The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker (1911) 163 p.

I can’t remember why I had this sitting around on my ereader (apart from it being public domain and therefore free). I think it might be because it was supposedly an influence in Stephen King’s short story “Jersualem’s Lot” in Night Shift, which I quite liked, but since then I’ve read Stoker’s Dracula and really didn’t like it. Compared to The Lair of the White Worm, though, Dracula is a beautiful masterpiece. This is a really, really, really bad book. Even amongst Gothic scholars, Stoker’s die-hard fans and general lovers of old-timey English horror literature, The Lair of the White Worm is a rambling and nonsensical novel.

The plot, such as it is, involves young colonial lad Adam Shaw returning to the motherland at the invitation of his great-uncle, who wishes to pass on his Staffordshire mansion to him. But it turns out one of their neighbours is an ancient and monstrous wyrm-like creature in human guise, so they take it upon themselves to destroy her. There are also weird psychic battles between unrelated characters, a horrifically racist caricature of an African voodoo priest, and a gigantic kite which controls birds or something? I gave up trying to follow the plot after about forty pages. Oh, and despite being set in 1860, the climax involves copious amounts of dynamite, which wasn’t invented until 1867.

It explained a lot when I found out The Lair of the White Worm was written after Stoker had a a number of strokes in the midst of tertiary syphilis, and he died not long after finishing it. Apparently the original version had forty chapters; I appear to have read the edited 1925 version which removed almost a hundred pages, and thank God for that. I can’t imagine the malarkey that would have gone on in those extra chapters. The Lair of the White Worm is an outright bad novel, and was only published because it was written by an extremely popular author and would have sold no matter what its pages contained.

(And what the hell’s going on with that cover? Why does the Worm have arms?)

The Candle in the Wind by T.H. White (1958) 120 p.

The Candle in the Wind is the fourth and sort-of-final book in T.H. White’s Arthurian mega-book The Once and Future King, since the very final instalment The Book of Merlyn was published separately and posthumously. It deals with the final stages of King Arthur’s life, as Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair is exposed and the Arthur is reluctantly forced to pursue violent justice against them.

I feel this series dropped in quality considerably beyond its opening volume, but The Candle in the Wind is probably the strongest book since then. Even though I found the majority of it weak, the final stages – and I’m only talking about a matter of perhaps ten pages – are beautiful, as Arthur sits in his war tent philosophising about everything he has learnt thus far, and finally passes his wisdom onto a young page, implied to be Thomas Mallory. Put like that it sounds trite, but for all the silliness present in this series, White is often capable of a very beautiful writing style.

I still find The Once And Future King to be odd and uneven. The gravity of the themes and the occasional bursts of eloquent writing don’t really gel too well, in my opinion, with the perky, English, P.G. Wodehouse-style writing that dominates for 90% of the series. But the flashes of beauty in there are sometimes worth it and I was pretty pleased with the ending of The Candle in the Wind. The next and final book is The Book of Merlyn.

Over The Wall by Peter Wartman (2013) 101 p.

This is a short YA graphic novel which I think I picked up after seeing it on a Goodreads list of standalone, non-superhero comics. It revolves around a mysterious abandoned city, cut off from the world by both physical and magical walls, and the girl who crosses the walls to try to find her missing brother.

I liked it well enough – it’s a simple story and Wartman has a pleasing artistic style, especially good at creating an empty sense of unease in the deserted city. But it raises the question of whether I should be reviewing comics the way I do novels. I read this book in, I think, less than 15 minutes, which makes it feel more analogous to a short story rather than a book. I wouldn’t review a single short story, but I feel compelled to review Over The Wall because it came in its own binding and my gut feeling is that it is a “book.” But because of its brevity I don’t have a lot to say about it. I don’t know!

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995) 278 p.

I have conflicting feelings about Remembrance Day, and the public reverence of World War I in both Britain and Australia. I suspect that for most of the 20th century, when the war was a real event in the living memory of many people, that it was probably purely a day of remembrance and reflection. Now, in the age of 9/11 and Iraq and Afghanistan, when it seems so distant as to be entirely mythical, I think our society’s perception of World War I – and, by extension, all wars – has slipped back towards the jingoism and nationalism of the 19th century ruling class who propagated it in the first place. I stood at the moat of the Tower of London last week, amongst crushing crowds, and admired Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red for the striking public artwork that it is – but I couldn’t help but feel unsettled by this sanitised, aestheticised depiction of war, which has become the accepted norm.

Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy – which begins with Regeneration, continues in The Eye In The Door and concludes with the Booker Prize-winning The Ghost Road – is an incredibly important piece of contemporary literature which highlights the real, ugly truth of the war; one of the most important truths being the fact that it had terrible effects on everybody it touched, not just the young men who lost their lives. (And I use the word “lost” rather than “gave” very intentionally.) It’s notable that The Ghost Road is the first novel in the series which actually has scenes set in the war zone that aren’t memories, dreams or flashbacks. The previous two books, especially The Eye in the Door, focused as much on the wives, mothers, pacifists, protesters and wounded as they did on the soldiers and the dead. That’s another side effect of our reverence for veterans and war dead; it marginalises the effects war has on civilians.

From a purely technical standpoint The Ghost Road is certainly the finest book in the trilogy, and a deserving winner of the Booker Prize. It cleanly narrows the scope down to two of the trilogy’s main characters: Dr Rivers, a fictionalised version of the real-life psychologist who treated traumatised soldiers, and Billy Prior, Barker’s fictional working class officer who returns to the front despite an opportunity for a desk role, out of an ineffable sense of duty towards his fellow soldiers. Prior’s experience at the front is contrasted with Rivers’ treatment of the wounded in London, and a surprisingly extensive flashback sequence detailing Rivers’ time as an anthropologist in the South Pacific, which serves as a comparative metaphor about death and its effect on those who remain living. I criticised Barker’s writing style in Regeneration and to a lesser extent The Eye In The Door because much of it involved conversations between two men sitting on opposite sides of a desk. The Ghost Road, however, has a wonderful sense of physical beauty, from a tropical beach in Melanesia to the ruins of an overgrown French village:

A labyrinth of green pathways led from garden to garden, and they slipped from one to another, over broken walls or through splintered fences, skirting bramble-filled craters, brushing down paths overgrown with weeds, with flowers that had seeded themselves and become rank, with overgrown roses that snagged their sleeves and pulled them back. Snails crunched under their boots, nettles stung their hands, cuckoo spit flecked a bare neck, but the secret path wound on.

I’ve always appreciated this trilogy for its brutal and honest depiction of the war, but The Ghost Road is the first of Barker’s books which I actually enjoyed as a novel as well.

It’s not easy (and nor should it be) to criticise the manner in which nations memorialise their war dead; it can easily come off as churlish and cynical. I don’t mean to suggest this day of remembrance should be done away with. But I feel uneasy about a ritual which has begun to take on symbolic, semi-religious overtones, with its symbols (poppies) and incantations (Gallipoli, Anzac, lest we forget). From the earliest days of primary school I’ve had those words drilled into my head, long before I could properly appreciate and understand even the concept of war. During the minute’s silence in November I’d imagine myself in the trenches with rifle and bayonet in hand – not an empathic act of remembrance, but rather a boyish adventure fantasy. I doubt I was the only one. When the symbols and artworks of our remembrance are sanitised, when our politicians repeatedly say things as trite and false as “they died for our freedom,” and when the right wing can reposition World War I into a more pleasing arrangement of good vs evil, it’s clear that our society is deeply conflicted about how it wishes to portray this war. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy does us a great service by presenting the era in all its ugly detail; not just the grisly slaughter of the front, but the twisted politics of British imperialism, class warfare and capitalism which led to it. The Regeneration trilogy is a warning that while we must remember, we must not remember selectively.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King (1979) 467 p.

Stephen King is an author I like, but a wildly uneven one – some of his books are awful, while some of his books are among the best I’ve ever read. He’s not really high on my priority list, but I’m not averse to reading his stuff when it comes up, and I picked up an old paperback of The Dead Zone for 50p at a library sale.

One of his earlier books (always a good sign with King), The Dead Zone is enlivened by how much it doesn’t stick to a predictable formula, and it’s really one of those books you want to read knowing nothing about it. Although apparently it was adapted into a Cronenberg film starring Christopher Walken in the 1980s, and a relatively long-running TV series in the 2000s, so maybe it’s more well-known than I thought. I’d only heard of it (and knew the ultimate direction it went in) because I’ve been keeping up with James Smythe’s long-running Re-reading Stephen King series at the Guardian, but I think I would have liked it better if I went in blind, knowing nothing about what happened – not even the first act. So if you haven’t heard of The Dead Zone and you’ve enjoyed anything else King has ever written, stop reading this now and keep an eye out for it. It’s one of his better books and well worth your time.

If you still want to know more, suffice to say that it follows the life of Johnny Smith, a young man with a latent psychic sense and an ability to predict what lies in the past, present and future of certain people. A life-altering accident heightens this ability like never before, and Johnny must suddenly decide what to do with it – and how to cope with the way people now treat him. Some of the best parts of The Dead Zone are in the unexpected flashes Johnny gets of other people’s lives when he touches their belongings; as he pushes coats aside on a rack at a restaurant and knows that a man there is slowly going mad, or when he handles a 100-year-old photograph and learns that its subject, a man long dead, poisoned his wife. Johnny’s psychic ability is a curse as much as a gift, but King does a good job of making Johnny an affable character and never letting his misgivings and misery seem too self-pitying.

Stephen King is noted as a horror novelist, but I’ve never personally found that to be a good description of his work, which ranges across the whole gamut of speculative fiction: he has time travel novels, apocalyptic novels, fantasy novels and more. The Dead Zone feels more like a suspense thriller than anything, combining the fantasy aspect of Johnny’s sixth sense with a story of serial killers, FBI agents and something much darker. It’s a little slow to get going, but it ends up being a great read – not as good as something like The Stand, The Mist or The Long Walk, but definitely one of King’s better novels.

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (2011) 339 p.

This novel got a lot of buzz when it was released back in 2011, when I was working in a bookstore, and I recall filing it away on the TBR pile but have only just got around to reading it now. I timed it as my Halloween read, as part of my general pleasure at living in the northern hemisphere where the seasons actually correspond to the dates I subconsciously think they’re “supposed” to, after growing up on European and American culture. Probably this will wear off, but at the moment I’m trying to theme almost all my reading; I can’t imagine how one could bear to read a book set in summer when there’s rain drizzling down the windowpanes and the sun sets at 4pm.

Anyway, The Last Werewolf isn’t really a horror novel. Glen Duncan is more well-known as a literary author, dipping his toe in the pool of genre fiction (see also – Justin Cronin and The Passage), and The Last Werewolf contains more philosophy than frights. Jake Marlowe is the titular last of the kind, two hundred years old, wealthy and world-weary, spending his days as a human guzzling scotch and having sex with expensive escorts, and his full-moon nights as a werewolf killing and eating people. The Last Werewolf doesn’t romanticise this; Jake is a monster and he knows it, and the only reason he remains a relatively likeable character is because Duncan does such a great job of making him such a witty, civilised narrator. Informed of the death of the second-last werewolf at the hands of the Hunt division of WOCOP (the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena), and the personal vendetta the chief of the Hunt has against him, Jake learns that he has less than a month to live – the hunter wants the beast, not the man, and will wait for the full moon. Tired of life after two centuries of killing (a “concentration camp heap” of victims stretching into his past), he decides to accept his fate and return to Snowdonia, where he was first stricken with lycanthropy in the early 19th century. Of course, there are other things afoot, and Jake is soon embroiled in a globetrotting adventure across Wales, London, France, Greece and the United States, giving The Last Werewolf more than a touch of spy thriller to it. Combined with a weird acronym organisation for an antagonist and Jake’s taste for cigarettes, fine scotch and classy hotels, it’s a borderline James Bond vibe.

I greatly enjoyed the first half of The Last Werewolf. Above all else, Duncan is an excellent writer, sending Jake through wonderfully atmospheric places (snowy London streets, a book-filled Earl’s Court mansion, a peaceful Greek island) while he speaks to the reader in his fantastic narrative style: a sort of baroque Gothic rumination, belying his actual time of birth, which has been modernised and accrued yet more wisdom and cynicism as Jake has grown up through the ages, into the world of mobile phones and the internet. It’s eminently readable and a lot of fun.

It does, however, begin to wear a bit in the second half of the novel, not helped by a plot twist which leads the book to some annoying places. Love at first sight might be technically feasible, within the novel’s horror/fantasy parameters, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating. There’s also a lot of sex and violence; I’m no prude, it’s just that too much of anything gets tedious, much like Jake’s initially fascinating monologues once he starts to cover the same ground in them. And the conclusion is a messy game of cat and mouse, full of abductions and double-crossing, which leans far too heavily into Jason Bourne territory. There are two sequels to The Last Werewolf, and while I would have been open to reading them if I thought they’d reflect the character of the first half, the resolution of the plot makes it pretty clear they’d be more like the second, so I’m not sure I will.

That all sounds fairly negative, but actually I liked The Last Werewolf a lot; I just always find it disappointing when a cracking novel goes downhill. It’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year. If you heard about it when it got all that press upon release but never bothered to read it, I recommend giving it a try; it’s not for everyone, but it’s worth your time to check it out.

The Quiet War by Paul McAuley (2008) 439 p.

Two hundred years from now, following catastrophic climate change and devastating wars, the remaining people of Earth have been united under a handful of super-states: the Pacific Community, the European Union, and Greater Brazil (encompassing most of the Americas). In the solar system, meanwhile, genetically altered human colonists called “Outers” have fled to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn after a war with Earth saw their colonies on Mars totally eliminated. As the Outers intend to spread further and deeper into space, and the repressive, conservative governments of Earth feel uncomfortable with allowing what they see as a new species to prosper, war seems to be brewing once again.

The Quiet War is at least in part a parable about the Cold War, with two sides holding diametrically opposed philosophies and conflict seeming inevitable despite the fact that most people don’t want it to happen. Or one could read it as an allegory for the Iraq War (not that either side matches up), given that it’s instigated almost entirely by a small group of people on one side, and the reader is led to sympathise with the large but ultimately marginalised peace movement. The novel is told from the point of view of a few different characters, the most important amongst them being Macy Minnot, a American scientist sent as part of a team to work on the construction of a biome on Callisto by the government of Brazil. The biome is a good faith gesture which elements of the Brazilian government want to sabotage, and through a series of events Macy is framed for murder and forced to defect to the Outers. McAuley is thus given the opportunity to take us on a grand tour of his invented world as Macy begins her new life as an exile in the outer system, the drumbeats of war growing louder.

You can easily see the influence of Kim Stanley Robinson in this novel, not just in the thoughtful scope of his futuristic world-building and the repeated scientific infodumps, but also in the sort of worldviews he, as an author, seems to possess. There’s an awful lot of exposition when it comes to both scene-setting (understandably hard to avoid in this type of story) and character motivation (less tolerable). His two major characters are both scientists – rational, intelligent, level-headed people constantly troubled by the lesser minds around them. There’s one particularly telling scene on Ganymede, where Macy is trying to settle into her new life and is constantly harassed and bullied by a “cosmo angel” named Jibril, a narcissistic performance artist who films and disseminates her reactions. Jibril is the only “traditional” artist of any kind in the book; certainly the genetic creations of some of the more genius scientists are presented as art. The presentation of this character, along with a fellow Ganymedean’s suggestion to Macy that she should “video them videoing you and post it; make your own art that critiques Jibril’s,” gave me a fairly clear idea of what Paul McAuley, hard science fiction writer, thinks about the respective importance of art and science.

But as with Robinson, it’s hard to fault him for it, when he’s presenting such a beautiful vision of science as art: of the human race spreading out across the worlds, harnessing technology to create new life, building floating gardens in the atmosphere of Saturn or treetop cities on low gravity moons where humans fly between the branches. It’s a compelling vision of a possible future for humanity, war and all, which makes you vaguely depressed to look up from it and remember that it’s 2014 and we still have no plans to go to Mars. I can see why it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award; it’s a pretty classic candidate.

It’s a shame, on the whole, that The Quiet War’s story – with its clunky exposition, constant political subterfuge and doublecrossing, and unmemorable characters – doesn’t quite live up to the world it takes place in. (Story of science fiction’s life, I guess.) It also ends on a somewhat abrupt note, with the war over but the outer system in disarray, and the characters treading water. There’s a sequel, which I’ll probably read, but I’m in no rush to do so.

The Ill-Made Knight by T.H. White (1940) 484 p.

I have by this point realised that T.H. White’s Arthurian fantasy series, The Once and Future King, is a modern take on a legend he assumes the reader is already quite familiar with. Perhaps every British schoolchild in the 1930s learnt about it, but for foreign or even modern readers it’s a bit different. My sum total knowledge of the legend is more or less John Boorman’s film Excalibur, and it’s been a long time since I saw that, as part of the muddled ninth grade English curriculum in a public school in Australia.

This isn’t to say that the books are hard to follow. They’re almost a child’s fantasy, written simply and with a tone that alternates between serious and jocular. But White quite often refers (especially in The Ill-Made Knight) to a scene by saying “Malory describes this” or “you can find a better account in Malory,” referring to Sir Thomas Malory, the 15th century Norman writer who popularised the legends in Britain. Many of the legend’s pivotal scenes, such as the quest for the Holy Grail, occur mostly off-screen or are related second-hand. The Ill-Made Knight is largely the story of Lancelot, covering his childhood, his arrival at Camelot, his affair with Guinevere, and the eventual decay of Arthur’s Round Table.

Although I think The Once and Future King would be more enjoyable to somebody with a basic grounding in Arthurian legend, this isn’t the reason I don’t like it as much as I expected to. It’s just not my cup of tea, even though I can plainly see White’s skill and I understand why the series as a whole is considered a classic. I found the focus on the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere to be tiresome, for example, when King Arthur is the far more interesting character – a just and fair ruler, growing increasingly troubled, in this book, by the hypocrisy inherent in his creation of a kingdom of laws which he accomplished by the use of force. And Merlin is entirely absent in The Ill-Made Knight, which is a shame, because White’s amusing interpretation of him as an omniscient, time-travelling, benevolent puppet master is one of the series’ better characters.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed The Ill-Made Knight more than The Witch in the Wood, because it felt more central to the series as a whole and serves more or less as an epic story of one man’s life in its own regard. I just hope the series picks up again towards the end.

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915) 89 p.

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and the general concept of The Metamorphosis, which hovers on the borderline of being a short story or a novella, is one of literature’s most famous and fascinating stories. No explanation is given for Gregor Samsa’s terrible fate; he and his family must simply endure it. Almost the entire novella takes place within the Samsa family’s apartment, and over a mere 61 pages Kafka develops an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, alienation and sheer misery at the unjustness of the world.

This is a book many students are forced to read in high school, probably because of its short length, like The Great Gatsby, with no consideration for the fact that high school students probably aren’t yet equipped to appreciate the themes it explores (again like The Great Gatsby). There are dozens if not hundreds of scholarly interpretations as to what The Metamorphosis is allegorising; mental illness and depression are popular ideas. If I had to throw my hat into the ring I’d suggest it’s about the struggles of adulthood, the sometimes crushing sense of responsibility, the loss of innocence; much is made of the fact that Gregor, in his early twenties, has been working as a salesman to support his recently impoverished family, and following his transformation his inability to work and provide for them leaves him with a terrible sense of guilt. On the very morning of the metamorphosis the head clerk arrives from his office, demanding to know why he has not turned up for work, and it’s almost a scene of black comedy as Gregor attempts to leave the bed and open the door, to reassure his superior that he is fit and able and enthusiastic. The fact that he has turned into a monster is of secondary concern to his job security.

This particular edition has a couple of Kafka’s other short stories at the back, presumably because the publisher wanted to pad the length out. None of them struck me as particularly memorable. The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, deserves its status as a literary classic – an enduring symbol of alienation in human society.

Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (2012) 160 p.

This is the first collected edition of Brian K. Vaughan’s space opera comic Saga, gathering issues 1-6. The story begins as star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana, both deserters from opposite sides of an interstellar war, are holed up in a garage on a planet called Cleave, with Alana heavily pregnant and about to give birth. Volume One covers the misadventures of the couple and their baby as they attempt to escape the planet, pursued by military forces and bounty hunters.

Saga is heavily inspired by Star Wars; this is space opera as fantasy rather than science fiction, and Vaughan goes a step further than Lucas by openly involving magic. It’s also a heavily weird comic, in a weird why-the-hell-not way rather than the more mythic, deadly serious weirdness of something like Brandom Graham’s Prophet. Within the pages of Saga you’ll find a forest that grows rocket ships, a sort of deadly women/spider centaur, the ghost of a girl who dresses and speaks like a ‘90s SoCal teenager, a seahorse-like alien who acts as a Hollywood-style “agent” for various violent bounty hunters, soldiers who ride pegasuses (pegasi?) for some reason, and sex scenes between robots with TV monitors for heads (characters who are, I hope, inspired by Evan Dahm’s The One Electronic in Rice Boy). Whether or not you like Saga depends largely on how happy you are to embrace this sort of madcap, tongue-in-cheek creativity, and whether you think it strikes the right balance between playfulness and gravitas. Personally I was okay with it, but we’ll see how future volumes go.

The pacing is solid. You can tell that this is the beginning of what Vaughan hopes will be a long story, and Saga is an apt title for a work like this. The story has an omniscient narration by the couple’s infant daughter Hazel, who looks back on their struggles from a future vantage point, Wonder Days style, which I think works well. Opening the story with Hazel’s birth was absolutely the right moment to do so, throwing the reader into a family’s life-or-death struggle against a hostile universe from the exact moment they properly became a family, and I like the idea that Saga could chart a character’s entire life in this crazy universe from birth to death.

Saga is not precisely the kind of epic science fiction story I’d like to read – I’d probably prefer something a little more serious – but I still liked it quite a bit, and I’ll keep reading it. Volume One is a solid opening to what I hope develops further and becomes a classic sprawling space opera.

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