Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

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Goodbye, Holly Gibney

End of Watch

By Stephen King

Hard to believe that any diehard King fans haven’t already devoured his really fine conclusion to his Bill Hodges trilogy. So, this is for the somewhat fans and those for whom King is simply a master pulp artist. It’s good and worth the short time you’ll spend with it—short because per usual, the novel moves along at light speed despite its four-hundred plus pages.

The strength of the final novel in the series isn’t really the plotting, though those who value the plot above all else with find racing along with the Finders Keepers gang and vindictive madman Brady terrifically satisfying. King’s pacing here is much better than in the first two novels, Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, primarily toward the end, where King often has a tendency to drag things out until you’re skipping every other page.

The strength here, as is true of the first two novels, are the primary characters, all of whom you’ll find engaging, particularly old Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and evil boy Brady Hartsfield.

Of these three, Holly stands head and shoulders among King’s best and most memorable creations. This is because he has graced her with the most memorable quirks, phobias, the best heart you can imagine, a shining innate intelligence, and, something King does so admirably well, her own personal, distinctive, and unforgettable vocabulary. Add to this that she has the best arc of progression, from the painfully reclusive woman of book one to the stronger, more confident, thanks to Bill, woman of this final novel. Readers will have their own opinions, but many will agree, “Holly, it’s poopy we won’t be seeing you again.” That is, unless King, who obviously likes her much, summons her back on stage for an encore, perhaps in another crime series.

As fans certainly know, King is a man of years, probably wondering like many of us how the heck that happened, and how the world will shepherd us out. Enter an ill Bill Hodges, which gives nothing away since we know that from the get-go. Bill’s a smart and crafty guy, a man retired from a rough and ready profession who possesses a deep well of compassion and a sharp sense of justice. Yes, in this sunset novel, Bill is an old man about to make his exit, a victim of the frailty and disease of aging. Of course, we’re routing for him, hoping a miracle will occur, as they many times does in King novels. But most of all, we hope that if he has to exit, he does so in a halo of victory with all of his dignity. That’s our hope for him, and it’s for readers to discover if in fact that is his end, or if he ends.

Brady, on the other hand, is an evil individual we cheer along to a demise we pray will be exquisitely tortured. Because he lacks dimension, being evil from the start, with no real arc apart from intensifying badness, of the troika, he proves the least interesting, or truer, one with whom we can’t identify. Still, though, due to his intelligence, his paralytic situation, and the always intriguing concept of psychokinesis, he makes an appropriate villain.

Plot, then, you ask? Simple, Bill suspects there’s more going on in the head of said apparent vegetable. He’s correct, as Brady discovers the power of psychokinesis hidden within him and uses it to extract his pound of flesh from humankind and Bill Hodges in particular. w/c

Joyce Carol Oates Out for Blood, Again

Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense

By Joyce Carol Oates

Oates is back again, this time with a compact psychological thriller/horror tale. The setting is New Jersey. The protagonist is a successful author of popular mysteries, the well-plotted sort, wherein always evil gets its comeuppance in the end. However, he is also the secret author of a sub-genre: bloody, gratuitously violent thrillers featuring a killer who always wins in the end.

Known as Jack of Spades, said Mr. Spades progressively takes over author Andrew J. Rush’s mind, forcing Rush to commit vengeful acts, scare the bejesus out of his loving wife, further alienate his adult children, and confront a haunting, selfish incident from his young preadolescent days involving his brother.

Rush tells the story of his psychological deterioration. You might think of JCO’s tale as a little touch of Jekyll and Hyde.

Jack of Spades is another addition to JCO’s shorter novels dealing with crime and depravity, like the really superb Daddy Love (pederastic killer posing as a preacher) and Zombie (weirdo as a stupid Dr. Frankenstein). The latter two have more depth and dimension than Jack of Spades and aren’t marred by JCO’s more recent and annoying first-person talking as third-person voice effects. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying thriller that has a bit of fun with Stephen King’s colossal stature and self-published writers’ desire for validation. Most JCO fans will not be disappointed. w/c

Stephen King Hits a Homerun

Finders Keepers

By Stephen King

King’s more recent outings have ranged from disappointing, to okay, to pretty good. So, it’s a great pleasure to say that King has hit a homer with Finders Keepers, featuring the gang–retired cop Bill Hodges, savant Holly Gibney, and college guy Jerome Robinson–from Mr. Mercedes. If you developed an attachment to any of the three, you’ll enjoy how King has expanded them, particularly Holly. You’ll have to wait to reacquaint yourself with them, however, as they make their appearance about in the middle of Finders Keepers.

Finders Keepers is first and foremost a terrific thriller that King paces very well and loads with tension. Even his often rather drawn out ending works well in this novel because you’ll find the behavior of central character high-school student Pete Saubers, while emotional and a bit illogical, entirely sympathetic and believable.

But bad guys win the fascination and attention-holding game and King gives a really good one here: Mr. Morrie Bellamy. It’s a great character name since it’s contrapuntal. Given a storyline with faint hints of King’s masterpiece Misery, comparisons to Annie Wilkes seem inevitable. While a strong character, Morrie lacks Annie’s tight mental winding, her unique vocabulary (really brilliant on King’s part), and the blackness hidden behind benign expressions. Morrie wears his ruthlessness on the outside like cheap clothes. Thus, not as powerful as Annie but good otherwise.

In sum, Morrie and his gang break into world-famous writer John Rothstein’s remote farmhouse. Morrie’s confederates are there to steal the cash Rothstein keeps on hand; Morrie’s there for the author’s notebooks. You see, while a criminal at heart, Morrie loves Rothstein’s Jimmy Gold novels but is seriously ticked off about Jimmy selling out to the advertising world in the last one. (Sound familiar, Annie Wilkes?) Rothstein’s a curmudgeon of the first order who pushes Morrie to his limit. Bang, and Rothstein is no more. In consolation, Morrie gets a ton of the writer’s notebooks, wherein he hopes to find redemption for Jimmy Gold.

Through a number of circumstances, Morrie must stash the notebooks and money, which he does in the woods behind his old house. Pete Saubers and his parents and sister live there now. One day, Pete discovers the stash. He has beneficial use for the money and a personal passion for Rothstein and his Jimmy Gold novels. Naturally, years after the crime and putting the goods in a hidey hole, Morrie returns to retrieve his treasure. When he finds it gone, the thief hunts down the thief. As the chase ensures, Bill, Holly, and Jerome become involved and we have the pleasure of watching them figure out what’s going on.

All in all, a gem of a thriller that will not disappoint anybody, except maybe King fans who think every one of his novels must contain the supernatural (which, unfortunately, King hints at in the final pages). w/c