Almost a week late with this post, apologies to the none of you who read these challenge updates. I keep forgetting I’m behind on my pace, but ahhhhh it’s fine, I’ll catch up – here’s what I did this month…
Book 39: Penpal by Dathan Auerbach
When someone on my Twitter posted a link to Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books of All Time article, I scoured the list and tried to find as many of them as possible (while totting up how many of them I’d actually read). After finding some of them immediately – I’m sure I don’t need to go into how I did that, yaaarrrrr – I settled for the one that I felt most drawn to, Penpal by Dathan Auerbach. With the background for the book described as having originated from a reddit thread, I wasn’t sure how this one would play out; I actually really like the simplicity of the terror/horror stories that are contributed by users to sites such as Creepypasta, but I had my doubts about whether this would go over well as a novel.
In a series of flashbacks, we learn about the narrator’s childhood with his mother and best friend, and the things they get up to. The woods behind his house play a role in the scary things that happen, which involve him waking up in the woods in the middle of the night (with startling clarity of thought for a six year old, very unrealistic); he is stalked by a stranger who is obsessed with him, seemingly from the innocent school task of releasing balloons in the hope of getting a penpal. Photographs are sent to his house, his cat goes missing, his friend is also stalked; all the typical things that happen in those urban legend stories you tell at sleepovers that happened to ‘a friend of a friend’. This was creepy enough in terms of the content, but the writing itself is lacking in any distinctive style, and the structure is confusing and messy. The chapters bounce between different ages and years, and sure, at the start the narrator states that he is just remembering these things or learning about them now, which is why they are unordered, but that’s a cop-out in my opinion – the chapters seem patched together without any editing, just collecting the shorter stories and giving them chapter names as if that constitutes bringing together a book. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t as brilliant as some of the reviews it has been given would suggest.
Book 40: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A trip to my local library to find another of this month’s books led me to pick up this one instead. It’s one of those books that I’d seen plenty of times at work and felt like buying, but never got round to it, though I’m wishing I had read it earlier now. The Road focuses on a man and his son (no names given throughout the book), who are journeying to the sea following an unexplained event which has rendered the earth barren and destroyed the majority of animals and humans. As they scavenge for food and shelter, the man’s main priority is always the safety of his son, although he knows that the likelihood of them surviving is slim. On their way they suffer a few setbacks; their shopping cart of belongings is ransacked, they are almost caught by cannibals (in one of the scariest bits of the book) and the ever-looming threat of starvation or illness.
It would ruin the story to give away any more specifics in the book, and I would recommend it to anyone. To call the writing style simplistic would be the understatement of the year; the language is coarse, blunt and dark, a reflection of the content and landscape of the story. It makes the more emotional moments even more heartbreaking, and the plaintive style gives the reader a realistic position from which to witness the events. Loved it. You MUST read it.
Book 41: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I am kicking myself for having never read anything by Margaret Atwood until now. This book was fantastic! I think it may have been on the GCSE curriculum at one point although not for me, and I’m sure if I had read it then I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much as I do having only read it aged 25.
Our narrator, Offred, is a ‘Handmaid’ in the Republic of Gilead, a reformed version of the United States of America wherein women have had most of their rights taken away, and their only real function is to breed. We only learn how this change came about toward the end of the book, which gives us time to get as acquainted as we can with the life she leads now, though the book is littered with references and flashbacks to her life before these changes happened. Handmaids are assigned to households in which the wife is infertile – there is no such thing as an infertile man, it is always the woman’s fault if she cannot bear a child. The society is frigid, women must walk in pairs to carry out errands with coupons instead of money, and ‘Gender Traitors’ (homosexuals) are hung on ‘The Wall’ to die for all to see. Other crimes are punished by either public hanging or being sent out to ‘The Colonies’, the nature of which is revealed far into the book.
This was SO good; the vision of this twisted future is so completely imagined, there aren’t really any holes in the idea which makes it scary, because it sort of seems like this kind of thing could be entirely possible – particularly these days when so much of our information is digital (you’ll see when you read the book). There is a conflict within the narrator; she remembers her life before she became a Handmaid and longs for it, yet she often finds herself thinking and acting as prudishly and piously as a good little Handmaid is supposed to. So much of this book is horrific, but not in the gory sense – you don’t want to think about what it would be like to live that life, yet you are compelled to find out what happens to Offred and whether or not she will ever get what she wants.
Book 42: Beowulf by Seamus Heaney
Lastly for October was the latest book club choice, Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. I’ll admit, the first I’d ever heard of Beowulf was that creepy looking CGI film with Ray Winstone, so I wasn’t really that bothered about reading the story. But with Heaney’s recent passing, a member of the book club suggested we read this and I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a go, as I recall Heaney’s poetry being quite honestly thrilling to read at school; his and Robert Frost’s works were to me what poetry was supposed to be. That rhymed, which makes me awesome.
So Beowulf, then. There’s so much of history and legends that I just don’t know about, so all of the names in this poem were entirely new to me, and at first I found it hard to follow, so I found the recording of Heaney reading the entire thing (although some parts were left out for some reason) and it helped immensely. Who better than the poet to recite it? He spoke every line with attention to every word, and with a rhythm that really moved the whole thing along. The story itself was interesting; Beowulf brings his men to help Hrothgar, a king whose men are being routinely savaged by a monster named Grendel. Having slain Grendel and his mother, the king of the Danes presents Beuwolf with treasures, and the hero returns home and eventually becomes King of the Geats. He later battles against a dragon and is fatally wounded, and dies having proven his merit as a man. It’s pretty straightforward, and at the heart of it is a noble warrior whose strength cannot be matched, even by legendary beasts. It does kind of make me want to read some more of this Scandinavian mythology stuff where this type of thing happens, but I don’t know whether any other writers will have the same master of words that Heaney had.