Tag Archives: horror

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

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Review: Dolores Claiborne

One of my friends has gotten into a Stephen King fascination, and apparently it was infectious. I’ve been reading and mostly enjoying King’s novels since I was thirteen (Pet Sematary was the first), so it didn’t take much to get me on board with reading more of his work. Suddenly I find myself on a journey through King’s entire oeuvre (because if you’re going to read 90% of his books why not just read them all, I guess). Next up on the list for me was 300-page Dolores Claiborne, written in the early 90’s.

doloresclaiborneAbout the book: Dolores Claiborne has lived all her life on the Maine island of Little Tall, where she married a no-good husband after discovering her accidental pregnancy. Years later, with her children grown and gone, she’s being questioned by Little Tall police about the suspicious death of the rich woman Dolores worked for as housekeeper; and in professing her innocence, feels she must admit to the murder she did commit to prove her innocence in the one she didn’t.

“Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.”

Though the horror level of this novel is pretty mild, it does have its unsettling moments. Of course it does, with its main character a murderer, another going senile, one just plain evil, and several unfortunate children thrown into the mix. But this is primarily a psychological study of Dolores’s eventful life, and the creepy-crawlies remain mostly hypothetical.

“She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it?”

If you’ve been reading the quotes I’ve inserted so far, you’ve probably noticed that the narration uses dialect. The entire novel is written as Dolores would have spoken it, and this tactic puts the reader straight into Dolores’s mind and life.

I found the dialect itself far more useful (and tolerable) than the half-conversations where Dolores addresses one of her interrogators directly; only Dolores’s part of these conversations is shown, which necessitates some awkward rephrasing of the others’ questions and reiterating of their responses that pulled me out of the story a bit every time. I didn’t need to be reminded so often or so thoroughly that Dolores was dictating this story to someone. A one- or two-sentence explanation at the very start and maybe very end of the book would have been plenty, but Dolores is interrupted and interrupts herself rather excessively throughout the short novel.

One thing that I’m especially watching for in King’s writing this year is his treatment of female characters. After encountering a few worrying instances in his books last year (Elevation, The Tommyknockers) I’ve been interested to see how that might have changed or cropped up differently throughout his writing career. To my great relief, Dolores Claiborne was definitely a step back in the right direction.

“You’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up the same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.”

But there are twenty pages dedicated to spiteful bowel movements, so there’s no forgetting that this is a man writing women, rather absurdly at times.

Once we’re past that hurdle though, there’s no denying that Dolores and her anecdotes are just as captivating as King’s characters tend to be.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty quick read as far as Stephen King books go, and quite enjoyable. I didn’t know before I started that this book is loosely tied to King’s Gerald’s Game, which I’m much more interested in reading now but feel that I shouldn’t yet because I’m trying to dedicate myself to my 2019 TBR system. It’s the first disappointment I’ve had with my January TBR though, so I’m going to stick it out. I do have a couple of other Stephen Kings I can choose from in January, so I’ll try Full Dark, No Stars before the month is over, which is a collection of short stories/novellas. I’ve read very few short stories from King, and am looking forward to checking them out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re new to Stephen King and would rather lean toward the psychological than the full-blown sci-fi crazies, you should also try The Shining, Misery, or The Long Walk (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman).
  • If you like character studies of women murderers that are amusing but also horrifying, try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a recent release about a woman in Lagos, Nigeria who helps her sister cover up the deaths of her boyfriends.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Bird Box

Josh Malerman’s Bird Box was on my TBR for ages, and I had the best of intentions of reading it for a good scare in October, but it just didn’t happen. When I saw that the film adaptation is coming to Netflix on December 21st, I knew I couldn’t put it off until next October, so here I am. Reviewing the book and eagerly anticipating the movie.

birdboxAbout the book: Malorie discovers she is pregnant, just as the world as she knew it grinds to a halt. All over the world, there are news reports of people going inexplicably mad, harming those around them and themselves. No one is sure about the cause of this colossal problem, but gradually they learn about mysterious creatures that are dangerous to look at. The people that are left at that point barricade themselves indoors, blacking their windows and wearing blindfolds for even the shortest trips outdoors. Malorie joins other survivors in a safe house, where she spends years adapting to the new world order and trying to find a better situation for her new babies– which necessitates venturing out into the unknown.

“Nobody has answers. Nobody knows what is going on. People are seeing something that drives them to hurt others. To hurt themselves. People are dying. Buy why?”

First off, I loved the psychological aspects to this story. For a book that involves a lot of voluntary blindness, Malerman works a lot of very visual and vivid details into Bird Box. Though I did find the writing itself a bit emotionless and unexciting, the concepts are strong enough that I was engaged in the story even when I had a sense of detachment from the characters. Even though I didn’t feel Malorie’s tension in certain circumstances, the ideas inspired my own underlying horror. I could imagine what it would be like to walk in Malorie’s shoes, and those were compellingly awful prospects.

“The moment between deciding to open your eyes and then actually doing it is as scary a thing as there is in the new world.”

There is so much room for ambiguity in Bird Box, considering the fact that the survivors can never see these creatures. Some don’t believe the creatures actually exist. Some believe the horror is in the form they take, others believe it is a flaw in the human mind that causes such an extreme reaction to them. The characters hear noises or sense a presence, but they can never be sure what is happening right beside them. There are theories and disagreements, and Malerman does an excellent job of answering the questions that need to be and leaving other possibilities vague. I will say though that I was somewhat disappointed that there seemed to be no ambiguity about the book’s ending; madness, especially after Malerman shows how it has affected a *certain* character, can be a very ambiguous concept in a novel, and I wished he had taken it a step further than he did. But none of the details Malerman provides are to the detriment of the story.

I think my only real hindrance with Bird Box came in the fact that I was a bit overhyped for it. I opened to the first page a little worried that I had elected to read by lamplight at night after the rest of the house was asleep, but even though the suspense builds and builds, the story never quite took my breath away. Perhaps the fact that the creatures don’t seem do anything but show themselves to humans made reading about them less suspenseful? Malorie was so determined not to look, and it seemed like as long as she held on to that conviction there was nothing to worry about.

But Bird Box seems written specifically for film adaptation– there were so many scenes that I could just see, that will probably be perfect in a visual setting. I’m definitely curious to see how this will translate to the screen, because so much of the visualization is up to the reader in the book (obviously)– even the main characters do not actually see a lot of what’s going on to describe it to the reader, leaving even more up to the imagination than a novel usually does. It’s incredible to see how well Malerman manages to help the characters and the reader internalize something that is physically present in the world, and I don’t think the movie will be able to convey that in the same way. I’m so curious to see how the movie will be different, and discover which format works better for me. Stay tuned for the Book-to-Film section of my December wrap-up to find out.

“It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would absolutely read another Josh Malerman book; I’m particularly looking forward to his upcoming release, Inspection, expected to hit shelves in April 2019. I wish I had been able to read Bird Box back in October, but I love a good scare enough that I really should allow myself to read more horror without waiting for Halloween.

Further recommendations:

  • Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is a sci-fi thriller with some strong psychological thrills that I think fans of Bird Box would enjoy. Though the monsters of Dark Matter are much more human, the twists are fantastic, and the world feels just as frighteningly real. This is a what-if story about the paths not taken.
  • Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly is another thriller with a supernatural bent, and this one does feature some creepy creatures along with the psychological aspects. In this book, a group of documentary filmers overnights in the Grand Canyon, seeking a secret cave– that they get stuck in, when weird things start happening.
  • It by Stephen King. Though the monster in this story often appears as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it’s much scarier than a man in face paint and funny clothes. This creature preys on children in a Maine town where the adults look the other way when disaster strikes, and it’s up to the Losers Club to face the thing everyone fears. This is a long book, but absolutely worth the time.

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bachman Books

I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was twelve years old, but I still have quite a bit of his oeuvre left on my TBR, which includes works by Richard Bachman, an early pseudonym used by King. At the very end of October, I picked The Bachman Books, a collection of four short novels written by Richard Bachman / Stephen King. It took me almost three weeks (more than half of November) to get through this 700 page collection, but it’s finally behind me and I’m ready to reflect on each of the four stories: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man.

thebachmanbooksInstead of my usual review format to talk about the book as a whole, I’m going to share a bit about each of the four stories before going into general thoughts on the collection.

Rage: This is the story that initially interested me most. It’s an out-of-print story about a school shooting that’s caused a lot of real trouble. This is a bad reason to be interested in a book, but I also just wanted to pick it up because I’m afraid it will become increasingly difficult to find and I didn’t want to end up reading all of King’s works except this one.

There is surprisingly little killing here for a story that revolves entirely around a teen gunman. Instead, Rage is filled with the conversations between students and teachers that the gunman is able to facilitate. I was somewhat put off by the weird and unnecessary sexual turn that basically every one of these conversations took, but it was an interesting look at power dynamics in the school system and I found every character fascinating. Even so, I don’t understand how this book caused so many problems- overall, I found it a pretty mediocre read.

“When you’re five and you hurt, you make a big noise unto the world. At ten you whimper. But by the time you make fifteen you begin to eat the poisoned apples that grow on your inner tree of pain. It’s the Western Way of Enlightenment. You begin to cram your fists into your mouth to stifle the screams. You bleed on the inside.”

The Long Walk: This was my favorite story from the bunch. It seemed like a true Stephen King horror tale, one of the “Where did anyone ever come up with an idea like this?” sort that I particularly enjoy. I’m left with a few unanswered questions about the society that supported and made sport of this fatal long walk (100 boys volunteer/are chosen to walk until they can walk no farther- at which point they are shot. The last boy standing wins). The ending was not surprising or impressive, but 99% of this story completely captivated me. You walk or you die– what a choice. I wonder if Suzanne Collins read this story before writing The Hunger Games, it seemed like The Long Walk could’ve been an inspiration for that sort of thing.

“They got that way, Garraty had noticed. Complete withdrawal from everything and everyone around them. Everything but the road. They stared at the road with a kind of horrid fascination, as if it were a tightrope they had to walk over an endless, bottomless chasm.”

Roadwork: The bane of the collection, in my opinion. I struggled so much with finishing this one, especially in the first of the three parts that it’s divided into. The main character was clearly on a downward spiral, but the narration took SO. LONG. to get past the premise introduction and into the real conflict. I think part of the reason I couldn’t get into this story is that it opens with a character who deals with things he doesn’t like by lying, putting them off, and just generally fooling himself into thinking that if he delays long enough the problem might go away. That’s the way I deal with things I don’t like, at least at first, and I had something I was putting off when I started reading so it was giving me real anxiety to see this character’s problems blow up in his face as he tried to ignore them. And even when I’d gotten past that part, I just didn’t like him. His trajectory was unsurprising and largely uneventful until the final stand- personally, I would’ve enjoyed this a whole lot more if the narration showed only that final scene and worked a minimal amount of backstory into the action of it. I’m still not entirely sure why I spent 2 weeks trying to read 200 pages that did not remotely interest me.

“But it didn’t matter. It had gone too far. He had let the machine run without him too long. He was hypnotized by the coming explosion, almost lusted for it.”

The Running Man: The third of four stories that have a surprising amount of focus on roads… This one was more engaging, thankfully. It features a “contestant” on a “game show”; the main character needs money to take care of his family, which in this case means signing up for a televised event in which he spends thirty days (if he can survive that long) running for his life. He can go anywhere, do anything, but the entire nation is watching the show and helping hunt for him, as are professional “Hunters”. This was another favorite of the collection for me. There’s a lot of psychology, a lot of high-stakes action, and it’s set in a futuristic world that’s clearly a future imagined from the 1970’s/80s, which I found amusing.

” ‘I’m sorry you can’t help kill me. Should I leave a note saying I was here?’ ‘Jesus, couldja? That’d be-‘… ‘Let me out here,’ Richards said abruptly… ‘Couldja gimme that note-‘ ‘Get stuffed, maggot.’ … ‘I hope they getya early, you cheap fuck!‘ “

There’s also an introduction to the book by Stephen King, titled “The Importance of Being Bachman,” which was not entirely gripping and seemed defensive, but there is some interesting info included. Some highlights: King talks about being interviewed by the FBI when Rage was linked to real school shootings, how writing with a pseudonym allowed him to publish a book he wouldn’t have been able to under his own name (The Regulators, which was similar in plot to a novel he’d already written) and how writing under two names inspired the plot for another of his novels (The Dark Half).

What I do think about these Bachman books as a whole is that they seem a bit juvenile compared to works published under his real name. Carrie was King’s first published novel though, and even though that came before any Bachman books hit shelves it didn’t feel that way to me. These stories, however, feel like the thought experiments of a writer just finding his feet, taking crazy ideas as far as he can just to see what happens when you’re the God of your own fictional worlds and can make the characters dance any way you like. They’re not fantasies, but they feel like tests. Try outs. I feel like I’ve seen a piece of King that I never had before, though I’ve read fifteen others of his works, including his memoir. This is different. Dedicated Stephen King fans might be interested to compare and contrast these books with other early King works, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll be recommending The Bachman Books as any sort of Stephen King staple or even as an introduction to his works, despite their early place in King’s publishing chronology.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars (overall- I am not giving separate ratings for each of the four novels though I’ll say I liked them in this order: The Long Walk, The Running Man, Rage, Roadwork). I’m glad I read this, even if it did wreck my motivation for a couple of weeks. I’ve been curious about this collection for years, so I’m proud of myself for following through and finishing these 700 pages even when I wasn’t loving the stories. But I do think I need a little break from Stephen King- or at least from Richard Bachman.

Have you read anything by Richard Bachman? What did you think?

Sincerely, The Literary Elephant

Review: Red Dragon

Last year I made Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs my Halloween read, and thought it was brilliantly done. I hadn’t known when I decided to pick it up that The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the Hannibal Lecter series, but since it made such a great Halloween story I thought I would pick up another book from the series for Halloween this year: Harris’s Red Dragon, the first Hannibal Lecter book.

reddragonAbout the book: Two families have been murdered in two different states, but the FBI thinks they’re connected. Will Graham is recruited from retirement in Florida to examine the case and help pinpoint the killer. His family doesn’t want him to go back into the environment that poisons his mind and emotions– getting inside the killer’s head in order to find him takes its toll on Graham– but signs point to another potential slaughter within the month, and he has to try. He’s not supposed to be in any danger, looking over old evidence from the first crimes and offering insight, but a selfish corner-cutting reporter runs a distasteful article about Graham’s involvement. The article, in addition to a poor rapport with asylum-held Hannibal Lecter, is enough to bring Graham to the killer’s attention.

” ‘I know I’m not smarter than you are.’ ‘Then how did you catch me, Will?’ ‘You had disadvantages.’ ‘What disadvantages?’ ‘Passion. And you’re insane.’ “

I found it interesting that even in the first book of the Hannibal Lecter set, we don’t really see Lecter on the outside– before this book begins, Lecter is already imprisoned. We do see some backstory about how he was caught, but Lecter’s role is primarily psychological: one known killer’s brain revealing the workings of another. I think this unique choice is what makes Hannibal Lecter– and Harris’s trilogy– so captivating.

At its core, this entire book (like The Silence of the Lambs) is psychological. It’s also gruesome and full of crimes, but the appeal is the glimpse into the killer’s mentality and the detectives’ efforts to make connections that enable catching him. Lecter as go-between adds an interesting third layer to the madness.

“If he felt Lecter’s madness in his head, he had to contain it quickly, like a spill.”

In all truth though, I did not think Red Dragon was nearly as polished as The Silence of the Lambs. (I’m not going to be able to stop comparing the two, sorry.) The main reason that Red Dragon didn’t hold up for me as well is that the parts of the novel are too separate. The Silence of the Lambs has this great dynamic between the new criminal, the captured crazy, and the dogged young detective. In Red Dragon, though Graham is connected both to Lecter’s and the Dragon’s investigations, the overlap between hunter and prey is not as neatly done. Lecter’s part in the Red Dragon ordeal is so small he’s hardly necessary to the book at all. Furthermore, the detectives aren’t able to figure everything out before the climax, which leaves a lot of “So this is how he did it” inelegant exposition for the final few pages and an impression that the investigation was largely unsuccessful– thought Graham does discern a few key secrets from the Dragon’s almost non-existent trail of clues.

Another problem I had with this novel that I didn’t notice in The Silence of the Lambs is the way the Dragon’s past is revealed. Perhaps the picture of disfigurement and abuse Harris paints for him was newer at the time (this book was originally published in 1981), but so much of the Dragon’s past seemed textbook-case to me. Abandoned by his mother. Bullied by his siblings and peers. Subjected to weird quasi-sexual threats from his caretaker. Developed a strange relationship with love emotions because he tried to care about people that never liked him. Etc. And on top of the predictability of the Dragon’s horrible childhood, it is presented in a stilted telling-rather-than-showing way right in the middle of the book, interrupting the flow of the main narrative. For all of Harris’s psychological prowess (shown through a variety of intelligent characters), the structure of Red Dragon completely lacks the deftness and subtlety with which The Silence of the Lambs‘s narrative excels. The seed of his talent is apparent even in Red Dragon, but it hasn’t grown to anywhere near its full potential yet.

But even though I was not as impressed overall, I’m glad I read this. It was still creepy and skin-crawlingly disturbing in some places, which was just what I was looking for on Halloween. Some particular details will stay in my head for a long time, ready to haunt me when I need a good scare.

“An intelligent psychopath– particularly a sadist– is hard to catch for several reasons. First, there’s no traceable motive. So you can’t go that way. And most of the time you won’t have any help from informants. See, there’s a lot more stooling than sleuthing behind most arrests, but in a case like this there won’t be any informants. He may not even know that he’s doing it. So you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate. You try to find patterns.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, even though it did not live up to my expectations after The Silence of the Lambs. I don’t imagine I’ll be recommending this one much, unless perhaps to readers like me who loved Silence and are looking for just a bit more of Lecter’s creepy genius. I’m still planning to read book three for Halloween 2019, but I don’t know that I’ll bother with the fourth book that goes back to Lecter’s crimes; it gives me the impression of being a bit too much of the unnecessary reader wish-fulfillment type of book, but I don’t know. We’ll see.

I know Halloween is past now, but I love a good disturbing read– do you have any spooky recommendations for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Night Film

I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.

nightfilmAbout the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.

Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”

The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.

“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”

But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.

So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?

“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”

There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.

But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.

“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”

Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.

Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).

“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.

Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: It

I read Stephen King’s It! It currently stands as the longest book I’ve ever read, ringing in at 1,153 pages. I spent four weeks buddy reading this book, about 250-300 pages per week between the other books I read this month, ending each week with a phone chat with my buddy about the section we’d just read. It was a great way to make it through what might otherwise have seemed a very daunting book, and thus I ended up really loving not only the buddy read experience but the entire long novel.

it2About the book: Something is haunting Derry. Only the kids seem to be able to see It, although they don’t all see the same thing, and some of the grownups know It’s there. But no one seems to understand what It is, or why it’s murdering kids. In 1958, the Losers Club bands together, united by their shared experiences as victims of local bully Henry Bowers and the terrifying supernatural force they call It. Once they start talking about their frightening experiences with Pennywise the clown (in Its various forms) they start piecing together truths about Derry’s dark nature that no one else seems to understand– or at least admits out loud. One of the Losers has lost a sibling to Pennywise’s reign of terror, and won’t let that stand– the group dedicates their summer to killing It; and just in case, they swear to come back to Derry as adults and try again if It manages to survive and return.

“And once dreams became real, they escaped the power of the dreamer and became their own deadly things, capable of independent action.”

Of course, as with every Stephen King novel (that I’ve read so far, anyway), the writing is superb. King always seems to know which details to share to breathe life into his characters and keep the plot rolling. Yes, It is long. It’s really long (and thus my review is also a bit longer than usual). But there weren’t aspects of this book that felt superfluous like long books run the risk of including. Every word has its place, and they’re good words. It is easy to read, in the sense that it’s not full of unknown words or obscure concepts, and yet he ties things together in eye-opening ways. Despite its supernatural elements, It is full of relatable ideas about human nature, about relationships and emotions that many readers are familiar with. No one writes like King.

It covers two main timelines, a summer in 1958 and another in 1985. The book goes back and forth between the two times, sometimes switching chapters between the two right in the middle of a sentence that meshes with another sentence fragment from the other time. But both times move forward chronologically, the switches are clearly labelled, and there’s such an age difference for the Losers between ’58 and ’85 that it’s easy to keep track of which time you’re reading about. There are also vignettes of Pennywise’s deadly mischief in other years, but again these are clearly labelled and woven fittingly into the story.

In addition to the range of years, the reader is also given close third-person perspectives of each of the seven main characters, as well as a few brief glimpses into Pennywise’s psyche and several of the other children outside of the Losers Club. But again, these sections are distinct, though they aren’t always labelled. Each character is impressively unique, and at the first mention of one of their names the reader knows exactly which character they’re following.

These formatting details alone make the length of the book evident: to follow so many characters closely over a 27-year time span with extra bits thrown in to widen the story, It covers a huge scope of plot, and it does so at a perfect pace– slow enough for the reader to take in every important detail, but fast enough that the reader is never bogged down with a ton of boring backstory. The 1,153 pages are necessary– you just need to be interested in a really big story if you’re thinking about attempting it.

I do want to mention some not-as-stellar aspects of this particular King novel, however. While I didn’t find any of this book truly scary, I would say It is a book for more mature audiences. There are some creepy clown scenes as well as other horror scenes that may potentially be frightening. In addition, there are a lot of slurs and insults aimed at the Losers. The Losers are: an asthmatic, an African American, a Jew, an overweight boy, a stutterer, a myopic goof (class clown type), and a girl. There are also some gay characters. All of these people are made fun of, bullied, called every inappropriate name that applies, etc. Even amongst themselves they joke about the things that make them “losers.” This is done as tastefully as possible (as far as such a thing can be done tastefully): the Losers Club is a self-proclaimed title, and they’re fully accepting of each other inside the group. The narration makes it clear that the slurs and such are the opinions of the small-minded, the real losers; the Losers Club is actually pretty charming and awesome. I would’ve read 1,000+ pages about them even without Pennywise the supernatural clown to keep the plot rolling.

“Maybe, he thought, there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends– maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for, too, if that’s what has to be.”

But then there are the weird sexual moments. These actually bothered me more than any of the racist/homophobic/misogynistic/etc. comments and the murders of small children. Some of the murders are disturbing, but generally their supernatural nature makes them seem more fictional while the sexual moments seem very much more real. I don’t want to give a list of the weird sexual things that happen, but they’re there. It’s not even always a sex scene, per se, it’s just some normal childhood moment that ends up oddly charged. Sex comes into this novel much more frequently than seems necessary. I almost took a star off my rating for these moments, but in the end I liked the rest of the content enough to overlook these bizarre and uncomfortable moments. There’s one scene toward the end of the book when the Losers Club is still a group of 11 year-olds that particularly bothered me.

For anyone who’s read the book (I plan to watch both the old miniseries and the new movie in the near future but I haven’t yet), I’ll say this: I preferred the childhood timeline to the adult one, except for the Ritual of Chud scenes. Ben was my favorite character throughout, though I liked the entire Losers Club, especially as children. The reunion scene was my favorite adult Losers Club section. My favorite scene of the whole book is the phone call to Stan and his wife’s subsequent discovery. The end of the novel was definitely not what I expected (which is to say It was not what I expected) and I would’ve rated the book lower for that “final battle” scene if the adult version of the Ritual of Chud hadn’t fulfilled my expectations more where the child version failed (seriously what were the rest of them doing as kids while Bill was in that Other Space?)

” ‘We’re dead, but sometimes we clown around a little, Stanley.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a stellar experience reading this book, even with a few scenes that made me uncomfortable. I knew going in that there was a chance It would be uncomfortable to read at times, although in the end it wasn’t Pennywise that creeped me out. I am so excited to watch the film versions of this book, and to read more Stephen King novels. The size of his novels can be daunting, but they’re definitely worth the time in the end.

Further recommendations:

  1. More Stephen King, obviously. I couldn’t decide between my favorites, so here’s a few: If you like fictional politics and can suspend your disbelief, try The Dead Zone. If you like a historical twist and a character-driven plot (less sci-fi), go for 11/22/63. If you want another tie to Derry and a potential scare, go for Bag of Bones. And if you’ve read a bunch of Stephen King but haven’t yet read his memoir, definitely pick up On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft because he writes about his own early life like he writes his fictional characters and it is everything.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel? I’ve decided I want to read them all (I’ve read twelve), but I’m trying to prioritize some of the best ones and I’ll take all opinions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant