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.