Friday, March 03, 2006

Gerald's Game - Stephen King

The story is one of King's most compelling: Jessie Burlingame's husband Gerald enjoys kinky sex games with his wife. Actually, he probably depends on them. When the Burlingames try out their handcuff game down in the house by deserted Kashwakamack Lake, Jessie decides she's had enough. She experiences a flash from her childhood (another game she didn't like), and kicks out, rebelling both against her husband and her past. Gerald suffers a fatal heart attack, falling to the floor. And Jessie is still handcuffed to the bed.
This is really interesting stuff, the setup for a nerve-jangling novel. And on some points, King delivers. Jessie's battle to get a water glass and actually drink from it is an unlikely, yet stunning, source of excitement and tension. Women she has known in her life become her "voices," sides of her personality she assigns personification. The interplay of the voices is great, too, if a little one- dimensional. And there are the flashbacks: Jessie, you see, once spent another afternoon on a deserted lake with a man. But she was ten, and the man was her father, and he played a game with her then, too. This memory is the core of the novel, and it's a disturbing and frightening core. It actually might go a long way to explaining why Jessie let herself be used by Gerald. The most interesting thing about this book is that the story takes place in one room. King is a master of intensity, to be able to write an entire story that exists only in the one room and still masterfully keep you wondering what will come next is sheer brilliance. This book is not one of his scariest books, but it is in my top ten best books to read. Read this book even if you don’t like King’s books, because this is far from his usual, most of the action takes place in Jessie’s mind as she descends into madness.

Good Omens - Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Good Omens is a very funny, very serious book about the end of the world. The Antichrist has been born and is now 11 years old, and all manner of classically predicted phenomena are manifesting. Naturally, most of them are being ignored, misinterpreted or missed altogether. And since this is the work of Gaiman and Pratchett, there is a darkly comic twist to the action.
For instance, the Antichrist has been mislaid -- Heaven and Hell think they know where he is, but they're wrong. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse do know where he is, but they've been delayed by groupies. Also, they are lost. The only people who have correctly identified him are not, actually, people: one of them is a Hell Hound, currently incarnated as a small dog with a humorously floppy ear; and the other is an accurate but dead witch whose 500-year old prophecies would explain the whole problem, if only anyone understood them.
Crowley and Aziraphale, the respective minions of Hell and Heaven, have been assigned to bring about Armageddon. However, they have come to the conclusion that they like the World (not to mention the Flesh, the Bentley and Antique Books) and have absolutely no desire to end it. The rest of the legions of angels and demons, though, have had nothing to do for all these millennia, and are ready to rumble. The last two members of the Witchfinders Army are loose in the countryside, being distracted by an ageing dominatrix and the last descendant of Alice Nutter, the Witch of the title. Atlantis is rising. Gardens everywhere are being menaced by tunneling Tibetans. And in these troubled modern times, the evils personified by the Horsemen of the Apocalypse might very well include Cruelty To Animals (pro or con not specified) and Embarrassing Personal Problems.
Part of the genius here is Gaiman and Pratchett's uncanny ability to take any situation to its dreadfully logical extreme. Somewhere in the hysteria, you realize they are describing very real horrors, and that laughter is not so much a reaction as an escape. Portions of the book are satisfyingly grim -- the rage of the kraken and the revenge of the rain forest come to mind. Cover blurbs universally refer to the humor of this book; and it really is very funny. But it's a lot more than merely funny. The artfully done humor here is of the British, rather than American style. It owes less to the pratfall than to the deadfall: we go trustingly along until the ground gives way beneath us, and the unexpected is revealed. The authors present a compassionate but merciless view of the human condition: the Apocalypse happens to everyone sooner or later; all our worlds end. And what matters is not to be Good or Evil Incarnate, but Human Incarnate.
If you have never encountered this collaboration between two very original minds, I urge you to jump at the chance now.