Tag: Richard Bachman

“The Dark Half” by Stephen King Review

Dark Half

The Dark Half

Author:  Stephen King

Published:  1989

There’s a term in sports called value over replacement player. Essentially it boils down to comparing how a player’s production compares to the average performance a team can expect when trying to replace a player at minimal cost, or by using “freely available talent.” (Thank you Wikipedia for the handy summary.) Because sports fans are crazy, we love trying to figure out what real life player in a given season is the best example of the fictional replacement player concept. The idea of replacement level can be applied to just about anything. What’s a replacement level hamburger? Probably McDonalds or Wendys, certainly not a gourmet burger from your favorite food truck. What’s a replacement level beer? Miller Light? The idea is there are players, burgers, beers, etc. that are worse than replacement level (hello Keystone Light), so it’s not necessarily an insult.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that after reading 26 Stephen King books, The Dark Half is my pick for a replacement level Stephen King book. What sort of qualities would you expect in an average Stephen King book? Takes place in Castle Rock, Maine? Check. Features a writer as the protagonist? Check. Borrows liberally from Stephen King’s own life? Roger that. Ends when the action does, leaving the reader wondering how the hell everybody explains what happened? Unfortunately. In a broader sense, the plot to many of his books could be described as _________ is an evil entity that kills people violently and can only be stopped by our protagonist. It could be the plot to Christine, It, Salem’s Lot, or The Tommyknockers. Here the blank is filled by “an author’s pen name.” The Dark Half is worse than most of those books (not The Tommyknockers) and felt more like an author going through the motions than any of them.

The plot of The Dark Half is about author Thad Beaumont who has just said goodbye to his author pseudonym George Stark. Thad is a klutzy, mild mannered father of twins who has written two moderately acclaimed but unsuccessful books under his own name, and several very popular violent crime books under his pen name. What the general public doesn’t know about Thad, is that when he writes as George he seems like a different person to his wife. He’s short tempered and his mannerisms are even different. They almost match the fictional backstory he’s crafted for Stark, as a man whose spent time in prison and is “not a very nice guy.” Following a People Magazine story about Beaumont figuratively burying Stark, a series of gruesome murders occur that are certainly linked to Beaumont but are even closer related to Stark.

The backstory of The Dark Half is as interesting as anything that occurs in the book. Prior to writing this book, King had occasionally released books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. My understanding of why he did this was because there was a concern he would cannibalize or flood his own market by releasing so many books under his own name. In addition, King wanted to know if his writing was strong enough to sell on its own without his name behind it. Apparently a store clerk discovered King’s secret before the experiment could fully play out much in the same way that Thad Beaumont’s secret is found out in the Dark Half. The problem with centering the plot of the book around this sort of situation is that at times it felt a little too inside baseball for my taste. While we can all relate to driving cars, seeing clowns or even being eaten by vampires, the author/pen name dynamic felt more like an exercise in King’s writing chops than a story that would grab the general readership.

I did enjoy the police response in this book, as the officers were put in an interesting situation where all the evidence provided one explanation that was either impossible or easily proven false. The other main character in the book is a local sheriff who probably ends up believing in the impossible much sooner than I would have, but it was better to read about him than the typical stubborn (and wrong) law enforcement characters in most fiction. Thad’s wife Liz also gets to participate in a good bit of the action later on, and is proactive enough that her own storyline stays as interesting as Thad’s.

As a villain, Stark was also middle of the road. His motivation fluctuated between revenge and survival but his personality did not really develop beyond evil and mean. As described by King, his appearance was memorable, particularly as his condition regressed. The very nature of Stark made for a difficult character to get a grasp on. Somebody who is not real/ is having a horrific Marty McFly during “Johnny B. Good” performance moment but who also has to be able to overpower others and recover from mortal injuries requires huge suspension of disbelief from the reader. I had an easier time ascribing those qualities to a car in Christine than I did to a pseudonym.

3 star

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“Thinner” by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) Review

Thinner

Thinner

Author:  Steven King

Released:  1984

Along with ChristineThinner is the Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman) book whose concept made me think “he’s scraping the bottom of the barrel with that.” Well before reading the book, I felt like I had enough an idea of how this book would go and that I’d never need to read it. However, at some point I thought it would be fun to read all of King’s work, so I didn’t end up skipping over this one. The fact that Christine ended up being a very pleasant surprise probably got my hopes up too much for this one, because indeed, this is just a book about a fat guy who gets cursed and loses weight throughout the book.

Ok, so there’s a LITTLE more plot than that, but not much. The fat guy is an attorney named William who was getting a handjob from his wife when an old gypsy woman jaywalked into his car’s path. Most likely, if the driver wasn’t being serviced, or if the gypsy wasn’t jaywalking, or if any other tiny detail were changed the accident would have been avoided. But, it happened, and the officers that showed up didn’t really investigate it, and the judge ends up throwing the case out, and everybody just wants the Gypsies to leave town and the incident to be forgotten.

For the Gypsies however, there is no forgiveness, no chance of it being forgotten. As the protagonist finds himself losing weight a few lbs a day, the sheriff finds his face erupting into boils and severe acne, and the judge develops an interesting skin condition (that probably would have led to a more interesting story than this one if King switched the pages to character ratio). The villain is certainly fun here; a 100+ year old Gypsy, stubborn as can be, and his traveling carny relatives were much more memorable than anything else in the story.

In order to stretch this idea out into novel length, King spends a lot of time on tracking the gypsies from town to town over the course of a few weeks. This section of the book really tested my interest, as there’s only so many times you can read about other people cringing and walking away from the sickly stranger in town before wanting to walk away and read about literally anything else. While the introduction of a criminal underworld character to assist the protagonist helped catapult the plot forward and provide some fun action scenes, I found his entire character arc (from willingness to jump into the plot through his final scene of handiwork) to be less believable than the concept of a gypsy curse for weight loss.

Conversely, the scenes of William and his wife dealing with this unique problem, and William’s attitudes towards his wife (who he blames first for causing the accident and later for everybody who doesn’t believe him) were the source of the most character development and realistic aspects found in the book. Much like in The Shining, some of the scariest moments come not from anything supernatural but from the capacity for hate from the protagonist.

**Slight spoilers follow**

I found the end of the book to be a bit of a letdown, as it seemed there were two routes King could have gone that would have felt more satisfactory. There were two possible targets in the house that a curse could be transferred to, and choosing either one would have been either 1) a compelling 180 with William turning from good guy dad/husband to vengeful villain, or 2) a devastating final victory for the Gypsy patriarch. King opted for a third option to spread the love around and while it is certainly fatalistic I think it lacked the impact that one of the other two options would have provided.

3-star

“The Running Man” by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Running Man

The Running Man

Author:  Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

Published:  1982

I read this book as part of a larger book collecting the first four books published with Richard Bachman as the credited author. Through those four books, King published two books about men snapping and doing violent things (Rage and Roadwork) and two dystopian future books that revolve around contests where the losers are killed if they stop moving (The Long Walk and The Running Man). I hated the two books about men snapping and really enjoyed The Long WalkThe Running Man was certainly closer in quality to The Long Walk but reading it second I couldn’t help but feel that the whole book had a very familiar quality to it.

For fans of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie (1987), reading the book version is an entirely different story with very few similarities. I found that to be a plus as the story was very unpredictable and I was always guessing about how the book would progress. Gone are the gladiator figures with high tech weapons and costumes, gone is the superhero physique of Arnold, gone even is the arena that the game takes place in. In the original King work, the concept was very different. A man is given a several hour head start and needs to stay alive for 30 days. He can go anywhere and do anything to stay safe, but he must mail in two tapes a day to the games people (which requires him going to a mailbox or post office). Although there are some professionals hunting him, they are normal guys like Ben Richards (the protagonist). The super high rated television program that is the basis for this contest edits the tapes that the people send in, and motivates people to report where the runner is in exchange for cash rewards.

As in the film, the show is a symbol of the oppressive government that lies to the rest of the populace, and the runners are made out to be terrible criminals when they are not actually criminals. Beyond that there is also a bad guy named Killian, and there’s another runner playing at the same time who is not given much story time. Overall I preferred the film version, though whether that’s because I saw it first or because this book reminded me of a less interesting version of The Long Walk I can’t say for sure. There are a few plot points that also didn’t work entirely well for me but they require some major spoilers to discuss.

**Major Spoilers follow**

Richards is basically the ultimate Running Man contestant, per the people that run the games. They decide this after he’s succeeded for 8 days. OK, so nobody’s ever made it for 8 days before and this is some exciting show people watch every night? Also, the show would basically be a news program as the videos runners send in are often devoid of any words or action. It’s not like there’s even a lot of people to interview, as typically the ones who blows Richards cover are taken and interrogated right afterward. The entire thing kind of fell apart for me at that point in terms of a credible future society. At least with The Long Walk there was the possible thrill of an ESPN sports like broadcast for the action. Also, if the games people knew Richards was bluffing as soon as he got on the plane, it seemed very stupid to allow Richards to have additional leverage by allowing the plane to take off rather than making their proposal with the plane still on the ground. (I also find it interesting that Rage is a book that has been pulled from distribution due to its controversial subject matter, while Richards final solution, something very reminiscent of certain tragic events from 2001, hasn’t led to the same controversies.)

**End of Spoilers**

King utilizes a countdown device to title the chapters, beginning at 100 and working his way down to zero. Upon finishing the book I’m not sure why this device was used, and even the choices for where to end certain chapters felt random. The book lacks any interesting supporting characters, as nobody sticks around for more than a few pages to assist Richards; even those that do assist him usually do so with little explanation for why they risk themselves. Despite its faults however, The Running Manworks on some levels because it is pure plot and reads at a brisk pace. Out of the 100 chapters, 98 of them are rooted in desperation or action, with only two short dream chapters that felt slightly out of place with the rest. As a quick read it’s fine, but I also understand why it’s not a book that people mention when discussing King’s best work.

3-star

Roadwork by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) Review

Roadwork

Author: Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

Release Date: 1981

Roadwrk1

Warning, this is one of those books I can’t complain about without also spoiling the ending.  Spoilers marked accordingly below.

 I had a feeling of déjà vu while reading Roadwork by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman).  Following on the heels of The Rage, The Shining and even The Long Walk, King has now told multiple books about seemingly sane characters snapping and losing all appreciation for right or wrong, life or death.  In this story, Barton George Dawes is forced to come to grips with a highway expansion that will require him to sell his home and relocate his employer.  From the beginning of the story it’s clear that Dawes is lying either to himself or to everybody else.  After buying some powerful firearms, he concocts a story that will cause the laundry corporation that he works for to miss out on the new property that it has an option on. The result will force the company to go out of business, but have little practical effect on the corporation that owns it.

 If that sounds like a stupid plan, it’s because it is.  Similarly to the main character in (the terrible) The Rage, here the protagonist frequently makes decisions that will cause hardships on other characters with no care for that effect on their situation.  Whereas the shooter in The Rage actually killed people, Dawes actions are more in line with ruining his wife’s and coworkers’ finances.  (There is a ridiculous statement about his coworkers having unemployment coverage that will take care of them better than the laundry ever could, but it only underscores how little Dawes cares for these people or understands their situations.)  As the book progresses, Dawes tries to simultaneously thwart the city’s highway expansion, while also weigh the moral implications of his actions.

 I’m starting to pick up on a trend that the Bachman books are supposed to be bleak.  Through the first three, only The Long Walk has been what could be described as an enjoyable read.  However the problem is not in the dark subject matter of the stories but instead in the execution.  **Spoilers follow for the ending of the book**  Dawes solution at the end is to blow up his house (with him in it) before a televised news crew.  The way he makes sure a news crew is present is to shoot at the lawyer and police officers he told could come take possession of his house when they arrive.  This book takes place in the 1970’s, so I think calling in a tip to the news station could have had the same desired outcome.  Although it doesn’t appear he kills any of civil servants, he shoots at least one in the arm with a Magnum (the book points out repeatedly how powerful the firearms he has chosen are).  Apparently we are to overlook or empathize with Dawes because he lost a child several years back.

 This book may have been a better read if told through the perspective of Mary (Dawes wife) or if he actually spent any time sympathizing with her.  While they both lost a son, Mary’s pain is overlooked because of how much their son was “George’s boy.”  When she loses everything and is forced to move in with her parents, Dawes solution is to split the money he received for surrendering the house with her as well as their bank account, and then give the rest to a hitchhiker he slept with shortly after they split up.  It is obvious King wants readers to either sympathize with Dawes or forgive some of his actions, but he never gives reasons to do so.  If his intent was to just tell a story about a selfish man who decides to kill himself, then he should have made it more entertaining than what is present in Roadwork.  In various introductions to the Bachman books, King expresses disappointment in this story but says it gives readers a window into his mind at the time of publication and later calls it his favorite Bachman book.  Although both statements can be true, I would only concur with his initial evaluation.

 The only positives I can say about this book involve a few entertaining scenes that had me optimistic King’s story would develop into something better.  Early on when Dawes is coming up with stories to fool a gun seller (for no real reason) and later Dawes’s supervisor (in order to make them lose their option on the property), I was eager to find out what the end game he had in mind was.  Instead for 300+ pages, Dawes has no idea what he is going to do and we are dragged along.  This included numerous pages of Dawes moping around his house and a trip on mescaline that seemed out of place with the rest of the book.  While I’m only giving this one star, I will say that on the scale of one star books this is much closer to two stars than zero stars (which Goodreads doesn’t allow) and was much better than The Rage.

1-star

“The Long Walk” by Richard Bachman (Stephen King) Review

long.jpg

The Long Walk

Author: Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Release Date: July 1979

I was nervous when I started “The Long Walk,” mainly because the first “Richard Bachman” book I read was “Rage” and that book was awful, dated, and one of the few books I’ve read that I understood being pulled from book shelves (the book was pulled because it allegedly inspired school shooters, I would have pulled it from shelves because of how bad it was). “The Long Walk” also is about a teenage boy’s struggle facing the death of those around him, so right away my reluctance felt justified. Maybe it was the low expectations but I ended up really enjoying this book for what it was.

The plot of “The Long Walk” is about a contest between 100 boys who begin in Northern Maine and walk south along the road. Each boy wears a monitor that verifies their speed, and any time they fall below 4mph, they get a warning. Each boy gets three warnings before he gets his ticket which means he is out of the race. If they can go a certain amount of time getting a new warning, they can earn back their warnings so they’re back at zero. There’s also a prize at the end of the contest of whatever they want, or anything they want, or everything they want. The contest is ran by an authoritarian military figure known as the Major.

**Stop reading here to avoid spoilers**

As you read the book, you pick up on a few things that are subtle and then some more that are shocking. (At least for me they were, I didn’t read the back of the book so I don’t know how much that spoils.) The world this book takes place in seems to be an alternate reality United States, where after World War II communism is the norm and the Long Walk is the an appealing contest to escape the drudgery, or for other people to take their minds off the bigger issues society is facing. This dystopian future though is not focused on, but only comes across in a few lines of dialogue here and there. I got most of my idea for the world this takes place in from the Walkers own views of their options in life (which was an interesting way to convey the setting by King).

The shocking part happened when the first Walker got his ticket, and soldiers came out and shot him as the other 99 boys kept walking. I figured the twist was something to this extent based on the main character’s mother’s reluctance for him to compete in this event, and some statements at the beginning about how most races have one boy who freezes and gets his ticket right then, but the actual execution by King is fantastic. The nameless soldiers become a force throughout the book, the same as large hills and rain storms that the Walkers acknowledge as part of their reality now.

All that said, the book was by no means perfect. The actual competition didn’t make a ton of sense, with everybody being dropped off by family members shortly before hand in whatever clothes they were wearing and starting out with no fanfare. The motivations for why each walker was in the race were also pretty slim, which the most detailed versions shared being fights with girlfriends or possible homosexuality being revealed to families (I commend King for trying to address homosexuality in this book, leaving it open ended as to the sexuality of two of the main characters, but it’s certainly a product of the era in how it associates shame more than any other emotion with those characters). The struggles with using the restroom and cramping all felt real enough, but the lack of sleep by the Walkers was the one fiction I couldn’t totally suspend my disbelief for.

Equally vague are the rewards people can expect for winning the Long Walk. The ending of the book was both fantastic and disappointing in that King completely succeeds in his goal of telling a lengthy, engaging story about 99 boys walking until they physically can’t continue, and stopping before giving the reader any hint of what happens next. The plot arc in this book is almost entirely internal character growth by Garraty, as he goes from feeling immortal to accepting death as a reality (about ten other characters have the same arc throughout as well). Perhaps it’s the sign of a great book, but selfishly when it was over I found myself asking “would an epilogue have killed you, Stephen?”

4-star

“Rage” by Richard Bachman (Stephen King) by Review

rage

Rage

Author: Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Release Date: September 1977

“Rage” is a book written by a young Stephen King and published in 1977 about a fictionalized school shooting incident. The book has since been taken “out of print” due to its relationship with subsequent actual school shootings and the author’s discomfort with that connection. It would be easy to dismiss criticisms of “Rage” as applying our collective knowledge and experience of multiple school shootings to retroactively criticize King’s work. (King released this book under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.) While reading it, I was in shock that anybody could have ever read this book and thought it told a story that was at all realistic or have a lead character that was even an ounce sympathetic, and it’s that latter problem that really made the book bomb for me.

A few things about my beliefs, before I go any further. First, I don’t believe any topic should be off limits for writing. I think that if somebody is inspired by fiction to do wrong acts, that person is solely responsible for those consequences, not the author of that fiction. Furthermore, I think you can tell stories about bad people doing bad things that end up being great stories. (I’m a huge Bret Easton Ellis fan, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for my enjoyment entertainment in that category.) That being said, it’s not the idea of this book that ruined this book for me, but the author’s goal and execution.

“Rage is the story of Charlie Decker, a high school student who is returning to school after swinging a pipe wrench at one of his teachers. **Spoilers follow** After freaking out and accusing an authority figure at school of very specific sexual proclivities, he goes to a class room, kills the teacher, kills another adult, and takes the students in the class room hostage. The rest of the book takes place in that class room except for flashbacks of certain “traumatic” events from Charlie’s youth, few stories shared by classmates/hostages, and a few pages of epilogue after the crisis is resolved. One about two or three occasions, Decker mentions the thing sitting motionless at his feet, or the former body of his teacher in that room. Besides that, one girl screams and one student (the bad guy in the book) points out that Charlie murdered two people. The rest of the class (and Charlie himself) spend the rest of the time laughing, telling stories and bonding, while ignoring the dead teachers and the situation they are in.

It almost has to be read to be believed how little the students in this class care that somebody is shooting teacher’s in their school. **Seriously, the rest of the book is spoiled here** As Decker begins to tell the students about the events that made him who he is today (vignettes which foreshadow the much better writing by King later in his career) the students change from ambivalent about the murders and being held hostage to actively rooting for Charlie and violence on their own toward the lone bad guy fellow student. Those events that made him who he is? Well, there’s the time he heard his dad saying he’d slide Charlie’s mom’s face open if she cheated on him. There’s also the time he broke a bunch of windows as a kid and his dad threw him and he denied it. There’s also the time he was made to wear a suit to a birthday party and ended up getting embarrassed and in a fight. Finally, there’s the time he almost had sex at a party with a stranger but couldn’t get it up (ok, this story was actually fun enough it almost earned the book a second star). Compared to the trauma of the child in “Firestarter,” or the killer in “Mr. Mercedes” it really just kind of reads as so what? None of the stuff he described has any possible justification for killing two adults that had nothing to do with him. But the students in the class room see differently, and refuse to escape when given the opportunity, and even participate in a group beat down of the lone dissenter in the class room leaving him in a catatonic state afterwards.

The tone King goes for here is not dark comedy, which is probably the only way this type of story could have worked. By having the entire class (except one student) accept Charlie’s actions and later enjoy and participate in the violence, the entire thing comes across as unintentional farce: an entirely unrealistic response to a tragic situation. Not present at any point are sympathies for any of the parties involved, and the concluding epilogue doesn’t seem to indicate anybody has changed based on what happened, except that people still remember and think fondly of Charlie. So far the Bachman books are off to a rough start, hopefully “The Long Walk” is a better story, or at least has some semblance of reality in how the characters respond to its conflict.

1-star