Book Review: The Colorado Kid (Stephen King, 2005)

DSC_0438Year: 2005 (2019 Illustrated Edition reviewed)
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hard Case Crime/Titan Books
Format: Paperback
Pages: 208
ISBN: 978-1-78909-155-7

On an island off the coast of Maine, a man is found dead. There’s no identification on the body. Only the dogged work of a pair of local newspapermen and a graduate student in forensics turns up any clues, and it’s more than a year before the man is identified.

And that’s just the beginning of the mystery. Because the more they learn about the man and the baffling circumstances of his death, the less they understand. Was it an impossible crime? Or something stranger still…?

I missed The Colorado Kid the first time around and according to the introduction by Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai, it’s no wonder. The book was apparently out of print for a decade or more prior to this fresh 2019 Illustrated Edition. Out of interest, I took a look on ebay for one of the original editions and for a used paperback, they’re pretty expensive. And listed as “RARE”…of course.

Anyway, this is going to have to be a short review because The Colorado Kid is one of those stories that is difficult to talk about without spoiling but I will do my best. It’s a mystery story centred on the strange, unexplained death of a man in 1980. His body is found slumped against a bin on Hammock Beach, on the small island of Moose-Lookit, just off the Maine coast. There are no witnesses and nobody knows who he is. A probable cause of death IS established but beyond that, a lot of unanswered questions remained. Who was he? Why did he come to Moose-Lookit?

Fast-forward to the present day and twenty-two year-old Stephanie McCann is working a newspaper internship at The Weekly Islander, Moose-Lookit’s tiny paper company. The company is ran by just two men: Vince Teague, 90, and Dave Bowie, 65. As well as running the island’s sole newspaper, the men were also involved in investigating the msyterious death of the “Colorado Kid” back in ’80. You see, once a likely cause of death had been estblished, the authorities weren’t very interested in digging any deeper so Vince and Dave took it upon themselves to try and solve the confounding mystery.

This story is recounted to Stephanie by Vince and Dave and that’s essentially what The Colorado Kid is – these three main characters sitting in The Weekly Islander’s office and talking. If that sounds dull then just remember which author’s name is emblazoned on the book’s cover. Despite the fact that there is no action, danger or shift of location, I still found myself enjoying the company of Vince, Dave and Steffie. It’s one of those books that immediately feels warming and homely and I think it’s impossible not to feel like you’re sitting in with friends as Vince and Dave share the puzzling story with their young intern.

The mystery itself is also fascinating and the book was a real page-turner that I couldn’t help but tear through, partly due to that aforementioned cosiness and partly because of the twists and turns in the Vince and Dave’s story that kept me guessing right until the end. The Colorado Kid is just so easy to read but, despite its rapid pace, there is still ample depth and characterisation – enough for you to build up a picture of small-town life on an island community, even when the story has one foot in the past and one in the present. That’s just classic King and – as has been proved over and over – a shorter story isn’t immune to his vivid world-building.

The only downside is the book’s ending because after devouring a mystery story, the reader naturally expects a satisfying conclusion. You might not get that here and from what I have read, The Colorado Kid does have a reputation for being a bit of a marmite book. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it but you won’t reach that decision until the very last page.

Personally, I didn’t love the book’s conclusion but I also didn’t hate it. It was just something different that didn’t play by the established rules of how a story “should” wrap up in the traditional sense. It was well worth a read though, purely for the likable characters and the way in which the story was told. There was also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Stephen King’s other Hard Case Crime book, Joyland, which got a smile out of me.

It’s also worth looking at the new cover versus the original because they are both deliciously pulpy but also quite different:

Colorado Kid Covers

Both are painted throw-backs to the classic pulp covers of old, featuring gorgeous dames in a state of unashamed sexiness. I actually prefer the new version on the left however since the cover is actually relevant to the story. The original (right) is brilliant but has nothing to do with the plot. Nor does the quote of “Would she learn the dead man’s secret?” on the cover…not strictly anyway. It implies that Stephanie herself is investigating the death.

But I won’t get too pedantic over cover art because I really appreciate both. I love old-fashioned pulp-style art so these sorts of ‘tribute’ cover paintings are right up my street.

The new 2019 Illustrated Edition on the left has an additional small edge in the form of the interior illustrations which – again – are very evocative of the hand-drawn, sometimes rough style that books like these used to have in the 50’s.

In closing, The Colorado Kid might not be for everybody solely because of the way it concludes but that shouldn’t take away from how enthralling the journey to that conclusion is. This really is one of those books that you could lose track of time with and finish in one sitting. Plus, now that it has been reprinted and is easy (and much cheaper!) to acquire, there really is no excuse not to give it a shot.

Book Talk: The Deckle Edge

This is going to be one of those “the more you know” posts.

Also, potentially a post where I come across as a bit sheltered, particularly given that I profess to love reading and books. Forgive me.

DSC_0429Earlier this year, I discovered that there was a sweet, hardback special illustrated edition of Stephen King’s Joyland. I’d read my paperback copy multiple times (and reviewed it here on my other blog before I started reviewing my reads on Unfiltered Opinion) and it had become of my firm favourites. So an upgrade to a better version made sense. I really dug the pulpy, sexy cover of the illustrated edition plus it was a hardback (which is ALWAYS a reason to upgrade a book). Most importantly, I knew that I would read it again at some point so it wasn’t going to be one of those unnecessary impulse purchases that I’m doing my best to avoid these days.

But when the book arrived, I was pissed off. What was going on with the pages? What kind of awful factory defect was THIS shit?

DSC_0430

Now, you may well be sitting there – reading this – and nodding your head, having already spotted my embarassing error. Yes, this kind of finish is intentional.

I’d bought the book from ebay and considering that it was brand-new and only cost me approximately £12 posted to my door, I decided that I would just accept it as it was, warts and all. But, when I happened to be looking through my ebay purchase history one day, I came upon this book and the phrase “Deckle Edge” in the description (which I’d clearly either missed or ignored).

A quick bit of Googling later and I found the story behind my book’s ‘defect’.

Apparently, some books are still intentionally produced with this Deckle edge to give them a rough, old-fashioned look. Considering that Joyland is published under the Hard Case Crime banner, it made perfect sense for the book to imitate the old-school pulp classics in its physical appearance as well as its content.

The Wikipedia entry for Deckle Edging was quite informative by the way:

Before the 19th century, the deckle edge was unavoidable, a natural artifact of the papermaking process in which sheets of paper were made individually on a deckle. The deckle could not make a perfect seal against the screen at the edges and the paper slurry would seep under, creating a rough edge to the paper. The deckle edge could be trimmed off, but this extra step would add to the cost of the book. Beginning in the early 1800s with the invention of the Fourdrinier machine, paper was produced in long rolls and the deckle edge became mostly obsolete; although there was some deckle on the ends of the rolls, it was cut off, and the individual sheets cut out from the roll would have no deckle in any case.

With the appearance of smooth edges in the 19th century, the deckle edge slowly emerged as a status symbol. Many 19th-century presses advertised two versions of the same book: one with edges trimmed smooth and a higher-priced deckle version, which suggested the book was made with higher-quality paper, or with more refined methods. This tradition carried forward into the 20th and 21st centuries. As of 2016 modern deckle is produced by a purpose-built machine to give the appearance of a true deckle edge by cutting a smooth edge into patterns. Many modern readers are unfamiliar with the deckle edge and may see it as a defect; for example, Amazon.com has left notes to buyers that the deckle is not a flaw in the product.

The thing I find fascinating about this is that it used to cost the consumer more to purchase a neat book that had had its Deckle edge removed. Nowadays, the reverse is true and a bookworm should expect to pay a premium for an unrefined finish!

Personally, the idea of intentionally seeking a fake version of a crude finish in order to hold a status symbol in your hands is a load of bollocks. Secondly, I’m just not a fan of the Deckle effect. It looks cheap and feels annoying. If I’d purchased a very old book with a Deckle edge then that would be absolutely fine because a) it is authentic and b) it is unavoidable and understandable given said book’s vintage. But purposely reproducing this effect? Nah. It reminds me of people who make their car appear rusty and corroded, falsifying the weathering and patina. Each to their own but that sort of thing isn’t for me. It’s just fake.

The more you know.

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.

ORT-1
[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.

DSC_0338
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.