I’m a huge fan of the SyFy channel show, Face Off. Make-up and special effects artists compete. They body paint, make prosthetics and appliances to create characters or tableaus. I have just enough artistic ability to appreciate the skill and creativity it takes to do what the competitors do. I can’t get enough of watching artists at work. This week’s challenge: Create a movie villain based on a phobia. The top creations were based on odontophobia (fear of teeth) and parasitophobia (fear of parasites). Other than the technical and creative superiority of the winners, I think the phobias themselves played into the judge’s opinions. I mean, who isn’t at least a tad concerned about their teeth? Who doesn’t get squirmy and creeped out by parasites?
Of course, the way my mind works, it got me to thinking about why I read horror novels. More specifically, why some scare the snot out of me and others don’t. I read a lot of horror novels because they’re fun. I like being grossed out. I like action. I like thrills and chills. I like horror-comedy because it taps into my inner teenager. But most horror novels don’t scare me. They don’t tap into my deepest fears and make me uneasy.
Some do. The scariest novel I ever read wasn’t even a horror novel, it was, 1984, by George Orwell. The scariest movie I’ve ever seen? Invasion of the Body Snatchers (actually both versions, 1956 and 1978, scared the snot out of me). What do they have in common? Mindlessness.
Mindlessness scares me. I’d like to say it’s not a phobia and the fear doesn’t affect my life. Except… it does. I hate crowds, especially crowds in enclosed places. I’m suspicious to the point of hostility about bureaucracies. Ditto for politicians who use mindlessness as a tool to increase their power. Every time I have a brain fart, I think, Oh God! Alzheimer’s! So, yeah, maybe I am a bit phobic.
The story: Wump Hozer, a 65-year-old handyman, is mourning the death of his son. He blames the local tannery for polluting the water and causing his son’s leukemia. That leads him to sabotaging a water pipe, which exposes the town’s nastiest, darkest secret: Dead children. A lot of them. The dead babies, the tannery, the local Catholic church are all tied in to a much larger, much more far-reaching scheme to bring about Armageddon.
One would think the Armageddon angle would be the most unsettling element. Not for me. That’s well done, but the really scary part is the mindlessness that drove over a hundred families to murder their first born children. As a mother, as a thinking human being, it’s revolting. Worse, it could happen. That Bauer created a cast of sympathetic characters who, with the exception of one or two, truly believed they were doing the RIGHT THING, maybe recognizing their own evil on some level, but so caught up in mindlessness they couldn’t help themselves, that’s what scared the piss out of me.
Bauer also happens to be a very good writer who has created some wonderful characters, layered and complex and often unexpected. I suspect he will end up on my list of writers to read for the pleasure of the way he uses language and brings scenes to life.
Sister and me shared a small belly laugh. I lifted myself off the grass onto one elbow and she helped me to another sip of the schnapps. Father chuckled too, but it seemed he was only humoring up because his mouth kept his smile and stayed open, even after he stopped laughing. He was eying my truck parked out front, and the puzzled look he was giving its low-riding, tool-filled rear end made me think something or the other had just dawned on him. Either that or he wanted to head home pronto. I tossed him my keys.
“Here, Father, my head still hurts. Hope you can drive a stick.”
While Leo handed me tools I learned his best buddy Raymond was feeling more poorly than usual from the leukemia. Raymond would have some good days in between a lot of bad days, I told Leo. Just like my son.
“Raymond’s just resting up,” Leo said, as he handed me some nails. “He wants to be strong for the end of the week. Sister Dimple’s got us helping with the Easter pageant and other stuff.” His lower lip quivered a bit. “He’s been sick so he just, like, you know, needs to rest up.”
Oh my. Leo’s eyes were misting; I patted him on the shoulder. “It’ll be all right, son. Raymond’s a fighter, I’m sure.”
“Yep. A really good fighter, Wump. He just needs some rest is all.”
My only gripe with this novel is the rather unfortunate title, which made perfect sense after reading the novel, but if I’d been merely browsing, I’d have skimmed right over it. Which would have made me miss out on a really good book.
So come on, readers, be brave. Confess your fears and phobias. What kind of stories really scare you?
Discovered: via an email from the author
Purchased: Amazon ebook, January 30, 2012, $2.99
Sorry about that title. I couldn’t resist the Twitter bait. Because I don’t hate YA novels at all. What I hate is the appellation that shouts, “This book is for young readers (only)!”
When I was growing up there were books for children written specifically for children. You could tell them by the brightly colored illustrations, big type, short chapters and “educational” messages. Then there was everything else. Or as I liked to call it, “The good stuff.” Many of the books I read as a child– The Jungle Book, Three Musketeers, Black Beauty, Call of the Wild, The Hobbit, The Yearling, Little Women, The Red Pony, and many, many others– would be considered today to be Young Adult. They appeal to young readers, sure, but they’re good stories with great writing and just because the characters are young (or non-human) doesn’t mean they ONLY appeal to young readers.
Here’s the problem with genres. Genre simply means of a type. Mystery novels have mysteries to solve, romances feature people falling in love, horror means being scared. Then it became a marketing tool to make it easier for booksellers to categorize their merchandise. If you’re in the mood for a mystery, look on that shelf. Want some kissing, look over there. As with many simple shortcuts, some fool has to come in and complicate things. It didn’t take long before writers decided that a genre has RULES. That every mystery (or romance or sci-fi) novel had to have certain elements and a certain structure and dare I say, a formula for the plot. Writers work hard– too hard– to fit within the genre. Then a whole category of books turns rigid and predictable and starts boring the snot out of readers who really don’t give a shit about all those rules, they just want a good story to read. At the same time, readers get trapped by rigid thinking, too, so you get people who say, “Ew, I don’t read romance novels,” or “Ick, science fiction? What trash,” or “Only idiots read horror novels.” Just think of all the wonderful books they’re missing out on because they refuse to step into that section of the bookstore.
That’s exactly what’s happening with the Young Adult genre. Which, personally, I think is a stupid genre to begin with. What does it even mean? The characters are young? So what? The only thing I see for sure is that by tagging a book as YA, a whole lot of people who’d love the story will miss out because they do not read YA. I know several young readers who turn up their noses at YA because what they want is “the good stuff.”
Which brings me to Rot and Ruin, by Jonathan Maberry. I picked up Rot and Ruin because, duh, it’s Jonathan Maberry. If you’ve never read Maberry before, run out and buy a Joe Ledger book (Patient Zero, Dragon Factory, King of Plagues). Read it. I’ll wait. Finished? Am I right, or am I right? Is that not the rockingest, rollingest story telling ever? So Rot and Ruin was an auto-buy. I didn’t bother reading the listing or reviews. Just hit the one-click-and-buy button.
Short recap: Fourteen years after the zombie apocalypse, Benny Imura is turning fifteen and needs a job (no job, half-rations, that’s the rule). As a last resort he signs on as his brother Tom’s apprentice to become a zombie killer/bounty hunter. Benny hates his older brother, considering him a coward and a loser. It’s only after Tom takes Benny into the Rot and Ruin where the zombies are that Benny begins to realize there is more, much more to Tom than he ever imagined.
The entire novel is slick and scary and filled with action and gore aplenty. The characters are wonderful. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, writes over-the-top villains the way Maberry can. What I loved best was the sympathy for the zombies. Like Tom says, “Zombies are people, too.” I have such mixed feelings about zombie novels in general. I always feel sorry for the zombies. To me they aren’t monsters, they’re victims. With some books and movies, I often wonder why the living characters aren’t more torn up by the fate of the dead. (My favorite scene in the movie Shaun of the Dead is at the end when Shaun finds a way to keep his mate Ed around despite Ed having been turned into a zombie). Maberry raises some serious questions about morality, courage, and what happens when fear becomes a way of life.
Despite the main character, Benny, being fifteen years old and he has to shed his childish notions fast and grow up to be a man, never once while reading did I think, Young Adult. So when I went back to Amazon to look more closely at the listing I was rather shocked to see Rot and Ruin had been published as a YA novel. It kind of pissed me off. I suppose I can’t fault publishers for trying any marketing gimmick they can, but think about all the readers who enter a book store, looking for something good to read, but wouldn’t visit the YA section if you beat them with a stick, who will miss out on Rot and Ruin.
That’s why I hate YA.
I love Jonathan Maberry. Check out Rot and Ruin for yourself.
The very first Dan Simmons book I read was Carrion Comfort. That novel, quite frankly, scared the piss out of me. Not only was it scary and disturbing and menacing, right in the middle of it Simmons killed off a character I loved. I was shocked. Outraged. And hooked. I mean, if he could do that, then he’s capable of anything and I have to keep turning pages to find out how truly bad it can get. I became a Simmons fan. Now whenever somebody is looking for a scary vampire novel, I tell them to read Carrion Comfort.
You could call Simmons a horror writer, but he’s tough to pigeonhole. Most of his stories deal with the supernatural. Ghosts are an element in many stories. Even Black Hills, which is historical, is also a ghost story. Simmons tells the stories Simmons needs to tell. If there’s a common thread, it’s that all his novel are big, meaty, sprawling, well-researched and disturbing on some level. Simmons pulls no punches.
(click here to check out the book)
Flashback is like that. Set in a grim, not-too-distant future, the global economy has collapsed, societies have fallen apart. The Japanese, embracing a feudal model, have risen as a world power. Israel has been nuked out of existence. A caliphate has taken over the Middle East, Europe and Canada. Mexico is reclaiming parts of the United States it feels were stolen. America, destroyed by debt, entitlements and an overreaching but weak political system, has given up its freedom for what little security it can find. The majority of Americans are addicted to a drug called flashback that allows them to relive fully happier moments of their lives. It’s a grim scenario Simmons paints. It’s a cautionary tale, too, because it uses events happening today to show how they can lead to the events happening in the story.
Flashback is also a murder mystery and a thriller, and also a story of redemption and acceptance. And yes, it’s a ghost story, too. Or should I say, the characters long for ghosts and use ghosts to find relief from their miserable existences.
Simmons sums up the philosophy of the tale in this passage:
It happens to every race and group and nation, Henry Big Horse Begay says, still laughing. The days of greatness roll in like some great, undeserved tide, are smugly celebrated by the lucky peoples– even as mine once did– as if they had earned it, which they had not, and then the tide ebbs and the nations and tribes and peoples find themselves standing there dumb and dumbfounded on the dry and garbage-strewn beach.
So yeah, it’s a powerful story.
I haven’t read every novel Simmons has written, though eventually I hope to. He’s just not an author to glom willy nilly. It takes a measure of commitment to get into his work. No gobbling his words like M&Ms, or reading them in dibs and drabs, a page here, another page later. His novels are big (Flashback is 550 pages) and take time to read and time to digest. Quite often I will find myself stopping, thinking, What? What did he just say? Then I have to go back and reread, more slowly, more carefully. His aren’t the type of genre novels where a reader can think, Gee, I’m in the mood for a ghost story. Yeah, Simmons will give you ghosts, but he’ll give you a whole lot more at the same time. It’s that whole lot more that put him on my favorites list.