Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Kobra Kid Reviews: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew
Skeleton Crew by Stephen King

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The following is a true story.

I work in a call center, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Glamorous, right? Don't answer that. Anyway, toward the end of the night, when the calls slow down, there can be stretches of up to five or ten minutes, sometimes longer, where there's nothing to do but stare blankly at the computer screen. And since we're not allowed to use said computers to amuse ourselves in any way--even a simple game of solitaire is strictly verboten--it gets so fucking boring I've seriously considered strangling myself with my own headset cord just for the excitement. So we've all found ways of keeping entertained, at least to some small degree, because we can't exactly go killing ourselves over our shitty job. Some people knit, some nerds people work on their D&D character sheets, some people...do whatever it is that they do, I don't even know. Me? I read. Go figure.

So, one night, around about midnight, I was reading this book between calls when my supervisor decided to sneak up behind me and scare the everlasting piss out of me. Because she is, essentially, a horrible fucking person. And I say that with love, of course. So then I was like, "What the fuck, L?" in a voice perhaps inching close to that frequency only dogs can hear. And she was like, "That's what you get for reading that creepy-ass book." Somewhere deep down, I'm sure she's a very sweet girl.

And then, naturally, the shift manager had to come over and see what all the squealing and flailing and wicked witch laughing was about, which somehow led to a discussion about the relative merits of Stephen King's work. Don't ask me how. It's hard to keep track of these things when you're having a fucking heart attack. At any rate, the aforementioned shift manager, whom we'll call E, declared King's to be the weakest brand of horror, or something more or less to that effect. And seeing as how I've been a fan of Stephen King for longer than I've even been old enough to read his books*, one might expect me to have gotten my panties all twisted up over such an assertion. The problem is that E's position is one I can neither support nor refute, for the simple fact that I've never actually read King for the horror.

That seems a little weird, right? I mean, Stephen King is a horror writer. Primarily, anyway. It's what he's famous for. The Master of the Macabre, they call him. But here's the thing: I don't scare easily. (Aside from when I'm being sneaked up on by little midget ninjas, that is.) And what does scare me isn't the usual stuff that scares other people, nor do I get tend to get grossed out by blood and guts and gore and all that. So I've honestly never picked up one of King's books with the intention of getting good and scared, or whatever, and the only book of his that ever did freak me out was The Tommyknockers, which played into certain phobias of mine. My point being that, clearly, I am a poor judge of whether or not King is a good horror writer.

I suppose it all comes down to a matter of personal taste, really, like anything else. But personally, I think if you're reading Stephen King for the horror--only for the horror, that is--you're doing it wrong. If you're reading King only for the horror, then you might as well be reading, I don't know, Dean Koontz or something. Because here's the thing: Stephen King doesn't write horror, he uses horror as a tool to show us all those things about the world we'd rather not think about. All the worst things about humanity, all the worst things about ourselves, and the best too--he holds a mirror up to them. Stephen King writes social commentary while using horror to keep us engaged, to keep us from being scared away when he shines a light on the ugliest aspects about us and the world we live in.

As in the first short story in this anthology, The Mist. It stands as a prime example of the reason why I read Stephen King. In the story, a mysterious mist descends over a small Maine town, trapping David Drayton and his son, along with several other townsfolk, in the local grocery store. They are cut off from their homes, from their families, and from safety, besieged by the eldritch abominations lurking outside, lying in wait for any poor bastards unlucky enough to wander into their clutches. Sounds pretty fucking terrifying, right? But in true Stephen King style, the scariest part of this story is not the enemy outside, it's the enemy within. It's not the unknown element, but the human element.

While Drayton and a handful of allies are doing their level best to ensure everyone's continued survival, the friendly neighborhood religious zealot, Mrs. Carmody, is doing her best to twist the situation to her own advantage. It's the way of the charlatan. God sent this disaster, they say, because you're all sinful and damned, but if you listen to me, all will be well. And the problem is that there's always folks crazy, stupid, or just plain scared enough to listen. In this case, there are plenty of all three--everyone is scared, and several people come unhinged, and others are just weak-willed and drawn to Mrs. Carmody's strong personality like moths to flame. So, as the situation worsens, the hellfire and brimstone old bat amasses a considerable following.

The problem is that Mrs. Carmody isn't just crazy, she's dangerous. She sets her sights on Drayton and anyone else who dares to oppose her, painting them as the enemy, as Other, as evil, until they find themselves in a terrible dilemma: face the danger outside, or face certain death at the hands of their own. In the end, Drayton and his allies choose to brave the unspeakable horror waiting for them in the mist. And it's because of this that The Mist really encapsulates the unique way Stephen King uses horror--no matter how many horrible monsters are in his stories, no matter what gruesome scenarios, what he shows us about ourselves is always far worse. The alien is never as scary as the devil you know.

Now, whenever I review anthologies, I usually try to say a little something about each story. But there are an awful lot of stories in Skeleton Crew, and to be honest, not all of them are very good. In fact, The Mist is the best out of the whole book. I won't pretend it doesn't have its problems--like the ending, which I personally didn't care for--but overall, it's a great piece of standalone fiction. And I would be tempted to advise anyone still reading this stupidly longwinded review to read The Mist and skip the rest, if it weren't for two other stories.

Gramma is probably the most chilling story in the entire book, and anyone who has been alone with a loved one when they died will understand why. I was alone with my father when he died, and even though I was an adult at the time, this story still got under my skin in a way I'm not even sure I can describe. The artfully drawn-out psychological horror is, on its own, enough to make this story worth a read; the nods at the Chtulhu mythos are just icing.

The other story that I enjoyed was The Reach, which is beautifully written and atmospheric. It is both a story about dying and a metaphor for dying, and I'm not sure whether that makes Stephen King a genius or a hack, but his prose is so lovely and almost-poetic that it doesn't even matter. I liked the tone, I liked the style, I liked the imagery, and yes, I even liked the metaphor. Not everything has to be obscure and impenetrable and couched in so much careful, artistic language that you have be an English major to even begin to comprehend it, okay?

So, in conclusion, this book is worth reading for The Mist, Gramma, and The Reach, but I would recommend skipping the rest. Perhaps it's because I'm not a great reader of short stories, and therefore lack a certain necessary appreciation for them, but in my humble opinion, most of these are poorly thought-out, poorly written, and lacking any sort of a point. So unless you're a diehard Stephen King fan hell-bent on reading his entire body of work, or unless you have absolutely nothing better to do, then don't waste your time. You're not going to be missing anything by passing over the other offerings in this anthology.

*I read Gerald's Game when I was ten. My mother was not amused. It's the only book I can remember her ever trying to keep me from reading. Then she found out I'd also stolen her copy of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty and read it, and she gave up. "Precocious" doesn't even begin to describe me as a child.

Kobra Kid, signing off.
[You can't stop the signal.]

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Kobra Kid Reviews: The Zombie Survival Guide

The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I kind of love my coworkers. Some of them. You make one Zombieland reference in the break room and suddenly you're embroiled in a serious discussion about your plans for the zombie apocalypse and trading weapons tips and book recommendations. Of course, I'd already had this book on my "to read" list for quite a while before it was mentioned at the Round Table of Fearless Zombie Killers, but when one of my brothers-in-arms lent me his battered copy (by way of pitching it at my head while I was on a call with a customer, the little shit, I'm tripping him when the zombies come) I no longer had an excuse not to read it, despite the fact that I was already in the middle of reading about four other books. But really, if the zombie apocalypse were to happen tomorrow, what's going to help me--Two Gentlemen of Verona, or this?

The Zombie Survival Guide is a thorough run-down of the best and worst methods of weathering a zombie-related catastrophe, from a short encounter to a years-long siege. It details the ideal terrain, weather conditions, vehicles, fortifications, and most importantly, weapons. There are sections that discuss not only the most effective ways of avoiding the undead legions, but also of eradicating said legions, as well as long-term survival in the eventuality of a post-apocalyptic Crapsack World where the zombies have won. If a non-sentient species can really be said to win anything, as such, but let's not get into that now. The point is that the amount of thought Brooks put into this--the amount of careful, logical consideration of the subject and all its related aspects--is pretty amazing, and even a little mind-boggling. Clearly, Brooks is nerdlier-than-thou.

So imagine my surprise when I happened to glance at the back of this book and noticed that it's listed as humor. Humor? Really? I didn't find anything particularly funny about it, myself. It may contain a few amusing lines here and there, but honestly, I've read funnier throw-away quips in Stephen King novels, which sure as hell aren't categorized thus. Not that there's anything wrong with humor, of course, don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of it, naturally, but this book? Is not it. And I can't help but feel like, in this case, its being listed as humor is a little demeaning to the idea behind a book like this, because it says, "This is something improbable, therefore it is silly and amusing and not to be taken seriously." But what makes it that much different from any other book whose premise is improbable and outlandish and even, maybe, unscientific? Despite what we're apparently meant to believe, this book is science fiction at least, and speculative fiction at best. And personally, I think it's our best bet for not ending up as snacks for a bunch of dead guys with the munchies.

My only problem with this book is that Brooks based the entire work around his fictional zombie virus Solanum, and therefore focused solely on a single type of zombie. If this had been any other book--like his World War Z, for example--I wouldn't have minded, but I happen to feel that, if you're going to call your book the Zombie Survival Guide, you should offer the reader guidance for surviving whatever type of zombie they may, however improbably, face. I mean, maybe I'm asking too much, and probably I should just let the book be without imposing my own inclinations and desires on it, but regardless, I can't help letting it color my opinion of the book. Hence why I adjusted my initial rating from five stars to four. Sorry, Max.

Other than that, however, I can't find much at all wrong with this book. I even enjoyed the "historical" accounts at the end. At first, I thought that section was extraneous and detracted from the non-fiction reference style of the first quarter of the book, but by the time I finished, I'd changed my mind. I like how each story allows for a more detailed example of the principles laid out in the first part of the book. And I thought it was a nice touch how the apparently increasing frequency of zombie encounters over time lends the work a sense of exigence, like this could happen any time--you could wake up tomorrow and find yourself in the zombie apocalypse--rather than just being something amusing to think about.

All in all, the Zombie Survival Guide is an interesting, insightful, and useful read, which I would recommend to zombie enthusiasts everywhere, as well as anyone who hopes to last more than five minutes if and when the End Times come.

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