Haunting TV Reads PANDORA

If you checked out all the participating blogs for Coffin Hop this past Halloween, you may have stumbled upon the art blog Horror Made or its partner YouTube channel, Haunting TV. Both are run by the brilliant and talented Jeanette Andriulli, who drew, as part of her monster series, the Pumpkinhead that I won for Coffin Hop:

PumpkinheadNow the multi-talented Jeanette has chosen to spotlight PANDORA in the book excerpt series of Haunting TV, “The Spider’s Nest.” In the following video, you’ll find a chilling dramatic reading of one of my favorite scenes from the novel complete with stunning original artwork. Click, like, share… and enjoy!

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An Interview with Horror Author Scott Kenemore

The Grand HotelFor today’s Coffin Hopping, I’ve got a special treat for you! Bestselling author of Zombie, Ohio; Zombie, Illinois; Zombie, Indiana; and The Zen of Zombie, Scott Kenemore, is here to talk about Halloween, zombies, and his latest book, The Grand Hotel, which is available now! Run, don’t zombie-walk, to grab yourself a copy (Trust me: I read it, and it’s amazing).

And now, the interview…

Joanna Parypinski: Hi, Scott. ‘Tis the season for horror (and Coffin Hopping!). With that in mind, what’s your favorite thing about Halloween?

Scott Kenemore: I just like the way Halloween makes me feel. October is a great time of year. I think starting school in the fall trains us to feel like that season is always “the beginning of things” for the rest of our lives, even if we’re no longer students (or teachers). And who doesn’t like hay rides, haunted houses, and ghost story telling?

JP: Agreed. Let’s talk zombies! Zombies have become extremely popular in contemporary media. What is it about them that you find most scary or compelling?

SK: I like how zombies occupy a strange spot in our brains so that they feel “friendly” and “unfriendly” at the same time. When your sister comes back as a member of the walking dead, she’s somehow your sister and not-your-sister at the same time. Zombies can be very human and relatable, but concurrently repulsive and exotic and “other.” It’s an odd and unique effect. Sigmund Freud has a great essay called “The Uncanny” about this sensation.

JP: Your Zombie series involves invasions in various Midwestern states (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana). What about these settings appeals to you? How important is setting in your writing?

SK: I like setting my zombie outbreaks in the locations where I’ve lived because I’m curious about how these places would handle the “stress test” that zombies create. Zombie, Illinois was set in many of the places on the south side of Chicago where I used to work in community development. The character of Leo Mack is based on a number of pastors I knew who managed large- to medium-sized congregations in high crime, low income neighborhoods. It was interesting for me to think about how the south side community would do in a zombie outbreak, especially compared to more affluent Chicago neighborhoods where people might be depending on security systems and police presences that wouldn’t be there anymore. A lot of films and books have already told the story of “zombies in the suburbs.” I wanted to cover some new ground.

With Zombie, Indiana, I was interested in examining the impact of zombies at the governmental level. In lots of zombie fictions, characters briefly interact with “headquarters”—or whatever remains of the government—but we never get more than a small taste of what it’s like for the people who are trying to keep order and run things. In Zombie, Indiana, I wanted to look at what it would be like for a high-level administrator when the zombies rose up. Accordingly, one of the main characters is the Governor of Indiana, and over a third of the book takes place in-and-around his “war room” at the state capitol.

With Zombie, Ohio, I was also interested in a new perspective—that of the zombie itself. In many mythologies, zombies are a virus. When I was formulating how this book was going to work, I was thinking about those real-life cases of people who contract a virus but never get ill, or don’t get ill to the same extent that others do. For example, I think it’s something like 1 in every 100,000 people who get HIV never get sick. They have HIV. They can give it to other people. But it never makes them unwell. I was interested in translating that to a zombie virus. What if there’s a guy who dies and is reanimated by the zombie virus, but unlike most zombies maintains almost all of his wits? What if he’s lost most of his memory, but wants to figure out who he was and why he died? What if he learns he was murdered, and decides to solve the mystery of who killed him and why?

JP: I think my favorite book of yours might actually be your latest non-zombie tale, The Grand Hotel, about a desk clerk who leads a group of visitors on a creepy tour of a mysterious, mouldering hotel. What was your inspiration behind this book? How did you come up with the idea?

SK: I’ve always liked collections of interconnected short stories… especially when the stories are interconnected without first seeming to be. I think the all-time best example of this is probably a novel called Betrayals by the British author Charles Palliser.

But the biggest inspiration definitely came in the form of The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, which I read in early 2012. It’s a story cycle arising out of the oral traditions of ancient India, and tells the tale of a king who has to solve riddles contained in 25 different tales in order to reach his goal. It was first put into Sanskrit by an author named Sivadasa around the year 1100, but its oral composition probably dates concurrent to the writing of Beowulf. Yet I feel like the stories in The Tales are written with a worldliness that makes them feel like they’re from the nineteenth century, not the ninth. The narrative voice is so charming and clever, and everything is done with a wink. It’s just lovely.

I think—as with most ancient texts—The Tales is, however, hampered by the fact that it was written for an audience with a very different set of narrative expectations. I suspect if contemporary readers were given The Tales with no historical reference, there’d be a lot of “Wait…why are you telling me this again?” and “So…what does this detail have to do with the main story?”

I have probably never been as creatively galvanized by a creative work as I was by The Tales. I don’t know if The Grand Hotel is a “retelling” or “reimagining” exactly —only a couple of stories in my book are adapted directly from it—but it is, at the very least, a powerful homage.

JP: The Grand Hotel has a unique structure. When you were writing it, did it feel like writing a novel or like writing a short story collection?

SK: I think it felt more like writing a novel because each short story was something that the characters in my frame-story were listening to, thinking about, and—in some cases—searching for clues in. In this way, I felt like that same group of frame-story characters was always present, always with me.

JP: Which of the stories in The Grand Hotel is your favorite? Why?

SK: Ha! Good question.

I think editing a collection of stories is like mixing an album. (I am also a drummer.) After a while, you’ve been over the stories/songs so many times that they all start to blur together in your head. You become unable to say which one you like the most, or which one feels the most interesting.

With an album, when outsiders listen to it, they can usually tell you right away which song should be the single. I had a similar experience with the early readers for The Grand Hotel. Most of them said their favorite was a story about strange happenings aboard a space shuttle mission. It’s actually a reworking of a very old, traditional American ghost story. I just updated it, and tried to add a couple of surprising twists. But there you go. I’m glad people feel I adapted it effectively.

JP: Anything else in the works—another installment in the Zombie series, or something new?

SK: I am working on a few different things, but mostly allowing myself to take it easy for the rest of 2014. I had two books come out this year. That was a lot of work!

JP: Thanks so much for doing this interview! I hope everyone gets a copy of The Grand Hotel for an excellent Halloween read.

Thanks for joining Scott and me in today’s Coffin Hopping! Don’t forget to enter my Halloween Mad Libs Contest. Voting for the best response starts on the 28th.

Happy Coffin Hopping!

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/.

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

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.

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.

Book Review: “Hot Sinatra”

hot-sinatra-front cover6Axel Howerton is truly a master of tongue-in-cheek humor, and he delivers in spades with the hard-boiled noir comedy, Hot Sinatra. If you don’t know Howerton, you’ve clearly not spent enough time in the horror blogosphere: he is the leader of the annual Halloween extravaganza called Coffin Hop, as well as the author of the darkly comedic story, “Living Dead at Zigfreidt & Roy.”

Hot Sinatra follows old-school private investigator, Mossimo Cole, a sarcastic tough guy who’s really a bit of a teddy bear at heart. Things go south for Cole when an elderly client asks him to find his one-of-a-kind record featuring the only time Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald sang together. Turns out this record is highly sought-after, as mobsters come after Cole, delivering some serious beatings that he takes like a champ.

The love interest in this updated noir tale of revenge and jazz is a fiery redhead who also happens to be the daughter of Cole’s grumpy old client. She and her young daughter get caught up in the danger and intrigue as Cole struggles to uncover the mystery of the record, upping the stakes as he tries to save not only his own skin, but also the lives of his ladies.

A zany cast of characters comes to call, including an alcoholic Irish rockstar, a grandmother-slash-drug cartel queen, and a pair of gay henchmen who go by the names Manlove and Kickerdick. It’s through these characters that Axel’s talent really shines: he paints a canvas of believable, equally loveable and hateable characters whose lives tangle and unravel around one another. I laughed out loud at their shenanigans, and I suspect you will, too.

Axel’s prose zings with a sharp wit that seems to come effortlessly to him, and if you’ve read a couple of his works, you’ll find an amazing versatility in his writing. Axel Howerton truly makes the small press proud, delivering the kind of excellence you always hope to find when picking up a new book. Hot Sinatra is a snappy read that will keep you engaged until the last page, and then leave you wanting more. I hope we haven’t seen the last of Mossimo Cole, but even if his story is over, at least we know we haven’t seen the last of Axel Howerton. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.

Under the Dome: Book vs. Show

Under-the-Dome-21

Now that season one of CBS’s “Under the Dome” is over, we can look back to its source material—that 2009 tome by Stephen King—and see how the show sizes up against the original. King has stated that the show is not a direct adaptation from the book, but rather a parallel story in which the dome has a different explanation. Still, there are strong echoes of the novel throughout, from the main characters to that strange repeated line, “Pink stars are falling in lines.” To be honest, neither the show nor the novel knocked my socks off, but they were both passably entertaining distractions.

So which is the more successful iteration of King’s story about the small town trapped under a mysterious dome? To answer this, I had to ask a few questions: Which is scarier? Which has better writing? Which has more interesting and engaging characters? Which has a better storyline? A clear winner emerged.

SCARIER?

under-dome-cow

I have to admit, the cow was pretty cool.

Though it’s not anywhere near King’s scariest work, I would still classify the novel as horror. The murders are gruesome. Drugs and religious zealotry play with reality and fear. Halloween plays a fairly prominent role. And there are some creepy moments of necrophilia.

The show, however, strays quite a bit away from horror. Even though it’s still a town (of some bad and psychotic people) trapped under a dome, somehow everything is just… so adorable. You know Junior, the crazy dude with wicked migraines who killed and then raped a couple of girls? In the show, though he kidnaps his girlfriend, we are somehow led to believe it’s only because he loves her in his own twisted way. Instead of images of burning and Halloween, they give us images of butterflies, mini-domes, eggs, and a surprising amount of pink. Way too much “pink stars are falling.”

Quick, guys! Run away from the horror... of the butterflies...

Quick, guys! Run away from the horror… of the butterflies…

Answer: BOOK

BETTER WRITING?

Every time I tuned in to “Under the Dome” on Monday night, I ended up cringing at some of the sloppy, stilted writing. The characters all seem a bit dumbed down, telling us what’s happening on screen as if they have a constant need to explain reality to each other. Often they all agree upon a conclusion based on one person’s gut feelings, rather than clues or logical explanations. The show loses its attempt at mystery in too much vagueness… like when our group of heroes decides who their leader must be (the “monarch” from the dome’s inane message, “The monarch will be crowned”) based on the flight pattern of a special undead butterfly…

King’s logic in the book, on the other hand, is a little more solid. The book explains more than the show, but of course the show has been left deliberately at a critical moment to get the viewer to tune in for season two. Though there is a lot more depth in the book, to arrive at that depth King had to write a seemingly-endless 1,000-page narrative that ended up being overlong, overdramatic, and kind of a drag.

The show writers decided there would be a spontaneous fight club for an episode. So there was.

The show writers decided there would be a spontaneous fight club for an episode. So there was.

Answer: BOOK

BETTER CHARACTERS?

The book’s characters are more fleshed-out than the show’s version, due mainly to the extended character study and backstory. Some characters, like Junior and Big Jim, are much creepier and more psychotic: forces of evil that cannot be persuaded to back down. Barbie is much more than the pretty face on the show. Julia, unfortunately, is just about as annoying as she is on the show, thanks to her silly story about getting her pants pulled down in second grade, and how that somehow changed her as a person.

"I just... don't understand why I have to be called Barbie."

“I just… don’t understand why I have to be called Barbie.”

The show’s version of the characters are mostly awkward and wooden. Even Dean Norris (Hank from Breaking Bad) who plays Big Jim can’t quite salvage the show’s muddling of his character. The child actors (including goofy Joe and whiney Norrie) say everything so emphatically. And of course Junior isn’t the twisted necrophiliac he is in the book.

Answer: BOOK

PLOT TRAJECTORY?

When I was watching the show, I often ended up thinking to myself: what the hell is going on? For some reason, there is a mini-dome with an egg inside, and only four specific people can touch the mini-dome without getting shocked, and a butterfly makes the entire dome turn black, and pink stars shoot out of the ground when Julia throws the egg in the water, and why is any of this happening? The finale offered no answers. I still have no idea what’s going on.

“Hey, guys… did we drop acid?”

The book was much less focused on the fantastical elements that baffled me above, and instead provided tense, frightening, and even harrowing scenes (I just remembered that awful gang-rape scene…) depicting people reacting badly to a crisis situation. Though I found these scenes more interesting than the ones in the show, the overall story was too long and puttered to a lame and predictable ending.

Answer: BOOK

Obviously if I were to pick which incarnation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome is better, my choice is the book. That’s not saying a whole lot, though, since I found the book largely unsatisfying. Here’s to hoping King’s next offerings, both in literary and visual forms, will exceed the mediocrity doled out by both versions of the story of Chester’s Mill.

Book Review: “Summer of Night”

Summer of NightAs someone who adores Stephen King’s IT, I was immediately drawn into Dan Simmons’ world in Summer of Night, with its group of kids who realize they are the only ones who can stop an ancient evil from destroying their small Illinois town.

The first thing we’re introduced to is Old Central: a school with much history that is about to be torn down. When summer begins, so do strange occurrences centering around the school, including the disappearance of a student and a horrific sighting one of the boys makes through the window of the school, involving their dead teacher.

Simmons fully immerses us in this world before he sets loose the chaos, letting us know who the boys are and what life is like in Elm Haven without loosening any of the tension already in place—the mark of a great horror writer. It is perhaps because Simmons is drawing from his own childhood in the real-life Elm Haven, as well as from his childhood friends for the characters, that the novel fully comes to life; nevertheless, the imaginative and fantastical elements do just as much to drive the story.

When one of the boys uncovers the shrouded history of the Borgia Bell—an ancient relic connected with murder and said to be in the closed-off belfry of Old Central—the disturbances in town focus their attention on him. The others must figure out the truth, which certain adults are keeping from them, before the evil comes after them, too. Said “evil” includes the Rendering Truck, which Van Syke (school janitor and cemetery caretaker) uses to haul dead animals; a ghostly soldier in outdated attire; and mysterious underground tunnels created by many-toothed lamprey-like creatures.

This book is rich, layered, complex—but also just a little too long, in my opinion. For much of the novel, the pacing keeps you right along with all of the characters as they try to solve the mystery, but there were times in the middle where it dragged just a touch. There are a few times when the boys come up with some sort of plan, but the reader is not privy to it before it is set into motion. That made me feel deliberately left out of the loop, and wondering why I cared about the scene if I didn’t know what it was they were trying to accomplish. But these are minor issues that hardly take away from the whole.

And the whole is a truly entertaining and well-written horror novel. The characters are engaging and realistically-drawn; the setting of the small 1960s Midwestern town is pitch-perfect; and it all climbs its way towards a violent, action-filled, tense climax with plenty of horror to go around. I admit, I was just a little disappointed by the final revelation of the ancient evil—I think, after the buildup of mystery, I was hoping to know more about the nature of the evil—but there are bad guys aplenty to thwart the boys at every turn, and the ending is satisfying.

Despite my minor quibbles, I enjoyed this one a lot, and I’m planning on reading the sequel, A Winter Haunting at some point in the future.

FINAL VERDICT

Storyline: 8 out of 10 giant lampreys

Characters: 10 out of 10 giant lampreys

Originality: 8 out of 10 giant lampreys

Writing Style: 9 out of 10 giant lampreys

Scare Factor: 8 out of 10 giant lampreys

Overall: 8.5 out of 10 giant lampreys