Thursday Reviews: Rose Madder by Stephen King

Rose Madder

Stephen King

One drop of blood on the sheets. That’s all it takes for Rose Daniels to flee the house. One drop of blood while she’s changing the bed sheets tells her it’s time to abandon her abusive husband Norman and get as far away from her East Coast home (a thinly disguised Boston area) as she can. Norman so strictly controls her life that Rose wonders if she can go before he catches her and “talks to her. Up real close.” That’s a cute euphemism for a beating.

To her surprise, she gets $370 and hops a bus to the Midwest, landing in a city that, judging by the street names, is either Chicago or the unnamed city from “Richard Bachman’s” Roadwork, as different from home as can be. Thanks to a kindly gentleman at the bus station’s Travel Aid office, she is referred to a shelter called Daughters & Sisters. There, the current and former residents get Rose on her feet and into a new life. A chance stop at a pawn shop leads to two life-changing events. In one, a little old man named Rob Lefferts overhears her talking to the shop’s manager (who instantly falls for Rose), and asks her to read from a lurid pulp novel from the 1950’s. He offers her a job doing audiobooks on the spot. (A rather prescient idea for 1996.) The second is the painting, depicting a woman in a rose madder gown staring at a ruined temple. Rose becomes obsessed with the painting.

As she gets settled into her new life, putting the painting in a place of prominence, she fears one day Norman will still hunt her down. He’s the worst kind of obsessive stalker – He’s a cop (a fact which later offends a cop in Rose’s new city.) He finds people for a living. But then we learn why the painting its so strange. Like Alice through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole, Rose steps through the painting. By the time Norman finds Rose, things get really, really strange.

Like a lot of King’s 1990’s work, there are more direct connections to the Dark Tower series. Dorcas, Rose’s guide on the other side, tells her she is part of their ka, a word for “purpose” in The Dark Tower. The woman Rose dubs “Rose Madder” for her gown is a scary entity who will not allow Rose to see her face. She asks Rose to charge naked into the temple to retrieve her baby, guarded by a bull who is clearly based on the Minotaur of Greek myth. When she succeeds, Rose Madder tells Rose rather cryptically, “I repay.” Bad news for Norman as, from that point, it’s pretty clear he’s going to collect on that whether he likes it or not.

Though Rose Madder exists in a supernatural realm, the real monster is Norman, a sociopath with an undeserved sense of entitlement. He tells himself over and over again that he’s angry over having his bank card stolen. It’s strains credibility in the beginning and is revealed as complete bull (apt term, considering the climax). Norman can’t stand it if anyone, especially if they’re not a white, male manly man, gets one over on him. In one scene, a woman does proceed to give him a memorable ass-whupping. Norm’s practically in tears, telling himself a woman can’t do this to him. Norman is someone for whom compassion, given or received, is simply impossible.

Rose’s escape from her old life is a fairy tale story (escapes from evil home life, finds helpers, meets Prince Charming) inserted into King’s universe. (Paul Sheldon from Misery makes several appearances.) And of course, it isn’t a fairy tale. Every step of the way, she is scared. She is certainly a likeable character who doesn’t remain a scared mouse the entire time.

King writes long and meandering. Sometimes, it works (It, The StandNeedful Things). Other times, he needs to hurry up and get to the point. I’m all for descriptive passages and sections inside the minds of the characters that deepen the story. What I don’t like is the lengthy endings that King developed a habit of using around this time. It wasn’t so bad in Insomnia, where there was one last plot point to reveal. Here, it just seems to stretch out Rose’s happily ever after (which has a few not-so-happy moments).

Thursday Reviews: Mick Jagger by Phillip Norman; Insomnia by Stephen King

Mick Jagger
Phillip Norman

Mick Jagger is the face of the Band of the Rock Era. Equal parts self-absorbed rock god and kind, generous kid from Dartford, Kent, there are two sides to Jagger. They often show up in the same conversation.

Playwright Phillip Norman creates a sprawling biography to rival Keith Richards autobiography Life. Norman himself is both unabashed fanboy – implying that their are no Rolling Stones without Mick and refuting some of Richards’ assertions in Life – and Jagger’s primary accuser, never sparing him from his naked social climbing from the early 1970’s onward. Taken with Life, however, a very detailed history of the Rolling Stones emerges, one that, along with Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone, is a history that is begging for Charlie Watts to give his take.

Insomnia

Stephen King

Since Ralph Roberts’ wife died, things have not been going well for him. He can’t sleep. Worse, insomnia keeps shaving a few minutes off what little sleep he gets every night. He thinks this is just latent depression, age (he is pushing 70 when we first meet him), or some random ailment that strikes most people from time to time. He tries everything from changing his sleep pattern to long walks to eating honey right out of the comb. This last he decides was a pretty tasty failure.

Yet when his neighbor, Helen Depeneau, shows up at the neighborhood grocery beaten within an inch of her life, Ralph confronts her husband Ed, who seems a bit bewildered that he would actually do such a thing. Ed explains that he’s worried, that bad things are going to happen because of the local abortion clinic, and not just because he thinks abortion is bad. He warns of someone called the Crimson King.

And that’s when the auras begin to appear for Ralph. And the “bald docs.” He soon learns that the neighboring widow, Lois (“Our Lois” the local old men call her, noting she is still quite attractive for a woman in her sixties) also suffers from insomnia. She also sees what Ralph sees. Worse, they soon learn that, while Ed Deepeneau is clearly a few bricks shy of a wall, there really is a Crimson King. And he has Ed dancing on his string.

With Castle Rock (for now) essentially out of the picture (It returns in Dreamcatcher), King moves the action to Derry, the setting for It. The evil is just as pervasive as it was in It, and there are references to that novel and some of the events, which no one ties to Pennywise the Dancing Clown. But It is revealed to be part of something larger. As with his collaboration with Peter Straub, The Talisman, we’re finding the world of The Dark Tower intruding. One little boy draws a picture of a menacing being he calls “the Red King,” and of a ragged-looking cowboy he calls “Roland.” In the same section, Roland makes a cameo, somehow aware something has happened just as the story reaches its climax, but unaware of the events. Other cameos include Mike Hanlon, Derry’s librarian and one of the Losers Club from It and architect Ben Hanscomb, another of the Losers Club.

King is rather down on this novel, calling it stiff, but it may be he simply wasn’t happy with the attempts to incorporate Greek mythology into his wider narrative, that is his fictionalized Maine and his Dark Tower epic. In reality, I think if he had done more, it would have detracted from the story while not using what he did would have actually made the story stiffer and harder to follow. What I found disappointing was the Crimson King himself. Not the character. He is certainly a monster of King-like proportions while most definitely a worthy nemesis for Roland in The Dark Tower, King misses several opportunities to tie the character to its inspiration, the 1969 King Crimson album In the Court of the Crimson King. His character certainly puts the title track in a new light, and there are ways to weave references to it (“The Black Queen chants the funeral march,” “On soft gray mornings, widows cry”) without violating the copyright.  And since the song was written by Ian McDonald and Peter Sinfield, I serious doubt Robert Fripp could reasonably object to actually using the song. But since I didn’t write the book, it’s impossible, without comment from King, to say why he did not exploit this more. As I’ve only read the first three books of that series, I may find out that I’m wrong, and that King simply chose to wait for a Dark Tower novel to go that route.

Nonetheless, I do like this first effort to draw The Dark Tower into King’s more real-world stories. At one point, Ralph even knows more about the true nature of the Dark Tower (though not what it’s called) than Roland has yet shown in the Dark Tower books. It also offers some tantalizing hints that the Crimson King and Pennywise may be the same entity, if not similar beings.

Thursday Reviews: Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King

Nightmares & Dreamscapes

Stephen King

Every few years, Stephen King puts out a collection of short stories, starting with Night Shift in 1978, followed by Skeleton Crew in 1985. This edition contains stories written primarily on commission. In the beginning, King made a lot of extra income off these. In the notes for Skeleton Crew, he talks about how he had to explain to a bottom-line focused friend that short stories were not a waste of his time. The friend felt that, because King had made millions from novels and that short stories seldom paid more than a couple thousand dollars, that they were not productive. King disagreed, or he would not have put out two (now several more) collections. Indeed, some of the stories, such as Skeleton Crew‘s “Survivor Type,” were never published.

And so it is with Nightmares & Dreamscapes. Many of the stories were written by request, while one was simply an unpublished story King did not initially like. There’s something else here. King actually gets away from the supernatural in “Dolan’s Cadillac,” “The Doctor’s Case,” and the essay on Little League baseball, “Head Down.” “Dolan’s” could have come straight from Plots With Guns or Needle, the story of a patient man seeking revenge on the mob boss who murdered his wife. This timid school teacher takes a summer job for two years with the Nevada highway department and cooks up a brilliant trap for the mobster. In the notes afterward, King admits to fudging a few of the technical details in case anyone got the bright idea of trying that gambit.

“The Doctor’s Case” is a Sherlock Holmes story where Watson experiences the same flash of insight Holmes does on a regular basis. Watson describes the moment as painful, though I’m not really sold on King’s take. It is, however, a very clever locked-room mystery.

On the more supernatural front, King foreshadows World War Z with “Home Delivery,” where a pregnant widow watches the end of civilization from Little Tall Island, the same setting as Dolores Claiborne. Originally written for a tribute anthology based on George Romero’s Living Dead series, many aspects of this story later appear in Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse tale.

My favorite story is “The House on Baker Street,” based on a drawing King includes in the book. Something metallic is growing in the walls of the Bradbury house, and it may be the children’s solution to their growing wicked stepfather problem. The story is very much in the vein of the original Twilight Zone. So is “Sorry, Right Number,” where a woman is sent into a panic by a familiar voice on the telephone.

King ends this collection unusually for him. The long essay “Head Down” chronicles the state championship season of the Bangor West Little League team. It has a first baseman named Owen King whose father is a “local writer of some repute.” King wrote this almost-diary of his son’s team for the New Yorker, but spends more time talking about the team as a whole and the coaches. Once again, King is eschewing the supernatural to go somewhere else.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes has a different feel. This is King reaching out and pushing his boundaries, leaving the horror behind from time to time, much as he did in Different Seasons.

Thursday Reviews: Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Dolores Claiborne

Stephen King

This book is one of two that have very few supernatural elements to them. In a couple of crucial scenes, Dolores Claiborne St. George has a vision of Jessie Burlingame of Gerald’s Game. Likewise, Jessie had a vision of a woman over an open well on the day of the eclipse that links these two stories. It’s rather appropriate as Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are yin and yang. The former is about a woman abused (and later oppressed) who pays the price for not fighting back and standing up for herself. Dolores Claiborne pays the price for just the opposite.

In a nutshell, this first person story is about a woman accused of killing her employer, Vera Donovan, an invalid old lady who fell down the stairs to her death. The reason Dolores is suspected is not so much how she was found at the scene. No, Dolores was accused of this before when her husband Joe fell down a well. Only Dolores freely admits she got away with murder the first time.

What’s interesting is that Dolores Claiborne turns out not to be the central character in the story. Even when the day of Joe’s death is recounted, it’s really Vera who is driving the whole story. Dolores’s story is really about the consequences of Vera’s manipulations. And as hostile as their relationship is, both women, it turns out, needed each other to the very end.

The movie could never tell the story the way King told it. It’s all Dolores, in her Maine islander accent, telling about her adventures being Vera’s paid companion and why Joe St. George had to die. The movie expanded and combined several of the characters and, of course, used the eclipse. But it got the most important line right.

“An accident,” a much younger Vera tells an angry Dolores, “can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”

And so it is here.

Thursday Reviews: Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

Gerald’s Game

Stephen King

I read this one once about twenty years ago, before King wrote his On Writing. Jessie Burlingame is dreading a weekend getaway where husband Gerald (he of the titular game) wants to indulge in some good ol’ fashioned bondage. He cuffs Jessie to the bed only to have her change her mind. When Gerald doesn’t quite get that no means no, she kicks him in the balls. Which triggers a heart attack.

The keys are on a table that Jessie can’t reach, and so she spends a miserable twenty-four hours trying to figure out how to escape now that her husband is dead. During that time, a starving stray dog wanders in and decides that hunks of Gerald will do nicely as a substitute for whatever he’s been getting in local trashcans. During the night, a freakish looking man with a bag of bones (not really a reference to the later King novel of the same name) comes in and basically scares the bejesus out of Jessie by simply staring at her and showing her the bones. In the meantime, the voices in Jessie’s head, really all aspects of her personality, start arguing with her over what to do about her predicament. To kill time, they also force her to relive a childhood trauma she tried to pretend never happened. All this serves to make Jessie reach a radical solution to her problem.

This book has a vaguely supernatural tie to Delores Claiborne, the follow-up to this novel, but it comes off as a fragment of a dream. The book has more in common with Misery, though this is not a rehash. This book has a rather cathartic feel to it, as though Jessie’s ordeal is a long-overdue intervention of sorts. It’s a suspense novel, not really a horror novel, in spite of the freakish nature of Jessie’s late night visitor.

Thursday Reviews: Needful Things by Stephen King

Needful Things

By Stephen King

A new store is opening in Castle Rock, Maine, a “wide place in the road” near Portland. It is called Needful Things, and the owner, Leland Gaunt, is ready to make deals. He will sell you your heart’s desire for an unbelievably low price, but only if you agree to do him a little favor. “Just a harmless pranks,” he always assures his customers.

Only the pranks aren’t so harmless. Like any small town, Castle Rock is seething with petty squabbles, long-smoldering grudges, and self-centered persecution complexes. The “harmless pranks” often set one person against another. Eventually, it turns violent.

Even without these sudden eruptions in violence, Sheriff Alan Pangborn (The Sun Dog, The Dark Half) is suspicious. Who is this Mr. Gaunt? Why didn’t he know about him before the shop opened? By the time Pangborn turns his sites on Gaunt, his “cross wiring” of the town’s people starts to bear homicidal fruit.

Needful Things is almost a retelling of Salem’s Lot, King intending it to be the final story set in the fictional Castle Rock. This, of course, does not pan out as several later King novels mention or even take place in Castle Rock. Gaunt is Barlow from Salem’s Lot. The townspeople don’t become vampires. They become barbarians. But where Gaunt differs from Barlow is that Barlow is reproducing. Barlow is Dracula settling down in small town America. Gaunt is a supernatural version of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker, sewing bloody chaos and enjoying every brutal second of it.

My one complaint is that Needful Things is wordy. King does weave an intricate plot, and no one can make a fictional town, especially one prone to supernatural doings like Castle Rock, seem real the way he does. However, the book does drag on and on, as though the epics It and the Dark Tower books (which are actually shorter up to this point) have become his template. It might not be so bad, but King already told this story once.

Thursday Reviews: The Book Of Virtue by Ken Bruen; The Ballad Of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde; The Waste Lands by Stephen King

The Book of Virtue

Ken Bruen

I always start the year off with a Ken Bruen book. This year, I started with a short story issued by Mysterious Press. The story is about a young man in New York who is never named but narrates the story. His father has died, which thrills him beyond belief. They did not have the best relationship. All his father leaves him is a book with one word on the cover: “Virtue.” Inside, his father had written several poetic quotes in an attempt to educate himself. Our protag is not impressed. He has more important things to worry about, like running the Khe Sanh Club and banging his boss’s mistress Cici. The time is approaching when he and Cici need to take down their boss, Brady. But as he reads the surprisingly sage advice of his dead father, he finds his life spiraling out of control.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde

This narrative poem was written anonymously by Wilde while he served time in Reading Prison for homosexuality. (Yeah. That used to be a crime. And America was actually the more forward thinking country on the topic back then.) During his sentence, he witnessed the hanging of a man convicted of murdering his wife. During his stay on death row, the man maintained a rather jaunty attitude for someone condemned to die. What starts out as a tale of one man’s journey from dock to gallows becomes a meditation on prison life and the effects of the death penalty on those tasked with its execution.

Though written by an English humorist (Wilde’s infamous wit is understandably absent here) at the end of the 19th century, as the tale drags on, you can almost here Johnny Cash, he of “Folsom Prison Blues” among other songs about convicts, either reciting the words or warbling them over a mournful acoustic guitar. Indeed, it might have made an interesting edition to the American recordings.

The Waste Lands (Dark Tower III)

by Stephen King

Even by Stephen King standards, The Dark Tower series is weird. We have Roland, the nearly immortal spaghetti Western gunslinger marching across time and his dying world toward the mysterious Dark Tower, which stands at the center of time and space. In Book 1, The Gunslinger, he chased a wizard named Walter across a desert and under mountains in a world that looked like a Salvadore Dali painting come to life. In Book 2, The Drawing of the Three, Roland comes to our world and picks up two new gunslingers, a recovering heroin addict and a schizophrenic woman whose legs have been cut off below the knees. Oh, and the boy Roland let die in Book 1? He saves him from his killer in this one.

Yes, King is screwing with time. And the consequences are that Roland (and the boy, Jake) remember both timelines. The paradox threatens to drive him insane. Together with Eddie and Susannah, his new companions, he retrieves the suddenly not-dead Jake from the New York of Eddie’s adolescence. And if Roland’s going mad, think about how bad Jake has it. He remembers dying. Twice.

The group presses on to Lud, a city in Midworld that bears a striking resemblance to New York in some ways, only centuries after the Apocalypse. They are in search of a train. In typical King fashion, the train is sentient. And bipolar. And a bit passive aggressive.

Thursday Reviews: Four Past Midnight by Stephen King; Eating Healthy by Penny Steward; A Brief History Of Time by Stephen Hawking

Four Past Midnight

Stephen King

Stephen King promises this to be the last we hear of Castle Rock, Maine, the final story of Four Past Midnight being the prologue to Needful Things. And then the town shows up promptly in the next book, Gerald’s Game and in Dreamcatcher.  How’d that work out for you, Stevie?

But that’s okay, because the bulk of the book is not about Castle Rock, Maine. It is four separate novellas, two of which have made it to film. The first, The Langoliers, became a two-part television movie featuring an overwrought performance by Bronsan Pinchot as the screaming Mr. Twomey. The printed version is an interesting Twilight Zone piece showing what happens to the world after time passes it by. What happens to all the inanimate objects left behind when we move on with time? Well, the langoliers eat everything. It’s more an absurd fairy tale than a horror novel, but it’s brevity (about 230 pages, a paperback novel of old) keeps the pacing tight.

More familiar is the second story, Secret Window, Secret Garden, which became the Johnny Depp movie Secret Garden. This one is sort of a real world version of The Dark Half turned inside out. Novelist Mort Rainey, yet another literary resident of Castle Rock (Hmm… Thad Beaumont and Mort Rainey? Were I an author in a King novel, I’d move the hell to New York!) is accused of plagiarism. The story in question is one Rainey swears was published in Ellery Queen two years before his accuser, John Shooter, claims it was stolen. Rainey has to deal with two problems: First, Shooter does not seem to exist. Second, that doesn’t stop him from violently retaliating against Rainey. Creepy. And with a real-world ending.

Speaking of real world, the monster in Library Policeman is not the real frightener in this one. Oh, she’s dangerous and scary and evil, but the real monster is a man from protagonist Sam Peebles’ past. When Ardelia Lortz appears thirty years after killing two children, a sheriff’s deputy, and herself, Peebles is suddenly helped by a pair of local recovering alcoholics, one of whom was driven into the bottle by Ardelia. And like any good supernatural menace, she is able to invoke the very real Library Policeman from Peebles’ past to frighten him into submission.

The collection ends with The Sun Dog, about a Polaroid camera with a problem. It only takes pictures of a dog, no matter who you point it at. The dog seems to be charging the would-be photographer with each and every picture. And it wants the camera’s owner, Kevin Delevan. However, Castle Rock’s resident tinkerer, pawn shop owner, and shylock, Pop Merrill, has taken the camera and tries to foist it off on some unsuspecting psychic aficianados, none of whom take it. Much to Pop’s chagrin, he and Kevin are forced into a show-down with the dog in the camera, which doesn’t want to stay in the photograph. Pop’s shop is the site of Leland Gaunt’s place in Needful Things.

Eating Healthy

Penny Steward

This is one of the Freeway Guide series, short audiobooks meant to be listened to over one or two days commuting. I like the format. The author, using sound effects and additional voice actors, is able to make the material more memorable. Plus it does make a commute go by a lot faster.

That said, I was disappointed in the content. Steward decries eating meat, but stops short of recommending going vegan (plus I have a cousin, once a dedicated vegan, who would beg to differ with her assertions about getting protein from meat. She is now a bacon convert.) While some of the principles are sound – Eat more plant material than meat or processed food – she tends toward the conspiracy theory model many infomercials use to discredit detractors. So with that, I had to write this one off.

A Brief History of Time

Stephen Hawking

My first time through this book was the illustrated edition. This time, I did the audio version. Only it’s read not by Hawking (That would be fun, though) but by British radio personality Michael Jackson (No relation to the singer.) Jackson does a great job bringing Hawking’s prose to life. His upper class Received Pronunciation and dry delivery, with some well-placed “um’s” and snicks (Those things they try to beat out of you in Toastmasters) drives home that this is a college professor trying to explain the more esoteric aspects of the universe. And Hawking’s humor really comes through, which is not surprising. Hawking was that nerdy kid everyone picked on in a class at St. Albans that included National Lampoon cofounder Tony Hendra. It was a class that produced a lot of smart-asses, none smarter than Hawking.

Thursday Reviews: Stiff by Mary Roach; The Dark Half by Stephen King

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Mary Roach

Dead people probably save more lives than all the wonder drugs ever created. Mary Roach (Packing for Mars, Bonk) illustrates this by describing her experience watching a group of plastic surgeons practice facelifts on donated severed heads. That’s right. You, too, can donate your corpse to science and became a training tool for surgeons. As with her other tomes about sex and space travel, Roach looks at anatomy cadavers, organ donation, the sordid history of anatomy study before modern times, and even an earth-friendly means of sending your loved ones off with a bemusement that often suggests she might have bitten off more than she can chew.

This book, more than Bonk, which looked at how sex is studied by science, is not for the squeamish. She describes in detail the harvest of a donor’s organs after a car accident, learns how corpses determine what happens in plane crashes, and even visits an open-air lab that studies decomposition. Perhaps the strangest chapter was on a new technique from Sweden where your mortal remains can be freeze-dried and turned into compost that is placed under a tree planted in your memory. You become part of the tree. No formaldehyde. No pricey coffin. No big stone with something pithy like “Cousin Fred 1975-2012 We told him not to try this at home, but he wouldn’t listen.” Controversial? Yes, but so was cremation, which is as normal means of exiting the world as burial has been for thousands of years.

Roach says she writes about what interests her. That said, she also doesn’t hide the fact that her books sometimes weird her out. After all, this was a woman who talked her husband into having sex in an MRI tube.  For science, of course. That scene from Bonk was almost as titillating as a prostate exam. But it’s always funny knowing that Roach is squirming as she witnesses what she writes about more than you are reading it.

The Dark Half

Stephen King

Speaking of dead people…

Thad Beaumont wrote a highly regarded novel that was nominated for a prestigious literary award. Then he couldn’t write. Not until he broke out the Berol No. 2 pencils and started writing long-hand as George Stark, a self-described “high tone sonofabitch.” That’s the fiction. So when Beaumont is exposed, he has a mock burial of “George Stark” in People, complete with tombstone.

Only George Stark doesn’t want to be dead. Thad’s pen name has become flesh and blood, going on a murderous rampage against those who “killed” him. And he wants something from Thad: His ability to write. Because George is dying. Again.

Yeah, weird. What were you expecting from King? Misery? Oh, wait…

King once said he had a trilogy about the effects of writing on the novelist. Misery was about when fans intrude on the author. Secret Window, a novella from Four Past Midnight, shows the author self-destructing. The Dark Half is an allegory about when the author cannot separate himself from his fiction. The premise actually has to do with an absorbed aborted twin, but George Stark has an elaborate fiction to him that Beaumont increasingly realizes is himself.

The Dark Half is also the first appearance of Castle County Sheriff Alan Pangborn. Up until this story, he was simply the guy who took over from George Bannerman after Cujo mauled him to death. A rabid dog, The Dark Tower Series aside, does not a supernatural incident make. It happened in Derry. The Tommyknockers happened in Haven. So Alan’s basically been handling drunk drivers and traffic tickets since then.

Thursday Reviews: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King; I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

The Tommyknockers

Stephen King

Western author Bobbie Anderson finds a buried flying saucer on her property. Digging it up causes changes in her and everyone else in the town of Haven, Maine, a stone’s throw from Derry. If Derry sounds familiar, it’s the setting for the epic It. Things are almost normal in Derry now, only someone spots an evil clown in the sewer in passing. I digress.

The Tommyknockers is less a horror novel than a science fiction story. The long-dead aliens reach out and take over the town follk in Haven, changing them mentally into a colony of amped-up Thomas Edisons. They render the power company irrelevant by creating energy from nothing using gadgets running on AAA and C batteries. Lots of ’em. Soon, Haven becomes poisonous to outsiders. The outside becomes poisonous to Havenites. The only people seemingly unaffected are Bobbie’s erstwhile lover, Jim Gardner (or just “Gard” or “the drunk”) and World War II vet Ev Hillman. Gard and Ev have plates in their heads, which makes them immune from the saucer’s mind-frak that transforms the rest of the town.

There are appearances, both literal and cultural, of past King novels. The Shining, specifically Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeere’s Johnny!” scene, is mentioned as a movie moment that crosses someone’s mind. There’s also references to that sicko up in Bangor who writes stories of vampires and ghosts. But The Shop from Firestarter gets involved late in the story, even referencing how the original Shop was burned down at the end of that novel. Derry, of course, exists, and more than one character refers to Johnny Smith and the Castle Rock murders he solved. But like Cujo and Misery, The Tommyknockers is a decidedly non-supernatural movie. Unlike those two novels, it’s still highly speculative.

This is King’s first major horror novel after It. After that 1986 epic, he did the fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon, the Bachman novel Thinner, the decidedly real-world Misery and another installment of his Dark Tower series. The Tommyknockers started in 1982, when King was still in the throes of alcohol and drug addiction. (He famously denied drinking all the Listerine, explaining in On Writing that he drank all the Scope instead.) The transformation of the Havenites into something other than human parallels the ravages of addiction, not to mention Gard’s very real tumble off the wagon to deal with the changes in Bobbie.

The Tommyknockers cements the idea that King is writing in a single universe (only Carrie seems to stand alone). Jack from The Talisman appears, still living with his mother at The Alhambra Hotel in New Hampshire. Derry plays a major role, and Castle Rock, while not mentioned by name, is also a presence. All that’s missing is an appearance by The Walking Dude.

However, King is also starting to repeat himself. The changes in the townfolk mirrors that of Salem’s Lot’s residents. The government is seen as this intrusive totalitarian force, with The Shop stepping in to clean up the mess, shades of Firestarter. And of course, Bobbie Anderson and Jim Gardner are writers interrupted on their latest works (Misery). All that’s missing is an evil self-driving car and a rabid dog.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake

Sloane Crosley

It’s tough growing up in the burbs, especially in Westchester County, New York. Vintage Book publicist Sloane Crosley spells it out in a collection of essays depicting the life of said suburban girl spending her twenties in Manhattan. The collection is uneven, but when Crosley is on, she is on. I especially liked her piece on the first job she ever had, which she describes as an abusive relationship. Her boss was one of those who could never be satisfied. Crosley handed in her resignation after calling off work one too many times. Unfortunately, they were standing around watching the Twin Towers burn when it happened. Her boss, typical of that type of clueless manager, didn’t get why Crosley was unhappy.

The tale of her role as a maid of honor, another story of passive-aggressive abuse, is pretty raucous. All the time listening to it (The audio is read by Crosley, who is very pleasant to listen to), I kept thinking I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve never married a bridezilla. (And I also recall Li’l Sis, serial bridesmaid in her single days, saying several times, “Why do they think it has to be perfect! They’re just setting themselves up for disaster!”) Crosley, on the other hand, finds herself enslaved and indebted to a woman she hasn’t seen since high school and seems stunned when Crosley insists on still having a life outside wedding preparations.

The collection is uneven, though. Some of the things Crosley frets over would make people outside the island of Manhattan scratch their heads. While Crosley is decidedly anti-Sex in the City, some of those hang-ups specific to anyone living below Harlem and studiously unaware of the Staten Island Ferry sort of fall flat to ears across the East or Hudson Rivers.

Overall, though, the book is funny. It has to be. This is a woman who is a vegetarian these days not because of any moral or dietary concerns. Now she’s a vegetarian just to annoy people, many of them vegans.