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Monthly Archives: August 2020

“If It Bleeds” by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s previous novella collections, Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons, have yielded some particularly strong stories, like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Sun Dog.” His latest book, If It Bleeds, also gives us four pieces of fiction that are longer than short stories but shorter than novels.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” reads like a classic ghost story. The main character, Craig, finds that he’s able to communicate with his employer and mentor after the latter’s death using the iPhone Craig gave him as a gift. I’ve always appreciated ghost stories that place their hauntings in modern settings, sometimes even using technology as a medium. It gives the stories an extra jolt of creepiness because they feel more like something that could really happen. King captures that really well, and also does a good job of developing the relationship between the two protagonists.

“The Life of Chuck” was the weakest story in the book, in my opinion. It starts out with an interesting concept: the characters start seeing advertisements thanking someone named Chuck for “a great 39 years.” They have no idea who Chuck is, what he did to make those 39 years so great, or who’s running the ads. But the story is told in three parts, and the connections between the parts are tenuous at best. Each one could have been a great story on its own if further developed, or the story as a whole could have been great if the parts were woven together more cleanly. As it is, it just felt disjointed.

“If It Bleeds” features Holly Gibney, who first appeared in the Bill Hodges Trilogy and returned in The Outsider. I know Constant Readers have differing opinions on her. While I haven’t read the Bill Hodges books, I enjoyed The Outsider quite a bit, and I liked this story too. It should be noted that it’s pretty much a direct sequel to The Outsider, so readers who haven’t read that book may not get as much enjoyment out of “If It Bleeds.”

“Rat” is another take on a classic horror-story theme, in this case, a deal with a malign entity. It isn’t a particularly deep story, but it was fun to read.

I’ve long been a fan of King’s shorter fiction, and I was pleased to see that he delivered once again.

“Borne” by Jeff VanderMeer

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Although I first encountered Jeff VanderMeer through the excellent anthologies he co-edits with his wife Ann, he’s better known for his fiction. His Southern Reach Trilogy and Ambergris novels are both beloved by fans of weird fiction. Borne is the first in a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic city where people scavenge for biotechnological creations that have escaped into the wild while trying to evade a giant flying bear. No, that was not a typo, there really is a giant flying bear. His name is Mord.

The story kicks off when Rachel discovers Borne on a scavenging run. At first, he appears to be some kind of plant, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s far more than that. Rachel’s partner Wick is immediately suspicious of him, but Rachel refuses to let him dissect Borne. Over time, her bond with Borne evolves from that of owner and pet to that of parent and child.

Borne’s appearance is profoundly alien, as is his perception of the world. VanderMeer does a great job of portraying the difficulties Rachel has in communicating with him, while also dropping tantalizing hints about Borne’s nature and past. Borne’s transition from being a MacGuffin to a full-fledged character is handled very well.

VanderMeer also presents vivid imagery of a world where biotechnology has run amok, with many cool concepts for the different organisms created by Wick and the mysterious Company. From the quirky (alcoholic minnows) to the eerie (fox-like creatures that can flicker in and out of visibility) to the terrifying (Mord), the unnamed city where the story takes place is populated by a gamut of critters that aren’t your typical fantasy or sci-fi monsters. That gives Borne a really fresh feel.

There are two other books set in the same universe, though my understanding is that they aren’t precisely sequels. Both of them—Dead Astronauts and The Strange Bird—reference entities that we see or hear about briefly in Borne. The world VanderMeer has created is intriguing enough that I intend to pick these up and see what further stories he has to tell.

“The Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

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The final volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy substantially ups the stakes for the main characters. Nahri and Ali are stuck in the human world without their djinn magic, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Ali’s marid-granted powers come at a cost. Meanwhile, Dara is becoming ever more conflicted and disillusioned with his sworn ruler Manizeh.

With the stakes being so much higher, it’s no surprise that the conflicts are bigger. There are some truly jaw-dropping action sequences and a few stunning plot twists. But Chakraborty doesn’t lose sight of the importance of character. There are quieter moments that show the characters coming to terms with these revelations, and the denouement features one scene that made the room get rather dusty.

In addition to resolving the arcs of the main characters, a couple of new players are introduced. At first, I was skeptical of the idea of bringing in new plot-relevant characters so late in the story, but Chakraborty did a great job developing them. I especially enjoyed Fiza, to the point where part of me was hoping she’d end up with Ali.

One of the Daevabad Trilogy’s major themes has always been the difficulty of resolving longstanding conflicts. The Daevas and the other djinn tribes have been fighting for so long that neither side’s hands are clean anymore, and both sides have some legitimate grievances. The narrative in Empire of Gold makes no bones about the fact that this situation can’t be resolved easily or quickly. It will take work and require both sides to listen and make compromises. And since most of the action is of course being driven by the main characters, this will require them to make some changes as well. The culmination of Nahri, Ali, and Dara each gradually learning to address the traits that have held them back occurs here, and sets the stage for a hopeful ending to the trilogy. In addition to providing a satisfying conclusion, it makes The Empire of Gold a book that, despite its fantastical setting, speaks to our present moment in the real world.

I’ve enjoyed the fun and moving ride that the Daevabad Trilogy has been. Chakraborty has said that her next book will likely be a more grounded historical fiction novel, but I hope she returns to the world of Daevabad someday.

“Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle

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John Darnielle was already an accomplished author before writing Universal Harvester: his first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His new book has earned plaudits from Kazuo Ishiguro, Joe Hill, and Oprah’s magazine. The main character, Jeremy, works at a Blockbuster-type video store when customers begin reporting odd problems with their tapes. Strange and ominous footage has been spliced into the middle of various movies. As Jeremy investigates this mystery, his life intertwines with many others, both directly and indirectly.

Universal Harvester was marketed as a horror novel, but I’m not sure this is the right designation. While the spliced-in footage definitely has sinister overtones, the book is less about scaring the reader and more about examining the psyches of the main characters. If this is horror, it’s psychological horror. Most of the action is fairly sedate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful. The characters have a great deal of depth, and their relationships are carefully portrayed. One gets a sense of Jeremy, his father, his colleagues, and eventually the filmmaker as real people with real lives. However, readers expecting fights against axe-wielding murderers or races against time to prevent the summoning of ancient evils may feel as though they’ve been bait-and-switched. For those who are fans of psychological horror, quiet horror, and stories that stick a toe just barely over the line into horror, Universal Harvester is well worth reading.