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Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday Discussion: Favorite Halloween Memory

Happy Halloween everyone.  And it's a Monday so we get to talk about it.  Today's Monday discussion is easy and fun.  What is your favorite Halloween memory? Share a few.  I'll go first.

I fondly remember a favorite costume when I was probably 4th grade or so.  My Aunt made me a robot costume out of a big box and lots of aluminum foil, but it was too big for me to wear in the car (we lived in a rural area and had to drive to a neighborhood to trick or treat).  I remember getting to sit in the trunk of our station wagon for the ride. What a treat!  I don't remember much about the costume, but I remember everything about the car ride.

My sister and I shared a room for many years.  Coming home after gathering all of those treats meant we went to our room and began sorting and trading candy-- a tradition my kids still uphold.  I would then stash the candy in my closet and parse it out over months, while my sister would gobble it all up in a few days. This still holds true as a sign of our differing personalities.

I also remember the year my parents went to a masked Halloween party as Miss Piggy and Richard Nixon.  It's weird, but I can still clearly remember those costumes and I was only in first grade.  Interestingly, the same age my son is now.

Speaking of the kiddies....that's who this holiday is really for.  These days, I hope to make memories for my kids.  I took today off of work so that I could be there for the Halloween parade at my kids' school.  This is the first year (of only 3 total) that they will be in the Halloween parade together, at the same school.  I have a devil and a ninja marching, and I will be proudly standing with 2 of their grandparents watching them go by, taking pictures, and hopefully making a favorite Halloween memory for them.

Your turn.  No RA advice today.  Just share your favorite Halloween memory.

And please take a moment to check out my 31 Days of Horror event over on the other blog.

But if you are too lazy (or scared) to click over there, at the very least click here to see me in today's Chicago Tribune.

And remember the Monday Discussion Archive lives here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

What I'm Reading: Zone One

This is a cross-post with RA for All Horror:

As promised, I read the most talked about zombie novel of the moment, Zone One by Colson Whitehead.   I liked Zone One much more than I anticipated I would, it is not a horror novel.

While Zone One is set in a very real feeling post-apocalyptic world, fear of the zombies is not the key motivator here.  This is a novel about trying to reclaim civilization. It is an interior novel; one that takes place mostly in our hero's, Mark Spitz, head. The moments of pure pleasure in reading this novel come from his observations about how the world has changed, and from Whitehead's amazingly realistic and chilling descriptions of the landscape in his created world.

I will be frank, over the year, I have never been as impressed with Whitehead's writing as the critics have been.  However, there are some absolutely beautiful and haunting passages here.  I did step back to re-read a few.  I also loved how detailed his setting is.  Not only do we have detailed descriptions about the Zone One operations and how they are run (a mix of army and civilian), but we have the unseen provisional government in Buffalo becoming its own character. Additions like giving the reconstruction a theme song (one which we cannot hear because of the medium, but which still somehow permeates our reading of the novel) and calling those who remain "pheenies" (short for the American Phoenix, how we will rise again) add authenticity to the setting. 

Our specific "pheenie" and guide through which we get a first person view of this wasteland is Mark Spitz (not his real name).  The story is set up like a suspense novel with a compressed time frame, in this case 3 days. Throughout the course of these three days, we see Mark and his team of "sweepers" cleaning out and buildings in lower Manhattan in Zone One, the only zombie cleared zone on the island.  Mark tells us what is going on now, but there are many flashbacks to how he got from the old world, through the end times.  He also look forward to more cleared out zones and the rebirth of this great city.

I don't want to give any more details about Mark or the setting away, because as the story it unfolded , I was enthralled.  You are going to have to trust Whitehead though.  The beginning is a bit bumpy, like most post-apocalyptic stories.  You have to just keep reading and trust that Whitehead will fill in the details.  But for me this was part of the joy of reading this novel.  I loved the details AND how Whitehead chose to reveal them.  It added satire and suspense.  Mark is also a great vehicle to tell this story because the only thing he excels at is being average.

Whitehead, a New Yorker, obviously knows his setting.  The haunting descriptions of a desolate New York drew me in.  In particular, I loved the scenes in the subway tunnels, and found them especially chilling. Anyone who has spent any time NYC will be moved by this novel.  I especially felt a kinship here because like Mark, I grew up in the suburbs of NYC and visited often, but with the eyes of an outsider still.

I also enjoyed the new type of zombie Whitehead has added to the pantheon.  He has created "straggler" zombies.  These are zombies who rather than reanimating and compulsively searching out fresh human meat, merely roam back to place of meaning from their past and stay there. For example, the psychologist who goes into the office after turning into a zombie, sits in his chair, and waits for the patient who will never arrive.  These zombies are much like the remaining humans with their different forms of PASD (post-apocalyptic stress disorder) who are straggling through what is left of life on earth.

The final thing I liked about Zone One was its ending.  As you read the book, Whitehead clearly foreshadows (really broadcasts) how this reclamation experiment is going to end, yet as you read, you continue to hold out hope.  Ash is raining down, the zombies are literally knocking on the door, Spitz keeps telling us each place he has found refuge post-apocalypse has only been a short respite until it is destroyed and he must run again, and the book is set in only a three day period with things going from so-so, to bad, to worse.  Yet we hope.

The fact that I had any hope while reading this book is a huge testament to Whitehead's writing.  Look, I read a lot of dark books, where bad things happen, and everyone ends up dead, yet I was rooting for the pheenies.  This is not to say that I was disappointed with the ending.  I loved it even more because of what a great job Whitehead did, but many readers who are flocking to this title because it is the "hot" book right now, may be disappointed.  In fact, on Amazon, the book is not getting good customer reviews.  Much of this is due to the fact that it is not scary enough for horror fans and it is too dark for mainstream literary fiction readers. But in the right reader's hand, Zone One is a gem.

I cannot stress enough, this book does not have rosy things to say about the future.  The zombies are merely Whitehead's vehicle for commenting about the path humanity is on.  And it is a path he does not see leading somewhere good, but even worse, he seems to be saying destruction is inevitable.  This is a bleak book.  But it is also a satisfying look into the human condition, what remains of society when there is very little left, and the hope to be found in the "average" citizen.

Three Words That Describe This Book: bleak, post-apocalyptic, thought provoking

Readalikes: If you liked The Passage by Justin Cronin, chances are you will enjoy Zone One.  The Passage is definitely a notch above Zone One, but that is because of the level of detail Cronin has built in to the story.  Click here to read my full review of The Passage which includes more readalike options.  You can also click here to read Cronin's review of Zone One.

Other post-apocalyptic stories I would suggest here are: The Walking Dead series, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and Swan Song by Robert McCammon (a hidden gem that should be on the shelf at your library).

Monster Island is part of David Wellington's zombie apocalypse trilogy that is set on the island of Manhattan just like Zone One.  Monster Island is much less literary and much more scary than Zone One, but it is a great option for readers who really enjoyed the NYC setting and want to see a similar story line from a different angle.

I also found Wastelands: Stories of he Apocalypse, a well reviewed, 2008 collection with with stories by Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Octavia Butler, and George RR Martin.  The collection is great because it runs the gamut in terms of tone, from the bleak and hopeless to stories of hope, and presents a broad view of this popular subgenre of science fiction and horror.

The interesting thing about Whitehead's career is that each book he has written is different from the last, so he is a hard author to match with another author who will be the same.  However, that being said, this novel specifically made me think of two other authors who write with a similar tone and mood to Zone One.

First, Doris Lessing writes character driven novels that are bleak and thought provoking, and often have a speculative element.  Try The Memoirs of a Survivor which is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape.

Chuck Palahniuk is the master of bleak novels which probe the inner turmoil of the human condition.  He uses anti-heroes (like Spitz) and everything he writes is a satire of something we take for granted.  He uses the same wry humor found in Zone One too.  Fight Club is a good starting point.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What I'm Reading: What Fears Become

This is a cross post with RA for All: Horror

I have been a fan of The Horror Zine for some time now.  Editor Jeani Rector and her crew work hard to provide a quality monthly literary journal with fiction, poetry, and artwork from morbidly creative people.  When she contacted me about reviewing their first print collection, What Fears Become, I jumped at the chance.

In general, I love horror story collections, especially when they are like What Fears Become and compile a wide range of scary stories.  I find collection to be a great way to take the current pulse of the genre.  In this case, the collection also features poetry and artwork.  This range of appeal made me also go out and purchase a copy for the Berwyn Library.  We have many readers who will greatly appreciate having access to this collection.

Specifically, this collection is a good read for horror fans for a few other reasons:
  1. Big name, award winning authors have contributed to The Horror Zine and allowed their work to be included here.  There are stories by horror greats Graham Masterton, Ramsey Campbell, Joe Lansdale,  and Elizabeth Massie.  Even science fiction legend Piers Anthony has a story here.  But for me, the most surprising of this bunch was "Dogleg" by Bentley Little.  I have grown tired of Little in the last few years and was worried that his best work was behind him.  However, "Dogleg" was an amazing, psychological story that was both haunting and terrifying.
  2. There are very good stories which take an original twist on what are can easily become a tired theme in the wrong hands.  "Mall Walkers" by Chris Reed (zombies), "3AM" by James Marlow (ghosts out for revenge) and "Losing Judy" by Andy Mee (haunted woods) were some of my favorite stories in the collection
  3. Stories that will stay with you long after you finish them.  "Adelle's Night" by David Grinn is just perfect in this sense.  It is terrifyingly realistic even though it is completely implausible; for me personally this is the best combination in my favorite horror tales.
  4. A new voice that impressed me was Canadian Jagjiwan Sohal whose first "stab" at horror fiction was "Wandering Daniel."  This story is set in a post-apocalyptic world, and our protagonist is a vampire.  But, he did not become a vampire in the apocalypse; he was one before.  This story is a great beginning, but I would not say it is even close to the best story in the bunch.  However, I was so intrigued by the set up and his descriptions of the created world that I am craving more.  I hope Sohal considers trying to put Daniel into a novel.  I would read it.
  5. Some were just plain fun.  "The House at the End of Smith Street" by Stephen M. Dare is similar to The Ruins by Scott Smith (a personal all time favorite), only this time, instead of a killer plant, we have a killer carpet.  Not the most original story in the bunch, it it was a fun, satirical, and plenty scary.
  6. I appreciated that Rector kept her own two stories until the collection's final pages.  They are solid enough to be included, but I am glad she gave everyone else their chance to shine.
  7. Finally as I have already said, the range of the type of horror here is huge.  There are stories for fans of the bloody, supernatural, psychological, creepy, or thriller.  If you have a favorite way to feel the fear, this collection probably has a story for you.
There were a few stories I did not care for, but much of that was a personal taste issue.  For example, I did not like "The Chamber" by David Landrum mostly because of its ancient time period setting.  But others will enjoy it for exactly the reason I disliked it.  The point is that there is enough here for everyone, and since it is a collection, you could skip your least favorite tales and still have plenty to read.

A note on the poetry, of which there is quite a bit.  Not being a big poetry fan, I do not feel qualified to comment on it.  On the other hand, as a RA librarian, I have quite a few patrons (and a staff member) who are active readers of dark poetry.  I will get this collection into their hands very soon.

Three Words That Describe This Book: unsettling, original voices, wide horror appeal

Readalikes:  For readalikes, I would like to offer some of my personal favorite collections which like, What Fears Become, span a wide range of horror appeal factors.  What you will not find suggested here are collections of for example, all zombie stories or all vampire tales.  I do include the best of those more specific collections under their appropriate headings in my new book.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg,  Feel free to  leave a comment with your favorite horror story collection.