Malazan 3 Done and now a brief marathon

It was a struggle, it was a slog.  I haven’t wanted to talk about it until now, and I still don’t, really.  Suffice it to say I finished Memories of Ice and did not pick up Malazan, Book 4.  I may one day, but not now.

I quickly grabbed one of the books I’ve really been wanting to read but waiting on my wife to finish.  Well, after several months of her being on page 6 or so, I decided it was safe to take it for a few weeks.  The Help, by Kathryn Stockett was probably the best book I’ve read so far this year.  I’m still not much in the mood to write about books, but this one was really, really good.  It was a conversation starter at the gym when I was reading it on the bicycle.  It gave me pause for though often.  But most of all it made me remember, fondly and sadly, Bernice.  How I wish I would have been able to know her both as the child I was and now as the adult I am.  I really think we could have had some amazing conversations about life, faith, God, and raising a family.  I cried near end of this book.  The last book to actually make me cry was The Kite Runner.

Having finished that book in record time after the several months it took me to finally be done with Memories of Ice, I grabbed another book I’ve been meaning to read that I knew I could also read quickly and get again that jolt of satisfaction that comes from finishing a book.  I grabbed Stephen King’s Rose Madder.

I’ve known for a while that this is one of King’s least regarded works, but it was on my shelf and I wanted to read it anyway. The subject matter of a picture having supernatural qualities intrigued me.  It didn’t disappoint, but neither was it earth shattering.  Actually, without any of the supernatural stuff, I thought he wrote a damn compelling story about spousal abuse.  On the list of evils, that one’s up there.  The story ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way for me, but what can you do.  It was a good read.  Even if I’ve read better King, this was the best book I’ve read about spousal abuse (actually, it may be the only one, but that doesn’t matter really).

Following that, I forged ahead, borrowing on my e-reader a book from the library that I’d heard about over the summer and been wanting to read.  Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Billed as a young adult book, it certainly is not.  Neither in theme nor content, at least in my opinion.  The author, Ransom Riggs, made clever use (I thought) of a bunch of old photographs to draw out and illustrate his story.  My guess is the story came after he saw the pictures and not the other way around, but who knows.  Some parts of it were bit too like Harry Potter but not most of it.  It was a neat story about difference and hatred, and about what makes a person unique and special.  A fun, quick read – I’d recommend it.

And now, I’m afraid, I’ve started another death march.  Depending, I may start another book to read along with Roberto Bolano’s magnum opus and ultimate work, 2666.  I’ve never read Bolano before, but I’ve been told to, many times by people who’s opinions I trust.  I take it that both in style and substance, it’s a challenging read.  So, far, and I’m barely into it, it’s not all that exciting.  Enough people say it is great though, truly great, to make me continue. So, until I finish it, or until I come across some inspiring quote or another, fare well.

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Stories 16 – 22

I fell behind in writing, not in reading, and so, just because I’m anal about such things, I’m going to catch up with my ratings, but not my summaries and comments.

Story 16: “The Dead Sexton” by J. Sheridan LeFanu

Writing: 6/10

Personal Fright: 4/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 6/10

Story 17: “The Transfer” by: Algernon Blackwood

Writing: 8/10

Personal Fright: 1/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 18: “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft

Writing: 9/10

Personal Fright: 6/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 10/10

Story 19: “The Jar” by Ray Bradbury

Writing:  6/10

Personal Fright:  3/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 6/10

Story 20: “The Tutor” by John Langan

Writing: 4/10

Personal Fright: 2/10

General Horror Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 21: “Rest Stop” by Stephen King

Writing: 10/10

Personal Fright: 3/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 5/10

Story 22: “A Warning to the Curious” by M.R. James

Writing: 10/10

Personal Fright: 6/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 8/10

And that does it, wraps up my October short story reading marathon.  By the end I was getting more and more familiar with the tropes and styles or each author, which, while it contributed to my overall enjoyment, reduced the level of fear and terror.  It was a heck of a lot of fun though and I am thrilled I found authors the likes of M.R. James – who write about things that actually frighten me and aren’t afraid to invoke Christianity and its tenets in their writing.  That idea has fallen away in more modern times and what is it they say about that, “the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

Story 14: “Stationary Bike” by Stephen King

I thought it would be extra cool (or completely dorky) to read this story while actually riding a stationary bike.  As it turns out, it wasn’t all that much more terrifying.  The story itself is kinda scary when you think about it from the perspective of obsessions, but in terms of the actual plot, it really only works well as an imaginative, well-told, carefully crafted fantasy.  This is not to say that it was bad in any way, just not really that frightening.  Now, if I start thinking about a person with certain obsessions that drive them to do all sorts of weird things and wonder how close to that particular portion of the line of insanity I’ve come, then it gets a little scarier.

 

Summary:  An overweight middle 30’s man gets some bad cholesterol related news from his doctor and is told he has to eat better and lose weight or risk serious health complications or possibly death.  To convey the dire need of this message the doctor comes up with an elaborate metaphor about construction workers in his body who are overworked at having to clear the roadways (his arteries) of all the crap he dumps there and who are about to go on strike.  The man takes the message to heart, buys a stationary bike, and begins to ride, but soon he tires of looking at the wall while riding, so being and artist he paints a picture on the wall to look at.  The subject?  The road construction crew the doctor used in his metaphor.  But soon he begins blacking out during his rides and having terrifying visions of the crew and their lives.  But it can’t be real, can it?

 

Writing:  9/10

Personal Fright: 2/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 2/10

Story 7: “Willa” by Stephen King

I just finished reading the writing submission guidelines for a spec fiction magazine which detailed that they do not wish to receive submissions that use conventional horror tropes or rely overmuch on overdone themes, and then they listed what they were talking about.  One such “overdone theme” was: protagonist sits around doing not much of anything and then we discover that the protagonist is actually dead.  Well, that’s kind of what “Willa” was about – but I guess if your name is Stephen King, you can get away with what one magazine calls “overdone themes.”  The story itself was pretty good and it was an enjoyable read.  The beginning was a little strange because the characters were acting in some pretty bizarre ways, but that became easily explainable once you knew they were all ghosts.  However, after that, the tale became a bit predictable.  And yet, King managed to make it both enjoyable and fun.  He is a master of the short form and with just a few short sentences can make you love or hate his characters, whichever he prefers.  I’m hoping the rest of the stories in this collection – Just After Sunset – are as well written, but far more scary.

 

Summary:  Man is involved in a minor train derailment and his wife decides to leave the site of the accident to go into town.  Man follows wife – some bizarre behavior ensues.  She finally makes him realize what he has not wanted to admit to himself, that the train accident was not minor and that they are not ok.  They are dead and now they have to make all the other passengers see that, lest they get too tied to the place of the accident and are never able to leave it.  (Note: It can be hard to move on after a traumatic experience, and this story shows us that.  We need the help of friends and loved ones to see what is right in front of our faces sometimes, even if it is an ugly truth.)

 

Writing:  8/10

Personal Fright:  1/10

General Horror/Oppressiveness: 3/10

Finshed 2 out of 3 of Chronicles of The Raven

After finishing up Noonshade, the Chronicles of the Raven are still pretty good, but only just this side of mediocre.  I also thought of another Gripe:  Don’t have characters say things like, “By the gods!”, or “The gods won’t like that…” if those are the only references whatsoever to divine beings.  If you want a deity or a pantheon in your story, do the work and create one.  Weave it/them into your tale.  Have them interact with characters or have characters pray to them but don’t just throw a god line in there because it sounds good.

I think part of the reason I have so many pet peeves about Barclay’s trilogy so far, yet still enjoy reading it, is that there is just so much potential here!  The characters are interesting, but a bit one dimensional sometimes.  The world is fascinating, but underdeveloped.  The writing is ok, but sometimes a bit flat.  It’s like I keep waiting for something really cool to happen or a particularly good line to come up and when I think I’ve waited all I can, it happens!  And I keep reading!  Only to start to get disappointed again.  And then it happens again!  Incidentally, this is also how I play golf.

Anyway, I am not moving on to the final book of the trilogy just yet – in part because the story was resolved at the end of the second and I have no idea what the third will be about.  But the main reason is we are now in the month of October and I find myself in the mood for horror once again.  So, remember all those old horror authors I picked up a while back?  Now I’m going to read them.  One story from one author at a time as I cycle through the various books I have until Halloween.  On tap is:

  • M.R. James
  • J. Sheridan LeFanu
  • H.P. Lovecraft
  • Algernon Blackwood
  • Ray Bradbury
  • Stephen King

A Temporary Solution

Unable to make a decision about what book I wanted to be reading when I leave for vacation on Thursday, I have found a temporary solution to delay deciding: the short story.  I know which books I am going to be taking, just not which one I want to read first.

But in the meantime, at least I have something to read.  A few weeks ago I was reading a post on sffworld.com about a collection of horror stories someone had found.  While that particular collection didn’t interest me much, one of the commentors talked about several authors of whom I had never heard.  Older horror authors, and when I looked them up, the giants of the genre upon whose shoulders folks like Stephen King now stand.  Men with names like:  M.R. James, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and others.  I was fascinated by this discovery because I’ve always enjoyed a good ghost story and I’ve wondered forever how they got to be popular and did anyone of letters actually write any or were they all just campfire tales for kids.  I had no idea that in the early 20th century (Lovecraft’s time) there were others out there writing about the supernatural and paranormal.  So, I did some digging and found out some more about these authors and the kinds of stories they had written – stories that sounded exactly like what I have been wanting.  Half.com is my friend and for the low, low price of like $23 I ordered a whole bunch of these old books.  Several have arrived now, one by accident and as a bonus!

I ordered a collection by Le Fanu and when it arrived it turned out to be a collection by Blackwood that I had not ordered.  I alerted the seller who apologized, refunded my money, and told me to keep the book!  It was the first and only one that had arrived by the time I needed something to read, so last night I picked it up and read the first story in it, apparently a very famous one of which Lovecraft himself said that it might be the finest ghost story ever written in the English language.  It was called, “The Willows,” and may I just say, wow!  Very suspenseful, excellent command of English diction and syntax, great sense of awe and terror, and he doesn’t commit the sin of showing the “scary thing”!  I have read that he is known for his writing about nature and the outdoors, of which “The Willows” definitely was an example, but I look forward to some of the James’ stories that take place in libraries and giant houses and such places.  As well as I look forward to the others!  Plus, I remembered King came out with a new short story collection not too long ago, Just After Sunset, so I ordered it too in hardback on half.com for $0.75  Love that site!  So, these fellas outta hold me over til Thursday when I can begin my next novel on the plane.

So bad

When I’m 396 pages into a 600 page book and I have no idea what is happening, how the characters got to where they are, how they can do the things they are doing (a helpless 16 year old orphan suddenly gets a knife and a pair of pistols and he can take down  ten or twelve trained killers without breaking a sweat?!), or really anything about the characters, then I begin to get a bit tired, a bit weary, and I want to put down the book.

But I also have this fundamental problem stopping a book in the middle.  I’ve written about these struggles before, but I am getting better at doing it.  There is just too much good writing out there to waste time reading the bad.   And, Stephen Hunt, I’m sorry to say, but The Court of the Air is so bad. 

Before I decided to put it down I went to my friends over at sffworld see if maybe I was being unfair or hasty.  I wanted to see what other readers had written, as I knew that this book was the Book of the Month for June.  Well, only fourteen of the multitude at sffworld even replied to the June thread, all uniformly panning the book, but offering hope for Hunt’s future endeavors.  I’ll reserve judgment, but most likely Hunt has lost me as a reader.  And so, with disappointed resolve, I’ll remove my bookmark from The Court of the Air and turn to my to-be-read shelf just in time for vacation.  I am excited!  There have been a couple of books I’ve been reserving for my vacation time coming up because I know they will be good.  The only question is, which shall I read first??

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by: Jesse Bullington

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Uncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

I don’t know what I’m going to pick…

The First Law: The Strong Will Take from the Weak

I raced to the finish of Duma Key at the end of last week and I have to say that while I loved the book, I found the ending to be a bit weak, unusual for a King book.  I think he fell to much into the trap of showing too much of the “horrible thing” and thereby robbing it of some of its power to terrify through being unknown.  Take, for example, the scene where the two drowned twin sisters appear at the bottom of the stairs in Big Pink, where they do and say nothing just stand there, but only for a moment in which the main character questions his sanity.  That’s terrifying.  Now compare that to the scene where the drowned man is in the kitchen with the main character, grabs him and begins to drag him away, trying to put him in manacles.  To me, that scene was just silly and not scary at all.  The monster became too real, and by becoming real it became weak, vulnerable, and easily beatable.  The last scenes in the original Heron’s Roost house were not as scary as they could of been and I felt they were a bit rushed.  Was a deadline approaching, Mr. King?  But, overall, this was a great story and one of my favorite King books.  It was engaging, interesting, a (sort-of) fresh idea, and fast paced.  A more than excellent beach read – for at least two reasons.

Now, I’ve moved on to my next book.  It was with grave amounts of hesitancy that I picked this book from the bookstore’s shelves.  I had a gift certificate and was ready to use it.  The first book I bought with it was the first book in the Prince of Nothing trilogy by R. Scott Baker, a novel that comes with a strong recommendation from a trusted friend.  Then my eye was caught by this other fantasy trilogy by new author Joe Abercrombie.  Two things attracted my immediate attention: one, as a trilogy, it was completed, and two, the binding and cover art were unusual.  On the first point, I cannot stand reading serial books if the series is not completed.  I waited until Book 7  was out before picking up Harry Potter, for example.  I will bear a grudge to the grave with me against Robert Jordan, and George R.R. Martin is is serious danger of falling into that abyss as well.  But this trilogy was completed.  The second point goes again the adage of never judge  a book by its cover, but I do that often.  The truth is, you can do that, if you’re careful.  This cover was unusual, and interesting.  Interesting enough to make me read the back.  The back was interesting enough to make me read the first chapter there in the store to get a feel for the writer’s style and and sense of diction and syntax.  The danger: it’s a fantasy book – you can pick up ten fantasy books you’ve never heard of and they all will very likely be terrible.  The good fantasy book is a gem and difficult to find.  So, that was my hesitancy.  But I liked the first chapter and I liked the description from the back of the book, so I jumped.  The Blade Itself

About 150 pages into the story now, I am glad I bought it.  It is excellent, engrossing, with wonderful, flawed, human, and ambitious characters.  So far, it is the best fantasy story I have read since A Game of Thrones (finish the damned series, please, Martin!) though it lacks all the political intrigue.  This book is definitely character driven so far, with political intrigue as the backdrop.  I appreciate the complexity of the characters themselves and look forward to a growing complexity of political relationships, some of which is slowly manifesting.  One of the interesting things about the story so far, and the characters who propel it, is the sense of over-ripeness.  This is an empire past its prime with characters who are either also past their prime or who are in danger of never realizing their potential.  Among certain minor character there is a sense not of over-ripeness, but of rottenness.  And I like that.  Nobody here is innocent.  Nobody is clean.  And the place is going to rot from the top down.

The other thing I really appreciate is Abercrombie’s facility to imbue his world with a tremendous sense of history without droning on in a lecturer’s voice.  “Ok, and then the 4th king after the reign of ….  in the year of…. following the great drought of….before the battle of…”  No, that’s boring.  What he does is inject the history of the world into his descriptions of the contemporary setting or into the mouth’s of the characters.  It’s well done.  You don’t feel like you have to learn an encyclopedic amount of information to appreciate the story; it is not a novel requiring a guidebook.

The final thing I want to comment on is how I appreciate his sense of boundary breaking and cliche avoiding.  No where was this more apparent (though it certainly is throughout the story so far) that in the part when Logen approaches the old, wizened man with the long flowing white beard and the voluminous robes and comments to himself that “…the First of the Magi, Bayaz, certainly looked the part,” only to quickly discover that that man was not Bayaz at all, but a librarian.  Bayaz was the powerfully built bald man who was currently engaged in butchering a cow.  The Butcher draws near and introduces himself as the First of the Magi.  I darn near applauded!

This is a good book so far and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it as it goes on.  I’m glad I got it and if the only complaint I saw in other reviews is that the book ends in a cliffhanger (duh…trilogy) why then I will look with eager longing to a new, well executed, high fantasy trilogy.  They are so good, and so, so far and few between.

Why Do I Like Horror Stories?

It’s been easy to see the trends in my own reading of late.  I finished The Terror and moved right to H.P. Lovecraft (which had more to do with my recent fascination with Arkham Horror: The Boardgame than anything else), but once I read a few Lovecraft stories – I find you can’t read too many in a row, so The Hound, The Unnamable, Dagon, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth did just fine for me – I immediately picked up Duma Key by Stephen King.  dumakeySometimes it is a hard decision to pick what I’ll read next but this was easy.  So, the obvious trend is horror stories.  The less immediately obvious connection between the Lovecraft and Duma Key is that they are both written in the first person.  I find that this perspective lends itself particularly well to horror stories – it lends a crucial air of credibility to the story; it is much easier to discount something from a third person perspective.

Like most King books, Duma Key is a fast paced story.  I began it only two days ago and am close to 200 pages into the story.  Part of the reason is in unburdened, uncomplicated language (by which I do not mean to suggest simple), part of it is in the gripping nature of the tales, and part of it is in the fact that he breaks up his narrative into manageable chunks: chapters divided into shorter sub-chapters.  And they all advance the plot line somehow.  That is something King is big on, and all good writers are big on.  It’s funny to me somehow, King is so marketable, so popular, and such a household name that it seems contradictory to say he is also a great writer.  Most authors that fit into the first several categories are decent writers and some are just bad.  But King is one of the most prolific Great Writers of our time.  The man really knows what he is doing.  When I was younger, I did not read King because he was forbidden for one reason or another, whether by my parents when I was really young or by my own snobbishness when I was older. (I used to say I never read books where the author’s name appears in a larger font on the cover than the title of the book, but I’ve relaxed on that – relaxed, not given up entirely!)

So, why the fascination with horror?  It’s interesting, a couple of years ago I decided to celebrate Halloween by watching a few classic horror films – TBS and TNT and SCI-FI all run marathons that time of year anyway and I DVR’d them and watched them at my leisure.  It was fun!  Now, I’ve made that a regular practice each year but find myself checking out other horror films throughout the course of the year much more regularly than I ever did before.  Last year I watched all the “originals” – the ones that I saw in the video stores as a kid and was never allowed to check out, the ones that became franchises.  I watched the original Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.  It was awesome!  Then I watched a documentary on those film’s directors and others like them called The American Nightmare and got into their thinking a little bit.  It was interesting to suddenly think of zombie flicks as social commentary (something most people probably picked up on their own) and slasher flicks as being reactions to the violence of the Vietnam War (something most people probably did not pick up on).  I tended not to stray into the realms of horror films that focused on sexual violence (The Last House on the Left) or more modern “torture-porn” (Hostel) because that is not entertaining to me.  I want to be entertained, surprised, scared, and thrilled.  Grossed out has it’s place in those films, but when grossing out becomes the motivating factor, I lose my interest, as I did after watching only three of the Masters of Horror series.  When it serves as a foil, I’m all ears (and eyes), as I was for Halloween, and The Ring.

For me, good horror touches those sensitive parts of my imagination where I do not regularly allow myself to go.  I like the suspense of it, the sense of being on the edge of something horrible.  It frees me to think about things I don’t normally think about and in a weird way, it reminds me of how fragile I am.  Part of it is probably a juvenile sense fo rebellion against my parents’ rules: thou shalt not watch horror films.  And part of it is some odd need to go beyond the normal pale of experience, and then to safely return all without having to leave my couch.  I’m sure that a neurologist could tell us all about those areas of our brains that get excited by this stuff and while that is interesting, it isn’t as important to me as knowing that I want/need to excite those areas, wherever they are.
To that end, I’m eating it up right now, spending time in Lovecraft, King, and others.  I found a website for horror short story podcasts, Pseudopod, that I’m enjoying during my morning constitutional right now.  Some are better than others, I’m sure, but to find the gems you sometimes have to sift through the trash.  And in horror writing, there is a lot of trash.  If I can smell it before I get to far in, I’ll avoid it and get to the good stuff.  But sometimes, there’s nothing better than a banal tale of horrible man-eating bugs that crawl beneath your skin, lay eggs, and burst out of filthy pustules.  It gets you going in the morning.  And, and, it provides me with that silly, inane, laughable, but altogether exciting extra sense of immediacy when next a mosquito or fly lands on my arm.

Because I know that if I want, there’s plenty of mind-warping Lovecraft, still the unequivocal King of the horror story.  Ia! Ia!

The Shadow over Innsmouth