The Big Goosebumps Re-read #2: Say Cheese and Die! (R.L.Stine, 1992)

cheese-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’ve always considered Say Cheese and Die! to be one of the more iconic Goosebumps books. It has a cool name and a pretty original premise for starters. Also, I’m guessing that Stine liked this one as well because this is one of only a handful of Goosebumps books to receive a sequel (though we would have to wait some time for it).

The Blurb

Greg and his friends think it’s pretty cool when they find an old camera in a derelict house, and it works. But the camera takes weird photos – like the one of Greg’s dad’s new car – totally wrecked? Then his dad is in a bad car accident – what’s going on?

And when Greg takes a picture of his friend Shari, she’s not in the photo when it develops – then Shari disappears altogether. Now Greg knows for sure that the camera is creepy – more than that, it’s evil.

Greg and his friends – Shari, Michael and Bird – are bored. Obviously, when kids are bored, the solution is to break into an abandoned house in the neighbourhood. A derelict house that just happens to sit in the darkness of enormous oak trees and have a reputation for ghastly goings-on. Of course. No wonder youth crime is often linked to being at a loose end. Perhaps kids were actually inspired by Say Cheese and Die! back in the day?

Anyway, Greg finds the polaroid camera hidden in a secret compartment and decides to take it which turns out to be a very bad idea in the long run. The first sign of the camera’s powers comes when Greg takes a picture of Michael and the polaroid develops to show Michael plunging through crumbling staircase railings…an accident which occurs moments later. The reader immediately knows the score but nobody else believes Greg’s suspicions, even when the camera continues to predict nasty accidents. Shari shows up as invisible then disappears inexplicably. Bird is pictured having a horrible baseball accident and this too comes to pass.

One thing that struck me was how stupid the characters are in this book. Naturally, it would be a stretch to believe that a camera could prophesise and even cause sinister things to happen but even so, the evidence is there for everybody to see. Yet, even after woe befalls Michael, Bird and Greg’s father, Shari demands that Greg bring the camera to her birthday party because the weird photos it prints are fun. Greg initially refuses but Shari hounds him relentlessly until her friend caves and agrees to bring it, despite knowing that something bad is bound to happen…

With a loud sigh, he pulled the camera from its hiding place in his headboard. “It’s Shari’s birthday, after all” he said aloud to himself.

I can’t speak for anybody else but if I had a magical, evil camera that I had solid reason to believe could cause accidents, I certainly wouldn’t relent and agree to take it to a party for such a silly reason! We’ll let Greg off here because he IS a kid but that habit of giving in to the demands of bossy girls is going to land him in trouble one day.

That said, bad decisions and naivete are a staple of the Goosebumps books as we will continue to see going forward with this review series. That along with misleading chapter cliffhanger “scares” and the dismissal of kids’ fears by the adults are what get the likes of Say Cheese and Die! past the hundred-page count in the first place.

The big question in this book of course is that of the camera’s origins. It turns out that an evil scientist who enjoyed dabbling in black magic placed a curse on the camera when his partner tried to steal it from him. Somehow, this imbued the camera with the power to steal the souls’ of those it captures on film. It’s all a bit vague and convenient really. Furthermore, you have to wonder how nobody’s souls were actually eaten in all of this. The only person who disappeared completely was Shari but Greg (accidentally) manages to restore her by tearing up her photo. Overall, not a lot is explained but to expect much more from a children’s horror book would be ambitious anyway. Say Cheese and Die! is a fun story with an idea that could be expanded on for – say – a more grown-up horror movie. Perhaps it has and I’ve missed it?

Anyway, bonus stuff:

The Cover

This time, we have the camera itself and various photos of the accidents from the story sinking into the orange Goosebumps sludge. The camera looks fantastic and creepy as fuck with a grinning face incorporated into the design. One thing I want to point out is the bottom-right photograph of a skeleton woman – a random photograph that doesn’t actually relate to anything in the book.

The incredibly dated bit

Honestly, nothing stood out to me as “dated” in Say Cheese and Die! so Stine inadvertedly succeeded in future-proofing this one. That said, the car that Greg’s dad proudly brings home is a brand-new Ford Taurus. Ford axed the Taurus earlier this year so perhaps the book will feel a little bit more dated in a few years time…

The nostalgia rating

Pretty high. As I said at the start of this review, I’ve always felt that this is one of the more iconic Goosebumps books and it reads pretty well, even as an adult.

Up Next: Stay Out of the Basement

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #1: Welcome to Dead House (R.L.Stine, 1992)

deadhouse-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…

Here we are at the start of our big re-read of the Goosebumps series with the first book, Welcome to Dead House. This is where it all began and I was forced to feel both shocked and old when seeing the 1992 publication date on the copyright page. Holy shit; where has that time evaporated to? Anyway, this book established the formula that Stine would use for the rest of the series – a format that would grow pretty predictable before long but hey, these are meant to be books for kids, not grown adults like me.

The Blurb

Amanda and Josh aren’t too sure about the old house they’ve just moved into. It’s spooky, and probably haunted, and their new neighbourhood, Dark Falls, is pretty creepy too.

Their parents don’t understand them – You’ll get used to it, they say. Go out, make some new friends.

But the kids Amanda and Josh meet are twice as weird as the house. Not exactly what their parents had in mind. They’re friendly, all right, maybe a little too friendly. In fact, they want to be friends…forever.

It’s a straightforward book and you can see what is happening from a mile off. The family dog, Petey, is NOT happy about this new house that the family mysteriously inherit for free from the previously-unknown Great Uncle Charles. And you know what dogs can apparently sniff out, don’t you? Then there’s the town itself, the ominously-named Dark Falls where the streets are desolate, the sky a perma-grey tone and trees cast huge shadows over every lawn.

I would say, “Spoiler Alert!” but this is a twenty-seven year-old children’s book. The entire town is dead and the weird kids that Amanda and Josh meet are some sort of walking undead. Near the end of the book, it is revealed that most of the adults in town used to work at an outlying plastics factory when a terrible accident occured that transformed Dark Falls into an undead town. This explanation is so vague and daft that it deserves quoting here.

“Then there was an accident. Something escaped from the factory. A yellow gas. It floated over the town. So fast we didn’t see it…didn’t realise. And then, it was too late, and Dark Falls wasn’t a normal town anymore. We were all dead, Amanda”

Every so often, the undead population of Dark Falls need “new blood” (because requirements) and so families are lured to the “Dead House” before being forced to join the residents in their undead gloom. There’s no explanation as to why the “new blood” is needed or how the victims being brought to Dark Falls sustain the existing inhabitants. But this is Goosebumps so you don’t question stuff like that. Just like you don’t question why the only undead residents seem to be children with the exception of property agent, Compton Dawes. Or how Dark Falls exists on the map after a major chemical disaster that would have seen it sealed off in the real world. Or why nobody else passes through.

In typical Goosebumps fashion however, it takes a while to get to all of this. The first third or so of the book consists of chapters ending on false scares. Then there is the staple element of kids being victims of supernatural events while their parents roll their eyes, tell them to stop pranking around and simply don’t believe them.

For a book aimed at pre-adolescent children, there’s some pretty gruesome and semi-graphic stuff too. Obviously, I don’t read kids books these days so I have no idea if the gore flows freely in the ‘Young Horror’  genre but my cynical instincts would have me suspect that violence and bloody visuals might be toned down a bit for this overly-PC generation. Not so in Welcome to Dead House.

Ray’s skin seemed to be melting. His whole face sagged, then fell, dropping off his skull. I stared into the circle of white light, unable to look away, as Ray’s skin folded and drooped and melted away. As the bone underneath was revealed, his eyeballs rolled out of their sockets and fell silently to the ground.

Clearly though, the ten, eleven or twelve year-olds in the world of Goosebumps aren’t scarred for life or destined for a future of therapy after witnessing such fucked-up stuff. Unless it hits later? Maybe R.L. Stine should write gritty adult follow-ups to his books that follow the same characters as adults so that we can see how their lives turned out.

Welcome to Dead House is a simple and predictable ghosts ‘n ghouls horror story for kids. As an adult, you have the the unfortunate ability to see straight through the smoke, mirrors and false scares but this re-read brought with it a different kind of entertainment as I couldn’t help smiling at how dumb some of it was. Now, onto some bonus review-y bits…

The Cover

I absolutely loved the UK covers for the Goosebumps books as a kid and that admiration hasn’t changed as I’ve grown older. For starters, you just don’t get these sorts of hand-drawn covers anymore. Then there is the uniform style of the series with the bubbling slime and objects relevant to the story swirling about in this brightly-coloured sludge. Here we have a realistic grinning skull surrounded by gravestones. It’s eye-catching and simple yet the art is detailed and probably more adult than the story itself.

The incredibly dated bit

I’m going to put my bed against that wall opposite the window, I thought happily. And my desk can go over there. I’ll have room for a computer now!

Amanda’s joy at having space in her bedroom for a (no-doubt) big bulky early 90’s desktop computer with no internet is amusing in 2019. But it’s also nostalgic to go back to a time before tablets, mobile phones and social media. A more innocent, straightforward time some might say…

The nostalgia rating

Obviously high with the aforementioned lack of technology in society and the fact that I’m reading a book that I haven’t touched in around twenty years. Then there is that lovely, musty used book smell permeating the yellowed pages. And a listing in the very back for another line of books also from Hippo: The Babysitters Club. Remember those?

Up Next: Say Cheese and Die!

Book Talk: Nightflyers And Other Stories (George R.R. Martin, 1973-1981)

night-1I had been aware that George R.R. Martin had written other things besides the epic A Song Of Ice And Fire series but until now, I hadn’t looked into them. Fortunately I have long since cleared my reading backlog and now find myself back in that lovely position of having nothing to read. It means that I can actually browse the books in shops again and pick out stuff at random, hopefully broadening my literary horizons a little more. Nightflyers And Other Stories is one such purchase. I picked it up for £4.50 (half RRP) and decided it was time to see if Martin’s other work can match the bloody and treacherous exploits of Daenarys and co.

Well, it doesn’t but I wasn’t too surprised about that. A Song Of Ice And Fire is one of those rare series of books that is near-impossible to go toe-to-toe with and that’s okay. Besides, the six short stories collated in this book were written well before Martin gave us A Game of Thrones so a direct comparison would be cruel anyway. The stories within this book feature a different sort of tone too; yes there are fantasy elements but sci-fi is the dominant genre – sci-fi that explores wondrous futures and the dark recesses of the human mind.

Headlining the book is Nightflyers, a space sci-fi/horror story that was turned into a Netflix TV series (Syfy for America) in 2018. This is the expanded version from 1981 that features an extra 7,000 words over the original 1980 version printed in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Nightflyers is set on a starship chartered by Karoly d’Brannin, a scientist chasing the mysterious Volcryn alien race of which he is obsessed with meeting. D’Brannin brings a hand-picked crew with him for the mission consisting of telepaths, linguists and computer experts – people he hopes will aid him in communicating with the enigmatic Volcryn. Very quickly, the story’s focus moves away from the crew’s mission and turns instead to the ship’s resident master, the mysterious Royd Eris, a character who claims he is controlling the ship from his sealed chamber. He won’t meet them and nobody can get into his quarters to see him. He communicates via intercom and asks that the crew trust him.

Naturally, rampant paranoia and suspicion sweeps the ship, not helped by the resident Class One telepath, Thale Lassamer sensing impending danger. Who is Royd Eris? Why are they not allowed to meet him in person? Why is he watching and listening in at all times? The innocent explanation is that Eris lives a lonely life, sealed in his quarters for health reasons and as such, he is fascinated by the people on his ship and how they act. It doesn’t wash with everybody though.

“Who is this Royd Eris, really?” the xenobiologist Rojan Christopheris, complained one night when four of them were playing cards. “Why doesn’t he come out? What’s the purpose of keeping himself sealed off from the rest of us?”

“Ask him” suggested Dannel, the male linguist.

“What if he’s a criminal of some sort?” Christopheris said. “Do we know anything about him? No, of course not. D’Brannin engaged him and d’Brannin is a senile old fool, we all know that”

“It’s your play” Lommie Thorne said.

Christopheris snapped down a card. “Setback” he declared, “you’ll have to draw again.” He grinned. “As for this Eris, who knows that he isn’t planning to kill us all.”

As if the xenobiologist was a telepath himself and capable of predicting the future, people start dying one-by one in tragic accidents. I can’t go much further without spoiling the story but the “accidents” are all plausible and explained calmly by Royd Eris who shifts the blame back to the crew and their attempts to reach him against his wishes. At the same time, there is the obvious suspicion that Eris is behind the deaths. Martin is uncompromising in his descriptions of the deaths themselves (something that would carry over to Ice And Fire) and so Nightflyers becomes a sci-fi and gory horror in space. It keeps you guessing at who or what is really responsible and there is a twist near the story’s endgame. Nightflyers is clearly the best story in this collection and while it took a some time to get going – not helped by the strange character names – I eventually fell into that zone where I couldn’t put it down.

The other stories don’t quite live up to Nightflyers but the interesting thing is that they all take place in the same fictional “Thousand Worlds” universe. There are no direct links between the stories but the same planets and races are often referenced, letting you know that there is a loose continuinity behind the scenes.

Override is a story set on the planet of Grotto where Corpse Handlers mine precious stones using crews of ‘deadmen’, deceased human beings reanimated and managed with the Handlers’ control box devices. Override was my least favourite of the stories in this collection. The others that follow Nightflyers explored morality, religion and philosophy. Here we have the enforced enslavement of the deceased and a fairly nonplussed attitude towards the practice which is a pretty grim future indeed but it felt like a more straightforward tale.

Weekend in a Warzone was much more interesting. In the future, there are no wars so to satiate man’s primal bloodlust so multiple fighting clubs will take your money and drop you into a warzone for a specified length of time. You will fight against “soldiers” from a rival fighting club. The war and the death is real but the chilling aspect to this story is that people choose to sign up for it; war and killing for the entertainment value and thrills. Man’s appetite for violence contained on artificial battlefields and packaged as a weekend away from ordinary life.

The Concom guns are molded from greenish plastic, but otherwise they’re the same. Of course. The weapons have to be the same, or the war wouldn’t be fair. Underneath, there’s a serial number, and a legend that says PROPERTY OF CONSOLIDATED COMBAT, INC.

You pays your money and you takes your choice. Fight in the mountains, Maneuver against Consolidated Combat! Try and jungle war, General Warfare versus Battlemaster! Slug it out in the streets of the city, Tactical League against Risk, Ltd. There are thirty-four war zones and ten fighting clubs. You pays your money and you takes your choice. But all the choices are the same.

Weekend in a Warzone is a short story but a very good one. It paints another unsavoury future where war has become trivialised and a sport rather than the result of two sides fighting for deeper causes. And it struck me as the kind of future that could actually exist if wars and conflict were ever to be completely eradicated. As I said, chilling stuff.

The next story is And Seven Times Never Kill A Man. This one takes place on the world of Corlos where the Steel Angels have established a colony and are systematically wiping out the native Jaenshi with brutal force. There are some religious themes running through this story as the Steel Angels worship their God, Bakkalon, and everything they do is driven by their zealous belief system. Outsider Arik neKrol is a trader and as such can move between both races. He views the Steel Angels as evil and plots to arm the passive Jaenshi in order to fight back. I didn’t really enjoy the conclusion of this story and found myself wondering whether I’d overlooked an underlying message or subtle detail. Nevertheless, it was detailed, enjoyable and made me want to know how it would all end.

Nor The Many-Colored Fires Of A Star Ring is a mouthful of a title. It’s also possibly the most sci-fi of all the stories in this collection. In the future, enormous ring-shaped structures called Star Rings surround nullspace vortexes and use them to open up dimensional warps, allowing for fast travel across the cosmos. There’s definitely a Star Trek vibe to this story, especially with the descriptions of the control panels and Star Ring itself. But the main focus of the story is the character of Kerin daVittio and his growing obsession with the infinite, utter darkness of unexpanded space lying outside of their particular Star Ring.

But on the far side of the Hole to Nowhere was the darkest realm of all. Here blackness rules, immense and empty. There are no stars. There are no planets. There are no galaxies. No light races through this void; no matter marks its perfection. As far as man can see, as far as his machines can sense, in all directions; only nothingness and vaccuum. Infinite and silent and more terrible than anything Kerin had ever known.

You aren’t ever certain whether Kerin fears the darkness or can’t get enough of it. Or both. The story makes you think philosophically and realise how small and insignificant we are as a race compared to the unfeeling blackness of space which goes on forever.

The final story is A Song For Lya. Two telepaths – Lyanna and Robb – arrive on an alien planet where a human civilisation butts up against that of the native Shkeen, an ancient, peaceful race that don’t mind co-habiting with the humans. But the Shkeen all follow a singular religion whereby they ‘join’ with a jelly-like organism known as a Greeshka before proceeding with the Final Union between the ages of forty and fifty. Humans are converting to the Shkeen’s religion and slowly deserting the colony and so Lyanna and Robb are brought in to try and read the minds of the Joined and work out why seemingly healthy humans are giving up everything for the Shkeen religion. Final Union involves being willingly sacrificed to the Greeshka and so the religion has become viewed as a worrying suicide cult by the human administration. There was a lot going on in this story including religious themes and the romantic relationship between Lyanna and Robb and how it is affected by what they learn from ‘feeling’ the emotions of pure love from those who are Joined in Shkeentown. It is a very good story and like the proceeding one, it did make me stop and think once I’d reached the end.

Overall, I enjoyed dipping into sci-fi, a genre that I rarely flirt with. All of the stories in this collection were worth the entry fee even if some were better than others. Nightflyers, Weekend In A Warzone and A Song For Lya were my personal favourites but I wouldn’t say that that there were any weak links. Override stands out as the story I got the least out of but even then, I still enjoyed it for what it was. As with the books in the Ice And Fire series, it’s Martin’s descriptive powers and ability to create believable fantasy worlds out of alien ideas and futures that makes this book. If you are into classic sci-fi or enjoyed A Song Of Ice And Fire then you should also enjoy Nightflyers And Other Stories.

Book Talk: The Girl With A Clock For A Heart (Peter Swanson, 2014)

TGWACFAH“What if your college sweetheart, the girl of your dreams, suddenly disappeared? Twenty years later she’s back, she’s in trouble and she says you are the only one who can help her…”

That’s the blurb from the back cover of Peter Swanson’s The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and I will openly admit that it didn’t necessarily grab me by the throat. After all, years of consuming books, movies and videogames have probably desensitised me to most blurbs. Nevertheless, that same veteran imagination had been pleasantly surprised by the excellent The Kind Worth Killing so I had already decided to work through the rest of Swanson’s back catalogue, beginning here.

Straight out of the gates, I will say that I didn’t think this book was quite as enthralling as The Kind Worth Killing but that’s saying a lot when that book was sooooo good. This one is still a real page-turner. George Foss is just your average guy living a predictable, unexciting life; a fact that he is very much aware of and has come to terms with. Routine is turned on its head however when he chances upon his old college flame, Liana Decter. What should be a pleasant encounter is thrown into question however because Liana had pulled a vanishing act twenty years ago after involving George in a tangled web of deceit that concluded with George discovering that his girlfriend had likely killed on more than one occasion. George should stay the hell away from Liana – this he knows – but she represents a time in George’s life when he felt alive and the future hadn’t seemed so mundane. Not to mention the fact that Liana is incredibly beautiful and bewitching or that George has been searching for her on and off ever since, having never really gotten over what they’d had.

Against better judgment, George makes contact with Liana and finds himself once again embroiled in a dangerous, cryptic game of Liana’s doing. George is torn between preserving his own life – by rejecting Liana and the trouble she brings – and helping her, fuelled by the naive hope that she might just stick around this time. George has always been hurt, emotionally and physically, by Liana and her accompanying drama but at the same time, he finds himself powerless to refuse her. She is a sweet poison that he can’t fully expel from his life and part of him doesn’t want to.

“While she paid the check, Liana walked past again. This time George could stare at her retreating figure, that familiar walk. She had grown into her body too. George thought she’d been his ideal in college, but if anything she looked better now: long tapering legs and exaggerated curves, the kind of body that only genetics, not exercise, will ever get you. The backs of her arms were pale as milk”

The book hooks the reader by keeping them guessing and providing endless questions. What did Liana do in the past that was so bad? Why has she used multiple aliases throughout her life? What happened to her relationship with George? Most importantly, what does she truly want this time? Is she all she seems? The answers are drip-fed as the book alternates between past and present, neither timeline giving everything up until the parallel stories begin to explain one another and current events make greater sense in light of revelations from the past. I really enjoyed this structure and couldn’t put the book down as I simply had to find out what happened next. The opening prologue is pretty clever too because it actually forms part of the book’s finale (and you will see a good chunk of it repeated there to bring the book full-circle). At the outset however, it makes little sense other than acting as one of several hooks to snag a reader.

As with The Kind Worth Killing, Swanson shows his affection for the femme fatale. Liana is beautiful, slippery and masterfully manipulative. She gets what she wants and is rarely as she seems. Whenever George thinks he has her figured out or second-guessed, she surprises him again…and again and again. She is aware of her power over him but is she consciously abusing that power without harbouring any sort of romantic feelings towards George? Was what they had in college real? Does she love George at all in spite of how she moves him about like a chess piece?

I personally love the femme fatale archtype whether it’s calculating, manipulative women like Liana Decter, cold wet-work experts or mentally shaky psychopaths. I gave The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and Swanson extra points for another fascinating, mystery-shrouded female that you would want to ward off while you lusted after them.

“There was still some part of George that wanted to believe that Liana was innocent, that she was not behind the robbery and the murder. He wanted to believe this not because he thought she wasn’t capable of such crimes, but because he hoped she wasn’t capable of using him for those purposes. Just as George had always stayed a little bit in love with Liana, he hoped that she had always stayed a little bit in love with him”

My only criticism of the book is that the ending doesn’t quite live up to the twisty nature of the book as a whole. It feels as if the book blows its load a little too prematurely; not so early as to spoil the fun but a little sooner than I would have liked. The puzzle pieces are mostly all in place at a little over three-quarters distance and after a dramatic endgame for the main characters, the final explanations are delivered in a fairly flat fashion that somehow makes the unpredictable events seem obvious and no longer so wild. The conclusion also appears to set up for a potential sequel but I’m not convinced that a follow-up would work or is at all necessary for that matter.

That said however, I did enjoy The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and it certainly sustained my interest in Peter Swanson’s books. If you enjoy thrillers that go for a modern day noir feel with relatable characters, constant suspense and a sexy femme fatale then you will be well-served here. This was an addictive read that was difficult for me to put down and that’s usually all I need to recommend a book.

Book Talk: My Stephen King Top 5

I don’t particularly like doing Top Fives anymore because I genuinely believe that such countdowns are lazy and cheap ways of pumping out content. Sometimes however, you just want a greasy, fatty take-out meal over a proper dining experience. Or perhaps you find your eyes drawn to the woman in the tracksuit rather than the glammed-up lady in the stunning evening dress. Awful analogies aside, I am going to be cheap today and do a Top Five.

If you read my review on Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, you may be aware that am finally branching out into the works of authors other than Stephen King. With this in mind, I decided that I would share my five favourite King books since I have read almost every one by this point. I’m not done with Stephen King at all but it’s time for a break and time to broaden my horizons when it comes to fiction.

There’s no order to this list by the way; these are the five that I enjoyed the most and have read several times as a result.

1. Needful Things (1991)

need-1Needful Things was supposed to the “end” of King’s fictional town of Castle Rock and the book’s conclusion certainly supported that promise. However, the author has recently returned to the ‘Rock with Elevation and Gwendy’s Button Box (the latter set in the past to be fair) so who knows. Regardless, this book follows my favourite Stephen King formula: richly-detailed small town life from the perspectives of multiple characters. The reader gets to know the various characters (plus their deepest secrets) before all paths finally cross for a dramatic finale. Central to the story is the evil Leland Gaunt and his shop, the titular ‘Needful Things’. Gaunt exploits the desires and fears of the townspeople to turn everybody against one another and incite destruction and chaos. The way he masterfully manipulates the residents makes for excellent reading and the dark playfulness of his sinister antics is a joy to witness. For me, Gaunt is up there with Randall Flagg as one of the best villains in a Stephen King book. As for Needful Things as a whole, it represents the ‘old’ style of Stephen King where the pieces (in this case, the people) are carefully and lovingly crafted before a giant fist is slammed against the playing board, upsetting everything as the plot threads converge. It’s a real shame that this style of King storytelling isn’t as frequent anymore but 2017’s Sleeping Beauties (co-written with son, Owen King) was at least very reminiscent of these types of book.

2. Joyland (2013)

joy-1I haven’t reviewed Joyland here on Unfiltered Opinion but I did review it over on my other blog back when I thought it was a good idea to add variety to a videogame-focused blog by talking about books and B-Movies (spoilers: I quickly regretted the idea). You can find the complete review here but I will quote a portion of my own words here to summarise Joyland.

“The story is short but powerful and contains a small splash of the supernatural 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 there that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. There is a central plot strand running through Joyland that focuses on a series of unsolved, heartless murders – the last one occuring at Joyland – that Devin finds himself investigating but this isn’t really the main premise of the book.

Joyland is actually 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, thoughts and heartache. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but as we know from real life, the ideal isn’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road.”

I didn’t know what to expect from a Stephen King book with a pulp-style cover published under the Hard Case Crime label but it turned out to be one of the best ones I have read thus earning it a place on this list. Usually it’s the more monolithic epics that I can’t get enough of but Joyland proved that small can be beautiful when it’s perfectly formed.

3. Christine (1983)

chris-1Being a fan of cars and classic steel in particular, I was always going to be drawn to a book that revolved around a car. The fact that Christine is an evil, sentient killer car was the icing on the cake. The basic plot of a car coming to life and murdering people sounds dumb and comical, almost like something you’d have read in a Goosebumps book as a kid but Christine is so much more than that. While it’s true that the book IS about the car, the bulk of the storytelling revolves around the nerdy, unpopular Arnie Cunningham who buys Christine – a derelict ’58 Plymouth Fury – and gradually falls under the car’s evil spell. Arnie’s personality slowly morphs into that of the car’s previous owner, the unsavoury Roland LeBay, and he transforms from an awkward highschool loser into an angry, bitter and unpleasant young man in a symbiotic relationship with his car. Everybody around Arnie is inevitably drawn into the swirling vortex of evil radiating from Arnie, Christine and their pooled “unending fury”. The book is just so well-written and you can’t help but love the characters – both the good and bad – and there is a nostalgic throwback to teenage life in the 70’s. Christine is one of Stephen King’s oldest works but remains a solid favourite of mine.

[side note: the John Carpenter movie adaptation is well worth checking out. It cuts a lot of the detail from the book (as you’d expect) and changes a few scenes but overall, it is an authentic representation of the characters and the tone of the book]

4. IT

it-1Where do you do begin with this enormous book? IT is probably more well known for its two big-screen adaptations and Tim Curry’s famous performance as the evil clown, Pennywise. The original book however is the best as far as I am concerned. It focuses on a group of friends from the recurring town of Derry and flicks between their childhood years and the present where they, as adults, return to Derry to finish the battle with the evil that they fought once before as children. The genius of IT (as I saw it anyway) was that you got the superlative, almost gratuitous descriptive writing of King, supernatural horror and the perspectives of children and their concept of fear – all in one tale. Viewing the world through the eyes of the characters as children brings back a lot of memories of how we probably saw the world and our fears as minors – hence Pennywise the clown. Some have criticised the book’s finale for losing the plot completely and it’s easy to see why that might be. The evil infecting Derry takes the form of a giant spider in the sewers beneath the town and defeating it the first time involved the children all having sex with the only female member of their gang (really). For me though, IT is one of the best of Stephen King’s sprawling epics, up there with The Stand and Under The Dome. As a bonus, there is a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implied cameo from Christine.

5. The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)

DSC_0180I reviewed this book here on Unfiltered Opinion not too long ago after reading it for the second time. I recalled being pleasantly surprised with The Eyes of the Dragon the first time around purely because it was further below the radar than most big-hitting Stephen King books and yet I enjoyed it immensely. I expected a cooler response to it the second time around but found myself surprised again. It turned out that I liked it even more despite all of the excellent Stephen King books I had read since my first journey to Delain and the sinister mechanations of the evil sorcerer, Randall Flagg. This is one of the few examples of Stephen King doing fantasy in a classic medievil-style setting but perhaps he should have ventured there more often because Eyes is simply fantastic. Most of the book’s appeal stems from the villainous Flagg and how King writes him. To quote my own review of the book…

“King’s infamous villain is central to this book’s plot and – outside of The Stand and The Dark Tower – is his most major role which makes The Eyes of the Dragon‘s “lesser” status in Stephen King’s back catalogue even more of a shame. Here, Flagg is a sorcerer and advisor to the King of Delain, plotting chaos, anarchy and destruction through intelligent manipulation and deception. He poisons the King and successfully convinces everybody that his son, Peter, is the culprit. Flagg is afraid of Peter’s good-hearted nature, strong will and keen perception – traits that would make it impossible for Flagg to maintain his toxic influence over the throne and to put his plans for Delain into action. With Peter safely imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, his younger brother Thomas inherits the throne. Thomas is a bitter boy with far less wits about him who relies on Flagg completely to make decisions and be a King. Thus it is Flagg who rules Delain through Thomas, finally having his opportunity to begin unleashing darkness on the people.

Flagg should be an utterly one-dimensional villain. He is, after all, pure evil without a shred of goodness within, flying in the face of the concept of balance which says that nobody can ever be one-hundred percent good or evil. Flagg is disease and plague personified; a malevolent demon in human form who lives to destroy, ignite apocalyptic anarchy and incite mass bloodshed – all for his own entertainment. As rotten as Flagg is however, King writes him in such a playful manner that you can’t help but like him.”

I feel that this is the wildcard of my Top Five; a book that shouldn’t be here ahead of certain other big names from King’s back catalogue but it is impossible for me to deny my adoration for Eyes of the Dragon so here it is.

Honourable Mentions…

Ten other books from Stephen King that came very close to making my Top Five.

  • Salem’s Lot
  • The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition
  • The Dark Half
  • Desperation
  • 11.22.63
  • Under The Dome
  • Mr Mercedes
  • Skeleton Crew
  • Bag of Bones
  • From a Buick 8

Book Talk: The Kind Worth Killing (Peter Swanson, 2015)

worth1Upon finishing The Kind Worth Killing, all I could think was “wow”. Granted, my buzzing response to this book could well be down to the fact that my fiction intake has been 90% Stephen King over the past few years. Am I perhaps overreacting and viewing Peter Swanson’s thriller as ‘fresh’ just because it’s something different written in a different author’s style? I won’t rule out the possibility but the fact is that I seriously enjoyed this book and couldn’t put it down. I devoured it like a starving man presented with a McDonalds.

The Kind Worth Killing was first published in 2015 and it has been on my radar ever since I read a magazine recommendation (FHM of all places…). It’s taken me four years to get around to picking up a copy but it was well worth it. The basic premise sold to me by that magazine recommendation is that Ted Beaumont is on his way back to the US when his flight is delayed. He meets a beautiful stranger – Lily Kintner – in the airport bar and they agree to play a game. Since they agree that they will never see each other again, they decide to take it in turns to reveal absolute truths about themselves, no matter how personal. Ted reveals that he knows his wife has been cheating on him and jokes that he wants to kill her.

After hearing his story, Lily takes Ted aback by revealing her view that the death of a person such as Ted’s wife is no loss to the world and she even offers to help him do the dirty work. What begins as a random airport meeting and a flippant musing about Ted’s wife’s adultery rapidly escalates into plotting an actual murder. Ted is initially on the fence and inwardly concerned at how easily he agrees to murder his wife but his misgivings don’t last long. After all, Miranda has suckered him in with calm lies and expert manipulation to get at his wealth. For Lily’s part, she has killed before – several times in fact. Ted doesn’t know this but suspects it and continues to go along with her anyway. The fact that Lily is described as being incredibly beautiful in a delicate, waif-like way probably helps. It’s clear that Ted is fascinated by Lily and falling in love with her even as they plan a murder.

“What I really want to do is kill her” I smiled with my gin-numbed mouth and attempted a little wink just to give her an opportunity to not believe me, but her face stayed serious. She lifted her reddish eyebrows.

“I think you should” she said, and I waited for some indication that she was joking, but nothing came. Her stare was unwavering.

I can’t go into much more of the plot without spoiling it and it really is a story that doesn’t deserve to be spoilt. Each chapter switches between the different perspectives of the characters, initially limited to Ted’s present and Lily’s recollection of her past. These perspectives are from a first-person standpoint so the reader becomes a guest of the characters’ headspace and privy to their true motivations and views of the other main characters. The book is broken into three main acts with each act climaxing in some big twists. The end of the first act for example turns the entire book on its head and leaves you wondering just what else is going to happen. Plenty of surprises, double-crosses and didn’t-see-that-coming developments follow. As a result, I found it incredibly hard to put The Kind Worth Killing down and regardless of any other reason(s) for why I enjoyed it so much, that is a cast-iron sign of a good read in my opinion.

Swanson does a great job of making you like bad people. This book has several unsavoury characters and rotten personalities and even though I wanted some of them to get their just desserts, I was no less fascinated by them. Lily in particular was the star of the book for me. Calm, calculated, somewhat aloof and with a very different regard for life, she would probably be described as psychotic by our society. The fact that she has already killed several people and isn’t particularly perturbed by her actions would cement this. However, through Lily’s own perspectives in the book, you get to know her and even sympathise with her motives. She is dangerous and clinical but at the same time, I couldn’t help rooting for her to the end. It also made me ponder on the subject of beautiful psychos in fiction and cinema and why we – men – are so attracted to them despite what they are capable of. That’s a topic for another post though.

There were only a few criticisms that I levelled at The Kind Worth Killing but it wouldn’t be a review if I gushed over the book without mentioning them. The first is that it’s difficult to relate to the characters because most seem to be incredibly wealthy with little of the surface level hardship in their lives that us ‘normal’ folk battle against day-to-day. This didn’t detract from my liking for the book’s cast but it also felt very convenient and and a little unrealistic. Speaking of unrealistic, a lot of the events that happen in the book are incredibly far-fetched and people get away with so much, so easily. Obviously this is fiction so realism has to take a backseat to a degree but when the book is set in the real world and dealing with crime and murder, then the ease at which plans are made and successfully followed through does stick out a bit.

Those minor gripes aside, The Kind Worth Killing is a genuine page-turner that I can’t recommend enough. If you love thrillers and villainous characters that you can’t help but love then this is for you. If you want to be kept guessing and unable to predict what happens next then this is also for you. I will definitely be looking for Peter Swanson’s other books after this.