#31HorrorFilms31Days Roundup (2)

Scary-movie1This is my second annual roundup for the 31 Horror Films in 31 Days challenge. I had such a great time doing it last year, that I just had to do it again. The rules are pretty simple — beginning October 1st watch 31 previously unseen horror movies by midnight of Halloween, tweeting each one with a descriptive blurb and the hashtag #31HorrorFilms31Days.

 

The real “challenge” comes into play cobbling together a list of 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and stand a decent chance of being good. I cheated only a little with The Birds; I had seen it before but this was the first time on a big screen, so I decided to include it. If you think you know Hitchcock but have never seen any of his films on a theater size movie screen then I’m telling you you’re missing out. You have no idea. It’s like seeing the movie for the first time (and definitely how Hitchcock envisioned the size of the canvas he was working with). This makes all the difference.

 

There seemed to be a lot more duds this year peddling plain sloppy examples of lazy and unimaginative movie making and storytelling. But coming out of that mixed bag of uninspired mediocrity were some of the scariest (and funniest) horror movies I’ve seen in a long, long, time, so I’m still calling this year a huge win.

 

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Topping my list this year for outright scariest, achieving a surprising amount within its very modest indie budget is the Australian flick Lake Mungo (2008). Its simple but incredibly convincing faux documentary style relies on no special effects, no jump scares or loud music, and it still SCARED THE LIVING BEJEBUS out of me. It accomplishes so much with so little — this is as stripped down and bare bones as movie making gets, but it all felt so authentic and engaging, pulling you right into the heart of this family and the tragedy they’re experiencing. So not only is it a believable portrait of grief, it really digs at the psychological costs of grieving and how we might process an actual haunting. This is a movie that impressed me with its ambitious ending too. It’s a twisty narrative that when it finally departs from its straight-forward premise where you think you know exactly what’s going on, the movie is going to jangle your nerves, terrify you, break your brain (and then your heart). Watch it!

 

file_744248_wyrmwood-posterAnother winner from Down Under is the post-apocalyptic zombie flick Wyrmwood (2014). I’ve been burning out on zombies of late (and I place the blame firmly at the feet of The Walking Dead for my zombie fatigue — so glad I stopped watching). But this loud, action-packed, gory and edgy zombie fest from Australia is smart and innovative with some Mad Max thematic overtones to act as the cherry on top. The zombie genre is SO well-trod it’s really a challenge to pull off anything new, but Wyrmwood succeeds splendidly. Trust me, put this one on your watch list. And tell your friends! I want a sequel.

 

Another HUGE SURPRISE was the Lovecraftian romantic horror mash-up (yes, you read that right) — Spring (2014). This one was so unexpectedly spring-2014great, I almost gave it five stars. Not only is it a convincing love story set in a beautiful Italian landscape, it is a terrifying contemplation on body horror and metamorphosis. It’s subtle yet consuming, with great dialogue and fantastic chemistry between the two leads. And don’t just take my word for it: horror maestro and creative genius Guillermo del Toro tweeted that it’s “one of the best horror films of this decade.”

 

The FUNNIEST horror comedy that I watched this year had to be What We Do In The Shadows (though I finally got around to seeing Dale and Tucker vs Evil and that almost tied with it). Both of them I will watch again because they’re that good. What We Do In The Shadows is a mockumentary out of New Zealand from the creator of what_we_do_in_the_shadows_ver6Flight of the Conchords. If you weren’t a fan of that show, don’t let that stop you from checking out this HILARIOUS look at the life of a den of modern vampires sharing a house together trying to navigate their challenging condition and their annoyances with one another. It’s fresh, cheeky and a whole bucketful of bloody fun.

 

And lastly, while not strictly a horror movie per se, I finally got around to seeing Green Room with Patrick Stewart and the gone much too soon Anthon Yelchin. This is a gripping, edge of your seat, white-knuckle thriller that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the final credits roll. It is INTENSE, extremely well-acted, and not easily forgotten. The violence is graphic, but not gratuitous, and the suspense and tension unrelenting. If you haven’t seen it yet, add Green Room to your queue. You won’t regret it.

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Lastly, please share what scared YOU this October. I’m already working on my list for next year!

 

31. WYRMWOOD (Australia 2014) Mad Max w/ ? Yes please! Action-packed, gruesome & funny 4/5

30. FEBRUARY (2015) Sally Draper’s left behind at empty boarding school over holiday. Quiet & supremely unnerving 3.5/5

29. SPRING (2015) A mash up of body horror & love story profoundly, authentically beautiful in its themes & charm 4.5/5

28. CLOWN (Canada/US 2014) Like if Jeff Goldblum had morphed into a demon clown instead of a fly 3.5/5

27. CELL (2016) Cell phones turn people into fast moving zombies, sorta??? Confused & messy & kinda dull 2/5

26. CUB (Belgium 2014) Boy Scouts + feral wood kid. No. Just no. Graphic violence + animal cruelty 0/5

25. TUCKER & DALE VS EVIL The dumbest, clumsiest college kids mistake two hapless hillbillies as psycho killers. 4/5

24. DEMENTIA 13 (1963) Francis Ford Coppola’s mainstream directorial debut & weak attempt at ripping off Hitchcock 2/5

23. GOODNIGHT MOMMY (Austria 2014) Opens w. twin boys playing in a cornfield. You know this isn’t ending well.

22. THE HALLOW (Ireland 2015) The deep Irish woods are alive with… you don’t want to know. It isn’t leprechauns 2.5/5

21. THE DEAD ROOM (New Zealand 2015) Minimalist approach to maximizing suspense. Impressive sound fx 3.5/5

20. STAKE LAND (2010) Mad Max meets The Road via vicious vampires. Gripping apocalypse melodrama with great acting 4/5

19. HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995) Paul Rudd’s film debut and the final film of Donald Pleasence

18. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (New Zealand 2014) Loved it! The funniest goddamn vampire movie you will ever see 4.5/5

17. THE ONES BELOW (2015) Epic suspense fail when your audience can predict every plot twist 2.5/5

16. FOUND (2012) What sucks more than being 12 and getting bullied? Discovering your brother is a serial killer 3/5

15. LAKE MUNGO (Australia 2008) Utterly unnerving indie gem in faux-doc style. Don’t miss this one! 4.5/5

14. PURGE 3: ELECTION YEAR (2016) Very shoot ’em up this time and LOUD. The tonight was much scarier 2.5/5

13. BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) A horror western with cannibals starring Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson? Yes please 4.5/5

12. BAD MILO! (2013) This is why men don’t give birth. Utter schlocky nonsense totally worth it for Peter Stormare 3/5

11. ZOMBEAVERS (2014) Because sometimes you just have to opt for the truly ridiculous. Raunchy, gory fun 3.5/5

10. THE BOY (2016) Lauren Cohen gets nanny gig in English mansion. The Innocents meets Pinocchio meets Chucky?? Meh 2/5

9. BLEED (2016) Never go ghost hunting in an abandoned prison when you’re pregnant. Recycled schlock 1/5

8. MANIAC COP (1988) What’s not to love here? 1980s NYC, Tom Atkins, ‘s chin & eyebrows, & Raimi cameo

7. HOLIDAYS (2016) Very meh horror anthology that tries too hard to be clever. That bathtub scene though 2/5

6. THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR What part of don’t open the goddamn door do you not understand?! Nothing new here 2.5/5

5. GREEN ROOM (2016) Punk rockers get a gig in a den of neo-Nazis and see something they shouldn’t. Intense!  4/5

4. SINISTER 2 (2015) Predictable jump scares pale in comparison to outstanding frightening unforgettable original 2.5/5

3. BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013) British sound engineer gets movie job in 70s Italy. Lynch-like weirdness ensues 3/5

2. THE BIRDS Small coastal town besieged by shrieking, screeching homicidal birds. Calculated silences=pure dread 5/5

1. CRIMSON PEAK Lush, gothic romance filled with terrible beauty and dread by the master 3.5/5

Abbott sticks the landing and delivers a perfect 10

You Will Know Me ★★★★★
Megan Abbott
Little Brown, 2016

 

“Take my hand when I falter, for I cannot make this journey alone. I do not know you, but you will know me.”
~Nadia Comaneci, Letters to a Young Gymnast

youwillknowmeIf, like me, you’ve lived a life of inexplicable obsession fascination with the world of competitive gymnastics, this latest by the Mighty Megan Abbott is going to rock your world. If you’ve never given competitive gymnastics a single thought what is wrong with you — this book is going to rock your world anyway.

In recent years, Abbott has taken the domestic thriller, suburban noir and made it her bitch. She’s often writing about the interior lives of adolescent girls because she’s proven time and again what deep, murky waters run there, what unsettling truths there are to be found when innocence is lost and a sexual awakening is found.

You Will Know Me is more focused on the family unit this time, though its teen protagonist — 15 year old Devon Knox — certainly plays a major role. Devon’s compulsive, all-consuming journey to be the best, to be a champion, has also consumed her family — mom Katie, dad Eric, and little brother Drew (who just about broke my heart). Most of the book unfolds from Katie’s viewpoint as she strives to be the perfect support and anchor for her prodigy daughter, while keeping the domestic front of chores, groceries, wifely duties and a freelance job on track. Katie also has a quiet, patient, introverted little boy to nurture who sees much but says very little.

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Nadia Comaneci, 1976 Olympics

Down into the rabbit hole of competitive gymnastics Abbott takes us, the sacrifices required of a family to raise an Olympic competitor, because the young female gymnast could never get there on her own. But Devon’s quest to reach Olympic level competition will be threatened by the tragic death of a handsome young man, a death that comes like a nuclear bomb dropped into the middle of a perfectly, rigidly balanced life of discipline and routine. The Knox family are left reeling, seeking answers, and fearing truths. Secrets will out, and in the light of day they will come to realize that those we often feel we know the best, we don’t really know at all.

This is a twisty book, and Abbott has a few surprises up her sleeve, but not of the Gone Girl variety — that’s not what she’s up to here. I figured it all out several times, and knew where she was headed, but that in no way diminished from the sense of tension and inexorable suspense. If anything, knowing amped it all to eleven. As readers we’re watching the train leave the tracks in slow motion as the main characters move closer to unbearable discovery. And I felt the point wasn’t really figuring out what happened, the point becomes what characters do now that they know.

Abbott is at the top of her game here — I had no hesitation awarding all five stars. This one you will not want to miss.

Recently, Abbott wrote an article for Elle in which she attempts to answer: “Why Are We So Obsessed With Gymnasts?” As a companion piece to this book, it’s worth checking out.

“Because now, of course, these gymnasts are girls but also, and foremost, powerful and blazingly talented women. Perhaps that is the paradox that keeps us rapt. Biles, four feet nine inches tall, in a pink, crystal-studded leotard and with that cherubic face, radiates girl. And yet the instant she takes glorious flight, she is beyond reckoning, defying gravity, logic, reason.
~Megan Abbott, “Why We are So Obsessed With Gymnasts”

What an excellent day for an exorcism

My Best Friend’s Exorcism: A Novel ★ ★ ★
Grady Hendrix
Quirk Books, 2016

 

“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
~The Exorcist (1973)

bfexorcismThis is an okay book. Fair. Acceptable. But it takes too long to really get humming (I’m all in for foreplay, but Hendrix really pushes the limits to impatience here). More than three-quarters of the novel is essentially an angsty teen, coming-of-age high school drama about a group of girls and their growing pains with each other and with the world around them. It could very well be Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill — except that one of the main characters might be demonically possessed (instead of merely being a catty bitch). Sometimes it’s nigh on impossible to tell the difference.

Here’s the thing — this book suffers by comparison to a lot of other things. Nobody writes the mysterious, dark and turbulent interior lives of teenage girls better than Megan Abbott. Seeing Hendrix attempt to do the same thing here as he explores the iron bonds of friendship forged by Abby and Gretchen when they were children pales in execution and gravitas to Ms. Abbott’s vast talents with her mighty quill.

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“What an excellent day for an exorcism” ~The Exorcist (1973)

The demonic possession and exorcism angle is adequately covered — but again suffers by comparison to 2015’s Bram Stoker Award winning A Head Full of Ghosts. And no matter who you are, if you’re writing about this subject, your book is always going to be compared to Blatty’s classic horror novel The Exorcist and Friedkin’s enduring film adaptation of the same name.

Hendrix might have thought he was doing something new and clever here by mashing-up a coming-of-age teen drama with the horror tropes of demonic possession stories, but he doesn’t quite make it. Some scenes are definitely creepy and unsettling, there just weren’t enough of them (too few of them coming too late in the story) to sustain any kind of coiled tension and impending sense of doom in the reader. And boy, is it really hard to write an exorcism scene that chills, rather than have it feel like a spoof out of a Scary Movie sequel, or a daytime soap opera.

Who’s old enough to remember Marlena Evans? Me!

How a show about nothing changed everything

Seinfeldia:
How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything ★ ★ ★ ★

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster, 2016

seinfeldiaA free copy was provided through Netgalley in exchange for review.

 

“Everybody’s doing something. We’ll do NOTHING.” ~George (Seinfeld)

 

I think anyone who picks up this book is most likely going to be a rabid Seinfeld fan, and I’m no exception. We are in the midst of PeakTV — a new heralded Golden Age of Television — and there’s a very persuasive argument to be made that it all started with a small show about nothing, that did in fact, change everything. Despite the avalanche of remarkable and groundbreaking TV that’s hit our small screens since Seinfeld exited stage left in 1998, it still remains one of my favorite shows of all time. I’ve never stopped watching it in syndication, it continues to make me bust a gut laughing on a regular basis, and I’ve yet to encounter any situation in life that cannot be captured by applying a Seinfeld quote.

Seinfeldia is a fun book, and a totally immersive experience into the bizarre, unexpected and meteoric rise of a show that probably should have been cancelled after its first season. But after a rocky and uncertain start, the show got traction with fans and critics. As its influence spread, it was clear to see that Seinfeld was bleeding over and breaking the Fourth Wall on a regular basis, blending fact with fiction in an original and inspired way and not just becoming part of the zeitgeist and popular culture but seemingly birthing it out of thin air. The catchy phrases and neurotic dialogue uttered on the show were quickly absorbed by television audiences and recited in everyday life as if we had always been saying such things.

Or here’s what I think — we had always needed these words to describe both the inanity and absurdity of life, and it was Seinfeld who gave them to us.

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Larry David

The author takes a nice even-handed, well-researched approach describing the “making of” the show, offering a behind-the-scenes analysis of early working relationships, early scripts and the jockeying for power and position between the actors, writers and directors. At the helm of course was Larry David — perhaps the first instance where we really see the genius that can result when a showrunner is given complete creative control over his/her product. And David wielded that power like Thor’s mighty hammer. The only other creative force welcomed into the inner sanctum was not surprisingly David’s right hand man, Jerry Seinfeld. Together, these two gentlemen mind-fused into a comedic entity where the sum of their brilliance far exceeded their individual talents.

The book also has fun dipping into the “bizarro” aspects of the show — how it carried the Midas touch for a lot of struggling actors who would go on to great careers after their stints on Seinfeld, no matter how brief or fleeting their appearance. Probably the most notable here is Bryan Cranston — the inimitable Dr. Whatley — a dentist who Jerry is certain converted to Judaism strictly for the jokes. Even regular people who never acted on the show got pulled into its gravitational belt for better and for worse.

The real people counterparts to the fictionalized versions of themselves on the show would reap financial rewards and a fame by proxy —
1. Kenny Kramer’s Reality Tour is still going strong in New York City;
2. Ali (“Al”) Yeganeh is the real “Soup Nazi” and continues to sell his soup today (and curse Jerry Seinfeld for giving him an infamy and notoriety he never asked for or ever aspired to);
3. and Larry Thomas, the actor who played the “Soup Nazi”, continues to appear at fan conventions and speaking engagements, and has even written a book! Rather than fight against it, the actor has made peace with a role he will never outlive and embraces the benefits with grace and humor.

veep_poster_p_2013The book also addresses the backlash against a show that had become so popular it attracted haters and critics who believed it to be insufferably smug and overrated. The author also talks about the controversial finale episode and how it disappointed many fans and critics (it’s not my favorite episode by any means, but I found things to love about the finale). Then there was the fate of the four leads post-Seinfeld and the various trajectories their careers took, the strangest and most disappointing being Michael Richards and his public breakdown of racist rage. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has always been my biggest girl crush and I’ve been over the moon to watch her role as Vice-President Selina Meyer only get better over five seasons of VEEP. And for Jerry Seinfeld fans you can catch him now doing Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee which just got an Emmy nomination today. I haven’t seen this yet, but I do plan on checking it out at some point.

Not surprisingly, the brains and soul and passion behind Seinfeld, creator Larry David, has had the most enduring and critical success with his show Curb Your Enthusiasm (which ended in 2011 after eight seasons, but it’s just been announced the show will return for a season nine).

To wrap things up (and leave on a high note, with hand), I’m gonna take a page from Dan who in his review listed his ten favorite Seinfeld episodes. For anyone who has ever watched and loved the show, you’ll remember just how packed each episode became, routinely following four sub-plots for each of the four leads — Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer. David’s singular purpose and desire was to strive to have every episode end with the four sub-plots intersect by the ending. And he almost always succeeded. In no particular order (it was too hard to pick just ten, let alone rank) here are some of my favorites.

Mild spoilers ahead for the Seinfeld virgins.


“The Chicken Roaster”:
Jerry and Kramer switch apartments when the searing neon red light from the Kenny Rogers Roasters sign across the street starts disturbing Kramer’s sleep. And who can forget Mr. Marbles.
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“The Parking Garage”

 

“The Parking Garage”:
The gang gets trapped in an underground parking garage when none of them can remember where Kramer parked his car. Highlights: Elaine wanders helplessly holding a goldfish in a plastic bag of water waiting for it to perish. George and Jerry get arrested for urinating in public.

 

“The Chinese Restaurant”:
The penultimate episode of the second season which takes place entirely in a Chinese restaurant while the gang waits to be seated. It remains a fan and critical favorite of Seinfeld’sgroundbreaking approach to comedic storytelling — an episode about “nothing”.

 

“The Bubble Boy”:
The gang travels upstate to stay in Susan’s father’s cabin. Susan and George stop at the Bubble Boy’s house to get directions and play a game of trivial pursuit. Moops!

 

“The Opera”:
The most memorable “Crazy Joe Davola” episode. Elaine and Jerry are trying to enjoy a night out at the opera when Joe turns up dressed as the clown from Pagliacci.

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“The Contest”

 

“The Contest”:
The gang bet each other to see who can hold out the longest from self-pleasuring themselves (the word masturbation is never used in the episode considered too “adult” for prime time television). Part of the fun is all the euphemisms used to avoid saying the actual word, and what eventually makes each character crack.

 

“The Puffy Shirt”:
Jerry unknowingly agrees to wear a puffy “pirate shirt” on the Today Show. George gets discovered as a hand model.

 

“The Marine Biologist”:
After faking and lying about various jobs and careers, George is finally called out and forced to become a marine biologist when confronted by a beached whale in distress. “The sea was angry that day my friends.”

 

“The Fusilli Jerry”:
Kramer starts making figures of his favorite people out of pasta shapes that best suit their personality. Jerry is “silly” so his is made from Fusilli. Highlights: “the move” (David Puddy, my favorite recurring character, starts using Jerry’s sex move on Elaine; Kramer becomes “the Assman”; and Frank Costanza ends up at the proctologist’s office after impaling himself on the Fusilli Jerry. This is also the episode where we get Frank’s move of “stopping short”.

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David Puddy “The Face Painter”

 

“The Face Painter”:
I love David Puddy and this (along with the “Jesus Fish” subplot from “The Burning” episode, is his best stuff.

 

“The Soup Nazi”:
It’s the Soup Nazi! No soup for you!”

 

“The Little Kicks”:
Two words: Elaine dances. Also, Jerry becomes a bootlegger and we meet Brody.

 

“The Merv Griffin Show”:
Kramer finds the set of the Merv Griffin Show in a dumpster and sets it up in his apartment. Highlights: Jerry is dating a woman with collectible toys from his childhood (that she won’t let him play with); George runs over a squirrel and is pressured by the woman he’s dating to save its life, which the vet informs him will be costly and require the use of “special, really tiny instruments.”

 

“The Slicer”:
Kramer gets a deli slicer and starts slicing meat. Elaine and Kramer conspire to short circuit the power in her neighbor’s apartment only to find out there’s a cat trapped inside starving because its food dispenser no longer works. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg — there’s so much hilarity stuffed into this episode that often gets overlooked.

 

“The Reverse Peephole”, “The Frogger” and “The Bookstore”:
For anyone who ever challenges you that Seinfeldstayed on the air too long, or wasn’t as funny once Larry David left, I give you these three episodes which contain some of the funniest sub-plots the show covered in its nine season run. Highlights:

George’s overstuffed wallet, and keeping the massage chair for himself
Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat
Puddy buys an obnoxious leather jacket with a giant 8 on the back, Elaine is mortified
George must enlist the help of Kramer’s electrician “friends” to move Frogger game to safety
Elaine starts eating Peterman’s $29,000 Royal wedding cake purchased in an auction
Jerry can’t break up with a woman because he’s too afraid of “The Lopper” serial killer
Newman and Kramer try to set up a rickshaw business
Jerry gets Uncle Leo arrested, not knowing about his previous “crime of passion”
Jerry finds out from his parents “it’s not stealing if it’s something you need”
George takes an expensive book into the Brentano’s bathroom and is forced to buy it. He tries to return it and discovers it’s been “flagged”.

cast1I could keep going. Seriously, I feel like I’m just getting started. I haven’t even mentioned “Moviefone”, “shrinkage”, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”, “Delores”, “George’s desk naps”, yada yada yada. It would have been a much shorter list identifying the odd sub-plot or moments that can no longer make me laugh. There are far fewer of those. After all these years and repeated viewingsSeinfeld has more than stood the test of time. If anything, it’s ageless, or like a fine whiskey, keeps getting better with age as it thrives (and finds new audiences) in syndication. And while some outstanding comedies have appeared in the years following its finale — It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia andParks and Rec to name my two favorites — they all owe a debt to Seinfeld and for a show that continues to make me laugh out loud, I owe it a debt too.

And because IT STILL makes me tear up watching it even now — I did have the time of my life. Thanks for asking.

 

A long love affair with a long walk: Re-visiting classic King

The Long Walk ★★★★★
Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Signet, 1979
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“They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddam sure that makes us human beings?”

“They walked through the rainy dark like gaunt ghosts, and Garraty didn’t like to look at them. They were the walking dead.”

How much do I love this book? There are too many ways to count actually, which is why no matter how many re-reads I’ve done of it (and there have been many over the years), The Long Walk has always left me too intimidated to review it. I managed a brief blurb of something when I listened to the audiobook a few years back, but never a “real review”. So heaven help me, here’s my real review.

RichardBachman

Richard Bachman

According to King, he wrote The Long Walk while in college in 1966-67 and it became one of those “drawer novels” that got put away to gather dust when he couldn’t get it published. King wasn’t a household name yet of course. First, he had to publish Carrie in 1974. Then Salem’s Lot in 1975. Followed by The Shining in 1976. In three short years King became a household name. So much so that he got the idea to become Richard Bachman.

 

King decided he would use this pseudonym to resurrect a few of those dusty “drawer novels” and rescue them from obscurity. He believed they were good (for me, two of them are better than good, they are outstanding — The Long Walk and The Running Man — according to King written in a 72 hour fugue in 1971). But King wanted to know readers thought the books were good because they were good, not just because his name was on the front cover in giant letters. His publisher at the time also didn’t want to flood the market with more King books when he was already churning them out one a year.* Hence, Bachman was born.

*(these were the days before James Patterson decided it was okay to publish 20 books a year and only write one of them yourself).

 

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Original Signet paperback cover, 1979

The Long Walk is easily, hands-down my favorite Bachman book, but it also ranks as one of my favorite King books period. Top 5 without even blinking an eye. It’s lean and mean, with a white hot intensity to it. What I love about The Long Walk is what I love about King’s early short stories collected in Night Shift: There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me The Long Walk has always burned bright as if King wrote it in a fever. There’s a purity in these pages, a naked desire to tell the tale that still gives me chills every single time I pick up the damn book and read that opening sentence: “An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.”

 

Clumsy? Sure. A bit of an awkward simile? Absolutely. But what a hook. And the hook only digs itself in deeper as each page is turned. Until finishing becomes a matter of have to, any choice or free will stripped away. It’s one of those books that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let go until it’s finished with you.

Before the dystopian craze spawned by The Hunger Games trilogy, before the rise of reality TV with shows like Survivor, King imagined an alternate history American landscape where an annual walking competition would become the nation’s obsession. One hundred boys between the ages 16-18 start out walking, and continue to walk at 4mph until there’s only one remaining — the winner. Boys falling below speed for any reason get a Warning. Three Warnings get you your Ticket, taking you out of the race. Permanently. It’s walk or die. And as someone who’s done her fair share of walking, the idea of that much walking without ever stopping makes my feet and back ache just thinking about it.

But King will make you do more than think about it, he will make you walk that road with those boys, to experience every twinge of discomfort, to feel the rising pain and suffocating fear, to suffer with the boys in sweat, and cold, and hunger, and confusion, as they walk towards Death and consider their own mortality. You will hear the sharp cracks of the carbine rifles and your heart will jump and skip beats.

One theme that King has revisited over the years is writing about the human body under brutalizing physical duress, at the body in extremis and what humans are hardwired to do to survive and go on living another day. Excruciating physical peril undeniably comes with a psychological component and no one writes that better than King. We see it in books like Misery, Gerald’s Game and the short story “Survivor Type”. King uncovers all the nitty-gritty minutia of human physical suffering and asks the question: How far is any one person willing to go to keep on taking his or her next breath? Stephen King knows pretty damn far. Just ask Paul Sheldon or Ray Garraty. Or the castaway in “Survivor Type” — him most of all. King also knows that the human body has an amazing capacity for trauma. It can withstand a lot — so much so that the mind often breaks first.

Each chapter heading of The Long Walk quotes a line from a game show host, but the one that really sticks out (and presumably gave King his idea in the first place) is this one by Chuck Barris, creator of the The Gong Show — “The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant would be killed.” And isn’t that the truth? Certainly, the Romans knew this as they cheered for Gladiators to be mauled to death by wild animals (or other Gladiators). Just ask the French who cheered and jeered as thousands were led to their deaths by guillotine. There is an insatiable blood lust that lingers in humans that I don’t think we’ll ever shake completely, no matter how “civilized” we think we’ve become.

Violence as entertainment is part of the norm, so I have no problems believing that under the right (terrifying) conditions, death as entertainment could become just as normalized. Outwit, Oulast, Outplay on Survivor suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

One of the things I’ve always loved about this book is how King handles the audience as spectators, complicit in this cold-blooded murder of its young boys. When the novel first starts, the spectators are individuals, with faces and genders and ages. As the story progresses, spectators increase in number to “the crowd”, loud and cheering, holding signs. By the novel’s climax, spectators filled with blood lust have morphed into a raging body of Crowd (with a capital C). It is an amorphous and frightening entity that moves and seethes with singular purpose obsessed with the spectacle, and baying for blood like a hound on the scent. It’s chilling because there’s such a ring of truth to all of it. Were it to ever happen, this is how it would happen. When King is writing at his best, the devil is always in the details.

Another aspect of the story that has always engaged me is the boys’ compulsion to join the Walk and be complicit in their own execution. I’ve always wanted to ask King if he meant this story to be an allegory for young boys signing up to die in Vietnam (considering he wrote it as Vietnam was heating up and on the nightly news). I think naivety and ignorance got a lot of the boys to The Walk, including Garraty. I think young people (especially young men) believe themselves to be invincible, that death is not something that can happen to them no matter the odds or circumstances. I’m sure no boy went to Vietnam thinking he would come home in a body bag, though many of them did.

If it’s not obvious by now, I could talk about this book until the sun burns itself out, or the zombies rise up. If you haven’t yet, read this book. If you have a reluctant teen reader in your life, give them this book. If it’s been a long time since you’ve read this book, don’t you think it’s time to read it again?

I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things ★★★★
by Iain Reid
Simon & Schuster Canada, 2016

Available: June 14th!

endingOooooh, this is a tough one to review, because it’s not going to be for everyone, and I also don’t want to give too much away. It’s a slim volume that packs such a WALLOP! that creeps up on you, it would be super easy to spoil it for someone if you weren’t careful.

Many people have this filed as ‘Mystery’ or ‘Psychological Thriller’ and it’s sorta a blend of those, but way closer to ‘Psychological Horror’ for me than anything else. It’s an unsettling, paranoid mindfuck that at first appearances seems pretty slow-moving and innocuous. There’s a young couple on a road trip to visit the guy’s parents at their secluded farmhouse, and the girlfriend is “thinking of ending things”. In her head she’s ruminating on the course of their courtship and mulling over the nagging feeling that it’s time to pull the plug on a relationship whose expiration date is past.

endingthingsBut she also has a secret. Dun-dun-DUUUUUN.

But the boyfriend — who starts the novel normal and quite nice — starts to appear odd and off kilter as soon as we get to the farmhouse. Then things inexorably creep to majorly weird and unsettling with the parents by the time we get to dessert.

And just as you’re processing what’s happening in that farmhouse and freaked the hell out because you don’t know where the threat is coming from (or if whether there’s even a threat at all), the book will move to its final act in a deserted high school.

This isn’t a book about what happens. It’s one of those how we get there. It’s a book of atmosphere and tension and a narrator who absolutely takes the cake on unreliable. It’s a paranoid chant in places, and I was literally gripping the book as I was reading it because everything started to feel so portentous, so HEAVY, that the most horrible thing could happen at any moment. All bets are off. As a reader, when I am in the hands of a writer like that, and at their complete mercy, there is no other place I would rather be.

It was horror god Nick Cutter who brought my attention to this book first when he tweeted this about it:

“Creepy as hell. You owe me a few fingernails, Reid, because I’ve bitten them off reading your book!”

When Mr. Cutter endorses a book like that I will do just about anything (and I do mean anything people) to get my hands on a copy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to kill anybody (and lose precious reading time getting rid of the body since my woodchipper is in the shop). The publisher provided a review copy for free, no violence required, no cleanup in aisle four. Thanks Simon and Schuster Canada!

I want to compare this short read (which you should do in one sitting for maximum impact) with other great stories of the same ilk, but I don’t want to risk spoiling anything. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is psychological, subtle, mind-bendy, and utterly unnerving. I can’t wait to read this one again to enjoy its construction and appreciate even more the flawless execution of its moving parts.

Iain Reid, you are on my radar.

You can connect with the author here:
Twitter: @reid_iain
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4112760.Iain_Reid
Website: http://iainreidauthor.com/

The hush at the end of the world

Good Morning, Midnight ★★★★
by Lily Brooks-Dalton
Random House
Available: August 9th 2016

goodmorningGood Morning, Midnight is the quietest apocalypse book you’re ever likely to read. From the stark, icy silences of the vast Arctic, to the soundless black infinity of outer space, this introspective book is about loneliness and isolation, not bombs, or germs or zombies and fighting like a dog over the last can of beans.

If your reader’s desire is to immerse yourself in a well-constructed and deftly explored end of the world scenario then you just might be disappointed here. Getting into the nitty gritty details of an apocalypse — the whys and wherefores — that’s not this book.

Instead what we have here is a thoughtful and poignantly written contemplation on the ways humans can cut themselves off from other humans, can so easily become trapped in their own inability to connect and build lasting relationships, moving through life untethered — on the outside of everything, apart from everyone. The two vividly described settings — the Arctic and outer space — are perfect metaphors for our disconnected protagonists to move in. Our genius astronomer Augustine is stationed at the top of the world in a remote Arctic research station when the world ends. Our intrepid female astronaut Sullivan (or Sully) is on a round trip back to Earth from the outer reaches of Jupiter, confined in tight quarters with the rest of her crew.

Each is struggling with a loneliness they can’t quite define, a torment that only becomes amplified and more crushing as the terrifying realization begins to crystallize that the world might just have ended. From space, Sully and her crew are disturbed at the utter hush of zero communication coming from Earth. What sort of cataclysmic, inexplicable event could have happened to the home planet they are speeding toward? Augustine’s Arctic life is just as silent, save for the company of a mysterious young girl left behind after the research station is evacuated.

The real strength of this book (especially considering its modest length) is the striking descriptions (at times breathtakingly rendered) of life in space and in an Arctic research facility. The attention to detail put me RIGHT THERE, I could see, taste, touch everything. I lived on the Aether and experienced the excitement, the boredom, the claustrophobia, the anxiety, the fear. The challenge of meals, and going to the bathroom, and sleeping, and staying in shape. I came to know the frigid wind of the Arctic wanting to rip my face off, and the despair of feeling swallowed up by a white frozen landscape void of humans and seemingly hope. Until the sun rises. And the descriptions — often eloquent — are not plodding or heavy. No word is wasted. The prose is so sharp and so observant.

Our protagonists Augustine and Sully — though they keep themselves busy and strive for ways to normalize a far from normal situation — will have a lot of time on their hands, empty hours that will torment them, and force them to confront painful truths about themselves and the life choices they’ve made. What lies on the other side of the apocalyptic silence is a mystery that won’t be solved, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t answers to be found.

An advanced reading copy was provided through Netgalley.

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