Cannonball Read 6, Book 55: Revival by Stephen King

19196719Yes, I know I know. I should just re-title my blog “I Read A Lot of Stephen King”. But he’s been my go-to author for nearly thirty years and given that he had a brush with death fifteen years ago now and toyed with retiring twelve years ago, so any new book from him is a cause for me to skip about and click my heels. That this is his second book of the year and there is another on the horizon already for next year, well, hallelujah. And I have said over and over again that a really satisfying ending is the one thing that eludes his work more often than not, so the jacket copy promising that Revival has “the most terrifying conclusion King has ever written” inspires excitement and nervousness from me, in roughly equal measure.

Our hero is Jamie Morton, a vaguely successful musician and an incredibly successful heroin addict (no surprise there). Casting a shadow over his entire life is Reverend Jacobs. When Jamie is a young boy, the Jacobs family move in down the road and the Rev has a profound effect on Jamie and his family. Rev Jacobs is obsessed with electricity and experimenting with its restorative uses. Everything is ticking along nicely until a tragedy strikes the Reverend and he then ends up being fired from his job after giving what comes to be known as “The Terrible Sermon” (and it’s one of the most brilliantly awful parts of the book when it happens).

The Reverend vanishes but re-appears at key moments of Jamie’s life, having re-invented himself as a carny show healer who would make Jim Bakker look restrained and unimaginative. His experiments with electricity sees him performing real healings, with some fake ones thrown in for show. He has harnessed electricity to cure things conventional medicine cannot. He cures Jamie of his heroin addiction, for starters. There are side effects though, unpleasant ones and never will the banality of the phrase “something happened” seem so gruesome.

As they both grow older, Jacobs obsession with electricity grows exponentially, his grip on sanity loosens and his claws sink ever deeper into Jamie’s life as we head towards the apparently terrifying conclusion. And I am going to give nothing further away about the story or its conclusion than that. Whether or not you find it terrifying is up to you, but what I will say is that it seems King has found his showdown mojo. His latest two or three works have all had final chapters which range from chilling to heartbreaking, but are all richly satisfying. And this is most definitely satisfying. And after the grand finale, there’s an epilogue to really hammer things home. Up until the final portion, when King goes full on Frankenstein’s Monster, this is an intriguing and well crafted novel. Thereafter, it’s a demonstration of how lame American Horror Story really is and an abject lesson in how reading something can scare you into sleeping with the lights on.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 54: It by Stephen King

644173I have long held the opinion that It is King’s masterpiece. I read it when I was 13 years old and then read it many more times during my teens. But it occurred to me recently that I haven’t read it for a long time. Then I gave it some more thought and realised it’s getting on for twenty years since I read it. Twenty motherfucking years. This caused me to think a) fucking hell I am getting old and b) I wonder if it holds up, twenty years later?

Even more frightening, it’s closing in on thirty years since the book was first published. And even more frightening than THAT, it’s the 13th book in his career. King has been publishing books for most of my life. Sweet mother of God. ANYWAY, so It. As we all know, it tells the story of Derry, Maine and the dark, malevolent, child murdering force which inhabits it. Every 27 or so years, it re-surfaces and murders some children to feed itself, then hibernates for a generation. That is until seven teenagers, The Losers Club, are drawn together and try to fight It in 1958. They win, but swear a pact that if It comes back, they’ll come back and fight It to the death.

Naturally, they didn’t defeat It (if they did, it would be a much shorter book than the 1376 pages of the current paperback edition). The book jumps between 1958 and 1985 and the action is interspersed with chapters detailing the fictional history of Derry. Several of my friends are huge fans and dislike him being called a horror writer. One of them believes he is our generation’s Tom Sawyer, another goes even further and calls him our generation’s Charles Dickens. This book is probably the best example to show what a phenomenal storyteller King is. Juggling seven main characters is no easy feat, and they are each fully realised and fleshed out. They’re also relatable (as a fat kid (and adult, let’s face it), I was always Team Hanscom). While the psychotic bully of Henry Bowers might be a little broadly drawn, he is more plot device than anything else.

But let’s not lose focus of the fact that King IS a horror writer too. And he knows more about frightening his Constant Readers than anyone. And It is terrifying, no doubt about it. It’s the biggest failing of every circus in the world that they think clowns are fun and funny. No, fuck off, they’re terrifying and nobody likes them. King knows this and so It’s most common form is Pennywise The Clown. It can take the form of your deepest fears and turn them into a terrifying reality. The sequences where the children are terrorised and murdered found their way into my dreams when I first read the book, and not in a fun way. I can pay the book no higher compliment.

However, there is one thing that has evaded King many MANY times over his career (and has been mentioned before) and that is the properly satisfying conclusion. This is where I remember It falling down when I read it in my teens, and it still falls down and falls down hard when I re-read it as a nearly 40 year old. While I appreciate King’s “pull no punches” attitude to killing off characters, the final showdown and aftermath just feels lame, especially when everything that came before has set the bar so very high. It’s a fumble, but a fumble I can forgive, oddly enough. The less said about the teenage gang bang as a way to escape from the sewers in the 1958 sequence though, the better.

So, is it a great book? Yes. Is it flawed? Oh yes. Does it still hold up? Most definitely.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 38: Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

17726082I really enjoyed Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. It was a book as much about the love of books as it was the dark tale it was telling, and telling it with an unreliable narrator to boot. It left a lasting impression and when I spotted her follow up, a ghost story no less, on the shelf in Foyles, I had to buy it. I bloody love ghost stories. I love being scared when I’m reading or watching something, it’s the best. I haven’t had a book send shivers down my spine since Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (there’s one scene in that book so tense and frightening, it nearly caused a panic attack. High praise indeed). So I was properly excited to read this one. And that’s where it all goes wrong.

It doesn’t help that the marketing for the novel has this to say about it: “Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line”. I spent the whole book waiting for there to be anything approaching tension, but I couldn’t find it among the long rambling descriptions of mundane day to day workings of mills and funeral emporiums. So, our hero is William Bellman. At the age of 11, he has the best catapult and is the envy of all his friends. He kills a rook with it one day, which apparently will be important later. He grows up and leads a charmed life, until people around him begin to die. At every funeral William attends, a stranger is present, dressed in black and smiling at him. After losing his wife and all but one of his children to illness, William is almost insane with grief and at his wife’s grave, he encounters the stranger again. This time, they talk and the stranger makes a proposition.

From that proposition, William builds a successful funeral emporium, the titular Bellman & Black. The first half of the novel is focussed so much on William’s work at the family mill, it’s mostly quite dull. The second half focuses on the building of this new venture and is even more dull, because people stop dying. Nothing ratchets up line by line, apart from maybe my impatience for something to actually happen, for Setterfield to pay off Bellman’s obsession with rooks, why people died around him, something, anything. But when it comes, the payoff is a crushing, boring, and very much not scary disappointment.

If you don’t believe the hype, and don’t know this is supposed to be heart thumping, perfect and tense or whatever, then there’s something quite absorbing about the earlier parts of the book. William is a charming rogue of a character, and the happiness he finds with his family being so comprehensively shattered makes for some bleak reading. But nothing can save the second half, where William is cold, closed off and occasionally barking mad, monomaniacally focussed on his business. Such a disappointment.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 29: In The House Upon The Dirt Between The Lake and The Woods by Matt Bell

16041846Ah this book. Last year, it was everywhere I turned. It was on list after list after list of recommendations, of mid year and year end round ups. It was hotly anticipated and has been highly lauded. So even though it wasn’t really something I would normally go after, I thought I would see what all the fuss was about. And as unwieldy as it is, I do really like the title. It’s not yet published in the UK, so I imported it via a friend visiting from the USA. It tells the story of a married couple who move to the titular house to start a family. But this is a fairy tale world, where the wife can sing things into existence and the husband can commune with the wildlife and as every pregnancy fails, events become ever darker and more sinister.

Things do get off to a promising start. Our narrator, the husband (Bell doesn’t give them anything as straightforward as names), takes one of the failed foetuses into himself, calls it a fingerling, and begins to listen as it talks to him. It’s super creepy and kind of brilliant and the rage that consumes him as they watch his wife take ever more desperate measures to pretend her last pregnancy has not failed is quite chilling. But things begin to go downhill fast. Bell is making his debut as a novelist, and the idea isn’t enough to be spun out to a full length novel at just over 300 pages. It’s a short story, stretched far beyond its scope for narrative and Bell’s use of language. What starts out as equal parts florid, lyrical and spiky soon becomes tiresome, repetitive and dull. I really wanted to like it. And for about 50 pages, I did enjoy it.

Problem is, I then had another 250 pages to wade through, with nameless characters I’m not overly invested in. The wife is barely there, and once you get past the lengths she’s gone to for a child, there’s not really anything more there to hold on to. Instead we have seemingly endless pages of the husband fishing in the lake and trapping animals in the dirt.  And I hope you like the words “house”, “dirt”, “lake” and “woods”, because you will read them approximately eleventy billion times before you get to the end of this not really that long but still far too long book.

Ultimately, if you read this sentence: “The squid was a hunter and a trapper too, and I was the squid and the squid was me, and we shot through the ink toward the bear, searching for that thin breadth of bone-spaced chance, and as we jetted through that horror I heard the fingerling’s voice call out to me, call out in many voices for me to save him, to take him back in, begging as only a child can beg” and you think “holy fuck that’s amazing” then this is the book for you and I hope you enjoy it much more than I did. If you rolled your eyes and thought “oh for heavens sakes” then don’t even pick it up. I prefer books with characters and a narrative, something I can get interested in and care about. If I am left in awe of the wordsmithery along the way, bonus. If I’m not gripped and I call think is “STOP SAYING THE WORDS ‘HOUSE’ AND ‘LAKE'” then nobody is having any fun. Ah well!

Cannonball Read 6, Book 25: NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

17202851I mentioned in my review of Horns last year that if I had Stephen King for a father, I wouldn’t have been a writer for love nor money. The shadow he casts is impressive, to say the least (and Mr Mercedes is imminent, about which I am very excited). So if it were me, the prospect would have been too daunting to undertake. But Hill dropped his family name and tried for as long as possible to keep his origins out of the press. It wasn’t that long, since he basically looks EXACTLY LIKE HIS DAD. And it turns out, with this creepy epic, that the family resemblance doesn’t stop there.

The A of the US title has been swapped for an R here in the UK (presumably in the US it really is pronounced Nosfer-ay-tu) but that is by the by. Victoria McQueen, aka “The Brat”, discovers one summer that she has a special talent. If she needs to find something, all she has to do is cross the Shorter Way Bridge and she finds it. Never mind that the Bridge was torn down years before and that bridges can’t move. Whenever she needs it, the Bridge is there. But then her “gift” causes her to cross paths with the hideously evil child murder, Charles Talent Manx.  She becomes the only child to ever escape him and he ends up in prison. The rest of the children Manx took are trapped forever in Christmasland, where it’s Christmas every day, but nobody is having any fun.

I really struggled to sum up the plot of this one, as you can probably tell. Not only is it epic and sprawling, it is also twisted and evil. In the best ways. Hill takes his time to set things up, creating fully rounded characters for us to care about as he does so. And then he pulls the rug and puts the reader into a full tilt thriller that manages to be both chilling and hugely exciting at the same time. The section where Vic encounters Manx for the first time and escapes him is up there in terms of making your palms sweat with anxiety with the breakout sequence in Emma Donoghue’s Room. 

The chilling and the creepiness isn’t retained to the supernatural elements of the book either. With Bing Partridge, Manx’s educationally subnormal and increasingly unhinged helper, Hill has given us one of the most memorably unpleasant characters in recent years. Between him and Manx and the horrors of Christmasland, I would recommend reading this book in broad daylight. And you’ll probably feel like you need to take a shower afterwards. Believe it or not, that is really high praise. Oh and special mention for the brief mention of the True Knot, a neat little crossover from Doctor Sleep. King is forever self-referencing (the pinnacle of which has to be 11.22.63), and now Hill seems to be blending his and his father’s fictional worlds, so in about five books time, it will all be so meta my brain may well implode.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 102: Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ by Mendal W. Johnson

1488112

 

 

I didn’t know this book existed until Joseph D’Lacey wrote about it for a scary books feature around Halloween. It’s out of print and a tough mother to find, but thanks to my friend Louisa‘s tireless efforts, a copy was procured and I was able to find out whether it lived up to D’Lacey’s description of it as “utterly harrowing”.

Oh, it does.

So, the Adams are rich, their parents jet off to Europe for 10 days, leaving their two children in the care of a babysitter, college student Barbara. Along with three friends, the bored almost teenagers take Barbara hostage, because they can, because it’s a fun silly game. Right? When the magnitude of what they have done begins to become apparent, suddenly, letting Barbara go no longer seems like an option and the kids need a new ending to their game.

Johnson hits the ground running, with Barbara taken prisoner in the first few pages. There is then, for the full duration of the novel, no let up in her plight. Johnson gets inside her head and the heads of her five captors brilliantly, the motivations for everyone’s behaviour are all so horribly believable. It makes for a tense and nauseating read, for sure. I found that I was torn between being unable to put it down as it was so gripping and brilliant and almost unable to carry on reading it as it was just so bleak. One of the more unusual reactions I’ve had to reading a book.

Detractors knock the book for its one dimensional characters, for being unrealistic and also for being boring. I can’t quite fathom any of that. Poor tragic Barbara is fully fleshed out, which makes her ordeal even more difficult to read. The five sociopath teens are also given far more depth than you’d expect, some of what Johnson comes up with for them is properly chilling. As for boring, it’s far far from it. It’s not an easy read, nor is it fast paced. There are whole chunks where nothing happens as Barbara tries to think her way out of her predicament. But if you confuse “in depth” with “boring”, then that’s not really my problem.

This book really isn’t for everyone. The unrelenting bleakness of it will be too much for some people, even those inured to the gore and horror and torture porn that is rife today. Let’s Go Play At The Adams’  is a different beast altogether. It gets under your skin and it will stay there long after you finish reading it.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 88: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

17666439

 

So this is a first. Stephen King has often cross pollinated his characters from one book into another, he’s written a fantasy series, he’s published a serialised novel and he’s republished a “writer’s cut” of The Stand with lots of deleted material restored. But he’s never written a bona fide sequel to a previously standalone novel before. And while not even his most ardent fan would be excited for Cujo 2: Electric Boogaloo, the anticipation for a novel about the little kid from The Shining all grown up has swelled to almost deafening levels.

Well, it was worth the wait. It’s always a bugbear of mine how authors of sequels have to incorporate information from the previous novel(s) for those who can’t be bothered to read it. It always irks me because, firstly if you want to read the follow up, why wouldn’t you want to start at the beginning? But also, the backstory is often quite artlessly woven in (Armistead Maupin is the worst offender of this in Tales of The City. By the time you get the last of the six novels in the  original series, he’s just regurgitating whole chunks of the predecessors). So it’s a relief when the opening chapters tell you just enough of Danny’s past as it takes us from his traumatised childhood to his present state as a recovering alcoholic adult, before starting the story proper. That these opening chapters also contain some of the most terrifying imagery he’s conjured up in years can’t go unnoticed. I started reading this at 1am and very quickly had to stop lest I NEVER slept again.

So Dan Torrance is now ten years sober, regularly attending AA meetings and working as an orderly in a hospice. He still has the shining and uses his talent at the hospice in a way that earns him the (goodnatured) nickname of the book’s title. He can also sense that out there somewhere is a young girl who is more powerful than he ever was, but like him she is in trouble and needs his help. When his path begins to cross with Abra Stone (my compulsion to yell “CADABRA!” after I read her name is nicely offset early on when he makes it her email address), Dan finds himself up against some truly unpleasant people who want Abra for their own evil ends.

A bunch of evil undead carnies, called The True Knot sustain themselves not with blood but with what they call steam. It’s an essence only found in people who have the shining and well, you can imagine how it’s extracted. This is Stephen King, after all. When their latest victim accidentally pulls Abra into the oldest member of the True’s head (yes, I know how that sounds), they realise the answer to all their steam prayers is right there. Abra knows they won’t stop until they have her so she needs to fight back. And she needs Dan to help her.

I maintain my opinion, previously reiterated in my reviews on here, that there is nobody who can tell a story like King can. Yes, he’s had his duff moments, but when he’s at the top of his game, for characters and storytelling, he is pretty much unassailable. While the story of Abra’s clash with the True is deftly and excitingly told, so is the history of some of its members. But this is Dan Torrance’s story and his is, surprisingly, quite beautiful. His internal battle with the awful things he did while he was trying to drink the pain away is unflinching and should make you ache. I broke my cardinal rule of reading for the final 15 pages, all of which focus on Dan’s redemption. I read it walking along the street (something I always tut at people for doing) as I simply couldn’t stop reading. And those final pages are just so beautiful and moving that I’m not embarrassed at all to confess that I burst into tears while reading them. Yeah, I’ve had butcher moments in my life, but this book took me on such a glorious journey that I was very sad when it was over.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 84: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

9532850

 

Since it’s October and traditionally the month we all read scary stuff, I thought I’d give The Small Hand a whirl. After all, it’s subtitled A Ghost Story and comes from the pen of the woman who gave us The Woman In Black, whose reputation most definitely precedes it.

Like all good scary stories, it’s simple and straightforward with a premise that will make you clutch at pearls. One evening, Adam Snow gets lost on a drive home from a business meeting. He finds himself outside a derelict house, The White House and while he is standing and looking at it, he feels a small, icy cold, ghostly hand take his own. Of course, there’s nothing there. Seriously, just reading that synopsis almost had me running screaming from the room. But the book itself doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise.

The main problem is that as it’s such a simple story, it can’t really be an overly lengthy one. This feels like a long short story that her editor said “Susan, why don’t you try and pad it out a bit and publish it as a short novel?” Most of the padding revolves around Snow’s job as a private dealer in rare and antique books, none of it is particularly interesting, nor is it relevant to the story. So the creeping horror leeches out of the pages every so often. Maybe Hill was thinking readers would be unnerved enough to be on edge that the little hand could re-emerge at any point. I just kept thinking “I don’t care about First Folios, JUST GET ON WITH IT” and that is not quite the same thing.

The other problem is that all the revelations that come tumbling out in the final pages aren’t particularly surprising or frightening. It’s something you can see coming from pretty early on, and it’s relayed to the reader in a somewhat hackneyed fashion to boot. This is a definite case of an excellent idea being hamstrung by its execution.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 83: The Shining by Stephen King

final-shot-of-the-shining

 

There has been a LOT of press for Doctor Sleep and I have been looking forward to reading it since it was first announced, what feels like FOREVER ago. As the hype machine cranked up proper, I realised that it had been a while since I had read The Shining. And then I realised that by “a while” what I actually meant was twenty five motherfucking years. I read it when I was thirteen and now look at me, I’m thirty eight and felt I should really re-visit Danny’s fateful stay at the Overlook before reading the story of What Happened After.

And so here we are. It may have been twenty five years, but it turns out the opening line of The Shining is burned into my mind. But somehow, not much else had stuck and what I thought I’d remembered turned out to be from the film so I totally blame Stanley Kubrick for messing with my mind. We all know that Jack Torrance, a disgraced English teacher, takes a job as the winter caretaker of a remote hotel, The Overlook. The focus of the novel is on his son, who has what the Overlook’s cook calls ‘the shining”, he’s Alison DuBois with the added treat that he can see into people’s minds and read their thoughts like a book. Naturally, the location and the boy don’t mix and plenty of unpleasant shenanigans ensues.

This is early King, and I have to say it shows. While I still maintain that, when it comes to mainstream authors, nobody can spin a yarn and pull you into a story like he can, there’s a roughness to the prose and style here that has been smoothed to a gleaming polish in later works. The device of dropping people’s thoughts, in brackets, in the middle of sentences ,isn’t quite as artfully deployed as it could be. The ending, King’s most frequent failing, feels rushed and the happy ever after coda feels incongruous.

However, the characters, as always, are so richly textured and carefully detailed, that you really invest in them. The Overlook’s history is delved into so deeply it almost becomes another character in the book. It isn’t as straightforward as it being a haunted house. There’s something far nastier going on here and the dread increases with every chapter (though their artless titles does try to counteract that). Along with the dread, King ratchets up the tension by cross cutting between the Overlook cook trying to ride to the rescue through near impassible weather and Jack’s murderous pursuit of his son. By the time you get to those parts, if your knuckles aren’t white, well, they really should be. I find that I’m still a bit creeped out by this a few days after finishing it and while I’m so excited to read the sequel, I think I’ll leave it a little while before I get stuck in……

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 28: Horns by Joe Hill

7738029

 

Joe Hill’s debut novel, Heart Shaped Box, terrified the life out of me. But then, he is his father’s son. Personally, if my dad were Stephen King, I wouldn’t be a writer, much less a writer in the same genre. I’d be an accountant or something. But Joe Hill has more backbone than I do and thank heavens for that because three years after that spine chilling debut comes Horns, a less terrifying but no less brilliant book. The star of this book is one Ignatius Perry, who wakes up one morning with a throbbing hangover and devil horns growing out of his head…..

A year before the novel opens, Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin, has been raped and murdered. Ig was the only suspect, but lack of evidence meant he was neither legally guilty or acquitted of the crime. The small town of Gideon he lives in all believe he did it. But Ig’s horns come with a terrible power. People tell him the truth. And people obey him when he tells them to follow their heart’s desire (the more sinful, the better). Armed with this new power, he can solve the mystery of who killed Merrin. But as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions……

Reading this was like reading a top of his game old school Stephen King (unlike a newly returned to the top of his game Stephen King, with 11.22.63), and I can’t really praise Hill much higher than that. The murder mystery is so well handled, it almost doesn’t need the gimmick of turning Ig into the devil to resolve it. The supporting characters are all beautifully three dimensional. The attention to detail is unrelenting (in a good way). And when the devil gets his due, the punishment handed out is unpleasant in the extreme.  A touch more clarity on what actually put the horns there might not have gone amiss, but other than that, this is a remarkable, bold, inventive delight. Do yourselves a favour and read it before the film adaptation comes out. After all, Harry Potter is playing Ig.