Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

#CarrieAt40: Crash and Carrie by SIMON CLARK

Fall CreateSpace Cover SIMON CLARK

On the web: www.nailedbytheheart.com

On Twitter: @hotelmidnight

He confessed to me: ‘Carrie didn’t sell at all well, you know. Not, that is, until the film came out, then sales of the book went through the roof.’

The man making this confession was Bob Tanner who ran New English Library in the 1970s and who first published Carrie in paperback in Britain. Perhaps the anecdote demonstrates that even a powerhouse of a horror novel like Carrie needed a cinematic push to get the book sales moving. After all, back then, horror fiction in Britain still had its claws in the past and often stories revolved around men in dinner jackets telling spooky tales after dinner in candlelit mansions.

I do believe Bob Tanner was right. Because I can’t remember hearing about Stephen King until around 1980 when a friend was briefly hospitalized after a car crash. He whiled away the time in plaster reading – and somehow a copy of Carrie found its way into his hands. He was so taken by the story he gave me the book later, saying, ‘You must read this. It’s the best thing I’ve ever read in my life.’

‘Really?’

‘Trust me, it’s amazing.’

He pretty much hit the nail on the head. I read Carrie and was astonished by the power and sheer dazzling vision of the story. Many years later, I started to write horror fiction, beginning with short stories then finally breaking through into writing novels with Nailed by the Heart. And, yes, Stephen King’s classic horror novel influenced me enormously. That and James Herbert’s The Rats, which weren’t too far apart time-wise. Both wrote modern horror – bloody horror at that, with urban settings and believable people who went to school, or worked in shops and factories and offices. Many other writers continued working in the ‘modern, realistic’ movement that King started. I’m part of that movement, too. And, after all, without Carrie where would horror writers and readers be now?

Simon Clark’s books include Blood Crazy, The Night of the Triffids, Hotel Midnight, Sherlock’s Demon and On Deadly Ground (formerly King Blood). His time travel horror novel The Fall has just been reissued by Telos.

April 23, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#CarrieAt40: Cracking the Mirror by STEVE CAVANAGH

stephen_mearns_2 STEVE CAVANAGH

On the web: stevecavanaghwriter.blogspot.co.uk

On Twitter: @SSCav

Like a lot of people of my generation, I first learned about Stephen King through the world of film. When I was eight years old my parents rented a video recorder. They were just too damn expensive to buy in the early eighties and even then, we had to share the cost of the rental with my grandparents. We would have the video player for a week and then we would bring it to my grandfather’s house and they would have their week. In our house, whilst Clint Eastwood was the God of the western, and Jackie Chan was the God of kicking unholy-amounts-of-ass, Stephen King was the God of horror. No other horror films were as unsettling or as disturbing as the Stephen King movies. What made Stephen King cool for me was the fact that he wasn’t a movie star.

He was a writer.

Carrie-1976-Movie-PosterWhilst The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby all scared the crap out of me, Carrie inspired the same feeling of terror and more.

Carrie got under my skin. Carrie lingered like no other film.

I was lucky growing up; my Dad’s love of films was complemented by my Mother’s love of books and thankfully I took up each of their passions.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I read Carrie. Lying in my bedroom in Belfast, at seventeen, reading about a young girl the same age, who is tortured by her peers, physically and mentally abused by her parent and so utterly and devastatingly alone in the world, well, it made a huge impact on me. Every teenager struggles against their parents at a time when they are beginning to discover their own identity. We can all relate to that.

Stephen King somehow manages to write stories that hold a mirror up to the reader. Many gifted authors can accomplish this feat.

What sets King apart is that he then breaks that same mirror, often in the most shocking and terrifying manner imaginable, letting us see, in safety, our worst nightmares unfold before us.

At one point in the book, Carrie uses her power to break a mirror at home, fracturing her own reflection. That scene serves as a metaphor for the inevitable tragedy in which the very same powers that liberated her from her Mother, ultimately destroy her.

But Stephen King is not only a horror writer.

He is a veritable polymath in the world of writing and storytelling; able to turn his hand to Science Fiction, Horror, Thriller, Mystery, Memoir and more. Yet at the heart of every Stephen King book are his brilliantly drawn characters that somehow speak to a vast worldwide audience. Having engaged us in reality he then shatters that world through the extraordinary and often supernatural events in the novels. It is due, I feel, to his phenomenal ability as a storyteller to engrain the truth into every character which make his supernatural novels all the more frightening.

Stephen King, along with a handful of other authors, made me want to be a writer. I wanted to tell stories like he did, be as cool as he was and give a reader the same type of thrill that I got from reading his books. Unlike most Stephen King novels Carrie is a quick read. I hadn’t appreciated that until I re-read the book just recently, before writing this piece. It’s basically a novella fleshed out with extracts from fictional reports that are used with devastating effect to give further credibility to the events in the book and to provide a sense of impending doom. Reading the book as an older, balder, but legally-able-to-drink individual (everything balances) I can appreciate the craft more – I can see the beginnings of King’s unique narrative style and some of the themes that would recur in his later work.

The book is a triumph in that, for all its tiny flaws, it’s a hell of a first book and one which influenced publishing, movies, my life and the life of a good many readers and writers.

This book deserves to be celebrated for its bravery. Even now, it feels just as relevant, just as raw, just as brilliant.

So my thanks and congratulations go to Stephen King and to his wife Tabitha on this very special anniversary.

Steve Cavanagh is a practicing lawyer (someday he might get the hang of it) and writer from Belfast. His debut novel, The Defence, will be published by Orion in March 2015.

April 21, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , | Leave a comment

#CarrieAt40: Horror in the Everyday by LLOYD SHEPHERD

Lloyd Shepherd LLOYD SHEPHERD

On the web: www.lloydshepherd.com

On Twitter: @lloydshep

I’m looking at the copy of Carrie that I bought in 1981. It’s the New English Library paperback edition. On the front is a picture of a girl with blood running down her face, in front of a bolt of lightning. On the back are three pictures from Brian de Palma’s film of the book, including the creepiest image of them all – Carrie’s mother suspended in mid-air, knives protruding from her old-fashioned cotton nightdress.

I don’t remember where I bought it, but I do remember reading the first few pages. I was 14, and in those first pages I read, for the first time, about periods. ‘For God’s sake, Carrie, you got your period,’ says the girl who will become not-quite Carrie’s friend, Sue Snell. ‘Plug it up! yells someone else. For a 14-year-old boy with no sisters at home and no girlfriends anywhere on the horizon, the first few pages of Carrie are an eye-opening education, as well as being an example of seriously powerful storytelling.

Carrie was the second Stephen King book I read. The first was The Stand, earlier that summer, a gift from my Auntie Susan and still the most potent book gift I’ve ever received. After Carrie I read The Shining, then I read Salem’s Lot, and then I read every damn thing the guy wrote from then on. During an immature rebellious stage at university, I spent an academic prize on new editions of every Stephen King book that had been published up until that date. At the time I thought this would annoy the Fellows at my college; now, I would do the same, but I’d argue, seriously, that Stephen King is as good a writer as any of the greats on their syllabus.

The reason why he’s so great is all in those first few pages of Carrie. He locates horror in the everyday, the real everyday, the real that’s so real that even the literary giants I was reading at university and at school did not go there. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever read about a woman’s period in a book by a male writer since then, and if I have it didn’t resonate with me at all. Did Graham Greene write about periods? I don’t think so.

But imagine being Carrie White. Imagine no-one’s ever spoken to you about periods, and imagine starting to bleed in a school shower, and imagine everyone laughing at you, being disgusted by you. Isn’t that horror? Horror of the very worst kind?

In King’s books, horror always comes straight out of the personal, and in order for that to work King has to write characters who are vivid and believable. He’s the ultimate, maybe the finest, character-driven writer I know of, as great as Dickens. Recently he reviewed The Goldfinch in the New York Times (he liked it, a lot) and now, having read The Goldfinch, it strikes me how similar to a King protagonist Donna Tartt’s protagonist Theo Decker really is. Yes, the language might be more high-falutin’, and there are no werewolves or vampires or flying saucers hidden in the backyard, but I truly believe King could write a Donna Tartt book if he wanted to (and I wonder if he sort of did, in his novella The Body, which became the film Stand By Me).

Carrie isn’t my favourite King book (that honour goes to The Shining). But tellingly, my NEL edition of the book is the only original King book I owned – all my other King books have been replaced over the years, most of them lost during a rush of dumb pretentious blood to head in my mid-twenties when I gave away most of my King books in an attempt to show I had outgrown them. Outgrown them! What an idiot. But Carrie stayed. Carrie wouldn’t be discarded so easily. I had been inside Carrie’s head, you see, and I’d felt the terror in there.

Lloyd Shepherd has worked as a trade journalist and a digital product manager for the likes of the Guardian, the BBC, Yahoo, Channel 4 and Financial Times Newsletters.

He’s the author of the historical thrillers The English Monster and The Poisoned Island.

April 18, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#CarrieAt40: My Thoughts on Carrie by MARK WEST

mark west profile pic MARK WEST

On the web: www.markwest.org.uk

On Twitter: @MarkEWest

02-stephen-king-headerAs a kid of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I grew up with Stephen King and was aware of him – and a certain book – before I really knew who he was or what he did. During the ‘70s, my Dad was a fan of paperback horror and he had a small bookcase in his and my Mum’s bedroom. Sometimes – not often – I’d go in and look at the spines on the shelves, daring myself to look at the gloriously gruesome images that adorned the covers. One book that killed me was The Fog by James Herbert – the hand holding the woman’s head – but the cover that got me every time I looked at it (and it still has the power to unsettle, since my own 8-year-old son doesn’t like it either) was the New English Library edition of “Carrie”. I have the 1986 ‘sixteenth impression’ so mine has “author of Christine and Pet Sematary” on it but otherwise the image is the same – a well painted portrait of a young woman with wide, staring eyes, a snub nose and a small mouth, opened slightly to show her incisors. Blood seems to run from her hairline, making trails down her face to drip off her chin. I was too young to appreciate it properly, too young to read it but that image succeeded in scaring the crap out of me.

Stephen King – whether you’re a fan of the genre or not – is a byword for popular horror. Even if you’ve never read any of his novels, you’ve probably seen one of the films based on them and even if you haven’t succumbed to that (and if so, where the hell have you been?), you will know the name. Stephen King, yeah, he’s the bloke who writes the scary stuff.

He’s been writing it for a long time. Carrie, his first published (though by no means his first written) novel is 40 years old on April 5th, 2014. As mentioned above, I’ve been aware of it for a good chunk of that time but it was only when Matthew Craig – Reader Dad – asked me to be involved with joining in his #CarrieAt40 series of posts that I realised I’d never actually read it.

How could that be? I am a big Stephen King fan (though I tailed off somewhere after Misery, revived briefly with Bag Of Bones and then dropped off again until last years truly excellent Joyland), I read everything he wrote during the ‘80s and yet I hadn’t read his first novel? What on earth had I been playing at?

The story behind Carrie has been told often enough to have become a legend but probably the best example I’ve found was in King’s memoir-cum-how to book On Writing (which is well worth a read). At the time, he was living in a trailer with his wife and their son Joe (with another child on the way), teaching High School English and barely making ends meet, writing with his wife’s portable typewriter balanced on his knees. The story, inspired by girls he knew from school and recent reading on Telekinesis, was intended as a short story (focussing on the shower room sequence) for Cavalier magazine, but he didn’t like it and threw it away. Tabitha, his wife, rescued it from the bin and encouraged him to finish it (the books dedication reads; "This is for Tabby, who got me into it – and then bailed me out of it”). He wrote it in two weeks and it was picked up by Doubleday for $2,500 (the hardback sold 13,000 copies) and then New American Library bought the paperback rights for $400,000, which was split (as per the contract) between Doubleday and King himself. He resigned as a teacher at that point.

I first got into King with ‘Salem’s Lot, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop as I was waiting for my Dad to choose something. I liked the cover (whoever that artist was, working for NEL in those days, I’d like to thank him) and I decided to give it a chance. This would have been in the early ‘80s and I was hooked, instantly. By this time, of course, our prolific hero had been busy and I snapped up all the books I could find – Night Shift, The Stand (both versions, though I had the unexpurgated in hardback which made it a tricky read), The Dead Zone (still one of my favourites), Firestarter, Danse Macabre (the book that really led me onto the path of horror, as I followed the recommended reading lists in it and never looked back), Cujo, Different Seasons, Christine, Pet Sematary, Thinner, Skeleton Crew, The Bachman Books, IT, the list goes on (and that’s only up until 1986!)

Looking at it now, I think the reason I never went back to Carrie was because there was always something new coming out. That run of books is tremendous, great and gripping stories that not only involved the reader but provided essential touchpoints for pop culture going forward (not to mention some of the terrific films they inspired). Soon, Carrie felt too far back in the past, a slim first novel (though I would, without irony, go back and read all of The Bachman Books) about a girl with menstrual issues. There was also the small matter of the DePalma film version – a grinning William Katt, the oddly pretty Sissy Spacek, the blood, Nancy Allen and John Travolta looking mean, that ending – which was strong in my mind.

But I had a copy of the book, that survived various culls and sat – as quietly as Carrie herself might – watching as I picked other books to read. Then Matthew approached me, asking for this article and I took the opportunity gladly and I’m really pleased I did.

“Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not at the subconscious level where savage things grow.”

Carrie is a deceptively simple novel, told in an epistolary format that takes in accounts from academic textbooks, a commission report and Sue Snell’s autobiography (My Name Is Sue Snell, published in 1986) and set in the then near-future of 1979 (though I couldn’t work out why). There are no chapter breaks but the book is broken into three parts.

Part 1 – Blood Sport opens on Carrietta White, who has lived her life abused not only at home (by her unstable, religious zealot mother Margaret) but also by virtually everyone she comes into contact with, from classmates, to passers-by and teachers. Carrie is 16 and, to everyone’s disbelief, is experiencing her first period, which terrifies her. Not quite understanding why, her classmates taunt and jeer at her, throwing tampons and sanitary towels at her (“Plug it up, plug it up!”) to cover their own disgust. Her teacher, Miss Desjardin (perhaps the most sympathetic adult in the book), tries to help but Carrie is sent home where her mother beats her, locking her away to pray for forgiveness. But the start of menstruation seems to have also unlocked a latent talent in Carrie (which she has been able to harness, briefly, in the past) for Telekinesis. As her classmates are put into detention, one of them – a bully called Chris Hargensen – plots revenge and the course of the story is set in that one moment, with everything afterwards leading inexorably to destruction.

Sue Snell, another classmate who was involved in yelling “Plug it up!” feels terrible about the incident and asks her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. And this act of simple friendship and making amends, seals their fate.

Part 2 – Prom Night. Chris and her greaser boyfriend Billy Nolan go to a local farm and kill two pigs, collecting their blood and placing it in buckets over the stage. They rig the vote for Carrie and Tommy to win “Prom King & Queen” and as they sit on their thrones, all hell literally breaks loose.

Part 3 – Wreckage, follows the devastation that comes to the town once Carrie has left the Prom. I won’t give away what happens but since the ending is alluded to through the course of the book, it’s safe to say that Carrie makes her feelings of injustice felt and no-one is safe.

The book closes with a letter written by a woman in Tennessee, whose daughter is developing telekinetic powers.

King himself has commented that he finds the book to be "raw" and "with a surprising power to hurt and horrify” and I’d agree, it’s a harsh novel that looks at high school life with an eye for the viciousness that’s present in everyone (King was teaching at the time, so we can assume he was writing what he saw). He paints the outsider well, the desperate need to close in on yourself as the world gathers around you, joking and taunting and life seems full of things that you don’t quite understand.

Most of the adults – Margaret White excepted – are generally well-meaning but effectively powerless. Miss Desjardin, in making up for her own shortcomings in helping Carrie in the shower and punishing the group, pushes Chris Hargensen’s nose out of joint, compounded by the principal making a stand against her father – a lawyer – who then can’t make things right.

Of the kids, Sue Snell is essentially good and does what she does for the right reasons, though she pays the price of losing her boyfriend and his unborn child. Tommy is a good kid, a jock with heart who isn’t actually hurt by Carrie though I found it troubling that she spent the last part of the novel thinking that he’d set her up. The real horror, though, is in the characters of Chris and Billy. She is very manipulative, using sex to get what she wants but in Nolan she’s finally met her match, since he’s not one of the frat boys who will roll over and do everything she wants him to. In fact, I think he’s the real monster of the story and his casual violence is key to that. On nights when his Mum and her latest boyfriend are arguing, he takes off cruising for stray dogs, later putting his car away with “its front bumper dripping”.

But everything, of course, centres around Carrie. In my minds eye she looks, obviously, like Sissy Spacek but that’s not the picture King paints. His Carrie is “a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her (wet) hair completely without colour. She looked the part of the sacrificial goat, the constant butt” and at one point, she “looked around bovinely”. She wants to get on with her life and fit in, she tries to be rebellious but nothing ever really seems to work. Her menstruation not only brings her powers to a level she can control, it also opens the world up to her a little more, even if it’s just teasing glimpses. She feels stronger, she takes a stand with her mother but part of the novel’s cruelty is that she never quite achieves what she wants to. It changes her though and other characters, as well as the reader, sees this. When Tommy asks her out, she seems different and he can’t quite work it out and when he goes to pick her up (in a beautifully written moment), she seems comfortable in her own body for once.

Margaret White is the character that looms over the whole book, as Carrie is thinking of her right to the end. A ‘big woman’ who works in a laundry (I wonder if that’s based on the one King worked in?), she has embraced a bizarre offshoot of Christianity and made it her own, constantly fighting against the very thought of sin even though she’s wracked with guilt because she had intercourse to have Carrie (though it appears she didn’t connect sex and pregnancy at the time). Making her house a horror show of gruesome religious imagery, which only adds to Carrie’s disturbance, she’s often cruelly abusive, however much she tries to justify her actions. At one point, Carrie is put in the closet to reflect on her sin and atone for it – surrounded by more terrifying religious iconography – and the sequence is so painfully dark it’s hard to read. Her end is clearly signalled from the moment the pig blood drops and whilst I like how King dealt with it, as someone who had read Carrie’s sufferings, I wanted Margaret to suffer more.

Adding to the overall feel of unease are little throwaway moments that impact heavily. From some of the things that Margaret does (especially before the stones incident, when a 3 year old Carrie is naturally curious about a sunbathing neighbour), to Nolan and his dripping bumper, there’s also an excerpt from an Esquire interview (dated as 1980). In this, Estelle Horan (the sunbather) is interviewed but she has a quick line about seeing a drunk in New York, saddled with a goitre who is leading away by the hand a little girl with a bloody nose and I found that image heartbreaking.

On the lighter side, I liked a couple of little moments that would echo back in later King works though they can’t be called in-jokes. Carrie’s 7th grade English teacher is Mr Edwin King (King’s own father), who also makes an appearance in The Stand and Teddy DuChamp (from “The Body”) owns the Amoco that blows up. There’s also the nice touch that Billy lives above a bar called “The Cavalier”, the magazine King was aiming for with the short that started this off.

I can’t say that, looking at it now, I can understand why the book took off though it is better than his earlier novels (or, at least, the four I read in The Bachman Books) and neither, it seems, can King himself. In a talk at the University of Maine, he is quoted as saying “it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom." As a seasoned horror reader, coming to this fresh, I would say that it’s a pretty damned good cookie.

Strikingly well written, with a wonderfully tight plot that runs like clockwork as the pieces fall into place, this is a terrific read that I wish I hadn’t waited forty years to get to. Very highly recommended.

Mark West is in his mid-forties so has been aware of Stephen King for a long time.  A horror nut, he writes fiction and reviews, reads a lot and watches ‘odd films’, enjoys walking, cycling and going to the gym (one of those might be a lie) and, thanks to his 8 year old son, is a crack shot with a Nerf gun.  More info can be found at his blog, where he spends as much time talking about books and films as he does his own writing.

April 16, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , | 1 Comment

LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes

LOOK WHOS BACK - Timur Vermes LOOK WHO’S BACK

Timur Vermes

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)

£15.00

Adolf Hitler opens his eyes to find himself lying in the middle of a piece of waste ground in Berlin. The last few days – his final days in the Bunker – are a blur and it doesn’t take long for Hitler to realise that it is no longer April 1945, but the end of August 2011. Assumed to be a particularly good imitator who refuses to break character, Hitler gets a slot on a popular comedian’s show and his rants soon go viral on the Internet. It isn’t long before Hitler is more popular than he ever was at the height of his power, and he begins to plan, once more, for Germany’s future.

Timur Vermes’ highly satirical novel, Look Who’s Back, puts us firmly in the head of Adolf Hitler as he awakens in the 21st Century, unable to explain his long absence or the fact that he is still fifty-six years old despite almost seventy years having passed. Told in the first person by Hitler himself, we discover our own world afresh through the eyes of a man whose last memory prior to waking up is of his time in the Bunker in late April 1945. Vermes holds a mirror up to the modern world, and the reflection we see is far from flattering, as evidenced, for example, by this beautifully-written rant about the state of television programmes which, for me, hits the spot perfectly:

Practically deadened, I switch back to the rotund woman. Since my last visit [a matter of moments earlier] her adventure-filled life had been interrupted by a programme of advertisements, the end of which I just caught. Then the narrator insisted on explaining to me for the umpteenth time that this wretched bint had lost all control over her bastard halfwit excuse for a daughter, and all she had managed to accomplish in the last half-hour was to prattle on to a chain-smoking neighbour about throwing the little cretin out. “This entire coterie of hopeless cases belongs in a labour camp,” I declared vociferously to the television set.

What’s most interesting about this incredibly astute look at our modern world is how plausible it is. Not in the time travel/Hitler coming back from the dead aspect, of course, but in the novel’s key messages. Hitler is astounded – as is this reader – by how few people recognise him, most of the youth referring to him as Herr Stromberg. Our "hero", of course, is expecting immediate recognition and respect. Is he not, after all, the Führer of the Third Reich? It’s this lack of recognition, and the instant hit that this madman becomes, despite (or possibly because of) his racist and objectionable rants, that strikes the most fear into the reader. People can’t quite work out whether to take the whole thing as a joke and laugh (he is, after all, on a comedy show), or be offended by his rhetoric. Vermes’ message seems to be crystal clear here: we cannot learn from the past if we have forgotten what happened. While Hitler himself may never come back, someone with the same ideals, the same notion of how the world should be and – let’s face it – the same level of charisma, could easily rise to notoriety (in the good, "loved by the people", sense of the word) in this technologically advanced age where broadcasting is no longer limited to a few thousand people who can afford a wireless, or a television set. We are a gullible lot: if the TV or whichever tabloid newspaper we happen to pick up says it’s true, then it must be true. We’re obsessed with celebrity, and we form cults and shrines to the most beautiful, the most intelligent, the most controversial, the most whatever people in the spotlight, and by doing so, we give them the power to pursue their own agenda and, quite literally in some cases, get away with murder.

With his choice of central character, Timur Vermes may well have found himself skating on very thin ice. How do you write Hitler and make him sympathetic enough to carry the reader for almost 400 pages? Somehow, he manages it, and we find ourselves fully engaged from the first page to the last. There is no doubt about it: monster or not, Hitler was a man of considerable charisma, and Vermes captures this side of him perfectly. Amongst the rants and the anti-Semitism (corralled somewhat by the brilliantly effective "the Jews are not a laughing matter"), there are moments of pure beauty that make us, if not forget, then at least put to the back of our minds, the terrible things of which this man has proven himself capable. Witness the fondness he feels for his typist, and the joy he feels when he realises that she and Hotel Reserver Sawatzki have become more than just colleagues.

From the outset, Look Who’s Back is a comedy of errors and misunderstanding, often with flabbergasting results. For example, the final word in the production meeting which sees Hitler secure his slot on Ali Gagmez’s popular show:

"There’s just one thing I want to get straight," Frau Bellini said, suddenly looking at me very seriously.
"What is that?"
"We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter."
"You are absolutely right," I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.

These misunderstandings serve to cement Hitler’s position, in his own mind at least, as a man on the rise, heading back in the direction of leadership and the fulfilment of his destiny, while meaning something entirely different to the person on the other end of the conversation. The net effect of this is that the reader is left feeling distinctly uncomfortable: there is more than a remote possibility that Hitler could come back to power because someone has inadvertently handed him the reins, believing him to be a harmless impersonator.

From the simple, eye-catching cover, to the pun-tastic back cover copy ("He’s back…and he’s Führious"), to the often gripping, often hilarious content in between, Look Who’s Back is that rare beast: a stunning piece of fiction that works despite the ridiculous outer premise and despite the fact that we should despise the man in whose head we ultimately find ourselves. Beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch (who also provides a useful glossary at the end for those of us who are unfamiliar with Herr Stromberg, or Martin Bormann, or any of the countless other ”characters” who may be familiar to the book’s original German audience), this is a perfectly-judged skewering of 21st Century society and the values we hold most dear, as seen through the lens of one of the most detested – and detestable – monsters of recent history. Many readers are likely to be surprised with just how much they agree with him, and just how reasonable he seems in this brave new world where Herr Starbuck has a coffee shop on every corner. Look Who’s Back is a masterpiece, and marks Timur Vermes as one to watch. Do not, at any cost, miss this.

April 15, 2014 Posted by | Fiction, Holocaust, Humour, War | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#CarrieAt40: So High School by SARAH LANGAN

sarah-langan SARAH LANGAN

On the web: sarahlangan.com

On Twitter: @SarahVCLangan

I first read Carrie in high school, which, given my personality and social status, worked about right. What surprised me was the humanity allotted to the characters– Carrie White is sympathetic and tragic. Sue Snell and her Tommy are good kids. The bad kids, well, they’re pretty bad. Probably, they’re the only characters beyond redemption in a King novel (not including Bachman).

It’s so high school!

I had always loved the movie. It’s poppy and fun. For one, Piper Laurie. For another, that split-screen, disco music montage in which the "Greatest American Hero" struts his blonde afro around a tuxedo shop. But the book– you can’t put it down. It’s a part of its time (the women’s movement), and yet it’s more than that. It’s about original sin and alienation; tensions between parents and children; and especially about the abuse of power, from spoiled Chris Hargensen, to the teachers who pity but don’t like Carrie White, to Carrie’s monstrous mother, and finally, to Sue and Tommy, who want to forge a connection with this loser at the risk of personal ostracism. I’d argue it’s their story, because they know they’re not really in love and that none of this will last after high school, so why not do something that transcends all that?

I’ve heard King deride this first novel, but I think he’s wrong to do it. Critics attack everything. It’s their job. Some stories just come, fully formed, and they come that way because they’re perfect.

Sarah Langan is a three-time Bram Stoker Award winning author of the novels  The Keeper, The Missing, and Audrey’s Door(2006, 2007, 2009, HarperCollins). Her most recent short fiction has appeared in "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction," Brave New Worlds, Wired.com, Nightmare, Lightspeed, and The End is Nigh. Her nonfiction has appeared in Salon. She’s currently at work on her fourth novel (for real this time), The Clinic, as well as some other projects. She lives in Brooklyn with her family. She feels Brian De Palma is awesome, and is grateful to him for hiring Hitchcock’s Bernard Herman for Carrie’s score. She thinks Stephen King and his whole family are pretty cool, too.

April 14, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LAGOON by Nnedi Okorafor

LAGOON - Nnedi Okorafor LAGOON

Nnedi Okorafor (www.nnedi.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

Lagos, Nigeria. Three strangers meet three yards from the sea on the city’s Bar Beach late on a January evening: Adaora, a marine biologist who lives in the affluent part of town; Agu, a soldier whose moral compass has earned him a beating from his colleagues and set him on this path tonight; and Anthony, a famous Ghanian rapper, who has just finished performing. The three are here to bear witness to arrival of extraterrestrials, and to become the first people to make contact with the strange woman – Ayodele – who walks from the sea shortly after they meet on the beach. As word of the invasion leaks, various factions attempt to gain control of Ayodele for their own means and civil unrest erupts. The aliens claim to come in peace, but the only man who can broker a deal that will save the country from falling into brutal civil war is Nigeria’s president, a sick old man who isn’t even in the country.

Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel, Lagoon, takes a fresh look at the alien invasion story, ignoring the most frequently-visited locations for this kind of novel (New York, Los Angeles, London), opting instead for Nigeria’s largest city, something of an unknown quantity for many British and American readers (myself included). We learn in the opening chapter what sort of impact this invasion – as peaceful as it claims to be – is likely to have on the city, country and wider planet. The aliens take the form of the indigenous species, and have the ability to enhance those species physically and mentally. As they land in the Lagos Lagoon itself, their first encounter is with the sea life, and it takes no time before these enhanced creatures are fighting back against the human invasion of their territory – puncturing oil lines, attacking boats. It should come as no surprise, then, that the three human characters at the centre of the story should be enhanced beyond normal humans either. Each has a gift, something that sets them apart, and something that caused them to be drawn to the shore at Bar Beach at exactly the right moment. Whether these enhancements are due to the influence of the visitors or not is a question left open for the reader to decide: we are given no clear indication of when these aliens arrived, or how long they may have lain dormant off the shore of Nigeria before they made their presence known.

The heart of the story, though, despite the colourful characters that Okorafor presents to us, is the city of Lagos itself. It is painted as something of a melting pot, a mix of cultures and languages (there are at least three different ones referenced throughout the book), a city like no other on the face of the planet. Such is Okorafor’s descriptive power that we find ourselves in the middle of this unique city, smelling the food, hearing the sounds, sucked into the thick of the story. It’s a city that cries out to be visited, despite its darker side.

Like any city, Lagos does have a dark side. Okorafor introduces us to a number of groups whose aim is to get hold of the alien ambassador for their own purposes, whether it’s financial gain (in the case of Moziz and his friends), or a perceived path to spiritual salvation (as Father Oke would have his congregation believe) or for more sinister reasons (like those that drive the army). For the most part, these are groups that could only exist in this strange city: 419ers and missionaries, people whose sense of entitlement overrides all consideration of consequences for their fellow men. As such, Lagoon and the city of Lagos are tightly intertwined and, unlike the more generic "Western" tales of this ilk, the story is not transferrable outside the city limits.

It’s a beautifully-told story that does, however, have a tendency to slow down quite a bit, especially earlier in the narrative. On reflection, it’s easy to pinpoint what causes these lulls, and it’s a fault that lies entirely with this reader (and will, I suspect, affect others in a similar way). Several sections of the book – specifically, but not limited to, the sections that feature Moziz – make heavy use of Pidgin English in the dialogue. When we first encounter this language, it’s difficult to understand, and requires some extra work to try and decipher what’s being said, and whether it’s important enough to the overall plot that the gist will be enough. As we get more exposure, though, and find the rhythm of these peoples’ voices, it becomes easier to parse and affects the reading experience much less. It’s worth noting that there is a glossary at the back of the book and, if you’re having difficulty with the language early on, it’s a helpful guide to what is being said.

That aside, Lagoon is a wonderful, exotic take on a familiar science fiction trope. I’m ashamed to admit that, not only is it my first exposure to 2011 World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor, but it’s also the first time I’ve encountered her work at all. The combination of setting and vivid characterisations serve to set this apart from anything else you’re likely to have read in a long time. Okorafor introduces some interesting tricks to give us some outside perspective, a quick look at the situation through the eyes of characters who otherwise have nothing to do with the progression of the plot. There is a section in the middle of the book where a number of people take turns declaring "I was there" and telling their story, a riff on the theory that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, or when John F. Kennedy took his final, fatal drive through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza.

Nnedi Okorafor brings a unique voice and fresh and interesting perspective to science fiction. Lagoon is a novel in which it is almost impossible not to completely immerse yourself for the duration. Using the exotic location to its fullest extent (Okorafor evokes Lagos in her writing in much the same way that James Lee Burke evokes that other unique melting pot, New Orleans), the author spins a tale that captures the reader on the first page and keeps them interested until the last page. You won’t have read anything quite like this, and I can say with some confidence that you won’t be disappointed.

April 13, 2014 Posted by | Science Fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#CarrieAt40: Carrie White at 57 by BEV VINCENT

companion BEV VINCENT

On the web: www.bevvincent.com

On Twitter: @BevVincent

On Facebook: bev.vincent

A lot of people think of Carrie as Stephen King’s first novel, but it wasn’t—not by a long shot. It was his first published novel, but by the time it came out he had already written over a half dozen books, most (but not all) of which subsequently appeared under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. Blaze was written immediately before Carrie, although it would remain unpublished for nearly 35 years. King had already embarked on his long road to the Dark Tower before starting Carrie, too.

I didn’t begin with Carrie. My first encounter with Stephen King was a used paperback copy of ‘Salem’s Lot that I picked up on my weekly visit to Back Pages on Queen St. in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1979. I was reading mostly science fiction and fantasy in those days, but I vaguely remembered hearing good things about this book, so I added it to my weekly stack, which probably consisted of Asimov, Heinlein and Piers Anthony.

I was hooked straight away. The storytelling was so immersive that I had to seek out everything else the author had written. In 1979, there wasn’t much to find. I went to the public library in the small town near where I grew up and withdrew the rest: Carrie, The Shining, The Stand and Night Shift. The Dead Zone wasn’t out yet. Hard to imagine a time when that was the complete works of Stephen King, right?

TheStandI can’t remember the order in which I read them. I suspect The Stand came next, based purely on its mass and the fascinating cartoonish battle taking place on the front cover. But eventually there came Carrie and, a few years later—thanks to the advent of VHS and “home video,” which allowed me to catch up on all the movies I hadn’t had access to until that point—the movie adaptation.

Pete Crowther, whose PS Publishing will soon release a 40th anniversary edition of Carrie, quotes King as saying this about the book in later years: "It reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader. Tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom." A fair cop, as they say?

It’s arguably a “starter” novel, but it’s hard to downplay the importance of the book to King’s career and to the horror genre to this day. A new movie adaptation came out last year and only the trappings of contemporary high school life had to be updated. The story remains the same: the culture of cliques and peer groups and bullying is as relevant now as it was in the 1970s, alas, rendering this remake pretty much redundant. Pseudonymous author Nick Cutter admits that he was inspired by Carrie in his recent novel The Troop, which uses interstitial newspaper articles and trial testimony to convey information to readers that is not available to the characters, as King did four decades ago. (Imagine a time when King needed to resort to something like that to make one of his books longer!)

Depending on who you listen to, the book and the film based on it were either part of a new wave of horror that was sweeping America or they caught the crest of that wave, which included books like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Those novels and their adaptations lean toward the Gothic side, dark and brooding and draped in heavy curtains, whereas Carrie was set in a real, bright world that everyone is familiar with. High school is one of a very few almost universally shared experiences and King, as a high school teacher, was immersed in it. He was writing about what he knew, but also about what everyone else knew, too.

Carrie is one of a number of King creations that have entered the common consciousness. Say the name and everyone instantly knows what you mean. It’s the revenge fantasy of every teenager, and perhaps more than a few adults.

How much of the book is about the supernatural? I could argue that you could rewrite Carrie without telekinesis and other wild powers and still have the same, powerful story. Her sheltered upbringing is the thing that makes her stand apart from her classmates. The thing that makes her seem weak and vulnerable to others. Her newly discovered power is her way of fighting back—of levelling the playing field and then some. It’s a more socially acceptable weapon. We cheer for her as she lays waste to her high school prom in a way that we probably wouldn’t if she’d ducked backstage, pulled out a machine gun and strafed the gymnasium. That would be almost too real.

It’s hard to imagine, though, that if Carrie White were still alive today, she would be planning for her retirement in a few years. Jeez. That’s almost too real, too.

Bev Vincent is the author of The Dark Tower Companion, The Stephen King Illustrated Companion and The Road to the Dark Tower. He has been writing “News from the Dead Zone” for Cemetery Dance for over a decade.

April 11, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

#CarrieAt40: The Beginning by JOHN CONNOLLY

john-connolly2-2010-press JOHN CONNOLLY

On the web: johnconnollybooks.com

On Twitter: @jconnollybooks

Carrie wasn’t the first Stephen King book that I read.  That honour goes to ‘Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel, which I must have read in the late seventies, or 1980 at the latest.  (I have a clear memory of a classmate in school pressing The Shining on me when I was still in sixth class, which means it was 1980, but I’d already read ‘Salem’s Lot by that point.  It is worrying that I can’t recall the birthdays of close friends, or even the exact date on which my father died, but I retain pinsharp images of a small boy giving me a Stephen King book.)  Anyway, I don’t think that I liked The Shining as much as ‘Salem’s Lot, mainly because it didn’t have enough vampires in it, and at that time – unlike these days, when you can’t chuck a stone without hitting one – vampires were in relatively scarce supply.

salems lotMy first awareness of Carrie came from the film.  Obviously, I hadn’t seen it:  it came with a big ‘Cert X’ beside it in the cinema listings, and it would be many years before I saw my first 18+ movie.  (Porky’s, since you ask.  Yes, I’m sorry too.)  But what I mean is that, like Alien and The Exorcist, Carrie had impinged upon my consciousness long before I ever actually encountered it in book or film form.  I think, too, that something of that ‘X’ had cast a shadow over the whole business, because in Ireland the letter ‘X’ generally brought with it, by implication, two other letters, namely ‘S’ and ‘E’.  Dark rumours surrounded Carrie, whispers of nudity and periods.  Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was ready to deal with that kind of thing at ten or eleven. Vampires seemed more manageable.

So I can’t tell you when I read Carrie, other than that I did, and it was probably later in my King reading rather than earlier.  I faintly recall it as being structurally odder than the rest of his work, bringing with it a hint of reportage.  I think, by then, that I had also seen the film at last, certainly illicitly on VHS, and the book may have suffered somewhat by comparison.  The book, I think, bears some comparison with Stoker’s Dracula, at least in its slightly fractured narrative which intermingles newspaper reports with extracts ostensibly taken from non-fiction studies of the incidents recounted (The Shadow Exploded: Documented Facts and Specific Conclusions Derived from the Case of Carietta White by David R. Congress – Tulane University Press: 1981), and even pieces of graffiti (Carrie White eats shit).  It’s a mechanism which, in this case, doesn’t quite work, distancing the reader slightly from the action, although I can see why the young King used it in an effort to blur the lines between fact and fiction.  It is a young writer’s book, albeit a precociously talented young writer’s book.   It’s also lean and, games with structure apart, relatively unadorned.  It has its roots in short fiction, and by comparison with the massive tomes King would subsequently publish, almost qualifies as a novella.

Is Carrie a great novel?  I don’t think King would make that claim for it, but it is a good one.  It’s better than many others of its kind simply because King is arguably more prodigiously gifted that any other genre writer of his generation – or, indeed, of many generations – and was that way from the start.  By rescuing it from a trash can, Tabitha King set her husband on a path that has produced some of the most iconic pieces of horror writing ever published.  In other words, Carrie marks the beginning, and for that we should always be grateful.

John Connolly was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1968 and has, at various points in his life, worked as a journalist, a barman, a local government official, a waiter and a dogsbody at Harrods department store in London. He studied English in Trinity College, Dublin and journalism at Dublin City University, subsequently spending five years working as a freelance journalist for The Irish Times newspaper, to which he continues to contribute.

He is the author of the Charlie Parker series of novels, the Samuel Johnson trilogy and a number of standalone books. His new novel, The Wolf in Winter, is the latest to feature private detective Charlie Parker, and is available in hardback from this week.

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#CarrieAt40: A Regular Guy by ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Unquiet_House_PBO ALISON LITTLEWOOD

On the web: www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk

On Twitter: @Ali__L

I don’t actually remember the first time I read Carrie. I can remember reading it, of course – I’ve done so more than once – but not the when and where. It would have been when I was pretty young, and busy reading everything I could lay my hands on. Part of that was borrowing my brother’s horror novels, which usually had black covers and big silver foil letters on the front. They were generally by Stephen King or James Herbert, with the result that, for me, those books WERE ‘horror’. Until I stumbled on the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror and discovered a whole new raft of writers, they defined the genre; for many, I guess they still do.

Stephen King is a giant. We all know that. He’s also an incredibly talented writer, and better, he always comes across as a very decent guy. I’ve read many more of his novels since then, and loved the vast majority. He has a great way with characters; the people in his books feel like one of us. We discover the unfolding events at their side, which makes it all the more terrifying when the dark surfaces. Sometimes the fears are supernatural in origin, but all too often they’re human. Carrie’s mother, after all, is one of the scariest things in the book. Her subjugation to a religious idea, the fact that it overrides the human connections in her life, even with her daughter – that’s terrifying. And then there’s the cruelty of children, so vividly portrayed; the claustrophobia of a child who doesn’t fit in, trapped in all the indignities and callousness that school life can offer. What bookish child can’t relate to that?

What means the most to me though, when I think of Carrie, is the story of how it came to be written and published. There was the young Stephen King, battling to keep his family afloat – hey, just as if he was a regular guy! And he penned the first few pages, no doubt had a stern talking-to from his inner editor, and chucked them in the bin. And there the story of Carrie may have ended, if it wasn’t for his wife digging them out and telling him he needed to finish it.

Stephen_King_On_WritingI reiterate: just as if he was a regular guy. Because, for a long time, I hardly dared to put pen to paper. I’d built writing up to be something big and scary that other people did. I surely couldn’t do it; I’d better not even try. And then I read On Writing, in which, among other things, King tells the story of writing Carrie. That book was like getting a damn good talking to. And it’s full of hope; the discarded manuscript didn’t just get published but ended up being sold into paperback, for a fairy tale figure. (King rushed out to buy Tabitha a gift: he picked a hair-dryer. It was the only thing he could find in his local store. For some reason, that little detail always makes me smile and want to cry at the same time.)

Soon after reading that story, I went out and joined a local writing class. I started putting words on paper. And it took some time, but I’d actually started out on a little fairy tale of my own.

So thank you, Stephen King – not just for writing a wonderful novel, but for sharing the story of its birth. It’s meant a huge amount to me, as I imagine it has for a great many other people. And it’s good to know you’re a regular guy – but many of us still know that you really are a giant.

Alison Littlewood is the author of A Cold Season, published by Jo Fletcher Books. Her second novel, Path of Needles, is a dark blend of fairy tales and crime fiction, and her latest, a ghost story called The Unquiet House, is set for release in April 2014.

Alison’s short stories have been picked for the Best Horror of the Year and Mammoth Book of Best New Horror anthologies, as well as The Best British Fantasy 2013 and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime 10. Other publication credits include the anthologies Terror Tales of the Cotswolds, Where Are We Going? and Never Again. Alison lives in West Yorkshire, England, with her partner Fergus.

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Carrie At 40, Guest Post | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,192 other followers