Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Shining by: Stephen King

The Shining is the definition of a slow burn novel.  Stephen King’s third published novel is one of those stories which has entered the public consciousness and been almost eclipsed by its 1980 film adaptation directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Jack Nicholson.  Almost every reader nowadays who picks up The Shining is going to be at least subconsciously familiar with the story.  Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic who is given one last chance to clean up his act as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, but the harsh winter and ghosts of the hotel slowly drive Jack insane as he attempts to murder his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny.  The actual attempts to murder Wendy and Danny only begin about two thirds of the way through the novel.  The first two-thirds of the novel are dedicated to character drama as the pressure between Wendy and Jack increases and the sinister atmosphere builds before all hell literally and figuratively breaks loose.  The Overlook from the beginning of the novel is a character in its own right, always looming over the characters, always housing these dark shadows that suggest danger is right around the corner.  Danny has powers referred to as ‘the shining’ which allows him to see flashes of the future, and the past which gives the reader a sense of oncoming danger mixed with the right amount of confusion.  The Shining works on building atmosphere, with the first out-and-out scare is a dead wasp’s nest coming to life and stinging Danny, a scene that wouldn’t work on film, yet on the page is quite frightening and works to tug at Jack and Wendy’s relationship.

Jack Torrance of the novel is a flawed character.  King introduces Jack as at the bottom of the barrel with nowhere to go, but up; yet King somehow manages to make him slowly lift up before crashing down through the hotel’s influence.  Jack is haunted by his own past: beating a student for slashing his tires in a fit of rage, breaking his own son’s arm while drunk, his own father beating him and his mother as a child, his own struggles with alcoholism, and the play that he just can’t seem to finish.  He is a flawed character, but King makes it so the reader does sympathize with him.  It’s easy to understand why Jack wants to see what the bloody history of the Overlook has, why Jack is so tetchy at times, and why Jack is just under so much strain.  King makes it so the reader wants to see Jack overcome his issues and make it through the winter, but the reader knows deep down that this isn’t going to end well.  The hotel takes Jack’s fantasies, mainly an imaginary dialogue with a bartender, to begin to manifest and drive Jack insane.  Giving Jack a drink is the point of no return for Jack, fully immersing himself in the clutches of the hotel and able to do its bidding.  It’s this point where the pace of the novel increases in the final 100 pages as Jack goes on a rampage, taking a roque mallet and attempting to bash his wife’s brains in and give his son to the hotel.

Wendy is the innocent caught in the crossfire throughout the novel, not being necessary for the hotel, yet King still devotes large portions of the book to her point of view.  Wendy has her own issues, mostly those of reconciliation with her mother, throughout the novel, yet is the one to ground her husband until Jack is taken over.  She could have easily become a cliched damsel in distress, but is constantly assertive and fights back through the reasonable fear of her husband coming to kill her.  Some of the serious damage to Jack is done by Wendy, stabbing a kitchen knife right into his back killing his body.  Yet, this doesn’t end the horror while the hotel takes the opportunity to reanimate his corpse and continue the onslaught.  The horror of the novel only ends with an explosion, destroying the Overlook.  Overall, The Shining has so many intricate threads exploring the three characters and events are much deeper than any review I could write that would necessarily do the novel justice.  It builds to a thrilling conclusion after a delve into the deep history, psychological horror, and finally physical horror for an excellent reading experience.  10/10.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Matrix by: Robert Perry and Mike Tucker

There’s something amazing about getting to a throwback to the days of the Virgin New Adventures in the midst of Past Doctor Adventures.  Robert Perry and Mike Tucker’s Matrix, the second novel from this specific pair and works out the specific kinks of their first novel Illegal Alien to form a perfect standout for the Past Doctor Adventures range.  The plot of Matrix, like many of the Virgin New Adventures, forces the Doctor off-screen for much of the runtime as a malignant force takes hold and forces the Doctor to assume the role of Jack the Ripper about a third of the way through and lose his memory, leaving Ace alone on the streets of an alternate Victorian London, one where the Ripper rules.  Perry and Tucker craft a novel whose tone can only be described as dark and twisted, as each setting is in a sort of alternate history where the Doctor’s actions have changed everything forever.  Like many of the Virgin New Adventures, Ace is put through another crucible as she is unwittingly put on her own and the Doctor once again has to realize what it means to be the Doctor.  As a novel, some of the events perhaps breach territory even the darkest of the Virgin New Adventures rarely reached.

Perry and Tucker open the novel in an alternate 1963, one where Jack the Ripper became an immortal overlord and the Doctor and Susan never came to London 1963.  This first segment of the novel, running the first two parts of the book’s six part structure, is set in a typical dystopian alternate history setting, but Perry and Tucker use it importantly as a way to raise the stakes.  This is not in the sense that the entire world is in danger, the UK itself is still there, but is the fifty-first state of the United States of America due to the Ripper’s influence and while its citizens are in turmoil, the actual world is all and all stable.  No, the stakes here are raised because the Doctor and Ace meet alternate versions of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright.  Of course, in this timeline they never met the Doctor and both became poverty stricken in an underpaid Coal Hill School.  They are still recognizably the same characters the Doctor and fans already know, but what Perry and Tucker do here is give the audience the emotional connection for the stakes.  The reader knows these characters and know how the story is supposed to go for them and getting them back on track is put in the back of the reader’s mind adding to the tension for the novel.

Once the plot moves to the alternate Victorian London, much of the novel follows Ace as she attempts to survive the harrowing East End.  Ace spends much of the novel undergoing various levels of assault and humiliation going from a boarding house, to an estate as a servant, to a freak show, and finally to prison to be tried to be hanged.  This is also the novel which turns Ace into a murderer, killing the elderly woman whom she works for in self defense on the second day triggering a return of the Cheetah Virus from Survival.  Ace for the rest of the novel then has to fight off animal instincts to keep her humanity intact.  This is what attracts Jacques Malacroix, owner of a travelling freakshow with an entire international mafia underneath his reign.  Malacroix is a character who uses manipulation, physical and emotional abuse, and just plain torture to get his freaks to become codependent on him.  Reading the sections of the novel in which he appears is like reading a story of domestic abuse.  All of the so-called freaks in his circus shadow all too real examples of what these types of circuses and sideshows were of the era, emulating Tod Browning’s often banned horror film Freaks.  Ace being allowed to reunite with the Doctor is also one of the most heartwarming sections of the novel as it makes it feel like everything is going to be alright in the world.  It is one of those sections where you feel like maybe this will be solved.

The Doctor for the most part of the novel is off-page and in his place is an amnesiac, Johnny.  Johnny is a character with the desire for intelligence of the Doctor, but none of the cunning and none of the stone defenses.  The character becomes one of vulnerability, being attacked by several Londoners for his apparent unintelligence and vagrant demeanor.  Even the name Johnny, feels somehow more childish and more of an unintelligent wanderer adding to the themes Perry and Tucker work on.  He is spit on for being different, a major theme of these segments of the novel.  He is taken in by rich Jew Joseph Liebermann, an intelligent young man attempting to overcome the prejudice of the age.  Liebermann has an extremely long life, living well into the 1960s and eventually working at Coal Hill School.  Liebermann is a fascinating character in that he’s someone the Doctor eventually comes back to visit at different points in his life.  Liebermann is the only character in the novel who shows some sense of humanity on the darkened streets of London, and somehow manages to keep morale up throughout his entire life being torn to pieces in front of him.  Finally, and this is a major spoiler, the actual villain of the piece is the Valeyard, who has become Jack the Ripper and is intent on making the Doctor become him.  Perry and Tucker work up the Valeyard as an insane murderer, yet somehow he is able to come with these incredible plans.  His presence is felt throughout the novel, yet is still a large twist reveal near the end which is perfectly foreshadowed.  Overall, Robert Perry and Mike Tucker’s Matrix deserves a place in your top 10 Past Doctor Adventures and perhaps as one of th absolute best Doctor Who novels. 10/10.

Friday, September 20, 2019

It by: Stephen King

It is a novel that reaches a 1,153-page count and it isn’t Stephen King’s longest novel.  The novel itself is remembered for two major scenes: the opening death of George Denbrough and the underage sewer gangbang that occurs near the end of the novel.  It is a story with much more than that.  It is a story about the deep friendships, the strength of a promise, human nature, and the cyclic nature of violence and trauma.  The book has twice been adapted into a visual form twice, the first a low budget TV-miniseries from 1990 starring Tim Curry and the second a pair of big budget horror films directed by Andy Muschietti, but neither can adapt all of the intricate subplots from the novel.  The 1990 miniseries perhaps came the closest, but in adapting the story for a television audience, much of King’s work was toned down.  The novel drips with atmosphere and works in a way that only a book truly can.

It tells the story of a group of seven from the town of Derry, Maine who as children are terrorized by a creature only referred to as “It” and most commonly taking the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown.  It wakes up every 27 years to terrorize and feed upon the children of Derry, and the seven members of the ‘Loser’s Club’ join together to stop it in 1958.  They fail, and must return in 1985 to finish the job.  This rough summary does not really do It justice.  The novel is much more than that simple plot outline due to a unique structure.  King writes It in a way so that technically everything takes place in 1985, but as the members of the Loser’s Club remember the events of that summer in 1957, the reader learning about the plot with the characters.  This is a style that cannot be replicated in any non-print form of media.  This is also a risk for a horror novel taking place in two time periods as the tension with the child characters as starting in the then present immediately lets the reader know that all seven will make it out alive.  King does not derive horror from the threat of death, however, horror is derived from the trauma the characters are rediscovering through their memories.  Each of the Losers have gone through extreme trauma and now they are coming back to Derry to relive and overcome It.

The character of It can be read as a representation of this type of trauma.  It is an eternal being and a part of the larger Stephen King universe (yes his books have a shared universe).  While adaptations often put It front and center, It keeps It in the background.  It is the looming threat that embodies the fear of Derry, the fear of the Losers, and the general tone of the book.  It is something otherworldly and eternal, coming and going, taking glee in Its feeding.  Keeping the creature off-page with many glimpses and small confrontations before the climax, allows King to ingrain It into the town of Derry.  It is Derry itself.  Every adult and many of the children in the town are subtly under Its influence throughout the novel, only being noticed when It is awake and attempting to feed.  While Pennywise the Dancing Clown is perhaps the most famous and most often appearing form of It, the novel still uses the Pennywise form sparingly so the horror of the other forms slowly creeping into the scenario.  It reflects the character’s deepest and darkest fears from the childish fear of monsters and the adult fears of growing up, dealing with prejudice and abuse.  There is a thread of children having to grow up as they deal with adult issues and then return to deal with them later in life when they are adult enough to overcome them.  The cosmic nature of It as a creature perfectly reflects the unconquerable nature of trauma, prejudice, and even grief from the childish to the more adult nature of these topics.

Each of the Losers in It has something to truly overcome from the obvious to the more subtle.  Mike Hanlon and Stan Uris have to overcome the prejudice of racism.  Mike is the only black child in Derry while Stan is Jewish.  At the start of the 1957 timeline, Stan was able to make friends and at least put away the racism put against him and joke about it with his friends.  King however makes Stan the only member of the Losers’ to not overcome his fear, slitting his wrists when he receives the call to come back to Derry.  Mike is on the polar opposite, unable to hide away his trauma.  Mike is the lighthouse keeper, the one to stay behind in Derry and to bring everyone back together.  Mike was not allowed to forget.  Unlike Stan, everyone knows Mike is black and the Bowers gang without fail go after him for it.  Psychopathic bully Henry Bowers poisons Mike’s dog in an attempt to make Mike go insane.  It is this which brings Mike into the Losers Club, as the rest of the Losers stick up for him by throwing rocks.

Beverly Marsh and Eddie Kaspbrak both have to deal with abusive parents.  Beverly’s father is physically abusive, hitting her for not doing things correctly and potentially spending time with boys.  Alvin Marsh is repressive and abusive, potentially being willing to kill his own daughter.  Like Stan, Bev does have difficulty in overcoming this, marrying an equally manipulative and abusive man who follows her back to Derry.  Bev also has a subtle subplot about growing into her sexuality as she reaches puberty and becomes aware of what that means.  This is where we get to the part of It that is just objectively bad, the underage gangbang.  King was attempting to show the Losers coming together and attempting to be an adult to save themselves, but this comes across as more childish.  It is also just disturbing to read.  Eddie Kaspbrak also has difficulty in overcoming his mother, a woman with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, convincing Eddie that he is a fragile boy.  Eddie as a character is just boiling under the surface through germaphobia and asthma, to rebel, and by the end of the novel both as a child and adult he is able to.  Ben Hanscom also has a potential abuse story as his mother, being poor, is determined to make sure Ben has enough to eat.  This made Ben gain weight and be bullied by Bowers for it (even having an H carved into his stomach with a switchblade early on in the novel).

Richie Tozier perhaps has the weakest ‘trauma’ allegory throughout, being a more typical idea of being the class clown to hide insecurities, yet he is one of my favorite characters in the novel.  He’s the one who has the most typical story and the provider of quite a bit of comic relief throughout the book.  Rounding out the Losers is Bill Denbrough who’s trauma is social ostracization for his stutter and the death of his younger brother at the hand of It.  The arc is simple, yet effective.  All the arcs are effective.  While It is the primary antagonist, mention must be mentioned of the age old Stephen King trope of the bullies.  Henry Bowers is the main bully, surviving to the 1985 storyline and making himself known as a complete psychopath.  King humanizes him, he comes from an abusive father who influences him and there are implications that Bowers is a deeply closeted homosexual.  He goes beyond simple high school bully and slowly degenerates into murderous intent.  His two main cronies are Vic Criss and Belch Higgins and they are the more stereotypical bullies, yet are still forces to be reckoned with.

While the above describes much of the main plot of It there are still plenty of subplots and sidesteps, such as the interludes, the character of Patrick Hockstetter (another bully and child murderer who is killed by It), and the several other murders.  The attempt is not to spoil everything in the story, as the climax is where much of the cosmic scale of It comes into play.  It is not a perfect climax, but it does end in an interesting way.  It is not a novel for everyone, and one that readers should take their time with.  Let the horrors of Derry and the characters really wash over you and if my review has piqued your interest pick it up.  9/10.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Janus Conjunction by: Trevor Baxendale

One issue new authors have when crafting a story is keeping the pace of the story going.  Now the pacing of a story does not always have to be fast paced or slowly paced, but with a novel there must be some consistency with its pace.  This isn’t as much of a problem if the pace starts slow and then speeds up, but whenever this happens in reverse, or worse starts fast, slows down, and speeds up again, the integrity of the story doesn’t hold up.  That is one of the main issues at the center of Trevor Baxendale’s debut Doctor Who novel, The Janus Conjunction.  The Janus Conjunction starts off with a brisk pace as the Doctor and Sam arrive on the planet Janus Prime where they are immediately attacked by giant cyborg spiders, inaccurately called spidroids, and a large portion of the book is just their fight for survival.  There are two rival military factions on Janus Prime, which will become a recurring theme in Baxendale’s work, and the one in control of the spidroids is obviously the ‘evil’ of the groups.  By the time Baxendale begins to devote time to these factions The Janus Conjunction then switches focus from quick paced action story, to a slower paced mystery to unravel some anomalies on the planet, and finally into a quickly paced conclusion in the last 20 pages or so of the novel.   While the conclusion itself is for the most part satisfying, it almost comes too quickly for the reader to process just how everything has been done.  The speedup does seem to be out of style with the rest of the novel, and it leads me to speculate if The Janus Conjunction wasn’t a victim of BBC Books’ harder limit on page count and the conclusion was left behind in editing.

The actual conspiracy and mystery driving the plot of The Janus Conjunction is a good example of fun Doctor Who, yet a style of Doctor Who story that isn’t often done.  The grand conspiracy plot brings to mind a story in the style of The Ambassadors of Death, though outside of atmosphere the plots are incredibly different.  The Doctor and Sam must keep asking questions about what the conspiracy behind Janus Prime is.  Janus Prime is a planet in a binary system with one moon leaving the planet in a permanent total lunar eclipse.  The planet is also soaked in a type of radiation which starts mild: at first it leaves only some minor rashes, but it eventually kills the skin and melts its victims.  Baxendale has a way with describing the poor victims of Janus’ radiation, and the bitterness it causes.  Baxendale employs it as a looming threat over the heroes throughout the novel as at any moment Sam and the Doctor could start succumbing to the sickness.  The ending has Sam dead, which is perhaps Baxendale’s biggest mistake in The Janus Conjunction: the novel has no consequences and most of it is undone by the end which feels cheapened.  This could have been a decent exit for Sam, but she is spared.

The Doctor and Sam are also split for a good portion of the novel’s length which Baxendale uses to muse on the Sam is Missing arc for a bit, while the Doctor is on Janus Prime’s twin planet and trying to get the action going and Sam is being defiant in the face of an authoritarian military.  Gustav Zemler is the over the top villain of The Janus Conjunction, and as a character Baxendale slowly lets him become unhinged while the plot goes on around him.  Moslei, one of his underlings, is much more interesting and a source for worldbuilding.  Moslei fought in the Cyber wars and there are several war style flashbacks which show the horrors war has on a psyche and the actual threat the Cybermen and Cybermats can be.  Neither actually appear, but there’s a goldmine for Baxendale to explore here and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was meant to have the Cybermen in it at one point.  The rest of the supporting cast, however isn’t nearly as interesting.  They all kind of fit into stereotypes for action movies, which isn’t too bad considering this is Baxendale’s first novel, but with another round of editing and maybe some cutting down of one or two the supporting characters could have been stronger.  Finally, the Doctor himself while great feels slightly out of development here, acting more like his TV Movie persona than the development the past fifteen books have given him.  Overall, The Janus Conjunction is a good entry in the Eighth Doctor Adventures and a great first effort from Trevor Baxendale which perhaps needed one more draft and an extended page count to find itself amongst the greats of Doctor Who books.  7/10.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Last Man Running by: Chris Boucher

Chris Boucher wrote three stories for Doctor Who between Season 14 and 15: The Face of Evil, The Robots of Death, and Image of the Fendahl.  Outside of the show he worked on Blake’s 7 as a script editor, but left his novels to be novelized by the legendary Terrance Dicks in 1978 and 1979.  It’s important to note that Boucher has not written any prose work before the fifteenth BBC Past Doctor Adventures release, Last Man Running.  If one wasn’t familiar with the three television stories from Boucher, Last Man Running would be both one of the best and worst examples of his writing styles.  Last Man Running is a novel that encapsulates the atmosphere and science-fiction ideas from the television stories of Boucher.  The novel’s primary setting is a mixture of a lush jungle and ancient spaceship straight out of The Face of Evil, however, with the prose there are expansive descriptions to transport the reader right into the alien landscape.  There’s also a third act twist about the actual ‘last man running’ that feels reflective of The Face of Evil.  The surprise over the top villain is a reveal from The Robots of Death with the deeper meanings being nowhere to be seen, but not to the detriment of the character.  Morley as he is named here, brings some great chemistry to the novel right in the final third.  His interactions with the Doctor and Leela are excellent and one of the few real highlights of the novel.  The atmosphere draws the most from the gothic uncertainty of Image of the Fendahl, with the idea of some Lovecraftian beast killing a society.  The difference here is in the setting that while Image of the Fendahl is preventing an apocalypse, Last Man Running appears long after the world has ended.

The novel, however, is structurally weak.  Writing for television and writing for prose are two very different forms of writing.  Boucher is excellent when it comes to television which involves cooperation with entire teams of cast and crew to bring a story to life as well as having scripts edited by others.  His style of writing in Last Man Running is how you would describe a set and the type of actors you would cast in characters.  The two characters who Boucher captures in prose are the Doctor and Leela, as Boucher is responsible for creating the warrior of the Sevateem.  The rest of the characters are just names on a page, with defining characteristics ranging from couple which secretly hates each other to here to build up a body count.  The plot itself is incredibly an incredibly standard Doctor Who story that could have been an excellent addition to the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show with some work.  Putting Boucher on his own as an author with only one editor looking over the script leads to a novel that reads almost like a television script which just does not engage.   It feels like something that needs to be performed to be good, but as it stands it’s a subpar Doctor Who adventure.  3/10.