Why I can’t read any new Stephen King

This isn’t an easy thing for me to write: I will never read a new Stephen King novel again.

I grew up on King. When I was a teenager I devoured his books: Carrie, Firestarter, Thinner, The Talisman, Eyes of the Dragon, Pet Sematary, It. He was (and still is) a fantastic storyteller. He creates characters who feel real and alive, and in his horror, he captures real fears we all have and relays them to us in ways that keeps us awake well past dark.

I stopped reading him for several years — no real reason, except that there are so many other books out there. Then about five years ago I picked up The Dark Tower. Wow. It floored me. The Dark Tower was King at his best — wild, madcap, bursting with imagination, and populated with characters who seemed as real as you or me. Roland Deschain, the gunslinger and hero of the seven book Dark Tower series, is one of my all-time favorite characters. The seven books of the Dark Tower series weren’t perfect. There was way too much fat. And partway through the series he introduces a character named Stephen King, a writer of horror movies. This was his only major misstep in the whole series; it nearly broke the illusion for me. But I was able to overlook this. Even the ending, controversial to some, was brilliant to me.

Then I made the mistake of reading Under the Dome, his book about a town that’s mysteriously trapped beneath an impenetrable dome, and I realized a few things:

–I’m tired of reading about small-town Maine. The characters in Under the Dome were way too similar to those in his earlier books.

–King’s world is black and white. I like gray.

–King’s writing is devoid of all hope.

That last part is crucial. First, let me be clear: King’s talent and skill are undeniable, and his work ethic is something we should all emulate. But when I write, I must come from a place of hope. Even in the darkest stories I write, there exists a thread of hope, no matter how thin. In Under the Dome, there really was none. The basic message was this: the world sucks, people suck, and ultimately we’re all powerless. I trudged through the 1000 plus pages, hoping for at least a stellar ending, but the ending I got was one of the worst I’ve ever read. It wasn’t even good enough for a bad Twilight Zone episode. It was arbitrary and it made me regret wasting my time.

And now I just finished his latest, Revival. Where do I begin?

First, the good. King is a master of a unique premise, or, at least a premise that would have seemed obvious, but for some reason wasn’t. For this book, he infuses horror into the well-worn cliche of the faith healer. You would think it’s been done to death, but I can’t think of another case. And he works in clever homages to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the cold horror of HP Lovecraft.

But first you have to sift through the boring life of one Jamie Morton, who is well meaning enough, but nothing more than a way for King to relay the glories of his small town baby boomer generation. I grew up in the shadow of the baby boomer generation. Never again do I want to hear about how cool or special their lives and culture were. Thank God for that skill known as skimming pages.

Jamie aside, King gives us Pastor Charles Jacobs. In Jacobs we have someone who is much more compelling — a man of God who loses all faith when his wife and son die in a horrific accident. King deftly describes the accident, sparing none of the gore. And he paints a brilliant picture of a man shattered.

Unfortunately it’s told through the bland eyes of Jamie, whose motivations are never quite clear or understandable. There’s an attraction between him and Jacobs, something that keeps them coming back to each other over the years, but it’s never explained. We’re just expected to go along until the bleak, bitter end.

And what an end it was. The world of Revival is one of utter horror, with no hope of escape. In the end, Jacobs and Jamie glimpse the afterlife, and its a hellish afterlife awaiting every man, woman and child. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m guessing Stephen King hates religion. I’d bet he doesn’t even believe in God. Fair enough. A belief in God is by no means a prerequisite for a good and happy life. But what King gives us is an inversion of God and religion. Not only is there no purpose to life, but we are insignificant, and will suffer cruelly no matter what we do.

Revival, similar to Under the Dome, is a book about being utterly powerless. It is a book that contains not a single shred of hope. In fact, hope is systematically killed off until nothing but despair remains.

Revival left me feeling pretty low. Yes, I know it’s JUST A BOOK. But one of the reasons we read books, watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music, etc, is to feel transformed. We’re looking for something to feed our souls, to make us feel alive, to affirm the beauty and goodness of life. King’s Dark Tower series did this for me. But these last two books — Under the Dome and now Revival — did the opposite. All they did was bring me lower.

Stephen King is a wildly talented and successful writer. I can’t speak for his state of mind (I wouldn’t presume to do so) but I hope he’s not living in a place of darkness. I’ve loved being a part of his literary word, but it’s time for me to let him go.

Read this book: Bitter Seeds

Ian Tregillis’s alt history/sci-fi mashup scores big on imagination, even if many of his characters are flat.

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Aside from the supernatural/horror/sci-fi, another thing I’m a fan of in pop culture is alternative histories. The “what if” has always fascinated me, mainly because it lets the imagination run away.

In his book Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis combines not only sci-fi, but also horror, with alternative history. Add nazis, arguably one of the best villain groups of all time, to that mix and you’ve got a recipe for a great story.

bitter seeds 3The plot: in Germany, a mad scientist is creating his own band of supermen, soldiers capable of such things as turning invisible, starting fire, and predicting the future. As war looms between Germany and the rest of Europe, the British government forms a group called Milkweed to investigate these reports. Soon a covert battle ensues as the British group use warlocks to summon dark forces to battle the nazis.

It’s actually a complicated plot to explain in a few tight sentences. Our hero is Raybould Marsh, a pugnacious British secret agent who is sent to investigate the reports of these supermen. Soon he summons his college friend Will, a warlock initiated in a blood rite that allows him to communicate with beings called Eidolons. When you think of Eidolons, think Lovecraft. These mysterious beings are not kindly or benevolent. They see humans as no better than ants. They would gladly destroy us but they exist in a different plane, and can never pin us down. Blood helps them get closer. Tregillis doesn’t fully explain what the Eidolons are, but he doesn’t need to. My imagination filled the gaps just fine.

Meanwhile, the German team of superheroes is on the verge of falling apart. They were Bitter-Seeds 2created when they were just children, bought by a scientist who experimented on them (horribly, one would assume, judging from the body count) until he had his team in place. They wear batteries that are hooked to wires embedded in their skulls, which allows them to access their superpowers. This is one of Tregillis’s strengths — he employs, simple, believable technology suited for the era. Think steampunk circa 1930s.

The German story centers on two characters: Klaus, who can dematerialize and move through walls, and his sister Gretel, an enigmatic sociopath who knows the future (though she rarely reveals it). Gretel is perhaps the most compelling character. Why? She is always a mystery, always unpredictable, and always uncontrolled. She’s fascinating to watch.

The breakdown. What was good about Bitter Seeds?

–The concept was fun. Who doesn’t love watching nazis get beat?

–As mentioned above. Gretel was by far my favorite character, though Will, the aristocratic warlock, was a close second. Tregillis convincingly drew a man who grew more and more tortured, especially as the Eidolons demanded higher blood prices as the battle continued.

–The Eidolons themselves were a fantastic creation. Thoroughly dangerous, extremely powerful, callously indifferent. I want more.

–Tregillis is a skilled writer. As a writer myself, I’m always appreciative of someone who takes great care in the writing of a story.

And the not so good:

Bitter Seeds suffers from something I see a lot in fiction. I call it the running in circles plot. Maybe the writer isn’t sure what to do next. Maybe the writer needs to up his page count. But sometimes a story starts running in circles, where the characters are going back and forth (sometimes literally) and not really getting anywhere. Not much plot movement, maybe a little character development. There were several times when I could feel the story lapsing into this.

–Aside from Gretel and Will, I cared little about any of the other characters. Our hero, Marsh, was fine, but he never made the leap off the page for me. Similarly, Klaus was very one note. His whole role was to protect his sister Gretel, and that’s all he did. The Germans, especially, were largely forgettable.

Nevertheless, Bitter Seeds (which is book one in a trilogy) is inventive, imaginative and thrilling. I’m looking forward to discovering where Tregillis will take us next.

Reinventing Lovecraft at Tor

A fresh spin brings new life to a controversial horror legend.

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Arguably, HP Lovecraft is one of the fathers of modern horror (the grandfather would probably be Edgar Allen Poe). Rhode Island native Lovecraft, who lived from 1890-1937 created a bleak, horrific mythology that was both seamless and Howard_Phillips_Lovecraftexpansive. His creatures included the now iconic Cthulhu. His monsters were both alien in origin and Earth-evolved races that rose and fell long before Homo sapiens wandered off the savannnas.

What made Lovecraft a master of horror wasn’t necessarily his prose — it was his outlook. The monsters in his world were not remotely like us. In fact, they considered us no better than we would consider a nest of ants. It’s the theme that we don’t matter one bit to the universe that makes Lovecraft so horrific.

But Lovecraft is not without controversy. Today he’s widely derided as sexist and racist. His works are criticized for their fear and revulsion of the other. His critics have a point; I’ve always been hesitant to proscribe modern mores to past characters, though I wouldn’t let them off the hook.

This controversial aspect of Lovecraft has kept him at arms length from contemporary writers, which is a shame, because once you extract his personal views, there’s much gold to be mined from his works.

Leave it to Tor.com, one of my favorite (and free) sites for the latest in modern speculative fiction. They recently published a (long) short story, The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys. The writer brilliantly uses Lovecraft’s mythos to create a new world that, while it relies heavily on Lovecraft, removes all of his detestable aspects. Instead of reviling the other, Emrys’s world is about the other.

My point? Just because a writer/artist/actor/politician is a jerk in real life doesn’t necessarily mean we have to disregard all their efforts. Emrys’s short story is proof of this.

Here’s an intro to the story:

The state took Aphra away from Innsmouth. They took her history, her home, her family, her god. They tried to take the sea. Now, years later, when she is just beginning to rebuild a life, an agent of that government intrudes on her life again, with an offer she wishes she could refuse. 

Read the whole story here at Tor.com.

And, for an interesting take on Lovecraft’s controversial elements, read this blog post from the editor at Tor.com who decided to buy Emrys’s story. It’s fascinating to watch him grapple with his own mixed feelings.

(Art copyright © 2014 by Allen Williams)

Earth-bound monsters

When I was eight my parents took me to see the classic horror flick Alien in the movie theater. Little did they know what they were getting themselves–and me–into. They were sure I’d be terrified, but I barely flinched through the horror and gore Johnhurt(except for the iconic spaghetti scene, where the baby alien bursts through John Hurt’s stomach).

Maybe that’s because a few years earlier I was terrified by the flesh-eating zombies in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead–and thus inoculated–from horror.

Nevertheless, the Alien franchise features some of the scariest, awe-inspiring monsters. These are creatures that use aliens.1humans not for food but as breeding pods, suffering through slow, agonizing deaths. Very much an H.P Lovecraft view of horror: the alien monster as a destroying force that gives no consideration to our humanity in pursuit of its destruction.

It turns out, once again, that nature parallels these horrors.

alien 1Take this parasite called PhironimaAccording to this article, it is thought to be the inspiration for the Alien monster.

And with good reason.

This tiny parasite lives in the ocean. It survives and thrives by attacking free-floating zooplankton. First it carves out the zooplankton’s insides. Then it climbs in and uses the hollowed out creature as its transport.

It’s not clear whether the Phironima kills the zooplankton, but the parallels to the Alien xenomorph are blood-curdlingly clear: a monstrous-looking creature alters and destroys another to use for its own benefit.

This is nature.

Lovecraft leftovers

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I was young and impressionable when I first saw the 1985 horror flick Re-animator. The best way to describe is as a Frankenstein story, with the heartwarming parts hacked out. The source for this story? Providence, Rhode Island’s own H. P. Lovecraft.

This Sunday I got to re-live this part of my adolescence at NecronomiCon, a convention devoted to all things Lovecraft, in Providence, of course, where I sat at a table selling copies of The Last Conquistador.

I don’t pretend to write pure horror in the Lovecraftian form. First, what exactly is that? In my take, Lovecraft’s horror is ultimately bleak, There is no hope – not even a thread. This makes it all the more chilling. The creatures who populate his tales aren’t so much malicious as uncaring, and pretty much unstoppable. Lovecraft excels in mood, and there is only dark.

Edward Lee is a writer in the Lovecraft style. City Infernal, about one girl’s journey through (literal) hell, rivals Lovecraft for darkness, though his heroine, Cassie, is tough and modern (in other words, there is a thread of hope). It is an exciting book that I tore through. And not only is there’s a great sequel – Infernal Angel, but another related book, Lucifer’s Lottery, which features as a character none other than Mr. Lovecraft.

Even bleaker? Try Brian Keene‘s zombie horror The Rising, where it’s not only humans turning into zombies. Don’t even bother uttering the word ‘hope’ on this thrill ride.

I’d say Lovecraft would be proud of these guys.