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.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes
By Stephen King
Copyright 2014

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective haunted by three crimes that went unsolved on his watch. One was a freeway killer who preyed on women at rest stops. Another was the murder of a woman seemingly by her husband, but the police could not get enough evidence to make a case stick. The third was a ghastly crime of mass murder where an unknown suspect stole a powerful Mercedes Benz sedan and drove it into a crowd of people lined up for a job fair, killing several including a baby.
Hodges is lured out of retirement (and away from suicide) by an online message taunting him over the crime from the presumed perpetrator. He resumes his own, private investigation. It leads him to the woman who owned the stolen Mercedes. She has committed suicide, but Brady falls in love with her younger sister. She hires him to find out who and what drove her sister to suicide.

Brady Hartfield is a computer tech for an electronics retailer. He lives with his alcoholic mother in and has with her a semi-incestuous relationship. Having killed his younger brother many years before, Brady is a psychopath.

Brady is an electronics whiz who has built an electronic device that allows him to steal signals from key fobs. Using this, he stole the Mercedes and slaughtered the job seekers. But he aspires to a larger kill; one that will make him a legend. First, however, he is determined to rid himself of Bill Hodges.

While Bill is attending the funeral of his girlfriend’s mother, Brady plants a bomb in his car. Unfortunately for Bill, his girlfriend is driving his car when it explodes. She is killed and Bill is more determined than ever to find the Mercedes Benz killer.

With the help of his teenage gardener and a middle-aged, mentally ill niece of his recently departed love, he tracks Brady to his house where they find his mother, dead in bed – the victim of an accidental poisoning at Brady’s hand. They learn of his plan to bomb the civic center during a boy band concert. They race against time to foil the plot.

Stephen King has conjured some horrific, non-supernatural villains in his more than 40 years of writing. Annie Wilkes is every bit as menacing as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Roland Dinker, the Nazi general in Apt Pupil and his protégé were as ugly as they come. With characters like that to his credit, it is such a shame that Brady Hartfield is so lackluster.

Brady is not particularly sinister. He’s diabolical, but not introspective. The most significant reason for this is that nobody is afraid of Brady. The aforementioned King villains inspired fear in people. They terrorized their respective victims. Bill Hodges never fears Brady and he and his companions are the only people who know who and what Brady is. Without fear, Brady fall flat as a villain.

King is known for stellar character development. He often delves deeply into the backstory of even insignificant characters to enrich the story. In Mr. Mercedes, his protagonists are every bit as limp and lifeless as his villains.

We get enough backstory on Bill Hodges to make him functional as a protagonist, but King doesn’t develop Janey (Bill’s love interest) at all. When she dies, the reader just doesn’t care that much. We aren’t emotionally vested in her. This was supposed to serve as the emotional turning point in the novel. But without character development, it didn’t work.

Bill’s sidekick is an African-American teenager. Kudos for creating a non-traditional duo. But Jerome is perhaps the most irritating character in King’s career cast. I wanted him to die and he was one of the good guys! Jerome frequently lapses into an irritating, African-American retro slave patois that serves no point except to remind the reader over and over again, JEROME IS BLACK!

Mr. Mercedes takes a while to get going. Actually, it takes a very long time. But once it does, the plot races to a rewarding climax inside the civic center. For all that King does to work against himself and his novel, the payoff at the end is satisfying.

The novel is the first of a trilogy built around Bill Hodge and presumably – given the final paragraph of the novel – Brady. We can only hope that King can develop his hero and his villain sufficiently in the next novel to make it more interesting than the first installment.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent By Robert Caro

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent
By Robert Caro
Copyright 1990

In his second volume chronicling the life of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro explores Johnson's time in the wilderness after losing the special election for the Texas senate seat in 1941.
The period between 1942 and 1948 found Johnson at loose ends and without a power base. His most powerful ally, Franklin Roosevelt would soon die. Vice President Harry Truman had never been a fan of the Representative from Texas. After Johnson betrayed him in the 1940 presidential race, House Speaker Sam Rayburn ceased to be a power base. With little seniority, Johnson had nothing to work with.

Without a power base in the House, Johnson quickly grew bored with his position. Caro notes that Johnson had not introduced any meaningful legislation, nor did he speak on the House floor on any issue of particular importance during his tenure in the House. Instead of legislating, Johnson set out to make money.

Johnson acquired an Austin radio station with low wattage and low profits. Using his influence with the FCC, he was able to get the stationed repositioned on the AM dial and boost its power. It is part of the Johnson family history that it was Lady Bird’s business acumen that led the Johnson telecommunications interests to profitability. However, as Caro carefully documents, it was the hand of LBJ that drove the business.

Lyndon Johnson promised his constituents that, if war broke out, he’d leave his congressional seat and join the fighting. Conveniently, he was able to serve in the military while maintaining his seat in the House. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve in 1942 and Caro dissects Johnson’s scant military career, telling the true story that Johnson often embellished through his political career.

Johnson was recruited by Navy Secretary James Forrestal to inspect navy installations in the Southwest Pacific. Johnson and three other naval officers spent much of their time in Texas and California, staying at the finest hotels and dining at the finest restaurants on the military’s tab. Finally, Johnson and his entourage made their way to Australia and reported to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Johnson was eager to get a taste of combat and eventually got it. The gods of fate smiled on Johnson that day because he was ordered out of his original seat by a Colonel who was also flying to observe the mission. He was forced to board another plane. The plane to which Johnson was originally assigned was shot down and all hands lost.

Johnson’s plane flew out over the Pacific to attack a Japanese base on New Guinea. Johnson’s plane came under attack and was forced to retreat from the mission. Those who flew with Johnson said he displayed unwavering courage as bullets hit the plane, looking out the windows with great excitement. When Johnson returned, MacArthur unceremoniously pulled a Silver Star out of his desk and presented it Johnson.

That Silver Star became a source of immense pride for Johnson. He soon returned to Washington when Roosevelt recalled active duty members of Congress. He wore that Silver Star on his suit lapel every day and would tell the tale over and over again in the cloak room, at dinner parties and in his district, with the tale growing taller with the telling. However, through interviews with those who flew with Johnson as well as documents from the Department of the Navy, Caro is able to document exactly what happened.

Much of the book is dedicated to examining the 1948 Texas Senate race between Johnson and Texas Governor Coke Stevenson. This election, and the circumstances under which Johnson won it were shrouded in mystery until Caro meticulously documents what transpired in Jim Wells County, specifically at precinct 13.

Caro opens this portion of the book with a thorough thumbnail biography of Coke Stevenson. Stevenson was a larger than life figure and the prototype of the mythical Texan. He was a cowboy from birth. He lived on a remote ranch that had no phone. From birth, the man was pure Texas.

Stevenson was known as a no nonsense politician, deeply conservative, and seldom willing to compromise. It would take a man like Lyndon Johnson to bring out the worst in Coke Stevenson, and Johnson managed to do it.

A loss in 1948 would have doomed Johnson’s career in politics. This time, he would do everything to win. Money was no object as the leadership of the Texas construction firm, Brown & Root were footing most of the bills.

Logistics had been a problem in the last campaign. A statewide campaign in Texas required enormous resources. While money could be raised, time was fixed and traveling across Texas to reach remote voters required a great deal of time. To overcome this, Johnson’s campaign leased a helicopter.

In 1948, most people had never seen a helicopter. Johnson’s whirlybird, dubbed the Johnson City Windmill, drew people from far and wide to see the aviation curiosity. Once drawn to the site, they would stay and listen to the candidate. The helicopter also let Johnson speak to the remote farmer or rancher by hovering over his home and shouting to him through a megaphone.

As before, Johnson pushed himself and his staff relentlessly with two advance teams leapfrogging each other to meet the helicopter. Johnson made slow and steady progress in his uphill climb to defeat Stevenson for the Democratic nomination, but was almost felled when he developed a kidney stone.

Caro documents Johnson’s illness with excruciating detail through interviews with those who traveled with Johnson. Johnson worked for two weeks in horrible agony, often doubling over in pain and vomiting right after leaving a public appearance. He lost weight and looked gaunt. Finally, unable to press on, he agreed to examination by a physician.

Johnson was told he needed surgery which would sideline him for several weeks. Instead, Johnson demanded that the stone be extracted by going in through the urethra. The surgeon was reluctant, but agreed. In what must have been an incredibly painful procedure, the surgeon extracted the stone, delving into the bladder two centimeters beyond what was recommended. Back on his feet the next day, Johnson resumed campaigning.

Johnson attacked Stevenson as a liberal and often misrepresented Stevenson’s positions on issues. Stevenson, behaving like a gentleman, refused to address Johnson’s accusations or even acknowledge Johnson. As his lead shrunk, Stevenson’s advisers begged him to challenge Johnson directly. That had never been the Stevenson way. Finally, in the waning days of the campaign, Stevenson went after Johnson, calling him a liar. Stevenson tried to explain his position on issues, but would never come out and say exactly how he would vote. Johnson goaded one of the most honorable men in political history into name calling and waffling.

When the primary election was held, the state Democratic central committee initially certified that Lyndon Johnson had won the election by just 87 votes. Stevenson immediately cried fraud and demanded an investigation – especially in the circumstances surrounding precinct 13 in Jim Wells County.

Caro documents through interviews with participants how John Connally was able to arrange with election officials in Jim Wells County to “find” an additional 200 votes for Lyndon Johnson in the county. The new voters mysteriously voted in alphabetical order and their handwriting was essentially the same. Stevenson demanded that the ballot box be opened and the actual ballots counted. Despite testimony from voters who said they had not voted election day, the party declined to do so and declared Johnson the winner.

Stevenson mounted a court challenge, but thanks to the able legal efforts of Abe Fortas, the challenge went nowhere. Johnson’s name appeared on the November ballot and he won election to the U.S. Senate.

The book ends with “Landslide Lyndon” arriving in Washington as the new senator from the Lone Star State.

This was the shortest and perhaps least interesting of Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. But it was fun reading and exceptional scholarship.

As he did in his first biography, Caro provides extensive biographical information on the subjects who were important in Lyndon Johnson’s life. In this case, his extensive biography of Coke Stevenson not only provided insight into Stevenson’s character and personality, it help cast the 1948 contest as a showdown between principle versus pragmatism. It also was illustrative of the development of Texas as a state at the start of the 20th century.

Caro put a great deal of effort into tracking down and interviewing those who were observers and participants in Lyndon Johnson’s quest for power, In doing so, he’s able to debunk the myth of Lady Bird being the mastermind behind the Johnson telecommunications fortune and, to tell the whole story behind the stolen 1948 Texas senate election.

AS he did in the first volume of what will be a five volume biography, Caro examines the minutia of Lyndon Johnson’s life and in doing so, reveals that Lyndon Johnson was one of the most Machiavellian men in the history of the Republic. The man had no scruples, no conscience, and no morals. He was a man driven by a need to be somebody. As Caro points out, his eyes were already on the presidency.

Caro asks, but does not answer the question, how different would the world be if the Texas Democrats just opened that little black box from precinct 13 and counted the votes?

There’s nothing negative to say about Robert Caro’s exhaustive examination of Lyndon Johnson’s years in the wilderness. He took the least interesting period in Johnson’s life and described it in painstaking detail, giving the reader much greater insight into the man who would shape American foreign and domestic policy long after his

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Apocalypse Reader Edited by Justin Taylor

The Apocalypse Reader
Edited by Justin Taylor

Nyarlathotep by H.P. Lovecraft
The tall, swarthy god Nyarlathotep emerges from Egypt and cities fall into decay. A group of scientists from one such city decide to confront the god. Despite his protests that he is not afraid, the main character flees into the night with his companions to find their city destroyed.
Lovecraft fiction is usually not plot driven, character driven, or dialogue driven. It is atmospheric. This tale had atmosphere in spades and is a good, short example of why Lovecraft is one of the masters.

The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner by Rick Moody
A college student writes a term paper that compares the events in his sad, tragic life to the life of St. John writing Revelations.

This was an excellent story. The commentary on the Bible and Revelations mixed in with the plot of unrequited love for a misfit was wonderfully paced and well written.

Sweethearts by Stacey Levine
An unearthly female creature describes the ecstasy of being mutilated by her lover while she mutilates him, again and again.

I guess this story could be termed “experimental.” There was no plot. Just page after page of descriptions of violent acts. It did not work for me.

Friase, Menthe, Et Poivre: 1978 by Jared Hohl
The sun has gone green and chaos ensues on the Earth. A Frenchman recounts how he and a band of people try to survive the riots and roving gangs of Paris in a hunt for food and supplies. To entertain themselves when someone dies, they stage plays in an abandoned theater.

The sparse prose makes this story really atmospheric. There’s no new real twist or take on the sun burning out motif, but Hohl writes his unoriginal story well enough to make it entertaining.

What is it When God Speaks?
By Diane Wiliams
A short story about a group of people staying at a fine bed and breakfast.

I read this story twice and did not get the point. No plot. No atmosphere. No nothing. Just a random series of events.

Kraftmark by Matthew Derby
The owner of the KraftMark Corporation pursues his own sun through a remote swamp with the help of a trained guide. His purpose is to kill his son before his corporate operatives do it inhumanely. The son has betrayed his father and the corporation by broadcasting the recipe of the world’s best selling snack cake.

Derby injects some corporate absurdity into his story, but does not overplay it. The tale moves along nicely and the absurdity of what the man wants to do and why makes it a compelling story.

The Hook by Shelley Jackson
In a collapsed society riddled with disease, a crane known to all as “The Hook” lifts dead bodies and lowers them onto an ever burning pyre. A woman becomes obsessed with the operator of this semi-holy piece of machinery and decides to get to know him better – biblically.

The overt sexuality in this story was not enough to save it. The plot meandered and the characters had no development at all. It was not atmospheric with little description of the decimated world this woman inhabited.

Sixteen Small Apocalypses by Lucy Corin
This is a story about different sort of apocalypse, told from the point of view of several characters.

This story was incredibly disjointed and impossible to follow. Not enough character or plot development in the stories to make them interesting. It was difficult and painful reading.

The Last Man by Adam Nemett
The apocalypse is a flood. A group of college students have rebelled and taken over the campus. Their leader is an amphetamine addicted genius. One man’s job is to make sure he keeps getting those pills to fuel his genius.

This read like a college writing assignment. The writing was okay, but there was no real plot to speak of and absolutely no character development. I want to read something much more substantive than this.

Earth’s Holocaust by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A group of reformers decides to purify the earth of everything that causes strife and evil. They start a bonfire in the remote west. Upon it they cast the titles of nobility of the world, the instruments of war, liquor, tobacco, all the literature of the world and finally, all religious symbols. They believed they have purified the world. But one man, the last murderer, assures the author that evil lies not in the objects of man’s creation, but within man himself and the old world will rise again.

A have to admit I’ve not read a lot of Hawthorne. But what I’ve read, I’ve liked and this story was a gem. Obviously a commentary on the reform movement of the time in America where certain people were striving to perfect society, Hawthorne’s final notion about the wellspring of evil rings true.

I Always go to Particular Places
by Gary Lutz and Deb Olin Unferth
Two people search the wreckage of a devastated city for a missing woman. In the end, they find a clue, but not the woman.

A good story with an unsatisfying ending. But better than most in this anthology.

An Accounting by Brian Evenson
In a post apocalyptic world, a man crosses the wastelands to find food for his people. He encounters a society whose entire social system is based on Christianity. He quickly becomes Christ to these people.

This story, steeped in great post acpocalyptic imagery and Christian theology was perhaps the best in this lackluster anthology.

Square of the Sun by Robert Bradley
A man's mistress does mathematical calculations in her head during sex to determine the coming of the apocalypse.

Another exercise in college freshman level creative writing. Plot that was barely there and characters not developed at all.

The End by Josip Novakovich
Upon his arrival, a Croation immigrant to the United States becomes a Baptist minister in Cleveland. He moves to Cincinnati and becomes a house painter, still strong in his faith. A series of events challenges his faith while he believes he sees signs of Armageddon.

There was no supernatural or science fiction elements in this story. I was a character study that was complex and well developed.



Some Approaches to the Problem of the Shortage of Time
by Ursula K. LeGuin
Scientists discover that time is actually a natural resource that man is depleting through his activities. Scientists and social groups try to find ways to save time and a time shortage grows desperate.

This story read like a government report and had little entertainment value. It was, however, an original concept.

Think Warm Thoughts by Allison Whittenberg
A person describes the coming of another ice age and the lack of food and water.

This short, one page story reads like the introduction to something larger. It was almost as if Whittenber submitted an incomplete manuscript.

The Ash Gray Proclamation by Dennis Cooper
A gay teenage prostitute and heroin addict falls in with a gay Afghanistan psychic and a gay, cannabilistic pedophile to concoct a plan to kill Osama Bin Laden.

This story was nothing but gay erotica. It was quite raunchy and the plot was thin and disjointed. It was not well written, using the structure of a script. It might be meaningful to someone who is gay because it does explore emotional issues that come with being gay, but as a story for a straight person, it was horrible.

Pole Shift by Justin Taylor
As the sun begins to destroy the world in a pole shift, a young man notices a young woman wearing a thin white dress with no underwear, displaying her body in the last minutes of existence, apparently unaware that the world is about to end.

This reads like a undergraduate college student creative writing submission and hardly fit to be in the same anthology as the likes of Lovecraft and Hawthorne.

Miss Kansas on Judgment Day by Kelly Link

A honeymooning couple watches a Miss America pageant from hell. They watch the human abominations demonstrate horrific talents on stage. They cling to each other in bed, afraid to let go, afraid for their future.

Again, it reads like an undergrad’s creative writing paper. It’s meant to be atmospheric, but comes across as preposterous and generates no emotion of horror or dread as it was clearly intended to do.

The Star by H.G. Wells
An object collides with the planet Neptune and becomes a small star. Neptune, driven from it orbit, starts racing across the solar system toward earth. Astronomers try to predict is course and its effects. Nightly, the star grows brighter and eventually, passes by the earth, wreaking havoc on it.

It’s a joy to read the early masters of genre horror fiction and Wells is one of its founding fathers. This story, like much of Lovecraft, is bereft of dialogue and even of real characters. It describes events as they unfold in vivid detail.

When We Went to See the World End by Dawnie M

So We are Very Concerned by Elliott David
A brief description of riots in various cities after some form of apocalypse. Each city’s riot’s description connotes something of that city’s culture.

Another college writing assignment story. No plot. No characters. No purpose.

Gigantic by Steve Aylett
An astrophysicist concentrates intensely on Scrappy Doo, the cartoon character and is able to see the future. A catastrophe is coming, stemming from the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He becomes a worldwide joke until the spaceships arrive to dump their cargo on the world’s capitals.

This was supposed to be humorous with a political climax. Instead, it was a poorly written, poorly conceived story that bored.

The End of the Future by Colette Phair
A group of survivalists waits out the end of the world in an old, dilapidated building while the rest of the world goes on. Then, it happens.

This story started out with some promise, but fizzled dreadfully at the end. The result was a dreary, desultory first person narrative that ended in a stupid way.

Crossing into Cambodia by Michael Moorcock
In a fictional war, a Russian cavalry unit crosses from Vietnam into Cambodia, pursuing guerilla fighters from the Khmer Rouge. They are supposed to rendezvous with an American unit in a nearby city. When they see a mushroom cloud erupt over that city, the commander makes a fateful decision to obey his orders no matter what.

This story was outstanding compared to most of what is in this book. The narrator was well developed and the story line flowed without lag.

80s Lillies by Terese Svaboda
A couple flees the coming nuclear apocalypse. They arrive in a remote mining town where they plan to ride out the explosions in an abandoned gold mine.

This was, by far, the poorest written story in the book so far. It had a bit more plot than the others, but I can’t believe this story ever lay before a professional editor. Absolutely horrible!

These Zombies are Not a Metaphor by Jeff Goldberg
When the zombie apocalypse comes, one man is prepared with a fortress and supplies. Unfortunately, his housemates are not mentally prepared for what’s coming.

I’ve compared some of the stories here to college writing assignments. This one I would compare to a high school writing assignment. It has a plot, sort of, but no character development. It is written as a series of events that happened with no rising action or climax.

The Rapid Advance of Sorrow by Theodora Goss
A college student in Budapest becomes involved with a plain, demur country woman from a town called Sorrow, located in Siberia. The woman overcomes her shyness to lead a cultural rebellion that soon has Budapest all dressed in white and gray. The movement becomes more militant.

This was an intriguing little story and a metaphor for how the emotion of sorrow spreads. Well written with brief interludes describing the fictional town of Sorrow and the strange powers of its people and lands really added to the enjoyment.

The Conversation of Eiros and Charmiion by Edgar Allan Poe
Two beings who have passed on to the afterlife discuss the destruction of the earth when it is struck by a gaseous comet.

Not one of Poe’s darker tales. It is a descriptive chronology, delivered in cold prose rather than the sinister prose one normally expects from Poe. Poe apparently made the effort to get his science right and that helps with the enjoyment of the story. Over 150 years old, the story remains a plausible, post-apocalyptic scenario.

Apocalypse: A Diptych by Joyce Carol Oates
This “story” is actually two stories, neither of which are apocalyptic. In story one, a person who has been completely dismembered provides a forensic analysis of dismemberment and decapitation while describing their plight of being dead and dismembered. In the second story, a family’s dinner is interrupted by grass growing in the street.

The first story was quite creepy and was easily enjoyed. The second was as pointless as it sounds.

After All by Carol Emshwiller
A retired author decides it’s time for a change in her life and starts out to walk into town. She recalls people and events from her life and evaluates their significance. She spends the night in a cave and the next day is her birthday. A very special transformation happens for her.

I generally despise stream of consciousness writing and dismiss it as an excuse for bad writing. However, Emshwiller is able to keep the stream from meandering too badly and actually develops a meaningful character in just a few pages of text.

Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful by Lynne Tillman
This “story” is a rambling, disconnected series of random thoughts with no discernable connection to each other.

I’ll let my plot summary stand as a review.

The Apocalypse Reader was an abysmal anthology of “experimental” (read amateur) mixed in with some public domain material by legendary writers and a couple accomplished writers who ought to be embarrassed to have their material published here. Seldom have I ever been so disappointed in a collection of short stories. Avoid this book at all costs. It’s not worth the struggle.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lisey’s Story By Stephen king

Lisey’s Story
By Stephen King
Copyright 2006

After treating fans to Cell, a great zombie story, Stephen King produced Lisey’s Story, a real departure from anything he’d written before. Lisey’s Story was a love story told in past tense through the recollections of Lisa “Lisey” Landon, widow of the world famous author, Scott Landon. The result was his worst novel ever.
Scott Landon has been dead for two years and Lisey is finally getting around to going through his papers. Various universities are begging her for unfinished and unpublished material. One professor from the University of Pittsburgh was particularly insistent upon seeing Scott Landon’s private papers.

She starts reminiscing about their courtship and marriage as she goes through the various clippings and articles her husband saved from his many appearances. She first recalls when a deranged fan shot her husband in 1988 and how she saved him by knocking the gun from his hand.

She is forced to deal with a mentally ill sister who falls into a state of catatonia shortly after visiting Lisey and a man hired by the Pittsburgh professor to get Scott’s papers. The man visits Lisey and tortures her, promising to come back if she doesn’t deliver the papers to the University of Pittsburgh.

She remembers Scott’s peculiarities and his family’s history of mental illness that manifests itself in uncontrollable rage and murder. She recalls that Scott was able to transport himself to a place called Bool Ya Moon, another world that contains a pool that provides inspiration and healing for those who suffer and also provides ideas to great authors.

She learns that Scott has anticipated the arrival of the crazed fans and scholars who will dog her incessantly for his papers. To prepare her for this, he has prepared a “bool” – a treasure hunt of sorts that will provide her with the means to confront the man who promises unspeakable torture if she doesn’t turn over the papers.

Using Scott’s clues from beyond the grave, she is able to revive her catatonic sister who helps her confront the stalker and lure him to Bool Ya Moon where she is able to kill him. But Scott has one more Bool left to give Lisey – her very own story. Lisey’s story reveals the complexity of their marriage and their love.

I absolutely loathed this novel and have never been more disappointed in a novel. There are several reasons why.

I don’t necessarily mind a novel told in a series of flashbacks. But most of this novel was flashback and it was sometimes hard to discern what was present time and what was flashback.

The invented language and the interior language of Scott and Lisey’s marriage so pervaded the novel as to be annoying. If I read “Schmucking” one more time, I’d have tossed the novel into the fire. So much of this novel was taken up by these made up words.

It seems as if King was attempting a real literary effort instead of a Stephen King novel and failed horribly. I don’t necessarily mean horror. King has often stepped outside the genre of horror and written wonderful works such as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. Lisey’s Story had none of the charm of that story. It was an attempt to write something “serious” and it resulted in a novel that was a struggle to read.

The villain seemed to have been directly lifted from Secret Window, Secret Garden. The mannerisms and speech were nearly identical. There was certainly a degree of laziness on King's part here.

It did have its moments that were entertaining and engaging. The demise of Scott’s brother and his father were enthralling. The final chase scene through Bool Ya Moon, once King got going with the present tense action was also well written. But I could have done without all of the interior language of love and the romance in the novel.

Lisey’s Story was, by far, Stephen King’s worst novel and I shall never read it again.