Book Review: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Stephen King_MrMercedes
A quick snap of the book on my way out. Pardon the lack of artistry in the image. I promise the book is better than the photo.

When it comes to the horror genre, few writers can hold a candle to Stephen King. There’s a reason why both fans and critics alike refer to King as the undisputed King of Horror or the Grand Master of Horror Fiction. He’s just that good. For many of us horror fans who grew up in the 90s, Stephen King has managed to instill in us both a fear of clowns and a love for terrifying reads that will have us begging our parents for a night light or to check under our beds for imaginary monsters that reside solely and spectacularly in our heads.

There’s something to be said about how well Stephen King manages to turn the creature comforts and the reality of small-town living into something sinister and nightmarish. Birthday clowns and balloons? Here’s a creepy killer clown with a red balloon. Family vacation in a hotel? Madness, mayhem, and murder, or rather bloody Redrum. Man’s best friend? How about a friendly nip from Cujo? And as if high school bullying and getting your period for the first time weren’t horrible enough, King had to up the ante with Carrie’s murderous rampage. I still can’t look at tampons in the grocery store without imagining a gaggle of teenage girls screaming, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

In Mr. Mercedes, King does it again. This time with a psychopathic killer computer repairman/ice cream truck driver. Except, there’s a twist. There’s nothing paranormal about Mr. Mercedes. No, this isn’t another one of King’s horror bestsellers, though I assure you that it’s just as terrifying as his scariest books. In this 2014 starter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King ventures into the territory of mystery and hard-boiled detective fiction. And man, it’s definitely a nail-biter.

***Possible spoilers ahead***

The book starts out in the parking lot of a sports stadium in the Midwest, where thousands of desperate jobseekers are expected to line up for a chance at a job—any job will do. It’s 2009 and the recession has hit the United States really hard. The early birds camp out before dawn, squeezing themselves into the spiraling queue, trying desperately to keep warm on that chilly spring day. As cars begin to fill up the stadium’s massive parking lot, one vehicle stands out. It emerges from the mist in all its shining grey glory—a Mercedes SL 500. The lights of its headlamps cut through the morning fog before the car revs up and goes straight for the crowd, killing eight people and injuring over a dozen more. It’s a terrible image but an effective one. It’s one heck of a potent symbol for the inequality experienced by the working class, often under the hands of their rich employers.

In the next chapter, King fast-forwards to months after the crime. Here, we meet Bill Hodges, the book’s protagonist. As far as crime fiction clichés go, this book carries some big ones. Hodges is a retired and divorced lead detective who is profoundly unhappy with his newfound ‘freedom.’ He sits in front of the telly, day-in and day-out, occasionally contemplating suicide. One fateful afternoon, Hodges gets a letter from the stadium killer who calls himself, Mr. Mercedes. The letter is heavy-handed and an obvious taunt for Hodges to kill himself—after all, the Det. Ret. did fail to solve the biggest case of his career. Of course, it does just the opposite for Hodges. It fires him up, and we all know that a desperate man is always a dangerous one.

Now, because this isn’t a whodunnit ala Agatha Christie, King discloses the identity of the killer early on. It’s 28-year old Brady Hartsfield—the bland and forgettable computer repairman and ice cream truck driver with mommy issues and a dark, dark past. Months after successfully evading the cops, Hartfield is feeling restless for his next kill. He could have gotten off scot-free, but instead, he makes the mistake of targeting Bill Hodges. It’s game on between the detective and Mr. Mercedes.

Throw in a few more clichés—a beautiful love interest, (Janey Patterson), who inspires Hodges to fight harder, an unlikely duo as his crime-fighting partners, (teenage tech master Jeremy Robinson and anxiety-riddled genius Holly Gibney)—and you might think it’s going to be a predictable story. Except you’d be forgetting one thing: It’s Stephen King. Fresh and terrible twists are his forte. Just when you think you know where Mr. Mercedes is headed, the book careens off the usual path, starting you down on the fast lane and keeping you on the edge of your seat the entire ride.

Mr. Mercedes is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase that has a plethora of strong and well-written characters. While the book may not delve too deep into their backgrounds—barring Brady Hartsfield, of course, who might be evil to the core but knowable through his trauma and childhood experiences—we still get a good feel of why each character is the way he/she is. Personally, I really like the character development of Holly Gibney. We see a lot of growth in her character without compromising too much of her personality. As for the inevitable and trademark Stephen King scares, well, let’s just say that there’s enough unsettling and stomach-turning imagery to satisfy the most gore-loving of readers—this one included.

All in all, Mr. Mercedes is one heck of a page-turner and one that I’d recommend to all fellow Stephen King, horror, and crime fiction fans.

Rating: A

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

american gods_gaiman

Title: American Gods

Author: Neil Gaiman

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi

First Published: 2001

Pages: 588

**Winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards**

For some reason, I have long associated Neil Gaiman with the masterful storytellers of old. Not necessarily Shakespeare, though Gaiman does have a unique writing voice that basks quite comfortably between poetry and prose. Maybe dead-center between Dickinson’s nebulous metaphors and Palahniuk’s gut-churning and pulse-racing straightforwardness. In my head, Gaiman joins the ranks of the literary colossi that aspiring fantasy writers look up to.

Gaiman is among those rare breed of writers who can gather existing ideas and create something uniquely their own. In American Gods, Gaiman plucks out his characters from the pool of forgotten deities, breathing new life into each one to partake in this fast-paced and epic novel.

The story commences the way most novels today begin, with an empty-handed protagonist with seemingly nothing to live for. Shadow, our unlikely hero, is a 30-something convict, who patiently counts the days to his release from prison. He promises himself, no more shenanigans. All he wants, after all, is to spend the rest of his life in quiet anonymity with his pretty wife, Laura. A day or two before he gets out, he receives news that his beloved wife has been killed in a car accident, alongside his best friend, who had promised him a steady job after Shadow’s stint in jail.

His release date is pushed forward to allow Shadow to attend his wife’s funeral. En route to Laura’s burial, he meets a strange and pushy conman, who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. He offers Shadow a job, which our protagonist tries to turn down. A series of unsettling events that culminate in drunken fisticuffs with an odd fellow, who calls himself Mad Sweeney, has Shadow finally agreeing to become Wednesday’s bodyguard.

Shadow soon learns that there’s much more to his employer than he lets on. As they travel across America, he discovers that Wednesday is no mere mortal. The odd and ageless conman is apparently a manifestation of Odin, the Old Norse All-Father. Wednesday had employed Shadow to help him recruit American incarnations of the almost-forgotten gods of ancient mythologies, to help him fight a war against the continent’s “new gods.” Like Wednesday/Odin, many of these “old gods” appear to be fading in existence as the people’s belief in them wanes over time. Shadow meets many of these antiquated idols, including Czernobog, Mad Sweeney (Suibhne), Mr. Nancy (Anansi), the Zorya Sisters, Mr. Jaquel (Anubis), and Mr. Ibis (Thoth).

Although these deities recognize the danger posed by the “New American Gods” – Media, The Technical Boy (Technology), The Black Hats (Men in Black), and the Intangibles—most of them are reluctant to partake in Wednesday’s risky war. They would rather fend for their existence by gaining worship from mortals by any means possible.

Wednesday, who appears to be always one step ahead of every situation, wrangles Shadow into an agreement that should he perish, Shadow would be the one to hold his vigil—which includes a reenactment of Odin’s time hanging from a “World Tree.” To avoid further bloodshed, Wednesday agrees to meet with the “new gods,” but is murdered in the process. This act of Wednesday’s ‘sacrifice’ is enough to rally the rest of the “old gods” to participate in one final, epic battle against the “new gods.” As Shadow holds vigil for Wednesday/Odin, he discovers that he was a mere pawn in Wednesday’s pursuit of power. It is now up to him to put a stop to the carnage that lies ahead for all the deities participating in the war.

A Reader’s Reaction

There’s a special place on my bookshelf for all things Neil Gaiman. Because, save for a few shorts, which I found to be so-so, I generally enjoy everything that Gaiman releases. Like Nick Hornby and Chuck Palahniuk (except for Pygmy), Gaiman is a go-to when I find myself yearning to devour stellar fiction. Though not my favorite work from the author, American Gods provided a very satisfying reading experience. I don’t think I need to gush about the book’s tone and research, as the author is very adept in both.

Perhaps the minor grievance, (for I assure you, reader, it is very minor), that I have about the work has to do with its characters. In terms of character development, I’ve found Shadow, Wednesday, Mr. Nancy, Laura, and even Loki, to be very well-written, very fleshed out. But I also thought the piece to be a bit too convoluted, visibly crammed with deities I didn’t have time to fully appreciate. At times, the novel read like a who’s-who of ancient mythology.

Now, I know, I know. The truncated story lines and character breeze-throughs were necessary, because at 588 pages long, American Gods is pushing Stephen King and GRR Martin territory. I know, I know, that Gaiman couldn’t possibly flesh out every character, as he runs the risk of running out of pages and ruining the main course. But still licking my chops, tasting the vestiges of Joe Hill’s eminently filling, N0S4A2, I can’t help but wonder if a bit of restraint could have made American Gods a little more fluid. Would it improve flow if we had less characters to contend with? Or perhaps a glossary at the end? (My copy doesn’t have one, but feel free to correct me if later editions do.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, I suppose. As I do love American Gods. And I do recommend it to every literature hound that’s come across this post.

Grade: A+

Book #3: The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula

THE SECRET LIFE OF LASZLO, COUNT DRACULA

Author: Roderick Anscombe
Genre: Fiction; Horror/Thriller
First Published: 1994
Status: Read
Pages: 409
Price: **thrifted** PHP 50.00/$1.17

At 409 pages long, Roderick Anscombe’s The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula manages to be superfluous and anemic at the same time.

Plot-wise, the book is actually pretty promising. Instead of giving us the traditional monster or the overused charming bloodsucker, Anscombe offers a bumbling and naïve character as his protagonist. The novel, which reads like the main character’s journal, lets the reader delve into the character’s innermost thoughts. We see our unlikely monster spiral into madness until he loses all humanity and becomes the bloodthirsty killer we all know and love.

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