Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: Red Rain by R.L. Stine

Red Rain by R.L. Stine

Brief Synopsis: Red Rain is a rare attempt by R.L Stine at writing for an adult audience. Travel writer Lea Sutter visits a remote island off the coast of South Carolina known as Cape Le Chat Noir when a hurricane hits, devastating the island and all its inhabitants. She finds two young twin boys who state that they lost everything in the hurricane, and she quickly adopts them and brings them back to her home in Long Island. Soon after, the sweet, grateful boys appear to be more than meets the eye and the Sutters' lives begin to fall apart.

Published: 2012

Format read: eBook, read alternately on my Kindle Paperwhite, my iPad, and my iPhone

Comparison: It is like a grown-up version of the Fear Street books by the same author. Those books were written for a teen audience and have none of the sex or profanity found in Red Rain, but the bones are similar. It is natural to compare almost any modern, mainstream horror work to that of Stephen King, and I think that holds up here. The style is different, but there were moments when I was reminded of some of King's work, especially when he went for the gross-out instead of the scare.

Review: I have a sudden urge to go out and buy an Ace of Base cassette and watch a few episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon while I write this review in my hot-pink and purple Trapper Keeper. Why? Because it is somewhere around 1994 in my mind.

This happens whenever I think of R.L. Stine.

Like everyone my age, I grew up in the nineties, and like everyone my age, that meant my bookshelf was full of R.L. Stine's Fear Street and Goosebumps books. I ordered my first Goosebumps book, Say Cheese and Die, from a Scholastic book order at the ripe old age of eleven and quickly graduated to the Fear Street series as well.

They were okay, I guess.

I may or may not have been a member of the official Fear Street Fan Club, which meant that I got two brand new Fear Street books in the mail every month along with some other little macabre trinket.

I may or may not have obsessively checked the mail so often that I practically wore the hinges off my mailbox.

I may or may not still have a little glow-in-the-dark skeleton key ring I got in one of those packages.

I may or may not still have a handful of Fear Street books camping out on my shelf along with some dusty Christopher Pikes and Caroline B. Cooneys.

May or may not.

So, let us just say that I am well-versed in writings for young people by Mr. Stine, though I am old and rusty and mortgage-paying at this point in my life. Even so, I decided to reread one of the Fear Street books just for the sake of comparison to Red Rain. Not for fun, you understand. Never for that.

Boo does not like for me to have fun.

What I found was this: Some things never change, and some writing techniques, weak as they are, work on adults as well as teenagers.

Some things in common:
1) There is a town in which strange, supernatural things happen and nobody seems to question what the heck is going on.

The Fear Street books are all set in Shadyside (your first clue) and the protagonists all live on Fear Street (duh) and attend Shadyside High. There are murders, ghosts, ancient burial grounds, hidden identities--you name it--going on in this town, and the National Guard never comes and shuts them down. Not one single time. 

In Red Rain, the story begins on island Cape Le Chat Noir about which Lea Sutter quickly tells the reader no one visits because it is "totally creepy." It turns out that Cape Le Chat Noir was host to a devastating Labor Day hurricane in 1935 and there's another one heading right for it. Oh, and they have some ritual called "Revenir" that brings people back to life. No big deal. Of course, when the hurricane hits at Cape Le Chat Noir, the National Guard does come. They don't do anything about the apparent zombies, but they come. At least there's that.

2) Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. This is something that R.L. Stine is notorious for, from the very simplest of his books for kids all the way up to his small handful of adult works. Cliffhangers and twist endings are his bread and butter, and Red Rain is no different. Most of the cliffhangers, at least in the first act, end up having "false bottoms" that are quickly dispelled in the first lines of the subsequent chapter. In the Fear Street comparison sample I read, Sunburn, this was almost laughable at times. It is still effective; you want to see what happens next even if it is just to see how he worms out of the obvious.

I've drawn out the general shape of the narrative (written sloppily on the back of an index card because that's how I roll):

Index Card Analysis, patent pending
Again, this is not to say that this pattern isn't effective. It gets the job done--you want to keep turning the pages and you end up devouring the book in half the time you expected. That works for him because he writes probably three or four books a day between breakfast and lunch and he wants you to run out and buy them all. I imagine that the above structure is also how he is able to write so much so quickly--he has the One Outline to Rule Them All.

3) R.L. Stine is not exactly what I would call a master of physical description. In Red Rain and in every Fear Street book I can recall, he "cheats" on describing his characters by likening them to celebrities. Red Rain's Mark Sutter is frequently referred to as "Gyllenhaal" and referenced as "looking like that guy from Brokeback Mountain." This kind of thing gets under my skin as a writer because it's such a blatant cop out. If he looks like Jake Gyllenhaal, use your chops to write a description of Jake Gyllenhaal that the reader can see. Does it really matter that he looks like Jake Gyllenhaal? What if the reader abhors Jake Gyllenhaal? Give us the building blocks and we readers can bring our imagination to the table to build our own version of Mark Sutter, which may or may not look like Jake Gyllenhaal, but who will be handsome, have dark hair, and look younger than he is.

The bigger problem with this is that it seriously dates the work and irrevocably connects the character to the celebrity mentioned, for good or ill. One of the Fear Street books likens a teenage character meant to be a stunning, youthful beauty with silky black hair and strong cheekbones to looking like Cher.

Yeah...Cher don't look like that no more.

I have to say that there were some moments in Red Rain in which I was pleasantly surprised by a string of pretty words. This is not Stine's forte, and it doesn't need to be for him to accomplish his aims. Still, I'm a lit-fic writer and reader, and pretty words matter to me enough that finding a few in the prose makes me cock my head and say, "Aww," while growing in affection for the book. Then someone would lose a limb or something and I'd forget what the pretty words said, but not that they were there.

Red Rain itself:  
On the whole, Red Rain is not a work of high literature, but it is not meant to be. R.L. Stine mentioned in an interview that he wrote this book for people like me, kids who grew up with his work and are now in their twenties and thirties and still looking for a few chills and thrills from their old pal Bob Stine.

In that respect, I liked the book. It felt comfortable and familiar, and I got a little taste of the buzz I used to get when I would crack open a brand new Fear Street. The story was predictable, the characters more caricatures, and the supernatural elements strained the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief (and I have a capacity for suspension of disbelief that could overflow an ocean. I'm a very forgiving reader). The book wasn't so much scary as it was gross. Stephen King once said, "I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."

I would say that he would have given R.L. Stine a high-five on some of the gross-outs in this book.

I would recommend reading this book at a fast pace. Some books are made to be savored, but the longer you take with books like this one, the longer you have to think about it and it just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Swallow it fast and let it burn your throat on the way down, that's the way it was meant to be consumed.

After reading through Red Rain and Sunburn, I got the itch to take some of what I learned back to my own writing. My work is in no way similar to these kinds of books, but there is always something to be learned from someone who has been at the craft a long time. R.L. Stine does not get stuck. If someone needs to kiss someone, they kiss them and they get it over with and they don't sit and ruminate over it. If someone needs to stab someone in the face, same thing. I tend to get stuck in transition a lot, and he just simply does not have that problem. If he needs to get someone across town to murder someone, he doesn't worry about where they sat in the car, if they had to stop for gas, or if there even was a car. Most of the time this works out for him, sometimes it creates a plot hole, but if you're reading this stuff the way he intended, you're swallowing it whole and not looking too closely to spoil the ride.

This is work meant for a dark room, so why bother flipping on the lights and ruining your own good time?

That is what it is in the end. It's just meant to be a good time that you don't have to think too hard about to enjoy (or to be grossed-out). If you're a child of the nineties like me, just pretend it says Fear Street at the top and dive on in.

No comments: