Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes

by Ray Bradbury

How apropos to read and review this novel the week before Halloween. The story takes place—you guessed it—the week before Halloween.

Will Halloway and James Nightshade are small town teens, reversed mirror images. Think light/dark and good/not-so-good juxtapositions, and you’re on the right track. Will’s father, a reluctant hero, fears the ebbing of his days.

Meanwhile, a carnival of dark magic comes to town with paranormal forces aplenty–a skeleton, a demon, a witch and a few formerly living folks–willing and able to exploit that bit of depraved darkness that resides within each of us. Hint: Jim “Night”shade succumbs, but “Hallow”ay has the “Will” to resist. Clever, yes?

Our reluctant hero summarizes this dark force with his thematic statement, “Evil has only the power that we give it.” I won’t forget that line. Ever.

Speaking of thematic statements, I highly recommend this National Book Award novel to teachers for classroom study. It’s like a hearty stone soup containing every morsel you could possibly desire: allusions, themes, figurative language. Stunning similes and magical metaphors. Take a look at this rich sentence: “Shades slithered, doors boomed, keys rattled their bones in locks, people fled with hordes of torn newspaper mice nibbling their heels.”

If you are ready for good to battle evil, and if you love the play of multi-layered language, then this just might be the Halloween book for you.

 

 

R.I.P. Challenge for Readers and Writers of the Paranormal

R.I.P Challenge

As writers we always hear, “Connect with others who share your interests.”

Everyone tells you to do it, but no one tells you how to do it. In my case, I find it hard to connect with folks in the ghost fiction genre because, well, there is no ghost fiction genre. Some ghost fiction comes to us from top-drawer masters like Henry James and Toni Morrison and are shelved in Literature. I’ve found some ghost novels in the horror genre, some in women’s fiction, some in romantic suspense, some in young adult and some in paranormal romance. Like I said, hard.

Now I’m happy to report I’ve made a mega-cool connection. It’s called Stainless Steel Droppings, and right now the site is sponsoring a reading challenge: Readers Imbibing Peril.  What’s great is that I can bury myself for months with paranormal books and movies that others participating in this challenge recommend.

Check it out and join in! I’m currently pursuing the “Peril the First” level.

Read below my third book talk for the R.I.P. challenge. Caveat—this one is paranormal, but not ghostly. Go figure.

Book Review: My Memories of a Future Life by Roz Morris.

Have you ever experienced a visceral response to a book? One that changed you in some way?

In this novel, the protagonist Carol Lear suffers from debilitating hand pain. Unfortunately, she’s a concert pianist who must remain idle for months if she’s lucky; forever, if she’s not. In an instant, there goes both her livelihood and her identity. This crisis sends Carol into the arms (literally) of a mysterious hypnotherapist. Together they engage in future life progression, hoping to discover whether or not her injury will be cured.

The author depicts Carol’s suffering so painstakingly and in such exquisite detail that I felt her pain—hence, the visceral reaction I mentioned. My response began with an awareness of a stiff shoulder, then a creaky rotator cuff, and finally an achy right hand. I took lifestyle cues from the character. Luckily for me, only one hand was affected. Just the dominant one. The write hand.

Inspired by the protagonist, I began turning on lights with my left hand. I opened doors with my left. Washed windows, turned my car ignition key (after mastering body torque acrobatics), flipped book pages, coerced a friend into providing deep massage. In a moment of pure evil, I swapped my sticky computer keyboard with that of unsuspecting husband Kim. Now I even mouse with my left hand. (Kim asked me, “Are you allowed to use “mouse” as a verb?) Yes, of course, I’m a writer. But kids, don’t try it.

Talk about identifying with character. Sheesh!

But there are other characters to intrigue you in this novel: that gay housemate Jerry we all wish we had mothering us and the fascinating, dark, slippery hypnotherapist Gene. Yum. The book lit up my Kindle when either of these guys was on scene. Then there was the beautifully rendered parallel story of ethereal Andreq, Carol’s future incarnation.

Everyone pursues Carol (again, literally) for his or her own agenda. That would include power-hungry new agers and repressive Christian activists. Who even knew these volatile groups existed in the land of stiff upper lips? I didn’t, and I’ve lived in London and traveled throughout the U.K. At times, these hot pursuits became almost comical Keystone Kop Evangelicals of both persuasions. But always interesting. Each night I turned down my quilt (left-handed) with that frisson of anticipation—what plot twist will envelop Carol/Andreq tonight?

What was less successful for me was the ending. Ah, yes, the tricky ending. I had no problem with the machinations of plot. Rather, it was as if the author had run out of word count space (I sympathize; believe me, I do). Except My Memories of a Future Life was released as an e-book originally and self-published as well, so one envisions fewer word count police. Yet the ending devolved into a two page narrator exposition-cum-epiphany so that you could almost hear Scarlett O’Hara prompting from the wings, “After all, tomorrow is another day,” in a sort of post-it note memo to readers declaring, “We’re done here.”

Okay. We’re done here.

Ghost Novel Review: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

David R. Godine, 138 pages

 

I do a writing assignment with my students called “Which is Better—the Book or the Movie?” Doesn’t matter if it’s a black-and-white classic or a Technicolor blockbuster, my students invariably plant themselves on the side of the book. (I don’t know if the knowledge that I’m a writer enters into their logic, so we should probably factor in the suck-up component.)

Ironically, I don’t always agree with my students. For instance, I’m pretty sure I prefer the Little Women film Gillian Armstrong directed in 1994 to the novel Louisa May Alcott penned in 1868.

I bring this up because, having just finished reading The Woman in Black, I think this will make a fine movie (perhaps even better than the book).

Woman in Black opens with an oft-used device–narrator relaxing at a genial fireside gathering when someone suggests passing the time with ghost stories. Naturally, the narrator knows the best and scariest supernatural tale, and the next chapter begins with his or her manuscript. I was reminded of The Turn of the Screw.

In Susan Hill’s novella, narrator/solicitor Arthur Kipps travels north of London to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, one of the last Victorians. Eel Marsh House sits on the edge of a shifting marsh worthy of Hound of the Baskervilles. Enter the ghost, a grief-racked, wacked-out woman appropriately attired in black Victorian garb. As Arthur delves into the deceased’s personal effects and letters, he uncovers family secrets and quiet treachery. At the same time, the black-clad presence wields her not inconsiderable powers to creak a nursery rocking chair, evoke a child’s piercing cry and re-enact a tragic accident.

As I perused Woman in Black, I realized I had read the book many years before. This was a good thing because I knew not to expect plot twists (although there is one at the end) and could instead immerse myself in the narrative. For this is a quiet book, much of it interior to a narrator knocking around an empty house (and, as you can imagine, some navel-gazing), more Charlotte Bronte than Dean Koontz. Indeed, the style, syntax and structure was quite reminiscent of 19th century writing even though the events take place in the 20th. And that pulled me out of the story a little bit. What brought me back in is the careful characterization of Arthur and his maturation.

So, if you like your fog thick, your winds howling, your marshes amorphous, your pauses pregnant; in short, your atmosphere atmospheric, you will enjoy this novella.

As I said earlier, I think this could make one creepily fun movie with Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur and additional touches by screenwriter Jane Goldman. You can watch the movie trailer here.

Now I ask you: Which is better, the movie or the book? Guess we’ll have to wait until 2012. Look for me in the theater!

Creative Writing Assignment: Let the Poem Speak

Many fiction writers and memoirists seek inspiration from reading poetry. I’m not a regular poetry reader, but I never tire of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I enjoy Frost, Cummings, Crane, Rich, Dickinson.

I’m going to let you in on a cool writing exercise (great for both writers and teachers) courtesy of nonpareil writer/academician Sara McAulay, founder of the popular ezine Tattoo Highway. Sara’s assignment is simple: pull out a poem you like, study it, and let the poem inspire you to create a work of fiction or creative nonfiction. (What you take from the poem, along with your interpretation, is entirely up to you.) Playing with writing is a great way to loosen your muscles and have fun, too!

If you try this exercise, please send it to me.  And if you dare, I’ll post your work and share it with our readers. Let me know what you think.

To get your creative synapses firing, I am posting the poem that I used and below that the piece I wrote. Though I have loved this Stephen Crane poem since high school, it resonates with me now more than ever during this time of political polarization and dogmatic posturing.

Here is the poem:

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad."

And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

Here is the piece I wrote:

Toads

We were meeting at my house for our monthly reading and discussion group. The topic of tonight’s discussion: “Should We Be Toads?”

Sharon had brought sushi to share, which I thought rather wicked of her (though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it abominable) because I had specifically informed everyone I was serving French Caribbean. I managed to confront my rigidity, and as it turned out, there was something about sharing seaweed and fish eggs that lent a certain veracity to our task.

Escargot followed, from my favorite French restaurant, La Grenouille. I passed on frog legs for obvious reasons.

“Good evening, everyone, glad you could make it,” I said, puffing cheek kisses all around. “Please sit. Now, I know you were all looking forward to hearing Dr. Stone’s remarks, but he called this afternoon to say he’d caught a bug and would be unable to join us.”

“Oh, I so wanted to ask him if it’s true toads give you warts,” Suzie said.

Just so you know, Suzie is our token airhead.

I sighed. “I can assure you warts are caused by viruses.”

Since I attend night school, I’m the unspoken leader.

“Natalie, why don’t you get us started?” I handed around bowls of fragrant shrimp bisque.

Natalie toyed with a fly in her soup. “I see Toad as the ultimate nonconformist. Pure iconoclast.”

“But isn’t Toad’s greatest virtue his patience?” Jan asked. “He must wait and wait for the princess to kiss him so he can turn into a prince and marry her.”

“Jan,” we whined in unison. “That’s nothing more than frog propaganda. Hello.”

“What is marriage, but a kind of conformity? Frog is the one who changes his colors to match his environment,” Sharon, the scientist among us, offered. “Toad would never put himself in that position.”

“I think you’re forgetting Toad’s dark side,” Melanie said, flicking her tongue.

We rolled our eyes. Melanie invariably seeks negativity. At last month’s meeting—Opportunities for Optimists—she would bring up global warming and species extinction.

“Certainly if we consider Kenneth Graham’s toad of the industrial age,” I said, “we see a toad who’s de-amphibicized—selfish, manipulative, deceitful. The classic conflict: Toad vs. Machine. And yet still capable of redemption through intervention.”

“Yes, and Arnold Lobel’s early work displays a fascinating juxtaposition of the amphib psyche,” Natalie said. “Toad Id battling Frog Ego.”

“That begs the question, how do we ultimately balance our own impulsive, creative toad with moral, controlling frog?” I asked, over crawfish stuffed zucchini and hollandaise artichokes.

Everyone had a pet theory ranging from meditation to hottubbing to hormone replacement, but no definitive answer emerged.

We rallied over key lime pie and café crème de menthe. So much so, that we had no time to discuss our sub-topics, The Toad’s Way, and Unblocking the Toad Within.

In the end, some of us felt we had been rubbed the wrong way. But we all agreed that original, nonconformist philosophy was ideal, tempered by sensitivity to others’ feelings.

All in all, a success, I felt, as I watched my friends depart into the warm night. Nocturnal music drifted my way, playful, sonorous, romantic.

Did I have the right stuff? I wondered. Dare I, could I…be a toad?