King's Highway pt. 18: The Rogue States

I couldn't think of a title for this blog, first of a three-part overview of King's novellas. King's Highways pt. 18, Novellas pt. 1 sounds awful and Postcards from the Novellas or something like that doesn't work for me, either. I then thought of this from the author's-afterword of Different Seasons (1982):

"When a writer approaches the 20,000-word mark, he knows he is edging out of the country of the short story. Likewise, when he passes the 40,000-word mark, he is edging into the country of the novel. The borders of the country between these two more orderly regions are ill-defined, but at some point the writer wakes up with alarm and realizes that he's come to a really terrible place, an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic called "the novella."

And then the title occurred to me. I'll have to break these up into different entries, maybe 3 or 4 at a time, as there are four collections of King's novellas (with four apiece within) * and a few of them have been made into noteworthy films. (Of those, I'll save "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" for last, and review it separately with The Green Mile, which I haven't read yet.)

* Technically, one of those is a collection of novels, not novellas, by Richard Bachman,

King's writing alter-ego, for awhile. More on him when we get to The Dark Half.

but for our purposes here, I'll consider The Bachman Books (1985) alongside these others. I've covered "The Langoliers" from Four Past Midnight (1990) already, so that leaves fifteen literary-banana-republics to sort out. My approach to reading them has been to pick one story from one collection (Full Dark, No Stars (2010) is the one I haven't mentioned yet, and it's probably the best. Great title, too) read it, then switch to a different collection and read one from there. I like to make slow but rolling progress along a wide theater-of-operations rather than one concentrated advance.

Let's start with "The Long Walk" from The Bachman Books.

This one's been brought to my attention a few times over the years, but I only read it for the first time last week. It's King's earliest novel, begun when he was a Freshman at the University of Maine. It's a young man's novel, definitely, with a young man's concerns and perceptions. (Not that that makes them unworthy of consideration, or immature) The blurb on the cover above, though, 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.

"In the great tradition of Rollerball," that is great. And fair - Rollerball is a classic.
And like The Long Walk, it has some more-than-interesting-to-consider parallels to today. A lot of things produced in the 1970's do; it's a fascinating decade.

I make the distinction because this story is best evaluated not as King's first novel but 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.

"You want to cheat it. Maybe that’s your trouble. You like to think the game is rigged. But maybe it’s a straight game… go on, admit it."
"I admit nothing, except your own basic foolishness. Go ahead and tell yourself it’s a straight game… Any game looks straight if everyone is being cheated at once."

And the Walkers...

"The strings were not broken on their emotions, only badly out-of-tune. They had cheered wildly with hoarse and totally unheard voices, the thirty-seven of them that were left. The crowd could not know they were cheering but somehow they did, somehow they understood that the circle between death-worship and death-wish had been completed for another year."

Frank Darabont has the rights to make this into a movie, and given his track record with King adaptations, I look forward to seeing it. What I'd love more than anything would be if a heretofore-unseen contemporaneous adaptation turned up, something grainy and gritty - one part Punishment Park, one part Taxi Driver, one part Electra-Glide in Blue - in Martin Scorsese's or LQ Jones's closet or something. But barring that... Good read.

Next, "1922" from Full Dark, No Stars.  

King's inspiration for this story is Wisconsin Death Trip, a nonfiction book of photographs by Michael Lesy which was also adapted into an interesting (and macabre) movie by James Marsh. 

He wanted this story to reflect the hardness and isolation of the photographs. I think he pulls it off. This is another good read, about a man who talks his son into helping him murder his wife/ the boy's mother, and the consequences thereof. (All that is revealed in the first paragraph of a one-hundred-and-twenty-eight page story, so don't feel like I ruined anything for you) Fans of Investigation Discovery will find plenty to enjoy, here.

Also in Full Dark, No Stars, I was greatly surprised by "Big Driver," which takes some fun narrative leaps, if "fun" can even be applied to a story that involves rape, revenge, pain and suffering, PTSD, et al. The language of this one is particularly crisp. I read it mainly on the train and didn't record many examples, but the voices given to Fritzy, Goober, and Tom (especially Tom) are all great. Great structure and overall, just a tight production. This is tough material, but, again, consumers of Investigation Discovery and tortured-girls-enact-revenge stories will find familiar terrain here. 

Repeated references are made to Richard Widmark and The Brave One with Jodie Foster. I think it helps if you've seen that movie or know something about it, and I'm not sure if Richard Widmark's consistent bad-ass-edry comes off as well in the text, so I made a note to include this:

In particular, Widmark's retorts to the cops trying to question him in Pickup on South Street are a personal favorite. I'm writing this on the Fourth of July, so I have John Wayne's The Alamo on as background, and he's in this, as well, playing Jim Bowie.

The last of these Rogue States I'll cover today is "The Breathing Method."

Read by the late great Frank Muller, who read quite a few of King audiobooks.

This is a continuation, more or less, of the story "The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands" from Skeleton Crew. A group of well-to-do men meet informally at an old-school gentlemen's club in New York City, where they drink brandies by fireplaces, quietly check up on their stocks in the newspaper, peruse the unique offerings of the library, and are attended by Stevens, the club's mysterious and perhaps supernatural caretaker. Engraved on the keystone of the arch above the fireplace are the words IT IS THE TALE; NOT HE WHO TELLS IT, and before the night is done, someone always tells a tale.

Traditionally, on the Thursday before Christmas, someone tells a tale "of the uncanny." It is remarked that tales of the uncanny should be reserved for this occasion. The story referenced in the title is one of these and is recounted in full, though several other stories (alluded to intriguingly like Vonnegut always did when referencing Kilgore Trout's catalog) are mentioned. 

One thing SK is quite good at getting on the page is parental anxiety. He has a finely-tuned ear for the horrors of both the parent and expectant parent, and it's the latter that gets the heart attack, here. The descriptions of childbirth from one hundred years ago and the Breathing Method got me looking some things up, but for our purposes, what isn't covered in the story is not essential to enjoying/ following this one. (But it is interesting.)

Great stuff, as well - all the novellas considered here are top-notch, but the central image/ metaphor for this one is particularly creepy. I'd love to see an ongoing series set in this club, with its ominous slither-bump sounds from the nest of rooms and corridors upstairs, and the ageless and ever-present Stevens.

I never really buy it, though, in stories when people burst out laughing and have to hold onto another because they're laughing so hard. Do you? It's like the scenes in movies where the camera circles a table and everyone is laughing at everything and aggressively sipping wine. Always seems a little forced. I also never really buy when people wake up screaming, which happens more-than-a-few-times in SK's work. 


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