Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Stephen King - It

Beep, beep, Richie!
It is an imtimdating read. Over 1300 pages, it's regarded as Stephen King's magnificent octopus of story telling (until the Dark Tower series).

This is the longest, but by no means the most challenging book we've read for book club (hi Moby Dick!) and has been one that has created a fair amount of discussion, thanks to the content, subject matter and sheer terror held within.

I'm not normally scared by things. I laugh through most horror films and I'm very rarely phased (although films that do that loud chord BOOM thing and a sudden action will result in a slight flinch). With books though....it's different.

Horror in a book format will always have a stronger effect than a man in a William Shatner mask running at you with a chainsaw at a summer camp. I'm willing to admit, I was creeped out reading through this the second time. Being on my own for the last 2 weeks ploughing through heightened my senses to every creak, every shift, every small noise that my old house makes in the winter. It was eerie at times.

The very fact that It can take the form of pretty much anything is the real kicker and the threat of that spilling out into reality is something that King plays with very well. He makes this entity feel like more than just some punch-clock villain. It is so much more than that and the depth of the writing is evidence of this. Opening the fridge became a somewhat concerning experience I can tell you.

Despite It's claims to be "eternal, the eater of worlds, and of children" it really does suck at keeping a form. It's masks are clever and trick many of the characters, but they only last mere minutes, sometimes seconds. It's main form of Pennywise, keeps cutting back in (the reference to a silver suit, orange pom-poms, white greasepaint are heavily mentioned) as if that clown masquerade is always attempting to take control. It toys with the losers on several occasions, even when it has them trapped (hi Stan!) with no way of escape, it still fails, or rather, it's thwarted by the Losers at every turn. Despite It always seemingly having the upperhand, the Losers narrowly escape on so many occasions.

At the end of their first encounter with It, they wound it enough for it to lay dormant for 27 years. They scare It. They scare a being that thrives on the very notion of it's godlike status, yet the Losers severely wound it when it appears to them in several forms (werewolf, giant mutant spider thing) causing It to feel fear, for the first time...fear of the Losers and the power they have, the power of friendship - the power of being unified by the fear It has targetted them with. The argument could be that It unwillingly created the group to be it's downfall.

Which brings me to what the book is actually about.

Friendship. This is what ties this book together. It's easy to say "it's actually about a clown-spider thing that eats kids" - this is half the story. the main premise of the book, is friendship - it's about the love of seven indivudals, who are lost, persecuted and afraid who find solace and companionship in each other.

There's a bit in the book, where Ben first meets Bill and Eddie and they invite him to hang out with them the next day and the joy Ben feels regarding someone wanting to be his friend is heartwarming. The same goes for when Richie invites him to the cinema along with Bev - it's one of several wonderful and very poignant moments that will warm even the coldest heart.

The fact that they nearly all return to Derry, 27 years later to confront It (except Stan, who is killed by the fear of It) and there's a bit at the end, where Beverly sees Stan and Eddie with the them again and they feel united and whole once more (7 being the magic, unifying number in their group). I loved how when all the characters are introduced and slowly come together, each feels like that new person is part of the group. In fact, there's a moment where an outsider hangs out with them, but one character (Bill, I think) remarks how they're not connected like how the Losers are.

Reading through It a second time has been greatly rewarding - it's storytelling that hits fear right between the eyes, but also ties in love so tightly and fiercely, it floods the fear until it can't breathe.

During discussion, the majority of us identified Ben as a favourite character, his love for Bev, the way he sticks up for her and his well-meaning nature all contributing factors. The fact he was so overjoyed about finally finding soul-mates in the other losers.

Richie and Mike's dad were also favourites, the former for his gags and terrible voices, plus the way he challenged It at the end and Mike's dad for being a complete badass.

Bizarrely, one bookclubber liked Henry Bowers, the decoy-villain protagonist. Although this wasn't clear whether they liked the style of the character, or the ACTUAL character. Both different things.

Favourite scenes? Too many. Defeating It for the first time, all meeting up together 27 years later, the forming of the group, Mike's dad recounting stories to a young Mike, Richie and Bill escaping from the werewolf, Ben fighting back against Henry, Ben kicking Henry in the balls, Ben making the dam. Ben in general really.

It is without doubt King's best work; arguing that it's overlong is silly - the background and depth of the world created surrounding Derry, the Losers and It is astonishing and one that cannot be matched. This is more proof as to why King is the master of horror, but also the amount of love his books have.

On a side note, The movie terrified me at a young age. Tim Curry does a great job as Pennywise and props to Seth Green (young Richie), Harry Anderson (grown-up Richie) and John Ritter (grown-up Ben). However, watching it back now, the film is an absolute stinker, full of ropey special effects, some really bad acting (hi Bill's wife!) and for some reason grown-up Eddie resembles a gay German school teacher.

Here's hoping the remake is half-decent. Also, get Seth Green to play older-Richie, that would be a blast.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

James Herbert - The Secret of Crickley Hall

Also, there's this bridge that you just KNOW is going to collapse.
GoodReads lists 'The Secret of Crickley Hall' as a: "a new take on the classic ghost story in the same way that his bestseller Once was a new take on the classic fairy tale" ...and then the rest of the description is wrong, because whoever wrote the synopsis, obviously hasn't read the bloody book properly.

A year after their little boy goes missing, Eve and Gabe Caleigh move to Crickley Hall (with their two daughters, Cally and Loren). Unfortunately, the place is haunted by the spirits of several children who died during a flash flood back in the 40s and their guardian; a maniacal sadist, who treated them appallingly. With cellar doors opening, unexplained puddles of water appearing, the sound of a cane “SWISH THWACK!” and what appears to be a homicidal poltergeist, things start to get a lot worse...

Being a James Herbert supporter (in fact, the whole group seems to be a fan of his works) I went into this expecting the typical James Herbert tropes to appear:
  • Prose that flowed effortlessly
  • Loads of one-off characters, built up that turned out to be red shirts
  • A flawed anti-hero, who is always divorced.
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Some of the most in-depth, detailed horror you can imagine
  • A sense of despair
  • A bittersweet ending
  • Because it’s worth mentioning again, terror ramped up to 11.
  • Cross the line...then crossing it again and possibly a 3rd time.
  • Too dumb to live choices made my various characters.
I was surprised to find only some of these appeared in Crickley Hall. The main character, whilst described as a troublemaker in his youth, is actually a fairly astute and sensible person, with charm and a sense of humour who cares deeply for his wife and children.

This felt a lot different to Herbert’s other works, namely it being almost 5 times as long as most of his earlier books and less focussed on splattering his crapshack world with buckets of gore. Instead, the horror in Crickley Hall is more focussed on things going bump in the night, insane poltergeists and water that you can never clean up.

Herbert slaps the detail on though - everything is so precisely described and comprehensive, even more so than his previous works and if you thought he painted a picture before, this time he sets up a projector inside your head and beams it directly into your mind.

Another interesting fact is that all the main ‘good’ characters survive the ordeal of Crickley Hall. A possible first for Herbert, who despite playing on the downer moments to maximum effect (one such moment is such a gut-punch, despite somewhat expecting it) he really gives a story of a family that do love and care for one another and this makes the characters feel warm and fleshed-out and like his previous books you root for them on every page. 

The parts where Herbert delves into the past are the most interesting however. Told as part-flash back by someone I won’t name (spoiler alert) it gives a chilling but vital account of the events before Crickley Hall, the great flood, the treatment of the orphans who died in that flood and the fate of their tormentor.

All in all, the group enjoyed the book – comparison was levelled at it to other James Herbert works, with several of us agreeing on the fact, a lot of his books have the same basic structure and premise – but why ruin what is essentially a winning formula? A unanimous thumbs up. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Edward St Aubyn - Mother's Milk

Nothing to do with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers - thank god.
Mother's Milk is part 4 of a set of books, known as Patrick Melrose series (the precursors to this being Never Mind, Bad News and Some Hope) and is largely autobiographical in some respects (although, it is unclear what aspects are based on true life and those that are fiction.) Focusing on 4 summers in August, Mother's Milk follows the ups and downs of Melrose and his family from the viewpoints of several characters, jumping from Patrick, to his two young sons and also his wife.

I was surprised that I really enjoyed this book. Not having read any or heard of Edward St. Aubyn before (it was selected for our club from an outside source) it wasn't exactly what I expected, but the content actually exceeded my expectations, which is always a bonus when you go in half blind. Aubyn's style is incredibly witty - After the first 2 pages I was laughing and reading passages out to people. The character of Patrick Melrose is a slightly bitter, sarcastic, world-weary individual, who is attempting to be a better parent than his actual parents, but still seems to be suffering. his mother is painted in a rather unfavourable light (on her deathbed, losing her mind, content to bequeath her wealth to a cult), whilst Partrick becomes embroiled in an affair with an old school sweetheart so he can feel...well, something.

He's jealous of his wife and her relationship with his youngest son. Although he loves them, it appears he feels his children have taken his wife away as she no longer has the time to be intimate with Patrick, causing a rift. (slight Oedipus-tendencies at work, all created by Patrick overacting)

Patrick might come across as the villain of the piece (he's rather more a scallywag, and a rogue), but as someone pointed out, his wife is just as much to blame for not even addressing the situation - she fully admits to herself that she knows of his adultery but lets him carry on. It's unclear how miserable she feels about this however. It could be a simple matter of her letting Patrick 'get it out of his system' so to speak, which seems an odd and implausible attitude for someone who's supposed to be a loving relationship with him. Although, the reason for the affair stems from the fact they aren't really in a relationship - only by name.

On to more humourous matters, the characters of Thomas and Robert are fantastic. They have the comic timing and styles of the children from Outnumbered - not so much asking who would win in a fight between a polar bear and Jesus, but more the quick wit and eccentricities of Karen's character and the oddball moments of Ben's.

Although, the children's humour did seem quite advanced for their ages, which was a slight concern. I somehow doubt a four-year old could do such an accurate impression of their babysitter's eccentric mannerisms.

An enjoyable book, wonderful writing style and sharp wit. Be interesting to read the others in the series, although from what I read in the notes in the back of my copy, the eariler books focused on a much darker aspect of Melrose's life.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Urban Waite – The Terror of Living

What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?
 The Terror of Living by Urban Waite is an action thriller set in the mountains between Canada and Washington State. The set up is a familiar one, in fact, fans of Cormac McCarthy will get a real kick out of this. Whilst the style isn’t quite in the same league as McCarthy’s stark, poetic prose; Waite delivers a taunt, edgy and bloody tale of ‘good people who get involved in bad things’ which seems to be a running theme of the book. Ex-con Phil Hunt supplements is scarce income by dabbling in some drug running. When the deal goes south (he’s apprehended in the mountains by Deputy Sheriff Bobby Drake) he scarpers, leaving the drugs, his nameless accomplice and some very pissed off dealers who decide a clean-up operation is needed to not only cover their tracks, but retrieve the lost merchandise.

I really enjoyed this book. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact point when I knew this would be the book for me. It’s when someone has their neck snapped. Brutality prevails in grasping my attention, and boy, did this get my attention. Although, you can tell what characters Waite enjoyed writing about and what characters he didn’t. The character of Grady for example, is a writer’s joy to create. He’s a complete psychopath. A monster. A dragon. A portal into a world of chaos. His obsession with knives, his compulsive need to destroy everything he encounters – the maddening insight into his mind. It’s an incredibly complex and well-written character, and one I actually cheered for. Likewise, so is Hunt – a man just trying to do the right thing, dogged by a shady past, but determined to make amends anyway he can. He’s an everyman, but his persistent need to survive, the love for his wife drives him and he becomes the one you root for, more so that Drake, who to all intensive purposes looks like Officer Dibble.

Drake however, is a rather poor and ineffectual character – but perhaps this is deliberate. He, as well as Driscoll (FBI agent called in to protect Drake and also in pursuit of Hunt) are always one step behind Hunt and Grady. They are ineffectual – contributing dumb “I told you so’s” towards proceedings. Drake never feels like he’s in charge; although whilst reading I did envisage a Raylan Givens quality towards him, he never had that attitude or instinct, rather the look and not much else. I blame the hat personally, which was practically a supporting character, much like Grady’s rifle.

The action does jump about a fair bit – we see through the eyes of a multitude of other characters, including the grim-Vietnamese who are simply there as hired goons who you would not want to meet on a dark night, not to mention someone only known as ‘The Lawyer’ who’s fate is a grisly “and now I must scream” moment.

Would I read anything by Waite again? Most definitely; his style is incredibly taunt and concise – the level of detail, the skill in which he paints this picture in your head of the surroundings, the violence, the terror is something that pulled me in. Yes, there are similarities to No Country For Old Men; he even thanks McCarthy and that book in the notes at the end – but for me, this was an exciting, engaging and bloody thriller that I strongly recommend.

It’s a simple cat and mouse story all in all; with perhaps several more cats pursuing the mouse. And these cats have guns and knives and the mouse has a shotgun.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Ray Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451

Gettin' hot in herre.
"Burn, burn yes you're gonna burn." - Zack de la Rocha.

Fahrenheit 451 is a 1953 dystophian novel by the American author, Ray Bradbury. In this startling vision of the future, reading is forbidden and fireman start fires (as opposed to putting them out) and burn all reading material. The main protagonist, is a fireman named Guy Montag - a conflicted soul who starts to question the very nature of the fireman's job and reason for destroying books and the written word. He strikes up a friendship with a young woman called Clarisse McClellan, who also seems to question things rather than accepting them and harbours an interest in nature. Mildred is Montag's wife, a depressive, tv addict, trapped without a care in the shallow oppressive society that the bookless universe has become. Other characters include Beatty, the antagonistic and creepy fire-chief and Faber, a former English professor, plagued by regret and guilt for not defending books at the time motions were being made to ban them.



There’s nothing like a good dystopian thriller to get the blood boiling, or should I say, books burning to a fragile, papery crisp. Fahrenheit 451 is the kind of book that leaves the taste of ashes in your mouth. The outlawing of books and the resulting acceptance by the majority of characters displayed in Bradbury’s tale is disturbing to say the least. Those that rebel against this the faceless government and the firemen are seen as the enemy – the social outcasts of a society dominated by fear. In fact, the government is shown to be the one that is plagued by fear – fear of the threat of books allowing independent thought in people – fear of questioning the totalitarian scheme that has been created – fear of the human race.

 Bradbury states that the book isn’t about censorship, but is rather an attack on television and how it destroys the interest in reading literature. In Bradbury’s world, television appears in the form of a Parlour – simply a wall onto which programmes are displayed constantly; possibly at the speed an inane quality they are now.

The hero, Guy Montag – starts as a fireman, one who is conflicted and doubts his profession after meeting a like-minded and carefree soul in the form of Clarisse McClellan. After witnessing a woman self-immolate due to her love for books, Montag falls apart. This is where the story takes a drastic dive into the realms of even deeper fear and paranoia. Subtlety, you can see where these already lie – his wife attempts overdoses, yet doesn’t remember in the morning; the reveal that Montag has been hording books for months, possibly years – the tortured, alas poor villain of Beatty.

There’s a futility that the Government has created here. There is now no excitement; there is simply just existing, sat in front of the Parlour and gradually degrading. The only thrill seems to be death – hence Mildred (Montag’s wife) supposed cries for attention; also Beatty, who it subtlety implies was a big reader and opposed to the government, but something turned him into a fireman and his parts in the book are the most interesting. He’s a mystery – a man so obviously tortured by what we can’t see (extensive library possibly?) that he suicides by cop in the second section of the book. You could argue that those who have accepted and succumbed to the Parlour and the oppressive regime are in fact, dead. Only those in support of books are alive. Montag being someone who was ‘reborn’ after his meeting with Clarisse; whereas Beatty comes across as someone who lost faith – who fell apart perhaps due to fear and sided with the government. Beatty’s actions as a fireman could be someway of repenting for his possible past love of books – his eventual death is him being finally free of a world that is so corrupted and consumed by fear.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The Walking Dead Comics: Open-Ended Twaddle or Compelling Chaos?

The Walking Dead is an apocalyptic zombie-survival series created by Robert Kirkman, with illustrations provided by Tony Moore and then later Charlie Adlard. Instead of focusing primarily on the zombies, the comic follows the lives of Rick Grimes and his family, alongside a host of other characters, who all seem to have one goal – survival, whatever the cost. The series is a mixture of disturbing and quite graphic horror, spliced with black humour and some fairly tender moments.

Why I hate The Walking Dead - Pete Hindle

Left: You thought the world would never end? You’ve got Egg all over your face now!

Specifically, the reason I hate The Walking Dead is it’s ongoing, open-ended story.

When I first heard of it, I was intrigued. But, as the trade paperbacks kept coming out - roughly twice a year[1] - I lost interest. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and up until zombies shuffled off our screens and into other media forms, all zombie stories had an end.

I guess it was computer games that started it. Resident Evil’s early games seemed so cool, letting us blast our way through the undead. It was a type of zombie story that went beyond the classic movies, letting us experience the terror of the undead rather than a story with wooden actors and bad make-up. But games are expensive to make, and by the time they had produced number four in the series you knew that the mysteries of the Umbrella Corporation would never be solved.

In a computer game, returning to the same scenario is part of the mechanism of play[2]. In storytelling, the narrative must come to an end. Repeating the scenario is derivative, or dull, because the story becomes worn out. Soap operas struggle to keep their viewers interested as they repeat the same plotlines - secret affairs, petty lies, and addictions happen with depressing regularity to their characters, without a final end ever coming to any of the overlapping stories.

In the television show based on “The Walking Dead”, the end of the first season is marked by the survivors getting secret information from scientists (shortly before a massive explosion signals the end of the season). This is different from the comic plot line, because the people watching the six hour-long episodes would need to know that there was some reason for them to keep watching. That there would be a point to wading through the grim realities of a world destroyed and under siege from zombies.

The comic book has different fans. Those fans pay money to see fictional characters stressed to the limits of their endurance - and beyond, because they want to see themselves reflected in the failings of the characters. Zombies have always been seen as an allegory of mass humanity. Initially, Romero’s movie zombies were symbols of 1960’s conformity[3], so perhaps the failure of The Walking Dead’s characters to survive unscathed reassures the fans when they give up their individuality to consume capitalist goods. Like comic books.

Whats the matter? Too political for you? Hey, zombies are always political. They’re the original silent majority, with their earliest incarnations reflecting a fear of black slaves taking over - making white people their slaves via voodoo[4]. These days, we’re all the slaves of an international conspiracy to enslave us via finance[5].

The reason I hate The Walking Dead is because it’s an unending story of failure, despair, and compromise. It plays with it’s readers emotions by offering hope, but inevitably only rewards them with a darker, less survivable scenario. By refusing to call an end to it’s plot, the comic has become a version of Eastenders with the shambling undead instead of the Mitchells,

Besides, zombies? Haven't they been done to death?

[1] Currently we are up to volume 13, “Too Far Gone”. Other cheery titles include “Made to suffer” and “This Sorrowful Life”.
[2] For more information than you could ever possibly want to know about computer game mechanics, see http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3085/behavioral_game_design.php?page=1
[3] The Village Voice calls this “middle america at war” http://www.villagevoice.com/2003-01-07/film/the-dead-zones/ - so it’s not just me. If you want, you can google it yourself to find an academic text saying something similar.
[4] See the original zombie movie, White Zombie, at http://www.archive.org/details/white_zombie. Also of note is the wikipedia entry for this man, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairvius_Narcisse who is famous for “being a zombie”.
[5] Just ask anybody from Iceland, Ireland, Greece, or Portugal. 

Ross - Case for the shambling defence.

I understand the criticism levelled at The Walking Dead for its open-ended story. I understand the need for a story to have a beginning, middle and an end. The thing about The Walking Dead is, it’s a different kind of story – it’s a different kind of take on the zombie genre. It’s not something that the creator, Robert Kirkman wants to be like “every other zombie movie/story/event” – he wants it played out in a way that has the reader constantly on edge. He wants the reader to be in an almost constant state of trepidation about what’s over the next page.

To put it bluntly, Kirkman is a complete bastard. He wants the reader to feel the pain, the sorrow, the distress that he’s putting his characters through and the relentless hardships they’re facing. Sure, it makes for a depressing comic – but hello? It’s a zombie comic; it’s not going to be all sunshine, daises and unicorns prancing past outstretched, rotting limbs. There’s been places were Kirkman could have cut the comic and said “I’m done, that’s the end” – the siege at the prison which results in a huge death toll on nearly all the secondary (and a couple of important main) characters. Here, Kirkman could have quite easily snuffed out Rick and Carl Grimes, along with Andrea, Glen, Dale and Michonne; but he chose not to....why? Well, the popularity of the comic for one thing, plus he wasn’t ready to end it there. Unfinished business seems to be a recurring theme of The Walking Dead, it bleeds a wanting resolve for all the adversity the characters are put through and in that sense, it’s hard to not want them to continue, no matter how bad it gets.

In the way that Kirkman has made the series so opposite to other comic series’, he’s also made it the same. What I mean is the argument that the story is too open-ended could be said for almost every superhero comic in the DC and Marvel universe. They’ve not stopped have they? There are umpteen different variations and different universes to contend with; which suddenly make The Walking Dead series seem like a lightweight in comparison.

The argument that it’s nothing more than “a soap opera with zombies” is somewhat flawed as you could say that about any comic series really. “Oh this is like Eastenders, except Batman is in it.” Sure, Kirkman is chucking in new characters at an alarming rate, but he’s not letting it get stale like a soap opera – there’s always a new twist, a new element to encounter. He’s keeping it exciting and tense – having Eugene as a scientist who supposedly knows the cause of the zombie plague, the ultimate but mysterious badass that is Abraham, the real motive of the people in the Alexandria Safe Zone and is the real question: is Davidson still alive? Plus, I reckon Spiderman whined more than Rick Grimes ever did and Spiderman got to bang Mary-Jane, Gwen Stacey and had a right hand.

I think with The Walking Dead, you’re getting a comic that perhaps is stringing out its conclusion, but it’s one where the payoff could go either way, with Kirkman weighing heavily on the “there’s going to be tears” side of things. In some ways, it’s refreshing that this isn’t just another case of “here’s some character build, bad stuff, bad stuff, OH LOOK DEUS EX MECHNICA happy ending tra la la.” This isn’t going to happen; I can’t see Kirkman wanting this to happen – what we have is a lot of fear and as Pete suggested, “failing distilled into false hope”, but this is what makes the comic exciting in that respect – it’s not your typical storyline is it?

The latest installment of The Walking Dead comic book series is out now, as is the dvd of the first series