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?

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Go Buy This Book Right Now

Maggie Stiefvater has written her best published novel to date and it was released last week. The Scorpio Races is perfect. There is literally not one thing to be said against it. If you like any of these things: action, horses, horror, competition, racing, gambling, social commentary, fantasy, mythology, boys, girls, women, men, baked goods, islands, suspense, violence, tragedy, going really fast, or cute fuzzy things that transform into monsters you want to read this book. The characterization is flawless, the action rises, rises, rises, and just when you think you might black out from the altitude it gives you an eerie little breather before it punches you in the face and you come back wanting more.

READ. IT.

Update: Late yesterday we got word that Warner Bros. had optioned the movie rights for The Scorpio Races. Less than a week after its release. Told you it was good.

Why Must I be a Werewolf in Love?

I’ll be the first to admit I love a werewolf (well, the idea of one anyway). The idea of dreading a full moon, bones cracking and re-arranging completely out of one’s control, trying to piece together what atrocities have been committed when the human returns bloody, muddy, and naked…thrilling! The mythology with its essential question: is salvation possible? The silver bullet. Gets me excited just thinking about it! Werewolves are grotesque, violent, and often chock full of self-loathing.

Why then, have the werewolves of recent YA fantasy fiction been so deadly dull?

The creatures I refer to here are those found in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight  “saga” and those in Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls novels (Shiver, Linger, and Forever). Meyer’s version are angsty Native American teens governed by hormones and the nearness of her equally dull vampires. Stiefvater gives us a more diverse set of individuals who shift from human to wolf as the termperature drops and eventually stop returning to human form altogether. The problem is that none of these werebeasts are particularly beastly.

Meyer’s werewolves “evolved” (this term is used though the actual explanation describes something more like a summoning and fusing of wolf power with human, drawing on Native American spirituality)  in response to vampires preying on members of the Quileute tribe. One bcomes a werewolf by being the right age at the wrong time, and the only cure is the bloodsuckers (in this case, drinkers) finding a new hangout. Shifters resemble very large wolves and retain human thought, even gaining telepathic communication with the pack. Effectively, this takes the teeth out of werewolf myth. The “curse” goes from eternal damnation status to something akin to a period, and there is no real need for salvation. Just wait around and hope those Cullens move real soon.

Stiefvater’s werewolves don’t even qualify, as far as I am concerned. The only similarity to the werewolves we all know and love is the fact that lycanthropy is contracted via bite. Humans become, in  every way save one, wolves whenever the mercury drops. They look like wolves, think like wolves, and behave like wolves with human eyes (and, again, some telepathic ability). Though Stiefvater’s main shifter Sam Roth is properly self-loathing, the tension of the story relies on an assumption that very soon he will be Canis lupus for good (this gives Sam and his would-be girlfriend Grace a sad). Salvation figures into the story, but in a fashion more scientific than spiritual.

Compare these tepid creatures with Stephen King’s Reverend Lester Lowe or J.K. Rowling’s Remus Lupin. Out-of-control when shifted, these beasts’ vicious ferocity can only be contained by other beasts or a life-ending silver bullet. Even Lupin’s monthly potion can’t stop the change, it only sedates him until the danger has passed. There is no cure, and in Rowling’s world a werewolf who chooses to embrace the change like Fenrir Greyback is a fearsome thing indeed: an evil creature not fit for human society. Lowe and Lupin each struggle with the contradiction of their position in society and the curse that makes them inclined to maul people. Lupin suffers endless discrimination and resultant poverty, while Lowe is killed within a year of his first transformation. For these characters lycanthropy is a cursed existence, not an obstacle to teen romance.

With that, we have arrived at the real problem. Teen romance. In both Meyer’s and Stiefvater’s novels lycanthropy is mere window-dressing on the young swains vying for our heroine’s affections. What a dreamboat and oh, how quaint, he turns into a dog sometimes. This shameful bastardization of mythos is an insult to occult beings everywhere. Werewolves aren’t big dogs with dreamy eyes, they are beasts neither man nor wolf who can tear out the throat of the woman they love with their own teeth and suffer the guilt in the morning! Werewolves are destined for tragedy, not romance.

10 People You Don’t Want to be in a Stephen King Novel

10. A Man of the Law: Things never seem to work out well for lawmen in Stephen King novels. In fact, they often enjoy “ensign redshirt” status: sent to check out the Big Bad, only to be added to the mounting list of casualties. For some reason this only applies to lawmen, female officers have plenty of uncomfortable situations but nothing compared to what happens to the fellas.

F’rinstance:

  • Chief Howard “Duke” Perkins, Under the Dome
  • Constable Lander Neary, Cycle of the Werewolf
  • A nameless Colorado State Trooper, Misery

9. A Fat Woman: In many Stephen King novels there is at least one fat woman, often of the extremely lazy variety, who meets with a grisly end. These characters are often stupid in addition to being fat, and they often bring their deaths upon themselves.

  • Rebecca Paulson, The Tommyknockers
  • Cora Rusk and Myra Evans, Needful Things

8. A Grandfatherly Type: Sometimes actually the grandfather of a main character, other times just elderly men, these poor fellows have already been through the ringer and it ain’t over yet. Several kindly old gentlemen in King’s novels knowingly put themselves in harm’s way trying to save/help a main character. 

  • Ev Hillman, The Tommyknockers
  • Jud Crandall, Pet Sematary
  • Don Gaffney, The Langoliers

7. A Younger Brother: Life as a younger sibling is always tough: never getting first pick, getting left behind on all the really good adventures; but in a Stephen King story it’s worse than you ever imagined. One might have one’s arm ripped off, be run over by a truck (then buried, dug up, buried again, and killed again by your own father), or be sent to an alien planet in another dimension. Serves you right for breaking the crayons.

  • Georgie Denbrough, It
  • David Brown, The Tommyknockers
  • Gage Creed, Pet Sematary

6. An Abusive Husband: Not that this is high on my list of things to be in any case, but King has a history of seeing that the handsy jerks get what’s coming to them.

  • Joe St. George, Dolores Claiborne
  • Tom Rogan, It
  • Danforth “Buster” Keeton, Needful Things

5. A Man of the Cloth: This is another gender-specific affliction. While female spiritual leaders end up all right in the end, and are even instrumental to salvation, the men aren’t so lucky. To be a male spiritual leader in a King tale is to be troubled, insane, or downright sheisty. Multiple stories include a Priest or Minister who tries to turn it around and do the right thing, only to find it is too late for redemption.

  • Father Callahan, ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Reverend Lester Coggins, Under the Dome
  • Reverend Lester Lowe (maybe King knew a really crappy Lester?), Cycle of the Werewolf

4. A Person With A Sensory Disability: Finally, some gender-equality! The deaf or blind are guaranteed something spectacular like psychic ability or intended-savior status, but they will definitely die (violently).

  • Dinah Bellman, The Langoliers
  • Nick Andross, The Stand

3. A Socially Awkward Person: Life is just one humiliation after another until you kill everyone! Following which you are killed by the one person who gave you the time of day.

  • Carrietta “Carrie” White, Carrie
  • Harold Lauder, The Stand

2. A Writer: Drunk, delusional, doomed, or all three this particular occupation can only mean suffering and lots of it. One thing is for sure: the writer is Afflicted. However, it’s a crapshoot whether they are causing or receiving the suffering (and again, sometimes it’s both).

  • Paul Sheldon, Misery
  • Roberta “Bobbi” Anderson and James Eric “Gard” Gardener, The Tommyknockers
  • Mike Noonan, Bag of Bones
  • Thad Beaumont, The Dark Half
  • Mort Rainey; Secret Window, Secret Garden
  • Ben Mears, ‘Salem’s Lot

And the number one absolute worst thing to be in a Stephen King novel is:

1. The Everyman: This poor sap is just an Average Joe trying to get by without hurting anyone, but he somehow ends up in the middle of everything. He might be persecuted, see everyone he loves die around him, sit-half starved with a broken leg in the desert for weeks hoping the apocalypse doesn’t happen, he might be beset from the outside with mysterious deadly monsters and from the inside with fanatics. Worst of all, he will live to tell the tale and get to suffer with the memories for the rest of his days. Couldn’t pay me to be the Everyman.

  • Gordie LaChance, The Body
  • Stuart Redman, The Stand
  • Dale Barbara, Under the Dome
  • David Drayton, The Mist
  • Bill Denbrough, It

Now, all of this may have you asking “Well, if I ever were a character in a Stephen King novel, I mean, you know, for the sake of argument…what is it safest to be?

The answer:

The Little Girl or The Loudmouth