Book Talk: Earthbound (Richard Matheson, 1989)

eath-1Note: Earthbound’s release should technically be dated 1982. However, Matheson attached the pen name of Logan Swanson to the original version after publisher Playboy Press “severely” edited (source: wikipedia) the original manuscript. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t until the 1989 re-release that Earthbound was published unaltered with Matheson’s name on the cover hence why I am using that date for this review.

Last year, I made a vow to spread my wings and step further afield when it came to the fiction I consumed and the authors who wrote it. This was right after reading Stephen King’s non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, in which the famous writer explores the subject of horror, what makes it tick and – more importantly – the writers and works of fiction that inspired him. I jotted down a list of titles, recommended by King, that I wanted to investigate. And yes, I totally appreciate the irony in compiling a more varied reading wishlist using the recommendations of the author that I have stuck too close to over the years.

Earthbound by Richard Matheson is the first book that I have crossed off that list. I have to confess that, despite being an avid reader, I hadn’t heard of Matheson before purposely seeking out Earthbound. I guess that’s proof of how little I have actually dipped my toes below the surface of horror’s waters.

As such, I was unfamiliar with the author’s writing style. Regardless, this is a review and so I can only offer my honest opinion based on my experience with the book and what I got out of it.

It was a book of two halves and a slow-burner to begin with. David and Ellen Cooper have gone away to an isolated beachside cottage at Logan Beach, the place where they spent their first honeymoon over twenty years ago. Unfortunately, Logan Beach and the cottage in particular have become quite rundown and ramshackle in the intervening years and the icy cold temperature that permeates the building is highly uncomfortable. The couple put up with the dilapidation and unfavourable cold however because they are there to try and rekindle their ailing marriage.

Not much is initially explained on the marriage breakdown front but it is hinted that David has had an affair in the recent past and that their marriage is on the rocks as a result. It’s this section of the book that is the slow-burner. The conversation between David and Ellen is fairly flat, their background is only gently alluded to and quite honestly, I didn’t find either character that interesting. What’s more, there are precious little scene changes and so you – the reader – feel stuck in the depressed cottage with these two characters that aren’t exactly thrilling to be around. Once I’d finished this book, I DID appreciate that David and Ellen were just very normal, boring but flawed people and that, perhaps, this was a quality of the writing and not necessarily a detraction. But without that hindsight, Earthbound initially felt lacking in depth and pizzazz.

Until Marianna shows up.

The mysterious Marianna arrives at the door while Ellen is out and David is on his own. She is young and shockingly beautiful to David, who is immediately bewitched.

When she looked back at him, David felt the drawing tingle in his flesh again, stronger than ever now. It was almost unbelievable that any woman could be so lovely. He stared at her, imprisoned by her beauty.

Straight away, during the first few pages of Marianna’s presence in the book, you can tell that the tendrils of obsession are beginning to wrap about David. Matheson uses some powerful language and descriptives here and I had no trouble believing in Marianna’s intense beauty and the affect that she was having on unwitting David.

Then it’s back to some more David and Ellen with David now obsessing over Marianna and allowing her image to cloud his mind even while he is supposed to be attentive to Ellen and their fractured marriage. But then Marianna returns at night and Matheson suddenly spices things up with a shot of erotic sex as Marianna follows through on her determination to seduce David.

With an impotent shudder, David slid both arms around her and she fell against him, lips, hungrily, at his again. He pulled her violently to himself, the pressure of her jutting breasts arousing him still further. Suddenly, Marianna jerked his right arm free and, twisting slightly to the side, lifted his hand to her left breast. David cupped his palm across the thrusting cone and started fondling and massaging it, feeling through the sweater, how its nipple hardened at his touch. Marianna licked his lips tempestuously. She raked her teeth across his cheek, her breath like spilling fire on his skin. “Anything!” she whispered in his ear.

Drawing back, eyes never leaving his, she tugged the sweater up across her head and slung it aside; David tightened at the prominence of her bust as she turned her back to him. “Quickly, darling.” His fingers trembled as he picked the four hooks from their eyes. The brassiere ends sprang apart and Marianna shucked it into his lap. “Hands,” she muttered. David held them out, numb and shaking, and she clutched them to the pendant arching of her breasts, hissing through her teeth, eyes hooded as he dug his fingers into them. “More,” she said. Gasping, David dropped his head and started kissing them. He ran his tongue across the large, stiffened nipples and she pulled him savagely against herself, a frenzied moaning in her throat. “Feed,” she said. Her back went rigid as he began to suckle her. “Bite me, hurt me.” Her hands were clutching at his head like talons of steel. “Take them,” she ordered. “They’re yours, yours!”

(Still with me?)

Between Marianna’s sudden, inexplicable appearances, her lustful interest in a forty two year-old married man that she just met and the furious, animal-like sex that she is only too willing to initiate, it is clear that there is something not right about her. Furthermore, David wakes the next morning to feel utterly drained of energy and not necessarily due to the night’s physical efforts. You begin to wonder if Marianna is a succubus or some form of sexual vampire.

The rest of the book – without going into any more spoilers – is David gradually losing his mind as Marianna continues to visit and his obsession spirals out of control, as does the sensation of being sucked dry (no dirty pun intended…). He and Ellen argue and an internal war rages within as David grapples with what he knows is right and the delicious, gratifying wrong that Marianna has poisoned his well with. He wants – needs – Marianna and his lust for her is all-powerful. At the same time, he is desperate to escape the cottage and get away before it is too late.

Unfortunately, it IS too late once the horrifying, supernatural truth about the enigmatic Marianna is revealed. Fortunately for the reader however, this is where the book kicks into overdrive and everything comes to a wild head. If Earthbound had been a slow-burner before, peppered with flat spots and dull dialogue, the endgame more than makes up for it. Seriously, it comes from nowhere and is a chaotic rush of madness and plot twists.

As I have no doubt suggested, I didn’t immediately take to Earthbound with much enthusiasm but by the time I reached the book’s conclusion, I was left a little breathless by the sudden rush of events. In fact, it made me look back at the book as a whole and realise that the dull bits were just part of the suspense. I think I was expecting straight-up horror but while Earthbound certainly has that, it is more of a psyhological story. The description of David’s mind and thoughts as he slowly drowns in his obsession for Marianna for example is rich and almost disturbing.

Thing is though, I think most of us can relate to being obsessed with another person that we are infatuated with on a near-toxic, unhealthy level. We know it is senseless and irrational with no chance of a happy, wholesome ending. I know I certainly can and I was reminded of the dark time in my life when I’m ashamed to admit that I was a slave to a woman’s beauty, my mind akin to a runaway minecart. And while my own experiences pale drastically next to the supernatural forces and savage sex that David Cooper faces in Earthbound, I still saw murky reflections there. It made me feel a touch uncomfortable about myself as a human being and a man and that is, in my opinion, REAL horror that hits harder than any OTT gore or monsters could ever hope to.

My overall feeling about Earthbound is that it is a book that probably needs a second read-through in order to fully appreciate. I think being pre-armed with pre-existing knowledge of the characters (rather than being frustrated by the lack of explanation and scant characterisation of David and Ellen early on) would help the reader enjoy the suspense and pyschological aspects of the book that much more.

Red or Blue pill?

Don’t worry; you haven’t stumbled across the diary of a drug addict. This is simply me being incredibly original uninspired and treading a well-beaten path, about to get my analogy on and talk about pills that are far more powerful than any Class A drug.

I’m fairly confident that most of you have watched 1999’s The Matrix but if you are perhaps too young to have been there at the time, first of all, stop making me feel old damn it. Second of all, you should go and watch it. Actually…don’t. In period, The Matrix blew our minds with cutting-edge CGI and the infamous “bullet time” effect, the latter of which was subsequently imitated just as much as electronic products are imitated by dodgy Chinese copycats. I haven’t watched The Matrix for some years now but I have a sneaking suspicion that it hasn’t aged particularly well; less so in the eyes of anybody viewing the movie for the first time in 2019. And the less said about the sequels, the better.

There’s a funny thing about The Matrix though. When we were younger, we came away from the movie wowed by the fights, bullets hanging in mid-air and – if you were a boy – Carrie-Anne Moss in leather. Today however, I take something else away from The Matrix – something more resonant with REAL life. I am of course talking about Neo being asked by Morpheus to choose between the red and blue pills. Back in ’99, Neo’s decision was simply part of a sci-fi plot in a futuristic bit of popcorn fodder. The deepest thinking that I can recall doing in relation to The Matrix‘s plot is wondering whether WE were also living in a Matrix created by Terminator-like machines or even aliens. How even that level of theorising managed to take place in a teenage imagination otherwise filled with videogames and women’s breasts is a wonder in itself.

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[Source]
But now I’m far more interested in the symbolism behind the red and blue pills, and Neo’s choice. In The Matrix, taking the blue pill will allow Neo to remain in the false world of the Matrix, living a comfortable, ‘normal’ life of acceptance and ignorance. Opting for the red pill on the other hand is to choose to wake up and enter the real world. This ‘real’ world is a world of war and hardship where the last humans are fighting for their freedom against the machines and computers that all but destroyed mankind. The machines’ human victims are kept in stasis, their electrical energy harvested while they “live” in the Matrix. They live in a dream, unaware of the truth.

Away from the big screen and back to reality, I believe that we all have a choice between a red and a blue pill. We are choosing which pill to swallow every single morning when we wake up. We choose which pill to take whenever we make a decision. We choose every time we interact with life and the world around us.

Anybody who plays around with the red/blue pill analogy probably has their own definitions of what it means to choose between the two but for clarification, these are MY definitions and just my personal opinion on the idea:

The Blue Pill – To live a life governed by materialism and following the crowd. To not question authority. To keep oneself “drugged” on entertainment, material items and celebrity rather than seeking to improve oneself and push back against the system.

The Red Pill – To reject materialism and blind consumerism. To not be easily influenced by the views and lifestyles of others. To question the oppressive nature of the system here in the “democratic” and “free” Western world and to push back when necessary. To be yourself and not try to fit into a mould of another’s creation.

If you happen to be a hardcore revolutionary and are expecting me to suddenly morph into an anti-authoritarian guerilla fighter then I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you though. Perhaps you think I’m taking the pussy-boy halfway house approach to knocking back a red pill but I cannot escape the fact that I am a child of “the system” and as such, waking up fully isn’t an instantaneous process. We have been moulded and shaped into what we are by parents who might not have been aware that it had happened to them and as such, we cannot lay the blame at their feet.

Education and governments are to blame. Corporations, greed and capitalism too.

So yes, while I have been shunning materialism more and more as of late, I’m still materialistic to a degree and I highly doubt I will ever not own anything of material value. Likewise, I am still living in the system and working a crappy job; still living by the rules of a society that I often disagree with on a daily basis.

But asking questions and taking a look outside of the box is the first step to – hopefully – a better life as I see it. I have plans for further posts linked in to this subject coming up very soon where I look at the likes of education, The System and reassessing life and our surroundings.

 

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #5: Monster Blood (R.L. Stine, 1992)

MB-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

I have to begin this particular review with a little mystery. If you have read the previous entries in this series then you may be thinking that I’ve made a mistake in a title. After all, the previous book – The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – was dated 1993 so why are we going BACK to 1992 for the next book in the series? Well, the copyright page of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb stated “First Published in the US by Scholastic Inc., 1993”. Here, with Monster Blood, it states 1992. Though all of these books look uniform in terms of covers, I definitely have a mix of editions on my hands. After all, the prices for these books began at £2.99 in the UK before rising to £3.50 and then – finally – £3.99. What’s more, these prices are printed on the back of the books so it’s clear whether you have an original or newer printing in your hands. That said, the copyright pages don’t ever change and only show the date of the first UK publication. In addition to that, they could have printed these books and updated the copyright pages a billion times over and it still shouldn’t affect the original US publication date.

The only solution I can offer is that Monster Blood was published before The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb in the US and the order of release was switched about for the UK. I haven’t looked into it though so feel free to enlighten me on the truth in the comments if you know! Anyway, that’s enough rambling about publication dates. Onto Monster Blood

The Blurb

Evan’s not too happy about staying with his weird Aunt Kathryn – she gives him the creeps!. But at least he’s found a friend, and they’ve discovered a great toyshop, selling really cool things – like Monster Blood.

But there’s something very strange about this Monster Blood – it seems to be growing…and growing…and growing…

And what’s more, it’s developed an appetite – a monstrous appetite!

We’ve arrived at one of the most iconic series’ in Goosebumps’ run and one of the longest-lasting. There are four Monster Blood installments in total with Monster Blood IV completing the original run of 62 books. This here though, is where it all begins. Evan’s parents are having trouble re-locating to a new home in Atlanta and so, while they are busy sorting out adult affairs, they leave Evan with his Aunt Kathryn. Thing is, Aunt Kathryn is pretty sinister, looks like a witch and is completely deaf. Evan is also in an unfamiliar neighbourhood where he knows nobody and so it doesn’t look like a fun summer is on the cards.

Fortunately, he chances upon a new friend – Andy (full name, Andrea – she’s a girl don’t you know?) – and finds some form of escape from Kathryn’s house at least. Andy suggests that they go into the nearby town where there is a toy shop.

Evan hesitated. He hadn’t told his Aunt he was going into town. But what the heck, he thought. She wouldn’t care.

Besides, What could possibly happen?

Oh nothing much…apart from finding a strange tin in the shop’s back room labelled “Monster Blood”, the contents of which will lead to supernatural horror. Just your standard trip to the local store, huh? While they are in the shop, there is another really dated 90’s moment which I should save for the “Incredibly Dated Segment” at the end of this review but I’ve used the Nintendo card several times in a row now so I’ll just include it here.

“Do they have Nintendo games?” Evan asked her, whispering, afraid to break the still silence.

“I don’t think so,” Andy whispered back. “I’ll ask.” She shouted up to the front, “Do you have Nintendo games?”

It took a while for the man to answer. He scratched his ear. “Don’t stock them,” he grunted finally, sounding annoyed by the interruption.

I’m starting to wonder if Stine was sponsored by Nintendo. Of course, the truth is that Nintendo as a brand was just THAT big in society back in the 80’s and early 90’s so I shouldn’t be surprised that it finds it’s way into children’s fiction.

Anyway, Evan purchases the tin of Monster Blood from the shop (much to owner’s annoyance since Evan simply waltzes into an off-limits back room and picks it up from a shelf of crap) and then he and Andy mess about with the slimy contents, unaware of what the (very) near future holds. The Monster Blood begins to grow, becoming too much for the original container to hold. Evan and Andy have to keep finding new ways to store the green goop and, as is Goosebumps tradition, none of the adults have even the slightest clue what is happening. Evan’s dog – Trigger – even gets away with growing in size after ingesting some Monster Blood and nobody else seems to see the problem – not even a vet who diagnoses Trigger’s sudden doubling in size as a late growth spurt!

At wit’s end, Evan and Andy have to resort to pouring the Monster Blood into dustbin but it soon escapes and begins a deadly rampage as the book reaches it’s endgame.

A robin, pulling at a worm in the grass, didn’t look up in time. The trembling green mass rolled over it.

“Oh!” Evan moaned, turning back to see the bird sucked into the green ball. It’s wings flapping frantically, the bird uttered a final cry, then disappeared inside.

Plop. Plop. Plop.

The Monster Blood changed direction, still bouncing and quivering, and leaving white stains on the grass like enormous round footsteps.

“It’s alive!” Andy screamed, her hands pressed against her cheeks. “Oh, my God – it’s ALIVE!”

Reading this book as adult, I can still appreciate the concept of the Monster Blood and the sinister description of the massive green blob as it begins absorbing people, looking to feed on living creatures. It is, of course, a complete rip-off of 1958’s The Blob, a classic horror movie about an ever-growing alien blob that devours the citizens of a town. Unoriginal it may be but I still enjoyed Monster Blood as a ‘lite’ version of The Blob.

Until the conclusion that is. You’d hope for an interesting explanation as to the origins of the Monster Blood substance, especially given how creepy the toy shop and its odd owner were. Unfortunately, everything falls to shit at the end so if you somehow haven’t already read this book, prepare for spoilers and all that.

As it turns out, the Monster Blood itself isn’t evil or a sentient creature. Y’see, Aunt Kathryn really IS a witch and she was forced to place a spell on the otherwise inert Monster Blood by ANOTHER witch that had been disguised as her cat – Sarabeth – all along. Sarabeth is also responsible for Aunt Kathryn’s deafness and had been keeping her captive for the last twenty years. Where had Sarabeth came from and for what reason did she move in with Kathryn and decide to keep her under her control? And why did she decide to kill Evan and Andy in the most obtuse, ridiculous manner possible? It’s a bizarre finale that takes away the mystery of the Monster Blood with a load of partially explained (and that’s being generous) nonsense about witches and black magic.

The ending feels extremely cheap, almost as if somebody else wrote it at the last minute. Naturally, the Monster Blood – now shrunk back to its original volume – disappears while everybody is preoccupied with attempting to wrap their brains around the nutty events that had just transpired. I thought this stuff was only alive thanks to the (now broken) spell? I guess we will have to wait for Monster Blood II

The Cover

On a more positive note, I LOVE the cover for Monster Blood. The tin looks evil as fuck with a jack-o-lantern style face and glowing red eyes peering out from the dark innards of the can. It’s worth remembering that the can isn’t depicted like this in the story but this is the kind of artistic liberty that I can wholeheartedly approve of.

The incredibly dated bit

I wonder if Aunt Kathryn has a video, he thought. He quickly dismissed the idea. No way…

A nice little flashback there to the days of VHS tapes and VCRs. In fact, this book is SO old that it was still feasible to assume that people didn’t even have video players…

The nostalgia rating

Pretty high with this one as Monster Blood is one of the more recognisable books in the series. While I didn’t remember how that terrible ending played out, I did recall most of the other events in the book so it must have stuck in my brain.

Up Next: Let’s Get Invisible!

Movie Talk: Raw Deal (Schwarzenegger, 1986)

Raw-3Release Year: 1986   |   Directed By: John Irvin   |   Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathryn Harrold, Darren McGavin, Sam Wanamaker, Paul Shenar, Steven Hill, Ed Lauter, Joe Regalbuto, Robert Davi, Blanche Baker

“Raw Deal” is a fitting title for this Schwarzenegger action movie because that’s exactly what I have seen critics give it. Wooden acting on behalf of Ahnold and a non-dynamic plot were to blame but I think the standards of these critics must be too high because Raw Deal is just raw (pun totally intended) fun. Still with a 25% rating on the ever-reliable (lol) Rotten Tomatoes and Wikipedia entries such as,

Though the film doubled its production budget at the box office, its earnings were a disappointment.

you could be forgiven for assuming that Raw Deal is a blip in Schwarzenegger’s career that you shouldn’t waste your time on.

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“WRONG!”

 

This film is – critically speaking – a shit film but it’s one of those films that is entertaining because of how dumb it is and because of how stiff Schwarzenegger’s acting is. Look, not all movies need to be thoughtful or clever pieces of writing. Sometimes you just want to kick back and enjoy the kind of 1980’s menu that a movie like Raw Deal serves up: Arnie in his element as an unstoppable one man wrecking machine, bodies piling up by the second, a sexy big-haired 80’s girl with plunging cleavage, quotable one-liners galore and repulsive villains getting their just desserts.

To give the critics some due (but only some), the plot is pretty disposable and only really an excuse for Arnie to go around shooting gangsters and generally being a badass. He plays former FBI agent, Mark Kaminski, who was forced to unceremoniously resign from his post due to his heavy-handed approach to apprehending a scumbag child molester. Brown-nosing FBI prosecuter, Marvin Baxter, gave him the option to “resign or be prosecuted. Any way you want it”. Kaminski lands on his feet (sort of) with a Sheriff’s job in small middle-of-nowhere town where they have no friends and nothing ever happens, much to the misery of his wife, Amy, who has taken to drinking to blot it all out.

But then Kaminski is contacted by old FBI pal, Harry Shannon. Harry’s son, Blair, has been killed while protecting a witness crucial to a big case against Chicago gangster, Luigi Patrovita. Harry is determined to seek revenge and asks Kaminski if he will go undercover on an off-grid, privately-funded operation to infiltrate Patrovita’s organisation and destroy it from within. Additionally, it is also apparent that somebody within the FBI has been bought by Patrovita’s organisation hence why their witnesses keep getting assassinated. In order to be convincing, Kaminski has to fake his own death in a massive chemical plant explosion and not tell anybody else the truth, even his wife.

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You’ll see this – a LOT. [Source]
The reason for agreeing to all of this? Reinstatement with the FBI. Though I can’t help but think that such extreme commitment for such a dangerous job on Kaminski’s end doesn’t quite equal Harry’s promise of “possible reinstatement”…for completing an unsanctioned operation! It’s a good job that Harry is his friend and that Kaminski wants to see Amy happy again…

The way that all of the backstory is told is fairly unimaginative too. Big in-depth recollections are simply brought up in conversation with Amy and then Harry and delivered monologue-style by Kaminski. But – as I said – you don’t watch a film like Raw Deal for a complex storyline and clever scripting.

You watch it for the resulting action. Kaminski goes undercover with a false ID, posing as Joseph P. Brenner, a convicted felon. He gets inside Patrovita’s organisation and then the fun begins. This is one of those classic 80’s action films where the hero guns down a never-ending supply of enemy goons that are seemingly unable to shoot straight. Arnie takes no hits at all as he blows away enemies. There are explosions and punches that sound like explosions for good measure. It’s just so entertaining. Especially when thugs are shot or punched and go flying silly distances, crashing through windows or into bar serveries. The fake blood is terrible and there are no end of conveniences such as when Kaminski steals a truck that just happens to have the keys left in the ignition. Or when he needs to escape a cemetery later on in the film and Monique roars up in a car with no explanation as to how she knew where he was!

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Kathryn Harrold plays Monique, the staple big-haired, big-eyed sexy 80’s girl that every action film from the era needs. [Source]
It all leads up to one final massive shoot-out in Patrovita’s offices, preceeded (of course) by a dramatic tooling-up montage of guns being loaded to some heavy electric guitar sounds. You know that Arnie is going to decimate the enemy and walk out completely unruffled but who gives a fuck about realism? This is a tour-de-force of destruction and henchmen getting what they deserve. It’s feel-good justice and pure entertainment that doesn’t need to apologise for what it does.

So yes, Raw Deal probably isn’t a “good” film on critical terms. Heck, it’s not even one of Schwarzenegger’s greatest hits. But this is still 1980’s, one man army action at it’s silliest. You aren’t meant to take films like this seriously or analyse their plots. You sit back, shut the fuck up and switch your brain off for 105 minutes. And there’s nothing wrong with doing that.

Book Talk: Lancelot (Giles Kristian, 2018)

Lance-1Sometimes, you just pick up books on a whim, not expecting anything at all, but finding that you have a real gem in your hands. Lancelot by Giles Kristian is one such book. I had nothing to read so picked this out at random from Tesco’s book section. It ticked several boxes: it was cheap (only £4), it was something different from an author I am unfamiliar with and – most importantly – it was based on ancient Britain which meant knights, castles and a medieval setting.

More specifically, this is a re-imaging of the Arthurian legends. The likes of King Arthur himself, Guinevere, Merlin and – of course – Lancelot are all present in this book but rather than re-treading familiar ground, Giles Kristian puts his own spin on the story and in the process, gains some creative freedom. The same key events from the famous Arthurian legend transpire here but the way everything is woven together is all original as are the characters and their personalities. Kristian also manages to minimise the use of fantastical magic and sorcery in his book, grounding the tale in reality with supernatural elements playing a clear second fiddle to physical battle and the actions of men rather than directly controlling or influencing events. The Lady of the Lake for example is a real woman and while the book hints at her mystical abilities, she is still a human being who ages like anybody else and uses herbs and ointments to heal instead of magical powers.

The story is told in the first-person from Lancelot’s point-of-view, making the famous knight the protagonist and “hero” of the tale. The book begins with Lancelot as a young boy living in Gaul, the son of King Ban of Benoic. His father’s lands are overrun by King Claudas, forcing Lancelot’s family to flee. King Ban’s brother – Lancelot’s uncle – betrays the family but fortunately, Lancelot survives the resulting slaughter after being rescued by the mysterious Lady Nimue (the aforementioned reimagining of the Lady of the Lake) and her men, including the warrior, Pelleas who goes on to become a father figure of sorts to Lancelot.

I take a man’s head from his shoulders and turn just in time to see the big Saxon driving his spear into Tormaigh’s throat latch. The stallion screams and swings his head at the saxon, blood spraying from the wound, and he stumbles on, carrying me forward still, towards Arthur. He and Gawain loom above the swarming enemy, hacking and thrusting, unable to turn their mounts now for the press, the two of them shining above the sea of grey like a sunset on the edge of the western sea.

From there, the story follows Lancelot as he grows into a man on the island of Karrek Loos yn Koos just off the south-western coast of Britain. He learns to become a warrior and quickly establishes himself as the most gifted and able young swordsman of all the boys training to be ‘Guardians of the Mount’ on the island. It is on the island that he meets Guinevere for the first time (after rescuing her from a sinking ship) and falls madly in love only to have her snatched away by circumstances outside of his control. Life on the island of Karrek Loos is only the prologue of Lancelot’s life however. He goes on to meet Arthur and become his close friend and sworn sword as Arthur quests to become the rightful High King of Britain, a country he is determined to defend from a ceaseless onslaught of Saxon invaders.

The last medieval type of story I read was the fantasy-orientated Song of Ice and Fire books (a.k.a Game of Thrones) and like those books, there is a great deal of richly-described battle in Lancelot. I wouldn’t say that things are as gratuitously graphic and gory as in Martin’s epic saga but Kristian is pretty unrestrained so you get a fairly mature and realistic description of battles and butchery. There are also many plot twists, betrayals and deaths of main characters without warning and this kept me reading, unable to put the book down at times.

There is also the central tragedy of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love for each other, a love that is seemingly vetoed by the wheels of fate at every corner. Their story is a constant vein flowing through the years of Lancelot’s life. Every time it seems that there is a chance for the lovers to finally be as one, there are bigger events and other people who get in the way. Lancelot is a man utterly bewitched by Guinevere and he never ceases thinking about her, even in the years where they are apart. His passion for her incites tragedy down the line and overrides the grand plans of Merlin and The Lady, plans which seem otherwise pre-destined and immovable until one man’s love for a woman he cannot have proves to be the most powerful force of all.

In the years since I had last seen her, there had not been a day when I had not thought of Guinevere. Whether I wielded a sword and shield, learning the arts of war, or swam around the Mount. Whether I was picking mussels off the rocks at low tide, climbing down the ledges in search of gulls’ eggs, honing blades, polishing the men’s war gear or eating in the communal hut. There was a moment of every day, be it as fleeting as a sparrow darting into a lord’s hall then out of the smoke hole, that I thought of Guinevere.

At those most often unexpected times, when I was not on my guard against it, she came on me like a stab wound. A wound which, though hidden from sight, never scabbed over. And even when she did not come with sudden, sharp and unbidden anguish, she was always with me; a dull ache deep in my chest. An ever-present absence. Guinevere.

The most striking thing about Lancelot however is the author’s writing style. Kristian’s prose is poetic and lyrical with descriptions and detail often indulgent and romantic, overflowing with metaphors and similes. He paints extremely vivid pictures and I ended up growing attached to all of the characters, especially Lancelot who the reader goes on a journey with. Lancelot is technically the traitor and adulterer of the Arthurian legend and even with the knowledge of what is probably going to happen towards the end of the book, I still found myself rooting for him. Unfortunately, this is a brutal age of war for Britain and Kristian doesn’t betray that background in favour of fairytale endings or idealism.

Her hair, which had never used to stay where it was put, was now braided and coiled and set in place with silver pins. Her skin, which though ever pale had used to be flushed from wind and sun, was as white as marble. Her eyes were dark with kohl and green with malachite, and her lips were red. Her chest swelled beneath a dress of green silk and a silver wolf’s pelt, and that dress, hemmed with silver thread, reached almost to the ground, so that only a glimpse of her silver-studded tan leather shoes could be seen. At her neck she wore a fine torc of twisted silver and around her upper right arm coiled a silver serpent with a red garnet eye.

And I could not find my breath.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough to anybody who has an interest in the Arthurian legend or medieval fiction. You feel the story as much you read it and thanks to Giles Kristian’s writing style, Lancelot quickly becomes a real page-turner – an epic journey through the years of one man’s life. This book was a genuine surprise for me but I have to say that, on the strength of Lancelot alone, I shall certainly be looking into the rest of Kristian’s work.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #4: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (R.L. Stine, 1993)

curse-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

With The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Goosebumps moved into 1993. It was business as usual though with more false scares, more oblivious adults and more far-fetched plot conclusions. But remember: these are childrens books! For the fourth book in the series, Stine set his sights on a more cliched horror movie theme involving Egyptian tombs and mummies which may or may not be as dormant as they seem.

The Blurb

Gabe and his know-it-all cousin Sari can’t wait to explore the pyramids of Egypt with his favourite uncle – an archaeologist – as their personal guide. It’ll be really cool!

But Gabe never realised how big pyramids are, or how many hundreds of tunnels they have. It’s too easy to get lost, and end up face to face with an ancient mummy!

But Gabe isn’t THAT scared. After all, there isn’t really any such thing as the curse of the mummy’s tomb…is there?

Mummies and ancient Egyptian chambers are right up there with aliens as the things that creep me out on an irrational level and it seems that I can’t be the only one if this book exists to scare younger readers.

There isn’t really much to say about The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb because it’s a pretty straightforward book that relies on the stupidity of the characters to progress the story. The way that Gabe and Sari ignore Uncle Ben’s advice and wander off alone in an unmapped tomb for example. Or how they ignore him yet again and leave the hotel room…that’s a pair of twelve year-olds wandering around Cairo on their own! Then there’s Gabe’s shoelace always coming untied at the worst moments.

Speaking of Gabe, I found him to be a really irritating ass of a character, especially at the book’s opening where he is whining about needing a drink for at least three pages.

Not now?

What does “not now” mean? I was thirsty. NOW!

Jeez, give it a rest!

And I can’t ignore the section where they are inside the pyramid and Gabe’s shoelace comes undone for the gajillionth time, leaving him separated from Uncle Ben and Sari. He ends up wandering around alone when the floor breaks apart under his feet and he plunges into a chamber full of mummies and ancient embalming equipment. After several pages of panic, his cousin, Sari, finally finds him. Except Gabe is now more interested in showing Uncle Ben what he “discovered”.

“Yeah. Wow,” I said, starting to feel a bit more like normal. “The chamber is filled with mummies. And there are all kinds of tools and cloth and everything you need to make a mummy. It’s all in perfect shape, as if it hasn’t been touched for thousands of years.” I couldn’t hide my excitement. “And I discovered it all,” I added.

The end is pretty ridiculous too but this IS a Goosebumps book so I have to let it off…a little bit. Long story short, Gabe carries a creepy mummified hand around in his pocket as a good luck charm (as all kids do – obviously!). He acquired this hand from a random garage sale back in America but it conveniently turns out to be the hand of the ancient Egyptian priestess, Khala. Trapped at the edge of a bubbling tar pit by the evil Ahmed, Gabe pulls the hand from his pocket and instinctively raises it up. The mummies in the chamber come to life and attack Ahmed and even though one of them grabs the villain by the throat and raises him off the ground, the mummy simply lets him go and Ahmed gets to run away screaming. It’s almost as if Stine started to write Ahmed’s grisly comeuppance then remembered the age of his target audience and chickened out.

Overall, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb isn’t one of my favourite Goosebumps books and it never was, even when I was a child. I think it’s more down to the fact that the plot isn’t as creative or original as many of the other entries in this series.

The Cover

Well, there’s a mummy. It doesn’t look very scary either, truth be told. It looks comical and a bit campy. It also looks like it’s doing the jazz hands.

The incredibly dated bit

She thought she was really hot stuff because she could get to the last level of Super Mario Land. But it wasn’t fair because I don’t have Super Nintendo, only standard Nintendo. So I never get to practice.

Need I say much more? Also, I have to pause for a moment and be a big nerd here, pointing out that Stine didn’t do his his research very well. Super Mario Land is a Gameboy game – not a Super Nintendo game!

The nostalgia rating

Honestly, not very high with The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb. I have more nostalgia for its sequel (which we will get to eventually) since it was one of the first Goosebumps books I was given for a birthday, kick-starting my collection.

Up Next: Monster Blood

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #3: Stay Out of the Basement (R.L.Stine, 1992)

basement-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

Stay out of the Basement was a very interesting re-read. My younger self never considered it to be one of his favourites in the Goosebumps series and so the 2019 edition of Me had little enthusiasm for reading it again as part of this epic revisit. However, I really enjoyed it this time around and found new appreciation for the general premise. That’s what this series is all about really: looking at these books through adult eyes and seeing if I have a different response to what I’m reading. Onto the blurb:

The Blurb

Dr Brewer is spending a LOT of time down in the basement, and Margaret and Casey Brewer think their dad has been acting pretty strangely lately.

Maybe it’s just  a little harmless plant-testing. After all, he IS a botanist, and he needs something to do now that he’s lost his job.

But now he’s developing distinctly plant-like tendencies and Margaret and Casey are worried. What’s going on down there? It’s getting harder and harder to stay out of the basement!

The main reason I enjoyed Stay out of the Basement so much more this time around was because I appreciated the creepy, sinister sci-fi horror vibe of the plot. Nothing in the Goosebumps universe is what we’d call “realistic” but this is one of the more believable horror tales from the series. There is no supernatural monster or aliens involved. This is science run amok. The majority of the book is about the mystery of Margaret and Casey’s botanist father and his suspicious activity in the basement. Being twelve and eleven year-olds respectively, the temptation to disobey their father’s strict instructions to not enter the basement proves to be overwhelming. Their dad hasn’t been speaking to them too much of late and he spends most of his time down in the basement with his plant experiments, rarely coming up for air.

His fury at their intrusion scares the living bejeezus out of the Margaret and Casey but only fuels their curiosity. Why is he so secretive about the basement and so vague about what he is up to? Thus begins the mystery. Margaret and Casey find some strange plants in the basement that sound alive, as if they are breathing but that is far from the worst of it. Their dad is changing, becoming almost plant-like. It’s this creepy transformation and the tension within the house that I really enjoyed.

When she was sure that he had gone downstairs, Margaret walked eagerly into the kitchen. She had to know what her father had been eating so greedily, so hungrily.

She pulled open the door under the sink, reached into the rubbish bin, and pulled out the crinkled-up bag.

Then she gasped aloud as her eyes ran over the label.

Her father, she saw, had been devouring plant food.

There is also a really sinister scene that takes place at night. Margaret decides that she is going to confront her shifty father over the freaky anomalies that she and her brother have noticed and straight-up ask him what is going on. However, she witnesses him bleeding bright green fluid into the bathroom sink (as opposed to human blood) and sneaks away before he notices her behind him.

Margaret pulled the covers up to her chin. She realised she was trembling, her whole body shaking and chilled.

She held her breath and listened.

She could still hear water splashing into the bathroom sink..

But no footsteps.

He isn’t coming after me, she told herself, letting out a long, silent sigh.

How could I have thought that? How could I have been so terrified – of my own father?

Terrified.

It was the first time the word had crossed her mind.

But sitting there in bed, trembling so violently, holding onto the covers so hard, listening for his approaching footsteps, Margaret realised that she WAS terrified.

Of her own father.

And yes, I am very aware that the above quote could be taken way out of context and linked to much darker, horrible scenarios. The thought crossed my mind when I was reading the above passage so I guess that’s one downside to trying to read a children’s book with an adult mindset.

The endgame of the book and the explanations for everything were also pretty creepy and though the execution is typically rushed and a little ridiculous, it doesn’t spoil the tone that the preceeding three-quarters of Stay out of the Basement establishes. Dr Brewer had accidentally discovered the ability to fuse plant DNA with human DNA hence the bizarre vegetation that seemed a little TOO lifelike. In a twist of events, the kids’ father also accidentally created a plant-based clone of himself that was so life-like, it was able to take his place while the real Dr Brewer was kept captive. The kids come face-to-face with both versions of their father and have to choose which one to believe and which one to kill with an axe.

As with Say Cheese and Die!, I finished Stay out of the Basement and thought that it would be another perfect candidate for a more grown-up, eery suspense-filled horror movie. More importantly, I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the book as much as I did considering my preconception of it being one of the weaker Goosebumps releases.

The Cover

It’s a face surrounded by leaves and the bubbling slime is an appropriate green colour this time. Not one of my favourite Goosebumps covers but it does at least accurately represent the plot.

The incredibly dated bit

There were actually two amusingly dated bits that leapt out at me so I’m not going to choose between them.

Margaret moved closer. She felt sorry for Casey. He and their dad were really close, always ball or frisbee or Nintendo together.

This is SO 1980’s/early 90’s. It harks back to a more primitive time in the world of videogames when Nintendo’s NES and SNES systems were so popular and all-conquering in the US that you weren’t just playing computer games; you were playing Nintendo. The power of the household name that Nintendo had acquired would soon be dramatically eroded when Sony’s Playstation hit the scene in 1994/95.

They looked through some old magazines in Margaret’s room, listening to some tapes that Margaret had recently bought.

“Tapes” and “recently bought”…need I say any more?

The nostalgia rating

Reasonably high. The book – largely helped by the outdated aspects quoted above – feels totally early-nineties. Obviously, I don’t have massive nostalgia for Stay out of the Basement as a Goosebumps book though because, as already stated, I kind of didn’t really like it as a kid.

Up Next: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb