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.

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.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster

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Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978) is the first Star Wars Expanded Novel and was apparently written as a potential story for a movie sequel if Star Wars hadn’t been a smash hit but only a small one. Naturally, there are many curiosities and continuity errors here in retrospect. Unfortunately, the book is a mixed bag regardless.

Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia crashland on the misty planet Mimban en route to a secret Rebellion mission. Mimban is shrouded in mystery, as well, being unaccounted for in records and apparently uninhabited. Skywalker and Leia discover that apparently isn’t so apparent and wind up involved in a quest to find a mystic Force object in a race against time and Darth Vader.

The early sections of the book are quite good. Foster has excellent prose, line by line, so very evocative descriptions and style. His dialogue is very much like the movies – in the manner of speech, unlike some other Expanded Universe books that have our heroes speaking in way too modern forms. The swampy journey after the dual crashes and the mining town they discover are excellent sequences. Halla the Jedi witch is a great character, as well, and the quest for the crystal is a fine plot.

Then the trouble begins. Luke and Leia get arrested for having a ridiculous mud fight outside. They are taken in for questioning by the imperial leader Grammel, who is actually quite a good villain – brutal, a bit dim, and self-serving. But by now the flaws are out in force and they bubble down to one thing: characterizations.

Princess Leia is far too much of a damsel in distress here. She should be the cool and collected one and in Splinter that role is played by Luke. Of course, Leia would have been traumatized by the torture she endures in Star Wars but Foster makes her nearly faint about it every time she thinks about it.

Luke is far too good at deception and lying and general fighting ability here: it’s like he not only leveled up in power since Star Wars but went to acting school and actually read a book about aliens. That does not jibe with the Luke we see in Empire Strikes Back. He’s supposed to be Goku good and honest, at least so far.

In addition, there’s a lot of silly human colonialism here, too. A bit of an unfortunate Native American analogy seems to be at play. A lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which isn’t a bad thing in general but these are the more boring lessons from John Carter in action.

I realize I’m being hard on this book – probably more than it deserves. But the first third was quite good and it got me excited and subsequently let me down. Still, it’s a very interesting relic and mostly entertaining throughout (bar a few sections where entertainment gets way to annoyance).

I just wish this was better.

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

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Life on the Mississippi (1883) is one part memoir and one part travelogue about steamboat life along the greatest of American rivers. Twain uses his characteristic wit and firsthand knowledge to impart a sense of dirty wonder about the steamboat days and the towns that line up and down the Mississippi.

The book can be considered in several sections:

1) A history of white exploration and settlement on the Mississippi from De Soto in 1542 to late antebellum South. This section is brisk but informative and a nice prelude to the rest of the book.

2) Twain’s own coming of age as he leaves Hannibal, Missouri and takes up life about steamboats as a cub pilot. Considerably the best section because it is the most narrative, personal, and nostalgic. Twain uses his own youthful accumulation of knowledge and experience to show his readers just what steamboating was and gives us a delightful look at the rough-and-tumble steamboat men who reared him. Ends with a heartbreaking steamboat disaster.

(Interlude: In one short, plain, and understated chapter that might last all of forty words Twain jumps through decades of his life by occupation and incident.)

3) Twain, now an old man and a famous writer, taking a trip with friends on a steamboat on a much-changed river. The longest section of the book, here begins the true travelogue but there’s a lot of fascinating history. The trip occurred shortly after a catastrophic flood which is alluded to often and its effects were still visible.

4) Twain’s impressions of New Orleans, the final stop of the first part of the downriver trip, in the 1880s. A little less interesting maybe but still worthwhile.

5) Twain and his acquaintances make a trip up the Missouri River, including a stop back in his hometown. The final section is more travelogue centered with a nostalgic, quasi-tragic yet characteristically funny reminiscence and catching up in Hannibal.

Overall, Life on the Mississippi was a true pleasure. Twain was a great humorist and character writer and here breaks down and explains some very interesting stuff from a history enthusiast’s perspective. The only thing that hasn’t aged well is some of the clichéd depictions of black folk along the river for the sake of comedy. However, Twain was still way more sympathetic and humanizing than a lot of late 19th century Southern writers.