12.27.2012

King's Highway pt. 60: Ranking the Bachmans

I've come across many excellent King-fan sites since starting this project and have linked to my favorites many times. But I want to give special mention to Kevin Quigley's CharnelHouse, arguably the best online analysis of King's work. He's also an author in his own right, and I look forward to reading his work, particularly his collection of short fiction, This Terrestrial Hell. Also, check out his blog; basically, just put the guy on your radar and keep him there, if he isn't already.

As a tip of the cap to Mr. Q's GPS-like assistance for the stretches of Highway previously-traversed, each entry below will contain a "Kev Says" excerpt in addition to my own remarks (quoting myself from here or here, where appropriate.)

THE DOG STAR OMNIBUS 
BACHMAN BOWL


AUTHOR'S BIO

Born in New York, Richard Bachman's early years are a mystery. As a young man, he served a four year stint in the Coast Guard, followed by ten years in the merchant marine. Bachman finally settled down in rural central New Hampshire, where he ran a medium-sized dairy farm.

Bachman and his wife, Claudia Inez Bachman, had one child, a boy, who died in an unfortunate accident at the age of six. (He apparently fell through a well and drowned.) In 1982, a brain tumor was discovered near the base of Bachman's brain; tricky surgery removed it. The author, however, didn't live long after that and died suddenly in late 1985 of cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia.

In 1994, while preparing to move to a new house, the widow Bachman discovered a cardboard carton filled with manuscripts in the cellar. The carton contained a number of novels and stories, in varying degrees of completion. The most finished was a typescript of a novel entitled,
The Regulators. The widow took the manuscript to Bachman's former editor, Charles Verrill, who found it compared well with Bachman's earlier works. After only a few minor changes, and with the approval of the author's widow (now Claudia Eschelman), The Regulators was published posthumously in September of 1996.

Bachman's widow's new surname is interesting. Keeping the end of this article in mind, did King marry her off to one of his favorite Red Sox players? I've seen neither confirmation nor even suggestion of this, just a thought.
King as “Bachman” (no relation?) in Sons of Anarchy.
Blaze, another "trunk" novel was edited and offered for publication by King (as Bachman) in 2007.

Bachman's novels often employ a "countdown" structure and feature isolated main characters, as well as more explicit violence and sexuality but less supernatural themes than King's. There's considerable cross-pollination; all of these concerns appear in King's work, and vice versa. (It's all King's work, of course, but just saying.)

King was irritated that the Bachman mystery was solved when it was; he had hoped that the next Bachman book, Misery, would be “his” first bestseller. This irritation is expressed rather un-subtly in the characterization of Clawson, the man who tries to blackmail Thad Beaumont in The Dark Half, as a “creepazoid,” though there’s every indication King did not feel this way in-real-life about Steve Brown, the man who "cracked the case," nor that Brown in any way tried to blackmail King.

As Kev notes, “It is interesting to wonder what might have happened if Bachman’s true identity had remained a secret. As a King novel, Misery went to #1 on both the hardcover and paperback charts; might this have happened under Bachman’s name? What later King novels might have been released as Bachman books? …  (Conversely,) The Dark Half – which had sprung from King’s struggle to make sense of Bachman’s existence – may never have been written; ditto The Regulators, if not Desperation.”
Richard Bachman's author photo. The actual subject of the photo is Richard Manuel, the insurance agent of Kirby McCauley. (On a side note, I just discovered I've been misspelling Kirby McCauley's name as "Kirby Macauley" for awhile now. Ah well.) 
“In important ways, King explains, Bachman became real to him, not an alter ego so much as an alter id.”

Whether King (or Claudia) will discover any further Bachman Books is unknown. Unlikely, I'd say, but hey, you never know. (Perhaps Sword in the Darkness, another unpublished early King novel, will be released under the Bachman name? Aftermath is another one from that time period. Recently, King read a story by that name during a lecture appearance, but I believe its relation to the earlier novel is in name only.)

Without further ado, let's start the countdown.


SEVEN

What I said then: (quoting King's remarks on pulling the book from print) I sympathize with the losers of the world and... although I pity the Columbine shooters, ...there comes a point at which the Harrises and the Klebolds become unsalvageable, when they pass through some phantom tollbooth of the mind and into a land where every violent impulse is let free...

(me again) I like that phrase 'the phantom tollbooth of the mind.' Rage isn't a particularly bad read, but I, personally, find these comments on it more interesting than the book itself. I agree with SK that it seems immoral to shoot the messenger for a message he himself did not create (...) And I further agree that if something I'd written kept showing up in killers' back pockets, I'd get creeped out, as well. But, considering it's a novel about a kid who shoots up his high school/ teachers/ holds them hostage, it's probably not all that surprising/ meaningful that it's read by kids who shot up their high school/ teachers.”

What Kev says: “(This) is a dark novel with a bleak ending, its main character fundamentally damaged by the events in the book – a blueprint for nearly every novel written under the Bachman name with the (possible) exception of The Regulators.

“Before the end of Chapter One, (Charlie Decker) freely admits that he has lost his mind. Pop psychology would diagnose him at first glance with a persecution complex and delusions of grandeur, both evident in his confrontation with his principal. “You’re not qualified to deal with me,” he states, then goes about proving himself intellectually and morally superior to every adult figure in the book. Understanding the precepts of pop-psych is important: Rage is a young Stephen King’s revenge fantasy as much as it is Charlie Decker’s, and the limited understanding of psychology and therapy comes through in both the language and action of the novel.

“(...) King seems to suggest that this instantaneous Stockholm syndrome springs from his classmates' strong identification with Charlie’s anger (…) While none seem to approach Charlie's purported psychosis, most of the class seems to agree with his assessment of the adult world: it is not qualified to deal with them.”

What I say now: Since I first reviewed this book, our country has experienced the Sandy Hook shootings and the Aurora, CO Batman shootings, as well as a slew of ones with less body counts/ media coverage. (Particularly here in Chicago.) It's tough to evaluate any work of fiction that deals with this subject matter without recoiling from the traumatic images of those real-life events or hearing mental echoes of the usual toxic debate. But if there is a lesson to be learned from Rage, it might benefit us as a society to find it; its themes of learned-abuse/ violent-narcissism and group-turning-on-individual/ individual-turning-on-group described herein at least offer specific (and proactive) lines of inquiry.

SIX

What Kev says: “An Of Mice and Men pastiche, it also underlines the dark presence of fathers in the Bachman books: every Bachman novel – including arguably The Regulators’ Johnny Marinville – features a father figure whose abuse, indifference, or ineffectualness damages his children.
 
“(...) Happy endings aren’t really the point in Bachman books (…) Blaze comes to believe that he has mostly run out of options before he turns to a life of crime, a motif running throughout the Bachman novels… That Blaze is probably right might be the biggest heartbreak of them all. (...) That’s the beauty of Blaze: from page one, it’s obvious that his is the story of a doomed man, but because both the character and the story surrounding him are so compelling, one is helpless to stop reading.”

Previously unreviewed by me, so What I say now: A couple of fun connections to King's other works. Here's Wiki's list; there might even be more.

Much better than I expected it to be. Blaze is a sympathetic character, no small achievement given his crimes and violence. But I don't have too much to say about it. What you see is what you get. (And like Ginelli says from Thinner, "An asshole is a guy who doesn't believe what he's seeing.")

FIVE

What I said then: “The blurb on the cover above is incorrect; this is not a 'future America,' this is an alternate dystopian-present America where April has thirty-one days, a New Hampshire provo governor singlehandedly stormed a German nuclear base in Santiago 'back in '53,' and the national sport is The Long Walk, where one hundred teenagers "compete" to see who can out-survive one another on a grueling walk-a-long where falling below four miles an hour or accumulation of other infractions get you a "ticket." (i.e. kablammo) The stakes are madness and/or death, but the prize is anything your heart desires.

“(...) This story is best evaluated alongside its 70s kin. It's a product of its time, with first the actual Vietnam and protests on the six o'clock news, then the shadows of its aftermath, and laugh-tracks and game-shows right before and after them. Also, the details and "feel" are from the 70s, from the game-shows quoted at the start of most chapters to the mention of certain songs, ad jingles, and John Travolta.”

What Kev says: “Death lingers over every page of this book, along with the concept of The Crowd. The Crowd loves it when the Walkers win, but they love it even more when they lose. The Crowd loves blood... (Readers are drawn into) the Walkers’ plights so inexorably that they become part of The Crowd. It’s almost a metatextual conundrum – criticizing a world that would be fascinated by such a competition while constructing a narrative so compelling that it is irresistible.

“This exploration of popular culture’s obsession with competition and human suffering chillingly presages the current American interest in reality television (...) Even the clich├ęs are predicted here: the personality types aren’t any different than you’d see on an episode of America’s Next Top Model, the grueling challenges (walking through rain, sleeping without slowing down) not much worse than those on Survivor, and the admonition that “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win” has been a reality television staple for years.

What I say now: I mentioned both They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Punishment Park in my original review and still maintain an adaptation of The Long Walk that used either of those as a template would be perfect. Long tracking shots with the half-tracks and jeeps driving by the shambling walkers, off-kilter music/ sound-fx cues, Spirit-of-'76-style crowds cheering, etc. Frank Darabont needs to pull the trigger on this one; he's had the rights to film it for years. (According to him, he'll get to it "one day." Fair enough, but come on, man.)

(JULY 2013 EDIT: This moved quite a bit up the ladder in teh final analysis. See here.) 

FOUR

What I said then: “(The movie keeps) the basic dystopian future/ violent gameshow called 'The Running Man' aspect, but everything else is gone. The book is bleaker. Richards, the main character's daughter is dying from lack of access to simple medicine, and his wife turns tricks to stave off death. There is no happy ending; there is no Maria Conchita Alonso. There is a Killian, but he doesn't come across like Richard Dawson.

“(...) How does its disturbing look into the world of 2025 hold up? It's still somewhat plausible (if depressing) that the world of TRM could come into being. Inflated currency, degraded atmosphere, violent class division mercilessly-exploited/maintained by TV executives... all too familiar. A couple of other things are now anachronistic, such as how Richards has to put 'tapes' of his day-to-day running into the mail, but overall... pretty well, he says dejectedly.

What Kev says: “Midway through the novel, Richards stumbles across two young boys named Stacey and Bradley, who wake Richards up to larger societal problems. It is here that The Running Man achieves some deeper allegorical resonance, becoming something of a commentary on classism (...) and ecological concerns. The final pages (are) the epitome of a Richard Bachman ending: violent and bloody, with the protagonist destroying himself. Whether Richards's sacrifice has lasting repercussions is unknown,(but he) chooses to eliminate the cause of his misery instead of just the symptoms. As his plane collides with the Games Building, all the Free-Vees in the vicinity go white.”



“Hasty characterization and caricature work against the book, as do the sheer number of racial and sexual crudities, which distract from the story rather than adding realism. Regardless of its swift pace and a satisfying conclusion, The Running Man is the weakest of the seven Bachman novels.”

What I say now: Well, I like it better than Mr. Q, to be sure. I think it's prime material for a remake, especially now. The Schwarzeneggar version is still the one most popularly associated with the concept, and it'd be a real shock for people to see a movie more in tune with the novel. Especially in the Endless War on Terror Age, when the media has committed itself so enthusiastically to becoming the active instrument of disinformation described in this text.

The mind boggles.
THREE
Image taken from here.
What Kev says: “Thinner is Stephen King’s indictment of unchecked American wealth, privilege, and greed. As much a commentary on its time as The Dead Zone was, King’s cynical look at 1980s America is at turns gruesome and insightful, a horror novel that works literally and allegorically.

“(It) seems opposed to the narrative intent of the earlier Bachman books; instead of a single man beleaguered by an oppressive society, Billy Halleck seems representative of that oppressive society. Here, knowledge of the basic structures of the initial four Bachman books provides excellent foreshadowing. As the novel progresses, we become increasingly aware of how tenuous Halleck’s grasp is on his comfortable life, and how quickly and completely he can become an outcast.

“As King modernized the vampire tale with ’Salem’s Lot, here he brings the creaky horror tradition of the Gypsy curse up to date. (...) Greed and laziness emerge as two of the novel’s major themes as Billy begins to shed pounds no matter how much he eats.”

Previously unreviewed by me, so What I say now: A country with the collective body dysmorphia that the United States has deserves a satirical masterpiece about gluttony and weight-loss. Thinner isn't it. As noted above, this is more of a critique of American culture in the 1980s. i.e. Reaganism and yuppies and Alex P. Keaton, etc. White privilege in practice, in other words, not just as a catchphrase thrown around as an epithet. 

And as a critique / accurate-reflection of such, (one might say appropriate tonal reaction to such) it's great.


The movie blows. The "fat suit" in particular is just awful-awful-awful, though I think it'd have been more offensive to learn an actor packed on weight and then lost it, Christian-Bale-in-The-Machinist style, for a production this hackneyed. Anyway, fat suit / shoddy production aside, it's just an inelegant transcription of the novel.
Some things are a tad dated. (The doctor-doing-coke, the daughter playing Dungeons-and-Dragons (something in particular few girls born in the years since would find believable, or even understand as a reference), even the use of the word "Gypsies," though one never knows how that stuff will translate from era to era.) But regardless, it's a compelling (if pessimistic) read. King's characterizations are perfect, the pace never lets up, and Halleck's condition - both spiritual and physical - is harrowing to read.

A word on Ginelli aka Special Agent Stoner. I bet King has some fun stories that would incriminate himself, his friends, or his associates if he ever put them in print. But just a hunch - this guy is real. King knows (or knew) this guy. 

As with Blaze, I couldn't help but root for the protagonists, even as I was morally repelled by them and what they were doing. Halleck less so, but Ginelli? I liked him. You just want to believe that no matter how badly you screw up, no matter how wrong you actually are, if you just have the right people on your side/ are lucky enough/ plan things out just right, you can fix it. Terrible, of course. And the gypsies represent the karmic tide pushing back against that.


Of course, as Lemke says, “There is no 'poosh,' white man from town. Not never.” Purpurfargade ansiktet.
TWO

What Kev says: “While The Running Man explored a dystopic, 1984-type future world, with its own attendant language, landscape, and society, the town of Wentworth, Ohio is instantly recognizable as a slice of twentieth-century American life. The science fiction elements are intrusions.

“(The) very fact of multiple main characters and storylines sets The Regulators apart from the other Bachman novels. So, too, does the inclusion of various supporting ephemera: representations of postcards, letters, teleplays, drawings, even movie review guides are far more indicative of King than Bachman… Creatures like mountain lions, coyotes, and vultures arrive, real enough to kill but mutated through the lens of Seth's imagination. These elements, too, seem more related to 'Stephen King' supernatural horror, again relating it closer to Thinner than any of the other Bachman novels.

“In final study, The Regulators is a well-written, thrilling novel that doesn't necessarily try for anything deeper… In a very literal sense, the bloodshed of The Regulators is cartoon carnage, and part of King's message is that too much TV can be hazardous to your health.”

Previously unreviewed by me, so What I say now: I fully expected this to be number one on my list. The only thing that prevents this from being Number One in the McRankings is that I had such difficulty keeping all the characters straight. This may have been just my own fault as a reader, but I think the structure of the novel, with its journal-entries, teleplays from MotoKops 2200 and the (fictional) movie The Regulators et al., made it a bit harder to keep everyone straight. I kept wanting to re-order or re-structure a few things. Probably just to make it easier on myself. Anyway, if someone has this (or Thinner or The Running Man) as their Number One, I wouldn't disagree.

Though I'm reading Desperation now, I haven't finished, (which might further explain my difficulty with keeping all the characters straight) so I don't know if I agree with Kev's ultimate assessment, that “(...) for all its successes, (Regulators) is (just) an exciting action story with a cynical message that doesn't approach the larger themes or messages inherent in its counterpart.”

I went into it with King's description of its themes  (“Of course there's God in The Regulators, too, it's just television. God is different in different books because it depends on the people you're writing about”) in mind:

The tv ran constantly, broadcasting the same tapes and recycled series programs (Bonanza, The Rifleman... and Motokops 2200, of course) over and over. The people on the shows had all begun to sound like lunatic demagogues to her, cruel voices exhorting a restless mob to some unspeakable action.

There was no one here but her and her dead friends on the tv.



Also, a word on Mohonk: “A clever device King employs in both The Regulators and Dreamcatcher makes a reappearance here. In The Regulators, Audrey Wyler constructs a "safe space" in her mind - a specific happy memory of a place and time where she can go to escape the evil presence of Tak. Dreamcatcher utilizes this concept more specifically... Because each of these visualizations are unique in details and methodology, it never seems as if King is recycling concepts, instead adapting basic symbols to the needs of his stories. (Additionally, because both The Regulators and Dreamcatcher have connections to the larger Dark Tower story, it could be argued that details such as the Dogan are borrowed intentionally from these other books, and are meant to be recognized.)”
Mohonk, NY
ONE
Cover to the UK edition
What I said then: “(King) describes this one as an attempt to make sense of his mother's death from cancer. He originally didn't want it re-published but decided to 'to give his readers some insight into his personality at the time.' That's an interesting admission and worth checking out for that reason alone. He has said recently it's one of his favorites of his early works.


I can see that. There's a certain “something” to this one that's missing from the other Bachman Books. Ultimately, though, it feels like a not-particularly-bad-but-very-70s movie-of-the-week. Would it make a good movie with an 80s-era Rutger Hauer? Or Ernest Borgnine?

What Kev says: “Roadwork once again interests itself in the story of a man working against the will of a society that seems to want to destroy him. This man's name is Barton George Dawes, and as the novel opens, we find him beginning to go insane.

“(The title) refers to a new unnecessary highway extension, being built merely to avoid losing federal funding. The extension will cut through Dawes's home and the place he's worked for over two decades, the Blue Ribbon Laundry (an explicit connection with King's novels, the Blue Ribbon is the laundry at which Margaret White, Carrie's mother, works)... (Though well compensated) Dawes steadfastly refuses to be moved. The metaphorical link between extension and his son's inoperable cancer is made overt when Dawes muses that, 'God decided to do a little roadwork on Charlie's brain.'

His irrational guilt over Charlie's death twists into an equally irrational desperation to stop the roadwork. At first convinced that simply ignoring it will arrest its construction, Dawes eventually decides to take violent action. (...) The real tragedy of Roadwork is that, as with Charlie's cancer, nothing Dawes can do even slows the roadwork down; its progress is implacable.”

Roadwork shares (with Blaze) the device of the main character talking with a dead person who represents seemingly more rational thought. (…) The political and social upheavals of the 1970s that helped structure The Dead Zone provide much of the motivation (here). Later, in Pet Sematary, Louis Creed's actions echo Dawes's, ignoring rational arguments to the point of insanity while trying - in Creed's case, literally - to bring his dead son back to life. Additionally, much of the horror in Christine stems from resistance to change, and obsessive glorification of the past.”

What I say now: That's an interesting observation about Christine, another one I'm reading right now.

This one really is a small masterpiece. It's pessimistic and grim and recognizable as "the 70s," as I mentioned above, but if anyone thinks this news story isn't already in-the-making for 2013 (I can see the headlines now and the mug-shot of the "angry lone gunman," likely a libertarian white male with lots of "assault rifles," with the psychotropic drugs he's on getting less mention) guess again. Hope I'm wrong, obviously, but I'd be shocked if that story wasn't already being edited together at Media HQs by State Department "consultants."

Which is interesting in and of itself. Perhaps as social commentary, Bachman's work can tell us more of the world around us than King's? Whether it's the violently-sublimated trauma of Roadwork or media in The Running Man/ The Long Walk or consumer-culture in Thinner / The Regulators or violent narcissism in Rage, Bachman's work provides an unpleasantly-prescient view of America in 2012.

Regardless, this is a marvelous construction and deserves consideration not just as Bachman's (arguable) best but one of King's best, period.

NEXT!
With Stewart O'Nan? Christine? Desperation? Needful Things? One of those. See you then.

2 comments:

  1. If it wasn't 4:18 in the morning, I'd probably have a lot more to say about this. But it is, so I'll settle for merely congratulating you on giving some props to "Roadwork," which is surely one of the most underrated and/or least-discussed novels in King's bibliography.

    I'm with you; I think it's a bit of a masterpiece. (My personal favorite Bachman, though, is "The Long Walk," which I just adore through and through. "Roadwork" isn't far behind it, though. (A quick consultation informs me that when I ranked all of King's books, "The Long Walk" came in at #17 and "Roadwork" at #41; methinks I might have slotted "Roadwork" a bit too far down the list. Time for a revised post...!)

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    1. The Long Walk is indeed great. Actually, any of my top 5, here, could be swapped in at #1 and I'd have no problem with that. I think Roadwork's lack of discussion might cause me to bump it to the top as compensation. But maybe not - regardless, it's one hell of a book.

      Once I finish reading all the novels, I'm planning a best-of-the-King series of entries. I'm not sure if I'll throw the Bachmans in there or not. I might just use the top couple here, for my bracketology once I get the top 4 from each decade. (My current plan of attack) We shall see. T-minus-two-weeks-ish!

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