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Now he was in a room filled with strange furniture, a room that was dark. Snow spattered against the windows like thrown sand. His mouth was dry, his eyes like hot marbles, his heart triphammering in his chest. Outside there was a hollow booming noise, like a dreadful door being thrown wide. Footfalls. Across the room was a mirror, and deep down in its silver bubble a single word appeared in green fire and that word was: REDRUM.

There have been a few ‘crazy Emmet’ stories relayed to me down through the years, given my characteristic enthusiasm for sundry things occasionally bubbling over into manic rants. One in particular my friends back in Dublin found particularly funny. We were working in a book depot in 2001 and this Canadian fellow had the misfortune to express the opinion within earshot of me that Stephen King’s 1997 television adaptation of The Shining was better than Kubrick‘s. My reaction to this pronouncement was somewhat Torrance-like. The original 1980 movie is one of my all-time favourites, and we’ll get back to that below, so consequently I have avoided the book for years for fear of disappointment.

So if I did not enjoy this book, did I experience a similar emotional upheaval to that time in the book depot?

The story concerns a family on the brink of flying apart. Father Jack Torrance is an abusive alcoholic on the wagon who recently lost his job and is in denial about his role in his misfortune. Wife Wendy tries to see past her husband’s many faults, attempting to force the familial unit to stay together through sheer force of will. Their son Danny is disturbed by the tension in the household – he does not know what the word ‘DIVORCE’ means but knows enough to associate it with the dark silences at the dinner table – but he is also cursed with psychic abilities that only confuse his five year old mind more. He has a spirit guide of sorts called Tony, who his parents write off as an imaginary friend (ironic given their rationale for that assessment actually dovetails quite neatly with the spirit’s actual nature) although their concern is growing that Danny’s relationship with the invisible boy is actually evidence of a mental breakdown.

With all the attendant pressures on the family, Jack decides to avail of an offer from an old friend to become caretaker for a hotel during the off-season. Located in snowbound Colorado, the Overlook Hotel has a dark past buried beneath its refined exterior. Jack begins to study the history of the establishment, while Wendy relaxes at the prospect of some small stability for the near future.

Before the staff of the hotel leave for the holidays, Danny encounters a cook named Dick Hallorann, who shares the young boy’s psychic abilities, which he calls ‘Shining’, and passes on a warning about the Overlook’s nature. There are many ghosts in the building, but he assures Danny for someone with the Shining it is just like looking at pictures – they cannot hurt him.

As the months pass and cabin fever sets in, Danny slowly realizes that whatever lives in the Overlook is far more dangerous than Dick told him. His protection from Tony is wavering, Jack is becoming dangerously obsessed with his role as caretaker and Wendy’s denial blinds her to what is happening to her husband. Danny is all alone in the Overlook.

King is a very problematic writer for me. I keep reading his books in the hope of some day understanding his appeal, but it never really clicks for me. Partly because of his choice of protagonists. They are usually tortured artists with drinking problems who are meant to be blue-collar men of the world I suppose, but seem more deluded than driven to me, selfish instead of inspired. The Shining is yet another clumsily sprawling tale that could do with being tightened considerably. It also features possibly the most irresponsible doctor in fiction. So you’ve been beating your son have you? Oh well, I’m sure that’s all over now. What!?

There there’s the run on psychic asides rendered in parentheses, which stylistically does not work at all. For me this writing is not atmospheric, haunting, or scary. It is just a long, drawn out sequence of unpleasant things happening to unpleasant people. Over and over again.

Kubrick nailed it. I should have stuck to the film.

“They’ll get hold of you,” Mrs. Carmody said, showing us her bloody palm. The trickle of blood was now running down one of the wrinkles from her mouth to her chin like a droplet of rain down a gutter. “Not today, maybe. Tonight. Tonight when the dark comes. They’ll come with the night and take someone else. With the night they’ll come. You’ll hear them coming, creeping and crawling. And when they come, you’ll beg for Mother Carmody to show you what to do.”

I have not had a great history with Stephen King. His books tend to leave me cold, sometimes even bored, which is fatal for a horror suspense novel. Yet for my entire life he has been lauded as this amazing storyteller, whereas generally he leaves me nonplussed (and I am pleased to see I am not alone on this score – although the Nostalgia Critic irritates some people as much as King does myself, so a mixed result there).

Still I persist in reading King, because there has to be some reason for his success and the affection he inspires in many readers. Here’s the thing – I like a lot of the movies and Frank Darabont in particular has proven to be a wonderful collaborator. Apparently he has even convinced the writer to submit scripts for The Walking Dead television series, which should prove interesting.

The  story opens with husband and father David Drayton narrating to us the events of July 19th, when an unusual storm hit the community of Bridgton, Maine (of course!). With his house damaged and the family in need of supplies, Drayton takes his son Billy, as well as neighbour Brent Norton with whom he has endured long-standing acrimony, to the town centre to buy supplies.

At the local supermarket Drayton encounters the rest of the cast, including store employee Ollie Weeks, the elderly town gossip Mrs Carmody and an attractive out-of-towner Amanda Dunfries. Feeling an unusual premonition, Drayton has an urge to drop everything and rush home to his wife Stephanie. Then a fog bank swoops down over the town, similar to the one Drayton saw nearby his own home earlier that morning, eerily still and white. A man bursts into the supermarket yelling about things moving about inside the fog, claiming that he heard people screaming. Some customers grab what they can, infuriating the store manager when they do not pay, and run outside to get home. The rest are swayed by talk of something unusual happening in the mist and trust to the safety of the supermarket.

The cause of the unusual phenomenon is never explained, but when night falls the supermarket is falls under siege by a multitude of horrifying, insect-like creatures and tentacled monstrosities. The people within manage to mount a basic defense against the invasion, but it becomes clear that should one of the larger entities outside attack the store they will all be killed. The strain mounts, with some committing suicide and others turning for comfort to Mrs Carmody, transformed into a prophet of doom by the event, demanding a human sacrifice to appease the creatures. Drayton attempts to plot an escape with other sympathetic folks, but the dangers inside and out of the store increase with each passing night.

I was surprised with how much I enjoyed this story. For one, given that I already knew most of the plot from Darabont’s film adaptation, it was pleasing to still be surprised by some of the tricks King pulls here. It is a tight, fast-paced yarn, which owes a lot to traditional suspense stories, where for the most part the nature of the eldritch threat outside the supermarket is left to the reader’s imagination.

I think the main reason I enjoyed the story was because it is far less bloated than other King books I have read. He excels as a writer of shorts, too overly fond of extraneous detail in his longer novels. I suspect the reason for this is the evident influence of more visual horror tales, such as EC Comics and the films of his youth. As a horror writer he carries with him a precursor to the OCD-like insistence on jump-cut gore that today’s fiction demonstrates. Consider the modern game Dead Space – whose film adaptation I reviewed here – which sets out to be a traditional spine-chiller, but is just as twitch-happy and insistent in its gore as any brain-dead horror yarn.

When King sticks to the shorts, he’s far more convincing.

Folks I am disappoint.

I had ambitions of ploughing through several books on the long air-journey home to Ireland. In the end a combination of tiredness and Etihad‘s in-flight entertainment service (“OMG – The Warrior’s Way…just try to stop me watching this!”) resulted in my reading only three books.

Which were -

Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum, the twenty-third Discworld novel. This one is about vampires and in the author’s inimitable style, becomes an essay on the limits of toleration.

Stephen King’s The Mist, a novella I have been meaning to read ever since I first flew to Australia and saw Frank Darabont‘s film adaptation (in-flight entertainment again). I was impressed by the film and thankfully enjoyed the book as well. Although I still don’t like King’s protagonists. He writes them with a series of flaws that are meant to express a sense of honesty I guess, but David Drayton just seems like yet another sleazy alcoholic to me.

Finally J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye. I remember reading this book when I was 12, on the bus from Rathcool village into Dublin city centre at 7am. It was dark and freezing cold. The material of my school uniform was pathetically thin and my coat did not stretch far enough to keep me warm (darn long legs). There I was sitting on the bus seat with my hands hiding the cover – because I thought The Catcher in the Rye was salacious! Reading it now my twelve-year-old self seems so naieve and yet I can still detect in Salinger’s prose this brilliant sense of iconoclasm, masked by the occasionally petulant thoughts of Holden Caufield.

I was also going to read Combined and Uneven Apocalypse by Evan Calder Williams, but at that stage my brain had gone to mush. It is a fascinating premise for a book – a political reading of the use of ‘apocalypses‘ (my thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer)  in film. Never fear, a review is coming.

I will write up more direct reviews of the three books in my usual manner in the next few days. This is just to let you all know I made it to Ireland and am happily sipping tea on a cold morning watching my dog snore in her sleep.

Take care everyone.

‘Mark…I finally came, Mark. Please…’

Of course. You have to invite them inside. He knew that from his monster magazines, the ones his mother was afraid might damage or warp him in some way.

Back in ’94 our art teacher in school had an unusual idea. He would take his class of teenage boys and fashion them into a mini-movie studio. To inspire us he showed us a series of clips from various horror movies, pointing out how simplistic tricks could be used to shock audiences. This collage of films included John Carpenter’s The Thing, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and finally the adaptation of Stephen King‘s ‘Salem’s Lot, by Tobe Hooper. Specifically this scene. I am pretty sure that afternoon, spent in a classroom with the blinds down, probably scarred me for life.

Last night I could not sleep, so I picked up my trusty Kindle, wandered into the kitchen, poured a glass of milk and finally got round to reading ‘Salem’s Lot.

Ben Mears is a writer with three novels under his belt that failed to impress newspaper critics, but has managed to earn him a living:

Well, that was critics for you. Plot was out, masturbation in.

He returns to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, a small village on the road to Portland that has not changed much since the briefs years he spent there as a child living with his aunt. Ever since he left he has been obsessed with the troubled history of the Marsten House. He hopes to acquire a lease to the long-abandoned building and exorcise his fears of what happened to him there as a child with a novel. Instead he discovers two European antique dealers, Mr. Straker and Mr. Barlow, have bought the building. Ben meets Susan Norton and the two of them quickly fall in love. She has dreams of living ‘Salem’s Lot for an artistic career in New York. He also makes a friend in high school English teacher Matt Burke, a quick mutual respect developing between the two men of letters. Ben, despite his troubled feelings over the Marsten House, begins to remember how much he enjoyed living in this quiet community.

Shortly after his arrival, a boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing. His brother Danny reports that just before he vanished, Ralphie described what he thought was a ghost staring at him. Shortly afterwards his parents are sent into even greater distress when he drops dead in hospital. After the funeral Matt encounters gravedigger Mike Ryerson in the local bar, delirious and weak, with a strange story about having passed out while burying the Glick boy’s body. The night Ralphie disappeared, the two brothers had been travelling to Mark Petrie’s house, to see his collection of models and horror film memorabilia. Even as Matt, Ben and a several other co-conspirators come to the conclusion that the strange events in town have been caused by an infestation of vampires – after hours of debate and argument – Mark has already identified the cause and set off alone to face the mysterious new residents of the Marsten House.

If you have seen the tv miniseries, or read the book, maybe you have noticed what I have done above – place the emphasis on Mark instead of Ben, who is yet another self-insert character in King’s fiction. That is because firstly I am quite tired of this tendency of the author’s; secondly I cannot help imagining what this book would have been like if it focused exclusively on Mark. It could have been To Kill A Mockingbird, but with vampires! As it is there is a huge cast in this book, with many voices overlapping during passages, as well as our old friend ‘the omniscient narrator’, weighing in to let us know how the vampire infiltration of the town is proceeding.

Of course this is all part and parcel of King’s project, which is to describe the damning of an entire community. The arrival of the vampires is in fact a judgement on the town of ‘Salem for their sins. There is barely a single sympathetic resident in the town.

In fact for me the most horrific scene in the book does not feature monsters, but a mother punching her own baby.

I find King to be heavy-handed, with a tin-ear for dialogue and yet – I sat and read this book throughout the entire day. That counts for something.

What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.

I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.

Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.

I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid  georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.

Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.

As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.

He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.

Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.

Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.

This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.

I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.

Walking up the driveway to the house, she spots her mother’s face disappear behind the curtain.

‘Spying on me now?’ she says slamming the door.

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room.’

‘How was your day?’

‘You mean, did I do anything weird?’

‘Evie!’

‘I’m going up to my room. I’ve got stacks of work.’

My dad used to embarrass my mam by talking about how her mother had psychic abilities. He never phrased it like that of course. He would say she had a gift. I was always curious about that as my family is devoutly Catholic. How was the paranormal accomodated?

Then again I have been to where my family is from in Co. Roscommon. It is a quite isolated part of the countryside, not much to do. Whatever would serve to alleviate the boredom of dark evenings with nothing to do I imagine.

Evie does not have the luxury of my blithe scepticism unfortunately. She is a psychic and feels it is a curse. Growing up in Sydney’s inner suburbs she would occasionally see strange things, or hear people’s thoughts, only realizing when she was older how uncomfortable she made people when she spoke of her extrasensory perception. Her own mother treats her with fear and suspicion. Evie is made to feel even more freakish when an incident at school reveals to the other students just how different she is. Bullied and mocked as a witch, Evie retreats into herself, refusing to go out at the weekends, desperately clinging to the few sympathetic friends she has.

What is worse, with Year 12 exams coming up, Evie needs to produce an art project in time for assessment. Instead she finds her drawings becoming warped and transformed, with a face of a girl she does not know emerging on the canvas. She cannot trust her own body to obey her and begins to notice unusual changes. Her left eye becomes infected, even her hair starts to feel different. It is as if a stranger’s body is replacing her own. Then there are the dreams that leave Evie haunted, her unconscious mind invaded by warnings and premonitions she cannot understand.

Estranged from her own family, her friends and feeling isolated at school, Evie despairs of ever being normal. Until she receives a phonecall from a family friend she never met, who has a secret to tell her that changes everything.

J.C. Burke captures a teenager’s feelings of alienation perfectly in the first half of this book. The  testosterone fueled punch-ups between schoolboys, post-weekend gossip about friends’ lovelives and obsessing about what clothes look good nail the adolescent experience as well. I also enjoyed the glimpses of Glebe Markets that are introduced, with Evie and her two friends Poppy and Alex play-acting around in the vintage clothes stores on a Saturday afternoon. First time I came to Australia I stayed at a friend’s house in Glebe and really came to love the area. Local details like that make this book come alive, with Evie a recognizable and true-to-life teenage protagonist.

Where I began to have problems was with the direction the supernatural plot takes the story. At first I assumed, what with the school bullying of Evie, that this was a Young Adult rehash of Stephen King‘s Carrie. When her dreams hint at a spectral force directly haunting her, even threatening to take over her body, I began to suspect a climax similar to Koji Suzuki‘s brand of disturbing body-horror.

Instead Burke presents a teenage take on the successful television series Medium. I’m sorry to say, and I am sure this seems like an irrational personal bias, but I strongly resented introduction of a police investigation into the plot. This may sound hypocritical, after all I have raved about supernatural detective novels on this blog such as those featuring Felix Castor and Joe Pitt, but the essential difference is that they were entirely fantastical books. Police have been known to use psychics in investigations (although that perception of mine could be due to false press) and to my mind the ‘professional psychic’, is no different than John Edward cold reading a gullible audience. In The Red Cardigan scepticism itself is claimed to be capable of sucking away a psychic’s powers.

However, that being said, the first half of this book makes for an excellent assessment of teenage life. I am sad to say I was left conflicted afterwards, but would recommend this chiller for an adolescent readership.

He took another step forward as if hypnotized. The cabin door banged against the support post, a sound as loud as a gunshot. He swung the light on it again, caught a part of a window.

And something else, grinning back at him through the dirty glass.

American horror is dominated by the legacy of Stephen King. Any upcoming writer looking to introduce a plot involving the supernatural is measured against his incredibly popular body of work. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for scientifically reliant horror thrillers like Patient Zero which I reviewed yesterday. It is a different niche for the writer to explore, without the risk of having to measure up to the King of horror.

Nate Kenyon’s Bloodstone throws caution to the wind by letting us know from the opening pages we are taking another trip into the mystical hinterland of American horror. The story begins with the abduction of a Miami drug addicted prostitute named Angel. Her kidnapper, Billy Smith, convinces her that he is being compelled to bring her with him to some unknown destination due to a series of dreams. Angel reveals that she too has being experiencing vivid nightmares of loved ones returning from beyond the grave, but now twisted and evil. The two quickly bond due to this unusual connection between them and soon they find themselves in the town of White Falls, where they believe they will find an answer for the frightening premonitions they have witnessed.

There a disturbed young man named Jeb Taylor is losing whatever loose grip he already had on reality. Having survived the brutal murder of his mother at the hands of his father, Jeb has already lived a lifetime of abuse at the hands of the community for being the son of a deranged killer. Then he is told his father has died behind bars. The prison leaves him what few possessions his dad had, all contained within a single trunk. Jeb’s grandmother begs him to throw away the trunk. She has a dark suspicion as to what caused her son to commit the heinous crime he did. Despite her best efforts, history soon begins to fall into a familiar pattern.

What Billy and Angel discover in White Falls is a town teetering on decades of buried history. The dark tale related in the letters of settler Frederick Thomas who founded the community in the 18th century hint at the true nature of the horror waiting for the town’s inhabitants.

Kenyon embraces the tropes of supernatural horror – a community torn apart by secrets, pagan cults, possession, witchcraft – even the Necronomicon makes an appearance. Actually I found this book more enjoyable  than Stephen King books I have read. I make the comparison as many of the reviews quoted on the book jacket mention that Kenyon’s writing resembles ‘early Stephen King’. I imagine this comparison can also be made due to Jeb and Billy’s addiction to alcohol, which even leads to a hallucination in a pub that is not unlike Jack Torrance’s encounter at the hotel bar in the Overlook Hotel.

What is more the characters are realized quite well and while some of the elements of the plot might seem familiar, it is executed with aplomb. Furthermore there is a disturbingly perverse undercurrent to the proceedings. The sexual guilt experienced by Jeb becomes the catalyst for his downfall and the discovered diaries of Frederick Thomas hint at incest and satanic rituals. Then there is the growing paranoia of the inhabitants of White Falls, with each of them slowly becoming aware of the sense of being watched by someone. The town itself sits on a bruise on the permeable membrane between this world and the next.

Plus it is actually scary. Finally a book for this Halloween season that actually manages to creep me out. A bewitching debut.

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