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.

Book Talk: The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King, 1987)

DSC_0180I’ve ran out of new books at the moment and so every printed word I have been ingesting of late has tasted very familiar. In normal, non-smartass speak, I have been revisiting some of the stuff in my collection and the latest is Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon.  This is one of my favourite Stephen King books of all-time and I may be in the minority when I say that as the book has always felt like a second tier King book to me; one of his lesser known or celebrated works. It’s understandable. After all, Eyes doesn’t have the iconic rep of the likes of Carrie, Cujo or The Shining and it isn’t a big fat epic in the vein of The Stand, IT or 11.22.63.

It’s also a fantasy story and one of very few that King has ever written, certainly the only one that goes for a medievil, sword-and-sorcery-inspired fantasy setting. It certainly stands out from his typical horror and sci-fi styled works.

The Eyes of the Dragon doesn’t have the same rich depth and exhaustive world detailing that the likes of The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire possess but nonetheless, this is still classic King and the book’s world comes alive in your mind’s eye with little effort as a result. It’s no classic of the fantasy genre but this is missing the point because Eyes is all about one thing as far as I am concerned.

Randall Flagg.

King’s infamous villain is central to this book’s plot and – outside of The Stand and The Dark Tower – is his most major role which makes The Eyes of the Dragon‘s “lesser” status in Stephen King’s back catalogue even more of a shame. Here, Flagg is a sorcerer and advisor to the King of Delain, plotting chaos, anarchy and destruction through intelligent manipulation and deception. He poisons the King and successfully convinces everybody that his son, Peter, is the culprit. Flagg is afraid of Peter’s good-hearted nature, strong will and keen perception – traits that would make it impossible for Flagg to maintain his toxic influence over the throne and to put his plans for Delain into action. With Peter safely imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit, his younger brother Thomas inherits the throne. Thomas is a bitter boy with far less wits about him who relies on Flagg completely to make decisions and be a King. Thus it is Flagg who rules Delain through Thomas, finally having his opportunity to begin unleashing darkness on the people.

Flagg is a very popular villain in the Stephen King “universe” and that’s because he is just so well-written and a joy to read despite his utterly evil intentions.

“Do you think it strange that Flagg would know something about Thomas that Thomas didn’t know about himself? It really isn’t strange at all. People’s minds, particularly the minds of children, are like wells – deep wells full of sweet water. And sometimes, when a particular thought is too unpleasant to bear, the person who has that thought will lock it into a heavy box and throw it into that well. He listens for the splash…and then the box is gone. Except it is not, of course. Not really. Flagg, being very old and wise, as well as very wicked, knew that even the deepest well has a bottom, and just because a thing is out of sight doesn’t mean it is gone. It is still there, resting at the bottom. And he knew that the caskets those evil, frightening ideas are buried in may rot and the nastiness inside may leak out after awhile and poison the water…and when the well of the mind is poisoned, we call the result insanity”

“Thomas said nothing, but Flagg had been well pleased. He saw that Tommy was thinking about it, all right, and he judged that another of those poisoned caskets was tumbling down into the well of Thomas’ mind – ker-splash! And that was indeed so”

Flagg should be an utterly one-dimensional villain. He is, after all, pure evil without a shred of goodness within, flying in the face of the concept of balance which says that nobody can ever be one-hundred percent good or evil. Flagg is disease and plague personified; a malevolent demon in human form who lives to destroy, ignite apocalyptic anarchy and incite mass bloodshed – all for his own entertainment. As rotten as Flagg is however, King writes him in such a playful manner that you can’t help but like him. Reading this book again makes me sad for this style of Stephen King story which we rarely receive anymore outside of short story collections. True, Flagg made a brief appearance in the recent Gwendy’s Button Box (as the enigmatic Richard Farris) but I’d love to see this incarnation of Flagg again, the age-defying evil wizard who lives for mischief and the promotion of woe.

Dark Tower fans should also read The Eyes of the Dragon as I believe there is a reference to Delain and some of the characters there (linked to the ending of Eyes which I won’t spoil here). Those are some of the extremely few Stephen King books that I have yet to get around to unfortunately, aside from the first installment which I read many years ago.

DSC_0181

Lastly, there are also some lovely medievil-style illustrations by David Palladini in this first edition hardback copy I have. I can’t confirm whether or not these have survived for subsequent paperback imprints but I would hope so.

In conclusion, I have really enjoyed revisiting The Eyes of the Dragon. In truth, I did wonder whether or not I had recalled it with rose-tinted specs and was apprehensive about reading it again in case I didn’t rate is as highly second time around. Happily, I had the opposite reaction and enjoyed it even more. There are some real gems in Stephen King’s 1980’s and 90’s back catalogue that often get overshadowed by the more well-known books and this is certainly one of them. Give it a try.

Book Talk: Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King/Richard Chizmar, 2017)

SKGW-1This is a book that I’m honestly struggling to write anything about, possibly because I reached the end and thought “Is that it?”. Yes, it was one of those sorts of books with an anti-climactic conclusion and no clear answer as to what the whole point was. It’s also very short and can easily be finished in a single sitting thanks to the brief chapters and ‘easy reading’ style . Gwendy’s Button Box is a straight-to-the-point novella that doesn’t labour on exhaustive detail or in-depth character exploration.

So far you will certainly be forgiven for getting the impression that I didn’t like this book but that’s not entirely fair. Gwendy’s Button Box was enjoyable and had the familiar, welcoming King ‘feel’ that I – as somebody who has read almost everything by the author – immediately appreciated. It just felt bare-bones and more like a short story from one of his many compilations rather than something that warranted a standalone book. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that many short stories by Stephen King are arguably more rewarding to read than Gwendy’s Button Box.

But let me try to explain.

Gwendy Peterson is an average, unremarkable twelve year-old girl. She wears glasses and is teased at school for her chubbiness so she spends the summer of 1974 running up Castle Rock’s “Suicide Stairs”, a set of rusted, zig-zagging steps that lead up the cliffside to Castle View park, in order to lose some pounds in readiness for life at middle school. One day she meets the mysterious Richard Farris, a suited man with an eerie MIB vibe who gives her a “button box”. Against all instincts, she accepts the box. This box dispenses small chocolates which suppress her appetite and help her lose weight whilst also seemingly improving life around her in general. It also dispenses mint, uncirculated silver dollars.

The box also has different coloured buttons on the top. Farris informs Gwendy that these buttons have immense power and represent the different continents of the world. Pushing them, it is implied, could destroy entire continents in an instant. The red button however is different.

“Whatever you want and you will want it, the owner of the box always does. It’s normal. Wanting to know things and do things is what the human race is all about. Exploration, Gwendy! Both the disease and the cure!”

Then there is the black button, described by Farris as “Everything”. We assume that this final button is a way to annihilate all of existence. Eagle-eyed or long-time readers of King’s books will recognise the “R.F.” initials of Farris’ name and link him to Randall Flagg, a recurring, name-changing entity of evil from the Stephen King “universe” so it’s obvious that the box is probably bad news in some capacity.

From there on, the book follows Gwendy through her teenage years and into her early twenties. Eating the chocolates appears to improve her life no end. She loses weight and blossoms into a beauty, gains popularity at school, earns high grades and experiences all manner of success. her life turns out to be perfect. Well, mostly.

Gwendy becomes extremely protective and obsessive with the box and keeping it secreted from her parents, ditto for the growing mound of extremely valuable Morgan silver dollars which would doubtlessly raise questions given their rarity and market price. Gwendy also becomes acutely aware of the massive responsibility that owning a box with such power brings. The responsibility to ensure that nobody else finds it, presses a button and wipes out an entire segment of the earth for example. Gwendy also becomes a stranger to her old friends once newfound popularity gives her new ones, gaining a sense of selfish entitlement along the way that sees her forgetting where she came from before the box’s magical gifts.

It’s a great premise for a story but it doesn’t ever become much more than that. The book speeds through the years, only stopping to linger on important, noteworthy events. It almost feels like a full-fat novel with everything bar the main plot points cut out and thrown away. Gwendy is a likeable character but nobody else in her life gets any real development and exist purely as unexplored support acts. The book also finishes on a flat note with a conclusion that is unexpected but only because it is so tame and lacking in an anticipated plot twist or explanation.

Farris, it seems, lives to give the box to random people and see what they do with the power. He tells Gwendy that the bad things that happened while it was in her possession weren’t really her fault and that many, many bad things have actually been averted by somebody else (with less morals and self-control) not having it in their grasp. But that’s it. There’s a distinct lack of overall payoff and the book feels as if it is a basic outline ripe for expansion or even a mere preview of something bigger. It’s almost like watching a strip-tease video and having the video cut out before the underwear is discarded.

What there is here is good – make no mistake about it – but if you have consumed all of Stephen King’s previous works then you may well find yourself frustrated and disappointed that Gwendy’s Button Box couldn’t have been more fleshed-out and gripping. Certainly, you couldn’t be blamed for deciding that it should have been part of the next short story compilation. This book left me wanting once I’d finished it and I’m still not really sure what to think about it. If you’re a King fan then I’d still recommend it but I’d also have to recommend restrained expectations.