Friday, June 1, 2012

John Dies at the End (Or, Monsters! Limbs! Blood! Snot! More Monsters!), by David Wong.

John Dies at the End doesn't know how to finish. But we forgive it. It's just that adorable.

I don't mean to sound patronising. The book is like that one very drunk friend at a quiz night: full of non-sequitors, rude words and gross bodily functions. But that's ok - that's why he's there.

The world is in danger. An unlikely hero and his idiot/genius friend have been chosen by fate to save us all from certain doom. Other universii are seeping through the cracks, bleeding into our world and coveting its resources like Smeagol's possessive brother. 'Resources', in this instance, taking on a vaguely Soylent Green connotation.

David Wong, protagonist and psyeudonym for Cracked writer Jason Pargin, is unlucky enough to gain the ability to see these paranormal invaders by the ingestion of the drug 'Soy Sauce': a living, breathing, organic substance that won't let you just say no.

I would recommend reading the book before you see the movie, due for release in October this year. I would always recommend reading the book before you see the movie, but in this case it's particularly important. Wong/Pargin's imagery is so incredibly visceral, so utterly, imaginatively disgusting, it's only fair (to both the author and you) to give your mind free reign to play amongst all the blood and mucus. Before someone else's sets it in concrete. A sort of... two-for-the-price-of-one philosophy.

You don't get to be a senior Cracked editor without a great deal of wit (some might disagree), and a bucket full of pop culture knowledge. So, John Dies at the End will give you your money's worth of bellyachingly hilarious moments. John himself provides many of them: lovers of puns and Arnie movies, strap yourselves in.

You know what? I think I like Jason Pargin. He seems like a pretty cool guy. He wrote that article
- "5 Modern Ways Men Are Trained To Hate Women" - which is a brave thing to do on the internet, where even the women are mysoginist (go on, go to 9gag right now and have a look, if you don't believe me). And before John Dies at the End became a Big Deal, you could read the whole thing for free, here.

No more, my friends. But you should buy Wong's book, and preorder the sequel, anyway. Why? Because fuck the publishing industry, that's why. Because ART.

Wong explains it all better in his sales pitch, here.  But it breaks down like this.

You might have a great idea for a book.

You might execute that idea beautifully.

But how the hell are you going to get people to read it? Well, you could put it on the internet for free, and that's great, but it doesn't keep you in mac 'n cheese. You could sell it on the internet, but who's going to buy a book written by an author who isn't even good enough to be picked up by a real publisher?

The logic is somewhat cyclical, but the point is, other than providing authors with editors and access to a bookstore; publishers add legitimacy to the works they pick up. They give you permission to buy the book. Unfortunately, the publishing industry is about making money, just like any other business. And if you've noticed the number of action flicks/reimaginings/sequels/gritty reboots floundering about at the movies lately, you'll see how inclined producers are to take risks.

Life is tough for an unproven author.

But if you preorder a book, the publishers will be all like, "Hey, people actually want to read this shit!".  They will print more copies and the bookstores will buy more copies and David Wong will get paid, which means he will get to write more things!

This is something you want him to do.

So, the guy might not be so great at endings. So, the structure might peter out a bit towards the end. He's still a masterful creative genius that must have wanted to claw his skin off in a nine-to-five job. John Dies at the End is full of Cthulhu-esque monsters, chainsaws, nightmarishly warped faces, and reflex sympathetic pain. The suspense will choke the breath out of your lungs.

It's lovely to meet a new type of drug. Chemicals are something I have a bit of a fascination for, although I suppose I have to admit that the concept of a substance that opens up a new world perspective is not exactly earth shattering. But the way that manifests, and the physical presentation of the drug itself, is absolutely delicious. It's also a huge relief that the concept of addiction isn't tiresomly dragged along behind the speeding vehicle of the narrative. The drug is a conduit, not a parable.

John Dies at the End calls itself horror, but it's not particularly chilling. It's more unsettling and dystopic. Despite its outlandishness, you don't have to be an imaginative heavyweight to suspend your disbelief. The protaganists are ordinary schmucks who have to turn up to their shitty day job, even if the fabric of reality is falling apart.

Wong's genius as an author lies in his ability to present himself as just an ordinary guy who wrote a humble book, with humble characters, to lift us for a blissful few hours out of our mundane, souless lives. Don't believe it. Wong knows what he's doing. His intellect sears loudly though each page. He hasn't just woven a story, but created that rare thing all authors leap for - a world.

The sequel - This Book Is Full Of Spiders - is out in October (hey! that's the same time as the movie!). You should read both, if only for inspiration. Wong writes books like they should be written - raw, and messy, and ambitious, and bold.

And fun, dammit. Really, really fun.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Where I Have Been

I quite simply ran out of steam. Forgive me. I'm back to reading respectability. I even ordered some Proust from bookdepository. #staytuned

The Raw Shark Texts (Or, Now That You've Read This You're Completely Fucked), by Steven Hall

 "Geniuses don't go mad. That's what people don't understand. They get so far out that the water is like glass and they can see for miles and they see so much, and in ways people have never seen before. They go out over such depths, down down down and down, and some of them get taken. Something rushes up out of their thoughts, from the insides of their own heads and through the act of looking and the thinking itself- because the deep blue is in there too, you understand? And it takes them."

Remember the Doctor's Weeping Angels?

For those floundering, after 'The Crash of the Byzantium', The Doctor finds a book that unveils (spoilers, sweetie) not only are the Angels lightning fast rock monsters, but that the image of an Angel is an Angel.

This is relevant. Pay attention.

 In The Raw Shark Texts, (henceforth TRST, because seventeen letters is my utter limit for the number of characters I will type in a title, and I don't go over it for anybody, not even my favourite book), the concept of a shark, is a shark. Ideas are dangerous, and real: a place where predators can hunt, and you can fall prey.

This book is the reigning sovereign of all metafiction.

TRST is a book that wants to be all things to all people. And that's not my spin, that's straight from the author. Does a book have a true nature? Perhaps its true nature is that it can morph and change, like some sort of.....well. Rorschach. How utterly magnificent.

I love metafiction. It makes me feel as if someone has rifled through my head, in order to plant little breadcrumbs to lead me to a gingerbread house full of awesome. TRST isn't the sort of metafiction that draws attention to its form (I know this seems like a prerequisite of the genre, but bear with me). It's a story about an idea that has physical power, and so, you come to wonder if that original story has the same power as the idea it's describing. Is the idea the true, frightening concept? Or is the story of the concept the threatening presence?

I don't expect you to follow that. I'm not sure that I did.

I loved this book because it let me believe a story could be real. Not the characters, or the events in the story. But the story itself. I've spent so much of my life inside books, to be allowed to believe they're real is exciting, comforting, freeing.

The concept of TRST will thrill you...and the concept and the execution are married so seamlessly, you'd never notice the difference.

TRST is a puzzle book, and I got the same thrill out of the novel that I used to get from 90's point-and-click adventure games. There are suggestive names (Mycroft Ward), memento-esque clues, an untrustworthy narrator, and best of all: unchapters.

Every real chapter in the book has its equivalent unchapter, or negative chapter. A physical copy of a chapter tucked away in the Real World somewhere, or buried deep within the internet. Written to slide into the narrative of the novel, sometimes furthering exposition, sometimes offering up some tasty character development. And guys: they haven't all been found. It's a real life literary treasure hunt!

The Raw Shark Texts (ok, a full title, just this once) has a devoted internet following. There are forums upon forums dedicated to deciphering its puzzles and hidden meanings. There is even a cryptic code hidden in its pages, for those into that sort of thing.

And if you needed any further proof that this book will blow your mind, here is Tilda Swinton interpreting a passage:

Oh, you're welcome. You're very welcome.

Despite its beauty, its challenge, and its vaguely threatening concept, no one I have recommended the book to has read it yet. This saddens me. Perhaps it's the tacit promise of intellectual wankery (and oh, is there intellectual wankery), perhaps it's my untrammeled enthusiasm. But even though the novel is concept heavy, you honestly don't need a doctorate in Derrida to decode it. And besides, TRST is brave. And it tries really hard, you guys. And we should reward it's effort with our attention.

Gold Star, Steven Hall. Gold Star.

Monday, March 26, 2012

My Quest To Find The Scariest Book Ever

My First Horror Novel was an R. L. Stine special. I'll tell you which Goosebump it wasn't - it wasn't Say Cheese And Die. I could never get my hands on that goddamn book. Next to the Guinness World Book of Records, it was the most sort after tome in my school library. I know it existed, because I actually saw it once. But somehow, it always slipped through my fingers.
I don't know how.
I was in that library a lot.

Anyway, I can't remember what my replacement goosebumps loan was called, but it was about a boy in a house fire who *SPOILERS* was ACTUALLY A GHOST THE WHOLE TIME. That book scared the pants off me. And I must have kept my mum up quite a bit that night, because she never let me read another horror book ever again. Scary movies had been outlawed long ago.

I remained convinced I was too special for horror until I caught the end of The Shining when I was about eighteen. I was thrilled, and enthralled. But the gorgeous creepy feeling was a dull ache compared to how hooked I was by the seduction of something other and uncanny. Too timid still to try the full movie, I picked up the book. From there I moved onto It, (the one with the clown), and after that....I found twin peaks, and forgot about horror novels entirely.

It was only when I stumbled upon The Dionaea House that I remembered how delicious horror could be. This was a couple of months ago, and I still haven't been truely satisfied (read: terrified) by anything I've read.

It should be noted I have a notoriously low tolerance for creep. Keeping that in mind, this is what I've attempted so far:

The Exorcist
William Peter Blatty

The devil possesses a child.

Could not. Keep. A straight face. However, it did introduce me to a new word: cunting. Probably the only scary thing about the book was how in love the author seemed to be with that word.
I'm told the novel did a lot of new things for the horror genre, but those new things are old now. Perhaps I've been more exposed to the genre than I thought, because this only held my interest as a mystery novel. I kept reading only because I wanted to know the truth behind Regan's possession.

I found the characters fairly unsympathetic, but perhaps they're just victims of a cruel generation gap. The mother's 'hip' colloquialisms made me cringe. And hell, the rest of the characters seemed like elaborate stereotypes. The book didn't manage to suspend my belief enough to stop me yelling "WHY DON'T YOU JUST....." at every poorly or elaborately solved problem. No. No. This book...this is not my kind of book.

Three Stephen King Novels

The Shining

An alchoholic, his wife, and their son, are trapped in a haunted hotel for the winter.

I feel that Stephen King has a little bit of a penchant for the ridiculous. Little gambles thrown in that could be utterly terrifying, or eyebrow-raisingly ludicrous. Moving demonic hedge animals are just one such example.
But you know, as ridiculous as demonic hedge animals are, they were still part of some very suspenseful moments.

Suspenseful AND adorable.

In case you're considering recommending something to scare my pants off, let me be clear: The Shining is where it's at. I may be biased, as it was my entry into this genre, and you always remember your first. But I am always lulled into tales of maddness and the uncanny, and that is pretty much The Shining in a nutshell. It hints at a world of which we are completely ignorant. And as year 10 English taught me, nothing terrifies quite as much as the unknown.


The spirit of fear picks on the wrong children. Or it might be an alien. Not really sure.

I confess. It was lust, not lust of fear, that motivated me to start this book. It's hard to feel attracted to anyone wearing a clown suit, but Tim Curry almost manages it. Besides, it's (clearly) not his looks - it's that voice.


But, I digress.
Does the premise of this book stretch out over the 800 odd pages? Thinly.
Does the ending completely kill any remaining fear as effectively as the image of Snape in your grandmother's hat? Absolutely.

But still, It is fear of the dark. Fear of never waking up. Fear of helplessness. It is chilling. Shame about the ending.

Daylight horror has to be one of my favourite ways to fear (it's a verb now!). When something attacks you at high noon, and not from under your bed at midnight, you know there is nowhere to hide. I begin to doubt the ordinary things around me, as if they too might warp into my worst nightmare. It does this well. I just wish the ending hadn't made me laugh.

The Dark Half

A writer's pen name comes to life, starts killing everyone.

I sincerely hope this is the last time Seth MacFarlane speaks for me on this blog. But damn, if this isn't accurate....

There was one moment, I think, where I might have been scared. One moment that wasn't utterly ridiculous. But I can't remember what it was.

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson

A highly irresponsible Professor invites some strangers to a haunted house to help him investigate paranormal activity.

First, a fact: Did you know Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks is actually the guy from the black and white movie version of this book?

They don't write horror stories like this anymore. For me, it wasn't so much the subject matter, but the masterful way in which the book was written. I'm not sure I could say I was scared, but I was deeply unsettled. How hard it must be to write a first person narrative that makes the reader mistrust the protagonist.

I read this book in black and white. Its age shows through the prose, but it's not alienating, or quaint. The ending is tantalizing open. It's the Mr. Miyagi to The Exorcist's Karate Kid. If the two were to be compared at all.

The Silence of the Lambs
Thomas Harris

A rookie FBI agent uses the advice of Hannibal Lecter to catch a serial killer.

You know, I find it really irritating when a book casually drops its title into the prose. I feel like the author's giving me a big ol' vaudeville wink. And kids, that's not what you want when you're hoping something will scare the bejeesus out of you.

Lambs has all the trashy things I like. An underdog proving herself to her doubters. Easily identifiable cultural stereotyping. Ridiculously suspenseful hooks. Thrilling, but not scary. Not at all. Darn good read though. Appreciate an author who can keep one step ahead of his readers (or, just me). Oh yes.

Ghosts. Now ghosts are scary. Things doing what they shouldn't. A possessed serial killer, I could stretch to that. Aliens maybe. But just your common and/or garden psychopath? Fascinating, but I'll sleep just fine.

Assorted Lovecraft

I understand H.P. Lovecraft is kinda a big deal. But I am continually frustrated with people who suggest his short stories when I ask if they know of any scary books. Then, after wading my way through countless sea creatures and racist slurs, I come back to them with a perplexed look on my face and tell them it didn't stiffen my fear boner. And they all say the same thing: "Oh. Oh, no, it's not scary".

So enough Lovecraft. I've paid my nerdy sci fi dues.

That's it. Those are my attempts so far. But there must be so much more. There must be a book that people dare each other to read. That urban myths say will give you a heart attack before you get to the end. Ladies and Gents, where is that book?

So far, the winner is:

House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski

I even devoted an entire entry to it. So keep scrolling, sportsfans.

Before I go, I'll tell you a secret, and please don't laugh. The thing that really got me back into horror was creepypasta. I'll leave a selection Let no one say I'm an elitist.

My quest is not over. I have been teased and taunted but my hunger is not sated. Please pile on your suggestions, on the condition they do not contain Lovecraft. In the meantime, go read The Raw Shark Texts. I did, and it blew my mind. Not my fear gaskets, but definitely my mind.

Till next time....

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

House of Leaves (Or, Why would you go in there? Why, for the love of God, why?), by Mark Z. Danielewski

A story about a book about a film about a frightening house, some, all or none of which may be real.

If ever a book was ever written specifically for me, this is what it would look like. However, I understood very little of it (which is just how I like it). What does the title mean? Does The Navidson Record exist (in universe)? What is the house?

A place of dubious reality.
A frightening monster.
A test.
A love story.
A God.

Johnny Truant finds a dead man's manuscript. An academic analysis of an underground film series, The Navidson Record. A documentary so far fetched no self respecting critic, artist, or audience member credits it as real. Nor would you want to - a house that warps, and changes, tortures, and maims, it's tenants is much safer in the province of fiction. Will Navidson, a Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist, his wife, and their children, throw themselves at the house and record it all on old Hi-8's. Meanwhile, the manuscript starts to eat away Johnny's sanity.

A skeleton blurb doesn't do justice to the depth of reality lent to this book by the loving detail provided by Danielewski. The manuscript Johnny finds in the apartment of the dead man is as dry in manner as any academic textbook, and Danielewski is as scrupulous with his referencing as any professor. Of course, some of these references are authentic. Some exist within the book's world. Some are entirely fabricated. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps you should just stop thinking.

I think House of Leaves would be especially enjoyed by people who love David Lynch. Like Lynch's work, this book is best interpreted intuitively. The language is one designed to make you feel, the semiotics designed to trigger a subconscious, rather than a surface means of interpretation. Like the language of a dream, symbols have a personal, rather than a shared, meaning.

The book goes out if it's way to make its reading a visceral experience. The author messes with the format to mimic the experiences of the characters; to produce feelings of claustrophobia or dread. Personally, the formatting didn't have that effect on me. Rather, it just added to the novel's uncanny nature.

Uncanny. Unheimliche. Something given a lot of time in House of Leaves:

Nothing is more uncanny than a home that is not safe. But it was only after Navidson drunkenly and cryptically suggested the house was God (not God's house, not a house of God, but God), that I began to see it's darkness and shifting hallways in a different light. Us humans take things so personally. A house that changes and shifts its corridors to trap you, that acts independently and threatens your survival, must have a malicious intent.
But perhaps the house merely exists without personality. A desert's sands shift and disorientate.  In it you can die of exposure, or hypothermia, or thirst. But a desert doesn't enjoy torturing you, it isn't evil. Perhaps, neither does the House on Ash Tree Lane.

The twisting, intertwined narratives told through the footnotes give a thrilling sense of pace. Similar to that sense of flying out of control when a rollercoaster takes off. However, I admit I was often frustrated; Johnny interrupts the story of The Navidson Record at the most inconvenient points. I felt like screaming at him, "I don't care how many women you've fucked! Tom might DIE! Now is not the time!".  Danielewski is either a tease, or an inept lover.

If you're studying, or if your memories of studying are still painfully fresh in your mind, you might find the textbook style of the narrative dull. I've read enough dry academic tomes in my life to be wary of a thrilling tale buried underneath a clinical analysis. But it ended up being far less painful than I expected. And I can only wonder at the power of imagination, and the vast academic experience, that must lie behind the author of such a detailed world.

There's so much to House of Leaves that I can only interpret with the help of the internet; the dense metaphor, the hidden codes, even some of the plot. Maybe one day I'll sit down and plod methodically through it all. But for now, I get great joy out of barely understanding what happened, and letting my imagination fill in the gaps. I can let the book leave its impression on me, and it stays all the more uncanny for it.

But there is one thing I would love to hear some theories on:  Why is it called House of Leaves?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wuthering Heights (Or, Extremely Unlikeable People Doing Ridiculously Detestable Things) - by Emily Bronte

From Hark, A Vagrant.

I have a deep suspicion Wuthering Heights is not entirely serious.

The characters are all so incredibly unlikeable, it reads at times like a satire of upper class country folly. There isn't a single character that won't pique your frustration, or make your fingers itch to slap them all the way back to the middle of the renaissance.

Wuthering Heights is a test of your compassion and charitable nature. Does mistreatment as a child justify abuse on part of the adult? Is this a tragic story of unlucky lives and star-crossed lovers, or idiots too selfish to see past their own desire? I consider myself compassionate to a fault, and even I am inclined towards the latter.
Allow me to demonstrate:

Heathcliffe (depression, domestic abuse and disgust).

I fell into Wuthering Heights after watching the Tom Hardy mini-series. I had heard about Heathcliffe's raw animal magnetism before, but until I watched this series failed to understand how such a character could be attractive to anyone. The mini series changed all that. I was drawn to the director's sympathetic narrative and Hardy's masculine charisma. Heathcliffe wasn't vile at all, he was a pinnacle of brute strength, the epitome of masculinity. A nineteenth century Stanley Kowalski.

Let me just state: it's an absolute crime that we equate attractive masculinity with force, emotional unavailability and intimidation. It worries me that Heathcliffe has evolved into a guilty pleasure infesting our society's artistic psyche. I doubt that Bronte ever intended Heathcliffe to permeate the fabric of our wet dreams. Make no mistake, the written Heathcliffe is an utter monster. The worst of domestic abusers.

Sure, he had a rough upbringing, but so did Ted Bundy. Abuse is awful in and of itself, and what happened to Boy Heathcliffe is no exception. But his revenge escalates to the point of mania, and its circle widens to destroy the lives of the innocent (if unlikeable). Get one of the pamphlets on Domestic Abuse. Flip to the checklist. Heathcliffe exhibits every one of those traits. He embarks on such a journey of bullying, violence, and exploitation, any sympathetic portrayal of his character begins to look like collusion.

However, the narrative book-ends Heathcliffe in sympathy. His upbringing is unenviable and his end tragic. Bronte describes to the letter the symptoms of  clinical depression, making Heathcliffe's end a reassurance to the fellow sufferer that depression is a deeply human, and very ancient disease. In the end, Heathcliffe's journey is so deeply fucked up, his ending is a relief. He is a product of torture and mental illness, deserving of both compassion and condemnation.

Nelly Dean

I realise I am probably deeply underestimating the power and autonomy granted to a nurse of the children born to a large estate in the 1800's, but it is Nelly Dean that felled the death blow on my charitable mind. Throughout the novel, I couldn't help but feel that she just needed to harden the fuck up. Nelly Dean has raised both Heathcliffe and Catherine the elder, as well as the issuing generation. It is through her voice we hear the tale of Catherine and Heathcliffe, and by the end I had begun to wonder if she wasn't partly responsible for the tragedy. This is a harsh judgement, but there are so many cries of "I am but a simple serving girl", you begin to suspect she is either incredibly simple, or she just does not give a shit. A stronger, more forthright woman would have taken her charges in hand and at least attempted to talk some sense into them. Lifted a finger to try and prevent the trainwreck heading to its inevitable conclusion.  Instead, it seems she is simply content to watch as the painfully obvious unfolds in front of her. Any postulation of regret on her behalf appears disingenuine, because if she really cared that much, surely she would have tried to do something.

The Catherines

Catherine the Elder is young and makes mistakes (at the beginning of the novel). She is passionate and impulsive and insensitive. Many children are. As she ages, she retains all of her girlhood folly, her insensitivity, and her obnoxious entitlement. Her daughter is equally as silly. But let's face it, Catherine and Heathcliffe are why we are reading Wuthering Heights to start with. The moments between them are as endearing as two children caught in the rigid rules of their own fantasy's ecology. There is something very moving about their thoughtless, destructive, blind, ill-fated love.

We are long past the era that once demanded just punishments for the wicked, and rewards for the honest, in fiction. However, it appears we haven't matured past the point of demanding sympathetic characters in our narratives. I wish my first exposure to Wuthering Heights had been through an exploration of human cruelty, rather than a focus on the unreasonable love story. The stunning aspect of the novel is that it demands sympathy for the cold and pity for the pitiless. It's a gym for your compassion muscles. It's a brutal, stark narrative that is gripping despite its despair. And in an age that romanticises the Rochesters and Darcys of the world, Heathcliffes are welcome, if only for their honesty. Wuthering Heights offers no excuses for its characters, but offers them up to the reader with all their darkness unobscured. And despite this, you struggle, through some long trained narrative reflex, to find their light.