13 Creepy Reads for Halloween

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With only three weeks to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who wants sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?

#1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. Enter Viktor Frankenstein.

Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of the scientist’s monster, after which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness. This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie.’ Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclined to agree.

#2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you should let her off given that this story is the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story – there are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there? Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.

#3 The Collector by John Fowles

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Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…

What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.

#4 The Thing on the Doorstep, and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

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‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with his work. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? Lovecraft has been credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him.

After reading a few of Lovecraft’s stories, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories. So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, it’s probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!! *ahem* Better safe than sorry.

#5 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).

Frank occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals, one of which involves the ‘Wasp Factory’ referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine). Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future.

The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.

#6 Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.

Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance, attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. This novel has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?

#7 The Shining by Stephen King

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No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”, no silly garden maze or childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.

The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves he and his family snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.

In this novel, King shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Read the book.

#8 Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.

This is, effectively, my worst nightmare: he human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out.  In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.

#9 House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

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Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.

Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity. However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take hold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, in some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!

#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker

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Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…

All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the beast. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!

#11 Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabilia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…

#12 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Beukes’ novel, set in Depression-era Chicago, follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.

The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!

#13 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….

Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life, where we learn that the most dangerous desires cannot even be eradicated by death. This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?

(Images: Amazon UK)

The Best ‘Mr Men’ Book Reviews You’ll Ever Read

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Every now and again, the Internet offers you an absolute gem – this is one of those times. Thought you were familiar with Hargreaves’ Mr Men series? Think again!

Original credit goes to Hamilton Richardson – his original reviews can be seen via Amazon by linking here.


MrStrong

Entitled ‘A Timely Meditation

“What a triumph it is, this Nietzschean parable of the Superman. Mr Strong’s very being brims with the Will To Power, for which his physical strength is not a delicate metaphor. He hammers a nail into walls with his finger, he ties a knot in an iron bar.

Furthermore, he manifests this sheer force and charisma often quite despite himself. He tears a door off its hinges totally by accident, and barely notices as a bus is written off in collision with him. The symbolism of both of these events is important. The incident with the door makes explicit that it is the world around Mr Strong that must change – not he – however violent this birth of the new. It is equally significant that Mr Strong’s own inattentiveness to road safety causes the crash – he cannot help but exist above the social rules that govern the majority, beyond Good and Evil.

This is not to say that Mr Strong ever uses his innate superiority to do wrong – he is every bit as good an egg as those which form his principal diet. One feels he would be just as horrified as Nietzsche himself was by the anti-Semitism of Wagner.

Whatever the case, destiny calls the Superman. And with a fire in a field he yanks a barn from its foundations (a clever metaphor for the dramatic social change brought about by iconoclasts such as he). He fills it with water, empties it upon the chaotic inferno, dousing its flames with his might. Without so much as a second thought, he seizes his moment in history.

Thus sprach Zarathustra.”

MrHappy

Entitled ‘A Young Person’s Guide to Individuation

“In his third work, Mr Happy, Hargreaves takes us on a Jungian journey to the integrated self.

The story starts by introducing us to the supposedly perfect life that our eponymous hero appears to live – the tranquilized bliss and counterfeit euphoria of Happyland. Yet what is it that leads Mr Happy to wander away from an existence that, if truly flawless, should suffice to satisfy and sustain him? Why this need to venture deep into the mysterious unknown of the forest? To open a door in a tree-trunk and descend a staircase beneath the ground to the deepest recesses of the unconscious?

Here lays the crux of this exploration of analytical psychology – the defining happiness of our central character is revealed as nothing more than a persona. His name and outward appearance are a mask to the outside world and from himself. It is the very inauthenticity of this state of affairs that drives him on the voyage to seek out and confront the root of the dissonance that this generates within him.

For indeed, what does he come face-to-face with at the foot of these stairs but his own repressed sadness? This comes in the form of his miserable alter ego – physically identical, polar opposite in mood. It is only through this confrontation with the shadow that his unsustainable persona can find authentic resolution and true integration of the self be achieved. These archetypes are quite literally brought to light as Mr Happy coaxes Mr Miserable up to the surface and into view of the conscious mind in a climax of now genuine peace and bliss.

In a knowing nod to his source material, Hargreaves depicts Mr Happy as round – a shape he shares with the mandala.”

MrSmall

Entitled ‘Bleasdale Was Beaten To It’

“Mr Small is Hargreaves’ `Boys From The Blackstuff’. Here he adopts a more naturalistic style, putting aside explicit exposition of academic schools of thought along with his usual moral and philosophical preoccupations. In a manner that is almost kitchen sink, we follow the working class everyman – quite literally the small man – as he searches for a job in 70s Britain. Thematically Hargreaves shows his vision, as he presages the mass unemployment that was to come in the 1980s.

Mr Small tries a succession of jobs for which he is woefully mismatched – they are all manifestly too big for him. He lacks the basic knowledge and skills to hold down any of the occupations he attempts. Does Hargreaves here break from his usual social conservatism with a damning indictment of an education system that is not adequately preparing the workforce for increasingly skilled and mechanized labour? And in this does he further express his frustration at how his own fictional potentialities have been manacled and constrained by this state of affairs?
For indeed, Hargreaves himself seems to give up on Mr Small – in a wry narrative flourish of course. Beneath the surface positivity of the ending, we at best encounter stoicism, with a definite undercurrent of fatalistic dread at what the very near future holds. The shadow of the impending Thatcher years is already falling across the world of the Mr Men. If Hargreaves has deprived him of revolutionary socialism in Mr Uppity – or even the more modest protection of the centre-left – there is nothing Mr Small can do but passively accept his situation. Mr Robertson, a literary personification of statutory intervention, is ultimately powerless to help him. The collective sentiment of the workers – embodied by a friendly postman – offers nothing practical, just sympathy. The only job that Mr Small proves fit to do is recount his story to the author. (Contrast this with the earlier Mr Bump, who successfully finds a job compatible with his idiosyncrasies as a character.)

Hargreaves, with characteristic genius, holds up his hands and laments his own impotence. But if Mr Small cannot be saved, at least he has been given a voice.”

MrBounce

Entitled ‘Dasein: A Thrown Project’

“An infant’s primer in Existentialism, we find in this book a weighty treatise on the personal politics of agency and empowerment, taking ownership and authorship of one’s own life.

Such is the force with which this Heideggerian hero is hurled into the world that he has not stopped bouncing since. This is Mr Bounce’s facticity – the set of circumstances, both of himself and his environment, in which he finds himself as a subjectivity. That is, his ceaseless bouncing is the hand that life has dealt him, owing to his unique position in time, in history, as a conscious being in a sensory world.

The phrase above is the key to this tale – ‘he finds himself as a subjectivity’. In the early stages of the story, his experience is more that of an object as he randomly bounces his way through his life, exerting next to no control. It is important to be aware, as ever with Hargreaves, that this is not merely a matter of the physical, the material. The most crucial passage of this masterwork is where Mr Bounce is beaten around like a tennis ball by two players who appear to lack any concept of his personhood. This is just as we are all to some extent shunted to and fro by the whims and vagaries of das Man, The They – the unthinking, amorphous collective abnegation of Will. Here we confront Bad Faith – inauthentic existence.

Unlike many though, perhaps due to his particularly vivid and immediate experience of this phenomenon, Mr Bounce is spurred into action. In a visit to a doctor (of philosophy?), Mr Bounce is presented with the perfect solution – a pair of heavy boots.

Acknowledging his facticity he also transcends it, through choice – the active exercise of free will. Newly grounded in the uniqueness of his being, his bouncing ceases – the emancipatory conclusion of this work is the achievement of agency, authentic being.”

MrTickle

Entitled ‘Freud Helps Hargreaves loosen His Tie’

“Hargreaves’ first work, and regarded by many as his masterpiece, Mr Tickle is something of a rarity amongst the Mr Men books. Elsewhere, we see much exposition on the pitfalls of excess – such as in Mr Greedy and Mr Messy, for instance – but a distinct lack of discourse on personalities that are over- rather than under-regulated. A case in point might be another work, Mr Fussy, which stands out as an opportunity glaringly missed. Despite a faintly ridiculing tone to the prose, this is essentially a lamentation on how others cannot live up to the high ideals and perfectionism of its titular central character. It is at best an ambiguous critique of repression, and Mr Fussy escapes the moral judgment so often dished out to others in the series.

So what a glorious anomaly we find in Mr Tickle – a breath of fresh air from the unrestrained id. The all-consuming sensual delight he offers relentlessly disrupts the social order. A postman drops all his letters in a puddle, the tickling of a policeman causes a traffic jam, and the unbearable reverie he inflicts upon a station master brings the local rail network to a temporary standstill. There is something almost Bakhtinian about the manner in which he tickles a dour schoolmaster until he loses control in front of his class.

But Mr Tickle is not Stirner’s Egoist, nor does he proclaim `do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’. And if he is a terrorist, his weapons are laughter and ecstasy. Though his principal targets may well be those who wear uniforms – those who exercise, embody and therefore are most in the grip of Authority – we would be mistaken to think that Hargreaves’ purpose is to challenge the external Social Order. Rather, it is to loosen the vice-like grip of an interior foe: the overdeveloped Superego.

We note that Mr Tickle himself is no slave to sensory delight – quite the opposite; he is a model of psychical equilibrium. At the end of his day’s escapades he relaxes in an armchair, sated and quiescent. Our hero preaches a message of catharsis – a call to arms against becoming too bogged down by self-suppression and normative regulation. Via psychoanalysis, we arrive at an Aristotlean middle way, and are left with the gentle realisation of our need to give a measure of expression to desire and joy.

Because one thing we can be sure of is that the more we repress the pleasure principle, the more we guarantee that sooner or later we will fall victim to an overpowering and fervid release from the id.

And rest assured, it will be at just that hour we fail our Superego the most.”

MrUppity

Entitled ‘Hargreaves: Bolshevik, or Monarchist?’

“In the opening few pages of this, the 11th work in the Mr Man series, we are almost led to expect of Hargreaves a foray into dialectical materialism.

We meet Mr Uppity with his top hat and monocle – a clear and overt representation of the bourgeois industrialist. Other arriviste trappings such as his long limousine and imposing townhouse further give the game away.

In a thinly-veiled reference to the oppression of the workers by the ruling class, we are told that Mr Uppity is rude to everyone, and the detail that he has no friends in Bigtown explicitly informs us that the masses are on the brink of revolution. Are we about to bear witness to class war, Hargreaves-style? To see Mr Uppity brought to account by the revolutionary power of the proletariat? Vanquished and overthrown by the party of the workers?

Not so. Mr Uppity is no Marxian analysis, no Leninist prescription for class action. As always, Hargreaves’ inherent and essential conservatism comes to bear. His critique of the bourgeoisie comes not from the proletariat but from the feudal aristocracy. It is the authority of a king that places limits upon Mr Uppity’s excesses, as his usurpation and arbitrary exercise of power has violated ‘the natural order of things’. Hence the protection the masses are dealt in response to this transgression is paternal, and they receive it as subjects not radical agents of change.

Being so staunch a traditionalist, Hargreaves of necessity is a reformer not a revolutionary. The King does not have Mr Uppity executed, imprisoned or even sent into exile. There is no state seizure and collectivization of his wealth, or in fact any redistribution at all. (Despite his pomp and grandeur, the King no longer has such powers – both the outward self-importance and ultimate weakness of his intervention appear little more than a face-saving exercise for his waning hereditary rule.)

Rather, in the end it is the mildest of all regulation that is imposed upon the capitalist class. The ownership of the means of production remains the same, with no fundamental change to the economic base – just some superstructural tinkering to rein-in any overly brutal treading on the small man. The ruling class can do pretty much as it did before, as long as it says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. The aristocracy is duly appeased.

Hence we arrive at the Britain Hargreaves lived in – a gently regulated capitalism coupled with sham aristocracy, maintained by our own collective nostalgia and a national lack of appetite for mass action.”

MrMessy

Entitled ‘Upsetting Echoes of Josef K’

“If ‘1984’ or ‘The Trial’ had been a children’s book, Mr Messy would be it. No literary character has ever been so fully and categorically obliterated by the forces of social control. Hargreaves may well pay homage to Kafka and Orwell in this work, but he also goes beyond them.

We meet Mr Messy – a man whose entire day-to-day existence is the undiluted expression of his individuality. His very untidiness is a metaphor for his blissful and unselfconscious disregard for the Social Order. Yes, there are times when he himself is a victim of this individuality – as when he trips over a brush he has left on his garden path – but he goes through life with a smile on his face.

That is, until a chance meeting with Mr Neat and Mr Tidy – the archetypal men in suits. They set about a merciless programme of social engineering and indoctrination that we are left in no doubt is in flagrant violation of his free will. ‘But I like being messy’ he protests as they anonymize both his home and his person with their relentless cleaning activity, a symbolism thinly veiled.

This process is so thorough that by the end of it he is unrecognizable – a homogenized pink blob, no longer truly himself (that vibrant Pollock-like scribble of before). He smiles the smile of a brainwashed automaton, blandly accepting what he has been given no agency to question or refuse. It is in this very smile that the sheer horror of what we have seen to occur is at its most acute.

Somewhere behind this blank expression though is a latent anger – a trace of self-knowledge as to what he once was – in the barbed observation he makes to Neat and Tidy that they have even deprived him of his name.

The book ends with a dry reminder from Hargreaves that just as with the secret police in some totalitarian regime, our own small expressions of uniqueness and volition may also result in a visit from these sinister suited agents.”


Hope you enjoyed these reviews as much as I did! 🙂

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #12 & #13

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13HalloweenReads2With only a couple of days to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


#12 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Beukes’ novel is simply one of the most compelling books I’ve ever read. Set in Depression-era Chicago, it follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.

The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!


#13 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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I know this isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli. Eli lives with an older man named Håkan, a former teacher who was fired when caught with possession of child pornography and has since become a vagrant. It is soon revealed that Eli is a vampire who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….

Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life. Among the details revealed is that Eli is a boy who was castrated when he was turned into a vampire over 200 years ago. However, Eli dresses in female clothing and is perceived by outsiders as a young girl. Håkan serves Eli, whom he loves, by procuring blood from the living, fighting against his conscience and choosing victims whom he can physically trap, but who are not too young. Eli gives him money for doing this, though Håkan makes it clear he would do it for nothing if Eli allowed them to be physically intimate. This is a desire which cannot even be eradicate by death, and the novel goes on to show…

This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #10 & #11

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13HalloweenReads2With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker

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Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…

All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the best. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!


#11 Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Joe Hill is actually a pseudonym – the writer of this book is none other than Stephen King’s son… and I think it is safe to say that he has inherited his parents’ talents (as his mother, Tabitha, is also a successful writer). Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabillia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. It also, interestingly, gives a window into the old culture of rock ‘n’ roll; of drugs, booze and women; late nights, fast cars and constant parties. This makes it grittier and all the more real.

If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #7, #8, & #9

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13HalloweenReads2With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


#7 The Shining by Stephen King

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No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King, and this is one of my absolute favourites. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”. There’s no silly garden maze, or silly childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.

The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. As the job means remaining in the hotel all winter, Jack’s wife and young son family accompany him on this job. Danny, Jack’s son, possesses “the shining”: an array of psychic abilities that allow him to see the horrific things that have happened in the hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves them snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.

In this novel, King demonstrates his uncanny ability to vocalise the most primitive of our fears, and give a face to the darkest aspects of the subconscious. He shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place.

Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals.

Seriously.

Don’t believe me? Read the book.


#8 Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he was caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell and has subsequently lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.

This is, effectively, my worst nightmare. The human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out. Trumbo does not flinch or shy from the subject, though. In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war.

That is, perhaps, the reason why this novel was so highly acclaimed – it is at once horrific and eye-opening. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.


#9 House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

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Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves!) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.

The book begins with a first-person narrative by Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee, desperate flat-hunter, and professed unreliable narrator. Truant discovers a manuscript written by the deceased Zampanò, the former elderly tenant of a flat in his friend Lude’s building, which turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called ‘The Navidson Record’. The rest of the novel incorporates several narratives, including Zampanò’s report on the fictional film; Truant’s autobiographical interjections; a small transcript of part of the film from Navidson’s brother, Tom; a small transcript of interviews of many people regarding ‘The Navidson Record’ by Navidson’s partner, Karen; and occasional brief notes by unidentified editors, all woven together by a mass of footnotes. There is also another narrator, Truant’s mother, whose voice is presented through a self-contained set of letters titled ‘The Whalestoe Letters’. All this interweaves to create one unforgettable story.

Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity.  The possibilties really are endless here, because the interpretation required is so subjective – the text manages to be whatever you want it to be.

However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take ahold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, n some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you. You’ll find yourself closing the cover, wondering if the nightmares will actually come (assuming they haven’t already, that is)… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #4, #5 & #6

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With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


 #4 The Thing on the Doorstep, and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

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‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest – in my opinion, this is one of his creepiest stories, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s work, because it will give you a good idea of what to expect. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? If you’re familiar with the Cthulhu mythos universe of horror fiction, then the idea of a body-snatcher that may look, sound and move like us but contains something much darker may be expected – admittedly, none of Lovecraft’s stories have happy endings.

He has, however, credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him. Whether you believe that or not, it’s hard to deny that Lovecraft’s stories are imaginative, sinister and deeply unsettling. After reading a few of these, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories.

So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, its probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!!

*ahem* Better safe than sorry. 🙂


#5 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Admittedly, I am a little bias, as this is one of my favourite books (OK, it has a lot of company on that list, but it’s still a favourite) – however, I think I can fairly say that Banks’ novel is truly a work of modern horror. Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, On Earth, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).

Frank lives on a rural Scottish island and occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals – one of these involves the ‘Wasp Factory’, referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box and salvaged from the local dump. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine) for the wasp that Frank puts into the hole at the centre within tubes. Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future. There are also ‘Sacrifice Poles’, upon which hang the bodies and heads of larger animals that Frank has killed and other sacred items. They define and ‘protect’ the borders of Frank’s territory – something which he guards with an array of weapons (from a catapult to pipe bombs and flame throwers) – and allow him to effectively control his part of the island.

The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.


#6 Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.

Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance,  attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. For the academics out there, Stoker’s text offers a rich demonstration of colonialism in action, and when read in this light, it is difficult not to sympathise with the vampires (even if their culinary tastes are somewhat primitive). Stoker also offers an interesting portrayal of womanhood, particularly with Mina, who meets all the standards for a Victorian heroine.

Basically, Stoker’s work has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #1, #2 & #3

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With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’m putting together a list of thirteen scary stories (in instalments) that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


 #1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, the then-18 year old Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. She famously stated that: “I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

She takes the same eerie approach shown here to the narration in her novel, and the results are breathtaking. The reader soon comes to realise that the creator of this patchwork horror, the scientist Victor Frankenstein, has unleashed forces far beyond his control. Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of this monster, in which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness.

This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie’.  The book embodies qualities of both Gothicism and Romanticism, subverting the Biblical myth of creation to create something both beautiful and terrible. Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclinced to agree. If you’ve never read it before, why not give it a try this Halloween?


#2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you can let her off for that, given that this story is, in fact, the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! There’s a good reason so many people have copied it – Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story. There are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Jackson has certainly earned her title as the creator of one of the most unnerving ghost stories ever written!

The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Interestingly, it never really becomes clear whether any of this is really happening or simply is a product of their imaginations. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there?

Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.  If you think this might be your kind of thing, I would thoroughly recommend it!


#3 The Collector by John Fowles

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In his debut, The Collector, Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…

What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – in the series of philosophical essays that follows this work, The Aristos, Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.

(Images: Amazon)


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #8, #9 & #10 (Young Readers’ Edition)

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As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

All of the banned books I have considered so far have really been aimed at an adult-only audience, so I thought I would dedicate this post to looking at content for all the younger readers out there. I know what you’re thinking – who would ban a kid’s book?! The sad truth is that numerous children’s titles feature on the Banned Books list, though the justification for this in many cases is poor.

This is actually something I feel quite strongly about. As a child, I was an avid reader, and was always looking outside my comfort zone for new material – aged 11, I fought (with the assistance of my mother) for the right to own an adult library card, and thus to read whatever I liked, instead of being limited by what the school thought was ‘age appropriate’. I found the idea that books were ‘unsuitable’ for my young, malleable mind illogical and, frankly, quite insulting!

I think adolescence is the perfect time for exploration and new discoveries, as it offers youngsters the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives… that doesn’t mean that they’re going to freak out if they read something challenging, or difficult, or sad. I believe that by limiting the reading material, you are effectively limiting the child.

OK, OK, rant over… I’ll pop my soapbox away! Let’s move on to my eighth, ninth and tenth considerations of the week so far…


Book #8: The Lorax, by Dr Seuss

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The Lorax
is a whimsical little story about a woodland creature, named the Lorax, who lives among the trees. The Once-ler, another little creature in the forest, cuts down trees and uses them for multiple uses. The Lorax quickly realises that the Once-ler is killing the forest, and so persuades him to stop cutting down trees. The End. Sounds like a cutesy, sweet little story with a happy ending, right? So, why oh why would anyone want to ban it?

Well, California didn’t agree. As home of the one of the largest logging industries in the world, certain Californians did not take kindly to The Lorax portraying the foresting industry in an arguably negative way. They felt that this book could potentially persuade children that the logging industry was a bad thing. In the face of increasing worries regarding climate change and the future of our great planet, I would argue that perhaps the children should see logging as a bad thing. After all, until you see a problem, you’re not likely to start thinking about a solution, are you? The sooner we realise that the rate that we are cutting down trees is not sustainable – I know that more trees are planted to compensate for those cut down, but these take too long to grow to full size for the damage done to truly be offset – the sooner we are likely to think of another way of doing things; a better way. If the children are our future, then shouldn’t we let the harsh reality that Earth’s days are numbered start to sink in now?

If you’re not familiar with Dr Seuss, they’re wonderful for younger children. I still keep a book of tales on my shelf, and look back on them with love.


Book #9
(although, technically, this is a series encompassing 7 books…
but let’s not get fussy!):
The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

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Yes, I’m serious – Harry Potter, the highest selling children’s books series of all time, was banned throughout America. Why? Well, amongst other reasons, a number of religious groups claimed that the fantasy series about young wizards promoted occultism and paganism, thereby undermining Christian values.

For me, this makes no sense at all. Yes, it’s a fantasy book, and so it contains wizards, dragons, and magic. It also contains one of the strongest examples in recent times of a story where love conquers evil, friendship endures through tragedy, and the good guy wins in the end. We haven’t had a story of such archetypal strength, arguably, since Star Wars! There is a very good reason why adults love these books just as much as the children do.

In literary circles, Rowling is scorned – something which, I’m now ashamed to admit, kept me from reading these books initially (thinking that they were “just for kids”) – and looked down on for her frequent mentioning of candles, stone walls, and stairs, as if somehow this is not ‘creative’ enough. Well – Hogwarts is a castle, what did you expect? Is the language of magic not intriguing (the spells and incantations, the ingredients, the curses, the fairy tales)? Are you not fascinated by the world that she has created; one that could exist beneath the very noses of Muggles like us? I challenge anyone to read these books and not have their inner child cry out to visit Diagon Alley, eat a Chocolate Frog, or ride on a Nimbus 2000.

I actually think (now that I’ve put my intellectual snobbery aside) that the books are actually rather well-written – the storyline is ripe with twists and turns that constantly keep you guessing, you fall in love with the characters right from the start, and there’s not a single loose end left over when you reach the final page. Not many authors can claim such workmanship. The idea that anyone would want to ban these books makes me sad.

If you’ve never read it – whether you’re 4, 14, or 40 – I would thoroughly recommend that you give it a chance. That’s all I ask. You won’t regret it (although, you might need a box of tissues handy, just in case).


Book #10: Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

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Winnie the Pooh is another childhood favourite: I look back on Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo as old playmates. I can’t quite imagine my childhood without them. However, this classic has been banned in a variety of countries at different points throughout history, including Russia, China, Turkey, and even England and the United States.

So, why would anyone want to ban such a seemingly harmless and charming story about a group of talking animals? Well, in some cases, the very fact that they were talking animals was grounds for an issue – creating such a thing was considered an ‘insult to God’. Piglet came under fire from certain Muslim groups, who claimed that the character was offensive to them (as Piglet is, of course, a pig – an animal considered unclean by the Muslim faith). In the case of the banning in Russia, it occurred because the book had ‘alleged Nazi ties’ (in truth, the ban was based on a single person who was found to own a picture of a swastika-adorned Pooh… apparently, this one case was evidence enough for Russia that Winnie the Pooh was pro-Nazi, and therefore anti-Russia).

In short, all of the bans are pretty absurd. This book teaches the importance of kindness to others, tolerance of those who are different to you, and sticking together through tough times. In my eyes, that’s exactly what children should be being taught. If you’re unfamiliar with Pooh and the gang, I would suggest getting acquainted, especially if you have little ones around – they’ll love both the drawings and the stories!

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #6 & #7

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, on to my sixth and seventh considerations of the week so far…


Book #6: Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Chances are, you’re already familiar with this particular book – if not, then you’re in for a treat. Published in 1963 (the year after the Cuban missile crisis had brought humanity closer to annihilation than ever before), Vonnegut’s text is a darkly comic exploration of humankind’s ‘condition’, in an age when the world had quite literally gone MAD. The reasons for its censorship in certain Ohio schools in 1972 remain unclear to this day – some believe that its clear anti-war stance was a contributing factor, whereas others believe it was simple blind ignorance and that, in fact, those banning the book hadn’t even bothered to read it (same old story, eh?).

So, why read it? Apart from the fact that it is a literary classic, it also manages to strike the perfect balance between the comic and the bleak that defines an age overshadowed by nuclear anxiety. The phoney religion that Vonnegut cooks up (Bokononism, and the corresponding Books of Bokonon) show how keen human beings are to give over themselves to ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, even when they are fully aware that such forces are a figment of their imagination. Furthermore, the book makes an increasingly relevant point regarding mankind’s responsibilities in the face of a God that either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care – that no one is coming to save us, and if someone presses the big red button, BOOM! That’s the end of everything. In Cat’s Cradle, the world ends in ice instead of fire, but this too can be understood as a metaphor for nuclear winter – the consequence of setting off nuclear bombs.

Vonnegut also makes some rather interesting points about the nature of scientific exploration – that, often, it is devoid of morality. The deadly substance in this novel, ice-nine, was created to solve a relatively mundane military problem (i.e. how to solidify mud so that troops can easily pass over it, instead of getting bogged down), and the other uses for it were all-but-ignored in the quest for knowledge – the fact that the substance, if misused, would contaminate the world’s water supply is considered irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. That ‘knowledge’ brings about the end of the world… so, as you can see, the metaphors for nuclear war are multitudinous here.

The book does have its critics:  some have described Vonnegut’s characters as no more than caricatures, and think his disparaging portrayal of a greedy, selfish, thoughtless human race is too harsh and polarised to be fully believable. For instance, his Dr Hoenikker – the archetypal nuclear scientist – is devoid of any conscience whatsoever, even when faced with the consequences of his creation. His three offspring – Frank, Angela and Newt – are also used to demonstrate just how easily an individual’s morality can fail. All three characters barter away their portion of ice-nine for a governmental position, attractive husband and a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget respectively, then reassure themselves that the decision was a good one, because they themselves benefitted from the transaction. They, too, fail to take responsibility for placing the ice-nine in the hands of those who will bring about the end of all things.

However, I think Vonnegut manages to capture the absurdity of the situation quite well – that these people are, effectively, squabbling over the right to own the planet’s doom… they will kill, lie, cheat and steal for it, because it represents power and, really, what does humankind desire more than life? Power. And the squabble for this power, dear friends, may one day be what kills us all off. For this reason, if for no other, the novel remains relevant as ever, in my opinion.


Book #7: 1984, by George Orwell

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What can I say that hasn’t been said already? If you’ve never read Orwell’s 1984 before – READ IT! It is quite simply one of the greatest, well-crafted, most devastating books you will ever read in your lifetime. It takes a long, hard look at some of the most important issues of our time: surveillance by the state, class divides, linguistic limitations, power/control, domination/submission, and war. As time passes, the novel seems to get closer and closer to the truth – which, actually, is the most terrifying thing about it.

For instance, Orwell adeptly demonstrates how language is used by those in authority to control its users, and just how easily we surrender that control. Those in power in Orwell’s novel have complete control over all of the information the population is given. This is a pertinent point, given our own reliance on the media for information in reality, and the increasingly digital nature of our communications and records of history. In 1984, Big Brother exploits the temporary nature of the Internet by effectively re-writing Oceania’s history again and again in order to fabricate an eternal war. So, when going into war with Eurasia, history is re-written to declare that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

The public are encouraged to hate their enemy by watching visual propaganda at scheduled times each day. Any deviants from the political and behavioural norms approved by the Ministry are rooted out by the ‘Thought Police’ – with children being some of its most fervent soldier – and taken to Room 101. There, they are broken; they will abandon their own logic and reason; give up on love, hope, and defiance; believe that two plus two does not make four.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is now the language used by those in the novel has begun to shrink, into something known as ‘Newspeak’. Unnecessary and undesirable words are eliminated from the language and, by proxy, are also eliminated from the collective consciousness (a fascinating theory – see Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativity and determinism for more information about this idea). For example, the word ‘free’ is stripped of its political connotations in a bid to eliminate freedom itself. So, in ‘Newspeak’ the speaker is unable to express the concept of freedom of speech; political freedom; the freedom to disagree. It merely serves to describe the absence of something (as in ‘the garden is free of weeds’), which is ironic when you consider the absence of the freedom of the speakers of ‘Newspeak’.perceive reality differently.

This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. Everyone should read it at least once. Be prepared, though – it does not have a happy ending.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #1 & #2

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As some of you might already be aware, next week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, let’s kick it off with my first two books for consideration…


 

Book #1: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

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Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, was first published in 1932. Since then, it has become one of the most frequently censored books in literary history. Even as recently as 2010, it remains one of the ten most frequently challenged books, according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, due to its themes of sexuality, drugs, racism, anti-religious views, and suicide. Censors have long sought to prevent students from reading the book in educational institutions, but that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a well-deserved classic.

So, what makes Brave New World so special? Well, for starters, it is one of the wittiest, most eloquent works of social satire ever written. Huxley creates a forceful blend of bizarre comedy, futuristic foresight, and philosophical dialogue which appeals to more than just your average science fiction readers. There is truth here for everybody. This book is a bitter but accurate commentary on the sickness present in the human species – this drive towards insatiable, shameless consumerism which, day by day, becomes an ever more accurate description of modern society.

Some say the world will end in Orwellian fashion – with Big Brother watching, and the common man driven into poverty and solitude, and no one knowing what the truth is anymore (as is portrayed in the novel 1984 – more on that book later!). Huxley’s alternative vision sees the world instead as the willing victims of a million different pleasurable vices, laughing ourselves to death, being more than happy to buy whatever truth is being sold to us. Both visions are equally horrifying, and yet exact opposites in many ways. It is rather interesting to note that Huxley was tutor and mentor to one Eric Arthur Blair, who later would come to write under the pen name George Orwell… (Man, would I have loved to have been in that classroom!!)

Whichever camp you choose to get behind, whether you’re an Orwellian or a Huxleyite, I thoroughly recommend picking up Huxley’s novel if you’ve never come across it before, or revisiting it if it is an old favourite.

 


Book #2: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

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First published in France by a pornographic press, this 1955 novel explores the mind of a self-loathing and highly intelligent paedophile who narrates his life and obsessive lust for “nymphets” like 12-year-old Dolores Haze. French officials banned it for being obscene, as did officials in England, New Zealand,  South Africa, and Argentina. Vladimir Nabokov actually nearly burned the manuscript in disgust of its content after writing it, and fought with his publishers over whether or not the image of a young girl should be included on the cover.

Love it or hate it, you have to admit that it is an intensely brave book which dares to go into territory so taboo that few authors, before or since, have dared to tread. What is often under-appreciated about this novel is the sheer beauty of the language Nabokov uses: there are passages in this text which are achingly beautiful; pure poetry. Sadly, it rarely features on the reading lists of academic institutions due to the continued controversy teaching it would create. However, it remains a classic, and for anyone who can put their feelings aside about such a delicate topic, it’s a compelling read.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned