NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

G. Rodriguez's 'Triumph' illustration
I read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box shortly after it came out in 2007. It was a good read although somewhat unsatisfying for reasons I can’t articulate now. Recently I saw the book titled NOS4A2 and mentally sounded it out, laughed, grabbed it off the shelf and only then recognized the author’s name from the previous book.
It’s good. The main character, Victoria McQueen, is tragic, powerful, funny, flawed through no fault of her own. The book doesn’t delve into why she is the way she is. The focus is on the action that comes from her reactions to her special abilities.
The plot rotates around people with special abilities, various powers to make dreams reality, to find objects, people, and places, to travel instantly, to suck the life from others and live forever. The characters that are good suffer physically from their powers. The character that is bad doesn’t seem to suffer much from using his power.
With it’s shifting between dreamlike interior landscapes to the real world, it reminds me of Stephan King’s collaborations with Peter Straub (The Talisman, Black House). Even though the second half of the book is an extended chase scene, it’s sustained well. There are a few portions of violence doled out to characters that I had to skim over, wincing, but it was a quick read for an almost 700-page book. The illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez are clean and perfect and add a lot of flavor. The endpaper illustrations are particularly nice. I also see there is a graphic novel treatment of the book. There are many violent and shiver-inducing scenes and characters that will lend themselves well to the graphical format.
It isn’t until reading the afterword that I twig to the fact that Joe Hill is Stephan King’s son in the real world. This is also the first book I’ve ever read in which a major plot point is embedded in the “note on the type” at the very end.

“In between the beginning and the ending of the work, I went for a motorcycle ride with my dad. […] It was a happy ride, following him along his back roads with the sun on my shoulders. I guess I have been cruising his back roads my whole life. I don’t regret it.”

Short reviews

Mini-reviews of recent books. 5-star scale.

Bloodshot, Cherie Priest, 2011 ****
A vampire private eye/thief/assassin novel. I know, you’re rolling your eyes. “Another vampire story?” But really it’s pretty good. The narrator is a tough blood-sucker.  Unlike the cover illustration, she’s got a flapper haircut and big black eyes. She and her cast of interesting accomplices rack up the body count, yet are generally motivated by loyalty and responsibility. I’m looking forward to the next installment of this series.

Devils’ Due, a Starcraft II novel, Christie Golden, 2011 *
I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft, and have read some of Golden’s WoW novels. They were OK. I have not played Starcraft II but apparently it involves embittered military men-turned-criminals using prostitutes, ripping off prostitutes, then beating up angry prostitutes. It didn’t seem like a game I want to play. I didn’t finish the book so technically it’s possible it got better.

Naked Cruelty, Colleen McCullough, 2010 **
Ms. McCullough has a thoroughly unpleasant imagination. Most of the people in this New York-based police procedural are horrifying in one way or another. I read the whole thing even though it made me feel grimy.

Other Kingdoms, Richard Matheson, 2011 ***
This book tastes like a Charles de Lint novel left out in the sun too long, overripe and fermented. A 80-something author of schlock horror novels reminisces about his teenaged, post-WWI experiences having sex with a witch and a fairy. It’s probably best not to dig too deeply into the meanings behind the voluptuous and vengeful witch-as-mother and the childlike, self-sacrificing, fairy-as-sister love interests. Lots of mythic detail of war and magic, with a likable narrative voice. I’ll probably continue to read anything Matheson cares to write.

“The end of the world will not come without a war.”

Tooth and Nail by Craig DiLouie

Imagine you’ve been deployed to the Middle East, for longer than anyone dreamed would be possible when the war started. You’re finally getting to go home. It’s emergency duty in New York City, but it’s still home. There’s an epidemic. It’s everything the swine flu was feared to be and then some – extremely contagious and up to 5% lethality. There is no vaccine, which is unfortunate as some of the sick experience symptoms much like rabies – dementia, paranoia. They become … dangerous.

That’s the nightmare in which Charlie Company’s Second Platoon find themselves in Craig DiLouie’s 2010 novel Tooth and Nail. It’s a gritty take on the zombie apocalypse, fought on the streets of New York. The military framework is a natural – where else would you want to be during a zombie war than in the best funded military on Earth?

The characters aren’t cookie-cutter cannon fodder or stereotypical power-crazed officers. They react in spectrum of ways – selfish, loyal, craven, implacable. They have to contend with the tension between following orders and the prospect of having to fight other Americans that have been infected by the virus. They also face rapid breakdown in services, lack of supplies and medicine, and a public that is demanding, self-centered, and terrified. And then there are the sick people. The “Mad Dogs,” as they become known.

Zombie stories play out all kinds of cultural metaphors, and this one is no exception. It can be seen as an intense take on the morality of combat in a civilian zone, where the line between civilian and non-combatant and soldier, regular or guerrilla, erodes.

The main character is the Army itself – the culture, language, rituals, rules and tools. The individual cast members are embedded in this matrix, to such a degree that sometimes they stand out sharply, but their features sometimes fade and they move as gears in the military machine. DiLouie’s Army is detailed and believable. The reader feels as if she is there with the soldiers as, often with grim humor, they struggle to fulfill their orders amid chaos and panic.

I won’t be surprised when I hear this book has been picked up for a movie. It would be a welcome addition to the genre – an inside view of a powerful army faced with defeat from a foe that fights with tooth and nail.

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk. Love him? Hate him? Wish you could escape the Horror genre pigeonhole and claim your space on the General Popular Fiction shelves  as  seemingly effortlessly?

His 2009 book, Pygmy, escalates an output already far out on the edge. After the excesses of Rant, I was curious – what comes next? I appreciated Rant as a response to the popular obsession with Fight Club. How do you respond to men punching each other in Mexico City, inspired by a movie based on your book? Why not give your loving public a character who gains his charisma from rabid rodents. A charmer who demonstrates his love by infecting his lovers with rabies. “Emulate this, suckers!”

So, Pygmy. It’s in dialect. A entire-book-sustained first person, English-second-language, sometimes punny, always awkward, voice. Our narrator, an exchange student from an unnamed Communist country, probably China, takes advantage of the bleeding-heart American academic exchange program to infiltrate a typical American family, with a mandate to impregnate as many girls as possible before implementing mass destruction.

I confess, after the male-on-male rape scene in the first 30 pages, I had to take a break. I read two Jim Thompson novels and then came back and finished Pygmy. It was disturbing. Some of it was funny. None of it seemed like a movie Brad Pitt could be in.

The rape scene was particularly disturbing. It wasn’t completely gratuitous like the traditional male-on-female rape scene. It impacted the rest of the story. It was described with great detail. It could be instructional for that all-too-common young man that describes his losses at Halo as being “raped,” although the chances of such a fellow reading this book are probably slim.

I can’t say I like this book. The metaphors never fall in to focus, the narrator is yet another murderous pervert. There is a strong female character, and there was some possible redemption to be found in the end. Is it worth the journey? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Shorts – crime, fantasy, horror

Foolproof, a 2009 novel by several authors, Barbara D’Amato, Jeanne M. Dams and, Mark Richard Zubro. It’s a NYC-based mystery/crime novel, which starts out very strongly with an affecting portrait of 9/11 seen through the eyes of two Twin Towers survivors that happened to both be late for work that day. It eventually deteriorates into silliness – the main characters become 007-esque anti-terrorism globetrotters. A Bill Gates analog blackmails the president to further his scheme to take over all the oil in the world. Entertaining but doesn’t really live up to those first chapters.

Vengeance Child by Simon Clark. A nicely done 2009 horror story about a child that accompanies bad fortune. I enjoyed the dilemma the main characters found themselves in. A child is a reluctant harbinger (or is it instigator?) of violence and death. What would you do if confronted with such a child? Can you imagine it ever being right to torture or kill a child?

The Gates (of Hell are about to open/”want to peek?” or “mind the gap”) by John Connolly. I really wanted to like this 2009 book. It fits my penchant for books about heaven and hell, and it features the Hadron Super Collider. The narration is in a chatty, directly-addressing-the-reader, copiously footnoted style reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, and the episodic adventures of a young main character were evocative of L. Frank Baum. I even appreciated the production quality, the cover art, text fonts and such are quite attractive. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?), I fell out of love with it on footnote number 12. “It is a curious fact that small boys are more terrified of their babysitters than small girls are. In part, this is because small girls and babysitters, who are usually slightly larger girls, belong to the same species, and therefore understand each other. Small boys, on the other hand, do not understand girls, and therefore being looked after by one is a little like a hamster being looked after by a shark.” Etcetera. This big spoonful of gender essentialism, topped with a cherry of “women are some strange species that is not human” put me off. Already feeling like this book didn’t like me, I wasn’t as ready to suspend my disbelief of the stereotypes, gender insults, and general derivative nature of the story. This may more about me than about this book, but it took the fun out of it for me.

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker. A 2010 gothic horror novel masquerading as a “women’s” book. I appreciated the bluntness of the harsh story, the painful explication of a woman who has to marry her rapist, without ever directly naming it for what it is, and how the fallout from this affected an entire town. But, the first-person omniscient narration made me sea-sick. As the narrator described events and thoughts she couldn’t possibly have witnessed, I couldn’t decide if she was supposed to be making things up, or magic or what.  The narrator was a fascinating woman. She had some form of giantism, and the cover made me wonder what the Sociological Images blog would make of it. You can have a look at their post on women’s body types as depicted on book covers  here, but the general gist of it is that even if a fiction book stars a main character who is a “large” woman, the woman pictured on the book cover will be thin. In this case, the book cover features a heavy looking mannequin.  The author may have had little to no input on the cover image, but I still find it fascinating that the publishing house would opt for a headless mannequin rather than actually depict a large woman. Regardless of the cover art, I will be looking forward to Baker’s future books.

The Host: Stephanie Meyer

Not the fabulous South Korean horror/comedy movie of the same name, this is the 2008 book from Stephanie Meyer. If Robert Heinlein had page-counts like Stephen King and rose from the grave to re-write The Puppet Masters as a romance, this might be the book he would have ended up with.

Not having read the sparkly-vampire series, but unable to avoid having heard lots about it, I was not sure what to expect from Ms. Meyer’s “first book for adults.” It turned out to be the perfect book to read on a sick day, with snow and sleet falling outside. Perhaps overly long at 600+ pages in hardcover, it was still a quick read. The main theme of the story was similar to Meyer’s vampire stories – impossible love. “He’ll never love me, I’m a parasitic alien controlling his beloved girlfriend’s body! Perhaps if I try really hard and am the saintliest parasitic alien ever, he will learn to love me the way I love him.” And that’s the way it goes.

The book passes the Bechdel test, (“Does it have more that one named female character? Do they talk to each other? About something besides men?”) presuming multiple women in one body count. The infesting alien and her host converse constantly throughout the book, mostly about men but also about staying alive in a post-alien-invasion world. Meyers is an effective world-builder – the theme of alien parasites isn’t a new one, but she has her own unique twists. The aliens are peaceful and even beautiful when seen outside their host bodies.

Like all zombie/mind-controlling-parasitic-alien stories, there are allegories to be found but they are not as clear cut as say, George Romero’s zombie treatises on race and consumer culture. Meyer’s peace-loving aliens feel justified in taking over the entire human race since the humans are so vicious and murderous to each other and the rest of the planet. Is Meyers making some point about gun control? If you let the pacifists take the guns away, the whole world will be full of boringly nice alien Democrats?

Although the main character alien fulfills her role of self-sacrificing hero, it’s left wide open for a sequel or three, but it’s hard to imagine tweens or adults getting worked up about the main male love interest characters. They are both jerks.  After the inevitable movie comes out, it’ll be harder to make your eyes shine silver than to make your skin glitter for Halloween.

Sandman Slim: Richard Kadrey

I’m not particularly religious, but I’m a sucker for good books about the war between heaven and hell and the folks caught in between. This is a quality entry in that tradition.

I admit, I noticed the William Gibson blurb on the cover of Richard Kadrey’s 2009 Sandman Slim. I like Gibson and if he’s that enthusiastic about it, I figured I could give it a try. I was a little leery of Gibson’s characterization of it as a “dirty-ass masterpiece” – what does that even mean? But I took the chance.

The thank-you to Tom Waits in the Acknowledgments for permission to use lyrics confirmed I had made a good choice. The last time I saw someone thank Tom Waits for such permission was in a Kinky Friedman book, and it was pretty good. I liked that the lyrics Kadrey used were from “Alice,” not the “Nighthawks at the Diner” days. Not that there’s anything wrong with those days, it’s just good to see people are keeping up with the newer stuff.

Maybe Gibson thought the book was “dirty-ass” because in addition to being a writer, Kadrey likes taking pictures of women wrapped in electrical tape. But the book itself doesn’t have any sex scenes. The main character gets involved in a movie rental business but it’s pretty clear that they consider the porn-addled customers losers, not role models. So, I never did figure out what Gibson was getting at.

Anyhow, the book was good. Very visual, easy to imagine it as a movie in the head. It would be entertaining as a movie on the screen, too, as long as it didn’t star Keanu Reeves. Better some unknown with a burnt-up leather jacket.

There are strong women characters (although I am not sure it passes the Bechdel test). Magic and alchemy. Devils, angels, plenty of violence, and did I mention Tom Waits lyrics? The only false note was the title – the “Sandman Slim” moniker doesn’t even appear until halfway into the book. It doesn’t seem to make sense to the main character, either. It’s his celestial lucha libre name, pinned on him by someone else and it never has much meaning for the story. The uncharitable part of my mind wonders if it’s an attempt at pulling in unsuspecting Neil Gaiman fans. The more charitable side says maybe it was a title the author or editor had really wanted to use for years and finally he said “screw it” and pinned it on this book.

There is plenty of room for this book to become a series, and that would be just fine by me.

Hater: David Moody

A short horror novel with an interesting claim to fame – self published online, it was movie optioned and picked up by a major publisher and came out in hardback in 2006.

The story is a twist on the traditional zombie tale. In this case, the zombies are alive, self-aware, and like being zombies and feel justified in what they are doing.

It flirts with allegory but never ties it up neatly. The main character is a jerk, one of those guys who drifts along in life, feeling entitled to everything without working for any of it. He is whiny and dissatisfied, hates his wife and the kids that he doesn’t seem to understand how he acquired. Then something mysterious happens and he becomes extremely strong and murderously violent to anyone around him who hasn’t also changed. He’s become a “hater.”

The scenes of violence are detailed and genuinely shocking. A girl beats her best friend to death. A spouse attacks out of the blue.  I am not sure I’d want to see all that played out on the big screen but this is another one I won’t be surprised when it gets made into a movie.

There are sequels in the works, so the story was left hanging at the end. It’s good enough to make me want to pick up the next ones when they come out.

To the person who checked out this Jim Thompson before me:

To the person who checked out this Jim Thompson before me:

I couldn’t help but notice your
68 brackets
54 parentheses
27 paragraphs underlined
3 stars
and one
question mark
littering this yellowing paperback
like dog turds
on a sidewalk.

25 years ago
the library bought
this paperback
and added boards to it
to give it a little gravitas
and hide the lurid

I thought you should know
that my eraser and I have
taken care of your
68 brackets
54 parentheses
27 paragraphs underlined
3 stars
and one
question mark.

I am become
the serial killer
of your thoughts.

No one will ever
have to step in
what you think is



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

Zombie stories hold a special place in the American imagination. There’s something inherently creepy about the idea of your neighbors and loved ones suddenly becoming hostile, homicidal, and hungry, but it goes much further than that.  King of the genre, writer/director George Romero, has used zombie movies to comment on race relations (1968’s Night of the Living Dead), consumer culture (1978’s Dawn of the Dead), machismo and military research (1985’s Day of the Dead), terrorism (2005’s Land of the Dead), and citizen journalism (2007’s Diary of the Dead).

In his Masters of Horror entry, “Homecoming, ” director Joe Dante used dead soldiers turned zombies to shine a laser-light on voting integrity and unjust war. “Sean of the Dead” addresses pub culture and friendships. The “28 Days/28 Weeks Later…” movies address fears of genetic engineering and bio-war.

Just when you think nothing new can be said about zombies, Max Brooks (son of Hollywood legends Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) comes along with a fresh take on the subject of catastrophic zombie infection. In his 2006 novel “World War Z,” he uses the framework of oral history and social anthropology to take a global look at the many forces in play that make international response to a zombie epidemic catastrophically slow and ineffective. The oral history framework of the novel is unusual, and allows for great flexibility in characters and settings. In the introduction, his narrator explains, “I have tried to maintain as invisible a presence as possible. Those questions included in the text are only there to illustrate those that may have been posed by readers.”

WWZ Book CoverThe scope of the book is huge – it moves among China, Tibet, Greece, Brazil, Barbados, Israel, Palestine, Virginia, Finland, Antarctica, Texas, Montana, Tennessee, India, Kansas, Russia, Greenland, Colorado, Southern Africa, Ireland, Ukraine, Canada, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington, California, Bohemia, Micronesia, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Chile, Nebraska, Siberia. The globetrotting narrator has access to military leaders and soldiers, doctors, scientists, a corporate criminal, a famous movie director. Each short chapter is told by one of these different characters; it’s easy to visualize the narrator sitting quietly with microphone and recorder, taking in all the different stories that build a mosaic of apocalypse. The profusion of detail and characters, from craven to heroic, weave a dense fabric. The parallels between zombie invasion and the outbreak of a global disease are inescapable.

The issues addressed are similarly broad – greed in the medico-corporate culture, bravery and stupidity in the military, authoritarian and short-sighted government policy, manipulation of the news media, movies as a source of hope, international political and religious mistrust. Some of the episodes are a bit heavy-handed, but, hey, it is a zombie story.

Hollywood’s love affair with the undead makes the rumors of director Marc Forster taking this project on no surprise. One hopes that he will find a way to retain the narrator’s relative invisibility, and maintain the episodic, interwoven, structure of the book. It’s an epic tale that could make compelling watching. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to Brooks’ next book.