Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.

We know this story; an unlikely hero with a regal destiny is sent on an epic quest. We know these characters, too, from source material as diverse as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Greek mythology, and Disney movies.

The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.

Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

Harry Potter has stock villains (the real ones, and the ones you only think are bad) and stock friends. Even the guard dog feels like a hybrid of the Minotaur and Cerebrus. Bumbling-but-lovable sidekick, Hagrid, strikes me as part Luca Brasi from The Godfather, and part Bigfoot from The Howard Stern Show.

“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”

There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.

Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:

“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.

Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

And sometimes Harry Potter brushes against the madness of Alice in Wonderland.

A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.

Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:

He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?

It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.

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The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning by Laird Barron
The Croning by Laird Barron

Something amazing happens in Laird Barron’s The Croning.

The hero saves the day simply by forgetting to act. He agrees to let his mind rot away (perhaps the most terrifying fate of all) while his witchy woman makes off with their newborn grandchild.

That’s the happiest ending possible in this twisted tale that combines the legend of Rumplestilskin, Ira Levin’s secret satanic societies, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mythos.

Laird Barron is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His stuff is way out there, there’s a palpable sense of the strange in his prose, and he uses cools words like sybarites and decorticate.

Protagonist Don Miller is the last to learn he’s a pawn in an ancient game. His wife is a witch hell-bent on double-crossing a race of demons that long to suck humanity dry and wipe the Earth clean.

Every smart husband knows when to back off, and Miller has learned not to pry into his wife’s affairs or ask too many questions.

She’d given him a long, wintry look, the coldest he’d ever received prior or since. Then she said, Leave a girl her secrets, Don.

Miller willfully turns a blind eye, and maybe that’s the secret to their successful marriage. That, and the long absences Don and Michelle take from one another. A nosey federal agent points out what Miller refuses to see about himself:

I’m guessing you’re exactly the rube she needs to maintain her cover as a cute little lady scientist. Who’d suspect her of anything with Gomer Pyle hanging around?

The Ancient Evil at work here is called Old Leech, and it’s straight outta Stoker, yo.

This was a colossal worm that had swallowed whole villages, cities… A leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies.

There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Hollow Earth Theory. Toothy, limbless creatures that live inside ancient trees. Sacrificial dolmens, like Stonehenge, in the middle of the Washington State. Vortexes to other dimensions.

The conspiracy is everywhere, as Don learns, and his own daughter is not immune. Don’s turncoat boss gives a glimpse into the vastness of the enemy:

“They worship a deity that ate the fucking dinosaurs, several species of advanced hominids and the Mayans. Opened a gate and slurped them through a funnel.”

And as Old Leech’s human servant puts it:

We venerate the Great Dark, the things that dwell there… Our cult is monolithic with tentacles in every human enterprise throughout history, into prehistory.”

“Ah, like Amway,” Don notes.

Barron’s language is equal parts noir and poetry.

You are a mosquito trapped in the sap of a sundew.

And later:

You’re a flea on the belly of a mastodon.

Barron’s writing makes you feel small and frightened, which is all you can ask from good horror fiction.

The Croning can trace its literary roots back to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. But Leiber’s “classic” novel is dated and quaint (and more than a little paranoid) by today’s standards. The Croning is a more wholly realized tale that digs deeper into the fertile soil of myth and fairy-tale, and employs more believable characters to deliver its message.

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Rules by Cynthia Lord

Rules by Cynthia Lord
Rules by Cynthia Lord

We create rules as a way to manage our time, personalities, and behaviors. We make rules in order to control our lives and give order to the world around us. Rules let us agree on a common way of acting, of certain expectations being met, and of certain boundaries not being crossed. Rules tell us how to live.

Following rules and finding our place in the world is central to Cynthia Lord’s Rules, a powerful young adult novel about a fifth grade girl, Catherine, and her autistic brother, David. Along the way they befriend a non-verbal, wheelchair-bound boy named Jason, who, despite his physical limitations, helps set Catherine free of her self-imposed and restrictive “rules.” After all, rules are meant to be broken.

Catherine wishes her brother’s autism would simply disappear, that he’d just wake up “normal” one day. But in case that doesn’t happen, she’s compiling a list of rules so “at least he’ll know how the world works, and I won’t have to keep explaining things.”

Catherine gives voice to the siblings of special needs individuals everywhere when she notes:

“Everyone expects a tiny bit from him and a huge lot from me.”

Later, Catherine talks honestly with her father.

“I have to matter, too. As much as work and your garden, and even as much as David. I need you, too.”

Catherine ponders the nature of her brother’s disability. As the father of a son with autism I found her insights packed an emotional wallop. (Note: Cynthia Lord is the mother of boy with autism.)

“How can his outside look so normal and his inside be so broken? Like an apple, red perfect on the outside, but mushy brown at the first bite.”

Catherine struggles with being both embarrassed by her brother and protective of him in equal measure. She hates when people treat her brother “like he’s invisible. It makes me mad, because it’s mean and it makes me invisible, too.”

Two of Catherine’s most simple rules are the most profound.

There are flaws in all of us—not just those with special needs.

And

We all try to do the best we can to fit in, but things don’t always end up the way we intend.

There are quite a few laughs here, and a few weepy emotional moments, too. Some of the most profound highlight the differences in Catherine and David’s mental capacities. At one point both kids get a chance to make a wish. Catherine says:

I wish everyone had the same chances. Because it stinks a big one that they don’t. What about you?

David wishes for grape soda.

Cynthia Lord plays it straight in Rules, and doesn’t overdo it on the sentimentality. The result is an engaging read filled with light and love. A couple of Lord’s rules are bound to stick with you after the novel’s close:

Sometimes you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.

And

Looking closer can make something beautiful.

 

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Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Edward Lee, Jack Ketchum, Brian Keene, Bryan Smith, J. F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Ryan Harding, and Shane McKenzie

Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road

 This is a good book written for a great cause; to help fund the medical bills of writer Tom Piccirilli. Pic’s colleagues in hardcore horror decided to pitch-in on a round robin novel to help support their friend. For that reason alone the book is worth buying.

Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road is written by, and in collaboration with, Brian KeeneJack KetchumEdward LeeJ.F. GonzalezBryan SmithWrath James WhiteNate SouthardRyan Harding, and Shane McKenzie. All gentlemen are heavy hitters in the world of gore-and-sex horror stories, and they all bring the Grand Guignol goods here.

Things start out fine, with a sex-demon prologue preceding new residents Chuck and Arrianne moving into the titular house, the scene of creepy and kinky crimes. Of course, nothing ever dies (when it should) in horror (or elsewhere), which is bad news for Chuck and Arrianne.

Each chapter of Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road is written by a different author or combination of authors. Through a series of violent and sexual scenes, a story of erotic obsession and possession emerges.

But by the third act everything derails. The authors get caught up in a gross-out contest rather than plot or character development, and a sharp detour into meta-fiction near the novel’s end feels like a convenient way to wrap things up rather a serious literary effort.

The funniest lines are delivered by Nate Southard (as himself), who laments the state of the horror genre while acknowledging the novel’s gratuitous nature.

“I can’t believe I wrote that dog bowl shit. You think Laird Barron would do that? Or Lee Thomas? Or Sarah?”

“Which Sarah? Langan or Pinborough?” asks equally-guilty author J.F. Gonzalez.

“Either,” Southard says, but quickly reconsiders. “Okay, well maybe Pinborough would, but you get my point.”

Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road ends up poking fun at horror in general and splatterpunk in particular. The authors clearly have fun with the material even as the story falls to pieces around them. But that’s not important; pick this one up to help out Tom Piccirilli.

Then do both yourself and Tom Piccirilli a favor, and buy as many Tom Piccirilli books as you can find. My favorites are Pic’s noir-flavored The Midnight Road and November Mourns, along with supernatural mystery, The Night Class. Piccirilli is a master of the written word leaving deep footprints on the landscape of mystery, suspense, and terror, and deep impressions on readers touched by his work.

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Header and Creekers by Edward Lee

Header by Edward Lee
Header by Edward Lee
Creepers by Edward Lee
Creepers by Edward Lee

There is something beautiful and poetic about  the splatterpunk redneck fiction on display in Edward Lee‘s novella Header (1995) and the long-form novel Creekers (1994).

Lee’s redneck horror pays homage to Richard Laymon‘s novels of backwoods terror as well as James Dickey‘s classic, Deliverance. Lee’s work is violent and nasty, but his pacing and dialogue are so swift and on-target, you’re knee-deep in foul shit before you even know what happened.

Headers is a twisted novella about rednecks that drill holes in peoples’ skulls and stick their erections inside. Creekers is about backwoods inbreds, and the slick tight rope they walk between an ancient evil and the modern plague of drugs.

The drug trade is the backdrop in both Headers and Creekers. Both stories have lawmen protagonists who are down on their luck and looking for redemption. It doesn’t work out so well for either guy.

Both of these novels are rollicking fun, even if they’re bloody disgusting. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie, Lee’s work seems to revel in a cartoonish level of violence and gore while searching for some kind of existential meaning beyond the mutilation and torment of the physical body. There are lots of dirty sex scenes, too. What’s not to like?

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a slow literary slog. This 1967 novel, considered a landmark work of Latin American magical realist fiction, is a major drudge. It felt like it took me 100 years to read. I couldn’t find my way around the Buendia family tree and all its weird, gnarled branches.

Even so, there are amazing and memorable moments in this book, as well as a few genuinely shocking events, including multiple cases of incest (the Buendia family has a proclivity toward incest, as well as a constant fear of birthing a monster baby born with a “pig’s tail”).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s language is breathtaking and strange:

“He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with this eyes open”

Surrealistic fiction means anything can happen, and it often does in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It rains for “four years, eleven months, and two days.” They tie the family patriarch to a tree for decades. There’s a rain of flowers. All this strangeness is taken in stride, which is what makes it so surreal. The overall theme seems to be the Buendia family’s failure to learn from past mistakes.

Family matriarch Urusala notes:

“Every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. Only when they deviated from the meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something.”

The word “solitude” takes on a different meaning each time it appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sometimes it means being alone and/or lonely. Other times solitude is a type of personal obligation or duty that one must endure. Solitude above all seems to be the common thread that runs through the Buendia family, as each member has their own moments of intense personal reflection.

García Márquez mentions “the paradise of shared solitude,” and says of the relationship between Jose Arcadio and Aureliano:

“That drawing closer together of two solitary people of the same blood was far from friendship, but it did allow them both to beaer up better under the unfathomable solitude that separated and united them at the same time.”

There’s undoubtedly a lot of political metaphor here. Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo is a stand-in for Colombia, and I’m sure I missed the geopolitical significance of many of the events in the novel since I’m not familiar with Colombia’s history.  Evidently there are a lot of real-life events seen metaphorically in One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the building of a railroad into the secluded mountain regions, the slaughter of striking workers by government soldiers, and the influence of big business on the culture. (The novel’s “American Fruit Company” is a stand-in for the United Fruit Company, an American company whose rapid expansion into Central and South America countries in the early 1900s brought about the term “banana republics.”)

According to our omniscient overlord, Wikipedia, “García Márquez is said to have a gift for blending the everyday with the miraculous, the historical with the fabulous, and psychological realism with surreal flights of fancy.” It’s true (like everything Wiki tells us, right?) but García Márquez makes it hurt with dense language and ponderous pacing.

One Hundred Years of Solitude may be a literary classic, but something got lost in translation for me.

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Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes

Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes
Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes

In the interest of full disclosure, I was fortunate to read an early draft of C.L. Holmes’s Our Great Abbess, and I enjoyed it so much, I asked if I could publish it. Read more about Abbess below, or go get it here.

Our Great Abbess blends historical fiction and religious horror to tell a compelling tale of cloistered nuns in a secluded mountain abbey, under siege by starvation, disease, marauders, and internal sabotage.

The young nuns of St. Agnes Convent face starvation, and there is no money in the treasury because the former prioress went mad and gave it all away. (Mad Reverend Mother Oxtierna has been banished to the abbey’s dungeon.) The Governing Mothers reach out to Baron Jack for help, but he denies them. A plague has wiped out much of the population of Europe, and war with a neighboring kingdom is imminent. The Baron can’t spare any resources for the Sisters unless he gets something in return: he wants one of the young nuns to serve as a sex slave for his army.

Shocked and disgusted the Mothers reject the Baron’s offer. But things go from bad to worse. The villagers think the woods surrounding the abbey are haunted by vengeful spirits and refuse to help. Friars from a brother are friendly, but also destitute. Scouting parties sent out for help have never returned.

Prioress-by-default Tabitha musters the courage to accept the Baron’s offer. She will sacrifice herself to the Baron’s savages so that the rest of the nuns can survive. But the Baron’s offer has changed. Now he wants all the nuns in the Abby as sex slaves, though Tabitha can spare one girl.

Our Great Abbess traverses some dark waters and doesn’t pull punches. Nightly rapes by masked marauders are just the beginning of the horrors the sisters of St. Agnes Convent must endure. But the novel ultimately empowers women rather than objectifies them.

Abbess is a book filled with powerful women who rise up no matter how desperate the situation or unrightous the indignity. Tabitha kicks ass, outwitting her male suppressors to keep the Abbey going at all cost.

“As Tabitha saw it, the convent was a transition point between the world and heaven.”

Tabitha is joined by a cast of equally strong and memorable women. Wicked and mad Oxtierna. The naïve but not-so-innocent Marta. Suspicious and conniving Isadore. Our Great Abbess is a big, sprawling novel, but the pacing is strong throughout, buoyed by a driving narrative, interesting sub-plots, and beautiful language.

The male supporting cast gets some of the books best lines, like these from a maudlin Baron Jack:

“It is inevitable. Life is just our fattening ourselves for the dirt maw, standing precariously on its lip, then it’s in we go.”

And Tabitha’s faithful servant Clovis contemplates the nature of suffering and God’s plan for each of us.

“There are no ‘supposed to be’s.’ God gives us what we are, and changes his mind on occasion, and we’re left to deal with the reality of it.”

Our Great Abbess reads as if John Jakes penned a round robin novel with George R.R. Martin, Clive Barker and Umberto Eco. The novel bristles with historical intrigue, authentic dialogue, genuine suspense and no-holds-barred horrors.

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A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

“Give sorrow words,” William Shakespeare says. “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

Joyce Carol Oates gives her sorrow words in A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, which chronicles the death of her longtime husband, Ontario Review editor, Ray Smith, and the first year of Oates’ widowhood.

“Widowhood is the punishment for having been a wife,” Oates writes in this powerful and poignant memoir.

If life were fair, couples that have been married for decades (Oates and Smith were together for 47 years and 25 days, Oates frequently points out) should be allowed to die together.

But life is anything but fair, and it’s the job of survivors to carry on after the loss of a loved one, no mater how impossible that may seem, as Oates observes:

   “Losing a spouse of 47 years is like losing a part of yourself— the most valuable part. What is left behind seems so depleted, broken … But this determination to manage—to cope—to do as much unassisted as possible— is the widow’s prerogative.”

Losing a spouse can drain life of flavor and meaning, leaving the survivor a shell of themselves, as Oates notes:

   “As a widow I will be reduced to a world of things. And these things retain but the faintest glimmer of their original identity and meaning as in a dead and desiccated husk of something once organic there might be discerned a glimmer of its original identity and meaning.”

Oates also examines the frailty of life and the delicate balance of bio-chemistry that makes us human:

Harrowing to think that our identities— the selves people believe they recognize in us: our “personalities”— are a matter of oxygen, water and food and sleep— deprived of just one of these our physical beings begin to alter almost immediately— soon, to others we are no longer “ourselves”— and yet, who else are we?

It’s impossible not to compare Oates’ A Widow’s Story to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both women are literary powerhouses examining the depths of grief following the death of their husbands. Oates subtlety references Didion’s work, and her own “magical thinking” during her husband’s short illness and death. Oates and Didion both imagine their husbands “just coming home,” putting an end to the endless nightmare of widowhood. Magical thinking is a nice way of saying delusional or wishful thinking.

Widowhood forces a kind of exile, an otherness, as the widow moves through day-to-day life like a ghost.

   “I could be a paraplegic observing dancers— it isn’t even envy I feel for them, almost a kind of disbelief, they are so utterly different from me, and so oblivious.”

And a life devoid of meaning, isn’t really a life at all, Oates says:

“To be human is to live with meaning. To live without meaning is to live sub-humanly.”

“Giving sorrow words” is both painful and healing, and perhaps the only way back to the “land of the living” for a writer, as Oates notes in a letter to a fellow author.

   “It’s difficult to write when there’s no joy. (I haven’t gotten started again, myself.) Yet it’s our only way out. Isn’t it?”

Though deeply steeped in sorrow, The Widow’s Story: A Memoir is ultimately a story of survival and rebirth. Oates knows whom to thank for helping her through the early days of widowhood.

   “The blunt truth is: I would (very likely) not be alive except for my friends.”

She also finds recovery and reconnection by embracing her late husband’s favorite hobby: gardening:

   “A gardener is one for whom the prospect of the future is not threatening but happy.”

In the end, Oates finds the strength to carry on, even if it’s a “half-life” frequently filled with sorrow and loss.

   “This is my life now. Absurd, but unpredictable. Not absurd because unpredictable but unpredictable because absurd. If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash.”

We can all appreciate the world forged from Oates’ personal pain, a world where life is simultaneously absurd, unpredictable and incredibility precious.

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Wool Omnibus Edition (Wool 1 – 5) (Silo series) by Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey
Wool by Hugh Howey

We all want to be Hugh Howey when we grow up. Howey is a folk hero to those of us who dip our toes in the waters of self-publishing.

After publishing Wool with a small press, Howey self-published his post-apocalyptic sci-fi series on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, where it found a huge audience. The following year, Howey sold the film rights for Wool to 20th Century Fox, and inked a print distribution deal with Simon and Schuster. Howey reportedly turned down a seven-figure offer in favor of a mid-six figure sum in return for maintaining e-book rights.

Howey is one of the most successful self-published authors of all time, along with Amanda Hocking and mother/daughter Elf On The Shelf authors Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell. How did Howey do it? What’s the secret to his success?

His first step was writing a damn good story. Howey’s got storytelling chops, with cool characters to root for, evil villains to boo, and enough intellectual meat and moral fiber to leave readers feeling full.

Wool’s characters are likeable, believable, and keep the story moving. They walk the classic tightrope of all action heroes, from the stars of swashbuckling radio serials to the survivors of The Walking Dead. They fight on, even when hope no longer makes sense.

Despite its warm and fuzzy title, Wool ventures into some dark and dangerous territory. There are all kinds of political overtones, undertones, and sub-tones at work in Wool. It’s a classic class battle of the haves and have-nots, but here the currency is knowledge. The haves are in on the big secret of the silo(s) and the have-nots are kept in the dark about their own existence.

Spoiler alert! One of Howey’s well-drawn secondary characters spills the beans about halfway through.

“We are the seeds,” he said. “This is a silo. They put us here for the bad times.”

He also points out that seeds left alone for too long tend to rot, and Lord of the Flies-type hijinks inevitably ensues. Mankind’s war-like nature is on full display in Wool.

They all knew, instinctively, how to build implements of pain. It was something even shadows knew how to do at a young age, knowledge somehow dredged up from the brutal depths of their imagination, this ability to deal harm to one another.

This is a story about political power, intrigue, and grassroots revolts. Within Wool’s compelling story structure there are meditations on:

Revolution

Metal would snap if you could wiggle it even a little bit, if you did it long enough. She had felt the heat of weakened steel countless times while bending it over and over until it broke

Genocide

There’s fear that small pockets of survivors might be holed up elsewhere around the globe. Operation Fifty is completely pointless if anyone else survives. The population has to be homogenous…

Life under totalitarian rule

They put us in this game, a game where breaking the rules means we all die, every single one of us. But living by those rules, obeying them, means we all suffer.

Wool reminds me of E.M. Forster’s classic The Machine Stops, but then a lot of good dystopian science fiction does. We are all becoming more and more like Forster’s underground society of hive-dwelling, WiFi-sucking hermits every day.

At least I am.

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The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron
Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron

Laird Barron writes weird.

Barron is a good writer, but the stories contained in his collection, The Imago Sequence  and Other Stories, are sometimes hard to figure. You’ll need a dictionary, good map skills, and a working knowledge of mythology, world religions, philosophy, horror fiction, and crime pulps to make heads or tails of these tales.

Don’t get me wrong; just because Barron’s style is strange doesn’t mean his fiction isn’t enjoyable. The stories in The Imago Sequence are rich with interesting characters and concepts, and practically drip with atmosphere.

Barron is a skilled writer and you can see his toil on every page. He blends Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, in ways both good and bad. Tough guys stumble through the underworld of crime and the Old West against a backdrop of ancient horrors, cosmic interference, and unreliable narrators. At its best, Barron’s gritty prose conjures Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, gut-punching like a trench-coated henchman in an old black-and-white film. Check out these savory one-liners:

“Somebody slapped a bottle of whiskey in my hand and lost the cork…I tumbled off the wagon and got crushed under its wheels.”

“If the best revenge is living well, second best has to be watching your enemy shrivel like a worm on the end of a hook.”

“Underdog and Popeye couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag until they’d had their fix.”

“Karma, brothers and sisters, has a mouth as big as the world.”

Occasionally Barron’s work is undone by his word choice. Just because you’ve got a big vocabulary is no reason to use phrases like, “great chthonian depths,” “uxoricidal brute,” or “compensation for your temerity.”

The title story is the best in the collection. “The Imago Sequence” follows the pursuit of an ultra-rare trio of photographs that drive viewers insane and/or reveal the secrets of existence, perhaps even the very face of God Hisownself. The crime noir vibe builds to a climax that’s equal parts Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and John Carpenter’s The Thing, imbued with meaty philosophical musings:

“Enlightenment isn’t necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.”

Barron’s reoccurring themes include religion, philosophy, and the meaning of existence, all of which are rendered masterfully in “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”

“Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil , just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It’s too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs , and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech’s anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.”

Damn, Laird! That’s the kind of writing that can “turn your bowels to soup!”

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