Saturday, December 17, 2011

My first Stephen King novel (in about 20 years)

When I was 13 I joined one of those mail-order book clubs, where you got books at a slightly discounted price, as long as you committed to purchasing 6 a year. The book club sold mystery and horror books, so for the next few years, I fed on a diet of VC Andrews, James Herbert and Stephen King.

Stephen King was my favourite author - speed-reading was my normal pace, so his enormous books kept me busy for at the best part of a weekend. Although I remember one particularly wet Sunday when I hadn't been outside all day, but had read about 400 pages in one sitting. I went into the kitchen to get a drink, then opened my eyes to realise I was lying on the floor. I'd passed out without realising. It was probably a blood pressure thing, and it's the only time that's happened.

The first book I read by him was The Mist - a brilliant, spooky, doomed novella - similar to an HP Lovecraft story, where a group of small-town Americans get trapped in a supermarket when a weird mist full of monsters from another dimension descends over the them. The horror within the supermarket was more disturbing than the horror outside - with the microcosm of society breaking down pretty quickly as the frightened shoppers fell under the thrall of religious fundamentalist Mrs Carmody - who starts demanding EXPIATION! and blood sacrifices. King's talent is in writing about ordinary, recognisable people who are put in bizarre situations. The Mist was made as a film a few years ago - and is one of my top 10 films.

I also enjoyed King's novels that he'd written under the name Richard Bachmann - particularly two that were set in futuristic dystopias and involved game shows where the contestants die (this was the 80s and while we're not there yet, King definitely was onto someting). One was made into an awful film (The Running Man), the other (The Long Walk), probably can't ever be filmed - it's a totally depressing story anyway.

I largely abandoned Stephen King when I went to university. His novels seemed a bit too folksy, at times verging on syrupy, and I didn't have time to read anything but Psychology journal articles anwyay. But I was intrigued by his latest novel 11.22.63 - which is about a man who time travels from the present day to the 1950s - with the aim of preventing the assassination of JFK. It's another massive doorstep of a book (or it would be had I not bought the online version), and it took me a good week to finish. For longstanding King fans, there's a cameo from two characters from one of his most well-known books: It. The story is less horror, but more suspense with a love story, as the hero ends up falling in love with a woman from the 50s. The past is painted as almost idyllic place - apart from the racism and sexism - where cars are better and people are friendlier. The time travel plot device is interesting - it is possible to go back and forward in time through a portal, although every time you return to the 1950s, everything has been reset and you appear at exactly the same moment as before. There's also a weird tramp-like man who seems aware of the time traveller in a way that other people are not. Another interesting aspect of time travel is that the past is "obdurate" - it does not like to be changed, and the more you try to change it, the more events will appear to randomly conspire to stop you. (The past is a bit like my 39 year old body - it wants to be a certain shape and size and will conspire against me if I try to change it too much.)

The hero is further hampered by the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. He can't just kill Lee Harvey Oswald at any point, because he may not have been acting alone. So he has to wait until just a few weeks beforehand, living in the past for 5 years until he can be certain he's got the right man. Of course, as we don't know for certain what happened, we have to suspend our disbelief and go along with King's version as being the right one. But if you can buy time travel, then you may as well go along with the rest of it.

Time travel is not a new concept (and King draws on the Ray Bradbury short story "A Sound of Thunder" - where the idea of the "butterfly effect" comes from), but I liked what King did with it. And now I might even give "Under the Dome" a go.

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