31. ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison

My first thought upon the news of Toni Morrison’s death was at how ashamed I was to have never read any of her work. I said to myself, “My God this is Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century! I have to go out and buy one of her books!” Flash forward several hours, and I was the proud owner of two of her novels, Beloved and Jazz. I decided to read Beloved as I felt it was the more popular of the two. The result was an emotionally rewarding reading experience that showed me how Morrison became not only a Pulitzer winner but a Nobel Laureate as well.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Beloved is a hard novel to read. While it is not a long book or difficult to understand, it is an emotionally devastating book that left me feeling drained. Every time I thought this book had done its worst to me, I was proven wrong in my next reading session. This is a novel about trauma, on a massive scale with the horrors of American slavery as well as on a personal level with the nature of memory and regret. Morrison permeates these pages with such raw emotion, that it just felt so heavy. I had to put the book down often and just quietly process my feelings about the words I just read.

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

One of the best opening lines in modern literature sets the tone as one of horror. The story follows an African-American family living in a small house in Ohio several years following the Civil War. They are haunted by a mischievous and at times violent spirit of a baby. It drives away the two young boys of the family, leaving Sethe, her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, and her daughter Denver alone with the spirit. Both Sethe and Baby Suggs were former slaves who escaped to freedom, but the family appears to be shunned by their surrounding community for reasons that will not be fully disclosed until much later in the novel.

While Beloved begins as a ghost story, Morrison transforms it into a brilliantly written trauma narrative about the horrors of slavery. The incorporation of supernatural elements allows Morrison to explore the true haunting of the human soul and the guilt that occurs with having to make difficult choices. The haunting turns from an unseen spirit into a flesh and blood entity, taking the form of a young woman named Beloved who enters Sethe’s life yet to consume her with guilt. Soon, we learn the nature of how Sethe’s first child died. As a result of this terrible event, Sethe is forever haunted by the death of her baby, as well as her life as a slave, the life that brought her to such drastic measures.

“Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think if, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

Beloved is work by an extraordinary author. There is a reason Toni Morrison’s novels are hailed as classics. Her prose flows like poetry, taking devastating material and turning it into some truly beautiful writing. She has a gift for capturing different voices, as the format and style of writing changes between chapters and sections, depending on the point of view of the narrator. The result is a masterful work that comes together in such a heart-achingly beautiful way. I was brought to tears several times.

While researching the book, I found this great online article on Tor.com about the novel as a work of horror. The author argues that Beloved has never been accepted as a work of horror, while Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is often looked at as a work of science fiction. This article reminds me of a debate from a few years ago surrounding Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant as a work of fantasy. While I’m not completely sure how I feel about the subject, I have always said that the best horror brings its terror from a human perspective. The true terror of Beloved has nothing to do with the supernatural itself but of the severe cruelty and dehumanization of an entire people. As Morrison states in her dedication,”Sixty million and more,” meaning that the aftershocks of slavery can still be felt today. Despite what genre you view it, this novel is in a class all its own. I look forward to reading Jazz in the near future.

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

 

28. ‘The Illustrated Man’ by Ray Bradbury

To refer to Ray Bradbury as just a writer of science fiction would be a great disservice to the legacy he left behind. The “science” in his works is as real as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or Poe’s raven of the night. While it is true that Bradbury’s works are fantastic journeys into the farthest reaches of space and time, those science fiction elements are simply stage props to the real action. Bradbury is a legend because of his ability to plunge into the depths of the human soul. Each of the stories contained in The Illustrated Man are beautifully written commentaries on relationships, social situations, and deep moral considerations. Written with complete childlike wonder, this is a collection of short stories that could not be more perfect.

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Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The Illustrated Man is a collection of separate stories told through the living tattoos of a mysterious man covered in body art. I remember when first reading this book several years ago how fascinated I was at this character created back in the 1940’s. Although written over half a century ago, the man covered with top-to-toe body art would not be out of place in the present day where tattoos are a natural way of life. It never ceases to amaze me just how prophetic Bradbury was, whether it was providing a glimpse of the future of body art or lecturing us on the dangers of misusing technology as seen in the opening story “The Veldt.” A clever gothic horror tale, neatly disguised as science fiction, this is the story of a virtual reality nursery that becomes quite dangerous under the hands of two spoiled children. In this age of games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, Bradbury is not chastising technology itself. Rather, this is a critique of how its misuse can tear families apart.

“The Veldt” is a perfect example of how often Bradbury uses elements of horror in his fiction. This is not surprising considering the author’s love of horror greats, such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. As a fitting tribute to his boyhood, these authors along with several others appear in the short story “The Exiles.” Banned from Earth, the ghosts of writers of the supernatural seek refuge on the planet Mars fearing that they may soon face total extinction. There is even an appearance by Charles Dickens, who refuses to associate with those writers he feels are beneath him, despite the fact that Dickens himself dabbled with ghosts and the supernatural. Another fantastic piece of horror masquerading as science fiction is the phenomenal “Kaleidoscope” in which a group of astronauts find themselves contemplating their lives after an accident sends them drifting helplessly through space. While an interesting exploration into the nature of regret, the very idea behind it is sheer fright.

However, to only look at the dark side of Bradbury’s writing would be a grave injustice to an author that inspired hope while embracing all the best aspects of childhood. The concluding story of this collection is “The Rocket” about a poor junkyard owner who gives his children the vacation of a lifetime thanks to a model rocket and a few special effects. It is quite the heartwarming piece about a father’s love and is the perfect balance to the darker opening story “The Veldt.” Children often play a huge role in Bradbury’s stories, which should come as no surprise. His sense of wonder at the universe is what makes him such an endearing legend. Bradbury was a real-life Peter Pan, a sentiment that I hold quite strongly.

Although I loved all of the stories from The Illustrated Man, my favorite would have to be “The Long Rain.” This is a story about astronauts who crashed on a planet of never-ending rainfall. This story brings new meaning to Chinese water torture. As the men fight to maintain their sanity, they frantically search for a building of protection known as a Sun Dome. Bradbury is known for his poetic descriptions, and this story is no exception going off of this opening:

“The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men’s hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.”

Some might refer to the above passage as overkill. However, I love it because it really brings you into the story. While I was reading “The Long Rain” I was reminded of Stephen King’s The Mist, another “survival in extreme conditions” type of story. Although this one felt like such an impossible and depressing situation, there is this element of hope that maybe they can find the Sun Dome in time. Obviously, I won’t spoil the ending only that I think this story is a great testament to human fortitude.

I was surprised by two of the stories in this collection that explored man’s relationship with God. The first one, appropriately titled “The Man,” is about a group of astronauts who arrive on a planet only to be met by indifference by the local population. They learn of an extraordinary person who arrived just the day before. Bradbury is clever not to reveal the name of this man, but it doesn’t take long to figure it out. This is another great story about man’s never-ending search for meaning. The other story about spirituality is “The Fire Balloons” about a group of priests sent to Mars on a mission to convert alien lifeforms from sin. This is another beautiful story about redemption as only Bradbury could tell it.

I realize that Bradbury is not a writer for everyone. Some would accuse him of being almost too poetic in his descriptions, and as I mentioned before, he is not an author you want to read for the science aspects of his stories. However, he will remain one of this writer’s favorite authors, as I see him as a kindred spirit. Bradbury was a man who saw with the eyes of a child, all the incredible possibilities of the universe. Personally, I think that is a lesson worth remembering. 

“What church could compete with the fireworks of the pure soul?”-The Fire Balloons

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

Triple Review: Classic Pulp Science Fiction

When I think of classic science fiction, my mind turns to the greats such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and the immortal Philip K. Dick. For this week’s blog, I’m reviewing three of these eternal legends. However, there’s a slight twist. These reviews are for lesser known works by these writers. As an added bonus, all three were written during the Golden Age of the 1950’s. Please enjoy all the nerdy goodness in this triple review!

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17. Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham

Before I started my book-blogging adventures, I fell in love with Wyndham’s outstanding The Day of the Triffids. While Out of the Deeps doesn’t quite hit the same high note, I still found it to be an enjoyable sci-fi romp involving mysterious invaders from the deep sea.

The novel describes escalating phases of an alien invasion as seen through they eyes of  journalist Mike Watson. During his honeymoon with his new wife and fellow co-reporter Phyllis, he witnesses five glowing balls falling from outer space into the sea. Most of humanity barely notices the aliens, and those that do have various speculations such as possible involvement by Russia. When a British submarine sent to investigate is destroyed, Britain responds with a nuclear weapon. This attack triggers a series of attacks by the aliens on various ships and outlying islands. The war escalates when the invaders melt the polar ice caps. As a result, the world is sent into global collapse with millions perishing. These events occur through escalating phases over the course of the novel.

Originally titled The Kraken Wakes, this novel follows some very familiar themes from early fifties British science fiction: a human apocalypse, the unknown motive of the alien invaders, and your “Johnny Everyman” style of narrator who is more an observer of events than an actual hero. There’s even an eccentric scientist who knows what is happening, but is basically labeled a crackpot by the authorities. The most interesting character of the book for me was Phyllis, as it was nice to see an intelligent female character who mostly serves to keep her husband in check. Another aspect of the book that fascinated me was the calm demeanor of the main characters in the book. Despite the oncoming apocalypse, everyone seems to remain quite subdued and focused. Count on the English to handle a crisis without going into panic mode!

Playing on ideas straight from the much stronger Day of the Triffids, this one is still an interesting book worth reading if you are a John Wyndham fan. While less action and more dialogue, some of the scenes are very  suspenseful. I think one of the most terrifying aspects of this novel is that we never get an idea as to the reasons why Earth is being invaded. Also, we never really get a good look at the alien creatures who require the high pressure of the depths of the ocean to survive. Wyndham writes intelligent fiction, but does generate some chilling moments. This was a nice slice of 1950’s sci-fi to begin my tour.

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John Wyndham (1903-1969) Photo: Paper Lion Ltd

18. Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Our next stop takes us to the man responsible for such great novels as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. This is one of Heinlein’s early novels before he became a household name. While Double Star lacks the grandeur and polish of his more famous works, this one is still a fun read that is full of action and comedy in equal measure.

Lawrence Smith, also known as “The Great Lorenzo” is a brilliant but now hard on his luck actor who gets an opportunity for the role of a lifetime. A master of impersonations, Smith is asked to double for one of the most prominent politicians in the galaxy. John Joseph Bonforte has been kidnapped right before a ceremony that could help in uniting the Human and Martian races. Although apprehensive at taking on such a dangerous role, the pride of The Great Lorenzo prevents him from turning the offer down.

Heinlein is a master of crafting a fun, yet campy universe. In such a short novel, we get a fully sketched interplanetary society, in which the United States still exists as a sovereign state, in cooperation with a galactic Empire. The Martians are an interesting race with their own culture, although not as fully described as they could be in my opinion. While the plot of the double is nothing new to fiction, Heinlein still manages to craft an intriguing if not implausible piece of fiction. Although initially I didn’t care for the main character, I ended up finding Smith to be quite charming. The book does tend to decline in the second half with less action and more political discussion, but I still found a lot to enjoy with this one. If you end up enjoying Double Star, then I highly recommend another early Heinlein called Orphans of the SkyHe may be over the top at times, but Heinlein always guarantees a memorable journey.

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Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) Photo: Donatoart.com

19. Third from the Sun by Richard Matheson

During my first year as a book blogger, I reviewed I Am Legend and Hell House. I discovered Matheson to not only be a master of science fiction, but horror as well. He is one of those writers that can make you afraid of the dark again. This collection Third From the Sun contains 13 short works that demonstrate the full range of this author’s powers. While every short story collection has its highs and lows, as this one does, I still found myself enjoying it immenseley.

Some of the best tales in this collection are the shortest pieces. The opening number “Born of Man and Woman” is written from the perspective of a young child who is imprisoned by his “parents” in a cellar. We discover that the child is different as he bleeds green blood and looks different than the other children. For a simple story, Matheson manages to evoke a lot of emotion and create a rather chilling ending.

There are more traditional sci-fi stories to be found here such as “Third from the Sun” and “Lover When You’re Near Me.” However, Matheson manages to infuse these stories with a strong sense of unease that demonstrates his proficiency with the horror genre. One of my favorites in this collection is “Mad House,” which I consider more horror than sci-fi. A failing writer begins having several accidents in his house the angrier he becomes. While this premise may sound ridiculous, it builds to quite a gruesome climax.

I wasn’t expecting there to be so may funny stories as well. “SRL Ad” is an epistolary story about an alien from Venus who posts an ad in an Earth newspaper seeking a boyfriend. When a college student responds to the ad as a joke, a comedy of errors occurs as the Venusian decides to pay him a visit. “To Fit the Crime” is a fun comedic tale of a mean-spirited poet who mistreats his family all the way to his death bed. Let’s just say his “afterlife” is quite fitting indeed.

My two favorite stories involve time travel. How can you not be intrigued when one of the stories is titled “F—“? The F-word in this case is the word food. A time traveler from the present arrives in the far future where food and drink is taken intravenously.  Much to his confusion, the food in his time machine is confiscated and he is threatened with jail.  It was interesting to see how food was a dirty and sexualized concept in this story. “The Traveller” is a much different yet equally fascinating time travel tale where a professor goes back in time and watches the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  While merely instructed to observe and not interfere, the man is moved through watching Christ’s suffering on the cross. It was an oddly inspirational way to end this mixed bag of a collection.

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Richard Matheson (1926-2013) Photo: The Irish Times

These three books were fun, and I already plan to do another triple feature again this year! I recommend reading the best from these authors before plunging into some of their other works. If you’re a true sci-fi fanatic like myself, then you will have quite a huge selection.

“I suppose a book is still a book, even if no one but the author and his wife reads it.”-Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham

 

Have you read either of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

1. ‘Slade House’ by David Mitchell

Time for my first review of 2019! Not only did I choose a fast read, but it is also a reread of a book I really loved. I debated on whether or not I should write a whole new review of David Mitchell’s horror novel Slade House. However, reading its predecessor The Bone Clocks altered my experience of this one in such a way that I deemed it worthy of its own post. For the curious, feel free to check out my original review from 2017.

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The story begins in 1979 when a young boy named Nathan and his mother are invited to the home of Lady Norah Grayer. Something feels off from the beginning, as Slade House can only be entered through a mysterious door along an alleyway. Nathan and his mother meet Lady Grayer and her mysterious son Jonah, and the two boys spend the afternoon playing in the garden. The ideal day suddenly turns bizarre as Nathan begins having visions of strange people and other occurrences such as a painting of himself at the top of a grand staircase. The events that occur following this revelation are truly nightmarish.

Slade House is written in five chapters, each set 9 years after the previous one. We soon learn that the Grayers are not what they appear to be and harbor some rather terrifying secrets. Each person who enters the house experiences a completely different scenario with one commonality: never coming out again. I have to give a lot of praise for David Mitchell as a virtuoso when it comes to writing different styles of fiction. From his success at penning family drama to science fiction, I truly believe he can write anything. For this novel, Mitchell has provided us with a work of pure horror as I was literally scared during some of the scenes in this book. With each character, I felt the helplessness of that particular situation. Mitchell manages to give this book an off-kilter feeling as you keep second-guessing on whether the events happening are truly happening. I love fiction that plays with your mind the way this one does.

This novel isn’t so much a sequel to The Bone Clocks but more an extension of that universe. For those that were underwhelmed by that effort, this one is much better as it manages to tell a concise yet frightening story. While I enjoyed this one two years ago on the first read, I loved it even more with the knowledge I have from The Bone Clocks. The reality is that all of Mitchell’s novels are tied to the same universe, and the fun of reading one of his works is spotting the little references to past books.

Although I loved each section, my favorite was the one following Sally Timms in 1997. I loved how Mitchell portrayed this teenage girl’s insecurities. He really can capture teen angst as well as budding romance. Over the years, Mitchell has written in a variety of characters, and I’m always impressed with how well he makes each sound different from the one before.

Overall this is a great book. While frightening and perplexing, it is also a breeze to get through in no time at all. I am highly motivated to read (as well as reread) all of David Mitchell’s novels as he has risen the ranks to one of the finest modern authors working today.

“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

 

47. ‘Pet Sematary’ by Stephen King

Happy Halloween fellow readers! For my final review for Readers Imbibing Peril, I decided to go with one of my all-time favorite authors. Stephen King is one of my heroes as he ignited my love of reading. As I looked over his books in my library, I was surprised to discover several titles I have yet to read. With the upcoming remake approaching, I thought this would be the perfect time to try Pet Sematary. The main reason why I love King so much is not because of the fright factor (although this is quite high here). The reason this author will endure is because of how well he can make his stories believable. Pet Semetary is a perfect balance of genuine true to life horror along with the frightful elements that make Stephen King a household name. This is a writer who truly understands human psychology and is not afraid to show the darker side of our nature.

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Dr. Louis Creed and his family relocate from Chicago to the small town of Ludlow, Maine in order for him to take a position as director of health services for a university. Creed’s family consists of his wife Rachel, their two children Ellie and Gage, and their pet cat Church. Creed immediately forms a bond to his neighbor Jud Crandall and sees the older man as the father figure he never had. The family begins to feel comfortable in their new surroundings, but this would soon change on day when Jud takes them on a hike through the woods behind their new house. A path leads to a pet cemetery (misspelled “sematary” on the sign) which begins a series of events that takes Creed down a dark and dangerous path of his own.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article debating Harold Bloom’s criticism of Stephen King as a nothing more than a pop culture figure. Despite the fact that this author has touched on several genres in his fiction, he still gets labeled as a cheap writer of penny dreadfuls. While Pet Sematary is full of King’s trademark scares and terrifying images, the reason this book along with so many others by him stands out is because of the careful attention the author takes in building the story. He is a master craftsman. In fact, two thirds of this novel is all about setting the background and developing the characters. The horror itself gets going in the final third of the book when the culmination of the previous events come together. Some have criticized King for the slow pacing. Personally, I prefer it because underneath the story development there is a current of tension that slowly builds. The crescendo of the third act would not have worked had there not been the careful creation of the first two thirds of the book. As with all works by King, I found myself drawn to these characters.

Another outstanding aspect of this novel is how he focuses on real life tragedy. King actually hesitated on having this book published because of the traumatic nature of the events that unfold. Creed is suffering from the worst pain someone can have, which sends him down a dark and destructive path. In another writer’s hands, the immoral steps taken can seem unbelievable but by this point in the story, we have become attached to these characters, therefore making their actions completely believable. You find yourself rooting for these characters despite the fact that you know good and well the results will not be pleasant.

Pet Sematary may not be as popular as some of King’s other early works such as Carrie or The Shining, but it contains the perfect elements that demonstrate this author’s gifts. Also, it contains the idea of this evil force that exists in the world that would feature in some of King’s future fiction. One of my goals for next year is to try and read more Stephen King. He was one of my heroes growing up, and he continues to impress even today as evidenced by the number of growing film adaptations. His works will endure long after other writers of the horror genre.

“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below. 

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