What makes a damned good read?

A short while ago, I realised I hadn’t read a really immersive book in what seemed like ages — I’d read good books, and interesting books, but not one of those really moreish ones that keep calling you back, and once you are back, keep making you want to read one more chapter, or just one more page, one more page, one more page.

Two books I read recently I chose specifically because I thought they’d fit this ideal. One did, one almost did. So I thought I’d try and work out what makes a damned good read from that result.

The first book was Richard Adams’ Watership Down. I hadn’t read this before, or anything else by Adams, so I don’t know why I thought it would make a really good read. There was, of course, part of my mind saying “No, no, no, it’s a cutesy book about rabbits!” But I also knew that it had been popular in its time, and continues to be, which is a good indication that it was doing something right. (Not that being popular is a good indication — books, like anything else, can just be fashionable. But staying popular, staying in print, is a good indication, I think.)

The other book, which I finished last week, was Stephen King’s Duma Key, chosen largely because some of my earliest memories of really immersive, getting-into-it reading came from Salem’s Lot, IT and The Stand. I’d pretty much given up reading King after some disappointments (The Dark Half and Bag of Bones), but some Amazon reviews implied that Duma Key (despite its bad title) might be something of a return to form.

So, what worked in these books, and what didn’t?

There are two essential aspects to a damned good read, I think. The first is getting into it, the second is staying with it. By “getting into it” I mean how well the author gets you into their world. There are a few ways they can do this. It can be through character, it can be through world-building (particularly in SF or fantasy), or it can be simply through style. All of these make up the “world of words” a writer creates, and the writer can use one or all of them to make that world inviting enough to lure you in. Obviously, the ideal is that they use all of them, but I think very few authors really do well on all three counts, and I’m happy to live with just one done well, if it’s done sufficiently well. The other point, “staying with it”, has fewer options. In fact, I think there’s really only one, for me, and that’s story. A damned good read has to have a story that keeps drawing you back. In my opinion there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, as satisfying as a well-told story.

In terms of “getting into it”, even though there aren’t really any fantastic elements in Watership Down (apart from attributing human-level intelligence, self-awareness, and communication ability to rabbits), the book has a lot in common with fantasy. In fact, it owes a lot to The Lord of the Rings specifically, not only because it’s a quest story told from the point of view of lowly (hobbit/rabbit) characters who find themselves forced into heroic roles, but because Richard Adams uses some of Tolkien’s methods for “thickening” or “deepening” the world he creates, by for instance providing his rabbits with an invented language (though his “Lapine” is limited to only a few words, and doesn’t quite have that living feel of Tolkien’s Elvish languages) and with their own culture of stories and myths. In a way, Watership Down has an advantage over truly otherworld fantasy, in that the reader knows that the world is their world, so it feels familiar, but they are experiencing it from a different point of view (that of the rabbits). Adams does a good job of re-visioning our world from this alternative perspective, not just in the way that rabbits don’t understand the human things they come across, but also because they have their own concerns, and so their own way of evaluating things. So, to Watership Down‘s rabbits, a road is at first a confusing, frightening thing, but when they realise the cars that zoom along it aren’t interested in eating them, they just cross it at full speed then forget about it. One thing Adams does well is to introduce a few concepts that relate only to rabbits, which he gives names in his invented rabbit language, making these ideas seem at once alien to us as readers but familiar to the rabbits. So, for instance, there’s a Lapine word (tharn) for that particular state of glazed, frozen panic that hits a rabbit when it is overwhelmed or exhausted, which is a danger the questing rabbits have to be constantly aware of. As Adams uses such new words sparingly, this method of getting you into his world works without seeming overly technical or geeky. In essence, he’s created a story-world which is the world we know, but skewed with a few rabbit-specific rules and ways of seeing things. Once you’ve got these in mind, you’re into his book’s world.

King, on the other hand, is writing about our world, though with the addition of some supernatural goings on. But as he introduces the supernatural slowly, that’s not the thing that gets you into his book’s world. Instead, it’s the other two things: character and style. And as Duma Key is written in the first person, with the main character narrating his own story, the two could be said to be sides of the same coin. King’s narrator, Edgar Freemantle, is a successful construction entrepreneur who, just before the start of the book, is involved in a near-fatal accident which changes his life forever. As a result, he loses an arm, and for a while has his speech impaired, so that he can’t recall some words properly. He also has angry rages that he has to learn to control, and which cost him his marriage. In a way, this sets up a few rules of character rather like those of Watership Down‘s rabbits: Edgar Freemantle’s world is one in which he finds himself with only one arm, where before he had two. This means he has to think about his life, and the world he lives in, in a different way; as do we, as readers. This might seem a crude way of creating a character, but in terms of getting you into the world of a book, it’s remarkably effective. Unless you, as reader, have just the one arm yourself, learning to think about things as a one-armed rather than a two-armed person takes some effort, and that effort is the essential magic required to get you into the book’s world. King’s writing style is, I think, one of the things that really makes his books successful. He’s managed to find a way of writing that is not only accessible, but which is downright friendly, and even chummy, while still being interesting. So, while “accessible” writing might just be clear, uncluttered, and unpretentious prose, King writes with a folksiness that doesn’t sound dry and literary, but which still has room for his use of language to be interesting. He likes, for instance, using “homely” words and phrases, like “vicey-versey”, “lookie-loos”, “boot-scootin”, and “swee’pea”. His characters “duck into the mall”, and talk of something being “bad, powerful medicine”. This suppleness of style lets King get away with blatantly literary devices, like metaphors, through sheer liveliness of delivery: “as if she had whistled for a dog and gotten a wolf”, is one example.

So both books, I think, score well on the first ingredient of being a damned good read, though in different ways.

What about “staying with it”?

Watership Down had a clearly mapped-out story. (It also has a map! Some people groan when a book has a map. I love ’em.) At the start of the book, one of the rabbits, Fiver, who is a sort of natural rabbit-shaman, has a vision of the burrow they live in being destroyed, so he and a few others set off to found a new one. So, the first story goal is clear: find a new home. The first half of the book is all about that journey, with the young rabbits having to face various dangers on the way. Once they’ve found a suitable place, the story gains a new direction: to make it a proper home, the troop of male rabbits need some doe-rabbits to share it with. (At this point, Watership Down teeters on the borders of political incorrectness. Adams gets round it by having some doe-rabbits living oppressed and unhappy in a nearby overcrowded, tyrannically-ruled burrow. If he hadn’t pushed the situation to such melodramatic heights, it’s doubtful whether the second part of the story would have seemed anywhere near as heroic as the first, with the acquisition of doe-rabbits seeming more like kidnapping.) Having acquired (liberated, not kidnapped) some does, there’s a final against-the-odds battle with the big-baddie rabbit of the piece, General Woundwort. For me, the book’s story just got more and more gripping as it went along. One of the reasons for this was that the rabbits were put into situations, or faced with problems, where I couldn’t see how they could win, but they did — and not through luck, but through wits. (The rabbits’ physical weaknesses are constantly emphasised throughout the book, making their efforts seem all the more heroic.) The thing that really made it work, for me, was how clearly the goals of the story were laid out, while the outcome never was. I knew what had to happen next, but never how it was going to be achieved. That was the thing that kept bringing me back.

Duma Key, though, didn’t have as strong a story. Rather than Watership Down‘s quest, it was a mystery. Mysteries are, in a sense, even simpler, and so potentially more powerful, story types than quests. Mysteries boil down to a single question. They’re “who killed Professor X”-type stories. With Duma Key, we have a supernatural mystery, so this means it’s a “what the Hell is going on?” type story, with the emphasis on the “Hell”. I’ve always felt that supernatural mysteries need to be very precise and finely-honed. There needs to be one, single source of mystery, one type of supernatural occurrence, and it needs to be worked with a great deal of subtlety and power. The great temptation for writers, though, is to dab on great dollops of supernatural happenings for sheer effect, and then mop up the difficulties and contradictions afterwards. And this, I think, is where Duma Key starts to fail. There are loads of different supernatural events. The narrator finds he has special insight into situations when he touches pictures with his “ghost” limb (the one he lost in the accident); meanwhile, he hears strange voices in the night sea sounds beneath the house he’s staying in; meanwhile, the overgrown south end of the island has a nasty effect on him and his daughter when they visit it; meanwhile, he sees a couple of ghosts; meanwhile, he paints pictures that allow him to see the future; meanwhile, there’s a mystery associated with an old rich lady living nearby; meanwhile, the man looking after the old rich lady has minor telepathic powers; meanwhile… And so on. Too many mysteries, too diffuse. By the time I was getting near the end of Duma Key I realised it wasn’t going to be the really satisfying solution I wanted. I’m not saying all books should tie themselves up neatly — there’s that tired old argument, “life’s not like that”, but I think that’s way beside the point — but I am saying that when an author starts to tell a story, you as reader can’t help but have certain expectations raised. Whenever an author asks a question, explicitly or implicitly, you as reader speculate on what the answer might be, then keep reading to see if you’re right. (And in part, you keep reading because you want to be given a better answer that you thought up. That’s what makes a book really satisfying.)

All this, you might argue, is a bit simplistic. And, yes it is, but I do think that the really deep pleasures of reading boil down to quite simple things.

Anyway, this blog post has gone on a bit, but I’ll add just one more thing. I think there may be a third thing that’s involved in a damned good read, and that’s what you’re left with once a book’s finished. It’s not about the world-building or the story, but something else. It’s the thing that calls you back to re-read a book, even though you know what happens. I don’t know what it is, but I suspect it is to be found in the things a book leaves unresolved. I know I said I like a neatly tied-up ending, but I mean that in story terms. Behind the story, there’s got to be a sort of magic or poetry, a deep tension, a final unresolvedness, that is the thing that is “just like life”, and which is the thing that really makes a book live. But I don’t think it’s something that is easy to spot while you’re reading. It’s the thing that makes a book keep popping up in your thinking months and years after you’ve read it. (A Wizard of Earthsea, which I must have first read before I was ten, still pops up in my head when I’m thinking about life in general, often in surprising ways.) So, at the moment, I can’t say if either Watership Down or Duma Key will have this — I very much doubt Duma Key will, though I enjoyed reading it well enough. It’s a very rare thing, and perhaps I’ll do some thinking on it and write about it in a future Mewsings.

Till then, or till something else crops up…

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Me & Horror: Proper Horror Novels At Last

The first proper horror novel I read was Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. By “proper horror novel”, I mean (a) one dealing with supernatural horror (because I’m not interested in serial killer novels, they’re just thrillers), (b) one with a modern-day setting (which isn’t to say I don’t like supernatural tales set in other eras, because I do — M R James’s Edwardian England, or Arthur Machen’s fin-de-siecle London, for instance — but really I like horror to be set in something as like the day-to-day world I know as possible) and (c) one that sets out to scare me stupid. Salem’s Lot did that in bucketfulls. (IT, the first King novel I bought when it came out, was far scarier, but the ending was a bit naff.)

The Influence by Ramsey CampbellAfter Salem’s Lot, I went to a local bookshop to find something with a British setting, and found, in the secondhand section, about half a shelf of Ramsey Campbell novels. I proceeded to devour them. (Not literally. That would have got me thrown out of the shop.) I mean, I just read one after the other. I think I got through The Nameless in about three days. Campbell is (rightly) thought of as on the more literary end of the horror scale, but some of his novels are nevertheless real page-turners. The Influence (which, alongside The House on Nazareth Hill and The Grin of the Dark makes up my three favourite Campbell novels, not to mention being three of my favourite reads of all time) is, I’d say, the best in terms of page-turning.

And from there, there was no turning back. Clive Barker (the big name in horror at the time, though I haven’t read anything by him for a while), Shirley Jackson (whose The Haunting of Hill House was the scariest book I’d ever read — and a recent re-reading has proved it still is), oodles of Weird Tales authors (Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, whose Our Lady of Darkness is the most perfect novel from the old school), Theodore Roszack’s Flicker, T E D Klein’s Dark Gods, and nowadays Thomas Ligotti. My most recent discovery is Dan Simmons — The Terror and Drood are both terrific stuff (and completely give the lie to (b) above, because both take place in a historical setting). Plus of course films like Ring, Hellraiser, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Wicker Man, Dagon… So much stuff I might have missed if I’d never started reading horror.

I don’t quite know what switched me from avoiding the stuff like the plague to suddenly reading it. It’s all too easy to get into cod psychologising about the need to confront the darker recesses of one’s mind, but actually I really do think that’s what I needed, and got from, and no doubt still get, from horror fiction. It’s still in my dreams. Giger’s Alien, and the occasional horde of zombies, make the odd nocturnal appearance, but they’re no longer nightmares as such, just dreams. Perhaps that’s what horror fiction has done for me. If so, it’s certainly good enough!

Anyway, tomorrow I’m off to the World Horror Convention for a long weekend of the stuff, something I think my five-year old self who opened this series of blog posts on Me & Horror would just be aghast at. “Why seek it out?” he’d say. “I’ve had enough!”

Well, just in case, this is the book I’m taking to read while I’m there:

Watership Down

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Me & Horror: Why I didn’t read it

I didn’t read any horror fiction till I was about 16 or 17. The reason for this was simple. I’d had enough of nightmares.

In a sense, we’re all consumers of horror fiction, if only of the nocturnal, self-invented kind. And in an odd reversal of BBFC guidelines, we usually get the strongest dose in our youngest years. Never mind the sight of blood, violence, torture or mutilation, nothing compares to the experience of being alone in the dark with the weird creations of your own head, all perfectly tailored to terrorise you and only you. That’s 18-certificate stuff, but nature doles it out at 18 months, not 18 years. I still remember quite vividly nightmares I had when I was four, five or six, even though I now have difficulty remembering what it was I was dreaming when I woke up this morning.

When I was about five, we lived in part of a large house (now demolished, and turned, Nazareth Hill-style, into flats). The bedroom I shared with Garen at that time would have once been the servants’ quarters. It was on the first floor, but had its own staircase, with a rope bannister (which you could burn your hand on if you ran down too fast), and was isolated from all the other rooms on the first floor. I had repeated nightmares about that staircase, about being dragged up it, or down it, (whichever way the dream set up as being away from my mother and brother), by a host of ghouls, ghosts and goblins. Meanwhile, the bedroom itself had a cupboard which never closed, and from whose dark night-time interior I was sure a vampire was waiting to emerge. Each morning, with the dawn, a face appeared in the pattern of the curtain, which I always told myself was caused by a tree pressing close to the window outside, something I later realised was impossible for the tree that was actually there, because it was too far away. We only lived a short while in that house, but I came away from it with a host of remembered nightmares, and a number of fears, including such venerable classics as fear of the dark, but also some new, rather specific ones, such as fear of being upstairs on my own.

All excellent reasons, then, for not scaring myself silly reading horror fiction. I was, even without the nightmares, quite capable of scaring myself silly on my own. I remember, having once caught a glimpse of a trailer for a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, with its Nosferatu-like vampire, using that face to scare myself whenever I was in the house alone. For instance, I’d need to go to the bathroom, but as I was on my way there, I’d suddenly think: what if I opened the bathroom door and saw that vampire face on the other side? As I approached the bathroom, it started to seem all too possible. More than once I decided to wait till someone else came home before I went to the loo!

The odd thing was that, at the same time, I was lapping up Doctor Who, which was going through its most horror-inspired phase, with the likes of The Brain of Morbius, The Pyramids of Mars, and The Horror of Fang Rock. (All favourites still.)

I didn’t read any horror fiction until the latter part of my teens, when I started lapping it up. But that’s for another post. One thing about those early nightmares which has always struck me as odd, though: the monsters which infested them were all so cartoony. Ghosts that looked like white blobs of sheeting with black O’s for eyes; tiny little fellows more like garden gnomes than evil goblins; and muppets. Yes, muppets. I distinctly remember a dream in which I was terrified by muppets.

It went like this. We’d been on a school trip that day, to a ruined castle (which turned out to be nothing but a few fragments of walls). Somehow, in the dream, I found myself left behind, still at the site of the castle, with night coming on. As it got dark, I became aware of a light coming from a door in the ground. Thinking it was better to find some light than stay outside in the ruins all night, I opened the door and went down some steps into an underground chamber. It was a banquet hall, with a long table laden with food. Sitting at the table were muppets. Not Kermit and Miss Piggy, but the big, shaggy ones you always knew weren’t proper puppets but men in suits. As soon as I saw them, they all stopped eating and turned to look at me. They had a very hungry look.

And then, as they say, I woke up.

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