The Midnight Road: Chapter 5

This is the final installment, so enjoy!

If you haven’t had the chance, make sure to read Chapters 1-4! Chapter 1 can be found here.

 

Chapter Five

Lutz couldn’t tear his eyes away from the gruesome sight.

Bud McGuire’s face was frozen in a silent shriek, wide eyes fixed unblinking at the ceiling. His chest had been torn open crudely. The glinting white of ribs poked through the carnage.

Bud’s legs were bent at an impossible angle to his torso. He had been torn almost in two at the groin.

The first scream that passed Sheriff Lutz’ lips was quickly followed by a second. He fell backwards to the ground and landed hard on on his rear, using the heels of his feet to push himself away from the mutilated corpse. His back pressed against the rusted green bathtub, and he idly noticed that the calico dress lain across the edge had a faint pattern of purple violets.

Then Clarkson’s strong brown hands were wrapped around his own, and his deputy hauled Lutz to his feet. They exited the broken bathroom and its grisly contents and went into the corridor, where Billy Hudson was already halfway down the stairs leading to the first floor.

The ancient staircase creaked threatening beneath their boots as the two officers followed the younger man downstairs, desperate to get as fair away from Bud McGuire’s mutilated corpse as possible.

Lutz burst out still-open front door and stumbled down the porch steps. The humid summer air was like a soothing balm against his skin. His lungs heaved with the effort to draw in fresh breath and he sank to his knees, digging his fists into the hard gravel of the walkway. He could hear the footsteps of Deputy Clarkson and Billy sounding down the stairs and out onto the front lawn.

They remained mercifully silent as Lutz fought against the waves of heat and chills that kept alternating their way through his veins. Distantly, as if observing someone else from far above, Lutz understood that he was having a panic attack. With shaking arms he shifted his weight until he was sitting on the lawn bordering the front path. Dry grass crackled as he brought his knees up to his forehead and sat there, breathing in the night air. Somewhere nearby a cricket chirped, breaking the stillness.

Crickets were still chirping.

Somehow, this was an encouraging thought. Lutz raised his head and looked for a moment at the night sky. The sun was still hours away from rising and the sky was pitch black, except for the thousands of glittering stars.

Lutz took a deep breath and held it for a long moment before slowly exhaling. He repeated this steady breathing twice more then wearily got to his feet, wincing as both his knees cracked in protest.  He brushed dry grass off the pants of his uniform and looked at his companions, both of whom had remained silently nearby this entire time.

Nodding once in silent gratitude, Lutz resumed his authority as sheriff. None of them would speak a word of his temporary breakdown, but they could all feel a sudden shift in the atmosphere, as if a sudden bond of kinship had just been forged. Lutz knew that the three of them would forever be bound by the events of this night.

Officer Clarkson looked to his senior officer. “Do you want to check the rest of the property? Look for the rest of the family?”

Lutz began shaking his head almost immediately. “No, we found what we were looking for. This is officially a crime scene. It’s also a forty acre farm with two barns and at least ten outbuildings. We need more men.”

“You want to call in Miller and Sanchez?” Clarkson asked.

Lutz nodded, but then shook his head, “Yeah, we’ll call them in when we get back to the station. No radio signal out here worth a damn anyway. Besides, I think we also need to get on the phone with the mayor’s office. We’re going to need the forensics people in Iowa City or Davenport or wherever the hell.”

At this, Sheriff Lutz turned and began walking back the way they had come. He glanced back once more at the darkened windows of the McGuire farmhouse, which now seemed like looming eyes in the receding light from their flashlights. His boots crunched under the rough gravel of the long driveway as the three men headed back towards the car.

The yellow, sickly looking corn blocked their view on either side, looming far taller than a man even in this unhealthy state. Lutz was struck again by the eerie silence of the place. The humid summer air was heavy and still, not a breath of wind rustled through the stalks. The near-complete absence of sound made him antsy and uncomfortable. The sooner they were back to the car the better.

Billy must have felt the same way; he trotted up alongside Lutz, his rifle loosely grasped in one hand now that they were out of the farmhouse. In a low voice he said, “What will happen now, Sheriff?”

Lutz shrugged, “First, we’re going to go back to the station. I have a bottle of Lagavulin 16 in a locked box in my office. Sheriff Bradley gave me that bottle the day I took office. Now, he told me this whisky was peaty enough and smoky enough to burn away the worst night of your life.Told me there would someday come the night when I would need it. It’s sat in it’s wooden box every night until I really started to think that day would never come. But come it did, and tonight I’m going to open that bottle and drink deep. And you’ll drink with me, if you like.”

Heartened by this prospect, the men picked up the pace and within a few minutes they emerged from the McGuire’s driveway back onto the smooth paved surface of Highway 99. Like an angel in the darkness, Lutz could see the police cruiser sitting on the edge of the road about three hundred yards down. He breathed a sigh of relief, realizing that some secret part of him had expected the black-and-white Chevy to be gone, leaving them stranded at the McGuire farm.

Lutz’ palms were sweating, and he wiped them furtively on the thighs of his trousers. He checked his watch, then checked it again in disbelief. They had barely been gone forty minutes.

When they reached the car, Lutz’ fumbled in his pocket for his keys, then unlocked the door and slid into the driver’s seat. His hands trembled on the steering wheel, and he wondered briefly if he was fit to drive.

Can’t exactly ask Clarkson or Billy to chauffeur me home. He thought resignedly. Lutz unlocked the passenger and back doors, and his companions slid silently into their seats. Clarkson was still holding the buck rifle, and the shotgun was in Billy’s lap, the mounted flashlight still beaming a bright circle on the car’s upholstery. As one, the men fastened their seatbelts. The familiar, everyday click of the metal sliding into place struck him as utterly absurd after the night’s events.

Lutz slid the key to the Chevy into the ignition. He had a horrible, crawling feeling in the bottom of his stomach that when he turned the key, the engine would simply refuse to start. This was ridiculous since the cruiser was barely three years old and had never done anything but purr like a kitten. But tonight, right now, the car wouldn’t start. Because it couldn’t be this easy to just drive away.

The key turned, and the motor roared to life, just as it always did. The front headlights came on, casting two wide beams of light into the darkness around them.

Reflecting back, impossibly high against the skeletal pines of the forest, were a pair of glowing red eyes.

Clarkson screamed first, throwing his hands over his face and crying out in terror.

Lutz couldn’t scream, his voice seemed to have completely locked itself away. His mouth gaped open in horror, but the only sound that came out was a strangled choke.

Billy was scrambling to get out of the police cruiser, but since he was in the back the doors only opened from the outside. He tried rolling down the window, and when that failed he began to panic and bashed at the glass with his fist again and again, but this was equally ineffective.

Billy raised the butt of the shotgun and drew back, preparing to ram it through the window of the car. “NO!” Lutz roared, never taking his eyes from the glowing red orbs watching them from the forest.

He jammed the clutch in, praying to anyone who might be listening that the car did not stall. He shifted into first, gave the engine some gas, and the car began slowly moving. This entire time he continued staring at the red eyes hovering twenty feet above them. They looked back unwaveringly, glittering with a malevolent intelligence. As the cruiser rolled past, the eyes followed their progress, but did not advance. Lutz fixed his gaze on the rearview mirror, waiting for some ravenous beast to come charging behind them.

But there was nothing. The darkness of the night took over, and the eyes receded into the trees.

Intent now on putting as much distance between himself and the McGuire farm as possible, Lutz laid one heavy boot on the gas. Only after ten miles, when he could see the lights of Harry Gibson’s fuel station, did he ease his boot off the accelerator and relax the hunched position of his shoulders. Ten minutes later they pulled up to the darkened windows of the sheriff’s station.

Lutz killed the engine of the cruiser and the three men sat in silence. After a long moment, Henry Clarkson opened his mouth, “What was that thing –” he began, but Lutz put up on hand and stopped him. Lutz shook his head, opened the door of the cruiser with a loud creak, and stepped outside.

Every muscle in his body was accusing him of gross misconduct, and Lutz knew he would feel the punishment the next day. He unlocked the door to the sheriff’s office and went in.

The comfortable surroundings of the dingy sheriff’s station almost brought him to tears. Weakly buzzing security fluorescents cast a dim, yellowish glow on the familiar disarray of desks and chairs. Without bothering to turn on the main lights, he crossed the bullpen to the corner office at the back of the station and went inside his office. On the bookcase against the far wall was a narrow wooden box, which Lutz now opened for the first time in ten years.

Nestled against dark silk was the bottle of Lagavulin 16, given to him by retiring Sheriff Bradley on his last day in office.

There will come a day when you need it.

Lutz motioned to Clarkson and Billy, who had followed him into the station and now stood silently behind him, framing the door to his office. Clarkson had fetched three glasses from the small kitchen, and he set them down carefully on the stained wood of Lutz’ desk.

Andrew Lutz sat heavily in his black office chair. He twisted the cap off the bottle of scotch and poured three fingers into each glass. The amber liquid glinted dully in the dim light. The powerful, peaty smell of the alcohol bit into his nose as he raised his glass and the two men in front of him raised theirs.

“Drink up,” he advised. In the one smooth motion all three of them drained their glasses.

The scotch blazed a fiery trail to his stomach.

To burn the nightmares away.

He reached to refill his glass.

THE END

 

***

Acknowledgements

Creative credit for this idea must be shared with my father Mark, who greatly enjoyed scaring the shit out of his children during long trips on dark country roads.

The Midnight Road: Chapter 3

Be sure to check out Chapter 1 and Chapter 2!

 

 

Lutz twisted the steering wheel violently, and the ponderous car screeched its resistance to such treatment, fishtailing wildly across the road in long, snaking arcs before he was able to get control.

Heart hammering from the near miss, the Sheriff pointed the car at the shallow gravel shoulder and pulled over. His hands were clutching the steering wheel in a white-knuckle grip, and it took a moment of effort to release them. He killed the engine and for a long moment the only sound was the quiet ticking of the engine as it cooled. Ahead of this curve, the trees would open on side at the beginning of the McGuire farm.

“Sorry about that guys,” he finally managed to say. Officer Clarkson was looking at him with pure astonishment, as if he had just seen a mountain lion in the farmlands of Iowa. In the rearview mirror, Billy met his gaze with a dark look as the two officers unclipped their seatbelts and stepped out into the humid summer night.

Immediately, something felt off, and the flesh on Lutz’ arms crawled. He motioned for Clarkson to join him, and released Billy from his cage in the backseat. Crossing to the trunk, Lutz pulled out the rifle and handed it to Deputy Clarkson. He grabbed the shotgun and two high-beam flashlights before closing the trunk. With a nod of understanding, he passed the shotgun and one of the flashlights to Billy Hudson.

All of the boys and most of the girls in this region learned to shoot before they were ten years old. Knowledge of firearms and firearm safety was deeply ingrained in a community where almost everyone’s deep freezers were stocked full of fresh venison every autumn. Lutz felt no hesitation about handing the shotgun over to the younger man. The kid had sense, even if he was overly fond of drag racing.

His driver’s side door was still open; Lutz reached in to turn off the headlights and then thought twice. The dim light was all they had beside the heavy Maglite he now carried opposite his service pistol. He left the cruiser’s lights running, closed the door to the car with a heavy thud, and the three of them turned to survey their surroundings.

That odd feeling was still creeping up the back of Lutz’ neck, but it was Billy who was able to give voice to his unease. “All the bugs are quiet,” the young man whispered. Lutz listened carefully and realized he was right.

This was high summer, the air was thick and humid and it should have been filled with the chirps of insects. The nightly concerto of katydids, cicadas, and crickets was usually enough to drive a man half-mad but here there wasn’t so much as the buzz of a mosquito. The only sound was the quiet tapping of the men’s boots as they began walking north towards Bud McGuire’s home.

The light from the headlights didn’t failed to penetrate the gloom ahead, and Lutz clicked on the high powered Maglite. Next to him, Billy shouldered the shotgun, his smaller flashlight pressed with one hand under the barrel. Deputy Clarkson was at the ready with the long Winchester rifle at his shoulder. Normally used when a deputy needed to put down a wounded animal on the side of the highway, Lutz was immensely grateful just now for it’s solidly reliable presence.

Lutz swept the flashlight in slow, careful strokes from one edge of the road to another. “Where did you say you saw this arm now, son?” he asked Billy.

“Umm…a little farther ahead, I think,” Billy’s voice came from his right. “Maybe another three hundred feet or so.”

Lutz continued methodically sweeping his flashlight from side to side. At the edge of the beam he could make out the burned rubber made by tires suddenly skidding across the road. The tracks continued up the road, fading away into the darkness.

The men were now far enough away from the relative safety of the car that it’s dim headlights could no longer assist in penetrating the gloom ahead. The beams from the two flashlights seemed to grow smaller and fainter as the walked in loose formation up the road.

Abruptly, the burnt rubber skids made by Billy’s tires came to an end about six feet in front of them. The three men all stopped together, staring dumbfoundedly ahead. In the beam of Billy’s flashlight, on the edge of the road as it faded into scrub grass, was the arm of a human female. It had been torn crudely at the elbow, and bloody strings of meat hung from one end. The other end was wearing a thin gold wedding band around the ring finger. The nails were chipped and embedded with dirt.

All the blood in his body seemed rush to his head, and Lutz could feel his heartbeat pounding sickeningly in his temples. Deputy Clarkson gave a violent heave and turned to vomit quietly into the ditch on the other side of the highway. Lutz squatted down on his haunches near the severed arm, and reached for the ballpoint pen he kept in his shirt pocket. Turning his head to take one more breath of unfouled air, he used the pen to lift one of the strips of flesh away from the wound. It had been almost shredded, and for one horrifying instant the image of Lutz’ late wife’s venison jerky came to his mind. Sour bile rose in his throat, and he fought against the urge to puke.

What animal could do this to a person? What animal would bother?

To his knowledge, there had never been a reports of bear in this area, and any wolves had been killed off generations ago. Coyotes would take a chicken or a duck once in awhile, but Lutz couldn’t recall a single instance of them going after a small child, let alone a grown woman. Besides, these weren’t the teeth or claw marks of a coyote. Whatever had done this had had much longer teeth.

A sudden snap from the forest on his left.

Lutz’ blood turned to ice in his veins. Clarkson heard it too. His rifle was back at his shoulder in an instant and he took a hesitant step towards the looming blackness. Next to him, Billy Hudson was utterly rigid, his fingers deathly white around the grip of the shotgun.

Another snap in the darkness. Had that one been closer?

He quickly swung the beam of the flashlight away from the grisly scene on the road, in the direction of the woods. It illuminated skeletal pine trees and waist-high thornbushes. The light shone eerily on the narrow trunks of the pines. With their ladders of broken branches, the trees became rows of menacing spears waiting to impale unwary travelers. The unnatural silence of the woods was oppressive.

Lutz peered into the darkness, willing the shadows to separate into shapes. He focused on the edges of the light, where it faded into a thick and impenetrable blackness. He thought he could see shapes in the dark, looming patches of shadow that were somehow blacker than the night. A hulking figure dancing just out of his field of vision.

But nothing came charging at them from out of the woods, and after a long moment Lutz relaxed his posture. Telling himself unconvincingly that it had been a deer, Lutz turned back to Billy. They now had evidence of a death, but not necessarily evidence of a crime. There was still work to be done before they could all go back home. “Did you say there were more bodies?” he asked.

Billy hesitated for a long moment and then replied, “Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. Just… just come see for yourselves.”

Clarkson looked bewildered by the answer, but rolled his eyes and shrugged, “Let’s get this done, Sheriff. This place gives me the fucking creeps.”

Hearing his deputy admit his apprehension somehow served to boost Lutz’ own confidence. The forest was now at his back, and he felt watchful eyes on them but he shook off his nerves. Nodding affirmation at Billy, he confirmed, “Let’s get this the fuck over with and go home.”

Leaving the lone, pitiful arm on the side of the highway, the men now began skirting the edge of the cornfield that bordered Bud McGuire’s home. The corn, which should have towered over them at a full height of sixteen feet, was sickly-looking and scrawny. This actually offered Lutz some comfort, the weakened stalks of the malnourished crops made it easier for the beam of his Maglite to pierce the fields.

Looming ahead, set back nearly a quarter mile from the edge of the highway, was the McGuire house. At first, it looked much the same as when Lutz had paid his visit eight years previously, but the disrepair of the home became increasingly apparent as they turned onto the loose gravel driveway.

At the start of the path was a rust-eaten mailbox, leaning precariously on its weathered wooden post. The McGuire’s had obviously failed to keep up with their correspondence. He wondered idly how Bud took care of things like electricity and plumbing if bills never came to their house.

The main house must have been truly lovely in some bygone age. It’s frame was a clean and crisp Colonial, with gabled windows and a large wrap-around porch. But the clean lines were obscured by a sagging roof and missing shutters. The porch was also drooping, with a dilapidated wicker couch sitting neglected to one corner. What must once have been cheerful white paint and blue trimming was now gray and peeling in great strips from the wood. The whole house had an air of exhaustion, like a once-proud old horse that no longer had the energy to hold its head up in the traces.

The front door was hanging open by one twisted hinge.

As the men approached Lutz held up one hand curled into a fist as a signal to hold position.His earlier jitters had cleared away, replaced by the curiously detached feeling he always felt when was approaching a crime scene that sure to be unpleasant. Normally it was a high school kid who partied too hard and wrapped his car around a tree. Or a trucker who came  home drunk and decided to put his wife in the morgue. After thirty years in the sheriff’s department, Lutz was no stranger to the violence inherent in men.

It wasn’t a man that tore off that child’s arm, though.

As if to confirm this chilling thought, Lutz shone his flashlight on the broken door of the house. Scratched deep into the wood, deep enough that the door was nearly splintered into pieces, were four parallel gouges running from the top of the doorframe to the bottom corner in one long, unbroken arc. The aluminium doorknob was twisted out of shape and hung uselessly to one side.

Beyond the door lay only more blackness.

***

Click here for Chapter 4!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 2

If you haven’t had the chance, be sure to check out Chapter 1!

 

Chapter 2

The twenty miles from the sheriff’s station to the McGuire farm passed in almost complete silence as the mostly darkened buildings of the small town gave way to the entirely darkened farmland that made up ninety percent of the area. Endless acres of corn and soybeans framed every small town in the county, with up to forty miles between communities. Lutz had spent his entire life in Richmond county, and for him the horizon would always be where the sky met the fields.

This limitless expanse of cultivated land was interrupted, rarely, by spotty patches of trees and scrub brush. Most of these “forests” were barely twenty acres wide, except the Iowa River Nature Preserve, which sprawled over nearly thirty miles of land on the western side of the highway. On the eastern side of the road was Bud McGuire’s farm.

Those woods had always given Andrew Lutz the creeps. It was an odd, silent place of skeletal pines and briar bushes, offering none of the secret trails and trickling streams of the patches of woods he had enjoyed as a boy. It was also unused by hunters, even in a region choked with hungry deer they had no desire to chew on the tough pine bark offered by the trees. Whatever “nature” the state government was intent on “preserving” was an open question.

The tiniest sliver of  waxing moon shone in the sky, not providing enough illumination to make out anything beyond the orange beam of the cruiser’s headlights. Each man was lost in his thoughts. Sheriff Lutz had conveyed the broad strokes of the matter to his deputy as they had pulled out of the station. At least one casualty. Likely more. Reports of a large animal. Possibly a mountain lion.

“A mountain lion, sir?” Officer Clarkson had asked in complete bewilderment when Andrew had told him. “Have you looked around, Sheriff? You see any fucking mountains? If we are going out to the Bud McGuire’s house, sir, you know as well as I do what we’re going out there to find.”

Yes. Lutz thought as he pulled onto the pitted asphalt of Highway 99.

I know exactly what we’re likely to find.

His hands itched for a cigarette but he pushed the urge aside. He allowed his thoughts to drift to Bud McGuire and tried to ignore the sinking feeling of dread in his stomach.

 

****

 

Andrew Lutz had been in his mid-twenties when he had first encountered Buddy McGuire. He had been out on patrol one afternoon, driving down the quiet streets of the town when he had seen a young boy in an abandoned lot, squatting in the dust next to a dog. The dog was lying on its side. Concerned that a beloved pet had been struck by a car, Lutz had parked and approached the pair.

The dog, a brindle mutt with wide, sad eyes was convulsing in the dust, panting shallowly as the young boy watched. Buddy could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but he showed not a flicker of emotion as he watched the dying animal.

“Is this your dog, son?” Lutz had asked kindly.

Buddy hadn’t answered. Most kids were unfailingly polite to police officers, as least back in those days, but Buddy simply ignored Lutz and continued watching the dog as it’s breathing became slower.

“Do you know what happened to this animal?” Lutz tried again.

Still nothing. But then Lutz had noticed a sheet of butcher’s paper balled up at the boy’s feet. Looking closer, he could also see scraps of some kind of ground meat. A picture of what had occurred here was beginning to form in his mind.

“Did you give poisoned bait to this dog, boy!” Lutz demanded, raising his voice for the first time.

At his shout, the boy finally turned at met Lutz’ eyes. The blank, expressionless look on the face of the child caused the officer to take a step back in surprise. There was no fear, no hint of intimidation at being addressed by a stranger, a policeman at that. There was nothing reflecting back in Buddy McGuire’s eyes.

Shaken, Lutz had reported the incident to then-Sheriff Bradley. Bradley had hooked his thumbs into the sagging waistband of his trousers and pointed out that it had been a stray animal, not a cherished pet. It was a terrible death to be sure, but local farmers often shot or poisoned strays that wandered onto their properties. The mutts would occasionally kill chickens, ducks, or even begin menacing the farmer’s children as they played outside. It was a necessary evil; one the boy had probably learned from watching his own father.

Lutz had gone back to the abandoned lot later that evening and buried the animal himself.

Over the next ten years, Buddy McGuire made a name for himself as one of those boys who are just really good at hurting people. When he was in sixth grade, an upperclassman had teased Buddy about his dirty, unkempt hair. In full view of the students and teachers, Buddy had walked over to the older boy, grabbed his wrist, and twisted until bones crunched.

 

Bud McGuire had been expelled in tenth grade, and was just in time to be swept up by the Vietnam War two years later. No one quite knows what he got up to over there, but when he returned to the town in ’75, it was as if a blanket of rage had settled itself on Bud’s shoulders. His father had died of cancer while he had been deployed, and Bud took over his family’s hundred or so acres. This small farm was barely have been enough to keep food in their bellies and clothes on their backs, but it had been in the family for three generations.

The soil, that thick black Midwestern soil, failed Bud McGuire. Corn, beans, wheat, every crop he planted seemed to wither and die at his touch. His fellow farmers prospered, the rich soil of the land sprouting healthy rows of strong green corn seemingly overnight.

Despite all of this, Bud somehow managed to land himself a wife. In the fall of 1977, a mere fifteen months after Bud came back from the war, a pale slip of a girl was seen hanging laundry on the front lawn of the McGuire farm. She had long, mousy brown hair and wide blue eyes that were forever fixed on the ground. Who she was, where she came from, was anyone’s guess. This would have maddened the women of the community, all of whom were obsessed with lineage, but no information on the girl could be found. She was just there one day, silently feeding chickens or beating rugs. She never came into town. Never spoke to anyone.

The second time Andrew Lutz encountered Bud McGuire in a professional capacity had been about a year after the arrival of this mysterious woman. The locals had thrown their hands up in exasperation; all of their kind gestures and housewarming casseroles had been met with a closed door. The McGuire’s had never been seen attending any of the many churches in the community, nor had the young woman appeared at the supermarket where the wives could pounce on her.

The initial confusion had given way to righteous indignation. Who did they think they were, holed up all high-and-mighty on their plot of land? Did the McGuires’s think they were too good to associate with their peers?

But as the weeks dragged on and still there was no sight of the young woman in town. Winter set in, and she was no longer seen outside by the few people who drove on the old county road. The offended feelings of the townspeople began to shift into concern. Was she okay? After all, Buddy had always had quite the temper, even before his years in the jungles of Vietnam.

Finally, in the spring of ‘78 the wives nagged their husbands until the husbands had called the city police. The police in turn, called the sheriff’s department to tell them that someone needed to go check on that girl, to soothe the nerves of their worried neighbors. Lutz had been the junior deputy on duty at the time, and had set off up Highway 99 to the McGuire farm.

Barely three miles from the floodplains of the Mississippi River, the ground in March was a quagmire of mud that had sucked at Lutz’ boots as he stepped out of the police cruiser. The house was a traditional farmhouse, two stories with sweeping gables that rose to create a third story in the attic. A large, wraparound porch upheld by thick wooden beams led up to the entrance. Lutz had looked around warily before climbing the stairs to the porch. He had knocked twice. No answer. This had been expected, and Lutz turned away from the house and went instead around the back, where sure enough a petite young woman was sorting fresh spring herbs into an array of bowls.

She had bristled like a startled cat when she caught sight of him, and Lutz had held his hands in front of him to show he meant no harm. “Good morning, ma’am. I’m Deputy Lutz, I’m with the sheriff’s department. Can I ask your name?” he spoke in a low, gentle voice, taking very slow steps towards the girl.

The girl’s eyes had been sky-blue as they looked into his with an unreadable expression.

“April”

The word had been little more than an exhale of breath, and Lutz had been about to ask her to repeat herself when the girl’s eyes had focused on something behind his shoulder and widened with alarm.

Lutz had turned to see Bud McGuire standing a few paces behind them. His black eyes had been just as blank and soulless as when he had gazed upon that dying dog. Leaning with casual menace on his shoulder, pointed at the sky, was a double-barreled shotgun with a long, sleek muzzle.

Lutz had thankfully resisted the urge to startle at the sight of the burly man. “Morning, Bud,” he said. With slow deliberate movements, Lutz had moved his hand to the pistol hoisted at his hip and thumbed open the clasp.

Bud had noticed, as he was meant to. His mouth twisted in a scowl, he had replied, “You’re not welcome here,” he had said in a flat, toneless voice, and Lutz had realized this was the first time he was hearing Bud speak.

“I’ll be leaving shortly,” Lutz had replied in an authoritative tone. “People have been wondering how you two have been getting on up here by yourselves all winter. Thought I’d come over and make sure everything was okay.”

“Fine. You’ve seen. Now go,” and with that, Bud had crossed the short distance between him and his new wife. Lutz had waited for him to hit her, if he did than the deputy could bring him into the station, but Bud just stood a few feet from the girl with a look of pure fury on his face.

April McGuire had been utterly silent during this encounter. Now she sprang from her table of herbs as if scalded. She knelt then, and Lutz saw something he hadn’t noticed before. Under the table was a large wicker basket lined with woolen blankets. Nestled sleeping in the blankets was a tiny, swaddled infant.

The girl snatched up the basket and fled into the house without another word. Bud had turned, the shotgun still balanced on his shoulder. “This is my property. Ain’t no crime been committed. You got no right to be here.” All of this was said in the same eerie, deadpan voice.

Bud’s words, spoken in the same eerie, deadpan voice, were all true. April McGuire had not accused Bud of anything. It wasn’t against the law to hold a firearm while standing on your own land. There was nothing more for Lutz to say, so he had retreated back to the cruiser and headed back to the station.

He hadn’t returned to the McGuire property since that day nearly eight years ago. The McGuire’s had been seen no more than a handful of times in those eight years, most often driving in Bud’s battered Dodge Ram as the family returned or drove away along Highway 99. At some point another child, a daughter, was added to their number. Neither child was ever seen at the local public school or the local Christian school.

Many times Lutz had driven slowly down the county road, hoping to see April McGuire or her children out in the yard. But the house had been shuttered and silent, and Lutz had been forced to keep driving. Over the years, most of the people in the community had long since stopped gossiping about the McGuires. Everyone sympathized with the lonely young woman isolated with her children and Bud’s anger. But these were also a conservative group who prized their right to privacy. As long as there was no apparent problem at the McGuire farm, everyone merely shook their heads and went about their lives, even though they all knew what the ultimate outcome was likely to be.

As Sheriff Andrew Lutz neared the McGuire homestead, he was cursing himself for not doing more, for not inventing some ridiculous reason to go check on April and her children.

He only hoped he wasn’t too late.

But it didn’t look as though that were the case.

“Uh, sir?” the voice of Billy Hudson suddenly snapped Andrew Lutz out of his guilt and grief. Consumed by his ghoulish thoughts, he was about to miss the blind curve in the road leading up to Bud’s farm. The heavy police cruiser was instead aimed directly at a large pine tree.

 

****

Be sure to check out Chapter 3!

The Midnight Road: Chapter 1

 

AUGUST, 1986

When Billy Hudson came screeching into the sheriff’s department on the night of August eighth, his cherry red Firebird came within a hairsbreadth of sideswiping the prized Cadillac belonging to Sheriff Andrew Lutz.

When he heard the squealing of tires, Sheriff Lutz looked up from the outdated magazine he had been absentmindedly thumbing through. He saw the fender of Billy’s Pontiac come swinging towards the driver’s side door of his Caddy, and was out of his desk and halfway through the station in one swift, fluid motion.

What the blazing hell was Billy thinking, Lutz thought with a look at his scuffed metal watch. It was barely minutes into Saturday morning, and Lutz’s first inclination was that the young man had been drinking. What kind of drunk driver willingly drives himself into police custody?

Before the wheels of the the Firebird had come to a full stop, the driver’s side door swung open and Billy Hudson tumbled out, falling to his knees before stumbling back to his feet.

“They’re dead!” Billy shouted breathlessly as he struggled for balance. “The McGuire’s, I think they’re all dead!”

Lutz’s mouth was already open to chastise Billy for nearly smashing in the door of his Cadillac, but at Billy’s words his jaws snapped shut with an audible click. Lutz took note of the scene before him.

He had been sheriff of Richmond County for more than ten years, having won reelection twice after Sheriff Bradley retired back in ‘75. In a county with forty thousand inhabitants spread over four hundred square miles, he spent most of his time on the highways, and so was well acquainted with Billy Hudson and his group of gearheads. Billy was a polite kid, always respectful, but that wasn’t always the case with the young people of the town.

The local teenage boys were entirely obsessed with their cars, and could often be found on one lonely country road or another late at night, drinking and drag racing and having a generally wild time. They weren’t bad kids necessarily, there just wasn’t much else to do in an area that was almost entirely given over to corn and soybean fields. At least once a month, Lutz or one of his deputies would have to go out and disperse the group once they got too rowdy and began blasting the speakers on their stereos loud enough to wake the long-suffering farmers in the area.

With a sinking heart, Lutz thought he knew what might have happened. “Which one of you hit them? Where is the accident?” he reached for the walkie-talkie at his hip, but Billy shook his head vehemently, “No one hit them sheriff. We weren’t racing tonight. Stu Lennox is in deep shit with his Daddy for wrecking his brand new Ford and –”

“Get to the point, Billy!” Lutz growed.

“Sorry, sir,” Billy’s began talking so quickly his words tripped over one another as they raced to get out, and he had to take a deep breath before continuing. “No one was racing tonight, Sheriff. I was out with Molly Greene, she lives over in Oakville. We went to the drive-in, and I took her home. On the way back I wanted to — I decided to take old Highway 99. I like how peaceful it is out there at night.”

Wanted to disturb the peace by revving up the Pontiac away from the troopers on the state highway is more like it. Sheriff Lutz thought but didn’t voice aloud.

“Anyway, I was over by the McGuire place, you know that big patch of woods out by that farm? I was driving out there and I– I thought I saw something cross the road. Like a dark shadow, bigger than a bear. Scared the shit out of me. I nearly lost control of the car.”

“There aren’t any bears around here son.” the sheriff replied skeptically, “Sure it wasn’t a deer?”

“It wasn’t no damn deer, sir. It moved like a cat, but it was hunched and sloping like a bear. I only saw it for a second, but it definitely wasn’t any deer I ever seen. It was taller than the roof of my car!”

What nonsense was this? Lutz ran a hand through his dark, thinning hair and looked down. It was then that he noticed the blood spattering Billy’s dusty workboots and the hems of his jeans.

Backing slowly away from the young man, Lutz edged his right hand ever so closer to the revolver holstered at his hip. He began eyeing the red Pontiac for dents and scratches, assuming this story of an animal was nothing more than misdirection. Finding none, he turned carefully back to the young man, maintaining a distance of ten feet.

“Okay, Billy. You’ve got about twelve seconds to start making sense before we start to have a problem. Why are you saying that the McGuire’s are dead? Whose blood is on your shoes, son?”

 

“I was trying to tell you, Sheriff. I was driving out on old Highway 99, and I saw this big hulking shape cross the road. I don’t know what it was sir, honest. But it spooked me bad enough that I damn near skidded out. When I finally got the car stopped on the shoulder, I looked around, but whatever it was had disappeared into that patch of forest next to the McGuire plot.

“I figured the same as you, sir, “ Billy continued, “Thought I was just seeing things late at night. But then in my headlights, I could see some kinda liquid on the road. Like oil…except when I looked again it wasn’t oil. It was blood.”

“Is it possible this animal or whatever you saw could have been wounded?” the sheriff asked.

“That’s the first thing I thought too, sheriff, and I hopped out of the car and grabbed my Winchester rifle out of the trunk. Figured I could at least put the poor creature out of its misery. But when I got closer to the blood on the road — when I got closer, I–” Billy started stuttering, and it was as if all the strength in his legs gave out. He sank almost gracefully to his knees, his oil-stained blue jeans sinking into the soft grass of the station’s lawn.

“Out with it, son. What did you see?” Lutz asked. He was trying to be patient but it was also imperative that they get to the scene of any crime as fast as possible.

Billy took a deep, shaking breath. “An arm, sir. On the side of the road, just beyond my headlight, was a lady’s arm. Ripped off at the elbow. It was still wearing – still wearing a wedding band.” At this Billy started shaking so badly the sheriff thought he might be on the verge of having a seizure.

He looked around for a moment, baffled at the turn of events his previously peaceful evening had taken. Then he squatted down on his haunches next to the trembling young man. Out of habit, Lutz sniffed the air around Billy Hudson’s head, almost hoping for the tell-tale whiff of whiskey or gin. But there was nothing.

Lutz turned and walked back into the sheriff’s department. “Clarkson!” he bellowed for his senior deputy. A moment later, Henry Clarkson’s head popped out of his small office, “Sheriff?”

Thank goodness it was Clarkson on duty tonight. Clarkson was a calm and capable officer, excellent in tense situations. The only African-American on the force, Henry Clarkson had a booming voice and a deep barrel chest that could be used to great effect on unruly suspects, but he also possessed a logical mind that ticked through every possible scenario before taking any action. Thank God it isn’t Miller, Lutz thought again, this time in relief that it wasn’t his younger, jumpier deputy sharing the station tonight.

“Is the cruiser gassed up? Good. Grab the rifle and the shotgun and get some flashlights as well. We’re going out to Highway 99; something may have happened over at Bud McGuire’s place.”

An additional benefit, Clarkson followed orders without peppering him with dozens of questions. The deputy nodded shortly, and turned to do as asked. In the meantime, Lutz went back outside and squatted down next to Billy Hudson, who was still kneeling on the lawn, his head in his hands. Lutz’ mouth had a sour taste and he longed for a cigarette.

 

“It’s okay, Billy. You did good, son. It’s okay. Just breathe,” Andrew Lutz murmured this litany over and over, remembering as he did the way his own father used a similar technique to calm skittish horses. Sure enough, after a minute or two Billy Hudson’s breathing began to slow, and the rigid tension along his spine relaxed. Billy took one or two more slow, rattling breaths and looked up at the sheriff.

“After I found the arm, I went into the house,” he said with grim resolve. “I – I can’t explain it, sir. But something — horrible happened in there. I’d like to go home now please, if that’s okay.”

Sheriff Lutz wanted to tell Billy Hudson that he could go home, have a hot shower and a stiff drink, it was not meant to be. “Sorry, Billy. We need you to show us exactly where all of this happened. There aren’t any lights out there, we’ll drive right past it in the dark.”

A flicker passed over Billy’s face, like he was choking back tears, but his jaw tightened and he just gave a short, hopeless nod.

Lutz called his junior deputy at home, rousing him out of a deep sleep with orders to haul his ass over and man the station while the two senior men went to check on the McGuire’s.

Then the three of them piled into the sheriff’s cruiser and headed north to Highway 99.

 

****

Chapter 2

I Made it – OneYearOneHundredBooks is One Year Old!

Last month I completed my goal of reading and reviewing one hundred new books over the course of a year! The feeling of setting and reaching a goal has been incredible satisfaction mixed with mild exhaustion.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I enjoyed creating and writing this website for the past year. I have tried blogging many times in the past, and it’s never stuck until now. Setting a goal and working hard to achieve it has helped me through some rough patches in the past twelve months, and I’m surprised by how much I learned about myself. In no specific order, here are a few observations from my first year of blogging.

1. ) Looking back, it is startlingly obvious that I was not in a good state of mind last year. My immigration process was taking forever, I had no friends in the city, and I spent the majority of my time binge-watching television shows. In the twelve months since, it’s as if nothing has changed but everything has changed. I am much happier and healthier both mentally and physically than I was last year. I’ve spent hours scavenging the city looking to books to complete my Goosebumps collection (only five to go!). I joined a book club, which has forced me to confront my social anxiety and join in on group conversations. I began volunteering for an amazing charity which allows me to spend time with rescue cats. And my permanent residency was finally approved! Now I am entering the terrifyingly exciting world of job hunting and trying to launch a new career in writing. Reading some of my earlier posts, it’s as if at some point over the past year I emerged from a darkness that I hadn’t even realized I was drowning in. There are still struggles of course, and there are times when I feel like I’m spinning out of control, but overall the general feeling is one of hopefulness.

2. ) Running this website helped me a lot this year. I’ve never been able to truly commit to writing a blog, mainly because I’ve never felt that my thoughts and ideas were terribly interesting or important. I have tried to stay away from tracking hits and likes, but it has still given me a boost of confidence to know that people visit my site and enjoy the things I’ve written. I don’t get crazy traffic, but it’s rare for me to go a day without at least one visitor. I am so proud and so grateful to all of the people who have journeyed with me through this year and more than one hundred books.

3.) I started this blog out of boredom, but it’s become surprisingly useful. As I said, last year was not the best time for me. I remember how homesick I was at the prospect of yet another holiday season away from my family. When I came up with the idea to start writing book reviews, I knew I needed to set myself a challenge. I never really expected anyone to actually read the reviews I was writing, but I was desperate for something, anything to occupy my attention. Fast forward a year later, and I am attempting to begin a career based around writing. I’ve applied for jobs for content writers, proofreaders, copy writers, and other related fields. One thing that I noticed was many of these companies ask for writing samples to be included with a resume and cover letter. So this website has had the unexpected benefit of doubling as a portfolio!

4.) I fully intend to challenge myself to read another hundred books next year, and I want to expand oneyearonehundredbooks as well. Starting next year, I will be welcoming guest bloggers to post their own reviews on this site. I am hoping to bring more variety and opinions to the table, and I’m always looking for contributors! If you’d like to write a book review or a book vs film comparison, please leave a comment or email me at oneyearonehundredbooks@gmail.com.

Keep an eye out in the next few days; I’ll be publishing lists for the best and worst reads of the year! Until then, check out 2017’s My Ten Favorite Books of 2017 and Ten Most Disappointing Books I Read in 2017

Happy reading everyone!

-Ashley

Ten Amazing Books to Take on a Camping Trip

Image result for campfire

I absolutely love camping. Every year I await the chance to get away from all the noise and crowds of the city and just drive into the middle of nowhere for a week. My husband and I are avid campers who are both from “indoor” families. Growing up, my mother’s idea of camping would have been a night at the Motel 8. I think part of that may have been because we already lived in the country, where open space, fresh air, and solitude were readily available. As much as I adore living in the Toronto area, I feel more at home in the country.

My husband and I generally go camping rather early in the season, around the end of June. This means that the temperatures average in the low twenties (70*F). For comparison, today it was 33* (93*F) in my Midwestern hometown.  There are numerous benefits to camping at the start of summer in Canada. First of all, schools are still in session so we don’t have to deal with hoards of families crowding the area. We’re both teachers, so our vacations generally mean trying to avoid small children as much as possible. Also, the insects haven’t had the chance to truly come out in force. And my remarkably Day-Glo pale skin has a better chance of avoiding a blistering sunburn. There are a myriad of benefits to camping in cool weather.

Nevertheless, it does have its drawbacks, mainly in that it isn’t exactly bathing suit season yet. This year we are headed to the Bruce Peninsula, near Lake Huron. If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Dawson felt when he went into the waters with the Titanic, take a quick dip in Lake Huron in June. Due to the cooler temperatures, recreational swimming isn’t really an option. Instead, we spend our time kayaking, naming the squirrels that invade our campsite, drinking beer, and reading.

The reading is what has most likely brought you to this post. As I would hate to become one of those horrid cooking blogs which feel the need to bore you with two thousand words of personal nonsense before giving you what you came for, let’s get to the books!

I’ve put together a list of ten books that would be perfect for reading around a campfire or while relaxing in a tent on a rainy day. The first five are all horror novels, because being scared in the woods is fun for everyone. The next five are more family-friendly, in case you don’t want your children waking up at three in the morning because a stick cracked in the darkness and they’re certain it was a beast from the depths of hell.

1) The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

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Nine year old Trisha is separated from her family while hiking in the woods of northern New England. Lost for days, dehydrated and scared, Trisha relies on her small radio for solace, tuning into the Boston Red Sox and her hero, pitcher Tom Gordon. But hunger and insects aren’t Trisha’s only problems. Something is stalking the small girl as she wanders through the forest. Something hungry and unnatural.

No list of horror novels is complete without at least one addition from Stephen King . This book is short (for King), atmospheric, and draws on the readers’ fear of the small noises that seem huge when you’re alone in the dark woods.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Keep on the path!

2) The Ritual by Adam Nevill

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A group of four middle-aged men reunite for a hiking trip in the wilds of northern Sweden. When they attempt to take a shortcut through a patch of untouched forest, they find more than they bargained for.

This novel was on my list of favorite books that I read last year. It is a masterpiece of suspense and dread as the four men realize that their formerly fit bodies are beginning to betray them, and they are unable to outrun that which is hunting them.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: If you see a creepy cabin in the middle of the woods, keep walking!

3) The Ruins by Scott Smith

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Hoping to find a lost friend in the jungles of Mexico, four friends stumble upon an ancient ruin and a creeping horror instead. As they become increasingly hungry and panicked, paranoia and hysteria begin to set in.

This novel is also a really great horror film by the same name. It is a creepy combination of psychological and physical horror. What is more dangerous, the jungle or each other?

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Don’t touch unidentified plants! 

4) Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

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Five short stories centered around the woods and the horrors within, combined with truly disturbing illustrations.

I wrote a review for this graphic novel just a few weeks ago, and I still can’t get it out of my head. The haunting prose and unsettling drawings come together to create a really creepy reading experience.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Curiosity killed the camper!

5) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

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A collection of short folktakes from around the world. This is still a favorite with older and braver children, and continues to send shivers up the spine of many an adult. Make sure you get an edition with the original artwork by Stephen Gammell, as they are an integral part of this reading experience!

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Close your eyes and hope for the best.

 

6) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine, and is a bucket-list item for any avid hiker. Bill Bryson is not an avid hiker, yet he and an equally unfit companion set off to complete the AT in the course of one summer. Bryson details the ecology and history of the area as well as his encounters with the local people and wildlife.

Not so long ago, the Appalachian Trail was a relatively unknown area of the United States, favored only by experienced backpackers and campers. From what I hear, it is now overridden by idiot hipsters who think a hiking GPS makes them an expert. This book is a fun expedition through the woods from someone who knows the does not belong there.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: A sense of humor is essential.

7) Hatchet by Gary Paulson

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This ever-popular children’s novella centers on a boy named Brian who finds himself stranded in the wilderness of Northern Canada after his bush-plane crashes. Armed with only a small hatchet, Brian must find a way to survive until he can be rescued.

Hatchet has been a hit with people of all ages for more than thirty years because we as readers identify so strongly with Brian. His early cluelessness and mistakes are the results of a boy growing up away from nature, as so many of us do. This would be a fun novel to read with children.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Never give up.

8) The Call of the Wild by Jack London

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Buck the dog is kidnapped from his easygoing life in Santa Clara and forced into work as a sled dog in the unforgiving winter of the Yukon. Faced with constant danger from the climate, the wildlife, and the cruelty of both his fellow dogs and man, Buck must struggle to survive and reclaim his position as master.

Another book that is very popular with young readers, The Call of the Wild is an enduring story of survival and spirit. Because the main character is a dog, he is easy to root for and we celebrate Buck’s victories as much as we weep for his setbacks.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Be kind to animals.

9) Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Laura Ingalls and her family live in a small wood cabin in the forests of Wisconsin in the mid 18th century. This book describes the struggle and successes of the Ingalls family as they work hard to make a life for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Eternally beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder as captured the imaginations of generations of children with her Little House books. They are a good reminder of how much the world has changed, and yet how many things remain the same.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: Your family is there to love and protect you.

10) The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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In the dense forests of medieval Russia, a small village is buried in snow for eight months out of the year. Vasilisa Petrovna grows up wild in the woods, giving offerings to the various sprites and spirits that inhabit the wilderness. When a Catholic priest begins to interfere with village life, Vasilisa must make a choice that will affect her entire future.

I reviewed this novel earlier in the year and I absolutely adored it. A dark fairy tale with religious undertones, The Bear and the Nightingale features a wonderful protagonist who never behaves quite as expected.

How To Stay Alive in the Woods: When in doubt, trust your instincts.

Well there you have it, folks! I hope that you enjoy some of these books on your next venture into the forests. Whether you are looking for a scare or for more tame entertainment, you can’t go wrong with a good book! I’ll be on hiatus next week while I am on a camping trip. I hope to return with more recommendations for our readers who love the woods.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book vs Film: Ready Player One

 

Last week I sat down in my living room to watch Ready Player One. Twenty minutes in I was ready to throw in the towel, but decided to stick out the two-hour running time in the hopes that things might improve.

 

Things did not improve.

 

As soon as the credits rolled, I picked up my copy of Ernest Cline’s novel and began to read it for the third time in the hopes of scrubbing the events of the evening out of my mind. I began taking notes as I read, trying to pinpoint the exact reasons why I found myself so enraged by Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the book. In no specific order, here are my thoughts on Ready Player One the film vs the novel. I would recommend either watching the film or reading the book before viewing this review. Spoilers abound.

1. It was like watching  a completely different story. Prior to watching, I had been told by several people that the movie was relatively enjoyable as long as you didn’t expect it to follow the book too closely. I took that to mean that there would be minor plot points that varied from the books in order to make the film flow a bit smoother. For example, in the Harry Potter films, it makes sense that they chose to omit certain characters and most of the Quidditch games; if they hadn’t every movie would be a long rambling mess. However, Spielberg seems to have taken the original source material for Cline’s novel, ripped out approximately thirty pages of it and used that to build his narrative. The heart of Ready Player One was completely lost in translation.

2. The opening scene did not instill me with confidence. During the exposition of the film, instead of a series of puzzles that require the characters to rely on their intelligence and problem-solving skills, we are treated to a twenty minute action sequence. There are giant dinosaurs, King Kong, and countless CGI explosions that must be navigated for the heroes in order to make it through the first gate. Right away, I could see that something had gone horribly wrong. The film leaves out the equal playing field that James Halliday set up for all the users of OASIS. In the novel, he placed the Copper Key on a planet where a) everyone had free and unlimited access to travel and b) violence was not permitted. This essentially meant that no matter how strong and high-ranking your avatar , the only thing that would allow you to reach the first key was your wit and your obsessive knowledge of obscure pop culture. In the film, all of that has been replaced with yet another generic car chase.

3. Spielberg missed the point of the Easter Egg hunt. Speaking of obscure pop culture, let’s talk about that. Ernest Cline’s novel delved so deeply into the realm of 1980’s music, television, film, and video games that one would need a submersible to follow after him. While reading the book, I found myself having to Google Japanese anime from the 1970’s. I had to familiarize myself with the fundamentals of text-based video games. When Wade or one of his fellow gunters finally solved one of the riddles, it was  genuinely impressive, because who the has the energy to devote their time and energy so completely to learning about this stuff? How many people can read a limerick and understand that it is referencing the limited edition cover of a thirty year old video game? In the novel, the difficulties that Parzival, Art3mis, and Aech face are actually difficult. When watching the film, all I saw was the growing trend of referencing things in a nostalgic way so that viewers will feel smart when they understand the references. Literally everyone watching the film knows the Tyrannosaurus from Jurassic Park. Or the Iron Giant. Or a DeLorean. There’s no challenge there. Spielberg dumbed down the pop culture references to the point where my six year old nephew could have found Halliday’s egg. It seems like he was so afraid of alienating any part of his audience, perhaps specifically the overseas audience, that he was unwilling to take even the smallest risk. Instead he chose to pander to the lowest common denominator.

4. He also missed the point of all the pop culture references. Let’s keep talking about pop culture. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a certain kind of individual to commit themselves so entirely towards one goal. In the novel, Parzival notes that he has seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail something like 178 times. He’s beaten every classic video game. He’s watched every episode of every season of every series that was even remotely popular in the 1980’s. Multiple times. Who does that? Answer – a person who has become mentally unhinged. What Ready Player One fails to truly depict is that the people searching for Halliday’s Egg are deeply unhealthy individuals. Outside of the OASIS, where your avatar can be as handsome, fit, and powerful as the you wish, the actual people are described as overweight, sallow, and anti-social. Ernest Cline’s novel can be seen as a cautionary tale against people living their entire lives in a virtual reality. The film does attempt to address this by having the main characters interact in the real world far sooner than in the book, but at the end of the day this is still Hollywood. Wade isn’t exactly a fashion model, but he’s reasonably healthy and good-looking, and does not seem to be crippled by the type of shyness that exists when you never interact with a person in a real environment. Same goes for the other characters. For a group of people who live their entire lives in isolation, they’re remarkably well-rounded.

5. He missed the point of the entire book. My biggest problem with Spielberg’s interpretation of Ready Player One is that the stakes just don’t seem that high. Parzival and his fellow gunters are searching for the egg so they can get rich. There’s also the situation with the “Sixers” who are trying to find the egg so that they can use the OASIS to make a lot of money by selling advertising space and charging fees for users. This is all very sad and capitalistic and greedy. But also, so what? It would be like if everyone who was currently online went to digital war over net neutrality. If we won, awesome. But if we lost, it’s shitty but it’s not the end of the world. The film fails to convey the novel’s premise that the global society we now know and enjoy has fallen apart. Global warming is causing widespread famine. The rural parts of America are lawless Mad Max style wastelands. People are being sold into indentured servitude for failing to pay their bills. And in the midst of all this poverty, hunger, and destitution is an escape from reality in the land of the OASIS. Not only that, but it offers free school for the entire nation. Let me repeat that. It offers free school for the entire nation. So in Cline’s novel when Parzival and the others explain that if the Sixers get the egg it will have a drastic and negative impact on society as a whole, we as readers understand the stakes. In the film it comes across more like a millennial wet dream of sticking it to the man. To be fair, Spielberg includes the scene where Sorrento and his cronies blow up Wade’s housing unit and kill hundreds of people. But the scene has absolutely zero emotional weight because not five minutes later we are introduced to Samantha and the resistance and no one stops for even a moment to grieve for the lives lost. The romantic subplot of the novel becomes the driving force of the film. Other significant deaths from the book are omitted entirely, which only underlines the fact that Spielberg was willing to take absolutely no risks with his nice, safe, family-friendly motion picture. The final battle has all the urgency and intensity of a boss-fight in a video game. It’s frustrating if you lose, but it’s not the end of the world.

6. On a lighter note… I’ve ragged a lot on the film, so I need to take just a second to talk about the few aspects that didn’t piss me off. The scene that took place in The Shining was visually amazing. Implausible, since Aech would most definitely have been aware of the the film’s plot-line, but it looked really cool. Crap, turns out I can’t even give a compliment without unintentionally back-handing it. The movie looked very…expensive? I did like the gravity-free dance sequence. Okay I give up.

A friend recommended Ready Player One to me a few years ago, and I became an overnight fan. The book is fun, inventive, smart, and exciting. When I heard that the film was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, I immediately felt uneasy. To be honest, I haven’t trusted Spielberg or his artistic vision since he Crystal Skull-fucked the Indiana Jones series. So there was definitely an element of bias when I sat down to watch Ready Player One last week. At the same time, I did try to give it a fair shot. In the end, I was remarkably disappointed. I do not think I will be re-watching that film any time soon. And to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, I cannot recommend the novel highly enough.

Halfway There! A Look Back at the First Fifty Books of 2018

Earlier this week I posted the fiftieth book review to this blog. I am proud to say that I am officially halfway towards my goal of reading one hundred new books this year! I celebrated by taking a break and re-reading Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, but now I’m back on schedule and will be posting more book reviews later this week! Before I do that, I wanted to take a moment and reflect back on the past five months and share some of the things I’ve learned and noticed while writing reviews for this website.

For the first time since university, I find myself in a position where I’m actually expected to say something relevant about what I am reading. This has had the unexpected consequence of taking something that I generally use as a relaxation tool and turning it into a more mindful exercise. I had to start keeping notes on the books that I read, so that I had something to use as an outline when writing reviews. I’ve had to set myself daily page minimums to ensure that I reach certain goals on time. Since I am currently only working part time, this has not been especially difficult, and I’ve been able to hit the halfway point of fifty books well ahead of schedule. I am interested to learn how my current reading pace will be affected when (if?) I am ever able to go back to work full time. One positive that I’ve noticed is that I feel as if I’ve accomplished something at the end of the day when I’ve hit my page minimum, or finished a book, or completed and published a review. This website has helped to give me a small amount of motivation during the endless immigration process. Plus, the added bonus is that now my endless reading feels less like a waste of time.

I’ve also begun to note and keep track of my own reading patterns. I’ve always been drawn to the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres, but I recently did a quick tally and realized that nearly half of all the books reviewed for this site fall into one of those three genres. The next largest category was historical fiction, with nine reviews written. Since part of my goal this year has been to expand my reading boundaries, I’m going to try to branch out a little more into contemporary fiction and nonfiction. However, I expect that fantasy and horror will continue to dominate. A reader’s choice of book can tell a lot about their state of mind. I’ve been increasingly isolated and lonely this past year, so it comes as no surprise that I would gravitate towards novels that function largely as escapism.

Because of the fact that most of the books I read are in the same genre, I’m finding it difficult to write reviews without coming across as repetitive. I’m trying to improve my writing skills by use of this website, and this is where I am running into difficulties. I also noticed I’ve given the vast majority of books a ranking of 3/5 or higher. There are two reasons for this. First, I typically only read books if they have a Goodreads rating of 3.5 or higher. So in a way I guess I’m skewing the odds a bit there. Also, it takes a lot for me to truly dislike a book, and the only reason I will rate it very low is if it is either horribly racist, utterly nonsensical, or just plain boring. In the coming days, I am hoping to learn how to review and rank the novels that I review with a more discerning eye. As it is, I read for pure enjoyment and I derive enjoyment from nearly everything I read.

In order to achieve that goal, I’m thinking of taking requests for book reviews. I would open a new link on the homepage by which people could then leave a comment leaving the title and author of a book they would like to see reviewed by oneyearonehundredbooks. It’s just a thought, and I would have to figure out how to set that up, as one more thing that I have learned is that I am stunningly bad at website design.

I’m really looking forward to the next fifty books, and seeing what new adventures the rest of the year will bring. To those reading this, thank you for your continued support.

Happy reading everyone!

Ashley

 

I Re-read a Bunch of Goosebumps Books and You Should Too!

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When I was young, I didn’t have many friends. My family moved around a lot, and I lived in four states before I was ten years old. I was always the new kid at school, and it didn’t help that I was awkward as hell. So I spent a lot of time in my childhood reading. My favorite place in any town was either the library or Barnes and Noble. To this day, I find the smell of old books to be incredibly comforting. Around eight years old, one of my absolute favorite books was R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was a horror fanatic from a very early age, and I gobbled up these short little books like candy. I had a huge collection of them which I prized greatly.

Fast-forward a few years, and I am heading off to university. I left all of my things, including my well-stocked bookcase, at my parent’s house. However, a few months later they decided to move again. They boxed up all my things and put them in the basement of their new house.

The basement flooded that year. Most of my childhood toys, clothes, and other mementos were ruined. Including all my books. It was devastating.

I open with this story not to depress you but to explain why now, as an adult, I am working to collect the entire Goosebumps series. It’s become a bit of a passion project, because as a lonely, socially awkward child, my books were my refuge.

Last week I took a trip to the local thrift shop and stumbled across a gold mine. Nearly twenty-five of the original Goosebumps books were sitting on the shelves, waiting for me. I bought them all and walked home with them shoved into a backpack. My husband, whose feelings towards my book hoarding can best be described as amused confusion, asked if I actually planned on reading any of them.

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So I did. I sat down and read twenty-five Goosebumps books over the course of five days. None of them will count towards my goal of reading one hundred books this year, but I’m ahead of schedule and wanted a break.

While I was reading, a made a few notes as to why I think these books were so popular for children in the ’90s. And why they can still be a good entry into chapter books for kids today.

  1. They’re scary but not too scary. I have always been obsessed with the horror genre. Books, movies, comics, anything. Goosebumps was probably my first foray into books that could be considered “scary”. And to a second or third grader, they are pretty creepy. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, basically any classic monster has its place in Stine’s universe. He has an innate sense of how to chill his young readers without scarring them for life. His characters aren’t always brave, either. Sometimes they turn tail and run, just like we would. But at the end of the day, no one in the Goosebumps novels is ever in mortal danger. In Stine’s Fear Street series, which was written for an older audience, the characters often die. But the Goosebumps books are wonderfully innocent in that regard.
  2. For a child, the characters are someone to look up to. One thing that I never noticed as a kid was that every single main character in the Goosebumps books is twelve years old. Every single one. This was not an attempt to appeal to twelve year olds. By the time I was twelve I had long since moved on to Stephen King. No, R. L. Stine understood that children around seven to nine years old look up to and admire the “big” kids. Twelve is the perfect age for adventures. They’re not quite teenagers, but have more freedom than younger kids. They have the problem-solving skills that would generally allow them to behave properly in a scary environment. But they aren’t so old that they are preoccupied by the trials and tribulations of puberty.
  3. Their problems were our problems. Not the ghosts and werewolves. But a major running theme of the Goosebumps books deals with bullies. And annoying siblings. Unfair teachers and parents who don’t believe their children. Getting grounded. Being embarrassed in front of your classmates. All of the things that seemed to fill up the whole world when you were a kid. Everyone remembers the desperate unfairness of being a kid and having little power to change your circumstances. I was surprised by how strongly I responded to these children being bullied by their peers or older siblings. I think it would resonate just as much with today’s kids. Especially since the bullies or mean siblings always seem to get their comeuppance.
  4. The books are very predictable. This is important when you’re trying to encourage young children to read. Especially if you are also trying to scare them, but not too much. There are a few things that happen in every single book. At some point, one of the characters will say, “What could go wrong?” There will be a very scary sequence that turns out to be a nightmare. There will always be a heavy use of foreshadowing. And nearly every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger. As an adult, the cliff-hanger chapter comes across as terribly lazy. But for a child, it’s key. It keeps them reading. Keeps them engaged and turning the pages.

In the end, I had a blast reveling in childhood nostalgia with the Goosebumps books this week. I’m going to continue trolling my local Salvation Army with the hopes of eventually completing my collection. I’m looking forward to reading them one day to my own children. Hopefully we can all be scared together.

Happy reading everyone!