A very frightful read (for all the wrong reasons)

Over the past few weeks my reading attention has been turned to Dean Koontz’s 77 Shadow Street, which was a novel I picked up on a whim when about to take a lengthy bus journey without a book for company. At the time I was just finishing up Stella Gemmells wonderful fantasy debut The City, the review of which is available https://kyle8414.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/the-city-by-stella-gemmell-game-of-thrones-meets-roman-history/.

Somebody once told me I had a knack for storytelling. Somebody also once told me I was always up for a good rant. Here, to either your joy or dismay (neither of which particularly influences my writing style of course), I will be employing the rant, because damn it is justified.

If I could use an analogy of what reading this book feels like, it would probably be something like ‘that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know you have been well and truly duped by some conman’. We’ve all been there, whether it was holiday souvenirs or online shopping; everyone one of us has had that gut punch to our ego when we realise someone has got the best of us. Over the last few weeks, Dean Koontz put that feeling in my stomach. He didn’t literally put it there of course. He was probably back in his mansion somewhere counting all the money he garnered off this sad excuse for a novel.

In retrospect, I should have had some inkling all was not well when I read Mr. Koontz has had over sixty novels published in his career (although looking at his website’s bibliography this figure could actually be much bigger). “What the hell?- you might say. Surely a writer with such an illustrious career couldn’t possibly turn out a bad novel. Yes and No. Koontz’s success must be the result of some talent, which I won’t deny, as I have not read his more recommended works. But it doesn’t take an avid reader to know someone churning out that many books must surely be writing some amount of awful stories along with the good stuff. I, of course, went and bought one of the poorer ones.

I sincerely hope this story is the worst he has published. If he actually can stoop lower than this and still get it to market, I’ll have lost faith in literature altogether. The most glaring thing wrong in the first few pages is the sheer volume of words on the page. Not that the font is small-au contraire. No, here I refer to Dean’s seeming obsession with using every large word he can shake out of a dictionary. For about ten pages I wasn’t actually sure what the book was about, because I was trying to wade through all the mess he had put in front of me. The worst thing is I really wanted to like this story; I really did. I love the idea of a horror house/mansion/hotel, with all sorts of ghosts and goings-on. In fact I’m sure most horror writers would testify that this is the easiest plot to work with.

Step 1: new person goes to the house

Step 2:Weird shit happens

Step 3: Some kind of resolution

THAT’S ALL YOU HAD TO DO DEAN

It was a ‘in and out’ job, with no need for mucking about. The first character we encounter, some senator figure who returns drunk to the hotel, is dead in ten pages (oops spoiler). Nobody minds a character dying, but it’s the fact that this character literally has nothing to do with the rest of the whole book. Zilch. His literal purpose was just to show that ‘ooh house is spooky’. I think one other character noticed he was missing, and he was the security guard so ya, doesn’t count.

The rest of the next hundred pages uses a character by character approach, which I actually don’t mind, as we get a good feel for the whole house. The problem is literally all these characters suck. Besides Bailey Hawkes, and some other fella who I’m sure dies anyway, I really hated everybody in this book.

“Oh, Oh but I’m sure he meant for you to hate them”

No. He didn’t. He meant for us to hate like two or three and love the rest. Sorry Dean, I hate them all. What Koontz thought would be a good way to make us like his characters was to give them all problems. Seems smart right? Only issue, I can’t sympathise with any of their shit. I really don’t care about some singer we just met telling us she got divorced, and I couldn’t care less about a pair of old sisters who are in retirement and bored. At this point of the book (page 100 of 400), I knew I already hated this book, and I just wanted to see how bad it could get. Readers instincts paid off it seemed; it got far worse.

What apparently is happening in the house, which has a dubious history with previous owners for murders etc, is that every 38 years the Pendleton (which is what it is called now as a hotel) will transition to the future, where all the characters will be hunted in some post-human world. Coming up to this event, loads of stuff will go wrong in the existing time, such as strange moulds growing everywhere, or characters from the past showing up only to disappear. Dean’s description of fungi got very annoying. There were no ghosts in this entire novel really, but there was a fuck load of fungus. Nobody in the world finds mould frightening. I mean yes it’s ugly but it’s not creepy is it. The real terror then is this strange creature that will kill all the inhabitants.

Thumbs up to Dean for somehow making his villains even worse, by making this otherworldly creature that is made up of millions/billions of nanobots. You see readers? It was science all along. Fuck you Dean Koontz. The last thing a horror reader wants is a plausible explanation. This isn’t Scooby Doo. I remember the original episodes incidentally. Now those were scary.

Meanwhile back in the house of scary plants and zero ghosts, our characters have to contend with problems such as rooms looking different, and TVs saying ‘exterminate’ but not actually doing anything. In order to survive, our group of barely tolerable freaks band together in one room, only to do the one thing decades of low budget horror movies have informed them you do not do-split up. Cue loads of deaths that are completely the characters fault. Maybe Dean koontz wants me to support the villains, and if so, he is a genius. At this stage, I am cheering them on as they kill our heroes.

I forgot to mention that at several points throughout the book, some dope called “the one” interludes for a page or two. Apparently he is the master behind all this future-present and the whole fungi-creature-environment is all part of one world organism. Ya, I know, it’s fucking stupid. These pages were perhaps the worst. Lines upon lines of ‘the one’ spewing so much shit about how he is a legend so that you seriously question whether Harry Potter going on about being the chosen one was actually even annoying at all.

As for handling the whole ‘oh look it was science all along’, Dean is way out of his depth.

“Hey, I have a BA in English, that means I know how technology and science works”

Reading it was painful, trying to nod along to shit you knew were just pure guesses. I doubt he could stop for a bit of research like. I mean, if he took twenty minutes out of his day, he’d probably not have published another book.

I’m sure nobody has made it this far, but OH WAIT, I forgot my favourite worst part: Dean’s sentence length. The odd time in a book, you’ll come across some whopper of a thirty or forty word sentence and wonder what the author was thinking. Try that every two minutes in this book. I’m sure a good few actually hit the 50+ word mark, and at that length you actually cannot keep track of whatever the fuck the writer is trying to say. Not fifty short words either. At least half will be straight out of the thesaurus, who as a happenstance, sounds like a far scarier dinosaur villain than the mute beats we have to read about here.

In the end, all the characters don’t die. Boohoo. I’m telling you the ending because it will save you four hundred pages of life you don’t get back.

Seriously, the scariest thing about this novel is the writing.

Tales From The Perilous Realm- A J.R.R Tolkien book review

If you ask the ordinary fantasy fan to think outside the box when it comes to Tolkien, most would return with answers such as The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin. When imagining Tales from the Perilous Realm, one must command the fan to imagine themselves standing outside the room which holds our original box. In short, it wouldn’t be the first on anybody’s list, but having read it, I feel it shouldn’t be anybody’s last.

This novel features five unique short stories as written by Tolkien, each based around the world of Faerie, a land we commonly associate with The Brothers Grimm etc. In stark contrast to this land of pixies and toadstools, Tolkien presents a meticulous essay outlining concretely what Fairy stories actually are, and how we should consider them as literary pieces.

The first tale presented is that of Roverandom. Featuring a dog named Rover, the story revolves around the animal becoming caught up in wizard dealings and being whisked away from his normal country lifestyle. What Tolkien succeeds in here unsurprisingly (if one reads The Hobbit) is perfectly building a world for a child’s imagination. Rather than soaking the piece in meticulous detail or filling every corner with aspects of his higher writing, Tolkien maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, and manages to turn a very average plot into a memorable story suitable for all ages. Though not my favourite form the book, the piece deserves praise nonetheless.

Farmer Giles of Ham definitely feels far more like the Tolkien we are used to, with its slightly dark undertone and a plot brimming with swords, kings and dragons. Similar to a world of Frodos and Bilbos, the tale focuses on how the ordinary man gets caught up in a world of valour and higher powers, simply based on how much love even the smallest man can show for their own homeland. Farmer Giles is Bilbo-like showing quick wit and a good humour, while his exchanges with Chrysophylax the dragon are hauntingly familiar if one has read The Hobbit to the finish. Suspense was maintained throughout which kept the tale moving and so the whole thing felt far shorter than Roverandom itself. Perhaps for those who enjoyed The Hobbit this would be a welcome read.

The Smith of Wooton Major dabbled most in what Tolkien considered the faery world to be. Based around a master cook living in a small town, the plot takes us into a parallel world of Faery, all accomplished through the magical ingredients of a special cake! The further the story progressed, the more the tale stood out as thematically impressive and not just a easy read. If Tolkien had delved more into the adventures that did occur in the world of Faery, the story would have benefited undoubtedly. However,given it was intended as a short piece (in which connection to the early paragraphs seems essential to grasp the overall feel), he might have chosen correctly in keeping the length short.

The literature then shifts to poet format, with a series of nearly twenty short stories being fed to the reader on a verse by verse basis. Some of these tales seem by themselves interesting, while others leave much to the imagination but succeed from a poetic point of view. Of all the pieces in this book, this would probably appeal least to the everyday reader. However, for those Tolkien fans who understand deeply that this man valued language far more than he did archers and cavalry, the section is a valuable insight into Tolkien’s ability.

The final piece presented is that of ‘Leaf by Niggle’. Tolkien was always quoted as saying he hated allegory; that is the intentional pursuit by a story etc to give the reader some sort of message (and in many cases the value of the story lies solely in this message). That being said, it is often argued this tale is a highly allegorical one, with its entire plot echoing the recesses of an aging Tolkien’s mind. Tolkien did once quote that for many pieces allegory is itself not presented, and any meaning found in the piece by the reader is purely coincidental, and evidently down to personal interpretation (as given in a note to fans in later LOTR publications). This is reasonable, but one would be hard pushed to read Leaf by Niggle and not come away feeling the whole tale circles around a painter who mirrors Tolkien himself; a man who was awash with worry, unhappiness and regret with not having finished his epic Silmarillion before his death (with this book being if anything the primary part of his legendarium). Just like Niggle, Tolkien continues to tack pieces onto his original work, filling in details here and there as he goes, never really settling on a defined picture/image and always looking to expand when he should consolidate and finish. The ending is too good to spoil, if one really wants value for reading.

Overall, anyone who shows a good interest in Tolkien’s writing will enjoy this quick read, with Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wooton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham standing out as a top three in my eyes. Next time I’ll be reviewing The City, a fantasy tale by Stella Gemmell, wife of the late writer David Gemmell.

 

Really? A guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse?

The final book review in the zombie stage of my summer reading list has finally arrived. Max Brooks was again the author in question, with this book simply titled “The Zombie survival guide”. Not to rip off Ronseal or anything (sorry American readers, I’m not sure if ye have that), but this book really does do what it says on the tin. Actually, wait no, I’ve found a far more clichéd phrase-one should judge this book by its cover. Having been wrote before Brooks’ bestseller World War Z, this book gives a far more superficial look at the post-apocalyptic fallout that threatens us all if the dead reanimate.

That being said, superficial is far from what we get in all other areas. The book opens with a detailed look at what makes the walking dead tick (or well, what makes them not tick) in terms of their movement, hearing, eyesight, brain activity etc. As a pharmacy student, I found a lot of this material interesting, as not only is it hard to come by (ya know, ya don’t treat many zombies in community pharmacy these days) but it also ties up very well with concrete aspects of human physiology/anatomy. For readers less enthused by science, this section won’t stand out I’m afraid. Coming to the end of this section, however, we do get a good look at the classifications of an undead outbreak, and what signs to look for in the media.

The next thirty pages are more what the reader goes in expecting, with a full lowdown of all the weapons available and/or useful on commencement of the outbreak. Here we see Brooks got very creative, as his research obviously yielded cold hard facts about the drawbacks/limitations of conventional firearms or military based weaponry, but even outside of that he expands this section to give advice on combat styles, biological warfare and types of body armour. Anybody who has even dabbled in the infamous ‘zombie mode’ from the popular Call of Duty games would find this section more than enthralling.

Personally I found the next two sections to be the best in the book, as they again highlighted how far the writer was willing to delve into his work, but also could be extrapolated for use in other post-apocalyptic situations. The ‘On the defence’ chapter takes a comprehensive look at how homes can be vamped up for use as a defensive position once the dead come knocking. Not only does the author examine the different types of homes available, but he then provides tips for how to operate a defence in public buildings, such as churches, hospitals or schools. Given the outbreak is nigh able to occur at anytime of the day, you may find yourself relying on these pages more than you would have imagined.

The ‘On the run’ chapter then flips you out of the frying pan and into the fire-with its tips focusing on what your plan should be when the house-turned-fortress becomes a no-go. Because this section loosely resembles that of a doomsday prepper programme, it has its ups and downs. The major deal breaker comes in the form of how readily the advice can be applied, given the amount of money needed to create the standard pack alone would be dubious enough. That being said, the chapter does give a rather chilling view of the various terrains that will be encountered along the way, as the author succeeds in making the dangers of each jump right off the pages.

Next it was ‘On the attack’, a section I expected to pan out differently than it did. As it is, the major portion of the chapter centres on how to clear out different zones of infestation, as well as providing possible tactics as to how this process should go ahead. A lot of the terrain material gets repeated from the opposite perspective, and that maybe hampers the flow of the book. That being said, if we are to take this as a thorough guide, then I guess we have to call this repetition necessary, and maybe even important. As a final installment in the guide part of the book, we get advice on how to survive in an undead world, long after civilisation has collapsed and you are beyond hope of rescue. In this case, finding a permanent home is what’s vital, and so Brooks sets out to explore this concept, again using the terrain as a factor, but also looking at how accessible it is, both for yourself and those survivors who would wish to take it.

And so the guide comes to a close. The book however, stumbles on, its back pages acting almost as a prologue to World War Z, as in this section we get to examine accounts of outbreaks over thousands of years, and how these tie together. Here again, we see how Brooks can make a concept so surreal and unfathomable bite really close to the bone. Whether its asking what really happened to those ancient Egyptian bodies, or how did California find itself in the midst of a concerning outbreak, the stories champion all the good features of the classic zombie horror story.

And truthfully, that is really what Max Brooks delivers. For all of the ‘Dawn of the dead’ remake styled movies that now swarm in the film industry, these books are far closer to what we all identify as zombie. And that’s a good a note to close on as any.