How Horrible, Part 2

One does not gulp down Ray Bradbury like the literary equivalent of a spit-flavored electrolyte beverage on a hot day.

From the Dust Returned. Beautiful imagery, lyrical writing. Some of the autumnal descriptions made me envious of the ability to so perfectly capture a fleeting feeling. It was a book to savor, with a hot cup of tea on a crisp fall day. It is horror in its most beautiful, whimsical form, something a child could read, or your granny, without fear of getting a nightmare as a result.

WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG for a very important message. Stephen King’s latest, Mr. Mercedes, jumped off the library’s Rapid Read shelf and into my waiting arms. Since I had to read it and return it in just seven days, my reading list took a detour. Incidentally, really liked it. If you don’t like Stephen King because of the supernatural elements–try this one on for size, because there weren’t any. Just the random madness of our fellow human beings to scare yourself with.

Onto Something Wicked This Way Comes, another Bradbury. Once again, the writing is beautiful and lyrical.

But I do have a beef. I know that Bradbury was a product of his time, but he’s almost Hemingway in his treatment of women. They are mothers and teachers, in need of protection. They provide soft smiles, warm hugs and always cry on cue when some misfortune befalls their menfolk. It’s as if Bradbury couldn’t conceive of teenage girls having the same wanderlust or need for adventure that the teenage boys had. (Who am I kidding? There are no teenage girls in this book, active or passive.)

I refuse to believe that Bradbury was surrounded his entire life by dull, soft, weepy women.

What surprised me was to see the reference to Pinhead at the circus. Today, most people think of the Hellraiser movie or Clive Barker’s books when they hear that name. But Bradbury used it before Barker, and I believe the usage goes even further back in time, referring to a specific kind of birth defect that often ended up as a sideshow freak.

Next came Alone With the Horrors, a collection of Ramsey Campbell’s short stories.

Finally, we got into some work that I would call scary. But what really echoes through these stories is the keen ache of loneliness, the disconnected and distanced feeling of being alone in the world. Most of the victims in these stories could have survived if they’d only had a friend, a lover, a sibling, someone to lend an ear or a shoulder and occasionally draw them out into the real world instead of letting them inhabit the inside of their own skulls until it drove them beyond reason. As a mood piece, this collection is stellar. But you’ll walk away feeling sad and lonely, not frightened.

One of the stories could have served as a precursor to Barker’s Hellbound Heart, although I’m kicking myself for not writing down the title.

Ever onward through the list!

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Three Scary Women

Me. Talk to me before that first cup of tea in the morning. Very scary.

DeAnna. Writes a cool blog. Knows more about writing than anyone else I know. Her Goodreads list is always intriguing and makes me want to read most of what she’s read.

Shannon. Also writes a cool blog. She actually writes the scariest stuff I’ve ever read.

The three of us decided to make our way through a couple of lists of horror novels. The first, which I previously mentioned, is Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books. The second, which DeAnna found, is called The Definitive 30 Scariest Books Ever Written.

We’ll just see about that, won’t we. Because so far, some of the horror novels are not particularly scary. Which begs the question, what is the point of a horror novel if not to scare you?

The other two have listed the books off the list that they’ve already read, so I thought I’d do the same.

From the 100, I’ve already read The Exorcist, The Year’s Best Fantasy Book One, The Silence of the Lambs, 20th Century Ghosts, seven Stephen King novels, probably all three Dean Koontz novels, The Drive-In, Rosemary’s Baby, three by Lovecraft, Swan Song, The Wolf’s Hour, Interview with a Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Frankenstien, four by Dan Simmons, The Bridge, Dracula, and six books by Peter Straub.

36 out of 100.

On the scary list, I have read Rebecca, The Exorcist, Dracula, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Pet Sematary, Coraline, Slaughterhouse Five, The Silence of the Lambs and Frankenstein.

10 out of 30.

Running right around 30% for both lists.

Can’t wait to make my way through the lists, see what I think, see what the other two think. Because they’re scarysmart, in every sense of the word.

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How Horrible (and I love it)

I love a challenge.

Someone on FB referenced Nightmare Magazine’s Top 100 Horror Books. Since I’m a big fan of horror, I thought I’d better get to work and make my way through the list. It’s mid-September and I’ve been thinking about Halloween for a month now. Nights are getting cooler and longer. The wind is less flirty and more whispery.

The task is easier said than done, my friends. Easier said than done.

The list is alphabetical, so I dove right into the Clive Barker. I remember reading his books long ago, when I first discovered modern horror. (Thank you, Stephen King, for Salem’s Lot.)  I remember being genuinely frightened by some of his short stories. But the first book on the list, Books of Blood volumes 1-3, is not available at the library.

Hey, I’m ambitious, not rich. I want to read all 100, not buy all 100.

I moved right on to The Hellbound Heart. (Yes, yes, the basis for all the Hellraiser movies.) While the writing is beautiful and evocative, and the concept is fairly frightening, I hit a snag. If the earth had opened up and swallowed all of the characters, I would not have cared. For me, the book lacked a key element–I couldn’t relate to any of the characters. I didn’t like them. There wasn’t a single one I thought, “Ooh, I’d like to sit down and have a cuppa with that one,” or “I bet it would be fun to eavesdrop on that one’s cell phone calls on the bus.” Nope.

The Damnation Game suffered a similar lack. I don’t think I reached 50 pages before I put it down and thought about how I’d avoid all of the characters, given a chance.

Next on the list: a book of short stories by Laird Barron, The Imago Sequence and Other Stories. I’d love to give it a go. Library doesn’t have it, and remember: I’m thrifty.

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. Oh, I read this one all right. My cousin Janet left it lying about so I picked it up and read it when I was much too young for such things. . Scared the bejesus out of me. That one had me checking under the bed before I could go to sleep at night.

I’m about to segue into some Ray Bradbury, so the reading should get vastly more enjoyable. I may have to make a trip to the used bookstore to look for the Barron. And yes, I could buy electronic copies and read them on my tablet, but remember the thrifty/cheap comments earlier? I wasn’t kidding.

On a related note, the scariest short story I’ve ever read is an untitled story by Shannon Lawrence, one of my critique group members. It was a rough draft, and it still had the perfect balance of horror with some mundane but disgusting details. Thanks to Shannon, I will never, EVER use a porta potty again.

Would you read your way through a list like this? And what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

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Thrilling or Annoying?

So I’ve noticed what I think is a disturbing trend, mostly in thrillers.

The book begins with several short chapters. Each chapter has a different main character or storyline going on.

For readers: How long are you willing to twist in the wind, dangling from disparate threads, before the author needs to start tying them together? Not the wrap up of the big plot, of course, but how long can you hop from Jerry the pretzel maker in Brooklyn to Shawntelle the hair stylist in Athens, Georgia, before you get some clue how they link together? Especially when you throw in a shoemaker in Venezuela and an ex-cop in Topeka?

Does the formula work for you, or does it feel overdone? Do you think writers are getting more and more outlandish, putting more and more impossible distance between their characters before bringing them together?

For writers: Do you use this plot device? How many plot lines are too many? Is this how the story evolved in your head? If not, what’s the reasoning behind keeping the reader confused for so long? Are you exercising your “clever” muscle? Is this a rut you’ve been caught in, and you don’t know how to get out?

Obviously, good writing is good writing, and if it catches my attention and keeps me reading, then you’re welcome to use any plot device you like. But when I’m 50 pages in and the plot device stands out more than the plot itself, I think there’s a problem.

It could be my problem. Learning more about writing has ruined some reading for me. While I’m always reading for the pure enjoyment of reading, I’m also reading for craft. I’m less forgiving of small errors. A strict and frightening dichotomy has divided my brain–half is enjoying the ride, and the other half is meticulously taking apart the structure of the entire piece, from sentences to the main character’s character arc.

Or is this just how modern thrillers are written and I should sit down and shut up? Like sausage, I should enjoy the end product without looking too closely at how it’s made?

 

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Phil–the Gateway Plant

It started with Phil. He’s a Philodendron that some dear friends gave me years ago.

I’m houseplant challenged, you see. I once killed a cactus, although in my defense, I dropped something on it.

Houseplants and me–not a match made in heaven.

But Phil is different. Phil is hardy. Phil is about seven miles long and can drag himself to the sink and turn on the taps if he gets thirsty. No matter how much neglect or abuse Phil gets, he thrives.

And it’s time for Phil to go. Not all of Phil. I’d like to keep a more reasonable sized portion of him. But what we have now would look more at home in the rain forest exhibit of a natural history museum. Like a baby elephant, he’s gotten too big.

So today we moved Phil, because he needs desperately to be repotted, and because I want to put a bookcase in the corner he has been occupying. The spot that used to hold the bookcase will hold the new armoire/liquor cabinet. Which I haven’t finished upcycling from the television armoire it was in a former life. (Hm. Same people who gave us Phil gave us the armoire. And an overstuffed chair with ottoman. And a bed frame. I see a pattern forming here.)

What happens when you move a gigantic houseplant for the first time in ten years?

You find dead leaves, dust, abandoned spider webs and bales of cat hair. After gently disentangling Phil from the curtain rod he lovingly embraced, you find a lot of dust on top of your curtains, and in the cute wooden rings that connect the curtain to the curtain rod. Stop. Dust the top of the curtains. Dust the wooden rings. Realize you have to wipe down the door frame under the curtains. Realize how dirty that side of the sliding glass door is that is rarely opened and normally covered by the curtain.

When you come down off the stepstool that allowed you to clean the curtain rod and all attached parts, don’t forget that you moved the dining room table over about a foot to accommodate all this activity. The closer you come to impaling yourself on a dining room chair, the harder you’ll consider whether your life insurance is paid up, and whether it’s a large enough policy. And if you come off the stepstool the wrong way, you could be in for an unpleasant goosing.

Then there are the phantom spots on the wall. They could be coffee, gravy, red wine, or possibly very old mustard. Small flecks on the wall that need to be wiped off. Which leads to wiping down the whole wall. Which leads to the discovery that you’re a pretty slovenly housekeeper, and maybe you should wipe down your walls more often than once a decade.

When you’re wiping out suburban spider town, you start to wonder. Spiders are supposed to eat flies, right? So why the heck do we always have so many fruit flies with a veritable metropolis of spider webs around the dining room ceiling? Are the spiders on strike? Have they unionized, and they’re waiting for higher wages and better health care benefits? They should be sending me thank you cards, not leaving their abandoned slum webs for me to clean up. Of course, they could be protesting the cat hair that floats up, attaches itself to the web and makes foot traffic impossible for the arachnid set.

Today, I was going to move a bookcase. Thanks to Phil, I’ll be washing walls, ceilings and windows. I’m pretty sure at some point, while I’m teetering on the stepstool, arms pinwheeling to keep my balance, I’ll look over at the light fixture over the dining room table and realize it also needs disassembling and cleaning.

Phil, how could you do this to me?

If anyone wants a large Philodendron, please let me know.

 

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What book group is reading (Oct. 2014-Aug. 2015)

Always a pleasure to spend an evening with the ladies of my book group, enjoying a potluck and picking out what books to read for the next year.

 

Oct. 13, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Nov. 10, The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Dec. 8:  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Jan. 12: Abandon by Blake Crouch
Feb. 9: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
March 9:  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
April 13:  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
May 11:  The Meadow by James Galvin
June 8: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
July 13: The Translation of the Bones by Kay Francesca
Aug. 10:  The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams
Sept. 14: The Choosing and potluck

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A Walk on the Wild Side

To steampunk, or not to steampunk?

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia says: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery,[1] especially in a setting inspired by industrialised Western civilisation during the 19th century. Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power.

Think of Will Smith’s movie “Wild, Wild West” and you’re there.

At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference next month, one of our keynote speakers is Gail Carriger, who writes a delightful series in the steampunk genre. At the Friday night dinner, when she will be speaking, we are having an optional steampunk costume contest.

This is a really long-winded way to get to the point: for women, steampunk usually means wearing a corset. Usually over a white blouse.  I feel that, having attained the sagacious age of 50, if I was corset sort of woman, I’d have one by now. Heck, I’d have half a dozen, in various styles and colors, from black leather to purple brocade.

From what I can tell, the main function of a corset is to keep your posture bloody perfect, and to cinch in your waist. If you’ve anything extra at your waistline, as most of us do, the corsets pushes it out both ends. Think of grabbing a toothpaste tube in the middle and giving it a good, hard squeeze. Since I am sufficiently supplied at both the bosom and the backside, I’m not sure why I’d want to either increase the padding on my hips OR push my boobs up to my chin.

Do you see where this is going?

Sure you do.

Some of the women of PPW were talking about corsets for the costumes. So I decided that instead of going out with a group of women who are predominantly younger and thinner than I am, I would slip into a local store that sells all sorts of boudoir accessories. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call the place Seductions.

I cross the threshold. The music is loud. Okay, I’m not THAT old. But it’s loud enough that the female sales clerk and the male customer she is assisting need to shout at each other to be heard. While they were busy with a lengthy discussion of his purchase, I perused the stock at the front of the store, ears quietly bleeding.

I was trying not to pay attention to what they were doing/discussing. Really, your sex secrets? Your little kinks and peccadilloes? I do not want to know. That’s not a judgement call–you have to understand that I truly, madly, deeply do not care what you do in the bedroom, as long as nobody is being coerced.

The man left the counter, came back. Left, came back. Packages were opened. Batteries were inserted. He want to what I imagine was the changing room for men. He came back out, said, “Oh, yeah, that feels really comfortable.” The sales clerk said, “Walk around, see how you like it.”

He walked around the store with a springy step. I confess, I looked at his feet. He was not wearing new shoes. But he had something battery-operated either attached to or inserted into some part of him covered by his clothing.

And I still couldn’t find a corset that looked like you could wear it over a poofy white blouse, OR one that looked like it would span my thigh, let alone my waist.

The man finally wanders off to the back of the store to examine more battery-powered accessories, and I approach the sales lady. Her lips were moving and she was smiling at me, so I yelled “What?” After another couple of shouted exchanges, I was able to explain that I was looking for a corset that could be worn on the outside of a blouse, and I need one that wasn’t Barbie pink or Barbie sized.

The sales lady stepped out from behind the counter. She was the smallest human being I’ve ever met. The top of her head didn’t even reach my shoulder. She led me to the single bustier in the store that was my size and not covered in cheap and itchy red lace. She smiled when she held it out and told me I could try it on.

I looked her in the eye, and said, “You want to explain to me exactly how that works?” I had images of needing an Nascar pit crew. But it turns out that these garments often lace on one side, and have hook and eye closures on the other side. Roughly a hundred hook and eye closures, so it’s like fastening your bra except that it takes a whole lot longer. You loosen the laces in the front and wrap it around you so the hooks are on your side, rather than in the back. You fasten them. You keep fastening them. After an hour or so, you’re all in. Then you have to yank and pull the corset into place, so the laces are properly in the front and the hooks are at the back.

For a moment, I considered buying the damn thing just so I wouldn’t have to wrestle it off. No matter the fit was off, the material cheap and the construction shoddy, to the tune of $59.99.

That’s a whole lot of effort for a garment that has been (successfully) replaced by Spanx. (Not that Spanx don’t have their own foibles, but that’s a different post.)

I left the store with two options. One, I could skip the costume and just enjoy watching other people wear them. I like that option. It suits two of my sterling qualities: laziness and frugality.  Two, I could look for a steampunk inspiration that didn’t involve a corset.

The decision? You’ll have to wait until conference to find out.

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