Review: ‘The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror” by George Beahm

The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror
by George Beahm 

St. Martin’s Griffin (October 2015)

SKCompanionEven when confronted with the sheer bulk of The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror – over 600 pages, enough to rival several of King’s own doorstop novels – I went into it thinking, “There’s not going to be much here I don’t know already.”

That’s not to say I consider myself a King expert. A huge fan, yes, but expert? I reserve that term for folks like George Beahm, author of this book and its preceding editions, along with contributors like Michael Collings and the late Rocky Wood and my Cemetery Dance comrade Bev Vincent. But my “relationship” with King stretches back into the early 1980s, and in that 30- odd year stretch I’ve read all of his fiction and tons of interviews; I’ve plumbed the depths of YouTube for every speaking engagement, reading and Q&A I could find; and I’ve watched clips of every talk show appearance and news profile I could get my hands on. Through it all I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing the patterns, at knowing how he’s going to ask certain questions, at recognizing the anecdotes he often falls back on when asked a question for the hundredth, thousandth, possibly millionth time. I know the themes he likes to write about, and the phrases that pop up from time to time like old friends.

But…expert? Nah. Overly familiar? That’s more like it. However, during a few days of cherry-picking my way through this massive new volume, I found myself repeatedly surprised by the new tidbits and new insights Beahm and his cohorts are able to present.

So. Surprising. Informative. Let me add “immensely readable” to my list of compliments. The way this book is organized plays a big part in its readability. It would have been easy to do a section on the novels and collections, another on the movies, another on limited editions, and so on – easy, and perfectly acceptable. Instead, Beahm has organized a sort of rambling travelogue through King’s career. The high points are all there, of course, but Beahm knows just when to take a side-trip away from the major works and into other, related territories.

For example, after a chapter on The Stand, the last novel published through Doubleday, we get a quick look at Cemetery Dance’s limited editions of the Doubleday books, a bit on the Bachman books, and then an examination of King’s jump from Doubleday to New American Library. Reading about that move in its proper place on the King Career Timeline really helps put it into context, and is much more effective than having an article on all his different publishers at the end of the book.

There are plenty of similarly interesting asides throughout the book: an interview with King’s main research assistant; looks at the artists who have collaborated with King throughout his career (including Glenn Chadbourne and Michael Whelan, both of whom contributed to the Companion); and, one of my favorites, an essay by author/King scholar Kevin Quigley on meeting King, which is one of the most painfully honest and (sorry Kevin) amusing accounts of fan boy vapor lock you’re likely to read.

I could go on and on, but you get the gist. This is an immersive volume of information and insight, written with care, respect and unabashed love for the subject matter. If you’re the type of Constant Reader with a shelf, a bookcase, or a whole room devoted to Stephen King, you’re going to want to find a spot for The Stephen King Companion.

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Re-Reading King: ‘The Shining’

The Shining by Stephen King

Doubleday | January 28, 1977

'The Shining' (Doubleday Hardcover, 1977) (First Edition)

‘The Shining’
(Doubleday Hardcover, 1977)
(First Edition)

I bought my first copy of The Shining at a sidewalk sale my favorite (then and now) used bookstore was having. It was the paperback edition with the metallic silver cover that has the faceless head of a child front and center. The top right corner of the cover had been clipped off, and the bookstore’s name – Trade ‘n Books – was stamped on the side opposite the spine. I was in the early stages of discovering King, those heady days when I had lots of books of his to catch up on, and this was one of a batch of paperbacks I bought that day – I think it also included Different Seasons and maybe Firestarter – for something like fifty cents apiece.

Did I read it before seeing the movie? I honestly don’t remember. Those days are a blur of discovery now, some 30 years later, and the order of things has been irrevocably shuffled about. But I know I blazed through it at the same rate I blazed through King’s other works, and that while it left certain indelible images behind (the hornets in Danny’s room, the thing that Jack became smashing its face in with the roque mallet), I didn’t feel the full force of its impact until the readings that came much later.

Reading it again over the past couple of weeks, I’m struck at just how much tension King was able to work in from page one. Jack is a man very much on edge, and he’s already teetering when we meet him. At first, he seemed to me like the kind of guy that I should feel bad for, except that I couldn’t get over how many of his unlucky breaks have come because of his own terrible decision making. But King’s gentle touch with characters rescues Jack, forcing you to see that, although this is the kind of guy who could very easily be the author of his own undoing, he’s really fighting hard against those destructive impulses.

'The Shining' (Signet Paperback, 1978) (Reading Copy)

‘The Shining’
(Signet Paperback, 1978)
(Reading Copy)

I firmly believe that if Jack Torrance had gone to work as the winter caretaker for any other isolated hotel, he would have been fine. He would have completed (as much as anyone can) his recovery from alcoholism; he would have repaired and rebuilt his relationship with his wife and son; he would have finished his play; he would have emerged from the Colorado wilderness refreshed, re-energized, creatively motivated and newly confidant. He was so close.

But he went to work at The Overlook. And The Overlook, as the host to something twisted and insidious, went to work on Jack, digging its fingers into the healing cracks of his psyche, widening the schisms he was working so hard to repair. The Overlook won because it picked on a man that was weak, even though he was trying to be strong; The Overlook won because, in Jack’s son, it found a psychic amplifier that boosted its considerable powers to the point where hope was forever lost to Jack.

That, to me, is the saddest part of re-reading The Shining. Every time I go back I find myself identifying with Jack, rooting for Jack, more and more. But now, unlike that first reading all those years ago, I understand that Jack Torrance never stood a chance.

There’s a reason this one stands tall on so many “My Favorite King” lists. The strength of the characterization, combined with the genuine scares King evokes, has not faded with time. Thought-provoking, sad, tense and scary, The Shining would be a crowning achievement for many writers; as it stands, it’s but one of many such accomplishments for King.

Re-Reading King: The Index

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

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

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

Re-Reading King: The How and the Why

OldKingsThe How and the Why

I’ve been thinking of doing this for a while now. Been wanting to do it. Hell, I’ve been needing to do it. But other obligations have made it so that I didn’t feel like I could commit to doing it.

Those obligations are gone now. So, I’m going to do it. I’m going to re-read Stephen King.

I don’t know how long it will take. I don’t have a timetable in mind. I’m going to take my time. I’m going to meander. As King has so often tried to teach us – in The Colorado Kid, for example, and perhaps in the entire Dark Tower series – sometimes it’s better to concentrate on the journey, and quit worrying so much about the final destination.* The only thing I have resembling a plan is to start with his first book, Carrie, and read them in order of publication.**

I want to do this because Stephen King is my favorite author. Without him, there would be no October Country. There wouldn’t be the couple of hundred book reviews I’ve written and published, because I may not be as avid a reader if it wasn’t for his books. The ten short stories I’ve published so far wouldn’t exist; nor would the novels I’ve started and stopped and finished and abandoned over time.

I also want to do this because there’s a surprisingly large portion of his catalog that I’ve only read once. That seems unacceptable considering he’s my favorite author. There are plenty that I’ve read multiple times – Pet Sematary and The Shining and Bag of Bones and even the mammoth It – but there are so many more that I’ve only touched once, and I can’t wait to revisit them. Will Duma Key still be as good as I think it is? Is Rose Madder really that bad? Will Bag of Bones still be my favorite when it’s all said and done?

We’ll see.

I’ve debated on whether to write about these, whether or not they really belonged here on October Country. And the answer is: of course they do. This blog is a map – an incomplete one, perhaps, but a map nonetheless – of my reading. My writeups won’t be traditional reviews. They may not make a lot of sense outside of my own personal context. I don’t know if anyone will read them. I hope people do read them, and I’d love for each post to have tons of comments from people sharing their own thoughts and feelings on the book. But this may be too personal a project to elicit much response. This is mostly me trying to get my arms around my feelings about this one writer’s huge body of work.

Hell, it’s mostly me just reading a bunch of books I like and grooving on them. You’re more than welcome to come along for the ride if you so wish.

Now, as King himself said in his foreward to Night Shift:

There’s something I want to show you, something I want you to touch. It’s in a room not too far from here – in fact, it’s almost as close as the next page.

Shall we go?

Re-Reading King: The Index

* It’s a good lesson, too, because if King’s works have a weak point, it’s often the ending.

** I’ll break away from this when it comes to any new releases. Revival is coming out in November 2014, and seeing how I’m starting this in August 2014, I seriously doubt I’ll be caught up to it by November. I also don’t know how the Dark Tower series is going to fit into this. The next time I read those, I want to read them back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back. So I don’t know if I’ll do this when I reach The Gunslinger in its place in the timeline, or just tackle those somewhere else down the road. When I know, you’ll know.

Review: ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King

MrmercedesWith Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King continues to show that his greatest strength as a writer is his character work. For proof, look no further than the opening section of the novel, in which we become acquainted with three people among the hundreds standing in line waiting for a job fair to open. In a handful of pages King makes us care about a man, a single mom and her baby; care enough, in fact, that there’s a real sense of loss when the three fall victim to a lunatic in a car.

But he’s not done making you care; in fact, King is just getting started. What follows this shocking opening scene is a tightly-woven chess match between retired detective Bill Hodges and the car’s driver, Brady Hartfield, an all-too-real monster whose human mask is beginning to slip. Taunting Hodges, who spends much of his retirement pondering the ones that got away, is the first sign that Hartfield is growing tired of his anonymous existence. He says he doesn’t plan to attempt another massacre, but a basement full of homemade plastic explosives indicates otherwise.

Hartfield’s taunt serves as a wake-up call for Hodges, who puts aside thoughts of suicide to begin looking into the case again. It’s wonderful watching Hodges transition from merely existing to actually living again. Even better is that Hodges, who was a very good cop but not infallible, doesn’t suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Like every other human he has his blind spots, and those return to him as readily as his instincts. His new (secret and barely legal) investigation into the Mercedes killing is fraught with the same kind of assumptions and questionable decisions he made during his initial active investigation, and while he manages to overcome most of them they do often lead him – and those around him – into dangerous territory.

As Hodges digs in, he accumulates an unlikely support crew that includes Janey, an attractive younger woman with tragic ties to the job fair massacre; Jerome, the Ivy League bound teen who does yard work for Hodges; and Holly, an emotionally unstable woman who latches on to Hodges because he’s kinder to her than her own family ever managed to be. King brings this crew together in ways that is totally organic and believable, creating a strange sort of family that we can all root for.

Hartfield, on the other hand, is totally irredeemable as a human being. Kings gives his killer a backstory that might elicit some sympathy along the way, but make no mistake: this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Brady Hartfield feels no remorse and no regret, and when he does suppress his impulses its strictly for his own survival. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and completely barking mad.

The bulk of Mr. Mercedes is peaks and valleys; moments of discovery and excitement followed by periods of consideration and reconsideration. Hodges and Hartfield poke and prod each other along, each hoping the other will slip and open the door for their respective endgames. The tension is there but it’s manageable – until the last 80 or so pages when King stomps the pedal to the floor. Just try and put the book down at that point…

I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, and it’s no secret that crime writers love a good series. As I neared the end of Mr. Mercedes I realized I’d grown quite fond of the central trio of Hodges, Jerome and Holly, and I wondered if King would consider revisiting them somewhere down the line – perhaps, I dared to think, Mr. Mercedes could be the beginning of a series of King’s own. As if hearing my thoughts, King took to Twitter right around that time to announce that said trio would be back next year in Finders Keepers, the second book in a proposed trilogy.

“Well then,” I thought, “that’s all right, isn’t it?”