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.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

Even though I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s work (move over Annie Wilkes because I’m his number one fan), I’ll admit that sometimes I do skip one of his books when it gets published. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I’ll acknowledge the book and go about my life, knowing I’ll catch up to his latest and greatest at some point. But some of his novels I visit over and over again, like meeting an old friend for a cup of coffee to swap stories about the paths our lives have taken. Or with King’s books, those coffee catch-ups take the form of terrifying tales told by the light of a campfire.

In Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella crafted by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, it’s 1974 and 12 year old Gwendy Peterson likes to run up a set of cliffside stairs known as the Suicide Stairs. At the top of the stairs she can hear the summer sounds of pick up baseball games and kids on a playground. One day, a gentleman dressed in black calls to her from a bench. His name is Richard Farris and the neat black hat he wears will haunt her dreams for years to come.

Farris seems to know her mind and her desires. He gives her a wooden box inlaid with eight different colored buttons. He presses one button and dispenses a small chocolate candy. He tells her the chocolate will help her lose weight and stop kids from calling her names like Goodyear (as in the Goodyear Blimp). Gwendy takes the box with its buttons home and her life begins to change.

The chocolates do help her to lose weight. Another button, when pushed, dispenses old silver dollars. As she gets older, she knows the silver dollars are worth a lot of money and will be her ticket to be able to pay for college. Another button seems to help her parents to quit drinking and steer them away from an inevitable divorce. The other buttons tempt her and she knows, if pressed, a button might bring about something truly horrible.

Gwendy decides to try and experiment one day and presses a button that leaves her with an uneasy feeling. What happens next makes her terrified of the Button Box and the power it yields. But along with the evil that the box is capable of, the good it brings to Gwendy’s life is there as well.  She goes through high school making good grades and excelling at sports. She takes a couple of coins from the Button Box to a coin collector and finds out they are indeed valuable and will help her pay for a good college. She begins to worry about the box falling into the wrong hands and takes great pains to make sure it’s safe. But one day, a monster in human skin gets a hold of the box and Gwendy’s life takes another turn.

Gwendy’s Button Box is not only a chilling supernatural tale, but also a coming of age story about a young girl who doesn’t believe she’s special until she’s given a magical box equipped with buttons that shape not only who she is but her own destiny.

To all the kids out there who feel invisible and unremarkable, I hope you find your own Button Box that helps you become who you need to be. Just don’t, you know, press any of the buttons that might bring about the end of the world. I’m just saying….

Sometimes Dead is Better

I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary when I was 10 or 11. My brother (who is 2/1/2 years older than me) had finished it and left it on the couch. I picked it up and began reading. That book sealed the deal on me wanting to be a writer.

Stephen King has admitted that Pet Sematary disturbs him more than his other horror novels because the plot included every parent’s worst fear: the loss of a child. Back in the 1980s, Stephen King and his family moved to rural Maine. The country road in front of their home was anything but empty and quiet. Large semis often barreled down the road, claiming beloved pets and inadvertently teaching kids about death. King said his youngest child, still getting the tricky thing of walking down, had made his way to the edge of the road where a semi was rocketing down.

King couldn’t remember if he’d tackled the toddler in time or the child just tripped, preventing what could have been every parent’s worst nightmare. The seeds of the novel were planted when he discovered a pet cemetery behind his house. He didn’t have a place to write in in his new house, so he wrote in a room in the grocery store across from that road made for tragedy.

In Pet Sematary (misspelled by the children who made the place their pets final resting ground) Louis Creed and his family move to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Louis was an ER doctor in Chicago, but wanted a quiet place where he could spend more time with his wife and two children. He takes a job as infirmary doctor at the university and begins to settle his family.

His new neighbor Jud Crandall, a nimble 80-year-old man, introduces the Creed family to the pet cemetery near the woods behind their home. Generations of neighborhood children have buried their pets there. Many were claimed by the hell-bent for leather semis on that country road.

Louis’ 5-year-old daughter Ellie, like all children, starts to ask questions about death and why her beloved cat Church won’t live as long as her. He explains that death is a natural thing, earning the wrath of his wife Rachel who believes death isn’t to be talked about. Her anger might be because of a tragedy in her youth with her older sister dying at home while Rachel was the only one there.

The road claims Ellie’s cat, Church. Jud, who has become a good friend to Louis, tells him about a place beyond the pet cemetery, ground that belonged to a local tribe. The earth there is bad, the ground stony. Jud tells Louis he has to bury the cat himself.

The next day Louis is surprised by the return a much changed Church and even tugs a bit of plastic from the garbage bag he buried the cat in out of the feline’s mouth. Jud regrets telling Louis about the place beyond the pet cemetery and tells a couple horror stories of his own from the 80 years he’s lived in the same house. The hard ground is sour. What comes back from the soil is not the same that went in.

From there on out, Pet Sematary delves deeper into loss and darkness and what a man will do to keep his family together.

After finishing Pet Sematary, King gave it his usual 6-week cooling off period and read it again. He was so disturbed by the story that he stuck it in a drawer and left it alone until another book was needed to fulfill his contract with Doubleday. Decades after its publication, it’s a book that still manages to disturb readers.

A Thinner Elevation

When I finished Stephen King’s latest novel Elevation the other day, I couldn’t help but think of it as being related to another one of his earlier works writing under the pen name Richard Bachman: Thinner

Thinner is about a successful lawyer named Billy Halleck who is severely overweight. Driving home as he and his wife are engaging in a little hanky-panky, his car strikes and kills an old Gypsy woman. The charge of manslaughter is dropped by the judge (a personal friend of Billy’s) and as he’s leaving the courtroom, the elderly father of the woman he ran over caresses his cheek and whispers “Thinner.” I wish someone would whisper “Billionaire” or “Bestselling novelist” at me. Without the caress. It would really make my life easier, you know?

Soon, Billy begins to shed weight. At first, it’s all good because he’s morbidly obese. But he can’t stop losing weight. He begins to realize the old man cursed him. With the help of a former client with ties to the mafia, Billy tracks down the old man at a gypsy camp to ask him to lift the curse. Taduz, the old man, refuses, saying Billy has to pay for his wrongdoing. Before they leave the camp, Taduz’s great-granddaughter shoots Billy through the hand. Richie fixes him up with a mafia doctor who takes care of his hand.

Richie then goes back to the gypsy camp and goes all Godfather on them. Billy returns and Tazduz agrees to break the curse. He has a strawberry pie and has Billy drip his blood into the pie. Taduz says the curse can be lifted if someone else eats a piece of the pie. A transferred curse. The ending of Thinner is not a happy one but that’s what makes Stephen King….well, the king of horror.

King’s latest offering, Elevation, starts out with Scott Carey visiting his old doctor who retired years ago. Scott shares a wondrous and horrifying secret: even though his clothes remain the same and he doesn’t look like he’s losing any weight ,each time he gets on the scale he sees he’s lost weight. His old doctor is skeptical until Scott tells him to get a scale and he’ll make the doc a believer. Fully clothed, Scott steps onto the scale and waits for the doctor to do his thing.

Way over six feet tall and on the hefty side, Scott tells the doctor he’s losing about two pounds a day without the loss ever showing up on his body. The doc is still skeptical and tells Scott he needs to go to see a practicing doctor, get tests done, the whole she-bang. Nowhere on this planet is someone who loses weight and has nothing to show for it. Scott refuses. He’s not scared, even when the doc brings up the possibility of cancer. In fact, he’s never felt so wonderfully alive and eager to do things. He swears the doc to secrecy.

Down the block from Scott a couple moves in. They run a restaurant which is slowly tanking because they happen to be married to one another. As one kid puts it they’re “Lesbean.” One of them is a sweet heart while the other has a giant chip on her shoulder. They jog past Scott’s house and allow their dogs to use his lawn as a bathroom. And they don’t pick it up. Scott decides to confront them and does so politely. They take offense at being accused of letting their dogs poop on his lawn. They’re frosty towards him and change the path of their jog so they don’t go by his house. The small town is ripe with gossip about the female married couple. Many put their two cents in, declaring such a thing as two women married to each other an abomination. Soon, their  restaurant loses business and is on the verge of going under all because the town is not comfortable with their “lifestyle.”

Going on about his business, Scott weighs himself every day and night and sees that he’s still steadily losing weight but it still doesn’t show on his body. He’s still not afraid and in fact enters into euphoria as he gets lighter and lighter. He does the math and calculates how long he has left as his weight crumbles. He marks his calendar for when he believes he’ll cease to exist. He forms a close bond with the doc and the couple (after they patched things up and the chip falls off that woman’s shoulder) and he asks them to care for him as the pounds melt away. The due date on his calendar is counting down the days until….what? What will happen if he keeps losing weight? Scott has an idea of what’ll happen to him and decides to prepare himself.

I know many of you are Stephen King fans (I’m his number one fan) and drain his books dry as soon as they come out, but Elevation was unlike any other King book I’ve read. The story felt old and somehow familiar like catching a whiff of perfume and not recognizing the scent even though it’s on the very tip of your tongue. This tiny book can be finished in one sitting. However, after reading it you’ll wish the story had no ending and just kept going.

There you have it. Two Stephen King books about inevitable change and living with what you’ve dreamed of even if it doesn’t go the way you’ve planned.

Darkness at the Edge of Town

Whenever I’m reading something online I always appreciate the kind souls who write in bold capitals: WARNING! SPOILERS! There are some mean-spirited folks out there who seem to delight in spoiling a movie or a TV series or even a book. Some butthead online ruined an episode of The Walking Dead way back in season 6 and I stopped watching the show. It was ruined.

So when I heard Stephen King was coming out with a new book titled The Outsider, I was hesitant about reading anything about it online. But being me, I went online because I had no idea what the book was about. The first word in an article about the book that caught my eye was ‘crime procedural.’ My gut sank. I may have even switched to YouTube to watch clips of cats falling off stuff.

I didn’t want a King book about crime and murder. Well, yeah, I wanted the murder part but what I wanted to read about was a monster. Give me a little of that old something’s-hiding-under-my-bed-and-is-reaching-out-to-touch-my-foot. The Outsider didn’t seem to offer up anything supernatural but hell, it’s a Stephen King book. And in the words of Misery’s Annie Wilkes, “I’m his number one fan.”

Set in the small town of Flint City, Oklahoma, The Outsider opens with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Frank Peterson. Horrible things have been done to him. Throat ripped out, violated with a tree branch. The stuff of every parent’s nightmare. Detective Ralph Anderson begins pulling in eyewitnesses who all describe seeing the same man in the vicinity of Frank Peterson: Terry Maitland, teacher and Little League coach. In fact, Terry is a well-known and well liked citizen and has coached hundreds of children over the years. He even coached Detective Anderson’s son back in the day.

The evidence is stacking up against Terry Maitland and when the DNA comes back from samples collected from the Peterson boy it’s a match for Terry. With a few other officers in tow, Anderson decides to arrest Maitland during a huge Little League game. With the stands filled with nearly 1,500 spectators, Anderson approaches the dugout, handcuffs Maitland’s hands in front of him, and reads him his rights. Now, I know what you’re thinking (and no, I haven’t been drinking): of course this guy is guilty as hell. He tore the throat out of a child, raped him, and left enough physical evidence behind to send him to death row to ride the needle.

As Terry pleads his innocence, a little niggling worry started in the back of my mind. And I think everyone is guilty of something. But something about Terry Maitland comes across as innocent. Detective Anderson has seen many horrors during his career. He knows a child rapist and killer could be beloved by the town, attend church every Sunday, and still be a predator. Anderson thinks he has this case closed and solved, eager for Terry Maitland to go to trial and get the needle.

Then the unexpected happens and throws a wrench in Anderson’s case. At the time of Frank Peterson’s murder, Terry Maitland was 200 miles away attending a conference which had the author Harlan Coben as a guest speaker. Not only was Terry with several other teachers, the event was taped. During the question and answer period of the talk, a camera shows Terry stand up to ask a question. There’s no way Terry Maitland killed Frank Peterson. But all that DNA….how is that even possible? I went down several rabbit holes trying to think of a way that could happen. I got stuck in one rabbit hole thinking maybe Terry had a twin he didn’t know about and the twin shows up exacting some kind of ancient twin revenge. Detective Anderson is spinning his wheels, wanting Terry to go to trial and death row but also having heavy doubts.

DON’T WORRY! NO SPOILERS AHEAD.

Remember how I said I wanted a monster, something supernatural? I wanted a good old Stephen King book that was like his first dozen books? Well, he delivered. I’ll give you this little morsel. Picture it: a man with a lumpy, misshapen face and straw for eyes. That is all.

The Outsider is like a comfortable old sweater that fell in the back of your closet and is discovered only when you turn 40 and crawl into the back of your closet to cry and eat a sleeve of Oreos. Not that I do that. Often. King has created memorable characters (I was at work the other day and suddenly found myself thinking about one of them and wondering what they would do next with their life) and a plot so fast and full of action that I was saddened when I reached the end. If you’re looking for a return of the old King (Return of the King! See what I did there?) where he indulges all your dark obsessions and fears, The Outsider is a book to pick up and devour. But keep your feet from dangling off the end of the bed.

You Are Healed!

Back in the mid to late 80s there was this channel that would play religious ‘talk shows,’ usually with women who put their make up on with a trowel and had high hair (the bigger the hair, the closer to God) and a husband already sweating two minutes into the beginning of the show while walking through a crowd. I confess that during bouts of insomnia, (yes, 10 year olds can get insomnia; they can also remember where their mother hid the huge bag of Skittles at 3am) I would watch these shows just to see the sweaty dude go to a line of people anxiously waiting to be healed by the power of this man who was a direct conduit for God.

Even at the age of 10, I could spot that split second dismay in the ‘you are healed’ faces of the people, like they were thinking: This dude just punched me in the forehead. And then the look of acceptance: Well, it is almost a direct healing from God and it takes my attention off the drag queen up on the stage in the pink and red sequin jumpsuit so….okay. I feel the same way about figure skating. It’s a beautiful sport, an elegant and intimate dance of two bodies that know each other so well. But I only watch it hoping one of them will fall and slid across the ice on their butt.

I never said I was a good person.

I almost skipped Stephen King’s book Revival, published in 2014, because I didn’t want a doom and gloom angry God book but after the first couple of pages I was hooked. Duh. It’s Stephen King. Oh, my apologies. I know I wrote my last post about Stephen King but the man delivers and when he promises to make you forget reality through his writing, he means it.

Charles Jacobs is a new minister in town. Everybody loves him and his wife and his son, especially a young man named Jamie Morton. But Charles Jacobs’s wife and child die in a tragic car accident and Charles denounces God and all religions and is basically run out-of-town for his blasphemy. He spends years honing a side-show gimmick until something happens that makes him regain his faith and he becomes a faith healer. You see, all his life he’s dabbled with electricity and is harnessing it somehow. How very Tesla of him.

Jamie Morton is all grown up now and a musician with a nasty heroin habit. He meets up again with Charles Jacobs who uses his weird electrical gift to cure Jamie of his drug habit. But Jamie notices that he has certain side effects: sleepwalking and jabbing sharp objects into his arm as though doping again in his sleep. Jamie begins to investigate all of the people that Charles Jacobs has ‘healed.’

It turns out they’ve all had bizarre side effects from the electrical cure. Some have killed themselves or others. Just as Jamie is cutting ties with Jacobs, Jacobs informs him that Jamie’s childhood sweetheart Astrid is dying from terminal cancer. Jacobs says he’ll heal Astrid if Jamie helps him with one last big electrical experiment. Jamie agrees and Astrid is healed. By now Jamie knows that Jacobs isn’t to be trusted and is probably more unhinged than anyone thinks.

What Jacobs wants to do is harness a massive surge of what he calls ‘secret electricity.’ He’s going to bring about this dose of electricity via a lightning rod and he’s going to zap the electricity from the rod into a terminally ill woman named Mary Fay. It works but not in the way Jacobs hoped. Mary Fay is cured, but she is now a conduit for the Afterlife. Jacobs and Jamie discover there is no heaven, no reward for having lived a kind and good life. Instead, there’s a placed called ‘The Null,’ a dimension where dead humans are forever enslaved by insane creatures right out of an H.P. Lovecraft book. One creature in particular is the most powerful, called Mother, and she now inhabits the body of Mary Fay, breaking her body and turning her into a monster.

Okay, the rest I have written down in my notebook and when I got to the part explaining about the ending I thought: I like my readers, all two of them, and I’m not going to spoil the ending. But even after finishing the book I had to go have a nap and a Bloody Mary (not in that order, I’m not that talented).

Revival isn’t just about losing faith and regaining it. It’s about what people become once they lose or regain faith.

I also think it should be a cautionary tale not to mess with electricity or you’ll end up summoning a demon bent on destroying the world.

Redrum

I was going to write a blog about Stephen King’s book The Shining versus the Stanley Kubrick 1980 movie adaptation of the book, but time got away from me. Not because I’m busy. Because I rented the newest version of the movie IT and then I fell asleep (not because of the movie but because of who I am as a person) and then had to begin it again and this blog is already getting away from me and that usually doesn’t happen until the second paragraph.

Come along with me on another adventure of “What Did I Just Read?”

I’ve read The Shining 3 times. I’m not bragging. I just have a hard time remembering books I’ve read a long time ago. But I did reread it just for the pleasure of it. And because it’s one of my favorite King novels.

Picture it: Jack Torrance, recovering alcoholic (one of the scary ones with anger problems), is looking for a new start not only for himself but also for his wife Wendy and their 5-year-old son Danny. He thinks he’s found the perfect job at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado. During the brutal mountain winters (where the hotel, while mesmerizing, is pretty isolated) the place shuts down for a few months with just a caretaker to look after the enormous building. This is Jack’s chance to make up the past year of horrible behavior to both his wife and son and a chance to work on his play without distraction or interruption. He hears a story about a former caretaker years go who went stir crazy one winter in the hotel and killed his wife and children. The isolation, Jack is told, sometimes gets to people. But like with any new beginning, Jack Torrance believes he and his family can get through anything, even being cut off from civilization by enough snow to make you think it’s the apocalypse, the snowy version.

His 5-year-old son Danny has….special abilities. His parents don’t realize it because it’s 1977 and parents aren’t into hovering over their kid’s every move. Nowadays, they’d shove Danny on a reality show or have him hosting a version of Antiques Road Show where he describes the ghost hanging out with the ugly vase from someone’s attic. But in 1977 Danny’s parents think he’s a quietly imaginative kid with an imaginary friend named Tony. Sure, it’s great when a 5-year-old has an imaginary friend but when a 40-year-old woman has one they up her medication.

On The Overlook’s closing day Jack and his family get a tour of the place and meet Dick Hallorann, the chef. He takes one look at Danny and knows he has special abilities. He begins to talk to Danny telepathically. While Danny’s parents are busy looking around, Dick tells Danny that he’s one of the rare people who has a gift called the shining, he can see and sense things others can’t and will have visions of things to come. People hear the title The Shining and they forget it’s actually a good thing, the ability to shine. Dick is leaving for Florida but tells Danny that they have a special connection and he knows the hotel is one huge haunted place and Danny is going to see some seriously screwed up paranormal stuff. But if Danny needs him all he has to do is use the shine to call to him and Dick will rush back to the hotel.

So everybody leaves on closing day. Jack and Wendy and Danny spend the next few days exploring their new surroundings and everything is good. Until the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel find out just how special Danny is and are drawn to him. Thinking back, I don’t remember any nice ghosts that befriended Danny. The Overlook Hotel has a salacious past full of murder and mayhem and the dead have never moved on. Danny doesn’t say anything about what he’s seen because he knows the job is important to his parents and he hasn’t seen his father this happy in a long time.

But that happiness doesn’t stick around. The Overlook can’t get its possessive claws into Danny because of his gift but guess who it can possess? Yep. Jack Torrance. He’s having trouble writing his play (thanks to the hotel distracting him) and cabin fever is beginning to unravel him. After a fight with Wendy, Jack makes his way down to the bar where all the liquor had been removed on closing day (wouldn’t do to have a drunk caretaker stumbling about) but is now fully stocked with a bartender on duty named Lloyd.

The ghosts begin to spill out of the woodwork (Jack was warned not to go into room 237, never go into room 237 because horrible things happened there and damn it, there he is going into room 237) and drive Jack into an insanity there’s no coming back from. The ghosts of the hotel want Danny because of his shine. Lloyd urges a very drunk Jack to kill Danny and Wendy. Once you’re dead in the Overlook, you never really leave. Or is that the Hotel California? In any case, Jack is fully under the hotel’s powers and goes after Wendy. Danny, meanwhile, is giving his new buddy Dick Hallorann a telepathic SOS loud enough to almost make his head bleed.

And then…and then…well, if I tell you what happens you won’t need to read the book and I wouldn’t have done my job of getting you into the library, excited about being terrified to death by Stephen King’s writing. The Shining was King’s third novel and in my opinion one of his scariest, not just because of a hotel full of ghosts reliving their deaths but because of what isolation and inner demons can do to a person whose only goal was to start fresh. Read this book if you want to see the gradual unraveling of one man driven insane by an isolated hotel. Read about a mother trying not only to keep her child alive but also herself as her husband loses his mind. And then there’s Danny, who shines the brightest.

Excuse me, I have some other writing to take care of. All work and no play make Jennifer a dull girl.