That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Posts Tagged ‘sturgeon’s law’

No one sleeps when I’m awake.

Posted by kozemp on July 13, 2009

Odds and sods this week, and apologies for the short hiatus.

“It has its problems towards the end, but the badass old Jew totally makes up for it.” – Graham Rowe

Last week I read “The Strain,” by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan.

That I read a book is hardly remarkable – I read a couple hundred a year – but the fact that I read a VAMPIRE book, now that’s extraordinary. My love of Stephen King has never translated into me actually reading, well, ANY other horror fiction at a measurable rate. I’m not sure HP Lovecraft is necessarily germane to this argument (though he remains one of my all-time favorites). I tried to read Clive Barker once (The Damnation Game, I think it was) and while it was well-written it didn’t really do anything for me. Dean Koontz and his ilk are completely unreadable, and don’t even get me fucking started about sparkly abstinence vampires.

No, the main reason I don’t read horror in general is because, as anything, Sturgeon’s Law applies. But when it comes to vampires, oh my great goodness Sturgeon comes out more generous than Santa Claus. For vampire books the number ratchets up to something like 99%. 99.999999999999999999999999999%. Gather up every vampire book ever written in the entire history of human civilization – there must be uncounted hordes of them – and realize that in that entire history only four of them are any good. FOUR. Out of, let’s conservatively say, eight hundred million.

Speaking strictly in my professional capacity as a card player, those are pretty lousy odds.

For reference, the only good vampire books ever written are, in no particular order: Dracula, Vampire$, Salem’s Lot, and I Am Legend. If you were expecting anything by Anne Rice I sincerely hope that my sneering, contemptuous pity will fill the void in your soul where taste, discernment, and the ability to not be sexually aroused by interior design should reside.

If you were expecting sparkly abstinence vampires, seriously, kill yourself.

I don’t know WHY vampire books scoff at Sturgeon so brazenly, but they do. With but a bare handful (quite literally) of exceptions, they are universally awful. Vampires seem to bring out the worst in authors. I don’t know why. I wish I did, that the human race’s near-total inability to write a decent vampire book was some sort of disease that we could cure with an antibiotic or something. Whether this would yield a world with good vampire books or none at all is a debate not worth pursuing, largely because the end result would still be the same: of the couple hundred books I read per year, the percentage of them that had vampires would not be statistically relevant. But the unstoppable tide of awful, unreadable vampire books would at least cease and the human race would be protected from their terrible wrath. (I am, after all, a Humanist if nothing else.)

I DID read The Strain, though, for reasons I am not able to explain to even my own satisfaction. It is purported to be “co-written” by Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker whose work I admire in the abstract but don’t in any meaningful way especially like. English is not Del Toro’s first language, which I have to think makes writing a book in it difficult. And the book is the first part of a trilogy, a fact made curious by the virtue of Del Toro having recently gotten on a plane to New Zealand to spend the next five years making two movies based on The Hobbit, making one wonder exactly what his contribution to the entire enterprise is. The other co-writer is Chuck Hogan, a gentleman who I can say nothing negative about since, before hearing about The Strain, I did not know he existed. But I bought the book anyway. A recommendation from Rogers certainly helped, and while I don’t force myself to run out to see his movies I have a lot of respect for Del Toro as an artist, and I admit to being vaguely curious to see what he would do with a genre that had, to date, spawned legions of misshapen literary abominations and precious, precious little else.

You know what? It’s not bad.

In fact, it’s pretty good.

Now, let’s be clear here: The Strain is not going to replace The Great Gatsby at the top of my list of favorite books. Hell, it’s not going to bump Good Omens from, like, 18th place. But the fact that it is a book with vampires that is not mind-rending in its awfulness is in and of itself a major accomplishment. I mean, really, mediocrity would have been a cause for celebration, but The Strain actually goes past mediocrity into… decent-ness? Good-ocity? I’m not sure the word for something that isn’t fantastic but is still definitely positive in its impact. Really-well-done-ish?  Leaving aside the making-up-words bit, the best thing I can say about The Strain – and yes, there is praise for it beyond “it wasn’t awful” – is that it actually scared me.

Well, okay, not exactly “scared” me. The last time I was legitimately SCARED by a book, like, afraid to get out of bed while in the middle of it, was when I read Pet Sematary. In my defense, I was 12. No, the last time I was actually scared is another story in its entirety (one I will tell soon). But inasmuch as The Strain is a “horror” novel, which is a misnomer at best, the book succeeded: it affected me on a primal, almost physiological level.

Reading horror is a vastly different mental exercise than watching it. Onscreen, for the most part, horror is about editing and cinematography: through clever use of the foreground and jump cuts you can pretty much scare the pants off anyone. (Someone is going to bring up Jaws or Halloween now, and I will politely ask them to pipe down.) This is not to say that you can’t use longer takes, atmosphere, and visual depth to scare people (I TOLD you fuckers to pipe down) but those are less reliable. Still and all, scaring people is easy when they’re in front of a screen. A book, now, that’s different. You don’t have a foreground (or a background, or anything depth of field at all, in fact). Your ability to use film-style editing is clumsy at best.  No, in a book all you’ve GOT is atmosphere, and building it in such a way to actually get a fear-type reaction out of people is INCREDIBLY difficult. If you don’t successfully walk the tightrope you either end up just describing the action to the reader (c.f. Clive Barker), which is never scary, or going way over the top and coming off as silly and unintentionally hilarious (c.f. Clive Barker), which is also never scary.

The Strain manages to succeed, though. There is a scene about halfway through the book when… well, without spoilers, let me just say it sorta resembles the cup-of-water bit from Jurassic Park. As I sat there reading it I got increasingly unsettled until it climaxed, when – sitting at my desk, under a lamp – I started shouting to the book, “oh… oh, fucking… AH JESUS FUCK THAT’S SICK!” About a bit involving liquid in jars. And there are a bunch like it throughout the book.

Put another way: there are scenes in this book that creeped me the fuck out.

The book is not without its flaws – there are elements of the ending, specifically, that angered me something fierce – but listing them is counterproductive, since the book as a whole is so damn entertaining. So much so, in fact, that I’m actually looking forward to the next one. Thankfully, the one-book-per-year pace the series is set to publish on will keep my vampire book percentage in the negligible range. And, frankly, when it comes to that sort of thing I don’t want to tempt fate.

“Who’s who? Her?” – Ken Turner

Actual conversation (with mild editorial commentary) from this Saturday night, when my friend Mike arrived at a restaurant a bunch of people were meeting at with a woman I’d never seen in tow.

Me: Yo.
Mike: (pointing at woman) Hey, John, this is Chelsea.
Me: Chelsea?
Chelsea: Yes?
Me: Your name is Chelsea?
Chelsea: Yes.
Me: Well, that’s hilarious.
Chelsea: It is?
My brain: It’s only hilarious if the person KNOWS you, idiot.
Me: Fuck!
Mike: (shocked/confused) What?
My brain: I hate you.

“The great thing about Pandora is that it proves how arbitrary people’s taste in music is.” – G

I know I promised that I wouldn’t write about music here, but I am going to partially break that promise to say: I found out over the weekend that The Sounds have a new album that came out last month.

Now, two things that are neat about this:

1) I learned this because one of the songs came on the digital cable music station we had on in the background. I saw the info card on the song, said, “fucking hell why didn’t anyone tell me The Sounds had a new album!” and proceeded to instruct my iPhone to buy said new album. Much like the previous album from The Sounds (which I randomly came across on ITMS one day soon after its release) I had the entire album in my possession and was listening to it within five minutes of learning of its existence. Unless you live in an apartment inside a record store this is essentially impossible in a realspace mode of being and is further proof why iTunes and my iPhone are intrinsically, ridiculously awesome.

2) The album itself is FUCKING AWESOME. Well, I think it is, at least. If you enjoy neo-punk/neo-New-Wave/neo-glam Swedish power electro-pop I imagine you will also think it is awesome. And, frankly, if you don’t enjoy neo-punk/neo-New-Wave/neo-glam Swedish power electro-pop what the hell are you doing here, anyway?

Seriously, The Sounds are the reincarnation of Blondie. They are fantastic. Give them a listen.

End of music talk.

Until next time, then.

JLK

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