Palaver's Stephen King blog

Category: Stephen King (page 2 of 8)

Writings in English on the works of Stephen King.

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.

The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012)

The perfect gift to fans of King’s Dark Tower epic, leaving his audacious and frustrating ending intact as the closing point of a tale more than 30 years in the making.

Instead, his latest addition is a story within a story within a story, the middle one set in Roland’s youth (soon after the events described in¬†Wizard and Glass) and the last one starting right after the ka-tet has left the city of Lud. The innermost one is a grim and beautiful fairytale placed in Mid-world. They are, all of them, wonderful. At some 300 pages, this is King at his most condensed, adopting a style unknown to many casual readers.

Taking shelter from a deadly cold storm known as a starkblast, the ka-tet spend the time listening to Roland as he tells the other two stories.

The one wherein he is the main character deals with a murderous shape-shifter out in the countryside, whom Roland and fellow gunslinger Jaimee are sent to hunt down. In passing, almost, we get some more clues about the world that was and the events that were to change it. We hear different attitudes towards the rulers in Gilead and towards Farson, the ‘good man’ who is to lead a rebellion against them.

At its third level, the tale is arguably the most fairy-taleish, with creatures such as the ‘sighe’ which would feel slightly out of place in Roland’s time, some old-fashioned magic and even a dragon. It is, fittingly, a story told by a young Roland to a frightened child to pass the time and ease the horror of a recent tragedy. This titular tale takes up more than half of the book and once you’ve decided that the resolution to the other two can wait a bit, it’s sure to grab your attention. Here as well, a starkblast becomes an important element.

King also takes the opportunity to provide some consoling details to the saddest part of the gunslinger’s long, strange life.

If Sai King should decide to write more such complementary tales about Mid-world, it would be awesome. If not, this little book is still a treasure to be grateful for.

The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower is a series of books inspired by Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. Part fantasy, part western, part something entirely its own genre, it has become King’s most important work in many ways.

From 1978 and 1981, the installments that make up the first book where published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. They were collected into a book and published as “The Gunslinger” in 1982. The last book appeared on the shelves in 2004. But the story of this story spans even more years, since The Gunslinger was begun before even Carrie was published.

Under the Dome (2009)

“We all support the team”

One day an invisible barrier appears around the small town of Chester’s Mill. It’s not a “dome” precisely, to be nitpicky about it, but the effect is roughly that of a huge glass bowl – or rather, town-shaped tube – descended from out of nowhere. Those caught on the inside may soon be the talk of the world, but they are also completely isolated from it. With dizzying speed, things spin out of control as the second selectman and de facto ruler of the town eagerly grasps for this chance of total control. Some people oppose him.

It’s tempting – irresistably so, almost – to read Under the Dome as an allegory of our times, right down to specific environmental issues and how certain characters seem to echo the traits of certain politicans of (probably lasting) ill repute. Even more importantly, however, I think it is about random, wanton cruelty. It’s deeply pessimistic, a downward spiral that at times seems intent on burrowing straight down into utter despair. It’s also entertaining, if that is the word, in its multitude of memorable characters, hectic pace and abundance of dramatic situations. Whether it’s a masterpiece, I have yet to decide for myself, but it’s King at his peak – demanding your attention and alternately punishing and rewarding you for getting on this journey.

Duma Key (2008)

“I can do this”

Edgar Freemantle finds the artist within him after losing an arm in an accident and moving to Florida as a means of trying to get his life back together. Or at least to make it bearable. Memory problems, rage, divorce, he doesn’t have much going for him until that sunset across the gulf – and what might be a ship – captures him. And he captures it, among other things, on the canvasses he fills with dark and wonderful paintings.

New friends, the memorable Wireman and the old, rich and demented woman he takes care of, add to the joys of his new life. What must be hauntings, and the growing feeling that his art is growing a life of its own, add to the horrors.

Yup, it’s another King story that gradually spirals into ever more frightening and supernatural territory and topped off with an unabashedly dramatic climax with imagery seemingly far removed from the down-to-earth tone of the beginning, but not before we’ve been forced to care deeply for the characters. And not before we are treated to, among numerous other great scenes, a depiction of nervousness that is an absolute gem, as Freemantle gets ready to address a crowd of art lovers. The mood is exquisite, with an almost audible soundtrack of waves across the seashells beneath the house. The recurring “How to Draw a Picture” chapters, which initially seem independent but gradually intertwine with the main story, are one of many other causes for kudos.

In tone not unlike “Bag of Bones”, near the end reminiscent of “Black House” and containing themes from the last Dark Tower novels, “Duma Key” is still very much its own story. Partly because the setting. Partly because… well, with King each story is its own, isn’t it? That’s why we remain Constant Readers.

Blaze (2007)

“Put money in briefcase. Be ready to go on a moments notise. Sincirely yours,
The kidnappers of Joe Gerard 4.”

Clayton Blaisdell, a.k.a. ‘Blaze’, is a huge man with a slow mind whose partner-in-crime has just died when the story begins, leaving him alone to carry out their final caper – the kidnapping of a baby. This simple story, engrossing but void of any significant surprises, is intertwined with what proves to be more or less Blaze’s entire life story. And a hard life it is, though not without moments of joy. It’s a simple but touching page-turner with both humour and some down-to-earth horror – mostly in the form of cold-hearted people – and perhaps just a touch of the supernatural. Along the way, a handful of ‘short cons’ performed by Blaze and the late George are presented.

Though not making any secret of the actual author, King dusted off his old pseudonym when finally publishing the story, since it was written around the time of most the ‘original’ Richard Bachman stories. In his foreword King rightly notes that ‘Blaze’ has more than a touch of “Of Mice and Men” in it. Add to that the main character’s fondness for Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” and, of course, King’s own style and unfiltered dialogue and you may get an idea of what’s in store. King also reveals that he, when finally revisiting and rewriting this decades old tale, changed his harsh opinion about it. And yes, it was worth publishing, and it’s worth reading. It is, above all, a fast read – the kind of book you pick up on vacation and put down finished a day or two later – it was in my case, at least.

Lisey’s Story (2006)

“I’ll holler you home”

Almost halfway through, Lisey’s Story is still “just” a book about two married people parted by death. Lisey Landon is tending to her mentally ill sister and going through her late writer husband’s things when she gets an unwelcome visit from a “fan”. No, it’s not Misery revisited. Intimate and daringly slow-moving it seems to be what some critics surely have rushed to dub “King’s serious book”. It is, to be sure, one of King’s many serious novels, but not as realistic as one might be lulled into thinking, if that is to be regarded as an intrinsic part of gravity.

The descent into bloody madness comes late but suddenly, merely hinted at throughout the first half of the book. King pulls no punches here, as he describes a family haunted by the seemingly inevitable fate of insanity (which comes in two flavours, different but equally frightening), nor does he remain in the world of established fact (who would have guessed?).

It’s also to a certain extent about the secret language of relationships and the penchant of writers for collecting words and phrases that ring true or perhaps just interesting to them – summed up in a phrase which King himself might well have caught in i similar fashion: “Catches from the word pool”.

As challenging as “Gerald’s Game” but more sympathetic, could be one description. Echoes of “Rose Madder” can also be heard. It also begs the question: has King ever written about a happy writer?

I must confess that I found one particular part of this moving story tough to stomach. No, I won’t say which one – it may be your absolute favourite section and there’s no use in spoiling that for you. Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I can safely express my admiration for the rest of it.

Lisey’s Story, which incidentally revisits his fictional town of Castle Rock, is pure King. If anyone should have the poor sense to hail this as a step in an entirely new direction and a higher echelon of seriousness, just ignore them, they’ve obviously just been skimming through his previous books. But perhaps this is even more personal and sad than usual. Some scenes make for truly gruelling reading, but the tenderness in the story – sometimes present even in the midst of violence and madness – makes it a deeply rewarding read.

Cell (2006)


Cell is dedicated to, and echoes the works of, filmmaker George A. Romero and writer Richard Matheson, but it is also very much a “typical” King book – more so, some might argue, than his most recent other publications. Cellphones bring about an apocalypse perhaps more reminiscent of King’s short story “The End of the Whole Mess” than “The Stand”. What seems at first to be mere bloodthirsty madness in the afflicted turns out to be of a more “ambitious” nature. Illustrator Clay tries to find his son in a world gone mad and finds new friends along the way – enabling King to expound on themes like communication and the parallels between the human brain and a computer.

This is an extraordinarily bleak tale, swinging between stubborn hopelessness and a more alarming sort of terror, but not entirely without it’s brighter moments. They pale, however, beside all the carnage that – presented with King’s usual, inflinching eye – becomes just as tragic as it is gory.

As for similarities between “Cell” and his or others’ tales: as long as King makes all his characters alive and real, the story will always be a new one. Simple as that.

The Colorado Kid (2005)

“Island living has a way of creeping into your blood, and once it gets there it’s like malaria. It doesn’t leave easily.”

This tale, published in the Hard Case Crime series and sporting a suitably pulp fiction-y cover which has little to do with the subject matter, might be called the kid brother of “From a Buick 8”. One might also say, without stooping to spoilery, that if you liked the latter you’ll likely to like this one – and vice versa, of course.

The nature of mystery is once more what King sets out to explore, for reasons he puts very well in the afterword. Two aged reporters on a Maine island tell their young, female apprentice-of-sorts about one “story” (insisting all the way that is in fact not an actual story) where the loose ends never really got tied up. A dead man found near a garbage can, a pack of cigarettes, cause of death seemingly not a crime.

Being a King tale, it’s not surprising that it also works as a written commercial on the beauty of New England and the quirky charm of the people there. An easy-to-read trifle that manages to be both frustrating and strangely fufilling.

The Dark Tower 7. The Dark Tower (2004)

While reading the epic (a project which for me spanned some 16 years), I haven’t consciously tried to imagine exactly how it would end, but of course ideas have floated around in my mind. The greatness of the conclusion to the tale is to me that I didn’t see it coming, but had no problems accepting it.

Of course, acceptance isn’t the same thing as complete happiness, and considering the amount of tragedy in the finale it’s hardly King’s goal. But it feels right.

Being in no mood to spoil the story, I will keep details at a minimum but I will say that the main boss at Algul Siento, residing over the patient destruction of the ever-important Beams, is a very striking representation of what might be called mundane evil. In fact, evil intent is far from his mind, although he’s perfectly aware of the nature of his job. After the exciting events here (and some equally important preceeding events) things swiftly take a turn for the darker. As in “Wolves of the Calla”, we are also reaquainted with characters from other King stories.

If the meta aspects (which are present, however much King hates the term metafiction) felt a bit jarring when first introduced, they feel less so here, and to my great relief they do not “shrink” the story into some witty punchline, as meta elements sometimes do. The increasingly apparent fact that the series is in part an exploration of writing and creativity does not take away from the story. In fact, it’s all a very fitting illustration of King’s recurring claim not to be in complete control of his stories.

Those with plenty of time on their hands will discuss the various logical aspects of the complete saga – now that all cards are on the table. I feel no urge to join the online discussions regarding King’s motives for this and that event or scene, a form of second-guessing which to me takes away from the experience. A favourite King line (from “The Mist”) comes to mind: “this is what happened”.

For my own part, I’ll just say that on an emotional level “The Dark Tower” is a dark, worthy and satisfying conclusion. Michael Whelan repeats his role as illustrator and has made heart-wrenching art of some of the most poignant moments – the details of which I will leave unmentioned.

So, thank-ya, King. This was a tale worth reading. In fact, it’s a tale which makes most other tales seem small in almost every aspect.

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