You know what’s really scary? Getting sick while you’re reading the first part of The Stand. Just try running a fever, going through a box of tissues...moreYou know what’s really scary? Getting sick while you’re reading the first part of The Stand. Just try running a fever, going through a box of tissues and guzzling the better part of a bottle of Theraflu while Stephen King describes the grisly deaths of almost every one on Earth from a superflu. On top of feeling like crap, you'll be terrified. Bonus!
After a bio-engineered virus that acts like a revved up cold escapes from a U.S. government lab, it takes only weeks for almost all of humanity to succumb to the disease. A handful of survivors are mysteriously immune and begin having strange dreams, some of which are about a very old woman called Mother Abigail asking them to come see her. More disturbing are nightmares about a mysterious figure named Randall Flagg also known as the Dark Man or the Walkin’ Dude.
As they being making their way through an America almost entirely devoid of people, the survivors begin to unite and realize that the flu was just the beginning of their problems. While some are drawn to the saintly Mother Abigail in Boulder Colorado who tells them that they have been chosen by God, others have flocked to Flagg in Las Vegas who is determined to annihilate all those who refuse to pledge their allegiance to him.
If King would have just written a book about a world destroyed by plague and a small number of people struggling in the aftermath, it probably would have been a compelling book. What sets this one apart is the supernatural element. Flagg is the embodiment of evil and chaos. He's a mysterious figure who has been giving the wrong people the push needed for them to make things worse for everyone, and he sees the plague as his chance to fulfill his own destiny as a wrecker of humanity.
And on the other side, we have God. Yep, that God. The Big Cheese himself. But this isn’t some kindly figure in a white robe with a white beard or George Burns or Morgan Freeman. This is the Old Testament God who demands obedience and worship while usually rewarding his most faithful servants with gruesome deaths.
King calls this a tale of dark Christianity in his forward, and one of the things I love about this book is that it does feel like a Biblical story, complete with contradictions and a moves-mysterious-ways factor. Stories don’t get much more epic than this, and King does a great job of depicting the meltdown of the world through the stories of a variety of relateable characters. (Larry Underwood remains among my favorite King creations.)
One of my few complaints is that this features a lot of King’s anti-technology themes that he’d use in several books like Cell or The Dark Tower series. We’re told repeatedly that the ‘old ways’ like trying to get the power back on in Boulder are a ‘death trip’. The good guys gather in the Rocky Mountains, but if they try to get the juice going so they won’t freeze to death in the winter, they’re somehow acting in defiance of God’s will and returning to the bad habits? Not all tech is bad tech, Mr. King. Nature is a bitch and will kill your ass quicker than the superflu.
Here’s another thing I’m not wild about. When this was published in the late ‘70s, the bean counters at King’s publishers had decided that the book as written would be too pricey in hardback and no one would pay a whopping $13 for a Stephen King hardback. So King cut about three hundred pages.
Around 1990 after it had become apparent that King could publish his shopping list as a best seller, he put those pages back in and released the uncut version. Which I’m fine with. The original stuff was cut for a financial reason, not an editorial one, and there’s some very nice bits of story added in. If King would have stopped there, we would have had a great definitive final version as originally created by the author.
Unfortunately, he seemed to catch a case of Lucasitis and decided to update the story a bit and change its original time frame from 1980 to 1990. I’m not sure why that seemed necessary to him. Yes, the book was a bit dated by then, but it was of its time. He didn’t rewrite the text (Which I’m grateful for.), but just stuck in some references to Madonna and Ronald Reagan and Spuds McKenzie.
This led to a whole bunch of anachronisms. Would students in 1990 call soldiers ’war pigs’? Someone in New York picks up a phone book to look up the number to call an ambulance instead of dialing 911? A song called Baby, Can You Dig Your Man is a huge hit? None of it quite fits together. There's also a layer of male chauvinism and lack of diversity that you can overlook in a book written in the late '70s, but seems out of place for a book set and updated for 1990.
The things that irritate me are still far outweighed by one of my favorite stories of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil.
I’m also glad to get a long overdue audio edition of this book. Great narration and 40+ hours of end of the world horror make for a damn fine listening experience.(less)
Even though the film version of this one from Stanley Kubrick is generally considered a horror classic, Stephen King has never been shy about making h...moreEven though the film version of this one from Stanley Kubrick is generally considered a horror classic, Stephen King has never been shy about making his dislike of it known. He hates it so much that he was heavily involved in making a more faithful adaptation of it as TV mini-series in 1997. (This inferior version invited comparisons of Stephen Weber from Wings to one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic performances. So that worked well….)
Considering Uncle Stevie’s longstanding grudge about it, I was more than a little shocked when he recently made a public plea for fans of Under the Dome to accept the changes that the new TV show was making. I can’t quite wrap my head around why a genius director creating something new and brilliant based on his story is bad, but anything that a fairly shitty TV show does with the source material is A-OK with King?
On to the book. As most everyone knows, this is about a family spending the winter in a haunted hotel in the Rocky Mountains called the Overlook. Jack Torrance was a teacher and promising writer, but his alcoholism and short temper wrecked his career and very nearly ended his marriage. Jack has been sober over a year, and he and Wendy have started down the path of reconciliation. However, she can never entirely forgive him for breaking the arm of their son Danny in an incident that was equal parts rage and accident. Five year old Danny has psychic mojo that includes reading thoughts and precognition courtesy of visions shown to him by his imaginary friend, Tony.
Nearly broke, Jack takes on the job of being the winter caretaker for the Overlook. This means that the family will spend months alone in the hotel once the snow flies, and the last caretaker went axe-happy and killed his family. Unfortunately, the Overlook is like an emotional sponge that has soaked in every ugly act that ever took place within its rooms, and the presence of a high-powered psychic like Danny kicks the place into overdrive. As Jack is being driven into madness, Wendy and Danny become increasingly terrified of what he might do.
I once read something in which King talked about denial of his own substance abuse problems in which he noted that he somehow wrote The Shining without ever once realizing he was describing his own alcoholism. That element of the Jack Torrence character is what makes this one of his better books. The idea of being trapped in a hotel with a bunch of ghosts is scary in a horror story kind of way. The idea of being trapped in a hotel with an ill-tempered drunk with a history of violence as he is cracking up is downright terrifying.
Adding even more weight to that idea is that Jack Torrance isn’t a monster. He’s a troubled man who does love his wife and son, and he’s self-aware enough to realize that he’s on the brink. He’ll either turn his life around and earn his wife’s trust back, or he’ll give in to his own worst impulses. This would be hard enough under any circumstances, but under the influence of the evil spirits of the Overlook, Jack becomes a tragedy.
Another element jumped out at me while re-reading this time. King talked in his non-fiction Danse Macabre (Which I remember as being entertaining, but probably very dated by now. I would be very interested if Uncle Stevie wanted to take another look at what’s become of the horror genre since he wrote that one.) about the economic factor of The Amityville Horror and how a part of why the movie worked was that the family was essentially trapped by their finances.
He uses that idea to good effect here. Most people would run screaming from the Overloook in less than a week, but we’re frequently reminded that the Torrance family was swirling the drain financially. If the perception is that Jack botched this job, his last chance to get back to a more stable lifestyle is probably shot and that goes a long way towards allowing him to convince himself and Wendy that they’re overreacting to the weird occurrences during the early stages, and by the time they’ve become snowed in, the Overlook has its hooks deep into Jack.
It’s those more mundane things like a family struggling with money and that an evil entity turns one of them against the others by playing on his inherent weaknesses that make this one of my favorite King novels. (less)
Only Stephen King could write an 1100 page book about the innocence and wonder of childhood, and then kick it off with a six-year-old boy getting his...moreOnly Stephen King could write an 1100 page book about the innocence and wonder of childhood, and then kick it off with a six-year-old boy getting his arm ripped off by a clown.
Derry, Maine, in 1958 is a bad place to be if you’re a kid. Child disappearances and murders are occurring with astonishing regularity, and while the adults set curfews and hunt for maniacs, a group of 11-year-old outcasts know the truth. A supernatural entity has been terrorizing and killing the children of Derry. These 7 kids eventually band together into a self-proclaimed Loser’s Club dedicated to destroy the evil they call It.
In 1985 the members of the Losers are called together again in order to fulfill a childhood promise to return to Derry if It ever returned. However, now they’re adults who have only foggy memories of exactly what they did to stop It the first time. Can they summon the same belief they had as kids to again face and stop It?
With the creation of It, King threw a kitchen sink full of monsters into this with the villain able to take the form of whatever will scare it’s latest victim the most. So the kids alternately face everything from werewolves, mummies, lepers, crawling eyes, giant birds and Frankenstein’s monster with It using the form of a demonic clown called Pennywise as the baseline. The concept that it’s the belief system of the kids that they use as their main weapon against It was a clever idea. So if it’s a werewolf and the kids believe it’s a werewolf, then they also believe that silver can be used against the creature, and It has to abide by those rules.
Another of the more successful aspects of this book is how King creates 7 likeable kid characters and then writes them as adults so that they really seem like the same people. Another part of this that is particularly sharp is just how well he portrays the sheer terror that each character seems to feel at one time or another. While he presents all as being brave and stepping up when it’s Big-Damn-Hero time, they all also have moments where they’re pushed almost to their limits or beyond.
However, I’ve never been as high on this one as a lot of King fans are. I originally read it when I was 5 years older than the age of the Losers in their 1958 story so I had just left the age of childhood fantasy behind and wasn’t particularly enthralled with revisiting the concept. On the flip side of that, this was adult King engaging in a bit of nostalgia porn, and I was far too young to understand the fleeting nature of youth. Now I’m 5 years older than the Loser’s were in the 1985 portion of the story so it’s like I’m traveling back to the time I should be nostalgic about to listen to an older person’s nostalgia of yet an earlier time. In short, I’m always out of sync with King’s rhythm when it comes to this one.
It’s some of King’s best work at tapping into the minds of kids as well as the bittersweet nature of looking back at that time as an adult, but it’s also one where he gave in to his worst impulses in letting the book bloat far beyond what was needed to tell the story
There’s a couple of other factors that keep this from being top shelf King for me, but they are filled with spoilers so don’t read any further if you don’t want to know.
(view spoiler)[ * I hated this the first time I read It, and my opinion didn’t improve this time through. The idea that there’s an underage gang bang on poor Bev to reestablish the connection between the Losers when they’re lost in the sewers after facing It the first time is completely unnecessary and puts a layer of ‘Ewww!‘ all over the childhood relationships.
* Poor Bev really gets the worst of it in a lot of ways in this book. Not only does she have sex with six guys to save them all, she’s the only one of the Losers to have an absolutely terrible life with her abusive husband as an adult. Granted, Eddie has a miserable marriage and Mike got stuck in Derry, but she’s the only one who gets used as a punching bag which seems odd considering that King indicates that they’re all under the spell/protection of the Turtle or whatever force of good made most of them rich but childless. ( Yeah, I know it relates back to her father, but it still seems grossly unfair.)
* By the end, two of the Losers are dead, and the survivors won’t even get to remember each other or what they did. (I always wondered how Ben and Bev going off together as a couple at the end would work. Did they forget each other if one of them went to the store or something?) But they managed to kill It once and for all, right? That’s what we spent all that effort to find out, isn’t it? That the Losers suffered and don’t even get to celebrate their victory for long, but at least It is dead so the whole thing had to be worth it. Unless…….
You read Dreamcatcher which features a brief scene where a character goes to Derry and sees a memorial placed there by the Loser’s Club for all the kids who died, but which has the ominous graffiti message of ‘Pennywise Lives!’ on it.
First off, if the Losers can’t remember what happened or even each other, how did they put up a memorial? Secondly, the idea that I read this mammoth story only to have King retroactively throw a shadow over the ending by putting a line into another book severely pisses me off. After the unambiguous statement that It was dead at the end, an author shouldn’t play it cute and toss a line off for cheap thrills in something else that undermines the entire book. That is complete and utter bullshit of the highest order. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
“Would’ee speak a word of prayer first, Roland? To whatever God thee holds?”
“I hold to no God,” Roland said. “I hold to the Tower and won’t pray to th...more“Would’ee speak a word of prayer first, Roland? To whatever God thee holds?”
“I hold to no God,” Roland said. “I hold to the Tower and won’t pray to that.”
Damn, I love that line. It so perfectly sums up Roland, his quest to find the Tower, what it’s cost him, and how he knows he isn’t done paying yet.
For years, it seemed like Dark Tower had been walking in aimless circles during the long breaks between the third, fourth and fifth books. We knew that King had finished the final three volumes after losing a game of chicken with a minivan, and he’d gotten the story back up and striding briskly in the right direction with Wolves of the Calla including ending that one on a pretty wicked cliffhanger.
Still the pace of this one took me by surprise. It’s like King suddenly pulled out a whip and started cracking it over the heads of the DT fans while screaming, “Run, you bastards! You gotta run if you want to find out what happens! BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!”
And he didn’t even let us stretch properly first. That’s how you end up with a pulled hamstring.
Susannah’s demon pregnancy led to her being taken over by the personality of Mia, and she fled Mid-World to New York in 1999 via the Doorway Cave. As Susannah wrestles Mia for control of her own body and learns more about the Crimson King, Roland and Eddie plan to follow and save her while Jake and Callahan also come to our world to protect the rose growing in a vacant lot which is actually a critical incarnation of the Tower. But when things go off the rails, all of the gunslingers will have to scramble to try and save not only Susannah, but their own lives.
This is essentially a set-up book that preps the way for the conclusion in the last one, and it doesn’t resolve a helluva lot on it’s own. Still, I like it for its breakneck pace and the sense of urgency that King worked into this one. The breaking of a beam in Mid-World before the action moves to New York was a great reminder of the stakes here. The lines of force holding reality together are being subverted by the Crimson King’s breakers, and the so-called beamquake when one snaps is a stark warning to Roland and company that they are quickly running out of time.
Unfortunately, while the Susannah pregnancy story makes for a pretty good hook to drive the urgency of the story, it ends up being kind of unsatisfying overall once you know how the whole series ends. Plus, the conflict between Susannah and Mia reminded me a lot of a very similar plot that King had done in Dreamcatcher shortly before this book was released. So it didn’t feel all that fresh.
Overall, there’s a feel of desperation in this one that takes us nicely into the final volume, and the cliffhangers here had me on the edge of my seat the first time I read this.
There’s one controversial piece to this part of the DT story. (view spoiler)[ A lot of fans don’t like that King wrote himself into this, and I was hesitant about it myself the first time through this when I wasn’t sure how the story would end. At the end of Wolves of the Calla and into this one, I was worried that it was going to turn out that the Dark Tower was Stephen King himself and that its fall was his ‘death’ due to the minivan accident.
Knowing the ending now and rereading this, writing himself into the story doesn’t bother me as much. If he’d portrayed himself as some kind of all-knowing creator, I might have hated it too, but he didn‘t. He’s a pawn with a role to play. A role he kind of screws up by not getting off his ass and finishing this series sooner.
I like that the power behind the Tower is the force of creation itself, and that the Crimson King and the other baddies are agents of chaos and destruction. I think of it as the Tower was saving itself by creating a story of a hero on a quest, and it needed someone to write that story. Enter King, who actually made himself look kind of crappy in the process.
It’s not my favorite part of the series, but it didn’t ruin it for me either. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
You never forget your first time, and the memories of my initial encounter with Stephen King when he lured me into the back of a 1958 Plymouth Fury an...moreYou never forget your first time, and the memories of my initial encounter with Stephen King when he lured me into the back of a 1958 Plymouth Fury and had his way with me are still clear over 30 years later.
For the record, he wasn’t gentle.
I was a wee lad of 13 when this came out, and Stephen King had established his reputation as America’s boogeyman after his breakout in the ‘70s. I wasn’t much of a horror fan and despite my increasing interest in ‘grown-up’ fiction had no interest in the King novels and movies that were freaking the adults out. Then one day I was sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office and read a magazine article about King and his new book centered on a haunted killer car.
“That sounds pretty cool,” I thought. After my appointment, I went to the library which was right around the corner from my doctor’s office. (Ah, small towns...) I can’t remember if I actually was able to get it then or if I had to put my name on the hold list. I suspect that a new King novel probably had a waiting list. In either case, I soon got my grubby little mitts on a copy and read my first Stephen King novel. The countless hours since devoted to reading his work and the small fortune I’ve spent accumulating his books over the years are a testament to how deeply the hook was set.
Looking back now, that seems kind of odd because Christine is not my favorite King novel. In fact, it’d be well down my personal list after others like The Stand, The Shining or The Dark Tower series. Still, it’s a pretty good King novel and was more than enough to put me on the King path that I’ve been on ever since despite the occasional rocky patches.
I still remembered being surprised at how relatable the story was. The way I’d heard adults talk made me think that the entire book would be a bloodbath. Instead, I was shocked to see that King actually focused most of the early part of the book on a couple of small town high school guys who didn’t seem any different from the older teens I knew. I remember thinking that this was the first book I’d read that had people living in a way that seemed familiar to me. That’s why when the horror started creeping in from the edges; it made it that much worse.
Geeky loser Arnie and high school stud duck Dennis have been friends since they were children. As they’re getting ready to start their senior year, Arnie spots a For Sale sign on a rusting piece-of-shit 1958 Plymouth Fury nicknamed Christine by its owner, a nasty old bastard named Roland LeBay. Despite Dennis’s best efforts to talk him out of it, Arnie insists on buying Christine which puts him at odds with his academic parents, especially his domineering mother who has managed to control every aspect of his life to that point.
As Arnie works on what seems to be a miraculous restoration job on Christine, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the car and angry at the world. Dennis was uneasy about the vehicle from the beginning and gets more suspicious as his best friend seems less and less like himself. When people who crossed Arnie start turning up dead via bizarre vehicular homicides, Dennis’s dread of Christine leads him to believe the impossible.
It’d be easy to dismiss this as the book about the evil car, but like most good horror there’s a more human theme lurking in the story. In this case it’s about how childhood friends can drift apart and how inexorable that can be in some circumstances. Dennis and Arnie wouldn’t be that much different than anyone who gets wrapped up in the changes that adulthood is about to lay on them only to look up and realize that the person who always used to be at their side has gone their own way. That’s a sad fact of life that King uses as the foundation of the book, only he uses a murderous car as the wedge he drives between them instead of the more mundane distractions that usually do the job.
The other hook that he hangs the story on is based on the old nerd-gets-revenge fantasy. In this case, despite Arnie’s sweet nature, he’s so incapable of standing up for himself that even Dennis finds him pathetic at times. When Arnie develops a backbone and begins dating the prettiest girl in school, you can’t help but root for him even as you know that the cause of these changes is Christine and therefore can’t be a good thing.
With all this going for it, then why doesn’t Christine rank higher in the King pantheon? A couple of factors drag it down. At the time it was published, this was King’s longest book other than his epic novel The Stand and that one was about the end of the world so some wordiness wasn’t out of line. Some of the bloat that would often characterize his later work was beginning to creep into this one. The set-up of Arnie and Dennis’s history and Arnie’s status as the unlucky geek of their school goes on too long. Also, the character of Dennis is just a little too good to be true. Not every teenage boy is a raging sociopath, but after a while I did find it hard to believe that a good looking star athlete with plenty of girls chasing after him would really be best friends with the school misfit as well as a loving and respectful son to his parents.
Then there’s the fact that while the destruction of Arnie’s personality is a big chunk of the book, the actual bloodshed comes at the wheels of Christine, and while King writes several gruesome death scenes and creates some very creepy moments, it’s still just a car. Even with magical evil powers, you still think you could get away by just going into a tall building and waiting until it runs out of gas.
Despite the elements that keep it from being considered among his best work, Christine is still a good example of what King does best by mixing human weakness with supernatural elements to create a story that keeps you turning pages.
Stephen King once wrote some books under the pen name Richard Bachman, but the gag was blown by a book store clerk in 1985. In The Dark Half, a writer...moreStephen King once wrote some books under the pen name Richard Bachman, but the gag was blown by a book store clerk in 1985. In The Dark Half, a writer using a pen name is exposed and a murderous rampage occurs as a result with numerous victims getting killed in a variety of gruesome ways, including one guy getting beaten to death with his own prosthetic arm. Uh…Mr. King? I can assure you that I have no interest at all in revealing any secret of yours that I may accidently come across someday. I promise.
Thad Beaumont is a college professor and writer with a wife and baby twins. Thad writes very serious literature and was a National Book Award nominee for his first novel. Unfortunately, he never really found commercial success and got a fat case of writer’s block along the way. So Thad comes up with the pen name, George Stark, and starts writing gory crime novels and those books all become popular best sellers. Part of the Stark mystique is the elaborate history Thad devises for him with George sharing a lot of characteristics with the ruthless killer who is the star of the books.
When someone threatens to blow the whistle about who Stark really is, Thad beats them to the punch by going public and declaring that he’s tired of George Stark and will no longer write the crime novels. However, a lot of people connected with ending the Stark name start getting killed. And how can Thad’s fingerprints be all over the crime scenes even though he was hundreds of miles away? Apparently George Stark is a little more real than Thad thought. And he’s very pissed off.
If you ever get into discussions about King’s books with his fans, The Dark Half doesn’t get mentioned a lot, and that’s a shame because I think it’s one of his most underrated books. It’s obvious that the idea was inspired by King’s own use of a pen name, and it’s one of the first books that King really started digging into the idea of what it means to write and create something. Those are themes he’d come to explore a lot more in later years, but when Thad asks himself, “Who am I when I write?”, you can feel King pondering that question himself.
This feels a little bit different from some other King books because it's a hybrid of crime and horror. As always with King, he starts throwing in more detail than he needs to, and it probably would have been a better book if he trimmed a hundred pages. I still think it’s one of his better efforts and that Stark is one of his scarier villains.
I also have a soft spot for this one because it led me to another writer who became one of my favorites. During the story, while Thad is giving an interview about how he came up with George Stark, he mentions being inspired by Donald Westlake using Richard Stark as a pen name for his Parker crime novels. I’d never even heard of Westlake back then in those caveman days before the internet or Amazon, but I thought he sounded interesting so I eventually tracked some of his books down and have been a fan since.
Not as good as The Stand or Salem’s Lot or The Dead Zone, but a helluva lot better than Rose Madder or Desperation, this is one that I think should get more attention from King fans. (less)