Re-Reading King: ”Salem’s Lot’

''Salem's Lot' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1975) (First Edition)

”Salem’s Lot’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1975)
(First Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Doubleday | October 1975

My most recent read of ‘Salem’s Lot took place in a variety of settings: under the harsh, cold fluorescents of my office during lunch; under the softer glow of the lamp in my living room; in the bright sunlight on my back porch; and, on a couple of occasions, underneath the lone bulb on that same porch, with night creeping in all around.

It’s a testament to the power of Stephen King’s writing that, in each of those places, he managed to thoroughly creep me out.

I don’t remember how many of King’s books I’d already read when I got to ‘Salem’s Lot the first time – I know I read Pet Sematary first, and after that it was a big blur as I gobbled up everything of his I could find. Looking back at it in its proper place in the bibliography, ‘Salem’s Lot signifies for me the first real glimpse of the Stephen King who would go on to dominate the horror field. It has several of the characteristics that would define the early years of the “Stephen King brand” in my mind; most notably, the pointed, accurate portrayal of a small town and its people, and the use of classic horror tropes in modern settings.

For pure scares-per-page, ‘Salem’s Lot ranks high in that initial bundle of books, the ones that led to King being known as “America’s Boogeyman.” I wasn’t exaggerating up top when I said I got creeped out a couple of times; that rarely happens to me when reading anymore (a side effect, I suppose, of a steady diet of the scary stuff over the years), and I was pleasantly surprised at the power King’s vampires held over me. Danny and Ralphie Glick walking through the woods; Royal Snow and Hank Peters descending into the belly of the Marsten House with a huge, ominously shifting crate; Ben Mears and Jimmy Cody, sitting in a mortuary with Marjorie Glick’s body, and the way her body first begins to tremble and then to twitch underneath its sheet…those are a few scenes that stand out in a book that lives under a dark cloud of dread and tension from the very first page.

Character-wise, it’s always been Ben Mears that I remembered the most. That’s not surprising; he is, after all, the main character and our entry point into the world. But this time around it was Father Donald Callahan who came alive for me. Maybe it was having the full weight of The Dark Tower series, and Callahan’s role in it, behind me this time around; maybe it was the way King introduced a character that sounds like a cliche (Catholic priest with fading faith and a drinking problem) and elevated him into something more. Here is a man who knows he’s begun to coast through life and yearns for something more:

He had been pining for a Challenge….He wanted to lead a division in the army of – who? God, right, goodness, they were names for the same thing – into battle against EVIL….He wanted to see EVIL with its cerements of deception cast aside, with every feature of its visage clear.

'Salem's Lot (Doubleday Hardcover, 1991) (Reading Edition)

‘Salem’s Lot
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1991)
(Reading Edition)

Callahan would get what he yearned for, here in this book and much later, when King picks up the thread of his story in the last three Dark Tower books. In ‘Salem’s Lot Callahan is a man who fails, utterly and completely, in his chosen mission, but knowing that he eventually gets a chance to make things right casts his failure in a whole new light.

I don’t know where I’d rank ‘Salem’s Lot in the overall King bibliography – high, but I’m not sure how high – but among his pure horror novels it reigns near the top. I’ve always had fond memories of reading it, and I’m happy to say revisiting it bore those memories out.

Up next is the book that many consider King’s masterpiece: The Shining.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: Carrie

A Halloween Treat from Kealan Patrick Burke

DeadLeavesKealan Patrick Burke is a favorite here in October Country, an extremely talented (and, in my opinion, under-appreciated) writer who combines a keen eye for detail and atmosphere with an innate understanding of the importance of the human element in horror fiction. He’s got a deep catalog of stuff out there, but if I had to recommend my favorites I’d include his update/overhaul of the hillbilly slasher genre, Kin, as well as his excellent Timmy Quinn series: The Turtle Boy, The Hides, Vessels, Peregrine’s Tale and Nemesis: The Death of Timmy Quinn).

Those are all longer works, and they’re all excellent, but Burke’s greatest strength as a writer may be his short story work. So it’s great news indeed that Burke has made a collection of his Halloween-flavored short stories, Dead Leaves: 8 Tales from the Witching Season, available for free from Smashwords through November 1. In addition to stories like “Carve the Pumpkins,” “Tonight the Moon Is Ours” and “The Tradition,” he’s included a list of his favorite books and movies for the Halloween season and a new introduction.

I’ve followed Burke’s writing from the beginning, and I can tell you that this collection is worth a whole helluva lot more than the “nothing” that he’s charging, so please take advantage and check it out. I think  you’ll discover, as I did several years ago the first time I cracked open my copy of The Turtle Boy, that this is an author worth reading.

Interview: In the ‘Madhouse’ with Benjamin Kane Ethridge

One of Aeron Alfrey's insanely detailed 'Madhouse' illustrations.

One of Aeron Alfrey’s insanely detailed ‘Madhouse’ illustrations.

In the middle ages, it was thought that insanity was contagious. Centuries on, we label such ideas as superstitious ignorance. But when John Doe begins to speak after decades of silence, the staff and patients at the Golden Canyon Behavioral Health center begin to realize that behind every superstition lies a horrid truth.

On the night that a vicious sandstorm closes the roads and seals the doors, a plague of madness spreads through the hospital. Two staff members try desperately to hold onto their sanity while searching for the cause – and, hopefully, the cure – of the outbreak.

That’s the premise of Madhouse, the new shared-world horror anthology in the works from Dark Regions Press. The publisher is in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, and at roughly 80% funded with about three weeks to go, it seems a good bet that the book will see the light of day in Spring 2015. That’s good news, because with authors like John Skipp, Jeff Strand, Lisa Morton and Scott Nicholson set to participate, it’s likely to be a tasty treat for fans of good horror fiction.

Bejamin Kane Ethridge co-edits the book with Brad C. Hodson, and the two also wrote the framing story that ties all the short stories together. Ethridge was kind enough to take one eye off the funding campaign long enough to answer a few questions for October Country.

October Country: Which came first: the idea to do a shared-world horror anthology, or the plot of Madhouse, which naturally lends itself to existing as a shared-world anthology?

Benjamin Kane Ethridge: Actually the idea to do a shared world insane asylum anthology came first. Brad C. Hodson, my co-editor on the project, took submissions and invited authors to come aboard. We had a scenario for them to use but no plot. After all the stories were completed, Brad and I wrote the meta-plot that would flow throughout.

Who came up with the concept, and what about it stood out as something that would make an exciting book?

Brad and I rendered the concept about the Golden Canyon Behavioral Health Center and the ongoing supernatural sandstorm that has everybody trapped inside. It’s hard to say where one idea started and another began, but we worked well as a team and it came together quite organically.

What was behind the decision to go the crowdfunding route, and why Indiegogo specifically?

Dark Regions has had success going this route. It wasn’t anything Brad and I had even considered when we first started putting the book together. Since Dark Regions uses the campaign also as a pre-order mechanism, Indiegogo makes sense because it delivers the funds at the end of the campaign, whether the funding goal was reached or not. When people contribute to the Madhouse campaign, they are at very least going to end up with a copy of the book. Depending on how funding goes, that copy could have some amazing extra illustrations and other fun things added.

As you began to solicit stories and put the book together, what were some of the challenges you faced? Was it difficult to convince authors to write stories for a book that isn’t guaranteed to be published?

Many of the writers we approached we’d already had solid experiences with before. There were some who were skittish about the project in the first stages, and I cannot say that I blame them. When you devote the time to writing something, it had better be time well spent. Most of our contributors seemed to love the idea so much however that many agreed and turned over stories with little trepidation as to the publishing outcome.

Creatively, what kind of challenges – and advantages – does the “shared-world” format provide you as editors?

Characters are a big factor. Golden Canyon, as a facility, is enormous, and so we were able to afford a large cast. That said though, for the work to feel more cohesive, we had to take some characters and combine them- -especially those characters who seemed to be a certain type, a recurring sort. It was difficult also to weave our meta-plot into other stories without being too intrusive into what the author’s original intentions were. So we had to handle it carefully.

Did you have to turn down stories that were good, but just didn’t quite fit the concept?

There was one story I received that possessed great potential, but didn’t quite hit its mark. The author wasn’t in a good place to revise or restart the story, unfortunately, and so I had to let that one go. Generally we worked with all of our authors to change their stories to fit better into our vision. It was surprising, almost scary surprising, how most of our contributors really had our vibe down however.

How varied in tone are the stories? Is it a mix of quiet horror and more extreme horror, or does the book lean more toward one or the other?

Brad and I purposely tried to arrange our stories in a progression. We took works of quiet horror, such as that of Christopher Conlon, in the start of the book all the way to the frenetic violent wildness of John Skipp near the book’s conclusion. So there’s definitely a variety and it all fits together to create this steep slide into ultimate madness.

I won’t ask you to pick favorites among the stories, but which ones provide a good tease of what we can expect from the book overall – and why?

Erik William’s “Yellow Bug” comes to mind for me. This is most likely because it’s one of the first submissions we received. It really does capture the tone of the larger story at play in a succinct fashion, where personal demons are at war and insanity exploits that war in the worst possible ways.

Want to help push the Madhouse campaign over the top? Visit Indiegogo to contribute.

Review: ‘The Halloween Children’ by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss

TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumThe first weekend of October has arrived. A cold front is sweeping through Alabama tonight, scrubbing away the awful humidity and bringing us, at least for a few days, actual fall temperatures. I’ve got the makings for a huge pot of chili, there’s wood in the fire pit, and various autumn-flavored ales are stocked in the fridge. And, best of all, I’ve got a great October read to tell you about, the perfect way to start what I hope will be a month full of literary greatness.

The Halloween Children is a twisty funhouse ride through the minds of Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss, two enormously talented writers who have created an instant Halloween classic in this, their first collaboration. Much like Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest, The Halloween Children is an expert distillation of the Halloween season, capturing that peculiar mix of excitement, dread and outright fear in its pages.

Stillbrook Apartments is a quiet apartment complex with a history shrouded in rumor and secrecy. Some bad things may have happened there at one time – or maybe not. “Truth” is something of an abstract concept in this novel, and the authors work very deliberatly and efficiently at keeping any sort of real answers tantalizingly out of reach.

What we do know is this: Harris, his wife Lynn, and their children Mattie and Amber live in Stillbrook. Harris is the complex’s handyman, met each day with a list of resident complaints both normal (burned-out lights and broken locks) and unusual (whining in the walls and untraceable odors). From the get-go we can see that there’s a humming wire of tension running through the family, an obvious dividing line that pits father and son against mother and daughter. For the most part they keep things civil, even loving at times, but as Halloween approaches outside forces go to work on the wedge that’s already there. First come small things, like uncharacteristic bursts of rage from Lynn, and possible hallucinations experienced by Harris. There seem to be easy explanations for these things at first, but as the story moves forward everyone – characters and readers
alike – begins to question, well, everything.

The final mad descent begins when the family finds a living creature being baked alive in their oven. From there the tone shifts from unsettling to downright horrifying. It’s a change that could have easily derailed the book, but Freeman and Prentiss keep a tight reign on the proceedings all the way through to the tragic end.

From the great, early slow build of the book to the terrifying, satisfying payoff, The Halloween Children is a complete success. Freeman and Prentiss do a great job in blending their unique styles into one pure voice – like Stephen King and Peter Straub with The Talisman and Black House, you’ll try to guess who wrote what, and you’ll most likely get it wrong. Reading this was the perfect kickoff to the Halloween season for me, and I have a feeling it will be part of my permanent October rotation for a long time to come.

Review: ‘Black Hat Jack’ by Joe R. Lansdale

Black_Hat_Jack_by_Joe_R_Lansdale_Limited_Edition_CoverAmerica’s frontier days were a ripe time for the art and tradition of storytelling. As people began to push the boundaries further west they discovered a great many new things to see and people to meet. In the absence of things like iPhones, digital cameras and the Internet, word-of-mouth ruled the day as a means of communicating what was happening in the west to the rest of the nation. There were also newspapers and dime novels, but nothing traveled quite as far and as fast as the spoken word.

More often than not, these accounts were shaped to varying degrees by the teller of the tale. Said storyteller might have been at the event in question, for example, but perhaps sought to beef up his role in what transpired. Or maybe he wasn’t there, but liked the idea of having people think he was. Out of such distortions many of our Western myths and legends were born, and many of those exaggerations live good lives as “the truth” to this day.

The idea of tall tales living on as accepted truth is something Joe Lansdale is well aware of, and he touches on it often in his new novella from Subterranean Press, Black Hat Jack. It’s the story of the famous “Second Battle of Adobe Walls,” in which a group of buffalo hunters were beset by hundreds of angry Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa warriors. Lansdale tells us in his “Author’s Note” that the battle really did take place, as did many of the individual acts that he relates in the book. But he also admits that he has embellished the story in much the same way many of the battle’s participants likely did themselves in the years that followed the actual event.

The book is named after a man known as Black Hat Jack, and he plays a prominent role in what transpires, but it’s narrated by Nat Love, a character based on a real African-American cowboy. Lansdale’s Nat has earned the nickname “Deadwood Dick,” a name that was first used as a character name in a series of actual dime novels published in the late 1800s and later adopted by several men, including the real Nat Love. Lansdale’s Nat asserts that he’s writing down his “real version” of events as a means of correcting misinformation perpetuated in the dime novels of his day, but freely admits that stretching the truth is a tradition among frontiersmen like himself.

That’s just one example of the way Lansdale gleefully twists truth and legend together, simultaneously commenting on, and participating in, the practice of myth making. While it’s fun to try and see where those lines blur in hindsight, you’ll be too busy reveling in Lansdale’s gifts as a storyteller to think on it too much while you’re reading the book. The battle itself is a breathless mix of action, tension and Lansdale’s trademark brand of humor. That section is followed by a bittersweet coda that illustrates the author’s remarkable range, a sadly matter-of-fact reminder that not all heroes get a hero’s reward.

In addition to the fact that Black Hat Jack will be shipping any day now from Subterranean Press, there’s more good news: this is not the first time Lansdale has written about Nat Love. You can find two stories featuring “Deadwood Dick” (“Soldierin'” and “Hide and Horns”) in his massive short story collection Bleeding Shadows. Even better news: he’s reportedly working on, or recently completed, a novel featuring the character. So, if you like Black Hat Jack, there’s more to look forward to.

In the meantime we have Black Hat Jack, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the Western genre or not – this is a story made for lovers of good storytelling. With each and every new release, Lansdale cements his legacy as a master craftsman…and that, my friends, is no exaggeration.

Review: ‘Brainquake’ by Samuel Fuller

BQBeing a bagman for an organized crime outfit would require, one would assume, nerves of steel. When you’re delivering money for the mob, you don’t want to be late, you don’t want to be light, and you damn sure don’t want to drop a package off at the wrong address. So, you may not have to be the smartest guy to be the bagman, but you want to be reliable, quick on your feet, and steady under pressure.

Paul is all of those things, except when he isn’t. Sometimes Paul has attacks – he calls them brainquakes – during which everything in his field of vision turns pink. During these attacks hallucinations mix with reality, but Paul can’t tell which is which. His reactions are swift and sometimes violent. It would be a tough situation for anyone to deal with, but it’s especially brutal for Paul, who is surrounded by the kind of people looking for any kind of weakness they can exploit.

In Samuel Fuller’s Brainquake (out this month from Hard Case Crime and Titan Books), Paul finds himself at the center of a converging group of intriguing characters, each with his or her own agenda. All of the ingredients for an engaging piece of crime fiction are present: a recently widowed mob wife; ten million dollars of missing mob money; a sadistic hitman who poses as a priest and crucifies his victims; a driven, determined police detective; and a mentally distressed bagman with strong moral center. Fuller expertly winds these threads around and around one another until the tension becomes nearly unbearable.

The novel moves at a fast clip. The emphasis is more on plot than on character, but Fuller manages to flesh out each of the main players to varying degrees. There are several standout scenes in the book – one involving a bomb in a baby carriage comes to mind, as well as another dealing with some urgent battlefield-type surgery while trying to extract some important information from a witness. Fuller’s storytelling style is lean and uncluttered, and his pacing is rapid without feeling rushed.

The author is best known as a film director, with titles like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One to his credit. He also wrote a number of novels, with Brainquake being the last one. It’s been something of a “lost novel” for Fuller fans – he published it during a self-imposed exile in France, where he retreated after a dispute over one of his films, and before now it wasn’t available in English. Kudos to Hard Case Crime‘s Charles Ardai for once again going to great lengths to uncover a valuable piece of crime fiction and sharing it with the world.

 

Re-Reading King: ‘Carrie’

'Carrie' (First Edition)

‘Carrie’ (Doubleday Hardcover, 1974) (First Edition)

Carrie by Stephen King

Doubleday | April 1974

I’m not sure when I’d last read Carrie before taking it up again for this project. My memories of it weren’t the fondest. Carrie wasn’t the first King book I read – that was Pet Sematary. I read Carrie somewhere in the white-hot period that immediately followed my initial discovery of King, when I spent months devouring everything I could find with his name on it.

Carrie made the least favorable impression on me then, but I forgave it because I knew it was his first novel and because the movie kicked my ass. Everybody talks about the last scene – Carrie’s hand coming up from the rubble of her house to grab Sue Snell – and that’s a good one, but the one
that makes me hide my eyes is the scene where Carrie has just come home from the prom, and she’s going into her bathroom. She turns on the light, and in a sliver of brightness behind her bathroom door we see her mom, in hiding, butcher knife in hand and all reason drained out of her eyes.

So yeah, it was the rare instance where the adaptation of a King novel made a better impression on me than the novel itself. Now that I think of it, that first reading my have been my only reading of Carrie. At any rate, I’ve now read it again, and I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

The things that bothered me then still bother me now. The newspaper clippings, for example. I enjoy most of the “excerpts” King plants throughout the book – the transcripts from hearings, pages from academic papers, etc. But there are a couple of supposed newspaper articles in there that take me right out of the story because of how badly King botches the “voice” of such articles. While he’s got the air of self-importance down pat when mimicking academic papers and book-length studies of the Carrie White phenomenon, those articles miss the mark completely.

There’s some clunky dialogue in there, too; places where I see quotation marks but what I’m reading feels like narrative rather than someone talking. While King has never, in my opinion, quite got the hang of writing faux newspaper articles, he’s gotten much, much better at making his characters talk the way people actually talk.

Carrie is full of touches that would become earmarks of his early run of novels; little habits and traits that he doesn’t indulge in quite so much these days, many of which I miss. Those little parenthetical asides he used to like so much, for example – like when Miss Desjardin is trying to calm a hysterical Carrie at the beginning of the novel, and softball bats are falling to the ground and a light explodes, and we get:

(the whole damn place is falling apart)

I miss those.

There’s lots of King’s special brand of foreshadowing, too, such as when King refers to Ruth Gogan as one of Carrie’s “surviving classmates” not even 10 pages into the book. Less-than-subtle hints about bad things coming are a King specialty. Also, his habit of having characters who love kitsch

(plastic fantastic)

like the four-foot-tall plaster crucifix Margaret White special ordered from St. Louis. It’s the kind of thing only the deranged would put in their home, and instead of an object of awe, it comes across as something to fear. On Carrie’s dresser there sits a plastic Jesus that glows in the dark, and that’s equally awful (and equally terrifying).

'Carrie' (Doubleday Hardover, 1990) (Reading Copy)

‘Carrie’
(Doubleday Hardover, 1990)
(Reading Copy)

Finally, there’s King’s habit of drawing connective tissue between his works, such as when an Amoco station owned by one Teddy Duchamp blows up as Carrie is making her way back home. Is it the same Teddy from “The Body,” or at least a relative? It seems I remember Teddy coming to a bad end (I’ll see when I get to Different Seasons), so it’s probably not the same guy. But as we know now, crossover is a big part King’s body of work.

Carrie is a lean book – King was still largely a short story writer at that point, and originally thought of Carrie as a short story before padding it out to novel length. He was still a few books away from the epic-length novels that would become (one of) his signatures.

It’s not yet STEPHEN KING, but in retrospect there’s no denying that distinct voice, even in its earliest form. Yes, King has honed and refined over the years, but he’s done so without burying the raw materials and gifts he was blessed with from the start. That you can look back after four decades and nearly 60 books and still find plenty of the voice that wrote Carrie in Mr. Mercedes is amazing.

Carrie crawled into my head and stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading it. There are a few other authors whose work does that, but no one with the consistency and urgency of King. It’s why I’m still a fan all these years later, and why I’m so excited to undertake this personal little project.

Next stop: ‘Salem’s Lot.

Re-reading King: The Index
Re-reading King: ‘Salem’s Lot