Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King

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(1983) Cycle of the Werewolf is a brisk and atmospheric story of a werewolf descending upon a small town and its series of attacks and killings over the course of a year.

King writes in present tense here, in short chapters, one for each month, that serve as character studies, seasonal moods, and mostly gruesome killing scenes.

Berni Wrightson illustrates wonderfully throughout with a mixture of evocative landscapes scenes and brutal death scenes.

It takes about halfway through the book for our hero character to appear. Marty Coslaw is a boy in a wheelchair, and he proves to be tough and smart and brave and the only one who can figure out who the werewolf preying upon the town of Tarker’s Mills is.

I really enjoyed this story. Note that I call it a story and not a novel because it is in truth at best novelette sized, padded to length to illustrations (excellent), font and spacing.

The Rats by James Herbert

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The Rats, 1974. A pulp masterpiece. Good characters, fine prose, but built upon tremendous over-the-top set pieces of RATS EATING PEOPLE!!! As advertised. Herbert does not skimp on the details.

A plague of killer rats descend upon a poorer part of London. Harris, a teacher, gets a first-hand glimpse of the horror through both his geographic position and circumstance. He’s pretty much an everyman thrust into relative importance but it works here.

Disaster novel as much as horror novel. Half the book, and half the fun is seeing the city officials deal with the epidemic in fits and starts, half-heartedly at first, and without much true success.

Hebert is very good at getting into the heads of secondary characters just long enough so we feel bad for them when they’re eaten the fuck alive. It makes it so much more satisfying – the feasting – when we can feel and empathize with the victims.

This really is a vicious book. And fantastic. (The only real flaw is that it’s very much written from a hyper-masculine 70s perspective – the women here basically just scream and get eaten and do very little otherwise.)

My first James Herbert. Won’t be my last.

More Ghost Stories by M.R. James

More Ghost Stories (1911) is another excellent collection of quietly dreadful horror stories by M.R. James, run through with an undercurrent of wit and meta-awareness. James knew exactly what he was doing, and he did it about as well as anyone else ever did. I would dare say he has to be one of the finest writers of horror who ever lived, and maybe the best I’ve encountered before the more modern era.

James’ main gifts are two-fold: 1) a great sense of humor that never turns his stories into farce, but rather allows for some forgiveness for the hoary, sillier parts before the true fear begins, and 2) a grasp of the weird, the truly weird, as men stumble into a brush with the otherworldly through things (mostly objects) like books, mazes, etc.

More Ghost Stories has less heavy hitters than Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, for sure, but no bad tales.

The highlights include:

“A School Story” – an exploration of school folklore that turns very weird in an almost Fortean way.

“The Rose Garden” – a really fun story of a henpecked husband forced to deal with what turns out to be a cursed garden by his wife.

“Martin’s Close” – a fantastic story mostly in the form of a 1600s court document of the trial of a murder where most of the evidence is supernatural.

And, best of all – – –

“Casting the Runes”, where scholars run on the wrong side of a genuine alchemist with a strange and terrible method of revenge.

Apparently, James wrote most of his ghost stories for Christmas but I find that they get one in the mood for Halloween, as well.

My Most Autobiographical Humor Piece

I’ve been plagued with car troubles for a very long time. See, I don’t make much money even though I have a full-time job, I don’t work very hard so I can’t get a raise, and my car was old and broken.

Three out of four of its windows did not work anymore. I had to manually push them up routinely. My car smelled like a swamp with a dash of cigarette butts and a dollop of the other kind.

I perhaps could have saved some money over time but every three or four months something would break down – causing me to toss out three hundred dollars here and there and depleting my savings even worse than my Half Price Books habit or buffet food.

It all came to a catastrophic climax in early August when, one morning, as I headed out to write dick jokes at work and do nothing I was supposed to, my car just would not start. It wasn’t the battery, it was the computer system, and I was doomed.

Thus began a week of Uber and walking and getting rides from my dear patient girlfriend and panic. But a deus ex machina arrived in the form of my parents are middle-class Appalachian, which is poor for the rest of the country, but rich in cars that half work.

My new old car ran (poorly) for about three weeks. Then it broke down, as well. After it was finally fixed up, and I had pulled even more hair from my head than piss-poor genetics did, I wrote this series of prose poems:

My Car Is Dead But My Soul Is Alive

Points in Case was kind enough to publish them.

The Mailman by Bentley Little

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The Mailman (1991) is a flawed but entertaining enough book of the seemingly mundane macabre in the grand Stephen King tradition.

Things in Willis, Arizona turn sinister after the friendly neighborhood mailman commits suicide and his odd replacement, known only as John Smith, shows up to take his place. At first, only good mail arrives with no bills or junk mail. But then comes the bad.

English teacher Doug Albin, his wife Tritia, and their son Billy are soon among the first to realize that the entire town is being drawn into an increasingly apocalyptic situation.

The first third of the book struck me as having potential but never grabbed me all the way. The second third grew into something really special and scary. But the last third lost me.

It’s not that it’s all too silly. Little very much so uses the half-comical exaggeration of the situation on purpose. It’s not even that it’s too much of a riff on a Stephen King novel: small town goes to hell when a strange monster comes by. It’s just one choice Little made late in the book that I won’t spoil that I can’t help but find extremely distasteful. It sat wrong with me for the rest of the novel.

On the plus side, the Mailman himself is a very interesting creation. He’s half-order, half-chaos, hung up and taking very seriously his job in the Postal Service, operating in his sadism and destruction without much of a rational goal in sight. But it works. There are several genuinely creepy set pieces, as well, and some well-drawn characters. It’s just that one choice plus a few logical lapses late in the book that dampened my enjoyment.

The Mailman is a work of much potential that drops the ball.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is a moving and brilliant short story cycle of small town American life. It drips with semi-autobiography and youth turned into myth. Every character is a living wound in search of a realization they cannot quite grasp.

Anderson writes in a kind of prose poetry with dashes of authorial intrusion mixed with a simplicity and understatement. He creates a world here where stars of one story make cameo appearances in another. Throughout, the central figure George Willard, young newspaperman, the implicit collector of these tales and witness to these struggles, comes of age.

The book resides in a grand tradition of small town literature between the micro realism of Spoon River Anthology and the magic nostalgia of Ray Bradbury. Simultaneously, we have the author surrogate grow up, the rewritten life, as seen in Look Homeward, Angel or even Kerouac.

And it’s truly amazing. One of the best books I’ve ever read. One that touched me deep in my small town soul, even though, unlike George Willard, I didn’t leave my hometown until my late 20s, and haven’t moved far at that.

Highlights include:

“Hands” – A moving and empathetic character study of a former teacher who moved to Winesburg after he was accused of pedophilia in the town he used to teach in.

“Mother” – In which George Willard’s mother Elizabeth, very sickly and near death, is moved into a passion by her husband’s pushing her son into respectability and normalcy instead of towards his dreams.

The four-part Bentley Saga consisting of “Godliness Pt. 1 & 2”, “Surrender” and “Terror” – The small epic of a religious fanatic with greed for expansion of his farm, the unstable and unloved daughter he was given as he prayed for a son, and the grandson he views as a form of a divine gift. A terrifying reconstruction of Abraham and Isaac. The best in the book.

“Adventure” – A young woman who, while waiting for a man to come back to town who told her he loved her, has slid into “spinsterhood”. Now, unsatisfied, half-depressed, she passes her time with a secret burning sensation for a different life – a less lonely existence.

“The Strength of God” & “The Teacher” – A two-part tale of a tempted preacher who has fallen into voyeurism and the spied upon schoolteacher whose confused affection and artistic aspirations grow for her former student George Willard.

“”Queer”” – A dark tale of growing resentment and alienation as the son of a failing shopkeeper strikes out with rage against his family’s oddness and lack of place in their community.

“Death” – An absolutely heartbreaking emotional climax as two characters we’ve met before are revealed to share a secret backstory. Of friendship and love and chances not taken.

There are many more stories in the book and they’re all good, even if some of them are more character studies than full-blooded tales. God, this book is great.

Prose Commercial: House: The Restaurant

My new humor piece is up at Defenestration. It’s basically a prose commercial called “House: The Restaurant“.

It was one of my earliest humor pieces after I started really writing them in late 2015. After a few rejections, I retired it. But one day I was looking through all my other rejects and realized, hey, that one actually has something. So I polished it up and tried again.

Sometimes one gives up too early. Other times, the thing you keep sending out over and over again will never work. If I knew the difference between these two scenarios, I would be actually good already.

Maybe that will come in time.

Maybe I’m just telling jokes into an empty audience until the day I die of a heart attack I mistook for heartburn. Either way, I’d rather play creatively and get better than just play PUBG all day. Even if that is a really good game. (Seriously, it’s the best mobile game I’ve ever seen.)