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Wednesday, Oct 26, 2011

Books that go bump in the night

A magical circus, a cursed movie and a collection of unusual treats

By Jim Ruland

I’m a sucker for scary stories. Spooky scenarios enthrall me: A group of kids dare each other to spend the night in the old house on the hill. Scientists at a remote station uncover something uncanny. While walking his dog late at night a man discovers his next door neighbor digging a hole in the backyard.

These situations thrust the reader into a crucial decision early in the story that begs the question: What would you do?

Perhaps this is why I was so disappointed with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

The premise is enticing enough: Without notice, a circus appears at the edge of town. With its curious black-and-white color scheme and an array of magical tents where circus guests gambol about in cloud mazes and illusionists perform incredible feats, it’s clear that Le Cirque des Réves— The Circus of Dreams—is not your run-of-the-mill collection of carnies and clowns.

This circus happens to be the playing field for a competition between two budding magicians, Ceila and Marco, embroiled in a game of magic whose rules they don’t comprehend until it’s too late. Morgensteis something of sorceress herself. The world she creates is thoroughly imagined, and her circus is a feast for the senses.

However, once the reader enters the circus, there’s not much to do except marvel at the sights. The plot is ponderous and slow, and the novel has a curious structure with two timelines that ultimately feels gratuitous. As for the game that unites the two protagonists, its rules are as murky to the reader as they are to the contestants.

Ultimately, reading The Night Circus is like eating too much cotton candy: What seems like an alluring treat turns into sticky, sugary fluff that fails to satisfy.

I suppose I like my magic to be on the dark side: more monsters, more chainsaws and more blood.

There’s a reason for this. My cousin was a monster-movie fanatic. From an early age, he knew he wanted to make horror movies. When he graduated from film school at NYU, he moved to Los Angeles and broke into the film business. He penned the scripts for Neon Mani acs, a cheesetacular flick about homicidal monsters that live under the Golden Gate Bridge, and the fairly well-known Pumpkinhead, a story of revenge.

I was reminded of my cousin while reading local writer Ryan Bradford’s debut novel Horror Business. While trying to make a movie, Jason falls in love with the film’s star, Ally, the girl next door. Ally, however, is in love with Jason’s twin brother, Brian.

Then things get weird. The town’s children—including Brian—start disappearing. Jason’s dog turns into a zombie and his camera might be haunted. Can Jason find his brother, get the girl, save his dog and finish his movie?

There are holes in the plot, but they’re kind of “problems” common to the genre. Why do Jason’s parents go on vacation during an epidemic of child disappearances? Why doesn’t Jason do more to help his dog? Why is getting in Ally’s pants more important than trying to stay alive? (Don’t answer that.)

While there are places where an editor would have smoothed out the rough spots in this self-published effort, Bradford’s debut is both a spirited homage to horror and a cautionary tale about the perils of loving scary movies too much.

While it’s not frightening per se, Ben Loory’s Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day is one of the strangest books I’ve read all year.

Loory writes short fables filled with faceless men who inhabit nameless towns and are confronted with absurd situations. A duck falls in love with a rock. An octopus moves to the city. A man becomes convinced a monster inhabits the public swimming pool.

Imagine a Magritte painting mixed with The Twilight Zone. It’s a comfortable kind of weirdness that’s accessible yet thought-provoking. Though the stories are generally no longer than three or four pages, they operate on a metaphorical level. Though none of us have met a talking duck, we all know someone who’s fallen in love with the wrong person.

Loory’s stories are like being on a carnival ride right at that moment when whimsy gives way to something else, a vertiginous feeling that takes hold and then, just as quickly, slips away.


Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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