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IT by Stephen King

IT - Stephen King IT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

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

£10.99

(he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts)

In May 1985 six people receive a phone call from a friend they have long forgotten reminding them of an oath they swore when they were just eleven years old. The phone call kick-starts the process of remembering the evil they fought in the small town of Derry, Maine, in the summer of 1958. For one, the sudden memories are too much, but for the rest of the Losers Club, the call must be answered – the evil has returned, and they swore, a long time ago, that they would return to Derry to face It again if It ever came back. Now, with the evil being that lives beneath Derry trying to thwart them at every turn, they must remember the events of August 1958, and try to reconnect with the magic that helped them survive that first encounter.

One of King’s bigger tomes, It is also one of the most controversial, dividing the ranks of even Constant Reader into those who love and those who loathe. In the opening scene, King presents us with one of the most enduring images from the book (and, indeed, the small-screen adaptation), as we follow Georgie Denbrough’s paper boat down flooded Witcham Street.

There was a clown in the stormdrain. The clown held a bunch of balloons, all colors, like gorgeous ripe fruit in one hand.

And so, instilling coulrophobia in an entire generation of readers with that single, wonderful image, King launches us into a horror that won’t end for twenty-eight years.

In 1958, we meet the members of the Losers Club as they are brought together by something much bigger than themselves. There are seven, a magic number in anybody’s book, and they take the misnamed Barrens for their own once school lets out for summer. The leader of this small band of misfits is Bill Denbrough, Stuttering Bill, the older brother of the young boy whose death started this current cycle of violence. Constantly on the lookout for Henry Bowers and his band of bullies, the group find themselves facing a much greater danger in the shape of the clown Pennywise, which seems to be the favourite face of the thing that lives beneath the streets of Derry.

In 1985, Mike Hanlon has stayed behind, acting as watchdog, and gathering what information he can on the town’s storied history. When Adrian Mellon meets his gruesome end at the hands of a man – according to witnesses – wearing a clown suit, it’s time to remind the others of their promise, and we meet these same characters in their adult form. They are now only six – the reawakening of memories about that fateful summer of 1958 proves too much for one of the gang – and they have forgotten most of their early lives in Derry – the friends that they are now meeting once again for the first time in over twenty-five years; the town of Derry itself; and, most strikingly, the events that led to their banishment of It.

King intertwines these two strands in a way that allows the reader to “remember” the events of the past at the same time as the members of the reconvened Losers Club. As events tend towards their climax, King evokes in us a sense of “doubling”, as children and adults approach the lair of It in lockstep, the narrative jumping back and forth in time without breaking the flow of action, little more than subtle clues to remind the reader that this is 1958 and that is 1985.

Running parallel to both these strands are a series of Interludes, sections taken from Mike Hanlon’s personal history of Derry, Maine, where we see the pattern begin to emerge, the twenty-seven- or -eight-year silence followed by eighteen months of violence before the cycle starts again. It is through these histories that we get a sense of the town itself, and the people who live there, and we begin to understand the nature of It – not Its origins, which we will learn later through Its own eyes, but how it has attained a king of symbiosis with the town and its inhabitants, so that strange goings-on (Henry Bowers attempting to carve his name in the stomach of Ben Hanscom, for example, or Beverly Marsh’s frantic flight along Lower Main Street, her crazed father in pursuit) go largely unremarked or completely ignored.

I have read It several times before, but this is my first visit as a man in middle age (and if that’s not a phrase to send you screaming to Juniper Hill, then nothing is), a man much closer in age to the 1985 protagonists than to their 1958 counterparts, and this elevated position provides the reader with a much different outlook on the proceedings. We can identify with the problems these people have in their lives; we can even, to a certain extent, identify with the total blank where their memory of their childhood in Derry should be. King’s examination of “magic”, of “faith”, of all the things that we lose as we grow older, and that provided these children with unimaginable power during their first encounter with It, starts to make much more sense, and we find ourselves more deeply invested in the fates of these characters. It’s a whole different experience to the coming-of-age tale that I remember It being on previous reads.

King has always been accused of being overly-verbose and a quick glance at It (the latest UK paperback edition clocks in at a hefty 1,376 pages) might give the prospective reader the idea that these accusations might be right. Trust me: you could not be farther from the truth. Every word in every scene combines to create a world that the reader can inhabit as easily as the characters on the page and a sense of terror that weighs on the reader from that very first glimpse of Pennywise in the drain.

I, Georgie, am Mr Bob Gray, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Examinations of bullying, abuse, racism and the cruelty of children to those who are different (the fat one, the one who stutters, the one with asthma) give the story and the town a deep sense of realism and allows each reader to identify with something personal to themselves. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, perfect. There are a couple of missteps as the story progresses (and, no, I’m not one of those people who feel that that pivotal moment in the tunnels under Derry is one of them), the most glaring the short-lived return of Henry Bowers to the town of his childhood after escaping from the Juniper Hill asylum. Like the proverbial deus ex machina, he appears, wreaks havoc, and vanishes in the blink of an eye when he might actually have been a more useful plot device later in the narrative. But let’s not be picky.

It is thirty years old this year, putting us now as far from 1985 as that fabled year was from 1958. This latest re-read proves to me that it’s a novel that continues to stand the test of time: there is little in the 1985 timeline to date the story, so it holds up well. The 1958 timeline is a different matter entirely, but the process of growing up, making friends and having fun in the seemingly endless days of summer is something that never changes, so the pop culture references make little difference. Our own childhoods are as strange to us as Stuttering Bill’s was to him, and that’s all that matters when it comes to the story.

As we, Constant Reader, have come to expect, the story is littered with self-references and sly winks designed to check that we’re paying attention. Take Henry’s magical ride as prime example.

…it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew that the engine rumbling under the hood was V-8 327.

It is one of King’s early masterpieces, taking over four years to complete. Suffused with horror, it’s something of a slow-burner that will hold you until the final page, and will play on your mind for a long time afterwards. A haunted house tale on an epic scale, it’s a prime example of King at the height of his early powers, and a book that will ensure you never look at Ronald McDonald in quite the same way ever again.

pennywise

HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

HEX - Thomas Olde Heuvelt HEX

Thomas Olde Heuvelt (www.oldeheuvelt.com)

Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier (jimandnancyforest.com)

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

£16.99

The town of Black Spring lies on the banks of the Hudson River, close to the military academy at West Point. It looks like any other small town, but its residents are hiding a terrible secret from the rest of the world: the legend of a curse, and of a centuries-old witch that still haunts the town is real. As Robert Grim and HEX – whose sole purpose is to keep Katherine van Wyler’s existence hidden from the outside world – work to keep the town’s secret, a small group of teenagers, led by Tyler Grant, are looking for ways to make her existence public. But they have no idea of the consequences of their actions, because Katherine van Wyler has been relatively sedate for their lifetime. That period of peace is about to come to a horrifying end.

Everyone lives in a town with a history, a story about a lingering spirit who pops up from time to time and scare the bejeezus out of some random passer-by. In this respect, the fictional town at the centre of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut novel is no different from anywhere else. What sets it apart though, is the fact that the ghost – in this case a four hundred-year-old witch – is a normal part of everyday life, seen walking the streets, or randomly appearing in the kitchen of the family next door. All of the residents of Black Spring have come to understand this, and to know the rules, laid down in a law that is as old as the witch herself: don’t speak to the witch; don’t touch the witch; and whatever you do, don’t cut the stitches that bind her eyes and mouth closed. It’s a set of rules that has served the town well for centuries, and with the help of HEX and the high-tech surveillance system that covers the entire town, they have managed to keep the fact of her existence contained to the people who live in the town.

It’s a neat background, which Olde Heuvelt lays out in the first handful of pages – no waiting around for the ghouls to appear with this author – and which he builds upon as the story progresses. There are reasons why the residents of this small town continue to live here under the constant threat of Katherine’s wrath, chief amongst them the strange sense of despair that comes over people when they have been outside the town’s boundaries for more than, say, normal working hours; a despair that is so intense that suicide often seems like the only way out. It’s interesting to watch the lengths HEX will go to in order to keep outsiders from moving into the town, because the moment you become a resident, there is no going back.

The story centres around the Grant family, specifically father Steve and oldest son Tyler, and presents us with two different sides to the argument of whether the witch’s existence should be revealed to the wider world. Steve, a blow-in who has lived in Black Spring for almost twenty years, has experienced first-hand the despair that distance from the town brings, and was also present for the most recent explosion of Katherine’s wrath, so he knows why the precautions are in place, but is also aware of the horror with which he has unintentionally burdened his two sons. Tyler is the typical teenager who sees little more than constant surveillance and restrictions not only on what he can and cannot access on the Internet, but also on whether his out-of-town girlfriend can stay over for the night. Blinded by the certainty that he is right, his actions – the secret website, the pranks he and his friends play on the witch – are a disaster waiting to happen. Enforcing the secrecy, and fighting a constant losing battle against the town’s mayor, is Robert Grim, head of HEX. Grim is a pragmatic man who understands exactly what he is up against, but who is powerless to do anything about it beyond the precautions that he has already put in place.

Katherine van Wyler herself is one of the most compelling supernatural creations you’ll find in modern fiction. Dressed in Seventeenth Century garb, she wanders the town, sometimes following the same route on the same days, sometimes appearing somewhere entirely at random. The town’s surveillance system and the HEXApp mobile phone app allow the town to keep a constant eye on her location. Her eyes and mouth are sewn shut, and she makes a constant mumbling sound which, it is said, is enough to drive anyone who gets close enough to hear what she is saying to their own death. She is, in short, as frightening as any ghost, ghoul or monster you have come across before, and the image of her sewn-up face is one that will haunt the reader long after the book is done.

Olde Heuvelt, despite writing the novel in his native Dutch, gives the book a real small-town American feel. The people that we meet are characters we feel comfortable with, characters that feel familiar while still retaining their own vitality, their own unique attributes. The book that sprang immediately to mind while I was reading HEX was Stephen King’s Needful Things: King’s trick of welcoming the reader into Castle Rock and introducing them to the key players is one that Olde Heuvelt uses to great effect here while introducing us to Black Spring. The key to a successful horror story – by which I mean one that actually frightens us, or makes us feel uncomfortable in our own familiar surroundings – is a good understanding of what gets under people’s skin. It’s the reason that much so-called horror fiction falls flat, or turns to gore and violence to elicit a reaction from the audience. That’s not a concern here: Olde Heuvelt has an excellent grasp on both what it is, and how best to deploy it within the story to really get our attention.

HEX reads like the work of a much more mature and developed author, so it’s a surprise to discover that it is Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s debut. Tension and horror combine to make this a story that is impossible to put down, as the deepening sense of unease suddenly flares into all-out shivers that run the length of your spine. Wonderfully written – and presented here in an excellent translation by Nancy Forest-Flier – and perfectly-judged, HEX is old-fashioned horror with a modern-day twist done right. It’s a story that will stay with you long after the lights have gone out, and places Thomas Olde Heuvelt high on this reader’s must-read list.

The 2014 Round-Up

As another year draws to a close, it’s time for my annual retrospective of what’s gone on at Reader Dad. There’s a lot to cover this year, so without further ado…

THE ROUND-UP

As the reading year closes, I have read 65 books this year, more than every year except last year, but I had an excuse for getting so much read last year! Of those, a massive 43 were by authors that are new to me (and a large percentage of those were 2014 debut authors). It feels like I’ve read a lot of crime this year, but when I look back on the list, I discover that my reading has been much more varied than I thought, covering everything from epistolary humour (Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members) to cannibalism (Season To Taste by Natalie Young), epic fantasy to Hitler satire. The list contains six translations, some of which you’ll find in the lists below and two re-reads, which are becoming a rarity these days when there are so many new books to read, and so little time in which to read them.

The big focus of the blog this year, aside from the reviews of dark fiction, was the #CarrieAt40 project that kicked off in April to celebrate Stephen King’s forty years as a published author. I’m delighted by the reaction, and would like to personally thank everyone who provided an essay: Keith Walters, Book Geek, Alison Littlewood, John Connolly, Bev Vincent, Sarah Langan, Mark West, Lloyd Shepherd, Steve Cavanagh, Simon Clark, V. M. Giambanco, Mason Cross, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Lotz, P. T. Hylton, Neal Munro, Simon Toyne, Lou Sytsma, Michael Marshall Smith, Kealan Patrick Burke, Andrew Pyper and Rob Chilver. I must also thank my good friend David Torrans of No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast for putting me in touch with Mr Connolly, and Graeme Williams at Orion Books for putting me in touch with Andrew Pyper. Thanks, too, to Mr King’s publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, who were extremely supportive and especially the wonderful Hodderscape folks who were angels when it came to publicity. Special thanks have to go to the lovely Philippa Pride and Kerry Hood, Mr King’s editor and publicist, respectively, at Hodder, for their support, and to Anne Perry for putting me in touch with them in the first place.

#CarrieAt40 comes to an end at the end of the year when I will be closing the Big Vote. Response has been lacklustre so far, so rather than the “definitive” answer I’d hoped for, I’ll be presenting the favourites as they stand. Please feel free to point everyone you know at the vote in the meantime, and maybe in the next week and a half we’ll get close to that “definitive” level.

And so to the important bit: the list of my favourite books of the year. Last year’s approach seemed to work well, so I’ll be using the same approach this year: my favourite debuts, and favourite non-debuts of the year. As always, the list contains books that were first published in 2014, and they’re listed in the order in which I read them, so no significance should be attached to their position in the list. Oh, and please don’t take the “ten” literally! As always, links will take you to my original review, where it exists.

MATT’S TOP TEN DEBUTS OF 2014

SEASON TO TASTE or HOW TO EAT YOUR HUSBAND by Natalie Young (Tinder Press)

At once gripping, wholeheartedly gruesome (Young seems to revel in the fact that just when you think you’ve experienced the worst there is, there is always something more still to be eked out of this incredible scenario) and darkly comic, Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband is one of the most original novels you’re likely to read, ever. With an attention to detail that is slightly scary, given the subject matter (Young has obviously done some thorough research), and the ability to make you want to simultaneously stop reading, and read faster, Natalie Young has done the unthinkable: she has taken an ordinary human being, placed her in an extraordinary situation, making her the villain of the piece in the process, and still manages to make the reader love her, root for her, want to see her succeed in her endeavours and, most importantly, get away with it. Often – and I know you’ll pardon the pun – hard to stomach, Season to Taste is like nothing you’ve ever read before, and pays dividends for those willing to stick with it and forge through the discomfort. It’s one of the best books you’ll read this year, and is guaranteed to stay with you for many years to come. I’m sure I’m not alone in being excited to see what Natalie Young has up her sleeve next; let’s just hope it doesn’t involve dinner.

   
RED RISING by Pierce Brown (Hodder & Stoughton)

Red Rising is a spectacular debut that endures beyond the final page. Set in an interesting world that, despite the obvious differences, really isn’t that far removed from our own, and peopled by characters that warrant our continued attention, it is a novel that demands to be read in as few sittings as possible. Fast-paced, action-packed, engrossing and wonderfully addictive, Red Rising marks the entrance of a fine new voice in science fiction, a young writer of immense talent who knows how to tell a story, and how to keep us coming back for more. This is a book you won’t want to miss, but be warned: once you’ve finished, you won’t want to wait for the next instalment of the trilogy.

   
THE UNDERTAKING by Audrey Magee (Atlantic Books)

Despite the early tone, Audrey Magee’s debut novel, The Undertaking, is as bleak and devastating as they come. A window into a small, personal part of World War II, Magee shows us horrors that we are never likely to forget, brief throw-away lines that will haunt and, in many ways, traumatise us long after we have put the book aside. The writing is beautiful, the dialogue perfectly measured and perfectly natural, the setting and background one we know well enough that the briefest glimpse of an event conveys all we need to know about what is going on outside the story of these entirely captivating – despite their ordinariness – characters around whom the story revolves. One of the strongest debuts I’ve seen in some time, The Undertaking marks Audrey Magee as an extremely talented writer to watch very closely in the future.

   
BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman (Harper Voyager)

In a world where we’re no longer frightened of the supernatural in fiction, mostly through exposure to whatever faux-documentary film series is currently top of the crop, Josh Malerman takes us back to first principles to scare the bejeesus clean out of us. Intense and paranoid, Malerman’s approach to storytelling leaves us as much in the dark as the novel’s protagonists and draws us into this threatening, dangerous world that lies in a not-too-distant future. Beautifully constructed in a way that constantly keeps us asking questions, doubting absolutely everything we are told, Bird Box has an edge-of-the-seat element – that dark journey along the river – that keeps the reader turning pages at a furious rate. Literary horror constructed around a highly original kernel, Bird Box heralds the arrival of a stunning new talent. The cover of the book exhorts “Don’t open your eyes”. I can guarantee that, within the first few pages, you won’t want to close your eyes until you’ve seen this gripping story through to the end. This is a novel you definitely won’t want to miss.

   
LOOK WHO’S BACK by Timur Vermes [trans. Jamie Bulloch] (MacLehose Press)

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.

   
THE KILLING SEASON by Mason Cross (Orion)

The Killing Season marks the arrival of a new “must-read” author on the British thriller scene. In Carter Blake, Mason Cross has produced an engaging character whose wit, mysterious background and often dubious moral stance keep the reader coming back for more, and elevates The Killing Season from just another thriller to one of the finest you’re likely to have read since Jack Reacher stepped off the bus in Margrave, Georgia all the way back in 1997 (now, there’s a statistic that makes me feel old!). Cross makes Chicago and the surrounding area his own and his characters, despite his own background, are as American as American can be. A seemingly effortless and assured debut, you’ll be jonesing for your next Mason Cross/Carter Blake fix before you’ve even finished this first helping.

   
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker [trans. Sam Taylor] (MacLehose Press)

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is, quite simply, one of the best books I’ve read in a number of years, and likely one of the best I’ll read for a number of years to come. Skilfully constructed, with a cast of memorable and engaging characters – not only Marcus and Gahalowood, but also Nola and Harry himself – it’s a masterclass in small-town American crime made all the more impressive by its non-American roots. It may look daunting, but once you crack the spine, it’s next to impossible to set aside for any length of time. Without doubt, one of my favourite reads of all time, I’ll be watching Joël Dicker’s career extremely closely from here on. Whatever you do, don’t miss this.

   
THE AXEMAN’S JAZZ by Ray Celestin (Mantle)

Ray Celestin’s first novel is big on characterisation and sense of place. It’s a spot-on rendition of a unique point in time and a unique place on Earth, and has enough suspense to ensure that the reader stays engaged throughout. Celestin excels when it comes to attention to detail – both in terms of the history and the location – but never at the cost of moving the story along and The Axeman’s Jazz is an excellent debut, the perfect introduction to a talented writer and, with any luck, a handful of entertaining and engaging detectives.

   
THE EXPEDITION: A LOVE STORY by Bea Uusma [trans. Agnes Broomé] (Head of Zeus)

The Expedition: A Love Story is one of those gems that I might never have picked up had I not received a copy from the publisher. It’s the story of a little-known Arctic expedition that went horribly wrong, and one woman’s lifelong quest to discover the truth. Beautifully written, it’s obvious from the beginning that this is a labour of love. We can only hope that Bea Uusma turns her attention to something else in the near future and shares her exceptional talent with us again. I’m struggling to think of a book I have enjoyed more this year, and can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the art of telling a story.

 

MATT’S TOP TEN NON-DEBUTS OF 2014

THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL OF VIOLENCE by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)

I’ve mentioned before that it would be almost impossible to read How a Gunman Says Goodbye without having first read The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter. The same applies here: while The Sudden Arrival of Violence is an excellent novel, there is too much backstory to dive in here for the first time. To me, the trilogy feels like a single book – a tale constructed around Calum MacLean’s short tenure as Peter Jamieson’s gunman, but not a tale about that tenure – and should be judged as such. It is one of the most original pieces of crime fiction I have read in a long time, told in a unique and unbelievably engaging voice and populated by a cast of characters whose story we need to know, despite the fact that we wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alley. The Sudden Arrival of Violence is the perfect ending to a perfect trilogy, expertly plotted, well paced and, above all, beautifully written. Mackay continues to astound, and this is one reader for whom the end of the Glasgow Trilogy will leave a massive hole. I can’t wait to see what Malcolm Mackay has up his sleeve next.

   
THE WIND IS NOT A RIVER by Brian Payton (Mantle)

The Wind Is Not a River is a book that will draw you into the story of these separated lovers and their quest – however oblique – to be reunited. Entirely captivating and beautifully told it draws the reader in slowly, alternating between the two stories as the distance between their protagonists grows gradually smaller, until the book is almost impossible to set aside for anything but the briefest moment. At its heart, it is a beautiful tale of love and devotion – not, you’re probably thinking, the usual fare for Reader Dad (and you’d be right) – but it also shines a light on humanity in one of its recent dark periods. Between the cruelty of the Imperial Japanese Army and the individual cruelties of American men long separated from civilisation, Payton shows that nature at its worst doesn’t even compare. A surprising choice for me, I don’t expect to be this invested in a piece of fiction for the foreseeable future. Miss at your peril, but do keep the tissues handy.

   
IRÈNE by Pierre Lemaitre [trans. Frank Wynne] (MacLehose Press)

While Alex received critical acclaim on its release last year, Irène, Pierre Lemaitre’s first novel, will be the book that people will remember in years to come. Intelligent and engrossing, it’s a worthwhile read primarily for that sense of amazement that will have you flicking back through pages looking for the mirrors or trapdoors, but also because of the mystery itself. A crime novel for genre fans penned by a man who is obviously a fan himself, Irène is beautifully translated by the always-reliable Frank Wynne and stunningly presented in the usual high-standard MacLehose package. If you were one of the people who enjoyed Alex, you’re going to love Irène, despite what you think you already know. If you’re lucky enough to still be a Lemaitre virgin, do yourself a favour and read a book that is sure to be high on many peoples’ (my own included) "best of the year" lists come December.

   
ABOVE by Isla Morley (Two Roads)

By turns funny and heart-breaking, tense, horrific, tender, Above is a beautifully-written examination of life interrupted and the terrors that can be inflicted by the people we believe we can trust. At the centre of the story is the feisty, tomboyish Blythe, but it is much more than just her story. Isla Morley’s second novel is an attention-grabbing, twist-filled nightmare pulled straight from the headlines. Perfectly-judged, it quickly gets its hooks into the reader and refuses to let go. Despite the comparisons, you haven’t read anything quite like this before. Above is sure to be Isla Morley’s breakout novel. Morley herself is destined for great things and is definitely worth watching.

   
THE UNQUIET HOUSE by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books)

Returning to the quiet, creepy horror with which her debut novel was suffused, Alison Littlewood’s third novel, The Unquiet House, is the work of a writer whose talent continues to grow with each novel. She has an exceptionally clear voice, a distinctive style that, coupled with an intuitive understanding of which buttons to press and when to get the reactions she wants from the reader, makes each new book an unmissable event. If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet, I suggest you do so sooner rather than later: you’re missing one of the most exceptional horror authors of the current generation.

   
MR MERCEDES by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

   
THE THREE by Sarah Lotz (Hodder & Stoughton)

In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.

   
NO HARM CAN COME TO A GOOD MAN by James Smythe (The Borough Press)

Part political thriller, part technological nightmare and part cautionary tale about the amount of trust we place in the technology that has become ubiquitous over the past half-decade or so, Jame Smythe’s latest novel (I’ve lost count!), No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is the work of a writer who shows no sign of slowing down or reaching the peak of his talent. Tense and unnerving, it’s an all-too-believable story that combines the power of technology and the power of the press and public opinion to produce a frightening vision of what lies just around the corner. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man confirms that, despite a rocky start, James Smythe is in a league of his own, as comfortable on earth as he is in space. Highly original, beautifully written, pure gold.

   
THE HOUSE ON THE HILL by Kevin Sampson (Jonathan Cape)

A carefully-constructed plot, well-rounded characters and pitch-perfect locations make this beautifully-written book the perfect follow-up to one of last year’s best novels. Kevin Sampson proves that when it comes to dark, character-driven crime fiction, he is in a league of his own. The House on the Hill is crime fiction at its finest, with a broad appeal regardless of whether or not you’ve readThe Killing Pool. DCI Billy McCartney continues to engage, and it is clear that there is still much to this character left to discover. I can’t recommend this – and its predecessor – highly enough, and I, for one, will be on tenterhooks waiting for the third instalment.

   
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)

Without doubt one of the most original takes on the post-apocalyptic world that I have come across in some time, Station Eleven is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Mandel has created a world like none we’ve ever seen and populated with characters who, for the duration of the story and beyond, will become the most important people in your life. With references to everything from Shakespeare to Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Mandel examines the ways in which we make our mark on the world and on the people around us, both in the macrocosm (how the shredded remains of humanity continue to survive and thrive in this new world) and the microcosm (the effect that Arthur Leander, however briefly he may have touched their lives, has left on the central characters of the novel). Mandel has left the perfect set-up for a sequel (or several), and it will be interesting to see if she returns to the post-apocalyptic world of Year Twenty, or if our imaginations will be left to their own devices. Either way, Station Eleven is not to be missed, one of the finest novels of recent years and one that is destined to stand (pun most definitely intended) proudly alongside the giants of the genre.

   
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy (William Heinemann)

James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is one of those writers who has long been a must-read for me. With Perfidia, he proves that he still has what it takes to keep his place on that list: dark and sinister, it is a look at the city of Los Angeles from the point of view of the immoral – and often outright evil – men who are supposed to keep it safe and enforce its laws. When he’s on form, very few writers can equal the writing of James Ellroy. With Perfidia, Ellroy is top of his game, and the promise of three more novels in this sequence, with Dudley Smith pulling strings at the centre of an intricate web, is enough to fill this reader’s heart with immense joy. An excellent introduction to anyone who has yet to discover this incredibly talented writer, Perfidia builds on a long-established base to ensure that long-time readers will come away fulfilled and hoping for more. If you only read one crime novel this year, it should definitely be this one.

   
REVIVAL by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

   
A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar (Hodder & Stoughton)

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

 

COMING SOON…

2015 should see a return to the usual schedule of reviews and guest posts, despite the fact that I’ve already read the best book of the year. Despite that, it’s already shaping up to look like an excellent year, with the return of Bill Hodges in Stephen King’s Finders Keepers and an announcement early in the New Year concerning Joe Hill. The year also brings with it new Daniel Polansky, the follow-up to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising and Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, to name but a few. Don’t forget that the #CarrieAt40 Big Vote closes at midnight on December 31st, so do please vote, and spread the word.

All that remains is to thank the publishers and publicists who have been so kind to me this year, and have kept me stocked up with wonderful reading material. Thanks also to the authors who take time out to write guest posts or answer interview questions, and to all those (mentioned above) who provided essays for the #CarrieAt40 project. And thanks to you, the readers, who make it all worthwhile; without you, I’d just be talking to myself, and I already do far too much of that.

And on that note, Merry Christmas and a happy, safe and prosperous 2015 to each and every one of you.

A MAN LIES DREAMING by Lavie Tidhar

A MAN LIES DREAMING - Lavie Tidhar A MAN LIES DREAMING

Lavie Tidhar (lavietidhar.wordpress.com)

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

£18.99

In another time and place, a man lies dreaming.

National Socialism is routed at the 1933 elections by Communism, and its leadership exiled from Germany. Sentenced to a concentration camp, Adolf Hitler escapes and makes his way to London where, under his old nickname, Wolf, he sets up as a private detective. When a beautiful Jewish woman steps into his office in early November 1939 to hire him to find her missing sister, Wolf has no idea where the case will take him, except that he should have listened to his first instinct and thrown her out on the street. As his investigation progresses, Wolf finds himself on the wrong side of all the wrong people: the Metropolitan Police; all of the men and women who once formed the upper echelons of the Nazi Party; Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; and a mysterious man who is killing the prostitutes who congregate outside Wolf’s office, and framing the detective for their murders.

Most importantly, for the reader at least, is the fact that none of this is real; it is all the lucid fabrication of Shomer, a man who once wrote shund – Yiddish pulp fiction – for a living, and who now uses it as a form of escape from his current location: hell on Earth. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In what is perhaps the most original take on the Holocaust novel to date, Lavie Tidhar presents the events as a hard-boiled detective novel which at first glance appears to be set in an alternate timeline. As the novel progresses we discover that it is actually a fiction, a story within the story, the dreams and daydreams of an Auschwitz inmate named Shomer. The central story follows Wolf as he accepts a job from Isabella Rubinstein, a Jew, who wants him to use his connections to find her sister who went missing while trying to escape from Germany. From the outset, it is clear that the aim of the story is to belittle and humiliate Wolf, the reasons becoming more obvious as we learn of the story’s origins. During his investigation, Wolf encounters old colleagues – Hess, Goebbels, Klaus Barbie – and discovers that they all appear to have adapted to this brave new world better than he has himself. Coupled with the success – and imminent election as Prime Minister – of Oswald Mosley, a wannabe in Wolf’s eyes

To see Mosley, that clown, with such power! Even the man’s words were second-hand.

, it becomes obvious just how far Wolf has fallen since the heights of the Nuremberg rallies.

Interspersed with this central narrative, we catch brief glimpses of Shomer, the eponymous dreamer, as he dreams his way through his time in Auschwitz, talking to the ghost of his dead friend Yenkl when he is not reinventing the man at the root of his suffering as the hero of a pulpy detective story. We get brief flashes of his arrival on the train, the separation from his family, hard labour digging graves and a brief stay in the camp’s infirmary, where he crosses paths with fellow authors Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik. It is, as you might expect given the subject matter, a harrowing look at life in Auschwitz made no less powerful by the brevity of our visits. Shomer, like those around him, is little more than the blue-tattooed number on his arm, and the stories he invents are the only relief he finds from the daily horrors. The novel’s final line is heartbreakingly beautiful, an excellent summation of what is an extraordinary novel.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a brave novel for a man whose life has been shaped by the very events he is describing

The majority of my family, on both sides, died in [Auschwitz]

Tidhar explains in his historical note at the end). A far cry from the outright satire of Timur Vermes’ Look Who’s Back, A Man Lies Dreaming examines the dictator in a completely different way. The first-person excerpts from Wolf’s diary give us some insight into the character of the man, while filtering much of the narrative through the Chandler-esque voice. Despite the odd moment where Wolf comes across as a kind of Basil Fawlty impersonator (

He bashed the receiver against the phone box, over and over, splintering the casing, wantonly destroying the property of His Majesty’s General Post Office.

), he elicits a surprising feeling of empathy from the reader, despite what we know. Like Chandler’s well-loved Marlowe, Wolf does not come out of this case well, one beating following quickly on the heels of the one before, ritual humiliation, an impromptu circumcision, so that it’s a wonder that the man makes it to the end of the story in one piece.

This sort of alternative history is not new ground for Lavie Tidhar, who won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel for his alternate take on Osama. Brilliantly capturing the mood of a pre-war (war still looms very much on the horizon, though delayed by Hitler’s Fall) Britain while mixing it with the modern-day xenophobia that seems to be sweeping the country, spurred on by the likes of UKIP (some of whose slogans Tidhar uses to provide voice to Mosley’s supporters). The author’s deft touch sees Wolf, whose anti-semitic views survive his exile, become the object of racial hatred, rather than its purveyor, a state of affairs that is likely to have brought Shomer no small measure of happiness.

Beautifully constructed, this story within a story, mystery within mystery, is a fresh and unique take on Holocaust fiction, which is no less powerful or disturbing for its strange direction. Flawless, engaging and with an eye for detail that is second-to-none, A Man Lies Dreaming is the perfect follow-up to last year’s The Violent Century, even going so far as to examine one of the earlier novel’s key questions, albeit from a different angle: what makes a man? One of the best novels I’ve read in a year of excellent novels, A Man Lies Dreaming stands beside some of the classics of Holocaust literature while providing a more accessible route than some, and is nothing less than a masterpiece.

REVIVAL by Stephen King

REVIVAL - Stephen King REVIVAL

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

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

£20.00

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.

Aficionados of the horror genre will instantly recognise this couplet as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, an excerpt from his fictional Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon. Referenced in Stephen King’s latest work, it forms one of the story’s central themes and provides a clue that Revival, the second King novel to appear in this, his fortieth year as a published author, is a return to the genre in which he made his name during the late seventies and most of the eighties. There is a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour to this story, though with a twist that is very much King’s own.

At the age of six, Jamie Morton, the youngest member of a large family living in small-town Maine, meets Charlie Jacobs, the town’s new minister and a man with a strange obsession with electricity. Following a tragic accident, Jacobs denounces God from the pulpit and disappears from Jamie’s life. But their paths are destined to cross again, and over the course of the next fifty years or so, they meet several times, each time Jacobs running a different scam, more obsessed by what he calls “the secret electricity”, and slightly more unhinged than the time before. Jamie has problems of his own and by the time he is in his early fifties he finds that he is in great debt to his old minister, and agrees to help him in one final experiment, the culmination of almost fifty years of research and experimentation.

For most of this hugely engrossing novel, King concentrates on the human aspect of the story. We watch as Jamie Morton grows from childhood to early adulthood and beyond to late middle age. What we know of Charlie Jacobs we learn through those time periods when the two men’s paths cross. While the scam is always different – Portraits in Lightning; the healing ministry – the subject of electricity remains a constant, and it quickly becomes clear that Jacobs has something planned, something related to the tragic accident that deprived him of his family when Jamie was still counting his age in single figures.

There are themes here that we have come to expect from Stephen King stories over the years: the question of faith plays an important part, here examined with a small twist that plays faith in the unknown (God) against faith in science (electricity) yet never manages to definitively separate the two; there is personal tragedy; examinations of the dynamics of family, and how they change over the years as the glue that holds them together first stretches, then, often, breaks altogether; the battle against addiction. Most importantly, as the Lovecraft quote that forms Revival’s core might suggest, is the question of death and what awaits us on the other side.

King never portrays Jacobs as a villain, yet the reader comes away with the distinct impression that if there is a villain in this piece, Jacobs would be it. There are parallels here with Rupert Angier from Christopher Priest’s excellent The Prestige (the obsession with electricity, and the attempts to turn it to one’s own will), and with King’s own Leland Gaunt; in this instance, rather than providing things, Jacobs provides cures, but the ultimate price that the buyer pays is no less substantial, and no less dangerous. As Mr Gaunt himself might advise: caveat emptor. There are also echoes of Pet Sematary: Jamie receives visits from the dead that feel very similar to the visits Louis Creed receives from Victor Pascow in that earlier novel. Through misdirection and clever plotting, King leads us to believe that we understand what Jacobs is trying to achieve, pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and presenting us with something even more horrifying than we might have guessed.

There are, as always, links to King’s other works scattered throughout his latest novel. The most obvious is with last year’s Joyland, a place where Charlie Jacobs has set out his stall at some point during his career as a showman and charlatan. Once again, King immerses the reader in the world of “carny”, tying the two novels inextricably together, despite their widely different subject matters.

In the closing act, the tone of the novel changes completely, as King leaves his examination of the human aspect behind and presents us with a brief, but extremely disturbing, glimpse of balls-to-the-wall horror in a perfectly-judged tribute to the greats of the genre, people like Lovecraft and Machen, Ashton Smith and Derleth, the giants upon whose shoulders King has built his own career. You thought Pennywise was frightening? Or Kurt Barlow? Or the concept of Dreamcatcher’s “shit-weasels”? They all pale in comparison to the vision King presents in the closing pages of Revival, a vision that will make us re-examine all of the questions King has asked us to answer during the reading of this novel: that of faith, of family, of death. Abrupt and shocking, it shows that, even after forty years at the coalface, King still has the power to frighten and unnerve the reader, in ways that will stay with us long after we’ve finished the book and moved on to something else. Despite the Lovecraftian connotations, King presents a vision that is entirely of his own devising, and which asks us to reconsider any beliefs that we hold about who we are, where we come from and to where we are ultimately heading.

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

THE FIRST STONE by Elliott Hall

the-first-stone-elliott-hall THE FIRST STONE

Elliott Hall (elliott-hall.co.uk)

John Murray (www.johnmurray.co.uk)

£7.99

hrpv2Elliott Hall’s 2009 debut novel, and the first in his Felix Strange trilogy, The First Stone, is the subject of the latest Hodderscape Review Project. Don’t forget to check out the thoughts of my fellow reviewers, to which you’ll find links on the Hodderscape website.

Brother Isaiah is America’s best-loved preacher. When his body is found in his hotel room shortly after he arrives in New York at the head of his Crusade of Love, foul play is the most obvious explanation. Felix Strange, veteran of the holy war in Iran, is now a private investigator who specialises in the seedier jobs for which men in his profession are best known. So when he is hired to look into Brother Isaiah’s death – and keep it quiet while he does so – he finds himself wondering what made him the ideal candidate. Something is rotten at the core of America’s religious government and Brother Isaiah’s death is only the tip of the iceberg. Felix Strange would rather not be involved but, for now at least, he has little choice in the matter.

The First Stone, as well as being Elliott Hall’s debut novel, is also the first in a trilogy featuring private eye Felix Strange. In many ways a Philip Marlowe clone, there is little to set Strange apart from others in the same genre until you take a look at the world in which he operates: Hall has created a frightening – but extremely realistic – vision of an all-too-possible future America that elevates Strange above his fictional contemporaries and uses his story to present a stark warning to the book’s readers.

This is America of a very near future: Houston is gone, the only American casualty in a short-lived nuclear war with Iran (whose capital city Tehran was the only other casualty). In the wake of these atrocities, America has turned to God for help, electing a president on a deeply religious mandate. Now run by a group of twelve Elders, the country is slowly slipping back into the dark ages, the gender divide widening instead of shrinking, and even punishment for most venial sins backed up by the force of law. Around this background, Hall has constructed a number of groups which all, on the surface, are working towards the same aim but which each has its own hidden agenda. Groups such as the Crusade of Love, and Ezekiel White’s Committee for Child Protection, a sort of police force tasked with the safety of the nation’s souls.

Throw into this mix Felix Strange, atheist private eye who is considered Jewish by virtue of the fact that his mother was a Jew, and the scene is set for fireworks from the outset. Strange is a veteran of the holy war waged by America on Iran, and was in-country when Tehran turned into "Ghost Town". Like many of his fellow soldiers, he has returned to the United States with an unwanted souvenir, an inexplicable and incurable unnamed disease that leaves him crippled with pain and prone to fits if he doesn’t take his regular medications. And in a right-wing, God-fearing America where socialised healthcare has never existed, affording these medications is often nigh on impossible, which is why he is happy to accept this commission without asking too many questions.

Strange is, as I’ve mentioned, a clone of Chandler’s Marlowe, as many great private detectives created since the 1950s have been before him, down to the very clothes he wears, and the wise-cracking attitude that tends to get him into trouble. Like Chandler, Hall isn’t afraid to put his creation through the mill, and the reader can expect Strange to spend large portions of the novel in severe pain and/or serious trouble. Throw in a beautiful woman, a member of the Crusade of Love whose job is to entrap sinners – adulterers, usurers – and The First Stone is the perfect recipe for a top-rate PI mystery, which will see Felix Strange mixing with government, police, gangsters and even the FBI in the quest not only to find the answers he’s been paid to find, but also to keep his own head on his shoulders and remain one step ahead of the myriad groups out for his blood.

In part driven by the characters – Strange himself has a certain charm that makes him the ideal voice for the story, but the other characters such as the enigmatic Iris, the rich Thorpe, the power-hungry White, are equally as engaging – and in part by the strange new world that Hall has created out of the ashes of this world that we know so well, The First Stone is part classic private eye novel, part dystopian noir. Regardless of which part appeals to the individual, it’s a well-rounded novel that not only comes to a satisfying conclusion, but also gets a hook into the reader guaranteeing that we’ll be back for the rest of the trilogy (fortunately for us, since The First Stone was first published in 2009, the complete trilogy is already available and has just recently been released in a lovely omnibus edition by Hodder).

As well as the rollicking mystery tale, The First Stone contains much food for thought. This warped vision of the future is all the more frightening because of how realistic it seems, how close to our own reality this alternate world is. Part parody, part warning, it is a novel that could only have been written from the outsider’s perspective (Hall is a Canadian who lives in England) without devolving into pure satire or political rhetoric.

A darkly comic creation built around a tightly-plotted mystery and set in a New York that is but a single election away from the one we know, Elliott Hall’s The First Stone is the perfect introduction to an excellent reimagining of a comfortable old character trope. Felix Strange is exactly what we want in a fictional private eye and Hall’s debut novel is the perfect introduction to the man’s weird and wonderful world. I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the trilogy, and will be waiting with bated breath for Hall’s next outing.

MR MERCEDES by Stephen King

MR MERCEDES - Stephen King MR MERCEDES

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

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

£20.00

On a foggy April morning, in an anonymous, recession-hit Midwestern city, Brady Hartfield ploughs a stolen Mercedes Benz into a group of people queued for a job fair, killing nine and injuring many more. Six months later, Detective William Hodges retires from the City Police Force, the Mercedes killing one of the unsolved cases he hands over to his partner. Living alone and spending his retirement watching television begins to take its toll and Bill Hodges starts to contemplate suicide. When he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer – or Mr Mercedes, as Bill comes to call him – he finds a new reason to go on. Deciding to keep the letter secret from his old partner for now, Bill Hodges goes back to the one loose thread that never made any sense: the owner of the stolen car, and the means by which Mr Mercedes managed to gain access. As Hodges’ investigation progresses, so the madness that drives Brady Hartfield grows, his original plan to help the retired policeman on his way to suicide replaced by something bolder and more public, something that would make his trick with the Mercedes look positively innocent in comparison.

Stephen King’s latest novel is being marketed as a departure for the Master of Horror, though for Constant Reader, the distinction is less clear. All of the elements that make a Stephen King novel are here: strong story, strong characters and that inimitable voice that guides us through the book. Mr Mercedes is, as advertised, a straight crime novel (perhaps a better fit for the Hard Case Crime line than last year’s supernatural-tinted Joyland) but at its core, it’s a return to one of King’s favourite topics: good versus evil. The recent revelation by King that it is the first of a proposed trilogy – with the second book due to drop next year – is just the icing on the cake.

While there are elements of mystery for the reader (just how did Brady get access to the Mercedes, for example), we are aware from the outset of who the perpetrator of the crime is, how he has so much information on Bill Hodges and, to a certain extent at least, what his plans for the immediate future are. Mr Mercedes is not so much a whodunit as an examination of these two men, both at different ends of the spectrum. On the one side we have Brady Hartfield, a cold-blooded murderer who lives with his alcoholic mother and spends his life trying to put a civilised face on the monster that lives just beneath the surface. Brady is one of King’s more insane creations, and the glimpse we get inside his head shows the type of horror at which King has always been adept: the horror in the everyday; the real-life insanity that leads to, to borrow the old cliché, man’s inhumanity to man. Like Under the Dome‘s Jim Rennie, Brady Hartfield is a character that gets under the reader’s skin, and whose demise – hopefully a brutal and slow one – we hope for almost from the moment we meet him.

Retired Detective K (for Kermit) William Hodges is the opposite side of the coin. Like King himself (and there has been a definite trend in this direction of late), Bill is a man in his later years who, without the job to keep him going, and the empty space left by his ex-wife and grown-up daughter, finds himself in something of a rut. Brady, a man with incredibly accurate insight into the human condition, sees this as a weakness, not counting on Bill’s obsession with the case that he left unsolved, or on the old man’s relationship with Jerome Robinson, the local kid who does his lawn and helps when Bill has trouble with technology. Given a new lease of life by the letter from Mr Mercedes, Bill – with the help of Jerome and the sister of Olivia Trelawney, whose grey Mercedes was used to kill nine people over a year previously – decides that he is the city’s best shot at catching this elusive and obviously unbalanced individual.

As you would expect from a Stephen King novel, there’s something down-to-earth and unpretentious about Mr Mercedes. Maybe it’s that familiar voice that has guided us through countless other tales, or the pop culture and topical references scattered liberally throughout the book. Starting slow and taking time to introduce us to the characters, King throws a couple of curve balls – some in our favour, others not – before ramping up the pace in the final quarter or so of the book. The constant switching of action between the two main protagonists keeps the reader on their toes and ensures that for the last hundred pages or so, it is nigh on impossible to set Mr Mercedes down.

While there are plenty of familiar tricks here, despite the shift in genre from what we’re used to from King, there are also some potentially interesting deviations from the usual formula. Unlike the majority of King’s novels, the action here takes place not in the author’s native Maine, but in an unnamed (which is unusual in itself) city in the American Midwest (most likely Ohio, based on the clues dropped throughout). The self-references, too, are handled in a slightly different way, with both Christine and It getting a mention early in the story, but as the well-known pieces of fiction that they are, rather than the usual in-world ties that we’ve come to expect.

‘Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’

Hodges shook his head. Later – only weeks before his retirement – he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the fact of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.

And in one throw-away line towards the end of the novel, King creates another link between his own worlds and those of son Joe Hill in a reference to the character at the centre of Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box.

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

#CarrieAt40: The Endings You Deserve by SARAH LOTZ

Three-final (1) SARAH LOTZ

On the web: sarahlotz.com

On Twitter: @SarahLotz1

Along with Pet Sematary, My dad gave me Carrie to read when I was eleven years old. He doesn’t remember this – just like he doesn’t remember giving me The Wasp Factory a year later – and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for never censoring my reading. Reading above my age bracket gave me an early insight into the possibilities of story-telling, and I learned pretty quickly that happy endings aren’t always a given.

I read Carrie in one go, you couldn’t have pried it out of my hands. Sure, after reading it, I was mentally scarred for quite a while. Not to the extent that Bambi’s mum’s death, or the twisted ending of The Wasp Factory messed me up, but close. I was too young to really ‘get’ the famous menstruation scene at the start of the novel, but I totally identified with Carrie. Not background-wise of course – I was brought up in the UK by two fairly level-headed atheist doctors, and as far as I know I have no telekinetic powers – but at the time I was also being bullied by a bunch of girls at school (some of whom – to my mind anyway – bore an uncomfortable resemblance to Chris Hargensen). I completely understood Carrie’s anguish at being sidelined, and her desperation to fit in. But at least I could escape when I was at home. Carrie couldn’t. I rooted for her all the way, desperately hoping that she’d somehow find a way to escape her horrendous mother and have some semblance of a normal life. But even back then I knew it was impossible. King couldn’t have ended the novel any other way – from word one it was clear Carrie was destined for a tragic end (and there’s no coming back from committing a telekinetic Columbine-sized massacre). Carrie wasn’t born bad – she was up against impossible odds. It just seemed so unfair. So I made up my own ending, one in which Carrie ducks the prom, flees her awful home-life, gets a handle on her powers and basically becomes one of the X-Men, only more of a bad-ass. I constructed it in excruciating detail.

Years later, I was having lunch with my editor Anne Perry and for some reason we started talking about Carrie. Anne mentioned that she thought Sue Snell, who convinces her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom, was the real heroine of the novel. Anne had a valid point, but I disagreed. To me, Carrie will always be the heroine, and with all the apologies in the world to Stephen King, I secretly prefer the ridiculous ending my eleven-year-old self made up. Hypocritically, this hasn’t stopped me putting my own characters through the mill, although I do feel a twinge of guilt whenever I put them through hell. Reading Carrie taught me that sometimes you don’t always get the endings you deserve.

Sarah Lotz is a screenwriter and novelist with a fondness for the macabre and fake names. Among other things, she writes horror/thriller novels under the name S.L. Grey with author Louis Greenberg, a YA pulp-fiction zombie series with her daughter, Savannah, under the pseudonym Lily Herne, and quirky erotica novels with authors Helen Moffett and Paige Nick under the name Helena S. Paige.
Her latest solo novel,
The Three, will be published in May, 2014. She lives in Cape Town with her family and other animals.

#CarrieAt40: Constant Reader by NNEDI OKORAFOR

nnediheehee NNEDI OKORAFOR

On the web: www.nnedi.com

On Twitter: @Nnedi

At the end of Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel, Lagoon, there is a deleted scene that references a room 217. Because I was in the middle of planning #CarrieAt40 when I read it, and my mind was filled with all things Stephen King, I wondered if there was a connection with King’s novel, The Shining. So, I asked:

The following exchange of Tweets was enough for me to ask Nnedi if she would like to take part in the project.

When I asked, Nnedi was preparing for a tour of Brazil and the United Arab Emirates to promote Lagoon, so her contribution is short and sweet, but is extremely relevant to what I’ve been aiming for throughout #CarrieAt40, and I am glad I asked that initial question about Room 217.

I read Stephen King’s novel It when I was 12 years old. I had no business reading that book but I saw it in the library and thought the cover was cool, so I picked it up. It turned out to be one of the most terrifying and influential experiences for me as a young reader and later a writer (I even have Stephen King shout outs and references all over my work). That book showed me just how much I could enjoy the art of storytelling (and be terrified by it). I went on to read every King book I could find that year. I soon became one of King’s Constant Readers. Stephen King remains one of my greatest writing teachers and favourite authors.

Nnedi Okorafor’s novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Akata Witch (an Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award). Her short story collection Kabu Kabu was released in October and her science fiction novel Lagoon was released on April 10, 2014. Her young adult novel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola is scheduled for release in 2015. Nnedi is a creative writing professor at the University of Buffalo.

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