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Category: Stephen King (page 1 of 8)

Writings in English on the works of Stephen King.

Full Dark, No Stars (2010)

”The stories in this book are harsh,” King says in the afterward. And they are. Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, this is a collection of four novellas – or rather three of them with a shorter story included as a bonus – all of which represent the darker side of King. That is, they don’t just tackle horrific subjects – which is, admittedly, pretty typical for King – but they do so mainly without the consolation of hope, friendship or bravery he just as often will add. They are also, with one exception, thrillers without any supernatural elements. 

(For some reason, I tend to read King’s collections over time, making sure to finish the novels while they are reasonably new. In this case, I managed to take ten years to read through all four.)

“I remember thinking: This night will never end. And that was right.”

1922 is a first-person account of a horrendous crime, told by a man who wants the reader’s sympathy but doesn’t hold back. It’s a rural noir full of deep insight and keen darkness. It’s not a fun read, but superbly written. It’s a story you finish out of a sense of duty rather than suspense and one of King’s very darkest. 

“Most were ladies of the sort who do not attend public occasions without first donning hats.”

Big Driver is certainly no children’s story, but starts off brighter, with a generous dose of humorous observations about life as a semi-famous writer, with a main character fond of talking to her TomTom navigator and her cat and regularly doing speaking engagements. Reading it a decade after publication, I’m struck by how quaint the parts about her GPS feel. The harmless introduction makes the horrors to come (realistic but extreme) doubly shocking. At first not unlike The Gingerbread Girl but ultimately very different, it takes a thinking man’s Death Wish turn. Vivid, thrilling and with a streak of dark humour that almost makes it a relief to read after 1922. 

“What could I wish for? I have everything I want.”

Fair Extension is a wicked, short tale of making the wrong choice and happily seeing someone else pay the price. It’s a story about good fortune vs bad one, and the evil little person that may live in all of us. I don’t like it much and I don’t think I’m supposed to. 

“Tonight the dark was populated by Bob’s harem.”

A Good Marriage, finally, tells of how Darcy Anderson’s orderly but somewhat dull life instantly falls apart at the discovery of a horrible secret. The explanation that follows is presented in a jocular and almost nostalgic fashion, a man gently trying to convince and seemingly earnest, making it no less horrifying. And then she has a choice to make. This is noir of a different brand than 1922, and in some ways even darker. In other ways not. 

The afterword is, as always, well worth reading. One of those fascinating reminders of how seriously King takes his craft. 

The Institute (2019)

IMG_2657An airplane, a request that somebody give up their seat for a government agent. Tim
takes the offer and embarks on a hitchhiking trip, leading to a small town in South Carolina where there is work to be found for a former police officer such as himself. As a “night knocker”.

America. Nobody writes it better. 

”They exchanged the desultory conversational gambits of mere acquaintances.”

As is common with King, the protagonist is an unglamorously decent person who treats others with respect and sees the good as well as the bad in strangers. Ordinary human interaction is the subject matter for much of the beginning of the book.  

Less ordinary is Luke Ellis, a hugely gifted twelve-year-old. He is barely introduced before he is abducted by shadowy agents and finds himself in a windowless replica of his own room. 

We’ve been here before. These are classic King elements, now condensed to acronyms like TK and TP, in a setting bringing both ‘The Shop’ and the dutiful creatures trying to break the beams in the Dark Tower series to mind. The Institute comes across as a dilapidated but brutally run holdover from the Cold War, dusty but deadly. As for the people running it, we are offered multiple perspectives and allowed an inside view into an organisation that the children they hold captive can only guess, or perhaps telepath, about. It is familiar ground but made more fertile by current events. Of course King gives Donald Trump a little swipe in passing early on, and it won’t be the last. As for a big theme of the book, imprisoning children, it is more than a swipe. 

As for the technicians and doctors working in this hidden prison, they might consider themselves working bees only doing their jobs, or perhaps even doing Important Work, but when King lets a character muse that they may be ‘damned’ he’s clearly not letting them off the hook. Personal responsibility in the face of orders from above is another theme highly relevant for our times. 

The kids themselves, preteens and teens, bond in their confusion and temporary shared misfortune. Temporary, because after a while they move on to another part of the institute. Taking steadily darker turns, The Institute feels painfully real when describing the often crude methods employed by indifferent or even contemptuous adults to get ‘results’. But when the attempts to increase his skill set to telepathy actually seem to work and Luke successfully hides this fact, he may have an edge. Especially when joining forces and minds with a few others. A thrilling escape attempt is the obvious next step, replete with the ordeals King usually provides for his protagonists. Success must never be cheap. The details about train yard logistics offered around the halfway mark are less thrilling, however, but it is endearing how King still finds new topics to research for his books. Keeps him young, I guess. 

The scenes from the perspective of the people in charge of the Institute are both depressing and chilling, especially in “Back Half”. Where children are broken down and sent on. Where a grimy sign might dutifully proclaim: 

“Remember these were heroes”

Dark. But there is also a sense of classic King adventure here, with a young protagonist facing perils that would give grownups pause – not unlike The Talisman. 

Some two thirds in, The Institute has grown into the perfect thriller. Equal parts hope and fear, in two parallel story lines. The kindness of strangers and the petty greed of ‘stringers and uncles’. It’s a book demanding to be filmed, much like Under the Dome before its pitch black finale. Will this too veer into “too much darkness” or hold the course, a reader might be forgiven for wondering. For thinking “please just let these kids find a way to get out before …” Even if the work of the Institute should actually turn out to be vital. 

I won’t spoil but I will say that there is the kind of chaotic shoot-out of which King is sometimes a bit too fond. But it doesn’t end there. Far from it. 

 

Footnote
Don’t miss the moving afterword about King’s longtime research assistant, Russ Dorr. 

Elevation (2018)

“The incredible lightness of being”

A short story published in the form of a book, one might say. And why not. King has previously published short novels bundled into collections, as if they were short stories. The man can do what he likes.

Elevation is Thinner, but exactly the opposite in every way. Like the protagonist of Kings’s dark Bachman tale, Scott Carey is becoming lighter. Not exactly losing weight but simply applying less and less pressure on the scales. It is, of course, impossible which, of course, won’t stop King from writing about it and making you believe it. 

In keeping with his desire to keep up, King makes his sympathetic protagonist a web designer and has obviously done some research, though not on as detailed a technical level as in Mr Mercedes. Castle Rock is here presented as a normal town with well-todo people and a golf course. A town people from elsewhere would gladly visit for a charity race. ’Inside view’ and ’The Night Flier’ flutter by as references. The story also involves a newly arrived lesbian couple running a restaurant but having a hard time with the conservative locals. 

The weight mystery is mainly a positive experience for Scott. The “Turkey trot” running competition becomes an occasion to surprise the town with an impressive performance, enhanced by a profound joy brought on by just about everything around and inside him. His heart, “that sturdy little engine”, the sound of running feet on a covered bridge. Even as a strange impending doom draws near, he’s having the time of his life and making new friends. You’d be forgiven for cynically wondering when everything is going to turn bad. 

Will it? I won’t say more than that it’s a story not only about a strange phenomenon but about friendship and reconciliation as well. Touching and heart-felt, Elevation may not be a Real novel, but it’s a more memorable story than many thrice as long. It’s also unironically message-y, pointing to a better way in a divisive time, and, dare I say it, uplifting. 

But of course he sneaks in one overt jab at a certain president.

“(…) which would have been bad – even Trumpian – diplomacy”

The Outsider (2018)

”Do you always know who did it when you sit down to write?”

A terrible crime has been committed in Flint City. Ralph Anderson, one of the town’s three police officers, has a prime suspect and decides to make the arrest a public affair. The popular Coach Maitland, uncomprehending, is brought away in cuffs in the middle of a game, in front of a big crowd and his family. He is just as stunned as Anderson is sure of his guilt. It’s a perfect, vivid example of building conflicting loyalties in the reader. What is one to believe? 

As events unfold, interspersed with witness protocols that certainly points to Maitland being the head suspect, this sense of ambiguity only deepens. Along with his family he seems a victim of a terrible mistake, but if guilty of the vile crime he is in fact a monster. What is one to believe…?

It’s one of those books that grab you from the get go and pulls you in, skipping between the various victims of the obscene crime, including the family of the murdered boy, whose suffering has only begun. Those parts offer some of the book’s best prose, wise, unexpected and moving perspectives on tragedy and grief.

“They watched without talking, each in his own way exploring the edges of the hole that had appeared in their lives, so as not to fall in.”

But the suspect and his family also draw sympathy in their plight. Here, everyone is a victim. The tragedies of The Outsider are manifold. The crimes destroy surviving family members and people’s good name. It’s the final insult added to the injury, how seemingly innocent suspects become the object of hatred and anger. 

The sudden introduction of elements that seem otherworldly do little to lessen interest but may prompt the reader to wonder what kind of book they are reading. The answer will become clearer with each chapter. Genre aside, it’s most definitely a solid page-turner. It hooks you. It’s also damn spooky. The phrase ’straws for eyes’ alone is enough to give one shivers. But like any detective story worth reading, it’s also an excuse to send people around, meeting other people, asking questions from witnesses and incidentally painting little portraits of life outside of the limelight. And King is, of course, very good at that. 

In its attention to detail, The Outsider can occasionally also get … tedious. There are times when points are belaboured. Like the last Hodges book, it’s also a bold mix of the pragmatic and the supernatural, and may not be to everyone’s taste. For my own part, I’m frankly not exactly sure how I feel about it. But meeting Holly Gibney (from the aforementioned Bill Hodges books) again is great, and King once more excels at portraying a character inherently nervous and uneasy about human interaction, but very brave. Around her, a band of unlikely friends will form, bringing Bram Stoker’s Dracula to mind in more ways than one. 

At the end of it all, The Outsider is more akin to Doctor Sleep than Mr Mercedes. It’s a both moving and harrowing story with a thrilling climax. Whether or not you entirely “buy it” may be a matter of taste. 

Joyland (2013)

“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”

The melancholia instantly leaps off the page in this tale of youth, broken hearts and a rickety amusement park in North Carolina called Joyland. King’s knack for transporting you to a place and time, and a mood, is on full display. Written in the first person perspective, it recounts a summer and fall in 1973 during which Devin Jones, “a 21-year-old virgin with literary aspirations”, works as a carny while trying to get over a girl. 

”Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.”

The writing is sympathetic and atmospheric, clear and uncomplicated; ‘this is what happened and how I felt about it’.  The start, where Devin visits the park for a job interview, is like an inverted version of The Shining. Nice people, spring around corner. 

Spring turns to summer, work begins, and to a large degree this is a story about a good summer. One of those summers that shine in retrospect. New friends, a fascinating place. Even ‘wearing the fur’, dressing up as the park’s canine mascot to amuse the kids, suits Devin. Ominous comments from the fortune teller and a broken heart notwithstanding, this has all the makings of a great experience. 

But there’s also the actually haunted horror house and the horrific tragedy that occurred there. And Devin’s inability to forget the girl and move on. He thinks staying on at the amusement park after summer will help with that.  A seaside amusement park in the fall. How very Morrissey. 

Devin wants be changed by facing something otherworldly and courts an encounter with the apparition said to be haunting Joyland. In Devin’s befriending a young boy with a serious illness and apparent telepathy, the writer introduces another subject typical to King, but it’s toned down and actually not what you’re likely to remember best about the book. That would probably be the colourful portrait of the amusement park and its characters and the depiction of youth itself.

This is prime King. Wise, empathetic, crude, poetic, lively and eerie. Near the end it delivers themes more in keeping with the Hard Case Crime label (an imprint under which The Colorado Kid was also published),  but at this point it’s clear that King was never interested in writing just a murder mystery. Big surprise. It is ‘thrilling’ in surprising ways alongside the expected ones. Will a good deed work out for the best? That kind of way. 

The finale, with its echoes of a scene from a famous movie not named here, and the touching epilogue confirms that this book really, really needs to be filmed. Done right, it would be wonderful.

As is the book. I would in fact describe it as the perfect antidote after reading Revival (published in the same year). There are some common themes (looking back from the sad vantage point of old age being among them), and Joyland has its share of violence and chills, but it also offers hope and beauty. Call me crazy, but I prefer that. 

Just after sunset (2008)

It took me an inexplicably long time to finish this collection of short stories, but looking back I realise that most of them left an impression.

Like The Gingerbread Girl, a short, effective thriller about grief and a serial killer. Or Harvey’s Dream, both mundane and shiver-inducing. Graduation afternoon is a short, brilliant gem about how everything can change in an instant. The Things They Left Behind is a strange but pretty moving take on 9/11.

There are a couple of low-key guesses on what the afterlife might have in store (muted but optimistic compared to Revival) and a confessional tale about telling the wrong story to a hitchhiker. N., related to but not as devastating as the aforementioned Revival, combines Lovecraft and Machen with a fantastic (and possibly dangerously contagious) evocation of OCD. Atmospheric to say the least.

The Cat from Hell is apparently a golden oldie, finally collected. A trifle, but captivating while it lasts.

Ayana recounts a tale long untold, because it is ’unbelievable’, and its opening description alone of seeing a once vital father diminished by illness makes it memorable. It’s about miracles or, as doctors call them, ‘misdiagnosis’. It’s a short story in length as well as in how it foregoes explanation in favour of mystifying ‘anecdote’.

The last story is set in Florida, like the contemporary Duma Key, and also sports a well-off but troubled protagonist. It turns out to be a sibling of sorts to The Gingerbread Girl, but more disgusting. But engaging. But very disgusting …

Through all if it, King’s ear for dialogue and eye for detail brings the characters and settings to life. Bitter people, happy people, highways and highrises. Even if King didn’t have any stories to tell here, the writing would make it worthwhile. But he does. With the possible exception of Stationary bike.

In true King fashion, the collection ends with some enlightening, personal notes on the origin and meaning of the stories. His generosity in inviting the readers into the creative process has always been part of his appeal.

Revival (2013)

“Knowing how something works and what it is are two very different things.”

A story about losing faith and looking for other things in its place. But one dedicated to a veritable Who’s Who list of classic horror writers and featuring references to De Vermis Mysteriis. How very King. And like the cautionary tales of old, it’s a tale wherein the narrator wants to tell his whole story, not just the juicy bits.

The new minister in the Methodist church seems like a nice guy to six-year-old Jamie, youngest in a big family, growing up in the shadow of the Cold War in the 60s.

Written from the first person perspective and initially set in the small town of Harlow, Maine, not far from Castle Rock, the story in general seems nice enough at first, encapsulating childhood with King’s usual  deftness. Apart from a deeply ominous prologue, that is. Early on, though, Jamie underscores that this book isn’t about happy childhood memories. And it isn’t. It’s not even primarily about childhood. In fact, it’s just as much about aging. And its inevitable consequence.

Reverend Jacobs is interested in electricity. He employs it as a teaching aide during youth nights, to the point where parents and children alike find it a bit overmuch. He also finds other uses for it. For example a small miracle, which brings joy. Then utter tragedy strikes the minister’s family, described in King’s typical unflinching manner. The “terrible sermon” that follows makes Jacobs’s continued service an impossibility. To young Jamie, though, it’s as if the truth has finally been told.

Later, Jamie discovers music. The electric guitar, of course. King delights as much in describing the joy of this discovery, as well as the young love affair to follow, as he excels at describing horror. When presenting Jamie as a junkie, I should add, we also get to enjoy King the dark comedian, relishing this chance to bring life at rock bottom to, well, life. Not unlike some scenes in Dr Sleep. One wonders if King is campaigning to warn Constant reader of the dangers of drugs or if he simply writes what he knows.

The two meet up later in life, when things are very different for both of them. Electricity is still very much a thing for the former reverend. Much more so, in fact. But the things he can do, ranging from cheap tricks to mysterious healing, seem to have after effects.

“Something. Something. Happened. Happened.”

Somehow the spookiest line I’ve read in ages.

Later still, Jacobs is a travelling preacher and healer. Even if the rev’s new-old career might be a ruse, the description of a revival tent meeting has elements of genuine warmth. And crass deceit, as well. And, still, the electricity.

Like 1922, it’s a story you’d be forgiven for abandoning before the end. But whereas 1922 begins almost at rock bottom, “Revival” presents the good times first, or rather interspersed between the bad ones. That makes it even worse.

Their paths keep crossing,  ultimately leading to a final experiment which we have been prepped to dread from page one. When the story arc finally returns to a place of great import for an ending of total despair, echoing Shelley and Lovecraft but going further than any of them, an ending that makes that of Under the Dome feel brightly optimistic, we meet King at his very darkest. Crowning the patient, realistic setup with this outlandish horror works almost too well and Revival can really get under your skin. The only comfort seems to be that to King – judging by, for example, the almost provocatively mundane afterword – it’s ‘just’ another story. Not what he truly believes. I hope …

End of Watch (2016)

“Yeah.”

Like the two preceding books in the Hodges trilogy, End of Watch begins on that fateful night in 2009 when “Mr Mercedes”, a young sociopath named Brady Hartsfield, kills a number of people using a stolen car. This time we join the proceedings in the company of two paramedics responding to the MCI call. They save the life of a seriously wounded woman named Martine Stover.

But as the new story skips to current day, Martine is dead. Like many others linked to Hartsfield. It’s almost as if he is still pushing people over the edge, even though he is in a clinic in a practically vegetative state.

Closure is the key term as detective Hodges and his partner Holly are forced to once more confront a murderous young man who, judging by all evidence, is incapable of doing anything at all. Following the continued evolution of the once isolated Holly is a treat. She is never smoothly confident, but has become sufficiently sure of herself to take control when needed. Evolving, if that’s the word, is also the murderous Brady Hartsfield, slowly coming out of a comatose state in a way reminiscent of King’s more supernaturally charged work. For Hodges, things seem to be turning bad health wise, just as he realises he still has some loose ends to tie up. His penchant for keeping secrets is a somewhat frustrating aspect of this book as well as the previous ones, but luckily, he can’t fool his friends for long.

Of the three Hodges books, this is the one most in line with what casual users might expect from King. With the focus on an outdated game console being used as part of an ambitious scheme it’s as much a techno thriller as a supernatural one. The combination of telekinesis, technology and the detective novel works surprisingly well, though. It’s a bold mix, but it’s presented in a matter of fact way that makes the concept strangely credible.

When the story picks up speed in a series of events and crises, it never actually slows down, but more focus than I would have preferred is placed on the details and minutae of Brady’s last scheme. Other themes include even less cheerful ones like suicide and cancer. But at heart, like so many of King’s stories, it’s also a tale of friendship. The finale, in keeping with the other two books, is tense and exciting and the epilogue is touching.

Summing up the series: once more exploring a new-ish format, King has again proven that he can write in any genre and style, and pull the reader in.

Footnote
In a neat reference to Cujo, we learn that boy band ‘Round here were sometimes sponsored by Sharp Cereals.

Finders Keepers (2015)

“Shit don’t mean shit”

After a prologue set in the 1970s, Finders Keepers begins on the very same night as Mr Mercedes, with an out-of-work man queueing for a 2009 job fair which we know won’t happen. Because of ’Mr Mercedes’.

The storyline set in the past, where an elderly writer is assaulted in his home, has no immediately obvious bearing on this tragedy. In Morris Bellamy, the young literature fan who helms the crime, the book finds an equivalent to Brady in Mr Mercedes, though. Almost void of empathy and capable of horrific acts but with elements of humanity and a detached sense of dark humour. A creature not unlike Pinkie in Brighton Rock.

The threads converge when the boy in a problem-stricken family finds a strange treasure buried three decades ago. The problems are, of course, born of the 2009 vehicle attack. The seeming solution is a treasure buried after the assault on the writer. The boy, Pete, decides to use it to play the part of secret helper, bringing his family much needed relief. But the treasure is not confined to cash. There are notebooks as well. And for the ageing Morris, whose prison term (for an unrelated crime) is finally coming to an end, these are way more important.

King has tried many styles of writing and I like them all. That said, the sparse but vivid prose he employs in the ‘Hodges books’ is particularly great. He is always good with atmosphere and setting, but in these books he seems to take special delight in description, mixing the laconic tone of a hardboiled detective novel with vivid, often funny imagery.

“He spoke not in the tentative tenor of your usual adolescent, but in a confident, husky baritone that seemed far too big for the chicken chest lurking behind the purple rag of his tie.”

It’s also a book about reading and writing, topics famously dear to mr King, and through (among other things) a quirky literature teacher he seizes every opportunity to impart exhilarating wisdom on the subject. Two main characters, with wildly different temperaments but equally invested in the same writer, with occasionally parallel story arcs and even inhabiting the same house in different eras, represent two sides of the consummate Reader.

Fittingly, it’s a book that effortlessly keeps your interest, with comical details and small surprises tucked into the bigger narrative. With new and often sympathetic characters alongside familiar ones, all of them elegantly connected and with their part to play.

As for the returning characters, Bill Hodges may not be King’s most charismatic character to date, but it’s nice to see the evolution of Holly, the former ‘hikikomori’, whose quirks are fondly and funnily captured without a hint of mockery. Jerome is a good character but his antics as ‘Tyrone Feelgood’ exemplify an area where I feel King rarely excels: adding comedy through characters trying to be funny. Like Eddie in The Dark Tower, he’s best when he’s not joking around.

Even though the book spans less than 400 pages, King also manages to squeeze in a brutal, almost darkly comical version of The Shawshank Redemption.

Three quarters in, a quite extraordinary element is added to the mix. Something involving Brady Hartsfield. Something very King, yet, one thought, not to be expected in this book. But that’s just a brief interlude (or teaser of things to come) in a tale of obsession, good intentions gone bad and strange coincidences. With a finale almost as tense and twice as violent as that of Mr Mercedes.

And one heck of a spooky epilogue.

Mr Mercedes (2014)

“He leaves his house with no premonition that he won’t be back.”

The opening scene is great; vivid and deeply humane, where two lonesome, jobless people in recession America meet while waiting in line for a job expo. It’s depressing and heartfelt, almost political in a good way. Then disaster strikes. A man-made disaster, created on purpose with the aid of a stolen Mercedes.

Later, a retired homicide detective named Bill Hodges receives a chatty letter from the ‘perk’. Does he still wonder who did it? Trouble dealing with retired life? You bet …

The ‘perk’, surprisingly, is introduced as a character in his own right in the following chapter, rather than kept in the shadows. Over the course of a job conversation with a colleague we learn more about him than the letter revealed. Including the fact that he hates everyone but knows how to adapt.

Initial reaction: the focus on the woman who owned the car used for the murder slows down the proceedings. It later turns out that this focus is warranted, of course. Not least since her sister will become a major character.

A romance thriller, what was the odds of King writing one of those? Well, it’s more than that of course. The portrait of the killer is every bit as twisted as the love affair is cute, revealing a young man with no doubt serious issues but few redeeming qualities. And yet surprisingly human in some of his reactions.

It’s also sprinkled with technical info and computer tidbits that feel surprisingly up to date. King seems to have done some serious homework on this one.

A particularly shocking sequence around half-time extinguishes any “fears” that King is writing a normal thriller. A flat, laconic summary of a defining event in Brady’s life continues this trend. It’s a tough read, especially since Brady’s perspective includes a crass, sickening sort of jocularity.

The dark turn veers into a nose dive as things go from bad to worse. When a peek into Brady’s world view around three quarters in view sums up nihilism as well as anything you’ve ever read (history is aptly described as ‘scar tissue’), the romance detective novel association is just a vague memory, although the introduction of a psychologically challenged woman and her swift friendship with Hodges’s friend Jerome brighten up the proceedings somewhat.

The stakes are as high as in a “normal” thriller, though, and a race against time provides suspense to the very end. And by suspense I mean Suspense. This one nearly gave me a heart attack.

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