Halloween 2018 Reads #8: Elevation, by Stephen King / *** ½

October’s over, which is always a sad thing, but it was a great month for reading horror novels. Since I read a good number of them, I’m going to cluster them into reviews over the next few days, keeping the spirit of Halloween alive a bit into the month of November.

This will be the last of my Halloween reads for the year; next up, though? Noir-vember, where I take on crime thrillers old and new, and plunge into the shadows of human nature.


elevation-9781982102319_lgAbout once a decade, Stephen King breaks from his usual mix of novels and short story collections to release a quartet of novellas, and the results are often some of his most interesting work. There’s the break from horror that was Different Seasons, the brutal darkness of Full Dark, No Stars, the Vietnam trauma of Hearts in Atlantis – all of these collections give us a glimpse of King doing something different from his usual fare, and the results are often fascinating. (There’s also Four Past Midnight, but that’s one of King’s less interesting collections by a long shot.)

I say all of this because you can’t help but wonder if Elevation, the new novella from King, would work better as part of an anthology than it does on its own. Elevation is, as you’d expect from King, engaging, well-told, richly characterized, and compulsively readable. But it’s also incredibly slight, and feels like a missed opportunity that might have been saved by setting up in conjunction with other pieces or shortening it down to the short story length the concept seems able to sustain.

I say all of this with the caveat that I still generally enjoyed Elevation; it’s all but impossible for King to write something uninteresting, and Elevation has a great setup, as Castle Rock resident Scott Carey goes to see a doctor friend with a most unusual complaint. See, Scott is losing weight…sort of. Oh, he undeniably weighs less – that’s not in question – but what is odd is that Scott’s clothes don’t affect his weight. Nor do the handbells he shoves in his pockets. Or the actual weight of his body. No, Scott’s weight is going down steadily, no matter what the actual mass of that body might be. And at the rate it’s going, Scott might not have more than a few months left before that weight hits zero – and whatever happens then can’t be good, right?

All of this leads to Scott taking stock of his life and realizing that he may not have made much of a difference on this planet in his short time here, and coming to understand that maybe it’s time to do something. So Scott starts trying to make peace with his neighbors, a relatively newly arrived (by small-town Maine standards, that is) lesbian couple with whom he’s had some disagreements. But as Scott reaches out, he starts to see how the couple’s been treated by the town around them, and how prejudice is still so much a factor in a town he thought was better than that.

In lesser hands, Elevation could turn into either an after-school special about the importance of tolerance or a sappy story of acceptance. But King avoids that by letting all of his characters come to life, not as easy archetypes or symbols of their orientation, but as human beings who become friends. Yes, the plotting feels a little slight – more on that later – but as ever, King makes it work by turning this into a story about these people, not a story about all people.

The problem is, though, that that’s about all there really is to Elevation. At King’s best, he mixes those themes with the supernatural elements, letting them play off of each other in interesting ways. Here, Scott’s “ailment” feels almost arbitrary, an element that wouldn’t be much different than giving Scott any terminal disease and a short time left. (There’s a single plot element, involving a race, that wouldn’t work without it, but it’s something that the story could easily move around.) And while King’s intentions are good ones here, giving us a reminder of the importance of human connections and making the world a better place than we found it, King’s done this message in other books, and done it better, and with more impact. Elevation feels slight because there’s just not that much to it; it’s a story that King would have used as part of a character’s development in the background of something stronger, but he’s released it on its own and expects it to satisfy. Is it a bad read? Not in the least, but like Scott Carey, it’s even lighter than it looks, and that page count looks pretty light to begin with.

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Halloween 2018 Reads #6-7: Two by Paul Tremblay

October’s over, which is always a sad thing, but it was a great month for reading horror novels. Since I read a good number of them, I’m going to cluster them into reviews over the next few days, keeping the spirit of Halloween alive a bit into the month of November.


Paul Tremblay has quietly but inexorably become one of the modern voices in horror; ever since the release of his breakout hit, A Head Full of Ghosts (which I really loved), Tremblay has found his books getting praise from any number of horror icons, including the King himself. All of which makes his books all the more interesting for how they eschew your typical horror tropes; while Tremblay is undeniably working in familiar genre territory (Ghosts was a mix of found-footage horror and possession tale, for instance), Tremblay keeps one foot grounded in the real world, immersing his tales in an ambiguity that leaves them open to interpretation. Are the horrors real? Is the supernatural really unfolding in front of us? Or are the horrors more mundane – and ultimately, more human and tragic? Tremblay manages to scratch both itches perfectly, taking on horror perfectly while giving the material a mainstream hook that no doubt appeals to readers outside of the usual horror crowd.

y648Tremblay’s newest, The Cabin at the End of the World, takes all of those strengths and pushes them to their utmost, delivering a nightmarish read whose intensity never lets up for even a moment. If Ghosts was Tremblay’s metafictional take on the found footage genre, Cabin is his version of a home invasion story, but one that finds a way to turn his usual ambiguity into part of the horror.

The setup is simple: two men and their adopted daughter are vacationing in an isolated cabin when they find themselves under assault by a small group of strangers demanding to be let in. The strangers swear they don’t mean harm to them, and that they only need help – but they also warn the men that they’re going to have to make a choice soon, and it won’t be an easy one. But it’s important, because the fate of the world might just hinge on that choice.

Are these strangers religious zealots blinded by madness? Are they homophobes looking for an excuse to assault gay men on vacation? Or are they truly harbingers of the apocalypse? Tremblay plays his cards close to his chest, leaving it to the reader to decide, and that uncertainty gives the book a queasy horror that’s impossible to ignore. (It’s a benefit of working in the horror genre; in any other genre, we know that the end of the world isn’t coming. But in horror? All bets are off.) Every character sounds reasonable, in their own way – the terrified fathers, of course, but also the intruders who are calmly explaining what they need, demanding more and more that the family make an awful choice. Tremblay paces the action perfectly, constantly turning the screws and escalating the situation with the turn of each page, keeping the situation evolving and shifting in front of us, and pushing us further and further into the nightmare.

The contemporary parallels are undeniable, of course; this is a story, after all, where the Internet has led to people coming together in support of a theory that might be insanity, and which has led to violence infecting the real world. (Any resemblance to real-world events is, of course, coincidental.) Tremblay positions this not as a question of facts versus delusions, but beliefs versus beliefs, and facts be damned – and as we see more and more cases of outlandish theories leading to real-world violence, it’s impossible not to feel that Cabin is even more horrifying than it already was. But even without that, Cabin is an intense, unforgettable read. It’s one that pushes to far darker places than any of the other Tremblay novels I’ve read (although it ends on a deeply ambiguous note, as seems to be his style), but in ways that only make it all the more effective as horror. This is a home invasion novel with more on its mind, but also one that never forgets that horror works best when it makes you unable to look away but desperate to escape.

27064358Before Tremblay wrote Cabin, though, he released Disappearance at Devil‘s Rock, the story of a teenager who disappears one night in the woods of a local park. As his single mother gets more and more frightened, and his sister tries desperately to figure out what happened, the town starts reporting shadowy presences in their yards at night…and is that the ghost of Tommy appearing in people’s rooms?

Devil’s Rock gets a lot of flak from people for not being much of a horror novel, and that’s not unfair; while there are supernatural threads hinted at throughout the book, it becomes clear that they are, at most, the backdrop to the story of loss that’s at the book’s core. To me, though, that’s what Tremblay does – he takes on richer themes through the lens of horror tropes, playing with the ambiguity and uncertainty those ideas allow to look at things like the dangers of belief, or the unreality of media, or – in this case – the way that grief and loss can cloud our minds. But for those who wanted something “scarier,” I can completely understand Devil’s Rock being a disappointment; while there are unsettling moments, this is less of a horror novel than a story of a missing child and the slow assumption that creeps in that he’ll never be coming home.

It’s not surprising to see Tremblay name drop the (massively underrated) film Lake Mungo as a touchstone for the book; Devil’s Rock carries much of that film’s tone of melancholy and uncertainty, using its horrors as a way of looking at death without having to confront it head on. (Side note: I am a big fan of Lake Mungo, and recommend you watch it.) None of that keeps the book from being disturbing and unsettling in ways that you don’t expect, gradually pulling back layers that will hit home for any parent – most notably, that fear of “what if my child isn’t the person I assume they are?”

For me, if Devil’s Rock lacked some of the intensity and impact of Tremblay’s other books, it compensated for that with the emotional richness and complexity of its characters and story, giving me a quietly powerful look about a family damaged by a loss that they can’t confirm, and struggling to know what they should do in the face of that unknown fate. That’s meaty fare for any writer, but one that plays perfectly into Tremblay’s haunted tale here. Set aside your horror expectations and what you’ll find is a thoughtful, moving story that uses supernatural elements not for their own purpose, but for what they allow him to explore. Is it pure horror? Not really. But that doesn’t make it any less worth reading, even if it loses some of the impact that Tremblay is capable of at his best.

Ratings

  • The Cabin at the End of the World / **** ½
  • Disappearance at Devil’s Rock / ****
Amazon: The Cabin at the End of the World | Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

Halloween 2018 Reads #4-5: Literary Horror Short Stories

October’s over, which is always a sad thing, but it was a great month for reading horror novels. Since I read a good number of them, I’m going to cluster them into reviews over the next few days, keeping the spirit of Halloween alive a bit into the month of November.


As an English major and someone who teaches literature, I always felt a little shamed for my love of horror fiction. It’s something I’ve long since grown out of, mind you – I’ve often argued that horror fiction is one of the truest ways of exploring the unease humans feel with the world around them, be those existential terrors about our purpose, uncertainty about political futures, or discomfort with human interactions. But it’s true that literary scholars often have a way of sticking their nose up in the air when it comes to horror and genre fiction, dismissing it as “popular” works and not worthy of “true” criticism. (I’ve been glad to see that snobbery shift, at least a little bit, in recent years; writers like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon have brought their love of genre fiction along with them into their literary careers, and the slow, sometimes reluctant, acknowledgment of Stephen King’s importance to modern writing hasn’t hurt either.)

2808929That can lead to a bit of a chip on the shoulder of horror writers, who sometimes feel like they need to prove themselves as worthy of respect, or feel like they need to play down the horror aspects of their stories in order to focus on more “literary” ideas. That’s the prevailing mood of the Peter Straub-edited anthology Poe’s Children: The New Horror, a collection of short stories that lean more towards mood, ambiguity, and horrors of an intimate nature, eschewing more visceral stories and true terror in favor of exploring more “substantial” ideas. None of that is automatically a bad thing, mind you, but the anthology ends up largely being a reminder of why being ashamed of yourself for writing horror often leads to whimpers of stories that get insufferable if you’re a real horror fan.

That’s not to say that these stories aren’t beautifully written, mind you; indeed, the prose here is often beautiful, written by authors who bring an exquisite amount of craft to their worlds. No, the problem with Poe’s Children is how many of these authors seem to have no interest in the genre they claim to be writing in, carefully minimizing their horrors until they barely exist, masking it all in ambiguity that feels frustrating rather than illuminating, and avoiding anything close to actual terror. True, there are a few good stories here, but irritatingly, they’re almost all stories that I’ve read before and in other collections – Stephen King’s “The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet,” Joe Hill’s “20th Century Ghost,” Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair.” A few others stand out – I enjoyed Straub’s own contribution, “Little Red’s Tango,” though I feel like it doesn’t really work as a piece of horror – but by and large, the stories represent the worst aspects of “literary” horror, where ambiguity, confusion, and mystery replace any true horrors out of fear of being looked down upon. (Even Brian Evenson, one of my favorite horror writers, turns in a lackluster story here that’s more baffling than anything.)

beautifulthingAnd then, as if to remind you that literary talent and craft isn’t incompatible with horror, there’s Laird Barron, one of the most acclaimed new horror writers in recent memory, and for good reason. Barron’s collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All is a bracing shot of horror and nightmares, written with prose that absolutely sings off the page, all without ever feeling pretentious or stuffy. Barron is a horror writer, through and through, but one who refuses to feel guilt or shame, nor one who feels like he has to “lower” himself to the material. Instead, you get Barron’s careful and beautiful craft, all while delivering stories that tap into that Lovecraftian sense of horrors just beyond our perception while never feeling derivative.

Barron finds his horrors by juxtapositioning our own world with unspeakable nightmares that we’re incapable of comprehending – pagan gods, dark forces, and nightmares beyond anything we are ever able to understand or reckon with, and in the face of which, humanity is weak and doomed. In other words, this is horror in its true Lovecraftian sense, but reading Barron, you’re not reminded of any other writer except Barron himself, who handles the material in such a way that it feels wholly new and fresh. Much of that comes from his beautiful writing – for example, look at the opening paragraph from one of the standouts of the collection, “The Men from Porlock”:

Darkness lay stone heavy as men roused, drawn from inner night by the tidal pull of blood, the weight of bones sagging outward through their flesh. Floorboards groaned beneath the men who shuffled and stamped like dray horses in the gloom of the bunkhouse. Star glow came through chinks in slat siding. Someone had lighted the stove and smoke drifted among the bunks, up to the rafters. It had rained during the night and the air was ghastly damp. Expelled breath gathered on the beams and dripped steadily; condensation oozing as from stalactites of a limestone cave. The hall reeked with the stench of a bunker: creosote and sweat, flatulence and rotten teeth and the bitter tang of ashes and singed tobacco.

But more than that, there’s the horrors Barron brings to the table. A shadowy, evil presence that lurks in the woods in which men go hunting for a famous buck in “Blackwood’s Baby.” The haunting visions of dreams and underwater voices in “The Redfield Girls.” The slow unraveling of reality that comes along with the narrator’s rambling, deranged – or maybe not – story of “Vastation.”

And best of all is how Barron refuses to be easily pigeonholed. “The Redfield Girls” is a quiet but unsettling ghost story. “The Carrion Gods in Their Heaven” shows Barron taking on the mythos of a familiar monster in wholly surreal terms. “Jaws of Saturn” and “Hand of Glory” are noir stories that slowly plunge into horrors – one cosmic, one psychological…maybe. “The Siphon” mixes genres effortlessly, shifting from amoral protagonist to spy story to Satanic horrors and back again without a single pause. And “The Men From Porlock” reads as if you started in The Wild Bunch and ended up in a Clive Barker story.

Barron is the real deal, a horror writer with craft beyond compare but also a knack to create true dread and horror – things that don’t just disturb or shock, but crawl under your skin and live there. It’s one thing to read a Barron story; it’s another to close the book and try to escape the dread that infuses all of it. To borrow a phrase Jason Isbell once used, Barron is horror for those who buy their hot sauce from dark alleys in New Orleans because habanero just doesn’t work for them anymore. Read it, but don’t be shocked if you can’t get away from it when you’re done.

Ratings

  • Poe’s Children / ** (and most of those are for stories I had already read)
  • The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All / *****
Amazon: Poe’s Children | The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All

Halloween 2018 Reads #1-3: Jonathan Maberry’s Pine Deep Trilogy

October’s over, which is always a sad thing, but it was a great month for reading horror novels. Since I read a good number of them, I’m going to cluster them into reviews over the next few days, keeping the spirit of Halloween alive a bit into the month of November.


Jonathan Maberry’s Pine Deep trilogy – which consists of Ghost Road BluesDead Man’s Song, and Bad Moon Rising – comes with no shortage of praise. Ghost Road Blues was Maberry’s first sojourn into fiction, and what’s more, was only the first volume in a planned horror epic that would end up spanning three books to tell its whole story. An ambitious start for any new writer, but Maberry was rewarded for his ambition, winning the prestigious Bram Stoker Award for First Novel – not exactly a small thing. So it’s not hard to approach this three-volume work with a bit of high expectations, and while the  trilogy doesn’t exactly meet them, that doesn’t keep it from being a pretty fun horror saga on the whole.

a1lrg1lbv9lNow, it doesn’t help matters that Ghost Road Blues is manifestly, obviously the first book in a series. To be fair, Maberry has a wide scope here, telling the story of the entire town of Pine Deep, which bills itself as “The Spookiest Town in America,” putting on a Halloween festival that spans most of the month of October and draws celebrities and horror fans alike. Maberry’s cast comes from across the town, from a mild-mannered mayor wrestling with nightmarish dreams to a haunted house operator who’s finding happiness after learning to control a drinking problem, from a religious zealot who thinks he’s getting messages from God to a young boy trapped in an abusive household, from a farm-living family to a small-town police force that’s not quite prepared for the horrors to come. And once you mix in the deeply buried past of the town – the death of a serial predator and the scapegoating and subsequent murder of a black transient who’s now haunting the town and worried about that predator’s resurrection – as well as a group of criminals who end up stranded in Pine Deep…well, there’s a lot going on, and to Maberry’s credit, he juggles his cast remarkably well, giving every one of them the chance to come to live and give us nuance, depth, and complexity.

That’s all great and satisfying, but it doesn’t really prevent Ghost Road Blues from suffering under the weight of so much setup work, ultimately feeling like a teaser for what’s to come. Yes, at least Maberry makes Ghost Road Blues its own work, complete with a climax and a temporary resolution to what’s going on, but this definitely feels like a book that’s not entirely satisfying on its own terms, and one that’s carrying the weight for the rest of the series. As the first third of a much bigger saga, Ghost Road Blues does a great job of establishing all of the myriad threads and conflicts that the series will be exploring, slowly letting the supernatural horrors drip into the story without letting them come out too much (in the way of a first act of any horror novel), but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the end of the book frustrated me a bit with how it so manifestly ended with a sense of “don’t worry, the next book is where things get really good!” (It definitely makes the book’s winning of the Bram Stoker a bit odder for me in hindsight.)

81pt2gkdwzlLuckily, Dead Man’s Song really does get good, and get good quickly, letting all of those simmering pots hit boil quickly, and stomping on the gas in a way that more than made it worth the buildup. The supernatural horrors of Pine Deep start coming into their own, as malevolent figures rise from the dead and a plague of the undead begins to take root. Meanwhile, a young boy starts finding himself caught between apocalyptic dreams where he unleashes hell and a waking life where a religious zealot hunts him down to brutally murder him. A newspaper reporter touches base with a local hero and starts digging into the town’s history, including that aforementioned serial predator, and the two learn that there’s true darkness in the woods outside of Pine Deep. And as if all that’s not enough, the town’s mayor is being haunted by his long dead sister, who’s begging him to listen to her…and kill himself.

Much of what makes Dead Man’s Song so gripping – apart from the numerous threads that Maberry is so carefully spinning out, maximizing tension – is how quickly it becomes apparent that we don’t quite know what’s going on in this town. Parts of the horror seem in keeping with vampire lore, but others don’t; bits of it feel like we’re getting into a zombie movie, but that clearly doesn’t cover all of it, and nor do the obvious nods to werewolf mythology. But rather than feeling cluttered or giving a sense of a writer who’s just chucking everything into one series, Dead Man’s Song feels controlled and measured, using a different source for its mythos than what we’re used to – and that’s a welcome thing.

None of which is to say that the series is truly great yet; Maberry has some undeniable issues, including his tendency to use women as victims (often of sexual violence, at that) or define them by their grief and emotions (having a semi-strong heroine never keeps this trope from feeling present, especially given just how often she literally cries on the shoulder of the hero), and anyone who’s aware of the trope of the Magical Negro will find one in pretty evident display here (made all the worse by the fact that he’s all but the only minority character of the series). They’re not deal breakers, but they hold back the book from being as good as it is – but, hey, there’s a final book to come, right?

51gxvwqb39lWell, yes and no. The final book in the series, Bad Moon Rising, doesn’t really fix any of the series’s weak points to now – the Magical Negro gets worse, and the role of women doesn’t get any better (indeed, maybe it gets worse, as far as one character goes). And there’s undeniably a sense of plot armor that starts to grate in the final book, especially as regards a number of celebrities that Maberry has attending the town’s Halloween festivities, but also with a number of the heroes, who it rapidly becomes clear will survive all that’s thrown at them, even as the book’s other characters are slaughtered wholesale.

And yet, I can’t deny that I got completely swept up in Bad Moon Rising, as the book’s long rumored “Red Wave” comes to fruition, and every plot point and piece of foreshadowing comes into play, with all hell breaking loose in Pine Deep. The wholesale anarchy is handled adroitly; for many authors, the sheer scope of this chaos could be overwhelming or confusing, but Maberry holds it all together coherently, delivering knockout sequences and plenty of horror, all while never losing the reader.

For all of that, though, the final confrontation in the series is a bit…well, silly. (Say what you will about Stephen King’s endings – and I have – but he’s learned that having a big fight sequence with a monstrous horror is very rarely a good way to end things.) Does Bad Moon Rising stick the landing for the series? More or less – after all, it’s all pretty good, which is generally what I’d say about the series as a whole. I definitely wouldn’t say that the Pine Deep trilogy is essential horror; indeed, apart from Dead Man’s Song, which is easily the strongest of the three, the series is often fun but never much more than that, and the flaws never improve. Still, as a first entry into horror, it’s an ambitious start, and one that works more often than not. It’s empty calories, to be sure, and won’t ever attain the heights of so many of its obvious influences, but it’s far from time wasted, as long as you go into it expecting something ambitious but pulpy.

Ratings

  • Ghost Road Blues: *** ½
  • Dead Man’s Song: **** ½
  • Bad Moon Rising: *** ½
  • The series, as a whole: **** (maybe *** ¾, if I ever used that rating)
Amazon: Ghost Road Blues | Dead Man’s Song | Bad Moon Rising

The Venture Bros. (Season 7) / *****

VentureBros7It’s been two years since I last got to have The Venture Bros. coming into my house – a relatively short gap, by Venture Bros. standards, but still a depressingly long time to go without this show. Luckily, though, Christopher McCulloch and company came back with one of the best seasons the show’s had in recent memory – and that’s saying something, considering how constantly fantastic this show has been over the years.

Kicking off with an ambitious three-parter that both wrapped up the ongoing Blue Morpho saga and dropped some major revelations about the Monarch, season 7 found the show refocusing on the key relationships that truly matter to the show. Yes, The Venture Bros. has always been filled with weird supervillains and off-the-wall heroes, but at its best, the show was about the Venture family – about a damaged grown man who lives in the shadow of his successful (but monstrous) father and his sons, each of whom is trying to figure out who they want to be. And as the show continued, those key relationships began to include The Monarch – his rivalry with Doc Venture, his genuinely sweet relationship with Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, and his bromance with Gary (Henchman 21), his right hand man and best friend.

This season, The Venture Bros. doubled down on all of that, reducing its focus on Guild and OSI machinations, and making sure that almost every storyline focused on one of those key players. That’s not to say we didn’t get lots of great Guild stuff this season – maybe my favorite was a chance for all of the Council to settle some old scores – but the show kept the focus on the stakes for the characters, not the overarching plot. What we got was funny as anything (this really might be one of the funniest seasons in recent memory), but never forgot to make it about how these characters are finding their lives changing, and trying to figure out how to handle those changes. For Rusty, that means a taste of success; for Dean, that means college life; for the Monarch, it means a chance to remake himself as a villain and get back to what he loves; and for Hank…well, it means being Hank, in all of that weird glory.

That focus definitely means that we didn’t get much time with some of the show’s rich supporting cast – Brock F’n Samson, especially, was largely sidelined, although the show’s finale gave him a showcase and a half. And while that could easily be a letdown, the focus ended up strengthening the rest of the season so much that it worked out for the best. Besides, by this point, the show has so richly filled out its world that it would be all but impossible to give every character their own showcase with their usual short season length – so why not find a focus and a point to it all, and focus in on a story about growth and change around our main crew?

Mind you, all of that makes the show sound more “normal” than it ever could be – after all, this version of “growth” involved the Illuminati, VR headsets, Russian roulette with lawn darts, computer/human hybrids, ghosts, The Empire Strikes Back meets Barbarella homages, Clancy Brown as a giant red nightmare named The Red Death who alternates between brutal revenge plans and time with his grandkids…oh, and so much more. As ever, McCullough and company have immersed themselves in this byzantine world of bureaucracies and secret organizations, but always remember that the show is a) a comedy and b) should be about these characters, not the overarching story.

And it succeeds wildly on both of those fronts this season, culminating with a pair of scenes in the finale – one involved Hank and Dean, one involving the Monarch and Gary – that are both surprisingly sweet and heartfelt, eschewing comedy for genuinely human moments that drive home that all of this insanity so often boils down to human connections, finding meaning and purpose in lives, and doing something you love. That the show somehow does all of this while being so funny, so imaginative, and so well characterized…what a treat.

Now, if they could just cut down on that wait between seasons…

IMDb

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley / **** ½

13528319Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook gives you one heck of a hook, there’s no denying that. When your book’s opening line is “The body you are wearing used to be mine,” well, that’s a great way to draw in your reader. And as we meet the woman living in the body of one Myfanwy (rhymes with “Tiffany,” she explains) Thomas – and realize that she’s awakened in this body while surrounded by a surprisingly large number of unconscious bodies – we realize that there’s a whole lot going on here. Mind you, Myfanwy seemed to know that her mind was going, and has left a lot of letters behind to guide her body’s new tenant. That’s a fantastic setup for a book, but it only gets you so far – does The Rook have enough to hold up after that intro?

Well, it depends. How do you feel about a secret government organization that dabbles in supernatural affairs, fights a group of genetically engineered Belgians, looks for oracular ducks,  has members with hive minds, and so much more? Because – and this is just speaking for myself – I had a blast with it.

The Rook is absolutely bonkers at times, and I mean that in the best possible way. There’s a tendency with first novels to be a bit overstuffed with ideas, as though the author is worried that this is their one chance at it all, and they’ve got to put everything in just in case they don’t get another shot. And that definitely can be the case with The Rook, which is filled with digressions, odd tangents, bizarre side characters, and sometimes can feel meandering. But when all of those ingredients are so enjoyable and fun, who really cares? O’Malley has put together a wonderful secret world just below the surface of our own, and has packed it with oddities, nightmares, and the inexplicable – and also, views it all with a sense of humor and a realization that even with supernatural powers, people can still be clueless idiots.

What that all adds up to is a book that defies easy categorization – it’s got elements of science fiction, espionage, British comedy, action, horror, government thrillers, and so many other things, and yet in the end, it feels like nothing so much as it feels like itself. And that’s something we don’t get all that often. The overarching plot of the book is great – as the new Myfanwy tries to figure out who has betrayed her, and what it has to do with an invasion of nightmarish Belgian creations – but The Rook works because of how much O’Malley has invested in this world and the characters that populate. From the bizarre Gestalt (who has four bodies, but only one mind) to the dreamwalking Lady Farrier – and those are the most normal ones – O’Malley gives every single character proper time and depth, bringing them all to life in a variety of ways, and letting them be far more than just a unique power; instead, they’re all figures of menace, wonder, and, yes, strangeness.

The Rook has a strange structure for a novel, alternating chapters in which we follow the new Myfanwy as she navigates her new life and tries to figure out the threats around her with long letters from the original Myfanwy – letters that she’s left for her successor (how she knew that she was going to lose her memory is part of the book’s story). That can lead to the sense that O’Malley is tossing in massive exposition dumps frequently, or stopping the narrative flow that he’s got going for these long tangents that don’t quite go anywhere. That’s not an unfair complaint to have, and there are times where The Rook can feel too loose. But every story builds out this world in such interesting ways, and more than that, there’s the way that O’Malley is making the absent Myfanwy as much a character in the book as the new one – and contrasting the two so sharply – that I’m willing to forgive it. (Also, one of those letters gives the story about the oracular duck, which is so good that it could be a short story in of itself, and leave me deeply satisfied.)

The Rook isn’t flawless; even apart from that loose structure, O’Malley definitely falls into that trap of having his female characters spend too much time thinking about their own attractiveness and that of their friends. (It’s not constant, at least; more than that, He does, thankfully, nicely avoid the trap of turning them into being defined by their desire for men. Indeed, there’s almost no relationship drama at all in The Rook, which is nice.) But on the whole, The Rook, giving you more plot than your average novel – a conspiracy, a betrayal, a secret organization, supernatural powers, infiltration missions, and more – all while playing around in a world that’s full of weirdness, wonder, and a surprising amount of idiocy. It’s done with humor and a light touch, turning what could have been a grim story into something really fun and engaging. I had an absolute blast reading it – every digression, every tangent – and I’m glad there’s more books to come, so I can come back to this wonderfully weird world.

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