Friday, January 26, 2018

A Review of Peter Straub's "Koko"

Koko, released in 1988, was Peter Straub's first solo novel since 1984's collaboration with Stephen King, The Talisman.  Straub had been a bestselling author in his own right before The Talisman, but the team-up with King brought with it a new level of public interest (and scrutiny).  We'll return to that idea in a bit, but first, it might be helpful to briefly recap Straub's career up to this point:
1973:  His first novel, Marriages, is released.  A would-be mainstream literary novel (i.e., not supernatural or fantastical or horror-based in any way), it failed to get much attention from anyone.  Noteworthy for structural and stylistic experimenting that is cleverer than it is effective, it reads like the work of a writer determined to impress college English departments the world 'round.
1974:  His second novel, Under Venus, was finished in 1974 but would not be released until 1984.  This was not for lack of trying on Straub's part; it's just that nobody would publish it.  Like Marriages, it is mainstream literary fiction; unlike Marriages, its author appears to have had at least a vague interest in story and character.  Not a great novel, but a step up.
1975:  Straub turns to the ghost story with Julia, his first supernatural novel.  This seems to do the trick for him, and from this point forward he seems to be a novelist with purpose.
1977:  If You Could See Me Now, another horror novel, is released.  If Julia was a promising novel, If You Could See Me Now is that promise nearly fulfilled.  The next novel IS that fulfillment.
1979:  Ghost Story becomes Straub's first bestseller.  A thick, challenging read; it is every bit as experimental as Marriages, but in a successful manner.
1980:  A fantasy novel about magicians, Shadowland wins Straub his first World Fantasy Award.  This is not the first time his fiction has explored the idea that the line between reality and fantasy -- or between truth and falsehood -- is exceptionally thin, but it reads almost like a culmination of those ideas.
1983:  Floating Dragon is released.  In many ways, this feels like Straub's master's thesis on the subject of horror literature (in much the same way Stephen King's It would be a few years later).  If I'm not mistaken (and I might be, since I haven't read most of the remaining books in his bibliography), he would not return to the genre in this manner for quite some time to come, if at all.
1984:  The Talisman is released and spends twelve weeks as the New York Times #1 bestselling hardback.  This collaboration between two of the world's best-known horror novelists is something of a curiosity in that it's ... not really a horror novel.  Sure, it has horrific elements; but really, it's a fantasy novel in the Tolkienesque vein.
That brings us to:
In a 1993 interview for Horror Magazine, Straub said that Floating Dragon had represented him going as far as he could go with "supernatural special effects."  He said, "It would have killed me to try to top it or done anything again in which I used the conventional mechanics of the supernatural. The very idea of it caused real despair."  He had, of course, immediately returned to the supernatural -- or, at least, the fantastical -- with The Talisman, but it's possible he did not think of this collaboration in precisely the same way he thought of his own work.
Let's let Straub expert Bill Sheehan explain what happened next.  Here's what he had to say about it in his book-length inquiry into Straub's fiction, At the Foot of the Story Tree (which no Straub fan should be without):
In the aftermath of this complex act of collaboration, Straub's pen fell temporarily silent.  Having produced four large, increasingly ambitious works of the fantastic in just under six years, he found himself suffering from creative exhaustion, compounded by the belief that his capacity to produce this sort of fiction had finally played itself out.  Yielding to necessity, he retreated into a year-long period of silence, reflection, and renewal.  At the end of this period, he began the slow, painstaking process of redirecting his fiction into new vital areas.
Those "vital new areas" eventually took the form of Koko.  A long novel about Vietnam veterans, it's a different thing in many ways than Straub's previous novels had been.  It's got as many similarities as it does differences, though, and anyone who has read those foregoing works would be likely to recognize the same authorial voice at work.
The story opens in 1982, in Washington, at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.  A former soldier, Michael Poole, is in town to meet a trio of members of his platoon.  As it turns out, they are not there merely for the dedication of the Wall; they have also been assembled because their lieutenant has become aware of serial killings that he suspects have been carried out by one of their fellow soldiers, Tim Underhill, who was last known to be living in Bangkok.  The lieutenant wants the four of them to go overseas, find Underhill, and do what they can to both stop him and get him the help he clearly needs.  They (mostly) do, they do, they don't, and they really don't; that's pretty much the story.  As is often the case with Straub, though, the story is only the top layer of the cake; there's plenty more going on in Koko, and almost all of it is more interesting than the story itself.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Review of Tabitha King's "The Trap"

In the spirit of self-recrimination, I feel like I'm obliged to begin this review by pointing out that it's been slightly less than three and a half years -- YEARS! -- since I last blogged about a Tabitha King novel.  (Here's the evidence, your Honor.)
I wish I had a better excuse.  What I do have is this: a combination of too many ideas, too little time, and WAY too little self-discipline in the area of time-management.
Tabitha King need not feel like a sole slightee, though: I've similarly failed to be productive at blogging about the specific works of Peter Straub (June 2014) and Robert McCammon (May 2014), both of whom I had hoped to work on steadily.  And I think there might have been one other one, too.  Who am I trying to think of...?
Oh, yeah.  Stephen King.  THAT guy.  I haven't done one of the in-depth analyses of his novels that I enjoy doing since I covered Needful Things in October 2014.  Three years and some change!  Okay, sure, I did take a lengthy look at Revival in December '16 / January '17.  So it hasn't been AS long as it feels.
You don't care about any of this.  And if you do, you shouldn't; I thank you, but trust me, you've got better things to care about than this.
I myself do care, though.  I worry about this stuff, Bevvie; I worry a lot.  And for my own purposes, I'd like to talk a bit about that.  Since you are here only for the Tabitha King review, I'll make it simple for you to get to it: just scroll down to the photo of the book cover, and read from there.
If you're still here, know that I am in full self-indulgence mode for a few paragraphs and tread accordingly.
I started my blog in January 2011, and I did it for a simple reason: I needed to do something.  I'd long entertained the vague goal of writing some sort of long-form analysis of Stephen King's work.  This goal went all the way back to a pre-9/11 era, and at one point I had the ambition to put it to use in a graduate-school way.  That was a long time ago, now; and even though it seems occasionally to still be a fresh and possible ambition, in fact, it's anything but.  It's been anything but for at least a decade now, and probably longer.
And that's okay!  Find me a living adult human and I'll show you someone who hasn't done everything they wanted to do.  No, I'm not worried about that much.  And my urge to write about Stephen King's books is a separate thing, which never went away.  By January 2011, its only existence was in my mind, but it DID exist there; and when I was sitting in my apartment one night, pondering the growing feeling that I needed something other than what I had, this idea -- my "Stephen King idea" -- floated to the top of my mind.
Nothing uncommon about that; it often did so.  But on this particular night, it evolved, and a new thought presented itself: you could start a blog, it said.  I'd always thought of my "Stephen King idea" as plans to write a book (or a series of books); I'm old-school in many ways, and that's what old-school fellows think when they think about writing: books.  But even then, I was living in a new-school world, and blogs made it very simple and (potentially) inexpensive for any dolt in the world to put their thoughts out there in a formal manner.
So why not do that?
No reason not to, said my brain, and so the next thing you knew, I'd created a blog -- Ramblings Of A Honk Mahfah, it was called then -- and had begun writing about Stephen King.  The plan was to ... uh ... the plan to was to find a plan, eventually.  At first, I didn't know if I'd try to be a news aggregator or a critic or a commentator or what.  But I knew I wanted to write about the books and stories and movies.
At that point in time, I was already well into a chronological reread of all of King's works.  I don't remember precisely when I'd begun that reread project, but I'd made it up to The Drawing of the Three, which I'd just finished.  So this presented a dilemma of sorts: did I want to start over from the beginning (Carrie) and write about everything in order?  Or did I want to simply pick up writing about the next book (Misery) and go from there?
I decided on the latter approach, and I began fucking up almost immediately.  I read the novel, took a bunch of notes on it, and then planned to write it all up and present it as "A Week of Misery."  This was going to be a five-part, Monday-Friday series.  I got the Monday post out on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2011, and then ... didn't finish the second part until Wednesday.  Part Three landed on Thursday, but then the fourth part did not appear until the next Monday.
So right off the bat, I learned that my ability to keep to a schedule was perhaps not the best; but I also learned that writing of the type I was interested in doing was resistant to being scheduled, and that I might be best-served to not try.  This didn't prevent me from trying again, on multiple occasions; and once in a while, I actually managed to get the job done.
From there, my goal was to simply continue my chronological reread, and blog about the books (and any significant adaptations of them) as I went.  Here's what I've gotten done since then:
The Tommyknockers (April 2011)
The Dark Half (August 2011)
Four Past Midnight (December 2013 - January 2014)
Needful Things (October-December 2014)
I also reread the revised/uncut version of The Stand, and while I did not write about the novel itself, I did write extensive analyses of both the miniseries and the Marvel Comics adaptation.  Oh, and I reread The Waste Lands, but opted not to blog about it because it made little sense to me to do so without first blogging about The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three.  
Plus, I covered many of the books King has released during the time my blog has existed: 11/22/63, Joyland, The Wind Through the Keyhole, Doctor Sleep, Revival, etc.  I wrote what might be one of the more comprehensive pieces ever written about Golden Years, too; not a novel, but a major original work (partially) by King, so that kinda counts.
Yes, I've done lots of pieces in those nearly-seven years that I'm proud of.
But there's no getting around it: I've made shockingly little progress on my reread project.  If you count both The Stand and The Waste Lands, that's six books in seven years.  We're talking about a guy who turned 38 the year he began his blog, which is about an author who has (depending on what you count and how you count them) in excess of 70 books on his bibliography.
Do the math on that.
I have.  
It's not pretty.
So with that in mind, the time has come to tighten the fuck up around here.  There are still side-projects I'm going to work at -- like the Tabitha King project, and the Peter Straub project -- and I'm sure others will pop up on occasion, but the goal is simple: no more fucking around.
The Guided Tour Of The Kingdom project I completed late last year was designed to sort of throw down a gauntlet for myself.  "THIS," I was saying to myself, "is what you've got to do, asshole.  Get the fuck to it!"
Because time is a finite resource, isn't it?  Yes, it certainly is.  So I find myself thinking more and more frequently, can you really afford to spend your time doing _________ when you could be working on your projects?  Sometimes, that's a yes.  There's never going to be a time when I'm not going to watch a new Star Wars movie, probably twice; I'm going to be pickier with other movies, though.  This is a curious feeling for a man who works at a movie theatre; this is a curious feeling for a man who has not missed an Oscars telecast since at least 1990.  But this year, do I really need to see The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour and Phantom Thread and Molly's Game and Hostiles and the Disaster Artist and whatever else when every hour I spend doing so is an hour I'm not working on my project?
I might see a few of them; I will not see all of them.
As much as I'd like to watch the new seasons of some of the television series I'm interested in following, when I weigh the thirteen hours it would take to watch the third season of __________ against the amount of work I could make on my project during the same amount of time, how often can I honestly say that watching television is worth it?  And let's not even talk about new series.  I'm sure that show you want me to watch is awesome; unless I feel like I can't live without it, it ain't happening.  I'm sure that The Deuce is great; I'm never going to find out.  Mindhunter sounds like it'd be right up my alley; so does Dark.  Fuck 'em both; it ain't happening.
Time to be realistic about all of this stuff, folks.
Good news is, we're only about halfway done with January, and I've already read three books, which is more than I read during the entire spring of 2017.  None of them count toward my Stephen King project, per se (i.e., none of the three were by King), but that's okay; that's by design.  I am working my way up to it, and I'm actually ahead of the schedule I've made for myself ... so far.
Plans can always go awry, though.  For example, I hadn't planned to write any of this.  I planned to merely launch into a relatively brief review of The Trap.  But sometimes, the fingers start to typing, and the soul dictates what keys they hit moreso than the brain does.
That's okay; got to be realistic about that, too.
And now, with no further ado:
The Trap was published in 1985, and was King's third novel.  Her first, Small World, was a science-fiction novel; her second, Caretakers, was a generations-spanning drama set in the small fictional Maine town of Nodd's Ridge.  (Nodd's Ridge will be the setting for most of King's novels, including The Trap.)
I'm not a huge fan of Small World, which has some interesting situations and characters but feels a bit like a chocolate and tilapia sandwich in that the whole is considerably less than the sum of the parts.  It feels to me like King was trying too hard in her debut, but it also feels as if she figured out whatever she needed to figure out by the time Caretakers rolled around.  Her second novel is a much more assured piece of work in every way.
The Trap almost feels as if it could have been an intermediate step between the two.  I won't further bury the lede: I don't think this is as good a novel as Caretakers is.  But so what?  I love Caretakers, so taking a step down from that one -- even a large one (which is this is not) -- could still put you on a plane where you're reading a good novel.  And if you're reading The Trap, you're reading a good novel.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Brief Review of Joe Hill's "Strange Weather"

It's been nearly three months since Strange Weather came out, and it's really rather unforgivable that I waited that long to read it.

Finally, though, I can cross it off my list.  And, having thus crossed it, I figured I'd give you folks a brief non-spoilery review.

It consists of four novellas -- or "short novels," as Hill has designated them (in a clear case of six versus half-a-dozen) -- that are varied in content and tone.  They are as follows: