Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Random Rambling: Stephen King Novels

My pal William Malmborg just put a post up on his blog about Stephen King and "the most frightening book he has ever written", and he asked others to weigh in on their favorites. So I was thinking this is the perfect opportunity to ramble on for a few moments about ol' Stevie and his works.  This won't be an all-inclusive look at everything he's ever written of course, as I don't have a whole week to sit here....but to mention my favorites won't take too much of my time - or yours.

A little backstory:  I've been reading Stephen King since I was ten or eleven.  I can't recall how on earth I actually got my hands on a SK book at age ten, it's hard to tell.  I've always been someone who is easily swayed by pop culture.  Meaning, if someone is reading a popular book, talking incessantly about a certain movie, watching a tv show I haven't yet seen, or listening to trendy new music, I have to read it/watch it/listen to it.  It's just in my nature.  And though I can't remember, I'm going to assume that way back when, someone was chattering on and on about The Shining and I had to have it.  I was also well above my reading level from the time I was small, so I have to say I had already been reading things such as Jaws and Valley of the Dolls (yeah? well my mom shouldn't have left that one under the bed for me to discover!). 

Like I said, The Shining was the first SK novel for me.  I stayed up late every night for a week, hiding with a flashlight under the covers because I was supposed to be sleeping.  Thankfully, my bedroom was upstairs and the folks' down, so I got lucky and read late into the night....a lot.  Probably how I ended up the night owl that I am today.  The Shining is my favorite SK book, and probably because it was my first.  The story always fascinated me - I love a good haunted house story, and this was an entire hotel!  When the movie came out I was a bit surprised at the way Jack Torrance shifted over into complete lunatic-mode.  Not that I didn't like it, but I will agree with the author when I say the story is not conceived as such.  Torrance was more of an alcoholic influenced by the spirits (see what I did there?) of the hotel than simply a straight-forward madman.  Jack Torrance's behavior isn't the only thing different in the novel in comparison to the film.  The ending is entirely different, with the hotel burning down instead of the frozen conclusion we're used to.  Add to that the fact that there were malicious (live) topiary animals outside the hotel instead of the hedge maze...and well, you see what I mean about it being different.  But many key frights remain intact, such as the menacing hotel itself.  And the entire Room 217 scenario (though in the movie they changed the room number to 237).  Every time it was mentioned I knew something awful was going to happen.  I was also entirely spooked by Delbert Grady.
The Shining remains one of the best of King's stories, in my humble opinion.

Pet Sematary is probably my second favorite.  The completely disturbing content of this book just rattled me to the core.  I remember when my little brother was born, I implored my mother not to read that book.  I also begged her not to see the later film.  Little Gage was just a little too close to home, if you know what I mean.
This book is really frightening, perhaps even more than The Shining.  In fact, I'm sure of it.  So much is going on, from perilous highway that takes the lives of all the local pets... to the death of Victor Pascow... to the family cat getting smooshed on the road... to the Micmac burial ground behind the pet cemetery.. to the truck-creaming demise of young Gage... to zombie Timmy Baterman... to (and this is the real kicker) ZELDA!! 
Okay, so maybe I'm just forever scarred by the movie version of Zelda, but hey - she's fucking scary!
Pet Sematary has it all going on.  So many elements of horror to scare the shit out of you.  To me, it's the most shock-loaded book he's written.  And I love it.

Soon after reading The Shining, I knew I had to pick up and read absolutely everything King had ever put to paper.  In fact, if I could have purchased his shopping list, I would have done so.  (Something that is probably possible these days with the advent of eBay!) So being the young OCD that I was, I started from the beginning.  Which meant Carrie.  Being at the tender age of pre-puberty myself, Carrie affected me wholeheartedly.  While I couldn't totally identify with her (my mom was kind enough to explain the facts of life to me prior to my own happy hormonal experience), I could understand her.  I felt bad for her. Everyone knew someone like her.  Well, not the telekinetic thing, but the unpopular thing.  It gave me great pleasure to see those bratty teenagers get what was coming to them at that prom.

I made my way through novel after novel, eventually catching up to King writing them.  I've always loved all his early stuff, and though I enjoyed the likes of The Dead Zone and Salem's Lot, I'd have to say my next favorite of his works would have to be Christine. Not because of the name, mind you - but because it was so different.  A car that has a mind of its own?  Say what? I also remember loving how he used song lyrics from so many of those old 'car tunes' of the 50's and 60's to open each chapter.  That translated fairly well to film, also.  I was fifteen when the book was published, and was impressed to the hilt if a guy drove a nice car, especially a classic, because that was what was popular back then - unlike today's teens who get an SUV on their 16th birthday whether they deserve it or not.  Back in the 80's, most guys worked after school and on weekends to raise up enough money to buy a car to fix up and impress the ladies.  Times have changed.  Thanks, but I'll take the past. 
Anyway, Christine was a damn fun novel....but scary - not exceptionally. 

Misery, however?  That was scary.  Let's face it, at this point everyone probably associates the movie with the characters from the book.  And I'm okay with that now.  But I read the novel before the film came out.  There were changes from book to film, but I have to say it was still quite effective.  And the casting was simply brilliant.  But let's talk about the book.  Misery has this terribly effective way of getting under your skin as you read it.  You feel a claustrophobic tension that lasts through every chapter, and if there were such a thing as reading on the edge of your seat, this book would be a prime example.  Annie Wilkes is such a terrifying character.  You can imagine the headlines in your local paper - this shit could happen.  I had trouble imagining that King didn't think of himself as the Paul Sheldon character, because I sure did.  The "number one fan" thing was utterly unnerving and you really could feel Paul's fear, no more so than when Annie cuts off his foot with an ax.  That's right folks - none of this breaking feet with a sledgehammer stuff....in the book she cuts off his foot with an ax and cauterizes it with a blowtorch.  Um, yessiree! And that whole "shooting the sheriff dead in the basement doorway"....didn't happen.  She stabbed him then ran him over with a lawnmower.  Suppose that would be hard to translate to film. But besides all the obvious gore (did I fail to mention she cuts off Paul's finger with an electric knife?), I really think the effectiveness of the novel comes in the quiet moments of dread, such as when Paul realizes that Annie knows he's been out of his room....

While I profess my love of the likes of Cujo, Danse Macabre, On Writing, Needful Things, etc...I  have to say I haven't been quite as keen on King's later novels (i.e. ones written beyond 2000) - they haven't grabbed me like his earlier works. Some are just outrageously long, like Insomnia! Gah!  To be honest I've never finished that one.  IT is quite extensive as well, but that's one I couldn't stop reading.  Having purchased the just-released 850 page historical opus that is 11/22/63, I can see I'll have my work cut out for me.  From what I hear, it's a departure from the horror that we are so used to from him.  I haven't even started it yet, and it certainly seems like a helluva task.  I much prefer a novel around 450-550 pages.  That way I don't lose interest and I don't wonder when I'm going to finally finish. 
There's a lot more I could ramble on and on about regarding Stephen King's novels but I'll save it for another day. 

I've heard a lot of people cut Stephen King up, calling him a hack, a sell-out, untalented, etc. In fact, I'm weary of pretentious assholes that seem to think they are too good for his books. Yes, I like Dickens and Austen too. But I for one, have to defend King adamantly.  Anyone who can give me countless hours of entertainment and enjoyment is okay in my book.


The Mike said...

I'm with you, King rocks. Funny enough, Insomnia was my first King novel. I think I stayed with it out of intrigue, and barely remember it, but it opened me up to his earlier stuff.

I'm not sure I've read any of his latest stuff. I never finished The Green Mile due to lack of interest, and after that I moved away from his stuff. Hoping to pick a few of his classics that I've never read up soon. Salem's Lot has always intrigued me, and I'm just now realizing that I never actually read Pet Sematery. I must remedy that.

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William Malmborg said...

Excellent post, and many thanks for the link to my post about King. For me I think Misery was the book that really hit the mark (though like you I would read his shopping list if I could as well, and would probably enjoy it). The tension presented in that tale was amazing and kept me turning the pages with a urgency that other authors rarely produce within me. Pet Semetary was wonderful too, and IT -- wow, how can such a big book go by so quickly. I didn't want it to end.

I'm nearly finished with 11/22/63 now and must say it is completely different from everything else he has written, but not in a bad way, and still holds the element many fans have come to love about his work. For me it has been a real page turner. I don't even know how many pages I'm reading on average every night, just that I'm surpassing my standard goal of hundred for any novel pretty fast each day. I also love the interactions early on in the novel with some of the kids from IT and getting to see what Derry looks like after the summer of 1958. That was a wonderful surprise.

Will Errickson said...

King made me a reader. I was a reader as a kid, certainly, but it was King who made me into a more thoughtful and adult reader. With DANSE MACABRE, my fate as a horror fan was sealed! While I've little interest in his output over the past couple decades, I will always have a fondness for his early works. However 11/22/63 sounds pretty interesting... he did explore this theme way back in THE DEAD ZONE!

MrJeffery said...

always was a fan of 'christine.' 'pet semetary' was actually pretty scary.