Saturday, October 13, 2012

King for a Day--Or, Actually, A Lot Longer: Eight Isn't Close to Enough

Syracuse is losing to Rutgers, which is dispiriting, so time to update the blog!
The Rereading Stephen King project has begun! Time and energy will force me to forgo any detailed reviews, but just wanted to add some of my overall impressions of his first eight books. (These have also been interspersed with the first five Don DeLillo books—about which in a separate post at some point—and, following a trip to Graceland, Peter Guralnick’s excellent two-volume biography of Elvis. 
Carrie (1974)
Perhaps his shortest book (at least not under the Bachman name), it is his first and has the distinction of being the book that started it all off, getting him signed to a publisher and on the bestseller lists, the latter thanks in no small part to the De Palma film adaptation, which remains one of the best King adaptations. As first novels go, it's a good one, and taps into the horrors of adolescence quite effectively—we're all with Carrie when the one final humiliation pushes her over the edge. 
If there is a weakness to the book, it's that a lot if it is told through made-up newspaper articles, investigation transcripts, and teenage diaries—all of which sound like, well, Stephen King. 
Grade: B 
Salem's Lot (1975)
This was the first King book I read, way back in 1980, and obviously I liked it, as I continue to enjoy King 32 years later. Reading it, it was actually better than I recall. The town of 'Salem's Lot is very well drawn, and its denizens colorfully and effectively portrayed. The epic length allows us to get familiar with the town (through the eyes of relative outsider Ben Mears) and let the tension build  before the vampires show up. The miniseries they made (that got me to investigate the book way back when) was well-done, but some changes from the book were glaring, such as making Barlow the vampire basically Nosferatu, rather than the urbane sophisticate he is in the book. The ending is also very effective—which isn't always the case with King. 
Grade: A
The Shining (1977) 
It's hard to separate the novel from the classic Kubrick film, but I had actually read the book just before the film came out and recall being very disappointed by how unfaithful the film was to the book. I have since come to appreciate the film on its own terms, and the book on its own terms, as separate entities. (It's also hard not to separate either from the old Simpsons parody of the movie—"That's odd...usually the blood gets off on the second floor.") The main point of departure is the doomed character of Jack Torrance, who in the book is a decent guy battling some demons (alcoholism, a hairtrigger temper) which the evil spirits of the hotel tap into. In the movie, when you cast Jack Nicholson, you're already bringing the crazy. 
The creepy elements (like the feral topiary animals) work much better in the book than on film; in fact, they had remade it as a miniseries in the 90s starring a very miscast Steven Weber—and the topiary animals were rendered in very cheesy CGI. Some things are best left to the imagination. 
Grade: A
Night Shift (1978) 
His first short story collection, Night Shift has some great hits and some very terrible misses, which range all over the stylistic map and span genres. Hands down the scariest story is "The Ledge," about a guy forced to walk a narrow ledge around the top of a skyscraper. Not for the agoraphobic. "Children of the Corn" is also a good one. "I Am the Doorway" is a science-fiction tale that would not have been out of place as an episode of the original Outer Limits. But then you have things like "The Mangler," about a possessed laundry folding machine, which is just as laugh-out-loud goofy today as it was when I first read it back in the early 1980s. "Trucks"—about, well, possessed trucks—is also kind of silly. "The Lawnmower Man" also is not without it's silliness. But when Night Shift is good, it's really good. "The Surf," about a deadly virus, almost acts as a short dry run for the next novel. 
Grade: B-
The Stand (1978)
An attempt at an American Lord of the Rings, it mostly succeeds. It's his first epic, and it sprawls effectively (I did not read the "uncut" version he released in the 1990s). It quickly gets into things, as the disease shows up within the first 100 pages. There is one chapter where he describes how one person can create a chain reaction of infection that is eerily realistic. The Holland Tunnel scene always creeped me out. If there is a weakness to the book, it's the climax, which seems rushed and unsatisfying, as there is no real "stand," per se. The good guys are captured by Randall Flagg in Las Vegas (appropriately, the locus of the evil people), they're tied up, and there isn't even any banter between them before (spoiler alert) a lunatic explodes a nuclear bomb. Then we get another 100 pages of two characters trying to walk back to Boulder. Heck, he spent far more time describing the minutiae of committee meetings. Still, it's a really great epic. 
Grade: A
The Long Walk (1979) (as Richard Bachman)
The first book King published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman was 1977's Rage, about a teenager who takes one of his high school classes hostage. The book was implicated in "inspiring" a real-life school shooting, and King was so mortified that he insisted the book go out of print, the only one of his books to be so. So I did not read it. The second Bachman book was The Long Walk, sort of Speed meets The Hunger Games. In some alternate America (which is never overtly described, but partially revealed in small bits of dialogue), the big annual sporting event is the titular Long Walk, where 100 teenagers must walk nonstop. If they slow to below 6 mph, they are warned; three warnings, and they are shot dead. Whoever outlasts all the others, wins. It really is quite compelling, and though it's not a thick book, I read it in two sittings. Very dark, but good. Suzanne Collins almost certainly read it. 
Grade: A
The Dead Zone (1979)
Back in the day, I read The Dead Zone when it first came out in paperback, and remember not liking it all, that much, for some reason I can't recall. I think I had some recollection that it was told almost entirely through letters (I once tried to write an epistolary novel but I could never afford the postage), but it turns out that only a few letters appear here and there. Weird. 
However, upon rereading it, it is one if my favorite of the early Kings—and I think it's best for a while (we get into a bit down downhill slide, but maybe Christine will turn out to be not as bad as I remember). It's also hard to disassociate it from the excellent David Cronenberg adaptation starring Christopher Walken, although they took some liberties (as usual). Funnily enough, the one chilliung (as it were scene from the movie—where Johnny Smith has a vision that the kid he is tutoring will, with his hockey team, fall through some ice—does not appear in the book; instead, it's a fire at a restaurant hosting high school graduation dinner. Both are effective. The book also delves more into the background of the decidedly unpleasant politician Greg Stillson. 
Grade: A
Firestarter (1980)
Kind of a "Carrie Jr.," Firestarter is good, but a bit of a comedown from the roll King had been on. It's not bad, but not a lot happens. I do like the fact that the narrative starts in medias res, and the back story is gradually revealed. The device of having Charlie McGee's pyrokinetic abilities be the result of CIA-like experiments, and not anything supernatural, is a unique twist for King, and kind of works. The "bad guy"—John Rainbird"—is not your typical villain. King also adds some interesting twists to both Charlie's and her father Andy's mental powers.

Still, you wait for the ultimate climax when Charlie unleashes the full brunt of her power. It does not disappoint.

Grade: B

In the next batch, more Bachman, a rabid dog, and I give the first volume of The Dark Tower a shot...which I had never read before. It's a long flight to Las Vegas, and hopefully I won't run into Randall Flagg or the Trashcan Man. Speaking of which, it took me almost 30 years to figure this out, but back in 1983, a band called The Alarm had a bit of a hit with a song called "The Stand," which was all over the radio, and on MTV. I liked it (sort of—they were in that early 80s U2/Big Country group of guitar bands) but only realized while reading the Wikipedia page about The Stand (the novel) that the song was actually about the book. Go figure.

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