Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The autumn of discontent

 There are two people in the world: those who read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and felt a soul-deep kindship with Holden Caulfield and those who threw the book across the room and shrieked that he was an insufferable ass.

I fall into the latter category - and I have noticed the first category seems to skew more heavily towards men and those who read it before turning 18 - but, that aside, halfway through The November Criminals I slammed the book down and yelled Sam Munson, I know what you're doing!

Munson's Addison Schacht is the second coming of Holden Caulfield, and Munson knows it: self-absorbed, pretentious, and casually cruel. Which works, because, hey, have you had a conversation with a teenage boy lately? No? Of course not! It's nearly impossible, since they walk around in a lacquer of agonizing self-consciousness.

The November Criminals is a weird genre mishmash, taking the form of a polemical college application essay that Addison writes, trying to explain what he considers his best and worst features, and a slack whodunit that veers off the rails. There are, however, quick flashes of emotion that manage to pierce the book's thick crust of self-aggrandizement, but these are far too rare.

Addison Schacht lives in Washington, D.C., with his failed-potter father, and goes to a private school, secure in a little bubble of affluence but self-aware enough to recognize it. Schacht is also a low-level pot dealer, selling to his upper-class classmates, and spending most of his free time getting ridiculously baked with his best friend Digger. He and Digger (real name, Phoebe) have a torturously complicated relationship that allows them to sleep together and spend most of their time together but strictly forbids any sort of boyfriend/girlfriendy interaction.

One of Addison's classmates, a quiet, studious kid named Kevin Broadus, is shot along with two coworkers at the coffeeshop where he works (a rip-off of Starbucks called Stubb's). Addison and Kevin weren't friends, but for some reason Addison takes it upon himself to start investigating Kevin's death. With a tip from his pot supplier, a morbidly obese kid named Noel who runs dogfights in his basement, Addison thinks he's on the trail of Kevin's killer, a racist redneck from Montgomery County.

Except he's not, which Addison and Digger find out after a weirdly violent drive to the redneck's house, which puts them back where they started. And...that's it. Addison never gets any farther in his investigation and the novel just sort of...ends.

Addison has a rather eloquent inner monologue, but whenever Munson lets him open his mouth, it comes out in sqawks of indignation and repeated likes, which is simultaneously extraordinarily irritating and effective, showing how Addison chokes and strangles when he tries to communicate with anyone.

We're never really sure why Addison is doing what he's doing - he's open about not particularly caring about Kevin or his death - and he revels in being consciously mean to the kids for whom he's reserved most of his ire: the hapless do-gooders in his class, particularly one sanctimonious girl named Alex Faustner. Addison's observations about his school's systemically racist Gifted and Talented program and the clueless teachers are sharp and incisive, but Addison prefers to provoke with offensiveness when given the chance.

The book is at its best towards the end, when Addison starts to unravel and Munson devotes a little time to Addison's relationship with his depressive, anxious father. Ultimately the book is pretty hollow and the ending slack. And this may just be me, but Munson has Addison running around DC with a pager and frantically trying to find payphones, which seems very late 90s in the blip of time between pager and cellphone evolution, a misstep that any teen who reads this book will doubtless pick up on.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Doing the unstuck

Finally! God, I've been wanting to use an obscure The Cure song as a blog post title, and now, thanks to Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling, I can! Thanks, Meg!

The Uncoupling is a retelling of sorts of Lysistrata, that bawdy Greek play about trying to stop a grinding war by closing your knees. If only it were that easy - sadly, even in the war between the sexes, there's too much fraternizing with the enemy for anyone to ever really win.

The Uncoupling is set in small, suburban Stellar Plains, New Jersey, where happily-if-uneventfully married couple Robby and Dory Lang are deep into year fifteen of teaching (both English) at Eleanor Roosevelt High. Robby and Dory are a likeable if snooze-inducing couple who take an enormous amount of pride in the fact that even though they're both on the far side of forty, the house is rockin'.

Having taught at Eleanor Roosevelt (or Elro) for so long, the Langs are well plugged into the school's gossip matrix, including the gorgeous, promiscuous (at least by Stellar Plains standards) school psychologist who is having an affair with the stolid principal; the former-lesbian gym teacher raising three boys with her uber-mensch husband; and the new drama teacher, Fran Heller, who maintains an unconventional long-distance marriage.

Fran blows into Elro and announces that she's staging Lysistrata for the school play, which seems like as good a choice as Cabaret was when I was in high school - the parents, duly horrified by the sight their kids prancing around in thigh-highs and drag, demanded (and won!) the drama teacher's ouster.

Fran promises to clean up the play's saltier bits, but as rehearsals continue, something weird is happening in Stellar Plains. Beginning with Dory, the women and girls of Elro find themselves suddenly repulsed by sex. Relationships begin to erode, starting with the Langs' seemingly impeturbable marriage, and the teenagers (hormone-addled as they are) aren't immune. The Langs' daughter Willa and Fran's son, Eli, find their budding relationship derailed, and pretty soon everyone is damn cranky.

Wolitzer has a keen eye for detail and a way of shaping prose that can be alternately tender and slicing, but she seems unsure about where her novel is going. Despite jokes about recreational drug use and sex, Stellar Plains seems almost Wobegonesque in its calmness and the relative restraint and naivete of the students, and the one high school couple who have an unwanted pregnancy are played for laughs (they named their son Trivet), until Wolitzer introduces a darker strain into the novel with the return of a young Iraq war veteran to the wreckage of his life, but then just as suddenly drops what could have been a very compelling character.

Elsewhere, Wolitzer's teachers muse about the generational divide between themselves and their students on things like sex, reading, and the Internet, although Wolitzer never really draws any conclusions (good? bad? just different?) from these meanderings. Every time Wolitzer brushes up against a more serious topic, she pulls back into the comfortable observation of the mundane and quirky relationships of the Elro teachers. The Uncoupling wraps up very neatly, with the spell broken, kisses all around, and an apparent thaw of every marital deep freeze. The explanation for the spell is rather confusing, too - Wolitzer's witchy drama teacher claims it's necessary to shake up those couples who have fallen into complacency, but the Langs seem pretty happy until the spell hits. Although Wolitzer's light prose is a delight to read, the novel ultimately feels too comfortable to be compelling.

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Economist Stewart Varney

Dear Stewart Varney,

With your plummy British accent, I could listen to you talk about catastrophic market crashes and crushing debt all day long.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

In the ring

 So! Bullfighting, everybody! That's something very manly that guys do, right? Of course they do it wearing pink pants that are fancier than anything I own and awesome hats that look like giant croissants, but still! Blood! Gore (and goring!) Very manly - and so is Roddy Doyle's new collection of short stories, Bullfighting, which is all about middle-aged or older Irish men having various quiet crises as they grapple with complacent marriages, grown kids, and the shadow of the Irish economic recession that lurks in the background of every story.

There's very little to differentiate the different stories - Doyle's tone hardly varies from piece to piece, so it seems more like a long, disjointed monologue. In "Recuperation," a spectacularly disinterested older man is ordered to walk by his doctor, but his stroll is weighted by recollections from the past and he feels out of place and useless in his changing neighborhood. In "The Photograph," a small group of friends watch one of their own slowly die of cancer. A listless, worn-out teacher summons the energy to try to captivate his students again in "Teaching." In "Funerals," a middle-aged son finds a strange solace in driving his elderly parents to funerals. The couple's gentle bickering is sweet, although the story ends by forcing him to confront his parents' deterioration. In "The Dog," a younger couple's dissolution is delayed, but not avoided, by acquiring a dog. "Animals" is the most funny, both lighthearted and macabre, as anyone who has simultaneously had children and small pets has probably had to deal with hasty burials and inadequate explanations. "Blood" is a bizarre little piece about a man who suddenly develops an inexplicable craving. The titular story, "Bullfighting," follows four friends on a trip to from Dublin to Spain.

Doyle's flat, unaffected tone works well with the dark, stultifying subject matter, although Bullfighting doesn't really reach for any emotional highs or lows - there are marriages gone boring and kids drifting away, but nothing really wrenching besides the grind of middle-class life in a stuttering country. There's also very little variation, with none of Doyle's mostly-unnamed characters differentiating themselves. The men bemoan their cooling marriages and adult children but there's little grief or rage, just mostly acquiescence.

Doyle's at his best in dialog (he's one of those writers who eschews quotation marks) and he delivers believable banter between his characters. He's a terse, short, to-the-point writer (a miracle, almost, for an Irishman) who never uses two words when one will do, and his spare style is well-suited to short stories, although the sameness of these makes all the stories blur together in recollection.

Also, I'd just like to point out the similarities between the cover design of Doyle's Bullfighting and that other estimable Irish short-story writer, TC Boyle's Stories:

Monday, July 18, 2011

The definition of irony, now in handy visual format.

Thanks to the folks at Sociological Images.

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Third Toe on My Right Foot

Dear Third Toe On My Right Foot,

I am so sorry I broke you.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Swamp thing

Swamplandia is Karen Russell's first novel, and if you are like me and you have A Serious Problem with bugs, its going to make you feel all squirmy, seeing as how it's set in the Florida swamps. Ick! But it's also a very funny and surreal book.

Swamplandia! is the name of the Bigtree family's gator park. Swamplandia!, kind of the same era as the Weeki Wachee mermaids, features a bunch of alligators all named Seth and the famous Hilola Bigtree's alligator wrestling show. Hilola is the wife of Chief Bigtree, the son of an Ohioan who bought one of Florida's underwater farms, site unseen, then rechristened himself Sawtooth Bigtree and never left the swamp. The Chief has carried on this tradition, telling his kids that they're a new tribe of swamp Indian. The Bigtrees live on an island accessible only by ferry and the kids, teenagers Ava, Osceola, and Kiwi, help run the park, until the one-two punch of Hilola's death by cancer and the opening of a huge new modern theme park on the mainland, the World of Darkness, dries up the tourist business.

The family business tanks, and without Hilola, the family starts to disintegrate. Kiwi, an awkward nearly-eighteen-year-old, dreams of attending a mainland school and getting a college degree, despite not having a GED. He heads to Swamplandia!'s archenemy, the World of Darkness, and joins its legion of teenage workers. Osceola has become obsessed with ghosts and the underworld and becomes convinced that she's been possessed by the spirit of Louis Thanksgiving, the pilot of a dredging scow who died in the 1930s. With Chief Bigtree on a mysterious errand to the mainland, Osceola leaves home, and Ava follows on a nightmarish journey through the Florida swamp, with a creepy bird-charmer called the Bird Man and her pet albino alligator.

Russell's narrative switches between Ava, wandering the empty Swamplandia! with her sister and poling through the swamp on a skiff and Kiwi, in a fluorescent-lit hell in the bowels of World of Darkness, which (like, I imagine, all theme parks) has some very shady labor practices. Having spent his entire life in the swamp with only alligators, tourists, and his sisters for company, to say that Kiwi is awkward would be an understatement, although his wryly naive perspective is very touching. Meanwhile, Ava and the Bird Man navigate the treacherous swamps in search of the Eye of the Needle, which Bird Man swears is the opening to the underworld, although its not the dead but the living that menace Ava.

Swamplandia! has some fascinating tidbits about the history of Florida, from the Army Corps of Engineers' brilliant idea to drain the swamp by seeding it with strangler fig, which worked about as well as the New Orleans levees did. But for all of the novel's outlandish trappings, it's not an unusual story (which isn't to say it's not a compelling one). The Bigtrees are a family in pain, losing their matriarch and their livelihood at the same time, and facing the necessity of adapting or dying - something that, ironically, their alligators haven't done in millions of years.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ready to eat

So, Sociological Images had a great post about combat ration culture - we here in the U.S. of A call those Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) because Oh My God, What Is This (OMGWIT) and I Have Gained Ten Pounds In Two Weeks (IHGTPITW) were too long. I think.

But anyway! This is cool, it's a comparison of combat rations from a few different countries to see how they stack up against each other. Here is an example of an American MRE:

When Dad came home on R&R (that is rest and relaxation to you, or if you're single, it's rumps and rears, or, if you have a family, it's everybody shut the hell up and go outside so Dad can sleep) he would bring his extra MREs for my brother and me, and I thought they were the coolest thing ever! And how lucky the soldiers were to get these awesome packages that came with a bottle opener! And matches! And Chiclets! Squirt cheese!

Of course, my enthusiasm would be somewhat dampened at the prospect of eating nothing but MREs for weeks, which I have never done but have on good authority does some really interesting things to your digestive system.

Also, the Italian MRE looks better than the American one. Bah. You can still get MREs at the commissary, I find them totally nostalgic.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

New hire

More short stories, everybody! Orientation is Daniel Orozco's debut book, and it's a really superb and often really funny little collection. You can read the first and titular short story, "Orientation," by clicking here.

Orientation's stories feel really timely, particularly "Temporary Stories," a short story about Clarissa Snow, a dedicated temporary worker - the kind of worker who is unfailingly cheerful and never late from her lunch break - who finds herself unraveling after taking an assignment in a Human Resources office that is the last resort for the hopeless.

"The Bridge" is a chronicle of a crew of bridge maintenance workers who bond through sharing their stories of witnessed suicides, a work hazard that had frankly never occurred to me before. "Hunger Tales" are stories within a story - terrifying little vignettes of people whose disordered hunger masks deeper problems (a binge-eater, a morbidly obese veteran, a bereaved father and son trying to eat their sadness).

"Officers Weep" is my personal favorite, a hilarious story written like a police call-log, except this log records everything. "Only Connect" tells the aftermath of witnessing a violent crime, "Somoza's Dream" chronicles the death of an exiled South American despot, and "Shakers" explores events that happen at the precise moment that earthquake waves move through California.

Orientation is a fabulously solid debut collection. The stories have flashes of Oatesian darkness, but without Oates' unrelenting violence and bitterness, and are leavened with a great deal of humor. They're also a welcome departure from most of the short stories out there right now, that seem mostly to be about 1) grief and 2) relationships and/or 3) grief-filled relationships or conversely 4) relationships that make everyone grieve. Also, griefity griefity grief grief grief.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Books that make me cry

So! Books that make you cry, everybody. Old Yeller, am I right? The Yearling? Please, please just be a good deer and stay out of the vegetable patch! my ten-year-old-self would beg, but that's the nature of deerness, right? The scene in Little Women when Beth eats it! Sometimes when I'm feeling super sorry for myself, I cue that up on Project Gutenberg and then sit there with my lip quivering, getting all misty-eyed.

But what book really makes me cry - like, full-on, snotty, wailing - is Chris Ware's graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth. And if this book doesn't make you cry (or, for the more stoic among us, have to swallow hard a few times and stare off into the distance) you are a robot or a zombie.

Jimmy Corrigan, a sad-sack middle-aged man drawn to look sort of like a giant baby, is slumping through the days of his life when he gets a letter and a phone ticket from his father, whom he's never met. Corrigan takes off to visit his dad and meets his adoptive sister. And then life being life, things go wrong. Interspersed with Jimmy's story is the story of his grandfather, a morose and motherless little boy being raised by his distant and cruel father in World Fair-era Chicago.

Jimmy Corrigan is a chunky little book with simple, yet intricate drawings done in a flat, four-color, Sunday comics style. You may need a magnifying glass to catch all of the detail of the tiny drawings.

Why is Jimmy Corrigan so affecting? I don't know. Ware's people are little bean shapes, and he captures expressions perfectly, devastatingly, in their little faces: when Jimmy's mother's one-night-stand sneaks out, when his grandfather's one friend turns on him in elementary school. The tiny pictures mean that you have to put your face really close to the page and squint, and Ware slyly plays with the conventions of comic strips in a way that makes the contrast between the simple drawing style and bright colors and the wrenching story even more stark. And it's sad, it's so sad, miserable Jimmy and his faltering father and their mostly-too-late reunion. Jimmy is kind-of-sort-of autobiographical - Ware met his father for the first time as an adult, and drew Jimmy Corrigan as a comic for a Chicago newspaper, although his interaction with his dad was limited to one awkward dinner before his father succumbed to a heart attack.

Jimmy is perhaps not a remarkable story in its hurts, large and small, but Ware's little drawings are extraordinarily affecting, from Jimmy's bizarre and disorienting dreams to his tiny, sad boy-grandfather.

Night out.

So. Shakespeare, right? So many remakes of this guy, it's crazy. And I love Shakespeare, I do, and it's sad that most high school English classes suck all the fun out of Shakespeare, like some sort of fun-sucking vampire. I'd be sitting there like hey he is talking about sex, you guys! and everyone else is falling asleep.

But, anyway. I really, really wanted to Chris Adrian's The Great Night. I put it down. I picked it up again. I opened pages at random. I paced in circles around the table, and then I pulled my hair into funny bunches and screamed "ALIENS!" because when I need to reset my brain, that usually works.

The Great Night should be great. It should be! It's a retelling of A Midsummer's Night's Dream, which how can that not be great? It's set in San Francisco! The premise is really compelling! And although parts of the book work, and work really well, it ultimately collapses under its own weight and turns into a pile of mush.

The Great Night is set in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. Three sad humans are stumbling across Buena Vista Park, all on the way to the same party: Henry, a fastidious man whose obsessive-compulsive behavior drove away his boyfriend and great love; Molly, whose boyfriend's suicide has undone her; and Will, who has just been dumped.

Meanwhile, a grieving Titania and her sulky retinue are half-heartedly attempting to celebrate Midsummer's Night. Titania adopted son, a human child snatched by her fairy attendants, recently died from leukemia, and Titania has become mired in depression. Her husband, Oberon, has left her and decamped for the human streets of San Francisco, and Titania is too hurt and stubborn to find him.

On the Great Night, Titania calls Puck (here, not the impish trickster, but an enslaved force that threatens fairies and humankind alike) and frees him, although she knows that Puck is the only force powerful enough to kill her.

Meanwhile, the three beknighted mortals end up in the middle of the ensuing fairy war, although being fairies, it more resembles a dinner party gone horribly awry, with fleeing in terror getting repeatedly interrupted in favor of carousing. In the meantime, a group of homeless people who are rehearsing a staging of "Soylent Green" stand in for the role of Shakespeare's band of merry actors.

As the narrative unspools, Adrian explores the connection of the three hapless mortals: Henry, a pediatric oncologist who attended Titania's beloved Boy as he fought leukemia, is a former changeling himself, but his forgotten childhood under the hill has left him confused, emotionally stunted, and damaged. Molly's dead boyfriend, Ryan, is also a changeling, and the sibling of the woman who has left Will and broken his heart.

The book's strongest passages are, without question, the pages that explore Titania and Oberon's relationship with their beloved Boy as he weakens and how it strains their marriage. Although Titania and Oberon are immortal, Titania's affection for her human child and the child's death levels her. She's the most human in her grief, lashing out at Oberon and the Boy's doctors in fury, and the vignette of the unraveling of their marriage is as affecting as if they were real.

Adrian handles the interweaving narratives with less aplomb, as he skips back and forth between the Great Night celebration, Puck's pursuit of the fairies, and the backstory of the three human visitors to under-the-hill. Puck should be the scariest of the fairieworld inhabitants, but Adrian fumbles, and Puck isn't particularly frightening (Neil Gaiman's version in the Sandman world has more teeth, literally and figuratively speaking). The end of Great Night is a floppy muddle. Without the narrative backbone of the original Midsummer's Night's Dream, Great Night can't stand on its own.

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Sephora E-mail List

Dear Sephora E-mail List,

We've been through so much together, and yet when you send me free tanning offers, I feel like you don't know me at all.


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hangover from hell (the Joe Hill cycle)

 So. Joe Hill, everybody! He's Stephen King's son, which I'm pretty means that you have two Life Choices: follow in your dad's creepy footsteps, or run away to be come an accountant in a drab Midwestern town.

Fortunately for you (and me!) Hill chose the former, although he doesn't publish under the King name (his given name is actually Joe Hillstrom King). To be fair and aboveboard, I have to confess that I haven't read a tremendous amount of Stephen King's work (Salem's Lot, Cell, Carrie, and Misery, which is barely scratching the surface of King's impressive oeuvre). Which is fine, because I don't think that comparing King and Hill makes any sense, although both could be shelved under the creepy/horror section.

Filial connection aside, Joe Hill is a damn good writer, creepy as hell with a big streak of dry humor that he whips out unexpectedly. His writing is brisk, almost terse, but he's got a way with phrases that elicit a gut-clenching disgust at just the right time.

So! Horns is Hill's most recent novel (2010). Ignatius "Ig" Parrish, the son of a wealthy and privileged family in a small New Hampshire town, has spent the last year in a living hell. His girlfriend, Merrin Williams, was raped and murdered, and although Ig was never charged with killing her, the entire town (and his family) are pretty sure he did it. On the anniversary of Merrin's death, Ig gets wasted at the abandoned foundry where she died.

He wakes up with a vicious hangover, which is to be expected. Except he also has horns, which is not to be expected. Ig's not just hallucinating; other people can see his horns too, although instead of being horrified, Ig finds himself their unwilling confessor as they detail the awful things they want to do and how they really feel about him.

Some would argue with me, but I think this is the book's most horrific part. A terrified Ig flees to his parents' house, but his parents, grandmother, and brother tell them what they really think about him - they're convinced he killed Merrin and they really just want him to go away.

Oh, and they pretty much hate each other. I don't know about you, but the last thing I want to know is exactly what everybody else thinks of me, because I have a sneaking suspicion that Ig and I would have something in common.

Of course, like most demonic powers, Ig's horns have an upside. With some pushing, he can convince people to do things, and Ig decides to make the best of his newfound hell to try to solve Merrin's murder - but this leads him to his brother, Terry, and Ig's best friend Lee Tourneau, and a whole slew of unwelcome realizations. Talk about a snake in the nest - Tourneau, whom Ig has known since middle school, is a textbook psychopath who is really, really good at hiding it, and Ig's new powers don't work on Tourneau's damaged mind.

Horns lags a tiny bit in the middle, when Ig is trying to square himself with his newfound powers, but quickly picks up speed as the newly demonic Ig and the murderous Tourneau face off. Hill chucks some supernatural fantasy in there too, but just enough (and deftly enough) that the book remains more like looking at a warped reflection of reality than a work of fantasy. Hill's most powerful weapon is his ability to look into the gross heart of otherwise ordinary people - the seething, angry core that everyone walks around with but (mostly) manages to hide.

This edition of Horns also contains a previously unpublished short story.

Heart-Shaped Box was Hill's first novel (there's a sly nod and a wink to Box hidden in the pages of Horns for those in the know), published in 2007. A more straightforward novel than Horns, Box is a ghost story, familiar but bracing as a shot of whiskey.

Judas Coyne (nee Justin Cowzynski) is a retired rock star, former singer of heavy metal band Jude's Hammer, living the good life with his two beloved dogs and a rotating cast of girlfriends, much younger Goth strippers that Coyne nicknames with their state of origin so that he won't have to bother remembering their names.

As befitting a former heavy metal singer, Coyne collects (or is given by adoring fans) bits and pieces of occult arcana. On a whim, he bids on a dead man's suit online that the seller promises is haunted.

And oh, it is. The seller, Jessica Price, is the sister of Coyne's former girlfriend, Florida (Anna). Anna committed suicide after Coyne sent her back to Florida, and Jessica blames Coyne. The dead man's suit comes infected with the ghost of Craddock McDermott, Anna's stepfather, a man uniquely suited to raising hell: he's a hypnotist, a Vietnam-era psyops, and his ghost has no problem offing Coyne in the here-and-now.

Soon Coyne and Georgia are on a road trip to Florida to try to get Jessica to take back Craddock's ghost - complicated by the fact that Craddock is trying very competently to kill them, and anyone who helps them will also become a target. Hill is especially skilled at conjuring up the sweaty, suspicious, and creepy denizens of the Florida panhandle. Coyne's return to Florida also dredges up a number of unpleasant memories - Coyne himself is from Florida, and his abusive father, now elderly, is slowly dying in Coyne's decrepit childhood home. To free themselves from Craddock, Coyne and Georgia need Anna's help - but Anna is dead, and Coyne isn't sure whether or not she's willing to listen to them.

There's nothing particularly surprising about Heart-Shaped Box, but Hill makes a rather classic ghost story fresh and frightening with his careful attention to detail and his fully fleshed-out characters. Horror stories have a tendency to ignore the people in favor of slopping on the gore, but Hill does just the opposite, making the reader invested in the survival of Coyne and Georgia, flawed and angry though they are. Coyne in particularly is a total juicebox, contemptuous, dismissive, and floundering in his retirement, but fighting Craddock (ironically!) brings him back to life.

And so, going backward in time brings us to Hill's first book, a collection of short stories titled 20th Century Ghosts. The stories in this collection encompass a pretty broad swathe of the horror/fantasy genre, with a little dip into sci-fi here and there.

Ghosts opens with "Best New Horror," a meta-dip into a story about a story. A horror anthologist receives a secondhand short story and sets off in pursuit of the author, with grotesque results (probably my least favorite story, it reads rather like a screenplay for any of the innumerable variants of the "murderous hillbillies" film genre). Hill redeems it with "Pop Art," a little gem of a story about a very unusual genetic quirk. "You Will Hear The Locust Sing" is "Metamorphosis" by way of nuclear holocaust. "Abraham's Boys" puts a new spin on the Dracula oeuvre - what did happen to the Harkers after all that business with stakes and mallets was over? In "The Black Phone," an imprisoned boy gets help from his abductor's previous victims. An angry teenager stumbles across a murder scene in the woods in "In The Rundown," but it's more scary for what it leaves out. "My Father's Mask" is a bizarre little dreamscape that will leave you unsettled and disoriented. "The Cape" brings new meaning to the term "anti-hero."

"Voluntary Committal" is, in my humble opinion, the most disturbing of Ghosts stories. Middle-schooler Nelson's younger brother, diagnosed with juvenile schizophrenia, spends his spare time in the basement building fantastic structures out of cardboard boxes. Nelson befriends Eddie, a budding juvenile delinquent. When one of Eddie and Nelson's stunts goes wrong, Nelson's friendship with Eddie takes a toxic turn, so Nelson's brother makes Eddie go away. Permanently. There's no gore, no blood, and no murder, but "Voluntary Committal" is creepy to the bone.

So. Joe Hill. Will he be as prolific as his father (for whom he is, incidentally, a dead ringer)? I certainly hope so.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter To Pretty Much Every Horror Movie With The Devil In It, Ever

Dear Pretty Much Every Horror Movie With The Devil In It, Ever,

Why is he always wearing a leather coat?