IT, the movie

Saw IT this weekend and was so happy to finally have a Stephen King adaptation that rose to the heights of the book. It was classic 80’s King, which also feels current due to the recent 80’s revival with shows like Stranger Things and the Goldbergs.

My favorite aspect of the film was the fact that Pennywise actually doesn’t have a ton of screen time. After a relatively horrifying opening scene the terror comes more from anticipation than out-and-out horror.

There is a fine line between horror and terror, especially when you’re talking about a Gothic  film. Terror is the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. While horror is the feeling of disgust that comes after something terrifying is experienced. So, horror is more related to being creeped out, or scared, while terror is more related to being anxious or fearful. In this regard maybe we should call IT a terror film more than a horror, and I mean this as a compliment.

Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel continues the trend.

Perceptions

I finally got around to reading the short story “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. I’d been meaning to ever since I heard that the movie Arrival was based off of it. I’ve written before how much I liked Arrival and the story that inspired it was just as interesting.

At 45 pages it pushes the boundary between short story and novella, but the pace is quick and the writing crisp. I was able to easily read it in a single sitting, which to me is the definition of a short story. If I have to break it into pieces it ceases to be the same kind of narrative experience, so I was glad of the length.

Plot-wise the film version stayed very true to the book, so I won’t give any spoilers except to say that the concept of language and perception of time play a large role. This really got me thinking. How much of what we think of as reality is based on how we express our experience of it?

If by some quirk of fate the Earth had two suns and therefore no night, how much would our inner worlds change? The idea of light and dark is central to how we think, how we mythologize and even how we act. If that was taken from us, who would we be? Or what if our intelligence evolved more along the line of bees with a hive mind- intelligent, but only within the group. How much different would the stories we tell ourselves be?

Yet, in both of the hypotheticals the reality we would experience, write about and think about, would be no less true than the one in which we currently reside. Sort of makes you question the objective nature of things a bit. How much of what is “us” and our “reality” is simply a matter of perception filters?

And if we accept that how we view and interact with our natural environment is largely responsible for how we view existence, should our behavior change? Do we now question objective truth? Or does it simply narrow the scope of where objective truth can lie? This narrowing seems to me to be a good thing as any simplification of reality makes that reality more graspable.

This is why I love science fiction when it is done well. It is philosophy buried in narrative so that our brains can ease onto roads of inquiry that we may otherwise avoid as too perilous or frightening.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

This book was tailor-made for me. It is like the author found every element that I found fascinating and rolled them into one short novel. My only small complaint is the ending. Wrapped up a little too neatly for my taste, but I am quibbling. This was an excellent book.

Genre: Horror, but tastefully done for the most part. There are a couple grisly scenes but they are necessary. More than anything McMahon has mastered the art of creepy. Much of the story was the reader catching glimpses of something terrifying, mere shadows in the dark. Yet all the classic pieces are here, a lonely farmhouse, supernatural legends about the woods out back, mysterious deaths and vanishings; they all play their parts.

Setting: Vermont. Winter. 1908 and present time. She does an interesting thing with the timeline of the novel. We are actually given two stories, one happening now and one that happened over 100 years ago. They fit together well with each influencing how you read the other.

Characters: There are quite a few. It is basically about two families living in the same house at different times. And while this definitely isn’t a middle grade novel, the children do play major roles in both family’s story. The point of view shifts each chapter between the different characters with the reader always knowing more than the character. I didn’t really notice it as I was reading, but now that I think about it, it is a very female centered book. There is only one male character of any note.

Plot: For over 200 years the town of West Hall has been one of mystery. In 1908, Sarah Shea was found dead behind her house just months after the tragic death of her young daughter, Gertie. In present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in the same farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her six-year-old sister, Fawn. They live completely off the grid, existing more like a family in the Alaskan wilderness, than rural Vermont. Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. As she searches for reasons for her mother’s disappearance she finds a copy of Sara Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As she dives deeper into the mystery of Sara’s death, she begins to peel back the layers of mystery surrounding her town, home and family.

I recently finished another book, Andrew Pyper’s The Only Child, which attempted to rewrite the classic Gothic novel for the 21st century. In a lot of ways McMahon is doing something similar for the traditional ghost story. If you enjoy being creeped out, but not grossed out by your horror than The Winter People is definitely worth your time. At only about 300 pages, and a quickly moving plot, it is the perfect vacation time read.

Warren Ellis on Writer’s Block

Love his answer to this. I tell my students this all the time, albeit in much gentler terms!

I find myself having an extremely difficult time getting anything out when I sit down to write. Do you have any tips or suggestions for someone looking to take their first steps into the world of creativity?

Warren Ellis Here’s the thing. Don’t insist on the first draft being good. That will paralyse you forever. In fact, insist on the first draft being as rough as a bear’s arse. Insist on it being an incoherent fucking mess. It’s not supposed to be good. It’s supposed to be *outside of you.* The first victory is hard but simple: get it outside of your head and down on a page. Right now, you’re constipated by expectation. Okay, you probably don’t want me to continue with that metaphor. But just get the ideas out of you and on a page where you can see them, in broken sentences and stick figures if you like. Fix it later, once it’s outside of your head where you can see it.

The Only Child: A Neo-Gothic Tale

What do you get when you mix 1 part Jame Rollins thriller, 2 parts Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and then stir vigorously with a Dean Koontz swizzle-stick? You get Andrew Pyper’s latest, The Only Child, a modern spin on the Gothic novel.

Gothic fiction has been with us since the early 1800’s. Most people think of such classics as Dracula, The Scarlet Letter or Frankenstein’s Monster when they think of the golden age of the genre. Pyper both tries to explain the genre as well as fit into it but in a modern context.

Pyper hooked me as an author a couple years ago when I found his book, The Demonologist. That book literally kept me up at night. And while this latest release doesn’t quite reach the same terrifying levels of that previous novel, there is plenty here to love.

As a young child, Lily Dominick, our main heroine, witnessed her mother’s murder, a suposed bear attack, in a wilderness cabin, but Lily herself was saved by a passing truck driver. However, this is just the official story. Lily has another, more fantastical memory. When she dreams she remembers her mother being mutilated by some kind of actual monster, and that she was saved from by a mysterious Pegasus-type creature. Weird, right?

Now grown up, Lily Dominick is a criminal phychiatrist and she meets a unique, nameless, patient who is in the custody of the state after committing a pretty horrific crime. However, just as he reveals he only did the crime to meet her, he escapes from the psych ward leaving a bloody trail behind him. He then leads her on a journey of horror and self discovery across old world Europe.

Without giving too much away, the patient is much more than he at first seems and through him Pyper attempts to explain the initial inspiration for the birth of gothic fiction. Three classic authors, Stoker, Shelley and Stevenson actually get cameos in the story. Even though the atmospheric romps through eastern Europe are almost a cliche of the genre at this point, I still enjoy the ride.

In fact, ride is a good way to describe this novel. I’ve seen some criticism that points out that this book is a fast read, not the slowly developing, atmospheric, ballad that many traditional gothic novels are. And the critics are right, but I think they are missing the point. Pyper did not set out to write a 19th century gothic tale, he was trying to reinvent the genre for modern audiences, and in that I think he succedded quite well. Sometimes people critique the book they wanted the author to write, not the one in their hands.

There is one flaw though, the length. It is just too short. I would have enjoyed a slower role out of some of the subplots and a little more time getting to know the protagonist before throwing her into peril. But I am nitpicking, any novel that can force me to finish it in three days is a great story as far as I’m concerned.

Whither the Black Riders?

It has been at least 20 years since I last read through J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, and my memories of the books are dimmed by the specter of Peter Jackson’s excellent film versions. What I do remember is that the story moved along at an almost leisurely pace at first, allowing the reader to get to know the characters before anything too dramatic happened. After reading a number of page-turners recently I have been looking for something that I can slow down with- L.O.R seemed like the perfect choice.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is often comsidered to be the father of the modern fantasy novel. All you need to do is peruse the book shelf at the local Barnes and Noble to see how influenctial Tolkien’s work has been, In fact it is hard to make it through a half of a shelf without seeing a book cover that looks like it is ripped right from the pages of Middle Earth. Bt for me, L.O.R. is much more than a fantasy novel; its power comes from the fact that it is one of the more frightening versions of reality an author has ever created.

One the one hand Tolkien’s world is one of elves, hobbits and natural beauty. But that goodness, thruth and beauty only exists so that the story can rip it away, piece by piece. At its heart L.O.R. is about the dark heart of man that is always coruptable, is always capable of great evil and horror. Even the best of them- the wizzards- are prone to fall when the great eye is cast their way.

Fantasy fiction is often a way of holding a mirror up to our own reality, so what to make of Tolkien’s view of our state? Is there really a war going on between good and evil that many of us, like the hobbits in the begining of his story, have hidden ourselves away from? I can easily see the modern West as hobbits in this sense, content to stay in our hobbit holes (well-stocked McMansions), enjoying good food and drink (micro-brew fascination), surrounded by the hedges we have contructed (technology) to keep the rest of the world out, but also to keep us locked in away from the reality outside our carefully constructed version of reality (social media).

Should we, like Frodo, venture out? Will we find black riders of our own hunting us once we sit still and watch for them? Have they always been right there waiting, but we’ve been too distracted by all the noise we surround ouselves with to notice?

I wonder, and the further I read, the more I fear the shadow of the riders might be right behind me.

Eaters of The Dead, by Michael Crichton

I’ll put the bottom line up front for this review: Eaters of The Dead, by Michael Crichton, blends history, fantasy and science in a way that makes the read both enjoyable and educational. The novel tells the story of the real life adventure of a 10th-century Muslim who travels with a group of Vikings. The first portion of the novel is a factual retelling of Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s personal account of his journey north and his experiences with, and observations of, the Northmen. The second portion of the novel is a slightly reworked version of what is probably the most important epic poem outside of Homer- Beowulf.

Like most people familiar with Crichton’s work I have read the greatest hits list of titles: Jurassic Park, The Lost World, The Andromeda Strain. In fact I have even read some of his lesser works: Timeline and Sphere. Yet, while I had a copy of Eaters of the Dead sitting on a shelf for the past ten years I have just never gotten around to picking it up. If I had known (or remembered) that it was inspired by Beowulf, I would have read it a long time ago, and it was only by accident that I picked it up last week.

I had been doing a little last minute preparation for a brief lecture on The Hobbit to be given at the start of the school year. One of the aspects of Tolkien that has always aroused my interest is how he incorporates established mythologies into his newly created worlds. Shadows of Beowulf, an epic that as a scholar Tolkien spent quite a bit of time with, can be seen throughout Middle Earth. In The Hobbit, the dragon Smaug is loosely based on the dragon scene towards the end of the poem.

As I spent a little time coming up with some cursory comments on Beowulf I stumbled across an anecdote about Crichton. I mentioned this in my previous post, but to recap; Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead as part of an argument about the merits of the Beowulf story line for modern readers. This reader thinks he made his point. This novel is able to combine history and a reinvented Norse mythology in a way that is eminently readable.

Interspersed throughout the book are detailed footnotes, which both give the illusion of an actual historical text, and also provide a good deal of background on Viking and Muslim culture in the tenth century. While I knew that once the first three chapters were completed the rest of the book was pure fiction, Crichton does such a good job at keeping the narrative in synch that I could allow myself a willing suspension of disbelief.

One of the best attributes of this novel, in this reviewer’s opinion, is it’s brevity. Seventy-five percent of the text deals with a plotline that most high school seniors are pretty familiar with; so keeping the reader engaged in a retelling of a well-worn tale is quite an achievement indeed. Aside from keeping his story relatively short (by his standards) Crichton keeps the reader’s interest in large part by investing his main character and narrator of much of the tale, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, with a real voice. Seeing Viking behaviors and traditions through his eyes is an interesting twist. Much of the Viking lore has that familiar feel that comes from a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons, comic books and action movies that plagues even the most studious reader. When Fadlan is shocked by one of the various actions of a real and historical people we as readers find ourselves a little shocked right along with him.

While Michael Crichton may never be able to shake the reputation as the father of Jurassic Park, the short novel, Eaters of the Dead, shows that this writer of blockbuster sci-fi also had a more academic side. I for one am glad to finally find this out.

Diary by Chuck Palahniuk

Author Chuck Palahniuk is always an interesting read. Over the years I have read a handful of his works such as (of course) Fight Club as well as Choke and Survivor. Diary came out in 2003 and has similarities to his other works, but does stand out as one of the more revelatory novels in the Palahnuik cannon.
“It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”

The book is written, obviously enough, as a diary. Misty Wilmot, a once-aspiring artist is now working as a waitress in a seaside hotel on Waytansea Island, which stands in for a Martha’s Vineyard tragically gone wrong. Her husband is in a coma after an apparent suicide attempt. The book thus opens as a “coma diary” that she is writing to her husband as she wonders if he will ever come out of it. As the book unfolds Misty, and her latent artistic talent, become pawns in a twisted and slightly supernatural conspiracy that threatens not only her husband’s life but hers and many others.

Diary is an odd combination, even for Palahniuk. It is part Choke, part Stephen King’s Misery, mixed with a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The novel is just hard to classify. On the one hand it fits in the modern horror genre, though the horror is more psychological in nature and like all of Palahniuk’s books there is plenty of dark humor. After reading quite a few of these, I am used to the constant odd educational trivia diversions he takes both to perversely advance the plot as well as satirically poke fun at his own characters. (The first five pages alone have over 15 different scientific words for “fat” and “wrinkle” as Misty describes in detail exactly what her husband looks like after 100 days in a coma.) But while a novel like Choke seemed to rely heavily on this narrative device to tell his story, in Diary something more significant is going on.

This novel may actually be better classified as a work of neo-meta-fiction. Certainly the fictional blind-leads and dead-end plot contrivances give the reader a solid mental workout. There is no subtlety in Palahniuk’s writing here. His words seem to dig into the reader, more often than not borrowing their way right under your skin. In telling the story of a once-ambitious artist and her struggle with the very concept of art, whether suffering is a prerequisite, whether you can ever create something that matters, one can almost hear the author himself grasping at what it all means.

“Any time some well-meaning person forces you to demonstrate you have no talent and rubs your nose in the fact you’re a failure at the only dream you ever had, take another drink.”

In the end what Palahnuik seems to say is that all we ever create is what we already are and therefore the struggle is meaningless. Diary appropriately references Plato’s Cave. It is here where all we see are our own shadows. We never see others for what they actually are; instead we only see aspects of ourselves reflected in others. We see what we want to see, which is of course only ourselves, for it is all a self portrait, a diary.

On Literature, Reading & Stephen King

I stumbled upon an old opinion piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes, by Dwight Allen. As a fan of King since adolescence I started reading the article with an admittedly biased viewpoint against the writer’s premise, but a I continued I had to give credence to some of his points. King can be formulaic; some of his characters are stereo-typed and yes there is a fair amount of “popcorn film” schlock in many of his works. But when one has written as much as King I would venture to guess these occurrences are bound to pop up. Allen doesn’t begrudge King his success, but he does have a problem with the recent trend of critics claiming that King’s work can be seen as literary.
For Allen, literary fiction takes on a decidedly elitist persona and he just can’t see how a genre writer can also be literary. First, let’s establish what exactly literary fiction is. To be considered literary, a work must be critically acclaimed, or serious; it is often a complex, multi-layered work that deals with universal dilemmas.

If this is our accepted definition of literary fiction, then I fail to see how some of King’s better works do not fit. The Shining is a multi-layered novel that deals with the universal implications of alcoholism; that it does this through the prism of a horror story should not negate it’s seriousness. However, I think the problem Allen really has with King has more to do with his own post modernism than it does with the fact that King is a genre writer.
Postmodern literature is commonly filled with internal irony and word play, it tends not to conclude with the neatly tied-up ending, but often parodies it. Postmodern writers like to emphasize chance over craft, and use metafiction to undermine the writer’s authority. Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are often held up as examples of this style. Reading Allen’s article it seems for him that all literary fiction must be post modern fiction. While I have nothing against post modernism as a style, to claim it as the sole heir of the title literary is simply inaccurate.

Ursula Le Guin, who has written on the topic of literary fiction and genre fiction extensively, has this to say-which seems to me most sensible:
The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.
Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure
Allen, however much he protests to the contrary, is simply inserting his personal tastes for his own definition of what is good writing. While he enjoys the ironic twists and multiple shades of grey that a post modernist novel provides, others prefer the more black and white quality of a good genre novel. As the world gets more and more complex, with the ground ever shifting beneath us, many readers want the assurances of a clear winner and loser. Irony falls flat when real ambiguity is an everyday occurrence.
I find the self admitted elitist, liberal critic’s views on art to be akin to his compatriot’s political and cultural views as well. Just as a insular cabal of leftist political commentators simply cannot understand where a conservative comes from on a given issue, just as a militant atheist cannot comprehend a believer’s faith, a post modern literary critic does not get quality genre fiction. It is all one of a piece.

The larger issue in all of this is that of exposure. Too often we all live in our own echo chamber, and all this does is inoculate us against any viewpoint that may deviate from our internal scripts. The internet offers a real chance at breaking down these walls, be they intellectual, societal or simply ones of taste. But that potential will remain dormant if we only read and watch those who are in agreement with us.