This (s)aint it | Music / Reviews | Coagulopath

St Anger is Metallica’s 8th studio album. It was released in 2003 through Elektra Records, and is famous for being very bad. Worse than previous Metallica albums. Worse than diarrhea. Worse than papercuts. Worse than getting banned from a chat room just when you’re ready to sling a mortally wounding insult. Worse than long trips in a car that’s making a rattling sound. Worse than when the pastor says “now, let’s go a bit deeper into Paul’s contextual usage of ‘divinity’…” at 11:59am on a Sunday morning. Worse than spiders. Worse than Vegemite. Worse than spiders coated in Vegemite. Worse than Vegemite coated in spiders. Worse than hard drive failures. Worse than finishing your Greek homework and realising you forgot the accents. Worse than merging two columns in a 10,000 line database, and the line count is off by one. Worse than people calling the internet “the interbutts”. Worse than puns that aren’t puns (ie, referring to Fox News as “Faux Noose”). Worse than remakes of movies that came out last year. Worse than an old friend wants to catch up and after half an hour of small-talk he says “have you heard of an exciting new business opportunity?” Worse than a friend who tells an unfunny joke and pauses for you to laugh. Worse than filling up your petrol tank from a diesel pump. Worse than knowing that you can’t go to a Halloween party dressed as Charlie Chaplin because everyone will assume you’re Hitler. Worse than holding the bag. Worse than hodling the bag. Worse than having your mother date your high school bully. Worse than having to close your Satanic pedophile ring underneath a pizzeria because people are getting wise. Worse than Googling a computer problem and discovering you’re the first person it’s ever happened to. Worse than realising you were born to play a sport that nobody enjoys. Worse than having a special interest that brings you into contact with nonces. Worse than spontaneously exploding. Worse than biting off half a sushi roll and the seaweed is all ragged and you know there are ragged parts stuck to your teeth. Worse than calling someone “cringe” and then discovering they run a charity for blind dyslexic orphans. Worse than learning enough 3D modeling to notice fake special effects in movies but not enough to be hireable to work on a movie. Worse than being in a Metallica cover band circa 2003. Worse than the 2005 film Elektra. Worse than the fact we’re now 1/4 through Biden’s first term and 80% of all political news stories are still about Trump. Worst than women who describe themselves as “MILFs” when they’re 21 years old. Worse than typing out a 800+ word rebuttal to something that was autogenerated by an AI. Worse than realising you’ve pronounced “hygge” incorrectly for 4 years. Worse than being a Pitchfork hipster and building a time machine and then using it to kill someone other than Hitler because it’s ironic. Worse than being a hand model and your new roommate is a compulsive battle-axe juggler and shuriken collector. Worse than starting something and not finishi

And that was my long 'Syth, whispering to the ground. | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

Imagine if you could combine different writers, the way botanists combine grafts of different trees. For example, David Foster Wallace’s brevity and lucidity, matched with Terry Brooks’ originality, Dean Koontz’s gritty slice-of-life realism, Stephen King’s ability to really stick an ending, and Dan Brown’s prose. Writing involves several different skills, and no writer is a master of all of them. Reading a book often means enjoying one side of the author’s craft and cringing at another.

Frederick Forsyth is a dramatic example of this.  His prose, characterization, and thematic work is bad – some of the worst I’ve ever seen. But his stories are good. And they’re anchored by astounding levels of technical detail.

He had superhuman research abilities. It’s not a figure of speech to say his life depended on them. He wasn’t a tinker or tailor, but at least he was a soldier and spy, and his later career involved flexing the fact-gathering muscles he’d built in the RAF and MI6 (as well as a lengthy career as a journalist in places like Biafra and Nigeria) and using them to write thriller novels. He’s a DND character with some stats set at 10 and others set at 2 or 3. The typical Forsyth story involves him pounding out reams of fascinating and believable technical detail on all sorts of things…while gingerly walking around his story’s human elements like a man on thin ice.

The first story in his “No Comebacks” collection draws a highlighter over his strengths and weaknesses. A wealthy, amoral man falls in love with a married woman, and hatches a plot to have her husband killed. The romance scenes are terrible and barely register as such: Forsyth writes like an entomologist describing a strange insect mating ritual. But as soon as the contract killer plotline starts, Forsyth sparks to life. Here’s how you gather intelligence on someone; here’s how you find a hitman; here’s how you conceal a pistol inside a book, here’s how to modify bullets so they make less sound, and on and on. The quotidian detail builds and then sunders apart in a vicious final snap.

“There Are No Snakes in Ireland” has more mismatched parts. A Punjabi medical student takes a job on a Belfast construction site, and is bullied by a racist foreman. He hatches a plan to kill his persecutor that’s substantially more complex than it has to be, and of course everything goes wrong, or right, or rightfully wrong. The story’s unreal fairytale quality jars against the mundane construction-worker aspects. Forsyth seems most comfortable when describing how to demolish a building.

“The Emperor” is a homage to Hemingway, featuring an exhausting, exhilerating struggle of man-vs-fish on the open waters. Everything around this is silly, particularly the cartoonishly awful wife. Forsyth doesn’t appear to like women much: they seldom feature except as murder victims, nagging shrews, criminal extortionists, and so on. The hero Murgatroyd, like us, happily forgets all of this as soon as he sets out to sea.

“There Are Some Days” is set in Ireland during the Troubles. A truck driver has his lorry hijacked by the Northern Irish mafia, who believe him to be carrying a shipment of brandy. There are multiple misunderstandings and confusions, finally leading to the most effective twist ending in the book. It’s almost the story with the least humanity, it’s almost as if the lorry is the main character. Forsyth’s descriptions of a truck breaking down and being fixed are infinitely more absorbing than any of his romance plots.

“Money With Menace” is about a nebbish, shy man who seems to have come out of a Monty Python sketch about investment bankers. A sexual misadventure (that Forsyth wisely doesn’t try to depict at all) soon leads to an extortion plot. The tension is exciting, and the ending is spoiled in advance. Too bad.

“Used in Evidence” is about a silent old man who has finally been evicted from his squalid terrace apartment. It’s quickly discovered why he didn’t want to leave – there’s a mummified human cadaver behind the fireplace. Has he murdered someone? It’s a blood-freezing tale, with scarcely a trace of humor. It’s very much like Roald Dahl’s stories for grownups, “The Landlady” or whatever.

“Privilege”, by contrast, is as light and insubstantial as a soap bubble. I guess Forsyth heard that you can’t be sued for anything you say in court, and thought he could write a story about this one detail and nothing else.

“Duty” is written in the first-person, with an cautious note from Forsyth that it’s not like the others. I didn’t find it to be that different. It relies on lots of quotidian detail for its effects, weaving together a plot involving mysteries, confusion, secrets, and ambiguous or mistaken identities. It doesn’t have the same knockout punch as “No Comebacks” and “There Are Some Days”, and it’s about an event so far away (both in time and place) from the narrative that it’s hard to care much. It’s like “experiencing” the movie Titanic in the form of two co-workers discussing it ten years after seeing it. Interestingly mainly for the day-to-day details about rural Ireland.

“A Careful Man” is about a dead millionaire who plays a prank on his hated inlaws from beyond the grave. Similar to The Wrong Box and many other squabble-at-the-graveside type stories. There’s more meat to it than “Privilege”, but it’s ultimately a similar tale, ending in poetic justice. The moral seems to be “the law is an ass, so why not go for a ride on it?”

“Sharp Practice” involves a judge who is cozened into a game of poker by a man who – by coincidence, just one day later – he has in the dock for running a card scam. An elaborate story, with Forsyth immersing the reader in poker and having it seem like a fascinating, self-contained universe. Terry Pratchett said that the secret to a magic trick is to know just one extra fact. Here, there’s one fact that the judge doesn’t know, and also one fact that the reader doesn’t know. A fun story, although I guessed the twist a few pages before it came.

It's just laym, mon | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath

The Cellar (1980) is among the worst books I’ve read recently, and definitely the stupidest. Everyone in it seems to have brain damage. I gave up trying to decipher the motivation [insert person] has for performing [insert action]; it never made sense. Does it even have a single murder? All the characters legally qualify as vegetables.

It’s an obvious beneficiary of the 70s Stephen King horror boom; Warner Books were clearly just waving through every manuscript with scary monsters at this point. The Cellar became a minor classic in spite of itself, and an important early example (along with Jack Ketchum’s Off Season) of “extreme horror”, or “splatterspunk”: books where the point is gore and shocking sex acts. Yes ma’am, Laymon paved the way for the luminous literary talents of Edward Lee, JF Gonzalez, James “Wrath” White, and several other guys who should probably just quit and take up landscaping jobs.

Everything about The Cellar is just bad. Its only redeeming quality is that Laymon doesn’t seem like a cynic. He was probably trying his damndest to write a good book, he just wasn’t any good at it. Generally, books make you ask questions. Who’s lying? Who’s the murderer? Will the dog survive? Here, the main question I was asking was this: if the book starts drooling and ruins my upholstery, can I sue the Laymon estate for damages?

The opening scene is straight out of Goosebumps. It’s night, and a hard-headed father drags his fraidy-cat son to the creepy local mansion to prove that there’s No Such Thing As Monsters. There is, in fact, a monster inside, and it kills both of them along with an irrelevant cop character who seems to have wandered into the book by accident. The beast is described as white, with a snout. What sort of snout, though? A dog’s? A pig’s? Lots of animals have snouts, Laymon, and they all look different. I don’t magically know what the monster looks like, just because it has a snout. You need to use words to paint a picture here.

The mansion (we learn) is called the Beast House, and has been the site of many slayings across seventy years. Two men form an unlikely partnership to solve the mystery. One of them, Larry is a traumatized basket case who was literally anally raped by the monster (what?). The other is a badass Rambo-esque former spec forces operative whose name is “Judgement”, in a typically subtle touch from Laymon. The two men journey to the Beast House, and begin a long process of researching the town’s history. Is there really a monster inside the Beast House? Or is it all an elaborate hoax?

You probably see the problem. We already know the monster’s real – we saw it in the opening scene – so this is just wasted time. We spend literally half the book impatiently drumming our fingers, waiting for characters to figure out stuff that’s known to us.

The book’s secondary plotline is even worse. A woman called Donna receives a phone call. Her husband has been released from prison. She puts down the phone, packs her daughter into a car, and drives them far away, never to return. Her behavior seems so over-the-top and irrational that I wondered if Donna might be crazy, suffering from paranoid delusions. Maybe her husband’s just a normal guy, or nonexistent. That would have been interesting path to go down. A daughter trying to survive a clinically insane mother who has her trapped in a car.

…But no, her husband Roy’s a child-molesting mega-psycho who randomly kills every third or fourth person he sees and is tracking them down like the Terminator. The first rule of Laymon: if there’s a choice between a smart idea and a dumb idea, he always, always, always goes with the dumb idea.

Roy is perhaps the stupidest villain I’ve ever encountered. He has no motivation aside from raping and murdering his family. He’s stunningly incautious; he travels in a straight line from prison to the family home, discovers they’ve left, and flies into a rage at the nearest neighbor (causing them to call the cops). The guy’s a moron, and it’s implausible that he remains uncaught for five minutes. He couldn’t order a hot dog without attracting an all-points bulletin.

Donna appears to have no plan whatsoever. She drives and drives, crashes her car in a ditch near the town containing the mansion, and then hooks up (literally) with Larry and Judgement, finally joining them on their quest to solve the Beast House’s non-mysterious mystery. There’s some skeevy Skinemax-level shit where she puts on a swimsuit and both the guys ogle her. I was impressed that, while running from her psychotic husband, she found time to pack a swimsuit.

The sex scenes deserve to be quoted at length. He mounted me from behind, a manner unusual for humans as it is customary among many lower animals. At the first touch of his organ, fear wrenched my vitals, not for the safety of my flesh but for my everlasting soul. And yet I allowed him to continue. I know, now, that no power of mine could have prevented him from having his will with me. I made no attempt to resist, however. On the contrary, I welcomed his entry. I hungered for it as if I somehow presaged its magnificence. Oh Lord, how he plundered me! How his claws tore my flesh! How his teeth bore into me! How his prodigious organ battered my tender womb. How brutal he was in his savagery, how gentle his heart. This is written in the voice of a woman circa 1900, but still, yikes.

The plot twists in stupid directions, impervious to any logic yet discovered by mankind. I wonder whether Laymon ever wrote an actual ending – maybe I have to buy one of his other books to read it. He wrote a lot of them, their titles providing a fair summary of his unique, inspired take on the horror genre. Nightmare Lake. Night Show. Midnight’s Lair. Endless Night. After Midnight. The Midnight Tour. Come Out Tonight. Friday Night in Beast House. Night in the Lonesome October. Night Games. Night Ride. The Night Creature. You can kinda see him cycling through every permutation in the dictionary. He died in 2001, so the world will never see The Dark Midnight or The Night at Night, or The Night Tonight at Midnight.

Check out The Cellar to see just how bad 80s horror got. If Stephen King’s Carrie is “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, Richard Laymon’s The Cellar is “No Way No Way” by Vanilla. Once, it was thought, horror called for understatement. The scares were more in what the reader didn’t see. Thank God Laymon and his copycats were there to show us the truth: real horror is about having sex with an animal atop a pile of mutilated corpses with their viscera arranged in a pentagram. Along with a detective story where you already know the answer. I’d have loved to have seen him screenwrite Twin Peaks: he’d probably tell us who killed Laura Palmer before she even dies.