Archive for the ‘Book Review (Non SF)’ Category

Night Shift – Stephen King (1978)

March 10, 2019

It’s been nearly four years since I reviewed a Stephen King book (11/22/63) and this time I thought I’d go way back a take a swipe at his earliest short story collections – Night Shift – to see what I’d missed the first time around. Now I’ve often marvelled not only how good a writer he is, – despite some misgivings I had reading him in the 1970’s myself – but what amazes me more is how prolific he is when it comes to developing movie material. Now it’s only natural that a popular writer is solicited for movies as producers know that good or bad  some people will come just for the King name alone, a built-in-profit slice if you will. And I can tell you without doubt that those some producers (big and small) have created both great movies as well as, I’ll be polite and just say not-so-great ones. So no small wonder that this early collection has been rifled for cinematic adaptations over the past forty years. As I read the stories I lost count to be honest so you play the Movie Count game as you read my verse terse run down of the collection.

 

Jerusalem’s Lot

Set in the locale of King’s novel/movie Salem’s Lot this tale told through letters of correspondence and a diary describes the Lovecraftian horrors residing in the area prior to vampires making it their home.

 

Graveyard Shift

Workers in a rat infested mill are offered the opportunity to make a few extra bucks by spending their holiday break cleaning out the basement of their workplace. But things like this never go well and this one doesn’t.

 

Night Surf

A post-apocalyptic tale featuring a small group of survivors who seem to be immune to a natural borne virus having suffered through the prototype mutations virus earlier in their lives. Sometimes it sucks to be immune.

 

I Am the Doorway

The lone survivor of two astronauts that had gone to Venus brought along  something. I’ll just say that I purposefully chose the paperback cover shown as it is derived directly from this story.

 

The Mangler

The Mangler is no human bodied killer but a deity that has taken over a folding machine in an industrial laundry processing factory. But which deity? Depends on the ‘ingredients’.

 

The Boogeyman

Sometimes the Boogeyman is a figment of one’s imagination. Lester Billings was trying to convince himself that it was a real Boogeyman that had killed all three of his kids. Sometimes the Boogeyman is real.

 

Grey Matter

A father turns into beer drinking blob mass and the local corner store hangers-on investigate the entity dividing like cells. Think beer guzzling Jabba-the-Hutt long before there was a Jabba.

 

Battleground

A killer for hire meets his match: miniature plastic toy soldiers. Efficiency and ingenuity meet as the Toy Story army brigade go for the big time killer.

 

Trucks

The revolt of the machines is not in the form of robots, but sentient, murderous trucks and right now they got the occupants of a highway gas stop at their mercy. Much cooler and deadlier than Transformers.

 

Sometimes They Come Back

The recollections of a teacher’s nightmares of his kid brother getting killed come back to haunt him again. But they are very real and this time he fights back.

 

Strawberry Spring

Subtler but very creepy tale of a university campus serial killer. This is part horror and part mystery, another form that King has mastered.

 

The Ledge

A eccentric millionaire forces a man to traipse along a ledge completely around the 43rd floor of a building for love, money and life. One of the three short stories adapted in the film Cat’s Eye.

 

The Lawnmower Man

When a man lets his lawn go for a spell he calls in a lawnmower man to get the job done. But this lawnmower man is directly from Hell. Nothing like the movie which is a good thing.

 

Quitters, Inc.

You think quitting smoking is tough? When you join Quitters Inc, the withdrawal symptoms become the least of your problems. But they do guarantee you’ll quit because the alternatives are too gruesome to even contemplate.  Another segment in Cat’s Eye.

 

I Know What You Need

When Elizabeth meets Ed for the first time, he seems to have exactly what she had in mind. But his uncanny knack for knowing just what she needed could not have warned her of the deadly consequences of his gift.

 

Children of the Corn

The children in a remote rural town have killed all those over 18 and now abide He Who Walks Behind The Rows. And the arguing couple who come across the town of Gatlin are about to meet The Children. The original story that has spawned no less than 10 films (Most reviewed right here).

 

The Last Rung on the Ladder

A heartbreaking story of lives drifted apart and the loss of ultimate trust that a person will be there to set things right. Not a horror story by any means but this is certainly one of the chilliest stories in the collection.

 

The Man Who Loved Flowers

Only two pages but it presents the fasting swing from a peaceful, tranquil love filled mood to one that is the opposite of all that. Packs more than just a punch.

 

One For the Road

Another tale set on dark winter storm night down the road from Salem’s Lot. Two salty locals are forced to rescue a city slicker’s family from the evil we all know too well.

 

The Woman in the Room

A son deals with his mom slowly dying in hospital room wrestling with the thought of easing her pain quickly and forever. Sordid thoughts that millions have probably contemplated.

 

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Monstrous Affections – David Nickle (2009)

December 7, 2018

I picked up David Nickle’s horror short collection Monstrous Affections mistakenly thinking he was another author whose work I read in another anthology. Basically I was in the mood for some good horror and wanted to try something other than my ‘go to’ Stephen King pile. While it was a case of mistaken author I’m glad to say the error was a fortuitous one as I enjoyed this collection. I thought that the first entry, The Sloan Men, was easily the best story in the lot and the one story indicative of the great cover art on this book in case you were as curious about that face as I was. (Credit artwork to Erik Mohr).

Here’s a rundown of the stories:

 

The Sloan Men

Meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time is always a touchy and nerve fraught affair. Moreso if your boyfriend and his father are actual monsters only you did not know it despite the clues.

 

Janie and the Wind

This Wendigo story is told from the point of view of a rather naive woman made a virtual prisoner on a secluded island by her mate. I did find that the story was creepy at first but loses a bit of its luster towards the end.

 

Night of the Tar Baby

An ex-con has picked up a few tips on mystical powers while in the slammer and raises the power of a Tar Baby to protect his family from evil. But as some members of the family soon find out, a Tar Baby does not discriminate between outside threats and those in the family itself. What is a Tar Baby you ask? Must read this to find out and you won’t be disappointed.

 

Other People’s Kids

Fezkul is a devilish imp that only children can see and who readily do his bidding. Even murder. But Sam is on the cusp of adulthood and this borderline state gives him the rare opportunity to save a popular roadside grill and park from Fezkul. A literal coming of age story that includes a bit of lighthearted comedy.

 

The Mayor Will Make a Brief Statement and Then Take Questions

A one-pager story on the hit-and-run death of a child. But buried (deep) in the mayor’s soliloquy is a subtle hint of unstated paranormal horrors.

 

The Pit-Heads

A tale of life friendship among a group of artists and how embracing vampirism may be beneficial to honing their craft while redefining ‘lifelong’. The pit-heads referred to by the title are the mine entrance sheds in which the take refuge.

 

Slide Trombone

Head scratching tale of a doped up Led Zeppelin cover band that can’t figure out how and why they have a trombone player. And then there’s the trout swimming in the bathtub. I did say it was a head scratcher.

 

The Inevitability of Earth

Another very odd tale of a young dreamers anguished life mission to find his long gone grandfather who just “flew away” one day while his family tries to keep him well … grounded.

 

Swamp Witch and the Tea-Drinking Man

This is clearly a fantasy story of a so called ‘swamp witch’ who has snatched and held a town in time. But her time has come when the ‘Tea-Drinking’ man has made the same bargain with the devil. Fantasy has never been my cup of Tea so it’s not surprising that this was my least favorite story.

 

The Delilah Party

When a sex cult tries to set up an emotionally unstable young boy for a tryst with his long time infatuation, they get more than they bargained for.

 

Fly in Your Eye

Single pager exactly fitting the title with a little shocker for an ending.

 

Polyphemus’ Cave

When a renown gay actor returns home upon receiving a telegram of father’s death the ensuing investigation on the exact circumstances include a circus, a soul-sucking giant cyclops and a circus. Guaranteed to be the strangest coming out story you’ll ever read.

 

The Webley

This would fit nicely in a Stephen King collection as it is a story about some kids in a small town, a gun (the titular Webley) and a dog. My only problem was the too abrupt ending as I really wanted more.

Helix: Plague of Ghouls – Pat Flewwelling (2016)

August 17, 2017

When I completed Blight of Exiles, the first novel in Pat Flewwelling’s Helix trilogy I was just too busy with life events to sit down and write a proper review, much to my regret. But I knew I’d have another crack before long with this, Plague of Ghouls, the second in the series.

The Helix series is based on the lycanthropic Wyrd Council that tries to control and keep secret the existence of contemporary werewolves and other mutants that have sprung up due to some genetic tampering. The shadow group has a hierarchy of sorts and have agents that go on missions to both enlist newfound members and contain rogue brethren.

The first novel introduced our protagonist, Ishmael, who was sacked and thrown onto an abandoned remote resort where both good and evil mutations were pitted against each other, the result of an attempt at a cure gone awry.

This novel is an immediate follow up to the first where the survivors including Ishmael are free again, but somewhat still under the control of the Council. When a series of mysterious deaths occur within short distance of a small town, werewolves are suspected and the Council wants to find out exactly what is going on. Are rogue werewolves scurrying unchecked? If so, any public evidence can undermine the entire secret of their existence which would imperil all members.

We are introduced to a new human character, Hector Two-Trees, an indigenous investigator sent by the Council to probe the murders and determine if one or more of the pack were involved. Meanwhile Ishmael worries if some of his own offspring were involved as well as conspiracy elements within the Council.

Part Horror, part Science Fiction and part Criminal Mystery, the novel is rich with indigenous lore, medical and genetic discourse and good old fashion crime scene investigation. While lycanthropes (and variants) rule there are plenty of other creatures including hyenas, coyotes, wendigo’s and hybrids among them all. It’s all fast paced with characters endlessly transforming or in transitional stages. The interrelationships are complex (as will explain next), with lots of betrayals, back stabbing (literal and otherwise), bad blood (literal and otherwise) and past history among the characters.

My one criticism with the novel is the same problem I had with the first in that it is character heavy. Perhaps it is just a personal peeve but I found there were just too many characters for my liking and trying to remember them all, much less their particular situation or stance at any point in the story was hard to keep track of. Making matters more confusing was the fact that depending on what form some of the characters are in at a particular time, they go by different names and identities. The central characters are well defined which keeps me in the story but I found a number of the minor characters distracting and even intruding on the flow at times. Some of those minor characters were interesting and could have been fleshed out more by paring many of the negligible and less interesting ones.

I found latter half, once everything was more clearly established and the story becomes more focused, to be much more satisfying. So keep with it if you find it a bit slow at first. And do read Blight of Exiles before Plague of Ghouls as you do need most of that background to make sense of the characters despite my still having a few problems in that area.

The ending not only satisfyingly clears up the mystery but does so with a horrific conclusion and cliff hanger that will have me back for the third installment which should be released soon.

Plans Diaboliques – Dany Dagenais (2016)

June 21, 2017

Not my usual reading fare, but in the name of national linguistic unity I thought I’d read a French book for a change and do my part to coalesce the Two Solitudes here in the Great White North. I also needed to reinvigorate those brain cells dedicated to that task as I get to practice my French oral deftness at work but rarely do any reading in the language. I do read French on occasion but not as much as I did in elementary and high school when I hated doing it. At that time I was even forced to read a few novels as part of the curriculum, but hardly the types of novel that pique my interests. Being so out of practice, what I needed was something I could digest in smaller doses like a collection of short stories. Luckily I happened to picke up just that from author Dany Dagenais at a local comic convention last year. Plans Diaboliques contains an entertaining assortment of stories that range between horror, science fiction and just a touch of the bizarre in snippets that are easy enough to understand and teach me a few things along the way.

The pocket sized glossy softcover – who’s uncredited cover artwork should be attributed to Sv Bell judging by some of his previous work – comes in at a moderate 156 pages contains the following eight stories

6 Degrés de Séparation: “6 Degrees of Separation”

A fast paced alien parasite story in which a neck burrowing, tentacled invader hops from one person to another chasing some ultimate unknown goal. As new characters are introduced they just as soon become the next host for the alien and are then used bring the alien one step closer to that goal. But’s that goal remains a mystery during the deadly journey.

Destin: “Destiny”

A simple but entertaining take on a visit to a clairvoyant by a highly skeptical woman. Despite some evidence that the gypsy seems to know personal information the skeptic makes a mental checklist of the typical ploys and tactics used by con artists to garner repeat business. When the psychic dispenses the three staples – Money, Love and Death – the woman is satisfied she is a fake. When some of her predictions begin to become true in a impossibly short time the woman steadfastly she refuses to believe the last ominous one.

La Chose Dans Le Sous-Sol: “The Thing in the Basement”

One of the longer stories in the collection about a man who discovers a … well a “Thing”, in his basement after tracking down the source of a recurring noise. Transitioning from fear to fatherly concern, the relationship develops until the man decides to introduce his new friend to the woman who recently left him, convinced that it was just a misunderstanding.

Le Fossoyeur: “The Gravedigger”

What does a young gravedigger do when he starts hearing shouts and banging coming from the coffin he is about to inter? A highly predictable outcome but the scant few pages make for a fun few minutes of reading.

Le Banquet: “The Banquet”

When little oversized orphan Xavier finally gets adopted by a wealthy couple, it appears like a dream come true. Living in a mansion, lavished with gifts, taking exotic vacations on a personal jet are all perks bestowed upon him by his new parents. But having a personal chef attend to his every culinary whim is the best fringe benefit of living the high life. He can hardly wait for the big annual feast his parents arrange for all their friends.

Une Bonne Journee “A Good Day”

A little magic restores a meat butchers vigor to run his business despite a few bad apple customers who harangue and complain in the face of all his efforts to please. An odd form of revenge in this decidedly weird tale.

Marie-Jeanne “Mary-Jane”

When young Thomas and his girlfriend are caught indulging on a bit of weed by the girl’s father he is surprised that not only is the father not mad, but has a tale to tell of his own drug laced adventures. But the father, barely able to contain his annoyance with greedy and simple-minded Thomas, has a surprise and hallucinatory ending.

La Thérapie de George le Peureux “Scared George’s Therapy”

George has a fear complex that bundles more than a few phobias. In fact his panic spans to just about everything you can imagine. As he pours his heart out to the patrons in a local bar, rather than pity the poor man, they give him a solution. One that changes his life in the literal sense.

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection (available at indiepress.net and look forward to reading his next collection – Slinger Sister – which I also recently picked up. Et je suis sûr que mes compétences en lecture française se sont améliorées.

Psycho – Robert Bloch (1959)

August 9, 2016

Psycho-BlochMultifaceted writer Robert Bloch has excelled in just about every genre of literature, winning a Bram Stoker award for his horror, a World Fantasy award, as well as a Hugo for the genre for which he is probably best known overall; science fiction. But without a doubt his biggest hit came with the novel Psycho which was  adapted to film a year after publication by Alfred Hitchcock into the iconic thriller masterpiece.

As I assume most readers here are familiar with the movie adaption I won’t bother with an overdrawn synopsis of the plot. Besides, it’s not one of those stories you can give almost any detail without spoiling some aspect of the story. Suffice to say that’s it’s one of the all time greatest horror thrillers and is just as popular today as it was back then. But as the classic movie adaptation has far surpassed the original novel in popularity, two questions come to mind. The first question is whether the source novel is as good as the movie on it’s own merits and the second question is how close is the Hitch’s adaptation to the source?

Just as there are a number of clues in the movie that hint at Norman’s relationship with his mother, so too does the novel tease readers on the matter. While deftly skirting the truth, reading between the lines of both Norman Bates’ spoken dialog and the events as portrayed in the novel, the cat is never let out of the bag, yet those already in the know can see the foundations of the truth. Yes, the novel is just as finely crafted as the movie and deserving as much respect as the film. The written form is even better suited to having the reader exactly in tune to Norman’s perspective on things which of course deviates from reality in a few regards.

Comparing the movie to the source we find a mix with a significant portion of the movie script closely following the original for much of the story, but at the same time diverging significantly for particular aspects. The first relatively big change is the physical appearance of Norman Bates himself, in that the slim, suave and tidy Norman in the film as portrayed by Anthony Perkins was actually an oafish, overweight alcoholic in denial here. It was odd reading those few descriptive passages of Norman as we’re all so familiar with Perkins’ rendition. There are a few small changes in events and particulars, but none of any real significance to the major plot.

Like any great thriller, the greatest enjoyment is when you are first introduced to it, regardless of format. Given that, I would say that anyone unfamiliar with the movie may just as well start with this novel and enjoy the surprise ending as originally conceived. But do get to watch the movie if you haven’t already as the performances and imagery in some key sequences are unforgettable.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. Mother is calling…

Memos from Purgatory – Harlan Ellison (1961)

March 21, 2016

Memos From PurgatoryI’ve always enjoyed, if not loved Harlan Ellison’s writing. Always controversial, sometimes golden hearted, sometimes grade A  jackass, a leading social rights crusader and staunch supporter of the ERA only to them negate all that credence in a shocking infantile public display of sexual objectification (by groping fellow science fiction grand master Connie Willis onstage at a Worldcon awards ceremony no less). Spanning a career over 60 years and garnering every conceivable genre award imaginable, his talents extend to award winning television screenplays and even comics.

He is vocal on every subject that touches rights and freedoms, a voice for writers and pay equity, and with a litigious bent, he’ll make sure you notice him if you ever cross him in any way. He’s pretty hard to ignore and while you may disagree with some of his ideals, you have to respect the writing.

He’s one of the few authors for whom I can read any of his speculative fiction as well as essays (for example his discourses on television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat).

His introductions are sometimes just as entertaining (and volatile) as the book’s content. All this to say that he is one of those writers for whom I will read (and enjoy) anything he writes, on any topic, in any genre or style.

Memos from Purgatory is one of his earliest books, following in the vein of his first book Web of the City where Ellison revisits the topic of juvenile delinquency and street gangs. But this time it is a non-fiction recounting of his few weeks infiltrating a New York gang for the sole purpose of documenting the goings-on, and indeed writing this book. As circumstances would later dictate, the book became a two-parter, when years later the remnants of his gang days come back to haunt him.

He begins by moving into hostile neighborhood in 1954 where he quickly wriggles his way into a teen gang, The Barons. He rapidly digests the culture, rules, and roles of all the hopeless souls that inevitably fall prey to such gangs, sometimes because there is nothing else to occupy the time, sometimes by sheer necessity and choosing the lesser of alternate evils. There among the others with nicknames like Pooch, Flo, and Fish he transforms into ‘Cheech’ Beldone for a number of weeks. But in order to be a member of the gang he must endure several initiation rites, making new friends and enemies along the way. His final initiation test is to take part in a rumble against a rival gang, and when that day arrives, having absorbed all he could handle and then some, takes a beating and an exit to gang life, in that order.

The world of the gang life is richly described in terms of the anguish and misery that most if not all of his new found ‘friends’ toil in. A world of homemade ‘zip guns’ (when the real thing is not available), junkie fixes, ad-hoc leadership and stringent turf boundaries. A grimy existence, temporary for the author, but not those who have to live in the ghettos. Above all else is the violence from both within and outside the confines of his gang Harsh,unrelenting and sometimes deadly.

Once Harlan wrote the book the first time around, he then took to holding public lectures about his experience and even going on television at some point. Part of his lectures included shocasing his cache of weapon which included an unregistered gun. It was holding onto that gun that led to his arrest five years later and then being thrown in jail overnight because of that illegal (yet explicable) faux pas.

While he did garner some sympathy even from the arresting officers, he then met a foe that for a time seemed just as fierce as his gangland rivals; the mind bending legal system and how ‘justice’ is meted. The latter half of the book (now edited to include this second chapter) describes in sordid detail the de-humanization sustained once caught by the system, where “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean you have to be treated with kid gloves until you get that verdict. Abased equally with some real criminals, drunks, psychotics, and others probably just as innocent (if not just as stupid) people as he was, they are all human trash for that time.

The one common thread to the entire book is the utter despair he found in both situations, neither of which some innocent people can escape as he was able to do, freely being able to simply move back to a decent neighborhood when it was time to leave the gang, and having friends being able to come up with a sizeable bail when he needed out of jail (the crime subsequently being stricken from his record).

I have to admit that while the reading was interesting, I found it nowhere nearly as compelling as all his other books and stories I’ve read over the years (over a dozen books including The Essential Ellison, a massive collection of his then 35 year career of short stories and novellas). While the energetic dynamo of a writer is in evidence, he was still a bit green at this point in his profession. A good book but not as nuanced and seasoned as the writer most of us are familiar with. So with some caution, I would say that this book is fine for Ellison fans, but if you’re not familiar with him there are many other books of his you really should be reading before this one.

While I have not seen it myself, the initial story was optioned and picked up as an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, however it was significantly altered from what he wrote.

And last but not least, I would be remiss if I did not include a link to my one and only bizarre encounter with the man himself and how that encounter presented it’s own typical Ellison dichotomy. You can find it here, but you’ll have to scroll way down into my lengthy 2006 Worldcon report (and excuse my early faltering attempts at blog writing): https://lazaruslair.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/7/

Stir of Echoes – Richard Matheson (1958)

March 5, 2016

A Stir of EchoesRichard Matheson not only established himself as one of the greatest writers of horror fiction with his seminal novel “I am Legend” (adapted to screen in three distinctly different, yet entertaining movies) but also cemented his stature as one of the greatest genre television writers having scripted many classic episodes for the original The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Night Gallery, his own series, Circle of Fear and even wrote Steven Spielberg’s TV movie Duel  about the ghostly 18 wheeler menacing a man driving a car on a desolate highway.

A blend of mystery, horror and science fiction, his stories and novels have been widely adapted to the silver screen as well with adaptations that include The Incredible Shrinking Man (The Shrinking Man), Somewhere in Time (Bid Time Return), The Legend of Hell House (Hell House), What Dreams May Come and the more recent Real Steel.

With all of the above writing credentials you could imagine the high expectations I had for Stir of Echoes, a novel I’d squirreled away for a rainy day and one I swore I would read before watching the movie adaptation I have sitting on DVD shelves.

Tom Wallace develops ESP like powers after being innocently hypnotized by his brother in-law at a dinner party despite being assured that he was released from the hypnotic trance. When he begins seeing late night apparitions of a mysterious black dressed woman in his house, he and his expectant wife begin a rapid descent into an uncertain and nerve-wracking household. As his abilities intensify, his cognitive powers begin to peer into the thoughts and visions of his fellow neighbors and the landlords next door. Eventually Toms capabilities begin to have him react to particular objects upon touch.

The social get-togethers with two neighbor couples exude nuances of infidelity, naivety, lust and mistrust. These fragile relationships among the three couples soon fall apart once Tom’s inferences boil to the surface. Meanwhile the status of former tenant, a sister of the woman who is his current landlord living with a foreboding husband, becomes a concern as they learn of the last tenant’s abrupt departure and lack of communication with anyone since.

Toms and his wife, now in a fragile bond themselves, start to piece together the clues leading to conjectures that may explain the mystery of the former tenant. When their supposed gruesome fate is proven to be conclusive, they confront the guilty party, only to find one more surprise.

I found the first half of the novel to be fairly timid, focusing more on Tom and his wife’s struggles with his new found powers rather the the obvious mystery at hand. The novel does pick up interest and intrigue as they concentrate more on the meaning of his perceptions, but the buildup falls flat at the end, and suffers doubly when presented with a contrived surprise ending that is both clumsy and a cheat. While entertaining, I expected more from Matheson, especially the ending.

I have both the Stir of Echoes movie and it’s sequel Stir of Echoes 2 (A.K.A Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming) sitting on my shelves and will be watching them sometime soon, if for no other reason than to hope that they improved on that unsavory ending.

11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011)

March 7, 2015

11-22-63-coverNever one to be pegged into a hole, horror meister Stephen King has dabbled into many other genres before including mystery (The Colorado Kid) and fantasy (The Dark Tower series) and even plain drama (The Shawshank Redemption). He even wrote the underrated science fiction The Running Man, under his Richard Bachman non de plume. But writing a science fiction time travel story was stretch even for him. And what better topic to tackle than the assassination of JFK, one of the most controversial and conspiracy ladled event in history.

Jake Epping is a simple, middle of the road school teacher when Al, the owner of his favorite dinner, confronts him with an impossible yet incontrovertible time travel portal that he stumbled upon at the back of his storage room. The quirk of the portal is that it places travelers to a specific time and place, 11:58 a.m. September 9,1958, Lisbon Falls, Maine, every time they enter. Once they return, they have lost exactly two minutes in contemporary time regardless of the time they have spent in the past. Al, now visibly order after having just returned from a multi-year trip to the past, then tells James of his master plan to reconcile one of recent history’s greatest misfortunes, the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, an act that he believes could eliminate the Vietnam war and other tragedies.

Al used to make regular pilgrimages to the past, regularly buying extremely cheap meat that he brought back to sell in his dinner. When Al got the idea to make meaningful changes he traced and followed Lee Harvey Oswald up until a short time before the alleged actual shooting, taking detailed notes of every aspect he could, but not being able to avert the killing himself. Now on his deathbed, he wants Jake to take his notes and follow through to change history.

With some trepidation Jake agrees, but only by first trying to correct another crime earlier, opting to change the life of one of his former students. But changing history is tricky business. The harmonic forces of nature fight back and the bigger the change you’re trying to effect the greater the push back. After averting a murder that would impact the formative years of his future student, Jake returns only to learn that while he did positively impact his students conditions growing up, the end result was not what he expected.

But now convinced he could can change history, he decides to forge ahead (well, not ahead, behind in fact) and sacrifice going back to 1958 again, and then living out the intervening years until the title date of 22nd November 1963, the date that Kennedy was killed. Jake takes on an entirely new persona in the past, but road to complete his mission does not only encounter natural forces putting up stumbling blocks, life gets in the way. Jake discovers that the past can be quite, comforting and innocent place, devoid of modern nuisances. And then he meets Sadie…

Clocking in at 840 odd pages 11/22/63 is what I like to call a Brick novel. The second trip back for the actual Kennedy mission starts only slightly before halfway point of novel. So the novel is really two journeys, the first laying the foundation and some of the ground rules for time travel. That is not to say that this is a padded novel. King manages to hold interest throughout, most of it being quite riveting. If anything, the pace loses a bit of steam after the ‘event’ and some tough decisions that have to be made by Jake. But the distinction between the first and second time travel trips can almost be considered as two great stories for the price of one, both trips peppered with anecdotal historical events which in themselves can be engaging. In short, another great King novel.

The Phantom: The Hydra Monster (1973)

December 29, 2014

The Phantom - The Hydra MonsterLee Falk’s action hero The Phantom was at one point one of the most read syndicated Sunday comic strips with a readership that numbered in the tens of millions. Predating superheroes like Superman and Batman with a 1936 debut, The Phantom’s adventures continue to be published  today. While the character appears to be immortal sporting such nicknames as “The Ghost Who Walks”, in actual fact Kit Walker is just a regular guy who currently bears the costume that has been passed from one generation to another in the Walker family going back hundreds of years. Well ‘regular guy’ may be stretching it a bit for a hero who’s companion and sidekick is a wolf named Devil and who owns properties around the world (usually one being conveniently located wherever his latest case takes him) and has his main domicile in a Skull shaped cave in the Amazon jungle.

The Hydra Monster is one of a series of Phantom novels that were published in the 70’s. Although the cover highlights “Lee Falk’s original story”, this particular story was not written by Falk himself but is instead credited to Frank S. Shawn in the inside cover. (Falk is credited with other novels in this series.)

The ‘Hydra Monster’ referred to in the title is no creature, but rather the name of a global crime organization and one time nemesis of past Phantoms. The Hydra is a mythological reference to the multi-headed snake that grows a new head whenever one is cut off. In this case it embodies the notion that this network of criminals can never be brought down as any successful attempt to nab  members is simply replaced by new members elsewhere.

The novel is actually centered on an offshoot faction of Hydra, called the Vultures. As their name implies, the Vultures are opportunistic in that they swoop into areas of the globe having recently succumbed to any great disaster. Taking advantage of the fact that authorities are busy with duties beside crime fighting under such duress, the Vultures descend and brazenly liquidate museums or other national treasures.

One of the oddities of the novel is that Kit is often not in Phantom costume at all, but simply a ‘man about the world’ using connections and other means to target this sudden resurgence of Hydra. There are still plenty of gun battles, fist fights and a lot of sleuthing as well as visiting faraway destinations to spice up the action. There are even a few bona fide surprises although they aren’t too hard to figure out before long.

If you like a decent (but somewhat brainless) pulp fix, this’ll do the trick. If nothing else it’s a great way to get reacquainted with a pretty cool character with some great swashbuckling history.

Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Larry Tye, 2012)

September 14, 2014

Superman-bookLook. Up in the air. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s one of the most iconic characters ever created. It’s Superman.

This latest entry into the history of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic creation has everything you’d expect. Starting from his humble roots in a Baltimore bedroom from the then teenage creators, to becoming the first real comic book mega star, before moving onto all other forms of media from TV to movies. This book chronicles both sides of the printed page, the major milestones in the creators lives and the development and dispersion of the character in all media.

The first few chapters goes into detail how the boys finally got publisher DC comics to buy their little piece of the super character long before his origins, powers and weaknesses were fully developed. Even his strength varied greatly over the years, from the simplistic “Faster than a speeding locomotive and able to leap tall buildings” (yes, he could not even really fly in those early days) to having the almost insuperable power to move planets and suns to eventually having to tone down his powers in order to make some things challengeable and have more interesting stories.

Interest in the character himself alone would quickly fizzle out were it not for the many other secondary characters surrounding him including his parents (both adoptive and birth), friends, and lovers, naturally with emphasis on Lois Lane who dominates the Superman pages second only to the man himself, and these are covered in detail as well.

When it came to the early years of Superman, the original TV series starring George Reeves was almost as influential as the comics themselves and in some ways more so. The mysterious circumstances of the actors death is just a small part of the drama before and behind the camera lens that are discussed, conspiracy theories and all.

Fact is, Superman, the supporting characters, and all the events they lived through on the printed pare were rarely consistent because of the many writers who helmed all the comics. But this book doesn’t only do a great job of pointing out these deviations. When DC decided it was high time to make things ‘correct’ not only in the Superman universe but all the other comic characters in it’s stable it came up with the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries that not only described the many parallel universes it devised to explain the inconsistencies, but created a cataclysmic solution to collapsing it all into one definitive universe. This book does helps sort out the end state for Superman as a result of Crisis. After Crisis, the next big ‘change’ in the Superman story was another ‘reset’ with the new Man of Steel series created by John Byrne in 1986, which, for a while at least, redefined Superman.

Of course the series of Superman movies starring Christopher Reeves are here as are the more recent Lois and Clark and Smallville TV shows. Some of the more interesting aspects of these not only include the constraints placed on the show makers, but how one of the shows haphazardly ended up having Superman killed off in the comics (in as much as a fictitious character can really die in a comic anyway).

Of course, along with success comes controversy and ultimately friction. Those familiar with the comics are probably also familiar with the many legal and moral battles Siegel and Shuster (and then their families after they themselves passed on) launched against DC comics almost as soon as the honeymoon years were over and the treasure trove that the character became was fully realised.  While most of it is well captured here, even a book published only two years ago was not able to fully envelop the lawsuits that continue to snake through the courts even today. Sadly, one cannot escape the fact that the only thing more American that Superman and apple pie is a never ending lawsuit.

But Superman (like the lawsuits) will live on and so will books like these.