Tag: Stephen King

“The Talisman” by Stephen King and Peter Straub Review

The talisman

The Talisman

Authors:  Stephen King & Peter Straub

Published:  1984

A boy must travel to another world that exists parallel to our own to find a magical talisman in order to save his mother. Not the plot one would expect from a Stephen King book, even one that he coauthored. Here the other world is a place called the Territories, sharing more in common with a fantasy land than the America Jack (the protagonist) is used to. Jack begins the book in the New Hampshire (hey, we’re at least a few hours from Maine) and must get to California. In order to get there he’ll travel both in the real world and in the territories, sometimes on his own, and at other times accompanied by Wolf (a werewolf) or Richard Sloat (the son of the man trying to stop him). There’s a man trying to stop him? One could guess by the description that he’s an evil doer, trying to rule the world and **spoiler alert for anybody whose never read a fantasy book before, I guess** only the Talisman can stop him.

The book I was most reminded of when reading this was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The two books have nothing in common except for why they didn’t work for me. In both books the author sets out to tell a child’s story but did so in a way that a child would not understand or be appropriate for. Instead of veering toward young adult, this book was firmly in the adult content genre. I’m an adult so that should have been fine, but it was also saddled with this boring and formulaic story straight out of a kid’s book. I enjoy kids books, but at nearly 700 pages the “will Jack find the Talisman?” story became downright tedious.

The villains in this book were over the top cliches, even in the annals of Stephen King bullies. Until the two sidekicks are provided to Jack the book has zero stakes because the length and subject matter guarantee Jack will keep advancing to California. The most interesting aspect of the book is the reciprocity between the events in the Territories and those in the real world. This is alluded to at one point for being the cause of World War I. After the cataclysmic ending of this book, I was looking forward to seeing how all of the casualties in the Territories would affect America; unfortunately King and Straub gloss over this beside mentioning emergency personnel being needed to respond to the area of the final confrontation.

This book has a pretty high average score on Goodreads, so I’m sure a lot of people enjoy something about it. I found the plot to be very generic of the fantasy genre, and the main characters (Jack and Morgan) particularly unoriginal. The book also presents the most unoriginal version of the magical Negro character that King has yet rolled out, and considering the regularity of the character archetype’s appearance (The Shining, The Stand, The Green Mile) that’s saying something. The only character I found at all interesting in this was Richard Sloat, and that was mostly because I was wondering if he would turn on Jack or not. Even the resolution to his story provided little conflict on whether to side with Jack or his dad. I guess there’s a sequel to this book that takes place much later, hopefully it’s an improvement on The Talisman.

2-star

Roadwork by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) Review

Roadwork

Author: Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)

Release Date: 1981

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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

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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

“Christine” by Stephen King Review

christine

Christine

Author: Stephen King

Release Date: April 1983

There is a scene in an early episode of the animated series “Family Guy” where Stephen King’s publisher is asking him about his next novel. King says it’s about a couple that’s attacked by a **looks around** lamp monster, and proceeds to make got’cha movements with a lamp. The publisher says something like “you’re not even trying anymore… when can I have it?” Before I read “Christine” I had that same sort of feeling about the subject of this book. Really Stephen? A car that wants to kill people? Is this by the same guy that wrote the story that was adapted into “Trucks” and “Maximum Overdrive?”

Actually, pretty much. The story goes that Arnie is a loser and Dennis is his only friend. Dennis himself is cool, and kind of looks out for Arnie but has no delusions that Arnie isn’t a loser. One day Arnie sees a ’58 Plymouth Fury for sale that should probably be in a scrap heap and instantly falls in love with it. Its owner, Roland LeBay is a real ass, but ends up selling Arnie the car. For Arnie, this is the first impulsive crazy thing he has ever done, and he begins to obsess over the car, and snap at those that question his prized possession. At the same time, he also starts to change in more subtle ways, some for the better some for worse. Through it all, the car (which Arnie and LeBay refer to as Christine) is the centerpiece for the strange occurrences that are happening around town. Of course there’s also a beautiful love interest (Leigh Cabot) that comes between the two guys and provides additional tension.

Of course I ended up really enjoying this book. Through its release date in King’s bibliography, I’d put it around “The Dead Zone” or “Salem’s lot in terms of quality. Not as good as “The Stand” or “Pet Sematary” but way better than “Carrie or “Firestarter.” Despite a hokey premise, and some very generic lead characters, the story inside the story was very compelling. I was actually disappointed when **Spoiler Alert** the story went overtly supernatural, because the story of Arnie finally losing his awkwardness and acne and becoming a different person with a bad attitude felt the exact right amount of weird. For his parents and friends, it was as if their son was being replaced, but there was still a question whether it was drugs, hormones, or something else that was causing it. In fact, all of Arnie’s changes were interesting, from his obsession with old music to his missing hours to his total obsession of Leigh and Christine.

The book is certainly not perfect. The character of Leigh is basically present to fall in love with whichever main character she is spending time with. For Arnie, you’d figure any female that showed him affection would have caused the same effect on him. Arnie’s mother is also an outline of a human being; she exists just to have outbursts and worry. The male characters are much better realized, but the other students are typical King bullies, i.e. future murderers and madmen disguised as high schoolers.

My biggest problem with the book however is the entire 3rd act, which definitely makes LeBay and Christine a supernatural problem to be overcome by Dennis and Leigh. I’m fine with the supernatural elements in all of King’s works, but here he had a much more compelling narrative and mystery going before Christine was revealed to be driving around town on her own running over people. If that was the story he wanted to tell, I think it would have been much more interesting had he waited to reveal that until the very end instead of near the middle like he did. Despite all of those complaints, this was still a story I very much enjoyed reading; I’d give it a 3.5 out of 5 but I’ll round up on here.

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

“Pet Sematary” by Stephen King Review

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Pet Sematary

Author: Stephen King

Release Date: November 1983

This is the twelfth book I’ve read by Stephen King lately, and probably the 15th book overall. I’d still say “The Stand” is his master piece, simply due to its ambition and cast of memorable characters but this was the creepiest, scariest and most heart wrenching of his books I’ve read so far. Maybe it was a because I have an almost two year old that of course reminded me of the doomed child of Louis, particularly the sections about how a child at that age things running from his parents is the most fun game, and you’re always waiting for their balance to leave them when they’re running full speed. I’m very attached to our pets as well, so the idea of setting this story around a pet cemetery allowed for some also touching moments and moral quagmires.

The main story of Pet Sematary is a family moves to a new house on a busy highway and Louis (the father/husband) soon learns that the Micmac Indian burial ground a few miles from his house has the apparent ability to resurrect the dead. When things come back they are not always the same as they left however, sometimes being distant, clumsy, or even mean. Louis’s wife has trouble dealing with death and appears to be passing it on to their daughter, so when the family cat gets run over the Louis ends up beginning a chain of events with tragic consequences.

In addition to the main story of the power of the land near Louis’s house, King also features one of his creepiest backstories for a character, with Rachel’s family and her dead sister Zelda being a creepy and sympathetic character all at the same time. In addition to Zelda, the stories about other Pet Sematary resurrections are sprinkled throughout the book. The character of Jud reminded me of my favorite Heinlein characters, a man who has all the wisdom in the world but requires a few drinks to share it.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre, I’d say this and 28 Days Later are the best examples of taking the idea of the zombie and making an original and compelling story out of it. *Spoiler alert* The final confrontation between Gage and Louis was perfectly written, with a small child being unable to really pose a threat to an adult ready to handle him, but the final moments after the fight were unbelievably sad and enough to at least understand why Louis makes the decisions he does afterwards. I’m still choked up thinking about it.

5-star

“The Gunslinger” (The Dark Tower #1) by Stephen King Review

gunslinger

The Gunslinger

Author: Stephen King

Release Date: June 1982

** spoiler alert ** This was a quick read with some interesting ideas, but overall I felt the writing style was a bit forced compared to King’s normal conversational storytelling. The Gunslinger reads like Cormac McCarthy fan fiction at time, with characters constantly referred to in the vaguest manner and the setting described only in essence and not in fact. All of the flowery language made the story itself more difficult to get invested in as the reader is unable to become attached to characters who are just archetypes.

The story of the Gunslinger is about a (surprise) gunslinger who is trying to track down the man in black (not Johnny Cash) in order to find out more information about the Dark Tower. Along the way he meets a town full of people, and a little boy, with both seeming more like creations for his own imagination than any real place. Over the course of the journey, the Gunslinger’s past is revealed, including his fight with Cort which made Roland (the gunslinger) the youngest apprentice to be successful challenging his teacher. This scene was the coolest in the book, although by that point it was pretty clear what the outcome of the fight would be.

*Major spoilers follow* The dark tower is revealed to have something to do with the vastness of the universe, and a place where different times and places can exist at the same time. The book ends with 10 years passing and the gunslinger waking up next to a skeleton. I’ve read that this was King’s attempt to have a whole book in the style of a poem he enjoyed, and I’m hoping the rest of the series gets away from that more in terms of just telling an interesting story. There are some great concepts at work here, and the Gunslinger himself has potential has a character, but overall the not quite there style over substance of book one of the series has me a bit worried about the longer books up ahead.

3-star