Being that it’s Friday the 13th as well as the fact that summer is quickly winding down (I resume teaching on Monday for the first time in-person since that fateful Friday the 13th of March 2020 when COVID-19 shut everything down), I can’t think of a better time than right now to review Summer Spirit. This book will always have a special place in my heart for 3 reasons. 1). My wife bought this for me as one of my birthday gifts in late July. 2). It marked the first graphic novel I’ve read, which was something I wanted to do since I got back into reading in early 2019. 3). Fittingly so, it marks the first graphic novel review on RVGFanatic. So without further ado, let’s dim the lights, bust out the Ouija board and take a closer look at this quirky and creepy coming-of-age graphic novel…
Summer? Check. Spooky supernatural shit? Check. Coming-of-age tropes? Check. Yep, the moment I saw this book in the store for the first time I knew I had to get it. The pastel colors and unique art style really drew me in. It’s not like many of the other “me too” graphic novels you typically see lining up the shelves at your local book store. There is a distinct and fun flavor to this one!
Louise is looking forward to spending another lazy summer at her grandma’s house with her cousins. Reading endless stacks of comic books, chilling at the beach, feeling the sand and water between her toes. Yup, this was going to be another awesome summer. Little did she know that she would get way more than she bargained for!
Some interesting subplots involving the grandma are hinted at, although never fully explored. Admittedly a bit of a missed opportunity. My imagination filled in the gaps, but I wished that the author had flesh out grandma a little bit more.
There are quite a bit of boxes where there’s no text at all. Elizabeth Holleville did a great job at creating an unsettling and uneasy atmosphere. You could just feel that something off was lingering in the air… perhaps wafting around the corner just beyond the scope of your vision…
A sense of mystery and creepiness pervades throughout the story. You’re just waiting for that shoe to drop!
There’s definitely something disturbing about all those closeup shots that focus on some rather iffy artifacts. It’s like I know something just ain’t quite right…
Slumber parties and summer go together like ghost stories and a campfire. This stuff will take you right back to your adolescent years. It personally brings back a lot of fond memories as my friends and I spent countless summer nights regaling one another with tales of the macabre.
Oh damn, say no more. The Koreans know their horror shit for sure!
A how-to guide to seeing ghosts, eh? Go on… I’m listening…
That’s very true… and quite unsettling when you think about it. Even more so when there’s a creepy ass figure right behind ya!
This is the kind of thing that you’ll never forget. It’s like one of those urban legends one of your friends shared back in the ’90s that sounds plausible enough to the point where you don’t want to test it out… in fears that it just might come true.
What did she see? I can’t spoil that for ya… you’ll have to read it to find out. One of my favorite things about Summer Spirit is how surprisingly spooky it all is. I almost wish they went even further and made this a graphic novel with an adult audience in mind.
I absolutely adore the artwork in this graphic novel. It’s very striking. Louise and her cousins are heading out to town for a nice little girls’ night out.
Ah, how I love the summer time. Those peaceful idyllic summer nights are simply unbeatable. Crickets chirpings, stars out in full force, the calm serenity of a summer evening. No school, no homework and just all the time in the world to play video games and watch horror movies galore with your best pal. But I digress…
Fair warning by the way… Summer Spirit shockingly has a few risqué scenes. Definitely not for kids! The picture above is one of the tamer ones, actually. The more explicit scenes totally caught me off guard as I thought this would be a coming-of-age “bubbly” story with supernatural happenings. It’s actually quite dark and dour. I mean, it’s not hardcore horror by any means, but it’s not suitable for kids under 13, either.
I read Summer Spirit in one sitting. It took me around an hour to zip through the book’s 262 pages. There are a lot of pages with very little text or none at all, so it makes for an extremely fast read. Sometimes I wished the author had fleshed out some details a bit more. Other times I loved the minimalism. The artwork catches the eye and I love the pastel-y look. The story moves in some interesting directions. A few moments where it does feel a bit disjointed knock it down a peg or two. But overall, I quite enjoyed it. It was a fun summer read with more than a hint of uneasiness permeating throughout.
Best of all, Summer Spirit does what a good book should: it tickled my imagination and transported me to a fantastical world different from my own. I’ll read many more graphic novels to come, but I’ll never forget this one for all its weirdness and a foreboding sense of impending dread. It’s got its share of flaws but I could easily see myself revisiting this book several times down the road during those glorious summer seasons. A lot more unfolds after Lisa and Louise meet. Find out for yourself! As for me, I’ll enjoy the last bittersweet remnants of summer while I still can. Farewell once again, summer. Until we meet again…
45 years ago, during that very hot summer of 1976, Night of the Crabs was published and Guy N. Smith’s life would never be the same. Although he had a few horror novels published prior, it was Night of the Crabs that truly put Mr. Smith on the map. As one can surmise from the title, classic literature this ain’t. Oh no, it’s pulpier than hand squeezed orange juice and cheesier than grated Parmesan. And therein lies the beauty for those who are not opposed — or, better yet, inclined — to reading some B-Movie level pulp horror fiction.
In a 2017 reprint, Guy N. Smith reflected on that scorching summer of ’76.
Sadly, Guy N. Smith passed away on December 24, 2020. He was 81. I’m sure he’s looking down, smoking his pipe and grinning at the fact that his little book is now celebrating 45 years!
Guy’s hilarious dedication. Jean’s his wife and clearly, she “has to put up with it all.” Whatever that entails!
RIDING THE WAVE
Peter Benchley’s Jaws was published on February 1, 1974. The movie was released on June 20, 1975. Both the book and film were huge successes. The Rats was published in November of 1974 and was a massive hit for James Herbert. These books no doubt inspired Guy N. Smith to write about giant mutated murderous crustaceans. Heck, the front cover of Night of the Crabs proudly declares, “In the tradition of THE RATS.”Just in case anyone thought otherwise.
IT ALL BEGAN WITH AN INNOCENT SWIM
As so often was the formula for many horror books, the first page introduces 2 characters whose eventual and unfortunate demise becomes the start of a nasty chain reaction. The 2 unlucky victims here are Ian Wright and Julie Coles, a pair of hormonal teenage lovers. On a side note, I can’t help but love the British lexicon — “holiday-maker” gets me every single time. Good ol’ Guy.
Buddy, you wish it was just a cramp! The crabs are craving some soft tender human flesh…
Compared to some of Guy’s later works, Night of the Crabs is fairly tame by comparison. Although, Ian Wright might say otherwise — if he could, that is.
We soon meet marine biologist Cliff Davenport, Ian’s uncle. Ian and Julie work for Uncle Cliffy, who becomes increasingly concerned when they fail to show up for work. He begins to fear something more than just “sexual procrastinations.” Perhaps they were involved in some sort of road accident. Before his mind can race to another scenario even worse, there’s a rapping at his door. A pair of officers. Oh bloody hell…
This part is such a heartbreaker. The stark contrast between the relief of the officers and Cliff’s real emotions behind closed doors is so jarring. The air of finality that closes this chapter is crushing. And thus begins our protagonist’s journey at uncovering the truth…
It isn’t long before Cliff meets Pat Benson. Not surprisingly, the two become more than acquaintances with a shared mission. They discover the giant crabs and know that no one will believe them without any proof. It’s time to concoct a plan to secure said proof. I love that this was written in 1976 and not 2021. Had it been the latter, acquiring proof would have been as simple as whipping out your phone. Imagine, mutated killer crabs on TikTok! But back then, with far less technology, things were a lot harder! There’s a palpable sense of struggle and danger that exists because it was written in the age of long ago.
Guy’s writing… it’s not Hemingway but I do find there’s a certain charm to it. His sex-related scenes are perhaps a bit clumsy, admittedly. But he redeems himself with paragraphs like the last one above. I’ve read a lot of crappy to below average horror writers — Guy N. Smith is easily better than the dreck that tried to capitalize on the horror boom of the ’80s.
King Crab, being even bigger than the other crabs (who are said to be the size of cows), is the leader of the cast. Smith portrays King Crab in particular as being a crafty, sentient creature. As if a pissed off giant crab in command of an endless army isn’t bad news enough, now you add brains to the equation and things quickly become catastrophic. And as you can see from the picture above, King Crab is absolutely vicious. Yikes!
Will Cliff Davenport and Pat be able to save the day? What fate will befall King Crab and his minions? Read the book to find out! Guy N. Smith went on to write EIGHT sequels, with the last being The Charnel Caves released in 2019. It’s his most popular series and this first entry is arguably his most (in)famous book. I had a good time with it and zipped through it in just a few days. It’s nothing spectacular, just decent mindless fun. If you’ve never read Guy N. Smith before, know that he’s very direct and to the point. He wrote in a day and age when horror books were not yet stuffed with background detail nor did they have to be 300+ pages. Guy gets you in and out. It makes for a super fast read that you don’t have to commit a lot of time to, or clear out your calendar for. Night of the Crabs is far from his best work but being the book that really launched his career and put him on the map, it’s a must read for any Guy N. Smith enthusiast. Night of the Crabs is the equivalent of a popcorn B-Movie. Or, in the literary world, a “beach read.” How fitting. Now, only eight more Crabs books to read…
2 summers ago on eBay I stumbled upon — quite by happenstance — a trashy horror novel by the name of CANNIBALS. The cover art was so wildly compelling, graphic and politically incorrect that resistance proved futile. Luckily, I was the winning bidder and devoured Cannibals (no pun intended) as soon as it arrived. It was my first foray into the twisted and macabre mind of Guy N. Smith, who upon further research I discovered was a rather prolific writer of pulpy horror fiction. Mr. Smith thrived in the ’70s and ’80s when paperbacks from hell were at the peak of their powers, and Cannibals became the first in a long line of Guy N. Smith books that I soon started collecting. Sadly, Guy N. Smith passed away at the age of 81 on December 24, 2020. Similar to Richard Laymon, Guy N. Smith was one of the biggest driving forces in my horror fiction fandom. It’s only fitting then to highlight some of his work and commemorate the man who had one hell of a career. Whether he wrote about killer animals or doomsday plague-infested nightmare scenarios, Guy N. Smith was a true master of the macabre.
CRABS R US
Born on November 21, 1939, Guy Newman Smith has published approximately 4,000 articles and wrote over 120 books during his prolific career. His first horror novel, Werewolf By Moonlight, was published in 1974. However, it was Night of the Crabs, released in 1976, that gave Guy N. Smith his first big hit. Based off James Herbert’s The Rats (the cover admits as much), Night of the Crabs would go on to spawn no less than SEVEN sequels. The last of which was published on June 22, 2019 as The Charnel Caves. Talk about milking a series based on killer mutated crabs!
Night of the Crabs was re-released in 2017 with a new introduction penned by the legend himself.
Guy’s hilarious dedication in Night of the Crabs. Jean’s his wife and clearly, she “has to put up with it all.” Whatever that entails!
MORE THAN JUST CRABS
Although perhaps best known for his Crabs series, Guy N. Smith wrote about more than just murderous crustaceans. Take, for example, his brutal take on cannibalism with the aptly (and creatively) named Cannibals. Do not read it before eating! Trust me on that one.
If rain-soaked creepy carnivals and possessed evil wooden dolls float your boat, you might want to check out Guy’s Manitou Doll. Personally, I found it slightly disappointing but your mileage may vary. Undeniably striking and amazing artwork, though!
According to the summary on Goodreads, Bloodshow is about “a ruined castle in the Highlands that serves as a blatant tourist trap. Its dungeons are stuffed with fake horrors. The Werewolf, the Cannibal, the Torturer, the Executioner, the Vampire… all are worked by electricity for cheap thrills. At first. But real evil has lurked for centuries beneath the vaults. Now the Laird of Benahee, Satan’s undead henchman, rises to take his revenge, using tricks to inflict ultimate horror in all its forms. And in this domain of the damned even death is not the end…” Sounds absolutely vicious and bonkers. In other words, sounds like Guy N. Smith.
I just bought this book the other day! Can’t wait to read it. The Festering sounds like a classic B-Movie in the best way possible. One of those trashy VHS horror movie boxes you couldn’t help but gawk at while perusing the horror section at your local rental store back in the late ’80s. “For Mike and Holly Mannion, the tumbledown cottage in a quiet country village seemed the ideal retreat from the rat race. But when a team of contractors is hired to drill a water-well, a deadly plague is unleashed — a macabre, terrifying entity that had lurked in the bowels of the earth for centuries. The Festering Death had risen from its burial place.” Sounds like a fun lazy Sunday afternoon read!
When it comes to “when animals attack” stories, Guy N. Smith was pretty damn reliable. From the ones I’ve read thus far, most of them hit the mark. Some of that stuff is legit nightmare fuel! I haven’t read Abomination yet, but I’ve heard this is one of his better works.
Alligators is currently my second favorite Guy N. Smith book, trailing only Cannibals by a small margin. That book is relentless, sadistic and demented. That one scene with the family stuck in bed with the little leaping snapping baby alligator haunts me to this day. Snakes, on the other hand, was the first Guy N. Smith killer animal book that didn’t quite work for me. It’s not bad but it felt a little paint-by-numbers, especially when compared to Alligators. Still decent, but definitely more middle-of-the-road fare.
The savagery continues in Throwback, where much of the population is somehow reverted to more primitive means, with a few “lucky” unaffected trying to survive the mayhem. Carnivore flips the script — the hunted now becomes the hunter. Wildlife gets its revenge on a cursed estate.
The Island is about a haunted island plagued with a sordid history. 200 years later, a lonely widower moves there and all manner of madness hits the fan when the past comes barging back.
Thirst follows the exploits of chemist Ron Blythe, the man responsible for creating the world’s deadliest weed killer spray. While being transported in a huge lorry, it accidentally crashes into a local reservoir, poisoning the entire water supply of Birmingham. “Now with thousands of people suffering and dying, his conscience forces him to find an antidote. Unfortunately, he gets stranded inside Birmingham, now sealed off, and full of anarchists, escape criminals and weed killer-poisoned sufferers from the Thirst, all of which turn the city into a hell inside England.”
I love the back covers for these old nasties! Thirst was originally published in 1980. You won’t find novels like this in book stores today.
One of his earliest efforts and arguably his most (in)famous novel outside of the Crabs series, The Slime Beast is what sleazy pulpy horror fiction is all about. The summary is enough to evoke nostalgic memories of staying up late as a kid watching low budget monster horror movies. “Professor Lowson is searching the Wash for King John’s lost treasure. Instead he awakes a reptilian creature buried in the mud, which seems to have arrived on this planet in a meteorite. It starts wandering around, killing and eating anybody it comes across. Lowson wants to capture it alive but his companions want to kill it before it kills anyone else. Soon the locals are involved — there can only be a catastrophic finale.”
The Sucking Pit sports a proud blurb in which Stephen King once deemed it “the all-time pulp horror classic title.” This is, admittedly, a bit of tricky advertising. Title can easily be interpreted as book, as in this is a classic book. But King literally meant title. The Sucking Pit. A great title, indeed. But a great book? Your mileage may vary.
It’s as suitably ridiculous as the title would suggest. Good ol’ Guy. His seedy material would never fly in today’s politically correct world. These sadistic stories serve as mini time machines, transporting the reader back to a relic age when there were no restrictions and no holds barred. A fair warning though, and this goes for Richard Laymon as well: after reading any one of Guy’s works, I find I need a palate cleanser. Don’t read his stuff back to back because you may tumble down a rabbit hole and never resurface. His twisted tales can get pretty damn depraved. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya…
In 2019, while rummaging at a local Goodwill, I came across a Guy N. Smith book. But it wasn’t a horror book… oh no… it was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!
Yes, believe it or not, in addition to his horror novels, he also wrote various Disney adaptations. What a funny guy, that Guy!
On March 27, 2020, Guy N. Smith wrote an interesting post on his website. It related to the Corona Virus and his old 1978 book, Bats Out of Hell. Take a look…
Wow. Please, may none of Guy’s other horror novels ever come to fruition. If I ever see a giant crab clicking its way to shore, I’m booking it. Screw that shit!
This is the comment I left him on that same post. Sadly, a day before Christmas 2020 Guy N. Smith left the world due to a UTI and complications related to COVID-19. Mr. Smith was 81 years old. So sad at the irony that COVID-19 would take him out.
Guy N. Smith’s legacy lives on. He was huge on crafting books about apocalyptic plagues and killer nasties. For better or worse, no one churned them out at the rate quite like he did in the ’70s and ’80s. It was a unique time in horror history, one in which we’ll probably never experience again. Thankfully, we can still experience them by going through the incredible backlog of books that he has afforded us horror hounds. I currently own 17 Guy N. Smith books, and have not read most of them yet. It will be a (guilty) pleasure to go through each of them in the years to come. His books do pop up on eBay frequently, so check some out if you’re into pulpy horror fiction. He isn’t the greatest horror writer who ever lived and probably not even close, but he sure was damn entertaining. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, really.
Remember the simple days of childhood when books such as TheBailey School Kids, Magic Tree House and Goosebumps were a constant staple at your local libraries and book stores? I love longstanding series that stretch on longer than a summer’s day. There’s always another book to consume, another adventure to embark on and another chapter to be read. Earlier this year, by a random stroke of luck, I stumbled upon a UK kid series known as BEAST QUEST. Written by various authors under the pen name of Adam Blade, Beast Quest made its debut in 2007 with Ferno the Fire Dragon. Amazingly, Beast Quest rages on to this very day, with new entries scheduled for the summer of 2021 and beyond. As of this writing, the series spans over 150 books and has sold over 20 million copies! Off the top of my head, I don’t know if there’s a chapter book series more prolific than Beast Quest. It certainly warrants a closer look, so let’s delve right in.
WHAT IS BEAST QUEST?
Beast Quest follows the adventures of young Tom and his friend, Elenna. They live in the land of Avantia, which was once guarded by 6 beasts. But peace never lasts very long. For a jealous and evil wizard roams the land, seeking his chance to rule with an iron fist. Malvel’s black magic has corrupted the guardians, turning them against the denizens of Avantia. It’s up to Tom and Elenna to free the beasts and save Avantia.
Each book in the main series is a little over 100 pages and can be read in an hour or less. The Special Editions hover around the 190 page mark. Admittedly, Beast Quest is rather unoriginal and full of tropes. But it does serve as a perfect gateway and introductory point to the world of sci-fi fantasy and quasi horror for younger readers.
DISCOVERING THE SERIES
Earlier this February I was browsing Target.com for a book with the name “beast” in it. It led me to these badass Beast Quest covers. I’d never seen it before, so I did a quick Google search to find out more. I was sold and suddenly found myself on eBay. Out of wild curiosity, I did a completed items search. I almost wish I hadn’t…
Earlier that SAME evening, someone bought this for just $45! It was a Buy It Now, and the seller listed it earlier that day. I missed it by mere hours! I even messaged her to let know I was interested in buying it if the buyer didn’t come through. She said she’d keep me in mind but I knew it was futile. The buyer paid for it and that was that. Man, if only I had discovered the series a little bit earlier that day!
But life has a funny way of working out sometimes. A few days later I went back to the completed search and found an auction selling 80 (!) books that ended in December 2020 with 0 bids. I sent her a message, figuring it couldn’t hurt to ask. Turns out she took the auction down because shipping was too costly. I offered to buy 60 of the 80 books (#19-78 — I recently bought #1-18) and asked if she could fit them in 2 medium or large priority mail boxes. As luck would have it, they were a perfect fit in 2 medium boxes. Best of all, she gave it to me for only $50!
Opening this felt like Christmas morning! I love what a snug fit they were and how the bright colors bounce off the box like a shimmering treasure chest full of shiny gold coins.
She even threw in Special Editions #1 and #2 for free. Because what does a series with well over 100 books in the main lineup need? Spin-offs and side entries, of course. Even better, the books still had the collector cards tucked in at the back. Most tear the cards out, so imagine my shock and joy when the books arrived in very good condition AND still had their trading cards intact. I truly lucked out. So glad I missed the first auction by mere hours! I’ve had some crazy memorable eBay dealings in my day; this one definitely ranks up there.
GOTTA CATCH ‘EM ALL
Each book comes with 4 trading cards (or a bookmark and 2 cards) tucked in at the back of the book. Like I said, if you’re buying used copies then odds are that the cards will be missing. So be aware of that. Also, some later entries stopped featuring cards (bummer).
Cards highlight the big baddies, secondary foes, fellow allies, places of note and even weapons and items. The cards aren’t anything to go wild about (there is nothing on the back — a small missed opportunity), but they’re still a fun bonus that I’m sure as a kid I would have loved immensely.
Also note that the US editions came with no cards. Only certain UK editions did.
Just another reason why the UK imprint is far better than the North American one!
This is exactly the kind of cool shit I would have loved peddling with my friends on the school playground before the morning bell rings.
This is most likely what you’d find when buying these books second hand. Torn out cards at the back. It’s a damn near minor miracle when they’re not. To receive 60 books with their cards intact was a pleasant surprise!
THE ART AND SOUL OF BEAST QUEST
But even better than the cards are all the amazing illustrations littered throughout each book. There’s cool artwork every couple pages or so. This makes it a super easy read and the pictures — especially those of the beasts and monsters — add a lot of charm and quality to the overall package.
Most of the art is quite striking, containing a pseudo anime style. Although not credited anywhere within the books, the illustrations were drawn by Steve Sims. With pictures like this and the collector cards, it’s no wonder this series was/is such a smash hit in the UK. It’s almost everything a 7 year old could ever want from a book series.
I’m 37 and the kid in me absolutely loves this. I can only imagine how much more if I were 7!
An ancient scaly sea dragon raging war with a prehistoric killer mutant shark? TAKE MY DISPOSABLE INCOME!
Of the 3 books I’ve read thus far, the prose is decent enough. The writing isn’t the best in the world but it’s not overly simplistic, either. The art, however, is what makes Beast Quest truly stand out.
“What a shame there were no toys as well,” said no parent ever.
Beast Quest does remind me a bit of Monster In My Pocket from the early ’90s.
Shoot, with all the different monsters they created, they could easily have had their own Beast Quest action figures.
Beast Quest also reminds me slightly of one of my all-time favorites, Battle Beasts. Hard to believe that was almost 35 years ago now!
Come to think of it, a weekly animated series would have been a smash success as well.
THE VIDEO GAME
Although they never capitalized on a toy lineup or a cartoon series, there is a Beast Quest video game. Released originally in 2016, the game is available on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Steam. The Switch version goes for $29.99 but I’ve seen it on sale for $10 from time to time. Might pick it up down the road once it hits $5. Reviews aren’t too favorable but your mileage may vary.
USA VS. UK
Scholastic published the first 24 books in North America from March 2007 to October 2012. If you want book #25 on, you have to buy the UK editions. But my recommendation is to skip the US editions altogether. The UK entries are far superior in every which way. Not only do they come with trading cards (if they weren’t already yanked out), but the illustrations are night and day…
See what I mean? It’s not even close! But the biggest offender of all…
SPECIAL EDITIONS AND MORE
As previously mentioned, there are books in the series that deviate off the main path. You have Special Bumper editions, Battle of the Beasts (only 3 were written) and even a Choose Your Own Path spin-off.
There are also books highlighting the beasts and a special Ultimate Story collection that features color pictures.
I own the first 110 books (Series 1-21) but am missing some entries from Series 21-25. I never buy them new so it’s just a matter of waiting to fill in the gaps. I also own most of the 24 Special Editions. #25, Arkano the Stone Crawler, is set for release on July 27, 2021. This is, pardon the pun, a beast of a series with no end in sight.
Another look, but with the box sets flipped around. I also own the spin-off series, Sea Quest. That series retired after “only” 39 books. It features entirely new characters and its own universe. But yeah, definitely just an excuse for “Adam Blade” to mass produce more easy to sell books to young children. I haven’t read Sea Quest yet, but one dad on Goodreads and his son said that they actually like it a lot better than Beast Quest because of “better world building and some nifty gadgets.”
It’s insane how many books are in this series. It’s almost like The Simpsons of the chapter book world in that there is simply no end in sight. It’s very possible that the quality dips and fluctuates over the course of time (inevitable with so many ghost writers in the series). I’m sure there’s bound to be a point of fatigue and saturation but this series scratches my OCD itch to collect ‘em all. My wife is probably shaking her head as she reads this
So far I’ve read the first 3 books (only 228 left to go!) and honestly, I had a blast with each one. Granted, it’s only the beginning so everything is still novel at this point. Although I can already see there’s a certain formula. It opens with the titular beast causing havoc, then shifts to our main protagonist, Tom, and his quest to conquer the beast — which he does each time, shocking, I know! And when Tom does defeat the beast, he gains a special item, skill or ability that comes into play in the following book. Like I said, classic literature this ain’t, my friend. But if you’re looking to introduce a fun book series that features sci-fi fantasy and scary monsters to a reluctant young reader, Beast Quest does well to scratch that itch. In fact, I bought the series with the hope to one day read it to my future kid(s). Boy or girl, they’re going to love hearing it read aloud to them around 5 or 6. And by 7 or 8 start devouring on their own before moving on to more advanced, complicated stories. Man, if only this series was around in 1990 when I was 7. Maybe I’ll be able to live vicariously through my future child while helping to cultivate their sense of wonder and imagination. One can only hope so.
When I rediscovered my love for books and reading back in early 2019, I was originally on the hunt for vintage horror paperbacks and kids’ chapter books that I missed out on in the late ’80s to mid ’90s. I didn’t care for today’s middle grade chapter books. Somewhere along the line though, my mind was opened to them and I’m so thankful that happened. As much as I adore the classics from long ago, a lot of them are very dated and not all too relevant today. Nowadays you have books featuring characters from all walks of life learning all kinds of different lessons in ways that are very relatable to present day issues. It wasn’t long before I discovered John David Anderson, who wrote Ms. Bixby’s Last Day and Posted, two highly touted middle grade books. I instantly fell in love with the cover of Finding Orion and did something I rarely do — I bought it brand new. Sometimes you see a cover, read a summary and you just know. You just know that the book will resonate with you and speak to you somehow. Now sometimes that doesn’t always happen and you end up being sorely disappointed, but I’m happy to say that was definitely not the case for Finding Orion. John David Anderson is a talented writer. This is a simple but beautiful story about family and the ties that bond us. It’s also about finding yourself as well as keeping an open mind. Because when you do, anything is possible. Such as forgiveness… and redemption.
I was already sold by the hauntingly atmospheric cover and the classic coming of age premise, but a blurb praised it for evoking The Wonder Years and Willy Wonka had me ready to plop down the full $8 asking price. The Wonder Years is my all-time favorite show and I always loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, so for me it was a no-brainer. Finding Orion is definitely more Wonder Years than Willy Wonka (80/20 I’d say), but the comparison is justifiable.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE CIRCUS
Rion is your typical 12 year old boy, but his family is anything but. Their last name is conveniently Kwirk (and oh how quirky they are). Ri’s dad concocts fried chicken jelly beans for a living. His oldest sister, Cass, is a dramatic fencing thespian. His youngest sister, Lyra, is a walking dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia and atlas all rolled up into one. Yes, these are tropes. And in lesser hands, it could easily be an eye roller. But John David Anderson somehow makes it work.
That line wasn’t meant to be creepy, but it’s way creepier than “There’s a family in our driveway.”
Turns out the clown is a friend, not a fiend. His name is Chuckles McLaughsalot. And he’s here to deliver a good old fashioned singing telegram from beyond the grave…
Papa Kwirk was definitely the quirkiest of Kwirks.
The story is told from Rion’s point of view; it’s in these poignant moments Finding Orion feels a LOT like The Wonder Years. It touches on some pretty deep topics, as many modern middle grade books tend to do. It’s one of the many reasons why I love middle grade fiction so much. They’re easy to read but can delve surprisingly deep.
Loss is a natural part of life, and everyone copes and grieves in their own unique way. Rion is very honest about his conflicted feelings. Life, as well as death, can often times be messy.
Dad’s relationship with Papa Kwirk was… strained… to say the very least. Finding Orion is as much about Rion’s dad and his relationship with Papa Kwirk as it is about Rion and his dad. I love the multigenerational aspect of this story.
It quickly became apparent that Papa Kwirk was huge in his community and touched many lives in different ways that the Kwirks were not fully aware of. It seemed as though everyone knew who Frank Kwirk was… except for his very own family.
But before the Kwirks can head home, Aunt Gertie drops a bombshell: per Papa Kwirk’s final wishes, his ashes have been hidden in various places and must be collected before he can be properly (and wholly) sent off. This leads to an outrageous scavenger hunt!
Rion’s reflections are the best part of the book. You can almost hear Daniel Stern’s voiceover.
Ri and his sisters are far from best friends, but they have their bonding moments throughout that just makes one go, “awww.” And may very well conjure a few childhood memories of hanging out with your siblings on a nice quiet summer evening…
Manny, Rion’s best friend and stand-in for Paul Pfeiffer, appears throughout the story in the form of phone call conversations.
I love how some of the chapter titles are far out there, but make perfect sense after reading them.
Lyra’s vast vocabulary leads to moments like such.
The unrealistically uber intelligent little kid trope is way overdone but as I said earlier, John David Anderson manages to pull it off with some charm. Besides, you do learn some cool random facts along the way!
There are some nostalgic ’80s callbacks sprinkled throughout the book. Dad is sometimes known as Optimus Prime, for example. One of the Kwirks’ pit stops on their quest to find Papa Kwirk’s remains leads them to an old timey ice cream parlor. And suddenly, the name of this chapter makes perfect sense.
I appreciated the various Garbage Pail Kids references in the book. Talk about nostalgic!
That’s one mighty tough challenge. Are the Kwirks up to it? Hopefully none of them are diabetic.
Humor can fall flat sometimes in a book. Like the author was trying too hard. Or the jokes simply miss. Finding Orion is humorous in all the right ways when it needs to be, and is more introspective when the occasion calls for it. It’s a solid balance that keeps the book light-hearted enough while tackling some pretty heavy topics with the sort of gravity that such issues deserve. I can picture a lot of the scenes, like the one above, as if it were a family movie trending on NetFlix.
It gets a bit silly at times, but that’s exactly how kids behave. And even though a lot of these moments have an air of “I’ve read or seen something like this 100 times before,” it still remains charming and somehow feels fresh, if that makes any sense. It speaks to John David Anderson’s ability to make the reader feel invested and above all else, entertained.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book, but I have to share this last one. I could just picture this in my head like a movie scene. It actually made me chuckle a bit, rather than just garner a smile. Good stuff.
Finding Orion starts out a little slow at first, but quickly kicks into gear. And from there, you have a quirky fun-filled family adventure. It’s got a bit of a road trip vibe to it, loads of scavenger hunt shenanigans and a ton of heart. Whether it was making me chuckle or ponder about my own relationship with my pops over the years, Finding Orion was a joy to read. It felt like a modern day Wonder Years episode in many ways. Family is a huge theme, as well as forgiveness and teamwork. As it is in real life, forgiveness often leads to redemption. If reading any of this made you feel like this book would be right up your alley, then I suggest strapping in with the Kwirks. And remember, when in doubt, follow the stars. They will always lead you back home.
Often considered one of the greatest American writers of classic literature, John Steinbeck is an author I made a point to finally read in 2021. He’s most well known for writing The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. I might have read the latter in high school, but I can’t remember if I truly did or not. Weighing in at a scant 107 pages, it’s more of a novella (a short novel or a long short story) and was the perfect candidate following my reading of Stephen King’s 1,000+ page tome, 11/22/63. Not to mention Of Mice and Men was referenced in 11/22/63. Combined with my desire to start going through Steinbeck’s catalog, the decision was easy. The cover you see above was published in the fall of 1993, but Steinbeck wrote it in 1937. It’s a classic for a reason, and because of how brief and to the point it is, it’s one of those timeless books I can see myself rereading every couple years or so.
Taking place in California’s dusty vegetable fields during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men follows the journey of George Milton and Lennie Small as they travel from place to place looking for work. Steinbeck does a fantastic job exploring the themes of loneliness, isolation and pie-in-the-sky dreams that may or may not ever come to fruition. It’s a harrowing look at how fast things can snowball and how the line between hope and delusion can quickly blur before you know it.
The story sets the mood right off the bat by painting a picture in the reader’s mind of rolling hillsides, green pastures, sparkling brooks and woodland creatures milling lazily about. The land is beautiful, holding much potential to cultivate and harvest, but you also get this niggling sense that the land is so vast that man can easily become lost in its grandeur.
We quickly learn that George runs the show while Lennie is a dim-witted giant who doesn’t know his own strength. George knows he’d be better off without Lennie dragging him down — Lennie’s constant lapses in judgment has gotten the two of them in plenty of hot water before. At the same time, George cares for the big lug and Lennie’s reliable companionship perhaps overrides whatever better lifestyle George could muster if he were on his own. George accepts this burden, for better or worse. He sure as hell isn’t shy to let Lennie have it, as seen above!
Lennie is well aware of the fact that he is a burden on George, even threatening multiple times to leave George once and for all so that George can be free and live the kind of life he deserves. But deep down, no matter how much trash talking and tongue lashing George does, he has a soft spot for the big guy and doesn’t want to go on without him.
Their chemistry and back and forth bickering leaps off the pages. They’re like an old married couple! The dialogue somehow feels real and relevant, even 80+ years later. A truly remarkable feat that speaks to Steinbeck’s talent. And I love the little description at the end there. Really paints a beautiful picture of the landscape in the cool of the evening. You can almost feel that little night breeze on the back of your neck.
George is constantly sticking up for Lennie and fighting his battles. He’s every bit Lennie’s guardian as he is his companion — if not more. When the boss wants to hear Lennie speak for himself, rather than George being his mouthpiece at every turn, George lies and tells the boss they’re cousins. Later in that same chapter, Lennie says to George, “You said I was your cousin.” To which George hilariously replies, “Well, that was a lie. An’ I’m damn glad it was. If I was a relative of yours I’d shoot myself.”
Curley’s wife is soon introduced, a floozy willing to put out for anyone with two legs. Lennie is a bit smitten by her, George quickly recognizes this and some entertaining dialogue ensues.
The theme of loneliness and isolation is well explored here, as George admits he ain’t got no one. How he sees so many guys up and down the road, just traveling by themselves, that they get so lonely and mean and want to throw fists all the time. He also admits that while Lennie is a nuisance more times than not, he wouldn’t know what to do without him. “But you get used to goin’ around with a guy an’ you can’t get rid of him.” With the underlying implication that he wouldn’t want to get rid of Lennie, even if he could. Some deep, powerful stuff there.
Slim asks George what happened in Weed, and George lets his guard down to tell. Yep, Lennie is no stranger to fucking up.
This is one of my favorite scenes from the book. The part where Crooks starts talking. It’s incredibly introspective and self-aware. And once again, the theme of isolation and loneliness pops up.
Crooks and Lennie share a poignant moment while George and the rest of the boys go to town. Lennie shares his dream of living off the fat of the land with George, and Crooks gives him a piece of his mind. Saying that he’s seen far too many guys walk this well beaten path before. Big delusional dreams that always amount to nothing. Melancholy is an understatement! Damn, Crooks, don’t hold back none now…
Eventually Curley’s wife pops by. Of course, she’s nothing but trouble with a capital T. Lennie tells her that George promises to let him tend the rabbits. The Jezebel has the audacity to say, “Well, if that’s all you want, I might get a couple rabbits myself.” OH! Zinger! I jumped in my seat and cried out, “GEORGIE BOY, WHERE ARE YOU WHEN WE NEED YA!?” Now that’s a sign a book has got you hook, line and sinker.
Crooks does his best to step in, but Curley’s wife quickly puts him in his place. Still, you can’t help but admire his effort. You also can’t help but feel bad for Crooks when he sits down, closes up and a deep resignation sinks in. There’s nothing more that he or anyone else can do to help Lennie. They all become prisoners of the moment, and the one in charge is a five year old toting a fully loaded gun. What happens next? If you haven’t read this book yet, I’ll leave it to you to find out on your own
I read Of Mice and Men in one sitting , completely entertained and enthralled from beginning to end. The relationship dynamic between George and Lennie had me hooked from the beginning. The dialogue is a blast to read. Although a very simple and straightforward story, it is also quite deep and profound in many ways. Steinbeck wrote this masterpiece over 80 years ago yet it still resonates with countless readers to this very day, in spite of the changes that have occurred over the past 8+ decades. Some things, like loneliness and isolation, still affect (and plague) us in 2021 as much now as it did back then. It’s no wonder Of Mice and Men has this timeless feel to it. What is the fine line between hope and delusion? Does hope keep us going, even if it’s false hope? What happens when we chase something we know deep down will likely never come to fruition? Are we all just hamsters spinning endlessly in a wheel? The book is open for interpretation and discussion. I’ll leave it to you to form your own. I can’t wait to read Steinbeck’s other works, but I have a sneaky suspicion Of Mice and Men will be difficult to top. An all-time classic that begs to be read, and somehow remains relevant almost 85 years after it was written.
During the quarantine last year, when much of the world was forced to shut down, I managed to cross off two firsts simultaneously. Number one, I read my first Stephen King book. And number two, It was the first 1,000+ page book I’ve read. It was an arduous journey — 1,153 pages to be precise. Something I never thought I would do, but I did it. It took me exactly 3 weeks; each day I read roughly 55 pages. It was a satisfying experience. In my daily midnight to 3 AM excursions, Stephen King transported me to the dreary town of Derry where several kids (and later adults) were haunted by a sinister entity. I knew it was only the beginning of my Stephen King reading experience. Earlier this month, I finished my second Stephen King 1,000+ page tome, 11/22/63. Prior to reading it, I’d read a bunch of horror paperbacks so I was feeling the need to switch things up. In addition, I had heard many great things about 11/22/63. It’s about a guy who travels back in time in an attempt to stop the John F. Kennedy assassination. But that’s just scratching the surface. There’s so much more to the book than just preventing one of history’s most infamous moments. King filled every nook and cranny with lots of heart and drama. It’s NOT a horror book, by the way, so don’t expect any creepy clowns… although… well, I’ll get to that later…
A BLAST FROM THE PAST
Right away we find out that Jake Epping, our main character, is divorced in large part because he was unable to fill his partner’s emotional quotient.
The story quickly kicks in gear when Al Templeton, the owner and operator of Al’s Diner (home of the Famous Fatburger), buzzes Jake. Lung cancer is now on the menu, and he requests Jake’s presence that very night at the diner. Not one to turn down a dying man’s last wish, Jake heads over…
Al’s Diner is home to more than just the Famous Fatburger, for deep in the pantry one might stumble across a magical wormhole. Each time you step through, it always takes you back to 11:58 AM on the 9th of September 1958. Al requests Jake to try it himself, as if traveling through time is as nonchalant as trying on a new pair of shoes. I love how King portrays Al’s desperation. “I need you to do this.” Obviously, there are more stakes at play here than just “Hey bro, check out my magical pantry! Travel back to 1958 for shits and giggles!”
After Jake returns to present day 2011, he has so many questions swirling through his mind. He cracks the code on Al’s Famous Fatburger, and how Al has been able to sell it for so cheap for so long…
Al starts going through the benefits of traveling back to 1958. He proposes that one would have to wait 43 years to prevent 9/11, and that Jake would be pushing 80 by the time 2001 rolls around. But 1963… 1963 would be less than 5 years away… manageable enough for one, hypothetically speaking, to prevent a certain assassination…
Due to Al’s lung cancer, his time is up. Jake’s time, however, is now (or then, as it were). The reason for this “social visit” becomes readily clear; Al wants Jake to go back in time to save John F. Kennedy. King pierces Jake’s soul, as well as ours, with these four haunting words: “John Kennedy can live.” Instant goosebumps!
A hell of a sales pitch indeed! Al pours it on, highlighting the ramifications beyond just saving JFK. A domino effect can also include saving Martin Luther King Jr., stopping the race riots and maybe even stopping Vietnam. After reluctantly accepting the challenge, Al gives Jake the keys to the kingdom as well as his notebook documenting key notes during his various travels to the past. This sets up the rest of the story and Jake’s journey into the great unknown.
Love King’s Easter eggs in this book!
Jake quickly learns that 2011 lingo doesn’t quite jive in 1958. It could even possibly land him in some hot water if used in the wrong circle, so Jake has to adapt to his new (old) setting and be extra careful. Similar to Marty McFly, no one can know that he’s a visitor from the future…
Another fun callback is when Jake Epping visits good ol’ Derry, the principal town in Stephen King’s It. Fans of that book will definitely recall the uptight owner, Norbert Keene.
Jake encounters several of Derry’s denizens. Part of It takes place in 1958, so how convenient for Mr. King to merge these two worlds momentarily. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to a sequel in book form.
One of the best parts of 11/22/63 is the brief interaction Jake has with Richie Tozier and Beverly Marsh. Oh Mr. King, you sly devil you. What a clever way to bring back two of your most popular characters ever created.
Richie and Bevvie weren’t the only ones to jump when Jake said “Clowns joke around a lot, too.”There are moments in any form of entertainment, whether it’s sports, movies or books, where you’ll gasp or jump in your seat out of excitement or satisfaction. This was definitely one of those moments. The Stephen King multiverse is in full effect here! Beverly follows up with a question regarding a turtle (readers of It will understand). Jake doesn’t get it, and there’s an amusing reference of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The second paragraph in the picture above shows what kind of writer Stephen King is capable of being when he is in the zone. Just beautifully stated.
Before trying to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from gunning down JFK, Jake goes on a side mission to stop someone else. I liked how he laid out the options and then broke down the pros and cons of each one.
Another callback to Shawshank
As I said, 11/22/63 is not a horror novel but it does get a bit creepy whenever Derry is front and center.
King really sells the seediness and wretchedness of Derry well.
Those descriptions of Derry…
One of the most haunting scenes from It is referenced here. If Mike Hanlon were around to read this, he would suffer a massive episode of PTSD!
I minored in theatre arts in college (holy crap it’ll be 20 years this August since my first day of college). Jake teaches in 1958 at a high school to kill time, and he also directs the school’s play, Of Mice and Men. These passages of what it’s like to be involved in a school play is, to my experience, super accurate. It makes me wonder if Stephen King was a bit of a thespian in his own day. It certainly wouldn’t shock me as these parts are written by someone who seems to have first hand acting experience. It is pretty loose early on during the earlier rehearsals. Then opening night comes and wow, everyone is running around backstage like a chicken with its head cut off. Fun times. Reading about all this certainly brought back a wave of fond acting memories. How ironic that King took me back to my own past for a bit there…
Jake Epping is flawed, yet you can’t help but root for him as he plays “Mr. Good Samaritan From the Future.” A book is only as good as how much you care about what happens to the main characters, and the ones in 11/22/63 definitely held my interest.
Love this part! What a perfect and fitting way to close the chapter on Derry in this book.
#37 made me grin. The answer is E, because Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The House of 7 Gables, not tables. You’ve got to be shitting me, indeed.
Ah, The Catcher in the Rye. I loved it when I read it back in high school some 20+ years ago. It’s definitely on my to read again list, along with other classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Old Man and the Sea, Across Five Aprils, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Lord of the Flies.
Although our protagonist soon falls in love with living in the past, King doesn’t romanticize the “good old days” of the late ’50s and early ’60s. You see a lot of the ugliness that plagued the people of that time, such as segregation and racial tension. It’s not done overtly, but it’s definitely there, and I appreciated that King did that.
One of my favorite parts!
Speaking of The Simpsons, I’ve noticed recently that the writers of that show clearly had a thing for JFK. Is that Homer there, or Jake Epping? In fact, ya know, I’ve never seen Homer and Jake at the same time. Hmmm…
Jake’s brutal honesty with himself is inspiring. Captivating. He admits he’s disgusted by this woman but quickly acknowledges that she is a prisoner of her time (as well as her choices). It’s a simple insight but a powerful one. As I said earlier, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns in the distant past. King wasn’t shy to remind the reader about that.
King is absolutely a fan of Ray Bradbury. Often considered as one of the greatest American writers to have ever lived, Ray’s classic short story, A Sound of Thunder, is often credited as the origin of the term “butterfly effect.” That’s a chaos theory in which the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world could create a hurricane on the opposite side of the globe.
See, King’s no doubt a Bradbury fanboy
King’s afterword also reveals his affinity for Jack Finney.
So King endorses Time & Again as the greatest time travel novel of all time, eh? [You’re fired -Ed.]. We’ll see about that, good sir! Naturally, I bought a copy immediately after reading King’s afterword. Naturally.
Speaking of time travel, after finishing the Pocket edition of 11/22/63, my copy was a bit beat up. I traded it in to a used book store, knowing that I wanted to get a good copy of the original bigger edition. The cool thing about the original big edition is the cover. Flip the front cover and you’ll see…
One day I was at a somewhat local Friends (of the Library) Book Store. If you consider a one hour drive “somewhat local,” that is! [More like somewhat very loco! -Ed./the wifey]. Most towns have a Friends of the Library store; they’re awesome because you can get books for really cheap, or relatively cheap anyhow. They had the big edition of 11/22/63 in mint condition, but it was $10 and at the time I hadn’t yet made up my mind to get the bigger edition. Fast forward a month, I finished reading my Pocket edition and had decided to trade it in. So I drove back to the Friends store in hopes to pick up the mint copy I had seen a month prior.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. I made a beeline for the Sci-Fi section where I last saw it a month ago. Its hulk of a spine was missing from the shelf, and I was overcome with regret that I didn’t pick it up earlier. I asked the clerk if they had another copy in the back or if it was moved to another section (I was really grasping at straws at this point). He said no and that someone purchased it just an hour ago. He rubbed salt in the wound by saying, “Yeah, that one was in great condition too. You really gotta snatch it up when you see stuff like that. They don’t come around too often.” If only I was able to come the day before, or even a few hours earlier! Talk about wanting to travel back in time to right a wrong! OK, so my situation isn’t nearly as dire as the one Jake Epping faced in 11/22/63, but that’s some fascinating synchronicity there, no? Then, a few weeks later I checked their online inventory and saw that another copy of the big edition came in. I was so excited to go pick it up. This time there will be no hesitation to pull the trigger. My wife and I made the long one hour drive and as it turns out, it was nowhere near the “very good” condition the website claimed it to be. I refused to settle and bite the bullet. Thankfully I didn’t buy it, because a short week later I was at a Goodwill and found a much better copy for just $2! How’s that for some “good will” (sorry) from the universe?!
Simply put, 11/22/63 is an amazing piece of literature and probably one of Stephen King’s best. Although this is only his third book that I have read to date, I very much doubt there will be many others I will end up liking more than this one. It’s more than just a story about a guy from the future going back in time to save John F. Kennedy. There are so many themes interlaced and at play here that it works like gangbusters. Even though it’s a mammoth book clocking anywhere from around 850-1,090 pages (depending on the edition you pick up), the story moves fast and there were few lulls. I love the parts about Derry, and revisiting with Richie and Bevvie from It for a few pages was so freaking cool and awesome. Jake’s journey is captivating and you’ll root for him every page of the way. Will he save JFK after all? You’ll just have to read it to find out on your own!
Today marks 20 years since the unfortunate and untimely passing of one of horror’s most prolific writers, Richard Laymon. On February 14, 2001, Mr. Laymon sadly left this world far too soon, dying at the tender age of 54. To honor his amazing legacy and life, I can’t think of a better time than now to share some memories and highlights. So whether you’re brand new to Laymon’s lunacy or a long time fan, sit back and grab a cold one. This one’s for you, Uncle Dicky!
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Ever since the ripe age of 6 — when I first experienced John Carpenter’s masterpiece, Halloween — I have been a huge fan of horror. Naturally, that love carried into the mid ’90s with R.L. Stine’s classic Goosebumpsbooks.
Following Goosebumps, the next logical evolution was Fear Street. R.L. Stine wrote this series for a teenage audience. I had a blast reading these books, especially The Babysitter and its sequels. Fond memories of reading Hit and Run in one sitting late one summer night in 1995.
Given my history with horror, one might assume the next step to be venturing out with adult horror books, such as Stephen King’s It. Except I didn’t. By the time I hit high school in the fall of 1997, I stopped reading for leisure and only read to fulfill class assignments and essays. Reading — something I once loved dearly — became strictly perfunctory.
Fast forward over 20 years to April of 2019. Randomly visiting a Goodwill by my girlfriend’s place 2 hours out of town, I hit the mother lode. Displayed enticingly before me on the shelf were over 50 R.L. Stine horror books. And just like that, I was back in.
2 short months later, in the summer of 2019, I did a random search for horror books on eBay. Came across CANNIBALS by Guy N. Smith. Up to this point in my life, I had yet to read an adult horror novel. I knew right away that Cannibals had to be the one to pop my cherry. It was, and it was glorious.
Suddenly, the floodgates opened. The summer of 2019 began my obsession with buying and reading as many vintage horror paperbacks as I could. Books like SPIDERS by Richard Lewis spooked the shit out of me, and I couldn’t get enough.
Sure, there were some disappointments along the way, such as Guy N. Smith’s MANITOU DOLL. But I loved the fantastic art of these (cheesy) vintage horror paperbacks from hell, and I loved hunting for the next great creepy read.
Enter Richard Laymon. In July of 2019, I was browsing the horror aisle at a mom and pop book shop and came across THE CELLAR. I had been reading online and the name “Richard Laymon” had crossed my desk more times than once. I picked it up, recalling that the word on the street was that Richard Laymon isn’t for the faint of heart. And boy, were they not kidding.
A week or so later, I won a lot of Richard Laymon books off eBay. One of the books was The Woods Are Dark. It was the first Laymon book I read. It was graphic, insane and read like a trashy 1980s slasher movie. Admittedly, it wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, but it certainly left an impression.
In September of 2019, I struck gold when I won a massive lot of 39 Richard Laymon novels. As the auction title suggested, it was an “instant collection.” I remember making an $87 offer, so with shipping it would be just under $100. The seller was nice enough to accept, and I won the whole shebang for $99.63 (this was right before eBay started taxing winning bidders). $2.55 a pop? Sign me up!
I remember the day the package came. My heart raced a bit faster when I got home from work and saw that big brown box sitting gloriously on the porch. Opening it felt like Christmas morning! There were so many books that the seller organized them in two layers. Here’s the top…
And here’s the bottom. The rest of that year I started devouring Richard Laymon novels like crazy. One a month, sometimes two. Although many of his books are over 400 pages, because of the plentiful dialogue and the crazy plot points that move briskly, those pages (often times) fly by rather fast!
From that picture I’ve read One Rainy Night, To Wake the Dead, and The Beast House (sequel to The Cellar — the first Laymon book I bought). Of those 3, I enjoyed To Wake the Dead the most — it’s a creepy story about an ancient mummy that comes back to life and wrecks havoc on an unsuspecting community! Throw in a ludicrous sub-plot about the (really) dark side of human beings and you have a truly horrific and harrowing read!
From this pile I’ve read Out Are the Lights, The Woods Are Dark (the version in the picture above is the unedited edition), Endless Night and The Traveling Vampire Show. My wife and I are currently reading Darkness, Tell Us. That one involves a Ouija board and some college kids. As you can expect, much mayhem ensues. The Traveling Vampire Show is a coming-of-age novel that’s often lauded by many horror fans. I was actually somewhat disappointed in TVS. I thought it would be a lot more epic but it ended up being a bit uneven.
I’ve read In the Dark, Night Show, and After Midnight. In the Dark is easily my favorite of this pile. It’s about a quiet librarian who one evening discovers a note offering her some cash in exchange for completing a simple task. As one might guess, the tasks get increasingly more complex and dangerous as the cash offerings go up. Not to mention… is the “Game Master” even human at all… or is it some kind of monstrous demon? It is a very unsettling read at times. Laymon, at his best, paints these horrific and vivid images in your brain that you’ll NEVER forget.
The last pile I’ve read Island, Funland, Bite, Come Out Tonight, The Cellar and Night in the Lonesome October. NitLO is hands down my favorite Richard Laymon horror book of all time. I don’t think anything will ever top that, or even come close. You can read my review for more. One of the most atmospheric and addicting books I’ve ever read. Funland takes place in a beach town and involves a corrupt amusement park. “The Trolls” are running roughshod and people are disappearing after dark. A local gang of teenagers decide to take matters into their own hands and do some investigating. But has this group of vigilantes bitten off more than they can chew? The climax is all sorts of trippy and insane. A lot of people love Funland but it had some pacing issues for me. Still, definitely a fun Laymon entry. Also notable for being the first 500+ page book I ever read!
But my favorite book in that pile, and my second overall favorite Laymon novel thus far, is COME OUT TONIGHT. This book is just a notch below Night in the Lonesome October for me. It captured the seedy streets of Los Angeles perfectly. Check out this bat shit crazy plot: it’s one of LA’s most scorching summer nights. Duane and Sherry are about to get it on, but there’s no condom. So Duane goes down to the local 7-11 and never returns. Sherry, sensing that something terrible has happened, ventures out into the muggy and sweltering LA night… what she finds will change her life forever. Very underrated and reads just like a movie. You can almost see every single scene unfolding in your head and it’s just magic when a writer can do that!
BTW, Island is my wife’s favorite. I enjoyed that one, too. It’s brutal, and if it wasn’t made clear to you yet, just know that Laymon isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of potential trigger warnings. Rape and a heavy focus on women’s breasts are pretty much in all his novels. Every book of his has the word “rump” in it many times over. He had a very distinct writer’s voice, and you can tell a Laymon book almost right away. No one wrote like how he did.
Although the horror world lost Richard Laymon all too awfully soon, his legacy lives on with his 40+ published books. So far I’ve read about 20 of them, with my top 3 favorites being Night in the Lonesome October, Come Out Tonight and In the Dark. Don’t get me wrong, he’s had his fair share of 2 star duds. Bite was a sack of shit and Out Are the Lights was a bad day at the office for ol’ Uncle Dicky. But for the most part, his books are entertaining and wild. If you have any interest in horror at all, I recommend reading a few of his works before all is said and done. I especially recommend Night in the Lonesome October. That one MUSTbe read exclusively at night. I often wish I could go back and read that one for the first time again.
It’s been 20 years now since Richard Laymon’s passing. And yet the horror community still raves about his work and he is often recommended in horror book recommendation topics. It’s not hard to see why. I’m sad knowing I’ve already gone through half his catalog. I will certainly savor the last 20 or so Laymon books I have yet to read over the next 10-15 years. I hope this article inspires you to pick up a Laymon book in the near future. Happy reading!
There are some books that, no matter what happens, stay with you for a lifetime. Maybe it’s for a captivating storyline, or characters you deeply identified with. Maybe it’s the prose or the way the writer made you feel. Maybe it’s for purely sentimental and nostalgic reasons. And that rereading that book takes you back to a simpler time in your life. It is, in essence, something closely akin to your very own personal time machine. Video games do that for me. Movies. Music. And books. One book that has resonated with me throughout the years for all the reasons listed above is an obscure little Apple Scholastic Paperback (remember those from the early-mid ’90s?) by the name of The Bullies and Me. It’s a simple book, but it’s a damn good one. I recently reread it earlier this month for the first time in nearly 25 years. It has definitely stood the test of time. I cannot wait to pass this title down to my kids one day.
The year was 1995. I was on the verge of graduating elementary school and I had the world at my fingertips. I was never the coolest kid, but I had a close circle of friends, I had a loving family for the most part and I was ready to tackle the treacherous waters that was junior high. Before graduation my best friend Nelson randomly handed me this book one day.
“Hey Steve, check this book out. I just finished it and it’s pretty good. Feel free to keep it, actually.”
“Oh, cool, man. Thanks. I’ll read it at some point.”
Nelson and I went on to graduate. It was off to middle school in the fall of 1995.
And then one day in January of 1996, my parents gave me the devastating news that we were moving. Not terribly far away, but enough to change life forever. A few days ago it was the 25th anniversary of that move. It blew my mind. Time flies. Hell, January is a wild month for me personally. RVGFanatic turned 14 years old on January 7. On January 17, I celebrated 15 years since I got back into the Super Nintendo. All of this feels like a lifetime ago. But I digress.
I did not transition to my new town nor my new middle school with flying colors. It took me at least a year to adjust and finally find my legs. I remember being so terribly lonely, missing my best bud Nelly and my old hometown. The one I grew up in and called home for over 10 years of my 12 year old life. And that’s when one day I spotted Nelson’s copy of The Bullies and Me just lying there in my closet. I remember thinking that this was the closest link to Nelson and so I took the book to school. I began to read it and it was scary how similar the main character Allan and I were. I felt the book was written specifically for me. It was exactly what I needed to read during that critical time of transition. The Bullies and Me exemplify how literature can change our lives for the better. Because of this book, I was able to move on with my life and make the most out of what I perceived, at the time, to be a less than ideal situation. Thank you Nelson, and thank you Harriet Savitz.
The story opens with one of the book’s main set pieces, Silver Lake. This is where the birds and ducks call home. Tony and Pete love to scare them. As you might guess, they are the bullies in the story. But initially, they are “friends” with Allan.
Unbelievable, I remember thinking, as I read this for the first time after moving in early 1996. I moved in the middle of 7th grade, while Allan moved right before 6th grade. Hey, close enough! Immediately, I felt a kinship with the guy. My man!
Allan’s best friend back in his old hometown of Mapletown is David. David in my mind immediately became Nelson. For many mornings in 1996, I too had an ache in my stomach. I knew exactly how Allan felt.
Grandmom plays an important role in this story. She too is having a difficult time adjusting, but for different reasons. Her husband passed away and similar to Allan, she is grieving her loss and “stuck in the past” as well.
This was basically me for the first half of 1996. 25 years ago now. Jesus Christ!
Oh man, another passage that I recall totally hitting me in the feels. I kept thinking no one in my whole 7th grade class understood how great it was to live in my old hometown.
The first two sentences above have always stuck with me. I just love how those sentences take me back to all those glorious spring and summer childhood days that seemed to stretch on forever. In fact, here’s how much of an influence this book has made on me: I’ve copied those exact two sentences over the years!
See the second paragraph in the picture above. Sound familiar? I don’t mean to copy but those are two of my favorite sentences I’ve ever read in a book.
One day, while hanging out with Tony and Pete at Silver Lake, Allan finds himself in a bit of a tight spot. Tony and Pete start throwing rocks at the birds. Allan doesn’t want to, but Tony calls him out. Hesitantly, Allan begins to throw rocks too. But he aims to miss while the boys try to go for the kill. It isn’t long before one of the rocks hits one of the birds. Allan isn’t sure if it was his rock or Tony’s or Pete’s that struck the bird, but he is instantly remorseful. The last sentence above is particularly haunting. “All the way home I wondered which stone, and was I the one who threw it.”Simple yet so powerful in conveying how important it is to say NO when pressured to do something you know is wrong or that you don’t wish to do.
It’s funny how the things we try to hide have a way of coming back to us. Allan finds this out firsthand when Grandmom brings up the topic of the snowbirds. As always, Grandmom is wise. I love how realistic these characters are. The way they speak and interact with one another makes them feel like they could be any family in any neighborhood. Hell, maybe even your very own.
Throughout the book David and Allan talk on the phone. These parts were great because it felt a lot like Nelson and me speaking over the phone.
We’re soon introduced to Alexander, or Flute. Flute plays in the school band. Tony and Pete love to rag on “The Bandies” as they call them, and Allan is left in an awkward position. He twists the truth and denies his slowly budding friendship with Flute. Again, like a lot of 11 year old boys would do in Allan’s shoes.
Back at home we learn Grandmom used to be a librarian and owns a shit ton of books. The ironic thing is now I have a shit ton of books, too. I suppose I’ve gone from being Allan to being Grandmom…
I love Grandmom’s response to Allan’s question, “Are you cold?” The woman simply answers, lost in her books and reminiscing, “My memories keep me warm.” The rest of the scene plays out as awkwardly as it would in real life. If I were Allan, I wouldn’t know what to say either, except to eventually find a way to say bye and take my leave.
Issues continue to crop up at home, and not just for Allan. His mom and Grandmom have a little argument, and Allan’s mom laments the fact that if only Grandpop were still around then things would be a whole lot better for all.
Meanwhile, David and Allan have planned an epic sleepover. Horror movies and video games galore. It was going to be a glorious weekend. Unfortunately, David calls the day of to report that he’s terribly ill. Allan suggests maybe David could visit him tomorrow, but David knows he won’t recover by then. What else could go wrong?
I love how straight to the point and real the dad’s question is. “Are you sorry we moved here?” I can’t tell you how many times I wanted my own dad to ask me that. But we never were very good at talking like this. He went to work, made the money to pay the bills, put food on our table and clothes on our backs. I must have read this specific passage a thousand times… and imagined my own dad and me having this conversation. It always ended the same way, too… with my dad saying he thought he was doing the right thing for all of us. Somehow, as strange as it may seem, that always brought me a little bit of extra comfort.
I just love Allan. He has such great heart and character, even if at times he does succumb to peer pressure. The last line here is very touching. I know he would rather lose every model car in his precious collection than ever hurt Snowbird one bit.
Once again, Tony is being a prick to the ducks and birds at Silver Lake. But this time, Allan stands up to Tony because he knows that standing by idly is just as bad as if HE himself were the one throwing the stones.
But Tony is the kind of guy to forget that you stood up to him. So the next day it’s as if nothing ever happened at Silver Lake. And once more, Allan finds himself living a double life of sorts. The book perfectly depicts the hardship (relatively speaking) of not knowing for sure who to eat with at lunch, and how we often place high value in how others perceive us. There seems to be a big part in many of us to uphold a certain image, even if it doesn’t project who we really are on the inside. Thankfully, as we grow up, things like this become a little easier to handle as we learn to not give a fuck. Or at least, not nearly as much as when we were in our formative years!
Later that weekend, unbeknownst to his parents, Allan decides to take the bus to make the 90 minute trek over to his old hometown. This is one of my favorite parts of the book. I am not ashamed to admit that I lived vicariously through Allan, and his old stomping grounds became mine.
Oh how life imitates art. Little did I know reading this back in 1996 that 10 years later, in 2006 I would visit my childhood home with the same exact feelings. Hell, I even went back inside for the first time in 10 years! At the time my parents were renting our old house to some tenants. I wasn’t close with them but they knew me, so the lady let me in to use the restroom and reminisce. That night (January 26, 2006) marked 10 years since I’d moved. I’d stopped by the local Game Crazy at my childhood Hollywood Video just down the ol’ block to pick up a few Super Nintendo games prior to coming. It felt as if I was going back home to play SNES games with Nelson. It was one of those weird and magical nights… the ones that go on to be fondly remembered forever.
And you want to know the craziest “life comes full circle” thing of it all? Back in September of 2020, my wife and I moved into that same exact childhood home. My dad gave the tenants from 1996 the heads-up, they moved out in July and for the whole month of August we renovated the old place. It cost me $60,000 — but to get a house “for free” and not just any house but MY OLD HOUSE… that’s priceless. Crazy how life works out sometimes, eh?
Back at the ranch, Allan’s trip down memory lane hits a snag and goes slightly awry. He tries to surprise visit David, but of course David is not home. Not only that, but he is out kicking it with Jimmy Burns. Allan can’t help but feel disappointed. You feel him going from the highest of highs at the beginning of his odyssey… to the lowest of lows within a single page. Tough shit, kid.
Back at school, Allan once again finds himself in the throes of cafeteria conundrum. Harriet Savitz perfectly conveys the immense pressure of the middle school lunchroom. It can be as savage as a jaguar-infested jungle or shark-infested waters. OK, not really, but when you’re 12 or so, it can sure seem that way sometimes. BTW, another great description by Savitz in the last paragraph above. Really paints a vivid picture, pardon the pun!
Another phone call attempt to his best friend David that ends in futility and bitter disappointment. I bet ‘cha David’s with that prick, Jimmy Burns. What a bitch.
As stated earlier, Allan is such a likable and relatable character. He’s not perfect; he makes his share of mistakes but he has a good heart. This example above helps to solidify that. He could have gone with the model car — which he wanted so badly to add to his collection — but instead he went for the bear because Beth had failed at winning it previously. Good guy Allan. A sweet and selfless moment indeed.
The 3 pictures above display BY FAR my favorite part of The Bullies and Me. When I first read this 25 years ago in 1996, it helped to bring clarity and light to my own similar situation. I read it a thousand times to let Grandmom’s epiphany sink in even further. I love how she changes and realizes that she can’t spend the rest of her life stuck in the attic looking at old things. How she had to make a decision whether to spend the time she has left looking back in the past, or to move forward. That last line is intensely introspective, and powerful: “While I watched Grandmom stack the books, one pile for the library, one pile for her, I wondered if I was doing the same thing, looking back too much and not moving forward.”
We all have watershed moments in our lives. The day our braces come off. The day we graduate from college and enter the working force. The day we decide to be partners with someone for the rest of our lives. Following that “come to Jesus” talk with Grandmom, Allan experiences another watershed moment. Earlier in the story Tony visits, sees Allan’s old teddy bear and beats the poor thing up. But when Flute visits, he just gets it. And that’s when Allan gets it, too. People like Flute and Beth are his real friends. They’re good people and they care for him just like how true friends ought. Unlike Tony and his lackey, Pete. So fuck those guys. And fuck Jimmy Burns as well.
Now hurling toward the climax, Flute and Allan find Tony and Pete throwing rocks at the ducks and birds. Those assholes. Flute and Allan don’t need to utter a single word, they know what’s up. They know what’s about to go down…
Allan tussles with Tony and at last bests the bully. Before the bullies leave the scene of the crime, Tony declares a harrowing threat: “What ‘cha gonna do, sit here with Flute and guard the ducks all day?” Allan hates to admit the truth but realizes that Tony’s right. Maybe Snowbird, Evelyn, Big Al and all the others can no longer be safe at Silver Lake. Shit. What CAN he do??
BOO-YAH! That’s what he can do. Actually, it’s Grandmom who helps to make this happen. After speaking with Councilperson Roberts (or the mayor, anyhow), there are now signs posted at Silver Lake to help keep the creatures safe. Take that, Tony — ya fucking bastard!
Things wrap up nicely. The creatures of Silver Lake are now safe and Allan no longer has to worry about them or the bullies. It also looks like Allan will finally get that epic sleepover weekend with David after all, and this time with Flute included. Allan grows up quite a bit over these 107 pages. He comes to realize the true meaning of friendship, stands up for what he believes is right even in the face of danger, and learns to make the most out of his present situation. All lessons that anyone can absorb and be all the better for it. It is a perfect and satisfactory conclusion. Like a lovely bowtie on a well wrapped Christmas gift!
It blows my mind that it’s been 25 years since I moved. It blows my mind even further that my wife and I are now living in my old childhood home. It’s crazy that RVGFanatic has been around in cyberspace for 14 years now. Was it really 15 years ago that I got back into all things Super Nintendo? How time flies. And speaking of anniversaries, The Bullies and Me quietly celebrated 30 years earlier this month. I read it recently again and it’s held up well. Its lessons and messages still stand the test of time. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, not just for sentimental reasons. In a brief 107 pages, Harriet Savitz wrote a masterpiece for any kid who has ever had to endure the hardship of moving. And how, no matter how bleak at times that things may seem, we always have the power to make our lives as positive and happy as we deem it to be.
Browse any horror section in any book store and chances are, you’ll find a bunch of Stephen King and Dean Koontz books. Mr. Koontz is a name I’ve heard a lot about, and in early 2020 I picked up a bunch of his books for cheap. My goal in 2020 was to read my first Stephen King book, as well as my first Dean Koontz book. I accomplished that when I finished IT, and in November I read The Voice of the Night. This book is said to be Koontz’s best work. Koontz has a mixed reputation. Some people enjoy his work, while others claim he’s pretty trash. I’ll have to read more before I come to my own conclusion, but after reading Voice of the Night I can say he ain’t half bad.
I HEAR VOICES IN MY HEAD…
Dean Koontz pulls no punches. The book opens immediately with our two main characters — Colin and Roy. Roy is your typical asshole whose mantra in life is to kill or be killed. As you might guess, Colin is the complete opposite, and that’s where the dynamic lies. Colin wants Roy to like him. Roy’s intentions, however, are a little more sinister…
Like… REALLYsinister. Colin does his best to give Roy the benefit of the doubt. He can’t tell with absolute certainty whether or not Roy is just pulling his leg. For instance, in the passage above we see Roy fantasize about people dying in a terrible train wreck (hence the cover of the American edition). That’s just something normal people don’t daydream about…
Like most sociopaths, Roy is charming and manipulative like a used car salesman. He leans into Colin’s desire for belonging and friendship. You may be able to fool naive Colin, Roy, but ya sure can’t fool us!
“Death isn’t the end. It’s the center… it’s the most exciting thing in life.” Oooh-kay. Poor Colin still can’t see the 5 alarm fire and red flags that are pouring out of Roy. This book is very dialogue heavy. Which means it makes for a rather quick read that constantly moves at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting character study, for sure.
I like how Koontz continually ups the ante. Things start out “small” but gradually escalates like a well crafted thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Apparently, Mr. Koontz was not a big fan of the 1963 cult classic!
“Even in the fast-dwindling, purple-amber light of late evening, the sudden sprinkle of sweat on his forehead and upper lip was visible; darkly glistening jewels.”Loved that description! And although Roy is a psychopath, I love the diatribe he spews here. Not that I believe in it, but I love how Koontz continues to build Roy’s aggressiveness and mad world views.
And this is where we get the Star 1985 cover from.
We get to see how Roy’s negative influence starts to creep up on Colin. The passage above says it all. Disturbing stuff…
Colin’s broken relationship with his father explains a lot. He’s constantly belittled and demeaned. Perhaps that is why he is seeking belonging with a guy like Roy. From one asshole father to an asshole “friend.”
My favorite passage from the book. The way he describes the darkening sky puts you right there as we rapidly approach the climax of the book.
A lot of people hate on Dean Koontz, but many have praised The Voice of the Night. I’m glad this was my first Koontz book. I definitely enjoyed it, and I am curious what other works of his I might enjoy. I plan to read more in the years to come. I’m sure some I won’t like (at all). But for this book, I loved the back and forth dynamic between Roy and Colin. It’s all fairly predictable, but it’s an intriguing character study. While it doesn’t crack my favorite reads of 2020 list, it definitely ranks somewhere in the upper half echelon. Speaking of 2020, kiss my ass! Goodbye 2020 and hello 2021! Happy New Year y’all!