Originally Published: January 30th, 2017
“These have no longer any hope of death; And this blind life of theirs is so debased, They envious are of every other fate.” – The Devine Comedy, Canto III 46-48
Fourteen years ago, we experienced an unforgiving summer heat in the south Texas region that forced many to stay indoors. It was 2003 when I had decided to enroll in college courses for the summer. In reminiscing about this particular period in my life, my memory serves me well as I watch the googsebumps on my arms begin to erupt just thinking about how cold the classrooms were. One particular morning, I sat patiently in the classroom waiting for our psychology professor to begin her lecture. As I sat comfortably, marveling at the precipitation invading the edges of the window, my imagination began to take form; driving my subconscious to frequented territories. “Apathy” was the word announced by my professor. It immediately brought me back to the conscious reality I so easily checked out of. “Apathy is a lack of emotion or sense of purpose in life”, she stated. The hour of lecturing covered a variety of topics that dealt with apathy; one in particular was murder. I was reminded of the senseless act that occurred in 1989, known to many as the Menendez Brothers murders.
Rather than focusing on the murder scene, or the victim’s life and family, more emphasis is placed on the killer’s background and motive. Apathy seems to be the common denominator in the mental state of the aggressor, allowing such heinous actions to be committed. This interesting topic peaked my interest when I came across John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Little Star. Familiar with his earlier works such as Let the Right One In, it seems Lindqvist has revisited a well-acquainted theme in Little Star; children who are murderers.
“The last thing her hearing perceived was a harsh metallic clang and a crunching, cracking sound as her skull split open beneath the point of the nail.”
The narrative storyline in Little Star is twofold, focusing on two major characters, Thares and Teresa. The novel’s character development is quite extensive spending much of its time setting the stage for the book’s climax. Prior to the denouement of the overall story, it is interesting to note the intrinsic, as well as extrinsic, development of each character as the narratives come together, forming a bond just as Thares and Teresa do.
We are introduced to Thares at the opening of the novel. An infant child left abandoned in the forest, Thares is found by a local musician, Lennart. Enamored with the child’s eccentric ability to repeat musical notes with perfect pitch and harmony, Lennart secretly adopts the child; raising her within the confines of his home shunning her from society. Prior to adopting the name Thares, she is known to Lennart and his wife as Little One. The novel swiftly shifts gears to introduce Teresa. A young girl (the same age as Thares) with a passion for poetry, Teresa’s introverted personality oftentimes excludes her from social gatherings. As Teresa is left with socializing online, she begins to form a relationship with Thares on an online forum dedicated to poetry. The details of their ‘fateful’ encounter with one another will be omitted, but it’s important to note their social inadequacies and how the effect of their social development takes a toll on each of them.
“When she looked at the result in the mirror she was able to confirm that she looked bloody awful. This is me.”
Lindqvist confronts the challenging task of committing so much time to character development. The bulk of the novel is reserved for telling a complex story and perhaps the necessity for extensive character development was required. Some may argue that pace and story plot is compromised in favor of an all too-detailed background and over-told narrative. But that does not seem to be the case in Little Star. Once the narratives are linked together, a section of the novel titled Both the Girls, there is little room left for questioning the motives or reasoning behind our character’s intents. It seemed quite a brilliant tactic by Lindqvist. Just as a journalist’s attempt to analyze and dissect the psyche of a murderer, as mentioned earlier, Lindqvist has successfully placed the pieces of a character puzzle into place in order to have a complete picture and understanding of the story’s elements; except one.
One element in particular stood out during the course of the novel that left me questioning its relevance to the overall story; the supernatural. Although this may seem an outlandish claim, it is difficult to interpret the events that take place in Little Star without claiming one of two possibilities:
- Thares’s special abilities in relation to music and her ability to influence others with just a glance could suggest a supernatural force at play.
- Thares’s lack of social interaction since infancy, non-verbal communication (other than her singing ability), as well as her ritualistic behavior suggest she may carry the burden of a degenerative mental illness.
Two seemingly plausible explanations to Thares’s behavior, I personally would subscribe to the former. There is less evidence to support the latter, but just as most stories go, they are open to interpretation.
What I admired most of Lindqvist’s work in Little Star was his willingness to allow his characters to take charge of the story. Although one can label this novel under the horror genre, it can be easily done without the overuse of graphic violence. The graphic sections in Little Star do not disrupt the relevance of the scenes and therefore does not allow the reader to rely solely on the violence to become frightened. The intent of the characters alone is enough to send shivers down your spine. This is the tasteful manner in which the use of violence, whether it’s mild or extremely graphic, does not overwhelm the scene by casting its shadow over the more important elements unfolding before the reader. Lindqvist just gets it right.
The 532 pages of Little Star might seem like a daunting journey for some to venture. But it’s definitely worth the read. The separate narratives keep the reader engaged up until they intertwine. Then things get very interesting. If you enjoy a good horror read without the clichés and impractical plot twists, then Little Star might be your next novel on the ‘to-do’ list. Pick this one up. Thanks for reading!
Dressed in a retro/classic pulp cover, Joyland offers a tale that’s far beyond Stephen King’s usual horror tropes and terrorizing monsters. Rather, Joyland marks a departure (and a satisfying one) somewhat similar to King’s other books such as Hearts in Atlantis or Stand by Me; highly recommended reads as well. That’s not to say Joyland is completely absent of these elements, they just aren’t the centerpiece in a story that weaves a coming-of-age narrative of love and heartbreak with mystery. I know, it seems I’ve already made my concluding comments regarding Joyland within the first paragraph, but I do so to point out, as I did in my opening line, to not let the book’s cover define the story within its’ pages.
As the cover’s subtext asks its’ readers, “Who dares enters the FUNHOUSE OF FEAR”, the context suggests a terrifying read filled with horror clichés and cheesy one-liners. But on the contrary, Joyland is one man’s personal journey driven by heartbreak in the wake of his adult years to come. Devin Jones, the story’s protagonist, is well within his 60’s as he narrates the Summer of 1973, when the twenty-one year old “Jonesy” picks up work at an amusement park (Joyland) in Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina in order to help cope with a recent breakup.
During his four month tenure as a Joyland employee, Devin is told by the park’s psychic fortuneteller, Madam Fortuna, that the local haunted house exhibit, Funhouse of Fear, is haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray; the victim of a murder whose killer is still on the loose. Throughout the daily workings in Joyland, Devon comes to meet 10-year old Mike Ross; whose physical impairments (cause by muscular dystrophy, AKA MD) lead to borrowed time on Earth. His mother, Annie Ross, is not only faced with the mortally of her only child, but the realization to accept that any fond experiences with her son could be their last one together. Mike, as it’s revealed rather quickly, displays the gift of clairvoyance; somewhat similar to the “shine” in various Stephen King novels. This is where the connection to Mike and Linda Gray at Funhouse of Fear come together.
There is an emotional investment that I found to be quite sincere when it came to the characters in Joyland. Devin Jones’ heartbreak leads him on a personal journey of self discovery, where through his newfound friendships and unique experiences leads him to overcome many of the personal demons that we can relate to. I found myself relating to Devin’s own experiences and feelings through my personal heartbreaks and self loathing in my youth; character trope or not, Devin Jones is a likable protagonist. Stephen King’s ability to deliver an emotional narrative of a broken, vulnerable young Devin, was heartfelt, and empathizing didn’t feel like a chore. Devin’s friendships with Erin and Tom play an essential role in Joyland and, although not a centerpiece in the novel, does drive the narrative forward as it helps Devin mature as a young adult; as it is also a character driven story.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Joyland was King’s attention to detail within the unique world of the amusement park community. Devin establishes close friendships and rapport with the amusement park staff, picking up peculiar habits, lingo, and surprising talent to entertain children as the park’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound.
Although the supernatural and thriller elements lie below the surface of Joyland, ultimately, this is a novel of growth and moving beyond love and loss; not ignoring it. The heartbreaks and struggles are parallel to the many of our very own. Joyland is much more thoughtful and profound than its’ cover leads it to believe and Stephen King has once again given us a worthwhile read set outside the boundaries of terror; even in the Funhouse of Fear. Thanks for reading.
Originally Posted: September 9th, 2018
Daniel Kraus’s Rotters is an unconventional morbid tale of life told through the obsession of death. It’s an ambitious take on a coming-of-age narrative that’s both rough on the edges and yet full of heart. Kraus takes his readers on a journey of the macabre in search of the beauty in life, which ironically is found beneath the gravestones, six feet within the Earth. It’s the artistry of grave robbing that teaches the book’s protagonist, Joey Crouch, that the things most people value end up staying behind for the living to claim. Rotters reminds us of our mortality and how we are continually rotting away until our bodies are finally laid to rest. Rotters is a complex story of strained family relationships, friends, love, heartbreak, and most importantly, it questions our place in this world. Daniel Kraus printed Rotters in 2012 and is comprised of roughly 460 pages; the book was published by Ember, a division of Random House Inc.
According to Daniel Kraus’s official website, the synopsis for Rotters is as follows,
“Grave robbing. What kind of monster would do such a thing? It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci did it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the resurrection men of nineteenth-century Scotland practically made it an art. But none of this matters to Joey Crouch, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student living in Chicago with his single mom. For the most part, Joey’s life is about playing the trumpet and avoiding the daily humiliations of high school. Everything changes when Joey’s mother dies in a tragic accident and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known, a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets. At first, Joey’s father wants nothing to do with him, but once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey’s life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating.”
Given Daniel Kraus’s history with the horror genre, with such titles including The Monster Variation (2009) and following Rotters with Scowler (2014) and The Shape of Water (2108), it comes to no surprise that Kraus would include horror elements to provide Rotters the dark undertones needed to effectively tell a chilling story. Joey Crouch is a character that many of us readers can relate to, with the exception of his particular circumstances of grave robbing. He’s a teenager struggling to fit in at a new school, constantly trying to figure out his identity and place in this world, smart, and of course, falls prey to the relentless heartache of unrequited love. Joey’s character in Rotters takes several shifts throughout the novel, which I found not only refreshing, but very engaging; I’d understand and support his decisions, then I’d be upset with his choices and where they’d lead him. The relationship between Joey and his father, Ken Harnett, takes a snail’s pace of development within the first half of the novel. In fact, the first half of Rotters focuses primarily on Joey’s relationship with Ken as well as his social status as the inconspicuous “freak” teenager in high school. It’s not until the second half of Rotters that we begin to notice a change of pace and direction of our central characters, as well as a developing conflict.
Kraus’s writing is exceptionally impressive as his ability to describe characters and their environments brings about the dark atmospheric tone that makes Rotters such a unique story. Kraus’s “voice” takes control of every scenario as his narrative, as clear as glass, allows readers to peer inside the story with an imagination armed with distinguishable style. Rotters is a novel that challenges readers to reflect on our own mortality as well as the decisions that either place value in the things that matter versus the things that don’t. Daniel Kraus has managed to write a novel that reflects the literary voices of the past, as Rotters borrows elements from the macabre such as the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, the obsession with the dead as with Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the haunting atmosphere told in eerie detail just as M.R. James ghost stories. You may see Rotters listed as “Young Adult Fiction”, but don’t let that stop you from giving Kraus’s novel a chance. It’s a dark flirtation with death and how the coming-of-age of protagonist Joey Crouch provides insight on the living, through the dead. If you can muster the courage to read through the first half of the novel’s slow development, you’ll be in for a stellar second half. Thanks for reading.
Rotters trailer: https://youtu.be/1mI1WcebLkk
Kraus official site: http://www.danielkraus.com/books/rotters/