Category Archives: review

Guest review by John Grant: Bag of Bones by Stephen King

(Hodder & Stoughton, 516 pages, hardback, 1998)

Jo, the wife of successful thriller writer Mike Noonan, dies suddenly and still quite young from a brain aneurysm. In grief, he suffers a dramatic case of writer’s block, but is able to get by for a few years by covertly publishing novels he’d written earlier but never told his publisher about. But then the “spares” run out, and he must, somehow, get his act together to write something new. In desperation, he decides to go to the summer home he and Jo had in a remote part of Maine, a house he hasn’t found the courage to visit since Jo’s death. On arrival he finds that the house, called Sara Laughs in honour of a local turn-of- the-century blues singer called Sara Tidwell, is haunted. Also he meets and falls in love with widowed Mattie Devore and her three- year-old daughter Kyra; Mattie’s vastly wealthy father-in-law Max is determined to get custody of the child, and so Mike steps in to help Mattie fight him through the courts. In so doing, Mike begins to unearth a truly ghastly tale of what happened one summer’s day ninety years ago to Sara Tidwell, and the terrible revenge her spirit has been exacting from the descendants of her murderers.

King has always been a masterful page-turner — even his weakest books are usually immensely readable. But through most of his long career he has rarely aspired to be more than that — which is an observation rather than a criticism, because there’s many a respected literary novelist who could improve his or her art by learning a little of King’s craft. At the same time there has been the feeling that, in books like Rose Madder and Insomnia, King himself has become a little impatient with the self-imposed shackles of “mere” craftsmanship.

With Bag of Bones he’s finally made the breakthrough, and it is as a serious literary novel that this book should be judged. That’s not to say that he has lost any of his ability to tell a spellbinding tale — and this is one of his very best, a stunningly good and often very frightening ghost story that owes much to the tradition of M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and, to name a modern example, the excellent Jonathan Aycliffe. But what makes this book so intensely gripping is something more than that — and more, too, than the fine, perceptive and often disturbingly funny writing: it is the superb depiction of character and situation. We care about these people; we share with Mike Noonan his slow discovery that his loss of Jo is at an even more profound depth than he or we could have imagined, that she was a finer person than even he had realized; and lordie do we come to share his growing love for Mattie and the child Kyra. And all this is achieved through the use of a very difficult narrational gambit: although Mike is our narrator, our storyspinner, and thus is present on every page and is the eye through which we see, he is not in fact the central character — that role is shared by Kyra and Mattie and by the dead Jo and Sara, for this is in part also a novel about women and the male perception of them.

There are various undercurrents in this novel. Inevitably there are aspects of metafiction about it — for King is like his creation a successful novelist (more successful and more prolific than Mike Noonan) and the very title is drawn from a remark by Thomas Hardy to the effect that even the finest fictional character is but a bag of bones when compared to a real person. If King falters anywhere, it is in the handling of these metafictional aspects — a slight failure, seemingly born of timidity. But the most important underlyer is the sense of and deep appreciation of human loss: Jo is lost to Mike and the world, as even more profoundly is Sara, whose songs are available only through interpretations at the hands of others, for no recordings of her survive. Mike’s ability to write is lost — ask any writer and you’ll be told that this is a true nightmare of the soul. The only loss that can be averted is that of the child Kyra, who is sought by both the living and the dead.

This is a very powerful book, and a fine example of what the late-twentieth-century novel can do. And should be doing more often.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Samhain, is excerpted from John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews, published on September 19 by infinity plus ebooks:

A bumper collection – over 150,000 words! – of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor ofThe Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.

Scholarly, iconoclastic, witty, passionate, opinionated, hilarious, scathing and downright irritating by turn, these critical pieces are sure to appeal to anyone who loves fantasy, science fiction, mystery fiction, crime fiction and many points in between … and who also enjoys a rousing argument.

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

amazon.com (Kindle format, $1.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £1.44)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $1.99)



Guest review by John Grant: Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies by David L Robb

(Prometheus, 384 pages, hardback, 2004)

This is an important book, and thoroughly to be recommended. It is also, unfortunately, a flawed one in terms of its presentation, filled with clumsy writing and egregious repetition: it reads like a collection of essays written, rather hurriedly, at different times, and it’s somewhat shameful that neither the author nor his editor made the least effort to knit these into a coherent text.

The appeal to moviemakers of enlisting the cooperation of the military is obvious. For a fraction of the outlay that would otherwise be incurred, the military can lay on helicopters, battleships, nuclear subs and a cast of thousands. The peril of accepting such a huge cash savings — which may very well represent the difference between a movie being made and not made — is equally obvious. The non-cash price the military demands is script-approval, more usually euphemized as “technical advice.” In Operation Hollywood Robb draws up an almost mind-numbingly wide-ranging roster of movies that have been substantially — often absurdly — compromised by the military’s refusal to support enterprises that they feel fail to convey “the right message.”

The ethical core of the book is summed up in a few lines about two-thirds of the way through:

And to get an idea of what’s been lost by the sanitizing of hundreds of movies that the Pentagon has assisted, imagine what the films that the Pentagon refused to assist might have been like if they’d been subjected to the military’s approval process. Imagine a “toned down” Jack D. Ripper, the mad army general obsessed with the purity of bodily fluids in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove; or a “more positive” Colonel Kurtz, the insane renegade army officer in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; or a less bitter Ron Kovic, the paralyzed hero-turned-war resister in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July; or a less goofy, more soldierlike Forrest Gump [italics sic]. How would we have known if the producers of these films had toned down their characters in order to get the military’s cooperation? And how would we have known that our movie-memories had been tampered with?

The answer, of course, is that we wouldn’t, without the help of assiduous researchers like Robb. A case in point is the relatively recent movie Windtalkers, concerning the so- called Code Talkers, Navajos enlisted to serve alongside Marines in World War II because their language was totally incomprehensible to the Japanese and, as an evolved rather than a created “code”, was invulnerable to decryption techniques. I saw this movie after I’d read Robb’s book; the person I was with had not. My companion assumed the historical underpinning of the movie was, aside from the obvious Hollywood-blockbuster conventions, fairly accurate, and was quite horrified to find this wasn’t the case. In particular, among countless smaller changes, institutionalized racism toward the Navajos was downplayed (there is a single violently racist Marine, and even he “learns better” as the movie progresses), and, most specific of all, the instruction given to each Marine teamed with a Navajo that, should his charge fall into enemy hands, his imperative duty was to kill him, in case the “code” could be tortured out of him, was almost completely written out of the script: it’s still there in tacit form, but it’s no longer an important dynamic of the plot.

The list of movies that have been similarly tampered with is a long one, as noted, and it spans decades up to the present. Even a listing of the more famous titles would be too long to reproduce here. I can guarantee, though, that many of your illusions about the integrity of your favorite movies will be shattered.

Also of interest are the tales Robb recounts of directors and producers who simply refused to be cowed by the military “script advisers” and who either scrapped their projects altogether or had confidence enough in their own box-office draw to be able to eschew the Pentagon’s cooperation. Most such moviemakers have been well established figures, for obvious reasons, but not all. I was particularly struck by the story of Cy Roth, widely regarded as one of the worst low-budget moviemakers of all time, the qualities of whose three completed movies can be judged by the title of one of them: Fire Maidens from Outer Space. In 1953 he wanted to make a serious movie called Air Strike about racism aboard a World War II aircraft carrier. The Pentagon not only refused all cooperation — how preposterous to countenance that there might be racism in the military! — but also went out of their way to try to insure the movie never saw the light of day: at one point they even enlisted the FBI to see if charges of Communism against Roth might be made to stick. Despite such persecution, Roth refused to lie down and shut up, and finally he made his movie. By all accounts it’s a rotten movie — and not just because of the lack of cooperation — but one cannot help admiring his courage and gumption in managing to make it against all the very considerable odds.

An additional point of interest in Operation Hollywood is that Robb has managed to obtain copies of various bits of correspondence between moviemakers and the military censors, and these he reproduces in facsimile form. He also presents a convincing counter-argument to the defense of the Pentagon’s attitude that refusing cooperation is different from censorship in that no one would accuse (say) Exxon of censorship if it refused to assist a movie fiercely critical of the company’s approach to clearing up oil spills. Robb points out forcefully that, unlike Exxon, the Pentagon is not a private company: it is in fact the property of the US public, and thus has no moral license whatsoever to rewrite its own and US history for the purpose of keeping that public in the dark.

Despite the irritation — even exasperation — generated by the total dereliction of auctorial and editorial duty in the preparation of its text, Operation Hollywood is one of those must-read books: no understanding of movie history is remotely complete without it. It certainly deserves far more attention than it so far seems to have received.

Warm Words and OtherwiseThis review, first published by Crescent Blues, is excerpted from John Grant’s Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews, published on September 19 by infinity plus ebooks:

A bumper collection – over 150,000 words! – of book reviews, many of full essay length, by the two-time Hugo winning and World Fantasy Award-winning co-editor ofThe Encyclopedia of Fantasy and author, among much fiction, of such recent nonfiction works as Corrupted Science and (forthcoming) Denying Science.

Scholarly, iconoclastic, witty, passionate, opinionated, hilarious, scathing and downright irritating by turn, these critical pieces are sure to appeal to anyone who loves fantasy, science fiction, mystery fiction, crime fiction and many points in between … and who also enjoys a rousing argument.

Warm Words & Otherwise is available from:

amazon.com (Kindle format, $1.99)
amazon.co.uk (Kindle format, £1.44)
Smashwords (various formats, including epub, mobi, Sony and PDF, $1.99)



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