Rereading Lovecraft in 2021

I’ve been working my way through that body of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction that is loosely based around the Necronomicon, or the Cthulhu Mythos cycle. (Actually, I am listening to the audiobook edition, mostly while I mow my lawn and work out at the gym.) This edition, read by various narrators and published by Blackstone Audio, is the edition authorized by the Lovecraft estate.

The readings are well done. The narrators take Lovecraft’s frequently purple prose seriously, without overdoing it. If you like audiobooks and you like Lovecraft, you’ll enjoy this audio collection.

Lovecraft’s body of work is partly nostalgia for me. I read most of Lovecraft’s stories during my college years. I discovered Lovecraft while browsing through the shelves of the University of Cincinnati bookstore in 1988. Also, Stephen King had mentioned him in several of his essays.

Reimmersing myself in Lovecraft after all these years, a few things stand out, both good and bad.

Let’s start with the good.

First of all, H.P. Lovecraft had an incredible imagination. When he wrote these stories, there were no horror movies. There wasn’t even much fantasy fiction as we know it today. Lovecraft died in 1937, the same year that The Hobbit was published. Yet Lovecraft created so many horror/dark fantasy tropes and conventions from thin air.

Working within the constraints of the pulp fiction era, Lovecraft did a fairly decent job of establishing continuity across his stories. The Cthulhu Mythos cycle isn’t technically a series. These stories were published individually, at different times, in various pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. The marketplace more or less forced Lovecraft into the short story/novella form, and every story had to begin with a blank slate. The writer couldn’t assume that any given reader had read his previous works. Nevertheless, when Lovecraft’s stories are compiled, there is a discernible consistency running through all of them.

And yes, his purple prose. Lovecraft was hyper-literate. You can’t read, or listen to, Lovecraft’s stories without increasing your vocabulary.

Now for the not-so-good.

His narrative style. Lovecraft was a contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” or Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams”, and you’ll definitely see the differences.

Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote in a style that we would recognize as modern. Hemingway, in particular, was well-known for his direct, economical prose. But both Hemingway and Fitzgerald thought in terms of showing, rather than telling.

Lovecraft, by contrast, writes more like Herman Melville or Thomas Hardy. Rather than creating scenes on the page, Lovecraft often simply tells you what happened. This makes his writing occasionally cumbersome to wade through, and less accessible to modern readers.

There isn’t much we can say about Lovecraft’s characters, because his characters are paper-thin. They exist only as observers of the supernatural phenomena in his stories.

There are notably few exceptions here. The two main characters in “Herbert West—Reanimator” stuck in my mind a bit longer than the characters in the other stories, who disappeared as soon as the stories were over.

The typical Lovecraft character is a scholarly male recluse who is drawn into arcane research and observations by chance, or by idle curiosity. Lovecraft has virtually no female characters. Not even any damsels in distress.

In some literary genres in recent years, there has been a tendency to depict every female main character as a tough-talking heroine who can whip every male villain she encounters, even if they’re twice her size. We often see this in television shows and movies, and no one believes it.

But Lovecraft errs in the opposite extreme: I don’t want to read female characters that were obviously crafted for the sole purpose of making a feminist statement. But I don’t want to read a fictional world that is entirely comprised of guys who can’t seem to find dates, either. 

Lovecraft’s writing also reveals his prejudices, which were extreme and extensive even by the standards of his time. Lovecraft looked down on just about everyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon New England brahmin. His stories are filled with savage Africans and “swarthy”, conniving Greeks and Italians.

Not that he cared much for white, native-born rural people, either. Multiple Lovecraft stories discuss the degraded hill people who live in the backwaters of Vermont, for example.

There has been much writing, and much posturing, in recent years, about “canceling” Lovecraft because of his attitudes on race. His name was removed from a prominent award, and some book bloggers have even declared that Lovecraft’s fiction is no longer suitable for people with the “correct” attitudes on social and political issues. The hand-wringers often forget that while Lovecraft certainly didn’t like African Americans, he didn’t like much of anyone else, either. Lovecraft was an equal-opportunity snob/bigot. 

I am not going to make a show of being offended by a piece of pulp fiction that was written eighty or ninety years ago. But an undeniable fact remains: H.P. Lovecraft comes across as a rather narrow-minded person with a narrow range of experiences and interests.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t read his fiction. As I said by way of disclaimer: I’ve already read all of these stories at least once. (I believe I’ve read “The Colour Out of Space” four or five times, the first time in 1988.) The scope of Lovecraft’s imagination was so broad, that these stories are worthwhile for any reader drawn to horror, dark fantasy, or so-called “weird fiction”. Lovecraft was a flawed man and a flawed writer; but he nevertheless produced some very engaging tales.

The novels of W.E.B. Griffin

I’m presently reading The New Breed, the 7th book in W.E.B. Griffin’s Brotherhood of War series. This novel follows the lives and adventures of several U.S. Army personnel involved in covert operations warfare during the 1960s, particularly in Vietnam and the Congo.

Like most W.E.B. Griffin novels, The New Breed is not simply a series of combat scenes strung together. Nor is this a novel in which the Fate of the World rests on one man’s shoulders.

The New Breed is more a slice-of-life look at fighting men and their wives, girlfriends, and children. The entire series is like that. What Griffin wrote was not so much military fiction, but fiction about people who are in the military. Griffin’s novels are light on action, as novels set in global conflicts go. There are, in fact, quite a few W.E.B. Griffin novels in which not much seems to happen.

But when he was at his best, Griffin wrote engaging characters that drew you in to the story. I’m working my way eagerly through the Brotherhood of War books. Many readers have gone before me, and many more are sure to follow. 

When he was not at his best, Griffin’s books tended to ramble. Griffin was most on-point when he wrote stories set narrowly within the US military. When he strayed beyond that, he sometimes seemed to lose the plot.

Speaking of plot: I may be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that Griffin was a discovery writer—that is, he did not compose from an outline, but simply wrote down the story as it came to him. This kind of writing makes for memorable characters, but occasionally ersatz and meandering plots.

The consumption of alcohol is a big part of Griffin’s stories and characters. I’m not talking about drunken bacchanals here, but simply the demonstrated conviction that a grown man must be properly lubricated with spirits at all hours of the day and night. This was no doubt a real part of the postwar military culture in which Griffin came of age.

Also, it’s very clear that Griffin never bothered with what are now called “sensitivity readers”. There is a scene in the The New Breed in which one of the characters actually describes a woman’s breasts as “knockers”. Regular readers of this blog will know that I loathe political correctness; but even I would think twice before using this word in an unironic manner.

W.E.B. Griffin’s work largely avoids the ever-vigilant gaze of the culture nannies, though, because the culture nannies don’t read much military fiction. (So please, don’t link to this blog post on Twitter. Okay?)

W. E. B. Griffin (1929 – 2019) lived to within a few months of his ninetieth birthday. This is probably a wonder, as most photos of the author show him to be rather rotund, and smoking a big stogie.

After a childhood split between New York and Philadelphia, Griffin joined the U.S. Army in 1946. He therefore missed World War II; but he was involved in the military occupation of Germany. He also served in the Korean War.

Griffin was modest about his own military career, however. He once told an interviewer, “My own military background is wholly undistinguished. I was a sergeant. What happened was that I was incredibly lucky in getting to be around some truly distinguished senior officers, sergeants, and spooks.”

Nevertheless, the level of detail in Griffin’s military novels could only come from an author who has actually served in uniform. These books are extremely popular with veterans, as well as less qualified readers like me—who never served, and sometimes regret their failure to do so. 

Most of the Brotherhood of War series was written during the 1980s (with the exception of the final installment, Special Ops, which came out in 2001). All of these books are still in print, however, and available on Amazon in multiple formats. Highly recommended to the veteran and nonveteran reader alike.

***View the Brotherhood of War series on Amazon***

I discovered Zane Grey

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to listen to audiobooks while I mow the lawn. This past weekend, I started listening to a new title, The Fugitive Trail, by Zane Grey. I had about four hours worth of yard work to do, so I made my way through about half of the novel.

I’ll confess that I’ve never been a big fan of westerns. This may be partly due to generational factors. I started watching television and movies in the 1970s, just as our culture was becoming more cynical and “ironic”. The post-Vietnam cultural shift diminished the market for the big John Wayne-style western, with all-American heroes, and unambiguous lines of good and evil. Watch a cowboy movie made prior to 1968 today, and you’ll find any number of violations of political correctness.

I’ve watched Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, the films he made with Italian director Sergio Leone during the Vietnam era. I generally like Clint Eastwood, but the antiheroes he plays in these films are not endearing. The John Wayne version of the cowboy, while arguably less realistic, is far more sympathetic.

Zane Grey (1872 – 1939) lived, wrote, and died long before our culture turned against itself in the 1960s. His most popular book, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) was published the year the Titanic sank…before World War I.

I’d been vaguely aware of Zane Grey for years, of course. I’ve been told that my paternal grandfather was an avid reader of Zane Grey’s novels. (He used to read them during his breaks on the night shift at Cincinnati Gas & Electric, according to my father.) But I’d never gotten around to reading any of his books myself.

Until I happened upon a discounted audiobook version of The Fugitive Trail, that is. I began the book prepared for anything—including the possibility that I might hate it. But as chance would have it, I liked the book a lot.

Zane Grey was a master of “pulp fiction”. He wrote fast-paced stories with passionate heroes and heroines, driven by universal human drives.

Speaking of modern sensibilities: The heroine of The Fugitive Trail, a young woman named Trinity Spencer, is no helpless damsel in distress. She takes the initiative in determining her own outcomes, and has no qualms about standing up to the men in her midst. Imagine that: popular fiction had strong women characters decades before anyone was “woke”.

That said, some of the language and dialogue in the book is dated, even clichéd. But that’s part of the fun.

Zane Grey probably won’t become my favorite author. This is fortunate, I suppose, since he’s been dead for 82 years and won’t be writing any more books. But The Fugitive Trail won’t be my last Zane Grey book, either. I already have my eye on the aforementioned Riders of the Purple Sage.

Check out The Fugitive Trail on  Audible.com

(BTW: While not a western novel as such, fans of western novels (and good vs. evil adventure tales) may want to check out my Kentucky crime novel, Blood Flats.)

Rereading Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’

Dr. Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, Lucy Westenra, Mina Harker…

I thought it was time to revisit the characters and world of the original Dracula.

I read this book once back in 1987, when I was nineteen. I enjoyed it then, and I liked it even better the second time around on audio. 

Here are a few random observations, in no particular order: Continue reading “Rereading Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’”

‘The Stand’: rereading update

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently started rereading The Stand, Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic novel of the “superflu” or “Captain Trips”. 

I also mentioned that I read the book for the first time back in the mid-1980s, when I was a high school student. (I believe I read it in the fall of my junior year, which would have been October~November 1984, more or less.) Continue reading “‘The Stand’: rereading update”

Rereading ‘Watership Down’

I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Richard Adams’s 1972 novel, Watership Down.

This is my third exposure to the story. I watched the animated version when I was a kid, back in the 1970s. Then, the summer after high school (1986), I read the book. This time around, I’m consuming it in bits and pieces, mostly listening as I perform other tasks. (Today I listened to about three hours of the book, while I cut two lawns.) Continue reading “Rereading ‘Watership Down’”

The Best Short Stories 2019

I like short stories, and so I am a habitual reader of the annual Best Short Stories collections, which are edited by Heidi Pitlor and a guest editor.

This series often leads me to the discovery of new writers whose work I enjoy. It was the 2007 edition (guest-edited by Stephen King) that introduced me to the work of the late William Gay (1941~2012). I went on to read all of of Gay’s published books after that. The 2007 collection  collection also features John Barth’s memorable tale on age and mortality, “Toga Party”. 

But we’re talking about the 2019 collection, guest-edited by Anthony Doerr. I listened to the audio version of the book. (I went through several stories while I was mowing my lawn and my dad’s lawn, in fact.)

This collection is very much a mixed bag. Some of these stories are (in my estimation, at least), pointlessly depressing, navel-gazing stories, while some are actually quite good. 

There are two well-known names in the collection: Jeffry Eugenides and Ursula K. LeGuin. I did not like either of their offerings. No big surprise in either case: I enjoyed Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot; but Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides both left me cold. And Ursula K. LeGuin’s work has never been to my taste.

That said, there are a handful of genuinely good stories in this collection—or stories that held my attention, anyway. These included Weike Wang’s “Omakase,”, Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters”, Mona Simpson’s “Wrong Object”, and Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Audition”. 

Don’t let my very mixed assessment of this very mixed collection dissuade you from giving it a try, if short stories are your thing. Any anthology containing work from different authors is going to be, by definition, uneven and punctuated with many ups and downs. While I did not like all the stories in this book, the good ones more than offset the ones that weren’t to my taste.

***

View The Best American Short Stories 2019 on Amazon

A story that scared me in 1977

I can recall the first time that I was actually scared by something that I read.

It was the summer of 1977. Somehow a book of short horror stories had come into my possession: Stories of Ghosts, Witches, and Demons. This slender 80-page volume, edited by Freya Littledale, was published by Scholastic in 1971.

Although I read the book cover-to-cover, I have forgotten all of the stories—except one: an especially creepy tale called, “The Demon of Detroit”.

This is the story of a married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Adams, who move into a house in the Motor City. They soon discover that they aren’t alone. Something horrible inhabits their back bedroom.

After a series of disturbing events, the couple decides to move out of the house. The last lines of the story are particularly haunting: They indicate that the Adamses “admit defeat”. Whatever lurks in the back bedroom will now have the rest of the home to itself, too.

The full text of the story (along with a clip of the artwork appearing in the original Scholastic publication) is available online. I do recognize the artwork. I can’t say for certain if the transcription of the 1971 text is one hundred percent faithful. (I was nine years old in 1977, after all.)

“The Demon of Detroit” seems to be based on an urban legend from the 1960s, which has enjoyed a modest contemporary revival. Urban legends, I’ve found, often make good source material for horror films and short stories, because urban legends are instantly relatable and easy to grasp. They aren’t overly complex. That’s important in horror film and fiction.

“The Demon of Detroit” also demonstrates the effectiveness of the short form in horror. This short story is perhaps a thousand words long. Obviously, they won’t all be that short. But as a rule of thumb with horror: the longer the story, the harder it is to maintain the suspension of disbelief. (Notice that Poe, Lovecraft, and even Stephen King are at their best when writing in the short form.)

“The Demon of Detroit” is a story that begins with a subtle atmosphere of darkness, and builds, over about a thousand words, to something truly malevolent.

“The Demon of Detroit” scared the bejesus out of me in 1977. I reread it today (the online version). It still brings a chill to my spine, forty-three years later.

‘The Night Fire’ and Renée Ballard

I’m reading Michael Connelly’s latest, The Night Fire, and it’s pretty good so far. (I’m about 2/3 through the book.)

This is Connelly’s third Renée Ballard book, and—if memory serves me—the second novel in which she teams up with retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

Like most Michael Connelly fans, I love the Harry Bosch novels. I’ve read every one of them.

The problem, though, is that Harry Bosch will be seventy this year. (Those of you who’ve read all the books have probably already done the math, too.) Bosch is a Vietnam vet and a Baby Boomer. He’s way past the age of a working detective. 

Connelly has kept Harry Bosch active for so long (my guesses) because a.) Bosch has been a lot of fun for him to write, and b.) Bosch has been very lucrative, both for Connelly and his publishers. 

But sooner or later, Harry had to retire. That meant that Connelly had to either find a new series detective, or revisit some of Bosch’s past adventures.

But the Bosch series has always been present-based, so I doubt that the second option was really an option. Connelly needed a new character…which brings us to Renée Ballard.

Renée Ballard is about as unlike Harry Bosch as she could be. She’s not only female, but also a Millennial. Whereas Harry was “old school” all the way, Renée Ballard shares the concerns of a stereotypical “woke” Millennial. (In the first Ballard novel, she scolds someone for accidentally misgendering a transgender crime victim.)

Part of Renée Ballard’s backstory is that she was sexually harassed by her former boss, Captain Olivas. This history, and the ongoing tensions between Ballard and Olivas, comprise a recurring element in the Ballard series so far.

The net result of all this is that the Renée Ballard novels have a very different feel than the earlier Harry Bosch novels. Connelly seems to be attempting to make the Ballard books at least partly focused on contemporary controversies. This was never a fixture of the Bosch books, which were apolitical police procedurals. 

Keep in mind that Renée Ballard is a fictional character. This means that she is not a real Millennial female detective, but rather, the image that a 63 year-old male writer has of a Millennial female detective, and Millennial women in general. 

I have to wonder if the lingering presence of Bosch in these novels isn’t indicative of a.) Connelly’s discomfort in writing in the unfamiliar headspace of a Millennial woman, or b.) Connelly’s fear that longtime Bosch fans won’t “get” Renée Ballard. 

Or c.)  maybe a little of both.

Only Michael Connelly knows the answer to that one, of course.

I have to wonder, though, if the author really made a good decision in picking a Bosch replacement who is a.) three decades younger than him, and b.) of a different gender.

Connelly might have felt the conscious need to make his next character a non-white-male type. When the first Bosch novel was published in 1992, the racial, gender, and sexual identities of fictional characters weren’t seen as matters of life and death. But times have changed. Perhaps Connelly didn’t want to be seen as an older white male author who only wrote about older white male detectives. Perhaps his publishers put pressure on him in this regard. 

I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that Harry Bosch was—and is—far easier for Michael Connelly to write. The Renée Ballard books are still good, but sometimes the reader gets the sense that Michael Connelly isn’t having quite as much fun writing Harry Bosch’s successor.

I could be wrong, but that’s what my gut tells me—as both a reader and a writer. 

What I’m reading: ‘Judgement’ by Joseph Finder

I love Joseph Finder’s corporate and legal conspiracy thrillers.

Some of you have asked me which authors I enjoy reading, which ones I look up to artistically.

Well, Joseph Finder is definitely on my A-list. His books have been a major influence behind several of my corporate conspiracy thrillers, including The Eavesdropper.

Finder doesn’t have quite the name recognition of a Clive Cussler or a David Baldacci, let alone James Patterson.

Finder’s books are categorized as thrillers, for bookstore shelving purposes, but what they really are is suspense.

That means fewer car chases and shootouts than you’ll find in something written by Patterson or Cussler. His books are highly entertaining, but they aren’t pure escapism. They are very lifelike. Patterson has said that he doesn’t do realism. Joseph Finder does do realism, and he does it quite well.

The typical Joseph Finder novel involves a lawyer or a corporate professional in an unusual situation, with lots of conflict and menace, but–I repeat–not the over-the-top action you’ll find in most thrillers.

Judgement is about a married female judge who is presiding over a sensitive, high-stakes case. One night while she’s out of town on business, she sleeps with a handsome stranger on a whim.

But that stranger is not who he appears to be. (Handsome and beautiful strangers in novels almost never are.)

***

Another thing about Finder’s books: They often involve intersections of crime, sex, and business.

Good stuff, all the way. I’m reading Judgement on my exercise bike each morning. Great entertainment for those 5:00 a.m. rides in the basement!

Family ties, external threats, compelling fiction

I am reading Greg Iles’s kidnap-for-ransom novel, 24 Hours (2000), for the second time. 

I first read the book in 2009. I usually wait at least ten years before I reread any title. (I only subject my favorite books to rereads; there is simply too much new stuff to devour.) The first time I read 24 Hours, I gobbled up the 415-page novel over the course of a weekend. This time, it will take me a full three days.

24 Hours is that good. I won’t explain the whole plot here. (Amazon and Wikipedia have already covered that ground.) But you already know, more or less, based on my description above: kidnap-for-ransom.

Here are a few more details: Will and Karen Jennings are an affluent Mississippi couple. (He’s an anesthesiologist.) A gang of three criminals—two men and one woman—kidnap the Jennings’s diabetic daughter, Abby, for ransom. If the gang doesn’t get what they want, they will murder the Jennings’s young daughter.

24 Hours is a superbly written, page-turning book; but no one would call its premise original. You’ve seen and read multiple interpretations of the kidnap-for-ransom plot, probably including the 1996 Mel Gibson film, Ransom. The movie Ransom came out four years before 24 Hours was published, so Ransom may have influenced 24 Hours. That wouldn’t surprise me. 

Story concepts can’t be copyrighted, of course—for good reason. We certainly haven’t seen our last interpretation of the kidnap-for-ransom story, also for good reason. If these plots are executed with any reasonable level of skill, they make compelling film and fiction. A kidnap-for-ransom plot involves family, an external threat, and a series of best-worst choices. There are the makings of a good story, right in front of you. 

The flat-footedness of officialdom is also a fixture of the kidnap-for-ransom plot. In all of these stories, the authorities are unable to satisfactorily resolve the situation, regardless of whether or not they are informed or involved. Someone from within the family (usually a parent) therefore has to do what the authorities cannot or will not do.

In this regard, the kidnap-for-ransom tale is also delightfully reactionary. Hillary Clinton once told us, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This earned her cooing praise from the left, and eye-rolling disdain from the right. 

The kidnap-for-ransom story is telling you that you can’t ultimately depend on the village, the village elders, or the village police. The kidnap-for-ransom plot is telling you that it takes a committed parent—and not a consensus-driven village—to save a child’s life when all the chips are down. 

Don’t trust the authorities, in other words. Don’t trust “society”. Rely on your own wits, and do what you must in order to save your child. 

View 24 Hours by Greg Iles on Amazon.

Why you should read Stephen King’s short story collection, Night Shift

I discovered Stephen King in 1984, when I serendipitously picked up a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot in my high school’s library.

I was immediately hooked. I set out to read everything King had published to that time–which was considerable, even in 1984.

My initial instinct was to focus on King’s novels. I read The Dead Zone and Cujo, The Shining, and (of course) The Stand.

Oh, yes, and Carrie. I liked Carrie a lot.

I was methodically working my way through the King oeuvre. I mostly did this by going through the books on the library shelves. (There was no Wikipedia, no Internet, in 1984, you’ll remember.) After I’d read all of the Stephen King novels I could find, I came across this other book: Night Shift.

Night Shift, I immediately discovered, was not another novel, but a collection of short stories.

I was a bit skeptical–as much as I already loved Stephen King. My experience with short stories thus far had been limited to assigned readings in my high school English class.

I had a teacher that year who was obsessed with Ernest Hemingway. He particularly loved “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. This is a story in which an old man has a drink in a cafe, and two waiters talk about him. Another Hemingway story, “Hills Like White Elephants”, consists of an oblique conversation about how an unmarried couple will handle an unwanted pregnancy.

Hemingway’s short stories bored me to tears. I couldn’t relate to the old man in the cafe in “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”. I was fifteen, after all. And at that age I hadn’t even had sex for the first time yet, so the roundabout conversation between the man and the woman in “Hills Like White Elephants” left me cold, too.

I’m a bit older now, and I’ve acquired some appreciation for the short stories of Hemingway. (Hemingway really isn’t the best choice for younger readers.) But at that time, my readings of literary short fiction had convinced me that short stories were little more than pretentious vignettes in which nothing much happens.

Nevertheless, I took a chance on Night Shift. I was glad I did.

Night Shift was–and still is–filled with short stories that grab you from the get-go. Stephen King’s forte, I had already discovered, was to transform the ordinary into something dark and magical. The stories in Night Shift accomplished this just as adroitly as King’s novels.

Take, for example, the story “I Know What You Need”. This is a story about a popular young woman named Elizabeth Rogan, who finds herself inexplicably attracted to a social misfit named Ed Hamner, Jr. As the title implies, Ed always seems to know what Elizabeth needs.

But there is a dark secret behind Ed Hamner’s intuition. What is it? I’m certainly not going to ruin “I Know What You Need” by telling you here.

The events in “I Know What You Need” take a supernatural turn, but the initial setup is something that everyone can relate to. You meet a stranger who simultaneously attracts you and arouses your suspicion. Who hasn’t been in that situation?

And then there is “Quitters, Inc.” This tale concerns an agency that uses highly unusual methods to help people stop smoking. There are no ghosts in this one; but King does present a unique spin on bad habits…and how difficult it is for us to give them up.

“Quitters, Inc.”, just like “I Know What You Need”, is immediately accessible. Everyone has struggled with a bad habit of some kind. That might not be smoking, in your case: Maybe it’s gambling, or overspending, or overeating, or watching Internet porn. Unless you’re a very unusual person, you have at least one bad habit. What would it take to get you to quit yours?

One of the best stories in this book is “Jerusalem’s Lot”, which is written in the same fictional universe as King’s novel, Salem’s Lot. Like the novel of a similar name, “Jerusalem’s Lot” has vampires. But these aren’t sissified, teenage girl heartthrob vampires, like you’ll find in Stephanie Meyer’s crime against vampire fiction, Twilight. These are real vampires: dark, evil, and very, very scary.

Some of the stories in Night Shift have been made into movies. I am here to tell you that the movies haven’t been nearly as good as Stephen King’s stories.

To cite just one example: Maximum Overdrive, which hit the theaters in 1986. The only good thing to come out of Maximum Overdrive was the AC/DC song, “Who Made Who”. The film adaptation of “Sometimes They Come Back”, made in 1991, is a little better. But not by much.

Read the stories. Ignore the Hollywood cash-grab film versions.

All of these stories involve matters of life and death (as all great fiction does); but not all of them contain elements of the macabre or the highly unusual. Two stories in particular, “The Woman in the Room”, and “The Last Rung on the Ladder” are stories that “could happen” without violating any of the rules of what we call “the real world”. Nevertheless, these stories involve real elements of suspense; and they both conclude with an emotional gut-punch.

I am a longtime Stephen King fan, but I am not an uncritical one. I haven’t hesitated to pan some of his clunkers. Cell, Lisey’s Story, and that horrid doorstop, Under the Dome, stand out among Stephen King’s turkeys. (Hey, the guy has been professionally writing since Richard Nixon was president; not all of his stuff can be brilliant.)

Even King himself admits that The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher leave much to be desired. I personally prefer the “old”(pre-1986, pre-It) Stephen King books to the newer ones. The Outsider (2018) has been on my bedside reading table for months now. The Outsider is a book worth reading, but not one that keeps me compulsively turning the pages.

But Night Shift is that good. These stories were all written when Stephen King was a relatively unknown writer, before he had become a “brand”. King wrote most of them for publication in men’s magazines. To put the matter crudely, these stories had to vie for male attention with photos of nude and scantily clad young women. They therefore had to hook readers from the very first paragraph.

And since they were originally written for magazine publication, not a word could be wasted. Every story in Night Shift is taut and economically written. There is no hint in Night Shift of the bloated literary style that would eventually emerge in the 850-page, indulgently overwritten 11/23/63.

I envy you, in a way, if you are new to Night Shift. I have read these stories so many times, that I now take the events in them for granted. I will always admire these tales, but I can no longer read them with virgin eyes.

But perhaps you can. If you haven’t read Night Shift, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of this book.

And while you’re here…Be sure to check out my FREE short horror stories and other online fiction!

James Clavell’s novels ranked

Which James Clavell novels are the “best”? And which ones should you read first?

James Clavell (1921 -1994) was an author of adventure/suspense novels set in Asia. His Asian Saga consists of a group of six novels. These books feature overlapping characters, and a fictional trading company, Noble House:

King Rat (1962)
Tai-Pan (1966)
Shōgun (1975)
Noble House (1981)
Whirlwind (1986)
Gai-Jin (1993)

What are these books about?

Good question. Here is a (very) brief explanation of each:

King Rat

Set in Changi Prison (in Singapore) during WWII, this is Clavell’s first novel. At around 400 pages, it is also Clavell’s shortest novel.

King Rat is semi-autobiographical. Clavell himself was a POW of the Japanese during WWII, and was interned in Changi Prison.

**View James Clavell’s King Rat on Amazon**

Tai-Pan

This is the story of Dirk Struan, the founder of the Noble House trading company. This story takes place during the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

**View Tai-Pan on Amazon**

Shōgun

Shōgun is the tale of a British navigator who crashes on Japanese shores around the year 1600. He becomes involved in the unification of feudal Japan.

Clavell borrows heavily from Japanese history in Shōgun. This isn’t exactly a historical novel, though, as Clavell modifies names and dates to suit his story. 

The real history involved here is the biography of Anjin Miura (William Adams), a British navigator who really did shipwreck on Japanese shores during a typhoon. Another real historical inspiration for Shōgun is the story of Japan’s unification under the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1600s.

But once again…Shōgun is fiction inspired by history, not a historical novel. There is a big difference!

**View Shōgun on Amazon**

Noble House 

In Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Ian Dunross is the CEO—or tai-pan—of Dirk Struan’s Noble House (which, in the mid-20th century, has become a multinational trading firm).

Noble House is a huge novel, weighing in at about 1,300 pages. The book is filled with gangsters, bold business executives, and seductive women.

I enjoyed reading Noble House. I also enjoyed watching the 1988 NBC miniseries adaptation, starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin.

Whirlwind

Easily the darkest of Clavell’s novels, Whirlwind is set in Iran in 1979, at the height of the Islamic Revolution.

Clavell is sometimes criticized for his “orientalism”: All of his books to some extent pander to Western fantasies about Asia. In Clavell’s novels, every Chinese merchant is an ultra-savvy trader who simultaneously plays a dozen different angles. Asian women are all sloe-eyed embodiments of submissive femininity.

In his books about China and Japan, however, Clavell openly admires the cultures he depicts, even if some of his depictions seem simplistic or politically incorrect to “progressive” twenty-first century readers. If Clavell stereotypes the cultures of Japan and China, he does so with the intent to praise, not belittle.

Clavell clearly does not admire Iranian culture, or the culture of Islam, however. While not all of the Iranian characters in Whirlwind are scoundrels and fanatics, many of them are. 

Make of that what you will. But there is no denying that Whirlwind has a different tone than Clavell’s other books. 

Gai-Jin

This was the last novel Clavell completed before his death in 1994. Gai-Jin takes place in Japan in 1862, as the country is struggling with new forces of westernization.

Do you have to read them in order?

No. The novels of the Asian Saga do not have to be read sequentially. Each one is a more or less self-contained story. You can read them in any order you choose without missing much.

So…which one is the “best” then?…And which one should you read first?

Tai-pan and Shōgun are generally regarded to be the “best” books of the Asian Saga. 

In this case, I have to agree with the general consensus (a relatively rare occurrence for me). BothTai-pan and Shōgun are readily accessible to the first-time reader, long enough to be satisfying, but still page-turners.

You might start with either of these.

King Rat is a good novel, but it’s also a small story set in a very narrow environment. 

Oh—and no female characters to speak of. If you aren’t interested in an all-male story set in a WWII prison camp, you might not like this one as much as Clavell’s bigger novels. 

King Rat is, as I mentioned, semi-autobiographical. This was obviously a story that Clavell wanted to tell, needed to tell—and he tells it superbly. But it is a narrowly set story. 

One of the themes of King Rat is the necessity of adapting your ideals to the realities of an often cruel and unforgiving world. I read this book when I was nineteen going on twenty, just making the transition from late adolescence to full adulthood. Many of the book’s insights were useful to me at that time, and they are still with me today.

I would recommend that you do read King Rat; but I strongly recommend that you read it after you read Tai-Pan and Shōgun, and you have a full appreciation for Clavell’s work.

Noble House, Whirlwind, and Gai-jin are good books, but for James Clavell “completists” only.

(I’m a James Clavell completist, so I read all three.)

Each of these books is over 1,000 pages. I mean—come on! If a book is over 1,000 pages, it had better be awesome, right? 

These books are good, but they aren’t “awesome”. Noble House is the best of the three. Both Whirlwind and Gai-jin have a tendency to drag in the middle. Whirlwind in particular has too many characters, too many subplots. 

I came to these three novels after reading Tai-pan, Shōgun, and King Rat. Had I started with Gai-jin, for example, I don’t think I would have been motivated to continue with Clavell’s fiction.

Anyway, such is my assessment of the Asian Saga.

I think you’ll love this series—especially if you like the idea of historical suspense set in Asia. But do yourself a favor, and start with either Tai-pan or Shogun.

***

For fans of James Clavell…

THE CONSULTANT

A beautiful woman with a secret.
A coup in North Korea.
A lone American trapped inside the world’s most tyrannical regime.
He has one goal: escape at any cost!

Preview THE CONSULTANT on Amazon

Or preview it below!

My guiltiest book pleasure

And no, it isn’t pornography.

I don’t ordinarily go in for “chick lit”; but I have to admit that Emily Giffin sure tells a good story, even if her books don’t contain any car chases or shootouts.

I am presently enjoying her latest novel, All We Ever Wanted.

I’ll gladly give you this recommendation. Just don’t tell any of my male friends about this, okay? And certainly not the guys at the gym…