Cannonball Read 6, Book 55: Revival by Stephen King

19196719Yes, I know I know. I should just re-title my blog “I Read A Lot of Stephen King”. But he’s been my go-to author for nearly thirty years and given that he had a brush with death fifteen years ago now and toyed with retiring twelve years ago, so any new book from him is a cause for me to skip about and click my heels. That this is his second book of the year and there is another on the horizon already for next year, well, hallelujah. And I have said over and over again that a really satisfying ending is the one thing that eludes his work more often than not, so the jacket copy promising that Revival has “the most terrifying conclusion King has ever written” inspires excitement and nervousness from me, in roughly equal measure.

Our hero is Jamie Morton, a vaguely successful musician and an incredibly successful heroin addict (no surprise there). Casting a shadow over his entire life is Reverend Jacobs. When Jamie is a young boy, the Jacobs family move in down the road and the Rev has a profound effect on Jamie and his family. Rev Jacobs is obsessed with electricity and experimenting with its restorative uses. Everything is ticking along nicely until a tragedy strikes the Reverend and he then ends up being fired from his job after giving what comes to be known as “The Terrible Sermon” (and it’s one of the most brilliantly awful parts of the book when it happens).

The Reverend vanishes but re-appears at key moments of Jamie’s life, having re-invented himself as a carny show healer who would make Jim Bakker look restrained and unimaginative. His experiments with electricity sees him performing real healings, with some fake ones thrown in for show. He has harnessed electricity to cure things conventional medicine cannot. He cures Jamie of his heroin addiction, for starters. There are side effects though, unpleasant ones and never will the banality of the phrase “something happened” seem so gruesome.

As they both grow older, Jacobs obsession with electricity grows exponentially, his grip on sanity loosens and his claws sink ever deeper into Jamie’s life as we head towards the apparently terrifying conclusion. And I am going to give nothing further away about the story or its conclusion than that. Whether or not you find it terrifying is up to you, but what I will say is that it seems King has found his showdown mojo. His latest two or three works have all had final chapters which range from chilling to heartbreaking, but are all richly satisfying. And this is most definitely satisfying. And after the grand finale, there’s an epilogue to really hammer things home. Up until the final portion, when King goes full on Frankenstein’s Monster, this is an intriguing and well crafted novel. Thereafter, it’s a demonstration of how lame American Horror Story really is and an abject lesson in how reading something can scare you into sleeping with the lights on.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 54: It by Stephen King

644173I have long held the opinion that It is King’s masterpiece. I read it when I was 13 years old and then read it many more times during my teens. But it occurred to me recently that I haven’t read it for a long time. Then I gave it some more thought and realised it’s getting on for twenty years since I read it. Twenty motherfucking years. This caused me to think a) fucking hell I am getting old and b) I wonder if it holds up, twenty years later?

Even more frightening, it’s closing in on thirty years since the book was first published. And even more frightening than THAT, it’s the 13th book in his career. King has been publishing books for most of my life. Sweet mother of God. ANYWAY, so It. As we all know, it tells the story of Derry, Maine and the dark, malevolent, child murdering force which inhabits it. Every 27 or so years, it re-surfaces and murders some children to feed itself, then hibernates for a generation. That is until seven teenagers, The Losers Club, are drawn together and try to fight It in 1958. They win, but swear a pact that if It comes back, they’ll come back and fight It to the death.

Naturally, they didn’t defeat It (if they did, it would be a much shorter book than the 1376 pages of the current paperback edition). The book jumps between 1958 and 1985 and the action is interspersed with chapters detailing the fictional history of Derry. Several of my friends are huge fans and dislike him being called a horror writer. One of them believes he is our generation’s Tom Sawyer, another goes even further and calls him our generation’s Charles Dickens. This book is probably the best example to show what a phenomenal storyteller King is. Juggling seven main characters is no easy feat, and they are each fully realised and fleshed out. They’re also relatable (as a fat kid (and adult, let’s face it), I was always Team Hanscom). While the psychotic bully of Henry Bowers might be a little broadly drawn, he is more plot device than anything else.

But let’s not lose focus of the fact that King IS a horror writer too. And he knows more about frightening his Constant Readers than anyone. And It is terrifying, no doubt about it. It’s the biggest failing of every circus in the world that they think clowns are fun and funny. No, fuck off, they’re terrifying and nobody likes them. King knows this and so It’s most common form is Pennywise The Clown. It can take the form of your deepest fears and turn them into a terrifying reality. The sequences where the children are terrorised and murdered found their way into my dreams when I first read the book, and not in a fun way. I can pay the book no higher compliment.

However, there is one thing that has evaded King many MANY times over his career (and has been mentioned before) and that is the properly satisfying conclusion. This is where I remember It falling down when I read it in my teens, and it still falls down and falls down hard when I re-read it as a nearly 40 year old. While I appreciate King’s “pull no punches” attitude to killing off characters, the final showdown and aftermath just feels lame, especially when everything that came before has set the bar so very high. It’s a fumble, but a fumble I can forgive, oddly enough. The less said about the teenage gang bang as a way to escape from the sewers in the 1958 sequence though, the better.

So, is it a great book? Yes. Is it flawed? Oh yes. Does it still hold up? Most definitely.

 

Cannonball Read 6, Book 33: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

884572After ploughing through the biggest of the big books with The Quincunx, I was, as I saw someone put it on Twitter after back to back reading The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, “yearning for a pamphlet”. And what better palate cleanser, I thought, than the opening volume of Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower series? It’s a trifling 210 pages and it’s the opening gambit to a series of books that increase in page count as they do in scope. Bound to be a winner, right? Well, as it turns out, no.

As it turns out, I really didn’t enjoy this at all. I didn’t get any real sense of anything, time, character, place, nothing. I didn’t really care who anyone was, where they were going or why. Roland, our titular gunslinger, is an enigma, as is the Man in Black he is relentlessly pursuing. There are some peripheral characters swirling around too, but they’re even less filled in and hard to care about. Especially as one of them already seems to be dead. Or something.

Another aspect that kept yanking me out of the story is that the quality of writing is noticeably lower than that of his later output. King, like all novelists, grew more accomplished with each book he wrote and while I have banged on at length about how wonky his output got after he had his near death experience, there’s no denying for me that he started out good and became really truly great. The Gunslinger was started in 1978 and published in 1982 and, well, it shows. The language is repetitive, it’s littered with adverbs, the structure is confused and incoherent, it essentially drove me a little bit crazy trying to read it.

I got through it though, but I really was not that fussed. However, everyone else I know who has tackled the Dark Tower series assures me that this is merely the undercooked appetiser which belies the delicious banquet to follow. So I won’t give up and still plan to carry on reading them, not least because every volume of them is sitting on bookshelves in my flat. I’m also advised by a fellow King aficionado that re-reading ‘Salem’s Lot before carrying on with them would also be a worthwhile detour. So since that’s also on shelves here, I will be doing that too, I imagine.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 27: Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

20895196Ah, Stephen King. He’s been my number one go-to author since I was in my early teens and read It and The Tommyknockers. I pretty much never looked back from that point on and while not every book he publishes is a slam dunk (Dreamcatcher is one of the most jawdroppingly terrible things, and I never even bothered to finish Lisey’s Story I was so bored and annoyed by it), when you’re as prolific as King is, that’s no real surprise. But I’d still much rather read an off target Stephen King novel than the best work of some other authors.

Luckily for all of us, Mr Mercedes is very far from an off-target book. It’s funny how King is so often written of as a horror novelist and when he is so much more. Here he delivers an out and out thriller, something the publishers are so keen to publicise, the front cover of the novel tells you that it’s “a riveting suspense thriller”. Bill Hodges is a retired cop, and is still haunted by the one unsolved case he had when he retired. A crazy person stole a Mercedes and drove it in to a crowd of people. Eight died, fifteen were injured, the killer never apprehended. Said killer is Brady Hartsfield, who lives across town from Hodges and decides he’s going to tie up the one loose end he has and goad Hodges into killing himself. He writes to Hodges and suggests they start chatting on a social website, Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella (hence the cover). But both the cat and the mouse have underestimated each other and events threaten to overtake both of them. Soon Hodges, along with two unexpected and unlikely sidekicks, is in a race against time to stop Hartsfield before he can kill again.

Alfred Hitchcock discussed the art of suspense and he said (I’m massively paraphrasing): “show two men talking at a table for 10 minutes, and then detonate a bomb under the table, the audience are first bored then shocked. Show the audience the bomb first, THEN show the men talking, and for ten minutes, that audience will be losing their minds, waiting for the men to be blown up or saved”. King takes that lesson and runs with it here. The first half of Mr Mercedes is all set up. King takes time fleshing out his characters and making you care about (or in the case of Hartsfield, massively dislike and be creeped out by) them. Around the halfway mark, things begin to unravel in ways you don’t initially expect and that’s when you need to make sure you’ve cleared your diary and you should turn your phone off. You won’t want to stop until you get to the very end.

The last 200 pages are easily among the most exciting and pulse racing I have read in a very long time. I have dinged King in the past for being too fond of a happy ending (Cell is the worst offender there, I think), but not only do you want this all to end well for Hodges and his buddies, King genuinely made me fear about whether it would or not. Much like Hartsfield in the Mercedes at the start, King has disabled the airbags on his narrative. There was a time, following King’s near death experience, when it looked like he might never write again and that what he did write would be inferior stuff (Bag of Bones was the first book to emerge after that brush with death and it’s really not one of his best). How wrong we all were. It’s now been fifteen years since that event, and in that time King has published some of his finest work. He shows no signs of slowing down and indeed I was thrilled to discover Mr Mercedes is actually book one of a planned trilogy and part two should be out next year. Get in.

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 88: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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So this is a first. Stephen King has often cross pollinated his characters from one book into another, he’s written a fantasy series, he’s published a serialised novel and he’s republished a “writer’s cut” of The Stand with lots of deleted material restored. But he’s never written a bona fide sequel to a previously standalone novel before. And while not even his most ardent fan would be excited for Cujo 2: Electric Boogaloo, the anticipation for a novel about the little kid from The Shining all grown up has swelled to almost deafening levels.

Well, it was worth the wait. It’s always a bugbear of mine how authors of sequels have to incorporate information from the previous novel(s) for those who can’t be bothered to read it. It always irks me because, firstly if you want to read the follow up, why wouldn’t you want to start at the beginning? But also, the backstory is often quite artlessly woven in (Armistead Maupin is the worst offender of this in Tales of The City. By the time you get the last of the six novels in the  original series, he’s just regurgitating whole chunks of the predecessors). So it’s a relief when the opening chapters tell you just enough of Danny’s past as it takes us from his traumatised childhood to his present state as a recovering alcoholic adult, before starting the story proper. That these opening chapters also contain some of the most terrifying imagery he’s conjured up in years can’t go unnoticed. I started reading this at 1am and very quickly had to stop lest I NEVER slept again.

So Dan Torrance is now ten years sober, regularly attending AA meetings and working as an orderly in a hospice. He still has the shining and uses his talent at the hospice in a way that earns him the (goodnatured) nickname of the book’s title. He can also sense that out there somewhere is a young girl who is more powerful than he ever was, but like him she is in trouble and needs his help. When his path begins to cross with Abra Stone (my compulsion to yell “CADABRA!” after I read her name is nicely offset early on when he makes it her email address), Dan finds himself up against some truly unpleasant people who want Abra for their own evil ends.

A bunch of evil undead carnies, called The True Knot sustain themselves not with blood but with what they call steam. It’s an essence only found in people who have the shining and well, you can imagine how it’s extracted. This is Stephen King, after all. When their latest victim accidentally pulls Abra into the oldest member of the True’s head (yes, I know how that sounds), they realise the answer to all their steam prayers is right there. Abra knows they won’t stop until they have her so she needs to fight back. And she needs Dan to help her.

I maintain my opinion, previously reiterated in my reviews on here, that there is nobody who can tell a story like King can. Yes, he’s had his duff moments, but when he’s at the top of his game, for characters and storytelling, he is pretty much unassailable. While the story of Abra’s clash with the True is deftly and excitingly told, so is the history of some of its members. But this is Dan Torrance’s story and his is, surprisingly, quite beautiful. His internal battle with the awful things he did while he was trying to drink the pain away is unflinching and should make you ache. I broke my cardinal rule of reading for the final 15 pages, all of which focus on Dan’s redemption. I read it walking along the street (something I always tut at people for doing) as I simply couldn’t stop reading. And those final pages are just so beautiful and moving that I’m not embarrassed at all to confess that I burst into tears while reading them. Yeah, I’ve had butcher moments in my life, but this book took me on such a glorious journey that I was very sad when it was over.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 83: The Shining by Stephen King

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There has been a LOT of press for Doctor Sleep and I have been looking forward to reading it since it was first announced, what feels like FOREVER ago. As the hype machine cranked up proper, I realised that it had been a while since I had read The Shining. And then I realised that by “a while” what I actually meant was twenty five motherfucking years. I read it when I was thirteen and now look at me, I’m thirty eight and felt I should really re-visit Danny’s fateful stay at the Overlook before reading the story of What Happened After.

And so here we are. It may have been twenty five years, but it turns out the opening line of The Shining is burned into my mind. But somehow, not much else had stuck and what I thought I’d remembered turned out to be from the film so I totally blame Stanley Kubrick for messing with my mind. We all know that Jack Torrance, a disgraced English teacher, takes a job as the winter caretaker of a remote hotel, The Overlook. The focus of the novel is on his son, who has what the Overlook’s cook calls ‘the shining”, he’s Alison DuBois with the added treat that he can see into people’s minds and read their thoughts like a book. Naturally, the location and the boy don’t mix and plenty of unpleasant shenanigans ensues.

This is early King, and I have to say it shows. While I still maintain that, when it comes to mainstream authors, nobody can spin a yarn and pull you into a story like he can, there’s a roughness to the prose and style here that has been smoothed to a gleaming polish in later works. The device of dropping people’s thoughts, in brackets, in the middle of sentences ,isn’t quite as artfully deployed as it could be. The ending, King’s most frequent failing, feels rushed and the happy ever after coda feels incongruous.

However, the characters, as always, are so richly textured and carefully detailed, that you really invest in them. The Overlook’s history is delved into so deeply it almost becomes another character in the book. It isn’t as straightforward as it being a haunted house. There’s something far nastier going on here and the dread increases with every chapter (though their artless titles does try to counteract that). Along with the dread, King ratchets up the tension by cross cutting between the Overlook cook trying to ride to the rescue through near impassible weather and Jack’s murderous pursuit of his son. By the time you get to those parts, if your knuckles aren’t white, well, they really should be. I find that I’m still a bit creeped out by this a few days after finishing it and while I’m so excited to read the sequel, I think I’ll leave it a little while before I get stuck in……

 

Cannonball Read 5, Book 69: Joyland by Stephen King

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I love Stephen King. I do. His novels shaped my formative years. I read It when I was a teenager and never looked back. And while he has occasionally terrified me, I think the horror writer tag does him a huge disservice. He’s a latter day Mark Twain, I think. Nobody spins a yarn like King does and even when the yarn doesn’t add up to much (like in Duma Key, for example), there’s never any doubting the quality of his craft.

Joyland is the second novel King has published for the Hard Case Crime imprint. This time, he’s equal parts ghost story, murder mystery and a coming of age story. Devin Jones narrates in the first person, telling us about the summer he worked at the titular theme park, driven there by heartbreak only to become embroiled in/obsessed with an unsolved murder that took place on the ghost train ride at Joyland.

Anyone expecting King to hit the ground running and this to be an all action noir is in for a rude shock. The pace is leisurely, the characters and relationships filled in at length and in depth. The minutiae of day to life at Joyland and carny language is fully represented. And that just makes it a true delight to read. I was engrossed from page one, and I cared about all the characters in the book.

The sub plot concerning his foxy neighbour, her dying young son and said son’s psychic abilities culminates in a scene which properly made me well up. It’s really truly beautiful and by the end, the “sub” is dropped and it becomes clear that it’s been the main focus all along. This is a truly unexpected delight. Well, the terms of the delight were unexpected. The delight was a foregone conclusion.