Novel November

The Most Disappointing Novels I Ever Read

by Michael Channing

I try to read only good books, but sometimes even the best authors let you down, and sometimes circumstances require you to read a god-awful piece of dreck. Bad movies you can mock and enjoy for their dreadfulness, but bad books are like boat anchors on your soul, dragging you down into cold, lightless depths. Here are a few times I found myself struggling to breathe and fighting for the surface against the pressing weight of bad fiction.

Blood Beast by Don d'Ammassa
Blood Beast by Don d'Ammassa

I bought this paperback because of the awesome gargoyle on the cover. I thought it looked pretty badass and evil, ready to rip up some innocent townsfolk, toss their shredded corpses from the church parapet then swoop down to grab up the next wailing victim. But that didn't happen in the book. At lest not for over two hundred pages. This thing has a slow, slow build, like Jim Jarmusch on Robitussin. The gargoyle is there but mostly it spreads its evil the way a trash heap spreads its stink. People interact, argue, fall in love, go to PTA meetings, have barbecues, all while the monster does a perfect impression of a statue because that's what it is. (I actually don't remember what the people do in this book, except that they take their freaking time doing it.) The titular beast finally starts drawing blood in the final few dozen pages, but by that time I was sick of reading about the people and their decidedly monster-free lives. I only finished it because I'd spent my own hard-earned allowance on the thing, and I knew from painful experience that the local store called Book Trader did not actually swap books one-for-one.

I bought Blood Beast when I was young. I seriously loved the monster on the embossed cover and was disappointed when it turned out not to be the best way to judge the book. You'd think I would have learned my lesson, but years later along came...

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Stephen King does not have a perfect track record. Tommyknockers, Rose Madder, Dreamcatcher: these are not good books. That's to be expected, though. With any highly prolific artist, be it the Beatles or even Shakespeare, you're bound to find a few lumps of coal among the diamonds. So the name Stephen King on the cover of a novel does not always guarantee greatness. But seeing the tagline “The Dark Tower” followed by a Roman numeral on a Stephen King cover meant it was gonna be good. At least for the first four installments. After the very good Wizard and Glass, Stephen King nearly died, and we had six years of wondering if the series would ever continue. Then, finally, after a series of mostly mediocre books, we Constant Readers finally got Volume V: Wolves of the Calla. And I, for one, was extremely let down.

There’s a lot wrong with this book. The pacing is way off. We get a couple of long flashback sequences, including one of Father Callahan, a character last seen in ’Salem’s Lot, and his battle with vampires that really has nothing to do with the plot of this story. We get clarification on a couple of events seen in previous volumes, which is fine, but it’s done in such a shoddy, deus ex machina-style manner. The characters receive this information by going into a state called todash. Todash is a between-the-universes, time-travel type of weird space reachable via various routes; our characters get there by eating some magic mushrooms. This would be fine if Stephen King hadn’t just pulled this out of his ass and pretended it had existed all along. I was confused and angry for many pages, trying to remember if any characters had this ability in previous books, questioning my own sanity. But the biggest sin this book commits is to repaint the character of Roland the Gunslinger. Everyone the characters meet in this book treats Roland as a saint, a savior, a white knight. In the previous books he had been very much a gray knight. He had no qualms about allowing a child to die or murdering the entire population of a town if it happened to stand between him and the Tower. But here he’s treated like any other do-gooder from any other fable. I absolutely hated this recasting of his character. I didn’t like seeing him dance either. It was silly, boring, long-winded, and utterly pointless to see him partake in a dance ritual. Most of the previous book had been an aside. The quest toward the Tower stopped so Roland could tell a story from his past. It was a good story, a gripping story, a very sad and poignant story. But it was a plot-stopper. We did not need another in the middle of this book so the townsfolk could worship and hang out with Roland and he could do a little dance.

I had such high hopes for this book. It's pretty much seven hundred pages of filler that hardly moves the quest along at all. The two books that follow are not all that better. The final climax is weak, and the denouement is a thumb in the eye of all the Constant Readers who waited for years on bated breath, praying for a peek inside the fabled Tower.

The Reivers by William Faulkner
The Reivers by William Faulkner

I read this book because I had to. It was a summer reading requirement in junior high, along with Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. I had been putting off the required reading because it was required, and I only had (ahem) one day to read both books. So I started with what sounded like the easiest and funnest. Reading the jacket cover, I figured the book would be a hoot. It described a kid and an adult who steal a car, steal a horse (making them reivers, since to reive means to steal), have adventures and run-ins with the law, and basically come of age the way kids in books do.

Except this is a book by William Faulkner, and he simply cannot tell a simple story in a simple way. This was the first time I'd ever encountered stream of consciousness writing, and I was confused and angry when a character walked out onto the street and suddenly the contents of his pocket, the history of his watch, and how he got his pocket change dominated the next two pages. Why am I reading this? Who cares? Over and over you get these pointless pontifications on useless details that get in the way of the story and yank you out of any connection with the characters. I slogged through that book in one long, punishing afternoon, barely able to hold on to any detail from the narrative because there were so damn many, and they were all treated as being equally important. Later in college I read The Sound and the Fury which cemented my absolute hatred for William Faulkner. If there's one way for a writer to piss me off, it's to intentionally make it difficult for me to know who is speaking or thinking or what the hell is physically going on in the story. Be mysterious, make me work to find and figure out symbols, amaze me with images and metaphors, but for the love of literature do not make me parse a three-page sentence to figure out that the shapes and shadows you're describing are really two people playing golf in the front yard. There is nothing you can say to make me believe Faulkner is more than a waste of perfectly good paper.

Elmer Gantry was pretty danged good, though.

Possession by A. S. Byatt
Possession by A. S. Byatt

This is another stream of consciousness novel that piles on unnecessary details to describe every scene and object, and explaining historical events that are supposed to give meaning to the present but really just bog down the momentum of the story and make you wonder if the writer even knows what the backspace button does. This was another required reading, this time for a college class, and I tried to get through it. But the book just sat on my head and crushed it. For two weeks I kept quiet during class discussions, pretending I'd done the reading, trying to glean from the conversation what the book was about. I was somehow able to get away with it.

A couple of semesters later, I looked at the reading list of my new class on post-modern fiction, and guess what I saw there. This same damn book. So for another two weeks I struggled under the oppressive weight of this terrible, terrible book, again pretending to read it when what I really did was curse it and give it the finger every day.

Maybe I should give the book another try, come at it again with an open mind. But I honestly don't think I can. I only picked it up because I had to, and yes that is a viable way to discover something good, but with all the books in existence I actually long to read, climbing back under that mountain is probably not going to happen. I read three new Joe R. Lansdale books last year; Robert R. McCammon has a good half-dozen in his catalog I haven't gotten to yet; plus these guys are still going strong; and there are literally hundreds of other books that all sound like something I might enjoy more than a novel that takes two pages to describe a door. You fill the few precious hours of your life with things that give you pleasure. If Possession has entertained or enlightened a few people, then the author did her job. It just didn't work for me.

old timey typewriter

Some Novels I Have Enjoyed

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

November 3, 2017