"eight silent ways to kill a man"
(Paul Tremblay, Joe Haldeman, Howard David Ingham)
Apologies for the lack of a newsletter last week - an embarrassing scheduling fail on my part, where I’d booked tickets for the cinema on Saturday night and then immediately forgotten I’d ever done so. By the time I got back, it was far too late to write anything.
(That said, Another Round was outstanding - I can’t recommend it enough.)
Here’s what I’ve been reading this week:
Survivor Song - Paul Tremblay
When, where and why I bought it: on Kindle, for £1.99. I’ve read a couple of Paul Tremblay’s books - he’s one of the breakthrough authors in modern horror fiction - and while I have a few issues with his style, his books are always reliably entertaining.
What it’s about: it’s about a strain of super-rabies that infects people within an hour, turning them into something a bit like zombies, and specifically it’s about Natalie, a heavily pregnant woman who gets bitten just before her due date.
What it’s really about: how ill-prepared society is for new pandemics; female friendship; the terror of system breakdowns.
What it’s like to read: uneven. There are sections of Survivor Song that are absolutely prescient - that predicted elements of the COVID-19 response with an eerie accuracy. The masking and hygiene protocols, the overwhelming of hospitals, the conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxers: they’re all here, and so vivid that it’s hard to believe Tremblay wrote the book back in 2019.
And sections of the book are terrifying - instilling a bone-deep sense of dread - while at least one scene felt viscerally horrible, despite being surprisingly restrained.
Even so, I’m not the biggest fan of Tremblay’s dialogue, which sometimes feels stilted, and some of the action scenes here felt rushed, and disorientating as a result (something that wasn’t helped by the whole novel being written in the present tense).
Really, I think my main issue with Survivor Song was that it felt like a clash between writing and cinema: the book’s at its weakest when it tries to depict attacks by the infected, riffing off a hundred better scenes on film. But when Tremblay leaned into the former, Survivor Song really worked for me.
The Forever War - Joe Haldeman
When, where and why I bought it: twice, once for 99p on Kindle, again for 99p in a second-hand shop in central Bristol. It was recommended by a friend who’d been on the Galley Beggars’ Critical Reading, Critical Writing course, who said it was the kind of thing he’d never normally have picked up but he loved it anyway.
What it’s about: it’s about a war with an alien species in a far-flung bit of the galaxy, which requires some complex space travel whose science I don’t really understand, but that relates to relativity. You’re on the ship nine months, but in that time ten years pass - a bit like Interstellar, you know.
What it’s really about: Vietnam. Haldeman was a veteran, and the novel is his attempt to represent how it felt coming back from the war to a world that felt utterly alien.
What it’s like to read: dazzling. One of the novel’s strengths is how it hooks you in with what feels like a conventional war narrative - in many way feels like Starship Troopers, and so it’s no surprise that Haldeman wrote it as a response to Henlein’s novel - only to twist off in a much more interesting (and less fascist) direction.
There are sections of the novel that are well above my head - if you can parse a sentence like “we were decelerating at 1.5 gravities and our velocity relative to that collapsar was a respectable .90c” then you’re cleverer than me - but it doesn’t matter. Haldeman’s got enough of a grip on the emotional core of his story that it works even if you’re not a reader of hard sci-fi. Recommended.
Cult Cinema - Howard David Ingham
When, where and why I bought it: on Kindle Unlimited, for which I’ve a free three-month subscription. Incidentally, Kindle Unlimited is pretty hopeless, as most publishers aren’t on it, but occasionally you find a gem like this.
I knew about Howard Ingham from We Don’t Go Back, his excellent guide to folk horror movies, in which he proved himself an unusually discerning critic. I’m also a big fan of fiction cults, so when I saw his book’s subject matter it was an easy sell.
What it’s about: it’s about fictional cults, how they’ve been represented in cinema, and what they reflect about the world.
What it’s really about: it’s about Howard Ingham’s experience in the UK evangelical church, and the habits it ingrained in him - specifically, this is his attempt to process his experience through the cultural artefacts that fascinate him most.
What it’s like to read: troubling. So much of Ingham’s experience in the UK church was familiar, and his critiques of evangelical culture are absolutely dead-on (there’s not space to do them justice in this letter, but this is a good starting point).
Like him I’ve been challenged lately by some of evangelicalism’s toxic elements - after years subscribing to them more or less willingly - which meant Cult Cinema felt like waking up, and not especially liking what I saw. And like him, I’m fascinated by how cults are depicted on film, and Ingham’s use of these helped me understand why they’ve had such an eerie resonance for me over the years.
So I had to remind myself that Ingham’s experience of church culture was much more negative than mine, and his account is ultimately a personal one. I’ve worked through many of the issues that he describes, and made my peace with them. Even so, I’m glad I read Cult Cinema: it was encouraging to know that I’m not alone, and that a healthy scepticism can be a good thing. It’s a terrific, if disquieting, piece of work.
Until next time,