Saturday, May 19, 2007


Jumping Back In; It’s a Family Affair, with a Few Other Things, including Some That You May Not Have Heard Of Any Other Way…By Tyson Blue

The endless variety of things which have kept me from posting a new column in over a year would fill an essay on their own, but the two most prominent would be the simple volume of work in my day job, as well as a certain ennui brought on by the generally shitty world situation and the incredible apathy of the American public, to tolerate the Bush Administration’s endless incompetence without simply demanding the impeachment and imprisonment of the whole bunch. Or, as I recently heard Bill Maher put it, I'm pissed off that more Americans aren't pissed off.

I did start a really fine essay on LISEY’S STORY, which was well on the way to being finished before it got lost somewhere. Once the disc on which it is located turns up, I’ll finish it and post it on this spot. As you may recall, the focus here is not going to be on hot news – you can get that any number of places, including Lilja’s Library, King’s own official website leap immediately to mind – but rather to longer, more thought-out essays on King’s works as they appear, trying to see how they fit into the body of his work, rather than in a strict review sense. I’ve spent more than two decades building a rep as a King expert, and it seems as if I should bring that perspective into what I write rather than worry about bringing you news you can get faster elsewhere.

Besides, isn’t endless rambling what blogging’s all about?

At any rate, after losing the LISEY’S STORY piece, the next big thing was BLAZE, the newest Richard Bachman trunk novel, coming in about two weeks from Scribner and Hodder & Stoughton, with a new introduction by King. While we wait for that, and just to get back into what I hope will be the regular habit of writing, I thought I’d talk about some of the books which have appeared over the last couple of years from the other writing members of the King Family, not to be confused with the singing King family, a musical mélange who once had their own weekly television series on ABC at a time which probably predates most of you reading this…

It had been many, many – TOO many – years since the release of Tabitha King’s last novel, SURVIVOR. There had been nothing at all in mainstream release from her, and nothing at all other than a very small booklet about local girls’ basketball. So it was with great joy that I read CANDLES BURNING, a new novel from Berkley by King and the late Michael McDowell, perhaps best known to readers of this column as the author of BLACKWATER, a paperback-original serial novel published by Avon Books in the 1980’s, a direct precedent to King’s own experiment with the form in perhaps my favorite of his novels, THE GREEN MILE.

McDowell died in 1999, leaving behind an impressive legacy of horror fiction and the unfinished manuscript of CANDLES BURNING. Eventually, McDowell’s editor, Susan Allison, approached Tabitha King through her agent, Ralph Vicinanza, with the idea of completing the novel. Ms. King was intrigued by the idea and went over the manuscript and notes, and decided to do it.

In an introductory note, Ms. King says that “(t)he story as I completed it is not the story that Michael set out to tell, or the one that he would have told, had he lived to finish it.” What it is, however, is a fascinating, well-written work, which fits snugly in the Southern Gothic tradition of Carson McCullers, and the early work of Truman Capote, particularly his first novel, OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS. And its being told in retrospect through the narrative voice of a young Alabama girl, the inevitable comparisons and echoes arise with Harper Lee’s magnificent American classic, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Calliope Dakin is born into an upper-crust Alabama family, and her entire life is abruptly yanked out from under her when her father, a prosperous car dealer who has, unbeknownst to his family, fallen upon hard financial times, is suddenly murdered in a New Orleans hotel room, hacked to death, dismembered and stuffed into a trunk by a pair of demented cleaning women.

When the father’s death reveals the dire straits in which the family finds itself, Calley and her mother are forced to flee their home and make their way south to Pensacola, Florida, to eventually find refuge at Merrymeeting, a guest house on an island on the Gulf of Mexico, a house which looks exactly like the home of Calley’s late great-grandmother, and which turns out to be much more than it seems – as does Calley herself.

As the years at Merrymeeting go by, Calley finds that she has an ability to hear the voices of the dead, and gradually learns the secrets of various rooms hidden throughout the house. Along the way, she encounters the many guests who come and go as she grows up, in a world in which time seems to lose its traditional meaning.

All of this culminates in a haunting climax of vengeance, wherein the true depth of Calley’s undying devotion to her father – and his to her – is made clear. The result is a novel which richly rewards multiple readings, and which continues the classic tradition of Southern Gothic tales. It has recently come out in paper, for those who cannot find the hardcover edition, and it is well worth picking up.

I am also particularly glad to see Tabitha King writing once again, and am eagerly awaiting her next work.

But Tabitha is not the only member of the King family to produce new work over the last year. Both of the Kings’ sons published short story collections over the last couple of years, and one of them has produced a fine a first novel as I’ve seen in many years.

In 2005, Bloomsbury Books released WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, Owen King’s debut collection. The book consists of the title novella and four shorter works, and marks an impressive debut by a young writer worth watching. The novella, in particular is a significant piece of work.

“We’re All in This Together” is the story of George, a young man in an eccentric Northeastern family, who finds himself drawn into a rapidly-escalating battle between his grandfather, Henry, whose obsession with the theft of the 2000 election has led him to place a billboard honoring Al Gore on his front lawn, which has been defaced by his fanatically Republican New York Times paperboy. The result is a war of words which threatens to become a full-blown brawl.

The story is funny, poignant, and deals in real, basic human terms with the political turmoil by which the “Uniter” has divided the country more deeply than at any time since the Civil War. It is this story which makes this collection shine, and which reveals Owen’s greatest potential as an emerging writer.

The other four stories are a mixed bag, and none have echoes of Stephen King’s work. In “Frozen Animals”, a traveling dentist in the 1800’s finds himself snowed in with a group of trappers, which leads to a night of storytelling, surgery and laughing-gas dreams.

“Wonders” is set in the 1930’s, and follows the travels of the Wonders, a small-time baseball team, in which an ugly undercurrent of racism ends in a sudden eruption of surprising violence.

“Snake” follows a young man whose weekend visit with his father leads to an encounter with Julius Squeezer, a boa constrictor which fuels a long, rambling conversation which is startling in its versatility.

And in “My Second Wife”, the narrator, a young man whose wife has left him, takes off with his brother Wayne on a road trip to Florida to pick up a Jaguar which belongs to a murderer who is awaiting execution. Along the way, they while away the time by playing a storytelling game in which each throws out a bizarre situational opening sentence which the other has to flesh out into a creative tale.

Along the way, they encounter Yolanda, a young woman living at an emu farm, a trailer which doubles as a wedding chapel, and other landscapes which make up the dark underbelly of the southern Gothic tradition, far less genteel than that found in CANDLES BURNING, an aspect of the form more familiar to readers of Harry Crews, Joe R. Lansdale and Erskine Caldwell.

The most impressive aspect of WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER is Owen King’s adeptness at characterization, his ear for dialogue and the sheer variety of the stories here. All of this bodes well for him.

And then there’s Joe Hill…

Probably the worst-kept secret since Richard Bachman was the fact that Joe Hill, the author of the acclaimed 2006 short-story collection 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS, was in actuality Joseph Hillstrom King, oldest son of Stephen King. One had but to read a SKEMERS online newsletter to find a plethora of stories about that book.

That was a pretty impressive thing, actually. Before the book’s publication in a 1,000-copy edition available only in the UK through PS Books, Hill’s fiction had only appeared in a number of literary reviews and small-press magazines, not the type of venues to garner widespread exposure of even the type of word-of-mouth which catapults writers into the spotlight. A US edition of the book is coming soon, so if you cannot find the UK first edition, don’t worry – you’ll get to see it.

The book contains fifteen stories (the Acknowledgments section actually includes a story as well!), which range from subtly unsettling to viscerally horrifying. They reveal a talent unusually developed for someone at this stage of his career. Particularly memorable for me was “Pop Art”, the story of a young man whose best childhood friend was an outcast little Jewish kid named Art, who also happens to be a living, talking inflatable beach toy. This absolutely unique tale is the highlight of this amazingly versatile collect ion, but wait! There’s more!

There’s “Best New Horror”, in which the editor of one of those year’s-best anthologies travels into the wilds of the mountains of Upstate New York to find the author of a particularly unsettling story he wishes to include in his collection, only to stumble into an inbred family of rejects from a road company of “Deliverance” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” whose wry humor mixes perfectly with its Southern Gothic horror, seamlessly transferred to the Northeast.

Although it’s a trade secret, when I moved to New York from the benighted state of Georgia back in 1992, I thought I had left all the inbred trailer-trash and their incestuous goings on behind, only to find that there might just be even more of them up here!

“My Father’s Mask” is another standout, the story of a young boy who goes to a lakeside cabin with his father and overly-sensuous mother, only to find himself embroiled in an eerie and unsettling miasma of sex and masquerade, reminiscent of such works as John Fowles’ THE MAGUS.

“Abraham’s Boys” is another favorite, in which we learn what happen ed to Abraham VanHelsing after the events in Bram Stoker’s DRACULA, as we encounter his sons, living in Depression-Era America, and about to stumble onto the horrific secrets in their father’s study, which will lead inexorably to a violent coming-of-age. This story of abuse masquerading as love will stick with you far longer than you might think.

I’m not going to run through all of the stories in this collection. Events earlier this year have made it inevitable that you will have the chance to discover this book for yourself, and what I’ve already given you should serve as impetus to seek it out, if you’ve not already decided to do so.
The event to which I refer is, of course, the publication of HEART-SHAPED BOX, Hill’s debut novel, published in the US by William Morrow. The book was heavily promoted, with Hill appearing on all the morning talk-shows, and giving interviews left and right. After that, his secret identity was out of the bag, as news people rushed to break the news that anyone who really cared had known all along, and basically overlooking the more important news, that Big Steve’s kid was a terrific writer on his own merits. Which again, now that I stop to think about it, was already known to anyone who had tracked down and read 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS.

HEART-SHAPED BOX is the story of Judas Coyne, an over-the-hill rock singer who has amassed a collection of such grisly artifacts as a cannibal cookbook, a used hangman’s noose, and what he is pretty sure is an authentic snuff film, which led to the breakup of his last relationship. When his office manager puts him on to a unique online auction lot, a suit belonging to a dead man and supposedly haunted by its restless spirit, he cannot resist adding it to his trove. And when the suit arrives in its black heart-shaped box, the unraveling of Jude’s life gains momentum…

The notion of the haunted suit is not brand new. Kelley Wilde, who wrote and published four novels from 1988-1993 before suddenly vanishing from the face of the publishing world, won a Bram Stoker Award for his debut novel, THE SUITING, a Tor Books hardcover about – you guessed it – a haunted suit. However, that premise is just the jumping-off point for Hill’s novel.

Jude finds himself haunted by the ghost of the old man, stumbling across him sitting in his house, and driving his manager out of the house and to his sudden, violent death. Events reach a crisis point when Jude learns that the dead man is actually the father of a former lover of Jude’s, who had killed herself after their breakup, and that the sale of the suit had been done to enact a grisly revenge upon him.

In a desperate attempt to rid himself of the curse, Jude and his current girlfriend, Marybeth, embark on a road trip into the Deep South, a journey that will maim them both, and which will force Jude to confront the dark truth of his own upbringing.

HEART-SHAPED BOX is a thunderous debut novel, revealing a burgeoning talent of jaw-dropping proportions, a writer who does not need the cachet of Stephen King’s name to make his way in the literary world.

So there you have it – a quartet of exceptional books from the other writing Kings, which should fill in the time between now and the arrival of BLAZE for you. But if you need more to read, then here are a few “other things” you might wish to try.


Stuart Woods is no stranger to regular readers of this most irregular column; his novels are a standard topic of review herein, and the latest, FRESH DISASTERS, is no exception. This is the twelfth novel to feature Stone Barrington, Woods’ popular hero, a lawyer, private investigator and womanizer whose adventures have provided many a page-turning evening for yours truly and Woods’ legions of readers.

In this novel, Barrington is, as he often is at the beginning of a story, relaxing at Elaine’s his favorite restaurant, with his friend Dino Bachetti, a New York Police detective. Their dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Herbie Fisher, a shady PI, now somehow admitted to the bar, who has run afoul of a powerful mobster to whom he owes money. When Herbie is beaten to a pulp by a pair of gangsters who drag him out of the restaurant, Stone finds himself embroiled in a civil suit against the mobster, an action which places a target on his back.

One thing leads to another, and through a complicated chain of events, Stone finds himself tangled up in two separate and distinct matters, which result in Stone being singled out for death by two different people. Will Stone survive the death traps of the angry mobster and the demented sculptor out to get him? Will he survive the insatiable sexual appetites of the lovely ladies who parade through this novel? Will the town of Delano, Georgia, be mentioned in the course of the story? I don’t suppose that it will spoil anything at this point to let you know that Stone does survive his encounters, but along the way, Woods delivers lots of action, murder and mayhem, with occasional bursts of humor, which make this one of the fastest-paced thrillers yet from a writer who never fails to deliver.

Fans should also note that Barrington will reunite with Holly Barker, the lead character of Woods’ “Orchid” series, in the next book, SHOOT HIM IF HE RUNS, coming in September. The first chapter is available at if you want to check it out.

I’d also like to steer you toward the work of another writer who works in a vein quite similar to that mined by Stuart Woods, but whose work you might not find on your own, as he is published by a regional press right now.

William Rawlings, Jr. is a doctor living in Middle Georgia, who has published four novels to date under the harbor House imprint. All are in print, and all are worth checking out. The company could use a good proofreader, but aside from that, the cover design and production values of Harbor House books are impressive.

Rawlings’ debut novel, THE LAZARD LEGACY, is set in Rawlings’ fictional town of Walkerville, Georgia, a town familiar to anyone who has spent significant time in such places. In this novel, Ben Pike, an estranged scion of the well-entrenched Lazard family, returns to Walkerville to practice medicine. He soon runs afoul of his brother, who seems inexplicably hostile to him.

As he goes on, Ben begins to realize that there is something going on in the town, something which is centered around the Lazard family’s vast estate, and protected by the family’s social standing, power and money. All of this leads to a violent final confrontation which will change the face of Walkerville forever.
Of at least until Rawlings’ second novel, and to date his best, THE RUTHERFORD CIPHER. In this novel, Matt Rutherford returns to Walkerville after making and then losing his fortune in the dot-com bust of the ‘90’s. Returning for his aunt’s funeral, he inherits her old, large home, in which he immediately finds the decomposed body of his cousin, the only other heir, a circumstance which places him under police scrutiny.

In the course of this, Matt learns that his aunt was the caretaker of the Rutherford Cipher, a coded message which holds the key to the location of a cache of lost confederate gold, stolen and buried during the last days of the Civil War. Solving the riddle and finding the gold becomes not only the means to Matt’s solving his financial worries, but also to saving his life, since it rapidly becomes evident that the gold and the cipher were the reasons for his cousin’s murder.

Rutherford enlists the aid of Lisa Li, a cryptanalyst he had known in California, to break the code and recover the gold. This leads them to a web of treachery and danger, which culminates in a dramatic showdown at the mysterious – and all too real – Savannah River Plant, or, as we referred to it when I lived there, “the bomb factory”.

THE RUTHERFORD CIPHER should appeal to those who enjoy a good puzzle thriller in the Dan Brown vein, and Stuart Woods fans will enjoy Rawlings’ novels as well, since they seem to share much in common.

THE TATE REVENGE is the third and, to date, most atypical, of Rawlings’ novels. Nathan Bedford Forrest Finch is living in Paris and running a travel agency when he finds himself drawn into a police investigation of the apparent murder of a former lover at the Eiffel tower. He soon finds himself involved with the girl’s sister, and both of them are forced by their circumstances into a bizarre plot involving stolen artwork and smuggling, which leads to a lightning-fast chase from Savannah to Atlanta which could end in a terrorist act of devastating intensity.

Rawlings’ fourth novel, CROSSWORD, brings back Matt Rutherford and Lisa Li, who find themselves at the center of another puzzle on whose solution their lives may depend. When a lawyer staying at Matt’s home is murdered, Matt and Lisa soon find that the solution to the crime, and the preservation of their lives and those of their families, may depend on their solving a series of enigmatic crossword puzzles left behind by the dead man. The novel even includes a crossword puzzle contest, long since concluded, for those wishing to take a stab at it.

I was introduced to Rawlings’ work by a friend of mine on a recent visit to my father in Georgia, and I would like to thank Dr. Rawlings for generously providing me with copies of his novels for review here. Most are available from Amazon or one of the other online bookstores, and Harbor House has an excellent website as well. Their horror imprint, Batwing Books, might also reward your investigation.

That’s about it for this go-round. I’ll be back soon, to talk about BLAZE. Until, then, grit your teeth; things are getting better.




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