This is Halloween, this is Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, Halloween…Book Reviews 2019, Fun Size:
The Institute by Stephen King
Forty-six years after Carrie was published, Stephen King is still churning out best sellers like the type of possessed churning machine he might write about, except he wouldn’t, because he has a seemingly endless supply of ideas that are actually good. Exhibit ZZZ of this fact is The Institute, King’s latest novel, the release of which fortuitously coincided with the beginning of my October scary readin’ time. In it, kids with telepathic and telekinetic abilities are kidnapped and held prisoner at the titular Institute, where they are subjected to inhumane experiments that are meant to help a shady organization maximize and exploit the kids’ powers. There are definite shades of Stranger Things, but let us not forget that Stranger Things is not-so-subtly painted in various shades of Stephen King. This chicken/egg situation doesn’t matter, as the “kids with powers subjected to and pitted against a nefarious lab/organization” just makes for a good story setup. The Institute is more of a science fiction novel than it is straight horror, but it’s plenty disturbing and suspenseful, and it’s well-told enough to render any genre preferences moot. King once again gives us a cast of lovable kids, a la It, and while he doesn’t write 2019 kids as well as he writes 1950s ones (this is my only real criticism of the book; I’m not as hip as I used to be, but I doubt modern teens go around saying “jeepers” unironically), they’re still a fun gang that we can see bits of ourselves in as they deal with regular kid problems in addition to the evil inflicted by their captors. While it’s not fun to read about children being abused, you’ll want to keep going to see how the inevitable rebellion and, hopefully, deliverance plays out. As always, King builds things up masterfully, and in my opinion, wraps everything up in a way that is a little more satisfying than usual for him.
Rating: 8 out of 10 King size candy bars
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
Paul Tremblay previously proved to me in A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, two books I dug, that he can write quality horror/horror-ish stories, so I went into The Cabin at the End of the World with reasonably high expectations. The premise is juicy: a family is vacationing at a remote cabin and are approached by a group of threatening strangers, who present them with a cruelly impossible decision. I don’t want to spoil what the exact decision is, but think along the utilitarian lines of the trolley problem, but simultaneously more personal and on a larger scale. The anxiety-inducing guillotine of that forced choice combined with the confined, bottle episode-type setting of the cabin make for a read that is undoubtedly squirmy and tense, but also page-turning. You’ll want to find out what happens to bright, curious, seven-year-old Wen and her parents, Andrew and Eric, but knowing that stories like this rarely end with everybody enjoying pie and Pictionary, you’ll proceed trepidatiously. The moments of violence are brutal and at times gut-wrenching. Based on my description of the book to this point, I can see why you might want to steer well clear of it, and I wouldn’t blame you a bit. For me, I just had to know what was going to happen. I have mixed feelings about the ending, because it leaves things unanswered and uncertain, which I assume was the author’s intention. But with a story that kept me reading so I could see what happens, I wanted to fully, you know, see what happens. That gripe aside, the book is still an intense ride worth taking.
Rating: 37 out of 50 log cabin logs
Joker by Brian Azzarello
The Joker is so hot right now, what with Joaquin Phoenix giving him complex new life in the recently released movie (a movie I give two oversized clown shoes up, by the way), so I figured I’d check out this graphic novel’s take on Gotham’s (and perhaps the world of superheroes as a whole’s) most notorious villain. Always up for a good Joker story, such as the 2019 movie or the stellar The Killing Joke and Death of the Family, I was pumped. Perhaps (certainly?) my exposure to the aforementioned Joker content built my expectations up too high and robbed Azzarello’s book of some of its oomph, but this one didn’t do much for me. Joker is mysteriously and absurdly released from Arkham Asylum and is picked up by a common, no-name thug named Jonny Frost. It’s through Jonny’s perspective and narration that we follow Joker’s exploits as he takes back the city through expectedly bloody means. The story moves along well enough and is entertaining in places, but it lacks the compelling exploration of the “why” of the Joker and the high stakes situations of other, better Joker stories. It’s a fine crime story, but after the obligatory villain role call and final showdown, I was left feeling fairly underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t get invested in Jonny, maybe it’s because there seemed to be a lack of quality time spent with the Joker even though he was there the whole time, but whatever it was, the bottom line is I never cared enough to be meaningfully affected by the proceedings. Lines like “You know you are involved with a sick man who will see you die? He will stand over your body, with your blood on his hands and I promise you he will laugh… not because your life means nothing to him — but because death, for him — is the punch line” are supposed to be cool and profound, but in the context of this book, at least, they rang hollow to me. Also, while the new movie has shown us you don’t need a lot of Batman to tell a good Joker story, for those who prefer a heaping helping of the Dark Knight, this isn’t the book for you. Joker is a decent read for Joker/Batman fanatics and completionists, and the artwork is real perdy to look at, but I wouldn’t consider it essential reading.
Rating: 55 out of 100 bloody joy buzzers