On Writing – A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King's On Writing - A Memoir of the Craft
Stephen King’s On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft

I recently downloaded a digital edition of Stephen King’On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft after reading the hardcover more than a decade ago. I planned on skimming my ebook edition, looking for a few pointers, but I was immediately drawn in by Big Steve’s affable style, and I wound up re-reading the book in its entirety.

   The first thing On Writing reveals is that King’s easy-going narrative style is the product of a master craftsman. It takes years of relentless effort to make the flow of language sound effortless.
    King admits on Page One that most writing books are “filled with bullshit,” with the only exception being Strunk and White‘s The Elements of Style. This may be the best piece of practical writing advice in On Writing. All writers should own a copy of The Elements of Style and treat its words as gospel.
   That’s not to say King doesn’t offer plenty of writing advice of his own in On Writing. The book is packed with good advice and interesting anecdotes. My favorite writing tip is a simple editing formula:
“2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%”
   Other pearls of writing wisdom include:
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
   And
“Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”
   Is there anything in On Writing to interest non-King fans or aspiring writers? I think so, but then, I’m a diehard King fan.
   The lengthy essay about King’s near-fatal accident (he was hit by a van while walking along a Maine country road in June 1999) and his long recovery — with a return to writing at the endpoint — is powerful and insightful. But then, I’m a diehard fan. Did I mention that?
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11/22/63 by Stephen King

Stephen King likes to travel back in time, and the creamy, apple pie era he enjoys visiting most often is America between1955 and 1965. King himself came of age during those years, and his personal nostalgia transforms into potent prose in works like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” “The Body”/ Stand by Me, Christine, The Green Mile, Hearts in Atlantis, and It.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
11/22/63 by Stephen King

In 11/22/63 King tackles a time traveling tale head on. Our hero, Jake Epping / George Amberson, finds a loophole that allows him to travel from 2011 to Sept 19, 1958.

Jake/George heeds Jethro Tulls’ advice, and goes ” living in the past,” embarking on a five year journey to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Along the way our hero falls in love, which, of course, nearly ruins everything, but ultimately saves the day.

Unlike some of King’s fantastic flights, this one is firmly rooted in fact, and his impressive research into the Kennedy Assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald gives this novel a muscular framework. King’s familiar narrative tone and comfy characters are his trademark, and fans of his folksy style (of which I am one) will have fun with 11/22/63.

As Todd Rundgren suggests, “The whole universe is a giant guitar.” But in 11/22/63, too many trips through the time-trippin’ wormhole creates too many strings, and everything gets thrown out of tune. Curse you, butterfly effect! Ashton Kutcher, too!

There are shades of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Don DeLillo’s Libra here, as well as dozens of other time-traveling / alternate universe / historical fiction novels. King’s contribution to the genre is a fine one.

Kudos to the enhanced ebook for including a 13-minute King-narrated video about 11/22/63, audio clips read by King, an interview with the author, a readers group study kit, a playlist of songs mentioned in the book, and recipes for the artery-clogging Southern fried food served up in novel. Enhanced, indeed!

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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King.

Stephen King brings these things upon himself.

It isn’t fair to compare his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, with his landmark work, The Shining. But comparisons are inevitable — Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining.

Critics will rightfully say, “Doctor Sleep is okay, but it isn’t as good as The Shining.” But how could it be? The Shining is a classic (its status doubly bolstered by Stanley’s Kubrick’s equally iconic film adaptation.) The Shining has enjoyed four decades of popularity, accolades, and analysis. Fanboys like me grew up with The Shining as a culture touchstone, a literary benchmark against which all other horror novels were judged.

So King is practically begging for bad reviews for Doctor Sleep. It’s impossible to fill The Shining’s big shoes. Fortunately, King doesn’t even try, allowing Doctor Sleep to take its own path into new literary territories.

Doctor Sleep finds Danny Torrance all grown up, and suffering from the same alcoholism that plagued his father. It’s a subject King seems to know intimately, and the novel’s most authentic moments unfold when Danny Torrance views the world through a 12-stepper’s hardened-yet-knowing gaze.

There are plenty of fumbles in Doctor Sleep. Female hero Abra is inconsistent; wise beyond her years one moment, and inexplicably innocent the next. There’s a family revelation late in the novel that’s hollow and cringe inducing, along with several Freaky Friday -style body swaps that are equally douche-chilly.

Room 217 lady
Bathtub babe is back, and still partying naked in Doctor Sleep.

That doesn’t mean Doctor Sleep is a bad novel, or an unsatisfying read. It’s nice seeing Danny shine again. Tony reprises his role as psychic messenger, and there are sweet cameos by Dick Hallorann, and the ghoulish ghost from Room 217.  Doctor Sleep is well paced, Rose The Hat is a badass villain, and everything wraps up neatly enough.

Doctor Sleep is okay, but it isn’t as good as The Shining.

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The Shining by Stephen King

I re-read Stephen King’s The Shining recently in preparation for the release of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I’m glad I did.

The Shining by Stephen King
The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining is a beautifully written novel, simple, elegant, and powerful. There are only four main characters: Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, his son Danny, and the Overlook Hotel itself.

At its core, The Shining is an update of the classic “trapped in a haunted house” tale. It’s also the story of a family coming apart at the seams, strained relationships blowing up like the ancient boiler in the basement of the Overlook.

Jack and Wendy are clearly drawn, easily identifiable, sympathetic characters. Danny, with his ability to shine, propels the story forward. His psychic abilities awaken the hotel’s wicked past, and the Overlook preys on the weakest link — recovering alcoholic Jack.

Stanley Kubrick turned The Shining into an iconic film (which King himself hated). While Kubrick’s film is a classic, don’t forget it was Big Daddy Steve who created this nightmare in the first place. King was the one who created such memorable lines as, “I’m going to bash your brains in, Wendy. I’m going to bash them right the fuck in,” and, “Your wife and son need correction, if I may be so bold, sir.”  All this and Redrum, too. And don’t forget the wicked witch in Room 217.

I read The Shining for the first time in 1980 when I was 12 years old. This book has lost none of its impact over the past three decades. It’s still a magnificent artistic achievement.

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Desperation by Stephen King and The Regulators by Richard Bachman

Sifting through old computer files, I found this November 1996 review of Stephen King’s Desperation and Richard Bachman’s The Regulators. Enjoy! — R

en King Desperation review
Desperation by Stephen King.
Richard Bachman The Regulators review
The Regulators by Richard Bachman.

Stephen King’s Desperation, and The Regulators — penned by King’s alter ego, Richard Bachman — feature the same cast of  characters in polar opposite roles.

In Desperation, the Carver family of Wentworth, Ohio — father Ralph, mother Ellen, son David and daughter Pie — encounter an evil spirit named Tak while crossing the Nevada desert.

In The Regulators, the Carver family — Father David, mother Pie, son Ralphie, and daughter Ellen — are going about their daily routine in suburban Wentworth, Ohio, when their simple existence is turned into a surreal child’s nightmare by (you guessed it) the evil spirit, Tak.

King doesn’t really tell us what Tak is. Evidently, it’s an ancient Lovecraftian spirit trapped beneath the earth’s surface, waiting to be set free. Why? Again, King doesn’t really provide a solid motivation for Tak in Desperation.

Things aren’t much different in The Regulators, though Tak does reveal a few of his favorite earthly pleasures: watching TV, drinking chocolate milk, and feeding off the pain and suffering of humans.

The villainy that is Tak has more holes than Swiss cheese, but Tak isn’t what carries these stories along. That responsibly falls on the shoulders of  King’s compelling characters. Allowing the family members to assume different roles over the course of two novels adds a depth to their characters that no single book could illuminate alone.

One of the more interesting characters is Johnny Marinville, the character most closely identified with the author himself. Marinville is a “literary lion” in both books, and in Desperation, Marinville is making a cross-country trek by motorcycle, much like King himself did on a promotional tour for 1993’s Insomnia.

Desperation is the weightier of the two books, and not just because it’s 300 pages longer. King tries to tackle some larger-than-usual themes in this book, like God’s propensity for “cruel refinement.”

The Regulators is faster-paced and plot driven, leaner and meaner than Desperation. King doesn’t tackle any major issues here, just tells a whirlwind story. Maybe writing under the Bachman pseudonym allows King a certain “non-artistic” freedom. The Regulators is packed with lots of  delightfully fun blood, guts, and gunplay.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew good.

Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.

“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.

“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.

“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”

“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”

Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.

The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.

The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.

Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.

“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.

“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”

Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.

If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:

  • It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
  • It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
  • It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.

Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.

Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.

Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.

The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2012, edited by Paula Guran

best dark fantasy and horror 2012
The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2012, edited by Paula Guran. $6.99 ebook.

Veteran editor Paula Guran has put together a comprehensive “year’s best” collection that includes some true gems.

All eyes will be drawn to Stephen King’s entry, “The Dune,” and Big Steve delivers a satisfying—if quaint—E.C comics-style chiller.

But King’s story is far from the best in this collection. My vote would be for Stephen Graham Jones’ coming of age / zombie baseball tale, “Rocket Man,” a tantalizing  blend of humor, heartache, and gore. Or maybe Joe Lansdale’s Lovecraftian musical interlude, “The Bleeding Shadow” (which—if I may be so bold, and insert a cheap plug —shares themes with the brilliant rock-n-roll horror novel, Hangman’s Jam.)

Other noteworthy stories include Priya Sharma’s sexually charged fairy tale, “The Fox Maiden,” and Tananarive Due’s “The Lake,” which is delivered by an unreliable—and increasingly inhuman—narrator.

Guran has put together a “something for everyone” story buffet, with whimsical fantasy tales butting up against hardcore horror. The effect can be jarring, but such is the nature of “Year’s Best” collections. There’s no linking theme to these stories, other than good writing and strong storytelling.

Pick up The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2012, and you’re sure to find a story or two that will personally haunt you.

Throttle by Joe Hill & Stephen King

Throttle by Joe Hill and Stephen King.
$.99 Kindle Single

Throttle is two master storytellers (King 2 and King 1) cutting loose and going balls-out, the way the father and son motorcycle team do in the story. Available as a Kindle single for $.99, Throttle is inspired by Richard Matheson’s classic screenplay, “Duel,” but its style owes a lot to Elmore Leonard’s fast-paced westerns.

The “throttle” here is not only the mechanism that delivers fuel to an engine, but the way parents sometimes feel when their kids screw up — you want to throttle ’em! This is a lean tale, but there’s still some meat; father/son relations, lives shaped by major disappointments and tiny triumphs, and the ever-stretchy bonds of love. But all of that is secondary to the action.  Throttle is a thrill ride that King and Hill keep as fun and punchy as a punk rock anthem.