Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Mr. Shivers

In this 2010 Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel, Robert Jackson Bennett takes readers into one of the saddest, grittiest times in modern American history: The Great Depression. People were uprooted from their homes and took flight to (literally) greener pastures. 

Except Connelly.  He just wants revenge.

This sad, broken man left his home and wife in the east to search the country for the man who killed his young daughter.  He saw the man, whose features were haunting and unique: tall, thin and scarred.  Connelly planned to dog this killer across the country, however long it might take, and do to him what he did to his daughter.

The thing is, he isn't the only one looking for Mr. Shivers, named by those whose lives he has ruined.  The scarred man has been all over the country and has touched the lives of many people. Connelly takes up with them to further his goal of revenge.

In his modern American Gothic novel, Bennett shares with readers the language and spirit of the times in which the characters live.  He begins each chapter with symbols used by the disenfranchised travelers, hobos, to identify a friendly estate or warn fellow hobos away from homes and train station that are at best unsympathetic and at worst cruel.  Even the landscape rises up to help tell the tale.

As Bennett wove his story, he kept a toehold in reality while all the time teetering dangerously close to the too-bizarre.  The tension built as clues began to add up and readers turns the page and sees the edges of the supernatural peeking out from the other side; not a full-blown introduction, but readers know it is there nonetheless.

After a while, however, the tale becomes a little too surreal.  The mooring to reality is lost in an instant, and the supernatural began to occupy too prominent and obvious a place in the story.  It was the factual foundation that gave the story its strength.   Additionally, as the novel reached its crescendo, the story went from whispered fear to shrieking sirens.

Finally, as a reader invested in the lives and actions of these characters, I did not approve of what happened to them.  I don't have to like it, but I do have to accept it — and the telling of this tale made it difficult to do so.

Please read this, if you're inclined to horror stories, and let me know if you agree with my conclusion — or if I just am out of step with good horror writing in the new millennium.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: The Gift of Fear

You know when your skin prickles and you just know something isn't right?  That is instinct, something most of us ignore if we think it will cause us embarrassment.

Gavin de Becker will convince you to react otherwise in his brilliant book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence.

For de Becker, instinct is the gathering of data we cannot articulate but simply understand.  If a voice comes from a location a person should not logically be traveling, if the gesture or tone of voice doesn't comfort us as it should, if the offer for help seems too forceful — our minds won't explain it to us, but upon reflection, it all makes sense.

Equally important is knowing the difference between what should cause fear and how we invoke it in ourselves.  Being petrified that you're in an empty parking lot is a waste of fear if there is no real threat.  Using your spidey-senses to listen for the unexpected footsteps, however, is a good way to determine a true threat and use your fear only if needed.

The author earned my trust early on in his book as he revealed his own background in security and safety.  Just because presidents, military, national security and celebrities trust him doesn't make him enough of a reliable resource.  What he says, how he says it and how he determines the danger of a situation seems sane, reasonable and thoughtful.

He takes a look at many different threats people could face: in the workplace, at home, from strangers and those familiar.  He offers indicators, tips on what to look for to help assess the real threat.  Someone writes a thousand fan letters: weird, but maybe not threatening.  I know, isn't "weird" already threatening?  Not necessarily.  If you feel threatened, always consult a professional — but let this professional help you determine if you need to consult a professional.

This is not a self-defense book, but a rational look at human behavior.  Based on his experiences, de Becker asks certain questions and analyzes behavior to help clients go beyond fear and into the situation itself.  Is the "stalker" really a threat, or a nuisance?  How can you best determine that and end the situation?  Will a restraining order do more harm than good to deter the abusive spouse?  Most importantly, should someone really be afraid in a situation?  Is what they perceive a threat really dangerous?

I strongly recommend this book.  I plan to get extra copies of this book and share it with pretty much everyone I know, men and women.  Anyone can find themselves threatened and in danger, and the more people who know what to look for and how to reasonably respond, the better.