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.