Friday, January 23, 2015

Stephen King, MR. MERCEDES--Literary and Extra-literary Comments

Mr. Mercedes
Stephen King
Scribner, June 2014, 449 pp.

Mr. Mercedes is vintage Stephen King of a particular sort—Stephen-King-without-supernatural-monsters. It is indeed a horror story, much as Misery was a horror story, or Gerald’s Game (although that one remains my least favorite of all of his works), Dolores Claiborne, “The Body,” or other tales in which the monsters look like us, act like us, and in fact are us. In this case, the monster is a psychopath determined to destroy as many people as he can in as spectacular a way as possible, yet to everyone around him, he is simply a pleasant, rather nondescript young man, as unthreatening as anyone else.
Opposing him is another of King’s older protagonists, reminiscent in some ways of Ralph Roberts in Insomnia. Hodges is a retired detective, arguably near-suicidal, certainly at odds with himself for having failed to solve several crucial open cases. When he receives a long letter signed “THE MERCEDES KILLER,” he rediscovers his sense of purpose and recommits himself to capturing the serial killer that had eluded him for years.
Mr. Mercedes touches on a number of contemporary themes, including the isolation of individuals in our world and their paradoxical lack of privacy (Mr. Mercedes seems to know a great deal about Hodges personal moments, far more than he has any right to). It looks at the fact that there are killers—either real or potential—among us, waiting for the right moment, the right stimulus, to destroy. It considers the increasing significance of electronic media in our lives—much of the ‘detecting’ in the novel takes place using computer networks. And, as do so many of King’s stories, it depends upon bonds of friendship, even love, forged through common loss, common sacrifice, and common danger.

Beyond being a meticulously developed examination of sanity and insanity, responsibility and ultimate selfishness, the novel is intriguing for two additional reasons. One is that the present-time episodes are told in present tense: “Hodges sits where he is for two minutes, four minutes, six, eight.” Normally this approach bothers me; I am traditional enough to prefer past-tense, third-person narratives. Still, I was halfway through Dolores Claiborne before I realized that that novel was not only technically first-person but a single, uninterrupted monologue told in present time about past events. In Mr. Mercedes, King employs a variation of the device carefully, integrally, differentiating between past and present actions accurately and effectively. After a while, the shifts come to seem natural, actually facilitating the flow of the story.
Another reason is extra-literary but fascinating. I read Mr. Mercedes on my Kindle—which seems appropriate considering the importance of such devices to the story. About three-quarters of the way through, I came upon the following comment, already underlined, with the note that it had been highlighted 603 times by previous readers:

Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue. (324)

Six-hundred-and-three highlights! Reading through the passage, I could imagine seeing it appearing eventually as a meme on Facebook or one of the other social media sites, accompanied by an a suitably Mephistophelian photograph of King, as evidence for the ineffectiveness, if not total uselessness of faith in a science-oriented, objective world. Certainly I’ve seen sufficient other quotations attributed to famous people to evoke the same belief.
There is only one problem with the fact that 603 people apparently felt the comment correct enough and important to highlight it: it is spoke by a madman, a sociopath, a human monster, and therefore does not—in fact cannot, considering King’s other overt statements about God in such works as Needful Things and Desperation—represent King’s beliefs. Context is everything.  And some pages later, King writes the following: “Gallison doesn’t reply, and Hodges turns back to the two unlikely associates God—or some whimsical fate—has ordained should be with him tonight” (404). While the sentence suggests ambiguity, this time the context of the novel as a whole indicates that emphasis should fall on the first possibility rather than the latter.

These two rather technical matters aside, Mr. Mercedes proved well worth the read. Considering the ice and snow outside and the hint of chill seeping around the double-glazed window panes as I write, it seems appropriate to conclude by saying that Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes is both monumental and glacial.
Generally, words such as these are negative, especially when applied to novels, as in “the pacing is glacial,” i.e., events move so slowly that it would be more entertaining to wait until summer and watch the grass grow. In this case, however, I refer more to the physics of glaciation than to apparent movement. Mr. Mercedes at times seems slow, almost as if the plot had come to a halt, but beneath that stillness, events and understands move, imperceptibly perhaps, but with a powerful sense of inevitability and even—perhaps—destiny.
Strongly recommended.

Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding, SNAFU: WOLVES AT THE DOOR

SNAFU: Wolves at the Door—An Anthology of Lycanthrope Military Horror

Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Speddings, eds.
Cohesion Press, 2015

SNAFU: Wolves at the Door is the third in a series of anthologies focusing on military horror, following closely upon SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror and SNAFU: Heroes. (For my reviews, see and A fourth volume, SNAFU II: Survival of the Fittest, is in process.
In a sense, the appearance of these stories seems inevitable: who better to combat the sudden appearance of horrors—from Lovecraftian Great Old Ones, to monstrosities created in secret Nazi labs, to alien antagonists with unspeakable powers—than the best humanity has to offer in the way of soldiers…present and past. And whether the antagonist emerges as a horrific surprise during an otherwise normal mission or is something known and prepared for, the tales in these anthologies put the best of the best to the ultimate challenge.
In SNAFU: Wolves at the Door, Brown and Spedding have narrowed the focus considerably, as the subtitles indicate. In each of the nine stories, humans must confront shape-shifters, were-beasts of varying types (remembering always that wer- means ‘man’). The situations range from a present-time special-forces raid on the jungle stronghold of a drug lord, secreted in the land once occupied by the ancient Olmecs, in R.P.L. Johnson’s “Taking Down the Top Cat,” to a highly evocative and deeply gruesome confrontation between an emissary of King Æthelstan and a small band of Pictish devotees of the ice giantess Skadi in Kirsten Cross’s “Skadi’s Wolves.”  
  The next six tales largely follow the pattern established in the first two—small group of soldiers on one side, monster(s) on the other. Steve Coate’s “Semper Gumby,” John W. Dennehy’s “Ancient Ruins,” David W. Amendola’s “The Fenrir Project,” Brian W.Taylor’s “Project Lupine,” W.D. Gagliani and David Benton’s “Werewolf!” and Jennifer R. Povey’s “Jester” each presents a variation on a theme, demonstrating how malleable the ancient figure of the shape-shifter can be, even after centuries of exploration. Each of the stories is well handled and develops its own internal energy; all are worth reading, although there might be more pleasure in approaching them one at a time rather than reading straight through in one sitting. Because of the underlying thematic and narrative similarities, and the inherent nature of the beast (so to speak), the conclusions often share a certain sameness—the human survivors hear a lonely howl in the distance, suggesting that the monster still lives; or one survivor, bitten in the fray, exchanges meaningful glances with another, knowing what must inevitably happen. Still, taken individually, the stories are powerful responses to an age-old fear.
The final entry, James A. Moore’s novella “The Wild Hunt,” is an ideal capstone for the anthology, in part because it does not follow the expected pattern. In fact, there is only a tangential connection with military types, which paradoxically makes it stronger and more effective. In separate vignettes, Moore presents five characters, including  Captain Eric Fulford, each of whom participated in an annual hunt and each of whom has had his family kidnapped by unknown parties. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that something unutterably horrible happened during that hunt and that the five men are being held responsible for the consequences, each according to his level of participation. Information emerges gradually as the story progresses, but it soon becomes apparent that in this case the lycantropes are the victims rather than the aggressors, and the story veers from traditional lines into something intriguing—an examination of guilt and retribution, of confrontations between loyalty and the instinct to survive, between identity and reality and the tenuous line that separates them. If only for it alone, SNAFU: Wolves at the Door is a powerful and thought-provoking reading experience.

As in the preceding volumes, Brown and Spedding have done a fine job in selecting stories appropriate to the overriding theme and at the same time interesting in their own right. And, as with the preceding volumes, readers will find much to enjoy. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Hieroglyphs, Golden Plates and Typos
Bill Wylson
White Horse Printery, 2014

Bill Wylson’s short study, Hieroglyphs, Golden Plates and Typos has a single, narrowly defined purpose: to draw attention to errors in the Book of Mormon. These errors, however, are not the same sort as those adduced by writers intent upon proving the book false. Instead, these are presented as evidences that the book is precisely what it claims to be: an ancient text originally inscribed upon metal plates over the course of centuries by a number of historians.
In the early 1970s, while I was serving a mission in northern Germany, a fellow missionary pointed out several instances in the Book of Mormon in which the text contained a mistake that was immediately corrected by the original scribe. As an example, consider this verse:

And it came to pass when they had been in prison two days they were again brought before the king, and their bands were loosed; and they stood before the king, and were permitted, or rather commanded, that they should answer the questions which he should ask them. (Mosiah 7: 8, italics added)

It seems clear that the italicized phrase is included, not as an expansion or clarification of the earlier “and were permitted,” but rather to correct it, in some important way to alter the basic meaning of the statement.
Over the years, I have noted such structures in the text and occasionally considered working through the book and listing every one I could find. As with so many plans, this one went nowhere—and now it is unnecessary, since Wylson’s study reproduces each instance of self-correction, taking into account the nature of the medium (metal plates that would not allow for erasure); the language (an artificial language—“Reformed Egyptian”—that would probably have tripped up writers who did not use it for everyday speech); and the differences between the number of self-corrections in the various books, depending upon whether the scribe was the original historian (more familiar with the materials and hence less liable to ‘typos’) or a redactor compressing and consolidating multiple sources (more liable to slips of the stylus).
Wylson begins by examining what little is known about the Golden Plates—their size and shape, the limitations of space that would require some version of hieroglyphic writing, the difficulties (referred to in the text itself) of making such plates in the first place, and the circumstances surrounding each of the contributors. Mormon, for instance, wrote while functioning as military commander in a final, cataclysmic war, presumably often rushed and attending to other things as well as writing his history; hence, a high percentage of corrections. Moroni, his son, went into hiding for years at a time and was concerned only with the accuracy and permanence of his story; hence a low percentage of corrections.
To help readers identify such situations, Wylson concentrates on four distinct purposes for such structures, frequently using “or” or “or rather” as the connective: To show opposites, to show equivalents, to paraphrase, and to correct. The latter purpose is, of course, the most relevant to the study.
I have a few objections to the study. It could benefit from a close editing (replacing “opps!” with “oops!). And I take minor exception to the subtitle, “How Errors in the Book of Mormon Prove its Authenticity.” I am wary of attempts to “prove” the Book of Mormon; I prefer attempts to identify “evidences” for it. For me, evidence supports faith; proof supplants it—and we are here to live by faith. And ultimately, as Wylson notes in his final chapter, any proof that the Book of Mormon is true rests on spiritual, not empirical, knowledge. His study provides evidences supporting one aspect of the complex entity that is the Book of Mormon; similar studies provide evidences for others. None, however, will prove that the content is accurate, authentic, and of inestimable value—personal revelation alone can provide that.
With those few caveats, however, the study is interesting, complete, andfor me at leastconvincing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Fantasia on "The Night Before Christmas"


‘Twas the night before Christmas. The darkness lay still
As the snowflakes that mantled the front window-sill.

The children were sleeping, worn out from a day
Of Christmas-Eve frolics and family play,

From snow-angel making and snowman-construction,
Snow-fortress preparing and snowball production.

My wife slept as soundly, worn out by her role
Of chief brownie-maker and damage control.

So I sat in rapt silence, enjoying the quiet,
And sadly regarding my strict New Year’s diet,

When I happened to glance at the brightly lit tree
That glittered and sparkled like a movie marquee.

Yet something seemed different, an imperceptible change,
That made all the ornaments seem wondrously strange.

The crystal-pure snowflakes assumed a fresh gleam,
And the long strings of lights seemed to promise a dream

Of tinsel-draped branches abounding with light,
Of icicles’ pendants supernally white,

Of snow-dusted Santas that knowingly winked
As if sharing a secret that held them all linked.

The glistening balls of red, green, and gold
Reflected live fires to parry the cold.

All of the trinkets we’d hung with such care
Seemed suddenly, sacredly, rarer than rare.

And there, near the tree-top, a rough, hand-carved stable
Transformed in a breath to a scene from a fable.

It seemed to grow larger, to capture within
An essence of grandeur about to begin.

A crudely hewn Joseph leaned nearer fresh straw,
His father-eyes gleaming with reverence and awe;

While Mary extended a pain-warding hand
As if she knew all of the suffering life planned

For the infant now resting without any care;
Her other hand raised in a mute, wordless prayer.

Visibly carved from a small piece of pine,
They nonetheless shone with an semblance divine.

And the Baby…the Baby … wrapped snug in the hay,         
The reason for world-wide rejoicing this day,

Looked down from His manger with such sweet repose
That my heart seemed to swell like a young Christmas rose.

He spoke not a word, yet I heard in my mind
Assurance of love meant for all human-kind;

And then—in my vision, or dream, as it were—
The Santas, the snowflakes merged to a white blur,

Until all that remained were the Child and the Star
Surmounting the tree like a sign from afar

That they would be blessed, who embraced the pure sweetness
Of Christ’s peace on earth, the path to completeness.

With that, with a start, I blinked and I stirred,
Amazed to discover that all had occurred

In an instant, a heartbeat, as I drowsed in my chair,
Receiving this vision, yet all unaware.

I rose, climbed the stairs that led to my bed,
While thoughts of next morning threaded my head.

At last, as I drifted toward dreamless sleep,
My eyes misted gently as though they would weep

For the joy of that knowing, that moment’s recall

Of the meaning of Christmas for me…and for all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

David Morrell, INSPECTOR OF THE DEAD--A Worthy Sequel and a Remarkable Re-creation

Inspector of the Dead
David Morrell
Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company
March 2015

Recently, the Fall 2014 issue of Dark Discoveries concentrated much of its attention—in both fiction and non-fiction—on the possibilities inherent in secret societies in horror. It is a bit of a shame that I did not receive the ARC of David Morrell’s newest thriller, Inspector of the Dead, sooner, since had I done so, my contribution to DD might have taken a distinctly different turn.
Not that Inspector of the Dead is explicitly linked to horror. Indeed, as might be expected from a sequel to Morrell’s earlier Murder as a Fine Art (see for my review), none of the traditional monsters of horror appear in this intricate tale of murder, madness, and revenge in mid-Victorian England. Darkness there is aplenty, and blood and gore, some tastefully insinuated, some described in intimate detail. But the story emphasizes the intellectual (and occasionally physical) exertions required for Thomas De Quincey, the notorious “Opium Eater”; his brilliant and resilient daughter, Emily; and their two stalwart detective friends from the London Police to solve a series of gruesome, upper-class murders that have a single point in common—clues left at each scene point to previous attempts to assassinate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, suggesting a network of dangerous, unknown malcontents.
And the clues are moving irrevocably closer…presumably, to another attempt on the monarch’s life.
As did the earlier story, Inspector of the Dead encapsulates history, sociology, psychology (both current and nineteenth-century understandings), criminology, and literature in a complex web leading to devastating discoveries and—as promised—a cataclysmic confrontation in the Throne Room of Buckingham Palace itself.
All of these elements are intriguing, of course, but what makes the novel of particular interest for me is that at its most fundamental levels, it is about monsters, the most devastating kind: human beings. There are allusions to other sorts, as when customers at a pub, having drunk doctored beer and gin, hallucinate creatures and break out into a deadly public brawl. But throughout, the story concentrates on what transforms humans into monsters.
For some, monstrousness is an almost unavoidable response to rigid Victorian morals, standards, and values. Churchgoers in the finer parts of town see nothing wrong with turning away starving children, often condemning the children to a lingering death by starvation…or worse. In their world, social status determines individual worth, and, in spite of twenty-first-century attitudes, many of Morrell’s characters merely act the way they believe they are supposed to act. The main characters constantly confront this kind of unthinking evil as they move from the highest levels of society to the lowest and reveal to readers how tragically locked into assumption every stratum is.
Unfortunately, too many powerful and influential people turned their backs on a particularly egregious social injustice that resulted in the horrifying deaths of four Irish immigrants and set the surviving child on a course of revenge that would take dozens more lives in horrendous, meticulously planned murders.
Acting in the name of a secret society, “Young England,” a criminal mastermind manipulates private and public confidence in the government, the nation, the monarchy itself nearly to the point of revolution, so convincingly that everything the police attempt to track down the villain results in strengthening the hold the society exerts.
The substrata of political and social commentary ultimately merge with the plotline to provide a single sentence, quoted from the historical De Quincey, that illuminates the entire volume: “The horrors that madden the grief that gnaws at the heart.”
From such horrors come madness and desperation, obsessions with revenge and retribution…and human monsters.
Lest I have made Inspector of the Dead sound too much like a sociological treatise, readers can rest assured that Morrell provides not only opportunities for thought and consideration but also moments of high adventure, ranging from the battlefields of the Crimean War to the shadowed back streets of London’s worst districts. The book is a brilliant amalgam of history and fiction, of reflection and speculation, of possibility and probability. And a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Secret Societies…and Horror

I grew up hearing about secret societies…or, more precisely, about one particular secret society.
I am a Latter-day Saint (Mormon), as were my parents, and part of my early education included hearing stories from and reading in the Book of Mormon. In one of the divisions that make up that book, several passages are devoted to a group called the Gadianton Robbers, from the name of their founder. After a while, it becomes apparent that the name “Gadianton” is rather like the name “Dread Pirate Roberts,” since the society recurs and flourishes over several generations, long after the founder is dead.
Almost without fail, the rise of the Gadianton Robbers parallels a decline in society at large. As individual and institutions grow proud and wealthy—and inordinately greedy—they seek undue power over others, and the Robbers invariably reappear as an exterior threat corresponding to the internal one. Wealth disappears, murderers commit their acts in secrecy and are never identified; and when they are, they are frequently related to their victims. Healthy political action comes to a standstill as Chief judges are murdered on the judgment seat. Society is thrown into chaos.
Whether taken historically, symbolically, or metaphorically, the Gadianton Robbers simultaneously stand for the consequences that result from a broken social order and one of the causes of that fracture.
The idea that an originally small group might persist, grow, and eventually become a threat to the larger community, then, was already familiar when I began seriously reading horror in my early thirties.
I was introduced to the genre by a student, who asked one day if I had read any Stephen King. I had not. He recommended Dead Zone. I read it that weekend, and over the next summer read most of the major works by the top authors.
Stephen King…and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), in which a small, secret group destroys a once tightly knit community, feeding off individuals’ pride and greed and fear. The fact that the figure forming the core of the group was supernatural, a vampire, was less compelling for me than vision of the systematic dissolution of friendships, of family bonds, of religious faith, of almost everything that makes society possible.
I read Robert R. McCammon…and Bethany’s Sin (1980). As with ‘Salem’s Lot, a small town. As with Salem’s Lot, an outsider arrives, this time with his wife and family, and again a cabal reveals itself that dissolves the family and demands blood.
I read many more, too many to recall by name after nearly four decades, but time and again, the image of the secret society appeared, always associated with monsters (in fact or in act), always associated with evil.
And that is, perhaps, appropriate. After all, the point of secret societies as they appear in horror and dark fiction is invariably to protect identities, to preserve anonymity, to cloak intentions, to disguise realities, until the final evil is unveiled. Nothing quite so jars characters—or readers—than to discover that the old man remembered from a character’s childhood as kindly and helpful is actually a voracious monster, in private moments slavering for children’s blood. Or that the grade-school teacher so often caricatured by students as a witch…is one.
Such groups release characters from consequences, at least until the climax when, one hopes, the underlying evil is defeated. Despicable acts committed in secret, in disguise, under the pretense of goodness and charity, do not immediately recoil on the perpetrators; indeed, part of the insidiousness of such groups is that they often plant false evidences of guilt, creating trails leading, often, to the hero or heroes. For long portions of novel after novel, even when the society is partly revealed, readers cannot be sure who is who, who is trustworthy, who is culpable for the most horrific acts.
That such clandestine groups can even emerge in horror novels is almost always an admission that the society harboring them, the world that encourages their founding and growth, is seriously skewed. As with the Gadianton Robbers in the Book of Mormon, secret societies function most effectively as distorted mirrors of the external realities. If all relationships were healthy, if political and social actions moved toward the betterment of everyone involved—rather than toward the enrichment of the powerful and the selfish—there would be no need for secret societies.
And there would be no horror.
For me, the most complete treatment of such a secret society in recent horror occurs in a novel by Michaelbrent Collings, This Darkness Light (2014—he’s my son but he is also a fine storyteller). Apocalyptic horror in the deepest sense of the word (apocalypse, ‘to uncover, to reveal’), Darkness begins with a simple premise: a gunshot man who should have died hours earlier and an ICU nurse are forced to flee because someone—actually a group of someones—wants them dead. Close behind them is a deadly assassin, who is being manipulated by the same unknown group. Gradually, readers discover that the unknown, unnamed ‘secret society’ not only controls local thugs but also controls the President of the United States, directing his thoughts and actions until an apocalypse is inevitable.
Although Darkness ultimately develops a religious theme, its treatment of a secret society of ruthless, merciless, almost maniacal killers parallels those in horror novel after horror novel. The external threat merely makes manifest internal sicknesses, cancer and plague, that are already destroying the world. The more horrific the actions become, the more deaths inflicted upon innocents, the more blighted the landscape until it seems inescapable that the world, through pride and greed and selfishness, has brought upon itself its own version of the Gadianton Robbers.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Santa and the Christ

A Parable

The old man paused, a spot of silence
Midway between night
And lacy whisperings
Around the edges of a dawn.
He paused, and sighed, and stretched,
His breath a silver shadow in a frozen world.
“Almost finished…finished, really,” he thought,
“This journey through withdrawing night,
Among the curling ghosts of fires almost dead,
Tendril-fingers reaching,
Grasping as a million fingers soon would be,
Tearing at bright paper and glossy ribbon-bows.
Well, it is over for this season, and soon….”

Then he saw a gleam, a strand
Of liquid gold on crusted snow.
It wasn’t a house…more a shed,
With broken shutters, shingles savaged
By December’s latest blast.
One candle-stub guttered
Through a dust-smudged pane.
Slowly he opened the door
(For the first time in half a century
The hinges did not squeak)
And glanced inside.
Behind him, snow-puffs swirled
On a pre-dawn breeze.
Shimmers of frozen air shrouded the room.
But where he walked
Warmth followed, spreading its blanket
Through darkness (snowflakes
Glistened on his beard, though,
Unmelted and unmelting).

He sniffed. Somewhere, crouched in musty corners,
Clinging bat-like to splintered rafters,
The lingering scent of cattle,
Years old, gone before the longer years
Of emptiness and decay.
No tree here. No twinkling lights,
Computer toys,
Film-foil tinsel
Counterfeiting icicles.
Only the couple sleeping in a broken bed
And the baby in a rough-cut cradle.
A tattered, hand-pieced quilt
Lay across the crib, a tuft of straw
In shocks on frozen earth.
The old man paused and smiled—
Warmth billowed through the room.
The old man knelt
To touch a bare-plank floor
With a knee for once unmindful
Of its old arthritic ache.
He knelt, and smiled, and paused.

And the Spirit of Giving bowed before
The enduring Gift of All.

 [From: All Calm, All Bright: Christmas Offerings.]

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

On Dialect

I first consciously discovered the uses and abuses of dialect many years ago when I read Emily Brontë’s masterful Wuthering Heights. I loved the book; I still do. But—then and now—I have a serious problem with one element of her storytelling.
One of the characters from whom readers glean a good deal of information about Cathy and Heathcliff is an old Cornish serving man, Joseph. His tale-telling lends a fair amount of impetus to the story, and he rightly belongs in it. In 1847, however, when ‘Ellis Bell’ published his one and only novel, the ancient dialects of Cornwall still constituted a thriving part of the English linguistic landscape. For Brontë to incorporate large chunks of one into the story made a certain sense, lending authenticity to the landscape (so critically important to Wuthering Heights) and to the characters. Unfortunately, for late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century readers, Cornish dialects have long since faded, so that instead of providing “local color,” Joseph’s extended passages become difficult, almost unintelligible. If we consider one paragraph devoted to Joseph’s narrative, the problems become clear:

They sit up all night together continually, and Hindley has been borrowing money on his land, and does nothing but play and drink: I heard only a week ago—it was Joseph who told me—I met him at Gimmerton: “Nelly,” he said, “we’s hae a crowner’s ‘quest enow, at ahr folks’.  One on ’em ’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’ other fro’ stickin’ hisseln loike a cawlf.  That’s maister, yeah knaw, ’at ’s soa up o’ going tuh t’ grand ’sizes.  He’s noan feared o’ t’ bench o’ judges, norther Paul, nur Peter, nur John, nur Matthew, nor noan on ’em, not he!  He fair likes—he langs to set his brazened face agean ’em!  And yon bonny lad Heathcliff, yah mind, he’s a rare ’un.  He can girn a laugh as well ’s onybody at a raight divil’s jest.  Does he niver say nowt of his fine living amang us, when he goes to t’ Grange?  This is t’ way on ’t:—up at sun-down: dice, brandy, cloised shutters, und can’le-light till next day at noon: then, t’fooil gangs banning und raving to his cham’er, makking dacent fowks dig thur fingers i’ thur lugs fur varry shame; un’ the knave, why he can caint his brass, un’ ate, un’ sleep, un’ off to his neighbour’s to gossip wi’ t’ wife.  I’ course, he tells Dame Catherine how her fathur’s goold runs into his pocket, and her fathur’s son gallops down t’ broad road, while he flees afore to oppen t’ pikes!”  Now, Miss Linton, Joseph is an old rascal, but no liar; and, if his account of Heathcliff’s conduct be true, you would never think of desiring such a husband, would you?’ (Ch. X)

Unfamiliar words, quaint but initially unintelligible archaisms, seemingly erratic contractions, colloquial sentence constructions—all might have defined authentic character traits a century and a half ago, but now they merely become obstacles to clarity and force.
Now compare that passage with one written less than forty years later (1884), the opening sentence from Chapter XXXX of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

We was feeling pretty good after breakfast, and took my canoe and went over the river a-fishing, with a lunch, and had a good time, and took a look at the raft and found her all right, and got home late to supper, and found them in such a sweat and worry they didn’t know which end they was standing on, and made us go right off to bed the minute we was done supper, and wouldn’t tell us what the trouble was, and never let on a word about the new letter, but didn’t need to, because we knowed as much about it as anybody did, and as soon as we was half up stairs and her back was turned we slid for the cellar cubboard and loaded up a good lunch and took it up to our room and went to bed, and got up about half-past eleven, and Tom put on Aunt Sally’s dress that he stole and was going to start with the lunch, but says:
“Where’s the butter?”

The differences between the two are remarkable. Both establish a strong character while providing needed suggestions as to education level, social standing (for the mid-nineteenth century), sophistication, credibility, and native intelligence. Both rely on non-standard usages and structures to identify their speakers.
But whereas the first is replete with difficult words and equally difficult pronunciations, the second contains only one word that might be problematical—cubbord—and the context provides an immediate definition. There are a few non-standard usages, such as “we was” and “we knowed”; and an obvious colloquial construction, “a-fishing.” Rather extraordinarily, the passage is a single sentence, structured upon and as conjunction, which gives precisely the insight into Huck’s mode of thinking that Twain needs, defining a boy who sees the world in terms of the present and the obvious, with little need for the complex multileveled utterances of subordination. For Huck, life is “this” and “this” and “this” and “this,” everything of equal immediacy and of equal importance.
What is most surprising about the second passage as dialect is, in fact, what is not there. There are none of the terminal clippings so often used to establish a drawling, leisurely Southern sense to speech. Twain gives readers “feeling” instead of the generally expected “feelin’,” “standing” instead of “standin’.” Indeed, the informality of the first particle in “a-fishing” is almost contradicted by the presence of the terminal “g.”
Except that by this time, in a novel build upon a flawless sense of the ebb and flow of human conversation, there is no need for Twain to instruct readers in how to ‘hear’ secific words; readers already know to delete certain sounds. The opening lines of the story provide almost immediate training in how to understand and interpret Huck’s world:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

“You don’t know about me without you…,” “that ain’t no matter,” and “There was things…” prepare readers sufficiently that they automatically hear “That’s nothin’” rather than “That is nothing” and “Widder Douglas” rather than “Widow Douglas.” By the time Twain releases the marathon sentence in Chapter XXXX, there is no need for him to write:

We wuz feelin’ purty good afta’ breakfast, ‘n’ took m’ c’noe ‘n’ went over th’ river a-fishin’, with a lunch, ’n’ had a good time, ‘n’ took a look at th’ raft ‘n’ found ‘er alright, ‘n’ got home late to supper, ‘n’ found ‘em in such a sweat ‘n’ worry they di’n’t know which end they wuz standin’ on, ‘n’ made us go right off t’ bed th’ minute we wuz done supper, ‘n’ wouldn’t tell us what th’ trouble wuz, ‘n’ never let on a word ‘bout th’ new letter, but di’n’t need to, ‘cause we knowed as much ‘bout it as anybody did, ‘n’ as soon as we wuz half up stairs ‘n’ her back wuz turned we slid fer th’ cellar cubboard ‘n’ loaded up a good lunch ‘n’ took it up t’ our room ‘n’ went t’ bed, ‘n’ got up ‘bout half-past ‘leven, ‘n’ Tom put on Aunt Sally’s dress that he stole ‘n’ wuz goin’ to start with the lunch, but says:
“Where’s th’ butter?”

Spelled like this, the sentence becomes a stumbling block rather than a guide to characterization and authenticity—and one can only imagine the entire book written this way. Chances are good that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would not be in the running for Great American Novel, if indeed anyone now even bothered to struggle through it.
Instead, Twain had the genius to suggest a regional dialect rather than re-create one. Rare but carefully positioned out-of-the-ordinary words and spellings, deftly handled spoken-level sentence structures, and a consistent context (including landscapes, actions, and characterization) allow Twain to tap into the advantages of dialect without succumbing to its dangers. Twain constructs the vernacular only to the extent necessary as a vehicle for his social criticism, allowing educated readers—who would, after all, buy more copies than uneducated readers—to become enmeshed in Huck’s story while remaining several degrees distant from it. They could initially look down upon Huck for his provincial attitudes and provincial speech patterns while gradually discovering—painfully, in many cases—that they themselves have misunderstood such key concepts as friendship, loyalty, freedom, and nobility.   

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Stephen King's THE STAND--Looking Back at Differences

The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition
Stephen King

[Shortly after The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition appeared, I was asked to review some of the differences between it and the original 1978 version and assess the effectiveness of the expanded story. In light of the recent news that the book is now scheduled as a four-film theatrical release, I thought those comments might be of interest.]

In 1990, after years of rumors, promises, and tantalizing hints, King’s monumental prose-epic, The Stand, finally appeared as King originally intended it. Its publication climaxed complicated negotiations with Doubleday, which allowed King to restore some 400 pages of manuscript text excised for the novel’s 1978 appearance and to update the setting to 1990. In addition, King appended an explanation of some of the more substantive changes between the two editions, as well as an account of how and why the book was originally cut.
As King notes, a number of readers, reviewers, and critics attacked the first version for being too long. Confronted by the unexpurgated 1990 The Stand, exceeding 1,150 pages in the hardcover edition, such readers must be approaching apoplexy. But there are also those who see The Stand, even in its earlier truncated form, as ranking among King’s most ambitious, coherent, involving, and ultimately successful novels.
The 1990 restoration substantiates those claims.
Most of the restorations appear in large blocks of narrative. Returning them to the text intensifies the novel, particularly in defining characters’ motivations, backgrounds, and personalities.  The new opening chapter thrusts us directly into the panic of the superflu as Charlie, Sally, and Baby La Von desperately flee the military a secret military base. The next chapter (Chapter 1 in the 1978 version) brings us back to familiar grounds as Stu Redman discovers that he and his friends have abruptly been immersed in a real-world horror. Beginning with panic, then moving to Redman’s more phlegmatic calm, King alters the movement of the novel, creating an uneven texture designed to keep readers slightly off balance. Thus, something as direct as beginning the story one stage earlier than in the 1978 version introduces intricate variations of pacing and narration that King will exploit further as the story continues.
Other restorations substantively alter the novel’s atmosphere. When Frannie Goldsmith confront her mother in the family’s formal parlor, she introduces much earlier than in the 1978 version the central themes of past versus future and the possible sterility of both.  Frannie’s obsession with keeping her child actually begins here and thus intensifies her terrors for the child’s life in her subsequent dark dreams and again in the final pages.
The 1990 version also incorporates more detail concerning the spread and the devastation of the superflu. The alterations range from single-paragraph vignettes, frightening in their simplicity and in King’s ability to sketch plausible characters in a minimum of space, to near chapters designed to enrich the novels portraits of social dissociation. These restorations establish more plausibly the survivors’ reactions to the new world the superflu has created.  In one instance, a devout Catholic has lost his entire family and can find no peace or purpose in his survival. Being a Catholic, however, he cannot commit suicide; somehow, he must reconcile the two. In a matter of a handful of sentences, King encapsulates the man’s suffering, his grief and loss, and his fatal resolution.  In another episode, a more extended passage covering several pages, King shows a contingent of black soldiers exorcising their frustrations with the white military hierarchy by shooting randomly chosen victims and televising the entire process. In his introduction not only of racial but of only barely subliminal sexual themes, King creates a segment compelling in its violence and frightening in its implications—for 1978 as well as for 1990.  An episode detailing Trashcan’s flight westward and his meeting with an embodied madness even deeper and more terrifying than his own—the Kid—highlights Trashcan and his devotion to the Dark Man; simultaneously it again explores the darker possibilities of sexuality, symbolically linking orgasm with death. In the latter two cases, it seems evident why King might have chosen to delete, in spite of his assurances in the introduction that censorship was not the key element in the 1978 cuts.
 Critically, in terms of The Stand’s relationship to other works, a new final chapter emphasizes the Dark Man’s centrality as theme and image in the entire range of King’s fictions, from an early poem through the continuing narratives of The Dark Tower.  In The Eyes of the Dragon and the Dark Tower episodes, Randall Flagg emerges as a mystical personification of evil, moving at will through alternate worlds. In the 1978 version, the Dark Man simply disappears when Trashcan arrives in Las Vegas with an armed nuclear bomb. In the 1990 restoration, he disappears, precisely as before. But now, he also reappears—this time on a white beach in a tropical, innocent world (the imagistic connections with the end of The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger and the beginning of The Drawing of the Three seem significant). His insidious introduction of evil into what appears as an untouched paradise emphasizes King’s theme of Eden Lost and makes even more poignant the fragile hopes for life and peace that Stuart and Frannie express in their final dialogue.
Each of the restorations and changes strengthens the novel. King was not satisfied merely to reconstruct the novel as he had originally envisioned it; he also carefully revised the entire manuscript to bring it up-to-date for 1990’s readers. This often includes changing or adding such details as the names of songs and singing groups, fleeting political and social allusions, and brand-name references more immediately recognizable to later audiences. The fantasy elements intrude into the science-fictional framework much sooner, diminishing the sense that the novel begins as post-apocalypse science fiction and then, about halfway through, abruptly introduces the fantastical elements of dreams and portents, prophets and prophecy. The greater emphasis on the superflu and its consequences makes the transition from extrapolation to mysticism more believable. In this respect, it is significant that most of the changes—especially those relating to characterization, setting, backgrounds, and atmosphere—occur early in the book. 
The conclusion seems tighter as well. The bomb scene still occurs with about fifty pages to go, but since so much more has happened earlier it seems (subjectively at least) much closer to the end of the novel than in the earlier book. In the 1978 version, the bomb itself seems subordinated to Glenn Bateman’s laughter when he finally sees the Dark Man and understands what a little thing they have all been afraid of. Stu Redman’s long trek home almost displaces the explosion in Las Vegas as a focal point for the conclusion. Now, laughter, bomb, and trek are more balanced, especially against Flagg’s appearance in the last chapter. We understand forcibly that one story of good versus evil, Light versus Dark, has concluded … but another has just begun.
The Stand in either of its manifestations is one of King’s strongest novels. It is a consistent, readable, teachable response to life in a frighteningly technology-oriented world; it also reminds us that there we may sometime be forced to find a place for the spiritual and the supernatural within that world. The restored novel confirms King’s position as a master storyteller; and at the same time, it provides even readers familiar with all of his works to date increasing insight into the growth and transformation over more than a decade of his abilities, his themes, and his narrative power.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding, eds, SNAFU: Heroes—One Good SNAFU Deserves Another

SNAFU: Heroes—An Anthology of Military Horrors
Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding, eds.
Cohesion Press, 2014.

With the publication of SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horrors, the editorial team of Geoff Brown and Amanda J Spedding scored an undeniable win (for my review, see Now, with the four novella-length tales in SNAFU: Heroes—An Anthology of Military Horrors, they demonstrate that the excellences of the earlier volume were not merely fortuitous. With contributions by Jonathan Maberry, Weston Ochse, James A. Moore, and Joseph Nassise, there is military action aplenty, enough monsters—and frightening enough monsters—to satisfy even the most discriminating of readers, and sufficient opportunities for snafus on every level, from individuals making faulty decisions to layers of bureaucratic red tape that threaten humanity’s safety.

The first story, Joseph Nassise’s “The Hungry Dark: A Templar Chronicles Mission,” takes Knight Commander William Cade and his Echo Team through a nightmarish encounter with zombies and demons in a village in Germany’s Black Forest. Darkness is a theme throughout: the darkness of night falling over the infected village, the darkness of death and betrayal as the team and a handful of survivors struggle to endure until the dawn, the darkness of a powerful storm that isolates Cade and the others from any hope of help, the darkness of demonic powers intent upon emerging into this world and controlling it. To make matters immeasurably worse, in the early stages of infection, there is no way to identify the infected from the healthy, enemies from friends. Eventually, everything relies on Cade’s intuitiveness, his courage and drive, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for all.
Weston Ochse’s tantalizingly titled “Tarzan Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is essentially a parable about a broken world and a broken mind. It begins cataclysmically: “The earth was rent as if a leviathan had burst free to sail the galaxy for better worlds to chew.” And from there, we are introduced to an earth fissured and cracked, to innumerable monsters  of varying sorts emerging from the scars to wreak havoc on their surroundings. The Sonoran Rift, in the middle of the desert near Bisbee, Arizona, is the setting; among the battalion sent in to destroy any monsters that might rise from it is an incognito reporter, gambling his life in the hopes of garnering a once-in-a-lifetime exposé. And there are monsters—gigantic tarantulas and, more frightening perhaps, equally gigantic tarantula hawks, huge wasps that lay their eggs in the still-living bodies of tarantulas paralyzed by a venomous sting. But that is not the end of the monsters. Andy Fryerson becomes convinced that one of his fellows intends to rape an innocent woman and—just as Fryerson had tried to come to the aid of a girl he had known years before, imagining himself a wrong-righting Tarzan dropping from the trees—he now vows to stop the attack…no matter what. No one and no thing will stop him.
James A. Moore’s “War Stories” represents in some ways a retreat from the expansiveness of the first two. It begins quietly, intimately, with two characters: a young man fresh from appalling experiences in Viet Nam (and equally appalling ones upon returning to the States); and his grandfather, a veteran of both World War II and Korea. Realizing that his grandson is on the brink of a breakdown, the old man sits with him on the family porch and, for the first time, opens up about his wartime experiences and inviting his grandson to reciprocate. Moore skims through this part, as the two establish a powerful bond…powerful enough for the grandfather to relate one final encounter, with Nazis, death-camp victims used for experimentation, unbelievable monsters created from humans, and one anomalous individual who might or might not have been human, or a monster. The story accentuates the inhumanity of war by expanding its characters—literally and physically—as the grandfather and a few others fight against seven-foot-tall monstrosities and the human-monsters that created them.
The final story is Jonathan Maberry’s “Changeling: A Joe Ledger Adventure.” It begins shortly after Ledger has witnessed the death of the second woman he had ever loved, Grace Courtland, and his subsequent descent into a distanced coldness, a ruthlessness that he himself describes as monstrous. Now he is summoned from the prospect of enjoying a baseball double-header on a perfect May afternoon to investigate a supposedly empty scientific laboratory. The place had recently been raided by multiple alphabet-agencies, none of which fully trust the others. Ledger’s enigmatic boss, Mr. Church, is convinced that there is more inside than simply empty rooms, particularly since a dozen or so of the scientists who should have been inside have never been found. Angry at the interruption in his life and at the multiple administrative snafus that prevent anyone from going in, Ledger enters the building. There he discovers—no great surprise, of course—monsters beyond his imagining. But more importantly, he discovers another person already inside, already searching for answers, already more knowledgeable about the lab that anyone should be…or could be. And worse, she triggers excruciating memories of Courtland.

Each of the stories is well handled, deftly written, approaching questions of what constitutes a monster and what constitutes a hero from vastly different directions. Each answers some of those questions; each leaves others frustratingly unanswered. But in the ambiguities inherent in each story, in the unresolved possibilities of the natural and the supernatural, lie the strengths that makes each powerful.
SNAFU:Heroes is the first in several advertised follow-up anthologies to the original SNAFU, that will include SNAFU: Wolves at the Door and SNAFU II: Survival of the Fittest. From the evidence in the first two volumes, these are books to watch out for, the purchase, and to enjoy thoroughly.