Halloween is only a few days away, which means it’s time for me to recap my scary reading for the month in the fourth annual Shelf Life Fun Size Halloween Book Reviews:
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
This book was a library book club selection that we strategically scheduled to discuss in October. A historical detailing of the bizarre witch hunts in 1690s Salem, Massachusetts, it seemed like the perfect way to kick off a month of scary reading. Reading it did turn out to be a truly horrific experience, but for all the wrong reasons. Weighing in at 512 pages (around 100 of which are mercifully notes and indices) of almost pure tedium, getting through this book was a slog of the highest order. Author Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has received much acclaim for her books on Cleopatra and Vera Nabokov, but whatever magic she spun with those works was ironically absent in The Witches. She presents her findings on the witchy Salem happenings in an information dump-y, texbookish style with no storytelling panache and no obvious narrative thread or thesis. Chronology is the only structural guidepost that is adhered to, as the actual relating of events wanders all over the place with very little effort to tie them together. Most chapters are a jumble of accusations, denials, and trials. The author clearly did a ton of research and had to parse through a largely unorganized mass of partial and sometimes outright missing information, and for that she deserves major credit. However, a fascinating subject and heaps of research can’t translate to an enjoyable reading experience unless everything is deftly woven together and presented in a way that is entertaining, thought-provoking, or at the very least, engaging. When I finished reading The Witches, I felt like a survivor at the end of a horror movie, emerging from the scene of a brutal struggle with a demented murderer, just thankful to have somehow escaped. Thankfully, I will live to see other days with other, better books to read, but I’ll have to live with the memory of my poor compadres who were killed in the ordeal: time, joy, and book club attendance.
Rating: 3 out of 10 enchanted broomsticks
Psycho by Robert Bloch
Like much other underappreciated source material, Psycho is massively overshadowed by its infinitely more famous movie counterpart. Most of the people who I told about reading it didn’t even realize it exists as a book. Alas, exist it does, and it’s packed with all the mother lovin’ craziness of Hitchcock’s film. There’s some pretty dark, intense stuff here, including a gorier version of the iconic shower scene. The plot about a thieving woman on the run who makes an unfortunate stop at the Bates Motel and runs afoul of Norman and his mother will be familiar to cinephiles. At just over 200 pages, it’s a quick read, and things move quickly. Author Robert Bloch builds suspense well and takes care to devote space to scenes that provide insight into the disturbing mother-son relationship that drives the story. In the final third of the book, readers are hit with a twist that’s a real humdinger if you have no knowledge of the movie. If, like most, you have seen the movie, the big reveal won’t shock you in the least, and knowing that it’s coming will likely at least somewhat negatively color your experience with the novel as a whole; the lack of surprise definitely takes something out of it, which I suppose is true when reading any book after having already viewed the movie, but stories that rely on some degree on a twist for plot punch are especially affected. That said, the quality of the book isn’t entirely dependent upon the impact of the twist, and there’s enough page-turning, creep out appeal here to make it a worthwhile read whether you’ve seen the talkie version or not.
Rating: 35 out of 50 butcher knives
Cujo by Stephen King
Those who know me know I just can’t quit Stephen King, and while I don’t need an excuse to read something from his Saint Bernard-size catalog, I’ll gladly pounce on one when it presents itself. As the ham-handed allusions in the previous sentence suggest, and as the bold title a few lines up explicitly tells you, this time around, I read Cujo, the tale of a dog with the appearance of Beethoven and the temperament the Sandlot kids thought the Beast had before they discovered he was actually friendly. Going in, I mistakenly thought I’d be getting a novel-long canine killing spree, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the story is a bit of a slow burn that goes heavy on character development before ramping up the rabid action. The first half or so of the book is spent getting us familiar with the marital turmoil of Vic and Donna Trenton and the monsterphobia plaguing their son, Tad, as well as with the different marital turmoil of Joe and Charity Camber and the love between their son, Brett, and his dog, Cujo. As always, King’s characters are relatable and realistically troubled. He even gives us some scenes from Cujo’s point of view, both pre- and post-rabies, which is a jerk thing to do because horror novels can be emotionally punishing enough without making us sympathize with the villain, though that’s exactly what the best ones do. These characters have enough problems before a diseased doggy death bringer gets dropped into their lives, and, spoiler alert, he does not exactly make things better for them. Tension builds steadily in the second half of the book, which centers on an all-the-way-gone Cujo waiting out a dead car-bound Donna and Tad in an increasingly hopeless siege situation. The conflict eventually resolves in inevitably devastating fashion, and I was left to wonder why exactly I so often read and enjoy these types of books. I can’t satisfactorily articulate an answer to that somewhat troubling question, but I know for certain I’ll be seeking more soon, and it’ll be well before next October.
Rating: 82 out of 100 suspiciously human-like dog bones