I had the great good fortune to spend much of October 2023 in a solo retreat at the beach house of some generous friends. Located on the Oregon coast south of Newport, the house is a five-minute walk up the cliff from this glorious beach.
I wasn’t entirely alone.
Xanthe the Speckled Menace was excellent company. Here she shows her arboreal nature on one of the beach house’s many ledges and windowsills, which she immediately saw as a jumping and perching paradise. She did not care for the beach–perhaps because of the big loud wet thing adjacent to it–but she enjoyed leash walks in the yard around the house, grumbling at the gulls and jays.
The beach house has neither cell coverage nor wifi. The former was available on the beach or a few hundred yards down the street, the latter at the library in Newport, a ten-minute drive away. It was both liberating and frustrating to be out of the instant communication (and diversion) to which many of us are accustomed. I did some writing, some outlining, and some reading. The latter mostly consisted of books that had lingered too long in the “Unread” category on my Kindle, among which were a number of pretty good books, only one real dud, and one darkly Shining Trapezohedron of a gem, Scott R. Jones’s Stonefish.
I’ve always wanted to have a quiet, extended time next to the ocean. For eighteen days and seventeen nights I had the sound of it in my ears. I saw it every time I looked out the front windows, and I walked along it for an hour or so at least once each day. What a gift.
It’s no secret that I’m a Stephen King fan. The first book of his I read, more years ago than I care to remember, was Salem’s Lot, which I devoured like a vampire falling on a small town. Since then I’ve read most of what he’s published, and while I have my favorites–From a Buick 8, Revival, The Stand, the Dark Tower books, and a lot of the short stories and novellas–I greatly admire many of his other works. I also admire his willingness to genre-blend and to write different kinds of fiction. It was a great treat for me to write a critical YA bio of King a while back, part of a series of books for young people about writers’ lives and major works.
I’ve also read and enjoyed work by Tabitha King and Joe Hill (the elder son of Stephen and Tabitha). I especially love Hill’s novels NOS4A2 and Heart-Shaped Box. And then there’s Owen King, the younger son, whose most recent novel, The Curator, became an instant favorite.
A lot of people have called The Curator “Dickensian,” and they’re partly right. The novel’s sprawling cast of characters and the equally sprawling, endlessly weird and wonderful city in which it unfolds do recall Dickens, as does the novel’s keen eye and ear for issues of class and revolution. But a review in the NYTBR that mentioned The Curator’s affinity to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels bumped the book to the top of my to-read list, and I’m glad it did. For those seeking an original, engrossing read with flavors of Peake and Mieville, Owen King has what you’re looking for.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I’ve been working on my YA adaptation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a big project with many aspects (such as photo research and aquisition) that will continue to keep me busy for some time. I am thrilled with the editorial support I’ve gotten from Simon & Schuster and am excited about the book that my ms. is becoming.
But woman does not live by work alone. In recent weeks I’ve enjoyed entertainments on page, stage, and screen. Here are a couple of highlights:
The Devil’s Detective, a novel by Simon Kurt Unsworth. I believe I was tipped to it by a post on the Lovecraft eZine Facebook page. It is dark (very), beautifully written, and deeply disturbing. I’m looking forward to the sequel, which I believe comes out this fall.
Peter and the Starcatcher, a hilarious, bawdy play that unfolds Peter Pan’s origin story. It’s based on a book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, but I didn’t know that until I saw the play. Lots of laughs and well worth seeing, if you get a chance.
Green Room. Damn, what a movie. Unrelentingly violent, but compelling and very well acted. Patrick Stewart as the patriarch of a bunch of skinheads in the woods of southern Oregon will put Captain Picard waaaay out of mind. Imogen Poots inhabits her role with terrifying completeness. But Anton Yelchin, who died a few days ago in a tragic accident, gives the standout performance. The film stayed in my mind to such an extent that I had to watch the Goosebumps movie the next day to derail it. But I will see it again (Green Room, that is) one of these days.
A couple of days ago I finished Revival, Stephen King’s latest. (“Latest” as of this writing. By the time I finish this post and put it up, it may have been supplanted.) I enjoyed it a lot. It was leaner and less over-stuffed than many of his novels–even many I like–and it marked a return to his roots in horror. Not chase-you-with-an-ax stuff but cosmic horror in the Lovecraftian vein. Indeed, Lovecraft’s work, along with Machen’s The Great God Pan, gets a shout-out from King when he lists his influences, and HPL, the Lovecrafty Ludwig Prinn, and other notable names in the pedigree of this particular vein of doors-not-meant-to-be-opened horror get name-checked or obliquely referenced toward the end of the novel. Revival‘s got that authentic 60s Maine flavor that King does so well, although it ends in 2014; it’s got a character-driven story and a narrator you cannot help but like and trust; and it sticks the knife deep into religion and twists it, which is something I always appreciate. In its tone and its air of dark weirdness it reminded me of another favorite, From a Buick 8. Nicely done.
I hadn’t heard of Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements, which was released last August. I picked it up from the “New Releases” shelf at the library because the title and the Goreyesque cover art drew my eye. I was hooked when I read this back-jacket copy: “Cantero pays homage to Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft and The Shining, but he’s no less enamored of The X-Files, fax machines [the novel is set in 1995], and punk girls with dreads.”
At 50 pages in (out of 353), I’m enjoying it but wondering if it will sustain my interest. On one level it looks like a modern variant of the haunted-house story; the title is from Edith Wharton’s phrase “a house with supernatural enhancements.” On another it’s a formal exercise: a clever–perhaps too clever?–mishmash of letters, diary entries, transcripts of security-camera footage, and so on. That mixed-media, semi-epistolary structure and the eerie-house setting recall Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves, which I loved, so I am going to keep on with this one, despite already being a bit tired of one of the two main characters. (The other one is growing on me, so they balance out.) And I’ve gotta say that, post-Shining, if you put a hedge maze next to a huge spooky building, something damned original better happen in that hedge maze. I’ll let you know.