Thursday, October 12, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 053: Carnacki, The Ghost Finder”

Since I was a little kid, I’ve suffered from insomnia. In the late, late hours of the night, I usually read, and a few years ago, my wife bought me a back-lit e-reader. (It’s a fancy, name brand machine, but I don’t like to play favorites…) I don’t have to turn on a light to read (which can wake the boss up,) and I still get to immerse myself in creepy worlds and gothic adventures when all the world is quiet and dark. My most recent bout of sleeplessness took me back to an old friend, the supernatural detective, Carnacki!

William Hope Hodgson – Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (1913)

William Hope Hodgson was a prolific British writer and all around interesting character, whose massive body of work I’ve only really sampled through his supernatural detective character, Carnacki. The book that I read, Carnacki, The Ghost Finder, collects six of this character’s stories, which had originally been published in a couple of different magazines of the day. (Because there are only six stories, I am assuming that the version I have is a digitization of the 1913 work. A second edition came out in the 1940s, a couple of decades after Hodgson’s death, which had three additional stories that I’ve never read. But that’s pretty cool, in the sense that there are more Carnacki tales for me to read someday!)

Each Carnacki story is a framed tale in which a first-person narrator, the cleverly named “Dodgson,” receives an invitation to visit his friend, Carnacki, who feeds him and a few select individuals a nice dinner, then regales them with the details of his most recent mysterious encounter. Carnacki is some kind of professional investigator who specializes in weird (we would say “paranormal”) cases. He is armed with a deep knowledge of obscure lore, a keen analytical mind, and a small arsenal of specialized equipment with which he busts ghosts and solves complex mysteries. (Considering the fact that these stories are over 100 years old, Carnacki himself seems remarkably modern in his choices of equipment and his methods.) At the close of each story, and after revealing as much of each mystery as he is able, Carnacki ejects Dodgson and his other guests with a jovial, “Out you go!” and the tale ends.

The stories are well told, including wonderful details, strange situations, some moments of genuine suspense, and they can even be downright creepy at times. (Reading them at 3:00 in the morning might help amplify the mood---I recommend it, if you can manage it.) Without giving away too much, Hodgson, does “Scooby-Doo” a tale or two, having Carnacki’s investigations reveal not a ghost or demonic presence, but mundane human trickery, but despite this occasional (though always well written) twist, I find every single adventure in this collection entertaining. And, as I said, Hodgson’s writing is so strong, and his details so well stated, that the reader can at times actually feel Carnacki’s panic and be swept up in the terror of the situation. (The only other author that I’ve read in the last few years who creeped me out as well as Hodgson was Poe, especially in The Fall of the House of Usher, where the sense of decay and otherworldliness really got to me one night...) Hodgson is good is what I’m saying here.

Probably my favorite stories in this collection are “The Gateway of the Monster” and “The Searcher of the End House.” The first, “The Gateway of the Monster,” finds Carnacki investigating a room in a haunted mansion where the door slams, repeatedly of its own accord and the room seems tempest tossed each morning, and where anyone who attempts to sleep in the room is strangled in the night. In the course of his investigations, Carnacki cracks out an electric pentagram of his own design, which he sits inside of on the floor to protect himself from supernatural forces. It’s a weird story. The other story, “The Searcher of the End House” has Carnacki investigating his mother’s house where strange sounds have begun to occur in the middle of the night, doors are opening and closing, and strange, misshapen, wet footprints appear in various rooms. This story actually moves into some interesting multi-dimensional directions with different characters perceiving different phantom forms. It’s a great, weird tale.

If you’re a fan of Clive Barker or the Saw films, these stories will probably not be gruesome or disturbing enough for you, and the language and pacing are a bit old-school. However, I really enjoy this book. The mysteries are odd enough to keep a reader guessing, and the supernatural elements are well described and, at times, wonderfully freaky. I should mention that people who are sensitive to animal cruelty will not enjoy a few of the stories here, as dogs and cats tend not to survive the tales once they are introduced. But if you can stomach that type of unpleasantness and enjoy weird, paranormal mysteries, Carnacki will be right up your alley!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 052: Ranma ½ Volume 1”

I’ve been at this book review gig for about eight months now, and it’s an absurd crime that I haven’t reviewed a single transgender martial arts comedy comic yet… Slacking. That’s the only thing I can call it…

Rumiko Takahashi – Ranma ½ Volume 1 (1993/2001)

Rumiko Takahashi is probably most well known in the United States for the animated version of her classic fantasy series, Inu-Yasha, but more rabid fans of Japanese comics and animation will recognize a variety of her works: Lum – Yurusei Yatsura, the Mermaid Saga, Maison Ikkoku, One-Pound Gospel, and my favorite, Ranma ½. The Ranma comic has spun off into animation, a number of video games, tons of novelty merchandise, and is a recognized classic, but does it hold up? Is it still funny today? Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what makes this series tick.

At the beginning of the first book, we’re introduced to the Tendo family (a father and three daughters,) who run the “Tendo Martial Arts School of Indiscriminate Grappling.” Without a son as an heir, Mr. Tendo and his friend, Genma Saotome, another master, have hatched a plan to keep the Tendo School in business once Mr. Tendo gets too old to continue teaching. Tendo has pledged one of his three daughters to Genma’s son, Ranma. Unfortunately for Mr. Tendo, he hasn’t seen his friend since before Ranma was born, and when the Saotomes arrive at the school, Mr. Tendo gets a nasty surprise: Ranma is a girl not a boy, and Genma has, apparently, been turned into a giant panda.

After a tearful discussion, it is revealed that Ranma and Genma were training in China at an “accursed” training ground, trying to perfect their skills. The dangerous training ground is actually haunted by the spirits of various people and animals that have drowned in the numerous pools there, and if anyone happens to fall into one of the haunted pools, they become possessed by the spirit of whatever drowned therein. In a mishap, Ranma fell into the pool of the drowned girl, and so whenever he is splashed by cold water, his body transforms into the female form of the girl who drowned in the pool. He has to be splashed with warm water to turn back into a boy again. Genma, we are told, fell into the pool of the drowned panda and suffered a similar fate.

Yes, the concept is silly, but it’s still fun. Mr. Tendo, still keen on fulfilling the arranged marriage, pledges his youngest (and toughest) daughter, Akane, to Ranma. Of course, neither Ranma nor Akane are fond of the idea of an arranged marriage, and instead they seem to spend most of their time fighting with each other. As the daughter of a martial arts master, Akane is unusally strong and fierce, and Ranma, being a chivalrous young man (half the time), won’t hit a girl, so he spends most of his free time at Dr. Tofu’s getting patched up after Akane inevitably thrashes him. It is a testament to Takahashi’s storytelling ability that I find the budding relationship between Akane and Ranma charming instead of annoying, considering how little tolerance I have for romance stories, but Takahashi knows how to temper her romance with some fantastically entertaining characters and absurd situations, making this series humorous enough to keep even a cynic like me interested.

More than anything, this series is about the laughs, and Takahashi’s command of tone and absurdist sense of humor serve her well. The story is filled with bizarre characters, who usually want to kill Ranma or to date Akane, or in a few cases both. The transgender humor, in which Ranma is constantly being splashed with cold water and transforming into a girl at the least opportune time, is also very funny, particularly when some character who Ranma is fighting can’t seem to understand that the boy he was just trying to murder is also the girl he’s trying to woo! In subsequent volumes of the series, we also learn that Ranma and Genma were not the only martial artists to fall into the haunted pools in the accursed training ground, which adds to the farce.

Ranma is a fun series, and this first volume gets cracking right off the bat. It’s an interesting mix of absurdist humor, touching romance (not too overbearing), and a little bit of weird martial arts, although this is definitely not the focus in the first book. Takahashi’s lines are very clean, and she manages a fair amount of humor just from the facial expressions she draws. There is a tiny bit of nudity in the book, but it’s very cartoony, and not particularly offensive. (There aren’t any explicit sex scenes or anything, just a couple of “embarrassing” bathing moments and such, nothing too racy.) The characters are quirky, the battles are bizarre and fun, and the goofy twists in the story are entertaining, even after reading the book at least a half-dozen times. Inu-Yasha may be a more complex, more fully realized story (and I’ll probably review that series eventually, too) but Ranma ½ is still a lot of fun and worth the hour or less that it’ll take most people to read it.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 051: The Status Civilization”

Robert Sheckley – The Status Civilization (1960)

As I mentioned in my review of The Robot Who Looked Like Me, Robert Sheckley is one of my favorite authors. He was particularly adept at presenting vicious social criticism under a veneer of humor and absurdism, which made his critiques more tolerable than they would have been if he’d just been cussing from a soapbox on a street corner. The Status Civilization, a particularly poignant work, is a serious warning disguised as a science fiction novel. In these pages Sheckley skewers class stratification, religion, morality, and standardized education by turning the traditional meanings of these concepts on their heads. It’s dark and funny and suspenseful, and once the dust settles, it actually has a lot to tell us about the construction of meaning in our own society (even though it was published over fifty years ago!)

Our “hero,” Will Barrent, awakes on board a transport ship heading for a prison planet. He is told that he is a murderer, but because all of the prisoners on board the ship have had their memories wiped, he doesn’t remember committing the crime. The planet, Omega, is rigidly stratified along class lines, and the quickest and most sure way to climb the ladder in Omegan society is by killing other citizens. Though Barrent moves rapidly up in social rank, mostly through a series of strange incidents that are always just out of his control, his personal disposition puts him at odds with the prevailing ideologies of Omegan law.

For one thing, he keeps having disturbing urges NOT to kill, except in self-defense. He is also visited by a local priest who chastises him for not coming to Black Mass often enough. (The worship of Evil is the state mandated religion on Omega.) And, in complete defiance of the law, Barrent refuses to become addicted to any drugs! According to the judge who sentences Barrent for not being an addict, drugs are an important part of their society. The judge says, “I will tell you that an addicted populace is a loyal populace; that drugs are a major source of tax revenue; that drugs exemplify our entire way of life. Furthermore, I say to you that the nonaddicted minorities have invariably proven hostile to native Omegan institutions” (p. 46). [I would argue (whether we’re talking about alcohol, pot, opioids, or any of the thousands of prescription mood modifiers out there) that this is just as true today!] Non-compliance with the required addiction policy, in conjunction with Barrent’s general lack of enthusiasm for Omegan social conduct, eventually marks him for death by the state.

Through Sheckley’s humorous reversals, (evil is good, murder brings social advancement, addiction is the essence of happiness,) each of the social morays that most people hold sacred are twisted, tested, and usually found lacking. The pace of the story is also lightning fast, with a real PULP ADVENTURE feel. (The story was originally serialized in Amazing Science Fiction Stories magazine.) It’s got it all: humor, suspense, adventure, and some seriously intense social commentary. Few authors can write an exciting adventure story that ALSO makes you think---but that’s exactly what Sheckley does here.

Barrent’s journey of discovery on Omega, from amnesiac prisoner to privileged citizen to hunted quarry, is exceptionally entertaining and well worth the read. I suppose SOME sensitive types might find parts of this book offensive, particularly the religious critiques, but the story doesn’t have much in the way of gore or sexual content or even dirty language. Those looking for a fast-paced sci-fi adventure will find a lot to enjoy here, but for those who like something a bit deeper, this book really shines. 1984 may be the classic work dealing with conformity and social programming, but THIS book is not only funnier, but may actually present a more haunting message about societal control. It’s a book that NEEDS to be read and understood---today, RIGHT NOW, by as many people as possible. Sheckley’s predictions are moving closer and closer to coming true, and maybe, if we can understand HOW social programming works, we’ll be more capable of resisting when we see it’s actually happening! Read this book…

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 050: Amphigorey”

For my 50th review (!!!) I thought I better do something special, and in my world, there isn’t really anything more special than Edward Gorey.

Edward Gorey – Amphigorey (1972/1980)

Way back at the beginning of the Read a Damn Book project, I reviewed Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” which is an ABC-style book of the various ways that children can be dispatched and released from this mortal coil. The art is absolutely chilling, consisting of remarkably detailed, black and white images of sad little faces either just about to meet their ends or having just left us. (It’s not a work for the faint of heart...) The only truly unfortunate thing about the book, thought, is how quickly one comes to the end of it. Luckily for us, Gorey wrote and illustrated a GREAT MANY little books, although as it says in the introduction to Amphigorey, the earliest of those works “are now difficult and often expensive to come by” (n.p.), which is why poor people (like me) need reprint collections.

Amphigorey includes fifteen humorous, horrifying, and beautiful works, most of which are comprised of black and white illustrations with obsessively detailed backgrounds full of freakish, repeating wallpaper patterns or looming shadows created by tight-knit, extreme cross-hatching. The tone of most of Gorey’s works is pseudo-Victorian or Dickensian, with weird, vaguely British sounding place names (like Chutney Falls, West Elbow, and Hobbies Odd), bizarre characters (Miss Skrim-Pshaw and Dick Hammerclaw), and a costume department that stopped buying new clothes in about 1929.

A couple of the books are in the ABC-style mentioned above, and some are comprised of odd little limericks with accompanying macabre illustrations, and some of the best works in the collection are freakish, unsettling short-stories, usually involving at least one untimely death. One extremely creepy “story,” called “The West Wing,” has no words at all, but is instead a series of strange set pieces inside of an old house. One illustration is a just a room with peeling wall paper, in another a body is lying on a floor, in another what looks like a sheet or blanket is floating a few feet off the ground in the air, and in yet another is a darkened doorway with just a hint of some legs visible. It’s very eerie and enjoyable (if you’re into that sort of thing.)

All of the works in this collection are entertaining in their own ways, but there are three that stand out as truly exceptional for me. The most brilliant of these pieces is “The Object Lesson,” which is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness absurdity that, despite being disjointed to the point of nonsense, somehow creates a delightfully haunting mood. It’s not a traditional narrative by any stretch just a series of tangentially related scenes that when taken together produce an uncanny effect. Here is one particularly lurid section, which takes place over the course of five separate pages/images:

“Meanwhile, on the tower, / Madame O___ in conversation with an erstwhile cousin / saw that his moustache was not his own, / on which she flung herself over the parapet / and surreptitiously vanished” (n.p.).

Why they were on the tower is never explain, nor is the reason that the cousin had someone else’s moustache, or why this would cause Madame O___ to throw herself off the tower. It’s strange and uncanny and wonderfully well illustrated. To me, this tale, which strings together one nonsense event after another but still manages to be completely unsettling and creepy, is the height of artistic perfection. (This may say more about me than it does the work, but I don’t think so.)

Another great story in this collection is “The Willowdale Handcar” in which a trio of young-adults hops on a handcar they find at the train station and proceeds to ride the rails for months and months, watching a series of bizarre things happen, like buildings burning down, figures creeping through fields in thunderstorms, and various glimpses of different people’s lives falling to ruin. Again, nothing is explicitly stated, just hinted at and suggested, but the overall tone is somehow both humorous and haunting, especially considering what happens at the end!

The third rather unforgettable story here is “The Curious Sofa,” which is subtitled “A Pornographic Work,” although not a single naked body or explicit act is actually depicted in the tale. It’s a masterpiece of suggestion and innuendo, with exceedingly pregnant lines, like the following:

“Colonel Gilbert and his wife, Louise, came in after dinner; both of them had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks. / The evening was a huge success, in spite of someone fainting from time to time” (n.p.).

For most of this tale the tone is rambunctious and humorous, populated with flapper women sporting pixie cuts and pearl necklaces and men with handlebar moustaches, all apparently enjoying themselves. However, towards the end of the story it takes a dark turn, and ends with a surprise, horrifying twist. It’s sick, but in the most inexplicit and inexplicable manner possible.

Gorey was a genius, a truly talented master of both expressive line art and of crafting a tale that could entertain or cut to the bone. His works are unlike anything else I’ve read, landing somewhere between adult fairytales and penny dreadful grotesqueries. Amphigorey itself is a remarkable collection, which will endlessly entertain anyone with a taste for the uncanny---but I should warn potential readers that the gruesomeness and heartbreaking tragedy of many of the tales may be a bit much for some sensibilities. If you consider yourself a fan of horror or of extremely dark humor, then Edward Gorey is the creator for you, and if you haven’t read anything by him yet, then this collection is the perfect place to start!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 049: Dead to the World”

I felt kind of bad after I wrote the review for Club Dead because it wasn’t very positive, and I really do like the Sookie Stackhouse books, so I thought I’d better move along to the next book in the series and see if it might be a little more fun---and it is… (Thank goodness…)

Charlaine Harris – Dead to the World (2004/2005)

Dead to the World is the fourth book in Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and by this time in the series, most readers will probably have a pretty good handle on who the characters are. Unlike the previous book, which is rather downbeat and particularly brutal, this book is much more humorous and entertaining, while also having a couple of solid, intriguing plotlines, which Harris quite deftly weaves into a well-crafted, coherent story.

Like all the other books in the series, this novel is told from the point of view of Sookie, a psychic waitress who is just getting over a passionate, though short, relationship with a vampire named Bill. Things start getting weird pretty quickly in this book, however, when Sookie spots a half-naked man running barefoot in the snow on her way home from work on New Year’s Eve. She recognizes the man after a few seconds as Eric, a rich, powerful, and ancient vampire who runs a business empire out of Shreveport. Unfortunately for Eric, he has been hexed by a group of witches and can’t remember who he is or what’s happened to him. Sookie, being a good citizen, takes Eric home, contacts the vampires who work for him, and agrees to keep him hidden from the witches who are trying to find for him. Stuck with a tall, blond, god-like vampire in her care, Sookie quickly begins to have “adult” thoughts, and all manner of hilarity ensues.

This book leans pretty heavily on the “romance” angle, as the now single Sookie rather quickly falls for the “helpless” Viking vamp. And, in this book Harris has a (rather explicit) good time describing the couple’s budding romance. (I would NOT recommend this one to younger readers or for people who have an aversion to erotic adventures.) Let’s just say, things get steamy (in a slightly necrophiliac sense.) Throughout this series, Sookie is beset by a plethora of potential suitors, and by the end of this book I think she’s already racked up a solid half-dozen men, vamps, and other creatures who have stated their interest in her. Of course, part of what makes this series popular is the big question: Who will Sookie end up with? (I’m not a big fan of romance novels on principle, but I do like Harris’s characters, so watching them jockey for position can be pretty fun.)

The second important storyline in this book is the disappearance of Sookie’s brother, Jason. Because he’s a troublemaker, the police are less than excited to go looking for him, and Sookie suspects that Jason might have been kidnapped by the witches that hexed Eric. Wrapped around Eric’s amnesia, Sookie and Eric’s romance, and Jason’s disappearance are a number of crisscrossing plotlines, including a war between the witches and the supernatural creatures of Shreveport, a strange community of shape-shifters living outside of Sookie’s hometown, and a psychotic, jealous were-lynx who thinks Sookie is moving in on her werewolf.

One of the best parts of this book is the character, Pam, Eric’s second in command, but she gets to take center stage in many scenes in this novel since her boss is incapacitated. Pam is described as looking just like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, but is supposedly several hundred years old. In this book, particularly in the battle between the witches and the monsters, you get to see Pam go seriously hardcore and show a vicious and somewhat twisted sense of humor, which is quite fun. Pam is one of my favorite characters in the series, so it was fun to see her featured so heavily in a story.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this book. There are several mysteries to solve that keep Sookie in suspense, the tone is more entertaining and fast paced than the previous book, with a lot more humor (and NO rape scenes), and each of the storylines contributes to the novel as a whole this time (unlike some of the previous books, where the opening mystery has little to do with the main story.) The characters are more fully realized in this book, as well, mostly because Harris has had three previous novels to flesh out who they are. Of the first four books, Dead to the World has been my favorite on this reread through the series. The balance between humor, horror, mystery, and romance is just right, and it makes me look forward to reading the next novel---although it might be a while before I get to it. I’ve got a few other things to cover first!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 048: Gregory”

I don’t remember how I found this particular book by Marc Hempel (who would later go on to do a stint illustrating Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” storyline in the brilliant series, The Sandman,) but Mariah and I both loved Gregory, instantly. The book was put out by Piranha Press, which looks like a neat, indie publisher, but was actually a division of DC Comics. We have four of the little Gregory books, and as far as I know, that’s all that Hempel did before moving on to “bigger” and “better” things (like his short-lived but hilarious series, Tug & Buster for Image Comics.) I could sing the praises of Hempel’s assorted works all day long, but for this review, let’s just stick to Gregory

Marc Hempel – Gregory (1989)

Gregory is the story of a disturbed little boy who lives most of his life in a cell in a psychiatric facility, barefoot, with his arms restrained by a straight-jacket. He is incapable of speaking in full sentences, preferring to scream inarticulate grunts and guttural syllables, punctuated by the occasional, “I Gregory!” His best friend is a dirty rat that pops out of the drain in the floor of his cell, spouts interesting comments, and is then smashed flat by one of the orderlies at the facility, only to be reincarnated again a short time later as the same rat. Gregory is sub-intelligent, eats moldy cheese off the floor of his cell, and is terrified of almost everything---but for the most part he seems pretty happy.

What Hempel does so well in this VERY dark book is turn almost everything in the story on its head. Gregory is stuck in a straight-jacket, but in one short scene, his jacket pops open. He immediately strips naked, accidently slaps himself in the face several times (he isn’t used to controlling his floppy arms), sticks his hand down the drain and gets it disgustingly dirty, and ends the mostly wordless sequence cowering in the corner of his cell with the straight-jacket partially put back on. Though most of us would pine for freedom, Gregory retreats into the comfort of the familiar after exploring the unknown. (This sentiment seems completely TRUE to me…)

Throughout the book, people keep trying to “improve” Gregory’s situation. His therapist is driven insane by his lack of verbal progress and runs screaming from the room. A group of “pet therapists” show up, and Gregory is mauled by the cat that was supposed to provide him a little comfort. In one particularly disturbing sequence, Gregory is removed from his cell, taken out of his straight-jacket and given the “proper” medication for his condition, so he doesn’t injure himself. This, naturally, leaves him a drooling vegetable, without any of the life or energy that make’s Gregory who he is. Herman Vermin makes an impassioned plea for Gregory to be returned to his normal cell and mental condition, but because he’s a rat, none of the doctors understand him, and he’s smashed to death with a broom. Hilarious!!! Like I said, it’s a dark book. However, when not being bothered by those looking after his “best interests,” Gregory appears to be genuinely happy with his life.

A large part of the success of the book is Hempel’s stunning black and white art. Combining a thick, rough line with what appears to be either pencil or possibly charcoal for shading, Hempel conveys a dark and disturbed mood, which works perfectly with the existential angst saturating the storyline. But the characters, to me, show echoes of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, especially in the facial features, (although this book is nowhere near as MEAN as the Peanuts stories were.) I’ve always been amazed and jealous when an artist can convey a huge amount of meaning in just a few lines, as Bill Watterson, Schulz, and Hempel certainly can. There’s also something jarring in that juxtaposition of simple, cutesy imagery and dark, disturbing subject matter that I think really helps push the overall mood and tone.

In the end, the book is brilliant. There are several extended sequences where the artwork alone tells the story, others where the dialogue can be hilarious but you see almost nothing that’s happening. Some sections show us Gregory’s perceptions of the world, which makes clear how detached he is from reality (but it’s his MIS-perceptions that help keep him happy!) And there’s even a strange, “experimental” section where a person trying to READ the comic is interrupted by another person who keeps asking questions about what’s going on. It’s weird and funny and completely unexpected. My one negative note is that there is a section in which Herman Vermin is reincarnated as a homosexual, and that short storyline is somewhat insensitive to the LGBTQ community, (although, to be realistic, the LGBTQ community hadn’t really moved into the open yet in the late ‘80s.) In addition, I suppose especially sensitive people who have family members who have been diagnosed with some forms of mental illness might find this entire book offensive, but my family is very familiar with mental issues, and I still found the book to be extremely funny. Gregory’s thoughts and reactions seem very REAL to me, and the tone, while dark, is also somewhat positive and “up.” If we could just let Gregory be himself, instead of trying to FIX him and make him “normal,” then EVERYONE would be better off, especially Gregory.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 047: Cured”

I became a Cure fan back in high school, right about the time the band recorded a rerelease video for their song “Boys Don’t Cry” to promote their Standing on a Beach (1986) hits collection. By my sophomore year of high school (1987) I was ratting my hair up and wearing button down shirts with cardigan sweaters and had built a shrine to The Cure in my bedroom out of posters, magazine clippings, and t-shirts, which was so impressive that people from different schools in the area would come to look at it. (It was a little weird.) Anyway, flash forward to me being an old man, (I no longer rat my hair), who is still a massive fan of the band, as is my wife. My older daughter, on one of her shopping flings to Portland, Oregon, spots a new memoir by one of the founding members of The Cure, and she buys it for us. (Thanks Frankie!!!) Cured – The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys.

Lol Tolhurst – Cured (2016)

Cracking into a book like this, a candid look at a band that I’ve idolized and loved for three decades, can be a fearful experience. I’ve read autobiographies before that actually diminished the authors some in my eyes, but this book doesn’t take any luster away from my heroes. There are a ton of anecdotes from the history of The Cure in this book: formative moments, family history, run-ins with the law, riots at concerts, crossovers with performers from other bands---the types of things one would expect (and enjoy) in a band member’s autobiography, but what this book is REALLY about is Tolhurst’s personal journey from childhood to Cure-hood and beyond. It’s a somewhat tragic story, but with a solid redemptive ending, which, in the face of all the bullshit going on in the world right now, was nice to read.

Tolhurst’s writing style is conversational, and he knows how to tell a story. He includes an impressive amount of detail, while sticking to the backbone of his tale, which is, ultimately, his battle with alcoholism. You could say that this was a “typical” alcoholics’ tale, the fun leads to despair and such, except for the fact that Tolhurst was a founding member of one of the most important rock and roll bands of the last forty years, and his story is inextricably intertwined with the story of the band.

For most people, Robert Smith IS The Cure, but as Tolhurst points out in this memoir, The Cure is not a solo project, and the evolution of the band has always been a product of Smith's collaborations. From the original formation of the band all the way to their status as world class superstars, Tolhurst was the OTHER original collaborator, a link that connected Smith and the band back to their roots in a small town, south of London, called Crawley. Without Tolhurst, there might not have been a Cure, and even if there were, it wouldn’t have evolved the way that it did. (The underappreciated album, The Top, was JUST Smith and Tolhurst when they started doing the demos, and it marks some of their best work and most original songs: “Let’s Go to Bed,” “The Walk,” “The Caterpillar,” “Upstairs Room,” “Shake Dog Shake,” and “Give Me It” are all brilliant and come from that album.)

What Tolhurst also does well, besides tell a good story, is point out the humanity behind the superstars. A lot of people forget that the PERFORMERS we see in music videos or in concert or even appearing on television shows (like South Park, remember?) are personas. Beyond the concert footage, beyond the albums and the photo shoots, the people in a music group are HUMANS, with lives and worries and personalities (that sometimes conflict), and that working together and touring together for months or years at a time can be extremely difficult. Some people seem to be born to it. Robert Smith, who is the only full-time member of The Cure who has continuously toured and performed with the band since 1976---and continues to even as I write this---seems to be born to the life, but he’s a rarity. For Tolhurst, the strain and the emotional toll required…lubrication. He turned to alcohol and drugs to help get through the incredible stresses of life in a high-profile band, but the “self-medication” got out of control. It’s a familiar story, sure, but the backdrop for his narrative (life with The Cure) is fascinating.

The book is good. Well written, interesting details, with a quirky tone. There are a ton of Cure anecdotes in here that any fan will enjoy, and there is a solid redemption narrative for people looking for a bit of a pick-me-up in our dark and dreary times. The story does dip several times into the “sentimental” pool, which I usually don’t care for, but if we think of it in Tolhurst’s terms, it’s the only way this book could have been written. He lost family members, he lost friends, he (very sadly) lost a daughter, lost his association with the band (and the only identity that he’d ever really known because they had been The Cure since they were teenagers!), and he almost lost his own life on several occasions. There’s no way to tell this story without getting a little emotional, so I’ll forgive him. And yes, Robert Smith comes through it all like a hero, and I still love The Cure!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)