The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Resurrecting reviews.

Tomorrow I'm going to be very busy so I'm not sure if I'll be posting. Just in case not, I've given you a few extras from the vault: Two book reviews, an old political tidbit and a video to help you rock on until I return.

I guess you could call me a binge reader. Every so often, for reasons I can never quite explain, I'm suddenly struck with an almost obsessive compulsion to read everything I can get my hands on by a certain writer or in a specific genre. At some unpredictable point I will then just as suddenly abandon it, rarely if ever returning to the same subject matter.

A binge I went on of reading horror novels has never really been revived. Whatever muse drew me to consume one summer in the 1980's nearly every creepy novel of the supernatural I could get my hands on, after it finally passed, was never to interest me again with only two exceptions. I continue to be entertained by the novels of Stephen King and Anne Rice. While I haven't kept up with all of their releases of recent years, I've gotten around to reading many of them.

Perhaps part of the reason why I lost interest in horror novels is that few horror stories are well written. Oh, there are a few masters, Edgar Allen Poe foremost among them, but in general most horror stories follow a certain predictable formula that gets tiresome after a while. Such books usually have the same rough plot - something scary appears, someone tries to stop the scary thing only it looks as though the scary thing will defeat them, but in the last chapter the scary thing's luck goes sour and the good guys win after all. Despite the way many authors attempt to spice up the plot with liberal doses of sex and gratuitous violence, once you know the basic formula it's hard to prevent boredom from creeping in. I mean how many scantily clad damsels in distress can you read about before you don't care anymore what happens to them? Toward the end of my horror novel binge, I found myself rooting for the monsters.

Stephen King avoids that pitfall by recognizing that in the end it isn't the supernatural elements that make a horror story work. The trick is to make you care about the characters in a personal way that has nothing to do with the horrors that later descend upon them. That way when the creepy stuff starts, it is as if you were concerned with the fate of a friend, rather than treating the main characters, as so many horror writers do, as just props for the monsters to work their mayhem on. King also wisely places his stories in recognizable settings that are as modern as today's newspaper, thereby enhancing the sense that these are events that maybe, despite their obvious improbability, might just happen to you.

Dreamcatcher King's latest, is a horror story for outdoorsmen. Anyone who's ever gone hunting knows the odd sense of eeriness that can come upon you from being alone in the woods. Not just the pragmatic fear of what you can stumble across in the woods, like angry wild animals or drunken fellow hunters who might mistake you for game, but the natural, perhaps instinctual fear of the wild itself. We are shelter loving creatures, and the world of fauna and beast are not our preferred environment, no matter how much you may think you know its ways or enjoy communing with its natural beauty. The woods are a place that we like to visit, but not really where we would like to live.

Something terrible comes to visit a group of hunters in the dark Maine woods in Dreamcatcher an impressively complex tale that mixes both the elements of traditional horror stories and science fiction. All the classic King elements are there, the well-drawn characters he makes you identify with before he places them in peril, the clever catch phrases that he repeats with ever changing meanings as the story progresses, the comic-book gross-outs and startling surprises that keep you turning the pages despite a growing reluctance to do so. King is a great storyteller, and his genius is in his ability to both repel and attract you simultaneously. You're afraid to know what happens next, but simply must find out anyway!

That's quite a feat in a book of this length (nearly all of King's recent books are suitable for double duty as doorstoppers) but the novel is not without some depressing aspects. Recent King stories have shown an increasingly pessimistic world outlook. An element of bitter disgust with people's stupidity and cruelty has crept into his books that wasn't as apparent in his earlier work. It feels like he's undergone a transformation that's something akin to what happened to Mark Twain, whose early works invited you to laugh along with him, but whose later writings suggested that the person to be laughed at was you. King used to write books that were designed to scare you for fun, but now he seems to imply he's scaring you because you deserve it.

A negative influence may be King's near death encounter when he was struck by a car while walking near his home. In an afterword King reveals that he wrote Dreamcatcher while undergoing painful rehabilitation from his injuries. In fact, one of the main characters is someone who was hit by a car while crossing the street. King writes about the agony of the character's recuperation with a vividness that feels rooted in personal experience.

Readers from Western Massachusetts will find an added treat due to the fact that the latter part of Dreamcatcher takes place at Quabbin Reservoir, with references to places like Ware, Belchertown and Palmer. So if you're looking for something to give you some chills unrelated to the weather this winter, I suggest you pick up a copy of Dreamcatcher.

Vonnegut on Cape Cod

Kurt Vonnegut's
God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian

(Obviously written before Vonnegut's death)

For a guy that made a big deal out of retiring, Kurt Vonnegut sure has been busy lately. In fact, he's been more in the public eye since his retirement than he was in the years preceding his announcement (he also spent a lot of time in Northampton, where he was a guest lecturer at Smith, but then departed in the midst of a political correctness scandal he created with his curmudgeonly ways).

If by retiring he meant simply cutting back on his literary workload, then I guess this slim 79-page volume qualifies as a retirement job. It is in many respects typical Vonnegut fare, with the usual mix of dark humor, philosophical meandering and whimsical word play that has made him one of America's most popular authors.

In this delightful if tasteless collection of short essays, Vonnegut imagines himself as having a series of near-death experiences, purposely brought on by that master of deadly adventures, Dr. Kevorkian. In Vonnegut's fantasy the good doctor, by limited use of his suicide technology, sends the author almost but not quite into the land of the dearly departed, enabling Vonnegut to engage in brief interviews with dead people, both personal friends and famous persons from history.

He returns from the dead with both good news and bad. Among the good news is that there is no Hell - everybody gets accepted into heaven with no more than a scolding from a cantankerous St. Peter for their past misdeeds. He also brings happy news about the fate of babies that die - they remain in a celestial nursery where they play with angels until they are reunited with their mothers when they too arrive in heaven.

The bad news is that you have no idea in heaven of what's going on back on Earth, thereby leaving most people essentially unchanged in heaven from what they were when they were alive (James Earl Ray, for example, continues to refer to Martin Luther King as a "nigger" in the great beyond). Vonnegut provides a few examples, however, of personal growth beyond the grave, such as Adolph Hitler, who expresses regret, if not quite remorse, for World War II. Vonnegut says Hitler wishes that someone on Earth would erect a memorial stone for him, on which he would like to have engraved the German words for, "Excuse me."

I could go on but you get the idea, the book is a collection of two dozen or so of these irreverent, politically incorrect satires, which despite being of dubious taste, are apt to make you laugh out loud. I predict you'll find this book to be a guilty pleasure, but then aren't those often the best kind?

Here's a short piece I wrote in 2002 about an unexpected change of their editorial heart by the Springfield Newspapers.

Ryan's Last Laugh?

Veterans of Springfield's great casino wars of 1994-95 were stunned last week when in an abrupt about face the Springfield Newspapers announced that it would not be supporting the current push to legalize casino gambling. They gave no explanation for their switch, beyond listing the common arguments against casinos, arguments that they had always dismissed in the past. But maybe times have changed in a way they didn't care to mention.

At the time of the casino wars former Mayor Charles V. Ryan, the unofficial leader of the anti-casino forces, charged that the Springfield Newspapers had a vested interest in seeing a casino located across the street from them at the current site of Peter Pan bus lines. The theory was that the newspaper's plant had become antiquated as the result of the computer revolution in publishing, and that the Newhouse Corporation, owners of the Springfield papers, hoped that the casino would eventually buy their property for expansion or parking. Then they could relocate to shiny new facilities at a site they were rumored to be eyeing in East Longmeadow.

The newspaper vehemently denied Ryan's accusations, with editor Larry McDermott giving a rare public interview to The Dan Yorke Show to angrily insist that it was false. For his part, Ryan never retracted his charges.

When the casino was killed at the polls, a few years passed and then - surprise, surprise - the newspaper announced that it was building an expensive new press that would feature all the new computerized technology. Turns out that plant was sort of antiquated after all. Now that they've made this big investment in their current location, and probably wouldn't want to lose it by having to move, they've decided that they're not interested in a casino anymore. A coincidence? Maybe, but to me it looks like Charlie Ryan has had the last laugh on that controversy.

I like this weird orange bush I came upon in Northampton recently.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dreamcatcher was actually made into a very bland movie. Most of King's books simply don't translate well to movies. Imagination is better than most special effects.