Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Top Ten Books to Read If You Like Scary Movies

Since I'm all about a good bandwagon, I've decided to take part in Top Ten Tuesday, brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish. This week is "Top Ten Book to Read If You Like (TV Shows, Movies, Plays, Etc.)" and I chose Top Ten Books to Read if You Like Scary Movies. I picked books based on how visceral my reaction was to the story. A lot of horror novels just aren't that scary to me, since it's easy to separate yourself when the situation isn't physically presented to you, but these books found a way to get past my defenses and either startle me, disturb me, or just keep me looking surreptitiously over my shoulder, even after the last page. Off we go:

1. Night Shift by Stephen King: Of course, you've got to start with Stephen King, he's basically mandatory. This is a collection of short stories, including classics like "Children of the Corn" and "Jerusalem's Lot" along with several lesser known tales. I find that King tends to over-explain the monsters in his novels, taking away most of their mystery and, as a result, their power. In Night Shift, however, each story just does its job and wraps up. No filler. "The Boogeyman" in particular resonated with me, and I still find myself thinking about it sometimes when I see my closet door slightly open. Was it like that when I left? Am I sure?

For Those Who Like: Well, Stephen King movies, obviously, though most of these stories are more creepy than horrifying, and some of them will just bum you right out. So if a general sense of unease is your thing, here you go.

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: This book was crushing this first time I read it. Basically, it chronicles the death of Addie Bundren, and her family's subsequent journey to fulfill her final request to be buried in the town of Jefferson. It's dense, stream of consciousness, told from multiple perspectives, and doesn't allow the gray world presented to be touched by a single ray of light throughout. Seriously, you can tell almost immediately that not one good thing is going to happen from cover to cover. The cement cast was especially disturbing to me, as was the sense that none of the characters could even imagine escaping their fates.

For Those Who Like: The Road was the first movie that came to mind, or Children of Men. Something post-apocalyptic. Even if that's not the book's setting, it still has that wandering, hopeless dread. Get ready to get depressed!

3. Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk: This is the only book I've ever read that I didn't want to have in my house afterwards. Seriously, I gave it away. Haunted has an overarching plot concerning a group of writers who've come together for a retreat, and intertwines their short stories and (bad) poetry through the main narrative. Things quickly spiral out of control at the retreat, but Palahniuk isn't content to just make his point and go home, he had to make sure he's beaten you clear to death's doorstep with every form of the grotesque imaginable. It's not gore to be funny or gore to make a point, it's just gore for gore's sake, and you really get the sense that the author had a blast writing it.

For Those Who Like: Stuff like The Human Centipede or the Saw sequels, movies that revel in human depravity. Blood and guts and such.

4. This Book Is Full of Spiders by David Wong: This is actually a sequel, the original being John Dies at the End, but Spiders can very easily be read on its own. Basically, there are these spider-looking parasite beasts that take over people's brains, but it's honestly hard to sum this one up in a single sentence. It has sci-fi, horror, comedy, and a genuinely unique and interesting take on the done-to-literal-death zombie genre. This book is equal parts funny and scary, which is difficult to manage. I'm a huge fan of this one, if you couldn't tell, so it would be easy to go on and on. Just read it.

For Those Who Like: Think the Evil Dead franchise, post reboot, or Funny Games (the Austrian one). Hot Fuzz and Zombieland are similar to Spiders in comedic tone, but lack the genuine fear factor. Oh! Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. Just thought of that one.

5. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski: I said Haunted was so intense I couldn't keep it, but The Painted Bird is on a completely different level. It follows a young Jewish boy as he wanders through various Eastern European villages during World War II. Just about everything that could possibly happen happens. There's torture, bestiality, rape, incest, and it's all presented through the eyes of a child too young to be outraged. That's what so upsetting about this book, the matter-of-fact way all the abuses are presented, and the disturbing yet somewhat inevitable lessons the boy takes away from his experience. This book is mired in controversy from its portrayal of Eastern Europeans to Kosinski's potential plagiarism, but stands the test of time as a gutting portrayal of true atrocity.

For Those Who Like: The original Oldboy, Antichrist, The Woman, something that gets at the really dark places, makes your insides cold.

6. Inferno by Dante Alighieri: Even though The Divine Comedy has three sections, everyone loves Inferno. As my professor said when I read this for college, "No one wants to read about paradise. They want a show." The best part about this epic is that Dante included real people he actually knew, describing in minute detail their sins and condemning them to increasingly impressive punishments. Imagine that happening today, someone publishing a massive book describing their moral and political opponents being boiled alive and whatnot, it would stunning. I don't know if reading this book will actually scare anyone, but the fact remains that just about every representation of hell that's come after Inferno has been influenced by it, so it's worth reading for that alone.

For Those Who Like: What Dreams May Come, the Hellraiser series, anything with hell in it, basically.

7. Welcome to Hoxford by Ben Templesmith: This one's a comic, because I couldn't make this list without including at least one. Hoxford is about inmates in a new kind of superjail that, of course, is not quite what it seems. It boils down to a pretty basic survival plot, but it's just done so well that you don't mind one bit. The art is also amazing. Templesmith knows how to make gore look glorious.

For Those Who Like: Cabin Fever, 28 Days Later, just your regular old lighthearted bloody fun.

8. The Trial by Franz Kafka: A man defending himself against unknown charges and unknown accusers is a frighteningly hopeless and plausible scenario. Anyone who's ever had to fight an uphill battle with bureaucracy can imagine this all too well. The whole farcical process, the way the the main character is ushered through it, the way no one around him sees the absurdity, it's a simultaneously humorous and humorless read. After all, society is made of humans, but functions as a machine, and those machinations will not stop for any individual. People are crushed by it every day. Fall out of step, and it could easily be you.

For Those Who Like: I thought of Orson Welles, then remembered that he actually made a film of The Trial in 1962. Welles and Hitchcock. The stories are older than you are, and you already know the endings, but they remain just as compelling as they were when they were new.

9. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Vampires! Well, vampire, but still. We start with a young boy, alienated and bullied, who meets a young vampire with problems of their own. A friendship develops and, despite all the horrible things that happen, there remains a sweetness to this friendship that holds to books together. Lindqvist is could at juxtaposing tender scenes with terrifying ones, the beautiful with the truly ugly. There is something of a sequel in the title piece from Lindqvist's short story collection, Let the Old Dreams Die, that adds even more bitter sweetness to the story. Bittersweet. That's the best way to describe this one.

For Those Who Like: Dracula, Interview With the Vampire, Nosferatu, vampires with both bite and melancholy.

10. Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark by Alvin Schwartz: This one is an Amazon link, since you pretty much have to buy this one used. The original was illustrated by one Stephen Gammell, and honestly, the illustrations are what make this book the classic scare monger it is. Newer versions don't have the same pictures, possibly because they are really, really scary. The stories themselves aren't bad, either, but seriously, go look up Gammell's illustrations. I'll wait.

For Those Who Like: Goosebumps, obviously, Are You Afraid of the Dark? All things creepy and nostalgic. The old Twilight Zone was my poison back in the day. Whatever kept you up all night giddy as a kid.

Well, there you have it, a bunch of books and movies to think about next time your not interested in sleeping. I, however, am a worked of the Night Shift, and seeing as the sun is now rising, it's about time for me to turn in.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi" by Mark Hodder

This here is the fourth book of the Burton and Swinburne series, the third of which I previously reviewed here. No picture of this one, since I borrowed it from the library, but rest assured this copy had the ugly North American cover style I ranted about in my last review. Unfortunately, outward appearances were the least of this book's problems.

Without giving away too much about the whole series, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi takes place in an alternate Victorian era in which Queen Victoria herself has been assassinated. This assassination involved time travel, which caused a massive deviation from "real" time that not only dramatically altered everyone's lives, but the very nature of time itself. From the time of Victoria's death, a mysterious person by the name of Abdu El Yezdi has been controlling history by communicating via mediums with England's major political figures, but has suddenly stopped. Several influential doctors and scientists are being kidnapped as well, and it's up to our titular Burton and Swinburne to figure out what's going on.

I was stunned by how disappointing this book was. The first three Burton and Swinburne books were so good -- like really, really good -- and I was pretty excited to see where things were headed next, but this was a total letdown. It had many of the same ingredients from the previous books, such as meticulous attention to detail and a clever mix of historical and fantastical elements, but instead of the usual fast-paced and compelling story, we got a drawn out homage to Dracula.

Seriously, a huge portion of this book is a retelling of Dracula, and it pissed me right off. It's not even a particularly inventive retelling, which is next to unforgivable when you're dealing with a story that's been done and redone as often as Dracula. The 100+ pages spent on this endeavor felt like a total waste of time. This portion of the book also felt oddly disconnected from the rest of the story, as if we started out zipping down the interstate, then had to take a really long detour through nothing but cornfields for a few hours before getting back to the main road.

The final straw for me was the treatment of the female characters. There are precious few women in the Burton and Swinburne world, but they have always been strong, intelligent characters who stood on their own, and never served as mere male motivation. However, due to the Dracula framework, one of the strongest women in the series is reduced to the role of Lucy Westenra. No one should be reduced to Westenra status, left to whimper and swoon while all the big strong men figure out what's going on and fight to save her. It was a massive demotion for the character and I felt a bit betrayed by it.

However, there were some good points. After all the tragedy in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, it was fun to see all the main characters getting back together. Also, the ending provided just enough of a teaser to keep me optimistic about the series as a whole. Book five is forthcoming, and the first three were strong enough for me to forgive The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi, provided this is a one-time thing.

Title: The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi
Published: 2013, Pyr
Pages: 381, 395 with notes and background info on the real life characters
Would Recommend: Not as an entry into the Burton and Swinburne world, since it's definitely the weakest in the series. Read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and go from there.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Book AND Movie Thoughts: "Odd Thomas" by Dean Koontz

Truth be told, I completely forgot about this series until a few weeks ago, when I saw Odd Thomas sitting on the new release shelf in my local video store (yes, we still have those here). I remembered having read it in middle school and liking it quite a bit, so I decided to not only give the movie a shot, but dig in to the whole series all over again. The results were mixed.

I'll start of with the original. Here's my copy, which has held up remarkably for being eleven years old:

Our protagonist, aptly named Odd Thomas, can see dead people. The dead can't speak, but they still manage to communicate with Odd in order to solve crimes, find closure, or just hang out with someone who actually knows they're around. Odd can also see these sort of shadow-beasts he calls bodachs, the presence of which always indicates some sort of impending tragedy. The story revolves around his noticing unprecedented numbers of these bodachs gathering around certain individuals in town and his puzzling together what's going on and how to stop it.

Upon rereading, the story isn't quite as great as I remember. It's not that the novel is bad, it's just that I've since read books that do the whole I-see-things-no-else-does trope in better and more imaginative ways. Also, since neither the spirits or bodachs can affect the living world in any way, at its core Odd Thomas is less of a supernatural thriller and more of a story about an amateur detective with a little ghostly flair thrown in. Overall, it's a quick and pretty fun read, but nothing that will stick with you afterwards or make you think too hard. Literary popcorn, you could say.

The movie was similar. The biggest crime here was the overly-stylized editing: a lot of jump cuts alternating with dramatized slow motion of seemingly random events. This seemed to be an attempt at playing up the comedic elements of the story. Unfortunately, not only did it largely fall flat, it took away from the more somber moments. In the end you had both a comedy that wasn't quite funny and a tragedy that wan't quite sad. At least the movie spared us the tedious and largely pointless meeting of Odd's parents, which in my opinion took up way too much space in the book and was nothing more that an attempt to garner sympathy for a main character who didn't really need it. The film also does a much better job at foreshadowing than the book, so there's that.

So, after spending nearly a week of my life with this character that amounted to little more than a "meh", I still went ahead and read the next two books in the series since they were available at my local library. Here are my mini reviews:

Book Two, Forever Odd: If the first book was literary popcorn, this here was stale bread. I was thoroughly annoyed with how boring and linear the plot was, not to mention that, for a character who reminds us at least once every few chapters how much he hates guns, Odd sure doesn't hesitate to grab and use one whenever the opportunity arises. In this book Odd's best friend is kidnapped and blah blah blah, it seriously doesn't matter because this book was a waste of time and I almost didn't even finish it. Lastly, Odd tells us this best friend of his is more like a brother, except we didn't hear one word about him in the first book, and how much do you want to bet we never hear about him ever again?

Book Three, Brother Odd: No brother/friend here, that's for sure. That being said, I'm actually glad I persevered up to this point, because Brother Odd finally delivered what I'd been looking for in the previous books. This one takes place in a monastery and incorporates some science fiction elements that really energize the story. We got some interesting characters, and a plot that actually developed instead of just telling us everything outright. I'm not sure if this book is objectively good, or just seems so in comparison to the others in the series, but it was enough for me to request the forth Odd installment at the library. I'll let you know how it goes.

After my second week of Odd, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. If the rest of the series goes the way of Brother Odd, it should be a fun ride, but for now I think this entry has gotten bulky enough, so I'll leave you with the details for the movie and first three Odd books:

Title: Odd Tomas
Studio: Fusion Films
Run Time: 93 minutes
Would Recommend: If you're a big fan of the book, you may very well like this movie a lot. Otherwise I'd say it's not worth going out of your way to see.

Title: Odd Thomas
Published: 2003, Bantam Dell
Pages: 399
Would Recommend: Don't let the page count fool you, this book is a quick, light read, and fairly entertaining. Check it out if you're looking for something along those lines.

Title: Forever Odd
Published: 2005, Bantam Dell
Pages: 334
Would Recommend: No. So boring. The story here is almost entirely self contained, as well, so you could easily skip over this one if you're interested in the series. Anything you need to know going forward is explained in the opening of Brother Odd.

Title: Brother Odd
Published: 2006, Bantam Dell
Pages: 364
Would Recommend: Again, a pretty light read in spite of the page count. Also, a compelling story with interesting characters, so yes, I'd actually recommend this one.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Life Time: Jobs for the Jobless

It feels odd to be employed, really employed. This is the first full-time job I've ever had in my life, and while I'm grateful to be working, it still feels weird. Never mind I'm in a field I never even knew existed, let alone wanted to be involved in. Never mind I have to live with my parents again just to make ends meet. The weird part is this:

I work night shift. Now, I've worked nights before during my several stints in retail, but never consistently, and never scheduled in such a way that I never saw the other occupants of my house. As of right now I get home after my parents have gone to bed, wake up after they've left for work, and leave before either of them get home. It's like this way-too-big-for-me house is haunted by the most helpful ghosts. Food appears randomly in the cupboards, the trash finds its way to the curb whether I move it or not. It's only on the weekends I remember that, oh yeah, other people have been living here, too. They've been doing all the things. Aren't they kind.

Obviously I'm lucky to have such nice people in my life, willing to shoulder so many of my expenses while I try to get on top of my student loan debt. Not everyone has that. Even so, this new schedule is messing with my brain. There are times when I feel like I'm the only person there is. My work is mostly solitary, followed by a drive home in the middle of the night with no one else on the road. All my drives are silent thanks to a short somewhere in my car radio, meaning I can't play it without killing the battery, but silent drives at night are something else. I find myself thinking out loud or making dumb jokes to no one. It's probably a good thing there's no one to see me, since I'm not sure how sane I look any more.

I just spent the last several months unemployed, feeling sorry for myself, and moping around the house. Even so, now that I'm working I feel like my world has gotten smaller. Maybe it's because most of my time now belongs to someone else. It's not like I was doing anything exciting with that time before, but I could have if I wanted to, and that possibility no longer exists. A world of infinite potential has been reduced to one of finite reality, and I think part of me resents giving up my daydreams.

None of this is the job's fault, of course. It's a good job. I've just spent so long getting by without one that's it's hitting me quite hard.