Thursday, April 10, 2014

Stephen Harper's War On Democracy

Stephen Harper is waging war on elections and also broader mechanisms of democratic engagement.

Harper has interfered in elections—violating election law spending rules in the campaign that won him a minority government in 2006, and committing voter fraud in the election that won him a majority in 2011. He also shut down Parliament twice (for which he was found in contempt of Parliament in 2011) and is disenfranchising voters through the "Fair Elections Act."

Information and science

Harper is also restricting the information people need to make democratic decisions. He prorogued Parliament to avoid an inquiry into torture of Afghan civilians, and killed the Coordination of Access to Information Requests System—which the Canadian Association of Journalists said would "result in the public only getting information the government wants it to know."

Harper has muzzled government scientists, requiring them to submit a "message event proposal" before any public appearance, and have their responses pre-approved. In 2009, Harper cut science research funding by $138 million. Over the years, Harper has halted environmental impact assessments on nearly 3,000 projects across Canada, and is shutting down federal libraries and climate change adaptation programs.

Harper has waged war on the national media, treating it like an opposition voice that must be silenced. Mary Agnes Welch, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, stated that Harper has "built a pervasive government apparatus whose sole purpose is to strangle the flow of public information."

Civil liberties

At the same time as strangling public information, the Tories are strengthening the surveillance state through the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC), Canada's version of the NSA. Of particular interest to CSEC and the RCMP are Indigenous, environmental, peace and civil liberties activists. Harper has tried and failed (four times) to implement mass internet surveillance, and allow the government access to private information without warrants or court oversight.

During the G20 protests Harper used $1 billion on the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history, part of his agenda to criminalize dissent. The cost of the country's federal prison system has risen nearly 100% since Harper became Prime Minister, growing from $1.6 billion in 2006 to $3.15 billion in 2013. Yet Harper eliminated funding for Sisters in Spirit, an internationally-praised organization dedicated to investigating 500+ cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Harper has also supported undemocratic regimes around the world—defending Israeli apartheid, supporting the military regime in Egypt and selling weapons to the Saudi dictatorship. Harper has participated in war and occupations to stifle democracy—from Afghanistan to Libya. While building 15 new warships at a cost of over $100 billion (part of the half-trillion dollar Canada First Defence Strategy), Harper is treating veterans like garbage—cutting essential benefits and discharging injured soldiers before they are eligible for pensions.

Policies and organizations

These undemocratic methods are connected to the undemocratic policies Harper has implemented—including axing a national child care program, and scrapping the Kelowna Accord with First Nations. These cuts saw the transfer of resources from the 99% to the 1%, including cutting $1.2 billion from child care and reinstating $1.4 billion in tax breaks and subsides to oil companies.

Harper's undemocratic policies are connected to his attacks on self-determination—defunding women's organizations advocating for equality, defunding Sisters in Spirit that investigates missing and murdered Indigenous women, and attacking unions that provide a democratic defence of workers. We need to defend the democratic organizations of the 99% in workplaces, campuses and communities to resist Harper's war on democracy.

This article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Socialist Worker.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stephen King: From A Buick 8 (2002)

Stephen King completed a draft of this novel before his June 1999 accident, but its eventual release was pushed back a few years, apparently because it involves a serious car crash somewhat similar to the one that nearly killed King. He published Dreamcatcher, Black House, and Everything's Eventual before sending From A Buick 8 out into the world.

The story begins in the summer of 1979, when a mysterious man in black abandons a vintage Buick Roadmaster at a rural Pennsylvania gas station. An examination of the car raises questions about its origins: the battery is not hooked up to the unorthodox engine, the exhaust system is made of glass, the dashboard instruments are fake, and the odometer reads 000000. The local police (Troop D) eventually tow the vehicle back to their barracks and store it in Shed B.

Weird things start happening. The temperature is often 10-20 degrees colder inside Shed B than outside. When it gets especially chilly, extraordinarily bright flashes of light (the officers call them "lightquakes") emanate from and envelope the Buick. Troop D officers observing the car through the shed's windows can often hear (and feel) a low humming sound. Finally, various creatures are ejected out of the car's trunk - which is eventually believed to be a portal to another world/dimension.

The book is set during one day in 2002, as various officers tell the story of the Buick to Ned Wilcox, the 18-year-old son of Curtis Wilcox, a former member of Troop D who was struck and killed by a drunk driver when Ned was very young. Ned hangs around the barracks, doing odd jobs; he has numerous questions about his father (who was obsessed with the Buick).

From A Buick 8's message is: life is unknowable, things happen for no particular reason, and we will not be given an answer to every one of our questions. In an Author's Note, King describes the book as "a meditation on the essentially indecipherable quality of life's events, and how impossible it is to find a coherent meaning in them". King says a book's message should "arise naturally from the tale itself", but in this case he hammers his basic point home over and over.
What if you're never able to solve for x? (page 123)

[Curt realized] that he was almost certainly never going to know what he wanted to know. (173)

There comes a time when most folks see the big picture and realize they're puckered up not to kiss smiling fate on the mouth but because life just slipped them a pill, and it tastes bitter. (173)

Sometimes there's nothing to learn, or no way to learn it, or no reason to even try. ... (179)

Nothing. In the end, that's what it comes down to. If there's a formula - some binomial theorem or quadratic equation or something like that - I don't see it. (198)

All he had was a lot of questions, and the naive belief that just because he felt he needed the answers, those answers would come. (212)

The world rarely finishes its conversations. (307)
The authors of The Complete Stephen King Universe call the novel a "subtle triumph". I disagree, though there is a solid short story tucked away in From A Buick 8. At 350 pages, however, the novel is far too long. King includes pages and pages about police procedure, taking great pains to illustrate the familial atmosphere of the Troop D barracks, but all of that is secondary to the main plot.

His tale is repetitious and dull. Several "lightquakes" are extensively described, although the same things happen during each one. Curt Wilcox ventures into Shed B (with a heavy rope tied around his waist in case his fellow officers need to yank him back out to safety) to conduct some experiments regarding the Buick not once, but several times. The creatures that "come through" the Buick's trunk are certainly disgusting, but they don't strike seem particularly horrific. King wants to make these otherworldly beings as repulsive as possible, but his descriptions seem half-hearted.

Along the way, though, there are a couple of descriptions that are pure King:
Matt Babicki's radio was an endless blare of static with a few voices sticking out of it like the feet or fingers of buried men. (89)

The sun, going down in a cauldron of blood ... (106)
If King had truly retired from publishing as he vowed to do while recovering from his accident, From A Buick 8 would have been his final non-Dark Tower novel. Thankfully, his extraordinary career did not fizzle to an end with this pallid offering.

Next: The Dark Tower V: Wolves Of The Calla.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stephen King: Everything's Eventual (2002)

Stephen King's fourth collection of short fiction - subtitled "14 Dark Tales" - gathers up what feels like a lot of loose ends. Unlike his previous collections, Night Shift, Skeleton Crew, and Nightmares & Dreamscapes, all of these stories had been released before.

Five stories were first published in a signed limited edition called Six Stories, two were previously released on the audio book Blood and Smoke, and "Riding The Bullet" was the first mass market e-book release. Most interestingly, four stories are from The New Yorker, a magazine most readers might regard as an odd venue for King's work.

The two best stories in this collection - "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" and "The Death Of Jack Hamilton" - are from The New Yorker, and have nothing to do with horror or the supernatural. King has done some of his best work when he has stepped outside his usual genres - Different Seasons is an obvious example - and these two tales showcase his talents as a storyteller.

"All That You Love Will Be Carried Away": Alfie Zimmer, a salesman of frozen gourmet foods, sits in a motel room near Lincoln, Nebraska, holding a revolver and thinking about suicide. Beside him is a notebook in which he has collected (over seven years) graffiti from the walls of public men's rooms. Alfie considers ways of disposing of the notebook, fearing being perceived as crazy when it is found. He eventually wanders outside, and contemplates the lights shining in a distant farmhouse.

"The Death Of Jack Hamilton": This brilliant narrative concerns the agonizing death of one member of John Dillinger's gang. Told in the first person by Homer Van Meter, who was in real life part of Dillinger's group, King nails the narrative voice perfectly. It never sounds as though there is a writer behind it. It's an inconsequential story, perhaps, but entertaining and well-executed.

"Autopsy Room Four": Howard Cottrell is bitten by a snake while looking in the weeds for his golf ball. Presumed to have suffered a fatal heart attack, Howard is in fact only paralyzed and unconscious. He awakens on the autopsy table in a morgue and realizes that he must somehow signal to the technicians that he is still alive before they begin cutting him up.

Also: "The Little Sisters Of Eluria" is a light, satisfying Dark Tower tale set after young Roland's adventures in Wizard & Glass and before we meet him on the trail of the Man in Black in The Gunslinger.

Despite the high points, King misses more often than he hits in this collection.

"The Road Virus Heads North" combines two ideas King has written about previously: a painting that both comes alive (Rose Madder) and changes its perspective ("The Sun Dog"). Amusing only for the details King throws in regarding the buyer of the painting. Richard Kinnell, the author of many "numbingly successful [horror] novels", lives in Derry in a mansion dubbed "The House That Gore Built". Mainstream critics compare Kinnell's excessive prose to "projectile vomiting on the page"; however, "most of those folks were ignoramuses, at least as far as his work went, and what was more, they treasured their ignorance".

"Riding The Bullet": Alan Parker, a student at the University of Maine, gets a message that his mother has suffered a stroke and is in the hospital, and he hitchhikes 120 miles to see her. One of the cars that picks him up is apparently driven by a recently deceased man. (That ride may be a dream, however.) The second half of the story concerns Alan's feelings about eventually losing his mother. King covered similar ground years ago (and with much deeper and personal emotions) in "The Woman In The Room" (Night Shift).

Other ideas - a haunted room in an old hotel ("1408") and a maniacal machete-wielding headwaiter in a cafe ("Lunch At The Gotham Cafe") - are too thin and cliched to truly work, despite King's admirable attempts to give them life.

Next: From A Buick 8.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Stephen King: Announces His Retirement (2002)

In January 2002, Stephen King, then 54 years old, told the Los Angeles Times that he was retiring from publishing books.

King explained he had a few books in the pipeline (Everything's Eventual, a collection of short stories, and From A Buick 8, which he had completed before his 1999 accident, and he wanted to finish the Dark Tower series.

"Then, that's it. I'm done. Done writing books. ... You get to a point where you get to the edges of a room, and you can go back and go where you've been, and basically recycle stuff. I've seen it in my own work. People when they read Buick Eight are going to think Christine. It's about a car that's not normal, OK? You say, 'I've said the things that I have to say, that are new and fresh and interesting to people.' Then you have a choice. You can either continue to go on, or say I left when I was still on top of my game. I left when I was still holding the ball, instead of it holding me."

King had also hinted at retirement back in 1998, after Bag of Bones was published, saying he feared drifting into self-parody.

The Onion weighed in:

Obviously, King never retired. Indeed, he barely slowed down.

In 2007, he explained his comments: "When I said to that lady from the L.A. Times I might retire, I was still recovering from the accident that I was in, I was in a lot of pain, and I was under the pressure of finishing The Dark Tower. At that point, retirement looked good. When the pain went away and The Dark Tower finished up, retirement started to look bad."

Still going strong at age 66, King will publish two novels this year (Mr. Mercedes in June and Revival in November).

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Stephen King: Black House (with Peter Straub) (2001)

Seventeen years after co-writing The Talisman, Stephen King and Peter Straub reunited for a sequel. Jack Sawyer is a retired Los Angeles policeman now living in French Landing, Wisconsin. The small town is being menaced by a serial killer/cannibal, and Sawyer - initially reluctant to lend his prodigious talents to solving the case - eventually joins the hunt for the man nicknamed the Fisherman.

Black House is also an offshoot of King's Dark Tower series. The serial killer is also working for (and possessed by) an agent of the Crimson King. In exchange for special powers, including teleportation, the killer has agreed to turn over any special children that can be used as Breakers to weaken the Beams that keep the Dark Tower standing.

While much of Black House sounds and feels like a King novel, there are extensive literary flourishes, especially in the early chapters, that are likely more Straub's style. (Also, Straub is originally from Wisconsin.) The opening is similar to King's Needful Things, with a narrator taking us around the town, pointing out the geography and some of the residents. King later portrays the townspeople as extremely ghoulish as they arrive by the carload at an abandoned shack where the Fisherman has dumped one of his victims, hoping for a peek of something, before being turned away. "What kind of person sets off on a Saturday morning to take pictures of dead children?"

Black House started off strong enough, but the last third was a chore to get through. And since that's when the showdown with the serial killer occurs and Jack and members of the Thunder Five motorcycle gang venture into the infinite space of Black House and try to rescue a young boy from a life of slavery as a Breaker, that's a very bad sign. (Also, although the book is not a mystery, the identity of the killer - who has modeled his crimes on those of Albert Fish - is fairly easy to deduce long before it is revealed.)

King and Straub gives readers very little background information on Jack Sawyer, tossing in quick allusions to people, places, and events from The Talisman. Since settling in French Landing, Sawyer has done everything he can to forget his adventures crossing the country - and crossing over into the Territories - to find the Talisman. He will have to come to terms with his hazy memories, however, and re-visit the Territories again in order to solve this case.

The infamous and well-hidden Black House - "a place stacked with vileness and layered with secrets" - is actually portal to another world (though a different other world than the Territories):
In a very real sense, touring Black House is like touring the brain of a deranged madman, and in such a mental framework we can expect to find no plan for the future or memory of the past. In the brain of a madman only the fuming present exists, with its endless shouting urges, paranoid speculations, and grandiose assumptions.
Black House recalls the Marsten House from 'Salem's Lot, and through the many threads of the Dark Tower, King links Black House to two other novels. A Mr. Brautigan (Hearts in Atlantis) is mentioned as the leader of the Breakers and the word "opopanax" is mentioned numerous times (it appears in Wolves of the Calla, the 5th Dark Tower volume).

The title recalls Charles Dickens's Bleak House, but not having read the older book, I can't say if there are direct connections, beyond the fact that Jack Sawyer is reading the Dickens novel in installments to Henry Leyden, his blind friend.

Kevin Quigley writes that the literary allusion to Dickens "is not incidental; in fact, one particularly scary section in Black House parallels the foggy opening of [Bleak House]. Also recalling Dickens are the establishing chapters, which introduce the sprawling cast of characters." Entertainment Weekly's review states that "it's no coincidence" that the title echoes Bleak House, because of the book's size and scope and its large cast of characters. (That's really not much of a connection.)

Next: Everything's Eventual.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Harper's Latest Attack On Democracy: "Fair Elections Act"

Stephen Harper's latest assault on democracy is the Orwellianly-named "Fair Elections Act", which the Conservatives are trying to rush through Parliament with as little (or no) debate as possible. They recently killed an opposition motion to hold two months of hearings on the bill.

"We're talking about the rules for a federal general election," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said during question period on February 24. "That's the foundation of our democracy. That's what they're trying to cheat on."

Far from making Canadian federal elections more fair, Bill C-23 – which Canada's Chief Electoral Officer has called "affront to democracy" – will likely disenfranchise large groups of voters while preventing the Commissioner of Elections from making full investigations into future cases of vote fraud.

Craig Scott, the Official Opposition Critic for Democratic and Parliamentary Reform, said Bill C-23 is "a concerted attempt to disenfranchise those with lower incomes or more transient lives with US-style voter suppression tactics".

Opposition groups state that C-23 violates Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which gives every Canadian citizen the right to vote. Jessica McCormick, National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, states the bill "aims to suppress the vote of groups that may not vote Conservative including students, Indigenous people, seniors, and people on low-incomes by eliminating the vouching system". The "vouching" system allows people who may not possess the necessary documentation to cast their vote if they go to their polling station with a friend or neighbour. Marc Mayrand, the Chief Electoral Officer, believes at least 100,000 Canadians would be disenfranchised if the vouching system is trashed.

While the Conservatives claim C-23 will "increase democracy", it would actually prohibit Mayrand from engaging in any public education or democratic outreach to groups that are less likely to vote. It would also eliminate Elections Canada's civics-outreach Student Vote Program.

After committing widespread voter suppression and fraud during the 2011 election, the Conservatives want to deny Elections Canada the power to compel testimony in fraud cases. C-23 would also place the office of the Commissioner of Elections Canada under the Director of Public Prosecutions, putting the agency's independent and non-partisan investigative powers under political party control.

While C-23 would prevent the commissioner of Canada elections from revealing that any investigation is under way, it would also give any member being investigated notification of such investigation, an unnecessary heads-up warning.

The Conservatives drafted Bill C-23 without any meaningful discussions with Elections Canada. The Tories' confrontational, resentful, and vindictive attitude towards Election Canada has been well-documented; as far back as 2000, Harper referred to EC officials as "jackasses".

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch says the bill also "hikes donation limits, removes the ban on unlimited secret gifts to election candidates, and allows banks to make unlimited loans to candidates".

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair stated that "it's unprecedented that a government would use its majority to shut down debate on fundamental changes to Canada's election law".

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said, "if we're willing to send international observers to see how the elections in Ukraine are going, we should probably be willing to send people across this country to look how our elections are doing here".

Harper's hostility to democracy is a sign of weakness. His pro-war, anti-environment, austerity-driven agenda does not have the support of the majority of people — so he has to resort to suppressing votes in order to get elected. This is masked by the fact that the Liberals share the Conservatives agenda and the NDP leadership has not provided an alternative. But movements across the country — against pipelines and in support of postal workers — can challenge Harper's agenda and expose the democratic deficit driving his voter suppression.

This article was written for Socialist Worker (Canada).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stephen King: Dreamcatcher (2001)

Dreamcatcher was the first novel Stephen King published after his near-fatal accident in 1999. Because he was unable to sit at his desk for extended periods of time, he ended up writing the first draft of the novel by hand, in only six and a half months.

King states (in the afterword): "To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven't been for years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored."

Dreamcatcher takes place over a few days in November 2001. A group of four old friends from Derry, Maine - Joe "Beaver" Clarendon, Pete Moore, Henry Devlin, and Gary "Jonesy" Jones - have gathered for their annual deer hunting trip at a cabin deep in the woods of the Jefferson Tract. There have been reports of strange lights in the sky - and things begin going wrong when they find a lost and disoriented hunter named McCarthy wandering through the woods.

McCarthy is in some serious distress - there is an alien presence growing in him that will be expelled only by moving his bowels (hence, the wonderful term for these invasive creatures: "shit-weasels"). King delights in describing McCarthy's (and a few other characters') odious farts and thunderous belches as the alien grows and moves within him: "brutal and meaty", with a "sulfurous rotten-egg odor", "a long, purring fart that sounded like ripping cloth", "a deflating rubber toy", "an untalented child blowing over a piccolo". One character's bad breath is "a mixture of ether and overripe bananas" and a belch sounds like "a factory machine which has been put under severe strain".

The men eventually learn that an alien spacecraft has crashed in the Maine woods and the surrounding area is now sealed off. Everyone in the area - residents and hunters - are rounded up and placed in a military camp, in an operation led by a military madman named Kurtz. Complicating matters is that a fierce snowstorm is on the way. Dreamcatcher is the story of how the aliens' desire to spread the virus across a larger area is eventually defeated. And it is up to the four men - who reunite with an old friend from their childhoods - to stop this murderous contamination.

So: Is Dreamcatcher the tale of five friends who must bond together to overcome an alien invasion? Is it a military/alien thriller? Is it a supernatural, multi-dimensional science-fiction tale with telepathic characters? It tries to be all three. And it has elements of It, The Tommyknockers, and "The Body".

Heidi Strengell, writing in Dissecting Stephen King: From The Gothic To Literary Naturalism:
Including both dream sequences and numerous shifts in time, the complex novel has three levels. It can be viewed as a science-fiction parody, as a tale of horror, and as a comment on the absence of responsibility.
Dreamcatcher never felt parodic to me, and despite the graphic descriptions of the cancerous "shit-weasels", it was neither horrific nor scary. Indeed, the race to prevent the alien virus from being dumped into a Massachusetts water reservoir unfolded almost in slow-motion. It was clear the aliens' plan would be thwarted; it was simply a matter of slogging through the pages to see how it happened.

I would agree with Strengell that King (once again, as he has several times throughout his lengthy career) highlights the government's lack of concern for its citizens and, in this novel, its willingness to murder hundreds of them to keep the true nature of the alien menace a secret. Commenting on both The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher, Strengell writes:
In doing so, he shows how technology for its own sake may not be progress at all and how little the government take responsibility for its citizens. By acknowledging that scientific progress has done little for humans as moral beings, King pleads for the restoration of the dignity of the human being.
Some other random notes:

Jonesy is an assistant professor of history at a small Boston college. He is a "lifelong connoisseur of horror movies, suspense novels, and mysteries" and was struck by a car earlier in the year (suffering injuries extremely similar to what King suffered). Having read elsewhere that King was on-point in his descriptions of Jonesy's pain and rehabilitation, I was surprised that there was so little of it in the novel.

In a nod to It, there are several mentions of how children often go missing in Derry. "There have been a lot of child disappearances here over the years ... but nobody talks much about it. It's as if the occasional missing kid is the price of living in such a nice, quiet place." That confused me, because I had thought, from reading It, that Derry was a disgusting town. Even in this novel, King says Derry was built on "what was once swampland shunned even by the Micmac Indians who lived all around it". (King also mentions Derry's "ancient and incredibly complex systems of drains and sewers".)

King is still capable of some great writing. When Henry Devlin inspires the captives to revolt against the military and attempt an escape, the narrative comes crackling to life, like a small fire after some lighter fluid has been tossed on it. The reader works furiously, taking in the words quickly, feverishly, as the action unfolds. King has always been good at describing utter chaos and the complete destruction of a compound, estate, town, country, etc. And King is an expert at showing the bonds of friendship between boys on the cusp of being teenagers, though his characterizations here remain a far cry from his best work: "The Body" and It.

Jonesy's body is inhabited (taken over, really) by one of the aliens, who Jonesy dubs Mr. Gray. Towards the end of the novel, King intimates that Mr. Gray never existed; he was simply a part of Jonesy:
Mr. Gray is the phantom limb you still feel, the one you could swear is still there. ... They never existed as actual creatures aliens, ETs. The grays as physical beings were always created out of the human imagination...
This raises several questions about King's narrative, since for hundreds of pages he has been writing as though the opposite was true. This - and other plot twists - gives a reader the impression that King is simply making up stuff as goes along, whether it jibes with earlier portions of the book or not. (Also, the use of telepathy between the characters is extremely convenient as characters can magically know things they have not actually experienced.)

Ultimately, the 617-page book is a dull mess. (One site ranked it #62 of King's 64 novels.) My biggest complaint is the extended Jonesy/Gray sequences do little to move the plot forward. King could have told this story in at least 200 fewer pages, perhaps 300 fewer.

The Stand and It are huge novels, and two of King's best works. (I also have a strange affection for the well-hated The Tommyknockers.) However, since the mid-80s, King's various doorstoppers - Needful Things, Insomnia, Desperation, and Dreamcatcher - have been a big disappointments. Instead, King has excelled only when writing on a smaller canvas: Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, and two-thirds of Rose Madder.

Next: Black House (written with Peter Straub).