Tag Archives: Stephen King

The Humpday Times Book Review

This summer, a lot of people are going to walk around pretending they know carny lingo, and Stephen King is the one to blame for it. His new novel Joyland (Hard Case Crime, $12.95) is drenched in carny atmosphere, some of it authentic and some of it . . . not so much. It doesn’t matter at all.

 In terms of style and tone, this one is close to “The Body,” the Different Seasons novella that became the film Stand By Me, and which I still count as one of joylandKing’s best works. Joyland, however, doesn’t have the same impact as “The Body.” King is out to play with our expectations, and he’s not above a little bait-and-switch action. But what else would you expect from a carny operator?

The setting is an oceanside amusement park in North Carolina during the mid-Seventies, the hero is a young man working through his Sorrows of Young Werther phase, and the tone is bittersweet nostalgia. The retro cover, true to the spirit of the paperback originals Hard Case Crime wants to evoke, does not entirely play straight with the reader. Yes, there is a haunted house thrill ride. There is also a murder mystery involving at least one ghost. There is even a buxom redhead in a green dress who works an old-fashioned still camera. But King, knowing we are all familiar with Chekhov’s rule concerning the display of firearms at the beginning of a story, doesn’t follow through in the expected ways.

If you’ve been reading Stephen King for any amount of time, you have learned to take the (consistently underrated by critics) good with the (consistently overlooked by fans) bad. Along with the moments of genuine creepiness and insight — for this is, above all, a coming of age story — there is a lot of heartstring-tugging, some of it very effective, and some of it done with all the grace of a teenager trying to unhook a bra. There is at least one storytelling device here that will make you roll your eyes and wonder how King can live with himself.

But in the end, the klutziness and the canniness merge to produce a light but satisfying story. The final image will be the perfect lead-in for the closing credits of the movie that will have to be made. I finished the novel with the smell of suntan lotion on my mind, and a strong urge to take a date to the Shore and hold her hand on the nearest available boardwalk. That’s not the worst thing to take away from a novel.  For that, if nothing else, Joyland is an excellent summer read.


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Friday finds

I couldn’t care less about the Emmy awards, but the nominees for “Outstanding Main Title Design” were pretty amazing. The design for Game of Thrones is my personal fave, but The Art of the Title has a rundown on them all. Beware: This beguiling site is one of the most fiendishly irresistible time-sucks on the Internets.

A handy guide to the characters of Charles Dickens.

Lectures by well-known writers, now available online.

No, Mr. G, no! I’ll be good, I promise! Just don’t play that country music again!

A set of Spotify playlists for writers, including Thomas Pynchon, Ann Patchett, and Haruki Murakami.

Have you visited the High Line yet? You really owe it to yourself.

Looking for Proust and finding Verlaine.

What All My Children has in common with the Icelandic sagas.

“I don’t recall all the particulars of my first [science fiction and fantasy convention], but it was held in Baltimore at some point in the early 80s, I believe, and coincided with Poe’s birthday. I attended with a friend of mine. One high point was watching Fritz Leiber read ‘The Raven’ at Poe’s grave. One expected him, when finished, to open up a casket and crawl inside. Another was attending a panel that featured Stephen King, among others. He sat down with a brown paper bag, opened it, and pulled out a six pack of beer, which he proceeded to drink from as the panel progressed. I’ve often thought in the years since, when I’ve been trapped on hijacked or just plain boring panels, that I should have followed his example.”

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Harlequin romance

Harlan

During my bright college days, whenever I got into a particularly motormouthed sesquipedalian stream-of-consciousness state, a friend would warn: “You’re Harlaning” — i.e.,  channeling Harlan Ellison. It was a habit I picked up in high school, when I devoured every Ellison book I could get my hands on. It seems to be a common affliction among people who encountered Ellison’s work at an early age.

Not necessarily at an early age, either. During my senior year in high school, I showed my English teacher Ellison’s long cri de couer against a loathsome pre-teen beauty pageant in The Other Glass Teat and the teacher ended up reading the whole thing aloud to the class. He even Harlaned a bit later on. That’s what happens when you’re exposed to a highly distinctive, thoroughly engaging literary voice. No less a figure than Stephen King, in his introduction to Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, confessed that he’s done his own version of Harlaning, so I can say I have at least one thing in common with Stephen King.  

Since I have been reading Ellison’s stories and interview for some decades, I found very little that was new in the documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth, not that I minded one bit. If anything, as a longtime acolyte of the Ellison legend, I was able to fill in The Woman Warrior on some details omitted from the interviews. For instance, the fact that the dead gopher was mailed with a recipe for dead gopher stew. Or that the incident that resulted in an ABC executive suffering a broken hip came about because, during a story conference on the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he told Ellison, “Writers are toadies, you’ll do as you’re told,” prompting the Painesville Pugilist to charge him from the other end of the conference table. (If that’s what the guy really said, I hope that model of the Seaview that fell on him during the altercation was really, really heavy.) And that bit about whether Ellison actually threw a pushy fan down an elevator shaft was explained in great detail in “I Don’t Know You, You Don’t Know Me,” the essay included in the July 1977 Ellison tribute issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. There’s even a scene from The Oscar, which effectively ended Ellison’s screenwriting career. We’re talking history here.

So for longtime admirers of Ellison’s work, watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth will be like hearing your favorite anecdotes, this time coming directly from the horse’s mouth. (And with prompting from his friends Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman — you need a 10-cylinder mind to keep up with the man.) Everyone else will want to read the man’s stuff, immediately. 

Of course they will find a very mixed bag. One of the earliest critical assessments I read of Ellison’s work came from James Blish, who in reviewing Alone Against Tomorrow said Ellison seemed incapable of writing in any way except the top of his voice, which could be wearing in long doses. True then, true now. The universal injunction against reading an entire short-story collection in one sitting goes double for Ellison, who at his worst (“Paladin of the Lost Hour,” for example) consistently uses overwriting and sentiment to cover thinly imagined material. I was sick of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” even when I was only halfway through the story, and if (as the film claims) “Harlequin” is one of the most anthologized short stories for students, it cannot bode well for high school English classes.

But even with the mountain of clinkers Ellison has produced, there are gems like “The Deathbird” and “Croatoan,” novels like Spider Kiss (still the best look at the early days of rock and roll), screenplays like “Demon With a Glass Hand” from The Outer Limits, the rollicking TV and film criticism, the two landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies and the fact that Ellison’s very existence seems to drive fundies and similar wackos to vein popping, spittle-flying rage. These are all great things, and Dreams With Sharp Teeth tells you enough to serve as a a spur to further exploration.

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Friday finds

A recording of John Steinbeck talking about “certain angers” he felt while writing The Grapes of Wrath is now available as part of a CD set of author interviews issued by the British Library. Listen here. The recordings, many of them unheard until now, feature 30 Brits and 27 Yanks: F Scott Fitzgerald reciting Othello; Tennessee Williams lambasting critics; Raymond Chandler drunkenly slurring his way through an interview with Ian Fleming; the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf; the sole recording of Arthur Conan Doyle, talking about spiritualism; and an apparently incomprehensible explanation of her writing method from Gertrude Stein.

Years from now, after the dust clouds of snobbery have cleared, Stephen King may turn out to be the midpoint between H.P. Lovecraft and Flannery O’Connor. At least, that’s what this interview has me thinking. I liked the original incarnation of The Stand, but when the “restored” version with an additional 400 pages of text came out, my reaction was to say that life is too short. Now I’m thinking I should give the novel a look (or a hoist) sometime soon.   

More hoodoo poppycock has been written about Robert Johnson than any other blues musician. Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to think that someone may have turned up a previously overlooked photo of the man, of whom only two photographs are known to exist.

Philip K. Dick’s screenplay for a never-made film version of his novel Ubik is now available. Read it while wearing one of these uber-cool T-shirts.

Tour Italy with Jen. Tour the Weidelsberg with Gabriele. Tour the Erie Cut with Bill. Tour a real crystal palace with Neil. Cross the Great Plains with Brad. Ian goes inside the head of Chris Berens. And Lance sees a junco, partner.

If you’re going to be in the vicinity of New Brunswick, N.J. this coming Wednesday, you might want to go see this guy at this place. That’s what I’m going to do, if the commute from The Land of Overpriced Dirt isn’t too bad.

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Manly men

Stephen King writes about the progenitors of what he calls “manfiction,” along with their (literary) progeny. Can’t argue with his choices, but no list of manly-manfiction is complete without John Sandford. His “Prey” series started out as a sort of high-grade Thomas Harris spinoff, built around a detective with a whole lot of crazy in his own right, and has evolved into high quality police procedurals.

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