Nearing the end of one novel (Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia) and looking ahead to my next one (The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman). Mexican Gothic is very atmospheric, and I’m enjoying it a lot. Though I will no longer read it shortly before bed at night! The other one looks like an Elizabethan delight.
Stephen King is our generation’s Charles Dickens by sheer output. He’s written enough that there’s a natural wide range of quality and there’s some definite chaff in King’s CV as well. I am that person who threw Pet Sematary at the wall after reading, despite voraciously consuming and enjoying a good deal of his early work.
Plugging my single favorite King piece of all time: The Long Walk
“While not the first of King’s novels to be published, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote, having begun it in 1966–67 during his freshman year at the University of Maine some eight years before his first published novel Carrie was released in 1974.”
The Long Walk was published under his pseudonym initially. King published for a bit under Richard Bachman I believe to use up his B-side story ideas that didn’t fit well with his growing “brand” - too short, too subversive, or off-genre without supernatural elements. He also published Rage under Bachman which is practically banned now. It was about a school shooter way before we had an epidemic of school shootings, and is almost a one-room play where students are held hostage and you get to know the characters and motivations - including potentially sympathizing with the shooter, which is likely why it’s blacklisted now.
Conversely The Long Walk is a survival death-game plot involving children which ironically are quite in vogue now. (Hunger Games, Battle Royale…)
The Long Walk is a haunting story. I must’ve read it five or six times now, in different stages of my life. My reactions to it have shifted while I grew and matured, from grizzly fascination as a teenager to more empathetic insight into the characters (teenagers themselves!) as an adult. The ending never ceases to leave me with chills.
The Dark Tower has also been with me from my early teenage years until now. A portal into a world of wonder, horror, adventure, friendship,… I love all of the parts except Song of Susannah, which is a bit too flailing an attempt to connect loose threads before the finale.
My all-time favourite King novel has to be Lisey’s Story. It brings together all the themes and motifs that make King’s writing so appealing to me: portal-worlds, a writer-character, a secret language shared by long-time lovers, the adventures and perils of boyhood, a strong/vulnerable female lead,…
Yeah, he’s on the record for regretting that book. It’s been documented with directly inciting bad actors, similar to The Catcher in the Rye.
My personal theory on Stephen King is that his type of writing works best if he has some limitation imposed upon him. I’m a much bigger fan of his “bottle” main-character focused scenarios (The Shining - primarily about three characters snowed into a hotel with their thoughts and personal demons and ghosts; Cujo - after the set up takes place almost fully with two characters trapped inside a stalled car because of a giant rabid dog. Gerald’s Game - one character handcuffed to a bed for most of the novel alone to stew in her backstory - character backstory and personal demons being one of King’s strong points.)
The books I disliked the most were the 80s cocaine-fueled (allegedly based on timeframe) 1500-page meganovels with everything and the kitchen sink that also felt like an attempt to scrape up and employ every unused idea and discarded plot all at once - IT, The Tommyknockers and some others. The Stand also, kind of; I gave up on that a couple of chapters into the “unedited” version with a lot more appreciation for his editors who insisted on trims.
While most of his books have good premises (especially Tommyknockers - trip on something that’s buried in the woods that is too big to dig up!) My dad was a huge fan of James Michener (who opened Hawaii with what Dad said was “three chapters about a bubble rising from a crack on the ocean floor to the surface forming the volcano that became the Hawaiian Islands…”) and he gave up on The Stand because he was outraged that (he says) “30 characters introduced in chapter one were all dead by chapter two.”
I know IT is a lot of people’s favorite, but IMHO it was just indulgent and exhausting after a while, with good parts that didn’t add up to the sum of the whole. I actually think the recent movie did the best job distilling that idea to its logical essence without spending entire chapters with doomed-to-die peripheral characters and side-plots. But that may be my tastes, and long side tangents are many people’s favorite part of novels.
I wasn’t a big fan of horror in general and Stephen King in particular when I was a boy and young man. But now I am not completely against horror anymore. I even could imagine writing a dark fantasy or horror game. I like H. P. Lovecraft, Poe and other horror authors now.
Searching “my” library’s online catalogue for “Stephen King” spits out 169 hits! Some are double entries (paper novel and audio book), but Stephen King for sure is extremely productive!
Currently I read a lot of criminal novels, some are from German authors and not translated to English afaik. You always can learn some interesting new stuff from criminal novels. For example I learned that Mozart’s wife was named Constanze Weber. Or about the poison Thallium.
I finally finished The Brothers Karamazov! I took the book on holiday with me this week. Took me 2-3 years to read the first half, and then I devoured the second half in 5 days. Embarrassing!
Anyway, I really liked it. The book has a strong philosophy but is remarkably even-handed in how it represents philosophies it disagrees with. I’d thought that Ivan wasn’t getting nearly as much focus as his brothers, but between the Grand Inquisitor chapter and that one conversation with the strange gentleman near the end, Ivan gets all the best bits of the book. I think one or two multi-chapter monologues could have been edited down, but that’s par for the course with classic literature and The Brothers Karamazov is far from the worst offender. It’s a shame a couple of the subplots are unfinished - I would quite like to have seen where Lise and Alyosha’s story was going to go. I understand that this was meant to be the first novel of a series, but Dostoevsky died before he could continue. Oh well.
For Halloween season, I’m now well into a collection of weird fiction horror stories by Thomas Ligotti called Teatro Grottesco. They’re good! They’re like Lovecraft if you replaced the interdimensional monsters with corporatisation and capitalism, and the gibbering madness with despair. A bit hit-and-miss and a bit samey, but the misses are at least thought-provoking, and the hits are really really cool. I read some of these years ago, and my favourite back then was The Town Manager, and it’s still my favourite - maybe the funniest horror story I’ve read? (I couldn’t find an online text version but that link is a YouTuber reading the story.) My Case for Retributive Action is another cool one - just the title of that one is good, and the final paragraphs are a hell of a sign-off - and I’ve just finished The Bungalow House which has the same twist as one or two of the other stories but has by far the best execution of it.
(Although I have to say with the best will possible towards Ligotti, I don’t think he’s escaped the mean-spirited prejudice of Lovecraft. Quite a few of his more sinister / less trustworthy characters are visibly disabled and/or deformed, including a bit of offputting gender/genitalia stuff, and one of the twists struck me as a little bit unfortunate in drawing a connection between body horror and Eastern medicine. It’s nothing nearly as bad as the cruel intentionality of Lovecraft’s racism, but it’s there.)
I just read Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh and really enjoyed it. Bleak, violent, funny, a story where you’ll be punished if you root for anyone.
The Emperor of Annoeria has been murdered. His three children, separated early in life to undergo different upbringing and training now face the challenge of avoiding assassination themselves while trying to preserve what remains of the realm in the all-out war for power that ensues.
As the story progressed, I didn’t like any of the three main characters (each in their own way a different flavour of unlikeability), but I was compelled to find out what they were going to do next.
Brian Staveley’s The Unhewn Throne trilogy was well worth my time.
I enjoyed Lapvona, too. It was horrible and grotesque and indeed very bleak, but I liked it best out of the three Ottessa Moshfegh novels I’ve read (the other two were Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). I’m currently reading the Complete Short Stories of Leonora Carrington, which I would also describe as grotesque and violent and funny. I feel like they’re a little uneven (and some even seem unfinished?) but they careen along with a kind of unhinged zaniness that is both delightful and dark. I think that the emotion I feel most frequently when reading these stories is “glee.” ← sorry to sound like such a robot lol
Just finished my 42nd book of 2023, the Manga Classics version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Much to like, but ultimately it condenses the enormous novel down too much to fit into a much shorter manga format. An admirable attempt, but the story and characters deserve more room to flourish. 3/5
I’m newly reading The Ghost Theatre by Suede bassist turned author Mat Osman. Really enjoying it. The novel is a historical fantasy thriller set in Elizabethan London. It was inspired by the real life history of child actors in London then, some of whom were kidnapped as children to go on the stage.
The new Thursday Murder Club book-- The Last Devil To Die – by Richard Osmond just arrived today, and I put aside a half-finished James Agee to spend time with the gang. This series is just delightful and I always laugh while reading them and don’t feel even remotely bad about dropping serious literature for them.
Basic premise of the books: A group of elderly folks living in a British retirement community investigate murders, have hijinks, get into trouble, cleverly get out of trouble, solve the mystery, and endear themselves to everybody.
If you like funny English murder mysteries with quirky characters, you’ll love these books.
I don’t think I’ve recommended The Water Outlaws here: S. L. Huang’s genderspun reimagining of Water Margin here, but I finished this a little while back and it’s great. I almost didn’t buy this because the publisher’s blurb doesn’t really do it justice, so here’s the author’s “Note on Potentially Disturbing Content”:
This book is a genderspun retelling of the Chinese classic novel Water Margin, in which antiheroic bandits rise up against a tyrannical government on behalf of the people. I’ve reimagined it as a melding of epic fantasy and wuxia, an action-packed battle against patriarchy that’s rife with indecorous women and fantastical sword fights.
In that context, this story is intentionally, gloriously violent–mostly in a cinematic style (based on the wuxia genre–think Chinese martial arts films). However, you’ll also find a few scenes of torture, the occasional extremity such as cannibalism, and one attempted sexual assault. The background society, in its regression and misogyny, also holds a number of values as normal that may disturb a modern reader.
That said, I hope this is primarily a joyous, toothy escapist adventure, one in which a group made up almost entirely of women and queer folk–who are in equal parts devastating, powerful, righteous, and terrible–stand up as self-proclaimed heroes to tear the world asunder.
–S. L. Huang
Oh my gosh, I read Bros K for school last year and absolutely loved it! We had some amazing discussions, and I personally liked it a lot more than War and Peace, which we read during the second half of the term. I’d recommend reading The Underground Man, also by Dostoevsky. It’s an absolute trip, but you get to see a lot of what he was struggling with earlier in his career, so it’s interesting to see how themes reappear and change between UM and the much-later-written Brothers K.
I’m currently making my way through Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction, which is exactly what it sounds like. Huge anthology of 20th century Russian sci-fi, mostly short stories but also a couple excerpts from longer works. The most distinctive part about the anthology is that it’s comprised of stories that had never been translated into English prior to this book, which I love. The stories are all very different from one another, and have made me a lot more interested in learning about the Soviet Era in Russia, which is great considering that I’m a Russian major and am going to have a LOT of Soviet history rattling around in my head by the time I graduate.
Another Soviet SF anthology is New Soviet Science Fiction (1973) introduced by Theodore Sturgeon. Might be a bit difficult to find though.
Re-reading the Fall Revolution books by Ken Macleod. I read them a long time ago before I emigrated to the UK, re-read them while I was living there, and I guess now I’m doing the “post-” bit. They hit differently each time. They make me a bit nostalgic, too. The intense admiration and not a little envy I felt the first time around, as a novice writer, and the “ah, see what you did there” feeling later on. The shortcomings, too, or just the things you miss in a story when you’re older and different, and when you have your own style instead of a kitchen sink of bits from your favorite writers (Having Faves is a harsh mistress. Iain Banks died. Richard K. Morgan turned into a nasty transphobe. Ecclesiastes 1:18 applies).