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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.

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November 2014