There are some people who read all his books as they come out and others who would never read a Stephen King novel. But for me, this was my first reading of his work. A complete King novice, if you will, although there are of course several stunning films to recall. So I approached this book with an open mind. I really did.
Everything that has been said about Stephen King has already been said many times, so, dear reader, I will get straight to it. There are four long short stories in this volume, with an afterword in which he explains the inspiration for the stories. King is one of those rarities, a writer who likes to write about himself, writing. As he comments in his afterword (if you like to start at the end – this could, in some ways, easily be a foreword, but might give the game away), these stories are about what people might do “under certain dire circumstances.” He even goes so far as to say that his characters in these stories are “trying to do the right thing.”
I’m not so sure about that. At least, not in the case of Wilfred Leland James, a struggling Nebraska farmer, who tells his story in “1922.” Wilfred is a haunted man, almost from the day he kills his “nagging and ungrateful wife.” (No, that is really not a spoiler – Wilfred tells you this right up front). An agonizingly slow descent into darkness follows, and our hero drags his son down, down with him. Wilfred appears to justify his actions by suggesting that another man, “a stranger, a Conniving Man,” had taken over and is guiding his actions. But there is never anything in the narrative to indicate that a finer man co-exists with the Conniving One. He is apparently well-educated, but married to an extremely coarse woman who disgusts him – an unlikely scenario, I would suggest. His wife Arlette is a caricature – one wonders how this intellectual farmer would really have endured her for fifteen years – and their only son, in his way, a caricature too, or rather a two-dimensional victim of circumstance. But oh, “Make it stop! Make them stop!” I wished it would.
On to the second story, “Big Driver.” Again, we are supposed to find the protagonist at least mildly likeable and sympathetic. This time it is a woman writer, a somewhat fussy and reserved woman who is not comfortable with strangers – and is extremely uncomfortable with one stranger, in particular. She talks to her GPS named Tom and an unlovable cat named Fritzy. After the trauma at the abandoned convenience store (great setting, actually) our heroine reveals her dark side too (yes, the Courageous Woman)…and takes to cursing foully and…well… The other endearing characters in this dreary little tale include a lesbian bookstore owner, the eponymous big driver and a greedy dog – even the animals are stereotypes. I did not care.
By far the best two stories are the last two. “Fair Extension” is the shortest in the book, and a neat piece of story-telling. Again, the opening scene is perfectly painted – one of those half-abandoned stretches of land on the outskirts of a provincial airport. It is here, in the red light of the setting sun, that the terminally ill Dave Streeter meets a curious character whose name is…one of those not-very-cryptic crossword puzzle clues. It takes just a page or two to figure out who the “pudgy little man” is. The tongue-in-cheek tone is a relief after the heavy-handed style of the first two stories. It’s a sour little tale, to be sure, but has its merits. And “things have a way of balancing out in the end.”
A Darker Wife emerges in the final story, “A Good Marriage.” And really, by this time I was finding these Alter Egos quite annoying, and unnecessary – we already got the picture, surely, and they add nothing to the narrative or the character development, if there is any. But in the last story there are good little details of married life – telling, and often amusing glimpses of a twenty-seven-year old, middle class life together. Bob and Darcy Madsen tolerate each other’s faults and are perfectly accustomed to each other’s eccentricities. Essentially, the story is convincing, partly perhaps because it is a story that seems familiar. That is, if one has ever read the unfolding stories of serial killers and their wives, from the mundane to the macabre. The dialogue is also much more carefully crafted; in particular a long conversation between Darcy and a semi-retired investigator. And there is the nice imagery of the bird that lives in a crocodile’s mouth – tolerated, because she keeps his teeth clean. It works.
It seems to me that all these stories are written with a screenplay in mind. How easy it would be to adapt any one of them into yet another money-spinner. The scenes are clearly delineated and the settings are perfect film sets – the lighting, for example, and some key details. A rattling tin sign, an old well in a farmyard, a neatly organized garage. Nothing too subtle, linear story-telling, dashes of horror (of course) and sexual innuendo – and with a good musical score and a couple of recognizable actors, he’s got it made.
So there you have it. My first reading of a Stephen King book, and he has already written over fifty of them. It may well be my last, but at least I gave it my best shot.
Author Note: Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine in 1947. His parents divorced when he was very young, and his mother struggled to bring up Stephen and his brother as well as care for elderly parents. Influenced in his schoolboy years by horror comics such as “Tales from the Crypt” and H.P. Lovecraft, King began writing seriously during his sophomore year at the University of Maine at Orono, authoring a weekly column for the campus magazine. He graduated with an English degree in 1970 and married Tabitha (also a writer) a year later; they first met, appropriately, in the college library. He taught English in a nearby public high school, writing short stories and working on novels in his spare time. He regularly sold his short stories to men’s magazines, many of which were collected in “Night Shift.” His first novel, “Carrie,” was published in 1974. His two subsequent novels, “The Shining” and “The Stand,” were set in Colorado, where he lived for a short period. In 1977 he began teaching creative writing at the University of Maine. In the late 1970s he began his “Gunslinger” series of fantasy novels, which have since been adapted by Marvel Comics. Around this time, he also published five novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. In 1999 King was walking along a road reading when he was struck from behind by a van; he suffered multiple injuries and subsequently severe pneumonia from a punctured lung. In 2002, frustrated by his lack of stamina, he announced he might retire from writing. But he has continued, with one of his longest novels “Under the Dome” in 2009. “Full Dark, No Stars” published in November 2010, and his next novel planned for November, 2011. Another in the “Dark Tower” series of Gunslinger novels is to be published in 2012. King has to date written over fifty books, including the acclaimed “On Writing,” which has just been republished in a tenth anniversary edition. Some of his novels and short stories have been made into thirty-four movies; the first was “Carrie” (1976) and the most recent were “1408” and “The Mist” in 2007. He and Tabitha still live in Maine, where they own a local radio station, The Zone Corporation. Both their sons, Owen King and Joseph Hillstrom, are fiction writers; their daughter is a church minister in Florida. King won the Grand Masters Award of the Mystery Writers of America in 2007, and the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003 from the National Book Award. He has won numerous other fantasy and horror book awards.
- What Scares the Artists Who Scare Us? (time.com)
- Stephen King Prefers Metallica and Anthrax to Ozzy and Black Sabbath(noisecreep.com)
- The Official Stephen King Web Presence (stephenking.com)
- Mystery Writers of America (mysterywriters.org)
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King