Thursday, November 24, 2016

Installment 28: The Multi-Book Year Strikes Back

Once again, we find ourselves drawn back to the legendary year of 1985, known to us long-time King fans as "The Five-Book Year", during which King published five novels in a single year, and not, for the most part, slouchy novels, either -- THE DRAWING OF THE THREE, IT, THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, MISERY and THE TOMMYKNOCKERS.

This year, we were treated to a similar abundance of titles, four in all this time, and while three of those were not novels, there were, at least, a lot of new King works for our reading pleasure.

The first was the long-awaited conclusion to the trilogy of novels which began with MISTER MERCEDES, END OF WATCH. This novel brings the trilogy to a powerful, action-packed finish, and takes the series in a different direction from the first two entries in the series, something which was previewed in the concluding pages of the second novel, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is done by introducing a supernatural or paranormal element into the story, and I'm ultimately not sure how I feel about that.

 As the novel opens, Bill Hodges and his partner, Holly Gibney, are called in to help with the investigation of an apparent murder-suicide. They are called in because of apparent links between the crime and the so-called "Mercedes Massacre", the crime committed by Brady Hartsfield, who was rendered comatose by Holly during his attempt to set off a bomb at a pop concert. Everyone thinks that Hartsfield is in a vegetative state in a brain injury center, but that is not exactly right.

Hartsfield is awake and aware of his surroundings, and has acquired the ability to astrally project himself into other people's bodies, and is using that ability to prepare to launch a new campaign of terror, utilizing a handheld video game to induce people to kill themselves and/or others, and after a few successful test runs, he is preparing to unleash this on a grand, mass-suicidal scale. And since this isn't the sort of thing that is easily accepted by the general police world, it is up to Bill and his Finders Keepers friends to stop it.

All of this leads to a suspenseful chase through a snowy suburban landscape and the three race against time to stop Hartsfield and his surrogates before it is too late. And, unbeknownst to the others, Bill is facing a ticking clock of his own...

END OF WATCH is an exciting conclusion to one of King's best series, and the introduction of the supernatural element to what has previously been a very procedural story somehow does not jar all that much. It is fun to see these characters that we've grown to know and love over the course of the past two novels, one more time.

Look for a special installment of this blog, coming very soon -- perhaps the next one -- detailing with the entire series as a unit, most likely in advance of the forthcoming novel King has promised detailing the further adventures of Holly Gibney.

Next came SIX SCARY STORIES, the second collection of short stories edited by King (the first being THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES OF 2007), collecting the six finalist entries in a short-story contest sponsored by the British newspaper The Guardian, and by King's British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton. Although published as an ebook on both sides of the pond in the summer, and published in an extremely limited paperback proof edition by Hodder (by extremely limited, think "less than 100") in the early fall, the first and only physical hardcover book edition of the book was published in the US by Cemetery Dance in October.

The first question is "are these stories really scary"? The answer is "not so much". Granted, in my case, that might be because I've spent most of my 64 years listening to and reading scary stories, and have inevitably become a little jaded. I freely admit that I find movies like Kubrick's "The Shining" and "The Exorcist" to be tedious and not scary (and the former is simply a shitty movie), while other people find them terrifying. And at least two of the stories herein are very creepy.

The first of those stories (the winning entry) also happens to be the first in the book. "Wild Swimming", by Elodie Harper, takes place in Lithuania, where a young woman has come to swim in a nearby reservoir which covers an old, flooded town which may not be quite as dead as people imagine it to be. Harper does a superb job of setting up a genuinely ominous atmosphere, from the gloomy weather to the spooky old town with its echoes of Lovecraft's Dunwich, filled with suspicious, unfriendly villagers who are wary of the foreigner who has come to their town to meddle with things best left alone.

The story is written in epistolary style (a favorite technique of mine), using emails. In this it is reminiscent of Bram Stoker's DRACULA, of which it reminds me in many ways. It is Harper's masterful use of atmosphere which gives "Wild Swimming" its haunting quality. I am looking forward to her forthcoming debut novel, THE BINDING SONG, with some anticipation.

The other story in the book which impressed me is Michael Button's "The Unpicking", a deliciously sinister story about what stuffed animals do when their owners are asleep at night. If you are susceptible to this sort of thing, it may keep you awake at night a day or two. Particularly impressive is Button's skill at keeping creepy a premise which could have easily become cutesy or outright funny.

Also interesting is Paul Bassett Davies' "The Spots", wherein the narrator is assigned by the Leader of a banana republic to count a leopard's spots. The story has a unique Kafka-meets-Val-Lewton quality which makes it a compelling read.

Manuela Saragosa's "Eau-De-Eric", is a taut psychological suspense tale in which a mother and her daughter find themselves thrust violently apart over the child's teddy bear, which smells like Mom's dead, abusive husband, the child's father. Again, not scary, but a well-written piece dealing with an unpleasant subject in a compelling way.

"La Mort De L'Amant" by Scottish writer Stuart Johnstone is a tense tale of a chance meeting between a driver and a police officer on an isolated Texas highway, again not scary but extremely suspenseful in a very Hitchcockian fashion.

"The Bear Trap", by Neil Hudson, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, never a favorite genre of mine, with very few exceptions, such as "The Walking Dead" or THE STAND. In this story, a young boy named Calvin (and yes, he does have a stuffed tiger) finds himself home alone defending his isolated home from a marauding raider who is much older and stronger. Like Johnstone's story, suspense is the driving force here, and Hudson does a fine job, bringing the book to a strong conclusion.

All of this is headed off by an introduction by King, telling how he had agreed to select a winner of the competition from six finalists, and how delighted he had been to find that all of the six were very good and, he thought, worthy of publication. It offers an interesting glimpse into King's ongoing love of the thrill of discovering and encouraging new talent, and lets the stories speak for themselves rather than extolling the merits of any of them.

SIX SCARY STORIES, although it does not live up to its title, nevertheless delivers a half-dozen very good tales from six equally good writers. I hope to see much more from them, and thanks and kudos to King for introducing us to them.

The third book is particularly interesting. For a number of years, going back to at least the early 1990's, King's alma mater, the University of Maine, has been hoping to have a Stephen King title to call their own. The most likely candidate would seem to have been a collection of the columns King wrote for the school's newspaper under the title "King's Garbage Truck". But the book which finally emerged in early November was something just a bit different.

While HEARTS IN SUSPENSION does contain four selected "Garbage Truck" columns which have never been reprinted before, the bulk of the book deals with the experience of King and several of his friends and teachers as they lived through the turbulent years of the last half of the 1960's, a time rife with protest over the Vietnam War.

The book features a new introduction "Five To One, One In Five", detailing his real-life experiences at the University's Orono campus, followed by his fictionalized version of that experience, the novella "Hearts in Atlantis", which formed the centerpiece of the collection of the same name which appeared in 1999. That, along with the four "Garbage Truck" columns, forms King's contribution to the book. The rest is made up of essays by friends and faculty at the University, setting forth their recollections of the time as well.

It is good to read "Hearts in Atlantis" again, particularly given the opportunity to contrast the experiences of King's fictional alter-ego, Peter Riley, with those of the author himself. And it is always good to encounter Carol Gerber, the character who travels throughout King's collection, here seen in her arc from bullying victim in "Low Men in Yellow Coats" to bomb-throwing anarchist, always seeking "information" in the mode of Patrick McGoohan's classic television series, "The Prisoner", still the best show ever made in my opinion. It's a little jarring that Pete and Carol are familiar with the series in the fall of 1966, since it did not air in the UK until late 1967, and wasn't seen in the US until the spring of 1968.

The only thing which could have made this portion of the book even better was to include "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling", the denouement of that collection, one of King's best tearjerker endings.

The "Garbage Truck" columns all deal with the anti-war movement and King's involvement therein, except for the last one, a "birth announcement" for the adult King as he leaves the University and moves into the real world. They provide a rare look into King's early nonfiction, and it is interesting to note how sharply honed his skills were, even at this early stage of his career. I've read all of the columns in preparation for my book, THE UNSEEN KING, and I truly hope he allows them to be published in their entirety someday. Constant readers and scholars alike would find them of interest.

The final section of the book, the essays by classmates and friends, offer a unique opportunity to see King in his early years through the eyes of people who interacted with him on a daily basis. They include Harold Crosby, his freshman roommate, who describes his constant typing, handing him short stories to read from time to time (he wishes now he had gotten King to sign copies and give them to him). David Bright, editor of the Maine Campus, describes King's work ethic in producing his columns on schedule, and what happened the one time he interfered with that schedule. Bright, who appeared as a character in THE DEAD ZONE and later in THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, also describes his interactions with King later on, as well.

The last book of the year is something a little bit different, in that it has appeared in print before, CHARLIE THE CHOO-CHOO, a children's book, appeared in 1991 in THE DARK TOWER III: THE WASTE LANDS, illustrated by artist Ned Dameron. And this year, to celebrate THE DARK TOWER's having finally come to the screen, it was decided to release the story as a book of its own, complete with the Dameron illustrations. For this release, King has adopted the pseudonym Beryl Evans, the fictional writer who had created the book in DT III.

The book was originally produced in a very limited edition for distribution at Comicon in San Diego, where it immediately vanished, leaving in its wake a huge demand. Fortunately, it was decided to release the book in a mass-market edition for market consumption.

Although the story has appeared before, it is nice to see it being given this treatment in a large format (8"x 9") that shows Dameron's artwork to full advantage. Readers will recall that the illustrations created a sinister counterpoint to the actual story of Engineer Bob and his train, Charlie. The story itself is a story of friendship and loyalty, as Engineer Bob discovers one day on the Topeka run that Charlie is alive, and talks to him on their long trips together past waving children who turn out to greet the old steam engine as he chuffs his way across the plains.

But when Charlie is put out to pasture and shunted off to a siding in lieu of a shiny new Diesel engine, Engineer Bob decides that his railroading days are over. But when an emergency arises that requires the president of the Mid-World Railroad, Mr. Martin, to get to Topeka in a hurry, and the Diesel is nowhere to be found, Engineer Bob has a great idea...

The story itself is a great children's story, but, as mentioned earlier, Dameron's illustrations lend the story a sinister quality which escapes a simple reading. As Jake notes while reading the book in THE WASTE LANDS, Charlie's grin looks more than a little predatory, and the children who are riding in his cars as he and Engineer Bob ride out their days in an amusement park, they look a little ...terrified?

CHARLIE THE CHOO-CHOO is an interesting King book -- one to read to the kiddies or grandkids in all innocence, but still fun to enjoy for the extra frisson the illustrations add for older readers.

There is some precedent for a book which began life as part of a longer work appearing on its own at a later date, and it just happens to be a children's book as well. That was A SOUND LIKE SOMEONE TRYING NOT TO MAKE A SOUND, by King's friend and fellow novelist John Irving. That book appeared in Irving's 1998 novel A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR before being published as a children's book in 2004.

Now, if you really wanted to make it a five-book year again, and you're not too particular about the fifth title qualifying as a totally new book, you could include the paperback edition of THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS,  which includes a new story, "Cookie Jar". The story appeared in the summer in the Virginia Quarterly Revue and online, where most people probably read it.

The story concerns, oddly enough, a magical cookie jar which never runs out of an endless variety of fresh cookies. And of course, being a King story, the whole thing takes a decidedly sinister turn when the young man who has the jar decides to find out what is at the bottom of it.


Ever since 1959, first with the publication of the original novel PSYCHO by Robert Bloch and its subsequent and legendary film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock, people have been fascinated by fiction's most famous cross-dressing killer, Norman Bates. What happened to him after he was arrested for all those murders committed by the mad mother living inside his head?

Bloch provided some answers in his 1982 novel PSYCHO II, which had nothing to do with the 1983 film of the same name, just as its Tony Perkins-directed sequel, 1986's PSYCHO III, had nothing to do with Bloch's 1990 novel PSYCHO HOUSE.

From a literary standpoint, Bloch killed off Norman Bates early on in PSYCHO II, although we didn't find out about it until the end of the book. So that placed limits on the extent to which the PSYCHO universe could be explored by anyone wishing to do so.

Fortunately, there was one part of the story which was left open -- the time Bates spent locked up in a mental institution. What happened to him during that time? And fortunately, now we know.

Chet Williamson was authorized by the Bloch estate to write a new novel exploring Norman's institutional life, and that novel, PSYCHO: SANITARIUM, is a thoroughly enjoyable, suspenseful read.

Set in 1960, the novel picks up with Norman residing at the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where his treatment is being overseen by Dr. Felix Reed, who is trying to bring him out of the catatonic state in which he resides, along with the persona of his mother, Norma Bates.

They are hampered in this effort by patients and staff who think the inmates should be treated as prisoners rather than patients, and things get even more complicated when Robert Newman, who claims to be Norman's long-lost brother, turns up and seeks to connect with Norman. And that's not to mention the building itself, long rumored to be haunted, rumors that seem to take on new credence when a series of murders begin to take place.

Williamson has created an exciting, fast-paced suspense thriller here, one which can hold its own with Bloch's masterpiece. Even the famous shower sequence makes a reappearance here, and it gets more space in this novel than Bloch gave it (his account is literally two sentences long). Fans of both books and films will find this enthralling, and there is even the possibility of further entries in the series to come. Time will tell.