Book Talk: do you re-read books?

I once read an opinion somewhere on the internet concerning the act of re-visiting media that you have already experienced. Watching movies that you have already seen, for example. Re-playing a videogame that you’ve previously beaten, to name another. This person stated that doing such a thing is one of the biggest wastes of a human being’s time.

I can see where they were coming from with that. For starters, shocking plot twists and masterfully crafted mystery are the sorts of things that can ONLY be experienced once and once only with the full impact. That’s not to say that re-living these things would be unenjoyable, but the prior knowledge of what’s coming absolutely guarantees that the second time around won’t leave you so breathless.

To tie that into books, I reviewed two fantastic Peter Swanson thrillers here on this blog – The Girl With a Clock for a Heart and The Kind Worth Killing – but as much as I couldn’t get enough of either, I don’t believe I could/would read them again. Those two books in particular were built entirely around mystery, suspense and momentous twists that changed everything. I don’t doubt that I would still enjoy reading either of those books but, until a device is invented that can wipe selective portions of our memory, there is no way that I could be sucker-punched by the same shocks.

Aside from being familiar with entertainment that you have already consumed, you also have to remember just how much there is still to discover – especially when it comes to books. There is certainly an argument for not spending time with stuff you’ve already read when there are thousands upon thousands (maybe even millions) of books out there, waiting for you to try them. Why limit your horizons and stay with what you know?

All of that said, I can’t completely agree with this viewpoint. While I am making it one of my missions to expand my scope and read new things by a wider pool of authors, I also see the value in revisiting an old favourite. It’s about striking a balance, isn’t it?

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A well-read copy of Stephen King’s IT. I could be reading something totally new to me but, right now, I’d much rather invest myself in this.

Last night, for example, I suddenly decided that I fancied reading Stephen King’s IT again. Nothing to do with all the fuss about the recent movies; it was simply one of my absolute favourite Stephen King books and I hadn’t read it for many years. I dug the book out from where it was buried and you know what? I couldn’t wait to start it again. I was genuinely excited and I don’t feel that way about many new books, let alone books that I have already read before. Why deny that feeling?

I got through the first seventy pages last night and enjoyed every one of them. Obviously, I do remember how IT unfolds, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the writing, the world-building and the characters. Even now, as I’m typing this post, I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the next seventy pages and beyond. That feeling is utterly priceless as far as I’m concerned.

Do YOU go back to the books you have already finished? Or are you exclusively interested in brand-new experiences?

Book Review: Night Shift (Stephen King, 1978)

NightShift-1Year: 1978
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder (2012 UK Paperback)
Format: Paperback (Reviewed)
Pages: 488
ISBN: 9781444723199

A collection of tales to invade and paralyse the mind as the safe light of day is infiltrated by the shadows of the night.

As you read, the clutching fingers of terror brush lightly across the nape of the neck, reach round from behind to clutch and lock themselves, white-knuckled, around the throat.

This is the horror of ordinary people and everyday objects that become strangely altered; a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems, where the familiar and the friendly lure and deceive. A world where madness and blind panic become the only reality.

I will always aim to pick up any new Stephen King release as soon as possible but I can’t avoid the fact that I still prefer his older works. Before anybody cries, “rose-tinted glasses!” or accuses me of being stuck in the past, I do have a reason for my preference. Simply put, I feel that King has drifted away from the raw, old-school horror that he used to pump out. Books such as Salem’s Lot, Christine and The Shining for example. His modern novels are still fantastic but they are missing the sinister personality of his back catalogue.

The short story collection, Night Shift, is packed with such examples of the kind of Stephen King writing that I miss. Inanimate objects gaining sentience and killing people just because they can, for instance. Their evil needs no deep, meaningful explanation. It just is. There are also stories that play out like bizarre, horrifying nightmares that defy all sense and sanity. These sorts of stories are so effective because they deal with ordinary people and everyday objects and while you – the reader – know full well that this is all the realm of fantasy, you still can’t help but wonder, “what if…?”

It’s the sort of irrational, child-like fear where imagination runs amok and a person can see an evil, hungry grin rather than a car’s grille. Take The Mangler for instance. This is probably my favourite story from Night Shift. At a laundry, the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder – known to the employees as ‘The mangler’ – has just killed an employee. It should be impossible. After all, there are safety measures built into the machine, and it has passed its safety inspections. What makes this story is the gruesome, utterly unapologetic descriptions of the mangler’s work.

And Mrs Frawley, somehow, had been caught and dragged in. The steel, asbestos-jacketed pressing cylinders had been as red as barn paint, and the rising steam from the machine had carried a sickening stench of hot blood. Bits of her white blouse and blue slacks, even ripped segments of her bra and panties, had been torn free and ejected from the machine’s far end thirty feet down, the bigger sections of cloth folded with grotesque and blood-stained neatness by the automatic folder. But not even that was the worst.
“It tried to fold everything,” he said to Jackson, tasting bile in his throat. “But a person isn’t a sheet, Mark. What I saw…what was left of her…” Like Stanner, the hapless foreman, he could not finish. “They took her out in a basket,” he said softly.

The theme of machinery run amok of its newfound free will continues further into the collection with Trucks. Here, big rigs everywhere are suddenly thinking for themselves and set on murdering as as many people as possible, either by ramming their cars off the roads or running them down. The story focuses on a gas station diner and a small group of people taking shelter there as the trucks circle the building and pounce on anybody brave enough to make a run for it. It’s a silly concept on paper but again, it works so well because there is no sane explanation for what is happening. The only shame is that Trucks was adapted and expanded for the so-bad-it’s-entertaining 1986 movie, Maximum Overdrive, though whether the movie’s ‘explanation’ is actually superior to having none at all is up for debate.

Speaking of big-screen adaptations, there are several other stories in Night Shift that you may recognise from the movies. Quitters Inc. and The Ledge were both part of the 1985 horror anthology, Cat’s Eye, and Children of the Corn is possibly better known for its cinematic version. Then, there is The Lawnmower Man – a short story that is nothing at all like the famous movie which was only very loosely based on King’s story. In fact, it was so unlike the source material that King successfully won a lawsuit to have his name removed from all of The Lawnmower Man‘s publicity material.

I really like Quitters Inc. because it taps into the problem of addiction and that uncomfortable exploration of what it would actually take for a person to give up their vice.

“If the rabbit gets a jolt often enough while he’s eating,” Donatti said, “he makes the association very quickly. Eating causes pain. Therefore, he won’t eat. A few more shocks, and the rabbit will starve to death in front of his food. It’s called aversion training.”

“For the first month of the treatment, our operatives will have you under constant supervision,” Donatti said. “You’ll be able to spot some of them. Not all. But they’ll always be with you. Always. If they see you smoke a cigarette, I get a call.”
“And suppose you  bring me here and do the old rabbit trick,” Morrison said. He tried to sound cold and sarcastic, but he suddenly felt horribly frightened. This was a nightmare.
“Oh, no,” Donatti said. “Your wife gets the rabbit trick, not you.”
Morrison looked at him dumbly.
Donatti smiled. “You,” he said, “get to watch.”

Another of my favourites is The Boogeyman. A father visits a psychologist to tell his unbelievable tale of how all three of his children were killed by a horrendous creature that came out of the closet at night and literally scared them to death. It’s a great little story that taps into the childish fear of monsters hiding under the bed or in closets, and there is an amusing – if unnecessary – twist right at the end.

For the King faithful, there are also two Salem’s Lot tie-ins that will be of interest. The first is told through a series of letters and journal entries dating back to the mid-1800’s, and serves as a prequel of sorts. The second takes place after the events of Salem’s Lot and sees two men from a neighbouring town set out to rescue an out-of-towner’s wife and child from the ‘Lot.

Overall, Night Shift is a really enjoyable Stephen King short story collection. It’s dark, disturbing and classic King. While I did have my favourites, I don’t really consider any of the stories in Night Shift to be weak links (as with some of his other collections). So if you are looking for something that is more Stephen King than the author’s own modern output then you should consider taking a trip back to the past and giving Night Shift a shot.

Book Review: The Institute (Stephen King, 2019)

DSC_0476Year: 2019
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 485
ISBN: 9781529355390

Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts – telepathy, telekinesis – for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He’s just a regular twelve-year-old, except he’s not just smart, he’s super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use…

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He’s basically just walking the beat. But he’s about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute’s downtrodden playground of corridors where posters advertise ‘just another day in paradise’, Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments – even the infamous Mrs. Sigsby – suspect.

It’s fair to say that I was a little cautious going into The Institute because, as much as I love Stephen King’s work, I wasn’t as enthralled by his latest output as I have been by the classics from his back catalogue.  Sleeping Beauties, for instance, was a great read until the anticlimactic finale and implication that men are the cause of most of the world’s problems. Then there was Gwendy’s Button Box and Elevation – two enjoyable page-turners that were just too short and not wholly satisfying as a result.

But Amazon were offering the The Institute at half-price (£10 instead of £20) if the book was pre-ordered so I threw caution to the wind and did just that. I’m glad that I did too because The Institute is a fantastic read and a real return to form that left me with very little to dislike.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that it had the classic King formula of multiple plot strands converging for the endgame. On one hand, there is Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter. Jamieson is hitch-hiking his way to New York, taking on temporary jobs along the way, until fate brings him to the tiny South Carolina town of Dupray. Tim takes on an old-school night knocker job, only intending to stay in town for a while, but finds himself unexpectedly warming to small-town life and the people in Dupray. And they warm to him too. Tim quickly goes up in the estimations of Sheriff Ashworth and also manages to impress the frosty Deputy Wendy Gullickson, earning himself a dinner date with the attractive officer.

But if life is on the up and up for Tim, the same can’t be said for Luke Ellis. Luke is a child genius – a real one-in-a-million find – who is about to be enrolled into two colleges simultaneously…at the age of just twelve. Bright, popular and seemingly destined for greatness, Luke’s life should be about to take off but other people have different ideas. Luke is abducted from his home in the dead of night – and his parents murdered – by a special ops team who deliver him to the titular Institute, a top-secret off-the-books state facility that gathers together gifted children and subjects them to experiments.

It isn’t Luke’s incredible intelligence that the Institute are after however; it’s his latent telekinetic (TK) abilities. The Institute acquires children with TK or TP (telepathy) and uses their collected power to eliminate targets deemed dangerous for the world’s stability; terrorist leaders for example, or prominent figures that are seemingly on-course to start undesirable chains of events. The kids don’t know this to begin with though. What they do know is that they live in eerie replicas of their real bedrooms and have the freedom to roam the corridors of the Institute, use the vending machines and even access the (censored) internet…provided that they have earnt tokens from the Institute’s staff of course. They can even buy cigarettes and alcohol from the vending machines!

But this soft, open-prison style of incarceration comes with a nasty side. Scientists at the Institute subject the kids to all kinds of experiments that initially make little to no sense to Luke and his new group of friends. Failure to co-operate results in beatings, electric shocks from stun guns and even waterboarding. And this all before they have even graduated to the dreaded ‘Back Half’ of the Institute where their TK/TP abilities will be harnessed for the “greater good”.

So you have these two seemingly disconnected plots running parallel to one another before they finally meet up. It works very well in my opinion because I grew to really enjoy each of the lead characters and the supporting casts surrounding them. Whether it’s the town folk in Tim’s story or the kids that Luke befriends inside the Institute, both sides of the book are nicely fleshed-out and even the most minor of the supporting characters are brought to life believably in that special way that Stephen King has always been so adept at doing. Admittedly, there is more intrigue in Luke’s story but I wouldn’t say that either half is weak.

And you will love to hate those Institute people. From the cold and ruthless Mrs. Sigsby to the caretakers who seem to enjoy beating on kids and torturing them – they are all pretty nasty pieces of work and the cruelty that takes place within the walls of the Institute is described vividly by King with no punches pulled, even if it is just scared children who are the victims.

The book is apparently inspired by the thousands of children who go missing all across America each year and never seen again. The themes of government conspiracy and black site operations are also so relevant in this post-Wikileaks age where countless Youtubers and internet sites are eager to show you the proof that operations like the Institute are, perhaps, not so fictional at all.

I think that Stephen King has really done it again with The Institute. I would have liked the book to be just a little bit thicker and have the same level of detailed characterisation that the likes of IT and The Stand boasted but that’s pretty much the only criticism I have. The plot is full of intrigue and leads up to a fast-moving, action-packed finale that I found myself unwilling to pause with a bookmark. And the characters – as I have already said – are just so likable (or detestable in the case of the Institute’s staff). I would say that this is the best Stephen King book in this style since the fantastic Doctor Sleep (which seems like such a long time ago now!).

Highly recommended.

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?

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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).

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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