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Grady Hendrix

Fiction and Excerpts [2]
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Fiction and Excerpts [2]

Horrorstör (Excerpt)

|| Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking. To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they'll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

The Great Stephen King Reread Final Analysis

A lot of people make a lot of assumptions about Stephen King: he writes about writers too much; he sets all his stories in Maine; he writes horror. Now I’m giving you the tools you need to argue with anyone about any of these propositions. I read every single book published by Stephen King under his own name, so I leave out three of the Bachman books, books that are collaborations (no Talisman, no Sleeping Beauties, no Black House, no Gwendy’s Button Box), and I leave out the Dark Tower books (all eight of them). Also, I didn’t read Eyes of the Dragon because I forgot. So that means I didn’t read sixteen of his books.

Nevertheless, all told, I read 38 novels, 15 novellas, 111 short stories, and 5 poems by Stephen King. And here’s how they break down by the numbers.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

This is it, the last book in The Great Stephen King Reread. I started back on October 18, 2012 planning to only read from the first decade of King’s output, but I picked back up again in October 2013 and read the next ten books, then stopped until 2015 when I read the next ten, and finally restarted in 2017 to finish off the whole body of King’s work, which brings us to now, exactly five years later.

I’d be lying if I said this reread hasn’t been a big deal to me. When I started, I was just about to sign a contract to write my first solo novel, Horrorstör. Five years later, I’ve got two novels on the shelves, a book of non-fiction, a finished movie (Mohawk), and another novel on the way. There have been ups, and a whole lot of downs, but Stephen King’s books have been with me every step of the way. This reread has been something I’ve hung onto during some dark days, but now that I’ve read everything King’s published on his own, under his own name (minus the Dark Tower books), it’s over. So let’s buckle down and do it one last time, digging into his latest short story collection, published on November 3, 2015, a collection not a lot of people liked.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Revival

According to the press release, Stephen King’s Revival features “the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written.” The Independent says it “practically screams ‘return to form’.” Critics say it’s a riff on Frankenstein, it’s King’s mad scientist book, it’s a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. Stephen King books arrive in a cloud of advance hype with everyone, from his marketing department to his critics, telling us what each book is really about. But the joy of Revival lies in going in cold. So if you haven’t yet, just go read it for yourself. You won’t be sorry. But for a longer discussion of where it fits into King’s Canon, let’s continue.

By the time Revival came out in 2014, Stephen King™ was one of pop culture’s biggest brand names, for better and for worse. Everyone had an opinion about his books, which existed in the shadow of The General Consensus. For all time, Cujo will be the one King doesn’t remember writing. It will have a major lapse of good taste at the end. The Tommyknockers will be a mess. The verdict has been rendered. The verdict is also wrong. Cujo is one of King’s most ambitious and literary novels. The “lapse” in It is actually the heart of the book. The Tommyknockers is a mess, but the kind of raving, rabies-infected mess that’s the closest King has ever come to channeling William S. Burroughs.

[Revival is hit hard by this problem…]

Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: The Bill Hodges Trilogy

Stephen King loves crime fiction. His first completed novel, Rage, was about a kid holding his high school class at gunpoint, and the novel he wrote right before Carrie was Blaze, the story of a kidnapping gone wrong. Several of his early short stories were crime stories (“Stud City,” 1969; “The Fifth Quarter,” 1972) and when he gave his speech accepting the National Book Award in 2003, he singled out for praise a handful of authors he believed were deserving of more attention, most of them crime and thriller novelists like Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, and Michael Connelly.

Richard Branson wants to be an astronaut and so he built a spaceport in New Mexico. Stephen King wants to be a crime novelist, and so he published his Bill Hodges Trilogy: Mr. Mercedes (2014), Finders Keepers (2015), and End of Watch (2016). If there’s one thing that we, as Americans, will die to defend, it’s the inalienable right of every rich person to live their dreams, and the first book in the trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, even won the coveted Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. So now Stephen King is a crime writer, and god bless America. The only problem is, he’s not a very good one.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Doctor Sleep

STEPHEN KING: I am going to write a book.

PUBLISHER: Hooray!

STEPHEN KING: It will be a sequel to The Shining, and Carrie will be in it.

PUBLISHER: But HawtRoland1208 already did that on KingFanFictionForum.net.

STEPHEN KING: It will have vampires.

PUBLISHER: Vampires are sexy.

STEPHEN KING: My vampires will be old and drive R/Vs and torture children to death.

PUBLISHER: You look tired. Are you tired? Maybe you should skip the book and take a beach vacation instead.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Joyland

Around 2012, Stephen King had an idea for a book. It was a small book, grafting an image he’d had 20 years ago (a kid in a wheelchair on a beach flying a kite) to his urge to write about carnivals. Set in 1973, it was kind of a mystery, but mostly a coming-of-age story about a college kid “finding his feet after a heartbreak.” It wasn’t the kind of book his publisher, Simon & Schuster, wanted. They liked big fat books, like Doctor Sleep, King’s sequel to The Shining coming out later in 2013. So King returned to the scene of the (Hard Case) Crime and published it with the folks who’d previously handled his other slim, not-really-a-horror-or-a-mystery novel, The Colorado Kid. Also returning was Glen Orbik handling cover duties, best known for reproducing the lush, fully-painted style of pulp paperbacks for everything from movie posters, to comic books, to the California Bar Association.

Hard Case Crime specializes in publishing books that aren’t what they appear. Everything they release, from Stephen King to Max Allan Collins, gets a painted cover that makes it look like old school, disreputable pulp no matter what the contents. That made it a good fit for both The Colorado Kid and Joyland, since neither is what it appears, either. The Colorado Kid barely even had a story and was, instead, a philosophical logic problem that doubled as a rumination on the failures of storytelling and the power of mysteries. Joyland looks like a thriller and even reads a bit like a thriller with its haunted funhouses, carny talk, psychic children, and serial killers, but it’s mostly about an emo college kid getting dumped.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: 11/22/63

In 1971, eight years after the JFK assassination, Stephen King started writing a book called Split Track. Recently hired as an English teacher at Hampden Academy, he had just published a short story called “I Am the Doorway”, almost sold a novel called Getting It On to Bill Thompson at Doubleday, and he was constantly sucking up ideas. As he recalls, “It was 1971 and I was in the teachers’ room and people were talking about the Kennedy assassination. The 22nd would roll around and people would talk and write about the assassination and stuff. I guess somebody must have said, ‘What would it have been like if Kennedy had lived?’ And I thought to myself, ‘I’d love to write a story about that.’ ”

Newly married, with a one-and-a-half year old daughter at home, barely three months into his first teaching job, he was overwhelmed by the amount of research involved and gave up after writing 14 single-spaced pages. 36 years later, in the January, 27 issue of Marvel Spotlight, King wrote about a comic he was considering that told the story of a guy who travels through a time portal in the back of a diner to stop the Kennedy assassination, but changing history turns the present day into a radioactive wasteland and he has to go back again and stop himself from stopping Oswald. King thought this story might reach “an audience who’s not my ordinary audience. Instead of people who read horror stories, people who read The Help or People of the Book might like this book.” Six months later, King’s researcher, Russell Dorr, went to work on the Kennedy assassination in preparation for King’s next book. And, in January, 2009, 38 years after first getting the idea, King began typing the beginning of what would become 11/22/63. And he was right. It would turn out to be his biggest bestseller in over a decade.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Full Dark, No Stars

Every day, Stephen King sits down and writes 2,000 words. More when he was younger. When he finishes a novel he doesn’t take a break. He either moves on to short stories or, if he has some juice left over, he’ll write a novella. Sometimes he’ll let a completed manuscript lie fallow for a while, moving on to another project, then coming back to it later. He may work on a new manuscript in the morning, and rewrite an older one at night. We always think of an author’s biography as being directly related to their work, matching publication dates to events in their lives, but writers live with a book when they’re writing it, not when it’s released. And because King is constantly composing, it’s hard to find any clear correlation between the life and the books because it’s almost impossible to figure out when he actually wrote them. Was he noodling on something for years before he came back to it? How long did a manuscript lie fallow? The best I can do is educated guesswork.

King has published three collections of novellas, and we have to assume that the stories they contain were written after he finished bigger novels. But which ones? I’ve been trying to figure out when King wrote the novellas in Full Dark, No Stars and it’s almost impossible. And it’s driving me crazy, because this collection, like each of the novella collections before, moved King in a new direction.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Under the Dome

Stephen King likes his epics. The Stand was his version of Lord of the Rings and it was already plenty long in 1990 when he added 329 pages to make it his longest book ever, clocking in at 1,153 pages. It was his massive epic about childhood and adulthood coming in at 1,138 pages. And in 2009 he delivered Under the Dome, his third longest book at 1,072 pages. But an epic is about more than mere page count, it’s about an author’s ambitions, and King’s epics deliver as many characters as we can handle, overflowing a town-sized stage, battling The Forces of Absolute Evil in books like ‘Salem’s Lot, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Insomnia, Desperation, and The Regulators.

But an interesting thing’s been happening as King gets older: his books have been shrinking. Starting with 1987’s Misery, but especially with 1992’s Gerald’s Game, he’s limited himself more and more to one or two characters in a single location (Dolores Claiborne, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), and when he has given us that epic scale and scope in books like Cell, Lisey’s Story, Duma Key, and 11/22/63 he’s seen the action through the point of view of one or two characters. It’s something he came to late (King didn’t even publish a first person novel until Dolores Claiborne in 1992) but since Insomnia in 1994 he’s approached his epics from a more intimate perspective. But Under the Dome is a throwback, a massive King-sized epic hoagie, dripping with fillings, the size of ‘Salem’s Lot and Needful Things, done the old fashioned way: cramming in absolutely everything he can lay his hands on, and letting it all hang out.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Just After Sunset

It wasn’t just novels. In the early 2000s, Stephen King seemed existentially exhausted. He’d started the decade with two books about the limitations and failures of storytelling (From a Buick 8 and The Colorado Kid), gone back into the hospital for surgery still dealing with his 1999 accident, emerged with memory problems, then turned in one of his least popular novels (Cell), before getting his groove back with Lisey’s Story and Duma Key in 2006 and 2008. During that low point, he’d also turned in one of his least interesting short story collections, Everything’s Eventual, which felt like it was mostly made up of recycled ideas. There were some good stories in there, but the ones that just lay there, barely breathing, far outnumbered them.

But in 2006, King edited the 2007 Best American Short Stories collection and something clicked. Confessing that he’d lost his knack for writing short stories after writing a bunch of long novels in the late Nineties, he said that reading the huge volume of stories required to put together the Best American Short Stories anthology reignited his spark and in 2006 he wrote “Willa”, his breakthrough story. It felt like the old days to him again, and inspired by his rejuvenated mojo, he powered through the rest of the stories in this volume, which turned out to be King’s most satisfying short story collection since Skeleton Crew.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Duma Key

You can’t write as many books as Stephen King without returning to the same well from time to time. Whether it’s evil cars (Christine, 1983; From a Buick 8, 2002), life after death (Pet Sematary, 1983; Revival, 2014), an image of a rat in someone’s mouth cut from ‘Salem’s Lot showing up 36 years later in a story from Full Dark, No Stars (“1923”), or an abandoned manuscript from 1981 (The Cannibals) getting repurposed as Under the Dome in 2009, King believes in recycling. But it still delivers a shiver of deja vu to read Duma Key (2008) which could basically share jacket copy with Bag of Bones (1998):

“After suffering a life-altering trauma, an artist goes to a vacation destination to heal. There he befriends locals, becomes embroiled in an old mystery involving drowning deaths and a wealthy family, and his unblocked talent connects him to the supernatural.”

The big difference between the two books is that after writing Lisey’s Story, King’s wife said, “Are you ever going to write about anything besides writers?”—so in Duma Key his blocked artist is a painter. Otherwise, throw in the fact that these are both written in the first person (only five other books by King share that POV) and you could be forgiven for thinking he’s treading water. But while Bag of Bones is perfectly okay King, Duma Key is one of his best books.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Lisey’s Story

By the time he got to Lisey’s Story, King had written himself into a dead end. His Dark Tower series was finished. He had been in so much pain from his accident that he announced his retirement in 2002 and his books since then felt increasingly exhausted. From a Buick 8 was about the limitations of fiction, and The Colorado Kid was about the failure of stories to actually solve anything. Cell was a dark book about the old world dying, and a new world of constant struggle being born that destroyed everything King found worthwhile — from schools to language.

He was also physically exhausted. The 1999 van accident had caused previously undetected damage to his right lung that turned into walking pneumonia in mid-November, 2003. Nevertheless, he attended the National Book Awards on Nov. 19, 2003 to receive his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and gave a big, combative, rousing speech, begging the jurors of the National Book Awards to include more popular fiction in their nominations (a plea they ignored, judging by subsequent NBA shortlists). A lot of words were typed about King’s National Book Award speech, some folks finding his comments defensive, others finding them offensive, but no one mentioned how much of his speech had been about Tabitha King, his wife. Over half the speech is about how the award belongs to her because her love and dedication allowed him to write, and how she was there when he was poor and without prospects, and she was still there when he’s got an award around his neck and the world at his feet.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Cell

As surely as the sun rises in the east, every few years Stephen King will mention retiring, the press will jump on it with both feet, the world will spread far and wide that “The King is Dead”, and minutes later King will have another book on the market that his publishers call “his return to true horror.” In 2002, King told the LA Times he was retiring while promoting From a Buick 8. After about 15 minutes, Stephen King was back, and this time it was with a zombie novel dedicated to George Romero and Richard Matheson, and Scribner was thrilled that their multi-million investment in King was paying off with a new horror novel.

They printed 1.1 million copies and, to promote it, they got Nextones to send texts asking people to join the Stephen King VIP Club where they could buy $1.99 Cell wallpapers for their mobile phones and two ringtones of King himself intoning, “It’s okay, it’s a normie calling.” and “Beware. The next call you take may be your last.” King wanted it to say, “Don’t answer it. Don’t answer it,” but Marketing nixed that idea. The result? Parent company Simon & Schuster got sued for unsolicited telephone advertising in Satterfield v. Simon & Schuster to the tune of $175/plaintiff, or $10 million total. With a price tag like that, good thing Cell is one hell of a 9/11 novel.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: The Colorado Kid

The tiniest Stephen King book, both in page count and substance, The Colorado Kid came along after King disgorged three of his massive Dark Tower novels. Arriving in early 2005, three years after his last non-series novel, From a Buick 8, it could easily be considered a coda to Buick. Clocking in at a slim 184 pages, set in two locations (a restaurant and a newspaper office), and with only three characters, this is as skinny as King gets.

At this point in his career, King’s line-by-line writing is so polished that he can pull off pretty much anything, from a big fat fantasy series to DVR set-up instructions, with panache. But his one-a-year publishing habit was firmly established by 2005 when this book came out and that’s got pros and cons. As he said around the time of Buick, “I can’t imagine retiring from writing. What I can imagine doing is retiring from publishing…If I wrote something that I thought was worth publishing I would publish it. But in terms of publishing stuff on a yearly basis the way I have been, I think those days are pretty much over…From a Buick 8…so far as I know [is] the last Stephen King novel, per se, in terms of it just being a novel-novel.”

With Colorado Kid he proved himself wrong.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread

The Great Stephen King Reread: Everything’s Eventual

After almost two years, The Great Stephen King Reread is back, and this time I’m not stopping until I reach the absolute end. Which is kind of the way publishers feel about issuing collections of King’s short stories. You understand their impulse to put out absolutely everything King ever wrote since it all makes money, but sometimes that results in books like Everything’s Eventual. Consisting of all the previously uncollected short stories written by King, there are no new stories in this book. There are some good stories in EE, a few stinkers, and a handful of well-executed yawns, but the stinkers and yawns outnumber the good stories four to one. Rating this against other King short story collections, Everything’s Eventual comes in last.

In 2007, King edited the annual Best American Short Stories collection and said that it reignited his talent for writing short stories, something he’d lost after years of focusing on very long novels. I reckon the stories in this collection were mostly written during that fallow period since ten of the fourteen were written in a seven year period (1995 – 2001) when he published nine novels. Call this The Stephen King Deja Vu Collection because every story in here feels like you’ve seen it someplace before.

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Series: The Great Stephen King Reread