Category Archives: Horror

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

book coverI will be writing, have been writing, or have already written (depending on when you see this. Time is strange here on GR) a review of Welcome to Night Vale. But until/when/after I do (or until you return from whatever time stream you are in to read this, or move ahead into another one) I can offer one definite bit of advice. Listen to a few of the Night Vale podcasts. If they float your boat, or, lacking water, elevate you at least several inches off the ground for a period of about twenty minutes, you will love this book. Proceed directly to the beginning of the actual review.

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====================================NOT ENCHANTED?
If you find the podcasts uninteresting, really, did you touch one of the pink flamingos? Something is wrong. OK, Ok, I know there are some folks who will not be enchanted by the Night Vale podcasts. This book is probably not for you. But if you go to the local library, you are sure to find something more to your liking. Hurry, go now. You might want to stop by and visit the dog park on your way. Be sure to say hi to the friendly figures in the hoods. Y’all take care now, and return directly to the section titled “Not Enchanted?”

=======================================ACTUAL REVIEW

It is a friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.

Whew! I’m so glad we got rid of those people.

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A Cecil Baldwin sandwich with the authors in the role of bread

In July, 2013, Welcome to Night Vale became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. It all began in 2012, a twice-a-month podcast that is Lake Wobegon by way of David Lynch, Lovecraft, told in the form of a community radio newscast.

It was started completely as a hobby,” Fink begins, when asked about how the podcast has gotten to this point. “Y’know, my friends and I, it was just something we enjoyed doing. Our entire goal, when we started it, was that maybe someday there’d be a few people who weren’t friends or family listening to it. We certainly had no goals beyond that, other than to enjoy making it.” – from interview in The Arcade

It is read by Cecil Baldwin who shares a first name with his fictional manifestation, Cecil Palmer, the radio broadcaster. The podcast is weird, creepy fun, rich with non-sequiturs and reasons to be afraid, many reasons. Cecil’s steady tones make it seem practically normal.

I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theories. And also, to a lesser extent fascinated by the Southwest desert. Fascinating things probably happen there on a regular basis. So I came up with this idea of a town in that desert where all conspiracy theories were real. – From Jackie Lyden’s 2013 NPR interview with the authors

And whether it was a result of a desire for expression in a new medium, an action taken in compliance with an order from one of the hooded figures in the dog park, or an angel in old woman Josie’s house, Fink and Craynor have committed their world to print.

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We, as readers, seem to have a soft spot for this genre. I don’t know if there is a name for the type that this fits into, storytelling-wise, but if there is a short term for “A small town where something is…off,” this book would fit in there quite nicely. (I know it is far from wonderful, but I hereby nominate the word “Oddsville” for the genre, capital of the great state of Unease. All in favor?) There is a rich tradition of such writing. Rod Serling was a fan of this trope in his Twilight Zone writing (Where is Everybody? , Monsters are Due on Maple Street, People Are Alike All Over). Stephen King has made a career in them, Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot…ad infinitum. TV has mined this heavy lode as well. In addition to Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, X-files, and god-knows how many more, there are some more recent shows that indulge, including Wayward Pines, the town of Hope in The Leftovers, Haven, Eureka, Royston Vasey from The League of Gentlemen. Small towns, it would appear, are in our literary, and certainly in our entertainment DNA. So the something-off-small-town of Night Vale should feel familiar. Of course this one is a bit more unusual than your typical Oddsville offering, being rather flamboyant in its strangeness, to the point of silliness at times.

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As for the story, Jackie Fierro has been 19 for many, many years (like some of us?). She runs the town pawn shop, and will accept pretty much anything. A mysterious man in a tan jacket, gives her a slip of paper with “KING CITY” written on it. Every time she tries to get rid of the thing, or even to put it down, it keeps coming back to her, which, as you might imagine, is alarming. So she goes in search of tan-jacket man but no one in town can seem to recall seeing him. Hmmm.

Diane Crayton is a single mom to a shape-shifting fifteen-year-old son (what parent of a teenager cannot relate?). Of late she has been seeing Josh’s long absent Y-chromosome source all over town. Josh has been showing an interest in tracking down his father, despite Diane’s attempts to dissuade him. Diane and Jackie’s quests, and Josh’s too, lead them in a direction that is as obvious as an MC Escher roadmap. Does an endpoint even exist?

Diane and Jackie are certainly likeable sorts, and their tale is intriguing, with plenty of challenges to face and mysteries to solve, but the real deal with Welcome to Night Vale consists of three things, location, location, location. Fink and Cranor are trying to re-create in book form the delightfully weird experience of their podcast world. The story seems secondary. The atmosphere is rich with intense strangeness. I found most of it delightful, a dry delivery masking outrageousness. Sometimes they try too hard, generating eye-rolling that has been made mandatory by the City Council. You really, really do not want to fight city hall here, particularly on days when human sacrifice is on the calendar. But it is good, weird fun most of the time. The authors must have had some bad experiences with librarians in their youth. Literary comeuppance is had.

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The locale includes, among other things, roads that lead nowhere, mysterious lights floating above the town, black helicopters, yes those black helicopters, a faceless old woman who lives, unseen, in someone’s house, a sentient house, a diner waitress who struggles with fruit bearing tree branches growing from her body, car salesmen who offer howlingly good deals, a woman who keeps reliving her life in a perpetual loop, a sentient patch of haze, angels named Erika, people who exist but when you try to recall them, you can’t. Wait, what was I talking about? I just bet that if someone opens a nightclub in NV, they name it Studio 51. The list goes on, plenty to keep your brain engaged and your funny bone tickled.

When you partake of the Night Vale Kool Aid, you will be joining a horde that has sprung up in impressive numbers. There are fan sites galore, with artwork, fan fiction, and a host of ways in which what remains of your consciousness can be further shaved and fed to the glow-cloud. I have included some links to those in the usual place.

You have never read anything like this before. Unless, of course you are in a time loop and are living your life over and over and over. This means you, Sheila. Yes, I know you have read this book many times, all for the first time. OK, happy? But for the rest of us…

Fink and Cranor’s sense of humor is definitely not for everyone. But if you check your kitchen cabinets and find that your supply of weird is running a little low, I suggest heading over to Night Vale. They are running a special and you won’t want to miss out.

PS – more volumes are planned. Be sure to keep up with your local community newscast for further details.

Review Posted – 11/6/15

Published – 10/20/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s, well to Night Vale’s main, Twitter and FB pages

You can download individual podcasts here

Interviews
—–Early Influences – The Arcade
——Stephen Colbert appearance, including a reading of the Community Calendar
—–Jackie Lyden’s NPR interview with the authors – Welcome to Night Vale: Watch out for the tarantulas

Some fan sites
—–The Shape from Grove Park
—–Fuck Yeah Night Vale
—–A Softer Night Vale

A Night Vale Wiki
The actual Wikipedia entry for Night Vale

A fun vid from the Idea Channel that links Night Vale to HP Lovecraft – How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown?

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Filed under Comedy, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Noir, Reviews

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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The monsters in our cupboards and our minds are always there in the darkness, like mold beneath the floorboards and behind the wallpaper, and there is so much darkness, an inexhaustible supply of darkness. The universe is amply supplied with night.

There is a diversity of material in Neil Gaiman’s third and latest collection of short fiction, Trigger Warning. It is a potpourri of twenty four pieces, if we take as a single piece the entry called A Calendar of Tales, which, itself, holds a dozen. They are not all, despite the collection title, dark or frightening. He brings in some familiar names, David Bowie, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Maleficent, Snow White, a traveler from other Gaiman writings, Shadow Moon, twists endings into satisfactory curls for the most part, wanders far afield in setting and content, well, within the UK anyway, tosses in a few poems for good measure, and even offers up a few chuckles. He is fond not only of science fiction as a source, but of Scottish and Irish legends as well. If you are not smitten with the story you are reading at a given moment, not to worry, there is another close behind that is certain to satisfy.

Gaiman is overt in noting the absence of connective tissue among the tales. But there are some themes that pop up a time or three. Living things interred in walls, whether after they had expired or not. A bit of time travelling. Fairy tales are fractured. Favorite writers are admired.

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Neil Gaiman – Photo by Kimberly Butler – on Harper Colllins site

In the introduction, Gaiman tells us a bit about the origins of each of the 24, a nifty item to check back on after one has read them all. Some of the material has been developed for other media. I added a link at bottom to a more-than-text offering re the Calendar of Tales, for one.

Overall I found Trigger Warning is a pretty good survey of Gaiman’s impressive range. He seems able to realize the dreams of the alchemists by transforming what seems every experience he has and every notion that crosses his interior crawl into gold. And some of the stories here are glittery indeed.

I quite enjoyed the collection. The uplift of the best more than made up for the downdraft of the lesser. If you enjoy fantasy, with a good dollop of horror, you could definitely give it a shot.

=======================================THE STORIES

1 – Making a Chair – a poem about the writing process.

2 – A Lunar Labyrinth – a tribute to Gene Wolfe – a traveler who enjoys roadside oddities is brought to a maze that is brought into a form of darkness by the full moon.
Here is a link to a site that will clue you in on roadside oddities in the USA. There is a book on such things for the other side of the pond, but I did not find a comparable link

3 – The Thing about Cassandra – An imaginary connection becomes real, with a delicious twist

4 – Down to a Sunless Sea – an abominable feast, but with some just desserts

5 – The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain – A not wholly human dwarf engages a local man to lead him to a cave reputed to be filled with tainted gold – I could not get the image of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister out of my tiny mind while immersed in this one. Sometimes the truth hurts.

6 – My Last Landlady – the rent is definitely too damn high

7 – Adventure Story – a bit of fun guaranteed to make you smile

8 – Orange – A teen who thinks she’s all that may indeed be – another smile-worthy item

9 – A Calendar of Tales – I won’t go into each – the collection was written from ideas received on-line. I found it a mixed bag, with March (Mom has a big secret), August ( a tale of fire and foolishness), September (a magic ring with the quality of a bad penny), October (a sweet tale, involving a Jinni), and December (a hopeful time-travel piece) my favorites

10 – The Case of Death and Honey – a fantastical tale in which a certain Baker Street resident takes on the mystery of death itself

11 – The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury – a tribute to Gaiman’s mentor

12 – Jerusalem – on one of the dangers of visiting the city

13 – Click-clack the Rattlebag – stories can be scary, regardless of the age of the teller

14 – An Invocation of Incuriousity – a time-travel piece – don’t touch the settings

15 – And Weep, Like Alexander – one possible reason why we do not have some of the futuristic inventions we expected long ago – cute, not scary

16 – Nothing O’Clock – a Doctor Who tale with a timely solution

17 – Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale – a fable with a moral

18 – The Return of the Thin White Duke – the completion of a story begun and abandoned while back for a magazine project on Bowie

19 – Feminine Endings – beware of street statue-performers

20 – Observing the Formalities – Maleficent as narrator of a poem about proper forms

21 – The Sleeper and the Spindle – A fairy tale with a nice twist

22 – Witch Work – a poem on the limits of witchy magic

23 – In Relig Odhrain – a poem on a saint who suffered an awful demise

24 – Black Dog – Shadow Moon stops in an ancient pub and is drawn into some serious darkness, scary fun.

Review posted – 3/20/15

Publication date – 2/3/2015

This review has also been posted on GoodReads

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Tumblr and FB pages

Here is a link to his separate blog

For a full-on media-rich offering the Calendar of Tales piece in Trigger Warning can be seen here

Harper has an on-line reading guide

Other Gaiman books I have reviewed
The Graveyard Book
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Stardust

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Short Stories

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

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Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.

Detective Bill Hodges is 62, overweight, divorced and retired. He lives alone and has an uncomfortably familiar relationship with his father’s pistol. The two spend long hours together in front of the tube, taking in the sort of Maury-Povich-mind-poison that is probably grown in basement vats to be sold to post-lobotomy viewers for the price of a gazillion commercials, disposable hours of a pointless life, and a willingness to cash in one’s remnant humanity for a permanent gig as a morality-blind multi-eyed sofa spud.

Hodges had been on the job when a particularly heinous crime had been committed, but was out before he could find the evil-doer. His pre-suicidal reverie is disturbed by the non-postal-service delivery of a printed message. The nut job who did the crime taunts Hodges for his failure, and encourages him to take his suicidal contemplation a step further. Fat chance.

As far as the term hard-boiled goes, I feel pretty comfortable applying it to eggs (cooked in water until the yolk is firm). As for hard-boiled fiction, there are probably as many different definitions as there are diverse sorts of egg-layers. So I will offer no litmus test here to measure whether Mr Mercedes satisfies a certain set of definitional criteria. Is it truly hard-boiled or not? Is it truly noir-ish or not? To which I can only reply. Sorry dear, did you say something? Could you pass the bourbon, please. There are many sub-categories of the mystery genre, 14 of which are noted for your pleasure on the web site of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And I am certain that Mr Mercedes fits nicely into one of them. But whether you prefer your mystery tales hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or over-easy, the one thing that counts here is the chef author. Whatever he does with and to the genre, Stephen King will take you for a ride that includes at least a bit and maybe more than a bit of a scare. And scary is scary whether the source is a haunted house, a psycho alien clown or a very sick puppy.

Said sick puppy opens this story by driving the large Mercedes of the title directly into a crowd of the hopeful and desperate at a job fair in an unnamed Midwest town, killing eight and seriously injuring over a dozen more. (King talks about the genesis of this scene here, in a video clip from TV station WABI in Maine.) Not a recreational activity most of us might indulge in, but for Brady Harstfield murdering and maiming constitutes good times. He makes ends meet as a house-calling IT guy. His second job is as an ice-cream vendor. And, while it is fun to see Brady in his white truck gig, it did feel rather forced. If you are expecting Raymond Chandler here, or Dashiell Hammett, you will have to holster your expectations. There will be no trying-to-figure-out-whodunit in this story. The looney tunes with the diminished conscience and enlarged mommy issues is presented straight away as our psycho-killer. So, more Columbo than Marlowe. The trail we follow is in how the goodies discover and find their way to the baddie.

Erstwhile Detective Hodges takes the lead. King spends some time with introductions, as Mr Mercedes is the first of a planned trilogy. So we get to know a bit about him and his partners in anti-crime. Jerome Robinson is 17, black, 6’5”, a computer whiz, within reason, and Ivy League bound. He has been doing some lawn work and occasional IT assistance for Hodges, and is the closest thing the old guy has to a friend. Holly Gibney, 44, has issues, having spent a few sessions in institutions for the very nervous. She is a cousin to the late owner of the Mercedes that was used in the carnage. Hodges met her as he looked into the death of her cuz. Her mother Charlotte is an awful human being, controlling, greedy, and incapable of seeing Holly’s better qualities. She has some, intelligence and tenacity being high on that list. This oddball trio (the Harper Road Irregulars?) work the case, without, of course, involving the police any more than absolutely necessary. I found them extremely engaging. Jerome is probably too perfect, and Holly may be a bit too twitchy, but they are fun to follow.

King shows his playfulness with the genre, whatever genre it actually is. Of course, Hodges is just a retired detective not a PI, but when Holly’s aunt, Janelle Patterson, (named, surely, for a certain author King has called “a terrible writer”) hires him he takes a step in the genre direction. (I have vowed not to make any jejune comments regarding private dicks) Janelle even buys him what she calls a Philip Marlowe fedora. Janelle is, of course, the mandatory femme fatale, but if so, she is on the light side, lacking some of the attributes normally associated with that type. Could Hodges’ Harper Road address be a nod to Ross McDonald’s Lew Harper? The baddie references several cop dramas, NYPD Blue, Homicide, and The Wire, for example. Luther and Prime Suspect are noted as well, in a disparaging way. Mentions of Wambaugh and Grisham appear, and King double dips by naming a records department cop Marlo. There are undoubtedly many more, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.

King lets us look over Brady’s shoulder as well as over Hodges’, and tosses in some third-party views as well. Parenthood comes in for a difficult time. Only Jerome, of all the major, or even secondary characters, has a decent parent-child relationship with his actual family. Of course bubby family life is not exactly a staple of detective fiction, so that fits well enough.

Madness is the doorway that writers step through when they want to introduce a bit of fantasy to an otherwise real-world scenario. And SK simply could not help himself. Mr Mercedes is most definitely a non-fantasy novel, but there are a few (really, only a few) moments when familiar King woo-woo material appears. It will be interesting to see if this is a recurring feature in his trilogy or if SK can stay on the non-fantasy wagon for the entire ride.

So what’s the bottom line here? Stephen King cranks out novels, it seems, like Hershey produces kisses. They are all tasty and appealing, but there is a definite sameness to the product. King can draw readers in. He offers engaging characters, and understands the mechanics of tension and release as well as any living writer. Put a red wrapper on it and it remains a tasty treat. Blue? Same deal. I bet if King wanted to write a historical romance it would have engaging characters, some danger, some resolution. It would pull you in and hold on like a succubus (no, not public transportation through a red-light district) or like a succubus on a private dick. Sorry, I just could not stop myself. But at least I put the offending material under a spoiler tag, so that makes it ok, right? or, in this case, a femme fatale. I thought the anti-religion musing in which the killer indulges seemed like an interesting theme to explore further, but it seemed to fade.

You will rip through Mr Mercedes faster than the posted limit. There are some scary moments as you careen through, and you will care whether this one or that one comes to a bad end. Some do, some don’t. It is probably a good thing that King is looking to write things other than straight-up horror. He has to amuse himself somehow, keep those possessed typing fingers of his out of trouble. But overall, while Mr Mercedes will get you from here to there and show you a thing or two along the way, it felt a lot more like basic transportation than a true luxury ride.

Posted – 1/3/15

Published June 3, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is SK’s site and FB page

Otto Penzler has nifty description of what constitutes hard-boiled fiction

A few other King Family items I have reviewed
by Stephen King
The Shining
Doctor Sleep
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story
Revival

by Joe Hill
NOS4A2
20th Century Ghosts
Heart-Shaped Box

A Gif of the UK cover is cute, but I thought it too distracting to include above

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Noir

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

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Close your eyes and imagine the basso sound of voiceover icon Don LaFontaine intoning, “In a world gone mad…” and that is pretty much where Bird Box begins. Open your eyes and go mad. Kill others, yourself. Can you keep from peeking? For how long? In Josh Malerman’s post-apocalyptic, eye-opening scare-scape, something happened. An invasion? Some natural phenomenon? No one is really certain. But what has become clear is that anyone who steps outside with their eyes open goes insane, not just gibbering or confused, but violently and destructively, homicidally mad.

In the near-future today of the story, Malorie is a young mother, with two small children in her charge. She has been training them for over four years, to hear, with a sensitivity and acuity more usually associated with flying mammals. They embark on a river journey to what she hopes is a safe haven, twenty miles away, blindfolded. Any noise could be someone, or something following them. She must rely on the skill she has rigorously drilled into the boy and girl every day to help guide them, and alert them to danger. And we must wonder if the destination she aims for will offer relief or some version of Mistah Kurtz.

Chapters alternate, mostly, between the river journey and Malorie’s back story. We follow her from when The Problem began, seeing death and destruction in first a few isolated locations, then spreading everywhere, seeing loved ones succumb, then finding a place to live, a refuge, with others, and watch as they cope, or fail.

In horror stories, it helps to have an appealing hero. I am sure most of us have seen our share of splatter films in which the demise of each obnoxious teen is met with cheers rather than with dismay. The other sort is of the Wait until Dark variety, in which our heart goes out to the Audrey Hepburn character beset by dark forces. Bird Box is the latter type. Malorie is a very sympathetic character, an everywoman trying her best under ridiculous circumstances, more the Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) of Nightmare On Elm Street or the Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Halloween, than the Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) of Alien, but Malorie does what she must to survive and to prepare with patience and diligence to sally forth against the unknown.

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Author image taken from Fearnet.com

Malerman was bitten by the horror bug as an early teen:

My big introduction wasTwilight Zone: the Movie, the first horror movie I ever saw. After that came Saturday Shockers and sneaking in whatever I could at a friend’s house (Faces of Death, Psycho… Blacula…Prom Night.) I was also reading a lot. There’s a great period of horror fiction history, before the novel-boom of the 70’s spearheaded by Rosemary’s Baby, The Other, and The Exorcist, in which the short story ruled the genre. That period is golden and completely bursting with ideas. I read M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Blackwood, Bierce, et al. When you first approach it, the genre, it feels infinite, but it’s not. So, come high school, I was trying to write my own scary stories, weird poems, strange tales. (from Detroit CBS Local news interview)

He likes to write with horror movie soundtracks on. And he is a musical sort as well, singing and playing in the band The High Strung. In fact, fans of Shameless, on Showtime, have already been exposed to Malerman’s work, as the writer and performer of that show’s theme song.

The dynamics of the house-full of refugees in the back story will feel familiar. Who to let in, or not, concerns over sharing limited resources, discussions over what adventuresome risks might or might not be worth taking re looking toward the future, or in trying to learn more about the cause of their situation. One might be forgiven for seeing here a societal microcosm, but I do not really think this was what Malerman was on about. He does offer a bit of a larger, thematic view though, tied to the central image of the book, which definitely adds to the heft of the story. A wondering at more existential questions

She thinks of the house as one big box. She wants out of this box. Tom and Jules, outside, are still in this box. The entire globe is shut in. The world is confined to the same cardboard box that houses the birds outside. Malorie understands that Tom is looking for a way to open the lid. He’s looking for a way out. But she wonders if there’s not a second lid above this one, then a third above that.
Boxed in, she thinks. Forever.

You really want Malorie to reach safety with the children, but there is a gauntlet to be run, and there is no certainty that any of them will make it. The dangers are human, natural and eldritch, and I mean that in a very Lovecraftian way.

You will definitely not want to put Bird Box down once you pick it up. This is a very scary, and gripping novel. If you are reading on the train, you may miss your stop. If you are reading at bedtime, you will definitely miss a few winks, and might want to sleep with the lights on after you finish.

I think some horror authors are trying to scare you, but with me, I’m as scared as the reader is of the story. I’ve always been that way, since watching the Twilight Zone movie — watching Firestarter when my parents were out, or sneaking out to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street at a friend’s house because I couldn’t watch it at my house. That makes you doubly scared — of the movie, and of the possibility of Mom finding out. (from Metrotimes interview)

A generic problem I have with the book is that the dark elements here sometimes tend to step back when they have decided advantages, failing to make the most (or worst as the case may be) of their positions. It was not obvious to me that there was some point being made by these unexpected choices. Nevertheless, Malerman takes the notion of the unseen and pushes readers to create the scariest thing of all, that which lurks in the imagination.

It is not at all dangerous to see how much fun this book is. Usually it is considered a good thing to think outside the box, but in this case it is clearly a far, far better thing that Malerman has done his thinking inside one.

Posted on GR November 19, 2013

Pub date – May 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Interviews

Huffington Post
Detroit CBL Local News
Metro Times

JM on FB
The High Strung on FB

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Reviews

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

There is a boy (now a man) a girl, a band of baddies with a charismatic leader, a coalition of the willing, battles to be fought, supernatural elements and magical powers. Stephen King was at this long before Harry Potter lived under the stairs. He has a preternatural (not to say supernatural) talent for writing kids, and can keep you turning pages, losing sleep, and getting back late to work from your lunch breaks.

We will presume for the purposes of this review that you have read, or at least seen one version of The Shining. If you have not, read no further, as there are details here that would be considered spoilerish were they to appear in a review of that book. And if you have not read The Shining you should probably do so before taking on Doctor Sleep, a sequel. Ok, everyone here has read The Shining, yes? All right, but we are using the honor system here, and do not want to ruin the fun of reading that one for anyone. So, as long as you’re sure…

At the end of The Shining, three people survive the carnage, Danny Torrance, a five year old with a special gift, Wendy Torrance, Danny’s mother and newly widowed wife of the late Jack Torrance, and Dick Halloran, an employee of The Overlook and possessor of a gift like Danny’s, one that allowed him to hear Danny’s psychic 911 call and return from his home in Florida in time to do something about it. What happened next?

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from CBC News

King does not typically do sequels, if one does not count books that are part of a planned series, but

Every now and then somebody would ask, ‘Whatever happened to Danny?’ I used to joke around and say, ‘He married Charlie McGee from Firestarter and they had these amazing kids!’ But I did sort of wonder about it. – (from EW)

One of the central features of The Shining was Jack’s Torrance’s battle with alcoholism. As with the real world, King’s fictional realm notes that alcoholism runs in families. And one of the criticisms of The Shining was that the possibility of Jack considering getting some help from AA is never even raised. If King has ever considered that to have been an oversight, I have not seen that interview. But it is clear that he has given the matter some thought.

Jack Torrance never tries Alcoholics Anonymous. That is never even mentioned in “The Shining.” He has what they call white-knuckle sobriety. He’s doing it all by himself. So, I wondered what it would be like to see Danny first as an alcoholic, and then see him in AA. (from an NPR Interview)

It gives nothing away to let you know that Danny is a true Torrance. Not only does he self-medicate to quiet the terrors that still haunt him, he is far from the best person he can be.

I knew if I did this sequel I’d have to try to put together some of the same elements, but at the same time I didn’t want to make it too similar. I didn’t want to make Danny a grown up with kids of his own, and try to replicate that whole losing-your-temper-because-you’re-drunk thing. But I did think to myself: ‘Not only alcoholism can be a family disease, but rage can be a family disease.’ You find that the guys who abuse their children were abused themselves as kids. That certainly fit Danny as I knew him. – from EW

All SK novels require a baddie, or a set of them. No disappointment here. King has again succeeded in taking the ordinary and making it horrifying.

Driving back and forth from Maine to Florida, which I do twice a year, I’m always seeing all these recreational vehicles — the bounders in the Winnebagos. I always think to myself, ‘Who is in those things?’ You pass them a thousand times at rest stops. They’re always the ones wearing the shirts that say ‘God Does Not Deduct From a Lifespan Time Spent Fishing.’ They’re always lined up at the McDonald’s, slowing the whole line down. And I always thought to myself, ‘There’s something really sinister about those people because they’re so unobtrusive, yet so pervasive.’ I just wanted to use that. It would be the perfect way to travel around America and be unobtrusive if you were really some sort of awful creature. – from EW

This wandering band call themselves The True Knot. They feed on the essence of those gifted with the sort of talent people like Danny possess. It provides them with extraordinary longevity, but as with their Transylvanian counterparts, the need is ongoing and the supply is limited. Like right-wing politicians they are more than happy to gorge on the pain of others and are shown here feasting on the spirits set adrift on 9/11. The usual condiments for this substance they call steam will not do. The taste and benefit is enhanced, however, if their victims endure extreme and prolonged torture. Does Ted Cruz drive a Winnebago? King gives the members Damon Runyon-esque names, like Crow Daddy, Steamboat Steve and Tommy the Truck.

By the time you finish reading Doctor Sleep you might have a new image of the top hat to consider next time you are planning a formal night out. We all have one, probably this one:

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But the baddie in Stephen King’s latest is likely to do for the top hat what this guy

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did for the derby. Rose O’Hara, the leader of a group called The True Knot, won’t leave home without it. It adds a nice visual element, calling to mind a certain Caribbean Baron, and making Rosie even more riveting.

And what of our young heroine? Abra is born with a shining of prodigious proportions. (btw, the name Abra was inspired by Abra Bacon, a character in East of Eden) She manages to send out a signal even when she is newly arrived. She’s a good kid, despite scaring her parents on occasion with tricks like making all the silverware in the kitchen take to the air, or causing the odd earthquake when she does a mental Bruce (or if you prefer, David) Banner. Don’t make her angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry. Bad-ass teen girl power fuh shoo-uh. But, just as Danny needed Dick Hallorann and Tony, Abra needs help as well. That she and Danny will team up is a foregone conclusion.

As for Danny, the shining never left him, despite his attempts to wipe it out with spirits of a different sort. But he finds the help he needs and manages to put his talent to good use. He works in a hospice, the Helen Rivington House, in Frazier, NH, easing the transition for those near death, with the assistance of a resident feline, and earning himself the name Doctor Sleep, which also serves to remind us of what his parents called him.

…It is this moment of transition that Doctor Sleep deals with and the idea, like so many of King’s, came from an incidental story in a newspaper. This one was about “a cat in a hospice that knows when people are going to die. He would go into that patient’s room and curl up next to them. And I thought, that’s a good advertisement for death, for the emissary of death. I thought, ‘I can make Dan the human equivalent of that cat, and call him Doctor Sleep.’ There was the book.” – from an interview in The Guardian

King has a bit of fun, naming the cat Azzie, short for Azreel, the archangel of death. Cute.

What else do you need, really? Dark vs light, colorful baddies vs our everyman and everygirl. And that is indeed enough. But it is not all that King uses. He gives us a look at how people can really help people overcome, or at least handle their problems. When asked, in the NPR interview, whether his AA depictions were from personal experience, King says that the second part of AA stands for Anonymous, so he declined to offer a yes or no, however

You could say, having read these two books and knowing that I was a very heavy drinker at the time that I wrote “The Shining,” and I haven’t had a drink in about 25 years now – you could draw certain conclusions from that…I’ve done a lot of personal research in these subjects. – from NPR interview

AA figures very large in this story, is central really. And the wisdom one can find in AA permeates the novel, from the importance of recognizing that we need help from others, to accepting our past and dealing with it, a very strong, serious element.

King sets the time of the events by referring to external realities, like who the president is, calls on contemporary cultural references, such as a mention of the Sons of Anarchy and a Hank Wiliams Jr song. He also mentions a variety of other writers in his travels, some approvingly, (John Sandford, George Seferis, Bernard Malamud, Bill Wilson) some not so much (the authors of the Twilight and Hunger Games series, and Dean Koontz and Lisa Gardner, although he may merely be playing with the latter two). He also drops in an Easter egg reference to Salem’s Lot and make two references (that I caught anyway) to his son, Joe’s, imagined world from Joe’s book, NOS4A2.

It has been my experience with reading Stephen King that his conclusions sometimes offer a poor partner to the journey one takes in reaching them. That is much less the case here. The ending is not an alien spider disguised as Tim Curry with bad fashion sense or alien young playing with humans in a ham-fisted manner. And the journey is indeed fun. But I had some gripes. King gives Dick Hallorann a cameo here, which was fine, and the strongest of those. Tony returns for a look-see but goes alarmingly quiet at crucial moments. We could have used a lot more about Tony other than the weak explanation that is offered near the end. If the True Knot are so bad-ass, how come there are so few of them? There is an explanation offered of prey-predator stability of numbers, but I found that unpersuasive. And why the hell introduce Jack if he is not going to be a part of the action? This is one that actively irked.

Sequels present a danger. One of the things that is stimulating about any book, any story is newness. That is why most sequels are not as popular as their predecessors. It is hard to avoid a been-there-done-that problem when working atop existing material. The next story in line is unlikely to retain the sparkle, the shine of what went before. Given the constraints, Doctor Sleep fares better than most as a follow-on. There is enough distance in the story from the events of the past, and little enough overlap with those characters that the story seems fresh. When events from The Shining are mentioned, they do inform the current action and do not distract much. In fact there could have been more of that. So, in that way, this is a very nice addition. There is another element involved. Any event, any activity, is a product of the thing itself and of the perspective from which we view or participate in it. I read The Shining many years ago. I was an adult then, in my late twenties, and remember it as a VERY SCARY story. I have not come across much in horror lit that is still scary in that way, in the several decades since. I will not have any nights (on in my case days) of lost sleep because of the images King has proferred. But then, I am getting on, and am looking at those scary things with aging eyes. Someone younger (which would be almost all of you reading this) might find them far more frightening than I did.

So while Doctor Sleep might not cause much by way of lost rest, it is good, mainstream Stephen King and thus, hardly a snooze. The Doctor of Horror is in. Wake up!

Posted October 4, 2013

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

This is a wonderful interview with The Guardian

And another, this one from NPR

Here is SK’s site

And a top notch review by Sam Leith in The Observer section of The Guardian – I promise I did not read this until after I finished writing mine. But I confess to pangs of jealousy

A few other King Family items I have reviewed
By Stephen
The Shining
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story
And by Joe Hill
NOS4A2
20th Century Ghosts
Heart-Shaped Box

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The Shining by Stephen King

book cover

If you have not read The Shining already do not overlook the opportunity presented by the publication of Doctor Sleep, the sequel, to revisit one of the best ghost stories of our time. If you have not already had the fun fright of reading it previously, the appearance of the follow up offers a perfect justification for stepping through those bat-wing doors for the first time.

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1st Edition cover – Published January 28, 1977 – 447 pps

It has been a lifetime since I read The Shining for the first time, over thirty years ago. I enjoyed it then for its effectiveness in telling a scary, no, a very scary story. Reading it now is colored, as is all of life, by our accumulation (or lack of accumulation) of experience. We see, or appreciate colors, textures, shapes, structures, and feelings with more experienced, educated eyes. We have seen, or are at least aware of real world things that are scarier than any fictional spectres. So, what does it look like through old, cloudy lenses?

It remains a very scary story. The things that stand out for me now are not so much the deader rising up out of a bathtub to pursue a curious child, although that is still pretty creepy, or the mobile topiary, which still works pretty well at making the hair on one’s neck and arms stand at attention. But King was using the haunted house trope to look at more personal demons. And those shine through more clearly now.

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From Allyn Scura’s blog

He had some drinking issues at the time he wrote the book, when he was 30, and concern about that is major here. Jack Torrance is an alcoholic, no question. He also has issues with anger management, not that the little shit he clocks while teaching at a New England prep school didn’t have it coming. He did. But one cannot do that to a student, however deserving, and expect to remain employed for long. His little boy, however, most certainly did not deserve a broken arm. Jack is very remorseful, and wants to make things right. He manages to get a gig taking care of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado over the winter. It will offer him a chance to get something right after a string of getting things wrong, offer a chance to save his marriage, and offer an opportunity to work on his unfinished play. Risky? Sure. But a gamble worth taking. And his wife, Wendy, agrees, despite having serious misgivings. There are no attractive alternatives.

Of course, we all know that the Overlook is not your typical residence. Odd things happen, sounds are heard, thoughts from somewhere outside find their way into your mind. Jack is targeted, and boy is he vulnerable.

But five-year-old Danny is the real key here. He is the proud possessor of an unusual talent, the shining of the book’s title. Danny can not only do a bit of mind-reading, he can also see things that other people cannot. And for a little guy he has a huge talent. He also has an invisible friend named Tony with whom only he can communicate.

It is difficult to think about the book without finding our mental screens flickering with the images of Jack Nicholson in full cartoonish psycho rage, the very effective sound of a Big Wheel followed by a steadicam coursing through the long halls of the hotel, and the best casting decision ever in choosing Scatman Crothers to play Dick Halloran. By the way, the hotel is based on a real-world place, the Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, Colorado. And the Overlook’s spooky room 217 was inspired by the supposedly haunted room 217 at the Stanley.


This image is from the hotel’s site – they clearly embrace the spectral connection

The room number was changed in the film to 237, at the request of the Timberline hotel, which was used for exterior shots. There is so much that differentiates Kubrick’s film from the book that they are almost entirely different entities. The differences do require a bit of attention here. First, and foremost, the book of The Shining is about the disintegration of a family due to alcoholism and anger issues. How a child survives in a troubled family is key. The film is pretty much pure spook house, well-done spook house, but solely spook house, nonetheless, IMHO. There is considerable back-story to Jack and Wendy that gets no screen time. You have to read the book to get that. Jack is a victim, as much as Wendy and Danny. You would never get that from the slobbering Jack of the film. The maze in the book was pretty cool, right? I liked it too, but it does not exist in the book. I believe it was put in to replace the talented topiary, which is the definition of a bad trade. There is significant violence in the book that never made its way into Kubrick’s film, but which very much raises a specter of domestic violence that is terrorizing real people living in real horror stories. There are a few lesser elements. Jack wielded a roque mallet, not an axe. Danny is not interrupted in his travels through the corridors by Arbus-like twin sisters. And the sisters in question are not even twins. There are plenty more, but

you get the idea. An interesting film, for sure, but not really the most faithful interpretation of the book. King saw that a film that more closely reflected what he had written reached TV screens in 1997, with a six-hour mini-series version.

Irrelevancies of a personal nature
The opening shot was filmed on the Going–to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park in Montana. I have had the pleasure (7 times in one visit) and recommend the drive wholeheartedly. It is a pretty narrow road though, so you will have to drive carefully. Bring along the appropriate musical media for the best effect, Wendy Carlos’s Rocky Mountain, and dress warmly. It was below freezing when I reached the top of the road, in August. Some exteriors for Kubrick’s film were shot at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood in Oregon. I visited but did not stay there back in 2008. Sadly I do not have any decent personal photos from the place. I can report, though, on a bit


This shot was found on Wikimedia

of kitsch. There is a place in the hotel where an ax is lodged in a block of wood, with HEEEEERE’s JOHNNY on the ax, a tourist photo-op. And yes, I did. Sadly, or luckily, the shot did not come out well, so you will be spared.

Back to the book, Danny’s talent is a two-edged sword. He is afflicted with seeing more than anyone his age should have to see, but on the other hand, he has a tool he can use to try to save them all. Whether he can or not is a core tension element here.

King is fond of placing his stories in literary context. He peppers the text with references to various relevant books and authors. I expect these are meant to let us know his influences. Horace Walpole, author of The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic classic, is mentioned, as are Shirley Jackson, of Hill House fame. (King had used a quote from this book in Salem’s Lot A family saga rich with death and destruction, Cashelmara is mentioned as are some more contemporary items, like The Walton Family, the idealized antithesis to the Torrance Family, Where the Wild Things Are and novelist Frank Norris. The primary literary reference here is Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which is cited many times. There had been a costume ball back in hotel’s history and it is the impending climax of that party, the unmasking, that looms here. And toss in nods to Treasure Island and Bluebeard for good measure.

King often includes writers in his work, avatars for himself.

I write about writers because I know the territory. Also, you know it’s a great job for a protagonist in a book. Without having to hold down a steady job, writers can have all sorts of adventures. Also, if they disappear, it’s a long time before they are missed. Heh-heh-heh. – from an AOL interview

Jack Torrance is a writer as well as a teacher. The play that Jack is writing undergoes a transformation that mirrors Jack’s own. In fact, there is a fair bit or mirroring going on here. Jack’s affection for his father as a kid was as strong as Danny is for him. His father was an abusive alcoholic. While Jack is not (yet) the monster his father was, he is also an alcoholic with abusive tendencies.

I never had a father in the house. My mother raised my brother and I alone. I wasn’t using my own history, but I did tap into some of the anger you sometimes feel to the kids, where you say to yourself: I have really got to hold on to this because I’m the big person here, I’m the adult. One reason I wanted to use booze in the book is that booze has a tendency to fray that leash you have on your temper…For a lot of kids, Dad is the scary guy. It’s that whole thing where your mother says, ‘You just wait until your father comes home!” In The Shining, these people were snowbound in a hotel and Dad is always home! And Dad is fighting this thing with the bottle and he’s got a short temper anyway. I was kind of feeling my own way in that because I was a father of small children. And one of the things that shocked me about fatherhood was it was possible to get angry at your kids. (from the EW interview cited in Extra Stuff)

He’s right. I have had the pleasure and I know. Wendy gets some attention as well, as we learn a bit about her mother, and see Wendy’s fear that she has inherited elements of her mother’s awfulness.

Not everything shines here. There are times when five-year-old Danny seems much older than his tender years, even given his extraordinary circumstances. It struck me as surprising that there is no mention of anyone suggesting that maybe Jack might attend an AA meeting. But these are like single dead pixels on a large screen.

If you want to read horror tales that are straight up scare’ems, there are plenty in the world. But if you appreciate horror that offers underlying emotional content, and I know you do, my special gift tells me, then The Shining is a brilliant example of how a master illuminates the darkness.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Definitely check out the Wiki for this book – nifty info on the King Family’s stay at the Stanley, and yes, there was a Grady at the Stanley.

I also recommend checking out SK’s site if you want to learn more about him

An interview with King in Entertainment Weekly

BTW, here is a shot of the model snowmobile that Dick Halloran drives back to the Overlook

A few other SK’s we have reviewed
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story

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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

book cover

Do You Fear What I Fear?

Christmas was one of the best things about being a kid. There is nothing quite like the anticipation leading up to Christmas morning. And even now, having achieved geezerhood, I am still a complete sucker for the big day. Every year a real tree, the lights, sorting through and selecting from the decades and decades of collected ornaments, the gifts, and hopefully a tree skirt free of cat vomit. I put on It’s a Wonderful Life, wife by my side, hopefully at least one of my now-grown kids at hand, and keep the tissues handy. I find it completely heartwarming. One must wonder, however, how Christmas might have been celebrated in the King household. I suppose it is possible that Dad left his darker impulses by his keyboard. Did they share hot chocolate like the rest of us, or maybe add bits of human flesh instead of marshmallows. Hot toddy made with blood from a guy named Todd? Brownies made with under-age Girl Scouts? Did their whipped cream scream? Well, probably not, but one must wonder.

NOS4A2, the author’s latest tale from the dark side, takes a beloved annual celebration and gives it the special family treatment. If you like your Christmas trees decorated with sparkling abominations, your Santa more by way of an oversized, but underfed mortician, and your Santa’s special elf a rapist psycho-killer, then this is the book you will want to find frightening off the other packages under your tree next Christmas.

Joseph Hillstrom King, under nom de scare Joe Hill, is a man who not only would be King, he already is one. He has been pretty busy the last few years, writing up a storm, 20th Century Ghosts, Heart-Shaped Box, and Horns, establishing himself as a respected, successful writer of horror fiction, picking up at least eleven literary awards to date. Although his career has been relatively brief, he has, with NOS4A2, grown up to a level where he can glare, eye-to-eye, with the best of contemporary horror writers, even that guy across the table at Christmas dinner.

NOS4A2 is a work of impressive creativity, and one that may give you many a sleepless night, so powerful are some of the images he has created. But the core of the book is Victoria McQueen, Vic, The Brat. And how fitting that a King makes his heroine a queen. Applying a familiar horror-tale trope, the young female hero, we are introduced to Vic as an eight-year-old. This kid loves her bike. But then she has good reason to. It takes her where she needs to go, whether that happens to be around the block or across a magically bespoke bridge that takes her across geography, wormhole style. It comes in handy when she desperately wants to locate, say, a lost necklace that figures in her parents latest screaming match, opening for her a personal Shorter Way Bridge to take her to the proper destination. It takes her home again, of course. But it exacts a toll. And the journey through it can be harrowing.

Countering this adorable heroine is Charlie Manx. Not so adorable. This definitely not so goodtime Charlie abducts children to his special place, Christmasland, taking advantage of their unhappiness to seduce them with a King-family version of Neverland. What if it were Christmas every day? Charlie’s number one supporter is Bing Partridge. Bing’s latest accomplishment was the murder of his parents, but not before engaging in unspeakable behavior of another sort. He may be dreaming of Christmas but it is more likely to be fright than white, and there are fouler things than partridges in the trees he favors. He lives, fittingly on Bloch Lane, named, we suspect, for the author of Psycho. Once teamed up with Charlie, he makes use of his access to a particular sort of gas, sevoflurane, to subdue his victims. The stuff smells like gingerbread.

Bing’s yard was full of tinfoil flowers, brightly colored and spinning in the morning sunlight. The house was a little pink cake of a place, with white trim and nodding lilies. It was a place where a kindly old woman would invite a child in for gingerbread cookies, lock him in a cage, fatten him for weeks, and finally stick him in the oven. It was the House of Sleep.

You won’t find Christmasland on any map, but it exists. Charlie drives a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith. Not exactly a sleigh, but useful for transporting Charlie and his goodies here and there. Actually, it is more a case of him bringing the children to his dubious gifts than it is of the gifts being brought to the children. Charlie has been snatching children for a long time. So we have the goodie and we have the baddies.

Vic becomes that most horrifying of nightmares, an adolescent. And in a fit of rage against her divorced parents goes looking for trouble. Before you can say “Feliz Navidead,” the Brat finds herself riding into a Charlie lair, the cutely named “Sleigh House.” A bleak house indeed, as you might guess, and Vic has to resort to some extreme measures to make good her escape. Of course, once she does she earns a permanent place on Charlie’s naughty list. One positive that comes out of this ordeal is that when Vic is fleeing Charlie she is picked up on the highway by a passing biker, the large, leather-clad Lou Carmody. Classic meet-cute and oh, someone is trying to kill me.

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It turns out that Vic and her nemesis are not the only ones with a certain gift. When Vic crosses her Shorter Way Bridge to the place of business of Maggie Leigh (second possible Psycho reference?) she meets another person with a special talent, one particularly suited to a librarian. It’s not heaven, though. It’s Iowa. Later Vic’s dad joins up and there is some help from beyond the grave as well. Team Charlie has a lot of young recruits, too. One might be forgiven at times for thinking that he might be giving new meaning to the term “cold calls” as he has his maybe-dead minions manning (would that be childing?) the phones to harass our hero.

“Everyone lives in two worlds,” Maggie said, speaking in an absent-minded way while she studied her letters. “There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape–every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives.”

The King family seems to have figured out how to make us care for their heroes, and Hill has done a nice job of that here. Vic is sympathetic, not just for her courage and determination, but for her failings as well. And there is plenty of failing to go around here, but also generous doses of redemption.

And there is no shortage of action. It all builds to a very explosive climax. There are occasional bits of fun in here as well. Hill engages in a joke having to do with Checkhov’s gun that is sure to bring a smile. And he takes a cutesy swipe at Henry Rollins.

There are some soft spots as well. Charlie is a pretty bad sort. Not enough attention is addressed to looking at how he came to be that way. It might have helped make him more understandable, if not sympathetic, which is always more interesting than the straight up boogie man. Bing is boogie man enough, despite his less than imposing façade, his child-like insecurity. And what is it that gives certain objects their magical properties? Never addressed. Hill takes on the somewhat softball difference in value between happiness and fun, which certainly has relevance to our consumer culture, but is far from novel.

Still and all, this is top notch horror, signaling not necessarily that a King is born, but that one has arrived and is ready to ascend to the throne.

Happy Horrordays!

WB11

===================================EXTRA STUFF

Hill put up a nice promo vid for the book on his site

4/29/13 – The New York Times review by Janet Maslin

9/19/13 – Dad makes reference to the baddie from this book in his new one, Doctor Sleep

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