Misery, by Stephen King


Misery is a fascinating work on so many levels.

First, it’s a horror story about a popular genre writer, Paul Sheldon, who finally meets his “biggest fan” – former RN (currently moonlighting as a serial killer) Annie Wilkes – much to his everlasting chagrin. Second, it’s a mystery full of tension, intrigue, and misdirection – how on Earth is he going to get out of this mess? Third, it’s kind of a “how-to” book on writing that I think many of us newbie writers really appreciated — like getting to look “under the dinosaur’s skirt” to see what’s what.

And finally, there’s a pretty decent romance in there – what could be called the “romantic misadventures of Misery Chastain.”  Misery is the beloved heroine of an equally beloved series of romance novels. Beloved by everyone but the author, that is. It’s when writer Paul Sheldon decides that Misery has ripped her last bodice that he truly comes to know misery.

Annie Wilkes was a terrific serial killer. She is a refreshing break from the serial killers we’ve seen so far – she’s female, she has no “message” she’s trying to convey to the idiot masses, she doesn’t appear to have had a tortured childhood, and she doesn’t rape and sexually torture her victims. To be fair, she does torture Paul. A lot. But she agreed he had it coming, so it’s okay.

One thing she does share with one of the other killers we’ve read about so far – nursing. The Sculptor was a nurse, who used his nursing skills to both take care of his invalid Dad, and to keep his victims alive until he needed them dead. Annie is a de-frocked nurse (is this a thing, because if it’s not, it should be) who played one of those “Angel of Death” nurses until she got caught, and afterwards, she just uses her skills, and strength, to keep her favorite author alive until he finishes “her” book.

Apparently, nurses freak more than a few people out.

Another thing Annie shares with the other kids, er, serial killers, is her uncanny ability to notice that a knickknack on a table got moved by half a centimeter. She also has a kind of supernatural insight into other people’s motives – like when they’re trying to be her “friend” just long enough to kill her and escape. Those dirty birds.

While both of these “abilities” might be cool in a non-serial killer person, they are downright frightening in someone like her. Especially if you’re one of the people on the wrong side of the victim/serial killer equation.

This is what happens when Paul Sheldon finds himself in Annie’s “care” – it’s a nerve-wracking game of cat and mouse, or shark and octopus. (And if you think you know who will always win in a game between those two, you haven’t seen the video.) Trying to anticipate, reason-with, please, or otherwise deal with a truly crazy person looks like exhausting work. Even more so when you’re horribly wounded, like Sheldon was, and nobody — not even your agentknows where you are.

This is actually the second time I read this book. The first time was when it first came out. To be honest, back then I thought Meh. It was one of King’s earliest, if not the earliest, non-supernatural horror story, and frankly, I wasn’t that impressed. People being horrible was nothing new. Give me something freaky and monster-licious, or else! But I’ve grown up, slightly, and now I can really appreciate all the levels of horror King had going on in this book. Just so, so good. Read it!

Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris


As it says on the cover of my copy of the book: “The terrifying classic that introduced Hannibal Lector.” Yes, Dr. Lector is the kind of doctor that will give you nightmares. If you live long enough to have any, that is. And what’s amazing is Lector just “popped up” out of nowhere when Harris was writing this story. That’s got to be both fortunate for the author (because Lector made Harris rich and famous), and very, very chilling. It almost makes me believe in the supernatural power of … what? The power of evil fictional characters to summon a writer to tell their story? Gah! Creepy. Let’s leave Lector for a bit, since this is not really his story anyway. He’s only a guest here.

The real star is the Red Dragon, or as the media calls him, The Tooth Fairy.

Francis Dolarhyde, the Red Dragon’s alter ego, is a very disturbed boy. Plagued with both a harelip and a sadistic grandmother, Francis never has a chance. I believe this is one of the first serial killer thrillers based on then-current FBI knowledge and techniques. Harris actually had to visit the FBI to do research for this book, so it was all pretty damned scary when this was published in 1981.

So, I loved the Red Dragon as a killer – he was twisted, smart, and poetic. That whole “dancing naked in the moonlight while covered in your victims’ blood” thing is just beautiful. And just how crazy do you have to be to track down your soul/nemesis in the Brooklyn Museum, and then, instead of admiring it, or even stealing it, you eat it!

Let’s not forget, either, the horrible, horrible fate the Dragon inflicts on poor, hardworking, tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds – he bites off Freddy’s lips and lights him on fire, sending Lounds’ blazing wheelchair down the hill towards his newspaper’s building. Ah, they don’t make serial killers like that anymore, do they?

Will Graham, the FBI profiler, was very good too. This earliest version of what’s become by this time an almost psychic character in our culture, Graham doesn’t make giant leaps of intuition when considering the serial killer. Instead, he suffers “profiler’s block” and bumbles and stumbles around, like a blind man in a strange room. This makes him both more realistic and sympathetic. Nevertheless, Graham does have something special when it comes to figuring these guys out. I see it as mostly a willingness to quit “focusing” on the killer, and to just daydream about him a little. That’s how he realizes that the killer already knows what he’s going to encounter at each scene, because he’s already seen it! Eureka.

Hang onto your butts, people, because I can’t think of a single, damned thing to complain about in this novel. It’s well-written (and if there were any POV shifts in there, I never noticed them), the characters are awesome, and the science feels realistic and plausible. I even liked the movie version, “Manhunter”. Haven’t seen the remake yet, but I hear it’s also good.

So, even though many people only know of this book because it included the first appearance of Doctor Cannibal Lector, there was a LOT more good stuff going on in there. Read it for Lector, sure, but savor the rest of it too. It really is very tasty.

The Sculptor, by Gregory Funaro


I feel like I’ve become a crotchety, old sourpuss with all my reviews lately, but publication brings with it some answerability I think.  So here goes nothing.

On the plus side, this novel has no artsy-fartsy unreliable narrator – yay. The story is focused on the serial killer and his victims – also yay – and, like all the best killers, this killer had a “theme” – he wants to rouse humanity from its media-induced slumber.

But for some reason, this killer – The Sculptor, fka Christian – decides that the best way to do that is to recreate some of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures  with dead people?


The Sculptor himself is a hunka hunka burning love – six foot five inches tall since he was seventeen, and built like a brick shithouse (as my mother used to say) – but with deep emotional scars in all the right places. His mama was a whore who beat and abused him, while his saintly father ends up paralyzed in the car accident that killed his mother and left him a rich man. He abandons dreams of a history degree to become a nurse and take care of his invalid father.

As others have already pointed out, the Sculptor is just too good to be true – he’s big, strong, smart, wealthy, and artistic – what does he need to kill for? His life should be freaking perfect. And yet, he feels compelled to teach humanity a lesson in one of the most pointless, awkward displays of artistic imitation the world has ever seen. Because, let’s face it, this guy is just trying too hard to “shock and amaze” everyone with his ridiculous sculptures.

Not content to mind his own business, the Sculptor has to drag in Dr. Low Self-Esteem, er, Cathy Hildebrant, to his little crazy party. It was supposedly her book about Michelangelo, Slumbering in the Stone, which awakened him to his true calling. So he can’t even think of his own, original reason to be a serial killer – he has to steal it from someone else.

The female lead – and I use the term sarcastically – Cathy Hildebrant is a tenured professor of art history. She is also, if anyone is checking, “very pretty.”

Thank Christ. I hate those “not pretty” or “somewhat pretty” professors.  She also strays dangerously close to dishrag status in this book with a lot of gratuitous mooning over FBI Special Agent Sam Markham.

Markham’s job is to trade large chunks of tedious exposition with Hildebrant, but it’s very cleverly disguised as dialogue.  Oh, and he’s there to catch a serial killer, too. Honest.

I’m not exactly sure how Funaro does it, but he manages to take something interesting, and turn it into a hard slog. The going was toughest, I thought, right around Chapter 43, when we’re in The Sculptor’s head and he alternately refers to himself as The Sculptor and “the boy named Christian” for eleven fun-filled pages …

Don’t get me wrong – I love a well-researched book about a fascinating and brilliant Renaissance artist as much as the next person – but Dan Brown did it better in The Da Vinci Code. 


The Church of Dead Girls, by Stephen Dobyns

I find myself, yet again, of being able to appreciate the way a book is written while still disliking the book.

The good stuff – the small town in upstate New York, Aurelius, is brilliantly portrayed as a cauldron of fear, doubt and paranoia as three teenaged girls disappear over the course of a few months. The discovery of their bodies, in the prologue, shows us the what and where, but not the who or why. So, with the so-called “important stuff” – the bodies’ discovery – out of the way right at the start, the author then takes us through the whole story. From the beginning. Because the real horror in this story is not the dead girls, dead-girls

but the cataclysmic way the town disintegrates once the townsfolk realize there’s a killer among them.

The careful, even loving, attention that Dobyns lavishes on his large cast of characters reminded me of how Stephen King populates a story, and so it didn’t bother me. I liked, too, how the author took his time to show us the town’s decline into vigilantism and madness once the killings/disappearances started. Dobyns treats us to his acutely perceptive vision of a town on the edge in a way that is both realistic and chilling. The self-appointed “police helpers” vigilante group was especially creepy, and totally believable.

My main gripe with this story is, once again, the unreliable first person narrator. This narrator – who is sort of revealed very near the goddamned end of the story – as a nameless, gay, male high school biology teacher, knows things about the characters and events in this story that only an omniscient, third-person narrator would know.

But what do I know?

I’ll tell you what I know. I know that on page 242, Chapter Friggin’ 30, the book falls into a limited omniscient POV for awhile, and then slips into an omniscient POV for awhile, and then back into the first person for some chapters. This is kind of the problem with slow, cerebral “thrillers” like this – not only do they encourage you to slow down and think, you actually do just that. And that’s when you notice stuff like this. I have to say, though; even before I saw the POV shift, I was getting increasingly annoyed with this mystery narrator – who the hell is this person, and when am I going to meet him/her?

Despite this kind of trivial stuff, the story is top-notch. It is a different kind of horror story that still manages to include sympathetic victims, a crazy serial killer, and a lot of suspense and misdirection.

It also has a great title. It’s just not the kind of horror story I was expecting or hoping for.

Dobyns, Stephen. The Church of Dead Girls. Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997. Print.

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