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

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