Last Thursday, when I began my Man vs Bookshelf challenge, I said I was going to start with Lisey’s Story by Stephen King.
This turned out to be a lie.
Not that I intended to be dishonest with you so early into the challenge.
I even had Lisey’s Story out ready to read.
Then I wrote my intro post and went through to my bedroom where I had left the book, ready to begin.
And I stopped.
There it was, back cover pressed against the bedside table and front stretching towards the sky. Almost touching the ceiling.
Okay, not that far, but it’s a big book, is my point. Some 667 pages (give or take) and I was afraid.
The point of this challenge is to do 210 books in 210 weeks, and I am not fool enough to think it will fall simply as that. Some books will take much less than their given week. Some (like The Stand or Game of Thrones) will take much longer.
Lisey’s Story, I knew, could well fall into the latter category. This is fine in principle, but not from the start.
I had visions of being down by week two, and how I might react. I hate losing and could see myself tearing down my bookshelf and setting fire to it. A much more dramatic end to the series but one less satisfying in the long run.
No, this series was going to be Sam Mendes, not Michael Bay.
So, leaving Lisey’s Story where it was, I returned to my bookshelf and looked for something I could read in a couple of days. Something which would earn me the time I needed to finish Lisey’s Story without falling behind.
In the end, I went for Horowitz Horror. By, surprise surprise, well known English author, Anthony Horowitz.
So, let’s talk about that, shall we?
Anthony and Me
Before I dive into my thoughts on the book, I’d like to talk about my relationship with the author. As an author that is, not as a person.
In short, it’s variable.
Like a lot of guys who grew up in the 90s, I’ve been reading Anthony Horowitz for a long time. His Alex Rider series began when I was 8 and ran through my teenage years. I read (but no longer own) the first six of those and always had mixed thoughts about them.
The plots were good. They were exciting. They always finished with a bang. But I considered them to sag a little in the middle. I’ve often found that in a Horowitz series, the descriptions can seem a bit slow and overwritten.
I remember one scene (and I no longer remember which Rider book it was from) when Alex spent a whole chapter walking around a boat doing not much.
I almost fell asleep.
Then there was the Gatekeeper series, which started in 2005. I loved the first of these (Raven’s Gate) but after that struggled with how slow they were. I think I got part way through four and quit.
But it’s not all bad. Recently I read The Switch, which was fast-paced, smart, and a great read all through.
And of course, we have the Diamond Brothers Series, the first of which came out before I was even born. These have been on my shelf for over a decade, and are still there now.
As they will become part of Man vs Bookshelf, I won’t talk too much about them. I will just say, they’re brilliant. Quick, clever, and funny, whether you’re twelve, twenty-five, or ninety. I’ll be reading and re-reading them my whole life I imagine.
Given this breadth of enjoyment across Horowitz’s books, I went into Horowitz Horror (which I’ve not read before) unsure what to expect, but excited to find out.
In the end, I gave Horowitz Horror a 3/5 on Goodreads. It was an easy read. The pacing was good with nothing unnecessary thrown in.
The problem was there often wasn’t much substance. You can say it’s down to length but plots often felt rushed, and this isn’t the case in all short stories.
My other general problems with the series were that it wasn’t frightening, and was often predictable.
Maybe it’s not scary because it’s for younger readers, but I remember being 12. I would have wanted this book to scare me. As I wanted it to scare me as an adult.
As for predictability, each story ended with a reversal or twist. The problem was you could usually see these coming a mile off. Again, I’m an adult, but I’m not sure these would fool many 12 year-olds either.
But, I don’t want to put the series down. There were some decent tales in here and a couple of twists that did take me by surprise.
So, let’s get into it, starting with…
- Bath Night
We open with a story that is well written and paced. Two arguing parents buy an antique bath which turns out to be evil. Isobel (our hero) realises this and attempts to destroy the haunted object.
The story employs a well-worn horror cliche: an object haunted by a killer who once used said object when murdering his victims. How a killer has come to haunt an object they owned is rarely explained by horror writers. Horowitz is not an exception.
There is also the classic YA/Children’s fiction cliche on show here. The evil object only acts up in front of the child, never the parents.
In Bath Night, Isobel is bathing in blood but, when her mother enters the room, it’s back to water.
Dick move, bath. Dick move.
This doesn’t make sense from a plot point of view. The killer is a killer. He has no reason to torment only the child. However, you can understand why writers have so long been using this trick. It keeps the kid isolated, and helps build the suspense. If you can suspend your disbelief, it works well again here.
What doesn’t work so well is the lack of roadblocks the character faces. In fiction writing, they say you should put your character up a tree, throw rocks at them, then let them down. In Bath Time, and many of the stories in this collection, there aren’t enough rocks.
For Isobel, a couple of horrible incidents (including the above) are enough. She heads back to the shop where they purchased the bath and, lo and behold, the first shop assistant she speaks to gives her what she needs. No fight. No needing to check. No lies. He just tells her the bloody history of the bath and sends her on her way.
Of course, this is to keep the story short and helps to contextualise the climax that follows. A climax that, while exciting to an extent, offers little surprises or obstacles for Isobel.
All in all a good story but not much thinking necessary. Don’t expect this to change further down the line.
Out of the collection, this is our Bronze Medal story.
2. Killer Camera
Recently I read Goosebumps’ Say Cheese and Die (released six years before Horowitz Horror).
Killer Camera is in much the same vein as that and is as predictable.
From the moment our hero, Matthew, sees the camera, you know it’s going to be evil. It doesn’t take the seller of the camera saying the owner’s disappeared for you to know bad things will happen to the subject of any pictures.
Like the first story, this is fast-paced. The problem is we want to see the camera in action, and Horowitz goes to some lengths to avoid a human subject. To the point that it just doesn’t ring true.
When Matt first buys the camera and wants to test it out, he doesn’t pick a person at random to photograph; he picks a mirror (which promptly smashes).
When Matt then gives the camera to his dad as a present, the latter professes it is too dark to take a picture of younger son Jamie. This would be fine if not for the fact he then takes a picture of a tree in the garden and the family dog.
Is the tree filled with lanterns? Does the dog have a radioactive glow?
It isn’t explained why it is too dark to take a picture of Jamie but not a dog and tree, and it was a point I found jarring.
However, if you can suspend your disbelief (a common theme in this collection), then there is a lot to like here. Not least the well-executed race against time climax which sees Matt return home to find his parents and brother have gone out with the camera.
Desperate to save them, he races to find them, and the story ends with a nice twist which is clever, dark, and suitably surprising.
3. Light Moves
The first of two first-person stories. A lot here is the same as the first couple of stories. What’s different is that the object of focus does not appear to be inherently evil. In fact, it begins as downright useful.
This time our object is a computer, given to our hero (Henry) after it’s owner (a racing correspondent) has died at his desk.
Not being an axe murderer (Bath Night) or a satanist (Killer Camera) the possessed computer seems less interested in murder. Instead, the ghost of journalist Ethan starts spitting out the winner of one horse race a day.
Why does the columnist’s death give him precognitive powers?
Who knows, maybe the afterlife is timeless. It’s never explained, so we suspend our disbelief again.
In doing this, we have a story that rattles along. The tips work, but Henry is too young to bet. Because of this, he enlists the help of deranged older kid, Bill, to place the bets for him, splitting the winnings.
This, as Henry’s smart friend Leo warns him, is a terrible idea. It is clear from his first appearances that psycho Bill is not someone you want to do business with. But Henry, blinded by greed, is not apt to listen to the warning bells in his head, or to Leo.
Such disregard for the warning signs leads to a climax in which Bill comes to steal the computer. Not much happens here, and the disappointing thing is that our hero steps aside and lets it happen. All this to facilitate a twist we saw coming.
This story is not awful, but neither is it as good as the first two. It has a weak ending, and as in previous tales, some of the devices for moving the plot along are clunky.
How does Henry find out what the word ‘Casablanca’, the first to appear on his screen, means? He walks past two teachers, one telling the other he won money on the horse Casablanca.
Hmm, very likely.
4. The Night Bus
One of a couple of tales where the story is the twist and the twist very good.
Two boys trying to get home after a late night party jump on a night bus which is, alas, not the one from Harry Potter.
The story is nothing more than one of the boys – Nick – watching people get on and off the bus, each arrival further spelling out the twist we got from their first conversation with the conductor upon arriving at the bus.
As such, when this twist is finally ‘revealed’ by the mother, no one is very surprised or interested.
5. Harriet’s Horrible Dream
As above, we all know what’s coming here from very early on. This story has more substance but signals the first of three unbearable POV characters.
In a row.
Now, I’m all for an anti-hero, and characters we ‘love to hate’. Frank Underwood and Patrick Bateman immediately spring to mind.
This story, however, gives us Harriet. A spoilt snobby little girl who revels in getting her nannies fired and who is happy to leave her parents for a stranger the moment her father loses all their money.
The intention here, presumably, is to get us to hate Harriet for reasons that become clear at the end of the tale.
It works, but sitting in Harriet’s head for 18 pages is still an intolerable experience. Especially when we know where we are going the whole time and are not surprised when we reach the end.
The second of three stories with a thoroughly unlikeable main character.
This tale’s only saving grace is that we are stuck in Gary’s head for just 11 pages – making it the shortest of the book.
In those 11 pages, Horowitz treats us to a laundry list of terrible things our ‘hero’ has done. Ranging from being generally awful to his mother and grandmother, to opening a farm gate in the hope the cows will escape.
Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gary admits to having stolen his favourite jacket from AN OXFAM SHOP.
Yeah, Horowitz really wanted us to hate this one.
The story itself is about Gary getting lost after going for a walk. You may not see the ending coming, but neither is it enjoyable. There is no climax, no excitement. Just an underwhelming end.
I would give this tale the esteemed Worst Story Award.
7. A Career in Computer Games
The final (thankfully) hateful character. Here we have an idiot thief whose crimes include (but are not limited to) stealing from his mother and throwing a brick at a cat for no reason.
What a champ.
The story involves our ‘hero’ – Kevin – signing up to test a new game.
It’s evident from the get-go something dodgy is going on, but Kevin isn’t bothered. He hears two grand a week, and signs on the dotted line.
The story from here is as you’d expect. His life becomes a game, and this gives Horowitz the chance to have some fun. He treats us to the most action-packed plot so far as Kevin tries to stay alive against numerous faceless killers on foot, bikes and in helicopters.
There’s not much more to it than that, but the ending involved an enjoyable twist. Yes, he’s in a game, as you expected, but perhaps not in the way you expected.
Not a great story in all, but the action and the last lines bring it well above the two that preceded it.
8. The Man with the Yellow Face
The second of two first-person stories. A boy waiting at a platform gets some pics at a Photo Booth. Upon printing the photos, he finds the third of four pictures is not of him at all, but of an ugly man with a yellow face.
This story proves that lack of pages does not mean a lack of suspense. Horowitz foreshadows the climax brilliantly here, and my heart pounded as I read towards it.
The twist I guessed, but only moments before the reveal, and it was still satisfying.
This story proves it is possible to be clever and build suspense, even over only a few pages. Although the twist is not quite as good as the one to follow, this is still my favourite story.
Our Gold Award Winner.
9. Monkey Ear
A take on the classic tale ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (which is referenced here, albeit attributed to Edgar Allen Poe rather than W. W. Jacobs) but with a nice twist.
The story starts with a family on holiday and not enjoying it. Looking for a taxi rank, they step into a shop. Here the shopkeep’s nephew sells them a Monkey’s Ear, saying it will grant four wishes.
At home father, mother and son, place three wishes, although they don’t believe they will work.
In a way, the ear vindicates their disbelief. Something does happen after each wish, but it seemingly has nothing to do with the request made.
I confess this one got me. I could not for the life of me see how we were getting from wish to result. It was driving me mad.
In the end, and for the first time in this book, I needed the hero to spell it out to me. And, when the child Bart obliged, having worked it out himself after three wishes, I was impressed.
And there was still one wish to go!
Now, with the trick behind the Monkey’s Ear revealed, there is one more surprise in store as father and son fight over who should get the final wish.
Here Horowitz ends on a high point, with the best twist of the series coming right at the end. And this story, following our Gold Award, wins the Silver Medal.
Nothing here will linger in the memory for long. But the series was an easy read and at least somewhat enjoyable throughout.
An excellent way to start the challenge (I started this on Thursday and finished Friday morning) I gave it a 3/5 on Goodreads.
Okay, this time, I promise, it’s time for Lisey’s Story.
As a big Stephen King book, I imagine this could be a world away from what I’ve just read.
We’ll just have to wait and see.