Sunday, November 04, 2012

King for Many Days--Four Kings

The rereading Stephen King project continues apace, despite a new Jasper Fforde Thursday Next novel and a new Richard Ford novel.

Roadwork (1980) (as Richard Bachman)
The third of the Bachman books, this has reputedly become one of King's own favorites of his pseudonym’s titles, and I can sympathize.

In some ways, this book helps illustrate the difference between the Americans and the British. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, mild-mannered Brit Arthur Dent wakes to find that his house is to be demolished to make say for a bypass. In response, he lies down in front of the bulldozer, saying “Let’s see who rusts first.” In Roadwork, Maine resident Barton George Dawes challenges the highway department’s intention to extend the interstate highway by buying high-powered guns, vandalizing construction equipment, and wiring his house with explosives. Dawes, a 40-year-old laundry company executive, is being assailed by the highway department on two fronts: they mean to extend the interstate through his house, as well as through the laundry plant. Tasked by his wife and his corporate overlord to find suitable new locations, he defiantly decides not to, which costs him his job and his marriage. Already on the brink of madness (largely stemming from the death of his son from brain cancer a few years earlier), the roadwork tips him over the edge. I could actually sympathize with Dawes; it wasn’t so much the property per se (and the state was giving him good money for it) but the fact that he had memories in the house and was loath to give them up. It really is one man against progress, which is kind of a fool’s errand, but one that one can relate to.

Grade: A-

Cujo (1981)
King’s first real letdown, although I may be alone on this. I did read this back when it first came out in paperback, and wasn’t wild about it then. Reading it again, I now actively hate it. We all know the story: giant friendly St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat and goes bad, killing his master and next door neighbor. Cujo’s master happened to be an auto mechanic, so into Cujo’s lap fall Donna Trenton and her four-year-old son Tad, who spend most of the book trapped in Cujo’s driveway in a stalled car. Husband Vic is out of town on business and returns home too late...

According to King himself, Cujo was written in an alcohol-fueled haze, and it kind of shows. First of all, there are no chapter breaks, as if it were a really long short story. And it would have worked better as a short story, since there is very little that actually happens. And there are too many tangents that never pay off—Donna’s affair with a ne’er-do-well furniture stripper and his revenge on Vic when she calls it off; Vic’s dealings with his advertising agency’s biggest client, a cereal company with a PR crisis; and the auto mechanic’s wife’s crisis of family. And there are more. In Salem’s Lot, these diversions worked, because the town and all of the residents played a much larger role in the ultimate plot. In Cujo, really, only five people are attacked by the dog, and they pretty much wander into its lap. And it takes Donna three days of sitting in a car to decide to do something (and it took her three days to spy the baseball bat on the ground outside?) Plus, the tone is far nastier than Salem’s Lot, as if King hated all these people—even the protagonists—with a passion. And the ending—wisely reversed in the not-very-good movie—is even darker than a Bachman ending. There are vague hints of something supernatural with Tad, but not really, and the is some nice writing from the point of view of the dog. And the opening is very effective. But the rest..bleh. Perhaps Cujo could stand as a warning to not drink and write.

Grade: C-

The Running Man (1981) (as Richard Bachman)
First of all, it is best to forget the Schwarzeneggar film, which is the loosest possible adaptation of this Bachman novel. Aside from the most basic premise—the main character is on a game show in which he is to be hunted and killed (and why do I have the sneaking suspicion that that will be the next step in reality TV?)—the book and movie could not be more dissimilar. (The movie, as its own entity, is pretty good from what I recall, although Richard Dawson steals the show. Hmm...I don’t know that that phrase has ever been written before.)

It is a dystopian future America where a wealthy elite control everything and the rest of the population are in thrall to them—wow, that is speculative fiction, isn’t it? Ben Richards, long out of work, has a wife and a sick child. To pay for proper health care, he agrees to go on the top-rated game show The Running Man, where he is pursued by the show’s bounty hunters. If he stays alive for a certain period of time, his family gets a substantial amount of money. In the movie, it’s a more or less controlled set. In the book, he disappears into the United States, where he encounters potential allies, as well as paranoid people who want to turn him in. Like most Bachman books, it has a pretty downbeat ending—and the very different ending from the movie would not fly (as it were) post-9/11—but this was written in the early 1970s and published in 1981. It’s not as good as Roadwork, but at least it’s better than Cujo.

Grade: B+

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (1982)
For some reason, I had avoided The Dark Tower novels since the first one appeared in 1982, which is weird, because that was my prime King period. Dunno. Anyway, as a result, I know absolutely nothing about the story or the characters, so the first volume raised some questions. Maybe what kept me away was that it is a combination of two genres I am not particularly fond of: fantasy and westerns. And yet, it kind of works (there is also a bit of A Canticle for Lebowitz thrown in, and even a bit of the weird cult film El Topo). It is set in a parallel Earth; some things are the same (people still sing “Hey Jude”), but it is a dystopian universe where the human race has been almost entirely decimated by something, which has yet to be determined. Roland Deschain is a solitary Gunslinger who is pursuing The Man In Black (who turns out not to be Johnny Cash), and has a series of misadventures along the way, including killing the entire population of a town called Tull (cue opening riff of “Aqualung”). There are flashbacks to Roland’s coming of age and the society that vanished, there is weird sex with an oracle/succubus, and there is the sacrifice of the only likable character who was killed in our universe and somehow ended up in Roland’s, talking of weird things like subways, skyscrapers, and his father’s job working for a TV network. There is a confrontation at the end with the Man in Black where Roland learns that his quest is to find the Dark Tower, and the significance of said Tower is all sort of mystical and magical. (When the Tarot cards came out, I knew we were in for some deep deep mumbo jumbo.) At any rate, we don’t get to the tower for another six volumes, so we’ll probably hear about it a few more times.

The Dark Tower, at least how it started off, was designed to be a bit Lord of the Rings-y, and I am not yet 100% sold on the series, but it was a good introduction and I am willing to give it a few more installments.

Grade: B-

Next in the King queue, a collection of four novellas (two of which were made into Oscar-nominated films), a possessed car, a new take on “The Monkey’s Paw” that spawned a lousy screen adaptation but a great Ramones song, and something about a werewolf which I have never read before.


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