Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reviews: Lindqvist's Horror Short Story "Itsy Bitsy;" SF classic "Flowers for Algernon"

As far as vampire books and movies go, nothing can touch the cold, brutal elegance of Let the Right One In. With Halloween around the corner, I may have to watch it again (the Swedish version; I hear the American film is quite good as well but I'm not interested). In the meantime, author John Alvide Lindqvist has a free horror short story available, Itsy Bitsy.

Frank is a paparazzi photographer intent on getting a debt-clearing photo of an actress and her  secret boyfriend. To this end, he's set up camp in a tree on the property beside theirs, with his camera trained on their pool area. When the elusive couple finally appears, Frank clicks away. The results are not what he expected, and when he returns to the spot to figure out what happened, he finds that he was not the only one waiting for someone to come to the pool.

I read reviews before I buy. While I try to avoid spoilers, in this case, it was the lack of spoilers which threw me -- not well reviewed, most readers found the story vague and confusing, and often said they had no idea what happened at the ending or what it meant.

I decided, hey, it's free, and Lindqvist's style and imagination appeal to me, so I'll give it a shot. That said, if I had gone in without reading reviews, I would have figured out what was going to happen by the middle. Instead, I thought that I must be wrong, and I waited for the inevitable cloud of doom to descend on the ending.

While I can't speak for everyone, obviously, let me say this -- the ending is not ambiguous. Lindqvist laid the groundwork and left clues all along, and while the requisite horror "monster" in this case is completely strange and somewhat amorphous, it's just what he puts on the page.

Was I horrified? Not really. The last horror book to electrify me was Hill's Heart-Shaped Box. That's a pretty high bar. But I was quite fascinated and, truly, felt tension and dread at Frank's demise. In addition, the style is fantastic (I'm starting to believe all Swedish writers have a terrifically crisp style that turns words and phrases on their heads) and the pace is brisk. It's not bad, it's a quick read, and it's free. Get it.


Flowers for Algernon is often called science fiction (sure, sure, I can see it), but it's far more potent as an allegory for man's search for knowledge. To that end, Keyes often clubs the reader over the head with references to the Biblical Garden of Eden, characters in the university's science department who are arrogant and cold (and therefore destined to fail), and Charlie's own insistence on being seen as a real person. Despite that, Keyes has written an astoundingly powerful and clean, subtle story arc that delivers the message and leaves the reader transformed and emotionally wrecked.

Yes, I was a wreck when Flowers ended. All along, Keyes kept me uncomfortably glued to the page, with scene after scene of the awful, joking treatment that Charlie receives at the hands of his "friends" in the bakery or the distant repugnance he's handled with by the professors at the university where he receives experimental surgery to turn him into a genius. Deft and knowing, Keyes exploits our fears of the mentally retarded, our feelings of superiority, and puts us squarely in Charlie's place. And when Charlie's intelligence grows--past the point where it can be measured--he is once again beyond the realm of understanding, and left alone, by himself, to bear the brunt of fear and hostile jealousies.

Charlie's humanity is apparent throughout, and his struggle to understand, in an extremely short amount of time, what has happened to him not just after the surgery but during his entire life, is compelling. With flashbacks to a tortured, misunderstood childhood and present-day fumblings with women, he is a fully-rounded character like no other in fiction.

I'll make the assumption that everyone, even if you haven't read it, knows Charlie's and Algernon's stories. But that's no reason not to read this; while I felt Buck's Pavilion of Women was thought-provoking (see my previous review), Flowers far outstrips it and packs a wallop of an emotional punch, as well.


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