Monday, November 23, 2009

Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part III

PhotobucketAs I just cracked open the 14,000-page monolith that is Stephen King's latest, "Under The Dome," I thought I'd get back to this occasional series. You can accuse King as a writer of many talents and some flaws, but nobody can ever argue that he's unproductive -- how many millions of words has he written in the last 30 years, anyway? An entire bookshelf in my house creaks with tattered King paperbacks. Yet this period, from about 1984-1994, saw a blue ton of new King works. For the first time, though, the endless churn seemed to affect his stories -- by the mid-1990s King's works were getting more bloated and less gripping. Nobody could keep up this pace forever, and King's life was going to change in a big way by 1999 with a near-fatal car accident.

PhotobucketThe Talisman: An unusual beast, a collaboration between King and author Peter Straub. Straub's voice seems to add a bit of surreal mystery as young Jack travels through a parallel world looking for a cure for his dying mother. A great fantasy novel with touches of King's gory reality, and a rare collaboration that really works. An unusual King book, but well worth seeking out. Grade: A-

Thinner: Another "Richard Bachman" pseudonymous piece by King, the last before his "secret identity" was revealed, and probably the best after "The Long Walk." A one-note idea -- nasty gypsy curse! -- but it's carried with a sinister charm and is a tight, fast and freaky read. Grade: B

Skeleton Crew: King's second collection of EC Comics-esque short stories, bitter little babies with hooky ideas. Some of these are just great, among King's best short fiction - "The Mist," "The Jaunt," "Word Processor of the Gods," the grotesque but very effective "Survivor Type." There's also a fair amount of filler and chaff but the gems here outshine the low spots. King's immense imagination in full flight. Grade: B+

PhotobucketIt: King's finest hour, even better than "The Stand" I'd say. An ode to childhood and a nightmare about the forces that end it, with King's best character work ever as he follows a group of lovable loser children into adulthood, and their ongoing battle against the forces of darkness -- in the incarnation of a serial-killing clown, of course. Well, clowns are creepy, aren't they? Anyway, in "It," King manages to have some of his most indelible characters, scariest moments and most inventive creations -- in other words, it's super-sized King at his peak. Biggest flaw - an ending that gets too mumbo-jumbo metaphysical for its own good. And well, yeah, it's bloody long, but in this case, it's a book I just didn't want to stop reading. Great books get to be as long as they want. Grade: A+

Eyes of the Dragon: It's almost "young adult fiction" for King, an unusual fairy-tale style fantasy story that's got ties to "The Stand" and a great deal of foreshadowing for styles and themes in "The Dark Tower" series. Very different than anything King had done up to this point; not as good as some of his later fantasy novels would be, but an interesting warm-up. Grade: B

The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three: Not as stark and unique as the first book in the series, but King's wider canvas becomes apparent as Roland the lone Gunslinger starts to form a ka-tet, or family, as he continues his quest for the Dark Tower. Not a lot to say about this one that I didn't on the first -- this saga would eventually swell to seven books and thousands of pages, and become one of King's biggest statements. Grade: A-

Misery: One of the classics. While King is known to suffer from authorial bloat, "Misery" is tight, tense and unrelentingly claustrophobic. King, like a lot of fiction writers, has done the "writer as protagonist" cliche a bit too much, but this one really delves into the symbiotic tie between fan and creator, and Annie Wilkes is one of his best characters. Plus, I'd rank this as one of King's flat-out scariest tomes. Grade: A-

PhotobucketThe Tommyknockers: This tale of alien invasion in backwoods Maine (where else?) is rather disliked by many of King's fans, but I kind of enjoy it for its unrelenting bleakness and the sinister vibe of mystery set up by an alien ship buried for thousands of years that comes back to life. And I like that King steps outside the horror milieu into a more creepy science-fiction realm. It's not perfect (too long, and too many characters -- unlike "It," this didn't need to be 700+ pages) but I actually find this one of my more favorite Kings. I dunno, maybe I just like alien invasions. Grade: B+

The Dark Half: For me, this is where King enters a gentle decline for much of the late 80s-early 90s. (Some would say it starts with "Tommyknockers.") An author's pseudonym comes to life and starts a murderous rampage. While the dual identity idea is interesting, King doesn't say much truly new, and I'm sorry, but the conclusion of this novel just got ludicrous (sparrows?!?). Grade: C+

Four Past Midnight: Another collection of novellas, but nowhere near as good as "Different Seasons." "The Langoliers," about an airplane trapped in an alternate world slowly being "eaten," is the best of the lot, but "Secret Window, Secret Garden" is just another draft of "The Dark Half" and "The Library Policeman" just awful. Grade: C

Needful Things: This overwrought 1990 book was King saying "goodbye" to Castle Rock, the town that featured in many of his previous works (although he has continued to use small-town Maine as a focus for much of his work, so no big difference really). A mysterious junk-shop owner (Satan!) moves to town and commences to wreak havoc. Overly long, more mean-spirited than usual for King and it feels like a "Twilight Zone" episode stretched out beyond bearing. Grade: D+

The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands: The Tower series really hits its stride here as Roland and his ka-tet travel through a series of strange and fascinating worlds. King's version of "Lord of the Rings," "The Dark Tower" combines his usual bloodlust and characterization with a pretty convincing fantasy realm. Grade: A-

PhotobucketGerald's Game: Or, "Misery Part II," with a woman instead of a man as the central character. "Gerald's Game" would make a very good short story, about a woman who, through a combination of accident and fate, ends up chained to a bed alone in her house in the middle of nowhere. It's got the same oppressive, tight feeling as "Misery," but I felt like it spins its wheels too much. Grade: C

Dolores Claiborne: The rare King novel I have no memory of having read, even though I'm sure I have. It's one of his least supernatural works, and well, if I can't remember it I can't grade it! Grade: Incomplete

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: King's third story collection, but not his best. It's a 900-page monster, but there are not as many little gems like "Survivor Type" -- although the visceral revenge saga "Dolan's Cadillac" is a brilliant piece. But something like "Chattery Teeth" (about just what you'd think) is just silly, and this one seems more of a motley grab-bag than other collections (a nonfiction piece about kids' baseball just seems out of place). Grade: C+

Insomnia: I think King starts to "come back" after a few lesser books here, and this novel marks the first time we really get an idea of the "King Universe," where the Dark Tower novels, many of King's novels and themes and characters are shown to be part of a giant puzzle that is unraveled in the final "Dark Tower" books. (The villain here is the Dark Tower's Crimson King, in another guise.) I like King's evocation of the main character's insomnia and the mythological links here; what I don't like is how cluttered the plot starts to feel and it ends up with another of King's mumbo-jumbo endings. Grade: B

Next time: "Rose Madder" to the present day

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