[ Best and Worst ] The Desert Gem, and One Steaming Pile

The Best: Dune by Frank Herbert

Dune by Frank Herbert is the best book of all time. I know this to be true, because reading the saga of the desert planet left me dehydrated and sleep deprived. For a couple days one summer, as my mouth grew dry and my skin shrank against my bones, I felt sure I was on Arrakis without a Stillsuit. But what are basic needs next to uncovering the political machinations of an intergalactic struggle?

Let me be clear: I do not often step into a science fiction book and leave my suspension of disbelief behind. Dune was different – disbelief was never an option.  I could feel the desert, and the story has a symbiotic relationship with the environment. No other book has quite so thoroughly created a rich ecology and political hellscape. It’s great. Every conversation is full of lies. There are assassins on both sides of the battle. There are badass females who do mind control with their voices. Nothing is safe in the book – even walking normally can summon monsters of the deep sands.

In brief, the House Atreides is appointed to rule the Spice-rich planet Arrakis. But when the House settles into the desiccated, sandworm-ridden dustbowl, chaos ensues. Clashing cultures, politics, betrayal, religion, and assassination attempts bring violence and awesome. Paul, the heir, rises to become the least annoying messianic figure in sci-fi/fantasy literature. Think Avatar, but less Pocahontas and more desert perfection. And way more awesome. How awesome? You’ll pass out from dehydration before it occurs to you to put the book down and get a glass of water.

So. Awesome.

And then there’s Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck P. is one of those writers. You love him or hate him. I loved Fight Club. I loved the thriller aspects, the antisocial and dissociative identity disorder bit (though psychologically dubious), and the casual mayhem. The book was easy to connect with. Counterculture, slick, and disillusioned. The 99 Percent who want to punch someone in the face. So I was thrilled when Anchor Books gifted me a copy of Choke. The back blurb looked promising. A sex addict med school dropout turns historical interpreter and moonlights as a con artist. All to pay for his mom’s elder care.

Little did I know that the book would be horrendously boring. My prior exposure to Chuck P. was limited to Fight Club and ‘Guts,’ the flinchworthy story from Haunted, which Jessica Jonas called out for its disgust and shock value in her best/worst post. For me, it was a brilliantly executed piece of transgressive fiction.

Choke attempts to follow in this tradition, using shock value to make up for a whiny and unpleasant narrator, a lack of suspense, and predictably unrealistic plot twists. Around the point that the narrator’s three-days-stuck anal beads and backed up organic matter are exploding all over the interrogation room, I yawned. Chuck tries to shock new readers while amusing jaded ones, but he has been too successful in the past to get by with this approach. Choke is all cough and no asphyxiation.

It all comes down to suspension of disbelief. Dune is a marvellous example of sci-fi transcending the genre norms and spawning a fully realized and habitable world. Whereas Choke takes the real world and makes it utterly unconvincing, ugly, and boring. Dune creates a realistic ecology, politics, and intergalactic drama so filled with tension you can’t put it down. And the impact each has on pop culture is telling: Choke was turned into a barely noticed movie.  Dune has had a pervasive pop cultural influence with a movie, miniseries, massive number of sequels, and enthusiasm that continues long after it was published. Everyone, including Christopher Walken, knows that one must walk without rhythm and it won’t attract the worm. Instant win.

That’s my best and worst—now what about you? What book suspended your disbelief and refused to let go?


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[ Book Review ] Thinner: The Skin and Bones of Horror

Thinner by Steven King

Since I was little, something about the October air and Halloween displays sends me venturing into scarier shelves.  I’m not much of a horror lover for the rest of the year, but reading a scary novel around Halloween time is a tradition of mine.

Last year, Stephen King’s The Shining scared me so badly I was jumping at shadows for a month. This year, I decided to return to his work, this time going for Thinner. I knew when I read the back blurb that this book wasn’t going to be half as chilling as The Shining was; what I didn’t know was that I shouldn’t even bother reading it in the first place.

Thinner follows Billy Halleck, a hefty, fat-cat-type businessman, who has the misfortune to hit an old Gypsy lady with his car. She’s killed, but her even-more-ancient father, the Gypsy with the rotting nose we hear about over and over, curses him with a word: “thinner.”

From that point, he can’t stop losing weight, and must embark on a quest to find the Gypsy and convince him to reverse the curse before it’s too late.

The main issue I have with the book is that it just isn’t scary. The rotting nose is a little gross, and I can see that if I were losing weight as rapidly as Billy does, I’d be worried, but for a reader, an overweight character dropping some extra weight doesn’t exactly send chills up and down the spine. Maybe it’s just me, but when Billy was gibbering in terror over being 40 pounds heavier than my (admittedly quite skinny, but still healthy) fiancé, I wasn’t moved. King tries to up the ante by cursing a few more people, like the cop at the scene of the accident and the judge who dismissed the case without so much as a tap on the wrist. This backfires, too, as the curses are more laughable than creepy (one gets lizard scales; the other, giant pimples, I kid you not).

King’s gift is in finding real, natural fears, and Billy’s growing resentment of his wife is the scariest part of the book, but it lacks the urgency and crescendo of Jack’s resentment and anger toward his family in The Shining. In The Shining, Jack’s got a compelling need to redeem himself–he loses his job and the trust of his family due to a violent streak and hopes to prove himself. Billy’s got a soft life, a vanilla family, and a vanishing belly pooch. He wants to reverse the curse, but I am left wondering what will change in his life when he gained the weight back. Be a more careful driver, maybe? Not exactly gripping.

Besides the lack of scare factor, there were a few minor annoyances in the book that irked me just enough to snap me out of that nice reading hypnosis you fall into under good storytelling. For one, the doctors diagnose Billy with the extremely rare disorder: “psychological anorexia nervosa.” This, despite the fact that Billy doesn’t exhibit any of the symptom of anorexia nervosa beyond weight loss, and in blatant disregard of the fact that anorexia nervosa is already a psychological disease, not a physical one. I’ll believe in a Gypsy curse, but I refuse to believe in a team of doctors that doesn’t have a clue about how eating disorders work.

The other annoyance is very brief, but equally egregious. Stephen King name-dropped himself. As in, he had a character call another character out for “acting like someone in a Stephen King novel.” Ouch. I’m sure he meant it to be clever or amusing, but I don’t think there is any way to pull that off without sounding awkward at best, and madly egotistic otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m forced to dip down into the lower Canary registers and rate this as One Canary–more fun to make fun of after than to read. If you like horror, there are times when Stephen King will certainly fit the bill, but give Thinner a pass.

What’s your opinion on Stephen King? Any hits I should try or clunkers to avoid? And now that we’re in the crunch time before Halloween, what should I read to get my horror fix?

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[ Small Chirp ] The Elements of Horror

Years before I became one of those Neil Gaiman fans, I picked up Coraline at the Vancouver airport to wait out a layover. I read the book in its entirety before the plane even boarded, and handed it off to my travel partner, throughly happy to get the novella out of my hands and out of my mind. It had, more than anything I’d ever read, given me the absolute creeps.

Had I been as well-versed in Gaiman then as I am now, I would have been better prepared for his particular approach horror. He presents everything in a straightforward manner, as though the fantasical is an everyday occurrence. He weaves horror into the normal, letting it creep into the parts of the brain that positively tingle at the sight of something out of place. And then we realize that the eyes have been replaced by shining black buttons as happens in Coraline.

I tend to not read books that are billed as horror. I have a weak constitution for terror. But that has made me remarkably unprepared for it when it sneaks up in books. I don’t see the warning signs; I just suddenly find myself holding my breath and listening to my own rapid pulse in my ears. And what amazes me the most is the many different ways horror can rear its head out of the blue.

These are my favorite elements of horror:

1. The Sideways World. Perhaps my favorite element of horror is the character/situation that is ever-so-slightly off kilter–not enough to send up red flags of doom, but…perhaps enough to set off little internal alarm bells. Gaiman is a master of this, especially in his short stories and YA books. Coraline and the Newberry-award-winning The Graveyard Book both establish worlds that are just slightly offset from our own to such a degree that when the weird things begin to happen, the reader’s so off center that the mind cannot cope.

2. The Tilt from Normal. In the titular novel of Michael Grant’s Gone series, a character is holed up in a run-down shack in the middle of nowhere. And out of the pitch black night, someone is calling for her to leave the safety of shelter. Grant describes the voice in terrifying detail, the gravelly quality, as though the person has not spoken in days. How it almost sounds as though it isn’t a person speaking at all, as though it is something else, something otherworldly. Something…distinctly not human. Grant plays out the moment, so that that mind connects the dots and takes the first step off the cliff into the terrifying unknown.

3. The Relentless Rush.  Unlike my other picks, which are subtle and often slow-paced, sometimes there is nothing better for a scare than the never-ending situation from Hell. I read one most recently in Mira Grant’s Feed. It was a zombie battle that went on for pages before dying down into a lull of safety.

But the safety is a brief interlude before another wave hits. Then another. And every time the characters seem safe, something new is thrown at them until I am on the edge of my seat, gripped with paranoia, just waiting for the next scare to emerge.

How about you Canaries? What is your favorite element of horror?

Tell us about your favorite creepy scene from a book.

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Halloween Week: Scary Stories

Seeing my swashbuckling self now, you wouldn’t believe it, but I was a huge scaredy-pants when I was a fledgling. My friends read the Goosebumps series; I couldn’t read the summary on the backs without glancing nervously behind me, sure that something was creeping up on me. Most of the year, I stuck to stories free from ghosts, monsters, and unhappy endings.

Every October, though, when the librarians put out the Halloween displays, everything changed. I was drawn to the collections of scary stories–and always ended up checking one out. I could handle most of what I read, but there was invariably that one story that scared the daylights out of me, reducing me to a sweating, whimpering mess when it came time to climb the dark stairs to my room.

One year, it was the story of the Wendigo, a wind spirit that made people run until their feet caught fire. In it, a trail guide returned to camp swaddled in a blanket. When the others, angered by his silence, pulled the blanket away, all that was left underneath was a pile of ash.

One year, it was a story of a demon scarecrow that killed the farmers one by one and laid their skins on the roof to dry in the sun (I still say that story had no business in a book for kids).

My mother tried to discourage me sometimes. Several years of early-November nightmares were enough to convince her that the scary books should stay on the shelf.

“Are you sure about that one?” she’d say in the check-out line, staring at the skull on the cover. But I would not be denied. Continue reading