Salem's Lot

Monday, March 29, 2010

Salem's Lot
Stephen King, 1975

I have to admit, I winced when I opened this book.  I'm a little hypersensitive to Mr. King's pet narrative devices after reading Under the Dome last month (review pending a break in my posting schedule), which retreads a lot of the ground first walked in Salem's Lot.  But happily, once past the first page I was reminded why they became his favorite narrative devices.  Because when he's on point, it works beautifully.

Man, this was a good American re-telling of Dracula.  King makes no pretensions that it isn't just that, even comes right out and says it in the introduction, also that he tried to blend back in some more horrific elements found in EC Comics.  Old vamp Barlow and his human lackey set up shop in the Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot, with considerable success.  A group of locals figure out what's happening and move against him.  Like most of King's writing, it flows beautifully and reads viscerally, full of great turns of phrase and enough creeping doom to keep me pleasurably off-balance.  Even though I've read this one before.

The characters are great to follow, the vampires creepy, the plot tight.  A motif King would use again many times, recounting the small concurrent happenings that tie to the plot across different places and characters, is used to great effect.  Space is left in the narrative for exploration of a problem that would plague the heroes of many a horror novel: vampires (or other supernatural beasties) are not considered possible in the modern era, but that very fact gives them enormous freedom to operate unhindered.

Mark, first published of King's clever boy heroes, avoids some attacks because he is a horror reader, and knows the stories.  It was pointed out in The Magician's Book that a similar moral is in the Narnia books, the Pevensies can deal with the fantasy world because they read the “right sorts of books”, in that case, heroic fantasy adventure.  I always enjoy it on a somewhat silly level when being a reader is a tactical advantage.  Or, to put it another way....

Perhaps because it isn't set or written that long ago, but I found this book more real, more tangibly possible, than Dracula or I Am Legend.  Which, I think, is why I'm tying it into so many other things; it doesn't sit still as a self-contained tale, only confined to it's own book.

I was interested, rereading this now, to see some of the specific effects/powers which appear here that I know are coming up in some of the later books, too.

For example, the vampire's hypnosis is explicitly linked to eye contact, which I don't remember being the case in the book Dracula, although it certainly shows up in film versions of the same.  Also crosses don't just scare off vampires, they GLOW.  Like Sting.  You could probably use a holy symbol as a vampire detector.

I really like this book, can you tell?  It's Stephen King doing what he does so well: combining supernatural forces with the pettiness of small town life.  King reports in the introduction to this edition that the book was inspired by a conversation with his wife in which they discussed the possibility of a Dracula setting up, not in an American city to parallel London, but in the American countryside instead of the Transylvanian countryside.

I will defer in further explanation to Sherlock Holmes:
“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”  -The Adventure of the Copper Beeches
4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Characteristics of Vampires in Salem's Lot:
Hypnosis upon eye contact
Also control over partially drained victims
No Animal Control
Turn into dust, unclear whether animal transformation is possible.
Appearance seems to be fixed at age of death(?)
Can fly to some degree

Limitations include:
Need darkness, hide and sleep soundly during day
Need to desecrate holy soil
Unclear whether Barlow needs native soil, not stated that he has anything other than himself and his coffin shipped to the house.  Younger vampires sleep wherever they can find hiding places.
Need to be invited into a building
Possibly repelled by garlic, but it doesn't get tested.  They specifically have bulbs, because garlic flowers are not available.
Almost certainly driven back or balked in some way by roses, the vampire has all the local ones gotten rid of.
Driven back by holy symbols, including consecrated host.
Unknown whether difficulty crossing running water
Troubled by a black dog with white spots over its eyes.

New vampires?
Made by draining the blood of the victim, can happen in a single night.  The ingestion of vampire blood by a victim marks a victim as unholy, does not damage health, unclear whether such a victim would become undead eventually.  New vampires acquire cunning, but not exceptional intelligence, gain exceptional speed, strength, ability to turn to dust.  They are not as powerful or as clever as the older vampire.  New vampires can create more new vampires very quickly.  Vampires created in Salem's Lot are all ages and genders, taken depending on opportunity.

How to destroy:
Stab the heart with wooden stake.  As in Dracula, older vampires turn to dust, new ones revert to a normal dead body.  Sunlight causes extreme pain, and probably eventual death, but they can awaken enough to try to get to shade.

I Am Legend

Monday, March 22, 2010

I Am Legend
Richard Matheson, 1954

I'm having a really hard time planning this post.  I really enjoyed this short novel, but most of what I found fascinating about it really belongs under a spoiler warning.  Yes, even though the book came out in 1954, has been adapted into three movies, and is a seminal work of modern horror.  You ought to read it before I can give you my full reaction.

So all I'll do first is fit it into the context of vampiric literature.  I Am Legend famously inspired many modern horror writers and filmmakers.  The opening premise - guy alone in a house staving off waves of undead - inspired much of what we think of as the modern zombie.  For the most part, the vampires here are less intelligent than humans.  They are only possessed by a desire for blood and an instinct to hide during the day.  On the other hand, similar to Dracula, female vampires seem to also acquire a preternatural wantonness, which is creepy, and at times makes one wonder about the author.

Because it came out in the 50's, it attempts what is possibly one of the first “scientific” explanation of vampires, which is really interesting all by itself.  Also, it's set in the “future” of 1976.  Awesome.

It's a really good, creepy, dark book.  Go read it. 

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Moderate Spoilers Below this line!-----------------------------------------------------

Okay, this book is so cool.  The 'twist' is cooler the more I think about it.  It's awesome.  In the end, I actually completely get behind Neville's weird issues with the female vampires, because they parallel Dracula's obsessions so well.  I'm not sure that the narration should have played up directly how cold and awful he was becoming without human companionship, but it's a minor criticism. 

The science-y explanations wore a little thin eventually, although I like that the only major vampire power (from Dracula) that was borne out in the 'real' vampires of I am Legend was turning to dust, since that was very important in Dracula, although we don't often think of that one in the context of modern representations of vampires.  Even though in this case it isn't so much a power as it is an effect of their death, you could guess from Neville's experiences how it became part of the vampire legend.  I'm not sure how I feel about holy symbols, etc. only having an effect because the vampires themselves believe it will, but it's a nice spin on debunking a myth.

Below, quick snapshot of the 'type' of vampires from I Am Legend.

Powers include:
Possible Light Hypnosis  (Females' affect on Neville referred to as such in passing)
No Super-strength
No Super-speed
No Animal Control
Can't turn into bat, wolf.
Dissolve upon starvation into dust
Blood sustains living dead, more akin to zombies than previous vampires.
Extraordinary healing powers.

Limitations include:
Asleep during the day, Sunlight painful or lethal.
Some sleep in soil
Don't seem to need to be invited into a building
Repelled by garlic
Driven back by holy symbols, dependent on faith of human pre-vampirism.
No difficulty crossing running water

New vampires?
Made by infection by bacteria, either via bite from a current vampire or via poisonous dust.  Possibly also spread by insects.  Not “fully” undead until death of host, but acquire most characteristics (sharp canines, sleep during the day, etc.) upon infection.  It is possible to be immune to the infection.

How to destroy:
Stab the body with something large enough to prevent healing.  Fully undead vampires revert to dust.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Bram Stoker, 1897

I think Dracula needs a longer title.  I'd like to suggest: Dracula: Sexism Kills!  

I can't believe I couldn't get through this book when I tried to read it 8 or so years ago.  Maybe my nineteenth century reading skills have improved.  I can't imagine why.

I really enjoyed this book.  The characters were properly bluff and British when called for, Dracula was creepy, Renfield really tragic, Van Helsing, among other things, played for comic relief, which I was not expecting.  And Mina!  Level-headed Mina the super typist and analysis girl.  She was awesome.  I know the role she's given to pay in fighting the Undead is a bit of a rear guard, but I love her.  I love that once she accepts that Dracula is real and very dangerous, her response is: 'alright, now see all this information you've got all over?  Why don't you let me sort that out for you and clarify it?  Okay?  Great.'  She's an information processor, that's her strength, and I completely understand that. 

She's constantly paid the most backhanded compliments: “as good as a man” and such.  But said comments are all being made by the men around her, who are not always the shiniest pennies in the pot, so it is clearly their personal blind sexism, not necessarily the author's belief.  And it is their sexism that almost causes her to be turned.  Mina (Spoiler) almost gets killed by Dracula because, after she's been amazingly helpful, the guys “chivalrously” decide to “keep her out of it”, and so none of them talk to her for long enough to notice something's wrong.  Despite the fact that they just watched Lucy die.  Silly guys.  But then they turn her connection to Dracula around and use it to track him, and she personally deduces what routes he's likely to take.  So that works out.

I'm curious how much of the dramatic irony is intentional; I suspect most of it.  Vampire were by no means unknown in popular culture when Dracula came out, so all the characters stumbling around not recognizing what are fairly obvious signs of a vampire attack was probably clear to original readers.  In that sense it carries a nice horror-movie vibe, the kind where you want to yell at the characters “No, don't go there!  You idiot!  Don't you know you're in a horror movie?”  But it's not frustrating, just tensely plotted.

Dracula is Dracula, it's the classic.  Not the first vampire novel, but the most iconic, the one all modern works refer back to.  The most interesting thing, considering I'm looking down the timeline, is that after this it seems to split between alluring vampires and animalistic vampires.  But Dracula is both hideously inhuman, and weirdly charismatic.  So here we'll put the baseline of literary vampires, and I'll compare later incarnations starting next week.

Dracula's powers include:
Hypnosis, including long-distance compulsion after initial contact
Animal Control
Turn into bat, wolf, dust
Appearance of eternal youth, directly tied to ingestion of blood.

Limitations include:
Need darkness for most powers to function
Need connection to holy soil from native land  (Slightly unclear why, because he doesn't reliably sleep during the day)
Young vampires seem to sleep during the day
Need to be invited into a building
Weak against garlic, including garlic flowers
Branch of wild rose will reportedly bar
Driven back by holy symbols, including consecrated host.
Difficulty crossing running water

New vampires:
Made by draining the blood of the victim while under mind control over several nights.  May require the ingestion of vampire blood by the victim, or that may only make the bond stronger, it's unclear.  Victim becomes unholy while still alive, does not fully become vampire until after death.  New vampires seem to learn slowly, do maintain exceptional speed, strength, ability to turn to dust.  All vampires created by Dracula in the book are female.

How to destroy:
Stab the heart, preferably with wood but not necessarily (a knife is used on D himself!), and/or cut off the head.  Van Helsing reports a sacred bullet would be effective, but it is not tried in the book. Older vampires turn to dust, new ones revert to a normal dead body.  Sunlight diminishes power, does not kill.

4 Stars - A Really Good Book

Next Week: I Am Legend

New Theme: Literary Vampires

Two events of last year have been driving me toward reading/re-reading a bunch of vampire fiction.

One, we won a copy of The Strain, Guillermo Del Toro's new vampire book.
Specifically Erin won it, with this piece of fiction.

Two, I suppose I should see what's up with the whole Twilight thing.

So I've decided to hit the highlights of literary vampires through history, starting later today.

Here's my projected timeline:
 Did I miss any major ones?

Dragons of the Hourglass Mage

Monday, March 8, 2010


Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, 2009

Okay, this is the part where I hang my head in shame.  I not only read this book, I had to order it from another library branch.  I feel vaguely dirty.  Only not really, because Dragonlance, for me, is pure comfort food reading.  It's like mac and cheese from a box: You know what you're getting, and it's gooey and easy and sort of tasty, if not very good for you.  That said, don't read this unless you read and remember the originals, and even then you're going to want to think twice.

I find the “Lost Chronicles” particularly ridiculous.  The idea here is that Weis and Hickman's kids must need dental work or something, and/or things are very sour between them and WotC.  This is the last of three books that aimed to fill in the time gaps in the original Chronicles trilogy.  You know, besides all the short stories and etc. that others have written that retread the same exact ground.  The first one was useless and the second inane.  This one is... complicated. 

My non-spoiler thoughts: overall it doesn't feel terribly in-continuity, the logic is flawed, the characters shaky, the happenings silly.  And then on the last page they kinda redeem it, and it feels like they're bidding farewell, at long last, and setting the world down. 

The complete repetition of a plot moment from a whole separate part of the continuity (i.e. not the part they're intentionally rewriting) is dumb.  It only feels slightly less silly when I look at this one as a little of everything they've written in this world.  Also there are little nods to D&D here and there.  They managed to touch on almost every character, and leave you right back in the middle of one of the best scenes they ever wrote.

My problems:  Some SPOILERS AHOY

Okay.  The reason that you should not write a book just about Raistlin, even though he's EVERYONE'S favorite, even if you're Margaret Weis, is similar, in some ways, to why you should never make a movie starring Darth Vader.  Once you place the narrative voice inside an ambiguously moral character, writers usually feel the need to make them: A) More moral, often uncharacteristically so B) More angsty.  The whole reason these characters are cool is because you don't hear their thoughts often, so you don't trust them entirely, sometimes you don't know what they're going to choose.  All that tension is defused by making that character the center. 

Also, repeating all the Fistandantilus stuff ad nauseum, making the same points you did in Legends?  That's just lazy writing, guys, and lazy plotting.  Also this book involves such retcon-ing that Legends now breaks the timeline, when only some pretty tortured doublethink had prevented it from invalidating the events of the Chronicles in the first place.  (I had to look it up to check.)  It's like they forgot what they wrote already.  Oops.

This could have been a more interesting book, if they'd been willing to go whole hog internal evil political intrigue, instead of adding in a side trip to the main crew of Spring Dawning, a whole bizarre subplot about a local rebellion, etc... it's silly.  And they didn't allow Raistlin to be powerful for most of it, which was really disappointing.  Come on, guys, the eternal short-changing only works for so long. I suppose they realized, rightly, that if they'd let it fit the established timeline, most of the time covered by this book would be Raistlin reading books.  It's not as truly terrible an alternate story for the time period as it could have been, but it doesn't fit with the originals as advertised. 

Now that wouldn't matter much if it were leaps and bounds better than the originals.  But, for all the faults of Autumn Twilight and it's clunky writing, random encounters, etc. the charm just doesn't hold for these shinier, less ambiguous “sequels”.  Everyone seems a bit underpowered, under-motivated, underdone.  It's a mediocre fantasy novel with a somehow truly satisfying last page.

2 Stars - An Okay Book

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia

Monday, March 1, 2010

The last time I looked at Narnia, I came away less than impressed.  When I heard about this book, I was intrigued, but, well, skeptical.

The book is a combination of memoir, anecdote, history and literary criticism, as the author explores her own evolving relationship with the Narnia series.  It's divided into three sections, ostensibly containing: the reasons the books are (or ought to be) beloved by a child, the reasons they are rejected in time, and a new way to appreciate them as an adult.

By the end of the first section, I felt Miller doth protest too much that these books are special.  Her ideas and explanations for why particular stories are both attractive to children, and affect people all their lives, were interesting and poetic, if at times far fetched.  She picks some of the most beautiful passages in Narnia to quote, and I freely admit there is beauty in some of the writing, and mystery and emotion as well, when not being overshadowed by plot idiocy.  She paints a highly sympathetic picture, and the book she describes sounds good, but it's not what I see in the Narnia books. 

I sympathize with the author, although I disagree with her conclusion.  But I recognize that it costs me nothing to discard the Narnia books, because they weren't important to me.  The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was – to me – just one of the piles and piles of books I read in childhood.  For years, I probably only remembered it because I enjoyed the BBC televised version.  (Yes, the one where a small actor in a body suit is a 'mouse'.)

For Laura Miller, it was THE BOOK of her childhood, the one that introduced her to fantasy, the one that taught her to love reading.  I share her sense of betrayal, when you realize the Narnia stories aren't what they appear to be on the surface.  But since Narnia wasn't my BOOK, I was able to put it down and walk away.  I can only imagine the feeling if one of the books important to me, like The Prydain Chronicles, or The Phantom Tollbooth, was later revealed to have an ulterior motive that I so strongly rejected.  I understand her desire to find anything worth saving from the series, worth enjoying as an adult.

I did enjoy the impulse to try to steal Aslan away from the Christian framework.  After all, death and resurrection is hardly exclusive to Jesus in the history of religion. 
So when Lewis's child readers don't see Christianity in the Chronicles, they are in fact perceiving a truth  about Narnia that adults usually miss.  The Christianity in Narnia has been substantially, rather than just superficially, transformed – to the point of being much less Christian, perhaps, than Lewis intended.

In the second section, she relates anecdotes from various people on how betrayed they felt upon finding out the “truth” about Narnia, and goes on to basically agree that the books are sexist, racist, and lazily written.  As the defender, of a sort, she finds interest in these aspects by diving into Lewis' life story, and doesn't explain away the problems, but casts them in the light of his personal situation and personal hang-ups.  It's fascinating, but knowing that the Calmorenes are so incredibly offensive because Lewis disliked the Arabian Nights, not because he disliked the Turkish people, and that many British writers of the time used garlic as shorthand for “dirty foreigner”, doesn't change the fact that they're incredibly offensive, and Miller acknowledges this.

In the third section, though, her arguments really start to show their fragility.  She spends some time saying, more or less: 'Lewis just threw everything he liked from religion and myth and fairy tales into a big pot and stirred, because he didn't care whether it made any sense.  Isn't that charming?'  My response: 'Actually, it's kinda lazy.'  She also attempts to make the case that the dualistic, 'opposing teams' vibe between the fans of Lewis and Tolkien is silly, and then goes on to say that while of course she likes The Lord of the Rings, it just doesn't come through for her, either emotionally or as great literature.  So at this point, I don't completely trust her judgment. 

All the biographical analysis of both Lewis and Tolkien is interesting, but I'm sure it isn't new to anyone who has studied them.

I think, after reading this, I actually am likely to give Narnia a fairer shake than I have before, but not as great children's literature.  As a work that inspired many others, okay.  As the product of it's time, as the work of a deeply conflicted person, sure.  I'll buy that. 

As a work that is personally important to many people, who see beauty there, and from there, seek beauty elsewhere?  It doesn't work that way for me, but I have read and loved too many objectively terrible books to fairly condemn anyone's personal choice. 

And after all, Miller and I agree on one salient point: The Last Battle is absolute crap.

3 Stars - A Good Book