Category Archives: Stephen King

The Essential Geek Library: Stephen King’s ‘Danse Macabre’

stephen king's danse macabre

Here’s another in my series of reviews of books that every geek needs to read. Check tags below for earlier entries.

And, as usual, these reviews are framed in the reality that most of them came out before the Internet, when fans bought books if they wanted to find out who played the second male lead behind Kevin McCarthy in the 1956 classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” (It was King Donovan.)

Stephen King was my favorite writer when his non-fiction book “Danse Macabre” came out in 1981.

King classics like “The Stand,” “The Shining” and “Salem’s Lot” had helped King surpass even favorites like Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein in my estimation. So I was so ready for what King thought about horror and science fiction in books, movies and TV.

And I was not disappointed.

“Danse Macabre” mixed a little bit of autobiography and a whole lot of intelligent, thoughtful criticism between its covers. In densely-packed chapters, King skipped from a TV favorite like “Thriller” to a memorable short story with a few stops in between, but it all made sense.

“Danse Macabre” is like sitting down over a few beers with the most clever and amiable geek you could imagine and letting him entertain you with his opinions.

Like any book, “Danse Macabre” is a moment in time, a slice of history. It’s strange, after all these years, to read King talking seriously about now-nearly-forgotten horror flicks like “The Prophecy.” It shows that the genre wasn’t all made up of the milestones like “Bride of Frankenstein” that have withstood the test of time.

The Internets tell me that the book was reprinted in 2010 with an addendum. I haven’t read it, but it’s not surprising that more than 30 years later – via occasional columns in Entertainment Weekly and his Twitter account – King is still sharing his insight and love of the horror genre with us.

 

Movie essentials: ‘The Dead Zone’

the dead zone walken tunnel

In the 1970s, I was reading everything that Stephen King wrote as fast as I could get my hands on it. I always thought “The Dead Zone,” his 1979 novel of a man with psychic powers trying to live a normal life and, failing that, trying to stop an apocalypse, ranked right up there with his work of the time, including “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand.”

And I thought director David Cronenberg’s 1983 adaptation of King’s book was among the best movie versions of the author’s work. Much better than Kubrick’s “The Shining,” for example.

Watching “The Dead Zone” again recently, I think it’s held up remarkably well. The story is a pretty timeless one of love and loss and its small-town setting keeps everything from looking too dated.

Christopher Walken – who has, in the 30-plus years since “The Dead Zone” was released, become an icon and has verged on self-parody – plays John Smith, a Maine school teacher looking forward to marrying his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams).

But Smith has an accident and is in a coma for five years. Although his parents are still around, Sarah has married someone else and had a young child.

Before he even gets out of bed, Johnny discovers another change: His coma has apparently awakened within him a psychic ability. If he touches someone, he can read their mind and see visions of their future. He is even able to tell his doctor, played by Herbert Lom, that his mother, separated from him in Europe in World War II, is still alive.

Not surprisingly, this unexpected talent doesn’t bring Johnny any peace of mind or comfort. Particularly when he touches the hand of a huckstering politician, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and sees that he’s destined to one day be elected president and bring about the end of the world.

King’s book has more layers, but Cronenberg’s movie does a pretty good job of capturing the details and somber mood of King’s story.

Johnny is a haunted man, a man who can see everyone else’s future but has no future of his own, and the character is perfectly played by the Christopher Walken of 1983. The actor hadn’t yet become so familiar to us, through offbeat characters in movies like “Pulp Fiction” and through TV appearances on “Saturday Night Live” (“I pranked him in my basement”). We had a bad feeling about Johnny Smith just by looking at Walken’s pale and pained face.

Cronenberg’s movie feels as fresh as if it was made just a few years ago, thanks in part to its lack of trendy-at-the-time touches and the chilly blue-gray “look.”

Random observations:

It’s startling seeing Sheen as a maniacal, murderous president. That’s President Bartlet, man!

“The Dead Zone” makes me wonder why Brooke Adams, so good in this and the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” remake, didn’t have a longer movie career.

Lom, who played “The Phantom of the Opera” way back in the 1960s and the nemesis of Clouseau in the “Pink Panther” movies in the 1970s, is a nice, steadying presence here.

Anthony Zerbe, one of my favorite character actors of the 1970s, is likewise welcome here as a potential campaign donor who sees through Stillson’s shtick.

Sequel, sequel: Stephen King’s ‘Doctor Sleep’

doctor sleep stephen king

“Doctor Sleep” is, of course, Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining,” his 1977 horror novel about a malevolent old hotel, the family that comes unraveled during a long, isolated winter there and the particular psychic talent, “the shining,” that King introduced in the book.

But for a few reasons, “Doctor Sleep” almost reminded me more of two other King books, “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand.” It’s almost like two sequels in one. Or three.

Maybe that’s not surprising. “Doctor Sleep” makes at least one reference to the menacing town that provided “Salem’s Lot” its name. And the shining – the psychic power, not the book itself – is sprinkled through a few of King’s books, most notably “The Stand.”

But “Doctor Sleep” reminds me of “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand,” I think, because it doesn’t have the same sense of isolation and claustrophobia as “The Shining.” “Doctor Sleep” is quite road-bound, from its lead character’s wanderings in the opening chapters to the cross-country travels both the protagonists and antagonists undertake.

And there’s the small band of heroes that forms to take on the evil in “Doctor Sleep” that’s more than a little reminiscent of the similar groups in “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining.”

There’s no doubting the heritage of the main character of “Doctor Sleep,” however: Dan Torrance is the grown-up and recovering alcoholic personification of little Danny Torrance, the boy who survives his father’s murderous attack in “The Shining.” Dan still has “the shine,” as old Dick Hallorann explained it.

But after chapters that ably demonstrate Dan’s journey to rock bottom as a substance abuser, his recovery is – blessedly – strong and he finds a new calling, as “Doctor Sleep,” helping patients in a hospice ease into the afterlife.

At the same time, a baby, Abra Stone, is born and grows to teenagerhood. Abra has the Shining in perhaps greater doses than Dan did as a boy, and Abra’s bright power draws the attention of True Knot, a traveling band of – well, psychic vampires is really the only way to say it – and the group targets Abra with murderous intentions.

Dan stumbles onto their plot and, with the help of a small, trusted group that includes the powerful young girl herself, intervenes.

As much as I enjoyed Dan and Abra and the others on the side of good, I enjoyed Rose the Hat, the charismatic but crazy leader of the True Knot. King establishes Rose as kind of the distaff version of Randall Flagg, the demon of “The Stand.” It’s not hard to see why Rose attracted followers. It’s likewise not hard to understand why the True Knot begins to fall apart with a good psychic shove from Dan and Abra.

The book, at just over 500 pages, feels leaner than some of King’s recent work, like “Under the Dome” and “11/22/63,” and its plot is as straightforward as can be.

So is the real feeling of dread the book inspired as I was reading it. I almost couldn’t wait to get to the end and find out if Dan and Abra and the rest came out okay.

While the band of heroes that takes on the True Knot is reminiscent of the heroes in King’s earlier books, there’s also no doubt that, in some ways, the book’s plot comes off as “Alcoholics Anonymous takes on Evil,” because AA and its life-saving disciplines – ones familiar to King himself – figure so prominently in the book.

King has acknowledged the perils of writing a sequel to a classic novel, and make no mistake, that’s what “Doctor Sleep” is.

But he needn’t  have worried. Whether intentionally or not, King has made “Doctor Sleep” a book that can stand on its own, a book full of failure and promise and recovery and ultimate triumph.

Stephen King’s ‘Joyland’ a thrill ride

joyland stephen king

It’s a pleasure for me to say that “Joyland” is one of Stephen King’s best books in years and one of my favorites.

I went into “Joyland” with some expectations, certainly. At fewer than 300 pages, the story – about a young man’s summer working in a low-rent amusement park – promised to be lean and – because of the Hard Case Crime publishing house imprint, complete with 1950s-paperback-style cover and packaging – mean.

Well, the book isn’t all that mean, although there’s a thrilling climax with high stakes for hero Devin Jones. There’s a bittersweet and nostalgic tone to the book. But “Joyland” has its creepy moments.

It’s been a while since I bought and read everything King published as it hit bookstores. Looking at a list of his books just now, I’m kind of startled and chagrinned about how early I checked out on him.

After all, the guy wrote “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand,” three of my favorite reads. “The Stand” in particular is a classic and I’ve read and re-read its 800-plus pages.

King still had me for years to follow those three masterpieces. I enjoyed the “Night Shift” collection and “The Dead Zone” and “Firestarter” and “Danse Macabre,” his combination autobiography and fond look at his genre. “Cujo” and “Pet Cemetery” and “Christine” were still great reads, as was “The Talisman,” a “Stand”-like cross-country adventure he co-wrote with Peter Straub. Part of the book even takes place a few miles from where I’m sitting right now.

But after the simple pleasures of “Misery,” I struggled with “It,” as much as I liked it, and never made it through “Thinner.” I fell away from King after that, never reading a single book he turned out in the 1990s and much of the 2000s. I re-read “The Stand,” though.

Then I jumped back into King’s camp with some of his later books. Sure, “Under the Dome” had an ending that fizzled but the epic 2009 story – at a thousand pages – was compelling. So was “11-22-63,” his 2011 story about time travel and the Kennedy assassination.

joyland full cover

I can’t say I was relieved that “Joyland” was a few hundred pages shorter than those books. Surely,  thought, King will stick the landing and come up with the great ending some of his books lack.

And yeah, he did.

“Joyland” is a memory recounted, in relaxed fashion, by Devin Jones, who as a college student in 1973 gets a job working at Joyland, a small amusement park in North Carolina. Dev is trying to recover from a bad break-up and some time away from college is just what he needs. He meets fellow summer jobseekers Erin and Tom and the three become a trio working under carnys both collegial and hostile.

Dev also meets Annie and Mike, a single, 30-something mom and her son, a young boy with muscular dystrophy. They live just up the beach near Joyland and Dev waves to Mike, sitting in a wheelchair on the beach, each day on his way to work.

Mike greets Dev every morning but Annie is alternately aloof and hostile. Like a lot of single moms of special needs kids, she’s fiercely protective, so when Dev is befriended by the mom and son, it feels like a plot milestone.

Propelling the story besides Dev’s growing and deepening friendships with Erin, Tom and Annie and Mike is a mystery. A few years ago, a young woman was murdered on the Horror House, Joyland’s only “dark” ride. The killer remains on the loose and, Dev and Erin find, is likely responsible for other slayings over the years.

And did I mention the ghost? Or the supernatural talent that young Mike possesses that will seem kind of familiar to readers of King’s fiction?

One reason I was drawn to “Joyland” was the carnival where the story unfolds. Carnivals and sideshows have always been fascinating to me, and King creates one that feels utterly realistic, from the description of duty inside a mascot costume to the crooked-or-not nature of games of skill.

King is an immensely talented writer, but some of his books feel like he’s having more fun than others. “Joyland” might have more cotton candy than grit, but it feels like King’s having fun. So we do too.

The Isolation Zone: ‘Under the Dome’ and ‘Siberia’

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Nobody ever said TV networks programmed their schedules to help their viewers, what with putting shows in the ridiculous “Friday night death slot” and pitting shows likely to appeal to the same audience on opposite each other.

There’s some of the latter going on this summer – although probably not for long – with CBS airing its adaptation of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” on Mondays opposite NBC’s “Siberia.” Although that should be the other way around, with “Under the Dome” beginning a week earlier than its no-name rival.

If you’re not familiar with “Under the Dome,” it’s based on King’s 2009 novel about the small town of Chester’s Mill, cut off from the outside world by a see-through but impenetrable dome. No one can get in or get out and viewers will find out what’s really going on by the end of the 12-week miniseries (readers of the book know it’s an ending that combines elements of “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek,” although they’ve supposedly rewritten the ending for the miniseries).

And how much of an ending are we going to get, anyway? I’ve read somewhere that King and the producers intend to continue the series next summer. Hmmm.

Anyway, in the meantime, some typical but still enjoyable King characters fill out the town of Chester’s Mill, including the mysterious hero, the spunky heroine, the town boss and his psycho son (well, the latter character’s not a favorite of mine).

Siberia

Over on NBC, “Siberia” is trying something a little different that is, at the same time, beholden to such movies as “The Blair Witch Project” and shows like “Survivor.”

In the first episode, 16 varying types – the diva, the nice girl, the down-home guy, the grumpy old man – are transported by the producers of a reality show to the wilds of Siberia. Once there, they’re told they have to survive for an unspecified period of time without quitting. The survivors get to split $500,000.

The show employs the reality show conventions we all know so well by now, with an omnipotent host who appears and disappears and everyone identified by name, profession and home town in subtitles accompanying look-into-the-camera “confessions.”

By the end of the first episode, however, it’s pretty obvious that this isn’t a standard reality show, as things take a violent turn.

For now, I’m keeping up with “Under the Dome” but I’m hoping things begin to boil pretty soon. As for “Siberia,” I’m not sold on it yet. I’ll try another episode to see what the producers have in mind.

So far, “Under the Dome” is beating “Siberia” in the ratings, so the question of how the “reality” show plays out may soon be moot.

King’s ’11/22/63′ does time travel right

Every science fiction author has tried his or her hand at a time travel story, sometimes more than once. Some do well, avoiding the cliches — what if I accidentally kill my own grandfather? — and others jump headfirst into the eddies and paradoxes of the time stream.

A couple of notable time travel stories — both made into movies, with vastly different results — are Ray Bradbury’s 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder,” in which future big-game hunters use the available time travel technology to travel into the distant past to hunt dinosaurs, and Richard Matheson’s 1975 novel “Bid Time Return,” in which a lovestruck modern-day man wills himself into the past to meet an actress from an old photograph.

Stephen King’s latest book, “11/22/63,” has echoes of both stories — the former in that its protagonist worries what might happen if he goes back in time and changes history and the latter in that a love lost in time is a central theme.

In the afterward to his 800-plus page book, however, King says he thinks Jack Finney’s “Time and Again” is “the great time travel story.”

Finney’s book, about a time-traveling tourist of sorts, also seems to be an influence on King’s novel.

King tells the story of Jake Epping, a teacher from modern-day Maine who reacts with disbelief when a friend tells him he’s stumbled upon — literally — a doorway back into time. A time portal is hidden in a little-used storage closet in the back of a diner in a small Maine town and the diner’s owner, Al, wants Epping to complete a mission that he could not: Save John F. Kennedy from assassination.

It seems that Al discovers that the time portal goes back to the same day — indeed, even the same minute — in 1958. Al has been going back and forth for years, enjoying his visits to the past and, while he’s there, buying cheap ground beef and bringing it back to the future. His suspiciously inexpensive hamburgers aside, Al has become fixated on a plan to save JFK from Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullets that fateful day in Dallas in November 1963.

Since this is a King story and King is known for his acknowledgement of human mortality, something goes wrong: Al is dying from cancer and is, in fact, likely to die before he can complete his mission. You see, he’s already gone back to 1958 and lived for several years in the past, waiting for the right moment to stop Oswald or anyone else with plans to kill the president.

So Al recruits Jake, urging him to go into the past and save JFK. If Jake is successful, Al believes all of modern history will turn on a dime and the world will be greatly improved. Vietnam might end early, saving the lives of thousands; Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might never be assassinated. The potential world-changing events are nearly endless.

Of course, Al is right, but not in the way he believes.

Jake, who takes some convincing, has another mission in mind as well. The school where he teaches employes a janitor who, in the course of an adult education class, writes a story about the harrowing night in October 1958 when his father wounded him horribly and killed his mother and siblings. Jake reads the paper and is haunted by it.

Since Jake will materialize in the past just a month before that happens, why can’t he stop the familial slaughter then head for Dallas?

King’s readers know that the author wouldn’t let his characters move as cleanly and easily through the events of the story as all that.

One of my favorite elements of “11/22/63” is King’s theory that the past doesn’t want to be changed. More than the dangers of changing the flow of history — and the book dramatically details those — Jake finds there’s real danger in trying to effect change in the time stream. If you try to make a little change, the past pushes back in a little way. Maybe you get a flat tire or the stomach flu.

If you try to make a big change — and what change could be bigger than saving Kennedy? — the hands of time pummel your ass.

King’s book, which makes 800 pages read more like 400, takes its time with its characters. The first section is about Jake’s efforts to save the lives of the janitor’s family in 1958. The second is about the years between that time and Kennedy’s assassination, when Jake lives, under a new identity, in a small Texas town. It’s during this time the stakes start getting higher. Jake not only begins to find out everything he can about Lee Harvey Oswald but also falls in love with a troubled young woman working at the school.

The final section of the book is a propulsive countdown to Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas, with Jake facing very long odds in his effort to change history.

King loads his book with wonderful plot points, from how Al and later Jake subsidize their stay in the past to little details about the period and the towns where the story takes place. He even finds time to make reference to “It,” his creepy novel about a killer clown in a small Maine town.

You’ve probably read and seen dozens of time travel stories and maybe even more than a few about the Kennedy assassination (the 1980s TV remake of “The Twilight Zone” had a good one, “Profile in Silver”).

But few in recent memory explore the concept as cleverly and with as much emotion as King’s latest novel.

 

Horror classic: ‘Salem’s Lot’

Who can forget the moment in “Salem’s Lot” when the little boy, lost in the woods and turned into a vampire, comes scratching at his brother’s window, whispering to be let in? Ralphie Glick floats into the room amid wisps of fog, hovering close to his brother. And then —

The 1979 TV-movie version of Stephen King’s classic 1975 novel about vampires infesting a small town in Maine holds up pretty well despite the intervening three decades (!).

Sure there’s a lot about “Salem’s Lot” that looks dated now. Most of it is cosmetic, though, including the hairstyles and clothing, particularly that of lead actor David Soul (“Starsky and Hutch;” I half expected him to break into “Don’t Give Up on Us, Baby”).

But director Tobe Hooper, who had made “A Texas Chainsaw Massacre” just five years before and hadn’t yet directed “Poltergeist,” did a good job of translating King’s book into TV-friendly images.

King’s book came out as the author’s career was beginning to get red hot. He had published “Carrie” the year before and the five years that followed “Salem’s Lot” could be considered the best five years any writer could hope to have: “The Shining,” “Night Shift,” “The Stand,” “The Dead Zone” and “Firestarter” were all published before 1980. Pretty mind-boggling.

King’s protagonist, Ben Mears, is a haunted man who comes back to the small town of ‘Salem’s Lot — short for Jerusalem’s Lot — to work on a book. Very quickly he realizes there’s something wrong about the town. He had a nightmarish vision there when he was a child. Is there something inherently evil about a place, he wonders?

Just as Ben comes back to ‘Salem’s Lot, the mysterious Kurt Barlow and Richard Straker open an antiques store. Barlow is, of course, a vampire and Straker is his human helper.

The TV version takes some liberties with characters, condensing some and omitting others entirely. Yet it still works.

Watching the show in recent days, I was struck by how dark (not just dimly lit, but that too) the story is.

I also marveled at how much Bonnie Bedelia, playing Susan, the female lead, looks like current-day ingenue Kristen Stewart. Bedelia is first here, then Stewart.

“Salem’s Lot” is probably available online or on disc if you want a pleasant trip back to vintage horror.

I watched it on VHS tape, all the while hoping the 30-year-old tape didn’t break or shred.

Horror doesn’t get much more vintage than that.