Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stephen King, THE LONG WALK--A Retro-review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

The Long Walk (1979)

The Long Walk is among the earliest published examples of King’s novel-writing talent, written during the school year 1966-1967, when King was a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono. More controlled, perhaps, than Rage, and with a more complex cast of characters, The Long Walk also represents a long stride forward in King’s novelistic techniques, including his control of tone, pacing, and mood as the story progresses from its almost light-hearted beginnings through a systematic and inevitable descent into darkness. As do each of the other Bachman novels, The Long Walk demonstrates a countdown to obsession and madness based on the simplest of narrative threads; in this case, in a near-future riff on Selective Service, King gives us a world in which each year 100 young men around the age of eighteen start out from upstate Maine and walk south. The winner of the Long Walk will receive anything he wants for the rest of his life. The rules of the Walk are simple: no interfering with another Walker, no veering from the designated path…and no stopping.
Walkers who stop once are warned.
Walkers can receive three warnings.
Then they are shot…even if they are already dead from exhaustion, despair, heartbreak, or sheer physical breakdown.
The result is a novel that in an oddly positive way is as fatiguing to the readers as the Long Walk is to the boys walking. Readers are invited into the mind of Ray Garraty as he works through level after level of intellectual, physical, spiritual, and psychological engagement, testing the limits of human motivation, frustration, fear, loneliness, terror, exhaustion, and finally compassion, desperation, and the ultimate horror of madness. Since Garraty is from the outset the principle point-of-view character (as well as the local odds-on favorite to win the Walk, being “Maine’s Own”), there is little surprise at the ending. There is surprise, however, at how compelling and devastating that ending is, and how the young King manages to rivet readers’ attention on the undeviating progress of a dwindling group of human scarecrows staggering raggedly, ever southward, toward Boston. Initially, time is carefully counted; Garraty’s watch is consulted frequently, and miles and hours passed are central concerns for the Walkers. As the book nears its end, however, time itself seems to warp; day and night become indistinguishably bleak. One boy’s identity merges into that of another, and another; and the Crowd becomes a single monstrous entity, a screaming throat surrounding Garraty and the pitiable handful who survive into the final pages.
There are, of course, brief flurries of action to break the ongoing stasis of the Walk. One boy runs to the crowd to embrace a tauntingly beautiful girl—and for his sexual impetuosity earns three warnings and nearly loses his life. Another attacks the half-truck accompanying the Walkers and is gutshot as a warning to the rest. Garraty himself almost dies when he receives his third warning as he reaches out desperately for his girlfriend’s hand in the crowd. And so it goes. Walk. Talk. Walk more. Walk. And die.
Within this taut narrative scheme, however, King has exploited a mine of opportunity for characterization. Some of the Walkers remain unchanged from their introductions to their deaths; even these minor figures, shadowy as they might be, show King polishing his hand at deft creation of strikingly individual characters, often within a sentence or two that describe habitual actions, clothing, language, movements. As does Garraty, readers may at times confuse the names of character, but rarely their essences, their true nature.  The handful of central Walkers that form Garraty’s unofficial company—Peter McVries, the closest Garraty comes to a friend among the Walkers; the inscrutable and obnoxious Stebbins; Olson, Baker, and the others—open themselves even more completely as we see then walk, hear them talk about life and death and love and hope and emptiness.
The Long Walk is, in its own way, as preachy as Rage. It differs from the earlier novel, however, in that King carefully connects his long passages of internal monologue to the increasing dissociation from reality Garraty and the others experience, as literally every part of normal life and normal memory falls away leaving nothing but the exposed souls of the boys—children sacrificed (as so often in both the “Bachman” novels and the “King” novels) to the unfathomable and apparently insatiable needs of the adult world.
Central to the Walk and hence to the story, but paradoxically missing through most of its length, is The Major, the leader in this future dystopia, who passes in and out of the Walkers’ consciousness, appearing in his military jeep and military clothing and military sunglasses to urge them on to greater effort. The father-figure that seems absent from every life touched on in the novel, he represents precisely the kind of rarely seen, never understood, shadowy authority that King pillories in Rage and Christine and It and elsewhere, his face “kind but unreadable behind the mirror sunglasses” (Bachman Books 433).
But even beyond him, there is the other figure, hinted at in the final pages of The Long Walk (and in a poem written at about the same time) and developed in The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Dark Tower Series, and Needful Things—the dark figure, “up ahead, not far, beckoning….for him to come and walk, to come and play the game” (433). And the game is insanity and death.
With the intrusion of that figure, we know that there can be no winner to The Long Walk.  In an imaginary science-fictional world that is really our world stripped to its essential needs, without resorting to techno-jargon or high-tech surfaces, King compels readers on long walks that take them to the heart of living and dying…and one step beyond.
At the end, it is hard to forget the grim irony implicit in King’s opening quotation from John Kennedy:  “I would encourage every American to walk as often as possible. It’s more than healthy; it’s fun.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Larry Correia, MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL--Monsters from A to Z

Monster Hunter International
Larry Correia
Baen, 2009

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International is a hoot…literally, figuratively, and every way in between.
More than that, however, it is deeply, essentially comedic on multiple levels. Blatant moments of near slapstick—often when the blood flies thickest and fastest—support a Dantesque thematic awareness of the ultimate, eternal conflict between good and evil, between light and darkness, and an intensely optimistic sense that, for all of its manifold faults, humanity has the potential to choose the light.
The first of these enters MHI narratively in the first two sentences, with their perfectly poised juxtaposition of colloquial, lighthearted tone with violent action, a consistent characteristic of Owen Zastava Pitt’s voice throughout. Thematically and structurally, the novel merits the adjective Dantesque through its incremental descents into realms of darkness and their inherent denizens, each more vile and vicious than the last, climaxing in a horrifying descent into a darkness that opens into a rift leading to the ultimate sphere/circle of Evil and an encounter with the personification of malevolence, foulness, and maliciousness. Through careful, precise pacing, it moves from the everyday “normal” world—something Pitt initially yearns for—to the worlds of gods, demons, and Old Ones disgusting enough and frightening enough to make H.P. Lovecraft proud.
As if that were not sufficient, MHI is also an abecedary of sorts—a primer,
 as it were, to the complexities of monsters inhabiting this world and others. It refers to or introduces everything from Angels (and their concomitants, Demons) to Zombies. Some are already well-known to readers of horror; others are borrowed from obscure mythologies or apparently created for this particular universe. Indeed, the Zs might be said to include not only the requisite walking dead but the hero himself, with his unusual middle name, Zastava—shortened to Z as a nickname—who is portrayed as near-monstrous in form and visage through most of the story. And, without indulging in symbol-hunting of the more egregious sort, it is worth noting that his surname, Pitt, not only suggests the character’s physical and geographical descent at the conclusion but the moral descent potential within him, a potentiality that all of the evil characters seem to know about but which remains a mystery to him until the end. Even his first name, Owen, plays a symbolically important part…but for more about that you will have to read the novel.
The plot is relatively straightforward. As a result of the defenestration of Mr. Huffman alluded to in the opening paragraph, Pitt is invited to join a private firm, Monster Hunters International, which works—sometimes smoothly, sometimes antagonistically—with the Justice Department’s highly secretive Monster Control Bureau to control incursions of supernatural creatures. The feds claim overriding jurisdiction, of course, and the MHI are often left to clean up local matters. But when it becomes apparent that something huge and hugely evil is in the works, leading to the end of Time itself, the two organizations must battle each other and a variety of monsters, each conflict bringing them—and Pitt—closer to the devastating truth.

But none of this truly captures the essence of Monster Hunter International. It is simply fun. Correia exults in words and pictures, in grotesqueries and oddities, in ugliness and monstrosities—but also in beauty and emotion-filled depths. He incorporates crucial considerations of things moral, theological, cosmic—but never loses sight of the sense that MHI may touch upon didacticism but is fundamentally comic in the original Greek sense of ‘revel.’ He instructs, yes, as the Roman poet Horace declared over two millennia ago (although many will not agree with his perspectives); but he balances that with the second half of the Horatian dictum: He delights.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Barker and Pugmire, IN THE GULFS OF DREAM AND OTHER LOVECRAFTIAN TALES--Once More into the Darkness

In the Gulfs of Dream and Other Lovecraftian Tales
David Barker and W.H. Pugmire
Dark Renaissance Books, June/July 2015
Trade paperback, $19.95, 266pp.

While at a science fiction/fantasy conference some thirty-five years ago, I picked up a collection of tales by the estimable Gene Wolfe. I had not yet encountered his memorable Book of the New Sun tetralogy, so I must admit to having been drawn to the book primarily through its intentionally odd name: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, the last phrase being the critical one in hooking me. With a glance at the contents, I discovered that the titles of three key stories (a Nebula-award winner and two nominees) performed permutations on three words—island, doctor, and death: “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” not only hinted at a debt to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau—another echo of which Brian W. Aldiss had just published as Moreau’s Other Island—but also set the stage for stories to follow: “The Doctor of Death Island” and “The Death of Dr. Island.”
In much the same way as Wolfe’s title did so long ago, the title of Barker and Pugmire’s latest collaboration intrigued me as it simultaneously identified genre (or sub-genre), inspiration, and important words. Or rather, types of words, since gulfs and dream prepare not only for the central novella, “In the Gulfs of Dream,” but also for such titles as “The Stairway in the Crypt”; “Among the Ghouls”; “The Temple of the Worm,” with its nod to Bram Stoker; “The Stone of Ubbo-Sathla”; “Within One Earthly Realm”; “A Dweller in Martian Darkness,” in which a one-word addition avoids a near-quotation from HPL; “Elder instincts”: “The One Dark Thought of Nib-Z’gat”; “Descent into Shadow and Light”; “The Horror in the Library”;  and others.
My first reaction to the title and contents page echoed my reaction to The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. On one hand, the overall title identified; on the other, it seemed slightly redundant—a collection featuring “In the Gulfs of Dream” and stories with such directly evocative titles could only be Lovecraftian.
My second reaction, however, was to brace for stories well beyond the lukewarm Lovecraft so frequently served up as new and ingenious. I have read and enjoyed other Barker-Pugmire efforts and thus anticipated more than simple imitation or clumsy pastiche. And the initial tale, “The Stairway in the Crypt” immediately fed that anticipation. The opening paragraphs paid homage not only to Lovecraft but also to Poe, through the introduction of a “beloved late wife” with the exotic name of Lunalae Kant née Morelle; an emotionally fraught internal monologue identified by copious use of italics; and a setting in a deserted New England cemetery. The tone, the atmosphere, the feeling was perfect Poe.
Until I hit the sentence, “I thought he was bullshitting me, but one look at his face told me otherwise,” followed by an slighting reference to “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”
Bullshitting! Really? In Poe?
I was startled for a moment at the apparent break in decorum. As the story progressed, however, it became clear that there was more involved than a mere drop in diction level. “The Stairway in the Crypt” alludes to Poe and Lovecraft, yes, but it is also about two authors, one whose imagination is saturated in things-Poe and another who is just as strongly a Lovecraftian. While each does not hesitate to speak in the language of his respective hero and bandy around such pointing terms as sepulcher, Marceline, windswept graveyard, melodramatically, and the always obliging eldritch, both introduce moments of raw, modern, colloquial diction into their dialogues. In effect, they consciously draw attention to one great similarity between their idols: their use of distinct, clearly recognizable, easily parodied styles.
This is important to the collection because almost without exception, while the stories incorporate plots, characters, treatments, themes, and images that resonate with readers of Lovecraft, they most obviously (at least for me as retired professor of literature and creative writing) function as vehicles for demonstrating language as horror, for the incremental revelation of the unknowable and indescribable, for the final moment of gorgeousness and allusion and suggestion that incorporates the entire horror. In other words, for approaching horror in precisely the way Lovecraft did. And as such, these stories are worthy successors to the master himself.
Indeed, as with Lovecraft, a number of the stories seem essentially plotless soliloquys, several only few pages long, one complete in less than two sides. Plotless, however, is not meant to imply pointless or empty. In Barker’s “The Horror in the Library” a man reads an old book. That is basically the story. And yet…and yet, through the magic of evocation, allusion—of the sheer force and majesty of language—it succeeds as a crystallization, a distillation, an encapsulation of terror, repulsion, and dread.
I have focused on only one of many excellences of In the Gulfs of Dream and Other Lovecraftian Tales. The authors’ command of characterization (in the Lovecraftian sense of an often unstable first-person narrator enduring the impossible…right now); landscape, even when their quest for dreams and horrors leads them to a darkly Bradburian Mars; and pacing and momentum, whether for a short-short or a novella—all lend strength and convict to their storytelling. Haunters after darkness and fear will find much to recommend the book.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Stephen King, THE DEAD ZONE--A Retro-review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

The Dead Zone (1979)

Anyone involved with King scholarship or criticism invariably faces two questions: “What is his best work?” and “If I haven’t read anything by Stephen King, where should I start?”
Answers to either question are bound to include The Dead Zone. Because of the breadth his novels cover, it is almost impossible to isolate a single work as his “best,” simply because a number of novels are superlatives, each in different ways. However, a general consensus might include ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand (oddly enough, both the 1978 and the 1990 versions could legitimately be listed), It, perhaps the cumulative Dark Tower novels…and The Dead Zone.[1] As to where to start if one has never read a King novel—The Dead Zone comes almost immediately to mind as one of King’s most restrained and controlled, most nearly mainstream, and least “horrific” novels, especially among those published during his first decade as a writer.
Although dated by period references to the mid-1970s, The Dead Zone nevertheless reads well, even for 1990s audiences. Unlike many of King’s other works (and even unlike the ‘Bachman’ novels), this story of prescience and its devastating consequences on one individual and those nearest to him does not focus on a strong central character, an almost superhuman ‘hero’ who, like Roland of Gilead, for example, clearly differs from the common run of humanity. King deftly defines his protagonist with his name—Johnny Smith. It is an ordinary name, a literary “Everyman” kind of name that urges readers to see Smith less as exception than as universal concrete…a type made real, as it were. And in almost every respect, Johnny Smith seems ordinary: he has ordinary goals and dreams, he loves and hopes, he must confront mundane problems of both life and death.
Of course, since he is in fact the central character in a King novel, he is not quite that ordinary. There are the dual facts of his four-year-long coma and his emergent “dead zone,” a place in his mind that has lost certain of its normal functions but gained frightening new ones. As the novel progresses, King systematically places his protagonist in contexts that require more and more of him, that force him to explore the shadowy areas of his dead zone—a process that leads finally to Johnny Smith’s decision to sacrifice his life to save a nation, perhaps a world. And in the end, Johnny Smith, whose name makes him an “Everyman,” turns out in fact to be heroic in ways not even he could have imagined.
Bearing up under the burden of an unusual talent/skill/curse forces Johnny Smith into becoming a public figure. King structures the novel around three episodes. First Johnny Smith must deal with the private and personal ramifications of the dead zone. His touch initially brings gratitude as he saves a woman’s home from burning and reassures another woman that her son will recover from dangerous surgery. Eventually, however, as his notoriety spreads, his touch becomes ambivalent—it brings answers, but not necessarily the answers the questioners want. In all other ways ‘normal,’ Johnny Smith becomes perceived as a monster for doing precisely what his questioners insist of him…and then for not performing on demand. King touches upon issues of public versus private, of responsibility versus self-protection, of individual versus society. Throughout, however, he never loses sight of Johnny Smith as feeling, caring person, aware of his connections to humanity at large.
In the second section, Johnny Smith’s wild-card talent becomes public. In order to save the life of a young student, he must assert his talent as a mode of knowing more valid than science, experience, and observation. He must force events to change, and in the process he again places himself in an ambivalent position. He is hailed as a savior by the parents whose children he kept alive; and he is excoriated as monster by the segments of the same public he has served. In a moment of conscious irony, King even allows one of the children to accuse Johnny Smith of causing a disastrous fire by foreknowing it: “It’s his fault, that guy there! He made it happen! He set it on fire by his mind, just like in that book Carrie. You murderer! Killer!” (Ch. 23). King knows full well the essential differences between Carrie White and Johnny Smith; but as will happen with so many of his cross-references to his earlier novels, the speaker sees only simplistic, surface similarities.
The third section moves the story to an overtly public level. Johnny Smith knows (along with the readers) that Greg Stilson is mad, that he is potentially dangerous, and that if he gets elected to the Presidency he will perform some insane act that will plunge the world into warfare and devastation. At this point, King forces Johnny Smith to confront the ultimate responsibility his prescience implies. Again and again, Smith asks those around him a key question: If you could go back in time, knowing what you do now, and kill Hitler, would you? Johnny Smith’s conviction that he must act, paralleling his discovery that the dead zone in his brain is in the process of killing him, propels the story to its logical and powerful climax, in which King adroitly allows his character to act on his knowledge in the only way possible…and still to avoid the stigma of murder. The novel’s almost gentle, hauntingly ghostly conclusion returns Johnny Smith and his treacherous gift to the realm of the private; his final touch is reserved for the woman he loves.
Throughout, King preserves a sense of balance in treatment. Johnny Smith is a quiet, reserved character who merits a quiet, reserved novel—and for the most part, this is what King provides (this characterization is brilliantly captured in David Cronenberg’s film version, with Christopher Walken capturing the essence both of character and of story). If one is looking for a starting place in “things King,” The Dead Zone is indeed an ideal choice.

[1] As of 2015, this core listing remains viable. There have been other significant novels since, of course—I think immediately of Bag of Bones, Black House (with Peter Straub), The Cell, or Duma Key—but these few from early in his career not only offer a glimpse into his facility as a writer but seem among those most likely to remain as favorites, as witnessed their continued popularity after almost four decades.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Stephen King, NIGHT SHIFT--A Retro-review


Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

Night Shift (1978)

Night Shift is among the few books King has published that has not enjoyed a stint on the hardcover bestsellers lists. Missing the lists is not unusual for a collection of short fiction, which typically do not sell as well as individual novels. On the other hand, the paperback edition of Night Shift did appear on the lists for thirteen weeks following its release in February of 1979, an achievement that foreshadowed the remarkable success of King’s subsequent short story collections—Different Seasons appeared on both hardcover and paperback lists in 1983; and Skeleton Crew not only appeared on both but was the number-one best hardcover bestseller for nine consecutive weeks and the number one bestselling paperback for seven, a feat almost unheard of in the history of publishing (it remained on the hardcover lists for 22 weeks more, incidentally, and on the paperback lists for an additional month).
The success of these and subsequent collections of King’s short fiction is due in part to the strength of Night Shift. This first selection of twenty stories whetted his readers’ appetites for more and demonstrated at the same time King’s virtuosity in handling a wide range of subjects, styles, and types. In addition, many of the stories included are among his best known, in part because the collection has provided a rich vein of film possibilities that has been assiduously mined over the past two decades. Of the twenty tales, half have appeared as films, television episodes, and video cassette presentations, including “Graveyard Shift” (a stronger story than the film version by far), “The Mangler,” “The Boogeyman” (a student film, one of the earliest attempts at filming King), “Trucks” (the source for King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive), “Sometimes They Come Back,” “The Ledge,” “The Lawnmower Man” (although the only connections between the resulting film and King’s story are the title and the fact that someone mows a lawn somewhere), “Quitters, Inc.,” “Children of the Corn” (two film versions tried to capture the essence of this one, both unsuccessfully), and “The Woman in the Room,” which remains one of the most powerful film adaptations of a King property to date.
The contents of Night Shift provide a solid introduction to many of King’s themes, images, and interests during the years from 1970 through 1976, when a number of the stories originally appeared in Cavalier, Penthouse, and Gallery, which in spite of the focus of their pictorial spreads, were among the few markets that paid well for horror fiction. Other stories appeared in Maine and Cosmopolitan. Among the tales are several continuations of earlier novels, or early sketches for motifs that would be important in later works, such as “Jerusalem’s Lot,” a mood-piece meditation (one of the last written, in fact, among the tales in the collection) that provides historical backgrounds for King’s vampire novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, re-visited later in the collection in the penultimate story, “One for the Road.”  “Night Surf” provides a compressed view of one moment in the tapestry of The Stand; and “The Mangler” takes place in the Blue Ribbon Laundry, a detail that links this story, King’s Carrie, Richard Bachman’s Roadwork, and others. “The Bogeyman” develops the monster-in-the-closet motif that King will later build into Cujo in transforming that novel from a “Bachman” to a “King”—as well as touching on one of the oldest fears of childhood, the shadowy thing that lies just out of our vision
On a more allusive front, “Graveyard Shift” and “Gray Matter” evoke King’s reading of Lovecraft and Poe, putting new spins on old story-types and demonstrating that modern readers may still be attracted to older forms of horror. (Unfortunately, the film version of “Graveyard Shift,” while well-advertised and eagerly anticipated before its Halloween release, was among the weaker adaptations of a King story, overly long and ultimately more tedious than terrifying).
Just as it glances at the past, Night Shift also considers the present and the future as sources for horror. “I am the Doorway,” along with “Beachworld” from Skeleton Crew, represents one of King’s few excursions into “mainstream” science fiction, although even here elements of horror emerge (literally) to transform both the story and its genre. “Battleground” and “Trucks” similarly tackle an area of horror particularly applicable to the twentieth-century, the technological horror of machines rising against their makers, based fundamentally on but far transcending what some consider the first true work of science fiction and of horror, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“Strawberry Spring,” moves the reader to an internal, psychological landscape, with the story of a serial murderer’s gradual discovery of his own madness. King’s handling of the subject in Night Shift is particularly interesting since it radically revises a story King first published in the UMO literary magazine, Ubris, in 1968. The transformation of the original from prose tone-poem to a fully developed narrative of discovery and horror illustrates King’s own transition from neophyte to master in his chosen genre. King’s use of myth as source for internal and external landscapes is equally evident in “The Lawnmower Man,” which remains one of his more evocative tales.
“The Ledge,” “Quitters, Inc.,” “I Know What You Need,” and “The Man Who Loves Flowers” are interesting in part for their strong characterization of individuals caught in circumstances for which no previous experiences could quite prepare them. Each of the stories touches as well upon key elements in contemporary life—isolation, frustration, obsession, fear of violence.

The capstone of Night Shift is arguably its strongest story (just as “The Reach” will bring Skeleton Crew to an emotional climax). “The Woman in the Room” is partly autobiographical, fictionalizing the death of King’s mother. A story without any monsters or supernatural intrusions into everyday life (except, appropriately enough, as metaphors—images of death and decay), it is nonetheless a chilling story about life and death and about the choices that inevitably link the two.  It is finely crafted, each word working toward a final understated theme, never working too obviously on the readers’ emotions yet moving them nevertheless with its starkness and simplicity. “The Woman in the Room” is an appropriate conclusion for Night Shift, a collection of stories about darkness and fear and ultimate transformations. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Stephen King, THE STAND (original edition)--A Retro-review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

The Stand (1978)

Following closely upon King’s bestselling performances with Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, as well as Brian de Palma’s film version of Carrie (1976), the 1978 appearance of The Stand confirmed King’s preeminent position among the ranks of contemporary horror writers. His most ambitious novel to that point, even with substantial portions deleted before publication, The Stand provided a backdrop for the full array of King’s talents in characterization, plotting, theme, and development.
An extension far beyond an earlier story called “Night Surf” (first published in Cavalier, 1974), The Stand is a tale of world-wide apocalypse caused by the accidental release of a super-flu virus that kills most of the human population. Then, when the survivors have begun adjusting to the realities of life as survivors, they are thrust into a far more complex, ultimately more frightening and paradoxically meaningful struggle between the elemental forces of the White and the Dark. Each individual must choose sides in the on-coming struggle for supremacy, climaxing in the detonation of an atomic warhead—precisely the end-of-the-world scenario envisioned by the military minds who created the superflu to forestall such an event.
At well over eight-hundred pages in the Doubleday hardcover edition, The Stand allows King the leeway to develop his ideas, in many cases in intricate details. Minor characters take on almost as much life as major ones; and the major characters in turn number among King’s most memorable creations: Stu Redman, as solid and stable as the earth itself; Frannie Goldsmith, who, like a goldsmith creating beauty out of precious metals, will bear one of the first children in the new world the superflu and the Dark Man have created; Abigail Freemantle, with her evocatively symbolic, almost biblically intense surname; Harold Lauder and Nadine Cross, whose names also provide important hints as to their characters and their roles; Trashcan man, with his obsession with fire that inadvertently triggers the destruction of this round of the Dark Man’s warfare against the Light; Tom Cullen, whose mental deficiencies make him a perfect foil to the Dark Man’s intricate scheming; and the mysterious and threatening Randall Flagg, the dark man himself. 
As early as 1969, King had begun working on his vision of a mysterious dark man, an embodiment of evil who comes and goes at will, leaving disruption and turmoil in his wake. In the same issue of UMO’s student magazine, Ubris, that contained “Stud City” (later incorporated into The Body), King published a short poem called simply “The Dark Man.” The figure in that poem may become one of the most important icons in assessing King’s fictions, since in various guises and under various names (although frequently using the initials “RF”) this quasi-mythic figure appears in novels as apparently disparate as The Stand (with an even more heightened role in the 1990 unexpurgated edition), the three volumes to date of The Dark Tower series, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Talisman, and Needful Things.  The Stand, then, becomes important not merely as one of King’s acknowledged masterpieces and one of the handful of post-apocalypse novels with the potential of becoming an American classic, but also as the first full-scale introduction of a figure that will be more fully developed in subsequent works, and that links a novel as close to mainstream fiction as The Stand with the overt children’s fantasy of The Eyes of the Dragon, the epic quest of The Dark Tower novels, and the moral allegory of Needful Things. Through Randall Flagg, The Stand becomes a cornerstone for what seems to be developing as a cosmic vision on the scale of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones and their accompanying mythos, but here embodying a tighter narrative focus and ultimately a more definitive moral base. Randall Flagg, in all of his guises, represents the Dark—against him are arrayed the various forces of the Light, beginning with Mother Abigail and continuing to include Roland of Gilead, Jack Sawyer, the rather mundane Alan Pangborn, and others. Taken as a whole, the Dark Man stories suggest a universe interlinked through alternate worlds and alternate realities, in which elemental good and evil are locked in perpetual struggle. 
To place The Stand thus in the context of a larger body of inter-related works is not to diminish its impact as a story. Although long, it is one of the three or four best novels to read for an introduction to King’s style, techniques, and sheer storytelling ability. Its cast of characters is enormous, as befits a work about the end of things and about new beginnings. Unusual for a King novel, its settings range from New England to Los Angeles, with multiple stops at key places throughout the Midwest, finally focusing on Boulder, Colorado (where King lived for a short time in the mid-1970’s), and Las Vegas, Nevada.
Its genre is equally all-inclusive. The story begins as a straightforward science-fictional extrapolation: what if there were a superflu that destroyed almost every human alive (along with most of the larger land mammals)? How would the survivors deal with such pragmatic questions as what to do with the bodies; how to re-create an orderly society; how to bear up under almost unimaginable burdens of guilt, loneliness, and despair? Within a few chapters, however, King adroitly shifts genres, as the survivors begin dreaming true dreams and feeling the call of the Dark or the Light. He moves almost seamlessly from SF into high fantasy, with theological, moral, allegorical, and philosophical overtones that highlight even more the common-place personalities and actions of his character as they struggle against nearly insuperable odds. As the dreams and visions intensify, so do biblical allusions—and suddenly the reader discovers that the novel has become an apocalyptic vision dealing with the End of Things and the physical revelation of Evil. Without relying on elevated tone, self-consciously heroic personages, or other traditional elements of epic, The Stand nevertheless takes on epic qualities of breadth and scope, magnitude and significance (again amplified in the restored 1990 edition).
To support such an ambitious undertaking, King builds on the literature of quest-epic, apocalypse, high fantasy, and horror. He amplifies his already expansive vision with specific references to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos of the Great Old Ones; John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost (especially through oxymorons such as “dark life and hideous good cheer”); J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; H. G. Wells’ end-of-the-world nightmare, The Time Machine; George Orwell’s classic tale of the bureaucratic Dark supreme, 1984; Bram Stoker’s archetypal conflict between good and evil, Dracula; Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” as well as his tales of madness and mystery; William Golding’s allegorical apocalypse, The Lord of the Flies, Richard Adams’ equally allegorical beast-fable, Watership Down and others. Along the way, King invites into his novel W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, William Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, “The Who,” Cary Grant, and Charlotte’s Web, as well as a handful of his own novels and stories. The result is a richly embroidered tapestry that is simultaneously an extraordinary story on its own merits and a perceptive anatomy of late twentieth-century, technologically oriented, morally confused American society on the brink of destroying itself.

In many ways, The Stand marks the end of the first phase of King’s development as a novelist. Ambitious, long, complex, multi-leveled, it culminates King’s increasingly wide scope--geographical, psychological, and physical—moving from the narrow confines of Carrie through ‘Salem’s Lot to The Shining. The sequence of novels following The Stand will focus more tightly on individuals, on specific suggestions of horror or the supernatural: The Dark Zone, Firestarter, Cujo, Christine, and Pet Sematary. Only with The Eyes of the Dragon and The Talisman  (both 1984) and the continuing episodes of The Dark Tower, will King  return to such a huge canvas and resume tracing the movements of the Dark Man through worlds and times. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Reggie Oliver, THE SEA OF BLOOD--Blood, Ambiguity, and Much, Much More

The Sea of Blood
Reggie Oliver
Dark Renaissance Books
Trade paperback, 393 pp., $19.95
It is difficult to refer to a collection of weird tales as elegant without immediately calling to mind the admittedly dated, neo-eighteenth-century prose of H.P. Lovecraft. As remarkable as his stories are (and I find them enormously appealing) and as extensive as his influence has been in contemporary horror and dark fantasy, Lovecraft has one clear disadvantage for modern readers: his language—as structured, as self-consciously elevated, as effective as it might be to his fans—simply does not speak to all.
So when I refer to Reggie Oliver’s retrospective edition of short fiction, The Sea of Blood, as elegant, I do so cautiously but meaningfully. It is tasteful—that is, every story is told in precisely the tone best suited to its effects, its themes, its purposes, and its characters. It is stylish—Oliver obviously enjoys the possibilities of prose and exploits (used as a good word) them to their fullest while never indulging in verbal effects for their own sakes. It is sophisticated—urbane, learned, even literary, but never at the expense of clarity or empathy. It is neither condescending nor snobbish—yes, there are stories about the upper-class and its affectations (particularly the serio-comic “The Blue Room”), but there are also gritty tales of starving actors and grubby (if haunted) theaters, of patronizing headmasters and students eager to learn, of ancient mysteries and modern terrors…and throughout runs a stream of elegance that makes each story inviting and enjoyable.
Most are reprints from earlier collections, although coming across them in their new context gives them a invigorating sense of freshness. I was familiar with “Baskerville’s Midgets,” for example, but in The Sea of Blood, surrounded by additional tales of actors and illusions, it took on an unexpected crispness. Others are new to this volume: “Absalom,” “The Rooms are High,” and “Trouble at Botathan,” each contributing its particular strength.
 I referred to the collection initially as weird fiction—a phrase I use rarely but that here seems far more appropriate than horror. Oliver’s stories are odd, uncanny, eerie, and almost without exception end where more traditional horror might begin: with the assertion of a monster, of something inexplicable except as supernatural, of something unquestionably beyond possibilities in the world we assume is real.
Instead, he tantalizes with hints and suggestions, with unusual moments and incongruous events that might lead to true horror…or might not. One step further, beyond the limits of the story, and he would have to acknowledge that, “Yes, it was all in the character’s mind” or “No, such things can exist, even if every sense we possess denies them.” Those final, piercing moments of ambiguity, of necessary ambivalence, cap the stories in ways that definitive conclusions could not, enhancing the sense of “the fantastic” in very much the way Tzvetan Todorov described it several decades ago. If Oliver knows of Todorov’s then-groundbreaking study, he has learned his lesson well.
The Sea of Blood is fairly lengthy at nearly four-hundred pages, with twenty-three exceptional tales. It is not a collection to be skimmed but to be savored slowly, to be enjoyed as Oliver invites readers into unexceptional lives that turn out to be exceptional indeed…one way or the other.


Stephen King, RAGE--A Retro-review and an Update

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

Rage (1977)

King’s fourth published novel represents one of his earliest attempts at full-length narrative. One of five novel manuscripts completed before King wrote Carrie, Rage was begun in 1966 under the title Getting It On, when King was a senior in high school. Left unfinished for several years, it was completed in 1971 and published six years later when, as King says in the introduction to The Bachman Books, it “occurred to [him] that [he] ought to publish Getting It On…which Doubleday almost published two years before they published Carrie” (vi).
Had the novel been published under King’s name in 1977, following the increasing maturity and complexity of Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining, it might well have been seen as a disappointment by his growing numbers of fans—by March of 1977, all three novels had appeared on the bestsellers lists, with The Shining marking King’s hardcover debut.  It seems unlikely that at that time even the coat-tails of King’s name would have been sufficient to propel Rage to bestseller status; a solid work, it is also far more restricted in scope, in characterization, in theme, and in achievement than the first three “King” novels, as is to be expected from what is essentially juvenilia.
As a ‘Richard Bachman’ novel, however, Rage was forced to make its own way, and until King’s public acknowledgment of his pseudonym in February of 1985 and the near hysteria that erupted among segments of King’s reading public, the novel was not subjected to comparison to King’s later, more sophisticated works. That is perhaps as it should be. The Bachman novels are, in general, unlike most of the works published under King’s own name—tauter in structure, less dependent upon external horrors, more closely connected to mainstream fiction…or at least the illusion of ‘reality’ propounded by mainstream fiction.
Rage is an extended study in adolescent angst, beginning with its first-person killer/protagonist, Charlie Dekker, and spreading like an infection throughout the high-school class he holds hostage. The action is direct and brutal: Dekker meets with the principal for disciplinary action after Dekker nearly killed the shop teacher. He is expelled and told to leave school immediately. He stops at his locker, takes out a pistol, returns to class, shoots the teacher, and intimidates the students until it is too late for them to escape. For the next several hours, he invites them to “get it on” with him—to examine their lives and motives, their frustrations and fears. After systematically making fools of school and police officials, Charlie lets the class go and fakes the police into shooting him.
Oh, and along the way, he just as systematically destroys the mind of the one student who represents the adults’ idealized view of normal childhood and does so with the active aid of everyone else in the class.
The novel is not based on action, as King himself recognizes, but on psychology and penetration, primarily into the illusions held by adults about their roles in parenting and educating children, and the illusions held by children about their roles as subordinates to their parents. By placing his story of childhood memories revisited, examined, and finally exorcised (by some of the students, at least) among a classroom full of high-school seniors about to be thrust into adult responsibility whether they like it or not, King provides an ideal fulcrum for assessing the deficiencies of parenting and socialization. Charlie Dekker is not the only member of the class tottering on the edge of sanity, and he is not the only one to tip the balance during the course of the novel.
There are weaknesses in the novel. It is preachy. It presupposes certain 1960s Freudian truisms that are less rigidly accepted today. It reduces adults to hollow, posturing fools incapable of dealing with Charlie’s manic cleverness. It breaks its own narrative mode at the conclusion with the intrusion of court documents, memos, and letters of the same sort that strengthened Carrie; here they seem almost anticlimactic. The first-person narrative places a greater burden on Charlie Dekker than he is able to bear, since at times he seems more abstract image of rebellious teen than concrete person. 
On the other hand, there are also strengths, many paradoxically growing out of the weaknesses. Charlie’s obsession with his own interior processes gives him the momentary authority to set the entire class-sized encounter session in progress and to draw the darkest secrets from each of his classmates. And more than the horror of Charlie’s murders, more than the terror of being in a locked classroom with a killer, more than watching the adult world stand by, bumbling and helpless, those secrets define the purging effects of “getting it on” for characters willing to reach inside, reveal the darkness, and accept it.
Compared with It, The Stand, or The Shining, Rage is certainly a weaker novel and a lesser achievement. On its own terms, however, with its narrowly defined characters, perhaps the most limited time span of any King novel or story, strictly focused themes and development, and idiosyncratic narrative voice, it nevertheless manages to hold its own as a document of a past time and as a novel examining on-going human crises and resolutions. 

* * * * *

UPDATE 2015:
Rage, along with the collection that included it, The Bachman Books, is no longer in print. Following a shooting in a Kentucky high school in 1997, when it was found that the shooter had a copy of the novel in his locker, King requested publishers to allow the book and the collection to go out of print. While The Bachman Books remained available in England for a while, even then Rage was removed.
I can understand King’s motivation for removing it, particularly given the growing frequency of gun-violence in schools from the late 1990s onward. On the other hand, to blame a single story—even tacitly—for complicity in such complex and little-understood tragedies seems severe, particularly in light of King’s ultimate denunciation of Charlie’s  actions in the context of the novel. The initial shooting seems more unconscious than conscious, and ultimately the psychological devastation of characters—adults and students—forms the focal point of Rage.
Given the social and political atmosphere in 2015, Rage perhaps could not be reprinted, even were King to approve; events have moved far beyond what might have been imaginable in 1966 or 1977, and public reactions to them have become increasingly condemnatory toward any perceived cause or influence. A novel that might be seen as a blueprint would be excoriated. And—again, perhaps—rightly so.

Yet…Rage is so intimate, so cutting, so brilliant (in the gemological sense of the word) in its exposure of flaws and fallacies held by adults and uncritically foisted upon students, then as now, that its loss feels somehow greater than it was in the 1990s. It might seem a blueprint, yes, but it simultaneously warns, condemns, even presages what might occur if nothing changes. It is, to use a favorite word from one of my graduate professors, deeply, essentially, viscerally  dehortatory. And in that sense, it achieved its purpose.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Stephen King, THE SHINING--A Retro-review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

The Shining (1977)

The Shining is the second of King’s “Big Three”—three novels completed during his first decade as a published novelist that to this day still largely define his role in American letters and provided an internal standard against which almost all of his subsequent books have been judged: ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and The Stand. Each shows King stretching his talents and abilities; each shows him exploring different variations on fear, terror, and horror; and each shows his awareness of the importance of “place.” ‘Salem’s Lot has the Marston House; The Stand has the more expansive polarity of Boulder, Colorado, and Las Vegas, Nevada (with lesser foci along the way); but The Shining has arguably the most immediately recognized “Bad Place” in all of King’s fiction, an image so intense that it nearly overwhelms everything else in the novel—the Overlook Hotel.
Based loosely on the physical layout of the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park (which recently [1989]  hosted a King-oriented “Horrorfest,” and during which one participant changed almost all of the room numbers to 217), the Overlook Hotel is a core of evil power trapping anyone it can but especially those visitors who “shine,” who have an uncanny ability to see beyond the visible and to speak their thoughts to others who “shine.” Danny Torrance not only “shines,” but shines more brightly than any visitor the hotel has known throughout its long, acquisitive, and merciless history. And the Overlook understands that the way to harvest Danny’s talent is simple—through his father, Jack. Jack’s struggle for sanity and Danny’s for survival form the heart of The Shining, one of King’s most definitive masterpieces.
A prevailing theme throughout most of King’s work between Carrie in 1974 and It in 1986 is the breakdown of the family. Children often have no functional parents at all (for example, Mark Petrie in ‘Salem’s Lot or Ray Garraty in The Long Walk), and when parents are present they are just as likely to be destructive as constructive—witness Margaret White in Carrie or Regina Cunningham in Christine. In The Shining, King amplifies on this theme until it becomes almost obsessive. Jack, Wendy, and Danny Torrance are not merely a family facing the triple threat of alcoholism, divorce, and possibly madness, but they are also a family isolated from almost any other human contact by miles of mountain and forest and snow —and they are living inside a haunted hotel that wants nothing more than to destroy all three of them.  King’s careful treatment of Jack’s disintegration, of Wendy’s gradual awareness of their plight, and of Danny’s incremental terror as the hotel reveals itself more and more directly generates an energy and movement unmatched in any of his other novels. From the first scene through the last, the story moves inexorably to its devastating conclusion, and nothing Jack, Wendy, or Danny can do will stop the Overlook from altering their lives forever.
The Shining also represents one of King’s few narrative excursions beyond New England. To this extent, his story of greed, moral corruption, and haunting fear represents a transfer of the darker elements of King’s New England—and Hawthorne’s, and Poe’s, and Lovecraft’s—into the newly opened west. King amplifies this sense of transplanted literary heritage with multiple allusions to mainstream writers (Frank Norris, Shirley Jackson, and others), horror writers (it is almost impossible to read the novel without recalling again and again Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death,” or noting off-hand allusions to Ray Bradbury), modern dramatists (the novel is structured like a five-act play, with its own prologue in the separately published original introduction, “Before the Play”), and others. In fact, The Shining is one of King’s most teachable novels simply because in it he consciously incorporates so much of his own reading background, while at the same time using those references to create unique sequences of symbolic images. The Shining functions throughout on several levels—literal, symbolic, metaphorical—often with characters themselves pointing out the connections the readers should be making, as in Jack Torrance’s elaborate meditations on the meaning of wasps. The novel provides a casebook example of literary nurturing, owing much of its power to King’s articulate manipulation of others’ words and images in the process of creating his own. This is not to suggest that The Shining is limited by its literary connections; on the contrary, here King demonstrates an unusual skill in controlling outside references, in matching his style to meet the needs both of his story and of his literary texture.
In addition, because The Shining has a relatively limited cast of characters (for a King novel, at least) and such an intensely focused setting, it allows King to examine new depths of characterization and of image. Hallorann, for example, emerges early, rapidly, and smoothly from the backdrop, giving Danny his first true understanding of “the shine” and setting up key actions realized in the final pages; and not coincidentally, he will play a role in another novel almost a decade later, King’s It.  But what is most memorable about The Shining, perhaps, are its images: The mysterious word “Redrum.” Danny’s dream-vision friend, Tony. The hedge animals coming to life (replaced in Kubrick’s film version with a maze that became almost as powerful an image as the novel’s original one). The blood-filled clockwork in the main ballroom. The concrete rings in the snow-filled playground. Jack Torrance in the empty bar. The Presidential suite, its walls stained with brain matter, its window exploding with the force of the Overlook’s destruction. The manta-like shadow that may or may not have escaped from the final flames to being its infestation elsewhere.
Memorable because evil (at least in the earlier King novels) never truly dies.
One final note—Stanley Kubrick’s re-imagining of the novel, while shifting emphasis from the hotel’s inherent evil to Jack’s incipient madness, nevertheless helped in establishing King’s name-recognition. Released in 1980, shortly after Brian de Palma’s convincing Carrie (1976) and Richard Kobritz and Tobe Hooper’s notably less successful television mini-series ‘Salem’s Lot (1979), The Shining demonstrated that even King’s longer, more complex novels could be brought to the screen. It also began a flood of film versions of King properties that range from the ridiculous (Children of the Corn, with its unforgettable line, “Outlander, we have your woman!”) to the sublime (Rob Reiner’s superlative Stand By Me) and continues well into the mid-1990s.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stephen King, 'SALEM'S LOT--A Retro-review

Around 1995, George Beahm asked me to write short commentaries on each of Stephen King’s books to date. The result was a series of introductions, in chronological order of publication, which formed a portion of Beahm’s subsequent The Stephen King Companion. That excellent compilation of things-King is being revised and reissued; and, with George’s kind permission, I will reprint my original essays (lightly edited for correctness and style) at Collings Notes.
The essays are roughly twenty years old and are in some senses dated, but the underlying suggestions and approaches to King’s works remain viable. I hope you enjoy the essays.

Salem’s Lot (1975)

‘Salem’s Lot stands today as one of the finest treatments of the traditional vampire since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and one of the last serious treatments of the mythos surrounding the vampire that had developed over the course of the preceding century. In a period when vampire lore was already moving from source of horror to fodder for parody, and when most conventional vampire stories looked to the past not only for inspiration but also for settings and characters, ‘Salem’s Lot infuses vitality into a tired tradition while simultaneously attempting to re-create in a contemporary American idiom the atmosphere of evil that characterizes Stoker’s Dracula. Just as Stoker’s tale of the walking undead was set in then-contemporary late-Victorian England, so King’s tale unfolds in a small New England American community, at once typical and unique. 
Yet even here there are the analogues to Stoker’s massive and intimidating castle of Count Dracula and his shadowy Carfax Abbey—looming above a typical American town stands the Marsten House, King’s symbol throughout the story for the degenerating, enervating, and ultimately terrifying effects of evil unleashed (foreshadowing other of King’s archetypal ‘Bad Places,’ including The Overlook Hotel in The Shining, The Mansion on Dutch Hill in The Wastelands).
Similarly, just as Stoker’s tale depends for its effect upon fragmentation of the small group of people dedicated to fighting the incursive evil of Dracula (the story is in fact told in letters and journal entries, and far too often one or more characters miss crucial information that leads to further complications and ultimately death), so King’s story depends ultimately for its effect on fragmentation and isolation. Neighbors do not speak to neighbors, except on the surface level of gossip. Parents prove remarkably incapable of protecting their children, while in several other cases child-victims actively prey on their parents (both recurring symbolic motifs throughout King’s fictions). The dividing line between adult’s world and child’s world is clear and decisive, and only those few characters capable of believing like children and accepting adult responsibility for their actions survive. To this extent, ‘Salem’s Lot, then, is an ambitious project—an updating of, transformation of, and application to King’s own world of the themes, images, and motifs codified by Bram Stoker three-quarters of a century before.
To understand King’s mastery of materials, his ability to make the incursion of the supernatural into a rational world seem not only possible but plausible, is to penetrate to the center of ‘Salem’s Lot.  Following Stoker’s artistic lead, King does not suddenly thrust the fact of vampire upon his readers. Even though the opening chapters suggest something seriously wrong back home in Jerusalem’s Lot, and Ben Mears’ initial experiences in the Lot confirm that there is mystery aplenty to be found there, King carefully allows the readers at first to assume a ‘rational’ horror—after all, Hubie Marsten's sexual and psychological aberrations are frightening enough to compete with the most sensational of today’s newspaper headlines; and the petty grievances and grudges of character after character gives the Lot a distinctly unhealthy air.
But at the crucial moment, when Barlow manifests himself for the first time and takes a victim, the reader’s sense of appropriateness is total. Peter Straub—a perceptive reader and equally perceptive writer of horror fiction in his own right—comments in “Meeting Stevie” on his own sense of startlement: “My God! I thought: a vampire! Nearly everything about this moment took my breath away…” (Fear Itself, p. 8).
Straub’s shock is indeed justified. King’s re-vitalization of a tired set of conventions and clichés simultaneously culminated the progression of vampire lore following Stoker’s masterpiece and made it virtually impossible for subsequent writers to merely re-create the vampire.  In the two decades since ‘Salem’s Lot appeared, vampire tales have generally been forced to take one of three directions.
First, if writers choose simply to follow Stoker’s lead and imitate his traditions, they must write in the shadow of ‘Salem’s Lot, tacitly acknowledging King’s artistry. The results are the eminently forgettable volumes with glossy black-and-red covers that haunt the paperback shelves for a month or so before disappearing forever…to say nothing of the two largely unsuccessful attempts at transforming the magic of ‘Salem’s Lot to film.
Second, they may choose to parody the entire tradition (generally a strong indication that a literary tradition has reached its apex and can move no further in the directions it has followed—much as Milton’s summation of epic tradition in Paradise Lost is followed by the mock-epic and mock-heroic poems of Dryden, Pope, Byron, and others, but not by a single serious successful attempt at verse epic in the original sense). Stan Dragoti’s 1979 film Love at First Bite shows how successfully the most horrifying vampiric images and themes can be transformed into parody and humor.
And third, they may attempt to restructure the entire tradition, to jettison what in the hands of lesser artists remain tired clichés and exhausted conventions and make of the vampire something unique to their own time and place.  One measure of King’s achievement in ‘Salem’s Lot, in fact, is to note the extent to which the major horror writers of the past two decades have avoided working within the traditional framework of vampire lore.  In almost every instance, King’s mastery of the motifs that constitute vampire fictions seems implicitly to underpin the radical re-imagining of the tradition. Consider such examples as:

*    F. Paul Wilson’s startlingly inventive and striking masterpiece, The Keep (1981), in which traditional vampire materials are used to misdirect both characters and readers, disguising the fact that seems to be a vampire story is in reality a tale of cosmic powers on the scale of Lovecraftian Great Old Ones;

*    Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger (1981), which creates essentially science-fictional rather than horror vampires, with the vampire/lamia historically, psychologically, and genetically a separate species from human, co-existing with humans throughout history, and capable of transforming humans through blood transfusions;

*    S.P. Somtow’s Vampire Junction (1984), with its public, Rock-star vampire, making explicit the connections between the symbolic vampire of literature and quasi-vampiric nature of the rock phenomenon at its most extreme, to create what Edward Bryant recognized as “The first ambitious attempt at post-King dark fantasy”;

*    Robert McCammon’s They Thirst (1988), in which vampires literally take over Hollywood. McCammon’s vision of a Los Angeles darkened by vampires until rescued—paradoxically—by the “Big One,” the granddaddy of all earthquakes that Californians are taught to expect and to fear, is in some sense the diametric opposite of King’s small-town, claustrophobic infestation; McCammon in fact says as much when he writes that he “wanted a vampire novel with a huge case, set in a city where anything was possible.” But at base their visions reflect their perceptions of modern society transformed into symbolic forms;

*    Dan Simmon’s ambitious Carrion Comfort (1989), which elevates the traditional bloodsuckers of lore to etiolated psychic vampires, linked to the horrors of  Nazism and living off excesses of violence in contemporary American society;

*    Brian Lumley’s necroscope series, which features extraterrestrial SF/Fantasy eroticized vampires engaged in power-plays that span worlds; and

*    Anne Rice’s multivolume Vampire Lestat series, with its lushly luxuriant, undisciplined eroticism, its covert sexuality disguised as traditional vampire imagery, and its seemingly never-ending supply of new vampires to be resurrected, new stories-within-stories-within-stories to be told.  With Rice, the vampire has moved as far from King’s careful, controlled treatment of a recognized subgenre as possible; in the Lestat novels, the symbolic value of the vampire becomes almost lost as she concentrates exclusively on the vampire’s worldview, with humanity diminished to little more than fodder.

That such novels as these were even published is due in no small part to King’s demonstration that the vampire may be unDead but is not necessarily dead—at least not to the reading public entranced by King’s blend of old and new, his transformation of everything familiar into something new and strange and awesome.
Following the quiet success of Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot (which remains one of King’s favorite among his works), demonstrates his ability to write complex, multileveled narratives; to create extraordinary but ultimately believable, memorable characters; to make full use of his increasingly symbolic landscape, eventually building from the rough blueprints for the Lot his own private landscape for horror in Castle Rock and its haunted environs; and to write fictions that, while making full use of horror motifs, nonetheless touch readers on levels transcending mere horror.

In this, his second published novel, King confirms his status as a master of contemporary dark fantasy.