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Revisiting King: Misery

(Oct 19 – Nov 1)

Another excellent “Halloween edition” cover

It’s possible that Misery might be Stephen King’s best book (so far). Sure, it gets its fair share of acclaim, but it tends to sit there a little overshadowed by King’s more attention-grabbing works—you know, the ones with killer clowns, or possessed hotels, or apocalypses. And right there is the thing that sets Misery apart: it’s King’s first novel with absolutely no supernatural element or inhuman monster involved (we’ll conveniently ignore short stories and novellas).

It’s also one of the rare King novels that’s largely free of what I’m going to call KingWuffel from now on: that being King’s propensity to waffle on in directions that have zero impact on the plot. The premise and structure of Misery has a lot to do with this, featuring just two main characters, a captor and a captive, only one of whom allows us inside their head. Furthermore, the plot, such as it is, mostly revolves around the psychological state of our two characters: as such, whatever KingWuffel there is ends up enriching the proceedings, rather than distracting from them.

Perhaps another reason Misery works so well is because it’s both metaphorical and deeply personal. It’s King responding to the trauma of being compartmentalised as a horror writer by his legions of fans. The novel was written in response to the negative reception towards King’s previous title: Eyes Of The Dragon, an all-ages fantasy novel (which I will be writing about next). From the very start of his career, King was wary about being typecast as a horror writer, and Eyes Of The Dragon demonstrates that he wasn’t necessarily wrong. Even his most recent attempt at the Great American Novel (It) did little to change that categorisation.

Another, perhaps more accurate reading (and this is by King’s own admission) is that Misery deals with the author’s own addictions (King was a huge alcoholic with a taste for cocaine thrown in for good measure). In this interpretation, King is still the imprisoned author, but Annie Wilkes is the spectre of his own addiction, isolating him and foiling his every attempt to break free.

Trauma may be a strong word to use when discussing one of the world’s most successful authors, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) Misery is absolutely steeped in trauma; so much so that I started looking into whether Misery was true or a problematic representation of such. After all, on the one hand, we have the monstrous and terrifying ex-nurse Annie Wilkes as the villain of the piece; on the other, we have a deeply troubled woman with long-term psychological issues. One thing I’ve found in King’s novels is that (accepting the times in which his novels were written) for every attempt he makes at inclusion, we’ll typically have a character doing a mock Southern plantation voice, or a casual use of the word ‘retarded’.

I’m not sure I’ve reached a definitive conclusion on Misery, but I do recommend a podcast called Freaks and Psychos, a series which discusses representations of disability in horror movies. After listening to their episode on Misery I’ve got a better appreciation for the range of trauma and disability that Misery represents (noting that the main character, following a near-fatal car accident, is also disabled) and that, while there are limits in King’s representation, he does draw deeply on his own pain and trauma to provide something that may actually give the able-bodied among us a bit of valuable insight.

The Adaptations

There is one adaptation of Misery. And also a sort of additional one.

The main adaptation I’m referring to is, of course, Rob Reiner’s excellent 1990 movie starring Kathy Bates and James Caan. I did not feel the need to rewatch this one as it’s pretty close to the novel (barring a few changes, most notably with the ‘hobbling scene’). Perhaps I also came away from the novel satisfied and not needing to see the same story told again (whereas other movie adaptations of King’s novels are often sufficiently different that it’s interesting seeing the story told in a different way, with different choices being made).

The other adaptation I mentioned is season two of the TV series Castle Rock (which I have not seen). This season revolves around the character of Annie Wilkes and serves as a prequel to Misery, providing (by all accounts) a sympathetic depiction of her descent into the terrifying character we meet in the novel.

The Reading

My reading of Misery got off to a slightly rocky start. The novel jumps right into the action and it took a chapter or two for me to adjust to the narrative style. It’s also a really, really grim book in parts. That said, I quickly went from “I can’t bear being locked in this room” to “I have to go back”.

In a lot of ways this is very reminiscent of Cujo: it’s an excuse to explore some deeply troubled characters in a literal life and death situation. While I eventually developed an admiration for what King did with Cujo, the novel (at the time) didn’t really work for me; it was too grim and I didn’t really like any of the characters. With Misery, both the characters and the situation are compelling enough that you find yourself wanting to go back, despite the horror of it all.

It’s one of King’s shorter novels, which also helps a great deal. It does what it sets out to do and doesn’t linger. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in an alternate reality, there’s a version where King chopped 300-400 words off the start of a much longer novel in order to plunge us, jarringly, right down to business.

I had read Misery before (no idea when) but I’d marked it down as a decent novel, one of King’s better known works, but nothing remarkable. So, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this reread, and it was probably the first time I’ve put one of these novels down and immediately started looking forward to the next time I get to pick it up and read it again.

The Top Ten

With a new King novel read it is, of course, time to revisit the Top Ten. And here’s what it’s looking like now:

  1. Cujo
  2. Carrie
  3. Different Seasons
  4. Pet Sematary
  5. Salem’s Lot
  6. The Dead Zone
  7. It
  8. The Shining
  9. Misery
  10. The Stand

Yes, Misery has landed pretty high there. There’s an argument to be made that it’s a better book than The Stand, but it’s going to take a lot to knock that favourite off the top spot. I considered dropping it below The Shining, but I think it just edges that one out.

The more interesting stuff is going on at the lower reaches there. Seeing that a new title has landed in the list, those of you who have been following this project might have reasonably expected Cujo to lose its coveted number 10 position. But there it is, hanging right in there!

So what got dropped?

Sadly, it’s time to say goodbye to that mid-tier early entry, Firestarter. It’s an enjoyable book, but I have to say it’s also proving a fairly forgettable one. The more I think about Cujo the more I wonder if I judged it too harshly. Either way, I’m still thinking about it, which means it gets to stay there. For now.

Kingterval: Andy Weir

(Sep 14 – Oct 18)

After spending more than two months wading through IT I decided it was time to take a short break from Stephen King. I’d actually decided right from the start that I would take a break after IT, but it makes it sound more dramatic if I paint things as though reading ITwas a glorious struggle that left me desperate for some literary recuperation. In either case, ITrepresents something of a transition point in the Stephen King bibliography (of which more in my next post) so it seemed a good moment at which to take a Kingterval. Yes, that pun is terrible and, yes, I am also very proud of it.

The Martian was one of my favourite books of [insert year that The Martian came out]. It was one of those rare and beautiful novels that I just couldn’t put down. I missed out on Weir’s second novel, Artemis, due to mixed reviews and general inertia, but when I started reading good things about his latest, Project Hail Mary, I decided I definitely wanted to check it out. And, since it made for a tidily themed trio, I decided why not read all three of Weir’s novels before getting my King happening again.

Project Hail Mary

Andy Weir - Project Hail Mary paperback cover

I acquired a very large paperback copy of this, which sat on my desk for a week or two before I finally finished IT. I don’t want to talk too much about the plot because there are some nice little twists here and there, but I can see why reviewers were comparing it to The Martian: it uses the same basic premise of sticking a person alone in a perilous situation who needs to science the shit out of his various predicaments.

This was a very easy and engaging read, and I highly recommend it. However, the writing did feel a bit thin in comparison to The Martian. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that our main character wakes up with amnesia—it gives us an easy engine to hook the narrative on, but it also means we can’t really get into the main character’s head to the same degree that we do with The Martian. However, because of this device, one of the things I did enjoy about this novel is how much it felt like playing a video game: you wake up not knowing anything, gradually you explore and expand your environment, learning the rules as you go. The longer you spend in this universe, the bigger it becomes. Literally. That said, I suspect that the slightly more fanciful plot is another reason why this one doesn’t feel as real as The Martian.

It’s perhaps not fair to keep comparing this to The Martian—it’s a great read regardless of whether you’ve read that earlier novel—but it has to be said that consciously trying to echo a successful formula will inevitably drive comparisons.

The Martian

Andy Weir - The Martian paperback cover

I read The Martian second, because sometimes I just have to do things out of order. And also because I didn’t have a copy of Artemis yet. This was my third read of The Martian and I was keen to see how a book I had enjoyed hugely on previous occasions added up. The good news is it still holds up (but you didn’t really need me to tell you that). 

Despite reading it twice, and having seen the movie a couple of times, I’d completely forgotten that there was a dual narrative going on: the predicament on Mars, and the efforts back on Earth to get their man home. One of the other major drivers of the book is the main character’s optimism and sense of humour; I’m sure this was a huge contributor to the novel’s success. This, unfortunately, is where Project Hail Mary suffers—it could almost be the same character in both novels (barring a few spoilerific characteristics that I won’t divulge here).

Artemis

Andy Weir - Artemis paperback cover

I was a little wary of this one due to the mixed reviews. The thing that sold me was reading it described as “as heist movie set on the moon”. It’s not really that, it’s more a of pulp crime novel set on the moon, but it’s still a fun melding of genres. I went in hoping not to be disappointed and ended up having a really good time with it. The general set up is pretty different to Weir’s other two novels, but this is the one where Weir’s real strengths as a novelist become clear. 

You see, Weir follows one of the first rules of crafting a compelling narrative, and he does it really well: he throws problems at his characters and he does it constantly. No sooner have they resolved one crisis than another one appears over the horizon. And the other thing Weir does, which is more or less his Unique Selling Point, is that his characters always solve their problems with science. As such you get entertaining high-stakes drama and science lessons in one easy to read package.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy Artemis if you enjoyed The Martian, but it’s got a lot of the same elements: a funny, resourceful main character and plenty of twists and turns that bring fresh peril. It’s also a different read: our lead character is female, and has an engagingly cynical streak; also the premise revolves rather less around people being heroes, and more around people trying to make a few bucks, or simply to survive.

This one probably doesn’t deserve to get lost under the shadow of The Martian.

The Adaptations

At this point there’s only one adaptation of Andy Weir’s novels: the 2015 movie of The Martian. There is talk of Ryan Gosling producing and starring in a movie of Project Hail Mary (and, I tell you, I would love to see this one visualised) and some presumably stalled attempts to do something with Artemis (an HBO type series would do the job very nicely here I reckon). But let’s talk about Ridley Scott’s version of The Martian.

First and foremost, it’s a very good film. It’s a classic sci-fi drama that sits very nicely alongside the sort of hard science fiction films they used to do before Star Wars came along. But it also loses a fair bit of the novel’s charm. Matt Damon carries the movie faultlessly, but he’s not the character we grew to love from the novel. Ridley Scott, not a director known for delivering the funnies, really scales down the humour which is a shame because, with a script written by Drew Goddard, this should shine with wit.

Outside of those minor criticisms, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel which probably goes to show how tightly crafted the narrative was in the first place. If it ain’t broke, well … Weir will probably break it anyway just to find a fun way of fixing it again.

The Reading

All told it took me about a month to read these three novels, which is pretty good going for me. Two of those weeks were spent with Project Hail Mary, which was a consistently enjoyable read. I then started gangbusters on The Martian and then slowed down, probably because I pretty much knew what was going to happen. As such it worked out quite well that I left Artemis to last, since it gave me something fresh to read before getting back into my King reread.

As I said above, these are very easy books to read—and that’s not meant to be an insult, they’re simply very engaging and Weir does an excellent job of keeping things moving along while doing his science thing along the way.

Up next: time to meet King’s number one fan …

Revisiting King: It

June 30 – September 13)

paperback cover for IT by Stephen King

There’s no denying the fact that It is something of a milestone in Stephen King’s career. However, exactly what sort of a milestone it is remains open to debate. I started my reread of It with the clear feeling that this was King’s masterpiece, and I finished it satisfied but with a sense that I’d had to wade through a lot of words for relatively little story.

Coming to It after reading all of King’s previous works in release order feels like a huge leap forward. It is undeniably a King novel, but one unlike any that he’s written before. Well … that’s not exactly true. One of the delights of reading It was picking up the strands of its DNA from King’s previous works. There’s the group of children on a quest from The Body (and, let’s face it, as excellent as it is in its own right, The Body does feel a lot like a test run for It). There’s the small town vibe from Salem’s Lot (and several other novels—but I pick Salem’s Lot specifically because King labelled it as his attempt to write the Great American Novel, a category for which It is surely a contender).

There’s the Great Evil lurking in the underbelly of a small town (not a rabid dog, or a bullied girl with telekinetic powers, or a vampire, or a possessed car this time, but something far more metaphorical, and also far deadlier). There’s the rich sense of nostalgia written out as a series of fictional childhoods that no real person would ever have lived. There’s the history: pages and pages telling us more than we ever needed to know about the town of Derry and its citizens. There’s the Bully (represented by a couple of characters here) who gives us both a counterpoint and a parallel to the more supernatural horrors (“Sure, you’ll never come face to face with an intradimensional horror, but here’s someone a little closer to home that you probably will meet one day!”)

For good measure, we also have several direct throwbacks to earlier works, which is always fun. There are mentions of Shawshank prison. There’s an extended cameo for Dick Halloran from The Shining. There’s even an appearance from Christine (or, at the very least, a car that’s a strong contender for being Christine’s sister).

In so many ways, It is the distillation of everything that King has done before, and a hint that this is the closing chapter in a particular stage of this writing career. However, for all that is great and fun about It, the novel is overshadowed (and undermined) by its ending. There’s no getting away from the fact that the novel spends the best part of a thousand pages building up to a confrontation that … just doesn’t really deliver.

And then there’s that scene.

I’m not actually going to talk about that scene. I’ve been part of the head-scratcher brigade over that scene for decades (“Sure, Stephen, yep; you go right ahead and do you … we’ll be here for the next one.”) However, I recently read something that did such a fantastic job of recontextualising that scene and justifying it that I was able to process it in a completely different light for this reread. So I recommend you go off and read this article … and then come back here.

But back to the climax for now. I didn’t remember the ending of the book particularly well. Like the characters in the novel, I found bits and pieces coming back to me, but the ending remained reliably obscure. I figured this was simply because it wasn’t very memorable and I was keen to revisit it in order to give it a proper re-evaluation. 

So how did it go? 

Well, the parts leading up to and away from the ending were like reading something for the first time. There’s some terrific narrative structuring; there’s a great and claustrophobic sense of creeping towards a final confrontation as the group stagger through the tunnels beneath Derry. And then, in the end, they pretty much punch a big spider to death.

Yeah, I know it’s a bit of a spoiler there, but I have to tell it for what it is. It’s a let down, and it’s already slipping from my memory. I guess, as with a lot of stories, it’s more about the journey than the destination, and that’s certainly true for It.

The Adaptations

There are two adaptations of It (well, three, I guess … maybe). First off there’s the 1990 miniseries adaptation. A lot of people love this, but I find it fairly hard to watch. I haven’t watched it in a considerable number of years, but I remember it as a perfectly solid retelling that has some highly memorable moments, but it’s simply too TV for me—and if there’s one thing you couldn’t do in the 1990s, it’s make a convincing adaptation of a Stephen King story on network television.

It does have, of course, Tim Curry’s iconic, immortal and unforgettable portrayal of Pennywise to enjoy, something which pretty much forgives every other limitation herein. In fact, just thinking about it sorta makes me want to watch the whole thing again.

There’s also the more recent film adaptation which was released in two parts; in 2017 and 2019. For my money, It: Chapter One is not only a great adaptation, but one of the best horror movies of the last few decades. It’s properly scary, it makes some sensible choices about how to retell the story, and Bill Skarsgard finds a fresh and equally iconic way of playing Pennywise (which, let’s face it, was always going to be one of the major challenges here). Most tellingly, it also feels like a satisfyingly complete film on its own.

Which brings me to It: Chapter Two. Which is probably one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen. It was always going to be a challenge: the ‘adult’ section of the novel is mostly about the characters remembering what happens in the ‘child’ section. In other words, once you’ve told the earlier part of the story, there’s not a whole lot left to really power a proper three act narrative. The writers make what, on the surface, seems a fairly smart choice in dealing with this but somehow it doesn’t pay off. Just as the adults spend much of the novel wondering if the magic that helped them prevail the first time around has been lost, so the film demonstrates that sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

The Reading

I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty excited about getting to revisit It. I’ve read the novel at least twice before, and had something of a stalled attempt following the release of the 2017 film. Hence, it was as much about having a second chance to beat the devil as it was about enjoying a much-loved novel all over again.

And I did enjoy it—very much. I spent the best part of three months treading in these characters’ shoes all over again, enjoying moments that I remembered fondly, and rediscovering the bits I’d forgotten. 

However, the novel is far from a compelling read. Some of the previous King novels I’ve read in this exercise found me quite reluctant to stop reading. Even the ones that were merely enjoyable, I managed a steady rate of around 50 pages per sitting. With It (and this is partly because the print is that much smaller) I typically managed 30 pages before I decided I’d had enough for the night. Consequently it took me quite a while to get all the way through to the underwhelming conclusion.

I still think this is a great novel, and it has plenty of space to breathe, but I do (sacrilegiously) wonder how it would read if a few hundred words were trimmed away.

The Top Ten

Now that I’ve read eleven Stephen King books, it’s time for one to be culled from the top ten. If you’ve been reading my blog posts this far you may already have a good idea of which one it will be.

So, without further ado, here is the new Revisiting King Top Ten:

  1. Cujo
  2. Carrie
  3. Firestarter
  4. Different Seasons
  5. Pet Sematary
  6. Salem’s Lot
  7. The Dead Zone
  8. It
  9. The Shining
  10. The Stand

Yep, though I do (much to my surprise) have some fond memories of reading Christine, it’s still the obvious choice to drop off the bottom. I started It convinced that it would end up at the top spot, but it still doesn’t quite match up to The Stand for me. Meanwhile, it occurred to me that if someone asked me at this point to recommend the quintessential Stephen King novel—the one King novel to read if you were never going to read another—then I would probably recommend The Shining. Hence that classic remains in second place above It.

One other change that comes in the wake of reading It is that I’ve decided to bump Salem’s Lot up a few spots. It has its problems, but it’s a better novel than Pet Sematary and I’ve been thinking about it a great deal as I waded through the 1100 pages or so of It.

Coming up next: … well, I’m going to take a short break from Stephen King … but eventually we’ll meet again in the company of a certain number one fan.

Revisiting King: Pet Sematary

(Jun 10 – Jun 24)

I think this cat is supposed to be scary …?

Popularly billed as ‘the novel Stephen King found too scary to publish’, Pet Sematary delivers its share of grotesque thrills, but the true horror stems from its all-too real-world inspiration. Without going too much into spoilery detail, let’s just say that the basic setup for the novel comes entirely from King’s own life and anyone who has raised (or is raising) a young family will feel a very specific fear gripping them pretty much from the first chapter.

One thing I’ve learned through this project is that King’s novels are often written in a different order than they are published. Pet Sematary was written after The Stand, but stuffed away in a drawer after King decided that what he had written was too horrific to be published. As such there’s a familiarity to the novel, an odd sense that King is finding his feet again; when in truth this novel came into being before King reached his bonafide superstar status, and possibly before the crates of beer and cocaine started propping up his writing desk.

In many ways this could be considered the definitive King novel: it revolves around a family; it’s set in a small town; it features some classically overbearing grandparents; and it has the ‘everyday thing’ infected by supernatural evil. In this case the everyday thing is death, and it’s possibly this angle that sets Pet Sematary slightly apart. I’ve written before about how I admire King for never retreating from the dark places, but Pet Sematary is one where he goes all the way—the worst possible thing you think could happen is typically the thing that happens. There’s simultaneously a visceral darkness and a grotesque schlockiness to the novel that has you enthralled while reading, but once you put the book down prompts a sense that it was, perhaps, all a bit over the top.

The Adaptations

There are two movie adaptations of Pet Sematary: the original 1989 adaptation and a more recent 2019 remake.

I watched the remake last year and found it promising but ultimately disappointing. There were some interesting angles on the story that ended up not being particularly well developed, but the changes to the original story were admittedly pretty good fun.

I do remember watching the 1989 movie at some distant point in the past (who could ever forget that achilles cut scene?) but was keen to revisit it before writing this post.

Like many of the King adaptations it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It has the aesthetic sensibility of a TV movie, but rises above this on occasion with some fleetingly great moments. 

The acting definitely bears comment. The two leads are terrifically wooden (I took great enjoyment from commenting on the lead actor’s constant expression of ‘mild concern’ at the various horrific events that his character endures). In contrast, the two children are incredible. How they conjured the performance they did out of a toddler I will never know. Special credit must also go to Fred Gwynn (better known as nominated Munster) who all but carries the film with what should have been an Oscar-worthy performance, despite (or perhaps because of) his distinctive Bette Davis accent.

Overall, the 1989 movie is worth watching if you enjoyed the book (or if you simply want to revisit the story without reading the novel). The 2019 movie is worth a look if you fancy a popcorn horror flick with decent production values, but I’m unlikely to opt for a second viewing of either myself.

The Reading

Once again, the point of this project was to help me get into a regular reading habit, and I certainly seem to be getting fairly regular with these novels. I’m averaging 50 pages each sitting (note: I pretty much only read at night, in bed) and for the most part each novel is taking me around a fortnight to read (depending on length).

I had read Pet Sematary before—pretty sure it was way back when I was first discovering Stephen King—and mostly remembered only the broad details.

Except for one thing.

Pet Sematary was possibly the first time that I’d encountered an author literally writing a spoiler into their own novel. At one point we are clearly told that a major character is going to die. I remember being gobsmacked by this. I was so used to twists like that coming out of the blue, that it blew my mind to have something so major telegraphed in plain English right there on the page. It’s one of the tricks that I’ve always remembered (though I’m not sure I’ve ever used it myself).

Strangely, my memory of where the spoiler happens was much hazier: I was expecting it much earlier in the book during this reread, but it eventually popped up relatively late in proceedings (and, in fact, only shortly before the event that it supposedly spoils).

I suppose it’s also worth noting that, despite the supergrim subject matter, I still found this far less of a struggle than Cujo—in fact, it was a pretty good read.

The Top Ten

If you include Different Seasons as a single work (which I will for the sake of doing this), I have now read 10 Stephen King books—and you know what that means? That’s right: it’s time for a top 10!

I will update this as I continue to read more of King’s novels, and we’ll see what drops off the bottom and what gets added in. For now we have:

  1. Christine
  2. Cujo
  3. Carrie
  4. Firestarter
  5. Salem’s Lot
  6. Different Seasons
  7. Pet Sematary
  8. The Dead Zone
  9. The Shining
  10. The Stand

Naturally this is a very subjective list, and is mostly based on how likely I am to reread each title. For example, Firestarter and Cujo are arguably much better books than Salem’s Lot, but there is something about the classic gothic nature of Salem’s Lot that really gets to me.

Similarly Cujo is actually a better book than Carrie (and possibly several of those above it) but it’s a tough read. I would like to revisit it one day, but that day will likely be a long time in the future.

Up next: … you’ll float too!!

Revisiting King: Christine

(May 24 – Jun 9)

Another awesome Halloween edition cover (sadly much better than the novel deserves)

While reading Christine I found my mind routinely flicking back to Cujo—a novel (and one presumes not the only one) that Stephen King wrote while in a thick alcoholic haze and claims no memory of writing. It is a book where Stephen King The Author clearly took over the day’s business and got the job done.

In similar fashion, Christine reads a lot like Stephen King on autopilot and yet the results are so very different. Cujo, while a grim and challenging read, is chock full of deep characterisations, thematically linked sub-plots, and some genuinely bold twists and turns. By contrast, Christine comes across more like someone attempting to write a Stephen King novel, while possessing little more than King’s surface ability to take everyday objects and turn them into sources of horror, and none of his raw talent for backstory, characterisation and sense of place.

There’s barely enough plot in Christine for a short story—it would likely have made a perfect fourth novella for Different Seasons, where it could have been a tight, efficient, standout horror tale. Instead it’s a bloated, indulgent and largely empty novel that demands 700 pages of your attention and gives very little back in return.

Let’s be clear, tho: in many ways it is a classic Stephen King horror novel. You’ve got the everyday object (in this case a car) getting possessed by evil forces; you’ve got a domineering mother; you’ve got lovingly crafted descriptions of death scenes and corpses. It’s familiar territory and, inevitably, stands in marked contrast to the arguably more experimental novels he had published previously. It’s Stephen King being very conscious of what people (and his publishers) expect from a Stephen King novel and trying to deliver exactly that.

The Adaptations

There is one adaptation of Christine: a 1983 movie directed by John Carpenter. Unfortunately, I can’t say in good conscience that it does much to improve on the book despite some interesting changes here and there (mostly to tighten up the structure and avoid some of the book’s more egregious meandering). The movie finds Carpenter mostly in journeyman mode, possibly as a consequence of not working on his own material, but he still manages to inject a few nice touches. For example, there is a stunning sequence of Christine on fire, and the effects of the car regenerating are particularly effective.

For me, however, the most noteworthy aspect of the movie is that it stars the actor I shall forever refer to as Ghostbusters Gum Guy—you know, the one who spits his gum out after Bill Murray gives him an electric shock? His hair, if anything, is even bigger in this movie. It’s quite spectacular. Obviously worth the price of admission alone.

In a strange piece of timing, literally the day after I finished the novel the interwebs were all ablaze with news that Bryan Fuller was working on a new adaptation with Blumhouse. I’ll be particularly curious to see if they can inject any more depth into this one.

The Reading

You’d think, given my above review, that I would have struggled through Christine, but the opposite is true. While it’s overly long, it’s a very undemanding read: It’s Stephen King lite and while I didn’t think much of it, it didn’t particularly drag and I found myself reading an easy 50 pages or so each night. This comes in marked contrast to Cujo which, on reflection, is a far better book but is, so far, the only one I found myself struggling to complete.

Christine is one of the King novels that I read way back in my teen years. Just about the only thing I remember from it is the jarring change in narrative voice. For those who are unfamiliar: the first 250 pages or so are in first person (the first time, I think, King has written a novel in first person); then our narrator lands himself in hospital, so we switch to omniscient third person narrator for a large chunk of proceedings; finally, the last 150 pages reverts to first person again.

I was fascinated by this when I first read it, and it’s something that’s stuck with me over the years. It seemed so clumsy … and yet it was Stephen King, so maybe it was secretly brilliant? Now that I have a little experience of writing under my own belt, I was keen to see how the narrative shift would land with me this time.

Well, firstly, it didn’t seem that jarring. There comes the same point where our trusted narrator starts being referred to in the third person, but the actual transition in narrative voice is barely noticeable (maybe because I was expecting it). However, more than anything it seems clumsy now. King claims that he wrote himself into a corner (by putting his narrator in hospital) but I can think of a dozen ways (well, maybe two) that he could have written himself out of the corner. It comes across as a lazy bit of writing, and suggests that King was simply treading water and squeezing out a true horror book to keep his publishers quiet. 

Given that King does occasionally write short stories in the first person, and the thin nature of the plot, I continue to wonder if Christine started out as a short story, but then decided she wanted more …

Anyway, I guess the best thing I can say about the novel is that even King at his very worst is still perfectly readable.

Up next: you’re not scared of clowns, are you …?

Revisiting King: Different Seasons

(May 11 – May 23)

It seems Stephen King is such a powerhouse writer that he routinely churns out novellas while ‘resting’ during his novel-writing process. Just imagine writing something like The Stand, and then also churning out the novella that spawned The Shawshank Redemption while taking the authorial equivalent of a tea break. Yes, I agree: it really is enough to make you sick.

Different Seasons is King’s first novella anthology, and it comes at the tail end of phase when he had become a legitimate blockbuster-bestselling author; during which he had released a series of books that broadened the perception of him as a ‘mere’ horror writer—and Different Seasons properly cemented the understanding that King had more than just horror to string his bow with.

Nevertheless, Different Seasons does have some subtle little connections to the rest of his work. The Body, for instance, takes place in Castle Rock, and we even get mention of the unfortunate Sheriff Bannerman and Cujo. On a more subtle level, it’s easy to see the origins of It in The Body—a story that revolves around a close-knit group of young children learning to face up to their mortality and other terrors.

While I’ve opted not to reread King’s short story collections at this time (I will get to them however, as his short stories are some of my favourites) his ability to write comfortably beyond the horror genre is well established in those collections. Still, without that piece of the puzzle, reading something like Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption (to give the story its full title) comes as a bit of an eye-opener. Beyond the expected horrors of prison-life, the novella is nothing like [the novels] King has published before; it’s a reflective piece about hope. It’s what snobby reviewers would probably call ‘proper writing’. The same goes for The Body, a lovely, almost poetic tribute to a forgotten youth.

King circles closer to expectations with the other two stories. Apt Pupil is a genuinely horrifying tale of youth gone wrong with almost no hope mixed into its putty—a sharp contrast to Shawshank and The Body. The final story, The Breathing Method, is something of an outlier (even though thematic links can be drawn) and is probably so because by all accounts it was added in simply to round the collection up to four novellas (and thus justify the ‘seasons’ being in the title).

I’ll discuss more below, but I enjoyed all four of these tales: some far more than I expected to.

The Adaptations

There are three movies that spawned from this collection. Apt Pupil is the only one I’ve not seen: apparently it was a big bomb, and I don’t rate Bryan Singer in any way so I won’t be checking it out any time.

By contrast, The Shawshank Redemption is arguably one of the most perfect examples of cinema you can get, and is a film I absolutely love. While Frank Darabont did make a few changes for his adaptation (mostly character streamlining such as having a single Warden for the duration of the movie, and making Hadley and Bogs more present as villains) it’s amazing how close the film hews to the book. A lot of the dialogue is taken word for word; many scenes play out exactly as they do in the novella. However, despite the subtlety of the changes, Darabont brings some magic to his adaptation. The novella is good, but the movie transforms it into something wonderful.

There’s a similar magic at play with Stand By Me (renamed from The Body so cinemagoers wouldn’t think they were about to watch a horror movie). I watched it again, just prior to writing this blog post, and it’s remarkably faithful to the source material. It’s not a film I would in any way rank among my favourites, but it’s a good watch and it would probably make for quite a nice double bill with Shawshank.

The Reading

I went into Different Seasons with some preconceptions. Of the four novellas, Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption is the only one I’ve read in recent years. I expected that one to be my clear favourite, followed by The Body. Of the other two I expected to enjoy Apt Pupil the least, and The Breathing Method to be of passing entertainment.

Turns out my limited recall of those last two stories meant they were the most interesting to rediscover. Apt Pupil had whole sections of narrative that I’d completely forgotten about, while The Breathing Method came wrapped in a pretty cool framing device (of which I’m keen to read more).

Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption remained as good as ever, but I have to admit (perhaps sacrilegious) that the film version is easily my favourite telling of this story. Meanwhile, The Body was a perfectly good read but didn’t engage me in any revelatory sort of a way. It’s a nice tale which spawned an equally nice film.

Up next: what’s red and goes vroom-vroom and probably wants to kill you?

Revisiting King: Cujo

(April 29 – May 10)

Cujo paperback cover
It’s a cover which says what it does in the book …

For the third novel in a row I am left without the comforting, informative blanket of an introduction or author’s notes. However, since King by his own admission was deep in the throes of alcoholism and remembers nothing at all about writing Cujo, it’s perhaps for the best.

Cujo is an interesting entry in the King canon. It’s an overt return to horror: the first chapter alone is a masterclass in writing about things that go bump in the night. However, it’s also a strongly allegorical story. I mean, almost every novel is going to be allegorical in some ways, even if only in reflecting the author’s own experience. However, Cujo centres itself around a big, cuddly St Bernard who is turned into a monster due to (very physiological) forces beyond his own control. Not too far removed from a big, cuddly author who can feel himself turning into a monster through substance addiction.

However, you can’t spin an entire novel around a rabid dog, so there’s a lot more going on here. Most of the narrative follows two families: the family who own the dog and the family most directly impacted by its rampage. Both families are in crisis, and Cujo somehow becomes the catalyst that forces those issues into inescapable focus. Although I didn’t especially enjoy the book (for more on that, keep reading) I’m blown away that King can write something as well-rounded, coherently themed and multi-layered as Cujo while in a state that would find most of us struggling to find our way to the toilet.

Perhaps the only real sign of King’s state of mind is the structure of the novel. As I believe I wrote previously, both Firestarter and The Dead Zone find King trying different ways of structuring a narrative. Cujo, conversely, is a steam train that starts at the beginning and doesn’t let up until it’s done. There are no chapters; the only breaks are between scenes; and there are no chunky flashbacks filling out gaps in the plot.

Cujo is King’s second novel set in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock—and we get a much closer look at the place than we did in The Dead Zone. Perhaps most interestingly for enthusiasts of King continuity, there are various direct references to The Dead Zone (specifically in the mentions of the serial killer featured in that book, and the return appearance of Sheriff Bannerman). However, the aspect I found most interesting is the first vague shadows of what would eventually become It—the idea that evil can pervade throughout a town, and across time, and that it may choose to spend its spare time lurking in a young child’s closet.

The Adaptations

There is one adaptation of Cujo; a 1983 movie. This arrived at a time when Hollywood was crazy for Stephen King adaptations and somehow ended up being released just before the movie adaptation of The Dead Zone; as such, any references to events in that story were removed from the movie before release.

It’s an oddly faithful adaptation (having recently given it a watch so I could wrap up this post) something which does not work in its favour. There are plot threads which are an important part of the novel that get squeezed in here and yet are given short shrift, but really should have been dropped in favour of streamlining the story. The movie is hugely elevated by some tremendous acting and some gorgeous cinematography (from Jan de Bont) but sits in a strange netherworld by virtue of being neither a terrible nor or an especially memorable adaptation.

Incidentally my favourite bit of movie trivia is that the adaptation of King’s previous book, Firestarter, starred Drew Barrymore. Meanwhile, Cujo stars Dee Wallace, who played Barrymore’s mother in E.T. (Wallace also starred in one of my favourite movies, The Howling, which is also about shaggy beasts that like to bite people).

The Reading

I think, though I’m not sure, that this is my first time reading Cujo and despite my admiration for what King achieved in managing to write the novel, it has definitely been my least favourite read so far. There is a vein of nastiness (possibly derived from self-loathing?) that runs through the entire book. I’ve often admired the no-holds-barred approach that King takes to his writing—the fact that he will not shy away from the darkest places is, in my opinion, one of the things that has contributed to his reputation. However, Cujo is different: it’s a bleak, hard novel in which our protagonists suffer pretty much from start to finish. There are terrible characters who are instrumental in ruining lives, and even when those people are out of the way there are other things waiting in the shadows ready to tear people apart (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically).

There was a point around halfway through where I considered simply not finishing the book. I was moderately invested in the characters, but I wasn’t sure that this was a journey I really wanted to go on. Nevertheless, I did push through to the end and I’m glad I did. It’s probably not a novel I’ll be rushing to read again, but it’s still an impressive work and a fascinating glimpse of what you get when King finds himself down in some of those dark places.

Revisiting King: Firestarter

(April 19 – 28)

Firestarter paperback cover
Another fairly routine cover in a series that is admittedly growing on me. I like that this is vaguely reminiscent of the iconic Drew Barrymore focused film poster.

We’re currently in a bit of a plateau in the Stephen King bibliography:a run of books that are still regarded as King Classics (at least by me) but are nevertheless caught between the twin shadows of The Stand and It.

Once again, Firestarter comes bereft of any author’s notes, forcing me to resort to rampant speculation in determining how this novel came to be. It’s quite a different book for King; like The Dead Zone, it leans more towards thriller than horror; and also like The Dead Zone (which was strongly episodic) it finds the author playing with structure. Firestarter plunges right down to business, with us readers joining the plot about halfway through. Most of the missing pieces are filled in through various flashbacks scattered across the first half of the novel. 

Due to this spirit of experimentation (and given that The Dead Zone was King’s first novel to become a top ten bestseller), I suspect this plateau is showing us a relatively confident Stephen King trying out different ways of telling stories. However, I also wonder if Firestarter perhaps started out as a short story and simply continued to grow. Given the efficient opening, you can almost imagine the opening chapter being a self-contained short story until it’s author decided this one had legs.

There are few overt tie-ins to other King novels that I noticed–no Castle Rock this time, no manically religious characters, no alcoholism, no main characters who also happen to be writers–but obviously the concept of a young child with supernatural powers, and that power being sought after by another entity, is not a million miles removed from The Shining.

As with The Dead Zone I’d probably say this is not Essential King, but as we’re still at a stage where it seems impossible for the man to write a bad book it’s definitely worth a read if it takes your fancy.

The Adaptations

There is only one adaptation of Firestarter; a 1984 movie that by all accounts is a complete stinker. I have not watched it, and I’m not planning to make any room in my schedule to do so.

More excitingly, there is a second movie adaptation in the works: produced by Blumhouse and starring Zac Efron. Given the typically high quality of Blumhouse productions, I will almost certainly be checking this one out. 

Also: Zac Efron playing a Dad???

The Reading

This one was a bit of a slow starter for me (see what I almost did there? No wait, I should have gone with ‘slow burn’ .. dammit!). I remember having read it way back when I was first discovering Stephen King, but almost everything else about it had since escaped my memory. Not a great endorsement, and accordingly I went into this book with some apprehension.

As mentioned, it didn’t start off great. The big problem with starting a story with people already on the run is that you have nowhere to go. You’re already in a tense place, so you can only decrease the tension. Plot-wise you’re in a dead-end–they carry on running, which gives you more of what you’ve already been reading; or they get captured or escape, which potentially ends the story.

Luckily, Stephen King is a bit smarter than that. The plot of Firestarter, while engaging enough, isn’t especially original; but what King does have going for him is his superb ability to craft characters. It didn’t end up taking that long for me to get caught up in this story of a father and his daughter, and all the while King slowly introduces a small handful of other characters. All of this leads to a second half of the book which is completely different to where we’ve been previously, and is entirely driven by the relationships between the characters (two in particular).

It’s safe to say there are some parts of this one that will stay with me much longer than following my first read.

Revisiting King: The Dead Zone

(April 12 – 18)

This series of book covers is rapidly growing on me for their simple, somewhat abstract, sophistication. They’re certainly less garish than many of the other covers.

One of my favourite things about Stephen King books are the author’s notes he often includes. I’m a sucker for hearing all about how people process ideas into fully-formed novels, and what prompted or informed the process along the way. I basically looove glimpsing behind the scenes.

Unfortunately The Dead Zone is the first novel in my Revisiting King project that hasn’t included a foreword, an afterword, an author’s note, or anything that remotely passes for such. This is disappointing. I was particularly hoping to learn something about how on earth one follows up a post-apocalyptic magnum opus like The Stand. Sadly, there are no answers within so I’m forced to resort to my personal head canon in which King ponders the following questions: What if a tyrant like Randall Flag was to rise to power without the aid of a deadly pandemic? How would this happen? How might someone stop it? What if that someone could foresee the future? And what would the real-world equivalent of someone as charismatic, corrupting and relentlessly evil as Flagg be?

One of the most fascinating things about The Dead Zone (and if you google the title, it’s pretty much all you’ll find) is how it broadly predicts the rise of Trump. The journey there is different, but the plot revolves around a morally bereft rogue candidate getting elected, catching Washington by surprise and inexorably making their way to the seat of President. At least that’s the future–and the appalling consequences of which–that our hero foresees and sets out to prevent. (And most would probably agree with King that the real-life equivalent was far scarier than his novel.)

While not directly tied into the main plot, something else that’s turning out to be an interesting and consistent theme in King’s novels is that of religion: Carrie’s mother is a religious fanatic; religious power saves the day in both Salem’s Lot and The Stand; and The Dead Zone gives us another mother who’s a religious fanatic. This time, unlike the case of Margaret White, Stephen King leaves it to us readers to decide whether her role is beneficial or detrimental.

The Dead Zone is also notable for giving us the first appearance of Castle Rock, the fictional town that would become a mainstay of King’s novels. And with Castle Rock comes Sheriff Bannerman, who I believe returns in Cujo and then … doesn’t return any more.

Nice to see that Stephen King Fictional Universe taking shape. Someone should really do a theme park … with clowns …

The Adaptations

There are two adaptations of The Dead Zone, and both are pretty damn good!

The first is the 1983 film, directed by David Cronenberg. While there are a few changes here and there, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation and a solid movie to boot. It’s a film I’ve watched many times (though not for some years) and have a great deal of affection for. One of my favourite things about it, in retrospect, is the casting of Martin Sheen as would-be president Greg Stillson. Sheen, of course, would go on to star in The West Wing as President Bartlet; a character who is in every possible way the exact opposite of Stillson. It’s a credit to Sheen’s talent that he’s equally convincing in both roles.

The other adaptation is the TV series which ran from 2002 to 2007. I remember catching the first episode of this, being thoroughly surprised by how good it was, and sticking with it for at least the first season. The series takes the novel as a starting point, changes just enough to make the story sustainable, and then runs with it. Definitely worth checking out if you enjoyed the novel.

The Reading

I’m not sure if this is my second or third visit to The Dead Zone, but I do remember reading and enjoying it in the long distant past, so I was looking forward to picking it up again (which at least meant there was a positive to finishing The Stand). As you’ll see from the dates above, it was a pretty quick read for me.

The structure of the novel is a bit different to the way I remember. Moments that I recall being very significant are little more than passing chapters in the scope of the overall story. It was amusing to find that other bits I remembered were clearly from the film, and played out quite differently in the novel. I also ‘remember’ a very different ending for our main character of Johnny Smith which I can only assume comes from another novel entirely (hopefully I’ll eventually find out which one).

I regard The Dead Zone as Stephen King classic, and I really enjoyed revisiting it, but I’m not sure I’d necessarily label it as one of his essential novels. Nevertheless, it’s a good read if you haven’t been there yet.

Next up: can anyone smell burning …?

Revisiting King: The Stand

(March 17 – April 11)

Reading The Stand while the world continues to deal with a real-life pandemic is certainly a choice. King gets a lot of mileage out of otherwise innocuous coughs and sneezes, which we readers quickly learn are signalling an inevitable death several pages further along. As such, there were plenty of occasions over the past month where the sound of nearby coughs or sneezes had me wondering: “Covid? Captain Trips…? Nothing to worry about? Are you sure??!!

Fun times.

I’m not alone in including The Stand among the ranks of a select few novels that I like to revisit occasionally, but it’s been quite some time since I last delved into its pages. Inevitably, one of the things that I can’t get over while reading it as part of this project is that it’s only his fourth novel. We’re not even close to the teens of King’s career and already we’ve come to one of his most revered novels. Undoubtedly there are still highlights yet to come, but it’s hard not to see this as a significant peak of King’s career.

And at such a young age …

With the sequence of King’s novels in mind, I also caught myself trying to figure out how we get from The Shining (a relatively self-contained tale) to something as sprawling and ambitious as The Stand. Certainly there are some threads leading into it from earlier works: the large cast of characters from Salem’s Lot; the sense of looming evil from The Shining; the religious angle from Carrie. There’s also a nice nod to The Shining whereby a character has the same telepathic gift as Danny (and it even gets referred to as ‘the shine’ at one point). Otherwise we have a seemingly unfathomable leap forward in King’s bibliography.

There are some additional clues hidden in the forewords / author’s notes to his previous novels. Salem’s Lot is inspired by Dracula. The Shining is inspired by classic haunted house tales such as the Haunting Of Hill House. The Stand is (openly) King’s attempt to do a modern American version of Lord Of The Rings. Perhaps the scope of the book was simply determined by the goal.

On the subject of scope, I am, of course, discussing the expanded edition here (released in 1990 and slightly updated from the original 1978 edition) but as far as I’m concerned this still counts as his fourth published novel given it’s (more or less) the version he would have released had his publishers not insisted on making him cut 400 pages the first time around.

And it’s hard to imagine the novel now without those 400 pages. There’s no sense that the book is overly padded (despite a slightly meandering middle section). Every character King has crafted is vivid and distinct, and getting to spend more time in their company is absolutely a bonus. I have to give special mention to good old Harold Lauder, who remains one of the most fascinating, compelling, tragic and occasionally grotesque characters that King has ever created. Perhaps more than any of the other main characters, it’s Harold’s story that helps make The Stand such a page-turner.

It’s not all flawless, however. Like many King novels the ending is … something that happens at the end of the book. The novel wraps up in a perfectly satisfying way, but I’ve always found the way that the central narrative concludes to be … I don’t know. Convenient? Eccentric? Abrupt? Unconventional? It’s a curious one. Not a bad ending in the same way as It, but certainly one to ponder.

It also has to be said that this is, of the four King novels I’ve reread to date, the one that has made me cringe the most. In particular, one character being repeatedly described as retarded plunges the novel thoroughly into the uninformed past (slightly mitigated by another character objecting to the term ‘retard’). There is also some potential, albeit mild, homophobia. And you can’t read The Stand without concluding that King has quite the obsession with breasts; it may well be my personal reading, but I don’t believe any male body parts get the same degree of attention. I suspect if I read the novel again with a more critical eye, I’d also come away finding that almost all of the female characters (however strong and otherwise well-crafted they are) are predominantly in the shadow of the male characters (think, here, about Nadine’s function in the story, for example). 

Otherwise, I think the most notable thing about The Stand is that it’s not actually a horror novel. It undoubtedly has horrific moments, but it’s our first example of King simply telling a good, dramatic tale and not worrying too much about what genre it sits in. Of course, he won’t shake that horror label so easily.

The Adaptations

Not including the comic (which I’ve not read) there are two main adaptations of The Stand: the 1994 miniseries, and the more recent miniseries. Both are perfectly good, but neither (in my opinion) quite does the novel justice.

The 1994 version, while a game attempt, is hampered both by network prurience and the limitations of 1990’s era television visual effects. It’s about as good as it could have been for the time, and Gary Sinise in particular is perfectly cast as Stu Redman. I will definitely have to give it a rewatch sometime soon.

The recent CBS miniseries is actually the inspiration for this King Revisited project—watching it made me want to reread the novel, but I wasn’t convinced I’d have the reading discipline to get through it, so I figured I start with some shorter novels first.

There’s a lot to like about the new adaptation: the casting, for one thing, is pretty much perfect across the board (Owen Teague absolutely knocks it out of the park as Harold). It looks great, as most major TV productions do these days, and there are some efforts to freshen up the plot a little by going for a non-linear structure. 

There are some things that didn’t work so well for me. As with the novel there’s a fair bit of dawdling in the middle, and things rush a bit towards the end. I’m also not quite convinced by Flagg’s Vegas here: the horror of it all is far more subtle in the novel, whereas it’s all on the surface here (Nadine’s corpse-like appearance near the end is just one example of the series being way too on the nose). I feel there was a missed opportunity to play a bit more on the “wait, these people are just like us” angle which is hinted at in the novel.

So, as good as it was, I’ll continue to wait (probably forever) for the adaptation that truly does The Stand justice.

The Reading Experience

I vividly remember my first time reading The Stand. I was in an airport waiting to board a flight to the Seychelles (lucky me!) and I needed a book to read. I had a few King novels under my belt by then (summer of 1986) and when I saw The Stand sitting on a carousel in the airport bookshop I figured I was ready for the big leagues.

I have no idea how much of it I read on the plane, but I still remember meeting Trash Can man for the first time; I remember Lloyd being stuck in his prison cell; I remember the trip-trap sound of Randall Flagg’s with boot heels. I may well have spent the entire flight reading.

(As a side note I also remember with equal vividness my fear upon seeing how damn short the runway at our destination was – literally a strip cut into the side of one of the islands, with both ends seemingly running right into the ocean. How we landed safely I’ll never know. I guess these pilots know what they’re doing.)

As I mentioned, I’ve read this novel several times over the ensuing years (most of those times being the expanded edition) but I was somewhat anxious about tackling it again. My reading discipline has declined over the last decade or so. Attempted re-reads of both The Shining and It have stalled and I wasn’t convinced I could make it through The Stand

So I decided to ease into it …

Maybe it’s something to do with reading physical paperbacks once again, but I didn’t stumble once on this reading. Sure it took me a month to read, but I read consistently. Even the sections I previously found a bit of a drag (most of Frannie and Larry’s backstories) kept me perfectly engaged. The bits I remembered well I was able to enjoy from a whole new perspective; details I had either missed or forgotten came to the fore.

The short version is I was able to enjoy The Stand all over again.

Coming next: There’s a signpost up ahead … next stop: The Dead Zone

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