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May 2001
 
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT - Stephen King
Scribner, 2000; 288pp; $25.00
Hardcover; ISBN 0-684-85352-3

SECRET WINDOWS: ESSAYS AND FICTION ON THE CRAFT OF WRITING - Stephen King
Book-of-the-Month Club, 2000; 433pp; $18.75
Hardcover; ISBN 0-965-006439

If On Writing were only a "how to" book, I wouldn't recommend it as readily as I do (although, according to statistics, one out of every three readers in our genre wants to be a writer, so a lot of you would probably find it useful if that's all it were. But King has bookended the "how to" portion of the book with sections of autobiography that almost everyone will find fascinating.

The front section deals with his growing up, and after reading about incidents like the fat babysitter who used to sit on him and fart in his face, it doesn't take you long to see why the characters in some of King's books can be as over-the-top as they are. It also gives you new insight into just how hard King had to work merely to get a book published, never mind to get to where he is today.

And even success had its pitfalls--one only has to turn to the section where King details his fall into alcohol and drug addiction. As Fred Eaglesmith says in his song "Alcohol & Pills": "You think they might have been happy with the glory and the fame/but fame doesn't take away the pain, it just pays the bills." Rich doesn't automatically mean happy.

The closing section deals with King's horrendous car accident in the summer of 1999 and shows that King can be as gripping a non-fiction writer as he is when he's writing fiction.

But it's the central section that's the meat and potatoes of this book, and I think even readers uninterested in becoming writers will find it of interest. For new writers, it's indispensable, and I know it's going to join my very short list of recommended books for writers which, so far, has only contained The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

Keeping in mind that there is no correct way to write, there's only what works for you, King's advice in this section should still prove useful. Perhaps I say that because his methodology eerily twins my own (though I don't write as fast), but even then there are some differences. For instance, I tend to do my research before I start a project. But having seen eyes light up at workshops when I've told aspiring writers some of the things I've found that work--advice that King repeats here--I don't doubt that this book will do the same for many would-be writers reading it. And if you come away with only one or two things to make your writing life easier and more productive, I think they'll be worth the price of admission.

What you won't find here are blueprints, or a magic formula, to writing the perfect book. As Candas Jane Dorsey said in a recent Locus interview, "You don't have to learn how to write a novel; you learn how to write the one you're writing." Each one is different. But there are common pitfalls to avoid (such as the overuse of adverbs, unnecessary and/or awkward dialogue attribution) and King covers most of them in here.

This is the best "how to" book I've run across to date and combined with the Strunk and White, and lots of reading and practice, it will help any aspiring writer put the words down on paper in a manner that will make it a pleasure for others to read.

And for those of you who want more, the Book-of-the-Month Club has issued Secret Windows, a companion collection to On Writing. Unfortunately, you have to be a Club member to be able to buy a copy. Now while I don't agree with the marketing strategy of certain items only being available from specific stores or outlets (the worst recent example being Steve Earle's Transcendental Blues which, besides the regular CD, came in five other different versions, each of which could only be purchased at Borders, Warehouse, etc), at least it's not hard for interested readers to join the book club to get a copy.

The question is, do you want it?

Secret Windows comes off as a rather hastily cobbled-together affair made up of interviews, articles, introductions King has written, bits of fiction, and transcriptions of speeches. The material itself is good--my picayune objection is only in the presentation. There's no real flow from piece to piece, and there's often repetition of themes and statement. This can be excused, I suppose, since the material is taken from throughout King's career, and certainly shows a consistency in his thinking and writing habits.

The die-hard King reader will have seen much of this before, particularly the 160 page extract from Danse Macabre, but it's still good to have it all in one place--much of it never reprinted until now. We also get a couple of the very early stories that King wrote about in On Writing, an illuminating introduction by Peter Straub, and other rare tidbits and treats. Secret Windows pales when measured up to that companion volume, but it's still a fine and revealing collection, and a worthy addition to any King aficionado's library.

My recommendation: read it in small bits, rather than all at once.

*     *     *

BATMAN: HARVEST BREED - George Pratt
DC Comics, 2000; 92pp; $24.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56389-692-3

THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND - adapted by Richard Corben, Simon Revelstoke & Lee Loughridge
DC Comics, 2000; 88pp; $29.95
Hardcover; ISBN 1-56389-545-5

I'm a comic book reader from way back, but except for a rare few (Strangers in Paradise and Kabuki come most immediately to mind), I'm not a big fan of the long-running series, particularly those featuring costumed superheroes. That said, I have to admit for a certain fondness for Batman, a "superhero" more along the lines of Sherlock Holmes or Doc Savage, with a keen, reasoning mind as well as a gymnastic skill. (I'm conveniently ignoring the campy versions that have appeared over the years, in print, and on TV and the silver screen.)

Still, I don't read Batman comics either, except for the odd special publication such as the book under discussion here. What I like best about this sort of a story is that it doesn't fit into some desperately-held continuity, but ranges as far and wide (or as deep into the character's mind) as the story necessitates. Batman is always at his best when shown to be driven by his personal demons, and George Pratt does an admirable job portraying those obsessions in Harvest Breed, conveying emotion and turmoil as much with his expressive art as through the captions and dialogue.

And what art it is. Anyone familiar with his award-winning book Enemy Ace: War Idyll will immediately understand my enthusiasm for Pratt's work. If you're not, you at least owe it to yourself to flip through this book in your local comic shop or book store. The art ranges from loose, painterly panels to those with eloquent linework that stands out bold and sharp against washes of color, all tied together with a stylistic coherence and a master storyteller's skill.

It's a dark, grim story, with Batman trying to track down a serial killer that soon involves him with voodoo and Vietnamese witches, but it's marvelously told. And while Pratt certainly has an individual style, it's eminently suited to the story he's telling here.

Richard Corben is another idiosyncratic artist with an immediately recognizable style, probably most familiar to the casual reader from his work for Heavy Metal. It's not necessarily to everyone's taste, and definitely more cartoony when compared to Pratt, but Corben still has a wonderful sense of design and a bold style that works more often than it doesn't.

It certainly works here in this retelling of William Hope Hodgson's classic novel The House on the Borderland, as adapted by Simon Revelstoke. All the sly, mounting horror is maintained from the original--a tough trick to pull off, especially in a visual medium.

I suppose my only disappointment with this book isn't so much the version in hand, as the fact that I never see Hodgson's original novel in the bookstores anymore, and if readers don't see it, they're unlikely to buy it. A quick check online while writing this in December 2000 tells me that there is a 1996 mass market edition from Carroll & Graf available, so at least it's still in print, but The House on the Borderland deserves to be read by each new generation of readers that comes along. Hopefully this illustrated version will lead some readers back to the original text upon which it's based.

All of which sounds like a backhanded compliment to this graphic novel, and I don't mean it to be. I just feel that adaptations of books--be they film or illustrated versions such as this--are never as good as the actual books upon which they're based. They can be intriguing, and entertaining, interpretations such as this one certainly is, but no visual rendition can ever quite match the movie that unfolds in our heads as we're reading.

*     *     *

Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.

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