8.29.2012

King's Highway pt. 30: The Drawing of the Three (Dark Tower pt. 2)

Welcome to Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve! Easily accessible from all points of the King's Highway and strewn over many miles of primary and secondary texts, the DTNPWR offers visitors a truly unique hiking experience. We hope you enjoy your visit. Follow all trail markers and do not stray from the path. Beware the Lobstrosities; beware the Taheen. For a free road map or to follow along at home, see here.

For the duration of our stay in the Dark Tower mythos, we will observe the following trail-guide format: Overview / What You'll See/ Whom You'll Meet / Trail Difficulty / Scenic View / Trail Notes.


OVERVIEW

The story begins only a few hours after the conclusion of The Gunslinger. Roland finds himself immediately attacked by lobster/scorpion creatures he dubs "lobstrosities" that emerge from the Western Sea. (More on them below) It then... (as excerpted from here) "transports readers along as Roland, facing imminent death, discovers a series of three doors standing freely on the beach. Passing through each of them in succession, Roland enters our world and sets about "drawing" the people who are destined to join him on his Tower quest. From late-1980s New York, as seen through the eyes of a heroin-addled young man named Eddie Dean; to the Manhattan of the early-1960s, where the schizophrenic, wheelchair-bound civil-rights activist Odetta Holmes awaits; to mid-1970s New York, where an icy serial killer named Jack Mort plots his next murder, Roland performs his drawing of the three (though it proves not to be the threesome that Roland, or readers, has expected."

Credit: the_dark_tower___the_western_sea_by_michalz00-d4rk7qh
"Among the themes grappled with by the characters are racism, feminism and gender roles, obsessive sociopaths, psychogenic fugues, substance abuse, and philosophic determinism (a pivotal theme throughout the series). The resolutions, when they come, are as unexpected as Roland's crippling wounds in the prologue, the ending as satisfying in its romantic ambivalence as the first book's conclusion." (As excerpted from here.)

Before starting these, I'd been warned the first book wasn't all that great and that if I wasn't drawn into the story by 100 pages or so into this one that I might as well give up. I admit, it took a little longer than the first 100 pages for me to warm to the material, but once it "clicked," I breathed a sigh of relief. I'm committed to getting through not just all the Dark Towers but the entire King catalog, so I would've continued either way, but I didn't want to read all these "just to read them." Somewhere around the opening of the third door, I found myself wholly immersed in the story and characters.

WHAT YOU'LL SEE

The landscape of The Drawing of the Three is primarily New York City, albeit the NYC of three different decades, inter-cut with that stretch of beach along the Western Sea.

1964 Times Square. It's too bad there wasn't a section in the 90s, so someone could comment on the Disneyfication of the area:

WHOM YOU'LL MEET

Some very important characters are introduced here... "This is the very first introduction to a concept known as ka-tet: a group of otherwise disparate individuals whose destinies become bound together by fate and common purpose. Essentially, Roland is meeting those who will form his ka-tet for the purpose of reaching the Dark Tower... It's the coming together of separate entities to make a whole. Separate, each is but a shadow of the other - and even dangerous. But together, the union is glorious. It's the same thing for Roland and his ka-tet. Separate, he, Eddie, and Susannah each had their strengths and weaknesses. Now, joined together through ka, they are something much more." (As excerpted from here.)

The interior illustrations are by Phil Hale. Google-image search him; you won't be disappointed.
Roland's ka-tet is not quite complete, as we shall see in The Waste Lands, but we are introduced to two of its principal members: Eddie Dean (first as the heroin-addicted first-time drug mule, then as the pop-culture-referencing wiseacre - familiar to many a King story - of the rest of the story) and Odetta Holmes (first as a schizophrenic who switches between sweet Odetta and crazy-hateful Detta, then as the fused "Susannah" of the rest of the series.)

We also meet (via flashback and interior monologue) Eddie's brother Henry, as well as Jack Mort (the third of the three draws), some gangsters and cops (the scene with the cops/ pharmacy at the end is a lot of fun) and the lobstrosities:

Their dialogue consists only of 'Dad-a-chum? Dum-a-chum? Ded-a-check? Did-a-chick?' Although poisonous, they are edible, and our heroes dine on lobstrosity burritos galore, throughout. (Illustration credit: Phil Hale again)
That "Dad-a-chum?" business got stuck in my head but good. The next time I'm at a lobster tank, I plan on putting my face to the glass and repeating it a dozen or so times to see if there's any reaction.

The ka-tet concept ("one from many" or "sharing the same destiny") reminded me both of Vonnegut's similarly-named karass and of Elric again, on those occasions where he banded together with his Eternal Champion counterparts to become "the three who were one" in Sailor on the Seas of Fate and The Vanishing Tower. I'm really curious if Elric was an inspiration for King. As stated elsewhere, certain ideas seem to suggest certain other ideas, so it's entirely possible he hasn't, or hadn't when writing these.

One last thing: King deserves credit for juggling both Odetta's 1960s sensibilities and Roland's stranger-in-a-strange-land observations re: planes/ our world. In particular, his delight at the guns 'n' ammo store cracked me up. As well as:

“Roland could not understand why anyone would want cocaine or any other illegal drug, for that matter, in a world where such a powerful one as sugar was so plentiful and cheap.”

TRAIL DIFFICULTY

While this is quite a readable book, it has two sticking points on which I must comment, both of which involve the character of Odetta/ Detta.

Quite like this one, from here.
When the narrative turns over to Detta's point of view, it goes a little off the rails. A bit cringeworthy in spots, and I can see this being a bridge too far for some readers. King addresses this in the narrative itself in this following section:

“I can only understand about one word in every ten she says,” Roland tells Eddie, who says he can get two of every three but it really only comes back to honky mahfah. “Do many of the dark-skinned people talk that way where you come from?” Roland asks, to which Eddie responds, “No... it’s not real. It’s not real and she doesn’t even know it... She’s a pretty good actress...She sounds like a cross between the darkies in this book called Mandingo I read once and Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind. I know you don’t know those names, but what I mean is she talks like a cliche.”

This, of course, shields King from any accusations that her dialogue is cartoonish, etc. I'm not sure if it's enough of a peg to hang it on, (I should mention Eddie isn't the most p.c. character, so his use of "darkies" - and, elsewhere, "crip spaces" in place of handicapped parking - is not done out of carelessness by the author but deliberate characterization, in case you saw that and started writing me an angry letter) but as Suzanne Johnson over at Tor.com writes in her ongoing read-through of The Dark Tower: "So, Eddie and Roland realize Detta is a cartoon character, a cliche. I could look for deep, dark meaning here and wander in literary hellholes, uh, I mean mazes. But really, it might be that in Odetta’s mind, which is where Detta was born, the cartoon woman is the only kind of “opposite” Odetta herself knows. She grew up rich and privileged, so a cartoon urban black woman is probably all she had to base her alter on. Might be as simple as that. Or not."

It's a tricky situation and one I frankly was happy to see disappear once her personalities were fused into "Susannah Dean." But it got me thinking. Hell, I work with a couple of folks who speak and act even more cartoonishly, and it's not like King (or any white male writer) is generating their dialogue. If I transcribed their daily remarks and concerns faithfully, people would accuse me of indulging in the most unexamined-racial-cliches imaginable and I have no doubt I'd be vilified and trolled by all sorts of furiously-well-meaning liberals and activists. All I'm saying is, on this topic, perhaps there is room for a wider discussion on self-determined identity, but perhaps Detta Holmes isn't the greatest starting point. Perhaps she is - I'll leave this one for the experts to sort out.

I was pretty impressed with Phil Hale's illustrations throughout. Here's Detta with Eddie standing behind her.
The other Trail Difficulty is the love-at-first-sight-ness between Eddie and Odetta. It just doesn't come across as very believable. I shrugged through it, and I didn't hate it (nor will I say it presents anything insurmountable in enjoying the read) but yeah... it's a bit sudden and a bit "what now?" as it develops. I like both characters, though, and (although this makes it sound like I think they're real people or something; I should mention, if they were, I wouldn't ask twice/ none of my business) I'm happy for them. They meet in emotionally compromised circumstances, after all, and perhaps that's all the explanation one needs.

As the man himself writes: “He was a romantic in his own harsh way…yet he was also realist enough to know that some times love actually did conquer all.”

SCENIC VIEW


I found these images at Deviant Art.com; all copyright the respective artist.

TRAIL NOTES

If I have a criticism of King's writing it's that he too often falls in love with certain phrases or terms and over-uses them. He's not as egregious an offender in this regard as George "Rape Rape" Martin (you know nothing Jon Snow) whose maddeningly repetitive and meandering style almost literally drove me insane, but King can sometimes go overboard. (Count how many times Wireman says "muchacho" in Duma Key, or the amount of "Beep Beep, Ritchie"s in It.) Here, we are treated to too-many "Honk Mahfah"s, too many "Mortcypedia"s, and too many "That Great Sage and Eminent Junkie"s for my personal taste.

But, I'm picky in this regard, perhaps pickier than most. I wasn't unduly distracted by their use / over-use here, but it was just enough to make me sigh.

I'm sure Stephen King is kicking himself for making me sigh and is composing an open letter of apology right now.

“Fault always lies in the same place, my fine babies: with him weak enough to lay blame.”

NEXT!
We take a trip to Six Flaggs with The Stand and The Eyes of the Dragon!

King's Highway pt. 29: The Gunslinger (Dark Tower pt. 1)

Welcome to Dark Tower National Park and Wildlife Reserve! Easily accessible from all points of the King's Highway and strewn over many miles of primary and secondary texts, the DTNPWR offers visitors a truly unique hiking experience. We hope you enjoy your visit. Follow all trail markers and do not stray from the path. Beware the Lobstrosities; beware the Taheen. For a free road map or to follow along at home, see here.

For the duration of our stay in the Dark Tower mythos, we will observe the following trail-guide format: Overview / What You'll See/ Whom You'll Meet / Trail Difficulty / Scenic View / Trail Notes.


OVERVIEW 

Lao-Tzu famously said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one single step. My journey through the Dark Tower verse begins with the first sentence of The Gunslinger, which is "The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Stephen King wrote that line in 1970 while a student at the University of Maine; although technically still in progress (a Dark Tower prequel - well, one that takes place between the fourth and fifth book of the series - was published this very year, and we have the final part of the Talisman trilogy to look forward to, as well) that sentence received its true ending-punctuation thirty-four years later with the publication of The Dark Tower in 2004, book seven of the saga that begins with this, The Gunslinger.

Originally appearing as five short stories that were collected and published as a limited-edition novel by Donald M. Grant, Rhode Island book publisher extraordinaire in 1982, this was significantly expanded and revised in 2003. (King discusses the reasons for both the expansion and his drive to finish the story in his excellent introduction to the revised edition. For a list of differences between the original and revised edition, click here.)

King refers to Clint Eastwood's iconic The Man With No Name for his inspiration for Roland, and a mix of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasies as his inspiration for Mid-World et al.
Myself, I saw a bit of The Rifleman in it, as well, although he has never acknowledged this to be the case.
And who knows if he even read these (I assume he has - King seems to have read everything, God bless him), but there are more than a few parallels to Michael Moorcock's Elric books, as well. Particularly Gilead to Melnibone.
"As a review should open with a synopsis of the plot of the book, I must use this time to alert you to the strange lack of plot of this book. It is simply a book in which one man follows another, throughout which flash backs and contemplations are our only distraction from the endless and parched desert of the gunslinger’s world... It begins with a lone ranger style character crossing a seemingly endless desert in pursuit of a mysterious “Man in Black”. It is followed with a traditional old west style account of the gunslingers time in Tull, a small tumble-weed town fit with saloon and shoot out. It is here where we see the first glimpses of religious mysticism and intrigue which follow into the intellectual scientific mystery of the Dark Tower, time and the universe itself."

The Battle of Tull, where Roland kills every last man, woman, and child. As I read this part, I visualized the action as it would appear in a "very special episode" of The Rifleman. I hope on some alternate world, Chuck Connors got to play Roland Deschain; hell, I hope on some alternate world Russell Crowe - slated to portray Roland in the still-coming-together film adaptation - is starring in a remake of The Rifleman.
"The mystery of the book can also be overshadowing at times, rather than simply clouding perception the reader’s understanding is completely blocked for certain aspects of the narrative; which, at the closing point of The Gunslinger, can be overlooked, provided that they are explained later on in the series, otherwise this will be a serious flaw in this single book, let alone the series as a whole... I would not say this was an enjoyable read, but an intriguing and exciting one that has left me both frustrated and enthralled. The promise of the books that follow make the first book worth the reading as, when it boils down to it, the first book did nothing more than introduce the myths and imagery of the series, which themselves are a truly refreshing take on fantasy fiction."

I would say this is fair. (For the full review, see here.) The ending tête-à-tête between Roland and The Man in Black is heady stuff, but it does do a nice job of contextualizing the metaphysical conceits of the story to follow. The "reveals" of the tarot reading, though, make no independent sense; it takes the next volume to give them meaning.

WHAT YOU'LL SEE

The landscape of The Gunslinger is primarily that of the Old West, granted one that has more than its share of mystery, both mystical (just how is the Man in Black bringing people back from the dead and such?) and sci-fi (abandoned remnants of a civilization gone to seed, which we'll see even more of as we go along). We pass through the desert, a small desert-town, an abandoned way station, under a mountain where Roland and Jake do battle with "the slow mutants," that staple of all post-apocalyptic fiction, and end at the edge of the Western Sea.

WHOM YOU'LL MEET

The Gunslinger himself, of course, and The Man in Black. And Jake. Those are the major characters. We also meet some other characters (particularly in Roland's flashbacks to his youth in Gilead) who will play a role in the stories to come. Does this do the best job introducing them? I'm going to say... yes and no. On one hand, we are dropped right into the mystery, which is sometimes the best way to get to know someone. On the other, I think Jake, particularly, comes across as a bit more knowable in the books to come.

The Man in Black. Not, of course, to be confused with...
A gunslinger of a different sort.
TRAIL DIFFICULTY

It's written by Stephen King, arguably one of the most accessible authors this planet has ever produced, so even at its most opaque, I didn't find it to be all that hard to follow. Maybe you need a taste for the abstract to make it more palatable? I can see someone getting frustrated. It's a logical enough beginning to the story/ this Dark Tower National Park, and perhaps this is the steepest incline the reader will face. The next few books are undoubtedly both easier to follow and more traditionally plotted.

It's a quick read, which helps. A couple of train rides, at most. (I measure reading spans in train rides, which for me are about 45 minutes, so make your adjustments accordingly.)

SCENIC VIEW

I imagine doing this blog before Marvel started adapting this would make for a lot fewer images.
Good timing, I guess, although I haven't read any of Marvel's adaptations.

TRAIL NOTES

Will we find out more about the slow mutants? Intriguing snapshots of Gilead before whatever-fall occurred that drove Roland out.  

'The mystery of the universe is not time but size.'

'Suppose that all worlds, all universes, met at a single nexus, a single pylon, a Tower. And within it, a stairway, perhaps rising to the Godhead itself. Would you dare climb to the top?'

'The wind moaned, a witch with cancer in her belly.'

'Friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of regard.'

I like the little poem this guy made for this page, here.
NEXT! 
The Drawing of the Three!

8.24.2012

King's Highway pt. 28: Danse Macabre


Hey, wasn't I taking August off? Yes, I was/ am. But over the course of a few plane and train rides, I polished this one off and figure it won't fit so smoothly into the Dark Tower blogs I have planned for next month. So, roll another number for the road and let's take Danse Macabre for a quick spin.

It's kind of fun to read a book like this in 2012, when so many blogs, including this one, are devoted to the sort of discussion King orchestrates here. It's tempting to say the internet makes books like this (or list-books, for that matter) obsolete. But who knows? Is print dead? Aspects of it, sure, but overall, I doubt it. Either way, it's beyond our scope here.

This book is part autobiography, part overview of the films and books King thinks best inform the horror landscape in America, and part overall-philosophy-of-horror. It comes across as a breezy lecture course, delivered by a professor who may or may not have been drinking before class (or during). One might say it does for American horror circa 1950-1980 what Chuck Klostermann did for 80s metal in Fargo Rock City. 

I remember my brother (or mother) having this on the shelves in the 80s. I tried to read it then, but I didn't know any of the films or books he was talking about, so I never did. I've spent an awful lot of time in the years between getting to know the material, though - not consciously, i.e. at no point did I say Okay, time to make my way through the recommended reading/ viewing/ listening from Danse Macabre. But as suggested elsewhere, certain books and movies are gateway-drugs to certain other books and movies, and once you go down the EC path (to pick one of my own entry points) you end up taking in things like It, The Terror from Beyond Space and Lights Out. So this time around I knew first-hand or was familiar with most of the stories under discussion.

Arch Oboler, showrunner for Lights Out, and Joan Crawford.

I was particularly interested to see King devote some time to the golden age of radio. (Which, he quite rightly notes, was actually the twilight-age of radio; the programs he remembers listening to with his grandparents in his 1950s living room were the dying sounds of the once-unstoppable-entertainment-of-choice. Video may have killed the radio star, but TV was what drove all the radio actors and showrunners to NPR et al.) My apartment in Chicago is in one of the few areas that gets audionoir over the airwaves, and for the past few years, I put that on when I'm cooking or doing dishes. As a result, I started tracking down a lot of Old Timey Radio. There is tons of it out there, for free, if you're interested. (Any sci-fi fan will enjoy Dimension X; trust McMolo.)

One last bit of radio-reverie: I have a very clear memory of being 6 or 7 and huddled around a battery-operated radio in a tent in a campground in Frankfurt, Germany, listening to both an episode of "The Shadow" on Armed Forces Network Radio and a dramatization of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace." And Bill Cosby used to talk about "The Chicken Heart" (which King discusses here) on one of my Dad's old records. (Records that I incidentally melted on the radiator. Not on purpose, of course.)
This was originally published in 1981. King had a bit of an ax to grind with the academic/ lit-critic establishment during this phase of his career, I think it's safe to say. He addresses it explicitly in his Playboy interview, discussed elsewhere, but there are several passages along these lines from DM that are worth reproducing here.

On the overall-futility of over-analyzing things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers: "Like endless discussions of breath units in modern poetry or the possible intrusiveness of some punctuation in the short story, it is really a discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, and not really interesting unless those involved in the discussion are drunk or graduate students - two states of roughly similar incomprehension."

On the pretentious critical establishment: "...no one is so humorless as a big-time film critic or so apt to read deep meanings into simple doings. 'In The Fury,' Pauline Kael intoned, apparently, in all seriousness, 'Brian De Palma has found the junk heart for America.' It's as if these critics feel it necessary to prove and re-prove their own literacy; they are like teenage boys who feel obliged to demonstrate and redemonstrate their macho... they must surely be aware that while it requires at least a high school education to understand and appreciate all the facets of even such an accessible book as The Body Snatchers, any illiterate with four dollars in his or her pocket can go to a movie and find the junk heart of America."
Probably very true.

And on the narcissism of the intelligentsia: "I can't imagine... anyone trying to scratch out a subsistence-level existence for himself, his wife, and his eight kids giving much of a toot about Werner Erhard's est course or Rolfing. Such things are for rich folks. Recently, Joan Didion wrote a book about her own odyssey through the sixties, The White Album. For rich folks, I suppose it's a pretty interesting book: the story of a wealthy white woman who could afford to have her nervous breakdown in Hawaii - the seventies equivalent of worrying over pimples."

The book's chapters covering the radioactive-panic movies of the 1950s and their evolution through the subsequent decades are particularly fun reading.

"Once you've seen enough horror films, you begin to get a taste for really shitty movies. Films that are just bad... can be dismissed impatiently, with never a backward glance. But real fans look back on a film like The Brain from Planet Arous (It Came From Another World WITH AN INSATIABLE LUST FOR EARTH WOMEN!) with something like real love. It is the love one spares for an idiot child, true, but love is love, right? Right."

A few pics from the film in question.

He mentions how horror film fans like mining the dirt-bins for the discarded nugget of gold, and how every true fun usually has one film they uncovered before any of their friends or for which every true fan is an apostle. King's is Tourist Trap: 


Which made me happy, as I, too, have proselytized, independently of King's recommendation, for this movie. True, he wrote of this in 1981 so I am late to the party, but it was news to everyone to whom I mentioned it. Ditto for The Brotherhood of Satan. 

Among other things, it is produced by and stars the multi-talented L.Q. Jones.

"If we share a Brotherhood of Man, we also share an Insanity of Man."
You mean Brotherhood of SATAN!

"...I see the most aggressive of (horror movies) as lifting a trapdoor in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath."

"When the lights go out and we find ourselves stranded in a shoal of darkness, reality itself has an unpleasant way of fogging in. When we cut off one avenue of sensory input, that sense simply shuts down (although it never shuts down 100 percent, of course; even in a dark room, we will see a trace pattern in front of our eyes, and in the most perfect silence we will hear a faint hum... such "phantom input" only means that the circuits are open and standing by."


"Here is the final truth of horror movies: They do not love death, as some have suggested, they love life. They do not celebrate deformity by dwelling on deformity, they sing of health and energy. By showing us the miseries of the damned, they help us to rediscover the smaller (but never petty) joys of our own lives. They are the barber's leeches of the psyche, drawing not bad blood but anxiety... for a little while, anyway."
He devotes some text-time, rightly so, to George Romero's classic. Which if you haven't seen, shame on you.

"The horror movie asks you if you want to take a good close look at the dead cat (or the shape under the sheet, to use a metaphor from the introduction to my short story collection)... but not as an adult would look at it. Never mind the philosophical implications of death or the religious possibilities inherent in the idea of survival; the horror film suggests we just have a good close look at the physical artifact of death. Let us be children masquerading as pathologists. We will, perhaps, link hands like children in a circle, and sing the song we all know in our hearts: time is short, no one is really okay, life is quick and dead is dead."

The section on horror-on-TV is also great reading. The whole book is, really, but the last hundred or so pages devoted to ten or eleven horror novels was less captivating to me, personally, as I had only read a handful of the books discussed. Not so with the TV section; tho it was all before my time, I grew up watching most of this stuff.


King's analysis of the horror films of the 1970s is too comprehensive to sum up accurately here, but as it's my favorite era of film-making, my ears always perk up when it comes under the critical eye.

"This is like a sinister Woody Allen film" may be the most accurate review of Rosemary's Baby I've ever read. As an artifact of the "Is God dead?" era, it is first-rate archaeology, as well as a great flick.

"They are books and stories which seem to me to fulfill the primary duty of literature - to tell us the truth about ourselves by telling us lies about people who never existed."

A film I once heard described as "drenched in a menstrual panic," a phrase I've never gotten out of my head.

I quite liked this description of the "dead zone" one must dispel when bringing a story to life:

"In his marvelous novel The Hair of Harold Roux, Thomas Williams tells us that writing a long work of fiction is like gathering characters together on a great black plain. They stand around the small fire of the writer's imagination, warming their hands at the blaze, hoping the fire will grow into a blaze which will provide light as well as heat. But often it goes out, all light is extinguished, and the characters are smothered in black. It's a lovely metaphor for the fiction-making process, but it's not mine... I've always seen the novel as a large black castle to be attacked, a bastion to be taken by force or by trick. The thing about the castle is, it appears to be open. It doesn't look buttoned up for siege at all. The drawbridge is down. The gates are open. There are no bowmen on the turrets. Trouble is, there's really only one way safe way in; every other attempt at entry results in sudden annihilation from some hidden source."


The final section is a nice summary of King's personal philosophy-of-horror and, as with most of the above, is quoted directly from the text:

"The danse macabre is a waltz with death. This is a truth we cannot afford to shy away from. Like the rides in the amusement park which mimic violent death, the tale of horror is a chance to examine what's going on behind doors which we usually keep double-locked. Yet the human imagination is not content with locked doors. Somewhere there is another dancing partner, the imagination whispers in the night - a partner in a rotting ball gown, a partner with empty eyesockets, green mold growing on her elbow-length gloves, maggots squirming in the thin remains of her hair. To hold such a creature in our arms? Whom, you ask me, would be so mad? Well... Perhaps we go to the forbidden door or windo willingly because we understand that a time comes when we must go whether we want to or not... and not just to look, but to be pushed through. Forever."

Colored engraving of the dance of death, from 1483.

"It is not a dance of death at all, not really. There is a third level here, as well. It is, at bottom, a dance of dreams. It's a way of awakening the child inside, who never dies but only sleeps ever more deeply. If the horror story is our rehearsal for death, then it's strict moralities make it also a reaffirmation of life and good will and simple imagination - just one more pipeline to the infinite."

I don't think the films of Mario Bava/ screen presence of Barbara Steele get much text consideration. (None of the giallos do, actually, though there may be some in the recommended-viewing in the back.) I suppose enough has been written elsewhere about them, but Mario Bava straddles the Hammer-knock-off era and the slasher-giallo era better than most. I'd have included a chapter just on him, were this my own Guide to Horror. But hey!

Finally, King shares a personal anecdote near the end that interested me. While a student at the University of Maine, he attended a lecture given by a couple of Black Panthers:

"These Black Panthers were suggesting an umbrella of conspiracy that was almost laughable.. except the audience wasn't laughing..." (He stands up to ask them if they were actually suggesting Nelson Rockefeller was orchestrating the Vietnam war from some shadowy room under the Pentagon, perhaps in cahoots with UFOs.) "The audience began to shout angrily at me to sit down and shut up. Which I did posthaste, blushing furiously, knowing how these eccentrics who mount their soapboxes in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoons must feel. I did not much relish the feeling... It is impossible for those of my generation, propelled harum-scarum through the sixties... without a belief that someone - like Nelson Rockefeller - is pulling the strings."

I don't know if it's all that generational. The same crowd/ conspiracies exist today, as well as the same sit-down-and-shut-up angry-mob (and furious blushing embarrassment) when assumptions are challenged.


For any fan of horror (or King), Danse Macabre is a rewarding and accessible read.

NEXT!
We begin our exploration of Dark Tower National Park, following the route suggested by The Truth Inside the Lie, with... The Gunslinger.

8.08.2012

King's Highway pt. 27: The Other Nightmares & Dreamscapes and A Look Back...

I forgot to mention how much I like this cover in pt. 1 of my N and D overview.
There was a whole lot of additional-viewing required * for this blog! Nearly every story has either a feature-length or tv-episode-length adaptation to go with it. Let's just dive right in...

* Requirement not-actually-required

Let's start with "Head Down" and "Brooklyn August." I didn't care much for the latter. With some notable exceptions, I'm just not much of a poetry guy. (Ironic considering my concentration as an English major was American Poetry) But it's fine for what it is. I love baseball, so you'd figure I'd find something deep and romantic about it, but it just seems slight to me. If it was about the Red Sox, maybe I'd have been moved, I don't know. "Head Down," though, is a fun read about the Bangor West Little League team winning the State Championship. Small town boys make good - a theme that never really loses its appeal, if you came of age in a small town, like me and John Mellencamp.

The Bangor West team in 2011.
Originally commissioned by The New Yorker, this one works on a few different levels. I've always enjoyed the sports story that's about winning a specific game, or closing out a specific theme/ arc, vs. "winning the ultimate game" narrative. So I enjoyed that aspect of this, as well as just a slice-of-little-league life. Something for which, I confess, I have a lot of nostalgia, not that any team I was on ever made it to the State Championship. While reading, I kept wondering how Stephen King - as the father of one of the pitchers/ players, his son (and excellent writer, as well - check him out, if you haven't) Owen - could go along for this emotional journey and maintain a cool, dispassionate writerly voice. As both a participant and later an umpire, parents at these games, particularly when they get past the normal little league match-ups, can go pretty effing crazy. I imagine it was an exercise in restraint.

The Bangor West team immortalized in "Head Down" is also notable for having produced Matt Kinney, who gave up the home run to Barry Bonds that tied him with Willie Mays. (660th, career - Bonds finished with 762, making him the HR leader, as I'm sure you know. The previous leader Hank Aaron, of course, somehow managed his without, ahem, juicing, ahem.)
Next up, "Chattery Teeth." I was surprised as hell to discover that had been made into a short film. I enjoyed the read (though the writing tutor in me, who is sometimes too big for his britches, must point out that the last 7 paragraphs are not only unnecessary but also dilute what-came-before; get rid of 'em) and all, it's just kind of a slight story to hang a movie on. Tho, to be fair, this was never meant as a movie but as one part of an ongoing show that was never picked up called Quicksilver Highway.

This might have been part of the reason it wasn't picked up. That's Christopher Lloyd, there, believe it or not, as some kind of aged-goth-horror-emcee... Weird.
The film adaptation isn't bad - considering it's by Mick Garris, that it is not atrocious is a victory in and of itself - but the visual image of the chattery teeth running amok works better perhaps in the mind's-eye. (I hope we never have to see a bad-CGI version of such.) It's constructed quite well, with some nice symbolism in unexpected places.

That's quite a line-up of readers! Get the full scoop here.
Couple things from the story. I thought this was an interesting insight to read from a former hitch-hiker (as King describes himself during his late high school and college years) with regards to the contemporaneous model:

The snakes in pissant little roadside menageries like this one couldn't kill you; their venom was milked twice a week and sold to clinics that made drugs with it. You could count on that just as you could count on the winos to show up at the local plasma bank every Tuesday and Thursday. But the snakes could still give one hell of a painful bite if you got too close and then made them mad. That, Hogan thought, was what the current breed of road-kids had in common with them.

And I just like this passage:

...He saw the Jumbo Chattery Teeth standing on their funny orange feet ...in spats so cool they made the coolest of the California Raisins look like hicks from Fargo, North Dakota, standing there in the electric purple light which had overspread these empty lands west of Las Vegas.... The Chattery Teeth were dragging Mr. Bryan Adams away to Nowhere, U.S.A.

Not much to say about "Dolan's Cadillac." It's a good read - another vengeance-is-mine EC throwback (for something like Crime SuspenStories) - but a terrible movie. I made it about halfway through and then had to turn it off. What I saw kept trying to turn the story into some kind of comment on immigration, which is not in the source material at all. As always, leave it to Hollywood to turn anything into a delivery mechanism for half-baked politics.

I googled "Arc of Descent," a concept that plays no small part in the goings-on in "Dolans," and had planned to put in a graph of some kind with angles and math to make me look smart, but this came up instead. I guess it's the name of a song or something. Creepy image, though, so I include it here.
"Sorry, Right Number" was written originally for Amazing Stories, which came out during the Anthology Show revival of the 1980s but isn't discussed much these days, but Spielberg passed on it. So Richard P. Rubenstein picked it up for Tales from the Darkside. It reminded me of "The House" episode of Night Gallery, and I think there are several other precedents for this "call from the future" sort of thing. Not that I'm knocking it; it just wasn't all that memorable for me.

It suffers from the murky look/ sound of Tales, though that murkiness brings to mind countless VHS rentals from the 80s for me, now, so I kind of like it for that vague time-travel-ly feeling.
"The Ten O'Clock People" was one of my favorites from Nightmares & Dreamscapes. It's being made into a movie with Justin Long and Rachel Nichols and directed by Tom Holland. None of those credits particularly inspire confidence, but regardless, I bet it'll be good. I thought while reading it that it would make a no-brainer of a movie. The bugs-that-walk-among-us put me in mind of one of my favorite movies They Live, as well as one of my favorite X-Files episodes "Folie à deux" - which then made me think, wow, I guess I really enjoy stories where certain characters can see the true form of these skinwalkers/ bug-people ("batmen" in this particular story)/ aliens all around us! Probably appeals to that paranoid side of my personality.

(There's a Far Side cartoon that would be perfect for right here, involving a guy on the street yelling "There are vampires everywhere!" but no luck finding it for you.)

The that-zone-between-quitting-smoking-but-maintaining-an-intermittent-and-tightly-regulated-smoking-habit part reminded me of my own experiences in 2012, which has seen me become a Ten O'Clock Person, myself.


As of this writing, I am a No O'Clock Person (and therefore unable to see the aliens/ bug-people/vampires! I knew quitting smoking was a bad idea...) I often wonder where King is with smoking cigarettes. He has had characters explicitly comment on smoking or quitting smoking throughout his career and has referred to "kicking the habit" in forewords/ afterwords/ interviews from each of the last few decades. But in On Writing he refers to asking the EMT who arrives at the scene of his accident (late 90s) for a cigarette, and in Neil Gaiman's great interview with him from The Journal, he refers to standing in the tiny toilet with King as he smokes "a furtive cigarette" in 2002-ish. I find this re-assuring. It's something non-smokers can't understand. (It is a thing no offworlder may know...)

All of which is to say, thanks for this one, SK, from a fellow Ten O'Clock Person.

Now, as for "Crouch End..." as with "Dolan's," the story is worth reading; the film is... not very good.

I believe I referred to Nightmares & Dreamscapes as mostly-excellent, but in rewatching all of them, it's actually more miss than hit. This in particular, originally aired directly after the amazing "Battleground," is just baffling in its off-ness.
Both the story and its film adaptation deal with a "thin area" of Crouch End in London, where the Lovecraftian monsters from another dimension can cross freely back and forth with this one.

This King re-read has really hammered home my need to familiarize myself more with Lovecraft. He has moved up the list considerably as a result. Between this and "N" from Everything's Eventual, just to name a couple, there is quite a bit of Lovecraft popping up throughout the King canon.
King got the idea for this after visiting his friend Peter Straub, who was living at the time in the Crouch End area of London. As I read this, I pictured a young SK and his wife, flush with early success, taxi-ing around London, the storytelling wheels for this story turning in his head as he looked out the lorry window. I googled real-life Crouch End, which, of course, anyone could do, so perhaps this is insert-pic-overkill, but here's a good shot:

They don't have a professional football team, unless I just didn't see them, but one of their amateur outfits is "Crouch End Vampires." I liked that. Too bad it's not the "Crouch End Cthulhu" or "Crouch End Many-Angled Ones."
"The House on Maple Street" is a fun read. One of those wicked-stepparents-get-their-comeuppance stories. SK was inspired by this picture:


which his wife showed him and his son (Owen not Joe, if memory serves) as a "let's create a story from scratch" exercise. (Family Fun with the Kings! Sounds cool, actually.) It didn't go exactly where I suspected it might, so although I was unsurprised by the ending, (mainly, the pic itself is a spoiler) I was still kept on my toes.

"The Fifth Quarter" was originally written in 1972. Neither here nor there - it doesn't feel "of the 70s" the way something like The Running Man or The Long Walk does. It's a good read but, as with "Crouch End," not a very good adaptation. Why so many King adaptations get it wrong in the journey from page to screen is beyond me.

I googled and came across this. It's a completely different story, no King involvement at all, of course. But Aidan Quinn and Andi MacDowell making Nazi salutes? In a Christian-themed football movie? For twenty damn bucks?? As Maggie Simpson said via James Earl Jones once: This is indeed a disturbing universe...
I liked this almost-throwaway line from the story: "It didn't surprise me much. No, I take that back. It didn't surprise me at all."

"Umney's Last Case" is another episode of the TNT Nightmares & Dreamscapes that I remembered pretty fondly but didn't like at all this time around. Maybe it's because I finally got around to reading the story, which I enjoyed and which fits together much more coherently than the film adaptation. I enjoy watching William H. Macy in just about anything, but this was too uneven for my tastes.

The dialogue / narration is a lot better handled on the page, as well.
Fun idea for a story, though, most definitely. (Writer decides to swap places with his fictional avatar. Hi-jinks / resentments ensue.)

I remember reading "The Doctor's Case" when it first came out as published in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 

Which my Mom either bought or got from the library.
I've read all the Sherlocks and seen most of the tv and film adaptations. (My favorites being Terror By Night or The Hound of the Baskervilles with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, even though the latter bears little resemblance to the source material.) This was fun - the conceit being "the one case the Doctor solved before Holmes did," which is kind of surprising no one did before when you think of it. Lestrade comes off pretty well in this, as well, which is good; too often, he does not. Like Watson, writers in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's wake tend to make him like "bumbling fool/ comic relief" Marcus Brody from Last Crusade vs. the "competent ally and friend" Marcus Brody from Raiders.

While we're here, this has nothing to do with SK, but I can never get enough of this:


As both an 80s flick and a "new adventure of Sherlock Holmes" entry, Young Sherlock Holmes holds up surprisingly well. (This music is never far from my mind - it's just one of those things that got stuck in my head and has stayed there for almost 30 years now.)

Finally, we have "The Night Flier" and its quasi-sequel/ continuation, "Popsy."


This is a great read. Richard Dees - last seen in SK's The Dead Zone, where, although we're meant to despise him for trying to exploit John Smith's new abilities, I thought he was disposed of rather rudely - writes for a tabloid mag, Inside View and chases after a vampire he has dubbed "The Night Flier." He catches him... sort of.

The pacing and characterization in this one are great. Not to mention the language:

...of course no mention of the sweeping bat-wing cloak that was red as a fire engine on the inside and as black as a woodchuck's asshole on the outside...

I'll not mention how Dees characterizes how tightly a Beech airplane can port, but I enjoyed this section as well:

Or the Beech might simply twist apart, leaving Richard Dees from the gut on down twitching in his seat, while Richard Dees from the gut up went in a different direction, trailing severed intestines like party-favors and dropping his kidneys on the concrete like a couple of oversized chunks of birdshit.

As with "Chattery Teeth," I was surprised to hear this was made into a film. (And it's hard to find, and prohibitively-priced on Amazon - good thing for YouTube!) But I'm glad they made it; this was way better than it had to be: a solid lead performance from Miguel Ferrer and some fantastic atmosphere and composition. It adds a character or two and a whole new ending, but I was impressed. Check out this last scene, particularly the bit in the bathroom:


(It's only a few minutes and forgive me for showing you the ending first, but let's not be unscientific when it comes to spoilers...)

One last thing, the film shows us several Inside View articles previously written by Richard Dees, and all of them reference other King stories... nice touch. Here is a very good review for the film, if you desire more info. Mark Pavia (the director) will hopefully be releasing more King cinema soon.

In his notes for N and D, King mentions that the title character of "Popsy" is also the same vampire from "The Night Flier." This is another one that put me in mind of EC's Tales from the Crypt or The Vault of Horror. A nice coda to "The Night Flier," to be sure.

(Though, and maybe I just missed the explanation, if the young boy is the vampire's grandson, how is he out walking around in daylight in the first place, before he gets kidnapped? King seems to toe a pretty traditional line with vampire mythos, so that gave me pause.)

~
Well! Here we are at pt. 27 of the ol' King's Highway. Seems like a good midway point, to be sure, and a good spot to take a few weeks off and stretch my legs, change the oil, etc. I can't believe it's been three months now since I started this project. I've covered a lot of ground since this email exchange from April 30th of this year with my friend Mike:

Mike: The latest thing that is occupying my easily distracted brain is this, a complete ranking of all of Stephen King's books in order of quality.
Me: Fun list! Man there is a hell of a lot of Stephen King I haven't read/ didn't know existed. So tempted to go on a King bender, just from this list of titles...  
Mike: I'm a slow reader usually, but even if I were fast I can't imagine how long it would take to read these 62 books. A book a week pace (which is fast for some of these tomes) would still last well over a year.
Me: Call me crazy but I think I can do it... (an hour or so later) I just signed up for the Doubleday Book Club... Maybe I'll turn my blog over into a Bryan Reviews the King Catalogue format. It'll give me something to do.

I've read the first of the The Dark Tower books now, and when we return, will be following (more or less) this course painstakingly plotted by Bryant Burnette (to whose blog I've been linking an awful lot these past few entries; hope you don't mind my piggybacking on your accomplishments, Bryant) through the mythos and landscape of All-World...

But in the meantime! Enjoy your August. Thanks for traveling with me this far. See you at the vending machine or in the arcade.