Book Review, Classics, Feminism, Fiction, Horror, Mini-reviews, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, Supernatural, Thriller

Spooky Reviews: Doctor Sleep, Hill House, and Macbeth

16130549Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Final Verdict: 3.75/4.0
YTD: 58

Doctor Sleep is the long-awaited sequel to one of Stephen King’s most popular novels, The Shining.  In it, readers are given the opportunity to witness Danny Torrance as a seriously screwed up but equally well-intentioned alcoholic adult.  While some of the suspense of its prequel has not been carried over into this revisit, still King proves why he is a master of his craft and fans of the original will probably not be disappointed by this follow-up.

The story begins with Danny as a child, just a few short years after the events which took place at the infamous and nefarious Overlook Hotel.  Danny and his mom are living alone, relatively happy and healthy.  Danny’s connection with the Overlook and the otherworldly in general has, for the most part, dissipated.  At least, that’s the way it seemed.  Soon enough, we learn that the dead still visit young Danny – and he must reach out to his old mentor, Dick Hallorann, to learn how to lock away the demons for good.  Ultimately, Danny grows up allowing his mother to believe that his “shining” has dulled – he, like the girl he will one day meet- would rather deal with his abilities on his own, leaving his mom free of the worry and pain which would surely haunt her life, had she known how upsetting his own was.

As an adult, Danny becomes an alcoholic like his father.  He hides this, too, from his mother (who must surely have known on some level).  He travels the country, a homeless drifter, drinking, screwing, and working jobs just long enough to make a few bucks.  Eventually, he sleeps with a woman who, along with her son, will haunt Danny’s memories for years to come.  After this lowest-of-low experience, one which the reader should learn of on their own, as it is an anchor to Danny’s life trajectory, Danny eventually ends up in a small New England town where he meets the girl who change forever.  His relationship with her is one of mentor and mentee, and it aids in Danny’s road to sobriety.  There are others out there like him and Dick, after all, and this girl is more powerful than any he has ever met.

Just like those who shine for good, however, are those who exist from evil.  Vampire-like beings, once human, they feed off of the power of the shining.  This power is, of course, most concentrated in children.  These parasites, an ancient, powerful, and enormously wealthy and well-connected community,   travel the country in their R.V.’s, unassuming middle-aged and elderly folk whom nobody would bat an eye at, but who lure and kidnap children, torture them for their “steam” (what they call the excretions of their shining) and then kill them.

Eventually, psychically, their leader, Rose the Hat, crosses paths with Danny’s young apprentice, Abra.  At this moment, the scene is set for a battle that will come – that must– come; a showdown between good and evil, between shining and vampire.  Abra, Danny, and a few companions must face, head on, this enormous evil force and defeat it once and for all, or die trying.

Ultimately, Doctor Sleep is an intricate, well-developed, and moving sequel to a King masterpiece.  While it is not quite as horrifying as his earlier works, King’s talents as a story-teller remain unquestioned.  The emotional depth and strength of characterization he brings to this one, too, are admirable, particularly as King’s earlier works tended not to be much concerned with character development (they were much more about creating a mood of suspense or terror than about telling any one person’s story).   I was skeptical about the book at first, and remained so for the first couple dozen pages but, in the end, I find myself thinking about the book quite a bit – even weeks after finishing.  The mark of a good story, no?

Notable Quotes:

“After the things that she had seen and been through, she knew that shadows could be dangerous. They could have teeth” (7).

“The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser” (83).

“In her head every superstition and old wives’ tale still lived . . . she knew superstition was shit; she also spat between her fingers if a crow or black cat crossed her path” (88).

“Perhaps kids really did come into the world trailing clouds of glory, as Wordsworth had so confidently proclaimed, but they also shit in their pants until they learned better” (123).


51NlY23zNHLThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 56

This has been one of the most surprising reads of the year for me, so far.  I’m not sure why I didn’t realize that this Shirley Jackson is the same Shirley Jackson who wrote “The Lottery,” but it didn’t take too long to figure it out.  The Haunting of Hill House is simply overflowing with the most luxurious, sumptuous, sensual language imaginable.  It’s freaking beautiful – and it’s a horror story!  Well, sort of.  I would consider it to be more of a psychological thriller, akin to, say The Sixth Sense, but it is typically considered one of the best “horror” books of all-time, so there we go.

Anyway, what did I love about this book?  Well, the plot.  The characters.  The language, especially.  The book’s opening paragraphs are some of the best I have ever read, from anyone.  It’s the kind of story introduction any writer would dream of crafting – perfection.  The rest of the book is much of the same.  Romantic language that flows into the most bizarre, eerie plot situations.  Eleanor Vance’s troubled mind, Theodora’s narcissism and lesbian inclinations.  Mr. and Mrs. Dudley and their dunderheadedness.  Doctor Montague’s obsession with the other-worldly, an obsession which leads to tragedy.

On the surface, the book is a supernatural tale about four people who visit a haunted house, each for his or her own reasons.  Dr. Montague and his assistant, Theodora, are researching psychic phenomenon (specifically something called “haunting”).  The doctor is an occult scholar who has invited Eleanor there due to her documented experience with poltergeists.  The fourth is Luke, who is the future heir to Hill House.  Initially, the house seems a bit haunted, but in an “isn’t that odd?” sort of way – doors closing by themselves, strange noises in the night, etc.  Soon, though, the house begins to flex its muscles, almost as if awakening from a deep slumber.  It begins to recognize the people living inside of it, and the house sets its sights on one visitor in particular.

Beneath the veil of “thriller” are the many deeper elements of the story.  Jackson is positing feminist ideals, presenting lesbianism in an off-hand, natural sort of way (quite unheard of in 1959), and engaging her readers in questions of science, religion, and human relationships.  It is a complex, multifaceted novel, of which the supernatural is only the method, rather than the theme.

Immediately upon finishing this book, I went out and bought another Jackson novel (Hangsaman) and also watched two film versions of The Haunting of Hill House.  The first version (1963) departed slightly from the book, but it was much more true to the story than the remake (1999) and much the better film, overall.  The remake was, in fact, quite terrible.  In any event, the book is one of my favorites of the year – Jackson is a brilliant writer, one whom I regret not having really investigated sooner.  I could see myself spending a great deal of time studying her life and works sometime in the future.

Notable Quotes:

“Some houses are born bad” (70).

“It was said that the older sister was crossed in love, although that is said of almost any lady who prefers, for whatever reason, to live alone” (77).

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone” (3).

“Am I walking toward something I should be running away from?”

“I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, she thought, and the monster feels my tiny little movements inside.”

“Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”


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Biography, Criticism, David Shields, E.M. Forster, Essay, J.D. Salinger, Literary Theory, Mini-reviews, Non-Fiction, Shane Salerno, Terry Eagleton, Theory

Mini-Reviews: Salinger, Forster, and Eagleton

Hi, folks!  I have been pressed for time, lately (lately? Please. This is nothing new, and we all know it) and I am way behind on reviews.  I “definitely” have four book reviews outstanding and “technically” have another three as well (texts I assigned to my composition students, which I have naturally read and should review at some point…).  Anyway, the only way for me to get to them, at this point, is with some mini-reviews or less-than-organized thoughts.  I recently read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, too, for which I do hope to provide a full review (because it is on multiple of my challenge lists for 2013).

The following three are all works of non-fiction (one biography and two literary theory type texts) so I feel it is somewhat appropriate to present them together.  Here we go!

1. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno — 4.0 out of 4.0

This is perhaps one of the best biographies that I have ever read.  No, in fact, it is probably the best biography I have ever read, as the other works which come close, in my mind, are actually autobiographies (Mark Twain’s, for instance).  The authors spent eight years researching Salinger’s life and works in order to get at the truth behind this brilliant but troubled writer, and their exhaustive studies have resulted in a masterful portrait and new understanding of the man who was Holden Caulfield.

The book is divided into four parts, and these four parts directly correspond to the four steps of Advaida Vedanta Hinduism.  These four steps included “Apprenticeship” (Brahmacharya); “Householder Duties” (Garhasthya); “Withdrawal from Society” (Vanaprasthya); and “Renunciation of the World” (Sanyasa).  Separating the biography into these sections, which clearly, then, correspond to chronological portions of Salinger’s life (personal and writing lives), helps the reader to make sense out of the mystery that was J.D. Salinger.  Why did he retreat from society?  But, more than this, Shields and Salerno dig deeper and expose the sometimes hypocrisy of Salinger’s self-exile – including the ways he would stay in touch with the world, though on the fringes, and the moments when he would reappear for just long enough, and in only the “necessary” ways, in order to refuel the flame of public interest.

What is truly wonderful, too, about this biography is that it is not titled too far toward fanatic praise (such as the Paul Alexander biography) nor toward outright personal animosity (such as the works of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, as well as the Ian Hamilton biography).  Ultimately, the two biographers, here, present a notably balanced picture of the man and writer.  Much of Salinger’s history and personal relationships are either related for the first time in this work or presented with corroborating evidence such as has been missing in previous works, due to the fact that no one would speak about Salinger while he was alive.

Some have experienced mixed feelings about whether or not to read this biography, as it seems to be an invasion of the privacy Salinger held so dear.  I would argue, however, and I think the two authors of this work would agree, that Salinger did not intend or expect his life and work to go unexamined forever – just while he was alive.  Part of his religious teachings included the commitment to one’s art, without the fame or fortune which might come with it.  Evidence suggests that he did continue writing, and likely very much, over a long period of time, but he chose not to publish that writing for  variety of reasons, most of which had to do with his religious beliefs (though there are other elements to this decision, as Shields and Salerno mention).  Ultimately, it seems Salinger left instructions for many works to be published following a certain posthumous waiting period.  Since this is the case, one can, I believe, feel comfortable reading this intimate, sometimes expose, knowing that Salinger was likely perfectly aware that, following his death, his secret world would come out.

The structure of the work might work more for some than for others, as it is set up similar to a screenplay (which is perhaps appropriate, considering the documentary and the book were planned together and developed together, as a kind of single entity).  It worked well for me in certain parts, but at other times I found myself wishing for a traditional narrative form.  Ultimately, though, I find myself with very little to criticize. As a fan of Salinger (so much so that this very blog’s name is inspired by his work), I can and do highly recommend it.


157995922. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster — 3.75 out of 4.0

E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel heralded the now enormous scholarship on theory and criticism of the novel and the writing process. In this work, which, like Virginia Woolf’s incredible A Room of One’s Own is actually a series of lectures, Forster lays out his now infamous set of seven elements of the novel: Story, Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, Pattern, and Rhythm.  This is also the work responsible for bringing to readers and writers the idea of “flat” versus “round” characters — yes, those terms, unlike many, are actually traceable to a source!

In his lectures, Forster discusses in length, and from many perspectives, the differences between readers and critics, including their different purposes, the approaches they do (and should?) take, and also their abilities.  He says, for instance:

“The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events i the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency” (13-14).

This passage, I think, captures the essence of what Forster is trying to do, which is to separate the critic and the artist – to acknowledge the importance of a more artistic approach to reading, rather than a technical or historical one – to validate, in fact, the personal relationship a reader has with individual texts.

He does much more than this, of course.  He is teaching writers how to write, without having them write a word.  He gives numerous examples, from Dickens to Proust, from Woolf to DeFoe, to explain how and why certain writers do certain things.  He examines beauty and fantasy – he explains, like none other have been able to, how Virginia Woolf is indeed a “fantasist” who writes with “deliberate bewilderment” (19).  Why was the world of beauty closed to Dickens?  Why is it so hard to define the term “story” and, upon defining it, what is its importance?  Why do we tell stories and how are we more truthful, more connected, in fiction than in real life?

Some of Forster’s greatest insights, I think, come in the section on “People.”  He says that “a character in a book is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows – many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden” (63).  From here, he explains why this is and how it both strengthens a work and benefits the reader’s experience with it.  “A novel is a work of art,” after all, “with its own laws, which are not those of daily life.”  Whether we are reading a work of fantasy or realism, naturalism or postmodernism, what we should be looking for is the rules of the particular world at hand, and how are those rules governed, followed, or broken?  For me, this approach has opened a number of doors – has made it much easier for me to accept the unacceptable (except, of course, in stories which are just downright bad).

In addition to specific evaluations like the one above, Forster also discusses elements such as allegory, mysticism, and symbolism, among others, with direct references to works and writers who employ them well.  He even compares to writers or works who might both be mystics, for instance, and talks about how they do what they do – how it is different, perhaps, but equally effective.  For a student of literature, the approach is, I think, wonderful and helpful.

Some of the references are outdated, and some of the language, too, but though these lectures happened decades ago, one can understand why they were the foundation for schools of thought which have cropped up and built upon them ever since.  For any serious reader, Aspects of the Novel is a must.


160732983. How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton — 3.5 out of 4.0

I just love Terry Eagleton.  He certainly will not appeal to everyone (in many of his works he is overtly political, which some readers will find put-offish, even if they agree with his politics, but especially if they don’t.  I do happen to agree with most of his politics, and I think the guy is hilarious.  And also a damn good writer – engaging, entertaining, and yet seriously knowledgeable.

This particular work, his most recent, is like a user-friendly introduction to literature and to many of his other works.  He, like Forster, separates his text into themes: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value.  Within each section, he elaborates on how to effectively read and understand certain aspects of these themes by giving great examples of writers doing it well.

Of particular interest, to me, were his explorations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (found in the section on Interpretation) and also his exploration of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (found in the section on Character).  In both cases, his examination of the texts and how they work added much to what I had already taken away from them in my original readings (or to what I understood about the writer’s particular talents).  In fact, it made me want to re-read both right away – which, sadly, I haven’t found the time to do!

Eagleton also gives some helpful, if not overly academic distinctions between “a book” and “a text,” for instance.  Those who have traveled far in their literary education may find this book somewhat superficial; however, for those who are newly interested in literary studies or who are avid readers but do not necessarily know how to “talk the talk” – how to dissect a work of fiction, this could be a wonderful place to start.  And, honestly, even for those with decades of experience, many of Eagleton’s examples are witty and transferable (I am using some in my own classes in the future, for instance) and his dissections of classic novels are always, always worth the ride.


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