Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Different Track – Firestarter

Picked up Stephen King’s “Firestarter” for the first time. I’ve been doing my best over the years to read more of his older work, and I’ve found much of it very entertaining and some of it top notch stuff (“Salem’s Lot” was excellent). “Firestarter” has a lot of good things going for it, and I can recommend it as an above average work by the author.

What I found most interesting is that the novel really isn’t a horror story. It reminded me much more of something you’d find on “The X-files”. It follows a father and daughter on the run from a shadowy government agency that will stop at nothing to obtain them. The father has the ability to psychically persuade people to do his bidding, even going so far as to blind them by telling them “You’re blind”. This ability comes at a cost, doing damage to his brain with each use.

His daughter, Charlie, is more powerful, with the ability to start fires with her mind as well as move objects and even limited telepathy. But she’s only six and can barely control her powers. It becomes obvious early on that the government agents are really after Charlie, because of her potential. The kicker is that Charlie’s parents were both drugged in college by this same agency to test a chemical that would heighten brain activity. Once the scientists realized that not only had this change become permanent, but that it affected the parents genetic code – they see a million uses for this drug as a tool for national security.

The novel was written in the late 70’s and you can feel the disillusion with the government seeping out of every pore in the book. Watergate is mentioned numerous times, and one of the main villains, Rainbird, is a seriously deranged veteran of the Vietnam war. It puts a definite time stamp on the book, but one that could easily be moved to the conspiracy crazed days of the mid and late 90’s or the post 911 world. How eager would any government be to find a way to use these gifts to defend or attack as needed?

Not too long ago I listened to a pod cast that discussed how both the US and USSR experimented with mental abilities during the cold war. According to some, the USSR actually got a few telepaths and precogs to work for them. You can see how an interesting story can develop. I wonder how much of this research came up when King did his work on the book “Carrie”.

It reminded me how much my novels and stories are affected by the times in which they were written. My third novel dealt with virtual reality. Remember when that was all the rage in the late 90’s? Yeah me too. If I ever revisit that novel, I’m gonna have to update that part a bit, along with the references to dial up modems.

Ever read “Firestarter”? What did you think of it? Have you ever read a story that seemed very influenced by the time period it was written and wondered how it would have worked if it was written later or earlier? Have you found a past work you’ve written affected by the times it was written during?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Dark Adventure - Dracula

As a kid I loved fantasy and sci-fi movies and stories and so I missed the whole fascination that many of peers had with horror films, classic and otherwise. Sure I knew about vampires and werewolves, but I never really saw a vampire movie till “The Lost Boys”. My first exposure to any form of Dracula was actually the 1992 Coppola version. I really like that film, in spite of its flaws, and at the time it really captured my imagination. I ended up seeking out Bram Stoker’s book and was amazed by two things. First, Coppola had stayed pretty true to the story (only adding the Beauty and the Beast romantic angle for the Count and Mina). Second, the book was duller than dirt.

I found the idea of a book comprised of journal entries and letters to be absurd. I was annoyed that Dracula never got a point of view in the story. I thought that any horror was horribly diluted by the style and that it took away from any punch the story made have had. I thought that Coppola was right to add the romance angle and crank up the sexiness that was buried in the narrative. I actually gave the book away, I was so annoyed with it.

Flash forward to this summer and for my birthday my wife gets me a Kindle. As I’m playing around with it, checking out all the public domain books I can choose, one title jumps out at me, “Dracula”. Having just enjoyed a successful reread of another horror classic, “The Haunting of Hill House”, I used that as my test book. I figured I’d just download it to see an example of how the public domain novel would look on my new device. I started reading Jonathan Harker’s journal entry… and was unable to put the book down until the end.

Safe to say that I really enjoyed it this time around. Why the big change of heart? I think it’s because I knew what to expect this time around. I also discovered that while the horror of the story is diluted, it instead turns into more of an adventure story. Well heck, I love a good adventure story. The letters and journals create interesting characters, with Stoker giving each a unique voice and perspective. Dracula is more enigmatic because we never see his point of view, only the view of the victims and hunters. I was also intrigued to see how loathsome and deadly the vampire was in this incarnation. Our modern vampires (yes I’m looking at you “Twilight” but Ann Rice’s sudsy creations are just as guilty) really look like whiney wimps compared to the count in this novel.

A quick check on the ever-reliable Wikipedia tells me that “Dracula” was actually considered an adventure story when it was first published. It was also considered a tale of invasion; with the dark force from central Europe creeping into England and threatening it’s women. But it wasn’t considered a classic tale of horror until the silent film “Nosferatu” was released in 1922 I’ve seen that film and yeah, it’s still pretty darn creepy.

What’s interesting is that Stephen King viewed the novel “Dracula” as an adventure novel too, but with a horror twist. He said he noticed it when he read “Lord of the Rings”. As he was reading Tolkien’s work he was amazed how many parallels he found with Stoker’s novel. So he always considered Stoker to the originator of the modern fantasy novel. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I can see where King is coming from. Without having that horror stamp hanging over it, “Dracula” seems like a better novel, because it works well with its adventure and mystery elements. The macabre overtones act more as accents that make it distinctive. If you want a good vampire novel that actually chills, check out King’s “Salem’s Lot”. Not only does he take Stoker’s ideas and modernizes them, but he adds a bit of Lovecraft as well. It’s a very good book, especially for a second novel.

I’m getting off the track here. “Dracula” will always be a classic, and will probably always be considered a classic horror novel. But give it another read (or a first read if you’ve never tackled it before) and see if it works a little better as an adventure story.

What do you think of the novel “Dracula”? Ever read a book with a set of expectations that actually ruined the experience of the novel? You think King is right in calling Stoker the inventor of modern fantasy?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What a character! – The Haunting of Hill House

The movie “The Haunting” is one of my favorite horror movies. While the opening credits informed me clearly that it was based on a book, I never thought to seek it out. A few years ago, I finally did get around to reading Shirley Jackson’s novel – and frankly I thought it was really lacking. There was no momentum to it. It went on and on about the main character and took forever to get to scares that never really happened. It was such a letdown – especially compared to the movie, which creeped into my brain as I watched it and had me jumping at shadows all night.

I decided to revisit “The Haunting of Hill House” again and see if maybe a few years would make a difference. Well, I think the big difference for me this time was that I knew what kind of book I was getting into. This was not a haunted house story, not really. It’s really a haunted person story. Eleanor is the focus of the book. The narrative often takes her point of view and when it doesn’t, it’s focused on her. Jackson is very careful to give us a very detailed look at the way Eleanor acts and reacts to the events leading up to her arrival at Hill House and her interaction with the other characters when she gets there.

The drive up to Hill House was one of the most annoying parts of the book when I first read it. Eleanor comments on many of the seemingly mundane things around her. I didn’t care! Get to the haunted house already! We get a little of this in the movie, but it’s only a couple scenes of her taking the car and leaving the city. The book actually charts all the stops she makes and what she does there. What’s the point? My second reading revealed that we see exactly how Eleanor takes these mundane stops and works herself into each situation in her mind. She creates elaborate fantasies about herself and these stops. Later in the book when she’s alone, Eleanor takes these fantasies and weaves them even further into her adventures at Hill House. Reality seems to slip away from her and the further she goes, the further into the house’s power she falls.

Make no mistake, Hill House is truly haunted by some power. The way it works on all the characters is a little different. We know more about Eleanor, because she’s the focus of the story, but it affects each character in its own way, filling them with dread. The house’s affect on Eleanor is causes her to see less and less harm in the house. It becomes a sanctuary for her. There are moments when the dread and fear are evident, but for the most part Eleanor is enchanted with Hill House and feels that she must become part of this fantasy. She almost becomes childlike at the end, completely giving up all sense of self to the fantasy of the house and her place in it.

In my mind, this book is a well-executed character study. Its moments of the supernatural are handled well, creating a feeling of unease. There have been arguments that the book takes place in Eleanor’s head. I don’t agree with that take. The house is haunted and Eleanor is the perfect victim, it swallows her whole. As for scares, the book still didn’t give me the creeps like the film did, but I will say that I enjoyed it a lot more and look forward to reading more of Jackson’s work.

What did you think of “The Haunting of Hill House”? Do you think Eleanor was an interesting character? Can you think of a book that was improved with the transfer to a film? Do you even want to discuss the 1999 version of the film?