Darkness on Monday

I recently had the energy to pick up and read Stephen King’s latest volume of short stories, Full Dark, No Stars. The collection won the 2010 Stoker award — Joe Hill tweeted very nicely about that — and I’d read other good reviews of the collection and thought it was probably time I got around to it.

In my opinion, King is almost always better in short than long with the possible exception of the Dark Tower series and even there he starts to suffer from verbal diarrhea more than once. Man just can’t stop once he gets started.

I’m not saying that this collection is the exception — the four long-ish stories in it (“1922,” “Big Driver,” “Fair Extension,” and “A Good Marriage”) are pretty good. Solid King, you might say; there are all his old familiar tropes: man kills wife; woman kills attacker; deal with the devil; horrible discovery in family. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before if you’ve read more than one King novel or previous collection of short fiction.

What caught my attention and prompted this post is King’s insistence, and that of several reviewers I read, that these were his “darkest” short stories. In his afterword, he specifically describes them as such, talking about how dark and serious and disturbing they are.

I read the volume at a go one hot Sunday afternoon, read the afterword, and sat there thinking, ‘Dark? Dark? Mr. King, sir — what is this dark of which you speak?’

Sure, the stories are vintage King as described above but I don’t know if, in all fairness, I would describe any of them as being darker than, say, “Dolan’s Cadillac,” “You Know They Got A Hell of A Band,” or “Home Delivery” from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Or “The Raft” or “The Mist” in Skeleton Crew. Or “The Road Virus Heads North” in Everything’s Eventual.

And then I started to wonder about what I mean when I said “dark” and what King might mean — and then I decided not to worry about that because trying to figure out what someone else means when they use a word is pretty much a mug’s game unless they’re standing right in front of you and you can ask them. I’m not going to trudge all the way up to Bangor just to bang on the man’s door and ask him an obscure question about the afterword to his latest book.

What I do know is that none of the stories in Full Dark had the same feeling of menace, of inevitable doom, and of bleakness that I think make the stories I named above so genuinely dark and threatening. Take “The Road Virus Heads North,” for example — it’s a pretty basic “purchase a haunted/possessed item — purchase the haunter/possessor” story. A man stops at a yard sale, is struck by the painting of a young man in a muscle car heading north over the Tobin Bridge from Boston, and buys it. As he takes it further north with him towards his home, the painting begins to change. It becomes clear to the reader, if not the poor sumph of a narrator, that he’s being followed. Perhaps even hunted. I find “The Road Virus” terrifying — every time I read it, the inevitability of the narrator’s pretty ghastly demise is still frightening. The doom he manages to avert from some of the others along the path of the Virus is awful — the implacability of the antagonist quite real.

And check out “Home Delivery,” man! Woman alone on island facing birth of first child after the descent of the zombie apocalypse. Bad enough? Oh, did I mention her husband drowned recently? Yeahhhhhh — think that one, through. And keep your knitting needles handy. What I like about “Home Delivery” is the common-sense approach of the character to an unbelievable situation; yes, it approaches the pragmatism of the narrator in “Big Driver” (once she gets done being traumatized) but “Big Driver” then descends into a straightforward rape revenge drama. Pretty rote, once you figure out what’s going on. “Home Delivery” takes you on a hell of a ride, not forgetting the heaving cemetary dirt scene.

I think what these stories have in common that I didn’t feel in any of the work in Full Dark is a sense of claustrophobia, fear of something awful that you can’t get away from. Yes, the characters in Full Dark, in “Fair Extension” and “1922” particularly, are doomed by their actions — but their actions are also avoidable. There’s no point in any of the stories when you feel, “Aha. There’s the click. The key’s turned in the lock — hell, that fucker’s broken off in the lock, and here we go.” It always seems reversible. There’s no sense in this collection that the you can’t kill the boogeyman — in fact, in “A Good Marriage,” that’s exactly what the protagonist does. Yes, it’s horrible; yes, her journey of discovery is wrenching; but it also doesn’t feel as immediate and as clutching as, say, the fate of the teenagers on “The Raft.”

None of the stores in Full Dark have that feeling. Yeah, in “1922,” the narrator pretty much buys his own ticket to hell by bludgeoning his wife to death and getting his son to come in on the deal. But the rest of the story is really just an exercise in Lovecraftian inspiration and a long-drawn out version of HPL’s “The Rats in the Walls” — except not as good. (Sorry, Mr. King.) “Big Driver” is just — well, I thought it was just bad. We don’t need to go into why.

Anyway, the point of this post was not to get into trashing the stories in Full Dark — they’re worth a read, particularly in you’re a King fan. I just wanted to say that I don’t think they’re very dark; perhaps there’s just a twinkle or two in the sky — maybe the glow of a city in the distance. That’s all.


history notes: david kynaston, the "britain" series

having semi-successfully fought the head cold to a stand still, i took the opportunity of so much time in a prone position, to finish the second volume of david kynaston’s giant — and i do mean giant, the volumes are only a little under three inches thick — history of britain, family britain. i already finished off austerity britain a few weeks ago. the first volume covers the years 1945-1951; this second, 1951-1957. each of these two volumes is actually an omnibus of two original volumes printed under different titles. i can only assume that this was a publication decision made for an american market: each of the four, individually printed, wouldn’t do well, so bung ’em together and call it a day. i can’t say that i think this was a bad decision; it certainly makes them easier to get through like this.

the good stuff: endlessly amusing anecdotal evidence; plenty of stuff about pop culture (the origin of the bbc, 1940s-1950s radio and tv programming which i find fascinating and familiar); good leaves of photographs; broad coverage of all kinds of events from political to personal; nice index; good sources if you feel like wading through all the freakin’ end notes. (really. end notes are just made of evil. you know the references are in there but finding them is like wading through an unfun labyrinth.)

the bad stuff: the anecdotal evidence. while it’s charming and kynaston depends on a small crew of diarists — mostly middle or lower-middle class — to bring out “ordinary” life in britain during the period, he’s also totally unanalytical about it. just because someone wrote it in a diary that, presumably, wasn’t meant for public view or publication, he takes it as truthful, unbiased, “genuine.” “genuine” is one of his favorite words; as is “authentic.” the thumbnail rule here is: the lower the class, the more authentic.

this is very obvious bollocks.

the more you think about it, the more crap it becomes. it presumes that someone living at a certain income level has a more direct line to “truth” than someone else at a different level. it would be nice if it were true; then all you’d have to do is find the lowest socio-economic denominator and, boom! one history book per period and truth is found! unfortunately — or fortunately ’cause how boring would that be? — it doesn’t work that way. the lack of context, lack of analysis, lack of thought put into the use of these sources — which are mouthwateringly wonderful to someone with a pickier turn of mind — is really a shame. they’re more or less wasted on the page, reduced to being just another form of history as just “one fucking thing after another.”

kynaston also comes across as more than a little pedantic and condescending to his lower-class subjects in a very obvious way that can be kind of cringe-making to read. in the second book, particularly, his attitude veers from the patriarchal to the outright snobbish to the overly sympathetic, “we’re all lads together.” the lack of analysis i talked about a minute ago leads him to take almost everything at face value; therefore, the presentation by the sources of lower-class and working-class life as a constant race between work, home, and the pub is, for kynaston, the truth as revealed by the source. he quotes a page and a half from a working man’s diary, then summarizes it as being work, alcohol, betting, and says that this is what you could “call” working-class “culture.” the snobbery practically drips off the page. while the rest of the english world, apparently, was fascinated by the comet airplane and the premiere of “look back in anger” and “waiting for godot,” the poor benighted (largely northern) working-class just couldn’t get its head out of the pub or the football game.

and this is beyond the fact that the diary as quoted says no such thing! an analytical historian would have been able to pick out threads of family life, concern about wages, worry over ailing family members, pleasure day trips — a whole world of concerns and enjoyments outside of the pub and the football game that kynaston is happy to subsume in a stereotype.

"deadwood" meets "harry potter"?

i was planning to write about something other than a book on monday but i haven’t managed to find time — or energy — to watch 44 inch chest or to finish the new rsc production of hamlet from 2009. (although i watched the first two acts — just about — last night and i have to say that, biased as i am, i think david tennant deserved pretty much every accolade he got. he’s amazing.)

but anyway that’s for a later day when it isn’t so lovely out and the temptation to go for long (somewhat limping) walks isn’t so great. i’m looking upon my recently wrenched ankle as a reason to investigate new coffee shops along my usual walk routes since it really is unreasonable to expect someone to stay inside during one of boston’s two nice seasons which last about, oh, a generous two weeks at most?

in any case, the topic for discussion this monday is caroline stevermer’s a scholar of magics, a sort of sequel to a college of magics — if you have a good solid title pattern going, why break it right? but seriously, scholar is great fun — instead of following on directly from the last events in college, scholar picks up sometime later and, instead of following faris, our first heroine, which would have been fun but possibly a bit frustrating, scholar follows jane brailsford. now, i didn’t mention jane very much in my earlier review of college, but she’s one of the best parts. she’s faris’s fellow scholar/friend/companion/chaperone/teacher/general aide-de-camp. she’s very english and sort of like a cross between harriet vane, amelia peabody, and mary russell. a good combination, i hasten to add!

the plot outline runs something like: in the first book you got to see greenlaw, which is the girls’ school for magic; now you get to see glasscastle which is the boys’ school for magic because this is england (nominally) and we couldn’t have any naughty co-ed mingling. no no no. absolutely not. a*hem*. anyway. one of our protagonists is jane, sent back to england by faris to try and resolve an issue with the warden of the west; the other is samuel lambert, an american sharpshooter working temporarily at glasscastle on some mysterious magical project.

there’s the same kind of marvellous dialogue that kept me reading even through the dry spots in college and — three cheers! — far fewer dry spots! glasscastle is a much more regimented, faintly misogynist, rather unsympathetic place to focus half the novel, but some of the people in it — including lambert, who falls in love with the place — are very lovingly drawn and it’s rather hard to dislike them even when they’re making fairly obviously stupid claims about the capacity of women vs. men. plus jane’s almost always on hand to disprove them which is just awesome.

scholar also moves a fair bit faster than college — i read it comfortably in an afternoon and once the pace gets going — a few chapters in — it’s a very seductive read.

magicians, sheepdogs, and ley lines

two short book reviews for you this monday morning. think kind thoughts for me, please; i’m off to go get a CAT scan done. joy of joys.

first off, the last volume of the kate and cecilia series of young adult fantasy novels, the mislaid magician. i won’t add the whole subtitle, save to say that it goes on for quite a while. i’ve got short reviews of the first two volumes in the series, the enchanted chocolate pot and the grand tour.

the mislaid magician takes place ten years after the events of the grand tour. kate and cecy are happily married to their respective thomas and james (i finally succeeded in remembering who was married to which!) and have produced between them quite a staggering brood of children. those i did not sort out, but it didn’t really matter who was whose since, for most of the book, they were all staying in a gang with kate.

the major plot of this entry in the series concerns the development of the railways in the north of england — it isn’t quite like cranford-with-magicians, but the parallels are tempting. a foreign magician, brought in to do some surveying, has gone missing; kate’s annoying cousin, georgina, has descended upon her for a visit which shows no sign of ending; bizarre prowlers are wandering about kate and thomas’ estate; and the duke of wellington wants james and cecy to locate the missing herr magus somewhere around leeds — the back of beyond, as we are frequently reminded.

magician was nearly as much fun to read as the first two books, but it did get a bit longwinded in the middle. there are letters not only from kate and cecy but also from thomas and james, which adds a bit of novelty to the epistolary format, but thomas and james’s letters often start with something like “you’ll have gotten the overly dramatic version via my wife…” or “of course, as cecy likes to exaggerate, i thought i’d better send you the real version…” which gets very old very quickly. and for the sheer number of children there were around, i wish they had had more distinct characters or purpose or something. given that, really, only two or three of them — out of what seemed like at least a dozen — had anything direct to do with the main plot or any of the subsidiary plots, it was a little hard to care very much about them or understand what they were doing there.

still, magician was a fun way of passing a rainy saturday afternoon.

the second entry in this omnibus post is caroline stevermer’s a college of magics. this is a standalone, but it feels a lot like a kate and cecy novel. it has the same alternate history setting; the same touch of magic over real politics and events; and, obviously, a fairly similar authorial voice given that stevermer is one of the authors of the kate and cecy series.

magics, though, is a little more meaty. there’s more character development as well as (occasionally) frantic plot development; there’s a larger framework for the events of the story; and there’s sex (not much, but it’s there), blood, violence, betrayal, money, and revenge. so, really, all the requirements!

the story opens with our heroine, faris nallaneen, being sent off by her “wicked uncle” (“yup — standard issue!”) to a magicians’ school somewhere between france and england. whether she’s being sent there really to learn or simply to be gotten out of the way while her uncle usurps her political power in her home country of galazon is something of a mystery that isn’t ever really cleared up. the story focuses pretty tightly on faris and her struggle to get back what she feels is her rightful place as ruler of galazon.

faris can be an annoying protagonist, but she’s never uninteresting and stevermer writes some fantastic dialogue for faris and her group as they assemble at greenlaw — the college — and then have to travel back towards galazon, outwitting the usual hazards of the journey: late trains, hired assassins, and parisian dressmakers. i can’t say there’s anything terribly serious in here — but there are some startlingly moving moments in the last few chapters as the final confrontation goes through its paces.

so, yes, pick up magician for the afternoon when you have nothing particularly better to do and magics for a nice sunny afternoon when you have some lemonade on hand and maybe a nice tree to sit under.

"…better than chocolate…"

i remember reading an essay by patrick mcmanus once in one of his earlier collections — they shoot canoes, don’t they? or maybe the grasshopper trap? — about reading habits, winter vs. summer. when winter came around again, you would be back reading the heavy thinkers: “jacqueline susann, erma bombeck…” and so forth. likewise, terry pratchett in the last continent, mentions that there is a rule that any book taken onto a beach for long enough and brought into contact with enough suntan lotion and coconut oil will inevitably morph into a tome with a title like the omega precedent or the alpha adventure and be almost entirely filled with weapons specifications.

i can’t say that this has happened to my reading list of late, but i did find it was a little tough lugging around marianne elliot’s latest tome on the history of catholics in ulster — it weighs as much as my water bottle! — and so, based largely on a recommendation from jo walton on tor.com, i went and found patricia wrede and caroline stevermer’s epistolary historical fantasy, sorcery & cecelia at the brookline public library.

spoiler warning: none, really. it’s too cute to spoiler for you and really too much fun to tear apart.

sorcery is a sweet, charming, fast read — you could get through it easily in an afternoon. the only real issue i had with it was the similarity of some of the names — the men all seemed to have the same number of syllables in their names and, until about half-way through the book, i didn’t feel their characters were distinct enough for me to keep them apart based on name alone. i solved this by memorizing which man was where — london or essex — and going by that!

the story is straightforward: the two narrator characters, both young women, are swapping letters from london and essex, describing the progress of one’s london season and the other’s adventures in the countryside. in this universe, magic is a real and socially acceptable phenomenon; one of the girls comments early on in the story about an academic and magically minded neighbor going up to london to be inducted into the royal college of wizards. (one is reminded, somehow, of the reclusive mr. norrell in jonathan strange & mr. norrell.) there are complications with attractive and surly young men, repressive aunts, difficult cousins, and the impossibility of persuading one’s relatives to shell out for the right kind of dresses. it’s sort of like jane austen with spellbooks. (definitely minus zombies, though.)

quite a lot of this book is like susannah clarke’s later fantasy — the time period (napeolonic wars); story elements (the wizardly neighbor who loves his books); the involvement with political affairs (magicians campaigning with wellington). but the similiarity doesn’t make this book boring and doesn’t make it seem as though clarke ripped her idea from wrede and stevermer.

it isn’t all light fluff and chat about dresses, although there is quite a bit of that. there’s a real sense of darkness and danger here; the consequences for messing about with little-understood magic or irritating a higher-level magician are made to feel quite real. i’d say the freakiness really gets going on page 21 when kate, in london, writes to her cousin of a woman she has stumbled upon:

Her skin was smooth and carefully painted, her eyes were dark and very hard. She smiled kindly at me and asked if I would take chocolate with her.

You and I often played at dolls’ tea party together, Cecy. I will never again remember such games with pleasure.

anyone who has read neil gaiman’s short story “don’t ask jack” should be totally aware that children’s toys are not great in pretty much any way, shape, or form — particularly when they show up in genre fiction like this!

there are two more books in the series — really! there are! i checked and doublechecked and they’re both published and available! — and i’m planning to track them down via library as soon as i can.

time clogging

so i dithered a bit about writing posts for this week, particularly after pondering in my post on repo men last week — another rip of which can be found on tor.com if you’re into that sort of thing — about why genre fans insist on getting respect, yet refuse to play nice with their own genre.

and i dithered because, really, my temptation for this week was to write at least one juicy good rip of a movie, but that seemed a bit hypocritical, so we’re starting instead with the book review which is at least slightly more positive.

a few weeks ago, i wrote about steve cash’s the meq and made a subsequently totally unjustified comment about the second book being due out this year. it isn’t. it’s been out for several years. i’m a dork and should have checked my facts more thoroughly first! i swear that i did read something about a new book of his being out sometime this year — perhaps it’s the third in the series since the second volume ends with a cliff-hanger so blatant it barely justifies being called one. it’s so obvious by about half-way through the book that nothing whatever is going to be resolved in this volume that the cliff-hanger is more anti-climactic than anything else.

as sequels go, time dancers isn’t bad. but that’s about as far as it goes. it isn’t bad. i was really hoping for quite a lot more. since the first novel, the meq, was a pretty ambitious gambit with quite a lot of charm to it, i was willing, so to speak, to give cash quite a lot of rope to hang himself. after all, not everyone can write heart-shaped box, neverwhere, or garden of iden right out of the gate.

the story for time dancers is pretty basic: without giving away anything critical, i can say that it takes the characters from 1919 to 1945; they’re still searching for answers about “the Remembering” (which also has some rather spiffy sound meq word that i can’t recall); the villain is still out there being villainous; and there’s an awful lot of running around. seriously. these people do more transatlantic/pacific travel in about two months than most of us do in a friggin’ lifetime. and they do it fast, too. no storms, no customs hold-ups, no lost luggage, nothing. you want to go to paris from st. louis? boom. fastest trip you ever had in your life. and in 1923, too!

what i really wanted from time dancers was character development. some enlargement on the plot would have been nice; a sense of where the meq stand — or have stood — in terms of the regular human history of the world would have been good, too, but what i really wanted out of this book was to see zianno and his other meq companions do some growing up even if they can’t grow up.

i wanted to see them deal with watching their human friends age and die; with their own inter-relationships; with sex, for heaven’s sake! there was this big deal made in the meq about the “one for one” nature of relationships between the meq — is that it? is that the only type of long-term “adult” relationship they ever have? never a passing fling with the odd regular human? and, if that’s the case, then how does that work? how do two twelve-year-olds go through the world as lovers when the rest of the world sees them as children? are they actual lovers or just “good friends” until they decide to end “the Itxaron” and enter the real flow of time to have children? and just how lame is that: you have to choose to die in order to reproduce? don’t we have enough stories about immortal characters who have to do that already? and there were just enough almost-answers to my questions to keep me reading, but they were thin enough to leave me disappointed.

instead of character development — or even deeper plot development — time dancers is really one long rush of action in which nothing really happens. some characters we’ve been familiar with since the meq die — but since they haven’t been fleshed out at all since the meq and since zianno’s narrative voice hasn’t changed at all in how he describes or relates to them, it’s a little hard to get worked up about it. the characters seem to have retreated to be bad caricatures of themselves: carolina is always caring and welcoming; sailor is always mysterious and serious; owen is always helpful and competent. characters become more like strings of unchanging adjectives and physical characteristics than actual people. it’s a shame, really, because cash had some great characters and he doesn’t do much with them.

the rush of the action is almost enough to let you forget this for about half the book; then i, at least, started to find it really annoying. that, and the habit almost all the characters developed of never answering a straight question: “well, what happened with [fill in the blank]?” “now is not the time for you to know that.” i wanted just one person to say, “well, obviously i think it is, you doorknob, so how ’bout we try it my way for once and see what the hell happens?!” and, as a trick to increase tension and delay revelation, it got to be obvious when it happened in every.

so, yes. i wasn’t unreservedly thrilled with time dancers. cash’s trick of dropping in historical figure to spice up the action got old more quickly this time. more than that, though, i was really disappointed that the characters were still essentially the same as they had been in the first volume. i was hoping for some deepening of the vision, some sense that perhaps not all of the meq zianno hangs out with are trustworthy (there’s a couple i wouldn’t trust as far as i can throw a dead rat), or even a feeling that perhaps not everyone tells the truth all the time.

i’ll read the third volume, but i’ll read it for the villain. so far, he’s the one i’m still most interested in!

on the other hand, cash does just get a whole crap-ton of points for lugging in — almost entirely without reason or need — leon bismarcke “bix” beiderbecke, a 1920s jazz musician, a cornet player. and why is this, you ask? it is because i am a complete devotee of the alan plater beiderbecke series: affair, tapes, and connection. i tried to find a youtube clip of the opening or even a decent trailer but all i could find is what you see below which is a rather random collection of clips from the first series, the beiderbecke affair. if you like what you see — and, really, what’s not to like? — i strongly suggest finding the series to watch; they’re all about equally weird, random, and charming, but i personally like the first series best.