Monday, March 12, 2012

A Brief Review: "The Idiot's Ghost" (by Owen King)

I've written a couple of times now about books by Joe Hill, Stephen King's oldest son, who once upon a time was a badass little boy who co-starred in Creepshow.

All growed up now, he is the author of two awesome novels, one awesome short-story collection, one awesome Twitter feed, and one awesome ongoing comic book series.  In short, he's still a badass.

Ah, but did you know Stephen King has another son who is also a writer?

I can't say for sure one way or another as to whether he's a badass, but it turns out that, like his father and older brother, Owen is a pretty damn good writer.

Big fucking shock there, right?

Now, lest you misread what I'm saying, allow me to clarify: Owen King isn't exactly a noob in the business.  Far from it.  He published a book called We're All In This Together back in 2005, and also co-edited an anthology of "new superhero" short stories, Who Can Save Us Now?, which was published in 2008.  He's been publishing stories for over a decade now, and his first novel -- Reenactment -- is scheduled for release in 2013.  [Bryant's note: the novel was later retitled Double Feature.]

I'm a big fan of We're All In This Together, which is a collection consisting of a novella and several short stories.  Eventually, I want to revisit it and write a review -- my memory is too shabby to allow me to write a proper review without the benefit of a reread -- but for now, I can tell you this about that book: you should read it. 

Owen's writing is -- like his father's, and his brother's -- very much focused on character.  He appears to be a bit less interested in the horror genre; a couple of the stories in We're All In This Together fit that bill to some mild degree, but the novella from which the book draws its title is a straightforward character drama.  If I were going to compare it to another writer's work, I suppose the names John Irving and Pat Conroy might suffice as a sort of shorthand; it's probably not a very apt couple of comparisons, but it's the best I can do at the moment.

Owen's most recent publication is a short story called "The Idiot's Ghost," which appeared right at the end of 2011 in the most recent issue of Fairy Tale Review (and can be purchased here).

The short summary: the superintendent at an upscale apartment building in New York City is saddened -- maybe even a little bit devastated -- by the sudden death of Trevor, a mentally handicapped young man whom he had taken under his wing as the building's porter.  He isn't having much luck getting his wife to sympathize with his grief; she seems to be mainly interested in vegging out on the couch, watching as a violent coup unfolds in an unnamed foreign country.  Before long, it becomes apparent that Trevor's ghost is haunting the building.

If this sounds like the setup for a horror story, think again: the emphasis here, instead, is on a terrific combination of humor and pathos.  The super, Kurt, takes steps to try and get rid of the pesky ghost -- Trevor, who was childlike in life and is childlike in death, isn't scary, but he is definitely a nuisance -- and this leads to several surprisingly amusing scenes with exterminators, exorcists, and the like.

Eventually, though, it becomes clear that Kurt may not actually have much interest in getting rid of Trevor.  I don't want to say much more than that, not because there is any huge plot twist that I want to avoid giving away -- there isn't -- but simply because there's no need.  As summaries go, that one ought to suffice, and anyways, the real pleasure in this story lies in the quality of the writing itself, which is considerable.  King is great at tickling the funnybone, and he's just as great at tugging on the heartstrings ... but he never feels like he's straining to do either one.  Instead, he just puts his characters on the page and lets them do the work for him.

I loved the story, but I'd be a liar if I said I thought it was perfect.  Kurt's wife, Linda, is a major character in the story, and she begins it as a bit of a shrew, only to become vastly more sympathetic by the time the story's end rolls around.  I didn't feel like that shift in her attitude was executed particularly well, by which I suppose I mean that I feel as if it was barely executed at all.  She's a shrew on one page, and then suddenly she's a supportive partner on the next, with seemingly no incident sparking the change.  That's a legitimate gripe, but it's one that doesn't really alter the fact that I was both amused and moved by the story, and would recommend it to readers.

At this point, I have to confess to being a bad reader: I have yet to read any of the other stories in the issue of Fairy Tale Review from which "The Idiot's Ghost" derives.  So I don't know whether or not to recommend it at all apart from King's story.  However, at $10, it's not too steep an investment, and buying a copy will give you the satisfaction of knowing that you did your part to help out a literary journal.

As readers, that's something we all ought to do once in a while.

Also, here's an iron-clad offer: if you buy a copy and feel like your money was poorly spent, all you've got to do is drop me a line and let me know about it.  I won't give you a refund, but I will promise to find a funny cat photo somewhere on the Internet and send it to you, because guess what?  You can haz cheezburger.

Great offer, right?  Right.


  1. Update on Fairy Tale Review's "Brown Issue": at the urging of no less a personage than Owen King himself -- who hit me up on Twitter and recommended that I read Elizabeth Crane's story "Mr. and Mrs. P Are Married," which appeared in that issue.

    Now, here's a fact: if Owen King takes time out of his life to recommend a story to me personally, you better believe I'm going to read it!

    So, tonight, I read it. It is terrific; it's now on the extremely brief list of short stories that have made me cry. (The only other ones I can think of is Joe Hill's "20th Century Ghost," and a story a friend of mine wrote in a writing class back in college.) Methinks I'm going to need to read more by Elizabeth Crane.

    On the strength of the two stories I've read, I can now say without a doubt that I'll be reading the rest of the issue. I'll post reviews of each here in the comments as I go, for those of you who might be interested.

    As for "Mr. and Mrs. P Are Married," I honestly don't know what I'd say about it in terms of writing a review, even a brief one, because I don't want to say much of anything at all about the plot of the story. So I'll just say this: it's about two characters, both of whom are great and terrible and frustrating and inspiring. It's a funny story, it's a sad story, and it's a damn good story.

  2. Read "Lay My Head" by L. Annette Binderman. It reminds of the reason I'm sometimes reluctant to read all the stories in an anthology like this: there's always the danger that I'm going to become a fan of so many new writers that my life will be in danger of becoming even more needful than it already is of there being 72 hours in each day just so I can keep up with all the books and stories I'd love to read.

    "Lay My Head" is a beautiful, sad story about a young woman dying before her time ought to be up. The strength of the story lies in its tone, which is one of resigned sadness, and maybe even the optimistic comfort -- odd but almost certainly true -- than can lie in the idea of death being not too far away. Maybe just around the next corner.

    So, for the record, I've now read three of this issue's sixteen offerings, and all three of them have been terrific.

  3. Read Maud Casey's "The Man Who Walked Away." To be honest, I got very little out of this story.

    It's the story of ... um ... well, you see ... ah, shit, I don't know. I'm beat to fuck if I know. It seems to be set in WWII France, and seems to be about a character who is mentally ill, possibly in some way that causes him to forget huge chunks of his life. He seems to walk around in a fog, and then suddenly years have passed.

    I seem to be using the word "seem" a lot.

    Here's the thing: it's not a bad story. The prose is solid, and there is obviously a good amount of emotion behind it all. But it never engaged me even a little bit.

    (By the way: I should confess, I suppose, that I was a bit distracted and agitated when I read the story, so maybe a second reading would have a more positive impact on me.)

  4. I read "Pelo Buneo/Good Hair" by Melissa Coss Aquino.

    This is another terrific story. Of the ones from this issue I've read so far, it's the one that plays with the fairy-tale format the most. By which I mean that it IS a fairy tale, and a pretty good one. It's the story of a girl whose mother makes a deal with a magician who gives the girl the "gift" of enchanted hair.

    The story has one foot in the fairy-tale world and one foot in the real world, and the mixture probably shouldn't work.

    It works.

  5. Tonight, I read through some of the issue's poetry: "Ars Poetica" by Melissa Cundieff-Pexa, "The Sugar the Wind Brings" by Ben Debus, and "Four Poems" by Brandel France De Bravo.

    I should admit at this point that I am simply too lazy a reader to enjoy poetry. With poetry -- at least if it's any good -- you kinda have to dig in to it, and work at reading it. Poetry is not really the kind of work designed to be read a single time.

    With that in mind, I read all of these merely a single time, and because of that, I can't honestly say much of anything valuable about any of them. This is my fault, not the poets' fault.

    (That said, my initial impressions of "The Sugar the Wind Brings" were that it is a substantial work, and one that very much bears close examination. Maybe I'll come back to it some day; for now, shame on me, I'm too busy reading Alan Moore comics from the '80s. But if you have somehow read this comment and have a yen for poetry, you might consider picking this issue up and reading "The Sugar the Wind Brings," because I think -- but cannot say for sure -- that it was rather terrific.)