Horror Novel Review: The Secret Bedroom by R.L. Stine

Oh my God, y’all, this one is so good.

First published in 1991, The Secret Bedroom tells the story of Lea.  Lea’s family has just bought an abandoned house on — can you guess it? — FEAR STREET!  And Lea has just started school at — again, you know what’s coming — SHADYSIDE HIGH!  Not surprisingly, Lea is having a hard time fitting in at her new school.  (To be honest, if I was a student at Shadyside, I would automatically be suspicious of any transfer students because, as far as Fear Street and Shadyside are concerned, they always seem to bring a lot of drama and murder with them.  Seriously, hasn’t that school been through enough tragedy?)  Lea’s problem is that she has a crush on Don but Don is dating the school’s most popular megabitch, Marci.  Lea is already in trouble for accidentally spilling chili on Marci’s sweater.  When Marci sees Don talking to Lea, she decides to make Lea’s life miserable.  I swear, why is it the girls always end up fighting over the same boy rather than considering why the boy was flirting with another girl to begin with?  Lea directs all of her anger at Marci and Marci directs her ire toward Lea but really they should just be mad at Don.  Unfortunately, this book was written years before Spice Girls taught everyone the meaning of girl power so Marci just spends her time making trouble for Lea.

However, there might be a solution to Lea’s problems.  In Lea’s new house, there’s a mysterious, boarded up bedroom.  The room was boarded up because, long ago, someone was murdered in that very room!  However, even though no one has been in the room for years, Lea keeps thinking that she hears strange sounds coming from behind the boarded up door.  Despite having been told to say out of the room, Lea enters it anyway and she discovers that there is someone in the room!

That person is Catherine, who says that she’s the ghost of the girl who died in the room.  She says she wants to be Lea’s friend.  She also says that if Lea allows Catherine to enter her body for just a few moments, they can totally play a prank on Marci!  Lea agrees.  Needless to say, the prank goes terribly wrong and it turns out that Catherine wasn’t being totally honest either….

After being slightly disappointed with the previous two Stine books that I read, I really enjoyed The Secret Bedroom.  This is Stine at his most demented (and, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s also one of the earlier book in the Fear Street series).  Stine crafts a tale that includes ghosts, murder, mind control, false memories, peer pressure, jerky boyfriends, and gentrification.  The twists are nonstop and they’re so entertainingly weird that it doesn’t matter that they don’t always make sense.  In fact, the book plays out almost like a fever dream.  Anyone who has even been accused of stealing someone’s boyfriend will appreciate Lea’s growing paranoia about Marci.  Anyone who has ever heard a strange sound in the middle of the night will relate to Lea’s fascination with the boarded up room.  And, for those of you who love continuity, Wrong Number‘s Deena shows up at Lea’s best friend!  This book is an enjoyable trip to Fear Street.

Horror Novel Review: Bad Dreams by R.L. Stine

First published in 1994, Bad Dreams is yet another R.L. Stine YA novel about life on Fear Street.

This time, it’s Maggie and her younger sister Andrea who have moved into a new house on Fear Street.  Maggie and Andrea are rivals about almost everything.  They’re both super competitive swimmers who are fighting for the right to represent their high school at the State Championship.  They both like Justin, who is typical boring R.L. Stine boyfriend.  They ever argue over who should get the ornate bed in Maggie’s new bedroom.  Because Maggie agreed to let Andrea have the bigger room, Maggie gets to keep the bed.

I don’t know, Maggie.  You might want to rethink that.

It turns out that the last owner of the bed was actually stabbed to death while laying on top of it.  Soon, Maggie is having disturbing dreams where she sees the murder happening.  Is Maggie being contacted from beyond the grave or are her dreams warning her that she’s about to become the next victim?  And what about all the strange noises coming from the attic?

Soon, Maggie is struggling when it comes to school and swimming because she’s just not getting enough sleep!  (This book made me happy that I’ve never needed more than 3 hours of sleep to function.)  However, the other two girls who are competing against Maggie and Andrea for a chance to go to State each falls victim to a bizarre accident!  Someone is taking out the competition!  Is it the ghost?  Is it Andrea?  Could it even be Maggie herself!?

Will Maggie be able to solve the mystery?  Will she eventually get a good night’s sleep and fulfil the promise of having sweet dreams?  Will she and Andrea ever be able to put aside their sibling rivalry?  And who will go to State!?

And, perhaps most importantly, does anyone really care?

As far as the plot is concerned, Bad Dreams is an example of R.L. Stine on autopilot.  All of the questions are eventually answered but the answers seem to come out of nowhere and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Stine pretty much just kept writing until he reached the minimum word requirement and then he decided to quickly wrap things up without really worrying about whether or not he had provided enough clues to keep the reader from feeling as if she had been denied a fair chance to solve the mystery on her own.  That said, the first of Maggie’s dreams was nicely creepy and the constant arguing between Maggie and Andrea was kind of entertaining.  I’ve got three older sisters so I imagine that every single one of them could probably have related to Maggie at some point while we were all growing up.  (It also helped that Andrea and Maggie had red hair, just like me!)  Plus, all of the drama around the swim team reminded me of the later episodes of Saved By The Bell: The New Class, in which it suddenly turned out that everyone at Bayside was obsessed with the swim team.  Today, books like this are best used for nostalgia and that’s what I definitely felt while reading Bad Dreams.

Book Review: The I-5 Killer by Ann Rule

Yesterday, I reviewed The Serial Killer Letters, a book that is largely made up of letters written by serial killers.  As I mentioned in my review, I was particularly disturbed by the many letters that were written by Randall Woodfield, a former football player who is currently serving a life sentence for one murder but who has been linked to 44 others.

What was it that so disturbed me about Woodfield’s letters, beyond the fact that they were the words of a man who targeted women who physically resembled me?  Some of it was the fact that Woodfield took a flirtatious tone in his letters, presenting himself as being just a charming but hapless guy who ended up suffering from a bit of bad luck.  The fact that he included shirtless pictures of himself with his letters was undeniably icky.  There was also the fact that, despite having been linked to several murders by DNA and a lot of other evidence, Woodfield continued to adamantly claim that he had been set up and railroaded and basically misrepresented by everyone who had ever written or spoken about his case.  In fact, Woodfield was so adamant that, when first reading his words, it was tempting to question why someone who has been serving a life sentence since 1981 and who has no hope of ever getting out would not just go ahead and confess.  Even the author of The Serial Killer Letters admitted to initially feeling conflicted about Woodfield and his claims of innocence.  However, in order to believe Woodfield’s story, you would have to believe that cops in several different jurisdictions all decided to independently conspire against one person.  Considering that his DNA has been linked to several cold cases, you’d have to accept that the DNA evidence was planted at a time when most people weren’t even sure what DNA was.  You would have to ignore all of the other evidence against Woodfield.  You would also have to explain away the fact that three of Woodfield’s suspect victims were acquaintances of his and that all three of them died around the same time and in similarly violent circumstances.  One could accept that a gigantic conspiracy was formed to put Randy Woodfield in prison.  Or one can accept that Randy Woodfield is guilty.

In Woodfield’s letters, he spent a good deal of time ranting about the true crime writer Ann Rule.  In 1984, Rule wrote a book about Woodfield’s crimes, The I-5 Killer.  In fact, Woodfield devoted so much space to accusing Rule of being a part of a conspiracy against him that I felt the need to read The I-5 Killer to see what Rule had to say.  It’s pretty much a standard true crime book, one that gives the sordid details of Woodfield’s crimes while also detailing the investigation that led to Woodfield’s arrest.  The book delves into Woodfield’s background, revealing him to have been a popular high school athlete who, even at the age of 14, had a disturbing compulsion to expose himself to complete strangers.  Woodfield drifted after high school but he was a good enough football player to be drafted by the Packers.  Unfortunately, even while at training camp, Woodfield couldn’t stop exposing himself to strangers.  The Packers decided they didn’t need him on their team and Woodfield instead became a thief, a rapist, and a murderer.  At the same time, he also worked as a bartender and always had a new girlfriend who was willing to help finance his lifestyle.  The book is full of quotes about how charismatic Woodfield could be while tending bar.  However, there’s also a lot of quotes concerning the fact that even Woodfield’s friends and defenders thought he was an idiot.

The book details Woodfield’s crimes and the efforts of one of the survivors of his rampage to not only recover from being shot but also to find the courage to come face-to-face with Woodfield in court.  It makes for disturbing reading but the book should also be praised for revealing that Randy Woodfield was not a Hannibal Lector or a Dexter Morgan or any of the other charming, fictional murderers who tend to turn up in the movies or on television.  Randy Woodfield was a loser, through and through.  His motives were not complex and his methods were not clever.  He was an idiot.  One can understand why Woodfield hates Rule’s book but the book itself provides an invaluable service.  After you read enough true crime books, you come to realize that most murderers are, for the most part, very dull people.

The edition that I read included an update on Woodfield in prison.  It mentioned that Woodfield had become a prolific letter writing and that he always made sure to send everyone a shirtless picture of himself before asking them for money.

Horror Book Review: Wrong Number 2 by R.L. Stine

The cover of Wrong Number 2 features two teenage girls huddled around a telephone and a blurb that reads, “Call waiting …. to kill!”

What does that even mean? “Call waiting …. to kill.”  That would seem to suggest that there’s a person named Call in this book who is waiting to kill someone.  I’ve read the book.  There’s no one named Call.  Alternatively, it could mean that we’ve got a Ring situation on our hands and actually answering the phone will lead to some sort of supernatural death curse.  In that case, the call itself would be waiting to kill.  But again, I’ve read the book.  There’s nothing supernatural about it.

“Call waiting …. to kill?”  It means nothing but let’s just be honest here.  It’s kind of charming in its meaninglessness.  It’s an R.L. Stine book, so it seems appropriate.  You can’t expect these thing to make any sort of logical sense.

Wrong Number 2 is a sequel to Stine’s The Wrong Number.  One year has passed since Deena and her friend Jade were nearly killed by the chainsaw-wielding Mr. Faberson.  They’ve both managed to recover nicely from almost being killed.  Deena is now dating an Australian exchange student.  Jade is dating the star of the school’s basketball team.  Deena’s half-brother Chuck (who is also Jade’s ex-boyfriend) is off at college but, unknown to the rest of his family, he’s planning on abandoning school so that he can move to Los Angeles and become a big time movie star.  Everything seems to be just fine …. until Deena and Jade start getting mysterious phone calls from a man who says that he’s going to get revenge on them.

Could it be Mr. Faberson?  He’s still in prison but apparently, he’s due to soon be released.  Could it be Mr. Faberson’s former mistress, a real estate agent who is trying to fiind a buyer willing to overlook the fact that a murder that occurred there and buy Mr. Faberson’s old house?  Or could it even be Chuck, who shows up in town and appears to be desperate to convince Jade to dump boring old Teddy and run away to California with him?

Reading the book, it was hard to avoid the feeling that Stine himself wasn’t really sure who he wanted the villain to be.  Towards the end of the book, there are three different scenes that, taken on their own, could have served as an ending for Wrong Number 2.  It’s as if Stine just kept tacking on possible endings and solutions until he finally found one that he felt worked.  The end result is a book that feels somewhat slapdash, even by the lenient standards of R.L. Stine.  If I had survived being attacked by chainsaw-wielding maniac and was now getting calls from someone claiming they were going to do the same thing to me again, I would perhaps be a bit more upset than either Deena or Jade seems to get.  At the very least, I would consider changing my number or maybe moving to a different town.  Not Deena and Jade, though.  And hey, good for them.  If nothing else, this incredibly silly book suggests that there’s not a single trauma that can’t be conquered by dating a basketball player.  The cast of Hang Time would agree, I’m sure.

Non-Fiction Review: The Serial Killer Letters by Jennifer Furio

One thing that I would probably never have the courage to do would be to seek correspondence with a serial killer.

That’s just me.  I mean, I like horror movies.  I do have a bit of a morbid streak.  I devour true crime books and I do occasionally watch those trashy docudramas that show up on A&E and Netflix.  But I have never personally known any serial killers and I’m totally happy to keep it that way.  I don’t care if they are incarcerated and perhaps in serious mental need of pen pal to communicate with.  If you’ve killed over three people, I’m not sending you anything with my return address on it.

Jennifer Furio, however, disagreed.  In the 90s, she wrote to over 50 serial killers and several of them wrote back.  She then published that correspondence in the 1998 book, The Serial Killer Letters.  My main reaction, while reading the book, was a desire to ask, “What were you thinking!?”  Furio doesn’t include any of the letters that she wrote to the killers.  Instead, she only includes the letters that she got in return.  Still, just from reading those letters, it’s obvious that she revealed quite a lot of details about her life to these men.  Quite a few of them thank her for sending them a picture.  One complains that her smile is too wide and that “whoever told women to smile all the time should be cold cocked.”  Quite a few of them ask her to send them money.  Another offers her what appears to be marital advice.  Randall Woodfield, an ex-football player who was only convicted of one murder but who is suspected of having committed 18 others, sends several flirtatious letters and shirtless pictures of himself.  Judging from Woodfield’s comments, he was, at the very least, under the impression that Furio was flirting back.  There are times that the reader really does wish that Furio had included her own letters to the serial killers, if just to provide context for some of their replies.  Instead, it is left as an open question as to what she said to get some of them to open up to her in the way that they did.

However, even with Furio’s contribution to the conversation missing, the letters do make for interesting and disturbing reading.  Some of the killers admit their guilt.  Others continue to insist that they were railroaded by the cops or the FBI.  Quite a few claim that it was their partner who committed all of the murders and that they were just along for the ride.  Some, like Texas’s own Henry Lee Lucas, claim to have found God.  Some write about how ashamed they are of themselves while others show no shame at all.  What every single one of them has in common is an intense sense of victimhood.  Even the ones who admit their guilt and claim to feel shame over what they did are quick to argue that the world never gave them a chance to be anything other than a killer.  A few of them, like David Gore (who was executed for his crimes in 2012) did such good job of seeming to express contrition that it wasn’t until I re-read their letters that I noticed that most of them still managed to weasel out of actually accepting responsibility for their actions.  Instead, it was because they were raised by an abusive parent or because they fell in with the wrong crowd or the education system failed them or …. well, just about everyone had an excuse.  Even locked away in prison and with no hope of ever gaining freedom, the majority of the book’s killers continued to manipulate and try to control others.  With some, it was no doubt intentional.  With others, it was probably such a natural thing that they don’t even think before doing it.  It was just their nature.

It makes for disturbing reading but it also provides a valuable service.  At a time when it seems as if every serial killer is destined to either have a movie or miniseries centered around themselves and their crimes, it’s good to be reminded that these people are losers.  In this book, you can learn that from reading their own words and looking at the often childish handwriting that they used to scrawl out their claims of victimhood.  Jennifer Furio wrote letters to over 50 serial killers and there wasn’t a Hannibal Lecter or a Dexter Morgan to be found.

Novel Review: Capital Crimes by Lawrence Sanders

Tell me if the plot of the 1990 novel, Capital Crimes, sounds familiar.

The President of the United States is struggling.  The economy is bad.  The U.S. is long ground internationally.  The President’s approval ratings are plummeting.  The members of his own party are searching for a way to get rid of him.  However, the President himself is more concerned about the health of his son, a hemophiliac who seems destined to suffer an early death if he’s not somehow cured of his condition.

Everything looks hopeless until the President meets Brother Kristos.  Brother Kristos is a wild holy man from the backwoods, a sensualist who drinks vodka, believes that the best way to worship is to have an orgy, and who claims that he has a direct line to God and that he can heal the President’s son.  Kristos not only makes the claim but he backs it up by actually doing it.  The President and his wife soon become dependent on the mysterious Kristos.  Kristos goes from being an obscure cult leader to one of the most powerful men in the country but is he a servant of God or the Devil?  While Kristos sets about seducing all of the women in Washington, others try to investigate his background.  Is Kristos a charlatan or does he truly have magical powers?

If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’re familiar with Rasputin, the Russian monk who became a shadowy and much-feared influence on the family of Nicholas II, the final Tsar of Russia.  In fact, Capital Crimes so closely follows the story of Rasputin that you kind of have to wonder why no one in the book ever seems to pick up on the connection.  Russia exists as a rival to the United States in Capital Crimes and, as such, one assumes that Rasputin must have existed as well.  And yet no one in the book ever says, “Hey, remember when this happened before and it didn’t end well?  Maybe we shouldn’t invite the unwashed holy man to live in the White House?”

Capital Crimes is one of the books that I found in my aunt’s paperback collection.  I read it a few weeks ago and, beyond the fact that it was so obviously based on the story of Rasputin, there wasn’t anything particularly memorable about it.  The reader is continuously told that Brother Kristos is incredibly charismatic and that his piercing stare can hypnotize almost anyone but telling and showing are two different things and Kristos is such a ludicrous figure that it’s hard to take him seriously.  (Then again, I imagine many initially said the same thing about Rasputin.)  The book flirts with suggesting that Kristos actually does have supernatural powers but it neve really commits to the idea, which is a shame.  If you’re going to write a book about a Rasputin in the White House, you might as well go all out and fully embrace the supernatural aspect of the story.  Instead, the book gets bogged down in the political machinations of all the people who would like to replace the president.  It’s a bit dull.

The book is credited to Lawrence Sanders, who I know wrote quite a few best sellers and who is usually listed among the better thriller writers.  Capital Crimes feels extremely sloppy and derivative so I’m going to assume that it was written strictly for the money.  That’s not necessarily a criticism, of course.  Money’s a good thing!  But so is an interesting plot.

Book Review: Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan

Wow, I thought as I read Kyle Buchanan’s oral history of the making of Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy really did not like each other.

I have to admit that I feel a little bit bad that my main reaction to Blood, Sweat, & Chrome centered around the most “gossipy” part of the book, the chapter in which everyone interviewed talked about how Theron and Hardy simply did not get along during filming.  That, of course, is also the part of the book that got the most media attention when it first came out.  Overall, it’s really a very small part of the overall story.  The books deals with much more than just Charlize and Tom.  It discusses how the stunts were achieved.  It documents just how much time George Miller spent planning Fury Road and also how the project was changed by Mel Gibson’s very public fall from grace.  There’s a very touching chapter that deals with Hugh Keays-Bryne, the Australian actor who played memorable villains in both the first and, to date, the last of the Mad Max films.  There’s a lot of good stuff in Blood, Sweat & Chrome but it’s the chapter about Hardy and Theron that will probably capture the attention of most readers.  They’re movie stars, after all.  We’re all fascinated by stars, especially when they don’t get along.

As for why Theron and Hardy didn’t get along, the people interviewed for the book all have their theories.  Some say that Hardy was not only feeling pressure over stepping into Mel Gibson’s shoes but that he was also miffed to realize that he was primarily going to be a supporting player in his own movie.  Others say that it was a conflict in working styles, with Theron going out of her way to always be professional and on time while Hardy was a bit more relaxed when he would show up on the set.  Nicholas Hoult (who comes across as being both a professional and a gentleman) says that being on set with them often felt like being in the back seat of a car while your parents are fighting up front.  Whatever the reason, Hardy and Theron did not enjoy either’s company while filming.  Shouting matches were followed by meetings with George Miller, who Theron observes was not necessarily always on her side when it came to her conflict with Tom Hardy.  And while actors arguing during filming is hardly a unique event, what stands out about Theron and Hardy is that they both appeared to continue to dislike each other even after filming ended.  Even with the success of the film, one gets the feeling that the two of them will never voluntarily star opposite each other again.  Or, at the very least, they’ll get a lot of money before agreeing to do so.

What’s interesting though is that Hardy and Theron’s dislike for each other was probably a major factor in Mad Max: Fury Road‘s success.  One reason why Fury Road stands out is because neither Furiosa nor Max end up having the type of relationship that you might otherwise expect.  Though they eventually work together, they never become a couple.  Neither surrenders to the other.  Furiosa never stops fighting and Max never stops wandering.  Even when they become allies, there’s still that tension there.  Neither one really trusts the other.  As was so often the case with the production of Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron and Hardy’s contentious relationship, something that should have led to disaster, actually served to make the film better.

Reading Buchanan’s book, one comes away with the impression that, for all the difficulties that were encountered during filming, Mad Max: Fury Road was almost a blessed production.  Everything that went wrong only served to make the final product better.  George Miller’s struggles to get the film into production gave him the time he needed to create a film that had a good deal more thematic depth than the average action sequel.  The harsh working conditions were the perfect backdrop for the film’s equally harsh world.  Mel Gibson’s troubles allowed Miller to rethink the character of Max and also gave Miller room to make Furiosa an equally important character.  That few people were expecting much from Mad Max: Fury Road allowed Miller to take the world by surprise.  Even the fact that many were surprised when Fury Road won Best Picture from the National Board of Review allowed the film to enter the Oscar season as an appealing underdog.  Of course, while Mad Max: Fury Road did win the most Oscars that year, it did not win Best Picture.  But I can promise you that, as you sit here reading this, more people are currently watching Mad Max: Fury Road than are watching Spotlight.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a great film and Blood, Sweat, & Chrome provides an in-depth look at how that happened.  It’s hard not to be inspired by George Miller and he refusal to give up on the project.  Much like Furiosa, Miller never stopped fighting.  Neither Furiosa nor Miller found what they were initially expecting at the end of their journey.  Instead, they discovered something better and, as a result, their stories will never be forgotten.

Book Review: Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel

The 1966 novel, Night of Camp David, deals with the presidency of Mark Hollenbach.

Mark Hollenbach is an old school Democrat, the type of old-fashioned liberal who would probably not have much of a place in today’s party.  Hollenbach is known for his competent and loyal staff and his demand that everyone around him be just as morally upright as he feels that he is.  Therefore, when Hollenbach’s Vice President gets caught up in a minor scandal, everyone knows that Hollenbach is going to eventually pick a different running mate when it comes time to run for reelection.

But who will Hollenbach pick?  The Speaker of the House is viewed as being too much of an old-style political boss.  The Secretary of State might be the smartest man in Washington, D.C. but Hollenbach is convinced that the voters are not ready for a Jewish vice president.  After a night of lukewarm jokes at the Gridiron Dinner, Hollenbach invites Sen. Jim MacVeagh of Iowa to come talk to him at Camp David.  During their conversation, Hollenbach reveals that he’s planning on naming MacVeagh to the ticket.

This takes MacVeagh by surprise because even he realizes that he’s not really qualified to be president.  He’s too young and, as more than one character points out over the course of the book, he has a reputation for being rather lazy.  An even bigger problem is that the married MacVeagh has a mistress named Rita and there’s no way that Hollenbach would accept an adulterer on his ticket….

(Okay, I heard that.  Stop laughing.  This book was published in 1965.  Obviously, it was a more naïve time.)

Of course, there’s an even bigger problem than Jim MacVeagh not living up to the president’s moral standards.  It also appears that Mark Hollenbach is losing his mind.  MacVeagh soon discovers that Hollenbach has decided that Europe can no longer be trusted and that it’s time for America to make peace with Russia!  As well, Hollenbach feels that the media is trying to sabotage his presidency and, as such, it’s time to maybe rethink that whole freedom of speech thing.  MacVeagh realizes that the pressures of the office have gotten to Hollenbach and that he’s becoming dangerously paranoid.  But only MacVeagh knows it and how can he reveal the truth without destroying his career and his marriage?

Today, of course, the idea of the President being a paranoid buffoon is not that shocking.  For that matter, a lot of Hollenbach’s delusions are today pretty much a part of the standard political discourse.  One gets the feeling that there’s quite a few people who would happily embrace Hollenbach’s desire to destroy the First Amendment.  (“YoU cAn’T yElL fIrE iN a ThEaTeR!” someone is tweeting at this very moment.)  But again, this book was published in 1965.  Joe Biden wasn’t even in the Senate when this book was published, that’s how old it is.  In many ways, Night of Camp David feels prophetic.  Today, of course, it’s interesting to read a book like this and marvel at the idea that people were once shocked by the idea of a paranoid president.

Though it gets off to a slow start, Night of Camp David picks up steam once MacVeagh discovers that Hollenbach is using the FBI to investigate anyone who he perceives as being either a potential ally or a potential threat.  (Hmmmm, imagine that….)  Fletcher Knebel was the co-author of Seven Days In May and he obviously knew how to put together a political thriller.  Jim MacVeagh and Rita are both interesting characters, especially Rita.  She can do better than Jim MacVeagh and she knows it.  The book ends on what seems like a note of wishful thinking but, again, it was 1965.

Paul Greengrass has apparently been developing a film adaptation of this book.  I don’t know if that project is still happening, though Greengrass seems like he would be able to do the story justice.  Personally, I would suggest Tom Hanks as Hollenbach and Austin Butler as MacVeagh.  I mean, if it worked for Elvis….

Book Review: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

First published in 2016, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day takes a look at the infamous free concert that was held at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1970.

The Free Concert was meant to be a sequel of sorts to Woodstock, with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, and the Flying Burrito Brothers teaming up with the Rolling Stones in order to give everyone a free day and night of good music and good vibes.  While the music may have good (seriously, what a line up!, even if the Dead ultimately refused to take the stage), the vibes were anything but.  Not only was the concert hastily put together but someone came up with the bright idea of getting the Hell’s Angels to provide security.  After a day that was frequently marred by violence (among the victims was Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, who was actually knocked unconscious while the band was performing), Altamont came to an apocalyptic conclusion with the murder of a young concertgoer named Meredith Hunter.  The concert may have been sold as a west coast Woodstock but, instead, it become one of the events that is regularly cited as signifying the end of the 60s.

There’s a spectacular documentary called Gimme Shelter, which contains not only footage of the violence while it happened but also features scenes of lawyer Melvin Belli setting up the concert and performing for the camera.  (“I’m opening for the Stones,” he says at one point.)  While the documentary does a good job of showing what happened, it doesn’t dig into why it happened.  Fortunately, Joel Selvin’s Altamont provides a good, in-depth history of not just what happened at Altamont but also how it all came to be.  Selvin explores what led the Stones to holding a free concert in the first place and also how a mix of 60s naivete and greed led to catastrophe.  While the Stones come across as being a bit too detached from the counter culture to actually understand what they were dealing with at Altamont, the Grateful Dead come across as being in denial about the violence lurking underneath the scene.  Meanwhile, the other performers simply try to complete their set without getting sucked in to the bad vibes all around them.  Jefferson Airplane’s performance, which was vividly captured in Gimme Shelter, is revealed in its full horror in Selvin’s book.  (Having forgotten to put in her contact lenses, Grace Slick found herself trying to calm people who she could barely see.)  Of course, as bad as the Airplane’s experience was, they still had no problem leaving their drummer behind when they finally escaped the concert.  Poor Spencer Dryden.  (Apparently, the other members of the band had decided that they didn’t particularly Dryden so why not abandon him with the Hell’s Angels?  Someday, someone will make a very good movie about Jefferson Airplane.)

Selvin not only writes about the bands and the Hell’s Angels but also about some of the people at the concert, many of whom found themselves in a war zone.  Perhaps most importantly, he writes about Meredith Hunter and the life he led before that terrible night at Altamont.  As a writer, Selvin is compassionate but also honest.  Every character, from the famous to the forgotten, emerges from Selvin’s narrative as a complex and interesting human being.  Selvin humanizes the people involved with Altamont without ever trivializing the tragedy of it all.

Altamont is often held up as being the reverse image of Woodstock.  Of course, Woodstock ’99 ended up having more in common with Altamont than with the original three days of peace, love, and music.  Joel Selvin’s book is a fascinating look at how that happened and what it all means.

Book Review: Chiefs by Stuart Woods

First published in 1981, Chiefs follows the town of Delano, Georgia over the course of five decades.

Delano starts out as a small, rural town, one that sit uneasily on the dividing line between the old and the new South.  Under the leadership of forward-thinking civic leaders like Hugh Holmes, the town starts to grow.  And, like any growing town, it needs a chief of police to maintain the peace.  In 1919, a simple but honest farmer named Will Henry Lee is selected as the town’s first chief of police.  Not selected is the wealthy Foxy Funderburke.  That’s probably for the best because Will Lee is determined to do a good job and fairly treat all of the town’s citizens, regardless of their race or their economic class.  Foxy, meanwhile, is a serial killer who has been killing young men and dumping their bodies all over the county.

Chiefs tells the story of three men who serve as Chief of Police while Delano grows and Foxy continues to murder anyone that he can get his hands on.  Will Henry Lee is followed by Sonny Butts, a war hero who soon turns out to be a corrupt and racist psychopath.  Sonny is eventually followed by Tucker Watts.  As the town’s first black police chief, Tucker has to deal with both racism and Foxy Funderburke’s murders.  However, Tucker himself has a secret of his own, one that links him back to the very first chief of police.

Chiefs is kind of all over the place.  Not only does the novel follow the growth of Delano and the decades-long investigation into all of Foxy Funderburke’s murders but it also finds time for appearances from Franklin D. Roosevelt and a subplot about Billy Lee, Will Henry Lee’s son, running for governor of Georgia and potentially replacing LBJ as Kennedy’s running mate in 1964.  (The President, of course, explains that he’ll make his decision after returning from Dallas.)  At times, it gets to be a bit too much.  The mystery of the Delano murders too often gets pushed aside for the far less interesting political stuff.  Chiefs was Stuart Woods’s first novel and he makes the common first-timers mistake of trying to cram too much into his story.

The book is at its best when it just sticks to Delano.  Foxy Funderburke is not just a murderer but also a symbol of the times when there law was only arbitrarily enforced in the former Confederacy and wealthy, white landowners could pretty much do whatever they wanted without having to worry about the consequences.  Foxy represents the old ways and each chief, even the evil Sonny Butts, represents just a little bit of progress towards the new way.  Though his prose is rarely memorable, Stuart Woods was a good storyteller and Foxy Funderburke is a memorable villain.  (And, to be honest, Foxy Funderburke is a brilliant name.)  Even if their characterizations aren’t particularly deep (Will Lee is honest, Sonny is narcissistic, Tucker is determined to prove himself), the three men who oppose him are all worthy adversaries and it’s interesting see how, over several decades, the three of them each finds a different piece of the puzzle until Foxy’s true nature is finally exposed.  Will Henry Lee may not have known Sonny Butts and Sonny certainly would never have even spoken to Tucker Watts but, in a way, the three of them work together to solve the town’s greatest mystery.

In the end, the book appealed to the side of me that loves a mystery and it also appealed to my dedicated history nerd side.  Chiefs is flawed but compelling.