A Classic that Looms Large in Science Fiction Horror

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Who Goes There? (The Thing) by John W. Campbell

5 star

5 Stars

Originally published by John W. Campbell as a novella in the August 1938 edition of the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction under the pen name Don A. Stuart, “Who Goes There?” spawned the body horror fiction subgenre and three versions of the movie The Thing. The plot is familiar to millions of fans of the 1982 John Carpenter film. Campbell pioneered the concept of an alien creature that invades and assimilates human hosts and then kills them as it jumps from host to host. The story’s theme has been replicated in dozens of movies and books from horror classics like The Blob and The Fly to zombie apocalypses. “Who Goes There?” is arguably the granddaddy of them all.

Campbell’s story is timeless. Its narrative is filled with scientific theories and observations about human behaviors still valid eight decades later. Some of the technology and language he used is dated, but much of the plot is relevant and has been retold in other tales of horror both modern and classic. The ending in this story is different from what The Thing movie fans would expect, but the characters like the pilot, MacReady, are all too familiar.

“Who Goes There?” deserves five stars and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys science fiction, horror, and contemporary classic literature.

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Fifty Shades of Awful

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Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

2 star

2 Stars

I read “Fifty Shades of Grey” to figure out why this work of fan fiction inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series had become such an overnight sensation. After all, thousands, if not millions of fans have written pieces inspired by their favorite stories. Why did E.L. James’ trilogy that kicks off with this book become so popular that it’s sold millions of copies and soon will be made into a major motion picture?

I have to conclude that it’s not because of the writing. As many reviewers, professional and personal, have pointed out, it’s not because James produced a literary classic. Au contraire, most who give the books high marks are apologists that sidestep the issue of her writing – the obvious similarities to “Twilight” characters, hackneyed clichés invoked ad nauseum, Britishisms in Seattle, even typos (I found two). By the end of the book, one more bite of Ana’s lip or Victorian gasp could turn any reader into Christian Grey with a riding crop ready to teach some grammar lessons.

So if it’s not the writing, why are readers buying millions of copies of this mediocre book? I have a few theories. One, “Fifty Shades” have become a proxy for the fifth book in the “Twilight” series that Meyers may never write until she’s enticed by a publisher to write a sequel to “Breaking Dawn.” Until then, fans can channel their post-Bella and Edward letdown into Ana and Christian mania and turn “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” into “Team Ana” and “Team Christian.”

Two, “Fifty Shades” ups the ante with a subject, Bondage/Domination/Sadomasochism (BDSM), that surpasses paranormal romance in its scintillating attraction as a forbidden fruit one secretly enjoys as a guilty indulgence. What was once aplomb with buzz, paranormal romance, is now the new normal, and James has pushed the boundaries of the mainstream by taking extreme romance to a whole new level. It’s easy to imagine that the post-“Fifty Shades” world lies in the hand of a Christian Grey fan who, as I type, is writing the next book sensation continuing the saga of Bella and Edward, Ana and Christian in a sort of rebirth that would make the Wachowski siblings of “Cloud Atlas” twinge with jealousy. Perhaps an alien romance taking humans to farther extremes awaits us in the near future after this series runs its course.

The brouhaha around “Fifty Shades of Grey” is certainly not because of the writing. I give it two stars and a caution to anyone who doesn’t read paranormal or BDSM romance but wants to check out what all the hype is about. Just leave it be.

Fifty Shades of Grey  is now available at:



The Night Circus is Magical but Meanders

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

4 star

4 Stars

Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus” is the enchanting tale of two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who are mortally bound to one another in a magic competition where the outcome preordains that only one of them will survive. Forced into a rivalry created by their mentors, the magicians Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H_, who groom and equip their young protégés with magic abilities to use in a final confrontation, Celia and Marco find themselves inextricably in love. The enigmatic Night Circus that moves around the world from city to city and is only open to the public at night serves as the forum for this game to which the two young magicians are unwillingly a part.

Morgenstern has a gift for descriptive language that paints intricate images of the characters and scene settings. The story’s magical theme extends to the author’s writing as she slips in vague references and sleights of hand to describe the scene in unexpected ways. Her skillful use of point of view and second-person present tense makes the story all the more fanciful. Her prose is captivating. The author’s ability to migrate the story from different perspectives and places makes it all the more compelling, although it can be an exercise in patience keeping all the perspectives, characters, places, and dates straight.

The story has moments of greatness, from the formation of the circus and the untimely deaths of some of its actors to a fascinating, surprise conclusion. However, the narrative at times stagnates as Morgenstern devotes substantial space to painting scenes in such vivid detail that it detracts from the plot. One can spend pages trying to decipher which information is relevant to the story or is extraneous. It leaves the reader wondering why some details were included when they seemingly lead to dead ends. The storyline plods along so long that Morgenstern rushes to bring it to an uncharacteristically messy conclusion. The narrative’s fits, starts, stops, and pickups may leave readers with the impression that novel is not unlike a wood-fired, iron horse locomotive struggling to pull the Night Circus’ boxcars up a steep mountain pass en route to their next destination.

Morgenstern’s writing is indeed magical. For that I give “The Night Circus” four stars and recommend her novel to anyone with an interest in magic, the darker arts, or a great example of using allusion and imagery. The book won’t disappoint.

The Night Circus is now available at: