Friday, December 27, 2013

Stephen King: The Regulators (as Richard Bachman) (1996)

Stephen King explains the genesis of The Regulators, which was published on the same day (September 24, 1996) as Desperation:
As I neared the three-quarter mark on Desperation, I had a scrap with a single word printed on it: REGULATORS. I had had a great idea for a novel, something that had to do with toys, guns, and suburbia. I didn't know if I would ever write it - lots of those "printer notes" never come to anything - but it was certainly cool to think about.

Then, one rainy day (a Richard Stark sort of day) as I was pulling into my driveway, I had an idea. I don't know where it came from; it was totally unconnected to any of the trivia tumbling through my head at the time. The idea was to take characters from Desperation and put them into The Regulators. In some cases, I thought, they could play the same people; in others, they would change; in neither would they do the same things or react in the same ways, because the different stories would dictate different courses of action. It would be, I thought, like the members of a repertory company acting in two different plays.

Then an even more exciting idea struck me. If I could use the rep company concept with the characters, I could use it with the plot itself - I could stack a good many of the Desperation elements in a brand-new configuration, and create a kind of mirror world. I knew even before setting out on this course that plenty of critics would call this twinning a stunt ... and they would not be wrong, exactly. But, I thought, it could be a good stunt. Maybe even an illuminating stunt, one which showcased the muscularity and versatility of story, its all but limitless ability to adapt a few basic elements into endlessly pleasing variations, its prankish charm.

I did not much like Desperation and I enjoyed The Regulators even less. The story at the heart of these two books - the evil machinations of the supernatural being, Tak - does not seem strong enough to have muscularity or versatility.

This is Wikipedia's synopsis of The Regulators:
The story takes place in the fictional town of Wentworth, Ohio, a typical suburban community. On Poplar Street, an autistic boy named Seth has gained the power to control reality through the help of a being known as Tak. Soon, Poplar Street begins to change shape, transforming from a quiet suburb into a wild west caricature based on what Seth has seen on his television. Meanwhile, the other residents of the street are being attacked by the many beings that Seth's imagination is creating, due to Tak's control over them. These residents are forced to work together to stop Seth and Tak from completely transforming the world around them and stop Tak before he kills anyone else.

Seth's imagination is heavily influenced by a western called The Regulators and a cartoon called MotoKops 2200.
King gives what feels like minute-by-minute descriptions of what the block's residents are doing as they attempt to figure out what is going on and how they can stop it. It's neither exciting nor scary nor interesting.

King's Bachman books are supposedly darker or bleaker than the typical "Stephen King" novel, though that point can be well-argued. However, there is nothing to mark The Regulators as anything other than a King novel. The writing style, the use of brand names and pop culture references - it's throughly "King". In fact, one reason why the early Bachman books were not published as King novels is that they avoid the supernatural completely, and it was thought fans would not support King writing outside his established genre. The Regulators would be the first Bachman book to focus on the supernatural (if you ignore the Gypsy's curse in Thinner, that is).

Even the opening of The Regulators, a lengthy description of a hot July afternoon in suburban Ohio - kids playing with a dog, a man washing his car, someone strumming a guitar on a porch, another boy delivering the weekly paper - are presented with a "gee whiz" attitude that seems like the antithesis of Richard Bachman. And just because a lot of people get shot - and we get lengthy descriptions of the bullets' damage - does not necessarily make a book dark and bleak.

One of the obvious weaknesses of both Desperation and, especially, The Regulators, is their excessive amounts of description. Very little of it is important to the plot or any meaningful characterization. Does a scene of four people climbing over a fence really need to be stretched out to more than five pages?

In Desperation, there was a battle of good versus evil. King apparently wants to make a commentary on good/evil as it relates to television as an American religion, but I got absolutely nothing from this novel in that vein. Seth/Tak watches a lot of television and is able to use what he sees to transform Poplar Street into the wild west, but there was no moral against the evils of television. (King is usually pretty heavy-handed when it comes to such messages.)

King has a writing tic in both Desperation and The Regulators. It came up so often that at times I wasn't really concentrating on what I was reading because I was anticipating its next appearance. From The Regulators:
How in God's name could the sound of breathing on the telephone be familiar? It couldn't, of course, but all the same - (page 67)

... made it impossible not to accept. He didn't know why that should be, but it was. (69)

None of this is funny, but he laughs just the same. (94)

There's no way he can know that, but he feels certain of it, just the same. (214)

"It's only chambered for .22s ... but it's a damned fine gun, just the same." (240)

Collie thought Old Doc was mostly talking to himself by this point, but he listened intently just the same. (244)

Understandable, maybe, but Johnny was furious with her, nevertheless. (246)

... but most of what she had to say from this point on would go in one ear and out the other just the same. (249)

Steve didn't like to admit it, but he did. (271)

... but the giggles poured out of him just the same. (387)

... but they were up there, just the same. (389)

He didn't want to understand ... but he thought maybe he did a little, anyway. Like it or not. (400)

It's a small one, but every round from it sounds like a bazooka shell, just the same. (415)

It is only for a moment, as Audrey bolts by, but it is a moment which seems all but eternal, just the same. (443)

Johnny doesn't know how he can know this, but he does. (448)

... and he supposed that was good. He didn't know why, but he supposed it was. (462)
And the phrase "just the same" is used in a similar manner 20 times in Desperation. Even in the introduction to The Bachman Books, when King mentions writing these two novels:
Desperation is about God; The Regulators is about TV. I guess that makes them both about higher powers, but very different ones just the same.
Next: The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Stephen King: Desperation (1996)

Stephen King published three novels in 1996. The Green Mile appeared in six monthly installments, from March through August. Then, less than one month later, King published Desperation under his own name and The Regulators under his Richard Bachman alias.

Desperation begins on Highway 50, a lonely stretch of desert road in Nevada. Collie Estragian, the sadistic police officer of the small town of Desperation, is terrorizing travelers along the highway, arresting them under false pretexts and jailing them. He also kills two of them, pushing a young girl down a flight of stairs and shooting a man in front of his wife. (He has also killed most of the town's residents.)

After the prisoners escape from their jail cells (with some spiritual assistance), they learn that there is an evil spirit (referred to as Tak) in the town. It was let loose from an abandoned mine that collapsed in 1859, trapping and burying alive more than 60 workers, most of them Chinese immigrants. Current mining in the area - by a company named Diablo - uncovered the old pit and let loose the evil spirit. Once Tak is out, it inhabits a series of human bodies, including Estragian, but the various vessels literally fall apart over time, quite gruesomely, and another host must soon be found.

Another reader making his way through King's canon complained about the choice and presentation of the book's villain:
King's overused-villain-tropes collide in the character of Entragion/Tak. He's got the seeing-through-animals/mind-reading of Flagg with the inexplicable-racism/anti-semitism/what-have-you of ... well, of every other King villain. Why would an ancient demon sound like a MSNBC caricature of "the enemy?" If it's meant as an amplification of latent prejudices in Entragion himself, a) we get no text-support for that, b) why is it an aspect of every King villain, novel to novel? and c) why do these attitudes remain as Tak leaps from body to body?
The presentation of Tak is not the book's only weakness. King has usually been able to create strong, believable characters, but he falters here.

Johnny Marinville is referred to (at least a half-dozen times) as a National Book Award winner and someone who had sex with a famous starlet, as though King had only a few ways of reminding readers who he was. Cynthia Smith (who was also a minor character in Rose Madder) is often identified by her orange-and-green-dyed hair. Steve Ames has long hair, so he gets called a hippie. King gives readers the bare bones of a character sketch before moving on, and thus does not have much to offer when it comes time to refer to them again. King also continues to repeat plot points, though there is little chance of readers forgetting them. I'm not sure exactly when he started doing this in his books - maybe when he got sober - but he did not do it early in his career.

Stuart Allen Morris, "Morality in the American West: The Origins of Evil in Stephen King's The Stand and Desperation":
[Desperation is] a work that is explicitly concerned with morality and faith, which thinly operates under the guise of a horror novel. ... If one works within the Judeo-Christian conception of morality, which King does, there is no better way to test faith than the way God does in the Old Testament. ... [W]hile Satan may have a place in The Stand and Desperation, his part is no bigger than it was in the Old Testament. When it came to evil things not brought by humans in the old Testament, it was God who was most visible - and that is how King portrays Him in these two novels.
Desperation purports to be King's most direct look at the battle between good and evil, and his most blatant exploration of man's relationship with God. After King's exploration on those themes to great effect in The Stand, I was looking forward to this novel. I was disappointed, however, as King has comes up short. His ruminations on the cruelty of God - the deity in this novel is clearly the wrathful and vengeful Old Testament God - never amounted to much.

Leading the group of survivors is 12-year-old David Carver, who began studying the Bible after his prayer apparently brought his best friend out of a coma sustained after being struck by a drunk driver. David made a vow that he would do something for God if his friend could somehow remain alive. In Desperation, God is extremely intent on making David live up to that promise. Through the course of the novel, David undergoes trials and tribulations similar to those suffered by Job. By the time the forces of good have prevailed, David has lost both of his parents and his younger sister, and has questioned God's will and even His existence.
As always at these times when he felt really in need of God, the front of his mind was serene, but the deeper part, where faith did constant battle with doubt, was terrified that there would be no answer. The problem was simple enough. Even now, after all his reading and praying and instruction, even after what had happened to his friend, he doubted God's existence. ... People could make shadows that looked like animals, but they were still only shadows, minor tricks of light and projection. Wasn't it likely that God was the same kind of thing? Just another legendary shadow?
The refrain "God is cruel" is repeated throughout the novel. (It is also a motif King used in The Green Mile. Narrator Paul Edgecombe, recalling the random death of his wife in a bus accident, states that when we tell God, "I don't understand", God says, "I don't care.")

While David Carver may be a little self-conscious about praying in front of people, King has no such hang-ups about portraying Carver's beliefs. He presents his religious themes without a shred of irony or condescension. As Kev notes: "The persuasive, straightforward narrative does not equivocate on the subject of religion, much as prior books do not equivocate on the paranormal or supernatural; King simply asserts, and the reader chooses whether to accept."

King also makes scriptural allusions throughout the novel, either to Biblical passages or events. One of the more obvious: David finds a small bag of sardines and crackers while the group is hiding out in the town's abandoned movie theater. The bag gets passed around and there is, like the loaves and the fishes, more than enough food for everyone.

One of the book's main characters is Johnny Marinville, a famous writer and recovering alcoholic. He is riding his motorcycle across the country (something King did to promote his novel Insomnia) in the hopes of gaining inspiration for his next book. Marinville's interactions with Tom Billingsley, one of Desperation's town drunks, afford King the opportunity (as he has in many of his novels in the late 80s and 90s) to write a bit about addiction:
Except, in the last five years or so, it had come to seem less and less like a thirst than an itch, as if he had contracted some awful form of poison ivy - a kind that affected one's brain instead of one's skin.
Next: The Regulators (as Richard Bachman).

Friday, December 13, 2013

Stephen King: The Green Mile (1996)

One of Stephen King's most famous novels, The Green Mile was published in six monthly installments during the summer of 1996.

King: "[T]he idea of a novel in installments [came] at what was, for me, the perfect psychological moment. I had been playing with a story idea on a subject I had always suspected I would get around to sooner or later: the electric chair. ... What, I wondered, would it be like to walk those last forty yards to the electric chair, knowing you were going to die there? What, for that matter, would it be like to be the man who had to strap the condemned in ... or pull the switch? What would such a job take out of you? Even creepier, what might it add?"

When the prospect of serial fiction was pitched to King, he was intrigued. King liked the "high-wire aspect" of writing a novel in installments, since when the first volume was published, the novel was "still far from done, even in rough draft, and the outcome remain[ed] in some doubt".

Most of the novel is set during the Depression, a few weeks in late 1932. Paul Edgecombe is superintendent of E Block at the Cold Mountain penitentiary. E Block is the prison's death row, where men were held in the weeks before their execution. Edgecombe, in the present day a resident of the Georgia Pines nursing home, is writing a memoir of sorts, recalling what happened after a prisoner named John Coffey, a black migrant worker convicted of raping and murdering two nine-year-old girls, arrived at Cold Mountain. (E Block is also referred to by the guards as the Green Mile, because of the lime-coloured linoleum hallway that extends from the cells to the room in which the electric chair - nicknamed Old Sparky - sits.)

At first, there is little doubt about Coffey's guilt. He was found with the bodies of the dead girls. "I tried to take it back," he says when discovered, "but it was too late." His words are accepted by everyone as an admission of guilt, but as the novel continues, Edgecombe becomes convinced of Coffey's innocence. Part of his change of heart stems from Coffey's supernatural gift of healing. Edgecombe's urinary infection is cured when Coffey takes hold of Edgecombe's hands. Coffey also breathes life back into a mouse that another prisoner, Eduard Delacroix, has adopted as a pet.

While guards Brutus Howell, Dean Stanton, and Harry Terwilliger take seriously their boss's edict of keeping the prisoners calm and comfortable until their execution dates, one employee takes sadistic glee in physically and emotionally tormenting the prisoners. Percy Wetmore, an arrogant young man who secured his job only through nepotism, is the clear villain in the novel, as he purposefully botches Delacroix's execution so the man is not so much electrocuted as burned alive in the chair.

That scene, which could probably have been even more gruesome that King portrays it, is one example why The Green Mile can be read as an anti-capital punishment novel. Coffey's execution is the last one (the 78th) over which Edgecombe presides, and Coffey's case seems to have turned him against the death penalty in his later years. Setting the scene early in the first chapter, Edgecombe uses the phrase "state sanctioned murder" and wonders "if execution is a proper punishment". Later on, he writes: "Fragile as blown glass, we are, even under the best of conditions. To kill each other with gas and electricity, and in cold blood? The folly. The horror."

Coffey is rather obviously presented as a Christ figure, weighed down by the hate and cruelty he sees in the world. Tired of the pain he hears and feels, tired of being alone, tired of people being ugly to each other, he accepts his fate.

During the rehearsal for Coffey's execution, Howell admits that this is the first time in his life he feels in danger of hell.
We're fixing to kill a gift of God. One that never did any harm to us, or to anyone else. What am I going to say if I end up standing in front of God the Father Almighty and He asks me to explain why I did it? That it was my job? My job?
As Edgecombe comes to understand that Coffey is innocent of the crime for which he is to be killed - and that nothing can be done to stop the impending execution - Edgecombe feels he must atone for the sin of playing a part in the murder of an innocent man.
Only God could forgive sins, could and did, washing them away in the agonal blood of his crucified Son, but that did not change the responsibility of His children to atone for those sins (and even their simple errors of judgment) whenever possible.
When Coffey cures Edgecombe of his urinary infection, Edgecombe knows that he has witnessed a miracle.
For one to rejoice at the sick made well is normal, quite the expected thing, but the person healed has an obligation to then ask why - to meditate on God's will, and the extraordinary lengths to which God has gone to realize His will. ... What did God want of me, in this case?
Edgecombe devises a plan for smuggling Coffey out of the prison late one night and bringing him to the home of Warden Hal Moores. By having Coffey heal the warden's wife of a brain tumor, Edgecombe attempts to balance the wrong he will participate in when Coffey is put to death.

Paul F.M. Zahl, writing in Christianity Today, called The Green Mile "an imaginative and dense parable of the triumph of sacrificial love over wickedness and false accusation".

I read The Green Mile in 1996 as each installment was published, feeling that King had produced an excellent first draft - which perhaps made sense considering the schedule he was on - but that the story needed tightening and punching up. Reading the novel 17 years later, I was more accepting of King's framing device of Edgecombe looking back on these momentous few weeks. However, the added supernatural aspect of Mr. Jingles the mouse at Cold Mountain and the Percy-esque character in the nursing home that terrorizes Edgecombe - still seemed superfluous.

Next: Desperation.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Stephen King: Rose Madder (1995)

Rose Madder is the third book in Stephen King's feminism trilogy (which includes the earlier novels Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne) and is his most unflinching look at spousal abuse.

Rose Daniels has been married to Norman Daniels, a decorated police officer, for fourteen years. During that time, Rose has suffered broken bones, cracked ribs, lost teeth, and, during one particularly horrendous beating - which opens the novel - suffered a miscarriage. She has been punched in the kidneys so often, she barely notices the blood in her urine anymore. Through those fourteen years, Rose "existed in a daze so deep it was like death ... [as if] her life wasn't really happening."

And then, one day while making the bed, a single drop of blood falls from her bruised nose. Something awakens in Rose's mind and - with her husband at work - she realizes she must flee in order to save her life. She grabs his ATM card, and walks out the door.

King does a superb job of articulating the conflicting thoughts and fears in Rose's head as she eventually makes her way to the bus station. She fears being alone in the world - she initially seems nearly agoraphobic - but she knows with certainty that she cannot return to her abusive marriage. But she also knows that Norman will not rest until, using his police skills and connections, he tracks her down and kills her.

Rose Madder is the story of how Rose McDaniels (she begins using her birth name again) comes out of the fog of the abusive relationship and begins to re-create her life. She finds a women's shelter, Daughters and Sisters, where she is given a room and a job at a local hotel. "You can be free if you want to," she is told. "Free of his hands, free of his ideas, free of him."

A trip to a pawn shop to sell her wedding ring becomes a momentous event in her new life. Rose learns that the big diamond is fake, but another customer in the shop hears her voice and offers her a job recording books on tape. The proprietor of the shop, Bill Steiner, falls in love with Rose. And on her way out of the shop, Rose is captivated by a painting of a woman in a rose madder-coloured toga, with her back to the viewer, gazing at a ruined stone temple. It is not a particularly good painting, Rose admits, but it seems to call to her. It is "the first meaningful purchase of her new life".

Meanwhile, Norman has taken a leave of absence from the force and is in pursuit of his wife. Using his skills as an investigator (and what seems to be some supernatural ability to imagine where Rose might go), he arrives in Liberty City and begins tracking her down. There will obviously be at least one confrontation between Rose and Norman before the novel is over.

Rose's painting is the true supernatural element in the novel. The painting is a portal to another world, and one night Rose enters that world. A woman she meets there (Wendy Yarrow, a prostitute that Norman and his partner beat and raped, and then killed after she filed a lawsuit against the department) tells her she must perform a dangerous task for the woman in the painting, rescuing a baby from a temple guarded by a one-eyed bull named Erinyes. King's use of Greek mythology was lost on me - and dragged the story of Rose's new life and Norman's pursuit to a halt.

Michael Wood, The New York Review Of Books:
What's going on here, as Rose learns when she visits, is a mixture of the myths of the Minotaur in the maze and of Demeter looking for Persephone, her daughter by Zeus, after Persephone has been abducted into the underworld. ... The creature in the maze [in the novel] isn't exactly the Minotaur, since it's a bull, and it's called Erinyes, a name which means fury, and is one of Demeter's epithets. Later the bull becomes Norman, or Norman becomes the bull: the monster is a metaphor for the less-than-human male.
Kevin Quigley, Charnel House:
The sudden appearance of the mystic (and mythic) seem almost intrusive, as do the supernatural overlays in otherwise mainstream novels like Cujo, Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and even the out-of-context psychic flashes in Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game. However, where the supernatural in those books could have easily been excised (improving the stories in most cases), in Rose Madder, the painting and the world through it become intrinsic to the plot. Here, King seems to be experimenting with magic realism, a genre of writing in which fantastic elements are introduced into an otherwise straightforward realistic story.
King also tosses in a few elements of The Dark Tower. During Rose's initial journey into the painting, Wendy Yarrow mentions the concept of ka and refers to the dead in the City of Lud.

Years later, in On Writing, King stated that Rose Madder and Insomnia are "stiff, trying-too-hard novels".


Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner, writing in The Complete Stephen King Universe, note that the theme of spousal/child abuse has appeared in many of King's novels. In retrospect, "it seems as if Stephen King had been building toward Rose Madder his whole career."

James Ronald Guthrie, "Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009):
The horror of domestic violence and a harsh criticism of American patriarchal society have been the dominant tropes in King's novels from the beginning of his career. ... For King in the 1990s, domestic violence in the private sphere is a metaphor for the ultimate violence of American patriarchal society, the public sphere that condones, enables, and sometimes even rewards violence against women.
Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Insomnia, and Rose Madder - four consecutive novels in the early 1990s - feature "a depressingly long line of abusive males King would introduce to readers": Gerald Burlingame, Joe St. George, Ed Deepneau, and Norman Daniels. Daniels is by far the most psychopathic, the most abusive, and, by the end of the novel, clearly insane.

In these recent novels, as King writes stronger and more vivid female characters, his portraits of the men in their lives slip into caricature. Norman Daniels has absolutely no redeeming qualities. King describes his sadistic abuse of his wife (and a few criminal suspects) in such stark detail that even knowing Norman was beaten and sexually abused by his own father (and his father's friends) fails to generate any sympathy for him. On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Steiner is the ideal man. As his relationship with Rose deepens, Bill does no wrong. He is always thoughtful, never less than completely understanding; he is careful to not pry, not to ask too many questions. He is too good to be true.


Guthrie (2009):
In all three novels [Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder], Stephen King examines the effects of domestic violence and, in a broad sense, patriarchy on women through the eyes of his female protagonists. However, he does not do so in a sensationalist or one-dimensional way; rather, he attempts with his realistic style to delve deeply into their individual psyches to demonstrate how the traumatic events in a woman's life can and will have lasting effects that often split, confuse, and entangle her personality in ways that can make her unrecognizable even to herself. ...

[O]ne can argue that the inclusion of the supernatural in Rose Madder detracts in some ways from the full development and believability of Rose ...

[A]fter creating such a well-developed community of women in Daughters and Sisters, King disappoints by allowing them no essential role in repelling Norman in the end. Instead, a supernatural power must intervene to rescue Rosie. Yes, a female supernatural power rescues her, but in terms of a feminist novel and King's despite to create strong, believable female characters, King thwarts his own goal and potentially disappoints his readers with the deus ex machina element of Rosie's victory.
Next: The Green Mile.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Stephen King: Insomnia (1994)

I'm back! And the Project continues...

Insomnia is the first book of this reading project that I actively disliked. I was bored. I did not like the supernatural elements. It was not up to King's usual standards. Writing about a book I finished 10 months ago would be a challenge. While I took notes while reading, they make little sense to me now. So I'm going post some snips about the book in the place of a lengthy review.

The Complete Stephen King Universe, by Stanley Wiater, Christopher Golden, and Hank Wagner:
Insomnia is a unique hybrid, at once one of King's more down-to-earth and one of his more "cosmic" novels. Down-to-earth in that it stars Ralph Roberts and Lois Chasse, two senior citizens, who, up until the time the novel begins, have led a quiet, restrained existence. Cosmic in its consideration of human fate and destiny, and due to its explicit ties to King's The Dark Tower series ...

[T]he book can also be seen as another contemplation of Fate and Destiny, topics first explored at great length in The Dead Zone. ...

More of a dark fantasy than outright supernatural horror ... With this book, King continues to show a willingness to deal with modern social issues as well.
Kevin Quigley, Charnel House:
[Insomnia] is not as accessible to casual readers as, say, It or The Stand ... Its opening pages move slowly, creating a deliberate, off-kilter feel unlike any of King's other novels. While not dull, the opening sequences (with one startling and effective action sequence near the beginning of the novel) seem to meander without direction. ... It is as if the very structure of the book - both as a story and an object - is trying to induce in the reader the sense of unreality that King's main character, widower Ralph Roberts, suffers through as he loses more and more sleep. ...

If the opening of the novel is a rumination on age and death, the book now becomes an exploration of purpose. ... The concept of higher purpose versus free will has long interested King, playing out as central conflicts in The Dead Zone and It (not coincidentally, Insomnia is also set in Derry, the former home of It, eight years or so after the events of that novel); King would later look more directly at this struggle in Desperation, The Green Mile and Duma Key.

An imminent pro-choice rally, headed by abortion rights activist Susan Day, has divided the town by political and ethical lines, much as Castle Rock was divided by the upcoming church bingo event in Needful Things. Here, King approaches the pro-choice/pro-life issue judiciously, never letting his authorial voice take a side. Much of Insomnia tackles contemporary topics - feminism, spousal abuse, and homophobia among them (this latter most interesting, specifically addressing the murder of Adrian Mellon in It) - without allowing the novel to become mired in them, broaching them only in service to the plot. ...

Combining the philosophical questions of Greater Purpose and Higher Powers with such current hot-topics as domestic violence and abortion risks an agenda, but Insomnia works more subtly than that ... [Also] the novel is folded into the larger fiction of the Dark Tower novels.
Note: King absolutely lets his authorial voice take sides. He is clearly pro-choice. He paints the anti-choice side as complete nutcases and prone to violence.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times, October 6, 1994:
All of which may sound incredibly far-fetched, but amazingly enough it succeeds as storytelling. True, Mr. King develops each nuance of his tale with glacial ponderousness. As always, his text is as full as an old Sears, Roebuck catalogue with brand-name provisions and appurtenances. And not a thought or an action can occur without its being underlined by reference to some popular song or phrase or book. The most elusive specter in this story is a fresh idea or an original turn of phrase.

Still, the narrative somehow holds you all the way to its fulminating climax. And this is followed by a scary-sweet aftermath that neatly resolves the story's exploration of aging and self-sacrifice.
Publishers Weekly, October 3, 1994:
Forget the lean, mean King of Misery, Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne. This is the other King - the Grand Vizier of Verbosity who gave us It, The Tommyknockers and Needful Things. There's much of everything in these 800 pages, including the worthy. Notable is a rare septuagenarian hero, recently widowed Ralph Roberts, whose broodings on old age immerse readers into the aging psyche almost as clearly as other King heroes have revealed the minds of children. Then there's the slam-bang final 300 pages, in themselves a novel's worth of excitement as Ralph battles demonic entities to prevent a holocaust in his small town of Derry, Maine (site of It). The problem is that the finale is preceded by more than a novel's worth of casual, even tedious buildup: Ralph's growing insomnia; his new ability to see auras around all living things; his dismay as Derry's citizens divide violently over the impending visit of a radical pro-lifer; his slow realization that celestial forces have marked Derry as a battleground between good and evil. King remains popular fiction's most reliable mirror of cultural trends, in particular our continuing love affair with horror (Barker and Koontz are palpable influences here). If this novel were liposuctioned, it would rank among King's best; as is, it's another roly-poly volume from a skilled writer who presumes his readers' appetite for words is more gourmand than gourmet.
Stephen King Wiki:
After his wife's death, Ralph Roberts begins to suffer from insomnia. He comes aware that something is wrong with his neighbor, Ed Deepneau, after several disturbing incidents, including the beating of his wife, Helen. Ralph begins questioning his sanity after he starts seeing auras around people and "little bald doctors". Meanwhile, Ed has joined forces with a pro-life group to protest a speech given in Derry by noted-pro-choice activist, Susan Day.

Ralph discovers that a similar thing has been happening to his sweetheart, Lois Chasse. Together, they confront the little bald doctors. They name the two that they talk to Clotho and Lachesis and the other one, Atropos. Clotho and Lachesis want to preserve the natural order of death while Atropos brings chaos. They reveal that Atropos is serving as an agent of the Crimson King to bring about the death of everyone who attends Susan Day's speech through the person of Ed Deepneau.

Ralph and Lois venture into Atropos' lair in order to thwart his part of the Crimson King's plan. They are partially successful, but Atropos promises revenge. ...
King's incorporation of elements of his Dark Tower series into his non-DT fiction is interesting. While there have always been connections between his books, this is different. It's melding his fantasy world with what is, ostensibly, the "real world". And it's something he will do more of in his later novels.

Next: Rose Madder.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Stephen King: Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

This is Stephen King's third collection of short stories (and other writings), after Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. The hefty 816-page book includes stories published over a period of approximately twenty years (1971-1992), and five previously unpublished pieces.

It also includes two pleasant baseball-related surprises: "Head Down", an essay he wrote for The New Yorker about his son's Little League team and its drive towards the Little League World Series, and "Brooklyn August", a 1971 poem about the Dodgers.

King offers Lovecraftian horror ("Crouch End"), a Sherlock Holmes pastiche ("The Doctor's Case"), and a section pulled from an aborted Bachman novel ("My Pretty Pony"). "The Fifth Quarter" also feels Bachmanesque; King published the pure crime tale in a men's magazine in 1972 under the name John Swithen.

N&D - like each of King's short stories collection - is a mixed bag. I definitely enjoy his novels more. Here are some notes on a five other stories:

Dolan's Cadillac: A modern version of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado". A mobster named Dolan has the narrator's wife murdered before she can testify against him at trial. The husband, a schoolteacher, spies on Dolan for seven long years, learning every one of his routines, and slowly conceives of a wild plan to bury Dolan alive in his Cadillac.

The Night Flier: Richard Dees, a writer for the tabloid Inside View - he played a minor role in The Dead Zone - tracks down and confronts a serial killer who has been flying a Cessna up and down the East Coast, murdering people in small, rural airports.

Popsy: A man with deep gambling debts scouts out a shopping mall and abducts a six-year-old boy in an effort to pay off his debt. This is prime suspense/horror, and would have made an excellent beginning to a novel. But the short tale falls apart when we learn the boy's Popsy is also some sort of pterodactyl, who rescues the boy and kills the abductor.

The Moving Finger: Howard Mitla hears tiny scratching sounds from his bathroom and assumes there is a mouse in the tub. Upon actual inspection, he sees a human finger poking up out of the sink drain like "an organic periscope". Howard believes he is hallucinating, since his wife Violet is unaware anything is wrong. But as the finger grows, Howard realizes he needs to take drastic action to stop it. King, from his Notes: "My favorite sort of short story has always been the kind where things happen just because they happen. ... I hate explaining why things happen".

Rainy Season: Every seven years, on June 17th, the small town of Willow, Maine, is inundated by a thunderstorm of large toads. Very hungry toads with extremely sharp teeth. Long-time residents know to stay inside and shutter their windows. John and Elise Graham arrive in Willow the day before, and are warned to stay out of town for the night. Naturally, they think the locals are joking with them and they drive off to the house they have rented for the summer. ... They should have taken the locals' advice.

Next: Insomnia.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Widespread Torture Continues In Afghanistan

As Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term as president of the United States, a new report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) states that
torture persists and remains a serious concern in numerous detention facilities across Afghanistan.
According to the Associated Press,
Afghan authorities leave detainees hanging from the ceiling by their wrists, beat them with cables and wooden sticks, administer electric shocks, twist their genitals and threaten to shove bottles up their anuses or to kill them.
Georgette Gagnon, Director of Human Rights for UNAMA:
UNAMA found a persistent lack of accountability for perpetrators of torture with few investigations and no prosecutions for those responsible. ... Without deterrents and disincentives to use torture, including a robust, independent investigation process, criminal prosecutions and courts' consistent refusal to accept confessions gained through torture, Afghan officials have no incentive to stop torture.
You can download the entire UNAMA report here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Pleasures Of Reading In An Age Of Distraction, By Alan Jacobs

"We read what we want, when we want,
and there is no one to assign or to evaluate.

According to Alan Jacobs's short (162 pages) but insightful and utterly wonderful book, published in 2011, we should strive to be "free readers", to jettison the idea of the "guilty pleasure", with its implication of doing something wrong, and read what gives us delight and do so without shame.

Jacobs explores many facets of reading, including the invention of silent reading, the challenges of reading responsively, the distinct pleasures of rereading, and the pros and cons of digital reading. While mulling over how reading is presented in school - as a chore, a stressful obligation, or because it is good for you, like broccoli - Jacobs says it's a minor miracle how anyone ever becomes a reader, someone who does it because she loves it and can't not read.

Jacobs quotes Lynne Sharon Schwartz:
[W]hat reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life's lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.
Jacobs talks about collaborating with a book while in this state. "The book you read - or whatever you read - becomes your ally and your chief support as you take ownership of your inner space and banish those forces that would rule your consciousness." It is an awesome amount of power from a series of black symbols on white pieces of paper.

Jacobs stands firmly on the same side of the cultural street as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton and opposite "the Vigilant school" of judgmental literary snobs like Harold Bloom and (in earlier decades) F.R. Leavis, those self-appointed guardians of literature, announcing which books are worthy of being read, and how they should be read.

Bloom's puritanical disgust and contempt for most readers is well-known. In 2007, in response to the massive sales of the Harry Potter books, Bloom sniffed, "I know of no larger indictment of the world's descent into subliteracy." To spend time with one of these books was to not actually read, according to Bloom, but to merely pass one's eyes across a page. In case you are curious, back in 2003, Bloom listed only four active American writers who "deserve our praise": Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo.

Jacobs mentions Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book (1940), which, although the title sounds elitist, has a populist message: you do not need a university education in order to be a skillful reader of even the most challenging texts. Some slight guidance from a confident instructor (like Adler, for example) could put you on the path to erudition.

Jacobs is admirably non-judgmental. "The person just beginning to bring some discipline to his or her life as a reader need not be ashamed at reading non-masterpieces, or at only being able to focus on reading a few pages at a time." After all, a sedentary person would not - indeed, could not - leap off the couch and promptly run a marathon.

Jacobs highlights the three things we look for when we read: information, understanding, and pleasure or joy. Each of these reasons are equally valid, one not more important (or "better") than the others. However, there is something to be said for reading "upstream", for looking back to the works that inspired our favourite writers, rather than reading "downstream", finding lesser works that come in the wake of those favourites.

Very little of our growth as readers can be planned; it is unmethodical and unpredictable. "We must be content to be guided by the invisible hand of serendipity." Jacobs also uses the term "accident sagacity". Jacobs believes that serendipitous chance encounters and discoveries remain possible in the age of Google/Amazon. I'll agree with him on the idea of clicking from link to link on the internet, ending up somewhere interesting, but not quite able to retrace your steps and remember how you got there, but I'm skeptical that something like Amazon's "People who bought this book also bought" feature can approximate wandering around a sprawling used book store.

Jacobs also includes a few good quotes showing that people in the 17th century felt a similar flood of information (and books to read) as we do today. When discussing the need for silence in order to read deeply, Jacobs cites Bruce R. Smith's The Acoustic World of Early Modern England which makes the case for an utterly cacophonous world 500 years ago. (All of this sounds utterly fascinating to me.)

I've done a poor job of explaining or showing the delights of this book, but I think if you like reading (and especially the idea of reading), you'll enjoy any time spent with this book.

Dept. of Baader-Meinhof. Jacobs mentions Patricia Meyer Spacks, whose book On Rereading (2011) I also borrowed from the library. (Peter Toohey's Boredom: A Lively History - which was not as engaging as I had hoped - also mentioned Sparks.) Jacobs refers to C.S. Lewis (he has written a biography of Lewis) and I just finished reading Lewis's extended essay An Experiment in Criticism (1961). Jacobs mentions that he has finally read G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, a 1908 novel which was cited in two books by John Carey that I recently purchased: The Intellectuals And The Masses (1992) and What Good Are The Arts? (2005). (I was reading all of these books hoping to get a firmer handle on the idea of high and low culture, when those distinctions were invented, how they have been perpetuated, and how they hold sway over us even now. Also: what constitutes a work of art, and do works of art have any more intrinsic value than something that might not be considered "art"?)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

FBI Breaks Up Another Of Its Own Terrorist Plots

Arun Gupta, Z Magazine:
The U.S. government described the five as hell-bent on sowing terror to fulfill their "violent anarchist ideology." In reality, the FBI supplied ten pounds of inert plastic explosives to drifters, suicidal, drug addicts and emotionally troubled. Like hundreds of post-September 11 cases against Muslim-Americans, the FBI conjured up the terrorism it takes credit for preventing.

The FBI's most valuable asset was a paid informant and con artist, Shaquille Azir, who played father figure to the lost men, molding their childish bravado and drunken fantasies into a terrorist plot. Azir drove the five around — who lacked cars and drivers’ licenses according to friends — and provided them with jobs, housing, beer, pot and prescription drugs. Every time the scheme threatened to collapse into gutterpunk chaos, Azir kept it on track.

FBI tapes reveal Azir led the brainstorming of targets, showed them bridges to case out, pushed them to buy C-4 military-grade explosives, provided the contact for weapons, gave them money for the explosives and demanded they develop a plan ... The group was nabbed at an Applebee's after futilely using cell phones to detonate the charges, as they had been instructed.
It is nearly impossible to find a thwarted terrorist plot in the U.S. since 9/11 - and there are dozens, perhaps hundreds - that does not have the FBI's fingerprints of entrapment all over it.

Stephen King: Dolores Claiborne (1992)

In Dolores Claiborne, character is more important than action. The entire novel (save for a few newspaper clippings at the very end) consists of a lengthy statement Dolores gives to local police regarding the death of "that bitch" Vera Donovan, an elderly woman for whom Dolores works as a live-in nurse on Little Tall Island, off the coast of Maine.

Dolores knows she is suspected of foul play in Vera's death because most people on the island believe she killed her husband, Joe St. George, nearly thirty years earlier. Indeed, very early in her statement, she admits to the murder. ("Everyone on Little Tall knows it ... It's just that nobody could prove it.") And so she has come to the police station voluntarily to tell her story. She says she will give a complete and truthful accounting, but she will tell it her way.

Over the course of several hours, Dolores - 65 years old and a lifelong resident of the island - details the trials of caring for the increasingly-senile Vera, her marriage to Joe and the many years of abuse, her planning and carrying out of his murder, and her less-than-ideal relationships with her children. This is Dolores's life story - more of a long narrative than an actual confession.

The book was originally planned as one half of a longer novel - In The Path Of The Eclipse - with Jessie Burlingame's story (his previous novel, Gerald's Game). The two novels were published six months apart (May and November 1992).

King dedicated Dolores Claiborne to his mother, Ruth Pillsbury King, who raised King and his brother David after their father went out for cigarettes one evening when Steve was two years old, and never came back. In Danse Macabre, King writes:
After my father took off, my mother landed on her feet scrambling. My brother and I didn't see a great deal of her over the next nine years. She worked at a succession of low-paying jobs ... She was a talented pianist and a woman with a great and sometimes eccentric sense of humor, and somehow she kept things together, as woman before her have done and as other women are doing even now as we speak.

James Ronald Guthrie ("Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009)):
King doubles his risk as an author both by removing much of the suspense in the novel and by using a first-person narrator. ... King must rely on the strength of the novel's themes and, perhaps more importantly, the strength of Dolores's character to keep the reader's interest. This last is even more challenging for king because he goes beyond simply using a first-person narrator by writing the entire novel in the form of a monologue with no chapter divisions or other breaks of any kind. This narrative structure gives him an opportunity to develop a female character in much more internal detail than he ever has before.
Dolores's story is full of Maine vernacular and folksy phrases, and King occasionally uses phonetic spelling (pitcher, ast, warshin). Dolores explains: "I'm just an old woman with a foul temper and a fouler mouth, but that's what happens, more often than not, when you've had a foul life."

She was married to (and pregnant by) Joe St. George when she was only eighteen years old. "I was tired of fightin with my mother. I was tried of bein scolded by my father. All my friends was doin it, they was gettin homes of their own, and I wanted to be a grownup like them." Joe hit her for the first time two days after their wedding. Dolores grew up seeing her father hit her mother occasionally - "that sort of thing was called home correction in those days" - and believed that "a man hittin his wife from time to time was only another part of being married."

Dolores began working as a housekeeper at the Donovans' summer house in 1949, a few years after getting married. After Vera's husband dies in a suspicious car accident, she moves to the island full-time. Dolores needs the work to make up for the money Joe lost in his weekly poker games. Joe's inability to find steady work and the need for Dolores's income to provide for the family only increases Joe's contempt for his wife, and his need to exert control over her.

After years of abuse, however, Dolores finally takes a stand. When Joe whacks her in the kidneys with a stove-length piece of rock maple, she asserts herself, smashing a creamer against the side of his head and threatening to kill Joe with a hatchet if he ever hits her again. Her threat actually stops the physical abuse (Joe's verbal abuse continues), though Dolores does nothing to prevent Joe from bragging to his friends about how he still keeps his woman in line.

It is after creamer/hatchet incident that Joe begins to take an interest in his fourteen-year-old daughter, Selena. Although we never see any of the sexual abuse, we do get a full portrait of Selena's depression. A distance develops between her and her mother (Joe has told Selena lies about how unstable and violent her mother is). Selena starts dressing in baggy clothes, spending more time studying at school and not at home, often not washing her hair, not eating, and not talking much to anyone. We are privy, through Dolores's recollections, to the conversation when Selena finally tells her secrets to her mother: "I feel so dirty and confused, and I can't be happy no matter how hard I try."
There were two other things she said on the way back - one with her mouth and one with her eyes. The one she said out loud was that she'd been thinkin of packin her things and runnin away; that seemed at least like a way out. But runnin won't solve your problems if you've been hurt bad enough - wherever you run, you take your head n your heart with you, after all - and the thing I saw in her eyes was that the thought of suicide had done more'n just cross her mind.

I'd think of that - of seein the thought of suicide in my daughter's eyes - and then I'd see Joe's face even clearer with that eye inside me. I'd see how he must've looked, pesterin her and pesterin her, tryin to get a hand up her skirt until she wore nothin but jeans in self-defense, not gettin what he wanted (or not all of what he wanted) because of simple luck, her good n his bad, and not for any lack of tryin. I thought about what might've happened if Joe Junior hadn't cut his playin with Willy Bramhall short a few times n come home early, or if I hadn't finally opened my eyes enough to get a really good look at her. Most of all I thought about how he'd driven her. He'd done it the way a bad-hearted man with a quirt or a greenwood stick might drive a horse, and never stop once, not for love and not for pity, until that animal lay dead at his feet ... and him prob'ly standin above it with the stick in his hand, wonderin why in hell that happened. ... My eyes were all the way open, and I saw I was livin with a loveless, pitiless man who believed anything he could reach with his arm and grasp with his hand was his to take, even his own daughter.

I'd got just about that far in my thinkin when the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time.
Dolores says that it was shortly after her daughter's confession that "the thought of killin him crossed my mind for the first time". But as Dolores admits to Vera, in whom she has confided, "I'll be goddamned if I see a way to do him the way he deserves to be done." It is Vera - who strongly implies that she tinkered with her late husband's car's brakes - who insists she get rid of this obstacle in her life: "An accident is sometimes an unhappy woman's best friend."

Dolores, realizing she cannot control Joe from taking out his aggression on her sons, resolves instead to leave the island with the three children, and goes to withdraw money from their college fund accounts at the bank as money to start a new life. When at the bank, she learns that Joe has secretly withdrawn the money from all three accounts for himself. Dolores is incensed at the betrayal, both by Joe and the bank. She rightly claims to the bank's manager that if the situation had been reversed, Joe would have certainly received a call from the bank alerting him to what his wife had done with approximately $3,000. This small incident exemplifies the unequal power in marital relationships in the early 1960s, and the subservient role that women were forced to accept.

This betrayal is the final straw and after much hard thinking, Dolores works out a plan to kill Joe on the day - July 20, 1963 - that a solar eclipse crossed Maine by getting him drunk and luring him over to an abandoned well on their property. Also on that day, Dolores has a vision of a 10-year-old girl sitting on her father's lap. It's young Jessie Mahout, also watching the eclipse from somewhere else in Maine. In Gerald's Game, Jessie thinks of a woman leading her husband to a well. King offers no real explanation for these twin visions. Perhaps he is implying some shared spiritual connection between abused girls/women?

Rachel Anne Turnage ("Finding the Faces of Our Mothers: Everyday Feminism in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game" (2006)) praises the
complex and conflicted way in which King represents Dolores' reaction to violence and the historically accurate representation of the great limitations put upon women in this time period. ... In this manner, Dolores Claiborne imagines the suffering of a victim subjected to the social and legal restrictions that first wave feminists were fighting to abolish.
King's portrayals of Jessie Burlingame and Dolores Claiborne (she begins re-using her birth name six months after Joe's death) represented a huge leap forward in his writing. Unfortunately, the men in the two novels are nearly one-dimensional. In this novel, Joe is presented with few, if any, redeeming qualities. He is cowardly and paranoid, a frequent drinker, has no sense of humour, and, in addition to beating his wife and lusting after his daughter, he ridicules his oldest son as a sissy for reading books. King seems determined that no reader can have a shred of sympathy of Joe - and that Dolores's decision to kill him is wholly justified.

Next: Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Stephen King: Gerald's Game (1992)

Gerald's Game began a new phase in Stephen King's writing career. It was the first of three books – a trio that includes Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder – that marked King's attempts at creating and sustaining believable adult female characters.

Gerald and Jessie Burlingame have made an impromptu midweek trip to their summer home on the deserted north shore of Lake Kashwakamak in central Maine. It is October, and the summer crowd is long gone. As the novel opens, Jessie is handcuffed to the bedposts, wearing only a pair of panties – part of a mild bondage game Gerald has introduced into their flagging, 17-year marriage.

The role-playing initially gave Jessie "a certain uneasy excitement", but now she feels only demeaned and humiliated. She tells Gerald she wants to stop, but he willfully ignores her. She lashes out in anger, kicking her husband in the groin and stomach, triggering a fatal heart attack. Suddenly, Jessie is in a far greater danger – trapped on a bed in the middle of nowhere. She realizes that by the time anyone notices she and Gerald are missing and then thinks to check their remote cabin, it will likely be too late. It's not long before the awful possibilities ("starvation, thirst-induced madness, convulsions, death") flood her mind.

As she tries to find some way to escape, Jessie must draw on previously untapped wells of physical and mental strength. She must concentrate in order to figure out a way to get to the glass of water resting on the shelf above her head or to the keys to the handcuffs on the dresser on the other side of the room. She must also contend with the intense pain from being held in a position resembling crucifixion. During her second day on the bed, she tries exercising, mainly to alleviate the steady muscle cramps, pedaling with her feet and pumping her arms up and down as much as the handcuffs allow.
In spite of the exercise, she could feel coldness creeping into her feet and hands, settling onto her skin like a skim of ice and then working its way in. This was nothing like the gone-to-sleep feeling with which she had awakened this morning . . . She supposed this numbness would eventually overwhelm the cramps and that, in the end, her death might turn out to be quite merciful after all – like going to sleep in a snowbank – but it was moving much too slowly.

Time passed but it wasn't time; it was just a relentless, unchanging flow of information passing from her sleepless senses to her eerily lucid mind. There was only the bedroom, the scenery outside . . . and the slow movement of the shadows along the floor as the sun made its way across a painted autumn sky. Every now and then a cramp would stab into one of her armpits like an icepick or pound a thick steel nail into her right side. As the afternoon wore endlessly along, the first cramps began to strike into her belly, where all hunger pangs had now ceased, and into the overstressed tendons of her diaphragm. These latter were the worst, freezing the sheath of muscles in her chest and locking down her lungs. She stared up at the reflected water-ripples on the ceiling with agonized, bulging eyes as each one struck, arms and legs trembling with effort as she tried to continue breathing until the cramp eased. It was like being buried up to the neck in cold wet cement.
Throughout the novel, King does a marvelous job at creating tension, anxiety, and suspense. While the narrative drags in a few places – including the ending – for the most part Gerald's Game is nearly as taut as Misery. King's plot is simple – Jessie gets handcuffed to a bed and tries to escape – but he easily overcomes any dramatic limitations; his imagination and story-telling skills are far too good for that. King concentrates his energies on what one critic described as "the delicate and contradictory intricacies of the human mind, [creating] a character that is entirely recognizable and imminently relevant."

James Ronald Guthrie ("Three Decades of Terror: Domestic Violence, Patriarchy, and the Evolution of Female Characters in Stephen King's Fiction" (2009)):
The horror of domestic violence and a harsh criticism of American patriarchal society have been the dominant tropes in King's novels from the beginning of his career. ... [His novels] show that domestic violence is not only widespread and feared throughout American society, but also enabled by American patriarchal society itself, if not explicitly condoned by it. ...

For King in the 1990s, domestic violence in the private sphere is a metaphor for the ultimate violence of American patriarchal society, the public sphere that condones, enables, and sometimes even rewards violence against women.
Rachel Anne Turnage ("Finding the Faces of Our Mothers: Everyday Feminism in Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game" (2006)) agrees, writing that in Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne – which King originally envisioned as two halves of one long novel entitled In the Path of the Eclipse – King
has created a history of fifty years of feminist struggle in the United States that is not only meaningful and authentic to readers, but also serves as a powerful expression of social criticism. King achieves authenticity through rough, vernacular language, recognizable heroines, and an unrelenting political incorrectness that refuses to shy away from the real monster in the closet: horrific abuses of power made possible by a patriarchal culture.
While these two mainstream novels "contain much feminist theory and history ... [alongside] a clear and relevant analysis of American culture", Turnage says they are also "accessible to readers who would otherwise be turned off by texts that openly define themselves as feminist".

King tells his story by making extensive and expert use of what Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin called heteroglossia – a diversity of voices, styles of discourse, or points of view that create a complex unity in a literary work, especially a novel.

Early in the novel, King writes that ever since Jessie was a young girl, she had been hearing voices. These voices began "on the day the sun went out": July 20, 1963, when a section of central Maine experienced a total solar eclipse. That was the day on which Jessie, then only 10 years old, was molested by her father.

Since then she has steadfastly repressed the trauma, driving away friends, discontinuing therapy, and ending up (nearly three decades later) unfulfilled in a grossly unequal relationship, quietly acquiescing to her husband's demands. But now, trapped on the bed, with the voices chattering in her head like a Greek chorus, she cannot run, and is forced to confront what happened. As darkness falls on the first night, Jessie begins "not so much dreaming of the day of the eclipse but reliving it".

Guthrie writes that by using these various voices,
King is able to expand the conflict within Jessie's psyche to encompass the conflict within the discourses of an entire society. ... Almost all of society's stereotypical views of women reside within Jessie's troubled mind. ... [Her] journey of self-discovery involves the recovery of the repressed memories made available by a multiplicity of voices ... She is not schizophrenic in the true sense of the word; rather, these multiple personae symbolize the many different aspects of her self, a conglomeration of what she was, what she is, and, most importantly, what she could be. ...

King deftly uses the terror of Jessie's immediate situation to perform an in-depth study of an abused woman's inner turmoil, a struggle for self-integration applicable not only to abused women but also to all women and to men.
Realizing that her father – a man she worshiped – took advantage of her and then manipulated her into taking responsibility for his crime, convincing her to tearfully beg that he never reveal what had happened, Jessie is forced to ask herself a terrifying question: "How many of the choices she had made since that day had been directly or indirectly influenced by what had happened during the final minute or so she had spent on her Daddy's lap?"

Two final points:

After Jessie frees herself and begins driving slowly away from the house, the narrative point of view changes. We jump ahead four months and find Jessie recovering from what she refers to her "hard time". We learn the rest of the story in the form of a long letter Jessie is writing to reconnect with her old friend, Ruth. This shift works for the most part, but it goes on far too long, and makes points a careful reader has already deduced. (The Joubert section feels like it was dropped in from another King manuscript and serves no good purpose, defeating the purpose of a reader thinking Jessie was hallucinating, which would make far more sense in light of her vivid recollections of the day of the eclipse.)

While Jessie is trapped on the bed, a starving stray dog wanders into the house, and rips a chunk out of Gerald's right arm – making a "wet, snotty, ripping sound" – and takes it back into the hallway to eat. King provides the back story to how this mangy mutt ended up near death in the Maine woods and it's absolutely heartbreaking. King is superb at communicating the dog's thoughts; he did it expertly in Cujo, as well. How the dog got to the cabins by the lake is irrelevant to the novel – though there are similarities with the dog and Jessie both doing whatever they need to do to stay alive – but King includes it anyway. After thinking seriously about how dependent domestic animals are on humans, and how irresponsible and sadistic those humans can be, I was left with a messy mix of sadness and impotent anger.

Next: Dolores Claiborne.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Stephen King: The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands (1991)

The actual quest for the Dark Tower begins in earnest in The Waste Lands - the third book in the series - and I remain quite cool towards what King (and many of his fans) views as his magnum opus. I have liked most of King's books so far in this project, but the fantasy novels are proving a tough road to hoe.

First, what happens: Roland the Gunslinger and his two fellow travellers - Eddie Dean and Susannah Dean - help Jake Chambers cross through from 1977 Brooklyn to Mid-World. The foursome (along with a doglike creature named Oy) then make their way southeast along the path of the Beam towards the elusive Dark Tower, encountering some serious trouble within the decaying city of Lud before earning a ride through the Wastelands aboard Blaine the Mono. (For a much more complete overview of the book, check out Kev's synopsis here.)

Besides some silly and juvenile stuff that gets in the way of enjoying the narrative - the war drums that echo throughout Lud are from ZZ Top's "Velcro Fly"; one of the warring factions in Lud is known as the Pubes - I feel like King has written a lot of this before. The Mansion (the portal through which Jake joins the others) is similar to the Martsen House ('Salem's Lot) and, to a lesser extent, the Overlook Hotel (The Shining). The barren and nearly-uninhabitable Waste Lands sound a lot like the Blasted Lands (The Talisman). Randall Flagg (The Stand, Eyes of the Dragon) makes a cameo late in the book, taking an interest in the wounded Tick-Tock Man.

More importantly, King's writing is often weak, falling back on descriptive cliches that he has used in earlier books. And he has a bad habit of over explaining things, as though he does not trust his readers' imagination. Here is a perfect example of King's excessive description (of the man-made tunnels, warrens, and labyrinths in Lud):
Now they were going downhill, and the walls of tightly packed paper had given way to ramparts of filing cabinets, jumbles of adding machines, and piles of computer gear. It was like running through some nightmarish Radio Shack warehouse. For almost a full minute the wall flowing past on Jake's left appeared to be constructed solely of either TV sets or carelessly stacked video display terminals.
That second sentence does nothing but slow down the narrative. King tells us what the scene is similar to, right after he tells us what the scene actually is. Coming across several of these examples (which often come with a brand name included) makes for a maddening reading experience. Reading this book and the previous volume (The Drawing of the Three) made me fervently wish an editor had gone over the manuscript one final time and removed these, and similar, extraneous words.

Roland becomes more nuanced in this book, showing signs of humour, patience, and tenderness. Eddie matures in his role as fellow gunslinger, mid-wiving Jake into Mid-World. Sadly, King still has trouble with his female characters, as Susannah is not shown experiencing similar growth. While Eddie works hard to get Jake safely through the portal, Susannah is left to distract the spirit being that aims to thwart them by having sex with it. (Granted, if the spirit had been female the task of seduction would have fallen to Eddie - no gay sex in Mid-World, please! - but the fact is that it doesn't. And much of the lead-up to Jake's arrival clearly points to Eddie as being the person in charge.) Late in the book, however, Susannah does solve Blaine's "prime" riddle and enables the gang to get on board the monorail.

In an author's note, King promises a fourth volume "in the not-too-distant future". Fans would have to wait until 1997 - six years! - to find out what happens next to Roland and his ka-tet.

Next: Gerald's Game.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

More Proof Of The US's One-Party System

Under the not-so-surprising headline - Obama Quietly Signs Abusive Spy Bill He Once Vowed to Eliminate - we learn that Barack Obama took advantage of the week between Christmas and New Year's - when many Americans are busy with family and friends - to sneak off and sign into law a five-year extension of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, giving the National Security Agency "nearly unfettered access to Americans' international communications".

If you are curious to read the empty promises that Candidate Obama made in 2008 to dupe his supporters into thinking he actually was going to offer an alternative to the right-wing neo-cons, click here.

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald yet again offers unassailable proof of the US's one-party government:
Just four or five years ago, objections to warrantless eavesdropping were a prime grievance of Democrats against Bush. The controversies that arose from it were protracted, intense, and often ugly. Progressives loved to depict themselves as stalwartly opposing right-wing radicalism in defense of Our Values and the Constitution.

Fast forward to 2012 and all of that, literally, has changed. Now it's a Democratic President demanding reform-free renewal of his warrantless eavesdropping powers. ... And it now all happens with virtually no media attention or controversy because the two parties collaborate so harmoniously to make it happen. ...

Here we find yet again a defining attribute of the Obama legacy: the transformation of what was until recently a symbol of right-wing radicalism - warrantless eavesdropping - into meekly accepted bipartisan consensus.
By earnestly and unswervingly following in George Bush's and Dick Cheney's ideological footsteps, Obama has effectively negated all meaningful protest of these unconstitutional measures. Democratic politicans now happily support the same policies they railed against for the eight years of Republican rule (thus making any reasonable person question their prior objections). And Democratic voters offer flimsy reasons why things are somehow different now, arguing that Obama is not that bad.

As the Peace Laureate continues his drone attacks on at least six Middle Eastern countries, where he has murdered close to 200 children in Pakistan alone (without shedding so much as one tear), many of them the same age as the innocent kids who were gunned down in Newton, Connecticut.