6WH: Season’s Readings

Alright, so we’re a few days past Halloween, but I never got to the books I read during the spooky season, though I did get to ruminate on the Intersection of Horror and Science Fiction (in preparation for Vintage Science Fiction Month). Well, better late than never, and it’s not like there’s a bad time for scary stories, right?

  • Necroscope by Brian Lumley – Yet another magical Harry (who predates both Harrys Potter and Dresden), Harry Keogh can talk to dead people. As he grows up, he befriends the dead and learns much about life from them. His teachers are suspicious at Harry’s ability to suddenly become an expert, but do their best to encourage Harry’s talents. Eventually Harry learns of his mother’s death at the hands of a Soviet spy and hatches a plan for revenge, which ultimately embroils him into a conflict between the British ESPionage service (get it? ESP stands for extra-sensory perception but are also the first three letters in the word espionage! This is one of those simultaneously dumb but also endearing qualities that neatly encapsulates this book’s charms.) and their Soviet counterparts. Speaking of which, Boris Dragosani is a Soviet Necromancer. While Harry can speak with the dead, Boris can gain information from a dead body by mutilating its remains. He gained this power from a long-imprisoned vampire, Thibor Ferenczy. Together, they have plans for, well, let’s just say world conquest. Alright, from the short description here, I think you can gather that this is an exposition-heavy book. As these things go, Lumley is pretty solid at it and as a longtime SF reader, long bouts of exposition aren’t entirely unwelcome, but it does get to be a bit longwinded here, and there are plenty of tangents that might not be strictly necessary. And once you get past that sort of bald exposition, you’re left with vampires, Cold-War era espionage and spies, armies of the dead, and even wacky explorations of time and space in the form of the “Möbius Continuum”. It’s fun, is what I’m saying, if not particularly rigorous. It’s also creepy, and at time verges on a Lovecraftian take on vampires, which is neat. It’s shlocky and goofy, but a whole lot of fun and a good thing to read during the Halloween season. I read this as a teenager and remembered enjoying it, and it largely lives up to my memory, which is probably a good sign, and it made me want to read the next book in the series.
  • Necroscope II: Vamphyri! by Brian Lumley – The spirit of Harry Keogh lives on in his son, Harry Jr. He can still speak with the dead and roam the Continuum, but only when his son is asleep. Harry learns that the vampire Thibor Ferenczy had infected a pregnant woman before he died, thus resulting in a sorta lesser vampire. Yulian Bodescu retains many vampiric abilities and slowly explores them as he grows up. Harry must thus learn more about Vampires, so he speaks with Faethor Ferenczy, the vampire who made Thibor, and gets a lot of the history of vampires. But of course Faethor is just as much of a master manipulator as Thibor, and Harry doesn’t know if he can trust anything he learns. Meanwhile, the Soviets are rebuilding their operation and team up with the Brits to quash the threat posed by Yulian Bodescu. So yeah, you wouldn’t think that there’d be much more exposition after the first book but… this book is also pretty exposition heavy. A large portion of it functions as a sorta prequel and origin story for Thibor Ferenczy, which isn’t quite as interesting as the book wants you to believe. We learn a lot more about what vampires are and how they function, which is neat enough, I guess, but sometimes these things operate better with more vague descriptions. In general, I had less fun with this book, but it held a similar cheesy appeal. I will probably pick up the third book next year, but I wanted to get a little more variety in my bookish diet this year…
  • The Wolf’s Hour by Robert R. McCammon – Michael Gallatin is a master spy who comes out of retirement for one last mission during WWII. Oh, and did I mention that he’s a werewolf? There are essentially two narratives here, one of Gallatin and his attempt to uncover and stop a secret Nazi Operation called Iron Fist. The other is the story of a young boy named Mikhail Gallatinov, a young boy who learns of his werewolf powers when his parents are killed during the Russian Revolution. He falls in with a pack of other werewolves who help him learn to control his powers. So this isn’t quite the super-pulpy story it sounds like and the novel contains distressingly little werewolf action. However, what is there is great. McCammon isn’t a great prose stylist, but he writes action well, even if there aren’t werewolves involved (but even better when there are!) The novel is overlong, which messes with the pacing a bit, but is generally pretty interesting. I liked it better than Swan Song, which felt a little too schlocky. Someday, perhaps, I’ll find that McCammon novel that has just the right proportions and isn’t 200 pages too long. Still, this was a pretty good seasonally appropriate read, and the werewolf action that is there is great.
  • Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson – Journalist Will Barbee is set to cover the return of a scientific expedition to Mongolia. Led by Barbee’s former mentor Dr. Mondrick, the expedition has indicated that they’ve made a discovery that will “change everything”. But before Mondrick can explain, he suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. All appearances point to a natural death, but Barbee suspects his new colleague, the exotic and strangely alluring redhead April Bell may have something to do with it. As Barbee starts to dig into the story, he learns of witches and werewolves and even gets taken in by some dreams that feel all too realistic. The mysteries eventually resolve into a question: Who is the Child of the Night? Barbee may not want to know the answer. Old school fantasy with a science fictional bent, attempting to put some rigor and explanation around what makes witches and werewolves tick, touching on probability, quantum theory, genetic engineering, and selective breeding. It gets a bit repetitive and Barbee seems a bit dense and unwilling to confront the obvious explanation for the strange events happening in the story, but it’s entertaining enough and I like the SFnal explanations, even if they feel a bit old-fashioned at this point. It’s perhaps not as spooky as most stories hitting these topics (and maybe the SF explanations undercut that aspect of the story), but it’s suitably mysterious and the ending is pretty great.
  • Gil’s All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez – Duke and Earl are just passing through town in their pickup when they stop at a diner… which gets attacked by zombies. The diner’s owner offers to pay them to resolve the little zombie problem she’s been having, which makes sense because Duke is a werewolf and Earl is a vampire. So they set about learning who is summoning these zombies and to what end. Along the way, Earl falls in love with a ghost that’s haunting the local graveyard. Short and sweet, this is a fun little horror comedy that sorta mashes up Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard stories with traditional supernatural tales and a dash of Lovecraftian terror. I wouldn’t say that it has a particularly high joke density, but its funny when it wants to be, gory and creepy when it needs it, and it’s all packaged together well.
  • Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman – You’ve gotta love subtitles, and this one pretty much explains what the book is all about. At its best, it’s a sorta Easy Riders, Raging Bulls style exploration of New Hollywood with a focus on horror filmmakers like George Romero, John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Brian De Palma, and Wes Craven. What it covers, it does well, but it ultimately feels a bit shallow and too narrowly focused on the late 60s and 70s horror classics. When it gets to the mid-80s, Zinoman sorta provides a quick summary of the next 30 years, all in one chapter. It would have been nice to have seen a little more depth, even in the 70s era that the book focuses on. While you do need to hit those big rocks of horror (i.e. The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, Halloween, etc…) and Zinoman is able to spend some time on influences ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Mario Bava, mostly he’s covering well tread ground. He does a good job covering the classics, to be sure, and there were a few tidbits that were new to me and made those sections worthwhile, but the best parts of the book are when he’s covering more obscure movies, like Carpenter and O’Bannon’s Dark Star or some of De Palma’s less famous efforts. Of course, what I’m complaining about here is a sin of omission. What’s there is great… I just wanted more of it! And perhaps there’s room for Zinoman to expand on his premises with a deeper dive into 80s and 90s horror (and heck, let’s expand on the 00s too). This book is well worth reading for fans, and you’ll certainly get some insight into how and why horror evolved the way it did. Again, I just wish it kept going…

And that puts the last nail in the coffin of the Six Weeks of Halloween. Already anticipating next year’s marathon. In the meantime, we’ll return to the 1978 project and catching up on 2019 movies, not to mention our usual blend of topics…

6WH: Season’s Readings

Coming down the homestretch of the Six Weeks of Halloween, it appears that my movie consumption is higher than normal (I’ve already far surpassed the last few years’ marathons, and there’s still a week left). However, this has come at the expense of other activities like watching horror-themed TV shows and reading horror books. That being said, I’ve still read a bunch of seasonal stuff, so let’s take a look:

  • True Indie: Life and Death in Filmmaking by Don Coscarelli – Longtime readers of Kaedrin (all four of you) know of my inexplicable but abiding love for the movie Phantasm. I’ve seen the movie around, oh, let’s just say we’ve probably reached triple digits at this point. So this memoir from the filmmaker behind that movie was a welcome diversion from the normal seasonal fare. Covering his path to the director’s chair (which he does not sit in, for reasons I will not spoil) from a humble childhood to initial flirtations with the studio system, to less fruitful interactions with studios, to his consistent return to independence, the book is full of bite sized anecdotes from a storied career in indie filmmaking. Some early luck coupled with later, distinctly unlucky occasions lead to an interesting career for an unheralded filmmaker. He’s one of my favorites and by all accounts is a really likable guy, and this book illustrates his demeanor well. Some of these stories we’ve heard before (i.e. how did they film the famous silver sphere sequence in Phantasm?), others we haven’t (his face caught fire while filming a shotgun blast), and yet more we never heard of because the movie never panned out (I would have loved to have seen Coscarelli’s take on Stephen King’s Silver Bullet). He apparently knew Quentin Tarantino when he was but a lowely PA (and gave QT terrible advice on Reservoir Dogs). His longstanding relationships with Reggie Bannister and especially the late Angus Scrimm are quite touching. It’s a great little read for fans of film and I suspect it would work even for folks who aren’t horror fanatics, well worth checking out!
  • Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias – Enforcer and drug dealer Fernando gets jumped after work one night, and a coworker is cut to bits and fed to… something. This ultimately turns out to be much more of a crime thriller than a horror novel, though it does imply some demonic happenings here or there, and as Texas-based drug dealer thrillers go, it’s pretty decent. I still found myself craving more of the supernatural elements here though, and what’s there is really quite sparse. Iglesias also peppers the prose with a lot of Spanish language which, well, I only took two years of Spanish. I could follow some stuff, and I could certainly look up a word here or there, but I suspect some of the story was lost in (my admittedly poor) translation. That being said, it’s short and sweet, and a pretty decent little page turner. Not sure it really tickled my seasonal itch, but it was still an entertaining read.
  • We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix – Kris Pulaski is a former heavy metal guitarist for Dürt Würk, a band that was once poised for success, but which collapsed when lead singer Terry Hunt quit the band and started his own solo career as Koffin. As the title implies, there’s something mysterious about the band’s dissolution, and it does have something to do with the selling of souls. Spoilers aho! The wrinkle that Hendrix throws on this is that Terry Hunt doesn’t exactly sell his own soul, but rather those of his bandmates (and, later, audiences). The entity to which he’s dealing with, dubbed Black Iron Mountain, is also a little different than your typical crossroads demon, adding new flavor to an old story. Hendrix clearly knows his stuff when it comes to horror (see below), but he also appears to have a great affinity for Metal music in all its various forms. I like Metal just fine, but am hardly an expert, so I suspect some of the references went right over my head, and Metal does have a, well, reputation for cheesy pretentiousness, which suffuses the book. For instance, there’s lots of quoted fictional verses of corny material. If that isn’t your jam, you probably won’t like this, but I enjoyed it just fine. It’s pretty straightforward but I wasn’t entirely sure where it was headed. The ending works a lot better than I would have ever thought, though it’s ultimately still a little unclear what the deal is with Black Iron Mountain or how successful our protagonists actually were in that fated performance. In the end, I enjoyed the book. It didn’t blow my mind or engage the imagination in the way the best horror does, but it’s an entertaining yarn that’s worth checking out, especially for metal fans (who may get more out of this than I did).
  • Paperbacks From Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction by Grady Hendrix – Speaking of Hendrix, this little non-fiction compendium of the boom in horror fiction set off by the likes of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Other, culminating with the serial killer craze when authors started to eschew the “horror” label in an effort to become “respectable” and thus kinda “boring”. In between, we’re treated to all sorts of cuckoo nutso novels featuring things like horny Bigfoots, Nazi leprechauns, killer maggots, and rabbis blasting KGB demons with super-shofars. It’s all a bit surface-level, with only the major entries getting real depth, but he does reach a wide breadth of work, even if he can’t devote too much space to the lesser works. I have not read a ton of these, but as an avid horror movie fan, many of the kookier examples of the genre have, in fact, been adapted to film (stuff like The Manitou, which has a plot best described: “A woman gets a weird growth on her shoulder. As is often the case, it turns out to be a fetus.”) It’s all in good fun, and the book also has a ton of great artwork (also a staple of the genre at the time) that’s just a blast to look at.
    The Little People by John Christopher, a paperback from hell if ever there was one

    I mean, they say not to judge a book by the cover, but damn, these covers represent something of an exception (though Hendrix does go to pains to explain that sometimes the covers truly are better than the books they’re supposedly portraying). I do wish there was a little more in the way of concrete recommendations (there is a chapter about this sort of thing at the end, but it leaves something to be desired), rather than the full firehose of horror novels the book references. Still well worth checking out, and even if you never get to read the Nazi Leprechaun book, you do get to know that it exists, which is a miracle in itself.

  • Twilight Eyes by Dean Koontz – Koontz was the first author that got me reading for pleasure (i.e. reading even when it wasn’t required for school!), so I have a soft spot for him. That being said, I’ve never really been able to recapture that initial burst of enthusiasm for his work. Perhaps it’s because he does tend to get repetitive and since he’s super-prolific, his books have a hit-or-miss quality to them. While it seems like most of my recent attempts to find something new-to-me from Koontz that I love have mostly failed, it hasn’t stopped me from trying. This book didn’t exactly rekindle my love, but it was still a pretty easygoing read with some creepy atmosphere appropriate for the season. Slim MacKenzie has a sorta psychic power which lets him see what he calls “goblins”, fowl creatures who are able to disguise themselves as humans, but who live off the misery and pain of others. We meet him as he joins up at a circus, a venue that attracts lost souls like himself and his later girlfriend/wife, Rya Raines. There’s some interesting components here, but the nuts-and-bolts storytelling bits are askew. For one thing, it almost feels like two separate novellas (or maybe novels) were sorta glued together in the middle. For another, much of the background of the goblins is interesting, but delivered in a pretty clunky section of exposition. This section is capped off by a nice little twist, but the twist does sorta just get glossed over. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would be so easily resolved. Again, the whole thing can get a little repetitive and overlong and repetitive, so it’s not Koontz’s tightest work. It seems that the hunt for new-to-me Koontz that I’ll love continues, though I will say that it’s not like this is the one book that caused me to give up or anything. It’s cromulent enough, in that respect. If you ever do want to check out something that I do love from Koontz, try Lightning, Phantoms, Midnight, Strangers, or maybe Intensity.
  • The Professor’s Teddy Bear by Theodore Sturgeon – It’s a short story about a time-bending vampiric maybe-alien Teddy Bear (I linked to a copy right there). It’s a bit mind-scrambling and makes for a nice little seasonal read. Check it out.

And that’s all for now… stay tuned for the last week of The Six Weeks of Halloween, featuring some Netflix movies, and the final installment on Halloween, with a speed round of all the things I’ve watched that didn’t get covered yet…

6WH: Season’s Readings

Just catching up on some of this Halloween season’s readings. I’ve already covered Stephen King’s Christine and Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs (and their corresponding filmic adaptations), but here’s the rest of what I read:

  • Death Count: All of the Deaths in the Friday the 13th Film Series, Illustrated by Stacie Ponder – As a big fan of the recently revived Final Girl blog and Stacie Ponder’s associated offerings, I was happy to see that she decided to collect her artwork from the Death Count blog into a fancy schmanzy book.
    Jason in his high school yearbook photo

    Ponder’s artwork is distinctive and generally fun, even when depicting horrific scenes of terror (some choices are absolutely inspired), and her short writeups of each movie are well done. Most of the actual content is still available online, but fans of the Friday the 13th series might want a copy all for themselves.

  • Deep State by Christopher Farnsworth – I’ve long been a fan of Farnsworth’s Nathaniel Cade books, particularly Red, White, and Blood. For the uninitiated, Cade is a vampire who is magically bound to serve the President of the United States. It’s ridiculous, of course, but a whole lot of fun. The series has been on a bit of a hiatus since Farnsworth switched publishers, but he’s published a couple of novellas, including this most recent one, which actually picks up after the cliffhanger at the end of Red, White, and Blood. A nuclear missile silo has gone dark, and the president calls in Cade to resolve the matter. The only problem is that he needs a handler for the vampire, and no one seems up to the task since Zach Barrows was unceremoniously fired during the events of the previous book. So the president finally admits his mistake and rehires Zach, then they go fight some vegetal monsters and save the world. Again. Spoilers, I guess, but Cade is kinda like a superhero – you know he’s going to win. It’s great to see the duo paired up again. This wasn’t quite the continuation of the story I was expecting, but the greatest part of these stories is the esoteric bits and pieces of horror lore, not the overarching meta-story. Someday I hope Farnsworth can free himself from whatever legal bonds are preventing him from a proper, novel length Cade story. In the meantime, this is a decent story (and better than the previous short offering, The Burning Men) and worth checking out for fans.
  • Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon – This is a hard one to talk about without spoiling anything, but if you like Sturgeon and horror-adjacent psychological stories, it might be your bag. It doesn’t seem like much at first. Told in an epistolary format, it initially covers a sort of auto-biography of George Smith, followed by some correspondence and documentation from his psychiatrist, who manages to deduce Smith’s true nature. It makes for a good companion piece to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, only instead of focusing on physical explanations for vampirism, Sturgeon goes into psychological reasons, positing a non-supernatural vampire. It takes a while to get there, but overall the story is very short and strays considerably from whatever you might expect from the description above. It’s slow and oddly structured, but I kinda appreciated that and ultimately really enjoyed the book for what it was.
  • Final Girls by Riley Sager – I originally picked this audiobook up because I thought it was the next book on this list (the titles both involving “Final Girls” in some way), but I immediately realized my mistake when I started listening. But hey, both are literary takes on my beloved slasher sub-genre, so that’s fine by me. The story follows one Quincy Carpenter, lone survivor of the Pine Cottage massacre that claimed the lives of five friends. The ever considerate media thus associated her with two other women who had survived similar ordeals, thus dubbing them “The Final Girls”. Ten years after her traumatic experience, Quincy is doing ok for herself. A popular food blogger with a loving boyfriend and a support network that includes Lisa (one of the other Final Girls) and Coop (the cop who saved her life that fateful night), she almost feels normal. Then Lisa turns up dead, an apparent suicide. And Sam, the only other remaining Final Girl shows up at Quincy’s doorstep. Is someone trying to finish off the Final Girls? It’s a neat premise that has a lot of potential. Unfortunately, Quincy isn’t the greatest protagonist, constantly filled with self-doubt (understandable!) and getting herself into obviously dumb binds (not so understandable). Sager does a great job implicating just about everyone we spend time with in the story, such that any of them could turn out to be the killer in the end… but there aren’t enough characters for this to entirely work, and she makes these ambiguities so conspicuous that by the time she actually does reveal the killer, it’s not as surprising as it could be, since we’ve already been considering that person the whole time (and we’re never quite able to really rule anyone out). Still, despite dragging a little in the second act, the finale works well enough. I admit I was hoping for something more slasher-esque, but this doesn’t really deliver on the potential of its premise, even if it was a diverting enough read.
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones – Lindsay, homecoming queen, has just survived a typical slasher movie style massacre at the hands of a madman wearing a Michael Jackson mask. But the killer’s body was never recovered, and it seems like the replacement homecoming court is in for a bumpy ride. Now this is more like it, a story that is drenched in slasher tropes and explicit references, sorta like Scream on hallucinogens. The prose style is unusual though, and I’m not entirely sure it works. It’s kinda like a hybrid movie script and novel; explicitly specifying camera movements and cuts, but adding a little literary flare too. It does imbue the story with momentum, but clarity suffers a bit. There’s not a ton of exposition, so some stuff feels a little unexplored, and it’s hard to keep the characters straight. Stephen Graham Jones clearly knows his stuff though, and not just the big names of the sub-genre. And so do his characters, who all know they’re in a slasher film and have seen enough to know the ins and outs. The final revelations are, perhaps, a bit too twisty, but this is definitely better than the previous book on the list in that respect, and this one’s a lot shorter too. Fans of the sub-genre could enjoy this, assuming they can get past the odd formatting… I certainly did.
  • Shutter by Courtney Alameda – Micheline Helsing is one of the last descendants of the Van Helsing line, and she continues their monster hunting ways. Her weapon of choice? An analog camera, which can capture spiritual energy on film. A seemingly routine haunting turns complicated when her entire team (including herself) is infected with a curse that could kill them all in seven days if they don’t exorcise the ghost that infected them. Cut off from the Helsing organization, they must find this powerful ghost and figure out a way to defeat her. A decent, light YA novel with some creepy atmosphere and imaginative creations, it also struggles a bit with exposition (not a huge deal in my book, honestly) and there’s simply not much here that we haven’t seen before. It’s a little formulaic, but well executed and generally fun. Not something you need to rush out and read, but it’d be a good introduction to many of the tropes it relies on. Those of us already steeped in those tropes might find it a bit staid, but you could do worse.

We’re in the homestretch now, stay tuned for a Speed Round of short reviews of all the movies that didn’t make it into the weekly (usually themed) recaps…

The Book Queue

It’s been well over a year since I last posted a book queue, and since we’re quickly approaching the Six Weeks of Halloween, I need to figure out some creepy seasonal reading, so here’s some books I’m looking into. I used to love reading horror, but aside from the occasional dip into the waters, I haven’t kept up at all… I probably won’t get to all of these (and who knows, I might read something not on here), but it’s where I’m starting:

  • Deep State by Christopher Farnsworth – I’ve been a fan of Farnsworth’s Nathaniel Cade/President’s Vampire books for a while, and this latest little novella will have to tide me over until Farnsworth manages a full length follow up to Red, White, and Blood (which was the best of the series up until now). Anyway, I don’t know much about this, but it seems like it’ll be fun Halloween season reading…
  • Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr – I don’t remember where I heard about this one from, but the quick description sounds… interesting… “a tripping-balls Los Angeles noir, where a mysterious dame drags you through a time-warping Bizarro hall of mirrors.”
  • Zero Saints by Gabino Iglesias – Looks like a quick read about a drug dealer turf war that veers into the supernatural. Not sure what to make of this, but reviews make it sound fun…
  • The Croning by Laird Barron – Another horror book that I added to my queue last year and again, I can’t remember where I heard about it, but it sounds interesting. Not really sure what this is about, even after reading the description. Can’t decide if that’s a good thing or not. I also have The Imago Sequence short story collection on my list.
  • Christine by Stephen King – More a placeholder for a Stephen King novel than anything else, but a friend really loves this novel and has told me it’s a lot better than the movie… which is a movie I really like (I mean, it is John Carpenter)! I’ve read a bunch of King, but nowhere near comprehensive. It might be worth checking out It before this new movie comes out, and there are a few others that could work too, but I think Christine might be the one…
  • Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts by Orrin Grey – Short story collection that is supposed to be themed around cinematic monsters, which seems appropriate for our primarily-movie-based Six Weeks of Halloween, no?
  • The Last Final Girl by Stephen Graham Jones – As a slasher fan, this seems right up my alley. “The Last Final Girl is like Quentin Tarantino’s take on The Cabin in the Woods. Bloody, absurd, and smart. Plus, there’s a killer in a Michael Jackson mask.” Sold!
  • Horror Movie A Day: The Book by Brian W. Collins – I actually picked this up towards the tail end of last year’s 6WH, so I didn’t really use it much and just skipped around a little, but I’m giving it a more thorough read right now in the hopes of finding some 6WH fodder. For the uninitiated, HMAD was a website where Brian Collins would watch a horror movie every day and review it. He did this for 6 years. The book is an interesting mixture of films,

    tons of deep cuts here, not stuff you’d see on every other “Best Horror” list (and indeed, Collins doesn’t shy away from truly bad movies, which keeps things interesting). This will almost certainly guide a week or two of this year’s marathon…

So there you have it. I definitely won’t get to all these, but look for some reviews during the 6WH…

6WH: Season’s Readings

Movies tend to be the focus of the Six Weeks of Halloween, but I like to mix things up with some seasonal-appropriate written tales of terror as well (with the occasional work of non-fiction thrown in for fun). It makes for a nice change of pace from my normal dorky reading diet, while still maintaining high levels of dorkocity, which is important. Some of these are arguably not horror, but they’re at least seasonal, which is the whole point. I’ve already written about one epic-length book I read this season, and here’s a few others:

  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill – Vic McQueen discovers at an early age that she’s able to use her fancy Raleigh Tuff Burner bike to find whatever she desires by driving across a seemingly impossible covered bridge. It doesn’t matter how far away the object she seeks is located, she gets there in moments. Charlie Manx has a similar talent, though his magic vehicle is a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, which he uses it to pick up young children and spirit them away to a horror-filled inscape he calls Christmasland, where he feeds on their life essence as a sort of vampire (the license plate on his car reads NOS4A2, a play on Nosferatu.) One day, in a fit of pique brought on by her feuding parents, Vic hops on her bike with the intention of seeking out trouble… and finds Manx. Due to sheer luck, she survives the encounter, but decades later, Vic’s son has disappeared and Vic has to confront Manx again. So Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and indeed, this book features a certain kinship with King’s brand of horror. There’s an archetypal quality to the supernatural elements of the story and the talismans that allow our characters to do the impossible. The book perhaps meanders a bit and lingers too long on certain aspects, making it feel a little loose and flabby, but it’s generally compelling, page turning stuff. It leans a little too heavily on dysfunctional relationships and pessimistic attitudes for my taste, but on the other hand, it never veers into full misery porn and what’s there does serve the story. Christmasland is a fascinating creation, clearly a worthy subversion of that holiday’s good cheer. I enjoyed this quite a bit. It’s a little too long, but it comports itself well.
  • The Long Halloween by Joeseph Loeb (writer) and Tim Sale (Illustrator) – Not at all horror, but certainly seasonal. It’s a 13 issue arc of Batman where the caped crusader works with Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon to try and catch a mysterious murder who kills on each major holiday. Along the way, we’re treated to various episodic encounters with Batman’s infamous rogues gallery of villains… I picked this book up back when I got all fired up about Batman comics earlier in the year, but saved it for Halloween… mostly because of the title. It’s an interesting story, even moreso since it appears to be the basis for Christopher Nolan’s films. Those movies and particularly Batman Begins are clearly not an adaptation as there are tons of major differences, by many elements of Nolan’s Batman seem to originate here. Notably the focus on various crime families, which was apparently new at the time these comics were being published in the late 90s. The murder mystery itself does feel a bit on the sloppy side, but it’s all executed well enough, and it’s neat that we get to touch base with tons of iconic Batman villains throughout. The artwork was effective enough and the pacing was pretty good for such a long arc. This clearly isn’t perfect, but I really enjoyed it, and the added dimension of its influence on the movies does give it some extra zip.
  • In the Flesh by Clive Barker – I believe that, with this volume, I’ve exhausted all of Barker’s “Books of Blood”, those long running series of short stories that lit the horror world on fire in the mid 80s. This is technically the fifth collection of stories (ironically, the first collection I read was Cabal, the sixth collection, not that it matters, since these are all disconnected short stories). This one only features four stories of moderate length (I believe they’d qualify for novellette or novella status), and they’re all decent. There is one standout, but the others tend to fall behind the stories in other volumes. The titular “In the Flesh” proceeds from the fascinating premise of a prisoner who committed murder with the objective of being incarcerated in a specific prison. You see, his grandfather was buried on the grounds after being executed decades earlier, but his spirit calls out to the new prisoner. The story is told from the prisoner’s cellmate, who gets wrapped up in the supernatural mumbo jumbo and eventually gets trapped in the afterlife. Or something. An interesting and creepy premise that sort of peters out in the end. This is an unfortunate theme in this particular collection, it seems. “The Forbidden” is arguably Barker’s best-known story from the Books of Blood, having been adapted into the movie Candyman. It features a university student visiting the slums in order to study the graffiti there. Most of the graffiti turns out to be boring and unenlightening, but then she stumbles on a particularly striking area depicting an urban legend known as the Candyman. This is probably the best overall story in the collection, though it does feel a bit overlong. Still, interesting stuff. “The Madonna” is about an abandonned pool complex. Some shady real estate developers are trying to figure out how to purchase it and make money off of it, but the otherworldly residents of the pools have other ideas. This one is also pretty effective, though again the ending is a little iffy. There’s some interesting themes here though, power and gender dysphoria among them. “Babel’s Children” is about a woman who stumbles upon a mysterious compound where, decades ago, a group of scientists and scholars were brought together to secretly rule the world. They are now elderly, sick of their task, and desire escape. This is mostly treated as mystery, but again, the ending leaves a bit to be desired and the whole idea is a little more on the silly side. Overall, this is a worthy read, but not quite up to par with the other Books of Blood collections.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – Technically a murder mystery, but Agatha Christie’s classic is also an originator for many horror tropes. A group of seemingly unrelated people are lured to an island under different pretext. It turns out that all of them are responsible for the death of another person, but escaped justice through legal technicalities. One by one, they die in mysterious circumstances, seemingly to match the details of an old nursery rhyme. Extremely complex, but simple to follow, this story is very detailed and exquisitely designed from start to finish. It is, maybe, a bit difficult to come up to speed on the 10 strangers right away, but as the book proceeds to kill off each one, we learn more and more, and begin to suspect more and more. I believe the term of art for this is “locked room mystery”, as there’s no apparent explanation for how or why the 10 murders were accomplished. And the solution actually works (it may be slightly underwhelming to jaded modern eyes, but I was pretty happy with it). Its influence on the horror genre is clearly apparent, with many stories relying on a similar structure. I think you could even say that this influenced the modern body-count story (like slashers!) Regardless, it was quite an enjoyable book, all the moreso because it’s short and concise.
  • Horror Movie A Day: The Book by Brian W. Collins – I won’t say too much about this one since I have not gotten too far into it, but if you don’t know about Horror Movie A Day, this guy Brian Collins vowed to watch a horror movie every day (and write a review of said movie) and proceeded to do so for over 6 years. In this book, he’s chosen 365 of the more than 2500 movies he saw during that run, one for each day of the year, and written a quick overview of the movie (including a brief plot summary, an exerpt from his original review, and an updated commentary). Initial reading and scanning through the book indicates that Collins went for deep cuts here (rather than obvious horror classics), no doubt a welcome approach for horror hounds. I will almost certainly lean on this book when it comes to planning out next year’s Six Weeks of Halloween…

And that just about covers it. We’re in the final homestretch now, and all that remains is the customary Speed Round of movies I saw that didn’t conform to a weekly theme and, of course, the big day…

6WH: Swan Song

Swan Song Book Cover

There are two features of Robert R. McCammon’s post-apocalyptic novel Swan Song that have to show up in any discussion of the book. One is its epic, 960+ page length. The other, more troubling, is its suspicious similarity to Stephen King’s classic post-apocalyptic novel The Stand. It’s not identical or anything and in fact has many different components, but it still absolutely begs for comparison.

The novel concerns the aftermath of a nuclear war and follows varous groups of survivers as they converge upon one another until a final confrontation between good and evil. The President of the United States doesn’t want to press the button but feels powerless to stop an inexorable confrontation with the Soviets. In NYC, a homeless woman named Sister Creep hunkers down in a subway. Sue Wanda (nicknamed Swan, she of the book’s title) has an uncanny connection to life around her and is traveling away from an abusive father with her mother. They meet up with Josh, a professional wrestler, big and burly but friendly and caring. Retired Colonel James Macklin runs a crumbling survivalist fallout shelter where he finds himself mentoring Roland Croninger, a thirteen year old boy enamored with his video game where he plays a “King’s Knight”. After the bombs fall, they all endure various hardships, meet friendly survivers as well as roaming bands of bandits, and choose their own good or evil path. They are plagued by Randall Flagg a mysterious “Man With The Scarlet Eye” who seems to have quite enjoyed the calamity imposed on the human race of late, and seeks to destroy all remaining vestiges of hope.

So yes, very similar in size and scope to King’s The Stand, if not in the particulars. Using nuclear war instead of a virus is a more bombastic and obvious choice, and makes for a good microcosm of the differences between the two novels. Where king goes for archetypes, McCammon goes for cliched stereotypes. Where King’s novel portrays an epic confrontation between good and evil, McCammon’s feels more perfunctory.

Or maybe I’m just full of it. I haven’t read The Stand in 20 years, after all. One thing that does strike me about King’s book, though, is how memorable so many of the characters and scenarios are, and how clever all the ideas feel to me. Obviously I can’t tell if Swan Song will survive the test of time just yet (having just finished it), but despite being published 9 years after The Stand, this just feels more dated and derivative.

This isn’t my first tango with McCammon and he is clearly a talented storyteller who knows how to turn a page. The book is lengthy, but it never felt particularly longwinded while I was reading it. In retrospect, it could probably be tightened up, but I found it compelling enough to finish it in relatively short order. I really love Swan and Josh’s story and while it took me a while to warm to Sister, she had grown on me by the end. Roland and Macklin are a little more on the cartoonishly evil, Road Warrior-esque side of things, and never completely worked for me, though they did represent a tense threat. The Man With the Scarlet Eye is suitably creepy for most of the story, but feels oddly unfulfilled in the end. Some of the side characters are fantastic, others are less successful.

Some of the more mystical elements work to an extent, but also feel more inflated and ultimately pointless. For instance, Sister finds a magical glass ring, fused together with jewels during the nuclear attack. It glows, shows visions, and can act as a sorta rosetta stone, among other abilities (it cauterizes wounds too!) Eventually, though, it just feels like a convenient plotting device rather than something truly important. Then there’s the idea of the Job’s mask, ugly growths that cover many survivors’ faces. Several years after the attack, the growths painfully crack and fall off, revealing… well, if you’re a good person, your inner beauty becomes outer beauty. If you’re evil, you become hideous. Not very subtle there, but I’m glad McCammon acknowledges at least something about the potential difficulties of exposure to radiation, even if it is complete hokum (incidentally, I’m pretty sure all these characters would die of radiation poisoning, but this isn’t SF and I won’t hold it to that standard). The ending of the book did surprise me a bit because McCammon went for an optimistic, happy resolution. Given the grimy, pessimistic opening of the book, this was welcome for me, but I can see it being too saccharine for others.

I’ve done a lot of complaining here, but this isn’t a bad book. It’s mostly enjoyable and well written, but it is quite derivative and a bit perfunctory. Damning with faint praise, I guess, but it was a decent fit for the Six Weeks of Halloween marathon. If you haven’t read The Stand, I’d recommend that over this. McCammon is still an interesting author, and I’m definitely curious to try out more of his stuff. I read his book Boy’s Life around the same time as The Stand and remember enjoying that quite a bit (though I must admit, I don’t remember anything about that book), and he’s written a couple other books I’d be interested in checking out. Anywho, more season’s readings coming in the nearish future, so look for some Clive Barker and maybe even… Batman? Yes, Batman.