This past year seems to have a common theme of me finally getting around to Robert McCammon books that I should have read in high school. Last year I finally cracked the cover on Swan Song and loved it. Now, this year the choice appears to have been Usher’s Passing. And again the result is me wanting to reach back through time and give the teenage version of myself a good slap.
To start, I’ll admit that I haven’t read Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher, another error I should probably correct. My point in bringing it up is that I can’t really speak to the relevance of McCammon’s book to Poe’s work.
This is a stunning book. There is so much history and depth to the narrative, much more than anything I have read in a long time. I would probably place this up there with some of the massive tomes like Swan Song, The Stand, IT, stories that just seem to keep getting larger and at no point do you feel like any of it is excessive. McCammon makes this massive book feel digestible by making the characters completely dynamic and compelling. These are people who I am interested to learn more about and to see where the currents of the story will take them. This is a real family with real history and all I wanted was just more pages.
What’s more, McCammon brilliantly lays out the tension between his main character and his family, after turning his back on their legacy of arms development. A decision that has cost him the massive amounts of money he would likely inherit otherwise, had he not been a cog in the wheel. I loved the emotionally antagonistic father who finds himself in the position of having to reach out for help from a son who has turned on him. Also, the sniveling brother who clearly thinks highly of himself, much more than most of the family. Add a further complication with a sister who is frequently traveling abroad and you have a recipe for perfect levels of conflict that can fester in a family.
Description and atmosphere are also outstanding in this book. Reading this is like sitting down to a really great meal that you don’t want to end. The chef might be going off in all different directions that interest them but every turn seems like the perfect decision.
There’s a lot going on at the same time but McCammon doesn’t seem to have any difficulty keeping so much in the air. He executes the story on many different levels and he clearly put in the necessary groundwork that was needed to write this. There is the history of the family but also the history of the area and the people who live on the mountain around the family estate. It’s a massive amount of work that he managed to make accessible and organized.
The drama is done well and not at all cliché. The tension is real and the elements of horror that work their way into the book are disturbing. There are some frightening monsters in this as well as an abandoned house that raises some chills as well. There were some brilliantly creepy moments throughout, all delivered with the McCammon level of intensity and power.
And I suppose the best possible compliment I can give to a book is that it made me feel inspired to go read another book. I should probably stop hedging and follow through on my so-called “interest” in reading Poe’s story. If nothing else, it could only serve to enhance the context of McCammon’s book. And then, of course, once I read Poe’s story it would give me a convenient excuse to go back once more through the doors of the house of Usher.
One of my favorite books growing up was Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. And it was a book that I didn’t immediately engage with. I had been a fan of several of McCammon’s books already but Boy’s Life was quite a departure from what I was expecting. There was seemingly none of the horrific elements that his books seemed to deliver. I bailed out, shortly after beginning my first attempt but before long, I was able to buckle down and force myself through. It wasn’t long after that before I realized how much I had missed out by not sticking with the book the first time through.
The book isn’t horror. I wasn’t wrong in that initial assessment. Sure, there are some moments where the narrative seems to brush up against the supernatural but in no way was this horror. Still, I loved it. The characters were compelling and I quickly bought into them as a reader. I couldn’t put the book down and the thing that really threw me was how, for most of the book, it wasn’t really clear what the story was driving towards. I’m normally not a huge fan of books that are so plot-driven but in this case, the plot was so great, it was all I wanted.
It was this feeling that I returned to when I came across The Travelling Vampire Show. I have not had the pleasure of reading anything by Richard Laymon before and I suspect that this will not be the last. The setup for the book is pretty straightforward. A group of three friends come across a flier for a travelling act that is coming to town. The poster claims that the town can come out to see one of the last surviving vampires, alive. An intense show is promised, one that won’t be soon forgotten.
The friends, after much debate, decide that they need to figure out how to sneak out that night in order to get in and see this vampire, real or not.
From this point on, the book mostly goes into a detailed sequence of events, what transpires for these three friends. It’s a notion that in the hands of another author probably could have ended up being a complete disaster. And for me, this is where the comparison to Boy’s Life really comes into play. As with Boy’s Life, I frequently found myself looking up from this book and realizing that I really couldn’t say what the book was about, or what kind of arc these characters were on. And while many would bemoan the absence of these things, for me, the story was so compelling, I was finding that I just didn’t care. This was a rich universe that was an absolute pleasure to dip in to. It’s a story about friendship and loyalty and about growing up and how our relationships can change as that process moves forward. The plot has an almost episodic feel to it as our characters move from one emotional challenge to the next and I loved it.
The characters were what really rocketed this book into the stratosphere. Everyone felt like they had an immense history and texture to them and it was a big part of what made me overlook my feelings about the story seeming like one endless stream of point A to point B to point C and so forth. The importance of where the book was going took a comfortable back seat to my desire to simply see what the characters were going to do next.
There were a few points where I thought the book could have been better. There are a number of flashbacks throughout and for some reason, one of the characters always seems to have a different nickname during each one. It’s never really explained why she changes her nickname all the time and the first time it happened there were several minutes of confusion on my part, wondering who this new character was.
My other issue was with the ending. While it was dramatic and satisfying, there were certain aspects that I found a bit overdone. There were several moments that I thought were getting a little masturbatory, with multiple female characters fighting and of course losing their clothes in the process.
These were both minor issues however, and my enjoyment of the book remained strong. The romance between two of the characters is certainly to be expected by most readers so it isn’t exactly a stunning twist but the way that aspect of the story develops is actually quite sweet and I felt like I was seeing something genuine developing, not just an author arbitrarily pushing two characters together. And I’ll give Laymon credit for resisting the urge at a key moment to launch into an obligatory sex scene and instead throwing in a head-fake that made me actually laugh as I was reading, something that doesn’t happen very often.
This isn’t a horror story. It does however build up to some closing moments that are grim and intense in their violence and in how disturbing they are. Overall, this was a fantastic book and the genius of it is in how it takes moments that should drag the book down and uses them as the essential building blocks to construct a book that I didn’t want to put down.
Salvage is a story built on a solid and creepy premise. It’s a book that somehow manages to feel claustrophobic within mostly open spaces and isolated it’s characters in ways that I don’t think I have seen done similarly in anything else I have read.
I love stories that deal with the sea and especially underwater. One of my favorite movies growing up was The Abyss, along with the fantastic novelization, written by Orson Scott Card. I loved the sense of terror that is exuded from being underwater, even at shallow depths. It’s the one place where, despite our often feeling like masters of our domain, once we are plunged into the depths we begin to realize how weak and unwanted we can be on an alien landscape. The sound and temperature is distorted. You have no sense of touch or smell. What you see can only be illuminated by what natural light filters down or by your dive lights. Diving underwater is something that begs to have a horror story written about it.
The concept for this book is of a lost town, flooded intentionally as a part of rerouting a river. It’s something I was surprised to see has happened before. Google it if you want to see some interesting material. Essentially the population must abandon the town and ever since, it has been lost at the bottom of a man-made lake, save for the top peak of the local chapel. The book is centered around the disappearance of the local Reverend as well as some of the parishioners.
All this makes for some outstanding atmosphere and tension. It’s spooky enough to explore an abandoned town but add to that the aspect of doing it underwater makes for a beautiful sense of claustrophobia and anxiety.
It’s a fine line to strike but technical detail is something I like, so long as it is being used to augment the story, not replace it. I call this the Dan Brown syndrome from his tendency to bring an entire narrative to a shrieking halt while some concept is explained. Maybe we even get a flashback of Robert Langdon beating some concept into the ground for one of his classes. This phenomenon happens when you have a writer who puts a ton of time at the library or online, researching some aspects of the story and when it comes time to write, you can tell they are somewhat shoehorning to make room for all the knowledge they discovered. Wouldn’t want that time to get wasted, would we?
And I get it. I’ve been in a similar position. And often we find ourselves really interested in a subject and want to write about it. The problem is that it bogs down the narrative. So I was happy to discover that in this, Ralston deftly incorporates the necessary technical aspects of diving while at the same time making it feel natural and logical. He also has enough respect for us to keep from overexplaining, making his descriptions clear, while expecting us to keep up with him as well. I felt like I actually learned a lot about diving and of the common dangers that I don’t think I was ever really aware of. It created a beautiful balance of danger for the characters, presented by the real world sources as well as possibly other-worldly as well.
And of course added to all of this is the well-layered tension and mystery around the protagonist’s history as well as that of the town. There is a certain amount of intrigue to the story as he works through the locals, trying to obtain more information. It’s a dynamic between characters that isn’t necessarily new but Ralston delivers the classic narrative in fine form.
The novel is paced well and the characters are carefully crafted. But for me the atmosphere was what really made this story take off. Supernatural horror has always been one of my favorites and the addition of the diving aspect really made it work well. If, by chance you aren’t as familiar with the works of Duncan Ralston, Salvage would be a great starting point.
In light of the recent passing of actor Joseph Pilato, I thought it would be a good time to share some of my thoughts on one of my favorite all-time zombie films. The original trilogy of films which George Romero presented has stood the test of time as great representations of the zombie genre. While zombies have taken off in modern popular culture, all things must have their origins. And while I love all three of the films, Day of the Dead has always been my favorite. Dawn of the Dead is a great film but at times it does tend to drag a bit for me. And while Night of the Living Dead is an undeniable classic, at times it comes off as a bit on the quaint side for me, more of a rough sketch of the greatness that zombie films could become, further down the road. Continue Reading
I say without exaggeration that Jacob’s Ladder was one of the most visually disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. The surreal landscape of the story is terrifying and in my opinion has never been equaled by anything after.
And before I get into this, let me say that there will be spoilers. Sorry, but I want this to he a complete discussion of the film so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading, right now, and correct that oversight.
This is the kind of movie you really need to watch at least twice before you can really appreciate it. This isn’t a film that you coast through. This is a movie that you white-knuckle it for two hours before saying, wait what? What the hell just happened? Re-watching the movie, after already fully immersing yourself in it helps you fully appreciate the journey taken by this character. Continue Reading
In The Island, by Michael Bray, we see a society in which reality television has become a performance platform for violence and death. The island itself is a man-made land mass on which a competition has been resurrected to air for the first time as a television series. Contestants are set loose on the island and only one can survive to the end. Their prize? Whatever it is they desire. All they have to do is make it from one side of the island to the other.
Oh, and they have to make it through an island packed full of dinosaurs.
The main character of the story, Chase Riley, decides to take part in the newly revamped show in order to save his daughter who is suffering from terminal cancer. Against the wishes of his wife, he enters into the show, hoping that a victory will bring in the money they lacked, in order to get their daughter the treatment she needs.
Putting all my honesty down on the table, I have to admit that I was a little dubious of the concept of this book going into it. My concern was that this was going to just end up feeling like a modern reimagining of The Running Man, but with dinosaurs as an artificial attempt to add an extra element to an already successful story. Still, I was also intrigued by the idea and was willing to give it a go.
I’m glad to say that my reservations were unfounded. I think this book is a good reminder that, regardless of the specific concept, effective writing and characters that can be related to will carry a lot of weight, even if the story has some familiar ring to it.
To start off, I think that the strongest element to this book is that of the characters. It’s really easy when you have multiple characters to have trouble keeping track of everyone and they all start to blend together. Despite that challenge, I thought Bray did a really good job making sure everyone was distinct and easy to tell apart from each other. Despite the fact that some of the characters were fairly archetype-ish, I found myself interested in them and engaged in their part of the story.
I also really liked how he explored the dynamic between the characters within the context of the game itself. More specifically, the notion of people who are on one hand contestants but also still feel the urge to help each other. How do you work with and against each other at the same time? How do you deal with the fact that you might care for someone’s well-being while at the same time realizing that you may be put in a position where you might have to take that person’s life?
I found the pacing of the book to be great. I thought the story moved along at a nice clip and once things really got going, they don’t stop until the book ends. Bray did a great job creating a story that is engaging and that held my interest throughout.
As it is probably to be expected in a story of this type, things are not necessarily as they seem. The twists in the story are well done and are used effectively in order to move things along. There were a few points towards the end of the book where I felt like the twists were starting to stretch the limits of credibility, slightly. However, this did not prevent my ability to enjoy them and I was able to shut that part of my brain up and just watch the book unfold.
If I had one critical comment about the book, it would be that at times I thought the writing style got in the way of the flow of the narrative, somewhat. There seem to be quite a few moments where the writing is a bit dense in terms of the paragraphs being very long. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this practice, but I think it can make scenes less effective when there is a lot of action going on. I think it has a tendency to slow down the reader and bring down the immediacy of the narrative. In my opinion, some of the scenes could have been more powerful and effective if some of the longer paragraphs had been broken up. This is just a personal issue of my own and it’s a minor one. It didn’t interfere with my enjoyment, nor did it necessarily make the book any less engaging.
In all, I thought that in a culture that has become rife with dystopian literature, The Island does a pretty good job keeping its head above the water and not feeling like ground that is being re-treaded one too many times. It is a book I enjoyed and would highly recommend.
Click HERE for directions to your nearest Amazon storefront listing of this fantastic book.
Great storytelling has very little to do with the specifics of the story itself. And what I mean by that is that when you break down a story to its core elements, they is a fairly small variety of plot types. If there’s a story out there to be told, chances are that countless others have gotten there first.
Writing is about the prose, not the gimmicks. And this is the main reason why my skepticism alarm rages at full volume whenever I see books who claim to take convention and turn it on its head. When I hear about an author who is unlike anyone who has come before them. When writing, one shouldn’t obsess over whether or not they are providing a fresh perspective on a genre or concept. Instead, one should focus on whether or not the story is being crafted at the highest level possible.
And this brings us to the story of the hour, the Goblin Glass, by Mark West.
A story about a burglar who has returned to a life of crime might not be that jaw-dropping as just a concept. And given the context of the story, the reader would likely anticipate that the protagonist of the story will encounter something horrific.
But what Mark West does here and what he has done so brilliantly in the books I have read is to create atmosphere and tension, so fraught that you can’t help but read on. And on.
For being such a short story, West does an excellent job establishing character. Despite knowing very little about the protagonist, save for the fact that he has clearly done wrong things in his life, I felt like he quickly became sympathetic and relatable on the page. In a thousand or so words, West manages to craft a character who we care about and is thrust into a situation of extreme stress and pressure, all leading him down the path to where he is in the bulk of the story’s narrative.
According to West, this came about as part of a themed anthology around the subject of the Ten Commandments, this story obviously inspired by thou shalt not steal. I thought he ran with this concept and really made it sing, all set against the backdrop of a universe that was beautifully bleak in its construction.
One of my favorite movies is Dark City. I love the image of that grimy industrial setting, perpetually drowned out in shadows and despair. You feel the emotional weight of the setting, not just a physical place through which the characters walk. And for me, the house in Goblin Glass functions as a perfect set piece. For me, it almost makes the entire story. It just so happens that a burglary is in process here but I would take any excuse to read more about this house.
The descriptions are vivid, making me feel like I’m the one tromping through this darkened, vile structure. The look of the place as it is put down on the page makes me feel revolted to picture and yet I couldn’t turn away – something that isn’t easy to accomplish. I could smell the dirty dishes, hear the protests of the floorboards and I was disturbed by the mirrors throughout the house, reflecting light and amplifying your fears as our hero continues going up and up, into the upper reaches of this mysterious house. The origins of all this isn’t necessarily clear. But it’s sure is scary.
Horror doesn’t necessarily require extensive explanation. For me, it’s about the creation of the moment and seeing where it goes. It’s about evoking what you can on the visual canvas of the mind. I’ve always been impressed with the writing of Mark West and this story is the perfect example.
Just so you are aware.
I have not seen the most recent Halloween movie. There have been more than enough reactions to the film for you to seek out. This review represents my thoughts on the novelization.
To start on a positive note, one thing that set Halloween (the original Carpenter film) aside from the other two massive franchises of the decade was in its use of atmosphere and foreshadowing. Michael seems to be constantly on the fringe of the story, floating in and out as a vague presence in many scenes, lending a beautifully bleak feeling of what is coming. This all is aided of course by a fantastic score.
With that fact as a kind of marinade to my point here, in general I would say that I preferred the first half of the book and I felt like the use of similar tension and foreboding was done well. As the reader with extra insight I liked the feeling of hopelessness for these characters as they go about their lives, not knowing what’s coming for them. Michael is appropriately frightening in his silent implacability. And naturally, most of those in charge don’t seem to take him seriously as a threat. And as would be expected from this franchise, we all know he’s going to escape. Still, when that scene finally arrived I thought it was done well.
One big promotional aspect for the film has been the return of Jaime Lee Curtis to her iconic role although, to be fair I’m not really sure why. Not that she isn’t an outstanding actor (she is) but of the nine movies set in the original film’s continuity, she’s appeared in five. I can’t think of any other franchise where an actor, save for the monster has appeared in so many installments. And this isn’t even the first “return” she’s made to the franchise. Maybe they should have called this H40.
More relevant I think than just JLC’s presence is that this is essentially the establishment of a new iteration of the John Carpenter universe, seeing another possibility for how things could have ended up for Laurie Strode following the fateful events of that night.
And as such, I think some great potential is present at the start of this book in the relationship Laurie has with her family. On one hand you have her daughter who grows up traumatized herself, having to live with a mother who is constantly paranoid and emotionally unstable, sure that there are monsters poised to strike out at them. And in the middle of this estranged pair is the granddaughter, now of a similar age to Laurie in the first movie.
Unfortunately, this dynamic never really seems to go anywhere. The focus jumps from one to the next, so much that the book ends up not really being about any of them. You get some broad brush strokes every now and then but for the most part, everyone just felt flat for me.
And as for Laurie as a character, I was kind of let down. I’m normally a fan of sequels in which we see how damaged our main character really is and how just because the monster might be beaten, her torture still carries on. I’m appreciative when a writer is willing to show their heroes as being broken. Unfortunately, I thought that Laurie in this became a little bit too much Sarah Conners from T2. We start from quiet, unassuming Laurie in the first movie and now she’s somehow managed the resources and funds to amass a massive arsenal in her home, which is also outfitted with so many security features that it almost becomes cartoonish. And I’m not saying that’s it’s unbelievable that she could end up a fully loaded bad-ass. I’m more than willing to take that journey. It’s just that the transition felt wrong and unexplained to me.
Frankly, I think I would have been more intrigued by a story exploring the effect violence can have on a family. Laurie’s daughter has no memory of the first encounter with Michael. That’s always been theoretical for her. But it’s the reason why she’s raised with guns and knives and self-defense training, rather than birthday parties and toys. Instead of standard slasher-flick fare, this could have been a great aspect to the story but I think by adding both a daughter and a granddaughter, it became too complicated for any of them to get a good amount of focus.
And in my biggest complaint, because I guess they just had to have a Loomis type character, the doctor who is shoehorned into this role is a fail for me. Michael’s doctor has an arc in this story that has no narrative momentum to hold it up. And he ends up taking actions at the end that makes no sense to me. You can’t have a character whose only role is to act as a twist.
The book has some great, brutal scenes involving peripheral characters but once we get everyone to Laurie’s Bat Cave, much of the sense of peril kind of dwindled away for me.
After as many installments as this franchise has seen, I suppose it’s inevitable for the plot to feel a little on the bland side. Still, for me, this book mostly goes down as a case of lost potential.