17 August 2017

Books: IT by Stephen King (1986)

One question that really appears to have been fully answered in Stephen King’s 1986 best-seller IT is whether the fictional town of Derry, Maine he creates here is haunted because of the IT creature or did that creature take up residence there because it found a town that contained more cruelty than any other place –a town where a lot of horrible things happen and yet the people who are born there, who live and work there seem to exist in the ether of indifference?

It’s something King does touch on, though near the end of this book, when the reader is taken on the horrible ride that is Patrick Hockstetter’s death, King implies somewhat that maybe what haunts Derry is nothing more than human failure, the fact the we grown up and stop believing in a magical world, and then our inability to try and fix it, so we bury it: “In other words, Derry Elementary School was the typical confused educational carnival, a circus with so many rings that Pennywise himself might have gone unnoticed.”

I originally read this book back when it was released in 1986. And I took it up again, if I remember right, around 1990 when ABC aired the 2-part version of the novel. I may have read it again sometime in the 90’s, but I’m not sure. I have seen the TV movies version several times, and like many will note, the first half is much better than the second half. In the end, like many King adaptations, IT can be chalked up to the perpetual difficulty of translating his works to the screen, both TV and silver. Part of the problem with the 1990 version is that aired on broadcast TV in an era when broadcast standards were still super strict (though they still are today). A lot of what happens in the book –the extreme description of death, the foul language and the bullies lighting their farts on fire could never been shown on ABC.

But the TV movie also left a lot of reasons why things happen Derry, why people ignored the its own past, why the world ignored the fact that Derry’s long history of child deaths and other murders were well outside the per-capita of the rest of the world. It also condensed too much, left out more interesting plot points in favor of the larger set pieces. It made odd choices in what to keep and what to excise. 

With a new version of IT scheduled to be released next month, I took up the book again to remind me what King can do when given a wide palette.  He sometimes can do off the rails, detailing the lives of minor characters that do not have any connection to the main plot, but it’s also this sort of world building that does not go on very much anymore. He creates hundreds of minor characters, breathes life into them, gives them a back-story, and then moves on. 

The book was, in many ways, another trip to King’s life of growing up in the late 1950’s and early 60s (an affinity shared with Peter Straub). Here he creates small town life that is hardscrabble, yet filled with plain spoken people (and King would revisit 1958 and Derry again in his 2011 novel 11/22/63), but all of it is just smoke and mirrors, covering the dysfunction and malice that lives just below the surface. Sure, like the novels  released prior to this and the many ones that came after,  King continues his endless ability to recycle the same tropes (2009’s Under the Dome in particular), yet for me it’s the sharp sizzle of his language that makes me continue reading his works, and mostly because he can bring these age-old stereotypes come alive. Whatever weakness he may have, this ability alone makes him worth reading. It’s a talent many authors of today can never come close too. 

This re-read also gave me a chance to discover again the early beginnings of his shared universe with the Dark Tower novels. Most strikingly is the turtle, a “long time enemy of the creature, It. In 1958, the Turtle communicates with Bill Denbrough for a moment while he is under an illusion created by IT. Bill pleads for help from the Turtle in defeating IT but the Turtle says he does not get involved with those matters. Pleading again, the Turtle simply gives some advice in that he must stand by his friends and perform the Ritual of Chüd. In 1985, when Bill and the remaining member of the Losers Club returned to finally kill IT, Bill is told that the Turtle has died sometime after their last meeting in 1958.”

The lore of King’s series, the turtle is one of the guardians of the Beams that support the Dark Tower. Where the IT creature came from can be implied somewhat. King calls it the macroverse, though it could be one of the many universes that exist within the Dark Tower itself. We also get a cameo appearance from Dick Hollarann, the caretaker who takes on the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel in The Shinning. Here, we meet him in 1930, who is an Army cook and member of the African-American army nightclub in Derry called "The Black Spot", which was burned down by the Legion of White Decency. Dick's Shining allowed him to save the lives of several other clubgoers, including Mike Hanlon’s father. He is also notable for being one of the only sane adults able to see IT in one of its varying forms. The town of Haven is name checked, which would be the focus of a non-supernatural book called The Colorado Kid and a fantasy series that would air on the cable network Syfy. 

The book remains for me, one of King’s best (and certainly the best of the 1980s work) and re-reading filled me with happiness. I have hope that the theatrical remake coming in September will be able to capture the essence of the story without defaulting to word soup. King’s adapters (and even himself doing Pet Semetary) seem unable to get out a proper explanation for things, instead those descriptions fall short of making any sense or are dropped like a rock into the ocean, never to seen again. 

Time will tell. It always does!

27 July 2017

Books: Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann (2017)

“In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

“Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. Her older sister was shot. Her mother was then slowly poisoned. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

“In this last remnant of the Wild West—where oilmen like J. P. Getty made their fortunes and where desperadoes such as Al Spencer, “the Phantom Terror,” roamed – virtually anyone who dared to investigate the killings were themselves murdered. As the death toll surpassed more than twenty-four Osage, the newly created F.B.I. took up the case, in what became one of the organization’s first major homicide investigations. But the bureau was then notoriously corrupt and initially bungled the case. Eventually the young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to try unravel the mystery. White put together an undercover team, including one of the only Native American agents in the bureau. They infiltrated the region, struggling to adopt the latest modern techniques of detection. Together with the Osage they began to expose one of the most sinister conspiracies in American history."

Killers of the Flower Moon is a stand-out work of non-fiction by The Lost City of Z writer David Grann, a searing tale of corruption that –oddly- still seems to be going on today-murder and arrogance of our white forefathers. There is also the sometimes subtle, but mostly, blatant prejudice against these Native Americans. Driven from their lands they lived and died since the beginning of time and sent to scrub a life in an area that once was thought as worthless. “Under the policy, the Osage reservation would be divvied up into 160 acre parcels, into real estate, with each tribe member receiving one allotment, while the rest would be opened to the settlers (think the 1992 film Far and Away).”

But when oil is discovered under this land, the US government still tried to control them. “Many Osage, unlike other wealthy Americans, could not spend their money as they pleased because of the federally imposed system of financial guardianship. (One guardian claimed that an Osage adult was “like a child of six or eight years old, and when he sees a new toy he wants to buy it’)". Full blooded American Indians had a better chance of being a guardian to the money, but those whose quantum of blood as less than others, the government handed to it over to a white man. This, in effect, “rendered an American Indian” as “’a half citizen’”. It also opened the door for corruption and as told in this book, multiple murders.

A Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote of the monthly auctions on Osage lands that were skyrocketing in value, “Where will it end? Every time a new well is drilled the Indians become richer. The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”

As prophetic those words were, as Grann investigates, he discovers that murders began long before anyone knew what was going on, long before the “Reign of Terror” became public. And some may have continued after real killer is brought to justice.  

23 July 2017

Books: A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab (2017)

And we’re back…

Some four months back, I was reading the A Conjuring of Light when my housemate Bill was felled by a stroke. In the midst of that upheaval, with about 200 pages left to read, I returned V.E. Schwab’s book back to the library. And as noted a few postings ago, it’s taken me a while to get back into reading.

But I vowed to myself that I would finish this book. And now I have. I did not restart the book, just picked up from about page 430 where I left off in March. I remembered most of what going on, as the our heroes where beginning their final plans to take on the Shadow King.

“The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise. Kell - once assumed to be the last surviving Antari - begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive? Lila Bard, once a commonplace - but never common - thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible. And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.”

Certainly a satisfying ending, even if Schwarb goes all Game of Thrones with, with the killing of many ancillary characters. Still, a more serious tome yet sprinkled with dark humor. Kell becomes remarkably better character, yet still finds ways to annoy me, while Delilah remains the most three dimensional. And as much as I like Schwab's characterization of Rhy’s and his love for the pirate Captain Aulcard, she made the young prince go through a lot of pain to get the man of his dreams. Love is like this, I guess.

The ending is clever, if not foreshadowed long before. But it can also border on the deus ex machina. But when you create a villain with unstoppable power, the only way to end it seems to pull this overused trope out.

Overall, a good series, and I’m curious if the author will continue with at least some of these characters. Delilah Bard is certainly worth reading more about.

20 July 2017

Books: The Pirate Planet By Douglas Adams and James Goss (2017)

As I noted 2 years ago, when Target Books ended its run of publishing novelizations of Doctor Who serials in 1990, only seven stories remained unwritten in book format. Three of those tales were by the legendary Douglas Adams (who spent a year as script supervisor of the show) and while the writer always planned to eventually get them out in book format, his death in May of 2001 left their fate up in the air. While Evil of the Daleks and Power of the Daleks would see a prose version via through Virgin Books, the publishers who were handing the original Doctor Who novel line in the 1990s and early 2000s, script editor for the show during the last few years the original series aired, Eric Saward’s two serials remain unwritten as novels to this day (Eric Saward asking price to adapt them, along with the always complex licensing issues the BBC has with Dalek creator Terry Nation’s estate seems to be the best reasons why). But with the publication of The Pirate Planet, the three stories the late Douglas Adams wrote now exist in novel format. 

You see, Target Books had a long standing policy that allowed writers of serials to pen novelizations of their stories for around £600. Some writers took it, and others passed, allowing novelist like the prolific Terrance Dicks to do the job. But when Douglas Adams penned The Pirate Planet, the second serial of the sixteenth season of Doctor Who, the Target Books offered him a chance to adapt it. However, he declined (probably rightfully so), saying: “I don't want to be embarrassing but I do have a tendency to be a best-selling author”. Which, of course, translated as: Target Books would fear other authors would demand a higher paycheck for adapting their stories, so The Pirate Planet would remain a “lost” book within their line-up. He would do the same with City of Death and the unfinished and unaired Shada that would be part of season seventeen of the series. 

The Pirate Planet, the first of three tales Douglas Adams penned for the show, was his first official sale for TV, and it came about the same time the BBC was commissioning additional scripts for the audio play version of what would become Adams legacy, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. But this story, like many Doctor Who serials, would go through much iteration before being made. 

“Adams brought several ideas to the table. Predominant amongst these was the notion of a planet which is being mined by the Time Lords, who use a giant aggression-sapping machine (disguised as a statue) to pacify the natives. One Time Lord becomes trapped in the statue and absorbs all the aggression, inducing him to turn against his people. He causes the mining devices to hollow out the planet and now plans to make it dematerialize and reform around Gallifrey. Additionally, Adams had conceived a drug addiction allegory, about a company which preys on people who fear death by offering machines which can slow time for them -- but at an exorbitant price. The company goes bankrupt, however, leaving one old lady in need of a source of fantastic energy. Although none of these concepts were viewed as capable of supporting a story by themselves, it was agreed that some combination of them might be more viable. The aggression-draining subplot was dropped (because of perceived similarities to the Season Fifteen serial The Sun Makers), but Adams mixed the remaining elements together to produce a very complicated plot (which may have been titled The Pirates). Nonetheless, (script editor Anthony) Read was sufficiently happy with the result that he commissioned Adams to develop it into a full storyline called The Pirate Planet.

“As Adams refined his ideas for The Pirate Planet, the slow-time subplot became deemphasized. The Time Lords -- who would be appearing in the Season Fifteen finale -- were also excised, including the villain (whom Adams had envisioned as a Time Lord stuck in the slow-time field, in the midst of his last regeneration). At the same time, he came up with idea of the air car; this was a device he could employ to avoid scenes set in corridors, which he detested. Adams also concocted the Polyphase Avitron to make the Captain's scenes more interesting.”

The televised plot became: “The Key to Time tracer points the Doctor and Romana to the cold and boring planet of Calufrax, but when they arrive they find an unusual civilization that lives in perpetual prosperity. A strange band of people with mysterious powers known as the Mentiads (these were changed to the Mourners in the book) are feared by the society, but the Doctor discovers that they are good people but with an unknown purpose. He instead fears the Captain, the planet's leader and benefactor. After meeting the Captain on the bridge he learns that they are actually on a hollowed-out planet named Zanak, which has been materializing around other planets to plunder their resources.”

While James Goss was give much access to the papers of Adams stored at Cambridge for his adaptation of The City Death, there was only limited amount of notes Adams had on it - then again, that serial was never planned as one of his scripts). But fortune favored him for The Pirate Planet, and he found a treasure trove of notes, dialogue and alternate scenes. So instead of basing his novel on the rehearsal script like he did with Death, he was able to adapt The Pirate Planet using Adams first drafts of serial. 

Much like what he did on City of Death, Goss captures the spirit of Douglas Adams' writing in this novelization. While one still wonders what Adams could’ve done with these stories had he lived, this new take on a nearly 40 year-old tale resonates with the original writers ingenious, complex, and overtly sardonic love of science fiction.