Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Complete Succinct Reviews of Stephen King, Part IV

PhotobucketThe gory end! We hit the finale of my look at Stephen King's written legacy -- over 50 books, kazillions of words and a lot of inventive ways to kill people. As I noted last time, King's days of every book being a capital E "event" are probably over, but he still sells 'em by the shovelful. His rather insanely prolific pace makes it hard to keep up sometimes. (Remember that time when he was allegedly going to "retire"?)

King has been up and down the last decade -- with some tremendously strong epics like "Hearts of Atlantis" or "Duma Key" paired with jazzy pulp like "From A Buick 8" or "Cell," and then some outright failures like "Black House" or "Dreamcatcher." But I'll still pretty much give everything he writes a shot -- he's rarely failed to entertain at least a bit even at his lowest point.

Rose Madder: One of King's more overlooked books, but a really gripping tale of an abused woman's struggle for freedom, folded into a fascinating mythology-linked plot. King's voice for women characters has rarely been stronger and there's a real sense of empowerment here that it's hard not to cheer. And for once, what I call King's "metaphysical mumbo-jumbo" tendency for plot resolution works very well. Grade: A-

PhotobucketThe Green Mile: Famously done in a 'serial' format, it's an interesting cross between realism and fantasy for King -- which doesn't entirely come off, but there's a new maturity to his writing here. The tale of a prison guard, a mysterious "magical inmate" and his healing powers, it's very well told even if some of the more fantastical elements don't really work for me. Grade: B

Desperation: A demon takes over a small Nevada town, wreaking havoc on a small crowd of survivors. While not in King's upper tier, it's a decent, gory yarn, although the whole "magical child as savior" trope is really getting old. But it moves briskly for its length and goes down smooth enough. Grade: B-

The Regulators: A weird "rewrite" of "Desperation" by "Richard Bachman," King's pseudonym. A town slowly goes mad thanks to a demon's possession. I'd say by this point the Bachman gag has worn out its welcome -- not terrible, but not as good as "Desperation" and the split-novel parallel is nowhere near as interesting as King thought. Grade: C

Bag of Bones: One of King's best takes on love and loss and I'd argue the full flowering of King's more "mature" style we saw hints of in "The Green Mile." While it's a ghost story, King takes a gentler hand in his writing, working hard to develop character instead of shocks. If it weren't for a rather unsatisfactory conclusion I'd rank this among his best books, but it's well worth a read. Grade: B+

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: A short story about a girl lost in the woods, padded out to novella length. On its own, not terrible, but not worth being a book on its own really. Grade: C

Hearts in Atlantis: One of King's finest works, and there's barely a monster to be found in it. A series of intercollected novellas loosely wrapped around the baby boomer generation. It ties in loosely to the "Dark Tower" series but the best of the stories are the ones that have nothing to do with horror -- the title piece, about a group of friends and their time in college, plucks the heartstrings like nothing of King's since "The Shawshank Redemption." Grade: A-

PhotobucketOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Yes, "It" and "The Stand" are usually mentioned as King's best books -- but this very candid memoir/writers guide deserves a place in the pantheon too. Full of tips and confessions, it's some of King's most honest writing, a fascinating peek "behind the camera" and as gripping as any of his made-up stories. Grade: A+

Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing: A rather under-the-radar "grab bag" of King works, many of them uncollected. Viewed as a kind of companion to "On Writing," it's not bad, although it's really one for the diehard fans and does repeat some of what's in other books. Grade: B

Dreamcatcher: It'd be hard to make any novel about aliens that erupt out of your ass palatable, and this one is a rare total misfire by King. It rips off aspects of "It," "The Tommyknockers" and "The Shining" and makes it a gooey, overlong mess, complete with mentally disabled character who just happens to have magical powers. One of my least favorite Kings, written while recovering from his near-fatal 1999 accident and really, it shows. Grade: D

Black House: Disappointing sequel to "The Talisman" by King and Peter Straub. It fails to capture the otherworldly wonder of the first book - returning to its protagonist Jack as an embittered adult - and even for King, this one is dark and frankly, dreary. And tying it into the "Dark Tower" series seems unnecessary, really. Grade: C

PhotobucketFrom A Buick 8: A teleportation device to another world disguised as an old car? This one is a rather underrated, concise bit of creepy sci-fi horror, with the punch of an old EC Comics story -- it's short by King standards and has a good bit of pure chills. I also frankly like how open-ended the mysteries remain. Good fun. Grade: A-

Everything's Eventual: The fourth volume of short stories and a decent set of yarns -- many originally printed in "The New Yorker" and have a bit more highbrow, Poe-meets-Lovecraft kind of feeling. The best of his recent story collections. Grade: B+

The Dark Tower - Books IV through VI: You can really only consider the final Dark Tower books as a thousands of page whole. I could have written an entire series of blog posts on the "Dark Tower" alone and feel bad to give them rather short shrift here, but suffice it to say it's King's magnum opus, a gigantic piece of work with tendrils connecting all over his other stories (some of the links work, some feel forced, though). The story of damned gunslinger Roland and his quest for the Dark Tower has a very different feel than most of King's tales, taking on aspects of Tolkien and other epic fantasies. What's particularly interesting about the Dark Tower as it works through the last three mammoth books is how King goes very metafictional -- including himself as a character at one point. "The Dark Tower" isn't a perfect piece of work, and probably could have been at least one book shorter, but its sheer scope demands attention -- and the ending, while perhaps less immediately rewarding than one might hope, is still utterly fitting and almost demands you go back instantly and re-read the thousands of pages before. Grade for whole saga: A

The Colorado Kid: A thin-as-piano-wire thread of plot animates this bloated-up short story about a mysterious death on the Maine Coast, part of the "True Crime" series. It's really just a 10-page tale strettttttched into 150-something pages by King's meandering. Grade: C-

PhotobucketCell: Cell phones turn people into mindless zombies! A retread of "The Stand" but with a good and gory hook. "End of the world" books are almost always worth a read. It's dark and nasty but a good solid yarn, although the novel bogs down in a rather unbelievable plot once the whole "apocalypse" unfolds. Grade: B+

Lisey's Story: A love story but a flawed one -- with some of King's most annoying authorial tics in full flight. The narrator here, a woman who's lost her husband, uses an inane made-up language to describe her fantasy world; a device that could have worked but becomes incredibly wearisome over 500 pages. As a ghost story and a love story, King's done better in books like "Hearts in Atlantis" or "Bag of Bones." Redundant. Grade: C-

Blaze: As disposable as King gets -- an unpublished "Richard Bachman" crime yarn from the '70s dusted off and rewritten, and it reads like sub-par Elmore Leonard imitations. Really interesting only as trivia, and best left in the files. Grade: D

Duma Key: An excellent gem about redemption, and rehabilitation, using King's accident as a plot point. One of his best written novels and it's quite rewarded by using Florida as a setting instead of King's by-now cliched use of Maine. Grade: A-

Just After Sunset: More short stories! I'm afraid King's short stories haven't really zinged since about "Skeleton Crew," but more power to him for keeping up. This is probably his most uneven bunch, but "The Things They Left Behind," where King uses 9/11 as the engine to set a haunting story in motion, is among his best short pieces. Grade: C+

PhotobucketUnder The Dome: Hey, I just put this on my top books of 2009 list so I must have liked it. Basically what I said there -- good chewy King yarn, with a highly propulsive plot that speeds over any rough patches. It's impressive that after a few zillion words and more than 30 years, King still has the ability to craft a tale as readable and fun as this, really. I don't know where he's going next, but I'll stick along for the ride as one of his many Constant Readers. Grade: A-

1 comment:

  1. Nik, I just finished Under the Dome. I really loved the apocalyptic fate of the town and how it all ended. Definitely, a good read. Might I recommend Harry Turtledove's series, The Great War. What if the Confederate states didn't lose the Civil War. I think you'd enjoy. Long live Amoeba Adventures!