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 amazon.com:

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.

Book review: Majestic

Since it was just recently reprinted ans I missed it back in the day, I read Majestic, Whitley Strieber’s ‘true fiction’ account of the Roswell Incident. It’s partially epistolary in nature, as some chapters are told directly from the memoirs of the (fictitious) character of Will Stone, an ex-CIA officer who was deeply involved in the Roswell crash recovery and subsequent cover-up and who ultimately confesses the secrets of what happened to a reporter for The Bethesda Express (in 1989, the year the novel was originally published). The remaining chapters are told from the first person perspective of the reporter as he recounts the stories he is told and the material he uncovers in his research.

The story starts out fairly grounded (ho ho) but as it moves beyond the initial discovery of the crashed disk it gets progressively weirder, with Strieber projecting the behaviors of the ‘visitors’ from his book Communion onto the aliens. Said visitors go on to seriously screw around with the minds and bodies of several people, some of them actual historical figures. The government stuff is handled believably, with everyone up to the president appropriately freaked by the potential an alien invasion could have — and the orders to both shoot first and cover up the whole thing not only works perfectly for conspiracy theorists, it’s plausible as something the government would probably do in such a situation.

My biggest disappointment with the story is probably in regards to the details of what is found. There are several scenes with scientists and military men gathered to discuss findings and propose strategies but the emphasis is clearly on the military side of things, leaving a lot of potentially interesting bits on the alien technology only hinted at.

Still, this is a short and breezy read. For those looking for a (fictional) take on Roswell, it may be worth checking out. Just be prepared for more emphasis on trippy happenings and less on government shenanigans as you get further in

Book review: My Work Is Not Yet Done

Thomas Ligotti’s My Work Is Not Yet Done is a book that was recommended by several readers on Quarter to Three and I’m always willing to try a new author, so I gave it a go recently. The experience was a bit confusing, not because of Ligotti’s prose, but rather the borked formatting of the Kobo ebook version I was reading, which presented incorrect jumps to the wrong chapter or section. Fortunately the table of contents worked properly and I was able to complete the book without going totally mad.

The heart of the book is a short novel in which the protagonist faces off against seven other ‘swine’ in an office where he correctly figures himself the lowest of the low. He ultimately plots revenge against his co-workers via copious amounts of gunfire but when he suddenly finds himself with supernatural powers he plots out more (extremely) grisly and imaginative ends to the people who demean and mock him. The story is told in the first person and the time spent in Frank Dominio’s mind is at turns fascinating and amusing but ultimately without reward. None of the primary characters in the story are remotely likable.

Ligotti does a good job keeping a consistent and clear tone with the narrative. You may not like Dominio but you will understand him and the frustrations he feels, even as you remain unconvinced that he is not just, as he fears he will be remembered, a kook. More broadly, My Work Is Not Yet Done serves as a philosophical statement on the corporate realm, its inhabitants constantly referred to as swine, its goals and purpose consistently derided. The frank exchanges between the characters in their numerous meetings are simultaneously amusing and depressing.

I enjoyed the craft of the story more than the actual story itself. I’ve not read Ligotti before and have heard this collection may not be fully representative of his work. He is a fine writer but My Work Is Not Yet Done is unrelentingly bleak. The sarcastic, droll observations of Dominio lighten the tone but only slightly. Still, I can’t deny Ligotti’s imagination and skill, so I may seek out some of his other work.

Just not right away.

Book review: Dark Delicacies III: Haunted

Despite the subtitle, Dark Delicacies III: Haunted is not really a collection of ghost stories, though many play on the theme of ghosts or some kind of haunting.

Perhaps its most bizarre inclusion is a foreward by Steven Weber. Yes, the guy from Wings.

As is often the case with collections there are a few standouts, some clunkers and a lot of perfectly serviceable reads to be found. Most of the stories are quite short at ten pages or thereabouts so even the bad ones won’t linger. As befits a horror collection a few stories are built on gross-outs and some fairly graphic sex. Be warned, ye of delicate sensibilities!

My favorites include Richard Matheson’s cheeky “How to Edit”, which has a kind of companion piece in the ultimately nonsensical “Tyler’s Third Act”, both stories dealing with self-mutilation. The latter falls apart at the end (no pun intended), while Matheson’s wraps up appropriately. David Morrell’s “The Architecture of Snow” rounds out the book (save for a very brief poem by Clive Barker) and is a wonderfully meditative piece. “Man with the Canvas Bag” by Gary Braunbeck is weirdly wonderful while Chuck Palahinuk’s “Fetch” is just plain weird, kind of what you would expect if Jack Handey wrote a horror story. Funny, though.

“Food of the Gods” left me cold and not just because it’s one of several stories in the collection to use the ‘haha, even though the story is written in first person the narrator is DEAD, fooled you!” shtick. “The Slow Haunting”, though well-written, is flattened by a twist ending that isn’t earned.

Overall, though, any fan of horror should find enough here to warrant a look. I give Dark Delicacies III: Haunted 3.5 out of 5 severed heads.

Book review: Cosm

Cosm is a 1998 SF novel by Gregory Benford. I’ve read and enjoyed several other of his novels, including Great Sky River and Timescape. The concept of Cosm intrigued me but when I first picked it up years ago I only got about ten pages in before abandoning it because it’s one of those books that doesn’t jump right into the main plot right away. In fact, the beginning is rather boring.

This year I picked it up again and finished it and I’m left with a feeling of indifference. Cosm is not a bad book but it is perhaps a badly told story. The premise is neat — an accident with a super-collider leads to the creation of a small sphere, the titular cosm. The cosm provides a literal window to a miniature universe growing at an exponentially accelerated rate within it.

The protagonist of the story is a stubborn, abrasive black physicist with an inept social life named Alica Butterworth. After the accident, she claims ownership of the cosm and returns with it to the University of California Irvine where she teaches and researches. The novel follows both the politics surrounding ownership and treatment of the cosm as well as her research into it. The problem is that most of the story focuses on the politics, with rival universities, the government, religious groups and others weighing in on the matter, while the actual study of the phenomenon is handled in a bland, perfunctory manner, as if it’s just another research project to write papers on.

Cosm ends up as more a look into the battles professors face at educational institutions and less a look at a potentially world-changing experiment. As such, it proves to be a disappointment. It does pull off the neat trick of ending with both a bang and a whimper, though. Benford completists may want to check it out but there are better SF novels out there.