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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

 

 

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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

Review: The Tommyknockers

I managed to read seven Stephen King books last year, including a single bind-up of four novellas- which arguably could bump the total number up to ten if you want to consider how long even a “short” novel can be for King. Four of my 2018 Stephen King books were buddy reads (those really help with powering through the long titles), including one of my final reads of 2018, a 976-page novel titled The Tommyknockers.

thetommyknockersAbout the book: Bobbi Anderson walks across her wooded property in the fictional town of Haven, Maine one evening–  as she done many evenings before- and stumbles across a small piece of silver sticking up from the ground. Curious, she digs a bit with her hands, wondering whether she’s found an old can, a steel lockbox, a car? But it’s like nothing she’s ever seen before, massive and otherworldly. She comes back to the same spot the next day with digging equipment, and then excavation equipment as the scope of the thing keeps growing. The problem: the metal seems to be releasing some sort of toxic chemical compound into the air that gradually encompasses the entire town, infecting the townspeople and preventing outsiders from entering Haven to discover what’s going on. Bobbi’s find seems to have a mind of its own, and it’s taking over.

“There’s a whole town going loony just down the road and no one has got the slightest idea it’s happening.”

Stephen King has written in a wide variety of genres, but this one fits firmly under the category of sci-fi. It’s not one of his best-known titles, and I certainly wouldn’t call this one a must-read for King beginners, but fans won’t want to miss this adventure. Especially if you’ve ever enjoyed The X-Files.

“It was a marvelous, improbable artifact shining in the hazy sunlight of this Sunday morning… but it was also a haunted house where demons might still walk between the walls and in hollow places.”

The reason this one doesn’t rank among King’s classics (in my opinion) is that the writing is not quite up to King’s impressive par. His characterization is spot-on as ever, but the cast is excessively large, especially considering that all of the people in Haven are undergoing more or less the same change. The plot is engaging, unpredictable, and intense, but a bit slow-paced in the middle. The social commentary is interesting and not entirely outdated (this novel was written in the 80’s), mostly relating to potential problems with nuclear energy. There is no mistaking King’s usual style, though on a sentence-by-sentence level it doesn’t seem quite as polished as others of his works.

Though I wouldn’t say The Tommyknockers is one of King’s most frightening works, it does maintain a near-constant aura of creepiness. So many of the details are just unsettling enough to keep the reader on board even when the plot verges toward the incredibly bizarre. The tommyknockers are named from a well-known children’s rhyme- one that I recognized from my own childhood (with slightly different wording), despite the fact that I hadn’t even been born at the time this book was written. The story isn’t relatable and all, and it’s hard to walk away from the mysteries of the green light, the locked shed, the magic-trick that turns into a real missing child case, and more.

One of the reasons I would recommend this title to King veterans is the intertextual content. In The Tommyknockers there are some fun references throughout the story relating both to Stephen King himself:

“She wrote good western stories that you could really sink your teeth into, not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lived up in Bangor wrote. Goddam good westerns, people said. Especially for a girl.”

(though admittedly marred by that unnecessary final sentence…)

and to King’s previous works, including The Shining:

“So what was she supposed to do? Grab Bobbi’s ax and make like Jack Nicholson in The Shining? He could see it. Smash, crash, bash: Heeeeeere’s GARDENER!

and It:

“Tommy had begun to hallucinate; as he drove up Wentworth Street, he thought he saw a clown grinning up at him from an open sewer manhole– a clown with shiny silver dollars for eyes and a clenched white glove filled with balloons.”

There are several more.

But let’s go back to that “especially for a girl” mention. One of the biggest drawbacks to this novel is that its language and concepts are very much rooted in their time. In the case of technology and lifestyle, these references make for an entertaining flashback. In regards to treatment of women, the old-fashioned sentiments are much less pleasant.

There’s very little in the book that’s truly offensive, the “especially for a girl” statement being the most overt. But there are so many small examples throughout The Tommyknockers of women who are denied their own glory. Though Bobbi discovers the buried object on her property, she needs to be “saved” from self-destruction in the excavation by enlisting male help. In a project involving a large hologram in which a woman is in charge of providing a perfect image for the projection, the task is not complete until she’s enthusiastically lost her virginity to the man watching over her shoulder. The highest police authority in Haven is a woman, but she’s quickly removed from leadership when the townspeople begin changing. Women are not hated within the novel, but nor are they given the same importance and attention as the male characters. Small details add up in a novel of this size.

Interestingly, I found the general disregard for women much less annoying than the over-the-top support of them in King’s more recent work (Sleeping Beauties, Elevation). I know that fiction does not necessarily reflect any viewpoints of the writer, but I think there’s an interesting arc to be located in the social commentary throughout King’s oevre, and it’s fascinating to follow. But I have a lot of reading left to do before I feel comfortable making statements about trends in King’s entire body of work.

At the very least, it’s infinitely interesting to read.

“One of life’s great truths is this: when one is about to be struck by a speeding six-hundred-pound Coke machine, one need worry about nothing else.”

 

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though this was not my favorite King novel, it ranks right up there for weirdness and I do love weird. I’m absolutely looking forward to reading more from King, though I’ll also be more likely to watch the women in his fiction, going forward.

Further recommendations:

  • Stephen King’s Under the Dome is a fascinating character study that takes place in another Maine town that finds itself inexplicably trapped inside an invisible dome. There are some similar sci-fi elements between this one and The Tommyknockers, though the stories themselves are very different. But if you liked one, you’ll probably like the other.
  • If you’re looking for something considerably shorter, (and not Stephen King), Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly is a recent sci-fi thriller that’s superbly unsettling and otherworldly. Its main characters find themselves trapped in an ancient cavern in the Grand Canyon, and quickly discover that they’re not as alone as they thought.

What’s your favorite sci-fi book? YA or adult. I love what I’ve seen of the genre but haven’t read much beyond Stephen King, so I could use some recommendations!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Elevation

Stephen King had a brand new book published at the end of October, and as a long-time fan of his writing I had to pick it up. I got around to it about halfway through November. It was a one-sitting book, less than 150 pages, which made it impossible to pass up. King’s books usually run so long that a novel of this size from him is a true curiosity.

elevationAbout the book: Scott pays a visit to his old doctor– retired, but still a favorite for medical advice– when he notices a strange trend: though he doesn’t look any different, he’s steadily losing weight. His eating habits haven’t changed; if anything, he’s eating more than he used to, but the numbers on the scale keep going down. More alarmingly, they don’t go up when he steps on the scale with a pocketful of quarters or heavy dumbbells in his hands. As Scott continues to feel lighter and healthier, he’s also trying to befriend the lesbian couple next door that he’s accidentally gotten into a neighborly feud with. There’s no telling what will happen to Scott when the scale hits zero, so his time to make amends for a bad first impression is running out.

“This isn’t just outside my experience, I’d say it’s outside human experience. Hell, I want to say it’s impossible.”

Right away I noticed that Elevation felt a bit gimmicky. Like Stephen King enjoying his fame, publishing because he can, because anything he turns out is going to be a hit even if it’s not a hit. There’s not a lot of meat to this story, but more unusually, there’s not much of the excellent character portrayal and development that Stephen King is known for.

One particular problem I had with Elevation is best explained in conjunction with previous experience; I read Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties earlier this year and noticed that the social commentary was a lot more pointed than I was used to in King’s older novels. As the book was co-written and I had no experience with Owen King’s work, I thought maybe that wasn’t Stephen King’s doing, or at least not entirely. But I had the same issue with Elevation: the social and political commentary is so very on-the-nose. Essentially, the lesbian couple living next to Scott is facing prejudice from the entire town that is strong enough to potentially ruin their business within the year; as Scott tries to befriend them he sees the error of his earlier assumptions and encourages the other townspeople to accept them as well. The moralistic plot is predictable and obvious, Scott’s personal dilemma providing him with an excuse to see the situation from a new and comparable light:

“Why feel bad about what you couldn’t change? Why not embrace it?”

Furthermore, I’m not sure why this book is labeled as horror at all- the weight-loss concept is a bit weird and disturbing, but it’s not presented in a horrifying way. Scott seems to completely accept what is happening to him, and it fades into the background of the story as the situation with the neighbors takes precedence.

With the illustrations at the start of every chapter and the small size of the physical book (in addition to the abovementioned lack of subtlety and horror), Elevation seemed a bit like it wanted to be a children’s book. The entire story seemed a bit confused about its intended direction. If not for King’s name on the cover, I doubt this book would’ve seen much success.

And yet, it wasn’t a bad read either. Despite the fact that I kept expecting more from it, the story held my attention from cover to cover, surprising me in a few places and amusing me in others. It had so much potential for disaster, but as always, Stephen King pulls everything together in a uniquely interesting way.

Bonus points for the Pennywise reference.

“Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go further still.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an easy and acceptable read, though not particularly impressive. It helped me out of the reading slump that I’d been in for half the month (which, ironically, stemmed from my dislike for another novel in The Bachman Books, also written by Stephen King).

Further recommendations:

  • If you enjoyed (or look forward to enjoying) Elevation‘s short simplicity and wacky premise, you’ll probably also like King’s short co-written novel, Gwendy’s Button BoxGwendy’s takes place in the same town as Elevation (and gets an obscure mention in Elevation as well, if you’re interested in reading chronologically and want to pick up Gwendy’s first, though it’s not at all necessary to  read in that order to understand these stories) and is also a book that looks at morality and interpersonal relationships with a bizarre supernatural premise running in the background: a box of buttons that give its holder immense power over the entire world.

Is there an author whose books you pick up immediately upon publication, no matter what they’re about? Does that ever backfire for you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bachman Books

I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was twelve years old, but I still have quite a bit of his oeuvre left on my TBR, which includes works by Richard Bachman, an early pseudonym used by King. At the very end of October, I picked The Bachman Books, a collection of four short novels written by Richard Bachman / Stephen King. It took me almost three weeks (more than half of November) to get through this 700 page collection, but it’s finally behind me and I’m ready to reflect on each of the four stories: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man.

thebachmanbooksInstead of my usual review format to talk about the book as a whole, I’m going to share a bit about each of the four stories before going into general thoughts on the collection.

Rage: This is the story that initially interested me most. It’s an out-of-print story about a school shooting that’s caused a lot of real trouble. This is a bad reason to be interested in a book, but I also just wanted to pick it up because I’m afraid it will become increasingly difficult to find and I didn’t want to end up reading all of King’s works except this one.

There is surprisingly little killing here for a story that revolves entirely around a teen gunman. Instead, Rage is filled with the conversations between students and teachers that the gunman is able to facilitate. I was somewhat put off by the weird and unnecessary sexual turn that basically every one of these conversations took, but it was an interesting look at power dynamics in the school system and I found every character fascinating. Even so, I don’t understand how this book caused so many problems- overall, I found it a pretty mediocre read.

“When you’re five and you hurt, you make a big noise unto the world. At ten you whimper. But by the time you make fifteen you begin to eat the poisoned apples that grow on your inner tree of pain. It’s the Western Way of Enlightenment. You begin to cram your fists into your mouth to stifle the screams. You bleed on the inside.”

The Long Walk: This was my favorite story from the bunch. It seemed like a true Stephen King horror tale, one of the “Where did anyone ever come up with an idea like this?” sort that I particularly enjoy. I’m left with a few unanswered questions about the society that supported and made sport of this fatal long walk (100 boys volunteer/are chosen to walk until they can walk no farther- at which point they are shot. The last boy standing wins). The ending was not surprising or impressive, but 99% of this story completely captivated me. You walk or you die– what a choice. I wonder if Suzanne Collins read this story before writing The Hunger Games, it seemed like The Long Walk could’ve been an inspiration for that sort of thing.

“They got that way, Garraty had noticed. Complete withdrawal from everything and everyone around them. Everything but the road. They stared at the road with a kind of horrid fascination, as if it were a tightrope they had to walk over an endless, bottomless chasm.”

Roadwork: The bane of the collection, in my opinion. I struggled so much with finishing this one, especially in the first of the three parts that it’s divided into. The main character was clearly on a downward spiral, but the narration took SO. LONG. to get past the premise introduction and into the real conflict. I think part of the reason I couldn’t get into this story is that it opens with a character who deals with things he doesn’t like by lying, putting them off, and just generally fooling himself into thinking that if he delays long enough the problem might go away. That’s the way I deal with things I don’t like, at least at first, and I had something I was putting off when I started reading so it was giving me real anxiety to see this character’s problems blow up in his face as he tried to ignore them. And even when I’d gotten past that part, I just didn’t like him. His trajectory was unsurprising and largely uneventful until the final stand- personally, I would’ve enjoyed this a whole lot more if the narration showed only that final scene and worked a minimal amount of backstory into the action of it. I’m still not entirely sure why I spent 2 weeks trying to read 200 pages that did not remotely interest me.

“But it didn’t matter. It had gone too far. He had let the machine run without him too long. He was hypnotized by the coming explosion, almost lusted for it.”

The Running Man: The third of four stories that have a surprising amount of focus on roads… This one was more engaging, thankfully. It features a “contestant” on a “game show”; the main character needs money to take care of his family, which in this case means signing up for a televised event in which he spends thirty days (if he can survive that long) running for his life. He can go anywhere, do anything, but the entire nation is watching the show and helping hunt for him, as are professional “Hunters”. This was another favorite of the collection for me. There’s a lot of psychology, a lot of high-stakes action, and it’s set in a futuristic world that’s clearly a future imagined from the 1970’s/80s, which I found amusing.

” ‘I’m sorry you can’t help kill me. Should I leave a note saying I was here?’ ‘Jesus, couldja? That’d be-‘… ‘Let me out here,’ Richards said abruptly… ‘Couldja gimme that note-‘ ‘Get stuffed, maggot.’ … ‘I hope they getya early, you cheap fuck!‘ “

There’s also an introduction to the book by Stephen King, titled “The Importance of Being Bachman,” which was not entirely gripping and seemed defensive, but there is some interesting info included. Some highlights: King talks about being interviewed by the FBI when Rage was linked to real school shootings, how writing with a pseudonym allowed him to publish a book he wouldn’t have been able to under his own name (The Regulators, which was similar in plot to a novel he’d already written) and how writing under two names inspired the plot for another of his novels (The Dark Half).

What I do think about these Bachman books as a whole is that they seem a bit juvenile compared to works published under his real name. Carrie was King’s first published novel though, and even though that came before any Bachman books hit shelves it didn’t feel that way to me. These stories, however, feel like the thought experiments of a writer just finding his feet, taking crazy ideas as far as he can just to see what happens when you’re the God of your own fictional worlds and can make the characters dance any way you like. They’re not fantasies, but they feel like tests. Try outs. I feel like I’ve seen a piece of King that I never had before, though I’ve read fifteen others of his works, including his memoir. This is different. Dedicated Stephen King fans might be interested to compare and contrast these books with other early King works, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll be recommending The Bachman Books as any sort of Stephen King staple or even as an introduction to his works, despite their early place in King’s publishing chronology.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars (overall- I am not giving separate ratings for each of the four novels though I’ll say I liked them in this order: The Long Walk, The Running Man, Rage, Roadwork). I’m glad I read this, even if it did wreck my motivation for a couple of weeks. I’ve been curious about this collection for years, so I’m proud of myself for following through and finishing these 700 pages even when I wasn’t loving the stories. But I do think I need a little break from Stephen King- or at least from Richard Bachman.

Have you read anything by Richard Bachman? What did you think?

Sincerely, The Literary Elephant

Review: Mr. Mercedes

I fell so far behind on book reviews since the beginning of October… I’ve been keeping notes so that I can try reviewing with my usual thoroughness, but it has been a hot minute since I read many of the books that I’ll be reviewing this month, so I might keep catch-up reviews a little briefer and stick to what I remember most strongly.

To start, I read Mr. Mercedes in early October with a buddy– we both wanted to get into this series (the Bill Hodges series, which is a sort of prequel to King’s 2018 release, The Outsider) and now we’re hooked. I’ve been too busy to continue the series immediately, but I have ordered the next book and am looking forward to it! My buddy reader is in the third book now and still loving the series, so I have high hopes.

mr.mercedesAbout the book: Detective Bill Hodges is retired, but a few unsolved cases continue to nag at him even though he’s not supposed to work on them any longer and has lost his access to police resources. When he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, the unknown culprit of a terrible hit-and-run case that left eight dead and another four wounded, he knows he should turn it in as evidence, but can’t shake the feeling that starting a private dialogue with the killer will provide more leads. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes continues to watch Hodges’ house, hoping that his gloating, accusatory letter will be just the thing to convince Hodges to commit suicide– adding another tally to Mr. Mercedes’s body count and eliminating the detective who lead investigations into his biggest crime. But if Hodges’s death doesn’t pan out, Mr. Mercedes has some other deadly ideas, and his recent conversation with Hodges might hold the only clues to stopping his plans.

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

I’ve seen Mr. Mercedes classified as mystery, thriller, and yes, horror, but I would say it’s a pretty straightforward crime novel. King always excels at characterization, and above all else, this book is an examination of character– of a heartless killer and of the bizarre cast of accomplices trying to thwart him. Often mystery novels that feature a whimsical band of misfits chasing a notorious criminal seem overly fabricated to me– the fact that these unique mystery solvers came together in the first place feels so constructed and unlikely (see Night Film). But Hodges’s friends are another story. Jerome is Hodges’s neighbor and already a friend before Mr. Mercedes comes along. Janey and Holly’s interest in the case makes perfect sense as they are relatives of one of Mr. Mercedes’s victims. Even the people Hodges interviews for clues act like real people, rather than the overly chatty sources of necessary info-dumping that mysteries often rely on. Each character and their motives are clear and distinct– including the killer’s.

That’s right, one of the highlights of Mr. Mercedes is that King provides plenty of perspective chapters direct from inside the mind of the killer. This is why I hesitate to call this novel a mystery or thriller; seeing this man’s side of the story takes out a high percentage of the guesswork and fright for the reader. We know where he is and what he’s doing. But I thought Mr. Mercedes’s sections of the book were highly engaging and indeed the most interesting parts of the book, so I didn’t mind learning early the identity of the killer. In my opinion, King does an excellent job of balancing the how’s and why’s, which lets him get away with offering the who’s and what’s at the front and center.

The only flaw for me was the increasing thinness of Hodges’ excuses for refusing to involve the police. What seemed a bad but understandable decision in the beginning eventually turns toward the unreasonable. When things really start going bad, he keeps going basically on momentum alone, and even though all the signs point to needing professional help and reinforcements, Hodges keeps refusing to do that. With more lives at stake, his excuses make less sense, and believability definitely takes a hit when his “assistants” start spouting their own flimsy excuses:

“Speaking carefully, enunciating each word as if to make up for what has probably been a lifetime of mumbling, Holly says, ‘No one can catch him but you.’ “

But those excuses come late in the game, and by that point I was almost too invested in the story to care why the “heroes” close themselves off so entirely. Perhaps with a little more attention to this question, King would’ve been able to provide a more satisfactory answer– the problem seemed more like an oversight than the product of poor planning or writing. Overall, this book was a fun time with a fascinating(ly dark) plot unlike anything I’ve encountered before, even in previous King novels.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one isn’t going to be joining my all-time favorites list, but it is on my list of favorite King novels. It was a fast, interesting read that held my attention 100% from start to finish. I’ll definitely be reading on, though it might take me a couple of months to get around to it. October was a great time of year to start this series though, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. This one’s been sitting on my shelf since… probably 2013, so I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Further recommendations:

  • Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil is actually the third book in what is currently a 4-book series by J. K. Rowling (Galbraith is a pen name). Unless you’re really into the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between the detective and his assistant, there’s really no reason to read the first two before this one, which was by far the strongest of the three that I’ve read so far. It also features interesting chapters from the killer’s perspective.
  • Caroline Kepnes’ YouAgain, if you like getting Mr. Mercedes’s whacked perspective, this is another fascinating story from the eyes of the deranged.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sleeping Beauties

I have just finished with a three-week buddy read of Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties, a 700-page dystopian novel that this father and son duo published last fall.  I chose it as an extra through Book of the Month Club a while back, and it’s so nice to have the longest book from my backlog now crossed of that list.

sleepingbeautiesAbout the book: Women around the world are falling asleep, as usual. What’s unusual is that once they’re unconscious, a cocoon forms around them, and the women do not wake up. The men, however, do continue to sleep and wake as usual. While they search for a cure and try to protect their female loves and family members, disagreements mount, power is lost and won, the number of deaths climbs, and chaos is the new ruling order. On the surface, the small Appalachain town of Dooling seems much the same– but the Dooling women’s prison houses Evie Black, a strange creature who appeared out of nowhere at the same time as the Aurora sleeping sickness, and may be the key to the mystery.

“Practically half the world was asleep, and the rest of it was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

Format-wise, Sleeping Beauties is much like Stephen King’s other works: chapters within chapters, multiple perspectives, informal and intelligent prose, bizarre but believable characters– and, of course, it’s a bit long-winded. This is a 700-page book that is still laying out premise two-thirds of the way through the novel. Sleeping Beauties goes straight from premise to intense climax to brief conclusion; it’s not a bad structure for this story, but it does mean over 500 pages of women falling asleep and men trying to figure out what to do about it before the main conflict even begins.

” ‘I need to see Lila-‘ So I can say goodbye, Clint thought. It occurred to him suddenly. The potential finality. How much longer could she stay awake? Not much. On the phone she had sounded– far off, like she was part of the way to another world already. Once she nodded off, there was no reason to believe she could be brought back.”

That’s not to say that the lead-up to the big showdown is boring. Every single character– and there are a lot of significant characters in this book: enough to fill a 4-page cast list– is uniquely interesting. Personally, I enjoyed the characters at the women’s prison most of all, but there’s quite a variety. Despite the variation in personalities and backstories, one constant is the undercurrent of feminist commentary. These messages are definitely more heavy-handed than I usually find Stephen King’s writing to be, which makes me wonder whether that’s down to Owen’s influence. I have not yet read any other books by Owen King, but Sleeping Beauties certainly leaves me curious about his writing style when working solo. Even if the feminism was a bit too in-your-face for my taste (one of the male characters is so misogynistic he’s basically a caricature), it is definitely a theme I approve of.

“Of course, everyone’s clothes seemed to be wrinkled now. How many men knew how to iron? Or fold, for that matter?”

One downside to the giant list of main characters and the quickly shifting perspectives is that it can be hard to connect with any of them individually. Even the most compelling chapters end after only a few pages, and then that character might not appear again for another hundred pages. But there’s also an upside to this tactic: the reader never gets to the point of dreading any particular character’s chapters. There was not a single character in this book whose name at the beginning of the chapter disappointed me– I didn’t have a single “oh no, not this guy again” moment in the entire book. Every character is fascinating. Even the fox. Yep, you read that right: one of the significant characters (included on the character list and everything) is “a common fox, between 4 and 6 years of age.”

But let’s talk a bit about the conclusion that follows. No spoilers, of course, but Stephen King’s endings are notoriously divisive, and this ending was the biggest drawback to Sleeping Beauties for me. Some aspects I loved: Evie’s unpredictability, the changes wrought in the aftermath, the reactions to deaths. But I did find the unanimous vote a little too unlikely, and some of the answers about the Aurora sickness a little too evasive– of the “maybe we’ll never know exactly what happened” type– or missing entirely. (Why Dooling? Why now? Why were the two men from the meth trailer killed? Why is Evie always naked?) I loved Part 3, the final 20 pages or so of the book, for its tragedies and triumphs. I loved that this isn’t necessary a happy-ending book, though things go as well as they can. It could’ve been a little better with a little more explanation about the supernatural aspects, but the battle was great. Plenty of firepower, death on both sides, and so much tension. I am a true believer in literary grit. And, of course, it’s always interesting to see how the balance/imbalance between the genders will play out.

“That was one way in which the sexes had never been equal; they were not equally dangerous.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book really turned around for the better for me in the final third, and even though a few unanswered (or too easily answered) questions about the basic premise and the book’s supernatural element kept me from giving it the full 5 stars, the slow bit at the beginning no longer bothered me by the end. Sleeping Beauties is not my new favorite Stephen King book, but the co-write was an interesting comparison to other King titles I’ve read, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up.

About my buddy read: This was only my second-ever buddy read; the first also featured a Stephen King book: It. I love Stephen King’s writing, but it’s definitely easier getting through some of his larger titles with someone to hold me accountable. I probably would have finished Sleeping Beauties faster on my own, but I wouldn’t have been reading other books on the side, and reading all 700 pages at once would’ve felt like more of a chore. Instead, my friend and I read about 230 pages per week, whenever it fit into our schedules, and at the end of the week we’d have a nice spoilery chat. That’s the best part of a buddy read, in my opinion: being able to talk about the book with someone who’s in exactly the same place and knows the same amount of information. That said, this wasn’t the best book to buddy read because there really wasn’t much going on in the first 2/3 of the book beyond characterization and premise-laying. We made some predictions, and spent a lot of the chat time wandering off to other topics. It wasn’t until the final chat that we really had plenty to say about what worked or didn’t. But even so, it was enjoyable enough that I still have positive opinions of both buddy reading and Stephen King.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you liked Sleeping Beauties, you should also check out Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s long, but if you’ve made it through Sleeping Beauties you already know you can handle a long book, right? Under the Dome is about another small town facing extenuating circumstances: a dome has suddenly surrounds the town limits. No one (and nothing) can get in or out. The infrastructure devolves much in the same way as it does in Dooling, so if you like the lawless power play in Sleeping Beauties, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the situation under the dome.

What’s the longest book you’ve read? Did you like it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant