Top 5 Most Frightening Scenes In Stephen King Books


Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.

5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”

This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.

Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.

The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…


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Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.


Nevada in 2042

Nevada had always been a magnet for kooks. Misfits, outcasts, miscreants, mavericks–the malcontents, the fantasists, the seekers of shortcuts. Born of mining boom and bust, the economy was founded on vice: prizefighting, loose women, drunkenness, gambling, and marital fecklessness. Even before going it alone, the state was an outlier, making it all too easy to get married, easier still to divorce. Alcohol was plied twenty-four hours a day. A lenient relationship to prostitution well predated the era in which Savannah was able to earn an accredited community college degree in stimulation therapy. Real cigarettes–or giant, smelly cigars. for that matter–were legal in casinos. A prohibition against state income tax was enshrined in its constitution. In 2042, Nevadans had merely formalized that they were a people apart. 

–Lionel Shriver, The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, page 382

Literature: The Major Art Form of Western Civilization

The special thing about literature, the major art form of a Western civilization now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettinesses, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant. Only literature can grant you access to a spirit from beyond the grave–a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak so openly as when we face a blank page and address an unknown reader.

–Michel Houellebecq, Submission


Fans of H.P. Lovecraft May Not Want To Read This

This week I was thinking of something I read somewhere, that much of what we think of as “Lovecraftian” doesn’t really come from the works of Lovecraft. It’s true. Most of his work is not horror fiction as we think of it; his style has that ring to it, but the plots tend to be be of different genres.

Most of his major work is really more science fiction. The rest is a mix of weird Gothic, some is dark fantasy, and, sure, some is just horror. But he jumps around, blends genres, and covers his main body of work under the very broad umbrella of speculative fiction.

Basically, he’s Dean Koontz.

There, I said it. Let the rioting begin.



A Great Essay: “How It Feels To Be Colored Me”

220px-Hurston-Zora-Neale-LOCOne of my favorite essays is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 personal reflection “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.”

It’s rightly honored as a classic for many reasons, but one thing about it that doesn’t get enough attention is its humor. Hurston has so much confidence and clarity that she’s empowered to laugh at aspects of life that depress others. Parts of this serious social criticism essay are really quite funny.

That clarity and confidence in her outlook on life present a powerful challenge to the prevailing attitudes today, and offer a very positive role model for all of us. But I digress; this isn’t a political post.

As literature, her writing is just superb. Consider the eleventh paragraph in the essay (the linked version is numbered). It crafts an extended metaphor that viscerally builds a sense of dizzying, pulse-pounding abandon. The style perfectly matches the topic.

But then check out the contrast between that sprawling rave of a paragraph with the short punch of paragraph twelve. The stylistic difference there highlights the difference between her reaction to music and her friend’s reaction. It’s glorious.

There are plenty of other reasons to love this essay, besides those three. Just to give one more great thing about Hurston, though, is this: if you merely remove one little letter “r” from her last name, it becomes even better !  :)

Illustrating Hemingway

I just found this great video that narrates and illustrates Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” Joyce said of it: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, which is what every writer strives to do. Have you read ‘A Clean Well-Lighted Place’?…It is masterly. Indeed, it is one of the best short stories ever written…” I agree.

Bookworm Adventures

I’m not a big video game guy, but I really love Bookworm Adventures. It’s a cartoony, Scarbble-esque game where you combat literary-themed enemies (Cyclops, Dracula, etc.) by making words out of random letters. The better the word, the more powerful the attack.

A few nights ago I played a bit with some of my kids gathered around me, and we made quite a team. Fun fr the whole family!

There’s plenty of humor in the game, and there’s even a sequel that’s heavy on science fiction.

Totally worth it, especially if you live around here, where the library has it for free!

Highly Recommended: Mockingbird

51IwBRUAXyL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_I think I’ve found a new favorite science fiction novel. Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis, is “set in a grim and decaying New York City in the 25th century. The population is declining, no one can read, and robots rule over the drugged, illiterate humans. With the birth rate dropping, the end of the species seems a possibility.”

The most amazing thing about this story is just how uncanny its dystopian vision is. Combine the most prescient parts of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World and you have this. Actually, it mostly reminded me of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but where that was just a skeleton of a fable, this is fully fleshed out.

I marked a couple of dozen passages about stupified dependency, obsession with self-fulfillment, and the joys of rediscovering civilization; there are just too many to quote. Instead, here is a picture of one page, where the hero shares a passage from a history book that explains how the world fell. I got chills. This was published in 1980. He saw where things were going perfectly.


It’s not just a simple tale of society falling apart, though. There’s genuine love and adventure and sadness. Part of it is a Shawshank Redemption-like prison story. Part is wilderness survival. And there’s even more than that.

Just as with another great dystopian sci-fi classic, The Children of Men (which was also about the decline of the human family), there is one f-bomb, powerful for its lone status. At one point, a suicidal robot tells a pregnant woman that she should have an abortion. Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly approve of her response.

R.I.P. Trump

The word, of course, not the celebrity. It’s become appallingly clear that we can no longer use the verb “trump” literally, as in “My evidence trumps yours,” because of the taint associated with the name now. A sad loss. It was a great word.

I don’t expect it to be resurrected any time soon. Several years later, I still can’t refer to that darkening period at the end of the day–“twilight”–without students giggling. And don’t even try to address an issue by suggesting that it has “shades of gray.”

Two Great Shakespeare Documentaries

Miramax recently put online their “Shakespeare in the Classroom” feature, produced as part of the 1999 film Shakespeare in Love. This is great news for teachers whose VHS copies died long ago. The 45-minute intro to the Bard has the cast doing the heavy lifting, with enough scenes from the film that it’s especially useful for illustrating Romeo and Juliet, though any Shakespeare unit benefits from it. Also, check out how stupid young Ben Affleck looks with that goatee.

Sadly, just the opposite has happened to the great four-hour documentary In Search of Shakespeare (really, four episodes of an hour each). Any copy of it on YouTube is being deleted. It’s worth your time to track down a copy.

One major strain of thought in it is an attempt to show that Will was a closet Catholic, and I have to admit, they marshal quite an impressive bit of evidence for it. I also enjoyed the host–his boyish enthusiasm for every scene really kept me drawn in. In between scenes, too, this film has more beautiful, lush shots of the English countryside than you’d expect from an actual documentary about the English countryside. Just a gorgeous work.

“It All Matters”

          It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

          What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.

          What is worth dying for is barely noticed.

–Laura McBride, We Are Called to Rise


Highly Recommended: The World’s Strongest Librarian

51HOYIpg0PL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_From this book’s Amazon description: “A funny and uplifting story of how a Mormon kid with Tourette’s found salvation in books and weight lifting.” What’s not to like? Here’s what appealed to me about each part of that summary:

FUNNY: Josh Hanagarne is a natural comedian. His panache for characterization and anecdote are evident on nearly every page, and his memoir is filled with plenty of amusing characters and anecdotes–most chapters start with stories about his work in libraries, which reminded me of the McSweeney’s feature “Dispatches From a Public Librarian,” which I also loved.

UPLIFTING: This is no Hallmark movie. There’s an unvarnished–but still generally lighthearted–feel to this story that does leave you feeling positive about things.

MORMON: Spoiler: Josh ends the book not active in the church, but he is never bitter about it; there’s no axe to grind here. Instead, all of his descriptions of Mormons are positive. He even relates a couple of earlier spiritual experiences and doesn’t try to downplay them–they’re still very real to him. That’s rare and wonderful. Alas, his only references to the Book of Mormon are to lament how boring it is, though.

TOURETTE’S: Josh handles the telling of his experiences with Tourette’s with the same deft narrating that strengthens his humor as well.

BOOKS: I’ll love most anything that name drops as many great titles as lovingly as this book does. Josh has some great taste. I also loved his ecstatic passion for libraries.

WEIGHT LIFTING: Just as with the humor, religion, and Tourette’s, his stories of working out are enthusiastically entertaining, especially the segments towards the end of the book with his main trainer, a perfectly amusing, realistic, and inspiring character.

This is also a fine memoir about a young man starting a family, and loving every tedious and frustrating moment that entails. So really, this book has it all.



Pocket Classics Comics From 1984

booksThis was a series of books produced in the 70’s by Pendulum Press. They were comic book versions of classics, done in the style that I always think of as soap opera-serious: severe black and white line drawings meant to communicate reality, accompanied by typed, not printed, dialogue.

In 1984, their parent company Academic Industries released the whole collection–including a sub-series of biographies–as a giant 100-volume or so set of tiny paperbacks.

My older brother got it for me, and that was my introduction to the world of literature. (In fact, I remember him keeping the Beatles biography for himself, and it was searching for that part of the set that finally led me to finding this info online now–so thanks!) Man, I loved those books. Many of them I read until they literally fell apart (the glue in their small spines, alas, was not strong).

These little comics were not dumbed down “Classics Illustrated” titles–they were mature and serious (or at least they felt so to elementary me). I feel like reading them legitimately prepared me to understand the original classics as I got older. Believe it or not, they truly were educational and fun.

At some point, I felt that such a set was childish and they were given away, but I’d love to have them again now. I wish my own children had access to these. I’ve checked, and nobody seems to have a set of them, not eBay, not any vendor–no more than just a handful at a time. It was a beautiful set, but it wasn’t built to last, I guess.

Isn’t this what Google Books is for? Where are they?