A First-Time Stephen King Reader Walks into a Pet Sematary…

…and the punchline is an 850-ish word essay about his inaugural experience with The King of Horror, which Google tells me is one of Stephen King’s nicknames.

9781982115982_p0_v3_s1200x630It’s admittedly difficult to kick off a piece like this knowing full well that Stephen King has a body of work large enough to be called a pantheon (58 novels!) and a following loyal enough to produce curated meme listicles, “read this if you like Stephen King” listicles, and other clickbait about the guy’s storytelling prowess. Case in point: Stephen King has a fanbase that rivals the likes of Tolkien or Rowling, and for good reason. As a first-time Stephen King reader, Pet Sematary (review to come) acted as the Jud Crandall to my Louis Creed, leading me into a world of creepy spooky stuff that I don’t fully understand.

I closed out Pet Sematary with a newfound appreciation for an author whose work I should’ve started reading years ago. And it’s still early, but to borrow some corporate jargon, I have three key takeaways.

Practice Makes Perfect Prose

There’s no way around it: the dude can write. Pet Sematary boasts a heavy plot and complex themes, but King navigates those rough waters with breezy prose. His writing bears telltale signs of a seasoned veteran. King can describe human thought and stream of consciousness with unmatched skill. When you write as much as King does, you’ll inevitably learn a few tricks of the trade, and that firm grasp on the craft of writing radiated throughout my first foray into King’s work. I won’t belabor the point here, but check out my coming review for more on the technical aspects of his writing.

On a more conceptual level, King’s wordsmithery does wonders to destroy barriers of entry into the horror genre. Despite the wishes of Will, The Quill to Live’s resident horror expert, I’ve steered wildly clear from anything remotely scary because one time I watched The Conjuring and couldn’t sleep for three days. Pet Sematary may not have prepared me for a deep dive into the vast pool of horror writing, but it’s moved the needle from “Absolutely not” to “tentatively excited about the genre’s prospects.” King’s prosaic guidance into an unfamiliar branch of literature opened my eyes to new possibilities. Perhaps more importantly, he convinced me that the horror genre can play host to meaningful explorations of difficult concepts and lofty themes.

Motifs, Mo’ Problems? Not Quite

Speaking as a reformed Fantasy purist with a years-long preference for Young Adult writing, I’ve read my fair share of books that simply present ideas without deeply exploring them. Now, following my reformation, I’ve ventured into new literary territory and learned the difference between merely presenting concepts and actually grappling with them. Pet Sematary fortified my relatively recent love for complex adult (no, not that kind of adult) fiction thanks to King’s thematic prowess.

Reading Pet Sematary, I felt the crushing weight of death on my shoulders. It’s omnipresent through the novel, and it rears its head in unique, intriguing ways. The doctor protagonist’s no-nonsense attitude toward death balances exquisitely with his wife’s terror at a minuscule hint of it. His young daughter’s reluctance to accept it as a possibility rests in the middle of her parents’ views, neatly filling in the spectrum.

When death rears its ugly head, which happens at various points in various ways, I feel prepared to analyze the events through the lenses Stephen King so elegantly builds. His motifs rise in volume chapter by chapter in a deft crescendo of prose that feeds directly into the novel’s climax.

King treats all of his motifs with equal care. And while death plays a starring role, others join the fray to create a food-for-thought tapestry that’s punctuated by the terrifying story that lies beneath.

Creepy>Scary

It’s one thing to make me jump in my seat with a well-timed scare, and it’s another thing to inject a sense of looming dread and doom into every paragraph. In Pet Sematary, King does both quite well, but his appreciation for balance makes this one of the most powerful tools in his arsenal.

There were three very specific moments in Pet Sematary that scared me enough to raise my heart rate and compel me to look around the house for intruders. These scares are spaced out and surprising, even when I sensed something scary around the next narrative corner. I literally hesitated to pet my own cats as I read the book.

The story that resides in between these scares, though, is violently eery. King weaves a narrative that’s laced with horrifyingly unsettling moments, concepts, and occurrences that had me on edge, turning digital pages as fast as I could.

This probably boils down strictly to personal preference, but King’s foundation of creepy atmosphere sprinkled with truly jump-worthy scares is a recipe for page-turning greatness.

(Read the) Rest in Peace

Pet Sematary expanded my literary horizons into the realm of horror, and I have King’s skilled craftsmanship to thank for it. Reading one of the lauded author’s titles has me amped up for more, seeking that next rush of adrenaline, thought-provoking concept, and layered prose. If you’re somehow on the fence about Stephen King, do yourself a favor and jump down to the “I’ll give him a try” side.

-Cole

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Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

UmbrellaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole

Skin&Earth – It’s Lit

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 9.27.20 AMWhen an established creator receives a veritable onslaught of support and encouragement to pursue a completely new project in a foreign medium, things like Skin&Earth gloriously explode into the fandom at hand. Skin&Earth Volume One, collecting the first six issues of Lights’ concept-album-turned-comic-book, competes with and pays homage to the best graphic novels of our time while simultaneously pushing the medium’s boundaries with refreshing ideas.

Lights, best known for her Juno Award-winning music, released Skin&Earth in conjunction with her album of the same title. Each of the story’s chapters coincides with a track from the album. This connection is part of what makes the book so special, even though my longtime love for Lights’ work may have swayed my enjoyment of the story toward the positive end of the spectrum. Still, in the interest of being fair, I’ll explore the book as a standalone work.

Skin&Earth weaves its tale in a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by literal toxicity, where humanity divides itself into two distinct sectors: Pink and Red. Pink Sector citizens revel in luxury and take pills to keep the landscape’s poison from killing them while they’re young…or just to get high. Maybe both. Red Sector citizens live outside the Pink Sector walls. They’re allowed into the Pink Sector for work or school, but they must wear masks and keep to a strict curfew. The Pink Sector is effectively ruled by Tempest, a corporation that makes the pills that protect Pink Sector folks from toxins…toxins whose effects are exacerbated by Tempest, if not downright caused by the company’s deeds. It’s pretty clear from the start, though, that Pink Sector people barely tolerate the Red Sector denizens.

Protagonist Enaia Jin (En, for short) attends Tempest University in the Pink Sector, otherwise spending her time in the dilapidated Red zone and the surrounding forest with her mysteriously aloof friend/lover, Priest. Her life is painted as unremarkable but enjoyable. En is a refreshing and a welcome herald for this story. She’s comfortable with herself but wears her insecurities in a strikingly human way, and her sense of self-worth despite her shortcomings bleeds into every panel and every sentence of dialogue. When relatable characters and post-apocalyptic settings meet, sparks fly; the first pages of Skin&Earth represent a flurry of sparks that ignite the whirlwind narrative and sustain the flame through every beat. En’s experiences open the floodgates to a veritable onslaught of world-building, strong characters, and poignant story elements.

Within the book’s first panels, Lights flexes her poetic license and exercises a tight grip on her carefully mapped narrative. Her newcomer status plays to her benefit, giving her the freedom to weave unpredictable story elements into the narrative. Lights bends expectations to create a storytelling environment where deviations from the norm are at once expected and welcome. For example, En’s relationship with Priest sets the stage for an intriguing and mysterious character who makes an appearance later, superseding typical guy-girl banter fodder. In other words, Lights cares little for normative ideas, ushering in fresh opportunities that circumvent typical comic book fare. She treats readers to a tale that subverts expectations, encourages thoughtful analysis of character behaviors, and unabashedly shares her deepest emotions. En serves as a conduit for Lights here, and the resulting characterization and storytelling creates a compelling narrative arc. To the story’s benefit, En’s status as a Red Sector native is cast aside quickly in favor of deeper explorations of the world’s lore. Immediately upon learning Skin&Earth’s basics, I yearned for details about the politics, relationships, and general goings-on instead of drab classroom scenes. Lights delivers this in spades, favoring the world’s best parts over those that could easily slip into a den of cliches.

All that said, Skin&Earth still displays telltale signs that it’s a debut rather than a seasoned veteran’s project. Narrative burden disproportionately falls on the dialogue, and exposition runs rampant as huge plot points surface. By no means does this dominate the novel’s storytelling, but it’s just prevalent enough to be a slight distraction. Should Lights follow this up with more stories from the Skin&Earth universe, I hope she’ll lean more heavily on the art to fill in some of the narrative gaps instead of explaining them away in verbose dialogue.

Skin&Earth isn’t perfect, but it’s a testament to the sheer force of a creative mind set loose in unfamiliar territory. Successful in nearly every way, the story explodes with creativity and originality while paying homage to its genre.

Rating: Skin&Earth by Lights–8.5/10
-Cole

A Man Of Shadows – Stay In The Dark

Man of ShadowsJeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows practically bursts with promise, from the intriguing cover design to a captivating back-cover summary (despite the latter being plagued by a typo…more on that later). The distinct story elements scream off the page like a paperboy shouting headlines on a 1930s street corner: “It’s got noir! It’s got murder! An original setting! Mystery! Sci-fi and magical realism abound! Read all about it!” Alas, once the sensationalism and initial excitement wear off, the story must fend for itself. A Man of Shadows never stood a chance.

Jeff Noon’s sci-fi/fantasy/noir/crime novel plops the reader right into a fascinating world chock-full of promise. The book’s setting, a city half drenched in permanent darkness and half bathed in eternal daylight (so basically any Scandinavian city), frees its inhabitants from the shackles of time (… also like Scandinavia), allowing them to purchase timelines like any other commodity (so basically it just takes place in Scandinavia). Protagonist John Nyquist, a walking cliché borderline alcoholic, down-on-his-luck private investigator, is hired by a man to find his missing teen daughter, Eleanor. Meanwhile, a seemingly invisible murderer, dubbed Quicksilver, runs rampant, killing victims in broad daylight (or Dayzone, as the permanently lit sector of the city is called). Nyquist’s investigation rapidly evolves into a whirlwind of drug dealers, time sickness (which is mostly just highly dramatized exhaustion), conspiracies, dead ends, booze, and unearned half-answers that lead him to literally zero truths, even as he says to himself “The pieces are coming together.” His escapades also take him to the edge of Dusk: the mysterious, magical, and dark no man’s land between Dayzone and Nocturna (which is the name of the dark side, you get it). The plot rambles through these elements and hundreds more with so little grace that it’s hard to believe it comes to any sort of conclusion. The conclusion that does occur is nowhere near sensible or logical.  

A Man of Shadows wears its problems and inconsistencies proudly, leaning into the inherent ambiguity of the noir/mystery genre. Noon kicks this off with his immediate abandonment of the novel’s main selling point: its setting. Instead, he favors meandering pseudo-explanations of timelines and how they function. In my opinion, this mechanic, riveting as it may sound, sets the stage for the book’s first and largest failure. I picked up A Man of Shadows precisely because I loved the idea of a city split by darkness and daylight. I yearned to discover how citizens might function. Instead, the world is built over the course of just a few stray paragraphs, and Noon opts to discuss at length, but with minimal detail, the workings of commoditized time. While that narrative choice makes some sense as the novel drags along, the story element remains unearned, unjustified, and under-explored until the last word. In other words, it felt like a gargantuan cop-out (editor’s note: get it? *finger guns*).

The issues continue with the characters, which are essentially silhouettes dancing across an already shadowy background. They’re almost exclusively monotone expressions of tired archetypes: A gumshoe P.I. with a likely drinking problem and troubled past? Check. Missing teen who claims she’s just misunderstood but makes no attempt to remedy the matter? Check. Doting father who claims he just wants what’s best, but is obviously hiding a terrible secret? Check. The list could be as long as the book itself, but I’ll spare us all the effort.

Now let’s talk plot. Mild spoilers ahead, so tread lightly. That’s a phrase which here means “Let me list a mere spattering of the myriad narrative problems that infect this book.” Nyquist’s investigation method? Walk around and hope someone approaches him with the answer. Quicksilver, the novel’s supposed antagonist, makes maybe four appearances–nee, mentions–before being used as a panacea at the end to solve quasi-problems no reasonable reader would care about in the first place. Customizable timelines are lauded as a method to keep businesses running 100 percent of the time; apparently, the genius who concocted this plan didn’t realize he could just divide the day into three eight-hour shifts and voila! Eleanor’s overbearing father has a stake in her safekeeping, but it’s way too low to justify his actions and orders that lead to the novel’s big “reveal,” or, more accurately, convoluted mess of semi-relevant information. Dusk, the neutral zone between Dayzone and Nocturna, is somehow magic, I guess? Finally, Nyquist’s internal drive to solve the mystery is about as believable as literally anything a politician says. His desire to figure things out is rooted only in his compulsion to be a P.I. Any semi-intelligent human would’ve just left the city, which, apparently, was always allowed.

Noon’s conclusion spews ambiguity with such reckless abandon that it made me question whether I missed something. It’s the kind of ending that people pretend to understand because they feel like they’re supposed to understand it. To top off my tirade, I counted nearly 20 typos and a handful of straight-up printing errors. If you’re looking for a reader to sell what little stock he owns in your book, typos and printing errors are the way to do it.

A Man of Shadows parades its original and gripping setting from the get-go, making it unique, at the very least. But once author Jeff Noon casts aside what I consider his novel’s best asset, the book has little else to enjoy.

Rating: A Man of Shadows – 4.0/10
-Cole