Sunday, September 23, 2012


Stephen King's Storied Summer, plus a Few Other Things You Might Enjoy...

Well, here we are in the first weekend of fall, 2012, just a couple days, as I write this, past Big Steve's 65th. And yesterday, for those keeping score, was Stephanie Leonard's birthday -- for those not old enough to remember, Steff is Steve's sister-in-law, and was the creator and long-time editor of the late, great Castle Rock: the Stephen King Newsletter, which from 1984-1989 was the prime source for all things King, the Lilja's Library of its day, and a place which gave many King scholars their first real platform.

But, back to the present. This past summer was most eventful for King fans. For starters, there waas a new novel, which would normally be enough for readers for one season, but that novel was followed in swift succession by a plethora of short stories in a variety of media, making for a more variable and enjoyable literary feast which lasted all summer long. And we'll start with the return to the Dark Tower Universe.

"The Wind Through the Keyhole" is a short novel by latter-day DT standards, almost a vignette, which fits in between the events of "Wizard and Glass" and "Wolves of the Calla". It picks up Roland and his ka-tet as they take shelter in an abandoned tavern in an equally-abandoned town to wait out a starkblast, a super-icestorm wherein temperatures plummet with such speed that trees freeze instantly and literally explode. To while away the time, Roland tells the group the tale of a mission he went on for his father, to investigate the predations of a skin-man, a shape-shifter who is wreaking havoc in one of the outlying towns of Gilead That Was.

And in the course of that tale, Roland recounts how he encountered a young boy who had been orphaned by the best he is seeking, and sought to boost his spirits by telling him a story, the titular "Wind Through the Keyhole", a tale told to him in his own youth, about a young boy who is seeking to avenge his father's murder and to set right a grievous wrong done himself and his mother.

The result is a series of three stories, one nested inside the other like those old Russian dolls. What is truly fascinating here is how each of the tales interacts with and resonates with all of the others. All are tales of people on a uest -- the boy in the story, to solve the riddle of his father's death; for young Roland, to solve the mystery of the Skin Man; and for Roland the tale-teller, his own ongoing quest for the Dark Tower.

And it is also a novel about the healing power of storytelling, of the solace and comfort which is always to be found simply by saying, "Tell me a story."

King has said that this novel is meant to serve as a jumping-on point for Dark Tower first-timers, and it is that. For those of us who have been around for the long haul, however, it also serves as an opportunity to touch base once more with some old friends. Will there be other such chances down the road? We can only hope so.

There has been some speculation about how this novel fits into the continuity of the Dark Tower Universe, along with similar speculation about differences between the novel continuity and that of Marvel's comic version. There is a possible solution for both  -- could it be that these are tales which take place in the rebooted DT Universe, which would take place after Roland reaches the Tower and starts his journey anew?

The novel is available in a lavish tray-cased limited edition from Donald M. Grant, Publishers, the original publishers of the Dark Tower novels, with illustrations by Jae Lee. The trade edition, which features a truly gorgeous wrap-around cover but no interior illustrations, is from Scribner. For those who seek a further variant, there is the Hodder & Staughton edition, which features a cover painting which is made up of thousands of fan photos submitted via Facebook, thus giving fans an opportunity to a part -- albeit a very SMALL  part -- of the cover of a King novel. Hodder also produced a very bare-bones limited edition of the novel, similar to the one they produced for 11/22/63, featuring a slipcase and a facsimile King Signature. I'm still trying to figure out why I would spend more money for a book with a fake signature, but I didn't buy one, so I guess it doesn't matter.

At any rate, recent announcements indicated that it will be a long wait until the next new King novel -- the Hard Case Crime paperback novel, "Joyland", coming in June 2013 -- so it helped to make the wait easier to bear that we have been treated to a number of new short storiesw from King, along with a couple of well-known collaborators.

First up is "The Little Green God of Agony", which appears in "A Books of Horrors", an anthology edited by Stephen Jones and published last fall by the British publisher PS, and released in the US this past April by Cemetery Dance.
In the story, we meet Newsome, an irascible, bedridden old creep who happens to be one of the six richest men in the world. He has survived a devastating plane crash, but now finds himself in intolerable pain as he lies in his Vermont mansion, being tended to by a handful of servants and a full-time physical therapist named Kat. As the tale begins, Newsome has brought in a preacher named Rideout who promises to expel the pain from his body. Kat, who thinks Newsome is just being a sissy and not working hard enough, thinks that Rideout is a fraud out to filch money from Newsome with his tale of a little green god who is living in Newsome's chest and causing him untold agony.

What follows is a quick, messy confrontation, fitting in nicely with the old dark house tradition of ghost stories. It also obviously owes a lot to King's own experiences with physical therapy while recovering from his near-fatal accident back in 1999. Because it draws from such a deeply personal well, this may be the best of this recent crop of short stories.

In the June-July and August issues of "Esquire", King published "In the Tall Grass", his second collaboration with his son, novelist Joe Hill. The story appeared in two parts.
The story begins with a couple, Cal and Becky, who are driving through an isolated, rural part of Kansas (is there a part that isn't?) in their old car with a broken air conditioner, when they hear a cry for help coming from the field of tall grass nearby. Being the young folks in a horror story, they of course pull over and head into the field to investigate, in short order becoming lost and separated from each other. To make things even more complicated, there are no other voices in the grass, some not so friendly. And as if that weren't enough, Becky, who is pregnant, goes into labor...

What follows is a descent into madness, murder, and incestuous cannibalism which is at once satisfying gruesome but somehow curiously empty.

At the center of the field is an open space with a large rock in it, which seems to be a focus for the events of the story, but there is no explanation offered for why these things are going on. The build-up is great, especially in the first part, but the payoff fizzles for some reason. The story has strong echoes of "Children of the Corn", what with its rural setting, young couple on the road, and a child in trouble in a tall field of greenery.

Both King and HIll are phenomenal writers, and their previous collaboration was outstanding, but this one, although beginning VERY strongly, ultimately and unfortunately falls short.

King fares better in his next 2012 outing, another collaboration, this time with his "Faithful" partner, Stewart O'Nan. This short story appeared in August as an e-book and an aduiobook, read by Craig Wasson, on of the better King audio readers.
Another baseball-themed work from the team who brought us "Faithful", the focus this time is on fiction, as an old man living in Florida suddenly starts seeing dead people in the crowd at a Red Sox game. From that start, the tale moves quickly -- too quickly, in fact -- to a chilling conclusion. This time around, I would actually have liked to see the story go on for a greater time, to learn more about the characters, particularly the main character, who starts out as pretty unlikeable, but ends up sympathetic, a feat which is  accomplished in a short span of time and without slowing the momentum of the story one bit. King and O'Nan are masters of their craft, and this short tale is well worth your time, in either format.

The September issue of Harper's Magazine also featured a very short King tale with the curious title, "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation".  This is more of a vignette than a true short story, dealing with a son going to visit his father in a nursing home. the old man suffers from dementia, which makes the visits often painful.

  When son decides to take father out for a meal, events lead to the altercation of the title, with a horrific result which is truly surprising considering the title, which actually does make sense once you read the story, although neither Caped Crusader nor Boy Wonder make an appearance -- directly, that is.

This is amazingly powerful for such a short piece, at times, poignant, at times funny, at times startlingly violent. It is King working on a more subtle, subdued level than the Grand Guignol of "In the Tall Grass", and reveals, especially in context of this summer's spate of stories, his versatility as a writer in the short format.


One writer who has long been cited by King as a major influence and a favorite read is the redoubtable Elmore Leonard, and earlier this year, he showed us why with his new novel, "Raylan". Featuring his recurring character, US Marshal Raylan Givens, who has previously appeared in Leonard's "Pronto" and "Riding the Rap", as well as the acclaimed FX series "Justified", "Raylan" follows the title character through a series of three loosely-related cases running a gamut from trafficking in human body parts, taken from still-living bodies to marijuana dealers who like to get high on their own supply, with a stop in between for union-busting.

Leonard is a master of dialogue, and of getting right to the meat of things, as he shows here to great effect when Raylan goes to serve a warrant on a man and finds him in a bathtub full of bloody ice, missing a kidney. And it's all uphill from there.

Elmore Leonard is a national literary treasure, and richly deserves his award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the American Book Foundation, coming later this year. And this novel gives readers ample reasons why.

About Next Time: If I'm going to try to do this on a regular basis, there is a possibility that the next installment won't actually have any King-related content. Maybe it will. We'll just have3 to see. Hope you enjoyed this installment; be seeing you.