Swan Song by Robert McCammon: A Review

She couldn’t remember when she’d last seen the stars; maybe it had been on a warm summer’s night, when she was living in a cardboard box in Central Park. Or maybe she’d stopped noticing the stars a long time before the clouds had blanked them out.

Ah, the 80’s. What with the Cold Wars and the Reagans, the Soviets and the ever present threat of nuclear holocaust. What a time to be alive!

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Trust me, this cat is scarier than any book.

Every decade has their “fear,” the looming bogeyman that could send us into an apocalypse. If I know my history, I think the progression goes something like this:

2010’s: The environment
2000’s: The terrorists
1990’s: Stirrup pants…?
1980’s: Nuclear holocaust (a.k.a. The Russians)
1970’s: Anarchists
1960’s: Hippies
1950’s: Aliens (a.k.a. The H-bomb)
1940’s: WWII
1930’s: The economy
1920’s: Flappers/booze
1910’s: Anarchists again.
1900’s and everything before: Disease. Dinosaurs.

Published in 1987, Swan Song capitalizes on the decade’s fear du jour, that of Nuclear Holocaust and Soviet invasion. It asks the question: What if the guys in charge actually push the button?

The answer is terrifying.

McCammon paints a bleak picture of the United States post-nuclear holocaust. All of the major cities have been destroyed, and everything in between isn’t much better off. Mutually Assured Destruction leaves behind a world with no sunlight, no plants, and a starving, desperate population crippled by radiation poisoning and the aftermath of a world that ends in fire.

If that isn’t bad enough, there’s a sinister figure roaming around, dancing the watusi (sign of the times?) over the graveyard of North America. Evil personified, the “man of many faces” sets out to destroy a mysterious glass ring with fantastical powers and goes head to head with the best bag lady of all time, Sister Creep.

There’s also a little girl called Swan who can make things grow, a former wrestler who is sworn to protect her, and a squadron of angry, hate-filled men growing an army in a quest for dominance.

Every apocalyptic novels asks the question: What is humanity for? Why do we go on living? Why do we work so hard to survive? Genetics answer the question on a biological level, but humans have been blessed or cursed with just enough existential awareness to need more. As the sadistic Army of Excellence pillages its way across the country, the men in charge lust for power for the sake of power. There is no justifiable end. Their visions of the future are brutal, full of violence, and their power rendered empty by its ephemeral nature. Top dog can never stay top dog for long.

Instead, the answer must come from growth, new life, community. When I was younger I used to read and reread the story of Stone Soup (my version had animals) where all the poor starving heroes had to eat were stones, which they made into soup. Eventually, the parsimonious villagers chip in a carrot here, an onion there, until eventually they have a feast for the whole town. This quality echoes in manner in which the “villagers” of Swan Song labor under the revelation of community.

But like all dark apocalyptic visions, things will get much, much worse before they can get better, and the miserable brutality that permeates the novel is at times enough to DNF the whole thing. It’s best to read this on a sunny day.

Characters play into stereotypical archetypes: The wise older woman, the girl with the special gift (with all the gifts?) that can save humanity, the protector, the otherworldly evil, the merciless military man, the psychopathic torturer. Classic good vs. evil clashes abound. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is quoted to no end.

The details make it well worth the read despite some tired tropes. There is a particularly nutty sequence in a K-Mart populated by insane asylum escapees that is both horrifying and delightful. There’s also a rather literal interpretation of true faces which I can’t decide if it is clever or hokey.

We’re not out of the woods yet. There are still some very bad people in the world and some of them have some very bad weapons. If not the nuclear apocalypse, then an environmental one is slowly sneaking up on us, death by a thousand cuts of CO2 and melting ice caps. Either way, humanity is doing itself in, and humanity is the only thing that’s going to stop it. Why do we go on living?

I have my reasons. What are yours?

*Nuclear codes

  • This book, at 956 pages, is endlessly compared to Stephen King’s The Stand. How annoying for everyone involved.
  • P.S. The movie version of The Stand has just about the best opening sequence of a movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t fear the reaper.
  • One step and then the next gets you where you’re going” Sister Creep is now one of my favorite characters. A tragedy from her past has turned her insane and living the bowers of NYC and it takes an apocalypse to drive her sane again. With clarity and purpose, she battles the worst of the worst and remains a badass to the end.
  • My goal for this blog post was to write one word for every page of Swan Song. I’m still a few words shy of my goal, so I’ll just quote from The Wasteland until I reach it:
  • Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
    The lady of situations.
    Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
    And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
    Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
    Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
    The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
  • Boom.

Haunted October, Part I: Hungry Worms, Bobbing for Apples, and Why You Shouldn’t Build Your Big Box in Cleveland

The first half of October (or #hauntedoctober or #spooktober or #scaretober. Also: follow me @respekt1111 on Litsy!) is through, the Cubs are in the World Series and I’ve knocked a goodly amount of my October TBR. Ghosts, gore, and ghastly murders characterize the following books, all of them with important life lessons to be gleaned along the way:

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Nobody likes me/everybody hates me/I’m going down the garden/to eat worms”

Lesson: If the skinny dude that shows up on your island is so hungry that he’s eating dirt and also there are things moving under his skin, maybe don’t do surgery on him in a cabin with a boy scout as your impromptu nurse. 

A group of boy scouts go on a retreat to deserted Falstaff Island. A mysterious stranger shows up. Horror ensues. Unbeknownst to the group, the stranger is infested with a biological weapon known as a modified hydatid. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I wouldn’t recommend reading this book over a plate of spaghetti.

The book mashes up Cronenbergian body horror, Lord of the Flies social order, and all sorts of adolescense/hunger metaphors. The book is absolutely saturated with similes, some of which land, some of which are just obnoxious and distracting, the author obviously pleased with his cleverness. Most of the gory descriptions land, however; for a book about an infestation that renders its victims with a devastating hunger, it has the opposite effect on its readers.

One lasting legacy of this book is that I’ve been giving my dogs the side-eye every time they try to lick my face.

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie

Lesson: If you really like apples, a murder in the bobbing for for apples bucket is going to ruin apples for you forever. 

The queen of murder mysteries (and namesake of my dog) is shooting fish in a barrel with her Halloween themed book that doesn’t really have to do much with Halloween other than the murder taking place at an otherwise wholesome children’s Halloween party.

The method of murder is appropriately fall-themed: drowned in the bobbing-for-apples bucket. The murder victim is a 13 year old girl whose boasting ways likely caused her downfall.

Perhaps not the most intricately plotted of her novels, the book features the famous mustachioed detective Hercule Poirot asking annoying questions and wearing inappropriate shoes and ultimately solving the mystery through a series of far-reaching deductions.

I picked up my copy of Hallowe’en Party at a garage sale for 25 cents, kept it in my car console for an unspecified amount of time, and have at least twice spilled coffee on the poor thing. It has a phone number and address scribbled on the inside cover, and many of the names in the cast of characters have been crossed out; evidently a previous reader was carefully deducing and eliminating suspects alongside Detective Poirot. This particular version, published in 1970 by Pocket Books.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Lesson: Haven’t we learned our f@%king lesson about building over mass graves?

Consumerism is dangerous. Corporations are ruthless and evil. Retail is a mind-numbing, dead-end job. Dur. Thanks for playing. Move on.

Fortunately, Horrorstör doesn’t hammer to heavily on the moralizing that often accompanies stories about evil Big Box stores (Hello, The Store). A rather clever take on the whole genre, Horrorstör tells the tale of a group of employees working in a big box called Orsk (Need help? Just Orsk!), a satirical take on that cheap furniture retailer masquerading as a “lifestyle” guru.

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Is it a horror novel? Is it an IKEA catalog? What’s the difference?

Hendrix effectively captures the marketing schemes behind retailers, exploiting the manipulative nature of design and layout to create a nightmare maze once the lights go out and things get really weird for the group of employees camping overnight to catch a vandal.

It turns out the Cleveland location of Orsk is experiencing some weird occurrences due to a certain sadistic prison that once rested on the same sight. A la The Shining and Poltergeist, the dead aren’t resting easy, despite the prolific Brookas and Müskks that dot the display rooms.

The book sure does paint some unflattering portraits of retail workers, as lonelyhearts with nothing else in their lives, itinerants with no ambition or direction, or desperate people with no skills other than reciting policy and bossing people around. As a longtime retail worker myself, I can’t say these stereotypes are unfair or untrue.

The book is silly with a silly conclusion, but it evokes that thin line between sanity and madness that in retail personifies.

*added value – I have to make some objections based on my own retail experience. The following contains mild spoilers.

  • This type of store would have an alarm system with motion detectors. No alarms are mentioned at any point.
  • Ditto on Loss Prevention. There is a single mention of LP, and if any employees were going to conduct a sting operation, it would be LP, not a single manager and some hourlies. The liability is horrifying.
  • Automatic sliding doors are designed to breakaway even if they are locked. The fire code violations in this book are expensive.

Booknado 2016: October – Book vs. Movie Smackdown! – The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber/Wolfen (1981)

Werewolves always get short shrift. In the pantheon of monsters, they’re kind of an afterthought, despite theoretically sharing a genetic heritage with the best animals of all time.

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I am Charlotte, descendant of the mighty wol-is that a sandwich?

In literature and film, werewolves are often portrayed as playing second fiddle to the sexier, cooler monster, the vampire, a relationship either servile or adversarial and always one-sided (see: True Blood, Twilight, Underworld, Dracula). It makes sense: vampires are everything we want to be: powerful, immortal, cool. Werewolves are what we fear we are: feral, bestial, animal.

THE BOOK

The Wolfen does nothing to improve upon the monster’s legacy. Though not technically werewolves (hence Wolfen, a more sentient, deadlier version of a normal wolf), they possess a rudimentary intelligence and tribal mentality that enables them to wage a terrifying campaign against a pair of detectives who have inadvertently stumbled onto their secret.

That they don’t immediately slaughter the two cop ten pages into the book requires quite a leap of faith, considering these two bumbling idiots might as well stand in Central Park smearing Alpo on their faces for all the clever evasive moves they accomplish. That they live on, even posing a challenge for the Wolfen is pretty damn embarrassing, like any football team losing to the Cleveland Browns.

Surely, I thought, the movie can’t be worse than the book.

THE MOVIE

It can’t be too terrible, I thought. I get that it came out in 1981, so I was prepared to accept a certain level of production quality. And it stars such names as Albert Finney, Tom Noonan, and Edward James Olmos. The fact that it deviates considerably from the source material could only be a bonus.

Holy hell,this movie was amazing.

I don’t even know where to start with this lost gem, so I will presents a few carefully curated insights to allow potential viewers to decide for themselves whether this film is worth two hours of their life:

  • Approximately 50% of the movie is filmed in “Wolf-o-vision,” which is basically a lo-fi Instagram filter
  • Starring: Albert Finney’s hair. Albert Finney’s sweatpants. Albert Finney’s eyebrows. Not actually starring: Albert Finney.
  • Lady Detective. Did you get that? Lady. Detective.
  • In a fairly offensive Native American stereotype, Edward James Olmos takes peyote and runs around naked, thinking he is a wolf.
  • Also starring: An old timey windmill.
  • Spoiler alert: the Wolfen look like normal wolves.

THE VERDICT

Skip both. Bad bad bad bad bad.

*Neighboring Packs

  • Whitley Strieber is still actively writing, focusing on alien encounters and journaling about out-of-body experiences. Apparently, he experienced an abduction/encounter himself back in the 80’s and wrote a popular book, Communion about it. So there’s that.
  • Here are some books about werewolves you should maybe read, and then tell me if they’re any good: The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring Gould, The Wolf’s Hour By Robert McCammon, The Howling by Gary Brandner, The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo.
  • Here are some good films about werewolves: The Wolfman (1941), Werewolf of London (1935), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Silver Bullet (1985), Cursed (2005).
  • Here is a song about werewolves: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon.

The Store by Bentley Little: A Review

Coming soon to a small town near you: THE STORE.

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Do they sell treats? If they sell treats, LET’S GO. 

Bentley Little’s 1998 parable of corporate menace tells the tale of an insidious retail discount store, creatively named “The Store” that plants its tentacles into the tiny town of Juniper, Arizona, and with lightning quickness proceeds to infest the entire town (how is that for a bag of mixed metaphors?)

The only thing standing between The Store and its absolute domination of the town is a small handful of courageous characters, including the protagonist, Bill, who is resentful of the The Store’s decimation of a beautiful meadow to build its parking lot (“They paved paradise…”). That resentment turns to loathing and dread as The Store destroys local businesses and their proprietors, ensnares his daughters, and takes over the local city council.

Admittedly, the plot is ridiculous. The sinister doings of The Store are never subtle. Employees are forced to chant and bow before an image of the CEO in a subterranean chapel; naysayers are dealt with by a shadowy clan of pasty trenchcoats called “Night Managers.” One of the more fun conceits is the appearance of bizarre and risque items on the shelves, from firecrackers and snuff films to illegal toys and personal pleasure items.

Full steam ahead, the plot barrels into territory that requires a suspension bridge of disbelief big enough to span the Pacific ocean. Murders, disappearances, and suicides become commonplace; vagrants begin to populate the town; a curfew is instituted. In the blink of an eye, the entire city becomes bankrolled by The Store. It’s an authoritarian nightmare executed not by the government, which is a disorderly, incompetent mess, but by the rigidly structured policy and procedure of a vast, powerful corporation.

It’s a parable of the times. In 1998, when the book was published, Amazon was in its nascent stages and a domain called Google.com was registered. Although the book is a time capsule of technology, with its faxes and emails and primitive search engine (which is, no surprise, owned by The Store), there is a prescient ring to the implication of a corporation which exerts absolute control over its customers.

I am a fervent believer in the teaching power of stories. Although horror is often discounted, overlooked, and underestimated, there is potential in looking at the worst case scenario and imagining how we should react, versus how the characters in the book actually behave.

The most frightening element of The Store is compliance. The machine steamrolls towards us, and it’s easier to submit than resist. Resistance will only get you crushed. Call it the “banality of evil.” Call it “submission to authority.” But don’t ever think it can’t happen to you, that it can’t happen in your town, in your country. As Little writes:

Human beings’ capacity to adjust to almost anything was supposed to be one of their greatest virtues, but is was also one of their greatest weaknesses. It rendered them compliant, allowed them to be exploited.

 

Although the plot accelerates to increasing heights of insanity, there is a methodical, incremental deliberateness to The Store’s takeover of Juniper that borders on rational. The next thing you know, there are leather uniforms and violent roundups of vagrants and the people are taking it all in stride. As one character reflects:

The scariest thing was how easily she’d adjusted to Store life, how comfortable the fit felt. Intellectually, she knew she should be shocked and horrified b some of the things that went on. She should be outraged and refuse to participate. But the truth was she really had no emotional response to most of what happened. She understood the necessity of it all, and none of it provoked any feelings within her.

We’ve been on this merry-go-round before. It was called the Inquisition. It was called Eugenics. It was called the Holocaust.

The idea that a corporation can levy such influence over a government and people is not far-fetched. We are living in a time where powerful lobbyists and interests have the power to affect our political leadership. We are living in a time where corporations slather their logos on stadiums and sponsor literally every piece of culture we consume. No matter our values, not a one of us has not sacrificed those values for the sake of convenience, for the sake of a lower price. Advertisers understand more about human behavior than science ever will.

Sure, the book is silly, but the sentiment is real, 1984 wrought for the consumerist age. We are in debt up to our hairlines because of it. At some point we have to say no. We have to make better choices. Because THE STORE is coming to a town near you, but only if you let it.

 

October To-Read: Horror in All the Right Places!

I’m stoked to devote all of October to my absolute favorite genre of anything: Horror.

After slogging through a summer consisting mainly of non-fiction science reads (don’t get me wrong, I loved Get in them Genes! A Summer of Origin) it’s time to indulge.

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The Store by Bentley Little – A story of consumerism taken to its dangerous extreme. This book is on the Flavorwire 50 Scariest Books of all time list that I’m working through.

The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber – Strieber is one of the classics of the genre, however I’ve never read any of his books. This is both a Booknado pick and on the 50 Scariest Books list. I also plan on watching the 1981 movie starring Albert Finney, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan!

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – Also on the 50 Scariest Books list, McCarthy is an author I know only through film. The only thing I know about this book is that I should prepare for McCarthy’s spare prose and also to be depressed.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz – 9 year old me would have loved this book! Also on the 50 scariest book list.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin – Shirley Jackson is hands down my favorite author. Her works are full of horror, perpetrated by ordinary people, and the exploration of haunted psyches. A brand new biography, I can’t wait to read!

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon – Apparently this book bears comparison to Stephen King’s The Stand. It certainly looks long enough. Hopefully my vacation will find me with much spare time to read.

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie – I found this book in my car; apparently I liberated it from a garage sale for 25 cents and then spilled something on it. It’s one of the few Christie books I’ve never read, and what an appropriate time to read it!

In addition, I’ll be listening to at least 3 audiobooks: The Troop by Nick Cutter (yay, dum-dums in the woods!), Certain Dark Things by M.J. Pack (a book of creepy short stories) and a third, yet to be determined book. Suggestions?