22 December 2013

Different Seasons (Four Novellas), Stephen King

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption   ****
Everyone has seen the film but some will still be surprised to discover whose mind this uncompromising and ultimately uplifting story came from. This is probably the single instance where a film adaptation threatens to overshadow King's original novella' a powerful exploration of indomitable human optimism.

Settling comfortably into a first person conversational narrative, Andy Dufresne's co-inmate and soon-to-be good friend Ellis (Red) Redding relates all he knows of Andy's crime, his time in Shawshank Penitentiary and his incredible and daring plans.

The account is so rich and so credible that it's easy to believe 'Red' was a genuine inmate. King's original story appeared in the beautiful storytelling-themed collection 'Different Seasons', and although deemed a novella is long and detailed enough to stand easily as a short novel.

Apt Pupil ****
It's hard to pick a favourite from the collection 'Different Seasons', it's so strong. However, for me Apt Pupil is the most dramatic, the most literary and the most gripping. And it's up against pretty stiff opposition from Shawshank and The Body.

His name-making novels were behind him now but I believe the collection 'Different Seasons' was where King started to show his true class. Apt Pupil is the only one of the three written in the third person so King can't slip so easily into his favoured fireside storytelling mode.

A young boy obsessed with all things Nazi is amazed to identify a German war criminal living in his small American town. He befriends the man but then blackmails him into spilling firsthand accounts of Nazi atrocities. Subsequent events see a turning of the tables and a grim stalemate develops.

The characters are rich and colourful, and the tale reads like melodrama. In a trademark reference to characters in other books, we are told Andy Dufresne (star of Shawshank) is the banker who gave the Nazi investment advice. King's one small failing is his endowment of the boy with the conversational style of an adult. Not quite authentic. Nonetheless Apt Pupil is a first rate story masterfully told.

The Body ****
Better known as the film Stand By Me, this is one of King's early ventures into the realm of formative childhood experience. Gordon, now a successful novelist, is writing an account of an event from his youth. The account is a flashback of his thoughts and tells the story of a summer in the 1960s. Gordon and three friends set out to recover a boy missing from their small town.

Under the ruse of a couple of nights' camping, the friends walk the railway tracks until they find his body. Throughout the long walk, the lads exchange banter and reveal the grim realities of growing up in a small town with few prospects. The adventure changes each of them forever.

King's mastery of popular culture and credible dialogue lift this novella from the 'Different Seasons' collection to a dramatic and literary level.

The Breathing Method ***
A tale with a supernatural twist in which a young pregnant woman befriends a doctor and persuades him to help her deliver her baby whatever the eventual circumstances. This was published as one of a collection of four novellas in 1982 under the collective title Different Seasons. Each of the four has some literary pretensions in that they veer from the horror genre, in some cases entirely. Publication was delayed so as not to interfere with SK's astounding initial period of horror success and because there was no perceived market for short mainstream novels.

The Breathing Method culminates in a horrific moment but its strength is a slowly mounting tension and dark atmosphere. Both in tempo and linguistically it reads like one of Poe's dark tales, revealing one of King's early inspirations. This is definitely short story territory using the tried and tested 'tale within a tale' delivery. Spooky and with some unexplained sideshoots, it is the last member of the 'Different Seasons' collection and the only one with a genuinely horrific moment.

15 December 2013

my Stephen King library

Title Published Audio
Book Film
Carrie Apr-74    
Salem's Lot Oct-75    
The Shining Jan-77    
Rage Sep-77    
Night Shift (20 short stories) Feb-78  
The Stand Sep-78  
The Long Walk Jul-79    
The Dead Zone Aug-79    
Firestarter Sep-80  
Roadwork Mar-81    
Danse Macabre Apr-81    
Cujo Sep-81  
The Running Man May-82    
Different Seasons: Apt Pupil Aug-82    
Different Seasons: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redeption Aug-82    
Different Seasons: The Body (aka Stand By Me) Aug-82    
Different Seasons: The Breathing Method Aug-82    
Christine Apr-83    
Cycle of the Werewolf Nov-83  
Pet Sematary Nov-83    
Thinner Nov-84    
Skeleton Crew (22 short stories) Jun-85  
IT Sep-86    
Misery Jun-87  
The Tommyknockers Nov-87    
The Dark Half Oct-89    
Four Past Midnight: 1 The Langoliers Sep-90
Four Past Midnight: 2 Secret Window Secret Garden Sep-90    
Four Past Midnight: 3 The Library Policeman Sep-90  
Four Past Midnight: 4 The Sun Dog Sep-90  
Needful Things Oct-91    
Geralds Game May-92    
Dolores Claiborne Nov-92    
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (24 short stories) Sep-93  
Insomnia Sep-94    
Rose Madder Jun-95    
Desperation Sep-96    
The Regulators Sep-96  
Green Mile, The Aug-98  
Bag of Bones Sep-98  
Storm of the Century [SCREENPLAY] Feb-99
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon Apr-99    
Hearts in Atlantis: 1 Low Men in Yellow Coats Sep-99    
Hearts in Atlantis: 2 Hearts in Atlantis Sep-99    
Hearts in Atlantis: 3 Bind Willie Sep-99    
Hearts in Atlantis: 4 Why We're in Vietnam Sep-99    
Hearts in Atlantis: 5 Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling Sep-99    
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft Oct-00    
Dreamcatcher Mar-01  
Everything's Eventual (14 short stories) Mar-02
From a Buick 8 Sep-02
The Gunslinger Jul-03  
The Colorado Kid Oct-05  
Cell Jan-06
Lisey's Story Jan-06  
Blaze Jun-07  
Duma Key Jan-08    
Just After Sunset (13 short stories) Nov-08    
The Gingerbread Girl Nov-08  
UR Feb-09  
Under the Dome Nov-09    
Blockade Billy Apr-10  
Full Dark No Stars: 1922 Nov-10    
Full Dark No Stars: A Good Marriage Nov-10    
Full Dark No Stars: Big Driver Nov-10    
Full Dark No Stars: Fair Extension Nov-10    
Mile 81 Sep-11
11/22/63 Nov-11  
The Wind Through the Keyhole Feb-12  
Joyland Apr-13  
Doctor Sleep Sep-13  
Mr. Mercedes Jun-14

My name is Paul and I am a Stephen King fan. (There. It's out!) And this is my story...
I started reading Stephen King the year I left school (1976) and he immediately became my new author of choice. I went on to hungrily devour each new book, my enthusiasm only waning as the end of the century loomed. Odd really, because at the time I missed out on his acclaimed book on the craft of writing, only receiving it years later as a gift.
Stephen King is often dismissed as a "horror" writer, catering to the market for cheap thrills. How woefully wrong. Yes he made his name writing scary fiction, lending new slants on the supernatural, the paranormal and the gory, but his body of work contains so much more. Starting with 'Hearts in Atlantis' and before that to a degree, notably in 'The Green Mile', SK's stories, and he is at core a storyteller, shifted subtlely toward the mainstream. Examine his novels with a critical eye on subsequent readings and many themes, metaphors and motifs emerge. Consider his seemingly effortlessly chosen names, then consider their symbolism.
He has always had a knack for bringing his characters to life, and making you root for them. Now that his premises are closer to reality I find myself caring even more. Lisey's Story is entirely character driven, Duma Key is too, although the latter suffers from a recurring difficulty, that slightly unsatisfying ending.
This isn't meant to be a critique of his work or even a reminder of his real literary status (I'm sure to address both those issues in due course) but an acknowledgement by me that King remains the single biggest influence on my own writing. His masterly turn of phrase, his vivid creation of scenes, his realistic dialogue and his unswerving accuracy concerning human nature are the reasons why he occupies substantial shelf space with me, figuratively and literally.
My chart above lists the novels, novellas and collected short stories and indicates whether I have the book, the audio book, the film, or indeed all three. I have excluded his fantasy work, a genre which just doesn't float my boat. The blue annotations in the book column indicate that I recently gave my copies to my eldest son. If I have the film I've shown the IMDB rating, which confirms that Stephen King seldom translates well to the big screen. Outstanding exceptions are of course Shawshank (No. 1 on IMDB), The Green Mile and The Shining.
In later years I have been absorbing most literature on audio book and have been steadily re-collecting Stephen King in that format. I now have most of his novels on audio book and am working on plugging the few remaining gaps in my list. The results easily rip to mp3 and are available for my iPod for going-to-sleep listening. Tonight on the pillow I will be returning to the very beginning.
Some  early recordings are out of production, but serviceable copies can be found on YouTube. I downloaded them, converted them to mp3, chopped the whopping files into convenient hour long chunks (hundreds of them), cleaned them up significantly using Audacity (to remove tape hiss, echo, clicks, pops and occasional sweet reminders of analogue days - "this ends side fifteen. Insert cassette eight to continue")!

10 December 2013

Brave, The Movie

Tonight the girls and I watched Brave, the Disney animation. The blurb proudly claims 'from the makers of Toy Story' but gosh that's dangerous territory to claim. And of course the film fails to live up. While convincing animation has become the norm, Toy Story set the bar impossibly high in terms of tight, clever plotting and characterisation.
The basic premise of Brave is a meeting of Scottish clans, presumably sometime in the 1800s, to choose a husband for the King and Queen's daughter, Princess Merida. The daughter is against the idea and during the feasting and merriment she escapes to enlist the help of a witch to try and change her mother's mind. The spell goes wrong and the Queen turns into a bear.
Brave's highly sophisticated computer graphics produce facsimiles of living beings but with cartoonish features. The youthful protagonist appears almost doll-like, no doubt to appeal to a very young audience, while the Scottish braves are hilarious caricatures, complete with eyebrows like hedges, bright orange hair, and beards you could lose a badger in. There is much swishing of tartan and droning of bagpipes. The voice-overs feature a wide range of Scottish accents, foremost among which, and instantly recognisable, is Billy Connolly as King Fergus.
The computer generation of rugged Scottish scenery, castles, lochs and forests is undeniably dazzling but... I kept thinking of that implied comparison with Toy Story. That's unfortunate because Toy Story is in another league. It couldn't fail to melt the hardest of hearts with its loveable cast of favourite toys, intricate plots and sub plots, and smart references to popular culture. You can suspend disbelief, the anthropomorphism is so credible and often humanly poignant.
Sadly Brave flatters to deceive; it's a film of style rather than substance. The girls still loved Brave, empathised with Merida and hid behind their fingers at the intense bear scenes. I guess that's what matters.

09 December 2013

Karaoke/Cold Lazarus

In 1994 playwright Dennis Potter was dying of pancreatic cancer. In a moving and memorable TV interview he calmly explained that he was racing against his terminal diagnosis to complete a final pair of television plays. He accomplished this just weeks later and with only days to spare. Eventually in 1996, in accordance with Potter's request, the two four-part plays were screened weekly on the BBC with repeats the same week on Channel 4 in a rare show of co-operation.

I watched 'Karaoke' and its immediate sequel 'Cold Lazarus' seventeen years ago. This week I broke open my DVD box set to watch them again. By the mid nineties Potter had perfected a unique style which had begun with his groundbreaking work in the sixties and reached its full potential with 1986's The Singing Detective. He wove stories of the human condition in claustrophobic settings for the small screen, in which characters would burst into song, miming to relevant popular songs of the forties and fifties, then drop back into sharply written dialogue.

This sometimes perplexing approach polarised opinion but for those, like me, who fell under his beguiling spell, the results were pure genius. His protagonists often sought and found love in the face of adversity or ill health. Potter drew heavily from personal experience and just as his fictional singing detective suffered from the same debilitating psoriasis as Potter himself, so the main character in his final plays, Daniel Field, has terminal pancreatic cancer.

Dropping any pretences, Potter not only gives Field the same diagnosis as himself, but also scripted him as a playwright racing against time to finish a play before his death. Field begins to lose his mind, writes, drinks heavily, and tries to right a series of wrongs from his recent life. He draws a new Will, writes detailed final instructions and elects to leave his body to medical science; to an experimental cryogenics clinic. 'Karaoke's' auto-biographical details give the viewer a direct insight into Potter's own frame of mind.

The sequel 'Cold Lazarus' takes place three hundred years after Field's death so he is the only character common to both plays. Field's head has been preserved and future scientists reanimate it in order to examine embedded memories. Ultimately the reanimated, disembodied head begs the scientists to let it die.

'Karaoke' adopts a classic film noir style complete with rain soaked streets, furtive conversations, prostitutes and dingy bars. The sets for 'Cold Lazarus,' in stark contrast, are like cheap 1960s science fiction. Shapes are organic with seats and buildings resembling petals and toadstools; the straight lines and stark minimalism we mostly ascribe to the future, absent.

Despite my very brief summaries, the stories are long and complex, each running for four hours. Themes of love, loss, anger, redemption and death permeate both plays and, good though they are, I feel Potter has portrayed them better and with more emotion in earlier works. Nonetheless the plays are exquisitely written and stand as a fitting final testament to an exceptional writing talent.

05 December 2013

Stratford Gym

The amazing free gym at Stratford Town Hall has a selection of instruments of torture which I mostly shun but it does boast a running track, two lanes circulating high above the basketball court. Walkers (the vast majority) go in one direction on the inner lane while runners (seldom more than a couple) pound the outer lane in the opposite direction.
The recent dirty weather has sent me indoors for my exercise and I have been reacquainting myself with Stratford's generous facility. It's a short track, very short, which means four tight-ish bends. One lap is 140.8 yards, so 12.5 laps are exactly one mile. To achieve any great overall distance requires lapping numerous times, a rather boring prospect, but one which provides relief from the misery of sub zero road running.
This week I have been lured to the track twice, each time running 78 laps, or 6.2 miles, or 10 kilometres. How do I know? I counted them in my head! These are my first runs indoors at that distance and I was astonished to blow two minutes off my best outdoor time. Today I ran the 10k in 52 minutes 50 seconds. I think this has something to do with a total lack of hills or wind, neither of which seem to cancel each other out outdoors even on a circular route.
I could wear my iPod but I might get engrossed and lose the lap count which, for an accuracy obsessed Virgo, would be infuriating!

30 November 2013

Light of the World, James Lee Burke

I make no secret that Burke is one of my favourite writers. However, he is not one of my favourite novelists. His descriptive prose creates a setting so authentic you can almost smell it but varied characters and credible scenarios are simply not his forte. He draws from his collection of standard villains to the extent that most are interchangeable from book to book.
The latest outing sees Sherriff's Deputy Dave Robicheaux, his buddy, Bail Agent Clete Purcell, their two adult daughters and Dave's wife Molly staying with a friend at his remote Montana ranch. Needless to say, a serial killer and various violent cronies soon appear on the scene. As usual Dave's family comes under personal threat, and he and Clete override local law enforcement pursuing the villains themselves. The chase culminates in a bloody shootout to rescue hostages.
Burke has particular difficulty with female characters. His women are invariably hard, angry and with chips on their shoulders. Perhaps this gives a clue about the women in his real life; look no further than Alafair, the irritable daughter of his main protagonist Dave Robicheaux. Even her very unusual name happens to be the same as Burke's own daughter. Dave's wife Molly is absent from ranch settings for much of their stay. Burke just seems to forget she's there!
Put simply, Burke cannot do dialogue. No one answers a question. Instead they pose another. Conversation is always minimal; at best testy, at worst venomous. Ultimatums are issued to friend and foe alike: "Don't ever... "Don't you dare... "You say that again...." Characters repeat themselves from page to page and from book to book: Alafair continually rejects her father's various terms of endearment for her. Clete's daughter, the abrasive Gretchen, argues with everyone within earshot.
I know this is meant as escapist entertainment, and that some repetition is necessary to help newcomers, but each instalment is a barely disguised variation on the last. Burke is seventy-seven and his protagonists are getting close to that too. I wonder how much longer they can scrap like youngsters and whether Burke should retire them and divert his undeniable writing skills in a more cerebral direction.

26 November 2013

People wave frantically at their own image on the big screen...

I see this all the time at televised sporting events and it bugs the hell out of me! Call me too darn clever for my own good but, from the angle, I know I would be able to work out where the camera was and so appear to wave at the viewer. It's just spacial awareness, like not getting lost in the woods.
"Nigella's off her head on drugs!" Thus says the Daily Mail. Well, that's celebrity chefs and Chancellor of the Exchequers' daughters for you. Probably lining up a rehab book out in time for next Xmas. If it's not pseudo celebrity trivia it's alarmist stories of NHS patients abandoned to their fate in hospital corridors. I'm sure I'm not the only one who reads the BBC for news and the DM for a light-hearted alternative take - complete with 'hilarious' spelling, grammar, punctuation bloopers, and hopeless errors of fact.
I'm irritated that people have moved into the top floor apartment in the building opposite me. It stood empty for two years after the previous urinating-over-the-balcony types moved out. It shouldn't bother me but it does. I like to wander (almost) as nature intended with my blinds open. I can't for the time being. One of them came out with a towel on her head to smoke in minus 8C this morning. Again, not my problem really, but.
I'm not keen on the gigantic healthcare facility for seniors a quarter of a mile away. In fact I don't like seeing all the new ground being broken around town. We're in danger of spoiling our small town feel. I really MUST move out to the country.
People are parking too close to the school entrance where school buses arrive, in fact almost blocking it. Again, none of my business but when I picked Maisie up from school today I felt a nice flood of satisfaction as a teacher came out, waving wildly and angrily. Three had to move, hoo-ray.
Maisie lost her first milk tooth today and proudly showed me her gap which is "just like Daddy's." It's not stopping either of us eat homemade fries, eggs, toast and baked beans!

12 November 2013

We Are Water, Wally Lamb

Gaps between the publication of Wally Lamb's novels range from five years to ten, a significant departure from today's usual churning process. A lesser writer would risk their readership drifting away but in WL's case the wait only heightens expectation.
As with his four previous full novels, emphasis is heavily on relationships, internal thought processes and consequences. Lamb really draws you inside the mind of his protagonist(s), revealing, often in flashback, the circumstances which shaped the present day characters. In this novel there are at least six first person narrators, each delivering accounts of their past and how it interlaced with that of their parents, siblings and partners. The result is a multi-layered and intricate portrait of a family.
The initial conflict centres around the decision by Annie, an artist, to leave her twenty-seven year marriage and set up home with Viveca, a Manhattan art dealer. What follows is an account of the week leading up to Annie's remarriage told through the voices of herself, her former husband, their three children, a childhood cousin of Annie's and a couple of minor players.
Reaction to Annie's new future prompts conversations and internal reflections that lift the lid on some truly ghastly secrets, making, on a couple of occasions, for very uncomfortable reading. No one it seems is guilt free. As the novel edges towards the wedding day, the revelations force family members to confront themselves and each other, with dramatic consequences. There are sideswipes at modern America, Politics and Race but these are suppressed, serving as a backdrop, and don't detract from the main account.
There is no rush here. Wally Lamb takes time to savour characters and events, illuminating them with authentic dialogue and sometimes a credible, tumbling stream of consciousness. Don't be deceived by the nonchalance of some encounters, as subtle clues to help piece together this intricate portrait abound. It all distills to a story about how we perceive ourselves and our family; how we handle (or bury) extreme difficulties; and ultimately about the indomitable strength of the human spirit.

05 November 2013

runner's playlist

If my running route involves city streets I like to hear what's going on around me so I have never been in the habit of listening to an iPod. However, I took my Nano on the Island's recent half marathon and enjoyed it, possibly even benefited from it.
Since then I have run three times a week in stony silence with only my thoughts for company. Today I decided to give it another go and spice up my usual 10k route to Victoria Park. I use a dedicated armband and although routing the cord through a sleeve and head hole is fiddly it's worth getting right as the weight of flapping cord will pull out your earbuds, already loosened from a combination of jiggling and sweating. Yes, even your ears sweat when you run!
Choice of music is important. It needs to be rousing, thrilling and familiar. Does it help me run faster? Possibly. It certainly helps take my mind off the pain. This is the playlist which motivates and excites me:   (Today I got as far as Morrissey - 55 minutes, and sprinting for the finish line.)
Woke Up This Morning Alabama 3
Golden Earring Radar Love
Bad to the Bone George Thorogood
Black Betty Ram Jam
Sultans of Swing Dire Straits
Mountain Top Bedouin Soundclash
Fake Palindromes Andrew Bird
Maria Blondie
Santa Monica Everclear
Give Me Novacaine Green Day
Guiding Light The Veils
Still Rock & Roll to Me Billy Joel
Summer of '69 Bryan Adams
Time for Heroes The Libertines
Boeing 737 The Low Anthem
First of the Gang to Die Morrissey
Some Might Say Oasis
Country Girl Primal Scream
Easy Deer Tick
Common People Pulp
Smile Like You Mean It The Killers
Still in Love Song The Stills

02 November 2013

Birdman, Mo Hayder

This novel is awful. The plot is cliché-ridden and could have been lifted from any number of TV crime dramas. A serial killer (with some medical knowledge) preying on prostitutes; London detectives with racial prejudice and puerile humour; endless references to wasteland near the Millennium Dome; Jamaican drug dealers with at least twenty words for the same substance. Puh-lease! I'm not going to consider the story because it has all been done before in 'Prime Suspect' etc.

The writing is poor. Chapters begin with unidentified pronouns, word choice is sometimes jarring and inappropriate. Descriptions are peppered with brand names dropped from the most exclusive catalogues which comes across as the author showing off and the worst sin of all...Hayder loses her readers' trust by introducing inaccurate observations.

Such as: a man is reclining in the bath. He sinks lower and the St. Christopher medallion, on a chain around his neck, floats to the surface and bobs by his chin. When you know that solid metal does not float you start to doubt other references. Consider also the flies seen gathering above the outdoor floodlight. Yes, above. That has no basis in reality and anyway, how would you even see them. An abductor, lurking out of sight in the rear seat of a very small car jumps over seatbacks into the front. Pretty much impossible for a man described as overweight, especially as all car seats contemporary with publication were equipped with head restraints which come close to the roof.

Then there is the strange colour-shifting: at one point I read about 'brown' clouds; next a policeman's white shirt is stuck to his chest with 'yellow' sweat. She talks about the Police driving Sierras. Not in 1999 they didn't because Ford discontinued that model in 1993. I ended up not believing much she wrote.

So what about the action and the little descriptors which bring scenes to life? Oh dear, policemen seem unable to talk to the occupant of any parked car without first leaning their elbows on the roof and poking their heads through the window. Car drivers only ever speak to their rear seat passengers after hooking their arm around the back of their seat. I have never known so many characters to rock back on their heels and look at the sky/clouds/rain, some several times. Goodness me, such lack of balance.

I listened to the audio book version 'performed' by Damien Goodwin, and he's just as much to blame for this mess. I laughed out loud at some of his pronunciation howlers. Hic-cough does not rhyme with 'off'! Oh, and the median cubital vein used for venipuncture has the first syllable stressed. It's not spoken as 'muh-dee-un'. While on matters medical how about 'meta-bow-lite'! OK, we all know it's 'met-ábo-lite' but should we really have to make these mental corrections as we go?

I persevered despite these weaknesses because, perhaps unwittingly, Mo Hayder has created an interesting central character. Jack Caffrey is a hard-drinking cop somewhat wed to the job, attractive to women but unable to sustain a regular relationship. Here the familiarity ends. His dialogue is clipped, short to the point of rudeness; he doesn't tell anyone about his personal life or his background which includes a brother abducted and missing since childhood. Caffrey is a self-deprecating anti-hero who deserves a superior setting.