When that tsunami is coming, you run…You protect yourself, you don’t turn around, you don’t go back to save anybody. You run for your life. – Jay Wilson, quoted in “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz
Growing up in the Midwest, weather has always been on my mind. Thunderstorms, straight-line winds, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms – I’ve spent a lot of time studying the radar, running to the basement, and picking up fallen tree limbs.
Moving to the Pacific Northwest, I was dumbfounded to discover that storms of such brutal suddenness rarely happen. A windstorm here would be just another breezy day on the plains of Illinois. I’ve lived through two summers in Washington state now, and have heard thunder maybe twice. Snow is a rare event in the lowlands. Even the rain tends to blossom into mist as it falls; few and far between are gushing torrents and pelting downpours.
But that doesn’t mean nature is all rainbows and lollipops in the PNW; instead of searching the sky for a coming disaster, now I look warily at the ground beneath my feet. If there is a natural disaster to strike Washington, it will rise from the earth, from the mountains, and from the ocean.
If Stephen King and I were Facebook friends, our relationship status would be “It’s Complicated.” (I know, that joke is so 2008). I have read only 6 books by Stephen King and some of them enjoyed, some of them I wondered if he wrote them during a bout of the flu (My feelings about Cell are well documented).
I’ll admit that like most people, I’ve seen more movies based on Stephen King novels than I have read actual Stephen King novels. Shortlist includes: The Stand, Secret Window, The Shining, The Shining (remake), Rose Red, Misery, Pet Sematary, Cell, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Christine, Firestarter, Salem’s Lot, Children of the Corn, Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, Dreamcatcher, The Mist, 1408, Carrie (the remake), The Langoliers, Storm of the Century.
Good Lord, I’ve seen a lot of Stephen King movies.
But I’m not a big fan of his prose. There’s a know-it-all cleverness that grates on me at times, an ostentatious look-at-me vibe. His dialogue is a tough sell; it often serves to rip me out of a story because Stephen King’s characters talk in a way no real person talks. I know, I read stories about murderous clowns and murderous cell phone signals and yet cannot suspend my disbelief to forgive a character’s idiosyncratic verbiage.
King’s characteristic style is on full display here, and it makes for a rich story that spans decades. Character and setting are King’s strong suit. The sleep town of Derry is rendered vividly, often through the eyes of a child, that time when geography is limited by the reaches of a bicycle, an entire world writ in the confines of city limits.
The timeline jumps back and forth between a cast of children and their scarred, adult selves, as they navigate a horror they once defeated, but never actually killed. Grown up, all but one of them has built a life outside of Derry, but the evidence shows they never really left.
Although Pennywise the clown is the most famous manifestation of the town’s evil menace, like a Boggart, it morphs to mirror each character’s darkest fear.
Clocking in at over a thousand pages, the novel’s verbosity nonetheless feels necessary; the details are rarely extraneous.
In spite of myself, I liked the book. Writing aside, it made me appreciate the relentless imagination of Stephen King’s brain, a place that would be both horrifying and exhilarating to inhabit.
I watched the movie for the first time after reading. It’s…I won’t lie. I fell asleep.
Tim Curry is hilarious!
But there’s a remake! Bill Skarsgård will play the infamous Pennywise, although I really wish the rumors about Tilda Swinton had been true! Also, it’s going to be multiple parts, like the miniseries.
Full disclosure: I read this book last year. If I had anything rude to say about it, it’s been long forgotten.
This past summer I set myself a goal to read through a curriculum that provided various answers to the question: How did we come to be?
Inspired by an audiobook I had just heard, The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, I assembled an almost arbitrary collection of books to read through, a curriculum of sorts, that revolved around genetic influence, evolution, natural selection, and the question of humanity.
Of course, my first natural selection (I italicized that so you know it’s funny) was Darwin’s Origin of Species, one of those books that everyone knows about but few have read.
Check that baby off my list! The actual experience of reading the book was difficult. There’s a lot of references to pigeons. I liken it to the time I read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and he talked a lot about “micturation,” which is a fun word.
While reading the book was a test of endurance and perseverance, I felt a little thrill at actually reading THE source material that preceded everything we have come to learn about the species that populate our planet and why such wonderful diversity exists among them.
Next up, The Ascent of Manby J. Bronowski. Purportedly a timeline of the cultural evolution that would harp on the recurring theme of humanity’s uniqueness, this meandering book, though well regarded by Carl Sagan (who is GREAT), is an unfocused paean to white, male geniuses. And arches, for some reason.
I don’t know that this stuffy and dated book contributed in a meaningful way to my curriculum, but it serves as a reminder that we must always keep vigilant of our blind spots and respectful of the breadth of different perspectives and experiences that exist in the world.
Next up was another oft-quoted classic, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. Aiming to explore the manifestations of our inherently self-serving biology, the book is a thoughtful, though at times defensive, contribution to our understanding of those ruthless replicators. If one had to distill the magic ingredient that differentiates humans from other species, Dawkins’ concept of the meme, a cultural version of the gene, which can be seen in everything from religion to language, isn’t a bad choice. Ultimately optimistic, Dawkins posits that we have an ability not gifted to any other species: the ability to defy our biology and make choices.
How appropriate then, to complete the journey from primordial ooze to reptile brain to Amazon drone delivery (surely the crowning achievement of our species) with a book entitled Human by Michael Gazzaniga. It directly addresses the question of what makes us able to create and communicate and fashion countless emojis like no other species has ever come close to.
Surely it has something to do with our big, expensive brains.
Human captures the quandary of the apparent similarities and dissimilarities between humans and everything else, most notably our simian cousins. It doesn’t offer an easy answer, but barrels through dozens of studies that highlight our lucky biology that led to humanity’s unique mental processes.
Luck. Chance. Opposable thumbs. Bipdalism. Neocortex. Language. Art. Along the way a million tiny steps; the thought that we could have developed in any other manner is almost incomprehensible. The survival machines that shuffle our genes into the next generation are so complex, so perfectly honed, that many believe there must have been some guiding force, a higher intelligence, beings from another planet, that conferred these gifts upon us and shaped the environment in which we thrive. However, every piece of the puzzle is explainable by science, and it doesn’t make our existence any less profound.
To me, the unique experience of being a person, and all the joy and pain and creativity and intelligence that comes with it, can be summed up in this quote by Viktor Frankl:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
I will always remember this grisly trilogy for inspiring one of my more horrifying dreams.
Clive Barker is most salient in people’s memories as the dude who wrote and directed Hellraiser, a movie my grandmother claims is the scariest movie she’s ever seen (and my grandma knows from horror).
I will confess here and now that I’ve never seen Hellraiser, but it’s such a boil on the butt of pop cultural consciousness that I feel like I’ve seen it.
The stories in Books of Blood are like Thomas Hobbes’ description of prehistoric human life: Nasty, brutish, and short. To be frank, I hated them.
I’m not one to demand my horror come with a happy ending, but there is such a bleakness ingrained into these stories that even reading them left me feeling unshowered. There are no thrills or fun to be had on this literary journey, just page after page of nauseating plotlines and hideous characters.
The framework threading the stories together is this: A phony psychic in an attic gets more than he bargains for when he finds himself at an intersection of a supernatural highway and the tormented souls decide to use his skin as a canvas for their stories. That’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t really affect the impact of the stories one way or another.
There is one story I enjoyed, so I will talk about that.
I first read In the Hills, the Cities in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories.It delighted me as an odd story that seemed to be a grisly mashup of The Wicker Man and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. In it, a couple navigating turmoil in their relationship stumble upon an ancient tradition between two towns that ends in an horrific accident. It’s a garishly creative and unexpected story, a standout among so much muck.
There is a film based on the books. Book of Blood (2009). It has a 5.3. rating on imdb.com.
The story that gave me a nightmare was Rawhead Rex. I dreamed the titular character came into my place of work and started killing people. I did what any sensible person would do: I grabbed my Mom and my dog and got the heck out of there.
“Maybe I am the only one afraid. I wonder whether getting older will give me more, or less, to fear.” Where Rivers Change Direction, Mark Spragg
I was born in Wyoming. I don’t remember any of it because we moved when I was only a few years old. A few years back I traveled through the southwest corner, staying the night in Cheyenne. The largest city in Wyoming with a population of almost 60,000, it boasts an air force base, a rodeo, and cowboy boots the size of outhouses.
Outside of the city, I remember wide open plains, hills, a horizon that stretched on forever. Every once in a while, I’d see a forlorn statue of a single bison perched on a hill.
There was also this:
The Wyoming that Spragg recalls resides in the northwestern portion of the state, in the wilderness outside of Yellowstone. Where Rivers Change Direction is a memoir of boyhood both romantic and brutal. Spragg sings songs to the beauty of the landscape and wildlife and the horses that he grew up around on the ranch his family owned, but he doesn’t shy away from the harshness of that reality: winters in Wyoming are cold, the wind blows all the time, and one wrong turn can bring disfigurement and death to people and horses alike.
It’s not an environment for the faint-of-heart. Amateur homesteaders need not apply.
Spragg’s prose is beautiful, vividly evocative of the natural world and the people that populated his life. Thoughtful and imaginative, he give voice to thoughts that only seem to come when we’re young. Of the horses who dominated his waking hours, he writes:
I imagine I hear the horses laugh. I think it every time. I think that running is the way a horse may laugh out loud. When I am older I will believe that following in their wake has filled me with the inconsolable joy of animals.
The joy is laced with sadness as time marches on. As a boy, Spragg ruminated on the type of man he would become. As he grew older, he began to fear that man. Accustomed to taking city folks out into the wilderness to hunt bear and elk, he no longer hunts as an adult. Even as a boy, he found it difficult to watch a bear killed. He writes:
I expected to learn the language of bear, but I only learned to love them. Now, when the sun is up I am still their friend. I still imagine that I can stand with a foot in their world. But at night I know I am slowly growing into a man. I am afraid that a bear will find me out, judge me. I am afraid that a bear will kill me for the traitor I am.
There is something to fear about growing older, and it isn’t death. Death is natural and inevitable. The fear is loss, loss of self, loss of joy, and a life not fully lived.
I’ve decided to work backwards in reviewing what I’ve read from the 50 Scariest Books list. It’ll be a nice work up to October.
I can’t tell you how much I love the “idiots lost in the woods” trope. It’s my favorite thing! (See: Suicide Forest.)
The particular idiots in The Ritual, woefully unprepared and not a little disdainful of each other, kick it off with the classic “Let’s take a shortcut!” cliche. Because no one in a horror story has ever read a horror story, this is accepted as a great idea that cannot go wrong. Except, have you ever hiked in the wilderness? Pointing a compass due south and heading in that direction isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. There’s undergrowth. Trees. Rivers. Ravines. One thing that Nevill nails about an untamed forest is how hard it is to go off-trail.
So these fools are already in a dire situation (I mean, one of them is wearing jeans. A real hiker knows synthetics are the way to go). It’s about to get much worse. Because there’s something in the forest. Right? There’s always something in the forest. Someone. Or some…thing. And it’s got a seriously weird, ritualistic killing vibe.
Not to spoil it too much, but this book takes a hard left turn, and I mean a HARD LEFT TURN into some pretty outlandish territory. Let’s just say this group of dum-dums aren’t the biggest idiots in the forest. That title will be awarded to a teenage black metal band with an ultra-original penchant for animal masks and grandstanding.
As weird and mildly stupid as the novel gets, it did on occasion creep me out. There’s a certain horror in isolation, evocative of the idea of an afterlife that is nothingness. Our ancestors were the ones who survived the wilderness and solitude, and there is a primal memory in our genetic makeup that surfaces in dark, foreboding places, reminding us of the fear from which we were born.
So I knocked another book off of the 50 Scariest Books of all time list, putting me at a grand total of 19. I began the list with 11 already done, making this the 8th book as I tortoise my way to the finish line. I just might use my kindle app to complete the trek.
So far, the list encompasses many different types of scary. There’s the satanic scary (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist), the supernatural scary (The Haunting of Hill House, It), the macabre scary (Books of Blood), and then there’s the type of scary found in The Girl Next Door. It’s the scary to be found in ordinary folks.
The Girl Next Door follows the story of a boy navigating an impossible situation. Two girls move in next door; the older girl, a teenager named Meg, becomes a target for Ruth Chandler, the lady of the house, whose bitterness and sociopathy create a pathway to imprisonment and increasingly insane tortures for the poor girl. Ruth recruits her sons, their friends (including the narrator), and eventually many neighborhood children in participating in a crime that lurches steadily to its inevitable, dreadful end.
In the “Author’s Notes” at the end of the book, Ketchum writes that he had wanted to write about sociopaths. “Sociopaths scare me and make me mad.” He drew on the true life story of Sylvia Likens, murdered in 1965 after enduring horrific torture by her guardian, Gertrude Baniszewski, who led her own children and others into committing the crime.
Sociopaths are all fine and dandy horror material, but what really scares me about sociopaths are the people who follow them, ordinary people who consider themselves “good.” Like the narrator in The Girl Next Door, a 13 year old kid who doesn’t necessarily participate in the torture, but witnesses it, and for a long time does nothing to stop it. He muses:
The truth is that it was me. That I’d been waiting for this, or something like this, to happen all along. It was as though something starkly elemental were at my back, sweeping through me, releasing and becoming me, some wild black wind of my own making on that beautiful bright sunny day.
The worst horrors of human history are perpetuated by ordinary folks. Hitler and Jim Jones would’ve been nothing without regular people to carry out the dirty work.
As for the sociopath, Ruth Chandler seems to grow fuzzier with each advancing torture, until she’s merely an instigator, leaving instructions that the kids are all too eager to carry out. In the end, she fades away, not the force but the figurehead. We never really flesh out this odious character; she is lost in the chorus of incipient henchmen surrounding her. As the narrator writes:
A presence that was a whole lot more than the lingering smell of her smoke in the air yet just as insubstantial. Like Ruth was a ghost who haunted us, her sons and me. Who’d haunt us forever if we pushed or disobeyed her.
The prose in the novel is spare. Direct. It doesn’t look away, except when it’s too horrible to look, and then the reader is left to the worst possible device: their imagination.
Let us hope that when the day comes, though it may not be fraught with such consequence, though it may not end in murder, though it may one of the those dozen daily choices that build us up or tear others down, that we have the courage to bat away that kool-aid and see the mad(wo)man for what he or she truly is.
Fun fact! I read this book on my Kindle app. It turns out that anything you highlight transfers over to your Goodreads account and you can read it all in one handy list. But duh, Amazon = Kindle = Goodreads, so there you go.
Every time I type the author’s name, I feel like I’m spelling “Ketchum” wrong. I really want to type “Ketchup.” Because it’s delicious!
The story of Sylvia Likens was made into a movie in 2007 starring Catherine Keener and Ellen Page. An American Crimeis sickening on all levels. Everything about this story is major moral suckage.
The Girl Next Door was made into a movie also in 2007 (not the one about the porn actress starring Elisha Cuthbert). The acting is pretty bad. And what kind of degenerate would want to see a movie like this? I mean, I watched it, but obviously I’m a terrible person.
It has come to light that I have read a lot of books in the past year with the word “girl” in the title. These books include:
The Girl Next Door
The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo
The Girl with all the Gifts
The Forgotten Girls
Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl
The Girl on the Train
The Wicked Girls
The Shining Girls
In contrast, I have only read one book in the past year with the word “man” in it (The Ascent of Man) and none with the word “boy.”
Why this glut of girls? Where did they come from? Who let them out of their yellow-wallpapered powder closets? Before we all pump a fist in the air and cry “Yay, feminism!” let’s break it down a bit.
Of the books on the list, 6 are authored by female writers, 3 by male.
5 of the book titles are age appropriate, meaning there are actually girls under 18 who figure into the story. The rest are about grown-ass women.
2 of the books are memoirs.
In 6 of the books, girls get murdered.
4 books involve the titular girl(s) doing the murdering and/or being a hot mess in general.
What could be the meaning behind this? I have a few theories:
I am subconsciously drawn to books with the word “girl” in the title. Perhaps I think “Hey, I was once a girl too! We have so much in common!” According to the latest Pew report on American reading habits, more women than men read (77% vs. 68%), so inserting the word “girl” into a title isn’t a bad marketing strategy.
“Girl” is a secret best-seller buzzword. I blame Stieg Larsson and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I have never read and never will and you can’t make me!).
Girl = Probably Murder. In all of the books on my list, only the memoirs don’t involve murder and violence of some kind. I am all for bloodshed and mystery (my dog is named Agatha Christie), and yet somehow invoking a girl in the title implies a prurient kind of death; no impersonal poisons or heart attacks here. The end is usually bloody and brutal and tortuous. Rape and mutilation are par for the course. Girls don’t get off easy in these types of books; they die hard. Sometimes this is important, but often it’s voyeuristic and vile.
Putting “Girl” in the title of a book acts as a built-in trigger warning. That way no one picks up the book only to discover to their chagrin that it is populated by at least one female character. “Nooo…there’s ladies in my word-fantasy! Some of them even have personality! Quick, bring me whiskey and The Old MAN and the Sea!”
As I was writing this, Facebook recommended a book called The Girl from the Sea. Now that I am hip to their marketing schemes, do you think I fell for that blatant pandering to my delicate sex?
Ever had the suspicion when you were growing up that you were somehow different? That you weren’t like all the other creatures on the tree of life? Well guess what…you kind of are. I think. Like author Michael S. Gazzaniga writes in his book, Human,“We are a big deal, and we are a little scared about it.”
This book poses two big questions: Are humans unique? And if so, how?
Good news! Gazzaniga has solved the mystery!
Just kidding. If anything, Human only serves to deepen the mystery, elucidating how tangled and complex that concept of humanity truly is.
What makes a human a human? Our achievements (hello wifi!)? Our language? Our tools? God? That intangible essence known as consciousness (or a soul)? Can we even distill humanity into a one, single perfect quality? Cruelty come to mind. My favorite go-to answer is existential despair. As Gazzaniga writes, “No other species aspires to be more than it is.”
Whatever it is that has us building skyscrapers and appreciating art, Gazzaniga seems sure that it’s buried somewhere in that big, expensive brain of ours. The very idea that every bodily function, every behavior, emotion, action, is regulated by an intricate bundle of neurons all wired up inside our skulls is mind-blowing (get it!?!).
There is a lot of brain science going on in this book: from the corpus callosum and the amygdala to that oversized neocortex of ours, the book is crammed with the most cutting edge (2006) studies and discoveries.
If there is anything humans seem to possess compared to other species, it’s a theory of mind (TOM), the ability to conceive of perspectives other than one’s own. Apparently, other people have their own thoughts, desires and motives. Crazy.
Gazzaniga takes us through the mysteries of consciousness, art, social altruism, and the left-brain interpreter (the module that synthesizes the barrage of incoming stimuli into a coherent narrative), and demystifies some of it. At times, it seems we are only unique by a matter of degree, not kind.
Sometimes this tour of humanity can seem a little frenetic; Gazzaniga leaves tantalizing threads hanging as he barrels on from one topic to the next. It’s an exhausting ride.
There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer to the question of humanness. Gazzaniga leaves us hanging, but with a wider conception of the awesome beauty and intricacy of life in all its forms.