[ 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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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

[ Best and Worst ] The Beauty and Beast Within

When CanaryTheFirst invited me to do a guest post, I was excited. Then she told me the topic (your “Best and Worst Reads Ever”), and I almost broke out in a cold sweat.

It’s not that I don’t have a best read ever. Of course I do. It’s just that… well… it’s something I’ve never shared with anyone before.

See, my best reading experience had very little to do with the book, and everything to do with the experience of reading the book.

First, let me tell you about the book. It’s a tiny little thing, only 162 pages long.

It’s The Sacred Prostitute by Nancy Qualls-Corbett, a treatment on the Eternal Aspect of the Feminine, published by Inner City Books. A friend gave me the book because he knew I was writing a novel involving the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, but I was having trouble bringing her character to life. I had very little information on her that wasn’t dried-out fact or archeological evidence.

I had never heard of Jung before.

The title and nature of the little book embarrassed me. I didn’t want to be seen carrying it around, so I covered it with nondescript wallpaper. Now I could read and be amazed incognito.

Once I agreed to write this post, I wanted to find my copy of The Sacred Prostitute. I started digging through my boxes of packed away books. It took a while, but–there! It was like finding an old friend or a favorite stuffed animal, its wallpaper covering now worn and yellowed. That little book took my world-views, and turned them upside down–or rather, right-side up.

I know, I know…what’s the book about?

(Just so you know, I’m having pitch-slap PTSD…)

The Sacred Prostitute by Nancy Qualls-Corbett

Qualls-Corbett tells us about the historical goddess representations of Ishtar, Inanna, Venus, etc., and explains how sexuality and femininity were once valued aspects of society. Next, she delves into the psychological archetypes of the sacred feminine and how the perception and denial of sexuality influences our societal evolution. The book ends by touching on how we might reconcile the very concept of sexuality with our current belief-systems, mainly Christianity.

Cracking open the cover of a tiny book ushered an entire paradigm-shift in me as the reader. It was an awesome light-bulb moment that changed how I viewed myself as a woman. I was raised to think of sexuality as a dirty topic, off-limits, not discussed. When I went to college and learned a little of the Freudian perspective, it pretty much reinforced that negative view.

Jung’s concepts, though–now that was something altogether different. The author’s treatment of the topic of values, societal attitudes, and the advent of Christianity and patriarchal codes…it made me feel glad to be a woman.

It set me free.

***

My worst reading experience is going to be a lot easier to describe.

At first I wondered, how does a person have a worst reading experience? Why not just fling the book out the window if it’s that bad? After a bit more thought, I realized I did have a bad experience, once, with a book I’d read from cover to cover.

I cursed the author the entire time I was being sucked into a world I didn’t want. That book was…

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I didn’t want to have anything to do with this book to begin with. I knew of King by reputation, and as far as I could tell, wrote about the things I was more comfortable not thinking about…but stupidity reigned over common sense.

“Dr. Louis Creed and his wife Rachel chose rural Maine to settle his family and bring up their children. It was a better place than smog-covered Chicago — or so he thought. But that was before be became acquainted with the pet burial ground located in the backwoods of the quiet community of Ludlow.”

It’s that pet cemetery that brings their dead cat back to life–but the cat comes back different. Wrong. And it’s that pet cemetery that calls to Doctor Louis Creed when he loses his toddler son. He can bring the child back to life, but at what cost?

The cost is too high.

Now, it’s not that the book  isn’t well-written. It is. And that was the problem. Once I’d started, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to put the entire story out of my head, in fact, but I couldn’t. And then I was angry with myself afterwards for finishing it.

Books like Pet Sematary illuminate the worst nightmare of all parents–the main character’s son is killed by a semi-truck when he runs onto the highway. Then King takes it a step farther and preys on the pain of the parents who want so badly for their dead child to live again.

It is not a book I’d ever want to revisit again.

***

Conclusion:

Now that this essay is written, I’m amazed to see that there is a tie-in with my best and worst reads. As Carl Jung unveils and gives life to the mysteries of human psyche and desire, skilled horror writers like Stephen King prey on them.

It would seem that I prefer the unveiling to the exploitation, but I think that in reality, all best-sellers capitalize on that exploitation of secrets. It’s what make us, the readers, tick.

But that is a topic for a whole ‘nother editorial.

That’s my best and worst—now it’s your turn. Do you have a book that tilted your world onto a new axis? 

You can find more great writing by Madison at her blog. Click away, canaries!