After 204 years, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still haunts us

The thing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is it’s not the story you think it is.

Mary Shelley was only a teenager when she wrote the book that has led some to call her “the inventor of science fiction.” At the very least, she certainly helped create some foundations for it. However, if you’ve binged on old Boris Karloff movies and are expecting Frankenstein the novel to be the same animal, you’re likely to be a bit befuddled. 

The book has a rather average 3.8-star rating on GoodReads, with critics saying it’s “like watching paint dry” and “tedious.” Published in 1818, it does get off to a somewhat slow start, with a series of nesting first-person narratives from an Arctic ship captain, then Victor Frankenstein, and then finally the monster itself. There’s not a lot of what we jaded 2022 folk would call “action” and a lot of flowery romantic language.  

But once you abandon expectations of a silent Karloff-ian zombie lurking in the shadows and Colin Clive shrieking “It’s alive!”, Frankenstein is still a pretty remarkable book which I return to every few years. It turned 200 years old just a few years back, so keep in mind its voice is almost closer to the era of Shakespeare than it is 2022. It is a novel of ideas and debate, rather than straight horror, although god knows plenty of horrible things happen to Victor Frankenstein and his creation. 

The first time I “read” Frankenstein was in one of those adapted great works of literature children’s books, which stripped the story down to the essentials and ran some evocative illustrations to go with it. These days, my go-to version of Frankenstein is one with utterly gorgeous macabre drawings by the late, great Bernie Wrightson to go with Shelley’s text. More than some classic novels, I’ve always felt like Frankenstein cries out for a little art to complement the wordy text. 

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s another classic horror book that is quite different in tone than its many adaptations. So much of our image of what “Frankenstein” is comes from James Whale’s 1931 film – which I utterly adore, don’t get me wrong. Even the idea that the monster itself is somehow actually called “Frankenstein” emerged from those old Universal films. (In the books, he refers to himself as Adam at least once.)

The bones of Shelley’s story still stick with me years later. When I first read it, I was obsessed by the image of Frankenstein chasing his monster across the Arctic wastes that frames Shelley’s story, the idea of monster and creator pursuing each other into the frozen wastelands throughout eternity. I love Shelley’s questing monologues for the Creature, who is the polar opposite of Karloff’s silent, mournful monster. The Creature is violently angry at the world that scorned him but also gorgeously descriptive about his cursed place in it: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” 

One of the most notable things about reading Frankenstein the novel is how all the scientific explanations for the monster’s creation we are so used to don’t appear at all. There’s no Igor, no labs filled with lightning, only a hint of grave-robbing. Shelley is almost coy about how the monster came to be, dismissing the technical details within a sentence or two. She is more interested in the question of duality – are monsters made, or are they created by the world’s reaction to them? The spark her book lit has fuelled a thousand other interpretations and expansions of her dark tragedy. 

Hollywood has taken many, many swings at the Frankenstein story in the past century but never quite captures the book. Kenneth Branagh’s overwrought 1994 film has its moments of fidelity, but still piles on laboratories sparking and its campy excess misses the book’s haunted, spartan tone. 

But I’m happy with that. There’s many great Frankenstein movies out there, but the novel that birthed all these monsters is very much its own animal, two centuries old now and still filled with wonder and horror and mystery about the world around us. 

Vanished world: The immortal journalism of Joseph Mitchell

Life comes at you fast. Somehow, I’ve been a working, paid journalist for 30 years now, and the industry is almost an entirely different animal than it was back in 1992 when I started getting my first bylines in the college newspaper. 

I came in just as the digital world started to change everything. The town newspaper I first worked at professionally in small-town Mississippi still had dusty trays of hot type slugs tucked under the composing table. While chunky early Macs were being used to lay out the pages by then, the final layouts were still painstakingly pasted up from print-outs before being walked over to the press room. These days, much of my journalism work is in mediums I wouldn’t have even quite comprehended in 1992. 

The appeal of journalism for many newcomers is a fundamentally romantic one. The big scoop! The breaking news! It’s never exactly as you imagined it, of course, and there’s plenty of dull moments, like there are in any job. In recent months, I’ve been revisiting the work of one of the patron saints of long-form journalism to spark inspiration and to remember that at its heart, before counting clicks and hot takes and fighting misinformation, it’s all about telling a story.

Few people told a story better than Joseph Mitchell, who walked the streets of New York for a variety of long-gone papers nearly a century ago, before going on to become one of the best-loved New Yorker writers of all time.  

Mitchell was the bard of cheap dives and eccentrics, finding stories to tell far away from the ivory towers. “I believe the most interesting human beings, as far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender,” he’d write.

His most famous work, Joe Gould’s Secret, memorably explored a bohemian “blithe and emaciated man” who claimed to be writing the longest book in history – or maybe he wasn’t. 

But Mitchell wasn’t just about the oddballs – his “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is a gorgeous, sensitive look at an elderly Black man at the end of his days, while “Up In The Old Hotel” is a captivating read about mysteries hidden in Manhattan’s old buildings. “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” evokes every beer stain and cigar stub at the oldest Irish bar in New York and its impossibly stern manager, who served only one kind of ale and would close up if the bar got too crowded with “too much confounded trade.” 

Mitchell is all meat, no fat in his writing, and many of us journalists today could learn from his economic, indelible descriptions – a man whose “profanity was so vigorous I expected it to leave cavities in his teeth,” or former President Herbert Hoover, who had “the face of a fat baby troubled by gas pains.” But clarity is the guiding light – he’d note, “A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”

“The best talk is artless,” Mitchell would write. “The talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” 

Decades after his death, it’s worth mentioning there is some controversy over how Mitchell may have blurred the line between fact and fiction in some of his later work. It’s a fuzzy line that probably shouldn’t have been crossed, although times were different then, and the essential core of his storytelling remains based on fact. 

Leaving the desk and hitting the streets to find your story has gotten less and less common as journalism has changed, as stories are put together via scraping social media posts or quick emails to the same talking heads over and over. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this tactic, but have to admit that over my 30 years now in the industry the stories I remember most are the ones where I went out and talked to another human being face to face, listening to their ‘artless talk’ and their stories. Mitchell’s world is long gone, but his writing remains a touchstone for me. 

Joe Mitchell’s best is collected in the essential collections Up In The Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. Decades after he scribbled his bylines, it’s all still mandatory reading for anyone who wonders what journalism and telling people’s stories should be about. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Time for an update for some of my paying writing! I have been writing some book reviews recently for the great New Zealand Listener magazine, including in this week’s issue, a look at Anthony Horowitz‘s new James Bond novel With A Mind To Kill, the latest in the never-ending series of authorised 007 adventures and a pretty cracking read.

Plus, I also recently reviewed a nifty new revisionist biography of explorer Ferdinand Magellan, Straits: Beyond The Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in the June 18 issue!

Unfortunately the reviews aren’t online, but hey, if you’re in New Zealand do pick up a nice shiny print copy of the latest issue if you like!

I’m also continuing to help debunk the never-ending flow of misinformation out here on the internets (I mean, seriously. It never, ever ends) through my writing for AAP FactCheck. It’s not all Covid misinfo these days, and some recent factchecks I’ve worked on include:

For the answers to these and other exciting questions, do check out AAP FactCheck‘s home page and help us fight back against the plague of falsehoods!

How the Return Of The Jedi Storybook ruined my childhood

Spoiler warnings are serious business, even if it’s harder and harder to avoid finding out things in this 24-7 endlessly scrolling world we live in without seriously muting your social media diet. But decades ago, one of the biggest movies of my lifetime got seriously spoiled by… a storybook.

Nearly 40 years on, I’m still a little annoyed about how Return Of The Jedi worked out for me.  

The year 1983 was a long time before the idea of “spoiler culture” developed. Culture was typically more rooted in time. You saw a TV show when it aired, or you didn’t. You saw a movie like everyone else did during the few weeks it ran, or you didn’t and waited years for it to air on TV. If someone told you who shot JR, you just nodded. We didn’t really worry about spoilers so much then, or ponder the damage they could do. 

But I’ll never forgive the Return of the Jedi Storybook which, mystifyingly, spoiled George Lucas’ sequel and quite possibly the biggest cliffhanger ending in recorded history for me weeks before the movie came out. 

Let me tell you, there were few bigger dramas in the life of 12-year-old Nik and his friends than imagining for years what might have happened next after the incredibly downbeat, traumatising final scenes of Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Luke’s hand cut off! Vader his father? Han Solo locked in a block of whatever the heck carbonite was, hauled off to Jabba the Hutt? 

Kids today can literally not imagine how stressful this all was. It made Avengers: Endgame seem like a cool sea breeze by comparison. 

I remember watching the first trailer for Return of the Jedi with a fanboy’s anticipation. But when it came time to actually see the movie itself, I already knew what was going to happen. 

I got the storybook as part of one of those nifty “school book clubs” that were all the rage back in the day, and I was kind of astonished to see that this Return of the Jedi Storybook wasn’t some fanboy collection of images and interviews, but the ENTIRE STORY of the movie, weeks before it opened. Why did I get it so early? Why did they reveal the whole story? These days, there would be media blackouts and embargoes galore, but in 1983, I guess a kid’s tie-in book wasn’t seen as a state secret. 

(According to the “Wookiepedia,” which has to be authoritative with a name like that, the Jedi storybook was published May 12, 1983, about two weeks before Jedi hit theatres around May 25. In my hazy pre-teen memories, it felt like it came out months before Jedi.) 

In my memory I flipped through the pages, astonished to see pictures of Luke Skywalker in stark black clothing, Jabba the Hutt, the Emperor, Leia in a fetishy slave outfit that awakened all young Nik’s carnal rumblings, and more, and the plot of the entire movie laid out in simplified easy-reader prose. The storybook was meant as a flimsy souvenir for young padawan like myself, to re-read and savour… after seeing the damned movie! I do remember feeling vaguely let down… was this the story I had hoped for the past three years? Or was I just not really enjoying seeing it in pantomime storybook form? The merits of Jedi have been argued for the past 39 years, but wherever you stand I’d argue it’s best to have actually seen the movie instead of just reading about it first. 

I can’t recall clearly now if I shared the Jedi plot revelations with my friends at the time, but I probably did. I was the kind of kid who ate too much at Halloween, who sometimes snuck looks at Christmas presents. If older me had been there to Marley’s ghost himself, I’d have warned about the perils of giving in to temptation. I should have put the book in a locked safe once I realised what it was. It would’ve been a lot cooler to be surprised by the twists and turns of Return of the Jedi. It would’ve been nice. 

Hell, I wouldn’t have minded being surprised by an Ewok, even. 

Book Review: Chuck Klosterman and figuring out The Nineties

It’s weird to see your past become mythology. Part of me is certain the 1990s were just a few years back, instead of more than three decades ago. Surely it’s too early to start talking about what it all meant? 

But in Chuck Klosterman’s engaging new collection of pop-culture writing, The Nineties, he attempts to use the controversies and celebrities of the past to explain how we became whatever us mixed-up humans are today. 

Klosterman himself is a very ‘90s kind of voice who made it big starting in the 2000s with essays that went down like a surprisingly smart, funny stranger holding forth at the bar – slightly overbearing, but worth the listen. 

His essay collections like Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs sparkle with off-kilter insights and a respect for even the most disdained of pop culture like Guns N’ Roses tribute bands, while earlier works like Fargo Rock City, about loving hair metal while living in rural America, have a sincerity that can’t be hidden by all the snarky wit. 

Known for writing lengthy pieces on things like the relative merits of KISS members’ solo albums, in more recent years Klosterman has tried to branch out into broader cultural criticism. But to be honest, excavating the contradictions and curiousities of pop culture is where his voice is strongest. 

I like Klosterman quite a lot, but The Nineties doesn’t quite manage to be a defining statement despite his best efforts. “It was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive,” he writes. Which is only really true if you came, like Klosterman and I, from pretty comfortable white middle class American existences. 

The Nineties is a strong essay collection burdened with the expectation of defining a decade. The central thesis of The Nineties is that it was a time when everything was about to make a huge paradigm shift, with the looming shadows of the internet, 9/11 and extreme partisanship spawned by the Clinton years and Bush/Gore election that came to dominate US politics.  

Klosterman is chatty, digressive, trivia-filled and open-minded, which means The Nineties is an easy read, but sprawling and inconclusive about whatever the 1990s even meant other than that things were about to change. And that’s pretty much his point. “It was a period of ambivalence, defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming.”

Generation X was perched in a weird spot in space-time, before the internet fully emerged and yet smothered in a mass-media bubble of celebrity culture in old-school magazines and TV shows that foreshadowed many of today’s influencer obsessions. 

The monoculture that once was splintered into pieces with the advent of social media. As much as we like to imagine it was all flannel, riot grrls and grunge from Sub Pop and people reading Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” the ‘90s was also an awful lot of people watching Friends and Titanic and listening to Garth Brooks, by far the decade’s biggest musical star. 

Wrestling with an entire decade is difficult work – Klosterman rightly points out decades are only about “cultural perception,” when you get down to it. He hits all the expected high points – Nirvana’s Nevermind, the rise of AOL, Bill Clinton, Pulp Fiction and Clarence Thomas. He mostly avoids tiresome “remember this?” type nostalgia and instead focuses on giving broader context.

Klosterman likes to equivocate, rarely coming down firmly on an issue and sometimes passing off some pretty dire zen cliches as insight. “Things changed, but not really,” the nineties were “a good time that happened long ago, although not nearly as long ago as it seems,” and “The future can’t exist until the present is the past.” These vague sentences clunk awkwardly against his better observations. 

What’s best about The Nineties is where Klosterman pinpoints precisely how the culture has changed. The very way we tend to think has mutated an awful lot in 30 years. A culture based on ‘likes’ and never having to go further than your pocket to look information up is really as futuristic as rocket ships and hoverboards would have been. 

“Selling out,” for example, is a concept that seemed to consume much of the decade, with the agonised fears of stars like Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix about what it might mean and entire movies like Reality Bites based around it. “Selling out” barely even exists as the same concept anymore in a world filled with TikToks, YouTubers and influencers all selling themselves as hard as possible. 

The OJ Simpson case has been written about ad infinitum, but Klosterman paints a convincing through line to the mindset that dominates today’s fractured, everyone-has-a-hot-take internet. Watching the crowds cheer on OJ on his bizarre slow-motion car chase through LA, waving signs, Klosterman sees “what would eventually drive the mechanism of social media – the desire of uninformed people to be involved with the news … because it was exhilarating to participate in an experience all of society was experiencing at once.” 

The Nineties is best enjoyed less as a final, definitive statement and more as a frequently amusing and thought-provoking addition to the ongoing conversation. I kind of think that Klosterman, who I’ll always picture as the guy holding forth at the bar, would prefer it that way anyway. 

Year In Review List Week: 10 Great Books From 2021

…Continuing year in review list week before this newfangled 2022 gets too darned far along for everyone, here’s my favourite books I read in 2021, restricted to just those books published in 2021 (and maybe just one or two that came out at the very end of 2020 but maybe came out in paperback this year).

Once again my reading tends to be heavier on the nonfiction than the fiction, although I’m hoping to be more egalitarian in 2022.

In alphabetical order:

Fiction

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

Nonfiction

A Swim In A Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class on Writing, Reading, And Life, by George Saunders

Boy On Fire: The Young Nick Cave, by Mark Mordue

His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life, by Jonathan Alter

I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, by Carol Leonning and Philip Rucker

Mike Nichols: A Life, by Mark Harris

Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism, by Paul S. Hirsch

Times Like These: On Grief, Hope and Remarkable Love, by Michelle Langstone

Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, by Evan Osnos

Also in series: My Top Ten Pop Culture Moments of 2021 / My Favourite Movies of 2021

Remembering Anne Rice, who brought death to life

If you could live forever, would you want to? And what would it be like?

That question is at the heart of the legacy of Anne Rice, who died at 80 last month. I grew up reading many of her Vampire Chronicles, and — a bit belatedly due to Christmas and weather chaos — I wanted to think about why her work meant so much to young Nik.

Nobody was more influential in vampire fiction since Bram Stoker dragged Dracula out of the coffin back in the 1890s. Rice’s vision of blood-suckers can be seen in the DNA of everything from The Vampire Diaries to True Blood to Buffy to Twilight — some good, some not.

When we think of vampires today, you’re likely thinking of them less as Bela Lugosi and more as passionate, creepy and eternally conflicted lovers, a template Anne Rice built up more than anyone.

Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire and The Vampire Lestat were passed-around, beloved talismans of my wayward youth. The glittering paperbacks with their gothic lettering were read, and re-read.

It was The Vampire Lestat that particularly grabbed me, with Lestat narrating the centuries of his life in first person. He was bratty, impetuous, cruel and, sometimes, kind. He may have been hundreds of years old, but Lestat kind of felt like a teenager.

Evocative and passionate, gothy as any Cure song, filled with blood and lust and long lonely meditations on what it’s all about, they were perfect reading for confused teenagers trying to figure out the world. She quietly was a progressive voice for gay equality in the ’80s, and later depicted trans characters and gender fluidity in a way that seemed groundbreaking and yet completely unforced. In her world, love is love.

Rice created a sprawling narrative filled with rich characters, many of whom went on to star in their own books after debuting in the original trilogy, and she was deft at bringing her historic settings to life. Her strength was not so much in plot or her almost Victorian prose, but in character. She made you feel the weight of immortality and what that might actually be like. Her vampires – dour Louis, insecure Armand, bold Marius or terrifying Akasha – were far more complex than the spooky boogeymen of Stoker’s Dracula. Dead, they still carried with them all the baggage of their living lives. Her vampires talked, and talked, and talked, sometimes to the point of self-parody, but in their lengthy soliloquies were all about digging into what makes us human – or inhuman.

The Vampire Chronicles did become a case of diminishing returns as it sprawled on to more than a dozen books, and Rice’s later work never quite surpassed the original books, but I’d argue everything up until Memnoch the Devil is pretty golden. As the series goes along, Lestat becomes a bit too powerful and loses some of the charming rogue vibe he has in the earlier books, and the constant adoration other characters always seem to have for him gets a bit much.

Yet there’s still a lot to like in later volumes if you’re not turned off by Rice’s endless expansion of her shared universe to include witches, Atlantis, demons and more. But in the end, the stories always circle back to Lestat, her greatest character and always, always the centre of attention.

In Lestat, Rice created a monster who constantly tries not to be one, often failing. Rice wrote other books, of course – erotic fiction, meditations on the life of Christ and more – but ultimately, it’s the vampires that make her immortal.

My top pop-culture moments of 2021

And so, the curtain drops on 2021, a sequel that somehow managed to perform even worse than the blockbuster year 2020 did. Still, despite the grimness on personal fronts and the continuing stupidity of life in general, there were a few halfway decent moments. So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, here’s my top pop-culture moments of 2021, with links back to some of the original posts about them.

Filling a Crowded House, in a brief pandemic oasisMy experience seeing Crowded House playing a packed Auckland arena back in March happened in New Zealand’s several blissful months of Covid-free life, before the Delta outbreak in August. It also was a life-affirming blast of a show, with Neil Finn and company delivering a celebratory concert of hits and new songs that just made you feel glad to still be here, alive and appreciative of all the things we took for granted pre-2020. There’s been a lot of times I’ve lost faith in humans the past two years, but at that one concert, a big crowd of us all singing and smiling felt kinda sorta all right. Here’s hoping going to big concerts again becomes normal soon.

The open-throated passion of John Cassavetes – A ‘discovery’ for me this year was the work of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes, who I’ve long been meaning to delve into. His work dating back from the late 1950s sparked much of independent film, and Cassavetes was determined to present life in its messy, often unexplainable complexity. In movies like Faces, A Woman Under The Influence and Husbands, people behave madly, inconsistently, and irrationally – like they often do in real life. His movies are a challenge, to be sure – the loose-limbed Husbands at times feels like a drunken TikTok video starring Peter Falk might – but even while they push and prod you, you find yourself thinking of them constantly the next day.

When big franchises take a few chances – I’m a fanboy, but I’ve admittedly burned out a bit on the assembly line of superhero movies and childhood classics being regurgitated over and over (did anyone really want another Ghostbusters?). So I was pleasantly surprised by two venerable franchises that didn’t play it entirely safe – James Bond in the long-delayed No Time To Die, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Without spoiling either, they took risks – ones that might not have satisfied every fan. James Bond faces challenges he never had before in No Time To Die and the ending was a disturbing but effective shocker. And the idea of a multiverse-straddling take on Spider-Man could easily have gotten overstuffed and absurd (I’ve ranted about the overuse of multiverses before), but instead, we got a story that embraces the idea of the shared cinematic history of franchises and characters who just keep coming back in a heartfelt, dignified way. There’s a reason it’s smashing box office records.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman – I had been meaning to read this series of books by Grossman for a while now, which could be broadly described as “Narnia/Harry Potter, but for grownups.” They tell a somewhat familiar story of a young magician, Quentin Coldwater, and his ups and downs learning magic and having brilliant, frightening adventures in fantastic lands. The Magicians books were perfect escapist reading during the dregs of Auckland’s lengthy lockdown, brisk and darkly enjoyable, with the imaginative flair of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and the solid characters of Harry Potter, but aimed at a slightly older audience who might like a bit of drinking and sex to spice things up. I read better books objectively this year, but these ones were among the most fun.

Superman, still the best superhero – It’s been a good time to be a fan of the man of steel. One of the best decisions the corporate overlords made a few years back is to let Superman finally marry Lois Lane, and to let them have a kid together. It’s allowed Superman to mature as a character into everybody’s ideal dad, and unlike some big changes to the status quo for comics characters, for now, this one seems to stick. On TV, I praised the superbly entertaining Superman and Lois, which combines spot-on casting with great Super-action and a show that’s not afraid to get emotional. In the comics, writer Brian Bendis finished up a suprisingly cool run that felt modern and daring yet true to the character, while the anthology series Superman: Red And Blue was an ideal summation of the character’s appeal with a variety of mostly excellent short stories starring Kal-El. Superman’s son, Jonathan Kent, who’s now a young adult, got his own title and it’s turned out to be one of the best new superhero comics of the year – a young, progressive and caring superhero (who’s also bisexual, which has gotten the usual suspects outraged). All in all, from the perspective of a rather troubled real world, Superman and his son seem more relevant than ever.

Lighting a Sparks – I admit I’m losing my touch with current pop culture as I settle into extreme middle age, but part of that is because there’s so darned much OLD pop culture to still enjoy. I was aware of Sparks and liked some of their work, but Edgar Wright‘s excellent documentary The Sparks Brothers triggered one of my famed full-fledged obsessive binges, as it spurred me to dig into the art-pop band’s hefty 50-year discography. It’s a delight to find a band you like and then find out that they’ve got literal mountains of material for you to enjoy.

Meeting Neil Gaiman, in strange days – I’ve always loved the Auckland Writers Festival, and like many things I loved it’s had rocky days during the Covid era. Fortunately, this year’s festival went off just fine in May, and a big highlight was getting a chance to meet one of the world’s biggest writers, Neil Gaiman, who’s been a bit of a New Zealand resident himself with his wife Amanda Palmer during the pandemic. I waited an hour or so to briefly meet Neil and have him sign a few of my favourite books after listening to some excellent talks he gave, but that was nothing compared to some who waited up to six hours. Neil was apparently as much a gentleman with the last person in line as he was with the first. They say never meet your idols, but getting a chance to tell them how much their work means to you is sometimes worth the wait.

Godzilla smashes up King Kong – Look, I know, it’s a big dumb old monster movie. But Godzilla Vs. Kong was, in my deep critical analysis, very, very good at being a big dumb old monster movie. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a well-played VHS tape of the 1962 King Kong Vs Godzilla that I unironically love. Maybe it’s because I saw it on a booming IMAX screen, just at the start of NZ’s pandemic-free idyll mentioned above, and because I could watch King Kong and Godzilla wrestle on aircraft carriers nearly life-size. I’m not saying it will win any Oscars. I’m not saying that it always makes sense or that most of the human characters are memorable. But you know, most of the classic Toho Godzilla movies are pretty wacky, too. With magnificent modern special effects and plenty of monster action, this heavyweight bout was worth the wait. Sometimes, you just want to see Godzilla punch through a building. Indeed, after a year like this one, who doesn’t want to do that themselves sometimes?

All the world’s a page: The best books about Shakespeare’s world

Shakespeare tends to draw you in. If you get hooked, it’s hard to back away. I’ve been hooked for years, starting with an excellent class in high school all the way up to my experiences volunteering for several seasons  at the late, great Pop-Up Globe here in Auckland. And lord knows, seeing plays in person has been difficult the last year or two. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t stop Shakespeare fans. Enough books have been written about Shakespeare to fill up a Pop-Up Globe, and despite the fact that what we actually know about his life could probably fit in a few greeting cards, that doesn’t stop mountains of speculation, linguistics, analysis, fiction, parody, explanation, conjecture and discourse. Here are a handful of my favourite go-to books on Shakespeare’s world for when you’re seeking a fix of the Stratford sage.

There are an awful, awful lot of Shakespeare biographies out there, which confounds when you think about how little true biographical information we’ve got. I quite enjoyed Stephen Greenblatt’s Will In The World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare for a general primer, and the always amusing Bill Bryson’s pithy, brief Shakespeare is a good overall introduction to the vast world of Bard studies. For a general guide to the plays I actually really like DK’s Essential Shakespeare Handbook, which I picked up at the famed Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland years ago – it’s compact enough to haul along to a play for summaries if you want to be that nerd in the theatre. As a photographic tour through Shakespearean history, Shakespeare’s Restless World by A History of the world in 100 Objects author Neil MacGregor is excellent. 

For my money, the most consistently entertaining explicator of Shakespearian life these days is James Shapiro, who’s written several great books on the Elizabethan theatre. He’s written what I consider the definitive debunking of the whole “Shakespeare didn’t actually exist” business, Contested Will, and two very thorough examinations of specific years in Shakespeare’s life, 1599 and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Those two tomes do a fascinating job of looking at the world around Shakespeare and how the politics and society of the time led to plays like King Lear. Shapiro then delivered a truly great combination of Shakespeare and the modern world, Shakespeare In A Divided America, which is a history of how this most British of writers found a home in America over two centuries, with Presidents and poets and rioters swept up in his wake. From the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to a very Trumpy take on Julius Caesar in 2017, it’s an excellent look at how the past isn’t even past when it comes to Shakespeare’s relevance. 

Another recent book was written by an old work colleague of mine, Paul Chapman. Secret Will: How People, Events and a Dancing Horse Inspired Shakespeare   is a bit in the vein of Shapiro’s work by investigating the world the Bard lived in and how it affected his writing. It’s a great bit of detective work which explores the violent, unsettled world Shakespeare lived in and how it informed him. I’m a mere amateur Bard buff compared to Paul, who packs his book with fascinating anecdotal side trips down all sorts of historical roads spinning out from the plays, from hidden disses on well known Elizabethan actors to the peculiar fad of the “dancing horse” to the man who inspired the real Shylock. These kinds of forensic investigations can be dry, but Paul gives Secret Will a relaxed, entertaining tone throughout. I learned a lot from it and it’s well worth seeking out. 

Becoming Shakespeare by Jack Lynch is billed as a “post-mortem” biography and it starts with Shakespeare’s death at just 52, and looks at how he nearly fell into obscurity when theatres themselves were banned during the English Civil War. Lynch also takes close looks at how the performance of Shakespeare’s plays have changed over the years, how their language has been bowdlerised and mutated by would-be improvers over the centuries, and the curious phenomenon of “rediscovered” Shakespeare plays that actually turned out to be forgeries. It’s a good primer to explain why this long dead dude still obsesses people.

The late Harold Bloom was almost a living caricature of the windy, self-important academic, but his many writings on Shakespeare gave him the right to brag, culminating in his massive doorstop of a book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. My edition of it even thicker than Shakespeare’s own complete works, but it’s a towering work that analyses every play he wrote with the sweeping overall thesis that the Bard’s writing is a milestone in human development and self-image, “creating” much of what we think of today as being human. Dipping in and out of it is like a master class in criticism. Bloom also did several shorter books focusing on characters like Falstaff and Hamlet that are well worth seeking out. I don’t always agree with Bloom and he could definitely be a bit pretentious, but he also almost always leaves me thinking – the sign of an excellent teacher. 

Speaking of obsessions, you can’t go wrong with The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays for a hit of literary sleuthing that delves deep into the legacy of the First Folio – the only real way that any of us even know who Shakespeare is, and how the surviving Folios from his time have become insanely high-priced fetish objects for collectors. It looks at Henry Folger, an American businessman who became utterly obsessed with obtaining copies of the Folio, and where they are today. Having had a rare chance to actually see one in Auckland a few years back,  I admit I can see the appeal of coveting some of these ancient texts and Mays’ book is thrilling reading even for non-Bardophiles. 

Whether you’re obsessed with the words, the history or the cultural impact, there’s literally libraries of Shakespeare to take the centre stage while we wait for a more normal world. Or as Prospero puts it in The Tempest, Me, poor man, my library/Was dukedom large enough.”

The Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part VI

I’ve got a shelf in the spare bedroom that’s overloaded with musty vintage Stephen King paperbacks, stacked up high. I like to think of the man as our modern Charles Dickens, a spinner of ripping yarns who’s managed to be insanely popular and yet also, kind of great at what he does.

In his nearly 50-year-career, he’s written an astonishing 80 or so books – novels, story collections, rare limited editions and pulpy crime novels that use horror to get at the truths of the human heart. Some are better than others, but his batting average is pretty darned good. Everyone loves The Stand, but how about a good ol’ creepy underrated tale like From A Buick 8

Many years ago now, I set off on the insane task to do a complete brief review of every Stephen King book (leaving out the oddities like limited editions and children’s books). I began this all the way the hell back in 2009 on my old blog, and as King keeps on scribbling, I keep on updating it. It’s been two years since my last round-up and there’s still more King to examine! Long may the King reign. Here’s the sixth and latest Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, from 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams to 2021’s Later

Bazaar of Bad Dreams: A Stephen King short story collection is like grabbing a big ol’ pile of vintage EC Comics and diving into an assortment of creepy, haunting little gems. In some ways, the short story is King’s best showcase, because if an idea hasn’t quite worked, there’s another dozen within to grab you. So it’s a mixed bag by nature – the (mildly dated) e-reader-themed piece “Ur” is a grabber, but the poems here, um, aren’t really King’s forte. But I automatically knock up a big thick story collection a half-grade for its sheer bountiful pleasures, and this one’s got many to offer. Grade: A- 

End of Watch: The climax of King’s “Detective Hodges” trilogy, with one of his more enduring groups of characters – ageing ex-cop private detective Bill Hodges, autistic savant Holly Gibney and psycho killer Brady Hartsfield. The down-to-earth duo of Bill and Holly have made for some of King’s best and most humane writing in recent years, and while this final book of Bill’s adventures gets a little over-the-top – turning Hartsfield into some kind of evil supervillain rather than the slightly more believable lone madman of Mr. Mercedes – it’s still an enjoyably twisted tale and a fine capper to the series. Grade: B+  

Gwendy’s Button Box: A short novella co-written with Richard Chizmar, this tale of an unloved young girl is a kind of spin on “The Monkey’s Paw,” where a mysterious stranger gives a random person an incredibly powerful strange box. Aimed a bit more at the “Harry Potter” crowd than King’s typical work, it’s a quick read that feels more like a sampler aimed at fans who haven’t tried the hardcore King yet. In a collection it might feel a little less puffed-up, but as a slim novella it’s a little forgettable. There’s apparently a sequel by Chizmar I haven’t read and a third book by King and Chizmar on the way, so I might need to revisit this one soon and see how it holds up. Grade: Probationary B, incomplete. 

Sleeping Beauties: This one has a good hook but fails to meet its potential. All of the women in the world suddenly disappear, leaving a world of men behind in chaos. Where have they gone, and why?  The tone in this one – a collaboration between King and his son Owen – feels curiously inert. While there’s some good ideas about men and women here, they’re delivered in a ham-handed fashion, and the story heavily relies on some fantasy storytelling which doesn’t quite work. I hate to blame it on the younger King, but this just doesn’t feel quite like a Stephen King book. Sleeping Beauties is overlong, but worse, unlike some of King’s other brick-sized books, it’s often boring. Grade: C-

The Outsider: A grim, satisfying murder mystery. A young boy is murdered and all the evidence points to an amiable little league coach even though he is convinced of his innocence. Is there an “outsider” somewhere who’s able to mimic him and commit the most horrible of crimes unpunished? While it gets a little bogged down in one of King’s trademark kind of enigmatic magical climaxes, for the most part this is a terrific read about a man who’s sure of his innocence despite all the evidence, and the devils that lurk inside us all. Grade: A

Elevation: This brisk novella about a man who keeps losing weight might sound like a remake of the far more gruesome Thinner, but it’s more of a fable about a person trying to make peace with his life in an imperfect world. It’s a quick read with some good heart, but a little clumsy in its moralising, so it falls somewhere squarely in the middle of just adequate King-land. Grade: B-

The Institute: It’s inevitable you start to repeat yourself a bit after 50+ books. The Institute has heavy Firestarter vibes with a dash of The Shining, all about young children with mysterious powers taken away to a secret institution. It’s a paranoid, chilling book and you’re left rooting for the young victims of the “Institute.” But while it’s a compulsively readable tale, it doesn’t quite linger in the mind as strongly as King’s similar works. Grade: B 

If It Bleeds: Some of my absolute favourite King books have been his collections of hefty themed novellas like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight. This one is a more oddball grouping of odds ’n’ ends – the “Detective Hodges” trilogy coda “If It Bleeds,” a good ol’ fashioned scary morality play in “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a rather goofy monster tale in “Rat,” and the best of the lot, the highly experimental “The Life of Chuck,” a man’s life told backwards. It all averages out to a decent bunch of yarns. Grade: B+ 

Later: I do love the “Hard Case Crime” imprint King has lent some of his pulpier work to in more recent years. It’s a chance for King to be short, sharp and mean, and Later is one of his better pulp efforts, the story of a kid who can “see dead people.” Being King, this is a lot gnarlier than The Sixth Sense. A tale of twisted obsession that calls back to It and King’s recurring theme of young people with special abilities being manipulated and abused, it’s not deep, but it’s solidly entertaining, and ends on a resonant, bittersweet note. Grade:  B+

And let’s not forget, the rest of the Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King series:

Part 1: Carrie to The Stand

Part 2: The Dead Zone to The Bachman Books

Part 3: The Talisman to Insomnia

Part 4: Rose Madder to Under The Dome

Part 5: 11/22/63 to Finders Keepers