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.