The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: May – June 2019

bookshelf books
Titan by John Varley

As I expected with “classic” science fiction, this stuff is just weird. A group of space explorers (including a set of incestuous test-tube twins) find a Dyson sphere that’s part living, part machine. Inside the sphere, our heroes find giant landscapes, geographical features akin to Avatar’s Pandora, and a war between centaurs and angels (their names for these alien beings).

It reminds me of “Jitterbug Perfume” and “The Demolished Man” — critically acclaimed and difficult to understand. And like those books, there’s a lot of unncessary sex in there. It’s really obvious, like the sex was put in there to sell the book.

I’ll be honest, I came here for the centaur sex. But there isn’t any. There’s naked centaurs who have both man junk and horse junk. But that takes the fun out of it. And that’s when the book is going off on weird tangents. You can tell this guy is a gardener, not an architect, but there’s nothing here to sell it.

There’s really no reason to read this book. I didn’t get what I wanted out of it and neither will you. It’s too ridiculous to be considered sci-fi and too scientific to be considered fantasy. I do not recommend it.

The Wrong Unit by Rob Dircks

It’s okay. Not great, but good. It’s pop sci-fi, using tropes like “Robots enslave humanity” and “chosen one” for what’s intended to be humor. The whole of the book is about a lone robot raising a child as they try and travel back to where they came from (a human work camp). As you might tell, this is a book about fathers and sons, and has some heart-warming moments.

It has a sluggy middle and the storyline is pretty predictable. It’s funny at first, but then the concept starts to wear. And that’s the problem with sci-fi humor — it never maintains over a long period of time. The style of humor is most closest to The Big Bang Theory (as in we’re not talking about Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams here). Or maybe I’m just dead inside.

Personally, I couldn’t connect with the characters. Maybe I’m not into novels that take place over long spans of time. But you know, the world needs more humorous sci fi, so I’m going to go ahead and recommend this book.

rolling in the deep mira grant
Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

I’ve decided that, like Jim C. Hines, I’m a fan of the person but not the books.

This is genuine horror, something I rarely see nowadays, but it’s exactly what you expect. A camera crew goes out into the middle of the ocean to make a fakeumentary about mermaids, but wind up being attacked by some real ones. Sounds like every SyFy monster movie.

It takes a long time to get to the point where the action happens, and you don’t really care what happens to the characters. Not because they’re assholes but because a) it’s a novella so there’s not much point to get invested and b) you know everyone’s going to be getting killed. All the characters are kind of the same. They go through no arcs, and there are too many to keep track of. I would have liked more attention on characters like the deaf first mate instead of the blah mockumentary host and the hard-nosed stereotype captain.

One thing I will say is that the ending is very good. It’s hard to do modern cinematic style horror (i.e., swarms of monsters like The Descent or 28 Days Later) and keep it coherent, but that’s why Mira Grant is one of the best in the business. Even if I didn’t like the story, I liked the writing. Again, it could be that I’m dead inside.

The problem is it takes too long to get to that ending. There’s no real build-up or slow burn beforehand. There’s simply nothing but mundane things happening. The characters don’t form relationships with each other, there’s no plot consequences or cause-and-effects.

All in all, it has markings of one of those “straight-to-video” horror movies. But blessed be the short form, because that’s always perfect for horror.

ashes of the phoenix victar
Ashes of the Phoenix by Victar

I previously mentioned reading this many years ago. Someone on Twitter messaged me asking if I had the fic since Victar’s website has since shut down (RIP). I gave him what material I had and that reminded me that I had never really finished construction on the electronic version of the book that I had created–I needed to read it through. And so I did.

It’s still as good as I remember, and it’s great picking up things I missed the first 2-3 times I read it. This is the way I want to write, with interesting characters, good pacing, and satisfying character arcs. But maybe a little shorter (with notes, it’s 336,000 words).

dear evan hansen val emmich
Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich

My first impressions were that this is another “whiny kid” YA book. What I mean by that is it tries to make the character identifiable and relatable by immediately making him an social outcast with no friends and low self-esteem… except that every YA story is like that, so it gets grating. It’s as cliche as the “bully” trope (which this book also has). But the problem is… it works. He feels like I felt back then, struggling to break out of a shell, anxious and depressed all the time. I can’t imagine how easy it is to stay in your fortress after cable modems and wireless connections. But I’m digressing.

There are typical YA topics like suicide and social stature. As I read on, it didn’t really get better. One thing about introverts is that we don’t say much, but we put a lot of weight in what we do say. That means we act with integrity when we speak. No hemming or hawing. No lies. And we have a dedication to the truth, to the point of correcting others just to have something to say. Evan Hansen doesn’t act like this. He picks up an idiot ball and runs with it to the end of the novel.

In fact, I might say that this is the quintessential YA novel. But that’s not a good thing. I mean that in the sense that this book throws all the typical ingredients in the pot and what comes out is pizza. You can’t really ruin pizza, but you can make it unexciting. Just another reheated concoction that everyone else makes.

red true story riding hood liesl shurtliff
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood by Liesl Shurtliff
(unfinished)

I wasn’t into it. The protagonist is a jerk who’s disguised as a “sassy female” paired with an annoying sidekick. I already saw Shrek. But think less donkey and more Molly from TaleSpin (that’s a comparison that goes from bad to worse, if you don’t know TaleSpin). I couldn’t tell you where the Little Red Riding Hood part of it begins or ends.

Plus it’s more of a crossover event for her previous books. A lot of people are calling it a “fun retelling”, but I didn’t see so much fun.

Plus I’m not into YA books about quests. They’re always too simple, they give no reward for the reader who pays attention because of the simple plots. No part is influenced by another. There are no Chekhov’s guns or foreshadowing. And they so often end the same (the thing you were looking for was where you started). I skipped ahead to the ending and this one confirmed my suspicions. You can just jump over the middle to find out what maguffin the protagonist needed.

But I like the idea behind it, and the writing style, so I’m going to try Grump and see if that attracts me more. It could be the subject material that’s turning me off.

grump liesl shurtliff
Grump: The (Fairly) True Tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by Liesl Shurtliff

This was better than Red, maybe because I was able to identify with the protagonist better — an outcast with a problem. I tend toward those stories more than quests because it allows better complexity of character. Plus it’s always about embracing your weird. And this was especially fun to read after finishing my own dwarf story.

Unlike mine, the dwarves live underground, eat rocks, and never interact with the surface world. Except for Grump who feels unquestionably drawn to it. When he finally breaks ground, he accidentally falls in with the evil queen and becomes her magic mirror. Grump is a better character than Red was. At first it might be hard to tell the difference–both are rather grumpy and acerbic. But something about Grump feels more earnest. It’s better to be grumpy than mean.

There are some stretches to fit the story of Snow White, and that always bothers me — reaching too far to make one story fit into another. The same thing happened with The Dark Knight Rises, which was the reason for its downfall. Both Snow White and Evil Queen get about equivalent screen time in this. The ending is satisfying, and I didn’t feel cheated, not like Red’s quest story (where you can skip all the middle and still find the ending, which is basically the answer to a riddle). And I was suprised at how well it weaves in both the folk tale and the Disney version of Snow White.

It does get a little sludgy in the lead-in to the third act, but the plot is surprisingly tight for a YA novel. There are some deus ex machina movements, but overall, I had a satisfying reader experience. It’s probably the best thing I read in the last two months.

emergency contact mary choi
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi
(unfinished)

This is not the book for me.

I’m not sure if the biggest problem was the characters or the plot. On one hand, the cast is made of one self-deprecating loser who judges everything, one self-absorbed stuck-up popular girl, and some guy. They didn’t do anything. They sat around a coffee shop and basically introduced themselves to the audience. I got tired of nothing happening, not because the plot wouldn’t move forward, but because the characters wouldn’t move the plot i.e. no stakes. They’re like the girls you hated in high school. Neither introvert nor extrovert comes out unscathed.

The killer came for me when “some guy”‘s ex came back in the picture, one who he’d been talking about since the beginning, such a heartbreaker uber-bitch she was. She reappears and guess what? Cliche of all cliches, she’s pregnant. The plot has the substance of a Kid Rock song.

It’s trying to be a feel-good “fun” romantic comedy, but I didn’t have any fun. If I wasn’t waiting for a story, I was overwhelmed by the twee-ness of it. It reminded me of “You’ve Got Mail” where the characters have either no arcs or bad arcs.

I’m a 38-year-old white male software programmer, so no, I’m not the intended audience. But I think people who liked Fangirl or other Rainbow Rowell books might like this just fine.

three times lucky sheila turnage
Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage
(unfinished)

It just didn’t spark joy within me. I think it was because, being a Midwest boy, I can’t identify with the Southernness of it. I got a few chapters in and realized I didn’t care enough about the characters to keep going. But then it’s hard for me to care about anything these days, so it might be my fault.

I recommend this for fans of Sharon Creech who wrote “Walk Two Moons” and “Ruby Holler“. They have the same kind of odd Southern charm thing happening. Three Times Lucky has more of it, more odd character developments, like the reason she’s named Moses was that she was found floating in a river during a flood. Her foster father is called The Colonel and her foster mother is apparently someone totally different who I never got to see. She’s in sixth grade and works at a diner to “earn her keep”. Eccentrics abound.

I’m sure it’s a fine book. Read other reviews about it to get a better idea.

lila bowen consipiracy of ravens
Conspiracy of Ravens by Lila Bowen

Like I always say, if you’re reading a second book before the first, why?

Parts of it are better. Other parts are not. It got good in the last act, but before that there’s some quest-y ambling around that doesn’t have to do with the end result. It’s filler or padding in that it doesn’t have an impact on the ending. But it’s more entertaining than I thought it would be. At least the plot stays in motion, has a clearer goal, and has some whiz-bang suspense. Maybe I’m having problems with my own plotting so I see everything as padding nowadays. Maybe I’m jealous that Lila Bowen can write so well, and I’m still struggling to make good sentences.

Here’s one thing I gotta quibble with. There’s still the issues of sexuality and gender confusion. But this time, the main character, who was born female and has female junk, decides she’s male. And then the pronouns change from she to he. And it’s not like this settles everything–there’s still conflict that keeps coming up. In fact he/she has sex with both a male and a female and no one seems to care one way or the other.

For one thing, this seems unrealistic. No one has a reaction to her/him having opposite parts of what’s expected. This makes it an “issue” book. But that “issue” is subplot, which makes it seem not important. It feels like she’s a he just for the sake of the author wanting diversity. For another thing, it’s confusing. He was a she in the last book. And the name changes too. A couple times actually.

strange case of alchemist's daughter theodora goss
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
(unfinished)

I wish I could have finished this, but the pacing drove me nuts. It was too slow to develop. Maybe my attention span is getting shorter in my old age.

The concept is bonkers though and I love it. The daughter of Mr. Jekyll finds out she has a sister named Diana Hyde in a sanitarium. The two get together and, along with other female fictional figures or offspring thereof, form a group of heroes.

But it’s terribly paced. It’s as slow as the books its characters come from. Plot events take too long to come up. It’s so slow the characters from the book interrupt the narrative every now and then with screenplay-style banter.

But the gimmick doesn’t overshadow the content. Although, given the content, I wish it would. Just because the book is in a Victorian time period doesn’t mean you have to write in Victorian style. You can tell Goss really loves the material she’s pinching from. Maybe a little too much. I think this would make a better movie than a book.

dead trees give no shelter wil wheaton
Dead Trees Give No Shelter by Wil Wheaton

After reading all these unfinished books or long plods, this was a breath of fresh air. Wil Wheaton’s been talking about it on his blog, said he wrote it after being inspired by Stranger Things.

For a Kindle self-publish release, it’s surprisingly polished. There’s nothing new or earth-shattering. But the best written horror comes in short form, and this fits nicely into that medium. It’s not too psychological, but all the elements of fear are there — children in danger, a monster in the woods, reconciling childhood drama. It’s got the gross-out, the fear, and the horror. It’s like a love letter to Stephen King.

I can tell by this that Wil Wheaton is a capable fiction writer. He was always a good writer, but this proves he can cut the mustard when it comes to fiction.

nos4a2 joe hill
NOS482 by Joe Hill
(unfinished)

I stopped reading this for the same reason I stopped reading The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter–too much detail and too little pacing. It’s 700 pages and after reading about 25%, I was getting no emotional reaction from the characters. I’m sure it’s my fault, but after a while, I felt like I’d rather read the Wikipedia summary. I’d already gotten the atmosphere, I’d gotten the style, now I just wanted something to happen.

But I don’t want to read “The Stand” again. Especially if there are no actual vampires in it. It’s more a slipstream kinda fantasy, like “It” where the monster’s powers never have any logical strengths and weaknesses. They just do things because it’s scary and causes be damned.

talisman stephen king peter straub
The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
(unfinished)

I started this, thinking it was a sequel to “The Eyes of the Dragon“. It’s not. I’m not sure where I got that in my head. So, I was pretty confused when it started in the real world. But I figured I’d try it out.

Again, problems with pacing. There’s too much time taken to establish the normal. King’s tedious overwriting is here, and I don’t think Straub does a good job of keeping it in check. That, combined with not being what I wanted, results in putting the book down.

The Books I Read: July – August 2018

bookshelf books

firestarter stephen king
Firestarter by Stephen King
(unfinished)

I started it, but didn’t take long to decide not to continue. I’ve seen the movie, so there was nothing here for me but King’s overwriting and quaint New England phraseology. It’s written as an unfolding thriller, but there’s no thrill when you know how it ends. There’s no “this scene was in the book, but not the movie” to add value because it’s a pretty strict adaptation. And it’s antiquated–Vietnam vets and the energy crisis are so far removed from pop culture he might as well be talking about the World War I flu epidemic. I’ve decided I don’t slog though any of King’s early coke-fueled style if I don’t want to.

mick harte was here
Mick Harte Was Here by Barbara Park

Phoebe’s brother has just died. And this book is about how she deals with it, from the morning of the accident to the months and months later. It’s not tragic like Bridge to Terabithia–death and dealing with trauma is the theme of the book and it starts from the beginning. So there’s no real heartbreak, except for watching the deceased’s younger sister deal with the aftermath.

I like this because it’s a good portrayal of dealing with grief as a young adult. Good for anyone going through the same thing–a death in the family–and is too young to truly process it. And it cuts through all the sugarcoating too. Death ain’t fun and it ain’t pretty. Or how people keep turning death into a chance to talk about themselves, how the grief never really goes away, the empty feeling of something missing. There’s always something missing. How trying to remember the good times doesn’t really help, that you just need time. And as we go on Phoebe’s journey, we gain the tools to handle that same situation ourselves.

My one qualm about the book is that you don’t really know how he died until the ending, when the build-up loses some of the impact. That’s where it gets a little preachy, even though I’m sure it’s not intended. Otherwise, this is a good book for kids and adults, like My Brother Sam Is Dead. It has a sense of humor despite the subject matter. And it teaches us all that, whether you want it to or not, life goes on.

spell or high water
Spell or High Water by Scott Meyer

The first one I only sort of liked because it had some whizbang milieu with hacking a “uber-file” so you can cast magic spells, like flying and fireballs.

But this one is much more boring. All the whizbang stuff has been explained so what else is there? Well, the last book was rather light on female characters, so let’s head over to Atlantis, where all the women who discovered magic are. No, they don’t live anywhere else. They’d rather stay together. And they all get along. And have two types of husbands–one for companionship and one for sex. Good times. I wonder what gender the author was.

It’s trying to be some kind of murder mystery, but that’s hard when A) everyone is immortal B) everyone’s an omnipotent magician C) you’ve got time travel too, which blasts anything suspenseful out of the plot because now all things are possible. What ends up happening is a whole bunch of dull padding that’s supposed to be budding romance. But it’s as passionate as a trackball mouse. I don’t think the author is very good at writing either female characters or interesting characters. In any case, I don’t think I’m going to read the third one.

the serpent's gift
The Serpent Gift (The Shamer’s Chronicles #3) by Lene Kaaberbøl

Much, much better than the second. Marked improvement. Gold star. There are more events, more suffering for the main characters, more fantasy elements. I was worried it was going to be like a soap opera because the main plot has to do with her dad coming back. You see, little Dina’s shaming power has been on the fritz since she blew out her shame fuses after being kidnapped. But along comes her father who wants to return to her life and teach her the ways of the snake.

It starts as an abhorrent “if they would just talk to each other” kinda story, but it gets better fast. Like the last one, the book is split into Dina and Davin’s (the older brother) narratives. Davin has much more to do this time since he’s not being a prideful twat. His adventure is just as interesting as Dina’s.

This is not a continuous story  like “A Song of Ice and Fire”. These books are episodic and don’t have much to do with each other. However we seem to have forgotten why we’re all here in the first place–the exiled prince Nico and his usurping cousin who’s got a bounty on them all. Nico has more than a background role, but I would think there’d be more in this one about retaking his kingdom or escaping the usurpers. But I can’t criticize the book for what I wanted it to be. Only for what it is.

And what it is is a good fantasy/medieval novel. The author redeemed the story enough to put me back on track to reading the next in the series.

garbage this is the noise that keeps me awake
This is the Noise that Keeps Me Awake by Garbage

I’m a lifelong Garbage fan (though I’ve never been to a concert — too shy). But I have all the albums and b-sides. Pretty influential on my development as a person. First heard them in 1996–a golden year for things in my life that I never got sick of.

But really, only a Garbage fan is going to want this book. They aren’t terribly controversial or dramatic. They’re three guys from Wisconsin and one girl making music. What’s more surprising is how well they get along. No disappearances, no sleeping with band members, no drug binges (just alcohol). I never knew how isolated Shirley Manson felt in the beginning recordings living in a hotel all by herself. It certainly doesn’t come through on the track. And it traces the development of each album, how they’re all so different from each other, and why.

So the question is, should a Garbage fan pick up this book? The answer’s yes. It’s full of beautiful images, including artifacts from the road, and cocktail recipes, stories, interviews, and general history. They say it’s a coffee table book, but I disagree–that diminishes the work. Besides, you shouldn’t keep this on a coffee table where it can get spilled on. Put it on a shelf to be admired.

dear mr. henshaw beverly cleary
Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary

At least twice during school, my reading textbook contained an excerpt from this. And both times it was the part where the boy gets to go to lunch with an author. Now I finally read it.

That excerpt is nothing like the book.

Well, maybe a little. It is about a young boy who writes letters to an author. They start as “fan mail/questions”. Then it becomes personal stuff about his life–way too personal–that transforms into essentially a diary, or shouting into the wind. And it’s in epistolary format, so it’s fun to see his writing style evolve over time. I was under the impression that Mr. Henshaw never responds to the boy, but in fact he does. You just don’t see those responses. But writing is not what the book is about.

It’s about his coming to terms with his parents’ divorce and his deadbeat truck driver father. A bit cliche now, but not so much when this was written. I don’t know why, but something felt off about this book. Maybe it was my expectations that it would be about a boy becoming a writer and then being delivered a bildrungsoman. Maybe I couldn’t much relate to the boy. He’s living in a trailer and he’s constantly talking about his father–if he’s going to come visit, if he’s going to call, what he’s doing with their dog, who was that woman who answered the phone, and so on. Something’s lacking–either charm or wit or levity. It seems bleak. It seems like the moral is “adults are shits and there’s nothing you can do about it, kid”. It’s a solid idea, but lacks plot. So it comes off whiny. I imagine this is the kid who grew up to become J.D. Salinger.

midwife's apprentice
The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

This book has a writing style that I have never seen before. Not like “whoa this is going to change everything about the literature world” but it has a flavor. It flies fast. It’s terse. It has no fluff and buff. All fat is trimmed. The result is that the story feels lean but still passionate, like a summer love affair. “Show, don’t tell” in spades. And a main character that gets you right in the feels without being a perfect lady. You can feel the authentic historical accuracy. But despite the age of the protagonist, it’s not for anyone who hasn’t had “the talk” yet.

The atmosphere feels like a fantasy story, but it deals with the common people living in the outskirts. The ones far away from knights or dragons or princesses. This one’s got cheese as a delicacy, sleeping in dung for warmth, and some very satisfying revenge plots. Not to mention social issues, including but not limited to: verbal abuse, breastfeeding, swearing, transgenderism, marital infidelity, superstitious demon possession, and catching some teenagers in the farm shed doing you-know-what. If that doesn’t make for a good book, I don’t know what does.

rats of nimh
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but only mildly. Just to find the stuff they didn’t include in the movie. So I never got around to it until my daughter somehow received it, I don’t know how, and I couldn’t avoid the opportunity any more.

It’s the story of a little creature in a big world that’s not in her control. A little like Stuart Little or Watership Down plot and Beatrix Potter sensibilities. The central conflict is the same–they have to move their house before the farm plows come.

What surprised me is that there is no magic in this world. I was hoping for some explanations–why Mrs. Frisby went Super-Saiyan, what the amulet was, the history of Justin and Jonathan and Jenner and so on. But no magic means no answers (and don’t look to the straight-to-video sequel).

There is a LARGE part of the text dedicated to the flashback/origin story of the rats. Maybe almost half the book. So much that you wonder why this isn’t the rats’ story. It’s like the author had the idea for two novels, but not enough story for one full novel.

It’s a nice little book, but I’ve got to say, the movie was better. I don’t think that’s any surprise. People remember The Godfather and Jaws and Die Hard as movies, not books. The movie ups all the drama, all the tension, up to eleven. While the book is a British “down-on-the-farm” story with cute little mice. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. Just manage your expectations.

final girls riley sager
Final Girls by Riley Sager
(unfinished)

I was really looking forward to this one. Stephen King spoke highly of it. I love 80’s horror movies. I loved The Final Girls film. I liked “The Last Final Girl” but it was an indie book and didn’t take the premise as far as I would have liked IMO. And maybe this “Big Five” book would do it.

The story is about Quincy Carpenter (ugh, that name…), the survivor of a Friday the 13th-esque massacre. It’s 15 years later, and she’s living isolated, using the money from her media appearances. She’s dealing with her PTSD and survivor’s guilt. Other media has dubbed her a “final girl”, given the similarities to those horror movies, and the fact that two other women underwent similar situations years before.

I realized one-sixth of the way through that I wasn’t into it. For one thing, the plot still hadn’t started. It was still line-by-line detail of every thought going through the protagonist’s head. Cheesy quasi-poetic lines like “I feel her gaze on my cheek, as warm as the afternoon sun coming through the kitchen window. I get the uneasy sense she’s testing me somehow. That I’ll fail if I turn to meet her stare.” How can the plot get through text like that? The pacing is awful. I stopped when the first plot turn finally came–one of the final girls who’s been in reclusion for the past twenty years suddenly shows up at Quincy’s apartment and they… bake cookies.

The main character is terribly unlikable. She’s a shut-in, but she’s rich. She runs a foodie blog but doesn’t want attention. She’s a kleptomaniac which she blames on her trauma. She complains about having sex, but never says a word. She complains about her boyfriend–her boyfriend who’s kind and sensitive to her condition, but no, it’s not what she wants. He’s the disposable fiancee like in “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”. She complains about taking Xanax. She’s always gasping. It reminded me of “The Girl on the Train“, which I also left unfinished. The most frustrating thing is that she’s doing it to herself. Sure, she’s a trauma survivor, but that can only hold so much weight. She’s always flagging “I’m a victim! I’m a victim!”, but she makes that misery happen.

I may not know what a “strong female protagonist” is, but I know a weak one when I see it. “I hate all these reporters on my back, but I sure love that they paid me.” The fact is, I wouldn’t want to spend one afternoon with Quincy. Why would I want to spend a whole book? Even her name evokes Quinn from “Daria” and the comparison’s not far off–whiny, entitled, shallow, and a bore. Is this supposed to be an “unreliable narrator” thing with the repressed memories?

Yes, a big part of the story is that she cannot remember anything about the murders she was in. It’s not that certain pieces are fuzzy, but that the whole thing is 100% blocked. She had this highly excruciating incident where all her senses were on fire, and it’s literally a convenient blank from beginning to end. In fact, if not for her “laser-guided amnesia” there would be no story. I hate it. We Were Liars did something similar thing, but way way better.

The “final girl” thing isn’t even a thing. It’s something that the “media” assigned given the nature of the massacres. In fact, there are only three women in this “club”. Their catastrophes are all spaced out over twenty years apart. And none are connected. It’s not a secret society or a title. Any relation to slasher films is thin at best. This is not a murderer copycatting Michael Myers or a crazed fan. In fact, one might almost say the author simply cribbed that idea to sell her story. There’s nothing supernatural about here. It’s just a suspense novel.

I should have been warned off by all the “Gone Girl” comparisons in the front matter blurbs. That’s a polarizing book and my feelings on it land on the side of “no thank you”. The reviews use them as praise, but they’re really warnings — if you didn’t like “Gone Girl”, you should not pick up this book. Now if you liked that book, fine. It’s meant for you. But it’s not meant for the cool chick with tattoos who likes horror movies. Watch “The Final Girls” instead for an emotionally earned climax and thank me later.

artemis andy weir
Artemis by Andy Weir

When this came out, everyone seemed to react with hate or disappointment. I don’t know why–I loved it. It’s not the same as “The Martian“. But if I wanted the same as “The Martian”, I’d read “The Martian”.

This one has less science and math. Maybe that’s what people were looking forward to. That was the “special something” that made “The Martian” stand out. But that means it’s easier to understand the plot. I expected that, without his physics to rely on, Andy Weir’s characters and plot would be flat and plodding. But that’s not the case at all. Weir proves he’s not a guy who wrote a lab paper in narrative form. He wrote a narrative using a lab paper.

So our story takes place on a city on the moon. One that’s not exactly as pristine and efficient as 2001: A Space Odyssey would have you believe. In fact, our main character is a smuggler. And she gets involved in a corporate sabotage kind of plot, but more like a heist caper. And she’s a PoC, she’s funny, she swears a lot. In fact, all the characters are dynamic and stand out. (Did Weir engineer this novel with the intention of it becoming a movie? Hm.) It’s intelligent and entertaining this side of Scalzi.

The math and science aren’t completely gone (I don’t think it would be Andy Weir if it wasn’t). It’s more about chemistry and economics, all of which result from living on the moon in a low-gravity, no oxygen environment. And welding. I hope you like welding, because there is a lot of talk about that.

The Books I Read: November – December 2017

bookshelf books

eliza and her monsters
Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza lives with a sitcom family of annoying siblings and health-nut parents who just “don’t get it”. They don’t get computers, they don’t get the Internet. They think the way to live life is out of doors, socializing face to face. And that’s not the only place to find friends and success. Especially for severe introverts like Eliza.

Eliza is just a high schooler who writes a webcomic. A damn successful one. From the sound of it, it’s on par with Penny Arcade and xkcd in terms of popularity, but more dramatic (and made in manga style with space-existential elements). But on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, and Eliza’s anonymity keeps her creative. Then she meets a new student, accidentally defending him against some bullies, and learns he’s the premiere fan fiction writer for her comic.

This is a story about two people who find each other and bond through the thing they both like. It’s like a John Green/Rainbow Rowell hybrid, which is high praise. I loved it. This is a great cozy romance for people with social anxiety. And a much needed contrast to “The Selection”. In here, people are a little broken. They don’t follow predictable stereotypes. They make bad decisions, decisions that hurt people, not Hallmark-movie pulled punches. I heartily recommend reading it.

heroine complex sarah kuhn
Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn

(unfinished)

It took very little time for me to realize I did not want to continue this book. The killer was that all characters are douchebags or toadies right from the start. It’s not a story about superheroes, it’s more like the “assistant to a diva” you see in so many cookie-cutter films and shows. It’s a trite way to provide conflict between females without any violence (or gravitas). And they’re always the same–a beleaguered assistant, a jerkass boss, and the fiancee straight out of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”.

The superhero doesn’t even have real powers. She’s a Black Widow-like gymnast, but only concerned about training and publicity. She’s less concerned about the demon cupcakes she’s fending off than getting good shots of it for Instagram.

Then the big conflict in the first act is that she gets a zit and how is she going to go to her party looking like that and what’s her assistant going to do about it? I don’t remember clogged pores playing a big role in the Dark Phoenix saga or Batman: Hush (although maybe that’s why he had the bandages). I wanted a superhero story, not another “The Devil Wears Prada” knock-off.

stephen king night shift
Night Shift by Stephen King

(reread)

I couldn’t sleep one night and this was the only thing around. I didn’t feel like starting a whole new novel when I was about to get one from the library. Maybe it was because I’d finished Danse Macabre recently that I’d gotten a taste for the King. It’s certainly better than “Just After Sunset”.

Officially this is a re-read, but it had been so long ago, jumbled with other short stories from different collections, and totally out of order, that it felt fresh. I liked the majority of the stories and was able to skip the bad ones. But those weren’t many (mostly the Salem’s Lot tie-ins) Could be useful in a study of the short story, except that it’s from 1960-1970s sensibilities, so I don’t know how useful it is for learning how to break in now.

daughter of smoke and bone laini taylor
Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor

(unfinished)

I love going into a book with no expectations, but it rarely happens. There’s no almost no way you can look at a book without reading the summary. Thus you gain a little foreknowledge of its content (or at least what the marketing wants you to believe). So you already know the setup going in. But then you still have to get through the setup the novel provides. So really, you’re waiting for the book to start while you already know how it starts. But I digress.

This book is not for me. I’m sure it’s a great book, but it has content I care not one whit about. I first noticed when it was talking about the beauty of Europe and architecture and quaint little apartments and bistros and bars. Maybe I’m a fuddy duddy patriot who rarely gets past his own front door, let alone to another state for a vacation, but I have zero-to-no interest in architecture and antiques. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it has value. It’s clear the author doesn’t think that way, and that’s great for her. Every page reads like a love letter to old Europe, like it’s some fairy tale land. But that’s not for me.

The main character is an American girl studying art in Prague and I’m immediately reminded of Tithe by Holly Black (which I also didn’t finish) and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (which I regretfully did). I’ve seen this before too, and it smells of entitlement. I resent for those going into passion majors, like art history, because then they complain there’s no jobs for them, when they should have taken classes in something that can translate to a paying job. And of course, the first plot point is boy troubles.

But the style is damn poetic. It uses similes I’ve never heard of. It’s worth reading for the writing technique, even if the plot isn’t especially compelling. It’s worth sampling the first few chapters alone just to see the way Taylor writes. That alone can interest a reader. I kept going to see if there was maybe something else valuable.

Then the “Beauty & the Beast” stuff starts. The main girl is connected to the demon world in some way–her adopted dad and all his friends are demons, but he keeps a King Triton-esque wrap on her activities (the dad even looks like the Beast™). Then an angel soldier starts waging jihad on them, and he’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen… She can’t stop thinking about him, has butterflies in her stomach… even though he unleashed the fire of God on everyone she knows. Someone here is in love with the idea of being in love, like Bella in Twilight. This star-crossed romance is also not my thing. I needed less attention on the relationshippy-ness and more on her family.

Now don’t take this to mean I don’t or can’t read books intended for female audiences. I loved “Eleanor & Park” and “Ella Enchanted“. I think the big stopping point was that this book lacked a character to identify with, which is totally not the book’s fault. I’m a 36-year-old straight white male computer programmer with two kids and a mortgage. There’s no cushion shaped for my butt in these pages. It could be fine for my daughter… when she turns sixteen.

crash override zoe quinn gamergate
Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate by Zoe Quinn

It’s hard to read a book like this in a time like 2017, but it’s necessary. Christ, how naive we were back then, when “ethics in journalism” was all we had to worry about from the alt-right. But I’m getting off track.

GamerGate was a phenomenon filled with false information, fake news, lies, damned lies, statistics, and damned lying statistics. But in 2014, we had no precedent for this kind of thing. This was the shining premiere of famed Men’s Rights Activists Toby Fair and Actual Lee. But after the Kotaku posts and Reddit threads, there’s a person at the end of the computer, and this is her story how a bunch of assholes made a her life miserable by publishing personal information and online harassment.

Only half the book is really the tale of GamerGate from Zoe Quinn’s perspective. The other half is what can we do about it–what’s wrong with the current state of online bullying and what the police and congress can’t or don’t do about it (meaning they’re woefully behind the times). I would rather have a book on the whole GamerGate scenario, dissecting the truth and laying it out in narrative non-fiction. But I can’t judge the book based on what I wanted, only what it is.

And I guess it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for Zoe Quinn’s side of the story, it’s here. If you’re looking for information on how you can further the cause of stopping online harassment and bullying, it’s here. But the two tastes don’t taste great together. It’s not a memoir, it’s more of an advocacy book. But it’s all difficult to get through (because it’s so disgusting to read about) and given everything that’s happening in the world today, it’s hard to give such things serious thought with nuclear war and white supremacy on the horizon.

Zoe Quinn’s a surprisingly good writer for being an engineer/coder (but then again, so am I). I’d only recommend this book if you’re at all interested in GamerGate (maybe you are, having been a front-of-the-caution-tape witness), but not if bigger political issues flip your cookie.

shamer's signet lene kaaberbol
The Shamer’s Signet by Lene Kaaberbøl

A little slumpier than the first, but I don’t mind giving three heaping stars to it. It doesn’t feel like much in the world has changed. It’s not like great advancements in the personal life or life of the world change greatly in this book. No huge revelations, no new characters. Even the old characters aren’t seen much or developed upon. In other words, this is not “The Empire Strikes Back”. It more feels like an addendum or sequel, rather than the continued story of Shamers.

That being said it’s still a good book. This time you get a POV of her older brother (technical note: the book switches back and forth between Dina and Davin and I had trouble discerning whose POV was which, until I noticed their names at the beginning of each chapter). He acts like a typical hothead-fighter, wanting-to-prove-his-warrior-mettle, like Wart from “Sword in the Stone” or Taran from “The Black Cauldron”. But Dina’s got the biggest story arc and you feel more for her.

There’s more action and less world-building/plot development. I get the sense the author didn’t plan for a series, unless she’s setting up some real far-reaching dominoes. Still, I recommend it and will be reading more in the series. Plus it’s fun to write that O with the slash through it.

The Books I Read: September – October 2017

bookshelf books

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

In a word, melodramatic. In many other words…

The tone of this story skews so heavily feminine it’s distracting. I’m not saying femininity is a bad thing, but an event like this is going to have a lot of different reactions from different people. It’s supposed to be about a real school shooting, but it’s so cheesy it doesn’t feel real. The narrative is split into the perspectives of four victims in four different situations. One is the ex-girlfriend of the shooter, another is the sister of the shooter, another is that sister’s lesbian girlfriend, and last is the trouble-making brother of the lesbian girlfriend (do you see how relationshippy this is?). Two are trapped in the auditorium with the shooter, the brother is trying to get them out, and the ex-girlfriend is ROTC and running for help.

The sister, who I guess is the main character because she’s the closest to the shooter and has the most to lose, is obsessed with dance. Her dead mother was a dancer. Dancing is the “only time she feels free.” And of course she’s going to Julliard. Maybe it’s because I’m not a dancer, but this feels like such cliched rhetoric. See any dance movie or book in the last ten years. You cannot combine Bowling for Columbine with Step Up. The shooter makes his sister dance on stage, like he’s the Joker. Don’t you want to mix it up a bit and make her want to be an astronaut?

And there’s way too much thinking. Four different narratives + limited amount of time (about an hour) means minute by minute breakdown of each POV. In high-risk situations, there is NEVER this much thinking going on. No thinking about the past or “why does he like her and not me?” high school junk. That all drops when you’re just trying to survive. Even with the wordiness, the lack of detail is appalling. The author never even mentions what kind of gun the shooter has. Is it a rifle? Shotgun? Handgun? Automatic? That’s an essential detail, to know what kind of damage can be done, what the stakes are. I’d venture to say the author didn’t research school shootings, instead opting to make a soap opera around a dramatic event.

There is so much Lifetime-worthy drama cheese it’s embarrassing. The name of the town is Opportunity, and the author never lets you forget it. Lines like “the sky feels endless” and “she looks so beautiful” and kissing a guy during a crisis like at the end of Speed. Is this really your biggest concern with a gunman? Was there kissing going on during Columbine? Because I read that book and no one reported any post-tragedy romance. Add in a nice dose of parent abuse, sexual assault, and all the other things you expect from a “serious” YA novel about “serious issues” that it seems everyone deals with on a CW show. This is not worth your time. Read Columbine by Dave Cullen instead.

wizard's bane rick cook

Wizard’s Bane by Rick Cook
(unfinished)

Boring as hell. I thought it would be a cozy fantasy like A Computer Programmer in King Aragorn’s Court. I wanted to see how you could decompile magic or turn the Council of Elrond into a stand-up meeting. But no, it’s a bunch of walking and walking and nothing happens.

A girl guides the guy through the woods and it’s boring. He only regards the girl for how hot she is, always looking down her blouse. The girl is a bitch throughout, complaining how he doesn’t have the stamina to hike or knowledge about dangerous magic stones. The guy doesn’t regard anything with wonder. There’s dragons and elf kings and magic, and all he’s worried about is being cockblocked. He doesn’t even try to impress her with knowledge of the future.

The only reason I made it to 46% was because it was a short book. But once it decided to take a chapter to tell a story within a story, I was out. I barely cared if the main characters lived or died, you’re not going to pad pages with someone else’s tale.

stephen king shawshank redemption

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

The book is a straight and true narrative that deviates very little from the movie, plus Stephen King-isms (twangy blue-collar metaphors that seem more at home in the Appalachians than Maine). But the movie is still better. The cinematic-ness adds emotion and removes unnecessary elements. Stephen King can produce material that results in good movies, as long as the makers of that movie are chosen well.

the shamer's daughter lene kaaberbol

The Shamer’s Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the cozy fantasy I was looking for. Well, maybe “cozy” isn’t the right word, but it’s well written. Good characters, good conflict, and good setting. Said premise is that “shaming” is the magic here, which really means looking into the subject’s eyes and making him feel guilty enough to confess his crimes. Sort of like Ghost Rider’s “penance stare”, only it’s in Eragon. That’s a solid premise in itself, but the characters are interesting enough to carry it, especially when it becomes a murder mystery and political throne-grabbing.

It reminded me of Far Far Away in terms of style. Maybe that’s the translation at work. There is no slowness (maybe because it’s YA, which also means it’s not too long), and I see potential for storylines in the next sequence. Characters are not douchebags and no one holds an idiot ball, but there are a few trappings, like evil princes and dumb peasants. It’s one of the few books of a series that makes me want to find out what happens next.

writing magic gail carson levine

Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine

Levine is the person who wrote Ella Enchanted. I liked that book so much I wanted to check out her non-fiction book on “how to write”. I thought, by the title, it would have to do with specifically magic and fantasy, but no, it’s writing in general. That’s not a bad thing.

This is one of the better writing books I’ve read. Liked it more than “Bird by Bird” (but that’s not a high bar to jump for me). The focus is on prompts and exercises (i.e. you learn to write by writing). It also never wears out its welcome. Some books emphasize sentence structure and adverb placement — too much nitty gritty. This one doesn’t care, and it shouldn’t. It’s wants you out there and producing.

However, it is definitely skewed toward younger audiences. Middle school and high schoolers will get more out of this book than I did from Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

stephen king danse macabre

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I was hesitant on reading this, worried it would be out of date. (It’s as old as me!) There have been a lot of… advances? (I don’t know what you’d call them) in horror that no one could have predicted in 1981: slasher franchises going mainstream (e.g. Freddy Krueger action figures), J-horror, psychological horror (like Black Swan), torture porn, home invasion films, indie horror (e.g. The Blair Witch Project), the second rise and decline of zombies. Enough time has passed that now we have meta-horror for all those tropes (e.g. Scream and The Cabin in the Woods).

Nonetheless, much of it still holds up, to my surprise, because it’s really all about roots. And those roots take place in three things–films, TV, and books. It takes examples from timeless phenomenon like B-movie monsters, anthology suspense, and Lovecraft books. Each reflects the time period they were born into. And it’s all delivered with Stephen King’s tight and witty prose (he was still high in these days so his writing is still good). It’s the kind of book that might be assigned in an “Introduction to Horror” college class. Plus, it contains some of the missing biographical elements from “On Writing”.

However, I don’t think it’s required for any horror aficionado. There’s a lot of examples from the 50s-70s that maybe influenced King more that it influenced everybody. Read this if you’re a fan of Stephen King’s style. You get to see him put on his college professor hat. But there are more current books that do just as well.

fata morgana steven boyett ken michoney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

It’s a marathon, but a good one. The story is a basic portal fantasy (a B-52 crew flies into another dimension), but you feel like you’re there: all the detail about the plane, the crew’s lives, how they interact with each other, the equipment, and the war. It got me excited about World War II (there is a lot more detail about World War II stuff than the fantasy world) and balances description with plot.

The fantasy elements are underwhelming. It’s a standard domed city, a flying mechano-dragon, bad guys in the other domed city across the wasteland, the man from the past falls in love with the woman from the future, and so on. It’s all very sixties Star Trek or H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. Nothing exceptional. Mundane even. I kept waiting for the thing that made the world extra-special and unique.

And I have a hard time believing that any of the crew could help with anything mechanical in this world. It would be like a watchmaker fixing my iPhone. Besides that, some threads don’t go anywhere (like the whole chapter dedicated to the new crewmember’s “story” of his haunted plane), making the book unnecessarily long. I hate when that happens.

The magic comes from the plausible character development. It’s a satisfying read and entertaining, but make sure you can handle some World War II history and mechanics.

john green turtles all the way down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green’s latest. How could I not read? If you’re looking for a remix of “The Fault in Our Stars“, this is not it. It’s not a romance. It takes the romance elements out and focuses more on the character’s disease. Only this time it’s not cancer, it’s compulsion disorder/intrusive thoughts. A mental illness that the main character neglects to resolve.

The primary plot driver is extremely unimportant, so there won’t be a lot of twists and events. What exists is the thin thread of mystery–the lugubriously rich father of an old childhood friend disappears to escape indictment. Our two heroines hope to find him and earn a reward. Our POV character is not the main driver of this story–that’s her friend. But it retains the same peculiarity and quirkiness that Green is good at. It’s closer to Paper Towns, but minus the insufferable pining over a crazy girl. Green also fixes the mistake where his teenagers speak way over their vocabulary range, like college freshman milking every damn page from a thesaurus to sound smart on an English paper (e.g. Augustus Waters).

It’s more of a character study, like “Looking for Alaska” was. In that, the pathology was someone with an unredeemable crush on a real-life MPDG. Her, it’s someone broken by anxiety and mental illness, self-centered (not because of ego, but because OCD does that to a person) and unable to have relationships because of that. Green says that the best thing you can get from books is to “imagine humans complexly” and I think he does just that in a package that’s fun to open.

Will it become a classic? I wish I could say it’s likely, but I wouldn’t believe that myself. It probably won’t make you cry, but it will make you understand. And I think that’s a better achievement.

beyond the castle jody dreyer

Beyond the Castle: A Disney Insider’s Guide to Finding Your Happily Ever After by Jody Jean Dreyer
(unfinished)

This did not deliver on what I wanted. I wanted anecdotes about working at Disney. Stories about dealing with douchebags, cast member affairs, triumph of the storyboard room. It sounds like this woman has worked nearly every job, seen every facet of the company. You’d think there’d be dozens of anecdotes about that. But no. This is more of a self-help book, full of quaint little lessons and morals and life advice.

There are anecdotes sprinkled in, but most of it is stuff you could learn from the IMDB trivia page of any Pixar movie. It’s far more thematically about being the best “you”. And entirely too much focus on “giving yourself to God”. That’s where it lost me–all the strong Christian overtones, saying God wants you to be happy and using Disney stuff to illustrate that. Disney wants you to be happy, because happy people give you money. I’m not under any illusion that Disney isn’t a business. It gives you a lot back for your dollar, but it wants your dollar first and foremost.

I stopped reading when it spelled “Lotso” (the antagonist from Toy Story 3) as “Lostoso”. If you can’t proofread well-enough, especially regarding a Disney term, then I’m done. It’s minor and stupid, but, hey, that’s why they call the camel back-breaker a straw, not a brick.

kiera cass selection

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Oh, boy, where do I start with this one. I’m afraid this might turn into another 5,000 word rant like “Wild” or “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer” or any of Jackie Morse Kessler

I guess I’ll start with expectations, the blame for which I shall receive none. It shall go to the marketing team and author. The description makes it sound like a cross between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games, which I was fine with. The ceremonies and reality TV part of The Hunger Games was my favorite. I’d like to see what happens when that’s expanded to a whole universe. But the author is doing her best to make it feel like a dystopian YA novel/clone of THG, but it doesn’t get any more savage than a Disney Channel original movie.

The first red flag was all the telling in the first chapter. Exposition, exposition, exposition. Not even infodumped in a clever or interesting way, just *plop* there it is. The universe is described to us like it was a textbook.

And then it’s nothing but cliches. I swear to god, I thought I was reading the Dystopian YA twitter account. Society’s in a caste system that sorts people because of course there is. Her family is poor. It includes a little sister and an overbearing mother. There’s a love triangle between the guy she left at home and the guy society expects her to pair with. There’s rebels and a dictatorship and interviews and dresses and a Cesar Flickerman and my god did this author create anything on her own? I know “everything is a remix” but at least use some unique ingredients (how about The Hunger Games with dwarves?).

For a book about thirty-five teenage girls competing to marry a prince, it’s surprisingly chaste. Like a Mormon version of Survivor. Getting a kiss is like winning the lottery. I would think, in a competition where the prize is you and your family being set up for life with money and power and royal titles, there should be boobs flopping out all over the place.

No one acts plausibly, least of all the main character. She doesn’t want anything, she’s just along for the ride. She doesn’t take action, action happens to her. The only thing going for her is “feistiness” compared to the other snobby upper-class girls. She’s not even really competing with them–she sets herself up as a confidante, but of course, this means the prince likes her best. As a result, there’s no conflict. They’re all trying to help each other, instead of figuring out who your friends an enemies are. It doesn’t even conclude like a normal book. It just ends–there’s no climax, no build-up. It’s like they just cut it off at 300 pages so they could call it a series.

Surprisingly, I’m not depressed that this book got published. I am depressed that readers rated so high. It’s so shallow and cliche. I kept reading because I was waiting for that “more”–that reason it garnered such attention. But it never came. And that’s three hundred and thirty-nine pages of my life I won’t be getting back.

Is Stephen King Getting Worse or Better?

stephen king

Stephen King’s going to go down in history as THE novelist of the late twentieth century. More than Dean Koontz or John Green or Danielle Steele. They even made a horror movie about him. I’m not talking about a documentary or his directorial debut (and finale) Maximum Overdrive or a thinly veiled pastiche like in “In the Mouth of Madness“. I mean he was the subject matter. He’s ceased to be a person, but a brand. That’s what I call being part of the public consciousness. Not even J.K. Rowling has that (yet).

But art changes over time. Simply because people change over time. Steven Spielberg doesn’t make the same kinds of movies he used to. Metallica’s first album Kill ‘Em All has a different style than Load, which has a different style from Death Magnetic. And don’t get me started about The Muppets.

It’s not all internal (meaning experience and skill). It’s mood, tone, technology, and situation. It’s the outside world and the inside world. It’s your mother dying or a civil war or a drug problem. Long story short, people change, so their art changes.

Stephen King’s been a non-stop train, publishing 1-2 books a year and countless short stories. But he’s not as “big” as he was in the eighties. Neither was he ever known for quality. He had a “People’s Choice” sentiment going on. Most of that is due to the nature of the genre (as in, if you write in a genre, critics ignore you). People still talk about It and Cujo and The Shining. Nobody talks about Joyland or Cell. Even Under the Dome  became a TV series, but you wouldn’t know it unless you were paying attention.

While thinking about “On Writing,” my foundation for “how to write”, his advice seems to contradict his actions. And not just in his old books, which might contain rookie mistakes. I’m talking about now. There are so many of the same tropes and cliches in every book you can make a drinking game out of them. Harold Bloom accused him of “dumbing down America” when King won the 2003 National Book Foundation award. He’s been accused of overwriting, inflating the word count to make his books into doorstops, and making the customer feel like he or she got more for their money. This article, taking a snippet of a 2014 book, does better justice to my thesis.

So here’s my question: Is Stephen King getting worse?

You would think that the more experience you have, the better at something you get. However, the bigger you get, the more “yes-men” around you. They think your shit doesn’t stink so they pass everything along because A) they know it’ll make a buck or B) if they say no, they’ll get fired. There’s fewer gatekeepers, fewer filters. If I was given the task of editing Stephen King, I would be very hesitant on suggesting any corrections. The man must know what he’s doing, he’s published so many books.

So let’s go to the data. Data never lies, right? I want to know if Stephen King’s trending up or down. Does he have a place in the world of stories today, or is it simply that we remember his name?

YEAR TITLE GENRE GOODREADS RATING GOODREADS REVIEWS LIBRARYTHING RATING LIBRARYTHING MEMBERS NOTES
1974 Carrie Horror 3.93 382000 3.72 9500
1975 ‘Salem’s Lot Horror 3.99 248000 3.94 10000
1977 The Shining Horror/Psychological Horror 4.18 836000 4.11 15000 King moves from ME to CO
1977 Rage* Psychological Thriller 3.8 23000 3.38 747 King moves back to ME
1978 The Stand Post Apocalyptic 4.34 474000 4.33 14000
1978 Night Shift+ SS 3.96 113000 3.8 6300
1979 The Long Walk* Psychological Horror 4.11 80000 3.84 3400
1979 The Dead Zone Supernatural Thriller 3.9 140000 3.77 7000
1980 Firestarter Science fiction 3.85 149000 3.64 6600
1981 Roadwork* Psychological Thriller 3.59 20000 3.84 1200
1981 Cujo Horror 3.65 168000 3.43 6700 King’s intervention
1982 The Running Man* Science fiction 3.81 68000 3.63 2400
1982 The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Fantasy/Western 3.98 374000 3.86 15000 Was originally written from 1977-1981
1982 Different Seasons+ SS 4.34 139000 3.98 6500
1983 Christine Horror 3.73 158000 3.53 6100
1983 Pet Sematary Horror 3.91 296000 3.72 9100
1983 Cycle of the Werewolf Horror 3.62 36000 3.39 2000
1984 The Talisman Fantasy 4.12 87000 4.04 7200
1984 Thinner* Horror 3.67 137000 3.41 5300 “Richard Bachman” is unveiled
1985 Skeleton Crew+ SS 3.93 88000 3.77 5900
1986 It Horror 4.19 492000 4.08 13000
1987 The Eyes of the Dragon Fantasy 3.92 82000 3.82 7500
1987 The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three Fantasy/Western 4.23 160000 4.1 11000
1987 Misery Psychological Horror 4.11 356000 3.94 9900
1987 The Tommyknockers Science fiction 3.48 96000 3.33 6500 First book written after sobriety?
1989 The Dark Half Psychological Horror 3.74 100000 3.56 6000
1990 Four Past Midnight+ SS 3.9 82000 3.71 5700
1991 The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands Fantasy/Western 4.24 137000 4.08 10000
1991 Needful Things Horror 3.87 162000 3.69 7500 First book written after sobriety?
1992 Gerald’s Game Suspense 3.47 106000 3.29 5700
1992 Dolores Claiborne Psychological Thriller 3.81 99000 3.64 5700
1993 Nightmares & Dreamscapes+ SS 3.9 59000 3.69 4300
1994 Insomnia Horror/fantasy 3.79 110000 3.67 7500
1995 Rose Madder Fantasy 3.66 76000 3.48 5400
1996 The Green Mile Fantasy 4.42 192000 4.23 8400
1996 Desperation Horror 3.8 100000 3.59 6800
1996 The Regulators* Science fiction/horror 3.64 54000 3.37 4600
1997 The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass Fantasy/Western 4.24 122000 4.07 9400
1998 Bag of Bones Gothic fiction 3.87 138000 3.71 7900
1999 The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Horror 3.56 103000 3.44 6500 King’s car accident
1999 Hearts in Atlantis+ SS 3.8 71000 3.66 6000
2001 Dreamcatcher Science fiction 3.59 123000 3.32 6600
2001 Black House Horror 3.99 45000 3.78 5400
2002 From a Buick 8 Horror 3.42 50000 3.29 4800
2002 Everything’s Eventual+ SS 3.94 68000 3.75 6900
2003 The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla Fantasy/Western 4.17 110000 4.03 8300
2004 The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah Fantasy/Western 3.98 97000 3.87 7800
2004 The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower Fantasy/Western 4.27 105000 4.14 7800
2005 The Colorado Kid Crime fiction 3.28 22000 3.2 2400
2006 Cell Horror 3.64 154000 3.45 8600
2006 Lisey’s Story Horror 3.65 55000 3.6 5900
2007 Blaze* Crime fiction 3.66 30000 3.46 2800
2008 Duma Key Psychological Horror 3.93 80000 3.89 5800
2008 Just After Sunset+ SS 3.85 38000 3.71 3600
2009 Under the Dome Science fiction 3.89 203000 3.84 7800
2010 Full Dark, No Stars+ SS 4.03 70000 3.96 3400
2011 11/22/63 Science fiction/alternate history 4.29 306000 4.2 7400
2012 The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole Fantasy/Western 4.15 47000 4.07 2000
2013 Joyland Crime fiction/mystery 3.9 83000 3.9 2400
2013 Doctor Sleep Horror 4.1 117000 4.06 3300
2014 Mr. Mercedes Crime fiction 3.92 151000 3.85 2700
2014 Revival Crime fiction 3.75 69000 3.69 1700
2015 Finders Keepers Crime fiction 4.03 66000 3.97 1600
2015 The Bazaar of Bad Dreams+ SS 3.92 29000 3.91 1000
2016 End of Watch Crime fiction 4.09 47000 3.91 1000

* published under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman”
+ short story collection

Here’s our base data. Genres were taken from Wikipedia, which is authoritative as anything else with regard to categorization of art. Now let’s plot these data points.

Well, this certainly… doesn’t answer any questions. The GoodReads ratings trend slightly down but the LibraryThing ratings trend slightly up. And neither in any significant slope. I’m comfortable saying the quality of his work (as rated by the people) has remained consistent through his career.

Again, this is not scientific. Some of these people voted for Trump. And, from this view, the spikes vary wildly. Note that not one goes higher than 4.4 and not one goes lower than 3.2. But as a writer, that’s a comfortable wheelhouse to be in.

So we’ve determined no change in how his books are rated. Mr. Mercedes is about as good as Pet Sematary. But how about the number of people picking up his books?

Ah, we see some trends here. But the data skews downward for a reason. Forty years have passed since Carrie. That gives people more time for people to pick it up than Duma Key (2008). So the downward line doesn’t necessarily mean people are dropping King from their reading lists.

Or does it? When was the last time you heard someone talk about him? Not in the “fine legacy of a horror writer” sense, but “what have you done for me lately?”

Here’s a thing I want to point out. Somewhere between 1987 and 1991, King got sober. I’m not sure which was his first sober book (one source said The Tommyknockers, another said Needful Things) but note that point in time on the graph. No book except for The Dark Tower 7 (the final book in the series) and Under the Dome (which had a big marketing campaign behind it) reaches above 200,000 readers. So the quality didn’t change, but the number of people who cared did. Did his content change with his sobriety? Was the bloom off the rose? I feel like something happened, but I don’t know what.

Here’s another interesting thing to note — Stephen King’s not really writing horror anymore. In the last ten years only three books (that weren’ short story collections) were horror. More were categorized as crime fiction. Does that mean King’s sick of horror? Or he’s experimenting? I dunno. But I don’t think we’ll ever see another Misery or The Stand again.

Does King care? Probably not. I wouldn’t care. I would consider it a blessing. He’s made it. He still makes bestseller lists, for both old and new books (It is up there right now, thanks to the movie). And now he can write whatever he wants to. No deadlines, no pressure. Not even George R. R. Martin can say that.

Does any of this data-mining prove anything? I guess it proves that, contrary to what I said before, maybe a person’s art doesn’t change as much as we think.

The Books I Read: July – August 2017

bookshelf books

 

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I expected this to be like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. And I got what I wanted. It’s a tightly paced retelling of the old Norse creation myths. Problem is, there aren’t many of them. I suspect that’s more to do with lack of surviving source material, given what Neil Gaiman says in the foreword. Maybe a long time ago there were scrolls and scrolls of Loki and Thor stories. Now all we’ve got are comic books. And if you’re any fan of Marvel’s interpretations, this is required reading.

The nice thing is that the re-tellings are up to date. I expected something Shakespearean or textbook-dry, like Hamilton. But the narration feels like an old storyteller sitting down by the fire, telling yarns to the grandchildren. The details behind Ragnarok and Fenrir and Loki are fascinating. It’s funny and suspenseful and creative. There are one-liners and drama and character flaws & flawed actions. It’s flavorful.

If you haven’t picked up Neil Gaiman before, this might be a good one to try. The content doesn’t consist of his usual dreamlike, abstract faire (that I’m not too fond of either). And you can tell it’s material he’s passionate about.

Tough Sh*t: Life Advice From a Fat, Lazy Slob Who Did Good by Kevin Smith

One night, before going out, Kevin Smith asks his wife “Can I stare at your asshole while I jack off?”

So depending on your reaction to that line, you can judge your potential interest in this tome.

Kevin Smith is, uh, an interesting fellow. Well, what I can I say? He was one of the voices of a generation. You look at the nineties and people think Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Kevin Smith. The guy is, at heart, a storyteller. I could listen to him talk about Superman and the Giant Spider all day.

And that’s what this book is. You get to hear how he met his wife, the making/publication of Red State, the Southwest “too fat to fly” fiasco, the up and down relationship with The Weinstein Company. The nice thing about Smith is he’s able to admit his wrongs and justify his rights. He never assumes he’s the smartest guy in the room and always gets feedback on if he’s showing his own ass (because that’s easy to do when your content consists of stinkpalming stoners and Carlin-esque religion satire).

The book is equal combinations of crudeness and heart, black humor and childlike wonder. It’s a good book for insight on the Hollywood scene, especially for potential indie film-makers. And it gives more inspiration that “you can make it” than “this is how to make it” (which is really all luck more than anything).

The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Sharra
(unfinished)

I might have finished if I hadn’t realized there were SparkNotes for it. Also a movie. Also, I didn’t care enough about the characters to know if they lived or died. And these are real characters that I know if they lived or died (spoiler: they all died… eventually).

I put it on my to-read list because I heard that this is the book that inspired Joss Whedon to make Firefly. Well, I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. But when I got to 40%, I realized I had gotten everything the book had to offer. The prose is dry and the characters read robotically. Maybe that’s to do with their military upbringing, but it’s hard to sympathize with the team that’s not fighting for the right side, even if they may or may not “believe” in that side’s cause (which is stupid, but I’m digressing).

If this was meant to teach me about war novels, I learned that they are boring. The plot is mechanical. Arguing about strategy–“take that hill.” We took that hill. Our guys got shot. We shot their guys. Argue, argue. Decide on more strategy. It’s how I imagine Warhammer novels are.

And then there’s the constant self-doubt of anyone in power. I imagine that’s true, but it gets annoying to constantly read about. The historical factor isn’t enough to pull me in either. Plus I know how it ends. So what did I come here for?

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

The city government grants a con artist a second lease on life if he can get the post office up and running. The mail system’s fallen into disrepair since the clacks (a telegraph/semaphore system) went up. But the evil business that owns them has been embezzling and employee safety has paid the price. So it’s David vs. Goliath as the thief has to figure out not only how to eschew his criminal background, but also how to deliver floors full of letters as he avoids the shadowy businessmen.

This is an adventure story. It’s not dissimilar to any other Pratchett – if you’ve read one of them, you’ve know what to expect. And this won’t convince you otherwise. I picked it up because it’s the highest rated/ranked Discworld novel in the series, and thought I should read this if not any others.

I consider Pratchett to the be the fantasy equivalent of Douglas Adams. That means events take a backseat to world-building and situation-explaining. Plot pacing is sacrificed for humor. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Written humor is hard because you lose all elements of timing. So if you can get a chuckle out of anyone, you’ve accomplished a great deal. And this got several chuckles from me.

The key negative is the unlikable characters. The con man doesn’t really want to be there. The government is forcing him in this job on threat of death. His chief ally at the post office is an old man who’d rather see tradition served than do any work. Plus a young man who might be autistic (he collects pins and goes into fits when routine is broken). No one is particularly charming, but Iron Man seems to get away with it. The other problem is too many subplots, due to the too many characters, which is par for the course in Discworld.

It’s a book of contradictions, but a solid four stars.

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison
(unfinished)

It’s full of cliches. The story makes a promise in the first chapter that doesn’t get fulfilled or hinted at for the next four or five. Which means it’s a cheat.

This girl is apparently the one who can see fairies and thus under their constant threat (because she could reveal their existence). This means a bunch of hijinks that can’t be explained has already happened and the mother has no choice but to send her troubled child to live with her grandmother in the country. There’s a neighbor boy who’s kind of annoying, weird neighbors, parents who don’t understand, falling in love with a library, and a witch who gives her a trinket for no reason. Didn’t I see this already in Coraline?

There’s more narration than dialogue. No one has any personality. The character makes no connections or relationships in this new setting. Events happen without being rooted in some cause. The protagonist has no “save the cat” moment. She’s a whiny inactive protagonist. And lots of telling. There’s even a gypsy woman (and I thought that term was racist).

This is just some thirteen-year-old’s badly conceived fantasy.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

All the characters here are broken. And thus, interesting. But this is not a fantasy novel. This is a standard YA novel with real-life problems. Non-real elements are minor and don’t affect the plot.

Something’s going on in the background of said plot. Something “Harry Potter” or “Buffy” involving a Big Bad and Apocalypses. But that’s not what the story is about. This is about the extras that end up in the B-roll, when the cameras pan over the ambulances. Who are those people?

One is gay. One is going to a war-torn third world country after graduation. One is a recovering anorexic. And one (the main character) has a compulsion disorder. There is magic in the world, but no one is using it. No one wants to. They’ve seen what happens to the kids who do. They’re stressing about college, graduation, dating, whether he-likes-her-but-does-she-like-me. It’s nice to see a deconstruction of the hero’s journey, but hard to do well. This one does. The style reminds me of John Green writing a Harry Potter background character or A.S. King (“Please Ignore Vera Dietz”).

Just After Sunset by Stephen King
(unfinished)

I read the first six stories. Only one provoked any reaction from me, thus I put it down. They’re all typical Stephen King — overwritten and full of generic description. I think he’s said everything he’s needed to say, and now he’s repeating himself.

Plus the thing about short stories is that they never seem to matter to the world within. They’re never important or epic. There’s no point to invest in one because it’s gone as soon as you do. They’re just slices of life.

They’re also not scary. He’s gone from tangible horror to the existential slipstream hypnosis or something like that. There’s a Family Guy joke where King’s publisher is asking for his next idea. King looks around the office and grabs a lamp. “For my next book, um… this couple is… um… attacked by, um… a lamp monster! Oooh…” There is LITERALLY a story like that, but it’s a stationary bike. “Ooh, look at the scary stationary bike. Ooh, you don’t know where it’s taking you. Ooh, is it making you hallucinate or is it real?” Please.

I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert

I enjoyed “Your Movie Sucks”, and thought this one would be even better, because it might include more movies I’m familiar with. But that’s not the case. It cuts off in 1999 and includes a ton of stinkers that I don’t remember at all. (There’s even a review of a MST3K movie, I thought that was a neat anachronism.)

This one seems to lack the vitriol that the sequel had. Probably because Ebert hadn’t reached peak cynicism yet. I thought I’d enjoy hearing his witty evisceration of my nostalgic classics, but those were few and far between. It’s too bad you can’t buy just the reviews of the movies you want to read about.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I cannot remember why I put this on my to-read list. It’s like a combo of John Scalzi and Leviathan Wakes. The characters are colorful, like a readable Firefly, but painted with a comic book brush. So they’re actually happy–not sullen or brooding or grimdark. That’s weird to me, but welcome. But after I finished, I was of two minds about it.

One one hand, it’s amateur hour. The entire middle could be removed without affecting the plot. Each chapter is episodic and self-contained. Some characters get a lot of screen time. Others you forget are there.

There’s an illusion of consequences to character actions… but nothing really happens. For example, the main character has a “the liar revealed” moment, and it affects nothing because everybody is so nice. No one dies. No one loses an hand or a mentor. Nothing changes anyone or anything. Nobody gets to say “Man, I regret doing that thing” or “I was wrong to do that”.

Finally, the “episodes” get transparently political. There is one that’s an immigration allegory. One that’s a LGBTQ rights allegory. One about religious freedom.

On the other hand, these are fun characters. They’re enjoyable to be around. They’re funny and smart, they don’t make stupid decisions. They’re practical and don’t fall into space opera tropes. It’s a little like Star Wars if it was created by the person who wrote My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. It’s not morose empire drama. But I don’t think I’ll read the second one.

The New Pennywise is Scary, and Thus, Not Scary

I haven’t seen it, but reviews on It are mostly positive. However, some movie buffs I follow had mixed responses. They said it’s a hodge-podge, a “curious mess” (which is much like the book). The characters are given scary scenes with real horrors like child abuse, nightmares, alcoholism, animal abuse, gun threats, pedophilia, psychological drama, etc. And then a clown shows up. So we got some tonal dissonance here.

I had a feeling this might happen as soon as I saw the new design for Pennywise. It’s just too scary. And thus, it’s not scary.

In 1986, clowns were not scary. They were funny, jovial, friend to all children (like Gamera). They were Clarabell and Ronald McDonald and Marcel Marceau and Red Skelton. If you were lost, you could go up to a clown and they’d help you find your family. They were like comedy superheroes. That’s why the Pennywise in the It novel was scary. Because he was a demon dressed up as something childlike and innocent.

To further illustrate, we can even examine their visual designs.

The clown on the left? Not scary. It looks very inspired by Bozo, the most popular clown of this era (bald, puffy red hair, high eyebrows, red nose, white makeup, circus outfit including puffy red buttons). Just looking at it, you can’t tell if this clown is scary or not. It just looks like a clown. Not until the sharp teeth come out do you think something might be wrong here. The fear comes comes from its actions, not the look. It’s meant to lure you in with a false sense of safety and joy, like an angler fish. (And it didn’t hurt that he was played by Tim Curry who can turn it off and on like a faucet).

But the clown on the right, you know immediately to run away. It doesn’t even need to inside a sewer grate to know something’s wrong here. I know that’s not a clown, that’s a murder-thing.

And even if they didn’t screw up the visual design, the “scary clown” is cliche now, partially due to It itself. The phenomenon originated with John Wayne Gacy. He was arrested in 1978 and sentenced in 1980, giving two years for all the sordid details to ingratiate into the public consciousness. Add some time for creators to add scary clowns into their books and movies. Look at any list of scary clowns, they are ALL 1982 and later. There is nothing before that. The one exception might be Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” which was more about a carnival than clowns (but note the movie came out in 1983, at peak clown).

My point is, Pennywise was scary because of what he did, not how he looked. If you change his look to be scary, you miss the point.

My Kindertrauma: Creepshow

Pretty much something from each element in this movie showed up in one childhood nightmare or another. Like all the other Kindertrauma in my life, I blame my mother. But not for the reasons you think.

She was attending college and took a class in horror movies. That meant trips to the video store and not caring if we were in the same room as her or not. There’ll be more on this later, but thanks to her ambitions, I got exposed to several episodes of Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, Halloween, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and others. Bad enough I’d already been warped from VHS boxes and her Stephen King books. Ironic that I didn’t realize this was another work of his until later.

The first scary image occurs after a boy has been yelled at by his father for that comic book trash (the titular “Creepshow”) he keeps in the house. After being sent to his room, the “Creeper” appears outside the kid’s window…

No, not that one… That’s the attempt to make Joker into a superhero.
“Come to my window, crawl inside, wait by the light of the moon…”

The lightning flashes and there is he is, like a tall, grotesque grim reaper (or a burnt mannequin). And the kid smiles because he recognizes his savior. His God has come. It’s a comfort to him, making the whole thing scarier. It made me not want to look at my window when going to sleep.

After this prologue is the Father’s Day vignette. I remember the whole story felt a bit off, maybe because it’s a slasher film sped up. The deaths don’t have a lot of build up like they do in Friday the 13th or Halloween, where the fear is in the stalking. The most horrible part is the corpse itself, more rotted and filthy than any I’ve ever seen. This is not your father’s blue zombies from Dawn of the Dead.

Jordy Verrill is the second story, and at this age, I didn’t know what camp meant. Or redneck. I thought Jordy Verrill was a likable, lonely farmer. Not very smart, but well-meaning.

And then the creeping death starts to cover his shack. The kicker is that it’s innocent grass, but it’s growing like The Blob. It covers his fingers, his hand, his remote, it’s unbearably itchy, unbearably alien. There’s nothing worse than being killed by degrees.

After he takes a fateful bath as his last ditch attempt to cleanse himself, he can no longer move or breathe for being covered with the stuff. What I remember of the ending is that, after he positions the shotgun under his chin, the shot cuts away to the house and the blast is heard. So I must have seen the edited version. But that is scarier to me, because what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. Also it’s the dread of the fact that he had no other choice. That he goes out rasping, “Please… God… just this once.” Haunting.

I knew Leslie Nielsen from The Naked Gun and Airplane movies my father showed me. Seeing him in a serious role itself is disconcerting. But add that he’s a bad guy, torturing Ted Danson (also an eighties staple) by 1. forcing him to dig a hole in the sand 2. Bury himself in it 3. Before the tide comes in, inevitably drowning you (3½. Nielsen mentions he might be able to survive this… if he can hold his breath long enough; and little me thought this might be a possibility, making Danson’s death sadder.) 4. While your wife’s death on the other side of the beach plays live via CCTV. I hate these slow deaths of dread.

And then that’s not enough — the corpses come back, blue and bloated, covered with seaweed. They pursue Nielsen around the house until they corner him with a fade to black. The final shot? He’s suffering the same fate as they did, buried up to his head while the tide comes in.

Now that I look back on it I have no idea why I was ever scared of it. It looks like a cheap gorilla mask someone left in the microwave. Maybe it’s because the cinematography is about what you don’t see. It’s called The Crate. Not “The Monster in the Crate”, just “The Crate”. You don’t see what’s in it when a hapless janitor gets pulled in by a furry clawed hand and blood spurts out.

Then there’s a twist where the henpecked guy gets a spine and drags his embarrassing alcoholic wife to it. You don’t know if he’s going to successfully get her down there. You don’t know if you want him to. And then he’s knocking on it, banging on it, and you expect him to be the one eaten because he’s closer. Then there’s a pause, nothing happens. Maybe the monster’s not coming out. Maybe it’s already escaped and it’s behind him. But it jumps out, mugs for the camera, then drags her in like Audrey II.

Since the version I saw was edited, the cockroach story was removed for time so I have no memories of it. Even so, I strangely think this might have been the one story that wouldn’t have scared me. I don’t care about bugs unless they’re on me and the Midwest has no cockroaches, just mosquitoes. The story was confusing anyway–not high concept enough.

So for me, Creepshow ended when the trashmen discover the comic book and see that someone’s clipped out the “voodoo doll” coupon. Cut to Dad spontaneously choking in the kitchen while his son upstairs stabs the little straw doll in the neck. The little sociopath killing his own father while laughing maniacally. (BTW doesn’t this kinda prove the dad’s point?)

So yeah, start to finish, everything in this movie stayed with me. Jesus Christ, no wonder I’m warped.

On the Origin of Supernatural Characters

So this is something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, but my passion for finding an answer hasn’t reached the level of putting down words until now.

So let’s imagine you’ve got a horror movie. And your movie needs a scary killer. Something palpable and not en masse (not zombies or plague). Something like a big spider or a hillbilly cannibal or a pale kid ghost. Here’s the question: do you give that bad guy an origin?

Here’s why I ask. Is it scarier when you don’t know where the bad guy came from? What his/her/its motivations are? What its nature is? Or is that just lazy writing? I’ve heard criticisms both ways. The first that explaining the bad guy makes him less scary. The second from critics, who say that because you don’t know what it wants, it’s not scary. You don’t know where it came from or why it’s there or the reasoning behind its strength and weaknesses. Why does Jason seem to be able to teleport? Why does Pennywise only appear every twenty-seven years? How did a white-boy criminal learn the voodoo to put his soul into a doll?

Or you could say that the lack of definition enhances the fear. The time when things are the scariest are when you don’t know. You don’t know if something’s in the dark. You don’t know why the devil inhabits this little girl. You don’t know what the Blair Witch is. You don’t know why the Babadook has a little book (why can he get published and not me?). You don’t know why the It in “It Follows” is following you. Is it a gypsy curse? A confused ghost? Is the film itself just allegorical?

Let’s look at some scary movies to see if we can find an answer. You can’t count some franchises like Friday the 13th, Nightmare Before Christmas on Elm Street. I applaud these movies for keeping things as fresh as possible, especially Freddy. But you can’t have this many sequels and not have backstory come out. To the point where it stops being horror and starts being action and/or science fiction (e.g. Resident Evil, Jason X).

“Dear! Are you going out in that?!”

I give Halloween a pass because A) it started the eighties horror rennaissance B) I consider only the first two part of the mythos. Number three had no Michael Myers. Four + Five + Six add some weird cult/curse/prophecy thing that was so tainted with studio interference and poor production that I can’t bear to include it. Seven and Eight you could make an argument for, but they’re essentially milking a dead cow for nostalgia. And the Rob Zombie movies are real reboots (and add way too much backstory).

Anyway, my point is that Halloween (I & II) do not explain where Michael Myers came from, why he kills, etc. All Dr. Loomis can say is that he’s absolute evil (not very professional, but effective storytelling). He’s like a force of nature. He’s there, but you don’t know why, and you don’t know the reason for his mask, or why he wants to kill family. It launched an entire decade of genre so it should be effective.

Some others that are scary, but do a decent job of explaining the character’s origin are The Exorcist, The Shining, The Ring, and Psycho. Yet, there is an element of the unexplainable in all these. Norman Bates’s psychosis is abnormal, so as much as the psychiatrist bores us to death tries to explain, you still don’t get the unnatural connection to Mother. Umbrella Corporation still seems to be in business after seven games and a thousand zombie outbreaks. Hasn’t someone complained to the Better Business Bureau by now? Why does Samara care more about getting her tape out than avenging her death? How does a hotel go from Indian curse to directing a father to murder his family?

So then we have movies that have nil or just about nil story/background/characterization to the bad guy. The Babadook and It from “It Follows” have obvious allegorical meanings, but that’s metaphysical. Where did they come from in the universe of the movie? Why does the Babadook look like Ryuk with a little hat and coat?

Is their ship name “Babaryuk”? Or “RyukDook”?

Why does the It from “It Follows” follow? If It from “It” follows “It Follows” and It from “It Follows” follows “It” then it follows It follows “It Follows” follows “It” following It from “It Follows” follows “It”. I don’t know what I just said. None of those words have any meaning anymore to me.

The Blair Witch has no identity or origin as the kids look for her. The fear comes from what they find during their journey into the woods. And the movie was criticized for this. For as scared as people were, there were as many that said “a pile of rocks and popsicle-stick men aren’t scary”. And if you didn’t catch the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “standing in the corner” line from the beginning, the ending is lost on you. For them, the absence of meaning behind these actions was silly rather than scary.

In Jaws, there’s no explanation why the shark has entered populated waters. It contradicts what’s known about sharks. We know it’s bigger than normal and it’s behavior is aberrant. Why? No one knows. But this didn’t change the fact that it was scary. What it could do was more important than why it did it.

Okay, lightning round now: Night of the Living Dead – no explanation for zombies (the “comet” line is pure conjecture). Paranormal Activity (the first one, see above explanation about franchises) – no explanation. Funny Games – no explanation for why the serial killer preppies are doing this (but then it gets negated by the metaphysical remote control interruption). Cloverfield (doing web searches for the ARG doesn’t count). The Birds. Five Nights at Freddy’s. Silent Hill.

And then a few that are on the fence: does Texas Chainsaw Massacre count? Do we need more backstory if it’s based on a historical figure? Do we need to know what planet Xenomorphs originate from? Or how they survive with acid for blood and the evolutionary reasoning for two mouths? Does “Death” in Final Destination need something more or is that just torture porn anyway?

I think it’s more important what the characters do than where they came from. If there’s meanings in the actions of the bad guy, that makes not only an effective bad guy, but an effective movie. Random shit happening is just random shit. If you can’t attach meaningfulness (and in horror movies, meaningfulness means threat or doom), then it’s not scary.

The funny part is that “Cabin in the Woods” — arguably the best horror movie in the past decade — is nothing BUT explanation of the scary killer.

The Books I Read: March – April 2017

bookshelf books

I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga
(unfinished)

I love Barry Lyga, but I had to stop after twenty-five percent. There was too much telling and not enough showing.

The story’s about a teenager who knows all the serial killer tricks because his father was one. So there’s analysis, backstory, and thinking, but not much action. Too much of the text is setup for the ongoing series, not the current story. I wanted to know what’s happening with the murder now, not ten years ago.

It would have been better if the text was presented in flashbacks so there was more immediacy, instead of recall. The narrator is just not interesting enough to allow him total control.

Afraid by Jack Kilborn

This is a real Suicide Squad — not some namby-pamby rogues gallery. A half-dozen sociopaths are given CIA mental conditioning and drug therapy. Then they crash land in sleepy-town, USA. Chaos ensues.

I’ve never read anything as fast-paced as this. Chapters are short, sentences are short, scenes are short. Although the characterization is light, the action is visceral enough and quick enough that you want to see more. You might think it’s a Stephen King-style thriller from the cover and blurb — slow burn, supernatural junk, psychic powers for no reason — but it’s a far cry.

It reminds me of a high-budget B-movie where they went heavy on script and light on special effects. The horror comes from how realistic (as in the killer is a criminal trained to be a soldier, not Pennywise the clown).

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

(unfinished)

I stopped when I reached two bothersome tropes in YA novels that I couldn’t overlook. One was the Wild Teen Party. The all-night rager-kegger thrown by the resident Daddy’s little princess where everyone’s drinking copiously and every room has the door shut. There’s mean girls, drinking games, and bros talking out loud about “getting ass” in front of the people they’re trying to get ass from. And of course, our heroine goes because her friends are there, but she’s too virginal to take part in the hedonistic orgy.

In movies it’s entertaining, but in a book, it’s the crutch of authors who need a place and time for characters to argue or see someone kiss someone else or some other plot point because, literally, everyone is there. It’s a setup to get someone sexually assaulted or overhear/see someone doing naughty which leads to “the liar revealed”, “the misunderstanding”, or “what did I do last night?”. Reality contradicts this to the point of ludicrousness — parties only have a few friends, finding alcohol/drugs is a scavenger hunt in its own right, and no one acts like a chauvinistic douche in front of anyone who could hear it. Yes, there are parties that turn up to eleven, but they’re the exception that proves the rule. The other nine times out of ten, you either play Halo all night or eat ice cream and talk.

Cliche #2 — our oh-so-precious heroes don’t read any conventional books. They read the classics like Bronte and Woolf. And constantly quote them to each other, like it’s a ping-pong challenge to prove which one is dumber (of course, neither loses, they know all the lines like Wuthering Heights was “Austin Powers”). No one reads Twilight or Harry Potter. No one reads anything written in the last century. That’s too mainstream. We’re all Hipster Ariels here.

That’s when I stopped reading. There are two main characters, one girl and one boy. They’re both suicidal. But one is more “eccentric” suicidal and the other is “dramatique”. The boy does it for the negative attention, but then criticizes the girl for doing the same thing. He’s like a manic pixie dream boy, like Johnny Rzeznik or the Phantom of the Opera. He’s special because he’s not one of the jocks who wants sex (see above re: “getting ass”). He’s a special snowflake who wants a meaningful relationship.

I read somewhere that “this is a book about depressed teens, not a book FOR depressed teens.” That makes death into a game. Like you’re watching these teens skirt around the edge of the suicide pool and the big question becomes “will she or won’t she?” Which is wrong. There is no glory in suicide. I’ve looked into that abyss, and I was able to turn away. There’s no romance. There’s no story. It doesn’t release you from your pain, it makes everyone around you feel worse.

At 33% I realized I didn’t give a shit about any of the characters. Books about coping with depressing situations? I’ll stick with “Eleanor and Park”, thanks. Coping with suicide? I’ll stick with “Looking for Alaska”, thanks.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

At one third of the way through, there still weren’t any vampires. I’m not saying I need vampires at page one, but they should be part of the plot setup.

But still, this is one of the books that reminds you why people admire King (or did in the eighties). Despite the tedium of character after character after character, the prose still crackles with quaint expressions and sharp dialogue. Even though no one is working towards a goal, the characters are interesting and there are tons of them.Some of whom only get one scene or two and are then killed off. But the difference is, because they get a little screen time AND something you can stick to them (the bus driver who hates kids, the husband of the former beauty queen who catches her in an affair) their deaths have meaning (even if it’s only an ounce).

It’s the progenitor of many of the Stephen King cliches we take for granted today (setting in Maine, supernatural creatures without origin, one-dimensional bullies, useless police, crazy fundamentalists, rednecks, abusive jerkasses, alcoholics, letdown of an ending) and there’s pacing issues abound. Though they crackle, there are long stints of nothing happening, especially in the beginning. Although it gives the effect of making the town a character (so there is meaning when it becomes doomed), it makes me wonder which parts were written on a coke binge and which weren’t.

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

A little Dune, a little Game of Thrones, a little Leviathan Wakes, with the rest being pure Scalzi himself. It’s a great read, like his others. Not one you want to put down. Add to that the fact that’s it fun to be starting a new saga. And the best part is that Scalzi’s created one of his best characters to date in Kiva Lagos (mostly because she swears a lot). And that’s saying something because Scalzi is not known for character-driven plots.

Like the last two Old Man’s War books, this story takes place with a high scope. A forty-thousand foot view. This is not like Zoe’s Tale or The Ghost Brigades where you knew one character intimately. And like the last two Old Man’s War books, the story stays focused on politics and governmental milieu (although it’s not a political thriller).

One negative is that it seemed the good guys win their obstacles a little easy. Like someone grabs the gun from Chekhov’s mantle, but the security manager saw him bring in bullets, and they knew who was going to do it, so they replaced the gun with one of those bang flag things. Challenges were nipped in the bud right away so that the goal became how to make it so no one noticed they nipped the bud while finding out who grew the flower.

If you’re not familiar with Scalzi’s stuff, then this is a good jumping in point. It’s closest to Lock-In for style and The End of All Things for content.