Wednesday, May 31, 2006


Back Again For the First Time: Starting Over, and Who Says You’re Entitled to an Ending, Anyway? Plus, as Usual, a Few Other Things. By Tyson Blue

Welcome back to the online version of Needful Kings, and to the debut installment on my own brand-spanking-new weblog. It’s been awhile, and for that I apologize, but we’re here. I decided to make the move from my old online berth at Lilja’s Library because Lilja wanted me to file things on a regular basis, something I find myself unable to do for a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the fact that over the last two years, my regular job as a lawyer had devoured virtually all of my waking hours. Add to that health problems and a general malaise with the way the world is going, and it was just too hard to get motivated to do a column on a regular basis.

In an effort to try to change that, I decided to make the jump to my own blog. I’d like to thank my son, McKenneth, creator of “My Generic Webcomic”, for helping me to get set up.

Perhaps having my own website which is going to waste if I don’t update it from time to time will be a little more of an impetus to my cheap Scottish nature. We’ll see. At any rate, what I’m aiming to do – for now – is to use this space to write about those aspects in King’s work which interest me at the time, rather than straight news, which can be gotten from Lilja’s Library or King’s Official site, or lots of other places. All of that may change as things go along, but we’ll see. That said, let’s get down to it.

As King’s newest novel, CELL, burst onto the charts earlier this year, I began to see a topic making its way across the discussion groups such as SKEMERS – people were upset when they finally got to the end of the novel and found out that the story ended on a cliffhanger, with Clay, its protagonist, holding up a cell phone to his son’s ear to see if exposing him to the mind-warping signals which had changed the world as he knew it would help to restore him to sanity. And we don’t find out whether or not it worked.

Some of the fans who posted comments also made reference to the fact that King’s last novel, THE COLORADO KID, ended without resolving the mystery which lay at its center, the death of the title character. It seemed to them that King was forging a new path, telling tales without endings, and they expressing their dissatisfaction with this.

Of course, this is not really new territory for King. FOR A BUICK 8 also ended without tying everything up in a nice neat package. And for that matter, examples of this can be found throughout King’s oeuvre, going back to FIRESTARTER, which ends on a sequel hook, or even to THE STAND, which leaves its characters poised on the brink, as it were. And we won’t even get into the short stories which don’t resolve things completely…

But part of readers’ frustrations may come from the fact that their expectations of the story do not match King’s intent. Let’s go in chronological order.

THE COLORADO KID is not so much a mystery in and of itself as it is a meditation on the nature of mystery. In fact, I think it’s a safe bet, having read several of the other titles in Hard Case Crime’s inventory, that, had THE COLORADO KID not been a Stephen King novel, it would never have been purchased by them. It in no way fits the mold of the publisher’s hard-boiled, touch guy, film-noir image, but is, instead, a slow-moving, gentle vignette into life on the islands off the coast of Maine. But if Stephen King walks into your office, literally or figuratively, and offers you a new work, something tells me that you’ll overlook little things like “this doesn’t suit our needs” in favor of getting a bestseller onto your list of titles.

Rather than a jaded, over-the-hill private eye finding himself caught up in a dangerous case involving fast cars, faster bullets and even faster women, we are presented instead with a couple of old guys content with living out the remainder of their lives running a small newspaper, and regaling their young intern one summer afternoon with the tale of a dead man found lying on the beach, and how they tracked down his identity, only to leave unresolved the question of how he came to be there, why he was there, and how he died. There is no violence, no film-noir gritty city atmosphere – indeed, the entire story unreels on the rear deck of the newspaper office on a balmy summer afternoon.

But all of that is what Hitchcock used to call the “McGuffin”, the thing in the story which is of supreme importance to the characters, the thing that motivates them to do what they do – the stolen plans, covering up the murders committed by the mother who shares your head, or whatever – but is ultimately of no real concern to the viewer or, in this case, the reader. The real story, for King’s purposes, may be found in the speculations about mysteries, and what makes for good ones and bad ones, delivered by the two editors. The actual story of the Colorado Kid, and his unexplained journey from his home in Colorado to his ultimate fate, lying propped against a steel trash can on a Maine beach, is merely a vehicle on which to speculate about what it is that makes some mysteries appealing and exciting to readers, and what makes others simply frustrating, as is the mystery of the Colorado Kid.

Looked at in this way, THE COLORADO KID becomes a much more satisfying read. Instead of a story which simply meanders along for a while and goes nowhere, it becomes an interesting way of pondering the nature of an art form, using the form itself to spark the reader’s interest in the question rather than simply wondering about it in the form of an essay – not unlike this one. And although this doesn’t make THE COLORADO KID any more of a Hard Case Crime book, it does make it a more satisfying read.

CELL is, aside from its abrupt ending, a much more conventional King novel. It reads like a George Romero film set on paper, a gory mess in the tradition of DREAMCATCHER at first blush. A mysterious signal sent through cell phones and, perhaps, satellite radios, erases the civilized veneer from the minds of anyone who hears it, leaving only the savage beast beneath. The result is anarchy and chaos, as witnessed by the reader in the streets of Boston as the city falls apart. The refugees, those who did not own cell phones, or were without them, flee the burning city and head out into the wilds of New England, seeking shelter from a world gone mad.

At least, that seems to be the case. However, I would submit to you that CELL is actually “about” something else, and that all of the rest of the story is another McGuffin. What the story is really, ultimately about, what drives Clay, is not to get to the bottom of what going on with the phone-crazies, as the people affected by the Pulse come to be called. What Clay wants to do is to find his son – this is a novel about a father’s quest for his son.

And when he finally finds his son, Clay finds that he is gone, taken by the phone-crazies. And the only way that he may be restored, that the father’s quest for his son, may be truly fulfilled, is to expose him to the pulse a second time, in the hope that his underlying humanity has been saved in some unused portion of his brain, in essence, saved to system. And once Clay makes the call, then his quest has reached its end, one way or the other. Either the experiment will work and Johnny will be restored to him, or it will not. And does it really matter to the reader one way or the other how that is resolved?

Not if this is a story about a father’s quest for his son. That story is finished however the call turns out. The quest is over; what happens after the quest is another story. It’s a story that’s important to Clay and his son, and to the other people who live in that world, but it’s not germane to whether or not Clay finds Johnny – we know how that turns out. And if this is what King is writing about in CELL, then it’s a satisfying, if not totally fulfilling, read.

This is basically the same situation in which we found ourselves at the end of FIRESTARTER. There, Charlie McGee, having lost everything in her battle to escape from the clutches of The shop, is preparing to enter the offices of Rolling Stone magazine to tell her story to the world. We leave her there, poised on the brink, just as we do Clay and Johnny. We don’t ever learn what happened next (although I’ve always thought that a continuation of “Golden Years” would offer a prime opportunity to reintroduce us to a grown-up Charlie McGee), but the novel’s story is done, and that’s enough.


Both of the novels we have discussed in this installment are available on audio in unabridged editions from Simon & Schuster. THE COLORADO KID is presented on 4 CDs, and is read by Jeffrey DeMunn, a face – and voice -- long familiar to King fans, from his appearances in “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Storm of the Century” and “The Green Mile”, to his stint as reader for the audio version of DREAMCATCHER a few years back. In this version, DeMunn gets continued good use from the Downeast accent he used for “Storm” and again when he appeared in Paul Newman’s recent Broadway production of Thornton Wilder’s classic “Our Town”. DeMunn’s familiar voice lends the novel just the right New England touch, and perfectly captures the tone and timbre of King’s book. This is a relatively short piece, just right to while away a long road trip, or a summer afternoon not unlike the one in the story.

CELL is a somewhat longer affair, a 13-hour presentation on an even dozen CDs. Like the recent audiobook version of THE SHINING, CELL is read by Campbell Scott, an actor and director with primarily theatrical credits, but who has also appeared on screen in “The Secret Lives of Dentists”, “The Spanish Prisoner” and “Mrs. Parker”. Scott does seem to be moving into the favored-reader spot formerly held by the legendary Frank Muller, and although he is not nearly so memorable and familiar a voice as his predecessor, he does do a fine job. Both audiobooks are readily available at your local bookstore.


There has plenty of activity on other fronts, as well. While waiting for new King material, there has been a wealth of book activity from other authors who are worthy of your attention. Here are a few that have come along since last we met.

Dean Koontz finished last year, or began the new year with a bang with FOREWVER ODD, the second novel to feature Odd Thomas, the hero of his own previous eponymous novel. Odd, you may recall, sees dead people, particularly the ghost of Elvis, who, it appears, walks in places other than Memphis. This time out, Odd is forced to confront an entire ruined hotel full of dead people, as he tries to rescue a young boy who has been kidnapped by a madwoman bent on killing him, slowly and painfully.

Odd Thomas is one of my favorite Dean Koontz characters and novels, and I can’t recommend this one enough. It’s one of his fastest-paced novels in recent years, and I hope to get to see Odd again sometime soon.

Somewhere in there, Koontz also found time to edit CHRISTMAS IS GOOD!, the second book by his dog, the prolific golden retriever, Trixie. This time, Trix is dispensing holiday wit and wisdom in a picture-laden package whose proceeds go to a Golden rescue project. You should check it out, as Koontz’ unique brand of humor is always enjoyable. I mean, Trixie’s is – oh, hell, just go buy it already!

The rest of the year promises to be even more prolific for Koontz, who has a new thriller, THE HUSBAND, due next month from Bantam. More on that when it comes. Also, the summer is set to see the release of Koontz’ third paperback-original FRANKENSTEIN novel. This three-book series is adapted from Koontz’ original script for an updated reworking of the Frankenstein legend, created for a USA Network series, from which the author withdrew when the network wanted to change its concept too radically for his taste. Hopefully, these books, all produced in cooperation with other writers, will present Koontz’ original concept with more faith.

The series follows the journey of Deucalion, the original Frankenstein monster, who has survived to the present day, living on the edge and in the shadows of modern society, and of his creator, Victor Frankenstein, who has continued his researches into the present day, having also discovered a way to cheat death. The first two novel were set in New Orleans, as a couple of detectives enlist Deucalion’s aid in solving a grisly series of murders. Book Two, CITY OF NIGHT, written with mystery writer Ed Gorman, continued the saga and left it at a dramatic turning point. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not intervening events in New Orleans history will affect the finale in any way.

Outnam sent me a couple of novels to review on spec, and they’re both good.

SUNSTROKE is the debut novel from a young writer named Jesse Kellerman. A successful playwright, Kellerman is also the son of novelists Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, so this seems like an inevitable career move – and, fortunately for all, a good one.

SUNSTROKE is the story of Gloria Mendez, a not-so-young woman who is awakened one morning to find that her workplace is closed due to an earthquake. At about the same time, she learns that her boss, for whom she has long had a crush, has died mysteriously in Mexico. That spins Gloria into an odyssey that takes her from California to a small town in Mexico and back again – twice. Along the way, she learns that her boss was not the man she had thought he was, and that she is not either.

SUNSTROKE is a complex, intriguing mystery, which always leaves you guessing and never plays foul with clues. It’s a most impressive debut from a writer to watch – and read.

I suppose I should be chided for being a mystery fan and waiting all the way to S IS FOR SILENCE to jump on board with Sue Grafton’s alphabetical mystery series featuring female detective Kinsey Millhone. But better late than never. This novel, in which Millhone takes on the extremely cold case of a murdered woman at the request of her daughter is an interestingly told and tantalizing mystery.

As Millhone investigates the case, we travel back from the ‘80’s, Millhone’s time, to the ‘50’s, the time of the woman’s disappearance, and the novel works as well as a study of contrasting times and mores as it does as a mystery. For anyone else who, like me, has never sampled one of these, it’s a great place to start.

Patricia Cornwell was also back with a new Kay Scarpetta novel, PREDATOR, which has nothing to do with the Governator or invisible alien warriors. What it does have to do with, is an interesting scientific study of imprisoned serial killers which, Scarpetta learns, has more than a little to do with a series of ongoing crimes, which in turn may have something to do with her neice Lucy’s new girlfriend, a beautiful woman with handprints painted on her body..

The Scarpetta series is famous for its attention to forensic detail, and may have provided some impetus to the creation of the CSI empire, a phenomenon which Scarpetta, standing in for Cornwell, decries in the course of the novel. So if you’ve ever wondered about how TV and real forensics differ – frankly, don’t look here, although the author seems to think you should. This is a solid new mystery from a tried and true member of my must-read list. I do wish, however, that Cornwell would get off this first-person present tense she’s been writing in lately. It’s kind of a pain, especially when she lets it slip from time to time….

Stuart Woods has been busy once more, first with IRON ORCHID, his latest novel featuring Holly Barker, the sexy female police chief of the mythical town of Orchid Beach, Florida. In IRON ORCHID, Woods moves Holly to the big leagues as Lance Cabot, the unsavory CIA agent who has figured in a number of Woods Barrington and Barker novels, recruits Holly to work for the Agency, and after a tumultous and abruptly-curtailed training session at the Agency's secret academy, Holly suddenly finds herself on active duty in New York City, on the trail of a former enemy she had believed to be dead.

Aided by New York cop Dino Bachetti, a longtime fixture in Woods' Stone Barrington series, Holly finds herself in the odd position of chasing a soulless killer with whom she find sherself stgrangely sympathetic -- his targets being the terroriswts the government can't quite pin down. This is another of Woods' edge-of-the-seat thrillers, and is guaranteed not to disappoint.

And just as thois column was getting set for posting, Woods came out with as new Stone Barrington adventure, DARK HARBOR. This time, Barrington is commiserating with Dino, who has just been thrown out of his home after his wife finds out about a little flirtation with a female desk sergeant, when Stone is informed by Lance Cabot -- accompanied by Holly Barker -- that Stone's cousin, Dick, had killed his wife and daughter and then himself, at his home in Dark Harbor, Maine. Barrington, who had just gotten a package from his cousin the previous day, flies the entire troupe up to Maine at once, and begins trying to unravel the mystery of his cousin's death, and to figure out ways to get into Holly's pants as many times as he can before the book reaches its explosive climax.

Stuart Woods is one of our best thriller writers, something he has proven over and over again in over thirty novles. And if he has a tendency to get just a tad formulaic along the way, he nevbertheless creates fast-moving plots and interesting characters who can always be depended upon to deliver a solid, entertaining reading experience. And isn't that what it's really all about?

So there we go, folks. Welcome to my new home. Come again soon, and bring your friends… In the meantime, read some Stephen King, read some of the other folks you encounter in here as well, and realize that the next election will be here soon. Try to get it right this time.




Blogger Swtlisab said...

Great commentary. I look forward to the next update!

6:09 AM  

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