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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Book Review: Artemis

ArtemisMemorably a few years ago I had the pleasure to read Andy Weir’s excellent space-based thriller The Martian, which received a glowing review from myself. The Martian was accessible on account of its relatable protagonist Mark Watney but highly-plausible in terms of the science behind i t – Weir clearly had a keen affinity for space exploration, so the suspension of disbelief to think the events of The Martian could really happen wasn’t stretching into fantasy. It’s a quality I adore in science-fiction technothrillers and Weir’s ability to weave a great, engaging story in some hard science is comparable only to one author I can currently think of: Michael Crichton, whose Jurassic Park I adore as one of my favourite books ever.

Previously to The Martian I’d read the excellent Ready Player One. It received a similarly positive review. However, quite notably… its sequel Armada was a lot less finessed. I remember quite clearly feeling that Armada was the same but not quite as good… not by a long way.

Therefore, approaching Artemis I entered with caution, with the disappointment of Armada keenly felt.

However, Artemis is no Armada.

With Artemis, Weir takes his winning formula – the relatable, easy-going protagonist who’s easy to follow with some fantastically realised extrapolation of science that seems to exist just thirty minutes into the contemporary future – and iterates it well.

The protagonist in Artemis, Jazz Bashara, takes a lot of hints from Mark Watney in The Martian. She’s a not-too-serious, feisty (ugh, what word) denizen of the lunar city of Artemis. She is, essentially, still Watney at her core. The character takes so many hints from Watney that it’s hard not to compare – the fact that Jazz is a young non-practising Muslim woman seems incidental.

Now that might sound like the character is flawed and badly developed, and that Weir only has “one” mould for a protagonist once you strip away the embellishments. That’s partly true but Watney’s personality – and Artemis does reference this so it’s at least somewhat self-aware – is the main driving force behind The Martian and we grow to like the protagonist, some cringey, Dad-joke worthy phrases aside.

The plot too, on paper, looks formulaic, but it’s the rich description of both the city of Artemis and how it works that sells it as a location. We quickly get a sense of the divisions within Artemis, between the rich and poor that exists in most cities. But the action is deftly described, with a clear path of incident throughout, each act raising the stakes, with obstacles that even the most assiduous protagonist simply cannot counter in the time allowed.

Ultimately, too, Artemis seems to be a polemic, hinted at, about how human society adapts to reaching beyond terra firma, and the importance of knowing one’s place in history. The plot becomes more monumental the further down the story we go – we move from a heist and corporate subterfuge to a critique of protectionism and the realisation that events here and now can shape the kind of society that Artemis, as a frontier town of old, in the barren landscape of new, will become. What seems like a business opportunity seems bound to set the stage for the next chapter in society’s development.

That’s not me over-egging it. I got a lot from Artemis, and it’s a fully-encapsulated story. It might be cliched at points, with some Dad-trying-to-be-cool-esque prose that seems a little awkward… but this is not a fatal error. These turns of phrase, while clunky, yes, are little noticeable but hardly catastrophic. If anything, they add to the epistolary hinting toward the narrative structure, in that Jazz is telling us the story in the truest sense. Yes Artemis is trope-laden, but that’s not to its detriment as an enjoyable thriller. The setting adds challenge and isn’t just a backdrop.

Ultimately if you go into it expecting anything more you’ll be disappointed. The allegory and political point-making I alluded to is kept at arm’s length to the core story, as it rightly should be. Artemis is a fantastic follow-up for The Martian, neither a sequel or a prequel but more a companion on one’s shelf, and iterates in generous form on the winning formula of that book.

Book Review: Dark Matter

Dark_MatterDark Matter was one of those books I saw trending on Goodreads that piqued my interest… not for any specific reason but I just liked the sound of it. I finally saw it in Waterstones recently and took the plunge.

I’m glad I did – Dark Matter hooked me from the first chapter! The scenes of normalcy it built up – Jason Dessen, a physics lecturer, popping out for an errand, leaving his perfect, happy family, only for this normalcy to be breathlessly subverted as he is abducted on the way home. It hooked me quickly, wanting to know quite what happened leading up to this moment – what made Jason Dessen special – and how the narrative goes from there. It’s an intoxicating, intriguing opening that really hooks you in; certainly did for me!

I can’t say I wasn’t a little concerned with the science-fiction aspects. Dark Matter is billed a “mindbending” and deals with the theory of multiple universes coexisting with our own. I was a little sceptical – this concept can be quite high and dry indeed. I was worried as I advanced through the book as to whether this science-fiction aspect would not hit the mark with me and leave the plot out in the cold.

Fortunately, this was not the case. The multiverse theory is dealt with quite deftly I thought – Jason’s abductor is revealed to be Jason from another universe where life turned out very differently. This Jason – Jason2 – is the inventor of a strange box that allows him to travel with ease between the multiverses.

This development later on in the book explains some of the mystery surrounding the first third of the book and it sets up some satisfying twists. Crucially, Dark Matter doesn’t hammer home the multiverse theory at its root too hard; it’s easy to wrap oneself up in the theory. I’ve recently been reading the Long Earth series by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett; those books deal with a similar idea to Dark Matter but I found that as the “space” in which the story can take place – multiple worlds, or multiple “instances” of Earth – increases, the narrative pacing just dilutes out to fill that space. It collapses like a souffle.

Thankfully, this fate does not befall Dark Matter. Instead the scientific principle at the root of the story doesn’t weigh it down – the story provides a great, and thankfully finite, context with which to explain a complicated theory. That’s what, I feel, Dark Matter did so right – it focussed on the characters it proposes for a thrilling mystery. It also explores the multiverse theory, the idea that “things are the same but a little bit different” through the lens of massive macro changes to the world as a result but it better focusses through Jason’s micro perspective – his wife and son.

Now I can’t really comment on the accuracy (or lack of) in how Dark Matter portrays the multiverse theory; it’s a bit beyond me. However, the projection of the theory that Dark Matter presents fits the story nicely and doesn’t overpower the narrative. It fits the mood and the tone of the story. Dark Matter has the breathless, pacey feel of a movie (an adaptation of the novel is planned)… I’d rate it highly along Lee Child’s work, with a twist of Michael Crichton and Andy Weir. It’s just the sort of book I like to read!

All of this is wrapped up in crisp, tight prose that was a joy to read – it definitely propelled me through the story and made Dark Matter a brisk, enjoyable read! The strong characterisation throughout, and toward the end as the mystery unravels, was aided by the strong writing. The complex theory behind the narrative was kept in check where it could’ve easily tied itself in knots.

Overall I can say with confidence that Dark Matter proved a thrilling, engaging and absolutely enjoyable read, and definitely only the first of Blake Crouch’s work I’ll be sampling on the strength of the effort!

Book Review: Sirens

SirensAs part of my recently-concluded Creative Writing degree course I had the opportunity to briefly study Crime fiction, which proved an enjoyable divergence from my recent reading. Indeed, this lead onto a conversation with a friend of mine who’s been urging me to dip my toe into noir crime fiction for as long as I can recall; serendipitously, Sirens happened to be on sale on Amazon and, after a little prod from my noir-aficionado friend, it ended up sitting on my bedside table not very long after.

From the off, I recognised a lot of traits in Sirens that I had identified as part of my studies, in particular in relation to the set text I examined and enjoyed for the Crime strand of the module, Shut Eye by Adam Baron. There are some flawed, morally-ambiguous characters, a seedy, gritty underbelly and the usage of the city, in the case of Sirens, Manchester, becomes a character in itself. Reflecting on my studies, Sirens was making, well, all the right noises.

The book has a gritty, bleak tone that is exemplified by the deliberate choice of setting and time: Manchester in November. Even as someone that is not familiar with Manchester at all (indeed I’m a Londoner) that alone does a great deal to set a mood and tone that the book keeps going all the way through. The presentation of Manchester is vivid in accentuating that sense of tone, even when the action and story move across distinctly disparate areas of the city – abandoned industrial areas to exclusive penthouses to what amounts to the epitome of suburbia are all facades that contain the overarching mood. It’s deeply atmospheric and engrossing, the city itself drawing me in as a reader.

The characters, too, are equally atmospheric; they all occupy shades of grey in terms of morality that are reflected in the bleak winter skies that permeate the Manchester in Sirens. It’s an effective mix, the sensation of not knowing who can be trusted, and certainly having ideas of who is bad and who is good upended and subverted just aided in my immersion. Like Shut Eye, there’s a corrosive, and compelling mix of corruption, vice and politics. Better, none of it is presented in a polemic way; if anything, it’s presented in a realistic, gritty stance. As nice as the reader may consider themselves, they can’t help but relate to how real this all could be, behind the façade of closed doors.

The protagonist, Aidan Waits, is perhaps initially a little cliched, the down-on-his-luck detective caught with his hands in the till but the journey he embarks on allows exploration of the character’s depth – who is he working for? Is it ultimately himself? Overall the protagonist is engaging and effective – both as a character and at his job, so there’s something to relate to beneath the multi-faceted surface. He’s an engaging protagonist and the ambiguity over his end goals is another point that propels the reader to finish the book; now he’s waist-deep in this mess, how is he going to get out of it? Or, more to the point we’re led to question, can he?

Being fairly new to the genre of crime thrillers, I’d cut my teeth on pacey books such as the Jack Reacher books from Lee Child. These are action-oriented and, most pleasing for me, unpretentious and accessible. Approaching Sirens I was a little concerned that, being a more serious, “noir” story, it might not quite live up that accessibility. These concerns were for naught; Sirens has a breathless pace that, while perhaps not as unrelenting as Lee Child’s works, which became a reference, still allows for a great deal of immersion into the atmosphere and world created, but it doesn’t linger too long to outstay its welcome. It strikes what I would say is a very good balance. There’s a lot going on that we experience as a reader throughout the first two-thirds of the book that immerses us in the world; details begin to stick out and make us ask questions. It is these questions that propel us, the reader, into the final third of the book where the threads we’ve been wrapped around begin to unravel. This was very satisfying, and Sirens sets up and ending and then delightfully subverts it; the payoff for persevering through the bleak and brutal landscape of Manchester that is portrayed is very satisfying.

I can only wonder how much more concentrated this would be to someone familiar with Manchester; however, this prior knowledge is not essential and this does well to not impede the accessibility of Sirens as a book; as before, Manchester becomes but another character in the story. It’s refreshing, too; while the story briefly touches the classical setting of noir, London, it purposefully doesn’t linger. If anything, London feels an alien landscape from the familiarity of Manchester. This is an effective subversion of the genre, and I feel choosing a setting the author is clearly familiar with, and isn’t London or Edinburgh helps set it apart. There’s no reason these s orts of urban crime stories couldn’t take place in any large metropolitan area, and again the fact that Manchester becomes its own character in the story helps justify that choice.

All this is pulled together with Joseph Knox’s immersive, haunting and evocative prose. It isn’t flowery by any stretch, but neither is it utilitarian. The sparse, pointed and precise construction of the prose is something I appreciated; it lacks pretention, but it doesn’t lack style. It propels the reader through the story but doesn’t linger for self-indulgent reasons, which is why I burned through the book so quickly once it had bitten into me. This is certainly a characteristic it shares with Lee Child’s work which is a major factor in my enjoyment of those books and the writing fits the mood an accentuates it effectively.

Overall as an introduction to potentially wider reading of noir fiction, Sirens was a strong candidate. Gritty, arresting and immersive; I’d highly recommend it! On the back of Sirens I’m certainly looking forward to reading both more of Joseph Knox’s work and more noir crime as a genre!