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The A to Z of Stephen King
A is for... Hearts in Atlantis
King's collection, now in paperback and first published in late 1999, has five tales of childhood and college days in the 1960s, intertwined so that it reads more like a novel than a collection of novellas. King didn't go to Vietnam, high blood pressure and burst ear-drums prevented him, but that war haunts these stories as students protest, are drafted and survive or change because of it. Less to do with the war is the opening story, which some consider the best, Low Men in Yellow Coats. Here the monsters from King's Dark Tower series are invading a small town and only impoverished kid Bobby and his mum's lodger Ted Brautigan can fight them. Local bullies are turning on the kid too echoing one of King's favourite books, Lord of the Flies. King is once again at his best evoking pictures from our own childhood and formative years...
B is for... Bag of Bones
There is a huge debate going on between fans about whether the "new", less ghastly Stephen King books are as good as the classics. One camp declares not, the books are less gripping and scary than before and it is after all "horror" that they read the books for. The other camp sees the move towards more reflective and realistic situations as a sign of maturity and that "serious" literature reviewers can now take King much more seriously. I fall somewhere between the two. I certainly don't want to read formula novels where the author's heart is clearly not in them - Desperation shows signs of that. On the other hand I feel that books like Bag of Bones are too long to sustain the reader's complete interest. Essentially a story about a haunted house or rather a haunted town, the book is actually at its best when dealing with the grief of the narrator, Mike Noonan, over his recently deceased wife and the effect this has on his ability to write. It has some creepy moments but for me the villain is not strong enough and the point of view, the book is told entirely in the first person, hinders the development of secondary characters which strengthen so many of his other novels.
C is for... Carrie
The Brian de Palma film of King's first novel, Carrie, in which a child, abused by her obsessively religious mother and taunted mercilessly by her classmates, is driven to use her telekinetic powers against them, did much to establish the writer as the undisputed King of horror and to set standards in the horror cinema genre. The casting of child and mother, with Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her mother, was nothing short of genius and both fully merit their academy award nominations. Spacek is both pitiful and endearing in the opening scenes, beautifully handled by de Palma, making us pity the girl and to a certain extent share the embarrassment and disdain of her classmates. The film also contains one of movie's all-time famous moments, the heart-thumping slow-motion build up to the bucket of blood dropping on the "heroine" and the split-screen aftermath is a scene that has to be seen in the cinema to be truly appreciated. The novel was almost lost during its creation when Stephen King threw it in the trash - luckily his wife Tabitha rescued it. Although it had only modest sales as a hardback, the paperback set King up for life and while over-shadowed a little by the film and later novels, it remains a favourite amongst King's fans and has much to recommend it.
D is for... Dreamcatcher
The eagerly awaited first full novel by King since Bag Of Bones is Dreamcatcher released in late March 2001. The story tells of four childhood friends who as adults are attacked by aliens while on a hunting trip. There are echoes of both It and Tommyknockers in the new novel theme and since these are probably my two favourite King books, I'm really looking forward to it. Incidently in May 2000 while doing research for the book Stephen King took a tour with water officials of the Quabbin Reservoir, which serves the city of Boston.
E is for... Eclipse
One of the pivotal scenes in Dolores Claiborne involves an eclipse of the sun... Perhaps King's first diversion from the horror formula and also overshadowed by a strong film adaptation, Dolores Claiborne is a novel that concerns a housekeeper accused of murder for the second time in her life. In the book the story is told by the main character herself and delivers piece by piece the details of her life with an abusive and drunken husband. The film however concentrates more on Dolores' relationship with her estranged daughter whose descent into drugs and alcohol is threatening to mirror the extremes of her father's addictions... Kathy Bates gives a great performance as Dolores while both book and film paint realistic pictures of rural, island life...
F is for... Fears
Despite the fact that King is a giant of a man at 6 foot 4 and 200 pounds, and that he's been happy giving the rest of the world the heebie-jeebies all these years, King has many phobias of his own. These include death, insects, closed-in places, deformity, rats, snakes and the dark. Perhaps it's his understanding of these phobias that makes his scenes so memorable - he's scaring himself as he writes them. The scene in the mining hut in Desperation with all sorts of slithering, crawling things in complete darkness in an enclosed space must have been particularly difficult to visualise...
G is for... The Green Mile
When Stephen King released The Green Mile in 1996 as a series of six novellas, cynics may have seen it as clever sales technique, but fans were riveted by what turned out to be one of King's best stories for years. Set in the Death Row of a Southern prison during the depression the story is narrated by an old guard years after the supernatural events have passed. A huge prisoner, John Coffey, is sentenced to the prison and slowly his special gifts begin to affect the guards and prisoners around him. The story has now been published into a single volume and, of course, has been adapted to the big screen with Tom Hanks in the narrator's role. After a series of less successful films and mini-series, a big hollywood production of a King book was long overdue, and director Frank Darabont, who also directed King's screenplay The Shawshank Redemption, brings the series to life with great skill.
H is for... The Dark Half
The Dark Half has an intriguing (and illuminating, perhaps) plot. In parallel with the author in Misery, Thad Beaumont kills off his pseudonym George Stark who for years has been paying the bills by churning out trashy ultra-violent thrillers in order to write more literary novels. However a feeling of foreboding, backed up by nightmares, is haunting the writer and soon it becomes clear that while he may be finished with George Stark, his dark half isn't yet finished with him. As a novel it works out reasonably well although there is more threatened violence than real action, and much about the psychopomps (a word that unfortunately sounds more silly than frightening), gatherings of small birds, harbingers of the living dead. At the time I first read this book, I remember wondering whether King was about to give up horror altogether or whether the killing of his own pseudonym Richard Bachman (see "P"), was less of a career change and more an act of necessity...
I is for... It
Once you've read this book you will never look at clowns or balloons in quite the same way... One of King's amazing talents is his ability to recall what it was like to be a child. There are many, many passages in It where I was transported back to my own childhood, to long days mucking about playing in ponds and streams, to scary days when you just couldn't seem to escape the local bully, to bold days being the leader of games in a weedy, little gang, to dark days where family life was grim and running away seemed a good option. Coupled with this ability King also has the guts to put children in extreme and horrifying danger and yet show the strength of youth where maturity falters and crumbles... The ending doesn't satisfy everyone but like The Stand the getting there is easily the best writing of its kind... A personal favourite and one that was adapted into a especially good mini-series for TV...
J is for... January 1971
Stephen King married Tabitha Spruce in January 1971. They had met in the Fogler Library of the University of Maine where they both had worked. During the years before Carrie was born the Kings had little money but a few sales of short stories helped the family along. They have three children Naomi Rachel, Joe Hill and Owen Phillip and one grandchild, Ethan, son to Joe and his wife Leanora. They have lived mostly in Maine throughout their marriage apart from a brief stay in Boulder, Colorado and a cut short stay in the UK in 1977. Maine features in almost all of King's books and as the biographical note in many of them says it is "his home state and the place where he feels he really belongs".
Stephen King graduated with a BSC in English from the University of Maine in 1970 but although he was qualified to teach at high school level, he was unable to find a post straight away. For a time he worked in an industrial laundromat and then as a janitor before securing a job at the Hampden Academy in Hampden, Maine. During this period he continued to write and managed to sell a number of stories to men's magazines, many of which would be later collected in Night Shift. In early 1973 Carrie was accepted by Doubleday & Co, and when the novel's paperback rights were sold King was able to give up the day job and concentrate on writing full time. His connection with Hampden Academy didn't end however, he now provides scholarships for students through the school.
K is for... Stanley Kubrick
The idea for King's third book in print, The Shining, was born on a weekend trip with his wife away from the children. They stayed in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park but during the weekend King found the place unsettling and disturbing. He imagined the entire book in his head and wrote it very quickly afterwards. It's not just a story of a writer driven by the ghosts of the hotel to attack his wife and child but about a man who cannot face failure and who through alcohol, visits the abuse taught to him by his own father on his own child. The novel was taken up by renowned director Stanley Kubrick, whose previous films included 2001 A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Dr Strangelove. His film is not fully faithful to the book as he preferred to suggest the hotel's influence on Jack rather than state it, and to rely on visual images than explanations. Jack Nicholson played Jack Torrance with Shelley Duvall as his wife. Both give impressive performances although Kubrick heartlessly kept Shelley Duvall in a state of distress during the later scenes by criticising her constantly and continually changing her lines and cues. Still, both book and film are classics in their own ways. A mini-series more faithful to the book was made in the 90s although it has to be said with an inferior cast.
L is for... The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
|© 2000, 2001 Compiled by Alan J Stuart|