Saturday, March 11, 2017

DMI2017, Week10: "Children of the Corn" by Stephen King

This week I had another blast from the past with another story from the Stephen King collection Night Shift, chosen for me by the Five of Spades.

  


Burt and Vicky Robeson have a marriage in trouble. They're ostensibly in the middle of a road trip to see Vicky's brother, but in reality they are trying to save their marriage by being cooped up in a car together for 1500 miles plus. And it's not going terribly well when they leave the turnpike and get lost somewhere in Nebraska, "three hundred miles of corn," as Burt quips.

But lest we get too mired in the Robesons' marital problems, King almost immediately turns up the heat. While arguing about the road map with Vicky, Burt hits something in the road that he hopes is a dog. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a young man whose throat has been cut. Although they are definitely freaked out at this point, Burt and Vicky decide to take the boy's body to the nearest town and alert the local police.

Here's where the weirdness begins, however. The nearest town is called Gatlin, and immediately upon arriving there, Burt and Vicky know something is very wrong. For one thing, it appears deserted, and not just recently deserted -- like 10 or 15 years deserted. Prices on gas pumps are way out of date, and a calendar Burt and Vicky find in a diner reads August 1964. And yet, on the way into town they heard a local radio preacher broadcasting, and the sign on the town church has a sermon title dated the Sunday before. So there ARE people in Gatlin, but something is off for sure.

When Burt goes into the church, leaving Vicky alone outside in the car (his second mistake, right after the one where he stops in Gatlin), he rapidly understands what is wrong. The town is in the clutches of a religious cult that worships someone -- or something -- that lives in the cornfields surrounding the town. And judging from a book he finds in the church, this cult makes regular sacrifices to this something, with the result that there is no one in the town older than 19. Everyone else has been murdered or sacrificed.

And now things really heat up, as a flock of murderous children (the Children of the Corn in the story's title) descend upon the car outside the church and try to kill Vicky. Burt tries to help her but is chased into the cornfields, where he eventually comes across some very disturbing things, including the something that lives out there.

This is a suspenseful, horrifying story that is classic King in every way. The story was the basis of a 1984 movie by the same name, and which spawned eight sequels according to Wikipedia. I haven't seen any of them, but the original movie is readily available on YouTube, as well as the trailer:


Anyway, I highly recommend this story and it's well worth five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Friday, March 3, 2017

DMI2017, Week 9: "Most Things Haven't Worked Out" by William Boyle

Nine weeks in, the Three of Clubs takes me to a new collection for the first time. Mississippi Noir, edited by Tom Franklin, is a collection of noir stories set in various places in Mississippi. It's a volume in the Akashic Noir series, which was previously unknown to me. This series started in 2004 with the publication of Brooklyn Noir, with stories all set in and around Brooklyn. The series has expanded to dozens of titles at this point, covering cities and locations all over the globe. Methinks it's excellent fodder for future iterations of Deal Me In!

  

This week's story, "Most Things Haven't Worked Out," takes place in Holly Springs, Mississippi. It's a small city in north Mississippi, just south of the border with Tennessee. The protagonist, a 15-year-old named Jalen, is a loner and outcast who spends a lot of his time watching movies at the library. But one day an employee from the nearby Audubon Center (a real location in Holly Springs) comes to the library and gives a presentation on birds. This is Miss Mary, who becomes the object of Jalen's fascination. Part of the fascination is the fact that she has moved to Mississippi from New York, a magical place in Jalen's mind. Mary befriends Jalen and invites him to the Center for a day of fun activities, just the two of them. He takes her up on the offer and they spend the day together, talking about their lives and experiences. It turns out that Mary is something of an outcast and loner as well -- she has moved to Mississippi for a reason, and it wasn't a good one, evidently.

It's not long before we begin to get an inkling of what that reason was. Mary's mother, Edna, suddenly shows up, and she's not happy. She has tracked Mary all the way from New York, so we learn that Mary is in hiding from something bad. Mostly that something bad is Edna -- she's a rough character who killed Mary's father for insurance money. But then Mary took the money and made off with it to Mississippi. She tells Edna she has buried it on the Audubon Center's property somewhere, so Edna embarks on a mission to "convince" Mary to tell her where the money is hidden. Mostly this involves torturing Jalen, who is suddenly caught up in the middle of all this darkness.

The story spirals downward, of course, being a noir story, and there's no redemption for anyone except possibly Mary, who does finally get away with her money. But it becomes clear that this episode was the beginning of the end for Jalen, as the title of the story suggests. So even though this was a good story, it was still pretty depressing. However, for the excellent writing and the way the author sucks the reader into the story, I'm happy to give it five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

DMI2017, Week 8: "The Boogeyman" by Stephen King

I have been reading Stephen King since I was a teenager, and in all that time, one of my very favorite stories of his was "The Boogeyman" from his collection Night Shift. So when I made my Deal Me In list for this year, and decided to have a suit dedicated to King, I knew that this story had to go at the top of the list. This week the Ace of Spades delivered the story up to me. Since I haven't read it in literally decades, however, I was curious to know if the story had stood the test of time, or if it was one of those stories that just speaks to one at a particular time of life, for whatever reason.


I am very happy to say that "The Boogeyman" is still one of the creepiest stories I have ever read, as evidenced by my racing pulse and faster breathing while I re-read it.

The story is simple and straightforward enough, and therein lies its power. The protagonist, Lester Billings, is talking to a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Harper. He begins by telling the doctor that he has killed his three kids, but not literally. He has simply caused their deaths by leaving them to the devices of a creature that lives in his house -- the boogeyman, of course. Lester is a no-nonsense, blue-collar kind of guy who is very concerned that his kids not grow up to be sissies, so when they start crying and screaming in the middle of the night about "the boogeyman," he doesn't take them seriously. In fact, he doubles down and practices some tough love in leaving them in their beds. But the kids die, one by one, and each dies in a way that is completely plausible in the grand scheme of things. However, Lester eventually comes to believe in the boogeyman after his second child dies, and even has proof of sorts, but he continues to refuse to intervene, now acting out of cowardice and fear rather than bullheadedness.

I can't say any more about the story for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say that the ending of this story is startling enough to have seared itself into my brain long years ago when I first read it, and it had pretty much the same effect the second time around. It's a fun, extremely characteristic Stephen King story, worth all five stars I can give it.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

DMI2017, Week 7: "The Triumph of Vice" by W.S. Gilbert

This week the Two of Diamonds is responsible for taking us back into the realm of fantasy, courtesy of Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.


  

"The Triumph of Vice" was another of those stories that I really wanted to like, mainly on the strength of my knowledge of the author. W.S. Gilbert was a British dramatist and poet, perhaps best known for being half of the comic opera powerhouse "Gilbert and Sullivan." To this day nothing makes me laugh harder than a well-mounted production of pretty much any of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the Mikado being my favorite I suppose. So it was with high hopes that I came to this story, and although it has its moments where you can plainly see Gilbert's unique brand of humor coming through, it was just a mediocre story in my opinion.

The story takes place in the improbably-named province of Tackelschlosstein, where lives the Baron von Klauffenbach and his daughter Lady Bertha. Although they own a grand castle, they are otherwise penniless and are forced to take in a lodger, which is where the Count von Krappentrapp comes into the story. He falls in love with Bertha, but unforunately he is short and squat, while she is tall and statuesque, and she considers the Count quite beneath her as a suitor. He proposes to her but she rejects him completely based on his appearance.

One day a gnome by the name of "Prince Pooh" presents himself to the Count and asks for his help in wedding Bertha, in exchange for untold riches. There's only one problem: the Prince can transform himself into a tall, handsome man worthy of Bertha's attention, but the spell lasts only a short time before he slowly begins to shrink back into his gnomish form, whenever he washes himself. He had tried getting married twice before, but the engagement in both cases went on too long (as he says, "One is obliged, you know, to wash one's face during courtship") and resulted in the brides-to-be calling everything off when they realized who they were actually marrying. So he needs the Count's help in introducing him to Bertha and paving the way for the most rapid marriage possible.

The marriage occurs, and although the newlyweds are happy, Bertha is quite irritated at the Prince's practice of washing his face only once a week. According to Gilbert, "Bertha was a clean girl for a German," and she's determined that the Prince should raise his level of hygiene as well. So she does things like hiding his umbrella when he goes out, in the hopes that he might get rained on. Things begin to come to a head one day when Bertha realizes, to her horror, that she and the Prince are both shrinking, and it's all over but the shouting one day when the Prince falls in the river and has to stay there for about two hours before he's rescued. When he emerges from the river, he's barely recognizable.

Now humbled, Bertha consults the Count (who is now much taller than she is) and asks his help in getting rid of the Prince. This he does, in a very fairy-tale sort of way, and Bertha and the Count marry and live happily ever after.

This was a decently amusing story in its way, but I was expecting quite a bit more from Mr. Gilbert, so I will give it only three stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

DMI2017, Week 6: "Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert

This week, the King of Diamonds takes us over to the science fiction side of this suit with a story selected from 21st Century Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Hayden.

  

The story "Bread and Bombs" is one of those that innocently and unassumingly works its way down into your psyche and festers there. Events in this story take place in the unnamed narrator's childhood, but are being described years after, when the narrator is an adult and understands things very differently. This gives the entire story a kind of foreshadowing that feeds directly into its overall unsettling atmosphere.

The setting of the story is post-apocalyptic. Something terrible has happened (we get bits and pieces of details as the story progresses), the country is at war, and everything has changed. I know that is the vaguest sentence possible, but it reflects the way the author unfolds the details of the story. Nothing is told head-on, and the reader learns more by what is not said than by what is said. For example, the narrator's father reminisces about a time when people could travel anywhere they wanted to on airplanes. Airplanes still make appearances in the story, but when they fly overhead, everyone panics, puts on helmets, and runs for cover. So it's clear that the skies are no longer safe. Things like snow are no longer safe as well, due to some kind of biological warfare going on. The narrator learns of a nearby family who got sick and died just because they loved playing in the snow. More humorously, the narrator's father also reminisces about having six different kinds of cereal at one time, "coated in sugar, can you imagine?" And when the cereal got stale, they had the luxury of just throwing it out. Thus we also get the idea that regular food is suspect in this story, as well as just being hard to get.


So naturally, it's into this new and paranoid world that outsiders come. A refugee family with two little girls moves into an abandoned house just up the street from the narrator. The first reaction is fear and distrust, as the narrator's mother says things like, "I don't want you going to their house," (understandable and normal, perhaps) and "Don't eat anything they offer you" (maybe not so normal). Most of the neighborhood children are fascinated by the two girls, because of course they look and are dressed differently than anyone else, they don't go to school, the younger of the two girls cries all the time ("because of the war and all the suffering," her older sister says), and because the two girls ride up and down the street in a cart pulled by a goat. At one point the narrator tries to make a friendly overture to the girls by offering them a loaf of bread, but they recoil from it in horror -- it turns out that, in their country, warfare was conducted using bombs disguised as loaves of bread (hence the title of the story). But in spite of the fascination, the neighborhood children generally keep their distance from the girls -- all except for the narrator's friend, Bobby, who plays with the girls, rides in their cart, and gets pretty close to them, all to the consternation of the entire neighborhood, adults included. Some of the adults are accused of being prejudiced, and in fact the refugee family is widely distrusted simply because they came from the country that "started it," in the words of the narrator's mother.

The adults call town meetings to discuss what should be done with the refugee family. The children have their own kind of meeting about the outsiders as well, but theirs turns dark very quickly, with talk of matches, stick piles, and locked doors. The climax of the story comes in the most disturbing way possible, with almost everything left to the imagination of the reader.

I thought this was an excellent story, interesting in its own right, but made even more interesting by the skillful way the author understated even the more horrific details of the story. It definitely deserves five stars.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

DMI2017, Week 5: "Morality" by Stephen King

The story this week is brought to you by the Queen of Spades, from Stephen King's recent collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. This story was originally published in Esquire magazine.

   

I came to this story with high hopes based on its premise: morality is a slippery slope, and the simplest, seemingly non-consequential act can lead to things that are not so simple and non-consequential. Maybe I misunderstood its premise, or maybe this was the wrong story at the wrong time, or maybe it's just a not-so-good story -- but whatever the reason, I wasn't feeling this story this week.

The plot, however, is simple. Chad and Nora, a young married couple, have money issues. Chad is a substitute school teacher but has dreams of writing a book, and he's halfway there with an offer from a real agent, if he can only free up enough time to get the writing done. Nora works as a private home health nurse for a retired minister by the name of George Winston. Her job is all that's keeping them afloat, but things may get better soon: the Reverend Winston has proposed an arrangement that will put them solidly in the black for a long time, long enough certainly to allow Chad to finish his book and get it published.

But here's where the story goes off the rails for me. Reverend Wilson is fabulously wealthy, through a combination of old family money and plain living, and he proposes a deal with Nora. He has never really sinned in his life, he says -- at least, nothing major. But here at the end of his life, he's curious and now wants to see what it's like. The only problem is, he's bedridden and housebound, so he has to do his sinning vicariously through someone else, and that's where Nora comes in. He offers her $200,000 to commit a sin of his choosing and produce verification of the same on video. The story does get very interesting at this point, because the creepy, manipulative way in which Winston entices Nora into the deal shows that he's much more acquainted with sin than he might think. Either that, or he's completely clueless about it, despite his position as a well-respected minister.

King keeps the reader in suspense for as long as possible about what sin Nora is going to have to commit. I won't give the story away by telling what it is, but hopefully it's not spoiling the story too much to say that, while shocking and violent, the sin turns out to be not so awful. But maybe that's the point. The effect of the sin on Nora, Chad, and their relationship turns out to be much more consequential. Nora becomes more violent in her dealings with others, and Chad's writing loses the spark that made it appealing in the first place. And their marriage generally just falls apart. In fact, nothing ends well in this story.

So while this was a good story and well worth the time, I was not as enamored of it as some of King's other stories. Maybe I was just expecting a good horror story and got a philosophical drama instead. Still, it ranks four stars with me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

DMI2017, Week 4: "Lila the Werewolf" by Peter S. Beagle

The story this week is brought to you by the Five of Diamonds, from the collection Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder.

  

As it happens, "Lila the Werewolf" is a story I remember reading as a teenager, from a book of Peter Beagle's collected works, but I didn't remember any of the details of the story. I have never been that crazy about the idea of werewolves, so that is probably why. To me, there are far more interesting (and scary) monsters than werewolves. In spite of that, however, I found this to be a well-written, interesting story made more interesting by Beagle's creative use of language.

The story is relatively simple. The protagonist, a guy named Farrell, hooks up with a girl named Lila Braun, who soon after moves in with him. One night he finds a note from Lila, saying that she's having dinner with her mother and probably spending the night as well. He thinks nothing of this, but later that night Farrell is awakened by a wolf that suddenly comes into his bedroom through the open window. He keeps his eyes closed as the wolf moves closer and closer to him, even standing over him, until the moment when sunlight finally enters the room. He opens his eyes then, and finds Lila sitting on the side of the bed. She says she just came home, and indeed she did.

But as Beagle puts it,

Farrell's gift was for acceptance. He was perfectly willing to believe that he had dreamed the wolf; to believe Lila's story of boiled chicken and bitter arguments and sleeplessness on Tremont Avenue; and to forget that her first caress had been to bite him on the shoulder; hard enough so that blood crusting there as he got up and made breakfast might very well be his own.

It's not his blood, of course -- the blood is from a dog that Lila killed during the night, while she was a werewolf. He's rattled, naturally, but Farrell does indeed have a gift for acceptance, and he decides to live with this new knowledge about his girlfriend, in spite of advice to the contrary from his friend Ben.

Time wears on, and Farrell doesn't ever bring it up directly, but Lila knows that he knows her secret, so much so that she eventually has no qualms about transforming right in front of him. Farrell sometimes closes his eyes during these transformations, however, not willing to completely grasp what is happening with her.

The plot thickens when the building's superintendent sees Lila one day and somehow instantly knows that she's a werewolf. From that point on, he looks for any opportunity to get proof of this and then do something about it -- that something obviously involving a silver bullet. Beagle mixes in Lila's over-protective and slightly bitchy mother, who obviously knows all about Lila's "problem" and is used to sheltering her daughter, for some comic relief. The story comes to a dramatic, if slightly humorous, climax one night with a full moon, when Lila suddenly goes into heat, attracting all the dogs in the neighborhood to their certain death.

While this was a good story, I find that I still don't care that much about werewolves, so it's getting 4 stars from me.

Deal Me In 2017 is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.