Lord of the Flies

Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies by William Golding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Somehow, Golding’s classic LORD OF THE FLIES was overlooked in my reading history. Either the novel wasn’t assigned to me in high school the way it was for everyone else, or it was and I didn’t bother reading it (I neglected about half my school assignments; I was a bad student). But now, several decades later, I finally picked it up, and I’m glad I did. I didn’t completely love it — I found the first half rather slow and at times uninvolving — but I thought it was very good. It’s a deeply symbolic work, with symbolism that isn’t often very subtle, but it works well as an adventure story, too. I thought there were a few standout scenes in the latter half, though none so amazing as the one scene in which the titular character makes its appearance. At that moment, like no other in the novel, LORD OF THE FLIES feels vibrantly alive to me, and the story tips compellingly into horror territory (which is probably why the scene stands out so much to me). Overall, I enjoyed the novel and am glad to have finally filled this gap in my literary education. Sucks to your ass-mar!

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I give this one all the stars! What a fun, tight, and surprising novella! We all know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but in reading Stevenson’s original novella I realized the source material is very different from what we know from movies, cartoon spoofs, and just general societal osmosis. We tend to think of it as Jekyll’s story, his scientific quest to isolate the parts of man that are evil, his stumbling upon the potion that creates Hyde, etc. None of this matches Stevenson’s vision.

The first pleasant surprise for me is that Jekyll is not the story’s protagonist. Our POV character is Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s lawyer, through whose eyes the mystery of Jekyll’s relationship to Hyde unfolds. I was also surprised to discover Hyde already exists when the story starts, and has for some time. In fact, the revelation that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same person is saved for the big reveal at the end!

Jekyll’s motivations are revealed to be quite different from what I thought from those other versions; he is far more selfish and desperate to walk on the dark side without tarnishing his good name. We tend to think of Jekyll and Hyde like Bruce Banner and the Hulk, with one personality going to sleep while the other takes over, but that’s not the case here. Hyde *is* Jekyll, with all his memories fully intact, but with his id finally released from the domineering superego of societal norms. Nor is Hyde portrayed as the hideously disfigured creature of the films. Instead, he is shorter than Jekyll (his child self, one could argue; a throwback to Jekyll’s own hinted-at wild youth) and sports an evil expression that implies, at worst, deviousness. He’s no monster, at least not physically. It’s his crimes, all of which happen off the page and are related to Utterson after the fact, that make him one.

Despite this 1886 novella’s archaic language (“cabinet” is used in place of “study,” for example, which was something I had to look up), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a fast and highly enjoyable read. Without a doubt it’s one of my new favorites of classic horror literature.

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The Scariest Part: Jason Ridler Talks About HEX-RATED

I’m delighted that my guest this week on The Scariest Part is an old friend of mine from way back, author Jason Ridler, whose latest novel is Hex-Rated. Here is the publisher’s description:

Fall, 1970. Los Angeles has always been a den of danger and bliss, but even darker tidings brew in the City of Angels. Cults, magic, and the supernatural are leaking into the worlds of glamour and dives of the gutter. To the spectators walking down Hollywood Blvd, it’s just more proof that La La Land is over the cuckoo’s nest. But to former child magician and Korean veteran turned newly-licensed private investigator James Brimstone, it means business is picking up.

After attending his mentor’s funeral, Brimstone signs his first client: Nico, a beautiful actress with a face full of scars and an unbelievable story of sex, demons, and violence on the set of a pornographic film in the San Fernando Valley. The cops chalk it up to a bad trip from a lost soul, but Brimstone knows better.

He takes the case, but the investigation goes haywire as he encounters Hell’s Angels, a lost book of Japanese erotica, and a new enemy whose powers may fill the streets of L.A. with blood. He’ll have to use his Carney wits, magic tricks, and a whole lotta charm to make it out of a world that is becoming . . . Hex-Rated.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Jason S. Ridler:

Hex-Rated, the debut novel in my new series The Brimstone Files, is a supernatural mystery set in porn industry of 1970s LA. And the scariest part was writing the sexy bits.

I’ve written about love, lust, violence, horror and the grotesque for almost twenty years but this was a legit novel! And unlike Harlan Ellison and other heroes who wrote dirty books under pennames, I’d be using my own. What would the neighbors think? What might my family think???

Then I recalled a chat I had with my friend Weird-Ass Neil, back when I started writing fiction. Over hyper-priced coffee I complained that I was stalled. All my characters were lone wolves who had no family because I was worried that if I wrote a father, a mother, or sister…my real life family would scream, “That’s how you think of me? HOW DARE YOU!”

Ol’ Weird-Ass Neil’s about as blunt as a cement brick in the face. His response? “Sounds like you’re giving other people a lot of authority over what you can write, and they’re not even in the room. Dude, I think this is a recipe for mediocrity.” He was right. Fear of external judgment is the killer of creativity. If you please everyone, you’ll hate the work yourself. So I started writing about families and their influences (good, bad, and fugly) and my characters became vastly more interesting and “rounded” and I leveled up as a writer.

So, when I found myself at that crossroad of “Fear of External Judgment” again, I ran in the other direction. Hex-Rated is a pulp novel so there damn well better be some pulp sex. At the same time, the last thing I wanted was some kind of tribute to misogynist power-fantasies of that era. So I made Brimstone a sheet warrior, but a progressive and left-wing child of the Beats with an open mind and forward attitude about sex and sexuality. Yes, the sex in the novel is over the top and primarily built for hetero-normative modes, but it also fit his character and his attitudes. And, I hope, they’re fun to read!

Then, I waited for responses from the big bad world and the results have been HILARIOUS!

Some fans love those scenes for being salacious and ridiculous. Others say they’re “too much,” and Brimstone is “too good” at the beast-with-two-backs to be taken seriously. And my family, in true “children of the 1980s fashion,” skipped those parts like Fast Forwarding the “adult situations” in a teen comedy! I’ve walked the line, as Johnny Cash would say, with some folks loving the lusty bits, others hating them, and most folks loving the story and editing them to suit their interests.

That’s the kind of happy ending you only get when you don’t give in…to the Scariest Part!

Hex-Rated: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Powell’s / IndieBound

Jason Ridler: Blog / Facebook / Twitter

Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and left-wing military historian. His novels include Hex-Rated, the first installment of the Brimstone Files series for Nightshade Press, Rise of the Luchador, and Death Match. He’s also published over sixty stories and numerous academic publications. FXXK WRITING! A Guide for Frustrated Artists collects the best of his column of the same name, and his next historical work, Mavericks of War, is forthcoming from Stackpole Books. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA and is a Teaching Fellow for Johns Hopkins University.

Legion (Not the TV Show)

Legion (Exorcist, #3)Legion by William Peter Blatty
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the twelve years that passed between THE EXORCIST and LEGION, its sequel, author William Peter Blatty honed his writing skills. For the most part, I found LEGION to be a much better written novel than THE EXORCIST, at least on the prose level. When it comes to focus, however, I found Blatty’s writing here as frustrating as ever. Whole scenes and conversations amount to nothing and go nowhere. The entirety of the story is crammed into the first few chapters and the last few chapters, with the middle chapters containing little more than filler, especially the multiple chapters that follow Dr. Amfortas, a character who ultimately winds up not doing much at all. If Amfortas were removed from the novel, nothing would change but the word count.

Lieutenant Kinderman is presented somewhat better here than he was in THE EXORCIST, but his dialogue still comes off like someone doing a bad impression of a nebbishy Jewish person. The dialogue of his mother-in-law, whom we meet in Kinderman’s home life, is even worse. The mystery at the heart of the novel is good, and the supernatural elements are chilling, and they alone are what save LEGION from being utterly forgettable. I’m a big fan of the film adaptation — released as THE EXORCIST III: LEGION and starring the great George C. Scott as Kinderman — but the end of the novel is both different from and, unexpectedly, worse than the movie’s. The film’s producers famously demanded that an exorcism be added to the climax, since the word “exorcist” was in the title and they thought that was what the audience wanted to see. I always thought it was a mistake and wondered what the real ending was. Well, now I know. In the novel, the killer’s motivation, which involves a character we meet only once in a complete throw-away of a chapter, is resolved off-page when we’re told that character died from a stroke, and so the killer just stops killing and — literally — lies down and dies. The end.

There’s a theological philosophy couched in the novel that’s interesting, something about who is really watching over the world since it clearly isn’t God, and I wish more time had been spent exploring it. I also wish it had tied in a little better with the plot. But then, I kind of wish everything had tied in a little better with the plot. Ultimately, LEGION is a messy novel with a few good scenes and a couple of good chills, but not a novel I would recommend to anyone but Blatty completists or fans of Lt. Kinderman who want to see where his adventures take him after THE EXORCIST. For everyone else, rent the movie instead, bad exorcism scene and all.

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