a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: horror

Sleeping Beauties by Owen King and Stephen King

Summary: In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, and the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain?

My thoughts: I’m so conflicted about this book. I was hooked, there is no denying that – seeing as I left all work aside for a week to finish reading this mountain of a book. It was thoroughly engaging. If you’ve watched IT Chapter 2, you must remember the very self aware running gag on McAvoy’s character, Bill, being called out for writing the worst endings. Many people criticise King for writing anticlimactic endings to his long stories. I don’t agree with most people, but somehow having watched the movie so recently, I’d braced myself for a disappointment at the end of this book. Which is perhaps why it didn’t hurt as much when the predicted disappointment hit. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

First, the goods, or the positives: The greatest triumph of SK’s writing for me has always been the uncannily real characters. He can effortlessly hop into the heads of hardened criminals, sociopaths, recovering alcoholics, bullies, angsty teenagers bursting at the seams, mothers, children, you name it. He can write the damnedest realistic characters and he has surely managed that in this book. Not only that, he makes you care for his characters, and choose sides between those you love. Throughout Sleeping Beauties, there are moments of triumph when the characters hit right home. Just right. 
The story is a mix of Under the Dome, The Stand, 11/22/63 and perhaps even Mr. Mercedes (specific references aside.) SK has proved before, more than once, that he can do small town mass hysteria and do it well. The authors have pulled it off here too, no surprises there. 
And I mean there’s the obvious, the more recent Stephen King charm you get: that brisk no-nonsense dialogue, casual meta references and nods to authors and movies and songs and his own characters, style – just a lot of cocky style. And all this makes it a thoroughly entertaining book, even at its worst moments. I don’t know how much of this is Owen King, but there’s too much Stephen King to miss. Things I was surprised by and like included the element of dark fantasy. I like the allusions and the tricks. I loved Evie and everything she stood for. And above all else, I love the fox’s perspective on the world; animal perspectives are always so difficult to write without sounding too human. 
Now to the negatives, the bads: Maybe the book came a little too late. I like the idea of a retelling of a fairy tale in this manner and on this scale, but it just seems strange to have this repeated overwrought discussion on the duality of gender, men and women, men against women, two genders and the very specific dual gender roles.. seems odd to centre the book entirely around this duality in today’s world. It was quite the elephant in the room. 
I think at the end of the day, it’s Clint Norcross, the main character (not sure if I should call him a protagonist) who disappointed me the most. When you create a character who has more shades of grey than of white, you better give me a good reason for that. I expected… more. Or I did not understand what I got.

And lastly, I think the scope of the book was too narrow and for no solid reason. In Under the Dome, there is still an explanation for the seemingly arbitrary choice of that particular small town for that particular story. What makes this town so special? Why is the rest of the world so oblivious to this random town in Appalachia where everything of import seems to be happening? Even Under the Dome had more of the external world playing its part. Here, you need to accept it without justification. Too big a story in too small a package. 
Final Thoughts: I’m glad I read it. My biggest takeaway is the character of Jeannette – that’s one woman I will not forget easily, one character I’ll keep coming back to. I would recommend it to you if you have the time for it. But there are far greater Stephen King novels to choose over this – when in doubt, when it comes to Stephen King, always go for the classics.

“Sometimes you get what you want, but mostly you get what you get.” 


This isn’t exactly a fairytale retelling (hint: kissing the sleeping beauties may not have the predicted reaction) to be part of the Retellings Challenge, but they’ve referenced Sleeping Beauty often enough for me to say it counts. 

On silence and cacophonies, the changing face of horror and watching A Quiet Place

A lot of people are talking about Bird Box being similar to A Quiet Place. Now I haven’t Bird Box, but this discussion was my excuse to return to the latter. I unearthed this post that I had written on  A Quiet Place. This post has been sitting in my drafts for a while now, let’s drag it to the light of day…
One of the problems of watching a horror movie with friends, for me, has been that whole approach people have these days; of sitting on the edge of your seats, waiting to be scared. It’s strange that a horror movie is judged by how many scenes make you jump – I’ve never heard of people watching a drama-tragedy and saying, “Well it was good, but it didn’t make me cry enough.” Even comedies are judged by more than the number of laughs they provide. Why then this narrow expectation of a genre that  deals with an intense primal emotion? There is more to fear than that. There has to be! 
Even so, most popular horror in television and cinema is awfully formulaic. Story, character and emotions are beside the point. What matters is how suddenly that chalky white face shows up on the screen or how the slimy hands grip the heroine from inside the mirror or the blood spatters and violence. The essence of the genre is lost in cheap tricks and manufactured thrills.
Horror can be more than ghosts. Think of Carrie. Late 70s, teenage girl, abused and bullied, gets supernatural powers and wreaks revenge…?  Many people would even reject labeling this as horror! But what do you find terrifying – a walking doll? Or how easily we inflict casual pain on fellow humans out of sheer spite? Who can forget that iconic scene from Carrie where the bucket of pig’s blood is upturned on a girl’s head; who could deny being scared by her disintegration? Carrie is torture, if you give in to the singular demand made by good movies and THINK about it. 
A Quiet Place is like that. It demands that you to think; and look beyond the regular and mundane expectations from a horror movie. It’s not a study in jump-scares but rather a slow, psychological torture. The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic world where alien monsters with hypersensitive hearing have wiped out the society. They attack at the slightest hint of a man-made sound and the only way to survive is to be totally and utterly silent. It is bang in the middle of this invasion that the movie begins. We meet a family, the only survivors in a deserted town; a couple and their three kids. They try to survive in this place while struggling to establish contact with the outside world. 
I’m a generally quiet person, but I can’t imagine having to live without sound, without the comfort of my own voice – I realised as I watched this movie that I may not even be able to think properly if I didn’t know what I sounded like. A new perspective on the word luxury, and privilege. One of the children in the surviving family in the movie is congenitally deaf and that gives her an excellent chance; the intrinsic formula of the world hasn’t changed for her. The family in turn has the advantage of being fluent in sign language and that is one reason they stay connected through the events.  
A Quiet Place is certain of its scope – it’s not an action movie or an alien invasion kind of sci-fi story. Where did the creatures come from, why is the Abbott family the only ones alive, what happened to the rest of the world – these are questions the movie will not attempt to answer. It has a narrower scope, in that it doesn’t deal with politics or the anthropology of an apocalypse; rather uses that plot device to delve into our psychology. The Quiet Place takes you out of your daily comforts and plants you into a world that has unfair demands and constant threats. It’s a movie about confronting the odds and facing fear.  It’s about love ties and loyalties being tested. It’s about the value of the smallest things we take for granted – simple things really, like a baby’s laugh or a favourite piece of music.
Watching A Quiet Place in the cinemas enhanced the haunting effect the movie had on me. I’d never realised before just how noisy cinema halls are. People whooping, laughing, commenting; the odd mobile phone ringing, and god forbid, popcorn. Have you ever noticed how loud popcorn is? Everyone in the audience was utterly silent as we watched A Quiet Place. The movie was stripped of all noise and suddenly, like the characters and creatures of this world, we were also hypersensitive to noise. And that was the biggest show-stopping surprise the movie had to offer! 
Not only did it capture real horror, but it juxtaposed itself against regular thrills by taking away the one thing that the horror genre loves to exploit: sound effects. Horror as we know it now is all about sound. We all know and hate the anxiety-inducing murmur in a suspenseful scene, building up to a bang when a monster appears to scare us. Pennywise the Clown is made tenfold scarier by that raspy voice; I have goosebumps just typing about it. A quick search reveals many web pages about audio tricks  used in horror to scare the daylights out of you. And yet, A Quiet Place had nothing. And somehow, that was freakier than any sound effect. 

For the love of writing

I miss my book club. A lot of people I know like to write and love to read. But there is something special about those who make time for it on the one free day of the week. My home town was a fairly culturally-active place. I have been missing that sense of intellectual stimulation in this new city, not because of a lack of it, but because I have hardly ventured out of the daily humdrum of the university. This past week was rather stressful for a number of reasons and I really needed that strangers-geeking-out-over-books feeling again. So I tracked down the next best thing, a writing club that was worth it.
As part of today’s activities, I wrote and read out two things that, if not anything else, at least helped get my entirely dried up creativity flowing again. For one, I enjoyed writing in an actual notebook as opposed to the laptop, I think the pen and paper awakened a new side of me. (The picture is sad, my scrawl does the Moleskine no justice.) I wanted to post edited versions of both stories and make it a regular thing, if, that is, I attend more of the meetups. I will explain the prompts at the end of each story. Ideally, it should stand alone. 
1. Untitled
It was a quiet morning. Mary took her usual route to school, but not without an uncanny worry. She felt as if her shadow had been cut away. At school, the children prodded her, “What is wrong, Mary?” The teachers wondered, “Why do you look so forlorn, Mary?” But their probing went unanswered.

Mary walked back home alone, her heart heavy, her mind in a dark place. “But why!” she asked herself, “but where!” At dinner too, Mary was awfully quiet, gulping down her food, stray tears in her eyes, until Mother asked, a mask of concern, “What is wrong, dear Mary, whatever is wrong now?” It is nothing, she replied in quiet voice. “I thought you would be happy today,” said Mother, “considering how Father took care of that wretched lamb.” 

“What do you mean?” Mary looked up. “The silly thing that has been following you around everywhere, what a nuisance. Your teachers gave us a call, you know.” “What did Father do?” Mary’s voice quivered. “Why, we just had it for dinner last night.”
Prompt: Pick a nursery rhyme and kill the main character. People wrote some really good things! Mine turned out weird, and you sort of see it coming. But it was the best I could do in ten minutes. Plots are not my turf. It was a cool warm-up though, for what was to follow.
2. Blinded

The flesh burned slowly and the night air grew thick with the stench. “Only one more left.” The man whispered to himself, “God forgive me, dear Lord, please forgive me.” He dragged the final corpse to the fire, a single high flame. He cut out the heart and threw it in. It sizzled and crackled. The man shut his eyes and crept away from the fire. He began to chant. Something in the forest came alive at his words, the wind rustled and the trees shivered. The man held out his hands beckoning the nether spirits to this world. Goosebumps flowered on every inch of his body, but he stood still. 

For a moment nothing happened. Then the air changed as something stirred to life. Had the man opened his eyes, he would have seen the fire turn crimson and then black. He did not, but he did feel a presence. The wind curled around his fingers and squeezed. A lump built in his throat. The man dared not open his eyes. Sight, the scriptures say, is the pathway to the soul. One look and a nether creature could eat you alive, but there was no other way. He needed them.

“You are here,” he finally whispered, and the wind howled back a yes. “I need help,” said the man, “I need you so much.” A throaty chill reverberated through the forest air, and in his mind, the man heard an echo. “We can help you, Julian Wyllen. We are here to help. You have served us and we are here to help.” “Oh, thank the Lord, thank you, God.” Julian whispered, and the chill replied, “Not the Lord.” The forest laughed, as the man fumbled with the cross on his neck. His heart thudded in quiet desperation.

“Do you have her,” he finally said, “I want her back. I need her back.” The air around his fingers was fluid now, almost liquid, hard and smooth. It curled around his hand and squeezed again, a tiny icy grip. The breath left his body. “Is she here?” Julian asked the forest. “Yes, father. I’m right here,” came a quiet voice from outside his head. A real voice. “Anne?” the man whispered and clutched at the liquid air around his fingers. It hardened and softened and moulded in his hand. Skin to skin. “Oh my Annie,” the man turned to her, then stiffened. The little hand had dissolved into air. The wind thundered with laughter.

The cold voice echoed in his thoughts, “Not so soon, Julian Wyllen. We offer no gifts. What have you for us?” Anything you want, the man said to himself, I shall give you anything you want. “A life in exchange for another,” replied the forest that was his mind. “Open your eyes. Look at us. Look at what you worship. And look at what we have brought you. Once done, she cannot be undone. What have you to lose.” “Nothing,” said the man. He had worked towards this moment, waited for his girl, for ten years. He had sacrificed everything. Now he would give up the only thing he had left. “Forgive me, Lord,” he whispered and opened his eyes.

The first thing Julian saw was the black fire. For a moment he was enraptured, then his focus shifted and he shouted, “Anne, Annie, my darling.” Julian spun around, bending down to hug her, when his mind caught up with his senses. It was dark, but even in the dull gloom he could see the cracks in her eyes. He cringed. She was a pale thing, the face as beautiful as he remembered, but it held no depth. “Oh Lord,” he gasped and gulped, and she opened her mouth. A rasping voice emerged from the pretty lips, “Thank you. You, Julian Wyllen, have served us and given us life. We shall remain grateful.” The wind howled through the forest. Then the voice changed. “Goodbye,” Anne cooed, as her face twisted into a smile. It was the last thing Julian Wyllen ever saw.
Prompt: This again requires a lot of reworking. I have edited it considerably since I returned home, but I stuck to the first idea I had. Forty minutes are too little to pen a story for me. The activity, however, was still interesting. We picked four books each for the character name, setting, mood and plot. My selections were Julian from Famous Five, a forest from the first page of Eragon, the emotion was distaste, though I forget the book, and the action was a passive waiting. 
Our titles came from a list of cocktails, randomly assigned. My pick was Blind Abbot. I did not directly use it as the title of the story, but I did heavily incorporate it into the theme. Google brings up a nice description for the drink, of coffee liqueur, cinnamon syrup, Irish whiskey, froth and cream, which if I did drink, I might even have liked. Then again, the cocktail has no relevance here, I decided to use the more ecclesiastic meaning of abbot. 
For a first attempt, the whole exercise went quite well. Even if I do a little of this every week, I think I will stay happily in touch with writing. Meanwhile, I would love to know what you think. Are you part of any book or writing clubs, virtual or otherwise? Do you find it helpful?

Random musings on reading and writing horror fiction

(The image, which doesn’t scare me but whatever, is courtesy of hyena reality – good name! – at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)
Many people seem interested to know if horror writers believe in ghosts. Horror writers are known to skilfully evade such questions. I find the line of thought mostly irrelevant. I don’t think one needs to believe in ghosts to write horror. Horror is not about ghosts. It may star ghosts, but so could romance (Have you not seen Ghost?) or any other genre. Horror is about people. To write good horror, I think, it should suffice to believe in fear.
Stephen King says it makes him uncomfortable when people ask him why he writes horror, because it’s not a question you’d ask detective fiction writers or romance writers – they ask him that because there’s something nasty about horror. In the same interview he says that he sometimes answers the question with a flippant, “I was warped as a child.” which of course is not saying anything – many parts of childhood are more or less warped for everyone. (Today I watched a kid take immense pleasure in hurling stones at random pigeons going about their business. My point? Humans are born warped.)
Horror is so tricky to write. No good writer can write a convincing horror story if it doesn’t scare them. And imagine that, getting scared of your own writing. (And I don’t mean editing-nightmares.) A part of me wants to stop reading interviews and imagine a thirty-year-old Stephen King in a panic, shoving his typewriter (surely he has one?) into the fridge because The Overlook is turning steadily more sinister under his fingers. To create real fear, mustn’t you need to feel fear? Not just channel it, but to give in to it and let it guide you?
Peter Straub once described himself as having a connoisseur’s appreciation of fear. I found that uncharacteristically suave. (I don’t like Peter Straub in interviews, although Ghost Story is a marvellous rumination on fear. Dean Koontz, whom I have never read, gives neat meta interviews; but I feel that his books may not live up to my expectations.)
The term primal fear is interesting. On the face of it, the Lovecraftian (yes, there must have been others who said it) idea that it’s the oldest human emotion seems indisputable. One of my favourite blogs, A History of Emotions, talks about how this may not necessarily be true. It sounds very logical, but I want to side with Lovecraft. Fear is all instinct, an emotion you seem to have little control over, so naturally, you’d want to ascribe it to your animal-roots.
I don’t write a lot of horror, I much prefer mythology and fantasy. But when I do, I write at night. I arm myself with the cheeriest Gilmore Girls episodes, coffee and when handy, a cat. Then I type, letting the fear and self-doubt build on till I’m at the brink of freaked-out-dom. And just when I’m about to give up and delete everything, I switch to a particularly adorable (like this) Jess-and-Luke scene, pet my cat, take a swig of creamy coffee. I calm myself down, decide I am doing well, take a deep breath and continue. It’s torture, and fun. (Yes, I exaggerate, call it narrative license.) At night, it all ends up dramatically overwritten. In broad daylight, I edit. I try to accentuate the deeper messages. Horror, for me, is indeed about fear, but it should be the medium, not the goal. 
I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to share my horror writing. Letting people critique your horror particularly puzzles me. How do you deal with reviewers squashing your nightmares? It is hilarious to me that there are brave fears and silly fears, and yet, I have called people silly for being scared of slimy green monsters, spiders, and oh my god, cats. Haven’t you?

Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson

My next read for R.I.P. IX. Thanks, Delia, for the recommendation. I loved the book.

He started as a fire brand seemed to burst forth from nowhere. He saw it moving in the darkness like a flaming insect. 
Then the bonfire was ignited and its stacked wood flamed up with a crackling roar.
Now he could see the Apaches gathered in a giant circle around the mounting fire, all of them seated  cross- legged, their faces reflecting the flames like burnished oak, their dark eyes glowing as they stared at the fire. Who were they? he wondered. What were they thinking? Once again, he felt completely foreign to the moment, trapped in some unearthly vision.

Summary: Southwest Arizona, a century ago. An uneasy true exists
between the remote frontier community of Picture City and the neighboring
Apaches. That delicate peace is shredded when the bodies of two white men are
found hideously mutilated. The angry townspeople are certain the “savages” have
broken the treaty, but Billjohn Finley, the local Indian agent, fears that
darker, more unholy forces may be at work. There’s a tall, dark stranger in
town, who rode in wearing the dead men’s clothes. A stranger, who is incredibly strong, looks neither white nor Injun, who has a scar around his neck, a stranger who may not be
entirely human.

My thoughts: I’ve always felt that all horror works on suspense, not
knowing what comes next, not being able to understand what happens; that causes fear. Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson shows the
difference between suspense and intrigue.
The plot of this western, as you can see, is fairly
straightforward. About six pages in, and with one glance at that first cover, you can guess what should have been the
biggest mystery of all – what mauled the two young men and how is it related to
that strange man with the scar around his neck? But that’s the thing about this
book. Knowing who is behind the killings, knowing how a man is able to brutally
mangle his victims, the knowledge that the crux of the mystery lies in
Native American mythology doesn’t make the story any less scary. Suspense – uncertainty of fact – is one quality of horror. If wielded
effectively, intrigue is a much better tool. You have all the answers you could
ask for and yet, every time the stranger steps onto the page with his scornful smile you find yourself shuddering. 
Shadow on the Sun is about a clash of cultures. About the suspicion with which we view every new thing, the evil inhuman intentions, the capacity to swiftly lay blame, the misplaced high mindedness that lies at the heart of every colonization. That the young Harvard graduate officer Boutelle, or the vengeful brother of the two victims believe the murders are the work of the savage Indians shows a terrible conviction that humans are capable of every bit as much horror as a supernatural demon. It makes you wonder how we think so little of ourselves.

(Spoiler!) Billjohn Finley is the bridge between the two cultures and you can see him struggling to make sense of the savagery to the sceptical Boutelle – the fact that Little Owl died of fear, that his remains would be burnt inside his house, that Braided Feather and his tribe would perform a cleansing ceremony to dispel the work of evil forces. The dreamlike scene when Boutelle witnesses the ceremony and learns the story of the son of Vandaih, the man-eagle, is important because that’s when a part of his mind opens up to the possibility of some truth in the myth, because all the details start falling neatly in place, the man and his scar, the shaman, the Night Doctor, the mutilated bodies, the Indians’ obvious uncontrollable fear of the stranger, the inhuman shrieks in the forest. (end of Spoiler!) 

The stranger, the tall large man with the scar around his neck, from his physical description and his alienated behaviour, his desperation, his unthinking ruthlessness, is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. The fact that he’s looking for a Night Doctor only strengthens the impression. Whether he carries the blame for what he was turned into is not a question to address in this story, but the likeness could not be unintentional.

The thing that makes this book special, like the other two I’ve read by Matheson, is the clean-cut precision of the story. It begins mid-action and ends on just the right note, leaving us to conjure up a suitable tying up of loose ends. The plot is crisp, the mood evocative, and every word seems deliberately chosen to make you shiver. A nice, short read by a great writer – recommended by Stephen King as the author who influenced him the most as a writer – what more could you want?

August Heat by W.F. Harvey

The story, August Heat by W.F. Harvey, can be read online here. It stands on a jagged border separating horror from philosophy. Its mood is simple and alluring. This story is better listened to than read. Here is a twelve minute audio version of the story.
An artist paints a picture of a man condemned to death, and later comes across that man from his sketch chiselling away at a gravestone with the artist’s name on it. Imagine that moment of clarity when an optical illusion begins to make sense, that click in your head when you see the black lamp cuddled between the two white faces. August Heat is about that shift in perspective when a skeptic turns into a believer, a man man accepts his insanity. It is about two men whose fates clash and for whom it becomes impossible to fight destiny.
It is only natural that my first read for the R.I.P. Challenge is a short story, considering how awfully full my schedule is these days. But this short story is layered, can be dug deep into and employs masterful literary technique. Listen to it and tell me what you think!

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

Reminiscent of: The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh
We learn of great things by little experiences. The history of ages is but an indefinite repetition of the history of hours. The record of a soul is but a multiple of the story of a moment. The Recording Angel writes in the Great Book in no rainbow tints; his pen is dipped in no colours but light and darkness. For the eye of infinite wisdom there is no need of shading. All things, all thoughts, all emotions, all experiences, all doubts and hopes and fears, all intentions, all wishes seen down to the lower strata of their concrete and multitudinous elements, are finally resolved into direct opposites.
Summary: Malcolm Ross, a young barrister, is summoned by his lady friend Margaret Trelawney, when someone attempts to murder her father. Mr. Trelawney is an Egyptologist, and his house is filled with curios, from gruesome sarcophagi and mummies to ornate trinkets. 
The sudden attack on Mr. Trelawney, who is now unconscious, has left Margaret wholly distraught. Oddly, as if he has been aware of the danger all along, Mr. Trelawney has left his daughter a letter, instructing her not to move any items in his room,with an order that there always be at least one man and woman watching him at all times, night or day. On the first night, a second attack is made on Mr. Trelawney, right under the noses of the watchers, including Ross, are found discovered in a deep seemingly drug induced slumber. 
Through the course of the book unfolds the story of Egyptian Queen Tera, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Margaret, and her dream of resurrecting in a future world, more suited to a powerful woman like her. Now, fifty thousands years later, Queen Tera has been set free. It is apparent that she wants to return to her own embalmed body, which rests unsurprisingly in a sarcophagus in Mr. Trelawney’s house. The question is: how much does Mr. Trelawney know and what is he hiding?
My thoughts: I was very curious to read another book by Bram Stoker,  needless to say, I love Dracula. The Jewel of Seven Stars is a curious intriguing book. But it suffers from the pesky The Casual Vacancy syndrome, and is underrated, because, well – it’s not Dracula.
Of course it isn’t Dracula, but you can see it’s the same writer. The switching of perspectives is smooth, we slip easily into two long stories – one by an old explorer when he first unearthed Queen Tera’s tomb and the other by Mr. Trelawney’s friend about their journeys through Egypt. Malcolm Ross’s first person narration resembles Jonathan Harker’s in its deep detailed descriptions. But I love how we have a very biased view of the story, partial to the admirable Margaret Trelawney whom the lawyer never doubts. We see every character through the almost self-deprecating eyes of Ross, who gives so little away about himself – we only know of his intellect and experience through the others’ easy confidence in him. Stoker is good with characters in Dracula, and this is no less.
Another truly enchanting quality of the book is its mood. The atmosphere is rich with suspense and mythical exoticness. The glimpses into the old unfamiliar culture are evident not only through the travels to Egypt but in that antique quality possessed by the Trelawneys’ house and lives.
The book questions belief and experimentation, questions science and skeptics, and contrasts the knowledge of the Old and New worlds. It also has a very feministic quality, and Margaret Trelawney is a remarkable character, comparable with Mina, if in nothing other than her strength.
What the book lacks is perhaps a coherent structure. The plot is confusing, its pace inconsistent. It almost feels as if not enough work went into it. And then there’s the ending – abrupt, bizarre, surprising and actually effective. I don’t think Stoker ever intended for Margaret’s ‘connection’ with Queen Tera to be a secret – but even with only thirty pages left in the book, we find it hard to imagine what might happen next and when the ending does come it leaves us aghast – in a good way, if that’s possible. Think: every Stephen King ending, it’s so simple, you wouldn’t have dreamt a whole book would built up to that. Now I prefer such an ending to an unexpected unlikely twist. But I can see how others wouldn’t. Apparently: Stoker was forced to rewrite his disturbing, depressing ending to make it more appealing to the masses. (I wish he hadn’t fallen for that.) 
My copy had both endings. The first shocked me, so I tried the next. But: the alternate ending is mind-numbingly sappy, a fairy tale wrap-up so enormously disappointing, it spoils the overall effect of the book – like a delicious dessert with a bad after-taste, which makes you wish you hadn’t eaten that thing in the first place.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, if you know what to expect. It’s not outright horror, more a mix of dark fantasy, adventure and mystery. It’s also not Dracula. If you do decide to read this, though, I’d suggest making sure you read the first ending, the one that Stoker originally intended. What you want is the 1903 version, which you can find here.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.

You know, I’d decided to stay away from horror and the resolve seems to have lasted barely two months and about twelve books. I suppose Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier isn’t horror in the strictest sense, it’s a mystery and a romance; but it is ruthless, daring, packed with haunting emotion and brutally honest; which makes it everything I wished to avoid about horror and am glad I didn’t.

Summary: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This is definitely one of the most iconic book beginnings ever. Right from the very first words, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier maintains an engrossing style. The book begins with our narrator giving us glimpses of her life in the present in a hotel, with her husband, and nostalgic memories of another life, in a place called Manderley that she dares not mention to her husband. Then our unnamed narrator takes us back to when she first met her husband, Maxim de Winter, in Monte Carlo.

When they first meet, the narrator is a naive twenty one year old orphan working as a lady’s maid for the insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. Maxim de Winter is a handsome middle aged gentleman who is known for his fabulous house, Manderley, and the fact that his wife drowned a year ago. Both find escape from their lives in each other’s company, and when it’s time for the narrator to leave to New York with her gossipy employer, Maxim de Winter proposes to her and offers her to accompany him to Manderley.

‘A little while ago you talked about an invention,’ he said, ‘some scheme for capturing a memory. You would like, you told me, at a chosen moment to live the past again. I’m afraid I think rather differently from you. All memories are bitter, and I prefer to ignore them. Something happened a year ago that altered my whole life, and I want to forget every phase in my existence up to that time. (…) You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively that all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.’

But in Manderley, which is scenic and mesmerizing, things aren’t as easy as the new Mrs. de Winter supposed. She can see her husband is happy at home, but he’s also distant, and prone to the oddest mood swings. And as she soon begins to discover, the house and its people and relations are still stuck in the past. The the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, looms over the narrator, stifling her, making her an intruder on her own life. Wherever she goes, it’s Rebecca this, Rebecca that, “she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.” Their neighbours, the narrator feels, compare her with Rebecca and she falls short. Rebecca’s old lady’s maid, Mrs. Danvers hates the narrator for trying to replace her mistress, and tries to sabotage her relationship with Manderley at every turn. The gossip torments our uneducated, untrained, innocent narrator and the expectations bog her down.

And in the midst of it all, there’s the mystery of Rebecca’s death. As if an accomplished sailor drowning in her own boat wasn’t odd enough, the narrator finds Mrs. Danvers and a strange man in Rebecca’s old room, Maxim pales at even the barest mention of his first wife, a crazy guy called Ben living in the cottage where Rebecca spent her many nights has freaky things to say about her, and as the narrator tries to piece together the tragedy of Manderley, she wonders if Maxim would ever love her as he loved Rebecca.

My thoughts: The narration is evocative, urgent, authentic. The descriptions are vivid, richly suspenseful. But for me, it’s the construction of the book, the falling in to place like a puzzle of the story, the timelines, the little technical details like never revealing the narrator’s name, and never actually showing us Rebecca, we see not even a picture, only the impression she’s left on those alive and what the narrator makes of it, the truth revealed is all the more shocking hence. I love the writer for showing us just enough to help us guess the truth on our own. At the end it’s not a story we’ve been told, it’s something we’ve experienced – and that lends it its intellectual charm.

For the first time in a long time, I wrote about the book first in my diary and am now typing it out. I’ve written three pages of notes. I’ve written how I love the brooding aristocratic Maxim and his relationships, especially with his sister and his ever carefully calm and composed exterior. It occurs to me how you can never guess the torment inside anybody, no matter how well you think you know them. Poring over my notes, I realize I could never fit them into a conventional review; the scenes that stand clear in my memory; how Mrs. Danvers tried to coax the narrator into taking her life, how the narrator burnt the page of the book of poems with Rebecca’s writing on it, how she seethed at the thought of Rebecca calling her husband Max and how even at the end the narrator never did end up calling him that, how she never fit in, accidentally saying Mrs. de Winter was dead when she answered the phone, how she never second guessed her judgments nor doubted her self image. It’s a coming of age story; a story of her youth through the voice of her aged wisdom. At twenty one, I find Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier perfect in some places and mysteriously irrelevant in others, the book is terrible in so many ways, but it also makes me just a little hopeful.

They are not brave, the days when we are twenty-one. They are full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word. Today, wrapped in the complacent armour of approaching middle age, the infinitesimal pricks of day by day brush one but lightly and are soon forgotten, but then – how a careless word would linger, becoming a fiery stigma, and how a look, a glance over a shoulder, branded themselves as things eternal.

A few weeks ago I told someone I don’t like Romantic books. It was in reference to Frankenstein, which isn’t my favourite book at all. That being said, that was a generalization that I would like to take back. From now on, when someone says gothic romance, I’ll think of Rebecca and be happy, and sad. What a book. The funny thing is, I’m already reading the book again as I type this and it is still just as engaging. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you to read this book. If you have, tell me, did you like it?

I might say that we have paid for freedom. But I have had enough melodrama in this life, and would willingly give my five senses if they could ensure us our present peace and security. Happiness is not a possession to be prized, it is a quality of thought, a state of mind of course we have on moments of depression; but there are other moments too, when time, unmeasured by the clock, runs on into eternity.

A Good Marriage (from Full Dark, No Stars) by Stephen King – Wrapping up King’s March

A Good Marriage is the final story in this amazing short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. It’s a 100 page novella and makes a greatly disturbing read. If I think about it, this story has less gore as compared to Big Driver, hardly any violent graphic detail unlike 1922 and it has much fewer glimpses into crazy minds than Fair Extension. Honestly, it ought to be the least upsetting story of the entire collection; if only it weren’t so true to life. 
I saved the last story of the collection for a classic Stephen King-ey experience. Reading it alone in the middle of the night (it was around 2 a.m. by the time I finished), with a reading light and shuddering every so often, resisting the impulse to just abandon the book and go to sleep instead. That’s how Stephen King should be read, isn’t it? Without the eerie atmosphere, the building tension, The Shining wouldn’t quite have been The Shining. 
A Good Marriage is very different from the other stories in Full Dark, No Stars. It isn’t about a lunatic murderer, or a raging victim driven to murder, it is the story of a murderer’s wife. What would a woman do if she were to find out one day, out of nowhere, that her husband of some twenty seven years was a notorious serial killer? If she were to realize the man she loved, the man who surely loved her back, the father of her two children had lived a secret life as a murderer? How far would Darcy go to save her marriage?
It’s not a unique setting, you have to admit. In fact, based as it is on a true story, it’s not meant to be one of its kind. It almost reminded me of Alice Munro’s Dimension in the way it focuses on the one who is the closest to an offender, the one who suffers the most after the victims, the one who gets the least sympathy: the murderer’s family. That it is convincingly, worryingly realistic is what makes A Good Marriage the best and the worst story at once. King has done here what he does best. In his words, he’s put “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” to provoke a reaction. He’s played out this situation in invigorating, unnerving, undistorted, tear-jerking detail. 
King has toyed with the realization that someone you love, someone you thought you knew completely, can turn out to be a altogether different creature. King has described vividly how it dawns upon Darcy that you can never really know a person, not even one you’ve built your life with. Once the truth hits home, it takes only one caressing touch, from her husband for Darcy to be terrified of him. Seeing him for what he really is, his once-endearing toothy smile and soundless laugh make her nauseous. And she loves him.
It’s a good story, and what makes it good, is how difficult it is to put yourself in Darcy’s shoes. To wonder how you’d react in that situation; a situation that when not looked at personally makes so much sense. A Good Marriage is a nice story about marriage and oddly, it’s a happy story, in that it leaves you with a grudging sense of relief and the realization that there’s a little hope for humanity, after all.
It turns out A Good Marriage is being made into a movie. Or is it already out? I don’t think I’ll watch it, but I’m curious to see how it’s received. I suppose it will fair well like all his movies do, I only hope it’s for the right reasons.
The Afterword is brilliant. Only Stephen King can do justice to describing what he does in his stories. And it really got me thinking. 
“I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record
what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire
circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they
acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our
fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even.
But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in
trying to do the right thing… and that when we fail to do that, or willfully
turn away from the challenge, hell follows.”

As much as I love having the ‘visceral’ reactions that King intends to invoke in his readers, I am happy to be out of the dark and in the light, glad, of course, that he brought me out here (even if with a cheeky wink), impressed that the collection ends on a fairly optimistic note. I loved this collection, and I know overuse that word but I do mean it in its fullest sense here: I loved it. It’s a must read. But I don’t think I’ll be revisiting Stephen King anytime soon.
My copy of Full Dark, No Stars has an extra ‘bonus’ story at the end. I don’t want to read it. Nor do I want to read Different Seasons, which I’d picked up for King’s March as well. I’m going to return those two to the library and take a temporary hiatus from Stephen King, and perhaps all things horror. I know that contradicts what I wrote in my previous post about reading everything he’s ever written, but hey, I have a whole lifetime for that.) 
King’s March has been quite an experience. I loved reading people’s reviews of books I’ve already read, their opinions and recommendations of books I hope to read somewhere down the line and how almost everyone complained about that thing that always irritates the hell out of me: He doesn’t just write horror! Sharing bookish love is what blogging’s all about anyway. But now I’m all geared up for the Once Upon a Time Challenge – for a bit of fantasy after this. I think magic and a little gooey happy fun would do me some good right about now.
Tell me this, fellow Stephen King fans, are you ever just a bit too overwhelmed by the dark? Or did you just roll your eyes and call me a chicken? I wouldn’t be offended if you did!

1922 (from Full Dark No Stars) by Stephen King

(I love this book already, and my new Stephen King bookmark, which I’m going to take with me everywhere I go. This review is for King’s March.)

The back cover of the book asks us a question, hinting towards the nature of the whole collection of stories: What tips someone over the edge to commit a crime? For a Nebraska farmer, the turning point comes when his wife threatens to sell off the family homestead.

That is 1922: An old man’s confession to murdering his wife with the help of his fourteen year old son, and then dumping her body in their own well. Don’t worry, these aren’t spoilers. It’s never so straightforward with Stephen King. 1922 is about what comes after the crime. As King succinctly puts it: 

“I discovered something that night that most people never have to learn: murder is sin, murder is damnation (surely of one’s own mind and spirit, even if the atheists are right and there is no afterlife), but murder is also work.”

The worst is never over, he goes on to say, the dead are never truly gone. Once Farmer Wilfred James convinced his son Henry “Hank” into becoming a willing participant in Arlette’s murder, he changed the boy’s life. The plan that sounded simple enough ended up more difficult than the pair could have imagined. A black spot in their lives that neither was able to fully wash off in the following years. As James narrates, eight years later, what happened in 1922, you see the extent of evil in people. Underneath all his guilt for what he did to himself and his son, past the fear of his wife’s vengeful ghost, you still see that he blames his wife for what happened, that he believes his crime was justified, under the circumstances. He feels no real repentance. And the freakiest thing is, he knows it – he knows himself.

1922 shows you how thin the line between fantasy and reality is. It won’t take long for your worst nightmare to come to life, for you to bring it to life and once that’s done, it will take an eternity to put it back to sleep, if ever. On that ill fated night, Wilfred James raised something, the demon inside him perhaps, that tore at him and then ate away Hank’s little boy innocence. “The Conniving Man” James calls him in his confession; the stranger inside every man. Even the pale little boy had evil lurking in him, which his father unleashed: clearly, when it took just a slap from Mama to make him want to help Poppa finish her off. 

But the truth came back to haunt the both of them. It hit Hank in the form of guilt, regret, overwhelming fear and perhaps confusion over his own actions and he dealt with it by blaming his father, rightly so. His escape with his girlfriend, from his father’s farm, led to the bitter end that had already been written for him on that night in 1922. And the truth haunted Wilfred in a more literal sense: his dead wife’s broken corpse accompanied him throughout his life, along with the army of rats nesting in her rotting body. Driven crazy by the ghosts of his past, now holed up in a hotel in Nebraska, Wilfred James writes a confession to his sins, documenting the whole truth as he sees it. 

“This is a ghost story, but the ghost was there even before the woman it belonged to died.
‘All right, Poppa. We’ll… we’ll send her to Heaven.’ Henry’s face brightened at the thought. How hideous that seems to be now, especially when I think of how he finished up.
‘It will be quick,’ I said. Man and boy I’ve slit nine-score hogs’ throats, and I thought it would be. But I was wrong.”
Like in every small town story he’s written, King describes the setting in detail. The small town people and their small town talk and small town minds. A murder committed just because the farmer didn’t want to move to the city. And then you realize it’s not because of the setting. Take a twisted ego and put it anywhere and the story would play out in the same way. 1922 makes you sick and there is no redeeming glow of hope at the end. It is not a romanticized version of a killing. You end wishing you hadn’t read the story and knowing you couldn’t not have. There’s little good in this novella but it’s the ruthless honesty that we all need to take once in a while, chew on and swallow. The disintegration of Wilfred’s mind, his gradual loss of sanity and his self inflicted justice form a lesson in morality like no other.