Book Review Double Feature: Misery and The Shining

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I’ve recently been on a little bit of a horror binge – not surprising given that the annual witching hour has been upon us. Accordingly, I saw the beautiful new Halloween editions of some Stephen King novels and treated myself to The Shining. The film is widely regarded as a seminal moment in cinema history, especially horror. And as the adage goes, the book is always better than the film, I was eager to see how this storied text stood up…

But before that, a note about today’s review. Immediately after I completed reading The Shining, I re-read King’s other horror novel from a decade on, Misery. The 1990 film adaptation of Misery (snapshots of which I use in this post) is similarly well-regarded as The Shining’s. My experience with both books was, frankly, night and the day, and while I’ve been planning this review for a little while, my good friend Charlotte’s post spurred me to finally (metaphorically) put pen to paper.

Misery is a taught, suspenseful psychological thriller whose characters, of which there’s a gloriously limited cast, make a lasting impact. The premise is also gloriously simple – novelist Paul Sheldon crashes on a snowy Colorado road and is rescued from the wreck by Annie Wilkes, his “number one fan”.

On re-reading Misery, I was surprised how the tension remained, despite my foreknowledge from my previous reading of how events broadly transpired. There’s a brilliantly claustrophobic sense to the story, confined not just to Annie Wilke’s house, but a single room in her house that quickly becomes a prison for Paul Sheldon, who quickly realizes that there’s more to Annie than the officious housemaid. Indeed, the interplay between these characters – Paul’s initial submission to Annie’s increasingly-explicit mood swings and episodes of psychotic behaviour brings out a glorious tension. It’s as if these characters are mentally playing chess against the other, each trying to gain the upper hand, and there’s a ratcheting up of the tension when Paul realizes that the chess game ends in both his and Annie’s death, so much so that the eventual confrontation between Paul and Annie is thrilling, gripping and just brilliantly portrayed.

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King’s prose in Misery helps this a great deal – it’s fluid, lean and punchy. Each line seems expressly constructed to further the tension or the story. There’re moments like Paul’s italicised thoughts that add context to the prose, but not too much to be overbearing or impactful on the pace of the book. A pleasure, too, is the in-world extracts from Paul’s book that he finds himself under duress to write, Misery’s Return. Being able to read part of this in-world work, that’s a central plot point to the whole book – is a judicious treat from King, and it allows the tense prose of the real-life happenings of Paul Sheldon to really simmer. Ultimately, it just adds another layer of believability to the whole work without unnecessarily padding Misery out.

And that brings me to my first contrast from Misery to The Shining. The Shining, in my opinion, is about 200 pages overlength. Where Misery is lean and tense, The Shining is lethargic and meandering. Indeed, it shares some overall plot elements to be found later in Misery – namely the isolated location, heck, even the fictional town of Sidewinder, Colorado (Misery makes a few explicit references to The Shining) and the ensuing descent into madness the antagonist (in The Shining, this is Jack Torrence) and the helplessness of the protagonists to escape from the isolation into safety. There’s even the same sort of-hapless third party intervention that both fails to expedite the salvation of the protagonists and also marks the crescendo of the tension and suspense – for Misery it’s the investigation of Annie Wilkes house by the state trooper and his gruesome disposal with the lawn mower; in The Shining it’s the reappearance of Dick Halloran, called back to avert disaster by Danny Torrence’s shining – across the books.

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In both cases, I’d say that these excursions by other characters into the duopoly of the antagonist/protagonist spaces doesn’t really work, and if anything serves to deflate the tension by distracting the reader’s attention a little. In Misery, this is more acceptable as the state troopers slowly draw the net in on Annie Wilkes (which makes sense given we slowly learn more about her torrid past to make this line of enquiry more plausible); whereas in The Shining, Halloran seems to be recalled out of nowhere to ride through the snow to salvation. It’s an appreciable break in the tension because Halloran, at this point in Florida, many miles away, seemingly reappears just in time to attempt to act as the deus ex machina. But like the state trooper in Misery, it’s a doomed effort.

Simply put, I found The Shining to be largely incoherent in terms of the actual prose. The middle four-fifths of the book simply trudged along. I just found the action, interspersed with italicised inner thoughts of the characters, hard to follow. Jack Torrence’s descent into madness… the ingredients of this are laid out on the counter, so to speak, but the mixing and combining of these into something new, done at the malevolent whim of the Overlook Hotel simply sailed past me through King’s incoherent and meandering prose. I hate to be so harsh but compared to Misery, where King does similar things in terms of inner thoughts and actions, inexorably leading onto portray a confrontation after a character’s steady descent into madness, The Shining simply doesn’t, in my opinion, stand up.

There’s a lack of exploration for the Overlook’s malevolence in The Shining, it just exists because it exists. Misery’s core malevolence – the backstory behind Annie Wilke’s past that leads her on the path we the reader experience – is much more finessed and laid out in a way that slowly builds up a sense of terror and dread. Quite frankly, a lot of the notable moments that come to mind when thinking of The Shining exist in the film only – it was something I tried hard to put aside mentally as I read the book but the more I read, the more the book seemed to deviate from the film adaptation in an inferior direction.

King may not have approved of Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of the story but it absolutely nails the elements King laid out at the start of The Shining in a way the prose version simply missed the mark on.

Indeed, there’s some common elements I noticed across the handful of King books I’ve so far read (I want to read more) – a similar impact of the backstory on the characters. In The Shining we have the influence of Jack Torrence’s father on his childhood, and his fear that he will become that kind of father to Danny; this echoes into the journey of Arnie in Christine; after buying the eponymous car Arnie slowly transforms – both in character and even mannerisms and appearance into it’s owner and the source of its core malevolence, Roland LeBay. And in Misery we have Annie’s backstory as a nurse and the specter of mysterious deaths and an attempted conviction that we discover through Paul Sheldon’s excursions that there’s more to Annie than her kooky, thickly-veneered sense of warped sensibilities that manifest themselves as her petulant, and increasingly psychotic rages.

To me, Misery seemed the more personal book of the two I’m comparing today – there’s an obvious author avatar (literally, an author avatar) of King in Paul Sheldon, and as a writer too I identified with the pain that must come with being forced under duress to burn the only manuscript of his new book. But there’s also aspects of King clear in Paul – his addiction to novril, especially; King at the time was battling addiction himself but also in Paul’s desire to break away from the genre he felt he’d been painted into (King experimented with the Richard Bachman persona that Misery was intended to be published under to see if his ‘fame’ was a fluke).

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A good point brought up my friend and classmate Charlotte in her review of Misery is that Annie criticises Paul for using cheap narrative tricks in his forced assignment to revive Misery Chastain; saying this deus ex machina is ‘not worthy of him’ and isn’t fair; yet King himself uses these narrative hacks himself in Misery! How else would Paul return to his room just in time as Annie returns from an outing? Reflecting back this is a great example of King’s self-awareness.

Overall though, Misery is easily the more compelling read, in my opinion. It’s a tense, simmering tale that reverberates on the mind long after the final page is turned, and it rewards the reader on every reading. I devoured it for a second time in days; The Shining had, unfortunately, none of the finesse I found in the 1987 offering. Indeed, I’m glad I read Misery first – had I started with The Shining, I’d have been hard pressed to exempt King from my unofficial rule that my first experience with an author’s work will be their last for me should that first work I read score two stars or less for me.

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My wholehearted recommendation? Check out Misery for a breathtakingly effective piece of thriller/horror fiction. As for The Shining? Watch the film instead.

Misery: Highly Recommended

The Shining: Not Recommended

 

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Notes on NaNoWriMo

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November beckons! For a lot of writers this means one thing – not the onset of festivities for Christmas but NaNoWriMo– the month-long celebration of stress and angst that’s been going for quite a while now, the challenge being to write a 50,000 word novel (well, more realistically, the very rough first draft) in the space of thirty days in the depths of winter. I haven’t taked about NaNoWriMo for a long time but feel it’s about time to address it once more!

My good friend and university classmate Rosie is embarking on her second NaNoWriMo this year – it’ll be really exciting to see how her accumulated knowledge through university improves her effort from her previous attempt in 2015!

I’ve completed NaNoWriMo three times, most recently in 2012. The three novels I wrote – 2010’s The Last of the Steamers, a steampunk adventure story; 2011’s Colonisation, a pulpy sci-fi adventure set on Mars that I’ve toyed with rewriting and 2012’s The World Eaters, an attempt at a grand space opera – will very likely never see the light of day. But that’s OK – each were valuable learning experiences in my writing journey that I’m definitely proud of doing and still reflect upon now. Yes these works, looking at them now, are flawed and imperfect but they remain important to me – so much so I keep the manuscripts even now.

20181105_131218380_iOS_editedLooking back, I’d reflect upon the following nuggets of information:

  • Plan, plan, plan! Spend at least the month of October prior to NaNoWriMo outlining the work and getting the sequence of events, at the very least, set down in your mind. Writing as you go, or “pantsing” (ie: writing by the seat of your pants) is the number one reason why your novel will run out of steam within the first few pages. It’s too easy, especially for inexperienced writers who may have never handled a project as big as a 50,000 word novel (which, by the way, is nothing; my draft of The Thaw is sitting at just over double that, at 102,000 words) to just blurt out the entirety of their plotlines very early on without any structure. I’m currently working on some new plot outlines as I mentioned previously and I’m using KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel workbook and it’s really, really good.
  • Chapterise your work. For my initial, first-ever effort, The Last of the Steamers, I wrote the entire novel as one solid block of text without chapter breaks. I attempted to revise this work the following January and it became such an arduous slog it quickly became completely unmanageable. Planning your chapters is a great way to spread out points of view and plot to manage the pace of the story. Contrast this to my approach for planning The Thaw, where I split the outline into three acts, and then further subdivided those acts themselves into three (beginning, middle and end at it’s most basic) and spread out the plot and series of events that way. For that work, too, I took on a really effective lesson from the books in The Expanse series in using different points of view for each chapter.
  • Don’t worry about the wordcount goal per day. To succeed at NaNoWriMo you have to write an average of 1,666 words per day, every day. That can sound incredibly daunting – this is especially difficult if you haven’t planned beforehand (therein leaving your time in November for pure writing). But it’s easy to become totally intimidated by writing almost 2,000 words a day. Some writers can do it but a lot, especially inexperienced novelists that take the NaNoWriMo gauntlet, balk at this. So my advice here would be to split up your time – write in, say, three 500 word sessions and then add a bit on here and there. 500 words is about a page, and quite manageable in 20 minutes if you get time.
  • Find times to write everywhere in your day. Building on the previous point, finding time to sit in a darkened study, hunched over a laptop, for the daily writing session can (and in my case has) put a ton of pressure on. It’s so, so easy to psyche yourself out of a writing session if you build it up so much. So my advice would be to split this up. My personal experience is that 500 words is quite manageable in a single session, but you could write a paragraph just before breakfast, a few paragraphs over lunch or before class or at work… it’s a cumulative effort toward that goal that really counts. Or meet up in the library with friends and write together, it’s fun!Nano_2011_chart
  • Don’t freak out over falling behind. In 2011 I fell quite far behind, but it’s important to remain committed and realise that it’s possible to claw back the progress. I found the spreadsheet I used (slightly customised from the one designed by Erik Benson in 2004 which I found you can get from Book In A Week here) back then and looked at the chart. Ultimately for the first week or so I feel fairly behind but ended up that year finishing a day early, which I’d say is proof that it’s possible to claw it back. As an aside, the spreadsheet I used included notes for each day that I input and it was fairly prescient on how I was thinking and feeling during November 2011! I’d wholeheartedly suggest using a spreadsheet like this – sync it with Google Docs or OneDrive or Dropbox (along with your draft, obviously!) so it’s always there when you need it. Naturally the inverse is true with this tip: by all means build up some headroom on good days if you can but don’t allow yourself to become complacent!

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What prompted me to write this post was a question I was asked regarding one of the new ideas I wrote about previously – would I be doing any of them for NaNoWriMo this year? God no! was the answer –  honestly, I don’t think I’d do NaNoWriMo again. My experience writing The Thaw was that a month would’ve been too rushed to do that justice – you’re only making yourself more work in the first, usually-brutal edit. But also with The Thaw I feel I took too long. Ideally for my new ideas I’d follow Stephen King’s advice:

“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”

That’s not to say I discourage NaNoWriMo – indeed, the opposite! I saw it as an important step in my writing career as I proved to myself (and others, but most importantly myself) that I could write a work long enough to consider a novel. And while the three drafts I churned out remain locked away for only my eyes to cringe at, they’re important milestones on the road of writing. So get going and get novelling!

Autumn Writing Update

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I realise it’s high time I take stock of where I am with various writing projects I’ve been working on – and some new ones! I also want to expand on a lot of what I want to start thinking about progressing with next year – it seems customary with the nights drawing in as October grows to a close to reflect not on what can be done with the dregs of this year but to plan for the new year.

Overall, I’m both pleased and a little disappointed with progress with my writing projects but I feel a touch of realism is sometimes what’s needed!

  • Landlady_Cover_MockUpI’m thoroughly thrilled with how my short story The Landlady has gone down since I put it out last month. I’m really grateful to everyone who both read it and bought the little paperback editions that I made available for purchase; it was a really touching and humbling thing to have signed so many of them for good friends and colleagues. Thank you once again for all your support and comments! And to those asking “when’s the next one coming?”… well keep reading!
  • I sent my post-apoc thriller novel The Thaw off to beta-readers in second draft form at the end of July, hoping for a relatively quick turnaround to gain some feedback on it for the next edit – it’s the third draft that I want to start approaching professional editors and agents with. However, it’s been a bit disappointing, as I mentioned in a thread on Twitter, and with Christmas closing in I can’t see my beta-readers having much time. I understand that; however, I’m excited to have received word from my good friend and university classmate Rosie that her notes and annotations are incoming! So I hope to be able to start the next pass of editing on The Thaw over Christmas; it shouldn’t be anywhere near as intense as the first pass was! Overall though I reflect on the project with a great deal of pride and I really believe the project has “legs” and I’ll be pursuing it toward publication in a traditional sense throughout the coming year!
    • Incidentally, I was very pleased to be able to complete two beta-reads of my own recently; one for Rosie’s young-adult fantasy novel Under Oath and recently for Alex Clifford’s comedy novella The Very Foreign Desk. I was more than happy to give the feedback and I look forward to seeing the improved forms of both works!

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While I might not have been actively writing or editing much for the last couple of months, that hasn’t meant I’ve not been generating ideas – in fact I’ve two ideas I feel are closest in gestation that I feel comfortable talking about them, with a couple more still only in rough concept form in my notebook.

  • As mentioned, the reaction to my short horror story The Landlady has been more than I could’ve possibly imagined, and to answer those that are asking me if I’ve more in the works… I’m happy to say yes! I’ve been concepting out an idea for a horror story that might make it to full novel proportions and that I’m going to be spending the festive season planning intensely. I do want to write more horror based on this experience but I’ve a lot of research to do on the genre, but more importantly I needed an idea. By some happy accident I had the idea last week and I think I could do well with it. I’d love to say more but it’s very rough at the moment but I’ll hope to tell more about it in the new year once I’ve nailed down the plot and plan – but work is going really well as I keep thinking about it!
  • I’ve also been concepting out a climate-based post-apocalyptic novel that I had the idea for in the recent hot weather that the UK experienced – what if the UK experienced a heatwave that never ended? This one was what I thought I’d be working on next but I found myself a little stumped in the early planning but I’ve re-evaluated my ideas and, after chatting to some writer friends, have a better idea where I can take it. I originally envisaged a pseudo-political/techno thriller but I can’t say I was massively enthused by the knots I’d have to tie in my plot to make that work effectively; instead it’s going to be a bit more of an adventure into a decimated, desertified Southern England.
  • I also want to post more short stories from my university studies and re-organise the range of short stories on my site for those dear readers who are interested in reading more of my fiction. I’m really proud of the work I produced through university (even if I wasn’t a particularly happy student) and going by how people enjoyed The Landlady then I’m more than happy to show off some of my more recent, and in my opinion, refined work.

I’m excited I’ve got lots of ideas but I’m starting to prioritise them a little – I’d initially wanted to work on the climate fiction idea first but it needs some more plotting and, honestly, it’s the horror that’s screaming out to me to write first over the next while. But regardless I’ll keep everyone updated on how these projects start to shape up, as well as how The Thaw progresses, through my site but I’d also wholeheartedly recommend liking my Facebook page and following me on Twitter and Instagram for all my writing and reading goodness!

Book Review – Altered Carbon

Altered_CarbonIt’s a bad sign when a book takes me two weeks to complete. It’s especially troubling if it’s a book I’ve read before. This review took even longer.

Going back to an earlier post, I recently purchased Altered Carbon in paperback form; a number of years ago I ‘d read it on my Kindle. So, approaching the paperback for a re-read, it was going to be plain sailing, right?

Unfortunately, after a pretty crackers first act, Altered Carbon gets stuck in the mud. The first act does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the futuristic world, with a gritty action scene that seems to show the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, meeting a grisly end. But then the twist of the book’s core concept – that of resleeving, where consciousnesses are downloaded to new bodies at will, essentially creating technological immortality – is introduced, and the subtle nuances of how this technology affects and moulds human society is laid bare. Amongst this we are thrown into a murder mystery story with this technological, cyberpunk twist.

For most of the book, though, the actual mystery, the reason the protagonist finds himself where he is, is essentially sidelined. I’m pretty new to reading noir fiction but I’m persevering on the recommendation of a friend and university classmate. Recently I read Sirens which went on a similar detour through the world – that of Manchester’s gritty underbelly – so this is a staple of noir fiction I’m gathering; however, Altered Carbon seemed to be falling into the fatal trap I experienced with Ancillary Justice – I just wasn’t engaged enough with the characters exploring their own issues and backstories which I honestly experienced trouble relating to and keeping up with.

Fundamentally, in Altered Carbon the narrative seemed to veer wildly around (Sirens was more a gentle meander; I saw the context of the exploration of the world and the characters) and ultimately after all this exploration of the characters and the world. We learn a lot about Kovacs’ various foibles – there’s a lot of hints to a deep past, but ultimately I cared not for the character; rather I found myself quite irritated by his self-absorption. I just wanted the plot to remember the reason it existed: the murder mystery with a cyberpunk twist.

Ultimately even the core plot that I was enticed in proved bunkum; the assumption about the mystery made right at the start, that is asserted by the characters couldn’t possibly be what happened… is exactly what happened; it just g gets some grey, amoral window-dressing. I was very disappointed after persisting with the book to find out that the answer had been on page one all along.

Sadly however, the re-read of Altered Carbon made me feel that it was a classic example of an intellectual novel masquerading as genre fiction. Some readers may indeed find the book stimulating – I would agree the concept proved considerably more interesting than the execution belied – but if I had to describe my experience it would be one of tedium and bewilderment. There was a lot of pace – which I usually like in a story – but a lot of it I feel was firing in several different directions at once.

The concept of “sleeving” is very interesting – especially when amalgamated into the elitist/class-based system that this technology is controlled by and accessible to but unfortunately the cast of characters we experience this world with in Altered Carbon just didn’t do the concept justice. Ultimately with Altered Carbon it became a book I liked for its setting and visceral prose but by no means did I love it; the characterisation and plot was just too erratic. The narrative for me seemed to get stuck in gear – the book has an excellent first act, setting up the story to come but instead delivers more on inward-looking character and worldbuilding than propelling that story along, and I left deeply disappointed. There’s cool action sequences (some complain that the use of sex in this book is gratuitous; perhaps so but I found myself feeling nothing either way) but that underpins my concerns and misgivings: light on plot, heavy on action, heavy on backstory… with Altered Carbon your mileage may indeed vary wildly.