Padma Lakshmi has had a wild life. She opens her novel with the aftermath of her divorce from Salman Rushdie, then swings straight into the courtship, marriage, and downfall – almost as if to get it out of the way. Lakshmi tries to downplay the volatile nature of the relationship, but a what of lot she has to say about Rushdie does not make him look good.
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.
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.
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.
December is a rough month for reading and, depending on the reader, any Christmas themed book undertaking may well keep you occupied well past the day of festivities. Hence Hark! The Herald Angels Scream was finished on New Year’s Eve. The best thing about it is the title, which isn’t exactly a shame, but this collection of vaguely Christmasy horror is a mixed-bag, and a randomly curated one at that. These eighteen stories range from twelve pages to novella length, and a lot of them have exactly the same ending: children dying, women screaming in another room or, often, an unholy combination of the two — and then, consecutively.
It’s not entirely clear why Hark! The Herald Angels Scream begins with a streak of its weakest stories, including a travel nightmare where the people “punished” for Christmas infractions are completely innocent. There are a few transferable curses on display, there’s a stern warning of the dangers of technology in that unbelievably accelerated way those sorts of stories take on, and also a bizarre entry in what is presumably a pre-existing world that remarkably little information exists about.
But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is not without its gems: Jeff Strand’s brief “Good Deeds” is a genuinely amusing study of a truly awful Christmas song, which is particularly relevant to the last six weeks of the year when all of the music in public spaces is both a) about Christmas; and b) somehow something you’ve never heard before from that incredibly specific cottage industry; “It’s a Wonderful Knife”, editor Christopher Golden’s contribution, does more than coast on its title and offers a magical movie history time travel revenge tale; John McIlveen’s “Yankee Swap” is a seasonal Saw take that doesn’t quite stick the landing but is arresting up until that point; Tim Lebbon’s “Home” provides a post-apocalyptic ritual in a world that’s moved on; and it’s all tied together by Sarah Pinborough’s quite long “The Hangman’s Bride”, which starts with a chimney adventure and is almost as emphatic as Dickens at assuring us that Tiny Tim did NOT die by the end.
Hark! The Herald Angels Scream isn’t a consistent collection, and it’s not overly fun to dip in and out of, but there are a few pieces genuinely worth the time. It’s an impressive collection of authors, but apart from the final story there’s no logical order to proceedings. Horror and Christmas are bedfellows from way back — A Christmas Carol is a ghost story after all, and through it Dickens invented the modern conception of the day — but Hark! The Herald Angels Scream isn’t quite enough to put you in the festive mood enough in time for the day itself.
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.
Adam Silvera’s third novel is his most brazenly titled, and reveals his truest interest as an author: They Both Die at the End. Is it supposed to be a comfort that we know that the outcome of They Both Die at the End, or does it simply mean that accepting the inevitable means we will never connect with the story he’s telling?
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.
One cannot accuse Stephen King of getting sentimental in his old age, because he has always had a soft heart, and it’s not always very deeply buried beneath the evil clowns, cars, and hotels. Elevation, essentially a novella, takes ideas that King has tackled before — Thinner springs readily to mind — but twists them, and makes them optimistic. Elevation is a short work that eschews complex explanation of its contents in favour of a quick burst of emotion and a punch of an ending.
The Kremlin’s Candidate, the least sloggy entry in the Red Sparrow series, brings things to a head in a way that could either end the series or leave it open for more. It’s taken a lot of deaths, a lot of breasts, and a lot of recipes to get this far. It’s unlikely that you’re going to see this story in movie form anytime soon, so soak in The Kremlin’s Candidate in prose form if you want to find out how Jennifer Lawrence’s overtly sexy spy winds up.