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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.