I meant to do this a while back, but every time I would get on here to say something, I’d say something else. After all, why wouldn’t I have a few comments on the biggest publishing phenomenon since Harry Potter?

Let me begin by saying that, to date, I’ve only read the first book of the series. I have New Moon at home waiting for me to finish what I’m currently reading, but I’ve read enough to justify a few opinions.

Overall, I think the first book was decent. It’s certainly no feast for the mind, but it’s serviceable. I particularly appreciate why teenage girls have lost their collective minds over it–plain girl chosen and seduced by ultra-sexy, ultra-bad boy. Still, I have two major beefs with the book.

First of all, Bella is boring. A ready-made victim, she goes against every heroine out there right now in urban fantasy–she’s weak, she’s clumsy, and she’s incompetent. The only edge she has is that Edward can’t read her thoughts. Otherwise, she’s a complete opposite of the strong female leads I prefer to read about in such books.

Second, and more of a detail point, is that Stephanie Meyer has a serious problem with the word “said”, particularly in dialogue attribution. Every bit of dialogue, it seems, has some jumped-up verb attached to it. “Blah blah,” he laughed. “Blah blah,” she sighed. “Blah blah,” he smiled. “Blah blah,” she screamed. If the writer is doing his/her job, then these verbs are not necessary and only serve to distract the reader. Some people argue that said becomes boring, but I disagree. I believe, when done properly, it becomes invisible, allowing the reader to pay more attention to what is being said that how the author thinks it should be said. As Elmore Leonard says, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” I agree with this, although I chalk this particular problem to our educational system. I’ve know several English teachers who encourage their students to pump the attribution verb full of hot air just to show off that writer’s vocabulary. I say, if you want to show off your vocabulary, do the Word Power section of the Reader’s Digest. Leave it out of your writing unless it’s absolutely necessary to the story.

Aside from those things, it’s hard to argue against a book that’s done that well in the market. That’s what it’s all about really, although I think a lot of people forget that. Some people believe a book should be judged solely on it’s literary merit rather than how well it sells. This is bullshit. If a book sells, it’s a good book. If a book doesn’t, it’s not necessarily a bad book, but the only number you really need to look at is how many copies it sold, not how high the percentage of polysyllabic words is. Anyone who argues that a best-selling book is bad because it has not literary merit, nothing to last through the generations, probably has an oft-rejected manuscript sitting at home they don’t want to discuss. It’s about money, people, and it’s ALWAYS about money.

A funny sidenote about the book, however, is that two of the names given to the vampires in the book are names that I chose for my vampires in Dead and Dying, names I picked out over a year before I read this book. Maybe it’s true that great minds think alike.

Now, all of that aside, I’m continuing with edits on Project Superhero, which I have tentatively titled Gifts of the Hirakee. I’m not sold on this title, though, and am anxious to see what my proofreaders come up with.

In his popular blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford recently declared himself chairman of the “Can’t We Just Give Ian McEwan the Nobel Prize Already?” Committee. Well, Mr. Bransford, I would like to nominate myself for the position of Vice Chairman, for I have seen the light.

I picked up Atonement a few years ago after seeing McEwan’s writing praised on several websites. After reading the jacket, I wasn’t convinced the story would be very interesting, but I decided that it was worth a look. Still, for a long time, the book sat on my bookshelf, collecting dust. Every once in a while, I would lay aside the SF or fantasy novel I was reading and gaze at the bright red spine, wondering if I was ready to tackle a work of literary fiction. Finally, in a rush to find something to read as I headed off to work, I grabbed Atonement and ran out the door.

I started reading the book that afternoon during my lunch break and after a half hour of reading, I wondered if I dared to finish the whole thing. As a writer-wannabe myself, comparing my own work to McEwan’s is like comparing a kindergarten fingerpainting to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Every word of Atonement is placed with surgical precision, as though the author stopped after each word to thoroughly consider its placement. Even discussing relatively boring subject matter such as a young woman struggling over what dress to wear to a dinner party, McEwan paints the scene with such beauty and majesty that the reader almost weeps when, at last, the choice is made. In describing Robbie’s march to the evacuation at Dunkirk, he creates a war that is as beautiful as it is terrible, a surreal landscape of body parts and abandoned machinery that places you along that same road, constantly on guard for German aircraft. The horrors Briony faces in the hospital leave the stench of alcohol and blood in your nose long after you have closed the book.

Admittedly, I read Atonement very slowly. Each short session, consuming a few pages at a time, left me in awe of what writing can be. I was forced to read in small sips rather than large gulps just to absorb the full impact of what I was reading. The book was a nine-course feast of the mind, in sharp contrast to the fast-food variety of books I regularly consume, the so-called best of commercial fiction. McEwan could write about buttering a piece of toast and make you hear the knife scraping across the break, feel the rough texture on your tongue. Few writers have anywhere close to his ability to so entrance the reader, to completely blind him or her with such a riveting story so brilliantly told.

I was so affected by Atonement, in fact, that I have not written at all since I finished it nearly two weeks ago. After seeing such mastery of the written word, I look at my own writing, throw up my hands, and ask myself, “What’s the point?” Reading a work like Atonement may give the fledgling writer those feelings of futility, of self-consciousness that lead many to stop altogether, but I have to look at the book as a learning device. McEwan has shown me all that can be done with a novel and though he has most likely set the bar far too high for me to reach, I can still try.

Now, embarrassed though I am, here’s the update on the work in progress. I spent most of this evening rewriting a short story, so my progress on the new novel, left alone for far too long, stands at:

The Dead and the Dying is currently out on submission to two agents, having received one rejection. I am looking to send out a few more queries during my next two days off assuming the flu and other such distractions leave me be.

I’ll start this review by saying that Richard Matheson’s story providing the source material for this movie is the best piece of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read.  The perfect blend of psychological and physical horror, the book excites and pleases right to the surprise ending.

The movie, however, is a different matter.  It is still far better than some other movies of the genre I could name, but it seemed to me more like two movies than one, both of which falling short of their potential.  It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to decide whether they should make a film that they wanted to compete for an Oscar or one with the blockbuster appeal to generate a lot of revenue and decided to make both.  The first hour is fraught with tension, allowing a wonderful stage for Will Smith to again display his versatility and talent as an actor.  Smith plays everyman Robert Neville, but plays the everyman we would all like to be.  Instead of the regular Joe found in Matheson’s book, the film turns Neville into both a soldier and an immunologist, two skill sets that make him an ideal (and remarkable coincidental) person to remain immune to a virus that kills 90% of the world’s population and turns all the survivors but a few million into vampires.  Smith seems to have cornered the market on this type of character–the guy pissing at the next urinal who could still kick your ass in midstream while not letting a single drop fall to the floor.  In one scene, Neville’s beloved dog, Sam, rushes into a dark building chasing a deer and when Neville goes in after her, he is more panicked than one would expect from a well-built man holding an assault rifle.  A few moments later, you find that his fears are justified as he and his dog nearly become Purina-brand Vampire Chow.

Simply stated, the first half of the movie was fantastic.  In the second half, however, the movies goes far astray from the book and, in doing so, enters the realm of the cliched action film.  Neville, upon losing Sam, tries to commit suicide by attacking a pack of vampires at night and ends up being saved by two survivors, the first two living people he has seen in three years.  Oddness ensues as the woman and her son try to convince Neville to flee with them to an alleged colony of survivors in Vermont.  Neville, convinced he can reverse the effects of the virus, refuses to leave, a fact made moot by a bold attack by the vampires on his home.

Matheson’s book ends with Neville finding a young woman out on his daily trek to destroy the vampires, a woman who turns out to be an enhanced vampire herself, immune to sunlight, that leads Neville into a trap.  The novel concludes with Neville awaiting his execution by this new society, one that considers him, the murderer of so many of their number, the monster.  As he looks out upon the multitude of anxious, fearful faces, he realizes that he has become a legend to rival the vampire in the previous society.

In the movie, Neville realizes that he has found the cure to the virus, but only after the vampires have entered his home and are moments away from killing him.  Securing the young woman and her son with a sample of the cure, he sacrifices himself via hand grenade, allowing they woman and child to make their way to the colony with the cure.  Movie over.

What makes the ending disappointing to me is that it completely whiffs on the point of the novel.  Matheson wrote about how our legends form within society.  The theme of the movie version, instead, seems to be that persistence pays off.  A noble thought, but far less reaching than Matheson’s.  Had the movie stayed along the line set by the novel, it might have held less action, but would resonate more upon its completion.  Matheson’s story was thrilling and poignant, while the movie proved less so on both counts.

Overall, I Am Legend is a worthwhile film to see.  It could have been better, but Smith’s incredible charisma makes up for much that is lost in the translation to the screen.  Perhaps someday, another version will be made, one truer to the story Matheson created.

 

I’m scared of electrolarynxes.  There, I said it.  Ever since I was a child, I found those little gizmos frightening, producing a mockery of speech in that alien, electronic voice.  Even today, working in a pharmacy where I see more than my share of health care devices, I still find them a bit disconcerting.

So, when Joe Hill uses an electrolarynx to not only provide an elderly man with an means of communication, but also uses it to allow a homicidal ghost the means to threaten his two protagonists, I was pretty damned creeped out.

In Heart-Shaped Box, Hill’s debut novel, Judas “Jude” Coyne is an aging death metal star living in semi-retirement in New York state with his odd collection of macabre and grisly curiosities.  When his assistant finds an online auction offering a ghost for sale, he can’t pass up the opportunity.  What he gets–a dead man’s suit in the titular receptacle–turns out to be much more than he bargained for.

As a budding horror novelist myself, I found Hill’s work to be both a great study into what modern horror is and an entertaining read.  By playing on subtle, irrational fears (such as that of electrolarynxes) and expanding them into larger ones with far greater intensity, he manages to avoid many of the conventions of horrors that might have turned the story into a huge bore.  There are few respites for the reader as the story starts to unfold and even these are fraught with tension as Jude and his partner, Georgia, flee from a vengeful spirit, often pausing only long enough to bind their wounds and decide on their next move.

There was little I did not like about the book.  The character of Jude was well-executed, a sublime mixture of dark celebrity and everyman who wants nothing more than to live a normal life, but the remaining characters lacked the same depth.  I wish some of the players–Jude’s father, attorney, and dead band mates–could have found more room in this taut tale, but to add much more would have reduced the intensity of the work, making even the best characterization worthless.  Also, the book ends with a series of choppy chapters that tie up several of the loose ends, an act that could have been done in the same smooth style Hill employed through the rest of the book.

Heart-Shaped Box has received several nods from the literary and horror community, and rightfully so.  It is a splendid read worthy of Hill’s father (some writer fellow from Maine) and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a good, dark tale in this darkest month of the year.

 

I would like to spend a year with Thomas Harris. Maybe even two. I want to get up when he gets up, eat breakfast at the same table, go with him to shop for produce, and simply follow him around to see what he does on a day to day basis. Perhaps, standing in his shadow, I can see why it takes him so long to write the books he does.

I realize that the detail he incorporates into his novels–the history, the art, the languages–require a great deal of research and thought. I understand that the stories are complex and portray characters with psychological issues far beyond the range of the average person’s comprehension. Still, since Black Sunday appeared in 1975, Harris has written only four novels, including his breakout work, The Silence of the Lambs. In the past four, the role of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, arguably one of the greatest characters in modern culture, has increased until Hannibal the Cannibal has become front and center in Harris’s writing. In Hannibal Rising, Harris expands what we learned of Lecter’s past in Hannibal by describing the events that led to the rise the monster we know from his earlier books. We see the gruesome murder and consumption of his sister during the second World War. We see Lecter’s development through adolescence, his education, and his early adult life, along with the beginning of his homicidal yearnings.

As a fan of Harris’s early works, I was eager to read Hannibal Rising, but not with the same interest that I read Hannibal and I place the blame for this mostly on Harris himself. Lecter is a wonderful character in Silence, all the more threatening because of his intelligence, his unknowable mind. It is this enigma, this sense that what happens behind those piercing blue eyes is beyond our understanding, that makes Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest villains I’ve ever read about. So, when Harris sets about in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising to explain how that evil mind works and, worse, gets you to identify with him, to assume his point of view, it completely dispels the magic draw the character has for me. I don’t want to relate to Hannibal Lecter. I don’t want to feel sorry for him, to support him in his quest for vengeance against those who killed and ate his sister. I want to relate to those trying to stop him, trying to understand him. I want to be the common man–Will Graham or Clarice Starling–who must fight my awe of his genius, swallow my fear, and beat him at his own intellectual game.

For me, Hannibal Rising is a case of infatuation gone wrong. Harris seems too enamored by his ability to add depth to his creation to realize that, in doing so, he shows us the zipper running down the monster’s back. His tale is still rich in detail, but seen from Lecter’s end, this serves only to give the novel a snobby, elitist feel, further alienating me from the writing. In making Lecter shine, Harris casts a shadow over the other characters in the book, leaving them small and one-dimensional. There are still several scenes that display the author’s mastery of the gruesome and unexpected, but even these feel like a overblown curriculum vitae for the young Lecter.

I remain a fan of Thomas Harris and, even though I found this book disappointing, I will pick up his next one when it comes out. What Harris does well–pulling the psychological strings of our terror and setting it all to classical music–he does better than almost everyone. Hannibal Lecter is a cultural icon, his place in society enhanced by the brilliant acting of Sir Anthony Hopkins, but I’ve seen things through his eyes long enough. It’s time to look through someone else’s, someone who will be assigned the task of chasing down the monster without becoming his next victim. Let us return to Graham or Starling or some other figure who must rise up to face the threat of Lecter. Let us, Mr. Harris, be the common man again, facing the terror of Hannibal the Cannibal.