Archive | Horror

Revival | Stephen King

The cover of King's RevivalCharles Jacobs was a young minister who liked to tinker with electricity—until lost his wife and child in a horrific car accident. One “terrible sermon” later he left town with his faith in tatters and his electrical hobby turned an obsession.

Jamie Morton was a young child assaulting a German stronghold with plastic army men when Charles first entered his life. Revival is the story that covers their intertwined lives.

This novel stands out from the pack in a couple ways. In the first place, King excels at characterization and pacing. In contrast to so many action-packed suspense novels, King seems almost leisurely. By the time the action hits, you are emotionally invested in his characters. Surprisingly, this slower pace makes the book no less interesting. King proves that you don’t need to end every chapter with a cliff-hanger to sustain the constant reader’s interest.

The second way this novel stands out is King’s use of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror theme. He offers an explicit nod to Lovecraft when Jamie’s research assistant compares a book called De Vermis Mysteriis to Lovecraft’s “fictional” Necronomicon (389). This theme also connects Revival to the Dark Tower’s idea of the space between the worlds. The theme is only accentuated when juxtaposed against Jacob’s loss of faith.

Once again, King has shown himself a master storyteller by applying legitimate literary skills and devices to pulp fiction themes.

King, Stephen. Revival. New York: Pocket Books, 2014.

The Complete Fiction | H. P. Lovecraft

The cover of Lovecraft's The Complete FictionHoward Phillips Lovecraft was an odd soul. He was born in 1890 and lived 47 years only to die in sickness and poverty, questioning the merits of his work. In hindsight, Lovecraft is considered one of the masters of the horror genre. During his lifetime, however, he struggled to sell his stories and novellas to Weird Tales.

The first thing you notice when reading Lovecraft is the descriptive quality of his writing. Although it can feel plodding at times, it forces the reader to slow down and enter the terror of the situation. Any page will yield an example of this. Here’s the beginning of The Outsider:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. (164)

If you are willing to exit the furious pace of modern storytelling to enter Lovecraft’s high-resolution stories, the details will linger in your mind.

Lovecraft’s stories share a common theme: terror at the inconceivably other. He continually relates the mind-shattering terror one feels when one encounters cosmic beings that dwarf the categories of our human minds. For Lovecraft, humans are insignificant in the grand scale of the cosmos.

I can’t help but process Lovecraft’s themes in light of my Christian worldview. He was right—the cosmos is grander than we can possibly understand. A Judeo-Christian reflection on this leads to poetry:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4 ESV)

Where Lovecraft differs from Christianity is not the scale of cosmic otherness: it’s that for Christians, the Other is invested personally in humanity.

—H. P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2008).

The Valley of Spiders | H. G. Wells

The cover of Wells' The Valley of SpidersWhile in high school I found second hand copies of H. G. Wells’ classic works: The Invisible ManThe Island of Doctor Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. I was completely entranced. Wells’ writing is so matter-of-fact, it sounds convincing. I can understand why people panicked when The War of the Worlds was dramatized on radio!

The short stories collected in The Valley of Spiders have that same convincing quality, but lack the imagination of his major works. Of the 13 stories, only two stood out:

  1. “The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham” is a disturbing tale of waking up in someone else’s skin. Wells conveys the horror of coming to grasp just what has happened brilliantly.
  2. “The Door in the Wall” mixes childhood memory and adult disillusionment in one unforgettable package.

Besides these two shining lights, the collection falls flat.

—H. G. Wells, The Valley of Spiders (London, Great Britain: Fontana, 1964).

Doctor Sleep | Stephen King

The cover of King's Doctor SleepWhat ever happened to little Danny Torrance after he survived the Overlook Hotel?

Doctor Sleep, sequel to The Shining (The book, not the Kubrick film), answers the question in painful and glorious detail.

There’s a depth—a maturity—to King’s writing that wasn’t there in his earlier works. The characters are more real—the villains function on many levels.

Let me share three reasons why I loved this book:

  1. This book is compelling. Despite its 500 page girth, I finished it in two days. King is the master of making every page gripping.
  2. Doctor Sleep fits well with the meta-narrative King’s developed and highlighted in his Dark Tower books. Discovering these themes made the story instantly recognizable.
  3. This is more than a supernatural thriller—King addresses real generational issues like alcohol and anger. His portrayal of grown-up Danny Torrance wrestling with his father’s demons is moving and even redemptive.

Now, don’t get me wrong—this is a still a Stephen King horror novel. It’s not for the squeamish. If you enjoy a good story, however, there’s a shine below the grizzly surface.

—Stephen King, Doctor Sleep (New York, NY: Scribner, 2013).

Deathbird Stories | Harlan Ellison

The cover of Ellison's Deathbird StoriesThe warning at the start of the book set the tone well (xii):

It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This not is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole.

The first story was troubling enough to make me question whether or not I should have bought the book. Ellison lacks the restraint that most human beings come by instinctively. I suppose, when writing a book about all the gods people follow today (the gods of the freeway, the coaxial cable, the paingod, the god of neon, the rock god, the god of smog and even the god of Freudian guilt), you should expect trouble.

I tracked this volume down through after learning it was the inspiration behind Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys. The concept that a god is only alive insofar as he or she is worshiped is a fascinating idea to explore. Gaiman explored it with brilliance while Ellison used it as the lietmotif in this collection of short stories.

From a Christian perspective, Deathbird Stories invites some interesting thoughts about the nature of belief and modern forms of idolatry. These hallucinatory tales show idolatry for what it is—unfortunately, without offering any solution.

—Harlan Ellison, Deathbird Stories (New York: Bluejay Books, 1983).

Web | John Wyndham

  • Web © 1979
  • Penguin (1980)
  • 141 pages

Web is a posthumously published novel by one of the last century’s greatest science fiction writers: John Wyndham. Like his more famous works (i.e. The Chrysalids, The Day of the Triffids), Web rides the line between science fiction and horror—this time swerving more towards horror.

Lord Foxfield was an aging mogul with a desire to leave a lasting name for himself. He decided to buy a deserted island with a spotted past to create an ideal society. As you might guess, things degenerate. There’s some obvious social commentary there about the inability of humanity to create a perfectly synergistic society while other creatures . . . well, just read the book.

I love Wyndham, but I have to admit this is one of his more lackluster efforts. The first few chapters border on tedium, while the middle of the book races along like pulp fiction. Unfortunately, this is only worth reading if you’re a fan of the author.

A Dark Matter | Peter Straub

I was introduced to Straub through his work with King on the Talisman and Dark House books. Given their tie to the Dark Tower books, his ability to write about two overlapping worlds (and more) became obvious. In A Dark Matter he’s right back in this element, describing an overlapping world beyond ours with disturbing clarity.

He does take a long time to get to the point of this story, but there is some gifted writing to enjoy en route. He uses multiple viewpoints to continually shed new light on the mystery at the core of the story. The character who spoke primarily in quotations from other literature was entertaining as well.

The highlight of this book occurs (not unsurprisingly) near the end as the narrative approaches its climax. Straub has a gift for using adjectives you wouldn’t expect to make surreal scenes absolutely vivid in your imagination.

A Dark Matter isn’t an instant-payoff novel—it’s like an album you grow to love the longer you listen to it.

Full Dark, No Stars | Stephen King

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” sayeth the Lord.

Someone forgot to remind the protagonists about that verse. Whether it’s a corpse or a conscience, an abused author or a suspicious spouse, Stephen King’s latest four short(er) stories all deal with the theme of retribution.

The title of the collection is fitting: these are dark tales—but seriously, what did you expect from Stephen King? This is his best work in years. In them he demonstrates his understanding of the human psyche by placing average characters into atrocious circumstances to see how they would react.

Like his earlier collection, “Different Seasons” which included gems like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body” (a.k.a. “Stand By Me”), I suspect at least there of these stories will soon be remade as films—for better or for worse. The stories are simple yet powerful. I would love to see Tarantino take a shot at “1922”, a story about a brutal murder and a tortured conscience.

These sort of stories stick with you. You’ll have something to mull over in your mind when you finally put the book down in the wee hours of the a.m.

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