Tag Archives: horror

Review: In the Tall Grass (short story and film)

Spooky October continues with more Stephen King for me! I saw a few weeks ago that In the Tall Grass (based on the short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill) was coming to Netflix in early October, and immediately made plans to read and watch. I didn’t get around to the story before the film arrived, but I had a lot of fun reading and watching on the same day. I’ll share some thoughts on both.

First, the short story. In the Tall Grass seems to be very readily available on ebook and audio, but it is also FREE online at Esquire, where the story was first published in 2012. It’s divided into two parts, but the end of the first part links to the second, so if you’re interested in checking out the story I’ll link the beginning portion here! (Feel free to ignore that Esquire’s purpose seems to be “fiction for men.”)

15825680

In this short story, the narration alternates perspective between a pair of siblings: Becky and Cal. They’re not twins, but are very close. Becky is pregnant, and is on her way to San Diego to give her baby to another family for adoption. Cal is driving her cross country. They make an unplanned stop in Kansas next to a field of tall grass, where they happen to hear a boy calling for help. Assuming that he’s lost and too short to find the road, Cal and Becky decide to wade in and help.

What follows is at first suspenseful, as the siblings realize something isn’t right with the grass and against all odds they seem to be getting lost in it as well. Soon after, the story takes a horrifying turn as the secrets of the grass and their own fates are revealed. Needless to say, there’s a supernatural element involved.

“He looked at his watch and wasn’t surprised to see it had stopped even though it was a self-winder. The grass had stopped it. He felt sure of it.”

The story is quite good. I’ve yet to read anything full-length by Joe Hill (even though I’m sure I’m going to love his work), but I enjoyed this story more than the last five full-length novels I’ve read from Stephen King. It’s readable, sharp, and great at dropping creepy hints for the reader’s imagination to run with. If you like horror or suspense, or just a great short story, I highly recommend checking it out.

If you have any interest in reading the story, I really think the best time for it is prior to watching the Netflix film.

Image result for in the tall grass

In the film, we see at first a faithful adaptation of the written story. Some of the dialogue is word-for-word, the setting is exactly the same, any small variations in the setup are minor and seem mostly to cater to the visual aspect of the new format. But soon the film becomes a whole different beast. This comes down to two main differences:

  1. The film expands upon all of those subtle hints dropped in the story. This means both that some of the grass’s secrets are spoken aloud or clearly depicted for the reader, but it also means the addition of a new character who is only mentioned in the story. Though I thought the story was great for holding back from oversharing, I also thought the film was great for refusing to shy away from the details. I wouldn’t have wanted it the other way around. But I imagine the story would feel quite anticlimactic in its subtlety after seeing the film take everything a step further, which is the main reason I recommend reading first if you’re interested in both mediums.
  2. The cyclical nature of the grass “ritual” is a bit different in the film. In the story, I had the sense that the cycle was a very realistic one, with each victim of the grass paving the way for the next in a chronological line. In the film, a nonlinear timeline creates the cycle rather than hints of past or future victims. Timelines- actually, characters that skip around through time- are not always effective for me, but this layout paves the way for some great characterization tricks, and the brevity of the film keeps the jumping timeline from feeling tedious and ridiculous. A surprising win.

These are the two elements that allow a 60-page short story to become a 1 hr 40 min film- the film essentially turns the basic idea of the story into a long novella or short novel, and it does so without contradicting any part of the written story. They really make for a great set, if you enjoy adaptations and comparisons as much as I do.

Both formats are atmospheric, creepy, and engrossing. You might think from the premise that you know enough to resist being surprised, but there will still be surprises. There’s one pretty gross scene that appears in both formats, though I found the written version of it more gruesome. I spotted the detail of the synopsis that had the most potential to go awry, and knowing in advance helped me get through it, so at the risk of a very mild spoiler (just skip ahead to the next paragraph now if you absolutely don’t want to know) I’ll mention that it has to do with the pregnancy. If you don’t want to read anything weird on that subject, maybe steer clear of this one.

“The grass has things to tell you. You just need to learn to listen.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I didn’t find anything wrong with either, and actually the one gross scene didn’t bother me as much (in the story or film) as the rats in Stephen King’s 1922 (in that story or corresponding Netflix film). I just very rarely give a short story a 5-star rating because I tend to prefer more characterization and exploration than often seem to fit in a short story, and though I thought the film was perfect for October I don’t think it’s going on my all-time favorites list, which are the only movies I would say are 5-stars for me. But I had an excellent time with both formats, and the only nightmare I had after was an unrelated airplane dream.

So, all in all, if you’re looking for a little Stephen King or Joe Hill to pick up this spooky season and don’t want to dive into a doorstopper of a novel, In the Tall Grass is a great shorter option. I think it would also be a good introduction to either author if you’re interested in checking out their work but not sure where to start.

Have you read or watched this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Advertisements

Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 10.19

Also to be known as: Spooky TBR! My favorite (reading, not weather) time of the year!

My TBR goal for 2019 was to read all of the new books I’ve acquired by the end of the following month. This hasn’t really been working out for me, but I’m continuing to track the info. So I’ll show you what new books came to my shelves in September in the first half of this post (the books that my TBR goal says I *should* be reading in October), and then I’ll highlight the spooky (and other) books I’m most likely to be reading!

New books I haven’t read yet:

  1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. This is a true crime novel about one woman’s pursuit of the Golden State Killer, whose identity was still unknown at the time. It won the Goodreads Choice award for nonfiction last year, and probably everyone interested in true crime has heard of it; I picked it up from the Barnes and Noble Book Blowout Sale at the beginning of the month.
  2. Far From the Tree by Robin Benway. This is a YA book dealing with adoption; I’ve seen several great reviews, and also picked it up from the B&N sale.
  3. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I had a coupon and decided I wanted to spend it on a former Women’s Prize winner- I picked this one from 2012. It’s a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad; while I enjoyed but didn’t love Miller’s more recent release, Circe, I think I’ll fare better with this one!
  4. How to be Both by Ali Smith. Another past Women’s Prize winner (2015). I found this one on Book Outlet, where everything is so cheap it’s impossible to only order what you came for… I’ve actually not read anything from Smith yet but I think I will love her writing! I want to be sure I read Autumn this season!
  5. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I’ve been (im)patiently waiting for this title’s US release. I’ve already read a few pages because I was too curious about the style to resist, and I’m liking it so far! It’s about an Ohio housewife ruminating on… well, everything.
  6. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Yes, this is the Canadian version, with a slightly different title than the US version. I saw the US edition on the B&N sale, but in the end I didn’t want to pay half price for the hardcover. When I saw this paperback on Book Outlet for $4 the week after, the price was right. I’ve seen mixed reviews for this reliving-the-same-day murder mystery, but above all it sounds bizarre and that’s my brand.
  7. Firestarter by Stephen King. I’ve heard recently that King’s new release, The Institute, might actually share a lot of similarities with this older publication of his that’s lesser known but popular among the Constant Reader (King fandom) crowd. I know this one involves a kid (or kids) with superpowers, and nothing else. I’m now planning to pick this up prior to The Institute.
  8. The Institute by Stephen King. The aforementioned new release. I was so excited about this one with its Stranger Things vibes (which is hilarious, considering Stranger Things was largely inspired by Stephen King books) and am kind of bummed that I’ve decided not to jump straight in. Again, kids with superpowers is all I know.

bookhaul9.19part2

(I’m sorry this is such a low quality pic- I’ve never been great at photography but I usually at least try for proper daylight!)

Of these eight, the titles I’m most likely to read in October are: Ducks, Newburyport, which I want to finish before the Booker Prize winner announcement, and Firestarter, because I have to read at least one Stephen King novel for Halloween month- this title is now at the top of my King list. It’s possible that I might also reach for The Institute, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and/or The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, all of which seem more or less in line for the fast-paced and/or disturbing sort of content I like to read in October.

I’d really like to get to both of the Women’s Prize winners before the end of the year as well, but I don’t think I’ll be picking them up this month unless I need a break from the horror genre.

And before we move on from the book haul portion of this post…

New books I’ve already read:

  1. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. 5 stars. I read this novella earlier this year and had such a fun time with it. It’s been nominated for several major awards, and though I never really expected it to win them, it is a book I think I’ll enjoy revisiting. Plus I had a coupon. I 100% will buy a book just to utilize a discount.
  2. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. 2 stars. I’ve always loved Atwood’s writing, including The Handmaid’s Tale (which this sequel follows), so I pre-ordered this one a while back. I read it promptly upon arrival, partially because of that prior interest, partially because I wanted to read it while it was on the Booker Prize shortlist. In the end, let’s just say I’m glad I was able to pre-order at a discount.
  3. One for the Money by Janet Evanovich. (I rated this one 5 stars originally, but have recently begun a reread that I think will bump it down to 3. I’ll wait until I’ve finished to say for sure.) This is a romance/crime novel that was published the year I was born- I recently did a tag featuring books from that year, which was the final push I needed to order a cheap copy from Book Outlet for nostalgic purposes and start a reread. It’s not exactly my taste anymore, but it’s a quick and humorous read with a lot of memories for me.
  4. Bag of Bones by Stephen King. This is one of my favorite King novels, and also one of the first of his books that I read, some dozen years ago. I’ve always wanted my own copy, and do plan to reread. I found this one on Book Outlet, and it matches several other King editions I already own, so the time was right. It’s a ghost story.
  5. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. 5 stars. One of the ways I’m trying to keep my own-unread TBR down is to use my book-buying urges (and those pesky coupons) to pick up books I’ve already read and loved, and want to own. This was one of my favorite books in middle school and I’ve been wanting a copy for ages- I was happy to find the same edition I originally read! This one’s about a teen who’s been raped, who pours her trauma into an art project.
  6. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. 4 stars. I just heard about this nonfiction/memoir last month and was so excited about it that I picked it up on Book Outlet immediately and began reading the day it arrived. It turned out a little different than I was expecting, but it’s an incredible read and very eye-opening. Review coming soon.

bookhaul9.19part1

Unfortunately, my unread stack is a bit larger than my read stack again, but I don’t expect I’ll be doing much book shopping next month, as my schedule is starting to go haywire and I have less time to spend both in bookstores and on the internet. Sadly, this means I’ll be less present on WordPress over the next month or two, but I’ll do what I can to keep up.

Other reading plans for October:

I’ve got Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore from the library, which means these will be my next reads. I’ll probably split time between these and Ducks, Newburyport.

Soon I’ll also have Hannibal by Thomas Harris from the library, probably my last library check out for the month. I’ve been slowly reading Harris’s Hannibal Lecter series at the rate of one book each October, and this being the third year I’m up to book 3.

I also want to focus on some other unread spooky books I’ve picked up earlier this year and failed to read in a timely manner. The titles I’ve most got my eye on right now are: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Wilder Girls by Rory Power, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Phantom of the Opera and Other Tales by various authors, When the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry, Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach, and Strange Weather by Joe Hill. Plus I’ve got quite a few unread Stephen King books and plenty of spooky stories from previous years on my shelves, as well as the books I’ve already mentioned in my September haul. So, as you can see, no shortage of choices.

I can’t guarantee I’ll get to everything I want to, of course, but despite the excessively long work days ahead of me, I should still have plenty of small breaks throughout the day- which I’ve learned does not work at all for me for writing (which includes blog posts, sadly) but allows me to read more during the day than I normally manage. The silver lining. In any case, I’m in the perfect mood for all the horror reads, and I’ll keep up with reviewing them in season to the best of my ability.

Have you read any of these, and/or want to put in a vote for what I should prioritize?

I wish you many spooks in the coming reading month!

(Unless you’re not a fan of horror, of course.)

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Need

Though I’ve been struggling with traditional thrillers lately (recent exception: Lock Every Door), I have been loving many books marketed as thrillers that actually lean more toward psychologically suspenseful character studies (think: My Sister, the Serial Killer). Helen Phillips’s The Need certainly fits that bill.

theneedIn the novel, Molly is home with her two small children when she thinks she hears footsteps in another room- an intruder. While trying to keep her son and daughter quiet, she goes back and forth between believing someone is inside her house, and dismissing the notion; but eventually, intruder or no, she must emerge from her hiding place. What she finds is truly frightening, but as days pass afterward, the terror takes on another flavor as the initial danger subsides only for another disturbing possibility to take its place.

“The need to go home. The need to dispense with this intruder, this nightmare, and return to two small impeccable bodies. The excruciating need.”

It’s hard to describe the true nature of this novel without giving away its only real thrill: the answer to the question about whether there is an intruder, and who. Phillips sets it up as a surprise; though it happens early in the chronology of this tale, the narration switches back and forth (through a series of short chapters) between Molly’s awareness of the possible intruder in the present, and the events of the otherwise uneventful day leading up to it. While drawing out the suspense, this tactic also allows the reader to invest in the characters and understand their usual dynamic. The slowing of pace also serves as fair warning to the reader that The Need is a  careful exploration rather than a string of shocking twists.

Ultimately, I would say that The Need is Dark Matter‘s fraternal twin. Where Blake Crouch (Dark Matter‘s author) uses science to ground his plot and excite his readers, and lets his characters fall flatly by the wayside, Phillips uses a very similar scientific/magical element, but lets that go largely unexplained while instead delving deeply into the complex moral and emotional consequences of it for her characters. Unfortunately, reading one means spoiling some of the other (I’m mentioning this potentially spoilery similarity only because I had to read 70 pages before realizing I might not have picked this book up if I had known- though I am grateful that I stuck with it). If you are planning to read both, I suggest reading Dark Matter first, for the sole reason that it uses as plot twists what The Need adopts as simple premise.

Though it is a rather quiet and quick read, The Need packs a lot of food for thought into its 250 pages. Thematically, it focuses on motherhood and family, and how traumatic events both do and don’t change a person at their core. It’s very much a book about identity. And while it may not be full of high-stakes plot twists, the first suggestion of an intruder creates a foundation for suspense that doesn’t let up until the last sentence has come and gone. Molly does fear for her life, despite other distractions, and rightfully so. Even her thoughts on motherhood tend toward the dark side:

“It had always seemed a bit deceitful to Molly, the way we put our children to bed in soft pajamas, give them milk, read them books, locate their stuffed creatures, tell them that all is well, there’s nothing to be scared of, as though sleep isn’t one-sixteenth of death. When they resist the prospect of sleep, of long dark lonely hours, intuiting that this is indeed a rehearsal for death, we murmur to them, we rub their backs, pretending they will never die.”

I found Phillips’s prose insightful and intelligent; though very little “happens” in the novel, it caught and held my attention so thoroughly that I sped through the book in two sittings. The tone is delightfully eerie, the main character wonderfully fleshed out and believable, the ties to paleobotany fascinating. Phillips gives the reader an astute look into just how far a mother’s instincts can drive her, as well as demonstrating how blurry the line between “self” and “mother” can become. The horror genre might be a better fit than thriller for this story, though I think neither quite hits the mark for how pervasively human it feels.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I actually just bumped my Dark Matter rating down from 5 to 4 stars as well; Phillips’s book made it clearer to me what Crouch’s had been lacking, just as reading Dark Matter before The Need made it hard for me to pretend that I didn’t already understand the implications of this situation the second time around. They’re a very interesting pair- for me, equally matched.  I do want to try more of Phillips’s writing so that I can try again without an unexpected subject bias; I’m thinking of trying And Yet They Were Happy, but am open to other suggestions!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller

CW: death, ghosts, vague hints of child molestation or other unspecified activities of the sort, sexism, general upper-class snobbishness

I found a vintage edition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller some time ago and have long thought that both stories in this volume sounded perfectly appealing to me. But it wasn’t until learning this year that Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key (which I intend to read) might loosely connect to James’s classic, and the second season of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (which I intend to watch) is also based on Bly Manor from The Turn of the Screw, that I was finally motivated to pick up this slim Gothic volume.

theturnofthescrewanddaisymiller In The Turn of the Screw, a new governess is hired to care for the two young children residing at Bly Manor; the deaths of their parents has left them in the care of an uncle who has no interest in raising children, and has instructed the governess to oversee them without contacting him for any reason. The governess is charmed by the uncle and the children, and wishes to comply, but two issues complicate the matter. The first is the boy’s unexplained expulsion from his boarding school. The second is the appearance of two figures around the house, who appear to be the ghosts of deceased former employees at Bly. The governess does her best to keep the household running smoothly, but soon discovers she’s in over her head.

“An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred.”

By far the longer piece in this volume, The Turn of the Screw is formatted as a ghost story dictated by the governess (dead by the time this story is shared) and read aloud to a group of eager listeners safe around their own fireplace. This framing device seemed a bit unnecessary (and outdated- originally published in 1898) to me, as the governess’s unexplained death doesn’t seem to add anything of import to the tale of her life, nor are these background listeners crucial to the story in any observable way.

As for the governess’s account, it is atmospheric and eerie almost from the get-go, her fear and tension apparent in every chapter. Interestingly, what she is afraid of remains vague and nameless through the book. It appears that she is not afraid of the ghosts, nor of the children, but rather the fact that the ghosts appear to the children. Her every seemingly ordinary interaction with them is disected into what the governess sees as horrifying implications: whether the children are aware of the ghosts, whether they know the governess is aware of them, whether they are concealing interactions with the ghosts from her, etc. It’s all very unsettling, but the reader must do a bit of guesswork to make meaning of it. For example, one particular “horror” is the governess’s realization that the two ghosts, while alive, were having an affair that the children may have been aware of. No further information is given- are we to assume the children were somehow made complicit in this affair, somehow involved inappropriately in the adults’ exploits? For the governess’s fright to be taken seriously, the reader must find some sort of significance in this revelation (one of many), into which no further insight is granted by the narration.

As a result, the themes of the story are a bit muddled, and perhaps more than desirable is left up to the reader’s own intuition. Immediately upon finishing this story, I thought it made little sense. As the days passed, however, I found my thoughts continually returning to this puzzling story, and came to appreciate that The Turn of the Screw can be read two ways: straightforwardly, as a ghost story in which supernatural forces are at play and manipulating the living; or psychologically, as an examination of the governess’s mental health with the possibility that her interactions with the children reveal increasing paranoia rather than ghosts. I appreciated this story more with time, as I was able to look at the plot as a whole and examine it from several different angles, each as plausible as the next. I came to see its lack of concrete answers as a strength, rather than a weakness, though I do think it’s a book to be applauded for its ambiguity rather than any particular perspective that might be found within.

In Daisy Miller, we leave the ghosts behind for a satirical sort of romance.

A young man (named Winterbourne) leaves his studies for a brief visit to his aunt in another city. While there, he meets a girl named Daisy Miller, a polite but unconventional person whose family possesses enough money to allow them to do as they like, without much reproach. Though most see her as an “uncultured” American, Winterbourne nonetheless follows her to Italy during the winter holiday. Though he likes her, he doesn’t seem to understand that he can’t fit her into a traditional relationship; his desire for her company and his sense of propriety compete for precendence, to disastrous effect.

“Winterbourne wondered how she felt about all the cold shoulders that were turned towards her, and sometimes it annoyed him to suspect that she did not feel at all. He said to himself that she was too light and childish, too uncultivated and unreasoning, too provincial, to have reflected upon her ostracism, or even to have perceived it. Then at other moments he believed that she carried about in her elegant and irresponsible little organism a defiant, passionate, perfectly observant consciousness of the impression she produced.”

I found Daisy Miller much more immediately engaging and thematically rich. Daisy is wonderfully outspoken and sure of herself, a character that has truly stood the test of time (this story was originally published in 1878). Though there is very little plot, Winterbourne’s gradual shift of opinion is fascinating- even humorous- to follow. When he arrives in Italy, he goes first to visit another woman, so as not to appear too eager to see Dasiy. When he does see her, he’s annoyed to discover that she’s become close friends with another man. Daisy (and James’s narration) notes this double-standard and doesn’t let him get away with it. In the end, Winterbourne will learn the truth Daisy has been enacting all along- that some things are more important than society’s opinion. Much to my delight, it presents as a bleak rather than trite case of “lesson learned.”

The only downside to Daisy Miller, on the tail of The Turn of the Screw, is that while thought-provoking, Daisy doesn’t require nearly as much contemplation upon completion. It’s messages are more readily apparent, and easier to file away.

In this sense, the two stories in this volume read rather opposite for me- I wasn’t won over by The Turn of the Screw until I could mull over the full story and draw my own conclusions, whereas Daisy Miller convinced me immediately but didn’t hold my attention long afterward. Together though, they make for an intriguing- if unusual- pair, and I’m glad to have finally read them both!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Individually, I’d rate these each the same, which makes a cumulative rating convenient this time around. I don’t think I’ve ever read Henry James before, but I enjoyed the experience enough that I’ve now added his Portrait of a Lady to my TBR.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ghost Wall

From everything I’d heard about Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall prior to its US publication, this book sounded right up my alley. But I’ve seen a lot of variety between 5- and 3-star ratings, so I was curious to see which way this would go for me… and it did not disappoint!

ghostwallAbout the book: Silvie’s dad has dragged teenaged Silvie and her mom to a summer re-enactment of Iron Age living in the woods of northern England. The three of them are accompanying an anthropology professor and a few of his students, but Silvie’s dad is the real Iron Age fanatic. Silvie is a few years younger than the students, but her dad has prepared her well for this experiment: all her life, she’s been camping and exploring and sitting through his history lessons and speculations. He is not technically in charge, but he is the most dedicated. He wants everyone to live exactly as the Iron Age men and women did… and it’s Silvie and her mother who will pay if he doesn’t get his way.

Ghost Wall is perfectly horrifying, without any hint of the supernatural. The prologue is a gut-wrenching brief two pages about a girl who is on the verge of being ritualistically murdered, and it certainly sets a tone for the rest of the story. Though things do slow down quite a bit after that introduction, there’s no denying that something is about to go horribly wrong with the re-enactment. Hints of danger are scattered throughout the book- rocks in the cookfire that could explode, foraged foods whose poison status is determined by a guidebook, and increasing violence on the campground. There are so many possibilities that it’s impossible to see exactly what disaster will strike until it is announced… at which point the reader is filled with terrible dread as the danger approaches.

“The whole of life, I thought, is doing harm, we live by killing, as if there were any being of which that is not the case.”

But the horror of this story is not achieved through quick scares or cheap plot twists; these are characters who could live down the street from you, and their plausibility gives Ghost Wall its chill- as does the prospect that humanity has perhaps not advanced as far as one might think since the end of the Iron Age.

Though the middle part of the story is the longest and slowest- perhaps some might even call it boring, though I didn’t feel that way- it is riddled with “evidence.” Every event and anecdote reveals a bit of backstory or personality that plays a vital role in the way things turn out. Alliances are formed, quarrels begun, a power hierarchy established. This is a book about an experiment gone wrong- allowed to go wrong. There are no ghosts in sight, despite the suggestion of the supernatural in the title. It’s a book about character, and about what can happen when a group of very different characters gather outside of the eye of a moralized civilization.

Silvie is a teenage girl learning for the first time that her perception of normalcy has been skewed by her parents’ behavior. Molly is only there to pass the class, and calls the experiment like she sees it: boys having fun in the woods and heaping work on the women. The professor wants a little vacation brimming with chances to show off his book-smarts. Silvie’s mom aims to please her husband. And Silvie’s dad revels in the ability to put all of his Iron Age fascination to practical use. There’s some wonderful modern commentary about gender roles and independence, but the themes introduced apply neatly to both the present experiment and the ancient peoples being studied.

“Does he ever even ask her what she thinks, Molly went on. No one asks her what she thinks, I thought, she thinks as little as possible, what to have for tea tomorrow and will the washing powder last another week, if you want thinking, my mother is the wrong person to ask.”

And to top it off, there’s a great historical component about things found in bogs, preserved from the Iron Age. The fact that this doomed modern experiment could have so much in common with real historical practices is the most compelling and haunting facet of the novel.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved this disturbing little book. I finished it all in one go, which was nice but also left me wanting a lot more of Sarah Moss’s writing in my life. I will absolutely be reading more of her novels.

Further recommendations:

  • Shirley Jackson is a great writer to try if you love Ghost Wall. Her novel The Haunting of Hill House (which is nothing like the recent TV series by the same name) uses suggestions of the supernatural to weave a psychological story about a group assembled in a “haunted” house. Even Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” is a great macabre tale of the dark side of humanity, entwined with a horrifying ritual.
  • And if psychological horror with a side of gore is your style, you should try Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs– a beautifully crafted book about an FBI agent trying to prove herself, working with an insane criminal (Hannibal Lecter) to catch one of the most terrifying serial killers who’s ever existed. It’s a classic (and the book is as worth reading as the movie is worth seeing).

I usually save horror reading for October, but I’m trying something new this year. What’s your favorite horror story?

 

The Literary Elephant