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Review: In the Tall Grass (short story and film)

Spooky October continues with more Stephen King for me! I saw a few weeks ago that In the Tall Grass (based on the short story by Stephen King and Joe Hill) was coming to Netflix in early October, and immediately made plans to read and watch. I didn’t get around to the story before the film arrived, but I had a lot of fun reading and watching on the same day. I’ll share some thoughts on both.

First, the short story. In the Tall Grass seems to be very readily available on ebook and audio, but it is also FREE online at Esquire, where the story was first published in 2012. It’s divided into two parts, but the end of the first part links to the second, so if you’re interested in checking out the story I’ll link the beginning portion here! (Feel free to ignore that Esquire’s purpose seems to be “fiction for men.”)

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In this short story, the narration alternates perspective between a pair of siblings: Becky and Cal. They’re not twins, but are very close. Becky is pregnant, and is on her way to San Diego to give her baby to another family for adoption. Cal is driving her cross country. They make an unplanned stop in Kansas next to a field of tall grass, where they happen to hear a boy calling for help. Assuming that he’s lost and too short to find the road, Cal and Becky decide to wade in and help.

What follows is at first suspenseful, as the siblings realize something isn’t right with the grass and against all odds they seem to be getting lost in it as well. Soon after, the story takes a horrifying turn as the secrets of the grass and their own fates are revealed. Needless to say, there’s a supernatural element involved.

“He looked at his watch and wasn’t surprised to see it had stopped even though it was a self-winder. The grass had stopped it. He felt sure of it.”

The story is quite good. I’ve yet to read anything full-length by Joe Hill (even though I’m sure I’m going to love his work), but I enjoyed this story more than the last five full-length novels I’ve read from Stephen King. It’s readable, sharp, and great at dropping creepy hints for the reader’s imagination to run with. If you like horror or suspense, or just a great short story, I highly recommend checking it out.

If you have any interest in reading the story, I really think the best time for it is prior to watching the Netflix film.

Image result for in the tall grass

In the film, we see at first a faithful adaptation of the written story. Some of the dialogue is word-for-word, the setting is exactly the same, any small variations in the setup are minor and seem mostly to cater to the visual aspect of the new format. But soon the film becomes a whole different beast. This comes down to two main differences:

  1. The film expands upon all of those subtle hints dropped in the story. This means both that some of the grass’s secrets are spoken aloud or clearly depicted for the reader, but it also means the addition of a new character who is only mentioned in the story. Though I thought the story was great for holding back from oversharing, I also thought the film was great for refusing to shy away from the details. I wouldn’t have wanted it the other way around. But I imagine the story would feel quite anticlimactic in its subtlety after seeing the film take everything a step further, which is the main reason I recommend reading first if you’re interested in both mediums.
  2. The cyclical nature of the grass “ritual” is a bit different in the film. In the story, I had the sense that the cycle was a very realistic one, with each victim of the grass paving the way for the next in a chronological line. In the film, a nonlinear timeline creates the cycle rather than hints of past or future victims. Timelines- actually, characters that skip around through time- are not always effective for me, but this layout paves the way for some great characterization tricks, and the brevity of the film keeps the jumping timeline from feeling tedious and ridiculous. A surprising win.

These are the two elements that allow a 60-page short story to become a 1 hr 40 min film- the film essentially turns the basic idea of the story into a long novella or short novel, and it does so without contradicting any part of the written story. They really make for a great set, if you enjoy adaptations and comparisons as much as I do.

Both formats are atmospheric, creepy, and engrossing. You might think from the premise that you know enough to resist being surprised, but there will still be surprises. There’s one pretty gross scene that appears in both formats, though I found the written version of it more gruesome. I spotted the detail of the synopsis that had the most potential to go awry, and knowing in advance helped me get through it, so at the risk of a very mild spoiler (just skip ahead to the next paragraph now if you absolutely don’t want to know) I’ll mention that it has to do with the pregnancy. If you don’t want to read anything weird on that subject, maybe steer clear of this one.

“The grass has things to tell you. You just need to learn to listen.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For both formats. I didn’t find anything wrong with either, and actually the one gross scene didn’t bother me as much (in the story or film) as the rats in Stephen King’s 1922 (in that story or corresponding Netflix film). I just very rarely give a short story a 5-star rating because I tend to prefer more characterization and exploration than often seem to fit in a short story, and though I thought the film was perfect for October I don’t think it’s going on my all-time favorites list, which are the only movies I would say are 5-stars for me. But I had an excellent time with both formats, and the only nightmare I had after was an unrelated airplane dream.

So, all in all, if you’re looking for a little Stephen King or Joe Hill to pick up this spooky season and don’t want to dive into a doorstopper of a novel, In the Tall Grass is a great shorter option. I think it would also be a good introduction to either author if you’re interested in checking out their work but not sure where to start.

Have you read or watched this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy Wrap-up)

CW: suicide, murder, gaslighting, racism, homophobia, fatphobia, cruelty to hospital patient, cancer

Almost a year after I started, I have finally finished reading the Bill Hodges trilogy, which concludes with End of Watch by Stephen King. For more thoughts on the trilogy, you can check out my full reviews of the previous books, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, though I’ll also do a small series wrap-up below. It should all be spoiler-free, except any characters mentioned at this point have obviously survived books 1 and 2, etc. All in all, I see End of Watch as a fair conclusion to the series, though it failed to live up to the promising start of the trilogy for me.

endofwatchIn the novel, Hodges’s old partner on the police force calls Hodges in on a case that looks like a standard murder/suicide. One of the deceased was also a victim of the Mercedes Massacre (an intentional hit and run at a job fair), a case Hodges helped close. Though the police don’t want to look further into these new deaths, some strange clues lead Hodges back to Mr. Mercedes- aka Brady Hartsfield- at the brain injury ward of the local hospital. But is Brady still impaired? There have been some rumors on the ward that he might be faking, that strange things have been happening around him. Has he found a way to keep killing without leaving his room? And if so, how can anyone stop him?

“Dead people never look more dead than in police photos.”

Right away I was much more excited about the premise of End of Watch than I had been about book 2, because this final volume harks back to the Mercedes Massacre in a big way- an element I enjoyed in the first book and found lacking in the second. In End of Watch, we see into Brady Hartsfield’s disturbed mind once again as he attempts to resume murdering the citizens of this trilogy’s unnamed Ohio city. Furthermore, we see King return to his well-known sci-fi/horror brand in this volume rather than sticking strictly with a PI/police style mystery as in books 1 and 2. Everything boded well for me to enjoy this one.

Though ultimately I did like the basic plot and the return to some of the trilogy’s earlier threads, it just didn’t quite come together here as well as I’d hoped based on the similarities to Mr. Mercedes. In the first book, Hodges becomes freshly involved with the hunt for Mr. Mercedes for close personal reasons- Hartsfield comes after him purposefully, trying to capitalize on Hodges’s depression to goad him into suicide; in End of Watch, Hodges’s involvement in the latest case is less exciting: meddling has become a habit, and with his health coming into question he’s looking for closure (how trite). Additionally, a common issue for me with King’s work (more pronounced in some stories than others), is the ease with which the characters manage to jump to the right conclusions. They stumble upon the answers they’re looking for, or somehow know just where to look. They make no wrong turns. Intuition runs high, and actual detective work remains minimal. I found this particularly problematic in this trilogy as a whole, which purports to be a crime mystery series, but specifically it seemed most pronounced in End of Watch.

I also had some of the same complaints with this final book as I did reccently in Finders Keepers; though the writing seemed a bit more considerate towards marginalized characters, there are still a couple of racial and homophobic slurs in use, fatness is shown as something to be ashamed of, and women are fairly insignificant. Most of these annoyances come up in the killer’s thoughts and dialogue, which supports the possibility that they are knowingly used for characterization rather than an indicator of the author’s personal opinions, but I found them distasteful nonetheless. Fortunately, it’s toned down a bit from the last volume, at least.

The most worrisome element for me in End of Watch was the extreme emphasis on suicide. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is mentioned both in the text and in an author’s note at the back of the book, but I would still caution anyone sensitive to this topic to enter with caution, if at all. Though we see in book 1 how effective Hartsfield can be at persuading his victims to kill themselves, that’s only one small stepping stone in Mr. Mercedes whereas it’s the main conflict in End of Watch. Not only do several teens and young adults attempt (and mostly succeed at) suicide, but we see Hartsfield maliciously whittle down their self-esteem to convince them to do it. He capitalizes on anything these characters have been bullied about- their weight, their sexuality, their intelligence, etc. It’s plenty unsettling to see these young and vulnerable people taken advantage of in this way, and also a bit concerning that many of the characters who are victimized are the “misfits”- not straight, white, thin, and pretty. It’s difficult to say whether King meant to emphasize how difficult life can be for bullied teens, or whether he simply found them the most expendable.

“Four in the morning is usually an unhappy time to be awake. It’s when unpleasant thoughts and pessimistic ideas come to the fore.”

All in all, a mixed experience. I enjoyed the sci-fi element and was suitably horrified by the villain’s capabilities and intent; I found the plot solid if a bit convenient and predictable. The thematic focus seems to shift towards the importance of found family and supporting one’s friends, but I don’t pick up Stephen King novels for wholesome morals; they feel gimmicky to me amidst the grisly deaths and psychological terror. End of Watch, like the rest of this trilogy, isn’t really a book that’s meant to teach- it’s pure entertainment.

Was I entertained? With Mr. Mercedes, the answer is a whole-hearted yes. I thought the plot was well-crafted, the characters strong and interesting each for their own reason, and the writing acceptable. (I did read it almost a year ago, so it’s possible I just didn’t pick up on as much or don’t remember it as clearly.) With Finders Keepers, I was entertained, but I spent a decent portion of my reading time marveling over how bad that book seemed, so I wouldn’t say it was an entirely positive sort of entertainment. I liked the concept, but didn’t think much of it was executed well. With End of Watch, I’m not sure I can say I was entertained. The trajectory of the novel seemed obvious to me from early on, so I spent most of the read just waiting for the big showdown I expected at the end to arrive.

Across the entire series, my favorite elements were 1) seeing the Mercedes Massacre from every angle- its conception, its execution, its aftermath. I thought King did a great job of conveying how far-reaching a tragedy like this can be for a community, and at every turn it felt woven into the fabric of these characters’ lives. And 2) the main characters. I feel the need to caveat though that I appreciated them more early on, as they were still morphing into the people they would become. But watching Hartsfield deteriorate? Watching Holly stabilize and find her independence? Seeing Jerome succeed in school and save the day in his spare time? These are the moments I’ll remember from this trilogy, and the reason I’m still interested in reading further about Holly in The Outsider (and potentially in the upcoming If It Bleeds), despite some dissatisfaction with King’s style of late.

Final ratings: Mr. Mercedes – 5 stars. Finders Keepers – 2 stars. End of Watch

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this one so much after my dismal experience with Finders Keepers, but sadly it never seemed more than fine. Still, I’m glad I took the time to see where the storyline from Mr. Mercedes went in the end, and this trilogy certainly gave me some food for thought in my journey through King’s work. And, honestly, it’s just so nice to finish something! I feel like I’ve gotten worse in recent years about starting series and reading projects that I take forever to finish, if I ever do. And if my possible buddy read pans out, I’ll be knocking out The Outsider soon as well, the Holly spin-off. Progress is being made.

Thanks for bearing with me this far if you’re still here. I know this has turned into a particularly long and meandering review. It was probably a mistake deciding to finish this at 1:30 am.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Finders Keepers

CW: murder, living with serious injury, theft, racism, homophobia, sexism, fatphobia, child abuse (tying wrists, pushing through window, threatening at gunpoint)

Finders Keepers is the second book in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy. I read book one, Mr. Mercedes, in a buddy read last year, and have been slow to continue despite thoroughly enjoying that first book. The prospect of an upcoming buddy read for another King novel (The Outsider) has finally motivated me to finish the series- today I’ll talk about Finders Keepers, and End of Watch (book 3) should be up later this week. No spoilers of course, as usual, though I’ve got plenty of complaints to air.

finderskeepersIn the novel, a writer-turned-recluse is robbed and murdered in 1978. Most of the crew that committed this crime were in it for the money, but one wanted the unpublished manuscripts and miscellaneous written work. To avoid getting caught for the crime, the books are packed away, only to be discovered by a teenager in 2014. One becomes desperate to sell the books on the black market, one becomes increasingly desperate to keep them, and neither is quite in control of the situation once a shady book dealer realizes what they have. Retired cop Bill Hodges and his PI buddies are brought into the case by a friend who wants to settle the matter before official police become involved.

“MacFarland may think [Morris is] too old to be a wolf, but what his parole officer doesn’t know is that Morris has already killed three people, and driving a car isn’t the only thing that’s like riding a bike.”

Finders Keepers is very much a bookish book. A bookish horror, one might say. It’s crammed full of references to titles and authors from a wide variety of genres; two of the main characters are big readers, and one is a bookshop owner, where part of the novel takes place. Sadly, bookish books don’t always work for me- name dropping and copious bookstore visits don’t quite make up for quality characterization and plot. Though King is generally known for his convincing characterization and unique plots, I found both elements severely lacking in this novel.

In fact, there were quite a host of aspects that just didn’t work for me here. First and foremost is that for a second book, Finders Keepers barely fits into the trajectory of the trilogy started by Mr. Mercedes and concluded in End of Watch. The few characters carried over from book one are largely unessential in this story, their appearances more like unnecessary cameos rather than a link to the rest of the series. The Mercedes Massacre (from Mr. Mercedes) does help lay the ground for the events of this volume, but any injury for Tom Saubers could have led these characters into the same situation. A bit of overt foreshadowing to indicate that the next volume will pick up the threads left dangling at the end of Mr. Mercedes comprises the only tenuous connection between Finders Keepers and the rest of the trilogy. In my opinion, this novel should have been a stand-alone with Hodges removed, and the other two books could have formed a nice duology.

My main problem with the plot actually has more to do with the novel’s structure. Though I usually enjoy irony, much of the suspense is removed from this story by the fact that we follow multiple characters who know different parts of the mystery. By the time Morris is panicking about where the manuscripts are, the reader has already learned their location from Pete’s perspective. Furthermore, I believe Hodges (and crew)’s sole purpose in this book is to guide the reader through this “mystery,” though by the time Hodges catches up to what is going on, everything is already clear to the reader- it’s the other characters who could use a guide.

On the subject of characters, I feel the need to address King’s poor representation of female characters- again. The last few King novels I’ve read have been much older (see: The Stand), and it’s been easier in those cases to chalk up the sexism as the product of an unenlightened era, but Finders Keepers was published in 2015. We’re way past the point where a raped woman should be presented as a villain for trying to convince her attacker’s parole board that he should remain imprisoned. And shame on King, for making her apologize to her rapist for that effort. But even outside of unsavory plot points, there were just some really awful lines making casual appearances in this book. Here’s just one example:

“Holly smiles, and Hodges thinks- as he always does- that she should do it more often. When she smiles, Holly is almost beautiful. With a little mascara around her eyes, she probably would be.”

If Holly is going to smile, it had better be for her own sake rather than to reassure Hodges that she is beautiful.

And women are not the only victims of this treatment.  The word “fat” is also thrown around copiously as a negative descriptor; villains are frequently referred to as “fat fucks,” etc. I noted at least one (each) racial and homophobic slur. Even if terrible remarks only crop up as characterization for old white men, it’s just gross for things like this to keep showing up- there are other ways to show that a character is evil (or in Hodges’s case, outdated). Instances like these are exactly the reason that his pro-lesbian messages in Elevation felt insincere to me.

But, terrible writing choices aside (and I swear it’s not always this bad), Finders Keepers does have a couple of redeeming features. The basic premise is interesting and engaging, and once we move past the mystery portion of it, the conflict is intense and unpredictable. Its morals are worthwhile for any reader, though I like to think that most are sensible enough not to kill for unpublished works from their favorite authors in the first place.

“Pete was coming to the conclusion that creative writing couldn’t really be taught, only learned.”

It is also interesting, the more of King’s work that I read, to see some of his ideas being recycled. Finders Keepers bears some striking similarities to King’s Misery in regards to theme and tone- both explore the quandary of whether a published work belongs primarily to its creator or to the audience who receives it- and reminds fans that no piece of literature is worth the writer’s (or anyone’s) life. In terms of plot Misery is a very different work (and the one I would recommend to anyone who can stomach a bit of body horror), but both seem to lead back to the same basic seed of idea; it’s intriguing to see the ways in which a thought can evolve over the course of about 30 years. Insights like these are why I keep going with King’s books, even though some of the stories really don’t work for me; it’s incredible to be able to follow a prolific writer’s trajectory through the many ups and downs of a long and remarkable career.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I can’t deny that it held my attention, though I think there were a few instances when I slipped into hate-reading it, which is compelling for a different reason. Overall, this has been a real contender for my least favorite Stephen King novel, though the other least favorites that come immediately to mind were disliked for different reasons, which makes it hard to hold them up side by side. In any case, I’m still intending to finish the series and my full read of King’s oeuvre; fortunately, End of Watch is looking like a vast improvement so far.

Is there any particular book that you wish you could remove from a series that you otherwise enjoy?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Hey guys, I’m back.

February has been an incredibly slow reading month for me so far, and when it rains it pours, so I’m behind on blogging as well. Hopefully I’ll be able to catch up this week. To start it off, the first book I finished in February was actually one I should’ve finished back in January (which gives you an idea of how things have been going for me lately): Stephen King’s 2010 story collection, Full Dark, No Stars.

fulldarknostarsAbout the book: In one short story and three novellas, King explores the dark side of mankind and proves that real people can be just as horrifying as any of his more fantastical plots (alien invasions, child-snatching clowns, pets that won’t stay dead, etc.). This collection includes a murdering farmer in historical Nebraska, a woman with car trouble who is raped instead of assisted, a man who makes a selfish trade in order to live a little longer, and a woman who stumbles upon evidence that her husband of almost thirty years is not the man she thought he was.

“How many unsuspected selves could a person have, hiding deep inside? She was beginning to think the number was infinite.”

“1922”- This first story in the set took me longer to finish than I was anticipating spending on the entire book. Here we have a small-time Nebraskan farmer whose wife wants to move; she’s inherited some land that will finance a fresh start, and she’s determined to take her son with her. Her husband will stop at nothing to keep the boy and his own 80 acres.

In concept, I really liked this story. I liked its themes, its morals, its characters. The year gives it a perfect setting. But in actuality, I really struggled to get through reading “1922.” There’s a lot of gore, a lot of physical injury, a lot of suffering animals. The wife is villainized perhaps more than is good for the story, and the other female character is hardly more than a prop. The inclusion of a ghost seems unnecessary and far-fetched. There are a lot of rats. A lot of rats. In the end, I was able to appreciate how it all fit together, but this story was not at all pleasant to read. Sometimes an unpleasant story can feel worth the effort, but this one often felt like it was just trying to be as disgusting as possible.

I watched the Netflix adaptation of this story as soon as I’d finished reading it, and I had a much better time with it. It’s very loyal to the text, but the few changes I noticed were improvements. My only hesitation in recommending the film over the written story is that the ending doesn’t have quite the same psychological punch. It leaves out one detail that changed how I felt about the rats when I reached the end of the story.

“I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man.”

But once I made it past “1922”, I had a great time with the rest of the book.

“Big Driver”- This is the story of a woman novelist who is set up to be raped and murdered on her way home from a book event. However, as the premise notes, she is not murdered, but left for dead in a culvert on the side of a little-used road. I was a little nervous about this one, as a rape story can be difficult to pull off without sensationalizing what should be taken very seriously, but King did not disappoint. I haven’t always agreed with the way he portrays women in his fiction, but I liked this one. He focuses the story on the woman trying to solve the mystery of why this has happened to her, and on how far she’ll go in the name of revenge. I was hooked.

“Fair Extension”- The third piece is the shortest of this set at just over 30 pages. It’s the story of a man close to the end of his final fight against cancer; instead of meeting his end, he meets a mysterious stranger who sells “extensions” of various sorts. The man has to “trade” someone he hates in order to postpone his own death. This is more a character study than anything else, as his choice in the trade is somewhat surprising, as is the way he feels about the trade as the story progresses. There’s not much that really happens in this story, and what does happen is fairly predictable, but King puts an interesting spin on the “be careful what you wish for” narrative that made for an unexpected ending.

And finally,

“A Good Marriage”-  After 27 years of marriage, a woman learns a disturbing secret about her husband and must decide what to do with the new information. Turn him in? Run for her life? …Ignore it? This story was somewhat spoiled for me by the fact that I read a thriller with a similar premise last year. This is by no means 2010 Stephen King’s fault, and the stories were different enough. The problem was that the element that is the same is meant to be a shock in this story, and instead I was expecting it. For which reason I won’t even name the thriller, to avoid spoiling you- I would absolutely recommend “A Good Marriage” over that other thriller anyway. This story had a slow start, but I loved where it went.

All in all, I found this a very intriguing collection of stories, connected only by the fact that they each display some of the uglier choices men and women are capable of making. There are a few supernatural details, but nothing very significant, as the focus is on the (very human) characters rather than anything otherworldly. Writing-wise, this is one of the best Stephen King works I’ve read in recent years, and probably the most accomplished of his works from the last ten years (that I’ve read so far). There are so many pleasing references and parallels to other Stephen King novels also, which I always particularly enjoy. I found a mention of events from Ita mention of a tactic that’s key in Mr. Mercedes (which had not actually been published yet at this time, but clearly the idea mill was rolling), and a parallel between the wife’s mode of discovery in “A Good Marriage” and Bobbi’s mode of discovery in The TommyknockersThere were probably more I missed, as I’m just noticing that all of my examples come from books I’ve read in the last year, which probably left me predisposed to notice those particular instances. It’s all done very subtly and tastefully though, so if you haven’t read what’s referenced, you likely won’t notice and you certainly won’t be spoiled. This is a must-read for Stephen King fans, and a good choice for anyone looking to get into King’s books who maybe doesn’t know where to start and/or is intimidated by the size of some of his classics.

“In the end we are all caught in devices of our own making. I believe that. In the end we are all caught.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a really solid set of stories, even though I struggled with the first one. I’ve been reading several short stories this year, and found several good ones, but these stand out. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Stephen King’s shorter stories in the future, as I’ve overlooked them in the past and apparently should not have! I’m glad I stuck with these and finished even though the first story was… gross.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Dolores Claiborne

One of my friends has gotten into a Stephen King fascination, and apparently it was infectious. I’ve been reading and mostly enjoying King’s novels since I was thirteen (Pet Sematary was the first), so it didn’t take much to get me on board with reading more of his work. Suddenly I find myself on a journey through King’s entire oeuvre (because if you’re going to read 90% of his books why not just read them all, I guess). Next up on the list for me was 300-page Dolores Claiborne, written in the early 90’s.

doloresclaiborneAbout the book: Dolores Claiborne has lived all her life on the Maine island of Little Tall, where she married a no-good husband after discovering her accidental pregnancy. Years later, with her children grown and gone, she’s being questioned by Little Tall police about the suspicious death of the rich woman Dolores worked for as housekeeper; and in professing her innocence, feels she must admit to the murder she did commit to prove her innocence in the one she didn’t.

“Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.”

Though the horror level of this novel is pretty mild, it does have its unsettling moments. Of course it does, with its main character a murderer, another going senile, one just plain evil, and several unfortunate children thrown into the mix. But this is primarily a psychological study of Dolores’s eventful life, and the creepy-crawlies remain mostly hypothetical.

“She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it?”

If you’ve been reading the quotes I’ve inserted so far, you’ve probably noticed that the narration uses dialect. The entire novel is written as Dolores would have spoken it, and this tactic puts the reader straight into Dolores’s mind and life.

I found the dialect itself far more useful (and tolerable) than the half-conversations where Dolores addresses one of her interrogators directly; only Dolores’s part of these conversations is shown, which necessitates some awkward rephrasing of the others’ questions and reiterating of their responses that pulled me out of the story a bit every time. I didn’t need to be reminded so often or so thoroughly that Dolores was dictating this story to someone. A one- or two-sentence explanation at the very start and maybe very end of the book would have been plenty, but Dolores is interrupted and interrupts herself rather excessively throughout the short novel.

One thing that I’m especially watching for in King’s writing this year is his treatment of female characters. After encountering a few worrying instances in his books last year (Elevation, The Tommyknockers) I’ve been interested to see how that might have changed or cropped up differently throughout his writing career. To my great relief, Dolores Claiborne was definitely a step back in the right direction.

“You’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up the same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.”

But there are twenty pages dedicated to spiteful bowel movements, so there’s no forgetting that this is a man writing women, rather absurdly at times.

Once we’re past that hurdle though, there’s no denying that Dolores and her anecdotes are just as captivating as King’s characters tend to be.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty quick read as far as Stephen King books go, and quite enjoyable. I didn’t know before I started that this book is loosely tied to King’s Gerald’s Game, which I’m much more interested in reading now but feel that I shouldn’t yet because I’m trying to dedicate myself to my 2019 TBR system. It’s the first disappointment I’ve had with my January TBR though, so I’m going to stick it out. I do have a couple of other Stephen Kings I can choose from in January, so I’ll try Full Dark, No Stars before the month is over, which is a collection of short stories/novellas. I’ve read very few short stories from King, and am looking forward to checking them out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re new to Stephen King and would rather lean toward the psychological than the full-blown sci-fi crazies, you should also try The Shining, Misery, or The Long Walk (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman).
  • If you like character studies of women murderers that are amusing but also horrifying, try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a recent release about a woman in Lagos, Nigeria who helps her sister cover up the deaths of her boyfriends.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant