Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Stephen King: Duma Key (2008)

Edgar Freemantle has made a lot of money with his Minnesota construction business before a horrific accident on the job leaves him with a damaged memory, a broken body, and a missing right arm. Along the way, Edgar's marriage falls apart. Depressed and thinking of suicide, Freemantle talks to his therapist, who suggests a change of scenery and a hobby, as "hedges against the night".

Edgar moves to the west coast of Florida, into a beach house he calls Big Pink, and begins drawing and painting - something in which he took pleasure when he was younger. His house overlooks the Gulf of Mexico and he begins painting sunsets. However, the subjects of his paintings soon change, and it's clear that Edgar has gained some paranormal power. He is at his easel constantly, producing an extraordinary number of emotionally-charged paintings in a relatively short period of time. He's not entirely clear on where this talent or creativity is coming from. His paintings eventually attract attention and he has a wildly successful showing. But all is not sunshine; there are some dark forces at work, as Edgar soon learns.

King's narrative is highly readable and enjoyable as he recounts Edgar's friendship with Wireman, a gregarious sage who lives down the beach as the caretaker of the elderly Elizabeth Eastlake, whose father once owned this particular strip of Florida coastline. King clearly draws on personal experience in describing Edgar's long and painful recovery from his accident (King was struck by a van and nearly killed in 1999) and he offers his thoughts on the creative process throughout the book, though he seems to hint that those impulses can come from a very dark place. It's only in the book's second half that Duma Key drifts into boilerplate horror.

Duma Key received good reviews, from the New York TimesEsquire and Pop Matters, as well as Kevin Quigley, who runs a website devoted to King and his work. However, while I enjoyed Duma Key more than the last few King novels in the Project, it disappointed me. I agree with the Telegraph (UK) reviewer who wrote that Duma Key "starts promisingly but descends into an overlong, self-indulgent stinker. ... The novel, in which King starts to weave a multi-layered tale of loss, hope and recovery, concluded with ghosts, zombies and killers."

One-third of the novel's 600 pages could have been cut with little negative impact on the plot. I enjoyed King's focus on painting/creativity, but my interest flagged as Edgar (with the assistance of two friends) attempted to vanquish the island's evil spirits and save both himself and his loved ones. I can accept some supernatural activity in my fiction - my favourite book of all-time features at least one wraith, after all - but I draw the line well before colossal reptiles and levitating lawn jockeys.

Next: Just After Sunset.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Death Merchant #57: The Romanian Operation

Freedom Run

The breathtaking but treacherous mountains of Romania become a deadly arena of intrigue. RSBK head, General Ion Gheorghe Constantriescu, wants to defect to the United States, and only the Death Merchant can get him out of the isolated Soviet bloc country. Two minor obstacles, however: Constantriescu will only leave Romania with his wife, a fiercely loyal Russian KGB agent assigned to spy on her husband. And the General's organization is doing its damndest to capture the Death Merchant.

Chances for success are extremely slim, like "trying to get the toothpaste back into the tube", as Camellion assesses the situation. But with a little help from a handful of Romanian freedom fighters, a monastery of Jesuit priests, a top-secret aircraft, and a deadly arsenal of weapons, the master of cunning and disguise plots an extraordinary kidnapping and escape.


The back cover of The Romanian Operation plainly lays out the task for Richard Camellion: get General Constantriescu and his family out of the country. It will be a tough task, as Romania is completely surrounded by other Communist countries: the Soviet Union to the north and east, Bulgaria to the south, and Hungary and Yugoslavia to the west.

The Death Merchant is in Bucharest with fellow agent JoAnn Jackson, in disguise and posing as an elderly German couple: Professor Hans Hermann Bach and his wife Greta. They are roused from their hotel bed by six armed agents of the Romania Brosko Stramosesc Kibuyturii (RSBK). With multiple guns drawn on him, Camellion fakes a heart attack, then springs into action "with such speed that the human eye could not follow his movements". They kill the RSBK agents and escape. After stealing a car, they transfer to public transportation and during the streetcar ride to the Zimbor Doll Factory, Camellion ponders his latest assignment.

Constantriescu wants to defect to the United States, but he insists that his wife Sonya and his two children be taken out of Romania with him. At a couple of points in the book, Camellion wonders what information Constantriescu could possess that would be so important to the U.S. Author Joseph Rosenberger never returns to this thread and so we never learn why the CIA undertook this dangerous operation.

A plan is formed to kidnap Constantriescu. Knowing that he suffers from arthritis and visits the hot springs at Baile Herculane a few times a year, someone is able to (slightly) poison him so he has leg pain and heads to the baths. He and his wife are stopped along the road by the Death Merchant and his crew and kidnapped. (The two children are left to fend for themselves, it seems.)

While in the custody of the Death Merchant, they travel to a few different spots, including hiding in a few rooms hidden under the stone floor of the Moldevita Monastery, founded in 1466. They hope that a special U.S. military plane - across between a jet and a helicopter - can land on the monastery's grounds and whisk them away. Unbeknownst to the Death Merchant, there is a hidden transmitter in Sonya Constantriescu's handbag and the local militia is able to pinpoint their location. By the time Camellion finds the transmitter, it is too late.

They battle the RSBK and escape from the monastery through a tunnel - and make their way through the Alps to a cave known to the local group helping them. It is stocked with food and blankets. However, they must return to the monastery to be air-lifted out of Romania. (While walking through the snowy canyon, Camellion experiences a bit of deja vu about being in a similar canyon "in another land, in another time, and as another person". (I have no idea what Rosenberger is getting at here. Also, he seems to get confused in his narrative: "Camellion moved through the snow ... each step an effort, for the snow was heavy. Fortunately, it was dry and not all that heavy.")

They make their way back to the monastery and have one final battle before being taken away to safety - lifting off just as RSBK reinforcements arrive. The book ends as the men (and one woman) escape. All we know is that in two weeks, Camellion would be in California, for his next mission.

Rosenberger's political and social rants return in this volume, with a strong focus on the evils of U.S. immigration. (Any and all typos are in the original.)
Prahova's large eyes blinked rapidly behind the large plastic frame of his glasses. He said calmly, "I was referring to the United States being the only nation in the world—that I know of—that works against its own national interests. I don't think you can disagree with me. ... The United States policy of immigration ... Any kind of people can get into the United States. You admit any and all of them, even people who cannot read and write. For that reason the United States is no longer the great power it used to be. Your nation's present deterioration stems from its loss of racial homogeneity and racial consciousness and from the the alienation of most of your citizens."

Called out Hisamic, pulling a board from the top of a crate, "Your government is doing nothing about the millions pouring across its southern border. Some months ago one of your national news magazines called in a 'Brown Horde' that is costing your taxpayers millions.2 It is a pity that Americans have yet to learn what we Europeans have known for centuries: that no multi-racial society can be a healthy society. The United States government has made itself a laughing stock with its theory of 'equality.' All men are not equal in ability and morality, and to attempt to push all men forward on a broad front only succeeds in bringing down all standards. Do you disagree with me, my friends?" ...

FN2: 18.5 percent of undocumented women of Mexican descent, living in Los Angeles and interviewed after giving birth at county hospitals, said their families received welfare.
Rosenberger then shatters the fourth wall, listing a bunch of unsourced claims - not in a footnote, but in the narrative:
In a study of illegal aliens in New York City who had been caught, 13 percent of the Haitians and 29 percent of the Dominicans said they were receiving unemployment insurance.

A California survey found that nearly 25 percent of illegal aliens received unemployment benefits.

An Illinois survey suggests that illegals collect more than $50-million in unemployment benefits from that state; and that 46-51 percent of illegal aliens apply for unemployment benefits.

The above is from the 10-6-82 Phoenix Gazette, and was reproduced in the Daily News Digest, whose editor stated that "This is a natural result of a welfare state. Consider what we Americans are going to see when economic and political unrest in Mexico drives millions more people across the border into the United States!"
Later, Camellion offers his thoughts on the idea of "racism" (and, of course, immigration):
JoAnn Jackson laughed softly and looked at the Death Merchant. "You sound like a racist," she mocked. "I always thought you believed in the salvation of all men."

Ignoring her scathing sarcasm, Camellion hooked a thumb into the handkerchief pocket of his tweed sports jacket.

"'Racism' doesn't mean closing one's eyes to reality," he said. "I don't pay the expenses of other ranchers in Texas, where I live. Why should I help pay the expenses of aliens, for people who aren't even U.S. citizens? This is government-enforced 'charity.' Defenders of such a policy only kid themselves when they say it's the 'American way.' Nonsense. Charity cannot be orchestrated by any government without the will of the people—and find me a single American who wants part of his taxes to go for the support of people who don't even have a right to be here? And we must remember the kind of people who come to our shores, with the exception of Europeans and the Japanese. Your more skilled, intelligent and successful citizens of the countries stay where they are. It is the less fortunate, the less skilled and the less educated that come into 'Welfare America' for whatever they can get. Some of them do pull themselves up. The vast majority do not. They end up on welfare roles and, as President Reagan says—and I believe it is true—there are jobs out there available to those who have skills. The illegal aliens don't have any skills. . . ."
It's unclear how Camellion pays for "the expenses for aliens", since in earlier books, he proudly states that he pays no taxes on the $100,000 he receives for each mission.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) receives particular condemnation:
With his plate, Chris Ankers had sat down at another table and was saying to Josef Hisamic in a friendly voice, "I agree with what you and Stefan said about American society being fragmentated. The American people would like to kick out every parasitic spic. They can't because of self-serving politicians who kiss the ass of every minority group in order to get votes. No doubt if two Martians landed, the politicians would kiss their butts too, then ask the little green men to vote for them."

"There's more to it than that," said Mund, filling his plate. "It's all the bullshit 'freedom' organizations and the do-gooders—like Catholic priests and bishops—who are constantly butting into politics. The worst of the lot is the ACLU—the American Civil Libery Union. The ACLU is all for the 'undocumented worker' and adores common criminals. Your wife can be raped and your children's throats cut by some piece of scum. The ACLU will be right on the spot, making sure that the trash gets his 'rights.' They'll give all sorts of excuses—the criminal was 'poor' or he was 'abused' in childhood or whatever. Naturally the ACLU is against the death penalty.4 Yes sir, the ACLU has a positive genius for coddling the worst kind of criminal."

FN4: In Arizona the ACLU is even against roadblocks to stop drunk drivers! The fact that such roadblocks save lives is of no concern to the ACLU.
Switching on the noise filter of the set, Camellion gave a low chuckle. "The Russian pig farmers have always reminded me of the American Civil Liberties Union in my country, the good old ACLU that is helping wreck American society."

Hisamic's face darkened with concern. "Surely this ACLU in your land can't be compared to the viciousness of the Russians?"

"Not to Soviet viciousness—No. To Russian hypocrisy—yes. For example, my government is thinking of passing a Family Protection Act, a bill that would help to make the family more of a unit and protect the morals of children. Believe it or not, the ACLU is dead set against this bill. Their reason is that the bill, if passed, would deny U.S. taxpayer monies from being used in colleges for the study of homosexuality. But at the same time, the ACLU is opposed with a passion to little children saying a single prayer in schools! In short, it's fine with the ACLU to spend federal bucks for perversion and unnatural sex acts, but a 'crime' to fund any activity that even remotely relates to religion."

"Their attitude is wrong," Hisamic said simply.

"Of course their attitude is wrong. The ACLU also has it all backward when it comes to crime. They say that if it's true that you can judge a civilization by the state of its prisons, then the U.S. is in 'deep trouble.' The truth is that you can judge a civilization by the kind of maniacs who run around free and are not in prison! And if any organization has helped to keep the trash and the scum and the crazies on the streets, it's the ACLU!"
Camellion is clearly confused in his thinking. At one point he says he doesn't want any of his taxes to be used for anything religious, but then he gets upset that the ACLU doesn't want federal money (i.e., tax money) used for anything religious.

One of Rosenberger's biggest bugaboos (judging from what he editorializes about in these books) is that U.S. politicians bend over backwards to give black people "extra rights". Here he gets so worked up, he's typing in ALL CAPS!! During their time in the monastery's hidden rooms, Sonya Constantriescu says, "None of you terrorists—nor you Ion—will ever reach the nigger-loving United States—never!"
"Tch, tch, tch, such racism!" mocked JoAnn. "But that's par for you Communists. You preach equality for all; yet you're against blacks."

"We Communists have more sense than to think black apes and savages can be 'equal' in anything. In your country, a nigger can commit crimes and scream 'racism' when he's caught.3 The pity of it is that your nigger-loving government listens to him. Lenin was right. Germany did militarize herself out of existence. England expanded herself into being a third rate power, and the United States will eventually put itself out of existence by pampering to savages and the world's trash."

FN3: An exaggeration, to be sure; yet there is an element of truth to Sonya's statement. For example, in 1982, five blacks gang-raped a thirteen-year-old girl in a park in Bexley, a Columbus, Ohio suburb. The two young white boys with the girl were forced to commit oral acts with the girl, and then forced to fellate the blacks.
After the five blacks were arrested and brought to trial, the NAACP screamed "discrimination!" Blacks charged that a "big deal" was being made because the defendants "are black" and the rape victim was "white." "Why, they consider us animals," said the blacks. . . . From the Columbus Citizen-Journal.
In December of 1982, when a black was executed for murder in Texas, after FIVE SOLID YEARS OF APPEALS, the American Civil Liberties Union maintained that the condemned's rights had been "violated" because HE HAD NOT BEEN GIVEN AMPLE OPPORTUNITY TO APPEAL! It is this kind of illogical thinking that is destroying the fabric of American society.
As usual, in none of these conversations does anyone put forth much of a contrary viewpoint. (Also, we have no way of verifying the accuracy of Rosenberger's reporting.) Perhaps a character might quibble with one or two strands of thought, but even then, he is generally forced to admit that most of what the bigoted speaker says is right.

An amusing note: On page 146, we are told that Camellion "considered racial jokes a mark of stupidity"!


Camellion "had been born with a memory that was 99.9 percent photographic. He could read a page and remember it almost word for word ten years later, including the number of the page, the title of the book, and its author."

"Damn! Double fudge and curly, crinkly crap!"

The CIA was "as suspicious of General Constantriescu as a KKK member at a NAACP convention".

"Camellion wasn't the type of man one could question, even subtly. He was a loner. Open your mouth the wrong way to him and all you'd get would be the fuzzy end of the lollipop."

"Well, crunch my corn!"

"This makes as much sense as Liz Taylor going to the Midwest on a 'peace' mission."

"Feeling like a black man being forced to sing 'White Christmas' at gunpoint, Camellion watched Prahova who continued to count the pegs ..."

"He stared at the large hole that the 88mm missile had torn in the north wall. As empty as the head of a fundamentalist."

"Death was the same as entering into another country were [sic] the customs are different and the language strange—Sort of like living in California!"

At one point, Rosenberger includes the footnote: "Although this is a work of fiction, the names are real." The book includes a "Special Dedication to: Miron G. Badrokov (the real "Stefan Prahova" - who did escape from Romania)".

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Stephen King: Blaze (as Richard Bachman) (2007)

Stephen King refers to Blaze as "a trunk novel", written in late 1972/early 1973 and then packed away. "I thought it was great while I was writing it, and crap when I read it over." Many, many years later, King revised his thinking.
"I thought it was pretty good - certainly better than Roadwork [published in 1981 as Richard Bachman's third novel], which I had, at the time, considered mainstream American fiction. ... I thought Blaze could be re-written and published without too much embarrassment ... I thought it could be a minor tragedy of the underclass, if the re-writing was ruthless. To that end, I adopted the flat, dry tones which the best noir fiction seems to have ... I worked fast, never looking ahead or back, wanting also to capture the headlong drive of those books ... I also determined to strip all the sentiment I could from the writing itself, wanted the finished book to be as stark as an empty house without even a rug on the floor."
Kevin Quigley: "The story is unrelenting. True to his intentions, King has crafted an economical read, as quickly paced as the earliest Bachman novels. ... In tone and speed, Blaze recalls the doomed march of The Long Walk; the more complex and tragic back story brings to mind Bart Dawes in Roadwork. ... [T]here's little actual hope to be found in these pages, so what we are left with is a suspicious sort of compassion."

I completely agree with Quigley. For the most part, King succeeded. The sentences are short and sharp - the tone and rhythm was a significant change from the last few King books I have tried to read (from the mid-00s). It's hard to know without seeing the original manuscript, but there were times when a sentence felt redundant (or included a brand name) and I wondered if this had been one of King's later additions. The tone and bleak outlook of Blaze is in keeping with the other early Bachman novels, all of which are worth reading except for one. Stay far away from The Regulators (which is not an early Bachman novel).

Clayton Blaisdell Jr. is mixed up in petty crime and eventually finds a protector and friend in George Rackley. The two men pull many cons together, but roughly three months before the book begins, George is knifed to death during a card game - and Blaze is alone. (During the first few months after George's death, Blaze swears George is nearby and he can hear his voice talking to him. Fortunately, there is nothing supernatural going on. It's simply in Blaze's head.) Before he died, George talked about pulling one last big con - stealing a baby and holding it for ransom. When Blaze reads in the paper about the baby of a very rich family living nearby, he sets out to do the job himself. Of course, Blaze is doomed to fail.

King's narrative alternates between the present day, as Blaze prepares for and pulls off the kidnapping and is then forced to care for a three-month old infant during a cold Maine winter, and incidents in Blaze's past. It is a very depressing tale. Blaze's mother dies shortly after giving birth and his father is physically abusive, at one point throwing the young child down a flight of stairs. This results in a large dent in Blaze's forehead and his slow mental faculties.

Blaze is placed in a group home called Hetton House. He is periodically "adopted" by various couples, but it usually turns out to be a farmer and his wife looking for free labor during harvest time. Once the crops are picked, Blaze is returned to Hetton House because the situation "simply didn't work out".

While a reader knows Blaze cannot possibly succeed in getting away clean with the ransom money, the story does have its uplifting and tender moments, as Blaze bonds with the baby, at one point thinking that the money is unimportant and as long as the two of them are together, they will survive. A few incidents in Blaze's past hint at happiness - when he and a friend find a wallet full of cash and go AWOL from Hetton House on a bus to Boston for a few days, when Blaze gets a job picking blueberries and is accorded some responsibility by the kind-hearted owner of the farm - which simply makes the rest of his story doubly tragic.

Next: Duma Key.