You can follow me on Goodreads (Click here) or just stay tuned to this continuing blog.
October, 2014 — The Turn of the Screw — Henry James — 1898
With the intent of including the 1961 Jack Clayton film, The Innocents, on my Halloween list of horror films to watch this month, I realized that its source material is a title that has never been crossed off my bucket list of must-reads. Last weekend, I decided that this is a situation that needed swift remedy, and though I’d begun the next book in the Stephen King chronology as well as a mammoth collection of Edgar Allan Poe works, I felt that October is not only the best month in the year to cram with as much of the macabre as possible but also the best time to read a classic ghost story.
All that accepted, I must admit that The Turn of the Screw is most assuredly a novella that is probably most remarkable if read when assigned by an English professor. The language is incredibly dense, and though author Henry James and I (or so I’m told by my editor) share a definite fondness for run-on sentence structure, the tale is a bit difficult to follow at times. In spite of requiring my usually rolling eyes to pause and rewind in an effort to re-read several lines in the text for full comprehension — the reason I found this something many might consider a drudging read — the prose is remarkable, the story is engrossing, and the prevailing mood of the work is resplendent with the creepy factor for which I had hoped. Because of these combined aspects, I equate this title to one I would have been pleasantly surprised to complete had it been required reading in high school.
Originally published over a series of editions of Collier’s (and I intended to read it in the twelve portions with which it was first released; however, my yen to finish it was too great), The Turn of the Screw is a frame tale of sorts. A house guest of the story’s narrator tells his host the story of a governess who goes to care for two orphaned children who have come under the care of their wealthy uncle, a man who wishes to provide his charges with whatever they require as long as he need not be bothered. When a pretty young governess takes the job, she goes to live at the family home, Bly, and begins caring for the little girl Flora while they await the return of her older brother, Miles, from school. What begins as an already unsettling novella quickly takes a turn for the downright spooky when Miles arrives, a letter from his school’s headmaster reports his expulsion, and the governess realizes that the children are being visited by two other people about whom they say nothing.
To reveal anything more would be stealing any future readers the pleasure of the multiple twists the story has to offer. I was surprised to read several analyses of this well-regarded book that offered a totally different interpretation of the tale’s events. Without giving away any secrets, I will write that there are those who raise questions over who was really evil and what really happens during the last ten pages or so. Given either of the two distinctly different possibilities, this is one guaranteed to give one pause for the purpose of thoughtful contemplation upon completion.
Not the best classical Gothic ghost story I’ve read, but it’s very, very good.
October, 2014 — The Dead Zone — Stephen King — 1979
As a younger guy, thinking of Stephen King as nothing more than a horror novelist, I always shied away from any one of his titles with a back cover that didn’t promise the ultimate in fear and dread, anything that didn’t warn me that I’d be sleeping with the light on. That was before I knew that Stephen King isn’t just a horror novelist. He’s a storyteller. A man who has a knack for making his Constant Readers feel as if they’re sitting down at his feet, drinking up the words he’s spilling forth in a kind of mesmerizing cocktail of literary tranquility. Unfortunately, for far too many years, I lumped The Dead Zone in with those books that I felt less favorably toward reading. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing because I think that I’ve finally completed this tome at the perfect time in my life. A time when everything he included in the story makes absolute sense and reignites the passion that I have for reading, writing, and everything macabre.
The Dead Zone is a novel in three parts, but it opens with a minor prologue that introduces us to the book’s two central characters: Johnny Smith and Greg Stillson. Smith serves as the book’s main protagonist, a young boy whose childhood ice skating injury turns him into a man who has episodes of being able to foretell the future. Stillson is a Bible-selling morass of evil, narcissistic lechery whose introduced to readers as he cruelly victimized a farm family dog, leaving it hideously maimed in a scene of stomach-churning disgust. Two men, totally removed from each other’s worlds, whose paths will cross during the second portion of the book and lead to something of an unforgettable finale that is absolutely perfect in the hands of the master author.
Beginning in 1970 and spanning the length of the entire decade, King uses his characters’ circumstances as a means of giving a really interesting historical picture of the incredible political and social upheavals taking place at the time. When Johnny is in a deadly car accident that kills the driver and puts him into a come for nearly five years, the features described by King play out in the lives of his girlfriend and his parents. Upon awakening, Johnny’s father fills him in on the many gaps that he has missed, during which time, Stillson hones his skills as a sociopathic tyrant with aspirations for the White House. As Johnny’s newly found power (he’s awoken with freshly advanced stages of his gift of sight — he merely has to touch someone to see things about them that no one could possibly know) is discovered and he falls victim to the many unfair whims that accompany such a talent, the action plays out with the turbulent United States moving forward around him.
The story is just as much one of 1970′s America as it is about Johnny Smith, his sudden gift of foresight, and the bits and pieces that he can’t quite bring to the surface since they’ve been lost in the only remaining damaged portion of his brain, the area he calls “the dead zone.”
As far as Stephen King stories go, counting both those I’ve read in the past as well as those I’ve read up to this point in my quest to complete his entire bibliography in chronological order, The Dead Zone is among the best. Although not as outright scary as the thing in the cement tunnel in The Shining and not as intense as the final pages of The Long Walk, there’s something about this particular work that I found very satisfying. There was an especially remarkable turn of events at the very end — not the climax itself so much as the involvement of a minor character in the way that things turn out — that literally gave me chills.
An easy five stars on Goodreads.
September, 2014 — The Leftovers — Tom Perrotta — 2011
Prior to ordering a copy of this one from Amazon, the extent of my exposure to the work of Tom Perrotta was only through multiple viewings of the film version of his hit novel, Election. Bitingly satirical, shocking, and utterly engrossing, Election is one of those books I’ve always promised myself that I’d get in my hands and read at some point just to see if the prose is anywhere as appealing as the story is in cinematic form. It’s a tale that might very well have been ripped from the headlines and shared during a weekly segment of SNL’s Weekend Update, and it’s one that I continue to have a yen to read at the first available opportunity — especially after completing the latest title that I’m adding to this blog.
My introduction to The Leftovers was not through a BuzzFeed Books update or through a podcast overheard on NPR. Instead, I first heard of it as one of the many highly publicized series coming to HBO this summer. Appearing moody and dark and reeking of highly religious undertones, I really had very little interest in checking out the series and seeing what it was really all about. That all changed, of course, and I was literally hooked only one episode into the show (is it just me or are networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, and Netflix kinda cornering the market on the very best in entertainment these days?).
With nihilistic shades of Bret Easton Ellis and hyper-sexually-ambiguous characters acting out the drama of their daily lives in the face of this incredibly sudden life-altering event, I knew that I wanted to read the book before I watched any more of the show.
Am I glad I did? I don’t know yet, mostly because I’ve yet to watch the remaining episodes of season one; however, I am very glad that I made a decision to read the book at all — as evidenced by the five star rating I affixed to the title on Goodreads.
The premise is the same as the television series. The rapture — or something like it — has occurred and its circumstances are totally unlike anything anyone could have foreseen. There are those who have been taken who didn’t believe in heaven or hell, and there are those who have been left who had lived their entire lives with the hopes of moving into God’s eternal kingdom. Years have passed and the men, women, and children who remain are stuck trying to make sense of the event and hoping to find new meaning in their abruptly mis-configured lives.
It is here, at the very premise of the story, that the book and the HBO series seem to take totally different trajectories. The main characters are all very different people even though their settings are the same. Kevin Garvey, in novel form, is a far cry from the dark, brooding, sexy hunk that is Justin Theroux. His daughter, Jill, is as equally lost as she appears on the screen, but she is lost in an entirely different way. Lauren Garvey has fled her family for membership in the Guilty Remnant, but the composition of the weird sect is quite unlike that which is portrayed on television. And the Garvey’s son, Tom, is involved with the tenets of Holy Wayne, but the cult leader in the book is a bit less sinister than his tv counterpart.
Now, like I wrote, I still have yet to finish the premier season of the HBO drama, so I have several hours of television before I can make accurate comparisons; however, I closed this novel with quite a different perception of the story than I had upon first watching the pilot episode.
Perrotta’s The Leftovers is a richly drawn, carefully layered novel about love and loss. The main character isn’t a Garvey or one of the many other people who are among those who remain. Instead, the book’s protagonist is grief, in every possible form, and the tale begs the question of how people would react and come to deal with grief if everyone in the world were forced to deal with it at once.
It’s sad, beautiful, poetic — the kind of work that forces the reader to savor every word — and it’s definitely on my top ten list of the best books I’ve read in the past five years.
Make time for this one, and let me know what you think.
September, 2014 — Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane — William Peter Blatty — 1966
If not for that incredible treasure, The Thrifty Peanut, that exists in the middle of nothing else that would catch my eye out on Benton Road, I might never have been introduced to this title. Though I cannot — in good conscience — rate the work by the same man who wrote The Exorcist more than a couple stars on Goodreads, I am not at all disappointed in having read it.
I only wish that the book weren’t sold as a horror novel, and I wish that I’d known that this is a book that was later re-worked as a subsequent publication called The Ninth Configuration and eventually translated into a well-respected (and purportedly well-acted and critically popular) 1980 film of the same name.
Had I been aware of some of the history surrounding Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane, I may not have temporarily put it down due to the frustration it induced while I read the first half. Had I known that the book is written with the intent of inspiring frustration, I would have known what to expect. Unfortunately, I only now know that this was not originally a critical hit for Blatty, that it was only sold as a horror work following the success of The Exorcist, and that it became a much better screenplay than it is a novel.
Far from being a poorly written work, this particular story is far from a horror novel, although it does examine some themes that I recall fondly from more direct dissection and deeper reflection in Blatty’s masterwork of demonic possession. Additionally, it does offer something of a surprise to anyone who actually sticks with the writer all the way through and the twist would be something more of a payoff if it weren’t implied by the blurb on the backside of the paperback (and by the fact that nearly every thriller that is released these days has some sort of “twist,” to the point that such developments are now something of a cliche).
Although incredibly short, Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane is something that ought to be written at the opposite of a rapid pace. If one is able to keep the individual patients separate in a novel that is very heavy on dialogue and very sparse on exposition, a reader is seduced by an endless number of meaningful and thought-provoking notions and ideas that might cause someone to question where the edge of sanity ends and the rim of insanity begins.
August, 2014 — Oh What A Paradise It Seems — John Cheever — 1982
Prior to last week’s vacation that took me up to Fayetteville, Arkansas, the closest I’ve ever come to the works of John Cheever was the episode of Seinfeld that centered around Susan’s father’s implied homosexual affair with the great writer. Decidedly literary and not outwardly boasting the sorts of plots and characters I’m accustomed to reaching for, John Cheever’s works never once made a list of authors I was desperate to read.
The excursion I took, alongside my sister-in-law, to the world-famous Dickson Street Bookshop changed my perspective on mid-twentieth century literature and opened my eyes to a man who is touted as “the Chekov of the suburbs.” Really, I found Cheever’s work to be much more like a very detailed, very engrossing, behind-the-scenes (and under the covers) look at the world of Mad Men. In fact, I found myself thinking about the television show so often over the course of the afternoon that I drank every word of Oh What A Paradise It Seems that I began to feel some degree of shame for never having continued watching the series beyond the first season (to remedy this situation, I immediately added it to my Netflix queue).
Rather than a story of what happens in the glamorous world of New York in the fifties and sixties, Cheever’s final novella is more a remembrance of things past, the story of an aging playboy’s memories of a time that has been paved over by progress and forgotten by the men and women who built it to former grandeur.
Slightly depressing, but incredibly well-written, this will not be my final foray into the world of John Cheever (along with this slender volume, I purchased several others on Dickson Street), but further journeys into the mesmerizing world of which he writes will have to wait.
Days appear to be shortening and the weather forecast shows that there will be a significant cold front approaching the area by the end of the week. That means that fall is nearly here and the greatest month of the year is only a few weeks away.
The afternoons and evenings and weekends to come will likely be dedicated to all things Halloween.
It’s the only respectful thing to do.
August, 2014 — Monster — Christopher Pike — 1992
More crap, I realize, but I needed something good and easy and pleasant to ease me onto the start of my vacation at the end of the month. Opening up one of the works of Christopher Pike — much like finding a stack of his works on the shelves of The Thrifty Peanut — is like bumping into an old friend that I haven’t seen since middle school. We may not have been exceptionally tight in our personal relationship, but this is someone upon which I have always looked with a very fond eye and a warm feeling in my stomach. Pike’s supernatural thrillers always remind me of the days of my youth, when life was very simple and I could spend entire weekends wrapped up in the blankets of my bed and countless hours devouring the pages of the works from this author and his other prolific kindred. Monster isn’t wonderful literature. It’s probably not even as good as some of the youth fiction being published today. But it’s fun and freaky and an easy afternoon ride through the imagination of the man who fostered some of my literary love during pre-pubescence.
Published when the closest that most of America ever got to violence in schools was through gritty films like Lean on Me, Monster opens up with a scene of sudden, shocking violence involving a high school student walking into a weekend party and blowing away two of her classmates before going off in search of a third who gets away. A seemingly random and motive-less crime, the shooter’s best friend begins a search into the reasons that her seemingly fulfilled buddy would go to such graphic and irreparable lengths to eliminate a cheerleader and two star football players.
What follows is about two hundred pages of investigation that — like most of Pike’s other works — takes a decidedly supernatural turn. There are several motifs present in Monster that a prolific Pike reader would likely expect: a resourceful high school chick in danger, total normalcy interrupted by sudden insanity, mostly absent parental figures, broken families, a main character who is a fish out of water, story arcs tied to astronomical events, a high body count, gruesome deaths, and an ending that leaves some degree of uncertainty for all the characters involved.
As far as what one might expect from a novel by Christopher Pike, Monster does not disappoint.
August, 2014 — The Hot Zone — Richard Preston — 1994
I don’t really know what I was expecting, but something about this one really left me feeling let-down. The first hundred pages were dramatic and interesting, and there’s probably nothing more stomach-churning than reading details of the horrible effects of one of the filoviruses on a human being; however, the actual story of an Ebola outbreak on American soil is far less interesting than the events transpiring on African soil right now.
This current outbreak, of course, is the reason that I picked this paperback off my to-read book shelf and decided to give it a shot. I’ve had my copy of The Hot Zone for about a year now, and I never had much of an interest in actually picking it up to read until the news reports began surfacing of a new eruption of Ebola. Outside of major feature films and televised dramatizations, I really didn’t know much about the virus, how its contracted, what its effects are, or how it was discovered. For answers to these questions, I’m grateful that I read Richard Preston’s (his brother, Douglas, wrote one of my favorite horror novels of all time: Relic) non-fiction thriller, but Preston is, unfortunately, not the best storyteller, and much of the actual tale was somewhat difficult to follow.
There were forward and backward flashes in time which seem understandable once the real meat of the story begins to unfold, but once that meat finds itself fleshing out, I no longer really cared. The most interesting aspects of the book were already over, and I was left with more than a slight feeling of uneasiness knowing that the one thing that these men and women were using as a surefire means of killing any surface exposure to Ebola was ordinary bleach. But I guess that’s what makes The Hot Zone sort of interesting and skyrocketed the title to the top of the bestseller lists when it was originally released in the mid-nineties. Today, though, with the virus making news headlines and scaring the crap out of anyone who reads the paper or watches CNN, the book has become somewhat dated.
The Hot Zone isn’t a horrible book. The first half of the story is incredibly fast-paced, and I really enjoyed the anecdotal medical explanations of exposures to the family of filoviruses that set the scene for what took place in Reston. The language isn’t riddled with all sorts of unintelligible scientific information that keep the action from moving forward. The characters (especially the Jaax family) were mostly identifiable. And, as with any book I’ve read that details the effects of inexplicable and untreatable illness (think Captain Trips in The Stand), I was terribly worried that I could, at any moment begin exhibiting signs and symptoms of some sort of African hemorrhagic fever. The problem is that the book could have been so much better. At least it was a fairly quick and easy read.
I only lent this one two stars on Goodreads, which is probably the lowest rating I’ve given a book since I started using the app. I am curious to hear from anyone out there who has read Preston’s work in the past or has a sudden interest in picking this one up now that it’s once again become a topical talking point.
August, 2014 — The Long Walk — Richard Bachman (Stephen King) — 1979
For several months, I have run into a continuing problem with weekends that aren’t pre-filled with a long list of meetings and a litany of things that I simply must do: not spending my time doing as close to nothing as possible. When I write that I want to do nothing, what I actually mean is that I really like the idea of sleeping late (past nine o’clock) and spending the day wearing pajamas, laying on the couch and binge-watching a series on Netflix, HBO GO, or Showtime OnDemand, reading, and working on new developments in my Stories from the 318 series. For the most part, this vision of the perfect weekend is never realized. I always get to the point of feeling somewhat guilty for staying in bed once the sun is out. I force myself to go knock out errands that I usually only have weekends to tackle. I grocery shop. I go to events so that I don’t feel like I’m letting someone down. And I inevitably spend Sunday evening complaining to myself that here I’ve let another weekend go by without actually doing what I wanted to do.
None of this was the case for the past seventy-two hours, probably the best weekend spent since going to the LASCYPAA conference in Monroe with my fellow YPAA’s. Of course, I did make it to the market to grab a few things that I’d have gone blind and crazy without having on hand and I stopped by the Shreveport outlet of The Thrifty Peanut to pick up a copy of one of the next books in my chronological Stephen King reading challenge. But for the most part, I stayed indoors. I spent most of Friday night on the couch watching a Nurse Jackie marathon. I cleaned my bathroom and went for a good run last night. And I read. So much so that, for the first time in almost a year, I started a book on Friday night and finished it before the weekend was through (only about an hour ago), just in time to update my blog and get something posted on Henry Harbor.
The seventh book in my Stephen King endeavor, The Long Walk was originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, and it is a work that is filled with many notions similar to those first developed in the first published Bachman book, Rage. It’s a futuristic foray into a game show of sorts (minus the cameras and televised coverage) that pits 100 young men together on an interminably grueling journey on foot that begins at the border between Canada and Maine. The adolescents are all well versed in the many rules of the game (maintain a pace of no less than four miles per hour, stay on the road, take assistance only from the guards, and don’t physically interfere with other Walkers), but none are prepared for the emotional and psychological effects that are just as taxing as the physically exhausting challenge. If one breaks one of the rules, he receives a warning followed by a second and a third — all only seconds apart — before being shot (and killed) by one of the armed guards keeping track of the Walkers’ paces.
As the Long Walk proceeds south from the Canadian border, a series of bonds are forged between several of the characters and the mental and physical exhaustion forces many of the young men to begin revealing bits and pieces of their souls to one another, describing their motivations for participation and exposing their many fears about life and death.
The Long Walk is a sort of breathless read, reminiscent of a short story from King’s Night Shift collection, The Ledge, which literally made my feet go cold and palms sweat profusely as I read it. The guys are all accessible and easily likable, reminding me of people that I’ve known in my life, and every gunshot that brings an end to one of them as their muscles spasm, their brains hemorrhage, their shoes fall apart, and their psyches crumble towards insanity is one that made my stomach drop. Of the ten or so core characters, there were three that I actually hoped to win, praying that somehow they could all come out alive. Unfortunately, this is Stephen King territory, and that’s not how the story goes… not even close.
Published in 1979 as Stephen King was riding the bestselling success of seminal works such as The Shining and The Stand, there was likely little reason for anyone who happened to read this story published by a man named Bachman to conclude that the two writers were the same; however, as someone reading the book this far into the future and with a keen eye for the themes and language of the master of literary horror, the similarities are amazing. Interestingly, the one work that feels most comparable to The Long Walk isn’t King’s popular dip into the horrors of adolescence, Carrie, but his second (and still my favorite) novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. There are even phrases that stood out to me to such a degree from his Peyton Place-with-vampires horror story that appear verbatim in this tale of suspense (although the phrases appear in the thoughts of Father Callahan in the former and in one of the sexually ambiguous young men in the latter).
That being written, I’m sure that I never would have assumed that the two authors were the same person, even if I happened to read the two novels back-to-back — I simply would’ve assumed that it was merely a matter of literary coincidence.
Good book. Well worth the five starts I gave it on Goodreads.
August, 2014 — The Stand — Stephen King — 1978
I started this one in April, swapping from the uncut edition that was released twelve years after the shorter version (the volume I actually read) was published, but it took me more than four months to finish the full tome from cover to cover. My reason for the switch to the original edition — the one to blame, if you will — is my sister, Missy, who gave me a boxed set of the first four books in The Dark Tower series for Christmas two years ago. I’ve blogged this story once before, but I feel it’s necessary to reiterate so that any readers (do I have any?) will understand why I opted to read the far less cumbersome version of the book rather than the full story that Stephen King intended people to read.
Everyone I know who has an equal passion for the man who taught me to have a love for literature has pushed me to read the full epic series of Dark Tower books that so many consider King’s magnum opus, but I’ve always had a sort of aversion to the works because they appear to fall more into the realm of science fiction or fantasy and don’t present themselves as straight, true, and forthright horror. In other words, they’re not necessarily “classic King” works, the sort that put the man on the map and made him one of the most widely read names in literary history. In spite of these notions, I picked up The Gunslinger, read it in only a night or two, and completed it feeling somewhat confused. People tell me that The Dark Tower books pull everything that King has ever written together, but I didn’t get it. What’s more, the voice was different. It didn’t feel like I was reading a Stephen King story. Nothing like Carrie or The Shining, definitely nothing like ‘Salem’s Lot.
So, I made a decision at the start of 2013. If I was going to (eventually) read all the books from The Dark Tower series, I would read them in the order that they were published. What’s more, I’d take my time reading everything that Stephen King has ever published in chronological order.
That decision was a year and a half ago.
I’m only six books in.
But I persevere.
And I have to be honest about something. Maybe it’s because I didn’t sit down to read The Stand from cover to cover, finishing it in one giant gulp over a series of nights to get the full effect of the story in its entirety. And maybe it’s because I had higher expectations. But the truth is that I really didn’t love The Stand as much as everyone else. I only rated it four stars out of five, and I don’t think I’d put it in my top five of the Stephen King books I’ve read (Note: I’m re-reading several titles that I’ve already read in an effort to truly complete the full endeavor and hopefully to fulfill this weird need that I have to prove my love to the world that King has created).
The first three hundred pages of The Stand are phenomenal, maybe even epic. The character sketches are interesting and well-planned. The stories of the plague-ridden countryside are engrossing and allow for the reader to turn the pages with intrigue and gusto. Unfortunately, something changes somewhere before the halfway point of the novel, and although the story continues to pull the reader in, some of the magic was lost. What’s worse — and this is really only one reader’s opinion — the meat and substance of the story (the actual creepy portions that seethe with that special blend of storytelling and horror) ends well before the novel is actually concluded. What remains is more the tale of one of the final remnants while too many of the other characters have been killed off (several in a literal deus ex machina) and several others have been simply forgotten.
My hope is that when I come to read the complete and uncut edition (probably twelve years from now at the rate I’m moving), I’ll have a little resolve and a greater appreciation for the work that so many King lovers consider one of his best.
July, 2014 — The Eternal Enemy — Christopher Pike — 1992
The past three months have been incredibly busy for me, both personally and professionally. I spent the majority of June and July barely making it home before 9:00 every night, and my time was stretched to a painfully thin line. I sprained my ankle at the beginning of the summer, tried to juggle sixty-plus hours of a work week with meetings, a weekend trip to a conference in Monroe, a string of extracurricular obligations, and an attempt at cementing a new health consciousness into my daily routine. Every time things seemed to be moving in the right direction, something would happen that would put me three steps back. There were preparations for a major trial at work, taking care of my dog when she injured her neck, two power outages, and the night I was dashing down my hallway and heard the exquisitely sickening snapping noise that the littlest piggy makes when it collides with the foot of a love seat and results in a broken toe.
In other words, I’ve been busier than I have been in at least two years; therefore, I haven’t been writing as much. I haven’t been painting as much. I haven’t been dating at all. I barely have time to cook. And leisure reading has been relegated to something that I was doing in the fraction of an hour between the time my head hit the pillow and exhaustion won out.
I started Stephen King’s The Stand in late spring, and I have yet to complete it. I bought a copy of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers after watching the pilot episode on HBO, but that one’s sitting on an end table. And right when I finally realized that I am just going to have to start forcing the issue and making time for all these things that I love so much but seem to be allowing to slip through my fingertips for the sake of responsibility (I swore I’d never become this guy), I wanted to read something quick, something light, and something that wouldn’t require a tremendous amount of effort for completion in the space of about two or three hours. During times like these, I fall back on one of my favorite old stand-by’s, an author whose work is written for the young adult crowd, but probably more appreciated by a decidedly older group. Long before vampires and werewolves became the stuff of tween dreams, there was (and still very much is) a man who writes under the name Christopher Pike, and never once has one of his novels let me down.
I have a habit of picking up his books any time I find used copies of the old editions I read when I was younger. Sometimes I run across titles I’ve already read, but there are times that I find some that I don’t recall having ever even seen before. The latter was the case for the book that I picked up and completed one evening last week.
It’s a simple plot. Pretty standard Pike fare. Adolescent angst in the form of a California girl named Rela is outlined as the main character is presented as totally normal and experiencing all the same highs and lows as every other teenager in the world. In other words, a totally average person such as one you may pass in a drive-through or stand in line beside at the supermarket; however, chance puts this ordinary person into extraordinary circumstances. In the case of Rela, she gets her hands on a VCR (the book was published in 1992, guys) that records news broadcasts that have yet to air. Rela, of course, forces readers to suspend disbelief as she takes her knowledge of game scores to Vegas and plays the odds to bet in the hundreds and win in the thousands. She tries to stop major disasters from occurring and she initially tries to use the power of her VCR for the good. Unfortunately, there’s more going on than she realizes and the second half of the book is an extended foray into time travel, physics, computers, and the fallibility of mankind at the hands of the eternal enemy: fear.
Definitely not Pike’s best work (although I haven’t read most of this stuff in more than twenty years), but it wasn’t a bad read.
And just what I needed to cleanse my tongue before I move on to something else.
June, 2014 — Jacqueline Susann’s Shadow of the Dolls — Rae Lawrence — 2001
I was first introduced to the world of trash fiction while I was being bullied through the eighth grade at Caddo Middle Magnet. I’d like to blame my friend, Bijal, for the swift trajectory that my reading habits took — from the worlds of fantasy and the macabre to the land of glitz, glamour, and extremely graphic sex — since it was she who pushed the first Jackie Collins book my way, but I was a wholly willing participant and quickly became enthralled by reading roman-a-clef masterpieces from men and women who lived among the jet set and wrote about their lives. Since those pubescent years when I first learned the proper way to perform oral sex on the pilot of a private plane after scattering my multi-millionaire husband’s ashes (Judith Krantz’s Scruples), gained some idea of what it was like to be the recipient of anal sex from a violent male prostitute (Chances by Jackie Collins), and discovered that sometimes it’s better to just let a first love die (Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight), I have constantly vacillated between the genres of horror and science fiction, contemporary fanfare, post-modern nihilism, and — of course — trash.
Naturally, no true glam-aficionado can truly call himself such unless he has read the granddaddy of these books (although Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was a sort of precursor, as was the scandalously bestselling Peyton Place), Jacqueline Susann’s late sixties epic of foul language, kinky sex, and massive quantities of illicit drugs, Valley of the Dolls. I saw the movie before I’d ever known a book existed, but once I laid my hands on a copy, I devoured the novel from cover-to-cover.
I love the author’s back story, the way she worked to fill her tale with everything that no one was writing about at the time, and the fact that the many characters were based on real life celebrities. I loved Anne Welles and the story of her poorly chosen romance with Lyon Burke. I loved Jennifer North and the tribulations of her discovery that she’s fallen in love with (and married) a man nobody has any idea is basically mentally retarded. I loved the descriptions of their sexual exploits, the wild parties they attended, and the rocketing paths to superstardom that their celebrities took.
More than anything or anyone presented in Jacqueline Susann’s penultimate bestseller, I loved Neely O’Hara.
Neely was everything I wanted to be. She was a rags-to-riches actress, singer, and performer who managed to surround herself with beautiful, charismatic men (and managed to marry a closet case), rose to the top through sheer talent, and put her hands on a long list of major awards that recognized her talent. Unfortunately, Neely was equally a cautionary character whose life was (kinda obviously) modeled on the life of Judy Garland. At the height of her career, Neely is a full-fledged alcoholic dependent on a variety of pills (her “dolls,” which give the book it’s well-known title). Neely’s story is a roller coaster ride of pith and penance, redemption and despair, addiction and recovery, relapse and despondence. It’s the greatest and most famous of the three interconnecting tales that take place in Valley of the Dolls.
Neely’s story is the reason for wanting a sequel, the reason the original book became so popular, and the reason that Rae Lawrence’s follow-up novel never quite grabs the reader by the balls and takes them down to the bowels of celebrity the way it should. Although I cannot, in good conscience, totally condemn the sequel to one of my top-ten favorite books of all time, I do believe that the publishing house should likely have just left well enough alone. By the end of the original work, one of the three women is dead of a drug-induced suicide; one of them is flailing in the horrors of addiction, and one is quickly on her way to stagnating as a pill-popping New York City socialite, stuck in a loveless marriage to a man who will never remain faithful.
The sequel does none of the follow-up stories true justice. What’s more, Lawrence chose to fast-forward the entire tale several years into the future, not aging the remaining characters to where they would logically be in the 1980′s, but literally picking up right where Susann’s original work left off in a weird retcon that brings Neely, Anne, and Lyon from the interesting world of 1960′s America to the ugly fallow land of the Reagan years and fiscal irresponsibility.
I spent the majority of the book hoping that Anne would become a more interesting character (she never does) and waiting for Neely to get back on the sauce and start swallowing codeine like its candy (she does, but she’s a really boring drug addict here, nothing like the raging shrew from the original book).
Don’t get me wrong, in reality I don’t like to hear about ill-fated romances, catfights, crushing blows to peoples’ self-esteem, or individuals who lose everything and are forced to turn to baring it all in pornos to help pay their husband’s mental institution bills… but this is fiction. The world of make-believe. These books are supposed to be all about fantasy and exploitation. I want to read about sex, drugs, and partying, and — to be perfectly honest — Shadow of the Dolls was an incredible let-down.
…by the way… I’m still not all the way through The Stand, but I’m getting there…
May, 2014 — The Stand (continued) — Stephen King — 1978 — Page 334 of 823
Sunday night, while watching BookTV on CSPAN2 and eating the early snacks that comprise a typical Memorial Day feast, I was taken aback when the gentleman being interviewed about his summer reading list mentioned that he typically reads one book a week. I feel guilty in moments like that. After all, I’m a writer. And writers really ought to read as much as possible. Editing articles that I mostly grudgingly proofread and snippets from Buzzfeed quizzes really don’t count. I read a lot, but I have found lately that my reading is coming more in spurts. Rarely a night goes by when I don’t fall asleep, barely able to hold the novel I’m currently devouring while unconsciousness threatens to overtake me, but I haven’t been doing nearly as much of the languishing-ly leisurely stuff lately.
Partly because I’m totally inundated with Henry Harbor and work and all the various extracurricular involvements that I just can’t seem to get myself away from. Partly because by the time the moment to begin to relax rolls around, I find myself thinking of the long list of other things I really need to be accomplishing. Mostly because I haven’t forced myself to just sit back and enjoy the time that comes with spending a few hours in the company of a good book. All of it combines with that old bitch-of-a-boss, time, to prevent me from engaging fully in all the endeavors I wish I were able to accomplish more feverishly and more effectively, reading being the number one.
In spite of all this, I can’t help reminding myself that I’m a pretty good guy, and I’m not exactly in danger of failing at life; however, I need to push myself back on track with the millions of titles I want to read before I die, and the only way I’m going to accomplish that task is to do it with greater dedication.
I started reading The Stand at the end of April. Here it is, the end of May, and I’m still not halfway through. I’ve vacillated between the two existing editions of the book, but finally settled on the slimmer hard copy because it is the novel in its original form, and my goal is to read everything that the author has published in chronological order. The complete and uncut edition didn’t come for many years — and with many titles in between — following the publication of the novel in its original form, so I decided to stick with it the way it was originally put out.
In case you’re following along, I’m at a point where the story has just begun to introduce Mother Abigail as an actual character rather than a symbol of something appearing to survivors in dreams. Harold and Frannie have connected with Stu. Larry has joined up with Nadine and Joe. And the Dark Man has helped Lloyd in escaping from prison. Everyone is headed to either Nebraska or to Vegas, and the stage is set for something of truly Biblical proportions to hit.
I’ll try for another update before the very end of the month, but I’m not sure that I’ll be able to add this title to my list of completed books until June has arrived; however, ya never really know. I could end up with a few straight hours of time to sit and relax and read the great story I currently have waiting for me on my nightstand.
Hoping everyone is reading well.
May, 2014 — The Stand (continued) — Stephen King — 1978 — Page 282 of 1,439
Something tells me I will be writing about this book for a bit more into the month of May. In all fairness, it is the “complete and uncut” edition and cashes in at more than 1,400 pages, but the truth is that if I were able to allow myself to stop a little bit earlier in the evening and to make more time for doing the only thing I enjoy more than writing (and sex — but that’s not really a blip on the radar these days), I would probably have made greater progress than being only about one-fourth of my way into this massive tome.
Between work and meetings, extracurricular involvements and maintaining healthy relationships (as a matter of fact, last night my friend Ryan remarked: “and God help you if you got a boyfriend right now” — seriously, where would I put him???), furnishing my apartment and completing various arts projects, spending time with Mary Louise and Henry Harbor… I don’t really know where I breathe. Add in healthy and well-deserved nights such as last night’s foray into the garden of nocturnal delights at the Pink Party and the after hours business that followed and it’s probably a wonder to most people where I find time to eat, sleep, and get from point A to point B.
I can ALWAYS find the time to make the time for Stephen King, and as I’m reaching the meat of the story of The Stand, I can see that this was the novel in which he really found his voice as a storyteller. Much more than a novelist creating stories of the strange and the unusual, Stephen King knows how to suck his readers in. Tearing through the pages of his book, one doesn’t feel so much that he’s reading the work of sheer genius that he’s holding in his hands so much as he feels that he’s sitting down with the writer to have a drink and listen to him describe the actions, the events, and the people as if he really knows who they are. It’s a gift, something that only readers and lovers of his works can truly understand. He digresses at times, goes off on separate points of interest to really give the full back stories of the people involved, but he does so in such a way that it doesn’t feel as if he’s padding the work with all sorts of extraneous information irrelevant to the circumstances. It’s all part of the treat that comes with reading his words. There’s some sort of comfort here.
Still in Book One (“Captain Trips“), a wide array of characters have been introduced. Some of them are dead. Most of them are sick. All of them have been affected by the super flu raging from one coast of the United States to the other. Frannie’s pregnant, of course, and it looks like she has no other choice at this point but to keep the baby. Nick seems to be the last man left in the little town in southern Arkansas. Stu is stuck in the government facility. Lloyd is learning about life in prison and the probability of his impending death sentence. Larry Underwood is wondering a desolate New York landscape plagued by the last vestiges of sane (but mostly insane) vagrants. And the stories of a government collapse are rampant.
The most interesting aspect of the story so far (and there are plenty from which to select) is that of the shared dreams of this handful of people who seem to be unaffected by the plague wiping out the majority of the human population.
I’m eager to keep reading and interested to see where this one goes.
April, 2014 — The Stand — Stephen King — 1978
Following the unapologetic waste that was Fifty Shades of Grey, I desperately needed to cleanse my palate with the sorbet that is Stephen King — there’s nothing better than getting back to the roots of what really got me to be a reader in the first place, and it’s been several months since I dipped my nose into one of the grand tomes from the modern master of storytelling. Probably because of the Stephen King in 2013 debacle. But the idea was something of an incredible endeavor. And a goal I never should have set for myself in the first place.
For Christmas 2012, my sister got me a boxed set of the first four books in the Dark Tower series, something that she and every other lover of Stephen King swears to be his magnum opus, his greatest work; however, in spite of being exposed to the author in the second grade (by the same chick who gave me the great Christmas present), I’d never once opened a single one of these particular volumes. I just assumed that it was in a realm of his mind that I never really cared to enter. There are others that fall into this sub-genre of his work. The Talisman and The Eyes of the Dragon are two other titles that come to mind. I’m an old school horror fan. I was raised on Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Stephen King’s haunted hotel and the story of Pennywise the Clown. I love the idea that “we all float down here” and the fact that “the Overlook hotel has a kind of a shine to it.” I loved watching Chris pull the cord and the bucket of pig blood dropping onto Sissy Spacek’s prom dress and Dee Wallace clutching her son in the stark heat of summer as a rabid dog attacks the car. I delight in picking out which one of the female actresses will end up being the final girl in the movie and outwitting the stalker. I like my terror fiction filled with ghosts and rain and misty evenings and demonic possessions and things that go bump in the night. I didn’t want my image of King tainted by fantasy and/or the suggestion of (gasp!) speculative fiction.
My sister was insistent, and she couldn’t wait for me to start reading so that I could find out what everyone else had so often told me: the Dark Tower series ties together every word and every work that the master of modern horror fiction has ever written. Any self-respecting fan MUST read them. Otherwise, he or she falls short.
So I started with The Gunslinger.
And I didn’t get it.
I didn’t dislike the book. I just noticed that the language was different. The story was different. And nothing on the pages felt inviting or familiar, like coming home to the old friend that exists in most of Stephen King’s work.
The worst part was that I knew I was supposed to get it. And I was supposed to love it. So I figured there was something missing, and there was only one way to really get it the way everyone else did: read everything that Stephen King published, in chronological order, and write about it in my blog along the way. That’s what anyone else would do, right?
Well, I made it all the way through his first short story collection, Night Shift. All of the books, with the exception of Rage — which he published under his pseudonym from his early career — were some that I’d read before. I enjoyed going back, remembering, and picking up on aspects that I missed the first go-round.
Unfortunately, I fell off the wagon sometime around Thanksgiving of last year, and I went on a Stephen King-free diet. I never got around to the next title in the chronological bibliography, The Stand.
So, here I am again. Giving this whole strict Stephen King diet another shot, and I want to encourage everyone to read along with me. I’m currently about two hundred pages into the “complete and uncut” edition, and I’m excited because this is one of his works that I’ve started several times in my life and never completely finished.
Maybe with a little accountability from you guys, I’ll make it all the way through this particular goal (and get back on the blog that started it all: People Are Afraid to Merge in LA.
April, 2014 — Fifty Shades of Grey — E.L. James — 2011
For a work that combines two of my favorite things, reading and sex, one might think that this blockbuster of a “novel” would be right up my alley. It has all the trappings of the perfect scenario for pure escapist enchantment.
There’s the billionaire owner of a multi-level conglomerate who just happens to be the hottest physical specimen of idolatry and sexual prowess since Ryan Gosling buffed up and found a following. There’s the incredibly accessible setting in the Pacific Northwest. There’s the bookish English major of a heroine thrown into the thick of things by chance. And there’s the promise that the book that I’m holding in my hands is guaranteed to inspire hours and days and months of fodder for every possible future sexual exploit that could possibly compare to the scenes created by the literary world’s current schlock maven, E.L. James. Unfortunately, this particular tale is a completely unbelievable and unapologetic work of absolute drivel.
Am I supposed to believe that Anastasia is not only such a complete virgin that she’s never even shared a kiss with another human being, but also just waiting for the perfect guy to come along and awaken her inner sexual masochist?
Really? On the cusp of graduating from a prominent institution of higher learning and she’s never had even one single drunken moment of reckless disregard? Okay… I’ll accept that.
But this Vestal Virgin who has never gone so far as to at least being felt up is not only totally willing, but also an excessively curious entrant to the world of being a consecrated, owned, and submissive sex slave to a dude she’s just met?
Really? Ana was barely shocked when Christian took her into his incredibly well thought-out and fully stocked dungeon. In fact, she was written as being more than moderately curious and almost excited to sign on the dotted line… okay… I’ll buy it.
But it was the defloration scene, Anastasia’s ready and willing acceptance of the fact that Christian is just going to go ahead and take her virginity — as gently as a sadist such as he is capable — that really robbed the book of all my respect, interest, and attention.
The morning-after blowjob in the bathtub was the icing on the cake that left me shutting the cover and tossing this one on my bedside table (I didn’t say I wouldn’t possibly find some inspiration in it at some point — I just don’t want to complete the reading of the full text). This prim and practically frigidly chaste chick had suddenly found that all her walls were broken down and her fears so completely allayed that she was willing to submit to performing an act that — sorry, people — takes time, patience, and practice, not natural-born talent.
I don’t think so.
What’s more, the book is so poorly written that I shuddered at the constant allusions and references to Thomas Hardy and Tess of the D’urbervilles.
And the filthy stuff? Not all that great. I mean, I’ve had better text sex with dudes that I exchanged numbers with in a bar than that which is described on the pages of this book.
Why is this Grey guy so popular? And do girls really get turned on imagining themselves in the role of Ana?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love sex. I love having it. I love talking about it. I love reading about it. I love watching it. And I love hearing about it. But the story described in Fifty Shades of Grey is so incredibly far-fetched that I found it utterly impossible to suspend my disbelief long enough to finish it.
If you guys want to know how a really good sadomasochistic story is written, stay tuned to Stories from the 318. I can guarantee it will be far more realistic, at least.
Not even dignifying this selection with a review on Goodreads.
April, 2014 — Naked — David Sedaris — 1977
So, I deviated from the plan, which was to finish Anna Karenina (I WILL NOT BE A SECOND-CLASS MEMBER OF THE LITERATI! I WILL NOT BE BEATEN BY TOLSTOY!!!) and then move onto the E.L. James porno before the next meeting of the Super Secret & Ultra Selective Book Club. Instead, I was prompted by my new-found love for Jonathan Groff and his character on HBO‘s Looking to do an IMDb search for anything and everything that he’s ever been in (hopefully naked) and discovered C.O.G. is streaming on Netflix.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I DO NOT SEE THE MOVIE FIRST. It’s practically against my religion for a variety of reasons. The book is almost always better (The Silence of the Lambs being one of the few exceptions to this rule). The actors are never anything like what I imagine (c’mon, Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne in the coming film of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl??!). Most of the things that read as perfectly believable require major suspension of disbelief on the big screen (Scott Smith’s The Ruins, for example). Furthermore, if it was good enough to be made into a movie (or a television series — I still haven’t watched a single episode of True Blood because I want to read the books first), then there’s gotta be something really great going on in the pages of the author’s original work, especially living in an age of new ideas that are few and far between and mostly remakes of movies that were already good to begin with.
So, I want to watch C.O.G., and I read that it’s based on an essay by David Sedaris that appears in his book, Naked. Naturally, I run out and get a copy and I’m instantly left wondering why I took so long to read something by this genius in its entirety. Sedaris is one of those guys that I always hear about, someone I’ve listened to on NPR, someone whose work I’ve really only read in snippets and excerpts here and there. I know him mainly through his sister, Amy, whose Comedy Central series, Strangers with Candy prompted me to make one of the greatest purchases of all time, her coffee table book on home entertaining, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, and I’ll go ahead and admit that I was a bad gay and didn’t go see the author when he brought his wisdom to Shreveport (which is probably on the top ten list of things that will never happen again). This is a decision I will forever regret.
If there’s one thing I can say for certain about the Sedaris family, it is that I have never been more jealous of not being a part of a bloodline since I briefly fell in love with the Mackenzie, Ewing, Sumner, and Avery families from Knots Landing when I watched every episode in syndication during my high school days.
Blending a sort of sardonic, backhanded wit with anecdotes that are too crazy to not be totally true, Sedaris gives his readers just enough information about his childhood, the twisted family dynamics, his first forays into homosexuality, and living his late adolescence and early adulthood as an irresponsible bohemian traveling the country and living off the fat of the land (and an apple orchard). I found myself admiring his bravery, his courage, and most of all, his honesty. He really has lived a life that most of us can only dream about having the ability to write about.
As the essays progress, they become less and less laugh-out-loud funny (after the story outlined in the seventh entry, True Detective, the humor sort of jumped the shark, but the power of his storytelling remained); however, it’s really a great read all the way through. The book took me a little longer to finish than it ought to have, but that’s really only because my life has recently been muddled and befuddled with… well… life.
Regardless, I looked forward to each and every page and I couldn’t wait to open it up to read another of the entries every night before bed.
As of the time of this writing, I still haven’t seen C.O.G., but after reading the story, I realize it’s doubtful that Jonathan Groff (who plays Sedaris in the movie) will have reason to bare himself in any more glory than he already has on t.v. unless the plot deviates drastically from the contents of the scenes that the author described as having happened to him.
I only gave this one four stars on Goodreads. Some of the stories deserved only three while others deserved a perfect rating. I just opted to average out the overall score.
Now… off to take a post-run shower and settle in with this filthy piece of porn, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Anna Karenina will have to wait.
March, 2014 — The Alchemist — Paulo Coelho — 1988
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Had members of The Super Secret & Ultra Selective Book Club not opted to read this one, I doubt I ever would have given it a second glance. Symbolic and esoteric forays into the lives of men and women on spiritual quests toward some form of enlightenment are not really my cup of tea, and such pieces are definitely not my typical go-to when selecting leisure reading material; however, the point of the above-referenced book club is to pick up options that we wouldn’t normally read (hence the first book that we never finished which I am now attempting to do so on my own: Anna Karenina).
I don’t remember who threw this title out there… Jamie? Sarah? Christina? For some reason, it seems more like an Angie pick than anyone, but I could be wrong. What’s more, whoever gave us the suggestion doesn’t matter. What matters is that every human being alive needs to invest two or three hours of their lives in the reading of this brief, magical story of wonder and profound effect.
Translated from the native pen of its Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist tells the story of a shepherd in the hills of Andalusia who doesn’t realize that he is not living up to the full capacity of his potential by not following his greatest dreams – the catalyst of the realization being a literal dream that sends him on a simple, but incredible journey across two continents to a destination that literally gave me chills as I finished it.
Replete with hundreds of meaningful quotes and valuable lessons on life, The Alchemist is a wonderful story for everyone who thinks that they’ve waited too long in life to fulfill all the goals that they set for themselves early on. It took me a couple of consecutive nights to complete the book, and I instantly called my mom to ask her if I could bring her my copy right then. I wanted her to read it as soon as possible, which I’m sure is the same reaction that most people have when they’ve finished the work.
Henry Harbor readers seem to be men and women who don’t only enjoy reading, but also enjoy gaining insight into the means toward deeper levels of thought and higher-ordered processing. I feel certain that many of the people following this blog have already experienced this one, but if you are one who hasn’t, grab a copy as soon as possible and tear through the pages.
There isn’t a disappointing word in the entire book.
It’s never too late, and the only losses are those wherein success was never pursued.
Five stars on Goodreads.
March, 2014 — Let Me In — John Ajvide Lindqvist — 2004
This was one of the books that was sitting on my to-read shelf for at least two years. I picked it up once in 2012 and again last year, and both times I only made it about sixty pages in before putting it down to move onto something else. Not because it’s not well written — it is. Not because it’s not totally engrossing — it also is that. In fact, this is one of the rare horror novels that I put down to pick something else up and now wish that I’d read it all the way through the first time I started it.
Let Me In is a horror novel with a heart. It’s interesting, creepy, and incredibly endearing in spite of the overall mood and plotting that, in any other writer’s hands, may have been contrived, or even silly.
The heart of the story is a very strange friendship-cum-romance that develops between a bullied adolescent with a tendency toward living his life through fantasy and the new neighbor girl who has just moved into the apartment complex where the bullied kid lives with his single mother. In Eli, Oskar develops a kinship unlike any he has ever experienced, he meets the first real friend he has ever had. In the meantime, a series of strange murders and attacks have the entire community locking their doors, a twisted and obsessed pedophile is roaming the streets, and a group of alcoholics is faced with the knowledge that one of their kinsmen has been killed by a creature that is not entirely human.
Set in the very early 1980′s, the characters are obsessed with shoplifting and Kiss albums, sniffing glue and Rubik’s Cubes. The adults are mostly absent from raising their children and everyone is more worried about keeping with the curfew than actually looking in the direction the clues to the crimes are pointing them. It’s part soap opera, part romance, part social commentary, and very dark, Gothic terror. Definitely the best novel I’ve read so far this year.
Anyone who heard I was reading this told me that both films are great (there’s a Swedish version and an updated American version), but I’ve yet to see either of them.
Have any of you read the book? Seen one or both of the films? Let me know what you think.
February, 2014 — The Sentinel — Jeffrey Knovitz — 1974
There are really only two problems that I have with this book. The first is that the edition I read was filled with multiple glaring grammatical errors and typos. Being something of a stickler for this sort of thing, I was more than a little distracted from the text every time I ran across one of them. The second, and only other, problem that I have with the novel is that I saw the movie when I was young. Though I remember the film fondly, having a knowledge of everything that is going to occur (almost scene-by-scene — Michael Winner’s film is a faithful adaptation of its source material) spoils any real sense of shock and surprise, both of which this story has in large doses.
Released during the great period for horror fiction that was the 1970′s, The Sentinel is all about a lovely model named Alison Parker who has just returned to New York after being away for several months during the death of her father. Already saddled with a tenuous grip on good psychological health, Alison makes a series of bad choices upon her return, not the least of which includes moving into an old apartment building that is filled with a litany of colorful tenants. The men and women who subsequently come into Alison’s life include a nosy, old man with the countenance of a prune, a pair of outrageously exhibitionistic lesbian ballerinas, a set of mismatched twin sisters, and a strange old couple who make their newest neighbor exceedingly uncomfortable. Plagued by the sound of things going bump in the night, increasingly debilitating migraine headaches, and sudden, seizure-like attacks, Alison slowly loses the last bastion of sanity that she possesses, and the secrets of the apartment building, its history, and the story of the men and women living there comes to the surface.
There’s a rather unsatisfactory subplot involving the possible murder of Alison’s boyfriend’s ex-wife, but I understand why the writer included it. The outcome makes perfect sense to the energy and progression of the novel. At the most chilling points, the book echoes the voices of Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty, who had similar, Satan-themed hits with Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist around the same time. Konvitz isn’t as great as either of those two, but he’s not bad at the craft either.
I rated this one four stars on Goodreads, but it may very well have been three. Not the best horror novel I’ve ever read, but definitely not the worst. It’s worth the few days it takes to complete, and is definitely a page-turner that will keep many readers up past their bedtimes.
February, 2014 — The Andromeda Strain — Michael Crichton — 1969
Two summers ago, I read the true crime book Helter Skelter, and it really freaked me out. Although the crimes perpetrated by what Charles Manson affectionately called his “family” were both terrifying and horrendous, the things that those men and women wanted and planned to do were, to some degree, even worse. At one point, the ravings of murderess Susan Atkins are detailed as the author describes the various atrocities that she had wanted to go back to perform at the home of Sharon Tate, hours after the untimely and gruesome death of the actress and several of her house guests. As the investigation continued and authorities became aware of the fact that there was a seemingly endless list of other people on the family’s “hit” list, many of whom the killers were within minutes of reaching before changing their minds or altering the course of their evil deeds, the police have to make a decision as to whether or not they will bring these people into their case. Fortunately, law enforcement decided to drop the idea of contacting the many would-be victims – they felt it would only create an even greater prevailing sense of fear in them; it was probably best that none of them ever know how dangerously close to death they had been on those hot, August nights in 1969.
Along this same vein, Michael Crichton’s first major work, The Andromeda Strain, left me wondering about the validity and accuracy of a government response to the introduction of a lethal microorganism such as that which plays out in this relatively short novel. I speculated as to whether or not underground biological labs exist for the protection and preservation of the world’s population should emergency research and investigation ever be necessary. Probably so. In fact, I hope so. I also hope that if such an event as the biological disaster playing out in this techno-thriller (one of the first) were ever to occur, the federal government will have its best, brightest, and most dedicated scientists and medical specialists working to stop the potential spread and subsequent decimation of human life.
Crichton prologues his novel with the disclaimer that he does his best to dumb down many of the scientific facts and ideologies as best he can. Although that’s not the way he words things, that is the general idea, but he fails somewhat. The book is fascinating and thoroughly engrossing (really, a very quick read), but the characters spend far too much time explaining some ideas while totally overlooking many others. One other fault of the novel, though only due to the fact that we are now forty-five years beyond its original publication date, is that many of the charts and diagrams included seem positively prehistoric in consideration of where we stand in our grasp and knowledge of scientific concepts today.
Written and published prior to the lunar landing, the story details the emergency response of a team of scientists when an American satellite lands in a small, sparsely populated town in Arizona, bringing with it a biological contaminant with which the human race has never been in contact. Racing against time, the men work tirelessly to discover what could kill every resident of the town seemingly instantaneously while leaving two survivors who seem to have no common denominators between them. The end result is an enjoyable escape that offers just enough science to prevent your brain from knowing that, at heart, it’s really just reading a bestselling piece of scientific smut.
When the book does well, it does very well. The action is fast-paced. The concept is believable. And the progression of the brief timeline is by no means far-fetched. It definitely earns a score of four out of five stars on my Goodreads page, and I’d really like to read something that’s written in the new millennium which takes into account where we now stand within our civilization and our desire for self-preservation.
January, 2014 — In Cold Blood — Truman Capote — 1966
One of Capote’s two most well-known works (the other being the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I read around Mother’s Day last year), In Cold Blood is a book that has such a tremendous story surrounding its research and publication that two films have been made interpreting the actual work (one version in 1967, a second on television in 1996) and two others describing the circumstances leading to the novel’s publication (2005′s Capote, followed by Infamous a year later).
Capote’s story has its biggest claim on the fame game for being the first major work of its kind ever published. It was the story of a real crime and its aftermath, but written in novel form so that readers unfamiliar with the validity of the events described could easily be fooled into believing that they are reading a work of fiction.
On a Friday the 13th weekend in November of 1959, the book opens with a section that details “The Last to See Them Alive.” It introduces a wealthy, but humble, Kansas family of four as they go about the routine of an average Friday night and Saturday in their lives. Herbert Clutter is a sage farmer who has worked intelligently to build a good life for his wife (who suffers from some form of debilitating mental illness… likely major depressive disorder, although the actual diagnosis is never given), two daughters who have moved away, and the two remaining children still living on the family farm, Nancy and Kenyon. They conduct their business, follow-through on their obligations, and end the cold, windy evening with Nancy’s boyfriend, who leaves the house late that night. Meanwhile, two ex-convicts, Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock, have a day that will converge in the Clutter home in the early hours of Sunday, November 15th, leaving the four members of the Clutter household dead and the tiny community of Holcombe, Kansas shaken to its core.
Because the book is written as a novel, the prose actually delivers a measure of suspense on par with some of the best fictional thrillers ever created. Although the reader knows from the onset that the Clutter family is doomed and that their killers will eventually find themselves at the gallows, Capote manages to rope one in and ensnare one into reading well into the night.
On Goodreads, I wrote a brief review after finishing the book:
“I don’t remember the last time a book had such a profound and significant impact on my daily thoughts. If I didn’t know anything about the story of the Clutter family or know anything about the movie, I may have been even more freaked out than I was. As it stands, having known a bit about the crimes in advance, I was pensive enough. The tale of the murders is a creepy one, having taken place in a somewhat isolated Kansas farm house in the middle of a cold, windy November night… the idea is enough to make one want to be sure that he’s remembered to lock his doors before hitting the sack for the night. What is even more unsettling is the fact that I developed something of a reflective sympathy for the murderers, Perry Smith in particular. I still don’t have a definitive opinion on the death penalty – I tend to vary between pro and con; however, Dick Hickcock gave a fair summation in what my true feelings are toward the issue: if the Clutters were my family, I’d want Smith and Hickcock dead.
I fully understand why this book (a novel, really) is regarded as such a classic. It should be.”
To explain, there were a variety of interesting coincidences that corresponded with the time I spent reading this one. On the weekend prior to reading the last page, I was laying on the floor of the apartment I’d just moved into the week before. Bare of furniture and still waiting to be fully decorated, the one thing I had as my connection to the outside world besides my phone and my laptop was my television. Because I’d just signed up for cable with HBO as my one premium channel (I can’t miss this season of Girls, or the new show they’re airing, Looking), I saw that Infamous (one of the two films depicting the events surrounding the writing of In Cold Blood) was airing.
With the windows of my apartment opened to a chilly night, I laid down on the floor of my living room to watch it before bed. At some point in the narrative, I drifted to sleep and was subsequently awakened during what I can only assume was the film’s climactic scene. Rolling over, somewhere between unconsciousness and being awake, I was not fully in possession of any sense of reality. My ears were filled with the loud sounds of footsteps on the hard floors and stairs of the Clutter family farmhouse, the scattered sound of three gunshots, and the muffled screams of a woman in terror.
I jumped up from where I’d lain on the carpet and reached for the remote to point it toward the television and lower the volume just as the stomach-churning screams of horror were silenced with a gunshot on tv. It was one of those moments where real-life, uncertainty, confusion, and the somber effects of fear all jumbled together, and it took me several moments to realize that I’d been woken by the sounds of the movie, that nothing was taking place outside my opened window, and that I was safe in my comfortable new apartment. Still, I quickly closed the windows and then attempted to get back to sleep for the rest of the night.
The following afternoon, social media was littered with the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman, the brilliant actor who had played Truman Capote in the eponymous 2005 film, had died of a drug overdose. My life is often marked by strange coincidences that have lasting impressions on me, but this was uncanny.
I remember feeling strange as I spent the following few days finishing the book, reading a little before bed every night, but I was glad that I did. In Cold Blood is a classic work of literature, probably one of the more important books of the twentieth century, and it should definitely be read by anyone who enjoys the true crime genre, works by exceptional Southern writers, or anyone who is simply a fan of great literature.
I gave it the five stars it deserves on Goodreads.
January, 2014 — 2001: A Space Odyssey — Arthur C. Clarke — 1968
Something I’ve noticed since high school is that everyone who was really into sci-fi and fantasy has done well with his or her life. I was never much for either of the two genres during adolescence. In fact, I always considered them to be better suited to the types of people I saw reading them. Looking back, I wonder if I had given either or both of these two realms of fiction more of an opportunity, maybe I would have done better with my life a little sooner. Although it’s unlikely that an affinity for science fiction, fantasy, or speculative art leads to a successful life, I definitely notice that there’s been a correlation between the two for the people I’ve known.
Unfortunately, my dis-affinity for this genre also led to me neglecting Stanley Kubrick’s film — far better known than the novel that was written at the same time that the screenplay (co-written by Clarke) was created for the movie). I eventually DVR-ed it one night during Turner Classic Movies‘ 31 Days of Oscar (its special effects garnered a very deserved recognition), only to be permanently angry that I waited so long to see it (and was sober when I did — although never one to reach for psychotropics as a go-to during my misspent twenties, I would have likely made an exception for Kubrick’s masterpiece).
The movie is absolutely stunning, something that really ought to be seen in a theater to be fully appreciated for its visual opulence, its perfect score, and the full experience of everything that Kubrick meticulously implanted onto the celluloid; however, I’m not somebody who really got everything that (I think) Kubrick intended me to grasp, so I discussed several elements with friends who were either Kubrick or sci-fi aficionados, I got on the internet to find explanations, and I re-watched the film to see what it was that I’d missed.
Finally, I made up my mind to just read the book and hope that it would spell out a few of the missing links.
If you haven’t seen the movie, do so at once. If you end the experience feeling blown away but still a bit confused, refer to Arthur C. Clarke’s work. It’s a relatively short read, and it was the perfect way to start off 2014.
The set-up is a bit complicated. Millions of years ago (or was it billions? when we’re talking in the time frame covered in the novel, these spans are incidental for my brain), large, geometrically perfect objects were strategically placed on Earth, the moon, and elsewhere. They become catalysts for advancing the evolution of the human race at various points in the slow progression of time. The objects lead to the “meat” of the novel, the cataclysmic showdown between man and his greatest creation: machine (the HAL computer system for which this work is so famous).
Unless you’re a huge fan of space exploration, speculation, physics, or science fiction, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book, but I do think it’s an important work for every self-respecting bibliophile to at least give a shot.
I rated it four stars on Goodreads, but only because it’s not my usual taste. I’d be very curious to find out what fellow Henry Harborers, Ben, Shannon, and Carlston have to say about the work. It seems like something for which the three of them would have a deep appreciation.
Read it? Seen it? Loved it? Hated it?
Let us know what you think.