Book review: John Dies at the End

I recently finished reading John Dies at the End by David Wong, editor of*. This is not a long book but it took nigh-forever to finish reading because every reading session was started just late enough that I’d nod off within 30 minutes. This is not a knock against the book, it would have happened no matter what I was reading at the time.

This is a silly and plot-light tale that began as an Internet thing™ and eventually evolved into an actual book (which I bought via the Internet, thus completing the circle). It follows a pair of dopey guys in their mid-20s as they fight weird-ass (and I use the term literally) demons and other things that threaten to destroy the world as we know it. Apart from an ending that feels a bit like “Uh, how do I wrap this all up?” the journey is fast-paced, absurd and often very funny. The sub-genre of funny horror is ill-served so this is a welcome addition to it.

If you are a humorless monster (and I use the term literally) you may not find this to be a literary masterpiece but that’s okay. There’s already a sequel out for you to froth over. I’m not picking it up yet because it’s still out of my price range but I will eventually. Sorry, Mr. Wong–if that’s your real name (spoiler: it’s not).


* I still can’t decide if Cracked was an excellent alternative to Mad magazine or a shameless ripoff. Probably a little of both. The website is nothing like the magazine of yore, which is not a bad thing. It’s just a web thing.

Review: Throttle (short story)

Here’s a quickie.

I read the short story “Throttle” by Joe Hill and Stephen King. It was originally part of a tribute to Richard Matheson called He is Legend (which I’ll likely get to soon) but was recently made available as a standalone ebook. It’s inspired by Matheson’s classic “Duel” (best known as the 1971 Spielberg TV movie) but this variation of the theme, in which a group of bikers led by a father and son are chased by an anonymous trucker through the desert felt a little flat. Unlike the original story, the motivation of the unseen trucker is eventually revealed. Not only is it a huge coincidence but it also makes the story feel a little pat. The father/son conflict among the bikers seemed more to provide a B plot when the truck wasn’t bearing down on them than anything else. It’s not a bad story but it doesn’t really capture the tension of the original. But hey, 99 cents!

Book review: A.D. After Disclosure

A.D. After Disclosure by Richard M. Dolan and Bryce Zabel is one of those speculative books I loved as a kid and still enjoy as a world-weary and skeptical adult. The premise of the book is simple: What if there are intelligent non-humans on the planet right now and their presence is revealed to the world, whether through some undeniable event (a mass sighting of UFOs) or through disclosure (a presidential address in which all the conspiracy stuff of the Majestic 12/Roswell, etc. are all but confirmed)? Through nine chapters the authors explore how disclosure might be handled and what the effects on the world would be. Most scenarios are fairly grim, with long-term social disorder, riots and turmoil as people panic at the thought of an undoubtedly superior species being here alongside us. The book also explores in detail the purpose and motives of the ‘gatekeepers’ who they believe already have confirmation of the ‘others’ as the authors call them and go into detail (and conspiracies!) over how the mass media, working alongside and sometimes taking direction from the government, has stuck to a narrative of ridicule and scorn, to insure the public never takes these ‘little green men’ seriously.

At least we have UFO Hunters on G4.

While the authors clearly believe that the government or some shadowy part of it is concealing the presence of aliens/intelligent non-humans they admit to being uncertain as to who exactly these aliens are and offer speculation that covers everything from time travel to sentient machines. They also believe there is more than one species here and each group may have different purposes or motivations. Some may be here to help, some to harm. Why are they being so secretive? The authors never provide a firm answer but suggest that the repeated sightings and encounters over the last 70 years may be part of a campaign to acclimate us to their presence before the big reveal. They also suggest that our own rapidly advancing technology (singularity by the mid-21st century, baby) may force the hand of the aliens and/or government.

The speculation put forward is interesting, if not revelatory, and fun to think about. The authors get Very Serious regarding secrecy and clearly mistrust government and the media, so if you’re inclined to be a distrustful sort this may resonate with you. I found it a mite overbearing at times but if you assume the authors are being honest, you can understand their conviction because they paint a picture of a government system that has been willfully misleading its people for many decades.

As a popcorn book, I had a decent time with it. Now I must go stare at the sky and ponder.

(This review was originally posted on Broken Forum.)

Book review: Redshirts

John Scalzi’s novel Redshirts is pretty close to what you expect from the title, assuming you know the pop culture reference. In the original Star Trek series a group of main characters would go on an away mission and bring along one or two ensigns, typically dressed in red shirts. Often enough for it to be a seeming pattern, these ‘redshirts’ would die in some horrible way. You always knew who was going to die because it was never one of the main characters (killing main characters is incredibly trendy now with TV series,but back in the 1960s it was relatively rare). Redshirts is set in a Star Trek-like universe where a group of ensigns aboard the Universal Union’s flagship Intrepid begin putting the pieces together and realize that they are all in danger of expiring in horrible ways if they don’t do something.

That something comprises the bulk of Redshirts’ story, one told in a fast-paced style with characters volleying witty rejoinders like phaser fire. Although there are some obligatory touching moments, most of the story is played for laughs and succeeds thanks to a consistent stream of absurdities and the ensigns’ collectively deprecating reactions. Naturally there is also time travel and the story ends with a series of codas that wrap things up in a somewhat gimmicky but still effective manner.

It’s a short, light read and just about the perfect summer book to lose yourself in for an evening or two. Recommended.

Book review: Wildwood Road

I am not the fastest reader so it usually takes me a few weeks to plow through a book. In the case of Wildwood Road (Christopher Golden) I was able to finish it in a mere six days. This was a nice change of pace–a novel that tells its story without any real padding. The downside is the experience almost felt too brief and a bit perfunctory.

It tells the tale of a nigh-perfect couple living in Boston and how a few too many drinks at a masquerade party leads to nearly running down a mysterious little girl on a quiet night road. From there things get weird as Michael the guilty husband tries to set things right by taking the girl back to her home, a ramshackle old house on top of a hill that seems to be haunted by…things. These ghosty creatures do a number on Jillian the wife to scare off the husband from pursuing matters further. More to the point they turn her into Ultra Bitch, which is kind of fun to watch. Golden does a good job in making her a wildly unpredictable force and I was actually fooled–whether by design or not–by a scene in which a friend is asked to ‘babysit’ her, the outcome of which I hadn’t predicted. I was less convinced by the depiction of memories as physical things you can pluck from the air as they float by.

Oh, and the little girl, she wore a peasant blouse and blue jeans. I remember this because Golden mentions it approximately five thousand times over the course of the novel.

The story is told with economy but the omniscient voice is perhaps a little too all-seeing as it hops from character to character. There is very little for the reader to work out for himself as everything gets neatly explained in time. In a way it’s nice to not have things remain murky just for the sake of conjuring up an atmosphere of mystery, but a little more subtlety would have worked, too.

Overall this was a fast, enjoyable, but unremarkable read, a novel I would describe as solidly good.

Book review: The Keep

I bought The Keep in 1982. It only took me 30 years to get around to reading it. Even better, I read it in a format that was unheard of back then, as I picked up the ebook version on the cheap from last year.

This was one of a number of horror novels I bought back in the early 80s after Stephen King (you may have heard of him) ignited my interest in the genre (I had bought other books, notably The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror prior but stuck mainly to science fiction otherwise).

F. Paul Wilson’s writing of the story is utterly clear — this is not a tale filled with ambiguity, though there is a mystery when the story begins in 1941, as Nazi Germany continues its conquest of Europe. After a brief prologue the main characters are introduced — a sympathetic German captain named Woermann, his villainous counterpart, Major Kaempffer, a Jewish professor and his daughter and the two mortal enemies of Glenn and Molasar.

When the Nazis set up a defensive position in a creepy ol’ keep in the Romanian Alps it doesn’t take long for very bad things to begin happening. The treasure hunting adventures of a pair of soldiers unleashes a very ancient evil in the keep and leads to a different soldier being murdered every night. Woermann, appalled by the Nazis but loyal to the German army, sends a wire requesting aid and gets it in the form of a vile SS major and his commandos. The mysterious murders continue and in desperation they turn to the Jewish professor to help uncover what is killing the soldiers and ultimately how to stop whatever is responsible.

The question of ‘why not just leave?’ is addressed early on as Kaempffer rules out leaving because it would make him look weak just prior to him being promoted to running a new death camp in Romania. He sets out a schedule by which they must resolve the matter, after which he’ll blame everything on Woermann before moving on.

Wilson neatly draws all of the players together and the initial series of murders is handled effectively, with whatever force is responsible literally creating darkness around itself before viscously ripping out the throats of its victims. For added fun, it briefly re-animates a pair at one point to go flop on the major as he lay in his bed one night. There are a number of twists that are presented broadly enough that they didn’t surprise me, but it was still fun seeing the characters react to events as they unfolded. There is a certain melodrama to some of the passages, especially those between the daughter Magda and Glenn, the reluctant champion of Order who is tasked with vanquishing the evil force trapped in the keep but the overall tone is as realistic as one might expect in a story about ancient evil mucking about with Nazis.

The ending is satisfying, albeit predictable and I was pleased it did not mine the cliches of being Grim Dark™.

This was a quick and enjoyable read. Wilson has no filler here, just a straight-up and ultimately heroic tale mixed in with some early and effectively creepy scenes.

Book review: The Fog

I finally decided to check out James Herbert, the popular English horror author who has enough cachet (and sales) to warrant his own section in most bookstore horror sections. I didn’t do any real research in picking a title, I just read a few descriptions and grabbed the first one that sounded good.

That turned out to be his 1975 novel The Fog (no relation to the John Carpenter movie of the same name). It’s his second novel and understandably still has some rough edges as befits an early book. It has for the most part aged well — you could easily plop the premise down in present-day England and not have to change much at all. I also like the conciseness of the story. There is little flab here, no long digressions or exposition. While this at times makes the writing and characterizations a bit perfunctory (and Herbert occasionally spells things out a little too explicitly, telling rather than showing) it does result in a snappy narrative.

The plot is science fiction horror, revolving around the accidental release of a biological warfare agent into the English countryside. It emerges as a yellow fog from a crevice and anyone who comes into contact with it is driven batty, some sooner than later. The story revolves around a government team and an unwitting immune individual working to contain and/or destroy the fog before all of England goes as mad as George. Along the way there are numerous colorful vignettes in which it is illustrated just how various people go insane. This usually involves violence, sex or often both! The Fog is very old school in the way it entwines sex and gore together, just like the EC Comics of yore. The difference is people don’t get killed for having sex, rather they kill as they are having sex.

The nadir of the novel is probably a comprehensive sex scene between the protagonist and his girlfriend with creepy daddy issues. It’s played straight, so to speak, in that neither character is insane (at the time) but it comes off (ho ho) as second rate softcore porn. I’ve no idea if this is a James Herbert thing or if he was just a horny young man at the time he wrote this (checking, he was 32 at time of publication so perhaps horny youngish man is more apt).

The last third of the novel is essentially a chase sequence following the fog. It’s actually more interesting than it sounds, especially given the double whammy of deadly fog combined with nutty people running around in it.

In the end this is a competent but unremarkable novel. I am uncertain if I will read more Herbert.

Book review: The Exorcist (second reading)

Actually, this may be the third time I’ve read The Exorcist but the first time as an adult.

The paperback copy I have dates from January 1974 and I tried re-reading it last year but it’s one of my few books that is falling apart. Fortunately the book has been re-released in a 40th anniversary edition in 2011 and was made available in ebook form for the first time.

While subversive kids a generation before read EC comics late at night I read stuff like The Exorcist. Reading it as a child it scared the living heck out of me and I was curious to see how it would hold up with nearly 40 years of pop culture baggage tied to it, not to mention experiencing the story as an adult.

I’m pleased to find it holds up quite well. The events depicted — the demonic possession and exorcism of a 12 year old girl — are no longer frightening but the story is told with grace and economy. In its more reflective moments William Peter Blatty adopts a lyrical quality, heavy with the use of metaphor. Some passages read almost like poetry. And much as he did in the screen adaptation, Blatty lets the story unwind slowly, ratcheting up the tension nicely.

I’ll be damned if I couldn’t help but see Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin, though. He was perfect for the role.

The story is dated only in a few minor ways. The character Chris MacNeil works on a film that features a student protest scene that has a strong late 60s/early 70s vibe to it and most of the characters smoke like chimneys. There’s also a weird thing with Father Karras viewing psychokinesis as plausible and documented and I’m pretty sure it’s still considered unproven, since I’ve not noticed any real-life Carrie episodes on the news of late.

Overall, this is still an excellent book, highly recommended for any horror buff that has somehow managed to miss it.

Book review: Poe’s Children: The New Horror

Poe’s Children: The New Horror (Kobo link)

The two genres I read the most are science fiction and horror and with horror I especially like anthologies and collections because horror stories work well in short form where it’s easier to suspend your disbelief because the shambling monsters have to caper for only a few dozen pages or so and not hundreds.

A few years ago I started a thread on Quarter to Three asking for horror story recommendations (the first reply is still classic — I specifically said I was not interested in series or vampire stories and the initial suggestion is for a vampire series) and one of those recommendations was for the then-new anthology Poe’s Children: The New Horror (2008). It featured a good mix of famous and lesser-known authors and hey, how could you go wrong with Peter Straub as editor? Even if it seemed a bit odd that he would include one of his own stories. Editor’s privilege, I guess.

My first creeping doubt came as I read Straub’s introduction, in which he frames the collected stories as part of a new wave of literary horror while at the same time almost apologizing for them being labeled horror at all because horror stories are apparently the domain of hormone-fueled teenage boys or something and this presumably makes them worthy of nothing more than scorn. I get the impression that the best way to read these stories is with pinky extended. So I extend my pinky and start in.

The opener is “The Bees” by Don Chaon and it’s fairly conventional, a ghost revenge story that comes together neatly and for the protagonist, horribly in the end. Its worst flaw is it didn’t take me long to start poking away at the plot holes but hey, it’s a short story, so time to move on.

Elizabeth Hand’s “Cleopatra Brimstone” features a young American woman house-sitting in England. She has a fascination with moths that extends to being able to transform her sexual conquests into them. It’s a quirky premise and is handled well. My only real complaint with the story is that it went on too long. The various conquests did not distinguish themselves enough to warrant having as many as there were detailed. A snappy ending concludes the story on a high note.

And then we get to a funny thing, a ‘story’ called “The Man on the Ceiling”. I put that in quotes because it’s not a conventional story as such, more a meditation or mood piece, with repeating imagery, shifting viewpoints and no specific focus, just overlapping feelings of dread or wanting and such. Sound interesting? The author notes at the end of the book inform me that husband and wife authors Steve and Melanie Tem’s effort is ‘the only work ever to win the International Horror Guild, Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards in the same year’. And I found it boring, pretentious and pointless. I cannot recall the last time I read a short story that actively annoyed me as much as this one. If this vapid, indulgent piece of nonsense is what passes for ‘literary horror’ I think I may stick to lurid tales for oversexed boys. I suppose this is a case of different strokes. I am left so dissatisfied that at this point I actually set the book down for some weeks before pressing on.

The next few stories are decent enough but the overall theme of the anthology is becoming clearer, as many of stories are more mood pieces, veering away from the concrete to the ethereal, using words to create images that are fuzzy around the edges, leaving out details deliberately to confuse or beguile. I’m okay with this. I freely admit I prefer my fiction more straight-up because I’m more interested in being entertained than challenged but a change-up on occasion is like cleansing the palette. And my palette is about to get cleansed with the literary equivalent of bleach.

“Louise’s Ghost” is a story that shows off its cleverness with broad strokes. A little girl loves the color green, so everything must be green. The two adult protagonists are both named Louise so at times it’s difficult to distinguish who is saying what. But it’s clever because it blurs their identities and makes a statement about how interchangeable we all are or whatever the hell point author Kelly Link was trying to make. Maybe it was to simply give the reader a headache, in which case she succeeded with me. The story is further addled with dialog that is twee as all get-out. I will give Link credit, though — there are moments when all of these elements actually pull together and it really is clever and witty. I also give her points for offering something that isn’t Very Serious.

“Plot Twist” is a self-referential piece that does its shtick very well — three people stranded in a desert, running out of supplies and wondering why no one ever comes along the road they walk along. As is often the case with these kinds of high-concept pieces,  David J. Schow’s ending seems gratuitously ‘shocking’ and isn’t really satisfying. Still, the journey to get there is worth the trip.

Along similar lines is Thomas Ligotti’s “Notes on the Writing of Horror”, although the gruesome ending is to be expected with Ligotti. His darkly comedic prose may not be to everyone’s taste but I find the more of his work I read the more I want to read, so it is apparently a taste I like.

Neil Gaiman’s entry “October in the Chair” is vintage Gaiman, a warm tale of a young ghost in a forgotten town.

I skipped Stephen King’s “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet” because I read it nearly 30 freaking years ago.

Peter Straub’s “Little Red Tango” produced a weird effect for me right from the title. I jokingly referred to a short guy I thought was one hot tamale in college as Little Red and after doing that for two years it’s difficult to see the phrase and not think specifically of him. In Straub’s story the titular character is a kind of idiot savant who lives in a hoarders-style apartment and does weird and magical things for musicians and music lovers with his vast collection of vinyl records. The story is quirky and magical but grounded in the everyday, the grit and discomfort of ordinary living mixed with extraordinary events. In the case of “Little Red Tango” Straub was correct to invoke editor’s privilege and include it.

The collection ends with “Insect Dreams” by Rosalind Palermo Stevenson. Set in the 17th century, it tells of a trip a young woman named Maria Sibylla makes from her native Netherlands to the lush jungles of Surinam in South America, there to study the insect life both as a researcher and artist. The prose is written with a languid and poetic style, with a formal and sometimes melodramatic flair. Although slow to get going, the story drew me in as it progressed and I became more interested in Maria’s experiences in this strange and dangerous land. The closest the story comes to horror, however, is when a ‘monster’ turns out to be a plantation owner who treats slaves sadistically (one scene has him literally pull the arms off a girl who resists his advances) but this  — as terrible as it sounds — is treated more an incidental to the main story. Were it not there the story would not really fit in a horror anthology at all, literary or otherwise.

In the end I came away from Poe’s Children disappointed. There are some very good stories here and there is decent variety despite the classification as ‘new horror’ so if you like gore, you’ll get some of that and if you like explicit sex, you’re covered there, too (so to speak). I found the collection very uneven, though and can’t recall the last time multiple stories in a collection actually annoyed me. Finishing the book was more a relief than anything.

Thumbs down for me but it is quite possible that I’m just too dang juvenile to appreciate art when I see it.

Book review: You Are Not so Smart

As part of the January Book of the Month Club thread on Broken Forum, I read You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. This is a collection based on McRaney’s website of the same name. Here’s my review, which can also be read in the thread linked above.

I finished the book in about three weeks after setting it aside for most of a week. It’s one of those books that is very put down-able while still not being a bad book at all.

The concept of the book as described on

You believe you are a rational, logical being who sees the world as it really is, but journalist David McRaney is here to tell you that you’re as deluded as the rest of us. But that’s OK- delusions keep us sane. You Are Not So Smart is a celebration of self-delusion. It’s like a psychology class, with all the boring parts taken out, and with no homework.

Based on the popular blog of the same name, You Are Not So Smart collects more than 46 of the lies we tell ourselves everyday, including:

  • Dunbar’s Number – Humans evolved to live in bands of roughly 150 individuals, the brain cannot handle more than that number. If you have more than 150 Facebook friends, they are surely not all real friends.
  • Hindsight bias – When we learn something new, we reassure ourselves that we knew it all along.
  • Confirmation bias – Our brains resist new ideas, instead paying attention only to findings that reinforce our preconceived notions.
  • Brand loyalty – We reach for the same brand not because we trust its quality but because we want to reassure ourselves that we made a smart choice the last time we bought it.Packed with interesting sidebars and quick guides on cognition and common fallacies, You Are Not So Smart is a fascinating synthesis of cutting-edge psychology research to turn our minds inside out.

On the plus side, the book is an easy read, the conversational tone works well to draw the reader in and McRaney has done his homework on the subject. While a lot of what he writes about seems self-evident when it’s laid out for you, I still found it valuable in the general sense of knowing that your brain can be a tricksy thing and better understanding how it tries to trick you can be helpful when it does so in a way that can have negative or unintended consequences.

The last chapter, which chronicles the horrifying mock prison experiment, ends the book on a somber note compared to the overall tone and left me with the feeling that a deeper take on the subject might have worked better. The book betrays it roots as a series of blog posts and McRaney really does nothing to expand the book beyond a series of vignettes with nothing to tie it all together. I would have enjoyed it more if McRaney had adopted a specific angle on why he had collected these examples of how ‘we are not so smart’. There are hints of it here and there where he offers advice (from himself or others) on how to work against your brain’s need to shortcut or fill-in but the larger picture of what all this means and what we can all do about it is left mostly untouched.

In short, an enjoyable and easily digested book but I’d have preferred a more substantial take on the matter.

Book review: Salem’s Lot

After stating my disinterest in all things vampire I found myself reading my third vampire novel this year. Clearly I have gone mad. After The Passage and the classic Dracula I got a hankering for vintage Stephen King so I took down the 30+ (!) year old copy of Salem’s Lot I bought but had never read and tore through it like Barlow on a bloody bender.

Unlike some of King’s later books, Salem’s Lot is fairly lean and the ending, though predictable, is satisfying and doesn’t leave you scratching your head or perhaps turning the book upside down to see if it makes more sense that way.

The vampires in this tale of a small Maine town gone horribly wrong are classic King supporting characters — by turns vulgar, dimwitted, fat, abusive. But there are also innocent kids and girlfriends mixed in, all shepherded over by a drunken priest and a sheriff who calmly skips town when things get weird.

My favorite aspect of the story is the way King slowly then with rapidly increasing speed unravels Jerusalem’s Lot and how it’s undoing goes largely unnoticed by the world around it. The townfolk start out fairly rattled by the disappearance of the boy Ralph Glick and end up either feasting on each other or hiding away at night as out-of-towners drive through and wonder why the place is so…dead.

It’s dated in ways you’d expect a 1975 novel to be — everyone’s using party lines and people phone doctors instead of 911, the specter of Vietnam hangs over several characters and the populace generally doesn’t cotton to them ‘faggots’ and ‘queers’ (like Barlow and Straker — two men working together, they must be queer. Turns out they’re just monsters). But the dated bits don’t detract from the story.

Although I found the main characters were handled well, the transition of Mark Petrie from kid-who-has-his-stuff-together to someone more simpering felt a bit off. Sure, he goes through the wringer but he ultimately comes off as kind of a wimp, undercutting his earlier scenes of strength.

The writing is fairly tight, though King indulges in a few poetic passages that don’t quite mesh with the overall tone of the story. Perhaps these were epistolary experiments that got watered down to better fit the overall narrative. There’s only a few and they don’t go on so their presence isn’t off-putting. They do act to leaven the crudity and gore that is otherwise throughout the book.

Bottom line: Salem’s Lot holds up nicely 36 years later. It’s a far grimmer tale than Dracula and the bodies pile up like cord wood but if you like a good vampire story I think you’d enjoy this.

Book review: Ready Player One

Two of the last three novels I’ve read have been first-time efforts. The previous one I’d read was Brian Keene’s The Rising, which I found mediocre and fairly filled with first-time authorisms. Ready Player One has its share of flaws, too, but as a debut I felt it worked much better.

The main character of Wade/Parzival seemed a little too prone to silly actions and emotional speechifying. The most cringe-inducing moments in the book were usually when several characters engaged in dialogue. But as they are mostly teens or near-teens I found this forgivable, even realistic. Having been a teen once (that was enough for me) I can attest to the propensity for silly actions and saying Very Serious Things Stop Laughing At Me, so in RPO it works, for the most part.

The key concept of the OASIS was fleshed out just about right — the technical ins-and-outs of this proto-holodeck are presented with enough detail to make it seem plausible without descending into unnecessary Star Trek-level technobabble.

This is very much a niche book. While a movie version would be more accessible, simply due to the visual experience, the novel’s constant and key references to all things 1980s (or thereabouts) makes the story best-suited for those who grew up in that era. Being a massive nerd is probably essential, too. Since I qualify in both regards I enjoyed the nostalgia trip, even as I stopped to wonder if the occasional detail was right or not.

The ending is a bit pat and as others have said, Wade has a whole lot of coincidental knowledge that turns out to be precisely what he needs. The ability to memorize countless movies, books and games is a stretch, too — you pretty much have to handwave it or the whole story collapses on itself.

The character of Art3mis didn’t quite click for me. Her actions felt more like they were in service to the plot than organic or natural.

Still, there’s no denying the spectacle, the villains are suitably over-the-top and it’s a fast-paced, effortless read. If you’re at all nerdy and know your 80s references, you’ll probably have a good time with Ready Player One.