Thursday, November 07, 2013


I just got a very strange wrong number…"I'm looking for some hubcaps." Really? I know little about cars, but when was the last time cars used hubcaps? Back when I was a kid in the 1970s, "stealing hubcaps" was the archetypal activity of juvenile delinquents, even though I had no idea why anyone would actually want to steal them. Was there a lucrative black market for hubcaps back then? Today, though, perhaps there could be. Or maybe that would be an antique store. 

Also, too: all those UFO photographs you used to come across every now and then seemed to have stopped about the time the auto industry phased out hubcaps. Coincidence? Read the book!

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Kings' Ransom

Yeah, it has been a while. Things to do, people to see, places to go.

But it has given me ample time to continue through the Stephen King bibliography, and an email from Steven H. (not Stephen K.) reminded me that I have not updated this in a while. So, here is where I have been...

The Tommyknockers (1987)
From the slim Misery we return to the epics, with what is essentially a cheesy 1950s scifi flick turned into a 1980s novel. (I had never read this one before, although I had seen the TV miniseries starring Jimmie Smits.) It’s the second example of what would become a King specialty: the population of a small town either turning against each other or conforming in some way and seeking to destroy those who rebel against the status quo. In Salem’s Lot, it was everyone becoming a vampire; here, it’s everyone turning into an alien after Bobbi Anderson digs up a long-buried spaceship on her property. The book is not awful, but I think what works against it is that the “hero”—Jim Gardener, an obnoxious alcoholic writer—is just generally unlikable. (Early on, it seems like the book is going to be about Anderson, but it is not, although we invest a good chunk of the early part of the book in her.) And then, a long 400-page stretch of the book barely even mentions either Bobbi or Gardener as King details the lives of many of the other people in the town and how they are affected by the spaceship.
He is also at his most self-referential in this one. In Misery, set in Colorado, there is a reference to the incident at the Overlook Hotel some years earlier (The Shining, of course). Here, he has Gardener turn up at the Arcadia Hotel and amusement park in New Hampshire (from The Talisman); some characters travel to the nearby town of Derry, Maine, and at several points one hears “chuckling noises in the drains” (from It, set in Derry); one of the characters is a reporter from Bangor who was also in The Dead Zone, and there are several references to the events of that book; elsewhere, he refers to the Jack Nicholson “Here’s Johnny!” scene in the film version of The Shining; at the end of The Tommyknockers, characters are taken to the CIA-like Shop from Firestarter, and references are made to the events in that book. Then we have, on page 386, where one character talks about Bobbi, “she wrote good old-fashioned western stories...not full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lived up in Bangor wrote.” 
Grade: C
The Dark Half (1989)
Thad Beaumont is a writer of literary fiction that, alas, has failed to sell. However, under the pen name George Stark, he wrote violent action-adventure stories that were best sellers. After being outed as the author of the Stark novels, he decides to leave those books behind and “kills” his pseudonym via a staged graveyard photo shoot for People magazine. However, George Stark comes to life, digs himself out of his makeshift grave, and starts killing everyone complicit in exposing Stark as Beaumont’s pseudonym, finally forcing Beaumont to write one more Stark thriller. It’s not hard to see where the idea came from (this was not long after King was outed as Richard Bachman), even if it is a supernatural variation on Misery. This wasn’t a bad one, even granting the premise which is very Twilight Zone-y (maybe not for nothing Beaumont was named after Charles Beaumont, one of the TZ’s top three screenwriters). I’m not sure I get what the sparrows were all about, but they were quite the deus ex machina.
Grade: B+ 
Four Past Midnight (1989)
Much like Different Seasons, this is a collection of four novellas, the most prominent of which is “The Langoliers,” made into a pretty good TV movie in 1994 or so. (Seeing it again not long ago, the cheesy digital effects have not aged well, but it’s still a damn good story.) The novella provides a bit more back story for the characters, and one even comes to sympathize a little with Craig Toomy, the evil Bronson Pinchot character. (Actually a highlight of the movie was seeing people beat the crap out of Bronson Pinchot; I always hated Perfect Strangers and his Balki character.) This is not one to read on an airplane!
“Secret Window, Secret Garden” is what King, in his introduction, promises is the last of his “writers” stories, and it's a weird amalgam of Misery and The Dark Half. Saying anything more would be serious spoilerage, and while I question some of the details, I liked it a lot. 
“The Library Policeman” was kind of a one-joke story that is OK, sort of redoing It, in a way, although I have always suspected that librarians were strange creatures that fed on the fear of kids, but is the weakest of the four.
“The Sun Dog” sounds like the kind of story that would have made a good episode of the Rod Serling series Night Gallery: a kid is given a Polaroid camera as a birthday gift, but it takes pictures of things that aren’t there. Namely, a big, black dog. Thing is, each picture seems to be the next frame in a sequence. The dog is turning around, is quite evil and savage, and quite likely will burst out of the pictures and into the “real world.” I really liked that one, and it made a New York-Albany train ride go very fast. 
Grade: B
The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1989) 
OK, I was tentative about The Dark Tower for the first two books, but I really liked this one. The ragtag bunch—Roland, Eddie, and Susannah—are becoming three-dimensional, likable characters, and the reclaiming of 11-year-old Jake (first appearing in the first book) makes a great addition, as does a strange otter/dog creature named Oy, which is not as cutesy and annoying as these kinds of pets can be. The adventures begin in earnest, and it does move briskly. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, but it has made me eager for the next installment. 
Grade: A-
Needful Things (1990)
King bade farewell to Castle Rock with this epic, in which an old curiosity shop called Needful Things comes to town. Each person in town manages to find the exact item that will bring them immense joy to own—and the only real price is to play a prank on someone else in town. Soon, just about everyone, except for the local sheriff, is killing each other, all for fear of losing their prized possessions. A parable about a materialistic society, and maybe a bit heavy-handed on that level, but it contains some of King’s best-drawn characters and his sharpest writing. This has always been in my top 5 King books. 
Grade: A 
Uh oh. Gerald’s Game is next. Taking a short jump forward to Doctor Sleep, which just came out. It will be a lo-o-o-ong time before it turns up here, but I am halfway through it and it is very good. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Fit to Be Crossed

A trip to the North Regional CrossFit Games last May introduced me to the North East Media Director who, as it turned out, was looking for more writers to contribute to the CrossFit Games/CrossFit Journal Web site(s). I am always happy to oblige. And my first assignment—a profile of North East Regional winner Austin Malleolo, is now live here.

The CrossFit Games will take place next weekend, July 26 to 28, at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., close to the West Coast home of the Goodyear blimp. (Carson is one town over from Torrance, where I lived for 3.5 years.) The Games can be watched on ESPN 3 or streamed at the official CrossFit Games site.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Bloomsday...Amongst Other Days

Whilst today is in fact Father's Day—and happy F.D. to all fathers, although my own is apparently doing something involving printing with steamrollers, so my mind is riven with thoughts of a sketch from an old ~1980 Steve Martin TV special warning of the hazards of drinking and driving a steamroller. I can't find it on YouTube, which makes me wonder if it ever actually existed. Anyroad, today is also "Bloomsday," when literature nerds and other assorted dorks (like me) around the world celebrate James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses, which chronicles Leopold Bloom's perambulations around Dublin on June 16, 1904. (Leopold Bloom becomes a father figure to Stephen Dedalus, so it is not un-apropos to Father's Day.) How did I celebate this year? Why, with a special CrossFit workout I made up called "The Bloomsday":

04 rounds for time (not 1904 rounds):
6 thrusters (95#)
16 pull-ups
(my time= 9:21)
Then, because Ulysses was first published in 1922:
4 min AMRAP*:
19 pushups
22 situps
(my roundage= 2 rounds + 19 pushups + 3 situps)

So whether you are a father, or a James Joyce aficionado, or both, or neither, I hope you had a great day!

* I was going to do 18 min AMRAP for each of the 18 "episodes" in the book, but that wasn't gonna happen. 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Ride the King's Highway

Despite the lack of blogging, the Rereading Stephen King Project has actually been continuing behind the scenes. Which does raise the question: if you do something in your life and do not blog, tweet, or update Facebook about it, can it be said that you did it at all? 
Anyway, we continue:
The Talisman (with Peter Straub) (1984)
First off, boy did King (and Straub) really like Lord of the Rings. The Dark Tower and The Stand are King’s solo attempts at a uniquely American LoTR, and his first of two collaborations with Peter Straub (who is perhaps best known for Ghost Story via the 1981 movie) more closely brings to mind Tolkein, except you don’t have to learn Elvish. Jack Sawyer, the 12-year-old son of an old, faded Hollywood actress, finds that his mother is dying from cancer (thanks to a smoking habit). Holing up in a New Hampshire seaside hotel during the offseason, he encounters the caretaker of a nearby carnival, who tells him that, to save his mother, he needs to journey to the West Coast and seek The Talisman, whatever that is. To get there, he can slip into The Territories, a kind of parallel, pre-Industrial Age Earth where the air is clear and fresh, and there are weird flora and fauna. As the situation dictates, Jack flips back and forth between these two worlds and gets caught up in unpleasant jams both prosaic and fantastical. It’s a thick, brick of a book and I did generally like it. One of the big problems I generally have with fantasy is that every single geography has some kind of weird, deadly creature(s) that defy biology (yes, I know, that’s why they call it “fantasy”), but it really does get to be a bit much. The killer trees were pretty creepy (and tres Tolkein), and there is a good showdown between Jack and the force of evil (his dead father’s former business partner—not quite Tolkein, that). It’s a weird, crazy book that actually was worth the time it took to plow through it. Some of the ancillary characters are quite fun (especially Wolf, a werewolf from The Territories, who is a good guy). Ultimately, it’s a story about the power of friendship, as many of King’s books tend to be. The sequel Black House comes up much much later in this series and I will be curious to check it out.
Grade: B-
Thinner (as Richard Bachman) (1984) 
The last of the Bachman books before he was “outed” as Stephen King, Thinner is actually the most King-like of the Bachman books, especially in that it is the densest and longest, tarrying a bit more than the fast-moving, very streamlined earlier Bachman books. In a nutshell, overweight lawyer Billy Halleck (who kind of reminded me a little of Chris Christie) accidentally runs over and kills a Gypsy woman, he had connections that get him acquitted of any charges, so the woman’s father curses him to lose weight...which he does, and drastically. The Battle of the [Lack Of] Bulge is well-done, and the drastic weight loss starts off enviable and then gets creepy and upsetting. Much of the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of Billy’s searching for the Gypsies who cursed him, and then in the details of how an old mob friend terrorized the Gypsies into removing the curse. The thing is, Billy was so clearly in the wrong, and the perversion of justice so egregious that it’s kind of hard to truly be on his side—but I suspect that was the point. (The Bachman books tended to feature anti-heroes were were unlikeable in one way or another.) The real downer ending (a Bachman hallmark) is perhaps for the best. Also, too: the idea of a Gypsy curse. I dunno. It’s one of those old, tired tropes (like the possessed Indian burial ground in Pet Sematary) that would probably have been done a bit differently if King (or anyone) were to write this today.
Grade: B-
Skeleton Crew (1985) 
Another collection of short stories that, like Night Shift, is a mixed bag of the really effective and the really bad, and everything in between. Opening novella “The Mist”—detailing people trapped in a supermarket by the titular mist and the mysterious creatures living within it—is probably one of the truly scariest things King has ever written. (For this reread, I actually did read “The Mist” while on holiday and taking the Eurostar train through the Chunnel, which had added an extra level of creepiness.) Other good stories in this collection include “The Raft” (college students trapped on raft in the middle of a lake get eaten by a weird splotch in the water); “Gramma” (little kid is scared to be alone with his perhaps dying grandmother who happens to be a witch); and a few others. Some (“The Jaunt,” “Word Processor of the Gods”) are okay and would have made good Twilight Zone episodes. An okay collection but some stories were tough to get through.
Grade: C 
It (1986) 
This was about where SK and I parted ways back in the 80s, but reading It for the first time in the 90s and again for this project, this is his magnum opus (so far). It is an immense epic, but it rarely drags. The Losers Club are some of his most endearing characters and we really get to know them, as kids and as adults, over the course of the book. It could use some editing and rearranging (the chapter in which all seven of the kids meet doesn’t come until more than halfway through the book, some early chapters are wasted detailing the lives of characters we will never meet again, and the “Derry Interludes” do seem a bit beside the point), but it/It really does keep you going for its length. Clowns are truly frightening to begin with, so Pennywise’s earthly incarnation made perfect sense. But it’s really a story about childhood and friendship, the last time, actually, that King would address these themes. There was a pretty awful TV miniseries made in the 90s that starred mostly sitcom actors, although Tim Curry stole the show as the evil clown.
Grade: A
The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)
A young adult (sort of) fantasy novel about princes and assassinated kings and evil magicians, written, as the story goes, for his daughter who did not are for his more typical fare. It’s a not unsatisfying read, and has some wry takes on the fantasy genre. There are some connections to The Dark Tower; the assassinated king is named Roland while the evil magician is named Flagg (also from The Stand). Peter, Roland’s elder son and heir to the throne, is blamed for the king’s murder and his brother Thomas—who is not a particularly adept ruler—is put on throne so as to be Flagg’s manipulatee. (The idea of “Dragon Sand,” the poison that kills Roland, is pure, unadulterated King.) Peter’s plan to escape the tower in which he is imprisoned is, shall we say, unique. (You will never look at napkins the same way again.) All in all, a unique decidedly Kingean take on a classic genre. 
Grade: B-
The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987)
The second installment of The Dark Tower epic seems a bit more directed and intentional than the first volume, which was a collection of a couple of shorter pieces. Volume II has the sense that it’s going somewhere. At the beginning, our gunslinger Roland has been attacked by giant mutant lobsters (called lobstrosities, a neologism I shall have to use). Dispossessed of a couple of fingers and toes, he is in desperate need of medicine. On the beach on which he is trapped, there are three doors, for some reason, and through them lie the three people he needs to choose (aka abduct) who will accompany him on his journey to the Dark Tower. All three doors lead to our world, specifically New York City at various times, and Roland manages to take possession of the bodies of the people who will accompany him, battling various folk in our world before dragging them back to his. The first is a 1980s-era 18-year-old heroin addict and smuggler (Eddie), the second is an African-American woman from the 60s who not only has had her legs severed in a freak subway accident but who also suffers from multiple personality disorder (Odetta), the alternate personality (Detta) being a psychotic. The third actually is not intended to be part of Roland’s gang, and is a psycho who gets off on randomly injuring or killing people, including the character of Jake who ended up in Roland’s world in the first book. He is dealt a very brutal fate, appropriately, and his demise (he was responsible for Odetta losing her legs) results in her two personalities merging and becoming a third person, Susannah. (Yeah, this is where the book kind of lost me, and at about the same point where the first book lost me.) Still, I remain intrigued and will forge ahead when Volume III comes up a few books hence. 
Grade: B-
Misery (1987)
Probably the quintessential Stephen King book, the one everyone probably knows from the hit movie, one of the best King adaptations, and it really is hard to not see Kathy Bates as the psychotic Annie Wilkes. She was perfectly cast. (James Caan as Paul Sheldon...well, not so much.) Everyone knows the plot: writer Paul Sheldon, author of a bestselling series of Victorian romance novels about Misery Chastain, is rescued from a road accident by his "number one fan," who then proceeds to torture him for a) killing off Misery in his latest book, hoping to end the series, b) having written a contemporary novel about a foul-mouthed car thief, and c) trying to escape. At her request (via an axe), he writes a new Misery novel in which she comes back from the dead in very Stephen King fashion. There are some differences between the book and movie (in the book, she chops off his foot and his thumb), but both are very well-done. This would be the ideal gateway Stephen King novel, as it is pretty short and devoid of any supernatural elements. I also get the sense that it would be a vicarious thrill for any writer buttonholed into a specific genre or series—as indeed King has been buttonholed as a horror writer.  
Grade: A
Coming up...The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half, and Part III of The Dark Tower...just as soon as I clear my palate with something else for a bit. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Certain Songs Part XIX: Blogger Sucks

And Blogger continues to get worse and worse. We attempt to continue, even though it was quite the struggle to get this to display without a great deal of effort. There are spacing and other issues. I don't care anymore.


When I first heard Nirvana in the early 1990s, my first thought was, “Dang, they nicked the Pixies’ sound and did it far more depressingly.” I adored the Pixies in 1989, although when Steven H. and I tried to see them in Providence on this tour, the crowd—which was voluminous—were all of the slam-dancing type, so it was hard to really enjoy the show. Still, they played their set in alphabetical order, and that appealed to me. Doolittle was the one masterpiece of the band’s four records.
Opener “Debaser” has become something of a classic, with its references to the surrealist Louis Buñuel/Salvador Dalì film Un Chien Andalou.

“Here Comes Your Man” and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” were the radio/MTV hits (“Here Comes Your Man” was the video they played relentlessly on 120 Minutes, and it is pretty funny, even if the song is the most atypical of the album), but all the songs are great. The line “Walked the sand with a crustacean” in “Wave of Mutilation” helped endear me to the record. The dark, surreal aspects of the lyrics were the appeal, but rarely duplicated since. And how can you not sing along with “Gouge Away”? The Pixies may have helped invent grunge, which was unfortunate. Their subsequent two records were okay, but never matched the heights of Doolittle.

Copper Blue

After one great and one okay solo album, Bob Mould formed another power trio, but this one blew the doors off Hüsker Dü. Where the Hüskers’ power was in their lo-fi thrash punk, Sugar was a professionally recorded assault on the senses. The EP Beaster will shred eardrums and speakers alike, and I mean that in a good way. Their debut LP Copper Blue has a pop sensibility buried amongst the tumult. It will still shred anything in earshot if the volume is loud enough (one advantage to owning a house—perhaps the only one). Opener “The Act We Act” sets the (very loud) tone (“The act we act is wearing thin”...indeed). “Helpless” should have been a hit. This one reminds me of commuting in NYC in 1992, as it was playing on my Walkman incessantly at the time, which may explain my failing hearing. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is a refreshing acoustic break, but still emotionally wrought. We’ve all been there. This record may be the pinnacle of Bob Mould’s entire career, although he’d probably beat the crap out of me for saying that. But, then, there are days when cranking Beaster is the most appealing option. File Under: Easy Listening never did much for me. But then, neither did too many of Mould’s subsequent records.

Stan Ridgway

Stan Ridgway may, unfortunately, be forever known as the singer of the one-hit-wonder 80s band Wall of Voodoo (“Mexican Radio”), even though his solo career easily surpasses his brief stint with WoV. I discovered Mosquitoes via a Rolling Stone review that pointed out that Ridgway should be writing movie screenplays; they also played the uptempo “Goin’ Southbound” on Boston’s WFNX at the time. Ridgway’s songs are, often, story-songs about film noir-ish characters, and what I think is his masterpiece—Mosquitoes [sic]—has some of his most compelling characters and stories.
Wall of Voodoo had originally begun in the 1970s to score movie soundtracks, and while that didn’t quite happen, Mosquitos’ opening instrumental “Heat Takes a Walk” does sound like it could have been a low-budget movie theme. “Lonely Town” only drops hints as to why the narrator wants to go to the titular town, where “all those people are lonely and mad”:

I think about those mosquitos on my windshield
And they don’t give a damn about Christmastime.”

He’s obviously returning to a place he ran away from? “Goin’ Southbound” is a great crime caper song—and the crime-boss narrator doesn’t like people who snitch: “The last one who did, well, we tied him a tree/Out in high desert by an anthilll....” But then: “Everybody does what nobody will allow.” “Peg and Pete and Me” is very James M. Cain-esque (see The Postman Always Rings Twice mixed with Double Indemnity, while “Can't Complain” is one of what I would imagine to be a very few songs to feature a character crushed by a falling piano. The tragic “Calling Out to Carol” got some rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes. “The Last Honest Man” may be a bit trite, but hearing Ridgway’s film-noir-wise-guy voice sing the phrase “He kept his meeting for a cat o’nine beating from a leather-clad man named Moe” is worth it. “Mission in Life” sends the album out on a very inspirational note (“You got a mission in life/To hold out your hand/Help the other guy out/Help your fellow man...”). The music itself is very hard to describe, as Ridgway never cleaves to one particular style; saxophones blurt in middle of “Peg and Pete and Me” and sitar gives “Newspapers” a somewhat exotic flavor. In some cases, the 1980s-era sound dates certain portions, but most of the music was pretty left of center even at the time, so it still holds up. The follow-up record Partyball is nearly as good, with more scifi-related story songs. Never especially prolific, he’s only released fewer than half a dozen albums since Mosquitos

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Nemo No Mo'?

OK, so I’m not going crazy (well, at least not in this respect); I didn’t think they named winter storms, much less something as dorky as “Nemo” (most folks think of the animated fish, but nemo, as Jules Verne could tell you, is actually Latin for “no one”—a bit of an ironic name, especially if you are in New England). Back in my day, we had to be content with referring to “The Blizzard of 1978.”

Anyway, it turns out a storm is brewing between AccuWeather and other meteorologists and The Weather Channel, as it was The Weather Channel that unilaterally decided to name the storm “Nemo,” against the protestations of just about everyone else.

Then again, maybe we should name all weather phenomena: Torrential Rain Robin, Tornado Tom, Unseasonable Warmth Dennis. And of course they call the wind Maria.