7.30.2012

King's Highway pt 25: Some Nightmares, Some Dreamscapes

Damn, this is a big book.

From this one collection of twenty-four stories (King's third, published fourteen years after his first, Night Shift, and seven years after his second, Skeleton Crew) two movies have been made (Dolan's Cadillac and The Night Flier) with another ("The Ten O'Clock People") on the way, as well as three short films ("Sorry, Right Number" for Tales from the Darkside, "The Moving Finger" for Monsters, and "Chattery Teeth" for Quicksilver Highway.) Not to mention TNT's uneven 2006 anthology series, also named Nightmares and Dreamscapes... 


...for which short films were made for "Crouch End," "Umney's Last Case," "The End of the Whole Mess," "The Fifth Quarter," and "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band." Whew. That's a lot to cover, so this will undoubtedly be broken up into a few different entries.

(I'll probably save a discussion of "Dolan's" and "Night Flier" / "Popsy" until I get a chance to see those movies. Well, no movie for "Popsy," but since SK implies the grandfather in that story is the vampire from "The Night Flier," I'll cover those two at the same time. And I'll cover "Chattery Teeth" once I sit down and watch Quicksilver Highway, so, probably either with any of the above/ or in the next one of these. Enough housekeeping/ coming attractions!)

Of the three stories filmed for the TNT series that are not from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, my favorite is definitely "Battleground," from Night Shift. 

Filmed with no dialogue and with an added assassination-sequence at the beginning.
I would never have cast William Hurt in this role, but now I can't imagine anyone else. He's perfect.
I never thought too much of the original story. I enjoyed it, but I had more or less forgotten it until I watched this on tv in 2006. I wasn't reading King at the time but checked out the mini-series just the same. And boy was I glad, because I loved this. Directed by Brian Henson and adapted by Richard Christian Matheson.(All they need is Joe Hill or Owen King (and maybe Zac Starkey) to be a second-generation supergroup.

If you haven't seen/ read it, it's about a guy who is attacked by a a box of little green army men.

No heavy symbolism, nothing Kafkaesque, just a fight for survival.
The other two are from Everything's Eventual:

"Autopsy Room Four" and
"The Road Virus Heads North."
Both are fine, although the latter changes shape a bit from page to screen, and while it isn't exactly good, it has some attitude. As with "The Sun Dog," covered here in case you missed it (I always want to add Stan Lee style editor's notes when I hyperlink like that. 'See King's Highway 22, true believer! - "Evil" Ed.') a monster from the other side of a picture slowly but surely makes its way to this side, much to the protagonist's growing horror and comprehension.

King owns the original painting. Whether or not it has a handwritten note that says "I can't stand what's happening to me" attached to it is unknown.
There's a pretty good overview of the production of the whole TNT series here. It's not my favorite, but it has its moments.

Moving on: "The End of the Whole Mess." I liked the story a bit more than I liked the adaptation, although the TNT version is certainly a good one. ("Everyone is going to get a little... silly." Anyone who has witnessed someone ravaged by Alzheimer's knows this is both accurate and a horrifying understatement.) The end is sad, as befits the material, and it's a compelling read.

Two last things re: "End of the Whole Mess," 1) SK refers to his real-life sibling as the basis for the "genius brother" depicted here. That plus some of his comments in On Writing about Dave King make me really curious about the guy. Sometimes it's tough to respect the King family's privacy. 2) I liked this: "'Bees are nature's kamikaze pilots... Their stingers are barbed, like fishhooks. They slide in easy. When they pull out, they disembowel themselves.'" Whereas wasps (he goes on) can sting you over and over again. Very apt imagery for the subject matter. (Boy genius decides to save the world by ridding it of "mean-ness")

The collection's oldest story, "Suffer the Little Children," was written during the same period as most of the stories in Night Shift, that is to say, the 1970s.  King provides plenty of supplemental info about the stories in the introduction and afterward. Of this one, King writes "(it is) a ghastly sick joke with no redeeming social merit whatsoever." I can see that. He also says it reminds him of early Bradbury. I can see that, too, particularly "The Playground," aka that-one-episode of Ray Bradbury Mystery Theater with William Shatner.

With William Shatner.
I made a note of this line: Air brakes whined and hissed like angry dragons. Great last paragraph/ ending, too, but it wouldn't have the same impact reproduced out of context.

"It Grows On You" I wish I'd thought to do this from the beginning of this series and get a definitive word-count (OCD much??), but I wonder how many times "goldenrod," "ragweed," "arc-sodium," and "culvert" appear in SK's work... The first paragraph, here, has all of them, and it is my suspicion these are words pop up often enough for someone to compile a list.

Not having read Needful Things, I got the sense there's more going on in this story than I was able to suss out. I could be wrong; King refers to it as a coda for "the doomed folk of Castle Rock" in his author's afterword, so maybe I'm just reading into it. It's not a bad read. It's got atmosphere to spare, and that "old town smell," similar to a "new car smell" but with more old-man-regrets and body-decay. The plot is pretty simple: some old guys sit around their old man base-of-operations and talk about this house in town that keeps growing, one of them remembers a lewd act from the lady for whom it was built, and then he dies. Who keeps adding to the house? It's left mysterious.

A user on the SK Forum, ArsePoetica, has this to say about it: "My take on it is that the house appears to literally grow on its own, either feeding off the deaths of the people around it or causing it. I think of it as perhaps the root cause of all that happens in Castle Rock."

Sounds good to me. If that's what was intended, though, I think this needed a tad more salt.
Some fun lines in this one: "Not worth the puke of a tubercular cocker spaniel," and "Gary doesn't know a lot lately, but he knows getting old is a lousy way to spend the last years of his life."

As for "Dedication," let me reproduce this bit from the author's afterword:

"For years, since I first met and was appalled by a now-dead famous writer, whom I will not name here, I have been troubled by the question of why some enormously talented people turn out to be such utter shits in person - woman-pawing sexists, racists, sneering elitists, or cruel practical jokers. I'm not saying that most talented or famous people are that way, but I have met enough who are - including that one undeniably great writer - to wonder why. This story was written as an effort to answer that question to my satisfaction. The effort failed, but I was at least able to articulate my own unease, and in this case, that seemed enough."

I grew frustrated trying to guess the identity of the dead famous writer from the details of the story. I'm sure most details were changed enough to offer no real clues, but after reading that, I couldn't help but look for them. (Mario Puzo, maybe? Joe Heller? I've heard some "colorful anecdotes" about both of them that seem to fit the profile, but... just guessing. Neither of them seems like the guy in the story, of course) If anyone knows, let me know.


Anyway, I have to agree: as an effort to answer that question, "Why are so many enormously talented people such utter shits," it fails; as a story that produces a metaphor to articulate the author's unease, it succeeds. But does it make for a successful story? It unfolds/ bounces around a little too much for me, and, as with "Ballad of the Flexible Bullet," it goes on too long to be believable as a long story recounted by one character, particularly in this case, where the maid/ main character uses certain "Kingsy" type phrases like describing masturbation as "a date with Mama Thumb and her four sisters" or whatever the exact line is. This could just be personal preference, but I think if your story is told entirely through the speech of one character, extra care should be taken to distance the author's distinctive voice from the character recounting it. (And, if you must go this route, shorten it up a little - when's the last time you sat down with someone and listened to a six or seven hour monologue, as broken up over three or four locations? When's the last time you wanted to, is a better question. King knows how to tell a story - I read it all the way through, after all - but this is one of those rare occasions where I felt my inner writing-tutor want to yell at the master.)

And speaking of the masturbation, the main conceit of this story (which I won't get into, because it really does come out of nowhere) is just... silly. I mean, fine, be as gross as you want. He refers to this in the afterword as, more or less, wanting to keep Constant Reader from a sense of complacency re: what to expect from "Uncle Steve." Well, mission accomplished, but I'm of the opinion anyone can gross someone out/ be shocking. King usually ties this to a metaphor or narrative I find compelling, but that's not the case for me here.

Ditto for "The Moving Finger." Which has a lot going for it, if you can get behind the central (and extremely silly) image of a man tormented by a finger poking out of the sink. The writing and construction of this are both top-notch, especially how the Alex Trebek stuff weaves in and out, and the dialogue. I enjoyed the ending, but... well, the central idea is a bridge too far for me.

I haven't seen the adaptation made for Monsters. Anyone?

"Sneakers" is a good read. I wasn't sure what to make of the homosexuality subtext - could be there's nothing there to "make of," but I wasn't sure if I was missing something. I loved this bit:

"He suddenly realized something else - realized it the way you realize things in dreams: when people see ghosts, they always see themselves first. Why? For the same reason deep divers pause on their way to the surface, knowing that if they rise too fast they will get nitrogen bubbles in their blood and suffer, perhaps die, in agony. There were reality bends, as well."

Too true.

Next up: "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band."


Not a Janis Joplin fan. Just thought I'd mention that. I have no trouble picturing her in whatever Diner in Hell exists for rock and roll casualties. Sad to think of Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Elvis having to spend eternity hanging out there, though.

"Home Delivery" is just great. Great idea, great execution, great coda for Dolores Claiborne and Storm of the Century. SK was asked to contribute to an anthology that centered around stories that took place in a world determined by a Romero-esque zombie event. That's all I'll say, but there's so much more going on here. Underappreciated.

Ditto for "Rainy Season," which on first glance might seem like just the traditional travelers-to-small-town-with-secrets story


and maybe that's all it is. But it's a great read. I want to know more.


"My Pretty Pony" was first published in 1989 as part of the Whitney Museum's writer-and-artist series. It was an oversized fine press slip-cased book with stainless steel faced boards and digital clock inset into the front cover. You can see pics (and the price tag) here. When I first read about this George Beahm's The Stephen King Companion, I practically salivated - what the hell IS that? But I knew there was no way I was going to be getting a copy of it and more or less forgot about it. So, I was particularly happy to discover it among the Table of Contents here.

How does it hold up? Maybe it goes on a bit too long. The plot is essentially "Young Clive receives instruction from his Grandpa about the nature of time." And maybe he receives a bit too much of it. That said, I loved it. I'm very forgiving of anything that attempts to untangle the enduring mystery of how and why time passes. The image of time as a "pretty pony" and to say that between each and every second, to stay "regular," is as fine as any I can think of. But, yeah, maybe a tad too long. And repetitive in spots. (My brain is trying to turn that into a comment on timekeeping itself, i.e. That's how it's SUPPOSED to seem, ya jerk! Hell, maybe, I don't know.) I do love these bits from the end:

"Grandpa's pony had kicked down Grandpa's fences and gone over all the hills in the world."

and

"Clive Banning never forgot the name, which was time, and the color, which was none, and the look, which was not ugly or beautiful... but only pretty. Nor did he ever forget her nature, which was wicked, or what his Grandpa said on the way down, words almost thrown away, lost in the wind: having a pony to ride was better than having no pony at all, no matter how the weather of its heart might lie."

Could be some of the prettiest SK writing I've ever had the pleasure to come across, right there.

Just a quick word about the "bonus track" story at the very end of Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It is a brief Hindu parable of Shiva and his wife Parvati


transcribed as a conversation between God and the arch-angel Uriel. You can read about it here. God's answer to Uriel at the end of this parable, the so-called "wrap-up" of the spiritual instruction that precedes it, put me in mind of Tom Gordon's answer to The Girl Who Loved Him in TGWLTG. 

From "The Beggar and the Diamond:

"Uriel looked at God (as nearly as anyone - even an archangel - can look at that burning face, at least) uncertainly. "Have you given me a lesson, Lord?"
"I don't know," God said blandly, "have I?"

vs. the end of TGWLTG:

"How much of it was real?"
"All of it," he said, as if it didn't really matter. And then, again: "You did a good job."
"I was stupid to get off the path like I did, wasn't I?"
He looked at her with slight surprise, then pushed up his cap... He smiled and when he smiled, he looked young. "What path?" he said.

See you next time with the rest of these stories.

3 comments:

  1. Lots to chew over here.

    (1) The Brian Henson "Battleground" is indeed pretty great. I really want to get the book about it Gauntlet Press put out, but I just can't justify $75 for it right now. Which means someday, I'll have to pay five times that, of course, but them's the breaks.

    (2) The movie versions of "Road Virus" and "Hell of a Band" don't work for me very well, because they do a poor job of visualizing elements from the stories. The paintings in "Road Virus" just aren't very good at all. In "Hell of a Band," the problem is that the ghosts don't actually look anything like the dead rock 'n' rollers. On film, it's just lame. The story is cool, though, and would make for a good comic-book adaptation.

    (3) King's brother, David, and his daughter, Naomi, are both people I'd like to know more about, but I feel a little icky about that, because I realize that they interest me only as part of the Stephen King story ... and they AREN'T (obviously) just parts of that story, they are their own people, who deserve whatever privacy they want to maintain. And yet, King's life IS unquestionably an interesting story, and they ARE unquestionably parts of it, so it's hard for me to not be curious.

    (4) I'll say this with no hesitation: when I first read "Dedication," I was too young to be reading that story, because the big gross-out moment REALLY grossed me out. I first encountered that story in its appearance alongside "Sneakers" and "The Reploids" in an anthology called "The Skin Trade." My favorite of the three was "The Reploids," which is the one King has decided to ignore ever since!

    (5) Never seen the "Monsters" episode. I'll get around to it someday. It's on YouTube, though: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynO276Sm7sA

    (6) I remember loving a lot of the stories in "Nightmares & Dreamscapes," but there are a great many of them that I can remember virtually nothing about in terms of specifics. It's been WAY too long since I read that book.

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    1. I kinda liked the Road Virus adaptation - those paintings, while like you say, not exactly top-notch, impart a certain lunacy to the viewer. Or this viewer, anyway. But I do prefer the story, definitely.

      I have the same thing with that $75 book for Battleground. Anytime I think of spending the money, I just watch the episode again. I've always liked films that tell a story without dialogue, but this was one that really surprised me. A perfect storm of performance, direction, set design, and f/x.

      Thanks for the You-Tube link - that didn't even occur to me. Sometimes, the wheels move slowly... Maybe The Night Flier is on there, as well.

      The Reploids, eh... I like that name quite a bit. I'll have to track down the Skin Trade. I don't like there being a King story out there I haven't read!

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    2. My only complaint about "Battleground" is that it ought not to have been the first episode of that miniseries, because it was all downhill from there.

      That series got good ratings; I was surprised they didn't do a second "season" of it.

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