Review: In the Tall Grass

In the Tall Grass is a short novella published as a two-parter in Esquire, later released as an ebook. It is a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, both of which know how to spin a scary tale, so my hopes were up for a nice, if short, horror story. I am less familiar with Hill’s work, but have read enough of Stephen King to know that he does not always write flat-out horror. However, in this case, he absolutely does. In the Tall Grass is a simple straight-up horror gore cocktail with a sprinkling of creep on top.

Brief synopsis: The protagonists are Becky and Cal DeMuth, siblings traveling the scenic route through Kansas on their way to arrange for the adoption of Becky’s unborn child. Passing a rest stop by a church, they hear shouts coming from the tall grass by the road: a boy pleading for help and his mother pleading with them to stay out of the grass. They nevertheless enter, only to lose track of one another and the safety of the road within a few, short seconds. [End of synopsis to avoid spoilers]

What comes next is, perhaps predictably, a sequence of escalating horror, moving seamlessly from ‘bad’ to ‘worse’ to ‘outright nasty’, and with a liberal amount of gore along the way. It is visceral and unsettling, and (fair warning) it involves cannibalism. I frequently find blood-and-entrails writing dull, too often added as compensation for lack of tension in the story. Bodily fluids are simply not very effective when the reader works in the medical sciences. Here, however, the gore works, and feels like a natural part of the tale rather than a crutch. It is gruesome and unsettling, and it fits nicely with the parallel tale of Becky’s pregnancy. (On that note, it is fascinating how often and how well pregnancy is used in horror. Alien, anyone? Or Rosemary’s Baby?)

The story does not read like a two-author production. The writing is in a single voice, possibly owing to the similar styles of King and Hill (his son). It is well-written and quick-paced. It is also, as other reviewers have pointed out, very short. Whilst I prefer longer to shorter, I am not certain In the Tall Grass would have benefited from added length. It does feel quite contained despite the meagre word count. Whether it is chunky enough to support a full-length film (directed by Vincenzo Natali of Cube fame) remains to be seen.

As for the ending, the story grows more and more surreal. This is perhaps not too surprising, given that space (and perhaps time) becomes unreliable once the protagonists enter the field. Once surrounded by the grass, voices drift and distances shift, seemingly without neither rhyme nor reason, but always leaving Cal and Becky ever more lost. I was tickled by this, as it left me pondering the possibilities of King and Hill’s nightmarish world. However, there were aspects of the ending that felt thin, including the lack explanations for the big MacGuffin of the piece (which I will not spoil by any further description). In the end, we are left with more questions than answers. Just for this reason, I want to read the novella over again, to determine whether the head and the tail of this tale truly belong to the same beast. Given its short length and undeniable quality of writing, a second reading is not a great sacrifice.

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List of dystopian novels

A brief summary of some of the prime examples of the genre.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Encouraging passivity and egotism with a side order of pleasant distractions, Huxley’s dystopia is insidious. A system designed to keep the population compliant and docile is all too believable. It may be orgy porgys rather than lolcatz, but the parallels in Huxley’s cautionary tale are not too hard to find.

We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
The book which preceded 1984 and Brave New World, and inspired Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. We describes the One State, ruled by the Benefactor – a society with glass walls and mass surveillance which has abolished free will.

The Trial – Franz Kafka
Faceless opponents, senseless arrests and a realisation of danger that comes far too late is part of Josef K’s nightmare world. Kafka’s masterpiece may be as much absurdist/paranoid fiction, but the fight against an unassailable, relentless authority which does not follow neither custom nor law belongs at least partly in the dystopian genre.

Parable of Talents – Octavia Butler
Demagoguery is the villain of Butler’s second Parable novel. The antagonist is a populist, jingoistic politician, the success of which has catastrophic consequences. This is not an enjoyable tale. The punch that it packs, however, cannot be denied.

Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
The automation of society comes with a downside in Player Piano, where machines replace the working class, widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Purposeless, ‘useless’ people is the core of Vonnegut’s story. And the societal effects of automation is not the spectre of some distant future – this world has already arrived.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
There are many ways to erase opposing thoughts, but book burning is one of the most egregious. Fahrenheit 451 has certainly been censored and banned enough times to prove its point. The eradication of dissenting ideas, whether it be by book burning or by authoritarian decree, is dangerous territory.

A Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Gilead is an unpleasant, uncomfortable and flat out harrowing place to visit. But revisit it we must, over and over again, until we no longer have to. Atwood’s tale of subjugation and lost agency is sadly still relevant, more than thirty years after its publication.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
The book that gave us doublespeak and the Ministry of Truth doesn’t need any further introduction.

V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Telling the story of fascism versus anarchy in the UK, this graphic novel concerns itself with the debate of freedom and resistance. In Alan Moore’s London, freedom does not come for free.

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2017 in horror, fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction

As usual, I’ve got a long list of books that I want to read in 2017. My goodreads reading challenge is at a modest 35 and I have no specific plans for which ones I’ll choose, but there a few new releases in my preferred genres this year that I’m particularly excited about.

Horror: In the past I’ve tended to seek out older horror novels, but several upcoming releases have caught my eye this time around. Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In, which centres around disturbing disappearances in the small town of Deer Valley, Oregon, looks great. As does Little Heaven by Nick Cutter, a tale set in a ominous New Mexico backwoods settlement called Little Heaven. I’m also keen to read Cherie Priest’s Brimstone, described by the author as one part Penny Dreadful and one part American Horror Story. Should be fun! Finally, there’s Sarah Pinborough’s Behind her eyes, which I am getting simply on the back of knowing Pinborough’s knack for deeply unsettling and menacing storylines.

BrimstoneBehind Her Eyes

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Having read the two previous Aftermath books, I’m keen to see how this Star Wars space opera featuring Norra Wexley and her rag-tag team ends in Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig). I’m also looking forward to the final installment of V.E.Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, A Conjuring of Light, in which the fate of the four Londons will be settled. Oathbringer, the third book in Brandon Sanderson’s fantastic Stormlight Archive series, will be released in November, and I’m salivating at the promise of another visit to Roshar. M.R.Carey releases the prequel to the excellent apocalyptic zombie story Girl with all the Gifts, titled The Boy on the Bridge, and on top of that, Neil Gaiman is fictionalizing Norse mythology in the book by the same name, which should be a treat. 2017 looks like it will be a good year for fantasy and sci-fi.

Empire's End: Aftermath (Star Wars) by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction: In terms of non-fiction, I have singled out Beyond Inifinity: an expedition to the outer-limits of mathematics by Eugenia Cheng and In Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra. Both come highly recommended and the topics are intriguing and wonderfully complex, so my expectations are high.

 

Autumn books!

I love autumn. The chill in the air, the colours, the smells, the darker nights. To me, autumn is hot, comforting drinks and nice, comforting books.

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This autumn, my reading list is particularly self-indulgent. I almost wish for poor weather to justify the hours I plan to spend on the sofa with a stack of books. While it is not looking like 2016 will be particularly nice and chilly (given recent heat records), we can always hope for a few thunderstorms. Given my penchant for horror, that would suit me just fine.

Fellside img_2261by M.R.Carey has been on my radar for some time, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to wait until Halloween to dig into that particular book. A twist on the classic ghost story set in a prison at the edge of the Yorkshire moors should fit the season nicely. I have been told that Fellside is a book susceptible to spoilers, like Carey’s earlier The Girl With All The Gifts, so I’m staying clear of reviews, although ratings suggest I’m in for a treat. Actually, just looking at the cover makes me excited. amityvillecover

I’m planning on tackling an old classic: The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, as it is one of those stories I’ve watched but never actually read. I have been told that the book is creepier than the film(s), so I’ve got my hopes up.

I’m also looking forward to a steampunk fix. Island of Birds, the sequel to Austin Hackney’s Beyond the Starline, has recently been released, and I may also pick up a book in the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, probably Clementine or Dreadnought. If anyone has any thoughts on which I should go for after Boneshaker, let me know in the comments.

aftermathYet another sequel, Aftermath: Life Debt by Chuck Wendig, is also on my list, which should get me in the mood for the upcoming Star Wars Rogue One film in December (not that I need to get more in the mood for Star Wars). I truly enjoyed the first Aftermath novel, although I am aware that the response to it was not uniformly positive. All I can say is that Mister Bones is right up there with BB-8 on the list of favourite droids, but for very different reasons.

I also plan to settle down with two non-fiction books: 1812: Napolerabidon’s Fatal March on Moscow by Adam Zamoyski, which was recommended to me more than a year ago by a friend, and Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy, simply because the subject matter is fascinating. The monster du jour, zombies, do not make an appearance in Rabid, if reviews are to be believed, but I expect to get a fair few parallels with werewolf myths in addition to the history and biology of one of the nastiest viruses out there. The scientist in me is quite excited about Rabid.

In short, it’s looking like it will be a pretty good autumn. What are you planning on reading? Let me know in the comments.

Book review: Prisoners of Geography

Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics. That’s the promise Tim Marshall makes in his bestselling 2015 book. We get ten chapters, each with a map, outlining the opportunities, drawbacks and resulting policies (and often military actions) of each region.

“In different parts of the planet, different geographical features are among the dominant factors in determining what people can and cannot do.”

A mountain range can be a buffer or a hindrance, depending on your point of view. Rivers mean access and access means business, but not all rivers are built for the job. Heights and sea lanes are worth controlling. Access to oceans is part and parcel of becoming a world power. Natural harbours? Yes, please. Trees? Practical for building ships. Indeed, much of the book is about practicality, working around rarely-changing facts of geography. Where you are and what you’ve got to work with will determine who you become.

We start with Russia, buffered by a vast expanse of land yet poor on warm water harbours; then China, insulated by the Himalayas and with three of its great rivers springing from the contested Tibetan plateau; the US, a two-ocean power with an unrivalled global naval presence; Western Europe with its flatland and navigable rivers built for business, Africa with its flush resources but sadly less navigable rivers; the Middle East and its population divides; India and Pakistan; Korea and Japan; Latin America; and finally, the Arctic. The chapter on the Arctic is particularly interesting, as the changing climate renders the frozen north and its resources more and more accessible, and opens sea lanes and access points.

It’s a treasure trove for anyone wanting to understand international politics a little better and get a firmer idea of why some conflicts appear doomed to repeat themselves throughout history. And also a hint as to new ones.

“Water wars are considered to be among the coming conflicts this century and this is one to watch.”

It is also a fantastic resource for anyone wanting to write fantasy or sci-fi. Want a desert city? There will be practical constraints. That mountain range that looks cool on a Tolkienesque map? It’s going to have some implications for trade. A continent-spanning river for your plucky heroes to navigate? Who controls the source and who needs the water? Figuring that out might tell you who governs, who attacks and who defends.

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Your farmboy’s home country is a peaceful oasis surrounded by aggressive countries waiting for the foretold saviour for centuries? Best make sure it has plenty of natural barriers and/or no values (position, resources etc) to speak of, otherwise the peace might not be so stable after all.

It’s a great read, and if I had to make a criticism, it would be that the book is perhaps a bit thin. I could have consumed more maps, examples and details with ease. Nevertheless, it provides a taste of some of the major features of geopolitics, summarising the historical backdrop, how events repeat themselves over and over again in the face of geographical realities, and how the effect of technology and the warming world changes priorities, opportunities and constraints. Also, maps are cool.

Go read!

(Bonus points for recognising the map)

2016 in books – a selection

I’m thrilled about by my reading list for 2016. Something old, something new, all of it exciting. These are the novels I particularly can’t wait to read.

2016 releases

The Bands of Mourning / Shadows of Self (Brandon Sanderson). Fantasy western set in the vast cosmere. I’ll be reading both back to back after the Bands of Mourning is released later this month. Having enjoyed the first book, Alloy of Law, immensely, it’s terrific to be having two new ones on my list.  

Fellside (M. R. Carey). Creepy, atmospheric Yorkshire-based story from the author of The Girl With All The Gifts?  Yes, please. April release.

Edit: I’ve just learnt that one of my writer friends on Twitter, Austin Hackney, is releasing the first book, Beyond the Starline, of his steampunk trilogy, Dark Sea. Will definitely be picking that one up too. http://www.thedarksea.com/Beyond the Starline

 

Pre-2016 releases

Find Me (Laura van den Berg). Dystopian novel that has been compared to Never Let Me Go and A Handmaid’s Tale.

The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddharta Mukherjee) – winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction. A personal, historical and medical account of cancer.

Star Wars: Aftermath (Chuck Wendig). This one has received mixed reviews, but after seeing the film (twice), it’s definitely high up there on my list.

The City and The City (China Miéville). It’s been on my list forever, and I don’t know why I have not read it yet. Has received accolade upon accolade, and I’m sure I’ll be beating myself up for not reading it sooner.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (Adam Zamoyski). Recommended by a friend, whose opinion I highly value. Excited to delve into a part of history about which I know embarrassingly little.

The Haunting of Hill House / We Have Always Lived In the Castle (Shirley Jackson). Classic horror that I’ve somehow not read yet. I’m utterly thrilled to have them in store.

 

 

Cowardice, publishing and science

The publishing industry breeds cowardice. Apparently. Nobody in publishing dare defy commercial sense. Apparently. Profit is the measuring stick for literature. Apparently. Established authors lose their bravery in the face of sales numbers. Again, apparently.

The example used in the above op-ed is Haruki Murakami and his Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which I’ve not read yet, but I’ve been told isn’t as good as his other books. That’s a shame if it’s true. And it’s an even bigger shame if it is true that the lacklustre Colorless Tsukuru is a symptom of conformity and cowardice in the business. Yet I doubt it.

I doubt we’re on the eve of rampant cowardice. Thinking that authors somehow morph into robot-legged typewriters chasing sales at the first whiff of success, sheets of purple prose fluttering in the wind, is laughable. Thinking that authors cower under their desks, practically taking dictation from the marketing department, is insulting. But do I believe that authors are under pressure to be profitable? Sure. Do I believe that publishing is sales-focused? Yep. Do I believe that profit is necessary in publishing? Absolutely. And do I think this is a problem? Err.. sort of, maybe-ish.

Let me explain. I am a scientist. Scientists are often ranked according to their H-index (after physicist Jorge E. Hirsch). This index is calculated on the basis of the number of papers the scientist has written and the number of citations each paper has received. The higher the H-index, the ‘better’ the scientist. It can be a crude parallel to literature, where an author’s success can be measured in numbers of books and their respective sales. With me so far?

My point is, the H-index is not without flaws.

Firstly, the H-index is field-dependent. By that, I mean that scientific fields differ in how many papers each scientist typically writes and how many citations per paper are typically allowed. The literary equivalents are ‘field’-dependent differences in number of books (depending on length, topic, research burden, and so on) and size of audience. In science, it is understood that we cannot really compare H-indices across fields, and that the full range of fields, from popular to obscure, all add to our current library of knowledge. The same goes for literature. We’d fare poorly with only the popular branches of each.

Secondly, the H-index can be manipulated or inaccurately measured. Scientists can cite themselves, boosting their index, and the number of citations varies with the tools used to measure it, sometimes by a lot. For something that is intended to be objective, the H-index can be surprisingly unreliable and opaque. In publishing, manipulating sales figures is not unheard of. For example, some may recall how loopholes in the system meant you could buy your way up the Amazon Bestseller List (cite yourself, so to speak). Also, sales figures for books are definitely not transparent.

Finally, the H-index doesn’t take into account the future impact of the scientist. Many are ahead of their time, or misunderstood by their contemporaries. Gregor Mendel, now dubbed the ‘father of genetics’ springs to mind. His ground-breaking work was ignored for 35 years. The parallel to literature is obvious, and we have a long list of authors never truly appreciated in their lifetime (Kafka, Lovecraft, Poe, Melville, Keats, even Austen). Establishing their value, cultural or financial, based on contemporary sales is ludicrous in the extreme.

In short, while publishing (science) needs to make a profit (progress), counting sales (citations) probably shouldn’t be the only measure of success. To focus simply on immediate profit is akin to staring at the top stone of the Cheops, forgetting the other ~2.3 million blocks below. It goes without saying that you won’t build a great pyramid that way, nor will you build a business that lasts.

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