Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Cabal by Clive Barker


Cabal is one of those stories that I know is great writing, but I just didn’t enjoy it. Too much blood and guts for me. It is mercifully short, however. There were some great plot twists, but also some faults in logic. For example, the fact that Dr. Decker makes Boone believe that he (Boone) has committed a series of gristly murders that Decker has actually committed it pretty ingenious. But when Boone is running away he coincidentally runs into Narcisse who directs him to Median where Decker is waiting for him. How did Decker know that Boone was going to go to Median? He didn’t send Narcisse (who is one of the Nightbreed and therefore good.)

Lori, Boone’s girlfriend, goes through such hellish nightmares trying to find him. It wasn’t originally set up why the pair have such a bond other than the fact that they are both dysfunctional. I really had to suspend belief to think that Lori wouldn’t have quit pursuing him long before she did. It’s a point of irritation to me when people in books and films keep going and going even when injured beyond the point when they would still be functional. Lori keeps going after she’s been slashed with a knife by Decker.

When Lori’s friend Sheryl goes into the burned out restaurant to look for her date and gets killed, it reminded me of those films where the dumb girl goes into the basement to investigate the strange sound, in other words kind of an idiot plot. We don’t feel sorry that she dies because she deserves it. After that, it’s not very logical that Lori wouldn’t go to the police. There’s a brutal killer on the loose. Come on. Then she finds the scary graveyard where Boone might be and enters, knowing that there’s a maniacal killer on the loose, with this excuse, “The mingled intoxication of blood loss and exhaustion had dulled all fear of this place.” Right.

Another thing that bothers me is that Barker seems to be making up his mythos as he goes along. When Boone is bitten by Peloquin, it changes him into a kind of super-undead. What is he at that point? He isn’t Nightbreed, because they are beings who can’t stand the light and cower at the thought of being food for the monster. When Lori finds the young, wounded animal, she turns out to be Babette, a Nightbreed child, yet nowhere else in the book is it referred to that the Nightbreed turn into animals. Through the course of the story, Babette becomes a vehicle for sympathy for the Nightbreed. We see her living in a refrigerator-sized underground room playing with crude toys she has made herself. When the Nightbreed’s underground is being burned by vigilantes, we see Babette’s struggles to get out, making us feel compassion for her. They are only a different kind of human, after all.

Outside of these little annoyances, Barker does a great job in setting up his dark fantasy world then gives a no-holds-barred depiction of it in all its gristly details. Barker has a great command of language. His descriptions of the brutality read like a stylized film. Barker handles the multiple point of views brilliantly. We see into the heads of the characters with great depth, giving us insight into them

The ending was less than satisfying. I hadn’t realized that Cabal had ended and I continued reading into the next short story, thinking it was a continuation. In looking back it seems as though he is setting it up for a sequel.

In summary, Barker has an evocative style, but it doesn’t resonate with me.

Artwork is by cover artist Dominic Harman.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Shining by Stephen King

In his preface to the new version of The Shining, Stephen King states that this novel was a “crossroads novel” for him. He decided to go deeper and admit Jack Torrence’s love for his father. It gave Jack more dimension and realism and therefore made him scarier. The fact that the killer would be driven by his childhood abuse is very disturbing and blurs the line between supernatural and psychotic. Is it the ghosts of the hotel that drive his killing spree or his own nature?

I hadn’t read the book before or seen the film all the way through, so I didn’t know how it was going to end. I hadn’t been that much of a fan of King before reading this, but I have to admit, it is an amazing book for the way it sets up all of the problems in the beginning then keeps upping the stakes until the climax of the book when the Overlook blows up. The book pulled me in rather quickly and compelled me to spend many late nights reading through to the end.
How does he do it?

From the very opening page I noticed that King fleshes out even the minor characters in the story, case in point, Ullman, the manager. He will play a role later on in the story, but at the beginning, we don’t know that. Also in the very first chapter King establishes the fact that the former caretaker killed himself, his wife and child while spending a long, isolated winter at the Overlook. That sets up the expectation of trouble. Will Jack follow suit or can he somehow overcome the evil of the hotel? He spends pages and pages fleshing out Watson, the furnace caretaker. The fact that the Overlook could blow at any moment if the furnace isn’t maintained hangs over our heads as a point of tension.

Danny’s sensitivity to psychic phenomenon is also set up. Danny thinks about his father “doing the bad thing…until his brain would be quiet and leave him alone.” We know that Danny has an imaginary friend, Tony, who is a troublemaker. This also sets up expectations of impending trouble.
King eases us into the fact that Jack has an explosive temper and a drinking problem, but he loves his child more than anything and would do anything in the world for him. We are in a very deep character perspective in the Shining. The viewpoints characters change by chapter, and every time we are in a character’s head we experience the stream of consciousness of the character as though we were in the characters’ heads. We know the things that haunt them, the things they obsess about over and over and over again.

I have to ask myself if King is Jack Torrent. He seems so familiar with Jack’s demons of having an abusive childhood, tending toward violence, substance abuse and spousal abuse. How could anyone who hasn’t experienced these things write about them so convincingly? Or is he just a damned good writer?

Level of detail King uses ups the realism of the story. We can see the Overlook as though we were really there. We know the pattern of the carpet, what the sconces of the drapes look like. We know the exact layout of the caretaker’s apartment. All of the details of the concrete things make it much easier to believe the concrete details King provides of the unreal things, the topiary that comes to life, the woman-ghost in the bathtub, the midnight ghost revelers.
I think the scariest part of the book is when they are in the caretaker’s apartment, wake up to the sound of mechanical grinding and realize that it’s the elevator. That would absolutely terrify me, mainly because I’d wonder what or who might be in the elevator. My imagination would carry me away and I’d go crazy with terror.

Kings endings are always his weak point. In his own words, “Keep that door closed as long as possible.” Once the monster is actually revealed, the ending is anticlimactic. Actually, I think that this is one of his better endings. Confrontation between Danny and demon-possessed Jack is spellbinding. Even though we know that Jack is being controlled by something beyond his control, we get to see that the humanity is still there within him. Jack breaks down for a moment when Danny appeals to his human side. I actually thought that Danny and his mom would be killed at the end and was surprised that they weren’t.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dreams in the Witch House by H.P. Lovecraft


Lovecraft gets into some pretty advanced concepts in this story, such as using complex math to gain access to multi-dimensional worlds.

This story uses the same mythos as that of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but actually pre-dates that story by three years.

Our narrator is named this time—Walter Gilman. (Why the same name as the alien-infested hotel in Innsmouth?)

We are in the “legend-haunted city of Arkham.” Gilman has taken a room in Witch House on purpose because he is fascinated by the history of Keziah Mason, who was on trial as a witch. She had told the judge “of lines and curves that could be made to point out directions leading through walls of space to other spaces beyond. The strange angles in Gilman’s room have a curious effect on him and lead him to become more and more obsessed with thoughts of travel to another dimension. He does succeed, but at the cost of his sanity and his health. Lovecraft has Gilman continually question his own sanity, probably because we know that insane people think that they are perfectly same; because Gilman is rational enough to question his own sanity, he is sane.

He contacts the witch and her evil little familiar, Brown Jenkin, and from there, it is a slippery slope into oblivion.

Lovecraft has his protagonist tell everyone around him about the supernatural goings-on: his fellow boarding house mates, his professors…and they all believe him and help him out as much as they can. They don’t try to have him committed. This is unheard of in more recent fiction.

Gilman has dreams that result in objective reality, such as the little gizmo that is left behind after one of his nocturnal jaunts, his house mate looks through his keyhole and sees the blinding light that his emanating from Gilman’s night time bedroom.

His descriptions of the other dimension are fascinating. “…the tiles were cut in bizarre-angled shapes which struck him as less asymmetrical than based on some earthly symmetry whose laws we could not comprehend.”

We don’t know that much about Gilman, but Lovecraft does get into his head and tells us exactly what he is feeling: the obsession along with the blinding fear. When he risks his life to avert the sacrifice of a baby by the witch and her cohorts, he proves to us that he is a worthwhile, likeable guy. He kills the witch but is also killed himself by horrible means or something (presumably Brown Jenkin) burrowing completely through him.

Lovecraft repeatedly refers to a magical book called the Necronomicon, which is completely fictional. People have tried to find it or recreate it over the years, all for naught.

I was very drawn in by this story and impressed by the advanced concepts of math having an effect on multi-dimensions. He was way ahead of his time.

Lovecraft didn’t care much for people. I read a quote of his, "... all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large." Despite this, in Dreams in the Witch House Lovecraft draws us into his characters with his attention to detail and by the deep perspective of his characters.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin


This book amazes me, because it doesn’t get dated. The same is true for the film version Directed by Roman Polanski. I watch it once in awhile just because it’s so good.

The book got passed around my junior high class, because it had a cool “sex scene.” It also had a whole lot more. When I originally read this book (when I was still too young to see the movie), I remembered being terrified for Rosemary, hoping she’d be able to get away from all those crazy people (no don’t take those funny herbal drinks) and get to safety in order to have her baby in a secure place. It was a surprise to me at the end that she was the mother of Satan’s child. That line, “What have you done to his eyes,” will always haunt me. I thought they were going to kidnap her baby for a human sacrifice, and for that reason, I kept rooting for Rosemary to wake up and escape from those people’s evil clutches.

On this latest reading of the book, I find that it loses none of the appeal. Levin is able to do that very rare thing of making you completely suspend belief. In giving it a really close read, I could see the beauty of the book, how all of the pieces (that on first a first reading you might gloss over) fit together to bring us to the conclusion. It’s an absolutely linear story with no narrative tricks, but flows so well, you can read it in one sitting (which I just did.)

The first hint that something is amiss is when Guy and Rosemary move the huge dresser to find that it’s hiding a closet behind it. Rosemary asks why she would block the closet that has her vacuum cleaner. At first Rosemary was the one who was enthusiastic about getting the apartment, so it makes me wonder at what point guy made a pact with the devil. (Most probably when Roman pulls Guy off for a talk when the Castevets have invited them over for dinner.) When Rosemary’s friend, Hutch tries to discourage them from renting there because of it penchant for weirdly brutal happenings, Guy poo poos it. At that point, we know that Guy is a selfish and manipulative jerk, but we don’t think he’s actually evil.

Throughout the book we only know what Rosemary knows. We are lulled into a false sense of security with everyday details. Once Rosemary starts to realize that something is wrong, the book becomes impossible to put down. At no time does anything overtly supernatural or dangerous take place. Indeed, it could all be in Rosemary’s head. We know it’s not, but nothing definite in the book happens to prove otherwise until almost to the ending.

Rosemary has a passive obedient nature which could be said to characterize a woman from the early 1960’s. She defers to the experts and does what everyone tells her to do. When Dr. Sapirstein tells her to drink Minnie’s strange drink, she doesn’t question it.

There was also a cold war paranoia that was very active at the time, and Rosemary’s Baby reflects that fact that you really can’t trust your next door neighbor. He might be a commie or a Satanist. When she feels that she’s been raped by some demon, (“This is really happening,”) the day after she doesn’t trust herself and brushes it off as a nightmare.

There are certain points in the book in which you think Rosemary might have a change. One is when her friends come to their apartment for a party and she agrees to get a second opinion about the pain. The other in when the Castevets announce that they are taking a trip to Europe. Levin gives us a little relief from the tension. We kind of sigh at that point.

Rosemary catches Guy in a couple of small lies and thinks he might be having an affair. The things are subtle and don’t add up to a lot individually, but together, they let the reader know that Guy is working with the Castevets for some evil purpose, even if Rosemary has been too na├»ve to see it.

After Rosemary has the baby, she at first is told that it’s dead but later goes through the fake closet to find it. After the initial shock wears off, Rosemary softens up to the idea of the baby. “Even if he was half Satan, wasn’t he half her as well?” The book ends with her baby-talking to the new infant, which is really more chilling than having her run away in terror.

Why this book works for me:

The characters are well defined and believable. Is Guy in league with the devil, or is he just kind of a jerk? At the beginning we’re not sure; later on, we know. Are the Castevets well-meaning busybodies or are they truly evil?

The viewpoint is limited to Rosemary’s perceptions. We have angst because we are literally in Rosemary’s shoes. Isn’t horror all about limited viewpoint so we don’t see the monster behind the door?

The suspense rises as we become more and more sure that Rosemary is in real, not imagined, danger. The book gives us a growing sense of dread as Rosemary realizes that she can trust no one.

Levin provides the day-to-day details of Rosemary’s life right down to what kind of haircut she gets and what kind of dish detergent she uses. This immerses us in the fictive dream. Still, Levin doesn’t over-do it with details; he manages to give us just the right amount.

He keys into our deep-seated fears of evil and (particularly if you were brought up Catholic) the devil in a way that gets right down deep into our psyches.

I ask myself why this book doesn’t get dated, even though it is a 60’s period piece. I think it is that the characters act like real people and they are true to their personalities. As Hemingway said, “Good writing is true writing.” …even when it’s about the spawn of Satan.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft


This is my favorite of the Lovecraft stories we’ve read this tern. Again, Lovecraft uses the device of the evil place, “that ill-rumored and evilly-shadowed seaport of death and blasphemous abnormality. While he is out travelling, our young narrator becomes intrigued by stories about a town called Innsmouth.

Lovecraft uses the word “queer” about 666 times in describing Innsmouth. The town is queer, the odd-angled buildings are queer and lord knows the people are queer. It was thought that the town founder, old Captain Marsh, made a pact with the devil. The inhabitants have “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right.” They seem to some kind of aliens, but not of the South Sea or Asian variety as they would like you to believe. He also describes that strange jewelry they leave behind. “…it was the queer otherworldly quality of the art which made me uneasy.”

Lovecraft does a splendid job of describing the utterly alien feel of the town, how all of the houses are boarded up but he can sense a strange life force behind the seemingly empty buildings. He talks about the Masons and the “Esoteric Order of the Dragon.” When the narrator is riding the bus into town he sees a stone church with a rectangle of blackness at the basement. He gets a shiver as he sees the pastor pass back and forth with one of the alien tiaras on his head. We feel the shudder, too. I grew fascinated with his use of odd angled architecture to indicate that the narrator had passed over into another dimension, as though somehow that passage was dependent upon mathmatics.

The narrator finds an old timer in town who tells him the true story of the town, including that fact that they kidnap people for human sacrifices to their god who lived under the sea. He plans to spend the day there and leave at eight o’clock at night, but the bus he is supposed to ride out of town becomes disabled. He is forced to stay at the Gilman hotel in town, a grim, horrible, dangerous place. As the sun sets, out narrator’s dread increases. His door has no lock so he removes a lock from one of the internal doors and replaces it. In the night he hears someone rattling the lock. When they don’t succeed they go to his side door.

In this scene Lovecraft instills a perfect sense of blood curdling dread in us. We feel this man’s plight in no uncertain terms. He builds the suspense gradually, along with the fact that we know that they collect human sacrifices, which gives the reader a definite sense of the creeps. The descriptions are so good you feel as though you are there and wonder what you would do in his shoes. “Then the lock of the connecting door to my room was tried softly.” This subtle action is more creepy to me than all of the ghosts crashing into people’s rooms in Hell House.”

The one thing that makes this not as scary is that we know from the beginning that the narrator lived and told the authorities about his experience. I wonder why Lovecraft used the device of a frame story to tell this tale? I think that lessens some of the tension. He may have dibe it to give credence to his story and make it seem like a real person giving an account.

One thing that helps is that we know that the narrator is scared and that makes us more scared. “A wave of almost abnormal horror swept over me.”

He does manage to get away from the evil monsters and goes to the authorities who actually do believe him. This is unusual for the conventions we’re used to in horror stories. We’re used to people keeping these kinds of things to themselves so no one thinks they are crazy. If they did go to the authorities, they would never believe them.

The twist ending is excellent, and you can see how Lovecraft set up the fact that the viewpoint character is actually one if them with the fact that the half-breed aliens don’t start to look really alien until later in life.

To me this is an entirely successful story. No wonder it spawned generation of admirers of the Cthulhu myth.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Thing on the Doorstep by H.P. Lovecraft


This story is about a man who has married a woman who in into the black arts and routinely steals his body. Kind of a cool concept, really. Lovecraft starts out with a great hook about “putting six bullets through the head of my best friend.” This draws you into the story and makes you wonder why and how this could possibly be.

Lovecraft shows a depth of characterization in this story, but does it through a lot of telling. We know everything about Edward Derby because the narrator (Dan) tells us everything about him down to the smallest detail in paragraph after paragraph of description. Obviously this telling wouldn’t go over very well today in a time when we are all very visual because we are so used to films. It would be a stronger story if Lovecraft has written some scenes at the beginning to show Edward’s character traits. He does so later in the story. Even with this shortcoming, the narrative definitely works as is. I found myself getting drawn into the story line of the strange woman who can steal people’s bodies.

The plot is very original for that time period or for any other. It took a few turns I didn’t expect. I knew that Edward has killed Aesnath when he said, “I had to do it—I had to do it…” when being held in the sanitarium. I hadn’t anticipated, that Aesnath had actually been possessed by the spirit of her father.

When Dan went to the door that night and “saw the dwarfed, humped figure on the steps,” I thought that Aesnath had put Edward’s spirit into the body of a dwarf. It’s a nice touch when Lovecraft reveals at the very end of the story that the mass of tissue Edward has been living in was indeed Aesnath’s corpse.

Lovecraft sets up a definite reason for Aesnath’s wanting to take over Edward’s body when she tells us she believes that only men can attain the heights of magical ability.

What’s odd and maybe inconsistent with human nature is that when Edward is trapped in Aesnath’s corpse, he wants Dan to kill his (Edward’s) body. Wouldn’t most people have wanted to find a way to get the offending entity out of his or her own body in order to be able to get back in?

The way Lovecraft has Dan kill Edward at the end could have been done differently to increase the suspense. Lovecraft throws this line into the middle of a paragraph: “I went to the madhouse and shot him dead for Edward’s sake…” Later he tells the details of the shooting. It would have been much more suspenseful if we had seen Dan sneaking into the sanitarium with a gun hidden in his waist coat. Then we’d wonder what he was going to do and if he would get away with it. (Of course, he had also told us at the beginning that he shot Edward.)

I like the title because at first it doesn’t seem to relate to anything and I found myself wondering how Lovecraft was going to connect it to the story. The meaning isn’t revealed until the end.

What I can take away from this for my own writing is that Lovecraft draws us into the reality of the story with all of the details. The characters and settings are all fully fleshed out, and we see definite reasons for all of the character’s actions. At first Dan thinks that Edward is mad and belongs in an asylum. Somehow when other people in the story question the veracity of the supernatural thing (whatever it is) that makes us as readers believe it all the more. Later on as Dan is drawn into believing the truth of Edward’s story so are we drawn into it.

Then there is the incredible richness an dark beauty of Lovecraft’s language that can chill you and enthrall you all at once.

This drawing is taken from the Penguin Classics version of "The Thing on the Doorstep." I like it because the specter of death looks so lonely huddled under a sheet.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hell House by Richard Matheson

I have to say I don’t get it. Stephen King calls this book “the scariest haunted house book ever written.” What did I miss? It was a cold day, and I settled down in front of a nice fire hoping to be creeped out, and I was just bored.

I think the book had shallow, undeveloped characters. The ghosts were stock--cut-outs from a Hollywood special effects department. The plot was predictable, there was nothing especially surprising. It should have been scary when they had to stay in the house at first with no electricity, but it wasn’t.

The core of the novel is about Dr. Lionel Barrett’s purely scientific take on hauntings versus Florence Tanner’s more spiritual approach.

Barrett is such a purely unlikeable jerk from the very beginning of the book, it’s hard to care about him at all. He has a condescending outlook toward everyone, particularly his wife. Edith, his wife, is just plain annoying. Fischer is ineffectual as a psychic. Florence is the most interesting character, but you know she has to get the axe because whe’s the one sexy woman in the story.

Matheson’s attempts to be daring with the sexual perversion that went on in the house during its heyday is kind of laughable. Maybe it was a shocker in the seventies, but the titillating sexually oriented scenes now just seem campy, for example, Barrett’s wife, Edith, giving the buxom Florence a full body search, and the lesbian “sex scenes” are just plain dumb, not at all believable.

The characters didn’t act realistically. When Florence first sees Belasco’s son’s ghost in her room, she talks to it like it was her long-lost brother who had wandered in. She's not even startled. After the house has tried to kill them, they’re sitting around eating sandwiches rather than getting the hell out of there.

The book is hopelessly dated. I sometimes try to put my finger on why some books seem that way when others hold up well over time. (One book that has held up really well is Rosemary’s Baby.) I think it is because the characters are affected and stereotypical. Matheson doesn’t get into the minds of his characters and tell us what’s going on there. The emotions aren’t genuine, they're a parody of sixties and seventies-era people.

The ending is laughable. Fischer, who didn’t do very much throughout the course of the novel, saves the day by, in essence, calling Belasco a short wimp. At that point the ghost caves and gives up.

I had the feeling that Matheson was making it up as he went along. The last chapter has Fischer explaining the inconsistencies in the plot. For example, why did Belasco allow Barrett to use the Reversor when he knew it would weaken him? Because it would have been an admission to Barrett that he was right. Pretty weak.

One thing that Matheson does well is his descriptions of the house. He describes the house in great visual detail to the point that you can actually see the place. Also the descriptions of the Belasco parties are very vivid and well thought-out. The house functions as a separate character in the book. Unfortunately it’s the only one Matheson has developed to any extent.