I do not read my book reviews…primarily because there’s hardly enough of them for me to read, sniff sniff. But there’s some on Goodreads and NetGalley for Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom and they’re generally what I expected: some people loved it, some people hated it. Very little in-between. Which makes sense.
Because this is a story you are either going to love or hate.
It’s not a happy tale. In places, it is downright brutal. And offensive. And does not have a happy ending. Oops, you’re supposed to find that out for yourselves.
What puzzles me is some of the people who hated it expected a completely different story. Doesn’t anybody read the jacket blurbs anymore? I thought it was pretty clear that this is not going to be a happy tale, is, in fact, downright brutal, with little chance of a happy ending.
So if that’s what you’re looking for, don’t read this. Even though the second and improved edition is right now available for pre-order on Smashwords…hey, who said that, who snuck a shameless and unsolicited promotion into the middle of this diatribe??
One thing, though, even the people who hated it said it was well written.
If you’ve read John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, then this is the follow-up novel you expected…except it’s not. John Perry, the hero of the first novel, is barely mentioned; indeed, he is nothing but an offhand remark in one or two places. It’s like an author trying to link up books with a throwaway line or character, say some ghost child named Frank Vaughn or something.
So don’t expect the continuing saga of a favored character you remember from the first novel, but do expect the continuing saga of the world built during that first novel. This is a galaxy of odd alien races all bent on conquering- and, in some cases, eating- other alien races, including us humans. Apparently, we taste like chicken. So we chickens are always coming up with some innovative tech or method to keep us off the dinner plate, like warp drives and space pods and more-or-less cloned soldiers (’cause they’re not really clones but users of dead bodies), complete with an installed BrainPal allowing them to bypass the decades of growing up and maturing and skill development that a naturally born human has to go through before they are combat ready.
Think of it as distance learning on dilithium crystals.
I thought the Old Man’s War concept was great: take the brains and experience of old people and meld it with superstrong rebuilt bodies to create the Colonial Defense Force. Imagine, a bunch of crotchety old farts running around the galaxy with advanced weaponry and the reflexes and strength of their teenage years and, well, we’d simply rule. I don’t know what happened to that concept in this follow-on novel but it is shrifted. I guess the available supply of crotchety old farts would rather sit around in their wheelchairs watching reruns of Space 1999 or something. The clone brigades now take on the heavy lifting. Bit disappointing. I was looking forward to being 18 years old again with a plasma rifle in the 40 watt range and 60 years of accumulated attitude.
As yarns go, this is a pretty good one. Jared Dirac, a newly decanted BrainPal soldier, is fitted with an extra conscience, that of traitor Charles Boutin, in an effort to find out (a) what exactly did Boutin give to our alien enemies and (b) why did he do that? This make Dirac’s already stressful birth even more stressful by adding the memories and motivations of a traitor and actually it makes this story far more interesting than a Clone Wars rehash. For one thing, you get to see a comparison between a fully developed conscience and a newly emerged one…even if the fully developed one is about as superficial as one can get. When you find out Boutin’s reason for betraying the entire human race to a coalition of cockroaches and BEMs your first reaction will probably be, “Really? Dude, get a grip.”
Overall, this is a space shoot-em-up with fun weapons and tactics that miraculously appear in the supply chain at just the right moment because that always happens…okay, yes, suspend much belief, but if you know that going in, you’ll probably enjoy this.
I have wandered the bleak, apocalyptic landscape of independent publishing for nigh on ten years. scrabbling through the wreckage for a crust of book sale or book review, watching the corporations plunder the best seller lists and advertising venues, hovering on the edge hoping to pick off some of their leavings. Grim existence, this. But, one dark night I spotted a shining city on a distant hill and now, now, have made my way through its gates:
Alright, alright, bit overblown, but sometimes it feels like Road Warrior out here. You can either become an Amazon sensation like Mark Dawson or remain so obscure that if I send up a flare, the Iron Dome knocks it down.
Anyways, ever since Rebel E was exiled into the Great Empty, I have been stateless, with no home base to which I can deposit titles and seek advice and commiseration. Then, lo! A voice from the darkness when Genghis Jayne told me about IUPH (not a birth control device) and made intros and the Goddess of Indie, Lisa Orban, granted me entry. And I am feted with honied hummingbird wings and ambrosia.
I am transferring all of my titles to their umbrella, with a re-written Frank Vaughn and Southern Gothic as first offerings. Everything else will follow over the next few months. As well as some new stuff.
The other day I ran across a video in which some guy listed the ten best horror novels of all time and well, no, no they weren’t. Over half them were more properly classified as scifi or thrillers, not horror. I mean, c’mon!
In the guy’s defense, horror has been ill defined and most books thus categorized are so because (a) some authority said they were or (b) there is a generalized consensus to that effect.
Don’t listen to these people.
Horror is pretty much viewed as anything that scares you, which is a category so broad as to make it meaningless. I mean, poison ivy scares me but unless it becomes self-aware and starts chasing me around the yard (hmm, story idea, write it down…) it’s not horror. Serial killers are not horror, either, although they can be horrifying. Neither are tyrannical oppressive governments a la Catching Fire or Starting a Fire or whatever that thing is, nor bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although it comes close.
Scaring you is only part of the formula; there are at least two other elements necessary before it is true horror. First, some supernatural influence, preferably associated with some religious concept of good and evil. The supernatural doesn’t have to be an actual supernatural force, but an adherence, a belief, a dedication to it. That’s why Red Dragon is horror while Silence of the Lambs isn’t; it’s a thriller. And second, a sense of helplessness in the face of forces too powerful for mortals to comprehend, much less resist.
In other words, ghosts, monsters, witches, cults, entities, demons, and all their acolytes. Everything else is either scifi, fantasy, thrillers, or crime.
You can see already how my definition violates the norms. Alien and Aliens are considered horror movies, but they’re actually scifi. Scary scifi, to be sure, but scaring you is not sufficient criteria. The aliens are science based, not supernatural, and there’s no sense of helplessness against them, just the need to find the proper weapon. Hannibal Lecter is a criminal, not a monster, although that’s an apt one word description of his sociopathology. And elves and dwarves and hobbits and dragons are part of a world-building exercise, although there’s plenty of supernatural things like wizards and Balrogs running around in those books. You expect dragons and Balrogs in that world, though, so it’s not a sense of helplessness that overwhelms the hobbits but the need to deal with what used to be a distant problem.
The sense of helplessness is key. When normalcy is confronted by something out of ken, then normal human responses are rendered ineffective, and the human has to look beyond his usual resources for a solution. Hannibal Lector can be shot, but what do you do about Dracula? Need a cross and garlic, which is just silly in the human world. But unless you do that, you are helpless before the Lord of the Vampires.
So, given the above criteria and without further ado, the best 10 horror novels of all time:
10. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Stoker’s compilation of old wives and folk tales in the person of Count Dracula, an evil creature bent on slaughter and domination, remains the classic horror novel, probably the first true horror novel although there are preceding candidates, such as Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. But Dracula is light years beyond those. Stoker pulls no punches. The Count is evil and malevolent and has no redeeming value and there is no compromise and he is darn near impossible to kill, at least by human methods. Stoker introduced the time honored horror trope of the Unexpected Expert. Jonathan Harker and Mina and the rest of the gang are helpless before Count Dracula’s onslaught until Van Helsing shows up. One of the best aspects of this novel is the aftermath: no one remains untouched, no one remains unscarred, which is the nature of evil. It corrupts everyone it touches.
9. At the Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft. Alright, okay, not an actual novel, a story collection, with only the title story long enough to be considered a novella. But, these stories form the core of the Cthulhu Mythos, one of the most terrifying alternate realities in literature, with its Old Ones and sacrifices and Dunwich Horrors and distorted, malevolent gods bent on eating us. Lovecraft almost single handedly created the dark forces genre, and King and Connolly and Straub owe him. Was he a racist? Oh, distressingly so. Was his prose turgid and stiff? You betcha. But his descriptions of the horrors lurking in the dark will curl your hair.
8. The Exorcist. The movie was scary as crap and ushered in the entire demons-are-gonna-get-ya flicks of the 70s, like The Amityville Horror and The Omen, but those all missed the novel’s larger point: our souls are battlegrounds for ancient powers. An unbelieving world dismisses these powers as quaint relics of a superstitious age, at its peril.
7. The Dead Zone. I have railed about Stephen King in other places and most of his usual suspects, like It and Pet Sematary, are not on this list because, well, they’ve got problems, but this one deserves a spot. Uncle Ben’s adage that with great power goes great responsibility is the core of this novel. When an accident gives Johnny Smith the ability to tell the future by merely grasping someone’s hand, he decides to use this power for the betterment of mankind. With terrible results.
6. Red Dragon. My only entry of the serial killer/slasher type novels which I generally categorize as thrillers because this serial killer, dubbed the Tooth Fairy, is doing all his butchering so he may transform into something else, William Blake’s painting called Red Dragon. Take a look at it above: that ain’t Smaug, that’s the devil, and while there are no actual supernatural elements in this book, the Tooth Fairy’s enthusiastic dedication makes up for that lack. This book introduces a minor character named Hannibal Lecter, who isn’t as interesting as the Tooth Fairy. This is a much better novel than Silence of the Lambs, which ain’t no slouch of a novel, either.
5. Salem’s Lot. This King novel, in my opinion, is sheer genius, as close to genius, anyway, that the King can reach. His vampire is the traditional Stoker kind, not something cool and glittery and angst-ridden, and is pretty terrifying in a Nosferatu kind of way. Worse, though, is the monster’s familiar, Straker, who, ever since the 1979 TV series, I always picture as James Mason. It’s quite something that you’re actually more terrified of the human servant than it’s evil master.
4. The Other. One could easily make the argument that this does not meet my criteria because there’s no clear supernatural element here. Holland and Niles seem like your typical creepy thirteen year old twins, but are they actually twins? Are they actually alive? Who knows? That uncertainty gives this extraordinarily well written novel an air of constant dread.
3. The Returned. More eerie than frightening, this is one of the most unnerving zombie novels written. Well, technically not zombies but revenants…except we don’t know how the dead were raised and there could be some voodoo involved so, benefit of the doubt. The zombies don’t want to eat our brains, they just want to resume lives so rudely interrupted by death some years, even decades before. And the non-dead aren’t too happy with this. Half the time this novel is a moral tale of acceptance, and/or a metaphor for prejudice, but dead people coming back and asking for their old jobs and houses back may be a bridge too far for even the most tolerant among us. Especially when no one has any idea why this is happening.
2. NOS4A2. Apples not falling far from trees here, and it is so good that Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son, completely understands the nature of horror, more so, I believe, than his Dad does. At least, recently. This is a scary, scary book of a monster/ghoul/vampire whatever keeping himself young by corrupting the souls of children. Yes, there’s some oddness, such as the telekinetic/teleportation powers of the heroine, Victoria McQueen, but all forgivable because Hill weaves it all so well.
1. Nightworld. This is absolutely the most hair-raising novel I have ever read. There are scenes that made me gasp out loud. Maybe I’m a sucker for end-of-the-world gotterdammerung apocalyptic divine judgment novels…are there really that many of those?…but this remains for me the best horror novel ever. That may come as some surprise because Wilson is kind of scattershot. He tried to create a series around a character named Repairman Jack but it didn’t really go anywhere. Nightworld is a Repairman Jack story, the last of what Wilson loosely called The Adversary cycle. You probably know the first book, The Keep, which was made into a fairly decent movie, but it and the other Adversary novels don’t really seem connected to each other. Until you get to this one. Which will blow you away.
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A friend of mine well north of 60 years old — like me– needed to renew his driver’s license. Now my friend is reasonably computer adept — like me — despite all the commercials showing he and I and everyone else in our demographic as hopelessly befuddled by them there new fangled whatchamacallit Yoonivacs (despite the fact that my demographic INVENTED them new fangled whatchamacallits) and so logged on to the DMV site for the routine license renewal we’ve all been doing the past 4 decades or more. Except, being north of sixty, he suffers from a common ailment of our demographic called forgetfulness, and he put in the wrong answer to one of his security questions and was immediately locked out.
So begins our epic.
The helpful DMV robot directed my friend to call an operator to get his account unlocked, so he did…over the next five days. Busy signal mostly, then on hold for two or three hours and then disconnected, busy, hold, disconnect, wash, repeat, until, Holy Mother of God, he actually reached a living, breathing human being. Said human advised the account could only be unlocked at an actual DMV office. “But,” my friend pointed out, ‘they’re closed for COVID.” “That’s alright, sir, we will make you an appointment…three months from today. Be sure to bring your ID.”
“But, my license expires next week.”
“Then try not to get stopped, sir. See you in three months.”
So three months rolls around and my furtively driving friend, wise in the way of bureaucracy, not only brings his old license but also his military ID, his birth certificate, and three separate utility bills, all dated within the last 30 days. Masked and social distanced, he is admitted into the DMV and approaches the counter and explains his purpose.
“Fine, sir. Do you have your passport?”
“Uh, no. I wasn’t planning on leaving the country.”
“Sir, are you being funny?”
“No, Ma’am. I do have my birth certificate. It’s from Pennsylvania so proves I am a US citizen.”
The DMVr takes the birth certificate and examines it with the scrutiny of a crime scene expert then throws it back. “I’m sorry, sir, this is not acceptable.”
“Pardon? Why not?”
“Because you parents didn’t sign it.”
Apparently there is a block on the back of PA birth certificates which parents sign acknowledging ownership of a professed child. “Okay,” my friend said, “what do I do?”
“You have to get your parents to sign it.”
“But they’re dead.”
‘Can I just go get my passport and bring it back to you?”
“Certainly sir. Call the same number through which you booked this appointment and we’ll set you up again. The next available date is three months from now. Have a nice day. Now get out.”
My friend, somewhat bewildered, leaves and goes home and examines the birth certificate and discovers parent signatures are only required if there is an error on the birth certificate, such as the wrong name or wrong date or wrong parent. Since everything documented on the certificate was accurate, no signatures needed.
My friend, wise in the way of bureaucracy, realized this explanation would fall on uncomprehending ears, decided to get a certified and notarized copy of his birth certificate to take back to DMV in 3 months, along with his passport because Heaven knows what new requirements will be in place by then, maybe even a DNA sample, so he called the PA Registrar’s office.
“Oh, sure, sir!” some eagerly helpful clerk gushed, “We can do that, no problem. And it will be as valid as the original.”
“No signatures needed, sir. Unless there is something wrong with the certificate, then your parents need to sign.”
“No no, everything’s fine. So what do I do?”
“Send us a self addressed stamped envelope, a $5.00 money order………….
….and a copy of your valid, unexpired driver’s license.”
My friend has decided to simply take his chances with furtive driving.
No, this is not a political statement but a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) … see? They go from Red to Blue. And since these were published from 1992- 1996, pre-date that whole silly red state/blue state thing, which is in itself wrong because red is the color of Marxism and what we currently consider red states are as far from Marxism as the color blue is, or was, until Tim Russert
thought he’d be cute in the 2000 election and switched the colors and for reasons I still don’t get, everyone has followed along. I mean, all you have to do is take a casual glance at Soviet flags
to see what red really stands for. But it may be appropriate here because Robinson’s Mars moves from a free and downright anarchic society in the first book to an unbelievably sophisticated (and unrealistic) communo-socialist-capitalist-barter system in the last one. Red to Blue. Get it?
The story itself is fairly straightforward: Earth selects 100 people (dubbed the First Hundred. Catchy) to colonize Mars and, from their arrival to about 200 years later, Mars is turned from an arid, dead, frozen hell into somewhat of a nice place, say Alaska in the summertime. Replete with polar bears. No seriously; Ann Clayborne, one of the highlighted characters who manages to survive through all three novels, gets chased by a polar bear while hiking the outback. There are about ten highlighted First Hundred characters, from John Boone, the first man on Mars, to Hiroko Ai, a ghostly highly influential non-presence from Green Mars on (but hold on, she’s actually everywhere. Even back on Earth), who bring the story along, from training in the Arctic to sailing on Martian seas. Then there are the children of the Hundred, decanted mostly from various in vitro tubes (with a few natural childbirth outliers here and there) and immigrants and later arrivals and spies and cops and paramilitaries all over the place who add their two cents but, mostly, it’s the story of these ten or so First Hundred, over a couple hundred years. Wait, what? Yeah, folks are living well past their shelf life, thanks to Martian science, which is science done on Mars, as opposed to done on Earth, which somehow becomes tainted and evil if it’s done on Earth, unlike the science on Mars, which is pure. Depending on your viewpoint.
And viewpoints are all over the place, from the ultra Reds to the ultra Greens, which also does not mean what is does today: the Reds are those who want to keep Mars untouched, therefore red, as opposed to the colonists who want to terraform into a more earth-like place, turning it green, so to speak. See? Those colors should be reversed, by today’s definitions. Which makes this somewhat of a confusing read, that is, if you try to apply today’s definitions to novels written 20 years ago. Which is revisionism. Which you should not do. Have to read a book in its context, not in modern parlance trying to impress someone with how sophisticated and with-it you are.
But I digress.
And digression is the watchword because, Holy, Hannah, does this trilogy range all over the place. Red Mars
begins at a festival 33 years after John Boone lands on Mars, and, after he is murdered during that festival, flashes all the way back to the Hundred’s selection and training and then launching of the first colony ship, the Ares (natch), and then landing and putting things together resulting in the first actual town, Underhill, and then we’re back to the point John is killed and then revolution. Which doesn’t go very well. See, it’s a little difficult to revolt against Earth when all they have to do is pop the bubble of your little town and let all that nice fresh oxygen out into the not so fresh Martian atmosphere. Which may be an incentive to green the place up so Earth can’t do that and then we are in Green Mars
with the terraforming going apace, except for the Reds who are willing to blow up and/or flood your town to keep Mars an arid, dead, frozen hell. Really? Really? And then Earth basically blows up and Mars becomes more of a liferaft than a science experiment and who do you think is going to win this argument? Ergo, Blue Mars.
It feels very much like we are taking the long way around, out past Jupiter and back, to get to Mars. This has much to do with Captain Digression, Mr Kim Stanley himself,
who simply cannot resist writing overlong descriptions of things that were better left on the editor’s floor, such as a painfully detailed exposition on lichens and fungus, which is far more about both topics than anyone actually wants to know, except the micro specialists involved. This is the problem when big-brained scientists write scifi, they are bent on (a) showing how much they know and (b) keeping their other big-brained colleagues from finding fault: “Aha, you said the lichen spyrogyra numnutsias grows at 25 Kelvin when in reality it can only grow at 26 Kelvin! So therefore you are an idiot and your book is invalid!” You know stuff like that, like everybody yelling at Ray Bradbury because he had the sunrise on Mars coming up at the wrong place. Or was it the sunset? Don’t know. Don’t care. It’s friggin’ fiction. Lighten up.
But Kim Stanley does not, giving us several more interludes, including a painfully detailed political convention reminiscent of the Simpson’s take on the Galactic Senate in The Phantom Menace.
Oy. Stop. And I almost did, but forged on because this was my second attempt to read this trilogy and by God, I was going to do it this time and not throw it across the room like I did 20 years earlier because of all. These. Sidebars!
And I’m so glad I did because, halfway through Blue Mars, you see the point. And the point is, we keep going. To Jupiter. To the Kuiper Belt. And past.
A free copy of The Ship to Look for God because, tout suite, it’ll be gone.
‘Cause it’s dreck.
A few months ago, I re-read it in prep for the next series of Ship stories and, man, it’s awful. Just awful. Poorly written, poorly edited, and, apparently, some of the text was dropped or twisted during formatting. Very unprofessional.
Some things you just shouldn’t do yourself.
So, I apologize to everyone who suffered through it. I’m revising it even as we speak and a much better copy will soon be available. For free, of course. It’s the least I owe you.
What about the other two, Ship Looking and Ship Finding? They remain because I haven’t checked them yet: too appalled by the first one. Besides, looks like no more than ten or twelve people have read them, anyway. Probably because the first one is dreck.
Stephen King has written one novel of pure horror genius, three novels of almost genius, and a whole lot of crap. The one genius novel? Salem’s Lot, followed by The Stand, Dead Zone, and Misery. The Shining was a near miss. The rest you know.
Salem’s Lot remains the best modern adaptation of the vampire tale since Dracula because it’s one of those rare recent vampire stories that actually has a vampire, monster of legend and nightmare, a terrifying relentless demon that generates a bit of sympathy but is evil and implacable and cannot be saved. Not a sparkly vampire, not a postmodern or progressive or romantically misunderstood pseudo-pubescent angst-ridden boy band member or a sexy power grrl striking fangs against the patriarchy and please, find me a bucket so I can throw up now. Vampires are bad. And not in the cool ‘bad’ sense, they’re bad like the coronavirus.
I read Salem’s Lot in one afternoon after pulling it off a friend’s bookshelf and refusing to go home until I finished it. I hadn’t read this good a horror novel since I Am Legend, another vampire-themed book, and this King guy, whoever he is, gets it. He knows horror, that overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of something out of kin, like a hate-filled murderous monster ten times stronger than you that shrugs off bullets like they were thrown marshmallows. Unless they’re dipped in holy water. The bullets I mean. Although I guess holy water-soaked marshmallows might give ‘im pause.
Shortly after, I ran across The Stand, shortly after seeing Carrie, and I was convinced this King guy gets it, although…there was something a bit off about both. Carrie was a damn good movie, but a movie is a movie and a book a book and the twain rarely meet and I did not realize the differences until I read the book some years later. Gotta say, the movie was better although the book was pretty good, just not genius and it had those nascent elements of grossness that have come to dominate most of King’s other novels. The Stand was great, almost genius, but something’s a bit off. The ‘good vs evil” theme felt like a plot device employed by someone who didn’t really believe in good and evil, at least, the God and Satatn type. Still, damn good book.
Another damn good book: The Dead Zone. I do not know why this book and the subsequent movie don’t get more love. It was a fast paced thriller and yeah, okay, maybe the eeevil politician was a bit over the top, but that’s not the point: it’s King’s version of the Great Man theory, you know, that history will provide the right person at the right moment. Here, a flawed and fractured man willingly sacrifices himself to stop a nuclear apocalypse. Near genius. And c’mon, Christopher Walken? What’s not to like?
Then The Shining.
Everyone makes the mistake of conflating “Here’s Johnny!” with the novel, and no, book is book and movie is movie and Jack Nicholson is not in the book. You know who’s in the book? A five-year old kid with the sensibilities of a thirty year old and far too much maturity to be believable and has this gift, this shining, and I was stopped. Cold. No five-year-old is going to act like this. They’re just not. Yeah, I know, lots of people think this is one of King’s masterpieces but I think it is the beginning of his end.
Because look what followed: Cujo; Pet Sematary; Thinner, and then that dreadful Peter Straub co-operation, The Talisman. The Tommyknockers. Dreamcatcher.
Oh good Lord.
Oh. Good. Lord.
I saw It Part 1 and had the same reaction to the movie as I did from the first part of the novel: man, this is GOOD! King is back!! Then I read the second part of the novel and…what. The. HELL?? This is why I haven’t seen It Part 2. Don’t want to have the same reaction.
Somewhere in all of this, I saw Misery and was quite impressed and so I read the book and was quite impressed and thought, finally, King’s back to writing again because Misery was pert near genius: horror without the supernatural, which is the best horror of all. Is King back?
Misery is a glaring exception to the dreck that King churned out during this time period. Dreck. Yes, that’s what it is. Looks to me like King succumbed to his own success, turning into a book factory assured that everyone would buy anything he wrote because he is Stephen King and everything he writes must be good and must be horror and no, it’s not. Gross is not horror. Ick is not scary. It is revolting, and is much easier to write than actual pulse pounding horror. The looks and smells of a corpse takes about a paragraph to describe, three or four paragraphs if you’re getting paid by the word. Describing the evil spirit or beast animating that corpse takes a bit more effort. And when you’ve got deadlines and lunches and meetings in New York, then you just phone it in.
This is what happens when a writer forgets his calling and follows Mammon, believing money is the sign of ability and that everything your publicist tells you must be true. You become self-defining, you decide what is good, not readers. Screw the readers. I’m Stephen Freakin’ King!
I mourned the passing of Stephen King. The guy who wrote Salem’s Lot. The guy who once cared about horror.
And then I picked up the Gunslinger.
Now, I am not read up on the whole Dark Tower saga, what novel or novella was first or last and in what order which part of what story is supposed to go, but there’s another movie out, surprise surprise, and I spotted this paperback Tor-lookin’ little novel with a comic book cover and the movie looks interesting so what the hell, picked it up.
And was impressed. Greatly.
The first part of the story made no sense and I was rolling my eyes so far back in my head because, oh my God, it’s Randall Flagg in another guise and then I got to that marvelous middle section with the falcon and said, my God, King is back.
Or, maybe, he never left. Is a voice crying in the wilderness. Hoping we’ll hear him.
I’ve known about Tom Robbins for awhile, although I’d not read him until very recently, like six months ago when I picked up a copy of Tibetan Peach Pie on one of those Amazon Prime free deals or something. Yeah, I’m on Amazon Prime. Shoot me. Anyways, I’d always relegated him to the “gonzo” side of writing, alongside the sillier Ken Kesey (any of the Merry Prankster stories), Confederacy of Dunces, that stuff, but Pie was good, really good, laugh out loud good, so when I ran across this one, purported to be Robbins’ best novel, I said, what the hell. And read it.
What the hell?
There’s a certain type of writing that simply wearies. It’s a self-regarding style in love with itself, with how clever and precocious and insightful the author is, and look how precocious we are for admiring it and we’re really sticking it to the man and the rubes and, really, that stance is good for about ten pages and then it’s boring. Just. Boring.
About ten pages into this novel, I was bored. Why?
Because it’s not about anything.
Now, having no plot is actually an excellent plot, like Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses, but the difference between that and this is having a point. This doesn’t. It’s the Seinfeld of novels: clever and layered and complex and completely directionless. But unlike Seinfeld, not entertaining. At all.
The story centers on Sissy Hankshaw, who is a world class hitchhiker because she has oversized thumbs. Grossly oversized. They’re like German sausages, so whenever she sticks one out, she immediately gets a ride. Anywhere. Around the world. Up and down the US. She even taught Jack Kerouac a thing or two.
Now isn’t that ironically funny and absurd and amusing and ha ha hee hee and ho ho we’re really sticking it to the man with this absurd big thumbed babe hitchhiking all over the world by the power of her mutant thumbs and getting molested at 12 years old when she hitchhiked around Richmond her hometown but ha ha hee hee and ho ho that’s just one of those funny little absurdities when kids with big thumbs do all that anti-establishment hitchhiking, doncha know. And there’s naked cowgirls rioting on a dude/dudette ranch which they commandeer from the trans owner of a cosmetic company who has hired Sissy as a model because, despite the monster thumbs, she’s beautiful and somehow ends up on the ranch during the naked cowgirl riot. What’s the riot about?
Whooping cranes. And vaginas.
Tom Robbins seems a bit obsessed with vaginas. Not that I blame him, but I suspicion that a lot of what drives the postmodern anti-authoritarian anti-establishment gonzo journalistic absurd picaresque self-regarding dadaist crowd is a fascination with sex. Of any kind. With anything. What’s that old saw? Six to sixty, blind crippled crazy…it’s Harvey Weinstein and Michael Epstein wrapped up in a good natured worldwide shtupp and anyone who objects to being so shtupped is simply not cool and simply doesn’t get it because that’s how we stick it to the man, man! By sticking it in you!
Which is fine. Whatever floats your boat. And if that is your position, so to speak, and your theme and motivation for writing, well and good. But how ‘bout doing so in a coherent story that presents your points and concepts in an amusing and absurd manner exposing the foibles of society, a la Slaughterhouse-Five or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, not this mess. And it is a mess. A self-regarding overwrought and overwritten stream-of-conscious mess that I basically forced myself to finish.