Tag Archives: horror

Review 179: John Dies at the End

John Dies at the End by David Wong

There are really only so many things you can do with horror these days. I think we’ve all been somewhat desensitized by the ever-increasing variety and imaginativeness that has come with the horror genre in recent years, and so you know that sooner or later you’re going to find yourself yawning theatrically at someone being forced to devour their own brains with a spoon made from their still-living child’s hollowed-out sternum and say, “Seen it.”

There are always new avenues for horror…

As that moment approaches, the aspiring horror writer will need to start worrying less about the mechanics of the whole thing – the inventiveness of their devices and the goriness of characters’ ends – and more about how their story will stand out among an ever-broadening field. David Wong has chosen to use two interesting techniques in the writing of his book: comedy and wondrous incomprehensibility.

Wong (not his real name, for reasons he makes clear in the book) is a writer over at Cracked.com, a humor site on which I have spent many a good commute. Wong’s work there tends towards video games and social issues, generating columns such as, “9 Types of Job That Will Destroy Your Soul,” “5 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Too Old for Video Games,” and one of my favorites, “How Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.” He and Cracked are part of one of my favorite archipelagoes of the internet, where pop culture is analyzed with more seriousness than it deserves, and where many of the ideas that we take for granted are put under the microscope. Yes, it tends to reduce issues and oversimplify things from time to time, but they’re fun reading.

His years of writing humor have allowed him to create a very distinctive voice for the narrator of this book, also named David Wong, who is telling his story to a reporter – the story of how David and his friend John came to be able to peel the lid off the universe and peer into its dark, black, pestilent heart. Through the use of a bizarre drug that they call Soy Sauce, they are able to see through time, to communicate over great distances through unconventional means, and to observe phenomena that no one else can see.

This is not nearly as much fun as it sounds. It turns out that there is a whole lot of stuff out there that we can’t see, and most of it is truly terrifying. Forget simple things like ghosts and other spookiness. We’re talking seven-legged spiders with bad blonde wigs, tiny corkscrew insects that scream as they infect their victims, red-eyed shadowmen that remove you from having ever existed, and, watching all of this from his own adjacent universe, Korrock. And the less you know about him, the better.

The dark god Khi’kho-Ma’an is a harsh and unforgiving master.

Where you and I, having seen what cannot be unseen, might just do the rational thing and kill ourselves, David and John go along for the ride, trying to figure out where the monsters are coming from and doing their best not to become them. This universe, you see, is a fundamentally bad place, in more ways than we can really understand. But it’s only bad from our very restricted point of view, as if that really made any difference. David and John are afforded a bit of a better perspective, thanks to the Soy Sauce, but it doesn’t help much. They fight against the darkness, all with a certain rough, adolescent wit that will keep you moving forward even through the rough patches in the book.

And there are certainly rough patches. This is Wong’s first novel, and he’s chosen to make a very ambitious start of it, telling a story that is not only one of embedded, non-linear narratives and vast, hyper-real situations, but with an unreliable narrator to boot. The story straddles vast levels, from the interpersonal to the interdimensional, and it’s being filtered through someone who isn’t entirely sure that he can explain what happened. The reporter he talks to is the avatar of the reader, a hard-boiled, heard-it-all-before type who has to be dragged and convinced every step of the way before he starts believing these tales of wig monsters and doppelgangers. And through it all, Wong drops hints of the horrors to come, the fact that his story isn’t finished yet and that it almost certainly will not end well.

That kind of structure would be tough for any writer to pull off, and Wong does a reasonably good job at it. The dialogue between David and John is quick and funny, tending towards penis jokes, pop-culture references and the occasional bad pun. They play off each other in the way that only old friends can, and they help keep the reader grounded in a story that is fundamentally about being completely uprooted. And even with all the heavy-handed foreshadowing, Wong makes sure that all his promises to the reader are kept.

Well, all but one. But I won’t tell you which one that is.

This is probably one of the more normal parts of the story.

So long as you don’t take too long in getting through the book, you should be fine. I read about a hundred pages and then, for a variety of reasons, had to put it down for a week or so. When I came back to it, I realized that I had no idea what had happened before and had to start again. Much like David and John, your only good option is to barrel ahead without reservation and just hope that everything will turn out okay in the end.

And does everything turn out okay? Well, considering that Wong is hoping to write more books in this particular line, and that JDatE has been picked up as a movie, I would say that “okay” is a fair assessment. The world is still a weird, messed-up place which, if we truly understood it, would crush our fragile psyches like a peanut under a tractor tire, but it does seem a little bit more manageable.

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“Son, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world there was only one of him.”
– Marconi, John Dies at the End

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, David Wong, demons, disaster, doppelgangers, good and evil, horror, humor, madness, mystery, quest, world-crossing

Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

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“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Shining on Wikipedia
The Shining on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s homepage

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Filed under children, death, family, fathers, fear, horror, made into movies, madness, murder, sons, Stephen King, wives

Review 124: The Night Watch

The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Light. – The Night Watch

This review has been approved for distribution as conducive to the cause of the Dark. – The Day Watch

Imagine a world where magic is real. A place where people known as Others are born with powers they don’t understand. Their destinies are unwritten until that fateful day when they first become an Other – when they discover the strange, shadowy and powerful world known as the Twilight – and have to make a choice: will they stand with the Light or with the Dark. Will they dedicate their lives to Good or Evil?

Maybe it ain't what it used to be, but it's still dramatic.... (art by mirerror on DeviantArt)

It’s not an easy decision to make, by any means. Joining either side has its limitations and its rules, for the battle between Good and Evil isn’t what it used to be.

Long ago, it was simple – Good fought Evil, Dark fought Light, and blood was shed on both sides. It was a vicious, unending war that threatened to decimate the world. Finally, the two sides reached an agreement. A Treaty, well deserving of the capital letter. There would be a truce between the two sides, a balance that would be maintained at all costs. Any act of evil would be balanced by an act of goodness, and vice versa. Neither side is to have an advantage.

Part of the Day Watch Auxiliary Brigade

Making sure the peace is kept is the job of the Watches – the Night Watch, staffed by elites of the Light to guard against advances by the Dark, and a Day Watch, staffed by the elites of the Dark to guard against excesses of the Light. We begin our look at the Others of Moscow with a young adept named Anton Sergeeivich Gorodetsky, a wielder of magic and an analyst forced into the more exciting realm of field work. His job is to find out who a pair of vampires are illegally attempting to seduce and stop them. In the process of doing that, and saving the soul of a young Other named Egor, he stumbles upon something that threatens the entire city of Moscow, if not all of Russia. A young woman has a curse upon her head, so horrible and so powerful that the forces of the Light may have no chance to disperse it. If she dies, the city will die with her. If she lives, even worse may befall the world.

There are three stories in this book, somewhat independent but entirely connected. The first details the discovery of Egor and the cursed Svetlana. In the second, an Other of the Light, a maverick who doesn’t know about the rest of the Others, or the Treaty between Light and Dark, is murdering Dark adepts. Somewhat alarmingly, Anton is being framed for the murders. In the third book, Moscow is gripped in a heat wave. In the midst of this, the leaders of the Light are attempting to change the world. Whether it ends up being for the better or the worse, no one can know. But Anton is convinced that it must not come to pass….

Team ANTON!!!!!

It’s a gripping fantasy, in a very complex world. It’s compared to Rowling’s work, and justly so (although I don’t think there’s much of a case to be made for an attempt to ride on Rowling’s coattails – Night Watch was originally published in 1998, only a year after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). There are substantial differences, of course, making Night Watch a much more adult book than the Potter series. There are very few children, and the few that are there are not in very substantial roles. There’s far more drinking, smoking and sex in this, of course. But the world that Lukyanenko has created is every bit as deep and complex as the one Rowling has made. There are any number of roles that could be played, and an almost infinite number of situations that could be built on the fairly simple rules that are set up by the Light-Dark Treaty.

The biggest difference, of course, is in the complexity of the world. Rowling’s world is fairly definitive in its divisions between good and evil – there is good, there is evil, and there is no question of which is which. The evil characters are definitively evil, and the good characters are definitively good, and the reader doesn’t have to worry too much about who’s on which side, Snape notwithstanding.

The Others of Moscow, however, are not nearly so clear-cut. Yes, the Light is trying to do the work of the Good, to make the world a better place. But their machinations and their plots don’t always go as planned. See the Russian Revolution and World War II for examples why. They ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences and the horrors it can unleash. By trying to do Good, they unleash great evil upon the world.

He's just a big softie, really....

And how about the Dark? Yes, they’re populated by werewolves, witches and vampires, but they are advocates of utter and total freedom. They do not destroy for the sheer joy of destruction, but because they want to increase the personal freedom of the world. They’re not interested in making humanity “better,” or making a better world. They simply want to live in the world as it is, free from restraints – both internal and external.

While it may be pretty clear who is on the Light and Dark side, it’s not entirely clear who is doing Good or Evil at any given time. And, more importantly, it is almost impossible to know who is actually right.

It’s a great read – full of anguish and self-doubt and torture, like any good Russian novel should be. Anton knows that the Light doesn’t live up to the standards that it preaches, but he knows that he needs to be on the right side. He picks apart the intricate, decades-long plot of the Night Watch and very nearly figures out how to foil it. But even in revealing the truth, he does not manage to save the world from the doom of the Light.

Or does he?

We’ll have to read the next book and find out….

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“You accuse us of cruelty, and not entirely without reason, but what’s one child killed in a black mass compared with any fascist children’s concentration camp?”
– Zabulon, of the Day Watch, The Night Watch
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The Night Watch on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko on Wikipedia
Sergei Lukyanenko’s website (in English)
The Night Watch at Amazon.com

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Filed under ethics, fantasy, good and evil, horror, identity, made into movies, morality, philosophy, politics, Russia, Sergei Lukyanenko, short stories, society, USSR, vampires, werewolves, witches, wizardry

Review 116: Song of Susannah

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

I think that every long series has to eventually include a book like Song of Susannah. It’s the weak book, the one that you have to have, but would rather you didn’t. The one that pretty much exists to get you from Point A to Point B, which resolves some earlier issues and sets up some later conflicts, but which – by itself – isn’t nearly as good or as much fun to read as the books that either preceded or followed it. I call it a “bridge book,” and I suspect that they are somewhat inevitable.

But before getting into all the heady analysis ‘n stuff, let’s see what this book is about.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Directly following the end of Wolves of the Calla, our ka-tet is split. Susannah, possessed by that strange spirit who calls herself Mia, has taken the supremely powerful Black Thirteen and used it to open a magic door to New York. It is there that she hopes to have her child and have the raising of it, before it grows up to destroy the world. Everyone else, of course, is concerned for her safety, but there is one other thing that needs to be done – the vacant lot in Manhattan and the rose that grows there must be protected. This rose represents one of the two Beams that remain to hold up the Dark Tower (and thus all of existence), so its safety is paramount.

The other Beam just happens to be Stephen King himself. But we’ll get to that….

Roland’s party splits up – Roland and Eddie go to rural Maine to find Calvin Tower and secure proper ownership of the vacant lot. Jake, Oy, and Father Callahan follow hot on Susannah’s heels to New York City to try and save her from the horrible death that no doubt awaits her there. Horrible death awaits all of them, truth be told, but one does what one must in pursuit of the Tower.

Jake, Oy and Callahan’s story is the far more straightforward one. They go to New York and follow Susannah/Mia’s psychic trail to Black Thirteen, which they dispose of in a manner that should bring a grim smile to all 21st-century Americans. They then go on to the Dixie Pig, a restaurant-slash-portal to a dimension of hell and pain, where they expect to be gunned down the moment they go through the doors. Pretty cut and dried, really.

Roland and Eddie, however, have the much more mind-bending task of meeting their maker. Literally.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

As a side-quest to securing legal possession of the vacant lot, they learn that King lives nearby and decide to pop in and pay him a visit. This kind of freaks King out, but rightfully so. To him, Roland is a character who haunted his mind, and a few pages of a manuscript that has languished in storage for years. King had given up on The Dark Tower, and never expected to pick it up again. Until, of course, its main character showed up, insisting that his story be finished.

To me, this was the most interesting conceit of the entire series. The idea of characters breaking through the fourth wall and entering “the real world” is nothing new, nor is having them ask some rather pointed questions of their creators. But it’s another thing for those characters to not only meet their creator, but to do so before he’s actually written about them up to the point where they’re meeting him.

(re-reads that last sentence)

Right.

In short, not only is King the embodiment of one of the last Beams holding up the Dark Tower, he is also an avatar of Gan, the primal force of order and righteousness in the universe. Through King, and the story of Roland and his ka-tet, Gan is trying to keep the Tower up against the forces of Discordia, as embodied by another King, the Crimson King. These two Kings – one unknowing, the other knowing – are locked in a fight to the death, with the universe at stake.

Book art by Darrel Anderson

Throughout all of this, Susannah is having her own troubles in New York. Mia has gained control of her body – to the point where she is able to manifest the legs that Susannah lost long ago – and is determined to have her child. She has an appointment to keep with the agents of the Crimson King, and she believes that she will finally achieve that holy state for which she had gladly given up her immortality – motherhood. Susannah, on the other hand, knows that whatever is brewing in Mia’s belly is a threat to Roland, and will do whatever she can to stop the birth, or at least turn Mia against her chosen destiny.

Depending on the kinds of books you like reading, Song of Susannah will either be tolerably good or downright unpleasant, and this is mainly due to its rather fractured structure. The three plot threads don’t intersect directly once everyone leaves the Calla, and don’t have any kind of resolution once you get to the last page of the book. As a friend of mine put it, “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

The other volumes, like most standard-issue novels, has a resolution at the end. You can close the book and be able to tell people, “The characters achieved this, and it was fairly conclusive and interesting.” Of course, a series always has a greater conflict – the series-level conflict – that won’t be resolved until the last volume, but each individual book needs to have its own setup, conflict and resolution, with enough loose ends to get us into the next book.

Song of Susannah doesn’t really do this. The matter of the vacant lot is a fairly simple legal matter, which is not only easily resolved but also kind of dull, once you compare it to everything that has gone before. The problem of Black Thirteen is done away with pretty easily as well, which doesn’t really befit an artifact that we have been told possesses immense evil power. And while Susannah doesn’t prevent Mia from making her appointment at the Dixie Pig, she does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in the woman’s mind.

Art by Klaimko

In short, what is achieved in this book is not up to the level of what we have come to expect. The dramatic escape from the decaying city of Lud, the horrible tragedy of Roland and Susan in the Mejis, the valiant stand against the Wolves – all of these are proper climaxes and proper resolutions. The sole purpose of this volume is to bridge the gap between Wolves of the Calla and The Dark Tower, and the only reason it ended where it did was because, well, you have to end it somewhere.

Having said all that, I enjoyed reading this book, and tore through it at record speed. I thought Susannah’s chipping away at Mia’s confidence was well-handled and made a lot of sense. Jake, Oy and Callahan preparing for their Last Stand and their likely deaths was great, and the whole meta-fictional issue of characters meeting with their creators is just the kind of thing that really digs into my brain and gets it going. And while the book may have been less carefully focused than the other editions of the series, it must be remembered that I am a long-time veteran of the Wheel of Time series, which has so many sub-plots, side-plots, secondary plots, divided parties, prophecies, histories, secrets, societies, ancient enmities, mythical forces, Artifacts of Unimaginable Power, questionable plot elements and unanswered questions that it makes The Dark Tower look like one of Aesop’s fables.

So I do have an unfair advantage.

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“I don’t think he needs to be immortal. I think all he needs to do is to write the right story. Because some stories do live forever.”
– Roland (speaking of Stephen King), Song of Susannah
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Song of Susannah on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
Song of Susannah on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, horror, meta-fiction, quest, Stephen King, survival, vampires, world-crossing

Review 110: Johnny the Homicidal Manic & SQUEE!

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors by Jhonen Vasquez

I’m putting these two together, because they really do form one larger piece – the craft of an artistic mastermind. Although perhaps “mastermind” isn’t the best word to use here. What do you call the person that they lock up when they’re about fifteen because they keep saying things to their teachers like, “The human body has ten thousand miles of blood vessels in it and I can feel my hate for you coursing through every one?” Or the guy who buys a dog, takes care of it, feeds it, loves it, and then one day realizes that the dog has been spying on him for the CIA for years and buries it in his backyard? Or the angry hobo who lurches up to your car as you wait at the stop light, a bucket of dirty, grey water in one hand and a rotten squeegee in the other and proceeds to molest himself with it, afterwards demanding that you gave him change, quote, “For the show.”

You thought I was kidding about the dog....

That kind of guy. What would you call him?

Whatever it is, welcome to the world of Jhonen Vasquez. Strap yourself in.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is the story of Johnny C., known to his very few friends simply as Nny. Nny is rail-thin, yet something of a fashion plate, and lives in a broken-down house with two evil Styrofoam doughboys, a dead bunny nailed to a wall, and a gateway to a creature of infinite evil somewhere in one of the many basements of the house.

In his free time, Johnny kills people in horrible and graphically interesting ways.

Not because he’s a bad person, necessarily. He does have the wall to feed, after all – a wall that has to be continually painted with fresh blood, lest the Evil come out of it. But he is, by his own admission, “quite horrendously insane.” He murders for many reasons, the Evil Wall aside. He murders the people who feel superior to others (while at the same time feeling that he is superior to them). The kills the smug and the self-possessed, the materialistic and the bored, the lowbrows and the posers and the jerks who seem to infest every corner of his world. And while he does kill with great glee and abandon, he occasionally takes the time to wonder if what he’s doing is worth it. If murder is all that his life has become. If maybe it would be better off to just end it all and kill himself.

Fortunately – or not – he has The Doughboys to keep him company. Two Styrofoam figures, painted by Nny, which talk to him constantly. One urges him to live and kill to his heart’s content. The other presses him to commit suicide and leave this world behind. Whichever wins will be freed from his plastic prison and reunited with his evil master. As a balance to them is Nailbunny, which is pretty much just what it sounds like – a bunny rabbit that Johnny bought from the pet store and then one day nailed to the wall. Nailbunny (or at least its floating head) is the voice of reason in Johnny’s life, urging him to be suspicious of the Doughboys and all they want. Despite his nihilistic view of the world, Johnny discovers that he does indeed have a purpose in life. Just not a very good one.

Yes, Nny, show us "wacky"

Johnny is, naturally, hard to sympathize with. Part of that comes from his almost cavalier attitude towards killing, but more than that, he’s rather adolescent in his view of the world and how it works. Like so many teenagers, he has yet to grow a buffer between himself and the world, and cannot differentiate malicious acts from merely thoughtless ones. He feels every barb and every sting like hooks in his flesh, and the only way he is able to deal with it is through murderous rage. Reading it as an adult who remembers his teen years, I can certainly see where Johnny is coming from, but at the same time I wish he’d just grow up and learn to live in the world like the rest of us.

Which is a statement for which Johnny would no doubt gleefully murder me.

One of the major themes of these comics is conformity and humanity’s need to follow each other into the abyss. Hypocritical characters dressed in all the latest fashions snub people who are slaves to public opinion. One of the worst offenders, a recurring character named Anne Gwish, embodies the modern Goth poser who shuns everyone while despairing that no one talks to her. Johnny’s world is filled with these people and they all need killing. Even people who don’t deserve death might end up falling to Johnny. In one of my favorite stories, “Goblins,” a man who was chosen at random is strapped to a truly terrible machine, and faces his impending death with enviable conviction.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac reads like an extended teenage revenge fantasy, if a highly philosophical and entertaining one. Eventually you figure out that, as Vasquez himself says, “He’s not a loser, he’s simply lost.”

No. Don't do it. Life is too... oh, go ahead.

Themes of identity and social connection continue in the book SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors. Young Squee (whose real name is Todd) is Johnny’s neighbor and is featured in the very first JtHM story. Squee is a pitiful child, with parents who resent his very existence and a school that is constantly trying to crush the spirit out of him. Squee lives a life of unending terror as he’s beset by nightmares, aliens, his cannibalistic grandfather, openly hateful parents, and a world that never seems to make sense. It is his young burden to have to live in a world created by Jhonen Vasquez.

Somehow, though, little Squee manages. Manages to get himself locked into an insane asylum, yes, but manages nonetheless.

The second half of the book features Vasquez’s filler strips – one or two-page stories of pain, heartbreak and horror. Poor Wobbly-Headed Bob tries to convince the rest of the world to accept that he’s smarter than they are, and can’t understand why they want to kill him. True Tales of Human Drama are just that – dramatic, probably human and god I hope they’re not true. Happy Noodle Boy is a free-form anarchistic story, allegedly drawn by Johnny himself, and I can never manage to finish one. My favorite filler strips are the Meanwhile…. strips, one of which features two elementary-school crossing guard children enacting the final battle between two entities of pure evil. Another depicts a first date gone horribly, horribly awry as a case of gastrointestinal distress engenders one of the best attempts to save face I’ve ever seen. A horrible, lying vampire, the revenge of the pinatas, and a case of childhood attachment issues gone horribly wrong, these are some of my favorite works in the whole series.

Good old Ludwig van B. Perfect for any occasion - even mass murder.

The work of Jhonen Vasquez certainly isn’t for everyone. Even his famous animated program, Invader Zim, is a little weirder than most people are willing to accept for a children’s show. It rewards patient reading and careful attention to the artwork. Which, I might add, is distinctive and disturbing and wonderful. Vasquez has created a style that’s cartoonish and yet horrible, in which childlike glee can be rendered next to heart-stopping horror, and we can perfectly believe that they exist in the same world.

It’s strange, horrible and funny all at the same time. If you’re interested in something out of the ordinary, I can definitely recommend this.

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“I suggest you seek some alternate source of sympathy, Nny. You tried to kill that girl. She liked you, and you tried to kill her. That was impolite.”
– Nailbunny, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Wikipedia
Squee! on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez on Wikipedia
Jhonen Vasquez’s website
Johnny the Homicidal Maniac on Amazon.com
SQUEE’S Big Giant Book of Unspeakable Horrors on Amazon.com

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Filed under afterlife, childhood, comic books, death, demons, existentialism, good and evil, graphic novel, horror, humor, Jhonen Vasquez, madness, morality, murder, philosophy, sins

Review 101: World War Z


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

(Just as a reminder – go take the listener survey! You’ll have good luck for seven years, I swear!)

So where were you when the zombies came? I remember where I was. I remember vividly.

It was the third lesson of the day – still one more to go before lunch – and one of my regular students was due for her weekly lesson. She came in each week like clockwork, and while her English never got a whole lot better, she seemed to enjoy herself. Actually improving her English was secondary to having a nice chat, I think, and we could always count on her to liven things up.

Not this day, though. For one thing, except for me, none of the teachers showed up. Normally that would be a problem, but a lot of students weren’t in either. It was just a few of us and one staff member. We had heard of some new sickness going around, but we work for a company that doesn’t accept sickness as an excuse for missing work. After all, I’d seen students come in with a cold that would have kept me at home, and Mrs. Kuroda was just that kind of person. Come hell or high water, I knew she’d be there. And she was.

No sooner did she get in the door than she collapsed. Her skin was pale and waxy and she had a bandage on her hand. It had little yellow flowers on it, I’ll always remember that. Like she’d made it out of a dress or curtains or something. I don’t know why that sticks in my memory, but it does.

The staff, Naoko, called 119 for an ambulance, and one of the other students, Shyunsuke, who was studying medicine at Kyodai, tried to see what was wrong with her. He laid her on her back, felt for a pulse, and got all panicky. “Shinda,” he said over and over. She was dead.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had anyone die in your workplace, but it’s weird. We didn’t know what the protocol for this kind of thing was. There were only six of us in the building, and none of us were really experts in dealing with sudden and unexpected death. Aki, a high school girl, started crying. Naoko kept redialing 119, but no one was answering. I was about to suggest moving her into another room when suddenly the most horrible sound came from the body on the floor.

It was somewhere between a moan and a gurgle, like someone drowning in syrup. We all looked at Mrs. Kuroda.

She was moving.

Slowly, jerkily, she was moving, getting her feet back under her and moaning the whole time. Naoko started to go to her, to see if she was okay, and I remember yelling, “Don’t!” At the time I didn’t really know why I yelled that. I know now. My years on the internet had pretty much prepared me for it, but I wasn’t nearly ready for the way the Mrs. Kuroda grabbed Naoko and took a huge bite out of her throat. Blood flew everywhere, and I think everyone was screaming. Mrs. Kuroda dropped Naoko and started making her way towards us, her arms reaching for us and that low, wet growl coming from her throat. I knew what she was then.

I grabbed a chair from a lesson room and started shoving her back, like some kind of lion tamer. I yelled for the other students to get out, but they weren’t moving. Aki was crying harder, Shyunsuke was busy vomiting, and the other two had hidden somewhere in the building. “Everybody out!” I yelled again, and gave Mrs. Kuroda a shove away from the front door. Then I swung it at her, aiming for the head, of course. It connected, and she went down. I ran back, grabbed Shyunsuke and Aki by the arms and yelled “Everybody out!” again.

I had barely enough time to shepherd them to the door than Naoko started to twitch. And Mrs. Kuroda was already trying to stand up.

We ran. Didn’t even care where we ran to – just away. The streets were quiet, but once I knew what I was looking for, it seemed like the zombies were everywhere. I’ve never run like that in my life, you know. Always used to joke that I would run when I was chased. So there you go.

We broke into a sports equipment shed at Otani University and each took one of those aluminum baseball bats. Then we headed for the Botanical Gardens. I still don’t know why we chose there, especially after what happened to Aki. A large, sprawling garden with lots of twisting paths and forests? Can’t imagine what we thought we’d accomplish. I just knew that we couldn’t barricade ourselves in a building – that never works, right?

I got the zombie that took Aki, and Shyunsuke was the one who made sure that Aki wouldn’t wake up again. Then we headed for the Great Lawn, on the theory that we’d be able to see any zombie coming from a few hundred meters.

Bad move.

It would have been a fine idea if there were more of us and if we were all armed with shotguns and chainsaws. All we had, though, were the two of us and some dinged-up aluminum bats. Against half a hundred zombies that all wanted to take a good look at the tasty humans who had so kindly put themselves on display. Shyunsuke and I were back to back, and I could hear him saying something over and over again in Japanese. I didn’t know what he was saying, but I reckoned it was a prayer of some kind. I was doing some praying myself as those things got nearer. I could see the dull shine of their eyes and hear their feet shuffle across the dead grass and wished for the first time in my life that I had a gun.

Not for them.

We were saved, improbably enough, by an SDF helicopter. It was doing flybys around the city and saw the zombies moving towards us. Some of the soldiers started taking head shots while others lifted us up into the copter to safety. Shyunsuke pretty much broke down as soon as we were safe, and I’m not ashamed to say that I did too.

That was the last I saw of the zombies. The rest of the story you already know – Japan was evacuated until the zombie threat was cleared. I wasn’t allowed to go back to Osaka, so I could only pray that The Boyfriend made it out alive while I waited in the refugee camp in Pusan. When I did make it back, after the war, I found that everything on this side of the river had burned to the ground. At that point, I prayed that he’d died in the fire. Anything other than becoming one of them.

It’s been a long while since “victory” was declared over the zombies, inasmuch as they care. People in Japan don’t like to talk about it, though. You get the feeling that we all did things and saw things that we’d rather forget, and if any nation is good at selective amnesia, it’s the Japanese. So I was really glad when this book came out. It made me feel… less alone.

Brooks went around the world, interviewing people who had experienced the Zombie War – including a couple of guys up in Kyoto, even. He listened to their stories, kind of like Studs Terkel, and wrote down what they had seen and done. He talked to everyone – soldiers, sailors, housewives, government officials – everyone who would talk to him. What he made of it is maybe not a comprehensive account of the war, but a broad look at all the things that people went through during those horrible years.

A soldier who went through the Decimation in the Russian army; another who witnessed the Iran-Pakistan “war”; that asshole who made “Phalanx,” which so many people thought would save their lives, Brooks talked to them all. He showed how the Great Panic killed so many people, and how the Redeker Plan and all its emulators saved so many more, as heartless and cruel as it was. He looked at the army and how they had to figure out how to fight an enemy that doesn’t need to eat or sleep, and which recruits new members as it kills them.

We still don’t know where the zombies came from or why they rose up. And I don’t think it really matters. As this book shows, there was so much death and pain, with so much heroism and glory, that the question of where the zombies came from is really immaterial.

It opened my eyes, I’ll say that much. From the refugee camp, we got very little news at all about the world. Just that the war was continuing. We heard about the civil war in China, and whatever it was that happened to North Korea – everyone heard about that. But the rest, I didn’t know. Not until now.

Brooks’ book is exactly what it claims to be. It’s an oral history, the collected stories of dozens of people who survived the war, and it’s something that our descendants will need to read carefully. For those of us who survived the war, the pain may still be close. So if you’re not sure if you’re ready for this kind of book, give it time. But do read it.

We must never forget what happened to the world when the Zombies came. In many ways, the living dead showed us just how important it was to be alive.

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“Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
– Dr. Kuei, World War Z
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World War Z on Wikipedia
Max Brooks on Wikipedia
World War Z on Amazon.com
World War Z website
Max Brooks’ website

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Filed under horror, Max Brooks, memoir, zombies

Review 99: Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

History is like an exquisite jewel. It has many facets, and it will glitter differently depending on the point of view of the person looking at it. We see it change as we shift, as we shine the light differently upon it, but for the most part, we confine ourselves to a few simple views of history and convince ourselves that what we see is the truth of what the gem is.

But what happens when we remove the jewel from its setting and look at the faces we have never before seen? In that case, a whole new history may emerge, one that we find difficult to understand or even believe.

Take Abraham Lincoln, for example. We all think we know who he was: a hard-working, honest young man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps, became President, saved the Union, and was assassinated for his troubles. Perhaps no other President in American history has been as carefully scrutinized and examined as Lincoln. You would think we had nothing left to learn about him.

You would be wrong.

You don’t know about the vampires.

From the early days of the United States, the vampires have been there. They were there when the first ships pulled into Virginia, when the nation won its independence from Britain, and when the nation went west. They had their hands in the growth of the nation from day one, playing a long-term game to build a vampire paradise far from Europe, where the people there were wise to their evil and knew how to destroy them. Vampires were something that had always been talked about in the early days of American settlement. Strange tales of people dying mysteriously, sometimes their faces locked in a grim visage of fear. But no one really believed them of course. I mean really – vampires? Please.

The truth was, however, that they were out there. They were lurking in the shadows, waiting and planning and laying the groundwork for the land they would eventually come to rule.And from his youth, Abraham Lincoln was pulled into their nefarious scheme.

Born the son of Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, Abraham suffered from his share of the vicissitudes of 19th-century life. Rural poverty was rampant, and his father was not the most skilled of laborers or diligent of workers. But he loved his children, as did his wife. That made it all the harder when those children started dying of a strange wasting disease. When his wife followed suit, it was tragedy upon tragedy. For Abraham, it was the beginning of a need for vengeance that would drive his entire life.

As he grew up and discovered the existence of vampires, he became a skilled and terrifying vampire hunter. He was so good at his vocation that a dissident group of vampires, led by a man named Henry Sturges, chose him as their instrument against their own kind. With Henry’s guidance, Lincoln began to cut a swathe through the vampires in the United States.

But being the chosen one, as Buffy would attest, is not all it is cracked up to be. Plagued with doubts and depression, Lincoln tried many times to cast off the mantle that had been thrust upon him. He married, went into business, and did his best to live the normal life he thought he deserved. But destiny had other plans. The vampires were preparing their endgame – the establishment of a nation built on the backs of slaves, where humans would be cattle to the vampires. In time, they would take the United States and use it as a staging ground to spread their sickness around the world. They had to be stopped, and Henry and his fifth column knew only one man who could stop them.

Abraham Lincoln, the greatest vampire hunter the nation had ever known.

Written by the same author who did Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this book was far more entertaining. Probably because I like Lincoln a whole lot more than I like Jane Austen, but probably because he did a much better job at integrating the Lincoln we know with the Lincoln he had created. He invents a vampire-system that would explain how they could manage to maintain influence over humans, and presents a reasonably plausible explanation for how vampires could be at the root of the Civil War.

More importantly, he keeps his Lincoln true to the character of the real Lincoln – a complex, driven man, beset by tragedy, lifted by hope, and motivated by a duty to a greater good. Perhaps a bit romanticized, of course, but we all romanticize Lincoln. It’s hard not to. What’s important is that we see a character who tries to fight his destiny, but in the end realizes that there are bigger things at stake than his own happiness. He has a nation to save and evil to defeat, and even if it should cost him his life, he will see that evil eradicated.

The only thing that bothered me was a bit of unfinished business in the book. The conceit of it was that Seth Grahame-Smith had been given the complete set of Lincoln Diaries – the real ones, mind you – by Sturges, so that he could tell the true tale. According to the introduction, this was a project that cost him his job, his marriage, and nearly his life, and after a fairly dramatic and mysterious introduction, we never hear anything from Smith as the author again. I would have liked for him to have explained some of the things he merely alluded to in the introduction – especially the eleven “individuals” he was instructed to talk to over the course of writing the book, but he didn’t. It’s a little detail, but one I wish he had taken care of.

It’s a fun read, good for any vampire/Lincoln lover, or aficionado of alternate history.

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“I can see a man’s purpose, Abraham. It is my gift. I can see it as clearly as I see you standing before me now. Your purpose is to fight tyranny… and mine is to see that you win.”
– Henry Sturges

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter at Wikipedia
Seth Grahame-Smith at Wikipedia
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter on Amazon.com

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, alternate history, Civil War, horror, Seth Grahame-Smith, vampires