Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is sure to give you thrills and chills as you read. The name of the novel is based on the setting, a small, sleepy town in Maine called Jerusalem’s Lot, protagonist Ben Mears’s hometown.
Ben returns to Jerusalem’s Lot to get inspiration for his writing career– particularly, to get inspiration for the infamous, decrepit Marsten House, where he himself suffered a bad experience as a child. However, upon arriving, Ben discovers that, amazingly, the Marsten House has been purchased, by two furniture sellers: Richard Straker, whom the town meets, and Kurt Barlow, who is on an “extended buying trip.”
Things start to get troublesome when two young boys disappear. Ben Mears begins to investigate himself and finds that his town has been invaded by dark forces. In the end, the entire town is overtaken by the evil that has arrived.
This was the first Stephen King book I read– and the first horror book as well; I’ve always shied away from horror novels, afraid of their graphic and twisted content. I decided to give it a shot, though, and tried to pick a lighter-looking book off from the bookshelf to ease myself into the genre.
‘Salem’s Lot is not “light.” It is intense and complex, with a myriad of brilliant characters who are all interconnected, and, consequently, in the end, all kill one another off. King did an amazing job of making me flip the pages– I was always wondering who the next victim was, and when they would be killed.
However, it does not run too deep thematically– yes, there are horror themes, but mostly this is just a fun chiller for anyone to enjoy. If you’re looking to pick up a good scary story to enjoy on the road or at night with no one home, ‘Salem’s Lot is for you. Guaranteed to keep you on your feet, Stephen King’s 1975 horror novel is not one to miss out on.
Mesozoic Murder by Christine Gendry is the first book of a mystery chronicles, starring Ansel Phoenix as the paleoartist-turned-detective. Ansel is a half Native America half-Caucasian woman who draws dinosaurs for a living. However, on a trip with her paleontology class, she discovers the corpse of her former lover, Nick Capos.
The mystery of Nick’s death draws Ansel’s interest, despite the fact that she and Nick haven’t been together for a long time. Ansel soon finds out that Nick was working on a project worth killing for, and becomes wrapped up in trying to save what he has discovered.
Though I do enjoy mysteries, I’d have to rate this book on the lower side. The plot was all right, but did not live up to my expectations of a good mystery book; instead, it focused more on science, and the paleontology facts that Ansel uses to deduce the murderer and to figure out what Nick was hiding. Throughout the series, Ansel also struggles with her identity, and how others view her as a “half-breed.”
My favorite books are those that dig deep into a theme. While Gendry’s novel had Ansel’s ethnicity issue, it only skimmed the surface of it, and did not provide a deeper message. If you’re into geology and paleontology, and would love to see science with a little mystery, Mesozoic Murder would be a quick and fun read.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps one of the most controversial, if not the most controversial, novel of American literature. Narrated from the very unreliable, very skewed first-person point-of-view of young Huckleberry Finn, it is the story of Huck and Jim, an escaped slave, as they float down the Mississippi River into the deep, dark heart of the Antebellum South.
Before his adventures, Huck spent his days playing with the romantic-minded Tom Sawyer and under the tutelage of a widow and her sister Miss Watson, both of whom try to teach Huck manners and try to quell his “uncivilized” behavior. However, his alcoholic father Pap comes back and takes his son back to his cabin, where he is forced to stay for a couple days before escaping. During his escape, Huck meets Jim and the two set out on the river on a raft.
Huck first has qualms with himself about letting Jim onto the raft. Jim is, after all, a slave, and Huck’s been strictly told that slaves aren’t exactly the same as humans. What’s more, Jim is the slave of Miss Watson– someone who, despite her strict disciplinarian care, genuinely cares about Huck’s well-being– and thus, helping Jim escape is, for Huck, morally wrong (though we can clearly see that this is the very opposite of that). As Huck grows closer to Jim, however, he is forced to question the status quo that he has been taught. Huck and Jim aim for the Ohio River, where they can then begin to travel north and, for Jim (and Huck as well), towards freedom.
Eventually, however, they miss their destination, and continue to float down the Mississippi, where they are separated multiple times. Later, they pick up two con artists, on the run. The con artists take over the raft and begin to treat Jim badly, exploiting his status and shaming him– while Huck watches helplessly.
After a series of mishaps, Huck finally escapes from the con artists, only to find that they have sold Jim to a nearby farmer. Longing for his friend, Huck finally pushes free of his social barriers and resolves to free Jim once and for all. He heads to the farm to look for him, but finds that the man and woman living there are actually his friend Tom Sawyer’s uncle and aunt. Coincidentally, Tom comes for a visit, and even offers to help Huck, which seems like a marvelous idea at first– until Tom begins to scheme ridiculous, humiliating plans for freeing Jim that fit with his storybook fantasies of a daring escapade. And despite his learning on his adventures on the raft with Jim, Huck goes along with it all.
What makes this book so bad, so sad, so terribly, terribly marvelous is the ending. Tom’s aunt and uncle find Tom hurt and Huck stumbling for help. Huck finally tells them of their little attempts at an “adventure,” and how they’d managed to plot under the adults’ noses, but receives a startling surprise himself: that Jim is actually free– Miss Watson had declared it in her will. Tom knew it all along, but had apparently decided not tell Huck and that this actually gave him the chance to try out his delightful, embarrassing plots on someone. Jim becomes nothing more than a plaything for the boys.
A picaresque, the novel is supposed to “depict the adventures of a roguish hero/heroine of low class society who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.” While most of this fits into the content of ‘Huck Finn, there is one key component missing– the hero. We can see that, in the end, it is not Huck who is the hero. In fact, is there even a hero in the novel? Are all novels supposed to have a hero? Why didn’t Twain have Huck grow? Why didn’t Twain have Huck save Jim? Why did Huck succumb to society’s racist views again?
These are questions that literary critics have debated over for decades, and still continue to debate. The ending of ‘Huck Finn is unexpected and depressing, and there are views over why Twain wrote it that way. Some think that he simply failed to convey a message he was trying to write in ‘Huck Finn, while others (and I am inclined to think so as well) believe that this outrageous ending was, in fact, his aim. Read critically, ‘Huck Finn is a satire. It is not a racist novel, for all its filtered narration and derogatory language. In fact, Twain depicts Huck’s racist thoughts as simply ridiculous– as if anyone would even dare to think that any human is below the rest! Yet, this was the reality back in the Antebellum South (believe it or not, in parts of the United States, and the world as well, it still is the reality). People did indeed believe, quite strongly and adamantly (yes, it even lead to a war), that African Americans were simply not as human as the rest of us.
If you haven’t picked up ‘Huck Finn yet, it’s about time to! Mark Twain’s satirical novel criticizing society and its many problems is a must-read, and, despite its less-than-appealing, grammatically-wrong, vernacular English language, it stands alongside other classic novels like The Great Gatsbyor To Kill a Mockingbird as an iconic component of American literature. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of being with Huck and Jim on their raft, on the run from society’s grasping arms. It is definitely not the innocent, just-a-boy-having-fun book that people first perceive it to be (Huck’s adventures are more than just pure mischief), but at the same time is it not the serious, racist novel that others think it is.
Satire is sometimes hard to read; it takes skill and finesse to craft a novel that depicts such a dark and delicate topic through the lightness and joviality of a humorous boy’s adventure. Mark Twain’s talent is not to be ignored or chastised; it is to be appreciated, and considered. Anyone who reads ‘Huck Finn will surely enjoy floating along the Mississippi, listening to Jim’s stories and applauding Huck’s wit.
Twain lambastes the racist views of the Antebellum South, commenting how absurd, even comical those ideas are– and, unfortunately, reminding us that these views are still present in our society today. We must think about how we are treating others. Unlike Huck Finn, we are to be heroes.
But don’t worry, Twain reassures us. It’s okay– you won’t go to hell for treating people nicely.
As Ryan Murphy tweeted, sanity is a central theme in Season Two of American Horror Story. Like ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, Asylum explores the idea of insanity and sin, and who gets to define it.
Insanity, like “good” or “bad,” can be seen as a relative term. Whether or not someone is insane is up to the observer; someone who I deem is insane can be perfectly sane in the eyes of another. But who gets to decide?
Though there are many visibly “insane” patients in Briarcliff– those that have real mental or emotional problems that need to be dealt with medically– there are others that are only there because they are outcasts of society, and are thus consideredinsane when they really are perfectly straight in the head.
Lana Winters, for example, has been committed for her homosexuality, which was viewed as a treatable sin back in the 1960’s. At the asylum, she is forced to go through “conversion therapy” to try to change her into a straight woman. But like Lana herself says, there is no way to fix the “problem”– she was always born that way, and society just can’t seem to accept that.
Insanity, and the condemnation of it, also prompts conformity. No one wants to be seen as insane; otherwise, you’d get thrown into a filthy mental institution. People hide themselves in an attempt to belong. Lana and her girlfriend, along with their lesbian friends Lois and Barbara, are forced to keep their relationships secret. After her release, Lana reveals her sexuality, and becomes the “sapphic writer”– but Lois and Barbara, caring and kind as they are, are hesitant to be seen in public together with Lana, fearing that people will quickly assume them to be homosexuals as well (which they are). Briarcliff, as a microcosm, demonstrates this tyrannic, oppressive rule of society.
Digressing slightly from the idea of sanity, but along the lines of conformity, we come to Sister Mary Eunice. Mary Eunice, before her possession, spent her entire life being a people-pleaser. As she herself comments, “All I wanted was for people to like me.” And when she is horribly humiliated at a pool party, she joins the Church out of shame. She spends her time at Briarcliff trying to appease Sister Jude and taking care of the patients, happy to spend her time as a obedient staff member at the asylum. Nervous and skittish, we can’t help but feel sorry for her, as if she is a small child only yearning to be accepted– don’t we all have that wish? Many people at the ward come to like her, such as Sister Jude herself and Dr. Arden. However, when she is possessed by the Devil, her demeanor changes drastically, and this causes people to begin to shied away from her in disgust, while the human within the body cries for her fall. Mary Eunice becomes a promiscuous, smoking, lipstick-wearing church-condemning character. She is no longer pure, no longer innocent, no longer the ideal image of a good girl.
Though Mary Eunice’s new lifestyle as a more free person is depicted as the Devil’s work, it begs the question, is nonconformity truly a sin? Is it considered “insane” for a woman to have a strong spirit? (see my discussion on this theme here.)
To the society of the 1960’s, it looks like it is.
Although the view on women has changed considerably today, conformity is still very prevalent in our community. Though Asylum can be seen as a horror movie purely for fun and screams, it stands alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell’s timeless novels The Great Gatsby and 1984, with a story and themes that very much apply to the present. Murphy reminds us that no one has a right to demand that others submit to anyone’s rules. It should not be considered insane if someone has aspirations and qualities besides those that are expected of them. No one should be committed into an asylum just because they are different. People should be free to be themselves, whatever they choose to be.
After years of writing books for the Harry Potter universe, J.K. Rowling is back with a new, brilliantly-written, insanely moving novel, The Casual Vacancy, which tells the story of a small town constantly at war. Friendships hang on a thread, broken constantly by snips of gossip. There is a carefully drawn line between the rich and the poor, the two sides of Pagford so hostile towards each other it’s a wonder that they’re still a part of the same town. Family members fight amongst each other, close only by blood, and husbands and wives argue, grudgingly bound by the legal means of their marriage. Pagford is a town that does not rest.
The catalyst of the biggest fight of Pagford is the death of a council member Barry Fairbrother, a man who rose to prominence in the town by a rags-to-riches story. Serving as the bridge between the poor, drug-addled residents of the Fields and the wealthy, snobby citizens of the rest of the town, Pagford is torn apart as the rich, lead by First Citizen Howard Mollison, urge to redraw the town borders and have the Fields be a part of nearby Yarvil. Animosities spark in the council itself, as factions form within, one in favor of moving the Fields and another in favor of keeping it. Another consideration is the shutting down of the addiction clinic, Bellchapel, that helps the drug-users overcome their addictions.
If you love tragedy mixed with drama and comedy, I highly suggest reading The Casual Vacancy. However, Rowling leaves no stones unturned when it comes to addressing mature themes in her novel. The Casual Vacancy highlights how class can unfairly separate members of a community– for example, Krystal Weedon is a girl who lives in the Fields with a dirty, drug-addled prostitute of a mother and her baby brother, with simple dreams of growing up with her own family and a clean house. Due to her mother’s reputation, however, she is repeatedly looked down upon and this fuels her frustration and temper towards life.
Politics, and how poisonous it is, is also addressed in Rowling’s novel: slowly, Pagford tears itself to pieces, with family members going behind each others’ backs, friends betraying each other, and hostilities increasing amongst the council members themselves as everyone scrambles for the empty seat. It’s a madhouse in the small town that looks so peaceful on the outside.
Societal issues such as drug use, prostitution, and rape are present as well. The higher class citizens do nothing to help rid this issue within their town– in fact, they are advocating to shut down the addiction clinic and push the responsibilities of taking care of the Fields residents to another town. The citizens of Pagford, whether they are aware of it or not, are all interconnected, yet refuse to support each other. As we grow frustrated at this lack of empathy from the higher class, we must remember that this very problem is prevalent in our own communities. We must remember that the poorer, no matter how bad they might seem, are still human, and that they are a part of our communities as much as we are. We must remember not to judge them until we have heard their stories. Rowling’s brilliant quote in The Casual Vacancy sums up this message:
“You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”
I myself thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which speaks a lot to me with its myriad of societal issues. Towards the end, I did tear up– the ending, as the genre (tragicomedy) suggests, is, at most, bittersweet. As the war draws to a close, the members of the town are left to pick up the remnants of memories they have destroyed, and establish new ones.
If you happen to pick up The Casual Vacancy, I urge you to think of how the problems in Pagford may apply to your own community. Like the citizens of Pagford, we are all connected, and we must learn to help each other. Rowling urges us to appreciate the uniqueness of every human being, rich or poor, intelligent or doltish, man or woman, white or other– and together, we can work as a group to create a harmonious and peaceful society. Nobody is perfect– we are not God– but together, we can be.
America in the 1960’s was a time of exploring new ideas– however, old ones still prevailed in society, and women found it hard to attain the same independence and respect as men. All of the strong-spirited women characters in Asylum, which takes place during the 60’s, have been victims of society.
Lana Winters’s (Sarah Paulson) main enemy throughout the season is society itself. Poor Lana, with a dynamic personality and ambitious goals, is unfairly committed to Briarcliff for her homosexuality (Sister Jude blackmailed her girlfriend into committing Lana), after attempting to infiltrate it to get a story on the notorious serial killer Bloody Face, who is known for murdering and skinning women. She is the very definition of a woman whom society fears: strong, spunky, and lesbian. At Briarcliff, the nuns attempt to force her to submit to their rules, but nevertheless Lana keeps fighting until the very end, eventually bringing down the asylum with its harsh, barbaric practices. As a patient, she is forced to go through “conversion therapy” with Dr. Thredson, in an attempt to alter her sexuality– homosexuality was largely frowned upon in the 60’s and as viewed as an illness and a borne sin.
Later on, Lana is brutally betrayed by Dr. Thredson, whom she initially believed to be her ally. After getting her out of Briarcliff the first time, Thredson reveals himself to be Bloody Face, and claimed to only be at the asylum to try and frame Kit Walker for the crime, as well as help Lana “convert.” He traps Lana inside his home, telling her about his murder stories, and how his goal is to find the perfect woman to be his mother, to replace the one he never had. Thredson exclaims that Lana is “The One,” and attempts to shape her into his ideal mother, thus reflecting the view society has on women: that they are only there to take care of the house and kids, and are heterosexual and stupidly loyal, and do only what men tell them. When Lana refuses Thredson, he humiliates her, and then rapes her in anger.
We get a bittersweet ending for Lana. After Supreme Mother Claudia releases her from Briarcliff, she goes on to expose Thredson and, eventually, the asylum, bringing a closure to her fight for independence. Lana meets Thredson in his apartment after she goes to the police, and shoots him before he is arrested, finally killing the man who had tortured her so much. She refuses to have anything to do with Thredson, abandoning her child that he fathered, and going on to live her dream: to be a well-respected writer and reporter, with nothing holding her back. Throughout her life, Lana has been a nonconformist, and is one of the strongest characters on the show. I applaud her for her victory over the status quo.
Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) is the stern, no-nonsense head nun of Briarcliff, and can be initially seen as the Asylum counterpart of Nurse Ratched from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, with a similar condescending and patronizing personality, hardened from her repression of her own sexual freedom. However, despite her strong ruling of the ward, her position is constantly challenged by the men of the staff, and she even unconsciously follows Monsignor Howard around whenever he is present. This is mainly due to the fact that, for all her attempts to cover her persona with a habit, she still has sexual fantasies about him, a sign of the humanity and spirit beneath. She even has a hidden set of red lingerie in a drawer, a symbol of her suppressing herself.
Jude became a nun because of a hit-and-run accident that leaves her ashamed of herself; before she joined the Church, she was a night club singer who smoke, drank, and was a free soul like Lana. Her life begins to spiral downward after her fiance leaves her due to her inability to have a child (she contracted syphilis from him, yet he still blames her)– we can see how the men in her life have already contributed to the pain in her life. As she later says to Shacahath, “all I ever wanted was my own family.” Society, dominated by men, has denied her this dream.
We are inclined to hate her, along with Lana, at first, due to the fact that they are often rude and aggressive towards others. As Jude’s life crumbles, however, we can see that this stems from the frustration they feel from being oppressed by society. Though becoming a nun is perhaps better than the old wild lifestyle she led before, she is unhappy and miserable from the sexual freedom she had to renounce. Throughout the season, she suffers multiple flashbacks that leave her traumatized and guilty. As powerful head nun of Briarcliff, she is holding onto the last bit of her dignity and pride, and we can no longer blame her for trying to be tough, with the circumstances she’s been placed in. Like Lana, she is just another woman bullied by society.
While she outwardly loathes Lana for her spunky spirit, she was once just as strong, and, towards the end, respects Lana for her ability to keep fighting. Secretly, she also admires Sister Mary Eunice, much like Dr. Arden does, for her purity and innocence– two things stripped early from Jude– and hates Shelley, the nymphomaniac who may remind Jude of her own shameful history (pointed out by Poetry Pundit).
As a patient, Jude (now Judy Martin) is just as rebellious as Lana in the beginning, determined to fight against the Devil and its new tyrannic authority over Briarcliff. Consequently, she is given a max dose of electroshock therapy, which leaves her disillusioned and disoriented, and is also thrown into a dirty, isolated cell when Lana (now a famous reporter) comes to visit the asylum, a move by the Monsignor to prevent Jude from spilling the horrible secrets of Briarcliff. He has also informed Lana that Jude hung herself and has died, presenting a legitimate death certificate, when, in reality, Jude’s name has been changed to Betty Drake. Jude rejects his offer to release her (something he suggests only after he has been promoted to Cardinal of New York, and is able to leave his responsibilities at Briarcliff), commenting:
“It’s an extraordinary thing, you know that? You throw me in the madhouse, you strip away everything I have, everything I know. You treat me like a rabid dog, like a mad woman… And you know what happened? I’m blessed with the gift of total clarity. I am more sane now as a madwoman than I ever was as the head of Briarcliff.”
Forced by the asylum (and possibly from her syphilis), however, Jude gradually starts to go insane. She then begins see a new committed woman physically resembling Shacahath (the Angel of Death) and, terribly frightened and intimidated of this strong patient, fights her, in an attempt to avoid death. It is later revealed that she was beating a harmless woman who was not at all the Shacahath, and it was all part of a elaborate hallucination she has been going through for two-and-a-half years.
Eventually, Kit, the moral compass of the show, the only man who does not try to see women as stupid, childbearing tools of society, rescues Jude, after she has been committed as a patient and stripped of her title from the Church. It is he who constantly visited Jude at the asylum and helped her through her insanity. It is only after she leaves both institutions that she finally finds happiness with Kit’s family (she has achieved her dream after all), and peacefully accepts Shacahath’s kiss of death in Kit’s house, away from the critical eyes of society. Though she can be seen at first as the main antagonist of the show, we eventually come to see her as just another victim of the true enemy: society.
We can see a demonization of females after Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) becomes possessed. As a human, she is innocent and pure, and only wants people to like her. She becomes a nun after being hazed at a pool party. Many people, like Dr. Arden and Sister Jude, find her chastity precious. However, after the Devil gets a hold of her, Mary Eunice’s purity begins to burn away. She shows up at Sister Jude’s office one day wearing lipstick, and Jude (still a nun) is disgusted. She then begins to slowly overtake Jude in authority, eventually becoming head of Briarcliff, and takes up drinking and smoking habits. She tries to seduce Arden (leading him to stop loving her, though he later becomes aware of her possession), and proceeds to rape the Monsignor, physically stripping her of her virtue. Here, Mary Eunice’s new sexual freedom and strong personality are portrayed as, quite literally, the work of the Devil.
Perhaps a more obvious example is Shelley (Chloë Sevigny). The very reason she is committed to Briarcliff is because of her obsession with sex. She began touching herself at the age of five, and her parents forced her to wear mittens to bed to stop this habit. She expresses her anger at her husband, who cheats often but isn’t reprimanded and shamed of his sexual freedom like she is. Her husband admitted her to the asylum under the diagnosis that she was a nymphomaniac, and that she doesn’t obey his wishes for her to be an obedient, devoted wife. At Briarcliff, Shelley begins to wield her body as a weapon, giving sexual favors to the guards in order to get what she wants. Like all the other strong-spirited women of the show, however, she is punished; after laughing at Arden after he attempted to rape her, he amputated her legs and made her into a Rasper, turning her into a horrifying creature. We can see, again, that the female sexuality is paired with monstrosity. Shelley can be seen as a fallen hero; she sacrificed herself in order to allow Kit and Lana to escape, only to be mutilated by Arden and disposed of carelessly by Mary Eunice in the woods. Later, she is taken to a hospital after being discovered at a schoolyard, and the Monsignor visits. Disgusted by her form and unable to save her, he strangles her with his rosary, a symbol (and I admit that I may be guilty of imposing meaning upon a scene with no merit) of the Church and society smothering the female.
Lastly, we come to Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré), who was committed for her axe murder of her father. However, she is not at all insane, and only killed him after he had molested her for many years. She is then ordered to be sterilized– literally, purified of her feminism– after being caught with Kit in the bakery. Grace is first killed after she jumps in front of a bullet Frank shoots at Kit. When Shacahath kisses her, she exclaims, “I’m free.” (Later, she is captured by the aliens and is resurrected and re-impregnated by them.)
Asylum raises awareness about the way women were treated back in the 60’s. There were many campaigns to fight for women’s rights. Around the time Asylum took place, there were many feminist movements, largely inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. However, isolated from the society that was changing (albeit slowly and grudgingly), Briarcliff could still forcefully oppress women and keep them imprisoned within its walls. We can see the dangerous tyrannic power of the asylum as it destroys woman after woman, from Sister Jude to Grace Bertrand. The only victorious one is Lana, who retains her strong spirit after she leaves, and bravely comes back ten years later and ultimately shuts it down with her exposé. Lana is an inspiration to us all, and reminds us that even through the hardest of times it’s important to remain strong and keep fighting. And, we should remember all the other female characters who were brave enough to stand against the status quo. Though Asylum is very much fiction, the sufferings of the what the women went through at Briarcliff represents the hardships of real women in history.
Richard Preston’s terrifying book about the Ebola virus is sure to send chills down your spine. While many of us are fortunate enough to live comfortably with adequate health care, other parts of the world don’t have it that way, and are more commonly subject to deadly, unknown viruses with no known cures that come like aliens out of the jungle. The Hot Zone tells the tale of the infamous Marburg and its sister virus, Ebola, detailing its journey into the human world from an isolated cave in Kenya.
The graphic symptoms of Marburg and Ebola are like something out of a science-slash-horror fiction novel, yet this book is very much nonfiction. The Hot Zone raises awareness of the true horrors of the Ebola virus, and how dangerous it can be. For anyone reading this book, you are in for a thrill ride. Dramatic, gripping, and suspenseful, The Hot Zone is sure to keep you on the edge of your chair, praying for the lives of those brave scientists who dared to take a fight against Ebola.