Friday Reviews: Dreamcatcher

DreamcatcherDreamcatcher

Stephen King

A UFO crashes in a remote section of rural Maine. The setting alone should already tell you it’s a Stephen King novel. The crash disrupts the annual hunting trip of four lifelong friends from Derry (Remember It, Bag of Bones?) An elite and secret military unit led by a crazed man named Kurtz swoops in to turn the area into a scorch mark to prevent the alien “Ripley” infection from spreading. And yet one alien, dubbed Mr. Gray because he looks like the classic view of an alien, takes over the body of one of the four friends. The key to stopping him? A renegade soldier, the one member of the gang having suicidal thoughts, and a dying middle-aged man with Downs syndrome named “Duddits.”

Dreamcatcher is the first novel King completed after the accident that almost killed him. Echoes of that accident make it into the story through the hijacked character of Jonesy. It hits on the familiar themes of King novels past: Childhood friends in adulthood (It, The Body), a secret government organization ruthless and maybe misguided (Firestarter), and a menace that has no real form (It). It also comes at a time when King began writing, to put it bluntly, doorstops. There’s a rhyme and reason to why The Stand, It, and The Dark Tower novels run so long. Bag of Bones, Dreamcatcher, and Black House probably could stand a bit of whittling. The real meat of the story is the chase in the back half of the novel. Henry, the suicidal shrink, and Underhill, the killer soldier with a conscience, go after Jonesy, who is trapped in his own mind by Mr. Gray, who has taken over his body. Kurtz, the mad colonel who, at one point, ignores orders to stand down and shows a contempt for the president unacceptable from an officer (Regardless of your politics, he is your commander-in-chief), Kurtz wants Underhill. Why? He crossed the Kurtz line.

But what makes the story work despite its bulk and lengthy setup is Duddits. Introduced as a teenager, Duddits has Downes syndrome yet is the glue that holds the group of Henry, Jonesy, Pete (shown as an alcoholic as an adult) and poor, simple Beaver together. The boys, like Duddits’s mother, can understand what he says despite consonants being a challenge. But King does a beautiful job of writing one scene inside Duddits’s head. Duddits’s thoughts are simple and limited but surprisingly clear, showing a wisdom most normal people can’t even dream of.

The book has a murky ending, however, which is somewhat anti-climactic. On the other hand, it’s much better than the movie ended, with Duddits morphing into an avenging alien to destroy Mr. Gray and save the world. (And really, Morgan Freeman made a lousy screen version of Kurtz, who makes the Heart of Darkness character he’s based on look well-adjusted.) King’s skills are all still here. They’re just rusty. The mojo hasn’t left, but it’s slow as molasses.

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Friday Reviews: Secret Windows by Stephen King

Secret Windows by Stephen KingSecret Windows

Stephen King

The follow-up to his classic writing memoir, On Writing, compiles a series of essays, lectures, and the odd short piece of fiction on the craft of writing. Meant to be a companion piece to the former book, Secret Windows takes its name from the novella of the same name, later a Johnny Depp movie. The intro to the original Secret Windows is here, as is a large chunk of Danse Macabre, King’s first non-fiction book on the subject of modern horror.

Many people wonder why horror is so full of absolute dreck, and yet King is considered one of our premier novelists.It’s simple. King writes about us. His setting is a fictionalized version of Maine. Derry, setting for It is Bangor, right down to the canal bisecting downtown. Castle Rock is the same small town where King grew up. Dark Score Lake and TR90, fromĀ The Dark Half andĀ Bag of Bones, are the same lakeside unincorporated township where the King family has a summer home, and where King himself had an unhappy collision with a Dodge minivan that nearly killed him.

In other words, King takes his own everyday reality, clones it into his fiction, and drops in horror elements to take his characters out of their comfort zones (or even the land of the living.) Ed McBain did this with New York City. And even when the cities are real, authors use that same familiarity to plunge something out of the ordinary into otherwise unremarkable, or at least predictable, lives. That’s why King’s horror works.

The best part of the book is the lectures. King doesn’t call them lectures. He just riffs for an hour or two to his audience, sometimes vulgar and cranky, sometimes like a favorite uncle telling you stories about where he works. In either case, he’s very comfortable, showing us that writers are no different from anyone else. They just have more vivid imaginations. He also questions the sanity of people who think you have to be insane to write horror. Isn’t it insane, he posits, to pretend bad things don’t happen? He thinks that’s why a novel like Salem’s Lot worked. The people most offended by it were the people being skewered. (And, as a side note, the vampire and his toadie seemed to be the most normal people in that book.)

What didn’t work for me was plunking down 150 pages of Danse Macabre in the middle of the book. I already read Danse Macabre. A short excerpt would have been fine, but without those chapters, the book would have been 250-300 instead of 431 and still held the reader’s interest.

Still, if you haven’t read any of King’s non-fiction, this isn’t a bad intro. It’s also expensive, with both the paperback and hard cover editions listed as $40 new on Amazon. Obviously, it’s meant for collectors and King aficionados.

Friday Reviews: On Writing by Stephen King

On Writing by Stephen KingOn Writing

Stephen King

Near the end of the 1990’s, Stephen King decided to write a book about writing. Reluctant to be one of those writers who talks out his ass about what he does, King opted to keep the book short. That did not make it any easier. He put the book aside for a while and came back to it in 1999, during which the fateful encounter with a Dodge minivan nearly killed him.

It was this book King returned to when he was finally able to sit at his computer once more, and the results of that accident make up a major portion of the last third of this book. The first third is… Well, it’s not quite an autobiography, but it does show the evolution of a writer. He traces his origins growing up with his older (and admittedly smarter) brother and their single mom. It wasn’t an easy life, but Mrs. King, abandoned by her husband when King was just a toddler, imbued her boys with a strong Yankee work ethic and her mischievous sense of humor. That allowed King to edit the school newspaper, work as a sports reporter in high school for a local paper, and to work his way through college, where he met the future Tabitha King.

The middle section King devotes to the writer’s toolbox: Vocabulary, grammar, dialog, description, and theme (among others). He extols the virtues of The Elements of Style, of Elmore Leonard’s rule to “omit needless words,” of reading constantly and writing constantly. Writing, he says, is not easy, but it’s possible if you want to do the work.

The most important lesson he imparts is one I’ve seen too many writers I’ve known personally fail to understand: Art is a support system for life, not the other way around. There are a few really successful writers I’ve known over the years who did not heed that advice, and they’re absolutely miserable for it. The ones who do heed that advice may or may not be happy, but the craft is not destroying them inside

Friday Reviews: Riding the Bullet by Stephen King

Riding the Bullet by Stephen KingRiding the Bullet

Stephen King

Stephen King makes his first splash in ebooks with Riding the Bullet, written shortly after his accident in 1999. A novella, it later appeared in the collection Everything’s Eventual.

Alan Parker gets a call at school that his mother has had a stroke. Despite her admonition to wait until the weekend to come see her, Parker hitchhikes home. Eventually, he stumbles into a graveyard and ends up hitching a ride with George Straub, ironically a man whose tombstone George just saw. Straub eventually reveals that Alan has a choice to make: Either Alan rides The Bullet, a bizarre coaster at a nearby amusement park, with Straub, or his mother does. It’s implied that Straub is tasked with taking one of them to the afterlife by riding the Bullet (hence the title.)

As a short story, this one is ultimately unsatisfying. The ending is so ambiguous that all the tension is sucked out of the last third of the story. Basically, we’re left with a hitchhiking kid who falls asleep in a cemetery for a short while as he hitchhikes home. There’s nothing to suggest if it was a dream or real, something King usually does a good job depicting, even when it can go the other way.

Friday Reviews: Hearts In Atlantis by Stephen King

Hearts in Atlantis

Stephen King

Following the pattern of Different Seasons, Stephen King creates four novellas. This one is different, however. It traces the lives of four children from a town in Connecticut: Bobby Garfield, Carol Gerber, Willy Shearman, and John Sullivan. The first novella, Low Men in Yellow Coats, is the story the movie Hearts in Atlantis is based upon. Ted Brautigan, an old man from parts unknown, moves into the apartment above where Bobby Garfield and his mother live. His mother dislikes Ted instantly, but Bobby and Ted forge a bond that has been lacking since Bobby’s father died. Ted, you see, is on the run from the Low Men, nasty creatures from King’s Dark Tower epic. Bobby learns what Ted believes to be a man and learns it well. While his best friend John Sullivan is away at camp, he saves Carol Gerber from a severe beating at the hands of some older toughs, one of whom is Willy Shearman.

Fast forward to the title novella, which refers to the narrator Pete Riley’s idea that America in the mid-sixties is Atlantis and that the war in Vietnam, which he soon finds himself protesting, is Atlantis slowly sinking into the sea. The titular “hearts” is a manic, almost 24/7 game of Hearts played in Pete’s dorm. The obsession causes many to drop out of school as their grades suffer, which means they will be dying overseas within months. Pete meets a girl, though, one who becomes a radical. Her name is Carol Gerber, and he considers Carol leaving school just as they become lovers to be the most serious loss of his life. Musing years later, when Carol has disappeared, believed to be dead, he wonders if he could have saved her.

Willy Shearman also wonders. The man who beat Carol as a child became a hero in Vietnam, saving the life of Carol’s high school sweetheart, John Sullivan. But Willy has seen where his original path was leading in a battle that resembles the My Lai massacre in all the wrong ways. So Willy does pennance. He travels by train from his home in suburban Connecticut to Manhattan, goes up to an office no one will ever visit, climbs through the ceiling to another office no one will ever visit, and changes into his disguise. He changes into another disguise as Blind Willy, the blind, wounded veteran. Willy chooses this disguise because, as he and Sully John (as John Sullivan is called all through the book), recovered from their wounds, Willy was blind. And as the blind beggar on Fifth Avenue, Bill Shearman does his penance for hurting Carol, wondering if she ever survived the manhunt that followed a botched bombing.

John Sullivan picks up the story, recounting the battle, those he fought alongside, and even some of Pete Riley’s former card shark pals. Sully John suffers from PTSD in the form of hallucinations. One of Pete’s dorm mates, the aptly named Malefant, bayonets an old woman to death, one of the horrors of war. The old woman appears to Sully John over the years, going from a reminder of the horror of war to an imaginary companion he knows is unreal, but has come to welcome anyway. She has not appeared for some time until 1999, when a fellow soldier’s funeral triggers her appearance. In a traffic jam, she even talks to him.

It is Sully John’s funeral that lures Bobby Garfield back to the story. He is shocked when a woman who “doesn’t know any Carol Gerber” shows up. Ted is mentioned. The Dark Tower is barely hinted at. And yet Bobby and Carol, each other’s first boyfriend/girlfriend, bring the story to a close by stashing something Bobby thought he’d lost in a hiding place they once used in a more innocent time.

I like that King wants to tell a story through five different novellas (Well, four and a short story). However, the crux of the story seems to be the sixties and its impact on those who lived through it. I don’t mind King injecting The Dark Tower into some of his work. It tends to unify his storytelling. However, most of Hearts in Atlantis takes place in a world where the supernatural is irrelevant. Otherwise, it was a beautiful sight watching these four people go from preteen to middle age in a way only King can write it.

Friday Reviews: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Stephen King

After the harrowing ghost story of Bag of Bones, Stephen King returns to TR90, the unincorporated Maine township, in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The titular girl is Trisha McFarland. Trisha wanders away from her brother and mother on a section of the Appalachian Trail to pee and, more importantly, get away from their bickering. When she finishes, she realizes she’s lost. When in doubt, she thinks, follow a stream. Streams empty into the ocean. Right?

No, this stream empties into New Hampshire, which is nowhere near the ocean. After a harrowing week in the woods, Trisha finds herself living off the land – checkerberries, beechnuts, and fiddle heads – fighting pneumonia, and possibly hallucinating. She hallucinates Tom Gordon, the popular closer for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1990’s. She hallucinates three robed figures telling her she is about to meet her destiny. And she hallucinates something that is following her.

Actually, something is following her. King uses the word “it” to imply Pennywise, but the demonic clown is never once mentioned. And while her supernatural encounters may or may not be caused by fever and fatigue playing tricks on her mind, something is following her. Even the ending leaves it up to the reader as to whether her stalker is a typical King monster or a more mundane denizen of the forest.

More frightening is Trisha’s continued turns away from civilization. At one point, because she passes through during midweek, she misses human presence by a mere few hundred yards.

Two things mar this novel. First is King’s tendency to insert spoilers into the story. At several points, he references “the Trisha who emerged from the woods a week later,” which telegraphs a happy ending at points where the suspense should be ratcheted up. Second, King cannot seem to make up his mind if this is a supernatural story or simply a little girl lost in the woods. The former plays nicely into King’s Dark Tower series, but the latter, like Cujo, works on a level of terror many of us have known at some point in our lives. What’s more frightening than wandering aimlessly in Western Maine’s undeveloped forests, staggering toward Montreal with nothing in between?

Tom Gordon did keep me turning pages. Unlike the previous three or four King novels, this one is short, 265 pages in the version I read. And one thing that gives the novel its flavor is King’s love of baseball, particularly the Red Sox. It shines through as Trisha listens to the games on her Walkman, her only link to civilization during her ordeal.

Over all, this was a much better, more coherent work than, say, Desperation.

Friday Reviews: Bag Of Bones by Stephen King

Bag of Bones

Stephen King

Mike Noonan is a thriving midlist writer on the verge of breaking through when his wife dies. He is barely able to finish the novel he was working on, and his output grinds to a halt. Over the next four years, he gets by on submitting manuscripts he left in a safe deposit box.

When the well runs dry, Mike heads to his summer home on Dark Score Lake, a familiar setting to Stephen King readers. There, he nearly runs down a little girl wandering in the road. She is Kyra Devore, and her mother, Mattie, is distraught. When Mike learns she is in a custody battle against her late husband’s father, computer magnate and local-boy-turned-whack-job Max Devore, Mike decides to foot the bill for a high-priced New York lawyer for her. When he does that, it becomes obvious that the summer home is haunted, and it ties to something sinister around Kyra.

Dark Score Lake is familiar territory for King fans, functioning as a sort of “suburb” of Castle Rock. In fact, much of King’s fictional Maine is here, with Mike Noonan hailing from Derry, the setting for It and Insomnia. There is, in fact, no hint of the bizarre supernatural happenings in either town. There are, however, references to other Stephen King surrogates. Noonan is amused by the work of William Denbrough from It. We also learn that The Dark Half‘s Thad Beaumont committed suicide. Noonan suspects it’s the writer’s block that he himself suffers.

Like King’s previous non-Dark Tower novel, Desperation (and its Richard Bachman counterpart, The Regulators), Bag of Bones meanders and wades into the story. However, the first-person narrative keeps it from being a mess up front. The story wanders a bit at first, but overall, it’s a coherent whole.

While this is a ghost story, there is a monster in this story, Max Devore. Devore is an absolutely abominable human being. He has a lot of parallels to Charles Foster Kane, even pining for a sled in his youth. Unlike Kane, Devore has no redeemable qualities, even attempting to “buy” Kyra from his “low-class” mother and leaving mother and daughter to live in a run-down trailer in rural Maine. His evil even reaches from beyond the grave late in the story, not exactly a spoiler when you consider King’s usual subject matter.