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.