exclamation point, as with Oklahoma!, is part of the title.) It’s a book about the Florida Everglades. (I guess these are the Everglades. I can’t recall if Russell ever uses that term in the book, but it’s set in Florida, there are lots of swamps and an excessive number of alligators, which sounds pretty Everglade-y to me.) It’s about the strange rural yet sophisticated cultures that grow up along the kind of byways through which tourists pass on their way to more respectable resort areas with money in their pockets to spend and kids in their pockets to spent it on. It’s about ghosts. It’s about hell. It’s about rape. It’s about an ending that would seem absurdly coincidental if the book weren’t quite so well written and hadn’t descended so far into a miasma of hallucinogenic surrealism by the time it gets there.

What it’s mostly about, though, is family.

The family it’s about comes from Ohio, but pretends to be a tribe of Florida Indians in order to run a kind of mom-and-pop amusement park called Swamplandia! on an island buried so deep in the swamps that it requires a 40-minute ferry ride to get there. The main attraction at the amusement park — perhaps “circus” actually would be a better term than “amusement park” and would tie this novel in more neatly with The Night Circus, which I read a week or so ago — involves the mother of the family, a former beauty queen in her 30s, diving into a water-filled ditch infested with alligators and emerging safely on the other side. (The alligators, which the family refers to affectionately as “Seths,” are about as dangerous as parakeets.) Swamplandia! does well as a tourist attraction without making anybody rich. And then everything goes, figuratively and quite possibly literally, to hell.

Twin disasters occur almost simultaneously. The mother dies of a particularly virulent strain of cancer, leaving behind her husband, son, two daughters and senile father, then a rival amusement park called World of Darkness opens not too far away and instantly siphons off the tourist trade. The theme of World of Darkness is, yes, hell. All of the rides and most of the snack foods are based on the premise of hot and eternal damnation. And with serious amusement park money behind it, hell proves to be a more a popular destination point than Swamplandia!’s alligator pit, so attractive that as Swamplandia!’s economic fortunes disintegrate, the son jumps ship — or, in this case, island — to go to work there. The father disappears (he has a second job, now desperately necessary to support the family, and begins to focus on it full time) and the daughters spend most of their time keeping house in what remains of their tiny Swamplandia! community, mostly just being teenage girls together.

Now here comes the big twist and I’m going to give it away because it’s not one of those neck popping twists that one might expect from the final 10 seconds of a serialized TV show but just a kind of unexpected place where the story goes: The older of the two daughters falls in love with a ghost. At least she claims that he’s a ghost. And when the hulk of an old dredging barge left over from the Great Depression turns up in an isolated place in the swamp, she claims that this was the location of his death.

To describe the plot from this point on would take too much typing and you probably don’t want me to give that much away. Suffice it to say that the sister with the crush on the ghost decides to marry him (death apparently being no obstacle), the younger sister tries to stop her but loses track of her and employs the services of a local birdman (someone who rids communities of annoying buzzards by chasing them into other communities where he can hire himself out to get rid of them all over again), the brother goes to work at World of Darkness where he inadvertently becomes a local hero, and the resulting set of individual journeys go from the bizarre to the literally hellish. In fact, much of the younger sister’s portion of the story is about a descent into what may really be hell. (The Everglades certainly seem like a good place for it.)

It’s difficult to say if Swamplandia! qualifies as a comedy, a horror novel, a family saga, a soap opera or just a fairly fast read. The characters are less quirky than the environment that they inhabit (which was something of a relief, given the quirkiness of the environment they inhabit) and the family, though they go through some travails that should qualify as nearly Shakespearean in their tragic nature, actually turn out to be surprisingly competent at negotiating the bizarre turmoil of their lives. Which shows, I guess, that being trained to wrestle alligators at a young age is pretty good preparation for just about any bad thing that can happen to you.

Untrue Lies: Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box

Book #20 for 2011: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I wanted to like it because everyone on Amazon seems to like it and the professional reviewers did too. Heck, even the New York Times gave it a rave review when it came out back in 2007. (They had Janet Maslin, who at the time was one of their movie critics, review it.) But for some reason me and this book didn’t get along. About halfway through, I could feel the book starting to fall apart (plot-wise, not literally) and two-thirds of the way through it took a leap down the toilet (once again, not literally). But it started out very, very well.

Some background: Horror writer Joe Hill is actually Joseph Hillstrom King, son of that other horror-writing King, Stephen. He writes prose that’s very reminiscent of his father’s and he gives every appearance of having the potential to be quite good at it. (He also has the funniest Twitter feed — @Joe_Hill — that I subscribe to, though you probably have to be fond of somewhat geeky subject matter, like comic books and Joss Whedon, to appreciate the jokes.)

This is his first novel (he’s subsequently written a second) and it has a clever premise: An aging heavy metal musician, sort of a less-addled version of Ozzie Osbourne named Judas “Jude” Coyne, buys a haunted suit on an Internet auction site so he can add it to his collection of macabre memorabilia. It turns out that the suit really is haunted and that the ghost who comes with it is eager to collect Jude’s soul and send him down the “nightroad” (i.e., the road to some presumably unpleasant afterlife). In an early plot twist, Jude learns that he was suckered into buying the suit by someone who wants revenge on him, apparently because they believe that he was responsible for the suicide of one of his former girlfriends.

This is a cute idea and it gets cuter. The ghost is that of an old man who devised systems of occult-based psychological warfare for the Army during the Vietnam War, hypnotizing captured Viet Cong into doing things like cutting off their own fingers and worse. Now that he’s dead, the ghost (whose name is Craddock James McDermott) wants to convince Jude to kill himself. The novel is as much about the psychological warfare between Jude and Craddock as it’s about a typical ghostly haunting.

Hill has a strong sense of style and the book, at least in the beginning, is fun to read. I think it doesn’t hold up in the long run because Hill makes two mistakes. The first is that this plot would be adequate to fill a novella or maybe even a shorter novel, but not a novel of the length that publishers seem to demand these days (which is to say, more than 100,000 words). There are sequences, especially in the second half, where Hill seems to be padding the book’s length, stretching out scenes that would have benefitted from tightening. This is a common problem in popular novels, one that the elder King has committed on more than one occasion, and is more annoying than it is fatal.

The second, fatal error is that Hill never lays down clear rules for how his supernatural universe works, leaving Jude free to guess methods by which he can protect himself and his current girlfriend from harm by Craddock’s ghost. And, surprise, his guesses are always right. Jude guesses, based on scant evidence, that dogs can protect him from the ghost. (Who knew?) This is convenient, because Jude owns two large dogs who turn out to be remarkably hungry for ectoplasm. Jude guesses, based again on scant evidence, that ghosts can be fought with music. This is convenient because Jude is a singer-songwriter.

Pretty soon, Jude’s guesses (along with his girlfriend’s) become the primary engine with which Hill drives the plot and, frankly, this is a little tedious, not to mention unbelievable. But where my suspension of disbelief really went out the window was about two-thirds of the way through, when Jude and girlfriend face down the book’s main (living) villain, the sister of the former girlfriend. Jude guesses, based on similarly scant evidence, what really happened after the former girlfriend left him and returned to her family, and the sister, who is so evil she almost cackles, obligingly confirms it for him. It’s like that scene in every other Agatha Christie novel where Hercule Poirot pulls some ridiculously detailed solution to the mystery out of his little gray cells and confidently brings the killer to light. I never believed that scene when Agatha Christie wrote it and I don’t find it believable from Hill either.

From that point on I was reading just to get the book finished. It’s an odd thing when suspension of disbelief goes away. Before it goes away you feel like you’re reading about real people and real things that happened to them. After it goes away, you feel like you’re just reading some sort of contrived story invented by a person with a word processor. The joke, of course, is that that’s what you’ve always been reading, but suspension of disbelief has conveniently hidden that fact from you so that you could enjoy the author’s contrivances. Without suspension of disbelief, those contrivances are just well-written lies preserved on paper (or in static RAM).

And yet I still think Joe Hill has potential. He writes with wit and a certain degree of charm and at some point I’d like to read his second novel, Horns, which came out last year. (It seems to be about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s grown, well, horns.) At the moment, though, I don’t think I’m quite up for it.

Just a Short Walk

Book #26 (August 14, 2010): The Ruins by Scott Smith

The Ruins is the book that I’d hoped The Passage would be and everything that Lee Child’s novels are not. It’s a perfect example of a type of book that seems rarer now than it used to be, if only because I’ve gotten harder to please as I’ve grown older. It’s an intelligent thriller, carefully thought out, written in a style that is neither flamboyantly literary nor gratingly flat, with characters that are fully realized and sympathetically flawed. If you’re still looking for some good beach reading before Labor Day, grab a copy on the way to the shore and I guarantee that by the time you hit page 40 or so you’ll completely forget how uncomfortable you feel toasting in the sunlight with gobs of lotion on your skin. (Come to think of it, given some of the scenes in the book, you might become all too aware of how uncomfortable you are.)

In addition to being an intelligent thriller, The Ruins is an example of a genre I love but rarely encounter, the one where a group of people start out on a small, almost trivial adventure and then things start to go terribly, terribly wrong. This is such a small genre that right off I can only think of one other example: James Dickey’s Deliverance, which was so well written that I didn’t even notice how horrifying it was until I saw John Boorman’s hypnotic, hallucinogenic film version. (I suppose the lesson from Deliverance is that it’s possible for this sort of thing to be too well written.) Another story that falls loosely within this genre is Jack London’s terrifying short story “To Build a Fire,” where a man and a dog start out on what should be a simple walk across arctic wilderness and find themselves — the man, at any rate — in a life or death struggle.

The plot of The Ruins is somewhat on the shallow side, but you don’t notice this while you’re reading it, because Smith puts the emphasis on carefully building the suspense and keeping the POV tightly focused on each of the four main characters. It’s about a quartet of college students, two guys and two girls, on vacation in Cancún, who decide to go on a day trip into the jungle, along with a couple of foreigners they’ve met, to visit a team of archaeologists at a local ruin. They plan for this trip rather poorly, not even giving much thought as to how they’ll get back. (It involves a bus trip, a cab ride and a short walk through the jungle in a place where they aren’t likely to find another cab.) However, it turns out to be a trip that nobody really could have planned for. I’m not going to tell you any more, because to give the plot away would ruin — no pun intended — the carefully planned hook that Smith is going to put into you. This book is probably about half the length of The Passage, but it felt about one-tenth as long because I read it in rapid gulps, reluctant to come up for air.

In retrospect, I think the major problem with The Passage was that Justin Cronin didn’t build his characters as well as Smith does, though I’ll give him credit for making the attempt. Cronin’s characters seemed real in the way that the people down at the other end of your block seem real. You see them every day, you exchange a few words if you pass them on the sidewalk, but you don’t really care what they’re thinking. Smith’s characters are more like your family. If anything, you know them too well, but you always care what they’re doing and whether they’re going to hurt themselves doing it. I suspect the reason it only had a minor film version — the IMDB shows that it was an Australian production with a director and a cast I’ve never heard of — is that, stripped of the intense character detail, the plot probably seems a little silly. While Lee Child’s novels would probably work better on film, with actors to give a sense of reality to his cartoon characters, The Ruins couldn’t survive the transition, or at least it would need a top level writer-director team to pull it off and give it a properly suspenseful atmosphere.

From the reader’s point of view, though, that may be for the best. Now that you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s excellent film version of Smith’s earlier bestseller, A Simple Plan, that book has been largely spoiled for you (though, trust me, the book is even deeper and better than the film). But since it’s unlikely you’ve seen the film version of The Ruins, I say skip the film and just read the book next chance you get.

Thriller Without the Thrills

Book #22 (August 3, 2010): The Passage by Justin Cronin

Given that I’m several volumes behind in my book-a-week project and finding my life filling up with a surfeit of ways that Amy and I can amuse ourselves with entertainment media that don’t involve reading, it probably wasn’t wise of me to pick a 795-page horror/science fiction/epic quest novel as my next reading project. But it isn’t always obvious how long an e-book is going to be unless you’re paying close attention and it wasn’t until I switched this book over to my Nook that I fully appreciated its length. And, BTW, those aren’t 795 Nook pages. Those are 795 real pages. In Nook pages that’s closer to 2,500, since I had the font size set so that the Nook-page-to-real-page ratio was roughly 3 to 1.

But this book sounded so good in theory that I probably would have read it even if I’d realized I’d wind up spending more than a month plodding through it. It starts with great promise. Indeed, I had hoped that I could begin this review with the line, “Drop every other book in your reading queue and pick this one up immediately, because I’ve found the perfect piece of beach reading for you.” Alas, I can’t.

The Passage (which is currently something like #7 on the New York Times hardback fiction list) starts out great guns, like a collaboration between Stephen King around the time of The Stand and Michael Crichton around the time of The Andromeda Strain. Scientists have discovered a virus deep in the Bolivian jungles that shows potential to make people immortal. It also shows potential to turn them into something like vampires. And these aren’t your romantic, civilized Anne Rice/True Blood vampires. These guys are horrific and prehistoric, about as much like the Vampire Lestat as a sabre-tooth tiger is like a house cat. They are monstrously muscled, fast as lightning, and have stalactite-like teeth that can shred a large animal in seconds. They can also pass on the virus to selected survivors, creating more of their kind.

Of course, the army scientists who discover these things believe they can refine the virus and take out the bad parts, thus obtaining a universal cure for disease, a general preventative for aging, and a way to  breed super soldiers who heal on the battlefield. They start infecting death-row convicts with the bug and locking them away in the bowels of a giant military complex to see what happens. And then — well, you can guess what happens next. The vampire convicts get loose, multiply, and set about destroying the rest of the human race.

This is the gist of about the first third of the book. Up until that point I had hopes that this would be an epic horror novel along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand, with that same through line of unbearable tension and characters I would learn either to love or to hate. But then Justin Cronin makes an odd decision. It’s not a decision I agree with, but in retrospect I don’t think he could have made any other, because I think what I just described to you wasn’t really the story that he wanted to tell. In fact, he barely describes the part about the escaping vampires and the ensuing slaughter, giving only brief glimpses of it from news stories and handwritten accounts. Instead, he abruptly jumps 93 years into the future, when for all we can tell the only remaining members of the human race, at least in North America, are a tightly knit village of people living inside a crudely fortified town somewhere near Los Angeles. They protect themselves from the vampires — or virals, as they call them — using lights, because this is something that vampires can’t stand and it’s extremely difficult (though not impossible) to kill them with conventional weapons. Unfortunately, the lights are powered by aging storage batteries that are finally starting to go dead, which will leave the town effectively defenseless.

I won’t tell you any more than that, but there’s a lot more novel beyond that point. A LOT more. In fact, for my tastes there was a bit too much more. By this point things were starting to feel a little too much like a standard post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, of which I’ve read many, and there were times when it felt like it was going to drag on forever. There’s a large cast of characters, some of whom I really wanted to like, but I never found myself liking them quite enough to care what happened to them. Let’s just say that what happens to them involves a lengthy trek, from California to Colorado, and Cronin winds up leaving the ending way too ambiguous, which suggests the possibility of a sequel that I have no intention of reading.

None of which is to say that Cronin is a bad writer. He’s actually pretty good, but I would have preferred if he’d held himself to something a little less ambitious — a 400-page epic, say, with slightly fewer characters and slightly fewer irrelevant details. Toward the end he starts getting maudlin and while in some books I’d have found that excusable or even welcome, I never really felt that the story had earned the right to ask the readers to get teary eyed, an effect it never quite managed to have on me (and, believe me, I’ve read books that have made me uncontrollably teary eyed at the end).

So if you’re still looking for summer reading, or just for YAVN (Yet Another Vampire Novel), I’m afraid this one might not be it.

It’s Good to be…Oh, You Know!

Book #9 (February 14, 2010): On Writing by Stephen King

There seem to be two fairly extreme views on the writing of Stephen King. Either people see him as a hack who writes sensational but worthless prose (a view that I suspect is based more on all those Stephen King movies churned out in the 80s than on the novels themselves) or they see him as a god. Neither view makes sense to me, though I probably lean more toward the latter view than the former. I think a good argument could be made that King is the greatest popular writer of his generation and perhaps of my lifetime, in the sense that he writes fiction that engages readers on a deep and intuitive level, fiction that makes no pretense at being literature but that often manages to be literature anyway. In that sense — and I’m hardly the first to say this — the “literary” writer he most resembles is Charles Dickens, in that the two writers have both popular and enduring appeal. When I read Dan Simmons’ novel Drood, about Wilkie Collins and his gradual realization that he could never be more than a fraction of the writer Charles Dickens was, I couldn’t help but wonder if Simmons wasn’t describing his own feelings about King.

On Writing is about half memoir and half avuncular advice (inasmuch as King often refers to himself in his Entertainment Weekly columns as “Uncle Stevie”) to aspiring writers. The memoir half (and it’s almost exactly half of the book) is about King’s gradual discovery of his writing talents and the experiences that shaped his writerly perceptions. The advice half — and in terms of my own interests it’s the better half of the book, though I enjoyed King’s description in the first half of his days as an out-of-control alcoholic — relates King’s philosophy of writing and warns against misconceptions that potential writers may have about how writing is actually done. The best part, I thought, was his description of the difference between situation and plot, which is something he’s thought out more clearly than I ever have. (When I was writing Hardy Boys novels, the distinction between the two was that you pitched your book on the basis of a situation but you didn’t get a contract until you’d plotted the book within an inch of its life, something that King advises strongly against.) There’s a nice emphasis on the importance of grammar — King was an English teacher before he became a bestselling author — and some interesting thoughts on organizing your writing space. (Close your door, shut your window and maybe listen to music, but don’t let the desk dominate the room.) I don’t know if any of this will be meaningful if you have no interests in writing fiction (there’s relatively little here about other forms of writing), but the first half should certainly be of interest to anybody who’s a King fan.

Fantasy and Science Fiction and Horror, Oh My!

Book #2 (January 14, 2010): McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories edited by Michael Chabon.

I’m a great fan of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy and horror. I am therefore going to make an unfair generalization: It sometimes seems as though these genres, along with mysteries and thrillers, are among the few remaining forms of fiction where authors bother to be entertaining or to engage in something that used to be called (and, in fact, still is called) storytelling. At some point in the last century the literature of entertainment (and I use the term “literature” deliberately) forked off from literary fiction (which, as Michael Chabon notes in his introduction to this anthology, is as much a genre as any other, with its own well-worn genre conventions) and became mildly disreputable. I’ll have more to say about this in upcoming weeks, especially if I get around to reading Chabon’s collection of essays Maps and Legends (which is sitting, in actual book form, on my shelf), where Chabon engages with this subject at book length, but for now I want to talk about what Chabon has put on the table in this particular anthology.

One of the things I like about Chabon is that he’s a literary writer who is willing to take genre seriously. This short story anthology is a sequel to his earlier McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which was originally published as a special issue of Dave Eggers’ quirky literary magazine Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Chabon’s aim, according to his introduction (about which more in a moment), was to play with the concept of genre and to assemble a collection of writers who produce fiction somewhere in the margins (or would that be median strips?) between genre fiction and literary fiction, including literary writers like Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates who frequently spill over into genre writing and genre writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub who occasionally manage to achieve literature.

Chabon’s introduction is one of my favorite parts and I’m tempted to quote from it at length. It’s about the tricky, indistinct boundary between genre fiction and literary fiction and how it’s mostly a matter of publishing categories, not actual content. I’ll indulge in a single (albeit lengthy) quote:

“Genre, in other words, is–in a fundamental and perhaps ineradicable way–a marketing tool, a standard maintained most doggedly by publishers and booksellers. Though the costly studies and extensive research conducted by the publishing industry remain closely guarded secrets, apparently some kind of awful retailing disaster would entail if all the fiction, whether set on Mars or Manhattan, concerning a private eye or an eye doctor, were shelved together, from Asimov and Auster to Zelazny and Zweig. For even the finest writer of horror or sf or detective fiction, the bookstore, to paraphrase the LA funk band War, is a ghetto. From time to time some writer, through a canny shift in subject matter or focus, or through the coming to literary power of his or her lifelong fans, or through sheer, undeniable literary chops, manages to break out. New, subtler covers are placed on these writers’ books, with elegant serif typefaces. In the public libraries, the little blue circle with the rocket ship or the atom is withheld from the spine. This book, the argument goes, has been widely praised by mainstream critics, adopted for discussion by book clubs, chosen by the Today show. Hence it cannot be science fiction.”

This is a longtime complaint of genre fans, especially fans of fantasy and science fiction. Not only does a large portion of the literary world refuse to take even the best work in these genres seriously, but on the rare occasions when some work of fantasy or science fiction is so unquestionably well written that even the snobbiest of critics can’t fall back on calling it hackwork, they simply deny that it’s genre fiction at all. It’s as though the very definitions of science fiction and fantasy contain the term “poorly written.” When that term ceases to apply, so does the genre label.

I’ve wandered a bit far afield, which doesn’t leave me a lot of room to talk about the stories in this anthology, but I’ll talk about them anyway. My favorite is David Mitchell’s “What You Do Not Know You Want,” which reads like something Hunter Thompson might have written if he were trying to be Elmore Leonard. It’s about an antiques dealer in Hawaii trying to locate the knife that writer Yukio Mishima used to commit seppuku, and from this already bizarre premise Mitchell concocts something not only very dark but darkly funny. It left me interested enough to want to know more about David Mitchell’s writing and I’ll probably read one of his novels sometime later this year. I also liked Stephen King’s “Lisey and the Madman,” which is apparently a portion of his novel Lisey’s Story, though that novel hadn’t been published (or, as far as I know, even completed) at the time the Chabon anthology came out. I greatly enjoyed “Minnow,” a clever horror story by Ayelet Waldman, who happens to be (though the editor sneakily neglects to mentions it anywhere in the text) Chabon’s wife. And “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville, a slight, quirky, highly original story about feral, time-traveling alleyways. That’s certainly not an idea that’s been done to death.

Chabon never actually assigns these stories a genre, which I suppose is the point, but most of them fall into a niche that I’d call hyperliterate horror, which is exactly the kind of horror fiction I like. The whole collection is excellent.