BOOKS

I believe you can tell a lot about someone by the books on his shelf. Here are a number of books and authors I consider worthwhile.

Recommended Titles:

Gary Brandner's The Howling

The book behind the classic horror film is not much like it. It's different enough not to be clearly worse or better. A few scenes -- and the evil, sadistic instincts that drive the werewolves -- are similar. As the plot goes, a Los Angeles rape victim and her husband relocate to a small village in the forest to recover. Once there, the woman finds herself being manipulated and cornered by the quiet townspeople in the same way she had been by the city rapist. It becomes like a terrible chess game as the werewolf, or perhaps many werewolves, move in for the final kill. Shamefully, this book is now out of print.

William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch lives up to its reputation: disgusting, incomprehensible, and brilliant. It took me months to read it through to the end. It's a lot like Ulysses except that it's about heroin instead of marriage (an extreme but convenient oversimplification of both). No matter how confusing and bizarre Burrough's prose gets, its virtuousity is easily recognized, his imagery always astounding and horrifying.

Ramsey Campbell

Campbell is considered one of Britain's leading living Horror writers. I'm new to his fiction but I've liked what I've read so far. I picked up an out-of-print short-story collection called Demons by Daylight. His stuff is pretty strange, but I found that refreshing. He's almost a James Joyce of Horror; he writes very well and poetically, but I'm not always sure what's going on in his stories, and sometimes I'll come to the end still unsure of what happened. But, some of the stories I read were surprisingly creepy; even if you don't know exactly what went wrong, you have an overpowering sense that something is wrong.

Philip K. Dick

Dick is my favorite writer. In Italian, the word for science fiction is fantascienza, which I think is much more applicable to the kind of fiction I like and best describes Dick's work. It features average, nobody protagonists whose accepted realities, along with their associated morals and lifestyles, come under siege. Some people say his writing itself is awful, but I like his style very much. It's a little odd, but in a good way that creates wonderful images and feelings, and it moves fast. Best of all is his attention to detail. You feel quickly and intimately a part of the worlds he creates. The technologies and characters are instantly familiar (and funny). And he does it economically with relatively brief novels. Somehow, too, he manages to deal with very philosophical, "intellectual" themes without coming off as the slightest bit pretentious or self-important -- rather the opposite, I'd say.

CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST: For a straight realistic literature book from a science fiction master like Dick, this novel's strength surprised me. It's funny and the characters are memorable; the domestic, interpersonal issues Dick deals with are huge, even more so today than when he wrote it. The plot is simple: he tracks a dysfunctional family living in northern California.

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?: The movie Blade Runner, one of my favorites, was based on this book. Superficially they're similar -- roughly the same characters, world, and plot -- but the book and movie are quite different, mostly in theme and the direction of the ideas. The world of the book is more grim, the characters darker and less heroic.

GALACTIC POT-HEALER: A god-like being gathers together suicidal, despairing nobodies from a few dozen planets to give meaning to their lives with a strange and supposedly impossible project. As they work on it together, the protagonist faces tough questions about free will, personal responsibility, and the purpose of living. A very painful but beautiful story, and brave of PKD considering all the characters, including the lead, are insufferable pricks you wouldn't want to be friends with.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE: The one that won the Hugo, and my least favorite Dick book so far. I grant that Dick's research, hard work, and detail in constructing the alternate post-WWII world are Herculean, but in doing so he forgets to create any dynamic, interesting characters. I didn't care what was going to happen on any level, which paid off because the ending misfired for me.

MARTIAN TIME-SLIP: A George W. Bush-like union leader is a kind of king on the frontier world of Mars. When the UN (which rules Earth) threatens to move in on his turf and make Mars more like the homeworld its settlers fled, he sees his chance to save himself in a schizophrenic child who may be able to see the future. The problem is that the boy's bleak, monstrous worldview is infectious and perhaps dangerous. One of PKD's best, the book has haunting implications about madness and how we sort out reality from our own perceptions.

NOW WAIT FOR LAST YEAR: As much as I liked it, I admit this is one of Dick's weaker novels. It feels sloppy, hastily thrown together. But the essential elements of PKD are all there, including (in full form) the husband-wife battle. We follow a surgeon whose wife is addicted to a drug that throws you back and forth in time, allowing you to alter its course and even take souvenirs back to your native time. His wife hooks him on the drug, and meanwhile the UN General Secretary and world dictator (it's a bleak future) is trying to pull Earth out of a war we're losing. The book connected with me emotionally in several important ways, but readers looking for the virtuosity of, say, Do Androids Dream... may want to pass on this one.

A SCANNER DARKLY: A soul-crushing look at the world of drugs and the police who fight it (and get nowhere). More grounded and realistic than Dick's other work, it feels much more like something happening right now, that has been happening in America for a long time. The holo-scanners that spy on suspected criminals collect a life of weak judgement and disease of the spirit that starts in the center and grows ever outward. An amazing, hard book. My personal PKD favorite.

UBIK: In this book, the dead can be temporarily suspended in a state called "half-life," where they appear in television screens to speak to still-breathing loved ones. Some of them, as it happens, seem more alive than the living -- the usual Dick antics and confusion follow.

Charles Dickens's Great Expectations

I feel unqualified to mention Dickens because I've only read one of his books. Of course, they're very long. I read 600/800 pages of David Copperfield in high school, but the novel I finished, and which I liked much better, was Great Expectations. It may be my favorite book of "regular fiction."

What I like about Dickens is that, biographically, he reminds me of myself in a lot of ways and it comes through in his fiction. I'll spare you any more presumptions, but let's just say reading Great Expectations was very personal and emotional for me. The book follows a poor boy, Pip, who meets an impossibly rich girl named Estella Havisham. Her foster mother, broken-hearted, has raised Estella to feel no love and to command the adoration of all men. As Pip grows up and comes into wealth by strange luck, he maintains his one-way love for Estella. A cynical, depressing story, but also funny and touching. Dickens wrote two endings, and good editions will contain the original ending in an appendix.

Harlan Ellison

Ellison's work is mostly in the short-story department, and he never fails to astound. All his stories, which I would also call fantascienza, are so different from each other, yet they all contain the same basic currents. Some of my favorites include:


Grail
Life Hutch
Punky and the Yale Men
Pulling Hard Time
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (among the most famous)
The Song the Zombie Sang
Soldier
"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman
Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes
Tired Old Man
Gopher in the Gilly
Jeffty is Five
Final Shtick

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man

Invisible Man, while one of the best-written novels I've ever encountered, is intimidatingly long (almost 600 pages) and its theme of racial issues might turn off many of my generation who were brow-beaten in school with race books. However, this tale of a Southern black man with a wit so dry and funny it virtually drives the story, who travels North and ends up working for the Communist party in Harlem, is something pretty special in my opinion. The book never feels like it's simply about a black man in the 1930s -- despite its being loaded with the nuances of that time and those places -- rather, it seems to be about everybody. I could relate to quite a lot within the book; the next guy would probably relate to lots of other elements. I think this one should be mandatory in some form, for either late high school or college students.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's name carries so much with it, there's not much I could say about him that isn't already known or thought by many people. A lot of young people like him, which is nice. Maybe because his characters are so powerfully drawn and his books feel so epic and profound without ever getting pretentious. Here is some of what I've read of his.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS: I haven't read this since high school, but I remember liking it quite a lot. I'd have to re-read it to say anything particuarly useful about it.

FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: An astounding story about an American guerrilla fighter in the Spanish civil war. It has some very slow bits, but they're forgivable because of everything else. Too bad one of the biggest slow bits is the first 50-odd pages. The book is written with a sense of wonder and human smallness, and an intimacy that pulls you in. When I read the final 40 pages, the climax was so intense that my pulse was racing and I was sweating down to the finish.

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity

I haven't seen the movie, but I read the book and found it a great, quick read. It's about a dude, thirty-five years old, in England, who can't find happiness in relationships and women. In many ways he's "one of us" as my friends and I say, just your average nice bloke. In other ways he's a prick and screws up his relationships. The book contains numerous fantastic paragraphs and lines which justify reading it even if you can't handle the protagonist as a person.

Jack Ketchum's Off Season

I enjoyed Off Season quite a bit. Ketchum admitted that he drew a lot of inspiration from the film Night of the Living Dead, and it shows. Even though it's about cannibals and there are no supernatural elements, the book feels very much like a Romero zombie movie in certain ways. It has many of my favorite features in Horror: a siege, guns, body parts getting blown or hacked off, a gross-out "eating of the bodies" sequence, a fat, world-weary small-town sheriff. The story tracks a party of six New Yorkers staying at a cabin on the Maine coast (and they are not just dumb city slickers, which was nice). A family of cannibals sets upon their cabin, assuming they'll be easy prey, but the cannibals are wrong... and breathtaking carnage ensues. This book contains one of the most long, disturbing torture scenes I've ever read.


Stephen King

Some consider King to be a pulp or pop author and one who will someday be forgotten. I disagree. His writing took me a while to get used to because it's very wordy and descriptive. However, once you get used to it, his style helps you immerse yourself in the intricate worlds he can create in just a few pages or a few hundred. I also feel that his short stories are superior to his novels, though I've only read one of his novels. I think one of the major reasons for King's popularity is his humor. You see it more in his short stories, but he can be a real laugh riot.

THE DEAD ZONE: This is one of my favorite books. A man wakes up from a 4-year coma, which has ruined his life, with odd psychic powers. Bitter and wasting away, he must come to terms with what his new abilities entail and where his life is going. Shorter than his other novels and lacking King's common good vs. eternal-evil story, the book clicks away rapidly and grimly to its all-too-soon finish. If you only read one King book (especially a less Horror-oriented one), this one gets my vote. Speaking of which, I think some aspects of the book are especially relevant given what's happening these days in American politics.

SALEM'S LOT: King's second or third novel. A little long (this is King, after all), but entertaining throughout. The narrative takes a very grim opinion of humanity; the characters are mostly unlikable and sleazy, but if you like that (and I do sometimes), it's a fine read.

NIGHT SHIFT: King's first book of short stories. I think it's his best collection and his scariest work. It's also, like all his stuff, quite funny. The stories "Jerusalem's Lot" and "The Boogeyman" are especially intense.

SKELETON CREW: His second short-story collection, arguably as good as the first but with a few stories I thought were real stinkers. The opening novella, "The Mist," is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing and worth the price of the book alone. "Survival Type" and "The Reaper's Image" are other high points in this overall very funny and entertaining book. Not as creepy as Night Shift, but it is more "fun."

Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon has not been published or read much in the USA, because his work is supposedly too gorey, sexy, and indulgent to catch on here. He is popular in Britain, though. I expect that sooner or later the movie potential of his books will be tapped -- I just hope it won't be by the hands of a hack (if I ever become a director, I'll step up to the plate). Sadly, the author passed away around 2001. I wish more people read him so I had people to share my love of his work with.

Laymon's style is very dialogue-oriented, and his dialogue is perfect; his sentences are clean, quick, and usually colloquial. His tales are character driven and his narrators instantly feel like your friend, and I think he's far stronger when he writes in the 1st person for this reason. He's also hilarious. I've had many a hard and loud laugh while reading his books.

A word of warning, though: Laymon is not for the squeamish or for those who can't bear a little healthy sarcasm or cynicism in their reading material. The theme of rape is present in every one of his books I've read, without exception; he serves up gibs and blood in epic quantities as well. Laymon's characters are flawed and can be very callous and unfriendly. I like this aspect of his style, because what's interesting about characters who are perfect and always do the right thing?

In my opinion his novels are best read while still young. Prime time to read Laymon is college, when one can most appreciate the over-the-top sexual and violent fantasies.

BITE: A boy's big high-school crush (I'm already on board) recruits him to slay a vampire who has been using her as a love-slave for the past year. But is he really a vampire, or just a freak? And what will they do with his body? Toss it in the trunk and bury it in the Nevada desert, of course! It's the usual Laymon: love-struck college guy protagonist struggling for survival against twisted, sick characters, with non-stop suspense.

THE CELLAR: My least favorite Laymon yarn so far. It's about a haunted house (ok, cool so far) filled with murderous mutants, and a cast of cooky yet boring characters from an escaped convict to a professional hitman and a number of blond babes (as usual) gradually converge at this house. But there's a twist: the mutants in the house have a certain anatomic feature that makes them both deadly and yet also attractive to women. I won't say what this feature is, but cross Penthouse and Fangoria and you're going in the right direction.

THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW: This was one of his last books, and some consider it his best. It's about 3 teenagers who plan to attend a circus-like vampire show, which is so violent that only adults are allowed. It's the kind of book you just sit down with one afternoon and have finished by bedtime.

NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER: This title comes from a Poe poem (Laymon was an intelligent and well-read author); it's about a college guy who has just been dumped by his girlfriend. To get over it, he hits the campus streets late at night. What he didn't know before, though, is how strange and nightmarish his quiet college town really is!

RESURRECTION DREAMS: A unique and fun twist on the zombie genre. Remember that kid in high school who looked like he should be really smart -- mostly because he was ugly -- but was dumb as a stone? Now, imagine he finds a book with instructions to re-animate the dead and turn them into his slaves. It's amazing how much damage one dweeb is able to do in just 300 pages. This is Laymon's most gruesome, stomach-turning book I've read.

THE STAKE: In an Adaptation-like metabook, Laymon writes about a horror author who finds a staked (incapacitated) vampire, then starts writing a non-fiction book about her, which is essentially the novel we are reading. The violence and gore are low for Laymon, especially compared to Resurrection Dreams, but the pages fly fast as ever. Apparently this was one of Laymon's best received books; he's at the top of his game here.

H.P. Lovecraft

While everyone with an even passing interest in Horror has at least heard of Lovecraft, he's rather unknown to the rest of the world. A lover and imitator of Poe, he wrote short stories in the 1920s and 1930s before dying young. It's easy to find collections of his fiction, but sometimes his lofty writing style and atrocious dialogue are hard to sit through. Some of his better stories are:


The Whisperer in the Darkness
Pickman's Model
Herbest West: Reanimator (be warned, his xenophobia/racism appears in this one)
The Call of Cthuhlu
The Dunwich Horror
The Picture in the House

Lovecraft's influence can be found in most good Horror, especially in the great movies and fiction of the 1970s and 1980s. People turning into monsters, ancient evils that are "older than time" and invincible, crazed scientists and rotting environments both urban and rural dominate his really rewarding work. Although he's criticized for being xenophobic, his fear and disdain for all things not British-WASP only makes his work more haunting and gives readers a common bond of having learned to take it with a grain of salt. I'm always surprised at how many literature professors admit to being fans.

Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy's writing style takes some getting used to. But it grows on you, and so do his books. I've only read two of his books so far, but I plan to read more in the future.

BLOOD MERIDIAN: This felt like one of the longest books I ever read, even though it was not. But it has stayed with me. The closest thing to a central character is "the Kid," a runaway who joins up with the Glanton gang of mercenaries. They move along the Texas-Mexico border from one town to another, killing everything they see (sometimes in more detail than you would like). Eventually the Kid fades into the background, and Glanton and the Judge take center stage as we get an increasingly full picture of their ferocity. Even a 6th-grader could see that the Judge is a symbol for the devil, and he's a good one. I'm convinced if the book wasn't so graphic, it would be required reading in schools today -- but I feel the graphic aspects are important and necessary. It's not fun, but it is a hell of a book.

THE ROAD: A much easier read than Blood Meridian, this tale of a father and son traveling across America in a nuclear winter was a total home run for me. I love father-son stories, and this is one of the most powerful I've seen. It also has certain Horror-like elements. There isn't much action, but when there is, it's great. Post-apocalyptic stories can be preachy, yet this one isn't at all; McCarthy sticks to the characters. He also creates a world so vivid and complete I feel like I've been there.

Alan Moore's Watchmen

One of the best books I've ever read. About halfway through it, I called Watchmen the Final Fantasy III of comic books. Indeed, it is. Though written and drawn in the 1980s, it isn't dated, unlike The Dark Knight Returns. If you read only one of the comic book stories which confront the ultimate question underlying all superhero stories -- what right do they have to impose their ideas of right and wrong on ordinary people? -- this is it. Each of the "heroes" in this tale has his own distinct and crystal clear worldview which conflicts with those of his colleagues. Should evil always be punished, or is it sometimes necessary? What does having a superpower always there to look over them do to people? Brilliant from the first page to the last.

Larry Niven

THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE (with Jerry Pournelle):My dad's favorite book, and considered by many others to be the finest science fiction novel of its time, perhaps ever. The conceit is first contact with aliens, 1000 years in the future -- when little has changed about us. Humans try cautiously to hide their warlike nature from the peaceful, super-sentient aliens. But, could it be the aliens aren't so different from us after all? Opening with a biblical reference about hypocrisy, this book paints a brilliant, ingenius picture of a future neither ideal nor terrible, but highly probable and cursed with the same shortcomings we bear today.

RINGWORLD: I read this when I was ten, and understood nothing. Reading it again at 23, I loved it and found it filled with the best gadgets and new worlds, unheroic characters, romantic adventures, and social grumbles that science fiction can give.

Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson has a refreshingly straightforward and to-the-point style, and his novels tend to be on the shorter side and very idea-driven. Echoes of his work can be found in popular movies and television mostly. My only problem with Matheson is that he flagrantly makes himself the hero in all his books (after reading 3 novels where the hero is a blond, 6'2" man, it borders on self-parody). The following 2 novels, regardless, are incomparable.

I AM LEGEND: I adore this book. It's an afternoon-sitting kind of book, light on fear and light on gore. The premise is this: one man remains alive in a world overrun by vampires. He hides in his house in California, hunting them by day and hunted by night. The premise alone is mouth-watering, but it only gets better from there.

SOMEWHERE IN TIME: The book on which the movie with Christopher Reeves is based. The book and movie are equally good; the book is more dark and cynical, though. The narrator falls in love with a long-dead actress's photograph and wills himself back through time to meet her. The premise is outrageously fantastic, but Matheson's style prevents it from ever feeling cheesy or overly sentimental.

Herman Melville

Melville deserves more than he gets these days. In academia his brilliance is undisputed, but among "normal people," especially in my generation, his writing is deemed impossible and boring. I personally find his style very interesting and enjoyable once you get into the groove of it.

MOBY DICK: People always tell you, "that book is all right, so long as you skip the first half." WRONG! The whole book is great! Maybe those people are too used to reading Dean Koontz or something in which there's constant suspense and drama to maintain a TV-viewer's attention span. If you just sit back and take the time to digest the words, you'll find that Moby Dick is a terrific read.

BILLY BUDD: This is one of Melville's shorter pieces, meaning under 100 pages, and it's also very good. It's about a drumhead court in the British navy trying a man for murder. There's no doubt as to the fact that Billy Budd killed the other guy -- the problem is that the victim deserved it and nobody wants Billy to hang for it.

Koji Suzuki's Ring

The book that inspired the movie of the same name, and an American regurgitation of that movie, is head and shoulders better than either adapation. Spooky, gripping and actually thought-provoking, reading the book will make it impossible to ever again watch the American film with a straight face.

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

A very funny, good story. Like the Cheech & Chong movies, it reads like an inside joke that everybody is in on -- a journey to a time and place I never knew. Because it is so specific and peculiar, instead of being dated it comes out timeless.

Kurt Vonnegut's The Slaughterhouse Five

I had no clue what this book was about before reading it, not really even when I read the description on the back cover. It turned out to be one of the best books I've read in ages. It's the life story of a WWII veteran and POW who witnesses the bombing of Dresden. The key is the narration, which jumps between many different moments and times in his life as he literally travels through time to those moments. So, the plot isn't linear, but a collage that taken altogether is very moving and great fun to read.

H.G. Wells

Wells is one of my favorite authors and I've never read something by him that wasn't pretty cool. He's the most idea-driven writer in human history, which I guess is why his books are considered "for kids" and recently are being made into dumb Hollywood movies. He does, though, tell a mighty fine story, and his books are just as exciting and interesting to read at 20 as they are at 10. Not only are they fun and engaging, they're scary. All of his stuff has an awful, morbid atmosphere; he doesn't pull any punches. For "kids books," a lot of bad things happen in Wells's stories, and his narrators are usually shady and suspicious. The one potential irritation is that his stories are usually an all-male cast.

THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU: The movie adaptation is so hilariously bad that I wondered what the book would be like. I wasn't disappointed. Dr. Moreau is an artist, and his canvas is the bodies of animals. It's as disturbing and horrific as it sounds, and filled with violence and beasts both human and animal.

THE TIME MACHINE: The biggest surprise for me was that the time traveller only explores the future, and a grim one at that. It's about where human evolution is going, driven no longer by nature but by the structure and dynamics of society. Pretty freaky, if you ask me.

WAR OF THE WORLDS: Due to the numerous movies, alien invasion flicks, and the infamous Orson Welles radio production that stem from it, this is perhaps Wells's most famous work. Sadly though, it isn't actually read much. It's maybe my favorite of his books, and in my opinion it has the most in it to "chew on." The Martians are terrifying, seemingly driven by hatred and sadism rather than survival. At every turn they bring out more deadly and nightmarish war machines that kill more people more quickly. They're invincible until the ending that surprises no one anymore. For its time, this was an obvious critique of human imperialism and colonialism, but what all the adaptations of the book have missed is that old Wells thread of evolution become ugly. The Martians aren't just a metaphor for us -- they literally are us, millions of years from now! Read it and see how. Please read this book as soon as possible.




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