The Long Walk as Allegory

Line of soldiers walking.
(Source: AP)

“It was nine o’clock. they had been on the road twelve hours. It didn’t mean anything. The only thing that mattered was the cool breeze blowing over the top of the hill. And the sound of a bird. And the feel of his damp shirt against his skin. And the memories in his head. those things mattered, and Garraty clung to them with desperate awareness. They were his things and he still had them.”

Frank Darabont has a fascinating interpretation of The Long Walk.

According to a 2007 interview with the writer/director whose best-known Stephen King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Long Walk is a war allegory:

“To me, it’s an existential metaphor for our mindless obsession with war — kids being sent off to die for no reason other than ‘just because.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King wrote it in the shadow of Vietnam, though we’ve never really discussed that part of it, that’s just my interpretation.”

I’m inclined to agree with his interpretation. The Long Walk involves young men being promised the glory of The Prize, essentially a better life and all their dreams come true, if they survive The Walk. Very few of the boys have any real indication of what they have agreed to do, and the horrors of The Walk become apparent as time drags on. The conversations the boys have are similar to what you would see in war movies as soldiers contemplate the meaning of war, life, and love. All the while, the Major urges them on and the spectators cheer for them, protected by their barrier of comfort. Many spectators wave flags or are dressed in patriotic colors. One farming couple is directly compared to the “American Gothic” painting. As he starts out, Garraty passionately kisses a female spectator (taking a warning for doing so), which conjured images of the V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse.

But in the midst of The Walk, strength isn’t found in The Prize; strength is found in life and memories and camaraderie. Unfortunately, since only one person can win The Prize, even camaraderie is suspect. You don’t want to get too close to your fellow Walkers if they are soon going to die.

The Long Walk, Introduction

Cover for The Long Walk

With The Long Walk I return to the writings of Richard Bachman, which at this point in Stephen King’s career means I am reading works written prior to Carrie. Basically, these are pre-Stephen-King novels. You know, Stephen King before he was STEPHEN KING.

The Long Walk was first published in paperback in 1979. According to his afterward in Full Dark, No Stars, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote. It is a dystopian science fiction novel, although from where I am four chapters in the science fiction elements are minimal. The dystopian aspects are highlighted by the central concept, which is an endurance test undertaken each year by 100 teenage boys. This test, called The Long Walk, is pretty much what it says on the tin—a walk to see who is the last boy standing. Or walking, in this case. They have to maintain a four-mile-per-hour pace. Three strikes and they “get their ticket,” a King-esque euphemism for execution. The entire event is a national past-time. People take pride in rooting for boys from their state. Not every leg of the Walk is broadcast, but parts are. Presumably, places where boys are likely to get their ticket are less likely to have spectators.

Even though it was written much later, think of this as The Hunger Games but with walking.

The protagonist, Raymond Garraty (#47). I don’t know why he is Walking. I get the impression that Walking is a type of choice. Most of the first four chapters consist of build-up, so apart from being introduced to the basic concept and a few additional characters, I don’t have much more to report on the plot or world building so far.

The book is short by King standards: under 400 pages. In truth, I’m wondering how he maintains the pace for what may be a limited time scale for the novel. I expect at some point the boys may turn on each other, unless there are specific rules against this. Even if it is against the rules, I’m sure the pressure will build.

Doctor Who: The New Adventures Series 1.03 – Timewyrm: Apocalypse

Cover for Timewyrm Apocalypse

Where to Find It?

Physical copies can be found at Bookfinder.com.

A detailed synopsis can be found at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

Nigel Robinson

Book Copy

The end of the Universe. The end of everything.

The TARDIS has tracked the Timewyrm to the edge of the Universe and the end of time — to the lush planet Kirith, a paradise inhabited by a physically perfect race.

Ace is not impressed. Kirith has all the appeal of a wet weekend in Margate, and its inhabitants look like third-rate Aussie soap stars.

The Doctor is troubled, too: If the Timewyrm is here, why can’t he find her? Why have the elite Panjistri lied consistently to the Kirithons they govern? And is it possible that the catastrophe that he feels impending is the result of his own past actions?


 

I appreciate your concern, Doctor, but the facts are simple: Ace must die so that the rest of creation may live.

I suppose the place to start is reputation. Timewyrm: Apocalypse is not well regarded and has even been called the low point in the Timewyrm cycle, if not the entire New Adventures range. This reputation is undeserved as the novel’s greatest crime is placement, being slotted between the action-packed, highly engaging Exodus of Terrance Dicks and the mind-bending, era-defining Revelation of Paul Cornell. Thus, a perfectly average Doctor Who story that doesn’t really stretch the bounds of the concept stands out, and not necessarily in a good way. And I admit, when I first read Apocalypse a few years ago I couldn’t stomach it. When I picked it up this past weekend I was a bit apprehensive. However, of the three Timewyrm books I have re-read, Apocalypse was the most interesting to me because it was the one I had forgotten. I didn’t remember a thing about it. Contrary to expectations, my experience with this novel was deeply satisfying.

Nigel Robinson, like Terrance Dicks and John Peel, was a Target writer. In fact, Robinson was editor of the Target range as it drew to a close. As a result, he is familiar with the tropes and style of the classic series. He can replicate it quite well, and that is on display in Apocalypse, which puts the novel firmly in the Rad/Trad debate that surrounded the New Adventures. Essentially, the debate was whether the New Adventures should stretch the concept of Doctor Who into new territory as could only be accomplished in the written word, with no dependence on budget, BBC oversight, or strong boundaries of what is and is not proper Doctor Who (the rad or radical position) or whether the New Adventures should tell the types of stories that were told on television, adhering to the formulas and goals of the original series (the trad or traditional position). The entire debate falls into the same trap as all progressive/conservative debates in its assumption that the answer is either/or. Experimentation aids evolution, but tradition helps cohesion. In practicality this balance can be difficult to achieve. In a shared universe such as Star Trek, the novels were mere tie-ins. They didn’t supplant or influence the main corpus in any way. They were additional adventures which could be slotted in between episodes. With the New Adventures, there was every belief that this could be the future of Doctor Who, and whatever happened in the novels was cannon. Thus, the nuance interactions between rad and trad could be difficult to maintain, much like a mythology heavy story-arc in The X-Files being followed by a monster-of-the-week episode, the fan wants to know what happens next, not experience this stand-alone story.

Personally, I tend to think of the trad stories as a type of rest between complex or intense measures. They become moments of introspection and meditation. And even if the plot itself is fairly traditional, the characters have grown and changed, and they sometimes respond in different ways.

Apocalypse, then, is largely of the trad mold. It is a thematic sequel to Logopolis as it takes place during the Big Crunch when entropy cannot be reversed and the universe is contracting in on itself. This knowledge ultimately drives the Panjistri since their goal is to reverse entropy. The Logopolitans of the Fourth-Doctor Era tried to do this using math; the Panjistri try to do it by creating a god. It takes us a while to get there, but the ultimate revelation of the attempt to genetically create a god is interesting. The Panjistri view is that a being with every possible experience of every possible creature in the universe would essentially be a god. They essentially are attempting to create an autonomous, pantheistic god—an all-encompassing entity that is at the same time personal and distinct. For the Panjistri, if the divine word of math—a force mortal minds can understand—is unable to prevent entropy, then an immortal mind is required. Only an immortal mind can defeat death. The Doctor refutes this, saying all things must die, even the universe.

At the center of this genetic conspiracy is the Grand Matriarch. The Matriarch has been possessed by the Timewyrm, who hopes to inhabit the god once it has been created. Doing so will allow her to re-incarnate, something she needs to do since the Doctor destroyed her physical form. After he extracted her from Hitler’s mind, the Timewyrm hid from the Doctor in his timeline, transferring into a young girl named Lilith when the Second Doctor repaired her doll. The Timewyrm hid in Lilith for five thousand years, manipulating the Panjistri’s genetic experiment to her own purpose. It is fitting that a being that lived among and manipulated the ancient Babylonians would be drawn to a child named Lilith.

Beyond these elements, Apocalypse follows a fairly standard Doctor Who set-up: The Doctor and Ace arrive in a utopian society, discover a group of elites who provide everything to the people while at the same time discouraging certain questions or scientific development, and in the investigation foment rebellion. Philip Sandifer rightly observes that the revolution actually fails, which is a reversal of Doctor Who tropes. The people don’t succeed as the Doctor confronts evil. They are subdued. It is only after evil has been defeated that all parties are reconciled, including the Panjistri elite to the people they manipulated.

While Timewyrm: Apocalypse didn’t push the format of Doctor Who, it still provided a solid story. The Timewyrm’s appearance, while not surprising, at least made sense. Her physical form had been destroyed and this experiment at creating a god would have been appealing to her. The Timewyrm possessing Hitler never quite worked for me, and I think Exodus would have been far more interesting as its own story rather than using the Timewyrm as the MacGuffin. Stretching this cycle of novels over four books is starting to feel a bit drawn-out and I look forward to Cornell’s conclusion in Timewyrm: Revelation.

Doctor Who: The New Adventures Series 1.02 – Timewyrm: Exodus

Cover for Timewyrm Exodus

Where to Find It?

Physical copies can be found at Bookfinder.com.

A detailed synopsis can be found at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

Terrance Dicks

Book Copy

The pursuit of the Timewyrm leads the Doctor and Ace to London, 1951, and the Festival of Britain — a celebration of the achievements of this small country, this insignificant corner of the glorious Thousand Year Reich.

Someone — or something — has been interfering with the time lines, and in order to investigate, the Doctor travels further back in time to the very dawn of the Nazi evil. In the heart of the Germany of the Third Reich, he finds that this little band of thugs and misfits did not take over half the world unaided.

History must be restored to its proper course, and in his attempt to repair the time lines, the Doctor faces the most terrible dilemma he has ever known…


 

The fabric of time was badly torn, Ace. You can’t stitch it up like repairing an old shirt.

While John Peel had become a regular hand at writing Target novelizations, Terrance Dicks had a much more intimate résumé where Doctor Who was concerned. He was script editor during the Pertwee years. He wrote televised stories for the Second, Fourth, and Fifth Doctors (possibly more uncredited). Having this second original novel in the range written by Dicks is a great way to bridge the two series, lending credibility and blessing, passing the torch as it were.

In Exodus we travel to the heart of the Nazi Reich at its beginning stages. And it struck me as I read about Hitler, Himmler, and Goering that up to this point, Doctor Who had not really dealt with Nazis in their context. The first time the show overtly portrayed them was during the Seventh Doctor story Silver Nemesis, and even those Nazis were 1980s exiles, war criminals trying to recapture the glory of the Reich. The show had often drawn parallels between the Daleks and Nazis, but the human figures themselves were almost never portrayed. Had Doctor Who been an American creation, there is no doubt in my mind that the Doctor would have gone up against the Nazis as soon as possible, but this was one era of history that the show never really covered. On some level, I can see why. Doctor Who debuted in 1963. The war had only been over 18 years. The memory was too fresh and too painful. The narratives of the war in the U.S. and England are very different. For the U.S. it is a story of foreign citizen soldiers coming into the fight to do what needs to be done to defeat the enemy. For England, it is a story of endurance and survival. These are generalizations of course, but the narratives are there. For the U.S., defeating the Nazis was a given, a divine destiny. For England, it was hoped for but not necessarily a guarantee. And it is into this uncertainty that the Doctor and Ace track the Timewyrm.

The novel opens with the two arriving in 1950s England. They find that the Reich won the war and England is under German rule. This emphasizes one of the major themes of the novel, that the outcome of WWII was not a certainty. Any number of factors could have changed the result, and in the case of Exodus outside influences were present in the form of the War Lords (a primary interference) and the Timewyrm (a secondary interference). The War Lords reappear after their defeat in the Second Doctor story “The War Games,” which was a collaboration of Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke in 1969. The War Lords attempt to create the perfect soldier, typically by removing armies from different points in history and making them fight one another. Their scientific advisor in the process is a renegade Time Lord known as the War Chief. The War Chief now has an added goal: to get revenge on the Doctor. What is particularly interesting (and gruesome) in Exodus is the revelation that the War Chief wasn’t killed as was portrayed in “The War Games”; he regenerated—almost. The damage to his body caused the regeneration to fail, so the process aborted partway through, creating a monstrosity of bodily horror. Ultimately, the War Chief wants to transplant his brain into the Doctor’s body. Dicks is also mining “The Brain of Morbius” for ideas, it would seem. Added to the mix are internal Reich politics, Himmler’s obsession with the occult, and the Doctor’s struggle to insert himself into an unstable historical situation in an attempt to rectify two types of interference that the result of previous adventures.

Along the way Exodus tries to avoid explaining Hitler’s Reich in terms of alien interference or the supernatural, but never quite succeeds. All the elements that led to WWII were present; the Timewyrm and War Lords magnified what was already there, but I was still left with a distinct impression that Hitler only came to power because of the magnification, not because of his own human attempts. This is a bit of a problem, I think, because it can serve to undermine the horror of WWII and the Holocaust, events which are arguably the worst of humanity. So often WWII is portrayed as a grand adventure (typically in American film) rather than the morally complex and horrifying war it was. Making Hitler a puppet of aliens doesn’t really feel right to me, especially since some of the attitudes held by Hitler and his followers were not as extreme in the 1920s and 1930s as they seem to us now. We look back on these attitudes with our perceived modern enlightenment and typically see them as fringe and aberrant, but they weren’t. They were popular and common. The Nazis were merely the end result of Western existential angst that coalesced around a nation that no longer had anything to lose and everything to gain.

This particular failing aside, the novel is still quite good. It is an easy read, likely the result of years of Dicks writing the Target novelizations. It is fast-paced and engaging. It is plotted extremely well. It deals with things the classic series probably couldn’t have pulled off with a great deal of success. It doesn’t fall into the excesses of Genesys where “adult” means sex and nudity. In the case of Exodus, “adult” means exploring ideas that may be inappropriate for children’s television: anti-Semitism, black magic and occultism, human sacrifice, torture, and Nazi zombies—although, it would have been interesting to see some of the larger moral complexity lurking underneath the alien puppetry. The secondary characters are memorable and interesting. Dicks humanizes Hitler, Goering, and Himmler without ever making them less atrocious than they were in real life. And despite the science fiction elements, there is an air of historicity to parts of the novel.

Doctor Who: The New Adventures Series 1.01 – Timewyrm: Genesys

cover for timewyrm: genesys

Where to Find It?

As usual, Bookfinder.com is a great resource.

A detailed synopsis can be found at the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

John Peel

Book Copy

Mesopotamia – the cradle of civilization. In the fertile crescent of land on the banks of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, mankind is turning from hunter gatherer into farmer, and from farmer into city-dweller.

Gilgamesh, the first hero-king, rules the city of Urak. An equally legendary figure arrives, in a police telephone box: the TARDIS has brought the Doctor and his companion Ace to witness the first steps of mankind’s long progress to the stars.

And from somewhere amid those distant points of light an evil sentience has tumbled. To her followers in the city of Kish she is known as Ishtar the goddess; to the Doctor’s forebears on ancient Gallifrey she was a mythical terror – the Timewyrm.


 

I just sometimes wonder what I’m doing with my life . . . . following the Doctor all over the place

“Okay, what’s this whole “New Adventures Series 1” business?” you may be asking. Well, back when I rediscovered Doctor Who—the first time I was in college—I frequented the Outpost Gallifrey website. The “Canon Keeper’s Guide to Doctor Who” was a semi-mythical document to me. It was the key to long-lost memories and the promise of future entertainment. It made me wonder about this show that I connected to my mythical golden age—my childhood—a time when I had no responsibilities, no cares, no finals, and no research papers. This guide divided the New Adventures into seasons, and I still think of Doctor Who in this way. Yes, the television series is organized according to season/series but to the best of my knowledge the books were never officially viewed this way. But it’s fun nonetheless. I even try to sort Big Finish releases by series, something that is easier now than it used to be.

So according to this model, Timewyrm: Genesys is the pilot to this new series of stories. It has the unenviable position of linking what came before on television to what is yet to be written in novels. It is by no means a bad novel, and it is quite readable but, by a similar token, quite forgettable. And as I mentioned previously, this novel follows the standard Doctor Who trope of alien attempting to conquer humanity during a historical period. Although, this historical time period is actually mythic time, so it takes the ancient space alien route of mythology as extraterrestrial. We get the “real” story behind Gilgamesh before it was altered and polished up by Avram the minstrel. And the twist at the end, the identity of the long-promised Timewyrm, is actually fairly predictable.

It is an interesting place to start and it is quite clunky in places, especially where it tries to refer back to events from the show. The introduction of the Doctor and Ace is particularly strange as it seems to try to introduce new readers to the characters while dropping in-jokes to fans of the show. Until the ancient Mesopotamia story gets going, the novel is slow reading.

By the end of the book I realized I didn’t have much more to add from my previous post. The supporting characters were not very engaging. But as with most pilot episodes, this series is still trying to find its voice, still trying to figure itself out. Next we will see what Terrance Dicks brings to the table.

Timewyrm: Genesys (Doctor Who: The New Adventures) post 1

cover for timewyrm: genesys
Written by

John Peel

Chapters 1 – 4

I can’t imagine this would be a fun novel to write. Oh, I’m sure crafting the story was fun, but the pressure of having the first post-series, original would be intimidating to me. Without a doubt the demand was there. Doctor Who had been off the air for about a year and a half. The show was moving in an interesting direction, making the Doctor more mysterious, giving us a manipulative Doctor who had thing planned out far in advance, someone who took on gods and monsters and won. There were more stories to tell. So many more stories to tell.

Virgin Publishing stepped in to this gap and chose to continue where the series left off. Doctor Who had been in print before, so that was nothing new. What was new, however, was both the original stories aspect, not just a novelization of an episode, and the audience. The New Adventures were not written for the family audience as the show typically was. They were written for the fans who had grown up with the show. Presumably, these fans had money. But what, exactly, constitutes Doctor Who for adults? Complex stories and themes? Darker stories with difficult ideas? Sex?

In practice, all of the above, it would seem. Within these first four chapters, Timewyrm: Genesys gives us naked Ace, adultery, misogyny, groping, sexual assault, and Mesopotamian temple prostitution. These elements aside, what I’ve read so far is somewhat typical territory for Doctor Who: an alien crashes on Earth and sets herself up as a goddess. But that doesn’t mean the story isn’t interesting.

Peel sets this original Doctor Who adventure at the time of Gilgamesh, who is typically considered one of the earliest epic heroes. Gilgamesh was probably a historical figure during the Bronze Age, a king of the ancient city of Uruk. Timewyrm: Genesys, then, in Doctor Who fashion is telling us the “real” story behind the Epic of Gilgamesh. I can get behind that. I enjoy ancient Near East studies. Based on the fragments of the epic that we have, Gilgamesh doesn’t come off as a noble figure. His best friend Enkidu was created by the gods to distract the king who takes any woman he wants. Gilgamesh is a bully and more than a little rapist. This aspect of his personality is present in Peel’s novel, so I think we can put a dark check in the adult box here. The early conflict in the novel comes when Gilgamesh spurns the alien, who eventually takes on the guise of the goddess Ishtar (this is also drawn from the epic tale). And so we have an unlikeable king whose downfall is being planned by jealous nobles and an evil alien who takes control of people’s minds. Where adaptation is concerned, this is interesting. Where likable characters are concerned . . . nil.

Doctor Who – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (The Missing Adventures)

Where Can I Find It?

Book Finder is a great resource.

Written by

Christopher Bulis

What’s It About?

Book copy: ‘There’s no such thing as magic,’ the Doctor said.

But the land of Elbyon might just prove him to be wrong. It is a place, populated by creatures of fantasy, where myth and legend rule. Elves and dwarves live in harmony with mankind, wizards wield arcane powers and armoured knights battle monstrous dragons.

Yet is seems that Elbyon has secrets to hide. The TARDIS crew find a relic from the thirtieth century hidden in the woods. Whose sinister manipulations are threatening the stability of a once peaceful lane? And what part does the planet play in a conflict that may save an Empire, yet doom a galaxy?

To solve these puzzles, and save his companions, the Doctor must learn to use the sorcery whose very existence he doubts.

Cover for The Sorcerer's ApprenticeThe system took care of everything

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice changed my mind about something.

Up until this point, I was approaching Doctor Who as a semi-unified whole. By this, I mean that I was slotting Missing Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures, and Big Finish in to where they would have happened in the original Doctor Who chronology. I am now convinced this is wrong for me to do. By its very nature, due primarily to release schedules for the DVDs (and the VHSs before them) Doctor Who can easily be experienced piece-meal. We can pick up a Fourth Doctor adventure here, a Second Doctor adventure there, a Tenth Doctor adventure afterward and so on and so forth. But I have wanted to see the trajectory of Doctor Who over time. Because of this, I need to craft an artificial headspace in which each era speaks for itself, and by “era” I don’t mean “First Doctor stories, then Second Doctor stories, then Third Doctor stories” and so on; I mean stories written in the 1960s, stories written in the 1970s, stories written in the 1980s, stories written in the 1990s, and you get the idea. And even though Peter Darvill-Evans states in the introduction to Goth Opera that the Missing Adventures “slot seamlessly into a gap between television stories,” they don’t. Not really.

But neither should they have to. While it is a fun detail that Ian starts The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in his “Marco Polo” attire, the story doesn’t seamlessly fit between “Marco Polo” and “Keys of Marinus” because the very approach to science fiction (and Doctor Who) are not the same between the 1960s and the 1990s (when Apprentice was published). Thus, The Missing Adventures line are best read after Doctor Who went on indefinite hiatus in 1989. They are best read along with The New Adventures because they used the same writers and thematically conversed with one another. Between the two publication lines, these novels are a conversation about how to evolve Doctor Who from what it was to what it could be. They are the evolutionary gap between classic Doctor Who and new Doctor Who. And this gap needed to happen. I’m writing this as I’m making my way through “Trial of a Time Lord,” and if nothing else, ToaTL is evidence that the show needs a new path, a new direction. Doctor Who needed to evolve in a way that JNT and Eric Saward could not make it evolve. The novels offered writers, both fans and professionals, the opportunity to force Doctor Who to evolve through trial and error, seeing what works and what doesn’t. The true trial of the Doctor was not on television, it was in these novels. They are the vital gap for seeing the transition from the old series and the new.

All this to say, after The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I will probably not be slotting in Target novels, Missing Adventures, and Past Doctor Adventures into my blog’s chronology without creating the artificial, temporal headspaces. My new approach to Doctor Who is grouping around publication/air dates. Since Doctor Who involves time travel, how unreasonable is it to posit that as the Doctor travels, his past actively shifts and changes? Perhaps one mark of a Time Lord is that such changes don’t destroy the psyche. Perhaps one danger of interference in time is that greater interference causes greater temporal flux, leading to new adventures arising out of this flux.

As for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice itself, the novel is entertaining. Bulis manages to capture the voices of the lead characters, but I am far more interested in his deconstruction of fantasy and mythology. While the story revolves around the mystery of a planet where magic exists, the tropes of fantasy and mythology are the clues to the mystery. The entire story is a meta-commentary on a genre, not evaluating worth, but providing structure and stability to a system that has grown extremely unstable. Here I go in to some spoilers, so abandon reading if you want to approach this story fresh.

The central mystery revolves around an ancient race that had nanotechnology. The technology took care of all their needs and comforts, which led to boredom. So, a group from this race altered the mandate of the technology, and the planet changed. The intellect of the race was suppressed. Humans eventually colonized the world, but by this time the nanotechnology was manifesting thoughts and desires. Human religious ideas incarnated on the planet, creating horrors of every kind. Even people of the same religion would manifest conflicting gods if their theologies were different. One man figured out what was causing this horror and chaos, and he determined that he must erase religion from the minds of the colonists. The only problem with this was, in a system in which all imaginings became real, eliminating religion was only a temporary measure. Any conflict would play out. Thus, he used the technology to re-write the consciousness of all the colonists so that the myths of King Arthur and Merlin became the reality of the people. The ideas present in the mythological stories defined a new reality.

These are interesting ideas, and they even spark a question about mythology as religion. Do these stories of legend become the stand-in for religious belief, only devoid of belief in deities? These are fun questions to ask. It is also fun to identify the myth/fantasy tropes in the novel. Even the Doctor starts to identify them and use them to his advantage. But in the end, once you know the secret in the story, the re-read value diminishes. I have read this novel twice. I loved it the first time; I enjoyed it well enough the second time. Since the tropes are a part of the narrative, essential to the narrative, the story becomes incredibly predictable once you know the secret. There is nothing left to grip the reader.

That said, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is an enjoyable first read. The story works well and the characters are realized well. But this may only be an adventure you embark upon once.

Story Review: The Great God Pan

My treasures from California.
My treasures from California.

Earlier this year I finished reading H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. Inspired by Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” I decided to search out stories which inspired and were inspired by Lovecraft. I didn’t find much help in the local used bookstores in my hometown, but on a trip to California last month I hit the jackpot. I was able to find The House on the Borderlands by William Hope Hodgson, The Last Incantation by Clark Ashton Smith, The Cthulhu Mythos anthology which collects August Derleth’s mythos work, Mysteries of the Worm which collect’s Robert Bloch’s mythos work, and Tales of Horror and the Supernatural Volume 1 by Arthur Machen. And since I am a huge fan of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast, I subscribed to their premium feed (which I highly recommend once you work your way through their coverage of Lovecraft) and have been reading along with them.

This week I completed Arthur Machen’s novella The Great God Pan. This is a fascinating story. It was written in the 1890s. Lovecraft praised it in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and many Lovecraft scholars and fans have noted the influence Pan had on his own story “The Dunwich Horror.”

The Great God Pan is told in eight chapters. It moves jarringly across a handful of years and characters, making the story a bit difficult to follow at times. Machen wrote it early in his career, and it is unpolished. There are a few places where the story is unclear or where the reader has to work a bit to figure out what, exactly, is being said. But what balances Machen’s often clunky prose is his grasp of untold horrors. In some places, Machen only gives us enough details to start the imagination, then stops and lets us fill in the rest of the scene. The unmentionable, indescribable atrocities that occur behind closed bedroom doors, in secret whisperings in high-society dinners, or in Welsh meadows near ancient Roman markers are only as chilling as the reader’s imagination. In fact, the story was denounced at the time because it was considered scandalous and sexually disturbing. By modern standards, the sexual content is so subtle that it can be missed. But this lack of concrete detail serves to emphasize Machen’s personal worldview: a suspicion of naturalism and a love of mysticism. Although a skeptic of the supernatural, Machen did try out some of the mystic orders that existed at the time (including the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), but Machen never entirely turned away from his Christian beliefs. He favored the mysteries and unknown in the spiritual world rather than the strict adherence to a physical, material existence. But where Lovecraft emphasizes cosmic indifference to humanity, Machen emphasizes the dangers to humanity when it acts without wisdom and respect to the spirit world. The ultimate villain of this piece, the one who allows evil to enter the world, is a scientist who is trying to prove a theory. He is cold and clinical, a truly despicable character who views his subject, Mary, as his to experiment on as he pleases. He exposes her to an unfiltered view of reality, which destroys her mind and let’s something evil step into our world.

While The Great God Pan certainly has problems with its prose, the story is still a masterwork of horror and dread. In many places it is very subtle (perhaps too subtle) but it rewards close reading, and I believe it is well-suited for analysis. There is a timelessness to this story that enables it to endure, even if it only endures just beneath the surface of the mainstream.

The Great God Pan can be read online for free at Project Gutenberg. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com. You can subscribe to the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast’s premium feed here and hear all four parts of their coverage of The Great God Pan.

 

Book Review: Stephen King’s The Stand

Earlier this year I shut down King Reads King, a blog where I hoped to write about the experience of reading through Stephen King’s books. I didn’t fully comprehend the time commitment such an undertaking would require. Maybe if I hadn’t gone back to school I would have found the time. Regardless, I couldn’t commit to the new project while I was trying to finish up this blog’s goals. Frustratingly, however, I still wanted to read some of his books. I had already purchased a few of them. They sit on my book shelf, mocking me. So while King Reads King is probably finished for good, I will still be reading through King’s catalog. So long as there are no objections, I will probably write about the experience here.

Incidentally, since the primary focus of this blog is Doctor Who, I get quite a few views from England, is Stephen King popular there? What about other parts of the world?

In the U.S., he has a fairly large readership. Some critics don’t know what to do with him. He is extremely popular and he writes horror. These are qualities that don’t typically get an author access to the higher echelons of literary merit, which is a shame because Stephen King is actually a really good writer. In fact, in “Better Late Than Never?: Stephen King’s The Stand,” Keith Phipps quotes Dorothy Allison, who said that King doesn’t really right horror. Instead, he is a working-class realist. And this is absolutely true. Stephen King is a working-class writer; his fiction has broad appeal. Sure, he writes stories with eldritch horrors and vampires, but his gift is for characterization and slice-of-life moments. The brilliance of a novel such as Salem’s Lot is that the first third of the story is devoted to giving a fleshed-out look at a small town in Maine. He uses this to build suspense, but he also uses it to build the horror as we see how evil infects the town and how the townspeople succumb to it. You can replace the vampires with whatever metaphor you want: Cold War era communism, terrorism, conservatism, liberalism. Or you can enjoy the story as a reinvention of the vampire story. But King’s snapshots of life are rooted distinctly in the United States culture. So I’m curious, what do people of other cultures do with him? Is he popular? How is he viewed? Feel free to comment below.

The Stand
Source: Wikipedia.
Source: Wikipedia.

There are two versions of The Stand. The first was released in the 1970s; the second was released in the 1990s, and it included 400 additional pages. The 1970s version had been cut down due to concerns over binding and cost. By the 1990s, King was a big enough name in the publishing industry that the publishers could release the book as he originally intended. So, he reinserted the cut material and updated a few references to make them more contemporary. But make no mistake, this is a 1970s book. The outlook is rooted in the U.S. cultural climate of that decade.

The book opens with Charles Campion, a soldier at a U.S. military research facility goes AWOL with his wife and child. He doesn’t realize that they are already infected with a super-flu which had been developed at the facility. The super-flu got loose, and now Campion and his family are carriers. In their flight, they create a line of infection that spreads from California to Texas. Since the disease exhibits flu symptoms, it is consistently misdiagnosed until it has become widespread. I believe the mortality rate was given at 70%. The first third of the novel deals with the spread of the super-flu, now generally dubbed Captain Tripps. King introduces us to many of The Stand’s characters during this part of the novel: Stu Redman, Franny Goldsmith, Harold Lauder, Larry Underwood, Nick Andros, Lloyd Henreid, and Randall Flagg. Other characters are introduced in part two of the novel (Mother Abagail, Glen Bateman, Nadine Cross, and Trashcan Man among them). Part two deals with the dreams the survivors have of Mother Abagail, a 108 year old woman who is calling people to her home in Nebraska. But the survivors are also haunted by nightmares of a dark man—Randall Flagg. In this part of the novel, the survivors make the journey to Mother Abagail, then to Boulder, CO, where they establish the Free Zone, an ad hoc community of survivors. But other survivors are flocking to Las Vegas to follow Randall Flagg. Flagg is creating a society according to his own rules, and he sees the Free Zone community as a threat. The people in the Free Zone fear Flagg, and some of their number are tempted by him.

The final part of the novel deals with the final confrontation between members of the Free Zone and Randall Flagg. By this point in the novel, the conflict has been painted in good versus evil, explicitly God versus Evil. Anyone familiar with Stephen King’s fictional world (primarily that of The Dark Tower), know that Randall Flagg is a force of chaos, a trickster creature who prides himself in causing destruction wherever he goes. In The Stand, one character even names him Nyarlathotep from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology. Mother Abagail, on the other hand, is a prophet of God. But she is human and prone to all the weaknesses that come with humanity.

It would be easy to dismiss Stephen King as anti-God or anti-Christianity. He has many characters who display the horrors that can come from extreme religious fundamentalism. In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, King said that he grew up watching televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Jack Van Impe. He found them fascinating, not because he agreed with them, but because he found them entertaining. He appreciated the showmanship. But it is hard to read The Stand and come away thinking that Stephen King is anti-God. He has a firm grasp of certain aspects of theology, one that is probably stronger than the teachings of the men he grew up watching. But he doesn’t really speak much for God. Evil has a voice in Randall Flagg, but God doesn’t have a voice in The Stand; He has a prophet, and that prophet makes mistakes. God remains a mystery in The Stand, but God does unquestionably exist to the reader. Of the characters who see the strongest sign of God and live to talk about it, one is a man with strong a mental handicap and the other is dying of heat exhaustion and infection. But perhaps the greatest examples of Stephen King’s theology (as of 1978, at least) are how he characterizes good and evil among his very human characters. I’m thinking of Larry Underwood and Harold Lloyd in particular.

Larry Underwood as portrayed by Adam Storke in the television adaptation of The Stand. (Source: Stephen King Wiki. Copyright 1999 by Artisan.)
Larry Underwood as portrayed by Adam Storke in the television adaptation of The Stand. (Source: Stephen King Wiki. Copyright 1999 by Artisan.)

Larry Underwood is a bit of a washed-up rock star. He had a hit single and pursued the lifestyle of a rock star: girls, drugs, girls, and drugs. Unfortunately, he was unable to have a follow-up hit, and his lifestyle had bled him dry financially. After getting in to debt with the wrong people, Larry returned to New York City to live with his mother and try to get his life back together as well as get some money to pay off what he owed. But as they say, old habits die hard. He had pretty-much kicked the drugs by this time, but the habits he had were behavioral. His struggle was that he blamed others for his failures. He never owned his own mistakes. This caused him to be dishonest with himself about his own motivations. Thus, he never would have been able to put his life back together. Then Captain Tripps hit, and he was put into positions of leadership, not out of choice, but out of necessity. As he tried to make sense of this post-apocalyptic world, a woman died because he couldn’t help her. This caused him to question himself even further. He later met up with Nadine Cross and Joe, and formed a makeshift family—mother, father, and son. He couldn’t consummate the husband/wife relationship, however, because Nadine had her own agenda—she believed herself to be promised to a man, later revealed to be Randall Flagg. Nadine rejected Larry’s love to pursue Flagg, thus choosing evil (although, Mother Abagail told her in a dream that she had a choice and that Larry was becoming a good man). But it is the bond between Larry and Joe that healed Larry. He had grown up without a father. Joe forced him to become a father, thus forcing Larry to become the man he needed in his own life. But Larry always had a choice. There are moments when he realized he could choose to respond according to habit or according to who he was becoming, most specifically when Nadine finally offered herself to Larry even though he had already started seeing another woman. He realized that the work of just a few moments would give him the woman he had desired for months, but to do so would also cause him to reject another woman (Lucy) who represented his new life. It was the choice between the new Larry and the old Larry. He chose new life.

Harold Lauder as drawn by Mike Perkins in the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Stand.  (Source: Comic Vine. Copyright by Marvel Comics.)
Harold Lauder as drawn by Mike Perkins in the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Stand. (Source: Comic Vine. Copyright by Marvel Comics.)

The opposite equation is Harold Lauder. Harold dreamed of being a writer. He was extremely nerdy and pedantic. He was a know-it-all. His father didn’t like him, and accused him of being gay. His parents poured all their attention into his attractive sister. Harold was bullied at school. No one saw his worth as a person. Because of this, he built up fantasies, both from the fiction he read and from his adolescent desires. He didn’t learn to view people as people, but as caricatures of his fantasy life. When he and Fran were the only survivors in Ogunquit, Maine, he took it upon himself to protect her, to save her. He fell in love with her—or at least, with the fantasy of Harold saving Fran. When they joined up with Stu Redman, Harold was threatened. Stu initially denied being interested in a relationship with Fran, but he soon realized that he was wrong. Stu fell in love with her and Fran with him. The decisive moment of Harold’s development is when he decided to read Fran’s diary. She had written all her thoughts on Stu and Harold, the latter being quite harsh at times. Harold realized as he held the diary that he had the choice to put it down and walk away. Choosing to read the diary would be an act in which he embraced the old way of thinking: the world of jocks who made fun of him and of parents who were not loving. Walking away would empower him to find a new life in this new world, symbolizing turning his back on the old world. He chose to read the diary, which proved all his fears: Fran didn’t love him, she loved Stu. Harold could not learn to live outside of how people viewed him or what people thought of him. He reacted to those views and let them define him. Thus, he became every bad thing that people saw in him. He lived in fantasy, and when Flagg tempted him, he gave him those fantasies. But they were empty. Harold’s story ends in tragedy. After accomplishing Flagg’s commands, Harold is cast aside as worthless.

So, where Larry Underwood embraced self, Harold embraced ego. Larry embraced compassion for others, Harold embraced the other as wish-fulfillment, as something to be manipulated to gain his own desires.

Concluding Thoughts

The Stand is an impressive work. It deserves three stars out of five just for the fact that it is over 1000 pages and it all holds together. But while Stephen King has a very conversational style, there were passages that I struggled with. There were times when I felt the novel went on too long. I have since learned that some of those passages were ones that were cut from the original publication. (One day soon I want to read the original version to see if it resonates with me more.) I think there is a bit of fat that could be trimmed from the uncut version. (In particular I am thinking of the chapter with Trashcan Man and The Kid, which I think I would prefer to never think about again, but also some chapters when King widens the scope to show us what is happening in different parts of the country when Captain Tripps is running rampant. That went on a bit too long for my liking. It slowed the pace too much.) I also had difficulty with Trashcan Man and Nadine. Both of them felt like plot devices rather than characters. An attempt was made to give them development, but they never entirely rose above device for me. They didn’t feel as real or sympathetic as other characters. If The Stand were written by an author with less talent than Stephen King, I probably wouldn’t have been bothered by this, but King is great at writing characters. When compared to the journeys and motivations of Larry Underwood and Harold Lauder, Nadine and Trashy just don’t seem up to King’s standards. In all, The Stand is a very good work, but it is still rough around the edges.

My Rating

A solid 3/5

My Favorite H.P. Lovecraft Stories: A Top Ten

A photo of H.P. Lovecraft
Source: WikiCommons.

For nearly two years I have been reading through a copy of H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction. I completed it this month, and decided to share my ten favorite stories from the book. There were others that I enjoyed (“From Beyond,” “Herbert West—Reanimator,” “The Picture in the House,” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), but they didn’t quite make the top ten cut. I tried to limit my list to stories that I would be likely to read again for fun.

  1. At the Mountains of Madness – Hailed as Lovecraft’s most successful novel, At the Mountains of Madness is gripping and chilling in some places, slow and dull in others. But the scope and ambition are admirable. This story lays out a history of some of Lovecraft’s mythology, all in the guise of arctic exploration gone wrong. I confess this is not my favorite of Lovecraft’s works, but the exploration of the Old Ones is interesting. The arctic horror is awesome!
  2. The Cats of Ulthar” – Lovecraft loved cats, and this story illustrates why you should always treat cats with respect. This story is perfect for a Halloween reading or recitation. It is simple, concise, and it reads like a fairy tale.
  3. The Colour Out of Space” – This story relates the horrific aftermath of a meteorite crash in the backwoods of Arkham, MA. This may well be Lovecraft’s best story. It is clear, concise, and incredibly creepy. I don’t scare easily (when reading, anyway), but this story did it. I remember sitting on the couch at one in the morning, desperately trying to reach the end because if I didn’t finish the story, the cosmic horror could transcend the story and emerge in my house.
  4. The Call of Cthulhu” – This is Lovecraft’s best-known story. Many of the themes and ideas that Lovecraft flirted with during his early career brilliantly come together here.
  5. The Festival” – There is something about the tone and atmosphere of this story that I find fascinating. The story takes place during the Christmas season, and I think that is what works for me. Christmas is frequently portrayed as a magical time; why wouldn’t it be magically horrible as well? What better time than Christmas to learn about the dark legacy of your family?
  6. The Music of Erich Zann” – After “The Colour Out of Space,” this is one of Lovecraft’s more accessible stories. I love the idea of forgotten streets taking someone to hidden parts of a town. I love that music can act as a conduit to the otherworldly. This story is a lot of fun.
  7. Pickman’s Model” – Like “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Music of Erich Zann,” “Pickman’s Model” is a story that is accessible to a general readership. It is creepy and plotted well. In fact, I would say Neil Gaiman’s A Short Film About John Bolton takes inspiration from this story.
  8. The Shadow Over Innsmouth” – Another genuinely creepy story, this novella follows Robert Olmstead, who is looking up genealogical data. He decides to visit Innsmouth, a town that many people in New England tell him to avoid. It is a dying town. If you’ve enjoyed the Silent Hill games, or Stephen King’s short story “Jerusalem’s Lot,” you will enjoy this story.
  9. The Temple” – One of Lovecraft’s best early stories. A World War I lieutenant-commander on a German sub slowly descends into madness as his crew encounters mysterious nightmares and visions.
  10. The Whisperer in Darkness” – This is my absolute favorite story by H.P. Lovecraft. I prefer it to “The Colour Out of Space.” It follows Albert Wilmarth as he corresponds with Henry Akeley, a man who believes extraterrestrial creatures live in the woods around his cabin. As Akeley begins to collect evidence, which he sends to Wilmarth, the aliens begin to harass him. The story is somewhat predictable, although it doesn’t quite work out the way you expect, but the atmosphere and tension is masterfully conveyed. After reading through this story, I coincidentally began listening to Role Playing Public Radio’s actual play of “Convergence,” a Delta Green scenario which features the aliens from “Whisperer.” I highly recommend both.

Now that I have finished Lovecraft’s fiction (well, the non-collaborative fiction), I’m trying to decide which weird fiction/supernatural horror writer to read next. I’ve already read The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers. Ideally, I would like to start on Clark Ashton Smith, but the collected works series I want is a bit pricey. I may read Poe since I already have a complete collection.

But I am always open to more suggestions. I’ve enjoyed Lovecraft. Who else should I check out in the weird tradition?