Summer of Night – Dan Simmons (1991)
Dan Simmons needs an editor, or a tough-love friend, or a tough-loving-editor-friend, or some shit. He’s an inarguably great writer, but his books tend to drag on longer than the reign of that Libyan dictatortot whose name is too difficult and disagreed-upon to even bother spelling. The first Simmons book I read was The Terror, his partial-fiction account of an ill-fated Arctic expedition that, despite its length and occasional bloat, is a badass book weaving microbiologist-level historical detail, Inuit mythology, and ice. I plan to reread all 700-800 pages of it. Then I read Drood, Simmons’s what-if about the last days of Charles Dickens, the general unreliability of Wilkie Collins as a decent human being, and a haint named Drood who perhaps inspired Dickens’s unfinished final novel and who I, for some reason, picture as looking like Al Lewis after a head-on collision. The Drood concept is fantastic, and some of its scenes are masterfully rendered, but – and I really think Simmons tried to emulate Dickens here – the whole affair just takes too goddamned long. If it were maybe 300 pages – you know, if it had been edited AT ALL – I think it’d be wonderful. Hell, if someone would omit half the instances where Dickens says “My dear Wilkie,” the book might sink below 200 pages. Plus, I wanted to bludgeon the omnipresent Collins with a pipe wrench before the book even really got going; Simmons’s portrait of Collins’s delusional, jealous ass makes Salieri look like Deepak Chopra (BUT! Guillermo Del Toro is set to turn Drood into a feature film. Exciting!). And then I read A Winter Haunting, which, turns out, is a sequel to Summer of Night. It’s slimmer and less bloated than Terror and Drood, and it was a fun, quick read.
Which brings me to Summer of Night, and it mainly just pissed me off. Simmons’s penchant for minute detail and complex plot skeins is on full display in this book, but I swear it seems like he got tired, oh, around page 499 and just brought the motherfucker to a deus ex machina-style close. All the crazy shit that goes on – an oozing ghost soldier, putrefacted holes in the ground, disappearing fatties, shadows that push against closet doors, preteen kids enduring lifetimes of physical and mental anguish in a few days – builds and builds and builds for hundreds of pages……and then none of it gets tied together except by small-town association with the too-desperately named Ashley-Montague family and their Borgia Bell that hung in the old school and apparently caused lots of the aforementioned crazy shit. How did the bell accomplish this? What was its psycho-mechanical makeup? To what end were kids killed or rendered undead? Whence that funnel-face the antagonists apparently got while on the attack? Simmons answers none of this, even obliquely. That old school gets pages and pages of exposition, which was fine when I thought it had a payoff, but it didn’t. Now, I’m no Grisham reader. I don’t need everything to fit together perfectly in the end. Ask anyone (affiliated with this blog) – I like messy, pomo, avant-garde stuff aplenty. Not that Scott Smith is any of those things, but I read The Ruins recently and liked it very much specifically because it has no tidy closing explanations, no overt ugly-Americanism, no global-warming-related mutations. The vines were evidently just evil motherfucking carnivores, period. Good. But killer vines in a relatively slim novel are worlds away from a long and intricate plot that endeavors to paint an entire community’s population in dusty, often mottled closeup. Imagine Stand by Me mashed up with Hellraiser minus the existence of anything substantive and creative enough to link the two – that’s what Summer of Night was for me. I reacted the same way to this book as I did to King’s It: a number of promising elements and a handful of genuinely scary moments that pussy out lazily in the end. (Remember that long sewer scene near the close of It? What the FUCK, Steve? A giant organism growing underground gives the town a patina of evil? Try mescaline next time, man. GOD.) Lest I leave the impression that the whole book sucks (it doesn’t), I should add that one scene in Summer of Night is so effective it almost makes up for the bullshit ending: page 339 in my copy, where Mike O’Rourke watches Father Cavanaugh get attacked by the ghost soldier in the cemetery. HO. LEE. SHIT. Otherwise, meh. Still, it’s better than…
The Turn of the Screw – Henry James (1898)
I started writing a long, verbose review of this novella, but fuck that. The Turn of the Screw, like all of Henry James’s writing, sucks donkey balls and is a waste of space, time, and synaptic firings.
Eyes of the Mothman (2011)
I love Netflix, but a pox on them for suggesting that I’d like this documentary about a West Virginia legend. It’s not offensively bad, per se – it’s just that you’d have to be dumber than a bag of hammers to believe in a seven-foot man-bird with glowing red eyes and a ten-foot wingspan. I want to believe in unexplained, potentially spooky phenomena, but, alas, I’m cursed with a thirst for evidence. Faith? I have faith in the nurturing bonds that exist between my wife, my kids, and myself. Everybody and everything else is gonna have to show me some state-licensed ID. Ghost stories are compelling, but how come they’re never accompanied by substantiated, repeatable, incontrovertible evidence? Paranormal activity is fascinating and thrilling, but how come the people involved always seem to have some flirtation (if not out-and-out prison sex) with mental illness? I think that UFOs almost mathematically have to exist, but where the fuck are they? Possession and exorcism? Awesome! Except that they’re inextricably tangled with religious belief, which by its very nature neither requires nor seeks any “proof,” and they too are subjects always seeming to involve the least psychologically stable people imaginable. Such is the predictable fate of this Mothman legend as portrayed onscreen. I’m going to sound like a shallow grump for saying this – fine, whatever – but one look at/hearing of the people in this film really kind of tells you all you need to know. Why are eyewitnesses in these accounts always rural folk who speak in garbled, unkempt dialects? I’m not saying that the filmmakers should also show crisply spoken Wall Street brokers, museum docents, and university chancellors telling spook stories (although, come to think of it, I’d watch that in a heartbeat, and to be fair Mothman does show interview clips with some reasonable-seeming academics who toe the legend’s party line) – I’m asking why the documentarians always seem to interview people from the same rungs of society and regions of the country. It’s either (a) supernatural phenomena by their essence/psychic energy cannot exist near large population centers and so occur in rural, sparsely populated areas, or (b) people from these sparsely populated areas tend to be less educated and more reliant on sentimentality and fantasy, thus providing a fertile breeding ground for nocturnal bumpings. Option (b) is easy and has the cold, slicing feel of Occam’s Razor; option (a) has two problems: (1) it’s just too damn convenient by half that all this shit would need to take place away from the very beings who could observe and document it, and, of course, (2) EVIDENCE – whether weird shit takes place in Times Square or in an abandoned West Virginia mining camp, someone, somewhere has got to find and show actual proof that the weird shit happened.
I also, though, blame the documentarian for my failure to enjoy this film, because the fodder is there, including Native American folklore, curses brought on by 18th-century U.S. imperialism, toxic waste, and even the possibility that a larger-than-normal Sandhill Crane is the real red-eyed Mothman. All of this dissipates, sadly, in a stew of cheesy sound effects, even cheesier visual effects recreating alleged sightings, and interviews with eyewitnesses less credible even than the Burkittsville folk in The Blair Witch Project. You can see it streaming on Netflix, but I wouldn’t bother. (Trailer here.)
By-the-by, I say smart-assed and politically liberal stuff on Twitter, and if you’re gonna look me up, the trip’ll be a waste without also visiting the always-brilliant Zwolf. Other people on Twitter are also hilarious and nasty.