Today’s Reading Log


I’m on page 121 of Stephen King’s new novel, Revival, and I’m waiting for the plot to kick in.  King has lost none of his storytelling abilities over the years.  I thought Doctor Sleep, his sequel to The Shining, was a fine followup that caught up with the characters while giving us an original story uninfected by sequelitis.  But this new one is like King sitting in a rocker on a porch in summer, telling a long, rambling story that sounds interesting, but is taking a long time to get any good.

I’ve stuck with King through good and bad since one of the best teachers I’ve ever known suggested I read ‘Salem’s Lot back in high school in 1975.  There are only two novels of his I haven’t read because I’m completely disinterested: Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne.  They were written during a period where King was doing a lot of drugs (read Stephen King: On Writing if you want to hear him tell the tale), and the abrasive qualities of their stories, I think, reflects what he was going through.  Perhaps Revival does, too–he’s faced death, he’s slowed down, and his recent stories just don’t have the youthful vitality or the experimental aspects of his early work.

I almost put Revival back on the shelf last night, but I’ll keep reading.  Sometimes, good stories take their own time in the telling, and surprise you when you least expect it.

‘Salem’s Lot

Magic and Imagery #12

The town knew about darkness.

It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.

The original paperback cover of ‘Salem’s Lot is what arrested me.  It’s grandeur can’t really be seen in the photo above, but it was a solid, glossy black, with the face of a girl embossed.  The only spot of color was a drop of crimson at the corner of her lips — an image at once evocative of a tombstone, the darkness, and the undead.

Later editions were published without the embossing — it was too expensive — and instead showed the same face, but with blue, unearthly highlights.

I believe it was the paperback marketing of this novel and Carrie — along with Brian DePalma’s film adaptation in 1976 — that really turned Stephen King into the known author he is today.  Carrie’s first paperback was a double spread — her face on the cover, and when you opened it up, a second scene of her town in flames.  Back then, books were marked in small dumps not only in bookstores, but at cash registers in department stores.  I bought Carrie at Montgomery Ward’s.  That’s good marketing, both visually and at point of purchase.  I wonder what would happen if they did that now . . .

‘Salem’s Lot remains my favorite of his novels.  I also believe it is his single best novel, and also his scariest.

Last-Minute Christmas Presents for Book Lovers

For fans of Arthurian literature:

Le Morte D’Arthur, Thomas Malory’s epic prose poem, is the primary source for almost every Arthurian tale written since the 16th century.

It’s the same case here, with The Death of King Arthur, a new retelling in modern English and dramatically restructured, by novelist Peter Ackroyd.  Ackroyd is a hell of a writer and historian, and he’s taken the best parts of Malory’s dense prose and smoothed it into a story that both reflects the essence of Malory’s 15th century prose and updates it for our contemporary, attention deficit disorder audience.  In other words, Ackroyd has done well.

T. H. White’s classic retelling of the legend of Arthur is once again in print.  The Once and Future King was the basis of Disney’s 1964 The Sword in the Stone, and White’s adaptation of Malory remains, perhaps, the best, and certainly the most dramatic.  Arthur — Wart — and the major figures of Arthurian legend have never been fleshed out more charmingly, and it deserves its place high among the chronicles of the King.

For fans of Sherlock Holmes:

A new and innovative anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories has been needed for years.  But this isn’t a traditional anthology continuing their adventures — many of these stories don’t even have Holmes as Watson as characters.  Instead they use Doyle’s oeuvre — the very concept of Holmes and his literary legacy — as the primary idea.  The authors here range from mystery writers, thriller writers, fantasists — all sharing their unique perspectives on the Master Detective.  There’s even a story told in graphic form.  With stories by Neil Gaiman, Lee Child and Jacqueline Winspear, you can’t go wrong — and each tale looks at Holmes from a point of view you’ve probably never thought of.  The tale’s afoot!
For fans of Chris Van Allsburg:

When The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was published in 1984, author/artist Chris Van Allsburg probably had no idea that his slim little children’s book would be so inspirational.  The Chronicles of Harris Burdick takes the mysterious art from the first volume, and allows writers to explore exactly what happened in each beautiful black and white sketch.  There are no bad stories here, but my favorite — and perhaps the best of the bunch — is the final story, by Stephen King.  For me, the art and their enigmatic captions will remain, and I can still write my own stories for each drawing.  Highly recommended.
For Horror fans:

I think I’m giving up on horror from now on.  Not that Those Across the River or The Night Strangers are bad — they aren’t at all — but I am a fan of a type of horror story that just doesn’t get written any more, except by King and a few others.  I like horror.  I like scares.  I like ghost stories and roller coasters and Hammer horror.  I like King’s 3 Rules: Blood must be spilled; The innocent must suffer; and Evil shall be punished.  But these two new novels are way too . . . I guess unsettling is the word.

These are way too nihlistic for me.

Those Across the River takes a while to build, but when it does, the astute reader will realize it’s a new and savage take on an old horror trope.

The Night Strangers also takes a standard trope of supernatural horror and twists it in a way where nature becomes supernature.

Both novels are well-written, almost literary.  Both are filled with auras of unease and ancient terrors — and while I certainly recommend them for horror fans today, these two books are not for me.  They’re for the generation raised on gore and splatter, who laugh at ghosts and goblins instead of hiding under the covers with a flashlight.  This is horror for the iPod generation.

For fans of space opera and hard sf:

McDevitt is still the best at what he does — serious space opera that evokes the wonder of the stars.

Firebird is the latest in the Alex Benedict series, where Alex, an antiquities dealer 11,000 years in the future, and his Watson, Chase Kolpath, solve outer space mysteries and seek galactic artifacts.  Like most Benedict novels, this one starts out with a MacGuffin — which is never solved.  But it serves the reader in that this intro propels us into the story, starting with the past disappearance of a starship and how it relates to the disappearance of Christopher Robin forty years before the events of this novel.

Firebird is superior to McDevitt’s 2010 Benedict novel, and I anxiously await the next installment in 2012. 

For Dexter fans:

I don’t get Showtime, so I’ve never seen an episode of Dexter; but the show began with the Dexter books by Jeff Lindsay, about a serial killer who hunts serial killers.

Dexter’s world is in Miami, a very real and suburban Miami, yet is filled with unseen evil and weirdness living on the fringes.  There are hints of supernatural forces in the books, especially in the second book; but in the new novel, Double Dexter, reality is in the forefront when Dexter is seen making one of his kills . . . and it turns out the witness is a fledgling serial killer who wants Dexter to pay for his crimes.  The books are different than the show, so the author says, but the basics are the same, which is why I believe tv viewers like the show so much:  They’re graphic, darkly funny and highly recommended.

For fans of Hugo:

If you enjoyed The Invention of Hugo Cabret — or Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, Hugo — you’ll probably like Brian Selznick’s newest illustrated novel, Wonderstruck.  It’s just as heavily illustrated and as evocative as Selznick’s Hugo, this time telling the story of a deaf girl who falls in love with museums and Cabinets of Wonder.  Hugo has a little more action and more of a solid story, but Wonderstruck is embued with a sense of awe and fairy tale wonder that Hugo lacks.  Both books are absolutely magnificent, and are Highly Recommended.
For fans of Steven Spielberg:

I think I have all the books written so far on the making of Spielberg’s Jaws back in 1974, but this one is wonderfully unique.  It’s a coffee table book, filled with photos taken by the residents of Martha’s Vineyard, that captures the intense few months of filming that basically involved the entire island.  There are so many photos here that I’ve never seen before — it blew me away.  This book is a must have for film fans and Spielberg junkies.
For fans of Stephen King:

I saved the best for last.

11/22/63 is Stephen King’s finest novel in fifteen years.  It’s a time travel novel where everything goes right and everything goes wrong, and it’s a story only Stephen King could tell.

I’ll say no more and just let King’s writing do its job.  Forget Christmas presents — go out now and get this book for yourself.

Books from the Outer Rim: FULL DARK, NO STARS

Like every anthology, Stephen King’s latest book, Full Dark, No Stars, is a mixed bag of dark wonders.  Not one of the four stories included is as lyrical or evocative as the book’s title — and that’s a shame, because I’ve seen King write sentences that shook me to the core or nailed me with perfection.  There are some shining moments here, certainly; but they do not shine half as brightly as “The Mist,” “The Body,” or any of the stories in King’s first and uber-primal collection, Night Shift.

Reviewers are calling these four stories brutal, and King himself refers to them in his Afterword — the best part of the book — as harsh and visceral.  He’s accurate.  Only one of these stories involves the supernatural, and all of them revolve around horrors and deeds that are as real — and as visceral — as blood spurting from a gaping wound, or rats gnawing through rotting flesh.

Madness and death.  That’s what the stories in Full Dark, No Stars are all about.  Can you get more brutal than that?

Like most anthologies, this one follows a very basic structure.  Actually, this one is perfect — it only has four stories, and they exemplify the structure of a typical anthology:

Story #1    “1922”    B+

Story #2    “Big Driver”    C+

Story #3    “Fair Extension”    C

Story #4    “A Good Marriage”    A

As you can tell, the best story is usually saved for last, but anthologies still have to open with a very strong story to hook the reader.  The middle stories, no matter how many, are usually structured in a rising/falling format, like a staircase, all leading up to the A story — the Big Finish.  (Personal note: I think the story titles here are pretty dull.  Steve’s done much better, titlewise.)

Story #1, “1922,”  is strong.  Really strong.  Actually, I consider it the best tale in the book; but King, obviously, disagrees, by placing it at the opening.  “1922” takes place in rural Nebraska — in a town King used to great effect in The Stand, and which, I suppose, ties this story to that universe of evil and supernatural armageddon.  But there is no supernatural in this tale — only death and madness, and slow, Midwestern lives as empty as the Nebraska plains.  This is King possessed by Poe, and the stark setting is a much a character — perhaps even stronger — as the protagonist, who, in the first paragraph, confesses to murdering his wife.

There’s a good moment of freak out in “Big Driver,” when the main character, a rape victim, is left for dead in a roadside culvert.  Otherwise, this is a typical story of revenge — typical in the way that King’s most recent fiction has turned: realistic and fairly predictable, with characters that are rounded out just enough to satisfy short attention span readers.

The only story to turn into King’s trademark world of living dead girls, ghosts, psychic children and otherworldly beasts from beyond our ken is “Fair Extension,” a deal-with-the-devil tale that isn’t very original, nor memorable.  The devil guy is named . . . Elvid.

Come on, Steve.

What would you do if you discovered a box of trophies in the garage that proved your spouse was a serial killer?  That’s what happens to Darcy Anderson in the final story, “A Good Marriage.”  It’s a hell of a premise, but it’s not much of a story.  From the opening sentence, King fills the action with background and unnecessary exposition that do nothing to move the story along.  It’s modern King at his weakest, and it screams that he needs a good editor who isn’t afraid to cut.

Full Dark, No Stars isn’t bad.  It’s just weak.  The light seems to be going out.  Read ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, Carrie and Night Shift for King at his most primal, most energetic — and his most brilliant.

Not-Recommended Reading — the new Stephen King "book"

BLOCKADE BILLY, the new “book” from Stephen King.

Unless you’re a King purist or if you love baseball stories, you won’t miss anything if you leave this one on the shelves.

First, it’s barely a book.  It’s packaged like a kid’s book, about 7.25″ x 5 1/8,” much like The Series of Unfortunate Events series.  There’s no dust jacket, it’s only 132 tiny pages long, and it contains two short stories.  ONLY two stories.  And the price is $14.99.

Thank God I got 30% off at Target.

Second, I love King’s work.  I’ve been a fan since 1976 with CARRIE and ‘SALEM’S LOT.  I used to collect his limited editions, I’ve met him, written about him, and am, simply, an aficianado.

And I simply can’t recommend that you go out and get this book.  It’s just not worth it.

The two stories are, at best, minor tales.  Like much of his short fiction from the last few years, they are realistic instead of supernatural — nothing wrong with that.

What’s wrong is my third point.  King used to be imaginative and innovative in both story ideas and in the ways he told a story.  Lately, though, he has fallen back on his old tropes and two particular ways of storytelling, both of which are, in their own ways, now quite trite.

“Blockade Billy” is told in the voice King has come to be known for: the voice of Old Uncle Steve, telling you a story on the front porch — and you won’t believe what happened when . . .

That voice has become so clichéd that, in many ways, I cringe when I read his stories.  I still can’t finish his last short fiction anthology.

“Morality” is told in King’s modern fiction voice.  The narrative more straightforward and economical — but the mechanics of telling the story are not “Kingian.”  It’s “McSweeneyan.”  It’s like typical 300-level college fiction, where the writer will leave the end open, without much explanation, thinking that the reader can supply his own meaning — that minimalism and contemporary storytelling is more important than the story itself.

King became famous for his own individual and twisted vision of life.  The short fiction in NIGHT SHIFT and SKELETON CREW are, perhaps, his best short pieces, simply because they were so singular.  An astronaut who suddenly develops eyes popping up from beneath his skin.  A fog that moves in, opening a doorway to a netherworld filled with pale, unhuman nightbeasts.

“Blockade Billy” and “Morality” are far from original, far from well-written, far from imaginative and far from enjoyable.  They are, in short, nothing special — and that’s a damn shame, because I miss the Stephen King who gave us an American Lord of the Rings, a Maine visited by Dracula, a crazed number-one fan, and an extremely haunted hotel.

I miss primal King.

Beware of the man of one book.

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.

John Cage

I’ve written before about the disease that has afflicted me since at least 7th grade: biblioholism. It’s a despicable condition: I cannot walk by a bookstore without going inside and smelling the paper and leather, the book dust, and the airy aroma of sheer wonder. It started with my mother, who taught me how to read when I was three by using comic books. I quickly became addicted to stories, and it eventually blossomed into a complete and absolute addiction to the written word.

Since the idea of The Enigma Club, my novel that has ballooned into a trilogy, came to me in 1996, I’ve been going to library sales and a lot of used bookstores, gathering up as many period books about the golden age of adventure and exploration that I could find — the weirder the better. (One of my favorite titles: I Married Adventure. The binding simulates the stripes of a zebra’s coat. Love it!) Of course, I didn’t limit myself to that topic — I’d pick up whatever struck my fancy at the moment.

One of those titles was I Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland.

Somehow, when I moved to Richmond, the book got separated from my Enigma Club collection, so I found it by accident today in our library as I was looking for books I no longer wanted, that I could sell to the best used bookstore in Richmond, Black Swan Books.

I’ve changed my mind. I’m keeping it. It’s a beautiful period book: written in 1946 by John D. Snider, a fellow Virginian. This edition was the 17th, published in 1958. The marbling is exquisite, the book is in almost perfect condition — it looks as tough it’s never been read — and the endpapers and illustrations are classic examples of the period’s bland style of drawing. It’s the Campbell’s Soup style of illustration: tasteless and inoffensive. (Thanks to Stephen King for the paraphrase.)

Even more importantly, I Love Books: A Guide Through Bookland, which I picked up thinking that I would find something in it of commiserative value, has pissed me off royally. I’m still keeping it; it’s beautiful. But the writer was a pompous ass.

Some time in the mid-’80s, I was at a mall bookstore looking through the paperback fiction section. Two other guys were nearby, and one turned to the other in exasperation and said, “Why do you want to read this stuff?” The second guy shrugged and said, “What? What should I read?” And the first guy said, “Like, have you ever read the Bible?”

Like, it’s that kind of limited and unimaginative attitude that pisses me off — so much so that 25 years later I haven’t forgotten that conversation. And, like, it’s that attitude that, unfortunately, permeates every page of I Love Books.

The author comes from the era and the tradition that the author is not just an expert, but THE expert on the topic, and that the writing style must be old-fashioned and authoritarian:

The story of Benjamin Franklin’s life is familiar to every schoolboy.

We have seen that a book is a creation of a living man, and should be regarded and judged somewhat as a man himself is estimated.

It is not the number of books that counts, but the kind. We are made or marred by the company we keep.

The term “fiction” has, in the thinking of many, come to connote the perverted, harmful form of imaginative writing often designed to exalt sin and sordidness, instead of portraying and glorifying truth and wholesomeness. First, we should exclude all books that tend to weaken our faith in God…

Sorry, but the custodian of the church library has no freakin’ idea what he’s talking about.

I’ve learned wonderful things from books this dead dude would have scorned: that men and women can be heroes and accomplish amazing things; that there are pink dolphins in the Amazon; that vampires are symbolic, not representative; that high school drama/trauma is universal; that bullies must be taught a lesson; that people prefer good stories over bad, no matter how well the book is written; and that, no matter what literature teachers say, there is no such thing as the perfect novel — not Catcher in the Rye, not The Great Gatsby, not A Moveable Feast, and not Attack from the Glorpnorg Nebula: Star Trek #197.

And I especially detest the holier than thou attitude that has existed since the novel first took shape in the 17th and 18th centuries: that fiction is worthless unless it glorifies God (that is, the Christian religion); and even if it does, it’s still fiction, isn’t it? It’s not real, it’s make believe, and therefore it is totally irredeemable.

This kind of attitude still exists even today. You see it in a burning hatred from the indignant, Bible-thumping masses, who despise restaurants that serve alcohol, public schools, guys with long hair (still!), tattoos, Hooters, comic books, Stephen King novels, the songs of Jimmy Buffett, and that ol’ devil rock and roll.

Coincidentally, as I was formulating my ideas for this blogpost, I visited the blog of a friend, who writes on the topic of books, both good and bad. I certainly agree with his sentiment that we should read good books, not bad. The real problems are: Who is to decide for us what is a good book but each individual reader? and Can we learn nothing from a book that critics perceive as bad?

As a reader and a writer, I’ve learned what makes a book good by reading bad books, as well as good.

And I’m a wine snob. I prefer the better wines rather the the thin, weak wines. Likewise, I prefer good writing rather than bad.

But the choosing of wines should teach us a lesson about books. No matter whether you think should have red wines with meat and white with fish, the important thing with wine is: Drink what you like. If you don’t enjoy it, why drink it?

It’s as simple as that. It should be the same with books. Read what you like, no matter who tells you what’s good and what’s bad. In time and with practice, your tastes will become discriminating, and you will learn what is good and what is bad . . . and how both can be valuable. Like Jimmy Buffett once said, “I’ve read dozens of books about heroes and crooks, and learned much from both of their styles.”

Beware of the man of one book.

Thomas Aquinas