search
top
Currently Browsing: Reviews

The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King

eyesofdragonAt the time of its release, 1987*, Eyes Of The Dragon was King’s first real deviation from horror. Not only that, it was published a year after It, which is generally regarded as one of the most horrifying novels ever written. Fans, hoping to be once again scared shitless by the King of Horror, were of course unsatisfied. The backlash was so overwhelming it inspired King to write Misery, in which an author attempting to break out of his stale brand of genre fiction is kidnapped by a crazed fan and forced to write about a character he hates.

(*Okay, okay. I know, the book was technically published in 1984. But that was a limited edition illustrated version. 1987 was the first mass market release.)

Fast forward to 2014. Now we know Mr. King is not a one-trick pony, or even a hundred-trick pony. His diverse body of work includes many non-horror classics such as The Green Mile, Dolores Claiborne, and The Shawshank Redemption. In hindsight, The Eyes of The Dragon was a book he needed to write, and I’m very grateful he did. But, let’s ignore the context for a moment and just look at the story as a self-contained work. How does it hold up?

Extraordinarily well.

As much as I love King, he his stories have a tendency to meander, and the payoff is often less satisfying than the setup (see; aforementioned It). That is not the case here. Every action has a satisfying reaction. Every introduction has a purpose. Every plot point has a logical conclusion, though there’s no shortage of surprises. And, best of all, it’s got a killer ending. No dues ex machina here, just a satisfying resolution which wraps up the loose ends and leaves the door open for a sequel. Which, by the way, we’re still waiting for.

The plot is, deliberately, simplistic. Prince Peter, rightful heir to the throne, is the embodiment of goodness and virtue. Flagg, the king’s magician, is the embodiment of evil. Flagg frames Peter for regicide, and the story revolves around Peter’s attempts to escape his prison and reclaim his position as king. While both characters are entertaining to read, they’re a bit one-dimensional, and neither offers much depth. What makes the story interesting is all the characters who lie in the middle. Anders Peyna, the high judge, a man who believes in logic over emotion at all costs, who may have to make decisions based on emotion. Ben Staad, a notoriously unlucky boy from a notoriously unlucky family, whose life, and possibly the whole kingdom, could depend on him. And, most importantly, Peter’s brother, Thomas.

Thomas is a deeply flawed and fascinating character, and the reason King was able to get away with cookie-cutter caricatures like Peter and Flagg. He takes the throne as a result of Flagg’s evil meddling, but is woefully unprepared. The stress of the position destroys him emotionally, especially since he never wanted to be king in the first place.

“He would give long, besotted, rambling sermons on how difficult it was to be king, how he was trying to do the best job he could and be fair, and how everyone hated him for some reason or other just the same.”

What makes Thomas such an endearing character, even when his actions are less than noble, is that he does try his best, and still comes up short. The most heartwrenching moment in the novel happens early on. Young Thomas, tired of living in Peter’s shadow, spends and entire day carving his father a boat from a block of wood. When he presents it, his father accepts it with clearly feigned gratefulness. He then goes on to talk about… what else? Peter’s accomplishments. I don’t blame Thomas for being jealous of Peter. And neither does the narrator:

Thomas was not exactly a good boy, but you must not think that made him a bad boy.

If Thomas had been nurtured in the same way Peter had, he probably wouldn’t have been as susceptible to Flagg’s manipulation. Although the story is centered around Peter, I was more interested to discover what Thomas’s eventual role would be. No spoilers, but let’s just say I was not disappointed.

Reading this novel is like being told a bedtime story by the world’s best storyteller. The narrator offers his own insight into the plot and characters, and often addresses the reader directly. It reads like a fairy tale, and this approach led some to criticize the book as being written for children. I see where they’re coming from, but don’t entirely agree. There are moments that are not very child-friendly:

“She had never seen a man with his drawers off before her wedding night. When, on that occasion, she observed his flaccid penis, she asked with great interest, ‘what’s that husband?’”

“It is king’s iron,” he said.

“It doesn’t look like iron,” said Sasha doubtfully.

“It is before the forge,” he said.

There are a few other odd points like this where the story sways into more adult territory. There’s nothing explicit, but these moments nonetheless feel very out of place, and don’t match the tone of the rest of the novel. For that reason, I found them intrusive and wished they weren’t there, though I admit the quoted exchange is pretty darn funny.

Eyes Of The Dragon marks a turning point for King, the moment where he refused to be typecast. And though the initial reception may not have been what he’d hoped for, this novel nonetheless freed him to take on riskier projects in the future. Lucky for us constant readers that he did. And if you don’t care about any of that and just want a damn good story to read – this one delivers.

Recommended If:

  • You want a light, fun read.
  • You’ve tried some other of King’s books but found them to be too verbose or gritty.
  • Sometimes, you miss being told bedtime stories, and long for just one more.

 

Not Recommended If:

  • Black and white good vs. evil stories bother you.
  • You don’t like omniscient narrators, or being addressed directly.
  • Your name is Annie Wilkes and you hate it when authors deviate from their niches.

starstarstarstarhalf-star

4.5/5

 

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

roomsLauren Oliver has been on my radar ever since I read her excellent YA novel, Before I Fall. I wasn’t crazy about Delirium, and never bothered with the sequels. But when I heard she was releasing a horror novel for adults just in time for Halloween, I decided to give her another go. From the first few pages, I fell in love with Rooms, and it hooked me from start to finish. I was, therefore, surprised to see it receiving overall lukewarm reviews. Clearly it’s not for everyone. But let me take a few moments to explain why it appealed to me, and why it may appeal to you, too.

The premise is simple enough. Wealthy Richard Walker has passed away, and now his estranged family must travel to his country house, their former home, to put his affairs in order and claim their inheritance. Throw in a ghost or two, and you’ve got a classic set-up for a haunted house story (for similar premises, see; Mr. Humphreys & His Inheritance, House of Echoes, The Woman In Black, Thirteen Ghosts… actually, do yourself a favor and don’t see Thirteen Ghosts). But what makes this story unique is that it’s less about the characters’ (limited) interactions with the ghosts, and more about how they relate to one another. Rooms is, first and foremost, a family drama, and through all the twists and turns it never loses its focus.

Consequently, don’t expect many scares. This is not horror in the traditional sense. Although it has its moments of creepiness, the tone is more bleak than frightening. And that’s fine by me. The more I let the story sink in, the more unsettling it became. I couldn’t stop thinking about the ghosts, who are condemned to spend their afterlife within a house containing their most dismal and horrific memories. That’s a scary thought. Not scary in the same way as, say, Pennywise the clown. It’s not going to make you sleep with the lights on. It may, however, make you sleep a little less soundly.

So, is Rooms a horror story? Probably not. But that’s not the point. The heart of the book lies within the characters. Although this is Oliver’s first adult novel, it’s not a complete departure from YA. Sixteen-year-old Trenton is (arguably) the novel’s protagonist. And, man, “troubled teen” doesn’t even begin to describe him. He’s moody, judgmental, and spends most of the novel plotting his suicide. Free from YA restraints, Oliver takes the reader deep into his head. Sometimes, uncomfortably deep (and the head sitting on top of his shoulders isn’t the only one we hear from). His grittiness and vulgarity may well turn some readers off, and I can’t blame them. But, me? I looked forward to his chapters, even if I wanted to smack him upside the head more often than not.

Richard’s death brings out the worst in all of the characters, who are deeply flawed to begin with. Each member of the family, with the exception of six-year-old Amy, have their vices; Minna, Richard’s daughter is addicted to pills and sex. Caroline, Richard’s ex-wife, is an alcoholic. And Trenton… well, as I said above, it would be quicker to list what isn’t messed up with this kid. These characters are not always easy to root for, and, in the absence of a tangible antagonist, they are always either fighting amongst themselves, or fighting within themselves.

The ghosts, Alice and Sandra, serve as omniscient narrators, though both are biased, opinionated, and unreliable. They’re not afraid to call each other out, either. In fact, the first line we hear from Sandra is this (referring to the previous chapters from Alice’s point of view):

“I’m not afraid to say that what you’ve heard so far is a big honking load of bullshit.”

Do I even need to say that both ghosts are tremendously fun to read?

Told in both first and third person, past and present tense, by an ensemble of viewpoint characters both living and dead, Rooms is an ambitious novel. Like the tree on the brilliantly designed cover, a story such as this risks branching off in dozens of different directions, leaving the reader lost and frustrated. However, Oliver found a solution to this pitfall. Save for a handful of flashbacks, the entire story takes place on the late Walker’s estate. The constant setting acts as a counterweight to the frequent shifts in point of view and narrative style, and helps to keep the reader grounded and the story moving forward.

The book does have a few minor problems. Sometimes the prose is overdone, even bordering on purple. Take, for example:

“His motions are erratic, like a scarecrow that has just come to life and has to compensate for a spine full of stuffing.”

or

“Normally, Minna felt calmer after sex, empty, like the world after a blizzard — almost as if she didn’t exist at all.”

Excessive? Yeah, maybe a little bit. But, to be honest, I feel like it works, because these self-centered characters would use larger-than-life similes and metaphors to describe their lives. That’s not to say Oliver doesn’t overuse them – trimming a few here and there wouldn’t have hurt. But they’re appropriate within the context of the story and characters, so I never considered them to be a huge issue, even though they were distracting at times.

The book did leave me with a few unanswered questions (or, at least, questions I wish were answered in more detail). Overall, though, I found the whole journey from start to finish to be a satisfying and fulfilling one.

 

Recommended if:

  • You like flawed characters, family dramas, and dark humor.

 

Not recommended if:

  • You’re looking for edge-of-your-seat horror.
  • You have a low tolerance for vulgarity.

 

starstarstarstarstar

5/5

 

(On a side note, if you’re into audiobooks, I highly recommend giving this one a listen. Each character is read by a different narrator, and all of them are exceptional. Perfect casting, perfect performances. I was already familiar with Noah Galvin after listening to his terrific reading of The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, but the others were all new to me.)

top