King’s famous/infamous first novel. Most of you probably know the gist of it whether you’ve read it (or seen the movie) or not— it’s just that iconic— and it doesn’t matter if I spoil it in outline because King also tells/teases you with what happened right from the get-go. But if you don’t, it goes like this:

Carrie, who is secretly telekinetic, is raised in near-isolation by her abusive, mentally ill mom, a batshit fundamentalist whose beliefs bear only the most tenuous relationship to any actual religion. Carrie is not taught of the existence of menstruation because all things bodily are the Devil’s handiwork, and panics when she gets her period in the girls’ locker room shower. Because teenagers can be fucking monsters, she’s pelted with tampons by the other girls, who smell blood in the water in more ways than one.

Sue Snell, a girl who feels guilty over failing to stop the bullying, joins forces with some other teenagers to try to give Carrie a nice prom. Unfortunately, the hateful bully contingent also has plans for Carrie, and also at the prom. Let’s just say that Carrie doesn’t do anything I wouldn’t have done at that age and under those circumstances if I could’ve killed people with my brain.

I first read this book when I was a bullied teenager, so I was an ideal audience in one sense. However, it was neither the first book I read by King nor the one that made me go on to read more. (Those were The Stand, followed by Firestarter.) I liked it but I didn’t love it, which is still my feeling about it now though probably not for the same reasons.

At the time, though I identified with Carrie’s situation, I didn’t identify with her as a person. She’s sad and plodding and downtrodden and not all that bright; none of what happens to her is her fault, but in addition to circumstances caused by others (like her terrible clothes) her personality gives off an aura of victimhood that makes the bullies decide to pick on her rather than on someone else. (King is very, very clear about that part: bullies gonna bully. If Carrie hadn’t been there, they would have just selected a different target.) To be clear, I don’t mean that she’s insufficiently awesome for me to identify with, just that her flaws aren’t my flaws.

(I confess: when our ages matched, I found an unsettling amount to identify with in Harold Emery Lauder. I mean. His goddamn name is only one syllable off mine, and it has almost the same metrical emphasis. That’s not exactly a coincidence. In both cases, it was selected by a teenage writer because it’s unique, the meter makes it memorable, and it just sounds like a writer’s name. King really had my number. But that’s not a coincidence, either: name aside, it was his number, too.)

What’s most remembered about Carrie are the set-piece scenes. The shower and the prom scene are iconic for a reason, but there’s quite a few in the book that have that same extraordinary vividness of emotion and image. They’re bizarre and singular in terms of events (so you recall them) and depicted with perfectly selected details, like the sort of nightmare you wake up from to lie sweating and telling yourself “It’s not real, it’s not real,” and dread having again for the rest of your life.

The other notable element is the blistering, raw, absolutely dead-on portrayal of what it feels like to be a bullied teenager. And also what it feels like to be any teenager in the sort of world I was a teenager in, which I hope to God is less common nowadays, when high school was their society, adults did not give a fuck, and it didn’t make much of a difference that the majority of the teenagers were perfectly decent people, if self-centered in a developmentally appropriate way, because God help you if the bullies close their eyes, spin around, and come to a stop with their finger pointed at you. Tag, you’re it. Your life will now be hell for the next four years.

Sue Snell is a good person. So is her boyfriend. It almost saves the day. But, as in Cujo, there are other forces at work, though here it’s human factors rather than chance or fate. Bullies gonna bully, and Carrie is emotionally fragile, primed to snap by her abusive mother, and in an act of agency with truly bad timing, she’s been practicing her power. The kerosene was already pooling on the floor, but some assholes just had to toss in a match.

Finally, Carrie is not spectacularly but still quite nicely structured, partly in a way that King was later to make one of his trademarks (multiple plotlines coming together into a dramatic unified climax) and partly in one that I don’t think he ever did on that scale again, which was to construct the book largely out of “found materials,” like newspaper articles, court transcripts, interviews, etc. The latter is interesting but distancing, fine but not noticeably better than what a lot of competent writers could do. The present-day sequences are way more impressive and have King’s specific voice.

A lot of what makes King a great writer was there right from the start: the well-crafted structure, the storytelling, the memorable scenes and images, the way with character and place, the trainwreck you see coming, the sympathy with his characters even as you know that a lot of them are not going to make it, and the moral force.

Even more interestingly to me as a writer, it shows how he overall had the sense to build on his strengths rather than his weaknesses in subsequent books. The found materials? Only ever used again in small, judicious doses. But the idea that he could do odd things with structure and that he should feel free to experiment and write each book in the way he thought suited it? That stuck. And most of all, the willingness to just go there with whatever outrageous, taboo, gross, or “you can’t write that” image that popped into his mind. Forty years later, those girls throwing tampons at Carrie still feels dangerous. If he’d never written it and someone submitted it now, there’s an excellent chance they’d get the exact same “what the everlasting fuck am I reading?” reaction.

King wasn’t the writer who taught me the value of just going there (Harlan Ellison did that) but it’s a good lesson to learn. Maybe the best. You don’t have to be gross or horrifying or shocking. You just have to be true to your self. We all have an inner voice and outer critics saying, “This is too revealing, too embarrassing, too weird, too risky; if I write it people will know the inside of my head looks like that.” But the insides of all of our heads are full of weird, embarrassing, scary stuff. It’s powerful stuff, too.

Maybe it’s tampons and a bucket of pig’s blood. Maybe it’s walking trees and a golden ring. Maybe it’s you and a gun and a man on your back. Whatever it is, it’s the real deal. Go there.

Carrie
rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( Jan. 7th, 2017 07:22 am)
I read or re-read a lot of Stephen King this year. (Of the new-to-me ones that I have not yet reviewed, so far my favorite is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.) In some cases, the re-reads were of books I’d read once thirty years ago. Cujo was one of those. I hadn’t re-read it before partly because I’d vaguely classified it as a high-concept potboiler along the lines of Christine (“car/dog/lawnmower turns EVIL”), and partly because I remembered it as really emotionally brutal. But when I was sorting through King’s long backlist, I realized that those two recollections don’t mesh. So I re-read.

The latter is correct. Along with Pet Sematary, it might King’s most emotionally traumatizing novel. It’s surprisingly well-written and interestingly constructed, with way more going on than “rabid dog traps mom and son in car.” And I will probably not re-read it for another thirty years, so you’re getting the long analysis-for-posterity now.

King, of course, is a horror writer. But I’d like to separate out two worldviews that often get lumped together as “dark,” “grimdark,” or “horror,” but which are actually quite different.

One is “everything sucks.” Terrible things happen because most people are terrible, there is no God (or God is evil), and good people are either idiots for trying to do right or subconsciously not good at all, but merely deluded or self-righteous.

The other is “life isn’t fair.” Terrible things happen for a lot of reasons (bad people also have free will and may exercise it on you, nature can kill you, etc), God may or may not exist but either way is unlikely to personally reach down and save you, and while most people are not terrible (in this worldview, usually most people are neither angels nor monsters), neither altruism nor innocence is a shield of protection.

In general, King’s worldview is “life isn’t fair.” One of his main themes is “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This is one of those huge life questions that doesn’t have any easy answers, and if you read a lot of his books you see him tackling it in different ways and providing different possible answers.

In The Stand, an interventionist God exists, but can only save the world from the Devil at the cost both of a huge death toll of innocents and the willing sacrifice of good people; this brings up questions like is “Is it worth it?” and “Is that God worthy of worship?” In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, God probably exists but is not interventionist in large or obvious ways, though he/it may be in small and subtle ones; bad things happen because tiny errors can snowball and nature is an inhuman force that’s much more powerful than any given human, though that doesn’t mean the human doesn’t have a chance. Cujo reads like there is no God and no Devil, just people: some good, a few bad, most flawed but trying, in a universe that doesn’t even know they exist.

A lot of King’s books say, “Bad things happen because life is like that. Maybe you made a mistake or a bad choice, but we all do because we’re all human. You got caught and chewed up in the cogs of fate or chance, not because you did anything to deserve it, but because we live inside a big scary machine and sometimes it eats people. What happened to you could happen to any of us. And if along the way you were brave or good, even if it didn’t save you or anyone, even if no one but you will ever know, at least you tried. And that matters.”

There can be a bleak but real comfort in that worldview, and if you feel it, King is a good writer to read when you’re going through hard times. (Apart from the more obvious comfort of “My life sucks but at least I’m not imprisoned by a killer fan who addicted me to painkillers, cut off my foot, and is forcing me to write on a typewriter missing the letters r, n, and e.”)

Sometimes what you really need to hear isn’t “Everything will be okay.” Sometimes you need, “Maybe everything won’t be okay. But it’s not because you did something wrong. It has nothing to do with you at all. It’s just the way life is.”

(You may be thinking, “How the hell is that comforting?” Two reasons. One is that if things are going sufficiently badly, hearing nothing but “No they’re not! Stuff like that can’t happen!” is unhelpful at best, crazymaking at worst, and definitely makes you feel like people aren’t listening. The other is that the alternative possibility is that everything is your fault and if you can’t fix it, it’s because you personally are a failure and also suck.)

Cujo is the purest expression of the “Bad stuff happens because life is like that” view that I’ve read from King so far. A lot of its literary interest is how that theme is reflected in both content and structure. And in case you missed it, toward the end King states the theme explicitly:

It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always tried to be a good dog. He had tried to do all the things his MAN and his WOMAN, and most of all his BOY, had asked or expected of him. He would have died for them, if that had been required. He had never wanted to kill anybody. He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.

Huge book spoilers from here out. Read more... )
This was my first time reading this book as the movie scared the living daylights out of me when I was in high school. I have no idea if the movie is actually as scary as I recall, because I don't actually remember much beyond "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," Jack Nicholson doing the homicidal maniac thing, and some incredibly creepy ghosts. So I also can't compare the movie to the book that much, other than that "All work and no play" isn't in the book and Jack being a writer isn't as important as I recall it being in the movie. My recollection is that the movie was essentially about a haunted hotel. The book is essentially about a family.

I mostly read the book because I wanted to read the sequel, Doctor Sleep, which several people recced. I had thought the book was pure horror, which is not really my thing, so I didn't expect to like it that much. I liked it a lot. It is horror, but it's got great characterization and is mostly the slow build, psychological type of horror rather than a cascade of jump-scares and gross-outs. Though it does have some very scary bits.

It takes a classic horror theme, a person with a flaw or weakness amplified by an evil or just powerful place until they crack, which is generally (in this case too) ambiguous about how much supernatural forces had to do with it and how much was the person making a choice to let their worst side run amuck. The Shining is weighted toward the side of choice, and is largely about choice and temptation.

Moderate spoilers. Read more... )
This post is about the ending of the series, and by that I mean mostly the very end, the one that comes after King basically says, “You can stop here if you want to just imagine what happens next, and by the way that’s probably a good idea.” (It's a little complicated but there's at least two clearly marked "you can stop here" points. One is before the end, one is the actual end.) So, this entire post is hugely spoilery and not interesting if you haven't read everything there is to read. [Except for The Wind Through the Keyhole, which is a prequel that I haven't read yet either.]

If you just want to know how I felt about the conclusion or are trying to decide how far you want to go without getting spoiled, I liked both endings, and they work together in the sense that the second continues the story farther without contradicting the first. The second is darker, but there’s room for interpretation and I didn’t find it grimdark or invalidating anything that went before. However, other readers might disagree and I have the vague impression (vague because I was trying not to be spoiled) that the majority of readers did not like the ending.

Read more... )
An abused wife, Rose, flees her psychopath husband, Norman, who unfortunately for her is a cop, and starts a new life. Because this is a Stephen King novel, her husband comes after her… and she finds an odd painting in a pawn shop that calls to her, depicting a woman in a chiton in front of a temple, and which slowly reveals magical properties, both of a helpful and a dangerous nature.

The opening scenes of Rose’s marriage, and then her flight, are an astonishing piece of writing, horrifying and gripping and completely psychologically believable. So, warning for horrific violence against women (and also against men, eventually, as Norman starts taking out people standing between him and her.) Sure, most domestic abusers are not also serial/spree killers, but I regret to say that absolutely none of the horrifying violence he does to her within their marriage is stuff that doesn’t happen in real life.

This is an odd book, of parts that don’t quite mesh together and aren’t all equally well-done.

Rose herself is a wonderful character, and I loved all the parts that are just her fleeing, learning to be her own person, and exploring the magic of the painting. Unlike most thrillers with abused women, she actually goes to a women’s shelter. That part is also very well done and there are a number of great characters there. The one part of Rose’s story that didn’t quite work for me is her romance. On the one hand, I did like that finds love with a non-abusive guy. My problem is that he’s too idealized and doesn’t feel as real as a lot of other characters in the book – he feels like Rose’s wish-fulfillment reward rather than a real person.

There are a lot of sections from Norman’s POV. They are really unpleasant to read, for obvious reasons, and I ended up skimming them and reading just enough to keep track of what he was doing. Those could and should have been edited down to the absolute minimum. I often don’t mind King’s lack of editing – like, I was perfectly happy to read abou Rose decorating her apartment – but only when I like the characters, and there is absolutely nothing likable about Norman. He’s also not that interesting compared to other King villians. Like, Annie Wilkes is also hard to read, but she’s a great character with interesting motivations. Norman is just a horrible, vicious sociopath.

Then there’s the world of the painting. I don’t want to spoil it (though you can in comments) but it went in some directions I expected and some I didn’t. It’s a thing of power that is never really explained, but makes sense on its own terms, some drawn from our world’s myths, some original. It’s darker than I expected; helpful to Rose, in general, but a dangerous thing and not one that she controls. A lot of it has the same “wellspring of myth” sense that I got from parts of The Dark Tower and is explicit in Lisey’s Story. It feels both dreamlike and real, nightmarish but also a source of power that can be used for good, if you’re clever and well-meaning and determined and wise.

Those, of course, are the qualities of a fairy-tale heroine on a quest. Rose Madder has some interesting fairy-tale references as well as mythic ones; the gap between the prologue and the first chapter could be read as an incredibly dark take on “Sleeping Beauty,” in which the heroine rescues herself by means of a single drop of blood, though it comes from something much worse than the prick of a thorn. There’s a lot of red and roses in the story: Rose herself, roses, the painting called (or signed?) Rose Madder, the color “red madder,” the chiton, blood, pomegranate seeds. For a book that in some ways feels like two or even three books stuck together, the themes (as opposed to the plot and tone) are extremely coherent.

I liked it a lot but it’s an odd book and I’m sure not for everyone. King himself said somewhere that he didn’t think it succeeded, but the parts that work really work; it does feel like he was pushing at his limits as a writer, so maybe he felt like he was over-ambitious and failed. If nothing else, I bet he learned a lot from writing it. As I mentioned, I skimmed Norman’s POV as much as possible and would skip it entirely on a re-read. Lisey’s Story, in contrast, benefits from completely omitting the villain’s POV.

Rose Madder
Stephen King has written one of my favorite books ever (The Stand) in addition to one of my favorite psychic kids books (Firestarter) and also lots of books that I just like a lot, or are worth reading even if I didn't love them.

He is one of my exceptions to generally not liking horror and, in fact, I tend to enjoy his books in direct proportion to how horror-ish they actually are. This is why, unlike some fans, I tend to not like his short stories and prefer his novels. Yeah, sure, his novels tend to be flawed and sprawling and in need to editing while he can turn out an absolutely perfect little horror story… but I don't really like horror, and if I like the characters, I'm fine with unnecessary passages in which they go shopping and encounter random dangers and have lengthy discussions that aren't all that relevant to the story.

The other thing about King is that I tend to like him proportionally to how much I like his characters: hence my adoration of The Stand and why I like It quite a bit despite its weirdness and the fact that it has a fucking evil clown that makes me really hesitate to re-read because, sorry to be a cliche, but I am scared of clowns. But it has wonderful characters.

But I stopped reading him when he was writing some of his worst books (I might have given up at Tommyknockers), but then after reading his nonfiction book On Writing (one of the very few books on writing which I actually recommend, which explains that he was an addict for a while and it had a bad effect on his writing) and re-reading Pet Sematary for Yuletide (the definition of an objectively good book that nobody wants to read again) I checked up and found that popular opinion said he got good again once he sobered up. This turned out to be correct, and I am happily reading my way through his very large back catalogue.

I am currently engrossed in The Dark Tower and will shortly be blogging that. I just started book four, so DO NOT SPOIL anything about the series in comments here. I didn't like book one much, but loved the second and third books as much as I have ever loved anything written, so I want to wait to write them up for when I have a little more time. (I am about to take off to the Farmer's Market).

Meanwhile, I give you my brief thoughts on The Long Walk. It's a relatively short book in which a America has a Norman Rockwell surface but is clearly a dystopia, because it has an annual event in which one hundred boys must walk without stopping across America. If they stop for more than the count of three, they get shot in the head. The last boy standing wins something good, though no one has ever met a winner so clearly the last one is whisked off and then shot too, I assume. No explanation of why this is done. No one seems to think any of this is weird.

It manages to have an even more implausible premise than The Hunger Games by making this a voluntary event in which many boys volunteer, and the winners are selected by lottery. No one is starving, though some could use the supposed prize money, so I found this implausible. I mean, I believe that teenage boys would do it. I find it implausible that their families would be generally okay with it.

What The Long Walk does incredibly well is portray the walk itself, which happens essentially in real time. The boys are under-characterized for the most part, but the depiction of their slow physical and psychological disintegration under pressure is incredibly intense and well-done.

As a whole, the book falls in the Uncanny Valley for me of being too allegorical/implausible to work as fantasy but too realistic to work as allegory. Still, I give it major props for the sheer relentless atmosphere even though it's not really enjoyable to read for that exact reason.

I had a similar issue with The Gunslinger-- not the Uncanny Valley issue, but that the characters didn't feel three-dimensional/likable and while the atmosphere was very well-done, it was also so relentlessly unpleasant as to not be fun to read. The first part of The Stand is my perfect version of people reacting to an extreme event - it feels incredibly real, and the characters are human and likable enough to make it fun to read. It has a varied tone, which I prefer to even the most well-done one-note when the one note is "This sucks."

(The second two Dark Tower books have EXTREMELY varied tones. Probably too much so for some readers. I loved it.)
Strange fantasy by Stephen King, one of his earlier books. He later revised it to correct some minor-sounding issues of consistency with later books in the series; I read the revised version, which has a fantastic short essay by King at the beginning. I love his nonfiction writing.

It has a justly famous first line: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Like it says: a gunslinger relentlessly pursues a man in black who is very bad news. That’s not to say that the gunslinger has clean hands himself.

It’s a weird western, somewhere on the border between dark fantasy and horror, in an incredibly bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape. It has a lot of elements I like and does capture the epic, mythic, movie Old West atmosphere he was going for, but it’s also overly gloomy for my taste— the atmosphere felt very oppressive, which was clearly deliberate, but still— and, very unusually for King and me, I was not grabbed by the characters. He was clearly going for archetypal (the gunslinger’s name isn’t revealed till something like halfway through), but for me it just read as flat. His characterization tends to work via specific details and unique speech patterns, and this had few details and most people spoke more or less the same way. The characterization made sense given the overall conception, but it didn’t play to King's strengths as a writer.

However, I gather that the sequels go in very different directions. Should I read them? Am I more likely to like them? I also have a vague impression that the series ending was widely disliked. If you read it, without getting too spoilery, 1) did you hate it if you got that far, 2) did you hate it enough to retrospectively ruin the entire series, 3) if yes to both, is there a good pre-ending stopping point?

There have been rumors of a movie for forever, but it’s now actually happening and Idris Elba plays the gunslinger. This ups my interest in the series quite a bit. Of course I could just see the movies, but that’s a long wait for a lot of installments.

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower)
Lisey is a middle-aged woman whose husband Scott was a famous writer. When the story begins, Scott has been dead for two years. Lisey is a reader, not a writer, but Scott’s writing is nipping at her heels in the form of academics and fans who want his papers, stalker fans, and the very real fantasy land from which Scott drew his inspiration, which Lisey once visited, and which she may need to visit once again.

The book interweaves the present-day story of Lisey, widowed but not alone (she has sisters) with the story of their marriage. I was all ready to say, “This book really isn’t horror at all and people who aren’t into horror might really like it,” but then I hit a horrific act of violence (not lethal, but seriously wince-inducing) and also Scott’s childhood turns out to be pure horror in both the abuse and fantasy sense, so I guess not. It’s mostly not horror, though.

King is often autobiographical, though in that odd way of fantasy writers in which either completely real incidents or characters are dropped into contemporary fantasy, or by metaphor, so that drug addiction might appear as addictive and destructive alien powers. King additionally often has writer characters who seem based on himself to some degree or other, and not always flatteringly; I am pretty sure I’ve read him saying that the most autobiographical character in The Stand is Harold Lauder. (Harold isn’t a villain, exactly, but he’s villain-ish, and about the opposite of a Marty Stu.)

Lisey’s Story is about what might have happened to King’s wife if he’d been killed in that bizarre van accident. (His memoir/how-to On Writing, which I highly recommend, contains a vivid account of that.) Sort of. If the van accident had been a shooting by a crazed fan or a weird illness, and if he’d had a childhood that was not only horrific but magically weird, and if his stories were partly drawn from a real fantasyland he can visit. And, of course, Lisey isn’t really his wife and her sisters, who play a major role, aren’t really her sisters. But I have a feeling that to some degree, they are. And that their marriage, which is largely mediated by a shared language of words and sayings, both is and isn’t their real marriage. Lisey’s Story is an extremely real-feeling book, even for King, who built his career on making the fantastical real and grounded and specific.

It’s a book about grief, but not about the initial shock, which is most commonly written about; this is about grief that’s been lived with and adjusted to and become familiar, that’s starting to heal at the same time that it’s finally sunk in that someone you loved is really gone and that is a wound will never really heal. It’s a book about marriage, and the intimacy of years and years together. It’s a book about language and storytelling; Scott’s writing is important but the language he and Lisey use with each other, the mortar and bricks of their relationship, is even more important. It’s a book about family— Lisey’s sisters are much more prominent in the narrative than I expected.

But most of all, it’s about Lisey. All things considered, I expected the story to be more about Scott, but it really is Lisey’s story, even though he’s the one with the fame and the magic. But Lisey has grit and practicality and her own creativity, though it’s not of the artistic sort, and she plows through stalkers, grief, family troubles, crazed fans, and a fantasy world with a stubborn determination that made Scott love her, kept her with him when another woman might have fled screaming, and just might defeat some very serious opponents.

I loved Lisey and I loved the metafictional nature of the book. The very first chapter is about how Lisey got erased from a news article about Scott— she was incredibly heroic, but the male journalist ignored her, credited her heroism to some random dude, and the photo shows nothing of her but the heel of her shoe. The rest of the book is about putting Lisey back in the story, but in a way that she wants— not as a flashy hero in the eyes of the world, but doing what needs to be done and is important to her, in her own way.

I’ve never been married, but I’ve seen a lot of married couples and observed how they often do seem to have their own language. This was the first book that made me feel like I got what it felt like to be in that sort of relationship and have that language. (Some of the language is silly or annoying, but mostly in the way that couple’s and family’s language and in-jokes really are silly and annoying to outsiders— it captured a real thing that I haven’t seen most fiction even attempt.) Similarly, the sisters’ relationships were also very real-feeling in a way that, again, was of great interest to me because I don’t have siblings. As a whole, the book is more about intimacy than it is about fantasy worlds and monsters and stalkers— the latter (especially the stalker) are more sizzle than steak.

That being said, warning for horror elements and one moment of cringey violence. Also, it deals with mental illness in a way that’s sometimes realistic and sometimes fantastical/metaphoric and sometimes both. I’m happy to discuss any of that or anything else about the book in comments, so general warning for spoilers in comments.

I liked the book a lot and it made me want to catch up on King’s later work. I haven’t read any of his other more recent books, so feel free to rec anything within the last 20 years or so.

Lisey's Story
Koontz tends to write books with absolutely killer hooks and intros, but is much more uneven about middles and conclusions that live up to them. I am still annoyed that The Bad Place, which has the wonderful premise of a contemporary man who travels to an unknown planet or land in his sleep, sometimes bringing back riches and sometimes terrors, proceeded to an only barely related plot about detectives and genetic engineering rather than exploring the super-cool actual premise. This book also has a killer hook, and also proceeds to go in an unusual direction with it, but one which I found much more satisfying and surprising.

Jim Ironheart gets psychic commands to go save people, but doesn’t know who they’ll be or why they’re in danger until he gets there, and he never knows why that person rather than some other, out of all the people who are in danger every day. Reporter Holly Thorne finds out about him and, fascinated, approaches him to find out what the hell is going on. The two of them are attracted, but the romance takes second place to the mystery of who’s commanding Jim and why… and why they both are having terrifying nightmares that start manifesting in reality.

This is a really gripping, creepy book. It has horror elements, but it’s not really a horror novel. It’s more of a cross-genre thriller. And that’s all I can say without huge spoilers. Read more... )

Cold Fire
I HATE zombies. And body horror creeps me out. And child-in-danger stories are usually annoying and manipulative. So I can’t believe I am actually recommending a child-in-danger zombie novel that is chock-full of disturbing body horror… but this one is really good.

It opens with a heartbreakingly charming narration by Melanie, a bright little girl who adores her teacher, who secretly slips her a book of Greek myths. Melanie loves the story of Pandora, the girl with all the gifts. But she doesn’t understand why her beloved teacher often seems so sad, or why she and the other kids have to be tied to chairs to attend school. Why is almost immediately clear to readers – it’s after the zombie apocalypse, and she’s the rare intelligent zombie that scientists are experimenting on in the hope of finding a vaccine or cure – but there are many other mysteries that are less obvious.

The first section and denouement of the novel are the best parts; the first because of Melanie’s narration, the last because it’s an absolutely perfect climax, satisfying on the all levels. In between is a more standard but well-done zombie novel. In particular, the mechanism of the zombie apocalypse is pleasingly clever and well-worked out. But the beginning and the end really make the book.

Right from the start, Melanie is explicitly compared to Pandora, so it's clear that in some way, she will unleash horrors upon humanity, but also hope. And all through the book, she does, in ways that change as she changes, learning more about the world and herself. It's beautifully done.

I don’t often like horror. When I do enjoy something marketed as horror, it’s often despite rather than because of the genre. For instance, I love the author’s voice (Stephen King) or prose style (Tanith Lee) or psychological insight (Melanie Tem) enough to get me past that horror is a genre of emotional atmosphere, and the specific emotions of horror – fear, dread, horror, disgust – aren’t ones I usually enjoy.

But there’s another emotional state that horror can evoke, which is something akin to Aristotle’s idea of catharsis. It’s horror as transcendence, where terror and horror are also beautiful and awe-inspiring. It’s probably not coincidental that the authors I mentioned above hit that mark for me – not always, and not in everything they write, but sometimes. C. L. Moore’s stories “Black God’s Kiss” and “Shambleau” are like that, too: creepy and disturbing, but also seductive and full of sense of wonder.

The Girl With All the Gifts hits that mark, off and on, until coming to a conclusion that’s viscerally horrifying but also beautiful and transcendent. The characters other than Melanie are sketched in, plausible types rather than three-dimensional characters, and a late reveal about the teacher’s past is reductionist rather than revelatory. But the beginning is brilliant, the middle is solid, and the ending is haunting in the very best way.

The Girl With All the Gifts
[Catch-up review from Goodreads; I read this ages ago, and skimmed recently while culling books. Not a keeper.]

Bleak contemporary horror-satire about a poor shlub of a teenage boy who is slowly turning into a vampire.

There's some good writing and an excellent use of an unusual tone which I can only describe as Raymond Carver meets Joss Whedon. The world is intriguing. But the emotions are just realistic enough to make it excruciatingly depressing. In fact, it concludes with my least favorite depressing trope ever:

Read more... )

M. T. Anderson is up there with Katherine Paterson for slit-your-wrists YA authors. Feed was even more depressing; it featured a variation on that same depressing trope Read more... ) and also the human race was clearly doomed and deserved to be doomed.

Thirsty
In Mary's world, there are simple truths.
The Sisterhood always knows best.
The Guardians will protect and serve.
The Unconsecrated will never relent.
And you must always mind the fence that surrounds the village....


The enormously misleading cover copy for this YA novel makes it sound like a certain stinker of an M. Night Shyamalan film, in which tons of portentous build-up lead to the totally unsurprising shock ending reveal that There Are No Monsters Outside The Village. Actually, there are monsters outside the village. Zombies! Tons of ‘em! They first appear on page two, so this is not a spoiler.

Mary lives in a post-apocalyptic fenced village surrounded by "the Unconsecrated." Unlike anyone else in her village, she longs for some other life, which to her is symbolized by the ocean she saw once in a faded photograph. A mysterious religious organization called the Sisterhood calls the shots in this otherwise sexist society. Needless to say, the Sisterhood is keeping (very predictable) secrets.

When Mary’s mother is bitten and becomes an Unconsecrated, her brother Jed blames Mary, and local boy Henry doesn’t propose, Mary is forced to become a Sister. She is soon entangled in a complicated love quadrangle between her best friend and the two brothers who both love Mary, and is too curious for her own good about the possibility of life outside.

The first chapter is gorgeously evocative, there’s a number of arresting images and set-piece scenes, and the whole book is a gripping read. Ryan pays a lot of attention to imagery patterns and thematic linkages, such as between real and symbolic zombies, and this is generally done well. Mary’s desperate desire for Henry’s brother Travis is vividly written even though Travis is a non-entity.

But except for Mary, the characterization is barely even two-dimensional. Several significant characters have about one recognizable trait each. This is a big flaw in a zombie story, as we ought to care when people are munched by zombies. It also made the central character relationships fall completely flat. The culture of the village is barely indicated, but what little we see of it seems to be small-town every-America that’s far more generic than any real town. I’m assuming the Sisters are Christian, but we never get any details about their religion. All this adds to an overall sense of blandness.

Additionally, several crucial explanations about what’s going on make no sense at all. (A prisoner who could be killed without penalty or released at some risk is instead deliberately transformed into a crazed killing machine and then released to see what will happen. That never goes wrong!) And when the story takes a new direction half-way through, it is way too coincidental that the characters who end up with Mary are, with one exception, the only ones she already cared about.

I read The Forest of Hands and Teeth thinking that it was better-suited to film. (I wasn’t the only one who thought so: a film adaptation will appear in 2011.) A good movie would make excellent use of the zombies and zombie action scenes, and could flesh out the skimpy characterization with vibrant performances. Though I wouldn’t re-read the book, I’d see the movie.

Still, the writing is accomplished and the ideas are ambitious enough that I'd definitely read Ryan's next book, even though I didn't think this one was completely successful.

View on Amazon: The Forest of Hands and Teeth
A teenage girl mourning her missing brother meets a snow-white boy with mysterious powers. He’s being chased by equally mysterious people, and soon they’re after her too. He can’t be photographed, but he eats solid food; he’s been accused of rape; he’s neither male nor female or maybe both; he’s a fallen angel or a ghost or a telepath; he remembers nothing of himself but knows all about the narrator’s disappeared brother Josh and also her neighbor’s dead brother Jonas.

Extremely suspenseful and creepy—seriously, several scenes could be studied as models of how to generate fear and curiosity in readers— but ultimately unsatisfying. Many of the details which created a great deal of the mystery are never explained (I’m still waiting on “can't be photographed but eats solid food,” for instance), and in retrospect were probably created solely to make the obvious reveal less obvious. The explanation we do get is convoluted and hard to swallow. If, like me, you were waiting for a reason why there are two different people’s lost brothers whose names both begin with “Jo,” you will wait in vain.

View others' frustration with the ending on Amazon: Frozen Fire

Yeah, right )
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