Lisey’s Story (2006) by Stephen King


Scott the great American author is dead and Lisey the widow needs to clean up the house while looking after her sister Manda-bunny the crazy person. A professor and his former drinking buddy are after the author’s archives and manuscripts and a cat is stuffed into a mailbox. Lisey’s memory comes bit by bit and there’s hereditary madness and a weird moon or something and… I have absolutely no idea what the novel was about.

Except loss, although none of it really registers through the full throttle nonsense. King himself rates Lisey’s Story as his favourite, although most fans disagree. To be honest, the premise of the book never attracted me and the only reason I picked it up is the upcoming TV series.

The plot is thin and it’s very hard to connect with the characters. Scott the great and magnificent author is so universally admired it seems almost a parody, and his ha-ha funny personality and affection for wordplay are borderline insane. The repetition of invented words (babyluv, what the smucking smuck is a bool?) is grating to say the least, and punching your fist through a greenhouse glass is a deeply odd way to court a lady. While Lisey, whose literary taste peaks at Shirley Conran, and who doesn’t immediately run from a self-harming nutcase that is Scott, feels just… boring. She’s a devoted widow and a sister and… and…? Nothing. The threat, such as it is, comes mostly from a professor and an unhinged student, something that feels like a petty swipe.

King has earned some leeway, but Lisey’s Story spends it all. There’s nothing here, just an empty void, a rumination on how great a guy some fictional author was, even when he really was just getting on everyone’s nerves, with some forced supernatural elements thrown in just because. Even as a non-horror, non-thriller novel Lisey’s Story seems cheap and pointless, with its childish storyline and vacuum-packed emotions. A novel about an author directed mostly at people who know and love authors personally, the novel’s exhaustive navel-gazing offers very little to the rest of us poor schmucks.

* (1/5)

Later (2021) by Stephen King


Horror and crime meet in the middle and slap their genre-stained hands in Stephen King’s third entry in the Hard Case Crime series of short novels. The horror part is young Jamie’s ability to see and talk to dead people (but not like the kid in that Bruce Willis movie), and crime comes in the form of a corrupt cop seeking to use Jamie’s ability for her own benefit. And who would’ve guessed, King makes it all purr like a cat on catnip.

Jamie’s special ability is quickly established – the dead people appear as they were when they died, sometimes disfigured, often unnoticeable from the living, before slowly fading into nothingness. When questioned, they always tell the truth. The only child of a single parent slash literary agent Tia, Jamie’s special abilities come in handy when an eccentric but bestselling author Regis passes away without leaving any notes for the last novel of his epic romantic saga. Eager to turn her fading fortunes, Tia asks her son to find out from the dead author the plot and details of his book so she can complete the book, a sure bestseller. Along for the desperate salvage operation from beyond is Liz, Tia’s girlfriend and a corrupt cop who begins to take note of Jamie’s abilities. Later, Liz asks Jamie to find out from a dead bomber Therriault where his last bomb is located. But somehow, Therriault doesn’t want to answer and (later) doesn’t want to fade away like all the others. He just sticks around, appearing to Jamie like the ghosts of the movie It Follows.

Ostensibly written by a 20-something Jamie long after the events, Later is similar in tone to Joyland, although not quite as high on nostalgia. King’s writing is as good as usual if not better, the short form fitting Jamie’s testimonial style to a tee. There’s a head-scratching side plot involving Jamie’s background and his uncle Harry, which doesn’t really contribute much to the overall plot. The references to deadlights and the Ritual of Chüd (from It) also draw unnecessary attention to themselves and an earlier fictional world, when something less flashy would’ve easily done the trick and kept the coherence of the story he’s telling now – even if they are nice nods to constant readers.

Later is as good as any latter-day King novels, a near-perfect novel with an excellent ear for language. There’s no reason not to read it, and it has significantly more weight than his recent short novel Elevation, for instance. There’s a lot of plot, but when Later hits that atmospheric sweet spot with the horror, it’s gold. The crime angle feels a lot sketchier and cliched, but I guess that’s the trademark of these tributes to vintage crime paperbacks.

**** (4/5)

Carrie (1974) by Stephen King


So here’s a girl who needs no introduction. Carrie is Stephen King’s firstborn, but she’s a surprisingly mature novel for her age. A telekinetic outcast who wreaks havoc on her high school and her tormentors is a simple (“simple as a fairy-tale”, as King himself states in On Writing), straightforward storyline, but the trick is in the structure.

King mixes the narrative with flash-forwards to reports and accounts and even Reader’s Digest articles recorded long after the events of the novel, creating not only a sense of realism but also an ominous sense of doom which hangs heavy over the story. We know Carrie’s not going to live happily ever after. We know most characters won’t survive. King teases the ending, “the Black Prom”, well in advance, and so tactfully it makes the reader want to figure out how the dominoes will fall, because they must and they will. Similar devices can be found in earlier horror literature, from Lovecraft to Machen, and of course King was familiar with them all. A modern day cinematic comparison might be a found-footage mockumentary.

Fortunately King was a master storyteller from the moment he burst out of the gate. The famous rhythm of language is already here, as are the New England character types that will become almost stock figures in later novels. The nasties, Chris Hargensen and her Billy, are as slimy creeps as any in King’s bibliography.

Finnish edition cover

But underneath all the good storytelling and spectacle Carrie is a deeply sad, sorrowful novel about a girl who is oppressed by her overtly religious mother and her peers. The sequence of events which culminates in the bloodbath could’ve been avoided at any point, but of course, this is a horror novel and in a horror novel events will always conspire against the protagonists. Often their fate might seem at least partly deserved, but here it feels almost sadistic. Carrie’s death scene is a wrenching sight to behold. There’s no evil, no monster, just a lonely, confused, dying girl crying out for her mother. The world of Carrie, in the end, isn’t black and white, just different shades of blood red.

With Carrie, Stephen King earned his spurs and a lasting reputation which hasn’t really flagged (hardy har har) at any time since.

***** (5/5)

Revival by Stephen King

US edition (Scribner)

Frankenstein meets The Great God Pan in a story that spans a lifetime of two men; the fates of young Jamie Morton and reverend Charlie Jacobs become intertwined when the latter becomes the town’s new reverend. Affable and easygoing, he’s liked by everyone – until he loses his family in an accident and angrily renounces God.

But there’s a new god waiting in the wings for the good old reverend: electricity. While we follow Jamie’s exploits (first love, first band, drug addiction, calm middle age), Jacobs uses his growing knowledge to go from a reverend to a carnival attraction to a spiritual healer, and later cures Jamie from his addiction. But some of Jacobs’ patients and test subjects begin to experience strange side effects, giving clues about Jacobs’ ultimate goal: to look beyond the veil of reality.

It’s straight out of Arthur Machen, the man credited in CAPITALS on the first page of the book; the final patient is even called Mary, just like in Machen’s story. But it’s mostly seasoning; structurally the novel is familiar King territory, reminiscent of From a Buick 8 or Joyland (there are many references to that novel’s carnival vocabulary). And on his home turf, King is undeniably the best there is. Revival is a great yarn, full of nostalgia and experiences that ring true. King’s characterisations are always above and beyond most in horror fiction.

But the seasoning can sometimes overwhelm the more astute reader. There’s the (silly) namechecking of certain mythos tomes, such as Robert Bloch‘s De Vermis Mysteriis or even the (bloody) Necronomicon. Perhaps King is having fun at the fanboys’ expense (others probably won’t even notice), but such references went out of style already back when August Derleth was churning out Lovecraftian pastiches.

UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton)

The ending, or the great revelation of what waits us beyond death, is straight-up cosmic horror: death is no escape, only a doorway to something worse. The reader gets a small glimpse of the thing clawing out of Mary’s mouth, and it’s just enough – the reader’s imagination will take care of the rest. And the wave of suicides and murders in the wake of the final event echo Call of Cthulhu with its communal madness. There’s a lot of excellent ideas beneath the surface, even if the surface occasionally feels a bit too pleasant – King’s homespun horror stylings are perhaps too cosy and sane for all-out Lovecraftian horror. Even with the grumbles, Revival is a great novel, with a wonderful, solid emotional core.

**** (4/5)

Published in 2014 by Scribner. Visit the author’s site and get the new novel Finders Keepers (out in June)!

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor_SleepHis name is Dan and he’s an alcoholic. He’s a drunk for the first part of the novel anyway; thanks to AA Dan sobers up and finds something like a purpose in his life, becoming a hospice worker who helps dying folks shuffle off their mortal coils. Meanwhile he also becomes a mentor to a small kid named Abra, who similarly shines, stronger than Dan ever did.

Little Danny Torrance of The Shining (1977) becomes Doctor Sleep‘s (2013) 40-something Dan in several quick steps, the novel skipping sprightly from the smouldering ruins of the Overlook hotel to the present day, discarding its old seventies skin for the new, sparklier and magic-infused storytelling of latter-day Stephen King novels. Some characters are the same and Jack Torrance‘s shadow looms large in Dan’s life, but otherwise it’s a brand new ballgame in a brand new ballpark.

There are elaborate villains, for one: a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot. Rambling along the highways of America in their RVs and their campervans, they subsist on something called the steam, a vapor they extract through torture from kids who shine. Through several circumstances, their leader Rose the Hat (thus called because she wears a hat) fixates on the young Abra. With the help of Dan and several other folks, Abra fights back.

So gone are the subtle cabin fever atmospherics of The Shining; instead, it’s an action-packed psychic fightfest from New England to Colorado, with body swaps and all sorts of mental trickery. And it’d be lying to say it’s not fun; it is, extremely, and funny too, with generous doses of humour sprinkled throughout (a particular passage underlines a villain as truly evil because he abhors baseball). King has certainly enjoyed writing the novel, and it shows.

The result is almost too relaxed; the writing and plotting are very loose, events and characters often nearly cartoonish. The villains are somewhat hapless as well, suffering from malnutrition and dying of measles. The dangers are mild, and none of the good guys dies in the book, except for centenarians at the hospice whose time it is to croak anyway. And you can trust even mad Jack to swoop in with a helping hand and a wink, as the finale plays out on the site of the old hotel. Some grit and edge would’ve improved the novel that now seems slightly too nice and polite at times; too neat.

There are several references to Joe Hill‘s excellent NOS4A2 along the way, and there does seem to be something of a mental kinship between the two novels, both being modern fantasy rather than ballbreaking horror. In the end Doctor Sleep may be a sequel to The Shining, but it’s none too nostalgic about it.

**** (4/5)

The Long Walk by Richard Bachman

TheLongWalkKids in America take the Long Walk in a 1979 sports novel (of a sort) by Richard Bachman. One hundred boys set out, and they will walk day and night, in rain or shine, until one by one they are (literally) eliminated from the competition for slowing down or stopping. Whoever endures the longest will be the winner – everyone else will be dead.

The story focuses on 16-year-old Ray Garraty, who falls in with a small group of other Walkers – “The Musketeers”, they call themselves. Their motives for signing up for the race are stunningly vague; most of them seem to be in it just because they have a death wish, implying that in the ultra-conservative future of the Long Walk youth suicides are made into a spectator sport (perhaps in order to improve statistics, to show how mentally healthy the society is under the new regime?).

The novel follows its simple countdown structure doggedly throughout, not once deviating from it. There’s very little backstory, and none of the outside world is fleshed out in any detail, except for the big brother style figure of “the Major” who runs the Walk, and the seething, bloodthirsty crowds, who are almost an entity unto themselves. But basically there’s just the Walk, starting from the Canadian border and snaking its way down through Maine towards Boston, and the patter of 100 pairs of feet on the asphalt.

It does get a bit tedious after a while. That may be the point; the competition is explicitly made out to have a psychological aspect as well, and it’s hinted that some winners have gone insane. No wonder, watching 99 fellow walkers get blown away would presumably trigger a hell of a survivor’s guilt (there’s no doubt some symbolism with the Vietnam war at the root of the novel). The novel’s severely limited approach is structurally great; as entertainment, however, it doesn’t quite maintain its sparkle throughout, with the latter half visibly dragging (like some of the Walkers by that point).

While the novel is the first one Stephen King ever wrote, it does contain some strikingly well-written passages. The landscape of Maine as the road twists and turns is brought vividly to life, and most of the Walkers are given personal characteristics, even those who only appear for a sentence or two. There are some odd details – some walkers apparently wear leather and jeans – making sports of the future seem decidedly retro.

*** (3/5)

Joyland by Stephen King

JoylandSet in a seafront amusement park in 1973, Joyland (2013) by Stephen King is a bittersweet coming of age story with all the heartache, sadness and nostalgia such a story warrants.

It’s the story of one 21-year-old Devin Jones, how he lost his first love, wore a dog suit and solved a murder while working a summer job at a dilapidated indie carny with colourful characters, a secret language and a ghost.

The ghost of Linda Gray fittingly haunts a ride called Horror House. Her killer was never caught, but some can still see Linda at the site of her murder, holding her hands out, appealing for help.

The crime and the ghost are secondary; the main focus is on Devin as a young man. Similar to King’s other nostalgic tales, such as The Body or Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Joyland is a sepia-toned account told in the first person by an older Devin. King balances his storytelling well; the reminiscence never feels manufactured or saccharine, but genuinely heartfelt. Devin’s girl troubles and emotions are, after all, known to all young men.

Naturally, Devin’s experiences go above and beyond the norm; with the help of his friends and co-workers Erin and Tom, he begins to research the murder of Linda Gray, eventually figuring out the clues (this is a Hard Case Crime novel, after all). Along the way Devin befriends a dying boy and his mother, who become instrumental in the redemption of both Linda Gray and Devin himself.

The setting, a second-tier carny, is a world unto itself, complete with its own slang, the Talk. Full of terms and expressions such as “rubes” or “tipsed” or “carny-from-carny”, the secret carnival lingo is half invented, but most of it is based on real slang and all of it works to create an atmosphere that convincingly transports the reader in both time and place.

The slang may have inspired King to write some of the best storytelling of his long career; the language flows effortlessly, filled with small details, humour and warmth. King’s always been a great storyteller, but Joyland is something exceptional. In spite of being low on horror and action, the first three quarters of the book are spellbinding, a true testament to the power of fiction. The final quarter, with its emphasis on the crime, feels almost unnecessary.

***** (5/5)

Cujo by Stephen King

CujoMan’s best friend goes on a rampage in Cujo, a 1981 novel by Stephen King. Supposedly written under the influence, Cujo’s rather modest position in King’s canon belies its quality as a powerful piece of horror.

Surely it’s no The Shining or Salem’s Lot, but there’s a sheer, unbridled energy in these pages. This simple story about a rabid dog has a vicious, nervous quality to it, the way it determinedly moves the characters around, setting them up for a final showdown: the Trentons, Donna and her son Tad, cooped up in a broken Pinto while Cujo, a giant, insane St. Bernard, waits outside.

The meat of the story is in the events that lead up to the Pinto; there’s the husband Vic with his work problems, there’s Donna’s spurned lover with his petty revenge, there’s Cujo the dog getting bit by a bat, and so on. The story segments come in a steady succession of paragraphs, with no chapter breaks. There’s an inevitability to the events that make reading feel like watching a train crash; you’re uncomfortable, you know what’s going to happen… but you still keep turning the pages.

It’s a wicked recipe, but it works. Cujo changes from a cuddly giant into a mindless beast, with King occasionally giving us a peek into the dog’s constantly eroding consciousness. While the novel’s firmly grounded in reality, there are small sprinkles of the supernatural, some foreshadowing shadowplay and a hint of telepathy, both giving the novel an extra oomph precisely where it counts.

It’s tempting to read King’s own alcoholism at the time of the novel’s writing into the story: the owner of Cujo certainly likes his drink, his family is scared of his violent nature and it’s because of his oversight (Cujo is not vaccinated against rabies) that good old Cujo becomes a killing machine. Alcoholism is, of course, a disease that creates monsters, same as rabies. It might not be quite as brutal, but it’s a nasty business all the same.

**** (4/5)

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Buick8From a Buick 8 (2002) is a Lovecraftian dark fantasy as interpreted by Stephen King; the big, cosmic ideas are there, but it’s all wrapped up in neat, homely Americana.

It’s also a novel about storytelling. The policemen of Troop D, not at all dissimilar to the prison guards of E Block in The Green Mile, gather around the son of one of their own in present day to share the story of a decades-old secret kept in storage shed B.

Troop D’s very own miracle-making John Coffey is a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, a car that even in real life has that repellent “Innsmouth look”. Indeed, there is something fishy about the vehicle. Left at a gas station in the seventies, Troop D soon discovers that the car is merely a prop. A prop that hums and puts on spectacular lightshows they dub “lightquakes”.

But there’s more; occasionally the Buick “gives birth” to strange, unearthly creatures, appearing from the trunk and probably originating in another dimension. And people as well as gerbils that go too near the car go missing, presumably travelling in the opposite direction. It’s a far-fetched proposition, a Buick as a portal to other worlds, but it’s also quintessentially King. The policemen, like some guardians of an arcane secret, keep the Buick locked up and under observation for decades.

From a Buick 8 is not an action-packed story; for the most part the Buick just sits there in its shed, with the cops peering in through the shed windows. It’s the mystery that drives the story, the weird, inexplicable nature of things “from beyond” that the smalltown cops could never even begin to comprehend.

But they give it a brave try, and their camaraderie bestows the story with warmth in a way that only Stephen King can create. The policemen live, they retire, they die – as all men must. And the structure of the novel allows them to tell their tale with their own voice. It’s this kind of narrative choices that drive home the point that King is a seriously prodigious writer in full control of his craft.

***** (5/5)