Tag Archives: Stephen King

Stephen King’s ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – A Review

I hadn’t read any new Stephen King fiction—new for me anyway—since taking on From a Buick 8 three years ago. (I did reread The Shining at the end of last year, of course.)  I have a particular soft spot for King’s shorter fiction, so a new collection of his stories was certainly something to look forward to. Let me tell you, I don’t buy new books very often, but I shelled out the money for this thick, oddly-shaped paperback volume at my local Walmart with nary a second thought, and I’m pretty glad I did.

I’ll be honest: early into the book I had my doubts that these stories were going to offer me the chills I so expected from the king of horror. Aside from Mile 81,  a wicked little number about a man-eating car from outer space (no one does evil cars quite like Stephen King) that served as the book’s opener, the first few tales, while interesting and well-written, were not all that disturbing. Premium Harmony, Batman and Robin Have an Altercation and A Death are more meditations on mortality and human nature than horror stories proper, and The Dune and Bad Little Kid felt like decent if unremarkable Twilight Zone episodes, complete with Shyamalan-sized twist endings. Not that I mind either of those types of fables if done well, and these certainly were. It’s just that in a book titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, I rather hoped there would be more frights for my buck, but up till that point it had been more like The Market of Mild Thrills.

But then the book really took off, and with a couple of exceptions (Blockade Billy, about a mentally unstable baseball player, didn’t do much for me, though to be fair I am not a fan of the sport, and That Bus Is Another World, following a businessman in NYC who may or may not have witnessed an act of violence in a nearby bus while on his way to meeting, was a little too generic), the remaining stories—and a pair of poems—were quite good. Of the two poems, the first, The Bone Church, is my favorite. It’s about a group of men on an ill-fated jungle mission, and it could easily have been fleshed out into an actual story, yet it feels perfectly vital and intriguing, stark and pared down in verse. It also marks the transitional point where the book finally shifts into high gear. The other poetic composition, Tommy, concerns a young man who died of leukemia in 1969. The titular character is apparently based loosely on someone King actually knew, thus giving the poem a keen personal edge. On display here are all the telltale codes and signposts of an era King has long excelled at evoking in his fiction. The author is equally at home framing that era in lyric form. Indeed, this almost feels like it could be part of a larger cycle of 60s-themed poetry, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

The Bone Church is followed by Morality, one of the strongest stories in the collection, containing as it does one Reverend George Winston, possibly the book’s most memorable character, a man all too disturbingly normal in his monstrosity. The act for which he is willing to pay his financially struggling young nurse Nora $200,000 is truly shocking. The other standouts in this collection are Mister Yummy, in which an elderly gay man sees his death personified as an attractive young man he once encountered in a dance club, The Little Green God of Agony, featuring another questionable clergyman (one apt to remind you of that demonic minister from Poltergeist II), Cookie Jar,  in which a dark secret is buried beneath the eponymous item’s unending supply of gingersnaps, macaroons and snickerdoodles, and my favorite piece in the book, Ur, starring a very special Amazon Kindle that can access books and newspapers from multiple realities.

All in all, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was a fascinating collection, not least of which because it demonstrates that King’s writing skills have improved immensely over the last few years. While the book is short on traditional scary stories, it shows off the author’s tremendous range as a writer, and for that reason this collection would be a good sampler for readers who may otherwise shy away from his work, as well as a nice book to give to your snooty friends who prefer literary fiction to genre work.

Grade: A

Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – A Review

ix-stephen-king-the-shiningThere are certain books that every true blue horror fan should read at least once: Dracula and Frankenstein, of course; Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House; Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend all come easily to mind. I wouldn’t hesitate to include The Shining in that category as well. Last month horror specialty press Cemetery Dance even put out a special edition of the novel that includes a prologue and epilogue King wrote into the original manuscript but which publishers omitted from all previous editions. Unfortunately, I do not have that edition; the one I own is the one pictured to the left, which does have a sample of the novel’s sequel Doctor Sleep at the back.

If you’re not familiar with the book’s plot (which has seen not one but two filmed adaptations, including the definitive Stanley Kubrick movie—a horror classic in its own right—and a TV miniseries in the early nineties), then you, sir or madame, must have been living under that proverbial rock for the last forty years. Given the age of the novel, spoiler warnings are off the table. Just sayin’. Very briefly, the story’s about a haunted hotel set high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and the Torrance family who become its caretakers during the hotel’s off-season. As winter sets in, the hotel becomes more and more isolated by snowstorms, and soon the ghosts surface and begin to terrify the family of three, especially five year old Danny Torrance, whose special psychic abilities give the novel its name. It’s not a particularly original concept; however, there are some aspects that set it apart from your standard haunted house fare.

For one thing, the hotel was not built on desecrated ground . . . at least, not in the book. Kubrick actually changed this part (and several others, arguably for the worse in many cases) and used the desecrated burial ground trope, though it’s only mentioned in passing, really. Poltergeist, released two years later, used the same trope much more effectively, I think. In the book, though, it is simply a series of violent tragedies over the hotel’s long history that ultimately taints it and invests it with its spectral “life.”

For another thing, the black guy is still alive by the end, another thing Kubrick changed. It may seem like a minor point, but given the horror genre’s habit of killing off minorities—usually early in the story—I think it’s important to note that King subverted that genre standard way back in 1977, long before political correctness became a thing. This doesn’t mean there aren’t some problems with his handling of the black character. Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s head chef, uses the ‘n’ word self-referentially and talks jive perhaps a little too often. Moreover, aside from Danny, he’s the other major character who has the shining, and he serves basically one purpose here: as Danny and Wendy’s savior, making him just this side of the Magic Negro. It’s a trope King milked for all it was worth in The Green Mile, but here he flirts with it. What ultimately redeems the Hallorann character, however, is the fact that King was clearly making a larger point with him. The chef becomes a sort of mentor to Danny, and his concern for the boy is rooted almost entirely in the psychic powers they share, as it allows him to instantly connect with little Danny in a deep way when he meets him. In other words, had it not been for Danny’s “shining” it is likely Hallorann wouldn’t have given the Torrances a second thought.

Now, Stephen King is known to not be a fan of the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. If one has never read the book, it may seem difficult to understand why. I mean, Kubrick is a directorial genius who made what has since been recognized as one of the greatest horror films of all time. But after rereading The Shining, I can see his side of things. I’m not saying I agree with him, only that as a writer myself, I can comprehend his frustration with the way Kubrick tampered with some of the best aspects of his story. The animated topiary animal shrubs are a good example. Though to be fair, those would’ve been difficult to pull off with the special effects technology available in 1980. Still, if anyone could’ve done it without making it look cheap, it would’ve been Stanley Kubrick. Instead he replaced them with the now-famous hedge maze. It’s an artistic choice I comprehend (the maze echoes the labyrinthine nature of the hotel itself, further echoed by the interlocked patterns of the carpet), but King has a point too. For one thing, Kubrick softens Jack a bit by having him merely dislocate Danny’s arm rather than break it as he does in the book. This is relevant, because Jack is the progeny of an abusive alcoholic father himself. In part, King’s novel is about whether young parents are destined to repeat their own parents’ failures. Ever the optimist, King has Jack nearly succeed in breaking the cycle . . . if not for that pesky haunted hotel that slyly seduces him back into his old destructive habits and ultimately drives him mad.

Well, King may be an optimist at heart, but he does seem to suggest that our psyches are fragile enough that we must always be on guard against the lures of the negative patterns that sometimes guide our lives. One gets the feeling from reading The Shining that King well understood how close we all come sometimes to the brink of self-directed ruin, and that is the real horror here. The conceit of the haunted hotel is merely the frosty coating on top of what’s really cooking beneath the surface. There’s a reason the concept behind the novel works so well: beyond the actual ghosts, this is, in fact, a masterful psychological study of a man who finds himself more and more isolated from his family and ultimately from himself. In one sense Jack is the Overlook: on the outside he’s a cool and attractive customer,  but underneath he’s a man haunted by his own history, constantly on the verge of exploding like the hotel’s faulty boiler.

There’s a real sense of desperation and grittiness in the book, the sign of a writer who knew intimately the fears of poverty and failure that drive Jack, who was not so far removed from them yet himself. King was still an up-and-coming author with a young family when he wrote The Shining, and its obvious he empathized with and understood his characters, a quality he invests in Jack Torrance. And that makes it all the more tragic when Jack finally loses it and turns against his wife and son.  I could say much more about this book and its place in the canon of horror fiction, how it is one of the more important works in bridging the gap between Old World and New World supernatural literature, for example. Perhaps I’ll save that for another time. I will leave you with this instead: The Shining is the perfect winter read for fans of the genre, and if you’ve never experienced it in any form but the Kubrick film, now is the time to pick it up.

Grade: A 

‘Dark Forces’ – A Review

IX-kirby-mccauley-dark-forcesIn the late 70s editor Kirby McCauley solicited every writer in the field he could think of for a new short horror fiction anthology he was putting together. Dark Forces was the result. When I read this book for the first time back in 1990 (a full ten years after its initial publication), I put little X’s by the stories I really enjoyed. Twelve tales wound up with these marks, a little over half of the twenty-three pieces included in this massive anthology. Now, I know what you’re thinking: twenty-three stories doesn’t sound that massive. Yes, but what other horror anthology includes Stephen King’s novella The Mist, which weighs in at 130 pages in the Signet paperback just by itself? That’s a bit over one-fifth of this 538 page tome, excluding the introductory pages.

And speaking of The Mist, for some reason it failed to get an X from me, which in retrospect seems insane. It has since become one of my favorite Stephen King stories, owing not just to the cool monsters but also to its pitch-perfect study of the fractioning and breakdown of humanity when crammed together in a pressure cooker environment. This is the kind of story King really does best. In a way, it is an extension of his early work like The Shining and Cujo. Those books deal with young families trapped at a particular location while dealing with a looming threat—the author builds on that concept here and ups the stakes considerably. Another thing I’ve always loved about this story is that it ends quite ambiguously, a rarity for King, who tends toward upbeat endings. Not here. Indeed, the 2007 Frank Darabont film based on this story ended on an even bleaker note, and I still think it’s one of the best films based on King’s horror work. Anyway, I can only assume that I was so flabbergasted and wearied after reading the Dark Forces opener that I just plum forgot to mark it, though more likely I saved the longest story for last . . . and forgot to mark it. Either way, it is a grievous error that has since been corrected. I mean, I do have my pride.

In fact, after my recent re-read, most of the stories that didn’t get an X in 1990 got one this time around, and the entire volume has been upgraded in my esteem. This stands in direct contrast to the Cutting Edge anthology, which hasn’t aged quite as well. I suspect that I simply wasn’t mature enough to appreciate these stories when I read them as a teenager. Take, for example, The Peculiar Demesne by Russell Kirk. Initially I rejected it as a throwback to the traditional ghost story with little to justify it as a modern incarnation. Moreover, I may have simply soured at the notion of reading the fiction of a well-known conservative philosopher, even if thoughtful and well-written, but such is the thinking of an adolescent. This piece is essentially a blatant Christian ghost story, but a beautifully crafted one. A person could argue that there are uncomfortable elements of colonial Africa here which may strike some readers as racist, but I feel the story artfully transcends this simplistic assessment. And whether you agree with his politics or not (I don’t), Kirk remains a fascinating figure, an Old Guard conservative from an era when conservatives were still pretty classy.

 Another story that I initially did not like but has since become one of my favorites in the collection is The Bingo Master by Joyce Carol Oates. Many would be hard-pressed to call this a horror story at all. No one dies, no monsters or psychopaths lurk in the shadows, nothing supernatural or particularly gruesome happens, though there is an act of violence in it. And yet, by the end we experience the full force of the humiliation and devastation wrought against the tale’s witty but naive middle-aged narrator, Rose Mallow Odom, who stands as one of the most well-drawn characters of any short story I’ve ever read. It is truly incredible how much personality and detail Oates packs into this piece, and because of that the finale has every bit of the force of a death or a rape. It is, in short, exactly the kind of story a teenage horror fan with a hunger for strange beings and bloodletting would shuck off as not worthy of his time. The more fool him!

Some things, however, have not changed. My favorite piece in this collection, then as now, is Robert Aickman’s Mark Ingestre: A Customer’s Tale. Although I was only passingly familiar with the Sweeney Todd legend when I first read this piece, I knew there was something special here. And yet, again, there are no monsters or murders, though there is plenty of menace and enough claustrophobic atmosphere to choke Ann Radcliffe. What really sets this story apart, however, is the deftly handled sexual weirdness. It is one of the most overtly erotic of Aickman’s stories—not to mention one of his last before his death in 1981—and it stands as a surprisingly straight-from-the-shoulder (for Aickman anyway) story. Anyway, I love these sorts of expansions on established fictive universes.

And, of course, Ramsey Campbell’s contribution, The Brood, is likewise one of the strongest pieces here. There’s something almost Lynchian about this fable of a London-based veterinarian who finds himself drawn, with the intentions of rescue, as any good animal lover would, to the distressed mewling of some infant critters in the abandoned building next door to his apartment, only to discover that they aren’t quite what he expected. Other highlights include Edward Bryant’s Dark Angel, which explores the concept of the voodoo doll in a rather shocking way, Clifford D. Simak’s The Whistling Well, where a writer camping on an abandoned Western settlement encounters something ancient and terrifying, Robert Bloch’s The Night Before Christmas, the tale of a madman’s jealousy over his wife’s infidelity with one of Bloch’s trademark punch-in-the-gut endings (complete with pun), and Lisa Tuttle’s Where the Stones Grow, proof positive that a skilled writer can make anything horrific, even rocks.

Yet even the stories I didn’t care for—Charles L. Grant’s A Garden of Blackred Roses feels  a little disjointed and half-baked, despite a strong concept which could easily have been expanded into a novel, and in Where There’s a Will, the father-son team of Richard Matheson and Richard Christian Matheson give us their take on the premature burial theme with a twist ending worthy of M. Night Shyamalan’s more middling efforts—still feel like vital inclusions here, perhaps lifted up by the sheer quality of the volume’s other material. Both of these stories were interesting experiments that didn’t quite work for me, but I certainly don’t have any regrets about having read them.

As a sampling of the horror field at a particular time in history, it is hard to imagine a more satisfying volume than this one. McCauley certainly knew good fiction when he read it. And there’s not a single vampire story in the bunch. Go figure. There’s even a short Edward Gorey cartoon and a darkly humorous Gahan Wilson entry, and oddly, neither feel out of place here. Really, all of these pieces are so fundamentally different from the others that the book stands as a pretty fine survey of the breadth of quality horror fiction being crafted in the late 70s and early 80s. As a teenager, I had specific expectations on what I wanted from my spooky stories. As a middle-aged man I am open to anything that can chill me, disturb me or just generally creep me out, which means I am in a much better position to appreciate this collection for what it truly is: an excellent reflection of all the shapes, sizes and patterns that horror can come in. Trust me on this: if you’re in the market for a single 80s-era horror anthology, this is the one to get.

Grade: A

‘I Shudder at Your Touch’ – A Review

IX-i-shudder-at-your-touchI picked this hardcover anthology up at my local Goodwill store for a song, and what a fantastic bargain!  The twenty-two stories in editor Michele Slung’s compendium are, as the cover suggests, thematically linked by the broad concepts of sex and horror, which so often go hand-in-hand anyway.  As she points out in the book’s preface, pretty much every horror story is ultimately about sex in one sense or another, and I think she’s spot on there.  But in the case of these tales, the relationship between the two is made mostly overt.

Generally these anthologies tend to be full of contemporary work, but Slung draws from every era of horror and suspense fiction from the late Victorian on, a rich well indeed, and with casting such a wide temporal net, she could easily have filled a hundred such volumes with quality fiction.  What a job it must’ve been to boil her choices down to a little over twenty stories (though ultimately there was a sequel, I believe).  But nearly every piece here is a gratifying read.

The earliest story in the collection, R. Murray Gilchrist’s The Basilisk, is not so much horror as dark Symbolist myth, so drenched in the poetic language of the era that it feels more like a somber dream than a cohesive story, but it works nonetheless.  A more traditional piece from roughly the same era is Robert Hichens’ How Love Came to Professor Guildea, wherein a dispassionate man of science finds himself the object of a lascivious spirit’s attentions.  The most disturbing story for me was Christopher Fowler’s The Master Builder, which reads like Peter Straub at his best and takes the concept of stalking to a whole new level.  Robert Aickman, one of my favorite short story authors, can always be relied on to creep me the hell out, and his contribution, The Swords, is certainly no exception.  Another highlight, Hugh B. Cave’s Ladies in Waiting, starts out as a haunted house tale but becomes something far worse by the end.

Some pieces (Michael Blumlein’s Keeping House especially) are morbidly melancholy. Others, like Thomas M. Disch’s Death and the Single Girl, are humorously cynical.  A few are uncomfortably erotic (T.L. Parkinson’s The Tiger Returns to the Mountain; Harriet Zinnes’s Wings; Carolyn Banks’s Salon Satin).  The rest of the collection is sandwiched between stories by two of horror fiction’s living legends, Stephen King and Clive Barker.  Of the two, it is Barker’s story, Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament, that I most enjoyed.  Longtime fans of Barker will almost certainly have read this already in his Books of Blood, as I did, but I was quite young when I first read it and remember it being one of my least favorite stories of his.  With time I have come to appreciate its true horror, seeing it essentially as the story of a female supervillain with the ability to manipulate human flesh with her mind, a power she utilizes in some creatively awful ways.  King’s story too is about a woman with psychic powers, though hers is the more traditional (less interesting) power of telepathy; it’s still a wonderfully entertaining story though, accessible and funny.

Not every piece is wildly successful though.  Valerie Martin’s Sea Lovers, her dark answer to the Little Mermaid, doesn’t quite feel fleshed out, May Sinclair’s The Villa Désiréé feels as dated as it is, and Ruth Rendell’s A  Glowing Future feels like a rejected Robert Bloch story.  Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Conqueror Worm divides its loyalties between humor and horror but ultimately achieves neither, and Angela Carter’s Master, while conceptually intriguing, offers us a cliched and unnuanced antagonist.  Still, none of the stories are outright awful, and all but a couple are at least decent enough that you won’t feel like you’ve completely wasted your time.  A solid majority of these stories are real gems.  All in all, a dynamite anthology that any horror aficionado should be pleased with.

Grade: B+

When Monsters Are Born: ‘Carrie’, ‘Firestarter’ & ‘Silent Hill’

birthofevilbanner

The birth of evil is always a tragedy, and the most heartbreaking tragedy of all is when the most innocent become the most monstrous.  It’s tragic because we know, even when we don’t witness it firsthand, that the path that led there was one of horrendous pain.  That is the case in three fantastic horror stories, two of which began as novels and one as a video game but have all since been made into films.  I speak, of course, of the Stephen King works Carrie and Firestarter, and the original Silent Hill film, all of which feature young girls who have become corrupted by the physical and mental tortures and unthinkable betrayals that they are subjected to.

I have discussed before that I think Stephen King’s early work is his strongest both horror-wise and writing-wise.  One reason I think this is so is that there’s a kind of desperation that undergirds those early novels, and this probably arose from being a still struggling author raising a young family.  Once he became the most popular writer in the known universe, the desperation pretty much fizzled out.  Nothing wrong with that–it’s probably the best trajectory the King of Horror could’ve taken, but it also means the nature of his work was bound to change.  It certainly did, sometimes for the better (his imagination was able to fully blossom, and thus it ultimately gave fruit to what I consider to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series) and sometimes for the worse.  In addition to losing touch with that desperation that made his early work so compelling, he exchanged the raw, elemental power that drove it for a more complex and convoluted spiritual world, the dark side of which is ruled by a being with nearly as much invented mythology as the devil himself, and the light side of which has an Eternal Champion to give both Moorcock’s creation and Jesus Christ a run for their money, and that ain’t a bad legacy for any writer.  Not.  At.  All.

But with Carrie, King captured lightning in a bottle, and it’s easy to understand why it was this novel that broke him into the published author camp.  Talk about desperation!  It’s practically stitched into the very being of Carrie White, a weird, awkward, repressed adolescent girl who is an innocent in nearly every respect.  Having only recently entered puberty (quite late), she is horrified to learn that her body naturally bleeds, and this ignorance leads to the infamous scene in the girl’s locker room where she is taunted and tormented by the other girls in her class.  The interesting thing about Carrie is that it contains no otherworldly beings, no ghosts or haunted houses, no murderous psychopaths.  None of the usual antagonists or tropes of your standard horror fiction are to be found here.  Yes, there is a supernatural element in the form of Carrie’s powers, but they aren’t external to Carrie.  And there are the kids and Carrie’s mother whose cruelty pushes her over the edge, but they are nothing out of the ordinary.

So, the horror of Carrie isn’t something alien which invades the girl’s tranquil and otherwise normal world.  No, the real horror of the story is that we have been given a front row seat to the birth of evil in its most terrible incarnation.  We are, in effect, watching the character we have come to empathize with the most transform before our very eyes into the monster.  Carrie White has nothing but good intentions and the purest heart in the beginning, but by the end of the story, under the weight of the final degradation she is forced to endure, she has become a cyclone of violence and hatred who murders her classmates and finally her own mother, acts for which she can never be redeemed.  And she isn’t.  Instead, she dies from the stab wounds inflicted on her by her mother, or alternately, in the Brian Di Palma film, from a combination of the stab wound and suicide (by psychically destroying her house with her still inside of it).  However, King does offer a note of hope in the novel in the form of another little girl whose mother sees her daughter’s abilities as a gift rather than a curse from God.  Incidentally, there is no such hope offered in the Di Palma film, which fits the bleakness trend of late seventies cinema to a T.

But Stephen King wasn’t finished with this theme, for he would go on to pen Firestarter a few years later, a novel which in some ways takes the concept even farther than Carrie did.  (Douglas Clegg, whose Goat Dance I reviewed recently, also owes a little something to Firestarter with his novel Dark of the Eye–more on that when I give it a proper review of its own.)  The focal character, Charlie McGee, a little girl with pyrokinetic abilities, is even more of an innocent than Carrie White.  Here, however, there are external malignant forces at work in the form of the Shop and especially the hit man John Rainbird.  But these evils are not where Firestarter‘s ultimate horror lies.  Once again, what is most horrific about the story isn’t the evil which already exists but the evil that emerges from Charlie herself, and again the path that led there is one of suffering.  The ultimate irony of the story is one similar to that inherent in the relationship between Carrie and her mother: Margaret White sees in her daughter an abomination, and through her maltreatment of Carrie, contributes to making the girl into exactly that.  Likewise, the secret government agency that fears Charlie is the very agency which eventually turns her into something to be feared.

It is a difficult scene to get through when Charlie, dealing with the death of her father and learning of her betrayal at the hands of Rainbird and the Shop, turns her power up to ten and destroys everyone and everything in her path.  But King again supplies a tincture of hope here, because Charlie is perhaps still young enough to recover from her murderous turn and live a normal life, and there may be redemption in exposing the Shop’s atrocities to the world, as Charlie ultimately does.  But because Charlie has become cynical of the media, she only trusts one publication to get the story straight.  She will never again be fully innocent; she has become corrupted by her experience, wizened to the ways of the world.

There are several contenders for the inheritor of King’s birth of evil motif, but perhaps none is as powerful–or as dark–as Silent Hill.  I can’t speak much for the game because I have never played it, and I’m also aware that it differs significantly from the film.  It is the film which most interests me anyway, because it more than any other fully embraces the concept of the good girl gone monstrous.  Alessa Gillespie was once a normal little girl who was ostracized by other children for being born out of wedlock, became a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the school janitor who targeted her because she was isolated and disliked, and then, as with Carrie and Charlie, suffered a final degradation which corrupted her, blackened her soul, and hers is by far the worst: she is burned alive and survives.  In the process her soul divides into two parts, Dark Alessa and Sharon.  Sharon is of course adopted by the movie’s heroine, Rose, but winds up back in the town, drawn in by Dark Alessa, who needs a worthy vessel in order to be able to enter the only place in Silent Hill that is forbidden to her in her dark form: a church sanctuary.  It is Rose who winds up becoming the vessel, however, and when Alessa finally is able to show up in the sanctuary both in body and spirit, she too, as with King’s young girls, succumbs to a mass slaughter of those who tormented her in a scene that would give Clive Barker’s Cenobites pause, or maybe send them running in terror.  And again, as with Carrie and Firestarter, it’s also a terribly sad scene because it makes explicit how much the girl was twisted and corrupted by her experiences. You shed tears watching the darkly beautiful scene unfold, for you know that, while you are horrified by the slaughter, you are also disturbingly satisfied by it on some level.  These people got what they deserved, no?

You see, we as the reader/viewer, have followed the trajectories of these characters from young innocents to raging, hateful monsters (albeit somewhat obliquely in Alessa’s case), and we have grown with them.  Charlie’s monstrosity may be temporary, and that’s some consolation.  Carrie dies, so she no longer poses a threat to anyone.  Ah, but Alessa . . . she becomes queen of her own little dark corner of hell.  The good part of her, Sharon, exists but is still trapped in Silent Hill (along with Rose) by film’s end.  And we are right there with them, left to contemplate how we have arrived at this point, how we have come to identity with the monster.  Mourning the fact that we too, somewhere along the way, have lost our innocence.  We too have loosed evil at some point in our lives, and once it’s out there in the world, wreaking havoc, there is no way to take it back.  In fact, one of the functions of horror fiction is to remind us of that.  So be good to your fellow man, folks, lest you give birth to monsters.

The Ultimate ‘Dark Tower’ Playlist

One of the first things I did when I set up my Spotify account was start putting together themed playlists based on my favorite books and movies.  Some were better represented than others, and I was surprised to find how much material there was for what is, in my estimation, Stephen King’s literary masterpiece, the multigenre mash-up series The Dark Tower. Apparently I am far from alone in my adulation for these works because several musicians have written songs–and in some cases entire albums–devoted to them.  And if you include songs that aren’t about the books exactly but embody their atmosphere, not to mention all of the songs that get a nod in the books themselves, the possibilities are nearly endless.  But for our purposes we will stick (mostly) with songs that reference the series directly.  These aren’t the only songs out there that are pertinent to the books, but they’re the best.  All of these tracks are of course available on Spotify.

{{{Warning: List May Contain Spoilers}}}

Heinrich XIII and the Devilgrass Pickers – In a World That Has Moved On – When not only the song but the name of the band itself makes reference to books, you know you’re off to a good start.  You might describe the music of Heinrich XIII and the Devilgrass Pickers as dark country and bluegrass, which makes perfect sense when you find out that this band is German.  That’s right, a German country band, and why not?  So sit back, pop open a frosty dunkel and let the grim, twangy beauty of this song set the scene for the best post-apocalyptic fantasy/horror western series this side of Mid-World.  Yeehaw!

Bright Giant – Jake & the Gunslinger – The band Bright Giant is named after a class of star, and that is the extent of my knowledge of them.  Of all of the songs on this list perhaps none come so close to capturing what the series is about as this one.  The slow, gritty, grinding rock conjures the books’ atmosphere splendidly while the lyrics, sung from the perspective of the young Jake Chambers, tell the tale of his meeting with the gunslinger Roland Deschain and the events which culminate in his death in the first book, making it a good choice for an early track in our Dark Tower playlist.  This is actually one of two songs Bright Giant produced with respect to the series; the other is Kings & Queens of Air (also the name of the album on which both songs appear).

Aiming for Aurora – The Way Station – Okay, I know I said all these songs were available on Spotify, but I must now eat those words.  For some reason this grungesque rocker has been removed from Spotify’s database, which makes no sense to me.  The Way Station is a remarkable tune and a solid choice for our list for a couple of reasons.  First, it is one of the few Dark Tower songs that concerns a specific event in the books, namely Roland’s stop at the way station in volume one where he first meets Jake.  Second, it has one of the catchiest choruses in the whole lot.  It’s a damn shame that it’s been pulled from Spotify.

Southern Train Gypsy – The Man in Black – Metal band Southern Train Gypsy’s Hallelujah in the Fire is a concept album dealing with the Dark Tower universe, and any track from it would be at home on this playlist, but for my part I think this song is one of the better selections from it.  Randall Flagg, a.k.a. the Man in Black, is a rather important character in the series.  Although a servant of the Crimson King, he is really the primary antagonist of the entire series (not to mention a few of Stephen King’s other stories, including my favorite King novel The Stand).  This song is conveyed from Flagg’s point-of-view as he thunderously vows to destroy Roland and his ka-tet!

Daisy Blue Gröff (Daisy Blue) – Gunslinger – This is unquestionably the most upbeat of the songs on our list; it’s also notable for its outstanding female vocals.  The countrified rock music is rollicking and fun, and the harmonica is a nice touch too.  All of its references to trains place it sometime around The Wastelands (indeed, the lyrics mention the Wastelands specifically), so if you care about continuity you may want to stick this one near the middle.  Oh, and . . . holy crap, this song is awesome!

The Crüxshadows – Roland – Alright, this one isn’t about the Dark Tower series exactly; however, it is about one of the oldest extant pieces of Western literature, the long heroic poem The Song of Roland (penned sometime in the late Medieval era), which was an influence on Robert Browning’s own 1855 poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, which of course was one of the central inspirations for King’s books.  And anyway, there is nothing in the song’s lyrics that cannot be applied just as easily to Roland Deschain, so it is in no way an uncomfortable fit for our playlist.  The Crüxshadows play a thematically and musically grim sort of synthpop (think Erasure gone goth)–not exactly my favorite musical genre, but given the band’s obvious intelligence and a song that displays an uncommon penchant for a literary and historical subject that I’ve never seen addressed by even the most cultured of rock bands, this gets a pass.  Stick this one in somewhat early; it smacks of the eighties and Roland’s visit to NYC in The Drawing of the Three.

The Thick – Big Coffin Hunters – Primarily interesting because of its focus on a group of lesser villains in the series (Eldred Jonas, Roy Depape and Clay Reynolds, a.k.a. the Big Coffin Hunters, a gang of thugs working as Regulators under John Farson).  While the backing music is somewhat forgettable, it is the vocalist’s tendency/ability to mimic Danzig that really heightens the atmosphere here and gives this song its eery edge.

Dan Brusseau – Gunslinger – Dan Brusseau (who ironically has an album called Talisman, although this particular song comes from 2007’s I See Faces) here constructs a folk-myth that fits snugly into the world of the Dark Tower.  Brusseau’s vocals effectively call up the sweat-drenched desperation and delirium of Roland’s quest for the tower while the music appropriately harkens back to the soundtracks of TV westerns of yore like Rawhide.

Nostradameus – Randall Flagg – I suppose it was inevitable that heavy metal would be overrepresented in this playlist.  As I find the great majority of metal to be disappointing, and because I don’t want a playlist that is ninety percent metal, it does present something of a problem for me.  Luckily, I don’t mind prog metal, for the most part.  Nostradameus’s tribute to Roland’s main antagonist isn’t a great song in my estimation, but the fact that it identifies Flagg by name (even if he doesn’t appear in the Dark Tower series under that moniker–Randall Flagg is the name he uses in The Stand) means that it is pretty much a shoo-in.  I mean, it is still about the Man in Black after all.

Common Anomaly – Ka-Tet (op. 19) – Common Anomaly’s low-key psychedelic tribute to Deschain and co. makes a nice cushion to some of the harder-edged tunes on this list.  The lyrics are often hard to make out, but it’s pretty obvious from the title alone that this is all about the Dark Tower, and the psychedelic sound is a welcome counterpoint to all the harder-edged stuff on the list.

Blind Guardian – Carry the Blessed Home – Prog metal band Blind Guardian’s trilogy of Dark Tower songs (the other two are Somewhere Far Beyond and Mordred’s Song) may be the best known of all music inspired by the books, and of the three this is my favorite.  It isn’t quite as heavy as the other two; that’s not a demerit in my opinion, but your mileage may vary.  Yet there is a pride and power here that surpasses mere speed and volume.  That’s something I wish more heavy metal musicians understood: being fast and obnoxiously noisy doesn’t automatically equate to being powerful; real power comes from the ability to evoke the proper mood and convey something transcendental, not just incite the listener to base, capricious emotionalism.  Anyway, Blind Guardian understands this fact well, and as such Carry the Blessed Home sounds like some kind of fantastic battle hymn.  And even though it never mentions any of the characters or settings from the story outright (we know the song is about the Dark Tower because the band has said as much) and alludes to the story only in the vaguest of ways, the mythos is well-served nonetheless.

Gang of Thieves – Gunslinger – Burlington, Vermont natives Gang of Thieves give Roland Deschain the funk metal treatment in this well-crafted song that sports some memorably evocative turns of phrase (“The air I breathe has poisonous authority”; “Ignorant son,  our palaver is done–the tower calls and I obey”) and a dust-churning wallop of a guitar riff.  The song even references Stephen King himself, or rather the character of Stephen King as he appears in the series, characterizing him as a “lazy writer”–if you’ll recall, the King character exists in an alternate timeline where he has only written the first book in the series.  Yep, someone in the band clearly knows the books well.  Sweet!

Red Light Survival – Gilead – Let me say up front that this soft rock song needs work, particularly the vocals.  Yet even with its weaknesses the song is compelling and catchy enough to warrant a space here.  Still, I would like to hear the piece rerecorded in a few years, when the band has honed and strengthened its skills.  Until then, think of this less as a fully ripened song and more of a musical cushion to wedge between a couple of the heavier songs.

Nightwish – 7 Days to the Wolves – This is without question the best of the heavy songs on the list.  The music is highly accomplished, and the vocalist is female.  It’s irritating that there aren’t more women making this list, but we shall make due with what we have.  Not that I am including them just because they have ovaries–believe me, my standards are generally pretty high and I rarely make allowances in the name of political correctness.  No, the bands on this list with women at the fore earned their place here just like everyone else.  Now that that’s settled . . . actually this song is not only one of the best heavy metal tunes in the queue, it’s one of the better songs period.  And it’s about those robotic wolves who steal children in The Wolves of the Calla.

The Dropa Stone – Other Worlds Than These – The Dropa Stone’s contribution to the Dark Tower playlist is a fairly conventional rocker, but as such it’s a solid tune.  I’m not sure why but for some reason, although the title comes from a phrase uttered by Jake as he is falling to his death in book one, this song feels to me like it belongs near the end of the list, so that’s where I am sticking it.  Bonus: the four band members are all vegans and vegetarians and are passionate about animal rights.  I tried to find out more about the band but unfortunately their website seems to be down at the moment.

The Dukes – Low Men – There are and have been too many bands called the Dukes, and keeping them sorted is a task that surpasses my endurance.  Even so, with a modest bit of digging I was able to discover that this band hails from France.  It isn’t much to go on admittedly, but no matter.  These Dukes create pop-oriented rock songs, and they are decent enough at what they do.  This particular song is the opening track from their 2011 album Victory and its subject is the Can-Toi, or Low Men–you know, those creepy guys with a fondness for garish clothing whom Ted Brautigan was running away from in the Dark Tower-related short story Low Men in Yellow Coats (later made into the film Hearts in Atlantis).

Ether Drift Theory – Beamquake – Ether Drift Theory’s Other Worlds Than These isn’t the only concept album about the Dark Tower books, but it is my favorite.  I really wanted to add several songs from the album to this list–The Prisoner, The Pusher, Song of Susannah and Death, But Not for You were all good choices–but in the end I decided on one song per band.  As for why I chose Beamquake, if I were to give you the thoughtful reply, I would say it was because it has an urgency and immediacy lacking in some of the other songs or some such nonsense, but the truth is, I just think “Beamquake” is a cool freakin’ word.  I couldn’t find this one (or any songs by Ether Drift Theory) at YouTube, so this one is strictly a Spotify selection.

Frontier Ruckus – The Tower – At long last we have arrived at the Pylon of Creation.  It’s been a long, hard journey, but here we are.  There is joy and triumph, of course, but that is really a thin veneer we wear over our true feelings, for all of the death, suffering and hardship has left a hollow place inside of us and worn us to the bone with sorrow and weariness, and maybe even a touch of regret that we have come to the end of our voyage. Frontier Ruckus understands: you can’t have come this far, experienced all that you have, without feeling these feelings.  But in the end we have a duty to fulfill.  We have remembered the faces of our fathers, and so we climb the winding steps of the tower only to find . . .

Heinrich XIII and the Devilgrass Pickers – In a World That Has Moved On – Call it my little joke.  Those who have read the series through to the end will get it.  Oh, and I know I said each band gets only one song.  Technically I am not breaking that rule; I never said you had to put each band’s song only once in the list!  Anyway, there were only eighteen songs and we needed a nineteenth.  That was important, wouldn’t you say?

My Top Six Haunted House Novels of All Time

To quote a song from my elementary school music class days, Halloween is coming, and that means it’s the perfect time to delve into a spooky book, and what better than a good haunted house tale?  So here are my six favorite books for when you’re in the mood to be haunted, spine-tingled or just plain terrified by creepy domiciles. Bear in mind that my whims are subject to change, and if you asked me tomorrow my answers might be slightly different. And by this time next year? Fuggedaboudit. But as of today these are my choices for the best haunted house (or, more accurately, haunted building) stories . . .

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6. Stephen King – The Shining: Yeah, maybe this one is overplayed, but it’s still one of King’s best in my opinion, to the point where many of its more effective moments have become positively iconic.  But I feel it fair to warn you in advance that, while many consider King to be the undisputed modern master of this genre, I disagree.  He may be the most recognized name in the genre, and is certainly one of the most prolific, but in terms of straight-up scariness I think he kind of peaked early.  As a writer I find he is rather mediocre–not that he doesn’t have his moments of beauty and power.  Where King excels, however, is as a storyteller (and yes, they are very different things–more on that later).  Nevertheless, since his work is so ubiquitous, and because I’ve read a ton of it, he is well represented on this list.  In fact, as you will soon discover, I tend to gravitate to the same authors over and over again because, well, I find that by and large writers either have it or they don’t.

Anyway, back to The Shining.  Although it’s actually about a hotel, this story is at heart a haunted house novel, a subgenre that every career horror author eventually gets round to, and as haunted house novels go, this is one of the best.  Since most horror fans know the story well enough, I’m not going to spend time discussing  the plot.  What I will say is, there are certain qualities that have long been established as paradigmatic to the haunted house subgenre, mainly that the house has to be big, old, abandoned or mostly so, isolated and creepy, and in this case the “haunted house” has all of these qualities in spades.  More importantly, the characters have to be believable.  King was a young writer at the time he produced this, with only two other published novels under his belt, both of which, although pretty good in their own right, had yet to launch him into the pop culture stratosphere like The Shining did.  The character of Jack Torrance, an aspiring and troubled writer who drags his young family up to the Overlook Hotel with him while he serves as its winter caretaker, is thus rooted in what King knew best and is highly believable, and that makes all the difference here.

Another factor that gives the story an edge is that it was in a sense a transitional novel for the ghost story itself.  Born of the Gothic genre, traditionally these works have been about the upper classes, for who else would occupy the old decrepit manses and castles that most frequently served as settings for the earliest ghost stories?  In The Shining, the Gothic setting remains (albeit slightly updated), but the victimized family are undeniably working class folks, rendering the story much more accessible to the average reader.  Stephen King is thus largely responsible for bringing the supernatural out of the bleak, moldy towers of the moneyed and noble Old World and into the New, almost quite literally, and I think this fact largely accounts for his ongoing popularity with the masses.

Even so, I still follow his work and still enjoy it, even if I feel that its creator–as the wealthiest genre writer on the planet and one still clearly nostalgic for the days of his youth–has somewhat lost touch with what made his early horror work so effective in the first place.  Not to worry: Mr. King has traded in his working class street cred for an increasingly rich and thoughtful imagination, and that’s not a bad trade-off at all.  For me his outstanding strength remains his sheer creativity, and because of that I find his most compelling work isn’t his horror fiction but his dark fantasy, crowned by the epic masterpiece series The Dark Tower.   Which brings me to my next choice . . .

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5.  Stephen King & Peter Straub – Black House: This second collaboration between King and Straub and a sequel to their first collaboration The Talisman I think can be read and enjoyed on its own, but it is highly recommended that you at least read The Talisman and a few of the Dark Tower books (as it uses terminology, characters and themes from these), and preferably Hearts in Atlantis before tackling this one.

As I said earlier, the haunted house is a mainstay of the horror genre, so they need to have a strong and original hook for me; this one has it in that the Black House is not so much a traditional haunted house as a horrific way station between worlds that has been polluted by the ectoplasmic grime left behind by certain dark travelers who have used it.  The central villain of the story is the Fisherman, who styles himself after one of the most disturbing real-life serial killers in history, Albert Fish, hence the nickname, but the Fisherman is merely a pawn of a much greater evil, a recurring demonic being who goes by many names throughout the King canon but is here known as Abbalah.

The main protagonist, as in The Talisman, is Jack Sawyer,  who was a 13-year-old boy in the earlier novel but is now a retired policeman still haunted by his experiences in the Territories of The Talisman.  He is drawn to the town of French Landing, Wisconsin, where the Fisherman does his grisly business and near where the title house is located, to investigate the crimes of the Fisherman after the killer himself sends Jack a macabre memento of his twisted deeds.  As one might expect, this new adventure opens up old wounds for Jack.  But that’s where all predictability ends.

As an avid devourer of classic lit as well as genre stuff, for me one of the novel’s highlights is its several clever allusions to certain works of well known authors like Poe and Dickens (I mean, in case you didn’t notice, the reference to the latter’s Bleak House is right in the title), and Straub and King seem to compliment each other very well.  Straub is, for my money, easily the better writer of the two, and it is hugely entertaining to see what he does, albeit tangentially, with the apocalyptic carnival that is the Dark Tower saga; even with King himself prominently along for the ride it is clearly Straub’s voice that guides this work and makes it so compelling.  This book is much darker than the Dark Tower series as a whole, and that’s a plus because it more than justifies the intrusion of Straub into King’s universe.

horror-barker-coldheart-canyon

4. Clive Barker – Coldheart Canyon: I’ve been a fan of Barker’s writing since high school, when I discovered Cabal, a novella that spoke to me for a variety of reasons, and Weaveworld, a novel that, along with the later Imajica, probably informs the style and spirit of my own work more than any other.

Being the nervous kid that I was, I came to horror pretty late by the standards of most hardcore fans of the genre I know, who seem to have been reading King and Koontz in preschool.  While I had been reading sci-fi for awhile, I didn’t pick up my first adult horror novel until age 15.  I don’t even remember what it was called or who wrote it; it was an atrociously written book about evil plants or something and I don’t think I even managed to finish it.  Then I read Stephen King’s The Stand (still my all-time favorite standalone . . . sort of . . . King novel) and the rest was history.

Anyway, what really impressed me then, and still does, about Mr. Barker’s prose was how incredibly and consistently beautiful it was.  He could write about the ugliest concepts–a man raping a wall, pigs eating people, a young girl’s nether regions served on a plate–and make them sound almost elegant, but in a dark (very dark) way.  And then there was the sheer crazy inventiveness of it all, which certain other writers may have, but very few have the skill to serve it up with Barker’s trademark classiness and dazzling way with words.  In addition to this, being an illustrator and painter and being involved in his youth with the theater, Barker understands how to render his horror in a visual way even in text, and that’s why he remains my favorite horror author to this day.

Coldheart Canyon may not be his best work, but that isn’t saying much.  Everything he’s written has been at least readable, and most of it is of high enough quality to appeal to the most discerning of literary tastes while still remaining true to its genre roots, and a good deal of it, especially the above-mentioned dark fantasy novels Weaveworld and Imajica, I would say transcends genre ghettos altogether.  While this novel doesn’t necessarily do that, it is still one of the better haunted house stories out there and is not to be missed if you’re a fan of Barker’s work at all.

It’s set predominantly in turn-of-the-21st-century Hollywood, in a long-abandoned Art Deco-era mansion that once belonged to notorious silent film star Katya Lupi.  As Todd Pickett, an aging actor recovering from a botched facelift, retires to the out-of-the-way Coldheart Canyon to avoid the prying paparazzi while he heals, he finds himself to be less than alone there as the ghosts of roaring twenties Hollywood have come out to play, and they very much want him to join them.

Once more this isn’t your standard haunted house fare, as the source of the house’s power lies in something much older, a lovely wall mosaic imported from Romania which opens onto a realm called the Devil’s Country.  Even by the standards of the age Lupi’s parties were decadent, and anybody who was anybody was there, but the real draw for them was the secret room and its portal to the Devil’s Country, where all of their deepest–and darkest–desires could be fulfilled.  Unfortunately, there was a price, for once you’ve been to the Devil’s Country, it will never let you go.

horror-little-the-resort

3. Bentley Little – The Resort: I’m a relative newcomer to Little’s work, but I am fast becoming a fan.  I’ve read only a handful of his novels thus far, three of which I would heartily recommend to real fans of the horror genre (and by ‘real fans’ I mean those who are up for the kind of jaw-dropping mindfuck that Little so excels at).  Like Richard Laymon’s stories, nothing is off limits in Little’s world, but unlike Laymon, Little keeps getting better and better with time.

Although I’ve only read a fraction of his output so far, I’ve read enough to get a pretty good sense of Little’s strengths and weaknesses.  The main weakness first.  As with Stephen King, Little is one of those authors who always writes in pared down everyday language, and perhaps it’s only a matter of taste but that for me is a weakness.  Far too many readers (and critics) these days believe that good writing is all about story alone and any writing that doesn’t serve this in the plainest, most straightforward way is just purple prose.  I beg to differ.  Besides, I’m a fan of that particular color, as you might’ve guessed from the title of the blog.

At any rate, for the same reason that not every film would work as a pseudo-documentary, style is contextual and is therefore just as important for suspension of disbelief as a logical plot and believable characters.  Not every piece of literature is best served by a bluntly functionalist  writing style.  It largely depends on the kind of story you’re trying to tell, and I think Little could stand to take a cue from Straub and spruce up his writing a bit.  So could Stephen King for that matter.  And every modern writer should read William Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (a novel which I’ll give a proper review for in due time) to understand how important characters’ voices are and how these are enhanced by the writing style that best compliments POV characters.

Now for Little’s strengths.  First, the author has the ability to take the most absurd ideas and turn them into something enduringly creepy if not outright disturbing.  Read any one of his novels and you’ll see what I mean, but I’ll throw out a few examples: a toilet that floods a bathroom with fruit cocktail (The House), an open septic tank in a restroom just off the interstate and a banker who creates suits out of underwear for his employees (The Summoning), a group of famous letter writers confined to the tenth floor of a run-down office building (Dispatch).  This novel was no exception, and so far, in my admittedly limited exposure to Little, it’s the mother of them all.  There are so many crazy and disturbing ideas presented here that it makes the reader’s head spin, and most of them are tossed out as background noise rather than major plot elements, which gives one a sense that the horror isn’t character-centric and thus helps to reinforce its verisimilitude.

Little’s second great strength is his mastery of pacing.  He knows how to build horror slowly, starting with odd but seemingly unmenacing little details and scaling them up until by the end all hell is unleashed, and that is The Resort in a nutshell.  A side note: my gripe with most modern horror, at least on film, is the cheap thrills quality its creators too often mistake for real dread, in all its jump scare-filled, red herring-abundant, suspense music-drenched (non)glory.  Moreover, Bentley Little’s world is darker than that of Stephen King and certainly darker than that of someone like Dean Koontz.  Little’s horror is gritty, messy and organic, and the finales of his novels are more often than not completely devastating to the reader.  This isn’t your grandpa’s horror fiction.  Give it a try.

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2. Peter Straub – Shadowland: Yep, like his Talisman coauthor, Straub has contributed to the haunted house tradition all on his own too, and it’s a doozy.  This is an early Straub novel and one of his most powerful.  The hook here is that the haunted house isn’t really haunted by ghosts but rather by the workings of its owner, a world-famous magician whose tricks and illusions turn out to be rooted in real sorcery.  After tragedy strikes at a preparatory school attended by  teenaged pals Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale, necessitating an early summer break for the unfortunate school, the boys pack off to the titular Shadowland, the sprawling, secluded Vermont estate of Del’s uncle Coleman Collins, at one time the most famous magician in the world but now gone to seed and plagued by the consequences of his own dark deeds and his reliance on alcohol to cope with his disturbing powers.

For Del this is an annual pilgrimage; on some level he’s always been aware of his uncle’s abilities and dreams of being his successor, but the shady Collins feels a more worthy successor is to be found in Tom, a boy who, unlike his more introverted companion, has guts and charisma and is therefore more like Collins himself.  Thus begins the magician’s grooming of the boy in an intricate dance of manipulation, family intrigues and revelations of his darkest, most intimate secrets, among them the atrocities he committed to get where he is.  In all of the best haunted house stories the house itself is a character, and that’s no less true here.  Shadowland is a place of shadows both literal and imagined, an ever-changing domain full of the creepy accoutrements of a magician, and not one but two performance theaters built into the house, one more garish and sinister than the next.  The estate is also populated with bizarre but rarely seen characters, some of whom may or may not be real, including a teenage girl–much more than she appears to be–who has befriended the boys.

As more of the magician’s backstory is revealed and Tom becomes increasingly embroiled in the seductive world of Coleman Collins, and as the scope of the danger to Tom and Del and all those connected to them and the true stakes of Collins’s games are revealed, the reader’s investment in the characters grows and with it their tension and dread.

One more thing here: Shadowland is the perfect example of what I mean about the style complimenting the story.  Straub’s prose twists and writhes like a cobra about to strike–beautiful, mesmerizing and sinister.  Like a good magic trick, it twists back on itself, hiding more than it reveals right to the end, and you are astounded by it and wonder how the writer pulled it off.  This is literary horror in the truest and finest sense and not to be missed by anyone out for more than just gross-outs and gore or your run-of-the-mill spookhouse fiction.

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1. Douglas Clegg – Neverland: As with Barker, I had the massive good fortune of stumbling upon Clegg’s work early.  When I was 17 or 18 I picked up his debut novel Goat Dance while on vacation with my parents for the long, boring return trip and read it in its entirety in the back of the van on the way home.  It captured me fully and haunted me for days after I finished it, yet it was merely a lead-up to what was arguably Clegg’s best novel, Neverland.

Neverland is not so much a physical place (although it does have an actual location in the form of a deteriorating shack in the middle of a forest on Gull Island, just off the coast of Georgia) as it is the state-of-mind of the principle characters, children of the Lee clan who come to stay on the island in the family matriarch’s rambling old Victorian home, rooting the story firmly in the Southern Gothic tradition, which is spot on here.  But it also borrows much of its power from the cosmic horror of Lovecraft and Machen.

As Beau, his twin sisters Missy and Nonie and their thoroughly icky cousin Sumpter are drawn to the mysterious shack, with their activities centered around Sumpter’s increasingly cruel and twisted games, they invite something ancient and sinister onto the island.  Along with a backwoods brother and sister who are not all there . . . in more ways than one . . . the children unwittingly perform rituals that pave the way for a monstrous force set to rip apart the island and doom the world to a new monstrous Dark Age unlike anything seen before.

While the cosmic horror aspect is delineated well enough, the real drawing card here is Clegg’s keen understanding of his child protagonists, who have every bit of the iconic resonance of the kids from To Kill a Mockingbird.  One of my big pet peeves with genre fiction in which children are important or central characters is the kids’ resounding lack of authenticity.  They are often there merely to serve as foils for other characters, as one-dimensional victims (kiddies are the modern day damsels in distress, it seems) or as little more than scenery to reinforce the idea that the story’s heroes are good family men and women.  Even when they are major characters, whether good or evil they tend to lack dimensionality or any real sense of an inner life.  None of that is true here.  These children are neither perfect angels nor bad seeds in themselves, and though they are certainly playing with something beyond their ken, they never come across as mere innocent victims or spectators.

Unfortunately, Clegg is another writer whom I think peaked early, or at least he had a pretty saggy middle period, which includes a series of more traditional haunted house books set in Harrow Academy, a haunted ex-boarding school.  I haven’t read much of his new work, I’m afraid, as I was put off by the mediocre Harrow series and I only have so much money to spend on books these days.  Perhaps it’s time I picked up a couple of his newer works to see how he’s progressed as an author.  Nevertheless, his early novels are outstanding, and this is without a doubt one of the modern classics of horror fiction.  If you read just one novel on this list, make it Neverland.  I dare say you won’t regret it.