Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

kings-geraldsgameThis novel, which is now well over two decades old, always fascinated me (for admittedly prurient reasons), but for some reason I never got around to reading it until now. What finally got me moving was learning that Netflix was producing a film version. I knew I would probably get around to seeing that, which would spoil the story. And original novels tend to be better than their adaptations.

The story concerns a middle-aged couple who head off to their private summer house to try and inject some passion back into their marriage. Gerald handcuffs his wife Jessie to the bedposts, with her permission (something that probably seemed a lot racier in the 1990s than it does now). Unfortunately he dies, leaving Jessie confined and alone, with no hope of rescue.

None of the above is much of a spoiler, as the majority of the story takes place with Jessie in cuffs. You might wonder how the author could maintain the reader’s interest, with so little actually happening. Well, there are some things that do physically occur in the bedroom, but the bulk of the action takes place inside Jessie’s head. Her emotions (panic, terror, despair) are described vividly and realistically. But we also take a journey into the past, where Jessie (aided by a part of her subconscious that she embodies as an old friend) revives some repressed memories of childhood trauma.

Some criticisms. The first half of the novel drags. King is overly verbose in describing the psychological state of the protagonist, and at times I was impatient for something to happen. But ultimately the story finds its feet and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The one part that lacked realism for me was the memory block. Child abuse is never to be taken lightly, but there are real children who suffer far greater things than Jessie, who carry those memories throughout their lives. In reality, it takes a lot for a child to remove an event from conscious awareness. King makes a huge melodramatic leap here, for the sake of getting his story from A to B, and it feels false.

Overall, Gerald’s Game is a worthwhile read. The Netflix movie is a faithful adaptation that does justice to the original novel (which you should read first).

Revival by Stephen King

kings-revivalI don’t read every Stephen King novel that comes out (because he’s too prolific for his own good), but this one attracted me because religion is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating. I consider myself a survivor of the brainwashing exercise of my youth and early adulthood.

The book starts in the mid twentieth century and charts the lifetime of a young boy, Jamie Morton, who is befriended by the new pastor in his hometown, a young man called Charles Jacobs. Pleasantly, this is not a tale of sexual scandal – which makes a change in stories of this type. The friendship is genuine. The real story begins when Jacobs preaches what local folks would later refer to as the Terrible Sermon. The pastor is forced to confront head-on the veracity of his religion’s claims; the placebo pill about God taking care of us no longer works for him, and he is determined to make everyone face the stark truth behind the comforting lies we tell each other. Unsurprisingly, he quits his job and leaves town. But this is not the last time Jamie sees him. Their paths are destined to cross in the future, more than once.

I don’t want to say too much about where this story weaves, because I don’t want to spoil any of it. Suffice it to say, yes it is about a revival tent, as you may have guessed. Does Pastor Jacobs become one of those fraudulent faith healers? Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as that.

The best part of the novel, for me, was the conflict between the assertions of faith and the realities of experience. I became very involved with the lives of the characters, and King is his usual masterful self at bringing them to life. Some may consider this story too humdrum, but I think that depends on what topics you find interesting. Things get very dark at the end, tapping into our religious superstitions. King likes to dig his claws into the reader’s head as far as he possibly can. Unfortunately, in my case, this isn’t a place where I possess a button to be pushed. If I weren’t so self-assured, the ending would have disturbed me a lot.

Overall, an above average Stephen King story. It works for one read, but suffers from being too gloomy to ever revisit.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

kings-longwalkIn a dystopian, totalitarian America, hundreds of sixteen-year-old boys sign up for a contest called The Long Walk, seduced by the prize of being able to ask the government to fulfill any wish. Of all the applicants, one hundred are chosen. All they have to do is walk. If you stop, for any reason, you get a warning. You then have thirty seconds to get moving again. In one hour, your warning will clear. If you stop after accumulating three warnings, you will be shot dead on the spot. The trek will go on for hundreds of miles, with no rest stops for sleeping, eating, or shitting. It only ends, after hundreds of miles, when there is one left standing.

The story is told from the perspective of one contestant, Ray Garraty, charting the walk from its first paces to its finish line. It’s a tale of fast friendships forged in suffering and of the limits of human endurance. You might wonder how a novel (even a short novel) that is just about walking could remain interesting for its entire length. But King really pulls it off. He sucks you right into the psychological state of a walker as if he had been there himself – the horror of being in the contest, feeling utterly exhausted but knowing how far you still have to go.

It’s a dark story – darker than most that he tells. And I imagine the absence of melodrama is not everyone’s cup of tea. King, by his own admission, used the Richard Bachman pen-name when he wanted to release a novel that came from a darker place than usual in his own psyche. If dark is what you’re looking for, this one doesn’t disappoint. The novel is available in a collected edition called The Bachman Books.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

kings-fulldarknostarsHere we have another volume from King in the tradition of Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight – a collection of four short novels under one roof.

We open with 1922, a tale about a man who plans to murder his wife over an inheritance dispute. In order to make it work, he has to involve his teenage son in the matter. This slant gives a rather common theme a unique flavour.

Big Driver is reminiscent of the movie I Spit on Your Grave. It’s a revenge story about a woman who is raped and left for dead. Highly derivative, but superior to the film in terms of the realism of the protagonist’s actions. And it has its original moments. My personal favourite of the pack.

Fair Extension is the only tale in the volume that has a supernatural element. It’s the old “pact with the devil” scenario. A dying man gets to extend his life, only the price he has to pay is something other than his soul.

Imagine a wife discovering that she never really knew her husband. In A Good Marriage, the accidental discovery of a hardcore porn mag is only the tip of the iceberg.

These are all stories of domestic life gone awry, where circumstance has forced good people into impossible situations, where the choices they are forced to make are difficult, and in some cases unconscionable. This is the dark side of the white picket fence. King is on form.

Under the Dome by Stephen King

kings-underthedomeChester’s Mill is a small secluded town in Maine, bordered by countryside. One ordinary day, a mysterious invisible barrier appears right on the border. Anything in its path gets sheared in half, included an unfortunate woodchuck. Dale Barbara (Barbie to his friends), is hitchhiking out of town after an altercation with the son of the town Selectman. He figures it’s time to go, before anything happens to him. He almost makes it out, except for the bizarre forcefield that materialises right in front of him. And it’s no good turning around and walking out of town in the opposite direction, because this isn’t just a wall. It encircles the entire town, and not just at ground level, as the pilot of a plane quickly discovers – when he crashes into something that isn’t there.

So the citizens of Chester’s Mill are trapped, sealed off completely from the rest of the world, like fish in a bowl. Slowly, everyone begins to adjust to their new circumstances. No one is in any immediate danger just yet. Barbie’s plan is to find out what’s generating the Dome, working on the assumption that it’s being done from within. But town Selectman “Big Jim” Rennie has other plans. This is his one chance to shine in life, as a dictator. When he gets a taste of power, the last thing he wants is for the Dome to come down. Those are just two of the many plot threads in the story. The novel is populated by large cast of characters, each with different agendas.

Under the Dome is huge, almost 900 pages in trade paperback format, no doubt well over a thousand in regular – like It and The Stand. There’s nothing worse than starting a mammoth volume only to get two hundred pages in and realise it’s a mediocre story. Well, I’m pleased to report that this one held my attention admirably. It does feel overlong though, and King’s tendency to delve into lots of unnecessary back-story is in full swing – as usual. Pacing suffers, which is my one ongoing gripe about King’s work.

Some of the characters felt a little caricatured. It’s hard to believe that society would fall apart so quickly in a situation like this, and it’s really down to the proliferation of “evil” characters who are set up to take centre-stage. A highly unrealistic starting point as a mirror for real life. Even so, I enjoyed the drama a lot. As an ecological message (i.e. we’re all living “under the dome”), the story serves as a warning to take care of the environment, but the drama is a little too contrived for this to really hit home in a meaningful way.

But I can’t deny that I really enjoyed this, and I feel it’s one of the more memorable King novels that I’ve read. I especially liked the direction of the story towards the close and the explanation of the Dome’s presence. Very much looking forward to the television series, which is just starting as I write.

(Afterword: The TV series is dreadful, full of ridiculous mystical tripe that isn’t in the book. Don’t let it put you off King’s original, which tells a different, and vastly better, story.)

Rage by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

Stephen King started writing Rage when he was only nineteen years old, long before he wrote his first published novel Carrie. It was originally titled Getting It On. In fact, King attempted to get this novel published prior to Carrie, but it was rejected. It would later see the light in 1977 under the pen-name Richard Bachman. King would later release several more novels under this pseudonym. When the secret finally got out, interest in these books skyrocketed, and the publishers decided to release an omnibus edition of four of them, entitled The Bachman Books, under King’s own name.

I used to be an avid fan of Stephen King in my teens and twenties, but somewhere along the line I got tired of all the huge tomes of 700 plus pages. There’s nothing worse than plodding through a massive book only to discover that it ends up as nothing more than an average story, as is often the case. But Rage is of special interest to me, because it’s the one book that Stephen King ended up withdrawing from publication. Notoriety like that inststantly piques my curiosity.

The subject matter of this 150-page novella concerns a high school boy, Charles Decker, who shoots two teachers in his school then holds his classmates hostage. School shootings, as we know, occasionally happen in real life, Columbine being the most famous example. Unfortunately, after one such real-life incident, the perpetrator was found to have a copy of Rage in his locker. King, and his publishers, agreed that it was best to remove the book from sale indefinitely.

The novel is written in the first person and Decker is the protagonist. At no point is the reader asked to rationalise Decker’s actions, only to take a peek inside his head at the mitigating circumstances that might lead a person to do what Decker did. One prominent theme of the novel is the abuse that adults to do children – specifically parents and teachers. This abuse is sometimes unconscious and even well-intentioned in a warped sort of way. Decker tells of an occasion when he was younger and his mother forced him to attend a birthday party dressed up in his Sunday best, when he knew that all the other kids would be in casual clothes and he would look foolish. But no amount of protesting would change her mind. He also recounts the story of going camping with his dad and his dad’s drinking buddies, where he overheard his father talking about how he would slit his mother’s nose open if he ever caught her in adultery.

The story is set in a time period when the education system allowed teachers to get away with way too much. I went to school at a time when the system was starting to emerge out of this, to put teachers on a shorter leash. I could tell you some stories. I recall my junior high mathematics teacher walking up behind me and whacking me across the back of the head hard. I was stunned; didn’t see it coming. All I had done to deserve this was skip a line of my sums because I had been smart enough to work it out in my head. I recall botching a question on my biology examination. Afterwards, in class, the teacher was going over the paper, and he decided to bring the whole class to fits of laughter as he described how “some moron” had answered question 5. Then there was my high school PE teacher, the man who made me hate PE. Do the slightest thing wrong and you were ordered to do ten push-ups in front of everyone. He took perverse pleasure if you were overweight like me and couldn’t do the exercise properly. I get a little angry even now, thinking back. I didn’t know it then, but these were adults who brought their anger issues and perverse character traits into work with them and took them out on the children in their care.

So I instantly empathised with Charlie Decker’s stories. Rage is about what happens when the abuse gets to the point where the abused person says, “Enough.” But this is not a tale about a boy losing himself in violence; it’s a strangely controlled explosion. Once Decker has his classmates in isolation, he begins something that he calls “getting it on” – a thing that appears to mean getting to the heart of the matter, stripping away the bullshit and being properly honest with each other.

He begins by recounting tales from his childhood, and soon his classmates are joining in, supplying stories of their own. A strange rapport ensues between captor and captives. Meanwhile the police are gathering outside, wondering about what Decker’s demands will be. But the class have come to realise that Decker has no intention of harming them. Most of them sense that something important is happening; they are all undergoing a transition, where pent up emotions can finally be released and healed.

This was not an easy book to read, because it was filled with so much pain. But identification with that pain made it impossible to leave the story unfinished. The plot suffers a little bit from melodrama in a couple of places, but for something written by one so young, it is surprisingly honest about life. The danger, I suppose, is in identifying so much with Charlie Decker that the reader justifies his actions and turns them into something heroic. But in the story, even Charlie admits that he’s losing his mind.

A sober and insightful story about human nature. There is more worth in these 150 pages than in many a novel four times the size. Well worth hunting for a second-hand copy.

It by Stephen King

This is the story of a town, King’s infamous Derry, under seige by a malevolent entity that often manifests itself as a clown. Only children can see it (rather, It) – something to do with a child’s open-mindedness. To grown-ups, Derry is a normal town, but to a particular group of kids (known as the Losers’ Club), Derry is the feeding ground of a monster that lives in the sewers. These children – Bill, Richie, Eddie, Stan, Ben, Mike and Beverly – must do battle, to end the terror that stalks their town. Worse still, in later life they learn that their efforts back in 1957 were incomplete. It is back with a vengeance, determined to avenge Itself. Bill has his own personal axe to grind: he knows that It is responsible for the death of his younger brother George, while George sought to retrieve a paper boat that had accidentally swam into a storm-drain. The two stories – the children in 1957 and the adults in 1985 – are told concurrently.

I first read this massive one-thousand-page tome when I was about fifteen years old. It was quite an undertaking, and it probably took me a couple of months, but the experience was no chore. This was my first oh-so-rare experience of never wanting a story to end. Although I found the “grown-ups” sections of the novel a little tiresome, the childhood parts were pure magic. They were so good that I didn’t even care about the horror story in the background. I just loved feeling like I was a part of the lives of these children, as they played down in the Barrens or faced off their bullies. If anyone had asked me, from the time when I was fifteen to when I was twenty, what my favourite novel was, I would have instantly replied, “It.”

My, how times change. I’m now thirty-five. And what took me two months to read in my teens took two years in my thirties. The novel is far less impressive to me in adult life. Interestingly, one of the major themes of the novel is the manner in which children view life differently from adults. Their minds are more open to ideas like magic. It’s perhaps not so surprising, then, that an adult (this adult, anyway) finds a story that clings to the notion of magic far less interesting than he found it as a teen. I even found it a tad pretentious at times.

Stephen King has always demonstrated a considerable strength at portraying child characters. This is where the novel still holds up well. But the horror story that these terrific characters inhabit isn’t really up to much. It’s far too wacky to be scary. After reading a few hundred pages of this, I realised that it was failing for me. The magic had gone. I persevered, hoping that it would return, but it didn’t. And so, over two years, I slogged my way to the end in fits and starts, reading other novels in between, because this one was just too darn big and just not good enough to captivate me for commitment of time and energy required to read it.

King’s most frequent “failing” is that he has a tendency to go into detail overkill. Whilst this has the effect of slowing down a story’s pacing, it also adds a richness to the drama in later parts of a story. So, it’s maybe not correct to call this a failing. Many of King’s novels walk this uncomfortable line that risks a reader becoming bored, and if there was ever a King book that was in need of a substantial haircut, it’s this one.

Cell by Stephen King

Apocalyptic stories are my favourite kind, and King has impressed me in the past with such tales as The Mist and The Stand. I listened to the hype surrounding Cell, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the book. I hadn’t felt this excited about a King novel in years. Mind you, I did think the idea of cell phones turning the populace into homicidal maniacs was a tad hokey (not to mention reminiscent of the film 28 Days Later), but not even that could deter my enthusiasm. Having read over thirty King novels, I had an inkling that he was going to do something unique and surprising with the idea. And what I was really looking forward to from King was a return to a more visceral and fast-paced form of storytelling than what he has been delivering lately. In that, at least, Cell does not disappoint.

The story gets right down to business, with an ordinary street turned into an instant bloodbath, as certain men, women and children turn on one another. No one knows why. And what do you do if you’re one of those watching, uninfected by the madness? Why, you reach for your cell phone, of course, to dial 911. And whoops! You’re instantly infected by something eventually referred to as The Pulse, and you become one of the “phone-crazies,” intent on as much bloodshed as possible.

The story was working a treat for me, and it would have continued working except that the phone-crazies don’t stay crazy. They evolve into some new kind of human being that gets along fine with others of its own kind, intending to infect (rather than kill) all those who remain normal. And they are aided by capabilities such as telepathy and levitation. When the story started losing touch with anything remotely down to earth, it started to fail for me. The wackiness reminded me of another King tale that suffered the same disease: Insomnia (where an unseen little imp went around snipping people’s auras off with scissors; King, man, what are you on sometimes?).

To its credit, though, Cell held my attention to the end. I loved the characters. I loved the idea of a journey across the country to find a little boy. But taking everything into consideration, I would only rate the novel above average.

On Writing by Stephen King

If I were in the business of giving aspiring writers advice (says he who is still an aspiring writer himself), and if I were only allowed to say 5 words, they would be these: “Read Stephen King’s On Writing.”

This is no ordinary writing textbook. In fact, it’s not really a textbook at all. It is simply Stephen King in friendly conversation. The first third of the book is taken up with biographical material, where King gives a brief overview of his life. This may be of little interest to some readers, who would want to get into the nitty-gritty of learning about writing straight away, but I jumped at the chance to learn more about the author I’ve admired since I was fourteen. More importantly, I think the biography is a fitting inclusion, because what you are as a person flows onto the printed page. At least, that’s how it works with all good fiction.

In the central, largest section of the book, King gets down to business, sharing with us what he’s learned about the craft of writing in his lifelong experience. Pretty much everything is covered – grammar, plot, characterisation, theme, revision, etc., etc. At no point does any of it get boring. King’s is as good as a lecturer as he a storyteller. One idea of his that is found fascinating is the idea that a story is a “found thing,” like a fossil dug out of the ground. At the start it is covered in earth and must be excavated very carefully, using the right tools so as not to break it. This section of the book is, in fact, entitled “Toolbox.”

I’ve been writing on and off for over fifteen years. I’ve learned a lot of about the craft of writing just through practise alone, and there were a lot of things I suspected I was getting right. It was an exciting experience having Stephen King confirm many of my suspicions, rather than blow them to bits. However, there were some things I was getting wrong too, and I was glad to have these corrected.

I’m very grateful to have been able to learn from the one man earth who is surely the most qualified to give advice on the subject. This book refuelled my enthusiasm for the craft, at a point in my life where I had lost most of it. Without On Writing, I am certain my own novel Ulterior would never have come to be.

Everything’s Eventual by Stephen King

This is King’s fourth short story collection. Many of the stories herein were published in various anthologies between 1995 and the present day. I always hate it when I pick up an anthology in a bookshop, and the only thing I’m interested in reading within it is King’s contribution. So, a collection like Everything’s Eventual is always a welcome purchase.

The first thing I liked about this collection was the inclusion of fourteen stories, as opposed to the stereotypical thirteen. That old superstition has become rather tired in today’s overpopulated market, and I hoped this was a sign that I wouldn’t be treated to a bunch of tired old stories.

“Autopsy Room Four” gets the book off to a brilliant start. Imagine lying on an autopsy table, fully conscious but unable to move, suffering from some kind of poison that has made everyone think you are dead. Along comes the surgeon with her trusty scalpel. Horror story veterans may yawn and say, “We’ve been here before,” and that may be true to a certain extent. But wait till you get to the ending. This is the most hilarious horror yarn I have ever read.

Moving swiftly on to “The Man in the Black Suit”. A young boy fishing in the woods encounters a strange man who doesn’t seem entirely human … or friendly. It’s a very basic story, tapping into that old childhood fear of monsters, but it works wonderfully.

“In the Deathroom” is a tense tale about a man being interrogated for information, with the threat of torture looming nearby.

Being a Dark Tower junkie, I was really looking forward to reading “The Little Sisters of Eluria”. The story (which is almost a novella in itself) takes place not long before the events at the beginning of The Dark Tower Volume 1: The Gunslinger. A tale about female vampires, and a welcome addition to the mythology.

“Everything’s Eventual” – a young man with a supernatural gift becomes the focus of a government agency eager to recruit him … but to what sort of employment?

“1408” – a haunted room in a hotel. Add up the digits and what do you get? Damn it, Stevie, you just couldn’t resist, could you? Nevertheless, this one’s pretty good.

“Riding the Bullet” – a university student hitch-hikes his way across the country to visit his ill mother in hospital. Between rides, wandering through a graveyard, he spots an impossible message on a headstone. But stranger things are yet to happen when the next car picks him up.

OK, that’s seven good ones for you. The other seven which I haven’t talked about struck me as, well, average to mediocre. Many of the stories contained brilliant characterisation ( describing the human condition is something that King has always had a knack for) but many didn’t have much of a punchline.

Overall, a collection that’s worth reading – one which would have scored higher had it been smaller, with the poorer stories omitted.

From a Buick 8 by Stephen King

Let’s start by putting to right one of the criticisms I’ve heard about this novel, that King has written another Christine. Even the covers of both novels look similar. However, whilst Christine is about a possessed Plymouth Fury that roams around on its own looking for people to mow down, From a Buick 8 is not about a possessed Buick. This particular Buick, whilst it might have a personality of sorts, spends 90% of the novel cooped up in a State Barracks shed. And during the other 10%, it only ever moves when it’s being towed. “What’s so scary about that?” you might ask.

The trouble with the Buick is that sometimes things come out of it, appearing from nowhere – things that look as if they have no business being on planet earth. Worse still, sometimes things disappear; it takes them – to where, no one knows. But all the State Troopers of the Troop D Barracks know that it’s dangerous to get too close, especially when the temperature in the shed starts to go down.

The mysterious Buick is an impound. One day it showed up in the desert, with no owner to claim it. The State Troopers towed it away and kept it at the barracks – their own dangerous little secret to tickle their curiosity for the forseeable future. But of course, this is a Stephen King novel, and danger never stays dormant for very long.

Actually, let me correct that. In this novel, the danger lies dormant for pretty much 250 of its 400 pages. Stephen King, as his many wide-spined tomes testify, does not skimp on detail – especially when it comes to characters. From a Buick 8 takes a long time to climb up the gears, but when you’re finally zooming along at 100mph, you find yourself suddenly appreciating all that has gone before, because the lives of the people in the book feel all the more real when the final showdown begins. However, I don’t think King has quite got the balance right with this one. I may have persevered, but I know someone who quit at page 200.

The ending I can only describe as frustrating. There is a subtext to the novel, and subtexts can be great for elevating a story beyond mere entertainment, but here the subtext is allowed to take over, to the detriment of the story. Ultimately, I feel like I’ve read 400 pages for a brief philosophy lesson that would have been better placed in a short story, i.e. it wouldn’t have taken so long to read.

I have to admit that the final third of the novel was totally gripping. I even tackled a whole 70 pages in one sitting, which is something I rarely do.

With the exception of the excellent Wizard and Glass and possibly Hearts in Atlantis, I feel that much of what King has been doing in the last five years has been merely average. But then I suppose other readers will have other favourites from King’s recent yarns. Still, it’s hard to imagine From a Buick 8 occupying a special place in many hearts.

Dreamcatcher by Stephen King

The story draws on several well established sci-fi themes – I’ll not tell you what they are for risk of spoiling the book. Sure, every story is a variation on a theme these days, but this just seems to be a load of ideas tossed together to form a crazy soup. It’s the same problem I had with his Insomnia – everything is just too wacky, and you never quite know where the boundaries of the story’s universe lie.

Usually the best thing about a King novel is the characters, and sadly the book fails somewhat here too. They’re interesting enough, but I found some of the heroes to be too similar, and I ended up mixing them up at times.

The best thing about the book is the relationship that the four teenage protagonists form with a down syndrome kid. And this actually saves the book, turning from a trashy sci-fi yarn into something special.

I’ve been very critical, but this is still a good book, make no mistake. It’s just that maybe expecting greatness with every King novel is a bit too much.

Different Seasons by Stephen King

These days Stephen King releases books with such a regularity that it’s a rare opportunity to be able to invest the time in reading one of his older works. As I write, his latest books Everything’s Eventual and From a Buick 8 are sitting on the shelf waiting. And no doubt he’ll have another on the market before I get those finished.

I would hazard a guess that a few lesser known facts about Stephen King are that the films Stand by Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and Apt Pupil are all based on novellas written by the “master of the macabre” himself. And lo and behold, those three novellas are to be found here in Different Seasons, along with a fourth, The Breathing Method – one for each season of the year.

The book kicks off with The Shawshank Redemption (more fully titled Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). It’s always a pain when you’ve seen the movie before reading the book, but Shawshank happens to be one of my favourite all-time films. The novella covers pretty much the same ground as the film, with some elements omitted. In fact, this is one the extremely rare occasions when I would dare to say that the film excels the book. Still, a great prison break story from Stevie.

Apt Pupil comes next and was for me the highlight of the collection. It’s a story about a teenage boy blackmailing a Nazi war criminal who’s living incognito in modern-day America. Uniquely, there are no especially likeable characters in the tale, not even the teenager, but it works wonderfully because we can all relate to the boy; we all know something about being corrupted by bad things and how hard it can be to free ourselves. This is the story of one boy who goes too far.

The Body is the original title of Stand by Me. I get the feeling that this is a very personal tale by Stephen King, and it pains me to have to say it’s my least favourite. It’s essentially a nostalgia trip to childhood. Four eleven-year-old boys journey through the woods to locate a dead body – the unwary victim of a passing train. And whilst there’s a lot of fun and laughter along the way, the inital premise just isn’t interesting enough to carry the story. Worse still, there a terrible sadness running through the core of the tale that I found hard to bear. We learn about damaged family relationships and abusive parents, about how friends can hold you back, about feeling trapped in a dead-end town. It’s all stated very matter-of-factly without any hope of change. This novella depressed me.

The Breathing Method is the shortest novella in the volume and is the story of an unmarried pregnant woman determined to give birth despite the most immsense of obstacles. A little heavy on background info and short on action, it’s nevertheless an enjoyable read. Interestingly, the story finishes with what could be interpreted as a reference to King’s The Dark Tower fantasy series. Whilst King has made reference to this series in many novels, I think this is the earliest one I have ever encountered, and I believe The Breathing Method was written long before much of The Dark Tower. Isn’t that strange?

Desperation by Stephen King

Desperation starts off in a somewhat cliched fashion with a psycho cop on the loose, but still manages to have one of the most gripping first chapters I’ve yet read in a novel. It turns out to be a good-versus-evil story, as in all the old vampire and werewolf movies. But far from using the trappings of the genre, King has taken it in a fresh direction. In most of the books and movies of this genre, we are presented with “the forces of evil” in all their power and glory, whilst all we get to see of “the forces of good” are silver bullets or crucifixes or holy water, etc. Instead, King puts a serious and believable God into the novel, and starts dealing with sober questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Desperation is the name of the dusty, isolated Nevada town where the book is set. A storm is brewing, very few people are left alive, and the cop is out there planning something dreadful. What a great atmosphere.

It’s a very large book, in the usual King tradition, and it’s a real page-turner. King is among my favourite authors, and this is among his best work. Somebody’s bound to grab this one for a movie sooner or later.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

King doesn’t often write in the first person, especially not when it’s a five-hundred-page novel, but this change in style makes great reading. Also uncommon is the subject matter – instead of the usual blood-and-guts fare, what we have here is a traditional ghost story.

Shocks are few, and widely spaced out over the length of the novel. But when they come, they certainly hit home, as the space in between them is used to full advantage developing the characters, so that we are all the more moved when King rocks the boat.

It’s really the characters that carry this book. A bit overlong, but beautifully written. Part horror novel, part love story.