Book Talk: Topical Reading…

The world is currently on lockdown due to a certain virus (seriously, just fuck off already) and, as a result, it’s a bit gloomy out there (understatement of 2020, I’m sure). So what did I decide to do to cheer myself up?

Bake cakes?
Binge some boxsets?
Get stuck into a time-sink of a videogame?

No, no and no. I actually decided to read a book about a government-developed virus that escapes, wipes out most of the human race, and draws a line under society and civilisation as we know it. Of course.

The book in question would be Stephen King’s The Stand – a book widely regarded as one of his greatest epics. The regular version of The Stand is good and all but, for me, the only option is the seriously hefty Complete and Uncut Edition – a fat tome that surpasses 1400 pages.

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I have read this book before but it’s one of a handful of Stephen King novels that I’ve only experienced once. This whole virus situation reminded me of The Stand‘s plot so I decided to dig the book out and cross it off the “to re-read” list. After all, I recalled really enjoying it the first time around, and they do say that you should always go back for seconds of a good thing.

If you aren’t familiar with the Uncut edition of The Stand, then here is a brief explanation straight from the mouth of King himself:

For the purposes of this book, what’s important is that approximately four hundred pages of manuscript were deleted from the final draft. The reason was no an editorial one; if that had been the case, I would be content to let the book live its life and die its eventual death as it was originally published.
The cuts were made at the behest of the accounting department. They toted up production costs, laid these next to the hardcover sales of my previous four books, and decided that a cover price of £6.95 was about what the market would bear (compare that price to this one, friends and neighbours!).

I haven’t restored all four hundred of the missing pages; there is a difference between doing it right and just being downright vulgar. Some of what was left on the cutting room floor when I turned in the truncated version deserved to be left there, and there it remains. Other things, such as Frannie’s confrontation with her mother early in the book, seem to add that richness and dimension that I, as a reader, enjoy deeply.

The end result is that an already-great book became even better, thanks to that extra dimension and character development.

And while that character development is ongoing during the book’s early phases, the Captain Trips virus is spreading throughout America in a way that eerily mirrors the current Covid-19 outbreak. Captain Trips is far more lethal, but the ease with which it spreads certainly prodded the paranoia lurking at the back of my mind.

The main characters and their backstories are gradually introduced to the reader even while Captain Trips is doing its thing in the background. It begins with the odd mention here and there of a supporting or very minor character suffering with a “summer cold” or a runny nose, and  – at first – it seems pretty innocuous, even though we (the reader) know what the real deal is. It allows the main characters (who obviously have a natural immunity to the virus) to unfold within the pages while the virus remains ever-present in the background. It’s fairly chilling, and almost comparable to a horror movie ghoul creeping up on an unsuspecting victim, because you just KNOW that the lives and supporting cast of each character can’t outrun the indiscriminate, killer virus forever. At some point, it will step into the foreground and demand recognition. It reminds me of how Covid-19 began as a mid-tier news item on the TV before it dominated our every waking minute.

I’m not going to go too deep into The Stand or even review it properly in this post but, suffice to say, things get a LOT worse, very rapidly, and some very shady shit goes down as the US government and the military attempt to cover their tracks and stop a crumbling society from uncovering the truth; that their own leaders developed and inadvertedly released the killer virus.

That’s all just the first act of the book, mind. I told you it was huuuuuge.

Oh, and it also stars one of my all-time favourite fictional villains: the evil Randall Flagg who has appeared in numerous King books such as The Dark Tower and The Eyes of the Dragon. That alone makes The Stand worth reading for me.

Book Review: Joyland Illustrated Edition (Stephen King, 2015)

DSC_0118Year: 2015 (Illustrated Edition), 2013 (original)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
Format: Hardcover (Illustrated Edition)
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9781783295326

[note: this is a slightly tweaked version of a review previously published on my other blog, in 2018]

College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life – and what comes after – that would change his world forever.

A riveting story about love and loss, about growing up and growing old – and about those who don’t get to do either because death comes for them before their time – Joyland is Stephen King at the peak of his storytelling powers. With all the emotional impact of King masterpieces such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Joyland is at once a mystery, a horror story, and a bittersweet coming-of-age novel, one that will leave even the most hard-boiled of readers profoundly moved.

As an avid Stephen King follower who has read almost everything by the author, I have to begin this review by admitting that I consider most of his modern output to live in the shadows cast by his earlier, more horror-centric classics such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot and Christine. Don’t get me wrong though: I love the newer books and never fail to get into them proper but it’s rare that I can wax lyrical about them as I can with the old stuff.

Joyland is a rare and welcome exception though. The book is short by Stephen King standards and – here in the UK at least – was published under the “Hard Case Crime” banner so it was a little different straight away. In fact, Joyland‘s release had somehow passed me by until I was given it as a Christmas gift back in 2013.

Joyland‘s story is brief but powerful and contains a splash of the supernatural (it IS a Stephen King book, after all) but is largely grounded in reality and tells the story of Devin Jones, a young college student who takes a summer job at a carnival-style amusement park called Joyland. It is at Joyland that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. The central plot strand running through Joyland focuses on a series of unsolved, violent murders – the last one occuring at the park itself – and while Devin’s investigation of these killings is the vehicle that keeps the story moving, Joyland is actually much more.

Joyland is a story about love, being young and foolish and growing up. We’ve all been there at Devin’s age and through his eyes I was able to recall my own similar experiences, flawed perceptions and heartaches. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but, as we eventually learn in real life, happy endings aren’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road. If I had to pick just one theme from Joyland that I especially enjoyed, then I would have to go with the the theme of growth. The book is short by Stephen King standards but, even so, the reader gets to share Devin’s journey as circumstances force him to mature from a lost university student – only out for some summer work – into a young adult.

That was my afternoon for provoking tears. First Eddie, now Annie. Mike was dry-eyed, though, and he looked every but as furious as I felt. But he said nothing as she grabbed the handles of his wheelchair, spun it around, and drove it at the door. I thought she was going to crash into them, but the magic eye got them open just in time.
Let them go, I thought, but I was tired of letting women go. I was tired of just letting things happen to me and then feeling bad about them.
A nurse approached me. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” I said, and followed them out.

As I’ve said, the book is short yet King nevertheless manages to squeeze a lot of emotion, rich detail and believable character development into such a limited space. Joyland packs a real punch without being a novel of three to four times the size and it hooked me quicker and harder than many of his bigger, more sprawling books. Most of all though, the story and characters are incredibly endearing and it was the kind of book that I genuinely didn’t want to finish because I simply couldn’t get enough of the world that Stephen King had created within the pages of Joyland.

Overall I would recommend Joyland to any Stephen King fan without hesitation but even if you aren’t familiar with his work then I would be just as firm with my recommendation, because this is a great story with highly relatable characters that anybody can enjoy. What I’m saying is don’t be put off by King’s name being on the cover if you aren’t a fan of horror. Joyland has all the quality writing and authentic characterisation that are associated with the writer but it IS different.

The ‘Illustrated Edition’ is a special treat, too. This hardcover edition sports its own unique, gloriously pulpy cover art and contains more than twenty illustrations of varying (but always old-school) styles from Pat Kinsella, Robert McGinnes and Mark Summers. These – along with the purposely-manufactured crude deckle edge finish to the book – really make you feel as if you are holding a classic pulp mystery in your hands.

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Joyland is – without a doubt in my mind – one of the very best Stephen King books of the last decade. If you’ve missed this, then you need to give it a go ASAP.

Book Review: Cell (Stephen King, 2006)

cell-1Year: 2006
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (UK)
Format: Paperback (reviewed)
Pages: 350
ISBN: 9780340921531

[note: this is a slightly tweaked version of a review previously published on my other blog, in 2018]

On October 1, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and graphic artist Clayton Riddell is visiting Boston, having just landed a deal that might finally enable him to make art instead of teaching it. But all those good feelings about the future change in a hurry thanks to a devastating phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse. The delivery method is a cell phone – everyone’s cell phone. Now Clay and the the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilisation’s darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage and a relentless human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature…and then begins to evolve. There’s really no escaping this nightmare. But for Clay, an arrow points the way home to his family in Maine, and as he and his fellow refugees make their harrowing journey north, they begin to see the crude signs confirming their direction. A promise of a safe haven, perhaps, or quite possibly the deadliest trap of all…

Stephen King’s Cell is – in my opinion – the sort of book that becomes a bit more relevant with each passing year. The story’s broken civilisation setting is nothing new and the ‘journey’ format, starring a group of survivors heading out into a new world full of danger, has been done before by the same writer (see The Stand for one example) but the fact that mobile phones are the cause of doom and destruction? Well, that part seems more and more plausible with each passing year.

We do after all, live in a world where so many rely on their phone for so much. People are glued to them on buses, trains and even in social gatherings where they are supposed to be communicating with real people (remember those?). Drivers would rather risk crashing, whilst crawling in traffic, than missing a vital Facebook update and there is of course, an app for everything.

So Cell’s premise of a brain-scrambling virus distributed globally via mobile networks, and wiping any trace of civilisation from their owner’s minds, doesn’t seem so far-fetched as a form of cyber terrorism that could metaphorically nuke most of the world’s population in one fell swoop. The book doesn’t focus on who was responsible for this attack or where they orchestrated it from because that isn’t the point. Instead, Cell takes the reader on a journey with a group of survivors who are thrown together in the wake of this catastrophe because they were either fortunate enough to not have their phone with them or because they didn’t own one in the first place.

There is the typical rich, satisfying detail that you’d expect to find in a Stephen King book, especially with regards to the primal, unfeeling violence that those affected by the cellular virus (known as ‘The Pulse’) inflict on others in the immediate aftermath. It feels real and a fair prediction of what might actually happen should such an event hit a technology-reliant Western society. As with any Stephen King book, no punches are pulled when it comes to the description of the violence and gore and this only helps make the survivors’ situation feel even more vivid.

Once the initial impact of The Pulse has brought civilisation to its knees, Cell then focuses on the main characters and how their mental state responds to suddenly being thrust into a world drowning in nonsensical madness, where only the fittest will survive. The main character is an everyman up-and-coming artist named Clayton Riddell who just wants to get home and find his young son, hoping that he hasn’t switched his phone on and that he still lives. He joins up with other survivors – who have their own harrowing stories – and they set out to escape Boston, make sense of the situation and find safety.

I really enjoyed Cell the first time I read it and re-reading it today, in 2018, it was just as good. The characters are very likeable and relatable as ordinary, everyday people. The mental journey and development that they go through also feels believable and you – the reader – do feel as if you are on this journey with them (albeit in the safer confines of the real world!) and the book becomes an addictive page-turner like most of Stephen King’s output. I also really enjoyed the detail, the descriptions of the violence and the state of the ruined world.

It’s a testament to King’s writing, and the way that he crafts endearing characters, that Cell also managed to sucker-punch me, striking me right in the feels when one of the group is suddenly killed without warning. It came out of nowhere and genuinely made me angry towards the killer! I can’t say that I experience that sort of emotive response to a book very often.

If I have any criticisms of Cell then they would be the inconclusive ending (which kind of leaves the reader to decide on what ultimately happens) and the fact that some new allies are introduced during the latter stages of the book yet there isn’t really the time to explore their characters and get to like them as anything other than a late-game support cast. I found that I was only there to see what happened to Clay and his original companions, not the new additions to the group.

Overall though, Cell is a great book and one of the better ones in Stephen King’s ‘modern’ lineup. I do tend to prefer the older, horror/supernatural-orientated books but Cell still manages to feel a little like those past glories while also having the other foot planted in a more current era.

Book Review: The Compound Effect (Darren Hardy, 2010)

compound-effect-1Year: 2010
Author: Darren Hardy
Publisher: Da Capo Press (version reviewed)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 172
ISBN: 978-1-59315-724-1

No gimmicks. No hyperbole. No magic bullet. The Compound Effect is based on the principle that decisions shape your destiny. Little, everyday decisions will take you either to the life of success you desire or to disaster by default. Darren Hardy, publisher and editorial director of SUCCESS magazine, presents The Compound Effect, a distillation of the fundamental principles that have guided the most phenomenal achievements in business, relationships, and beyond.

I’m always interested in self-development books, especially if they promise to be something different. The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy did just that so I decided to give it a go.

It’s a good book with some practical ideas but I can’t say that it had the same sort of lasting effect that Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck did. I guess I prefer a straight-talking, cut-the-BS book that tells it like it is and forces you to realise and accept uncomfortable truths.

The premise behind The Compound Effect is sound. Hardy explains how positive, constructive actions stack up (or compound) over time and how the opposite is also true when we fill our faces with bad food, waste money on crap or slack off. Realistically, it’s all very basic stuff that we should already know but, to the book’s credit, the so-called ‘Compound Effect’ is illustrated with some particularly eye-opening examples. One that really made me sit up and pay attention was the cost of a $4.00 take-out coffee over an extended period of time. Assuming that you bought one of these on your way to work every week day (so five days), that’s $20.00 a week, $80.00 a month and almost $1,000.00 a year. Over a twenty year period? $51,833.79!

We all know that this is happening. It’s basic maths after all. But the sheer scale is pretty terrifying when it’s laid bare like that. This is Hardy’s Compound Effect in action and the point of the book is to get you to apply this to your own life in order to improve it.

This book is all about building consistency and momentum in your life in order to harness the power of the Compound Effect. It also goes into detail on adjusting the influences in your life (the people you associate with, the news you consume etc.), discovering what your “why” power is and not giving up in the face of adversity.

It’s all positive stuff but I felt that there were a few core points that were being dragged out via endless examples and figures/charts that were a little unnecessary. Also, despite the fact that this book is billed as a way to improve your overall life, it often seemed to be coming from a career/business/money-making angle, assuming that you – the reader – measure your success and self-worth by your status and bank balance. If, like me, you’ve already decided that this isn’t how you are going to define success or happiness, then it could be a deal-breaker.

Also, the book contains some worksheets at the back to use in conjunction with the different exercises that Hardy prescribes. The problem is that these aren’t the full versions and you can only obtain those by getting onto a mailing list at the book’s website. Once I did that, my email inbox was regularly spammed with advertisements for Hardy’s seminars and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the guy isn’t going to give up his time for nothing (and shouldn’t be expected to) but I would have thought that purchasing a full-price physical book was enough.

The Compound Effect is a decent book with some good ideas and messages that I will certainly take away with me. However, I don’t feel that is does a lot to dig deep into the human psyche and really help you overcome stubborn problems. It’s surface-level positivity that essentially tells you what you need to do but not necessarily how to remove existing mental roadblocks or explain why they are there in the first place.

As with all self-development books, however, this may have a greater impact on you than it did for me, depending on where you are currently at with your life and where you want to go.

 

 

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #12: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder (R.L. Stine, 1993)

piano-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 think it’s time to hand out an award: a trophy for the most bizarre title to appear on a Goosebumps book. I mean, just what can you expect from a book called “Piano Lessons Can Be Murder”? And let’s just take a moment to appreciate the inclusion of the word ‘Murder’ in the title of a children’s book. I mean, I’m not the sort of person who gives a crap, but I can imagine modern-day publishers perhaps wanting to steer away from using the word ‘Murder’. But then again, I’m not clued-up on current Young Fiction so maybe I’m way off the mark.

The Blurb

Jerry’s all set for piano lessons, especially now he’s got his own piano to practise on. But now he’s met Dr Shreek, his piano teacher, he’s not so sure…

Dr Shreek looks harmless, but there’s something really weird about him that Jerry can’t quite put his finger on. He gives Jerry the creeps…

And then Jerry hears stories about Dr Shreek’s other pupils…who went for a lesson, and were never seen again. But those stories can’t really be true…can they?

As with a great many Goosebumps books, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder opens with a kid moving to a new town and a new house. Jerry, his parents, and their cat, Bonkers (who Jerry absolutely detests) have just moved to the town of New Goshen. Jerry is twelve (again, another Goosebumps staple) and makes the rookie mistake of being a prankster, much to the exasperation of his parents. It’s a rookie mistake because when the old piano in the attic begins to play itself during the night, his parents instantly dismiss Jerry’s claims as his latest prank.

But things get even creepier when the piano is moved downstairs so that Jerry can take lessons. His parents find a local piano tutor called Doctor Shreek (not a sinister name at all…) who has his own piano school in the town. At first, he seems not-at-all-threatening…

Dr Shreek smiled at me. “Hello, Jerry.”
He really did look like Santa Claus, except he had a white moustache and no beard. He had round, red cheeks and a friendly smile, and his blue eyes sort of twinkled as he greeted me.

But Jerry soon hears stories about other kids who have been to the The Shreek School for lessons and were never seen again. Exactly how so many kids can go missing from the same town, and this piano school can stay open when it is the one common denominator in all of these disappearances is a mystery, but perhaps Stine didn’t want his readers to ask that question. Anyway, Jerry continues to have his lessons and notices that the previously non-threatening Dr Shreek has an odd hand fetish…

I muttered thanks. I was surprised to see that his eyes had settled on my hands. “Excellent. Excellent,” he whispered.
I felt a sudden chill.
I think it was the hungry expression on his face.
What’s so special about my hands? I wondered. Why does he like them so much?
It was weird. Definitely weird.
But of course I didn’t know how weird…

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Unfortunately, Jerry isn’t able to recognise the warning signs because he has a supernatural crisis to attend to. That piano that played itself when it was in the attic? Yeah, it’s still playing itself after being moved downstairs. And Jerry’s parents STILL don’t believe him after he sneaks downstairs in the dead of night and sees a friggin’ ghost at the piano, playing away. After several nighttime episodes (where the ghost conveniently vanishes as Jerry’s parents arive), they even send Jerry to see a psychiatrist about his “problem”. See kids, it never plays to be a practical joker that nobody believes. Especially if you live in the pages of a Goosebumps book.

At this point, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder is a reasonably intriguing book. You KNOW that there’s something up with Shreek but there’s also the mystery of the haunted piano which seems to be completely disconnected from the good doctor’s hand obsession and child-swallowing piano school. Where is the danger going to come from?

There’s even time for this hilarious dream sequence that was so ridiculous, I cracked a legitimate smile when reading it…

I tried to stop.
But my hands kept going!
“Stop! Stop!” I screamed down at them in horror.
“Faster! Play faster!” Dr Shreek ordered, his eyes wide with excitement, his face bright red. “The hands are alive!”
“No-please!” Stop!” I called down to my hands. “Stop playing!”
But they really were alive. They wouldn’t stop.
My fingers flew over the keys. A crazy tidal wave of notes flooded the family room.
“Faster! Faster!” the instructor ordered.
And despite my frightened cries to stop, my hands gleefully obeyed him, playing on, faster and faster and faster.
Faster and faster, the music swirled around me.
It’s choking me, I thought, gasping for breath. I can’t breathe.

Find me another book where a character is being suffocated by music. This might be the most ridiculous portion of any Goosebumps book that I have re-visited thus far but at least it was entertaining.

Anyway, Piano Lessons Can Be Murder follows the tried-and-tested Goosebumps formula of hooking the reader before devolving into a ludicrous, rushed mess at the very end. I’m sorry to come out and say that but there it is. If you wanted an intricate and masterfully-crafted conclusion that ties up the plot threads of the haunted piano, Dr Shreek’s hand obsession and the sinister rumours surrounding his school, then you’re going to be let down. This isn’t Charles Dickens or Stephen King, you know.

But just in case…

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In the last quarter of the book, we are introduced to Mr Toggle, the caretaker of The Shreek School who also happens to be an inventor, making all kinds of robots and machines…in a piano school.

Jerry then stumbles onto something that neither Toggle nor Shreek wanted him to see: a room full of pianos being played by floating, dismembered hands! It turns out that Toggle really likes beautiful music but, because human hands are apparently so difficult to create artificially, he has to lure promising young talents to the piano school so that he can steal their hands. Oh, and Dr Shreek is a robot, created by Toggle. And the ghost in Jerry’s house? A student of the Shreek school who had her hands taken and – we can only assume – died as a result, as did all of the other missing kids. New Goshen’s police department must either be incredibly inept or incredibly well bribed!

The situation looks bleak for our Jerry but, just before Toggle can harvest his hands too, the ghost from Jerry ‘s house shows up and teams up with the ghosts of all the other murdered kids to swamp Toggle and carry him off screaming into the adjacent woods. Everything I’ve detailed in the last two paragraphs happens in the last ten pages by the way, so there’s all the build up only for another utterly insane Goosebumps resolution to be vomited out at lightspeed.

Overall, I did enjoy Piano Lessons Can Be Murder, regardless of the mental ending. Up until the closing ten to fifteen pages, there is genuine mystery and I didn’t know whether it would be the ghost in Jerry’s house or Dr Shreek that would turn out to be the actual horror. As it happened, it was neither but I’d be lying if I said that the finale was satisfying.

The cover:

This one is pretty cool, even if it does sort-of give away Shreek’s robotic secret. I love the glowing, red Terminator-style eye and the pink/blue colour scheme of the bubbling slime. And, as ever, the artist’s work is incredibly lifelike.

The incredibly dated bit:

A twelve year-old willingly taking piano lessons? This always seemed more of an American thing to me so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong and there are still lots of US-based kids who take piano lessons. But just in case, we have another outdated 90’s Nintendo reference in a Goosebumps book to play back-up:

I wondered what Mum and Dad planned to do with all those rooms.
I decided to suggest that one of them be made into a Nintendo room. We could put a widescreen TV in there to play the games on. It would be really great.

The nostalgia rating:

For this one, I’m going to have to say that it’s fairly low. I don’t remember reading Piano Lessons Can Be Murder so it might one of the few Goosebumps books that slipped through my net when I was younger.

Up Next: Be Careful What You Wish For

Book Review: IT (Stephen King, 1985)

DSC_0498Year: 1985
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: New English Library (version reviewed)
Format: Paperback (version reviewed)
Pages: 1116 (version reviewed)
ISBN: 0450411435

“To the children, the town was their whole world. To the adults, knowing better, Derry, Maine was just their home town: familiar, well-ordered for the most part. A good place to live.

It was the children who saw – and felt – what made Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurked, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reached up, seizing, tearing, killing…

The adults, knowing better, knew nothing.

Time passed and the children grew up, moved away. The horror of IT was deep-buried, wrapped in forgetfulness. Until they were called back, once more to confront IT as it stirred and coiled in the sullen depths of their memories, reaching up again to make their past nightmares a terrible present reality.”

Stephen King’s IT is one of those books that has long since transcended into pop-culture. Even those who have never picked up a book have possibly watched the original 1990 mini-series or the recent big screen two-parter (released in 2017 and 2019). Tim Curry’s 1990 version of Pennywise the clown is also widely held responsible for so many adults’ irrational fear of clowns. Indeed, IT is probably the most successful of all adaptations based on King’s books.

I first read IT a long time ago (and only the once) but the book instantly became a firm favourite of mine. This year I have been digging out quite a few of my favourite books and revisiting them. At last, I have gotten around to IT – actually a decent commitment to make given the size of the book! This paperback version I have is just over 1100 pages so it’s definitely one of the most voluminous Stephen King books.

And it isn’t difficult to see why IT is such a whopper of a tome. This is Stephen King at his unrestrained best. I’m sure that stuff was cut or re-worked but even so, I didn’t get the sense that the author was forced to hold back or be overly concise. The detail and world-building is indulgent; the main characters and the supporting cast incredibly well fleshed-out. Best of all, IT is a real page-turner and not a single page felt like unnecessary, excessive filler.

The voice broke up in a series of choking hiccups and suddenly a bright red bubble backed up the drain and popped, spraying beads of blood on the distained porcelain.
The choking voice spoke rapidly now, and as it spoke it changed: now it was the young voice of the child that she had first heard, now it was a teenaged girl’s voice, now – horribly – it became the voice of a girl Beverly had known…Veronica Grogan. But Veronica was dead, she had been found dead in a sewer drain –
“I’m Matthew…I’m Betty…I’m Veronica…we’re down here…down here with the clown…and the creature…and the mummy…and the werewolf…and you, Beverly, we’re down here with you, and we float, and we change…”
A gout of blood suddenly belched from the drain, splattering the sink and the mirror and the wallpaper with its frogs-and-lily-pads pattern. Beverly screamed, suddenly and piercingly. She backed away from the sink, struck the door, rebounded, clawed it open, and ran for the living room, where her father was just getting to his feet.

The most captivating part of this book is the characters because they are all just so likable and you – the reader – really feel as if you are a part of their group. Even the antagonists – the bully Henry Bowers and his friends, Pennywise/IT and other random unsavouries – are endearing in their own way. This is because Stephen King really knows how to write characters and make them living, breathing and believable. He also knows how to make them relatable. In this respect, IT is a tour-de-force of King’s talent.

The story jumps back and forth between the events of 1958 and 1985, providing two versions of the main characters to get acquainted with. Obviously, their adult versions from ’85 are easier to relate to but it’s their eleven/twelve year-old selves that are much more interesting. This is because IT does such a good job of reminding you what it was like to be a child, how we viewed the world through naive/uninformed eyes and what sorts of irrational fears we hid from. There’s definitely a coming-of-age element to IT as Bill, Ben, Beverly, Mike, Stan, Richie and Eddie have to deal with the strange world of adults as well as confront the evil lurking beneath Derry, guided by seemingly immovable forces that they don’t understand.

As with every other Stephen King book that I have read, however, I can’t say that the horror aspect of IT scared or disturbed me, but that’s just me. It’s certainly a grisly book though, with some graphic deaths. There are also a fair few explicit bits involving minors, such as the moment between Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter at the town dump and, of course, the infamous sex scene in the sewers where Beverly loses her virginity to all of the boys, one after the other, as a form of ritual to keep them – as a group – close and the magic, that protects them, alive. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if King (and authors in general) would actively avoid such content these days because of how “sensitive” everybody is. This is a shame because these parts of IT aren’t presented in a needlessly-gratuitous or glorified fashion; they are just what they are.

There is also this very cool cameo from Christine, King’s famous killer car. Christine is one of my absolute favourite books so I really enjoyed this.

A sound impinged on his consciousness and began to grow. It was a car engine. It drew closer. Henry’s eyes widened in the dark. He held the knife more tightly, waiting for the car to pass by.
It didn’t. It drew up at the curb beyond the seminary hedge and simply stopped there, engine idling. Grimacing (his belly was stiffening now; it had gone board-hard, and the blood seeping sluggishly between his fingers had the consistency of sap just before you took the taps out of the maples in late March or early April), he got on his knees and pushed aside the stiff hedge-branches. He could see headlights and the shape of a car. Cops? His hand squeezed the knife and relaxed, squeezed and relaxed, squeezed and relaxed.
I sent you a ride Henry, the voice whispered. Sort of a taxi, if you can dig that. After all, we have to get you over to the Town House pretty soon. The night’s getting old.
The voice uttered one thin bonelike chuckle and fell silent. Now the only sounds were the crickets and the steady rumble of the idling car. Sounds like cherry-bomb mufflers, Henry thought distractedly.

He reached the intersection of the seminary path and the sidewalk and peered at the car, trying to make sense of the hulk behind the wheel. But 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 (hadn’t his father told him often enough?) that the engine rumbling under the hood was a V-8 327. Horsepower of 255, able to hit seventy from the git-go in just about nine seconds, gobbling hi-test through its four-barrel carb.

I suppose the revealing of IT’s true form deserves a mention because I know that many were disappointed with the monster – after all the different ways it changed its shape to match an individual’s fears – turning out to be a giant spider. This has often been derided as a weak and uninspired finale but IT only appears in this form to the children because its actual form cannot be comprehended by human minds, and so it takes a physical shape that resembles one of the most common fears of humans. As for the conclusion itself, things do get a bit wacky, cosmic and spiritual and I can see why this spoiled the book for some, but I – personally – wasn’t left wanting.

IT just has so much going for it: the characters that you really connect with; the charismatic evil of Pennywise; the drip-fed lore of the town of Derry and how it has been tainted by mysterious, sinister events; the incredibly rich detail. I’ve said it several times before on this blog, but I really believe that Stephen King doesn’t do stories like IT anymore. The quality of his writing remains undisputed and, yes, he has written some large epics in recent years that describe the journey or evolution of a small town and its inhabitants (Under the Dome, for example) but for other, similar examples that centre around raw, supernatural horror, you have to go back to the likes of Salem’s Lot and Needful Things.

IT is simply one of the all-time Stephen King greats and absolutely warrants its status as a must-read. Additionally, if you’ve only ever watched the cinematic versions of IT, you have likely missed out on a lot of the detail and the inner thoughts of characters that only a book can provide.

In short, if you haven’t already, go and read IT. If you have, and it’s been a while? Read it again.

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #11: The Haunted Mask (R.L.Stine, 1993)

hauntedmask-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…

What have I done with this series? Well, it’s time to get back to business and continue powering through these sixty-two Goosebumps books. Book eleven is The Haunted Mask; a fairly memorable one thanks to its simple yet unnerving plot…

The Blurb

Carly Beth wants a special mask for Hallowe’en. A mask so ugly – so hideous – that even her best friends are totally creeped out by it.

Now Carly Beth has found her special mask – and it’s perfect! Everything she hoped it would be, and more…

Maybe too much more. Because even though Hallowe’en is over, Carly Beth is still wearing that mask…

Carly Beth scares easily, and her friends KNOW it. In fact, the first twenty pages of The Haunted Mask set the scene for Carly Beth’s desire to wreak revenge on these so-called friends, as their practical jokes push her too far. It’s been a long time since I was an eleven year-old, so maybe I’ve just forgotten what it was like at that age, but these “friends”…are assholes!

Carly Beth uttered a disgusted groan and spat the chewed-up mouthful of sandwich into a napkin. Then she pulled the bread apart – and saw a big brown worm resting on top of the turkey.
“Ohh!” With a moan, she covered her face with her hands.
The room erupted with laughter. Cruel laughter.
“I ate a worm. I-I’m going to be sick!” Carly Beth groaned. She jumped to her feet and stared angrily at Steve. “How could you?” she demanded. “It isn’t funny. It’s-it’s-“
“It isn’t a real worm,” Chuck said. Steve was laughing too hard to talk.
“Huh?” Carly Beth gazed down at it and felt a wave of nausea rise up from her stomach.
“It isn’t real. It’s rubber. Pick it up,” Chuck urged.
Carly Beth hesitated.
Kids all through the vast room were whispering and pointing at her. And laughing.
“Go ahead. It isn’t real. Pick it up,” Chuck said, grinning.
Carly Beth reached down with two fingers and reluctantly picked the brown worm from the sandwich. It felt warm and sticky.
“Gotcha again!” Chuck said with a laugh.
It was real! A real worm!

Seriously, fuck these guys. That said, I doubt that this would even register on the savage-o-meter of kids these days so maybe Carly Beth actually had it easy in 1993?

Anyway, CB decides that she has had enough and absolutely HAS to pay her friends back, especially Chuck and Steve. And what better time to orchestrate a major scare than Hallowe’en? It’s going to take something pretty special to make Chuck and Steve leap out of their skin however, so Carly Beth is thrilled when she finds the most disgusting, realistic mask of all in the back room of the new party shop in town.

The store’s owner doesn’t want to sell any of the masks from the back room however. He tells Carly Beth that they are not for sale. These masks are apparently too scary. But Carly Beth is insistent and digs in…

“Thirty dollars,” Carly Beth said, shoving the folded-up notes into the man’s hand. “I’ll  give you thirty dollars for it. That’s enough, isn’t it?”
“It’s not a matter of money,” he told her. “These masks are not for sale.” With an exasperated sigh, he started towards the doorway that led to the front of the shop.
“Please! I need it. I really need it!” Carly Beth begged, chasing after him.
“These masks are too real,” he insisted, gesturing to the shelves. “I’m warning you-“
“Please? Please?”
He shut his eyes. “You will be sorry.”
“No, I won’t. I know I won’t!” Carly Beth exclaimed gleefully, seeing that he was about to give in.

FLW-1

Armed with her new grotesque mask, Carly Beth hits the 1993 Hallowe’en trick-or-treat run and achieves everything she sets out to do…and more. She succeeds in scaring Chuck and Steve but, on the downside, she starts to feel odd. Suddenly, Carly Beth is feeling all hot and aggressive, leaping about and howling like an enraged animal. She even steals sweet bags from other kids! And as for that aggression…

Her anger raged through her chest. Her whole body was trembling. She felt about to burst.
I’m going to tear this woman apart! Carly Beth decided. I’ll chew her to bits! I’ll tear her skin off her bones! Furious thoughts raged through Carly Beth’s mind.

Er…yeah. Chill out, girl.

It’s obvious to the reader but not – apparently – to Carly Beth: the mask is taking over. Seems like that store owner had a bit of a valid point back there, huh? The truth finally hits her back at her best friend Sabrina’s house.

Sabrina ran a hand through her black hair. Her forehead wrinkled in concentration.
“Carly Beth,” she said finally, “there’s something very weird going on here.”
“What? What are you talking about?” Carly Beth demanded.
“There’s no bottom to the mask.”
“Huh?” Carly Beth’s hands shot up to her neck. She felt around frantically. “What do you mean?”
“There’s no line,” Sabrina told her in a trembling voice. “There’s no line between the mask and your skin. No place to slip my hand in.”

Oh dear. Looks like Carly Beth should have taken the store owner’s warning a little more seriously! So she races back to the shop, desperate for help from the store owner, only to be informed that there is no cure. Except, there is. Gotta hold something back for those dramatic end-of-chapter cliffhangers to work, after all. He tells Carly Beth that the mask can only be removed once, using a symbol of love. After that, it will bond permanently to the wearer’s face should they put it on again.

Up until this point, The Haunted Mask was pretty cool. The concept of an evil mask grafting itself to the wearer’s face and turning them into a monster was good and you can imagine the claustrophobic panic that you would feel in Carly Beth’s shoes. But, in typical Goosebumps fashion, the conclusion lets things down somewhat. These extremely random rules that the store owner informs Carly Beth of aren’t explained. Worse still, there is some backstory about how he created the masks – real faces –  himself in a lab and they became monstrous (for some unexplained reason) once they were removed from the lab.

If all of that is too silly for you then the following sequence turns events up to eleven. The other masks begin to wake up and Carly Beth ends up fleeing the shop with the masks flying after her down the street! Of course, nobody else witnesses this. It wouldn’t be a Goosebumps book without a kid running away in terror from something supernatural while the entire populance of the town just happen to be oblivious to it all.

The conclusion was weak in my opinion, even by Goosebumps‘ far-fetched standards. Carly Beth does eventually get the mask off but there is a last-page twist which nobody should win a prize for predicting.

Overall, The Haunted Mask is a fun book, let down (in my opinion) by a daft few closing chapters. We’ll have to see, in due course, whether The Haunted Mask II does a better job.

The Cover:

Pretty cool. The artist nailed Carly Beth with her whole head taken over by a seriously ugly, gargoyle-like mask.

The incredibly dated bit:

Probably when Carly Beth is first exploring the party shop and sees Freddy Krueger and ET masks. You KNOW that this is an early 90’s book with characters like that.

The nostalgia rating:

I’m going to say “low” for The Haunted Mask. I did read this one back in the day but I didn’t remember much about it other than the general premise. I actually read The Haunted Mask II first.

Up Next: Piano Lessons Can Be Murder