RSS Feed

Category Archives: Stephen King

Wrapping Up for Christmas

To look at this blog, you’d think I hadn’t read a book since February. That isn’t true, but it’s close enough to being true that I really have to find a convenient time warp where I can catch up on reading without having to cut back on anything else. For the record, though, I’ve read the following (excluding books that I’ve completely forgotten I read):

Revival – Stephen King

Cover for Stephen King's Revival

Electricity: Not necessarily our friend.

Stephen King works in the modern tradition of bestselling horror, which to my mind began with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, though you could track it back further to some of Richard Matheson’s early, lower-profile novels like I Am Legend. But it was Levin’s runaway bestseller and the movie that followed that seemed to break the dam open and led directly into William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which led into…a long line of Stephen King novels that’s continued from Carrie through whatever his most recent book is. (It’s hard to keep up.) The modern horror tradition places a strong emphasis on settings that are familiar almost to the point of banality, which the author uses as a means of creating a suspension of belief so profound that you’ll buy into whatever unexpected curve ball he or she pitches out of their word processor to shatter the banality into terrifying shards, like Rosemary’s neighbors turning out to be a coven of Satan worshippers or Carrie turning out to have telekinetic powers brought on by her first menstrual period.

Revival, however, is King’s homage to the older generation of horror writers that he (and I) grew up reading from an age when we were young enough to accept outre settings that were nothing like the world we lived in. It’s specifically an homage to, and in many ways an updating of, Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella “The Great God Pan,” which is about individuals who have managed to glimpse the true nature of reality that lurks behind the shallow scrim of the mundane, a reality so different and so much more terrifying than the world they thought they lived in that it drives them mad when they discover it.

King, as is often his wont, carries the story’s setup to such verbose extremes that I began to worry that he was losing track of the horror element that Machen had been considerably more focused on. Those worries turned out to be needless. Almost every scene in Revival pays off eventually and turns out to be essential to what follows. Whether what follows is worth the wait is a matter of taste. The glimpse of the reality beyond reality at the end is indeed terrifying and I find that it’s come to haunt me even more in retrospect than it did while I was reading it. To accept it, though, it’s necessary to have your belief suspended so tautly that nothing can possibly yank it down. Thankfully, mine was up to the challenge. The novel threatens at times to become a slog, as you learn more about the relentlessly ordinary protagonist than you really want to know, but it never quite bogs down completely. Then again, I’m a long-time fan of old-time horror, so nothing was going to prevent me from getting to King’s take on it. And I’m glad I waded through the sometimes interminable exposition required to get there.

This, I should note, is one of those first-person stories where the most interesting and significant character isn’t the narrator but a secondary character who wanders in and out of the narrator’s life. (H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror novella “The Thing on the Doorstep” is similar.) And if there’s anywhere that the book falters it’s in the believability of that character, who crawls farther out on a limb of eccentricity every time we meet him. There are moments toward the end when it feels like King is fighting to keep him just grounded enough that the reader’s acceptance of him as a real person won’t turn into a hot air balloon and float away, but it’s touch and go for a while. In the end King pulls it off, but by that time I was so thrilled to see him finally get to the story’s ultimate revelation that I was ready to believe anything King told me.

The title, incidentally, has multiple meanings, one of which is simply King’s revival of old-school horror. I’ll leave it to potential readers to discover the others. (There are at least two more.)

The Brilliance Trilogy — Marcus Sakey

Cover of Written in Fire

Book three of the Brilliance Trilogy

I reviewed the first two books of this trilogy, Brilliance and A Better World, in earlier installments of this blog. To summarize: I loved them. A lot. But I reread them in preparation for the third book, Written in Fire, and I was thrilled all over again. Sakey pulls off the whole Brilliance enterprise — the adverb is unavoidable — brilliantly.

Collectively, the series is about a civil war between genius-level mutants called brilliants and the ordinary humans who feel like they can no longer keep up with their intellectual superiors. I was impressed not only by Sakey’s believable depiction of the mutants but by the way he gives each of the three books its own slow-rising plot arc, with each one not fully starting to grip until about halfway through, at which point they become impossible to put down. He manages to sustain this through the entire three-book serial arc as well, except the peak comes in the final third, which is a hat trick that I wish other writers of trilogies (see below) could pull off as deftly.

There’s a touch of deus ex machina in the way the final novel is resolved, with Sakey setting the resolution up in advance but not in a way that’s totally believably in retrospect, letting everything hang on a moment of hubristic boasting by one of the characters that I think the character would have been savvy enough to avoid. But everything else about the third novel is so compelling that I’m more than willing to forgive this lapse. Sakey’s mutants are fascinating, but the one that stands out is the frighteningly vivid Soren, a sympathetic bad guy who sees time move 11 times more slowly than other human beings, even other mutants, do, which makes him horrifyingly dangerous, because he’s thinking 11 times more rapidly than the hero, but also isolates him from his peers in a way that leaves him open to manipulation by the book’s real villain, who orchestrates much of the apocalyptic chaos of the final scenes through the charismatic way he makes people like Soren think that he actually cares about them even while he uses them to achieve his own ends.

Sakey’s greatest strength is that he makes every character’s motivations feel genuine and in many cases sympathetic, even when what they’re motivated to do is appallingly wrongheaded. He leaves a hook at the end that could be used for a sequel, though Sakey says he has no intention of writing one. However, he’s been letting other writers play with his carefully constructed world and, though I haven’t read any of the non-Sakey spin-offs, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t continue where this novel leaves off.

I’m not sure I want to revisit this world, though. Sakey does such a satisfying job of telling the story that I’m worried I might see some lesser writer mucking it up. For all intents and purposes the story has now been told and told well, and that’s how I want to remember it.

The 5th Wave Trilogy – Rick Yancey

Covers for the 5th Wave trilogy

From the sublime to the tedious.

When I reviewed the first, eponymous novel in this series I raved about it. Yancey’s characters were complex, their relationships were compelling, their moments of self-revelation felt meaningful and Yancey’s writing frequently rose to the level of unexpected poetry. When I reread it to bone up for the rest of the series the poetry was still there but the rest seemed a bit flat, probably because I remembered too many unexpected twists from my first time through. It still stands pretty well as a complete work, though, and I’m sad to report that, except for the threads Yancey leaves dangling at the end, it should have remained a standalone experience.

The Infinite Sea, the second book of the trilogy, tells two stories, each of which could have been wrapped up in a couple of chapters instead of stretched out to half the length of a novel. Much of the time Yancey seems to be padding his way toward book three just so he can do the full triple-book treatment that seems to be required now in YA fantasy and science fiction whether the stories merits it or not. As much as I enjoyed them, I blame the Hunger Games novels (or perhaps the Twilight series, which I haven’t read) for that. There are entire scenes in The Infinite Sea that feel like they’ve gone on forever even when you realize that Yancey is going to make them go on even longer and if I hadn’t been as determined to finish this trilogy as I’d been to finish Sakey’s, I probably would have put the book down partway through (virtually speaking, because it’s on my Kindle, which I’d still have to pick back up to read something else) and moved on to more promising pastures. But I figured the third novel had to be better.

And it is. The Last Star picks back up with characters from the first book who vanish for long sections of the second and starts telling a real story again, but it still feels padded with unnecessary dialog and scenes that loop back so frequently to the same repetitive arguments that I wanted to tell Yancey just to get it over with (or possibly shoot me) to put me out of my misery. He finally does — get it over with, not shoot me — and the fact that I can’t even remember how it ended probably says more about how weary of the book I was by that point than any specific criticism I could make — if I could remember enough to be critical. I do remember that the climax was designed to bring tears to my eyes, but I was too sick of the characters by then to muster even a slight layer of optical mist over whatever it was that happened to them.

The 5th Wave should have been at most a duology and I’m not sure Yancey shouldn’t just have made the first novel longer and wrapped it all up there. Still, the first novel remains worth reading, though you might want to take a pass on the sequels and imagine your own resolution. It’ll probably be better than the one Yancey supplies. Or at least briefer.

Borderline (The Arcadia Project) – Mishell Baker

The cover of Borderline

The borderline between well-written characters and well-worn premises.

This is the book I’m reading now, in bits and pieces of snatched time, mostly before I fall asleep at night. It has a fascinating beginning setting up a fascinating heroine that unfortunately leads into a well-written but overly familiar detective procedural with an interesting if not entirely original fantasy overlay that doesn’t quite lift it above the pedestrian level of detective procedurals in general. But Baker’s writing is excellent, her wit sharp and lively, and I’ll read it through to the end. It’s not giving me the sort of thrill I got out of Sakey’s frequently noirish take on mutantkind, but maybe it’s unreasonable to demand that every book hit notes quite that high.

As with King’s Revival, the title has more than one meaning, though the more interesting one is that the protagonist suffers from borderline personality disorder. This is the main element that lifts the novel above the level of standard fantasy noir, but as the book goes on her psychological diagnosis begins to seem more and more like an excuse for the sort of snarky first-person narration that detective fiction writers have been using since Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep. The book’s depictions of Los Angeles and the film industry are quite good, though, and at this point are holding my attention more than the heroine’s mental disorder or the physical problems resulting from a suicide attempt that occurred before the novel begins. (Both of her legs are prosthetic, a detail that’s handled so believably that I wonder if author Baker has personal experience with it or is just really good at research.)

If the novel surprises me by transcending its fairly predictable underpinnings, I’ll write about it again later. Otherwise, I’ll only say that the novel is worth reading if you don’t have anything more compelling at hand or if you just like procedurals, a form of fiction I used to read by the bucketful. At some point, though, I think my bucket overflowed. Maybe yours hasn’t yet.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.


Three Books I Didn’t Finish (and One I Did): Reamde, Dragon Tattoo, Bag of Bones & State of Wonder

Book #1 for 2012: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

This is going to be a long post. That’s not because I have a lot to say about the book in question but because I first want to talk about why it’s the first book I’ve read (or at least the first book I’ve finished) since I wrote about Stephen King’s 11/22/63 last November.

2011 was my year of reading long books. In the spring I plowed through the first five volumes of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, something I’d grown convinced I would never do in the remainder of my lifetime, and I found time to read Robopocalypse between books four and five. (It wasn’t worth it. Robopocalypse was a snooze, a brief precis for an upcoming Stephen Spielberg film that has no other excuse for existing in book form.) After the approximately 1,100 Nook pages of Martin’s A Dance with Dragons I felt pretty much prepared for anything and polished off the 1,000-plus  pages of King’s Under the Dome in nine or ten days. I galloped through Jonathan Franzen’s compulsively readable Freedom in about a week, but that was only 500 pages, which by that time seemed trivial.

And then I got cocky. When I blithely attempted to read the 900 pages of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde I hit a brick wall. Stephenson is a writer that I admire and enjoy, roughly in that order. His books are bursting at the seams with inventive, slightly twisted, yet oddly believable ideas and when he chooses to he can write high velocity action that never leaves the reader feeling that his/her time would have been better spent curling up with something more intellectually edifying. Even when Stephenson writes an action scene he is intellectually edifying. I’ve carried on about this before, but the opening two chapters of Stephenson’s Snow Crash are the most amazing balancing act of characterization, sociopolitical speculation and sheer edge-of-your-seat suspense that I’ve ever read. I had heard that Reamde was more of a conventional terrorism thriller than Stephenson usually deals in, but I hardly found that off-putting. I love thrillers and I love Stephenson. What combination could be more appealing?

My mistake. Reamde may be crammed with action — almost too much for its own good, if truth be told — but it has all the excitement of watching a chess game played by mail. The premise is clever. A computer virus called Reamde — a corruption of the familiar computer filename Readme, so named because the virus creates a file of that name on your hard drive that holds all your vital information prisoner in an encrypted format with an unbreakable key — is propagating across the Internet. If Reamde snares your valuable data you must pay a ransom in the form of virtual merchandise within a massively multiplayer online game similar to World of Warcraft, where the virtual value of the virtual merchandise can be converted to real-world coin by Chinese hackers who will then pass you the key to your data. (This isn’t that farfetched given the bizarre crossover economies that actually exist within such games.) But Stephenson fills the novel with too many characters and they feel boringly interchangeable. Despite the author giving them distinct if perfunctory characteristics that can be used to distinguish them, I kept having to remind myself who every character was each time they returned to the novel’s viewpoint stage (and I never came up with a convincing reason to care about any of them). I managed to read more than 400 pages of the novel’s 900 pages and that’s 400 pages of reading that it looks like I’ll never get back.

Then I decided to read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I can’t tell you whether it was a good book or a bad book because I never got far enough to decide. I came up against the same problem I always run into when attempting to read a book in translation, the disheartening sensation that I wasn’t really hearing the author’s voice. One of the joys of reading for me is the sense of having a direct mind-to-mind connection with another person, which consists not only of sharing their thoughts in as direct a manner as our physically separated brains allow but of hearing in my mind the very words with which they choose to express those thoughts. Word choice tells you a lot about another person (and I say this with some trepidation, knowing that you will immediately start paying much closer attention to my own word choice than you might have otherwise). Reading the words chosen by a competent or more than competent author can be as electrifying as watching a beautiful sunset (or, to stick more precisely with the analogy, it’s like looking at a beautifully composed photograph of a beautiful sunset).

With works in translation, though, the connection is lost, or at least it takes place only indirectly, with words being relayed through an intermediary much like in that old game where one person whispers a message to another person who whispers it to another person until, at the other end of the line, it comes out thoroughly garbled. I’m sure that Stieg Larsson’s translators are the best Swedish-to-English translators available and yet on page 37 of the Nook edition I came across this sentence:

“Instead of giving Salander the boot, he summoned her for a meeting in which he tried to figure out what made the difficult girl tick.”

Give her “the boot”?  Figure out what made her “tick”? Those are cliches from a bad 1940s movie. When’s the last time somebody under the age of 80 used the phrase “give her the boot”? This isn’t just bad writing; it’s lazy writing and I blame the translator for it. Of course, I don’t know Swedish so maybe the original phrase as written by Larsson actually involved placing a piece of footwear on Salander’s posterior, in which case it was Larsson who was the bad writer. (Somehow that doesn’t make it any better.) Someday maybe I’ll go back and read the book again to see if it manages to be a powerful piece of suspense fiction despite the encumberment of its trite narrative style, but by then I’ll have seen the movie and probably won’t care. Fortunately I only wasted about 50 pages on this one.

Finally I picked up Stephen King’s Bag of Bones because there was an upcoming miniseries version. I love King and am continually impressed by the amount of intelligent writing, vivid characterization and richly imagined detail that he is willing to invest in what are, after all, fairly disposable thrillers. And I liked Bag of Bones, at least as far as I got into it. (This was between 200 and 300 Nook pages, I believe.) But I’m beginning to realize that the last couple of months of the year (it was late November or early December by the time I started it) are not a good time for reading. I was exhausted by my marathon sprint through earlier King novels and the Martin quintology (pentology?) and there are far too many distractions at holiday time. I also found myself caught up in playing The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a game I had waited all year for. (I’ve played every game in this series since it began in 1994 and Bethesda Softworks never fails to deliver a richly immersive, immensely time-consuming experience.) So eventually I lost all momentum on the King book and by now I’m sure I’ve forgotten the character names and most of what the book was about.

But a new year always renews my excitement in reading, if only because dozens of publications and Web sites post their Best Books of the Year list and in them I see one book after another that I’m instantly convinced will be the best thing I’ve ever read. I picked the book at hand, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, entirely at random, having no idea what it was about or what Patchett had written before.

Cover of Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

And, indeed, it’s an excellent piece of writing, with an ingenious story, believable characters and a graceful style so filled with rich observations that a reader could linger over a paragraph for hours extracting its wealth of precisely and wittily described detail. (Given how tired I was of spending weeks and months over books, this wasn’t entirely a good thing.)

I have two negative observations about the book. The first — and it’s the weaker of the two — is that though the plot was intricate and ingenious I never found it compelling, though I suspect the fact that I’m looking for “compelling” here at all is merely a sign of my increasing jadedness as a reader and a human being, a symptom of advancing age and a faltering attention span. I want a book in which the stakes for the main character are so emotionally heightened that turning a page becomes almost an act of desperate need (though I dislike it when such books degenerate into overripe melodrama). The second problem is that I found the main character, Dr. Marina Singh, something of a boring cipher, which made it difficult for me to become involved in her story. This may well have been a deliberate choice on the author’s part, but it wasn’t one that sat well with me as a reader. The story is about Dr. Singh’s journey to the jungles of Brazil to find a research scientist working on a miracle drug being financed by the pharmaceutical firm for which Singh works, and it isn’t until that scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, who had been Singh’s teacher at Johns Hopkins, enters the story that the book comes to life. Swenson is a dynamic, excitingly imagined character, and she develops unexpected depths as the story proceeds, evolving from the ogre that she has always been in Singh’s mind into a fully rounded, fascinating human being.

But, alas, she is only a tiny part of what the book is about. The story is really about Singh finding herself and finding something even more important that I’m not going into here because I really didn’t find it as interesting as the author seemed to think it was. Looking back at it now I think there was symbolic value in the discovery, but I can’t work up the energy to suss out exactly what it was.

In the Land of Ago: Stephen King’s 11/22/63

Book #26 for 2011: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

The cover of Stephen King's novel 11/22/63.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

A friend mentioned to me the other day on Facebook that it seems like all of Stephen King’s recent books are ones that he started to write when he was young but never got around to finishing. That’s true; the note at the end of 11/22/63 says that he started it in the early 70s but realized that it was far too ambitious for him to write at that stage of his career. (Actually, that would have been around the same time he wrote Carrie, so for all practical purposes he had no career yet, except as an obscure author of short horror stories.) He says much the same thing at the end of Under the Dome. And those final volumes of the Dark Tower series he wrote a few years ago are effectively the continuation of something he began writing when he was in college.

My take is that this has a lot to do with that car accident that nearly cost him his life a decade ago. He almost says as much in the introduction to one of those last Dark Tower novels, with an anecdote about a woman coming up to him at a book signing and saying, in effect, “Thank God you didn’t die! I was afraid I’d never find out how the Dark Tower stories ended!”

I think King has realized that he’s at a crucial juncture in his life, where he’s still at the peak of his talents and still has all his wits intact, but that if he doesn’t write the works that were too ambitious for him as a young man they may never get written. So he’s buckling down, working with a research assistant (the same guy for the last two books; he gets an acknowledgment at the end of both), and making an honest attempt to write the best books he’ll ever write. On the basis of the last two, I think he’s succeeded.

11/22/63 is a spectacular book; so is Under the Dome. Yet they are very different works. Under the Dome is industrial-strength melodrama and pulled me in more forcefully than any book has in years. It’s as readable as anything King has ever written. 11/22/63 isn’t quite as much of a page turner, but it’s a deeper work, written with a level of personal feeling that a lot of King’s novels lack. The early King book that it reminds me of the most is The Dead Zone, in that both novels are about driven men, star-crossed lovers, visions of the future and political assassinations. And both have a sense of tragedy to them. 11/22/63 has an ending that’s more bittersweet than completely tragic, but the notes at the end suggest that this may be because his son, novelist Joe Hill, was the one who came up with it. (It’s hard to tell just how King would have ended it without Hill’s ideas, but I suspect the finale would have been more bitter than sweet. Or simply would have ended with less of a sense of closure.)

It’s probably not necessary to mention that 11/22/63 is about a man who finds a hole leading back in time and uses it to attempt to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald on the eponymous date. What may be news is that the book is as much or more about the life of its protagonist, a man who spends most of its pages living in a time before he was even born, as it is about the Kennedy assassination, though there’s a great deal about Oswald in it and the book paints an interesting picture of a man who has become over the years more a figure of myth than an historical figure. (This, I think, is one of the things that Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Weidman were getting at in their surrealistic musical Assassins and there’s a scene in 11/22/63, where the protagonist dreams about a carnival barker suggesting to Oswald that he kill the president, that may be a direct nod to the Sondheim show.)

I think, though, that in many ways what 11/22/63 is is an homage by King to the period during which he was an adolescent. King is three years older than I am and would have been 11 in 1958, which is the year that the time hole leads to, and 16 in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. He describes the “land of ago” (as the protagonist calls it) with a certain degree of loving sentiment, acknowledging its flaws while simultaneously seeing it through the eyes of a child. I was around back then too and I’m not convinced that root beer really tasted better in 1958, but if King thinks it did, who am I to argue? (He may be right that cream was thicker and creamier.) I also don’t remember the world of the past as smelling that much worse than the world of today, though there were industrialized patches of it that did and King may have known some of those in Maine.

The end of the book brought tears to my eyes and it’s hard to believe there are any readers of any age who wouldn’t react similarly. Granted, it wasn’t hard to figure out during the last 100 pages or so where King was headed — I guessed the broad outline without getting the details — but it’s the details that matter. I think he may lean a little too hard on the time paradox thing and could have had a similar ending without need for the “Green Card Man,” but I like his idea of the past as something that fights attempts to change it and that can injure, maim or even kill anyone who tries. There are some slow patches in the middle of the book but I think that’s because King isn’t really writing a suspense thriller here; he’s writing something more deeply sentimental and personally meaningful. Slow patches or no, the last 100 pages are as readable as anything from Under the Dome and if these should turn out for some reason to be the last two books King writes (which I certainly hope they aren’t), they’ll stand as a terrific monument to a writer who could have started resting on his laurels and royalty checks two or three decades ago yet just insists on becoming better and more ambitious instead.

Message in a Bottle: Stephen King’s Under the Dome

Book #18 for 2011: Under the Dome by Stephen King

I stopped reading Stephen King after the 80s. Partly that’s because I just wasn’t reading as much as I used to, but it was also because King seemed increasingly, after his heyday in the 70s, to have become a sloppy storyteller. (Misery, that perfect jewel of a suspense thriller, was a delightful exception.) It’s possible that he got his act back together while I wasn’t reading him, especially in that series of novels about the eclipse that included Dolores Claiborne, but I haven’t read those and I really can’t say. What I do know was that the last several King books I’d read prior to the 90s, Misery excepted, had been a chore to read.

In his nonfiction work On Writing, King confesses that he more or less makes up his novels as he goes along, starting with an interesting situation and working toward a vaguely imagined resolution with no concrete idea of how he’s going to get there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think I’ve seen more novelists admit that they work this way (George R.R. Martin is another) than admit to actually plotting their stories in advance. The problem is that too often King’s books feel like they were written this way, with King spending dozens or even hundreds of pages vamping until he figures out where he’s going, and the result is that a lot of his novels are bloated and wordy, limp and formless when they should be taut and compelling.

I had worried that King had only grown worse since I’d stopped reading him. The only novel that I’ve read by him from the last 20 years — Desperation, which I wrote about here a few months ago — seemed to confirm my worst suspicions. Despite a good start, the plot wandered and became uninteresting even as the characters, who had started out as vivid creations, degenerated into plot devices. This, I feared, was the direction in which King had been heading.

Under the Dome, published in 2009, proves me wrong. Not only is this a good novel, it’s a novel that can stand with the best that King has written. If it isn’t quite the brilliant psychological thriller that The Shining was or the masterpiece of precision that was Misery, it’s more ambitious in many ways than either, much more on the scope of The Stand. King bites off a hell of a lot with this book and he manages to chew pretty much all of it. It’s epic in scale — my Nook assigned it 833 pages and Amazon says that the trade paper edition is 1,088 pages — but it isn’t bloated at all. Every word in this one counts and every sentence contributes to character development and moving the story forward.

The premise is simple and high concept: A small Maine town suddenly finds itself surrounded by an invisible, unbreakable force field that allows no one to enter or leave. But the ramifications of that premise are complex — this is a town that contains several hundred people, after all, and each has a separate life that is disrupted by the dome’s appearance — and King doesn’t shy away from working through this complexity in scrupulous detail. Yet King explicates those details so carefully and clearly that the story never feels complex and King manages his huge cast of characters with marvelous dexterity. I was rarely at a loss for who the characters were or what their relationships were to one another and to the story itself. Every time a character reenters after an absence of more than a chapter or two, King deftly works in a detail to remind you who they are and, if they’re a really minor character, he just comes right out and tells you. Every now and then he drops into a present-tense, omniscient-author mode and sorts carefully through the current positions of all his principle actors, just to make sure you know what they’re doing. This is the kind of thing that only an author who has been writing ambitious popular fiction for several decades can get away with and King does it as well as I’ve ever seen it done.

The plot is a marvelous clockwork mechanism, tight, suspenseful, and intricate, and it never ceases to move forward. It’s hard not to keep turning the pages (or swiping the screen or pushing the button or however you propel yourself through your text delivery system of choice) for the book’s full length. (And it’s an indication of how I’ve been affected by reading all those George R.R. Martin novels earlier this year that now, when my Nook tells me that a novel is going to be 833 pages long, I think, “Oh, that’s not so bad.”) King admits in an afterword that he had an editor help him strip the book down from an even longer first-draft and make suggestions on how to speed up any sections that dragged. I think it’s a mark of King’s continued seriousness as a writer that after all these years he’s willing to listen to an editor, something that for quite a while it seemed like he wasn’t doing.

I have a few quibbles with the technical details of the dome itself — the final description of it in the book’s last pages suggests that there might have been a very easy way of dealing with it that for some reason nobody ever thought of — but in the end these quibbles don’t matter because the dome is essentially a macguffin, a way of getting the characters into a metaphorical pressure cooker where events can become extreme without becoming unmotivated or unbelievable. And the characters are very nicely drawn, especially the chief villain. King understands that the best villains aren’t those who are trying to act villainous but the ones who see themselves as righteous people beset on all sides by villains like you and me. It’s their naked self justification that makes them hateful and the villain of this book is as nakedly self justifying as any character King has ever created.

I’m excited about King’s upcoming 11/22/63, an epic novel about the Kennedy assassination. If King handles that one as well as he handled this (and I sure hope he works with the same editor), it will be a knockout. But anyone who wants to read a thrilling King epic doesn’t have to wait until that book is released in November. Under the Dome is here now and once you start reading it it’s unlikely that you’ll want to stop. And it reads so quickly that I doubt that you’ll have any problem finishing it before the next book comes out.

Reader’s Block: Desperation

Book #3 for 2011: Desperation by Stephen King

Book #3? It’s March and I’m only up to Book #3?

Okay, so I’m not exactly off to an auspicious start in my 2011 reading project, but at least I didn’t make any promises on how many books I planned to read before year’s end. In late January, after I’d reported on the two Scott Spencer novels I read that month, I found myself wavering on what I wanted to read next. I picked up several books, read a few chapters of each, and put them aside, unsure if I really wanted to commit all that much time to them. Finally, getting tired of my own lack of decisiveness, I decided I needed a book with a killer opening, the sort of thing that would grip me instantly and defy me to put it down. What I needed was…Stephen King.

This strategy worked, at least for a while. I’d seen the hardback edition of Stephen King’s Desperation in an airport bookstore back in 1996 and thought it looked like something I’d want to read. King had been a favorite writer of mine for quite a few years, but I was struck less by his name than by the cover art, which was designed to mesh stylistically with the cover of The Regulators, the hardback Richard Bachman novel that King released around the same time. (The two books are linked, though don’t ask me how.) Because I was reading only sporadically during that period, it wound up taking me 15 years to actually pick up the book.

All I knew of the book was that it was about a rogue cop terrorizing a small Nevada town called Desperation. That is indeed how it starts and it’s a slam bang opening. King builds suspense from the first  pages, playing neatly off that most sweat-inducing of modern fears: fear of seeing a police car in your rearview mirror. I figured King wouldn’t be able to sustain the novel’s momentum, though, and that before long it would go a bit slack, but he sustains it a lot longer than I expected him to. He does this by  introducing a fairly large set of characters and giving them lengthy and interesting backstories. In fact, he sustains the story’s momentum very nicely for about the first third of this quite lengthy novel.

Alas, it does finally go slack. Once King has his chess pieces in place, the rest plays out as though he has ceased having much fun with the game. He dutifully moves the pieces where they need to go, but the characters seem increasingly lifeless and King’s sense of who they are begins to waver. As in many similar novels, the more the reader learns about what’s really going on, the less interesting the story becomes. Eventually, the story of the rogue cop becomes an apocalyptic fantasy about the battle between two gods, the Judeo-Christian one and an ancient Lovecraftian entity named Tak accidentally released from its tomb under the Nevada desert. The novel rallies a bit in the final third, as King introduces more backstory and finally shows all the cards that he has in his hand, but it never regains the momentum that it had in the first third.

Too bad, because the book is a very long slog and about three weeks of my life disappeared into it. Still, I enjoy watching King at work even when he’s nodding a bit, as he is here. For what it’s worth, there’s at least a third of a really good book here.


As for my reading in the remainder of this year — I doubt that I’ll come anywhere near the 52 I was shooting for last year and I’m more than a little dubious about even managing 26. The problem at this point is that I have a lot of reading I need to do for my own work, a lot of which will consist of magazine articles and portions of books. And it will be this reading that I’ll be devoting most of my time to. But I’ll keep reporting on the books that I finish, or at least most of them, as I go. Anyone tempted to hold their breath until I file the next of these reports, though, will probably get very blue in the face.

It’s Good to be…Oh, You Know!

Book #9 (February 14, 2010): On Writing by Stephen King

There seem to be two fairly extreme views on the writing of Stephen King. Either people see him as a hack who writes sensational but worthless prose (a view that I suspect is based more on all those Stephen King movies churned out in the 80s than on the novels themselves) or they see him as a god. Neither view makes sense to me, though I probably lean more toward the latter view than the former. I think a good argument could be made that King is the greatest popular writer of his generation and perhaps of my lifetime, in the sense that he writes fiction that engages readers on a deep and intuitive level, fiction that makes no pretense at being literature but that often manages to be literature anyway. In that sense — and I’m hardly the first to say this — the “literary” writer he most resembles is Charles Dickens, in that the two writers have both popular and enduring appeal. When I read Dan Simmons’ novel Drood, about Wilkie Collins and his gradual realization that he could never be more than a fraction of the writer Charles Dickens was, I couldn’t help but wonder if Simmons wasn’t describing his own feelings about King.

On Writing is about half memoir and half avuncular advice (inasmuch as King often refers to himself in his Entertainment Weekly columns as “Uncle Stevie”) to aspiring writers. The memoir half (and it’s almost exactly half of the book) is about King’s gradual discovery of his writing talents and the experiences that shaped his writerly perceptions. The advice half — and in terms of my own interests it’s the better half of the book, though I enjoyed King’s description in the first half of his days as an out-of-control alcoholic — relates King’s philosophy of writing and warns against misconceptions that potential writers may have about how writing is actually done. The best part, I thought, was his description of the difference between situation and plot, which is something he’s thought out more clearly than I ever have. (When I was writing Hardy Boys novels, the distinction between the two was that you pitched your book on the basis of a situation but you didn’t get a contract until you’d plotted the book within an inch of its life, something that King advises strongly against.) There’s a nice emphasis on the importance of grammar — King was an English teacher before he became a bestselling author — and some interesting thoughts on organizing your writing space. (Close your door, shut your window and maybe listen to music, but don’t let the desk dominate the room.) I don’t know if any of this will be meaningful if you have no interests in writing fiction (there’s relatively little here about other forms of writing), but the first half should certainly be of interest to anybody who’s a King fan.