Famous Men Who Never Lived – Open Your Heart And Your Reality

51tsalt2b0el._sx321_bo1204203200_Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.

Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.

Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.

The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.

And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.

Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.

Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10
-Cole

The Rise of Kyoshi – Solid as a Rock

F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi, written with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, breaks new ground in the Avatar universe while paying homage to the source material that fans love. The novel explores new territories and pursues intriguing storylines that equally satisfy that Avatar craving and provide a fresh journey back to the world of benders. 

The Rise of Kyoshi follows the titular earth Avatar in her early days. Yee cleverly circumvents tried-and-true Avatar tropes–discovering the new Avatar, training montages, etc.– by placing Kyoshi in the center of a secret scandal. The Avatar has been incorrectly identified, and Kyoshi is his servant. The revelation that Kyoshi is the actual Avatar (and has been living with the misidentified one) kickstarts an Aang-worthy whirlwind of controversy, betrayal, and growth for both Kyoshi and her comrades. From there, the story meanders through the Earth Kingdom as Kyoshi learns about herself and her bending abilities. Yee weaves an elegant tapestry of politics, history, bending, and character to build upon the world fans know and love, but Rise doesn’t lean on these Avatar-trappings for support. Rather, Yee builds on the rich lore of the Avatar universe and crafts a unique story that deftly avoids using the critically acclaimed source material as a crutch. 

Kyoshi’s story is one of heartbreak, personal discovery, and hunger for power. We meet her as a fledgling bender who’s been cast aside by her parents, teachers, and society at large. Her adventures characterize her as a tough but unseasoned bender who has a keen eye for strategy but has yet to find her true moral compass. In this way, she’s an interesting middle ground between the two Avatars we’ve explored most in the two TV shows: Aang and Korra. Kyoshi blends Aang’s thirst for bending prowess with Korra’s search for meaning and self-discovery, creating a powerhouse character that’s just plain fun to read about. 

The supporting cast boasts a collection of interesting characters who typically stray into archetypal territory. While The Rise of Kyoshi deals with heavy themes and doesn’t steer clear of tough topics, the characters adjacent to Kyoshi are indicative of the young adult genre stamp. Kyoshi’s “Team Avatar” comprises a smattering of benders who each have a stand-out personality trait: there’s the aloof/suspicious leader of the bunch, the reluctant sifu, the warmhearted but tough-on-the-outside friend, and many more. This isn’t to say they aren’t lovable or enjoyable to see in action. Instead, I got the sense that there’s more to the characters than is readily available here.

The most unexpected surprise during my read-through was the exquisite description of bending. As an Avatar superfan, I worried that prose wouldn’t be a fit vehicle for the insane acts of bending often portrayed by the core series or the graphic novels. But Yee rose to the challenge and doled out amazing bending set-pieces. He treats bending techniques with great care and makes it feel real and intuitive, which is a crucial element in any Avatar story. 

The Rise of Kyoshi begs the question: will non-Avatar fans enjoy this/is it a good entry point to the world? My opinion: this book is best served as a dessert following the entree that is the series rather than an appetizer. It uses the series as its foundation, despite being a prequel, and deals out fan service in a tasteful way that gives added meaning to ardent fans. That said, a new reader could very much enjoy the prosaic introduction to Avatar and use it as a gateway to the larger pantheon of TV and graphic novels set in the same universe. 

Casting aside any previous fandom or lack thereof, The Rise of Kyoshi is an excellent extension of Avatar lore. Kyoshi is a perfect subject, lending a new perspective to the Avatar’s history and duties outside of Aang and Korra. As the avatar universe continues to successfully expand, it’s impressive how the worldbuilding remains consistently high quality, fresh, and doesn’t step on the toes of what came before. I’m already eagerly awaiting The Shadow of Kyoshi, which releases July 2020. If you’re a fan of Avatar in any capacity, this one’s for you.

Rating: The Rise of Kyoshi – 8.5/10

-Cole

Hollow Kingdom – Crow And Tell

51yagnhv-1l._sx329_bo1204203200_Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.

Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots

Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.

This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.

The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.

Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: Hollow Kingdom – 6.5/10
-Cole

Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook – Natural 20

“I’m going to read the entire Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook” turned out to be my greatest terrible idea yet. Or maybe it was a terrible great idea? I’m not entirely sure, mainly because I thoroughly enjoyed the 320-page deep dive into the world of DnD, but it also felt like trudging through a quagmire of intricate rules and descriptions just so I can tell people when they’re wrong about how effective their Potion of Fortitude is. By the time I turned the final page, I felt resoundingly good about my time with the manual.

The first point in the Player’s Handbook’s favor is its inherent fantasy bent. We’re no strangers to fantasy here, but to read through a fantasy game’s manual, no matter how whimsical or magical the game’s content, is decidedly different than picking up Lord of the Rings. The Player’s Handbook reads as a remarkably self-aware manual, playing that awareness to its advantage by offering short prosaic snippets that help readers vividly imagine the worlds of DnD before then giving more context to the nitty-gritty rules aspects of the game. These short fantasy descriptions that lead each chapter are welcoming entryways into the deep explorations of game mechanics that follow. 

The Player’s Handbook achieves its designated purpose. Namely, explaining the rules of “the world’s greatest role-playing game” to a newcomer. I opened the tome with just four DnD sessions under my belt (all played with the *supposedly experienced* Quill to Live staff!), most of which saw my character, Jimbabwe Razzledazzle, simply making jokes and occasionally bonking enemies on their heads with xylophone mallets to little effect. There was a tipping point somewhere in those first four sessions, though, when I thought “I need to know this game inside and out,” sparking my impulse to read straight through the first of the game’s core rulebooks. 

The rule descriptions are flawlessly complemented by expertly crafted illustrations that bring the world of DnD to life. It’s a game predicated on imagination, and seeing that concept depicted in the illustrations is an added bonus on top of the comprehensive and accessible rule-based content. 

DnD’s pantheon of rules plays the starring role as one might expect, but it feels distinctly readable in a way I never anticipated. The book is laid out in chapters and parts, each outlining a core facet of DnD: Races, Classes, Combat, Equipment, Spells, and more. I found the chapters and the content within them less captivating as the book carried on, but that’s because the layout and order just makes sense. I ravenously read through the class and race descriptions, eager to understand which types of beings might inhabit a game world and how they differ. Then I ventured more slowly into the other game elements. Sure, reading about the effects of leather armor can be interesting enough, but the true joy of reading through these segments is in understanding how they impact the game. For that reason, the less outwardly exciting chapters are completely manageable…

…until SPELLS. “Spells” is the final core chapter before a few appendices, and it’s literally just 50+ pages of spell descriptions. I read them all. Every. Single. One. Even when three different spells had near-identical effects with only small stat changes to differentiate them from their arcane brethren, I read every word. It felt philosophically necessary, if slightly masochistic, to make the leap and finish the book all the way through, even though it meant slogging through the spell descriptions. And this isn’t to say that they’re bad. Quite the opposite–the spell descriptions have that same accessible-but-fun spark as the rest of the rules. They’re just so…numerous. 

But I didn’t quit, and I don’t think any player should. The spells available in DnD quite literally weave magic into the world. And while most of them aren’t available to players right away, there’s value in knowing just what kinds of magic permeate your game world, and I felt better-versed in DnD after closing the page on the “Spells” chapter. 

There are myriad game elements, rule descriptions, and other tips and tricks in the Player’s Handbook that I’ve neglected to mention here. The book is so replete with game lore and mechanics that it’s impossible not to recommend it to anyone interested in jumping down the DnD rabbit hole. Pair those rules with amazing illustrations and tidbits of fun fantasy wordsmithery, and it’s a critical hit. 

Rating: Player’s Handbook – Read it if you’re at all interested in playing DnD/10
-Cole

2001: An Odd Space Essay

Nearly two years ago, I sat in Chicago’s beautifully ornate Music Box theatre at the peak of the venue’s 70MM film festival eagerly waiting for the lights to dim and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to begin. Next to me sat Ian Simmons, a friend, a coworker, and a movie critic/superhero capable of producing three or more podcast reviews per week for his site, Kicking the Seat. Just a few months prior, Ian and I exchanged a few messages about possibly partnering on a podcast series that paired my blog (the now-defunct ColeTries.com, where I posted about my adventures into the unknown and the uncomfortable) with his site. Our first toe-dip into the waters of the collaboration was a viewing of The Fate of the Furious, which we both enjoyed, though for my part (and hopefully Ian’s), not nearly as much as we enjoyed the prospects of our joint interests in storytelling and what makes something “good” or “bad.” Enter Late Screening, a monthly podcast series in which Ian would subject me to a movie I’d never seen before and, by most accounts, should’ve seen long ago. I’m talking classics like Jurassic Park, The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and countless others. We cooked up a list of missed movie opportunities and started scheduling showings.

That first experience led to a cavalcade of horizon-broadening movie-binging that completely changed my outlook as a reader. Game-changing literary or cinematic favorites appear with such irregularity that it’s easy to dismiss new experiences as “not my thing.” On one night I’m tempted to call fateful, 2001: A Space Odyssey, both the film and its prosaic treatment, looked me dead in the eye and overhauled my entire bookish world for the better.

Kubrick’s sci-fi epic fell somewhere in the first few months, and I distinctly remember sitting in the Music Box’s butt-numbing chair hoping desperately that the film wouldn’t bore my brains out. 2 hours and 45 minutes later, I walked home fueled by an insatiable appetite for fan theories, reviews, any piece of content that would tell me more about 2001. The following day, still jarred by Kubrick’s cinematic journey into deep space and what lies within it, I spoke on the podcast and came to the determination on-air that this was a storytelling masterpiece.

And then I read the book.

Perhaps out of sheer aggravation that I wouldn’t shut up about 2001, my then girlfriend (now fiancee–please hold your applause) bought me Arthur C. Clarke’s unique prose treatment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unique is probably an understatement here–Clarke wrote the novel as he and Kubrick developed the film, so neither is a true adaptation of the other. Instead, they exist as slightly different expressions of the same idea. Kubrick’s film boasts incredible scope paired with audiovisual mastery. Clarke’s novel paints a stunning panorama of space’s enormity relative to the human race and somehow makes it entirely relatable.

For me, this one-two punch of near-flawless filmmaking and delectable writing sparked a hunger for a first-class ticket to the massive pantheon of science fiction.

Clarke’s prose in 2001 delicately orbits perfection, often to the point of leaving characterization in its lyrical wake. World-building through resonant and poetic descriptions of space takes control from start to finish. It’s not the best book ever, and it’s not my all-time number one, but it’s damn close. And to me, what matters more is that Clarke’s work left a permanent mark on my bookworm psyche and busted open a page-devouring stargate (editor’s note: Cole has not seen the movie Stargate) in the part of my brain that sees a book on a shelf and demands it be read. 2001 ushered me on a personal interstellar maiden voyage into a genre I would previously avoid for no good reason. While Kubrick’s film made a meteoric rise to the top of my favorite movie list, Clarke’s book ignited a completely new reading frontier. I explored other classics like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? to fill the HAL- and Bowman-sized void on my to-read shelves. I’ve plunged headfirst into Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn trilogy (thanks to an added push from the rest of the QTL staff).

Immediately after I came down from the interplanetary high of movie and novel alike, I devoured the remainder of the series in a matter of weeks (regretfully in the case of 3001: The Final Odyssey–stay away at all costs).

Like some of my other favorite stories–Harry Potter, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Fables among them–2001: A Space Odyssey provided me with an endlessly chaseable adrenaline rush. I knew the film was special even as I was watching it for the first time, and I knew the book would change me from the first page. And the results are tangible. Ian and I launched a second series, Page2Screen, to showcase and discuss book-movie adaptations. Notably, A Space Odyssey earned a slot on the schedule, and more recently, that same podcast series opened up yet another genre to me with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

My fantasy-filled world opened up to include a pillar of the literary world I was content to leave unexplored. To imagine a world without 2001 feels impossible now, and the series of events that brought me there felt like a story worth telling to fellow readers. If you’ve held off on that off-kilter, unread, unfamiliar book, pick it up. It may be your next game-changer.

The Digital Plunge: My Three-Month Dive into Kindle-Only Reading

On March 1, 2019, I metaphorically set aside my library of 300+ physical books to prepare for a deep dive into the world of digital-only reading. Spurred by genuine curiosity, I read strictly on my Kindle for a full quarter of a year, ending on June 1.

As a former paper-only apologist, my 90-day excursion into Jambly McReadalot’s (I had to rename my Kindle after discovering I had about 50 different Kindle-enabled devices connected to my Amazon account, all with generic names) paper-white screen left me shaken to my core. Quite frankly, I enjoyed the whole experience with a few hesitations. Making the abrupt switch–and sustaining it for three months–fueled my newfound appreciation for digital books while simultaneously reminding me of the wonders of physical editions.

Along the way, I read a grand total of three books: Pet Sematary, There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck, and The Neutronium Alchemist. Typically I’d chide myself for low productivity after seeing those numbers, but 1) The third book was more than 1000 pages of dense Sci-Fi prose and 2) I never wanted to set a productivity goal for the project; instead, the point was to see whether good ol’ Jambly acted as a stimulant or a hindrance. Turns out I ended up at about the same reading speed in either medium.  

I understand there are factions of digital evangelists that rival paperback purists, but I want to be clear that this piece isn’t meant to sway anyone from one side to the other. I wrote this for the reader who has a Kindle gathering dust, subject to occasional utterances of “Maybe I’ll try that out sometime.” I wrote it for the other reader who’s afraid to bring a beefy paperback on that morning commute but won’t take the digital plunge. It’s an exploration of the ups and downs that inevitably accompany your chosen reading medium, and if you’re wavering even slightly, I hope I can give you the nudge you need open up to the best of both literary worlds.

The Coffee Table Effect (Or The Kitchen Counter Effect)

I devoured Pet Sematary just two weeks after embarking on my adventure with Jambly McReadalot, bolstered by the high of reading in a new way and reading my first Stephen King book. Following that binge and leading into April, I’d look down at my coffee table and see Jambly sitting there, idle, destitute, unused. During a three week stretch, whenever I had a bit of free time, I’d reach instead for my PS4 controller or the TV remote. Simply by virtue of being a device, my Kindle had a distinct disadvantage.

When I’m reading any book, it has a near-permanent space on my coffee table or kitchen counter. Somewhere visible, so it begs for my time. With physical books, this keeps me accountable and effectively steers me away from other content that fights for my attention. There are times when I stare at my bookshelf and just think about the possibility of reading all the tales within. My Kindle? Different story. That mental draw, almost a calling, to read a book contained within the Kindle’s plastic walls diluted to the point of near non-existence.

Eventually, this limitation subsided, perhaps sparked by my growing interest in The Neutronium Alchemist. Still, the psychological roadblock hindered my early interest in my little e-book library.

Train (or Car, or Bus, or Plane, or Boat, you get it) Brain

My morning commute usually gives me 25 to 30 minutes of built-in reading time that I previously used to play mobile games and listen to podcasts. As soon as I switched to digital-only and started reading on the way to and from the office, I doubled my productivity by filling my otherwise free time with a book.

As an added bonus, reading on the train conditioned me for shorter reading spurts than I was used to. I’ve always been a “big chunks” reader, plowing through books in irregular 100+ page bursts. Now, Kindle in-hand, I can easily knock out 20-40 pages during the time I’d otherwise frivolously waste on Clash of Clans. That shift has seeped into my other reading habits as well; now I’ll sneak a quick chapter before dinner or flip through a few pages while I wait for a friend at the movie theater.

The most challenging aspect of this monumental shift in how I read is returning to physical volumes during my commute. I’m just starting Peter Hamilton’s The Naked God, which, at 1300 pages, is a brick of a book. Reading on the train is comparatively clunky and taxing, but my longing for paper currently outweighs my need for convenience.

Progress At A Glance

I’m stuck in the mental purgatory of constantly wishing to know how far I’ve read while also hoping not to see unwelcome reminders of said progress. A physical book’s page numbers offer the tried-and-true solution.

The Kindle offers various methods of progress tracking. The percentage measure seems to reign supreme based on my limited research, and I assume the option exists to turn off any progress meter completely.

During my readings of Pet Sematary and There’s Seamen on the Poop Deck, I welcomed the percentage meter because it rose steadily at a reasonable pace. When The Neutronium Alchemist entered the fray, the soul-crushing reminder that I hadn’t even ticked that meter up by 1% after what felt like 20 pages wore me down. It’s simple math, of course, but seeing my progress felt more like an obstacle than an encouragement.

Buyer’s Boredom

Purchasing a novel on a Kindle is the book-buying equivalent of a one night stand. It happens quickly, gives you a fleeting jolt of satisfaction, then leaves you feeling empty.

This gripe, in all likelihood, is personal to me, but buying any book on Jambly McReadalot left me feeling vapid. Half of my love for reading stems from trips to the bookstore with the anticipation of a new literary discovery. I can remember where I bought most of my books, the others I considered purchasing, and why I chose the book at hand. The Kindle makes this experience robotic, and I felt drained, rather than excited, after buying a book and waiting for the download meter to reach 100%.

Best of Both Worlds

By no means an expert after three months, but now seasoned enough to make some sort of judgment, I’m happy I’ve started to explore the possibilities of digital reading. I’ll put it as simply as I can: reading Kindle-only for three months took me from my extreme paper-only point of view and opened up a new, convenient option with its own inherent benefits. I may not be an e-book radical, but I’m certainly warming up to the possibility.

Pet Sematary – Sometimes Read Is Better

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 9.06.19 AMStephen King’s Pet Sematary plunges readers into a deep well of terror that provides a steady supply of eerie atmosphere, horrifying happenings, and a look into their effect on human relationships. The novel wrestles with death, grief, and human nature, bleeding dark themes onto every page. Pet Sematary transformed me from a hesitant first-time King reader to a horror rookie who can appreciate the power of scares and omnipresent creep-factor. Over the course of the book’s ~400 pages, I eagerly read from chapter to chapter hoping to learn something new about the characters, the small town Northeastern United States setting, and the mysterious goings-on that drive the story to an incredibly satisfying end.

Protagonist Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine on the heels of a job offer at a nearby university’s medical center. On the day of their move, Louis, his wife Rachel, and children Ellie (5) and Gage (2) meet their neighbor Jud Crandall. Jud’s lived in Ludlow his entire life, and he strikes a friendly, pseudo-father-son relationship with Louis. The two drink beers on Jud’s porch and shoot the breeze almost nightly, and Jud eventually brings Louis and his family to the eponymous Pet Sematary, a graveyard kept (and spelled, notably) by children for the pets they’ve lost, many of which were killed by trucks speeding down the main road where Louis and Jud reside. It’s after this incident that Pet Sematary reaches a boiling point that only rarely cools to a simmer. Rachel is visibly shaken by the place while Ellie is intrigued and starts asking questions about death. An accident at Louis’ medical office kickstarts a series of events that intertwines his life with the Pet Sematary and turns the creepiness up to max volume. Turns out Native American burial grounds don’t take kindly to being trifled with–but that’s all I can say before giving away the book’s juiciest and scariest moments.

King’s shining prose won me over almost immediately, cementing Pet Sematary as a quality reading experience. He condenses lofty ideas into short, digestible sentences. He keeps the reader interested with effortless descriptions of Louis’ train of thought. He introduces supernatural elements so smoothly that they feel tangible. It feels dumb even typing this about an author who’s written more than 50 novels, but it’s true. Every paragraph serves a purpose, whether it’s exploring a motif or driving the story forward at a breakneck pace–there’s nothing missing here, nor is there any excess fat. King weaves his tale with Goldilocks-zone accuracy: it’s juuuuust right.

That paragon prose empowers King and his story to present vivid imagery and starkly accurate portrayals of family life, friendships, grief, death, and sanity (or lack thereof). Pet Sematary, told through the lens of Louis Creed’s psyche, offers a darkly radiant panorama of addled minds and the power of death over the human brain. As the nefarious events of the novel unfold, each character deals with them in ways that feel undeniably true to form. When death pops up around a corner, Ellie, a child, grows curious. Rachel remembers the traumatic death of her sister. Louis and Jud tell each other stories and do their best to keep one another afloat in grief-stricken waters. Every relationship and conversation in Pet Sematary rings with authenticity; never once did I feel disconnected from the novel due to a stray cheesy line or over-the-top description. Just as he does with his prose for readers, King gives his characters exactly what they need to keep the story compelling.

All that said, I thought Pet Sematary’s single shortcoming was the protagonist himself. Louis Creed is a Doctor who has a new job, a loving wife (sure, they fight once in a while), two kids, and a friend in Jud Crandall. But he’s the shallowest of the cast, to the point where it becomes easy to read Pet Sematary as a self-insert novel, the main character becoming a link between the reader and the world. Some may prefer this approach, but I wanted a multi-faceted Louis over the one-dimensional conduit who lends his senses to readers on their Pet Sematary journey. Still, this is a matter of preference, and despite my misgivings, I breezed through the book.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pet Sematary for me was that I enjoyed it so much even without overwhelming supernatural or fantasy elements. Don’t get me wrong–they’re plentiful. But instead of a horror onslaught, King gives readers a steady drip of scares that builds to a steady stream. By the novel’s conclusion, readers are subjected to a terrifying deluge of scares and unsettling imagery. They’re effective moments, but their impact is multiplied tenfold by King’s restraint. Once again, he gives us exactly what we need–no more, no less.

I read the last words of Pet Sematary and noted a distinct connection to one of the book’s earlier moments. The novel’s final moments are as powerful as those that built to it, and Pet Sematary is punctuated by a deftly written conclusion that left me rattled, with an intense and newfound appreciation for the King of Horror.

Rating: Pet Sematary – 9.0/10
-Cole