Wednesday, February 21, 2018

A Review of Robert McCammon's "The Border" (plus two more)

Today, we will briefly look at The Border, Robert McCammon's sci-fi novel from 2015.  I had not intended to write a review of it; I'm curating a running post (or series of posts, more likely) about every book I read this year, and my intention was to simply give it a couple of paragraphs in that post.  Not because it's unworthy, mind you, but simply as a time-saving gambit.
I enjoyed the novel enough, though, that I felt like I had to get something on my blog about it sooner rather than later.
So here 'tis!
It's a crackerjack of a book that many reviewers have said is the closest McCammon has gotten to his '80s/'90s heyday since ... well, since the nineties, I guess.

Having not yet read the entirety of his output from the '00s and '10s, I can't speak to that for the time being.  But I can say without a doubt that The Border is something that any fan of McCammon's early work is apt to enjoy quite a bit.

The setup goes like this: a pair of alien races invade Earth as part of a long-running war over the border between their territory.  Earth has, in the normal course of its journey through the galaxy, become part of that border, and the aliens -- referred to by humans as the Cyphers and the Gorgons -- devastate the planet and its inhabitants in their squabble.

The novel itself begins some two years after that initial invasion took place, as a teenager with amnesia and some really gnarly bruises finds himself fleeing a battle between the warring aliens.  He finds shelter with a band of human survivors who are holed up in an apartment complex.

From there, the novel turns into something that many people might derisively refer to as YA, and if that's your conclusion I guess I can't fault you for coming to it.  I didn't feel as if McCammon was courting that audience in any way, however, and nothing about the book's marketing seems to have done so.  (By the way: good luck finding a copy of this book.  It was released by Subterranean Press, but only barely, and is out-of-print as fuck.)  It does not, for example, promise a never-ending stream of sequels.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Review of Robert R. McCammon's "Mystery Walk"

Mystery Walk, published in 1983, was Robert R. McCammon's fifth novel, and his first to be published in hardback.

It's the story of the first 21 or so years in the life of Billy Creekmore, who has inherited his mother's ability to see ghosts and ease the troubles of the ones who have not yet managed to pass on from the earthly realm into the more peaceful places that wait beyond.  The novel opens with Billy's mother (she's very pregnant with him), progresses on to his first childhood experiences of the supernatural, and eventually turns into a coming-of-age story that involves his going out into the world to try to figure out the purpose of his "mystery walk" through life.
This was the novel that turned me into a McCammon fan.  I'd forgotten that until rereading it, but it's true; I'd thought it was Boy's Life that had turned that trick, but that was a failure of memory on my part.  No, it was this one; and not for the reasons you might think.

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Review of Peter Straub's "Koko"

Koko, released in 1988, was Peter Straub's first solo novel since 1984's collaboration with Stephen King, The Talisman.  Straub had been a bestselling author in his own right before The Talisman, but the team-up with King brought with it a new level of public interest (and scrutiny).  We'll return to that idea in a bit, but first, it might be helpful to briefly recap Straub's career up to this point:
1973:  His first novel, Marriages, is released.  A would-be mainstream literary novel (i.e., not supernatural or fantastical or horror-based in any way), it failed to get much attention from anyone.  Noteworthy for structural and stylistic experimenting that is cleverer than it is effective, it reads like the work of a writer determined to impress college English departments the world 'round.
1974:  His second novel, Under Venus, was finished in 1974 but would not be released until 1984.  This was not for lack of trying on Straub's part; it's just that nobody would publish it.  Like Marriages, it is mainstream literary fiction; unlike Marriages, its author appears to have had at least a vague interest in story and character.  Not a great novel, but a step up.
1975:  Straub turns to the ghost story with Julia, his first supernatural novel.  This seems to do the trick for him, and from this point forward he seems to be a novelist with purpose.
1977:  If You Could See Me Now, another horror novel, is released.  If Julia was a promising novel, If You Could See Me Now is that promise nearly fulfilled.  The next novel IS that fulfillment.
1979:  Ghost Story becomes Straub's first bestseller.  A thick, challenging read; it is every bit as experimental as Marriages, but in a successful manner.
1980:  A fantasy novel about magicians, Shadowland wins Straub his first World Fantasy Award.  This is not the first time his fiction has explored the idea that the line between reality and fantasy -- or between truth and falsehood -- is exceptionally thin, but it reads almost like a culmination of those ideas.
1983:  Floating Dragon is released.  In many ways, this feels like Straub's master's thesis on the subject of horror literature (in much the same way Stephen King's It would be a few years later).  If I'm not mistaken (and I might be, since I haven't read most of the remaining books in his bibliography), he would not return to the genre in this manner for quite some time to come, if at all.
1984:  The Talisman is released and spends twelve weeks as the New York Times #1 bestselling hardback.  This collaboration between two of the world's best-known horror novelists is something of a curiosity in that it's ... not really a horror novel.  Sure, it has horrific elements; but really, it's a fantasy novel in the Tolkienesque vein.
That brings us to:
In a 1993 interview for Horror Magazine, Straub said that Floating Dragon had represented him going as far as he could go with "supernatural special effects."  He said, "It would have killed me to try to top it or done anything again in which I used the conventional mechanics of the supernatural. The very idea of it caused real despair."  He had, of course, immediately returned to the supernatural -- or, at least, the fantastical -- with The Talisman, but it's possible he did not think of this collaboration in precisely the same way he thought of his own work.
Let's let Straub expert Bill Sheehan explain what happened next.  Here's what he had to say about it in his book-length inquiry into Straub's fiction, At the Foot of the Story Tree (which no Straub fan should be without):
In the aftermath of this complex act of collaboration, Straub's pen fell temporarily silent.  Having produced four large, increasingly ambitious works of the fantastic in just under six years, he found himself suffering from creative exhaustion, compounded by the belief that his capacity to produce this sort of fiction had finally played itself out.  Yielding to necessity, he retreated into a year-long period of silence, reflection, and renewal.  At the end of this period, he began the slow, painstaking process of redirecting his fiction into new vital areas.
Those "vital new areas" eventually took the form of Koko.  A long novel about Vietnam veterans, it's a different thing in many ways than Straub's previous novels had been.  It's got as many similarities as it does differences, though, and anyone who has read those foregoing works would be likely to recognize the same authorial voice at work.
The story opens in 1982, in Washington, at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  A former soldier, Michael Poole, is in town to meet a trio of members of his platoon.  As it turns out, they are not there merely for the dedication of the Wall; they have also been assembled because their lieutenant has become aware of serial killings that he suspects have been carried out by one of their fellow soldiers, Tim Underhill, who was last known to be living in Bangkok.  The lieutenant wants the four of them to go overseas, find Underhill, and do what they can to both stop him and get him the help he clearly needs.  They (mostly) do, they do, they don't, and they really don't; that's pretty much the story.  As is often the case with Straub, though, the story is only the top layer of the cake; there's plenty more going on in Koko, and almost all of it is more interesting than the story itself.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Review of Tabitha King's "The Trap"

In the spirit of self-recrimination, I feel like I'm obliged to begin this review by pointing out that it's been slightly less than three and a half years -- YEARS! -- since I last blogged about a Tabitha King novel.  (Here's the evidence, your Honor.)
I wish I had a better excuse.  What I do have is this: a combination of too many ideas, too little time, and WAY too little self-discipline in the area of time-management.
Tabitha King need not feel like a sole slightee, though: I've similarly failed to be productive at blogging about the specific works of Peter Straub (June 2014) and Robert McCammon (May 2014), both of whom I had hoped to work on steadily.  And I think there might have been one other one, too.  Who am I trying to think of...?
Oh, yeah.  Stephen King.  THAT guy.  I haven't done one of the in-depth analyses of his novels that I enjoy doing since I covered Needful Things in October 2014.  Three years and some change!  Okay, sure, I did take a lengthy look at Revival in December '16 / January '17.  So it hasn't been AS long as it feels.
You don't care about any of this.  And if you do, you shouldn't; I thank you, but trust me, you've got better things to care about than this.
I myself do care, though.  I worry about this stuff, Bevvie; I worry a lot.  And for my own purposes, I'd like to talk a bit about that.  Since you are here only for the Tabitha King review, I'll make it simple for you to get to it: just scroll down to the photo of the book cover, and read from there.
If you're still here, know that I am in full self-indulgence mode for a few paragraphs and tread accordingly.
I started my blog in January 2011, and I did it for a simple reason: I needed to do something.  I'd long entertained the vague goal of writing some sort of long-form analysis of Stephen King's work.  This goal went all the way back to a pre-9/11 era, and at one point I had the ambition to put it to use in a graduate-school way.  That was a long time ago, now; and even though it seems occasionally to still be a fresh and possible ambition, in fact, it's anything but.  It's been anything but for at least a decade now, and probably longer.
And that's okay!  Find me a living adult human and I'll show you someone who hasn't done everything they wanted to do.  No, I'm not worried about that much.  And my urge to write about Stephen King's books is a separate thing, which never went away.  By January 2011, its only existence was in my mind, but it DID exist there; and when I was sitting in my apartment one night, pondering the growing feeling that I needed something other than what I had, this idea -- my "Stephen King idea" -- floated to the top of my mind.
Nothing uncommon about that; it often did so.  But on this particular night, it evolved, and a new thought presented itself: you could start a blog, it said.  I'd always thought of my "Stephen King idea" as plans to write a book (or a series of books); I'm old-school in many ways, and that's what old-school fellows think when they think about writing: books.  But even then, I was living in a new-school world, and blogs made it very simple and (potentially) inexpensive for any dolt in the world to put their thoughts out there in a formal manner.
So why not do that?
No reason not to, said my brain, and so the next thing you knew, I'd created a blog -- Ramblings Of A Honk Mahfah, it was called then -- and had begun writing about Stephen King.  The plan was to ... uh ... the plan to was to find a plan, eventually.  At first, I didn't know if I'd try to be a news aggregator or a critic or a commentator or what.  But I knew I wanted to write about the books and stories and movies.
At that point in time, I was already well into a chronological reread of all of King's works.  I don't remember precisely when I'd begun that reread project, but I'd made it up to The Drawing of the Three, which I'd just finished.  So this presented a dilemma of sorts: did I want to start over from the beginning (Carrie) and write about everything in order?  Or did I want to simply pick up writing about the next book (Misery) and go from there?
I decided on the latter approach, and I began fucking up almost immediately.  I read the novel, took a bunch of notes on it, and then planned to write it all up and present it as "A Week of Misery."  This was going to be a five-part, Monday-Friday series.  I got the Monday post out on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2011, and then ... didn't finish the second part until Wednesday.  Part Three landed on Thursday, but then the fourth part did not appear until the next Monday.
So right off the bat, I learned that my ability to keep to a schedule was perhaps not the best; but I also learned that writing of the type I was interested in doing was resistant to being scheduled, and that I might be best-served to not try.  This didn't prevent me from trying again, on multiple occasions; and once in a while, I actually managed to get the job done.
From there, my goal was to simply continue my chronological reread, and blog about the books (and any significant adaptations of them) as I went.  Here's what I've gotten done since then:
The Tommyknockers (April 2011)
The Dark Half (August 2011)
Four Past Midnight (December 2013 - January 2014)
Needful Things (October-December 2014)
I also reread the revised/uncut version of The Stand, and while I did not write about the novel itself, I did write extensive analyses of both the miniseries and the Marvel Comics adaptation.  Oh, and I reread The Waste Lands, but opted not to blog about it because it made little sense to me to do so without first blogging about The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three.  
Plus, I covered many of the books King has released during the time my blog has existed: 11/22/63, Joyland, The Wind Through the Keyhole, Doctor Sleep, Revival, etc.  I wrote what might be one of the more comprehensive pieces ever written about Golden Years, too; not a novel, but a major original work (partially) by King, so that kinda counts.
Yes, I've done lots of pieces in those nearly-seven years that I'm proud of.
But there's no getting around it: I've made shockingly little progress on my reread project.  If you count both The Stand and The Waste Lands, that's six books in seven years.  We're talking about a guy who turned 38 the year he began his blog, which is about an author who has (depending on what you count and how you count them) in excess of 70 books on his bibliography.
Do the math on that.
I have.  
It's not pretty.
So with that in mind, the time has come to tighten the fuck up around here.  There are still side-projects I'm going to work at -- like the Tabitha King project, and the Peter Straub project -- and I'm sure others will pop up on occasion, but the goal is simple: no more fucking around.
The Guided Tour Of The Kingdom project I completed late last year was designed to sort of throw down a gauntlet for myself.  "THIS," I was saying to myself, "is what you've got to do, asshole.  Get the fuck to it!"
Because time is a finite resource, isn't it?  Yes, it certainly is.  So I find myself thinking more and more frequently, can you really afford to spend your time doing _________ when you could be working on your projects?  Sometimes, that's a yes.  There's never going to be a time when I'm not going to watch a new Star Wars movie, probably twice; I'm going to be pickier with other movies, though.  This is a curious feeling for a man who works at a movie theatre; this is a curious feeling for a man who has not missed an Oscars telecast since at least 1990.  But this year, do I really need to see The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread and Molly's Game and Hostiles and the Disaster Artist and whatever else when every hour I spend doing so is an hour I'm not working on my project?
I might see a few of them; I will not see all of them.
As much as I'd like to watch the new seasons of some of the television series I'm interested in following, when I weigh the thirteen hours it would take to watch the third season of __________ against the amount of work I could make on my project during the same amount of time, how often can I honestly say that watching television is worth it?  And let's not even talk about new series.  I'm sure that show you want me to watch is awesome; unless I feel like I can't live without it, it ain't happening.  I'm sure that The Deuce is great; I'm never going to find out.  Mindhunter sounds like it'd be right up my alley; so does Dark.  Fuck 'em both; it ain't happening.
Time to be realistic about all of this stuff, folks.
Good news is, we're only about halfway done with January, and I've already read three books, which is more than I read during the entire spring of 2017.  None of them count toward my Stephen King project, per se (i.e., none of the three were by King), but that's okay; that's by design.  I am working my way up to it, and I'm actually ahead of the schedule I've made for myself ... so far.
Plans can always go awry, though.  For example, I hadn't planned to write any of this.  I planned to merely launch into a relatively brief review of The Trap.  But sometimes, the fingers start to typing, and the soul dictates what keys they hit moreso than the brain does.
That's okay; got to be realistic about that, too.
And now, with no further ado:
The Trap was published in 1985, and was King's third novel.  Her first, Small World, was a science-fiction novel; her second, Caretakers, was a generations-spanning drama set in the small fictional Maine town of Nodd's Ridge.  (Nodd's Ridge will be the setting for most of King's novels, including The Trap.)
I'm not a huge fan of Small World, which has some interesting situations and characters but feels a bit like a chocolate and tilapia sandwich in that the whole is considerably less than the sum of the parts.  It feels to me like King was trying too hard in her debut, but it also feels as if she figured out whatever she needed to figure out by the time Caretakers rolled around.  Her second novel is a much more assured piece of work in every way.
The Trap almost feels as if it could have been an intermediate step between the two.  I won't further bury the lede: I don't think this is as good a novel as Caretakers is.  But so what?  I love Caretakers, so taking a step down from that one -- even a large one (which is this is not) -- could still put you on a plane where you're reading a good novel.  And if you're reading The Trap, you're reading a good novel.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Brief Review of Joe Hill's "Strange Weather"

It's been nearly three months since Strange Weather came out, and it's really rather unforgivable that I waited that long to read it.

Finally, though, I can cross it off my list.  And, having thus crossed it, I figured I'd give you folks a brief non-spoilery review.

It consists of four novellas -- or "short novels," as Hill has designated them (in a clear case of six versus half-a-dozen) -- that are varied in content and tone.  They are as follows:

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Guided Tour of the Kingdom: A Chronological Walk Through the Career of Stephen King, Part 15 (2014-2017)

We have reached the year

What shall we find upon arriving here?
"The Ring"
  • published in the Spring 2014 issue of Tin House
  • uncollected

What we find is "The Ring," a very brief essay in which King tells us about a lost wedding ring.
Very brief; very, very good.  I would love it if he included it in one of his collections someday.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Guided Tour of the Kingdom: A Chronological Walk Through the Career of Stephen King, Part 14 (2010-2013)

Let's see what's shaking as the sun dawns on the year 2010.  Big things happening on Europa, from what I understand.  
But hey, this ain't no Arthur C. Clarke blog, is it?!?  Nosir!  So let's get back on the road through the Kingdom.

We begin with a major new essay:

"What's Scary"

  • published in two parts in Fangoria #289-290, January and February 2010
  • reprinted in the new Gallery Books trade paperback edition of Danse Macabre, February 23, 2010
  • uncollected

It is not clear to me whether "What's Scary" was originally earmarked for Fangoria and then later got commissioned to serve as the introduction to a new edition of Danse Macabre, or if it happened in reverse.
A third option exists: that King simply sits around sometimes writing essays and then figures out what to do with them later.  If so, that opens up the possibility that there could be who-knows-how-many unpublished essays lying around King's office, gathering dust.  Imagine!
Whatever its provenance, "What's Scary" is something of a sequel in miniature form to Danse Macabre, and certainly works well there.  Personally, I'd have made it an afterword rather than an introduction, but that's just me.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Guided Tour of the Kingdom: A Chronological Walk Through the Career of Stephen King, Part 13 (2005-2009)

We resume our tour on a note of uncertainty: for the past few years, King has been issuing not-entirely-persuasive hints that retirement -- from publishing, if not from writing itself -- was nigh.
Would that pan out?

Josie and Jack
(novel by Kelly Braffet)

a Mariner Books trade paperback, published February 4, 2005

Spoiler alert: just as this tour has included books by Tabitha King, it is going to include books by the second generation of Kings.  Yep, that's right, the Kings Junior -- the boys, at least (Naomi did not become a professional writer) -- followed in their parents' footsteps and began putting out fiction of their own.  So look for books by both Joe and Owen coming up in this leg of our tour.
So, you ask, who is Kelly Braffet? 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Guided Tour of the Kingdom: A Chronological Walk Through the Career of Stephen King, Part 12 (2003-2004)

I've Febrezed the seats on our bus, which smell curiously like Cheez-It farts.  I'm not pointing any fingers, y'all, I'm just saying.
We have arrived in

We left off with made-for-television King (NBC's Carrie remake), and as we resume, we're still staring at the proverbial boob tube, this time looking at

The Dead Zone season 2
(television series)

broadcast on USA, January 5-August 17, 2003

As I mentioned when discussing the first season of The Dead Zone, it is my stated belief that the second season took a dip in quality.  The first had been quite good, introducing an ongoing set of plotlines that could be put on pause for large stretches of time in favor of having Johnny solve a problem in episodic fashion most weeks.  For example, one week he served on a jury and used his psychic powers to try to help persuade people to do the right thing. In another, he becomes trapped in a cave and communicates via his visions with a centuries-dead Native American shaman.
Your mileage may vary in terms of how much you enjoy the episodes, but my contention is that by the time the second season was over, the strain had begun to show when it came to finding usable concepts to showcase Johnny's powers.  In other words, The Dead Zone turned into an average television series.

The second season episodes were:

  • 2.01 "Valley of the Shadow" (January 5, 2003)
  • 2.02 "Descent" (January 12, 2003)
  • 2.03 "Ascent" (January 19, 2003)
  • 2.04 "The Outsider" (February 2, 2003)
  • 2.05 "Precipitate" (February 9, 2003)
  • 2.06 "Scars" (February 16, 2003)
  • 2.07 "Misbegotten" (February 23, 2003)
  • 2.08 "Cabin Pressure" (March 2, 2003)
  • 2.09 "The Man Who Never Was" (March 9, 2003)
  • 2.10 "Dead Men Tell Tales" (March 16, 2003)
  • 2.11 "Playing God" (March 30, 2003)
  • 2.12 "Zion" (April 6, 2003)

There were also seven additional episodes which began airing three months later.  If I remember correctly, these episodes were commissioned by the network due to the strong ratings the series was bringing in; they wanted to use the series to drive viewership during the summer months.  I'm going to separate these last episodes out from the rest, because an argument could be made that they almost represent a different season altogether.  Here's a list of those episodes:

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"The Trek Tower, Part 1" or: A plot summary for some really bad fan-fiction

Strange ideas pop into my head sometimes.  I'm not alone in that, of course.  But recently, when a series of Star Trek-themed Stephen King crossovers began popping into my head, I found myself wondering if I could possibly be more THAT GUY than I already am.
The answer is: oh, sure, you bet I could.
I could write the shit down.
I don't have the energy or time to actually do that, but I could always vomit up a bunch of ones and zeros that take the shape of bulletpoints toward a plot summary for what such an inane "story" might be like.
Let's have a looksee at the outcome:
  • So, as it turns out, the Tet Corporation is a big company.  Google-sized big, maybe?  Probably a lot larger than that, even.  Well, we already know they have agents who are tasked with assisting Roland and his ka-tet along their way to the Tower.  Let's be honest: how helpful have these schmoes actually been?
  • That's the question one low-level staff member begins asking himself one day while working there.  He's not one of the heavy-hitters -- the techs who spend their days reading the books and stories of Stephen King looking for ways to be useful -- but is a low-level functionary of some sort.  He thinks he can do more, though, and begins trying to figure out how to use the portals that are on an upper level of the building.  (Floor 19?  Nah, I think that's too lame.  Let's say it's floor 42.  Also lame, but more obscure.)
  • He's successful in infiltrating that floor, and uses a portal to actually visit the Dark Tower.  He evades the grenades the Crimson King lobs at him, and goes inside.  There are three doors, which have the following symbols on them, with the following words atop the doors: