Random Review: The Stand

Not his best work (but not his worst.)

The Stand by Stephen KingThe-Stand-Book-Cover

After the outbreak of a deadly virus across the United States, what remains of humanity lives among what remains of society. As they band together guided by portentous dreams and intuition, they find themselves locked in a battle for the soul of humankind and each must make a choice. A choice backed by action, what one might call…a stand.

Early in college I went through a phase where I avoided dealing with all the crap that was piling up on my head by reading Stephen King novels. I read everything in the university library instead of going to class, which took me through Carrie, It, Dolores Claiborne, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, and several more. I had heard a lot about The Stand, and knew people loved it, but I kept thinking it was a John Grisham novel for some reason and I am just not into courtroom dramas (I’m into courtroom comedies like My Cousin Vinnie and Night Court.)

I finally read it in 2012 and, while I see why people go ape over it, I don’t think it’s near the top of the Stephen King stack. It was clear that he was aiming for a Lord of the Rings-scale epic, American-style. Some of it worked like gangbusters: Mother Abigail and Stuart Redman, Larry Underwood’s whole journey, the trashcan man. The tension the author built as the story progressed was almost unbearable by the time Tom Cullen took his solo trip. I think the length of the novel helped with that. There is a good strong vein of story underpinning the whole affair.

However, King loves a sweeping scope and at some point The Stand got out from under him. Randall Flagg came across a bit too campy to be truly frightening, The Kid started as an interesting (and frightening) character but quickly went completely over the top, and Frannie lost all her spark as a personality the minute she teamed up with Harold. Since major plot points hinged on Randall Flagg and Frannie, this hurt the overall quality of the novel considerably.

King has acknowledged that The Stand didn’t turn out quite as he had hoped, but it’s still a solid novel worth reading through despite the high page-count. It just didn’t reach the heights he was aiming for. I’d love to see him try something of this scope again, now that he has more life and many more novels under his belt (no, I don’t consider The Dark Tower an example of a second try.)

Have you read the book or watched the miniseries? What did you think? 

Random Review: Duma Key

It took Stephen King his entire life to write this book.0619f_dumakey

Duma Key by Stephen King

After a debilitating job-site accident wealthy contractor Edgar Freemantle is left with one arm, a barely functioning hip, and scrambled mental faculties. When he threatens his wife’s life with a plastic knife and she decides that she can take no more, his therapist suggests a change of scenery. So begins Freemantle’s second life: in a big pink house on Duma Key, Florida he discovers a latent talent for painting and a supernatural mystery that’s been haunting the island for nearly a century. As his skill grows, along with powers seemingly granted by his missing arm, so does the danger to everyone he loves.

Quite simply, this is King at his best. The supernatural elements are as strong and sinister as those in It or ‘Salem’s Lot. Freemantle’s friendships with former-lawyer-with-a-current-brain-injury Wireman, college student Jack, and Elizabeth Eastlake are as rich as any he’s ever written.  There are insights on art and creativity that could just as easily have come from his non-fiction work On Writing. King draws much from his own struggle to recover artistically from being hit by a van and his experiences as an artist and father. The mythology, the textural details of the Florida locale, the peek into the world of visual arts..it’s really good, you guys. That’s what I’m saying.

The way the dread builds from mere despair to out-and-out unstoppable horror is unparalleled. How King found somewhere lower than “suicidal divorcé amputee” to take his main character, and made me enjoy it, is a spectacular mystery for the ages. I stayed up all night reading this one, and I could see myself doing it again.

I have no complaints with the novel, but I did see a Goodreads reviewer call it “sentimental” (as a negative trait). The novel is sentimental, about art and family and loss and recovery, I just don’t agree that that’s a bad thing.

Chair rating:

Dark, disturbing, and absolutely built upon a strong foundation.

Dark, disturbing, and absolutely built upon a strong foundation.

Random Review: Full Dark, No Stars

Yesterday was my birthday and I spent most of today trying to dodge the impending threat of a migraine, but I think I’m finally up to reviewing the book I finished on Monday:

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

This collection of four long- and short-stories are not among King’s best. I only gave the book three stars on Goodreads. However. As my French VI professor once did with one of my lit tests (with abominable grammar), I graded up pour les idées. For the ideas.

All four stories in FD,NS deal with the shadows inside ordinary folks. People who might otherwise consider themselves “good” people, doing terrible things under extraordinary circumstances. A mid-western farmer, an astonishingly average mystery-writer, a middle-manager at a bank, and one very complacent housewife each take the reader on a journey to the heart of their own personal darkness. King is stretching here: two of the stories are written from a female point-of-view, something which has not always proven to be in his wheelhouse. The first story, 1922, is written in a first-person confessional style. Only one of these characters is a writer, and that one is female. It may be worth a read for long-time King fans, just to see the well-established writer continue to grow and take stylistic risks rather than going for the tried and true.

On a very basic level, each story could be tied to certain vices: 1922 with themes of pride, Big Driver’s wrathful writer, Fair Extension a parade of envy-borne cruelty and greed, and the complacent sloth of Darcy Anderson in A Good Marriage. These stories will keep you thinking beyond that first level. The moral quandaries presented in the female-driven stories are of the grayest hue Each of the male protagonists makes a strong case for why “they done what they did”, but it adds up to a lot of rationalizing what mostly amounts to greed and wounded pride.

None of the stories works perfectly. Housewife Darcy Anderson and mystery-writer Tess are drawn pretty broadly, and at times their inner dialogue is more like the idea of a woman than a fully-realized female. Pacing is an issue with 1922, which hums along in fine voice for long passages only to trip over dialogue straining for authenticity and overlong reflections on the narrator’s guilty conscience. The last few lines were cringeworthy, simply because I had to suspend too much disbelief (someone writing a confession would take the time to write that?). Fair Extension ends up laying on the moral a little too heavily, despite being the shortest story of the four, but it wound up being the story I thought about most when I finished reading. A few of the stories and characters will feel familiar to those well-versed in King’s work: Fair Extension‘s devil is reminiscent of Needful Things‘ Leland Gaunt, the story itself shows shades of Thinner. A Good Marriage follows a course similar to that of Dolores Claiborne, though Dolores proved a far more more memorable heroine than Darcy Anderson.

This collection is worth reading for serious King-fans, or those who are particularly interested in the craft of writing. The author tries some interesting things that work out often as not. For a casual horror-reader or someone just getting started with King’s work, it might be better to pick up another of his short-story collections.

Chair Rating:

For specific tastes, not the safest choice.

 

30 Days of Books – Day 19 – Favorite Book Turned Into A Movie

This one required some thought because I wanted to pick a good book that was turned into an enjoyable movie. That left out White Oleander (no great loss, since I already used it). Though I adore Stand By Me I haven’t actually read the novella it was adapted from. The Princess Bride is a wonderful film but a ponderous novel. That narrowed it down to Pride and Prejudice (BBC version with Colin Firth, of course) or

It, Stephen King

I have been a Stephen King fan since I was but a wee lass: I pretended I was Charlie from Firestarter as a toddler and made mom stop driving before eight every night of a road trip to catch the Tommyknockers miniseries as it aired, but it was It that kicked off my mission to read every King novel I could lay my hands on. This is one of the better King miniseries, if not the best. There could be no Pennywise more creepily perfect than Tim Curry. The novel is a monstrous tome, and the miniseries captured the feeling of it at every point, rather than re-creating it in painstaking detail. No mean feat: It is very much a psychological scare, playing off the unique terrors of each of its heroes and victims, which is not an easy thing to convey visually.

As for the novel itself, despite  the action being driven by ageless evil that preys on children (and the young-at-heart), it reads like a love letter to King’s childhood. Summer days spent damming creeks and catching a monster movie matinee, silver bikes and inhalers rendered talismans through sheer belief in their power, the crystalline purity of a first crush. This youthful intensity of spirit and faith provides a bright counterpoint to the monster attacking children in the form of their most baseless fears, the fears that are the most powerful (and perhaps the most enduring).

The climax is one that sticks out to me above all of King’s other novels, for what it represents in terms of good and evil, courage, faith, and where humanity fits in. It’s deep, man. The miniseries managed something pretty good, but that part of the novel is just something that can’t translate to a visual medium.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who has dismissed King for any reason: too commercial, gore porn, “genre” writer. If you can’t see past the blood and guts, you are really missing out.

Go Stuff Your Stocking, We Want Stephen King

Other than leaving the 24 hour marathon of A Christmas Story running all day Christmas Eve, flipping to a midnight showing of Gremlins while I wrap the presents, and watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special with my brothers at least once, I am not a huge consumer of Christmas specials and made-for-TV movies. In fact, I find it pretty annoying that they are all but dominating the TV landscape as early as three weeks out (I have a brother with an early December birthday and we never even decorate until after it).

This morning with great glee I read an io9 article  promising a brand-new Stephen King miniseries, airing at 9 pm Sunday on A&E.  The miniseries is based on King’s 2008 novel Bag of Bones. In light of the upcoming “A&E move event” I have decided to review it.

Bag of Bones, Stephen King, Published 2008

At 560 pages, Bag of Bones clocks in on the shorter side for a King novel. It is all the better for its relative brevity. The pacing is tight and the plot gripping, without missing out on any of the horror or spookiness one would expect from a King novel. The book centers around a widowed writer, Mike Noonan, who is suffering from grief-induced writer’s block four years after his wife’s death. Noonan had a habit of stockpiling extra manuscripts in the good times, but his store is running dry so he retreats to the vacation home he shared with his wife in hopes of finding inspiration.

 His Maine vacation home, Sarah Laughs, brings more than inspiration. It brings several new women into his life (one big, one small, one spectral) and interlinking mysteries that are more personal than he realizes. King weaves several plotlines together throughout the narrative, spitting the reader out fully-informed and thoroughly frightened on the shores of one of his most thrilling endings. There is something for everyone here: mystery, gore, revenge, mythos, love, and even adorable children (though sometimes, as in any King novel) bad things happen to them). King is in fine form combining the horror of the supernatural with the inescapable intimacy of small towns and the smallness of people.

King has been known to struggle with endings and with female characters, but no such struggle is evident here. The conclusion is a barn-burner that grabs you a full hundred pages before the last, and keeps you turning them no matter the horror they contain. Mattie and Kyla Devore are engaging and fully realized female characters, as is the spectral female. Max Devore makes a sublime villain, engaged in both plots as he tries to take Kyla from Mattie but can’t escape his past.     

The true horror of this book is that it is so deeply sad. There is gore, there are terrifying moments and heart-pounding fights for survival, but the book is suffused with love denied. Love used as a weapon, even. This is one that will stay with you long after you finish.

Incidentally, Bag of Bones also includes my favortie description of a writer ever. Mike Noonan often refers to himself as “V.C. Andrews with a prick”.

Sound off: Have you read the book? Will you read it, or watch the miniseries?