Posts Tagged ‘ horror ’

Peter Clines – 14 (Book Review)

14 cover

14 – Peter Clines

Nate Tucker’s inexpensive new LA apartment seems too good to be true, but it also comes with a lot of quirks. Several doors are heavily padlocked, one unit has a reputation for suicides, and the cockroaches are actually mutated. Despite the building manager’s threats, Nate soon finds himself obsessing over these mysteries, putting his job (and possibly more) at risk. This is the set-up of Peter Cline’s novel 14.

14 is an enjoyable page-turner, though the journeyman writing keeps it from ever becoming engrossing. Cline’s descriptions get hung up on details about the way an item is laid out or a person performs a simple task. It’s never bad, but it often keeps things from flowing smoothly. If this book engrosses you, it will be because of all the twists and secrets, not because you get lost in the prose. Similarly, the quantity and variety of the oddities can be a little hard to accept, as are some lucky coincidences that keep Nate’s investigation moving forward. (Strangely, though, some of the later things he uncovers are huge, and don’t actually rely on him following the trail of breadcrumbs that led him through the first half.) The characters are quirky, even by LA standards, and though the book promises that they have secrets, it’s more that they all have exactly the right skill sets to move the plot forward.

Still, Clines’ gifts lie in the plotting, and the story definitely progresses smoothly while raising the stakes and ensuring that new details are uncovered frequently. Most chapters are a few pages each, with cliff-hanger endings, making it easy to read. (These chapter breaks feel a little forced once you realize that they are consistently placed after surprises instead of at logical breaks in the action. Conversations are often split between two chapters so that one chapter can end with a surprise revelation, but then a major scene change will fall in the middle of the following chapter.)

Strangely, I appreciated 14 as a mystery-thriller novel, but Clines intended it to be a horror novel. It does seem a little creepy at the start, because it is scary to think of moving into a new building where you might not be safe, but that aspect quickly fades away once it takes on the structure of an investigation. Nate and his new friends follow patterns that seem safe and formulaic, in which pieces come together and curiosity is rewarded. This is the stuff of comfortable thrillers, not horror novels. Bad things happen to people, but they’re at the points in the plot where someone should be expected to pay a price. The big reveals late in the story do have some trappings of the horror genre, but by that time, my thought was just “I wonder how the intrepid gang will get out of this!” Had it been a horror story, I would have been wondering if they were going to get out of it.

14 is never as clever or original as it apparently intends to be, but it’s a fun genre exercise. This was one of the three books I was recently reading simultaneously for my book clubs, and it was often the one I was most eager to come back to. On the other hand, when it ended I didn’t feel any need to keep thinking about the story or to look into the author’s other works.

Grade: C+

 

David Wong – John Dies at the End (Book Review)

John Dies at the End cover

David Wong – John Dies at the End

David Wong, the author of John Dies at the End, is a pseudonym for Cracked editor Jason Pargin. Cracked, of course, is that humor site that turns out to be full of bitterly intelligent essays with sophisticated points hidden behind the obscenities. John Dies at the End brings that same sensibility to horror-comedy. It doesn’t necessarily make any larger points, but it’s easy to read while building an atmosphere that’s both juvenile and consistent. It proposes that the reality behind what we see is one bad drug trip, and then sells that premise.

More comedy than horror, John Dies is about lazy fuck-ups who learn to see demons and ghosts. The only thing that saves them is that the powers that want to destroy humanity are as dumb as they are. On the other hand, maybe only someone with their approach to life could withstand the barrage of surreal sights that they face. Though there are some consistent rules being built behind the madness (again, just like Cracked), the book is full of absurd humor. Whenever you start getting comfortable with this mix, though, horrifying things will happen to shake you up.

This often works great. Wong is a funny man, and he has a clever take on one of the clichés of horror: The idea of people being insignificant specks in a malevolent universe is a common theme, but it’s difficult to make the reader believe in the incomprehensible beings that are supposed to be out there. Wong finds a mix that lets him dial up the weird humor to a level that would normally be annoying, but in this case it’s a representation of just how wrong our everyday expectations are. By really making the reader feel lost sometimes, the message is conveyed.

However, John Dies works much better at the beginning. The story was serialized online, apparently with modifications, over the course of years, and the collected version still feels episodic. Early on, it feels like the author has free reign to go in any direction he wants, and the unpredictable story is a lot of fun. By the end, it feels like Wong is trying to force a plot into this. Some people get traditional story arcs that don’t fit the anarchic sentiment the book opened with, and the things that aren’t explained feel a lot more arbitrary once certain mysteries are figured out. It’s still funny, but the one thing that really does bug me is the way it derails that horror formula. The heroes become too important and are watched by the bad guys. I can’t shudder at the idea of being lost in an incomprehensible universe when the main characters turn out to matter after all.

Despite that, John Dies at the End is a hilarious, unique book. It’s smartly stupid humor and quirky worldview are worth experiencing.

Grade: B

 

John Lindqvist – Let Me In (Book Review)

(Note that this has been published in English both as Let Me In and Let The Right One In. The author prefers “the right one”, and I also find that to be the more evocative title. I bought the copy with the title Let Me In, though, because I liked its cover much better.)

Let Me In cover

John Lindqvist – Let Me In

A while ago, I wrote an essay about the appeal of horror. After reading John Lindqvist’s excellent Let Me In, though, I notice an important aspect that I missed before: Horror plots remove all our preconceived notions about whether things will end the way they “should”, letting us truly experience the story without knowing where it will go.

As someone who loves getting lost in stories but doesn’t automatically like blood and gore, this may be a major part of horror’s draw for me. I think that most modern stories (especially movies) have abused this feature to the point where it loses its meaning. The shocking notion that the heroes could lose eventually turns into the expectation that they have to lose, and eventually we end up with plots just as formulaic as the ones they replaced. (My least favorite one is where the hero appears to win a standard victory, but then the final scene has the surprise revelation that they actually lost.) It’s yet another example of horror’s subversive potential being turned into something safe.

Let Me In has none of that, though. While I had a lot more knowledge than the characters, and could therefore mutely witness some of the tragedies unfolding, I really didn’t know how the larger plot would go. It ends better for some people than others, but it’s not immediately obvious who will get what conclusion. And, of course, these endings have little to do with what the people “deserve”. Sure, there are clear (and very satisfying) plot arcs in retrospect; Just because a story is unpredictable doesn’t mean it should be chaotic. The important thing is that I don’t feel like Lindqvist was following a clichéd path.

This book is definitely not for the squeamish, though. It starts by establishing a triangle between a cold-blooded child vampire, a pedophile too hesitant to act on his urges, and a bullied young boy with a growing obsession for serial killers. From there, it introduces a cast of related characters in the neighborhood, and heads off in some unexpected directions. If you feel that any of that could make you uncomfortable, you’re probably right. It never feels exploitative, though. This simply unfolds naturally from its unsettling premises.

Fundamentally, Let Me In is about people more than the supernatural. Alcoholism, abuse, and broken relationships do more damage than actual vampire attacks, and those are all presented as part of the same dirty world. (The unrealistic elements, helpfully, remain understated, with just enough details to help us accept that vampires exist but remain rare and unknown.) It’s a coming of age and love story in the tragic vein that Robert Cormier might write, with a perpetually-twelve-year-old outsider and a typical bullied kid giving each other strength. Characters are never detailed, and the writing feels a little stilted at times, but Lindqvist uses peoples’ actions to sketch out believable character portraits. Though the children feel more fully realized than the adults, everyone is sympathetic. Horror is most effective when you can feel for everyone involved, even the ones on opposite sides of a fight, because then you know that someone will get worse than they deserve.

An enjoyably disturbing work, and most of all fair (within its cynical worldview), Let Me In is a story that I would recommend most of all to people who want to get carried away in a good story. There’s no larger moral or philosophical question to be discovered here, but it does provide a completely fresh look at a tired premise.

Grade: A-

 

Elder Sign (Game Review)

Elder Sign box cover

Elder Sign

Most horror-themed board games disappoint me for reasons similar to those for dungeon-crawlers: The cool theme takes precedence over game design, and it ends up being broken in some way. Richard Launius’ games avoid the worst of these problems, but usually feature overly complex rules and still have a few annoyances that betray the theme. Despite the complexity, they also seem to be solvable at some level: I’ve never lost one of his cooperative games. I don’t like Arkham Horror, the popular game he designed with Kevin Wilson, at all. It’s with some surprise that I found their latest effort, Elder Sign, to be fairly tolerable. It’s a clever take on themed Yahtzee, and while I think the mechanics have more potential than this game realizes, my two plays of this were enjoyable (even if I knew I was winning the whole time).

A selection of cards in the center of the table provide challenges. On your turn, you’ll choose one and roll dice to beat it. After each roll, the symbols on the dice must match one of the rows shown on the card. It’s easy at first, but gets harder as you set those symbols aside and then roll again to match the other rows. If you can’t, you must discard one, making it even harder. (You also get to “focus” one symbol to keep it without re-rolling, though.) If you can match all rows on the card, the encounter is defeated. Each one offers different rewards when defeated, as well as punishments if you fail.

Close-up of dice and cardsThere are, of course, many more quirks to the game. Some encounters have additional ways to punish players who fail rolls, and monster tokens can make encounters more difficult. Reminiscent of Arkham Horror, each player has a character with stamina, sanity, and a special ability. There are different categories of items and cards, which can be used to change symbols, add more powerful dice to the roll, and so on. But the group must draw from a deck with harmful events every few turns, and some of the encounters will also cause problems until they are defeated. Also similar to Arkham Horror, each game pits the players against one of Lovecraft’s elder gods, with different special effects depending on the particular enemy.

To win, the players need to collect a certain number of Elder Signs before a number of Doom Tokens come out. If they fail, they get one last chance to banish the evil god with dice, but it’s very difficult, unlike Arkham Horror’s embarrassingly easy “kill Cthulhu with tommy guns” end-game. Even so, this victory condition is underwhelming. Good cooperative games usually involve tension increasing as you near the conclusion. In this, beating an encounter for the final Elder Sign rarely feels any more eventful than the first one you got.

Though I think that the gameplay is better than Arkham Horror, the theme is much more arbitrary: Even if you try to take the time to read the flavor text and tell stories about it, there is little feeling that the encounters (“Don’t Fall Asleep” or “The Hedge Maze”) are anything more than an excuse to match symbols. Also, there is very little player interaction here, making this feel less like a cooperative game and more like solitaire with long delays and a sudden conclusion. I feel like the mechanics could have been used in a different way. Admittedly, I don’t have any good suggestions: In a competitive game, it would probably be too easy to fall behind due to one bad roll. It’s better to falter as part of a team. Still, it feels like the game needs more ways to affect each other.

Despite all that, the basic dice-rolling mechanic is fun.  It is interesting to decide when to spend resources to improve your odds, as well as which encounter to choose from the ones in the middle. I do wonder if there is a better way to use the system, but I still found the game interesting.

Grade: C+

(Images above from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the original and photographer credit.)

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Thoughts on Lovecraft

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of the Horror and the Macabre

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are well-known, but not frequently read. I personally had only read a few before I went through the Bloodcurdling Tales short story collection last month. Given that, I’m more interested in discussing the stories than giving them a formal review.

So, in brief: This is a collection of classic horror stories that often manage to be atmospheric and creepy. They seem clichéd, though, with flowery prose and predictable last-paragraph twists. As with many classics, the aspects that made it influential can be found everywhere now, and the flaws (as well as the things that simply didn’t age well) have been left behind in those new works. You can still see what made these stories so great, but they aren’t the must-reads they once were.

Grade: C+

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are my thoughts on these stories. Basic familiarity with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos is assumed, but this should be pretty easy to follow even for those (many) people who haven’t read them.

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The Appeal of Horror

A couple of days ago, Alicia commented on one of my blog posts. In response to my claim that Pump Six And Other Stories is a horror book because we can see ourselves and our culture in the worst parts of the stories, she said:

That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

I began a response by differentiating between a couple types of horror, but I immediately started finding new branches of things to say. So I never wrote the comment, and it spent a day bouncing around my head. Now I want to discuss exactly what the appeal of horror is.

I don’t watch very much horror, so I welcome feedback from anyone who is more immersed in its subtleties.

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