Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Joe Hill – Horror Author

Posted: June 5, 2013 in Review
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JoeHI was recently at an event with Joe Hill, who was signing copies of his latest novel ‘N0S4ATU‘ and anything else that people brought along, as well as posing for horn-waving photographs!

First of all, thanks to Jim McLeod of the Ginger Nuts of Horror blog, for quizzing Joe with a calm demeanour that a TV presenter would envy. Those Southern Comforts afterwards appeared well-deserved. And Ellie Wixon, of Blackwells Edinburgh, deserves the highest praise….she arranged the event through the ingenious initiative of sending Joe’s publisher a heart-shaped box containing a key….

The event was held in the Pleasance Theatre on a Friday evening. It was very busy with a wide range of people. Jim and Joe had a good and wide-ranging chat, ranging from comic novels to Joe’s latest book NOS4ATU. Joe was very forthcoming and candid about his own writing and ideas… unbelievably, he was rejected for his first collection, ‘20th Century Ghosts’. He is a naturally pleasant and relaxed person and it felt like we were all sitting in a living-room/writing-den or around a table in a micro-brewery bar somewhere. It was the end of a gruelling month-long tour and the queue for signings must have seemed a mile long, yet Joe was cheerful until the very end… he thanked the audience for their passion for reading and writing, which certainly seemed to enthuse him.

Now, to Joe’s writing. I know he has an illustrious father, the horror author Stephen King, who some may know. The resemblance between Hill and King is quite eerie… big, beards, glasses (I think King has a second writer son and a daughter in the clergy, by the way). I first read ‘Heart Shaped Box’, which – to be honest – I didn’t enjoy as much as I had hoped. I was maybe prejudiced because of the Hill/King connection, either expecting a work of genius or a cynical celebrity publishing deal. Now, this needs to be said: Joe Hill has never traded on his father’s name and does his absolute utmost to promote his writing on its own considerable merit. Paradoxically, that makes it even more surprising his first collection was rejected and doubles the credit he deserves for maintaining his own identity. Anyway, enough of that relationship for the moment.

As I said, I didn’t greatly enjoy Heart Shaped Box (HSB) but that’s probably down to my own tastes in horror, which are possibly quite peculiar…. Dean Koontz, for example, is one of those horror writers who is perfectly good and very popular, but (with a few notable exceptions) who I just don’t get. In addition to HSB, Hill has published a short-story collection (‘20th Century Ghosts’, hereafter 20CG) and ‘Horns’ (just ‘Horns’ will do). I’ve read one recent log review which slated Horns but praised HSB. This made me feel better, as I thought the opposite, that Horns was an outstanding and complex novel, literary as well as horror-fantasy, and the different responses from readers indicates a writer who has no fear of experimenting with his craft.

Hill has mentioned Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as an influence behind Horns,  and it is a complex novel which deals with loss, guilt, identity and relationships, wrapped up in a horror package that might well be subtitled ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. This novel deserves a far wider audience and is a Generation X/Y/Z literary classic.

20CG is a short story collection best described as ‘the Led Zep 4 of horror anthologies’ (by me). There are three horror collections that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest: Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’, Peter Straub’s ‘Magic Terror’ and now 20CG. All are unsettling, provocative, original and – most importantly – without any B-side stories. ‘Pop Art’ is a literary masterpiece which proves there are still original ideas out there; ‘You Will Hear The Locust Sing’ is another Kafka-inspired tale in which Gregor Samsa meets the Atomic Age (and a reader favourite); ‘My Father’s Mask’ is deeply unsettling; and ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a classic horror fantasy and strange tale that would make Ray Bradbury proud.

Most recently, we have NOS4ATU. This is a beast of a book and a good read; 700 pages or so. I enjoyed it and whizzed through the book; certainly a page-turner. The plot concerns a vampiric combination of Silver Ghost car and aged owner (Charles Manx), preying on children’s souls. However, the story focuses mainly on the protagonist, a Generation X-er called Vic, who has a “lost and found” teleportation ability since childhood. Hill discusses the novel in terms of Dracula and the memorably-repulsive Renfield character is called Bing, obsessed with Manx’s alluring-yet-evil alternative world of Christmasland. Hill has developed the concept of ‘inscapes’, a landscape-of-the-mind accessible from reality, and conveys this very well. As mentioned already, it is an enjoyable book. However, I found the antagonist Manx to be mysterious and remote: my mental image was of Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Hill mentions that he wanted to “show not tell” Manx and keep him shrouded in mystery; he is working on a graphic novel which should show-and-tell more of Manx and this is very good news. The other main problem I had as a reader of N0S4ATU was Hill’s frequent references to the ‘landscape of Castle Rock’: there are a number of notable Stephen King features, creatures and places which crop up. I didn’t like this, to be honest, as it took me out of Hill’s books and into King’s books.  However, after listening to his recent talk and thinking more about this, it hopefully means that Hill is growing comfortable with the King legacy and confident enough to weave it into his own writing. It is undeniably part of his background, after all, possibly an elephant in the room.

But Joe Hill is his own elephant, without a doubt, and he is essential reading for horror fans and those in search of more literary escapes and inscapes. In fact, I can’t think of any other writer of his generation and genre who I would use as a reference point in exploring horror fiction, particularly American writing.

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Fifty Shades of Shite

Posted: April 12, 2012 in Review
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I had a look at “Fifty Shades of Grey” on Amazon, courtesy of their “look inside” facility. This does not include the dirty bits.

It’s written in first-person present tense. Or rather, it is over-written in first-person present tense. “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.” “I roll my eyes in exasperation.” People tend to scowl at themselves and roll their eyes for these reasons. Present tense is hard to sustain, but I think it will probably work in this case as a self-obsessed stream-of-consciousness.

The dialogue is poor. The exchange between Ana and Kate at the start is lazy exposition, when Ana has already agreed to do the interview. “Of course I’ll go, Kate. You should get back to bed. Would you like some Nyquil or Tylenol?” Pointless empty words.

The overwriting continues, breathless stuff covering all sorts of self-obsessed and trivial details. But we miss a description of a “stunning vista” of the Seattle skyline. What does it look like? That Space Needle thing and all that? The headquarters of the global enterprise she visits is a “huge twenty-storey building”…. Twenty storeys is tiny in Seattle. The tallest building in Seattle is seventy-six storeys. The Alaska Building, completed in 1904, is fourteen storeys, the Smith Tower (thirty eight storeys) was the tallest until 1969, and there is not a building in the Top 25 tallest in Seattle that is less than thirty storeys. A modern architect would not dream of designing a twenty storey building in a world city centre, at least because it would not be economically viable. So all Ana would see is a sea of other office windows, and certainly not the Sound or any of the other things we do not actually see beyond the “stunning vista”. This is incredibly lazy in an age of Google and online mapping, and an insult to readers expecting some “city” alongside the “sex”… writers need to convincingly describe both places and people.

We find out (and don’t really care) that Ana prefers curling up with a “classic British novel” yet we don’t know which particular novels she favours, which could provide an insight into her personality… we are inside her head, reading her thoughts FFS! Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Lawrence, Greene or Christie? Ana strikes me as someone who prefers leaving “classic British novels” lying unread on her coffee-table and instead reading… err… this sort of shite!

Ana rolls her eyes a lot, including “at herself”. She must look like a bloody lunatic!

EL James is not a *bad* writer but, to be honest, most people could string together this sort of thing. However, she is certainly not a *good* writer.  “Leather chairs” and “spacious” repeated within three or four lines. Not acceptable. She seems to have a thing about white leather. And the laziness, and the lack of credibility….

Ana somehow knows nothing about the man she is visiting (after having somehow parked effortlessly in downtown Seattle). Has she never heard of Google? Doesn’t she have an internet phone thing? Companies plaster the details of their CEOs all over the internet. What bollocks! She even knows generally that he is a famous entrepreneur at the start of the story… or rather she claims not to have heard of him but knows all of this. It is unconvincing and a fairly lame device to set up her surprise at his relatively young age.

The interview is unconvincing rubbish. Grey is a CEO in charge of some company that employs forty thousand people and does something or other, but we are not exactly sure what. It invests in manufacturing, telecommunications, farming and apparently feeds the world’s poor. This is just laziness – the author should have treated the company as a character rather than just a backdrop. Ana’s anxiety is somehow replaced by passion which leads her to stray from the question sheet with some fairly impertinent questions. I’m uncertain how the question sheet relates to the dialogue (questions being prepared in ignorance of the answers) and also Ana’s own questions.  Now, this is supposed to be the focal point of the first part of the book in terms of the conflict between the two main characters. It should have been written and rewritten a few dozen times to bring various strands together and set up the next sections of the story. To cap it all, the “Are you gay?” question is completely ridiculous.

I started off this review with low expectations, anticipating a tongue-in-cheek response poking fun at James’s writing. It is worse than that. The book is just lazily written crap. This illustrates the hypocrisy evident in publishing. Ebooks are frowned upon by the publishing giants as not worthy of seeing the light of day, until a horde of people eagerly download the lowest common denominator… then the dollar-signs spring up with a big “ker-ching” and the publishers happily hand over big-money advances to publish… this sort of shite.