Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Dark Victory

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King (2010): King's third quartet of previously unpublished novellas isn't as strong as the first (Different Seasons, which gave birth to three superior King movie adaptations: The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand by Me) but is stronger than the second (Four Past Midnight). Like Neil Young, King keeps rolling along, taking creative risks at an age when most writers are in their dotage, all without really altering that distinctive Kingian narrative voice: colloquial, perceptive, clear-eyed and often appalled.

The collection begins with "1922", a grim tale of Dust Bowl murder and (possibly) supernatural vengeance. What a terrific movie this would make if the Coen Brothers could be tapped to adapt it! There's a touch of King's early revenge-horror novella "Nona" (c. 1980) in this story of a farmer who murders his wife in order to save his land and ends up losing everything in far worse ways than would otherwise have occurred. King yokes the story to two venerable horror-narrative tropes -- the confession written under supernatural or psychological duress, and the newspaper-article coda that either confirms or problematizes everything we've read. The first-person narrator is a solid creation; one could eaily use this story to teach the concept of unreliable narration to a group of bored undergrads.

Next is "Big Driver", a relatively familiar tale of vengeance. A minor mystery writer gets waylaid, raped and left for dead by a serial killer. But she survives, and rapidly pursues personal vengeance. There are some nice touches here, mainly lying in the protagonist's struggles with her own need to get personal payback.

A second tale of woman vs. serial killer closes out the volume. In "A Good Marriage", a 50-year-old wife who's been married for nearly a quarter of a century discovers that her husband is a notorious serial killer (as opposed to the non-notorious type, I guess). This novella takes some surprising twists and turns, and again the female protagonist is drawn clearly and sympathetically. Her reactions to the situation seem natural and unforced throughout, and her solution to the problem fairly sensible. The semi-retired police detective who enters the story towards the end reminds me a lot of Lieutenant Kinderman from the Exorcist movies and novels, a nice grace note.

The most minor of offerings here is the third novella, so short as to almost be a short story: "Fair Extension," in which a man dying of cancer makes a deal with the devil to prolong his life. The action here chugs along with inevitability, the horror not so much arising out of the cost of such a deal but from the seemingly casual way in which King reveals the loss of the protagonist's soul, a loss the character remains unaware of throughout.

This story hews most closely to King's 'subtext' theory of horror (or at least some horror), in which the surface value (a deal with an actual devil) is a stand-in for something 'real' (the ways in which people get ahead and, in doing so, casually and cruelly harm both the people they know and the people they don't). The devil here is equal parts Leland Gaunt from Needful Things and the man in the black suit from "The Man in the Black Suit." Like Ray Bradbury's sinister carnival owner in Something Wicked This Way Comes, this devil claims not to be buying souls at all, though the results suggest he's lying.

All in all, Full Dark, No Stars made for a good weekend spent with Mr. King. This isn't King's grimmest volume (that would probably be Pet Sematary), but it's awfully close. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cthulhu on the Gulf Coast

South Park: Coon and Friends Three-Parter: I'd guess this three-parter will get its own DVD release in the near future, just as Imaginationland did. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have managed, for what seems like the millionth time, to combine topical satire (of BP and, much more recently, LeBron James's 'What should I do?' Nike ad) with hilarious and rigorously worked-out fantasy. Because for the first time in South Park history, H.P. Lovecraft's ultrapowerful dark "god" Cthulhu makes an appearance.

The Cthulhu Mythos material that spans the three episodes is fairly true to its sources, and in its weird way more respectful of Lovecraft's Mythos than a lot of "straight" takes on the subject. And of course the Goth kids and Cartman would be on Cthulhu's side. And of course Kenny's white-trash parents would have once accidentally belonged to a South Park Cthulhu cult because free beer was offered at the meetings.

Can the world (and specifically hippies, Jewish people and Whole Foods Markets) survive the wrath of Cthulhu and Cartman? Does Kenny's inability to stay dead somehow tie into the Mythos couplet "That is not dead that can eternal lie/And with strange aeons even death may die"? Thank the Elder Gods for Mysterion and Mint-Berry Crunch!!! Brilliant and essential viewing. Highest recommendation.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Secrets and Histories


Ground Zero: A Repairman Jack Novel by F. Paul Wilson (2009): I've somehow avoided reading F. Paul Wilson novels until recently, perhaps because the film version of his novel The Keep was so traumatically bad that I subconsciously avoided Wilson's longer works. The Repairmen Jack novels tie into Wilson's Secret History of the World cycle of novels and stories, the major events of which are part of the Adversary Cycle, of which The Keep is one novel. The climax to these series has already been written (Nightworld), but will apparently be rewritten and re-released once the last two Jack novels appear in the near future.

The interlocking cycles cannily play with conspiracy stories, Lovecraftian alien 'gods' and lost civilizations. Repairman Jack -- Jersey born and bred, Manhattan residing -- is a knight errant 'fixer' of people's problems who finds himself drawn increasingly into the secret, universal war between The Ally and the invading Otherness. The Adversary -- Rasalom by name -- is a millennia-old servant of the Otherness, working tirelessly to bring about the corruption of the Earth, opposed throughout history by various champions.

Ground Zero pulls the events of 9/11 and the Truther movement into the massive, pan-historical conspiracy that underpins the Jack and Adversary stories. For a late novel in a lengthy series, it's extremely reader-friendly -- I was able to jump onboard without much effort, and the suspense and horror of the novel (along with its fascinatingly wonky explanation for 9/11) make we want to read more of Wilson's novels. Highly recommended.

Scavenger by David Morrell (2007): Morrell's emotionally wounded hero Balenger, from the earlier thriller Creepers, returns here in a fast-paced, thoughtful novel involving some truly interesting and odd facts about time capsules and video games. One might think that a thriller that uses the history of time capsules as a major plot element would be a tad boring, but Scavenger is anything but. One of Morrell's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to make 'real-world' information a fascinating part of his thrillers.

Here, the history of time capsules made me want to know more about such ambitious projects as The Crypt of Civilization. Even better, time capsules work really well when tied into the video-game elements of the novel: a criminal mastermind sets several people on the trail of a lost thing known as the Sepulcher of Worldly Desires, a hidden memorial from the end of the 19th century that may explain how the residents of a mining town in the Rockies simply disappeared one winter, leaving no clue as to their whereabouts.

The hunt for a hidden item is a key element in many video games, as are the sort of trials and tests that await the various characters. The mastermind himself also has aspects of the traditional Dungeon Master figure of Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, these plot elements would be irrelevant if Morrell weren't capable of creating sympathetic, believable characters. He does that, while also supplying a 'set-piece' climax that combines horror with suspense. Highly recommended.