Halloween picks: The Scariest books

I usually like to get in the Halloween spirit by reading a scary book or two. This year, my top pick is NOS4A2 by Joe Hill. If you like Stephen King, you’ll love this book by his son. Not only does it read like King, but it reads like King at his absolute best–one of those great big books that takes you by the throat and forces you to race through the pages just to find out what happens. NOS4A2 has a Christmas theme, so this one will keep you chilled all through the holidays.

Alternatively, you may go for a classic read this Halloween. I just finished The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson, a short surreal piece that inspired Lovecraft. It’s got pig-people in it. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allan Poe are also favorites this time of year. (Here’s my essay on Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel.)

For more Halloween reading ideas, here are my picks for the top 10 scariest books of all time:

  1. The Shining by Stephen King
  2. It by Stephen King
  3. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  4. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  5. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  6. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
  8. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  9. World War Z by Max Brooks
  10. The Ruins by Scott Smith

What is the scariest book you’ve read?

Book List: Big Books for Summer

Cover of "Under the Dome: A Novel"

Cover of Under the Dome: A Novel

Settle into your summer reading with one of these epic novels.

Summer is the perfect time to wade into a really big book. You know the books I mean, the kind that can double as a door stopper for a recalcitrant screen door or a small table to hold your drink on the beach.

Most of the time, I’m afraid to commit to such books. But in the summer, I have much more reading time available. All I want to do during the long, lazy days is escape into another world, and just stay there a while.

If you don’t mind the extra weight in your suitcase, consider carrying along one of these big books on your summer vacation. There’s something for everyone on this list, ranging from post-apocalyptic horror to epic historical fiction to parallel worlds.

The Passage: A Novel (Book One of The Passage Trilogy) by Justin Cronin: Last summer’s blockbuster is newly out in paperback. If vampires are your thing, don’t miss it. But be warned, these vampires are real monsters. They glow in the dark, have mouths full of sword-like teeth, leap out of the darkness, and are possessed by an overwhelming desire to rip your head off. The book spans 800 pages and 100 years, but you won’t be able to put it down.

Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King: The master of horror is known for big books, and his latest novel is no exception. Spend your vacation trapped with the residents of Chester’s Mill, Maine, under a mysterious glass dome. In a very short time, all the rules of civilized society are thrown out the window. What ensues is murder, mayhem, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Dive into the enormously complex world of Arbre, complete with a 3,000-year history and even its own languages. Anathem has it all: big ideas in physics, mathematics, and philosophy melded with chases, fight scenes, explosions, mysterious space ships, conspiracies, and even a romance. Be prepared by the end to travel across cosmoses and following multiple conflicting story lines through quantum space. But it’s all great fun.

Lonesome Dove: A Novel by Larry McMurtry: Maybe you never got around to reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. It has been re-released in a beautiful anniversary edition, so now is the perfect time to pick it up. Follow a huge cast of characters led by two legendary former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus (Gus) McCrae, who embark on one last folly: the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana.

Sea of Poppies: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh: Travel back to India at the height of British colonialism in this magnificently sprawling book. Each character in the large cast has a secret to hide; each one is in some way living as someone they are not. They are brought together by the intertwined strands of fate that direct their lives. Sea of Poppies is often funny, but it is also suspenseful, epic, and evocative of a long-ago time and place. The first installment in a trilogy, its cliffhanger ending will leave you wanting more.

Article first published as Big Books for Summer on Blogcritics.

Room 237…

I watched Room 237 last night on Netflix instant streaming and highly recommend it. It is a documentary that presents several theories on what is really going on in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. But wait! It is so much more than a geek-out about The Shining. (Although, to be fair, the film will be more enjoyable if you’ve seen The Shining, and read it, and seen all of Kubrick’s other movies.)

The brilliance of Room 237 is that, even though it’s a documentary, the people being interviewed are never shown in that classic talking-head documentary style. Instead, film clips constantly play as they explain their pet Shining theories, most of the clips from the film, the bulk of the rest from other Stanley Kubrick movies, and some from other films. These clips serve as a constant commentary on the voiceovers, so that Room 237 becomes more about how people become obsessed with films (or books or other works of art), fueling their obsession with every possible piece of evidence, however slight. My favorite part in the film is when the guy is explaining his theory of how Stanley Kubrick helped fake the Moon Landing, and points to Danny’s Apollo 11 sweater in a scene in The Shining as his aha! moment.

I actually have a theory on The Shining myself, but mine isn’t as far-out as the ones presented in Room 237 (or maybe it is, and I just think it’s normal). I think that Kubrick, as an artist, challenged himself to make films that were not only in a particular genre, but that transcended the genre and perhaps even defined it. He did this with 2001: A Space Odyssey in the science fiction genre, and with The Shining, he was trying to make the horror movie. Many of the clues and inconsistencies pointed out in Room 237 were probably deliberate, as Kubrick was an exacting director, but they aren’t signs of some uber meta-theory. Rather, Kubrick was trying to subtly unsettle his audience, have them feeling constantly off-kilter in small and large ways, in an attempt to truly horrify them, rather than just scare or shock them. This is why The Shining actually gets more disturbing the more you watch it, as you start to pick up on these subtle inconsistencies. The Shining is a movie about a place where the rules of reality no longer apply, and the rules of movie-making don’t apply in the film, and the inference is that maybe none of us can trust what we think is real. Now, that’s terrifying.

The Shining Movie Poster

Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, I read this essay yesterday too, and it made definitely me want to watch Eyes Wide Shut again. That film has a lot of parallels to The Shining, doesn’t it? I feel another theory coming on…

The opening line…

Stephen King shares his thoughts on why opening lines are so important and why he spends so much time crafting them in Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences – Atlantic Mobile. As a reader, an opening line is a greeting from the author. Do I feel welcomed? Do I want to venture in further? Or do I want to run away?

I’m sure we all have our favorite first lines. One of mine comes from King: “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.” It’s a simple line, but it immediately sets the scene as well as the tone of the book, and it introduces instant tension. The Atlantic asked several authors what their favorite first lines were after running the piece with Stephen King. All interesting choices. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun to read the first line and imagine the book, rather than reading the book itself.

You are probably already familiar with the Bulwer-Lytton contest that challenges writers to come up with the worst first lines. It’s named after Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the writer who came up with the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” later made famous by an authorial Snoopy. Every year, I get a chuckle out of reading the contest winners.

I leave you with some more favorite first lines. Don’t they make you want to read these books?

“When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.” – Lonesome Dove

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – Nineteen Eighty-Four

“If you had told me we’d end up in a world with kids with green hair and bones in their noses I would have laughed in your face. But here it is.”–No Country for Old Men

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more.” – The Haunting of Hill House

Common Themes in the Works of Stephen King

This essay started life as a collection of notes I made on every Stephen King book a few years back, when I was rereading them all. Then it morphed into an answer to a question on Quora.

Crimson King

The Crimson King, representative of the Random. Image via Wikipedia

I was asked to answer a question on Quora about the common themes in Stephen King’s works. I have read everything that King has written, and I have noticed several “big ideas” that recur in his works. Taken together, these ideas provide a worldview that I find very compelling, which is probably why I enjoy King’s writing so much. The following are the seven major themes that seem consistent across King’s body of work. Please note that this essay does contain spoilers for many King books. I have provided as many examples as I can remember, but I am sure I have missed some, so please fill in the gaps in the comments.

1) There are two elemental forces, the Purpose and the Random, which are constantly at war with each other; this battle affects all worlds and all lives. The goal of the Random is destruction of all worlds. The goal of the Purpose, which King calls the “White” and uses synonymously with God, is to hold the Random in check and maintain a balance between the two forces. The “Coming of the White” refers to the restoration of the Purpose, or setting things right after a period of chaos. The Purpose selects and guides humans to achieve its aims; these people, although retaining free will, are in the thrall of fate or destiny, which King calls ka. The Random enlists its own agents, which may be human or supernatural beings.

Examples: The Stand and The Dark Tower series are King’s epics about this ongoing battle, but the theme recurs in many other books, especially Desperation, The Eyes of the Dragon, Insomnia, It, Low Men in Yellow Coats, Needful Things, and The Talisman. In Pet Sematary, the symbol of the spiral found in the Pet Sematary and the Micmac Burying Ground leads from chaos to order. In The Talisman, this elemental opposition is reflected in the two hotels — the Alhambra Inn and Gardens and the Black Hotel — where the quest begins and ends.

2) Ordinary people, when they come together, can achieve extraordinary things against overwhelming odds. Everyone, even the most ordinary or lowliest person, has something special to contribute. When people form a bond and work together against a common foe, the effects of their contributions are magnified, enabling them to overcome powerful enemies. When the Purpose brings together a group of people in this way, the group is called a ka-tet.

Examples: King introduces the term ka-tet in The Dark Tower series, where it refers to a group where many lives are joined by fate. Ka-tets are also formed in Black House, Desperation, It (the Losers’ Club), Insomnia, The Stand and Under the Dome.

3) The most important thing a person can do is make a stand for the ultimate good. Heroic characters are exhorted to “stand and be true” against the forces of chaos that oppose them so as to preserve order in the world. Making a stand is an incredibly difficult, often self-sacrificing act. It requires faith and courage in the face of overwhelming terror and power.

Examples: Of course, The Stand is the epic story about making a stand against the ultimate evil. Other books where the hero is required to make a stand are The Dark Tower series, The Eyes of the Dragon, It, Needful Things and The Talisman.

4) Everything in space and time is cyclical, and all events are fundamentally connected. This idea is symbolized by a wheel. In Insomnia and The Dark Tower series, King describes his vision of the multiverse as a wheel made up of perhaps an infinite number of worlds, connected by the axle of the Dark Tower, and held together by the spokes, called the Beams. The phrase repeated in many King novels, “Life is a wheel,” expresses the cyclical nature of life and that nothing happens by chance. Ka, or fate, is also “the wheel that moves the world” (Rose Madder). This cyclical repetition can be a Hell for the people caught up in it (“Hell is repetition”), reflecting the Eastern idea of the endless cycle of reincarnation, which can only be escaped via enlightenment.

Examples: The Dark Tower series, which explains the cyclical nature of all worlds, is itself structured as a cycle, with Roland ending up where he began. This theme is also explored in the cyclical nature of time travel in 11/22/63, It’s sleeping and waking cycles in It, Duma Key, Insomnia, Low Men in Yellow Coats, Rose Madder, The Shining, The Stand, Storm of the Century and The Talisman. The idea of Hell as repetition is the major theme of the short story, “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”

5) Creation is a powerful tool in service of the Purpose. If the Random’s goal is destruction, then creation is the ultimate weapon against it. This may be why writers figure so prominently in King’s works, as writers literally create worlds when they tell stories. Like any tool, the writer’s ability to create can be used either for good or evil ends.

Examples: This idea is taken to the extreme in The Dark Tower series, where King introduces himself as a pivotal character as the creator of Roland and his world; therefore, he is responsible for Roland’s success or failure in his quest to save all worlds. Writers and their ability to create figure prominently in Bag of Bones, The Body, The Dark Half, Desperation, It, Lisey’s Story, Misery, The Regulators, ‘Salem’s Lot, Secret Window, Secret Garden, The Shining and The Tommyknockers, as well as the short stories, “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” “Dedication,” “The Road Virus Heads North” and “Umney’s Last Case.” In Duma Key, the creator is a painter rather than a writer, but the theme persists.

6) The innocent and uncorrupted are closest to the Purpose, which makes them unexpectedly powerful. Generally, the innocents are children, but they could also be the mentally disabled (Tom in The Stand, John Coffey in The Green Mile, Duddits in Dreamcatcher) or the saintly (Mother Abigail in The Stand). Their powers manifest as prophetic visions or dreams, as well as the ability to alter reality and communicate telepathically. Adolescence is a time when the innocent are most vulnerable to corruption, when their powers may be turned to evil, such as in Carrie or Christine.

Examples: Powerful children appear in Bag of Bones (telepathy), Cujo (visions), Desperation (visions and miracles), Firestarter (pyrokinesis, telekinesis and telepathy), Insomnia (can see auras), It (visions and magic), The Langoliers (visions), Pet Sematary (prophetic dreams), The Regulators (also autistic), The Shining (telepathy and visions), The Stand (telepathy and visions), The Sun Dog (visionary dreams), The Talisman (travel between worlds) and Under the Dome (prophetic dreams).

7) The greatest evil that people do is victimization of the weak by the strong. Victimization usually manifests as abuse of animals, women and particularly children. Abuse of the weak is a particular evil of human nature (rather than an elemental evil like the Random), but it can lead to corruption of the abuser by the Random. The abused are generally not rescued; if they are to escape, they must do so themselves, by calling on their inner strength and power. If abused children do not escape or die, they often grow up to commit evil acts as a result of their abuse.

Examples: Child abuse takes places in The Body, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, Insomnia, It, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Rage, Rose Madder, The Shining and The Talisman. Wife/girlfriend abuse takes place in Cujo, Cycle of the Werewolf, The Dark Half, Desperation, Dolores Claiborne, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, Insomnia, It, Rose Madder, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Talisman, The Tommyknockers and many short stories.

Here is the original Quora question with all the answers given.

Endings: Why the Dark Tower succeeds where Lost fails

This was cross-posted from my blog Books Worth Reading.

Please understand that if you read further, you will be totally and irrevocably spoiled for the endings of both The Dark Tower series by Stephen King and the Lost television series. The choice is yours.

Stephen King’s Dark Tower series and Lost have a lot in common, and it’s no secret that the Lost writers were greatly influenced by King. Both stories are sprawling, epic, complex, sometimes head-scratching, and play with similar themes and ideas. Both seem largely made up as the writers went along. Both require you to suspend your disbelief a lot and accept some truly crazy things that happen. Both have very similar elements in their endings.

Here’s why I think The Dark Tower largely succeeds and Lost largely fails. The short version: It comes down to the basics of story-telling.

What is The Dark Tower about, in one sentence? It is about Roland‘s quest to reach the Dark Tower. This very simple, very clear motivation drives all action that follows, and we know it from the outset. We may not understand yet exactly what the Dark Tower is or why Roland needs to reach it — that comes later — but we do understand that this goal is more important to Roland than anything else.

Aside from Roland’s motivation, King introduces us to three key concepts that are fundamental to the story at the very beginning of the series. If as a reader, you don’t buy any of this, you’ll probably stop reading by the second or third book.

The first is the idea that multiple, parallel universes are real and the characters can travel between them. The mechanics of how this occurs isn’t really important; what is important is that it is literally possible. We know that Roland’s world, a post-post-apocalypse world that has “moved on,” shares some common characteristics with ours. In the first three books, characters travel between our world and Roland’s, and in the fourth book, the characters pass through another related world, but with some telling differences, which is where the events of The Stand took place.

A second key theme is that of the role fate — which Roland calls ka – plays in the characters’ lives. Roland forms a group of people, his ka-tet, who are interlinked by destiny to help Roland in his quest. We learn early on that the members of Roland’s previous ka-tet did not come to good ends, and as the story progresses, we find out that Roland also lost his first love and his parents in horrific ways. This helps us realize that the other characters probably won’t make it to the end. Roland himself acknowledges that he would sacrifice them for the Tower, and even the others seem to understand this. This in no way diminishes the emotional power of their deaths when they do come — Eddie’s death left me in tears, and Oy‘s slayed me — but we are nevertheless prepared for them as a function of fate.

Even though all of the members of Roland’s ka-tet do die, we see them together in another world. As readers, we are able to accept this as literally happening because the idea of the multiple universes is long established. These aren’t the exact same people but other versions of them who get to live happier lives together. We are free to layer additional interpretations on top of these — the alternate universe is a kind of afterlife, the characters’ reward for throwing in with Roland and sacrificing themselves — but that is entirely up to the reader. Regardless, this epilogue functions within the rules already laid down and lets us feel a bit of catharsis about these characters’ fates.

Finally, King introduces the idea of cycles right from the beginning. A large part of fate is repeating things until you get them right — the “wheel of ka.” Roland at first sacrifices Jake and then he is given the chance to save him. Susannah is injured twice by the same man, but she can break the cycle once she looks him in the face. When Roland finally reaches the Dark Tower but has to start his quest all over again, it is frustrating and aggravating, but it is also fair. King has set up the idea of cycles and repetition, and we are left with the hope that next time, Roland will get it right and succeed.

So what can be learned from all this? What couldthe Lost writers have done differently to make their resolution more satisfying?

1) Answer the questions you pose. Lost posed a lot of niggling questions and left many unresolved. Granted, a lot of these questions weren’t all that important to the overarching story. For instance, I wasn’t concerned about the Dharma supply drops, because for me, the Dharma story line wrapped up nicely in season 5. But I am still bothered about why women can’t give birth on the island. That seemed so important, and then it was just dropped.

One mistake I think they made was saving up so many unanswered questions till the end. If the questions aren’t overwhelmingly important, it’s okay to give answers as you go along. A good example is: what is the hatch? Asked in season 1 and answered in season 2.

But the larger, more critical questions definitely need answering by the end. And the biggest question of all for me is: what is the island and why is it so important? I had the same question about the Dark Tower. But we learned early on that the Dark Tower is the nexus of all universes, and destroying it means the destruction of all existence. These are very high stakes that I can get invested in. For me, what makes the most sense is that the island is some kind of nexus too, and it exists outside of time and space. This would explain a lot of the anomalies in my mind. But I had to supply this explanation myself, because it wasn’t given in the show, and in fact, a lot of what we saw actually contradicts this interpretation. I don’t mind bringing my own take to the story, but I shouldn’t have to work quite that hard.

2) Play by your own rules. King establishes a metaverse early on, and remains consistent to that idea to achieve what he wants to achieve. On the island, the manipulation of time is clearly critical. But it is never explained conclusively or tied together satisfactorily. Up to the last 15 minutes of the finale, I was expecting the sideways universe to be a true alternative universe that was created when the nuclear bomb exploded. I expected there to be some connection between the island world and the sideways universe; perhaps the characters would move from one to the other to somehow save the island, with the Desmonds as the key. When it turned out to be a death vision or limbo or whatever you want to call it, I felt cheated because this didn’t follow through on key themes that were introduced previously and it brought in an entirely new idea that didn’t connect to anything that had happened before.

3) Give your characters clear, simple motivations and remain consistent to them. Everything Roland does is directly attributable to his goal of reaching the Dark Tower. The motivations of the Lost characters are frequently mutable or incoherent, particularly during the last season. Widmore is the bad guy who wants to take over the island, until suddenly he doesn’t? Ben is a badass, then he’s redeemed (okay), then he’s bad again, then he’s caught under a tree, then he’s not. When I learned that Kate had returned to the island with the goal of finding Claire and reuniting her with Aaron, I breathed a sigh of relief; at least one person had a clear goal that I could get behind.

4) If you get “lost” (ha ha), return to and reinforce the themes you have already introduced. I think the show started losing its way in season 3 and completely gave up on coherence by season 6. Everything with the Temple, Sayid’s “infection” and Widmore made absolutely no sense. The writers would have been better off returning to those big ideas they introduced from the beginning, such as faith versus science, the game being played between dark and light, the theme of being lost and finding purpose or redemption, and Jack’s famous “live together, die alone” line. (Here’s an essay that expounds nicely on this tenet of complex storytelling.)

I would argue that the writers of Lost didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. They didn’t play by the rules that they had established. Maybe they were just messing with our heads, as I have seen posited elsewhere. That’s okay, but there are still rules that must be followed. In The Dark Tower, Stephen King introduces himself as a character and posits that Roland’s story is really only a story that he is writing. It’s a nutty idea, but it works for me, because King still finishes Roland’s story. The metafictional elements are layered on top of the epic adventure we’re already invested in; they don’t negate it. To allude to another book that influenced Lost, the Lost writers shouldn’t invite us to pull back the curtain and look behind it, because instead of a wizard, there’s just a bunch of guys who in the end didn’t really know what they were doing.

Thank you for sticking through this very long essay with me until the end. I appreciate the chance for a little catharsis and would enjoy reading your reactions in the comments.

For more:

Stephen King & comics…

On my books blog this past week, I posted a little summary of Stephen King’s foray into comics. A second career for one of the most successful writers around? Go check it out, if you like.