Wednesday, October 22, 2014

6 Recommended Scary Reads for Halloween

A few years ago, author Neil Gaiman proposed the idea of giving books for Halloween—an All Hallow’s Read. “Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle,” he wrote. “Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.” While I like the idea of Halloween as a book-giving (and book-getting) holiday, I don’t think you can beat giving a book to yourself.

With that in mind, I present this year’s picks for Halloween reads. Just as in previous years, I try to select books I’ve read that are less likely to be recommended (I presume you’ve heard of Dracula), and I always include books of varying degrees of horror. Even the squeamish should find something here to like, though there’s no lack of creepiness.

Be brave! Halloween only comes once a year. You might discover, though, that you want to visit the dark side all year long. (In that case, check out the Halloween picks for previous years here and here.)

The Beetle by Richard Marsh

The Beetle, by Richard Marsh, 1889. Click to order.

The Beetle was published in 1889, the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and you might be surprised to learn that the supernatural horror novel initially outsold the vampire tale three times over. While the public ate up the story of an insect creature “born of neither god nor man,” critics found it a little too unpleasant, declaring it “sordid and vulgar.” While it may not be (very) vulgar by today’s standards, it’s still plenty unpleasant. The title insect is a shapeshifter who has come to London in pursuit of a member of British parliament, Paul Lessingham, who has angered the devotees of a bizarre Egyptian cult. The creature is alternately a slobbering old codger or a brazenly naked woman, but is at its most terrifying as a huge, slimy scarab that attacks in a revolting way that is almost sexual. Part romance, part horror, and part detective story, The Beetle shifts perspectives several times, then culminates in an action-laden pursuit by train with an unforgettable ending. The Beetle was filmed in 1919, though all reels are now lost. Until some smart filmmaker makes it again, you’ll have to plumb its perversity in print.

Factory Town by Jon Bassoff

Factory Town by Jon Bassoff, 2014. Click to order.

If 19th-century horror isn’t for you, then how about something that’s brand spankin’ new? Last year, Jon Bassoff’s Corrosion made my list of favorite books of the year, and now—just in time for Halloween—he’s done it again. By “it,” I mean he’s come up with something that’s just as dark and depraved as his debut novel, yet it’s startlingly different. In Factory Town, Russell Carver is seeking a missing girl in a strange, decayed city that resembles Jeunet & Caro’s Delicatessen: a post-apocalyptic ruin that feels simultaneous historic and futuristic. As Russell frantically searches for the girl, he witnesses a seemingly-endless parade of bizarre characters engaged in disturbing activities that make it difficult to tell exactly what’s going on, or where (and what) the town actually is. Hell? A dream? Some sort of institution? You’ll think all of those things at times, and more, until the clues, cleverly inserted into this insane landscape by Bassoff, start emerging, along with the truth. Factory Town is like a spiral—it swings around many times before you’ll start to narrow in on the center, giving you time to realize (and fear) what’s coming. Get ready for a full review soon, but in the meantime, see for yourself why Bassoff is becoming the name that defines psycho-noir.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, 1954. Click to order.

Written in 1954, Richard Matheson’s sole-survivor novel has been, and still is, tremendously influential to the zombie genre. That’s despite the fact that the undead in his book are somewhat more like vampires than what we think of as zombies today, but the fact remains that without I Am Legend, there would likely not have been a Night of the Living Dead. It’s been directly adapted into film at least three times (Does I Am Omega count?), beginning with Vincent Price in The Last Man, then Omega Man, and most recently, I Am Legend. Think you don’t like zombies? Then you should know that the best part of I Am Legend—and its focus—is the emphasis on survival. Protagonist Robert Neville spends his days scavenging the city for supplies and re-fortifying his house before the night sets in. As the years pass, his worst enemy might actually be loneliness. At 160 pages, the book is really more of a novella, and the action makes it a quick read (or re-read).

Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man’s Back by Joe R. Lansdale

"Tight Little Stitches in a Dead Man's Back" by Joe R. Lansdale, 1986. Click to order. (Kindle edition is currently .99)

If you don’t have much time for a Halloween read this year, consider this short story. It’s probably one of the best sci-fi horror stories ever crafted, and it's certainly one of Lansdale’s best. It’s literate, disturbing, and startlingly original. The story takes place after Earth has been massacred by a nuclear bomb. Paul, one of the survivors, was part of the team responsible for creating the bomb, and his guilt (especially over the loss of his daughter) is crippling. He spends his nights allowing his wife to work an elaborate tattoo onto his back, with her enjoying inflicting the pain she believes he deserves almost as much as he enjoys doing his penance. When the survivors, who have been dwelling underground, decide to check out the surface, things get weird. The fact that this strange little story is so powerful is testament to Lansdale’s skills, and if you’re wary of shelling out for a single story, get over it. This one is well worth the buck.

Come Closer by Sara Gran

Come Closer by Sara Gran, 2006. Click to order.

Amanda’s life seems perfect and normal—she’s a happily married architect—until she starts noticing odd things, like a persistent, unexplained noise in the apartment. Even more strange is the fact that she starts doing unusual things herself that seem beyond her control. She writes an obscene message to her boss. She burns her husband with a cigarette. She talks to strange men in sketchy bars (which means that she’s also going to sketchy bars). Her atypical behavior might be related to the dreams she’s having of a beautiful but somewhat demonic woman. Is Amanda slowly becoming possessed? Or is she insane? While the idea of insanity vs. possession is an old one, Gran’s book is refreshingly modern and smart, not to mention well paced and told in a cool, straightforward way.

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans, 2007. Click to order.

I picked up Justin Evans’ debut novel on a whim, attracted by a cover that looks both demonic and literary, covered in blurbs from pretty credible sources. I have to say that the packaging is perfect, because the book is plenty creepy, and it will definitely appeal to those who prefer their scares on the intellectual side. George Davies is a thirty year-old father who finds that he’s unable to pick up his infant son, as if he’s revolted by him. In therapy, George begins to recall his childhood, which was profoundly disturbed after his father died in unusual circumstances, just after sending a series of rambling letters. He acquires an imaginary friend, who may be supernatural or simply a psychological result of his trauma. His parents’ academic friends become involved in ways that could be exacerbating the problem, and secrets from the past are revealed as we begin to understand more about why the adult George is the way he is. A horror novel for those who don’t necessarily like horror, though it’s just dark enough to impact those who do.

Have you read any of this year’s selections? What did you think? If you have a scary novel or story to recommend, tell me your favorite in the comments section.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Book Review: The Pothunters by P. G. Wodehouse

My reading of Wodehouse has been haphazard up till recently. I devoured the Jeeves and Wooster books when I first discovered them, then set about reading whatever turned up at the used bookstore: a Blandings novel here, a Psmith there. It occurred to me at some point that reading all of Wodehouse’s 90-or-so books is something I’d very much like to do before I die, so I’ve begun reading them in order of publication to fully appreciate his evolution as a writer.

I didn’t originally plan to review each novel, which is why you may have already read my reviews of Tales of St. Austin’s (his third published book, though the stories included were among his first written fiction) and William Tell Told Again (his fifth book). I’m backtracking now, in the interest of ultimately having a complete set of Wodehouse reviews (provided I don’t get hit by a bus).

First edition of the Pothunters, 1902.

The Pothunters was Wodehouse’s first published novel, and it first appeared in serial form in Public School Magazine, a monthly publication read primarily by public school boys (keep in mind that, in England, “public school” refers to what most Americans would think of as private school). The serial version was cut short when the magazine ceased publication in March, 1902 (it was bought out by the publisher of a rival magazine, The Captain, for whom Wodehouse would later write stories). Rather than leave the story hanging, the last part of The Pothunters was summarized in the final issue, taking the form of a letter, in which one of the characters explained the gist of the plot’s resolution.

Adam & Charles Black published the complete story in book form in September of 1902. (As Wodehouse’s first publication, it is now highly sought after by collectors in the first edition, and commands prices of several thousands of dollars in average condition.) The book takes place at the fictional school of St. Austin’s, where most of his school stories are set (when they’re not at Wrykyn). Wodehouse himself attended public school and participated in a lot of the activities that turn up in the tales: cricket, boxing, working on the school magazine.

Wodehouse’s personal experiences might make for a realistic touch to The Pothunters, but it might come off as too real for those expecting latter-day Wodehouse shenanigans. There’s a quaintness, if not hilarity, to the book. The plot (which there’s not a lot of) concerns the theft of some sports trophies (the “pots” of the title) from the school pavilion, along with some petty cash. A student, Jim, is in a bit of a bind for a couple of reasons. Not only did he break into the pavilion to crib some test notes, but the amount of money taken is the same amount he lost betting on boxing. While students, teachers, and even the police try to solve the case, Jim spends most of the novel worrying about winning his lost money back by winning at sports.

While there’s a bit of a crime here, don’t expect Wooster and the cow creamer. Wodehouse’s first effort lacks the master plotting and subplotting he’s known for. It also lacks the characterization. I found the boys difficult to keep straight, and not just because instead of Gussie Fink-Nottle and Catsmeat Pirbright we’ve got names like Jim and Tony—it’s the lack of any real, defining characteristics. It may have been Wodehouse’s intent to write about schoolboys that could be any schoolboys, but it leaves the reader with little to latch onto. In subsequent works, even minor characters are important threads in the plot, and often reappear in unexpected ways. Here, they meander onstage and are soon forgotten. 

Wodehouse as a young cricketer.

Of course, this is Wodehouse, so even if there’s a lot more room to breathe between jokes, he still tucks them in. A few plum lines:

“The first match he struck promptly and naturally went out. No first match ever stays alight for more than three-fifths of a second.”

“It seemed to Tony for the next half-minute that his cousin’s fists were never out of his face. He looked on the world through a brown haze of boxing-glove.”

“James, my son, if you will postpone your suicide for two minutes, I will a tale unfold.”

“ … in the centre of the ring the band of the local police force—the military being unavailable due to the exigencies of distance—were seating themselves with the grim determination of those who know that they are going to play the soldiers’ chorus out of Faust.”

“Parker made no comment. He stood in the doorway, trying to look as like a piece of furniture as possible—which is the duty of a good butler.” [Shades of Jeeves?]

At times, it’s easy to forget the era as the boys go about their studies and their cricketing, but the date becomes obvious when someone lights a candle at night, or when the boys duplicate the school rag via jellygraph. A reference to the “lamented Sherlock Holmes” makes the year even more apparent, as the fictional character was still dead in 1902, having apparently died in 1893’s  “The Final Problem,” and not to be resurrected until “The Adventure of the Empty House” in 1903.

In all, The Pothunters is on a whole different plane than Wodehouse’s later work. It’s clear that he was writing for a very specific audience (schoolboys) in a very specific time. While his later work very much has the feel of the era to it, the stories and the humor are timeless. For Wodehouse fans, it’s interesting to get a glimpse of the young writer before he perfected his craft. For those new to the author—well, your interest level might depend on your fondness for English public schools (and cricket).

Written for Friday's Forgotten Books. Pleas check out some of the other diverse entries.