Lullaby and Goodnight, Please Don’t Torch Me While I Sleep Tonight

In the wake of the last month and a half of sexual assault and sexual harassment stories surfacing (and what a tsunami of a wake it’s been) Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and his son Owen King dovetails with these current scandals almost too well. The book itself is not a study in men vs. women but an unveiling of humanity’s war on each other. Does that make sense? Good. It did in my head anyway.

In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia (yeah, I was a little shocked that it wasn’t set in some quaint little Maine town where sewer clowns and rabid dogs reign supreme) an eerie, almost ageless beautiful woman (you ever notice it’s never some plain woman rolling into town to upend everyone’s lives?) arrives in town. Her name is Eve Black and she’s about to turn tiny Dooling inside out.

A strange plague has swept across the world. Women are falling asleep (sometimes in the middle of walking, driving, or eating dinner) and a peculiar gauzy cobweb of a cocoon spirals out from their skin to wrap them head to toe. These women aren’t dead but deeply asleep. Females in all corners of the world are succumbing. And the women of the Dooling Correctional Facility for Women begin to fall asleep one by one.

Sheriff Lila Norcross is running on fumes the first day that women begin to fall to the sleep disease. She’s been called out to a trailer meth lab where one of the dealer’s heads has been rammed through the side of the trailer, sticking out like some deer head mounted to a wall. A nude woman at the scene named Eve Black, a serenely beautiful (but non psychopath looking naked lady to be sure) takes credit for the deaths of two drug dealers and is handcuffed and peacefully gets into the back of Sheriff Norcross’s squad car. The woman unnerves Lila in a way that she doesn’t understand.

Dr. Clint Norcross, Lila’s husband, is the senior psychiatric officer at the Dooling women’s prison. Once Eve Black is settled into the prison (the labyrinth of the justice system is kinda skipped since everyone’s panicking about women falling asleep and men being left on their own to freak the floob out), Clint studies the strange woman. Now, reader, you know and I know that this Eve Black is a supernatural creature with designs of her own. But it takes the people of Dooling a little longer to catch on that she’s a part of the chaos that the sleep brings. Eve Black is able to fall asleep and wake up again without the cocoon growing from her face to wrap her body.

Frank Geary, the local animal control officer, has a volatile temper that frightens his estranged wife and his 11-year-old daughter. He’s not violent towards them but his anger is still terrifying. When the poop hits the fan and his wife and daughter fall asleep, Frank decides to take charge. By then almost all the women in town are asleep except for a handful who have access to meth and speed to keep themselves awake for a few hours longer. One of these women is Vanessa Lampley, Officer of Corrections at the women’s prison and the 2010 and 2011 Ohio Valley arm-wrestling champion. When she’s first introduced you don’t think she’s going to be a fairly major character but then the Kings surprise the heck out of you by giving her more air time, so to speak.

In the meantime, the women who fell asleep “wake up” in a Dooling that is deserted. There are no men, just the women who fell asleep. They begin to build a small but thriving society. None of the women know how it’s possible that they could fall asleep and wake up in a new Dooling to start their lives over again but they’re happier than they have been in a long while. Time passes much more quickly in this new place. But as New Dooling is getting settled some women start to disappear.

Back in old Dooling there are reports of men trying to wake loved ones in their cocoons. One news broadcast shows a man ripping away at the cocoon around his wife’s face only to have her rise up like a zombie berserker and tear into him. Men who had once been terrified of their female family members falling into a deep slumber (and many men who are blights upon society and don’t much care for women or will never admit they’re afraid of women) begin torch brigades. Yes, that’s exactly as it sounds: all over the world men are burning women in their cocoons. And Dooling is no different. People begin hiding the wrapped bodies of their loved ones in attics and basements to keep them safe.

The town of Dooling is falling into two different factions. One consists of Clint Norcross and a small band of men who want to protect the prison’s sleeping women and Eve Black because she is undoubtedly the catalyst for the slumbering women. The other group is made up of Frank Geary and a rag-tag bunch of idiots who shouldn’t be allowed scissors let alone guns. They make their way to the prison when they hear there’s a woman there by the name of Eve Black who may be the key to the disease. They’re not going there to have a friendly chat with her or sell her some Time Life books either.

Sleeping Beauties is not an anti-male or anti-female novel. In fact, it embraces humanity in all of its ugly and wonderful ways. Some of the characters, like Frank Geary, aren’t pure evil. Frank’s a father who will do anything to keep his little girl safe. Clint Norcross had a rough upbringing in foster homes where the adults would make the children fight for a milkshake. He’s not completely without shady machinations in this book but that’s exactly why it’s a fantastic read. There is no clear-cut good and evil. There is only human and slightly less human.

If you want to read a book that defies all your ideas about good and evil and makes you think about what you would do in a given situation, take a peek inside Sleeping Beauties. You may find yourself on both sides of the equation.

Except for those meth heads. Nobody’s on their side.

Dark Dreams Bought and Sold

bazaarofbaddreamsI’m not overly fond of short stories any more (which is weird because all I ever do is write short stories that usually end up as long as a three-hour Uncle Morty War Story in which Morty gets his World Wars mixed up and tells you he shot the Archduke Ferdinand) but when Stephen King comes out with a new book of short stories, I eat them up. His newest collection is titled The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Throughout most of his writing life, King has set his novels and stories in Maine. Over the last few years he’s begun setting them in places like Florida. Reading them kind of feels like mom and dad sold your childhood home and moved away while you were at college. The stories are still good but they don’t feel like…home.

Many dismiss King as a horror hack churning out stories about monsters under the bed or clowns terrorizing children but they have it all wrong. Sure, in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams he writes about monsters like in the story “Mile 81” where a car (with hints of his novel Christine thrown in) eats people at a rest stop. King also writes about weird happenings like in the story “UR” where a man decides to bite the bullet and buy a Kindle. This was when Kindles first came out and there were a couple features on them that were ‘experimental.’ He finds out just what that means when he orders nonfiction books about historical events that never happened-in this version of the universe.

But King also writes about everyday life as shown in these stories from his latest collection:

“Batman and Robin Have an Altercation”: after a man lunches with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, they get into a road rage incident that has unforeseen consequences.

“Morality”: What does a financially strapped married couple do to get out from under the weight of debt and job loss? The unthinkable becomes possible.

“Herman Wouk Is Still Alive”: A couple of octogenarian poets rekindle an old love during a picnic while a van full of kids and two down on their luck women barrel down a freeway.

“Premium Harmony”: The love is gone from this married couple and the wife’s damn dog is still in the back seat.

kingDo you want some straight up old school King terror? Try these shorties in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams:

“Bad Little Kid”: Dennis the Menace has nothing on this supernatural punk, but can anybody else see him?

“Afterlife”: A man is dying from cancer. Is it the end or just another beginning?

“The Little Green God of Agony”: In 1999 Stephen King was run over by a van while out for his daily walk. He should have died. Instead, this story (along with many novels and stories) came out about a man who claims he can take physical pain from people and make it his own.

I sat up way late into the night reading this book. See, that’s the beauty of a Stephen King short story: you read the first few pages and think ‘Where the hell is he going to go with this?’ The answer is ‘I don’t know, man.  I just don’t know.’ He’s a wildcard. Wildcard!

For Better or For Worse

Once upon a time there was love and passion. When passion’s embers were banked and didn’t burn so intensely there was still love. And familiarity. 27 years of marriage witnessed both tenderness and dismay, the dismay being a wet towel left on the bathroom floor, the tenderness in caring for someone who ate bad shrimp. A good marriage is fluent in short hand and silences. A good marriage is being able to unbutton your jeans after pizza and beer. A good marriage is listening to an untalented spouse sing in the shower every morning and not flushing the toilet on them. A good marriage is gentle support: please don’t eat that candy all the time. I want to make sure you’re around for years to come. Even when you find out I’ve killed 12 women.

fulldarkA Good Marriage is from Stephen King’s novella collection Full Dark, No Stars. I’m writing about it because 1) I forgot I read it five years ago and 2) it’s the only novel from Full Dark, No Stars that I remember, mostly because I read it again last week.

Stephen King said that A Good Marriage is loosely based on serial killer Dennis Rader, the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killer who slaughtered ten people and then quit killing for years. King wrote the novel after hearing about Rader’s wife of 34 years getting harassed by people who believed she knew what her husband was doing.

Bobby and Darcy Anderson have been married 27 years and have two grown children: Donnie, who’s getting his first business up and running and is becoming a success and Petra who is planning her wedding. Bobby is an accountant and a numismatist (I had to look up the word because it sounds like something a drunk person would try to say while concentrating very hard. It means someone who collects currency like old and rare coins). Bobby’s been obsessed with finding a rare Wheat Penny, the Holy Grail of coins.

Darcy finds one online and wants to buy it for him but he says no because he wants to find the rare penny randomly, mixed in with his change after eating at a restaurant or buying a cup of coffee. He wants fate to bring the penny to him. Bobby’s passion is Darcy’s passion. Darcy runs a small business out of their home selling memorabilia and coins. Like most coin enthusiasts, they’re continuously on the hunt for something rare, a coin that seems to be mostly myth and urban legend. But Bobby’s on an entirely different hunt. And has been for years.

Bobby often travels to smaller New England towns to fix the accounts of other businesses and to go to coin dealers and auctions. One evening when Darcy is home alone watching TV she tries to change the channel. The batteries in the remote are dead and of course there aren’t any in the junk drawer or anywhere else in the house. They’re all the way out in the garage. The garage is Bobby’s domain and the man is ultra OCD which is good for Darcy since she’s a little scattered. She finds the batteries in a neatly labeled drawer. When she goes to reach for them her knee hits a box and knocks it over.

Sitting on top of the box are stacks of mail-order catalogs. While flipping through them, she finds a magazine about bondage. At first she thinks it’s just one of those magazines that men are curious about, something along the line of Playboy but when she opens the magazine she sees it’s more than “exploration and curiosity”, it’s downright torture. Why would her Bobby have such a magazine around?

She tries to put it out of her mind and bends down to slide back the box she knocked over. She hears another sound. Getting down on her hands and knees she peers into the wall where there is a small hiding spot. A loose board has fallen over and she can see a small box inside. A little voice in Darcy’s head is telling her to leave it alone, put the piece of wood back, grab her batteries and go back into the house but instead she takes the box out and finds a driver’s license, library card and blood donor card all belonging to a woman who had been killed by the serial killer called Beadie.

Her entire being is reeling against the idea that the man she’s spent the last 27 years with, the man she thought she knew inside out, is a serial killer. She makes sure she puts everything back in the right way and goes back into the house. Darcy gets on the Internet and begins researching Beadie and his kills. With every article she reads, she gets sicker and sicker.

What would a good wife do? If it got out that her husband was Beadie there would be reporters camped out on their lawn, Donnie’s business would tank from the bad publicity and Petra, who idolizes her father, would be beyond heartbreak.  She can’t do that to her children. People would think she knew about it all along but kept her mouth shut. But 12 women have been mutilated and killed. It’s a good marriage. Can it still be a good marriage if she knows her husband is a serial killer but looks the other way?

Could you look the other way?

Send in the Clowns

Clowns have always scared me, yet I seek out the most terrifying clown images. A few years ago there were reports of a clown standing on a dark Northampton street, under just enough light to make it scary as hell. It’s not illegal to stand on a dark street corner dressed as a clown. It should be.

creepy (2)

On a side note, I worked at a grocery store years ago and there was a shady guy who liked to hang around and chat up the young checkers. He used to brag about being a clown and going to children’s birthday parties. The guy gave off weird vibes and a co-worker chided me: “How bad can he be? He dresses up as a clown for children.”

“So did John Wayne Gacy,” was my answer.

ItI first read Stephen King’s It when I was 13 (now the puzzle pieces are coming together to explain why I’m so….me) and then watched the TV mini-series with Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Nobody could have done a more terrifying job than Tim Curry. He’s helped to ensure millions of us sleep with a light on and dread hearing that the circus is coming to town.

King’s epic childhood fear book, It, begins in 1957 when kids start disappearing from the small town of Derry, Maine. Bill Denbrough is down with a cold on a rainy day. He makes a paper sailboat for his little brother and puts paraffin wax on the bottom so Georgie can sail it in the rain run-off in the gutters. It’s the last time Bill (or anyone else) will see his brother alive. Georgie’s body is found with one of his arms ripped off. Bill’s family and his childhood are forever changed.

Bill, Ben, Eddie, Ritchie, Beverly, Stan and Mike are all outcasts in school and for many of them, outcasts from their families. The summer of their twelfth year, they find each other and form the Loser’s Club. Strange things are happening in Derry. The bullies seem to be bloated with rage and cruelty. And these aren’t pulling- your- hair or putting a whoopee cushion under your seat kind of bullies. These are kids who in a few more years will be robbing liquor stores and killing old ladies for their pensioner’s checks.

More kids are disappearing but now there’s an even darker undertone to it. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a supernatural shape-shifter, knows every child’s fear and uses it. To Ritchie, it’s his fear of the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf. For Eddie, a mama’s boy and a hypochondriac, it’s a leper. Pennywise feeds on their deepest fears and calls the fear “Salting the meat.” That summer, the Loser’s Club finds out that the evil in Derry has a cycle.

Every 27 years people disappear and it’s not always kids. Back in the 1700s, It woke up and 300 residents of Derry disappeared. In 1957 a vicious storm ripped through the town, awakening It. That summer, the Loser’s Club defeated Pennywise but they know that in 27 years, he will be back. The group ends up going their separate ways, moving out-of-town and losing touch. Mike, however, has stayed in Derry and has become the local librarian. Since Mike stayed, he’s the only one who truly remembers that summer. The others have repressed the memory so deeply that nothing from that summer stands out. They even forget about each other. 27 years after their defeat of Pennywise, Mike begins to call the Loser’s Club to say it’s happening again. It’s back.

One by one they all come back to Derry to defeat evil again. But this time, they’re not scared kids. They’re scared adults and realize they’ve always been haunted and that their grown up lives aren’t as glamorous as they seem. But the bond that brought them all together as kids is still there.

If you want to be scared (and probably end up huddled in a closet with a flashlight and winter coats covering you) by clowns taking children and eating them and you like stories where a bunch of lonely 12-year-old kids find friendship and banish an evil clown, this is the book for you. And if you see some clown standing under a street lamp during the darkest part of night, run. Just run.

The Dark Tower Series

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Is there any better first line to start a novel? 

The beginning hook when I’m writing is usually “Okay, there was this guy running around the desert.  And then there’s this other guy who’s being chased by that one guy.”

I’m headed for the best-seller’s list, aren’t I?  Look for the sequel That Girl in the Orange Shirt Standing by That Tree.

Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was actually inspired by Robert Browning’s poem  “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. The Dark Tower novels (starting with The Gunslinger and ending (?) with The Wind Through the Keyhole out April 24th) are among his most popular works.  He gets batches of mail from people asking how and when he’s going to finish the series. One woman in her 80s wrote to him and said she didn’t have much time left because she has cancer so could he please tell her how the books are going to end? She then added “I won’t tell anyone.” 

In Dark Tower I: Gunslinger, Roland Deschain is the last of his kind: a gunslinger. Gunslingers were boys raised to fight and protect their world, the old ways and old traditions. But his home has been destroyed by the man in black who some call the devil and others call a dark magician. For years Roland has been on a quest to kill the dark man, traveling in a world that is parallel to ours (except Roland’s world doesn’t have  Wal-Marts or McDonald’s but has some hold-overs like “Hey Jude” and “Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit”). Cities have been decimated, migrations patterns all askew, and mutated humans roam in the dark places. 

I’ve read the book 3 times and, honestly, I have no idea why Roland needs to get to the Dark Tower. When I ask other people who’ve read the book about it, instead of enlightenment I get a blank stare. Hey at least I know I’m not alone. But in the end it doesn’t matter. All you neeed to know is that the Tower is the gravitational pull for both good and evil.

In addition to Roland’s obsession with destroying the man in black and getting to the Tower, there is the story of Jake a boy from our world who was hit by a car in the 70’s and ended up in Midworld. Roland finds himself torn between caring for the boy and continuing his chase for the man in black. He and Jake meet up with the Muties who are horribly deformed humans that live underground. Did I mention the spiders the size of a monster truck wheel? That alone had me checking the corners of my ceiling and tucking my biggest spider smashing pair of shoes under my bed. Just in case.

The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger is a fast paced novel that barely skims the surface of what’s to come for Roland and the people who fall into his life. This book is followed by The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower and the soon to be released The Wind Through the Keyhole

So if you want a book about good versus evil (and maybe a little gray area mixed in between) this one will be absolutely perfect.

But make sure to check for those spiders.

Jennifer

You Must Blurb This Book!

I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But is it OK to judge a book by the blurbs on its cover?

"More Engaging Than Any New Fiction In Years" - Chuck Palahniuk

I’m talking about those positive reviews—some subtle and others over-the-moon—by other writers plastered all over book covers these days.

A blurb from Stephen King is not guaranteed to get a book racing to the top of the bestseller list the way an Oprah Book Club selection most undoubtedly will. But it will convince a good portion of his millions of fans to read something new. (Check out the hilarious analysis of Stephen King as blurb king over at the Seattle Public Library’s book blog.)

But just because you like the books someone’s written, does that mean you’ll like the same books that person’s read? Are those gushing celebrity endorsements really helpful in deciding which books to read?

Maybe.

book coverAnn Patchett is one of my favorite authors. And so I decided a few months ago, having read all her books, that I should read books written by her friends. These are books I probably would not have read were it not for the Patchett connection: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant’s House, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. While I enjoyed these books, I didn’t love any of them the way I loved Bel Canto.

And yet I still find myself putting books on my ever-growing “to read” list based on Ann Patchett’s blurbs.  Here are a few of her blurbs that have tempted me lately:
The Outlander by Gil Adamson

book cover“The Outlander deserves to be read twice, first for the plot and the complex characters which make this a page-turner of the highest order, and then a second time, slowly, to savor the marvel of Gil Adamson’s writing. This novel is a true wonder.”

Sacrament of Lies by Elizabeth Dewberry

book cover“In Sacrament of Lies, the line between certainty and madness is as thin as a razor and equally as dangerous. Elizabeth Dewberry has given us a rare gift, a literary thriller that will keep us up all night. This book is riveting.”

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

“A cause for celebration in the world of literature. Here we have a heroine to love, a story we can’t let go of, gorgeous sentences, and ideas to wrestle with. I didn’t just read this book, I devoured it.”

Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg

book cover“In telling the story of his very unique childhood, Myron Uhlberg has created a book that is universal. His feelings of love and responsibility, of shame and enormous pride, can teach us all something about being a member of a family. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love this book.”

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

“Kevin Wilson’s stories show us a world that is both real and full of illusion…He forces us to look at our own lives in a new and slightly off-kilter way.”

Are there any authors whose blurbs you trust? Do blurbs make any difference in the books you choose?

Mindy