Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Guided Tour of King's Canon, 2012 Edition

Having recently updated a post in which I ranked King's books from worst to best, I decided it might be time to update another one of my favorite posts.

I made some changes to the format this time around, mainly because it occurred to me that a few of King's movies belonged on this list.  I'm referring to the movies he wrote that were original productions, and whereas a few of those -- Creepshow, Silver Bullet, and Storm of the Century -- were represented already thanks to tie-in books, I felt like certain other works (such as Golden Years and Sleepwalkers) were substantial enough that they belong on this list.


Lol.

So let's get going; this tour ain't gonna start itself.



Carrie (1974)


King's first published novel, Carrie has proven over the -- !! -- 38 years since then to be an enduring classic.  The Brian DePalma movie has a lot to do with that, as does the implausibly legendary -- and recently revamped -- stage musical, but the novel itself has held up extremely well.  The prose is a little rough in places, and makes it plain that the novel was written by a still-developing author; however, for every bit of purple prose, there are two bits of prose that work like a charm, and the cumulative effect is a work that has considerable power ... still.

On the whole, I think this is a terrific novel, and over the years, it has become one of my favorites of King's.  Carrie White is a heartbreakingly pathetic character; her character arc from despair to empowerment to madness is poignant and unforgettable.  Bonus points awarded for the fact that King published this, his first novel, during the year of my birth.

Sidebar: Carrie was King's first published novel, but it was by no means the first that he wrote.  In fact, it was the fifth.  The first four were: Getting It On (which was eventually published -- as a Richard Bachman novel -- under the title Rage); The Long Walk (also eventually a Bachman novel); Sword in the Darkness (which is as yet unpublished); and The Running Man (which, too, became a Bachman classic).  This, of course, helps to explain some of why Carrie is so accomplished a first novel: the author had had plenty of practice already!


'Salem's Lot (1975)



King's second published novel is an even more ambitious affair than his first, dealing with serious themes of moral decay creeping into the fabric of American society.  In Jerusalem's Lot -- 'salem's Lot, for short -- it seems that just about everyone is keeping secrets, or has skeletons in their closet, or some combination of the two.  Some small towns are bucolic; this one is malefic, the kind of place where a king vampire can roll into town, set up shop (literally), and begin decimating the populace one tender neck at a time ... and it takes an outsider to notice.

Written at what might have been the height of the pessimism which characterized so much of the '70s, 'Salem's Lot feels like a product of its time: a warning that there were wolves -- make that bats, actually -- inside our walls, and that if we weren't paying attention, they would son be at our throats.

The fact that it also feels like a product of our time either says something very good about the novel, or something very bad about our culture.

Probably both.

The Shining  (1977)


By virtually any standard of judgment, this is one of King's best novels.  It features some of King's best scenes of terror, but where the novel really lives and breathes is in its depictions of Jack's struggles with his own wretched impulses.  This is King in tragic mode, and he is often at his best when a happy ending is nowhere in sight.

One great scene from the novel that failed to make it into the Kubrick film involves topiary sculptures that come to life and move, with deadly intent, when you aren't looking.  The King-scripted miniseries included the scene, but it was a botched job, with awful CGI and the even-awfuller decision to show the damned things moving.  If you want to see this concept done well, check out the third season of the new version of Doctor Who: a terrific episode called "Blink" involves stone statues that move when you aren't looking at them, and they are some of the most effective monsters in the entire history of that show.


Rage (1977)



King wrote this novel about a decade before it saw its eventual publication, while he was on break between graduating from high school and beginning college.  He would, several years later, rewrite the novel to bring it up to speed for submission to publishers, but on the whole, Rage -- which King originally titled Getting It On -- can be, and probably should be, considered his first novel.

Certainly, it has the hallmark problems of a (rejected) first novel: it is talky, insistently symbolic, overwrought, self-important, and - occasionally -- extremely implausible.  However, King appears to have been writing very much from the heart, and that emotional honesty can occasionally be quite compelling.  This is the novel of a young man who has literally just escaped the torture that is high school; he still wears its wounds on his sleeve, and is screaming about them for all to hear.  Overwrought?  Sure.  But honest, too; let's have no doubt about that.


Given that King's first successful (i.e., published) novel, Carrie, was also about the hell of high school, and that its success was instrumental in launching the career of one of America's most notable cultural figures of the latter third of the century, Rage deserves to be studied closely.  It is the work of a phenomenon before he became phenomenal; there are lessons to be learned here.


These days, Rage is perhaps best-known for its unavailability.  After several incidents in which disturbed high-schoolers seemingly reenacted the hostage-taking scene that serves as the backbone of Rage, King demanded that his publishers take the book out of circulation.  As a result, the compendium in which it appeared -- The Bachman Books -- is no longer in print. That action has made The Bachman Books a keenly sought-for item amongst neophyte King collectors, who need not fret; the book was a bestseller, and used copies are easily obtainable from booksellers.


My personal thoughts on the matter...?  I support King's decision, because I can understand it; I would hate to have my name associated with earning money off a book that inspired actions such as those.  However, my gut tells me that deranged minds such as those of the boys who committed those crimes would, deprived of Rage, simply have found some other work -- book, movie, song, or what have you -- to serve as a trigger for their antisocial impulses.  Additionally, while Rage is clearly a violent novel about a deranged young man that has called to several similarly deranged young men, it is also a novel that a significant amount of cathartic power.  I find it at least possible that the novel helped as many people as it harmed; that is an entirely unquantifiable hypothesis, but it feels like at least a possibility.

This novel -- and by the way, let's all take a moment to contemplate how very dearly I would love to own one of the original paperbacks -- bears the distinction of being the only novel King has ever withdrawn from the market.  It is the story a very disturbed high-schooler who shoots up a classroom one day, and holds his classmates hostage for an extended session of self-examination.  As a novel, it's got a lot of problems, plausibility being one of them.  However, as an exploration of the madness that seems to forever be lurking just beneath the surface for anyone suffering the torment-of-the-damned known as adolescence, I think it's an interesting read.  By the way, King's original title: Getting It On.


Night Shift  (1978)



Has there ever been a blander dust-jacket image than that one?  The answer is yes, and if you read to the end of this post, you'll see the proof, possibly more than once.  

Don't judge this book by its cover, though: the short stories contained inside are never boring, and frequently awesome.  Most of them were written (and, in various mens' magazines, published) well before King broke through with his first novel, and there are several that remain classics of the genre.  I'm particularly fond of "Jerusalem's Lot" (a great Lovecraft pastiche), "Sometimes They Come Back," "I Know What You Need," and "The Mangler," but there isn't a dud in the bunch.  And, yes, that includes "Children of the Corn."


The Stand  (1978)


Is this Stephen King's best-loved novel?  It may well be.  It was -- with one exception (a story for another time) -- the first of his novels that I ever read, and in some ways, I've been chasing that experience ever since.  I was as engrossed by that book as I have ever been by a novel.  

If I may slip into blasphemy for a moment, though, I must make a confession: it has not entirely stood up to repeat readings for me.  I still think it's a genuinely great novel, but I'm not as satisfied by the climax as it feels like I ought to be.  And yet, I'm unsure as to any way the climax -- I'm referring here to the "stand" itself -- could have been changed so as to satisfy me better.  After all, the point King seems to be making is that evil will, given time enough, find a way to tear itself down; no need for good men to do too much in the way of defeating it, it'll just wipe itself out.  That's a great theme, but I'm not entirely sure it makes for great drama.

That said, there are so many wonderful characters in this book so as to make it worth reading if only for that element.  The epic sweep of a civilization toppling right over the edge into ruin is palpable; the political machinations involved in putting it back together again is less engaging, but those political/philosophical sections have their moments; the dark mystery of Randall Flagg remains appealingly mysterious.  There's a lot here to love.

It's good stuff; that deus ex machina of a climax just doesn't quite do it for me, though.  As always a I reserve the right to completely change my mind at a later date!  When and if that happens, I'll be sure to let you know all about it.



The Long Walk  (1979)



In his afterword to Full Dark, No Stars King refers to The Long Walk (rather than Carrie) as his first novel.  It was written during King's senior year of college, which would seemingly place it after Getting It On (a.k.a. Rage) in the chronology, although that novel was, so the legend goes, heavily reworked several years after its initial composure.

Either way, The Long Walk is a far more mature and nuanced work than Rage, and personally, I think it's a pretty solid piece of dystopian socio-sci-fi in general, one which serves as a sort of spiritual cousin to Suzanne Collins' massively successful Hunger Games trilogy.  It's arguably an even better and more nuanced work than Carrie, King's breakthrough novel, but it's irrelevant: The Long Walk is an outstanding novel, regardless of any considerations based on its placement within a chronology.

Is it plausible that young men would, year after year, sign up for this sort of literal death march?  I actually think it is.  Maybe that's my pessimistic streak showing through, but consider this for a second: signing up for the Long Walk would itself be an act of extreme optimism.  You'd have to be as devout an optimist as ever had been.  That mix of optimism and pessimism is one of the things that makes the novel interesting.  

Frank Darabont has expressed keen interest in making a movie from the novel; I would love to see it happen someday.  I wouldn't be surprised if the looming success of the movie version of The Hunger Games helps to make it a reality.



The Dead Zone  (1979)



One of King's very best novels, in my opinion.  I would say that so far, it is his most political work (including 11/22/63, which is not actually very political at all), and I don't know why I felt the need to point that out, because I have very little interest in politics.  

However, I am often entertained by the sweep of history, and in this tale of a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, you get just that; to this day, it feels authentic.

John Smith remains one of King's best protagonists; he is doomed, utterly ... and we know it ... and when the doom falls, we feel its full weight.  (There is a coda in a cemetery that puts the one in DePalma's Carrie to shame.)  The novel has one of my favorite scenes in all of King-dom: the scene in which, prior to going to the carnival, Johnny scares Sarah by donning a Halloween fright-mask and surprising her with it.  The Dead Zone was one of the first few King novels I ever read,which makes it one of the first horror novels I'd ever read.  (That assumes you want to classify it as such; it isn't, not really, but that was how I read it back then.)  As such, I was still very new to the idea of experiencing dread in the way that a novel can provide, and everything had extra impact on me.  There was something about that scene with the mask ... somehow, I knew that nothing was ever going to be okay for Johnny Smith again.  The feeling of reading that scene has stuck with me ever since, and only a few in the rest of his oeuvre has had a similar impact upon me.

This novel is great stuff, and is highly recommended to anyone who has never read it.  

If you're particularly averse to reading about dogs being kicked to death, you might want to skip it, though; there is only one caninicide in the book, but it's a rough one...


The Mist  (1980)


It would have been unwiedly in the extreme to try and lump in all of Stephen King's short stories on this guided tour, one by one, as they appeared chronologically by publication.  Yikes; I don't even like to think about how tricky that would be to manage.


However, in the case of separately-published novellas such as The Mist -- which, as the dustjacket of the Dark Forces anthology wherein it appeared specifies, is actually more of a short novel than anything (it's not much shorter than Rage, as a comparison) -- it seemed appropriate to add them into the mix for this new version of the tour.  After all, The Mist is an extremely substantial work, in terms of quality, import, and reputation.  Which is not to say that numerous King short stories don't fit that bill; they certainly do.


Here's the bare fact: I felt like including it.  And so, I included it.


Regardless of how you wish to classify it, The Mist -- which later appeared in King's second story collection, Skeleton Crew -- is a bit of a masterpiece.  It ought not to work at all; monsters come shambling out of the mist and trap people in a grocery store, where they get to choose between a religious nutcase inside and possible evisceration outside.  But it works like a charm, thanks to incredibly sure-handed prose from King.  (A possible exception: an arguably tacky scene in which the protagonist, who has been away from his wife for all of a few hours, has sex with a virtual stranger.)


Another of my all-time favorite scenes appears here: a dreams sequence early on in which the narrator, David Drayton, dreams of God striding across the land, his body so titanically massive that his legs simply disappear into the clouds.  This scene is mirrored by a scene near the end of the story in which the survivors glimpse an alien being of unimaginable height, one whose legs extend as far heavenward as did God's in David's dream of Him.


There is a lot to mull over in this story, and the controversial film adaptation either bungled that utterly, or enhanced it, depending on your viewpoint.


My viewpoint is that it enhanced it.



Firestarter  (1980)


A compelling tale of a girl with a very dangerous talent, and some very bad men who want to exploit it, this is not necessarily one of my favorite books by King, but there's nothing particularly wrong with it.  I suppose you could level the charge that the bad guys are a little cartoonish in their badness, but at the same time, I have no trouble believing in their behavior as being somewhat approximate to reality.  The real "problem" is that King's characters are not quite as vibrant as usual.  They aren't bad, though, and you could certainly find worse books to read, even within King's canon.  We'll get to those later on.

One notable thing about Firestarter is that it is frequently referred to as being something of a reworking of Carrie.  On the one hand, I can see how people arrived at that conclusion: both novels are about girls (one a child, and the other a young woman) who have dangerous psi abilities; both girls are persecuted; both novels involve fire being used as an extremely dangerous weapon.  But really, that's about the extent of the similarities.  Whereas Charlie McGee is a victim of a corrupt government agency, Carrie White is the victim of a more general human weakness for despising Otherness in our fellow humans.  The political slant of Firestarter leans it somewhat toward a kinship with The Dead Zone, but even that is only a vague kinship.


All things considered, Firestarter is really its own story, and it's a pretty good one, too.


Sidebar: King has been known to joke that he wanted to write a sequel to The Shining in which Danny Torrance met Charlie McGee and the two of them had kids together.  Well ... an actual sequel to The Shining -- Doctor Sleep -- is on the way in 2013.  I suspect Charlie will be nowhere in evidence, but you never can tell...



Roadwork  (1981)


When I first read this novel in high school, I was bored to death by it, and I didn't pick it up again until a few years ago.  With something like eighteen additional years under my belt (not to mention the seventy-five extra pounds [!] hanging over the top of it), I am, in practical terms, a different person, and that makes rereading any book that I'd read that long ago almost like reading a completely different novel.  It was definitely a completely different experience: I was kinda blown away by it.  It's stark and uncompromising, and I found it to be a great novel-length version of the type of writing King did early in his career in non-genre stories such as "The Last Rung on the Ladder" and "The Woman in the Room."  That side of King fascinates me, and I wish there were more of it.

The novel also shares -- unsurprisingly -- the somewhat antisocial outlook of the other early "Bachman Books," in that it is about a protagonist who has been shoved into the path of a society that is happy to roll right over him if he does not want to budge.  You can find this theme in some of the early works King published under his own name, too: Carrie seems to come from a different room in the same mental house, and short stories like "Cain Rose Up," "Children of the Corn," and "Night Surf" also come to mind as being similar in some respects.

Roadwork was very much a product -- and a reflection -- of troubled economic times, and reading the novel again during the midst of the troubled economic times of 2009, it struck me that the novel is still highly relevant.  As with The Long Walk, I'd love to see someone make a good movie from this, and I don't think it would be hard to do.  My pick for who ought to write and direct it?  Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad.

Incidentally, if you want to place Roadwork a bit more firmly in context within King's work, it was written in 1974, after King finished writing 'Salem's Lot.


Danse Macabre  (1981)



Okay, seriously ... how boring is that cover?


Much better.  Thank you, '80s paperback industry.

I adore Danse Macabre.  It gets a bit pedantic at times, but it's a great showcase for King's voice, and also for his under-appreciated critical skills.  If you enjoy his introductions/forewords/conclusions, Danse Macabre is a bit like a book-length version of one of those.  It also veers close to autobiography at certain points, and while this is not a book that is going to be a favorite of all King fans, I would say that readers who particularly enjoy his writing style, and who also have a love for the genre as a whole (and can appreciate it from a historical point of view), will probably be quite engaged.

And say, Steve: isn't a sequel long overdue?  I'd say so.  If you want something that at least approximates what that might be like, pick up a copy of the 2010 trade paperback reissue from Gallery Books. It includes -- as an "introduction" -- a reprint of "What's Scary," a good, lengthy article King wrote for Fangoria about the previous decade in horror cinema.


Cujo  (1981)


Stop me if you've heard this one before:

I hated this book the first time I read it.  This, again, was in high school, and to be perfectly honest, I don't remember why I disliked it so much.  I don't think it was due to the downer of an ending; I think it was just too adult for me to really engage with and process.  The real horror in this story isn't a rabid dog, but instead the isolation between people who really ought to be doing a better job of loving one another.  As with Roadwork, when I reread the novel years later, it struck me in entirely different ways, and from my more aged vantage point, I think this is a legitimately great novel.  I wish the (admittedly very few) vague supernatural elements had been omitted, as they add nothing of value, but they can easily be ignored.

In a way, my favorite segments are the scenes written from Cujo's point of view; they are by turns amusing and heartbreaking, and really showcase King's grasp on character.  Allegedly, he was so strung out at the time that he cannot even remember writing the novel; I can see why that would bum him out.


The Running Man  (1982)


This was my favorite of the Bachman books when I read them in high school, so imagine my surprise to find myself slightly disappointed by it upon rereading it years later.  It's still a good book, and I admire the ruthless tragedy of it all (though the climax bears some uncomfortable echoes of real life circa 2001), but in my memory it seemed a bit more of a home run; instead, it's a solid double.

Part of the reason I feel as if it fails to hold together is that once the actual contest begins, things happen much too coincidentally.  Ben just so happens to run into someone who informs him of a super-secret plot  by the Network to foul up the air purity.  Also, that super-secret plot doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense.  There is also precious little sense of any of what Ben does actually being televised; it's hard to imagine why anyone would tune in to a show to basically see nothing. 

However, King -- pardon me, Bachman -- conjures up a compellingly bleak future America, and given how well it holds together, it's enough to make one wish to pop over into the Ur universe where it was this type of fiction that put him in the limelight: I'd love to cross over and bring all those books back and see what masterpieces might have come about had King kept pursuing this type of hard-edged socio-sci-fi.  As is, this isn't a great novel, but it's a good one, and worth checking out, especially if all you know is the campy Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that was loosely based on it.


Sidebar: The Running Man was written way back in 1971, and was the final "failed" (i.e., unsold) novel that King finished prior to finally achieving his breakthrough with Carrie.  Viewed in that context, the novel reads a bit like the work of an author fighting to find not his own voice, but a publishable voice.  He'd already written a similarly-themed novel of science fiction that hadn't caught fire (The Long Walk), but it's easy to imagine him looking at that novel and feeling that it had solid ideas, but needed more of an action/thriller hook to sell its themes; The Running Man reads as though it could have been an attempt at a more marketable version of The Long Walk.  That is nothing but speculation on my part, of course.


The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger  (1982)


Technically, this is a short-story collection, as it gathers together the various stories King published in the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Even more technically, it's actually a novel, since those stories form a consistent and unified whole.  Do you care about semantic distinctions like that one?  Probably not, and good on ya for it, mate, 'cause that sort of thing has been known to keep yours truly up at night.  (For the record, here is the answer to the question of which it is, a novel or a story collection: it's both, dummy.  Same would be true years later of Hearts In Atlantis.)

Set in an odd quasi-Western environment, The Gunslinger was nothing like what the author was, at the time of its publication, known for writing; due to this, the book was originally published only as a limited edition, which quickly sold out and became an object of much speculation, envy, and consternation amongst devoted '80s-era King fans.  (If you want to read a great history of that book's publication, check out Bev Vincent's The Road to the Dark Tower.  You'll be glad you did.)

I am somewhat unusual among Towerphiles in that this is my favorite of the books.  And yes, in fact, I do prefer the original to the revised version.  I have no problems with the revised version, and I love the changes, but there is a sort of rawness about the book -- present in both versions, but even more palpable in the original -- that just utterly captivates me.  In some ways, this feels very much like a Richard Bachman novel, which means only that it feels like exactly what it is: early Stephen King, unpolished and ragged but frequently finding the jugular in memorable ways; a powerful talent in search of the proper avenue in which to express itself.

I love the direction Roland's tale eventually took, but I am enough of a masochist that part of me wishes King had never written any further than this first novel.  I can distinctly recall reading the book for the first time, and feeling positively epic feelings about who Roland was and what his quest meant and how it would all turn out ... and knowing that really, in all the vital ways, I could never know those things.  This was a novel of questions, not of answers; I wanted to know the answers, but in a way, I wanted to never know them.  I love that sort of dark, majestic, unresolvable mystery, and as much as I also love King's later resolutions, I still yearn to be that young man devastated by the thought of Roland sitting on that beach, the Tower distant beyond all hope of approach.


Actually, that's really not masochism at all, is it?  That's just a yearning for the complex pleasure that is mystery.


Creepshow (1982)

 

This mass-market comic-book adaptation of King's screenplay is a loving homage to EC Comics, with fun gore that didn't seem so fun when I ran across it in a grocery store at the age of eight.  I was traumatized by the end of the "Father's Day" segment, with the severed head that's been repurposed as the world's least appealing birthday cake.  I've often wondered how much of an impact that random little encounter had on my life.  From the vantage point of 2011, it's hard to say, but this is easier: the comic book is a little on the mediocre side.  The Berni Wrighton art makes it entirely worthwhile, though.

A new edition of this book needs to happen, with King's screenplay added in.  Perhaps one of those oversized artist's editions, so as to emphasize Wrightson's work.

I'd buy a copy of that, most definitely.


Different Seasons (1982)


Let's not beat around the bush: I think this is Stephen King's best book.  All four of the novellas -- two of which ("Apt Pupil" and "The Body") are actually short novels -- are masterpieces.  

"Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is a tightly-structured first-person-narrative that is almost flawless, and it was faithfully adapted into one of the most revered movies of the latter quarter of the century, possibly the most notable movie from a year that included several REALLY notable movies (including Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Lion King).  

Apt Pupil isn't quite as good as that, but it will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, and if it doesn't, you'd be well-advised to consider seeking some counseling.  It shares some stylistic (and thematic) similarities with Roadwork, but what it has that that novel lacks is a memorable, effective hook of a story to hang upon: the story of an all-American boy who decides he wants to learn what it was like to be a Nazi.  There is some incredibly uncomfortable stuff in this novel, and King's ability to make his two despicable main characters bizarrely likeable and relateable -- and yet somehow manage to avoid seeming as if he's condoning their behavior -- is nothing short of remarkable.  The movie version wasn't able to accomplish any where near that much subtlety, but it's got a great performance from Ian McKellan, captured just before he became a superstar thanks to X-Men and The Lord of the Rings.  It's a good movie; just not a great one.  The novel IS a great one.

The Body is terrific, sweet and sad and yearningly sentimental for times gone past; like "Shawshank," it was made into an instant-classic film (Stand By Me), but -- also like "Shawshank" -- that shouldn't make us forget the source material.  The Body is, along with It and Hearts In Atlantis, one of the tales in which King seems to let down his guard and bit and return mentally to that fragile state of adolescence.  He broke through turning that very trick with Carrie, and it's one of the most important themes of his career, even if he;s only turned his full attention toward it on a few occasions.


There is a persistent theme in Different Seasons that unifies its parts, creating a cohesive thematic whole out of four tales which were not written at the same time, but which nevertheless join to form a powerful, singular vision.  This book is all about the power of storytelling.  In King's hands, it can save a life (Andy Dufresne's, yes, but also Red's), or it can take a whole lot of them (when the stories an old man tells a young man poison him and turn him from an innocent into a monster).  Stories can reflect the mysteries of growing up (as in The Body), and they can also reflect the mysteries of ... death?

Is that what "The Breathing Method," the final story in Different Seasons, is about?  Maybe.  Or, maybe, it's about the mystery of how life and death are one and the same thing.  It's a complex message, one not easily understood, but here, there is a story an old man cal tell a group of other old men that will help to illustrate the idea.  And in the club where they have gathered, there are many stories.  "The Breathing Method," which has great heaping dollops of that unresolvable mystery which The Gunslinger possesses in such bounteous quantities, is my favorite story in the book.  There has, to date, been no movie version, and perhaps there never will be.  It doesn't need one.


But, then, none of these fine stories needed movies.


The movies needed them...


Christine (1983)


For my money, this is the first novel King published as Stephen King that doesn't work.  It isn't an awful novel; the three central characters are pretty good, and that's enough to keep the forward momentum going.  However, the concept of a haunted car is just deeply silly, and while he comes up with some great stuff in playing with the concept, it isn't enough to truly hurdle over the silliness.  So, for me, it just doesn't quite work.  

I do have fond memories of reading it during Driver's Ed back in the good old Central High days.  Not while driving, of course; that would have been irresponsible.  No, I snuck it out and used it as a diversion so that I didn't have to actually watch the screen while Blood on the Highway was playing; ironic that someone would turn to a horror novel to escape something horrible, but it also rings very, very true; there's probably a lesson there to be learned about why the genre is as popular as it is.
I must also admit to being somewhat haunted by the following dialogue: "Brand-new, she was.  Had the smell of a brand-new car, and that's about the finest smell in the world.  Except maybe for pussy."

I remember reading that, and just kinda putting the book down for a few minutes and pondering it, trying to figure it out.  "This ... means something," I may have thought to myself, brow furrowed; "this is ... important."


Cycle of the Werewolf  (1983)


This novella began life as a calendar concept, and that slightness of concept shows through in the final product, which is decent but unmemorable.  Oddly, it is the earlier segments -- which more clearly reflect the original concept -- that work best, and the later segments (the more plot-heavy ones) which don't work as well.  It all seems like a contractual-fulfillment deal, and while it's short enough that reading it is a snap, there's not much reason to bother unless you're a completist or a big werewolf fan.  

Great artwork by Berni Wrightson, though.


Pet Sematary  (1983)


A former boss of mine read this novel because he was curious to see why I loved Stephen King so much.  Technically speaking, he wasn't my boss; he was my mother's.  I was going to work with her one summer, just so I had some place to go.  This would have been 1990, the summer I discovered King and promptly read everything he had written.  I must have had a different book my King in my hands every time he saw me, and I guess his curiosity got the better of him, so he got himself a copy of Pet Sematary.  Later, he told me that he'd read it virtually in one sitting ... and thrown the book across the room as soon as he'd finished it.  It's a good thing he didn't go with Cujo, which is arguably even bleaker.  

This one is pretty damn bleak, though.  I think it's got some problems, and I don't rate it as highly as many King fans do: it's got focus problems, and I just don't much care for the Pascow stuff, or for Ellie's convenient telepathic sensitivities. Especially for those, in fact.
However, I am wonderfully creeped out by the notion of the wendigo, and by the scene detailing Louis's experience hearing it crashing through the woods ... not seeing it, but knowing it is there, and that it is awful.  On the whole, the novel remains a bruisingly depressing read, but one that provides just enough of a morality tale that the depression is useful.  Good stuff, no doubt about it.


The Eyes of the Dragon  (1984, limited edition)



The Eyes of the Dragon was written as an attempt on King's part to cater to his daughter Naomi's type of book.  It made its initial appearance as a limited edition from King's own publishing house, Philtrum Press.

My understanding is that there are differences between this original edition and the 1987 mass-market edition, but since I have read only the later version, I cannot say for certain.

The Talisman  (with Peter Straub, 1984)




Can I be honest?  

I don't like this novel.  

It isn't a complete waste of time, and the links with the Dark Tower universe (most of which would not be apparent for close to twenty more years) make it moderately compelling for Tower junkies, but I have a hard time placing much stock in the notion of Jack Sawyer crossing the country on a mythic quest.  I loved the novel in high school, but as an adult, it all rings very false; I felt that way listening to the audiobook shortly before Black House was released, and I felt that was again nearly a decade later when I reread the novel.  

Straub is an excellent writer, so don't blame him; in fact, I'd say there's a decent chance that you, whoever you are, will enjoy the book more than I do.


Thinner  (as Richard Bachman, 1984)


Here's another King novel I disliked initially, but was pleasantly surprised by years later upon rereading.  I still don't think it's a classic, and it's really more of a Stephen King novel than a Richard Bachman novel (a distinction that makes sense somewhere deep inside my brain), but it's an engagingly dark slice of moral-based horror.  

King is not on firm ground when writing mobsters (a truism borne out, though to a lesser degree, in The Drawing of the Three), and I think that the scenes which rely on that element hurt the novel a bit.  However, the ending is great, and helps make up for some of the weaker elements.  

It's a compelling situation, too: wasting away to virtually nothing seems like a real drag.  To keep it from being an issue, I think I'll have a Coca-Cola and some Bugles.


Cat's Eye  (1985)


You'd be forgiven if you said this movie is a piece of crap., because in some ways, honestly, it really isn't very good.


Damned if I don't kinda love it, though.


It, like Creepshow, is an anthology film, but this one has a bit more of a through-line.  It's a somewhat silly one: a cat is running across country, and finds himself mixed up in several weird adventures.  He's almost totally irrelevant to the first two: "Quitters, Inc." and "The Ledge," both of which are based on excellent King short stories (both appear in Night Shift).  

The third, "The General," is the best, because it's an original story for this movie, and also because it is about a cat saving Drew Barrymore from a murderous little troll that lives inside her wall.  Seriously, what's not to love about something that goofy?


Along the way, you get some good performances, an end credits song that's so terrible it's wonderful, some good special effects, and a pretty good score by Alan Silvestri (the same year he composed a great score for Back to the Future).


As with Creepshow, this movie really needs the special-edition DVD treatment, preferably with a commentary track by King.  And where's a book of the screenplay?!?  That's way overdue at this point!



Skeleton Crew  (1985)


This might be King's best collection of short stories.  It's either this, or Night Shift, and I think I'd give this one a slight advantage.  

For one thing, it's got "The Mist," which is just awesome -- inappropriate grocery-store sexual encounters notwithstanding.  For another thing, it's got "The Jaunt," a sci-fi/horror story which truly gives me the willies.  For yet another thing, it's got "The Raft," a damn fine tale of grim horror about a killer alien oil slick (not even kidding) ... and "Survivor Type," which is just plain grim.

I also love "Nona," "Word Processor of the Gods," "The Reaper's Image," "The Monkey," "Uncle Otto's Truck," "The Reach," and "Morning Deliveries" and "Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game" (those last two being excerpts from an abandoned novel, one which I would love to read any and all other bits of some day).  Additionally, I have always adored the poem "For Owen," a sweet little bit of verse written for King's youngest son, Owen.  The fact that years later, I have read books and stories by the little fellow from that poem is a feeling both satisfying and a little frightening.

On the other hand, a few pieces of near-juvenilia ("Here There Be Tygers," "Cain Rose Up") made the cut, and drag things down just a bit.  So, perhaps, advantage back to Night Shift.  Either way, this is, by and large, a very strong collection.  King's later story collections have not quite measured up, in my eyes.  I feel as thought his novels have remained remarkably strong from the beginning of his career right up until today, but his skill at the short story has waned a bit.  He still writes strong short stories, but I don't think they are as strong on average as they used to be, and I don't think they appear as frequently, either.


But hey, that's just me.  You may feel the complete opposite.  If you don't, though, then odds are that you, like me, treasure Night Shift and Skeleton Crew all the more.



The Bachman Books  (1985)



Sigh...



Much better; I love that cover.  I don't actually have a copy of that paperback anymore, a mistake which some used bookseller is going to need to assist me in fixing one of these days.

This omnibus -- or perhaps it's more properly called a collection -- consists of the first four Richard Bachman novels: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man.  Read as a collection, it's a good experience; the novels rub up against each other thematically in interesting ways.  (The same is also true of both Different Seasons and Full Dark, No Stars, by the way; all three books help illustrate the truism that a whole can sometimes be greater than the sum of its parts, even when the individual parts are awfully good to begin with.)  In fact, if you wanted to consider this as less an omnibus and more a novella collection, I think you'd have to rate it second among King's novella-pendiums, behind the awesome Different Seasons.  

We miss you, Richard Bachman.  We hope your famously unpublished novel Sword in the Darkness will be released someday!



Silver Bullet  (1985)



Published at around the time of the movie's release was this tie-in, which reprints Cycle of the Werewolf and adds King's screenplay to the movie for good measure, along with an introduction.  The screenplay is pretty decent, and Berni Wrightson's artwork is still awesome, so if you're planning to get Cycle of the Werewolf, I'd recommend trying to find a copy of this book instead.  It's out of print, but a used copy shouldn't set you back too much.



Maximum Overdrive  (1986)






This is a genuinely awful movie.


I fucking LOVE this movie.


Those seem like contradictory statements, but they aren't, and if that doesn't make sense to you -- if it's making your head hurt a little bit just thinking about it -- well, I can see how that might be the case.  Allow me to try and clarify things a bit.


Here's why Maximum Overdrive is a terrible movie: it was directed by Stephen King himself, who, at the height of his very-understandable (and cocaine-fueled) 1980s hubris, allowed himself to be talked into attempting a creative endeavor that is extremely different from the type he normally undertook.  He has only the vaguest idea of how to compose a shot; he did not have the knowledge required to understand how to cover scenes (i.e., filming them multiple times from multiple angles so as to allow for creativity in the editorial process); his skill with directing actors to good, believable performances was -- let's be generous -- limited; he has apparently no idea how to build tension, or create a mood of ANY kind, really.  His editing sense -- a vital component in any competent director's repertoire -- was weak, verging on nonexistent.  And so forth.  In short, Maximum Overdrive verges on being amateur filmmaking; it is only the contributions of industry professionals such as certain actors and technicians that permitted the project to rise far enough from the muck to be even considered to be a BAD movie.  It is incompetent filmmaking, not entirely dissimilar to the way Ed Wood's movies were incompetent: so much so that describing it as such almost has no meaning.


Here is why I love Maximum Overdrive: because, like Ed Wood's movies, it is SO far removed from traditional ideas of what a good -- or even a competent -- movie is that it occasionally makes me feel as though I've entered some sort of dimension that is vaguely related to, but extremely different from, this one.  Some sci-fi story introduced me to the concept that in a different dimension, you could smell colors, or hear emotions, or touch sounds ... crazy shit like that.  Maximum Overdrive isn't quite THAT far out; instead, it's like the second or third stop you might make on a cross-country drive to a dimension like that.  Things are recognizably similar, they just seem a little bit ... off.  Like you're drunk, and inexplicably in line at a K-Mart.  So when things happen that no competent filmmaker would do -- like having a soda machine murder a Little League coach, or a waitress literally jumping up and down while screamingly accosting sentient eighteen wheelers with the knowledge that WE made THEM -- then you kinda just have to stop for a moment, recognize the fact that you've slipped sideways into a completely different type of moviegoing experience, and take your hat off to the fucking lunatic responsible for it all.  Who hired AC fucking DC to write a score for it all, by the way.


I can see how you would look down on that experience.  I get it.  I love good movies, and have what I like to think of as a wide variety of extremely inclusive good taste when it comes to film:my favorite director is Spielberg, with Hitchcock being second, and Kubrick being third (although either Tarantino or the Coen Brothers could move into that spot at some point during their extraordinary careers, as could Scorsese).  I enjoy a good dumb comedy, such as the recent 21 Jump Street, the funniest movie I've seen in quite some time.  I can hate things that many people like (such as the Transformers films, or Adam Sandler movies), but I'm also more than willing to admit that I don't hate the Twilight movies (I think the worst you can say about them is that they are mediocre).


For me, though, there is ALWAYS room for a movie of the "so-bad-it's-awesome" variety, and that's what Maximum Overdrive is.  A movie like Transformers is simply bad.  Worse, because it was made by people who ought to have known how to do better.  Maximum Overdrive was made by a guy who had no idea how to make a movie, but went into it cheerfully, seems to have had a good time, and had the good sense to never do it again.  I'll take a movie that is bad by virtue of ineptitude over a movie that is bad do a simple disregard for quality ANY day of the week.


That's Maximum Overdrive.


And WHERE THE HELL is my special edition DVD?!?  And, for that matter, the book of the screenplay?!?


We needs 'em, precious; we needs 'em.


It  (1986)



I think that I think that this is Stephen King's best novel.  Maybe a couple of others -- The Dead Zone comes to mind, and The Green Mile -- give it a run for its money, and I do think you have to subtract a few points for inappropriate underage sex acts.  

Note the plural there.  

However, it's not every novel that would be able to survive those scenes at all, and that this one manages it and then some says a lot.  The characters are just awesome.  Sure, Richie Tozier kinda sucks (King in his mode of writing characters who are supposedly funny is virtually never actually, you know, funny), and Bill's stuttering is hard to read, so I'd be the last to suggest that this is a perfect novel.  But it's got so much going for it, and the depth of King's imagination is so great, that this is the one I keep coming back to when trying to determine which of the novels is my favorite.  Pennywise is a terrifying, fascinating character, especially in his/its guise as an ageless evil from outside our existence.
  
Again, Dark Tower junkies take note: the Turtle -- presumably the same one of Beam fame -- puts in an important appearance, making this tangentially related to Roland's story.  That stuff is great, but it's the characters that really matter; King uses them to craft what is at its heart a fable amount the importance, and the impossibility, of remembering one's own childhood.  In that regard, it's really rather beautiful.


The Eyes of the Dragon  (1987)




Here's another King novel I loved in high school, but disliked as an adult.  I reread this one a couple of years ago, and I found King's style to be a serious problem: too self-aware, too forced, too flippant.  I think maybe the vibe he was going for was the prose equivalent of someone reading a bedtime story to someone else, but for me, it doesn't work.

And the story doesn't amount to a whole hell of a lot, either.  Old Randy Flagg from The Stand shows up again, in an utterly different guise; it's unclear whether this is even the same character at all, or some sort of Talisman-esque Twinner of him.  It doesn't matter much in the end; he's not quite the memorable force here that he was in that earlier, much better, novel.  Here, he's powerful, but seems either unwilling or unable to do much of anything with that power.  

The Eyes of the Dragon isn't a bad book, though, and teenagers who love fantasy will be entertained (the same possibly goes for Dark Tower fanatics), but I think it ranks fairly low in King's canon.


The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three  (1987) 


If you've read this novel, and if you've also read the title of my blog, then you've probably deducted that I feel some sort of kinship with King's second trip into Roland's world.  And if so, you're 100% correct: I love this novel.  The first time I read it, I was absolutely shocked by the way it began: giving Roland that sort of setback (no spoilers for you unwashed novices to the Tower series, although you might want to beware them when I get to Book VII further down the page) was entirely unexpected, and since the rest of the novel -- the rest of the series, for that matter -- proceeds from that crucial turning point, it's also an incredibly vital opening.

Two (or is that three?) of the series' other major players are introduced, and everything flows at an intense-yet-languid pace which permits for fine characterizations, great setpieces, and some memorably visceral horror.  In some ways, it seems like nothing happens during the novel, but in other ways, it's jam-packed with activity.  Great stuff.

I've heard it said that some Dark Tower fans, when pitching the series to people they want to read it, advise them to start the series with this book, and to skip The Gunslinger altogether.  Every reader has to make their own choices, but personally, I think you'd be nuts to skip The Gunslinger ... although if you do, and this book doesn't hook you, you should definitely give up.

Creepshow 2  (1987)


I'm on the fence in terms of whether I feel like this movie really ought to count (for reasons I'll explain momentarily), but I think I'll just go ahead and do it this time, and then if I feel like it doesn't belong, I'll take it out of next year's edition.


Reasons not to include it: Stephen King did not write the screenplay, nor does he seem to have had anything in the way of personal creative involvement with the actual production.


Reasons to include it: of the four stories (I'm counting the prologue), three were based on story treatments written by King, who then gave them to George Romero to script.  So, in that sense, Creepshow 2 represents the only possible way to experience three of King's stories.


Sadly, none of it is very good.  None of the playful, campy vitality of the original film is present here.  Well ... almost none: there is some amusement to be had in the guy who keeps hollering "Thanks for the ride, lady!" over and over again in "The Hitchhiker."  And I suppose "The Raft" has some good moments, if only because it is based on one of King's best short stories.  Overall, though, the movie is a bust, and a major comedown from the gleeful Creepshow.


By the way, did you know that two stories were cut from this movie prior to filming?  According to Stephen Jones in his excellent book Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide (which you really ought to own a copy of), the original plan was to include two additional stories, "The Cat From Hell" and "Pinfall."  "The Cat From Hell" (based on a '70s short story) was eventually filmed as part of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie, but "Pinfall" remains a tantalizing mystery.  It was apparently Romero's favorite of the quintet, and involved a bowling game in which human heads were used as the balls!


One can only hope that at the very least, we'll someday get to read King's two-page treatment for that story.  It sounds wonderful in the best EC tradition.


Misery  (1987)


One of King's best-known novels, Misery is a tour-de-force in every way.  It feature one of King's most memorable villains, and also one of his most memorable protagonists, but it's also maybe the most important work King has done regarding one of his favorite themes: the redemptive power of creativity.

The novel is exceptionally well-written, and the richness of the character dynamics are fairly astonishing given that there are basically only two characters.  It's a setup worthy of Hitchcock, and King does a masterful job of Hitchcockian proportions in executing it.

The mass-market paperback contained a false interior cover which is one of the best pieces of art ever created:


Glorious.  I love the look on King's face, which, depending on how you look at it, could be taken as "Oh yeah, you KNOW you want some of THIS!" or as "Jesus fucking Christ, how did I get talked into allowing this to happen?"  Best part is, it's funny either way.


The Tommyknockers  (1987)


I read this novel once back in high school and didn't much care for it, so I never returned to it until rereading it last year.  My overriding thoughts about it based on that rereading went something like this: man, Bryant, you were really stupid as a teenager, because this novel is way better than you thought.  I don't think it's perfect by any means, and some of the machine-modification stuff gets a bit goofy, but there are huge sections of it that are just terrific, and it actually manages to come to a pretty satisfying conclusion.  That's something that not all King novels of 500+ pages can claim.  

What the novel is, really, is King's first concerted take on writing a romance.  (You could make the claim that The Dead Zone was there first, or even Christine -- not me, though.)  Interestingly, this is a story about a failed romance: not one that flared brightly and then died, or one that simply failed to ever come together, but one that just somehow ... missed.  Bobbi and Gard have all the makings of a great, well-suited couple, but -- mostly due to Gard's many weaknesses -- they just never quite put all the pieces together.  To me, that is the essential underpinning of this occasionally kooky sci-fi/horror story, and it's a fascinating element, one I was not emotionally mature enough to appreciate in high school.  Twenty-two years later, I get it.

Yeah, I get it, now.  And it stings ... just as it ought to sting.  This is good stuff, and deserves to be revisited.


Nightmares in the Sky  (1988)


This is a coffee-table book consisting of photos of gargoyles, with an essay by King accompanying them.  Including it as a "Stephen King book" is debatable, but I thought it was worth mentioning.  The essay is good; the photos are decent, but nowhere near as cool as the essay makes them sound.

There's honestly not much else to say about this, except that King talks a bit about his son Joe in the essay.  So Joe Hill fans might enjoy it for that.



Bare Bones:Conversations on Terror with Stephen King  (1989, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller)


Including this one as a Stephen King book isn't just debatable, it may be outright incorrect.  Essentially, it's just a collection of interviews with King from various sources from throughout the years (up to '89, at least), and let's none of us be under the assumption that it was much of anything other than a cash-grab for its publisher.  That said, it's a very entertaining read, and hardcore King fans will likely enjoy the hell out of it.

Some of the highlights: "An Evening at the Billerica Library" (in which King talks at length about '50s horror films and how a lot of horror fiction is as deeply conservative as any Republican);  the Playboy interview; an interview conducted by Charles L. Grant; and a good one Stanley Wiater has with both King and Peter Straub.


Underwood and Miller try to group the interviews by subject matter, but it doesn't work at all; King talks about all sorts of topics in these "conversations," and as a result they defy any serious attempt at grouping.  But that's okay.  It's still a terrific read.


The Dark Half  (1989)



For years, the accepted logline people have employed in talking about Th Dark Half is that it is a novel in which Stephen King is metafictively working out the conflicted feelings he had over what happened to "Richard Bachman."  For those of you who came in late, here's a brief recap: someone discovered that Bachman was in fact just a pseudonym that Stephen King was using, and then tried to blackmail him for some money.  King, having no real reason to pay to keep the secret, simply issues a press release saying "Hey, guess what?  Richard Bachman is ME."  A few years after that, King published a novel in which he took the bones of that scenario, exhumed them, and gave them some fantastical touch-ups.  The Dark Half, ostensibly, was the result.

Perhaps the real-life version of Bachman's outing was more fraught with peril and/or drama that it sounds like it would have been, and maybe that's where some of the heart of the novel came from; not knowing, I cannot say.  However, I can say that The Dark Half is a subtler, more meaningful work than it gets credit for being, and it is certainly more than a mere lament for a lost pseudonym.  Instead, King is (again) exorcising his demons on the subject of addiction, as well as exploring the idea of what it means -- and costs -- to create in the artistic sense.  Here, however, what I think King is writing about is actually a sort of dark twin to the novel Misery; in that novel, he was, as much as anything else, writing about the redemptive power of writing.  In The Dark Half, Thad -- just like Misery's Paul Sheldon -- is a slave to his own artistic impulses, but with a key difference: Thad's, somehow, have opened a door and allowed George Stark to come through.  Thad's writing is powerful, too; so powerful, in fact, that the darkness which motivates that writing breaks free of its wellspring and takes on a half-life of its own.  Paul's creativity saves him, whereas Thad's tries to murder him, but with both, you get the feeling that without those creative impulses, they won't survive for long.


Following the daisy chain of logic, if The Dark Half is strictly a metaphor for King's own life, King would equal Beaumont, whereas Bachman would equal Stark.  However, in The Dark Half it is important to remember that so far as the world at large cares, it is Stark who matters; HE is the one whose books are read.  So in terms of the novel itself, Beaumont is actually much more analogous to Bachman, and Stark to King.  Viewed in that manner, I think The Dark Half becomes a fascinating tale in which King is examining his own impulses -- toward creativity and toward addiction (with the possibility that they are one and the same) -- and determining that such impulses have a way of not wanting to stay dead.  This is one of King's most deeply pessimistic novels; you can practically feel him wrestling with his own demons, which he has tidily named "Stark" and put into a novel so that he can give them a proper smiting.  Except ... he doesn't seem to be all that sure that he can win the fight in any permanent sense, or that if he IS able to win the fight, he'll be the same person once it's over.


So on the whole, I think I'd say that The Dark Half is definitely a work which reveals some things about its author, but forget that party-line business about how it's all about "Richard Bachman."  It isn't.  It's all about Stephen King.  (I wrote about this in a lengthier fashion last summer in the first part of a series of posts examining this novel.  If the subject interests you at all, have a look, won't you?  It's one of the posts I've written that I get close to being actually proud of.)

After The Drawing of the Three, Misery, and The Tommyknockers, this marked King's fourth consecutive novel that heavily dealt with the subject of addiction, and it's a bit of a miracle that he managed to find four consecutive ways of doing so in fresh, exciting ways.  I think it's reasonable to suggest that your opinion of The Dark Half may hinge almost entirely on how well you can get on board with the notion at the center of the novel: a pseudonym comes to life and starts wreaking havoc for the man who once used that name.  If you can roll with it, then you'll probably like the novel; if you can't, you might find slippery purchase on these slopes.



The Stand  (1990, complete and uncut edition)



Tampering with a beloved novel like The Stand might not seem like all that great an idea, but the story goes that this is the original -- and therefore true -- version of the novel.  Either way, I quite like the expanded version, and welcome the extended period of time spent in that troubled universe.  None of it makes the climax work better for me, but the coda is appealing, and adds a hint of added menace that I appreciate.


Four Past Midnight  (1990)



Another collection of novellas, this one is unfortunately nowhere even in the vicinity of being as good as Different Seasons.  That's not to suggest that it's bad, though; far from it.  "The Langoliers" is an entertaining piece of sci-fi nonsense, and "The Library Policeman" is an entertaining piece of queasy-making nonsense.  "Secret Window, Secret Garden," is quite good, and "The Sun Dog" ... well, to be honest, I remember very little about that one, and maybe that says it all right there.  This was the first Stephen King book I bought as a new release, though, and that carries some sentimental weight.


Let's talk semantics for a moment.  As the outset of my summary, I mentioned that this is a collection of novellas.  And, because that's how they are -- and have always been -- described, that's how I think of them: as novellas.  However, "The Langoliers" is nearly 250 pages long, which is longer than both Carrie and The Gunslinger.  Nobody thinks of either of those books as novellas; they think of them as novels.  Shouldn't we be thinking of "The Langoliers" the same way?  Not "The Langoliers," but The Langoliers?


"The Library Policeman" is about 200 pages, and even it is roughly as long as Carrie.  As for "Secret Window, Secret Garden" ad "The Sun Dog," they're in the 150-page range, and there have been plenty of stories published as novels at that length; some even shorter.


So how come when we see a list of King's novels, they include The Colorado Kid but not "The Langoliers" and "Apt Pupil" and the other stories of comparable length which simply didn't have the benefit of being published as their own solitary titles.


I suspect it's to minimize semantic discussions like this one.


Golden Years  (1991)




I primarily remember two things about Golden Years: one, that I was very excited for there to be a new television series coming on that was written by Stephen King and was a brand-new story; and two, that I was absolutely heartbroken when it was canceled.

In fact, this was my introduction to the notion that a television series could BE canceled.  I'm sure I was aware of it as a theoretical concept, but it had never impacted me in any way before.  2012 Bryant knows all about it, having suffered through the brutal murder of shows such as Firefly and Deadwood, but 1991 Bryant had no idea.  So when the news eventually reached my ears that CBS simply wasn't going to make any more episodes of the show, I had to do some serious work to process the news.  "You mean," I gasped mentally, "they're just going to not finish the story?!?"  It was hard for me to believe.  

It's easier now.

It's still a shame that King wasn't able to finish telling his story, and I nurse hopes -- which will almost certainly never be fulfilled -- that he might someday be inspired to revisit the story, and rewrite the whole thing as a novel.  Clearly, it's a fine, workable idea, one that wasn't particularly well-executed in its original form ... but that doesn't mean the idea itself is bad.  It might even make for a good comic book series.

In any case, what we're left with is a mediocrity.  The only commercially-available version is the one that is an edited-down version of the original episodes, including a sequence at the end that was specifically filmed so that if the series was not renewed for a second season, a version released on video would have something that at least approximates an ending.  I bought that version when it was released on VHS, eager to see how the story ended, but it was obvious to me even then that the "ending" didn't really fit the story, and was something that was the fictional equivalent of a Band Aid.  If I recall correctly, King was not involved in the creation of that scene; it certainly doesn't feel much like his work.

My feelings about story are sharper today than they were then, and now I'd rather have no resolution at all than a resolution that doesn't work.  (I'm looking directly at you, Lost.)  For that reason, I'd love to see the original episodes be released on DVD some day.  Sure, the story just stops, but it's more satisfying than what we've got now.  Plus, about two hours worth of material was cut from the episodes in order to craft the "movie version."  The loss of that material created changes to the structure and pacing that worked against the story quite badly.

Golden Years was an experiment, and it wasn't a successful one, but it was good enough that the original versions still deserve to be seen by those who would enjoy seeing them.

Maybe someday that will happen.


The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands  (1991)


Roland's ka-tet gains its final major members in this slam-bang book, which is definitely one of the best of the series.  It's got a truly nightmarish haunted house, man's new best friend, demon sex, the worst train ride ever, a dude named Gasher, Godzilla-sized bears, and at least one riddle that would have Bilbo and Gollum teaming up to tear the riddler to shreds.  If that's not enough for you, then, brother or sister, you are on the wrong side of fun.


Needful Things  (1991)



A gleefully destructive satire, this novel is too long for its own good, and doesn't end as well as it probably ought to.  That's how I remember it, at least.  Truth be told, beyond that, I remember very little.  As with "The Sun Dog," I just can't peel back those veils of time very far at all; but that gives me something to look forward to for the reread.

Side note: I seem to be one of the only people who kinda likes the movie version.


Sleepwalkers  (1992)


Thinking back on it, I cannot figure out why I didn't go to see this movie.  I knew about it.  It played in Tuscaloosa.

So why didn't I go?  After all, I was as big a King fan then as I am now, and Sleepwalkers was a movie written by King himself!  Like Golden Years had been the year before, Sleepwalkers was essentially a brand-new novel by King, except there was no way to experience it other than to go to see the movie version.  And yet, I didn't go.

Not only that, I didn't buy the VHS when it came out.  I didn't even rent it!

I didn't get around to seeing it for years afterward, when I began collecting King's movies on DVD.

This seems very odd to me, and I'm not sure I have an explanation for it.

In any case, it's a genuinely terrible movie, so I don't know that I missed out on much.  I actually like the movie for a while, as everything is being set up; it isn't great or anything, but it's a passably good tale.  Then, at the point when Brian Krause turns into a villain, it just runs right off the rails and become ludicrous.


This began King's long association with director Mick Garris, who is a talentless hack.  They've made several movies together over the years (The Stand, The Shining, Desperation, and Bag of Bones), and I hate them all, but this one might actually the worst of the bunch.


Despite that, I'd love to have the screenplay issued in book form at some point.  Maybe it reads better than it watches.



Gerald's Game  (1992)


Twisted, sadistic, and rather kinky, this novel approaches being great but shoots itself in the foot with an ill-advised and pointless sojourn into the life of another King woman in distress, Dolores Claiborne (more of whom in a moment).  Despite this, it's a setup worthy of Hitchcock (who would surely have salivated at the thought of strapping a mostly-nude actress to a bed for months on end and then pointing a camera at her and demanding that she wriggle), and one that is grimly plausible.  The end sacrifices that plausibility for creepiness, but if the creepiness works on you as it did on me, you might not mind too much.  Overall, I think this is an imperfect, but underrated, novel.

Points off for the forced crossover with King's next-novel, Dolores Claiborne.

Dolores Claiborne  (1993)
 


I still don't care for the odd, forced crossover with Gerald's Game, but in this case, it doesn't matter at all: Dolores Claiborne is a great novel.  King is on fire here, creating one of his most vivid protagonists (who has had what one might charitably call a hard life) and spinning a tour-de-force of narrative point of view.  It's a relatively short novel, but one that is not grouped into chapters or sections; it even has virtually no pagebreaks, almost as if King is daring you, just daring you, to put the thing down.  

And you might not.  (Bonus points awarded for the associations the above cover might inadvertently bring about for someone who has read "1922" from Full Dark, No Stars.)


Nightmares & Dreamscapes  (1993)



A very long collection of short stories, this one has several that are great -- "The Night Flier," "Home Delivery," "Rainy Season," "Crouch End," "Umney's Last Case" -- but feels a bit like the third volume in what might should have just been a two-volume greatest-hits collection.  

It also feels a bit like a kitchen-sink-included affair, with the nonfiction essay "Head Down" being an entertaining, but misplaced, example.  Still, a lot here to love; any complaints I might have are mostly of the academic variety.


Feast of Fear: Conversations with Stephen King  (1993, edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller)



Another cash-grab.  

It's just as entertaining as the first one, though; just don't be fooled by the title, which suggests a Hitchcock/Truffaut-style book-length interview.  This isn't that, but someone should make that book a reality, stat.  Mr. King, if you happen to be reading this ... well, first of all, don't you have anything better to be doing?  (Heh.)  Secondly: might I suggest King/Burnette.  No real ring to that, but if need be, I can change my name to Hardcastle, or McCormick, or something.  Just a thought; you know how to reach me.

And by the way, cash-grabby publishers: isn't it about time to start churning these out again?  There are over twenty additional years' worth of interviews that it would be great to have in book form.  Just make sure Stephen King gets his fair share of the proceeds!




Insomnia  (1994)






Another cover that will put you to sleep quicker than eating a full turkey.

I don't think this novel works, not entirely.  However, I will say this: I've read it twice, and both times, it made me literally weep, and there are only a few novels that have ever managed that, all of them written either by Stephen King or Larry McMurtry.  So, that must mean something significant is going on here.  

In any case, it's an occasionally breathtaking bit of fantasy, and one that plays a hugely significant role in the Dark Tower universe.  In fact, it's one of the few books outside that series that I'd say are essential reading for its fans (the others being Black House and Hearts In Atlantis).

Rose Madder  (1995)



One of my absolute least-favorite books by King.

The domestic-abuse stuff is grim, and elicits a great deal of sympathy; but the supernatural elements feel like a cheat when laid next to them.  This would maybe -- maybe -- have worked as a short story, but as a novel, it falls apart.  

Some vague, and pointless, Dark Tower references do not help matters one bit.  It does, however, help give some added background for a supporting character who turns up again in a better novel (Desperation).


The Green Mile  (1996)



Published serially in six paperback installments, seemingly for no better reason than that he realized he'd never published a novel that way and decided, "Hey, why not?"  You'd have to give the guy props just for trying something so risky, when there was way more of a downside than there appeared to be an upside.  


I mean, seriously: what were the odds of it turning out to be one of the best novels he'd ever written?


Those were several truly thrilling months to be a Stephen King fan.  He was like the goddamn Beatles or something: hits all over the charts, one after another after another, the new ones seeming to actually give the older ones renewed strength.  What could have been a disaster turned out to be anything but: instead, King summoned up some of his most richly-drawn character to date, and then managed to build them all into a narrative that just plain works, from start to finish.

Reading the novel now as a single work can't replicate that delicious, maddening wait between installments; if you've never read it (or seen the excellent movie version), and if you've got the nerve, find used copies of the individual books and then read one of them every thirty days or so.  Trust me; you won't regret it.  It may drive you nuts with anticipation, but it's well worth doing.

Desperation (1996) and The Regulators  (by Richard Bachman, 1996)



Published on the same day merely a month after the triumphant conclusion of The Green Mile, this was another high-wire experiment: two novels, distinct but serving as mirror images of one another, or as alternate-universe versions of one another.  Neither one of them is particularly awesome, although they've both certainly got their charms: Desperation is overlong, but (as does The Green Mile) serves as a poignant work on the nature and rewards of faith, and while The Regulators ends up being maybe a bit too familiar, it's also a shorter, and nastier, bit of business.  Both are tangentially related to The Dark Tower, if you're keeping score at home, but neither adds much of note to that universe.

I'm of the opinion that they should be treated as two volumes of the same novel, and read back-to-back.  As for which order they ought to be read in, well, I don't know that it makes any difference ... but for what it's worth, I say start with Desperation simply because of the two, it's one King felt the need to put his own name upon.



The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass  (1997)


Oh, the memories I have of reading this novel.  It came along during a very specific moment in my life in which I was, shall we say, receptive to reading a long tale of doomed romance.  King has dealt with the love story a bit more often than you might at first think, and he's rarely, if ever, done it better than he did it here.  The flashbacks are terrific, but the sections set in the "current" story of Roland and his merry band of misfits also move the story along considerably (tying The Dark Tower to The Stand in the process).  

For many Tower fans, this was the highpoint of the series, although other fans have been known to express frustration with the due to the seeming lack of progress toward the Tower.  To those fans, I'd say this (and I'd feel very satisfied that the end of the series supported my argument): this story was never as much about reaching the Tower as it was about the process of doing so.  In Wizard and Glass, you find out a great deal about why Roland wants so badly to go there, and why he is willing to do seemingly anything in order to make it happen, and as such, it feels like an awfully momentous point in the series.  Why anyone would want to fly right past it is a mystery to me.


But hey, that's just me.


Six Stories  (1997)





Never heard of this collection, you say?  Is it freaking you out a little because you're suddenly afraid you've been missing out on something?


If so, I don't blame you, because that was certainly my first reaction.  However, take comfort in the knowledge that of the six stories contained in this limited edition, five were eventually released as a part of the collection Everything's Eventual, and the sixth was revised and incorporated into Hearts In Atlantis.


So settle down; breathe.  There's no need to freak out.


But do I wish I had a copy of this.


Oh, yeah; you bet I do.






Bag of Bones  (1998)





First Wizard and Glass, then Bag of Bones: who'd've ever thunk Stephen King would publish two romance novels in a row?  I mean, sure, they're the type of romance novels where people are constantly getting murdered, sometimes by supernatural beings ... but romance is romance.

This romance novel features a somewhat inappropriate love connection, some serious heartbreak, and ghosts, and do you know what?  I didn't read this novel until 2011.  Yep, that's right; it had been out for tirteen years before I finally cracked it open and gave it a read.  

I bought it in hardback as soon as it was published, of course, but for whatever reason, I opted to listen to the audiobook instead; King narrated it himself, so I didn't feel too far disconnected from the source, but still, technically speaking, I owned a Stephen King novel for thirteen years before I read it. Shocking!  

I finally read it in preparation for last year's two-night television adaptation, and let me tell you this: reading the book right beforehand did the movie no favors at all.  It's a damn fine novel, and the movie would have been hard-pressed to live up to it under any circumstances; in the case of this one, it seemed like nobody even tried to live up to the novel.

I digress.

In my mind, Bag of Bones marked the moment where the culture began to genuinely take Stephen King seriously, at least in terms of mainstream tastes.  It had been brewing for a few years: the massive critical success of Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption was a big part of the process, and the daredevil success -- critical and commercial alike -- of The Green Mile was another contributor.  However, it seemed to finally crystallize in Bag of Bones, which found a good number of critics seemingly saying to themselves, "Hmm, maybe there's something to this King fellow after all."  

Five years after that, King was accepting a National Book Award, and nine years after that -- today -- King's reputation is more or less solidified.  Sure, you can and do still find dissenting opinions, but on the whole, he's accepted as an artistically-important contributor to American culture of the past half-century.

Bag of Bones, I think, was a key part of that process.


The Little Sisters of Eluria  (1998)



Later collected in Everything's Eventual, "The Little Sisters of Eluria" made its first appearance in Robert Silverberg's outstanding collection of new fantasy novellas, and as you can see, he was in good company.  Most of the heavy-hitters of the genre were represented, including -- amongst those whose names were not quite big enough to need to be on the cover -- Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card, and Mr. Game of Thrones himself, George R.R. Martin.

King's contribution was a novella set within the Dark Tower universe, and it's a very solid tale of Roland's younger days.  It takes place after the events related during the flashback sections of Wizard and Glass, but before the events of The Gunslinger.

Were Dark Tower fans happy to get even so brief a return to Mid-World at the time?  Can't speak for everyone; I certainly was pleased by it, though.  It had been a six-year wait between Books III and IV, and we had no way of knowing how long it might be before Book V rolled around.  So yes, we were pleased; you better believe we were.


Storm of the Century  (1999)



The first -- and, so far, only -- full screenplay King has made available commercially, this is (obviously) based on the three-part miniseries of the same name.

About that: I love the miniseries, and I'd have to say that Storm of the Century is handily the best film King has ever written.  It's maybe not quite the equal to his best novels, but it's handily the equal of novels on the next rung down (i.e., not as good as The Stand but just as good as Under the Dome).   

I haven't read a huge number of screenplays in my life, but I bet I've read close to a hundred or so, and in terms of sheer readability, this one is easily one of the best.  If you've never read one, it can be a frustrating experience; depending on the writer, it may consist of very little other than dialogue.  King writes extensive stage directions, though, and in all of those you can hear his love for prose shining through.  And yet, they are very functional as stage directions, because they are doing what they ought to do: letting the director and performers know the intent of the scene.

Under no circumstances should you read this before seeing the miniseries, but after you have, it's well worth your time.  (And say, Steve, why not publish the Rose Red screenplay at some point while you're at it?  And Sleepwalkers, and Maximum Overdrive, and Golden Years, and Kingdom Hospital...)

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon  (1999)



King has never made a secret of the fact that he is a massive baseball fan, and the closest he has yet come to writing a baseball novel -- I'm not counting Blockade Billy as a novel -- is this slender tome, which is all about a little girl lost in the woods who, as a means of keeping herself sane, imagines her favorite player is watching over her.


This novel is not my cup of tea.  However, I give its author all the credit in the world for not resting on his laurels, and writing something that he had to figure a decent number of his normal readers would just kinda shrug at.


I've got no data of any kind, but I imagine that the novel earned him a fair number of new readers from the large pool of adolescent girls who would have been looking for something new to read at the time.




Hearts In Atlantis  (1999)





Is this a novel?  A short-story collection?  Some hybrid of the two?  Does it matter?  The answers are I don't know, I don't know, probably, and no.  Whatever it is, it's great.  "Low Men In Yellow Coats" is a corker, a finely sentimental tale of a young boy, an old man, and some really weird dudes who drive flashy cars and wear yellow dusters.  It really shouldn't work at all, but it does, in spades.  The title story is good, too, a tale of Vietnam-era college kids who are running themselves right over a cliff; the rest of the stories spin out from these two, in surprising and sometimes heartbreaking ways.  It's an odd novel/collection, but is it worth your time?  Oh, yes; most definitely.  Also: major Dark Tower connections.


Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction of the Craft of Writing  (2000)



This grab-bag collection was only published by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and a huge chunk of it is merely a reprint of a section from Danse Macabre, but there are also a few good essays in it that are not readily available elsewhere.  Overall, it feels like something that was hastily thrown together as a means of capitalizing on the buzz that On Writing was expected to generate.  I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I'd bet that King himself had minimal involvement in the editing of this particular collection.

Someday, King should carve out a bit of time from his undoubtedly hectic schedule and devote it to putting together two or three really choice volumes of his short nonfiction.  The best of it is extremely good, and much of it is not widely available.  Secret Windows could have been that, but sadly, it isn't.

Track it down used if you're a completist; otherwise, don't feel too bad about not being able to trot out to a store and buy a copy.


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  (2000)




Ostensibly a style guide, this is actually quite good on that count (he said, having only Ray Bradbury's also-quite-good Zen in the Art of Writing as a comparison).  

However, the real reason you want to read this book is because it's got a lot of autobiography in it, including a harrowing retelling of the accident that nearly claimed King's life in 1999.  

I really don't have much to say about On Writing, except this: read it.  By all means, read it.


The Planet: Zenith Rising  (2000)





Not only is this an epistolary novel, it was also published serially, and online.  AND it is apparently never going to be completed, all of which makes The Plant an oddity.  Speaking of oddities, I'm sure I'm not the only person to print the pages out, double-sided, and then take the manuscript to a bindery whom I paid money to create a custom hardback format.  Is it weird for me to have done that?  Does it make me seem a bit too much like Annie Wilkes?  Nah; it only cost, like, $15 (plus whatever the segments cost to purchase online individually), and now I can sit the book on my King-shelf (fine, shelves) along with all the others.  And it's not a bad book; nowhere near as good a serial as The Green Mile, but I was looking forward to seeing how it all turned out.  Who knows, maybe someday...

The Plant actually began its life in the '80s, when over the course of several years, King sent out privately-published segment of the story as Christmas gifts to friends and colleagues.  Only three segments were ever produced that way, but when King decided to try his hand at publishing a novel electronically, he apparently resurrected that tale and had a go at finishing it.  It's unknown -- at least to me -- how heavily he may have revised the previously-issued segments.

Back in 2000, e-books were not unheard-of commodities, but at the time The Plant was released that way, King's experiment was far and away the most significant e-book exclusive release.  He'd previously released a short novella, "Riding the Bullet," in that fashion, and it had performed so well for Amazon.com that it literally crashed the company's servers so high was the demand.  The Plant did not perform AS well, but it was relatively successful, and today King is seen as having been a significant player in the legitimization of e-books.


Dreamcatcher  (2001)


Not one of my favorite King novels; not even close.  I think the first, say, 200 pages are terrific: King's prose is strong, his setup is strong, and his characters are strong.  At some point around the appearance of Mr. Gray, though, he sorta loses control of things, and the novel never recovers from it.  I hate all the military stuff, and I hate Duddits (sheesh), and on the whole, this is not by any means what I would call a good novel.  

But at that point in time, King fans we all very, very happy just to have a new novel by King, regardless of its quality level.  He wrote it longhand while still recovering from the near-fatal accident he suffered in 1999, and the novel is fairly dripping with pain and agony.  As such, it makes for an interesting piece of autobiographically-informed fiction, and hey, who knows: you might like it more than I did.

Black House  (2001, with Peter Straub)



A years-in-the-making sequel to The Talisman, this one is better than that one, at least as far as this Constant Reader is concerned.  The Black House itself is appealingly creepy, and there's some good serial killer stuff, as well as some highly pertinent crossovers with The Dark Tower that make this near-compulsory reading for anybody reading that series.  

To answer one question Towerphiles might potentially have, yes, it is very much possible to read this without reading The Talisman.  However, you'll get more out of it if you just knuckle down and read The Talisman first.


King and Straub apparently have plans for a third and final book in what will then be a Jack Sawyer trilogy.  No word on when they might actually get around to writing it, though.




Rose Red  (2002)



While talking about Storm of the Century, I stated that I'd like to see the screenplay for Rose Red be released at some point.  And that's absolutely true; I would.

However, that does not mean that I feel Rose Red is anywhere near as good as Storm of the Century is; I don't.  In fact, it only barely qualifies as "good" in my book.  The acting is uneven (a few great performances, a few terrible ones, and a lot of mediocre ones), and while there is some solid suspense and intrigue of the haunted-house variety, it never manages to come together.

That said, it has its moments, and the concept of the house itself is a terrific one.  Worth seeing, provided you do so with lowered expectations.


The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer: My Life at Rose Red  (2002, written by Riddley Pearson)





Know this right up front: Stephen King did not write this novel.  So, you may be asking, why include it here?  It's a fair question, and I've got two answers:

One: because it makes for a good, and fairly essential, companion piece to King's movie Rose Red.

And, two: since elements of it are discussed in Rose Red, I feel reasonably confident in assuming that whereas the book was ghost-written by novelist Riddley Pearson, King surely must have had substantial input into the story.  It feels like an honorary King novel, if not quite a proper King novel.  Allegedly, Rose Red was based by King upon an unpublished work of his, so it's possible that elements of that work might be what Pearson was working from.  Or I may be missing the mark by a wide margin.  For now, there is no way to know, but my intuition tells me that King had significant involvement of one type of another here.

With that in mind, including it on this list seemed like the right thing to do.


Everything's Eventual  (2002)




A good short story collection, this one has the highly-regarded (and O. Henry Award-winning) tale "The Man in the Black Suit," as well as a gem of a haunted hotel story, "1408."  Really, every story in it is pretty good.  The title story has serious Dark Tower connections, King's pioneering e-story "Riding the Bullet" is here, too.  All things considered, you can't go wrong reading this one.




From a Buick 8  (2002)



Personally, I think this is a great novel.  It is (sigh) yet another work that crosses over with the Dark Tower, but only in a subtle, nonintrusive way; it doesn't detract from the story in the slightest.  Using a multiple-narrator technique (which is preserved be employing multiple readers in the excellent audiobook version), King tells what seems on the surface like it might be a retread of Christine; it isn't, and in any case, this novel is a damn sight better than that one.  Primarily, it is a story of memory, and features some of King's best prose to date.  Around this time, people were wondering if the master had maybe lost his touch a bit, and as far as I was concerned, this answered, loudly, in the negative.

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger  (2003, revised edition)



Note the slight difference in the titles between this revised version and the original.  Mostly, it's the same old stark tale, a fine beginning to an epic fantasy, but there are certainly some added elements that make it worth checking out.  If you were reading the series from the beginning starting today, I think I would recommend that you begin with this revised version, and maybe save the original as a tasty treat for afterward, a sorta makeshift Book VIII.  (Although I suppose you'd need to say Book IX, now that The Wind Through the Keyhole has arrived.)  

Or, if you're so inclined, you could read this revised version as a Book IX.  Or simply skip the original edition altogether.  

Your call, pard.


The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla  (2003)




I may as well admit it: when the news broke during the summer of 1999 that Stephen King had been run over on the side of the road, and his survival was not a given, one of the first thoughts to go through my head was to be fearful that I'd never get to read the end of The Dark Tower?  Would Roland ever reach it?  Would anyone survive to make it there with him?  Would he die, leaving Susannah and Eddie and Jake to solider on without him?  So many questions, all of them threatening to be forever unanswerable.  It wasn't by any means the only reason to hope King survived, but I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that it was one of the biggest of my own personal reasons.

So, bearing in mind that it had been six years since the previous installment, and that the appearance on a fifth volume was literally in mortal jeopardy, it's fair to say that my anticipation level for Wolves of the Calla was nothing short of tremendous.

At that time, I was -- along with most of my closest friends -- utterly addicted to buying DVDs.  One of my near-weekly rituals was to go to Walmart at midnight on new-release day (Tuesday, which means Monday night) and pester the stockers for whatever the week's big new releases were, assuming they were movies I wanted to buy.


One of my friends, whom I had successfully turned into a Tower junkie, and I decided to try this midnight-shopping method as a means of obtaining Wolves of the Calla a few hours earlier than we'd otherwise have been able to do.  And, amazingly, it worked!


So, at midnight, I sat down and began -- finally! -- reading a new Dark Tower novel.


I'd be -- again -- a liar if I told you that I wasn't disappointed with what I read.  I was disappointed.  Oh, don't get me wrong; it was, ad is, a good novel.  Maybe even a great one.  But some part of me was convinced that it was going to be the best novel that had ever been written, and so of course, it was a letdown compared to that.


But there's a lot to love here, including malicious androids, Harry Potter references, a Gray Dick, killer dinner plates, badass priests, oversized retarded people, and vampire flashbacks.  It's a long novel, and Roland does dance during at least one scene, and I suppose you can say that not a whole hell of a lot happens ... but I like the characters so much, I don't really care.  Low point in the series?  Arguably; but that don't make it bad, and subsequent rereads have increased my enjoyment level substantially.  I'd wager that new readers to the series, who don't have to wait over half a decade for their next fix, will be much more impressed than I was initially.


Kingdom Hospital  (2004)




Having tried his hand at crafting a television series once before with less-than-successful results (Golden Years), it was maybe sheer optimism to think that things could turn out better on a second go-round.

Well ... I'd argue that in some ways they turned out better, whereas in some they turned out worse.  On a technical level, Kingdom Hospital is accomplished in a way that Golden Years was not; changes within the television industry in the previous decade had made that a foregone conclusion.  On the storytelling level, though, I prefer Golden Years, which has a compelling setup for its story, whereas Kingdom Hospital never manages that feat.  That said, by the time its thirteen episodes are concluded, Kingdom Hospital has come to a relatively satisfying conclusion, whereas that was obviously never the case with Golden Years.

So, all things considered, Kingdom Hospital probably IS the more artistically successful of the two.  I've just got a soft spot for Golden Years, what can I say?

Based on a Danish television miniseries -- Riget (translated: The Kingdom) -- that was directed and co-written by noted arthouse filmmaker Lars Von Trier, Kingdom Hospital is set in a haunted hospital, where the doctors are crazier than the patients.  It's primary problems are that it never manages to properly find the balance that it wants to strike between humor and horror, and also that it never manages to find a way to be both an episodic series and an ongoing story.  It is caught somewhere inbetween, and works as neither.

However, the series has numerous good moments strewn amongst its thirteen episodes, and overall, I'd say it rewards patience, at least for hardcore King fans.

Sidebar: as with Rose Red and The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer, Kingdom Hospital had a tie-in ghost-written novel.  This one is called The Journals of Eleanor Druse: My Investigations of the Kingdom Hospital Incident, and it was written by Richard Dooling (himself a key contributor to the television series).  So, you might be asking, why not include that novel here?  The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer was included, so why not The Journals of Eleanor Druse?

Well, with Ellen Rimbauer, it feels to me like a novel that received significant story input from King; he might not have written it himself, but he still feels at least partially present in the plotting and in the details.  That, of course, is pure surmise on my part, but hey, this is my blog and my list, so I get to make the rules.

With Eleanor Druse, I simply don't feel any of that.  It's by no means a bad novel, but it doesn't feel to me as though King had anything substantial to do with it.  Again, this is pure conjecture on my part.  However, the story of the novel is not reflected in the series, at least not to the same degree it is in the case of Rose Red and Ellen Rimbauer; The Journals of Eleanor Druse plays out almost entirely as a prequel to Kingdom Hospital, and a mostly unconnected one at that.  Because of that, the official Honk Mahfah stance is that King had virtually no involvement with The Journals of Eleanor Druse, and therefore it is not being included here.  (And never you mind the fact that I just wrote three paragraphs about it!)


The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah  (2004)



If you haven't given up on the series once some of this installment's plot twists are unveiled, then you're probably going to enjoy the last book, too.  Some people did give up on the series after this installment.  Personally, I was taken aback initially by the appearance of one key character, but once I'd had time to process it, it made almost perfect sense, and lent a weight to the story that is unlike anything else I can think of in fantasy literature.

My personal opinion is that of the seven books in the series, this one is the worst.


And yet, it's still awesome.




The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower  (2004)




Beware spoilers in this section.  I won't give away the ending, but I'm going to say a couple of things you might theoretically not want to know.

I'll give you some room to bail out.

10

9

8
7

6

5

4

3

2

1

0


You want to know what disappoints me about this novel?  The title.  I get it, and it's kinda cool, but I also wish it had its own title, and allowed it to stand apart a bit more.  (For example: The Dark Tower VII: The Deathly Hallows.  I mean, not literally THAT title, but ... ah, you get it.)

You know what else disappointed me about this novel?  The fact that Roland didn't summon an army of superpowered King characters such as Carrie White and Charlie McGee and John Coffey and John Smith and Danny Torrance and Jack Sawyer and then take them into battle against the Crimson King.  I was convinced that that was where it was all headed, and in that assumption, I was incorrect.  It was especially disappointing to me that Jack Sawyer didn't show up; King and Straub all but promised it in Black House!  (Spoilers, lol!)  

That said, this is an awesome novel, and if you are one of the people who don't like the ending -- or, even worse, one of the douches who actually stopped reading where Stephen King "recommended" that you stop -- then your opinions are worthless to me.  

Prepare yourself for some serious heartbreak before you start reading this book, for it will definitely head in that direction.
And the ending...?  Perfection.


Faithful  (2004, with Stuart O'Nan)




This is -- depending on how you look at it -- the only Stephen King book I never finished reading.  To be fair, I'm not a baseball fan; in fact, I detest the game.  And to be even further fair, I did read all of King's segments, which I found to be involving and well-written.  There are lots of things in life that I don't care about, and if Stephen King wrote about them as well as he writes about baseball here, I'd be thrilled to read about them.  A good writer will make his readers interested in things they don't typically care about; in this case, I wasn't interested in baseball, but I was interested in Stephen King's interest in it.  It might seem like a minor distinction, but it isn't; it's a major one.

O'Nan, on the other hand, just began to annoy me at some point, and I eventually began just skipping his segments altogether.  

Unless you're a baseball fan, or a major King completist, you can steer clear of this one.

Sidebar: one of the more frustrating shopping experiences of my life involved trying to find a copy of this book on its release day.  I went to a Book-A-Million, expecting to be able to find it more or less at whim, but could not locate it anywhere.  Assuming that I was an idiot and simply looking in the wrong place, I asked someone at the Customer Service desk where I might find a copy.  She looked at me blankly, having never heard of the novel.  She tried to look it up.  "Who wrote it again?"she asked.  I told here.  "Keane?" she tried to clarify.

That's right.  The clerk at the Books-A-Million had never heard of Stephen King.

I drove from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham to solve this particular problem.


The Colorado Kid  (2005) 



A crime novel with (arguably) no crime in it, this is a weird little novel that satisfied virtually nobody.  But it's not bad; the story doesn't amount to much, but the style is fun, and I enjoyed the crusty-old-newsmen aspect of it all.  Truth be told, though, I remember very little about it, and hell, that was only seven years ago!  Not one of the brighter stars in the Kingverse.

The television series Haven is loosely based on this novel, and when I say "loosely," I'm being generous.  As far as I can tell, they've got nothing whatsoever to do with each other.  It appears to me to have been an attempt to simply cash in on King's name being on a television series, and I suppose it must have worked reasonably well: the show's third season will air this year.  It's a mediocre show, with likeable actors in the three main roles, and occasional amusing Stephen King references (such as a kid in a yellow rain slicker sailing a paper boat down a storm gutter), and not much else to recommend it.




Cell  (2006)



King's spin on the zombie tale is also an end-of-the-world sci-fi tale, and one that goes into some mighty strange directions.  Personally, I enjoyed the hell out of it.  The ending struck me as being appropriate and haunting, and the horror scenes were some of King's best in many a year.  The cell-phone aspect already seems incredibly dated, but that's okay; it'll hardly be alone in that regard, as far as novels from 2006 go.

King had given an interview during the lead-up to the publication of the final trio of Dark Tower books that indicated he might be retiring from publishing once they were complete and on shelves.  This made King's fans mighty nervous, and while the appearance of books like Faithful and The Colorado Kid seemed to indicate that we were worried needlessly, it was hard to be sure.

Happily, the appearance of Cell seemed to refute the rumors definitively.

And that's how a blood-soaked end-of-the-world tale can sometimes be a happy thing!


Lisey's Story  (2006)



Not a fan.  

At all.  Which bums me out on general principle, but even moreso because King himself seems to feel as proud of it as he feels of any book he's written, so when I saw that I dislike it, I kinda feel like a dickhole.  But hey, at least I'm an honest dickhole.

And to be fair, about a third of the novel is utterly terrific ... but that third (the backstory of the title character's deceased husband) is spread throughout the book, and the other two thirds are rambling at best, and irritating at worst.  The private-language stuff is just awful (I am truly glad the word "smucking" never caught on like "frakking" did), and while some of the fantasy elements reach into some interesting areas, they seem as out of place as similar scenes seemed in Rose Madder.  At least that novel was short; this one feels as if it may never end.  One feels that it was a very important, and highly personal, novel for King, but in this reader's opinion, it's not a success.

To be fair, I've disliked King novels before only to find myself loving them when I revisited them years later.  This was my experience with Cujo, with Roadwork, and with The Tommyknockers.

Maybe it'll be the case with this one, too.


Blaze  (2007, as Richard Bachman)



This is one of King's infamous early novels that went unpublished for years, and it's fairly easy to see why.  The writing is weak (despite having apparently been revised extensively for this publication), and the story not terribly gripping.  Still, I've read many worse novels, several of them by King himself, and if the publishers find more unpublished work by ole Dickie Bachman, I'll be thrilled to read them.  Sword in the Darkness, say, or The Cannibals.  Yep, that'd be just fine by me.


The Best American Short Stories 2007  (2007)




Thus far the only collection of short stories edited by King, this collection probably doesn't belong here.  But doggone it, you know what?  I felt like including it.

I've never read it, which makes me a bad Stephen King fan, and possibly also a bad person in general.

Be better than me: read it.
Duma Key  (2008)



Not only can this be considered a return to form for King after a couple of (arguably) less-than-exemplary novels, I think this can also be considered one of the better novels in the man's career to date.  It is an absolute triumph, with a great protagonist, many highly effective scenes of horror, and a laudably downbeat sensibility.  I also love the setting.  It seems obvious that King had a blast writing this novel, and I damn sure had a blast reading it.  It'll make a great movie someday, too, one hopes.  Fancasting wishlist: Bryan Cranston and Jimmy Smits.  Snap to it, Hollywood!

Sidebar: nearly a decade after his near-fatal accident, King -- understandably -- still seemed to be exorcising those ghosts, and so Edgar, this novel's protagonist, has gone through a near-fatal accident of his own.  As such, Duma Key positively reeks of pain and agony and despair, not in a dissimilar way to Dreamcatcher, but with far more compelling results this time.




Just After Sunset  (2008)



What the hell is up with that out-of-focus dust-jacket?  Terrible.  



The paperback isn't much better.  Were they trying to get people to not buy the book?!?  Sheesh...

The stories in this collection, however, are mostly terrific.  Several -- "N.," "A Very Tight Place," "Willa," "Graduation Day" -- are instant King classics.  Some of the others are less great, but none of them are bad, and once again, King has proven to be excellent with the form.

Frankly, it's admirable of King to have kept writing short stories at all over the years.  As much as a guy like him gets paid for a new novel, you've got to figure there are accountants somewhere keeping track of exactly how much money he loses every time he cranks out a short story or -- worse -- a novella.  If I'm being honest with myself, I've got to admit that as far as the short form goes, King seems to have lost a bit of speed off of his fastball since the days of Night Shift and Skeleton Crew.  Back then, it seemed like nine stories out of ten were instant classics, whereas today it's a bit more like two or three out of ten.

But that still translates to a LOT of classics, and there are very few duds in the mix.  Personally, I'd love to continue seeing three or four short stories from King per year until the year 2042 or so.


Stephen King Goes to the Movies  (2009)






You know how every once in a while, some bad you love will put out a poorly-conceived and utterly pointless collection of previously-released songs, with one or two b-sides tossed into the mix just to make it seem like something you need to buy?


That's the sort of thing Stephen King has almost totally avoided over the course of his career, which makes this collection even more of a head-scratcher than it already was.


If you heard the title alone, you might be forgiven for assuming it was a Danse Macabre-like nonfiction piece King had written about movies.  Sadly, that's not the case; it's merely a collection of King stories -- two of them arguably long enough to be published separately as novels in their own right -- which have been turned into movies, along with commentary about said movies by King.


Sadly, even the commentary pieces aren't enough to pay cover price for this turkey.  They are very short, most of them scarcely more than a page in length, and while King does have a few interesting things to say, if you spend more than about a quarter on this, you will have overspent.


How odd...


Under the Dome  (2009)





A great, loooong novel full of sci-fi weirdness and good characters, this one is evidence that King's imagination is apparently not going to stop until his heart does.  Maybe they're the same thing.  

My biggest beef: even though my mind believes that Big Jim could be exist in real life (and that plenty of equivalents to him DO exist in real life), I have a hard time believing in him on paper, and his dunce of a "boss" is even worse.  They don't kill the novel, but they don't do it any huge favors, either.  This is a fairly politically-minded novel and while King's personal politics and my own match up relatively well, I was still a bit disappointed for this novel to lean so explicitly to the left.  Big Jim and Andy -- realistic though they may be -- come as some liberal's cartoonish idea of right-wing villainy, and I'd've appreciated a more even-handed approach.  King mitigates this somewhat through supporting characters, but it works only a bit.

My second-biggest beef: "Barbie."  Really?!?  Why, Steve?  Why?  Couldn't we have just called him Dale?!?
But stacked against the rest of the novel, particularly the apocalyptic final act, those are mild complaints; this one was massively entertaining from start to finish, and features the world's best ever scene written from the point of view of a woodchuck.

Sidebar: King tried to write a version of this novel twice before, once in the seventies, and once in the eighties.  The second attempt was called The Cannibals, and was set in an apartment building that residents found themselves trapped inside.  King apparently got a good 400 pages into that one before it folded in on itself and became unconcludable.  Prior to the release of Under the Dome, two lengthy excerpts from The Cannibals were released for download on King's website.  They were scans of the original manuscript, complete with handwritten revisions and everything, and I have to tell you: I loved reading those.  The novel may never have quite come together -- not until being resurrected as Under the Dome, at least -- but what remains of it seems to be highly readable.

Just think how many similarly readable "failed" works must be junking up King's basement, or attic, or wherever.  I'm sure some of it genuinely is unworthy of a reader's eyes, but if those excerpts from The Cannibals are any indication, even King's failures are better than many authors' successes.


Blockade Billy  (2010)





Nothing more than a short story given a hardback release.  And a fairly mediocre short story, at that.  The ultimate revelation is uninspiring, and while I enjoyed the story well enough, it's not one I hold any special love for.  And, Steve: "Granny"?  Really?  Seriously, man, you've got to drop this particularly odd new obsession with giving men female nicknames.  

Note to collectors: the original hardback contained only the title story, but mass market versions also included "Morality," another short story, and a better one.


American Vampire: Volume One  (2010, with Scott Snyder; art by Rafael Albuquerque)



King's first substantial foray into writing comic books is as a hired hand: the series was created by writer Scott Snyder, and King wrote the backup stories which appeared in the first five issues.  King apparently had considerable creative license, but let's have no doubt about it: he was working for Snyder here.  

Because of that, we're seeing King in an interesting and unfamiliar light, and it's surprising how well it turned out.  Snyder's style is close enough to King's own that King seems to have been able to disappear into it fairly completely, and the result is a fine horror/Western hybrid that manages to feel of a singular piece.  This might not have been the case; the fact that it is is cause for celebration, and it's also cause to hope for King to go solo and write his own comic series some day.

The series has continued without King since those initial five issues, of course, and Snyder has gone on to become one of the brightest tales working in the comics industry today.  As of the writing of this post, he is pulling triple duty: still working on American Vampire for Vertigo, and doing stellar work for DC on both Batman and Swamp Thing.




Full Dark, No Stars  (2010)



Summed up, this collection of novellas might best described as a set of tales involving the lengths men will go to to screw over women, and the lengths women will go to in order to avoid being screwed over.  

All four stories are good, but I was blown away by "1922," which is, if not an outright masterpiece, then very close to it.  It's as horrifying as anything King has ever written, and that's saying something.  King's narrative voice is also particularly strong here.

"Big Driver" and "A Good Marriage" are also quite good; "Fair Extension," which is really just a short story, is the weakest of the bunch, but it also casts a spell of the darkest hue.

The 2011 paperback edition added a story, "Under the Weather," which serves as a fitting coda to the collection.  Technically speaking, it isn't a part of the collection (it isn't listed in the table of contents), but don't let that worry you none; it's well worth reading.

11/22/63  (2011)



I was totally jazzed for this novel from the second I heard about it: a time-travel novel about a guy trying to prevent the Kennedy assassination sounded like an awesome idea for a novel, and it sounded SO out of the ordinary for King compared to his typical subject matter, I felt like it might end up being something special.

Well, I was right about that.  As far as I'm concerned, it was King's best novel since ... oh, Wizard and Glass, let's say, so nearly fifteen years.

Turns out, of course, that it's not AS atypical as it sounded like it might be on first mention.  In fact, it fits in -- tonally, thematically, and otherwise -- with the rest of King's career just fine.

As with Under the Dome, 11/22/63 finds King revisiting an idea he'd first tried to use in the seventies.  He's said that he seems to be clearing out the idea drawer a bit lately, and if novels like those are the result, then I hope there are plenty more ideas that need clearing out from that drawer.  It seems to be working awfully well.

By the way, for the record: I'm convinced this novel has tie-ins with The Dark Tower.  King says he purposefully kept references to that series out, but I'm thinking that was to avoid confusing what he correctly felt would be a large audience composed of people who don't typically read his books; for those of us already in the know, I think the hints are all there.


The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole  (2012)



Just when I think I couldn't possibly have more of a man-crush on Stephen King, he announces he's written a new Dark Tower novel.  God bless you, sir; God bless you.

It is still a couple of weeks away from mass-market publication, but I was lucky enough to get one of the limited editions from Grant, and therefore got to read it a couple of months before most other fans.  I say this not to brag, but simply to prove -- to myself, maybe -- that sometimes, being me is a pretty okay-doke thing.

I won't spoil anything for anyone, so suffice it to say this: I was not disappointed in any way.  It isn't spoiling anything to say that the book takes place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, and it's not spoiling anything to say that due to that chronological setting, the bulk of the tale consists of another flashback to Roland's youth.  I suppose some Towerphiles might theoretically be let down by this, but most will almost certainly relish the return to Mid-World.  I certainly did.

What we've got here is an almost wholly-successful fantasy tale, and while by definition it can't change much of anything about the series as we know it, it does suggest that there is at least a possibility that King will, over the remainder of his career, continue to sketch in the backstory of Roland and his fellow Gunslingers, and possibly tell tales of other Mid-World adventurers, too.

If so, he'll get my applause every single time.

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County  (2012)



King has worked in virtually every other medium, so it was only a matter of time before he tried his hand at a musical.  Happily, he settled for writing the book ("book" here being industry jargon for the text, the musical equivalent of a screenplay), and allowing John Mellencamp to handle the music.  Ghost Brothers of Darkland County has been in the works for a decade or so, and finally opened in April 2012 in Atlanta.  It's April 10 as I write this, and sitting in a drawer is a ticket to the April 10 performance.  Sadly, due to financial circumstances, I'm not in a position to take the trip to Atlanta and use that ticket.  I tried to give it away, but couldn't find any takers.

Ah, well, such is life.

A soundtrack CD is supposedly in the works, and also a deluxe three-disc package which will have a radio-drama version that was produced in the studio and features talent such as Elvis Costello.  Hopefully, King's book will be included in that package.  Either way, they'll be selling me one.

*****

And that, my friends and fellow Constant Readers, brings us up to date.  As always seems to be the case, there is more on the horizon: 2013 will be bringing us Doctor Sleep, a sequel King has written to The Shining.  And just this weekend, King announced the title of the next novel after THAT: Joyland, which is apparently about an amusement-park serial killer.  No word on the release date as yet.

It's a great time to be a Stephen King fan.

But then, what time ISN'T?

4 comments:

  1. Wow, that's a real mouthful. I must have spent a good whole hour and a half (including snack breaks etc.) just getting around to writing this.

    I won't even attempt to summarize everything and just stick to a few small points.

    I understand how The Stand doesn't hold up as much. I held off reading it for a long time because of the generated hype it got, and when I cracked it open at last nothing jumped off the page at me, except maybe for the villain and some of the other characters.

    I guess the ending is a bit of a letdown, which is why I thought it would be funny if Walter were to subject them to The Running Man game for a more action packed ending. The way I saw it was Larry and Ralph would make their way to the outskirts of Vegas only to be cornered by the Trashcan Man which allows Flagg to catch up, there's a confrontation culminating in what may or may not be the hand of God setting off the nuclear device. A bit long maybe, but you got to admit at least that resolution sounds like it's earned.

    As for the politics of The Stand. I don't know if anyone has ever thought of this, but as I've said before, for me it all comes from the Sixties. For me that decade is in some ways the Real Dark Tower looming over King's fiction, and it's reflected not just in obvious works like Atlantis or Dead Zone or 11/22/63 but also books like the stand. Those committee meetings are little more than King the anti-war student emerging from the depths of memory.

    That's just my opinion anyway, it's where the majority of his horror material comes from to my way of thinking.

    ChrisC

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  2. The thing about the resolution of "The Stand" is, I get why the people who love it love it. In theory, it's a thematically sound ending: evil defeats itself. It just doesn't quite work dramatically for me. It's still a great novel.

    You make an excellent point about the political scenes being hugely steeped in the campus politics of the sixties. I wasn't there for it, but based on context, it certainly seems right.

    Along those same lines, part of what makes "The Dead Zone" work so well is the idea of Johnny Smith, a la Rip Van Winkle, going to sleep in what, politically, is still the sixties, only to wake up in the seventies. It's a big part of the downbeat tone of that novel.

    I suspect that there's a great book waiting to be written about politics in King's fiction. I'll happily read it when it comes out.

    Speaking of reading things, thanks for reading this ludicrously long-winded post!

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  3. My God, this post is epic. How did you pull this off?

    I agree about "1922." I can't believe how underrated that one is. And this is the first I've heard that I'm missing one by having only the hardcover of "Full Dark No Stars." I'll have to track down "Under the Weather."

    Got to agree with those last sentiments, as well - great time to be a SK fan but when hasn't it been! Since he came on my radar in the early 80s, he has just had an embarrassingly fine run of stories. I liken his work to an epic mountain range - some dips here and there, and maybe some trails that are more of a pain in the ass than others - but overall, whew. Purple Mountain Majesty and all that.

    We'll agree to disagree on "Dreamcatcher." I really love the language and sweep of that one. (From talking to a lot of other King fans, I might be the only one, hah)

    I could go on - and probably should, you've given us an embarrassment of riches, here, for discussion, and I feel like I'm shorting you by stopping, but alas, work and other duties beckon... thanks for this, though, great stuff.

    p.s. Watching Kingdom Hospital now and it's not been what I expected at all. Very weird - compelling, but weird. Still got 4 episodes to go, so I'm looking forward to see how/if it ties up.

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  4. Heh. Yeah, writing this post definitely took some energy... It was fun, though!

    On the subject of "Kingdom Hospital": I think you'll enjoy how well it turns out. I've got problems with that show, but they mostly involve some of the weird semi-comic elements, and some of the narrative dead-ends. The show begins AND ends pretty well, though, and overall it's a fairly decent show.

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