Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Rage Review

This is a famously hard book to find.  Due to an association with several high profile school shootings in the late 80s and early 90s, the book was taken out of print.  For awhile you could still get it as part of The Bachman Books, but it has since been removed from that collection also.  Thank God, for it ended our long national nightmare and no school shootings have happened since.

Now that the sarcasm is out of the way, I will admit to being perturbed at the difficulty in getting this to read.  Fortunately, I was able to purchase an older edition of The Bachman Books that contained it, and for the not-at-all reasonable price of 60 dollars.  All so I could read a less-than-stellar book that is overly linked to similar real-life events.

And I cannot emphasize enough that this is not a good book.  It's readable, thanks to King's character work, but only insofar that the characters are interesting, but not explored that well.

The novel loses me fairly early, when Charlie Decker, whose viewpoint we follow through almost the entirety of the story, shoots two teachers and only one student screams while the others are silent.  None of them try to escape or run or in any way act like normal people do during such an event.  The entire class just calmly sits there.

Now, I understand that King wanted to have people there for Charlie to use as a kind of therapy group, but it reads false right from the start.  And that false start permeates every interaction throughout.  The slap fight between two girls that Charlie forces is resolved with no explanation, and the climax, where the entire class attacks another student, makes no sense.  At no point does King illuminate why Ted Jones, a popular student who recently quit the football team, would suddenly be set upon by his classmates.  While a type of Stockholm Syndrome comes about in the room (with only Ted unaffected), there is no build to the final confrontation.  It just happens so the novel can end.

Released under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, this was apparently King's first written novel, though I can understand why it wasn't initially published.  Carrie explores stigmatization in high school much better.

Pages:  163
Movie?:  None, probably because of the school shooting association.
Dark Tower?:  No, though I doubt any of the early Bachman titles will be associated with the series.
Child Deaths?:  Surprisingly, no.  The only deaths are the two teachers at the beginning.
Penis Talk?:  A girl talks about her boyfriend's penis and a random stranger's she picked up at a bar.
Grade:  D

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Shining Review

The film version of this book is widely considered one of the best horror films ever made.  While it initially was a bit of a box office and critical failure (Shelley Duvall - the single best performance in the movie - got a Razzie nomination for her troubles), critics slowly came around, and now it is a go-to for comparisons in style and tone.

And the movie is wildly overrated.

When I say Duvall is the single best performance (and it is a great performance, in my opinion), one could argue that I am damning with faint praise.  Almost every other performance ranges from terrible to occasionally adequate.  A few scenes do manage to be creepy (the twins flashing between 'Come play with us' and their dead bodies is unnerving), but overall the film is now overpraised.  The slow 'build' is barely there (Nicholson acts like he is ready to murder his family from the beginning, so not much to climb from) and the pace doesn't so much as build tension as it tests the patience of the viewers.

Now, this might seem a long-winded way of saying the book is so much better, but the book is so much better.  This book is terrifying, with King growing into his trademark imagery and character work to create a living hotel - not a creepy place but a malevolent being.  Jack Torrance is not an unhinged maniac like in the film, but a likeable man easily possessed by the hotel due to his own failings and inner demons.  Really, the relationships between all of the family makes the inevitable breakdown of the unit all the more terrible and frightening.

And the scares scattered throughout work much better in the imagination.  The movie only really got the woman in room 237 217 correct (side note: the hotel where the movie was filmed asked that a new room number be created lest guests refuse the room after the movie came out).  They cut out some of the better scares: the dead wasp nest that comes to life, the topiary animals, the playground... I could go on and on.

Oh, the topiary animals.  Without spoiling it for those that haven't read the book already, the sequences where Jack and Danny separately interact with them are some of the most frightening moments in the book.

The family unit is extremely well written also.  Wendy, Jack, and Danny are all fully realized characters, with very human flaws and motivations.  The decision Wendy and Danny make to stay is such a pivotal moment in the book , and it works so well because of King's early work exploring the characters' love for Jack while also examining the motivations of the characters themselves.  The rich detail into each one's personality serves the narrative well.

King had written an excellent book in Salem's Lot, and somehow managed to improve in every way possible going into his third novel.  A masterpiece in writing.

Pages:  683
Movie?:  The overrated 1980 film discussed in the review, a miniseries in 1997.  The miniseries won 2 Emmys and was nominated for one other.
Dark Tower?:  Unless Doctor Sleep ties it in, this book is free of the Dark Tower
Child Deaths?:  While the prior caretaker is referenced as murdering his family, no children actually die during the book.
Penis Talk?:  Yes, though nothing of note about it.
Grade:  A+

Friday, November 13, 2015

'Salem's Lot Review

I read somewhere (probably in one of Stephen King's introductions, though it might have been an interview) that, after the success of Carrie, Mr. King brought two ideas to his editor - or his agent, the memory is fuzzy for sure - for his next novel.  Whomever it was said they preferred the vampire idea, but without enthusiasm.  They were worried that King would be labeled a 'genre' writer and limit himself in future works.  Fortunately, King took that risk, and wrote a pretty awesome book about vampires invading a small town in Maine...

To call 'Salem's Lot a vampire novel is severely limiting, however, as it is more about small towns and how they work - the dark secrets they keep and pass on.  To accomplish this, King greatly expands upon not only the number of characters, but how deeply he looks into their lives.  Primarily focused on Ben Mears, King delves into all sorts of major and minor characters and what makes them tick.  He creates this small town's character by looking at the histories of various residents.  Whether it is the child-beating young mother in a trailer park or the rich town selectman involved in shady real estate dealings, King doesn't just pull back the veneer, he rips it off and envelopes the reader in the thoughts and emotions of any resident he focuses on.

The result is a portrait of a a town in shambles, perfect for the dark invasion that occurs when Barlow and Straker come to town.

And we have to discuss Barlow.  While I have far too many King books to read to say he is King's greatest villain, he is damn near the top.  For a character that doesn't appear until the latter half of the book, he still radiates menace once he does arrive.  His chilling intellect and patience is unnerving, made all the more formidable by his strength.  Straker pales in comparison, though he does an adequate job as the 'front' man for the business venture that sets up the introduction of the two into the town.

King does a fantastic job on the 'good' side of the equation:  Ben Mears, Matt Burke, Susan Norton, and Mark Petrie are all rich characters with a great blend of heroism and fallibility.  While Father Callahan and Jimmy Cody get less attention to detail than the others, they are still well-written.  And Callahan gets much improved-upon in the Dark Tower books (where he also makes an appearance).

It is slightly disappointing that King fridges Susan Norton, and I feel like he glosses over Mark's grief in the immediate aftermath of what happens to his parents, but these are minor quibbles in a stellar book.  I could easily see this placing near the top of my favorite Stephen King books, which isn't bad for a sophomore novel.  Not bad at all.

Pages:  427
Movie?:  2 made-for-TV movies, one in 1979, and the other in 2004.  The '79 version managed 3 Emmy nominations and the '04 version got 1.
Dark Tower?:  Father Callahan plays a rather important part in Wolves of the Calla and Song of Susannah.
Child Deaths?:  Many.  One is sacrificed at the start to allow Barlow into town, and many others are turned into vampires throughout.
Penis Talk?:  Jimmy Cody talks about having an erection while being bitten.
Grade:  A

Monday, November 2, 2015

Carrie Review

(This is for the book, not the movie!)

So, the book that started it all.  One might be tempted to overstate the importance of Carrie as Stephen King's first published book, especially as it was a best seller once it hit paperback.

One of the biggest surprises for me when I first read this novel (re-read for the Great Stephen King Experiment) was how short it was.  One of King's greatest strengths as a writer is how well he conveys imagery and burrows into his characters, but in this early work you don't see much of either.  You get a good feel for Carrie White and Sue Snell, with a bit of work thrown in on Tommy Ross and Billy Nolan, but most characters only get a cursory bit of insight.  Part of this stems from the decision to weave into the story 'excerpts' from fictional works about what is referred to as Prom Night in the novel, a decision that helps the reader see reactions to the event, but which also serves to distance them from fully immersing themselves into the story.

The story does move along quite briskly, with no lags despite the excerpts.  From the start, it slowly crescendos up into the pivotal moment at the spring dance, where it then manages to soar higher as Carrie enacts her revenge not only against her classmates, but also against the town of Chamberlain itself.  King conveys Carrie's rage nicely, and the various 'transcripts' taken from various townspeople capture the confusion and terror quite well.

My only critique, aside from rather thin sketches of the majority of the characters, is the lack of a truly strong villain.  Carrie herself is a tragic figure, so she hardly counts.  King makes you feel as if some sort of showdown will occur between Carrie and Chris Hargensen, but Billy Nolan gets more attention once the actual plan is in motion.  Margaret White also appears to be the villain, but she is mostly sidelined until her confrontation with Carrie after the dance.  Despite that confrontation being especially chilling, Margaret never feels like a true threat, even if she does strike what ends up being a mortal blow on Carrie.

Still, the novel is quite good, and a fine start for what turned out to be quite the career for King.

Pages:  199
Movie?:  2 of them - one in 1976 and another in 2013, plus a terrible sequel and a made-for-TV version.  Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations for the 1976 version.
Dark Tower?:  No references that I can remember.
Child Deaths?:  The various teens at the dance, possibly some younger ones during Carrie's destruction of the town.
Penis Talk?:  Vague references from Sue Snell and Chris Hargensen from when they slept with their boyfriends, and Margaret White refers to her late husband's as The Devil's Serpent (unironically)
Grade:  B+

The Great Stephen King Experiment

So, I have a plan to read all the Stephen King books in order of publication.  As of this posting, I have read 33 of the 63 that have been published (although number 64 comes out on the 3rd of November, so it will be added to the pile).  As someone slightly familiar with Stephen King at this point, I am going to read the book, right a review, and keep track of a few things (for amusement's sake).

Number of Pages:  This is rather self-explanatory, and if I decide to add up the total number of pages read, at least I have a record.
Is There a Movie?:  Also self-explanatory.
Is it Part of the Dark Tower Mythos?:  I love the Dark Tower books and King has woven together quite a universe throughout his many works connecting them all together, so whenever references pop up, I will take note.
Do Any Children Die?:  Stephen King has no problem killing children, so this will also be tracked
Is There Penis Talk?:  Stephen King also talks about penis frequently.  This is obviously a 'for funsies' category
Grade:  Because why not?

I consider myself a fast reader, but there will obviously be some time between posts for these, as I do need to actually read the books.  Hopefully the delays will be short though.