Friday, July 13, 2012

Other Worlds Than These: A Review of "Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished" (Revised and Expanded Edition) [by Rocky Wood]

I may have mentioned this elsewhere at some point, but it bears repeating: I am a big fan of the book Stephen King: The Art of Darkness.  I bought that biography/compendium/critical analysis (written by Douglas E. Winter) in paperback in, oh, 1990 or so, when my then-newfound Kingmania had reached its apex.  And I tore through that sucker just as greedily as I had torn through most of the books written by King himself.

There are a lot of captivating ideas in that book, but here are two sentences that really captivated me:

"During his sophomore year" [of college] "he completed another novel, Sword in the Darkness.  Heavily indebted to the 'Harrison High' novels of sometime horror novelist John Farris" [...] "this lengthy tale of a race riot at an urban high school was rejected an even dozen times on Publishers' Row."

WHA...?!?

You mean (I thought incredulously) there is a Stephen King novel that NEVER EVEN GOT PUBLISHED?!?  HOW CAN THAT BE?!?

Then, a few pages later, Winter drops the bombshell that there was a second such unpublished novel, Blaze.  It didn't take a whole hell of a lot to blow my sixteen-year-old mind, and this double-barrel blast of info certainly did the trick.
Not too much longer after that, I read George Beahm's excellent book The Stephen King Companion, and holy fuckin' shit, THAT book had plot summaries for both Blaze and Sword in the Darkness.  PLUS info about yet another unpublished novel, The Aftermath!

Well, ever since those long-gone days of yesteryear, I have been greatly intrigued by the idea that somewhere out there, in boxes in a library, there existed whole novels by Stephen King that practically nobody had ever read.  I have always felt a curious mixture of elation and frustration over that fact: frustration for the obvious reason that I would probably never get to read those books, and elation because ... well, it's hard to put the reason for the elation into words.  The closest I can come to it is to compare it to the idea that there will be certain birthday presents we will almost certainly never get to unwrap; yeah, it sucks because we'll never know what's inside, but on the other hand, it means there will always be birthday presents with our name on them.

Most of you probably think that's a crazy way of thinking, but I'd bet at least a few of you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Anyways, let's fast forward to 1998, when Stephen J. Spignesi released an entire book devoted to the subject of obscure King works.  Titled The Lost Work of Stephen King, this tome detailed all sort of King works that many fans had never heard of, including not merely those famously unpublished novels, but also published works that were not widely available, but which could be tracked down, if one were inclined to devote the resources to do so.  It was a great resource for King fans who wanted to dig a little bit deeper than the bibliography listed inside the front jackets of some of the books.

Then, in 2005, along came Rocky Wood's Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished.  It immediately became the definitive work on the subject, and has remained so ever since.

You may be wondering why I felt it necessary to deliver such a lengthy lead-in.  I'll tell you why: because, as someone who has now been a Stephen King fan -- and a devoted one, at that -- for over half of his life, a book like this one is an absolute treasure trove.  I feel sometimes as though blogging about my love for King's work (and for some of the side-roads it has taken me down) is a way of time-traveling and having conversations with myself: it's the next-best-thing to having 2012 Bryant and 1990 Bryant in a room together, chatting.  The two of us are having that conversation right now; we have it every time I pick up a book like Uncollected, Unpublished, and let me tell you: 1990 Bryant thinks Rocky Wood's book is one of the best motherfucking things he has ever seen.

2012 Bryant thinks it's pretty fucking nifty, too.  Let him tell you why.





Wood's introduction to the book summarizes the fact that Stephen King -- a notoriously prolific author -- has written a vast amount of fiction that many of his fans may be unaware of, and will probably never get the opportunity to read.  King fans come in all shapes and sizes, in terms of their inclination to care about such a thing; many of them would be indifferent to the fact of this huge amount of inaccessible work, many others disappointed by the thought of never being able to read it, and many would almost certainly be glad for even the ability to know anything about those works.

Odds are, you know which of these descriptions best fits you.  If it's the first, you are almost certainly not reading a blog about Stephen King's works written by an amateur like me; if the second, then Rocky Wood's book is something you should avoid at all costs.

However, if the third description fits you, then brother/sister, let me tell you: you need a copy of Stephen King: Uncollected, Unpublished.  You don't merely want one; nope, you need it.

And, clearly, Rocky Wood needed to write it.  Elsewhere in his introductory material, he writes simply of the idea of King's works bringing joy to his many fans.  Ain't it the truth, too?  You bet it is, but rarely has the idea come across as clearly as it does here, where it is evident that for Wood, even a fragment of a King story can -- and sometimes does -- bring a huge amount of enjoyment.

Wood also states his case in favor of King being viewed as an important literary figure.  He states that case in a compelling fashion, and I always enjoy reading spirited defenses of King's work, but methinks Wood makes a case where no cases need be made: King simply IS an important literary figure, and will continue to be one for decades (possibly centuries) to come.  Still, it's fun to read Wood's take on why King deserves serious consideration, and I have a hard time disagreeing with any of his conclusions.

I'll be ever so slightly less generous toward a section in which Wood devotes twenty pages or so to an examination into the interconnections -- both literal (in terms of plot connections, character overlaps, and such) and thematic -- that serve as ties binding so many of King's works together.  This, too, is fun to read, but the amateur editor in me read it with mental red pen in hand, wondering if this section might have been eliminated, held over for greater consideration in another book altogether.  Apart from allowing Wood to have a way of placing certain obscure works within a familiar context, I'm not sure this section has any real bearing on the actual subject of the book itself.  That is really just a quibble, though.  Like I said, it's a fun section to read, and it can serve as a useful reference tool, as well.

In a section titled "The Lost and Hidden Works," Wood devotes some space to alphabetically discussing known works that are either lost altogether or are otherwise completely inaccessible in every way.  Peppered throughout are quotes from King himself, which serve as commentary of some of the specific works.  Among those discussed are "Hatchet Head" (an abandoned novel); an untitled and unfinished porno (!) novel King attempted while in college; "The House on Benefit Street" (a story King hopes to write at some point that will serve as a sort of conclusion to Hearts In Atlantis); and others.  This section is absolutely terrific.

"Variations and Versions in King's Fiction" is an awesome (and illuminating) examination of textual differences between variant appearances/publications of King's work.  Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

A vampire tale, The Night Flier was originally published in an anthology, Prime Evil: New Stories by the Masters of Modern Horror, in a Donald M Grant Limited Edition (April 1988) and a mass market hardback issued by NAL (June 1988).  King significantly revised the story for Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993) and they are clearly separate versions.  For instance, in the earlier version King mentions himself, Johnny Smith and Jerusalem's Lot but deleted these very important references from the collected version.

That's one paragraph out of eighteen pages worth of similar material.  That sort of thing probably isn't for everybody, but it is DEFINITELY for ME.  It makes me use my caps lock when describing it, in fact.  Which seems to be happening a lot in this review; and you KNOW I'm serious when I use the CAPS lock.

The bulk of the book, of course, is devoted to the section titled "The Uncollected, and the Unpublished," and while each of the sections that precede it are entertaining and informative, they are soup and salad; this section is steak and a loaded baked potato.  There is a TON -- caps lock! -- of great info here, much of which will, if you're prone to it, prompt that vertiginous mixture of elation and consternation I was trying to describe earlier.  Here are some of my personal favorite sections:

  • an extensive four-page summary of The Aftermath, a 1963 work King considers to be his first completed novel
  • a nine-page examination of both "Molly" (a teleplay King wrote as an episode for The X-Files) and "Chinga" (the episode as produced, after it was substantially rewritten by series creator Chris Carter); the two versions are vastly different, and as both a King fan and an X-Files fan, I ate this section up
  • a six-page summary of George D.X. McArdle, an abandoned Western novel King once tried to write
  • a reprint of the two-page poem "Dino"
  • a five-page summary of "Slade," a Western parody short story that was published in serialized fashion in King's college newspaper
  • a ten-page summary of Sword in the Darkness
  • AND, possibly best of all: the inclusion of the entirety of Chapter 71 from Sword in the Darkness; this seventeen-page excerpt basically amounts to a King short story, which is available nowhere else but in Wood's book

Wood also discusses numerous King works which have been published, but are simply not widely available; these include older short stories ("The Crate," "Man With A Belly," "The Night of the Tiger," etc.) and newer ones ("Herman Wouk Is Still Alive," "Premium Harmony," etc.).  He also writes extensively about screenplays (produced and unproduced), story fragments, poems, and oddities that are not easily classifiable.

This main section of the book runs nearly 300 pages, so trust me when I tell you that what I've listed above scarcely scratches the surface of the contents of this book.

If you are a devoted enough fan of King to have found your way to this blog, then I think the odds are quite good that you are exactly the type of King fan Uncollected, Unpublished was written for, so do yourself a favor: buy a copy.  You get buy the unsigned copy here, or the signed copy here.  (Incidentally, if you happen to own one of the older editions of the book, follow one of those links for a lengthy description of what's new in this revised edition.  I own the 2005 edition, and I did not feel at all as though I'd wasted any money on the revised edition; there is quite a lot of new material in it.)

It's also worth mentioning that Wood has written several other King-centric books, including Stephen King: The Non-Fiction, an absolutely stupendously awesome guide to King's extensive nonfiction writing; and Stephen King: A Literary Companion, which I have not actually read, nor purchased.

YET.

But it's my birthday soon, and by golly, writing this review has made me want to put that book way up toward the top of my list of birthday-money uses.  Yep; think that's gonna be happening.

I also hope to offer up a review of Stephen King: The Non-Fiction at some point, but since that one is out of print, it'd only make you jealous that you don't have a copy; so that particular review is on my back-burner.  Someday, though; someday.  (By the way, the print edition may be out of print, but you can still snap up a digital copy from Cemetery Dance.  Here's what that can happen.  Now, trust me, you are totally correct to be jealous of the fact that I've got a lovely physical copy sitting on my shelf, but don't let that stop you from snagging one made one ones and zeroes; it's an AWESOME book no matter what format it's in.  Go getcha one!)

So, in summation, go get yourself a copy of Stephen King: Unpublished, Uncollected, because it makes me want to type words entirely in capital letters, and you KNOW what THAT means.

12 comments:

  1. Blaze eventually saw the light of day. Do you think SK will ever allow Sword in the Darkness to be published?

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    1. Wood seems to think it's unlikely. I tend to be a little more of the never-say-never inclination, personally.

      However, it DOES seem quite likely that the novel simply isn't very good. The sample chapter included in "Unpublished, Uncollected" is decent, but if it's the best the novel has to offer, then it posbably isn't a particularly good novel.

      I'd still love to read it someday, though.

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    2. I have no idea what "posbably" means. Let's pretend I typed either "possibly" or "probably" instead...

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    3. I seriously think there is NO chance - not only is the sample chapter the best from that trunk novel, if you gave it an 8/10, you'd be giving the rest of the novel about a 3/10. It's clearly someone learning to write a novel and it lacks redeeming features outside the back story chapter that King let me reproduce in SKUU.

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    4. The above is from Rocky Wood

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    5. Well, Rocky, I've definitely got no reason to not take your word on the book's relative lack of merit.

      My thought on the matter is that even lousy work from King is bound to be worth reading, if only to use in a scholarly fashion to examine how his style and technique evolved. Hopefully that doesn't make me sound like the crazy guy in "Lisey's Story"!

      If it's a work King dislikes or is embarrassed by, I certainly sympathize with his desire to keep it locked away.

      However, I think there would be ways of putting out there for die-hards to read that would keep it away from the general public. For example, publish it not on its own (i.e., not as "Sword in the Darkness"), but as part of a collection of similar "failed" works. Early stuff like "The Aftermath" and "I Was a Teenage Grave Robber," for instance, and unfinished works like "The Cannibals," and so forth. It could all be framed by essays by King scholars -- or by King himself, if he were so inclined (which he probably wouldn't be) giving their opinions on what works and what doesn't.

      I dunno, something along those lines, at least.

      I'm probably foolish for doing so, but I'm going to keep my fingers crossed!

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  2. Wonderful post--you made ME want to BUY the damned thing!

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    1. Thanks, Martin! That's probably the nicest thing anyone could ever say about a positive review.

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  3. This is indeed a very good book!
    Rocky Wood's books as well as Justin Brooks' books are simply MUST HAVE !

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  4. There were a great many revelations in Woods book that made it worth the purchase.

    I’ve sometimes wondered if King would go back to “The Aftermath” revise ad then publish it. I know technical the idea was reworked as the stand, but it’s just interesting to see another apocalyptic take on the sixties (which is what the stand was really about) set during the actual decade. Another long shot, but who knows, it not him, there’s always Joe Hill to take a stab at it.

    That reminds me, King owes it to himself and to his fans to go and write “House on Benefit Street” STAT! Get Bachman to help, just keep him away from the drinks. Seriously, who wouldn’t like another appearance by the Walkin’ Dude, and set maybe during the 68 Chicago convention? My only caveat, if he should ever write it, he should keep it realistic and above all not be afraid to establish tower connections all over the place and realize it’s okay to let the story go off on its own route. I didn’t mind the concluding Tower books, yet there tone isn’t right for this story.

    As for the Chris Carter collaboration, I have no problem with idea of connecting the Kingverse to the X Files world. The main reason is that there’s no problem of story contradiction, and I think it’s neat how it would open out and fill in an already familiar world. Not to mention the fact that the idea of the government being aware of the paranormal and yet being powerless to stop just strikes me for whatever reason as hilarious.

    Another good book to look at is “Hollywood’s Stephen King” by Tony Magistrale. It’s an in-depth scholarly, though by no means dry or boring, examination of if not all TV and film adaptations of King’s work, then at least enough to give a decent overview.

    The book has several things to recommend it, among them the penultimate chapter entitled “King of the miniseries in which he discusses the pros and cons of King’s TV output, along with listing some interesting thoughts on the limitations of television. Whether I agree with all his thoughts, i.e. the ending of “It” the book, is another matter.

    The best part is the first chapter which is a real interview between Magistrale and King. In this Magistrale has done the impossible, King has made it clear he doesn’t like interviews, mainly because he fears he has really nothing to say.

    Magistrale puts that lie to rest by being able to draw King out of his shell so that he makes some damn interesting observations about his work, the adaptations made of them and movies in general, including some ideas about “Limited Imagination”.

    I don’t know what Joe Bob says, I say check it out.

    ChrisC

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    1. Re. "The Aftermath": I suspect King will never revisit it, but I'd love to see the original released someday. I'm sure it makes King cringe, but it would be worth reading regardless how low-quality it might be. Some sort of a collection of juvenile writings, accompanied by commentary by King (or, failing that, some King scholar), would be the way to go.

      Re. "The House on Benefit Street": Agreed. As soon as I heard about that story, I began REALLY hoping it would happen someday. And yes, it would be a good thing to ramp up the Tower connections.

      Re. "The X-Files": I'll have to put some thought into that as part of my big old canon project. Either way, I love the show. "Millennium," too, except for that lousy third season.

      Re. "Hollywood's Stephen King": I've read that book, but don't actually have a copy, which reminds me that I need to rectify that. As I recall, it IS really good, especially the interview with King.

      Re. King not liking interviews: King is an awesome interview subject, and always has been. I hope for another of those "Bare Bones"/"Feast of Fear" books to come out one of these days.

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