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Category: Read Page 2 of 4

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

Revisiting King: The Shining

(March 3 – 16)

Another awesome “Halloween edition” cover here. I love the nod to the movie with the carpet pattern …

If Salem’s Lot was the prototypical Stephen King novel (as I definitively claimed in my last blog post) then The Shining is surely the first undisputed King Classic. It shares a lot of common ground with one or both of its two predecessors (a slow descent into supernatural-fuelled catastrophe; a main character who’s an author; the spectre of alcoholism; the additional spectres of a tortured past bearing down on a troubled present).

Still, there are also some new things going on here, the biggest of which is that we move away from the classic small town setting which, in turn, gives us a rather more limited cast. Sure we get visits from various other characters, but the majority of this tale is told from the perspective of the three members of the Torrance family.

This nudges us into the main narrative evolution this novel represents. In his introduction (as written in 2001) King talks about finding himself presented with a choice when developing this story: the choice was whether to make one of the characters a straight out bad guy, or to make them a bit less black and white than that (and, no, it’s not the character you’re thinking of). The decision to take the more complex route is, I think, what transforms The Shining. There is horror afoot, but it is made all the more horrific because we really get to live inside the heads of these characters along the way. It is here that King steps away from backstory and surface motivation and delves into something much deeper. He may not have kept up to this level for every one of his future novels, but I suspect we wouldn’t have classics like Misery and It without the ground that King broke here.

The Adaptations

There have been three adaptations of The Shining. Foremost is, of course, the iconic Kubrick movie—which has injected itself into popular culture even more deeply than the novel (when you think of ‘The Shining’ do you not picture Jack Nicholson first? The snowbound maze? That carpet?). Despite King’s misgivings, the movie is a a horror classic and stands as a perfectly sound version of the story.

There is also a 1997 TV adaptation, made with King’s direct involvement. I have not not seen this and am honestly not hugely motivated to do so. No offence to those involved.

But what’s the third adaptation, you ask. Well, I’m cheating a bit here but I’m referring to the beautifully designed board game that came out last year (and is, strictly speaking, based on the film rather than the book). It’s a co-op game where all players have to survive a winter at The Overlook, a challenge made all the harder by regular bouts of possession and murder. There is, appropriately, a variant where one person (secretly) plays as a Jack Torrance type character whose goal is to ensure that none of the other players ever get to leave …it’s a great game, and highly recommended for fans of either book or film.

The Reading Experience

This is my third book in this reading project, and I returned to The Overlook with a small amount of trepidation. I’d attempted a reread last year and had bottled out at about 80 percent through. I remember reading it effortlessly during my teen years and thinking it probably the scariest book I had ever read (at the time, a friend had found The Exorcist similarly terrifying, so we swapped books; neither of us found the other’s novel quite as scary). I do wonder how much my shift in perspective might impact my reading—I come to the novel now as a father and an esrtwhile writer (though not, fortunately, an alcoholic); no longer the hormonal teenage schoolboy who first tackled The Shining.

I did wonder, given my relative familiarity with its pages, if I would struggle to make it through this book. It demands more of the reader than Salem’s Lot. Far from a whistle-stop tour of an American town, The Shining is a claustrophobic, constricting read that forces you to dwell in some very dark places.

But it’s also a more rewarding read in many ways. King’s choice (as elaborated above) results in the richest characters he’s crafted so far. Jack’s descent into insanity is entirely convincing, and there is a steady, inevitable, tragic build towards it. It also, of course, has some real scares in it. 

In the end I tore through the book, especially towards the end. Whatever stumbling block I encountered in my last reread did not manifest here. Somehow, once again, reading this as a physical book rather than an ebook has transformed my reading experience.

Up next … it’s time to make a Stand!

Revisiting King: ’Salem’s Lot

(February 21 – March 1)

cover for Salem's Lot by Stephen King
I wasn’t terribly keen on this cover at first, but I warmed to it after finding that there’s a short series of similarly themed covers (including Pet Sematary and Cujo)

There’s a well-informed school of musical thought which claims that the first real David Bowie album is The Man Who Sold The World. There are those who might then point out that Bowie actually had a couple of self-titled albums out before then, but people who know what they’re talking about typically feel that The Man Who Sold The World is where “it started to happen” for Bowie.

It’s in similar fashion that Stephen King may have published Carrie first, but it’s Salem’s Lot that better serves as the prototypical Stephen King novel. Both may deal in supernatural forces and tell stories that that end with the destruction of an otherwise innocuous American township, but Salem’s Lot is where the some key tentpoles of the Stephen King Novel truly get driven into the ground.

For starters, it’s a relative chonkster (at 600 pages). It’s filled with characters who come into the tale with an entire life history behind them—and who all get their moments. It’s got a main character who’s an author and, in a slightly darker reflection of King’s real life struggles, this is the first (and far from the last) to feature characters who conspicuously struggle with alcohol.

In the foreword to the edition I read (written in 2005–the foreword that is; not the novel) King ponders his own youthful ambition in trying to combine the classic vampire novel (i.e. Dracula) with the schlock sensibilities of the E.C.Warren comics he grew up reading. It’s somewhat ironic that this was an aspect that I was, in fact, too young too young to pick up on when I first read Salem’s Lot (which may well be the first King novel I ever read … or it may not). There’s a sense that he remains slightly shocked that he had the audacity to attempt such a thing.

While this novel is still better than anything I’m likely to ever write, there are certainly signs of the fledgling novelist at work. The plot is relatively pedestrian (in the sense that it ambles along in uncomplicated fashion towards its conclusion). There are a few too many scenes which revolve around little more than people sitting around and explaining events to one another. There are also adverbs and other literary flourishes which would doubtless get excised from later King novels.

That said, there is plenty to admire here. The creeping, fatalistic sense of menace for one thing; and the vivid characterisation. There is a standout chapter chronicling a day in the life of Salem’s Lot, from sunrise to sundown, which flits from character to character and truly makes you feel like a guest in a rich tapestry. I also appreciate that King has never shied away from treading the darkest possible path for many of his characters. There’s never a guaranteed happy ending when you’re in a Stephen King story.

It’s a solid tale and, accordingly, there have been two adaptations of Salem’s Lot starting with the 1979 miniseries starring David Soul, which I remember being fairly decent for it’s time, and may well check out again sometime soon. There was also a 2004 TV adaptation starring Rob Lowe, which until last week I had quite honestly forgotten even existed, and am happy for it to return to that status. I feel there’s definitely potential in here for a good, modern adaption akin to the recent version of The Stand. However, I’m not holding my breath.

One of the goals of this ridiculous project was for me to rediscover the joy of settling down in bed with a good old-fashioned paperback. Reading this one has certainly achieved that, to the point where I was keenly looking forward to each night’s reading session and quite probably staying up later than I should. I certainly enjoyed my visit to Salem’s Lot, even if it didn’t end well for most of its residents.

Next up: who fancies a winter vacation …?

Post-script: the edition of the book that I purchased (the 2011 ‘Iconic Terror’ Hodder edition, to be precise) comes with a few nifty bonus features. First of these is the short story One For The Road, which is also featured in Night Shift, and tells a creepy little tale set three years after the events of Salem’s Lot.

Next comes a more ambitious short story entitled Jerusalem’s Lot (which also appears in Night Shift). In the afterword to the novel, Stephen King writes about how taken he was with the epistolary format when he first read Dracula. It’s fitting, then, that he uses exactly that style for a tale delving into the past of our favourite little undead township. (Intriguingly, this short story is being adapted into a 10 part series starring Adrien Brody, and entitled Chapelwaite, which probably would have been with us by now if not for certain real-world pandemics).

Finally, about 70 pages worth of deleted scenes are included which, while not essential (deleted scenes get deleted for a reason, after all) are an interesting glimpse into different routes and sideroads that the novel could have taken.

Revisiting King: Carrie

(February 16 – 20)

Cover for the paperback Halloween edition of Carrie by Stephen Kind
I love these “Halloween edition” covers for select Stephen King novels – possibly because the typography for Stephen King’s name mimicks the covers for the editions that I read when I was growing up.

One of the best things about starting a reread of every Stephen King novel from the start, is that Carrie is little more than a pamphlet on the King Scale. At somewhere around 250 pages it would be hard for it to intimidate even a poorly disciplined reader like myself.

As such it’s something of an outlier (in my opinion) in the King canon. Initially conceived as a short story, and written at a time when King had no idea if he’d be able to carve a career as a novelist (despite his short stories proving to be a steady source of income) it’s far more restrained and disciplined that most of his works. There is still extensive background detail provided for many characters, but it comes as exactly that: background, as opposed to the veritable biographies that we will eventually get for characters that often survive no further than that very same chapter.

The inner voice motif is also very much present (through which mechanism King’s third-person narration frequently gives us direct glimpses into a character’s immediate train of thought).

This is only the second time I’ve read Carrie; the first being some decades ago when I was most likely in my late teens. Consequently, most of my memories of the story come from the excellent Brian de Palma film adaptation, so there was some extra fun to be had here in picking out where the film and novel differ. While there are numerous divergences, I’d say the main thing I noticed was the character of Carrie herself. The film, quite naturally, wants to play up the horror aspect so we eventually get to Carrie as a scorned and vengeful spirit. The book, of course, ends up in the same place but there’s far more tragedy to it. We get a far better picture of a young girl just starting to understand her place in the world, and in the earliest stages of assert her own identity—before being irrevocably swept down a different path.

I read this one over five nights (which, despite its brevity, is good progress for me). One of my goals in returning to paperback books was the hope of rediscovering that very physical impulse of not wanting to put a book down (while obviously not wanting to succumb to that impulse for risk if inviting a night of insomnia). Carrie makes this fairly easy by not being broken down into chapters, though its semi-epistolary structure does offer frequent breaking-off points. The biggest joy was getting to bed and actively wanting to put my screen away so I could pick up my book instead and start reading.

Next up: Salem’s Lot.

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