Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby asks the question: what would you do if you discovered the power to make you a god? Suddenly, the command of life and death, sickness and health, growth and destruction, is in your hands. Do you want it? Will you use it? Can you control it? 

Carl Streator, the main character and narrator, is a journalist who stumbles upon the mysterious powers of a Culling song, an ancient spell that, when read aloud or focused on in the mind, has the power not only to put people to sleep but also kill them. As he discovers the vast reach of the song, he meets another, Helen Hoover Boyle (a real estate agent), who knows this secret and who has been using it to assassinate people all over the world. The two quickly come together, both hoping to find the Book of Shadows, an ancient spell book where the Culling song originated; Streator so he can destroy it and Boyle so she can become even more powerful and invincible. The two will be hunted down by time, by witches, by police detectives, and by each other, until the Book of Shadows falls into the wrong hands and, suddenly, the two realize they must become the hunters. 

In Palahniuk’s books, characterization, I find, is typically the weaker element, much less dynamic than the prose and plot. That is not the case in Lullaby. One of the most fascinating elements in this book is its characterization; how will different people react to the power they find? What do our actions tell us about human nature and the nature of power? Perhaps the reason the characters are so interesting is because they are based on people in Palahniuk’s own world; perhaps the reason their stories are so powerful is because Palahniuk wrote this book when mired in a deep, personal struggle (his father and father’s girlfriend had recently been murdered by the woman’s ex-husband), which directly relates to the plot of the story: How do we decide who lives and who dies? Does any one of us, regardless of circumstances, have authority over another’s fate? All-in-all, the dark personal circumstances of Palahniuk’s life create great tension and allow for extraordinary character growth and development. Each individual in the book, from the main characters, Streator and Hoover, to their friends and rivals, Mona and Oyster, down to a necrophilia-obsessed paramedic,  has a back story, a history, and a purpose, which makes them all equally interesting and dynamic, particularly in relation to the others. 

There is no doubt that Palahniuk is a master of the macabre. He explores the darkest, most dangerous elements of human nature, in transgressive style. The book is structured by a temporal ending, which frames the story and is interspersed throughout the traditional, linear plotline. As with most Palahniuk books, there is a plot twist near the end of the story, which brings the temporal ending into focus with the linear plot. The temporal segment chapters are italicized, which creates an enigma of sorts, as the reader cannot be entirely sure whether or not the narrator of both the present and future stories is the same person, or even whether or not the future narrator is alive (thus putting the “present-linear” plot into a past tense, without expressly doing so in the linear style). The story progresses quickly and is well-paced, but the plot twist at the end, which was hinted at throughout the story by those temporal-future segments, could likely have been achieved without those interruptions. 

The best thing about great books is that they are more than just a good story. While Lullaby is entertaining, mysterious, and bizarre, it is also highly psychologically exploratory. The story is meant to make the readers think: think about power and how one should (or would) wield it; think about capital punishment, its merits/effectiveness or lack thereof; think about sacrifice, self-worth, penitence, forgiveness, mourning, and recovery. So much of what happens in this story is deeper than the story itself, but that these themes and elements are delivered within the realm of such an interesting, disturbing, and quite terrifying story just makes it all the better. The gothic writers would be proud of what Palahniuk achieves here.

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Notable Quotes:

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”

“When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love. Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy them, but now they call this free will.”

“You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound.  You don’t win with a lot of treble. This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume. This isn’t about music. This is about winning.”

“The best way to waste your life is by taking notes. The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

“These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics.”

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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.”