Mini Reviews (Halloween Edition)

A lot of people ask me to recommend creepy books this time of year. I wasn’t able to do this until recently because I didn’t often read scary stuff. As a kid, I ran out of the room if a trailer for a horror movie came on TV, and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series was almost too much to handle. (I’m pretty sure there was one with an evil ventriloquist’s dummy…) Reading nightmarish stuff the last few Octobers has been fun because this is a genre I’d previously neglected—I thought it would be all gore and jump scares—but it’s full of imaginative writing, memorable characters, and brilliant pacing. This is also the one genre where I almost don’t mind cheesy “and then everything was okay” happy endings because if the monster weren’t defeated at the end I might never sleep again. 😉

So here’s this year’s crop:

(Title links lead to Goodreads pages; this will be long enough without summaries!)

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Overall: 4.0 (of 5.0)
It’s a classic, but I’m not sure it’s aging well. The core story (creating the monster, some of the monster’s experiences, and the final showdown) are solid, but the connective tissue comprises middling philosophy and rampant sentimentality. Everyone in Dr. Frankenstein’s life (except the monster) is the absolute BEST: his friends are paragons of virtue, his cousin/wife-to-be is a shining beacon of goodliness, and his saintly mother dies with a smile lest she upset anyone with her grief. Dr. Frankenstein is a tedious narrator and his self-pity is trying. All his misery comes from his inability to treat his creature with a shred of decency, but what is he to do when the poor creature is just so…ugly?

His words had a strange effect upon me. I compassionated him and sometimes felt a wish to console him, but when I looked upon him, when I saw the filthy mass that moved and talked, my heart sickened and my feelings were altered to those of horror and hatred. I tried to stifle these sensations; I thought that as I could not sympathize with him, I had no right to withhold from him the small portion of happiness which was yet in my power to bestow.” (81)

And check out this hyperbolic whinging after the creature exacts his revenge:

A fiend had snatched from me every hope of future happiness; no creature had ever been so miserable as I was; so frightful an event is single in the history of man. (112)

Dr. Frankenstein is worse off than anyone in history! Shelley’s use of “creature” here is great, though, since it shows (again) that the doc’s chief fault is a lack of empathy. The sections narrated by the creature are a welcome change of pace, but they soon become too long-winded (impressive for a being that just learned to speak). In a blessing to English teachers everywhere, the creature remains unnamed and students out themselves as not having read the book the instant they call him “Frankenstein.”

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Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Overall: 4.7 (out of 5.0)
The most surprising book of the month! I saw both film adaptations (the Swedish original and the American remake) circa 2010 and only remembered the basic plot. The book was much more expansive, with a larger cast, more vampires, and more gross-out moments. When I started reading, I didn’t pay as much attention to characters I thought would stay on the periphery (i.e., everyone outside Eli and Oskar’s immediate orbit). Far from being the filler characters they are in the movie, though, many of them have complete story arcs. Eventually, I figured this out and started paying more attention. Once I did, I was impressed.

Let the Right One In has got a little of everything. Lindqvist’s version of vampirism has its supernatural/fairy-tale elements alongside pseudo-sciency bits. Vampires can’t enter a room without being invited, even as the virus that creates them is described more like a medical condition. As in, modern people who catch the virus describe it in medical terms—it’s an old condition described in a new way. This makes for a suprisingly interesting mash-up, something I didn’t even know was missing from usual vampire fiction. There are vampires resigned to their fates, tragic ones, and truly disgusting ones; this range is unusual and leads to a deep and involving story. Be warned though: It’s pretty disgusting.

Note: The pedophilia angle (mostly in the first quarter of the book) was unexpected. If it was implied in the movie I either blocked it out or didn’t catch it. Eli’s relationship with HĂ„kan is symbiotic in a bad way: She knows he’s attracted to children and he knows she’s a vampire. Their exchange of services is nauseating and clearly untenable. I mention this because it isn’t something you’d expect to encounter in a vampire book and it’s incredibly disturbing.

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The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Still reading…no score yet.
Part of familiarizing myself with a genre means I’ve got to spend time with the classics. I read some H.P. Lovecraft in high school, but his writing didn’t appeal to me. The stilted, old-fashioned language and the weirdness put me off. The King in Yellow has been cited as one of Lovecraft’s influences for the Necronomicon. I’m only halfway through this collection now. While the stories are good, they’re also deeply strange and skin-crawling.

With the exception of one story so far, this collection is structured around an assortment of characters finding the play “The King in Yellow” and going mad. Some are drawn to it, others try to avoid it, but no one can stop reading once they get started. The play itself is never outlined (not yet at least) so it exists mostly in its effect on the characters. Given that the same general plot is explored in each, I was expecting a lot of repetition, but there’s a good amount of variety in the characters so far. Somehow, it’s eerier that a variety of people are drawn to the play, including seemingly normal people. Since this is one of those books that has influenced many others, readers who are more familiar with horror might see these stories as rote and predictable (even I’ve called a couple endings), but they’re well-written and definitely provoke a shiver.

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It by Stephen King

Overall: 4.5 (out of 5.0)
Full review here. TL;DR: Great book; great movie.

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The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I’m not posting a mini review since The Loney deserves a full one. I’ve read it twice now and can’t make up my mind about it. The brooding atmosphere that comes from two (two!) gothic mansions and a religious mania make it a claustrophobic read, but the warm relationship between the brothers adds some lightness—plus, they give the reader someone to cheer for. The pacing is brilliant but the ending… There’s just not enough information for me to sort it all out. There are a few ways to interpret it, but all open a plot hole. I read The Loney with a couple friends and everyone had a slightly different take on the ending, but no one’s theory answered all questions. There was a loose thread in each that unwound the whole thing. Frustratingly, not enough people have read this little gem, so online chatter is in short supply.

Therefore, I should give this book a high score so that many, many more people read it! But if any one of those people ask me to explain the ending I’ll be at a loss and look like an idiot… My hope is that in pulling quotes for a full review, I’ll figure out the ending. It’ll be like in college where I didn’t figure out my thesis statement until halfway through the paper.

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Zero K by Don DeLillo

Still reading…no score yet.
I’m not sure why I thought this book would be creepy. I wanted something with a little sci-fi edge to round out the list. Don DeLillo’s unsettling White Noise is one of those books I had to read for class that turned out to be good. Though I own a couple other DeLillo books, I keep returning to White Noise. I do this sometimes—when I find a book I really like by an author, I’ll stall on their other works in case they aren’t as good. It’s so disappointing when a writer follows up a great book with a mediocre one!

Fear of death is a big theme of White Noise and, while it isn’t scary, the repeated refrain “Who will die first?” is the kind of thing that gets stuck in my head when I’m trying to sleep. Since Zero K digs into dying more directly, I expected the same kind of unsettling vibe. Though many reviews describe this book as funny, the cryogenic facility felt terrifyingly sterile to me. I thought this book was heading into some dark territory (hence its presence on my October list), but I put it down halfway through. I wasn’t feeling a connection to any of the characters and their ridiculously pretentious mode of speaking got to me.

99% of the reason I picked up this book is that I’ve been working on a series of stories about a cryogenic facility and wanted to check out the competition. DeLillo and I have gone completely different directions with our stories, which is really all I wanted from this book.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0)
This is more of a psychological thriller than a horror novel, but Tom Ripley isn’t someone I’d ever want to meet. I didn’t link to Goodreads because this is a book that’s more fun the less you know about it; spoilers are tough to avoid for this one given its popularity. All you need to know is the barest outline: A wealthy man pays Tom to convince his son to return home. The son, Dickie Greenleaf, has been gallivanting around Europe and his father thinks Tom, a former schoolmate, can push him in a way that family can’t. Tom soon becomes enamored with Dickie’s way of life and doesn’t want to uphold his end of the bargain since it’ll upend the gravy train.

The Talented Mr. Ripley starts slow but builds to a fever pitch. The writing is clever and tight, there are numerous bits of dark humor, and details from the earliest chapters pay off at the climax. Tom’s internal monologue, bizarrely, is simultaneously over-confident and paranoid. It’s such a closely-written, internal portrayal of his mindset that it’s hard to see how this was ever adapted into a film. Even if you’ve seen the film, there’s plenty here for a more unfiltered view of the characters.

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Happy Reading!

Review: It

The first Stephen King book I’ve ever finished! The Stand, The Shining, and The Dark Tower all remain half-finished in my queue, but my love for the latest film adaptation of It propelled me through the 1,100+ page book. Summary from Goodreads:

To the children, the town was their whole world. To the adults, knowing better, Derry, Maine was just their home town: familiar, well-ordered for the most part. A good place to live.
It was the children who saw – and felt – what made Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurked, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reached up, seizing, tearing, killing…
The adults, knowing better, knew nothing.
Time passed and the children grew up, moved away. The horror of IT was deep-buried, wrapped in forgetfulness. Until they were called back, once more to confront IT as IT stirred and coiled in the sullen depths of their memories, reaching up again to make their past nightmares a terrible present reality.

The Good

I’ve been hearing for years that King’s writing is terrifying, but I couldn’t see past the hokey visuals that plague many of his screen adaptations. Some of IT’s incarnations are innately horrific, but others don’t translate to film (e.g., a werewolf in a varsity jacket, or a giant bird). The kids are chased by the werewolf after seeing a movie, but B-movie monsters from the 1950s are more campy than scary. King adds a slew of tiny, disgusting details to transform a dopey villain into something that made me jump in my chair.

Even when King rattles on too long with historical information or by emphasizing the villain’s villainy for the 50th time, each set piece is paid off by a terrifying and unique encounter with IT. Several chapters almost function as stand-alone horror stories. The first to mind (both of which I read twice) are “Another One of the Missing: The Death of Patrick Hockstetter” and “Bev Rogan Pays a Call.”

At times, the book’s length was a point in its favor. I’m tempted to say some sections were bogged down in detail, but I was always left with a crystal-clear view of the character being described. Given how much of this book features supernatural elements, this clarity is a plus even as it triples the reading time.

Also, any time King talks about writing, it’s fantastic. One of the kids, Bill, grows up to be a writer. His path to fame and fortune includes some epic criticism from a mediocre university professor:

“This is better,” the instructor writes on the title page. “In the alien counterstrike we see the vicious circle in which violence begets violence; I particularly liked the “needle-nosed” spacecraft as a symbol of socio-sexual incursion. While this remains a slightly confused undertone throughout, it is interesting.” (163)

The socio-sexual undertone is confused because it’s nonexistent! I think I had a class with this guy…

The Excellent

It is two books in one; there’s one story for kids (14/15-years-old) and another for adults. Reviewers who read it at a younger age make me a bit sorry I didn’t read it much sooner. IT orchestrates the chaos and bad fortune in Derry, and, while IT primarily feeds on children, IT manipulates adults into turning a blind eye to the murders and disappearances. If you read this book as a kid, you’ll worry about something grabbing your ankles as you climb into bed. As an adult, you’ll fear being part of the problem.

When children see a version of IT (as dead people, mummies, lepers) according to their fears, they can go on afterwards (assuming they survive):

[Ben] remembered that the day after he had seen the mummy on the iced-up Canal, his life had gone on as usual. He had known that whatever it had been had come close to getting him, but his life had gone on. . . . He had simply incorporated the thing he had seen on the Canal into his life, and if he had almost been killed by it. . . well, kids were always almost getting killed. They dashed across streets without looking, they got horsing around in the lake and suddenly realized they had floated far past their depth on their rubber rafts and had to paddle back, they fell off monkey-bars on their asses and out of trees on their heads. (691)

But grown-ups have a narrower view of the world. They can’t bounce back:

But when you grew up, all that changed. You no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window. . . but when something did happen, something beyond rational explanation, the circuits overloaded. The axons and dendrites got hot. You started to jitter and jive, you started to shake rattle and roll, your imagination started to hop and bop and do the funky chicken all over your nerves. You couldn’t just incorporate what had happened into your life experience. It didn’t digest. (691)

While it’s not uncommon for coming-of-age stories to have a “the kids are on their own” premise, I don’t think I’ve felt as strange to realize I’m in the grown-up camp now as I did reading this book. The scenes with the kids are tinged with nostalgia and made me feel that sweet summer freedom again. Though It is rightly classified as a horror, its heart is in the friendship between the kids (and in the adults when they reunite). I’m not sure how It is more moving than other books I’ve read in this genre—especially given how much of the book is spent with a sadistic, clown-shaped thing—but all victories feel earned, the losses sting, and I can’t remember cheering on a group of protagonists as hard as I was pulling for the Losers Club at the end.

The Scary

The book is scarier than the movie, so if you see the movie and want more (and darker) scares as well as some mythology behind Pennywise (a.k.a. Bob Gray, a.k.a. IT) then I recommend the book. Plus, it’s different enough that you’ll still be in suspense when the kids/adults encounter It. The book version features tunnels that are far narrower (and filthier) so there’s a tension that isn’t present in the movie’s wide, not-quite-dark sewer system. Match-lit tunnels will always be more frightening than those lit by flashlights.

The Wtfffff

There’s a weird sex scene that a whole lot has been written about. Even King says he probably wouldn’t include it now if he could do the book over, but it’s easy enough to skim.

Overall

I was really surprised and impressed by the level of detail and world-building. I always equated King with cheap jump scares and gross-out imagery, but was happy to find something more nuanced and layered. Because It is so extremely long, I feel like I know as much about Derry as my actual hometown and the main cast is easy to picture. Sometimes King leans hard on stereotypes and the supporting cast thins out a bit, but I had a lot of fun reading the book.

I read online that King digs into the mythology more in his The Dark Tower series so I’ve started The Gunslinger. It’s not what I expected so far; it’s very dreamy and disconnected and not at all like the solid world of Derry, Maine.

4.5 (out of 5) I had to skim a little (not much!). While the length helps the book feel immersive, a little tightening up wouldn’t go amiss. King sidesteps the issue of “is this all a coincidence” neatly and the scary bits are scary.

 

October TBR

I’ve spent the last two Octobers reading creepy books. The cooler weather makes it feel good to curl up under a blanket and read something scary.

There will be a couple non-scary reviews in October too. I’m behind with NetGalley reviews and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach comes out on the 3rd.

I’ve picked out seven for this month:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I read this back in February and have been sitting on the review. It’s not scary, but seems seasonally appropriate given how Frankenstein’s monster is a common Halloween costume.

 

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’ve seen both movies—the Swedish original and the American remake—though it’s been a while. I don’t read many vampire books, but this one sounds good. Both movies had some excellent jump scares so I plan to read this with all the lights on.

 

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

I picked this up after the first season of True Detective, but haven’t read it. I tried the first story, but it was weirder and trippier than I thought it would be.

 

It by Stephen King

According to my Kindle, this book is 1,477 pages long. What a doorstop! I wouldn’t have put it on my October list if I hadn’t just finished it because I’m not sure I could fit seven reviews into the month if I had to read 1,000+ page books too. The book is more frightening than the movie; many of the most terrifying/disgusting scenes would be hard to put on film without looking campy/cheap. Still though, if you haven’t seen the new movie—you should.

 

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

The end of this book is strange so it’s been on my reread list since I read it last year. The religious mania in the book creates an uncomfortable, unsettling tone and there are TWO gothic mansions, not just one. That’s twice the fun.

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

I wouldn’t call the overall story “horror,” but there was one chapter in the middle that made my blood turn cold. I had to set it down and walk away. Zero K taps into the whole fear-of-death thing, though not so obviously as White Noise. White Noise has a repeated refrain of “who will die first” every time the lead character looks at his wife that similarly got under my skin.

 

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

No ghosts, vampires, or werewolves here—just creepy ol’ Tom Ripley who kills his friend and takes over his life. Yikes.

For some recommendations in the meantime, here are links to reviews from previous years:

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Hell House by Richard Matheson

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Shutter Island by Dennis

Slade House by David Mitchell

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

And don’t forget the most terrifying, skin-crawling vampire book of all time: Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. 😛

Happy October!