The Stand in a New Light

I’m surprised I’ve never written a post about Stephen King’s The Stand before. I read it about once a year. Maybe its massive size (just over 1,000 pages) has deterred me from trying to write about it. But there’s no better time than now to write about a book depicting a super flu that wipes out most of the world’s population; leaving behind both good and evil who then must battle it out to save what is left of humanity.

The Stand begins at a government base where a man-made flu breaches a medical lab. In the days following, people begin to come down with the flu. It’s not unusual to hear coughing and sniffling in a movie theater and in the streets. People begin to stay off the streets, quarantining themselves in their homes. What starts off as a seemingly simple flu becomes a pandemic nicknamed Captain Trips. The human population is reduced to almost nothing and the streets and freeways are littered with cars and the bodies of people who tried to flee the cities. The world becomes a wasteland.

But there are pockets of people who are immune to the flu, people who pack a few belongings and set out to find other survivors. As decent people search for each other, people filled with darkness also seek out their kind. Randall Flagg, also known as The Walking Dude, is a god to some, but a demon to others. He gathers the evil ones to him and has a plan for what’s left of the population. The heels of his cowboy boots can be heard clicking down the roads of America as he searches for those with evil tucked away in them. Side note: Randall Flagg pops up in King’s Dark Tower series as well. It’s a cross-over event, like when two of your favorite shows merge.

Stu Redman becomes the reluctant leader of a group of good people who find a new place to settle and begin life again. But Randall Flagg has appeared to many of them, showing them nightmare visions of the world he wants to create. On the flip side, there’s Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old woman who is tasked with saving the rest of humankind. She needs to gather the good of humanity to her to give them a chance to overcome Randall Flagg. Along the way, a couple of Flagg’s spies have embedded themselves in Stu’s group and wreak havoc. In the end, there can only be an ultimate sacrifice to bring about a new beginning.

With a brilliant and memorable cast of characters, Stephen King’s The Stand is about more than just Good vs. Evil. It’s about the human condition when presented with the end of the world and the luck of an immune system that bucks disease. The Stand is about being alone at the end of the world and then finding people to create a new life. To quote another King book, Doctor Sleep:  We go on, even in the dark. Even when the darkness seems unending. We go on.

Now look, I know this new disease is terrifying and something like The Stand doesn’t seem like fiction right now, but remember this: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday all the way through twice, stay away from large gatherings, and if you hear the clip-clop of dusty cowboy boots, run the other way. The Walking Dude has found you.

Gonna Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour begins with a doctor visiting a beauty of a Victorian house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Two elderly sisters have asked a doctor to see to their youngest sister who has been in a catatonic state for years. The doctor often sees a man standing on the porch with the catatonic woman and when the doctor asks who the man is, both sisters deny the existence of a man visiting with their sibling.

The doctor doesn’t think much of their denial. It is, after all, New Orleans where wealthy people don’t even try to act like every day normal humans. But the doctor knows he saw the man being tenderly attentive to the woman locked within herself. When the man attacks the doctor, the physician believes he’s lost his own mind. Because the man wasn’t there when he attacked the doctor. There was no physical form to the doctor’s attacker. Shaken and having escaped the house, he realizes the only explanation that makes sense is that he was attacked by a spirit.

The Mayfair’s are an old money family with a not so secret history of being called a family of witches. Rowan Mayfair has been kept from the New Orleans Mayfairs and was raised by another family member in San Francisco with the knowledge of who her birth mother is: the woman languishing on the porch of the grand painted Lady house in New Orleans. Rowan is a brilliant neurosurgeon with an odd talent of being able to heal a sick patient along with the power to destroy a life. Her mother’s death in New Orleans sends her back to her birthplace where she begins to learn about the family she’s been estranged from for her entire life.

Michael Curry was born in New Orleans but left for San Francisco many years before to become a popular architect whose talent is restoring old Victorian homes. Michael dreams of the houses of his childhood in New Orleans and longs to return. One day Michael drowns in San Francisco bay only to be brought back to life by Rowan who found him while sailing. A side effect of coming back from the dead is Michael’s clairvoyance, a very unwanted new skill. He can touch any object and see its past. Rowan and Michael fall in love (as two people usually do when brought back from death) and Michael travels to New Orleans with Rowan.

Aaron Lightner is a scholar with a shadow group known as the Talamasca who study strange happenings. He has followed the Mayfair family for centuries and calls them “the Mayfair witches.” He has also seen the ghostly man on the porch and knows what it is – not human and not exactly a ghost – and that it means danger to those outside the family. The not human man has a plan for Rowan, and nothing can stop it from getting what it wants.

This hugely sprawling novel spans centuries of the Mayfair witches along with the guardian man who attaches itself to the stronger females in the family. Will Rowan be the family member to break the thing’s hold or will she too become seduced by it and its ancient history?

Ah, now I remember why I never posted about this book. I can’t fit all the details in from this 976 page saga of a family of witches and the being who is passed down to them like hand me down jeans. The Witching Hour may be ridiculously long, but it doesn’t read as a long novel. It doesn’t feel like you’re slogging through a dense forest of words. Instead, The Witching Hour plays out like a rich theatrical release and the credits roll before you’re ready for them.

If you get into Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and want more, don’t worry. She has written a series of books featuring the Mayfair Witches and at one point the books have a crossover between the Mayfairs and the vampires from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. So enjoy, take frequent breaks, make yourself a snack and keep reading as the Mayfair world unfolds like some kind of night blooming flower.

Where I End and You Begin

I find it unsettling that serial killers -both male and female- have been sexualized in the last couple of years. Ted Bundy has become somewhat of a rock star thanks to a documentary on Netflix and a movie based on his life starring Zac Efron. There’s even a young woman somewhere in the world who got a tattoo of Bundy’s bite imprint from one of the bodies of his victims.

With that said, I do have to admit I find true crime beyond fascinating, but mostly I’m fascinated by what makes killers the way they are. I know some people think my fascination is weird and they refer to me as ‘one of those creepy girls.’  Yes. Yes, I am one of those creepy girls. It’s the creepy girls of the world that make everything burn a little brighter.

Stephen King used to keep a notebook full of newspaper clippings about murders when he was young. He said he kept the clippings because it was a way for him to recognize the nightmare people who donned a normal every day face while out in public. I, too, like to be aware of monsters that roam around with false human grace. But if you throw me a character from novels or a television series like Dexter who is a serial killer but only kills evil people, well, that’s something I can easily be obsessed about.

Joe Goldberg from Caroline Kepnes’s book You, throws off major Dexter vibes. Joe runs a bookstore in the East Village in New York. He’s obsessed with books, with literature, and with seeing people for who they really are. Characters fill his thoughts. You know what else he’s obsessed with? Guinevere Beck. From the moment she walks into the bookstore he’s got it bad for her. Like writing their names together on a notebook bad.

Beck, as she’s known to everyone, is a teaching assistant and aspiring writer. She’s working on her thesis, although it seems she never really spends time writing but heads out into the night to pursue a career in drinking and partying all night. Beck is everything Joe wants: beautiful, smart mouthed, and fiercely intelligent. Joe begins an odyssey of learning everything he can about Beck.

Instead of getting to know her through the normal channels, he stalks her social media and spies on her any chance he can get. Is this terrifyingly creepy? Yes. Can you kind of let that slide because Joe seems like one of the good guys? Surprisingly, yes.  That is until things begin to take a sinister turn and the reader begins to learn more about Joe’s past and his level of obsession with Beck. Will nothing stop Joe from being with Beck? Will anyone in the way of gaining Beck’s affection survive?

If you like books where you feel a little guilty about cheering on a main character who’s a lovable sociopath, You is your cup of tea.  Look, we’ve all had a crush that makes the rest of the world fall away and we can’t imagine a time when our crush isn’t a part of our life. But there’s a difference between a crush and an all-consuming obsession. It’s what you do in the middle-ground that makes all the difference.

And if you like You, there’s a sequel called Hidden Bodies that follows Joe after he leaves New York and settles in LA. You can move across the country, but obsessive love, like college debt, will follow you.

Spare Parts

Where was this book when I was a teenager? Oh yeah. It wasn’t written yet and I was already more than obsessed with the works of Stephen King. If ever I needed a manifesto (and not in a creepy way: there’s no dog-eared Catcher in the Rye nestled in any of my coat pockets) it would be Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl. Shuffling and stubbing my toes into my 40s, I still need a guide to help me see who I am and who I’m becoming. It’s a process I still haven’t acquired a taste for, like lima beans or small talk. But Johanna Morrigan is my new hero.

It’s 1990 and 14-year-old Johanna Morrigan lives in a small town in England with her exasperating family. Her family is on government benefits because of her father’s ‘back pain.’ None of the children can tell anyone they’re on benefits because questions would be asked, such as “Didn’t I see your father bent over a car in the driveway the other day? I thought he was physically unfit to wield a wrench?” Johanna’s father thinks he’s going to make millions as a rock star (what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless) and her mother is in postpartum decline from giving birth to twins. Johanna slips up one day while talking to an elderly neighbor and mentions the benefits. She realizes she’s put her family in financial peril. She waits every day by the mailbox to intercept any official letters saying the family’s benefits have been cut off.

Johanna always had a knack for writing and decides to write a poem for a contest. She wins and along with a tidy sum of money, she gets to read her poem on live TV.  She bombs so badly, humiliates herself so roundly, that she decides to become someone else. She creates an alter ego and gives herself the name Dolly Wilde. Wilde after Oscar Wilde, the decadent and naughty writer who once said: if you find yourself in the gutter, roll over and look at the stars. Johanna stumbles onto a job writing for a music magazine which involves going to clubs as well as interviewing up and coming and already established bands. For a kid who’s always immersed herself in words and music, this is a dream job. Her first essay is about a popular singer named John Kite and it reads like a mushy fangirl letter. The two have a connection that will span several years.

Two years pass and a now 16-year-old Johanna/Dolly Wilde is an old hand at interviewing bands. She dresses as a goth and often wears a top hat cocked at an angle. She’s aware that she is a chubby small-town girl, but it doesn’t stop her. She begins to smoke like a chimney, get drunk, and go on liberating sexual adventures where she convinces herself she uses her sexual partners just as much as they use her. There is no falling in love. Life is just one experience after another. She’s also financially supporting her family now and drops out of school to devote all her time to writing.

She indeed becomes someone else entirely. She uses her writing gift to eviscerate bands, making many enemies. A man in a band that got a less than favorable review from her dumps a drink on her head, saying he wanted to pour his urine over her head instead. Dolly laughs it off, telling herself that’s what happens when you’re a truthful writer. Things begin to change when one of her sexual escapades involves another writer at the magazine. She starts to think of him as her boyfriend, only to overhear him describe her as a ‘piece of strange’ meaning she’s from the wrong side of the tracks and he’s slumming it. It’s like a light bulb goes off in her head (or completely shatters, sending glass shards through her brain) and she realizes Dolly Wilde isn’t who she is. While Dolly served her purpose, she now knows that she is Johanna Morrigan:

But one day you’ll find a version of you that will get you kissed, or befriended, or inspired, and you will make your notes accordingly, staying up all night to hone and improvise upon a tiny snatch of melody that worked. Until-slowly, slowly-you make a viable version of you, one you can hum every day. You’ll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you’re busy doing other things.

As Johanna makes these life changing realizations, she pulls another humiliating stunt by getting drunk with John Kite and professing her overwhelming love for him. She doesn’t remember much from that night except for spilling her guts to him and him going off to sleep in the bathtub:

Since I met you, I feel like I can see the operating system of the world-and its unrequited love. That is why everyone’s doing everything. Every book, opera house, moon shot, and manifesto is here because someone, somewhere, lit up silent when someone else came into the room, and then quietly burned when they didn’t notice them.

Now older, Johanna sees that her parents did their best with what they had. Her father with his outrageous schemes and blind faith in himself, her ghost of a mother just beginning to surface from her depression with the help of an antidepressant cocktail, Johanna sees them as two people doing their best:

They made you how they want you. They made you how they need you. They built you with all they know, and love-and so they can’t see what you’re not: all the gaps you feel leave you vulnerable. All the new possibilities only imagined by your generation, and nonexistent to theirs.

And finally, I wish I had heard (known) this going into my late teens:

And you will be quite on your own when you do all this. There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.

Not just a coming of age tale, How to Build a Girl is an anthem sending a call to all humans to pick through the flotsam and jetsam of who they are, dig for the seeming detritus and know it for what it is: they key to becoming who you are and who you need to be.

Thanks for reading. I gotta go write a book. I’m going to title it How to Put Back Together a Middle-Aged Woman.

Hoarder’s Delight

A dozen years ago my mother flew to California to help my grandma pack up her tiny apartment and move into an assisted living home. Now, my grandma wasn’t the classic definition of a hoarder. There were no precarious stacks of yellowed newspapers or National Geographic magazines going back to the 1940s lying around. Grandma Flower was more of a pack rat: squirreling away slips of paper she’d scribbled on or pretty papers that caught her fancy, even if she never looked at them again.

During the visit, my mom and grandma sat on the couch watching television. My mom studied my grandma as she ripped a piece of Kleenex into tiny pieces and shoved them down the side of the couch. “Hey mom, why are you doing that, why are you tucking pieces of Kleenex into the sides of the couch?” My mom asked gently. Bewildered (and no doubt embarrassed about someone witnessing her little ritual) my grandma spat out “I just don’t know, Linda!” Now my brother and I yell it at each other when we catch each other doing something downright goofy.

In T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, Mouse’s aging father asks her to clear out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Mouse thinks, why not? She’s a freelance editor and can work anywhere. Plus, her father said whatever the house sells for she can keep. Mouse and her hound dog Bongo head to North Carolina. How bad could the old woman’s place be since the last two years of her life were spent in a retirement home?

Turns out, pretty damn bad. The house is crammed with the junk of a long life; a house of nonsense collections of items her grandmother couldn’t throw out. Had her grandmother been a kind and warm person, the task might have been a terrible emotional war, but Mouse’s grandmother was nothing but mean with a cruel streak ten miles wide. Instead of taking only a few days, Mouse realizes it’s going to take weeks to clear the house out, especially when she finds a room dedicated solely to her grandma’s creepy doll collection.

She picks out the most livable looking room to stay in and finds a journal written by her step-grandfather. She barely remembers the man. He was mostly a quiet person who read the newspaper all day. As Mouse reads through the journal, she starts to wonder if he had been in the active stages of dementia. He mentions marrying Mouse’s grandmother because ‘They’ steer clear of her. There was something about her that ‘They’ despised and avoided.

He mentions his birthplace in Wales and wonders if ‘They’ crossed the ocean with him. Because really, the old gods and creatures, whose only joy lies within darkness, like to follow humans wherever they go. They’re like ancient pop stars who fear being left behind and made irrelevant. Cotgrave, her step-grandfather, had a mantra he repeated to himself to keep ‘Them’ away: I made faces like the faces in the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

Mouse finds the sing-song chant creepy but chalks it up to an old man whose mind was beginning to sour. In the following days making trips to the dump (bye bye terrifying dolls) the chant begins to roam through her mind more and more. One night she’s awoken by her dog Bongo who is growling at the window. Mouse looks out to see deer crossing the front lawn except one of them seems disfigured, its legs bent at odd angles. Pretty weird but nothing to be afraid of.

Taking a break from cleaning one afternoon, she takes Bongo for a walk in the woods. The house itself is out in the boonies with a couple of neighbors down the road. Mouse and Bongo follow a trail only to discover something grotesque hanging from a tree. It looks like a deer, but the skull is upside down and pieces of it seem to be held together with wires and strips of cloth. Is it alive in that tree and watching her? It makes a clicking sound: rocks hanging in its chest knock against rib bones, like wind chimes from the deepest reaches of hell.

Mouse and Bongo almost break a land speed record running back to the house. After a fright, humans are good at rationalization, our brains making excuses for what has been seen. But that night she’s woken again by Bongo’s growl. The thing she saw hanging from a tree is at her window and looking at her. There’s no explaining that one. Mouse fears she might be losing her mind.

She’s made friends with people down the road, people her grandmother labeled sneeringly as hippies. Foxy is head of the household, a woman in her late fifties and far from a hippie. More like Annie Oakley, target shooting over her shoulder using only a mirror. Mouse tells her everything that’s been happening and Foxy’s not surprised. She says there has always been spooky happenings in the woods and even more remote places. People don’t talk about it much and treat it like a biting insect: if we don’t bother it, it won’t bother us.

Not really relieved to hear that otherworldly creatures exist and people just accept it, Mouse is ready to pack up her dog and go back home. Her father gave her an easy out. If cleaning out the house was unimaginable, then it could be bulldozed and the land cleared. But before Mouse can make her getaway, Bongo disappears. There’s no way Mouse will leave without him. Foxy invites herself along on the search, because what lies on the edge of their known world is a different and uninviting world.

This was a unique book that brought old customs and beliefs into this century, along with a compulsively relatable friendship between a woman and her dog. Great. Now I can’t see a deer without imaging its skull pressed against my window, watching me. I’d better twist myself about like the twisted ones. Maybe that will help.

Time Means Nothing Here

You gotta forgive me. I just adopted a puppy and my reading life has gone straight down the toilet. I’m either chasing after him because he has nabbed something he shouldn’t or I’m trying to break the land speed record to stop him from pooping on the floor. I have a theory that puppies are 50% sweetness and 50% crackhead. So, I’ve been reading novellas in the short time my puppy is passed out.

In the Tall Grass, a novella that you can find in the story collection Full Throttle, was kind of a cheat for me. I saw that Netflix had made it into a movie and before I watched it, I wanted to read the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Side note: when I first started reading Joe Hill’s work I’d think “Man, this writing reminds me a LOT of Stephen King.” Turns out Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. If I had just tracked down a photo of Joe Hill, I would have seen he’s the spitting image of his father.

In the Tall Grass begins with siblings Cal and Becky Demuth making a cross-country drive. Their parents call them ‘Irish twins’ because there’s only 19 months between them and they are as close as twins. Becky was in her sophomore year of college when she got pregnant. Her parents decided that the best thing for their unwed pregnant daughter was to go stay with an aunt across the country. Since it’s spring break, Cal decides to join her and the two make it a sort of adventure. They do a few touristy things, including seeing the world’s biggest ball of twine; I must be getting older since the idea of seeing a giant ball of twine actually peeked my interest.

After three days of driving, they come to a stop at a never-ending field of tall grass. Not just waist high grass but towering, over Shaq tall grass They hear a little boy crying for help from the grass. A woman’s voice, also calling from the grass, tells the boy to be quiet because “he might hear you.” Cal parks the car in the dusty lot of a dilapidated church. There are several other cars parked, all of them looking like they have been there for months.

While Cal is parking, Becky goes into the grass to investigate. She can still hear the boy, who says his name is Tobin, calling for help. The woman, named Natalie and presumably Tobin’s mother, has gone quiet. Cal enters the grass and calls out to Becky and Tobin. He expects his sister and the kid aren’t too far off since it sounds like they’re five feet to his right. And then they sound like they’re behind him. Cal blames the long swaying grass for distorting sounds.

Becky tries to call 911 on her phone, but the call is dropped. Meanwhile, it’s maddening to both Cal and Becky that they can hear each other but can’t find each other. It’s like a never-ending game of Marco Polo. Already uneasy, Cal begins to panic as Becky’s voice gets fainter and fainter. Night falls with only one or two voices calling for help.

Cal passes a decomposing dog tangled in the grass. It looks like someone (or something) has taken a bite out of it. The night begins to get more and more terrifying and Cal thinks he might never see his sister again or escape the tall grass. What seems like an innocent field of grass is becoming a dark, almost alive, creature with the intention of driving people insane who get lost in it.

Do you trust me, Faithful Readers? You know I can’t say anything else because it would spoil the story much like a dead rat stuck under a couch. You’ll be glad I didn’t say anything more. Trust me.

And would you do me a favor (Please and thank you)? If you see a field of monstrously tall grass, keep driving until it’s only a blur in your rearview mirror.

I’ll Give You $3.50 For Your Soul

One of the drawbacks of being an avid reader is that I sometimes don’t retain much of a book in my head. I might remember specific scenes or characters. I might not remember the entire book, but I do remember if I liked the book or hated it.

I read Peter Staub’s The Hellfire Club over 20 years ago. I had already read the two books he collaborated on with Stephen King: The Talisman and it’s follow up Black House. Already a King reader, those two books urged me to seek out more Peter Straub books. And I did, starting with The Hellfire Club.

Nora Chancel is married to Davey Chancel, the son of a man whose father built a publishing house in the early 1900s. Nora, a former combat nurse in Vietnam, is haunted by her service in the war. Her sleep is often broken by nightmares that send her digging under her pillow for a gun she used to keep there.

Someone is murdering women in the small Connecticut town where Nora and Davey live. The killer’s latest victim is the real estate agent who sold the Chancels their home. Like many women in town terrified of being the next victim, Nora has had an alarm system put in.

Meanwhile, her husband, who has always been obsessed with an author published by his family’s publishing house, seems to have become almost unhinged in his obsession. His father is a blowhard who likes to keep Davey under his thumb. Davey’s mother is a more often than not drunk who spends her days in her study ‘writing.’ Davey’s father has always thought that Nora (10 years older than Davey) was too old for his son and likes to insult her under the guise of flirting.

One day on the drive home from a tense lunch with Davey’s parents, he and Nora drive by their real estate agent’s house. Crime scene tape still scars the front door. Police roam the house. Davey and Nora go to the front door where they’re met by a detective who asks them to come inside since they knew the missing woman and might have answers to his questions. He observes them as they walk through the house.

The woman’s bedroom is a blood bath, blood spatter on the walls, the bed soaked. Nora doesn’t think the real estate agent is dead, but with all the blood in her bedroom it’d be a miracle if the woman was alive. When they get home, Nora sees that Davey is almost manic about something. He stole a couple of paperbacks from the real estate agent’s bedroom, books published by his family and written by the author Davey is obsessed with. He begins to tell her a bizarre story about a woman from his past who was equally obsessed with the writer. She introduced him to The Hellfire Club, an unusual place where time and memory seem to be skewed.

He gives Nora a couple of paperbacks with a scribbled message inside. The same paperbacks the missing and presumed dead real estate agent had on her shelf in her bedroom. But it turns out that Nora was right, the woman is not dead and has been found. The police want Nora and Davey to positively ID the woman.

It is indeed the real estate agent, but she explodes into hysterics when she sees Nora. The killer is caught: a man identified as one of Davey’s former classmates as well as a lawyer for the publishing house. And this is where Nora’s nightmare begins as she becomes accused of heinous crimes and tries to outrun a killer who is actually on the loose.

Peter Straub is a master storyteller, weaving tales both supernatural and steeped in reality. The Hellfire Club is a fast page-turner and if my heart wasn’t a shriveled up black lotus flower, I’m sure it would have been pounding in terror.