Well that's it, the King For A Year project has now drawn to a close.
When we (me, Alison Littlewood, Anthony Cowin, Ross Warren and Andrew Murray) first talked about doing this in April 2014, the original idea was for us to pick one novel each, write about it and link all the blog posts. It was Ross who suggested creating a blog (and Willie Meikle who named it) and once we mentioned it on social media, I was surprised at how many people were eager to get involved - at the time, it seemed an unlikely (and, to be honest, mammoth) undertaking but here were are, in January 2016 and it's done. What started out as a one-book-a-month review blog quickly became one-book-a-week and, as the year wound down, it became one-book-a-day.
Indeed, over the course of a year and 56 reviewers, we've looked at over 64 books and received over 29,000 views in return. Which isn't too bad at all really, is it?
For my part, as curator, I've enjoyed reading the reviews (in fact, I've put books on my TBR list based on some of them) and I'm thoroughly grateful to all of those people who 'put pen to paper' and let us know why they love a particular book and what it means to them.
Thanks to all of them (and their good humour with my 'early submissions are always welcome' reminder emails), thanks to all of the visitors who've come along and read (and I hope that, if you're a Constant Reader, you've had as much fun with this blog as I have) but most of all, thanks to Stephen King for making it all possible.
Since this will forever be the last post, I've listed all of the books reviewed and linked back directly to them for ease.
The Shining, reviewed by Anthony Cowin
Night Shift, reviewed by Stephen Bacon
The Dark Tower (The Dark Tower vol. VII), reviewed by Jenny Barber
Dr Sleep, reviewed by Wayne Parkin
Danse Macabre, reviewed by Kevin Bufton
'Salem's Lot, reviewed by Matthew Craig
From A Buick 8, reviewed by Neil Williams
Thinner, reviewed by Donna Bond
IT, reviewed by James Everington
Lisey's Story, reviewed by Dean M. Drinkel
Cell, reviewed by Maura McHugh
The Dead Zone, reviewed by Willie Meikle
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, reviewed by Alison Littlewood
Three novellas ("Ur", "Blockade Billy", "Mile 81"), reviewed by Kevin Bufton
On Writing, reviewed by Kit Power
Under The Dome, reviewed by Selina Lock
Rose Madder, reviewed by Rowan Coleman
Four Past Midnight, reviewed by John Llewellyn Probert
Christine, reviewed by Adele Wearing
The Regulators, reviewed by Shaun Hamilton
Carrie, reviewed by Lynda E. Rucker
Finders Keepers, reviewed by Bev Vincent
Dreamcatcher, reviewed by Kim Talbot Hoelzli
Revival, reviewed by David T. Wilbanks
Misery, reviewed by Jay Eales
Cycle Of The Werewolf, reviewed by Nadine Holmes
Joyland, reviewed by Gary McMahon
CUJO, reviewed by Thana Niveau
Skeleton Crew, reviewed by Phil Sloman
Different Seasons, reviewed by Dave Jeffery
Mr Mercedes, reviewed by Steven Savile
Gerald's Game, reviewed by Ray Cluley
The Colorado Kid, reviewed by Jim Mcleod
Needful Things, reviewed by Sharon Ring
Duma Key, reviewed by Liz Barnsley
Blaze, reviewed by Paul M. Feeney
Nightmare & Dreamscapes, reviewed by Christian Saunders
The Gunslinger, reviewed by Anthony Watson
Full Dark, No Stars, reviewed by Frazer Lee
Dolores Claiborne, reviewed by Carole Johnstone
The Dark Half, reviewed by Andrew Murray
A Face In The Crowd, Throttle and In The Tall Grass, reviewed by Kevin Bufton
The Drawing Of The Three, reviewed by Julie Cohen
Hearts In Atlantis, reviewed by Robert Mammone
Rage, reviewed by Johnny Mains
Pet Sematary, reviewed by Marc Lyth
Desperation, reviewed by J. G. Clay
Desperation, reviewed by Kit Power
11.22.63, reviewed by Chad Clark
11.22.63, reviewed by Kim Talbot Hoelzli
Insomnia, reviewed by Ross Warren
Duma Key, reviewed by Ren Warom
The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole, reviewed by Gef Fox
Just After Sunset, reviewed by Edward Lorn
Pet Sematary, reviewed by Charlotte Bond
Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, reviewed by David T Griffith
The Green Mile, reviewed by Simon Bestwick
Bag Of Bones, reviewed by Charlene Cocrane
The Eyes Of The Dragon, reviewed by Jay Faulkner
Firestarter, reviewed by Paul M. Feeney
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, reviewed by Steve Shaw
Black House, reviewed by Robert Spalding
Everything's Eventual, reviewed by J. G. Clay
The Stand, reviewed by Sheri White
Wednesday, 30 December 2015
The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition (1990)
I discovered Stephen King when I was a freshman in high school, way back in 1980. My friend Angie had his collection “Night Shift”, and we read the stories together in the Home Ec lab when we had free time. I was enthralled with King’s storytelling, and wanted to read more of his stuff.
I found “The Stand” in the mall bookstore. Since it was the 80s, the end-of-the-world scenario appealed to me, even though the thought of it really happening was terrifying in the Cold War years. And it was huge! It was a book I could get lost in.
My family had a membership at our neighborhood pool, and I read “The Stand” for several days while laying stomach-down on a towel in the grass, delighted screams of little kids splashing in the water barely registering because I was so engrossed.
From the moment Stu casually advises Hap to turn off his pumps as he watches a car weave dangerously towards the small-town gas station in East Texas, I was hooked. Stu, Frannie, Nick, Tom Cullen, and Larry Underwood fascinated me with their stories and how they survived in the new world. And while Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg were representative of Good and Evil, their followers were not as black and white. Harold was a lonely, bullied kid who was easily influenced by Nadine, who in turn was drawn to Randall Flagg even as she tried to resist his dark charm. And although Larry Underwood found himself on Mother Abigail’s “team,” he was pretty much an asshole until he found redemption as the world fell apart around him.
Okay, actually Julie Lawry was evil.
I hated reaching the end of the book. I wanted more. I hoped for a sequel, and checked the bookstore frequently. There was no Internet, of course, so you had to read the newspaper for upcoming new titles, or talk to the guy at the Brentano’s register. But the years went on, and I never heard news of a sequel, to my disappointment. I read the book over and over, though. So many times, I had to replace my copy frequently.
It was glorious. “The Stand: Complete & Uncut” was everything I had hoped for. Additional characters added depth to the original characters – for instance, Frannie’s mother. Mrs. Goldman’s coldness had been hinted at in the original, but the uncut version showed just how she disliked Frannie, even to the dismay of friends who witnessed Mrs. Goldman’s indifference to her daughter. The Kid added tension to Trash’s story; it wasn’t so stressful for him in the original when he just got to set fires to whatever he wanted, but when he was held hostage by The Kid, his situation turned sinister. And of course, his goal was a sinister one, but he was another influenced by evil even though he himself wasn’t a truly evil person.
One of my favourite additions to the uncut version was the “No Great Loss” section – mini-scenes of people who didn’t make it through the end of the world, even though they didn’t get sick. The young woman who was glad her husband and baby were dead so she could finally have a life, but ended up locking herself in a walk-in freezer to starve to death. The woman who accidentally shot herself while protecting herself against all the “rapists” (all men, in her eyes) coming to get her. The drug dealer who overdoses on heroin.
Those little tidbits added so much to the story. I am always wondering at “off-screen” characters in apocalypse scenarios. What happens to survivors we don’t see? How many die in a stupid way after making it through the flu, zombies, nuclear war? Maybe that house the hero passed has a little kid in it who needs help, or maybe there is an unseen shotgun trained on him as he walks by.
The uncut version satisfied some of that curiosity, and I was delighted those scenes were included.
I still re-read “The Stand” every year or so, but I haven’t gone back to the original. It had its charm, and I loved it when I was 14. Ten years later, though, the uncut version appealed to the 24-year-old mom I had become (the mom who was glad her daughter was dead horrified me, but wouldn’t have affected me like that as a teenager), and I can’t go back. I still have my copy of “The Stand: Complete & Uncut” First Edition hardback, but have replaced my tattered paperback several times, just like the original.
My enthusiasm for King’s writing has ebbed and flowed since 1980. I mean, “Lisey’s Story”? 'Mucking?' Really?
But I will never forget how I felt as I read that opening scene at the neighbourhood pool in the Summer of 1980 – completely captured by the magic King wove with nothing more than words.
Sheri White lives in Maryland with her family. She has had a love of horror since she was two years old and watched "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time. She is a mom to three girls, ages 27, 20, and 17 (and is now a brand-new grandma!), and has instilled a love of all things scary in them as well. Her husband Chris is very understanding.
In addition to reading and writing horror, Sheri also proofreads, edits, and reviews for many horror sites both online and in print. She is also the editor of Morpheus Tales magazine.
She has had fiction published in many small press magazines and anthologies since 2001 and can be found on Facebook and also on Twitter as @sheriw1965.
Monday, 28 December 2015
Short stories collections are the closest we authors get to the world of the rock star. Take a number of your finest (or your favourite) short works, slap them together, maybe tinker with the running order so it makes some sort of cohesive sense and, bingo; you have an album. All you need to do before release date is to pick a title. Some of my compatriots go the tried and tested route and pluck the collective moniker of their collection from one of the stories. Others (myself included), go for the mystical approach and pick a title that has nothing to do with any of the stories.
"Everything’s Eventual" is one of the former, a compilation that takes its evocative name from the seventh story. As ever with a King collection, the material falls into three distinct categories; ‘amazing’, ‘ok’ and ‘I won’t be reading that again anytime soon’. This is just a personal categorisation, by the way; not official in the slightest. I love the King’s writings but even I’ll concede that he can write some duff material on occasion. The fortunate thing about collections is that you can skip the not-so-good in favour of the great. To go back to my music analogy, it’s like skipping past that one song you can’t stand on an album.
Happily enough, "Everything’s Eventual" is a high quality piece. Of the fourteen stories contained within there are only three that I made a point of not reading and only two of those are stories that I don’t like. The third "The Little Sisters of Eluria"’ is a difficult one for me to fathom because I haven’t actually delved into the "Dark Tower" universe as yet Consequently, I have no idea what the bloody hell’s going on.
"L.T’s Theory of Pets" and "Lunch at the Gotham Café" just jar with me. I don’t know why but I find those really difficult to read.
That still leaves us with eleven tales to consider, and what quality tales they are. King revisits some well-worn horror tropes; the Devil, the Haunted Hotel Room, the Sinister Painting, even the Ghost Hitchhiker. You never get the sense that these are old tired clichés however. His usage of familiar horror frameworks still feel fresh. The narrator of "The Man in the Black Suit" - an old man guiding us through a bad childhood experience with the Devil – doesn’t come across as stilted or unbelievable. You can almost picture this grizzled old soldier sitting on a porch at sunset, his eyes worried and distant, as he remembers a sulphur smelling man swallowing a fish whole and taunting him about his mother’s death (a scene in which King really lays bare the cruel nature of Nature. He comes across as a mean minded bully).
In "Riding the Bullet", we get an inversion of the classic dead hitchhiker. A young college student trying to get home to his seriously ill mother and enduring the attentions of a crotch grabbing oldster, is picked up by George Staub. King doesn’t attempt to hide George’s very dead nature. Just before the protagonist meets his spectral driver, he comes across a headstone emblazoned with George’s name. The black stitching across George’s neck is also a massive giveaway away as well. As with "The Man in the Black Suit", George is revealed to have a callous bullying streak. He makes Alan (our hitchhiker) choose between who will die - Alan or his mother – and taunts him before Alan’s nerve finally snaps and he demands to be left by the side of the road.
The unpleasant side of human nature is a common thread throughout this book and they stand as testament to King’s skill at characterisation. From "In the Deathroom"’s Interrogator to the patronising Mike Enslin in "1408" and the ‘could be spook’ MR Sharpton in the titular story, we are given characters who reflect the more unsavoury aspects of the human race.
There are sympathetic characters to be had, however, it's not all nastiness. The comatose man of "Autopsy Room Four" is the victim of an unfortunate accident. Apart from his rubber glove fetish, he’s just a regular Joe unfortunate enough to be bitten by a venomous snake. Dink, the psychically gifted youngster of "Eventual" is a fundamentally decent kid who begins to question his role after researching his victims and finding that they aren’t enemies of the people, just enemies of the State. The protagonists of "All That You Leave Behind" and "That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French"’ are lonely troubled individuals but again you get the sense the sense that they are just normal decent people. It’s the ordinariness of the people and their surroundings that make this collection work so effectively. My personal favourite of the entire book goes so far as to use an everyday object to terrifying effect.
"The Road Virus Heads North" is the best of the bunch and one of the few things I’ve read that genuinely unsettles me (which is why it gets the biggest shout). It concerns a painting imbued with the dark and also a disturbing ability. The painting is a kid in a muscle car just driving –standard stuff until you notice the man’s sharp teeth and gimlet eyed stare, created by a mentally disturbed artist who killed himself not long after the piece’s completion. Enter our hero, Richard Kinnell, horror author and seemingly nice bloke, who buys the painting after noticing it at a yard sale. From here on in, things get decidedly creepy as the car in the picture seems to be heading in Richard’s direction. Understandably freaked out, Richard tries his best to get rid of the ‘Road Virus’, dumping it, even trying to burn it but the thing defies all attempts to destroy it. In the final paragraphs we’re left with the painting now changed to the car parked outside Richard’s house, and the heavy tread of footsteps climbing up his stairs. This story is made creepier by the fact that this painting actually exists and is owned by King. Whether it has come to life at any point is a question only the King can answer.
So there you have it. All of us bonded by our love of King’s work have our favourite collections. Some go for the raw energy of a fledgling horror legend as demonstrated by "Night Shift"; others prefer the slash and burn straight forward horrors of "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" or "Just before Sunset".
For me, "Everything’s Eventual" is the premium collection. King takes us down familiar roads with familiar fears, but makes the journey interesting, lively and unsettling. This is one I’d definitely recommend.
J.G Clay is definitely a Man of Horror. There can be no doubt. Putting aside the reverence he has for the horror greats, such as King, Barker, Herbert, Carpenter, Romero and Argento, there is another fact that defines his claim for the title of the 'Duke of Spook'. He was born on Halloween night. By a quirk fate, it was also a full moon that night. Co-incidence?
The 41 year old hails from the Midlands in the United Kingdom, is married with one step child and two dogs that bear a strong resemblance to Ewoks. Beyond the page and the written word, he is music mad and can hold down a tune on a bass guitar pretty well. He is an avid reader and also has an enduring love of British sci-fi, from the pages of the '2000A.D' comic to the televised wanderings of Gallifrey's most famous physician. Clay is also a long-time fan of the mighty Birmingham City Football Club and endures a lot of flak from his friends for it.
Wednesday, 23 December 2015
Originally I read this back in May, just before I moved house and life got too awkward for me to be able to sit and write the review; by the time I was finally organised enough to write, the book was no longer fresh in my mind. So I decided I had to re-read it, how hard could it be? I'd loved the book just a few months earlier.
"Black House" is a sequel to "The Talisman", and when I read it for the first time I didn't know that. I decided that I would try to re-experience it the same way, by not reading "Talisman" again before I reviewed it.
I did not expect that I would be reading the same book twice to bring you my thoughts.
Part of the reason this has taken so long is that "Black House" opens with almost one hundred pages of omniscient narration that introduces us to the major players in the story to come, but delivers very little in terms of plot momentum.
Back in May I was in love with this, the tiny vignettes of people I had forgotten and a great way to get a feel for the world. These last two months, that opening has been the brick wall between me and the story. I remember everyone this time, fun as it is to be reintroduced to Henry Leyden, the sheer slowness of the scene setting actively turned me away from the book.
As I got to the end of the book quite some time later, I found myself drawing parallels between the opening of the novel and the titular Black House. It had felt like it was pushing me away, making my eyes slide across the words, making me work extra hard to get past the barrier to what I wanted to get at. Its a strange thing to think of a novel channelling the power of its dark heart to keep you from the story it contains, but that's where my thoughts turned to.
Finding the opening a slog, I would try every so often, just a little nibble at a time, making my slow progress forward. I was absolutely regretting needing to reread it and the size of it didn't help. This is not a slim book, while smaller than much of King's later output there's a hefty investment required. I tried to skim read, just let it be a refresher, but even though the slowness was off-putting, the writing was still strong enough to make me force every word into my head.
Then, suddenly, I was past the introduction and as the story gathered pace again, I found myself drawn in again, quite happily to this world.
For me, every time, it is the character of Henry Leyden that brings the greatest joy. I can't say he is a unique character, but he just works, I can see him and hear him, all of his hims. Which, as he is a blind man with several voices, warms my heart. Because this is a novel of characters first and plot second. Without all of the time spent deepening the characters, this could have been half the size and would have been nowhere near as enveloping. While Jack Sawyer is a fine man to spend time with, he has never held my attention as much as those characters that swirl around him, Beezer, Doc, Mouse, Judy, Sophie, Wendell, Dale, the 'Mad Hungarian'. They are all given time to breathe. Even characters long dead get plenty of page time to make themselves feel real.
It was only on this second reading that all this became clear to me. If I had written this review earlier this year I would talk about the sense of dread in the town, the sadness I felt at two deaths which I have remembered ever since my very first reading a decade ago. But I wouldn't have been so consumed by the characters as I am now.
This is why I think it took me so long to get through the opening. All I had remembered about the book was the plot, but the opening sets out its stall quite clearly. This book is not about the plot. When I didn't start with the book I thought I remembered, my brain let it slide away, some slippage seeping out of French Landing and into my world. Once they became alive in my mind, once they started to act, that's when Black House had me firmly in its grip.
So then, what's this book about? It seems a very simple set up, in a small town in Wisconsin, children are being murdered. The local sheriff is out of his depth, the town is terrified. The sheriff wants a friend of his, a star LA detective who has retired in the town, to assist with the case. It sounds like a standard small town thriller, doesn't it? But it isn't. The killer is revealed very early on and the reasons behind his spree and neither standard nor natural.
The investigation of the crimes mostly takes a backseat to developing the characters. However, it also takes a place behind the real story of the murders which cannot be contained to a simple murder investigation. Tying in, as it does, with the worlds of King's Dark Tower, there are powers at work in this town and on Jack “Hollywood” Sawyer that take us out of the common serial killer and into the fate of worlds.
This mixture just works, the everyday is our way in, but the extraordinary is seeded early on and then built upon. This isn't a book that changes gear halfway through and makes you realise it was a different kind of story all along. Instead it draws you in, using the term “slippage” to get you in the mood for what's coming. While the story doesn't exactly end with a twist, its resolution isn't one you are likely to guess at early on.
Now that the house is gone and the story is done, where do I want to go? I will certainly be reading "The Talisman" next, its sat right next to me as I type. After that, I think I will follow the threads dropped into the book in its final charge to The Big Combination and revisit Roland and "The Dark Tower".
Robert Spalding is an occasional writer and full time pack leader of five small dogs whose work has been published in Terror Tales of the Seaside and Sharkpunk. His dogs can usually be found asleep or charging about the garden. He sometimes blogs at robspalding.wordpress.com and tweets a bit at @robspalding
Monday, 21 December 2015
Much as I love King’s novels, it’s with his shorter writings that my heart lies. Maybe it’s because my first experience of SK was his 1982 novella collection "Different Seasons", which I read in my early teens. Maybe it’s because my favourite of all King’s work is a short story (‘All That You Love Will Be Carried Away’). Maybe it’s because I have a short attention span. Whatever the reason, my preference has certainly been indulged over the years, with nine collections of short stories and/or novellas to date (ten if you count "Hearts in Atlantis", but I don’t), comprising 85 short stories, 20 novellas, 3 poems and one essay.
(first published as a
Kindle exclusive ebook, February 2009) Ur
"The Bazaar of Bad Dreams", then, represents King’s tenth collection in 40 years – a pretty prolific output in anyone’s book – and adds another 16 shorts, 2 novellas and 2 poems to the tally. The book is presented as (from the dust jacket) “a generous collection of stories – some brand new, all assembled together for the first time,” and whilst this is technically true, it should be noted that only two of the 20 pieces are previously unpublished, with one further receiving its first English language publication and one which has previously only been released in audio format. That said, the majority of the remainder were published in magazines – most of which are not readily available in this country – so for
readers at least this is a
(mostly) new read. UK
On that note, to the tales themselves…
Mile 81 (first published as a Kindle exclusive ebook, September 2011)
In which an abandoned rest stop provides the backdrop for an unlikely monster.
Mile 81 returns to one of King’s favourite themes: the openness of a child’s mind to accept things which older heads would be unable to grasp. On this occasion, it falls to pre-teen Pete Simmons – abandoned by his brother for being too young to play with the elder sibling and his friends – to deal with events at a broken-down rest stop near the titular Interstate marker. A reasonably good example of King’s monster stories, it suffers slightly from an ending which feels almost throw-away, as if the author thought “I have to finish this somehow… well, this’ll do.” Aside from the last few pages, a strong, well-written piece reminiscent of "Nightmares & Dreamscapes"-era King, and a decent opener.
Premium Harmony (first published in The New Yorker, November 2009)
In which nothing really happens.
In his introduction to ‘Premium Harmony’, King references reading a lot of Raymond Carver while he was writing this story. It certainly has that sort of feel to it – a window opens on everyday life, events occur, then the window closes again – but with an added touch of King’s black humour. Ray and Mary Burkett, along with their Jack Russell, pull into the parking lot of a convenience store, so that Mary can buy a particular ball. Events unfold from there, but there really isn’t much more to say about this one.
Batman and Robin Have an Altercation (first published in Harper’s Magazine, September 2012)
In which Dougie takes his Dad to lunch.
Another ‘slice-of-life’ piece, and one of a number in this collection which show King contemplating his own mortality more than ever before. Dougie’s father lives in a care home, and once a week his son takes him out to lunch. The rest of the tale unfolds from there, as Dougie deals with his father’s Alzheimer’s and confused memories. Ultimately a more successful story than its predecessor, with a conclusion that should bring emotion to the stoniest of faces.
The Dune (first published in Granta, Autumn 2011)
In which the Judge goes kayaking.
Retired Judge Beecher relates his experiences kayaking to a deserted island, where he finds names written on the beach; names whose owners subsequently die. Although thematically completely different, for some reason this piece reminds me of ‘The Jaunt’ (collected in Skeleton Crew). A return to early, Night Shift-era King, for a tale of the inexplicable with a satisfyingly wry ending.
Bad Little Kid (previously unpublished in the English language)
In which George ages, but the kid doesn’t.
One of King’s favourite frameworks is to place his protagonist in a given situation and have them recount key events, either to the reader or a third party, leading to an explanation of their current circumstances (see The Green Mile, amongst many, many others). Such is the case here, where George Hallam explains to his death row lawyer the events that led to his incarceration for murdering the titular Kid. One of the stand-out stories in this collection.
A Death (first published in The New Yorker, March 2015)
In which justice is served.
A slight tale of Western justice, as Jim is arrested and judged for the murder of a young girl in the late 19th Century. This is a piece that is less about the story and more about the telling and the language used, and one that provoked no response in me whatsoever.
(first published in Playboy, November 2009) Bone Church
In which a jungle expedition goes badly.
I have never been a big reader of poetry, and King’s poems in particular have always left me flat, so I won’t have much to say about the two included here. ‘The
’ concerns a group of explorers in
an unnamed jungle, who meet their end one-by-one due to snakes, spiders,
leeches and, eventually, mammoths. Another piece which said nothing at all to
me. Bone Church
Morality (first published in Esquire, July 2009. Subsequently as a bonus story in Blockade Billy, April 2010)
In which Nora has a decision to make.
I first encountered ‘Morality’ at the same time as ‘Blockade Billy’, as a bonus story in the latter’s eponymous hardback in 2010. I recall preferring this to the main feature at the time, and revisiting it my position hasn’t changed. Nora works as a carer for an elderly man who has led an exemplary life with one thing missing – he has never committed a major sin. Now, in his final years, he hits upon an idea: if he can persuade Nora to sin for him by proxy, he can vicariously experience not only the sin itself, but also the corruption of the previously (relatively) innocent. An interesting idea leads to a thoughtful piece addressing one of the oldest questions: how far would you go for the right reward?
Afterlife (first published in Tin House, June 2013)
In which William dies…at least once.
A more whimsical tale, as investment banker William Andrews dies and goes to bureaucratic limbo, where he is presented with a choice… A fun, if lightweight, cyclical piece, which serves as an excellent palate cleanser between the tales that bookend it.
In which Wesley buys a Kindle.
’ is another story I
was already familiar with before picking up this collection, having listened to
the audiobook reading several times, and is – for me at least – the strongest
story here. It concerns Wesley Smith, English teacher, whose purchase of a
Kindle is prompted by a break-up, during which his girlfriend asks why he can’t
“read off the computer like the rest of us?” Upon examining the device, Wesley
finds that it has an unexpected menu, which allows him to read stories from
other ‘Urs’ (dimensions? realities?) Of particular interest to Wesley is
discovering that, in other Urs, Hemingway (among others) wrote different works,
which have never been seen before. However, this discovery is tempered when Wes
investigates two other functions: Ur News, which displays newspapers from other
dimensions, and Ur Local, which seems to predict the future in this one… This
is a well-rounded, satisfying story which, as a bonus, links back to King’s
overarching Dark Tower mythos at the
end, with a welcome return appearance by the Low Men in Yellow Coats. Ur
Herman Wouk Is Still Alive (first published in The Atlantic, May 2011)
In which a picnic is rudely interrupted.
Phil and Pauline, both in their seventies, both poets, are picnicking and reading each other’s work. Meanwhile, Brenda and her friend Jaz, along with their collection of kids, are drinking and driving, wondering how fast their rented minivan will go – a question which is ultimately answered before a sudden unexpected stop. Another one of those stories where the destination is less important than the journey; unfortunately, for me, the journey was about as interesting as the interstate that features in it.
Under the Weather (first published as a bonus story in the paperback edition of Full Dark, No Stars, May 2011)
In which Ellen becomes unwell.
An unnamed narrator cares for his sickening wife, who sleeps a lot, in an apartment building which has a curious rotting smell, probably due to rats. If you’ve ever read a story before, you will already know what the ending of this one is, but that doesn’t mean that the tale isn’t worth your time. Predictable, and yet well-written and touching.
Blockade Billy (first published as a stand-alone novella, April 2010)
In which the story of a 1950s baseball player is told.
I had read ‘Blockade Billy’ on its original release in 2010, but not since, and I didn’t remember much about it, other than it had to do with baseball. Revisiting the story five years later, I can see why it wasn’t memorable. It is, of course, well-written, but baseball is such a big part of it that I think it loses something when read by non-US readers. The story itself is pretty simple – George Grantham, third base coach for the New Jersey Titans, relates the history of William Blakeley, a ball player whose major league career has been expunged from the record books. The story hangs on two things: firstly, the aforementioned love of baseball, and secondly, the reason why Billy’s career was forgotten. This last could have turned it around for me, but ultimately the ‘twist’ just didn’t hold my interest, and I was left feeling both disappointed and somewhat cheated.
Mister Yummy (previously unpublished)
In which Ollie sees a spirit which predicts death.
Yes, we’re here again. Another elderly man, close to death, in a retirement home, relates the story of how bizarre things happened to him; this time it’s a premonition whenever someone close to him is about to die. At this point, King could put together a collection solely comprised of these ‘old man flashback tales.’ That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, and this isn’t necessarily a bad story, but we’ve been here before.
Tommy (first published in Playboy, March 2010)
In which Tommy’s funeral is held.
A highly personal poem, in which King reminisces over the funeral of a friend 40+ years on.
The Little Green God of Agony (first published in A Book of Horrors (ed. Stephen Jones, Jo Fletcher Books), September 2011)
In which a healer is summoned, and summons in return.
Following a plane crash, Newsome is bed-ridden and in near constant pain. Having tried multiple different therapies, he finally seeks help from Reverend Rideout, who offers to literally, physically, remove the agony. In many ways the dark reflection of ‘Morality’ – a corrupt man instead of a virtuous one; a man who seeks to be rid of an experience, rather than have a new one – ‘The Little Green God of Agony’ is clearly inspired by King’s own recuperation after his accident in 1999. Unfortunately, whilst entertaining, it falls short of mirroring the earlier story in quality.
That Bus Is Another World (first published in Esquire, August 2014)
has a decision to
Another slight tale, this one of a man who, while riding in a cab, witnesses a murder on a bus in the next lane. The story here, however, is not the crime itself, but rather how
chooses to deal with what he’s seen. Another story inspired by a true event
(although not a killing), this is another mirror to ‘Morality’, thematically
this time, and more successfully rendered than its predecessor. Wilson
Obits (previously unpublished)
‘Obits’ is very much a treatise on celebrity obsession; our protagonist is an online journalist for a celebrity ‘news’ site, writing acerbic obituaries for dead pseudo-celebrities, who finds that writing obits before the subject is dead becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in the most literal way. One of the most accomplished stories in the collection – and also, tellingly, one of the most recent – this tale gives me hope that maybe the best of King’s short stories are not yet behind him.
Drunken Fireworks (first published as a stand-alone audiobook, June 2015)
In which a lakeside arms race is sparked off by a few firecrackers.
Alden McCausland and his mother live by
, after winning
big on the State Lottery. One July 4th, Alden celebrates with
fireworks, resulting in an annual battle with the shady Italian family across
the lake. An interesting idea which could have led to great things, but which
ultimately turn out to be a damp squib. Lake
Summer Thunder (first published in Turn Down the Lights (ed. Richard Chizmar, Cemetery Dance Publications), December 2013)
In which Robinson’s world ends, in a manner of his choosing.
As King says himself in his introduction to this piece, “What better place to end a collection than with a story about the end of the world?” Set not long after an unspecified apocalypse, it finds Robinson, his neighbour Timlin, and a stray dog named Gandalf the only survivors of a lakeside community. Another musing on mortality, choices and love for a 1986 Harley Davidson Softail, it is a pleasant, if uninspiring, closer to the collection.
A number of things are immediately obvious after finishing this collection. A lot of the characters are older, as might be expected from an author in his late 60s, and a good number of his tales are now set in
, where he and his wife spend half of
each year. One other thing is also evident to me – this is not the same Stephen
King who wrote "Night Shift", "Skeleton Crew"or even "Everything’s Eventual". This is not the
King who told us of eyes growing in the palms of hands, shipwrecked surgeons
turned auto-cannibals and decapitated women giving birth; this is the King who
tells of old men dying peacefully in their beds, and who spins stories where,
frankly, nothing happens. The stand-out stories here – ‘Obits’, ‘Ur’, ‘Bad
Little Kid’ – give hope that there may be more quality to come, but ultimately "The Bazaar of Bad Dreams" is merely
interesting, rather than outstanding. Florida
Steve J Shaw is a fan who's not sure how he lucked into the business. From his draughty garret somewhere in the Kent countryside he has created the most compact of horror empires, now comprising one clothing company and two publishing imprints. As editor, his most recent books are Wild Things, from Black Shuck Books, and Play Things & Past Times, from KnightWatch Press.
Steve can be found online in all the wrong places, one of which is his website at Great British Horror.
Friday, 18 December 2015
Over the last few months, I've had many occasions to ponder the idea of subjectivity versus objectivity where works of fiction are concerned; specifically, when a particularly 'contentious' book appears, dividing opinion and now and again leading to heated debates (and arguments). And - aptly enough - this often happens with Stephen King's books, which is only natural as he is our (yes, our; he is, through and through, a horror writer) most well known author. And probably most well read, too (by others I mean, not himself). And in many of these discussions (arguments), the final comments tend to devolve into variations on 'agree to disagree', or 'well, that's just my opinion'; pointing to an innate inability to present an objective argument against the book (or, by extrapolation, any work of creativity). And this would be true if the only thing that were up for debate was the reader's reaction to the work; essentially, stances of 'I liked it', 'I hated it' and all the myriad shades between these. Except...except writing - and reading - is, or should be (I believe) so much more than this. I'd suggest if you are incapable of separating your - very - subjective opinion of how much you liked (or disliked) a book, from the very real objective, practical aspects of the writing itself, you're possibly not in the best place to argue your case; or are certainly missing out on a large part of the discussion. Of course, the notion of what's good prose itself can be suffused with subjectivity, but I do believe you can set baselines for pace, rhythm and flow; and then there’s grammar, punctuation, sentence structure and so on; and a greater understanding of these comes with time, experience and reading widely. Otherwise - to say it all comes down to simply a matter of taste - you give anything a pass, and you are putting the best of fiction and its worst examples on the same footing. Which is simply ludicrous. I’ve been misunderstood on this point in the past, and while I don’t agree that any one person’s subjective opinion of a work is more valid than another’s - at least, not where mere opinions of like/dislike are concerned - it’s a massive disservice to the craft of fiction writing to suggest that the practical elements of prose are not just as important as any other aspect. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy something that’s perhaps not very well written from an objective point of view; and the converse can apply too. To give an example, I adore the Harry Potter books, but as an exercise in prose writing, they do leave a lot to be desired. Similarly, I can appreciate good writing in other arenas, but it may be that the story itself is not for me (or bores me rigid). I've had this with a few shorts I've come across. And this leads me to King.
I've seen King lambasted for an almost infinite variety of fiction 'sins'; seen him criticised six ways from Sunday. I've even seen someone dismiss him as 'writing like an amateur' (and if you knew who that was and saw their work, you'd choke with astonished laughter at the irony...). Yet, aside from the occasional awkward line or clunky bit of prose - which we all suffer from, from time to time - I truly believe King is up there with the greatest writers, and my opinion only becomes cemented more and more, the more I read of other, wonderful, writers. However, that doesn't mean that I've loved everything of King's I've read; no siree. There are a handful of books and stories I've struggled with, but I can say - with almost one hundred percent conviction - that it was not the writing that was the problem, but my response to the story. And that, ladies and gentlemen, lies almost squarely in the province of the subjective. All of which (and I apologise if I've bored you thus far) brings me to the book I'm revisiting here; Firestarter.
Published in 1980 and coming at a time when King was on the - rapid - ascent, "Firestarter" is one of King's novels that almost exclusively never gets mentioned when discussions of his early, classic work arise. Everyone remembers "Carrie", "The Shining", "'
Salem's Lot", "The
Dead Zone", "The Stand"; even the collection (collection!) "Night
Shift" gets props, and the books that followed "Firestarter" - "Cujo", "Christine" and "Pet Sematary" - are mentioned with equal reverence
(most of the time). Yet "Firestarter" tends to be the forgotten one, the
black sheep of this family. I first read it way back in the early to mid 90s,
and I can't recall much from that reading except that I wasn't impressed at
all. Yet the basic plot sounds right up my street; shady government
experiments, enhanced human beings with almost superhero type powers, a frantic
chase across the country, evil people masquerading as the good guys; what's not
to love? So when the book came up for the King For A Year project, I thought, 'why
the fuck not?' And here we are.
I won't go over the plot too much, save to say it concerns - mainly - eight year old Charlene McGee, the daughter of two people who got involved in a shady experiment in the 60s trailing an experimental drug that appeared to give both of them psychic abilities. Their abilities pass on to Charlie, where it seems to have mutated and grown immeasurably; Charlie can create fire from nothing, amongst other, slightly less explosive (haha) powers. The first half of the book has Charlie and her father Andy on the run from The Shop, a shady and seemingly untouchable government agency (who were also responsible for the initial experiment leading to all this). The second half of the book has Charlie and Andy indefinitely detained in The Shop's secret compound while the organisation’s scientists experiment on both. And throughout all this, there are flashbacks and recalled events filling in the blanks. If all this sounds a shade unusual for a Stephen King book - though by this point, he had already released three novels where main characters had psychic abilities - that's probably because it reads much more like a thriller than a horror. In fact, there really isn't any horror in this story at all, aside from a few violent events and, perhaps, the threatening shadow cast by The Shop and some of its operatives (more on that in a mo). This impression is bolstered by the opening, which puts us straight into Andy and Charlie's desperate flight. It's a move typical of thrillers and action books, eschewing a slow build-up for fast paced action and peril. Any character study or back-story is thrown in piecemeal, with short recollections through Andy's memory, or the POV deviations to the agent chasing the pair. I think this clearly demonstrates that King knows what he's doing here; he knows this story is a thriller - albeit one with slightly paranormal attributes, and even those have a cod-scientific explanation - and he knows (superficially, at least) how to write one. And it’s bloody enjoyable. I was sucked in from page one, flying through the early sections very quickly; feeling trepidation and concern for these two unlikely and weary fugitives, who haven’t even had time to grieve for the loss of Vicky, Andy’s wife and mother to Charlie. King puts across a palpable and convincing portrait of a man and his daughter who are haggard, harassed, shell-shocked, and running out of both time and fortune as The Shop closes in; their tanks are almost at empty. We also get snippets from the POV of the agents chasing them, and while this robs the organisation of some of its shadowy power, it conversely serves to up the tension as we see how close they are getting to their quarry. Added to these early pages are some classic examples of show and tell, where we see both Andy and Charlie’s abilities in use - he with the power to push people into doing what he wants, though at great cost to his physical self; she with her fire ability, though it is wild and uncontrollable when unleashed - rather than merely being told about them. It’s a very good opener and fits right in with the notion of the book as a modern - for its time - thriller.
The problems - for me - start to appear as we head towards the mid-point of the book, and they are hinted at even early on. One of the criticisms often levied at King is that he takes far too long to get to the point, and while I don’t agree that this is justified in most cases, here it definitely feels as though it’s the case. While he handles the action of the story well enough - following their nick of time escape at the start of the book, Andy and Charlie receive brief respite at an old farmhouse, before they’re tackled by Shop agents again in a disastrous (for the agents) scene that seems to have been lifted many years later by the movie "X-Men 2" - it’s the quiet moments in between that feel dull and drawn out. Not that there’s anything wrong with quiet moments in a thriller; or, indeed, any type of book. I’d argue that they’re necessary in a book full of action, to give shape and pace to the story; providing dips amid the peaks. The problem here is that they seem to go on for interminable pages without anything of real substance or value being spoken about. After the botched operation at the farmhouse, the pair hole up in an old family cabin and it’s this section that really dragged for me. A sizeable chunk of the book is taken up with overly descriptive detail of nothing of importance while the two drift along in situ much like the narrative; formless, purposeless and without any sense of being necessary. Even at the halfway mark, when they’re both finally caught and imprisoned by The Shop and we see them again three months later, the narrative feels sluggish and drawn out. It’s only when plans are formulated later in the book - about three quarters through - that the pace picks up again, and starts to rattle to its mostly satisfying conclusion.
I also had issues with the depiction of some characters and The Shop itself. Because of the piecemeal way in which the narrative plays out, you never get a full sense of who the players are. Even Andy and Charlie are a little two-dimensional, Charlie most of all over the course of the book; the narrative is supposed to show her developing emotionally as the story unfolds, as she moves from being afraid of her power to refusing to use it, before finally learning to control it and almost enjoy. Yet I got little sense of this happening in an organic way; it seemed that we were to simply accept it as having happened, through a couple of throwaway lines. The gap of three months between capture and picking them up again doesn’t help in this instance, as everything then gets spoken of in retrospect, robbing it of impetus. As for The Shop; as much as I love the idea of this organisation, and the role it plays, I wasn’t quite convinced of its overreaching power, its position as an unaccountable force. Part of this, I think, is that we get too much insight into a number of its agents and they tend to be two-dimensional bully boys, taking cruel, immature delight in hurting those they see as weaker than themselves. It's not a terrible way to depict your antagonists, but it does strip them of that overshadowing nature that I think an organisation like this would require; it reduces them, makes them less serious, less significant. I also felt that the likes of Buddy Repperton from "Christine", or Henry Bowers from "IT" were far more terrifying presences. The only possible exception to this is the scarred form of John Rainbird, one of The Shop's most callous and probably psychotic agents (who is, essentially, a hitman); his aura of placid amorality unnerving even those he works with and for. And the method by which he manipulates and hoodwinks Charlie in the latter stages of the book is pretty chilling. Yet for all that, he still doesn't seem to dominate the narrative the way I feel he should. I think this is my biggest issue with the book; all the elements are present, it's just that none of them seem to feel big enough for the story. There's far too much waffle and meandering in between the actual action, and very little of it actually necessary to the unfolding story. Certainly most of it could have been told in a far more concise fashion.
However it does pick up again in the last quarter; as Charlie's powers grow, as Andy starts to formulate a desperate plan to escape, as the intentions of both Rainbird and The Shop towards both their prisoners begin to turn to the terminal... The pace really starts to pick up here, and it's a welcome return. There is also a nice line in the extent of Charlie's powers, a hint that they might be limitless, reaching far beyond anything any of the characters - Charlie herself included - could have possible feared or imagined. I also loved the scene when Charlie finally unleashes her powers against those who have taken her - and her father's - liberty, have experimented on her, and have pushed her into using the one thing she wishes she could get rid of. It's the sort of thing King is great at, the turning of the tables on bullies and oppressors; and it's something I'm an absolute sucker for. Even though I felt he could have gone further with this, I recognise that it's appropriate for an eight year old child to not necessarily want to go on a revenge/murder rampage...
Sadly, the final chapter returns to that ponderous, dragging method of writing with a twenty page epilogue that could - and probably should, in my opinion - have been only a couple of pages long. It cements - for me - the idea that this book would have worked far better as a novella, taking out all the extraneous fat and making it a lean, powerful, fast moving action-thriller. Alternatively, King could have expanded massively on the mythology and concepts, giving everything the breathing space I felt it required, making the book more epic in scope. Instead we have something that feels uneven, choppy and thin; characterisations that feel half-hearted, a plot that feels too small and intimate despite its national (and potentially global) implications. Might just be me, but I think this is possibly why "Firestarter" is not really mentioned much when people gather to talk about their favourite King works. A missed opportunity, I feel.
One thing I did take away at the end of the book was the notion that this novel could really benefit from a sequel; a revisiting to Charlie and her strange powers. Far more than the uneven sequel to "The Shining", "Doctor Sleep", I'd actually love to know what Charlie did after she grew up. I think that has the potential to be something very interesting, especially in the current climate of superhero adulation. After all, Charlie is only one or two steps away from an X-Men...
Paul M. Feeney is fast approaching middle-age but denying all knowledge of it. He was born in
. Having migrated and lived
all over the Scotland UK and Ireland, he is now currently settled in the
North-east of .
An avid and passionate fiction reader - his first love being horror and all
things dark - he has recently turned his hand to writing with a number of short
stories currently in publication and several others due throughout 2016. He has
also had his first novella, "The Last Bus", published by Crowded Quarantine as a
limited signed & numbered paperback in late 2015, and his second novella "Kids" is due in mid-2016 from another small press. He continues to turn out
short stories at a leisurely pace, while contemplating more novellas, and the
dreaded first novel. In between working a dull, full-time job and trying to
finish his stories, he also contributes the occasional review and article to
The Ginger Nuts Of Horror website. England
Paul previously reviewed "Blaze" (which can be found here) in the King For A Year project
Thursday, 17 December 2015
The thing about the novel is that it has become a Marmite book – you either love it or hate it. I’ve spoken to King fans who hated it even though they’ve never even read it, purely due to the fact that they claim it is fantasy rather than horror. The thing is, though, that I think that King always writes fantasy, just sometimes it is darker, more real, and horrific than others.
That said I’ve always felt that ‘The Eyes of the Dragon’ is different from all other King books for one reason: I don’t think it is even really aimed at adults at all, I think it's aimed at the same sort of age group who read Harry Potter, or The Hobbit. It reads as a bedtime story for just as you are wrapping your head under the blankets on a dark and stormy night, mirroring the tone – and the weather - of the book itself. Perhaps that is another reason the book divides the fans; it’s King’s first young adult or children’s book without being purely aimed just for children. Confused? Don’t be. All you need to know is that, with ‘The Eyes of the Dragon’, King weaves a truly engaging spell and gives us his twist on a ‘fairy tale’ that would do the Brothers Grimm or even Disney proud.
The story is told throughout from the viewpoint of an unseen narrator, or storyteller, and King adopts this ‘storyteller’ voice with ease, adding charm and colour to the book. The experience of reading it is similar in tone in some ways to "Stardust" or "The Princess Bride", and has echoes of Morgenstern's voice but is very clearly King’s own.
King tells a vibrant story filled with invention and detail. His characters are a diverse set of good and decent people from peasants to royalty, from servants to friends, and allies to enemies, and King manages to ensure they are each their own unique personality. King Roland doesn’t mean to love his son Peter more than his son Thomas, but he cannot help himself. Thomas is always overshadowed by his ‘perfect’ brother, and desperately wants his father’s love. The king’s magician, Flagg (who has shown up in many King novels, sometimes under other names, but always just as evil), has been waiting for hundreds of years to cause mayhem on the kingdom. He is the king’s advisor, and all people fear him—and rightly so. And these are just three of the many and varied characters; there are so many others and King ensures that he devotes the same attention to them all, no matter how many pages they are in the book for. It is this attention for detail that he is known for and he keeps it going here.
The premise of the book itself, as would be expected in a ‘fairy tale’, is a relatively simple one but in Stephen King’s hand it takes on a life of its own and while you hope that the ‘happy ever after’ you'd expect from a ‘fairy tale’ is coming, because it is King you are never quite sure if you are going to get your wish.
The pacing is brisk and things look bleaker right up to the last few pages, the last few words. Flagg, the evil magician, is finally so close to getting his way with the Kingdom of Delain. Peter, the rightful ruler, is locked up in a high tower, close to death, with only a napkin between him and a certain death. It is at this point the reader suddenly remembers, breathless, that you are not just reading any old book about a battle between good and evil, but that you are reading a book by the master of horror, Stephen King.
I won’t tell you how ‘The Eyes of the Dragon’ ends, but I will tell you two other things:
1/ you should read it for yourself so that you can find out and 2/ it’s worth doing so because, as a lifelong Stephen King fan, it is that damn good. Honestly.
Jay Faulkner resides in Northern Ireland with his wife, Carole, and their two boys, Mackenzie and Nathaniel. He says that while he is a writer, martial artist, sketcher, and dreamer he’s mostly just a husband and father. He sometimes even finds time to sleep.
His work has been published widely, both online and in print, and was short-listed in the 2010 Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition. He is currently working on his first novel.
Wednesday, 16 December 2015
The first time I read this book I had just turned thirty and even though I was already married, the horror of losing a spouse didn't get through to me like it did this time. Now, after just having celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary, the idea of losing my husband is unfathomable. Stephen King dove deep into those fathoms and dragged me along with him. I did not like what I saw or felt. That, right there, is the reason why Stephen is the KING.
I'm not going to go into the plot too much here, this is an old book and it's even had a made-for-TV-movie, so I can't say much that most people don't already know. This story is a combination of ghost story, revenge, and love story. It has genuinely scary moments and other moments so poignant that I found myself with tears in my eyes.
But what is most important about this tale, about all of King's works, really, are the characters. King creates characters that are so real you feel like you can reach out and touch them. They are so real, you take in their emotions as your own. And he does it by not shying away from the ugly moments we all experience inside our own heads.
The fact that widower Mike Noonan lusts after a young woman is painful for Mike to acknowledge and we, the Constant Readers, can feel how Mike is torn between that lust and guilt, and all the tangled feelings of betrayal and loss that go along with that. Even though he's widowed, he feels these emotions and we can feel them too. In our hearts, we know what Mike is feeling is true, because that's how WE would feel.
Not only does King draw great good characters, he draws great bad ones, as well. His bad guys, not just Mr. Devore from this book, but ALL of them, have layers and a realness to them that brings them alive. They're not just men dressed in black, (Randall Flagg, I'm looking at you), they're complicated, (Trashcan Man), they have depth to them, and we (I?) LOVE to hate them. In this book, Mr. Devore is a rich, frail, elderly man in a wheelchair, yet he still comes at Mike with a menace that is horrible to witness. Our emotions are pulled every which way, how could we HATE an old man in a wheelchair? But there is no question that we DO hate him, and there again, the King has manipulated our emotions and has his Constant Readers, and all other readers, in the palms of his skilled, talented hands.
I loved this book. I love Stephen King. That doesn't mean that I've loved every book he's written, but I usually do love his characters and creations, (Wolf, Billy Bumblers), and they still live within my memory. For me, no other author has created so many memorable characters and place settings. The words Derry, Jerusalem's Lot and Pennywise- they all cause an instant picture to appear in my brain. I say let him plant a picture in your brain too: of Sarah Laughs, of the T.R. and Mr. Devoe, Mattie and Kyra. I'm pretty sure you'll thank me later.
I highly recommend this book to everyone. Just hold on tight, because your emotions are going to get knocked around a bit by the King, but hey, there's no one better qualified to do so. You'll be getting knocked around by one of the best authors living today.
Charlene Cochrane has loved horror since she saw her first horror movie at the age of 8. These days, however, her horror interests are mostly of the literary variety. She is on the reviewing team at Horror After Dark and also has her own blog at Char's Horror Corner. She is also on Twitter as @Charrlygirl
Monday, 14 December 2015
So when "The Green Mile" came out – in those little individual booklets, one a month – I bought and read it voraciously. I loved it, of course: back then, I’d decided King was the greatest writer who’d ever lived. I even wrote a serial of my own, for a small press magazine, and convinced myself it was as good as King, if not better. (It was neither.)
But not everyone liked "The Green Mile"; Christopher Fowler, I remember, dismissed it as a book ‘so childish you could colour it in.’ It’d been nearly twenty years (Jesus!) since I’d read King’s serial thriller: how would it measure up?
The answer is, on the whole, pretty damned well. Apart from one thing. But I’ll come to that.
In technical terms, King is at the top of his form. Each new episode builds the recap of ‘the story so far’ into the narrative itself, and as ever, King is a master storyteller. By which I mean, he tells the story superbly; you can almost hear the voice of Paul Edgecombe, former chief guard on the ‘Green Mile’ (the Death Row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary), in your ear as you read.
Paul is an old man now, on his own personal Death Row – a retirement home. On the Green Mile, there was one guard who used his position to torment the prisoners in his charge: the cowardly, sadistic – but well-connected – Percy Wetmore. At the retirement home, Paul comes to see one of the staff, Brad Dolan – a cruel, petty bully who singles Paul out for special attention – as Percy’s present-day counterpart – with the crucial difference that now, Paul is one of the inmates, unable to defend himself against abuse.
But Paul has a friend – the kind and graceful Elaine Connelly – to whom he relates the events leading up to the last execution he presided over: that of John Coffey, a gigantic black man convicted of the rape and murder of two children. A man who proved capable of healing the sick with his touch.
Multiple storylines weave through the novel: Paul suffers from an agonising urinary infection; the condemned rapist-murderer Eduard Delacroix befriends – or is befriended by – a mouse called Mister Jingles; a new inmate, the psychopathic William ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton does his best to make everyone’s life a misery in his way, while Percy Wetmore does much the same in his; Warden Hal Moores’ wife, Melinda, is dying of an inoperable brain tumour. King connects all these threads with a level of craft that only an expert writer could demonstrate.
But the achievement isn’t just technical: the writing packs a ferocious emotional punch. The men on the Green Mile may be convicted killers, but that doesn’t prevent King evoking our sympathy for two of them at least – Arlen Bitterbuck, and Eduard Delacroix, although ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton is as vile and irredeemable individual as you could hope to find. John Coffey himself, of course, is an innocent man.
Beyond that, too, is a sober meditation on the nature of whatever God may preside over this world; that takes place, of course, within the context of King’s Christianity. You don’t have to share his faith to be affected by it.
All told, "The Green Mile" remains an absorbing and moving reading experience, showing King at his very best. However…
Well, I said there was one thing, and there is. And it’s pretty glaring.
In an interview back in the early ‘80s, King responded to a critic lamenting the inability of so clearly talented a writer to draw a convincing female character. He admitted there was truth in the allegation, and that he had similar problems writing black characters. Mother Abagail in "The Stand", Dick Hallorann in "The Shining" – ‘super-powered black people’, I think, was the phrase King used. Or in more modern parlance, Magical Negroes, whose main function turns out to be helping the white protagonists. Even Mike Hanlon in "It" is the member of the group who stays behind in Derry, who sacrifices his own prospects of success in order to be the ‘lighthouse keeper’.
John Coffey, unfortunately, is another figure in that same tradition: he just exists to help others. Of course, that has to do with his role as a Christlike healer: he’s just a conduit for the power of God, put on Earth to ‘help’, but the end result is another black guy who gives up everything for the Good White Folks. Hell, he lets himself be taken without demur to heal the wife of the man who’s going to order his death, and asks for nothing in return, not even his own life. King gets out of that particular tangle by having Coffey want to die, unable to bear the pain of the cruel world any more. And yes, in the context of the story’s Christianity, all of the above makes sense.
But at the same time it means the nice white prison guards don’t actually have to risk disgrace and imprisonment by saving the wrongly-convicted black guy’s life. It probably wouldn’t stand out so much if Coffey weren’t the only black guy in the novel.
I don’t enjoy writing that: I love King’s work, and I still love "The Green Mile". But that one flaw sticks out much more starkly in 2015 than it did in 1996.
Allowing for that, however, "The Green Mile" is still one of King’s masterpieces, and it’s anything but childish. I defy anyone not to be moved by Paul’s eventual fate – to be cursed, via John Coffey’s healing touch, with a longevity that ensures he outlives both everyone he loves, and his own wish to remain alive. That’s not only heartbreaking, it’s horror of a profound and subtle kind. “We each of us owe a death, there are no exceptions,” Paul concludes, “but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”
Simon Bestwick is the author of "Tide Of Souls", "The Faceless" and "Black Mountain". His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in "A Hazy Shade Of Winter", "Pictures Of The Dark", "Let’s Drink To The Dead" and "The Condemned". He lives on the Wirral with his long-suffering fiance, the wonderful Cate Gardner, and his new novel, "Hell’s Ditch", is out now.
He can be found online at his blog and also on Twitter as @GevaudanShoal