Thursday, June 27, 2013

Book review: The Lords of Salem

I'm a pretty lucky reader. I like almost all of the books I read in varying degrees, I rarely find a story so bad that I can't finish it, and I have never wished I could have the hours I spent reading a book back.

But after reading LORDS OF SALEM... well, I'm not saying I wish I had those hours back, but I wouldn't complain if some flying spaghetti monster god of fiction decided in his infinite mercy to grant them to me.

It was an interesting idea, and I liked parts of it, I just felt that there were so many things wrong with the approach, as well as the plot and character development. I say that as both a reader and a writer. And I don't like writing negative reviews, I like to give all creative works a chance; but I also have to be honest. And I honestly don't have a lot of positive things to say about my experience, but I will try to be constructive at the very least.

I'm going to stop here and say that there might be spoiler-ish information in my review, so if you're concerned about that you may want to skip this. My brief spoiler-free version is: If you're a big Rob Zombie film fan, have at it. It's gory, it's heavily influenced by past eras of horror, maybe you'll find it fun. If you're on the fence about his films, or outright don't like them, you may find this less fun. There are interesting, redeemable parts to the story, but the authors make a few wrong turns in terms of plot and character and leave you stranded in a bad part of town by the end.

If you're not already familiar with the plot, here's a summary:
Heidi Hawthorne, a FM radio DJ and recovering drug addict, is struggling with her new-found sobriety and creeping depression when she receives a mysteriously shaped wooden box branded with a strange symbol. Inside the box is a promotional record for a band that identifies themselves only as The Lords. She decides to play it on her show as a joke, but when she does horrible things begin to happen. The strange music unleashes something evil in the town.
Deep breath, here we go. The first thing to know about this book is how bleak and hopeless it is. Not in an existential sort of way, more like a "The world is a horrible place that rewards and glorifies evil and all its deeds, and you have no chance of not being defiled and slaughtered by it." Every tiny glimmer of hope that pushes its way to the surface of the story is immediately gutted and flayed in graphic detail. I don't need upbeat, bright and sunshine-y endings to books-- at least, not every book. I'm a fan of horror, sometimes you just can't defeat the bad guy, horrible things happen, people die, but in the end there's at least a tiny amount of victory, somebody temporarily overcomes whatever they're fighting against, at least one person lives to tell the tale.

I'm okay with gloom and doom, but come on, Rob. A protagonist hasn't got a shot in hell (literally) of fighting back with you around. And it feels irresponsible as a writer to create a world like that. I recall reading some writing advice regarding this very thing, in which the author made the point that if all you're doing is torturing your protagonist, you have to stop and ask yourself what the point of the story is. Because you're probably going to lose your reader unless you give your character a fighting chance.

Speaking of character, my next issue is the powerlessness of the protagonist. Heidi is set up as a fairly assertive, independent woman. She's flawed, she's got a checkered past, but she's trying to make good out of her life and has the will to do so. By the end of the book, this version of Heidi has been beaten to a pulp, sometimes literally. Granted, it's the horrific things she experiences that gradually wear her down, and I see the point in that. However, I wasn't that comfortable with the degree to which the authors took her power away. She had none by the end. She was constantly waiting for someone (a male character) to save her from what was happening. The few times you do get a glimpse of an internal struggle, it's pathetic and useless anyway, due to the nature of the plot. I was also very uncomfortable with some of the ways that the authors tortured and degraded her, which brings me to my next point.

Say it with me: Disgust is not Fear. Disgust is not Fear.

I can handle gore just fine. I've read some real stomach-churning prose in my time. Sometimes it's done in a way that really is scary, sometimes it's just an added little bit of fun. But LORDS... it went too far. Multiple times I thought, "Nooo, they're not going to go there. They can't, what responsible writer would?" Oh, but they did. And it was not fun. It was not scary. It was disgusting, offensive, and took me totally out of the story. Sexualized violence was one of those things, so I would warn anyone who has trouble reading about rape or molestation to watch out.

But in addition to that... let's put it this way. You know sometimes you're watching a movie– maybe it's horror, maybe it's not, but it is violent– and there's a dog or a cat around, and you think to yourself: "PLEASE don't hurt the dog." Is that just me?

Well in LORDS, it wasn't a dog.
It was a baby.
And it was graphic.

I really wanted to stop reading at that point, and that was right at the beginning of the book.

Even when the violence wasn't outright offensive, it was often a few steps beyond the line of what imagery I was willing to allow into my mind. Watching it on a TV screen is one thing-- and frankly, there were a few things that happened that I don't think I've ever even seen in a horror film-- but reading the words is a different experience. You take that into yourself, and I did not need the gore-filled images I was absorbing to be quite that graphic. He really could have scaled it back a couple notches and gotten the same effect with less brutal description.

I hate to be so down on a story, but these are issues I feel pretty strongly about. As I've said, there are some redeeming factors, and I do want to bring those up so I'm not completely trashing the book. I liked the premise, I enjoy tales with historical background, and I like witchcraft as a horror theme quite a bit- although it is insulting to both the real victims and those who practice actual witchcraft as a spiritual path, but that's a topic for another time. Once Heidi begins to be manipulated by the witches, her hallucinations are pretty mind-blowing and creative. I genuinely liked some of the characters and thought they were interesting, which is part of why it was so frustrating to watch their efforts be for naught. I was rooting for somebody to succeed.

Ultimately, I wouldn't recommend reading LORDS unless you have a really open mind and are specifically looking for a story that is incredibly graphic in which evil takes bloody, merciless vengeance on (more or less) innocent people. If that's your thing, have at it. But the quality of the plot and writing is not as good as other established horror authors. If you feel the way I do, if you have boundaries that this book seems to push (or mutilate, as it were), then pass. There are way better horror books out there that respect their reader more. Plus, you can always just see the movie and call it a day.

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