Category: Constant Reader Chronicle

Constant Reader Chronicle: Doctor Sleep

By 2013, it was well and truly clear that Stephen King was his own genre, and that he competes largely with himself. This is likely why, outside of The Dark Tower series and Black House, that he had never really dabbled with sequels until Doctor Sleep. That King chose to make his first major sequel to the book that became one of the most iconic horror films of all time — a film that, coincidentally, he famously really did not like — was daring. Doctor Sleep is the thirty six years on sequel to The Shining, through which King follows up on what happened to Danny after the Overlook Hotel was neutralised. And it works: Doctor Sleep is excellent latter day King, a successor to The Dark Tower, a pre-cursor to Mr. Mercedes, and a novel that doesn’t try to shamelessly ape its predecessor.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Cujo

In the early 1980s, Stephen King had death on the mind. Moreso than usual. Cujo is the second in what is at least a loose trilogy of meditations on grief and mortality and, given that it is famously the novel that King does not remember writing at all, it speaks to something in his subconscious. It is a pity on all counts, because this killer dog story is one of King’s harder hitting works, emphasising his skill with the mundane. With no supernatural elements in play, and without the deep-seated nihilism that infected Roadwork, Cujo is a dark work with a sparkling undercurrent.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Roadwork

Some books can never hope to live up to their covers. Roadwork is one such novel. Richard Bachman goes introspective, shifting his focus to the family. The first Bachman book about adults is dark and nihilistic, with none of the optimism that characterises many King novels that run along similar lines. There is a certain distress involved in reading Roadwork, a crushing inevitability that perhaps can’t be helped. It’s a theme that King will return to as himself in Pet Sematary, but with no supernatural interference, Roadwork hits hard.

Constant Reader Chronicle: On Writing

Time is a harsh mistress. At the time of On Writing’s publication, Stephen King was 26 years into his career, and a year out from his near fatal car accident. Nearly twenty years and approximately 29 books later, it is hard to conceive that On Writing almost didn’t happen, and that King was going to retire. Perhaps it was the cry of Constant Readers who thought that they would never know what would become of Roland and his Ka-tet; perhaps King himself could not resist the call of the Beam. On Writing heralded the return of the King, and Constant Readers remain grateful to this day.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Danse Macabre

You don’t have to always follow your heroes through the gates of Hell. If Indiana Jones asks you to step into the Temple of Doom with him, you say “no thank you, Mister Jones. Call me when you’re looking for the cup of a carpenter, I want something a bit less imperialist.” This is a laboured metaphor already, but it turns out that Danse Macabre, Stephen King’s first non-fiction effort,is full of them. And “heh heh” asides. And blatant errors — Peter Pan and the “Wild Boys”, “Anarchy for the U.K.” — that have not been corrected in thirty years of reprints.

It’s not a case of don’t meet your heroes, but rather a case of “the past is a different country, you weren’t born yet, and nothing in this book means anything to you”. Danse Macabre does not hold up to a modern reader, dealing as it does with works that have largely been obscured by time, none of which have endured like the output of its author. Scrappy, and written with a giant chip on its shoulder, Danse Macabre is a curio.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Pet Sematary

This entry does not contain spoilers for the content of Pet Sematary, but it does address the overall tone of the piece, which, to some people, amounts to the same thing. You have been warned about this 36 year old terror.

Stephen King has that weird sort of luck: terrible things happen to him but they’re not as bad as they could have been, or terrible things almost happen to him and they turn into one of his bestsellers, even though he doesn’t like the finished product. Though King’s personal life is now largely defined by his car accident, back in 1979 young Owen King almost got killed by a truck while the King family lived between a busy road and a Pet Sematary. It did a number on King’s psyche, and thus Pet Sematary was born — a book that is too dark and too real for him to enjoy, published largely out of a contractual obligation. Where your standard King novel up to this point (and, admittedly, a few were skipped by this reader to get to Pet Sematary in time for the movie adaptation) offers some degree of hope, regardless of how many terrible events occur between their pages, Pet Sematary is largely a black hole. Abandon all hope ye who inter here.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Firestarter

The Vietnam War, Watergate, the existence of Richard M. Nixon, the Cold War and basically anything overtly political in the wake of World War II bred a healthy distrust of the US Government. Whenever something even vaguely good or hopeful eventuated, like a fresh faced Kennedy with an impenetrably thick accent, it got shot down. It is through all of this that Stephen King brought us Firestarter at the turn of the eighties, just before Ronald Reagan came along to Make America Great Again for the first time, a legacy being paid for – with interest – in the modern era.

Firestarter is the sort of novel that, were it not presented in the traditional King “bestseller with depth” format, is both written and read under the safety of a tinfoil hat. In the world of Firestarter, and our own Keystone Earth, governments are capable of great evil. But in King’s world, evil produces tangible results.

Constant Reader Chronicle: The Dead Zone

Stephen King’s fifth novel was published eleven months after The Stand, which towered even in its original abridged form. The Dead Zone is a mere half the length, but it takes longer to get somewhere. Some King novels you’re under the spell of at the time, and others you receive in retrospect. The Dead Zone is a novel that exists on the periphery — in its own Dead Zone — and defies expectations. It runs with some themes that are already recurring in King’s work, and introduces the embryos of ideas that will bear such fruit as one could scarcely imagine.

Constant Reader Chronicle: The Long Walk

Richard Bachman, you crazy kidder. You should have started with The Long Walk! Stephen King’s alter ego’s sophomore effort is a blood bath set in a horrible seventies dystopia, but it’s not inhuman. It is the first of Bachman’s novels about deadly competitions, and one that has firmly influenced future generations of writers of nightmare dystopias — in a far more positive way than Rage ever inspired anyone. The Long Walk is Bachman’s first good novel and, chronologically, the first novel that King ever wrote. Sometimes things just don’t happen in order.

Constant Reader Chronicle: Night Shift

Stephen King’s first short story collection is from the olden days when genre short stories ruled the earth, and people would just read them where they lay — in the pages of Penthouse, no less, when you really could read them for the articles. Of Night Shift’s 20 stories, a full 80% were published ahead of collection, and half of them were published ahead of Carrie. The short story mode is completely different to the novel, and King was rightfully confident in this early selection. There are some remarkably strong entries in here, several of which became films — in at least one case, entirely too many films — the embryos of later works, and a couple of continuations of ‘Salem’s Lot (which are now published in modern reprints of same). 

Night Shift is a collection of short stories for people who no longer believe in them, and because of the form and era, not all endings have to be neat or happy, or undisturbing. King has a bit of everything in here, and few weaknesses.