Book Review: Domain

DomainIt’ll come as no surprise to readers that I am a big fan of author James Herbert’s work. I’ve steadily read a good number (but by no means all) of the 24 novels he published during his lifetime and they all share a common attraction – they’re visceral but approachable horror novels that tell a great, engaging story; like King’s work, there’s no pretence that these novels are literary, but they’re great fun, and, surprisingly, they retain their macabre punch even decades after publication.

There’s some memorable scenes in Herbert’s work, from the opening of a tramp being viscerally devoured by mutant rats in The Rats, the population of Bournemouth – 140,000 people – committing suicide by walking into the sea in The Fog and the multitude of supernatural scares in the brilliantly creepy The Magic Cottage, which I reflected upon previously with The Rats. Domain is no different.

Domain is the final instalment in the “Rats Trilogy”, which I had been both excited and a little apprehensive to read, following The Rats and Lair. I was excited to read it because I’d enjoyed the previous two books; but apprehensive because I was nervous that Herbert wouldn’t quite be able to deliver the post-apocalyptic disaster. It seemed out of his reach almost, especially as the previous books were gloriously timeless in their portrayal of a contemporary reality upended by the mutant manifestations.

But I was wrong. Domain portrays the moment of nuclear apocalypse with possibly the most powerful invocation of a Herbert trope I’ve yet read. Herbert’s books like to divert to vignettes of characters orphaned from the main plot but who are directly impacted by the book’s source of horror. In Domain, we follow people just going about their ordinary business, they have hopes, dreams and wants, and we see their lives cut short by nuclear Armageddon.

Indeed, one of the most powerful of the vignettes is that of the survivor of the attack who seems to be readying her family for breakfast – it seems a normal day but there’s a sense that something’s not quite right and the revelation that her family are just dead bodies tied to their chairs is the cherry on the top of a fantastic, powerful scene that evokes not just horror but the sense of grief a survivor would feel, and a very relatable, but creepy, way they may deal with it.

It’s powerfully done, and it helps Domain stand out to me in a crowd of supernatural-themed stories that, while effective and engaging, don’t entirely gel with me; it’s Domain’s portrayal of post-apocalyptic survival that adds greatly to its influence on me. There’s a lot I’ll take from Domain I can imagine! While I have grown to like Herbert’s supernatural and spooky stories, it’s his grounded-in-reality horror novels that really hit paydirt for me. I’m yet to read a better example of this than Domain.

Being a later work of Herbert’s, Domain does benefit from his accrued experience. The characters we are introduced to seem, in some regards, more rounded – the “everyman” hero in Domain being Steve Culver, a pilot who rescues government man Alex Dealey from the collapse after the bombs hit, and it’s this unlikely pairing that drives the story into its first forays. Culver is revealed to have motives and complexity that are a little unusual in a Herbert novel. That’s not to say we don’t have characters who seem to exist purely to propel the story, but as I explained above, that’s fine and it’s almost refreshing to have characters for this purpose, as the story is that compelling for me to forgive it. Culver and Dealey seem the most developed, with the rest of the cast seeming ancillary. But that’s fine!

Again, Domain is dripping with Herbert’s apparent experience – he knows his niche with Domain and plays it fully. There’s scenes that are uncomfortable to read even in 2018 – in one of the vignettes, a lonely man ends up killing a cat; in another, a survivor of the nuclear attack goes to the toilet, is almost raped before her and her attacker are overcome by the rats – but I accept them, even if they brought about discomfort because Herbert’s work portrays a visceral, instinctive warts-and-all portrayal of the situation. Yes, these things are seedy, grubby and unpleasant – and luridly described – but it’s hard to imagine them not happening.

Domain takes place mostly in underground settings, and this claustrophobia is palpable. It brings on the inevitable, and the imagery is superbly done – gritty, grisly and grotesque. I did wonder whether Domain brings anything new to Herbert’s formula of mutant rats going awry; I feel it brings the notion to its logical conclusion. There’s a certain sense of inevitability, a certain “so where are the rats?” but when they do arrive in each encounter it’s Herbert’s chance to indulge in some of his goriest, grisliest and most visceral and effective horror, especially when combined with the atmosphere stoked up just prior. It’s a very popcorn-esque way of building the tension but it’s there regardless.

That’s not to say there’s not plenty of horror, there is, and the ending is, as I have come to expect with post-apocalyptic fiction, uncertain. And rightly so, there can be no “happily ever after” when civilization is destroyed.

So, is Domain my favourite Herbert novel so far? It was very good. Is it my favourite of the Rats Trilogy? I’m not so sure – I feel that the “cosy catastrophes” of The Rats and Lair, while Herbert’s apocalyptic writing was surprisingly effective and powerful, edge it just slightly with me. Yeah, at times I feel the middle of the book sags, meanders but it’s a gripping and riveting meander that just allows James Herbert to do his best. But that’s not to Domain’s disservice, it’s a fantastic book.

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February Reading Roundup

Photo 01-02-2018, 2 01 36 pmIt’s a bit of an enviable situation to be in but I have recently found myself in possession of a lot of books that I want to read so I thought it would be at least somewhat interesting to examine my current “to-read” pile so I can both weep at how long it’s going to take me (though I hope to speed up!) and reflect on what it is I’m reading lately! As I said previously I’m not doing a reading challenge so numbers aren’t so important but these are the books I want to get read this month or next so let’s take a look:

Artemis by Andy Weir – I really enjoyed The Martian when I read it a few years ago; I feel it does so much right for science fiction – it’s accessible, enjoyable while at the same time not compromising at all in the actual science behind it. Being a fan as such, I am eager to see what Andy Weir has done next and to see he has set his next piece on the Moon – a bit closer to home – is certainly something I’m excited to read.

Fatherland by Robert Harris  – Alternate history has been something I’ve wanted to dip my toe into for a fair while. Last year I read and enjoyed SS-GB so it makes Fatherland, which is regularly rated as one of the top books in the alternate history genre, a no-brainer. I’ve also had The Man in the High Castle on my radar for a while but I felt like starting with Fatherland.

Sahara by Clive Cussler – Cussler is one of those authors who is prolific but I’ve never actually experienced any of his work, so this was another massive punt from his back catalogue that I’m looking forward to enjoying. I generally read a lot of thrillers and I’m fairly enticed by the premise of Sahara. I haven’t seen the apparently-disappointing film version though, so again I feel if I am going to approach the story I’d rather experience the book! Sounds exciting!

Domain by James Herbert – I managed to find this book for sale for £1 in a discount bookstore in Doncaster when visiting a friend and I simply couldn’t say no as I really love the work of James Herbert. I’ve read and thoroughly the previous two books in this series, The Rats and Lair and they’re enjoyable, gruesome horror tales. From what I understand Domain takes a post-apocalyptic twist to this entire formula. Herbert’s work is always gripping and engaging so I expect no less from Domain

Wool by Hugh Howey and Metro 2033 by Dimitry Glukhovsky – these are two books I am linking together because they’re both books I’ve heard of and had on my radar for being notably-good examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. Wool is one that’s been on my to-read list for what seems like time immemorial and it’s highly recommended so it’s about time I stopped thinking about reading it and got to it. Metro 2033 is slightly different; I’m aware of the well-received video games based on these novels but I’m unlikely to play them. I feel seeing perhaps a less Western-centric take on post-apoc (Metro 2033 is set in Moscow) will be a different and interesting perspective

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – this book was an early birthday present from my aforementioned friend (we went book shopping and it was awesome) – and the concept intrigues me. What tipped me over the edge was that my friend recommended it despite the fact he traditionally doesn’t read science fiction; indeed, my research showed me that the author deals also with fantasy which is my friend’s preferred genre. It seems a good point in which to be introduced to Tchaikovsky’s work so we will see!

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown another one I paid £1 for, this is essentially literary roughage for me – I read Inferno in 2016 and I enjoyed it but was fully aware that it was anything but literary, and largely not great writing. But despite that it was an enjoyable, breezy read so I’m not averse to another one from the series. I feel that as a reader who writes it’s important to also read some less good books to glean tips and tricks and I hope that the notch on the bedpost I’ll get from The Da Vinci Code will add to that experience.

So that’s pretty much the state of my to-read pile as it stands! I’m eager to get on with it so hopefully that eagerness will translate into more reading getting actually done!

Review: Universal Harvester (Paperback)

universal-harvesterI’m fortunate that I live a short distance from my local library so I visit often. My library contains a section called Page One in which recently released popular fiction is located. Accordingly, I saw Universal Harvester in this section, on a display with new science-fiction books and, intrigued by the synopsis and on a bit of a punt, I took it out.

Unfortunately, it was only the synopsis that proved enjoyable or interesting. Universal Harvester is set in the late 1990s in the heartland of America, and features Jeremy Heldt who works at a video store where mysterious recordings begin to be reported on the tapes. Now, this synopsis stood out to me because I recall a fairly memorable and highly-rated episode of Doctor Who. I was intrigued to see what the retro, 90s time period would bring (no internet, no smartphones acting like magic wands to the mystery). The synopsis seemed to promise me a creepy, haunting story that threatens the very lives of the characters.

The book starts out fairly slowly, but the first haunted tape soon comes in. I felt fairly hooked – I wanted to find out what the mystery was. Was it supernatural? Was it the shady scheme of some untoward character?

I didn’t really find out as the book seemed to focus more time exploring the backstories and motivations of the characters than actually solving the mystery. There’s virtually no action (save for a car accident that I’m unsure was connected to the mystery) and instead Universal Harvester spends its time navel-gazing at the foibles and tribulations of its characters. Does Jeremy keep his job at the video store or take a better job with better prospects? Does Jeremy’s dad Steve manage to emerge from the shadows of Jeremy’s deceased mother and fix the relationship between father and son? The question I kept asking myself as these characters kept talking and talking was when are we going to get to the mystery?

The trouble with Universal Harvester is that it sets up a creepy mystery in a fairly convincing location (which I feel aided the mystery. Quiet sleepytown America is gripped by creepy videotape mystery works well) but then decides not to actually give any motion to that mystery but focus on the internal quarrels of the characters. I feel the separate storylines do tie together eventually but by the time this happens I’ve become so bored by the individual storylines I pretty much coasted to the end just wanting to finish. How this book managed to creep its way into the science-fiction section of the library where I found it is anyone’s guess as I simply couldn’t detect any hint of sci-fi there; maybe it was subtle, or maybe my abject boredom by the time the plot manages to reach a simmer at best precluded me from noticing.

I didn’t find myself interested in the very personal, very mundane intricacies of these characters lives – they didn’t feel special; instead, they felt totally ancillary to everything happening around them. There are scenes which seem to serve only to forward these uninteresting, mundane character storylines which ultimately bored me – I wanted to see where this all fitted into the mystery with the video tapes but it didn’t seem forthcoming! This made a 200-page novel feel considerably longer.

It’s unfortunate that Universal Harvester doesn’t quite deliver what its synopsis or setting sells as I feel the terse, sparse prose of the author isn’t bad; I just feel that it’s too directed at character study and fatally fails to move the plot fast enough or with enough intrigue to keep my interest. There’s a definite sense that the prose style matches the atmosphere the author is trying to portray, but this doesn’t alleviate the problems I had with the glacial, distant plot that seemed to be second fiddle to the characters. That’s not to say it won’t appeal to anyone but I prefer significantly pacier storytelling.

Perhaps Universal Harvester was trying to be more “literate” than perhaps it should’ve been, focusing on flawed characters, all at a crossroads, rather than the mystery they find themselves embroiled in. Disappointing, but I’d freely admit that it wasn’t for me.

Review: The Road (Paperback)

the_roadIf a book irritates me within the first thirty pages, it’s not a great beginning. However – and this is a theme that recurs when discussing The Road – things don’t seem to progress or evolve; they start off as ‘crappy’ and are content to remain there.

“A work of such terrible beauty,” the review quote from  The Times states, “that you will struggle to look away.” We’ll see.

The narrative follows, allegedly, the journey of a father and son along a road. That is the start and finish of the narrative, as far as I understood anyway. We learn pretty much nothing about the characters – they don’t even get names; indeed, the only character that gets named, it is revealed, was lying about it – and we learn nothing about the world either. What is presented is, essentially, a very ‘plain vanilla’ destroyed world, with no hints as to what caused the disaster that befell the countryside. It just exists. Likewise, there’s little propelling the characters on their journey beyond it ‘being cold’

I get the experiment that Cormac McCarthy is attempting here with this book. Stripping down the narrative to revolve around two characters. But it feels so hollow. The characters have no depth to them; we don’t learn much about them, and they seem to exist for the sake of existing. Why is the story focusing on them, specifically? They’re exhibiting a fatal flaw in protagonists in that they are boring. I didn’t care what happened to them.

The prose, too, was squalid. Again, I understand the ‘experiment’ the book attempts – in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with no hope, what do conventions matter? But the lack of structure to this book makes it much harder work to read than it had to be. There are no ‘chapters’; merely blocks of text which read like shopping lists of events that happen and then don’t happen. There’s an abject lack of an atmosphere, and action – clearly these are genre tropes and trappings that Cormac McCarthy is desperate to avoid, for want of his book being described as genre fiction? The prose is so inconsistent and forced – going from utilitarian one moment to lasciviously over-embellished within the same sentence – that it torpedoes any credibility and authenticity that might’ve been there.

What made me angry about The Road was that I could almost taste the author’s thinly-veiled contempt for genre conventions that result in good books because it would interrupt the purity of his experiment in the form. Yes, abandon punctuation and chapter-isation, but have a narrative that either can support itself without those things and avoid writing plodding, dull prose. The Road stands out for me as one of the few books that can portray an earthquake as, essentially, something that happens and is never called back to.

The dialog is easily one of the most annoying and irritating parts of the book. There’s no conventions or punctuation, so even keeping tabs on who is speaking requires effort. But the majority of the conversations between the man and the boy seem to occur as follows:

Boy: I’m scared.

Man: I know. We should go in this house.

Boy: I don’t want to go. I’m cold.

Man: Don’t be scared. We’ll go now.

Boy: Okay.

There is nothing revealed through these snatches of dialog. We learn nothing about the characters, their past, their feelings through the dialog. Of course the boy is scared – he’s a child – and the man tries to reassure him. But the distance in their relationship, and the coolness with which they speak to each other, doesn’t feel like a man and his son. It doesn’t improve, either.

One of the things I learned – and has proved valuable advice – as part of my Creative Writing degree is that characters should undergo, over the course of the story, both a physical journey and a personal journey which changes who they are. In The Road, however, neither of the two characters of the man or the boy seem to undergo any sort of change. They remain as cold and distant to each other toward the end as they do at the beginning, which really made me question whether I should even become involved or engaged in their story. In terms of physical journey, the terse description of the world or situations of The Road made it feel like the characters move from point to point on a map, with the rest of the “world” left as a blank page. It’s not immersive, it’s not even a fully-constructed world (because, I suspect, that would be too genre) and seems artificially imbued with awkwardly-poetic language that just doesn’t sit well; clearly an attempt to move the reader for want of being moving. There’s no substance in The Road to really warrant it.

I contrast the bleak, barren atmosphere of The Road to a similar but infinitely better-executed One by Conrad Williams (which is a really damn fine book) – One and The Road are quite similar narratively but One has much more engaging, flawed characters who seem to change as the story goes on, and it’s tragic but beautiful, and the world is far better realised. The Road would do well to emulate the stark, harrowing environment of One. Yes, One addresses a somewhat similar narrative to The Road – a man’s search across a destroyed landscape for his son; a search which drives him, ultimately, to madness – but does so in such a more effective and gripping way it’s almost comical to put these books together: One is simply so much better written, plotted and executed. I would heartily recommend it over The Road in a heartbeat.

The Road is indeed a bleak, depressing book, full of unrealised potential. However, hollow prose that ditches conventions for the virtue of being experimental above all else, unengaging, flat characters who don’t undergo any kind of journey or give me any real reason to empathise with them and an irritating experimental nature that seems, subconsciously to show a certain disdain for the more accessible genre trappings of post-apocalyptic fiction means that I certainly won’t be picking up another one of Cormac McCarthy’s books again; I’m only glad this came from the library and not with my own money. Road to nowhere.

Buy The Road on Amazon.co.uk (if you’re a zombie)