In the Tall Grass [Netflix, 2019]

Unless you happen to be stumbling across this blog for the first time (and if you are, welcome!), you know how I revere Stephen King. I’ve written before about how much of his earlier work shaped me into the rather odd duck I am today. To this day I regret not going to the reading he did here in Wichita a few years ago. He is one of the only people I can think of that would leave me utterly starstruck.

Still, he’s not perfect. Any prolific artist is bound to have some misfires—he’s cranked out some notoriously bad books in his career. There’s also been a longstanding problem with filmmakers adapting his work in a way that works. Many directors can’t seem to figure out how to make a King story translate from the page to the screen (Frank Darabont and Mike Flanagan being the notable exceptions). So, with that said, and as someone who hasn’t read the Stephen King/Joe Hill co-written novella upon which it’s based, it’s hard to know why Netflix’s new film adaptation of In the Tall Grass doesn’t work—whether it’s merely another poor adaptation of the master’s work or it was based on subpar source material and therefore doomed from the start. One thing is for sure, though: In the Tall Grass doesn’t work.

The premise sounds silly on its face: a horror story about some sort of malevolent grass that traps people with no hope for escape. Throw in some bizarre time travel aspects and an all-knowing, all-seeing rock, and it all sounds absolutely ludicrous. But here’s the funny part—for the first thirty minutes or so, it’s actually pretty compelling.

I was completely on board as siblings Cal and Becky stopped on their trek to San Diego so the expecting Becky could puke on the side of the road. Soon after, they hear a boy in the roadside field of tall grass calling for help. He tells them he’s lost and asks if they can help him. The pair decide to help, and enter the grass to their (obvious to us) peril. Things quickly grow confusing as the pair get separated and can’t seem to find each other no matter what they do. The confusion grows as the boy’s mother is heard yelling at him to stop asking for help, and dead animals are found among the grass. Becky ends up encountering the boy’s father, then things begin to go a little sideways.

I won’t spoil anything in case anyone wants to actually give the movie a shot, but In the Tall Grass goes from sixty to zero alarmingly fast. In the span of maybe 20 minutes, I went from fully engaged to completely uninterested. I started checking my phone, leaving the room without pausing it, and then I did something I almost never do: with about 25 minutes left in the movie, I started fast-forwarding to just get the godforsaken movie over with. I was invested enough to want to know how it ended, but not invested enough to actually watch it to find out.

The highlight of the movie is Patrick Wilson’s (The Conjuring) performance as Ross, the father who may or may not be who he seems. He gives it his all, but he can’t save this dud. If you’ve read the book and are genuinely curious I can understand wanting to check it out, but there are far better scary movies out there to be checking out this October, so my advice is to skip it and don’t waste your precious time.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007) : A Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost Story

Ghost stories tend to be hit or miss with me. A lot of times I don’t get into them, but if one manages to get its hooks in me, I’ll usually love it. Joe Hill managed to do the impossible and create one that’s smack dab in the middle of the road.

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Judas Coyne—not his real name—is a semi-retired, world famous rock star, along the lines of Ozzy, with a taste for the macabre. He has a vast collection of items related to the occult, voodoo, and witchcraft, so when Jude, as he’s mostly called, is alerted to an online auction claiming to sell a haunted suit, he buys in instantly, no questions asked. When the suit arrives (in a heart-shaped box, as suits do), it doesn’t take long before Jude starts seeing the ghost of a creepy old man dressed in the suit and swinging a pendulum-shaped razor blade hanging on a chain. From there so begins the journey to find who the old man is, why he’s haunting Jude, and, as things escalate, how to stop him.

The book starts like gangbusters. Sometimes ghost stories—and haunted house stories, for that matter—go for the slow burn, building anticipation until there’s a grand reveal. With HSB, Joe Hill gives us the ghost in the first few pages and we’re off to the races, which I really appreciate. I like books that just kick right off without any mucking around.

The ghost is/was a hypnotist, and has a strong power of suggestion, putting thoughts in people heads in an attempt to influence their actions. There’s some excellent creepy imagery tied to this, in the first half especially, including a scene involving Jude’s girlfriend watching a snuff film with a gun in her mouth that made my skin crawl. Once we hit the midway point, however, the book falters a little.

Jude and his girlfriend, Georgia/Marybeth, head out on a road trip (with his two dogs, who play an important role) from Jude’s home in upstate New York down to Georgia, Florida, and ultimately Louisiana, in an attempt to stop the ghost. There are some pretty decent moments throughout the second half, but nothing that matches the scare and creep factors in the first half.

It was interesting to read a book with fairly contemporary rock ‘n’ roll references—Rancid, Anthrax, and Trent Reznor are all mentioned in the book, among others—but it seemed to me he was trying to hard to work the whole ‘heart-shaped box’ in there. It felt almost like he’d thought of a good title, one that referenced a popular song (by Nirvana, if anyone didn’t know) and fit the rock aspect of the book, then tried to force it into the story whether it worked or not.

Part of me is glad I read this after reading Hill’s superior last novel, NOS4A2. If I’d read HSB when it first came out, knowing—despite the name change—that it was the debut novel from Stephen King’s son, I’m sure I would’ve been a lot harder on it. But reading it now, knowing what the author is capable of, it’s easier to accept HSB for what it is: a really good—but not great—way to spend a few hours creeping yourself out.

The BOJ Quarterly Book Report: Spring Edition

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more. I set a goal for myself of at least 12 books this year; I thought that was attainable without stretching myself too thin. So far I’m right on pace with my book-a-month goal—in fact, I seem to be picking up a little steam as time goes on, maybe building my reading muscle back up(?), so I might even exceed it. Time will tell.

I toyed with the notion of writing reviews for each book on GoodReads as I read them, but so far I’ve yet to pull the trigger on that (and BTW, if any of you are on GoodReads feel free to look me up and send a friend request—I don’t do much except rate books as I finish them, but lord knows you can’t have too many friends on social media, right?). Then I thought about a recap of all the books I’ve read at the end of the year, but then I thought I wouldn’t even want to write anything that long, why would anyone want to read it? So I came up with a new plan, to do a few at a time; quarterly seemed to make the most sense, at least for the time being. I’m not sure how long I’ll stick with this format, but for now I’m just going to go with it. The star ratings are what I gave them in GoodReads.

 

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NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (2013)

I’d been wanting to read some of Hill’s work for a while, and when Amazon had a sale on the e-book I couldn’t resist.

Victoria “Vic” McQueen is a fairly normal little girl. Until, that is, she jumps on her trusty bicycle. With it, she has the ability to ride onto a rickety old bridge (that was actually demolished years earlier) and use it to transport her to different places, helping her “find” things—and people—that are lost.

Someone who shares a similar gift is Charlie Manx, a vampiric old man who gets powers from children. He abducts kids and takes them to “Christmasland,” a surreal land from which there is no escape for the now soulless children. Vic encounters Manx as a child and manages to escape his clutches, upon which he is locked away until he seemingly dies. But with a little help Manx is let loose upon the world with revenge on his mind, and his eyes set on Vic’s son.

Thoughts as a reader: A great, original idea that’s a little anti-climactic. Despite it’s length, there are leaps in time from Vic’s childhood to adulthood where a little more detail might have been nice. Still, a really good book.

Thoughts as a writer: I really liked Manx; he reminded me almost of a modern-day Freddy Krueger, in that he was terrifying but had a twisted sense of humor. He also had a very distinct way of speaking—I found it a little distracting at first, but it grew on me by the end. Most of the characters were well fleshed out, except for Vic’s son Wayne.

4 stars

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (2012)

If you’re a writer, you most likely already know of Chuck Wendig. If you’re not, you’ll probably know about him soon enough. Author of god knows how many books and the Picasso of profanity, Wendig’s website, terribleminds.com, is a wealth of knowledge no writer should do without. It was high time I read something other than his blog, and Blackbirds, being the first in a series, seemed the obvious choice.

Miriam Black has the unique ability to be able to see how and when you’re going to die. All she needs is the briefest of contact—a handshake, the brush of an elbow in passing, anything—and she can see how and when you’ll meet your demise. She uses said gift to get by in a less than scrupulous manner, when she meets a man who knows her secret and blackmails her into going deeper, trying to get more and more, and a trucker who, through one of her visions, she can see will die in thirty days, calling her name. She is drawn into a world of criminal heathens who don’t care if she lives or dies, and must rely on her wit to make it out alive and try to save her new trucker friend.

Thoughts as a reader: A short, fast-paced, and original story. It was a lot of fun to read and I have the sequel ready to go for the near future.

Thoughts as a writer: Wendig isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here, but he clearly knows of which he speaks on his website. His writing crackles with energy and the story is tight. There were some cut-away chapters of Miriam being interviewed that seemed almost like filler to get the story to novel length, but other than that, no complaints.

3 stars

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Bag of Bones by Stephen King (1999)

I didn’t realize until after I finished this book just how well-liked it is. With someone who puts out as many books as King does, he has quite a variety of fans: there are the ones who still think of him as a horror author and don’t like anything else; those who don’t like the horror but enjoy the more literary works; and the sci-fi/fantasy crowd that love his Dark Tower books. As I read reviews on GoodReads, it seemed that this is considered one of his best “literary” books. And while not horror, it is spooky and does have some truly horrific goings on.

Mike Noonan is a successful writer who lives in Maine (hmm…sounds familiar) when his wife dies suddenly of a brain aneurism. It takes Mike a long time to start picking up the pieces and try to move on with his life—he does so by deciding to spend the summer at the lake house he and his wife had as a vacation home in a small town. Once there, a chance encounter introduces Mike to Mattie Devore, a young widower, and her daughter Kyra. Mattie is fighting for custody of Kyra against her father-in-law, a mega-rich old man who rules the town and can buy pretty much anyone/anything he wants, and is used to getting his way.

Thoughts as a reader: I thought it was really slow off the mark, taking a good 60-70 pages before anything happened (besides the death of Mike’s wife, which happens right off the bat). Once Mike gets to the lake house it does pick up and get more interesting, and there are some neat developments. It’s a good book, and I can see why some people (who don’t care for his horror novels) might hail it as one of his best. I wouldn’t quite go that far, as I’m not one of his “horror only” fans, but I do like a bit more in the scare department. Some of the scares here, especially toward the end, seemed a little hokey to me.

Thoughts as a writer: Is this book ever the lesson of Chekov’s Gun—the idea that something introduced in a story must come into play later on. If memory serves correctly, there is literally nothing in the story that doesn’t mean something and help resolve things toward the conclusion. I really enjoyed/appreciated that aspect of the book.

And while those first 60 pages or so seemed slow story-wise, as a writer they were very interesting, as he detailed what life was like as a famous author—the pressures put on him by his agent and publisher; the marketing strategy as to when they would release his books; how that can all get derailed by another famous author releasing a book out of their normal schedule (damn you, Mary Higgins Clark!); and, perhaps most interestingly, how when he was on a hot streak he wrote book after book and stashed them away, so that when he was crippled by writer’s block after the death of his wife he was still able to produce books on schedule for four more years. I assume most of that is pretty much true, which just goes to show once you “make it” you still have plenty of pressure on you to perform.

3 stars

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Freaky Deaky by Elmore Leonard (1988)

One of the coolest things about having a pretty good sized library of books is that you can go through them and find books you either forgot you had or don’t even remember acquiring. The latter was what happened with Bag of Bones—I still have no idea where that book came from—and the former is what happened here. A few years ago my wife bought me about 8 or 10 Leonard paperbacks (always the good wife, love you honey!) and I thought I’d read them all until I moved some books around and saw there were two or three I’d forgotten about. Despite the horrendous-looking cover seen above, I picked this one.

The story starts with a bang, literally, as we meet Detective Chris Mankowski, who as the story begins is leaving the Firearms and Explosives division  for a job in Sex Crimes. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Robin, a former radical/activist in the sixties, and Skip, her old flame and partner in crime who took his talent for making things go boom and got a job in Hollywood as a stuntman and explosives coordinator. Robin convinces Skip that the time they spent in jail in the sixties was thanks to two brothers: Mark and Woody Ricks, who since the hippy days have inherited a boatload of money and are now filthy rich. Robin has a plan to get some payback (and payment) from the Ricks brothers and needs Skip’s help to see it through. As with most Elmore Leonard stories, things don’t go according to plan.

Thoughts as a reader: Classic Elmore Leonard. Aside from Greta Wyatt, the woman Chris meets when she comes into the Sex Crimes unit to file a report on Woody, every major character has an angle and is looking to score. Robin and Skip’s plan changes almost right away before starting to unravel completely, but it never feels contrived or forced. For these (mostly dimwitted) characters, everything that happens seems perfectly plausible. King will always be my favorite writer, but Mr. Leonard’s books give me a certain satisfaction when I finish them that not all of King’s books do.

Thoughts as a writer: Good god, where to start? The dialogue. The characters talk in a natural way, which I’ve realized is hard to pull off. It’s really difficult to have a character talk like a normal human being without it sounding forced or corny. He really is the master. Also, his advice to writers about leaving out the parts that readers would skip? This is a good example of that. It’s a pretty short book, but the story is tight—there’s no need for any more. One final note, I really have to give the man credit—I don’t know how many other writers could pull off having a character named Juicy Mouth.

4 stars

As you can probably tell, I’ve been staying well within my comfort zone as far as author and subject matter go. I’d like to expand my horizons, so to speak, but I’m not really sure which way to turn. So, as corny as this sounds, have you read any good books lately?