Review: CARRIE, SALEM’S LOT & THE SHINING by Stephen King

Book Reviews

Ok so a while ago I mentioned I was embarking on a project to read Stephen King’s entire back catalogue in order. I’m making very slow progress to be honest, other shiny books keep capturing my attention and keeping me from moving forward. I have read his first few though, and instead of writing full reviews for every King book I read (cos that guy has wrote a lot of books) I’m gonna do mini reviews three at a time. Here’s what I thought of the first three King books.



CARRIE
King’s debut novel revolves around Carrie White, an unpopular friendless misfit and bullied high-school girl from an abusive religious household, who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who torment her. I started this with little idea of what to expect writing wise. I’d seen the film before, so I knew the story, but this was my first foray into King’s fiction, and from the reputation the guy has I assumed this was going to be a great read. In the end, it was fine. A decent enough read at the time but hardly memorable, with some bits I thought just didn’t work. It’s a very raw book and is unrelenting in examining how cruel people can be and in the end is a sad tale of the tragic consequences of torment and revenge. Special mention to Carrie’s mother Margaret, who is a genuinely great character. A religious fanatic with a very difficult history, a woman full of bitterness and self-loathing that she projects onto her daughter in the most appallingly abusive ways. She’s a detestable woman, but someone with a wretched past that manifests itself in ways that you can abhor, but definitely understand. I didn’t get why this was an epistolary novel though? It added nothing to the story and distracted me quite a lot from what was going on. Also, having read King’s book On Writing before this, where he laments that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, I’m just saying there sure are a lot of adverbs in this book…

SALEM’S LOT
Salem’s Lot on the other hand is a much better story. It centre’s on main character Ben Mears, a writer who returns to his hometown to discover that many of the town’s residents are becoming vampires. Aside from having two deeply sinister villainous characters in Kurt Barlow and his ‘business partner’ Richard Straker, Salem’s Lot excels at pulling back the curtain on the dark, depraved lives people lead behind closed doors. The vampire story is good, but it’s the examination of this dark side of the people who live in Salem’s Lot that really made this story work for me. My main criticism is that King had a tendency to ramble on at times, a tendency I would soon discover was not, unfortunately, a one-off.

THE SHINING
The Shining centres on the life of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. His family accompanies him on the job, including his young son Danny Torrance, who possesses ‘the shining’, a psychic ability that allows him to see the hotel’s horrific past. Before long a winter storm leaves the family isolated and the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel start affecting Jack’s sanity, putting his wife and son in terrible danger. While I found Carrie a bit meh, and Salem’s Lot good-but-rambly, The Shining was the first time I was truly impressed by King. Watching Jack’s slow descent into menacing insanity, haunted by his past and the consequences of his alcoholism, was a distressing and unnerving experience and there were points in this book where I was genuinely fearful.


Since finishing these books I’ve also read The Stand (and have actually already read and reviewed Pet Sematary, way out of order) and hope to move on to The Dead Zone soon. I’m in two minds about whether to include his novels written under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, but at the moment I’m leaning towards ‘yes’, so there’s a decent chance I’ll also read Rage and The Long Walk before that. Anyway, I’ve been saying I’d start on this project proper for a while now, so I’m glad I’ve finally begun!


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Reading update 04/10/2020

Updates

Recently Finished: SOURDOUGH by Robin Sloan
This was such a delightful book. It’s basically just the story of a computer programmer who finds happiness in baking bread when her favourite soup and sandwich takeout closes and the owners gift her their (possibly sentient?) sourdough starter. It was recommended to me by eriophora (@BasiliskBooks) on Twitter when I asked for some nice gentle reads with little stress (I’m really feeling the need for those types of stories right now) and this really hit that spot. The highest the stakes get is wondering whether or not Lois will get a spot at the local farmers market. I loved it and if you want something nice and wholesome about someone just learning to be happy then I would definitely recommend Sourdough.

Currently Reading: THE AFFAIR OF THE MYSTERIOUS LETTER by Alexis Hall
I’m a few chapters in to this one and already I absolutely adore it. It’s a sort of Lovecraftian lesbian Sherlock Holmes reimagining where ‘Holmes’ is a drug-addled sorceror tasked to investigate the attempted blackmail of her former lover. Told from the perspective of ‘Watson’ (Captain John Wyndham) the duo are beset by criminals, menaced by pirates, harassed by vampires, almost devoured by mad gods, and called upon to punch a shark. It’s a joyous, bizarre and unapologetically fun story and again, a perfect fit for the kinds of stories I feel like reading at the mo.

Next Read: WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN by Nghi Vo
Tor Books sent me this ARC and I can’t tell you how excited I am to read it. It’s Nghi Vo’s follow up to her majestic The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which was a story whose words flowed through my mind like silk over soft skin. Set in the same world and part of The Singing Hills Cycle, it’s nevertheless a standalone that reunites us with the cleric Chih, who finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover – a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty – and discover how truth can survive becoming history.


Let me know in the comments what you’re reading at the mo, I love to chat about the books we’re all reading. And hey, if you enjoyed this update why not follow the blog for more reviews and bookish chat.

Review: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones

Book Reviews

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Described as a tale of revenge, cultural identity and the cost of breaking from tradition, it follows four Native American men who are tracked and hunted by a malevolent entity after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives, leaving them helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.



I’ll tell you what I loved about this book, and that’s the superb characterisation and atmospheric tension-building. Lewis, Gabe and Cass are such real characters. They’re no saints, they’re deeply flawed in many ways and yet they’re fundamentally good, worthy people. There’s an almost twisted slice-of-life vibe to the first part of the book where we’re invited into Lewis’ life as a postal worker, meet his partner, friends and his dog while slowly watching him psychologically unravelled by the weight of his guilt. One of my favourite things about this book is that for a long time I couldn’t tell if there was anything supernatural going on at all or whether this was more of a psychological horror about the effects of guilt, remorse and the lengths people can go to in their search for redemption. The truth is it’s both, and for me great horror writers are the ones who are able to tell a story about the human experience while tying it up in some aspect of otherworldliness. I realise that sounds pretentious as anything haha, but when you dissect good horror I think that’s what it is, and Jones excels at it.

There’s a fair amount of gruesome violence and I’d forgive you for rolling your eyes and dismissing this book if I was to describe it as slasher revenge horror, and it kind of is, except that it’s also very smart and doesn’t resemble any of the tropey mess that makes up the core of that genre. Instead there’s genuine tension and palpable fear, uncertainty is instilled in the minds of both the reader and the characters and the result is a story that feels both vibrant and unnerving. It’s a book whose premise is deeply-rooted in Native American history, mythology and culture and while I was unfamiliar with most of these references prior to reading the book, it was still accessible enough to someone as ignorant as I am to still grasp how important this culture is to the characters and still feel compelled by the plot. In fact one of the strongest parts of this story was the complicated relationship the characters have with their own culture and is a major theme of the book.

The Only Good Indians is a strange book with a unique writing style that worked for me in some ways but did leave me confused in others. It’s an unsettling horror book and there’s this combination of colloquial, but also disjointed, prose that’s pretty darn masterful at keeping you simultaneously comfortable and close to the characters and yet really on edge the whole fucking time. Having finished the book I can absolutely see what Jones was doing with his storytelling and I appreciate his skill in pulling it off (it’s actually quite impressive from a craft perspective) but sometimes it took a lot of work to keep on top of and there was more than one occasion where I had to skip back a few pages to make sure I knew what was happening. I went into this book knowing nothing about the author, or even a great deal about the plot, and just wasn’t prepared for how unorthodox the writing would be, so I’d say if you’re into unsettling horror with some pretty gruesome violence you should read The Only Good Indians, but be aware going in that you’re just gonna have to roll with the weirdness at times and accept it and I think you’ll get a lot more out of it that way. Overall an unnerving, challenging book with lots of smart things to say about the development of indigenous culture.


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1st Birthday Celebrations!!!

Updates

Cut the cake and pop the champagne, it’s Parsecs & Parchment’s first blogiversary! I feel like I’m stuck in some kind of time warp cos, despite 2020 lasting for seven years already, it only feels like yesterday I posted my first review. The world might be a trash fire right now but I’m glad to say amidst it all I’ve found a great community of like-minded book lovers to escape from it all from time to time.



I was actually on holiday in Nice, France around this time last year when I decided I wanted to start a blog (holidays, remember them?). I’d started listening to Calvin Park’s Under A Pile of Books podcast and binged through all the episodes while sitting on the balcony of my Airbnb sipping Carrefour rosé cider in the warm dusk of the Côte d’Azur. I’d also started following some of the folks from The Fantasy Inn on Twitter, noteably Sara and Jenia, who happened to be organising a readathon around the same time. I enjoyed getting involved in that and found this little community so welcoming I just wanted to be more involved. I don’t think they know it, but right at the start it was these three folks that did the most to make me feel welcome and encouraged me to be part of the online book community. So a special thanks to them, I raise my glass to you.

Obviously since then I’ve made new pals who share my love of all things speculative and found a bunch of other really quite wonderful blogs to follow. The recommendations I’ve got from you all have improved my reading life immeasurably.

I was a big SFF nerd beforehand obviously, but in hindsight the range of books I was exposed to was quite homogenous and I wasn’t adventurous at all, despite what protestations past me might have had if you told him that. Not to say none of those books were any good (I still think A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read, despite how unfashionable that might be now) but over the past year my horizons have expanded beyond recognition and some of my now favourite authors are writers who I would likely never have heard of without the book community.

Jade City and Jade War by Fonda Lee are hands down some of the best fiction I’ve ever read; everything P. Djèlí Clark has ever written blows me away; Snow Over Utopia by Rudolfo A. Serna and Coil by Ren Warom, both published by small press Apex Publications; and most recently I’ve finally started getting into some of the fantastic self-published fiction that graces the shelves of the SFF world these days, with books like The First of Shadows by Deck Matthews and The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang. These are just a small selection of the amazing books I’ve encountered over the last year that otherwise I simply would not know about.

So I owe a big debt of gratitude to all you guys, for your recommendations and insightful reviews, as well as for your kindness and warmth in welcoming a new member into your flock. Here’s to you all and long may our little community flourish. Cheers!


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Reading Update 20/09/2020

Updates

Recently Finished: THE FIRST OF SHADOWS by Deck Matthews
I decided to pick this up after reading Rin’s review on her blog The Thirteenth Shelf. Rin is someone whose reading opinions I value a lot when it comes to books I’d also like as we share a lot of opinions on what makes a good story. THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is a frenetically-paced high fantasy novella(!!!) that packs a ton of engrossing world-building and heart-pounding action into a very small space. I’ll be writing a full review soon and also delighted to announce an upcoming interview with Deck Matthews himself, so keep your eyes peeled.

Currently Reading: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones
This is my first Stephen Graham Jones book and I’ve struggled to settle into it. A dark blending of classic horror and dramatic narrative, it follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way. The story is interesting but the prose is quite odd and I find I’m having to do a lot of going back over stuff to understand what’s going on, which is affecting my enjoyment somewhat.

Next Read: THE SWORD OF KAIGEN by M. L. Wang
I’ve wanted to read this one for a while after hearing everyone in the book community rave about it for months. I don’t know anyone who has a bad word to say about it and I thought what better time to finally dive in than Self Published Fantasy Month 🙂


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An Experience of Horror & the Sacramental by Alexander Pyles

Updates

Before jumping into this, I do want to thank Jon for hosting me and helping him celebrate his blog this week! It was a lot of fun to contribute something and join all the other book lovers here!


I am a relative newcomer when it comes to horror. I have primarily been a scifi or fantasy reader for most of my fiction life. I have since only just begun reading the genre as of three to four years ago. I dipped in years previously, reading the occasional classic from King. It wasn’t until I read Thomas Ligotti’s THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE HUMAN RACE and David Peak’s THE SPECTACLE OF THE VOID that I realized that horror actually had a lot for me to consider.



My road to horror is certainly not paved by old 80s slashers or a love of the ghoulish, though I’ve come to appreciate the latter of late. I grew up in a fairly conservative household, which meant that I naturally avoided, if not outright scorned, these things. So it wasn’t until my direct encounters with lovers of horror that I became curious about it. I did have to shed some preconceived notions as well as ill formed misconceptions of horror and its enthusiasts, but what a surprise love that I have for the genre now.

Yet, what I keep being struck by is the intersection that horror has with my own dearly held religion, Catholicism. I was raised in a faith-filled home, driven by my mother’s own pious tendencies. There was a kind of strange relationship I had to balance with horror, because of the various subversive aspects of the genre. At least, that is what I had first believed, but thinking on it for a while now, I think it is because of my faith that horror actually makes more sense to me than any other genre.

This isn’t to say that Catholicism doesn’t have a rich history with horror. From William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST to various tropes of the supernatural, cults, and the unseen, there has always been a strong, dare I say, religious undertone to the genre. Take this with a grain of salt, since as I said, I am a newcomer, but this is the source of my interest in horror as a subject.



The idea of fear and the unsettling aspects of human life are as prevalent in horror as they are in Catholicism. Horror is grounded in symbols and tropes that are made new by every writer that sets pen to paper. And like the genre, Catholicism has its own symbols in the sacraments that are repeated weekly by every member of the faith. These are the calling cards of both and they present their own similar rituals and deep faith in what they are.

The bodily experience that is perverted in say Clive Barker and others, also have strains in the experience of the martyrs. Look at some of the stories of the early saints: It has been told that St. Lucy scooped out her own eyes to deter a suitor, who admired them. St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles, was flayed alive. When St. Agatha refused the local Roman Governor, he had her breasts torn off. This is not to ignore the focal point of Catholicism, Calvary and Christ’s crucifixion.

Maybe the strongest part to all of this, is the belief in something that is real. Most of horror is based upon things that were superstitions or terrible events taken to extremes. Some readers here may be quick to say that Catholicism is also based off of similar fables, of which my only response is, “Sure, if you say so.” Yet, when you sit down to read horror, especially a good horror, you give yourself over to a new reality, no matter how terrifying it might be. You live in that world for as long as the pages carry you.

Catholicism is also like this, but you carry it with you every day and every moment you are awake. Everything drips with the meaning of God and you have to choose to give yourself over to faith with every action you take. It is this tension between the two that I have found myself.

Despite the vast chasms in the subject matter at times, I cannot get away from these inherent qualities I have found in both horror and Catholicism. I’m thrilled that this is all still so new that these reflections will only grow deeper, but who’s to say if that will happen? I can’t say if the parallels drawn here will resonate with anyone or if these are just the scribblers of a novitiate, but it is my hope that maybe we can have a healthier and deeper conversation between horror and religion, wherever that might take us.


You can find Alexander on Twitter at @PylesOfBooks and on his website Pyles Of Books. Also be sure to check out his short story MILO, a science fiction tale that Gareth L. Powell described as “short, sharp and chilling”.

Reading Update 28/07/2020

Updates

Hey bookwyrms. You might have noticed I’ve been taking a more lax approach to these reading updates lately; I used to do them every Wednesday but found I’d sometimes end up forcing myself to read when I didn’t want to just to avoid retreading familiar ground each week. Soooo I’m just gonna do them whenever I have new stuff to talk about. I’m not one who deals well with routine anyway. I’m not reading any new books lately, in fact they’re all canny old, so if what you’re really interested in is the shiny new releases you’re not gonna find anything to excite you here. But! If, like me, you think old books deserve appreciation too, then let’s wipe the dust of aeons off those old book covers and dive into some retro fiction.



Recently Finished: THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler
Some of my favourite books have been influenced by the pulp noir genre. Neuromancer by William Gibson for example, one of my all time favourite books, is saturated with the atmosphere and character tropes of noir detective fiction. Classic cyberpunk characters are the marginalised, alienated loners who live on the edges of society and eschew its rules, much like the anti-hero of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. Private dick Philip Marlowe is the archetypal rough-around-the-edges, booze-guzzling maverick private investigator we’re all familiar with now and is pulled into the shady underbelly of 1930s Los Angeles when he’s hired by an old general to investigate the blackmailer of his daughter. This was a really good book. Didn’t quite make it to being great, but Chandler’s famous no-nonsense prose was very compelling and, given how much I love William Gibson, I was intrigued by the stylistic prose that clearly influenced what came to be a classic of the cyberpunk genre in Neuromancer.

Currently Reading: THE STAND by Stephen King
I’ve mentioned before in passing how I have a goal to read all of Stephen King’s books in order. I’ve been making slow progress with that but, let’s be real, it’s gonna be a lifelong commitment cos that guy has written a lot of books. You may also be questioning my sanity in reading a book about a killer virus that wipes out 99% of humanity while in the middle of an irl pandemic and I really have no answer for you there, maybe I just didn’t think the real world was dark enough. I’m about ten chapters in and enjoying it well enough so far. I have an odd relationship with Stephen King; he has a weird writing style and his books feel like deep character studies more than books with an actual plot and I think he really needs an editor to tell him to shut the fuck up sometimes, but his books are enjoyable, sort of like chewing gum for the brain.

Next Read: THE MURDER ON THE LINKS by Agatha Christie
This section is almost always entirely nonsense cos I love a good mood read, so will change my mind a hundred times about what to read next, but I finished the first Hercule Poirot book a few weeks ago and loved it. I’m a massive Agatha Christie fan boy now and I’m really digging old crime fiction at the mo. THE MURDER ON THE LINKS sees our old Belgian detective summoned to France after receiving a distressing letter with a urgent cry for help. Upon his arrival Poirot finds the letter writer, the South American millionaire Monsieur Renauld, stabbed to death and his body flung into a freshly dug open grave on the golf course adjoining the property. Renauld’s wife is found bound and gagged in her room. Apparently, it seems that Renauld and his wife were victims of a failed break-in, resulting in Renauld’s kidnapping and death. There’s no lack of suspects: his wife, whose dagger served as the weapon; his embittered son, who would have killed for independence; and his mistress, who refused to be ignored – and each felt deserving of the dead man’s fortune. The police think they’ve found the culprit, but Poirot has his doubts. Why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse… Love it love it love it.


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Review: BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (THE FIRST LAW #2) by Joe Abercrombie

Book Reviews

I’m just gonna say it folks: this book was a big disappointment for me. And that was a big surprise because I enjoyed The Blade Itself a lot. BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED picks up just after the events of the first book, with Sand dan Glokta taking up his position of Superior in the soon-to-be-besieged city of Dagoska; Logen, Bayaz the mage and the rest of gang traipsing off westward on a quest Bayaz is still very cagey about; and Collem West and Threetrees’ crew up north on an inevitable collision course with Bethod’s army. Bear with me here, cos there’s a bunch of story lines and perspectives in this book and I’m gonna do my best to talk about each one, as well as the bits and pieces I liked and disliked about the writing.



So my biggest disappointment in this second book was the sheer amount of lore dumping we’re subjected to, and any scene with Bayaz in it was particularly bad for this. Pretty much any time Bayaz opens his mouth for the first three quarters of this book it’s to vomit out paragraphs upon paragraphs of history about some long-forgotten war or a once-majestic city now fallen into ruin. I’m not against this in principle and a lore dump can be very interesting if done well, but the irksome thing about the way it’s done here is that there’s no reason for anyone to care, because neither we as the reader or the characters really know where they’re going or why, so none of the reams of lore he spews out means anything in the context of their journey. We do get drip fed a bit more detail about what Bayaz is up to as the book progresses, but for me it just felt like I was watching this motley crew of reluctant adventurers going on a very long, pointless walk with no clear reason or motivation for far too much of this book.

Despite that I thought there was some good character development in this story line. I particularly enjoyed seeing Ferro take some tentative steps towards dismantling some of the defensive barriers she’s so far put up around herself, even if it is against her better judgement. Jezal dan Luthar likewise undergoes some noticeable changes in this book. I’ll avoid getting into specifics because spoilers, but the important part is that this progression is written well; I found it very believable that these characters would undergo the changes they did and in the way they did. There are definitely identifiable turning points in their character arcs, but nobody changes their entire personalities overnight because of a single epiphany and even at the end of the book, the core of who they are is still there, even if they’ve noticeably changed in other ways.

I enjoyed Glokta’s story line for the most part. He was my favourite character in the first book and his story is still the most interesting for me. I think that’s just for the simple fact that he rubs shoulders with so many scheming wankers in the upper echelons of Aduan society, all jockeying for power and influence. I love that shit. Even so, I was often disappointed by Abercrombie’s execution of the things that really are low-hanging fruit for me. I don’t think he delved into the gritty, grimy world of the traitors of Dagoska as much as he could have and so much of that ruthless world felt unexplored and I ended up feeling a bit unsatisfied as a result. Hints are made at the end of the book that the scheming, bribing, blackmailing and backstabbing are going to be amped up in the next book, but the execution felt so crude and rudimentary and I just felt disappointed by it. This really is low-hanging fruit for me, an author doesn’t have to try particularly hard for me to love this stuff, but it just didn’t work for me here.

Collem West and the Northmen fight a few battles with Bethod’s army, but this story line was pretty forgettable for the most part. I just didn’t care very much and these were the parts where my attention drifted the most. Except when I got actively frustrated by some of the side characters; mainly Generals Poulder and Kroy who, frankly, are just cartoon characters whose only character traits are that they’re jealous of each other and argue every chance they get. They’re so one-dimensional and cartoonish that whenever they started fighting I just pictured them rolling around Looney Tunes style in a cloud of dust, fists and feet poking out as they scrapped with each other.

There were flashes of things I really loved. I feel like they’re possibly things other people might find a bit weird, but I often find joy in the corners of stories that hint at larger things and one of my favourite sentences in this book takes place when Jezal is changing into an outfit someone has laid out for him; ‘he pulled on the clothes that had been left for him. A fusty-smelling shirt and breeches of an ancient and absurdly unfashionable design’. To me this shows that the world is alive, that fashion exists and that it’s not static, that people have tastes that change over time; that despite all the war and killing and plotting people in this world still think about such mundane things as what clothes are fashionable. This one tiny morsel of world building did so much more for me than the pages and pages of grand monologues from Bayaz about the sweeping histories of fallen empires.

Overall this was a major departure from The Blade Itself. I thought the characters in that first book were vibrant, the writing was engaging and the world was fascinating, but everything that made it so enjoyable was absent in this second instalment. There were aspects of it I liked and some isolated moments I loved, but overall BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED is a shadow of its predecessor. I only hope this was simply a case of Middle Book Syndrome and the final part of the trilogy takes us back to the highs of that first book.


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