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“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

I took the book from her, and the pen, and opened Silent Riots to the title page. I signed my name, trying to remember the last time I’d signed one of my books, trying hard to recall how long it had been.

“Not the sort of thing I usually read,” she admitted, “I mean, it is rather explicit. A bit grim for my tastes. But, even so, I thought it was quite well written. Poetic, even.”

Horror fiction has enjoyed any number of stories involving a discovered text, or diary hinting at the horrible fate that befell the writer of the tale we are about to read. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson is one of my favourites. Not only is it set in the west of Ireland, but Hodgson’s story manages to describe its narrator’s increasing desperation convincingly, before throwing the equivalent of everything and the kitchen’s sink in terms of mythical eschatology right at the reader. It is intimately written (poor Pepper), while also managing to be ambitious in its scope. Cut to a hundred years later and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves managed to repeat the feat, introducing us to three distinct narrators, with their individual texts interwoven on the printed page.

Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel opens with yet another ‘editor’s note’, revealing that we are about to read a manuscript by author Sarah Crowe, a genre writer who committed suicide following the events described.

With that established, Sarah’s arrival at the Wight Farm, located near a large and distinctive red oak tree is described in diary form. She has travelled from the south all the way to Rhode Island to get away from her past and maybe, just maybe, actually write a book that will get her publisher off her back. Unfortunately she has been suffering from writer’s block, is still traumatized by what happened to her lover Amanda and is starting to suspect that she has nothing left to write. Instead of working on a new novel, Sarah begins to explore the history of the Wight Farm, discovering that the previous tenant an academic named Charles Harvey, hung himself from the oak tree outside. He had been working on a history of the farm and its eerie history, with a number of mysterious happenings over the years seemingly connected to the area.

Sarah’s isolation is rudely interrupted by the arrival of Constance, a local-born artist who has returned home from L.A. It appears the landlord is hoping to squeeze as much rent out of the property as possible. Constance actually knew Charles Harvey and happens to believe in all sorts of occult phenomena, explaining to Sarah that she believes ghosts are phantom projections through time of past, or future events. Initially exasperated at having to share her new home with a stranger, the two women grow closer even as the red tree sitting outside their home inexplicably becomes more menacing. Over time they both witness a series of strange phenomena, including missing time, sudden nausea, dislocation, vivid dreams and yet neither can bring themselves to leave the Wight Farm. As Sarah continues to study the increasingly erratic writings of Charles Harvey, she finds herself following in his footsteps into madness.

I chose this book as it was mentioned in the King of Nerds article that inspired this horror novel glut I have embarked upon. As it happens I have read Caitlín R. Kiernan’s writing before. Some years ago a friend gave me a lend of her debut novel Silk. I was not a fan. The Red Tree was nominated for this year’s World Fantasy Award so I wondered whether I would enjoy this more.

This has to be one of the most defensive books I have ever read. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, particularly the sequence where he attacks the critics of his films. Sarah Crowe rails against her own critics, both in the media and on amazon.com comment threads, while despairing that maybe she is just a hack. She peppers her conversation with literary quotes and references, the book quoting liberally from Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative Arthur Gordon Pym. The absolute low-point for me was when she repeated a memorized passage on Francis Bacon that she read on Wikipedia (Irony!).

It is the humourlessness of Kiernan’s writing that I find most disagreeable though. Chalk this one up as another negative review.

It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by Press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.

The magical book is a recurring trope in fantasy and horror fiction. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story are two sides of the same coin, both describing a powerful tome that can contain whole worlds (the one a gateway to madness, the other escape from the cruelties of the ‘real world’). It is possible that this symbol of a book that is far more than a book is a reaction to the cultural perception of the Christian Bible, which is said to contain the word of God Himself – and is therefore far more than just a book. In recent years the trope has become almost a cliché. Everything from The Care Bears Movie to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (and even Nicholas Gurewitch’s wicked Perry Bible Fellowship) have riffed on the notion of an ageless book that has magical properties. Before any of these, however, there was Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow.

The titular book is never fully described, yet carries a dire reputation. Chambers features it within several stories in this collection, with the fateful encounter between a protagonist and The King in Yellow acting as a catalyst for the onset of madness. The title refers to a malevolent god, described as wearing a ‘Pallid Mask’ whose realm borders our own. The publication of the book is seen as an initial sortie, a sign of an inevitable assault on our world itself.

As an ex-patriate American art student in Paris, Chambers became enamoured with the Bohemian lifestyle of his fellow students. The protagonists of his stories are therefore also often artists and Americans, speaking French with a degree of fluency afforded to the well-educated upper class, but also vulnerable to flights of fancy that lead to the disintegration of reason.

Interestingly the first story of the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, is set in a projected future 1920’s New York. America has instituted tighter immigration controls, Europe is under the sway of Russia and legalised Lethal Chambers have been opened (is one of Sarah Palin’s advisors a Robert Chambers fan?). The protagonist Castaigne is a young man who after suffering a fall from a horse was committed to an asylum, mistakenly he believes. There, fittingly, he encounters a copy of The King in Yellow. Following his release he encounters a fellow devotee, Mr Wilde, who explains how his own future and that of the American nation itself, is bound to the vision of the book.

With each following story Chambers quotes from the opening chapter of The King in Yellow, revealing little of its content beyond names and places described featured out of context. The seeming innocuousness of such references – Carcosa, the Lake of Hali, the Pallid Mask, Hastur – disguises the true danger of reading the book, after which madness, and oftentimes death, is the inevitable result.

The Mask and The Yellow Sign both feature Americans abroad in Europe, enjoying the pursuit of artistic ideals. However, the stories end very differently, with the former’s protagonists enduring much suffering, but eventually discovering a curious kind of happiness. The latter, however, is a ghoulish tale of revenge from beyond the grave. Unlike in Lovecraft’s fiction, with its indiscriminate Outer Gods crushing the sanity of unwary explorers, Chambers seems to be suggesting that the King in Yellow subjugates with his dreadful yoke only those who deserve to be damned. Retreating to holy ground, such as a church, or hiding indoors provides no sanctuary from his touch.

The remaining stories are divided between more traditional ghost stories such as The Demoiselle d’Ys and romances, as well as a story of a besieged Paris in a future Franco-Prussian conflict. Chambers consistently writes with a beautifully descriptive manner, typical of his training as an artist.

A milestone in American horror fiction.

An overwhelming noise hit him, a bustling, howling sound, tumultuous in its overall effect. Listened to individually, however, the sounds were only whispers. Coarse and parched. Burnt voices.

One thing that I do not understand about Horror fiction is why it is often so overwritten. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was to my mind the best horror novel of that last decade – and yet! It certainly was not written in a simple or direct manner. What the genre needs is a George Orwell-type, capable of describing a sense of dread with uncomplicated language. James Herbert is not that writer. However, the premise of The Survivor initially seemed to be quite a simple one.

A 747 passenger jet crashes just outside the town of Eton. Out of the wreckage a single figure emerges, the co-pilot of the flight. Miraculously he is completely unhurt. In fact his clothing is neither torn, nor even singed. David Keller’s survival is seen as an example of freakish good fortune at first, although soon the public begins to view the man with suspicion. His claims of amnesia provide no insight into how three hundred lives were so tragically lost and his employers at the airline realize he is no good to them as a pilot. They give him an extended period of paid leave in lieu of laying him off for fear of negative publicity. Keller himself wonders if somehow he was responsible for the crash, if his negligence led to the deaths of all the passengers on board. The victims include his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his mentor Captain Rogan. Keller has flashes of Rogan shouting angrily at him on the days leading up to the crash. Might their falling out have led to the disaster?

Meanwhile the townsfolk of Eton are disturbed by a rapid increase in the number of accidental deaths surrounding the site of the crash. The body of a local shopkeeper is found by the river, seemingly having collapsed as a result of a heart attack. A married couple fall to their deaths from their bedroom window. A school boy is discovered dismembered on train tracks. Unbeknownst to the people of Eton a single malevolent force is behind all of these deaths, one that is growing stronger each day. Keller is contacted by a reluctant spiritualist who claims that the souls of the dead are calling on him to aid them, but warns that there is another force at work. A demonic presence that was already on board the flight, that refuses to accept death.

This is a very grim and gruesome little tale. On the one hand the vengeful spirits of the flight passengers stalking the townspeople of Eton provide ample opportunity for Herbert to describe burnt flesh and grasping, skeletal claws. On the other, we have the moral turpitude of almost every single character within the book. Everyone is either an adulterer, corrupt, mad, or in the unfortunate example of the school boy, too fat to live. Then there is the villain of the piece, a composite figure of Aleister Crowley and Oswald Mosley. Did Herbert read over an early draft of the novel and think to himself ‘well, sure, murdering ghosts who resemble burn victims are all well and good, but what this book really needs is undead satanic anti-semites!’

Also apparently Catholic priests have superpowers. Anglican clerics haven’t a hope though.

As a result I found myself struggling to care whether anyone lived, or not. There is an attempt to address some larger themes, such as this passage: Keller had wondered how assassins of this magnitude justified their actions – [..] Their own madness justified it for them. To them, the whole world was guilty.

Yet Herbert makes no effort to counter this idea. An old man, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to represent the notion that the only purpose in life is to survive for as long as possible.

Anyway, so I’m reading about the ghostly whispering, the apparitions of the dead, an immoral cast of characters, the plane crash survivor guided by some unseen purpose to defeat evil – and it hit me. This book is an awful lot like J.J. AbramsLost! Sure Eton is no desert island, but thematically the two stories are quite alike (both end inconclusively too). Maybe Herbert’s publishers should look into this.

Overall I found this book to be depressing and unsatisfying.

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