Revival by Stephen King

kings-revivalI don’t read every Stephen King novel that comes out (because he’s too prolific for his own good), but this one attracted me because religion is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. I consider myself a survivor of the brainwashing exercise of my youth and early adulthood.

The book starts in the mid twentieth century and charts the lifetime of a young boy, Jamie Morton, who is befriended by the new pastor in his hometown, a young man called Charles Jacobs. Pleasantly, this is not a tale of sexual scandal – which makes a change in stories of this type. The friendship is genuine. The real story begins when Jacobs preaches what local folks would later refer to as the Terrible Sermon. The pastor is forced to confront head-on the veracity of his religion’s claims; the placebo pill about God taking care of us no longer works for him, and he is determined to make everyone face the stark truth behind the comforting lies we tell each other. Unsurprisingly, he quits his job and leaves town. But this is not the last time Jamie sees him. Their paths are destined to cross in the future, more than once.

I don’t want to say too much about where this story weaves, because I don’t want to spoil any of it. Suffice it to say, yes it is about a revival tent, as you may have guessed. Does Pastor Jacobs become one of those fraudulent faith healers? Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

The best part of the novel, for me, was the conflict between the assertions of faith and the realities of experience. I became very involved with the lives of the characters, and King is his usual masterful self at bringing them to life. Some may consider this story too humdrum, but I think that depends on what topics you find interesting. Things get very dark at the end, tapping into our religious superstitions. King likes to dig his claws into the reader’s head as far as he possibly can. Unfortunately, in my case, this isn’t a place where I possess a button to be pushed. If I weren’t so self-assured, the ending would have disturbed me a lot.

Overall, an above average Stephen King story. It works for one read, but suffers from being too gloomy to ever revisit.

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Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

kings-fulldarknostarsHere we have another volume from King in the tradition of Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight – a collection of four short novels under one roof.

We open with 1922, a tale about a man who plans to murder his wife over an inheritance dispute. In order to make it work, he has to involve his teenage son in the matter. This slant gives a rather common theme a unique flavour.

Big Driver is reminiscent of the movie I Spit on Your Grave. It’s a revenge story about a woman who is raped and left for dead. Highly derivative, but superior to the film in terms of the realism of the protagonist’s actions. And it has its original moments. My personal favourite of the pack.

Fair Extension is the only tale in the volume that has a supernatural element. It’s the old “pact with the devil” scenario. A dying man gets to extend his life, only the price he has to pay is something other than his soul.

Imagine a wife discovering that she never really knew her husband. In A Good Marriage, the accidental discovery of a hardcore porn mag is only the tip of the iceberg.

These are all stories of domestic life gone awry, where circumstance has forced good people into impossible situations, where the choices they are forced to make are difficult, and in some cases unconscionable. This is the dark side of the white picket fence. King is on form.

Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay

lindsayj-dexterinthedarkI’ve given less-than-glowing reviews of the first two Dexter novels. You might wonder why I keep returning for more. The fact is, I love the TV series, and I miss it between seasons. So this is the next best thing – except Lindsay’s Dexter is not quite the same as the on-screen Dexter. I saw that in the previous books, and the trend continues here.

The hook of the character, for me, is the personal identification with the human tendency to project a fake identity – or at least the inability to be completely transparent with people. Dexter may hide himself because he has a lust to kill, but all of us have dark sides, to one extent or another. Dexter provides a sounding board for exploring that side of human nature – albeit in an overly dramatic fashion.

Dexter refers to his nastier tendencies as his “Dark Passenger.” I always understood this as his way of personifying an aspect of his own psyche. But in this third novel, Lindsay has decided that it’s actually sort of demonic entity that he carries around with him. What?! This strikes me as the most colossal blunder that an author could make – ripping the very heart and soul out of what makes the character appealing. Dexter is now no longer a man we can relate to as someone strugging with metaphorical “inner demons.” He’s infested with a real demon. So now we can’t relate to him at all. Now’s he a victim of something outside of his control – just the way that Christians blame the devil for the things they don’t like about human nature.

Anyway, in the story, Dexter’s Dark Passenger leaves him because it is scared off by a bigger demon, and Dexter is left as a shell of his former self – realising that so much of his identity depended on having the demon in the first place. Worse still, Dexter becomes a teacher of his girlfriend’s two children, Astor and Cody, who have Dark Passengers of their own. Cody can sense the bad guy supernaturally, and can also sense when Dexter’s “shadow” (as he calls it) returns to him. This is a complete nosedive from intelligent psychology to Christian-inspired superstition. It’s hard for me to see how this will get any better in the subsequent books.

In fairness, if you leave your brain at the door and just read this as a trashy horror novel, it’s moderately entertaining. But the television series (now in its seventh season) has utterly eclipsed the novels in terms of good storytelling.

Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

In my review of the first Dexter book, I stated that I had no interest in reading another, being a little disappointed with it in comparison to the excellent television series. Well, I got tired waiting for season three to come out on DVD, and I really needed my Dexter fix, so I thought, What the hell. While season one is a fairly faithful adaptation of Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, season two doesn’t follow Dearly Devoted Dexter. There are some strong overlaps in terms of the story arc, such as Sergeant Doakes stalking Dexter and Dexter’s sister Deborah forming a relationship with an FBI agent who becomes involved with their main case. It’s clear the series writer(s) were familiar with the book, but chose to go in a very different direction with the main story.

The thrust of the book is the hunt for a serial killer who is targetting specific individuals, abducting them, cutting off their arms, legs, lips and eyelids, cauterising the wounds, then placing them (still alive) in front of a mirror, for the police to find the insanely screaming remains of a human being. Who is this madman? What’s the connection between the victims? These are the questions that Dexter and team must answer before the body count rises. What makes things interesting is, of course, Dexter’s own dark nature thrown into the mix. And when Sergeant Doakes is abducted, this would appear to remove a major thorn from Dexter’s side, but would the Code of Harry be satisfied to leave things as they are?

The book held my interest for the duration of its length, but the ending was a real let-down, and is really my only gripe. All the detective work is swept adide as Dexter makes a lucky guess, leading him to the psychopath. A crude storytelling shortcut, especially for a crime novel, where real intricate detective work is what satisfies the reader. I think the television writers wisely went their own way this time, because the second series took the Dexter character into more dramatic and interesting territory, fleshing out a much more complex drama between Dexter and Doakes, as well as introducing a love interest for Dexter who turns out to be just as misanthopic as Dexter, in her own way. Once again, the series outdoes the book. Dearly Devoted Dexter is worth a read and is certainly above average. If it weren’t for the ending, I would rate it higher. There are currently four Dexter books in print. I might be back for more. We’ll see.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I started tuning into the TV series Dexter when it was partway through the first season, and I immediately liked it – so much so that I sought out the novel on which it is based. The premise is this: Dexter Morgan works for the police as a blood-spatter analyst. Under the surface, he is a sociopath, who has learned to hide it well. In fact, he has killed many times, but only according to a strict code handed down to him by his now-dead stepfather Harry. Harry, being an experienced cop, knew what Dexter was from a very early age. And so he did everything in his power to keep his step-son from ending up in the electric chair one day. He taught him to control his murderous urges, to kill only under strict circumstances, and only those who deserved to die. And so, adult Dexter works for the police, covertly solving unsolved crimes in his own special way. And the body count rises.

It’s bizarre, right? And that’s part of the attraction. No one’s written a book quite like this. It’s a similar attraction with the likes of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which puts an even worse bad guy in the driving seat of the story. But is Dexter a bad guy? Sort of. In one sense he’s a vigilante hero, but he’s still a guy with a serious dark side who comes way too close to murdering the innocent for comfort. He also treats people close to him badly, seeing his girlfriend as a wardrobe accessory that helps him blend into the human race. For me, the attraction of the novel is in how Dexter deals with being an outsider. It’s something every geek can relate to. He’s different – unnacceptable. He must do a degree of acting to live, and he hates having to do it. Inside he has a longing to be like others, but senses that he never will be. On some level it’s possible to push aside the fact that he’s a murderer and simply relate to his experience. Dexter is also a story about the consequences of shame and guilt. Even though he feels neither, he is still burdened with the need to keep secrets from the world. Anyone can relate to this. I mean, we all have things we don’t want others to know, right?

Dexter is, however, a bit of a walking contradiction. He insists that he is incapable of feeling anything, and yet over the course of the story we see him going through all sorts of emotions – just not in a typically well-adjusted human fashion. The overall story concerns another serial killer on the rampage, one who has eluded the police – and one who leaves special secret messages that are just for Dexter. Somehow the mysterious killer knows more than anyone should about Dexter’s true nature. It’s worth noting that while the book and season 1 of the series tell the same story, the series expands on it a great deal and packs some surprises into the final episodes that those who have read the book will enjoy. The two do not end the same way.

Ultimately, the explanation for why Dexter is the way he is turns out to be farcical: a single traumatic event in his life made him a psychopath. I don’t buy it. In fact, the whole idea of romanticising a sociopath can ultimately be no more than a fascinating fairytale – and possibly a dangerous one. Hey, I can kill people and still be cool!

In the epilogue, the story seems to lose direction entirely, with Dexter promising to kill someone on far shakier grounds than the Code of Harry would allow. It’s rare that I prefer an adaptation to an original, but this time the TV series gets my vote. The TV Dexter character wasn’t as dislikable, or contradictory, as the Dexter in the book. I doubt I’ll be back for the written sequel, Dearly Devoted Dexter, but I’m eager to watch season 2 (which is not an adaptation of the second novel). My continuing interest might sound hypocritical, but I’m too fascinated by the character to write him off just yet.

This was an enjoyable, original page-turner for most of its length, losing its way towards the end. There are currently four Dexter books in print.

Blood Crazy by Simon Clark

There’s no shortage of stories where the population goes mad in one way or another, although to be fair, I’m reminiscing mainly about movies. George A. Romero’s The Crazies is the earliest one I remember, although you could argue that Night of the Living Dead and its many imitators is essentially the same idea, even if the antagonists do lumber about like arthritic pensioners. Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are also variations on the core theme, which is: everyone has changed; everyone is a threat; it’s survival of the few against against an uncountable enemy. And this happens to be one of my favourite themes.

Closest of all to Simon Clark’s Blood Crazy are the recent films 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later. But where those two movies are essentially common tales of infection by bite, Clark injects a fascinating twist into the mix. We’re not dealing with a contagion at all. Whatever it is that’s making people go crazy, it’s only affecting those above ninteen years of age. All young people are safe. Safe from infection, that is. Not safe from their own parents. When the mysterious event happens, the first thing on the minds of every adult is to slaughter their own children and then move swiftly on to others’ kids.

What makes this idea especially interesting is not that it revolves around the taboo topic of violence against children, but that it presents an unusual and original survival scenario. Essentially, the young have no one to turn to for help but each other. Nor have they anyone hold them back from doing whatever they want to do. You are faced with the dual problem of not having the knowledge you need to survive, nor the discipline to behave sensibly. While many young people are a credit to their generation, there are always the few who despise authority and crave violence. And so, while the adults baying for blood, the young are indulging in sex, booze, power and cruelty. This is essentially Dawn of the Dead meets Lord of the Flies. And it makes for a high-octane page-turner of a novel.

In the past, I’ve criticised so-called horror masters James Herbert, Shaun Hutson and Richard Laymon. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve gone too far. Then I read a book like Blood Crazy and I realise I was right all along. Because now I’m reading the real deal. The story is constantly moving forward and taking the reader to somewhere new and exciting. Clark has a really snappy style that I love; I was in awe of his ability to describe events so perfectly with so few words.

I do have a couple of criticisms of the novel. The hero, Nick Aten, gets the girl at every turn. Wherever he winds up in the story, there always seems to be a pretty stranger who’s horny for him. It’s a bit unbelievable and it also conveyed some pretty poor ethics about promiscuity. Secondly, all the mystery about why the adults went insane is crushed in a single chapter where a stranger has conveniently worked everything out off-stage. And it’s not a very good explanation, at that: essentially a concoction of athiesm and new-age-sounding psychology that had the effect of alienating me as a reader with Christian convictions. Romero was onto something when he never offered a concrete explanation, in any of his films, for why the dead came back to life. Unless a writer has an imagination of astounding proportions, chances are that any explanation for something so bizarre as the dead coming back to life, or the adult population going crazy, is going to be less than inspiring.

Still, the novel survives me giving it a thumbs down on the grounds that for the majority of its pages it was a hell of a good read.

Domain by James Herbert

I read James Herbert regularly as a teenager, and hardly ever after that. My one regret between then and now is that I never read Domain, partly because it was the third book in a trilogy of which I had read the first two (The Rats and Lair), and partly because the book belongs to my favourite sub-genre: post apocalypse.

Domain was written in the 1980s and is set in the same political climate, where it seemed that nuclear war might really happen. I can remember the vague anxiety associated with the time, even though I was a child. Back then, it always seemed like World War III would be a battle between the USA and Russia. How times change. The book is set in London and gets straight down to business with five nuclear missiles decimating the city. Most people above ground perish in the inital blast. For those more fortunate, the most convenient haven is the nearest tube station – get as far underground as possible before the nuclear fallout arrives. Unfortunately, there’s another threat lurking below: rats. Not regular rats, but a mutant strain throught to have been wiped out in the previous book. Instead, they have been hiding underground, breeding. Some of these rats are as big as dogs. And they’re as mean as rabid dogs. The people who took refuge don’t stand a chance.

The story is mostly told from the perspective of Steve Culver, a helicopter pilot, who is lucky enough to find himself in the company of a Government executive, a man called Dealey, when the bombs fall. Dealey is, unfortunately, blinded by the flash, and he needs Culver’s help to get to a secret Government fallout shelter that he knows about. From there, the story follows one survival escapade after another: battling the rats, battling floodwaters, battling rats in the floodwaters, battling people-gone-bad, battling more rats, etc. I started off enjoying the novel, but after a while I started to get the impression that there really wasn’t much of a story to tell. Towards the end, I was truly sickened by tunnel after door after tunnel after door.

I felt further frustrated by Herbert’s manner of storytelling. He’s quite verbose, tossing in unnecessary words and being vaguely repetitious:

He hacked their pink bodies, ignoring their faint cries, striking, pummelling, crushing their tiny bones, making sure each one was dead, beating any small movement from them, shredding them from existence, sundering them of all form, of any shape.

What is intended as dramatic is padded out to such a degree that all I can feel whilst reading it is tired and impatient. The story is further padded out with lines of dialogue between the characters that often serve no purpose except to slow everything down and bulk up the page-count. Many of the characters themselves are cardboard cut-outs. In one scene, there were several survivors travelling, and four of the men felt completely interchangeable to me; it didn’t matter who spoke. With the exception of Culver and Dealey, I couldn’t tell the difference between the men.

It’s not all bad. The novel does have its moments. From the sublime …

Ignore the old woman sitting on the floor rocking her blood-covered head backwards and forwards. Forget about the kid clinging to his mother, yelling for her to take out the horrible pieces of glass from his hands. Don’t look at the man leaning against the wall vomiting black blood. Help one and you had to help eveybody. Help everybody and you were finished. Just help yourself.

“Those people this morning didn’t look desparate. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves.”
“Let’s just say we’ve been knocked back a few thousand years to a time when other tribes are the enemy and certain breeds of animal are dangerous. We got through it then, we’ll do it again.”

To the ridiculous …

Sharon opened the door a fraction, just enough for her slim body to slide through, the tips of her breasts brushing against the edge.

As a teenager, I might have detected a degree of eroticism in the above paragraph. Now it reads like pure cheese to me. Sharon, a survivor among a group holed up inside a cinema, is heading to the toilet in the middle of the night. Every time Herbert deviates from the central group of survivors, you know he’s simply setting up a predicable scene where he gets to revel in death and destruction. Predictably enough, a horny bloke follows the girl, intent on raping her, and the rats break in and eat them both.

I recall generally enjoying Herbert’s novels as a teenager, but always feeling there was something a little cold about them in comparison to the likes of Stephen King. Almost two decades later, I can now put some words to those feelings. I think Herbert is purely a career writer, uninterested in creating art, just looking to earn a wage. I think he has an idea about what he thinks his target audience wants, and he simply aims to fill the gap. That’s why most of the books I’ve read by him have a typical and unnecessary sex scene. That’s why there’s so much gratuitous violence and gore. That’s why the characters are like puppets moved along a stage. Herbert’s books are product rather than art.

My frustration with this book boils down to this: I’m not as easy to please as I was when I was a teenager. Well, now that I’ve read the book that I always regretted not reading, I can finally put the ghost of James Herbert to rest.