Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Review of Joseph J. Christiano's "Old Ghosts"

Howdy, readers!  I have a question: will you permit me another excursion outside the bounds of Stephen King's work?  It'll be a quick one, but I've got a book review that I felt like I needed to let you know about.
  
The author Joseph J. Christiano and I share a mutual friend, and Joe has occasionally commented on my posts (especially over at my James Bond blog, You Only Blog Twice).  Last year, he sent me an inscribed copy of one of his books: Old Ghosts, a collection of horror stories.


  
Because I suck at reading these days, it's been sitting on my up-next shelf glaring at me ever since.  Its company there includes at least two anthologies in which various members of the King family have stories, as well as Owen King's Intro to Alien Invasion, a book about Dollar Babies, a sci-fi trilogy I bought myself for Christmas, and various other recent, semi-recent, and distant-past acquisitions.  Also: The Man in the High Castle (never read it, but I want to after finishing the superb first season of the television adaptation), a bunch of Lovecraft-centric books, Childhood's End (which I want to reread after watching the not-bad Syfy miniseries), and so forth.  That shelf is always loaded.

However, at long last, I finally grabbed Old Ghosts off the shelf and cracked it open.  I'm glad I did: it's a fun read, and Christiano's approach to horror is one that reminds me more than a bit of several Joe Hill stories.  I feel certain that most King fans (and Hill fans, obviously) would enjoy what he's done here.


The six stories contained in Old Ghosts are:

"emet" -- I'm hesitant to divulge what the story ends up being about, but I think I'm going to ignore my impulse and go ahead and tell you that this is the tale of a golem wrecking a crew of shipwrecked Nazis.  If a golem taking out a squad of Nazis doesn't warm your heart, you're experiencing life differently than I am.  I liked this story; it possesses a fine quality in a horror story, which is that it makes you identify with the bad guys.  You want to see them get what's coming to them, but you also can't help but identify with them a bit.  I enjoy that approach.
  
"The Highwayman" -- I couldn't help thinking about the King/Hill story "Throttle" when reading this one, not because it has a great deal of similarity with "Throttle" (it doesn't), but simply because trucks and the highway are involved.  The story is about a long-haul trucker trying to make his way through a dangerous stretch of road.  I'll tell you no more than that, except to say that I liked this story a lot.
  
"God Mode" -- I loved this story.  It's about a young -- teen? preteen? -- video gamer who finds himself cast out of his gamer group.  Strange things happen next; you won't pry the details out of me, but they're pretty fucked up.  There are a lot of things here that I admired and enjoyed.  Let's start with the fact that I have no interest in video gaming.  I used to; I was a devoted Halo player for a year or so, and I logged a lot of hours on several N64 games (Shadows of the Empire and South Park, and GoldenEye to a much lesser extent) as well as at least two GameCube titles (The Simpsons Road Rage and James Bond: Agent Under Fire) during my earlier years.  Not to mention my Atari time.
  
At a certain point, though, I had to give gaming up.  Folks, the sad fact of the matter is this: I am a nerd.  Specifically, as you know, I am a Stephen King nerd.  I am also a James Bond nerd, a Star Trek nerd, a Walt Disney nerd, a John Williams nerd, a Steven Spielberg nerd, a Bob Dylan nerd, a U2 nerd, a sci-fi television nerd, a television-in-general nerd, a movies-in-general nerd, and so forth.  I'm an Alan Moore nerd; I'm a Joe Hill nerd; I'm a would-be J.R.R. Tolkien nerd, if I could find the time to reread him (including finishing the books of his I've not read, such as the Histories).
  
The point is, around 2005, something had to go.  What went was video gaming.  This was at about the time that online gaming started to get big, and I feel certain that even if I hadn't hung up my joystick due to time constraints, I'd have done so as a result of the push into online.  The idea of playing games with a crowd of faceless jackasses nauseates me.  I enjoyed playing in LAN parties with actual friends and acquaintances, and even then I'd sometimes get annoyed.  Online?  Fuck that.
  
"God Mode" exists in the world of online gaming, and perhaps now you have some background for the following statement: I don't give a shit about this story's subject.
  
However, because Christiano is a good writer, he accomplishes what good writers are capable of accomplishing: he makes me care about something I don't care about.  His means of doing so is making sure that I am fully aware of how much online gaming means to his protagonist.  For him, the "real" world is a mere intrusion that must be tolerated; sleep is an annoyance.  The world of the game he plays is what actually matters to him.
  
This is not my experience with gaming, but I've got enough experience that I can make that leap.  I found it to be horrifying enough on its own, simply in terms of the implications it brings up.  The directions Christiano takes the story makes it all the more horrifying.  
  
Yessir, I liked "God Mode" just fine.  It's my favorite story in the collection.

"Phantom Pain" -- A woman whose husband and daughter recently died in a car crash is experiencing a case of phantom-limb syndrome in her mostly-missing right arm.  Before long, she's also experiencing a case of phantom-daughter syndrome.  This is one of the stories in Old Ghosts that I'd say is most likely to appeal to King fans.  I myself am a bit of a King fan, you know; which means that I enjoyed "Phantom Pain" just fine.

"The Frenchman" -- The first-person tale of a contract killer who finds himself taking on a rather challenging hit for a mobster whose daughter recently met with a violent end.  Christiano does a good job here writing tough-guy fiction; you might figure out where it's all headed relatively early on, but this will not hamper your enjoyment at all, I'd wager.  It didn't mine.

"Old Ghosts" -- The collection ends with this enjoyably grim novella, which is about a man returning home for the first time in half a century.  His hometown, Deacon's Landing, isn't the most hospitable place in the world.  This story showcases one of Christiano's strengths, which is that he makes you care about his characters first; with that bond established, caring about the situations they are in comes naturally.  Here, we're spending time with a man who's approaching his twilight years who has a very good present and a very bad past.  Thing about the past is, it never really goes away; whatever happened happened, there's just no getting around it.

*****

And there you have it, folks: a recommendation!  If you like the sort of stories contained in this collection, you'll like the stories contained in this book.  I feel certain of it.

13 comments:

  1. Sounds like a collection I'll have to hunt down.

    Wouldn't mind also hearing any thoughts on "High Castle", either.

    ChrisC

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    1. I will do my best to remember to give them to you, hopefully sooner rather than later.

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  2. Nice review! Yeah, these stories are fun, "God Mode" and "The Highwayman" in particular. There was a "Night Gallery" quality to this book, I felt, which made me think Joe would be a good showrunner for an anthology show.

    And I hear you on making hard decisions. When you've got a plurality of interests, you simply have to. For me, this is what's kept me at arm's length from online gaming too, (basically all post-PS2 gaming), as well as podcasts, vlogs, most new bands and comics, and many other topics that I know would consume me if I got my toes wet. Nothing against any of the above - quite the opposite, in fact. But I'll never get to the bottom - happily - of all the things I enjoy already, so that's just the way that it goes.

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    1. I'm feeling a major resurgence in wanting to read sci-fi coming on (for reasons that will be clear once my next post goes up), and boy oh boy do I not know where that time is going to come from.

      I can totally see that "Night Gallery" vibe.

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  3. This sounds like a great collection! I am especially intrigued by The Highwayman and God Mode, but the whole thing sounds pretty cool.

    I would grab a copy today if I was employed. (btw, crocheted_monkey is my wife. She sometimes leaves herself logged in and I mistakenly post as her).

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    1. Perils of marriage!

      Yeah, I suspect you particularly would enjoy the book.

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    2. I went ahead and bought it. I'm impatient.

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  4. Okay. Massive amounts of awesome here (fingers crossed?).

    Courtesy of Lilja's Library, StephenKing.com has a promo page for the mini-series 11/22/64 featuring the opening credits (they say this feature will reveal more in the following weeks):

    http://www.liljas-library.com/article.php?id=4738

    http://stephenking.com/promo/hulu-11-22-63/index.html#OCV1

    ChrisC

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    1. The reviews seem to have been mostly positive so far. Few of them seem to be over the moon, but I don't think I've seen a bad one yet. So worst-case scenario seems to be that it's good.

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    2. Somehow I thought the release date was on the 19th (make of that what you will) then I realized TODAY'S the big day.

      Fingers crossed.

      ChrisC

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  5. I should have written sooner, since I did read and enjoy this post. I'll add it to my already too-long To Read List. Thanks, and eager for more. Any idea what you'll be posting about in coming weeks?

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    1. Well, I'm currently reading the edited-by-Joe-Hill anthology "The Best American Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015," so I'll have a post about that and other Hill-related subjects relatively soon. After that, I've got some Owen King stuff to read and then write about. After THAT, I'll probably tackle another short story ("Suffer the Little Children" is up next) before rereading both "Revival" and "Finders Keepers" so I can write about them.

      I'm also planning on writing about each episode of "11.22.63" weekly, starting tonight. That's assuming I can stay awake. We'll see!

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