Wednesday, May 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEWS - HORROR EDITION: Harvest Home (Thomas Tryon), Rosemary's Baby (Ira Levin), The Fog (James Herbert)

Harvest Home (1973)
Gripping, powerful, superb! - explosive descriptors like these turn up on book covers all the time. According to blurbs, 99% of all books are gripping, powerful, superb! Harvest Home is no different. My copy proudly claims that Tryon's work is "One of the most terrifying novels in years."

Yeah, yeah, we get it - I'm an idiot if I don't read your book.

Well . . . in this one case, this one beautifully macabre book is all that and a bag of chips. It truly is gripping, powerful, superb! So much so that I can't express how much I enjoyed Harvest Home beyond giving it a perfect 10, which I don't do lightly. In all the books I've read, I might give five or six a 10.

Harvest Home is a slooooow burn. 

Like many horror stories, this one starts with a married couple moving somewhere new. In this case, the Constantines have been lucky enough to land the perfect house in a reserved farming community in New England called Cornwall Coombe. And while the reader knows there's something wrong with the town, or, rather, the people within the town, what exactly isn't clear. The tension climbs in satisfying baby steps as the main character, Ned Constantine, an out-of-his-element city slicker, uncovers the history behind Cornwall Coombe and the odd rituals and practices of the seemingly hospitable locals. I hate to say too much about the plot because this book is part mystery, part horror. Unraveling the mystery is a big part of why Tryon's book is so great.

I'll say this: The story is masterful; the characters are real; the writing is smooth and immersive, dragging the reader into the tense world of Cornwall Coombe; it's Lovecraftian in its pace and tension, and the ending connects in a body-tingling way. And it was scary. I read a good bit of horror, but rarely do I find them scary. I guess I'm jaded. The Shining? Meh. Ghost Story? Meh. Hell House? Meh. 

But this one . . . THIS ONE!

I'm not sure why I don't hear more about this book. Maybe because it's from the 70's. But for every time The Shining is mentioned as one of the best, or scariest, horror novels, this one should be mentioned twice.

Score: 10 out of 10

Rosemary's Baby (1967)
"Go look at His hands," Minnie said [to Rosemary]. "And His feet."

"And His tail," Laura-Louise said.

This tale of a woman who suspects herself impregnated by Satan is well-known. When the book was released, it was the 50 Shades of its time - wildly popular, attractive in its indecency. Then came the movie. And now, nearly fifty years later, NBC has delivered a two-part movie.

Apparently the expression of innocence molested still resonates with people today. While much has changed in fifty years, the plight Rosemary faces - not being able to trust her own friends and family, the pressures of married life, the hopes and dreams and fears that accompany a new child - is something people can relate to today (minus the whole Satan-baby thing, of course). Morality is questioned; God is questioned. But most of all, safety is questioned.

The book is better than the movie. The movie is great, don't get me wrong. But the book is where it's at.

Like Harvest HomeRosemary's Baby opens with a married couple moving into a new home. But instead of a small town, it's the Bramford, a high-class, yet gothic, apartment building in NYC. The way we meet characters and learn the history of this old building makes it feel like a ghost story at first. As we meet the other residents of the Bramford, it becomes clear this isn't so. Rosemary, a stay-at-home wife, sees strange behavior in some of them. The old timers down the hall - the Castavets - are a little too friendly. And that nice girl who was living with them? She committed suicide.

When Rosemary becomes pregnant, her fears and suspicions are amplified. Not only does she suspect her neighbors of some pretty crazy stuff, she's starting to think her own husband is in on it. Ira Levin does a fantastic job of painting Rosemary and her distress. Is she crazy or is everyone else? Is her baby truly in danger? And if so, is the old couple down the hall the threat or is she?

Rosemary doesn't investigate the oddities of the Bramford - she falls into them. As such, she often feels like a passenger in the story. Nor does she seem too keen on taking control for much of the book. Her blank acceptance of some of the grimier details of the book make her frustrating at times. She transitions into a stronger character, but only barely.

What I like about Ira Levin is he doesn't mess around. His prose is sparse and fast, yet vivid. His style reminds me a little of Richard Matheson. Between this book and The Stepford Wives, it's clear that Ira Levine is a master of the page-turner. When I heard about NBC's movie coming out, I decided it was about time to read it. I think I finished it in two days. Something must've gotten in the way, because I normally would've read it in one. Like The Stepford Wives, it compels you to read on, and on, and on, until the final page is turned, and you realize you've been holding your breath an awful long time, then, finally, you breathe in deep and wander off.

Score: 8 out of 10

The Fog (1975)
England. An earthquake. A fissure in the street. A dense fog released from the bowels of the Earth. The military bungled something. Mass hysteria. Poison. A poison that perverts the mind, transforms good people, turns them wicked, turns them against one another. 
Murder. Death. Mayhem. Oh my!

James Herbert introduces a wide range of POV characters in The Fog. As the fog spreads and moves, infecting people, turning them feral, leading them down dark corridors of debauchery, we meet these characters, we learn a little about them, and then we watch them die. By their own hands or the hands of others. A gang of children savagely mutilate their teacher. A priest pisses on his congregation. A farmer is crushed by his own cows. There's blood and sex and lots of chaos. Finally, these characters fade away to reveal a central character, a hero - John Holman, Environmental Investigator! (Queue superhero music)

It was exciting at first. But then it wasn't. I found myself not caring about the characters. They came and went before I could care about any of them. Even the main character fell flat for me. The prose is fine. The scenes are exciting. But the excitement comes with diminishing returns since the characters were just too come-and-go. Like a slasher movie. And the come-and-go characters don't stop. Throughout the entire book, new people are introduced and killed five, ten, twenty pages later. Many of them have nothing to do with the main character or further the plot in any way, which is, in my understanding, supposed to be the point of every word written - to further character and/or plot. But what we have here is death for the sake of death, which I find kind of empty.

I really wanted to like this one, but couldn't. A lot of people love The Fog. I may get angry e-mails. It is what it is. Think Andromeda Strain meets The Mist meets The Crazies. That's James Herbert's The Fog. John Holman must solve the riddle of the fog, how to reverse its effects, and ultimately stop it, all while surviving a country full of ravenous lunatics trying to murder him in the worst possible ways. I forced myself to finish, as I'm hardheaded about giving up on a novel, but I barely made it.

Score: 2 out of 10

Sunday, May 11, 2014

ORIGINAL FICTION: The Homecoming by JC Hemphill

I wrote "The Homecoming" a while back and thought I'd share it today. It isn't Mother's Day themed, but it is about a boy finally connecting with his mother.

My own mom was a big part of my life and I'm grateful we were never forced to go through the tribulations Devin and his mother face in this short story.

Thanks for reading and Happy Mother's Day!

The Homecoming
by JC Hemphill

The house was quiet--
It was noisy.
There had been a lull between songs when Devin returned home from school and now Elvis' Blue Suede Shoes was blaring over the stereo. All the shades were drawn and the lights were off except for a single yellow glow at the top of the stairs. His mother's voice filtered down through the music, her lyrics a slurred step behind the King's.
She was drunk.
Dad would've said she was as drunk as a skunk. Or was it a monk? He couldn't remember. He'd have to ask Dad when he saw him.
Devin sighed and went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. It was unusual for her to be drinking this early in the day--she usually waited until after dinner to open the wine--the risk of getting another DUI on the way to McDonald's was too great--but today was an unusual day. To top it off, she wasn't drinking wine. According to the half-empty bottle on the kitchen counter, she was drinking whiskey. Knob Creek, by the label. He recognized the honey-colored bottle from Dad's old stash, except he remembered it being full with the seal intact.
A thought bloomed: the bottle, which had been locked away in the museum that was Dad's study, was out while Mother was upstairs, undoubtedly dancing in front of the mirror with a lowball glass in one hand as she belted "Go cat, go."
Which meant there was a good chance she had left the study door unlocked.
As the track changed from the upbeat Blue Suede Shoes to the crooning Heartbreak Hotel, the atmosphere shifting from motivated to melancholic, Devin made his way toward the study. A buzz of excitement filled him when he saw the door sitting open. Mother hadn't let him enter the study in a long time. Not since she had caught him using the old ham radio to contact the aliens. He'd been twisting the dials as he'd watched Dad do, trying to find the right frequency to communicate with the mothership. All he wanted was to ask them to bring Dad back. He'd trade all his toys and even his bike, a real fast one with good tires, but Mother wasn't having it. She had stormed into the room,  eyes redder than the Devil's buttocks, snatched him by the arm, and dragged him out.
The bruises healed in a couple of days, but Devin would always remember her in this way. It was the moment she had changed from an ally to a speed bump in the road to finding Dad.
Devin stepped into the room. The desk and bookshelves were shadowed outlines. Even in the dark it seemed familiar. Being in there reminded him of the feeling he got on their family trip to Disneyworld. Although Devin had never been to Disney before, he had instantly felt a part of that jubilant place. Not that there was anything jubilant about the study, but he received that same tingling sensation of being connected to a place he knew he was only visiting. It would end, this visit, this feeling, and that made the joy sad in a way.
"Hey," a sharp voice said from behind him. "What're you doin home already?" Devin turned to face his mother. She stood in the hallway with one strap of her halter-top hanging off her shoulder. Her white jeans looked wet at the bottom as if she'd waded through a flood to get there. "And what're you doin in that room? Huh?" She cantered forward, paused, and leaned against the wall to keep the world from pitching her sideways. She looked up at him, her face twisted in something between anger and concern.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEWS: American Gods (Neil Gaiman), Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami), & Blood Work (Michael Connelly)

American Gods (2001)
An ex-con named Shadow finds himself enmeshed in a secret struggle between the gods of old and the gods of new. 

Odin & Loki, Thoth & Anubis, Native American spirits & Hindu gods, the trickster spider Anansi, Johnny Appleseed, and a slew of others have settled in to a normal life among mortals, a life removed from shrines and fables, a life forgotten. Abandoned by the people who created them, these gods have lost much of their power. It's the new gods--Media, Technology, Money--who thrive under the constant worship of mankind. And for whatever reason, these upstart gods don't like the old gods--they want them dead. They want war.

But Odin, with the help of our anti-hero Shadow, plans to recruit the old gods for a final showdown with the new.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods blew my mind. It's that rare balance of literary fiction and genre fiction that I look for in a book. The story itself is exciting and well-plotted. The characters are rich, especially Shadow, the go-along-to-get-along ex-con who recently lost his wife. Much of the story is a journey of conversations. Shadow moves across the U.S. in search of the various gods hiding out, doing his best to help ol' one-eyed Odin build an army. He meets a wide range of characters--drunken leprechauns, withdrawn keepers of the underworld, common people going about their lives--and in doing so, he delves into the idea of existence, why humanity needs something to worship, and many other themes that are found throughout the fables and teachings of world mythology. But this is well hidden behind a colorful story. I was a third of the way into the book before I realized there was something bigger, deeper happening on every page.

American Gods passes the most important test in fiction: is it worth reading twice?

Lots of books are good. But few leave me wanting to read it again. Gaiman's American Gods is one of them. I could read it again just to search out all the hidden references to world religions. And another time for the story. And another for the themes. Excellent book.

Score: 9 out of 10

Norwegian Wood (1987)
Toru Watanabe is a college student in Japan. He is searching for self. He is searching for love and meaning. He is searching and he isn't even aware of it.

As an older man, Toru is looking back on his college days, remembering the events that shaped the person he has become. It began when an old friend died tragically, a pain that Toru carries with him throughout college. Always unsure of himself, commonly the third wheel, Toru is a follower, and without his best friend to take direction from, he doesn't seem quite sure of how to live. So he searches for someone to take his friend's place. This leads him to act in ways he normally wouldn't--like sleeping with random girls.

Things get complicated when Toru runs into his dead friend's girlfriend. She too has been crippled by the loss. And together, she and Toru embark on a strange, often bipolar-like relationship. All the while, Toru Watanabe is searching. The answers, it seems, are always just out of reach . . .

I like Haruki Murakami because he has a surreal edge to his writing. There's often an odd quirkiness hiding beneath the surface. You might categorize his style as 'Weird Literary Fiction--Heavy on the Literary'. His prose is always beautiful, his characters are some of the most interesting, and deeply reflective, that I've ever read, and he has a way of transforming mundane scenes into heavy insights.

Yeah, so, with that said, I wasn't blown away by Haruki Murakami's most popular book. Norwegian Wood is more of a straight forward story than his typical stuff. A to B to C to D kind of fiction. Which is fine, but I think it shows an effort to do something more accessible and mainstream. It is also, as far as I know, the only one of his books to be made into a movie. (The book, of course, is better. The movie was meh.)

It's sad. I'll say that. A deep vein of melancholy runs through the book. Life is hard, even when it appears easy, and Murakami makes you see that. For theme and depth of character, I'd give this book a 10. But it just wasn't as interesting as most of his work and a little slow. I'm also not big on the love story. If checking Murakami out for the first time (which I suggest, he's a modern great), I wouldn't start with Norwegian Wood. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is pretty amazing, though.

Score: 6 out of 10

Blood Work (1998)
Former F.B.I. agent Terrell McCaleb is living on a houseboat, soaking up the sun and enjoying retirement. It's important that he take it easy--he is, after all, the recent recipient of a brand new heart. Too much stress and the transplant will give him complications. Relax--doctor's orders.

Yeah, right.

A woman shows up at his boathouse in classic P.I. fashion. Her sister, see, was murdered. And could McCaleb help her find the killer? Oh, uh, by the way, that new heart of yours? Yeah, it belonged to my sister. So . . . you kinda have to help, since she died so you could live and all.

This leads to an investigation (and a whole lot of heart trouble). But Michael Connelly doesn't write about random murders; he writes about serial killers. In Blood Work, it's the Code Killer.

Nothin better than a good mystery. Nothin. But I read very little of the genre because I happen to be really good at figuring out plots, which is fine, unless the ending hinges on solving a mystery, like who the killer is. Then it sucks. I get halfway into a book, realize I know the answer, read anyway in case I'm wrong, only to throw the book across the room when I'm right. 450 pages worth of my time wasted! Connelly is hit or miss for me. But when he hits, he hits in a big way. The Poet is one of my favorite mysteries, and, now, so is Blood Work.

I had this one figured out. I knew who the killer was. I knew it. But I didn't. Connelly only had me thinking I did. To me, that is the best thing in a mystery: genuine shock.

The story is closely tied to McCaleb's transplant and is plotted in a satisfying way. The prose is quick and clean. He does an excellent job of explaining investigative procedure without getting boring. This one is worth reading.

My only complaint comes from the cliches. Retired (or soon to retire) law officer? Check. Tough as nails? Check. Houseboat? Check. Damsel in distress who shows up in search of the best detective in town? Check. Tough-as-nails detective falls into forbidden love with said damsel? Check.

There's also a movie staring Clint Eastwood. It was disappointing. Because Hollywood thinks they know better or I-don't-know-what, they changed who the killer was. They changed it to who I thought it was in the book. If I had seen the movie first, I would've known the ending, and I never would've bothered with the book. But the book is good. It's actually well-written, unlike the movie. And, most importantly, it wasn't predictable. Way to go Hollywood.

Score: 8 out of 10