Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Five More Kings

Insomnia (1993)
This is one of King’s mammoth tomes and seems like it wants to be in the vein of It, but never quite makes it there. Great premise, though: after the death of his wife, 60-something Ralph Roberts has an increasing problem with insomnia, until he starts having hallucinations. He can see people’s “auras” but even worse, he has run-ins with three scissor-wielding “little bald doctors” that have the power of life and, more commonly, death. Turns out they are the supernatural beings responsible for deciding who lives and who dies—and Ralph dubs them Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, after their counterparts in Greek mythology. Atropos is a renegade who is severing people’s life cords willy-nilly—and the other two recruit Ralph to stop him from killing one individual in particular. It starts off well enough but the climax proves unsatisfying—there is another evil being called “The Crimson King” (King was listening to King Crimson, mehtinks) but has only a brief appearance toward the end, and then just kind of vanishes. Also, unless you are familiar with The Dark Tower, which I was not when I first read this back in the 1990s, you miss the point of why the person that needs saving needs saving. Anyway, the book has lots of nice details and characterizations, but doesn’t rank up there wth my favorites. Still, it’s better than The Tommyknockers. Curiously, it was impossible to find a printed edition of this one, even used. I had to read the e-book version which was not unpleasant, although I still remain unenthused about reading e-books. 
Grade: C+
Rose Madder (1995)
The last, for a while, I think, of King’s “women’s novels” tells the sory of abused wife Rose Daniels, who one day officially can’t take her abusive husband anymore, and runs away to a city that is never identified, but appears to be Chicago. She takes refuge at a women’s shelter—decades as a housewife have left her with no marketable job skills—and after an early job as a hotel chambermaid, she lucks into (in one of those Lana-Turner-at-the-drugstore-counter moments) a gig as an audiobook reader. Meanwhile, pawning her wedding ring, she finds an old painting called “Rose Madder” and knows she has to have it. And, of course, the clerk at the pawnshop turns out to be Mr. Right and she learns what it’s like to be in a non-violent relationship. Then, abusive husband Norman—a cop, natch—manages to track her down. Meanwhile, she discovers that the painting she bought has a strange quality: she can travel inside it.... Yeah, there is a lot that seems contrived about Rose Madder, and husband Norman is up there with Annie Wilkes of Misery  as one of King’s scariest non-supernatural monsters. (One of the things that Rose is beaten up for is reading “trash” like “Misery” novels—Paul Sheldon is still cranking them out in the King universe.) It is a unique take on the “abused woman gets revenge” story he has been telling for a few books now, but I think what makes it somewhat unsatisfying is the superatural climax. It would have been better to have Rose get her own revenge...or maybe she did, in a symbolic way). Not awful, but doesn’t rank up there wth my favories. Still, it’s better than The Tommyknockers.
Grade: B-
The Green Mile (1996)
Back in 1996, The Green Mile was a unique publishing experiment: it was a six-part serial novel, with one volume released every month. Set during the Depression in a southern prison, it is narrated by Paul Edgecombe, “head screw” on death row, aka “the Green Mile,” named for the green linoleum on which the dead man walks to “Old Sparky,” the electric chair. The novel(s) concern a weird series of events including a trained mouse, some violent death row inmates, some equally violent prison guards, and a wrongfully convicted inmate who has the magic powers of healing. I picked up each volume back in the day and really liked it at the time—and really liked it a lot better this around, as I think it’s probably his best novel since Needful Things. It’s a lot more streamlined than any book he’s written in a while (including Needful Things) and was easily finished in a weekend. But what I think made it work better this time around was that as strong as the story is, it had a bit less gravitas than a monthly serial would have warranted—I remember being disappointed by the payoff back in 96, less so now. As a quick weekend read, though, it was perfect. There are a few plot holes here and there (to explain them would be severe spoilage) but ultimately it turns out to be a beautiful meditation on life and love, with a very moving ending that reminded me of the end of 11/22/63. I never saw the movie, but the book(s) (it’s now available as a single edition) are a welcome return to form.
Grade: A-
Desperation (1996)
Desperation is a return to mammoth tomes (two of them, actually!) and a familiar King universe, the group of diverse strangers thrown together to battle a supernatural horror. It’s set up reminded me of a cross between The Langoliers and The Stand and while it may not be as good as either of those stories, it does have much to recommend it. It has a great opening: a couple from New York is driving through Nevada which—if you’ve ever been there, you know—is a whiole lotta nothing. They are stopped seemingly at random by an immense cop who demonstrates some bizarre mannerisms before turning completely psychotic. Turns out there is a reason: an ancient force of evil named Tak that was unleashed when an old silver mine was re-opened. If there is such a thing as an achetypal Stephen King story, this would be it. The character archetypes are there—the kid with weird powers, the self-obsessed writer whio has a change of heart, etc. It’s the goriest book he’s done in a while, and I think it will be the last of its kind for a few years. It’s a little over the top, but you never really expect restraint with Stephen King. All the God-bothering gets a little annoying after a while and I think undermines the ending. And I still have no idea what Tak’s ultimate goal was. What was it trying to accomplish? Mere survival? All in all, not among his worst...or is best. Still, it was better than The Tommyknockers.
Grade: B-
The Regulators (1996)
The Regulators, published under the Richard Bachman name, came out on the same day as Desperation, and features the same cast of characters—albeit in different roles—and the same evil entity. This time, it is set in a small suburban Ohio neighborhood where, suddenly, mysterious vans start gunning people down rather gruesomely. Then, the town behinds hnaging into the Nevada desert, with buzards and cacti—but loking as if a child drew them. And that’s because ewverything is a physical manfestation of the imagination of an eight-hear-old autistic boy who has been invaded by Tak. The boy, Seth, had a love of westerns, like Bonanza, and a fictional Rory Calhoun oater called The Regulators. Oh, and a modern hyper-violent cartoon called MotoKops, which is where the death vans came from. It’s basically a look of what happens if TV and movies became real... As one would expect, it’s not pretty. It’s a lot more grim than Desperation (if that ere even possible) and the carnage really does get t you after a while. The use of the Bachman name was not only to blunt the appearance od two big Steohen King books published at the same time, but also becauise The regualtors is a bit more in line with the nihilistic , hyper-violent ethos of the Bachman oevure, although there is a biut more sentiument here—perhaps we could call this later-period Bachman, if that makes any sense. In The Regulators, you get a better sense of what Tak was up to, although you never got the sense that it had any kind of end game in mind. Anyway, a worthy companion to Desperation.
Grade: B-
Up next, another Dark Tower and the more “literary” Bag of Bones. But first, his new book Mr. Mercedes just came out, so perhaps I need a diversion before delving back into the past. 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Three More Kings

The rereading Stephen King project continues! (And I appear to be making better headway than the guy who gave me the idea for this, who stalled back in November with Four Past Midnight.) I have also been alternating with other things, as reading only Stephen King will probably eat my brain. Charles Palliser’s Rustication was very good (I read his Dickensian debut The Quincunx back in 1990 but lost track of him over the years). The J.J. Abrams/Doug Dorst specialty printing extravaganza S. was also very good, and I got some mileage out of it for other blogs I contribute to. The new Thomas Pynchon novel Bleeding Edge (a satire of the post-dot-com boom) was excellent and very funny, and I finally made it all the way through Gravity’s Rainbow, as well as rereading V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Vineland. (Reading along with the Pynchon wikis is actually quite helpful.)

Anyway, back to Stephen King:

Gerald’s Game (1992)
This one routinely scores pretty low on King fans’ rankings of his books, but it’s not as bad as you would think. The premise is pretty notorious: Jessie, a middle-aged, wife accedes to her husband Gerald’s requests for an afternoon of bondage, and she is handcuffed mostly naked to the bed—and after a kick in the chest, Gerlad dies of a heart attack. They are of course in a remote cabin on a Maine lake, and it is early autumn, so there is no one around to hear her screams. How will Jessie get out of her situation? There are some pretty harrowing (i.e., gross) scenes, one involving a starving stray dog and a large all-you-can-eat buffet lying on the floor (’nuff said). There is also another character who plays a pivotal role—although as the book’s “Mr. Evil” he is a bit over the top, even by Stephen King’s standards. (One gets the sense that King read about Jeffrey Dahmer—who would have been in the news just before he was writing this—and thought “Heck, I can do better than that.”) Most of the book, though, is a stylistic experimentation with internal monologue, as Jessie flashes back to an unpleasant incident with her father during a solar eclipse in 1963. Maybe the pop psychology is a bit cheesy, but it largely works. The ending isn’t entirely satisfying—a common gripe in King novels, especially starting around this period. There is a tenuous connection to the next book, Dolores Claiborne, involving the same eclipse.
Grade: C+
Dolores Claiborne (1992) 
I recall reading Dolores Claiborne back in the 90s and liking it (I can’t remember if I saw the movie starring Kathy Bates), and while I didn’t dislike it this time around, getting through it was more of a chore than I recall. Part of the problem is that it is a single, long, unbroken narrative as the titular Dolores tells the police about the events that led up to her killing her husband many years earlier, and not killing the elderly dowager she had been working for. And it’s all in her rural Maine dialect, which gets irritating after a very short while. There’s nothing supernatural about the book, which isn’t a bad thing, and it makes a good revenge tale. Dolores is also a pretty sharply drawn character. As indicated above, it’s sort of a companion to Gerald’s Game, as both books flash back to events that happened during the solar eclipse of 1963. It’s another stylistic experiment, which you have to give him credit for. Gerald’s Game and Dolores Claiborne mark the beginning of King’s “women’s novels,” which would include Rose Madder, which is coming up shortly. 
Grade: C+ 
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993) 
King’s third short story collection, after Night Shift and Skeleton Crew, and like those earlier collections, it’s a mix of the compelling, the silly, and random experiments, some of which work and some of which don’t. Among the better stories are “Dolan’s Cadillac” (a little on the unbelievable side but it kind of works), “The Night Flier” (a vampire with a pilot’s license?), “Chattery Teeth” (supernaturally possessed joke teeth? a bit silly, but I liked it), “The Moving Finger” (a giant finger pokes out of a bathroom sink for no apparent reason), “The House on Maple Street” (an abusive stepfather gets a bizarre comeuppance), “The Ten O’Clock People” (only people who moderately smoke are able to see horrible creatures around them—another silly premise that kind of works), and “Sorry Right Number,” a screenplay for an episode of Tales from the Dark Side. There is an attempt at a Sherlock Holmes story (“The Doctor’s Case”) which is not bad, and a meta Twilight Zone-y Raymond Chandler piece (“Umney’s Last Case”) in which a character meets his author, which takes a bizarre twist. He channels Shirley Jackson in “Rainy Season” (a torrential rain of killer frogs is a small town ritual). Some of the sillier stories include “Sneakers,” “You Know They’ve Got  Hell of a Band” (all the dead rock stars are still alive in a secluded Oregon village—and they’re evil zombies), and a few others. He also should not try to write British characters (“Crouch End”). A hit or miss, but largely hit, collection, as usual.
Grade: B-
Interestingly, Insomnia, which is up next, is out of print, and even an attempt at getting a used copy has thus far been fruitless. I had to get the e-book version which, curiously enough, is more expensive than the paperback versions I had been picking up.