"A room without books is like a body without a soul." - Marcus Tullius Cicero

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Horns by Joe Hill

Despite there not being enough evidence against him, Ignatius Perrish remains the prime suspect in the brutal rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin. Believing  Ig to be guilty, his friends and family have abandoned him, and in the eyes of the public he is a demon; Ig’s life has become hell. A year on from Merrin’s death, Ig wakes up from a night of heavy drinking with a bad hangover, a blurred memory, and large devil-horns protruding from his temples.

The concept of Horns is strange, original and intriguing, and the plot itself lives up to the premise; it is completely engaging and exciting. There is not a dull moment and I felt eager throughout to know what was coming next; the numerous twists and turns really kept me on my toes.

Horns is brilliantly written and the style is reminiscent of Stephen King's (Hill's father). If you enjoy King’s works, I should say you will definitely appreciate Hill’s genius too. There is a lot of depth to the narrative and it is littered with hidden meaning; every tiny thing that happens is relevant and important to the overarching plot, and it sometimes feels as though Hill is leaving little clues for us to ponder over. The characters are well painted and realistic - I particularly appreciate how well Hill wrote Lee Tourneau, Ig’s ex-best friend and possibly the most interesting character.

As well as combining dark fantasy with horror, Horns offers an interesting juxtaposition of dark humour with raw emotion. The demonic Horns give Ig certain powers, with which he hopes to find and take revenge on the real culprit of Merrin’s murder. When people speak to him, the Horns compel them to gush their innermost secrets and darkest desires which at times result in some amusing, if slightly sickening, confessions. At the same time though, Horns is a resonant and emotional novel. Once the story gets going, Hill lays off the humour and focuses on the horrific grief that can shatter people’s lives when trying to come to terms with bereavement. Hill also highlights the devastation that is felt when those you love abandon you when you need them the most - at the very beginning some Horns-compelled confessions are amusing, but later on when Ig hears what his family truly think of him they are extremely saddening. Horns, although enjoyable, was at times incredibly heartwrenching which was something I was not expecting going into it.

Horns is not your average horror novel in that it is not particularly scary or gory, and has a distinct romantic and emotional aspect. Don’t let that put you off though; it is one of the things that make it stand out. This dimension adds another level to the novel that a lot of horror books, focusing more on shocks or carnage, often fail to achieve. Horns is a superbly written, original and imaginative novel, with an interesting supernatural revenge-fuelled plot which manages to balance dark humour, horror, fantasy, romance and poignancy perfectly.

Rating: 10/10

My other Joe Hill Reviews:

In the Tall Grass

Friday, 26 October 2012

In the Tall Grass by Stephen King and Joe Hill

In the Tall Grass is a collaborative supernatural-horror short story by father-son duo Stephen King and Joe Hill, and it hearkens back to King’s earlier short stories such as ‘Children of the Corn’, when he was at the top of his game.

While on a road trip to stay with some relatives, brother and sister Cal and Becky DeMuth hear a child’s voice calling for help from deep within the ominous-looking field of tall grass by the road. Despite another voice - presumed to be the boy’s mother’s - warning them to turn back while they still have the chance, Cal and Becky decide to venture into the grass to help the boy find his way out. But the grass is not all that it seems; its supernatural nature means that they soon become separated, and can’t seem to find one another again - then panic sets in, and the siblings realise they have made a big mistake.

In the Tall Grass starts out as creepy and disorienting, progressing steadily to a shocking and gruesome final quarter - the level of gore in the latter part is so extreme and disturbing that some readers might find the material highly offensive. The first half is great; it is intense, highly suspenseful and succeeds at tapping into the common fear of becoming lost and separated from our loved ones in precarious or potentially dangerous situations. The grass makes for a foreboding and dangerous foe; it is approximated by Becky to be about 7 feet tall - a suffocating, dense maze of green closing in on the characters as they cycle through several emotions - frustration, fear and panic being at the forefront. The authors play not only on the anxiety of getting lost, but also the uncomfortable idea of lurching into the unknown: the pair have no idea what might be lurking within the forbidding greenery - smelly mud, biting bugs, slithering snakes, a lunatic or two perhaps, maybe even a monster...the possibilities are endless.

This 60 page story is certainly not for everyone; you should not read this if you are easily offended or squeamish. However for fans of King’s oldies who have a strong stomach, this is a fantastic short story that is definitely worth your time. It even includes extracts from King’s upcoming release Doctor Sleep and Hill’s new book NOS4A2, as an added bonus.

To sum up, In the Tall Grass may be sick, twisted and gruesome, but I loved it; the concept is original and scary, and the writing is skilful, tight and engaging. It elicits a profound feeling of disorientation, claustrophobia and panic, culminating in some grisly blood and guts.

Rating: 9/10

My other Stephen King reviews:

Gerald's Game
The Running Man

My other Joe Hill reviews:


Monday, 22 October 2012

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Gaiman’s macabre tale about a boy who lives in a graveyard offers a dark twist on a classic children’s story. Despite being aimed at a young audience, The Graveyard Book opens with a shocking triple homicide by the villain of this whimsical tale called ‘the man Jack’. With his parents and older sister freshly murdered, an adventurous and curious toddler slips out of the house and stumbles upon an old graveyard close by, where he is adopted by a kindly ghost couple and christened Nobody, or Bod for short. For now Bod is safe in the confines of the spooky graveyard, but the man Jack is still out there, and he intends to finish what he started...

I love the setting of The Graveyard Book: a scary old English graveyard, surrounded by ghosts from all time periods and backgrounds - including the ghost of a witch and the spectre of Caius Pompeius, as well as vicious ghouls. In real life, graveyards are normally avoided and people don’t like being there, so I thought Gaiman’s idea of having a young boy live in one was very intelligent as well as interesting and original. Furthermore this macabre setting allows for a juxtaposing of the living and the dead, offering some wonderful tidbits of wisdom shared from the ghosts to the young boy:

“You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you can change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

The novel itself reads, at least for the first half, very much like a collection of short stories. They focus on the many mischievous adventures Bod gets up to in his unusual home, and don’t advance the plot a great deal. It is not until towards the end of the novel when the man Jack makes his reappearance and the story progresses.

Despite the high acclaim of this book, I dislike the writing style and this major issue made The Graveyard Book a bit of a boring read for me. It was not very engaging, and the dialogue fell a bit flat; I found this was the case with Stardust too - the only other Gaiman I have read. This is a huge shame because the premise is brilliantly imaginative and, as I have already said, the creepy setting really appealed to me; this book certainly had the potential to wow me, but unfortunately it failed to do so.

Ostensibly The Graveyard Book is a children’s story, but it is incredibly dark - the murder of Bod’s family in the opening chapter is not graphic, but nonetheless it is disturbing and sinister in context, and I would not recommend it for young children or for sensitive older kids as it may scare them and give them nightmares.

In conclusion, my second outing with Gaiman was a bit of a letdown, and despite the high acclaim of The Graveyard Book I didn’t enjoy reading it too much due to the dull writing style. However the concept behind this is truly brilliant and it boasts an array of charming and interesting characters; had this been written in a way I can get on with, I’m sure this would have been one of my favourites. I remain underwhelmed by Gaiman’s work but I am determined to find one that I love!

Rating: 6/10

My other Neil Gaiman reviews:
How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Running Man by Stephen King

The Running Man is a ‘Bachman Book’ - one of the 5 novels Stephen King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in the late 70’s and early 80’s to see if his work would sell as successfully without his famous name plastered on the cover.

The Running Man is a gritty sci-fi thriller set in a not-too-distant dystopian future where the poor are viewed as pests that need to be disposed of by the heartless authorities. A key feature of King’s fictional future is the ‘Games Company’, which enlists the lower class in life threatening games for money and the entertainment of the rich.

The protagonist - Benjamin Richards - is one of the unlucky poor folk. He has been blacklisted from working due to his leaving a job that was likely to make him sterile, his baby daughter is dying from flu because he cannot afford medicine and the government does not believe in welfare, and his wife has resorted to prostituting herself to make ends meet. Eventually Ben decides to take matters into his own hands and heads down to the Games Company to try and win his family some money; after rigorous mental and physical tests, he is selected to take part in the most dangerous, challenging and formidable event the company have to offer - The Running Man.

The concept of the game The Running Man is this: after being demonised on TV (or FreeVee as it is called) to rally the public against him, the Runner is set loose and after a 12 hour head start he is pursued by skilled Hunters who once they find him won’t hesitate to murder him. He can go absolutely anywhere in the world, but here’s the catch: the public receive a monetary reward if they spot the Runner and report his whereabouts, making it incredibly difficult for the newly made enemy of the state to get very far. Furthermore, the Runner must send two video tapes of himself each day to the Games Company, or they won’t win any money at all, but will still be hunted. If Ben can survive for 30 days he receives 3 million ‘New Dollars’ - King’s less than imaginative name for future money - but so far this has never happened in the entire history of the game so his chances look slim.

This book is very much about class segregation. King paints a vivid picture of the underbelly of this futuristic America, and the dreadful lives that the poor have to suffer at the hands of a greedy and selfish government. This classic theme makes the story relatable, and King executed it very well. Ben is very bitter towards the authorities and he has no qualms with showing it, making for several quite amusing moments when he displays his rebellious feelings.

The Running Man is an intense story, with the Hunters hot on Ben’s tail and the constant fear that at any moment he could be caught and murdered. To enhance this feeling, each short chapter is headed by ‘Minus 100...and Counting’ and so on until it reaches zero, which is an interesting way to split up the story and adds a sense of urgency. However despite the dangerous and exciting premise - and the fact that it is quite short (my copy was some 200 pages) - to my surprise parts of the story were a bit boring and slow. On the other hand the ending was action-packed, gruesome and immensely satisfying; it boosted my opinion of the novel from ‘OK’ to ‘Wow, that was brilliant!’

In conclusion, The Running Man is a great little read that has a powerful message and good writing; ultimately the slow and dull middle is more than redeemed by an explosive, gory, and truly memorable ending.

Rating: 7/10

My other Stephen King Reviews:

Gerald's Game
In the Tall Grass

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Let's Go Play at the Adams' by Mendal W. Johnson

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is a horror novel often compared with Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, since they are both loosely based on the Sylvia Likens case. Johnson’s rendition of the case has a much stronger psychological aspect than Ketchum’s, which is much more gruesome and violent. 

20-year-old Barbara Miller has been left in charge of 13-year-old Bobby and 10-year-old Cindy Adams while their parents are holidaying in Europe. Everything is going smoothly and Barbara is enjoying her new role of bossy babysitter however, about a week before the Adams’ are due to return, Barbara wakes up drowsy from a heavy dosage of chloroform and finds herself to be completely immobile. Her two young charges and three neighbourhood children have tied her tightly to the bed, and giddy with their new found freedom, they aren’t going to release her until they have fully enjoyed their ‘game’.

The premise might not sound so scary - how harmful can a group of kids be anyway? Well this is what Barbara thought initially, but she soon learns how dangerous it is to underestimate children. At first Barbara thinks the kids are simply playing a prank and will free her soon. She quickly realises this is not the case and, as the youngsters adjust to their new roles as the ‘grown-ups’, they become gradually bolder and more ferocious with their new toy; the mental torture of the earlier part of the book progressing steadily to callous physical abuse.

Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ starts off very well - the writing flows nicely and is easy to read. Once the youngsters have taken Barbara captive however, the novel moves quite slowly; some parts were a little dull and at times my attention wavered. A great portion of the novel consists of Barbara pondering the situation and for large chunks there was a profound lack of progress; it reminded me of Jessie’s somewhat tedious inner dialogue in Gerald’s Game - Barbara even imagines conversations with her friend Terry much like Jessie talks to her inner voices.

An interesting aspect of Let’s Go Play is that we not only get inside the victim’s head, but we also observe events from the point of view of each of her captors. The childrens' characters are written well and it is interesting to observe their development through the entire process. Dianne is the eldest at 17 and is black-hearted and quite terrifying; her brother Paul is well on his way to becoming a fully fledged psychopath, being very weird and unnerving. The Adams children themselves - Bobby and Cindy - are mostly victims of peer pressure, and once the situation starts to get out of hand it is interesting to watch their very different development in attitude as Barbara begins to deteriorate. Barbara’s slow degeneration is harrowing and sad and, as the novel advances, she becomes less of a person to the children and is more like a giant Barbie doll to them, making for a shocking and deeply disturbing read.

Due to its unsettling nature Let’s Go Play is neither easy to read nor a novel everyone will want to try. It reminded me a little of Lord of the Flies in the way that the children behaved savagely without adults to keep them in check, and did things just because they could - some of the things they do to their babysitter are completely void of emotion and humanity. The fact that the villains in Let’s Go Play are a group of normal children exacerbates the level of horror with innocence being corrupted and completely destroyed when parental guidance is absent. This novel is dark, compelling and highly chilling, and although it is not too graphically violent, it will burrow into your psyche and leave you thinking about its uncomfortable content for days. 

Rating: 8/10 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Kitchen contains two stories - the titular tale which is 105 pages long and a shorter one of only 45 pages called Moonlight Shadow. Kitchen is the story that propelled Yoshimoto to fame in Japan in 1988 upon its publication, and I can certainly see why.

Both stories focus on dealing with grief after the death of someone close to you. Yet despite the sombre subject matter confronted in these two stories, and that they are both quite sad - especially Moonlight Shadow - this is one of the few Japanese books I have read so far that is neither horrendously bleak nor paints Japan as a terrifying, dangerous place full of psychopaths (I would not advise reading anything by Ryu Murakami or Natsuo Kirino shortly before embarking on a trip to Japan!). On the contrary, I found these two stories to be very uplifting, enjoyable and full of tidbits of Japanese culture.

In the first and longer story Kitchen, the main character Mikage is confronted with the death of her grandmother with whom she lived. She ends up moving in with a young man who knew her grandmother and helped Mikage with the funeral arrangements, and his transsexual mother Eriko. One of my favourite things about Kitchen is the talk about kitchens and food. I’m not much of a cook myself, but I loved Mikage’s passion for kitchens and moreover I love Japanese cuisine so reading this made me feel very hungry!

Moonlight Shadow is my favourite of the two though; it has more depth and has a sweet poignancy that is rare is novels. This second story is about learning to move on once a loved one has died. Satsuki has lost her long-term boyfriend, Hitoshi, to a car accident. Likewise, Hitoshi’s younger brother, Hiiragi, lost his girlfriend in the same tragedy. A stranger Satsuki meets on a bridge tries to relieve her grief by supernatural means.

The language is simple and charming, and both stories have a very distinct ‘Japanese’ feel to them; they have plenty of Japanese culture and have a hint of Haruki Murakami’s trademark surrealism.

I really enjoyed this lovely, melancholy book. I thought it sounded pretty boring when I first read the synopsis of each novella and wasn’t expecting much in spite of its acclaimed position in contemporary Japanese literature, but both Kitchen and Moonlight Shadow were very enjoyable reads. However, the abstract nature of the book means that it is definitely not for everyone, and may seem uneventful for some; this is a book about emotions rather than actions. Though this thin book might sound very depressing, it isn’t and has an uplifting feel to each story, as it strives to show that there is hope and a future for those left behind after a death. Both stories hold an incredible beauty that is worth reading a mere 150 pages to experience.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is set in a dystopian - or arguably utopian - future in which the ‘World Controllers’ have created the perfect society: with the use of test tube babies and hypnotism, the community is based on pleasure without moral repercussions. Bernard Marx, however, through some anomaly, is unhappy with his lot in the new world and sets out to relieve his discontent by visiting one of the remaining Savage Reservations where the old imperfect life continues.

Huxley’s futuristic totalitarian world is imaginative, original and incredibly disturbing. Families are now obsolete and instead all babies are grown in bottles and are bred solely to become part of a particular class, in turn each class fulfils a particular job criteria and hence the whole world runs rather like a giant emotionless machine. The classes range from the super intelligent and beautiful Alphas to the mentally stunted Epsilons, who carry out the most menial jobs. Once the babies have been ‘decanted’ - the word ‘born’, along with other words such as ‘mother’, have become vulgar and taboo - they undergo years of conditioning to ensure that they are happy with their particular class:

“Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas...And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write...I’m so glad I’m a Beta.”

Now that there is no need to reproduce by natural means, sex is purely recreational. In this world “everyone belongs to everyone else” and promiscuity is heavily encouraged and is considered the civilised way to behave; romantic relationships are a thing of the past.

The community are kept happy by the legal narcotic Soma, which people take whenever they feel negative and has no apparent side effect. These two aspects of the setting subvert contemporary social values: nowadays individuals are sometimes judged as immoral for acting promiscuously and taking drugs, so the fact that this is the status quo in the Huxley’s totalitarian state might be shocking to a modern reader - and would certainly have been so to a 1930’s audience, when the novel was published.

What I love about Brave New World is how thought provoking it is. It would be very easy to say that if everyone is happy under this system then is there really a problem? However, what Huxley highlights so well is the question of what would we give up for happiness - is our very humanity worth the cost? Are people truly happy if they are not free thinking and have been brainwashed into thinking particular things and acting a particular way? Huxley underlines these issues through the characters: since they lack humanity they don’t feel like people, but more like robots, and they often repeat phrases they have been conditioned to believe like an automaton might.

However, despite the stimulating subject matter and the unsettling, imaginative setting, the story of Brave New World is quite weak. Once the initial shock and disgust with Huxley’s environment wears off a little, there is not much of interest happening to the characters and at times is dull and disengaging. This is only exacerbated by the robotic characters as they are not exceptionally compelling personalities, with the exception of John the Savage who is definitely the most defined and interesting character.

Brave New World is an incredibly thought-provoking and interesting read. It is often compared to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but I think that Orwell’s novel is superior mainly due to the more interesting plot. Huxley’s novel is much more concerned with setting than story, but nonetheless Brave New World has a lot to say, has implicit shock value, evokes plenty of challenging questions, is scary and thoughtful with a harrowing conclusion that will haunt you for days after you’ve finished reading it.

Rating: 8/10