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.

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.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Robert Neville is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a mysterious plague that hasn’t so much wiped out humanity as changed it. By day, the city belongs to him. He is, for all practical purposes, completely alone – free to roam the concrete jungle, foraging for food supplies, equipment for his house, and entertainment to quell the loneliness. But come nightfall, they come out.

Who they are depends on whether you are most familiar with the original 1954 novel written by Richard Matheson, or one of its three film adaptations. Yes, three! I Am Legend was first filmed as The Last Man on Earth in 1964, starring Vincent Price. This film remains the most faithful adaptation of the novel, which is no surprise since the screenplay was written by Matheson himself, albeit under a psuedonym. Matheson didn’t want his name associated with the movie because of some changes to the script demanded by the producers. The creatures in this movie are like George Romero’s zombies with just enough brains to speak. Romero himself cites this film as influential in making Night of the Living Dead. The creatures are called vampires, and vampires they are, except for the lack of fangs – possibly a budgetary restriction. But they can’t stand sunlight, crosses, and can be killed with a stake through the heart, just as tradition states. Matheson’s novel features all that plus the fangs and a lot more agility.

In 1971 I Am Legend was remade as The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston. This time, the only vampiric trait the creatures possess is an aversion to sunlight. They are much more humanlike in terms of their rationality – they’re not interested in drinking your blood – although they’ve been transformed into black-clothed religious zealots with a hatred of technology. To them, Robert Neville epitomises everything that led to the destruction of the world. Matheson, as you can guess, was not involved in this adaptation. Although The Omega Man departs greatly from the original story, it’s still a worthwhile film. It served as my introduction to the novel. I first saw it as a child, and it was a very memorable experience.

In 2008 I Am Legend was made yet again, this time keeping its original name, with Will Smith in the title role. A massive budget went into this adaptation, and it shows. The city is fabulously deserted, decaying and overgrown, thanks to the wonders of CGI. This time the creatures are exclusively computer generated. In stark contrast to the staggering zombies of the first movie, these are fearsome, frenzied killing machines, scarier than a lion bearing down on you. Again, it’s far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it remains my favourite of the three movies for its portrayal of Robert Neville, his loneliness, his desperation, his struggles, his griefs. The director really had his head screwed on. Will Smith’s natural talent for looking cool is subdued and we are treated to a movie experience where substance wins over style.

Sadly, none of the movies bar the first has embraced the courage of the novel’s startling climax. The novel’s ending (as well as much of the content) is so different that I would gladly encourage viewers to watch both The Omega Man and I Am Legend before reading the novel. It might even enhance your reading experience, because you will be saying, “Hang on a minute. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go down.” However, save The Last Man on Earth till later, because that movie is a 95% copy of the book.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I want to share a couple of examples of what makes Matheson’s writing so good. In the story, Robert Neville has fortified his house against the enemy. He lives every day in isolaton and every night listening to the mocking cries of the undead outside his door. And then one morning, an unusual visitor shows up …

For an hour he [Robert Neville] wandered around the neighborhood on trembling legs, searching vainly, calling out every few moments, “Come on, boy, come on.”

At last he stumbled home, his face a mask of hopeless dejection. To come across a living being, after all this time to find a companion, and then to lose it. Even if it was only a dog. Only a dog? To Robert Neville that dog was the peak of a planet’s evolution.

And then, when Neville manages to lure the dog into his presence with food, he is fearful of scaring it away again …

But it was hard to keep his hands still. He could almost feel them twitching empathically with his strong desire to reach out and stroke the dog’s head. He had such a terrible yearning to love something again, and the dog was such a beautifully ugly dog.

As you can see, Matheson has a talent for both empathy and artistry. I think I’m getting a feel for the way he works. He will take a ridiculous notion that has no place in reality (be it vampires here, or a shrinking man, from another of his novels), then he will throw into the scenario characters that are totally realistic. Matheson gives you the impression that he has thought long and hard about what it would be like to be in a situation like Robert Neville’s. I Am Legend is the tale of a real man in the midst of the fantastic. Zero melodrama. It’s a short novel, barely more than a hundred and twenty pages, but it’s a more rich reading experience than many a five-hundred-page tome.

Not many novels have been made into movies three times. The fact that this one has is testament to how good it is. One of the first post-apocalyptic novels, and still one of the best.

Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

This is the third book in the Odd Thomas series. To recap, Odd is a young man with the ability to see the spirits of the dead who have declined, for one reason or another, to move on. He also sees shadow-like creatures called “bodachs.” Their arrival is always the sign that a major calamity is about to befall the area – something that will result in numerous deaths. In the past, the presence of the bodachs has given Odd enough of a heads-up to prevent major tragedy unfolding. Odd’s third ability is what he calls “psychic magnetism,” the ability to intuitively track down a person just by thinking about them.

At the close of the previous book, Forever Odd, the responsibility that Odd’s unique talents demand of him has become too much to bear, and he seeks solace away from civilisation (and the needy dead) in a monastery, not as a monk but as a long-term visitor. The place is St. Batholomew’s, located in remote mountains. At the beginning of Brother Odd, Odd has been there for quite some time, and has already built up good relationships with most of the brothers and sisters. It’s winter and Odd is watching the snow fall outside the window. It’s not something he ever sees in the hot and humid town of Pico Mundo, where he has always lived. As he watches, a lone bodach slinks towards the building – a harbinger of doom. The snow soon becomes a blizzard, and the monastery is sealed off from the world.

One of the brothers goes missing, but that’s not enough to justify the presence of bodachs. Odd plays detective for a while, trying to find out what possible calamities might unfold in a place like this. One suspect is a scientist with a strange laboratory deep underground, accessible only by an electronic palm scanner. The recent suicide of one of the brothers also needs investigating. But before Odd gets very far, something truly bizarre attacks him in the snow. He doesn’t get a good look at it, but from what he does see, it’s the strangest assailant this reviewer has heard described. Strange enough that I had to keep reading.

I liked the characters in this novel, particularly the brothers and sisters. The dullness of their clothing was certainly not reflected in their personalities. It’s clear also that Koontz has a great respect for Christianity and Christian ideals, so much so that I find myself wondering if he is one himself. Occasionally, Koontz comes out with insightful comments about life that are gems to read. I wish I had bookmarked a few of them for you. They’re hard to find now, unfortunately, because they don’t characterise the book; they’re just tidbits. It’s on this issue that I have problems with Koontz. Occasionally, Koontz will say something that reveals him to be a writer of great depth, but he never seems to choose to write a story with genuine worth. Instead, he writes typical supernatural thrillers that meander down common plot-lines, injecting into them the occasional nugget of brilliance. Koontz is super-productive, writing one or two novels per year. He’s bound to be so rich now that he doesn’t need to write so often. Sometimes I wish he would just stop and carefully examine the merit of every idea he gets, because I think he often chooses to write sub-standard ones simply because they’re there in his head.

Still, I enjoyed Brother Odd. I think it’s better than Forever Odd, but not quite as good as Odd Thomas. I was in the library last weekend and I spotted a fresh new copy of his latest novel, The Darkest Evening of the Year, but I just couldn’t bring myself to borrow it. I may read the new novel one day, but not right now. To be fair, it’s more the feeling you get when you’ve eaten too much cake (and I have read four Koontz novels in the past year), rather than the feeling you might get if someone put a plate full of doggy-doo in front of you. To draw the analogy out further, cake might taste sweet, but there’s not much nutritional value; I’d like to see Koontz cook me a proper meal, and I’m confident he could, if he put his mind to it.

The Walking Dead #2: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman

Another enjoyable volume in The Walking Dead saga, although not quite on par with the first one. For me, there was far too much dialogue. Some frames had speech bubbles that were overloaded, the characters constantly pausing to express their feelings about life in the wake of the apocalypse. I get that the author wants to tell a story with emotion as well as action, but there’s such a thing as overkill. And frankly, we’ve heard it all before, and more succinctly, in George Romero’s movies.

Although The Walking Dead was first published in serialized comic form, there are definite story arcs that fit tidily into the graphic novel format. Volume 2 tells the tale of the survivors in their camper van hooking up with a small farming family, only to discover that the father has gone a bit batty. Chaos ensues. The thrust of the story covers similar ground to themes already expressed in Night of the Living Dead (being unwilling to kill your zombified loved ones) and Dawn of the Dead (storing the undead instead of killing theme). Although entertaining, it all felt a bit like filler material between volumes 1 and 3. Although I’ve never read 3, I think I can say this because 2 ends on a note of promise that leaves you wanting more.

It by Stephen King

This is the story of a town, King’s infamous Derry, under seige by a malevolent entity that often manifests itself as a clown. Only children can see it (rather, It) – something to do with a child’s open-mindedness. To grown-ups, Derry is a normal town, but to a particular group of kids (known as the Losers’ Club), Derry is the feeding ground of a monster that lives in the sewers. These children – Bill, Richie, Eddie, Stan, Ben, Mike and Beverly – must do battle, to end the terror that stalks their town. Worse still, in later life they learn that their efforts back in 1957 were incomplete. It is back with a vengeance, determined to avenge Itself. Bill has his own personal axe to grind: he knows that It is responsible for the death of his younger brother George, while George sought to retrieve a paper boat that had accidentally swam into a storm-drain. The two stories – the children in 1957 and the adults in 1985 – are told concurrently.

I first read this massive one-thousand-page tome when I was about fifteen years old. It was quite an undertaking, and it probably took me a couple of months, but the experience was no chore. This was my first oh-so-rare experience of never wanting a story to end. Although I found the “grown-ups” sections of the novel a little tiresome, the childhood parts were pure magic. They were so good that I didn’t even care about the horror story in the background. I just loved feeling like I was a part of the lives of these children, as they played down in the Barrens or faced off their bullies. If anyone had asked me, from the time when I was fifteen to when I was twenty, what my favourite novel was, I would have instantly replied, “It.”

My, how times change. I’m now thirty-five. And what took me two months to read in my teens took two years in my thirties. The novel is far less impressive to me in adult life. Interestingly, one of the major themes of the novel is the manner in which children view life differently from adults. Their minds are more open to ideas like magic. It’s perhaps not so surprising, then, that an adult (this adult, anyway) finds a story that clings to the notion of magic far less interesting than he found it as a teen. I even found it a tad pretentious at times.

Stephen King has always demonstrated a considerable strength at portraying child characters. This is where the novel still holds up well. But the horror story that these terrific characters inhabit isn’t really up to much. It’s far too wacky to be scary. After reading a few hundred pages of this, I realised that it was failing for me. The magic had gone. I persevered, hoping that it would return, but it didn’t. And so, over two years, I slogged my way to the end in fits and starts, reading other novels in between, because this one was just too darn big and just not good enough to captivate me for commitment of time and energy required to read it.

King’s most frequent “failing” is that he has a tendency to go into detail overkill. Whilst this has the effect of slowing down a story’s pacing, it also adds a richness to the drama in later parts of a story. So, it’s maybe not correct to call this a failing. Many of King’s novels walk this uncomfortable line that risks a reader becoming bored, and if there was ever a King book that was in need of a substantial haircut, it’s this one.

Forever Odd by Dean Koontz

Forever Odd is the second in a series of novels centred around the character Odd Thomas, a young man with the ability to see what he calls “the lingering dead” – spirits of dead people who, for one reason or another, have unfinished business before moving on. It’s far from an original notion, of course, but that didn’t stop me devouring the first and second novels quickly, and anticipating the third.

I’m probably repeating what I said in my review of the first book, but Forever Odd is a great read because of its titular character, a sensitive, eccentric, deep thinking young man, dealing with a supernatural gift that has the habit of doubling as a curse.

Forever Odd begins several months after the traumatic climax of the first novel. We see Odd voluntarily unemployed, living alone in an apartment, trying to put the pieces of his psyche back together. Suddenly he is visited by a new ghost, the father of one of his friends – a man who should be vey much alive. Odd quickly visits the man’s house, only to discover that his friend has been kidnapped, and his friend’s father murdered. And so, Odd sets off in hot pursuit, his gift giving him an edge over anything the police might do.

In one sense, the novel is typical formulaic Koontz, and just when I’m inclined to view the author as a bit of a hack, he goes and surprises me with a nugget of wisdom among the pages, elevating the book to more than just the literary equivalent of a dumb action movie. Koontz, in his podcast, said the novel is about “the redemptive nature of unearned suffering.” That’s a tad pretentious, but credit where credit’s due: Koontz does inject a few good insights about life into the prose.

All things considered, the Forever Odd makes a pretty good thriller, and it has a tendency to surprise the reader (as did the first novel).

A worthy sequel. Looking forward to getting my teeth stuck into Brother Odd sometime. And I’ve heard Koontz is intending to write yet more Odd Thomas books.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz

I became fascinated with this novel as a result of Dean Koontz talking about it (and the two sequels) on his podcast. One of Koontz’s friends pointed out to him, “Do you realise you’re writing the life story of a saint?” Koontz says that book one is all about the theme of perseverance, book two unearned suffering, and book three altruism. While Koontz is not specifically a Christian, I (as a Christian) am broadminded enough to know that you don’t have to be a Christian to learn (and communicate) important things about life. And so, I began Odd Thomas with anticipation.

Odd is actually the protagonist’s real name (revealed as a possible misspelling of Todd on his birth certificate), and Thomas is his surname. And odd he is. Odd and fascinating. He has a power: the ability to see the spirits of the dead who have not yet moved on to the next life. The dead with unfinished business. And Odd makes it his business to help them. In a marked difference with the movie The Sixth Sense, Odd was never a little boy traumatised by his ability. He has embraced it as a gift. He has other paranormal abilities, too. He sees dark, mist-like, shadowy creatures that he calls “bodachs,” after a similar creature from folklore. These beings flock around people who are destined to die soon, as if drawing sustenance from their doom. Odd’s third ability is something he calls Psychic Magnetism. If he pictures someone in his mind that he wants to locate, he is able to drive around in a car and intuitively home in on them.

It’s not the abilities that make Odd interesting; we’ve seen similar things before in works of fiction and film. Odd is interesting because of his humble nature and lifestyle. In order to cope with his strange ability, he has simplified his life. He works as a grill-cook; he doesn’t own a car; his house is sparsely decorated; his wardrobe consists of jeans and T-shirts. He is humble, in terms of possessions, ambitions, and character.

The novel sees Odd on the trail of a sinister man to whom a great many bodachs flock. Something very bad is about to happen in the town of Pico Mundo, unless Odd can figure out what this man is up to and put a stop to him.

First, let me get out of the way what I didn’t like about the novel. Odd’s abilities are unrelated to each other and way too convenient, especially Psychic Magnetism. If the story requires Odd to find a particular person, all the author has to do is turn on the Psychic Magnetism and we have an instant result. It’s a lazy plot advancement device. Remember Mr. X from The X-Files? Every time the story required Agent Mulder to have a certain piece of information, Mr. X would show up and give it to him. It didn’t matter how irrelevant or pointless this information seemed; we, the viewers, were always required to believe that Mr. X had his own secret agenda that we would never know about. Instant plot advancement, in any direction the writers deemed suitable. And with Odd Thomas, instant character location, without the reliance on traditional means of investigation. No reason is given for Odd to possess these abilities. They simply are. I can accept that for one ability, but not two or three.

Koontz has a tendency to ramble off on a tangent occasionally. One scene in the book involved a character depositing a body in a disused Quonset hut. The author treated us to a two-page history of what had led to the location being abandoned. This involved the place originally being the headquarters of a religious cult and later a brothel. Why did I need to know all that? The information added nothing to the story. As a reader, I’m perfectly happy to accept that there are abandoned buildings here and there on our planet without needing to be told all the facts that led it the abandonment. Thankfully, there’s not a lot of this rambling in the novel, but when it happens, it’s a minor irritation.

The ending of the story was somewhat less dramatic than the build-up led me to believe. In the book’s last gasp, there’s a twist in the tail. I didn’t see it coming, but when it arrived, I recognised it as the same twist I already had seen in several ghost movies.

Having got all that out of my system, I need to say that I still enjoyed this book immensely. I’m conscious that’s it’s often easier to find words of criticism than praise, so I need to say that there’s no denying I had a great time. As a thriller, the novel was a page-turner, and it had me picking up the book at various points in the day, instead of only for my usual bed-time reading routine. Having read lots of Koontz books in the past, I’m not sure there’s any I would class as truly excellent reads, but I think Odd Thomas is probably the best of the bunch. It didn’t entirely live up to my expectations, especially on the “life story of a saint” angle, but I find that I really want to read the next book, Forever Odd, for the promise of that side of the story being developed.

Dying to Live by Kim Paffenroth

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of zombie novels around these days. Most of them are of the small press or self-published variety. Why is this? Well, I can speak from personal experience and say that zombies sell. Back in the early 1990s, in my late teens, I co-directed and starred in a no-budget zombie flick, Zombie Genocide. This movie simply will not die. Regularly, I get requests for DVDs, while the other – and arguably better – movies I’ve made since then simply sit there and stagnate.

Even though zombies are my favourite movie monster, I’m loathe to jump too far into this sea of fiction, for fear that I will be drowed by waves of poorly written cash-ins on a tried-and-tested formula. Dying to Live, however, piqued my interest more than the others, because the author, Kim Paffenroth, has a degree in Theology (to the unfamiliar, that’s the study of God). Zombie scenarios, to me, have always seemed like the perfect vehicle for discussing life and death, the existence of God, heaven and hell, etc. I was very interested to hear another author’s thoughts on something I had already mused upon.

Dying to Live fits snugly into the mythology created by George Romero. The zombies are slow-moving, hungry for warm flesh, and they go down with a bullet in the head. There’s nothing new about the creatures themselves, and I personally don’t think there needs to be. We begin the story many months post apocalypse, with a solitary man, Jonah Caine, who spends his days wandering from place to place, scavenging for food and hiding from the dead. Right at the start, we see him waking up one morning in a tree-hut to the sound of a lone zombie groaning up at him from ground level. After dispatching this irritation, the neverending quest for food takes Jonah dangerously far into a nearby city, where he ends up surrounded by an army of the dead. He is rescued by the skin of his teeth by a band of survivors who have made a home for themselves inside a museum. Most of the rest of the story revolves around this place: who the survivors are, how they came to be there, and their unusual way of life within those walls.

The book contains various thrills and spills regarding zombies, but doesn’t get down to anything really high octane until about three quarters of the way through. I hesitate to raise this point as a criticism, because I have to remember how much I love the old 1970s Dawn of the Dead, and the 1980s Day of the Dead, both of which had a similar story structure. And like those two films, the real threat in Dying to Live comes not from the zombies but from man’s own wickedness, and we end up with frenzied battle involving the good, the bad and the putrifying.

The book is vey well written. There were times that I paused and thought, “Wow,” at a particular description or observation. I wish I had noted down a few references to share with you now, but take it from me, the whole book exudes an atmosphere that makes you mentally say to the author, “Dude, you have been spending way too much time thinking about this stuff.” Paffenroth has no doubt enjoyed many, many daydreams in the land of the dead – which is, of course, exactly what we want! Consequently, the prose is rich, and you can’t help but think, “If I were Jonah, this is exactly how I would feel in his shoes.”

As well as the philosophical observations, the book will also appeal to those who like a more straightforward horror story. There is plenty of zombie blasting of offer, and when it’s human versus human, the author is not afraid to be mean and nasty to the good guys.

Overall, a worthwhile read, written by an author who is passionate about his subject matter.

Demon Seed by Dean Koontz

This novel was originally published over two decades ago (maybe three) under one of Dean Koontz’s pseudonyms. In a new afterword he says that, after re-reading the story and cringing a lot, he decided to re-write the whole thing from scratch. And it’s the new version that I’ve just read.

However, my first exposure to Demon Seed goes way back to when I was boy, when I had the unforgettable experience of seeing the movie adaptation on television. I don’t mean that the movie was particularly brilliant, just that it’s hard to erase from your mind the image of a computer entity raping and impregnating a woman. I’ve never forgotten that creepy metal phallus inching forward. Since an intelligent computer is the antagonist of the story, I always wondered why “demon” was in the title. It actually makes a lot more sense in the book, because the endings are quite different. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is the story of a woman, Susan, recently divorced, who lives alone in a high-tech house that is largely automated by computer, right down to the window shutters and door locks. You know where this is going, right? An artificial intelligence breaks loose from a Government lab onto the internet. (This makes me wonder just how different the original novel was, because there would have been no internet back then.) It finds Susan’s house and infects her computer system like a virus. It also locates a homicidal maniac with a computer chip in his brain that it can control. Susan is soon trapped in her own home by a computer entity that claims it’s in love with her. As well as using the house itself against Susan, the computer uses the maniac to be its “hands and feet,” bring various supplies to the house, both edible and technological. The computer’s plan is to create a child with Susan and download its own consciousness into the child, thus becoming human. This, the computer achieves by means of a vast intellect that is conveniently greater than any human reader would be able to comprehend. Unconvincing technobabble is also inserted as to why the computer is imbued with a male sex drive. But you know what? I won’t complain about that. I had too much fun with this book to complain. If you’re in the mood for an easy-to-read, light-hearted, B-movie-esque tale, this will certainly fit the bill. There is a place in my heart for such literature.

In Koontz’s afterword, he talks about how the book is intended as an indictment against men’s attitudes to women. If anything, it actually reminded me more of those insufferable “gifted children” you sometimes see on television: “All intellect and no life experience makes Jack a wee brat.” I hesitate to draw something deep and meaningful out of such a hokey story, but it reminds me of something I believe in strongly: The modern world judges people by their intelligence, but intelligence is not nearly the most important thing about a person; true greatness is measured in how much we do for others. The computer in this story, while claiming to love, was essentially just a self-centred child.

A fun story, worth reading.