Sunday, July 21, 2013

INSTALLMENT 27: The Summer of Kings

This summer takes me back to 1985, the legendary "Five-Book Year", when Stephen King published five novels in one year. And not just any novels -- these were by and large landmark novels in King's canon: THE DRAWING OF THE THREE, IT, THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, MISERY and THE TOMMYKNOCKERS. It was year when it seemed one could hardly turn around without running into a new King project. King had said he was doing this to clear out his backlog, and to allow him to take some time off and "let the well fill back up". Oh, and he also wrote and directed "Maximum Overdrive" during that time as well.

The well must not have taken much time to replenish itself, either, because King was right back to work in just a few months. But that was then, as they say, and this summer, although they're not all novels, there's certainly a lot of Stephen King work out there for readers and viewers.

It began with the annual "Summer Reading" issue of Tin House (#56), with the publication of "Afterlife", a new short story. The story first appeared when King read it at a college appearance in Massachusetts earlier this year, but this marks its first print appearance.

"Afterlife" begins with the death of William Andrews, an investment banker with Goldman-Sachs, who dies surrounded by his family after a lingering illness. From there, he goes into the white light so familiar to us all from films, articles and novels, but on the other side of the light is not Heaven or Hell, but rather a waiting room presided over by a man named Isaac Harris.

Harris' name will likely be unfamiliar to readers who are not American, and honestly to most Americans these days. But lawyers will recognize him instantly as one of the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which manufactured women's blouses around the turn of the last century, and was a part of a landmark worker's rights case. They employed mostly women, and because they would step out onto the fire escapes to smoke or get some air, and were suspected of pilfering by their bosses, Harris and his partner locked and chained the doors shut. So when the place caught fire in 1911, almost all of the women working there were either burned alive or jumped to their deaths. And Harris', who was cleared of all wrongdoing by a jury, finds himself in the afterlife, greeting the recently dead on their arrival and offering them a choice of two doors.

This is an interesting variation on the classic short story, "The Woman or the Tiger", as well as a cautionary look at the classic conundrum "If you could live your life over again, would you?". But read the story before you answer -- it might not be so simple as you think.

This was just a warmup, however, for the first major King novel of the year, JOYLAND, the author's second book for Hard Case Crime. It is the story of Devin Jones, a young college student from Maine, and his adventures at the Joyland amusement park in North Carolina during the summer and fall of 1973. It is told from the perspective of the present-day Devin, looking back on this pivotal moment in his life. This is a device King has used to good effect in the past, most notably in THE GREEN MILE and in his screenplay for "Silver Bullet".

The carnival milieu is a familiar one for fantasy and horror writers, having been utilized by, among others, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Dean Koontz, and by King himself in "Night of the Tiger", "Riding the Bullet" and the opening pages of THE DEAD ZONE. And King uses it here to its best effect, fully immersing readers in the carny world, with its unique culture and lingo (although he does make up some "Joyland-exclusive" terms as well, but all of this lends an air of verisimilitude to the novel.

Devin thinks his life is all set -- he and his girlfriend Wendy will finish college together, get married and go off into the sunset together forever. But soon after arriving at Joyland, things begin to change. Wendy dumps him, the park's fortune-teller tells him that he will meet a girl in a red hat and a boy with a dog, and he learns that a ghastly murder took place in the park's House of Horrors.

And the mystery of that murder is solved in the novel's stormy climax, but before that happens, Devin's life changes in many ways, as he discovers his true calling and saves a number of lives along the way, including perhaps his own. And the ending, when it finally comes after one of those lengthy denouements which have become a King trademark of late, is bittersweet and touching, on a par with THE GREEN MILE, RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and 11/22/63.

It is also worth mentioning that King uses weather to reflect the growing tensions in the novel, much as he has in the past, most notably in regard to this novel in "Night of the tiger", where the arrival of a violent storm reflects the dramatic climax of that story.This novel is a highly polished gem, and richly deserves a place in anyone's King collection. JOYLAND is one of those novels you can give someone who says they don't like King because all he writes is horror, in order to prove them wrong and maybe convert them along the way. Its appearance is the highlight of this year to date.

Hard Case Crime elected to make this very special novel even more so by publishing it in a hardcover limited edition, which sold out very quickly. That edition features a new cover painting by Robert McGinnis, whose classic covers featuring scantily-clad, willowy women graced many paperbacks during the '60's, but who is perhaps best-known for his series of James Bond one-sheets from "Thunderball" through "The Man With The Golden Gun". This cover, featuring a bikini-clad woman holding a rifle walking along a storm-swept beach with the dazzling lights of Joyland in the background, fits that tradition admirably. McGinnis also contributed interior drawings to the edition, whose back cover features a map of Joyland, made in the style of the guides given out at such parks to help visitors get around.

In July, Cemetery Dance Publications released an illustrated 85-page hardcover edition of "The Dark Man", a poem King wrote in college. The poem was first published in the Fall 1969 issue of Ubris, and was later reprinted in Moth. in 1970. This publication marks the work's first mainstream publication, and will the first time most readers will have had  chance to see it.

The book is lavishly illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne, whose illustrations for King's two SECRETARY OF DREAMS collections from the same publisher have made him familiar to King fans.The text of the poem is actually integrated into the illustrations, and for those who might be confused by this format, the full text of the poem appears after the illustrated version.

The poem is a series of vignettes of a dark man who has traveled the roads which run, as it were, between the lines of the world we know. It is uncertain if the "dark man" referred to here is Randall Flagg of THE STAND, THE EYES OF THE DRAGON or the DARK TOWER series, but nothing indicates that he is not.

Throughout the poem, King evokes images of the forgotten people, derelicts and bag ladies who have fallen though the cracks of our world and who live in the dark places. Again and again, the poem speaks of people passed by or locked out, while inside "the smuggery of desperate houses...the inside clink of cocktail ice" is heard. And in the final stanza, the outer world of the dark man finally gets the attention of the insular world inhabited by the rest of us in the manner that usually succeeds where all else fails, then as it is today -- violence.

Whether or not the dark man in this poem is Randall Flagg or not, he certainly acts like him, and the poem is certainly King's first published evocation of the iconic figure which has stalked much of his work throughout his career. The poem is certainly quite similar to the litany of travels recited by Flagg at certain points in THE STAND. Even if he is not, the piece stands on its own as an effective evocation of the anger, frustration and resentment held by the have-nots of our society for those who not only have, but lock themselves away in one way or another so that they will not have to take notice of those who have not. That makes this poem as relevant to modern readers as it was when it first appeared.

And one would have to be deaf and blind not to have become aware of the hit television series based on King's "If-the-Tea-Party-Ran-The-World" novel UNDER THE DOME, brought to you by CBS and Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. Although not an unqualified success with King fans unhappy with the liberties the creators have taken with the novel, the series has nevertheless garnered strong ratings to date this summer.

Like the novel, the series begins with the small town of Chester's Mills, Maine, waking to find itself surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable wall which covers the entire town like a glass dome over a piece of cake. The effects work is spectacular for this part, especially when a truck slams into the barrier at full speed. The plane crash looked particularly good, too. Another sequence involving a cow that gets split in half by the Dome is less effective, mainly because the animal appears to have no internal organs, just a mass of what one reviewer called "red goo".

And the casting is generally good, particularly "Breaking Bad" star Dean Norris as Big Jim Rennie.

Nor do I particularly have a problem with the producers' decision to expand the story, since that is obviously a necessity, particularly if, as seems to have happened, the show is picked up for a second season. And so long as those changes make for a better show, that's fine. Some of those decisions, like Junior Rennie keeping his girlfriend alive and locked up in a fallout shelter rather than killing her seems to be a plotline with only limited range, although following the novel's lead in that case would have probably been a bit much for a minastream television series (although after "Hannibal", I wonder...).

But it's when the show sticks closest to the source material, as in the July 22 episode dealing with the launch of the MOAB missile at the Dome, that the show is at its best.Ideally, this should have been conceived as a 13-part miniseries adaptation of the novel, which would have enabled it to be tautly scripted and to build to a satisfying ending, rather than most likely going on for a season or so too long, and just petering out to nothing. You know, like "The Dead Zone", or "Haven". So okay, we'll see what happens.


Nor is Stephen the only King to have new work to delight readers this summer. King's son Joe Hill released his third novel, NOS4A2, late this spring to near universal acclaim. Although Hill's first two novels, HEART-SHAPED BOX and HORNS, as well as his short-story collection 20th CENTURY GHOSTS,  were all fine, even exceptional works, this novel is clearly the work of a writer who has hit his stride, and which can easily stand alongside his father's work.

It is the story of Victoria McQueen, a girl with an uncanny gift for finding lost things, and her lifelong battle with Charles Talent Manx, a sinister figure who prowls the highways and byways of our world and those close by in his Rolls Royce bearing the licnse plate which gives the novel its title.Manx has for years been prowling the country, stealing children and transporting them to Christmasland, a sinister land of eternal winter, of eternal Christmas, where candles play and eerie, malevolent children cavort around a giant holiday tree beneath a garish full moon which stares down from a cloud-filled sky with wild eyes.

There are so many fantastic concepts at work here, particularly the rickety covered bridge McQueen uses to get from place to place, the aforementioned Christmasland, the NOS4A2 Rolls, which has a strange life of its own. Hill even gives a few generous nods to his father's work, including mentions of Derry and Haven and Pennywise, an entity which would, by the way, fit very nicely into this novel's world.

This is in many ways a chase novel, the story of one woman's pursuit of a truly villainous being, stretching across decades, dimensions and worlds before reaching its final, explosive climax. It is easily one of this year's best reads, and you should miss it at your peril.

Also not to be missed is DOUBLE FEATURE, the debut novel by Hill's brother Owen King. We dealt with that novel in our last column, but it bears another mention here for readers who haven't as yet discovered this remarkable book.

It is a comic novel in the tradition of Dickens and John Irving, dealing with the idea that not everything in life turns out exactly the way it started out.Sam Dolan wants to be a filmmaker, hopefully enabling him to come out from under the shadow of his famous father, B-movie legend Booth Dolan, a character heavily modeled after Booth's mentor in the story, film legend Orson Welles.

The film is hijacked by a demented producer and irreparably turned into something else altogether. This leads to its becoming a revered staple on the midnight-movie circuit, thanks in large part to the insertion of sequences featuring a freakishly-endowed goat-man into the story. This does not result in fame or acclaim for Sam, however, who gives up directing and goes into other work, becoming a wedding video artist, and avoiding serious relationships with women whenever possible.

This doesn't keep him from occasional dalliances with women, including a former college girlfriend, now the wife of a retired Yankees player. So, once again, DOUBLE FEATURE is the debut of a major talent, and you should run out right now and grab a copy.

JOYLAND was not the only major release from Hard Case Crime this year. Earlier, the house published a new edition of Harlan Ellison's first novel, WEB OF THE CITY, placing it back in print for the first time in thirty years.

Readers who only known Ellison from his fantasy novels and short stories may be unaware that he first made his mark with a series of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about New York City street gangs, a world he famously researched by infiltrating and running with a Bronx gang in the '50's, which even resulted in his getting arrested and jailed for a short time. Similarly, Hunter Thompson rode with the infamous Hell's Angels motorcycle gang in order to research his first book, and ended up stomped by the gang for his trouble.

The novel tells the story of Rusty Santoro, a young Puerto Rican man who has been running with the Cougars, even been their president, but is now trying to leave the gang behind and make something of himself.  But the more he tries to escape the gang's clutches, the more he finds himself pulled back in.

This is a violent novel, full of individual knife duels and gang rumbles, of trying to escape fate and being enslaved by it. It is an extraordinary first novel and holds up well despite its age.

In addition, this new release includes three short stories originally published in 1950's pulp magazines. The first, "No Way Out", is a 1957 short-story version of WEB, and is an interesting look at the novel as a work in progress. Also included are "No Game For Children" and "Stand Still and Die!", two other gang-related stories.

Readers who are already familiar with Ellison's gang-related fiction will welcome this new look. Those who have never read it are in for a treat, getting to view for the first time the impassioned early writing from one of our greatest tale-spinners.

I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Richard Matheson, and even more to see the absence of any comment on this event in the media.

Matheson needs no introduction to readers of this column, who should be aware of him because of the influence his novel I AM LEGEND had on King in his early years. King has credited the novel with showing him that horror was not confined to a ruined castle of Bavaria, but could take place in a modern setting just as well.

He also wrote THE SHRINKING MAN and BID TIME RETURN, the latter being the basis of the classic film "Somewhere In Time". He scripted many classic "Twilight Zone" episodes, including "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", "Steel" and "Little Girl Lost".He wrote the fan favorite "The Enemy Within" for the original "Star Trek", and also penned episodes of "Have Gun, Will Travel" and the legendary TV movie "Trilogy of T3error", famous for the final sequence where Karen Black flees an evil African doll.

His novels HELL HOUSE and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME and STIR OF ECHOES were also made into movies. He wrote five of Roger Corman's classic Edgar Allan Poe films, including "House of Usher", "The Raven" and my all-time favorite, "The Pit and the Pendulum".

I spoke with Matheson by telephone once, interviewing him for a piece for "Twilight Zone Magazine. He was gracious and courteous, and took the time to answer all of my questions thoroughly, giving me everything I needed to write my piece and more. It remains to this day one of the most enjoyable conversations I have had with a writer.

To think of the massive contribution Richard Matheson made to popular culture, one would have expected his passing to be at least mentioned in newspapers or evening newscasts. But it did not happen, their time being devoted instead to a producer of sitcoms which will be forgotten long before the least of the works named above.

But such is not the case here. Richard Matheson, we will miss you.