Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on February 3, 2015, and is available to pre-order on Amazon.
There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it’s on the web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change. 
There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.
Many of those stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.
Writers being introspective about their writing is pure magic, which is why Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is a must read, if only for its twenty page introduction. Gaiman writes about how this short story collection came into being, muses on how you need fiction to reveal hard truths to you and to see the world for what it is, and then he generously gives you some back-story on each story.
These are stories that are vivid and evocative and will make you think, for long hours after. The Thing About Cassandra is about a made-up girlfriend, a haunting story that could make you lonely and nostalgic and wonder if reality really is more than hazy wisps of memories. The Sleeper and the Spindle, which was first published as an illustrated fairy tale, is a rich retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a fabulously feminist twist. Down to A Sunless Sea is a short read, but one so filled with defeatist grief that it left me shuddering, and Gaiman’s trigger warning finally made sense. Here are things you don’t want to read about, that can and will horrify you, that are better left unread, that you therefore must read.
Often when I read short stories, I feel like it’s a lifetime badly crammed into a few pages. Every carefully chosen word goes against every haphazard detail of real life. Yet, the way short story plots easily twist and spin also seems unreal. Perhaps there is an art of reading a short story I should learn, a way to add credibility to this package of unreliable oddity bursting at its seams. Jerusalem is a story that could suffer from disconnectedness. It’s not traditional, and reads like something by A. S. Byatt. I think it survives because of its ending, which is refreshingly clear, practical. The story is about love and faith. It’s about unconditional acceptance too. It had something of a hold on me, specially, because the way it is written reassured me there’s more than garbled symbolism to “literary” fiction. 
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury is a gem, incomparable in its desperate persistence. It’s about a man confronting a gradual loss of memory, of words, and ideas, and it’s an urgent plea to the world to remember the writer who showed us the power of books.

In The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains, Gaiman has taken fairy tale tropes like heroes, quests and lost fathers and put a spin on them. This is a bleak Dickensian tale of cold vengeance. It’s an intriguing story. As is Kether to Malkuth, a delicately woven tale about an old duke and his search of meaning. These are what I know and love Gaiman for, the dire but charming fantasies.
Orange is a story written in the form of answers to a questionnaire. It’s a highly experimental structure and a dark absurd story. A girl answers a top-secret-government-business-sounding questionnaire, detailing an incident where her sister apparently turned into a giant orange blob of light. You don’t know the questions, which would make this an interesting book club read. It would be endlessly fascinating to see every reader fill in the blanks constructing her own unique versions of the events.
Other favourites of the collection: Feminine Endings – a chilling love letter written by a man who poses as a statue, Adventure Story – a quirky whimsical tale that will appeal to everyone with a mother, Click-Clack the Rattlebag – a disconcertingly simple horror tale, and And Weep, Like Alexander, a moral story like no other. It’s a treat to revisit the Doctor and Amy in Nothing O’Clock, and the occasional poem comes as a welcome change. 
But for all the great stories, Trigger Warning is a mixed bag. Sometimes Gaiman’s writing seems so pointless, you have to remind yourself it’s probably not and sieve the text for deeper implications. Not every story in this collection makes me call him, with full conviction, a good writer. Some stories have lost their way, some require too much effort from the reader and others are grand attempts that have ended up, for lack of a better word, flimsy. 
The charm of this collection, which you may call haphazard in style and genre, lies in its variety: it is deliciously eclectic. And that’s the thing about Neil Gaiman: you just cannot nail down his style. He’s the king of unpredictable. There are stories in this collection, fables steeped in mythology, which seem very typically Gaiman until, one unique tale pops up that leaves you stunned and somehow devastated, because you had only just begun to believe that you knew him. 
So, I would recommend this book to those who have read Gaiman, have already once been caught unaware by his genius and are eager for more. Trigger Warning is a must read for fans. It’s probably not the best place to start for curious first-time explorers of his works.

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!

John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by Angela Carter (from American Ghosts and Old World Wonders)

When I discovered that Delia at Postcards from Asia and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat were hosting the Angela Carter Week from 8th to 15th June, I immediately signed up.
Then I skipped off to Wikipedia and saw, alongside that interesting picture, that she was an English writer known for her feminism, magical realism and picaresque writing. I later also came across an interesting interview of A. S. Byatt, in which she describes her first meeting with Carter, with whom she became great friends, and admits:

“…About five years ago she (Angela Carter) said that she had realized that she was a writer because of fairy tales, because she was hooked on narrative as a child, not by realist novels about social behavior or how to be a good girl, but by these very primitive stories that go I think a lot deeper. It wasn’t until she said it that I felt empowered…”
American Ghosts and Old World Wonders by Angela Carter is a stylish book, a little slow but avant-garde. I’ve read five stories in this collection so far and it’ll be easier to write about all in one three-starred review. But this story deserves a post of its own. It has some of the most imaginative, creative writing I have read in a while.

America begins and ends in the cold and solitude. Up here, she pillows her head upon the Arctic snow. Down there, she dips her feet in the chilly waters of the South Atlantic, home of the perpetually restless albatross.
That is an excellent sample of the kind of descriptions and metaphors Angela treats you with throughout the book. But John Ford’s ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore is special. The unique story begins with a note: John Ford was an English playwright, best known for his tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. In his time, the play was hugely controversial, and was retitled Giovanni and Annabella, after the two siblings whose scandalous incestuous affair the story follows.
In her story John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Angela Carter has re-imagined the Jacobean play as a movie by the Irish American film director, also named John Ford, who was popular for his westerns. The siblings have been aptly renamed Johnny and Annie-Belle, and that is only the first of the many cheeky puns and tropes the story uses. It is not just a retelling, but an Americanization; one that will make you both throw your head back and laugh, and marvel at its ingenuity. 
The story itself is pretty straightforward. When their mother dies, Johnny and Annie-Belle are left with their father, who has no time for them, and live far away from anyone else. Silence and space and an unimaginable freedom which they dare not imagine. Their affair, which seems only natural at first, leads to suspicious rumours about town, and ends in an unwanted pregnancy. Finally aware of the ‘wrongness’ of their love, Annie-Belle, the good girl that she is, agrees to marry the Minister’s son, who has always thought her pretty. The pregnancy becomes known only after the wedding, and while the Minister’s wife swears to kick the girl out, the men of the family show her an uncanny kindness. Annie-Belle tells her husband that the father of the child is a random passerby, no one he knows. Johnny, seething with rage, jealousy, running on alcohol, sets off to set the record straight.
What really stirs me is the brilliant structure of the story. It reads like a combination of a proper narrative, a script of a play and a screenplay. The action flits back and forth in time, as does the language. The alternating techniques and juxtaposing styles form a deeply interactive story, which uses its reader’s imagination as fuel. Carter breaks all the rules; gives you background music, stage directions, an omniscient narrator, notes to herself and camera positions. Varying the placing of the text, playing with the indents, using the page as almost a canvas, she creates an artwork of a short story. 
                                        EXTERIOR. PRAIRIE. DAY
                                        (Close up) Johnny and Annie-Belle kiss.
                                        “Love Theme” up.

                         No. It wasn’t like that! Not in the least like that.
                         He put out his hand and touched her wet hair. He was giddy.

Annabella: Methinks you are not well.
Giovanni: Here’s none but you and I. I think you love me, sister.
Annabella: Yes, you know I do.
The innovative structure of this story takes nothing away from Carter’s fairy tale style, which features in the other stories of this collection as well. From the simplistic “Once upon a time…”-style beginning right up to the abrupt ending, Carter leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions. But, she does depart from the plot long enough to drop observations and opinions that challenge you to take a closer look at the tragedy and its implications.
Each time they lay down there together, as if she obeyed a voice that came out of the quilt telling her to put the light out, she would extinguish the candle flame between her finger-tips. All around them, the tactility of the dark. 
She pondered the irreversibility of defloration. According to what the Minister’s wife said, she had lost everything and was a lost girl. And yet this change did not seem to have changed her.

Of the other stories I’ve read, I like Gun for the Devil, which revolves around an old legend, about a man who makes a pact with the devil to obtain a bullet that cannot miss its target. Should you decide to read this collection, here’s a fair warning: be prepared to have every expectation (and every notion of how a story ought to be) unforgivingly shattered.

Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night by Shelly Lowenkopf

About the book: Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night brings a number of Shelly Lowenkopf’s previously published short stories together in a single volume. All the stories revolve around life in Santa Barbara, the oceanside city north of Los Angeles, where people go after they’ve burned out in San Francisco and L.A. Yet there’s no safe haven anywhere. Interwoven into Santa Barbara’s picturesque setting, the people in these twelve stories reveal what their hearts and souls encounter in relationships. Their misreadings, mistakes, and misadventures bare what happens to people who love another

My thoughts: Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night will make you appreciate short stories. I’ve only been reading collections and anthologies for a few years now, but this will definitely make it to my top favourites. Only the other day I read this blog post about Hemingway’s iceberg theory, and it sort of applies to Shelly Lowenkopf’s writing: there’s a lot more meaning to glean from the stories than it would appear. Not all stories had the same deep impact on me, and I have to confess, some left me a bit confused – but overall, this makes good collection, the kind that you’d want to savour over time rather than devouring in a day. My favourite stories:

I’ve Got Those King City Blues – Placing must be important in a collection. This story makes a good first taste, enough to make you want to continue, but not so good as to set your expectations too high! It’s not as much a story as a glimpse into the life of Charlene, a forty one year old, just out of a bad relationship and looking for a chance at a better one. The writing is atmospheric and tense, and the ending leaves you wanting more.

Charlene sat up, withdrew her hand from his, circled her knees with her arms. “Doesn’t anything last, Brian Sullivan?” Even in the growing dimness, she saw the same expression on him as when she’d caught him peering into his coffee cup.
“It hasn’t so far,” he said.

The Ability – Rachel is hired as a ghost writer of condolence letters. This story is brilliant, both in its concept and execution. It is made up of tiny intriguing details of character, things that could only be caught by an experienced and observant eye. It makes you laugh, tear up and wonder how strange life often gets.

Absent Friends – This is easily my favourite story of the bunch and certainly worth buying the whole collection for. Who knew a short story could have so much to say? I’ve already read this thrice and still don’t have words to explain it. Saying it’s about the relationships in the life of Sam Zachary, who is worried he has lost his cat, is not enough. It’s a sad story that makes you put your joys and troubles in perspective, and wish you didn’t have to.

“Not everyone gets to live the span projected  for them. I know it sucks, particularly if life seems to be going so well. Sometimes there are unanticipated events. Sometimes-” she seemed to consider for a moment, “-sometimes you have to make choices.”

Death Watches – This story captures the effect of the death of an acquaintance on a lonely man; and the comical inner struggle that follows, between filling an apparent void in his life and the habitual inability to make amends.

The sadness this time had begun with the news of Richard Martin’s death. Then, the sadness had begun to spread, like a spilled glass of wine on someone’s table cloth, taking up friendships, loves, old relationships, future possibilities, and, of course Langer’s own sense of his own longevity.

Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night – The title story is another well placed story, right in the middle. It follows the winding relationship between Carter and Cissy in a matter of days. It’s the kind of story that you can read over and over, and end up with a completely different impression every time. It’s also a story with a powerful makes-you-smile ending.
“The freaking universe has a mind of its own. Unfolds the way it wants.”

Messages – This story is about the relationship dynamic between two people seemingly in love, the giving and getting back, the missed signals, the expectations. You see Roger Beck, who takes his relationship a step further by moving in with Dana and her kid Frances, who is pretty okay except when she hears voices. It’s a weird story, packed with restless confusion – there is no real beginning and ending, but that works astonishingly well.
I also liked the stories Mr. Right and Coming to Terms, Witness Relocation Program and Molly, which is this strange, funny piece about a man who plans to steal his friend’s dog. All stories are about weaknesses, misunderstandings and mistakes but even the gray characters have these inevitable, redemptive qualities. The stories are set in the same world, with a few characters and places crossing over, like the Xanadu Coffee Shop and it’s a world that, despite all its issues, you want to be a part of.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves a good short story, and definitely suggest it to every budding writer. At close to two hundred pages, Love Can Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out Late at Night by Shelly Lowenkopf is a treat.
Check out the Virtual Author Book Tours page for more reviews, giveaways and interviews. 

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

This is my first read for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge, for the Short Story Quest. The Once Upon a Time Challenge is a reading and viewing event for the four broad genres of fairy tale, fantasy, folklore and mythology. I plan to participate with Quest the First (reading at least five books fitting in any of these genres) and might join in for the June readalong of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
When I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, I was literally in love with the book. I wrote three posts about reading the mountain of a book, one for each part, and by the end I was convinced “fantasy couldn’t get any better than this, magic couldn’t get more original.” And I stand by my opinion after this little short story collection as well. Susanna Clarke is a fantastic writer and both the books are definitely worth your time.
The word fantasy brings to mind Tolkien and the whole range of epic fantasy, along with the insanely widespread young adult paranormal genre. What Clarke gives us in her books is something unique in today’s world, basically because it is so old-fashioned. She’s Neil Gaiman meeting Jane Austen, which is kind of cool.
The stories are not what you’d expect from modern fairy tales at all, but rather, they’re written quite archaic and very folksy. The setting for these stories makes them special, because it isn’t enchanted toadstools and pretty winged fairies that she talks about, but the eerie unknown magical world full of wicked creatures who excel in trickery and deceit. Faerie, in Clarke’s world, is fairyland as it was probably first intended to be – full of the mysterious, inexplicable things that people were afraid of and avoided. While I’m not a big expert on English fairy tales, these did sound like the original, darker and more absurd Grimm’s tales – the ones meant for adults, not children.
I don’t suppose you need to have read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell to enjoy this book. If you have read the novel, and if you loved it like I did, you must read this book! If you haven’t and are too intimidated by the nine-hundred-something pages, give this a try, to get a glimpse of what she has to offer. The stories:
The Ladies of Grace Adieu – This is the expansion of a footnote from the novel. When Jonathan Strange pays his brother-in-law a visit, he encounters three lady magicians, who chide him for his (Norrell’s) skepticism towards the Raven King and his pure old practical magic. It’s a good story about the consequences of magic and the place of female magicians in Clarke’s alternate London. Also part of the story is a charming short tale of the Raven King from when he was just a Raven Child, setting the scene for the final story.
“Magic, madam, is like wine and, if you are not used to it, it will make
you drunk. A successful spell is as potent a loosener of tongues as a bottle of
good claret and you will find the morning after that you have said things you
now regret.” 
On Lickerish Hill – This seemed to me a retelling Rumpelstiltskin, which is easily my favourite Grimm’s fairy tale. Realizing these were going to be typical English fairy tales, I decided to read the book English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, which I found on Project Gutenberg. And the very first tale was Tom Tit Tot, an English version of Rumpelstiltskin. So, I should say, On Lickerish Hill is actually a retelling of Tom Tit Tot, involving Faerie and more explicit magic. It’s also a first person narration, unlike your usual fairy tale, and the heroine who would have otherwise sounded like a helpless naive thing actually moves the story forward and ends up appearing pretty clever.
Mrs. Mabb – This is a darkly fantastical story about the world of Faerie and the English world colliding in a nasty cat fight over, guess what, which of the ladies, fairy or human, gets to marry this man. It works because of its utter un-originality. 
The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse – This delightful little tale is set in the world of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. Specifically, in the Victorian-English village of Wall – where a wall divides two worlds that are better off separate. I loved the crossing over of worlds, and Clarke certainly seemed to have had fun writing it. The Duke of Wellington is quite a character and the story is very amusing. For all the men in this book, who historically correctly find the women basically pointless, this book does have a lot of instances of girl (lady) power.

Mr. Simonelli or The Fairy Widower – This is a creatively written story of a man who discovers he’s not quite as human as he’d grown up convinced. There is some wonderfully vivid imagery in this story.
At the end she was
like a house through which a great wind rushes making all the doors bang at
their frames: death was rushing through her and her wits came loose and banged
about inside her head. She appeared to believe that she had been taken by force
to a place where she was watched night and day by a hideous jailoress.

Tom Brightwind or How The Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby – Tom Brightwind is a handsome, arrogant fairy who reminded me a lot of someone – I racked my brains trying to remember whom and finally realized it was Howl Pendragon. A centuries older and even less morally inclined Wizard Howl. Tom is friends with a human. One day, the two friends happen to travel to a small village called Thoresby, which lies across a river and can only be accessed by ferry. Though they’re initially off to another place, they end up staying in Thoresby to build a bridge. How Tom Brightwind builds the fairy bridge and what the bridge does is for you to read!

Antickes and Frets – This is the story of how the conceited and sly Queen of Scots plots revenge on the Queen of England using evil magic and a bit of cunning embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner – This, of course, was the highlight of the bunch, if only because it starred the Raven King himself. Both while I was reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and now, this book, I seemed even to myself like a puppy begging for scraps – for stories of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Clarke gives us a little snippet in the first story in the collection and never once mentions him till this last story. And the little bits I did get were delicious but not enough.

Each of these stories is totally different from the rest, and the only thing keeping them strung together is the probably-never-done-before way Susanna Clarke makes magic real. You’d have to read the book to know just what I mean, but I’ll give you this:

It occurs to me that
just as Reason is seated in the brain of Man, so we Fairies may contain within
ourselves some organ of Magic.

What about you, do you like fairy tales? Old or new? And have you read Susanna Clarke?

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!

Big Driver & Fair Extension (from Full Dark, No Stars) by Stephen King + a few links

First of all, I think Full Dark, No Stars is right up there with the bests of Stephen King. Not for the first time, he’s proved that ghosts don’t have to be translucent white spirits that lurk in and around abandoned houses. These are stories about the terrible frightening ghosts in our minds. 

I read and reviewed 1922, the first novella, last week. I had to wait an entire week before I could read another King. I don’t see myself reading the last two stories quite just yet, either. Not till I’m done digesting these.

Big Driver: This is the second story in Full Dark, No Stars, a roughly 130-page novella. When Tess Jean, a mystery writer, is raped and dumped on the side of a road stuffed in a pipe, she plots revenge against the giant of a man who’s destroyed her life. Big Driver is the owner of Red Hawk Trucking and Tess, haunted by his comically nightmarish image, sets out to kill him.

This story is creepy, and as booksaremything had commented on my review of 1922, very difficult to read. The end seems convoluted and a bit ludicrous, but that apart, to me, the story makes sense. What happens to her drives the cozy mystery writer crazy. Nightmares, insecurity, voices in her head – the whole thing. Contemplating murder has been her profession, she knows revenge is not the answer, a whole part of her knows she should go to the authorities instead; but that’s the old Tess. The new Tess dismisses the idea of police, wondering “What’s in it for me?” Disclosing her attack is out of the question. She imagines people’s reactions to her rape.

One thing she did know was that she would get the sort of nationwide coverage every writer would like when she publishes a book and no writer wants when she had been raped, robbed and left for dead. She could visualize someone raising a hand during Question Time and asking, “Did you in any way encourage him?”
That was ridiculous, and even in her current state Tess knew it… but also knew that if this came out, someone would raise his or her hand to ask, “Are you going to write about this?”

And what would she say? What could she say?
Nothing, Tess thought. I would run off the stage with my hands over my ears. 

The back cover of the book asks you “What tips someone over the edge to commit a crime?” Big Driver answers the question in blatant uncompromising detail. And unlike the evil narrator of 1922, Tess doesn’t ask you to understand her, she doesn’t beg for sympathy, she knows you would hold her guilty, but she simply doesn’t care about you.

She was too tired to consider what might or might not be her moral responsibility. She’d work on that part later, if God meant to grant her a later… it seemed He might. But not on this deserted road where any set of approaching lights might have her rapist behind it. 
Hers. He was hers now.

Big Driver, which I read in one horrific sitting, made me feel ashamed of the world we live in.

Fair Extension: Fair Extension is a short story, the third in this collection. When Streeter is puking on the side of the road, the cancer now making his life more miserable than ever, he spots a pudgy man sitting on the other side, with a sign that reads ‘Fair Extension’. Elvid turns out to be a strange man who offers people all kinds of extensions, hair, height and in Streeter’s case, life extension. Elvid sells Streeter fifteen more years. But there’s always a catch and it goes something like:

You have to do the dirty to someone else, if the dirty is to be lifted from you. 

Streeter confesses to Elvid that he hates his best friend for life, Tom Goodhugh and has no qualms transferring the ‘dirty’ to him. Streeter expects Tom to get cancer, and is quite okay with it, but it turns out that he’s destroyed his life in quite other ways. With every new extra day that Streeter lives, something goes terribly wrong in his friends once perfect life, much to Streeter’s delight.

This story is ridiculous to the point of funny, it is written the sort of dry dark humour that is characteristic of SK, anyway. It’s about greed and ruthlessness of the kind that only a Stephen King story can pull off. What I love the most is that Fair Extension is set in Derry, Maine. Remember Derry? The last time I visited it was with Jake Epping.


Now to the links I promised:

Last week Anne Rice posted a link to OpenCulture’s Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writers, which you should have a look at, even if you have already read the fabulous On Writing. And if you haven’t read it, just what are you waiting for?

In related stuff, I found a list made by SK of 96 Books For Aspiring Writers to Read. I’ve read: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Hannibal by Thomas Harris, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Harry Potter by J K Rowling Parts 1, 2, and 3. Six: which must be pathetic by Stephen King standards. How many have you read?

Flavorwire posted this amazing thing yesterday: Artists Pay Tribute to the Work of Stephen King in Exhibition ‘King for a Day’. God, I would have loved to be there. The artwork is gorgeous and interesting, some based on the movies, and worth checking out.

So far, even though I haven’t got around to reading a lot, King’s March hosted by Wendy and Rory has been awesome, and I’ve enjoyed reading all the posts by fellow SK maniacs. I do hope to finish Full Dark, No Stars and at least a couple of stories from Different Seasons in this last week of the month, can’t say that I actually can. What have you been reading?

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. 

Fiction (from Too Much Happiness) by Alice Munro

I read Dimension by Alice Munro a little less than a month ago – after reading about her at Viktoria’s Bookshelf. It’s a haunting story published, like many others by Munro, in the New Yorker. When I realized it was part of a collection, ironically titled Too Much Happiness, I could hardly wait to get my hands on it. Dimension is the first story of the collection. Since I have linked to it above, I won’t spoil it for you with a summary. Read it, it’s worth your time.
The second story in Too Much Happiness is called Fiction. This is another gem, and though I’ve still only read two stories by Munro, I can tell you she’s one of the most talented authors I’ve ever come across and certainly the best short story writer. Like Dimension, Fiction has everything you expect from a novel compressed to fit into a few dozen pages – plot, style, a set of wonderful characters and a staggering climax. The story sucks you in and leaves you awestruck by its complex simplicity. It’s incredible how interesting the most commonplace things can seem.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Joyce and Jon, two of the smartest students at an urban high school in Ontario, get married, drop out of college and leave behind their bright futures. Joyce ends up as a music teacher at a local school, and Jon becomes a carpenter. Then the story, which starts out in a calm and happy place, takes an abrupt turn as Jon has an affair with his apprentice Edie and leaves Joyce. Pity is replaced by reluctant derision as you watch Joyce throw her life away, grow bitter. Trying to get him back, she goes so far as to stalking Edie and Jon.
Years later, you see Joyce contentedly married to Matt, a rich sixty-something amateur violinist. At Matt’s birthday party, among a group of connections, close and distant, Joyce spots a young woman she vaguely recognizes. She happens to be a writer, from the same school that Joyce taught at all those years ago. On an impulse, Joyce buys her book. 
Through a story about a small town music teacher, which hits far too close to home, Joyce discovers how her obsession with Jon and his new wife affected Edie’s little child. Joyce then attempts to reconcile with the now the writer, presumably the daughter, now grown-up. The encounter exposes Joyce as an unreliable narrator and goes to show Munro’s understanding of people, how they function, how they react. It describes the fictions people spin in their minds, how a life inevitably revolves solely around itself, truths no one would willingly confess to.

(End of spoilers.)

What I love about Munro’s writing is that every word counts and every line is loaded with meaning. Fiction is not a one dimensional story. There are so many themes, so many characters – each as important as the next. Munro manages to recount a whole life in just one short story and narrates it seamlessly. It’s almost incredible how involved it keeps you, how deeply every event affects you. And the best part is, the writing which, though never blatantly funny, does make you chuckle every so often.
Joyce has never understood this business of lining up to get a glimpse of the author and then going away with a stranger’s name written in your book.
She doesn’t even know if she will read the book. She has a couple of good biographies on the go at the moment that she is sure are more to her taste than this will be.
How Are We to Live is a collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.

(…says one of the greatest short story writers alive, you’ve got to love that.)

Reading Hector Hugh Munro aka Saki

Last night I noticed this huge monster of a book on the shelf called the World’s Great Selected Short Stories. I’d always thought it looked kind of dull, had never opened it and vaguely knew that it had stories by just the kind of renowned writers, whom I have only ever read in text books. But that was then – before I tried and enjoyed Shakespeare, poetry and (a few) love stories. Last night, I finally decided to read the book.
The first section contained stories by H. H. Munro, better known as Saki, whom I had obviously heard a lot about, but I couldn’t tell you exactly where I’d heard it all, and whom I hadn’t read. I wonder why; having spent most of last night and some of today morning devouring the nineteen short stories by Saki that this book had to offer. I have overused the word ‘awesome’ to the point where it has little weight, but here it applies in its truest sense.
The great thing about Saki’s short stories is that they are really, really short. It was incredible how such a short piece could have it all: plot, evocative writing and as much attention to detail as you could possibly want without affecting the pace. A lot happened, very speedily, and at the same time, I was put right into the atmosphere with the tiniest of descriptions that were so apt they made jump in recognition. And what makes the short short stories even more special is that I won’t have to take the effect away from them by giving you a summary – just click on the titles to go read them!
The Background made a perfect start to the collection. I mean, who wouldn’t love a story that starts with something like this?

“The woman’s art-jargon tired me,” said Clovis to his journalist friend, “She’s so fond of talking of certain pictures as ‘growing on one,’ as though they were a sort of fungus.”
What followed was the story of Henri Deplis, who has has a work of art tattooed on his back, after which the famous Italian tattoo artist dies, leaving his masterpiece still unpaid-for. Consequently, a worldwide fight ensues over its ownership, with no consideration for Henri, who just happens to be the background.
Along with the first one, the stories Adrian, The Name-Day, The Phantom Luncheon and The Occasional Garden were my favourites. Each was reminiscent of all that I love about Oscar Wilde. And I don’t just mean the wicked social satire, but also the wonderfully engaging dialogue and the swift pacing.
By the time I got to The Music on the Hill, I had already got used to a certain style of narration, witty, mischievous, cynical. But this story was darker; more Mark Twain, maybe. The Music on the Hill was a gothic macabre story that left me feeling bitter, uneasy and awed. Along with The Name-Day, this story excelled particularly at creating the tone, bringing scenes to life, transporting me to that strange remote setting, conveying in so few words exactly what the characters felt. That aura made me see the rest of the stories differently – the became my Lovecraft-Poe-obsessed kind of reads!
The next story to really hit me hard was The Open Window. I found it difficult to wrap my head around how even the weirder of the stories stayed perfectly true to human nature. This short scene was absurd, haunting, hilarious and evil all at the same time and I have to say, I quite liked the niece. I’m pretty sure if I forced my sister to read this story (which I will) she’ll say I am like the niece. Jokes apart, nothing I say about this story is going to suffice. Just read it already!
Judkin of the Parcels was a little piece, not as much a story as an elaborate character sketch, or really, a life sketch, and a delicate and wise one at that. 
It was in Laura, the eighteenth of the nineteen stories, that the disturbing dark humour returned in the form of a delightful tale of karma and reincarnation. I realized then just how ridiculously amusing and charming the writing was. It occurred to me that having read these stories, I would probably never find any short stories and just stories up to par. 
But this was just the beginning of Saki for me. Stumbling into nineteen stories is hardly anything! I still have a lot to dig through and a lot to re-read and analyse and look up and the thought of what’s out there waiting for me makes me very happy. If you are one of those people, like me, crazy enough to not have read this great author, please, I hope my raving has made you want to. And it’s easy, just click to read!