Catching Up With King: “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I read my first collection of King short stories – 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

“‘It was like Jeopardy,‘ he said. ‘In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is ‘The Inexplicable.’ The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”
-Stephen King, “The Moving Finger”

Nightmares&Dreamscapes

I work in a building with a small bathroom to employee ratio. After a year or so of stilted urinal conversations and close-quarters crapping, I discovered a hallway I hadn’t been down before. It led to the perfect men’s room – one stall only, off the beaten path, subtly effective air freshener. When the stall is free, life is good. But when it’s occupied, and I see the shoes of the guy who beat me to the punch, it feels like defeat.

Few writers could spin something memorable out of this mundane bit of oversharing. But with “Sneakers,” Stephen King essentially does just that. It’s one of my favorite short stories in his mammoth 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which an up-and-coming record producer keeps seeing the same pair of sneakers, in the same stall, on every bathroom break. The more it happens, the creepier things get – and that’s before the flies show up.

Before I continue expressing my newfound love for bite-sized King, this disclaimer: I have yet to tackle any of the author’s longest books (including The Stand and It, both more than 1,100 pages), so I can’t give the most informed opinion on the King short story vs. King novel argument. But I think I can definitively say this – his short stories are more fun.

The first four entries in Nightmares & Dreamscapes make for an exhilarating ride. I flew through them in one fevered sitting, marveling at the intensity and versatility on display. Over the course of just 135 pages, we get a gripping, “Tell-Tale Heart”-indebted mob revenge story; a harrowing cautionary tale to scientists who think they can solve the world’s problems; a creepy-kid horror piece best avoided by rookie teachers; and a brilliantly pulpy vampire story that involves a tabloid writer, small-town airports, and buckets of you-know-what. It’s a perfectly paced assault of sledgehammer-blunt ideas, hurtling relentlessly to their endings. King relishes the chance to spin these yarns. You can see the glint in his eye as he dangles us over the precipice, hinting at what’s to come and ensuring you will most definitely not stop reading until you know as much as he does. Take this passage from the third story, “Suffer the Little Children”:

“Miss Sidley frowned after them, reflecting that children had been different in her day. Not more polite – children have never had time for that – and not exactly more respectful of their elders; it was a kind of hypocrisy that had never been there before. A smiling quietness around adults that had never been there before. A kind of quiet contempt that was upsetting and unnerving. As if they were …”

This moment is one of several that made me think if King had been born a few decades earlier, he would’ve fit right in with Serling, Matheson and Beaumont in the Twilight Zone writer’s room. But that would be discounting the majority of his work, which attempts to give its characters and themes as much physical and historical context as possible. The half-hour episode grind would’ve driven him mad. In this book’s charming, conversational introduction, King addresses this issue head on, admitting that “everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” He sounds weary of the subject, of having to respond once again to.critics who regard “generosity with suspicion.” Every time he writes a great short story, he’s proving a point that he disagrees with. Props to him for just doing it anyway.

If Nightmares & Dreamscapes kept its initial momentum going throughout, it would really be something special. And it comes close, thanks to a finger that comes out of a drain, a fiercely loyal pair of chattering teeth, and a group of smokers who uncover a conspiracy that involves hideous bat-people. But it’s just too odds-and-endsy to truly hold together, capsizing at the end under the weight of several writer’s exercises – a Sherlock Holmes story runs into a Raymond Chandler homage, which gives way to an essay about his son’s Little League baseball team (the book’s only true WTF moment).

Still, I had the best time reading it. And I think that’s exactly the kind of review that King would hope for.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. The Shining

3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

4. 11/22/63

5. The Gunslinger

 

Catching Up With King: The Gunslinger

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black

The_Gunslinger2

If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining

Catching Up With King: The Shining

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine last month, I thought it would be fun – if a bit cliché – to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I let the Overlook Hotel tell me what to do – unsurprisingly, it chose The Shining.

“Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?”
–Jack Torrance

200px-ShiningnovelEven though I’m merely two volumes into this little project of mine, I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on what makes Stephen King’s best work tick. He doesn’t restrict his creepy crawlies to the supernatural realm, and that’s why his stories have struck such a resounding chord with a wide swath of humanity. Just like Pet Sematary, which twisted the intensity of parental love into something thoroughly unwholesome, The Shining takes a universally understood emotion and holds us hostage with it.

The feeling in question here involves the nature of free will, and the frightening implications of its absence. The Shining is as much a classic ghost story as a study of family dynamics, pitting the Torrances – father Jack, mother Wendy, and son Danny – in a battle against not only the hostile spirits of a haunted hotel, but also the rather shoddy track record of its own DNA. After losing his teaching job at a Connecticut prep school because of a violent incident with a student – a job that was already on shaky ground thanks to his alcoholism – Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook, a ritzy, destination hotel high up in the Rocky Mountains. The Torrances will be the only residents in the huge old structure for the entire season, during most of which they will be completely snowed in. It’s a setup that hasn’t always gone well – the previous caretaker murdered his family, for instance – but whatever. Jack sees it as the perfect way to get back on track, with his writing career and his family (in that order).

King’s metaphors can be a little on the nose, like the outdated furnace that can’t handle as much pressure as it used to, but the snowed-in hotel works sturdily as a symbol of what stands in Danny’s way. Despite all of Jack’s dreams and aspirations, he ended up a spitting image of his asshole father. Wendy isn’t on speaking terms with her cold, judgmental mother, and one of Jack’s go-to insults is to say she’s acting just like her. Like the Overlook, Danny’s home life is stacking the cards against him, and the obstacles are just getting scarier and more intimidating. Which brings us to the core question of the novel will all of us, whether we like it or not, become exactly like our parents?

The Shining would be one hell of a suffocating read if its answer was “Yes.” Thankfully, King’s opinion on the matter is more hopeful, coming in the form of the titular psychic gift that Danny possesses – the ability to read people’s thoughts, and to go deep enough within one’s self to see visions of the future (courtesy of a figure Danny calls “Tony”). When Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the Outlook chef, he has his first encounter with somebody else who “shines,” and it’s no coincidence that he’s by far the friendliest and most heroic character we meet, other than Danny himself. People who are able to step outside of themselves are more likely to have a greater understanding of others, King posits. And this understanding gives them the perspective necessary to make a deeper connection with their true self – their “Tony,” if you will – no matter what horrors might stand in the way.

The book ends with a conversation between Danny and Dick about how to overcome, and its poignancy goes down all the easier after such a long, dark, claustrophobic struggle. For me, this is what makes King’s novel a more meaningful achievement than Stanley Kubrick’s film (which still trumps the book as sheer entertainment). Where the latter has no regard for the Hallorann character and is satisfied with a purely physical escape for Danny, the former ends with the two telepathic heroes sitting by a Maine lake in the summertime, placing itself firmly on the side of healing, and freedom, and hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary