Friday, June 07, 2013

Book Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

(File under "Not Exactly Horror But Pretty Freaking Horrible.")

Brain on Fire is a fascinating -- and not a little terrifying -- first-hand account of what it's like to have your own brain suddenly turn on you. Cahalan was a rising young reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper when her brain and body began to spin out of control. After enduring frightening seizures, numbness in her limbs, aural and visual hallucinations, and uncontrollable outbursts and mood swings, she was finally hospitalized as she became more and more unstable. Cahalan suffered numerous misdiagnoses (alcoholic, epileptic, manic, psychotic and, finally, catatonic) from several doctors before a brilliant diagnostician discovered the answer at the 11th hour, and miraculously saved her life.

Sounds like an episode of "House," right? But this one's scary because it's actually true. (And no, it's not sarcoidosis.)

Cahalan reconstructs her own story, much of which she can't remember, by playing the painstaking reporter: she conducts interviews about her own behavior with her doctors, family, co-workers and friends, and watches hours of horrifying security camera footage from her hospital stay -- all of which reveal a feral stranger bearing no resemblance to Susannah Cahalan. The story is gripping (I was afraid for her at times, even though I knew she recovered enough to write this book), and the science cutting edge; in fact her "Dr. House" (actually a team of two) quite literally discovered the illness plaguing Cahalan while trying to treat it.

Over all, Brain on Fire is a tight and fascinating read. The last couple of chapters, which detail progress in Cahalan's life and recovery, as well as the further game-changing findings of her diagnostic team, feel a little tacked on, though I know they are an important coda to the story. Still, one of the most exciting and well-written medical mysteries I've read . . . four solid stars.

Fangirl Squee of the Day: in my mailbox today . . .

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Book Review: The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey

File:The Monstrumologist.jpg

What a wonderful, terrible, hilarious, disgusting, compelling adventure yarn The Monstrumologist is! I've never read anything even remotely like it. In easy-to-digest list format, here's why you need to read this book.

1) The monsters -- Anthropophagi -- are refreshingly terrifying. Savage, headless man-eaters out of ancient lore (some of which Yancy's titular character references on the case), they are fierce, fast and thoroughly, foully, inhuman. This rarefied species has inexplicably appeared in a small New England town and embarked on what promises to be a no-holds-barred feeding frenzy. These nasty beasties are a welcome addition to the horror pantheon, which has nurtured so many romanticized monsters of late. You do not want to date one of these fellows, of that you can be sure. On they other hand, they'd love to have you incubate their offspring. They look a little something like this:

2) The sweet-and-sour relationship between the peculiar Monstrumologist (who is something like a bizarro-world Sherlock Holmes on one of his manic benders), and our narrator, the plucky and resilient twelve year-old orphan Will Henry. Will has, sadly, recently inherited his father's position as the monster-hunting scientist Dr. Pellinore Warthrop's assistant, and is about to be plunged into the kind of mayhem that makes even professional monster-hunters quail. Before the tale is told, Will will see (and do!) unthinkable things in the name of science and saving the world; learn the fine art of being indispensable; and forge himself a new family from the ashes of tragedy.

3) Yancey's writing is simply wonderful. Densely descriptive without being dull; poetic without being pretentious. Top notch plotting as well. I've seen reviews suggest it was slow at points, but I couldn't put it down at any point. When the action slows down, the character development picks up the slack with sharp, funny dialogue and moments of painful honesty about the human (and inhuman) condition. These quiet sections sometimes also serve to subtly build and attenuate the dread that hangs over Will's every step to a spectacular payoff. Beware this book's potential to induce squealing like a little girl and/or jumping out of your skin. Also? Some barfing, because . . .

4) It's viscerrific! The Monstrumologist is one of the bloodiest (and brain-iest, and pus-iest, and maggot-iest) books I have ever read. The gore is so over-the-top that at times I laughed and cringed simultaneously. I know it's considered a YA novel (and has the Printz-prize sticker to prove it); however I'm pretty sure it would have terrified me, even as a teen. Granted, I was kind of a wuss, but there were at least two scenes where the jaded, adult me felt the need to avert my gaze -- just skip ahead, la-de-da -- because I really didn't want any more detail about the particular variety of disgustingness happening on the page. (No, no, no, no, NO. A world of no.) You'd better be sure your kid can take the relentless gross-out -- I'd read it first, just to see if you can.

Grotesque, rollicking, unique and scary fun, The Monstrumologist has made a Rick Yancey fan out of me. I can't wait to get my hands on the second installment, The Curse of the Wendigo.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker

I was exceptionally lucky to get to see this film adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy ahead of its general, albeit small, three-city release on June 7th, thanks to a screening at the SF Film Festival. Whedon fans have been salivating over rumors of the project -- which was shot in just two weeks, in modern dress, in black and white, at Joss' own home -- for what seems like years, and still I didn't expect the line to be  so epic that despite having advance tickets, we ended up in the last row of the balcony. Actually, it was fantastic to see the Whedon fanbase turn out in such force for Shakespeare (two great things that go great together!), and there was a palpable buzz in the air the moment we got on line.

While it's hard to top Kenneth Branagh's gorgeous 1993 period production, Joss and his fantastic cast of familiar Whedonverse faces have surely benefited from any anxiety of influence: at the risk of sounding like a cheeseball, I left the theater with a magical smile on my face and a warm fuzzy in my heart, which as you may know is not like me at all. I don't want to spoil the story for anyone (can you spoil something that's standard reading in many a literature class?), so I'll settle for spending some time praising the (almost) uniformly excellent cast, many of whom had little or no Shakespearean theater under their belts.

Tom Lenk and Nathan Fillion
As Beatrice and Benedick, fan-favorite star-crossed couple Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof ("Angel") are reunited, and though they spend most of the story in an elaborate war of words, at least this time (double spoiler?) their romance isn't doomed. Both actors show a charming knack for physical comedy, moving like pros from one impossible hiding place to the next in a beautifully choreographed eavesdropping scene. Acker, however, seems to invest her role with slightly more range and seriousness than does Denisof, whose Benedick is sort of on the broad side for my taste. (Think Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, "Rogue Demon Hunter" period, only without the accent.) Benedick is kind of a self-aggrandizing blow-hard, though, and I imagine Denisof's outsized performance might play better on stage than the more intimate screen. Nevertheless, the two stars' chemistry carries the day. (We were also lucky enough that both actors attended the screening. Though they looked like ants from my seat, they gamely and graciously took questions from the audience, Denisof even ringing up Joss and putting him on speakerphone so he could hear us cheering like the deranged fans we are.)

Jillian Morgese (as the largely silent Hero), Clark Gregg and Amy Acker
Several other popular Whedon vets take large parts in the film, which famously came about as an offshoot of impromptu play-reading evenings chez Whedon. Sean Maher (Dr. Simon Tam on "Firefly") makes a reptilian, menacing Don John; Fran Krantz gives Claudio a depth of sincerity and seriousness that surprises after his charming but snarky-comic turns in Dollhouse and Cabin in the Woods; and Clark Gregg (soon to reprise his popular Avengers character Agent Phil Coulson in the upcoming series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) makes a beneficent Leonato. Others, like Tom Lenk and Reed Diamond also acquit themselves well, but it's geek heartthrob Nathan Fillion ("Firefly," "Castle") who steals the show as the proud yet bumbling Dogberry, head of Leonato's security team. (People wondered if he could top Michael Keaton's version in Branagh's film -- and with his suave, subtle buffoonery, yes folks, yes he does. Also? Exponentially prettier.) In fact, the only actors who don't seem on-point are not previously associated with Joss: Spencer Treat Clark swallows most of his lines as the schemer Borachio, and Riki Lindhome (you may remember her as Sheldon's grad-student stalker on "The Big Bang Theory") is just plain wooden as a gender-flipped Conrade. Thank the powers-that-be they are but small roles.

To the point: "Much Ado" is a joyous stunner, alight with dreamy cinematography, subtle sight-gags, and sharply comic moments when the action takes a beat to highlight certain, um, difficulties with The Bard's not-always politically correct text. So, if you live in San Francisco, New York, or L.A. get thee to the theater on June 7th so the movie makes a splash big enough for wide release. You don't even have to be a Whedonist to enjoy it . . . although it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your Shakespeare.
Sean Maher, Spencer Treat Clark, Fran Krantz and Riki Lindhome

Book Review: The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates


The tale of an inexplicable and deadly "Curse" that ravages the upper crust of Princeton society in 1905 and 1906, Joyce Carol Oates' newest novel plays with Gothic conventions masterfully.

Between the covers of this book you will find all the tropes -- demon lovers, murderous jealousy, insanity, miscegenation, beckoning apparitions, secret letters, even a dreary fairy kingdom. You will also find an absolutely enormous cast of characters; some are entirely fictional, like the august but sorely afflicted Slade family; others "real," like Woodrow Wilson (at that time the besieged President of Princeton University); ex-U.S. President Grover Cleveland; and penurious Socialist writer Upton Sinclair. What I did not expect to find was a darkly satirical commentary on Christian piety, ivory tower backstabbing, gaping race and class and gender divisions, the rise of utopian Socialism, and, of course, the "Gothic novel" itself.

Asserting itself as the first true account of these dark years, The Accursed is the patchwork manuscript of amateur historian M.W. van Dyck II. Himself a relation of a "Cursed" family, he presents with copious commentary a series of excerpts from  journals, letters, newspapers -- even a coded diary, whose code he has broken himself -- written by various victims and bystanders and detailing the long months of the "Curse." Thanks to his family connections, van Dyck finds himself  "privy to many materials unavailable to other historians." These documents, he claims, reveal the true origins of the strange and horrible series of events that seem to begin with the shocking abduction of the innocent and beloved Annabel Slade from the church the very moment her wedding vows are sealed. In his Author's Note, van Dyck declares his passion for the project:

I know that a historian should be "objective" -- but I am so passionately involved in this chronicle, and so eager to expose . . .<this> tragic series of events . . . <that> it is very difficult for me to retaincalm, let alone a scholarly, tone.

Oates' appalling tale of mysterious disappearances, gory murders, and unholy apparitions unfolds over nearly 700 pages and more narrative voices than you can count on one hand, all filtered through van Dyck's editorial influence and fevered imagination. In that way, The Accursed begs the same sorts of questions as James' classic psychological Gothic The Turn of the Screw: were supernatural entities the cause of these brutal and tragic events, or simply overwrought imaginations? In Oates' version of the game, this unreliable narrator trope is magnified by the fact of an excitable author/editor exhuming and interpreting the stories of other, equally excitable, and in some cases quite possibly insane, Princeton residents.

Even putting aside van Dyck's overly enthused editorial intentions, whose account is the reader meant to trust? Woodrow Wilson's? Probably not, since his portions are the quintessence of dramatic irony: though he sees himself as a victim, amusingly, he exposes himself as a whining, entitled, hypochondriac hypocrite in his notes and letters. Perhaps the author of the coded diary, patrician invalid Adelaide Burr -- who bears a striking (and self-referential) resemblance to that woman with the dreadful yellow wallpaper? Winston Slade, deeply respected reverend and beloved patriarch of the family hardest hit by the "Curse"? Winston's sorely afflicted grandchildren? Newspaper accounts of a plague of snakes at a girls' school? Yeah . . . maybe not. But together they form a rollercoaster of a story more entertaining and convoluted than anything Mrs. Radcliffe ever dreamed up. (On a side note: Oates pokes hilarious holes in the reputations of other historical characters than Wilson: Grover Cleveland is a bloated glutton who at one point in the story actually gets stuck while leaning out an open window; Jack London is a barbaric, slavering Id; and Upton Sinclair something of a sentimental sad-sack.)

When a fellow reader asked me if I "thought there was really a 'Curse'" I was brought up short. I couldn't find an easy answer, because, of course, there both is and isn't a curse in The Accursed. Postmodernism, at least partially, operates with the goal of challenging our constructed concepts of reality; I'm pretty sure Oates' point, with which she pokes at and false piety, misogyny, deeply institutionalized racism and class prejudice, is that our own moral failings make monsters, both real and metaphorical. The lens through which she chooses to get her point across is the funhouse of  the supernatural Gothic . . . if you can't, at some level, buy into the terror of the "Curse," that evil made manifest which punishes her corrupted version of Princeton, you'll also forgo the emotional power of the metaphor. If you can't conceive of both/and, you'll probably lose your way -- and your patience.

Even though I kind of love this crazy book, you will find me in agreement with other critics who have suggested The Accursed could stand to shed about a hundred pages of exhaustive period detail and be a better book for it (hence four stars rather than five). But I wouldn't begin to know where to cut, because even during the moments when I shook my head and thought, "What in the seven hells does all this have to do with the 'Curse'?," I was still vastly entertained. (One magnificent example: the mild, teetotaling, vegetarian Upton Sinclair, excited to meet the legendary Jack London at a Socialist rally, ultimately falls in with London's party for dinner. But poor Sinclair, so out of his element, becomes progressively more horrified by his hero's clay feet as the meal progresses; London's drunken gluttony and vivid white-supremacist declamations finally turn the evening into a bloody free-for-all.)

Do not mistake The Accursed for "merely" a Gothic novel; like a postmodern Northanger Abbey, The Accursed is itself a near-perfect example of the genre -- filled with despoiled innocence, secrets, "unspeakable" acts, suffering and (perhaps) eventual redemption. Still, you know Oates is playing a game (or maybe a long con) with it all. It's a true a postmodern joyride, and will challenge your patience from time to time. But go bravely into the insane level of period detail! Persevere! The crazies are entertaining, the "Curse" is scary, and blood is compulsory. And all (well, most) of the narrative threads are brought together stunningly at the book's end, in a blazing-with-brimstone sermon called "The Covenant," which upends all expectations, and leaves readers pondering the true nature of good and evil, and of our flawed human morality.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Book Review: The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan


“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -- G.K. Chesterson

I chose this for an epigram, because it's the best way I can think of to describe Caitlín R. Kiernan's magnificent more-than-true novel, The Drowning Girl, in which fairy tales, art and madness all coalesce to form one of the most affecting books I've read in years.

The Drowning Girl is definitely something like a fairy tale, but it's a ghost story too, and a love story, a postmodern puzzle, and a journey through the labyrinth of mental illness that -- for anyone who has struggled with it, or loved someone who does -- feels completely genuine and never condescending. It's also a beautiful piece of postmodern art, with layer upon layer of myth and mystery, beauty and horror, mirroring one another in a flow of archetypes that challenge the primacy of the "real" over the "true." To wit: early in her story our narrator notes that she has saved the following Ursula LeGuin quote, which goes hand-in-hand with the Chesterton:  " . . . fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. And that is precisely why so many . . . are afraid of fantasy."

The memoir of India Morgan Phelps is an experiment. India (Imp to her friends) is a heavily-medicated but mostly functional paranoid schizophrenic, the daughter and granddaughter of lunatics and suicides, haunted by genetics. (She also keeps her mother's suicide note handy, which itself quotes Virginia Woolf's suicide note in a multiple regression of despair.) But Imp is responsible and self-aware about her disease; she takes her meds, she sees her doctor. Early on she declares: "It's a myth that crazy people don't know they're crazy. Many of us are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people."

Besides being crazy, Imp is also a charming, literate diarist, and a frequent, admitted liar. Well, not exactly a liar; it's just that sometimes her memory betrays her, and she can't tell what actually happened from what did not. Which is why Imp is writing a journal: she means to work through the knots in her brain from two different (and yet eerily similar) sanity-shaking events: she calls it "telling [her] ghost story." You see, first, there's the time in the summer with the cold, wet, naked girl (mermaid, siren, melusine) who came from from the river; but then there's also the time in November, with the bedraggled girl-wolf/wolf-girl freezing in the snow at the side of the road. The same woman but in different places, in different months -- hell, in different states -- yet somehow in her mind, either time Imp stops on the side of the road to help the girl, the experience is discrete. Her memory houses two different versions of the same story. (And if you are confused, gentle reader, imagine how Imp feels.) Still, she knows: "Only one of these is factual, but both are true." Something has happened to fracture and double her fragile memory, to create a haunting she can't get past, and through her writing she means to face it head-on. Imp's tone is deceptively casual, but don't let her lull you. Her story requires careful attention, though it's a pleasure to follow our unreliable narrator on a quest through her wide-ranging, allusive imagination. Imp is certainly not afraid of fantasy, nor is she terribly afraid of being haunted. What she fears is getting to the truth.

I may have made The Drowning Girl sound lighter than it is. Though mostly chatty and charming, Imp does go to some very dark places on her journey, and Kiernan's muscular, beautifully detailed prose pulls the reader along for the breakdown. Several other macabre haunts (some real-world factual, and others Kiernan's inventions) obsess Imp, and dart in and out of her stubborn delusions. There's a painting she first saw as a child, called "The Drowning Girl"*; the story of The Open Door of Night, a cult who committed mass suicide by walking into the ocean; the gruesome murder of the Black Dahlia; a deep forest in Japan that is rumored to induce suicides; and "Red Riding Hood," a story Imp loathes, but which keeps insisting itself into her world. And, for those of us who think about our thoughts a lot, it's also possible you'll see glimpses of your own version of crazy in Imp; I know I did. It both made me feel comforted and gave me pause; we all harbor some crazy we try to keep under our hats, but it's a peculiar experience to see flashes of yourself in the writings of a madwoman.

Now, it's true that I sometimes just fall unreservedly in love with a book and fail to note its shortcomings. (I have a friend who still challenges me to explain why I love The Night Circus. I just do, okay?) In the interest of being fair and balanced, I will say there are aspects of The Drowning Girl which strain credulity -- and not the mermaids and wolves, either.

For instance: though she's frank about barely having been able to graduate high school due to her "terrible memory," Imp is quite casually erudite, peppering her memoir with offhand literary quotes and allusions. Shakespeare, Homer, Charles Perrault, Emily Dickinson, Moby-Dick -- they're all in there, along with  various peculiar historical facts. I suppose Imp could be an accomplished autodidact; she's practically a hermit, and has in her house a room she actually calls "the room with too many books" . . . and no television or computer. So she knows the classics -- but where did her ideas about meme theory come from? (I know she could read books about it, but the whole concept of a meme was half-born from watching popular media culture mutate. The interest in memes is a meme itself.) Of course an illiterate diarist would be an oxymoron, not likely to have written what I'm reading, so I'll bite.

Some readers will find the digressions and dream-logic chronology of Imp's story confusing . . . and they would be right. I was puzzled at first, kept going back over pages for clues to the order of things. Then I realized (hello!) that the confusion is ingrained in the text: India Morgan Phelps doesn't know herself how time in her ghost story of a life flows, so how can her reader expect to? With all its Jungian doubles, writerly games and general meta-ness, The Drowning Girl qualifies as the kind of complex novel a college seminar could occupy itself with for weeks, unpacking all the themes and allusions. (Some sickos find that sort of thing fun.) But it's also compulsively, immersively, readable. And I don't think you have to play games with literary theory to get it.

The Drowning Girl is the first novel of Kiernan's I have read, though I've come across some of her weird stories in anthologies. The first one I remember was "Pickman's Other Model (1929)" in New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird. (Anyone who loves Lovecraft is a writer after my own heart.) Come to think of it, TDG is more than a bit squelchy . . . and it's set in Providence, the birthplace of Things that Should Not Be. And I just discovered that Kiernan wrote a novella about The Open Door of Night cult called "Houses Under the Sea" which suggests the cult may have had an Innsmouth-like relationship with the ocean. (Oh goody, another interwoven piece of narrative to explore!) 

But I digress. What I mean to say is read this book. Something like the fine film "Silver Linings Playbook" (I have not read the book, though it's in the stack), whose success helped to generate fresh and open media discussion about mental illness, The Drowning Girl at its very least sheds a light on the dark places of the human mind in a way that generates understanding and empathy, and beauty. But it's much richer than merely that . . . its multivalence boggles. And, though the narrative is deeply engaged with the "trueness" of mermaids and sirens, wolves and ghosts, it deserves to transcend any genre labels that might cling to it. Imp's story not only feels true, but shows us the possibility of defeating the dragons and finding the truth in our own struggles.

The Drowning Girl most certainly goes on my best-of list for 2012. It's nominated (and rightly so) for both the Bram Stoker and Nebula awards for 2012. And, in breaking news: yesterday it was awarded the Tiptree Award for "works of science fiction or fantasy that explore and expand gender roles." I wasn't even going to try to address the themes of gender and sexuality in this review, but since this particular award has been won, I might as well add that Imp's on-and-off girlfriend Abalyn is transgendered. It's not made a big deal of in the book, though her decision is briefly and poignantly discussed as the only alternative Abalyn had if she wanted to live. Perhaps that's the point -- Abalyn is a character who serves as a positive model of self-awareness and  transformation, of overcoming of the merely factual to uncover what is true. So there's yet another avenue for college seminars (or careful readers) to explore.

* In one of those neat meta-media tricks, Kiernan's vision of Phillip George Saltonstall's (fictional) 1898 painting "The Drowning Girl" has been realized here.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Back from hiatus . . .

Really, it was just a bad cold and a crippling spell of winter lazies. I secretly long to be a bear. Anyway, I've been reading up a storm in hibernation, and want to post some short comments before I try to tackle a full-length review for any of these books. So, a short note about what I've been up to for two months.

Commitment-phobe that I am, I've been on something of a short-story bender this winter. I tried some classic weird fiction with Robert Aickman's The Wine-Dark Sea (short review here ), and rediscovered some old favorites I hadn't kept up with. I said in my review of The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012 that I wasn't writing about the Elizabeth Hand or Tim Powers stories, because I planned to write about their respective books, Errantry: Strange Stories, nominated for the 2012 Bram Stoker Award for best collection, and The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, which won Powers the 2012 World Fantasy Award for best collection. Both were pretty uniformly fantastic (pun applicable and completely intended) and reignited my interest in these authors, neither of whom I had read since the early 90's. (Why? Why did I forget them in the first place? I have so much catching up to do.) Expect full reviews of both collections someday.

Obsessive as I also am, I then immediately read Hand's debut novel, sci-fi/fantasy classic Winterlong -- which I may or may not review, since I'd rather write about her newer work -- and Powers' recent loose sequel to 1989's The Stress of Her Regard (an all-time favorite and desert-island contender), Hide Me Among the Graves. The Bible Repairman also contains a novella-length story set in that world, called "A Time to Cast Away Stones." I hope to get those reviews up soon, but for now I have one caution: do not read Hide Me Among the Graves or expect to understand "A Time to Cast Away Stones" if you have not read The Stress of Her Regard. As fabulous as both the newer pieces are, the world will not make a lick of sense unless you've been there before. I think it's worth the effort.

I also fell completely in love with The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan. A Stoker and Nebula nominee for 2012, this might just be the most beautiful book about mental illness (and mermaids) ever written. Hyperbole much? Maybe. But it's just that good. It certainly transcends standard (not that there's anything wrong with it) genre fiction categorization. And it beats the hell out of The Bell Jar. This will likely be the next review to go up, as it's half-written already. I kind of want to start this book over again right now. (Full review is now up here.)

Some other things I got into:

God Attacks!, by J.R. Kiefer -- a ridiculous, blasphemous amount of fun. Short review here.

Ganymede, by one of my favorite steampunk authors, Cherie Priest. Since this is number four in "The Clockwork Century" series -- which just keeps getting better -- I am unlikely to review it here. I can, however, recommend it -- but start with Boneshaker. And hurry -- the series has been picked up for the big screen. (Also? An appearance by Marie Laveau is always welcome.)

Also, more Kealan Patrick Burke, whom I have raved about before here and here. Loved the novel Currency of Souls, which began as a story called "Saturday Night at Eddie's" in The Number 121 to Pennsylvania; liked Ravenous Ghosts; thought Theater Macabre seemed a little green . . . possibly it's earlier work, though I can't swear to it. Short review here.

Whew. That's it for now, but expect more frequent entries now that spring is upon us.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others, by Kealan Patrick Burke

The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others

I am finding it hard to make time to review all the books I'm plowing
through lately, but The Number 121 to Pennsylvania and Others demands I make the time, for several good reasons.

I fully enjoyed every story in the collection, which is a rare thing. I've read several of Burke's books recently (Kin, and the whole Timmy Quinn series, review to come soon, I promise) and have yet to be disappointed; in fact I'd lay money that with his talent and his abundant output, he could be the "next big thing" in horror. With a nostalgic, sometimes elegiac, nuance that nods to Stephen King (especially in short form) and a deft treatment of the dark things lurking on the fraying fringes of normalcy that brings to mind John Connelly's Charlie Parker books, what's not to like? Also, Burke turns some lovely and evocative phrases: a graveside priest becomes "an oversized raven with a scabrous pink beak and a silver crown"; and a melancholy retiree watches "the sun die a phoenix death, bruising the clouds as it struggled to stay afloat." Maybe it's that Irish gift of palaver, but I'm hooked. The stories are so uniformly great I want
to write about them all, but that would ruin the fun, so I'll just mention a few that represent Burke's range.

On the black-comedy side, I loved "High on the Vine," a clever suburban retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk, complete with disgruntled neighbors and paparazzi. And, as someone who went through the misery of quitting cigarettes fairly recently, I still have empathy for smokers, and snickered all the way through the nanny-state horror of "Prohibited," sort of like King's "Quitters, Inc." with a shot of post-911 paranoia.

As for the more traditional scare, Burke has an eerily evocative way with that helpless, paralyzing fear unique to childhood, the cold certainty that something is coming to get you -- and you can't do a thing about it -- which he uses to great effect in "Snowmen" and "Mr. Goodnight." And the tension-fueled, almost novella-length closer "Saturday Night at Eddie's," an excerpt from the novel Currency of Souls, made me buy the longer work immediately. Can't wait to dive in.

Finally, and this is big, there were two stories in this collection that are going to stay with me -- in fact, they horrified the absolute bejayzus out of me. I'm not an easy scare (but I keep trying), so that was a real treat. I would caution readers so very much not to take on the back-to-back brain-f**k that is "Empathy" and "Peekers" just before bed. I read "Empathy," an information age nightmare in the vein of "Ringu/The Ring," but rooted in an actual atrocity, and knew that shouldn't be the last thing on my mind before I slept. So I blithely continued on with the short, sharp and aggressively uncanny creepfest that is "Peekers," a story which makes me wish fervently that I lived in a wide-open warehouse space with no corners or doorjambs. (Alas, I live in a Victorian with many nooks, crannies and sliding pocket-doors just perfect for . . . peeking.) I stared at the space between my sliding doors until sleep finally carried me off. I felt like I was ten again, sleeping with the light on so nothing could get me. The following day I watched the short film made from that story (there's a link on Burke's author page here), hoping that if I saw it, it would somehow banish the lingering unease. No such luck.

So . . . well-played, Mr. Burke. You win, and so do your readers with this fine collection. Five solid stars.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Book Review: 11/22/63, by Stephen King


If you could change the past, would you? And, perhaps more importantly -- should you?

King hits another one out of the park with the absolutely engrossing story of Jake Epperson, a high-school English teacher from 2011 who finds himself saddled with the improbable task of preventing Kennedy's assassination. On the assumption that the world will be a better place (starting with no Vietnam) if he can take out Oswald before November 1963, he agrees, and finds himself a stranger in a strange land: America, 1958. (The impetus and details of his trip there, I will leave for the reader. Suffice to say it's the only supernatural device in the story. All the monsters here are human.)

The nod to Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" (from which the "butterfly effect" theory takes its name) is made loud and clear -- one character even mentions the story -- but King's fleshed-out version of the tale hits closer to home, with fully-realized characters who become much more to the reader than players in a cautionary tale. The meat of the story takes place as "George Amberson" builds a double-life for himself in the years leading up to that fateful day in Dallas.

After some eventful stops, including the grim and familiar Derry, Maine, George makes his way to Texas, where he finds himself a job teaching high-school (back when you could easily fake your resume and identity) in idyllic small-town Jodie. There, he makes friends, falls in love with Sadie, the lovely high-school librarian with a tragic past, and drives a bitchin' car . . . all the while also observing Lee Oswald and his sad little family from near and far . . . and changing the course of history just a little bit every moment he spends there.

While there are obviously science-fictional elements to11/22/63, in some ways it's one of the most realistic of King's novels. It feels true, if you get my meaning. Take a spectacular attention to -- and obvious love for -- the period's details, add in what must have been an ungodly amount of research about that terrible day in Dallas, and finish with a star-crossed, complex, grown-up love story that gives The Time Traveler's Wife a run for its hankies, and you've about got the idea. And of course all of this is overlaid with the gripping sense of a ticking clock, as George's day of reckoning with Oswald draws inexorably closer. Can he do it? Will he?

Ultimately, 11/22/63 isn't a book about the Kennedy assassination, about bad guys or monsters, or even about time-travel. It's a book about choices, about the paths we take and the ones we miss, about how our best intentions can still go not-so-well. About how we change lives and let our own be changed in return. It's also propulsive, humane, sad, funny and thrilling reading. If you know someone who doesn't read King because they don't like all "that woo-woo stuff" (I'm looking at you, Mom), try slipping them this, and I can almost guarantee it will change their mind.  I do not know how Stephen King works his magic, but it just gets better with time.