Every couple of years I find a Stephen King book I haven’t read and that gets decent reviews, I read it and then blow through a couple of other books of his I haven't read yet. Last time it was "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon". This time it's "Cell". Overall the experience was worthwhile and it did trigger me to start reading more unread King books. I'll talk about "Cell" a bit later, but first I want to ramble about King.
The first Stephen King book I read was “The Shining”. I remember hearing radio ads for it on WPLJ with actors depicting the scene where Danny reminds the demented Jack about dumping the boiler. I think I got a paperback from my Aunt Karen. It was the silver covered one with the little faceless depiction of Danny. When I re-read "The Shining" a few years ago I was struck by the economy of the thing. There's no single wasted word and no single bit of fat.
I really latched onto him in high school after friends told me to check out "'Salems Lot". I read it freshman year and can remember being freaked out. Particularly when I was listening to Black Sabbath with headphones on and came to the end of "Children of the Grave" when Barlow was driving out Father Callahan. Spooked me silly.
I quickly plowed through "Night Shift" and "Danse Macabre". Stories like “Gray Matter” and “Night Shift” were great. They reminded me of Lovecraft in a more readable idiom. “Danse” was my first foray into reading non-fiction about horror and the genre’s history. I presently have a decent shelf worth of such books but his was the first.
Then I hit "The Stand". That's the one my friends really told me to read. I was primarily a science fiction and fantasy reader up until then so the fact that it was a post apocalypse story got me geared up. I dug into in eagerly. The beginning was cool (I still have images of the making a way through the car clogged tunnel under the Hudson River in my head). Flagg has the makings of a great villain and Trashcan Man is a ball (I planned to write blast, but dang do I hate puns). All sorts of fun stuff.
Half way through I stopped. I couldn't bear it anymore. The book wouldn't end. There was way too much water treading and none of King's early books' tightness. I put it down and didn't try him again for a bit.
I read "Dead Zone" and revived my love for his work. Then I read "Firestarter" and lost hope again. I left him alone for some time after that. Nothing that came out looked particularly interesting. I remember reading "Pet Semetary" one night and being struck by how bloated it seemed for such a short book. It had a nifty concept, but too many words of no account.
Next came “Skeleton Crew”. Even though I’d long before read “The Mist” in Kirby McCauley’s “Dark Forces” anthology (truly one of the single greatest collections of horror stories – if you don’t own it, get it at once. Actually, I almost can’t believe you’d be reading this if you don’t already possess it. But then what do I know?) along with a few others of the book’s stories, I loved “Skeleton Crew”.
“Christine” and “It” held no appeal for me at all. The former sounded stupid and the latter looked liked it suffered from the worst case of Standitis imaginable. At some point I read "The Tommyknockers" on what must have only been a bet with myself. I remember seeing an interview with King a few years ago. He talked at length about his drinking and drugging and reflected that he had little memory of actually writing the book. If only as a reader I had the same sort of luxury. His novels really weren’t cutting it for me anymore.
Then came "Misery". I had sworn him off after “The Tommyknockers”, but a guy at work really recommended it. Peer pressure subject that I am and hoper against hope that King hadn’t written another piece of crap like “Pet Semetary” I checked it out. And I was blown away. Here was a Robert Bloch style non-supernatural horror story as well as an interesting critique of the writer’s relationship with readers. I was 22 and it struck me as mind-blowing. In retrospect it’s still pretty damned cool and creepy.
Later that year I somehow read “It”. It’s just way too long and it’s got some pretty crappy bits sprinkled way too liberally among the good stuff. Too often scenes feel repeated, but not for effect. Sure it’s scary (sometimes), but not enough to carry its vast weight.
I stayed away for 10 years until I got stuck on federal grand jury duty in 1999. I read “Carrie” simply to pass the hours and I remembered why I had liked King in the beginning and saw why he’d become a bestseller so quickly. I loved the style he told it in and I loved his teenage characters. And it was short. Pared down. Primal. Very cool.
Since I had time on my hands I decided to be daring. I decided to give “The Stand” another shot. Hey, it had been 18 years or so and the book had been revised. What could go wrong? Well…. So I only made it about half way before I cried “Uncle”. I couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t.
I didn’t read another Stephen King book until 2001. I read several reviews of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and was intrigued. More importantly, it was short. I’d seen “Needful Things” and “Insomnia” and just couldn’t imagine reading either one. How much could anyone really have to say about the devil making bad deals with the people of Castle Rock? But “The Girl” sounded interesting. Very interesting.
I went to my local used bookstore (Barrett Book Traders, Staten Island’s only one) and scrounged up a copy. I read it in a day or so and that was that. My tastes had matured enough that I didn’t always need gore and King was in control of his wordy bloat. For those who don’t know, it’s about a young girl lost in the woods and trying to survive. Her only lifeline is a small radio on which she listens to Tom Gordon playing ball. There’s much more of course but that’s enough.
I remember arguing with my friend’s wife of the time. She like it but thought the girl seemed far too grown and I didn’t. Or at least not so much that it ruined the book. I liked the book enough to defend it staunchly. I also liked it enough to pick up a battered old copy of Richard Adam’s “Shardik”. I can’t thank King enough for the recommendation.
From there I went on a spree. “The Dark Half”, “Insomnia”, “Bag of Bones”, all went down in rapid succession. The first two were simply great and the last has some of his best writing but is bogged down a bit by a not-that-spectacular ghost story. But, oh, the parts about a writer suffering from loss, writers block and the mechanics of keeping his career alive are at turns heartbreaking and fascinating.
At the end of that run I felt I’d come to terms with my immediate dismissal of his long books and sort of matured into a place where I could appreciate what he was doing in those books. I also didn’t need just thrillers and horror books anymore (but I do still love them) and neither did Stephen King (but he still writes them). The long, detailed characterizations he presented were there for a palpable reason, not just for King to luxuriate in his own writing.
I’m definitely on the side of the growing literary movement pushing for the reintroduction of plot to story telling. King’s been doing it all along but what’s always made his books work so well is his ear/eye for the details of real life. Just because he’s got monsters and goons in his books doesn’t mean they can be literary. In fact making them literary only makes them more resonant with the reader. I find the outrage
That was a couple of years ago so a few weeks ago I read his little mystery, “The Colorado Kid”. It’s well written and it’s incredibly ambiguous. Heck, that’s the purpose of the book. Some things aren’t meant to be known and others are simply unknowable. From the reviews on Amazon it’s clear a lot of folks hate it. I didn’t.
Which brings me to “Cell”. One day everyone using a cell phone or within close hearing range of one being used is hit by The Pulse. At first it drives them into homicidal rage and then over a few days changes them into something far, far different.
Our hero, Clayton Riddell, is stuck in Boston when the wheels fall off the world. Most of the book is about his journey to find his wife and son back home in Maine. Along the way he acquires traveling companions and gains insights into what’s going on. While there’s a hint of “The Stand”’s post apocalyptic setting and people finding their footing amidst society’s debris, there does seem to be something taking place. I don’t really want to go into it because it would give too much away and sitting a few days out from finishing “Cell” it’s the ambiguities he played with in “The Colorado Kid” that come back and they're best left unrevealed.
In my short review on the lamentable FightLikeApes forum I wrote that the characters seemed too familiar. There’s there the plucky teenage heroine and the geeky teenage genius as well as the avuncular old scholar. But it doesn’t matter. They seem appropriate to the book’s undertakings and Clay is interesting enough to serve as its focal point.
“Cell” is also bloody and messy in a way King hasn’t been in a while. It’s a short punchy book that gets to where it wants to go quickly. I know I said I’ve come to terms with his longer writing but I do appreciate a quick, bloody read once in a while.
So yeah, check it out of the library or pick it up at Barnes & Noble for 30% off the cover price. It’s gotten me set off on another King reading spree so just think of what it could do for you.
By the by, I’m almost done with “Hearts in Atlantis” and I’m planning to tackle “From a Buick 8” afterwards.