Sunday, July 08, 2007

NEEDFUL KINGS & OTHER THINGS: Installment 20

At Long Last Blaze, some new tales, plus some items of interest from Persons of Interest… By Tyson Blue

Those of us who have toiled for any length of time in the fields of King Crit have known about B LAZE for years. King’s second novel, it had lain for years in a box in the collection of King’s papers donated to the University of Maine at Orono’s Fogler Library, where it could only be seen with King’s written permission. Only a handful of people had gotten the chance to review the unpublished manuscript. I myself had been invited to one time, but had simply never had the time or resources to make the journey, and never had figured out quite how to make them send me a copy.

The novel was mentioned briefly in Douglas Winter’s critical biography, STEPHEN KING: THE ART OF DARKNESS, one of the earliest books published about King and his work, but was not mentioned in my own THE UNSEEN KING, for reasons I no longer recall. Winter essentially said that it was a novel loosely based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping.

With all that said, it was with great pleasure that I learned last year that King had finally decided to publish BLAZE, which appeared last month as a Richard Bachman book. In an introduction under his own name, King explains that he had left the book unpublished until now because he thought that it was too maudlin, that it would, in the famous words of Oscar Wilde regarding Charles Dickens’ THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP, be impossible to read without “weeping copious tears of laughter”. In an interesting aside, in a booklet published for publicity purposes by King’s British publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, King stated that this quote was made by Wilde in reference to “The Little Match Girl”. Although the reference has been corrected in both the Hodder and Scribner editions of the book, a final reference to "The Little Match Girl” remains on the final page of the introduction. For the curious, the actual quote, which does in fact refer to the Dickens novel, is “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

King did, as reported in his introduction and by Rocky Wood in his excellently-researched STEPHEN KING: UNCOLLECTED, UNPUBLISHED (which also contains a detailed recounting of the unrevised version of the novel), take the manuscript out once before, after the Bachman books had been published in the mid-1980’s, but decided that his initial conclusion had been right and relegated it to the Fogler collection.

However, after taking a third look at it while considering publishing it as a Hard Case Crime paperback original, King decided that, with a lot of revision, the novel could be turned into a workable novel, King set to work, and although it did not appear from Hard Case Crime, this long-lost, legendary King novel is finally available for general consumption.

And although the novel is at times sentimental, and approaches tearjerker territory at times, King does not have to worry about anyone laughing at Blaze’s death at the novel’s end. They may not cry, either, but it’s a solid, well-written tale.

Without having read the original manuscript – and I will give that a try sometime, and if I do, you’ll see the results here – it is impossible to tell how much sentimentality King excised from his original story. The novel as it stands is short, less than 300 pages in either the US or UK editions. It deals with Clayton Blaisdell, known as “Blaze”, a giant, brain-damaged young man who has been a victim for most of his life. From the father who threw him down a flight of stairs three times in succession for eating cereal in front of the television, thus destroying his chances of ever leading a normal life, to the abusive administrators of the state-run institution where he grows up, or the foster parents who take him in only to exploit him as virtual slave labor, Blaze never really has a chance.

He has only a handful of friends in his life, the best of whom is George, an opportunistic, exploitative thief Blaze meets in Boston. It is George who actually hatches the plan to kidnap the infant son of a wealthy Portland family and hold him for ransom.
Given Blaze’s limitations and his unique appearance (almost seven feet tall, with a dent in his forehead), Blaze’s scheme is foredoomed to failure, but egged on by George, he forges ahead.

What makes this particularly interesting is that, by the time we join Blaze at the beginning of the novel, we learn that George is dead, killed in a crooked card game, and now lives on only as a voice in Blaze’s head. And it’s a voice whose intentions toward the kidnapped infant are alarming to Blaze, who realizes on some level that they may just be, in actuality, his own attitudes, deeply repressed.

It is also interesting to note that, in his introduction, King, who has in the past always posited that Richard Bachman was a fictitious “real” person, characterizes Bachman as a separate personality who wrote the books which came out under his name. This is more in line with the George-Blaze dichotomy in the novel. It will be interesting to see how this development progresses in the event that any future Bachman manuscripts are “uncovered”.

The story alternates back and forth between the past and the present, moving the primary kidnap story forward while brining us up to speed by giving us Blaze’s back-story as we go along, rather than proceeding in a strict linear narrative. This device, which could become confusing, works well. In fact, the back-story sections work particularly well, inspiring the sympathy for Blaze, which the reader must feel in order to be on his side in the main story, since he is, in the end, a kidnapper.

That story is thrilling as well, as a police dragnet closes in ever more tightly around Blaze, as he struggles to escape, aided by a raging blizzard which adds to the suspense. But when the story reaches its inevitable, violent climax on the shores of a frozen Maine river, readers will find themselves satisfied with King’s latest tale.

There are interesting things along the way, as well. Some of the happier moments of Blaze’s life take place along the shores of the Royal River, a real-life Maine landmark which figures prominently in a number of King’s novels. And Blaze’s primary antagonist, the sadistic math teacher at the home where he spends much of his youth, is a vicious man named Martin Coslaw. Longtime King readers will recall that the young protagonist of King’s 1985 illustrated novella, CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF, was named Marty Coslaw. Since Marty was confined to a wheelchair, and Martin suffers from no such disability, they are probably not meant to be the same person. It would, however, be interesting to find out which one came first, whether the Martin in Blaze is the first character to bear the name or not.

This is a King novel which is hard to classify. Often, one can point to other, similar novels in King’s oeuvre to give potential readers an idea as to what the new book is like. Perhaps because it was written so far back in King’s career, BLAZE defies such categorization. It is not a horror story, which gives it something in common with such novels as MISERY, DOLORES CLAIBORNE and the first three DIFFERENT SEASONS novellas. But once read, it quickly becomes clear that it doesn’t fit well with those books either. That may be one reason King chose to publish it as a Bachman book.

It is, oddly enough, far easier to compare the novel to one of its prime progenitors, John Steinbeck’s classic OF MICE AND MEN. This link is particularly apt in that, based upon remarks in the introduction, the fact that both Blaze and Steinbeck’s Lennie have friends named George is not an accident. Also, both Blaze and Lennie are essentially kind, simple men who, because of their unique and tragic circumstances and limitations, find themselves drawn into situations where they do violent and criminal things more by accident than anything else.

Classifying BLAZE among King’s other books is also rendered harder by King’s choice to avoid having the book set in the time-period in which it was written by avoiding the popular-culture references which have been one of the hallmarks of his writing. By setting the novel in what he categorizes as “America, Not All That Long Ago”, it becomes more difficult to fit it into a particular niche.

There is always the possibility, even a likelihood, that anything, which has been heavily anticipated, will ultimately disappoint when it arrives. It is refreshing when it does not. Such was the case with Brian Wilson’s legendary masterwork, “Smile”, which, when it was finally released in 2004, lived up to every bit of the hype which had circulated about it from its scheduled release date in 1967.

BLAZE, I am also happy to report, is worth the long wait. Nor did I so much as snicker at Blaze’s demise…

The book also features King’s short story, “Memory”, published last year in the Summer Reading issue of Tin House magazine. That story, as most of you reading this should already know, is either an excerpt from, or the basis for, King’s next novel, DUMA KEY, currently set for a January 2008 release.
Nor is this the only King short fiction available this summer. If you hurry, you should still be able to find a copy of the July 2007 issue of Esquire on the newsstands. It’s easy to find – it features Angelina Jolie in a toga on the cover, with king’s name prominently displayed as well.

The issue features a new King novella, “The Gingerbread Girl”. It is the story of a woman who has taken up running as a means of dealing with the sudden death of her infant child. As the story opens, she has moved away from her home and her husband to a Florida beach house. And when she sees something in the trunk of a neighbor’s car, which does not belong there, she suddenly finds herself in the clutches of her neighbor, who is Not A Nice Guy…

And suddenly, she finds herself literally running for her life. The title is, quite obviously, an apt reference to the taunting challenge of the Gingerbread Man in the classic children’s tale: “Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man”, which, once you read the story, will prove to be particularly apt.

Like BLAZE and so much of DUMA KEY as we have seen to date, this story is not a horror story, or at least has no supernatural element. It is more in line with MISERY and DOLORES CLAIBORNE. It is a tightly-written, exciting novella, well worth tracking down.

The World Horror Convention issue of Postscripts magazine also features a new short-short story by King, along with contributions from fellow Maine author Rick Hautala and many, many others. It may be hard to find off the secondary market, but is well worth the effort.

“Graduation Day” is based, according to the introductory materials, on a dream King had while touring in the UK for LISEY’S STORY. It is set in a suburban town near New York City, as a girl attends her rich boyfriend’s graduation party, and is listening to the snobbish relatives’ remarks about her being his “girlfriend, for now”, to be used for a summer fling and cast aside.

But all of this, the hurtfulness of the biting remarks, and indeed, all the status and power of the boy’s family, becomes trivialized in an instant as New York is suddenly consumed by a flaming, roiling mushroom cloud…

This is a reminder of just how powerful a short-story writer King is, what a master of this form he has always been. The economy of his writing, the ease with which we learn everything we need about the characters, and everything we need about the story, at which point King then ends his tale. There is nothing wasted in this short, stunningly powerful piece.

And if all of this doesn’t fill up your summer reading list, there are a number of fine books available from some other favorites which deserve your attentions.

OTHER THINGS

One of King’s favorite authors is Elmore Leonard, who is back this summer with UP IN HONEY’S ROOM William Morrow), a new novel featuring Carl Webster, the hero of his last novel, THE HOT KID. In this novel, US Marshall Webster is in Detroit, Leonard’s hometown, on the trail of a pair of escaped Nazi POWs. Along the way, he encounters the seductive Honey Deal, the estranged wife of a Nazi who is giving shelter to the men he is seeking. Webster hopes to use Honey to get to the POWs, provided that she can keep her clothes on long enough, and provided that Carl can remain true to his vow not to cheat on his wife, a Marine gunnery sergeant.

The novel takes place in early April, 1945, and takes place after the events in COMFORT TO THE ENEMY, the novel Leonard serialized in the New York Times in 2005. And although it does relate to events in this novel, it is not necessary for readers to have read that novel to enjoy this one. For those who are interested, the novel is still available at the Times’ online sit, in the Funny Pages section of the Magazine. However, only subscribers can access and download the novel.

There is a great deal of plotting and counterplotting, all done with wit and humor. Walter, Honey’s estranged husband, is planning to celebrate Hitler’s birthday by crashing a plane into the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia, killing President Franklin D. Roosevelt, only to have FDR die of a cerebral hemorrhage before he can set his plan in motion.

There are a number of eccentric characters here, including a cross-dressing Balkan spy with a grandiose sense of drama and his paramour, the seductive Vera Mezwa, another woman who seems to have a hard time staying dressed.

This is not quite as tightly written and driving a novel as THE HOT KID, the book which introduced Carl Webster in his ‘30’s heyday, but it is nevertheless a highlight of my summer to date. Leonard’s trademark gift for dialogue and pacing are here in full force, and although the novel’s over-the-top action and tongue-in-cheek flavor keep us from ever feeling a real sense of urgency or jeopardy, UP IN HONEY’S ROOM is nevertheless a great read, not to be missed.

Dean Koontz continues his run of successful, twice-yearly novels with THE GOOD GUY (Bantam), a thriller that pays homage to Hitchcock’s classic “Strangers On a Train”.

Builder Tim Carrier is sitting in a bar one evening when a man comes in and sits near him, mistaking him for a man he has hired to kill a woman. Shortly after this meeting, the killer comes in and mistakes Tim for his employer. At this point, being a good guy – hence the title – Tim decides to intervene, and goes to the assassin’s target and warns her. Together, the two take off on a thrill-a-minute chase across Southern California, with a deadly killer hot on their heels.

In order to triumph, the two must learn, first of all, why the woman, Linda, is targeted for death, and who wants her dead. She is unmarried, and has no idea what she might know that would make her worth killing.

Koontz has created one of his most memorable villains in Krait, the implacable stalker of this novel. A cool, sophisticated, remorseless killer, Krait is sketched as willing to kill for the simplest of reasons, reminiscing as he does about tracking down and punishing authors who say something in their work with which he takes issue. In another instance, he considers paying a visit to the writer of a letter to someone else whose mail his is snooping through. Even his name, Krait, has evil connotations. A krait is an extremely poisonous snake found in India, and should be quite familiar to anyone who has read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”.

The novel is carried as well by the growing relationship between Carrier and Linda, which is set forth primarily through their conversations, which bear the inimitable stamp of Koontz’ uniquely quirky sense of humor, which had for many years been known only to those who were privy to his private correspondence or little-circulated work, but which he began using in his published work to great effect with DRAGON TEARS. The quick, short, snappy back-and-forth between the two is on a par with the best Bruce Willis-Cybill Shepard exchanges on “Moonlighting”, and tells us more about the characters and how they mesh with each other than pages of exposition could, and reveal Koontz’ true mastery of this device.

Koontz continues his reign as one of our best thriller writers with this tightly written, past-paced chiller, which is guaranteed to offer some relief from the heat this summer seems bound to deliver.

John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport returns after a year off in John Sandford’s new novel, INVISIBLE PREY (Putnam). This time around, Davenport finds himself dividing his time between two criminal investigations, the first involving a powerful politician who is accused of statutory rape, and the second involving what soon proves to be a series of brutal murders involving the thefts of valuable antiques.

This latter case catapults Davenport and his team into the rarefied worlds of high-end art and antique collecting, a world more genteel and upper-crust than he – and we, as readers – are used to in this exceptionally well-written series. This is typical of the ways Sandford has managed to keep this series fresh and engaging for seventeen books to date.

Davenport’s wife, Weather, is more of a presence in this novel than she has been for some time, giving us more of a glimpse into Davenport’s home life.

This novel also introduces a trio of vicious killers so unique and quirky that they nearly eclipse Davenport as a focus of our attention. In fact, they are so off the beaten track that it takes a long time for our hero to get on their trail.

But all of the hoi polloi hobnobbing and the heady, upper-crust goings-on in this novel do not get in the way of the action. This is every bit as thrilling, suspenseful and action-packed as the best of the previous entries in this series, and is well worth your time to chase down.

But if your tastes are a little weirder, then by all means don’t miss Chuck Palahniuk’s RANT (Doubleday), the latest novel from the author of the cult classic FIGHT CLUB.
The novel is allegedly an “oral history” of the life and times of one Rant Casey, a peculiar young man who has become to rabies what Typhoid Mary was to that disease.

The story is told through a series of quotes from interviews with his parents, childhood friends – and at least one enemy -- , historians, radio announcers, and many others. The story is set in an alternate world, perhaps in our not-too-distant future, where society is divided into Daytimers and Nighttimers (distinguished in the book by suns and moons appearing after their names). The Nighttimers live a sort of alternative lifestyle, and are either carriers of rabies or are believed to be.

Rant Casey has, from an early age, courted death. He has allowed himself to be bitten by black widow spiders (whose venom causes priapism, the four-hour erection familiar to viewers of ED aid commercials), and of rabid animals in their burrows, and of bees. He is thought to have murdered his aunt by placing bees in her Sunday hat.

And although this would be enough to fill your average novel, Palahniuk gives us even more. This world has the technology to download sensory impressions from people’s head and make them available to be enjoyed vicariously by other people by plugging into ports in the back of their heads. Not much is done with this device, frankly, and the novel might have been better without it.

In the end, as it concludes, RANT goes way over the top – too far over the top, according to a couple of major Palahniuk fans I know, getting into time-travel questions and speculations of the so-called “grandfather paradox”, the idea that one might go back in time and kill one of their ancestors, thus creating the possibility that they might never be born. And Palahniuk suggests an alternate possibility to the paradox – that perhaps by doing so, the time-traveler would become immortal, a god.

But for those who think that whole idea of infected persons deliberately spreading their plague around the world, consider this – Near the end of the novel, Palahniuk makes reference to the Emergency Health Powers Act, “put in place by that President, right after the September 11 fiasco…that act allows the government to brand anyone as a public-health menace, then lock them up for the rest of their life.” You may recall that, serendipitously, this very Act was invoked at around the time of the novel’s release when a man with what ultimately proved to be a low-grade, non-infectious form of tuberculosis, rode around on a plane somewhere. The matter was a nine-days’ wonder, another example of the tempest in a teapot tactics the government and media use to keep us in a compliant state of fear.

For more on that, see Michael Moore’s brilliant documentary, “Sicko”, which comes highly recommended as a way to beat the heat in an air-conditioned theater this summer. It should be required viewing for every citizen between now and election time, real eye-opening stuff, beside which “1408”, the very able adaptation of King’s short story starring John Cusack, pales in scariness, even though it is a very well-done horror film, and messes with your mind instead of drowning you in gore.

So there you go. We’ll be back soon, with a column looking at Marvel’s “Dark Tower” comic, and a few other topics as well. Keep reading, tell all your friends, and read some Stephen King.

ABA/WBC

© 2007 BY TYSON BLUE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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