Complete succinct reviews of Stephen King, Part V

Many years ago, when the world was young and Twitter was what birds did and the idea of a President Trump was hilarious satire, on my old blog I started a deep dive through Stephen King’s formidable career, book by book. Here’s some links to the past:

Part 1: Carrie to The Stand

Part 2: The Dead Zone to The Bachman Books

Part 3: The Talisman to Insomnia

Part 4: Rose Madder to Under The Dome

Now, suddenly, it’s been 10 years since I did a look at King’s oeuvre, and it seems a good time to reappraise the master.

King’s now 72, and there’s a calmer maturity the work in his autumn years I’m enjoying –  and less of the unhinged horror he bashed through in classics like Pet Sematary and It. He remains one of our most compulsively readable storytellers, and there’s a lot to love about latter-day King. 

11/22/63: One of King’s best, a stunning epic about time travel and trying to change the past. “What if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated” is a well-worn topic but this one goes in directions you didn’t really expect and delivers some surprises, as well as a detailed historical epic full of emotion and regret. It’s long, but rarely feels bloated like some other King doorstops. I’m a sucker for time travel stories and King clearly is having a ball evoking the early 1960s as his traveller tries to save the world – but as usual in these cases, there’s a heavy price. Grade: A+

The Dark Tower: The Wind Through The Keyhole: Did we REALLY need another Dark Tower book after the nearly 5000 pages, seven books of the main Dark Tower saga, King’s epic fantasy which spanned entire universes? Not really, but King clearly felt the urge to return for this “Dark Tower 4 1/2” untold tale that visits Roland the gunslinger and his band on their quest. There’s stories within stories told here, and the whole thing has the feeling of a gathering of lost chapters that King couldn’t quite fit into the main Dark Tower saga. It’s engaging, even if, like me, you got a wee bit tired of the Dark Tower despite its imposing majesty by the end of the long haul. But it’s kind of like the book version of deleted scenes on a DVD, so it’s hard for it to feel essential. Grade: B

Joyland: Short but sweet, a novella about lost loves and nostalgia, which also has a few murders because it’s King, after all. Set in an amusement park in the summer of 1973, it’s full of King’s keen eye for evoking a time and place, and a summer romance that ends with bittersweet resonance. It wouldn’t go amiss side-by-side with “The Body” (aka “Stand By Me”) as one of King’s better coming-of-age stories, and surprisingly gentle compared to much of his fare. It’s one of his more unknown works, but well worth seeking out. Grade: A- 

Doctor Sleep: A sequel to The Shining is a thing I never really asked for or wanted. That said, it’s an interesting idea to follow up on Danny Torrance as an adult, suffering from deep trauma over the whole dad-possessed-by-ghosts-tried-to-kill-us-all thing. King does a nice job showing us a grounded portrayal of present-day Danny struggling to carry on; that said, the story which expands to draw in a convoluted world of secret “Shining” cults and quasi-immortals just didn’t quite work for me. Much like The Black House sequel to The Talisman decades later, looking backwards for King is a mixed bag. Grade: C+

Mr Mercedes: The first of a trilogy of novels focusing on Bill Hodges, a suicidal, retired detective and one of King’s more engaging ‘everyman’ characters. Tight and suspenseful, this one deals with the hunt for a mysterious serial killer who’s already committed one mass slaying and plans more. Hodges, the killer Brady Hartsfield and troubled young woman Holly Gibney are all some of King’s best written characters in ages, and there’s no surprise that he went on to feature them in several more books. But Mr Mercedes, with its propulsive narrative and ripped-from-the-headlines mass terror threat, is still the best. It’s also one of King’s most grounded in the real world novels and all the better for it. Grade: A

Revival: Back to pure, Lovecraftian horror for King with this one, which is a chilling riff on the Frankenstein legend. A minister loses his religion and becomes a mysterious faith healer, using electricity to heal the sick, and probing away at even darker mysteries in the universe. The novel is a beast of two sides, a more realistic look at love and loss, and a dark, fantastic glimpse into the unknown terrors of the void. Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of build-up to the main event here that will either engage you or bore you, and I came down a little bit on the side of finding Revival a promising premise that never quite leaps onto the top shelf with King’s other glimpses into the abyss. Grade: B- 

Finders Keepers: Book two in the “Bill Hodges Mysteries” (which really sounds like a mid-80s Matlock spinoff), a slight comedown from the streamlined thrills of Mr Mercedes. This time, John Rothstein, a famous reclusive novelist, is murdered and his unpublished books stolen, triggering a chain of events that draws Hodges into its web. King, as always, done a fine job of evoking a writer’s life in his portrait of Rothstein, and he also shows us the duelling sides of fandom – a kid whose love for literature is awakened and a creepy fan who takes it all so far. I’m not nuts about King’s portrayal of a witty black college student which comes across as a bit crass and dated, but it’s a small critique. Grade: B+

Next time I do this, I’ll take us from The Bazaar of Bad Dreams all the way to the present day and The Institute. Stay scared! 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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