Monday, February 23, 2015

The Martian By Andy Weir

The Martian
By Andy Weir
Copyright 2014

Mark Watney is part of a crew of six that rank among the first to visit Mars. He’s about to become its first permanent resident.
Watney is left behind on the red planet when an accident leads to a partial tear in his space suit. With no vital signs showing on the ship computer and a dust storm that threatens the crew’s departure, they elect to leave him behind.

But Watney is alive. Left behind, he must rely on his skills as a botanist and as an engineer to survive in a harsh environment with no means to communicate, he must find a way to generate food, oxygen, and water.

He knows that the next mission to Mars is more than a year off. He knows that the food and other supplies will be arriving before that. He calculates how much food he will need and sets out to make that happen.

Watney devises a plan that allows him to grow potatoes in the small quarters left behind as part of the lander. He finds a heat supply and is able to generate oxygen and water. His only means of entertainment are mystery novels, disco, and 70s television left behind by his fellow astronauts.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA has announced his death and are working on bringing the other five astronauts home. An observer of Martian satellite photos notices objects moving in the camp and NASA realizes they have a stranded astronaut. They immediately try to devise a means of communication and a rescue plan.

Watney is able to find the Pathfinder and Sojourner landers on the Martian surface and is able to use their parts to contact earth. NASA officials are amazed at his ingenuity in being able to grow potatoes, harvest water from the Martian atmosphere, and adapt the two rover vehicles for long range travel. They work with Watney to prepare him for the 3,200 kilometer journey to the Schiaparelli crater where the Ares 4 module will land.

Watney is forced to overcome catastrophic equipment failures, impossible weather, and his own doubts to survive in a world harsher than anyplace on Earth. NASA personnel on Earth work against time, defying budgetary restraint, personal endurance, and science to save the life of one man.


The Martian
was another book of the month club selection and was almost unanimously viewed positively for our group. My own opinion was mixed while not enjoying it very much.

This was science fiction for engineers. In every process Watney undertook, he provided the science and engineering behind it. I understand this kind of detail is important to some people – like engineers and scientists. The vast majority of the reading public is neither. To us, this was a long series of distractions from the story.

This was the only major drawback of the book. Yet it was pervasive enough to significantly reduce my appreciation of the book. More than 70 percent of the book is Watney’s log entries. Weir does a wonderful job of developing Watney through these log entries. I felt like I knew the guy. And had I been Whatley, I’d have certainly featured my own cleverness and ingenuity in my log. I’d want my posterity to know how smart I was. But page after page about the nitrogen cycle in soil and the botany of the potato plant is much, much more than I want.

It’s a shame that Reid chose to write like this. He took an oft-told tale—older than Robinson Crusoe – and retold it in an exciting manner. That is not easy. It would have been a delightful book had it not been for the gross distractions. Many science fiction readers read the genre not for the science – but for the humanity to be found in alien people and settings. Much of Watney’s humanity and much of the appeal of the story was lost in what frequently devolved into a thinly veiled technical manual.

For fans of fiction related to Mars, it's hard not to read The Martian and not think of the 1964 sci-fi classic, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It's the exact same premise with the same character with the same motivations. However, the 1964 is not remotely scientific -- even by the standards of 1964. I love that silly, unscientific movie much more than I like The Martian

Andy Weir is living the fantasy of so many unpublished authors. His book was self-published in Amazon and was discovered by an agent. Congratulations to Weir on cutting through the vast wasteland of self-published books to break through.

This book will probably appeal to aficionados of hard sci-fi. There are many devotees to the genre who love to analyze science and pick at it. I’m no scientist, but I’m thoroughly convinced that Weir’s science is air tight which will delight those who revel in that sort of thing.

Monday, February 9, 2015

I Sing the Body Electric By Ray Bradbury

I Sing the Body Electric
By Ray Bradbury
Copyright 1969

The Kilimanjaro Device

A young man arrives in Sun Valley in a safari truck. His goal: to find the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and transport him to Africa circa 1954. He shares a drink in a local pub with a fellow Papa fan, then hits the road to find the spirit of Hemingway.
I’m decidedly not a Hemingway fan. But it’s easy enough to see Bradbury was and he shows us how much he treasured Hemmingway’s works. It’s not hard to see the unnamed main character as a psychopomp, delivering Hemingway’s soul to Heaven as he would know it.

The Terrible Conflagration up at the Place

Revolutionaries in Ireland set out to burn their lord’s manor house, but they forget the matches. When they arrive, the lord of the manor invites them in. They inform him of their intent, quite politely and he agrees to allow the burning. He asks the sackers if they will spirit away his art collection for safe keeping. They agree and take off with the paintings. A few hours later, they return.

There were echoes of Mark Twain in this story, but the end was wholly unsatisfying. While there was a fair amount of humorous irony in the story, the climax, as it was, completely lacked in humor or irony.

Tomorrow’s Child
The Horn’s have a baby and that baby is a blue pyramid with three eyes and six tentacles. Their baby, the doctor informs the Horns, was born into another dimension. This baby belongs in that dimension. While the doctors work feverishly for months to figure out how to get the babies back to their proper dimensions, the Horns raise the “child.” Finally, the day comes when the doctors have it all figured out.

The tale is so improbable that it is interesting. The opening paragraph is so matter of fact, much like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis

The Women
A couple lounges on the beach on the final day of their vacation. The woman senses that a presence in the ocean beckons to her husband, trying to lure him into the water. She tries every delaying tactic she can think of to keep him out of the water. When it starts to rain, she thinks she’s won. But the lure of the blue water proves too much.

This was a story of atmosphere and stirring words more than plot. There was very little plot to it. It does demonstrate Bradbury’s ability to weave moods with the language. Beautiful.

The Inspired Chicken Motel
It’s 1932 and the Great Depression is raging. A family of four is traveling down Route 66 to look for a job and some prosperity. They stop at a fleabag motel where they find a chicken who lays eggs with inscriptions very much like fortune cookies. The family leaves the hotel with new found hope mixing with cynical skepticism.

This story was mildly entertaining. It would seem in this book that Bradbury is trying much harder for rye humor than any serious science fiction.

Downwind from Gettysburg
The manager of a theater is alarmed when someone puts a bullet into the head of his animatronic figure of Abraham Lincoln. The modern assassin is also named Booth, although he has a different first name. The theater manager confronts the assassin and listens to his lame excuse for destroying the robot. Then the manager tells Mr. Booth the real reason for the crime and ends his hopes for glory.

A writer on Huffington Post compared this story to the vainglorious father of the notorious “Balloon Boy” event several years ago when the father contrived to have his young son become ”trapped” in a hot air balloon with the hopes of getting a reality show out of the deal. My own thoughts went to Mark David Chapman who killed John Lennon for the sheer glory of doing it.

Downwind from Gettysburg was made into an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater.

Yes, We’ll Gather at the River
The residents of a small California town are just a day away from a harsh reality. A new interstate highway is going to open tomorrow and with it take the traffic local merchants rely on for commerce. A cigar store owner ponders his bleak future and that of the town.

This story tells of an all but forgotten chapter in American history. When construction began on the interstate highway system in the 1950s, millions of motorists were moved away from secondary roads and the small towns where they bought gas, bought lunch, and sundry items. Many towns “missed” by the highways died. This beautiful and touching story brings that era to life very much reminiscent of Steinbeck.

Cold Wind and the Warm
A group of faerie people arrive in small town Ireland and make friends with the regulars of a small pub. They charm and entertain the pub patrons with songs and stories of how disparate people come together to become one people. One Irishmen gentleman discerns the faeries true nature and purpose.

I really struggled with this story and did not like it at all. It had the whimsy which was Bradbury’s signature style. But while beautifully written, I just loathed the story. I’m not much for Irish yarns.

Night Call, Collect
An old man is the last survivor on Mars after the rest of the population returns to earth on the eve of atomic war there. He starts receiving phone calls from himself. The first call is from his 20 year old self, then his 21 year old self, then 24, etc. The calls tease and torment him – each a transcription he made in his youth to keep busy. Then he gets a call that is not himself, but the captain of a rocket come to rescue him after 60 years. He rushes to New Chicago to meet the rocket, but all he finds are more phones.

This is a riff on a tale told earlier in The Martian Chronicles. This tale is much darker and quite entertaining. The first real hard sci-fi/horror story in the book.

The Haunting of the New
Grynwood, an old castle once host to the most lavish parties ever known in Ireland, shall host no more parties, for she has burned to the ground. Her owner had built in its place an exact replica. But it’s just not the same and the house, new, wants no old people in its midst.

This story is written very much in a literary style and I wanted to not like it. The flowery, over the top language usually turns me off. But Bradbury is able to evoke emotion with his prose that transcends my dislike of inflated language. This story is about the pain of transition and not being able to go home again when it is not home.

I Sing the Body Electric!
A widower with three children replaces his dead wife with a robot grandma. The grandma is delivered and the two boys immediately take to her. The girl, Abigail, does not and refused to treat the electric grandma like anything but a machine. When grandma meets with tragedy, the source of Abigail’s hostility is laid bare.

A riff on Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name that discusses what makes a human, human as opposed to a souless machine. This story explores the nature of grief, the relationship between generations, and is somewhat over celebratory of what machines are capable of – or will ever be capable of. It is one of Bradbury’s more heartwarming stories.

Ray Bradbury adapted this story for The Twilight Zone episode of the same name. Despite his personal fondness and close relationship with Twilight Zone writers Rod Serling, and Richard Matheson, it was the only original script Bradbury penned for the television series.

Tombling Day

An old woman attends the relocation of her old beau’s grave. She decides to have the body brought back to her house and the casket opened. She looks upon her beloved’s body, sixty years in the ground, and laments that he still looks young while she has grown old.

She is old, he is young. Bradbury says this over and over again without going anywhere. The end is just gibberish. This story was a real dud.

A Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine

A man arrives in Greentown, Illinois with the unlikely moniker of Charles Dickens and he is a writer. A young man is thrilled to have the famous writer in his mom’s boarding house and is quickly drawn to him. But he’s not so much a writer as a memorizer of tales.

I didn’t see where Bradbury was going with this one. I thought it was to inspire the frustrated writer to keep writing, but the unlikely Charles Dickens never writes anything original. He just rewrites Dickens’ novels. Nothing inspirational there.

Heavy Set
A mother laments her emotionally immature son who spends his days sculpting his body with weights. At 31 years old, he refuses to interact with anyone and takes out his frustration on weights and a punching bag.

On the surface, the story has no plot. But Bradbury’s writing makes the reader tense. You wonder if and when Heavy Set is going to explode. Will he hurt his mother? Will he hurt other people? It’s an emotionally taut story.

The Man in the Rorschach Shirt

A psychiatrist calls it quits when he finds out his senses of sight and hearing have been lying to him for years. Restored hearing and improved vision, he finds, hinders his imagination. He tells a former colleague how he spends his days treating people with his bizarre, multi-patterned shirts.

A Bradbury allegory on writing and imagination. Writers create and imagine, he points out. If all we rely on through our day is what we see and hear, we are left bereft of creativity. Lots of allegory, little story. An enjoyable read nonetheless.

Henry the Ninth
The last man to inhabit England talks with his old friend who is about to depart. The English and all northern Europeans have abandoned their homeland for warmer climes.

Bradbury dedicates several short stories to being alone. Not necessarily loneliness because often, Bradbury’s characters are not unhappy to be alone. There were a couple in The Martian Chronicles that were stellar in their telling. This one wasn’t.

The Lost City of Mars
Captain Wilder, the intrepid explorer from The Martian Chronicles, sets out with a millionaire and other illuminati aboard a yacht on the Martian canals. Their destination is a lost Martian city. They find the city and the city finds them. Each is offered by the city what he or she wants – or thinks he wants. Some reject the deal, some don’t.

Perhaps this was a story written for The Martian Chronicles and left out. If so, leaving it out was a good idea. It lacks the beautiful simplicity of the other stories in that collection.

Christus Apollo – Cantata Celebrating the Eight Day of Creation and the Promise of the Ninth

Christianity meets scientific speculation in this Christmas poem where Bradbury contemplates life on other worlds and whether or not they were created by and worship the same God as Christians on earth.

This is a poem and as I am wont to say when evaluating a poem – I don’t feel qualified. I don’t know good poetry from bad. But I know what I like and I liked this.

I Sing the Body Electric is one of the weaker Bradbury compilations for fans of his sci-fi work. Much of the book relies on playing with the ghosts of authors dead and other mildly fantastical tropes. The title story and the Lost City of Mars stand as the only real sci-fi tales.

Of course, there is more to Bradbury than science fiction and the whimsy that characterizes Bradbury’s Greentown can be found in almost every story in this volume.

While not nearly as interesting as The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man, I Sing the Body Electric is worth the time to read to find a few Bradbury tales you won’t find anyplace else.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Revival By Stephen King

Revival
By Stephen King
Copyright 2014

Stephen King’s novel, Pet Sematary was billed as “the novel that frightened Stephen King.” The book lived up to its billing and stands as one of his creepiest tales ever. Revival got similar billing.
Supposedly King thought Revival was the scariest thing he’d ever written. He told an interviewer that the novel was so dark, he was glad to be finished with it. Early reviews said the ending was so dark and compelling, it was disturbing.

While Pet Sematary did not disappoint, Revival doesn’t quite live up to its billing.

The story opens with the arrival of a new minister in the small Maine town in 1962. Jamie Morton, just 10, is one of the first to meet the new minister and is immediately taken with him. Rev. Charlie Jacobs, his wife and small son are quickly welcomed and made part of the community.

Soon after Jacobs’ arrival, Jamie gets a notion that Rev. Jacobs might be a pretty smart dude. Jamie’s older brother, Conrad, suffers a throat injury and is left unable to talk. One afternoon when Jamie and Conrad are visiting Rev. Jacobs, he attached some electrodes to Conrad’s throat. With a small charge of electricity, his voice is restored.

Tragedy destroys the Jacobs family and rocks the small Maine town. On their way home from Castle Rock, Mrs. Jacobs and their young son are killed in a car crash. Jacobs is devastated beyond conciliation. He is absent from church for several weeks. When he makes his return, he stands before the congregation and renounces his faith. While many in town still sympathize for him, he can no longer function as a minister. Much to Jamie’s chagrin, Charlie Jacobs packs up and leaves town.

Life goes on for Jamie. He falls in love with guitars and rock and roll. He joins a local band and plays gigs around the area. He gets his first car and his first girlfriend. After a few years, he and the girl drift apart and he makes a name for himself as a reliable session rhythm guitar player. But the life gets to him and he falls into the trap of heroin. In his mid-30s, he finds himself unemployed and living in a seedy Oklahoma motel room. He decides to go to the local carnival to score some heroin when he comes across his old friend Charlie Jacobs.

Charlie is now working as a huckster photographer, using his extensive knowledge of electricity to take elaborate photos of people. He is delighted to be reacquainted with Jamie, but immediately recognizes Jamie’s problem. He thinks he has the solution.

Charlie takes him to a laboratory and hooks him up with electrodes similar to those attached to his brother all those years before and puts an electrical charge through him. Jamie is cured. When Charlie prepares to take his show on the road again, he secures a job for Jamie at a recording studio where he has a friend he cured of disease many years before.

More years pass and Jamie is successful as a recording engineer and producer. He remains heroin free. Meanwhile, Charlie Jacobs has gone back to religion. He is now a revival tent preacher who heals the sick and infirm. Jamie follows Charlie’s career from afar with great interest.

Jamie has strange impulses that can only be explained by Charlie’s treatment. Research online reveals a high rate of suicide or mental illness for those who receive Charlie’s “cure.” Jamie decides to confront Charlie about his cure and its true nature.

Charlie is now mega-wealthy and retired from the tent revival circuit. He is still pursuing his passion for curing with electricity – but not the kind that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison conceived. Through coercion, he enlists Charlie’s help in harnessing the ultimate energy of the cosmos to perform the ultimate miracle. The results are horrific and haunting.

I stated earlier that Revival did not live up to its billing. That does not mean it was not a good novel. It was, in fact, quite good. Just not as good as the reader is led to believe. In Revival, King weaves in Lovecraftian notions of powers and beings beyond the human perception. He pays homage to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein through his transformation of Charlie Jacobs from rational being to mad scientist. It’s all traditional horror brought into the modern age by the modern master.

First person narratives can be tedious to read. As my friend who is an English professor once remarked, reading them can be like sitting with a drunk at a bar who recounts their sad tale of woe. King has written several first person narratives and he is comfortable and capable with the style.

Jamie’s tale is never boring. He’s not given to self pity and there’s just enough introspection to develop Jamie as a character. No sad tales of woe and no digression. The reading was easy and the tale interesting.

The book’s chief weakness was the ending. Although it was not a major letdown on the scale that Dean Koontz sometimes let’s you down, I was looking for more. I expected something dark like Pet Sematary or epic like IT. Instead, King gives his climax a rather vanilla treatment. It is dark to be sure, but not as dark as I expected given Charlie Jacobs’ emotional devolution.

It is also rather silly at times, reminding me of Dean Koontz trying to terrify the reader through description rather than letting the reader’s imagination serve him. King seldom makes this mistake. But in Revival, that silliness – while not ruining the novel's end – detracted from it.

It was enjoyable seeing King revisit the horror genre after the rather dull Mr. Mercedes. We do not know when he’ll visit again as his next published work will be a sequel to Mr. Mercedes.

For those who say they like old Stephen King work, this book will be a treat. It is straight horror without the political agenda, without the commentary on aging, and without the rehashing of major bodily injury. Revival is a fine horror novel that takes the reader back to King’s glory days.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep By Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
By Philip K. Dick
Copyright 1968

It is a common refrain among active readers that the book is always better than the movie. Most of the time, this is true. The written word allows the active exploration of moods, emotions, and motivation. Reading is an active engagement. Movies, on the other hand, are passive. You sit and the action unfolds before your eyes.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the movie based upon it, Blade Runner, are an exception to this. The short novel is a linear story with little character development based primarily on action. The move, however, is a dark, moody affair, bringing to life a bleak dystopia that is the 21st century where men hunt androids and androids are dangerous.

The book opens in the home of Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter who “retires” androids who escape the Martian colony where they function in servitude. The earth is a bleak wasteland following the last world war and the government is encouraging people to move to the new Martian colony. Many sections of Deckards hometown of San Francisco are abandoned.

On the roof of his apartment building, Deckard cares for an android ewe. In the postwar world, all life is valued since so much of it has been destroyed. Those with status own real animals which are quite expensive. Deckard can only afford an artificial animal, but longs for the real thing.

Deckard and his wife are fighting and she plugs into a mood altering device that links her to the world's leading religious figure, Mercer, to distract herself. He receives a call from a local police agency from who he frequently receives cases. The regular bouny hunter for the northern California district has been wounded by an android he was trying to retire. They need Deckard to hunt down and destroy six Nexus-6 androids. Deckard accepts the case.

Meanwhile, in an all but abandoned apartment building in San Francisco, Rick Isidore leads the droning existence of a man with a low IQ. He is intrigued when, out of nowhere, a woman moves into one of the many vacant apartments in his building. He introduces herself to her and they become acquaintances.

Deckard travels to Seattle where he meets with the head of the Rosen Corporation that manufactures the Nexus-6. He administers an empathy test that is used to determine whether or not a being an android to Rosen’s niece, Rachael. Deckard suspects Rachael is an android and his suspicions are confirmed when she tries to bribe him into abandoning his assignment with the gift of a real owl.

Deckard retires the first two Nexus-6 androids he finds with little difficulty. With some cash in his pocket, Deckard buys a real goat to keep on his roof.

When Deckard retires his third Nexus-6, he has an attack of conscience and begins to doubt his own humanity. He wonders if he, in fact, has any empathy in him when he is able to dispatch his targets with such dispassion. His doubt deepens when he is arrested and forced to escape from a police station staffed entirely by androids. He escapes with the assistance of a fellow bounty hunter who he suspects is an android.

Meanwhile, the three remaining androids have gathered at the apartment building where Rick Isidore lives. They con him into helping them hide from Deckard who is closing in. When Deckard arrives at the building, he finds Rachael there. With his doubts of his own humanity in his head, he makes love with and professes his love for Rachael.

Rachael reciprocates by telling Deckard that she has slept with many bounty hunters to dissuade them from killing androids. Angry at her and at himself, he tells Rachael to go home. She leaves and he resumes his hunt.

Deckard eventually finds the androids holed up in Isidore’s apartment. He dispatches them with little difficulty and leaves. He flees north to Oregon to meditate. There, he finds a toad. Toads are thought to be extinct and are held in high esteem by the postwar’s leading religious figure, Mercer. He discovers that Mercer is simply a drunk in a makeshift television studio in Indiana. He also learns that the world’s leading television host is an android.

He returns home to his wife, beguiled by the toad and convinced of his own humanity. His wife tells him that Rachael has paid them a visit and pushed their goat off of the roof, killing it. The book ends with Deckard’s wife discovering that the toad is artificial.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
was selected by my book club. The theme was “a book that was inferior to the movie.” We watched Blade Runner after discussing the book and we unanimously agreed the movie was superior.

The book, despite its linear plot, was an exploration of what it is to be a human being. Is empathy an essential requirement of humanity? Can machines ever feel empathy? The obvious answer to the second question is no, not as technology exists. If we are to believe that our humanity rests within a soul, then machines will never acquire empathy.

The answer to the first question is much more difficult and the essence of Dick’s challenge to the reader. As we discussed the book, I related it to a real world incident where it would seem that a human being voluntarily divested himself of humanity.

In his defense of his conduct during the My Lai massacre, Lt. William Calley described how the military had taught him that the enemy was not human. It was a being to be destroyed with dispassion. If one reads an account of what Calley and his men did to the people of My Lai, it is apparent that he took that lesson to heart. Did Calley ever possess empathy for his fellow man, only later to have the military drive it from him? Only William Calley knows.

The other real life event that I related to this book was the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Four young girls were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the church. I recall, as a youngster, seeing an interview with an Alabaman Klansman who said, “When I find a nest of rattlesnakes, I don’t just kill the momma. I kill the babies too.” Obviously this man was devoid of human empathy.

Philip K. Dick, like so many of the science fiction writers held in high esteem today started out writing for the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Pulp writers tend to tell fast paced stories with linear plots. That was what editors demanded and readers wanted. When one reads the works of Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick, this is what one finds. Sometimes, the story suffers for it.

The chief criticism of this book was what wasn’t there. There was little character development an absolutely no subplots. The battle scenes which should have generated excitement, were rather anticlimactic and disposed of quickly, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although Dick tells us there is a meaningful relationship between man and nature after mother nature is nearly destroyed, he did little to explore this relationship.

I’ve not read a lot of Philip K. Dick and this is the first novel I’ve read by him. I’ve been told it is not one of his best. I hope not. While Blade Runner is a visually stunning, exciting chase movie with great battle scenes and an interesting plot twist at the end. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep leaves the reader longing for excitement and just a little puzzled by its ending. But the introspection it generates makes it a worthwhile read.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Book to Movie: The Haunting (1999)

Book to Movie: The Haunting (1999)
Screewriter: David Self
Director: Jan de Bont
Based on the novel, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

First made in 1963, the adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal haunted house story was hailed as a masterpiece of gothic style horror, incorporating all of the psychological elements of the Jackson story and its ambiguity to retell Jackson’s novel on screen the way it should be told. In 1999, those psychological elements were eliminated in favor of CGI, and the results were less than stellar.

Dr.Marrow (played by Liam Neason} plans to conduct a study in group fear. He contrives circumstances to get his subjects to Hill House, believing they are going to take part in a sleep study.

We are given two new characters when Dr. Marrow arrives – a male and female research assistant. The trio arrives at Hill House to find Eleanora – who has fled her family during an estate argument, Theodora who has already established herself as brash and outspoken, and Luke Sanderson who comes across as a mindless dolt when played by Owen Wilson. Hill House shows itself by having a clavet string break, cutting Montague’s assistant and forcing her and the other research assistant to leave.

After the wall banging scene that has Eleanor and Theo clinging to each other, there are out of body haunting scenes and visual manifestations of ghosts that do not appear in the novel or first movie and rob it of Jackson’s ambiguity of the house before the writing on the wall imploring Eleanor to come home.

Later, bloody footprints leading her away from her bed lead Eleanora to a library where she finds the home’s previous owner’s business records as it related to child labor while a childish specter looks on. Eleanor continues to see various manifestations while others do not. Finally, Luke asks her why she stays. She replies, “Home is where the heart is.” She continues her independent research of the family through their books. Eleanor in Jackson’s story was not nearly so motivated to act.

She discovers that the owner of the house, wanting the house filled with the sounds of children, used child labor to build the house and had them locked away. Hugh Crane is still locked in the house she tells them.

At this point, Montague is ready to get Eleanor, around whom all of the hauntings have been experienced, out of the picture since she is disrupting his experiment.

That night before Marrow wants her to leave, she sees herself pregnant in the house and talks to the children trapped within. She chases them and the others find her high up a dangerous precipice, similar to how she was in the book, under only much different circumstances. After coming down, she falls into a demented fugue.

As he discusses with himself how to get the others out of the house, Montague is attacked by a blood spewing statue that pulls him into the pool and tries to hold him down. Meanwhile Eleanor watches as the room slowly disintegrates and falls down around her and manifestations of children and monsters scream at her.

After finding Eleanor trapped to her bed by pieces of wood extending from the ceiling, the group decides that it’s time to get gone from Hill House. They go to the gate and break it open. Buy Eleanor returns to the house, telling the others she’s right where she belongs. She is at home.

Eleanor decides that she’s a descendant of the original Hugh Crane and she needs to stay for the other children. She refuses to leave. The others make a break for it, but they find that the owner plans to keep them as well. Luke defiles the painting of the owner and is cast into the fireplace where he is decapitated by a large pendulum of a lion’s head.

Eleanor runs about the mansion demanding that the spirit of Hugh Crane reveal himself. A giant Hugh Crane emeres from the behind the doors of purgatory just as the rest of the group arrives. Eleanor declares that she is going to stop him now. With Eleanor’s defiance, the souls of the children trapped in purgatory are released and drive Hugh Crane back into Hell. Eleanor joins them there, forever.

The next day, they are released from Hill House, it’s mysteries still unknown and unresolved.

This movie took all of the mystery of the Jackson novel and conjured its own stories to fill in what the script writer regarded as blanks. Losing that mysterious ambiguity ruins Jackson’s story.

In the story, we were never to know if it was Eleanor bringing the house to life or the house bringing Eleanor to life. All we knew was there was a symbiosis. We did not know if it was good or bad. This screenwriter solved that question and spoiled the story.

The end was quite unambiguous. Jackson’s ending, with Eleanor’s final thoughts as she sped away from Hill House in her car made for a much better literary ending and movie endingy as we shall see.

I guess the disjointed house and all that went bump in the night were regarded as too light of fare for modern movie goers. The script had to be brightened up with a gory death and CGI monsters roaming about. Jackson would have had no such nonsense in her movie.

It was a lackluster movie that ended up destroying the story from which it was conjured. If you want to see Jackson’s work brought to the screen the right way, watch the 1963 edition directed by Robert Wise. If Jackson were going to have her book made into a movie, I have to believe she would be impressed with Robert Wise’s treatment.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Haunting of Hill House By Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson
Copyright 1959

Shirley Jackson’s quintessential haunted house novel, the Haunting of Hill House, is a tale of madness. Madness of a haunted house and madness of a mind tormented by the madness of that house.
Dr. John Montague, a researcher of the supernatural, summons to Hill House, two mediums to assist him in his examination of this mysterious, abandoned mansion out in the country.

Joining him is Eleanor, a woman who once conjured stones to fall from the sky, and Theodora, a medium. Rounding out the party is Luke, a descendant of the house’s owners who insist that they have a representative in the home during the research.

The action centers on Theodora who is neurotic and given to daydreaming. She steals her sister’s car and travels through the country to arrive at the gates of Hill House. There, she is met by the creepy grounds keeper Mr. Dudley who makes a couple ominous statements before allowing her to enter.

Theodora is able to explore some of the house and surrounding grounds before she is joined by her colleagues. Once they are all there, Dr. Montague tells the group of the house’s history and what he expects of them.

The first couple nights pass uneventfully before the haunts show up. One night, as they sleep, something starts banging on the walls. Theodora joins Eleanor in her room as the sounds grow closer and closer to their door. A night later, mysterious writing appears on the wall that bids Eleanor to come home.

Eleanor seems to experience more manifestations than anyone and soon the others suspect that she is precipitating them herself because she desires attention. Eleanor, slightly unbalanced vacillates between anger at the suspicion and friendliness, desiring the friendship of the others.

Later in the novel, the bossy and arrogant Mrs. Montague and her companion Arthur Parker, the headmaster of a boys’ school, arrive to spend a weekend at Hill House and to help investigate it. They, too, are interested in the supernatural, including séances and spirit writing. Ironically, and unlike the other four characters, they don't experience anything supernatural, although some of Mrs. Montague’s alleged spirit writings seem to communicate with Eleanor. Mrs. Montague's lack of social skills provides another source of comic relief in the novel.

Many of the hauntings that occur throughout the book are described only vaguely, or else are partly hidden from the characters themselves.

Eleanor and Theodora are in a bedroom with an unseen force trying the door, and Eleanor believes after the fact that the hand she was holding in the darkness was not Theodora’s. In one episode, as Theodora and Eleanor walk outside Hill House at night, Theodora looks behind them and screams in fear for Eleanor to run, though the book never explains what Theodora sees.

By this point in the book it is becoming clear to the characters that the house is beginning to possess Eleanor. Fearing for her safety, Dr. Montague declares that she must leave. However, Eleanor regards the house as her home, and resists. The others have to practically force her into her car, but she is then killed when her car crashes into a large oak tree on the property. The reader is left uncertain whether Eleanor was simply an emotionally disturbed woman who has committed suicide, or whether her death at Hill House has a supernatural significance.

The Haunting of Hill House was a selection of my book/cigar/scotch club. The topic was The Scariest Book We’ve Read. I and another guy nominated it and it was the consensus of the club that The Haunting of Hill House was not scary.

Perhaps not. Perhaps it was scarier when I read it as a teenager. Still, it stands at the paragon of modern horror novels, serving as the wellspring for most great haunted house novels such as The Shining and Burnt Offerings.

In redefining the subgenre of the haunted house, Jackson draws on the lore of H.P. Lovecraft and his use of odd geography. Especially in his Cthulu mythos, Lovecraft used bizarre geography to disorient his readers. In Hill House, Jackson does the same thing by pointing out that none of the walls are flush. None of them are at right angles. Views are obscured that should not be obscured. It’s an odd place.

We can see Jackson’s direct influence on Stephen King in The Shining. The Shining is a hotel with a unsavory past. Hill House’s past is not necessarily unsavory, but it is tragic and bizarre. In both cases, the main character – in The Shining, Jack and in Hill House, Eleanor, have a connection to the house. The house is a living organism that desires connection with these characters.

In Burnt Offerings, that connection is there as well, except that the entity has an embodiment and its own separate connection to that embodiment in the form of Mrs. Alardyce. The house draws the energy from the heroine as she works to restore it – and presumably Mrs. Alardyce – to their former glory.

Shirley Jackson shows that she’s no horror writing hack with her fantastic use of the English language. Her prose made critics overlook the fact that she’d authored a horror novel which, at the time of its publication in 1959, ranked below science fiction in the literary pecking order.

Consider the novel’s opening paragraph: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

Never before in a horror novel has such a brilliant paragraph been woven to set the tone and the atmosphere. As Stephen King say in his essay about this book in his review of horror film and literature, Danse Macabre, a writer’s greatest achievement is a sentence or paragraph that is something greater than the sum of its words. This paragraph does just that.

Jackson establishes the personality of her main character quite well early on in the novel. Eleanor is a darkly dreaming woman. She’s not mentally stable and daydreams about all that is going on around her. Juxtaposed against the baldy, down to earth Theodora, and we see that Eleanor is going to be the house’s victim. Her mind is open. Her personality susceptible. How she will meet her end is the only question.

The Haunting of Hill House is not a particularly scary novel. But it is the wellspring of so much great horror, it’s almost a privilege to visit or revisit it and find where the masters of the haunted house genre drew their ideas. It is a wonderfully written novel with an interesting main character and an end just ambiguous enough to keep the reader thinking long after the novel’s conclusion.

The Haunting of Hill House
was made into a movie two or three times depending on how you count. The first was the 1963 movie, The Haunting directed by Robert Wise. This movie is a nearly straight retelling of the novel and is a highly regarded horror movie. The second, The Haunting 1999 is a less than stellar effort high on special effects and short on story and does not do Jackson’s book justice. I also consider Stephen King’s screenplay, Rose Red to be a retelling of this story. King develops a different backstory for his mansion. But he includes almost all of Jackson’s story elements and closely enough resembles Jackson’s story to be considered a remake. It is better than the 1999 version, but not a particularly good movie.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Circle By David Eggers

The Circle
By David Eggers
Copyright 2014

This dystopian novel, set in the near future, weaves a tale that demonstrates the perils and potentials of open sharing on social networks and Internet retailers.
Mae Holland has just landed her dream job with The Circle, courtesy of her friend Anne. The Circle is an online retailer and social network operator with a sprawling campus near San Francisco that serves all of its employees’ needs. Mae starts in customer service, assisting Circle clients with problems of all types. She excels at her job.

Mae finds it difficult to acclimate to the company culture at first. She is chided for not being more involved in various company social events and in not responding to friends’ and coworkers online inquiries. She is encouraged to like and comment others’ posts in the social network and to post her own thoughts. Each employee is scored based on their social networking quantity and quality. After time, Mae eventually acclimates and excels.

The young go-getter finds herself juggling two relationships. One is with a tech geek working on a microchip implant for children to track them so that they may never be lost or kidnapped. The other is a mysterious employee of the company who manages to elude her most of the time in a company that preaches absolute transparency.

Mae’s new job brings a rift to her family life as he is able to see them less and less. They are brought on board Mae’s benefits plan to take care of her father’s illness and the company expects openness to the rest of the world from the Holllands – openness that as an old fashioned couple, they are not willing to provide. Mae asle encounters resistance from her ex-boyfriend who does not maintain a website for his business making chandeliers out of deer horns. When Mae displays some of his work on the net and creates demand for his product, he shuts her out all together.

The novel turns as Mae finds her life taken over by the Circle. She gives up her apartment and lives in the dormitory furnished by the company. She has another encounter with the mysterious boyfriend who leads her deep into the facility and shows her some of the company’s top secret research before they make love. She is intrigued and excited by him, but is unable to track him down within the company.

She decides to take a few hours of privacy for herself. After an uncomfortable visit with her parents where they refuse to open their lives up on the web for all to see and comment upon and a horrible argument with her former luddite bow who hates what she does and who she works for, she decides to stop at a kayak rental shack along the beach. The facility is closed, but she takes a kayak out anyway and explores a remote island.

When she returns, she is nearly arrested for theft and trespassing. She returns to company headquarters embarrassed and humiliated, quite sure she is going to be fired. She is summoned to the office of one of the three wise men. There they have a discussion about what Mae did. Mae learns her crime is not the stealing of the boats. Her transgression was not recording and sharing her adventure. Members of the Circle are expected to share every aspect of their lives.

Mae agrees to appear on stage with wise man Eamon Bailey for a public discussion of her behavior. There, she wows the crowd with her confession of theft by withholding sharing her experience and how she would do better. She agrees to live an entirely open life. Privacy is theft she concludes.

Mae lives her entire life, sexual and bathroom experiences, in front of a live audience of millions. The phenomenon spreads. Soon, politicians opt for this open life and those who refuse are ostracized. Mae becomes an international sensation for the change she brings to society.

One day, The Circle decides to send drones to find her reclusive, Luddite ex-boyfriend who chooses to live his life off the grid. When the drones arrive, he flees and eventually jumps from a bridge to avoid the scrutiny of the world.

Mae is unfazed by this development. Meanwhile, her family who had cameras installed all over their home to cover her father’s recovery from illness has covered the cameras. They refuse to take her calls. Mae is completely removed from her past.

Finally, the identity of Mae’s mysterious beau is revealed and he implores her to do what she can to stop The Circle from being completed. Mae finally realizes the moral bind she is in and makes her choice. . .

The Circle received tremendous reviews for its social commentary. Yes, while mildly dystopian, it is an accurate assessment of where society is headed in the digital age where some people are compelled to share every aspect of their lives via social media. And yes, it accurately depicts how online marketers snoop into our online activity to market directly to us. With all of this great social commentary, the book should have contained an interesting story. But it didn’t.

There is no character development in the story. To say that Mae and the other characters in this novel were wooden would be an insult to trees. They weren’t even plastic. They had no depth and were not even mildly interesting.

The story had no subplots. It was completely linear. The great mystery of the book – the identity of Mae’s mysterious love – was easy enough to guess because it could not have been anyone else with such linear storytelling.

When I think of writers who mixed social commentary and genre fiction, my mind is immediately drawn to the late, great Ira Levin. Levin didn’t try to veil his social commentary and I’m not suggesting that Eggers should have veiled his. That is pretentious. But Levin could tell an interesting story around his social commentary. Eggers didn’t. I felt as if Eggers was saying to me, “Are you seeing this? If not, let me show you again.”

This could have been a great book with a great story and insightful social commentary. The story could have been broadened, the characters developed more. There could have been a subplot that included a rivalry between Mae and Anna. A red herring or two would have helped.

Instead, what the reader got was a lackluster story and a writer shoving his social commentary down the reader’s throat. I read a book for story. If it includes, social commentary, that is okay. But a good story is a must and this book is not a good story.