Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Stephen King

Recommended Age: 14+

One year when I was in college, I had a roommate who looked remarkably like this author. I remember helping him pull some highly satisfying practical jokes based on this, mainly in bookstores. I'm not sure I would get along so well with the real Stephen King. Though at times I have much admired his writing, and been held in thrall by many of his terrifying creations, I simply can't imagine liking someone who can pull so much darkness out of himself. To be blunt, I made a conscious decision to stop reading Stephen King's work years ago.

Before that decision, however, I read King avidly. I read almost all of his books then in print at an age when a later generation, helped by Harry Potter, made the surprising discovery that thick books can be fun. Here are a few notes on the points that still stand out in my memory:

Christine - Published in 1983 during the same "bring back the 1950s" craze that made Back to the Future a blockbuster, this novel featured a 1958 Plymouth Fury possessed by the devil. It drove itself, it repaired itself, it killed people who stood in its way, and it seduced a young geek with the hope of becoming cool - when all he became was a monster. With every chapter beginning with a quote from a classic rock'n'roll song, the book read like the liner notes of an Oldies Rock record set, with menace and mayhem thrown in.

The Shining - For many fans, this title brings to mind Jack Nicholson's crazed face grinning through a hole in a door and saying, "Heeeere's Johnny!" I never saw that movie. But I did read this book, and it was the scariest @#$% thing I ever read, with maybe one exception. When I reached a certain scene, I was so unnerved that I threw the book across the room. It's about a haunted hotel in Colorado, high in the mountains where, for part of every year, there is so much snow on the roads that nobody can get through. A young family moves in to take care of the place during its off-season, not realizing that the hotel is possessed by an evil force that wants to possess and destroy. To say nothing of ghosts, revenants, phantoms, and predatory topiary animals. The family's only defense is a sensitive little boy - very sensitive. Red rum, anybody?

The Dead Zone - Before it was a TV series, it was a book in which, I'm sorry, the Anthony Michael Hall character dies at the end. Whew! Now that I've totally spoiled this book, let me see if I can remember anything else about it! Oh, yes. Johnny Smith wakes up from a coma with gifts he never had before - including the ability to see the future in a series of terrible, apocalyptic dreams. He eventually realizes that the world will come to an end unless someone stops a rising politician (and vicious sadist) from getting elected President of the U.S. And since nobody else will believe him, that somebody has to be Johnny Smith.

Firestarter - I'm noticing as I go along that practically everything Stephen King wrote has become a movie. Hollywood loves him. I did see this movie, but I remember the book better. It started with a couple of college kids submitting to scientific experiments for cash. The experiments caused them to develop psychic powers, which did wonders for their marriage but also resulted in the government coming for them. Their daughter turns out to be an especially hot item, as she has the ability to start fires with her mind. Soon father and daughter are trapped in a secret compound and subjected to more tests. The government wants to decide whether to kill the girl or weaponize her. The father wants to decide whether to escape or go along to survive. And a psycho killer develops his own personal stake in the girl's fate. The outcome is extremely suspenseful and intensely violent.

Misery - Kathy Bates won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in this movie. I thought she deserved it, because from the moment she came on screen she looked and acted exactly the way I pictured her character in the book. I have never, before or since, been so unnerved by a film's success in capturing the essence of a book. Why unnerved? Read this book and you'll find out. It has to do with a romance novelist whose car skids off an isolated road. When he wakes up, he is under the care of his "number one fan" - a psychotic woman who holds him captive and tortures him until he writes a sequel to his bestselling series, featuring a character named Misery whom the writer was hoping to kill off.

Four Past Midnight - This collection of four novellas includes the uber-creepy "Secret Window, Secret Garden," about an author being persecuted by dangerous psycho who claims the author plagiarized from him; the "in case of rapture this plane will be pilotless" thriller "The Langoliers," and two other tales I don't remember quite so well. The ones I have named have, natch, become movies, neither of which I have seen, but I can well imagine how effective they might be.

Besides his many novels, King has published several collections of his shorter fiction, of which I have read one or two besides Four Past Midnight. I can't recall which collections they were in, but some of the stories have stayed with me over the years: "The Long Walk," about a gruesome form of entertainment in which 100 youths must literally "walk till they drop" (eerily prophetic of some of today's "reality TV"); "The Running Man," a somewhat similar tale of a TV game show in which human beings are hunted down and killed; and several others whose titles I have forgotten but that still resonate in my mind.

This small selection omits the great majority of King's many books and stories, many of which have become plenty popular without my help. I can't personally recommend such Stephen King novels as It, Gerald's Game, Rose Madder, and Bag of Bones, or serials such as The Dark Tower, The Talisman, and The Green Mile, either because I have never read them and can therefore have no opinion of them, or because my memory can no longer discern where the book stops and the movie starts. Another reason is that his books and stories are somewhat uneven; for example, Misery was a much better read than Christine.

Still another factor qualifying my recommendation is that I frankly don't read Stephen King any more, not since I decided that I enjoyed a good night's sleep more than being scared out of my wits. But it takes all kinds. Maybe you're not ready to make that choice. In that event, open any of King's books that takes your fancy and see where it takes you. It will probably be someplace rather dark. And grip the book lightly, in case you suddenly need to throw it across the room.

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