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.

Advertisements

The Psychopath Inside by James Fallon

fallonj-psychopathinsideIs anyone born evil? Okay, “evil” is a very religious term; let me put it another way. Is anyone born with a genetic predisposition towards psychopathic behaviour? A few years ago, before I knew much about neuroscience, I would have answered that question with a confident no. In my naivety, I thought that equality existed in nature – that we were all born with the same ability to be good or bad. I started to rethink that when I read Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, and now, after reading James Fallon’s The Psychopath Inside, my original stance is convincingly refuted.

The typical human being feels empathy. When we see a suffering child, for instance, we instinctually feel compassion for him. It’s not a choice we make, but an automatic response. The mind of a psychopath works differently. There are particular areas of the brain that are switched off or deficient. This can lead to an emotional disconnectedness, and an ability to do harmful acts without the pangs of conscience.

Psychologist James Fallon once performed an experiment to see whether he could identify convicted murderers, purely by examining scans of their brains. The test group featured a fifty-fifty split of murderers and ordinary individuals. Alarmingly, Fallon was able to separate the murderers from the others with one hundred percent accuracy. Clearly, despite what we would like to believe about equality and freedom of choice, some of us have a genetic predisposition towards murder, and some of us don’t.

Fallon’s book got especially interesting when he turned himself into one of the test subjects, discovering that his own brain had these same psychopathic traits. And yet he is not a murderer. This finding led Fallon on a journey into his own past, not just examining how he has lived his own life, but delving into his ancestry, where he discovered a succession of murderers residing up the family tree. Fallon came to accept that he had psychopathic traits. He fully admits to being manipulative of others and sensing an emotional disconnectedness from people, even his wife. His psychopathic tendencies appear to have been kept in check by the fortuitous circumstances of his life. Had he been born into an abusive family, he might have grown up into a very different individual. It appears that full-fledged psychopaths are both born and made – a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and circumstance.

A really interesting issue to contemplate in relation to psychopathy is responsibility. Imagine a murderer getting caught, being put on trial, and holding up his brain scan for the judge to consider. “How can you hold me accountable for what I did?” he argues. “I was born this way. This is who I am. How can you blame me for acting in accord with my own nature, just like the lion that tears apart its prey because that’s its nature?” We have a “diminished responsibility” legal category for crazy people. Should we also include psychopaths in this? I wish the book had delved into this matter, but it doesn’t.

This examination into the neural basis of psychopathy brings greater clarity to the observation that equality is an illusion, striking as that may sound to the ears of polite society. Nature is not fair, as observation of the animal kingdom attests. There are winners and losers, and the whole game of life ultimately boils down to power struggles. So, the prime reason why we would incarcerate psychopaths is because of Lex Talionis, the law of the claw. We do it because we’re in charge, because we can, because we want to – because the number of empathetic individuals outweighs the number of psychopaths. So we will use that advantage to shape the kind of world we want. Fairness to all isn’t a concept that the natural world recognises. Nature is based on power, and that is all the justification we need. A truly balanced human being is one who is capable of both hostility and empathy, as each situation demands.

The Psychopath Inside is a worthwhile addition to the library of any student of human nature. Part medical textbook, part memoir – the author not only provides a great deal of research data, but is prepared to be unabashedly frank about his own life experiences.

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again by Brad Warner

warnerb-hardcorezenstrikesaBrad Warner has written several books since the publication of his excellent volume Hardcore Zen in 2003. If that book were a DVD, Hardcore Zen Strikes Again, would be the equivalent of the “Extras” menu. It’s about 150 pages consisting of seventeen chapters: some are essays from Warner’s early blogging days, others are chapters that the editor of Hardcore Zen deemed unworthy to include in the original book. Does that make the present volume a collection of inferior material? Not really. Most of the cuts were on the grounds of relavance, not quality. And I think the editor made the right choices. The chapter on vegetarianism was interesting, but comes across as a rather verbose side-issue. And the chapter on Warner’s career in the Japanese monster movie industry is really only of relevance to readers who are particularly interested in learning about the author.

Warner’s early writing was more brash than it is today, in keeping with his punk roots. But it’s no less effective. For example, this is how he desribes phoney spirituality:

All that peace and calm is a bit of a cheat, though. It’s a come-on, like a hooker flashing you a bit of leg. She’s not lying. Not exactly. That leg really is a lovely thing. And when it’s wrapped around your back it will feel very nice indeed. But it’s going to cost you. You might get caught by the cops or by your spouse, or catch some terrible disease. You’re risking a hell of a lot for that little bit of leg. Buddhist temples are like that. They show you a little taste of inner peace. But most of them won’t tell you how high a price you’re going to have to pay to make that peace your own. They sure won’t tell you it’s going to kill you.

The book doesn’t really have a distinct theme. The chapters are random, can be read in any order, and don’t build towards any sort of conclusion. They cover a variety of subjects, from a Zen Buddhist perspective: individuality, fake enlightenment, religion, the nature of reality, afterlife ideas, reincarnation, duality and non-duality, the nature of time, vegetarianism, and even writing tips. Most of it is really interesting, and Warner has a pithy way of stating matters that is very quotable. Here are a few gems that I took note particular note of:

Authority is the coward’s way of deferring responsibility for his actions.

Reality exists before our attempts to explain it as matter or as spirit. The truth exists before we give it a name.

It is only when people believe that something is above questioning, beyond all doubt, that they can be as truly horrible as we all know they can be.

Mystical types like to say that we have to realize we are God. I prefer the converse. God has to realize that He is just you and me.

You need both doubt and faith. Faith keeps you going forward. Doubt keeps you from going forward with a blindfold on.

You cannot be alone because you are always surrounded by you. You extend all the way out beyond the farthest stars. And you are as intimate as the air that embraces you and slips its way inside your body. There’s nothing here but you. Yet you’re never alone.

Each essay is accompanied by an introduction and afterword, where Warner talks about how he feels nowadays in comparison to how he felt at the time of writing. This struck me as a little odd. Wouldn’t it be better just to revise the content of the essays themselves? But I think the intention behind this book was more to provide a snapshot of the author’s life at a particular time. It feels like a “filler” book – an extra for the existing fans between the publication schedule of the “real” books. And that’s okay, because I’m a Warner fan. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this guy. I only wish a little more care had been taken with Hardcore Zen Strikes Again. I notice it wasn’t put out by Warner’s usual publisher, and it shows. Clumsy typos abound, and for some reason the publishing company chose to use unjustified text throughout and a blank line between every paragraph. Nevertheless, there is nothing amateur about Warner’s mind. Well worth reading.

Supernormal by Dean Radin

radind-supernormalDean Radin is the senior scientist at the institute of Noetic Sciences. This is his third book on psychic phenomena. His first two, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, concentrated on providing evidence for the reality of psi through statistical analysis of the wealth of experiments conducted over the past centrury or so. This new volume is largely concerned with why some people have a higher aptitude for psychic ability than others. The deciding factor that Radin attempts to identify as the culprit is meditation. The book is subtitled “Science, yoga, and the evidence for extraordinary psychic abilities.” Psi phenomena are extremely slippery to prove in a lab setting, except by doing a huge meta-analysis. But what if we could demonstrate a measurable trend, such as an observation that long-term meditators outperform non-meditators? Using a wealth of experiments, Radin builds a very convincing case.

The one aspect of the book I’m not so sure about was the wisdom of using the “siddhis” of Buddhism as a credible blueprint for a modern discussion of psi. Siddhis are the alleged supernormal abilities of Buddhist masters, recorded in Buddhist scripture. Radin reckons there is more than a grain of truth in the old scriptures, although there is almost certainly a large amount of overdramatism.

Having read Radin’s previous books, I’ve noticed that any discussion of technique was absent. It’s all well and good to have evidence for psi, but what does an experimenter actually do to cause psychokinesis, telepathy, or precognition. This absence is finally addressed in the latest volume, albeit in a rather vague way. If you want to play with psi, learn how to meditate. Why? Presumably because meditators have the required mental discipline and are competent at holding prolonged “empty” states of mind, where the ordinary, incessant mental chatter is silenced. From my own past experimentation, I concur that it is indeed the state of “no thought” that provokes psi phenomena. And there really is no shortcut achieving an effect. It takes persistent practice. I could occasionally perform limited acts of PK, using a device called a psi wheel, but only when I was daily practising. And even then it was hard to figure out exactly what mental mechanism was causing the effect. The daily practice had the effect of making it easier to slip into a state of “no thought.” Now that I’ve been out of practice for years, it appears to be much more difficult when I decide to just give it a try once in a while.

Most psi effects are small, although Radin has a striking personal story to tell about his own experience at a “PK Party”, where he accidentally ended up bending a spoon. I was also delighted to see the humble psi wheel get a positive mention, as this was my own personal area of interest and where I had some legitimate success.

Supernormal is written in a much wittier and more conversational style than Radin’s previous books. It’s very accessible, but no less deep. Although I have to say I didn’t much like the accompanying illustrations of superhero characters striking yoga poses. I think this image cheapens the credibility of psi and alludes more to those fraudulent career psychics who tout their so-called “powers.” The philosophical territory that the book deals with in the closing chapters is particularly profound. Psi phenomena provide the best evidence for the kind of non-dual underpinnings to reality that mystics have talked about for thousands of years. The book is written as a standalone volume, so there is some necesssary overlap with the previous books, in order to give a complete picture. But a little revision does us veterans no harm. I’ve learned a lot from all of Radin’s books. He is a meticulous thinker and a true pioneer. If I might indulge in a little prediction: when psi is eventually integrated into science, Radin will be looked upon as a key figure who was well ahead of the game. He’s doing really important work, especially when you consider that he’s investigating a side of reality that pioneers such as Stephen Hawking are not prepared to acknowledge. Those of us who are lucky enough to have had a legitimate paranormal experience might be ridculed, accused of fraud or self-delusion, but we know better. So does Dean Radin.

Logan’s Run: Last Day by Paul J. Salamoff

salamoffpj-lastdayThis comic adaptation of Logan’s Run is much more faithful to William F. Nolan’s original novel than the 1970s movie and television series. Gone is the City of Domes, along with the Carrousel ritual. The whole world is run by a computer called the Thinker. After a global apocalypse, this computer brings humanity back from practical extinction, but with a particular set of rules to ensure a balanced population. Everyone is scheduled for termination at age 21. Go quietly, or you will be hunted down by an elite police force equipped with high-tech weaponry able to deal out extremely painful death. These are the Deep Sleep Operatives, or DS-Men for short. Logan-6 is one of these.

The story delves into Logan’s childhood training, and some earlier back story about how the world ended. Familiar characters make an appearance: Francis (Logan’s friend who is forced to hunt him down after he runs) and Jessica (Logan’s runner companion). Like the original novel, I was pleased to see Logan remain the villain for the larger part of the story – something that was dispensed with in the movie and TV series. Where this adaptation differs substantially from both the novel and movie is the conclusion, where it treads new ground (which I won’t spoil). I actually have a soft spot for the oft criticised movie version of Logan’s Run. I liked the religious overtones of Carrousel – a population blindly believing in “renewal” through death simply because that’s the only viewpoint on offer – one they’ve been indoctrinated with from youth. In truth, I like the book, the movie, the TV series, and this new adaptation. All bring something slightly different to table, but the overall theme of a brainwashed society is central to each. Do you dare to question the norms of the world you grew up in?

This is a beautifully written and illustrated adaptation of Logan’s Run that will delight existing fans and possibly make a few new ones. It had a run as a six-issue comic from Bluewater Productions. These are now available as a graphic novel. Even better, there is a follow-up series entitled Aftermath, which examines Logan and Jessica’s life after the collapse of civilisation left in the wake of the Thinker’s destruction. I’ve read a couple of issues of this so far, and I’ve been really excited by the direction of the story. I wish I had the full set.

Blake’s 7: Warship by Peter Anghelides

anghelidesp-warshipSeason 2 of the BBC television series Blake’s 7 culminates in the fulfilment of Blake’s quest to find and destroy the hub of Federation communications, known as Star One, located just off the edge of our galaxy. Whilst this has the intended effect of crippling the Federation’s totalitarian grip on the colonized worlds, it has the unfortunate side-effect of disabling a minefield laid down by the Federation to separate our galaxy from the next – a minefield beyond which an alien invasion fleet has been waiting for entry. (Of course, why the ships can’t simply go around the minefield is never explained, but one learns to accept such silliness when revisiting much loved TV from one’s childhood.) The final episode of the season concludes with Blake’s ship, the Liberator about to embark on a near-suicidal war against the alien invaders. Avon, at the helm, shouts “Fire!” presses a button on the console, and the end credits roll.

Season 3, televised the following year, commences with the tail end of a fierce battle. The Liberator crew is forced to abandon ship using lifepods, while Zen, the ship’s computer, tries to effect repairs. Warship is the untold story of what happens during the inter-season battle. It’s the perfect place to insert a “missing” episode, and indeed the novel reads just like that. The characters are all portrayed authentically, and fans will get a nostalgic thrill from seeing new life breathed into old friends.

The book is published by Big Finish, and is the third in the series. While books 1 and 2 (The Forgotten and Archangel) are lavishly produced hardcovers, sadly Warship is confined to ebook only. The reason for this is possibly because it is significantly shorter than the other volumes. Judging by time time it took to read on my Kindle, I’m guessing it would span not much more than 100 physical book pages. Still, it’s a shame that it couldn’t be included as part of the forthcoming Blake’s 7 anthology. Another reason for not producing a hardcover might be because Warship is actually the novelization of an audiodrama, and as such, may be more of an afterthought to the main product. I haven’t got hold of this yet, but am looking forward to listening to it, as it is acted by the original cast members, with the exception of Peter Tuddenham (Zen), who has passed away. It’s pretty amazing to be able to get almost all the significant cast back thirty years after the original programme.

The story of Warship is rather good. There’s a lot more going on than merely “Liberator engages in space battle until defeated.” Blake and Cally teleport off to a nearby planetoid in the hope of finding aid, only to discover a new threat; meanwhile the crew are having to contend with an alien close encounter – aboard ship. The only part of the story that suffers slightly (and this is inevitable) is its ending, as the plot is forced to join up precisely with the opening of season 3.

Peter Anghelides is a competent writer. There were a few faux pas, as is common with small press fiction, but a forgiveable amount – think of this like the literary equivalient of the shaky sets and dodgy effects of the original series. Of the Blake’s 7 fiction released so far, Warship is definitely a high point, and somewhat restores my faith in the saga, after the slightly disappointing effort that was Archangel.

Sex, Sin, and Zen by Brad Warner

warnerb-sexsinzenHuman sexuality is a fascinating subject for study, mainly because there is so much bad information available about it. For that we can thank our Christian heritage, which made us view this instinct as something sinful and dirty, leading us to repress aspects of ourselves. Here in the West, we all grew up with that mindset, whether we were overtly Christian or not; the Christian value system permeates our culture.

Two things attracted me to this book in particular. (1) Although I’m not a Zen Buddhist, large parts of that philosophy are compatible with my worldview. (2) Having previously read Warner’s book Hardcore Zen (and especially the chapter “Personal Demons”), I was captivated by his raw honesty; I thought, “If anyone can write a useful book about sex, it’s him.”

Sex, Sin, and Zen does not disappoint. It covers such topics as masturbation, celibacy, polyamory, pornography, BDSM (yes, you heard that right!), marriage and dating. It’s all angled towards the Zen practitioner, so there are many side-issues covered such as meditation, the nececssity (or otherwise) of a priest being celibate, and a frank chapter called “When Good Spiritual Masters Go Bad.” None of that detracts from the book one bit, but simply makes it more fascinating.

Five years ago I painfully detached myself from an 18-year stretch as a born-again Christian. As I pursured my own individual spiritual path, so began a slow process of sexual healing – both from the repression, and the obsession that it inevitably generates. I would hazard a guess that the reason the modern world is sex-crazed is due to all the repression we’ve lived under. We’ve never been allowed to integrate our sexual natures into our lives in a balanced and healthy way. One of the main things I took from this book was the perspective that the sex-saturated society we live in is just as unbalanced as the extreme sexual repression of the past. Overall, I didn’t learn a great deal that I didn’t already know, but that’s no criticism. It just means I’ve already come a long way myself. I found myself agreeing with the vast majority of the author’s assertions, and I could have done with a book like this five years ago. One of the most gripping sections of the book is a lengthy interview that Warner held with ex-porn star Nina Hartley – an actress who, curiously, is also a Zen Buddhist. This is a seriously open and self-realised woman.

Sex, Sin, and Zen is written in Warner’s characteristically rambling, friendly, down-to-earth style, laced with much humour. This is not a spiritual teacher who has any interest in appearing superior to his audience, which is a real breath of fresh air for this type of book. Highly recommended for those struggling to come to terms with the sexual side of their lives, whatever their predicament.