A long love affair with a long walk: Re-visiting classic King

The Long Walk ★★★★★
Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Signet, 1979
thelongwalk

“They’re animals, all right. But why are you so goddam sure that makes us human beings?”

“They walked through the rainy dark like gaunt ghosts, and Garraty didn’t like to look at them. They were the walking dead.”

How much do I love this book? There are too many ways to count actually, which is why no matter how many re-reads I’ve done of it (and there have been many over the years), The Long Walk has always left me too intimidated to review it. I managed a brief blurb of something when I listened to the audiobook a few years back, but never a “real review”. So heaven help me, here’s my real review.

RichardBachman

Richard Bachman

According to King, he wrote The Long Walk while in college in 1966-67 and it became one of those “drawer novels” that got put away to gather dust when he couldn’t get it published. King wasn’t a household name yet of course. First, he had to publish Carrie in 1974. Then Salem’s Lot in 1975. Followed by The Shining in 1976. In three short years King became a household name. So much so that he got the idea to become Richard Bachman.

 

King decided he would use this pseudonym to resurrect a few of those dusty “drawer novels” and rescue them from obscurity. He believed they were good (for me, two of them are better than good, they are outstanding — The Long Walk and The Running Man — according to King written in a 72 hour fugue in 1971). But King wanted to know readers thought the books were good because they were good, not just because his name was on the front cover in giant letters. His publisher at the time also didn’t want to flood the market with more King books when he was already churning them out one a year.* Hence, Bachman was born.

*(these were the days before James Patterson decided it was okay to publish 20 books a year and only write one of them yourself).

 

longwalk

Original Signet paperback cover, 1979

The Long Walk is easily, hands-down my favorite Bachman book, but it also ranks as one of my favorite King books period. Top 5 without even blinking an eye. It’s lean and mean, with a white hot intensity to it. What I love about The Long Walk is what I love about King’s early short stories collected in Night Shift: There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me The Long Walk has always burned bright as if King wrote it in a fever. There’s a purity in these pages, a naked desire to tell the tale that still gives me chills every single time I pick up the damn book and read that opening sentence: “An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.”

 

Clumsy? Sure. A bit of an awkward simile? Absolutely. But what a hook. And the hook only digs itself in deeper as each page is turned. Until finishing becomes a matter of have to, any choice or free will stripped away. It’s one of those books that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let go until it’s finished with you.

Before the dystopian craze spawned by The Hunger Games trilogy, before the rise of reality TV with shows like Survivor, King imagined an alternate history American landscape where an annual walking competition would become the nation’s obsession. One hundred boys between the ages 16-18 start out walking, and continue to walk at 4mph until there’s only one remaining — the winner. Boys falling below speed for any reason get a Warning. Three Warnings get you your Ticket, taking you out of the race. Permanently. It’s walk or die. And as someone who’s done her fair share of walking, the idea of that much walking without ever stopping makes my feet and back ache just thinking about it.

But King will make you do more than think about it, he will make you walk that road with those boys, to experience every twinge of discomfort, to feel the rising pain and suffocating fear, to suffer with the boys in sweat, and cold, and hunger, and confusion, as they walk towards Death and consider their own mortality. You will hear the sharp cracks of the carbine rifles and your heart will jump and skip beats.

One theme that King has revisited over the years is writing about the human body under brutalizing physical duress, at the body in extremis and what humans are hardwired to do to survive and go on living another day. Excruciating physical peril undeniably comes with a psychological component and no one writes that better than King. We see it in books like Misery, Gerald’s Game and the short story “Survivor Type”. King uncovers all the nitty-gritty minutia of human physical suffering and asks the question: How far is any one person willing to go to keep on taking his or her next breath? Stephen King knows pretty damn far. Just ask Paul Sheldon or Ray Garraty. Or the castaway in “Survivor Type” — him most of all. King also knows that the human body has an amazing capacity for trauma. It can withstand a lot — so much so that the mind often breaks first.

Each chapter heading of The Long Walk quotes a line from a game show host, but the one that really sticks out (and presumably gave King his idea in the first place) is this one by Chuck Barris, creator of the The Gong Show — “The ultimate game show would be one where the losing contestant would be killed.” And isn’t that the truth? Certainly, the Romans knew this as they cheered for Gladiators to be mauled to death by wild animals (or other Gladiators). Just ask the French who cheered and jeered as thousands were led to their deaths by guillotine. There is an insatiable blood lust that lingers in humans that I don’t think we’ll ever shake completely, no matter how “civilized” we think we’ve become.

Violence as entertainment is part of the norm, so I have no problems believing that under the right (terrifying) conditions, death as entertainment could become just as normalized. Outwit, Oulast, Outplay on Survivor suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

One of the things I’ve always loved about this book is how King handles the audience as spectators, complicit in this cold-blooded murder of its young boys. When the novel first starts, the spectators are individuals, with faces and genders and ages. As the story progresses, spectators increase in number to “the crowd”, loud and cheering, holding signs. By the novel’s climax, spectators filled with blood lust have morphed into a raging body of Crowd (with a capital C). It is an amorphous and frightening entity that moves and seethes with singular purpose obsessed with the spectacle, and baying for blood like a hound on the scent. It’s chilling because there’s such a ring of truth to all of it. Were it to ever happen, this is how it would happen. When King is writing at his best, the devil is always in the details.

Another aspect of the story that has always engaged me is the boys’ compulsion to join the Walk and be complicit in their own execution. I’ve always wanted to ask King if he meant this story to be an allegory for young boys signing up to die in Vietnam (considering he wrote it as Vietnam was heating up and on the nightly news). I think naivety and ignorance got a lot of the boys to The Walk, including Garraty. I think young people (especially young men) believe themselves to be invincible, that death is not something that can happen to them no matter the odds or circumstances. I’m sure no boy went to Vietnam thinking he would come home in a body bag, though many of them did.

If it’s not obvious by now, I could talk about this book until the sun burns itself out, or the zombies rise up. If you haven’t yet, read this book. If you have a reluctant teen reader in your life, give them this book. If it’s been a long time since you’ve read this book, don’t you think it’s time to read it again?

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Noir classic still thrills and chills

The Killer Inside Me ★★★★★
Jim Thompson
With an introduction by Stephen King
Mulholland Books, 2014 (1952)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

Mullholland Books edition (2014)

I tip my hat and pretend I don’t hear
grinning like a half-wit from ear to ear
I can think of a thousand ways to say hello
so I start through ’em all, and go real slow.
They listen hard, and act like they care.
How can they be so completely unaware
of the truth the answer is always denied me
So I introduce them to the killer inside me.
(MC 900 Ft. Jesus, The Killer Inside Me)

*****

First of all, a warning: if you happen to pick up the edition I did that includes an introductory essay from Stephen King, make sure you read it after you finish the book. Goddamn it, either the entire principal of *spoiler* completely flies over this man’s head, or he just loves being a bastard about these things. After 2014’s Twitter controversy where he spoiled a major death for fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, I’m pretty certain it’s the latter.

It’s not that he doesn’t get it — he just doesn’t care!!!

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

Stephen King: tossing out spoilers like live grenades since 1972

And he does it here too, spoiling a MAJOR scene from Thompson’s classic noir novel. Thanks a lot, Uncle Stevie!!! I don’t care that the book was published in 1952 — it’s not the same as revealing the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks or that Janet Leigh gets stabbed in the shower in Psycho! And it’s especially not the same as revealing that Romeo and Juliet die in Act 5. Now you’re just being an asshole, asshole!

Anyway, all wrath and chagrin aside, Uncle Stevie gives great introduction (heh) and this essay is particularly inspired dealing as it does with Jim Thompson, his mark on dark literature, and the enduring legacy of his psychopathic, unassuming small town Deputy Sheriff, Lou Ford.

Told in the first-person, The Killer Inside Me is as close as you’re ever going to want to get to the inner thoughts and irrepressible urges of a psycho killer. The most chilling part? On the outside, Lou Ford is a regular, down home good ol’ boy, with charm and even some wit. But underneath his methodically constructed facade lurks a steel-trap mind and inexplicable violent compulsions. First published in 1952, I can only imagine the impact this book would have had on its original audience. Even to this jaded 21st century reader The Killer Inside Me still holds within its ruthless prose the power to shock and unsettle.

Original cover, 1952

Original cover, 1952

And despite Ford’s obvious dark passenger — his “sickness” — you still find yourself rooting for the guy (that is when you’re not screaming at characters to run for their fucking lives far, far away from the crazy man). It made me consider who I’d take my chances with in a locked room — Lou Ford or Annie Wilkes? ::shudder:: There’s a Sophie’s Choice I’m glad I never have to make.

Without Jim Thompson — and especially without Lou Ford — I can only believe ‘country noir’ would not be what it is today. Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, Ron Rash all owe a debt to Thompson. And as readers, so do we.

A major work from Stephen King (in the key of E)

Revival ★★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2014

revivalThis is how we bring about our own damnation, you know—by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.
-Revival

The three true ages of man are youth, middle age, and how the fuck did I get old so soon?
-Revival

****

What the hell do you read next after you finish a book like this!?

While not a full on frontal assault horror novel in the tradition of The Shining or Pet Sematary, Revival definitely ranks as one of the darkest, most unsettling books King has written in a long time. It’s a slow burn that touches on a lot of themes we’ve come to expect from King in his golden years — family, nostalgia, grief and loss. King turned 67 this year and he seems to have reached a point in his life where the “big questions” about what it all means Alfie, and where we all end up are weighing heavy on his mind and heart. It’s inevitable, right? I turned 40 this year, and I know those questions have already started to weigh on me.

This is one of those books I want to peel back layer by layer and dig down deep into its beating heart. King has moved past penning coming-of-age novels to now tackling what happens when we get old. What do our relationships look like to friends, lovers, siblings, parents when we start to lose hair where we want it, and gain it where we don’t? What does a life of regret look like? What does redemption look like?

Stephen King

Stephen King

There is this exploration in Revival in a luxurious, patient way that could only be written by an author of King’s maturity and discipline. It’s been a humbling, emotional experience for me as a Constant Reader to watch how this man’s work and art have aged with him, have reached places only possible because he’s lived this long to keep telling the tales.

I get frustrated sometimes with certain fans (with hearts in the right place) who still want King to be churning out the kind of books he was writing in the 80’s. Some of the best stuff the man has written happened in that decade. No doubt. He was a writing machine. With young kids and a coke habit to boot. But he’s not that man anymore. Decades have come and gone and the writing should be changing to reflect that. Not just the style, but the contents. What King cares about, what he’s come to realize and believe to be true, these are some of the passions that he injects into his writing now. There is a self-awareness and self-reflection that just wasn’t apparent in his earlier novels. I’m not saying one is better than the other, just different, with different rewards to be found and had.

The first three-quarters of this book represent some of the most literary writing King has done over the span of his incredibly long (and hopefully even longer) prolific career. Yes it feels familiar — there is the small Maine town and the coming-of-age elements of young children navigating a threatening and perilous world. But the writing is so rich this time, lyrical even. The doom is laying on the horizon, you can almost glimpse it, but you don’t really know where it’s going to come from. Or when.

One of the things I’ve loved about King over the years is his profound ability to assemble a world and characters that are so very, very normal. They are us. They are him. They are who we know and love. And the world they populate is normal too. Small town USA. Baseball games, apple pie. Rock and roll on the radio. But into this normal world creeps something slimy and sinister. While ordinary life of first loves, car accidents, weddings, births and tinnitus march ever onward, the sinister stays hidden in the shadows, watching and waiting to make its move. It’s all so very fucking normal, until it isn’t.

It’s the rat trap waiting in the dark hole that you just had to stick your hand into. *SNAP*

The last quarter of this book is the snap! and it’s either going to work for you or not. King has written a beautiful dedication (he often does) paying his respects to all those legendary writers of the dark who helped “build his house”. In the pages of Revival the long shadow of their influence live and breathe in Charles Jacobs’ obsession with electricity and his unnatural lifelong quest for answers and revelation. The Bible says: seek and ye shall find. But we must be prepared for the unraveling of the mystery and realize that we are just as likely to fall to our knees in horror as wonder.

Q&A with Nick Cutter

troop-usRecently I reviewed one of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, The Troop by Nick Cutter. Today I’m very excited to post a Q&A I shared with the author.

Click here to read an excerpt and to purchase The Troop!

To start Nick, thank you for this interview and congratulations on The Troop’s release. I’m a horror veteran and have loved the genre for years. I thought I’d seen and read everything. You showed me that I had not. Your book scared the crap out of me! But I also loved the characters and found parts of the book very emotional and therefore very rewarding. It’s only February, but I’m calling it already – The Troop is the scariest book I’ll read this year and I will be aggressively recommending it!

Well, thanks for that! It’s a long year ahead and I’m sure a great many fine books will cross your transom, but I’m heartened to hear that you enjoyed it. Certainly it was a blast to write it (as weird and twisted as that may sound …) and hopefully it finds an audience.

Nick Cutter is a pen name (and a very cool sounding one at that). What made you decide to publish The Troop under a pseudonym? Is there an origin story behind the name like Stephen King using Richard Bachman and George Stark in honor of Donald Westlake’s famous alter ego Richard Stark?

nick cutter

Nick Cutter

That was my agent’s idea—I write a different kind/genre of books under my own name, and my agent’s idea was to have some separation between these two “spheres” I guess you could say, or these two different styles of books. We kicked around a few names. We felt that a short, grabby, punchy name might work—hence, Cutter. (other possibilities: Stabber, Hacker, Plucker, Chopper, etc). And Nick is my son’s name. So we’ll see, in the fullness of time, whether he’s really all that happy about his little honorific!

It must have been quite a thrill to have Stephen King blurb your book with such declarative praise. I always thought to be successful with any genre you have to be a fan of it yourself. What are some of the books that have scared you in the past?

Stephen King

Stephen King

Huge thrill to have Mr. King even read it—there’s something so strange about your idol reading something you’ve read; I suppose it would be the equivalent of Michael Jordan showing up at your weekly pickup game and saying, “Hey, that’s a pretty nice jump-shot you’ve got.” Other than King, I love Barker, Straub, a lot of Koontz, and Robert R. McCammon. Ketchum, Lansdale, Blatty, Matheson … the list goes on. Recently, House of Leaves and Benjamin Percy’s last book and Joe Hill’s work are all great. And there’s a great press in Toronto, ChiZine, that puts out plenty of fantastic dark fiction.

Do you have any thoughts that you would like to share about how the genre is faring these days especially in publishing? I was excited to find out you’re Canadian because I feel like there is a real dearth of genre writing in this country, especially in horror.

I tend to agree, although it is kicking along domestically and elsewhere, but I can understand the sense of it not being as important to publishers as it was in its heyday, the 80s and 90s. That’s in great part, I think, because the horror boom during that time kind of killed the Golden Goose—too many shoddy books—and a lot of readers turned away because the quality had really gone down. And now it seems that often the books that get attention are the Zone Ones and Breeds and The Last Werewolf-kind of books: ie, books by literary writers who are “stepping out” to work in the genre. It’s kind of like, “Whoa, Colson Whitehead’s written a zombie book”! And these books aren’t necessarily rigidly within the genre, they’re meta- or meta-ironic or something like that: they kind of announce themselves as ostensibly horror, but not really horror so it’s okay to read it. They’re very often excellent books, but I still get a daytripper whiff off of them: this is the work of a “proper” writer dipping their toe in the horror pool for the illicit thrill of it.

Of course, the irony of the fact that some could say that I am doing the exact same thing does not go unnoticed by me!

You do have a lot of great contemporary horror writers, like Joe Hill and Christopher Golden (who skips around genres, too) and Jonathan Maberry, etc, so it’s not like it’s a dead genre or a dying breed of writer. But I’m not sure how many writers are solely horror writers: they are simply writers who write horror from time to time. Anyway. I could be wrong about a great deal of this, but that’s my sense of things.

How long had you been thinking about The Troop before you finally set pen to paper? Is this a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time?

In this instance the idea just kind of popped into my head. Fully-fleshed, as they say—then it was up to me to skin all that flesh off. I enjoy writing about child protagonists, so you could say the book had been gestating while I came up with an idea that would allow me to populate the book with kid characters.

For such a grisly, graphic tale of survival did you have any qualms over the age of your protagonists? I can honestly say as a reader I don’t think the story would have packed such an emotional wallop if the story had featured adults facing the same challenges as opposed to children.

I did have qualms, for sure. I was thinking: Even if an editor likes the book, is he or she going to be able to run it up the flagpole at their publisher? Will readers go there with me? So, yeah, I worried but the act of writing a book involves a lot of worry all the time, I’ve found, so I just put that particular worry on the enormous worry-pile and got on with writing the book. I was shocked to discover that not only did one publisher express interest, 4 or 5 ended up making offers on it. So it was one of the only “bidding wars” that I’ve ever been involved in as a writer, and it was for a book that I was almost to scared and ashamed to send to my editor! So thank goodness I found the guts to do that.

And yes, I really do think the book wouldn’t work the same way (if a reader considers it to work at all…) if it’d happened to a bunch of randy teenagers on a weekend screw-fest, or a bunch of hunters looking to bag a moose. Child characters were crucial.

The characterization in The Troop is one of the book’s greatest strengths. I like to say I don’t scare if I don’t care, and you made me care a lot about these boys, especially Newt. Was there ever any doubt in your mind who would die and whether anyone would survive? In other words, did you know from the very beginning how this story would end, or did that come with the writing of it?

Good question. And as you said, that’s pretty much the cardinal rule of horror: if you don’t care about the characters, love or hate, you won’t care what becomes of them. So my editor and I put a lot into those characters—and I mean, listen, as some reviewers have noted, they’re types: The Jock, The Nerd, The Sociopath, The Hair-Trigger Temper, The Straight Man. But in a horror narrative, there’s a certain joy in types, at least when it comes to longtime readers of the genre: you know how these characters are supposed to behave, because you’ve got this enormous backlog of pop culture and genre-specific history that dictates what they’ll do.

And I also liked working with the “fatal flaw”—that is, if you’ve got a jock character who is bossy, well, how will that work against him in the crucible of a novel like The Troop? If you’ve got a crazy person, how will his fatal flaw present itself? How does the Angry Kid’s anger come back to bite him? When you look at the book, you’ll see that these kids—the ones who perish—go because of their fatal flaws, which again are flaws built into the DNA of horror genre characterizations. Their fates are written in that DNA; they’ve got these predetermined vectors that they’re going to go down. So for horror aficionados I hope there’s some grim thrill in seeing how those familiar personality types, and the traits they hold, help push the narrative.

But ultimately, these kids were important to me. I came to care about them (all except Shelley, I guess, though he was a fun creep to write). So even though they were types and they had these roles to play … well, that’s the great thing about being a novelist. In the realm of the book, you’re God. So if you want to save a character, you can. Or if you want to off a character in a spectacular grisly way, you can do that too. So I wasn’t sure how a few of those characters would end up until the very end. And it wasn’t an easy decision, to be honest, but you’re also trying to make a narrative choice that will provoke a reaction in a reader. So we’ll see whether or not I managed that.

Finally, please tell us that there will be another Nick Cutter novel in the future.

Yes! It’s called The Deep. I’m working on edits right now. Set in a research station at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest spot called Challenger Deep, 8 miles under the sea. Some grim shit goes down, I can assure you.

Now that, I can assure you, is the best news I’ve gotten all month. Grim shit? Sign me up!

The Doctor is in

doctor sleepDoctor Sleep  (The Shining #2) ★★★
Stephen King
Scribner, 2013

Mr. King and I (or Uncle Stevie if I may) have a loooong history that stretches back decades now. His books have become the soundtrack to my life, the novels I reach for in times of stress and grief in search of comfort and solace. Some may find that weird, considering the man’s reputation as America’s Boogeyman, but it’s never been weird to me.

No one can spin a yarn quite like this man to keep you reading well past dark and into the wee hours of the morning. No one is as good as he at locating our primal fears and anxieties and purging them in a storytelling catharsis that’s as addicting as it is healing. No one can write characters as real as the person you fall asleep next to at night, or have hated to your very core since you were a child.

Yes, Stephen King knows what scares us, because it scares him too, but he also knows how we love, how we fail, how we fall down and find the courage to pick ourselves up again. He knows what makes us human, and better than that, he knows how to write it all down on the page capturing the very essence of our humanity like a magician captures lightning in a bottle.

Can he do it every time? No. But I don’t love him any less for that fact. Does he try his very best to do it every time? You bet, with intent and integrity. King is no sell-out, and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.

zip it…shhhh…no…talk to the hand

danny torrence

Danny Torrence, The Shining (1980)

I imagine King approached the story of Danny Torrence all grown up with a lot of respect and trepidation. The Shining is one of King’s most memorable novels, with an iconic film adaptation that in some ways has even eclipsed the book itself. As a reader I approached this sequel with trepidations of my own. Even though you do your best to stranglehold your galloping expectations, you can’t help but get excited and to imagine how it’s all going to come together, what it’s going to feel like.

This is a good book. Once you start it, like so many of King’s best works, you will want to (have to) finish it. But it isn’t The Shining and anyone expecting a full frontal assault horror novel on par with that classic will be sorely disappointed. In a lot of ways Doctor Sleep is a completely different book altogether, because it’s written by a completely different man who has lived a lot of life and learned a lot of things. It’s probably not even fair to compare the two, but it’s inevitable. A sequel is a sequel.

As a sequel it does succeed brilliantly in one important aspect, and that is answering the question: “hey, whatever happened to the kid in The Shining?” Dan Torrence carries some heavy burdens which have derailed his life in more ways than one. Blocking out his traumatic childhood has doomed him to repeat history — at least that of his father and Jack Torrence’s black temper and unquenchable thirst for booze. Dan is an alcoholic, selfish and unscrupulous, and facing his rock-bottom. Anyone who knows anything about King’s personal life, knows he is a recovering alcoholic. So who better to write a story about a life lost to booze and the battle to get healthy “one day at a time”.

Dan’s life, what it was, what it becomes, is a great part of this novel, and I loved reading about it. Then there’s the other part — a band of psychic vampires traveling the dusty back roads of America by RV calling themselves the True Knot. These are interesting, hideous creatures with a colorful history. On the King villain scale however, we’ve encountered way worse, and way more memorable.

Ditto Abra. As a child heroine facing down the supernatural dark King has equipped her with some pretty mighty powers. She is in fact, King’s most powerful, making little Danny Torrence, Carrie White, Charlie McGee, and Johnny Smith combined look like a dim bulb on a Christmas tree. Becky describes it best in her review this way:

Things were just so easy for her, since she was so powerful in the shining, and on top of that, she had a support system – two parents, Danny, Billy, and John. And she was more than twice Danny’s age when he had to fight for his life, alone. So I just didn’t really feel all that concerned about her, as unfair as it may be. I feel like King went easy on her.

Abra surpasses super-human into superhero range. And while I feared for those around her, I never ever feared for her.

There is a lot to enjoy here, but for me there is an emotional depth missing that I’ve come to crave with King’s books and the characters he creates. I wanted to live in this story, and think about it constantly, and I did neither. I enjoyed it for the adventure it was, and will have no problems recommending it, but it won’t live on and linger in the mind the way so many of his other books have for me.

King’s Joyland neither horror nor crime

Joyland ★★★
Stephen King
Hard Case Crime, 2013

joylandWritten for the Hard Case Crime line of paperback novels, Stephen King’s Joyland may look like a duck — with its tantalizing pulp cover making promises of sex and violence — but it definitely doesn’t quack. In fact, it’s another kind of animal altogether, a coming of age tale tinged with the bittersweet tang of nostalgia and the wistful remembrances of what was and what might have been.

This isn’t new territory for King. Anyone who’s read him at all knows that this is his stomping ground and when he’s firing on all cylinders, nobody does it better. It isn’t done badly here either (there are some great passages filled with humor and insight), it’s just that the effort and subsequent result feel lackluster overall. The characters are fleshed out just enough to move the story along and give King some hooks to hang his “looking back on it now” philosophizing, but stacked up against King’s pantheon of memorable characters, the ones found in the pages of Joyland are easily forgotten (at least by me).

I almost think this little book suffers from the schism of an identity crisis. King has in his hands a paranormal crime plot replete with a garish 1970’s amusement park setting haunted by the ghost of a murdered young woman. This being Hard Case Crime, I was keen to get King’s take on hard-boiled noir or just full on pulp. I looked forward to sensationalist violence, cheap thrills and snappy, stylistic dialogue (and no, sorry Uncle Stevie, but you don’t win any points for injecting the patter of carny speak on every other page).

King can’t stop himself from telling an entirely different kind of story about a young man with a broken heart and his extended summer spent growing up and getting on. It’s a story of emotions and memories and the metaphor of a flying kite and the panoramic view from a giant Ferris wheel. It’s 80% middle-aged navel-gazing and youthful angst. The other 20% consisting of uncovering the identity of a murderous predator and revealing the details behind a haunting feel tacked on as afterthoughts. In this case, for Hard Case, I would have much rather seen those ratios reversed.

Still, while it wasn’t the novel I wanted or expected, Joyland is a sweet story, a little maudlin in places, but enjoyable nevertheless. Constant Reasers will take pleasure in immersing themselves for a little while in a Kingscape that feels both familiar and satisfying.

It’s good people, it’s just not all that it’s quacked up to be.

Quick kisses in the dark

Night Shift ★★★★★
Stephen King
Doubleday, 1978

Signet paperback, 1979

Signet paperback, 1979

In his introduction to Skeleton Crew, Stephen King writes: “a good long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair” whereas the short story “is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.” My literary proclivities definitely lean towards those long affairs. I don’t read a lot of short stories nor am I a fan of the format (though I’m improving). At least give me a novella!

Stephen King is one of only a handful of authors who can make me a believer in the beauty and effectiveness of the short story. For a man who has been lambasted for his “bloated” novels – King himself has referred to his condition as “literary elephantiasis” – he can still write a short story like nobody’s business. Stories that will stop your heart, chill your blood, and see the world in a new way.

King has written hundreds of short stories over his lifetime but for me none can quite compare to the ones collected here in Night Shift. The majority of these stories first appeared in the men’s magazine Cavalier, written before Carrie’s publication in 1974 and the gargantuan financial windfall that followed. King has talked quite a bit about what life was like before that watershed moment:

There were some hard, dark years before Carrie. We had two kids and no money. We rotated the bills, paying on different ones each month. I kept our car, an old Buick, going with duct tape and bailing wire….

The boy who would be King.

The boy who would be King

There is a rawness in these stories that reflects the drive and hunger of a young man consumed with his craft. For me these stories burn bright and hot as if King wrote them in a fever. I can picture him now pounding them out on his wife’s Olivetti portable typewriter between the washer and dryer of their cramped trailer’s tiny laundry room. The modest sale of these early stories was often a reprieve from the poverty bearing down on the young King family, cash-strapped with two small children. That was motivation enough, but it wasn’t the only motivator. King wrote because he had to, the stories lived inside of him screaming to be born.

There’s another reason why I love the stories in this collection – they represent King’s early fascination / obsession / dedication to fear, to what haunts, creeps and crawls. King knows what scares us, because it scares him too. He gets it, it’s not a put on and these stories are as authentic as fear gets. In the introduction he writes:

The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never grab my ankle.

No waking or dreaming…but only the voice of the writer….He’s telling you that you want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right – you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more; he wants you to put your hands on the shape under the sheet. And you want to put your hands there. Yes.

I think Poe and Lovecraft would agree.

For me, this collection contains some of the best examples of the modern horror story. King has tapped an artesian well of contemporary fears and anxieties penning macabre, ghoulish tales that deserve to be called classics. Not to be missed: “Children of the Corn”, “The Boogeyman”, “The Mangler”, “Strawberry Spring”, and “Quitter’s Inc.” My deepest thanks to King who was the first to convince me that sometimes even I, can be seduced by that quick kiss in the dark from a stranger. Oh yes.

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