The Once and Future King: Catching Up With Our Behemoth of Modern Horror

Stories by Patty Tomsky
Spare Change News

The first Kindle single from Stephen King was about a Kindle with a time-travel feature and it was boss. The second Kindle single was about a car with a Lovecraftian monster inside that kept eating people with its tentacles. It was, my friends, also pretty boss.

The current Kindle single, “Throttle,” is a tribute to Stephen Spielberg’s first B-movie, based on Richard Matheson’s story, “Duel.” It chronicles what happens when a biker gang takes on a satanic tanker truck. It’s a true-crime kinda story and as such, is missing many of the King quirks I have come to love in my 30-plus years of reading him (I know, I know– I look good for my age). But it’s also full of the fabulous detail that makes a King story resonate with his readers far past the time when other fiction fades.

King wrote the story with his son, Joe Hill, who is a talented dude in his own right and whose “Heart-Shaped Box” was a haunting and bloody meditation on the nature of evil. Like all of his father’s works, Hill’s novels, and short stories in particular, retain an allegorical flavor – it’s as if the people acting and reacting within them are doing so for all of us. In this new Kindle single, the characters are also marching to the tune of the archetype: We meet Doc, the bookworm; Peaches, the idiot; Lemmy, the conscience keeper; and a father-son resentment-arama rife with ring-true emotion. Race, the prototypical rebellious son, has elements of both James Dean and – god help me – Hamlet. Vince, Race’s father, and his old Army buddy from ‘Nam, Lemmy, are grizzled vets and leaders of the gang, one of whom who has accidentally-on-purpose murdered a teenage meth-head and is on the way to somehow recoup the 60 grand that an ex cellmate of Race’s used to start up a lab.

I don’t know if it’s because I have read every single word that this man has ever written or because the mood of the piece is so comic-book like (it has great illustrations by Nelson Daniel and Phil Noto and once was included in a tribute to Richard Matheson by IDW Comics) but I knew the minute that this plotline was set that it wouldn’t be resolved swiftly. It would circle back and have an enhanced, end-of-the-world meaning. Many critics of King decry this very quality: He makes everything seem so, well, bloody resonant.

Most of the story, however, is about man vs. machine. Throw in King and his kid’s fascinating characterizations of the gang and add a dollop of high-octane tension and you’ve got a brew as combustible as the stuff in the tank of that demon truck.

I also read this summer’s “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” the prequel to King’s fantasy series “The Dark Tower,” starring Roland the Gunslinger and his fate. Never a fan of the series, I must say, the book left me with a distinct, feh, although “Tower” fans will like it. It’s got that famous Roland Mojo in spades. So what’s next?

I just heard that King’s new book, “Joyland,” is coming out in June of next year and that it is a crime novel (boo) with ghosts (yay!). I am also looking forward to rereading his last novel, the JFK assassination, time-travel tome, “11/22/63,” that was a real page-turner and meticulously researched, but not as great as my favorites, “The Stand” or “Insomnia.” I read “The Stand” the summer I was seventeen on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night (I shared a room with my twin sister) and my butt went numb because I couldn’t put it down. “Insomnia” is dear to me because it retains the freewheeling verbosity and apocalyptic glee of “The Stand” while tackling issues like domestic violence and (yes I’m going to say it, sans irony) the interconnectedness of all living things. In that book, as well as in several others, most notably, “IT” and “The Dead Zone,” no one does gorgeous, mushy epiphanies like King. When they’re great they’re great and when they’re not…well, they’re winceworthy deluxe.

Thankfully, the Kindle singles all hold up in this area, which is no mean feat considering they are so short. That’s why I’m super psyched for a longer work in “Joyland” and super happy that the announcement of King’s retirement several years back has been greatly exaggerated.

Some of his middle books (“Gerald’s Game,” “Needful Things”) were a little lame, true. But before you write off our behemoth of modern horror yet one more time, read these Kindle singles and “11/22/63.” Join me, my sistahs and brothahs: “Long live the King, Mah-stah of Hah-rah!”

Sidebar: Fan Boy and Photo-Essayist: Who Knew?

Okay you Sox fans, you probably know Stephen King is one of the Boston Red Sox biggest fans out there, but did you know he and Stewart O’Nan wrote a book called, “Faithful” (Scribner) about the historic 2004 season? It started off as a series of emails between the uber-deadpan novelist Stewart O’Nan and blockbuster author and grew into an entire tome dedicated to Sox mania. Worth the trip to the stadium.
Next up, a photography book essay about gargoyles commenting on some awesome avant-garde photos from F-stop Fitzgerald. Not a dash-off by any means, “Nightmares in the Sky: Gargoyles and Grotesques” (Viking Studio Books) deserves a place on Goth coffee tables worldwide. It’s only $12.99 on Amazon: I think you can forego your next, new MAC black eyeliner pencil to own this evocative meditation on spooky statuary.

Before George R.R. Martin became a fantasy sensation with his “Game of Thrones” HBO series, he and horror writer Dan Simmons joined King in a book of short stories called, “Dark Visions” (Indigo). All of the stories in here are top shelf, even if the ones King contributed are available elsewhere in his catalogue. The purchase price is more than worth it for Martin’s “Skin Trade” novella, which takes the werewolf genre out into uncharted territory. Seeing King’s stories set against these other cool writers makes his talent stand out. And you gotta think when the master reads Simmons and Martin, it keeps him on his toes.

This past June, “The Rock Bottom Remainders,” a rock band King played in for two decades with Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Amy Tan and other authors, retired from its twice-yearly, charity-gigging existence. A quick YouTube search yields some fuzzy video that says it wasn’t that big of a loss. But King’s affinity for rock and roll music also had him gigging with Entertainment Weekly as a sometime music-columnist. His taste is a bit too Georgia Satellites for me, but his use of lyrics from Bruuuuuuuuce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult and Bob Dylan, among others, has created an extra layer of metaphoric magic for those of us into the rock n’ roll genre.

Finally, there are films. Who can forget the awful performance of Molly Ringwald as Frannie in the miniseries, “The Stand” (1994) or an anemic Rob Lowe as Nick? As Bill the Cat would say: GACK. The big deal rumor in 2011 was that Warner Brothers was remaking “The Stand” but an IMDB search of this writing doesn’t even come up with the ghost-town words, “pre-production.” On the other hand, the “Carrie” remake will be out by spring 2013. Based on the cast, I’m cautiously optimistic for its chances, although no one can beat Piper Laurie for sheer scary psycho, Julianne Moore will try (witness her turn as Sarah Palin in HBO’s “Game Change,” now that’s a scary broad). The final film rumor I’ll float is a cheat—it’s about TV. For those of us addicted to the AMC series, “The Walking Dead,” rumors that Uncle Stevie will be writing an installment are making us crave the episode like zombies crave fresh brains. YOW. My DVR is poised and all the doors in the house are already locked. It may seem like overkill, but I mean, seriously, people, have you seen the stuff I read and watch?

PATTY TOMSKY is a freelance writer.

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