Book Review: “The Grand Hotel”

The Grand HotelScott Kenemore, king of zombie literature, has ventured into new territory with his latest novel, The Grand Hotel—and boy, does he do it in style. The author of The Zen of Zombie as well as a state-themed zombie series, which so far includes Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, has proven his skills at creating unique, engaging tales of the undead. But he debuts a new kind of story with The Grand Hotel: one with a unique form, a clever narration, and complex ideas that will stick with you long after you “check out” of this mysterious hotel.

Rarely does a book manage to pull off that quirky space between “novel” and “short story collection,” but The Grand Hotel encompasses the best of both these formats. Our narrator, the front desk clerk at the eponymous hotel, introduces us to the setting through his guided tour. We feel part of the tour group as we are led from room to room, at which point the narrator introduces a new character with an intriguing story to tell.

The interconnected stories, though different in their content, create a narrative thread invoking curiosity, questions of morality, and the supernatural. Some of the highlights include a sci-fi tale about a mission to Mars, an encounter that brings to mind Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, a brilliant mash-up reality show that combines cooking with ghost hunting, and the story of a violist and the bizarre trees from which her instrument was crafted.

At no point does the narrative drag. Each story is just as engaging, surreal, and interesting as the last, and the journey of the tour group invites the reader to wonder what the connections are between each story—an idea that is cleverly injected into the overarching narrative by means of a curious library. This is truly a story about storytelling, a narrative that explores narratives, and a must-read for anyone interested in this most noble and ancient linguistic art.

As a horror novel, The Grand Hotel delivers plenty of creepiness. Along with the perfect setting of a moldering, ancient hotel, there are ghosts, demons, dead bodies, and all manner of unnamed and unnerving occurrences to keep you spooked but thirsting for more. And the final eerie tale brings everything together in a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Several days after finishing it, I’m still thinking about this book—and discovering clues and layers I hadn’t noticed before. I’m also interested, now, in looking into a story cycle from ancient India that partially inspired the book. Already, The Grand Hotel has become a favorite of mine.

Scott Kenemore’s The Grand Hotel is available October 14, 2014. I suggest you run, don’t walk, to grab a copy. You can find The Grand Hotel right here on Amazon!

Find more at the author’s website, http://scottkenemore.com/.

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Movie Review: “Oculus”

OculusWho would have thought a horror movie about a mirror would turn out to be a unique narrative with surprising twists and turns? Not someone who’s seen the 2008 flop, Mirrors, let me tell you. Color me pleasantly surprised by Oculus, the story of a demonic mirror with the ability to bend reality.

Though the movie starts off slowly, it does a great job introducing the characters, who feel authentic and understandable for all their quirks. Eleven years after a tragedy that left their mother mutilated and murdered, brother and sister Tim and Kaylie reunite in their old home. Tim has spent this time incarcerated, while Kaylie has become an obsessive-compulsive supernatural expert intent on destroying the old mirror that once resided in their father’s office.

The narratives of what happened to the siblings as children and what is happening to them now as adults run parallel… at first. Usually I’ve got this kind of narrative pinned down from the start: we’ll see the two stories play back and forth, both simultaneously reaching their climaxes (I’m talking about the stories, guys), and emphasizing the outcome of the adult scenario as a means of overcoming what they failed to accomplish the first time around.

What we get, instead, is an intricate, singular story in which the two narratives twist into one another. Time comes undone. The actions of the present somehow transform into and affect the actions of the past, and vice versa. Somehow, Tim and Kaylie seem to be simultaneously children and adults.

This works to great effect in a story wherein the characters go insane around a possessed mirror, experiencing delusions that make it impossible to tell what is real. This unique type of narrative takes the viewer along for the ride, creating the same unsettling loss of reality for the audience. It’s tricky to pull off because eventually that audience might stop caring about what’s happening, if they can’t tell what’s real.  Oculus, however, manages to retain a great deal of suspense; in fact, not knowing what’s real ends up being an important plot point that leads to a particularly horrific finale.

Katee Sackoff will spend a good chunk of the movie freaking you out.

Katee Sackoff will spend a good chunk of the movie freaking you out.

Aside from that, the movie is saturated with a creeping dread and some truly eerie visuals that will keep you as far away from mirrors as the last time you watched Candyman. If you want to see a unique, surreal psychological horror flick, Oculus should be at the top of your list.

FINAL VERDICT

Plot / Originality: 10 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Acting: 9 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Visuals: 8 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Music: 6 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Script: 8 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Scare Factor: 7 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Overall: 8 out of 10 haunted mirrors

Book Review: “A Winter Haunting”

A Winter HauntingAbout a year after I read Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, I’ve finally gotten around to picking up the sequel, A Winter Haunting. “Sequel” is a sort of interesting term for it, since I’m not sure you even need to have read Summer of Night to appreciate this psychological ghost story.

A Winter Haunting is a completely different kind of book from its predecessor. While the first book was a lengthy, raucous tale of boyhood, monsters under the bed, creatures at the school, and disbelieving adults, the second book is the quiet, internal story of a haunted man passing middle age who is trying to understand the trajectory of his own life.

Dale Stewart, the protagonist from the first book, takes center stage again here—but it is the narrator who provides most of the insight into his thoughts, his attempted suicide, his possible psychosis, and his failed love life. The narrator in question is Duane, the boy genius who dies in the first book. Here he is played as an omniscient abstraction who is able to see Dale’s life better than Dale himself.

Having decided to spend his sabbatical back in Elm Haven, the town where he grew up, Dale heads to Illinois for the winter. What’s more, he has decided to stay in the old farmhouse where Duane lived and died, in order to grieve his old friend and to provide inspiration for the novel he is writing about that summer of 1960.

That’s when the ghosts start popping up. Simmons masterfully delivers the creepiness, and he does it in a way that leaves you wondering what’s real, what’s in Dale’s head, and what’s supernatural. This, along with his beautiful prose and brilliant use of a dead narrator, provides the story an eerie, unsettling atmosphere that is perfect for a chilly winter at an abandoned farmhouse.

A much simpler, straightforward narrative than the sometimes meandering and chaotic first novel, this one still carries many layers of complexity in its themes and characters, revealing painful truths about life, aging, potential, and human connection.

It’s also peppered with classic literary references like Henry James and Beowulf, Old English, Egyptian worship, philosophy, and proof that our young dead narrator knows more about writing than even seasoned writers and academics.

FINAL VERDICT

Storyline: 9 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Characters: 9 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Originality: 8 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Writing Style: 10 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Scare Factor: 7 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Overall: 8 out of 10 ghosts from the past

Finding Beauty in the Macabre: NBC’s Hannibal

Now that the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has concluded, and the show has been renewed for at least one more season, I’d like to take this opportunity to implore anyone who hasn’t been watching the show to catch up.

Yes, you might have seen the movie Hannibal (starring the iconic Anthony Hopkins, and Julianne Moore as Clarisse Starling) and Red Dragon (Hopkins again, and Edward Norton as Will Graham). Those are arguably Hollywood fluff in comparison to the dark, artsy, surreal, psychological twister that is 2013’s TV incarnation. The show stars Hugh Dancy as Will Graham (much darker and moodier than the Fight Club actor, who was surprisingly blasé in Red Dragon), Laurence Fishburne as FBI Special Agent Jack Crawford, and Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

It also, apparently, stars Carcosa from True Detective.

It also, apparently, stars Carcosa from True Detective.

In the show, Will Graham is a professor with a strange gift for empathy: he can basically see into the minds of serial killers, observing crime scenes and visualizing how the murder went down (a little like Dexter‘s keen eye for blood spatter, but more visceral). He aids the FBI in hunting down the Chesapeake Ripper.

Season one is part serial killer of the week, part descent into madness, wherein Will vacillates between believing he is physically ill, and mentally ill.

Yep, totally normal clock.

Yep, totally normal clock.

Throughout, his friendship with Dr. Lecter proves to be a psychological game of cat-and-mouse. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Hannibal asks Will to draw a clock.

Season two moves the story forward. No, they will not be stretching out the serial killer of the week trope the way other shows might be tempted to: instead, we find Will being framed for murder, revelations about the true nature of our favorite characters, and a cat-and-mouse game in which it is almost impossible to tell who is the cat and who is the mouse.

One of the most striking aspects of this show is how dark it is willing to go. Our protagonist, Will, exhibits some… questionable behavior. He must play the part of a killer in order to convince Hannibal that he’s on his side, and throughout, we’re never quite sure just how much he enjoys the killings he has committed.

Also, at this point, almost the entire cast has eaten people.

Also, at this point, almost the entire cast has eaten people. Cheers!

What the show may be best known for, however, is its unique visual aesthetic: macabre, artistic tapestries of death, killers who display their victims in a myriad of horrible and beautiful ways. As a writer who explores that strange connection between beauty and horror, I find these visuals very intriguing and bold for a network TV show.

Like these angels.

Like these angels.

Hannibal tree

And this corpse tree.

And this totem pole made of bodies.

And this dude that was turned into a cello. (Did I mention I'm a cellist?)

And this dude who was turned into a cello. (Did I mention I’m a cellist?)

Mikkelson, for his part, embodies the role of Hannibal in a way that is entirely different from Hopkins. Not having read the books, I can’t say which is more accurate to the original canon, but he certainly brings out something unique in the classy cannibal. Whereas Hopkins is immediately creepy, his staccato voice alone creating a sense of unease, Mikkelson’s Hannibal is a subtler kind of monster. At first, he seems quite benevolent, obviously brilliant, and even friendly. But once you glimpse the psychopath within, who is willing to toy with the lives of those around him out of sheer curiosity, the true depths of his depravity surface. And for one so intelligent and charismatic, as successful psychopaths tend to be, it’s both easy and chilling to see how he manages to get away with so much, right under the FBI’s nose.

I, for one, look forward to seeing where they go in season three… and which of our  characters survived that blood-soaked finale…

Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers

Most folks in the literary world are aware of the prestigious magazine, Glimmer Train, and its lauded contests like the quarterly Short Story Award for New Writers. (If not, go check it out!)

I’m pleased to announce that my story, “Westward,” earned an Honorable Mention for the February 2014 contest. While it did not make the top-25 list, it was in the top 5% of over a thousand entries.

Click here to see the full list of of stories that got an honorable mention. The results of the winners will be posted on May 1, but a premature congratulations to them!

As my friend Axel Howerton said, “GT is a notoriously hard nut to crack,” and he’s definitely right about that. On the other hand, as my other esteemed friend, Richard Bausch, said, “There aren’t 25 stories that are better than that one. It should have won.” Many, many thanks for your continued belief in my writing.

One of the most gratifying aspects of writing is getting to share if with readers; I would love to share this story with all of you. I’ve submitted it to other publications, one of which will hopefully pick it up. I look forward to the day it is published and I can share it with everyone.

Until then, I’ll just keep on writing.

True Horror in True Detective

Everyone’s been talking about it: Mathew McConaughey. Woody Harrelson. The King in Yellow. Carcosa. And many have been asking, even since the finale, what does it all mean?

One of the reasons this show has people buzzing (and frantically flipping through old horror novels) is because it deftly crosses genres in its brief 8-episode run. What appears to be a noir / Southern Gothic detective mystery is overlaid by a larger story of horror and modern mythology.

Hey, I'm warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven't watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

Hey, I’m warning you! Stay the hell back if you haven’t watched yet. This post is riddled with spoilers!

THE KING IN YELLOW

This show is all about storytelling. Through interviews with the detectives, we get the story of a gruesome murder case that Rustin Cohle and Marty Hart solved (or thought they solved) back in ’95. The case comes back to haunt them in the present, as it seems the mysterious figure behind it all—the King in Yellow—is still at large.

On the show, he is spoken of in awed whispers, along with the word Carcosa. Everyone watching quickly realized this was a reference to a book of short stories by Robert Chambers, published in 1895. Chambers, a forerunner to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, wrote about a play called The King in Yellow that drove people mad during the second act. He also wrote of a strange lost city called Carcosa, which he nabbed from an Ambrose Bierce short story called “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Lovecraft (as well as many others) later used both of these motifs in his writing.

the king in yellow

The connections between The King in Yellow and True Detective run much deeper than mere name-dropping. For instance, Carcosa is inhabited by people wearing skins, and the cultists behind the killings of True Detective wear animal masks. In fact, masks play an important role in Chambers’ stories (there is even one called “The Mask”). And there’s that weird line in the finale of True Detective where Errol Childress, aka the King in Yellow, tells Rust to “take off your mask!” (before he stabs him).

True Detective’s vision of Carcosa is deliciously creepy as well. Carcosa is described as having “twin suns,” “black stars,” and “strange moons.” It is a cursed place filled with dead trees. On True Detective, some of these aspects are mentioned by people who claim to know of Carcosa. Psycho-killer Errol Childress’s lair of Carcosa, which we see in the finale, is a dark tunnel system filled with those strange stick-sculptures that appear throughout the season, mimicking dead trees.

I wouldn't go in there if I were you.

I wouldn’t go in there if I were you.

THE HORROR

If this show were your typical crime series, the ending would have given us some twist that explained everything: who was the killer, and why did he do it? We find out that scarred Errol Childress is the killer. We find out that he is truly evil and psychotic through his seedy house, the way he fluidly transitions from one accent to the next as if he doesn’t have one fixed identity, his narcissistic god-like mentality, and his eerie lair. But why would someone do these things? What is behind his cult?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

Why does he love riding lawnmowers so much?

That we are left to grapple with on our own, just like Rust and Marty. The ending of the season is reflective of the ending of classic horror tales: the broken characters, having come face-to-face with true horror, must reconcile their experiences with their lives. In many Lovecraft stories, these characters go insane or become suicidal.

The horror elements come out in more than just the ending, though. This thread of weird horror, best known in Lovecraft’s writing, explores the idea of peeling back reality and glimpsing the infinite and the incomprehensible beyond our world. Perhaps Rust’s drug-induced hallucinations are more than they seem. Perhaps he’s seeing into greater dimensions of reality, seeing the circle of time from the outside.  Carcosa, it is said, is a city outside of time. Part of the horror of Rust’s story, then, are these moments when he traverses into the infinite.

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Oh god, Cthulhu is coming! Run for your life!

Most people who get these glimpses go insane. Rust’s character is appealing because he can have these experiences without going completely nutty.  For instance, other characters who have harrowing experiences related to the Yellow King or Carcosa start screaming or babbling manically when they speak of them. We understand their horror through their reactions to it.

This idea of seeing vs. not seeing the horror ourselves, as viewers, is an old trope used by the likes of Lovecraft. In the finale of True Detective, we are privy to a videotape of one of Childress’s crimes. We don’t see the full video, but those who watch it end up screaming in horror. This is even more disturbing than showing us what is on the tape because it is left to our imagination. It is unthinkably horrific, like many of the things Lovecraft wrote about.

CREATING MODERN MYTH

The way True Detective has tapped into this mythology of the Yellow King and Carcosa is not, perhaps, the way we would expect a modern TV show to use literary allusions. Viewers expected an explanation and resolution of the Yellow King and Carcosa, but we were left feeling that, though Errol Childress is dead, these ideas that fueled his killings are not. Characters on the show declare that the King in Yellow was before and is always—out of time, eternal. It doesn’t die with the death of one man.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

Maybe because the King in Yellow is actually composed of dead people.

The show is accomplishing the same thing as all of the literature that has used this mythology. Chambers, Bierce, and Lovecraft are not the only ones to write about the King in Yellow and Carcosa. What they’ve done, however, is to develop a new mythology. True Detective is only one more piece in the puzzle, building on this mythology in a literary way.

This show is all about storytelling. In the last scene, Rust talks about how, as a kid, he would look up at the stars and make up stories. This is exactly what our ancestors did thousands of years ago. They made up stories, which were passed around and built upon until they became mythologies. They created a shared literature, and True Detective revels in this idea.

I’ve always been interested in mythology. My first novel, Pandora, involves Greek mythology. My current novel includes Native American mythology. These are ancient mythologies. The King in Yellow is a new mythology. We can trace it back to its beginning. We are doing, now, exactly what our ancestors did. Time, as Rustin Cohle says, is a circle. We do the same things over and over again.

True Detective is a story as ancient as stories themselves. We seemed to have entered an age where television can accomplish the same things that literature has been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. And that is pretty damn cool.

Fictional Cartography: the Art of Mapping Imaginary Settings

Recently I taught a creative writing lesson to a group of high school students about creating and mapping fictional places. The kids loved it; they came up with some wildly imaginative places (one of them includes a military base with no doors, an inactive volcano, and an entire town fenced in by barbed wire). Then they wrote stories taking place in their towns.

I realized, as I was crafting the lesson, that there are a few different kinds of fictional places. I broke them down like this:

Type 1: Fictional towns, cities, countries, and continents that take place in another world from our own and have no connection to our reality.

Some examples of a type 1 fictional setting include Westeros from Game of Thrones and Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings. Often these kinds of places are used for fantasy novels, although I would also include the setting from Star Wars here. China Miéville also utilizes this kind of fictional setting, and he does a fantastic job of world-building in his vivid, surreal writing: check out Perdido Street Station to see what I’m talking about.

Science fiction and fantasy are notorious for using these kinds of fictional places. Thankfully, many of these books also include maps to situate the reader in the fantastical land, since we have no other reference point aside from the descriptions given by the writer. Here’s a map of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth, given so that we can see Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mordor:

Middle Earth

Type 2: Fictional towns, cities, countries, and continents that take place in another world from our own, but which can be accessed through our reality.

In this case, the reader is introduced to the fictional land by way of the real world, usually through some magical or unusual form of transport. For instance, in The Chronicles of Narnia, we start out grounded in the real world; then we go through a wardrobe and arrive in Narnia. This technique works well to introduce readers to these purely fantastical and imaginative landscapes by taking their hands and transporting them away from their solid footing in the real world. Children’s stories often use this type of fictional setting because it is easier to grasp than a type 1, where you are thrust without context into a strange new place.

Here are two examples of type 2 fictional settings from children’s literature. The first is Neverland from Peter Pan:

NeverlandHere we begin in the real world (London), and then Peter and Wendy fly off to the fictional realm of Neverland.

Likewise, in Alice in Wonderland, we begin in the real world, and then Alice falls through a rabbit hole and winds up in Wonderland:

Wonderland

Type 3: Fictional towns and cities in real states/countries in the real world.

While the other two types of fictional places are largely used for speculative fiction in the science fiction and fantasy genres, this type is used more frequently by writers of all genres. Being in the real world, the cities and towns of a type 3 place must therefore abide by at least some laws of reality. Thus, writers from Stephen King to William Faulkner have all created imaginary towns in the real world.

Some writers even set multiple works in these places, creating a sort of alternate world to our own. Take, for instance, H.P. Lovecraft’s Arkham, a sinister little town in Massachusetts:

“What lay behind our joint love of shadows and marvels was, no doubt, the ancient, mouldering, and subtly fearsome town in which we live—witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham, whose huddled, sagging gambrel roofs and crumbling Georgian balustrades brood out the centuries beside the darkly muttering Miskatonic.”
The Thing on the Doorstep

This eerie town, which is home to Miskatonic University (researcher of all things “weird”), appears in many of Lovecraft’s stories, from his Cthulhu mythos to the Dream Cycle. Naturally, Lovecraft needed to know where everything was in the town, if he was to write about it consistently. Maps are useful not only to help the readers, but also to help the writer keep everything straight. It’s pretty obvious that Lovecraft never intended on publishing this scrawled piece of chicken scratch:

Arkham Map LovecraftBut hey, as long as he can read his own handwriting! Thanks to computers, others have cleaned up this map and made it legible for Lovecraft fans everywhere:

Arkham Map CleanI had a blast teaching this lesson because, over the years, I’ve acquired an increasing interest in fictional cartography. Each novel I’ve written takes place in a type 3 fictional setting. Like Lovecraft, I’ve found myself sketching out these places, crafting them for my readers, my characters, and myself. This is why the towns from my two in-progress novels feel much more real to me than my first attempt with Pandora‘s Sickle Falls. Unfortunately, Sickle Falls feels half-complete because I never mapped out the town itself.

Hopefully these novels I’m working on now will be published in the future, and you can see for yourself how real the places feel. Let me transport you to Bryn Du Bluffs, West Virginia, where legends of an evil cemetery on a hill and the ancient Moon-Eyed People spook the superstitious folks in town. Let me take you to Rockhaven, Nebraska, where abandoned farms become the playground of meth-heads and an old crone guards her haunted well.

Let me take you there. These places have become real now. They’re all mapped out… and waiting for you.

Feminist Horror in “You’re Next”

You're NextFebruary is Women in Horror month, so it was a good thing I decided to watch You’re Next by director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett. What starts out as yet another home invasion/slasher movie effortlessly switches directions, taking the Final Girl trope to a badass extreme. Part John Carpenter, part Wes Craven, part R-rated Home Alone, You’re Next is a pleasant surprise and a hell of a good time.

The movie begins with a family reunion* meant to celebrate the parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. All three sons and one daughter, as well as their significant others, arrive at a secluded mansion in the forest. Petty bickering ensues. Just as these opening scenes begin to drag, several men in animal masks show up to terrorize the family, their dinner now interrupted by chaos and silly amounts of screaming.

There is one character, however, on which we begin focusing more and more: Erin, the Australian girlfriend of one of the brothers. She is the only one who reacts to the situation with some kind of sense, rather than senseless wailing. While the others freak out, she starts locking down the house, gathering weapons from the kitchen drawers, and setting up traps.

As it turns out, Erin was raised on a survivalist compound. Now, what should be a simple, good old-fashioned family slaughter turns into a nightmare… for the killers. That’s right. Guess what, killers? YOU’RE NEXT!

you're next sharnie

I knew this was a winner when I started shouting at the killers, “Watch out! She’s gonna fuck you up!”

Sharni Vinson, who plays Erin, has some truly gruesome and fantastic scenes during which she unleashes her fighting and survival skills on the assailants. One cool, well-shot scene involves using a flashing camera in the dark. Another involves a blender.

While strong female characters can be found in horror movies, most often the Final Girl survives simply by virtue of being the female lead. Slasher movies subsist on the viewer’s titillation in watching this female suffer, survive mostly through luck rather than her own merits, and slash knives impotently through the air while blubbering uncontrollably into the attacker’s face. Erin delivers something fresh here: a Final Girl who doesn’t run around like a headless chicken but instead takes matters into her own hands and acts like a hero. She’s a little like Dana from The Cabin in the Woods blended with the badassery of the cave divers from The Descent.

More often, male leads are the heroes, while female leads in horror films are portrayed as the victims. This creates a serious power inequality, which is reinforced again and again in popular films. Erin may be physically injured and traumatized throughout the course of You’re Next, but it is clear that she is hero rather than victim, and she alone earns her survival.

While following in the horror tropes that it seeks simultaneously to satirize, You’re Next ends up being both unflinchingly brutal and darkly funny. I found myself thrilled watching this reversal of power dynamics and gender roles, and I’d love to see what the guys behind You’re Next come up with next.

*Caveat: before the family reunion gets going, the very first scene of the movie is a sex scene. Why? After seeing the movie, I assume it’s tongue-in-cheek. Don’t worry, though. It only lasts about 3 unsatisfying seconds.

Book Review: “This Book Is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It)”

Book Review This Book is Full of SpidersIn 2009, the editor of popular humor/news/oddities website Cracked.com, David Wong, published a hodgepodge of zany supernatural misadventures in the form of John Dies at the End, which started as a serialized internet phenomenon and turned into a long, uneven, but ultimately hilarious and entertaining novel.

Enter the sequel: This Book Is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It). And, unlike, the misleading title of the first book, I can assure you that, yes, this book is filled with spiders.

Dave and John, the supernatural-fighting, dimension-hopping, dick-joking duo, once again find themselves at the center of an otherworldly mystery when Dave experiences all of our own worst nightmares come to life: there is a nest of parasitic spiders that hatches from his bed, invisible to all but him and his buddy John. What do these spiders do? Well, I’m glad you asked. They inject you with a paralytic venom before climbing in your mouth, controlling your brain, and restructuring your DNA.

Since no one else can see the spiders, the people of John and Dave’s hometown, referred to as Undisclosed (for security reasons), decide it has been overrun by zombies. What follows, while still retaining the absurdist charm of the original, is a surprisingly realistic and even chilling look at how the government might deal with a zombie outbreak. A mysterious government agency shows up, blocks off the town, quarantines a bunch of non-infected people, and plans to wipe it off the face of the map.

Any potential realism ends there, as we get knee-deep in spider parasites, monsters that climb up your butthole (and push your intestines out your mouth, yummy!), guns that warp reality, drugs that stop time, and shadow people who exist in the space between moments.

The narrative here is far more coherent than John Dies at the End, and while it’s a sizable novel, it clips along at a fast pace, making it easy to breeze through in a couple of days. Whereas JDatE may leave you wanting less, Spiders actually left me wanting more. Because of the singular focus of the plot, I found myself missing the wild diversity of bizarre adventures from the first book. Still, Spiders does, in the end, work much better as a cohesive novel, and provides a more streamlined story while still being as gross, gory, and funny as you’d hope.

Plus, there’s a fantastic moment when a bunch of townspeople, in order to be seen from the air, shape themselves into a giant… well, I’ll just let you read the book to find out.

10 Commandments of Writing

As part of the final project for a class I recently took, which focused on various aspects of the writing life, I was instructed to compile 10 commandments for writing well. Each student in the class made a list, and each one turned out different from the next, proving that there is no one ideal method for how to write. We took our cues from similar lists made by established writers, such as Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, John Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Richard Bausch.

You can find a few of these lists online, perhaps at the websites of these authors. Reading and discussing the lists helped my class to understand that these are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some writers contradict each other; some tell you not to follow rules at all. These commandments are for the writer who made them.

So I want to preface my own list by saying that these commandments were written for me. They are things that I’ve learned over the years, which have helped me become a better writer, and which I try to adhere to. They won’t work for everyone. But maybe someone else will stumble across this list and find it useful. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Joanna Parypinski’s 10 Commandments of Writing

1. Forget that tired cliché, “show don’t tell.” It’s “show and tell.” Great fiction includes elements of both, and there are some things you really don’t need to show.

2. Speaking of clichés, forget that other one, too: “write what you know.” Write what you don’t know. I’m going to quote Richard Bausch again here, for he said it so elegantly: “Write to discover what you don’t know about what you thought you knew.”

3. Strive not for realism but for believability. However fantastical the tale, believable characters and emotions generate the strongest suspension of disbelief, and if these elements are believable, your reader will follow you anywhere. This is so important because we must remember that fiction is never reality.

4. One good noun/verb is worth ten good adjectives/adverbs. That’s not to say you should never use them, but use them sparingly. When they can be replaced or dismissed, do it.

5. Wherever possible, allow the characters to react in the way that feels most natural to them, without trying to direct the story to where you think it should go. If the characters are functioning, the story will go where it needs to go. Too much authorial navigation can seem contrived.

6. Forget the idea that there is a muse only using you as a conduit. You are the writer, and everything coming through your fingertips originated in your mind. This is your work. Don’t forget that. At the same time, try to disengage from yourself as much as possible and allow the story to take over.

7. A one-sentence description is almost always more powerful than a three-sentence description. Say what you want to say, but say it only once: the right way.

8. Make the reader feel something. Fear, hopelessness, hilarity, love, repugnance. If the reader feels nothing, no matter how literary or well-written the piece may be, then the story isn’t doing its job.

9. Revision is just as important as writing from scratch. Don’t burn yourself out on the first draft. Let it sit for a while and come back. But make sure you always come back. Don’t let it sit for too long, or it will die.

10. Just keep writing.