Category: Horror

I love Stephen King. Anyone who read my review of Under the Dome (his best novel in nearly twenty years) knows just how much I’m willing to defend Stephen King’s legacy as one of America’s most prolific and (yes) talented authors. His Dark Tower saga is one of my three favorite book series of all time (the other two are A Song of Ice and Fire and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels). So, when Stephen King announced a while back that he was working on another Dark Tower novel, I was filled with a layer of excitement and trepidation. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be a sequel but instead it was going to fit in between Wizard and Glass (my favorite of the Dark Tower novels) and Wolves of the Calla which was good because there was no way that a sequel to the final book’s controversial ending was going to please anyone. However, it’s been so long since Stephen King had written any Dark Tower material that I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get back into the flow of the novels. Since the vast majority of The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn’t even feature everyone’s favorite ka-tet of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and (of course) Oy, it was a moot concern. The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to the world that has moved on  known as Mid-World, but it functions more as an opportunity for Stephen King to craft an excellent modern fairy tale (in a way only he could accomplish) than as a chance to see more of our favorite heroes. So, if you’re expecting more gunslinger adventures, you’ll be disappointed but if you allow yourself to be taken on Stephen King’s fairy tale journey, you’ll find it to be a highly enjoyable and fun read.

After escaping the machinations of Randall Flagg in Emerald City at the end of Wizard and Glass (which marked the formal beginning of the invasion of modern pop culture into Roland’s world that became the driving force of Wolves of the Calla), Roland and his ka-tet make their journey to Call Bryn Sturges along the Path of the Beam on their ultimate quest to find the Dark Tower. However, the bumbler Oy begins to suffer from strange symptoms and while Roland at first thinks it means they’re being followed, he quickly remembers (with the help of a ferryman) that Oy is trying to warn the ka-tet that a massive (and fatal) snow storm/tornado called a “starkblast” is making a beeline in their general direction. The ka-tet takes up shelter in a church in an abandoned ghost town to survive the storm and Roland decides to pass the time by telling his companions a story from his youth after he had murdered his mother thanks to the sorcery of Marten Broadcloak (also known as Randall Flagg also known as Walter o’Din). He is sent by his father to the town of Debaria to investigate reports of a “skin-changer” (a werebeast variant) who is massacring farmers. Roland arrives (with his fellow gunslinger Jamie) to find a farm with nearly 30 people slaughtered and the only survivor is a young boy. As Roland waits with the young boy in a jail house to protect the child, he tells the boy a fairy tale from his youth of a young lad named Tim Stoutheart who goes on a fantastic quest to find the wizard Maerlyn to save his mother’s sight and to avenge the murder of his father by his newly adopted stepfather.

The last book I reviewed for this blog was V. by Thomas Pynchon. Going from the post-modern insanity of Pynchon’s masterful prose to the relative simplicity of King’s every man language was a surreal and at first confusing switch. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to not have to guess what the hell an author was talking about (seriously Pynchon’s V. bordered on being incomprehensible at times. actually it played hopscotch with the incomprehensibility line). It was pretty refreshing although at the same time, I have to admit that King is not the best prose man out there. There isn’t a lot of poetry to his writing. That’s okay though because his storytelling skills are second to none (and he doesn’t have half the prose problems that say Suzanne Collins has). He can occasionally imbue a very dark sense of humor into his writing that won’t come through unless you’re really paying attention. However, credit must be given to King for being able to write a novel in three distinct styles. You have the traditional “King” style when he’s telling the story from the point of view of the entire ka-tet. Then, he writes a story the way that Roland would speak when Roland is telling his story to the ka-tet. And then he switches it up one more time (for the style that the majority of the book is told in) when he writes the way that a Mid-World fairy tale would be written. Since Wizard and Glass is my favorite entry in the series, it should be no shock that my favorite passages from the novel are the ones where we see young Roland. I like the combination of science fiction, westerns, and high fantasy that is melded so perfectly there.

The novel is only around 300 pages long, so unlike The Stand or Under the Dome this isn’t some sprawling epic. There isn’t a huge ensemble cast of characters and there isn’t a grand social message hinted at in the novel through extensive use of allegory. No, it’s simply a (disturbing) fairy tale which Stephen King uses as a chance to show the important of storytelling and the blurring between fiction and reality in the Dark Tower universe. So, this can be a pretty short review. For Stephen King fans and especially for Dark Tower fans, it’s a must read. You don’t see much of the ka-tet but it expands on the Dark Tower universe and I’ll never pass up an opportunity like that (I’m also a fan [though not as much as the real novels] of the Marvel graphic novel series that expands on Roland’s backstory). Also, for fans of writers like Neil Gaiman (especially Stardust), you’ll likely appreciate the grown-up fairy tale that King crafts with the story of Tim Stoutheart. All in all though, it’s not one of King’s best novels, but it’s far from one of his worst, and I enjoyed all of the time I spent returning to Mid-World.

Final Score: B

It feels like it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed one of the trades of The Walking Dead graphic novels, but it’s actually only been a little over a week. Since my last review, I’ve had the chance to watch one more episode of the television show as well as finish Season 8 of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics. The last The Walking Dead trade paperback that I read, Safety Behind Bars, was easily the high water mark for the franchise for me, whether it was in comic or television form. It’s led me to have perhaps unrealistically high expectations for the rest of the series and volume 4, The Heart’s Desire, didn’t quite live up to everything I had hoped for last time. However, it was still excellent storytelling and it ended with two final issues that were just mind-blowing in the tension they created as well as in how dark and cynical the series has decided it’s going to be. It also introduced one character whose entire reason for being may possibly be to be the world’s biggest post-apocalyptic bad-ass.

The last collection ended with two of the prisoners, Dexter and Andrew, pulling guns on the remaining survivors and demanding that they leave the prison. This collection begins with a mysterious black woman in a field dragging two zombies behind her on chains while she is armed with a sword. After decapitating some zombies, she runs into Otis (who is apparently still alive) who is on his way to the prison. It turns out that when Dexter and Andrew stole the guns from the armory, they released a whole swarm of zombies hiding in that particular wing of the prison. After fighting off this wave of zombies, Rick shoots Dexter during the fight so that Dexter can’t kick them out of the prison (and Andrew runs away when the battle is over). While the fight inside the prison grounds was being waged, the mysterious black woman, Michonne, was mowing down an army of zombies that had amassed in front of the prison with nothing more than her sword.

After the dust cleared, the collection slowed down as the interpersonal drama and conflict between the survivors took center-fold although the zombies got one last kick in by biting Allen as they were clearing out the library. Rick tried to amputate his foot to stave off the infection but Allen still dies (whether from blood loss or the bite is unclear). Michonne and Tyreese share a sexual encounter in the gym (which is noticed by Carol). After Carol kicks Tyreese out of their cell, Rick and Lori find that Carol has attempted to kill herself. After Rick also walks in on Tyreese and Michonne about to have sex, this leads to an epic physical fight between Rick and Tyreese over the direction of the group. Tyreese feels that Rick is slowly starting to lose his mind and is sacrificing his humanity to survive whereas Rick only feels that he is doing what he can to protect his wife, son, and all of the other survivors. After Rick and Tyreese battle themselves unconscious, Rick wakes up to find the group has voted to strip him of sole authority as “the leader” and they have now formed a four member committee: Rick, Tyreese, Hershel, and Dale. At the very end of the arc, Rick gives a long-winded speech about how everything he’s done has been for the group and that we have to give up our old ways and our old view of society and then declares that the survivors are in fact “the walking dead”.

Outside of the introduction of Michonne and the epic fight between Tyreese and Rick, there didn’t really seem as if there was much plot development in this collection. While there was certainly plenty of time devoted to Rick’s continuing descent into possible madness and the continued degradation of his remaining humanity, that didn’t really get much attention until he and Tyreese came to blows. Similarly, it seemed oddly out of character for Tyreese to let Michonne blow him in the gym and then sleep with her again when he’s been in this relationship with Carol for so long. While I’m not sure Rick really needed to start a fight with an ex-NFL player the way he did or blame Tyreese for Carol’s suicide attempt, I can still understand why the general consensus among the remaining survivors would be that Tyreese pulled a real dick move there. Also, can we go ahead and kill Lori already? I swear she doesn’t contribute anything to the group except to be a ticking time bomb of problems and irritate Rick til he’s so on edge that he does the stupid shit he does in these issues.

Outside of the zombies themselves, if the series has a recurring villain, it’s this figure known as The Governor that we haven’t met in the series yet, but if the cover for next issue is any indicator (men in riot suits with riot shields) then we may be finally starting to see the presence of an organized group outside of our small band of survivors. The prison storyline has provided some interesting fodder to explore the psychology of our survivors, although I’m not sure if Robert Kirkman is a good enough writer to let that be all that happens (which is virtually the entirety of this arc). He combines the psychology with the horror amazingly well, but I’m not sure if he can do the former on its own. This series has been running for a long time, and it’s nearly gotten to the point where there are as many issues of this series as there were of Sandman by Neil Gaiman. I’m really curious to see just how much Robert Kirkman is able to milk out of hte zombie apocalypse scenario and if he is able to avoid making his story too circular and repetitive which definitely hasn’t happened yet.

Final Score: A-

One of the defining traits of zombie apocalypse fiction (whether this is a George A. Romero film or The Walking Dead comics or television show) is that the biggest threat to humanity’s continued existence against the oncoming threat of the living dead is our inherent inability to work together. More often than not, the best zombie apocalypse scenarios examine the way that our carefully maintained social structure can easily collapse in the face of of an overwhelming danger and how quick we are to abandon the needs and wants of the group for our own purely selfish survival. The zombies are the nominal threat though their presence is simply what brings all of these tensions and conflicts to the surface and provides humanity the tools it needs to finally collapse. In the third volume of The Walking Dead graphic novels, this notion of humanity being its own worst enemy is brought to its  logical conclusion where zombies are responsible for none of the on screen deaths (of which there are many) and the fractious nature of our society threatens to tear this shell-shocked group of survivors apart once and for all. It should go without saying that this was the best trade paperback for the series yet.

The last arc ended with our rag-tag group of survivors being ejected from the Greene farm after zombies escaped from Hershel’s barn and killed two of his children and Hershel proceeded to nearly kill Rick out of grief. At the very end of the last issue, the survivors found a new prison which Rick optimistically referred to as home. After clearing out the main yard of the prison as well as the first building, Rick and Tyreese enter the cafeteria to find four inmates who are the sole surviving members of the prison population. The group includes Dexter, a large black man in prison for murder, Andrew, a smaller black guy (and Dexter’s lover) in prison for drug dealing, Axel, a large biker locked up for armed assault, and a nerdy accountant type named Thomas, who says he’s in for tax evasion. After discovering that the prison has enough food and space to comfortably take care of their entire group as well as the four remaining inmates, Rick resolves to clean up the prison of any remaining zombies and turn this into a new home. Of course, things don’t really work out that well.

We finally discover what scheme Tyreese’s daughter, Julie, and her boyfriend Chris were cooking up. After having sex, they planned on committing a double suicide. However, Julie never pulled her trigger and Chris killed her. Tyreese and Rick show up on the scene of the crime, and right before Tyreese can confront Chris, Julie comes back as a zombie, proving that death, whether natural or by zombie bite, causes you to turn. Chris kills her again, and afterwards, Tyreese strangles Chris to death and then shoots him after he turns. Things only continue to go down hill. Hershel’s twin daughters (his youngest children) wander off in the prison to cut their hair in the barber area only for Hershel to discover their decapitated bodies. Also, Tyreese apparently commits suicide by zombies by purposefully getting himself overwhelmed by the walkers while the survivors cleared out the gym (he lived though in one of the few hope spots of the trade). After locking up the inmate charged with murder and threatening to beat him to death if he was the killer, the survivors discover that it was the “tax evasion” guy after he tries to murder Andrea. Rick proceeds to beat him within an inch of his life with his bare hands and then re-institutes capital punishment to the world. They plan on hanging Thomas but Patricia (one of Hershel’s people) tries to release him but he tries to kill her too and Hershel’s daughter shoots him to death. The inmates procure guns from elsewhere in the prison and have had enough of the crazy behavior of our survivors and the collection ends with them pulling guns on Rick and telling him and his people to leave the prison.

The storytelling here was more mature and dark than anything else in the series had prepared me for. There wasn’t a single death on screen that was caused by zombies (though they teased us with Tyreese [though even that would have been suicide really] and they implied that perhaps Otis has died off-screen). It actually reminded me a lot of the film adaptation of The Mist (Stephen King short story made into a movie by Frank Darabont), where the threat of monsters and extra-dimensional creatures simply provided the citizens trapped in that grocery the excuse they needed to start killing each other and losing their mind. Laurie Holen (who plays Andrea on the show) was in the movie and Darabont directed the first season of the show. I wonder if Kirkman made similar connections when Darabont approached him about adapting his work. The supernatural stuff was so secondary to showing just how far this terrible apocalyptic scenario has broken our survivors. Rick nearly beat a man to death with his bare hands and later after he calmed, he said he had no regrets. Rick and Lori’s marriage is back to being on the rocks after they had a vicious fight about capital punishment. Tyreese literally killed a man with his bare hands, and Hershel, whose mind was unstable to begin with, lost two more of his children and gleefully watched a dead man’s corpse be torn to pieces by the Walkers. It was intense stuff.

With the exception perhaps of the TV series’ pilot, this particular trade paperback was better than anything either the show or comics has done to this point. I virtually read the entire trade in one sitting (I read the first issue a day ago). It’s that good. My friend Vinny tells me that the books only continue to get darker and better from here, and I almost can’t believe that considering how pitch-black this story was. Also, one of the best characters in the series gets introduced in the next trade, so I also have that to look forward to. Not since Joss Whedon have I found an author who has taken such pleasure in putting his heroes through one hellish encounter after another, never giving them a second to breathe or relax. This show’s cast has one of the highest turnover rates I can think of, and you really can’t tell who’s going to live from one trade to the next (except I’ve begun to feel that Rick and Carl are probably safe). This anyone can die mentality has me more on my seat than anything since The Wire, where series bad ass Omar got shot by a little kid while Omar was buying cigarettes. I can’t wait to keep going into this world.

Final Score: A

Some quick book-keeping is in order. I’ve had not one, not two, but three midterms this week. So, my ability to watch my movies and television as well as read Infinite Jest (which is the current novel I’m working on) as well as the two graphic novel series I’m reading has been understandably impaired. My last midterm is tomorrow, and then I don’t have another exam until finals week so I’m actually set for the rest of the semester. So, this should explain my considerable slowdown in blogging output over the last two days. With that out of the way, I finished studying tonight, but I didn’t really have time to watch any significant amount of Dexter or a whole movie, so I decided to finish the second volume of the graphic novel series of The Walking Dead which I had started recently. In Miles Behind Us, a new artist, Charlie Adlard, is brought on board who unfortunately couldn’t reach the heights of predecessor Tony Moore; however, there was a considerable increase in competent and interesting storytelling that easily off-set the lessened artistic enjoyment.

At the end of the previous collection, the camp had recently been decimated by a large-scale attack by the zombies, and there problems were only compounded by the mental breakdown of Shane who was ultimately shot by Rick’s son Carl in order to protect Rick from a murderous Shane. The remaining survivors decide to pick up camp and move on, although winter is coming (feels weird any time I say that and it doesn’t involve Westeros) and food is becoming short. Along the way, they pick up a former pro football player named Tyreese, as well as his daughter Julie and her boyfriend Chris. The group comes across a gated suburban community and decides to set up shop there in the hopes that they can make this a permanent residence. Tragically, at the last minute, the group realizes that all of the former residents of the suburbs are now zombies, and the group loses another member (the normally bitchy Donna who was just starting to soften up) to the zombies before they can escape. As Rick, Tyreese, and Carl are out in the woods hunting, a bullet strikes Carl (just like in Sunday’s episode of the show except it’s winter in the comics and Tyreese has been replaced by Shane and Sophia never got lost).

It turns out that Carl was shot by a local and incompetent hunter who mistook the group for zombies. Right before Rick is about to execute his son’s shooter in cold blood, Tyreese informs Rick that Carl is still alive and they rush him to the other hunter’s house where a man with medical experience helps to heal Carl who was fortunately only shot in the shoulder (his wound appeared more serious on the show). While the group is offered shelter and food as Carl is allowed to heal, we are introduced to a whole new group of survivors, led by the patriarch Hershel Greene, along with his children and some neighbors (which includes the man who shot Carl). We quickly learn that rather than killing the zombies, Hershel has been keeping them locked up in his barn (mainly because his youngest son is one of the zombies now). After eventually resisting but coming to terms with this situation, Rick is helping Hershel heard another zombie into the barn when suddenly the zombies break out and kill two of Hershel’s children, and Hershel is forced to execute all of the zombies in the barn when he learns the error of his ways. After this Hershel kicks the new group out of the farm (although Glenn stays for he has hooked up with the daughter of Hershel) out of bitterness and nearly kills Rick in an argument. The survivors are forced back out on the road with little food. The collection ends with the group finding a prison full of zombies that Rick optimistically decides will be their new home.

Absolutely no disrespect is meant to Charlie Adlard, for his work is passable and not aesthetically displeasing; however, he had some pretty big shoes to fill in the departure of Tony Moore. As I mentioned in my previous review, Moore combined a striking eye for detail against a morbid pre-occupation with violence and destruction that led to some hauntingly elaborate portraits of the horrors of the new world and he could accomplish quite a bit with no help in dialogue from Kirkland’s writing. Adlard’s drawings are far more vague and rely more on the conventional, vague cartoonish look of most comics. I’m not saying that Adlard’s drawings are funny; I’m saying they simply look like most other comics out there, except in black and white. If there is one area where Adlard has managed to be quite successful though, it’s in his use of shadows which are quite distinct, and I almost feel as if I’m watching an old black-and-white movie where the shadows are as much a character as the actors themselves. That’s quite successful.

Kirkland’s writing improved immensely between this collection and the last one, and I read nearly the whole trade in one sitting. As soon as you see the snow fall off the sign at the suburbs that says “all dead. do not enter.”, you know that shit is going to hit the fan, and the impressive thing about this story is the way it continues to hit issue after issue, but the impact is never lessened. In one issue alone, Donna is eaten by the zombies and the survivors lose their last vestige of hope just to have Carl take a bullet just as the issue ends. That was Kirkland taking a gamble on how much dark despair his audience could handle and it paid off well. Similarly, by the time this collection ended, I felt as if I knew all of the survivors and their pains (and small moments of happiness) much better than I did the last time, as the small moments of peace they had here and there provided opportunities for them to grow as characters. There was just an overall shift in quality of storytelling here that can’t be under-estimated, and I only wish that Tony Moore had been able to contribute his artistic prowess to this particular collection.

I’ve got two arcs left of Buffy Season 8 (and boy has its quality been just all over, although what can you expect from Buffy, god bless it) and something like 13 collections or so left of The Walking Dead, so it’s safe to say which of these I’ll finish first. I’m probably going to replace Buffy when I finish it with Y: The Last Man, although I enjoyed this particular trade so much that I’m really tempted to just try and plow my way all through The Walking Dead, but I know I’ll burn myself out that way. There is exactly one comic book series (and book series period) that I can read in its entirety (and in around a week or two) and never get tired, and that is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which is my favorite book series ever (not just comics, but all books). I really can’t wait to see what’s going to happen to Rick and the other survivors now that they’ve found this prison, and I’m also curious as to what it is that Julie and Chris are planning as they don’t seem to be especially reputable individuals. Also, I hope we hear from Glenn one last time. I love his character on the show, and I hope he isn’t about to make his departure from the series on there as well.

Final Score: A-

In honor of the season premiere last night of Season 2 of AMC’s critical darling/zombie apocalypse/drama TV series The Walking Dead (which I will get around to watching at some point today), I have decided to start reading the comic book series that the show is based around (one trade paperback at at a time). Published by indie comic publisher Image Comics back in 2004, The Walking Dead is still telling its story today and at last check, there have been 89 issues to date. Much like Y: The Last Man, The Walking Dead has garnered a reputation as one of the premier comic book series for adult readers of the 2000’s, and it’s ability to combine good old-fashioned zombie scares against the backdrop of social commentary and a focus on character development was what inspired Frank Darabont to adapt it for the small screen. While I probably think that the first season of the show was better in virtually every aspect over the comics (and with the production of Frank Darabont, what else would you expect), there are still some things that the comics do better, and this was still a great introduction to a world in crisis.

In Vol. 1, Days Gone Bye, we are introduced to Rick Grimes, a Kentucky police officer who is shot during a stand-off along the highway. He wakes up an undisclosed amount of time later in a hospital and finds himself in a world that has literally gone to hell. Rick quickly discovers that the hospital (and the whole world) are over-run by zombies that want nothing more than to eat his flesh. After learning that Atlanta is the most likely location of his wife and son, Rick heads off to Atlanta only to discover that the city isn’t a safe-have but is has been completely taken over by the zombies. With the help of an Asian twenty-something named Glen, Rick is able to make it out of Atlanta and back to Glen’s camp where he finds his wife, his son, and his best friend from the force. There is trouble in paradise however as Rick’s wife Lori has slept with Rick’s best friend Shane because she thought that Rick had died in the hospital bed. After constantly pushing Shane and the others to move the camp to a safer distance from Atlanta, Shane and Rick’s problems come to a head (though Rick never learned about Shane’s tryst with his wife) after zombies invade the camp (which has a host of other members) and kill two of the survivors. Shane and Rick go hunting and Shane pulls a gun on Rick and tries to kill him. The collection ends with Rick’s son, Carl, shooting Shane to save his father (a major plot departure point for the TV series where Shane is still alive and well).

I absolutely adore the art work for the series. I normally associate black and white comic books with Japanese manga as most American comics are done in color. The only part of this series that is done in color are the covers which are uniformly evocative and make you want to read whatever issue is inside. The story itself is done in this marvelous black-and-white penciled by Tony Moore. He puts the “graphic” in graphic novel with morbidly detailed depictions of the zombies themselves as well as the violence and gore they are capable of inflicting. Simultaneously, he’s able to achieve a lot of story-telling in scenes that can be largely devoid of dialogue but instead rest on the power of his drawings alone. There are a large number (in relation to the majority of comics I read) of panels in these first six issues with absolutely no words, and the story doesn’t suffer one second for it. Some comic book authors forget how this is a visual medium and try to put too much dialogue to the point where it feels forced. That is not the case in The Walking Dead, although there is still plenty of talking and character development but more on that in a second.

While I want to try and analyze this piece on its own without comparing it to the TV show which has different needs and different strengths and weaknesses, I know I’m going to fail in that regard. So far, at least in volume 1, The Walking Dead, the graphic novel, seems far more optimistic and action oriented than The Walking Dead, the TV show, which is character driven and pessimistic as hell from the get go. Don’t get me wrong. The comic books are very character oriented so far, but if it weren’t for the TV show, I probably wouldn’t have had enough time with any of the supporting players to learn their names, except for the obvious exception of Shane. Rick is front and center in this story and while he’s had a lot of time to be analyzed as a character, I can’t say the same for everyone else. Also, on the TV program, Shane seems much more sympathetic than his counter-part here in the books whose death at the hand of a little boy is much less scarring (although still pretty damn shocking the first time I read it) than it would have been on the TV series. Also, Robert Kirkman doesn’t quite have a great grasp of good comic book dialogue yet at this point which is a shame cause some of the conversations, especially Glen’s dialogue, comes off as sounding a little odd and unnatural.

As I understand it, the series gets progressively darker and more cynical as it continues so perhaps I’m jumping the gun a little bit by condemning it for being optimistic when its characters have every reason to at least hope that things will get better at some point. Also, four issues (because Rick doesn’t reach the camp until the end of issue 2) isn’t very much time for me to get to know a fairly large group of people. Counting the three deaths, I think there’s still nearly ten people living in that camp. I’m going to go back and forth between reading the trades of this and Season 8 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer although I’ll be finishing Buffy fairly soon. All in all though, this was definitely a great read, especially for the beginning of a series. As it has time to mature and come into its own, I’m sure it will only continue to get better and better.

Final Score: B+