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Revisiting King: Needful Things

7 March – 8 May

I fittingly reach the end of my current stage of Stephen King rereads with a novel that marked the end of a certain phase of Stephen King’s career—or, specifically, the end of a certain home for his tales. Needful Things, first published in 1991, was heavily marketed as being the final Castle Rock novel: the tale in which he would destroy, once and for all, the small American town in which many of his novels and stories had been set. Cinephiles may also recognise it as the name of Rob Reiner’s production company (Reiner having directed Stand By Me, which is chronologically the earliest Castle Rock tale if I’m not mistaken).

For me, the most interesting thing about Needful Things is the position it takes in Stephen King’s life and career. As such, both the start and end points for the second stage of my Revisiting King reread project were carefully selected and encompass the following five novels.

Right here we have what would have almost certainly been the most tumultuous phase of Stephen King’s life had a certain van driver not been paying more attention to the road a few years later. It’s no secret anymore that King was an alcoholic, and also had the money for a decent cocaine habit. Given this framing, it’s fitting that one of his earliest Castle Rock novels, Cujo, is the one that he famously has no memory of writing. However, we’re jumping ahead of ourselves a little here. Or maybe backwards.

You see, Stephen King never set out to be a horror writer: he just happened to end up writing horror stories that sold really, really well. He broke the mould to an extent with his Dark Tower series, but his first mainstream attempt to dabble in another genre, The Eyes Of The Dragon, was (reportedly) not well accepted by fans. King promptly followed this up with Misery, a story about a writer who endures horrific abuse after trying to end a popular series of novels so he can concentrate on the less popular works that he actually wants to write. Along the way he becomes addicted to painkillers. It doesn’t exactly sound unfamiliar.

His next novel, The Tommyknockers—a tale of insidious alien invasion—seems something of an outlier … until you read it and realise that it’s all about the people of Haven becoming hooked on a form of alien influence and losing their sense of responsibility as they become more and more powerful, and wreak more and more damage on those around them. As an analogy for being drunk it’s pretty on the nose.

It was in the wake of this novel that King’s wife, Tabitha, intervened and King finally sought help for his addictions. I’ve read conflicting reports on whether The Dark Half or Needful Things is the first book he wrote while sober, but both bring a deep sense of purging with their narratives. The Dark Half (as you’ll almost certainly be aware) echoes Misery in its story of a writer trying to rid himself of a far more successful pen-name / alter-ego. Like Paul Sheldon, Thad Beaumont finds that some facets of his life are not so easily buried. Literally. Symbolically, this reflected some of King’s experiences surrounding the decision to finish off his own pseudonym, Richard Bachman—yet another aspect of King’s life and career that had recently been excised.

So finally we come to Needful Things (which acts as a slight continuation of The Dark Half in that it features one of the main characters from that novel and refers back to its events on occasion). In Needful Things, the citizens of Castle Rock are beset upon by Leland Gaunt, a devilish figure who offers each person who visits his shop the thing they desire most in the world … all in return for a simple favour. It is the nature of these favours that eventually tears the town apart, but only because of the obsessive, hypnotic—and, one would say, addictive—effect these objects of desire have on their owners.

For me Needful Things represents King tearing down one of his final crutches: a familiar, cosy setting for his stories—a place that needs little establishment or introduction. A home. We’ve already seen him attempt to move away from the financially secure trapping of the horror genre. We’ve seen him put a less successful pseudonym to rest. Off-screen, as it were, we’ve also seen him overcome his addictions. 

While I have no experience in this area, I gather it’s a thing that those recovering from addiction will often excise parts of their life from before their recovery—I guess it’s the mental equivalent of starting from a clean slate. King kept his marriage, but apparently fired his agent as part of this purging process. The destruction of a small fictional American town might be small-fry in comparison to the real-life events going on, but it surely marks a final step in Stephen King’s transformation towards the next phase of his career.

The Adaptation

There is one movie adaptation of Needful Things that was released in 1993. Like many King adaptations of this era it comes with the non-essential feel of a TV movie, as if the latest King adaptation was just something that had to be done and gotten out of the way. That’s really just my way of saying that I’ve never felt any urge to watch it.

That being said, the casting has some elements of perfection. Max Von Sydow as the sinister shop owner Leland Gaunt probably couldn’t be topped, while I can absolutely see Ed Harris as Sheriff Pangborn. Without going too far into spoiler or plot territory, Amanda Plummer and J.T.Walsh are both well, if a little predictably, cast according to their screen personas. The other notable cast member is Bonnie Bedelia, who I can well imagine delivering the strength and independence, but also the vulnerability, that her character would require.

But I’m still not gonna watch it.

The Reading

I have to admit I found this a pretty tedious read. I’m fairly convinced there was potential for a great novel here—the setup of Gaunt coming to town, giving the citizens what they most desire, and then using his hold over them to pit them against one another and destroy the town could provide the basis for a remarkable novel. Unfortunately, King’s structure, which mostly devolves into scene after scene of this person plotting in increasingly paranoid fashion against that person quickly becomes repetitive. As a quick read this could still work, but this is one of the those novels where King gets a bit carried away and consequently the build up to the climax proves excruciatingly slow.

Up Next: I’ll be taking a break from King for a while (most likely to read Jeff Vandermeer’s Area X trilogy) but I’ll be back eventually with Gerald’s Game which, at the very least, comes with an excellent film adaptation.

Revisiting King: The Dark Half

(Jan 17 – Feb 20)

The Dark Half is an interesting read, and arguably one of King’s most personal novels. Written in 1989, it concerns an author of literary novels, Thad Beaumont, who secretly writes violent (and far more successful) pulp novels under the pseudonym of George Stark. When his double life is discovered, Beaumont chooses to kill off Stark rather than be blackmailed. Unfortunately Stark, who proves to be every bit as violent and unpleasant as the novels he writes, doesn’t want to stay dead.

Most people who know Stephen King will know that he also wrote a handful of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. And that King was eventually found out and  also decided to retire his alter ego—a process which went far more gracefully for him than it did for Beaumont. Nevertheless, this event clearly provided the spark for The Dark Half.

(Intriguingly, King was writing Misery as a prospective Bachman novel when he was found out. Given the subject matter of Misery and that it was written as a response to the negative audience reaction after King ‘dared’ to step beyond his genre confines with Eyes Of The Dragon, this adds a fascinating layer to an already exceptional novel).

The other aspect of The Dark Half that draws heavily from King’s personal life is that of family. This was the last book King wrote and released before he went sober (he started going to AA meetings the same year that The Dark Half was published). I’m not across the timeline of King’s personal life, but my understanding is that his wife, Tabitha, staged an intervention at some point after the writing of The Tommyknockers—and with that novel’s themes of addiction and loss of control, there’s a reasonably valid reading of it as a cry for help. Equally, The Dark Half can be read as a manifestation of King’s fears about what could happen if his addicted self—his own dark half—got out of control, and how his family would contend with and suffer from that.

So, The Dark Half belongs to a long tradition of King novels that feature a writer as the main character (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, etc). However, very few of those come as close as this one does to featuring Stephen King as the main character. With no pun intended, it’s one of King’s darkest novels. Things turn out ok by the end of the story (oh: spoiler!), but in later works we eventually find out that not only did Thad Beaumont’s wife leave him following their encounter with George Stark, but that he later killed himself. Yikes! Luckily things turned out far better in King’s real life. He’s still writing, still married and, one assumes, still sober.

The Adaptations

There’s one adaptation of The Dark Half (filmed in 1991 and released in 1993, which I haven’t seen). Despite it boasting George Romero as director, I remember being a little deterred at the time by the casting of Timothy Hutton in the twin lead roles. I had generally liked Hutton in the few films of his I had seen (at the time) but he seemed a little too ‘light’ for this one. Given the film didn’t exactly get the box office or critics very excited, I mostly forgot about it. However, having more recently seen Hutton in the very excellent Haunting Of Hill House I’m now considering putting aside my misgivings and giving The Dark Half a watch sometime.

In a fun bit of trivia, The Dark Half introduces the character of Sheriff Alan Pangborn (played here by Michael Rooker), who also appears in the movie of Needful Things (played by Ed Harris) which was released in the same year. Alan Pangborn’s predecessor as Sheriff of Castle Rock was George Bannerman, who also appeared in two films (The Dead Zone and Cujo) released in the same year (1983, exactly a decade earlier, in fact) and played by two different actors (Tom Skerritt and Sandy Ward). I should have a residency on IMDb with this sort of stuff …

The Reading

As you will deduce from the dates at the top, this wasn’t a particularly swift read for me (and there were a couple of big pauses early in February). It started off well, but then I hit a bit of a narrative wall. See, the plot can be roughly broken up into three acts. There’s Act One, with George Stark coming to life and causing all sorts of mayhem—this is the sort of thing that narratives thrive on; you can have all sorts of things happen and, because it’s Act One, there’s no need for any sort of payoff, it’s all just build up. Act Three is the inevitable confrontation between Stark and Beaumont; the resolution. The problem here is Act Two, which can be mostly summarised as follows:

Beaumont: “George Stark is going to come for me.”

Stark: “No, I’ve had my fun now—I’m not coming for you.”

Beaumont: “I think he’s lying. He’s still coming for me.”

Stark: “Guess what? I lied: I’m still coming for you.”

You can probably guess that Act Two commits that very worst of all narrative crimes: it’s lots of people sitting around waiting for something to happen. Because it’s Stephen King it’s highly readable nothing, with lots of great character work going on. However, given the excellent setup of Act One it’s hard to sustain the tension; indeed, this is most likely King trying to give us a breather before ramping things up again. Sadly, it didn’t quite work for me.

Outside of that, however, there is still a lot to recommend in The Dark Half. Legacy King fans will appreciate the regular bouts of violence and gore, as well as the simmering menace that George Stark provides throughout. Stark himself is a fantastic character; brutal, terrible and perversely charming.

Overall a perfectly fine novel, but one that somehow falls short of essential King for me.

Next time: there’s a new store opening in town …

Revisiting King: The Tommyknockers

(Nov 16 – Dec 20)

The Tommyknockers may be a much maligned book among King fans, but turns out to be a very significant book in the life of the man itself. On the surface, it’s a story about a group of people who get exposed to a toxic substance and start turning irretrievably into monsters. It’s also a story about a globally successful author whose addiction to booze and cocaine finally reaches crisis point.

There have been a number of King’s other novels that have reflected his addictions (Cujo, for one, springs to mind) but few as explicitly as this one. In this story, the inhabitants of the town of Haven know that they are losing their humanity, but are too hooked on the process to do anything to stop it. In several scenes it’s made pretty explicit that there are voices talking to them, telling them why to do, urging them to continue letting themselves get corrupted.

On the other side of the page, there’s reasonable speculation that this novel was King’s ‘cry for help’—a potentially final message that his addictions were consuming him and threatening to transform him into one of the monsters he typically writes about. The narrative goes that King’s wife staged an intervention, King finally went dry and it was a couple of years before he was able to get writing again.

Fittingly, for a novel that played so significantly into King’s future, The Tommyknockers is intriguing for how much it looks into the past. It is very clearly inspired (and ‘inspired’ might even be an overly generous term) by two classics of the sci-fi/horror genre: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Quatermass & The Pit (with various generic references to the works of Lovecraft also thrown in). Structurally it also harks back to King’s own earlier works. The overall concept of a town falling prey to a great evil brought back fond memories of Salem’s Lot, while the introduction to our main protagonist, Gard, would have slotted very nicely into the early chapters of The Stand. If nothing else, The Tommyknockers reads a lot like a man trying to escape his past by taking one step after another into an uncertain future; one where there’s no guarantee that the demons won’t eventually claim his soul too.

The Adaptations

There is one adaptation of The Tommyknockers; a 1993 TV miniseries which I have never watched. TV in the early 1990s was capable of producing good stuff, but was still mired in a world of budget constraints and broadcasting standards which meant adapting Stephen King novels, especially ones as visually demanding as The Tommyknockers, was a bit of a fool’s errand.

If they were to do an adaptation now, I think there’s fantastic scope for a “limited series”, as they call them now. However, I suspect the novel isn’t sufficiently well regarded to make it worthwhile.

The Reading

Unlike most of the other King novels I’ve previously read, I vividly remember my first reading of The Tommyknockers. It was while on a holiday in France, and my girlfriend of the time was (rightfully) put out that I was spending much of my time glued to the pages of this book. I literally couldn’t put it down; I had to keep reading to see what would happen next. It’s possibly the fusion of sci-fi and horror that so grabbed me back then, because the narrative isn’t really a classic page-turner.

I believe this is my third reading of the novel (when and where the second reading took place is a lost memory) and I really enjoyed it. There were bits I remembered vividly, and bits I had totally forgotten were in the book at all. There were also a number of references to It, and even a reappearance of the sinister government outfit The Shop, from Firestarter.

I can’t really get on board with the criticisms of this novel. Yes it’s bloated and indulgent, but so is It and various other King novels that get otherwise lauded. Yes, it’s derivative, but King wears his influences so openly that you have to be quite the curmudgeon not to take some delight in it. It’s true that the plot is a bit thin (it’s mostly about the gradual disintegration of the town of Haven, and the looming yet questionable potential for salvation of our main character), but King has frequently focused more on the way horrific events affect his characters than on building a solid plot structure around them.

In short, while not one of his best, The Tommyknockers is an archetypal Stephen King novel, and if you’re like me you may well have a lot of fun with it.

Up next: sometimes alter egos come back …

Revisiting King: The Eyes Of The Dragon

(Nov 1 – 15)

A fantasy book? For kids?? By horror maestro Stephen King??? Jeez, no thanks!

Yep, that more or less summed up my thoughts when approaching this outlier in King’s canon (both in my days of yore and somewhat more recently). It also reflects the thoughts of legions of King’s number one fans, many of whom were reluctant to let their favourite author leave his horror-shaped cage.

In itself there’s nothing particularly deep or interesting about The Eyes Of The Dragon—it’s simply a lovely little fantasy tale (almost a fairy tale, in fact) that you could sit down and read with your kids. It’s got princes, kings, an evil wizard, and various heroic characters, alongside others who touch darkness and may or may not get their shot at redemption.

What’s perhaps more interesting about The Eyes Of The Dragon is that the reception of this novel is what prompted King to write Misery (probably one of his best novels). Something I’ve learned from my research during this project is that King never intended to become a horror writer: he just wanted to be a writer. Carrie, the novel that kickstarted his career, more or less happened by accident (it was a short story that ended up running long and was only published after King’s wife pulled it out of the trash and saw its potential). By the time King approached his third novel, he was already conscious of being labelled and considered writing something different. He was eventually persuaded to stick with horror by his publisher and released The Shining. Several years later, When The Eyes Of The Dragon came along, that horror key was firmly in the lock.

Ironically, for King fans one of the most intriguing elements of The Eyes Of The Dragon is a link back to one of his most iconic and arguably horrific novels: the use of Randall Flagg as the villain. He’s a very different character here than in The Stand but it’s still fun to discover a new (or maybe older) facet of this.

The Adaptations

Tellingly, there are no adaptations of The Eyes Of The Dragon. I can only assume that people are not up to the marketing challenge (and also wary after the failure of The Dark Tower). It has been optioned a few times, and most recently came close to being adapted for Hulu, who eventually backed out due to budgetary concerns.

I’m not totally sure an adaptation would work—there’s a narrative structure in the book that would be challenging to present onscreen—but there’s possibly scope for a Princess Bride style retelling.

Who knows. Maybe one day.

The Reading

This was easily one of my favourites reads so far (leaving me kicking myself for ignoring it for so long; and also determined to read the Dark Tower series at some point). I had automatically slid right past it while compiling my reread list—for no reason other than it didn’t ‘fit’—but reading the background to Misery prompted me to backtrack and give it a try. So, for chronology’s sake: The Eyes Of The Dragon was released before Misery, but since I was late to the party I ended up reading it afterwards.

I read it over two weeks (which seems to be my standard reading window) and it quickly became one of those books that I looked forward to curling up with every night.

It might not be for everyone, but if you like the genre and/or if you like King I urge you to at least give it a try.

Next time: Quatermass visits Maine …

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.

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.

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