It’s that time of the year again when the “best of the year” lists start to appear. Not wanting to be left out, and because I had some fun with it last year, I’ve decided to do another round-up, and remind everyone what my top ten (or so) books of 2012 are.
By the end of this reading year (Christmas Eve, for me), I will have read 63 books, one more than last year’s total and a personal best for me. While crime fiction still accounts for a large fraction of what I read this year (26 of the 63 books), my reading focus has shifted slightly over the course of the year. This is mainly due to very kind publicists sending review copies of books that I might not otherwise have picked up. There is still a theme running through much of my reading, but Reader Dad is now much less about “Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction” and more about the darkness that lies deep within the human soul. The list contains its fair share of horror and holocaust fiction and a handful of deeply disturbing character studies that appeal to the noir-lover that hides inside me.
Of the 63 books, a massive 32 are by authors that are new to me, including six debut authors and eight foreign authors whose work was published in English for the first time this year. The rest are a selection favourites both old (Stephen King, Neal Stephenson) and relatively new (Colin Cotterill, Justin Cronin). 2012 also saw some experimentation with the blog, moving away from posting only book reviews, to including author interviews, guest posts and even one book-inspired travelogue. As the year draws to a close and I look back at what I have achieved, I find that I’m happy with the format, and hope to include more interviews and guest posts as we move into 2013 and beyond. I am, of course, always happy to hear from my readers, if you have any suggestions or comments.
Without further ado, then, it’s time to look at my favourite books of the year. As with last year, there is only one criteria: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. As I mentioned, it’s been a bumper year, so whittling the list down to ten was nigh on impossible, so you’ll see an extra couple slipping in. The books are listed in the order they were read, with the exception of my stand-out, which I’ll list at the end. Links take you to the original review, where it exists.
MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2012
THE CHILD WHO by Simon Lelic (Mantle)
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.
EASY MONEY by Jens Lapidus [tr: Astri von Arbin Ahlander] (Macmillan)
Easy Money is an assured and brilliant debut – I’ll admit I was surprised that it was, indeed, Lapidus’ first novel, and not just the first to appear in English translation, as sometimes happens. It’s not difficult to see why it’s the fastest-selling Swedish crime novel in a decade, and why it’s already a very successful film (one, it saddens me to say, that has already been lined up for an American remake). It ticks all the boxes I look for in a good crime thriller: action-packed, gritty, dark, violent, funny and, above all, realistic. It introduces three unforgettable characters who you will love and hate in equal measure as the story progresses. The good news is that it’s also the first book in a trilogy (books two and three of which have already been published in Sweden, so with luck we won’t have to wait too long to get our hands on them). It’s worth mentioning again that credit is due to the translator – this is her first novel translation, which is something of a feat – who has taken a very difficult style and made it work beautifully. If you’re a fan of James Ellroy or Don Winslow, you can’t miss this. Jens Lapidus is definitely one to watch.
ANGELMAKER by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
Angelmaker is that rare beast: the sophomore novel that lives up to – if not surpasses – the promise of the author’s first. It’s a wonderfully-written book – Harkaway has a knack with the language that makes this huge novel very easy to read and enjoy. It has more than its fair share of dark and shocking scenes and more than a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and even one or two places where both things are true at the same time. It’s clear to see the novel’s influences, but this is something new, something different and completely unexpected. It’s goes in a much different direction than The Gone-Away World (although there are connections enough for the sharp-eyed reader), which might disappoint a small contingent looking for more of the same, but it does achieve a similar end: it’s a beautiful showcase for a talented writer, a unique voice and inventive mind who can, it seems, turn his hand to anything.
TRIESTE by Daša Drndić [tr: Ellen Elias-Bursac] (Maclehose Press)
This is a difficult book to read, as horror builds upon horror until the reader feels numb, but it is an important novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. In the end, Trieste is more documentary than fiction. It’s a beautifully-written work (despite the often-horrific subject matter) and appears in a wonderful translation from the ever-reliable Maclehose Press. I certainly won’t claim to have enjoyed the experience, but it’s one I’m glad I had, and one that will stay with me for a long time. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (Hodder)
For the aficionado […] The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.
A COLD SEASON by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)
Littlewood’s first novel is an assured and finely-crafted piece of work, probably the best horror debut since Joe Hill’s 2007 novel,Heart-Shaped Box. It brings the promised scares without resort to nasty tricks or gore, and proves that it is still possible to write engaging, entertaining horror fiction without zombies or vampires. Earlier I wondered how you measure the success of a good horror novel. I’m not ashamed to admit that our house has been lit up like a Christmas tree for most of the past week; it’s a rare novel these days that can bring the creep factor to a hardened horror fan like me, but this succeeds admirably where so many others have failed. If you are in any way a fan of horror fiction, and have not yet done so, you need to read A Cold Season. Just make sure you know where the light switches are.
RAILSEA by China Miéville (Macmillan)
Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.
TURBULENCE by Samit Basu (Titan Books)
Credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy, Samit Basu arrives in the UK as an accomplished, some might say veteran, writer –Turbulence is his fifth novel, making him the best fantasy writer you’ve never heard of. That’s a state of affairs that you should rectify with all possible haste. Turbulence is a superhero novel like none you’ve seen before. A polished storyline, engaging characters and razor sharp wit combine to make this a must-read for everyone that has ever enjoyed a comic. It’s funny and action-packed, yes, but it’s also extremely intelligent and thought-provoking. It’s a perfect introduction to an excellent writer, and we can only hope that his back catalogue is made available in the UK in short order. It’s also an excellent start to a series that looks set to redefine the superhero genre for the twenty-first century. Kudos to Titan Books to bringing this excellent author, and this exciting series, to a much wider audience.
ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson (Corvus Books)
G. Willow Wilson has produced an exceptional debut novel that seamlessly melds technology and mythology to astounding effect. A must read for fans of Neal Stephenson and Neil Gaiman, Alif the Unseen introduces us to a brilliant new author with talent to burn. With elements as diverse as computing, djinn, love, adventure and an examination of what makes us who we are, there is something here for everyone. The Diamond Age for the twenty-first century, Alif the Unseen establishes Wilson as one of the finest new writers to emerge this year. I, for one, can’t wait to see where she goes next.
LET THE OLD DREAMS DIE AND OTHER STORIES by John Ajvide Lindqvist [tr: Marlaine Delargy] (Quercus)
Let The Old Dreams Die proves that John Ajvide Lindqvist is as comfortable and as adept in the short form as the long. A showcase of a writer at the top of his game, it stands alongside Skeleton Crew, 20th Century Ghosts and The Panic Hand as an example of some of the finest short horror fiction you’ll find today. The two afterwords are also worth reading; self-deprecating and very funny, they show a writer who loves what he does and give some insight into his work. With six years since the original publication in Sweden of Paper Walls, we can but hope that it won’t be long before Lindqvist has enough stories to fill a second volume.
THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin (Orion Books)
Cronin slips easily back into the world he created two years ago in The Passage. The Twelve is a much different beast, as the central parts of epic trilogies tend to be. Starting slow, picking up the threads left loose at the end of the first book, Cronin builds slowly towards a false climax, tying up enough loose ends to leave the reader satisfied, while leaving enough to make us want to come back for more. The Twelve is a worthy successor to The Passage, and is well worth the two-year wait we have had to endure to have it in our hands. Cronin’s plotting is as tight as ever, his writing beautiful, flowing – this seven-hundred page novel is gone in the blink of an eye, a testament to how well written it is. Abrupt ending aside, there is much to love about The Twelve, not least the fact that we get to visit once more with old friends. Perfect autumn reading for fans of The Passage, it should also give new readers an excuse to dip their toes in the water. With luck, we won’t have to wait much longer than another two years to find out how this wonderful story plays out.
AND THE STAND-OUT
One book stood head-and-shoulders above the rest for me this year, so I felt it deserved its own section:
HHHH by Laurent Binet [tr: Sam Taylor] (Harvill Secker)
HHhH is an extraordinary piece of work, a book that sets out to be a historical document and ends up as something completelyother. At times tense and thrilling, at others touching and intimate, the author manages to endow this story and these characters with a three-dimensionality that would otherwise be lacking in a straightforward reportage of the events. We are also offered a unique insight into the mind-set of the author, whose sole task should be to relate the events as they happened, but who is so invested in the story that impartiality is impossible. At once accessible history and fast-paced thriller, HHhH is, to overuse a cliché, like no book you’ve read before. Three short weeks after calling Stephen King’s The Wind through the Keyhole the best book you’re likely to see this year, I am forced to eat my words, and make the same ostentatious claim about Laurent Binet’s HHhH. It’s an awe-inspiring debut, from a writer of enormous talent and immense potential. We can only hope that the story of Heydrich, Gabčík and Kubiš is not his only obsession, and that we will hear from him again soon.
AND 2012’S MOST DISAPPOINTING
2012 brought with it the realisation that I’m not getting any younger. With a full-time job and a three-year-old child, my reading time is limited. I don’t have to finish every book that I start, wasting countless hours or days trudging through a book I’m not enjoying because I feel I need to finish it. As a result I have abandoned more books in the past twelve months than in the previous twelve years combined. My most notable disappointment for the year, of all the books I finished, is listed below. Despite my less-than-glowing review, I’m excited by the prospect of James’ second novel, The Explorer, which is due to hit shelves in January.
THE TESTIMONY by James Smythe (Blue Door Books)
The Testimony has, at its core, a wonderful idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. James Smythe’s vision of a world on the brink is all the more frightening because of its plausibility and we get all-too-brief glimpses of what he is capable of as a writer throughout, particularly in the middle section of the novel. There are too many problems, and the book never quite achieves the level it should. A disappointment, but not a complete write-off: The Testimony fails to live up to this reader’s expectations, but it has served to put a potentially wonderful writer on my radar.
Expect more reviews and interviews in the coming months. I have already started into the pile of 2013 books that I’ve been collecting for the past few months, and there are some really exciting titles there. 2013 brings with it the prospect of new novels by Warren Ellis and Joe Hill, and two new works from Stephen King, including a sequel to one of his most enduring novels. It’s going to be a busy year, and I expect to have even more trouble selecting a Top Ten than I did this year.
All that remains is for me to thank the publishers and publicists who continue to send me books in return for an honest review and who, in doing so, ensure that I’m continually reading outside my comfort zone. I’d like to thank the authors who have taken the time to answer questions or provide guest posts. And, most importantly, thanks to my readers and visitors, without whom I would just be talking to myself. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a safe and prosperous 2013.
|THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE
Released: 24th April
I have mentioned before my love for the work of Stephen King, so it’s difficult to describe how excited I was to find his latest novel – a Dark Tower novel, no less – on my desk a month before the official publication date (many thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder for the opportunity). As I read, I convinced myself that a straightforward review of the book might not be enough this time around. As a result, I’ve written a three-and-a-half thousand word essay that includes a review of the book in the context of the larger series, and also the work of King over which the Tower casts its influence. It’s something of an experiment for Reader Dad, and I appreciate it’s not what everyone wants to see. For that reason, I’ve made life slightly easier, and you can skip directly to the actual review by scrolling down to the section headed The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel. If you feel inclined to read the essay, I’d love to know what you think (Do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? Does the experiment work, or should I stick to the type of review I’ve been producing for the past year or so?), so do please comment below. Thanks, as always, for visiting.
The Dark Tower
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
I probably hadn’t quite reached my early teens when I read this line – the opening line to Stephen King’s seven volume Dark Tower series – for the first time. What followed was a strange tale that was part fantasy, part science fiction, part western, and somehow much more than the sum of its parts. I quickly devoured the first two books in the series – The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three – and promptly got stuck halfway through the third. It took me two more attempts (and two more re-reads of the first two books) before I finally made it through to the end of book three – The Waste Lands – wondering what had held me up for so long. Since then I, like the many others who have read and enjoyed The Dark Tower novels since early in the author’s career, have had two long waits – first for book four (Wizard and Glass), and then for the final three instalments of the series (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower), which appeared in rapid succession (a wait that was made marginally more bearable by the publication partway through of the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). Finally having a copy of that seventh volume in my hands brought a strange sense of relief that King had managed to finish what he started, something that was cast into doubt on that fateful day in June 1999 (it’s a worry that nags persistently at every fan of George R. R. Martin, and so many others, that the author isn’t getting any younger, and these massive works remain uncompleted).
The Dark Tower is probably one of Stephen King’s most divisive works, and there are many Constant Readers who have yet to read it for one reason or another. At the beginning, it was seen as a massive deviation from King’s standard horror fare (if anything he has produced over the course of 35 years could be called “standard”), but as the series progressed, and King’s back catalogue grew, it became very clear that this was not a separate work, but the backbone to almost everything King has ever written, and the influence of the Tower shows up in the unlikeliest of places, as if leaked through a thinny from that next-door world into this one.
Based loosely on Robert Browning’s epic poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, The Dark Tower tells the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from the land of Gilead, and his quest across Mid-World to reach the Dark Tower. Along the way, Roland draws three people from our world – or close approximations thereof – at different points in time: drug-mule and heroin addict Eddie Dean; wheelchair-bound Civil Rights campaigner Odetta Holmes, who is sometimes the foul-mouthed and vicious Detta Walker and who ultimately becomes Susannah Dean; and the boy Jake Chambers, whom the gunslinger has already met, and lost, at an early point in the story. Rounded out by the billy-bumbler Oy, the ka-tet follow the Path of the Beam through a world that has, as Roland puts it, moved on. As the story progresses, we learn snippets of Roland’s backstory (the bulk of Wizard and Glass tells the story of a much younger Roland and his friends, a love lost and a treachery avenged), and discover some of the driving force behind his quest.
The Dark Tower forms the nexus of all possible worlds. As the series progresses we learn that these worlds exist on different levels of the Tower and for the most part are completely separate, but there are doorways (such as the ones used by Roland to draw his ka-tet) and thin places (thinnies) where the worlds merge together. Mid-World is part fantasy land, and part future post-apocalyptic version of our own world (clues like slightly off-key renditions of “Hey, Jude” point to deeper links than are immediately obvious). Technology exists, but it, like everything else in this world, is tired, and few know how to use or maintain it. It plays a large part in the group’s quest, often in an adversarial or outwardly threatening role (most memorably, Shardik, the great bear that guards the end of the Beam along which Roland will travel to the Tower; or Blaine the Mono, the insane monorail aboard whom the group flee the city of Lud). Behind the technology, the ever-more sinister North Central Positronics, which plays a pivotal role in the series’ climax.
It took Stephen King 30 years, give or take, to write The Dark Tower opus. Towards the end he makes an appearance in a complicated self-referential storyline that makes perfect sense when looked at within the overall context of the Dark Tower series, and King’s wider canon. There was always a danger that after all that time, and all those words, that the ending may not live up to expectation (it’s not a view I share, but it has been said on many occasions that King tells a great story, but lacks considerably in writing endings), but in hindsight, there was only one way that such a story could possibly end and King pulls it off with a skill and mastery that is, quite frankly, second to none.
There a number of themes, both literal and figurative, running through the series. Roland is driven by a strange sense of honour and duty that often places him in a difficult position; more often than not, duty to the Tower wins out over duty to anyone or anything else and as a result Roland comes across as a cold and calculating character, something that Eddie points out in colourful ways on more than one occasion. He may seem a strange choice for the hero of the piece, but it’s difficult, as the story progresses, not to like him, despite his faults. The concept of ka underlines all, a concept similar to destiny (or probably, more closely, predestination) that drives Roland on his quest, and binds this group of disparate souls together as a sort of family. “Ka,” King tells us on many occasions, “is like a wheel” and this is probably the underpinning ethos of the whole Dark Tower opus. With the final three books, King introduces the number nineteen (see the name of the ka-tet, for example), which takes on significance as the story proceeds towards its climax. It is a number that crops up in King’s fiction quite frequently.
In the Shadow of The Dark Tower
As the story of the Dark Tower progressed, and as King grew as a writer, Constant Reader started to find references to this larger work throughout King’s novels and, more importantly, references to King’s other novels within The Dark Tower series. It was probably with the publication of King’s 1994 novel, Insomnia, that he cemented the idea that the Tower forms the nexus of his own work, that all of his novels take place in worlds on various levels of the Tower. It is also in Insomnia that King introduces the villain of the overall piece, in the form of the Crimson King.
There are references to the Tower throughout King’s later work, often oblique and easily missed, but sometimes more obvious. Some of his novels are more closely linked: the fairy-tale-like The Eyes of the Dragon is set in some remote corner of Mid-World, and contains at its centre the same dark man that wanders through much of his other fiction; and the opening story of his collection Hearts in Atlantis deals heavily with the Tower, seen through the eyes of the people forced into a kind of slavery, their goal the downfall of the Tower. Some clever retro-fitting brings many of his earlier novels into the fold: the ka-tet arrive in a version of Topeka ravaged by Captain Trips, proving that The Stand takes place on a nearby level of the Tower (although this novel has much closer ties, as we’ll discuss momentarily); Father Callahan, who we met first in 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, turns up late in the series, and the group encounter him as they enter Calla Bryn Sturgis. The Tower also, surprisingly, has a heavy influence on King’s second collaboration with Peter Straub, Black House. Surprising because it is a collaborative effort, but the two series – The Dark Tower on the one hand, The Talisman/Black House duology on the other – do have similar themes and concepts driving them, which makes the crossover much more logical.
There is a single figure that moves through King’s work like a restless ghost, pure evil distilled in the form of man, although it’s immediately obvious, to the reader at least, that this is no mere man. We first meet him in The Stand in the form of Randall Flagg, and he turns up again and again throughout King’s works, often – but not always – bearing the initials R.F. We find him in many places throughout The Dark Tower: he is the fabled man in black who fled across the desert (who has been known as Walter, and as Marten Broadcloak), and appears in the city of Lud in the guise of one Richard Fannin. Flagg (the name by which he is most commonly known) is one of the most instantly-recognisable figures in King’s fiction, regardless of which disguise he wears, and without doubt, one of the most sinister characters in fiction.
The Dark Tower is, perhaps, King’s most personal work, so it was interesting to see him relinquish some creative control to his research assistant Robin Furth (author of the encyclopaedic The Dark Tower: A Concordance) for a series of comics from Marvel chronicling the earlier years of Roland, picking up where the story Roland tells for the majority of Wizard and Glass left off, and detailing the fall of Gilead and the beginning of the gunslinger’s quest. It is also interesting to note that Ron Howard is planning a series of film and television adaptations of the novels which will reportedly cast Javier Bardem in the role that was custom-built for a much younger Clint Eastwood.
About 35 years after the first publication of the first part of The Gunslinger in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and over 40 years since he first put pen to paper on the project), the Dark Tower still casts a shadow over much of King’s work. As recently as the massive 11/22/63, King is making reference, in some shape or form, to Mid-World, and the other worlds that branch from the Tower. Likewise, many Constant Readers (and I’m happy to be counted among their number) have lived in this same shadow, waiting for long periods for the next instalment, breathing a sigh of relief when that final volume was finished, and watching hopefully for any small reference in each and every one of King’s novels and short story collections.
Imagine, then, my surprise, not to mention outright glee (and that of many other people, presumably), at the announcement of a new novel set in Roland’s world. Seven years after King brought his gunslinger to the end of his quest, he returns to Mid-World.
The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel
There are a number of gaps in time during the course of The Dark Tower, presumably because a lot of walking and not a lot else went on. One such gap is between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) volumes, as the ka-tet leave the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz and head for Calla Bryn Sturgis, and End-World beyond. The Wind through the Keyhole goes some way towards plugging this gap, picking up immediately after the events of Wizard and Glass and joining Roland and his companions as they follow the Path of the Beam towards the river Whye. Oy, the billy-bumbler, is acting strangely, stopping suddenly and raising his snout towards the north, and it takes the ferryman who carries them across the river to jog the gunslinger’s memory, and alert him to the approaching starkblast – a storm of such ferocity and freezing temperature that it can cause trees to implode, and birds to fall, frozen solid, from the sky.
Hurrying to shelter, and beating the storm by a heartbeat, the group settles down with enough firewood to see them through a couple of days and, finding themselves unable to sleep, they turn to Roland for another story. The gunslinger starts to tell them of a time shortly after his return to Gilead from Mejis when he and one of his original ka-tet, Jamie deCurry, were sent to the town of Debaria to capture a skin-man that was terrorising the town, and which had already claimed upwards of twenty lives. When they arrive, they find fresh slaughter, but this time there’s a survivor – a young boy no older than Jake – and Roland, already showing some of the coldness for which he will be well-known in later years, decides to use the boy to flush out the culprit. As they wait for the arrival of a group of suspects, with a wild wind blowing through the town, Roland tells the boy a fairytale, the story of young Tim Stoutheart and his encounter with a trickster in a dark cloak.
The Wind through the Keyhole is a tale within a tale within a tale. The titular story is a fairy-tale told to Roland as a child by his mother. Set in a remote corner of Mid-World, it is a coming-of-age story centred around Tim, a young boy willing to do anything to save his mother’s sight. Set on a quest by a man Constant Reader will know all-too-well — up to his old tricks, manipulating people for his own amusement — Tim finds himself out of his depth and in the path of an oncoming starkblast. This tale is sandwiched between the two parts of the story about Roland and his hunt for the skin-man (or were-creature) and the whole is book-ended by the story we know and love so well, the journey of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy along the Path of the Beam, moving ever closer to the Dark Tower.
King slips into Mid-World very comfortably, despite the fact that it has been almost seven years since his last visit. The feel of the world is unchanged, and the language has a handful of idiosyncrasies that weren’t there before, but in all, nothing has changed here and the return is as comfortable and natural for the reader as it apparently was for the author. This book, described on the cover as A Dark Tower Novel, was more accurately described by King in the original announcement as “Dark Tower 4.5″. What’s obvious is that this book will have no impact on the outcome of the series as a whole, and will contain very little in the way of character development (except in revealing more about the still-mysterious past of the gunslinger). As a result, it’s unsurprising that King spends very little of the book with the ka-tet (less than 50 pages all told) and launches as quickly as possible into Roland’s tale, which he then uses as a springboard for the main event.
As a result, the book deals very little with the key characters of the series (with one obvious exception), and is perhaps closer to The Eyes of the Dragon in that respect than even Wizard and Glass, which would be its closest counterpart from the original seven volumes. In his Foreword, King assures us that this book can be picked up and read even without the in-depth understanding of the surroundings and characters that comes with reading the original series and, to a certain extent that is true, but those readers will have a much different experience (most likely with much more head-scratching and -shaking) than people who followed Roland for the duration of his quest. The exception I mentioned above is, of course, the man in black, best known as Randall Flagg who sets Tim on his course because it amuses him to do so.
Ka is like a wheel. As we read, and as the elder Roland recounts the tale, this fact comes crashing home, and the parallels between Roland’s story and Tim’s are unmistakable. It also speaks to Roland’s stubbornness that, despite this realisation, he is as determined as ever to complete his quest and reach the Tower — he has a score to settle, regardless of who set him on the path, or what that person’s motives were.
Through all three stories, there is a constant wind — starkblasts ravage outer and inner, while a simoom blows alkali dust through the town of Debaria in the middle tale. The wheel is a metaphor that Roland used frequently when speaking of ka, but he also spoke of the mysterious force as a wind, before which nothing can stand. Blowing across the years, the wind carries revelations that shed greater light on Roland, and add a richer experience for the long-time reader.
As with all the Dark Tower novels, The Wind through the Keyhole contains a number of illustrations. Noted artists such as Michael Whelan, Bernie Wrightson and Dave McKean have illustrated past volumes, each stamping their own style on Roland, his world, the Tower. This time famed comics artist Jae Lee (who also provides the art for the Marvel Comics Dark Tower comic book series) takes his turn. As well as chapter and section headers, Lee has provided five beautiful full-page black-and-white pieces that help to set the tone. What’s missing, unfortunately, are the colour plates that he also produced for the novel, and which seem to be exclusively included in the limited edition of this volume from US publisher Donald M. Grant. It’s a shame, since past volumes from Hodder have included all of the artwork.
The Wind through the Keyhole is a welcome return to a well-loved world, and a set of well-loved characters. It doesn’t advance the plot and adds minimal character development to the overall arc, but it’s a welcome addition to the set nonetheless. King is a master storyteller, and this is as good a showcase as any for his talents, as he interweaves three seemingly unrelated narratives into a single, consistent whole that stands with some of his best writing. It’s a beautifully-written novel that is clearly close to the author’s heart and is sure to be well-received by long-standing Dark Tower fans. Will it win any new recruits? It’s certainly not a bad jumping-on place, in that it provides a taste of the world without the commitment to the complete seven-book series, but I suspect it will deter as many people from seeking out those books as it will drive towards them. It is the nature of a beast like this that in order for the standalone novel to work, it must still meet the needs of the multitude of existing fans, and elements of the Dark Tower series — the language, the history — are just too alien to hold the attention of the average reader.
For the aficionado, though, The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.
If you’ve read the series, I urge you to pick this up (though suspect I’m preaching to the choir on that one). If you haven’t, this one is definitely worth a go (and at just over 300 pages doesn’t require much commitment), but I would urge you to find a copy of The Gunslinger and see where you end up.
Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
It’s a daunting thing, sitting down to write a review of a full-length Stephen King novel, for someone who hangs on every word the man has ever written. The problem is that remaining objective – reviewing the work at a remove, as it were – is next to impossible. Regular reader(s) of the blog will know that that isn’t the type of blog I run and will, I hope, forgive me a little hyperbole here and there as I work through the monster that is King’s latest novel, 11.22.63.
The title of King’s latest novel is a reference to one of those dates that lives in the global consciousness as a day that defined the world in which we live. It may take a person a moment or two to parse the significance (especially since it appears in the US format of month, day, year), but it will come to them eventually. It is, of course, the date of the assassination of John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA. King’s premise is simple, a question that most people have pondered at some point: if you could go back and change it (save Kennedy, assassinate Hitler, etc.), would you?
Jake Epping is an English teacher in a small Maine town. When the owner of the local diner – a man Jake knows only from eating regularly in his establishment – calls him and invites him to the diner, he reluctantly goes. Al has aged overnight, a process exacerbated by the cancer that is killing him, cancer that he did not have the previous evening, when Jake last saw him. Al spins a tale – a hole in time in the pantry of his diner that will take Jake back to September 1958, a visit that, no matter how long Jake spends there, will only take 2 minutes of 2011 time – and asks Jake for his help: go back to 1958 under an assumed identity, get a job, kill time for five years, and be in Dallas in 1963 to stay the hand that slew Jack Kennedy.
11.22.63 is pure King, from that familiar Down East accent, to the cast of characters that will become your friends during the course of the novel’s 700 pages, to that slightly off-kilter world that always leaves this Constant Reader slightly uneasy. No-one can tell a story like King can. In effect, this is a novel of three parts. The first section deals with Derry in late 1958. It took me a while to realise – even the tell-tale “There was something wrong with that town, and I think I knew it from the first” bypassed me initially – what King was up to here, and why Al’s “rabbit-hole” came out in September 1958, rather than sometime closer to the date of Kennedy’s assassination. It was the name Norbert Keene that did it for me, the owner and manager of Derry’s drugstore; this is a city in the aftermath of the events of King’s earlier novel, It, and King uses this to his advantage, infecting a key character with the evil in which the city is drenched, and giving Jake a reason to be there for Hallowe’en 1958. King introduces some of the key players from It into the events of this novel, cementing the history of that fictional town in place. Jake’s description of the city is spot on:
On that grey street, with the smell of industrial smokes in the air and the afternoon bleeding away to evening, downtown Derry looked only marginally more charming than a dead hooker in a church pew.”
When Jake finishes his work in Derry, he moves ultimately to the small town of Jodie, Texas where he becomes a part of the community and falls in love with one of his colleagues, the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill. It is here that Jake first decides that he might not want to return to 2011. It is, in his own words, when he “stopped living in the past and started living.” This love affair, of course, is fraught with peril for the man from the future, and King proves once more that no other writer puts their characters through the mill with quite as much élan as he does.
The final section of the book deals with the run up to November 1963, and follows Jake as he watches Lee Harvey Oswald, attempting to close what he calls the “window of uncertainty” on whether Oswald was a lone shooter. As we move toward the event itself, King has a decision to make as to whether this was the case, or whether one of the many conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death provides a better version of the truth, and it is interesting to see which road he chooses. Here, King is firmly in James Ellroy territory, and it shows in the tone of the narrative, even though 11.22.63 contains a more complete form of prose, a language that is unmistakably King. This section of the novel is littered with real people, and King does his best to make them his own, a sometimes difficult proposition with people as infamous as these.
King has been very clever with his method of time travel, building some important rules into the process: the rabbit-hole always takes the traveller to the same time on the same date, so there can be no jumping back and forward through time when things get hairy. Time passes as normal in 1958 but, regardless of the duration, the traveller will only be gone from 2011 for two minutes. The most important, perhaps, is that each visit affects a reset, and any changes made during a previous visit will be lost. These three key rules play important – and sometimes devastating – roles throughout the novel.
To make matters more difficult for Jake, the past becomes almost a sentient being. It is, Jake tells us, obdurate, and it also harmonises with itself. What this means is that, as Jake starts to move through the Land of Ago, we start to see connections between otherwise unrelated characters or events – characters that share the same, or very similar names, or faces, or personalities. We also come to see quite early on that the real city of Dallas and the fictional Derry are almost one and the same, with the same underlying malice defining them both. The obduracy is something that Al warns Jake of before his first trip, but it is Jake who discovers that the bigger the change, the more difficult it is to make. The past, we come to see, does not want to be changed, and this fact leaves us worried – if not outright frightened – of what Jake will face when he tries to change one of the world’s most defining moments.
As with most of his novels, it seems that King finds it impossible not to drop self-references in to see who is paying attention, or to give Constant Reader a little thrill that they are getting more for their money than a King virgin (he has been doing it as far back as the early Castle Rock novels, seeding references to The Dead Zone into Cujo, for example). As always, it seems King is having immense fun with these “Easter eggs”. How about the late ‘50s red and white Plymouth Fury in the parking lot of the mill, the first car Jake sees when he steps back in time? The whole first section which seems, at first, to be a twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to one of King’s most divisive novels? There’s even a sly reference to The Dark Tower, when Jake sets eyes on a car called a Takuro Spirit, echoing Eddie’s observation in that alternate, Captain Trips-raddled version of Topeka, Kansas. And a tip of the hat to Ellroy’s own masterpiece in the form of a rogue FBI agent by the name of Dwight Holly.
As you would expect from a man known for his love of pop culture (he had a regular column in the American magazine, Entertainment Weekly, called “The Pop of King” which he used to talk about books, films, music, entertainment in general), the attention to detail he applies to late-‘50s/early-‘60s America is second-to-none. Everyone smokes, and it’s the first obvious sign that Jake is in a world of a long time ago: the smell of tobacco smoke is ever-present, and there are very few characters who don’t smoke during their interactions with him or, at the very least, have a pack of cigarettes close to hand. King is careful to avoid anachronisms, but the world he has created is made more real by what we see around us – the products for sale in the shops, the cars on the roads, the very pollution being pumped into the air. It’s obvious that 11.22.63 required a massive research effort, not just in getting the details of Oswald’s movements right, but also in reconstructing the pop culture of the era. King takes it in his stride and the result is a world that feels as real in 1958 as it does in 2011.
King, a native of Maine, has an obvious love for the place and one of the things he does well is ensure that the reader is there, breathing the air, eating the lobsters (or, in this case, the Fatburgers). He knows the people and their foibles, and he wants the reader to know them, too. The most important outward aspect of this is the accent, and as always, he takes some time to ensure that what you’re hearing in your head is the same as what’s coming out of the characters’ mouths:
‘Key’s inside the front door.’ Doe-ah.
And the ever-present
Reading a King novel is often like sitting on a park bench with an old-timer, listening as he spins his tales and spreads his gossip, and 11.22.63 is no exception. It’s a powerful novel, King’s considered answer to the question “if you could change it, would you?” What it boils down to, though, is that the events leading up to that fateful day play second fiddle to the more important personal relationship between Jake Epping, known in the Land of Ago as George Amberson, and Sadie Dunhill. But King is a man who enjoys unsettling his readers – it’s something he does very well, so why not? – so you can expect the course of this love to run not exactly true, as it comes up against the force of the obdurate past.
11.22.63 is the latest in a long line of masterpieces from a writer who, at the age of 63, is still at the top of his game, and still producing mammoth works at the rate of about one every year. It is a beautifully-imagined and wonderfully written story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It’s easy to dismiss King as a “horror writer”, but horror is only a small fraction of what he has produced in a career spanning almost 40 years; it’s easy to forget that the man responsible for one of the masterpieces of modern vampire fiction – ‘Salem’s Lot – or the mother of all post-apocalyptic fiction – The Stand – is also the brains behind Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It’s also easy to forget, reading as much as I do, just how brilliant a writer he is when I’m not reading him. 11.22.63 is a solid reminder of the fact that no-one tells a story like Stephen King does. A perfect read, more than deserving of its place on my Top 10 of 2011.
As the end of the year approaches, I have decided to break from the straightforward review posts that have populated Reader Dad to date, to do a brief round-up of the year’s reading, including my Top 10 of 2011 and my Most Disappointing of 2011.
If you have checked out my newly-added Reading List section, you will know that I have been recording everything I’ve read since 2003. My reading year runs from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, because I like to have the decks cleared in time to enjoy the influx of new books that Christmas typically brings for the avid reader. By the end of this reading year, I will have read 62 books, which is my best year “since records began” (my current read, Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is likely to take me the rest of the week to complete). Of those, eight are 2011 debut novels for the authors in question. A further two are the first novels by established foreign authors to be translated into English. Twenty-two others are the first books I have read by their respective authors, and the rest are a mixture of favourites both old and new.
The focus of my reading this year has been on crime fiction, with over half of the books read falling into that genre, or one of its many sub-genres (including those books I have been categorising as “thrillers” for want of a better description). Holocaust/war fiction, science fiction, horror and westerns have all featured, and the list even includes a non-fiction title.
There is only one criteria for the lists below: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. For this reason, a couple of my favourite books of the year haven’t made it on to the list, but deserve honourable mentions nonetheless. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four beautiful novellas to rival his earlier Different Seasons, which gave us “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (source of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (and the film of the same name) and “The Body” (upon which Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me is based). Thaisa Frank’s beautiful Heidegger’s Glasses tells the tale of an underground compound filled with scribes whose sole purpose is to respond to letters addressed to people who have been killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Using original letters, and with a cast of sympathetic characters, it’s an excellent and extremely touching novel. Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which was reissued by Hesperus late in 2010 is a must-read for anyone that enjoys to read. Simon Lelic’s third novel, The Child Who, won’t be published until early January, so you can expect to see it on my 2012 list.
The following lists are in reading order, as I can’t imagine how I would be able to rate them against each other. And, chances are, an extra one or two have snuck in. Hyperlinks will take you directly to my review (where it exists).
MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2011
SANCTUS by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)
Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.
A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.
THE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees (Quercus)
The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books.
If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.
PLUGGED by Eoin Colfer (Headline)
Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.
It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer.
OUTPOST by Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.
BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano (MacLehose Press)
Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been.
Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.
KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall (Orion)
Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (Granta)
Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.
REAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Books)
Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.
THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)
Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.
The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience.
JULIA by Otto de Kat (MacLehose Press)
In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.
IT may seem premature to include a book that I have yet to finish in my list of the best of the year but, at over halfway through I’m completely captivated by the story, and loving being transported once more into the world of Stephen King. The tips of the hat to King’s earlier classic, It, have only helped to cement this, for me, as a brilliant novel.
AND THE MOST DISAPPOINTING OF 2011
Because there was some talk on Twitter early in the month about balancing the “best of the year” with the “most disappointing” or “worst” of the year, I’ve decided to do just that. Anyone reading through the posts on Reader Dad will most likely spot immediately which book didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’m being kind and calling it my “most disappointing”:
THE OBELISK by Howard Gordon (Simon & Schuster)
A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24 box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.
In the coming weeks, look out for my review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 to see if it warrants its position on the Top 10 *ahem*. Reader Dad’s first interview will also be appearing around the turn of the New Year, so check back to see my chat with one of my favourite authors. I will also be posting reviews for a slew of novels due for publication early in the New Year, so will be kept busy reading over the Christmas break.
It just remains for me to thank my regular reader, and everyone that pops in from time to time, for your support over the past ten months. I’d like to thank the wonderful publishers and publicists who have taken a punt on a newbie and provided me with some excellent review material. And I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2012.
Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
(Available as an ebook)
Before I let you know what I thought of Stephen King’s latest work, the short story/novelette Mile 81, I feel it’s only fair to talk a bit about Stephen King, and what you’re letting yourself in for should you wish to proceed and read my review.
I’ve been a die hard Stephen King fan since I discovered Skeleton Crew back when I was around 12 years old (I’m now 35). My first King novel was Pet Sematary, and from there on, I was hooked. When anyone asks who my favourite author is, I can say without a second thought that it is King – sure there are others whose work I love: Stephenson, Marshall (Smith), Gaiman, etc. – but for me, none of them will ever come close. Some might call me a rabid fan, but I like to think of myself as, simply, a fan, and a collector. Like most people in this by-no-means-exclusive club, I was devastated (and not totally for altruistic reasons) in mid-1999 when the news of King’s accident was announced, and again in early-2002 when an out-of-context quote made it look like he would be retiring before the end of that year. Now, almost 10 years later, King is still producing some of the finest fiction on offer, and for me, and many like me, the announcement of a new King work is an event in itself, and a reason to celebrate. With that in mind…
Often described as America’s best-loved bogeyman, Stephen King is, above all else, a chronicler of modern day America and the pop culture that pervades everything both inside and outside that country. I remember reading (perhaps in the foreword) that the majority of the work that went into producing the Complete and Uncut edition of The Stand was updating all of the cultural references from the original late-70s timeframe to the new early-90s one. His latest piece of work, labelled variously as short story, novella and novelette is the creepy and wonderful Mile 81, released as an ebook in the US and UK.
The Mile 81 of the title is a disused rest stop on Maine’s I-95. The building, which once housed the usual assortment of eateries and shops that one finds in American rest stops, now plays host to local teenagers looking for somewhere to drink, smoke and date in relative peace and quiet. When Pete Simmons, ten years old and with something to prove to his older brother, finds the older kids’ way in, the rest stop is as it has been for the past year: orange barrels block access from the interstate and the place is deserted, weeds already starting to push their way through the road surface. As Pete sleeps off a couple of nips from a found bottle of vodka, though, everything changes: a station wagon, make and model indiscernible under a layer of mud, crashes through the barriers, rolls to a stop on the ramp and sits, driver’s door ajar, waiting.
King has dealt with creepy cars before in the past, most famously in his 1983 novel, Christine, but also in the more recent From a Buick 8. For Mile 81, he ups the creepy quotient a couple of notches and we find ourselves watching in disbelief as the car eats the handful of good Samaritans who decide to stop and see if they can help the owners of the ever-growing fleet of cars building up on the disused off-ramp. Ridiculous as the premise might sound, in the hands of King, and his matter-of-fact storytelling, it’s no less believable than, say, that red and white ‘58 Plymouth Fury, or a Saint Bernard that suddenly goes rabid. As ever, King’s grasp of how ordinary people think and speak is impeccable, as in this example of the last thoughts of one of the car’s victims as it is snacking on his arm:
He could see glistening fingerbones from which the flesh had been sucked, and he had a brief, nightmarish image of chewing on one of the Colonel’s chicken wings. Get it all before you put that down, his mother used to say, the meat’s sweetest closest to the bone.
Of course, no King novel would be complete without the ubiquitous references to the world around us. Expect references to everything from Boardwalk Empire and American Vampire to Justin Bieber (ten-year-old Pete is the eldest of the three main characters). There’s even a sneaky little self-reference or two for the eagle-eyed Constant Reader.
Mile 81 would fit perfectly between the covers of Skeleton Crew, King’s first – and probably best (let’s face it, The Mist is worth the price of admission alone) – short story collection, or it’s follow-up, Night Shift. It’s a short, sharp gruesome tale from a man who is as comfortable with the short form as he is with the long (and the extra-long). It’s more in the tradition of those old all-out horror stories he used to write (The Mist, The Bogeyman, The Mangler), than the quietly disturbing ones he has been producing in recent years. There’s something about the story, how it’s told, the pace and style, that let’s you know, from the start, that King loved every minute that he was writing it. It’s an infectious feeling and I challenge anyone to read the first chapter and not have to finish it in a single sitting. This is classic King and should appeal to fans both old and new. It’s at once scary, funny and extremely insightful. And it’s just enough to tide us over until November 8th, until we can get our hands on 11/22/63.
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction. There is an abundance of zombie fiction on the go these days, and it’s one of the sub-genres of horror where people aren’t afraid to experiment and play with the tropes, which keeps it somewhat fresher than you might expect. So we find ourselves dealing with the rotting recent-dead of Romero’s Dead movies, as well as the virus-infected zombies of the 28 <Arbitrary Time Period> Later films, and those affected by unidentified radio waves, as in Stephen King’s Cell. To my mind, though, there has always been a bit of a gap in the post-apocalypse sub-genre, particularly when zombies are involved, and it always occurs to me in the form of a question when I’m reading such a book: the author focuses on a set of survivors who have lived through whatever disaster forms the setup for the story, and how they cope in the post-apocalyptic world, but what about those people physically removed from civilisation at that point in time? I’m usually thinking along the lines of the handful of men and women who are currently sitting on the International Space Station, but you get the idea.
Adam Baker’s first novel, Outpost, finally fills this gap. As the novel opens we find ourselves in the Arctic oil fields, bedded down on Kasker Rampart, an oil refinery manned by a skeleton crew of fifteen, awaiting their imminent return to society before the refinery is shut down, or relocated. Weeks before the ship is due to arrive to evacuate them back to Britain, they begin to see worrying news reports on the 24-hour news stations – people are turning violent, killing those around them; a trend that seems to be spreading around the globe. As, one by one, the channels begin to go off-air, leaving the crew with the uneasy suspicion that there might be no home to return to, they begin to make plans, driven by the fast approaching winter (and the months of endless night that come with it) and a rapidly dwindling store of supplies.
The bulk of the story is told from the point of view of Jane Blanc, a priest assigned to run Rampart’s chapel, a thankless job that sees her mainly ostracised from the rest of the crew and on the verge of suicide before things start to go wrong in the outside world. Jane’s development from these humble beginnings to the leader of the ragged crew is well-documented and very believable. We follow her as factions form within the crew, and alliances are made, broken, remade. For the first half, this is a zombie novel at one remove: there are no zombies here, but they are out there somewhere, of no danger to our characters. It’s a story of survival against all odds and the characters – and their development over the course of an unknown time period – are brilliantly realised.
Halfway through, the game changes, and infection intervenes, bringing with it a whole host of new challenges for the crew of Rampart. Yes, this is a virus-induced zombification, and it is never made clear how the infection started or where, exactly, it came from. Sure, there are hints, but it’s secondary to the main story here, and the direction Baker takes us means that we never need – nor want – to find out, because we’re too busy following what’s going on. Suffice it to say that the latter half of the novel is closer to the traditional zombie formula, but by no means a rehash of anything that has gone before.
The novel is told in clipped, matter-of-fact tones and short, snappy sentences of the type you’d expect to find in hard-boiled detective fiction. Along with numerous jump-cuts, this serves the plot well: it builds tension, and it helps to remove a sense of time – we have no idea if what’s happening is happening over the course of hours, days, weeks or months. We can guess at various points, but it’s next to impossible to pin anything down for sure. Baker has no such qualms with sense of place: you’re fully aware for the duration of exactly where you are. This is the desolate wastes of the Arctic and it’s cold! That’s not a fact you’ll forget easily as you read.
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.
The Day of the Triffids
Penguin Modern Classics (www.penguinclassics.co.uk)
John Wyndham’s classic, post-apocalyptic novel turns 60 this year. I first read it maybe 20 years ago, because it seemed to fit in the same category as books like Robert C. O’Brien’s Z FOR ZACHARIAH and William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, both of which were on my GCSE English Literature curriculum at the time. I’ve read it a couple of times since; it’s one of those books that bears repeated visits, and I suspect I’ll visit it again in a decade or so.
The novel is told from the point of view of William Masen, a biologist who specialised in Triffids, which are used as a cost-effective and more sustainable alternative to other edible oils. When the Earth passes through the tail of a comet, Masen is laid up in hospital, temporarily blinded by a Triffid sting and as a result is unaffected by the strange blindness that strikes the vast majority of the world’s population. Emerging into an eerily quiet London, Masen begins the difficult task of finding other people, and picking up the pieces.
TRIFFIDS, despite the title, is a story about human endurance and the stupidity that oft-times overcomes us. We follow Masen and his new-found lover Josella Playton, as they move through this strange new world, becoming affiliated with groups large and small, forcibly parted and eventually reunited, and we encounter the all-too-real horrors that Wyndham has placed in their path: the plague, the violent gangs who shoot first and ask questions later, the crazy Christian fundamentalists – surely Miss Durrant is a fore-runner for Mrs Carmody in Stephen King’s novella, THE MIST – and behind it all the insidious menace of the strange plants for which the book is named.
Strangely, the Triffids seem nothing more than a mere nuisance for the vast majority of the book: 8 foot tall plants with a 10-foot long sting that can kill instantly if it strikes correctly, or often enough. Plants that can be disabled with a single well-placed shot. Masen and company have more trouble with their fellow man than with the man-eating plants whose origin no-one seems to know. But as the novel approaches its climax, the threat that the Triffids pose becomes more apparent. Here we begin to see the first traces of an intelligence that no-one, least of all our narrator, has suspected. As the remaining population begin to form small communities, and move away from the plague-ridden cities, the Triffids begin to make their move, surrounding compounds and waiting for the inevitable moment when they will overcome the man-made defences.
Sure, the language is somewhat archaic – what else should one expect from a piece written in the early 1950s – but THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS holds up well. It could have been written as recently as last year – I imagine the outcome would have been much the same: without electricity, mobile phones, the Internet, where would we be? And if none of us could see, would we fare any better against a strange and deadly life-form over whom our only advantage is sight than our 1950s counterparts?
Wyndham had a flair for these post-apocalyptic visions, and the one thing he always managed to get spot-on was the human reaction to whatever threat he put in their way. TRIFFIDS stands the test of time: 60 years old and remains one of the finest pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written. Expect it to stay with you: there is no neatly-wrapped bow on top of this package. In the best tradition of speculative fiction, Wyndham shows you the horror, takes you to a point of seeming safety, the eye of the storm, and leaves you there, with the Triffids lurking just outside the safe zone, to draw your own conclusions.