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“11/22/63” by Stephen King

I’m going to head off on a road trip with my husband and baby in April, with our main stop being Dallas, Texas.  Our hotel isn’t far from the Texas Book Depository where President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, so in addition to the other trip-related topics I’m cramming on, I figured I should probably brush up on my Kennedy assassination information.

Then I found out that Stephen King (who I love and will follow wherever as a reader) had JUST come out with a novel about these exact events – like a few months ago.

Clearly, I had to read “11/22/63.”

Although, in hindsight, if it was Kennedy assassination information I wanted, there are other books I could have turned to.

Here’s my issue with Stephen King:  I adore him. I think he’s one of the best storytellers of all time.  All that said, it seems as if he’s simply forgotten how to end a book.  He’s exceptional at creating characters you relate to, and events that build, but things build and build and then reach an ending that isn’t really satisfying — and in fact, may not even make sense.  (“Battery Acid!” is what my husband cries out every time we have this discussion – see “It” if you’re confused. Personally, I’d cite the WTF ending of the recent “Under the Dome,” which I otherwise loved. Or, grr, the last chapters of “Gerald’s Game.”)

“11/22/63” is the story of a regular Joe English teacher named Jake who (looong story short) travels back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy thanks to a portal in a run-down diner.  The portal takes him to 1958, so he has five years in which to make a life before the day of reckoning arrives – enough time to stop some other terrible things from happening, fall on the bad side of a mobster, and find a life (and a love) in a small town.

Of course, it’s not that easy.  Time doesn’t seem to want to be changed, and things stack up against Jake right from the get-go.  There’s a wee bit of mysticism, and a lot of it is about choices and consequences.

In the end, it’s not really about Kennedy, his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, or any of the history.  It’s about a guy and the moves he makes and the ripple effects that then occur.  The book is a pretty good read, if you can disregard the (rather disappointing) ending.

In the grand tradition of Mr. King, there are loads of references to his past works – “The Shawshank Redemption” and “It” most notably.  (I’m not spoiling anything by saying that a couple characters who survive “It” show up and have a conversation with our hero.)  A big piece of the book takes place in Derry, Maine, which should ring a bell as it’s a made-up city that King uses frequently.  That part is cool, and makes the reader who notices it feel a bit like a member of a cool club.

There are better books by Mr. King.  This one won’t be one of his classics.

In their shoes – “The Long Walk” by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

In Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s eerie “The Long Walk,” 100 teenage boys set out to take part in an annual tradition.  Beginning in Maine and continuing until only one of the boys is left walking, the walk is an American tradition and even referred to as “the national pastime” at one point.  None of the boys knows exactly why they signed up, but that’s a moot point, as it’s go time and they’re off.  Our hero – Ray – is among them, and the odds-on favorite.

Soon it becomes obvious that there’s a dark side to this walk.

If the walker slows down to less than four miles an hour, they’re eliminated.

By eliminated, I mean shot.  By mysterious soldiers who make the trek along with them, shouting warnings and giving tickets.  Three tickets and you’re out.  By out, I mean dead.

Yep. (How’s that for motivation?)

As the original hundred are weeded down to the last few stragglers, tempers flare, friendships are born, and boys will be boys.  Ray gets by thanks to a mental image of his girlfriend and the idea of being with her again.  Other boys struggle on through hunger and blisters and all kinds of unpleasant issues for a variety of reasons.

King wrote this under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, which he did for a few years to see if he could replicate his success.  (Eventually, like a good author, he killed off Bachman.)  “Bachman Books” tend to be a little darker, and usually don’t end with the strangely optimistic twist that King’s books do.  (Good guys don’t always win in the Bachman world, whereas Stephen King’s novels generally leave the reader with some sort of hope, even if it’s a tiny sliver.)

“The Long Walk” is yet another one of those books that’s impossible to put down, purely because you don’t know what’s happening.  The reader is as naive to what’s going on as Ray and his compatriots, which makes the whole thing even more chilling.  Even when the book’s done, you’re not entirely sure it was all worth it.  It’s a solid piece of work from a writer who hardly ever fails to deliver.

Small town, Big Problems – “Under the Dome” by Stephen King

“Under the Dome” is a beast of a book.  Clocking in around 900 pages, I was made once again grateful that I was reading it on a Kindle as opposed to trying to fit it into my purse and haul it during my commute to and from work. I’m largely grateful for this, because I would have gone crazy had I been forced to leave the book at home – because it’s really, really, really good.  Like, the kind of book you can’t stop thinking about and can’t wait to return to once you’ve set it down for the night.

Chester’s Mill, Maine is a pretty typical small town – populated by generally nice enough, hardworking folks who (most of the time) get along and are presided over by a somewhat shady local government who may or may not have their hands in some dirty projects.  Typical, right?  There’s one main restaurant where most people get their socializing and eating done – and it’s from this restaurant that a hero emerges, in the form of a cook named Dale Barbara (known as “Barbie.”)

Barbie is one of the first to realize the giant, earth-stopping event that has taken place.  One day, a week or so before Halloween, a giant unbreakable dome appeared over the town.  As it first appears, a woodchuck is cut in half and a plane crashes and falls from the sky, both affected by a sudden wall that wasn’t there before.  Soon, cars and people are running/crashing into the dome all over the place, the government is alerted, and panic happens.  The residents of Chester’s Mill can’t get out, and no one can get in.  Despite the outside government’s help – and some Presidential orders from Mr. Obama himself – the citizens of Chester’s Mill are on their own.  A loathsome and crooked politician named Big Jim Rennie steps up, appoints local kids (including his murderous son) to positions as policemen, and all hell breaks loose.  There are suicides, murders, rapes, riots, and anything else terrible that can happen under the sun as people react to being trapped in an unbreakable dome with only the supplies contained within the town.

Big Jim’s local “deputies” run amuck, doing whatever they want without considering anything else other than the power they’ve all been entrusted with.  On the flip side, Barbie and his group of followers realize the danger the townspeople are all in, as the Dome provides a great deal of problems.  Namely, that the pollutants the people are releasing into the air from gasoline, propane, and just general life-stuff can’t get out of the Dome’s walls.

Stephen King, you’re the man.  A tip of the hat to you.

What Mr. King does brilliantly within the confines of this massive and complicated book is humanize the people trapped inside.  In addition to our hero (Barbie) and our ultimate villain (Big Jim Rennie) we meet over thirty other people trapped inside, from preachers to kids to cops to widows to the plucky lady who runs the town newspaper.  Each of them have layered stories, and each of them are worth reading about.  Even the bad guys are fascinating, as a mob mentality sets in and martial law takes over.

Now, I can’t say a whole lot about The Dome itself without spoiling the ending of this book, but I will say this;  At about the halfway point of the book, I started to worry if – after reading ALL these pages – the ending was going to be satisfying.  Mr. King is one of my favorite authors of all time, but his endings are 50/50.  (For every “Carrie” there’s an “It.” And don’t get me started on how pi$$ed I was at the ending of “Gerald’s Game.”)  I’m pleased as punch to say that “Under the Dome” has an ending that, though it appears to finally happen in the last couple pages (when you think there’s going to be no resolution at all) is satisfying.  There’s no cop-out ending, no cheap reliance on “aliens” or “terrorists.”  It’s much more deep than that, and makes a great deal of sense when you look at the book as a whole and what it says about people and how societies work.

“Under the Dome” is a super book, and one I’m hitting myself for waiting so long to read.

I’m sure someday it will be made into a movie, or fifty-part miniseries.  Honestly, I can’t wait.

Vampire City – “‘Salem’s Lot” by Stephen King

I feel a little stupid for not having realized that Stephen King had written a vampire book before a few days ago.

Being that he’s one of my favorite authors, and I tend to like vampire-related things a lot, somehow I missed out on the fact that this book existed.

Well, now I’ve been enlightened.

Though I can say it’s not my favorite book of Mr. King’s, “‘Salem’s Lot” is most definitely worth a read, and genuinely creepy in a bunch of places.  While writer Ben Mears returns home to write a book about a creepy house he had a terrifying experience in while a child, things begin to go really wrong for the townspeople.  In addition to Ben’s arrival, two other new residents have appeared out of nowhere to run a shop.  People – from babies to older people – start dying in mysterious ways, the word “vampires” begins to get whispered around town.  It’s all very suspicious until Ben puts it all together – assisted by the woman he loves, a teacher, a priest, and a pre-teen.

The last third of the book ends the story of Ben Mears and his friends in battle and goes back to the origins of evil in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot.  (In truth, I could have been perfectly fine without those pages – as I felt the book was complete on it’s own.  But whatever.  You’re Stephen King. Do your thing.)

That said, I feel that the book contains some spectacular sentences.

The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. These are the town’s secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known.

Come on. That’s good stuff right there.

Per usual, Mr. King has created a wonderfully creepy small town where weird things are happening.  This book was written way early in his career, and it shows how good he naturally is as crafting stories with lots of intertwining characters.  As a fan, it’s totally worth a read – but if you’re looking for a good book to get you into Stephen King’s darker works, I’d still have to say that the more well known/classics such as “Carrie,” “It,” “The Shining,” and my guilty pleasure “Christine” remain where it’s at.

Four brilliant novellas from the King – “Full Dark, No Stars” by Stephen King

As a big Stephen King fan, new releases from the author excite me.

Somehow, though, I put off reading “Full Dark, No Stars” for a while. Like, since it’s November 2010 release.

This is a shame, because this story collection is solid – and even thrilling in a few places.

Namely, the opening story, “1922” is a great way to kick off a collection like this.  The story opens the book in a huge way, detailing one man’s account of how he (and his teenage son) murdered his wife to keep her from selling their farmland, threw her body down a well, and watched their lives fall apart – complete with teen pregnancy, bank robbery, murder, and an attack of big-ass rats.  It’s gothic, it’s small-town, it’s terrifying, and it’s seriously a great read.  I can’t imagine it won’t be made into a movie soon enough.

“Big Driver” is the story of a mystery writer named Tess who finds herself attacked and raped on her way home from a book signing.  Obsessed, discovers the woman who arranged the book signing is in cahoots with the attacker, and goes after them in a move much like that Jodie Foster movie, “The Brave One” (which is referred to in the story quite a few times.)  It’s a revenge story, and a riveting one.

The third story, “Fair Extension,” poses some interesting moral questions.  For example, if you were dying of a terrible illness, and could make a deal to live an extra fifteen to twenty years, would you do it?  Would you do it if it meant someone in your life – of your choosing – would have to take on your suffering?  I’ll leave the rest up to you to read, but it’s a solid story and really makes you think. (Also, Stephen King fans, there’s a really great thread between this story and “It.” Namely, a little town called Derry and a flood that almost wiped it out.)

After these three great little novellas, “Full Dark, no Stars” closes on a high note.  “A Good Marriage” is the story of a woman who realizes the man she’s been married to for decades might not be what he seems – in fact, he’s a serial killer.  Again, I won’t spoil what the wife does, or the ending, except to say it’s a slightly upbeat ending to what has otherwise been a dark collection of tales.  I’m not saying there are balloons and ballerinas and it’s like Candyland, but the ending gives you a little bit of hope that there are still good people out there in the human race.

Mr. King has always been interested in examining unlikely heroes and the ways they face down their demons (literal or figurative) and do good things despite terrible things happening to them, and “Full Dark, No Stars” delves into this.  The stories are some of the most psychological King works I’ve ever read, and it’s truly a collection worth a read.

I’m just sorry I waited almost two years to read it!

A few bites of darkness – “Everything is Eventual: 14 Dark Tales” by Stephen King

Not every word Stephen King writes is going to be terrifying.

I am aware of this fact.  I read “The Green Mile.” I know he writes other stuff.

However, if the back cover of a book promises “spine-chilling” and “unrelenting horror,”  I’m obviously going to be a disappointment when there aren’t guts and monsters on each and every page.

Though a lively and intriguing collection of short stories from the brilliant Mr. King, “Everything’s Eventual”  just wasn’t as scary as it’s cover made it out to be.  Hello – The book is subtitled  “14 Dark Tales.”

So yeah, I expected some more shaking in my boots.

Sure, there’s some darkness running through all of them, but only a few could probably honestly be truly classified as dark tales.

All that aside, I really did enjoy each of the pieces in this book.

Since this is a month about horror, though, let me discuss the two pieces that I feel really had their chilling moments.

The first piece is the first story in the book – “Autopsy in Room 4” – which takes off like a shot and hurls the reader down a hospital corridor inside the mind of a man who is presumed dead and on his way to autopsy.  Except that he’s not actually dead.  And he’s awake and watching, unable to move, as the doctors prepare to perform an autopsy on him.  It’s incredibly “Twilight Zone,” and I adored it.

The other scary story here is “1408,” which is King’s take on a pretty classic motif in horror – the haunted hotel room.  This time, it’s a plucky writer who decides to stay in the room, and things turn twisted in no time.  I read it as a short homage to “The Shining,” personally – but that’s just me.

There are lots of interesting pieces here.  (The title story is incredibly clever, and could easily be turned into a successful TV shot or movie, I’m sure.)

For King fans, this collection is probably an must-read.

For those looking for chills, not so much.  I’d recommend one of Kings other short story collections over this one.  Maybe try “Night Shift.”

“The Shining” vs. “The Shining” vs. “The Shining”

Original Publication Date of Stephen King’s “The Shining”: January 1977

Release date of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”:  May 23, 1980

Air date of the TV Mini-series “The Shining”: April 27, 1997

++++++++++++++++++++++

When you’re re-making a cinematic classic, there are always going to be people who say it’s “not as good as the original.”

However, if the original is an adaptation of a book made by a director who – though talented – is more about style than substance, then maybe it’s valid to take a second swing at your project.

The original film version of Stephen King’s “The Shining,” was directed by Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick absolutely rocked at creating onscreen visual images that stuck with the viewer long after the film was over. Who can forget Jack Nicholson busting through a door, or the hallway of blood, or the twins?

However, it’s said that Stephen King himself didn’t find Kubrick’s film to be a good adaptation of his novel, though he admired the movie.

As a huge fan of the novel, and the Kubrick film (even while recognizing how different they are)  I sat down with some friends and my wonderful husband and watched the 1997 Made for TV version of “The Shining,” starring Steven Weber and Rebecca DeMornay.

All 4.5 hours of it, mind you.

I wanted to see the similarities, and the differences.  This is one of my favorite books of all time, and I was curious to see the different treatments it received onscreen.

Truthfully, while it won’t be winning any awards, the TV version is far from bad.  It’s certainly closer to calling itself “Stephen King’s The Shining” than the Kubrick version.  King himself did the teleplay, produced the project, and even makes an appearance (as the Bandleader, conducting happily away) so clearly his stamp of approval is all over it.

Steven Weber made a ballsy move by signing on to play Jack Torrance.  Imagine taking a part this great, only to know that people are going to be judging you every step of the away against the cinematic giant who originally played the role.  Though Weber is rather flat at points, he has one thing going for him that Nicholson never did.   Weber is a regular dude.  This simple fact makes his  descent into madness, and the shift in his character from well-intentioned Dad to crazed maniac, much more dramatic shift than Nicholson going crazy.

(God Bless him, but Nicholson plays crazy spectacularly.  It’s the sane part he sometimes struggles with.)

As Jack’s wife Wendy, Rebecca DeMornay certainly has more to do than Shelley DuVall did.  Through flashbacks and added scenes, we get a lot more of the difficulties in the Torrances marriage, and it enables Wendy to be fleshed out more as a character.  DuVall was largely asked to be hysterical, while DeMornay gets to play an actual woman with actual problems.

Granted, Kubrick is said to have hated Shelley DuVall, so maybe that has something to do with her wittled-down role.  Whatever, she knocks the little she’s given out of the park, in her quirky, otherworldly way.

The marriage of Weber and DeMornay is more believable, I feel, than the marriage of Nicholson and DuVall ever was.  The TV version actually takes time to focus on this husband and wife duo who, though having obvious issues, obviously have a deep love for each other.

(Note: My friend Amanda declared there to be “excessive” kissing between Weber and DeMornay in the TV Version. )

In both cases, the young actors playing Danny Torrence deliver remarkable performances.   Danny is the true heart and soul of “The Shining,” and it’s only fair to pay him some attention.

The TV version of “The Shining” features Courtland Mead in the role of Danny Torrance.  Mead is a great Danny, every bit the smart and precocious kid the part asks for.

However, I prefer Danny Lloyd.  He’s a marvelous and charming little boy, and I just believe him more in the role.  (Granted, like everything else, his role is drastically changed in the Kubrick version.  This Danny isn’t a super-smart kid with psychic abilities.  He’s a regular little boy that weird stuff happens to a lot. )

In addition to the changes in the characters, there’s the issue of the hotel itself.

Kubrick shot his entire film on a soundstage in England, which was (At the time) the largest set for a movie ever built.  A full-scale exterior of the hotel was built for outside shots, but most outside filming was done at a few different scattered hotels.  Meanwhile, the TV Version was actually filmed at the notorious Stanley Hotel in Colorado, which was the inspiration for King’s novel in the first place.  Some interiors were actually shot in the actual hotel, which had to be an amazing experience for actors and crew alike.  This hotel is legendarily haunted, and for King addicts, it’s a pilgrimage.

There are actually tons of differences in the two films – some more important than others.

For example, the fate of hotel cool Dick Halloran is night and day. Killed by the axe of Jack Nicholson in the Kubrick version, Dick survives and winds up living quite happily ever after in both the TV version and the original novel.

There’s also the issue of room numbers.  The gateway for all hauntings/weirdness at the Overlook hotel is Room 217 in the novel and TV version, and Room 237 in the Kubrick version.

And then there’s the issue of the moving topiary versus the maze of hedges, but whatever… I’m sure a maze struck Kubrick as a more powerful visual or something.

FYI – The Twins are a totally Kubrick invention.  No trace of them is mentioned in the original novel.

At the end of the day, I could keep talking about the differences – but it doesn’t matter.

Some will always prefer the Kubrick, some will choose the TV version, and some will side with the novel.

Me, I remain now and always on the side of the novel.  Read it and imagine your own version of Jack, Wendy, Danny, Dick, Ullman, and everyone else.  Imagination is a powerful thing, and what you can make up in your mind is far more powerful than anything any filmmaker (regardless of skill) can put on a screen.

Read the book.  Just do it.

“Full Dark, No Stars” — New Stephen King 11/9!!

The latest from Mr. Horror himself – Stephen King – hits bookstores on November 9th, 2010.

“Full Dark, No Stars” is a collection of four stories – “1922,” “Big Driver,” “A Fair Extention,” and “A Good Marriage” – all of which promise the darkness we’ve come to expect from the writer.

To check out the book trailer, as well as to get more info, visit the book site.

Alone, and yet alive! – “Gerald’s Game” by Stephen King

Like “House of Leaves” (see previous post) it was on the recommendation of a friend that I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s “Gerald’s Game.”

I’m a lifelong Stephen King fan, and somehow had missed ever reading this particular book.  However, it soon became apparent that I had missed out on something awesome.

Of Stephen King novels, there are only a few that have actually scared me.  Don’t get me wrong – I adore everything the man has ever written, but I don’t necessarily consider “Cujo,” “Carrie,” and “Pet Sematary” as much horror as terrifically thrilling entertainment.  “The Green Mile” wasn’t supposed to be scary, and other pieces like “The Tommyknockers” and “Dolores Claiborne” are almost more mystery than horror.

So, if it comes down to scary, I’d say his best works are “It” and “The Shining.”  “It” scared the bejesus out of me in early high school, and I return about once every year or so to the Torrences of “The Shining” to revisit the hotel of terror.

There’s a third book on my Stephen King Books that Scared Me list now – “Gerald’s Game.”

It’s freaky, y’all.

King enjoys playing with things that scare us – rabid dogs, clowns, dead pets – but in this case he picked something universally terrifying and less gimmicky: a complete lack of control.

Jessie and her husband Gerald have taken a weekend trip to their summer home in the middle of winter to try and spice up their stale relationship.  Gerald, of late, has been really into handcuffing Jessie to a bed. It’s his game, as she’s not really into it.  On this fateful day, Jessie is handcuffed to the bed naked, and before the game can even begin, Gerald suffers a heart attack and dies – leaving the handcuffs on the dresser across the room.

So Jessie is left alone in a room with a dead man.

However, in King tradition, alone doesn’t mean alone.  She’s kept company by the voices in her head, which revisit past memories, as well as by a stray dog, and a figure in the shadows.  Whether he’s real or not, she can’t say.  All she knows is that, after two days and nights of this, if she’s going to survive, she needs to get out.

King picked a tricky subject; a woman handcuffed to a bed can’t make phone calls and go explore nature, so he’s stuck writing within the room.  He does this beautifully, and the reader gets a chilling idea of what being in Jessie’s situation would be like.  The cramping of muscles after three days in a bed, the thirst one would feel, and the terror of knowing whats right outside that bedroom door are all detailed exquisitely, and all provide points of sheer terror.

I’m an admitted control freak, and therefore this book practically made my eye twitch the whole time I was reading it.  My husband came home from a rehearsal while I sat reading it, and the sound of his keys in the door almost gave me a heart attack.

Jessie is a heroine we care about – and it’s a good thing, because she’s all we’ve got.  Haunted by past events or not, she pulls it together enough to survey the situation and make decisions.  Whether they’re all good decisions is questionable, but at least she fights.  The lady has a twisted past, but she doesn’t let it consume her.

If I have one qualm, it’s the last few chapters – which neatly tie up a plot point that would have been more effective left wide open.  People could have debated the “was it or wasn’t it?” issue for years.  However, this question (which I am trying not to spoil) is answered cleanly in one of the last chapters.  While it neatly wraps things up, I don’t think it was necessary.  An open ending would have left the door open for the readers minds to make their own assumptions, which is sometimes the best way to keep scary things scary.

(Like that scene in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” where Leatherface puts the girl on the meat hook.  Though in the actual film, you never see the meat hook go into the girl, people left the movie exclaiming over how gross that shot was.  Which pretty much proves my above point perfectly.)

“Gerald’s Game” is the kind of Stephen King novel that will give you dreams.  Not nightmares, necessarily, but dreams.

[Side Note: Yes, the title of this post comes from a Gilbert & Sullivan song.  The song was in my head while I was reading the book, so I figured it all sort of worked.]