Thursday, March 5, 2015

My take on "World War Z" by Max Brooks



A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS** 

“(World War Z) is a collection of individual accounts narrated by an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission, following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. Other passages record a decade-long desperate struggle, as experienced by people of various nationalities. The personal accounts also describe the resulting social, political, religious, and environmental changes.” –Wikipedia
 
Strength of Character: B-

This was a very tricky novel for me to rate for character. The book has a global scale and scope that take center stage away from the individual, although many of the sections do delve into more personal struggles.

The story of World War Z does not closely follow any central characters in anything resembling the usual three act story structure. Nor does it do more than hint at character arcs and change, and character arcs it does address, like Todd Wainio’s, occur mostly off-the-page. We are presented with a man who was changed by his experiences, but we don’t walk in-step with him along the path to those changes.

The characters do, however, provide the vehicle for the story, and it is through their myriad voices that we hear the tale of World War Z.  

Genre Strength: A-

Although some understandable zombie-fatigue may be going around out there, I found Max Brooks’ oral history style to be a refreshing twist. It is difficult to find zombies particularly frightening these days, but what is genuinely horrifying are the ways that humans react. People turn on one another, governments fail their citizens, betray them, even sacrifice them, panic creates disasters that could’ve otherwise been avoided, cowardice and greed run rampant. These events feel so real in World War Z that you could’ve sworn you saw them on the news last night. That is a great storytelling, and it adds up to an engaging horror novel.

Thematic Poignancy: A

This was a book brimming with powerful themes. It begins with the frailty of man, the stubbornness, the greed, the cowardice. We see glimmers of courage, but in the face of hopeless odds the sense of helplessness dominates. What can be done to fight despair? To persist in a world gone to hell?

Max Brooks asks those questions, and then slowly answers them. We see the world come back from the brink. Hope returns, however fleeting, and humanity adapts. In the end, there was a tone of quiet, bittersweet triumph.

Entertainment Value: B+

All that stuff that you keep wondering about on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” like what the hell is happening everywhere else? Are there zombies in the ocean? In the snow? What about in the desert? China? If you can’t stand not knowing potential answers to these types of questions, I highly recommend this book. The only caveat I make is that Max Brook’s outlook on humanity starts of as bleak as any, but by the end, is a relative success story. The world of The Walking Dead has never felt that way to me.

Overall, after I got over some initial misgivings about the lack of a central character, I found this novel extremely entertaining. I am a sucker for great character arcs, though, and at times the novel wanted for them.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B+

*For my money, this novel far outshines the 2013 Film it inspired. Don’t think you know the story of “World War Z” just because you saw the movie. The book is nearly unrecognizable in relation, other than by the existence of zombies and one or two scenes that bear a slight resemblance.
 
*Military bravado turned into outright disaster. Troops under supplied, and an enemy underestimated. The Yonkers section was a delight to read, and may be the one section that stays with me the longest.

*The “Redeker plan” for leaving behind large sections of the populace as bait for the zombies is the sort of cold, horrific thinking that I find so damn compelling in the zombie apocalypse. His plan isn’t just unethical, that’s way too mild a term. It is horrific. Yet it saves lives. Millions. The cherry on top of this zombie-brain pie is of course the shattered psyche of the man who invented it, now unable to reconcile his reality with his guilt.

*The inclusion of, and attention to, ocean-walking zombies was something I had never seen done. It was a nice surprise that paid dividends throughout the book in some of my favorite sections, from the disaster at the beach, to the Chinese submarine, and even to the zombie-killing deep sea divers.

Friday, February 27, 2015

My take on "The Yattering and Jack" by Clive Barker



A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**
The Yattering and Jack is a short story from Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. It follows the efforts of a lesser demon, Yattering, as he tries to drive a man named Jack Polo insane through all manners of trickery. Jack Polo seems oblivious, but is actually playing a game of his own.

Strength of Character: B

The Yattering is just a lesser demon trying to get ahead in a greater-demon kind of world. The poor little imp is twisted and evil, to be sure, but he reminds us all of being ground under the boot heel of bureaucracy. At least we don’t work for Beezlebub, the Lord of Flies. Well, maybe some of us do?

Jack is more enigmatic, a man with a secret. He pretends to have a dull, cheerful, and oblivious outlook. He is actually manipulating poor Yattering into committing a demon-sin and forfeiting his freedom. I didn’t get much of a feel for Jack or his daughters, but the real story is about Yattering anyway. I liked the little guy, and I found him to very well-drawn from a craft standpoint.

Don't do it, Yattering!
Genre Strength: B-


Similar to my earlier review of “The Funeral” by Matheson, this story is pointedly comic, with only the window dressings of horror. It makes it difficult for me to rate from a genre effectiveness standpoint, other than to say it is nice to get a break from the dreariness of reading constant horror. It was an amusing piece, and one I would recommend to someone curious about horror but lacking the stomach for the truly macabre. I suppose Yattering killing those cats was pretty horrifying, no matter how you look at it.

Thematic Poignancy: C

This story didn’t have an overabundance of thematic depth, in my opinion, and that’s fine with me. It was just a lark about a poor demon, an experiment in whether or not the reader could find it within himself to root for something unabashedly evil. I think it succeeded in that regard, and perhaps could teach us something about empathy for the little guy superseding what other misgivings you might have.

Entertainment Value: B

This was a nice tale, and well written. It made us laugh, made us question, even made us think a little. I think it was the perfect length, as I expect something overlong would wear on the reader as Yattering eventually does on Jack. I like the turn at the end, when we discover just what Jack has been about all along: capturing himself a demon-servant. And who can’t get behind that?

Random Notes and Final Grade: B-

*I was left wondering whether or not one Jack’s daughters had truly been driven mad. If so, points to Yattering.

*That animated turkey bit was a delight. It flew around spraying gravy, guys. I hope Beezlebub was proud.

*Clive Barker’s penchant for headhopping worked a little less fluidly here, by my estimation, as it took me longer to adjust to the occasionally abrupt POV switching.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My take on "Cycle of the Werewolf" by Stephen King




A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

Synopsis
: In Cycle of the Werewolf each chapter could be read as its own short story. As a whole, the book tells the story of a werewolf terrorizing a small Maine town over the course of a year, following the cycles of the moon.

Strength of Character: A

Stephen King is a master of character, and I don’t throw that term around lightly. I believe he built his empire on the back of his incredible talent for crafting characters. He’s fantastic at pitting them against the uncanny, the bizarre, and the supernatural, but it all begins with character.

I found Cycle of the Werewolf to be no exception. King uses a wide cast to bring the town of Tarker’s Mills into rich life. The wheelchair-bound Marty Coslaw is brimming with personality, as are each of his family members, from the brusque mother, to the ridiculous father. Their chapters were standouts. This book is actually very short, so the space King has to develop these characters has to be used judiciously. I think he pulled it off extremely well.

I only knock this book down from A+ because I know that King can do better. I’ve seen it. It may just be due to a lacking of word count, but few of the “extras” in the book outside of Marty’s family weren’t the sort of stick-with-you-forever types that King usually creates so damned well.
Well that explains a lot.

Genre Strength: B-

King obviously knows his horror, and who am I to pass judgment on him for this book’s “horror cred?” Well, I’ve got this blog and these hands, and this computer, and a good bit of hubris, so I’m going to take a stab at it.

I didn’t find the Werewolf particularly frightening. The creature itself is an old trope, and I believe that was as true in 1983 as it is now. King does bring a nice pathos to the tale of the man-turned monster, and he crafts the scenes of the wolf brutalizing people with his usual mastery of detail. But was it horrifying? I didn’t find it to be.

When I think about great “horror” there will be many books I put ahead of this one, many of King’s impressive catalogue among them, so I can’t rate the book higher than a B-.  But don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of this ride.

Thematic Poignancy: B

The character of Reverend Lowe, AKA the Beast, illustrates the frailty of a man who doesn’t want to die. No matter how much evil he may perpetrate, he convinces himself that he deserves to go on. Somewhere in there is a theme of stubborn pride, of the fear of death, of the hypocrisy of moralizing would-be holy men in the world.

Even more interesting was the inner strength of the crippled, unafraid Marty Coslaw. My reading of him was that King wanted to show that suffering builds character, and that inner strength is sometimes belied by a lack of outer strength.
This illustration was a standout.

Entertainment Value: B+

I was entertained by this book. It was a quick, easy read, and one that contained surprising depth. It was fun, to put it simply, and I’d recommend it for that reason.

I feel I need to address the illustrations by Berni Wrightson in the novel, since they take up nearly half of the page count. The “Entertainment Value” section of my review seems as good a place as any. If I were to give them a grade, I think I’d top out at B-. They do the job well, adding some depth to the scenes, and visually aiding the reader along the way. But I didn’t think they succeeded at adding anything profound to the story, like I would’ve liked. I’m no art critic, but I found them to generally convey their subject in an expected sort of way. They were a little too reminiscent of the Hardy Boys covers from the 60s.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B+

*Proof that King knows his business: The crippled Marty Coslaw is the one to bring down the Beast while his uncle sits there uselessly with an unfired magnum in his lap.

*That eye patch seems like it would be more of a give-away than King made it out to be in such a small town where everyone knew everybody and saw them on a regular basis.

*That mother sure was brusque. King described her that way at least a half dozen times, which would probably be frowned upon in a writer’s workshop, but he did it with a clear purpose in mind. King manages to break writing “rules” in surprising ways every time I read him.

Friday, February 13, 2015

My take on "Rawhead Rex" by Clive Barker


A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

Synopsis
: “An ancient, malevolent monster, magically imprisoned underground, is accidentally awakened in the town of Zeal, Kent. Rawhead is a nine-foot humanoid with a huge, toothed head, and is extremely ferocious. Rawhead goes on a rampage, killing and eating people, including two children. He corrupts the local Verger, who surrenders to the violent, depraved impulses that Rawhead represents, and who helps the monster slay the Vicar, Coot.

Rawhead sets Zeal alight, and is eventually overcome by Ron, father of one of Rawhead's victims, who uses a talisman to stall the beast until he is overrun by a mob of enraged village folk. The talisman depicts a pregnant woman, Rawhead's antithesis and the only thing he fears.” (From wikipedia)

Strength of Character: B

This story was not character driven. The cast was large and varied, and many of them literally short-lived. Clive Barker used the space well, however, characterizing each person quickly and efficiently enough to make us care for them. He was able to achieve this in a few scenes with an intriguing use of multiple POVs. This “head-hopping” is generally frowned upon in writing workshops, but it was intriguing to see it used so well here. The creature, Rawhead’s own POV felt like it was stealing the focus from the humans, which contributed to the horror of his immense power. Rawhead was himself, intriguing, not just a mindless creature bent on destruction. We understood him in a way that sickened. He was so alien, so horrible, yet so unsettlingly familiar.

I found it impossible not to root for the main human characters, Coot and Ron, even though they were flawed and weak. Overall, I commend Clive Barker for his handling of the characters.

Genre Strength: A+

Is that you, Rawhead?
When I imagine reading a great horror story, I expect to have a similar experience to the one I had reading Rawhead Rex. It was reminiscent of an old folktale the likes of which you might see in a book like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” but it was told in a raw, brutal, and yet beautiful way that a children’s book of horror cannot attain. This was a monster story for adults.

Rawhead Rex is a creature of pure malevolence, ancient hate, and animalistic hunger. He is an embodiment of death and carnage, thriving on the fear and misery of the humans he considered himself King over. This is highlighted by his Achilles’ heel being a talisman representation of womanhood and fertility, everything he is not.

The monster was original, genuinely horrific, and captivating. I was impressed with the way Clive Barker let the grotesque fill up his prose, so that you could never be away from it, even when you weren’t reading Rawhead’s POV.

Thematic Poignancy: A

Life vs. death. Fertility vs. impotence. The creation of life vs. the consumption of it. Innocence and corruption. Depravity vs. purity. Weakness faced with horrific strength.

These themes were ubiquitous, not just in the way Rawhead behaved, not just in his nature, but in the very DNA of Clive Barker’s prose. This is the first of his stories I’ve ever read, so I can’t speak to how the rest may be written, but the choices he made with his description bolstered his story to new heights.

Entertainment Value: A

This is my favorite piece we’ve read for my Monsters class. I’ve already covered the ways Barker won me over with his storytelling, but I should mention just how wonderfully surprising the story was. I particularly enjoyed his bait and switch technique where he made us believe Rawhead was going to take Ron’s daughter, just to have him snatch up his son.

Random Notes and Final Grade: A

*I admire the unflinching style Clive Barker writes with. He didn’t write this sort of story hoping not to offend anyone.

*This story is unapologetically repulsive, as if he was saying, “You want to read a story about a monster, huh? I’ll give you a story about a monster.”

*Rawhead pissed on that dude… I’m never going to forget that.