The Big Goosebumps Re-read #2: Say Cheese and Die! (R.L.Stine, 1992)

cheese-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

I’ve always considered Say Cheese and Die! to be one of the more iconic Goosebumps books. It has a cool name and a pretty original premise for starters. Also, I’m guessing that Stine liked this one as well because this is one of only a handful of Goosebumps books to receive a sequel (though we would have to wait some time for it).

The Blurb

Greg and his friends think it’s pretty cool when they find an old camera in a derelict house, and it works. But the camera takes weird photos – like the one of Greg’s dad’s new car – totally wrecked? Then his dad is in a bad car accident – what’s going on?

And when Greg takes a picture of his friend Shari, she’s not in the photo when it develops – then Shari disappears altogether. Now Greg knows for sure that the camera is creepy – more than that, it’s evil.

Greg and his friends – Shari, Michael and Bird – are bored. Obviously, when kids are bored, the solution is to break into an abandoned house in the neighbourhood. A derelict house that just happens to sit in the darkness of enormous oak trees and have a reputation for ghastly goings-on. Of course. No wonder youth crime is often linked to being at a loose end. Perhaps kids were actually inspired by Say Cheese and Die! back in the day?

Anyway, Greg finds the polaroid camera hidden in a secret compartment and decides to take it which turns out to be a very bad idea in the long run. The first sign of the camera’s powers comes when Greg takes a picture of Michael and the polaroid develops to show Michael plunging through crumbling staircase railings…an accident which occurs moments later. The reader immediately knows the score but nobody else believes Greg’s suspicions, even when the camera continues to predict nasty accidents. Shari shows up as invisible then disappears inexplicably. Bird is pictured having a horrible baseball accident and this too comes to pass.

One thing that struck me was how stupid the characters are in this book. Naturally, it would be a stretch to believe that a camera could prophesise and even cause sinister things to happen but even so, the evidence is there for everybody to see. Yet, even after woe befalls Michael, Bird and Greg’s father, Shari demands that Greg bring the camera to her birthday party because the weird photos it prints are fun. Greg initially refuses but Shari hounds him relentlessly until her friend caves and agrees to bring it, despite knowing that something bad is bound to happen…

With a loud sigh, he pulled the camera from its hiding place in his headboard. “It’s Shari’s birthday, after all” he said aloud to himself.

I can’t speak for anybody else but if I had a magical, evil camera that I had solid reason to believe could cause accidents, I certainly wouldn’t relent and agree to take it to a party for such a silly reason! We’ll let Greg off here because he IS a kid but that habit of giving in to the demands of bossy girls is going to land him in trouble one day.

That said, bad decisions and naivete are a staple of the Goosebumps books as we will continue to see going forward with this review series. That along with misleading chapter cliffhanger “scares” and the dismissal of kids’ fears by the adults are what get the likes of Say Cheese and Die! past the hundred-page count in the first place.

The big question in this book of course is that of the camera’s origins. It turns out that an evil scientist who enjoyed dabbling in black magic placed a curse on the camera when his partner tried to steal it from him. Somehow, this imbued the camera with the power to steal the souls’ of those it captures on film. It’s all a bit vague and convenient really. Furthermore, you have to wonder how nobody’s souls were actually eaten in all of this. The only person who disappeared completely was Shari but Greg (accidentally) manages to restore her by tearing up her photo. Overall, not a lot is explained but to expect much more from a children’s horror book would be ambitious anyway. Say Cheese and Die! is a fun story with an idea that could be expanded on for – say – a more grown-up horror movie. Perhaps it has and I’ve missed it?

Anyway, bonus stuff:

The Cover

This time, we have the camera itself and various photos of the accidents from the story sinking into the orange Goosebumps sludge. The camera looks fantastic and creepy as fuck with a grinning face incorporated into the design. One thing I want to point out is the bottom-right photograph of a skeleton woman – a random photograph that doesn’t actually relate to anything in the book.

The incredibly dated bit

Honestly, nothing stood out to me as “dated” in Say Cheese and Die! so Stine inadvertedly succeeded in future-proofing this one. That said, the car that Greg’s dad proudly brings home is a brand-new Ford Taurus. Ford axed the Taurus earlier this year so perhaps the book will feel a little bit more dated in a few years time…

The nostalgia rating

Pretty high. As I said at the start of this review, I’ve always felt that this is one of the more iconic Goosebumps books and it reads pretty well, even as an adult.

Up Next: Stay Out of the Basement

The Big Goosebumps Re-read #1: Welcome to Dead House (R.L.Stine, 1992)

deadhouse-1In a previous post entitled “My Reading Journey“, I mentioned my complete set of the original Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine. Well, when taking them all out for a quick photograph for that post, I decided it might be fun to re-visit them all with adult eyes. There’s only 62 to get through…

Here we are at the start of our big re-read of the Goosebumps series with the first book, Welcome to Dead House. This is where it all began and I was forced to feel both shocked and old when seeing the 1992 publication date on the copyright page. Holy shit; where has that time evaporated to? Anyway, this book established the formula that Stine would use for the rest of the series – a format that would grow pretty predictable before long but hey, these are meant to be books for kids, not grown adults like me.

The Blurb

Amanda and Josh aren’t too sure about the old house they’ve just moved into. It’s spooky, and probably haunted, and their new neighbourhood, Dark Falls, is pretty creepy too.

Their parents don’t understand them – You’ll get used to it, they say. Go out, make some new friends.

But the kids Amanda and Josh meet are twice as weird as the house. Not exactly what their parents had in mind. They’re friendly, all right, maybe a little too friendly. In fact, they want to be friends…forever.

It’s a straightforward book and you can see what is happening from a mile off. The family dog, Petey, is NOT happy about this new house that the family mysteriously inherit for free from the previously-unknown Great Uncle Charles. And you know what dogs can apparently sniff out, don’t you? Then there’s the town itself, the ominously-named Dark Falls where the streets are desolate, the sky a perma-grey tone and trees cast huge shadows over every lawn.

I would say, “Spoiler Alert!” but this is a twenty-seven year-old children’s book. The entire town is dead and the weird kids that Amanda and Josh meet are some sort of walking undead. Near the end of the book, it is revealed that most of the adults in town used to work at an outlying plastics factory when a terrible accident occured that transformed Dark Falls into an undead town. This explanation is so vague and daft that it deserves quoting here.

“Then there was an accident. Something escaped from the factory. A yellow gas. It floated over the town. So fast we didn’t see it…didn’t realise. And then, it was too late, and Dark Falls wasn’t a normal town anymore. We were all dead, Amanda”

Every so often, the undead population of Dark Falls need “new blood” (because requirements) and so families are lured to the “Dead House” before being forced to join the residents in their undead gloom. There’s no explanation as to why the “new blood” is needed or how the victims being brought to Dark Falls sustain the existing inhabitants. But this is Goosebumps so you don’t question stuff like that. Just like you don’t question why the only undead residents seem to be children with the exception of property agent, Compton Dawes. Or how Dark Falls exists on the map after a major chemical disaster that would have seen it sealed off in the real world. Or why nobody else passes through.

In typical Goosebumps fashion however, it takes a while to get to all of this. The first third or so of the book consists of chapters ending on false scares. Then there is the staple element of kids being victims of supernatural events while their parents roll their eyes, tell them to stop pranking around and simply don’t believe them.

For a book aimed at pre-adolescent children, there’s some pretty gruesome and semi-graphic stuff too. Obviously, I don’t read kids books these days so I have no idea if the gore flows freely in the ‘Young Horror’  genre but my cynical instincts would have me suspect that violence and bloody visuals might be toned down a bit for this overly-PC generation. Not so in Welcome to Dead House.

Ray’s skin seemed to be melting. His whole face sagged, then fell, dropping off his skull. I stared into the circle of white light, unable to look away, as Ray’s skin folded and drooped and melted away. As the bone underneath was revealed, his eyeballs rolled out of their sockets and fell silently to the ground.

Clearly though, the ten, eleven or twelve year-olds in the world of Goosebumps aren’t scarred for life or destined for a future of therapy after witnessing such fucked-up stuff. Unless it hits later? Maybe R.L. Stine should write gritty adult follow-ups to his books that follow the same characters as adults so that we can see how their lives turned out.

Welcome to Dead House is a simple and predictable ghosts ‘n ghouls horror story for kids. As an adult, you have the the unfortunate ability to see straight through the smoke, mirrors and false scares but this re-read brought with it a different kind of entertainment as I couldn’t help smiling at how dumb some of it was. Now, onto some bonus review-y bits…

The Cover

I absolutely loved the UK covers for the Goosebumps books as a kid and that admiration hasn’t changed as I’ve grown older. For starters, you just don’t get these sorts of hand-drawn covers anymore. Then there is the uniform style of the series with the bubbling slime and objects relevant to the story swirling about in this brightly-coloured sludge. Here we have a realistic grinning skull surrounded by gravestones. It’s eye-catching and simple yet the art is detailed and probably more adult than the story itself.

The incredibly dated bit

I’m going to put my bed against that wall opposite the window, I thought happily. And my desk can go over there. I’ll have room for a computer now!

Amanda’s joy at having space in her bedroom for a (no-doubt) big bulky early 90’s desktop computer with no internet is amusing in 2019. But it’s also nostalgic to go back to a time before tablets, mobile phones and social media. A more innocent, straightforward time some might say…

The nostalgia rating

Obviously high with the aforementioned lack of technology in society and the fact that I’m reading a book that I haven’t touched in around twenty years. Then there is that lovely, musty used book smell permeating the yellowed pages. And a listing in the very back for another line of books also from Hippo: The Babysitters Club. Remember those?

Up Next: Say Cheese and Die!

Book Talk: My Reading Journey

The other day, I found myself reflecting on my reading ‘journey’, how I’ve been reading books my whole life and how my reading tastes have evolved. We are taught to read by our schools and force-fed a certain amount of written words in this way but many kids don’t read outside of their English lessons or are unfortunate (I consider it unfortunate anyway…) to have parents who don’t read or promote literature to their children. These days, it’s easier to distract kids with tablets (the electronic kind of course!), computer games or smartphones. These are all okay in moderation but none can provide the same mental stimulation as the written word and – dare I say it – can result in more braindead children, addicted to screens and with less grasp of that beautiful thing called The English Language.

I class myself as fortunate on two counts. The first is to have had parents who enjoyed books and promoted reading to me from a young age. My father was all about factual books covering the likes of science and astronomy while my mother enjoyed fiction. Their takes on reading might have differed but it did mean that there was always a full bookshelf in our living room. Books were bought for me too and so while I read at school, I was also reading at home and always ahead of most of my classmates when it came to reading ability. When we were given a book to take home and read over the course of a week for instance, I’d have it finished in a single evening. I was taking books out of the library on the weekends too and then the mobile library which used to visit every fortnight. I’d take out five or six books at a time and finish the lot well in advance of their return date.

The second reason I class myself as fortunate is that I was one of the last generations to come up through school with computers and technology only just beginning to go mainstream. They weren’t integrated into everyday life until I was in the latter years of secondary school and sixth form (college). Mobile phones didn’t start to become commonplace amongst kids my age until my early teens either. Why is this a positive thing? It meant that I could enjoy the emergence of technology without it dominating everything. It left room for books and the paper-based word to remain a staple of my education and downtime outside of school.

If you couldn’t tell, I really like books and reading hence why I’ve been enjoying talking about them so much on this blog. Books are fucking brilliant.

So I thought I’d go on a quick trip through my past to look at how reading evolved for me at the various stages of my life up until this point.

Early Years

The primary school I attended used the Oxford Reading Tree series of books to educate pupils on reading. The books began as large, mostly picture-based books featuring a recurring cast of characters and an increasing word count as you progressed through the ‘Stage’ system attached to the books. Stage 1 was entirely pictures for example and the school skipped over them (I didn’t even know they existed until spotting them in one of the store rooms). Stage 10 was the final batch of books in this format featuring Biff, Chip, Kipper, Wilf, Wilma and Floppy the dog.

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[Source]
I skipped Stages 9 and 10 based on reading ability and went on to Stages 11-14 which were thicker books with self-contained stories branded as the ‘Treetops’ series, presumably to indicate that you’d reached the top of the reading tree. It was around this time that I also borrowed lots of ‘Jets‘ books from the classroom bookshelf; more stories with great front covers and often humorous, recurring characters (I wonder if anybody else remembers these?).

Jets-1
[Source]
Outside of school, my main vice when it came to books were R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series of books. It was always exciting to find a new one in the library or add books to my personal collection whenever I had some pocket money or received books for birthday or Christmas. I know a lot of kids would have been pissed at receiving “boring” books instead of videogames, mountain bikes or the latest trainers but I enjoyed it immensely and I can probably thank R.L. Stine and his series for an interest in horror that endures to this day. I can certainly thank the books for nurturing my interest in reading and the springboard to the next level that they would provide.

On a side note, I did eventually complete my collection of the original sixty-two Goosebumps books, all in original, matching covers/first prints. I still have this collection as I had to be an adult in order to track down the missing books and finish the set but it’s a collection that fills me with nostalgia and takes me on a trip to the past whenever I take them out. The collection is a mixture of books purchased when new, books procured from charity shops or second-hand bookshops and a few that I had to use ebay for (mostly the later ones which are harder to pick up).

DSC_0336
What a complete Goosebumps collection looks like.

I also inherited my mother’s collection of Famous Five books at some point and enjoyed these too in my younger years. The more innocent and simplistic lifestyle of the children in Enid Blyton’s adventure stories is difficult to relate to these days (and was when I was a child I suppose) but they were great escapism and I thoroughly enjoyed plowing through the collection. I even went on to check out some other Blyton adventure books that involved different characters.

DSC_0337
Old school reading here…

Teenage Years

Goosebumps was a springboard into more grown-up reading because I became aware of R.L. Stine’s other series’ – the Fear Street books. These are tame books by adult standards but coming off the back of the false scares and childish fears in the pages of Goosebumps, they were a step up for sure. Of course, the trademark false scares and ridiculous plots of Stine’s were still present but now we were dealing with murders and more sinister supernatural menaces. I didn’t actually ever own the Fear Street books – I only borrowed them from libraries. They were sold under the ‘Point Horror‘ banner and I don’t really recall seeing them for sale in shops. Then again, perhaps I wasn’t looking when I was able to take out stacks of them at a time from libraries.

Point Horror also published lots of other horror stories for teenagers and young adults and I read these too. What I absolutely loved about the likes of Goosebumps, Point Horror and most books of this kind were the covers. The covers for these books were fantastic, largely because they were hand-drawn. The art was sometimes a bit shonky but for some reason, it usually added a creepy abstract element to the books rather than detracting from them.

Then there was ‘Point Fantasy‘ which was – as you’d expect – fantasy fiction from various different authors. I didn’t read many of these but of the few I did take out from a library, Elfgift and Foiling the Dragon stand out in my memory as ones I enjoyed.

Obviously, I wasn’t immune to Harry Potter either. My mother borrowed the first three books from one of her work colleagues and that’s how I was introduced to the wizarding world. I enjoyed it immensely and I can say that the Harry Potter books were the first books that I felt genuinely sad to finish, the conclusion of each one leaving me longing for the characters and their world. Suffice to say, I was well and truly hooked after Prisoner of Azkaban and bought each sequel on the day of release thereafter. Unfortunately, I got rid of those monolithic hardbacks a long time ago due to space constraints but I’ll never forget the impact that Harry Potter had on me.

The last notable books that came along before I got into adult fiction were Christopher Pike’s horror stories. These are STILL some of my absolute favourites. The beautiful hand-drawn covers caught my attention in libraries and I made a point of picking up used Pike books whenever I could.

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You don’t get cover art like this on books anymore. The lens crack in Die Softly is an actual hole! I also have a full set of the Last Vampire books packed away elsewhere.

I consider these the bridge between the silly teenage Point Horror/Fear Street style of horror and true adult fiction. Here we have murders and supernatural events but also, darker storylines and mild sexy stuff. These were probably the first books I read that featured sex and it certainly captured my attention as a teenage boy! Yes, I lived a sheltered, nerdy life…

Adult Years

As you have no doubt picked up on, my mother has been responsible for introducing me to a lot of the fiction I have read and it’s something I am grateful for when I know other parents didn’t push reading with their children. So it was only fitting that she gave me my first real “grown up” horror book – a battered paperback of Stephen King’s The Shining. If you have read any of my book reviews here on Unfiltered Opinion then you will already be aware that I am a big Stephen King fan. That used charity shop copy of The Shining was where it all began. I was enthralled and demolished the book, hungry for more.

As it stands, I have read almost all of Stephen King’s books by this point, many of them several times. The only ones I have missed (off the top of my head) are The Running Man, Thinner, The Bachman Books and the Dark Tower series (I know, I know…). I will track these down in due course but I am currently taking a bit of break from Stephen King and getting into thrillers, a genre I have only recently found an appetite for thanks to a few Peter Swanson books I was very impressed with.

James Herbert is another author I really enjoy. His books are pretty dark and disturbing with gruesome horror and gratuitous sex descriptions. The various deaths in The Rats are a good example of the former and the latter? Let’s just say that I’ve never fully forgotten the pages of description in Once where the wicked Nell seduces Katy in an entirely unnecessary lesbian sex scene that added nothing to the story.

I’ve also dabbled with Michael Crichton and Dan Brown as well as various autobiographies of my favourite Formula 1 drivers.

And I can’t not mention Robert E. Howard’s incredible Conan stories. I have “The Complete Chronicles” and it is an addictive blend of sword-and-sorcery, barbarian themes and totally non-PC content that I really admire and enjoy escaping to in this, the era of the easily-offended *shudders*

I’m hoping to continue broadening my literary horizons going forward and to review more books here.

Feel free to comment below if you had a similar literary upbringing to me, remember any of the books/series’ that I’ve talked about or just want to tell me what YOUR reading journey was like. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Book Talk: My Stephen King Top 5

I don’t particularly like doing Top Fives anymore because I genuinely believe that such countdowns are lazy and cheap ways of pumping out content. Sometimes however, you just want a greasy, fatty take-out meal over a proper dining experience. Or perhaps you find your eyes drawn to the woman in the tracksuit rather than the glammed-up lady in the stunning evening dress. Awful analogies aside, I am going to be cheap today and do a Top Five.

If you read my review on Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, you may be aware that am finally branching out into the works of authors other than Stephen King. With this in mind, I decided that I would share my five favourite King books since I have read almost every one by this point. I’m not done with Stephen King at all but it’s time for a break and time to broaden my horizons when it comes to fiction.

There’s no order to this list by the way; these are the five that I enjoyed the most and have read several times as a result.

1. Needful Things (1991)

need-1Needful Things was supposed to the “end” of King’s fictional town of Castle Rock and the book’s conclusion certainly supported that promise. However, the author has recently returned to the ‘Rock with Elevation and Gwendy’s Button Box (the latter set in the past to be fair) so who knows. Regardless, this book follows my favourite Stephen King formula: richly-detailed small town life from the perspectives of multiple characters. The reader gets to know the various characters (plus their deepest secrets) before all paths finally cross for a dramatic finale. Central to the story is the evil Leland Gaunt and his shop, the titular ‘Needful Things’. Gaunt exploits the desires and fears of the townspeople to turn everybody against one another and incite destruction and chaos. The way he masterfully manipulates the residents makes for excellent reading and the dark playfulness of his sinister antics is a joy to witness. For me, Gaunt is up there with Randall Flagg as one of the best villains in a Stephen King book. As for Needful Things as a whole, it represents the ‘old’ style of Stephen King where the pieces (in this case, the people) are carefully and lovingly crafted before a giant fist is slammed against the playing board, upsetting everything as the plot threads converge. It’s a real shame that this style of King storytelling isn’t as frequent anymore but 2017’s Sleeping Beauties (co-written with son, Owen King) was at least very reminiscent of these types of book.

2. Joyland (2013)

joy-1I haven’t reviewed Joyland here on Unfiltered Opinion but I did review it over on my other blog back when I thought it was a good idea to add variety to a videogame-focused blog by talking about books and B-Movies (spoilers: I quickly regretted the idea). You can find the complete review here but I will quote a portion of my own words here to summarise Joyland.

“The story is short but powerful and contains a small splash of the supernatural 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 there that he meets new friends, has new experiences and tries to move on from the first girl to break his heart. There is a central plot strand running through Joyland that focuses on a series of unsolved, heartless murders – the last one occuring at Joyland – that Devin finds himself investigating but this isn’t really the main premise of the book.

Joyland is actually 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, thoughts and heartache. I found that I really cared about the characters in this book – Devin especially – and wanted the best ending for them but as we know from real life, the ideal isn’t always possible and our naive, young selves have to learn these lessons along the road.”

I didn’t know what to expect from a Stephen King book with a pulp-style cover published under the Hard Case Crime label but it turned out to be one of the best ones I have read thus earning it a place on this list. Usually it’s the more monolithic epics that I can’t get enough of but Joyland proved that small can be beautiful when it’s perfectly formed.

3. Christine (1983)

chris-1Being a fan of cars and classic steel in particular, I was always going to be drawn to a book that revolved around a car. The fact that Christine is an evil, sentient killer car was the icing on the cake. The basic plot of a car coming to life and murdering people sounds dumb and comical, almost like something you’d have read in a Goosebumps book as a kid but Christine is so much more than that. While it’s true that the book IS about the car, the bulk of the storytelling revolves around the nerdy, unpopular Arnie Cunningham who buys Christine – a derelict ’58 Plymouth Fury – and gradually falls under the car’s evil spell. Arnie’s personality slowly morphs into that of the car’s previous owner, the unsavoury Roland LeBay, and he transforms from an awkward highschool loser into an angry, bitter and unpleasant young man in a symbiotic relationship with his car. Everybody around Arnie is inevitably drawn into the swirling vortex of evil radiating from Arnie, Christine and their pooled “unending fury”. The book is just so well-written and you can’t help but love the characters – both the good and bad – and there is a nostalgic throwback to teenage life in the 70’s. Christine is one of Stephen King’s oldest works but remains a solid favourite of mine.

[side note: the John Carpenter movie adaptation is well worth checking out. It cuts a lot of the detail from the book (as you’d expect) and changes a few scenes but overall, it is an authentic representation of the characters and the tone of the book]

4. IT

it-1Where do you do begin with this enormous book? IT is probably more well known for its two big-screen adaptations and Tim Curry’s famous performance as the evil clown, Pennywise. The original book however is the best as far as I am concerned. It focuses on a group of friends from the recurring town of Derry and flicks between their childhood years and the present where they, as adults, return to Derry to finish the battle with the evil that they fought once before as children. The genius of IT (as I saw it anyway) was that you got the superlative, almost gratuitous descriptive writing of King, supernatural horror and the perspectives of children and their concept of fear – all in one tale. Viewing the world through the eyes of the characters as children brings back a lot of memories of how we probably saw the world and our fears as minors – hence Pennywise the clown. Some have criticised the book’s finale for losing the plot completely and it’s easy to see why that might be. The evil infecting Derry takes the form of a giant spider in the sewers beneath the town and defeating it the first time involved the children all having sex with the only female member of their gang (really). For me though, IT is one of the best of Stephen King’s sprawling epics, up there with The Stand and Under The Dome. As a bonus, there is a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it implied cameo from Christine.

5. The Eyes of the Dragon (1987)

DSC_0180I reviewed this book here on Unfiltered Opinion not too long ago after reading it for the second time. I recalled being pleasantly surprised with The Eyes of the Dragon the first time around purely because it was further below the radar than most big-hitting Stephen King books and yet I enjoyed it immensely. I expected a cooler response to it the second time around but found myself surprised again. It turned out that I liked it even more despite all of the excellent Stephen King books I had read since my first journey to Delain and the sinister mechanations of the evil sorcerer, Randall Flagg. This is one of the few examples of Stephen King doing fantasy in a classic medievil-style setting but perhaps he should have ventured there more often because Eyes is simply fantastic. Most of the book’s appeal stems from the villainous Flagg and how King writes him. To quote my own review of the book…

“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 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.”

I feel that this is the wildcard of my Top Five; a book that shouldn’t be here ahead of certain other big names from King’s back catalogue but it is impossible for me to deny my adoration for Eyes of the Dragon so here it is.

Honourable Mentions…

Ten other books from Stephen King that came very close to making my Top Five.

  • Salem’s Lot
  • The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition
  • The Dark Half
  • Desperation
  • 11.22.63
  • Under The Dome
  • Mr Mercedes
  • Skeleton Crew
  • Bag of Bones
  • From a Buick 8

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.

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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: Elevation (Stephen King, 2018)

SKE-1The last book I read by Stephen King shares a few similarities with Elevation. Both this and Gwendy’s Button Box were very short books that went against what I’ve come to expect from King (I finished Elevation in two sittings; probably could have done it in one) and both are set in the fictional town of Castle Rock. On the subject of the latter, I was surprised to see King returning to his classic locale after the apocalyptic destruction wrought on the town by a certain Leland Gaunt and his dark machinations. Even the inside of Needful Things‘ (1991) dustcover stated that it was the end for Castle Rock:

“With a demonic blend of malice and affection Stephen King  says farewell to the town he put on the map”

But that was then and this is now. As the opening of Needful Things says, we’ve been here before. There’s no reference to Castle Rock’s destruction in Elevation but there are at least a few tiny nods to previous stories (such as Cujo) that took place here. Retruning to the ‘Rock is like putting on that comfy pair of well worn-in and intimately familiar trainers.

The book centres on Scott Carey and his mysterious condition that sees him constantly losing weight despite remaining unchanged physically and in terms of appearance. The second main plotline is to do with Scott’s new neighbours, married lesbian couple Deirdre and Missy. Scott gets on with Missy but her wife Deirdre is cold and untrusting, harbouring unhappiness towards the locals and their stubborn, old-fashioned reluctance to accept homosexuality.

The book puts a lot of emphasis on people’s willingness or capacity to change. The town is stuck its ways and many of the inhabitants elect to either look down on Deirdre and Missy, make fun of their relationship or simply not make the effort to get to know them based on pre-existing prejudices. On the flipside, when Scott takes an interest in his new neighbours and attempts to build bridges and show that not everybody is so ignorant or unwilling to accept others, Deirdre repeatedly ices up on him and refuses to change herself, preferring to hold onto the idea that Scott is just trying to play the unwanted part of a white knight.

I have to admit that, when I was first getting into this book and meeting the characters, I did worry that Elevation was going to be too much of a social commentary with thinly-veiled messages about how we should all be more accepting. After all, my favourite Stephen King books are his classics from the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s where the plots were more about the supernatural and gory details. These days it seems that these once-central elements are sometimes mere vehicles for the writer to explore relevant, real life themes and issues, disguising these commentaries as stories. Sleeping Beauties was one such recent example that let me down because as much as I enjoyed the book, I didn’t appreciate the concluding message that seemed to blame men for all of the world’s problems. The book as a whole felt like it was inspired by female empowerment and real world events.

I’m sure that my impressions of Sleeping Beauties could have been totally wrong and affected by personal bias (given that I are man) but the fact is, I read books as a form of escapism and don’t ever appreciate it when they preach to me or try to keep my head grounded in reality. So I was wary about Elevation when the story of Scott Carey’s bizarre illness began to share space with Deirdre and Missy.

[side note: I am ultimately aware that it is a writer’s business where he chooses to take his craft and what ideas he chooses to explore, regardless of whether or not everybody agrees. That’s the beauty of art and free speech, baby.]

To be honest though, I needn’t have worried so much. Yes, there is a bit of a message there but this is more Stephen King doing what he has been doing for decades now and profiling traditional, small American towns and the more old-school, unyielding attitudes that still exist there. Obviously I’m not American and so I am unqualified to say whether or not King is accurate in this respect but it feels like he probably is. We have lots and lots of rural village communities here in England for example that hold onto their traditional values and resist social change in the same way so I can kind of relate.

All of this aside though, Elevation is a decent read and despite being another short book, it kept me interested right until the end, wanting to know what happens with Scott and his neighbours as well as his weight loss. I won’t go into spoilers here but I’ll just say that the ending is a bit of a let-down. Continuing the similarities with Gwendy’s Button Box, the finale is a bit of a weak payoff and it didn’t satisfy me, much like the book in general which was more of an appetiser than a complete meal. The writing is still classic King though so you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy it if you are a fan of the author. Like Gwendy’s Button Box, it’s another case of a book being carried by the quality of the writing and the creation of likeable characters.

To conclude, I would recommend Elevation to Stephen King fans but maybe try to get the book cheap, rent it from a library or whatever. The cover price here in the UK is £14.99 which is steep for such a thin book which only spans 132 pages.

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.