Something Wicked This Way Comes By Ray Bradbury

Not only was he one of the kings of science fiction, Ray Bradbury wrote horror. There is no better example of that than his short novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show rolls into town late one October night, long after the carnivals and circuses have packed it in for the year. Two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who think nothing of sneaking out and running around at 3 in the morning, hear a godawful eerie train whistle in the wee hours. They slip down their respective downspouts, dash across a meadow, and witness a demonic carnival setting up at the edge of town. This might not go so well.

The next day, flyers go up for Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. The carnival in the daylight is not the carnival they saw going up. Nor are the attractions what they seem. Particularly creepy is a hall of mirrors, which shows visitors frightening versions of themselves that are more than just distorted reflections. What scares the boys the most, though, is their encounter with Mr. Dark, who runs the show. They watch Dark run a merry-go-round backwards, completely with Chopin’s funeral march played in reverse, as Cooger rides it and ages backwards.

Most frightening is a dwarf they encounter. At the story’s beginning, the boys run into a lightning rod salesman. When they see the dwarf, they realize he’s actually the lightning rod salesman, who seems to have disappeared. They also witness Cooger accidentally riding the merry-go-round in the other direction, aging too far forward to where he’s alive, yet mummified. Dark keeps him alive by putting him in an electric chair.

Dark soon realizes the boys, and Mr. Halloway, Will’s father, are a threat. He does not confront them in a church, where you would expect an incarnation of evil to do battle. They do it in Mr. Halloway’s place of worship: A library. But Dark’s power lies in seduction coupled with sucking all the joy out of the town. While chasing the boys, he and his menagerie of captive freaks march into town, their revelry only thinly concealing their malevolence. But if it’s fear and despair that Dark thrives on, it’s unmitigated joy that causes him extreme pain. Laughter – genuine laughter, not the wicked laugh Dark indulges in – is kryptonite to this ancient creature.

Something Wicked is about a Midwest that long since vanished by the time Bradbury brought this to press in 1961. It seems the story takes place at the tail end of the Depression, when World War II was little more than a rumor, but the economic upheaval of the past decade was slowly fading, a brief lull between the storms. But Bradbury is tipping his hat to Lovecraft. One supposes that Mr. Dark, he of the living tattoos, could take his place among Lovecraft’s elder gods. But it’s also a transitional story from the damp dark of Lovecraft’s obsession with madness to Stephen King’s horror as a backdrop to the real monsters already in people’s lives. There’s a little bit of this story in “The Body”/Stand By Me and Salem’s Lot. There even exists a thread of Something Wicked in Harry Potter as past evil returns periodically, like Voldermort did after succeeding Grindelwald as the creeping evil within the wizarding world.

But there’s a certain innocence to this story the later stories aren’t capable of. King’s work all exists in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, continuing through America’s industrial fade and the War on Terror. Rowling writes her stories in a Britain that’s become jaded since the Cold War, less sure than the two superpowers as to what its role is.

Bradbury gives us fear and loathing in a time that ironically makes us feel young again, and without the benefit of that Satanic merry-go-round.

Thursday Book Reviews: 9/30

Different Seasons

Stephen King

Stephen King wrote this collection of four non-supernatural novellas when his editor asked him if all he did was horror. The answer was no, and the result was three classes and an odd little story about a woman who wanted to give birth no matter what.

The collection opens with what eventually became a cinematic classic, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” Taking place in Maine’s Shawshank prison, inmate Red narrates the story of Andy, a man who somehow manages to game the system within the prison walls. Andy figures out how to stop “the Sisters” from attacking him, to keep his own cell to himself, and, eventually, how to escape from Shawshank. Andy might have got out legitimately when he found out, but the warden had too good a thing going follow up on it.

Second is “Apt Pupil,” where a bright teenage boy develops a bizarre parasitic relationship with a Nazi war criminal who is hiding out in the neighborhood. It does not end well for either of them.

“The Body” is better known as the movie Stand By Me, and establishes a pattern that frequently shows up in King’s later work, childhood friends transitioning to adulthood through a bizarre experience.  In this case, they find out about a dead body off nearby railroad tracks. Just getting to the body is an adventure.

The only remotely supernatural story is the final novella, “The Breathing Method.” A doctor tells a story to his gentlemen’s club about a young unwed mother who comes to him for help. There is a tragic accident at the end that the woman overcomes in a rather strange manner.

All four of these show that King does more than spin tails of angry telepaths, vampires, and haunted houses. In fact, you can’t really read Different Seasons and not realize that the horror elements are secondary in King’s other work.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Mary Roach, read by Sandra Burr

Science writer Mary Roach found that planning for the eventual mission to Mars is not easy. Oh, there are the obvious problems of fuel, weight, food, etc. But there are more pressing needs that, after 50 years of manned space flight, still challenge NASA, the Russians, and all the other space programs in the world. Like…

How do you handle BO? Can you stand being cooped up in a tin can with the same people for more than six months? How do you keep your bones from snapping when you return to Earth? What do you do with all that poop? And on a two-year mission with mixed-gender crews, what’s the best way to do the nasty in zero-G. (Hint: It really hasn’t been tried, urban legends to the contrary.) Roach seemed bemused by her research, an attitude conveyed nicely by reader Burr. Packing for Mars is not a stuffy scientific tome where some scientist promises you flying cars by 2020. Mary Roach comes off as a female Mike Rowe, talking about the dirty jobs involved in going to another planet.

The Game Changer

A.G. Lafley and Ram Charan

In 2000, consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble’s stock tanked. AG Lafley found himself thrust into the role of CEO at a time when many employees found themselves missing half their 401k’s and the company teetering. So how did Lafley turn things around?

He realized that, like many of the dotcom companies imploding around the same time, P&G was focusing on the wrong things. It had become a company focused on cost control and growth through acquisition. That’s not how Microsoft, Google, and Apple became big. They became big by innovation. Lafley realized that P&G could only survive and grow if it innovated as well. So how does a maker of laundry soap and potato chips and feminine pads innovate?

It’s a bit complicated to go into, but Lafley told his employees to do something you’d think would be obvious: Listen to the consumers. He also started taking a machete to P&G’s “not invented here” attitude towards partnering with outside companies.

A bit dry at times, and really geared towards senior managers in large companies, The Game Changer still points out some fundamental flaws in modern capitalism, such as the antiquated notion that competitors should be squashed at all costs. If P&G had that attitude, those two towers in downtown Cincinnati would be available for rent.

Ebookery: IJ Parker

IJ Parker is an author more associated with print.  However, in the past year or so, she’s been rather vocal on Crimespace about moving into ebooks. She is best known for her medieval Japanese series about Law Ministry clerk Sugawara Atikada, who must support his father’s family by investigating crimes that sometimes lie outside his jurisdiction. She stopped by to talk to us about her transition to the electronic world.

First off, tell us a little bit about Akitada Sugawara and his world.

Akitada belongs to an old family that has fallen on hard times.  Because he excelled at the university, he got a position in the Ministry of Justice where he suffers under a number of hateful and incompetent ministers.  An innate sense of justice and his curiosity get him involved in criminal cases, and over the years he has built a certain reputation.  But Akitada is not an amateur sleuth.  His law training and his official position make him a part of law enforcement of his time.

In a larger sense, Heian Japan was ruled by emperors and governed by senior nobles.  A class system existed and distinctions were observed.  There were huge differences between the ruling class and the poor in education and wealth.  However, until the end of the 12 th century, the nation was stable, largely peaceful, and highly advanced in the arts.  In many ways, it outshone the European Middle Ages, particularly in prose fiction.  Lady Murasaki’s GENJI is the first novel in the world.
What attracted you to this particular setting?

I was reading the Japanese literature of this time for a college class I was thinking of teaching, and was impressed with the sophistication of the people.

Japan during what was Europe’s Middle Ages is an unusual setting for this type of novel. What attracted you to the Heian period and culture?

See above.  Also, the best historical mysteries up until that time (I started in the mid-eighties) were the Judge Dee novels by Robert Van Gulik.  I wanted to do something similar for Japan.

You’re started to move into the ebook realm.  What motivated you to step into that arena?

I have been traditionally published by the big houses (St. Martin’s Press and Penguin).  I have also been published by a good smaller publisher (Severn House).  Under none of those venues did the series fare well.  The reason was most likely a lack of promotion.  But over the years I have gathered many fans who love the books, and I have wonderful reviews and one award.  Even so, without aggressive promotion by a publishing house a series like mine cannot succeed.  Add to this that my e-royalties from my publishers are infinitesimal and I that I have no control over pricing to get decent sales.  I also have no control over covers and many other aspects.  All of this creates a recipe for failure.  Fortunately, a couple of e-rights returned to me and I held on to two more recently.  Thus, the venture into self-publishing electronically began.

What challenges have you had around getting into ebooks?

My agent’s office has handled the electronic publications so far.  They have been good to me in the past, and I was determined to cut them in on the deals.  But it’s taken me a year to convince them that this was a legitimate option we should pursue.  So I’m coming to this rather late when others have already moved to the top.

What role does print play in your future plans?

The Akitada series will continue in print if at all possible.  I have too many fans who still like books, and there is the library market.  Other books may well exist only electronically, at least for a while.  Like many other authors, I hope that publishing will see the light and offer authors fairer contracts in the future.  Until then, I plan to hold on to e-rights.

What is next up for you?

Number 9 in the Akitada series, A DEATH ON AN AUTUMN RIVER, is currently with publishers.  I’m working on number 10.  I’m also writing short stories again.  Hopefully AHMM is still interested in me.  Besides, I’m watching the historical trilogy HOLLOW REED, just released on Kindle and doing quite well.  Another historical novel is on a back burner, waiting to see what develops.  And, who knows, I may try my hand at a new series, a modern police procedural this time.

Banned Books Week – Banned Books I’ve Read

This week (September 24 – October 1) is Banned Books Week, in which we highlight the misguided efforts by some to save the world from F bombs, boy wizards, and (*shudder*) independent thinking. People who usually want to ban books also lie awake at night in a cold sweat worried that someone somewhere is having fun.

So, in the spirit of Banned Books Week, and to rub these people’s nose in it, here’s a list of frequently challenged books I’ve read over the years:

  • The entire Harry Potter series
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Slaughterhouse 5
  • Fahrenheit 451
  • Catcher in the Rye
  • Cujo
  • A Light in the Attic
  • Carrie
  • The Dead Zone
  • The Joy of Sex

No Good Deeds By Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman continues to shake up her Tess Monaghan series, this time by focusing on her boyfriend, Crow. In No Good Deeds, life is good for Tess and Crow. He works for her father’s bar. She now has a thriving, if occasionally struggling, private investigation service. Crow even does good by recycling restaurant leftovers for the local homeless pantries.

So when Crow takes in a homeless boy named Lloyd Jupiter, little do any of them – Crow, Tess, or Lloyd – realize the storm they’ve just walked into. Lloyd recognizes the name, but not the face, of a murdered assistant US Attorney who case remains unsolved. When Tess pries some info out of Lloyd as a favor to her former employers at the Baltimore Beacon-Light, all three become the target of three vengeful feds – Assistant US Attorney Gabe Dabresio, FBI agent Barry Jenkins, and DEA agent Micheal Collins. The three are relentless and turn Tess’s life upside down trying to get her to reveal Lloyd’s name. When someone else is killed in Lloyd’s stead, Crow takes it upon himself to spirit Lloyd away, using ideas he gets from The Wire. (Hinted at, but not named, for reasons that will shortly become obvious.)

Lippman began shaking up the series with The Last Place, a serial killer novel that could very well have been a finale for the series if she so chose. The novel tied up the first six novels in a bow and added some depth to Tess’s backstory. With By A Spider’s Thread, a detective story became the framework for something much larger. Lippman painted on a much wider canvass, getting into the heads of several characters, including a poor kidnapped boy who knew he was in “one of the I states”.

No Good Deeds pulls back to a more straightforward crime novel. The hook here is Crow, a character I couldn’t really connect with in previous novels. Here, Crow has a whole backstory, a life of his own. He goes from being The Boyfriend (which I admit is an unfair assessment, but every series has a character one reader or another doesn’t quite feel) to driving the story. Crow is in over his head, knows it, and yet keeps running, trying to do all the right things.

Lippman is married to David Simon, who produced The Wire, in production when this was written. The cross-pollination between the two series shows itself from time to time, most openly in The Wire‘s final season with Lippman as an actual character, along with two cops from her standalone books appearing in a scene with McNulty. In this book, the cross pollination is more subtle. Many of the snatches of dialog and the behavior of certain cops and street thugs come straight out of the HBO series. And while it’s an obvious source for Crow to draw inspiration from to pull off his disappearing act, Lippman is very careful not to overtly mention it by name. It does give No Good Deeds a slightly different feel from the other books in the series.

Overall, I like this book. It doesn’t have the dramatic punch of By A Spider’s Thread (Still my favorite Laura Lippman novel to date) or the scathing bite of Another Thing to Fall (where you learn that not every show that comes to Baltimore loves Baltimore like The Wire.) But it propels the series onward, teasing out more threads of Tess Monaghan’s world, and giving Crow his own stage to shine.

Rutherford B. Hayes

In going through the presidents, I have reached the Gilded Age. Or, as I like to call it, the Anonymous Facial Hair Period. Starting with Grant, who is more famous for gaining Lee’s surrender than his tenure in the White House, we have a series of presidents who are largely anonymous to most people today. Millard Fillmore may be the president who is famous for being anonymous, but drop the name Chester Arthur in a conversation. Or Benjamin Harrison. Watch the eyes glaze over as, more often than not, people will say, “Who?”

Garfield’s claim to fame is getting shot. Grover Cleveland is remembered for being two presidents (the 22nd and 24th) and for sharing a name with a city, ironically Garfield’s hometown. All these men seem to be remembered for their mustaches and beards than their leadership.

Not that they weren’t any good. Arthur attacked the very corruption in civil service that made his political career. Harrison signed a bill that gave Standard Oil, IBM, ATT, and Microsoft fits: The Sherman Anti-Trust Bill.

And then there’s our 19th chief executive, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, he of the three last names. “Rudd,” as he was known (I always wondered about that), was a lawyer from Ohio who found his way into politics in the years before the Civil War. Starting out as a Whig, Hayes soon joined the new Republican Party. His attitude prior to Ft. Sumter was to tell the Southern states leaving the Union to not let the door hit them on the way out. Ft. Sumter changed his mind. A rising star in Cincinnati politics – one of three Ohio cities where he established himself – Hayes dropped everything to enlist in the Union Army.  He soon found himself under the command of John Fremont fighting on the West Virginia front. During the war, he was nominated for Congress. When encouraged even by his commanders to drop everything to campaign for the office, Hayes refused, pointing out that there was a war on, and he’d resign his commission if elected.

He needn’t have worried. The war ended before Hayes had to take his seat in the House.

Hayes became governor of Ohio, a job he held when he was nominated for president in 1876. And it’s the election of 1876 where Hayes draws his most common comparison to a more recent president: George W. Bush. The contest between Hayes, a Republican, and his opponent, New York governor Samuel Tilden, came down to Florida. And the vote was called into question. By the popular vote, Tilden had won, but presidents are elected by the electoral college, not the popular vote. So, did the vote go to the House of Representatives?

No, it went to a bipartisan commission setup by the House to avoid endless votes, revotes, and filibustering. The commission picked Hayes, who said he would only serve a single term and end military occupation in the South. However, whenever someone enters the White House without a popular vote victory (like John Quincy Adams), no matter how legal, there are howls of outrage. Indeed, the new president found himself with the rather unflattering nickname “Rutherfraud B. Hayes,” a moniker that dogged him until his death.

The good news is no one blew up any iconic buildings on his watch, nor was the US embroiled in any major foreign adventures. Unfortunately, like Martin Van Buren before him, Hayes began his term with a major depression. How bad? At the start of the Great Depression, the Panic of 1877 was referred to as “The Great Depression.” However, unlike Herbert Hoover over fifty years later, Hayes was relentless in shoring up the Treasury by forcing the country to use gold to back its currency. (Fiat money, what nations use today, was still a long way off from being ready for prime time.) Hayes also attacked the spoils system, a treasured Washington tradition since the days of Andrew Jackson.

His record on labor was mixed. He broke up a railroad strike with federal troops, but then turned on business demanding that they treat the cause of the problem now that he treated the symptom.

One of the things Hayes did that was not nearly as controversial as it was in pre-Civil War America was the use of the veto. His opponents, many of them in his own party, attempted to force Hayes to enact their policies by attaching riders to bills the president found palatable or necessary. And Hayes stamped his veto on them until the offending riders disappeared. For that, the man accused of fraudulently taking the White House was given respect by many of his accusers.

Many people compare Hayes to his successor a century later, Jimmy Carter. It’s probably not a bad comparison in some ways. Carter’s low-key, unpretentious style restored a damaged Oval Office after the debacle that was Watergate. Similarly, Hayes, with his vivacious – if temperate – First Lady “Lemonade Lucy” Hayes, brought an affable, relaxed atmosphere to a White House still reeling from Grant’s scandal-ridden administration. Though Carter’s administration is seen as a failure, the public rewarded Hayes by electing his anointed heir, James Garfield. To take it a step further, Hayes’ one-time rival Chester Arthur took up the cause of civil service reform upon Garfield’s death, a pleasant surprise for Hayes, who once fired Arthur as customs collector for New York because of his ties to party boss Roscoe Conkling.

So it is true that Rudd Hayes was not our most spectacular president. Indeed, his biggest regret, failure to protect the newly freed blacks of the South after the end of Reconstruction, remains a blemish on his record. But America did not need a Lincoln in the Gilded Age. It needed an honest, likeable guy to basically keep the country from flying off the rails. No 10-Point Plan, New Deal, New Frontier, or trickle-down economics. Hayes simply plugged away for his single term, then retired quietly.

Not seeing anyone like that running for 2012, but we live in a jaded time.

Women Of Mystery Giving Away Road Rules

You have until tomorrow evening to snag yourself a free copy of Road Rules from the Women of Mystery blog. Terrie Farley Moran says, “This novel is definitely a cross between the screwball movie “It’s a Mad, Mad Mad Mad World” and Jimmy Breslin’s hilarious book, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” Yep, Road Rules is that kind of funny.”

Leave a comment at Terrie’s post, and I will pick one at random by 5 PM Eastern, which gives you a free copy.

(Hint: Make sure we can find you if I do pick your entry.  Makes emailing it a tad easier.)

And if you don’t win, it’s only 99 cents on Amazon, BN, and Smashwords.