Tag Archives: Stephen King

Review: “Horns” by Joe Hill

Title: Horns
Author: Joe Hill
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Harper Collins, 2011

I’d been meaning to read some of Joe Hill’s work for a while, and just hadn’t got around to it yet. Then they announced that Horns was going to become a movie, and so of course I had to read it. Can’t commit heresy by seeing something without reading the book first, right? (I still haven’t seen it, but they’ve got my name on the list at the library for when it comes in.) In case you don’t know, Mr. Hill is the son of horror fiction’s crown prince, Stephen King, and has taken to his father’s craft with a vengeance. I’m not kidding when I say that every single book he’s produced has been recommended to me by one person or another, usually multiple times. I’ve mentioned before that in my limited reading of King I tend to not be particularly fond of the protagonist for one reason or another (there are exceptions, of course.) That’s not a problem Hill has, at least not here. The project here is ambitious–I half-imagine someone bet Hill that he couldn’t write a story with the devil (or more accurately, a devil) as the protagonist and make him sympathetic. Well, if that’s the case, Hill won the bet.

Until a year ago, Ignatius “Ig” Perrish was a saint. No, that’s not quite right–saints don’t typically smoke, drink, or spend the night with a girl they’ve not yet married (even if there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that such an event is in their future.) Ig does all of these things on a regular basis. So, a sinner, but a good-natured one. All that changed the night his girlfriend, Merrin Williams, was raped and murdered in the woods. Ig was the only real suspect, as she had just broken up with him in a very public drunken shouting match at a local restaurant, but the case went cold for lack of evidence. Ig never got his day in court, and so never had a chance to prove that he didn’t do it. Even if he had, it may not have convinced anyone. Ig spent the next year a bitter, drunken wreck of a man. On the one-year anniversary of the murder, he spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. The next morning, he woke with horns growing from his temples–not that anyone else can seem to see, but they’re there. Also, people seem to be confessing their deepest, darkest desires to him, almost seeking permission to fulfill them. Skin contact reveals their most hidden secret sins they’ve committed in the past. Ig has no idea where this diabolical power has come from, but he knows what he’s going to do with it: find whoever killed the woman he loves, and give them Hell….

Like I said, a very ambitious book. The premise alone was intriguing, but the execution was simply masterful. I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone with a fondness for the horror genre, or that likes a story that’s just a little bit off the wall. I will warn you though, the book can be incredibly disturbing at times. There’s a whole section of the book told from the perspective of the killer, including the night of the rape and murder of Merrin Williams. The night I hit that section I stayed up reading long past when I had planned to stop, simply so that I didn’t have to go to bed still in his head and could reach the (comparatively) wholesome POV of Ig once again before drifting off to sleep. I didn’t want SPOILER OMITTED spending the night in my subconscious. The whole story is told somewhat out of order, starting the morning Ig wakes up with horns and then spending large chunks of time filling in the background through flashbacks as different revelations are made and need context or someone inadvisedly touches Ig and reveals their darkest secrets.

There are all sorts of issues with the book theologically-speaking, of course, but that’s not the point of the book and so I really won’t get into that here. Christianity, the church, and the Judeo-Christian God don’t come off well in the book, but that’s to be expected from a character who feels so betrayed and embittered towards Heaven. And really, given the treatment Hill’s father gives similar themes on a repeated basis, are you really all that surprised? I more or less expected something along those lines.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity throughout. Some gruesome and disturbing violence, including a rape and subsequent murder. Some explicit sexual content, including but not limited to the aforementioned rape (though this scene is played for horror, not titillation). The main character is becoming something along the lines of the traditional Judeo-Christian devil, including an array of diabolical powers. I think that probably counts as occult content.

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Review: “The Strain” by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Title: The Strain
Authors: Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan
Series: The Strain Trilogy #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: HarperCollins, 2009

I read The Strain for the first time immediately after it was released, back when I was in school. I absolutely loved it, but somehow missed the memo when the second and third books in the trilogy came out. Well, a recent trip to Half-Price Books netted me the entire trilogy, and one of the groups I’m a member of on Goodreads decided to do it as their monthly group-read, so I finally got around to picking it back up! The tagline hypes it as Bram Stoker meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton, and I think that’s pretty accurate. Highly recommended!

Our story begins with an airliner, dead on the tarmac after landing. Complete systems shutdown, no power, complete blackout, and not a peep from the passengers. When they finally manage to get inside, it’s discovered that every single person on board is dead, save for three barely-conscious survivors. The public fears a cataclysmic outbreak, but the CDC is quick to assure them that things are under control. Doctor Ephraim Goodweather is not so certain. Neither is Abraham Setrakian, a Jewish pawn-shop owner and Holocaust survivor with an unbelievable secret. And when the dead passengers of the dead plane disappear from the morgue, it becomes clear that the nightmare is far from over….

The Strain takes vampires and makes them scary again, pure and simple. Tired of your vampires being sparkly and angst-ridden? The bloodsuckers you find here are monsters, pure and simple. What’s more, they are presented in such a way that their condition is almost scientifically feasible. This tale is plausible without large suspensions of disbelief, which is more than can be said for most vampire novels. I greatly enjoyed it both times I’ve read it, which is saying something. The prose is incredibly cinematic and descriptive, very evocative. Apparently del Toro originally conceived this as a television series before teaming up with Hogan to write it as a trilogy of novels when none of the networks would bite. The plot is perhaps a bit predictable, and the characters perhaps a bit too stereotypical for some peoples’ taste (I see these accusations a lot in other reviews, anyway), but this didn’t really hamper my enjoyment. Another oft-criticized element is the dead plane opening–apparently that’s been done already several times, and is seen as derivative. What del Toro is actually doing here, far from ripping off Fringe or another author, is paying homage to the original Dracula novel and the title character’s arrival in England on a lifeless ship, every passenger and crewmember dead and eaten. I appreciated this. I think a lot of people missed the reference.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, especially from the gangbanger character. A lot of vampire violence, fairly gory, as well as dissection and autopsy sequences, plus the inevitable vampire-slaying scenes that can also get pretty gory. Some sexual content, not usually too explicit aside from some past-tense references. No occult content, as these vampires are played for a purely scientific effect.

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Review: “The Dead Zone” by Stephen King

Title: The Dead Zone
Author: Stephen King
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Signet, 1980

My reading relationship with the works of Stephen King is a complicated one. I greatly admire his craft, he’s an excellent writer. The Shining is one of my favorite books ever, and may be the only one to ever actually scare me. (I don’t usually read horror, as a rule, so there haven’t been many opportunities.) I’ve been meaning to read this one for a year or so now, ever since King piqued my interest in it when he discussed its premise in On Writing. Fortunately, I found a copy at the library book sale last week, and here we are.

Johnny Smith is on the face of things nothing exceptional, but his brain hides a secret of astounding power. A childhood concussion gives him occasional headaches and vague premonitions, but it is not until a run of spectacular luck at the fair is balanced by a near-fatal car accident that plunges him into a coma for four and a half years that this gift or curse is unlocked to its full potential. He awakes to find a world that is changed–Watergate has forever ruined the American people’s faith in the White House, long hair isn’t just for hippies anymore, and his girlfriend married another man after the doctors said Johnny would never wake up. The real kicker, however, is that Johnny now has the ability to “read” certain people and things, touch them and know something about them he shouldn’t otherwise know. He tells one of his doctors how to find his supposedly-dead mother. He informs a nurse that her apartment is on fire and she should go save her cats, and tells another nurse that her son’s surgery will be a success. He tells Jimmy Carter he’ll win the Presidency. And one day, when he shakes the hand of an up-and-coming politician, he is treated to a vision of impending full-out nuclear war….

I like King. I really do. That said, there are some things about King and his work that I am less a fan of. For example, in the works I’ve read so far anyway, the supernatural is almost always bad, almost always horrifying. The exception to this rule has been The Shining, where the boy’s power is at worst neutral and could potentially be used for good. Now The Dead Zone makes the list as well, since John Smith’s ability or curse has positive applications.* The Dead Zone also makes the list of exceptions to the other general rule for King novels–I usually don’t like the characters. Johnny Smith is likable. So is Danny Torrance and the old cook who has the same ability in The Shining. I liked Jake Epping, the protagonist from 11/22/63 as well, but most of the characters King writes (that I’ve read) are less likable. I pity Carrie, but I don’t like her. Neither did King, according to On Writing, so that may have had something to do with it. Paul Sheldon doesn’t deserve what happens to him at the hand of Annie Wilkes in Misery, but he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue–let’s not forget he fell into her hands after driving drunk during a snowstorm. I don’t remember strongly reacting to the characters one way or the other in The Eyes Of The Dragon or Cell, so I’ll leave those be. Johnny Smith, however, is a rarity for King’s body of work (again, so far as I’ve read.) He’s a true tragic hero in every sense of the term. On multiple occasions it would be so much easier to ignore his premonitions and just let things be, but his conscience gets the best of him every time. To quote Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Christians don’t fare well in King’s novels (again, so far as I’ve read.) Carrie’s mother is a full-blown psycho fundamentalist, as is a character’s mother in this novel. Johnny’s mother is on her way to becoming the same way, but never gets beyond eccentric and gullible to become destructive. If I didn’t know better, I’d say King’s mother had something to do with this recurring theme, but I don’t recall that being discussed in On Writing. On the other hand, he does take care to distinguish these characters who are so far off the deep end from the main body of Christians, so that’s at least not quite so annoying.

CONTENT: R-rated language, not so gratuitous as you will find elsewhere. Some violence, occasionally graphic, and some related content that is fairly disturbing. Gred Stillson’s first appearance is a disturbing example of animal cruelty. Sexual content, non-explicit, including a serial-killer/rapist whose victims range from an old church-lady to a nine-year-old schoolgirl. This is in no way glorified, but written such that the reader feels only repulsed (as they should be!) Stephen King is no stranger to occult content, but I don’t think this quite qualifies. Johnny’s power is played as scientific, albeit far from understood, a side effect of his brain accommodating the damage done in the accident.

*You could argue whether it’s truly supernatural, however.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume II” by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Mateus Santolouco

Title: American Vampire, Volume II
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artists: Rafael Albuquerque & Mateus Santolouco
Series: American Vampire (Volume II, Issues #6-11)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2011

When I read the first volume of American Vampire, I decided that I would review each volume individually because it appeared that each would be more or less a self-contained story. Having now read the second volume, I think this was a good decision. Just realize that as the review of part two in a series, this will contain spoilers for American Vampire, Volume I. Read on at your discretion. I will refrain from repeating my “twi-hard” rant though, so you can rest easy on that count.

At the end of Volume I, Marshall Book convinced his young wife to kill him to prevent his succumbing to the red thirst of vampirism, but not before she was pregnant with his daughter. Together, mother and daughter plot their revenge on the man that infected him—Skinner Sweet. Sweet walked off into the sunset, gleeful in his immortality, while his newly-turned protege Pearl Jones destroyed her traitorous best friend and the elders that turned her life upside down and then disappeared with her new lover. All is quiet for ten years….

For this second volume, Scott Snyder handles sole writing duties (I guess Stephen King was just in for the first arc) and the book ceases telling two stories simultaneously (see Volume I for an explanation of that) in favor of simply moving forward. This collection is composed of two stories, Devil In The Sand and The Way Out. First, Rafael Albuquerque holds the pencil as Devil In The Sand introduces a new protagonist in Cash McCogan, sheriff of the formerly-sleepy little town of 1936 Las Vegas. Vegas isn’t very sleepy anymore, however, not with the Hoover Dam going in. The workers need someplace to let off steam, and gambling and prostitution have been “temporarilly” legalized in order to allow them to do just that, but somehow McCogan doesn’t think things will settle back down after construction is complete. What he doesn’t know is that the dam is being secretly financed by the vampire Elders, and when someone begins taking out the consortium in charge of construction his town is about to become ground zero for a battle between the vampire old guard, the local vice lord “Bill Smoke” (A.K.A. Skinner Sweet), and a group dedicated to the erradication of vampire-kind from the face of the Earth. And despite his trouble believing in the existence of vampires, it turns out he has a far more personal connection to the conflict than he realizes….Next, Albuquerque gets a break to catch up while Mateus Santolouco draws The Way Out. Pearl Jones’ traitorous ex-best-friend Hattie Hargrove’s wounds have turned out to be less than fatal, and after ten years of torture and experimentation at the hands of the Elders she wants some major payback on Jones. Meanwhile, Jones and her husband Henry stumble into conflict with a human smuggler and his vampire crew.

Snyder’s scripting continues to be spot-on here, though I was a bit disappointed in The Way Out’s ending. I felt like they set it up to be one thing and then pulled out the rug. Oh well, that’s just me. Albuquerque’s art fits the series well, as I’ve mentioned before, and Santolouco does a credible job trying to match his style for the second feature. On the whole, American Vampire continues to be an excellent book.

Content: This is a Vertigo book, folks. That means grown-ups only. Bloody violence, vampire and otherwise. R-rated language. Sexual content, including nudity.

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Review: “American Vampire, Volume I” by Scott Snyder, Stephen King, & Rafael Albuquerque

Title: American Vampire Volume I
Writers: Scott Snyder & Stephen King
Artist: Rafael Albuquerque
Series: American Vampire (Volume I, Issues #1-5)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Vertigo, 2010

Are you a “Twi-Hard?” Then you really have very little reason to be reading my reviews of anything vampire-related, for one thing, and probably have a vastly-greater tolerance for crappy writing. You probably won’t want to read this review. I’ve said it before (though I don’t believe I’ve said it in any of these reviews): immortal beings who sparkly are not vampires but a particularly nasty breed of fairy. If I’m being charitable, perhaps a vampire-infected breed of fairy–but a fairy, nonetheless. Vampires are an incredibly rich subject matter for storytelling, allowing you to wrestle with themes of immortality, good VS. evil, inner demons, all kinds of stuff. A conflicted vampire, ala Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Angel? Sure. Walking in sunlight? Dracula does that in the original novel, so I’m flexible on this count. Sparkling? That’s just wrong. Sneaking into a girl’s room to watch her sleep? That’s just creepy, and I don’t mean the kind of creepy one should find in a vampire novel. (Want some fun? Find a YouTube video of Robert Pattinson discussing Twilight. He hates it!) My favorite apraisal of Twilight comes from an interview where the reviewer asked Stephen King what he thought of the book, given his praise of J.K. Rowling and the fact that some people were comparing Twilight and Harry Potter. Mr. King responded in a very matter-of-fact manner: “Stephanie Meyer cannot write for $#!^.” I’m less rigid in my ideas of what vampire stories are aloud to do than King is–I suspect Angel would stick in his craw almost as badly as Edward Cullen–but given that review I was fairly certain I was not in for yet another Twilight knock-off when I picked up the first volume of American Vampire . I was not disappointed.

American Vampire is a Vertigo series conceived by Scott Snyder, with the first volume (issues #1-5) written by Snyder and the legendary Stephen King, and drawn by Rafael Albuquerque. The first collection forms two stories told in alternating chapters, one set in 1925 Los Angeles, the other beginning in the 1880s and detailing the origin of Skinner Sweet, Old West outlaw-turned-vampire. Snyder writes the 1925 story, telling the story of Pearl Jones, a wannabe-actress and newly-minted pawn in an old feud between Skinner Sweet and the old school of vampires–European nobility of breeding and money. King writes the origin story based on Snyder’s outlines. Sweet is the first of a new breed of vampire, and the first vampire conceived on American soil. Sweet’s strain of vampirism doesn’t follow the old rules. He can walk in the daylight, may even be strengthened by it, and seems impervious to silver and garlic. The vampires of this series are savage animals, and while they may at times be sympathetic protagonists we are never allowed to forget how monstrous they are just below the surface. I’m not really all that well versed in art, but I will say that Albuquerque’s work here is very good. He captures the feel of the Old West and the savagery of the characters quite well. I’m not sure if King’s involvement goes beyond this first volume (UPDATE: it does not), but nevertheless I definitely intend to continue reading this series!

Content: This is a Vertigo book, so very much intended for an adult audience. There is a lot of violence, very savage and vividly rendered. This is a vampire book, what did you expect? The language is definitely R-rated, and there is a bit of sexual content. A bit of nudity too, but that part is non-sexual. (It’s a corpse, if you must know. Don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t find that arousing….)

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Review: Marvel Comics’ “Stephen King’s Dark Tower,” Arc I

Story & Creative Consultant: Stephen King
Plot & Research: Robin Furth
Script: Peter David
Pencils: Jae Lee (except for Fall Of Gilead)
Colors: Richard Isanove (handles full art duties on Fall Of Gilead and shares the art credit for Battle Of Jericho Hill)
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Comics, 2007-2010

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Thus began one of Stephen King’s most epic works, the seven eight-volume Dark Tower fantasy series that provides the glue that ties all of King’s works together. I was personally introduced to the franchise through Marvel Comics’ prequel series, which details the origins of Roland Deschain and what brought his world to the state we find it in when King begins his epic saga.

This review is for the first arc of the story, consisting of the first five miniseries as well as the one-shot The Sorcerer. I plan to read the second arc, but that will be a second review. I also plan to read the actual series, but that could take a while as it ties into so many other King novels I have yet to pick up….

The content for these comics (especially The Gunslinger Born) is culled from flashbacks and other material revealed throughout King’s masterworks. King himself serves as creative consultant and first line of approval on the series. The research and general direction is handled by Robin Furth, author of The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance (I assume this means she’s an expert). The actual script is handled by Peter David, veteran of many of Marvel’s most enduring series. Pencils for the series are mostly handled by Jae Lee, while Richard Isanove handles the colors. Later in the series Lee is inexplicably absent for a set, with Isanove filling in almost seamlessly. When Lee returns, they share the art credit. I cannot rave enough about the beauty of the product of their collaboration throughout the series. The content and subject matter is unrelentingly dark, and yet there is great beauty to the books because of the artwork. It’s incredibly striking. I’ll seed some examples through here.

Roland and his kin inhabit a world not our own, though I understand that in the novels that come later Roland does a fair bit of jumping around Stephen King’s multiverse. These comics, however, are anchored firmly in Roland’s own All-World. The best way to describe All-World is to say that it is a land where there once existed a civilization much like ours, but they are long gone. It is implied that the “Old Ones” wiped themselves out with nuclear war, given the presence of mutated humans and livestock. After the destruction All-World was united by Arthur Eld, who ruled a mighty kingdom from his capital, Gilead in New Canaan. Roland and his father are descendants of Arthur Eld. Civilization has reorganized along feudal lines, and the technological level has plateaued at the “Old West” level, excepting the rare Old Ones’ artifact that someone manages to reclaim and get working again. In the Dark Tower mythos (and by extension, all of King’s body of work since most of it ties back to here), all of reality exists as various levels in the Dark Tower. From Roland’s world it is actually possible to enter the Dark Tower, a fact that makes it unique among all of reality. Roland and his friends are opposed by the Crimson King, John Farson, and the evil wizard Marten, who want to either destroy the Dark Tower and return the world to a state of chaos or control it and rule everything. As our story opens, the forces of these evil ones have been rolling across the world towards Gilead, opposed only by the Alliance led by Steven Deschain, Roland’s father. How long they can hold out against this ultimate evil remains to be seen…..

If you are interested, here are links to my reviews of the individual collections on Goodreads. Caution: reviews may contain spoilers for the previous volumes…..
Volume I: The Gunslinger Born (*****)
Volume II: The Long Road Home (***)
Volume III: Treachery (****)
Volume IV: Fall Of Gilead (*****)
Volume V: Battle Of Jericho Hill (****)

Content: This is not for kids. This is a series for adults and late teens, those old enough to appreciate the works of Stephen King.
Violence: There’s quite a bit of this. People die horrible and gruesome deaths frequently in these pages, and not just the bad guys. Young women, little children, strong men and weak, none of them are safe. This can be pretty gory at times, and is vividly rendered.
Language: Pretty PG. This is still Marvel, after all. Nothing you won’t hear on primetime TV.
Sex: Sexual matters are referenced and discussed fairly frankly, especially in the first volume when a young lady is sent to a witch to be checked to see if she is “still pure.” There is some implied sex–glossed over by a double-splash of the two characters kissing passionately while the narrator does his thing, and then dressing on the next page–but nothing explicit. No nudity.

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