Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nerd Alert! Books Books Books (& Books)

I’m a slacker, but also something of a nerd. Some might even call me a nerdlacker. By ‘some’ I refer to ‘myself.’
See, I read a lot. I write a lot. I combine them sometimes, then forget that I did and end up with today’s post, i.e., a list of genre-esque books I read back in the summer through the fall. That’s my story and this nerdlacker is sticking to it.
Now please let me out of this locker. I have chess team practice and coach doesn’t tolerate tardiness.

The Conquerer Worms
Brian Keene is probably today’s most cinematic horror novelist. Of the three novels that I’ve read, each is drawn so vividly that you can see virtually every drip of blood and scrap of flesh on the page. Taking a break from his successful zombie fiction, The Conquerer Worms is a neat hybrid, part post-apocalyptic narrative and part monster mash.
As the back flap reads, one day, it started raining. And didn’t stop. Lots of bad stuff happened.
Okay, the back flap didn’t say that part. Sometimes I lie.
One half of the novel is narrated by a senior citizen fighting loneliness, desperation, and nicotine withdrawals on a West Virginia mountain as he quietly survives what his neighbors have not, namely, prehistoric worms slowly making their way to devour everything left on the earth’s surface. Eventually, the story switches to a mixed group eking out an existence in a Baltimore high rise hotel, all the while evading merciless Satanists, man-eating mermaids, and gigantic carnivorous sea creatures.
I’ve yet to be disappointed by Brian Keene’s writing. Though it starts a little slower than some of his other zombie fiction, The Conquerer Worms is a gripping tale that keeps you in constant suspense. Keene’s ability to use unique narrative voices is in full force, with Teddy Garnett’s wise old man making the reader easily emotionally involved. The second story lacks the same heart to put you on board with the characters, but it makes up for it with brutal storytelling that gets darker with each page. An easy recommendation.

The Bridge
Penned by ‘90s splatterpunk heroes Craig Skipp and John Spector, The Bridge tells the story of a Pennsylvania town on the edge of a pollution caused Armageddon. Gooey mutations ensue.
Though it suffers a little from trying to cover too many characters, The Bridge remains a fun summer page turner rich in gruesome carnage and icky monster imagery. It doesn’t read like poetry, but for a horror movie in your hands, it’s an enjoyable way to pass some time. 

The Exorcist
I’m a fairly easy person to make happy, but to really bring me to a state of bliss, throw a pile of slightly used books on the sidewalk with a sign that says ‘Free.” That’s how I picked up my paperback, coverless copy of William Peter Blatty’s infamous 1971 novel,  the very piece that spawned a somewhat popular movie with a killer third installment, The Exorcist.
To give a disclaimer, of course I’ve seen The Exorcist but sadly, it was at the wrong time in my life. I grew up with horror so it didn’t seem inappropriate to rent the VHS in fourth grade. Unfortunately, it was probably the worst possible age. At 10, I was too young to get some of the sexuality and despite a minor Catholic education, not quite old enough to fully grasp the religious aspects involved. Meanwhile, my soiled elementary school eyes had already witnessed their share of zombie mayhem and slasher guttings, rendering some of the violence tame by my then-standards. I’d seen Karen Cooper get zombified then slaughter her mother with a garden spade, both in color and black and white. Why should I care about one rich girl fighting a demon who didn’t have anything better to do? 
There are two main observations I made in comparing Blatty’s novel to Friedken’s Oscar nominated film (you know, the one that according to Kristen Stewart’s Oscar writers, was the last horror film to come near winning a little gold man except...stop it, nerdlacker). The first is just how closely the script follows its source, straight down to the infamous spider walk and crucifix masturbation. On the other side is how much more psychologically based the novel feels, as more pages are devoted to a faith vs. reason debate than gore. It makes perfect sense that Blatty would later go on to direct The Exorcist III, a film filled with powerful imagery, engaging dialogue, and open questions about the nature of evil.
But as much as I would kind of love to always talk about The Exorcist III, I think the title of this post is supposed to be devoted to books. So read the book, then see The Exorcist III.
Community service, you’ve been served!

Many of you already know of my love and admiration for the fictional horrors of one Jack Ketchum. Between his gruesome novels and deeply chilling short stories, he is, without doubt, my favorite genre writer.
Cover tells the tale of Lee Moravin, a Vietnam vet whose psychological war scars are so deep that he simply can’t live with others. Left alone in the woods with a loyal dog (seriously, no one writes man’s relationship with his pets quite like Ketchum) and a thriving marijuana farm, Lee rotates between woodsy solitude and violent flashbacks. 
Meanwhile, a group of middle aged literary yuppies (plus a surprisingly well-drawn supermodel) take an innocent wilderness weekend trip just outside Lee’s territory. In no time, Lee declares the city slickers his Nam enemies and plots a vicious hunting spree. 
Cover is not my favorite Ketchum read, but it’s brisk and fairly addictive. Lee is a fascinatingly tragic figure, a sympathetic man who’s seen some of the worst sights imaginable. In another plot, he could be a hero, yet once our ‘civilized’ campers enter his borders, he’s a bloodthirsty killer we can’t possibly root for. The balance Ketchum achieves in drawing both sides as real people dropped into the wrong situation is horrifying and believable. In no way is this the most fun you’ll have with a book, but for darker days, it’s a high recommend.
On the Beach
I’m not exactly sure why I find so much enjoyment in reading depressing sagas about the end of the world, but let’s just look past the psychology to discuss 1957’s On the Beach, a twice-filmed novel set just after a worldwide skirmish has brought upon Armageddon. Nuclear fallout has left a rash of radiation in the air and as surely as the wind blows, every drop of human life will eventually--months, weeks, days--be killed.
Set in Australia (one of the last reaches to receive the pollution), On the Beach focuses on a few key characters trying to make the most of their final days. An American naval officer continues to live as if his family is alive, even though nobody has heard a breath of life from US soil in months. If he could face the truth, he’d surely fall for the twentysomething unmarried (and doomed to die alone) local girl who struggles to find anything worth living for when there’s nothing that can be started and completed in the time remaining. A young couple raises their newborn without consequence until factors call for the dreaded suicide pill discussion. There are deadly auto races that let the brave go out in a flame of glory. Some people prefer to drink themselves to death.
Depressing, sure, but also fascinating and told with intelligent restraint. Author Nevil Shute was predominantly known for military literature and though some of that does show up on the more naval-based pages, On the Beach is much more about character and humanity than submarines. Though a few officers discuss responsibility and world politics, the novel focuses far more on the individual reactions to what war has left. The result is a haunting tale I couldn’t put down.


  1. It's strange how Ketchum gets lumped in (and I by no means use that term derogatorily) with horror authors when, for the most part, his stuff is much more in line with true crime style fiction and the like.

    Granted most of his stuff is extremely bloody and violent, but that hardly makes it horror. Or does it?

    At any rate Cover was well written, as you mentioned, but my memory of the story beyond it being something of a more misguided Rambo is hazy at best. Perhaps not a good sign as it's not too many years ago that I read it.

    The cover image you used there, is that from a trade paperback or the old/original release? The Leisure version is quite different.

    - Aaron

  2. I preferred the novel of On the Beach to the 1959 movie. One reason is the female lead, Moira, is a much more interesting and believable character in the book. The choices she makes seem unorthodox for a woman especially at that time. Ava Gardner's characterization seemed much more like the standard stand-by-your-man girlfriend/prop, and I thought the script kind of sold her out. The racing stuff was also a lot better in the book and was much more riveting, plus I didn't buy Fred Astaire as a race car driver. It's still a decent film, but the book was better.

  3. Funny Aaron, I never would've thought of Ketchum as a crime novelist but I guess it could make sense. His work really doesn't fit the 'mystery' bill, and I guess because he doesn't downplay violence, it makes sense as horror. But I guess when you compare something like Stephen King to Ketchum, you do see a difference. Cover wasn't my favorite Ketchum and I can definitely see your Rambo point, but it still worked for me.

    Not sure about that cover. In Ketchum's intro, he actually discusses how the book went through different cover art, some of which was skewed to a horror audience, other that was a little more 'literary.' My cover (of Cover!) was different, very stalker-y. Ketchum sometimes has bad luck with cover art (witness the dreadful skeleton cheerleader for The Girl Next Door). I like the one here, was kind of blah to the one on my recent copy.

    Shiftless: I'm curious if you've seen the 2000 miniseries adaptation made in Australia? It was much darker than the first film version, even though it has one glimmer of happiness at the end. Rachel WArd played Moira in a MUCH more interesting way than Gardner. I actually loved her performance, although there was something even sadder about the novel's Moira being so young (I think 24) with no life lived. Definitely the most fascinating and tragic character in the story. Also, I love me some Bryan Brown, and he easily kicked Astaire's dance toned ass!

  4. No, the mini-series is languishing at around #303 in my Netflix queue. I'll get to it soon as I do like Bryan Brown and Rachel Ward. If you haven't seen it, check out Don McKellar's Last Night (available on instant Netflix) with Sarah Polley, Sandra Oh and a bunch of other cool Canadian character actors (plus David Cronenberg!). It's a last-night-on-earth movie with a lighter tone than On the Beach. It's one of my favorite pre-apocalyptic films.

  5. Oooooh, I've totally never heard of this movie but my goodness! Sarah Polley? Cronenberg? End of the world? I think I just had a moviegasm.

  6. I think I know the cover of Cover you mean, from the Leisure release. It kind of fits the theme of the novel anyway.

    As to my suggestion that Ketchum is more of a crime writer than a horror writer, I suppose I say that because - for the most part - his novels really don't use any sort of a weird angle nor un-human monsters or even the supernatural generally (aside from She Wakes), which is how I (erroneously) differentiate between horror (or at least weird horror) and more mundane true crime style fiction.

    That said the man writes crazy cannibals like no one else - aside from maybe Richard Laymon.

    - Aaron

  7. Shiftless: Watched it. Loved it!

    Aaron: I always have an issue with the whole thriller vs. horror debate when it comes to film, and I don't really know where I fall when it comes to fiction. Something like Silence of the Lambs, for example...I refuse to call the film a thriller, and as a novel, it doesn't necessarily feel 'different' in genre from most Ketchum books. But then you think of how a Ketchum book or story makes you feel, which is truly horrible (not a bad thing; I love Ketchum!). It's complicated!