Book Review: If It Bleeds (Stephen King, 2020)

Year: 2020 // Format Reviewed: Hardback // Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK) // Pages: 369 // ISBN: 978-1-529-391534

“In January of 2021, a small padded envelope addressed to Detective Ralph Anderson is delivered to the Conrads, the Anderson’s next door neighbours. The Anderson family is on an extended vacation in the Bahamas. Printed on this envelope, in large letters, is DO NOT FORWARD. HOLD FOR ARRIVAL.

When Ralph opens the package, he finds a flash drive titled If it Bleeds, presumably referring to the old news trope which proclaims ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The drive holds a kind of report, or spoken word diary, from Holly Gibney. The final words are from an entry dated December 19th, 2020. She sounds out of breath.

“I have done the best I can, Ralph, but it may not be enough. In spite of all my planning there’s a chance I won’t come out of this alive…””

It’s been a few years since we had a short story collection from Stephen King so If It Bleeds was very welcome indeed. That said, I went in warily given that some of the author’s recent standalone short stories (Elevation, Gwendy’s Button Box) have fallen a little flat with me personally, leaving me hanging with – what I considered to be – abrupt, unsatisfying conclusions to their tales.

First thing’s first though: the blurb on the back of the book (as quoted above) is a bit misleading and I feel that I should address it for anybody who hasn’t yet picked this book up. First of all, it gives the false impression that the entirity of If It Bleeds is one big follow-up to 2018’s The Outsider, failing to mention that the titular story is actually one of four short tales. Secondly, Ralph Anderson – The Outsider‘s lead character – doesn’t actually feature in If It Bleeds. I get why the publisher focused fully on marketing this book as the next chapter in the Mr. Mercedes saga, including name-dropping multiple characters already known to the Stephen King faithful, but I thought it was worth mentioning that If It Bleeds is actually just the headline act of a four act show.

Starting off with the main reason that many will purchase this book, If It Bleeds is indeed the next part of the ongoing Mr. Mercedes ‘series’, although it is more of a direct follow-up to The Outsider than the preceding Bill Hodges trilogy. The glue that binds all of these stories together is, of course, Holly Gibney, who is still running her own private investigation company as we saw in The Outsider. If It Bleeds is Holly’s first solo story, which sees the endearing investigator stumble upon the existence of yet another eery, supernatural predator – another ‘Outsider’. The story itself is compulsive reading (as all of the books featuring Ms. Gibney have been guilty of), but the real draw of If It Bleeds is being able to catch up with old friends again, including the recurring supporting cast of Jerome, Barbara, and Pete. There are also plenty of references to events past that make all of these books feel like one continuous series, even if The Outsider and If It Bleeds are somewhat separate to the Bill Hodges trilogy.

Holly herself undergoes plenty of personal development throughout If It Bleeds, and she has a lot of interaction with her controlling mother which encourages said development. In classic Stephen King fashion, her personal battles run parallel to Holly’s pursuit of the latest Outsider creature, but both plotlines ultimately cross over in a satisfying way towards the story’s conclusion. It’s perhaps only correct then that the marketing gurus chose to focus on If It Bleeds alone because this is easily the best of the four stories here. It’s extremely moreish and I was genuinely disappointed that it couldn’t have been a longer, standalone book. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of these characters though – King seems to enjoy them as much as his audience – so I’m not too worried.

Thankfully the other three stories hold up on their own merit, even if they must live in the shadow of If It Bleeds. The opener, Mr Harrigan’s Phone, was my favourite of the supporting acts. It begins in 2004 when nine year-old Craig starts helping out retired billionaire businessman Mr. Harrigan, forming a friendly bond with the man. Fast-forward to 2007, and Craig becomes the proud owner of the brand-new iPhone, a gadget that he can’t get enough of. Mr. Harrigan however – a man with a somewhat luddite attitude towards new technology – isn’t having any of it. Four times a year, Mr. Harrigan sends Craig a two-dollar scratch card and, in 2008, one of the tickets finally comes in for Craig, netting him three thousand dollars. As a gesture of thanks to Mr. Harrigan, Craig buys him an iPhone of his own, which he initially rejects before Craig demonstrates the power of the internet and instant access to real-time business information. As the story progresses, a chilling supernatural thread – that follows Craig through his adolescent years – is introduced but, without spoiling the story, it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. What DID resonate with me, and got me thinking (always dangerous), were the philosophical questions raised about the effect of technology on society, the consumption of instantly-accessible information, and how it would change us all.

“”We may be looking at a huge mistake here, Craig, one being made by people who understand the practical aspects of a thing like this – the ramifications – no more than I do. An economic earthquake may be coming. For all I know, it’s already here. An earthquake that’s going to change how we get our information, when we get it, where we get it, and hence how we look at the world.” He paused. “And deal with it, of course.”

“…if I were the Wall Street Journal…or The Times…even the damn Reader’s Digest…I’d be very frightened by this gizmo.” He picked up the iPhone again; couldn’t seem to leave it alone. “It’s like a broken watermain, one spewing information instead of water. I thought it was just a phone we were talking about, but now I see…or begin to see…””

Additionally, it’s pretty cool to be cast back to a time – the mid-2000’s – that doesn’t feel that long ago, and to be reminded of how much simpler things were, even then, before the iPhone blew up and technology/social media really got us all – as Mr Harrigan would say – by the balls…and squeezed.

The Life of Chuck was the weak link for me. It tells the story of a man’s life in three acts, starting at the very end, travelling in reverse. Each act feels completely different though, and somewhat disjointed when put together as a whole. That said, each part is excellent as a standalone mini-story, and I really enjoyed the twist at the end of the first act that explained the crazy apocalyptic events unfolding for a group of characters that you assume are going to be the main cast. The third and final act sort-of ties it all together, although the new supernatural element introduced here felt slightly unnecessary when the story was being told in reverse. It IS clever though, and was certainly a different way of telling a story. I have a feeling that I might enjoy The Life of Chuck a little more the second time around.

Bringing up the rear is Rat, the latest in a long line of Stephen King tales that focuses on a writer, no doubt drawing inspiration from the author’s own life experience. This story was the closest one of the four to the classic, old-school King flavour of the 80’s that I wish we saw more of in the modern era. It tells the story of Drew Larson, an English teacher with a few published short stories, who dreams of being able to finally go the whole hog and successfully complete a novel. His previous unsuccessful attempt ended in a mental breakdown so it’s no wonder that his wife is absolutely not in favour of Drew heading up to his father’s old cabin, alone, in the remote woodlands of North Maine, so that he can seize the opportunity when a crystal-clear inspiration for a Western strikes him like a bolt from the blue. What happens next has shades of Poe’s The Raven, as Drew comes down with a bad case of the flu, his inspiration begins to run dry, and a powerful storm traps him in the cabin. A rat appears to him and offers him a macabre deal: the ability to finish his novel in exchange for the life of somebody close to Drew…

“The rat cocked his head, as if unable to believe a supposedly smart man – a college English teacher who had been published in The New Yorker! – could be so stupid. ‘You were going to kill me with a shovel, and why not? I’m just a lowly rat after all. But you took me in instead. You saved me.’
‘So as a reward you give me three wishes.’ Drew said it with a smile. This was familiar ground: Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm.
‘Just one,’ the rat said. ‘A very specific one. You can wish to finish your book.’ He lifted his tail and slapped it down on the manuscript of Bitter River for emphasis. ‘But it comes with one condition.’
‘And that would be?’
‘Someone you care for will have to die.’

I really enjoyed this one. It was psychological, and the isolated nature of the cabin paired with Drew’s obsession, and his fever-induced delerium, had shades of The Shining. Plus, I always enjoy a deal-with-the-devil scenario, where a desperate protagonist makes the mistake of bargaining with dark forces, only to find that they have been hoodwinked by said force(s).

All in all, If It Bleeds is a most enjoyable collection of short stories. I would happily recommend the price of admission for the titular story itself, but all four are worth your time. True, I may have been a little critical of The Life of Chuck, but even so, these stories are – in my opinion – the best short stories to have come from the pen of Stephen King in a good while. A very strong collection indeed.

On lockdowns

I didn’t want my first post since my return to this blog to be about Covid-19 but here it is anyway.

What I’m going to talk about is something that pretty much everybody is chewing over, and that’s the topic of more fucking lockdown measures and rules. A few disclaimers before I get going though. Firstly, I smile when people in my country (the UK) use the term “lockdown” and cry about how difficult the spring/summer were for the country. Yes, it was shit and, yes, reality has been altered for the worse in every way, but I would hardly describe what we had as a REAL lockdown. I see what happened in other, more authoritarian countries (maybe some of you reading this are familiar with it) and said, “THAT’s a lockdown.”

The second disclaimer is that I’m not trying to promote money or business above lives. This post will have an anti-lockdown flavour but be more focused on the bigger, more uncomfortable picture, and some questions that I have. I’ve heard a lot of calls for another lockdown to contain this second wave of cases – people in support of tightening the leash once again. I could get into the discussion about willingly handing over our rights and freedoms to people who certainly don’t care about preserving or restoring them, but I won’t because that’s a different can of worms for a different time.

The observation that I DO want to make however, is that the people who strongly support such a course of action are the people who aren’t likely to be affected by economic disaster. Scientists won’t be put out of a job. Ditto for the government and MPs. And the civilians being vocal about shutting everything down again are those in middle/high tier jobs that can comfortably work from home with laptops, video conferencing and all that stuff. Unfortunately, not everybody is able to enjoy such occupations and the larger safety nets that come with them. If you work in a shop or the hospitality sector, further lockdowns could mean the end of your employment. The government dished out some bloody generous financial aid earlier in the year that kept such business afloat and countless jobs secure, but the magic money pit isn’t bottomless. Furlough schemes have long since stopped paying 100% of wages for example, and there will certainly come a point where the flow of “free” money simply dries up. Businesses are already going under and unemployment is already rising.

But there are those in well-paid office jobs working from home who couldn’t care less about that. It’s not them that will lose their jobs or be directly affected. “Tough titty,” they think. “It’s their fault for not having a better career,” they say. Likewise, the people in government making these decisions won’t have to worry about paying the bills. For anybody living from paycheck to paycheck, with little savings in the bank, and no way of transferring themselves into a different, more secure field of work, these are incredibly stressful and unsettling times.

It’s not my intention to divert onto an us-versus-them rant because that doesn’t solve anything, and it’s a lack of unity amongst us as human beings (push all that class nonsense aside) that historically causes most problems, but it would be a nice thing if the more affluent members of society remembered that the people working in warehouses, the retail sector, and hospitality venues are crucial cogs in the economic machine. I saw it during the initial lockdown period in the summer while working in the wholesale sector: well-off people having a blast, being paid 100% of their wages to have barbeque after barbeque, and guzzle crates of alcohol. There was a definite divide between the haves (said customers) and the have-nots (those of us still working to keep everybody else going, despite the threat of the virus in the workplace, and the rotten attitudes of customers). It should be noted that I didn’t mind the work as it gave me an ongoing routine and sense of normality as well as job security, but I witnessed bitter attitudes from co-workers not happy about others being paid by their employers to relax in their gardens, eat food, and drink, drink, drink.

I can’t lie: I too was guilty of the occasional flash of resentment, largely due to the fact that work was busier than ever, we were getting a heap of abuse from non-compliant customers due to stock shortages and restrictions, and I genuinely felt ill through the stress of it all at times. But, all of that said, I couldn’t blame the others. After all, would anybody say “no” to being paid in full to stay off work and just chill out?

But, now, I get the sense that those capable of working from home – and those whose employers won’t go out of business as a result of new restrictions – would happily support another lockdown, even if it means job losses. I have read comments online from people who claim they are sick of bars, restaurants, and retail outlets complaining about the fact that they will go under if their doors must once again close. To me, it’s a very narrow-minded and ignorant attitude to take for I’m sure that these same people would see things very differently if they were forced to switch places. Thinking, “Ah well, sucks to be them” when another business goes under – taking hundreds or thousands of low-skilled jobs with it – isn’t actually very intelligent. We all saw what happened in 2008 with the banking crisis and the resulting cataclysmic domino effect. And it’s with this point that I will move away from people’s attitudes, and onto the topic of whether another full-fat lockdown is actually a good idea.

The scientists are saying that it is the most effective way – the only way – of dealing with a Covid-19 resurgence, and that we only have to look into our history at previous pandemics (the Bubonic Plague, Spanish Flu, Cholera etc.) to see that this is how those diseases were stopped. But I don’t see how the same approach can be so easily applied to the world in 2020. We are so globalised now, and the world economy is ridiculously fragile – far more so than it was hundreds of years ago. The slightest imbalance or sudden shift in demand for a product/service can send huge, damaging ripples through the markets and trigger a mind-blowing butterfly effect that can grow exponentially and cause untold damage further down the domino chain.

But I’m putting business in front of lives again, aren’t I? Well, you can look at it that way, and I can’t blame you for seeing it like that. I guess there’s no way around it.

However, I believe that we will reach a point where we can no longer avoid the possibility that Covid-19 will never go away. Covid-19 is a Coronavirus (many mistakenly refer to the former as the latter), and do you know what else is a part of the Coronavirus family? The common cold. I’m not at all playing down Covid-19, but think about it: colds never go away. There is no cure for them (due to how quickly they mutate and shift forms) and they stay with us all year. For more dangerous examples of a Coronavirus, see SARS and MERS, two more diseases that have no vaccine for either the treatment or prevention of infections. So it seems crazy that the world is banking on a forthcoming vaccine to bring all of this to a neat end. I just don’t believe that there will be a vaccine for Covid-19, or else it would have been possible to vaccinate against SARS, MERS and colds by now.

And without a vaccine, and an inevitable dehydration of financial handouts, I believe that we will ultimately be forced to try and return to normal because there will be no other choice. Lockdowns will temporarily suppress the virus but it only stalls infections. As the T-101 stated in Terminator 3, “You only postponed it. Judgment Day is inevitable.” Unless it can be 100% eradicated, then it will never go away. If even a single person remains infected with Covid-19 (and that is inevitable given how many asymptomatic cases there are), it will simply once again spread out into the community, just as it did when the first infected individual set foot on the doorstep of a Covid-free country and set it loose when this all began in the first place.

A functioning vaccine is the only the way but – as I have just pointed out – based on the evidence that no previous Coronavirus has been successfully vaccinated against, should we really be putting so many eggs in that basket?

Otherwise, we will soon not have the luxury of hiding away and keeping everywhere closed. Not unless we wish to face mass unemployment and the dire social, economic, and mental consequences that such a scenario would entail. And the thing is, unemployment is a much bigger issue than many believe. For starters, you can forget the stats and figures that governments and their agencies put out as they are so skewed by false reporting, technicalities, zero-hours contracts, and a host of other variables.

Travel back in time hundreds or even thousands of years, and you would find that the majority of people’s jobs were classed as essential. Farming, warfare, construction, the manufacturing of clothes – all of these were essential jobs that needed to be done. Fast-forward to the modern day, and so many of us work in utterly non-essential industries and service sectors that have nothing to do with basic living and basic survival. Anything to do with leisure, entertainment, the arts, non-food retail, hospitality, travel, e-commerce and much, much more…all of it absolutely non-essential if an economic situation is so bleak that paying the bills, keeping a roof over your head, and eating are the only things that matter. Our ancestors probably could weather quarantines as they were a) more self-sufficient b) less reliant on income from non-essential trade and c) not living in such complex and easily damaged economies.

To that end, anybody currently working in a non-essential role can consider themself “unemployed”, since a major disaster will render all of those jobs irrelevant and all of the people in them with no income. And it isn’t as if they could all suddenly transfer into essential jobs because the sheer volume of roles isn’t there, and the population of working-age people is much too large versus that of our ancient ancestors.

I’m not proclaiming to have the answers but I am concerned that the world seems to be going all-in on the vaccine solution when there is ample reason to suggest that a truly effective vaccine will not be possible. In the meantime, there will be tough choices to make if we wish to strike a balance between protecting ourselves and protecting our ability to keep a roof above our head.

I’m not dead

Does that sound big-headed of me? To assume that anybody was actually wondering where I’d gotten to? Well, it can’t be helped. It was the first post title that popped into my head and it sounded right: punchy and straight to the point.

My writing juices had simply expired, and my head has been spinning thanks to its attempt to process the madness that is 2020, what I believe, and where I stand on the whole virus thing. I’ve also been dealing with injuries and plenty of other crap, so blogging has been the furthest thing from my mind.

But now?

So what’s new (other than this janky new WordPress editor)? Well, I’ve just called time on a dedicated videogame blog that I was writing in tandem with this one. It was no big deal (it only attracted around sixty followers in 2-3 years…) but I enjoyed writing for it – for fun – until recently. I’m still a gamer (albeit to a much lesser degree these days…) but I’d just fallen out of love with posting my thoughts on the latest videogame news, and constructing reviews for the stuff I’d been playing.

That said, I would like to continue writing about games, just without the self-inflicted pressure from feeling that I need to post something for the sake of keeping a blog active. To that end, I will be introducing videogame reviews and musings here, on Unfiltered Opinion, from time to time.

This won’t become a videogame blog, so if you’re only here for the stuff that I was already posting then there’s no need to worry. I have a bunch of life/self-development themed topics in mind, as well as a determination to carry on reviewing and talking about books (something that seems to do well here). I also fully intend to continue The Big Goosebumps Re-read series.

Let’s crack on with it then.

Bullshit News: Sex = Banned

Honestly, I’d hoped not to ever revive the Bullshit News series, as I don’t enjoy watching it anymore, let alone commentating on the latest outrage or twisted facts. Unfortunately, there is an excess of fuel for the bullshit furnace thanks to the biggest topic of 2020. Particularly here, in the UK. Have you seen our hypocritical, self-contradicting shambles of a government? We haven’t fought our way to the top-tier of the Covid-19 death league table by fluke, you know.

The latest? Sex is banned – apparently. That’s how the outraged mob on social media are spinning it anyway. The government didn’t actually come out and SAY that, though. What actually happened was that a new regulation was passed in order to control people’s movement under an easing of lockdown restrictions. So now you can meet up with people – to socialise – outside of your household…as long as you remain outside and two metres apart of course. The outrage stems from the fact that couples not living together can now finally see each other, but they aren’t permitted to make physical contact.

In reality, nothing has changed. However, people have been riled-up by the fact that the new regulation specifically forbids people from having private gatherings, of two or more people, indoors. This specific clause has sparked considerable public anger, simply because it didn’t exist before. However, it didn’t need to exist before. After all, we were instructed to stay in our homes unless it was absolutely essential to leave i.e. for food or work (if you were unable to work from home and weren’t furloughed), so we weren’t really permitted to go and enter other people’s houses anyway. Beyond all the bluster about sex being banned, nothing has really changed. There has actually been a loosening so, if you were being a good lil’ egg and staying away from your partner, you can now physically see them. The new rule has been brought in to prevent people from skipping the (hopefully) forthcoming future easing of distancing.

As usual, the media has transformed yet another distancing rule into an outrage-inducing headline to whip up a controversy and generate ad revenue, viewing figures, and newspaper sales.

Now, all of that said, does that mean that I’m in favour of this continued clamp-down on humanity? Fuck no. If you’re married, or living with a partner, then you’re probably laughing at a sex “ban”. “Sucks to be them” and all that. It’s not so great for those of us who aren’t locked-down with our significant other, though. And I’m not just talking about being denied the main course – I’m talking about not even being able to show regular affection, such as kissing, hugging, or holding hands. I know it’s easy to overplay these things (especially if you aren’t an especially affectionate person), but it’s also easy to take them for granted.

As I said in my last post, any measures that take away our humanity must be regarded with extreme caution. That doesn’t mean that I think we should decide for ourselves that the virus has gone and just do whatever the fuck we want (that’s just dumb, and a direct insult to those who have died or are fighting the virus in our hospitals), but we need to keep a close eye on the status of our freedoms and what the government is doing with them.

And I haven’t even got to the bullshit yet. Oh, no. So far I’ve discussed how people have taken the new regulations out of context. I’ve touched on how the news media have twisted the information to play the public like a fiddle, and get them foaming at the mouth. And I’ve talked about how frustrating it is for couples living apart. But all of that is poodle poop compared to the steaming mountain of elephant crap that comes next, and it ties into the strain being put on couples living apart.

It’s the double-standards, hypocrisy and blatant contradiction that is impossible to ignore. This is the kind of stuff that we should really question, and direct our anger at.

So…sex with your girlfriend at her house is a big NO, but it was okay for scientist and health advisor, Professor Neil Ferguson, to allow his (married) lover to enter his home and get her knickers off? After he’d preached the importance of social distancing?

Don’t worry though; I’m sure he was dealt with just as firmly as any of us would for being caught sneaking into our partner’s home by a nosy neighbour. No immunity for a top government advisor, right?

Scotland Yard said Prof Ferguson’s behaviour was “plainly disappointing” but officers “do not intend to take any further action”.

BBC News

Oh.

Moving on…

Meeting up with your boyfriend and giving him a hug is an AWFUL thing to do, but nobody gets fined or prosecuted for hitting the beach and observing zero social distancing?

[Image: Phys.org]

And you must, MUST stay two metres away from your estranged partner…even while idiots queue up for hours for an utterly non-essential McDonalds.

[Image: BBC]

I’m NOT here to advocate breaking the rules (that have been implemented for the good of the country’s health and safety) on the basis that other people are taking the piss. The well-he-does-it-so-am-I philosophy is a slippery slope that never ends well. But being told to keep apart from your partner while all of this is happening right before your eyes is a slap in the face. We should all be in this together, and facing the same hardships, so that we can come out the other side as quickly as possible and get on with our damn lives. But it’s clear that this isn’t the case, and I absolutely cannot fault people for kicking off about being unable to touch their significant other when mass gatherings and utterly non-essential, selfish activities go unpunished. We are told to do one thing and then shown the opposite. Made to feel afraid about being caught doing one thing while hundreds – if not thousands – get away with taking part in something far worse. Ordered to keep our genitals in check while the science men issuing the advice are busy banging married women.

And don’t even get me started on the Black Lives Matter protests. I agree with your cause and your anger but you’re creating a nice breeding ground for Covid-19 in those densely-packed crowds. I know that a lot of people are afraid to come out criticise because of the backlash that they will receive but I don’t give a fuck. You – and the dumbass beachgoers who prioritise a day out over a national effort – are making an invaluable contribution to a second wave that will keep us all locked-down for longer than we could have.

Why you should reject the “New Normal”

There’s a new phrase that has established itself in the media: The New Normal.

I’m not a fan of this particular string of words. In fact, I utterly despise it. But what is “The New Normal”?

It’s a phrase to describe our lockdown lives right now. It’s a way of coming to terms with and accepting our current circumstances. And I’m all down with that if it’s going to make a difference and minimise the infection rate. But, just as we are being cautious about spreading the virus, we also need to be careful that this New Normal remains a temporary state, and that elements don’t linger in our post-Covid societies. In fact, I’m more worried about living in some sort of paranoid, contact-shy dystopian world than I am about Covid-19. A temporary acceptance of the new rules is fine. It’s required, and to flippantly disregard the measures would be a great display of ignorance to those who have succumbed to Covid-19, those fighting it on the frontlines, and those who have lost loved ones. But, at the same time, we must not fall into the trap of becoming desensitised to it all and allowing the New Normal to become simply Normal.

It is NOT normal to wear face masks.
It is NOT normal to steer around other people in the street.
It is NOT normal to be so scared of catching something.
It is NOT normal to go on virtual dates, rather than be face-to-face.
It is NOT normal to have our towns and cities covered in tape and “keep your distance” signage.
It is NOT normal to have every TV commercial referencing the virus and lockdown.

As I’ve already said, we need to do these things right now because Covid-19 is far from a done deal. But realise that we have willingly given up our freedoms to our governments and that we get them back when they (backed up by scientific advice) say so. Previous generations have endured far worse changes to everyday life that lasted a lot longer, so we can do this.

But don’t accept these things as permanent changes. Do I think the masses will remain fearful and in favour of digital communion in the long-term? No, I don’t actually think that. The thousands of people that have been breaking distancing rules to pack themselves onto beaches are proof enough (though they are still fucking idiots). So what do I think COULD happen?

First of all – without wanting to become a conspiracy theorist – I think governments around the world will be watching and taking note of just how easy it was to force the populance to remain indoors and surrender basic freedoms. I don’t buy into the theories out there that the virus was released on purpose to trigger a lockdown response that would cow society. But the lockdown will remain invaluable data to leaders should they wish to impose these measures on us again. And next time, it might not even be for a valid reason. All they need to do is to sell us a reason that makes us all feel like heroes.

I think there is going to be a lot of unemployment as businesses fold, and others realise that they have managed just fine without their full workforce. And all this “free” money that has been thrown about will come at a great cost. Public funding is going to be cut and the tax bill is going to be bigger than Christina Hendricks’ boobs. We’re going to be living with the financial aftermath for a long-ass time.

But we can deal with those things. It’s the subtle, creeping social changes that we need to be wary of. Everything that we are doing right now is not human. Virtual communication without the senses of smell, taste and touch isn’t human. Queuing up outside stores in masks with big gaps between us certainly isn’t human. I DO think that we will get over all of this and move on but social changes tend to happen gradually, and subtlety, often without us noticing until, one day, we look back and think about the old ways of living. And that’s why we need to be careful because the longer this pandemic drags on, the more opportunity these temporary practices have to take root and be normalised in society.

I have several other Covid-19/Lockdown-related posts brewing in the back of my mind but I’m not sure if I’ll actually have the energy to publish them. Like most of us, I’m tired of it all, and tired of talking about the whole damn situation. Furthermore, I’m no expert and I have my own biases that make these kinds posts difficult to write.

Book Talk: Topical Reading…

The world is currently on lockdown due to a certain virus (seriously, just fuck off already) and, as a result, it’s a bit gloomy out there (understatement of 2020, I’m sure). So what did I decide to do to cheer myself up?

Bake cakes?
Binge some boxsets?
Get stuck into a time-sink of a videogame?

No, no and no. I actually decided to read a book about a government-developed virus that escapes, wipes out most of the human race, and draws a line under society and civilisation as we know it. Of course.

The book in question would be Stephen King’s The Stand – a book widely regarded as one of his greatest epics. The regular version of The Stand is good and all but, for me, the only option is the seriously hefty Complete and Uncut Edition – a fat tome that surpasses 1400 pages.

DSC_0200

I have read this book before but it’s one of a handful of Stephen King novels that I’ve only experienced once. This whole virus situation reminded me of The Stand‘s plot so I decided to dig the book out and cross it off the “to re-read” list. After all, I recalled really enjoying it the first time around, and they do say that you should always go back for seconds of a good thing.

If you aren’t familiar with the Uncut edition of The Stand, then here is a brief explanation straight from the mouth of King himself:

For the purposes of this book, what’s important is that approximately four hundred pages of manuscript were deleted from the final draft. The reason was no an editorial one; if that had been the case, I would be content to let the book live its life and die its eventual death as it was originally published.
The cuts were made at the behest of the accounting department. They toted up production costs, laid these next to the hardcover sales of my previous four books, and decided that a cover price of £6.95 was about what the market would bear (compare that price to this one, friends and neighbours!).

I haven’t restored all four hundred of the missing pages; there is a difference between doing it right and just being downright vulgar. Some of what was left on the cutting room floor when I turned in the truncated version deserved to be left there, and there it remains. Other things, such as Frannie’s confrontation with her mother early in the book, seem to add that richness and dimension that I, as a reader, enjoy deeply.

The end result is that an already-great book became even better, thanks to that extra dimension and character development.

And while that character development is ongoing during the book’s early phases, the Captain Trips virus is spreading throughout America in a way that eerily mirrors the current Covid-19 outbreak. Captain Trips is far more lethal, but the ease with which it spreads certainly prodded the paranoia lurking at the back of my mind.

The main characters and their backstories are gradually introduced to the reader even while Captain Trips is doing its thing in the background. It begins with the odd mention here and there of a supporting or very minor character suffering with a “summer cold” or a runny nose, and  – at first – it seems pretty innocuous, even though we (the reader) know what the real deal is. It allows the main characters (who obviously have a natural immunity to the virus) to unfold within the pages while the virus remains ever-present in the background. It’s fairly chilling, and almost comparable to a horror movie ghoul creeping up on an unsuspecting victim, because you just KNOW that the lives and supporting cast of each character can’t outrun the indiscriminate, killer virus forever. At some point, it will step into the foreground and demand recognition. It reminds me of how Covid-19 began as a mid-tier news item on the TV before it dominated our every waking minute.

I’m not going to go too deep into The Stand or even review it properly in this post but, suffice to say, things get a LOT worse, very rapidly, and some very shady shit goes down as the US government and the military attempt to cover their tracks and stop a crumbling society from uncovering the truth; that their own leaders developed and inadvertedly released the killer virus.

That’s all just the first act of the book, mind. I told you it was huuuuuge.

Oh, and it also stars one of my all-time favourite fictional villains: the evil Randall Flagg who has appeared in numerous King books such as The Dark Tower and The Eyes of the Dragon. That alone makes The Stand worth reading for me.

Coronavirus Diary: March-April

Well, this virus thing got pretty serious, huh? Admittedly, I was a little flippant about the whole thing in my previous C-Virus posts and I suppose, as a result, I might come across as a bit of an ignorant arsehole in said posts.

Regardless, I am still here. I haven’t posted anything for a while simply because I’ve been absolutely shattered courtesy of work and haven’t had any creative juices left in the tank once I get home. So reviewing books and shit has been out of the question.

I work in food wholesale so I am classed as a “key worker”. On the positive side, this means that I am still going to work, still getting paid in full, and still partaking in a routine that keeps me from being shut indoors at home. I feel that it’s important to make clear that I am fully aware of these upsides – and grateful for them – at a time when job security, income and simple routines aren’t givens.

Unfortunately, this tough time seems to have brought out the worst in our customers at a time when we should be banding together. Every day it’s

  • An onlsaught of rude punters
  • Massive queues
  • Arguments
  • Battles over short-supply items
  • Confrontations over refusal to adhere to distancing and numbers of people permitted in the building
  • Customers promising that they will “remember this” when it’s all over, and reminding us that they are keeping us in business
  • An avalanche of theft

All of this at a time when almost half of our staff have been sent home for three months due to being in an at-risk category. We are staying open for these people, putting ourselves at risk, and trying to keep the supply chain going, but we are being repaid with the crap listed above. It’s exhausting and headaches are now an almost daily occurence. Many of us have lost sleep or feel physically ill about coming to work and dealing with another full day of this shit.

All of that said, it’s nothing compared to what doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals are facing. Even though I am classed as a “key worker” (and have a document in my car’s glovebox to prove it, in case I am pulled by the fuzz), I like to remain realistic. I’m simply continuing to attend work, because it just so happens to be a business that needs to remain open. I’m no hero and I don’t ask for thanks or some sort of big deal to be made about my contributions. All I ask is for some civility and less animal-like behaviour from our customers, so that we can go home at the end of the day and NOT feel as if we’ve been hit by a freight train or two.

I do have a few more Coronavirus-related posts that I wanted to put out but, in all honesty, I’m not sure that I will do them. Aside from the aforementioned creativity-murdering shifts at the ol’ workhouse, I think we’re all just absolutely sick of talking about the situation and having our humanity sapped from us by the lockdown/social distancing stuff.

So keep yo’ selves safe and I’ll be back soon with something.

Book Review: Joyland Illustrated Edition (Stephen King, 2015)

DSC_0118Year: 2015 (Illustrated Edition), 2013 (original)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hard Case Crime
Format: Hardcover (Illustrated Edition)
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9781783295326

[note: this is a slightly tweaked version of a review previously published on my other blog, in 2018]

College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life – and what comes after – that would change his world forever.

A riveting story about love and loss, about growing up and growing old – and about those who don’t get to do either because death comes for them before their time – Joyland is Stephen King at the peak of his storytelling powers. With all the emotional impact of King masterpieces such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption, Joyland is at once a mystery, a horror story, and a bittersweet coming-of-age novel, one that will leave even the most hard-boiled of readers profoundly moved.

As an avid Stephen King follower who has read almost everything by the author, I have to begin this review by admitting that I consider most of his modern output to live in the shadows cast by his earlier, more horror-centric classics such as The Stand, Salem’s Lot and Christine. Don’t get me wrong though: I love the newer books and never fail to get into them proper but it’s rare that I can wax lyrical about them as I can with the old stuff.

Joyland is a rare and welcome exception though. The book is short by Stephen King standards and – here in the UK at least – was published under the “Hard Case Crime” banner so it was a little different straight away. In fact, Joyland‘s release had somehow passed me by until I was given it as a Christmas gift back in 2013.

Joyland‘s story is brief but powerful and contains a splash of the supernatural (it IS a Stephen King book, after all) but is largely grounded in reality and tells the story of Devin Jones, a young college student who takes a summer job at a carnival-style amusement park called Joyland. It is at Joyland that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. The central plot strand running through Joyland focuses on a series of unsolved, violent murders – the last one occuring at the park itself – and while Devin’s investigation of these killings is the vehicle that keeps the story moving, Joyland is actually much more.

Joyland is a story about love, being young and foolish and growing up. We’ve all been there at Devin’s age and through his eyes I was able to recall my own similar experiences, flawed perceptions and heartaches. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but, as we eventually learn in real life, happy endings aren’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road. If I had to pick just one theme from Joyland that I especially enjoyed, then I would have to go with the the theme of growth. The book is short by Stephen King standards but, even so, the reader gets to share Devin’s journey as circumstances force him to mature from a lost university student – only out for some summer work – into a young adult.

That was my afternoon for provoking tears. First Eddie, now Annie. Mike was dry-eyed, though, and he looked every but as furious as I felt. But he said nothing as she grabbed the handles of his wheelchair, spun it around, and drove it at the door. I thought she was going to crash into them, but the magic eye got them open just in time.
Let them go, I thought, but I was tired of letting women go. I was tired of just letting things happen to me and then feeling bad about them.
A nurse approached me. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” I said, and followed them out.

As I’ve said, the book is short yet King nevertheless manages to squeeze a lot of emotion, rich detail and believable character development into such a limited space. Joyland packs a real punch without being a novel of three to four times the size and it hooked me quicker and harder than many of his bigger, more sprawling books. Most of all though, the story and characters are incredibly endearing and it was the kind of book that I genuinely didn’t want to finish because I simply couldn’t get enough of the world that Stephen King had created within the pages of Joyland.

Overall I would recommend Joyland to any Stephen King fan without hesitation but even if you aren’t familiar with his work then I would be just as firm with my recommendation, because this is a great story with highly relatable characters that anybody can enjoy. What I’m saying is don’t be put off by King’s name being on the cover if you aren’t a fan of horror. Joyland has all the quality writing and authentic characterisation that are associated with the writer but it IS different.

The ‘Illustrated Edition’ is a special treat, too. This hardcover edition sports its own unique, gloriously pulpy cover art and contains more than twenty illustrations of varying (but always old-school) styles from Pat Kinsella, Robert McGinnes and Mark Summers. These – along with the purposely-manufactured crude deckle edge finish to the book – really make you feel as if you are holding a classic pulp mystery in your hands.

DSC_0120

Joyland is – without a doubt in my mind – one of the very best Stephen King books of the last decade. If you’ve missed this, then you need to give it a go ASAP.

Book Review: Cell (Stephen King, 2006)

cell-1Year: 2006
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (UK)
Format: Paperback (reviewed)
Pages: 350
ISBN: 9780340921531

[note: this is a slightly tweaked version of a review previously published on my other blog, in 2018]

On October 1, God is in His heaven, the stock market stands at 10,140, most of the planes are on time, and graphic artist Clayton Riddell is visiting Boston, having just landed a deal that might finally enable him to make art instead of teaching it. But all those good feelings about the future change in a hurry thanks to a devastating phenomenon that will come to be known as The Pulse. The delivery method is a cell phone – everyone’s cell phone. Now Clay and the the few desperate survivors who join him suddenly find themselves in the pitch-black night of civilisation’s darkest age, surrounded by chaos, carnage and a relentless human horde that has been reduced to its basest nature…and then begins to evolve. There’s really no escaping this nightmare. But for Clay, an arrow points the way home to his family in Maine, and as he and his fellow refugees make their harrowing journey north, they begin to see the crude signs confirming their direction. A promise of a safe haven, perhaps, or quite possibly the deadliest trap of all…

Stephen King’s Cell is – in my opinion – the sort of book that becomes a bit more relevant with each passing year. The story’s broken civilisation setting is nothing new and the ‘journey’ format, starring a group of survivors heading out into a new world full of danger, has been done before by the same writer (see The Stand for one example) but the fact that mobile phones are the cause of doom and destruction? Well, that part seems more and more plausible with each passing year.

We do after all, live in a world where so many rely on their phone for so much. People are glued to them on buses, trains and even in social gatherings where they are supposed to be communicating with real people (remember those?). Drivers would rather risk crashing, whilst crawling in traffic, than missing a vital Facebook update and there is of course, an app for everything.

So Cell’s premise of a brain-scrambling virus distributed globally via mobile networks, and wiping any trace of civilisation from their owner’s minds, doesn’t seem so far-fetched as a form of cyber terrorism that could metaphorically nuke most of the world’s population in one fell swoop. The book doesn’t focus on who was responsible for this attack or where they orchestrated it from because that isn’t the point. Instead, Cell takes the reader on a journey with a group of survivors who are thrown together in the wake of this catastrophe because they were either fortunate enough to not have their phone with them or because they didn’t own one in the first place.

There is the typical rich, satisfying detail that you’d expect to find in a Stephen King book, especially with regards to the primal, unfeeling violence that those affected by the cellular virus (known as ‘The Pulse’) inflict on others in the immediate aftermath. It feels real and a fair prediction of what might actually happen should such an event hit a technology-reliant Western society. As with any Stephen King book, no punches are pulled when it comes to the description of the violence and gore and this only helps make the survivors’ situation feel even more vivid.

Once the initial impact of The Pulse has brought civilisation to its knees, Cell then focuses on the main characters and how their mental state responds to suddenly being thrust into a world drowning in nonsensical madness, where only the fittest will survive. The main character is an everyman up-and-coming artist named Clayton Riddell who just wants to get home and find his young son, hoping that he hasn’t switched his phone on and that he still lives. He joins up with other survivors – who have their own harrowing stories – and they set out to escape Boston, make sense of the situation and find safety.

I really enjoyed Cell the first time I read it and re-reading it today, in 2018, it was just as good. The characters are very likeable and relatable as ordinary, everyday people. The mental journey and development that they go through also feels believable and you – the reader – do feel as if you are on this journey with them (albeit in the safer confines of the real world!) and the book becomes an addictive page-turner like most of Stephen King’s output. I also really enjoyed the detail, the descriptions of the violence and the state of the ruined world.

It’s a testament to King’s writing, and the way that he crafts endearing characters, that Cell also managed to sucker-punch me, striking me right in the feels when one of the group is suddenly killed without warning. It came out of nowhere and genuinely made me angry towards the killer! I can’t say that I experience that sort of emotive response to a book very often.

If I have any criticisms of Cell then they would be the inconclusive ending (which kind of leaves the reader to decide on what ultimately happens) and the fact that some new allies are introduced during the latter stages of the book yet there isn’t really the time to explore their characters and get to like them as anything other than a late-game support cast. I found that I was only there to see what happened to Clay and his original companions, not the new additions to the group.

Overall though, Cell is a great book and one of the better ones in Stephen King’s ‘modern’ lineup. I do tend to prefer the older, horror/supernatural-orientated books but Cell still manages to feel a little like those past glories while also having the other foot planted in a more current era.

Comic Book Review – Savage Red Sonja: Queen of the Frozen Wastes (Dynamite, 2007)

DSC_0125Year: 2006
Format: Trade Paperback (collects issues #1-4 of Savage Red Sonja: Queen of the Frozen Wastes)
Artist(s): Homs (interiors), Frank Cho (Covers), Will Murai (Colours)
Writer(s): Frank Cho, Doug Murray
ISBN: 9781933305387

Savage Red Sonja: Queen of the Frozen Wastes delivers an action-packed story and incredible art as Red Sonja, the She-Devil with a Sword battles the beautiful and deadly Ice Queen and her army of Yeti warriors! Under the Frozen Wastes, Sonja will work to lead and army, and restore the broken spirit of the Ice Queen’s human slaves.

Queen of the Frozen Wastes is my first foray into the world of Red Sonja. I have no doubt that there are much better stories starring the She-Devil with a Sword for me to discover but there were a few reasons that I opted for this particular TPB. Chiefly, it was the Frank Cho covers that drew me in. Cho is one my all-time favourite artists when it comes to depictions of powerful yet immensely sexy and voluptuous women, and his style is a perfect fit for an amazonian warrior woman like Sonja who is incredible to behold (with her ever-impractical chainmail bikini) and totally badass.

Secondly, it’s because I’m a cheapskate! I found this book used on ebay for £8 delivered. You can pay two, three or even four times that for a variant cover of a single, newer Red Sonja issue so being able to pick up a TPB, collecting this four-issue series and all of the variant covers, for less than a tenner seemed like a deal to me.

Unfortunately, Cho is only the cover artist for this series but bitching about that too much would be doing a massive disservice to the interior artist, Homs. I’ve not come across Jose Homs’ work before but I really enjoyed it here in Savage Red Sonja. He has a great understanding of anatomy and I didn’t see a single awkward or unrealistic pose. I especially liked some of his slightly more dynamic panels where there are overhead view of standing characters with perfect foreshortening.

The battle scenes are full of energy and movement and there is no shortage of bloody violence and death as Homs ensures that Sonja lives up to the ‘Savage’ part of this series’ name.

The plot sees Sonja out in the titular Frozen Wastes, leading a band of warriors against raiders. These are no ordinary raiders however, and Sonja winds up being captured and taken to a subterranean world of cannibalistic Yeti-men where imprisoned warriors are used as slaves and even food. Ruling over this twisted realm is a creepy queen with the ability to heal wounds in an instant; an ability shared by her warriors who have some sort of link to the Queen. Essentially, their injuries are mirrored on her own body and and both the Queen and her injured men can instantly recover from stab or slash wounds.

This seemingly immortal queen, as the only female, has been the sole source of reproduction for her people over the ages but she desires more children – stronger children – to ensure the survival of her tribe. What she seeks is some sort of freaky lesbian sexy time with Sonja to achieve this. I don’t quite know how the biology of all this is supposed to go down but Sonja is having none of it, despite being overpowered and even put on a leash as the Queen’s (sex) pet.

RS-17

Sonja manages to escape, reinvigorate the enslaved men, and start killing shit as she refuses to bend the knee and accept her imprisonment in this sinister underground world. Heads roll and the blood flows as the She-Devil with a Sword hacks her way through yeti men, hulking berserkers and massive beasts.

If I have one critcism of Queen of the Frozen Wastes, it’s that the ending is quite abrupt and a slightly unsatisfying conclusion to the enjoyable action that comes before it. It could have done with a couple more pages perhaps. Obviously, as a four issue series, it’s also quite short with a good chunk of this TPB taken up with all of the alternate covers and some sketchbook pages from Cho and Homs at the back.

That said, for what it is, Savage Red Sonja: Queen of the Frozen Wastes is an enjoyable, untaxing read that you can really kick back with. The plot is average but the visuals, the defiant character of Sonja and those glorious Cho covers make this a miniseries worth picking up.

I do have to give a shout-out to the first few pages though, where Sonja is in the wastes and saying that she hates the cold, yet is out in a blizzard in her bikini with a token fur hood/cloak as her only defence from the elements!