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Whispering Pages

#WorldBookDay2019

Something a little different to the usual film-related observations here. Given that today is World Book Day 2019, I thought I'd take the opportunity to pull together several short-ish book reviews that I'd written for previous World Book Days stretching back over the past few years. These were mostly posted across personal social media accounts for the benefit of friends and family. As such, they're not meant to provide an in-depth professional commentary, but rather a brief overview of why I liked these particular books and why I found them to be worthy of further attention. However, in the absence of any new content specific to the blog, combined with a genuine desire to update Lights in the Dusk more frequently, I'm reposting these literary-based observations below.


Fahrenheit 451 [Ray Bradbury, 1953]:

Considered one of the classic books - and very much a part of the modern canon of dystopian fiction, alongside other titles, such as "1984", "Brave New World" and "The Handmaid's Tale" - "Fahrenheit 451" had quite the reputation to live up to. Nonetheless, it didn't disappoint! Bradbury looks at the notion of time as an endless circle, where the past is doomed to repeat itself. His vision of the future is one still coloured by the atrocities of the Second World War, where the scars of fascism remain. Here, anti-intellectualism is rampant, books are banned and burned, and reading is a crime against society. People have stopped questioning the world around them (the government, the media, religion, etc.) and instead, become addicted to prescription medications and stare into the four immersive video-walls that fill their living-rooms with the chatter of artificial 'friends' and distracting entertainments. Although published in 1953, "Fahrenheit 451" remains a scarily prescient and relevant book about the loss of basic freedoms. Written in poetic prose - which is evocative, highly visual and powerful in its social commentary - it becomes a clear warning against how easily a society starved of education, divorced from culture and satiated by sensationalism can be led, unquestioningly, towards its own oblivion.


Doctor Sleep [Stephen King, 2013]:

I was initially intrigued by the premise of this, which follows the now middle-aged Danny Torrance (the little boy from "The Shining") as he battles against the same self-destructive urges that ruined the life of his father decades before. Still-haunted, Dan has nonetheless managed to clean up his act and find a purpose in life; using his 'shining' abilities to help the elderly patients at a local hospice make peace during their final moments. Given the emphasis on Dan as the recurring character, I was expecting a much more intimate book, telling the story entirely from his own perspective, as protagonist, but it's actually a much broader story that covers several different decades, locations and a large cross-section of supporting characters. It isn't quite as vast as something like "The Stand", although it is closer to it, in spirit at least, than the more interior/psychological stories, such as "Gerald's Game" and "Misery."

Despite the expectations established by its connection to "The Shining", "Doctor Sleep" isn't really a horror story, though it does deal with the supernatural, and it does contain at least one sequence that is disturbing in its suggestion of graphic violence and terror. If anything you could call it a drama with elements of the supernatural, but also traces of action. With its themes of alcoholism, child-abuse, illness and death (and with an early event framed around the terror attacks of 9/11), it's a sad book that hit me on an emotional level.

There are a lot of similarities to other works by King, not just "The Shining." The presentation of Dan as a character with a troubling gift that places him, to some extent, outside of conventional society, recalls John Smith from "The Dead Zone." The character of Abra, a teenage girl who 'shines' brighter than any character before, has echoes of the titular character from "Carrie", once again blessed (or cursed) with a supernatural ability that's both strange and terrifying. The almost surrogate father/daughter relationship between Dan and Abra is slightly reminiscent of the central relationship in "Firestarter", while there's also a mystical cat character that recalls King's fondness for animals possessing supernatural abilities (see Clovis the battle cat in the film Sleepwalkers [1992] for the most notable example).

I'm curious to see how the book will translate into film. While I enjoyed the book a great deal, I'd imagine the prospective filmmakers could cut a lot of meat from the bone; prioritising certain characters and subplots over others, without losing the heart of the story (Dan's redemption). The intended director of Doctor Sleep is a personal favourite of mine Mike Flanagan, who previously made the sensitive supernatural films Before I Wake (2016) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016) as well as the excellent (IMO) adaptation of another of King's novels, the aforementioned Gerald's Game (2017).


The Haunting of Hill House [Shirley Jackson, 1959]:

Many will be familiar with its two film adaptations from 1963 and 1999 respectively, which both shorten the title to "The Haunting" and place the emphasis more on the ensemble of characters as opposed to the main protagonist, but I really wasn't prepared for just how great the writing is here, or how much depth and emotion the book has in terms of its exploration of the various themes. "The Haunting of Hill House" really is a masterwork.

While I was expecting to find little more than a conventional haunted house mystery, the book is much more of a character study, seeing the events unfold through the eyes of its protagonist, Eleanor Vance; a damaged young woman who has sacrificed much of her own life to caring for an abusive mother. The early scenes of the book - in which Eleanor is finally free from her mother's influence and takes off across small-town America for a week of supernatural investigation at the titular Hill House - expresses such an evocative feeling of freedom and liberation that it becomes as overwhelming for the reader as it is for the character herself.

Although Shirley Jackson always maintained that the book was explicitly about the supernatural, I tend to agree with the screenwriter of the 1963 film version who saw it as a book about mental illness; where the key themes of guilt and repression (including a fairly radical for the period acknowledgement of homosexuality in the implicit flirtations between Eleanor and the character Theodora) manifest themselves in the character's perceptions of events. Jackson's writing throughout is brilliant; suggestive, atmospheric, intelligent and emotionally charged.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [Philip K. Dick, 1968]:

I decided to read "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" in preparation for seeing Blade Runner 2049 (2017) at the local cinema. In the end I never made the trip, but it didn't matter; the book turned out to be a complete masterpiece and in fact far superior, as a work of science-fiction, to even the nonetheless still-brilliant Blade Runner (1982). While Dick's writing is occasionally a bit clumsy here, his ideas are nothing less than extraordinary. The story, as its presented, is much richer than it would eventually appear in the subsequent film, dealing as it does with deeper themes of culpability, consciousness, religion, the potential extinction of all animal life, personal liberty (the human concept of free-will) and the destruction of the natural world. While the screenwriters of Blade Runner did well to distil the different concepts of the book into a clear-cut narrative arc (even improving on some of the characterisations, for instance the antagonist Roy Batty, who is far more memorable in the film) I found the book to be more emotionally compelling and engaging in its storytelling. In the book, Deckard is a far more interesting and three-dimensional protagonist, as is the character of J.R. Isadore (renamed J.F. Sebastian in the film). The female characters aren't fetishised or sexualised like they are in the film and are actually much more nuanced and intelligent; particularly Luba Luft, the opera singer (changed to an exotic dancer in the film) and Deckard's wife Iran (cut from the film completely). It's ultimately a very sad book about characters trying to find hope in a world where it no longer exist.


A Monster Calls [Patrick Ness, 2011]:

I really enjoyed this book, although it was obvious from around page six that there was no promise of a happy ending. The story of a lonely child ignored at school and adrift at home was always going to conjure up the ghosts of my own childhood, but it was Conor's closeness to his mother (and distance from his father), his fear of loss and the way the character finds a similar solace in storytelling that cut so incredibly deep. Ultimately it's a book where the monster is as much a metaphor as an actual presence; symbolising on one level the disruption and disarray that illness brings to the life of a child who is unable to make sense of such finalities, but also representing a symbol of strength and support. In the absence of a friend, the monster becomes a kind of mentor; its stories (and the role of storytelling in general) providing a way of coping with a situation by creating a necessary level of distance. By engaging with these fantastical tales, Conor is able to see himself and those closest to him removed from his own predicament; finding not only a series of valuable life lessons but an emotional release. It's a heart-breaking book where all the different elements work towards expressing the overall theme about the difficulties of letting go.


Sarah Kane Complete Plays [Sarah Kane, 2001]:

Several plays by the writer Sarah Kane, who committed suicide on February 20th 1999 when she was just 28. While her first and most famous play, "Blasted", would eventually find champions in fellow playwrights Martin Crimp and Harold Pinter, it was initially slandered by many critics as a "disgusting feast of filth" (The Daily Mail), with much criticism leveled against its depictions of rape, cannibalism, the use of racist language and a graphic recollection of war atrocity. While the text does make for disquieting reading, the most remarkable aspect of the work is Kane's experimentation with the theatrical form; the way the play begins almost naturalistically, and then, over the course of its duration, seems to splinter and fragment. The set is destroyed, language disintegrates, actions become primal. It's as if the unseen crime that occurs at the end of scene one creates such a rift between the characters that the lines of reality become blurred. All communication breaks down and a story of domestic abuse becomes interwoven with coverage of the war in Bosnia. Then it ends, quite daringly, with a series of stark ellipses and a profound act of tenderness.

However, even more remarkable is her final play, "4.48 Psychosis'" A stream of consciousness account of a mental breakdown told by one or several voices (the play doesn't assign dialog to specific characters). Reading it with the knowledge that the writer would take her own life shortly after its completion gives the play an uneasy tension, but again, it's the use of language and Kane's experimentation with the theatrical form that most impresses. If I hadn't foolishly retired from theatre directing, this is the play I'd be most keen to produce.

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