09 September 2017

Books: 'Salem's Lot By Stephen King (1975)

After reading The Stand, I think the second book I read by Stephen King was The Shinning followed by ‘Salem’s Lot (it would be a while before I ever read Carrie, his first book though). But while I’ve re-read both The Stand and The Shinning several times over the last three decades, for some reason, I’ve never took up ‘Salem’s Lot.

This tale of vampires set in a small rural town in Maine was King’s second novel. What strikes me now is how fully formed a writer King seemed to be at this early stage of his career. Yes, the book is not perfect, it takes a bit to get going, the exposition too obvious and too detailed, but this would become a hallmark of King’s works as well –the slow build up of terror; the plain-spoken people of the small towns he does in his world building mode, people who very obviously choose to ignore the malice and the utter dysfunction that simmers on low just below the surface of the town. It is also here, I think, that King begins carting out a lot of the same ideas he would reuse in later novels, in particular I see the foundations for both Needful Things and IT (he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts) running through this novel. There is also the character of Father Callahan, a ruin of a Catholic priest who vanishes from the Lot after drinking the blood of Barlow the vampire only to reappear decades later in King’s Dark Tower novel The Wolves of Calla. While I can’t be sure, but I think when King wrote this book he had no idea he would reuse this character in those later year; and one can be cynical and say the writers attempt to connect all his books to his DT is a huge bit of retconning, but like all artists, you can never really second guess their motives for doing this. It can be called clever or just an attempt to get people to buy other tales. Also, Barlow is described in the DT novels as a shape-shifting level one vampire.

The 1979 miniseries version of the book is excellent, generally following the same story as the novel, but it was forced to take some liberties. As with most of King’s long books, some characters are deleted, while others are combined; some subplots have been excised as well; scenes are also rearranged and Barlow is based on the classic German expressionist film Nosferatu than the suave, handsome Eastern European creature King creates in the book (which is an improvement. This version of Barlow is probably, as well, the last time on screen a vampire was truly presented as evil, and not some creature of the night who looked like a male model). Also, a lot of the violence and many graphic scenes were curbed –or dropped (the scene where Sandy McDougall discovers the body of her baby boy Randy is fairly gruesome for 1975 [“The small body, still clad in wash-faded Dr. Dentons, had been flung into the corner like a piece of garbage. One leg stuck up grotesquely, like an inverted exclamation point”] and still gruesome in 1979 and even 2017) - due to broadcast restrictions of the period. Still, that version, directed by Tobe Hooper (who eerily passed away the day after I began re-reading this book) creates an atmospheric, almost old-style Gothic horror film of the book which works just as well (in many ways, it’s a cousin to the classic soap opera Dark Shadows).  Of note is the scenes involving Ralphie Glick (who is the first preteen vampire ever presented on screen, a character that predates Anne Rice’s Claudia in 1976’s Interview With a Vampire as well as that novels screen adaptation in 1994), the first person taken and then killed by Barlow. Hooper is able to capture the spookiness of the scenes in the novel, as Ralphie floats outside the bedroom window of his brother Danny, trying to lure him into "letting him in" to be bitten.  It was chilling in the novel and even creepier on screen. Those scenes alone became hallmarks, immortalized in several other media enterprises, including a segment of The Treehouse of Horror on the long-running animated series The Simpsons

Much like motion picture version of The Dead Zone, this TV movie (which was remade in 2004) seems underappreciated by many for whatever reason. The acting is fine, with David Soul playing the befuddled writer Ben Mears that is light-years away from his role on Starsky & Hutch. Then there is the legendary James Mason, who is wonderfully sublime as Straker, the thrall of the vampire Barlow.

The book, despite the 1970s pop culture references, still holds up in 2017. It may be hard to believe in this day and age of Google mapping and 24 hour news cycle, a town like Jerusalem’s Lot, haunted by evil, could go unnoticed, but there are many ghost towns not only here in the US, but across the world. Who knows, maybe somewhere deep in the woods of Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, and even Maine, there can be a town that holds back time. A town where people only come out a night for some fine dining on anyone curious enough to step across the line between light and darkness.

27 August 2017

Books: Star Wars: Honor Among Thieves by James S. A. Corey (2014)

“When the mission is to extract a high-level rebel spy from the very heart of the Empire, Leia Organa knows the best man for the job is Han Solo—something the princess and the smuggler can finally agree on. After all, for a guy who broke into an Imperial cell block and helped destroy the Death Star, the assignment sounds simple enough. But when Han locates the brash rebel agent, Scarlet Hark, she’s determined to stay behind enemy lines. A pirate plans to sell a cache of stolen secrets that the Empire would destroy entire worlds to protect—including the planet where Leia is currently meeting with rebel sympathizers. Scarlet wants to track down the thief and steal the bounty herself, and Han has no choice but to go along if he’s to keep everyone involved from getting themselves killed. From teeming city streets to a lethal jungle to a trap-filled alien temple, Han, Chewbacca, Leia, and their daring new comrade confront one ambush, double cross, and firestorm after another as they try to keep crucial intel out of Imperial hands.”

Like most all other novels in any long running franchise, some are good, some are weak. Some have strong stories, while others just seem to cruise by on just the familiarity of the characters -which seems designed to cover some the tales inherent weaknesses. For me, Honor Among Thieves -a Han Solo focused tale- gives us a simple, yet interesting story, set just a short time after the advents of A New Hope, but author James S. A. Corey (The Expanse writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is able to capture the characters so well, you can forgive him for such a silly premise. 

The book is witty and well paced, but here Han Solo gets more depth and complexity than the even the first film in the franchise could provide. He’s still a rogue, still unsure he wants to be involved with the rebellion, but he can see that his old life, that free-wheeling, smuggler’s blues world of shadows and tenuous freedom, is over. 

I would also say this book is a great one to read if you don’t read Star Wars novels all the time –or at all. Another words, even as this book falls out the new canonicity (it was approved just around the time the deal was struck for Lucasfilm to be sold to Disney) and is stuck with the “LEGENDS” moniker, it still feels like it could easily fit into the New Expanded Universe. Plus, I super enjoy The Expanse series and it becomes even more clear that James Holden –the hero of that series- is inspired by Han Solo.

17 August 2017

Books: IT by Stephen King (1986)

One question that really appears to have been sort of 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 the people ignore 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, I'm saying.

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 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 achieving. 

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, as well. 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.