two from the supermarket shelf — notes on The Three by Sarah Lotz and a Stephen King

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  • i love horror. Especially satanic horror, which is what i thought these two texts would be but weren’t quite actually. With my undergrad career being officially over, i went to the store to pick up loads of alcohol, and two spooky novels on the book shelf caught my eye amongst all the Nora Roberts and YA fantasy. Sarah Lotz’s THE THREE had a promising concept, and a random scanning in the book revealed an interesting writing voice. i bought it. And along with other book i picked up, i plan to drop it off at a local free library, where the next reader will find in the opening section some mark-ups under every funny anti-US stereotype i could identify.

  • Okay so THE THREE isnt exactly and all-out screamer. But i’d still call it horror even if it’s technically more of a psycho-thriller. The devil is totally at work, but it’s subtle. The people in the story have specific desires that are realized, but the results are fucked up — totally classic devil stuff, right?
  • im absolutely terrified of air travel. Every part of it scares me, from take-off and landing to harassment by the TSA (the only terrorists im worried about). This is the main reason why i have never been outside the country.
  • In THE THREE, there are four near-simultaneous airline crashes in four continents. Of the four, there are three survivors, each the sole living being from their crash, all children, all relatively unharmed in an impossible way.
  • Most of the novel is actually a fictitious non-fiction book by Elspeth Martins called BLACK THURSDAY: FROM CRASH TO CONSPIRACY, INSIDE THE PHENOMENON OF THE THREE. She uses disparate materials to re-draw the six months after the accident, following each of the three and the people who get involved in their post-crash lives. The narrative spans the globe and a huge ensemble of characters and witnesses.
  • Here are the three: Jess, a good little girl from the UK who is taken in by her uncle, a gay actor of middling success named Paul; Bobby Small, a boy who is looked after by grandmother Lillian, whose husband Reuben is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Hiro, a quiet Japanese boy who stays with cousin Chiyoko, who has a long correspondence online with a hikikomori boy called Ryu (i like to think their names are an homage to AKIRA). 
  • The materials Elspeth uses to reconstruct these events include: oral history, online news articles, dictaphone recordings by Paul for a memoir, Twitter compilations, chat logs, email spools. i guess you can chalk it up to taste, but this sort of “documentized” narrative, as done in WORLD WAR Z (haven’t read), may be too distancing for readers who prefer traditional discourse which allows a deeper connection with characters. i loved it, i guess as someone who studies history and often has to work with primary sources to try to make sense of events.
  • i also think the approach was necessary for the novel’s topic. The crashes and The Three are a massive tragedy that of course is gobbled up by the press and the global media culture. Every scandal and revelation and controversy keeps the ball going for sixth months and beyond. In a way, it’s the ultimate story, one that never stops delivering, one that the news cycle never has to spit out.
  • Of course with the US religious right involved, the reader will experience a lot of homophobic, anti-choice, and anti-woman rhetoric. Even the most sympathetic characters are at least a little bigoted (ableist and fat-phobic). Just a heads-up.
  • It’s a tired observation, but you can defend genre fiction from literary snobs by pointing out that they too can be insightful indexes of our cultural moment. The hysteria, celebrity worship, tragedy porn, exploitation, and fundamentalism inspired by The Three go on to whip up the US political climate into comic proportions of totalitarianism. (And yet it’s all horrifyingly plausible given the nature of the religious right in the US, the same way the concept of SNOWPIERCER was, which by the way has the best and happiest ending in all of modern cinema imo).
  • The story world is one very much like ours, only worse if that’s possible. The “Black Thursday” of the four crashes is in January 2012, an election year for the US, and here we have another Republican hopeful whose name is also an M.R.: Mitch Reynard, campaigning on the evangelical platform which fervently claims that the Three are initial broken seals of the rapture/apocalypse. The characters in this thread of the story include an ambitious pastor and his ordinary small-town followers, and two grotesque ultra-successful televangelists including an author of a cheap eschatological thriller series, basically like LEFT BEHIND.
  • One thing ive noticed in the horror movies i regularly watch is that there’s actually a lot in common between alien abductions and demonic possessions. These are both theories about the Three presented in the book. The parallels might highlight the state of our media landscape in a way, that it offers a variety of desire production that is actually uniform — that weird tension between choices and conformity that seems to undergird our neoliberal reality.
  • i once heard an interesting description of paranoia as a fear of being engulfed in a system beyond your understanding. What’s scary and potentially frustrating about the novel’s non-fictional material concept is that it doesnt clearly give us access to the characters or the Truth of The Three. The information can only be mediated thru multiple and overlapping systems. Conspiracy theories are in no short supply in the post 9/11 world but things are a lot different from the 60s with its Kennedy and Mothman. There’s that familiar human longing for understanding, but there’s a new notion that in the global capitalist society there is no center, even as we continue to search for it.
  • There’s also a bit going on about how non-fiction is truly an ethical quagmire. In the story world these are real people, real tragedy, and real suffering that Elspeth is working with. It becomes an explicit issue how she navigates her presentation of the material to maintain a claim to truth and also tell a ripping good yarn (notice how so many documentaries today conform to familiar narrative structures and crises). The reader notices what how Elspeth is organizing her clippings in a way that generates suspense for us — yet she is addressing a readership that is probably familiar with the sequence of events already. And then you get appendices and a letter to an ex-partner, the reveals just keep coming.
  • The closing 17 pages are intense, atmospheric, and creepy.
  • It’s really rare that i read a horror/thriller novel with a really, really satisfying ending, and THE THREE is one of these occasions. It’s ambiguous and unsettling to be sure and i think it totally makes thematic sense.
  • Did i mention that there are androids?


  • “Revival” has many meanings, as the back of the book says. One of them is a revival of the Weird Tales/cosmic horror of the H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch variety. If you happen to know a little of the fictional bibliography that makes up the Cythulu mythos it might give the game away. In any event it was a nice and creepy throwback.
  • The story is narrated by Jamie Morton, youngest of a working-class white family in Harlow, Maine. It spans from 1962 to 2014. We follow his life, his first love, addiction to heroine, career in rock music. And his intersections with the Reverend Charles Jacobs. When we first meet Jacobs he’s a clean young guy with wife and son, a devout Methodist with a deep interest in electricity and physics.
  • i went on a King binge last summer after my grandma died, triggering an obsession with death. i still haven’t read any of the old classic novels like IT or THE STAND, just mostly short stories. i did read PET SEMETARY though and i enjoyed that a lot. His voice, when i like it most, is like some old dude spinning a yarn by a campfire in the woods.
  • A senseless tragedy strikes the Rev Jacobs , and King does a great job capturing grief, as in PET SEMETARY. It’s horrible enough to make the reverend fall out of the faith, but not after a final, Terrible Sermon.
  • If you’re interested you could probably program REVIVAL in a triple feature of books with Wacky Sermons, the other two being Camus’s THE PLAGUE and Joyce’s PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST, granted these two are Catholic.
  • The novel is dedicated to a list of writers of horror. And with the obsession of electricity and grief mentioned above, you can probably guess why Mary Shelley is at the top.
  • A great druggie detail: spinning a bottle of cough-syrup on a string, so that the centrifugal forces separate the substances, and you get to the good stuff with a straw.
  • Two tidbits that i appreciated, one on page 36:
  • “I’d like to have a bikini,” Claire [older sister] remarked. It was, I suppose, the sort of provocation girls of seventeen specialize in.My mother pointed a finger at her, soap dripping from one short-clipped nail. “That’s how girls get pregnant, missy.”Claire returned that swerve smartly. “Then you ought to keep Con and Andy from going, they might get a girl pregnant.”
    And one on page 283:I don’t remember when I first realized that Con was gay; probably while he was in grad school and I was still playing “Land of 1000 Dances” with the Cumberlands at the University of Maine. I’m sure our parents knew much earlier. They didn’t make a big deal of it, and so none of us did, either. Children learn much more by mute example than by spoken rules, or so it seems to me.

    I only heard Dad allude to his second son’s sexual orientation once, during the late eighties. It must have made a big impression on me, because those were my blackout years, and I called home as seldom as possible. I wanted my dad to know I was still alive, but I was always afraid he might hear my oncoming death, which I had pretty much accepted, in my voice.

    “I pray for Connie every night,” he said during the call. “This damn AIDS thing. It’s like they’re letting it spread on purpose.”

  • The last quarter of the novel is really calm in tone and deals with coming to terms with aging, and for this reader it was very effective.
  • The story is pretty tame, with a little creepiness going on. It’s all engine revs up until around page 378, then it goes. The climax can go either way, depending on if you’re into the Lovecraft stuff. i am so i liked it.
  • There could be some objections raised, some characters that are well-drawn get dropped off. All in all it’s the best contemporary King ive read.
  • The story gets pretty dark with obsession, the quest for forbidden knowledge, murder, insanity, regret. But then you get the obligatory word cyclopean thrown in, and you know it’s all for fun.

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