Tag: stephen king

Perfect Stories

One of the things I love about baseball is that it is possible to have a “perfect game.” A perfect game is one in which a pitcher faces 27 batters, and not one of them gets on base. There are no hits, no walks, no one hit by a pitch, no one ever making it on base. Period. The perfect game, as you might imagine, is incredibly rare. From 1903 to the present, the era of “World Series” baseball, spanning 118 years, there have been 21 perfect games. In that same period of time, there have been approximately 220,000 regular season baseball games. That’s one perfect game for every 10,500 games played, which is itself about 4-5 seasons of baseball.

Like an elusive perfect game, I think stories can be perfect, too. The guidelines for a perfect story are not as well-defined as those of a perfect game, but I suspect they are just as rare, and just as impressive. In all of my reading, I’ve encountered only a handful of what I consider perfect stories.

My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man
My paperback copy of The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

My list of perfect stories, and the writers who wrote them, are:

  1. “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury. You can find this one in The Illustrated Man.
  2. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” by Harlan Ellison. You can find this one in Slippage.
  3. “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov. This one appears in The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories
  4. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King. This one appears in my favorite Stephen King collection of novellas, Different Seasons.
  5. “The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu. It turns out this one is currently available online, on Gizmodo
  6. “Understanding Entropy” by Barry N. Malzberg. This one can found in In the Stone House.
  7. “A Death” by Stephen King, making him the only author with 2 perfect stories on my list. I wrote about “A Death” when it first came out. This story can be found in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

I’ve never tracked the stories I’ve read in the way I keep track of the books I’ve read, but I would guess that by now, I’ve read thousands of short stories. These are the 7 out of all those thousands that, to me, are the fictional equivalent of the perfect game. Over the years, I’ve tried to think about what makes a story “perfect” in my mind. I think it involved a couple of factors:

  • After reading it the first time, when it seems that any possible change would diminish the story, it is a sign that it is perfect.
  • A perfect story keeps me thinking about it for a long time after I’ve read it.
  • A perfect story gets better with each re-read.
  • A perfect story involves a deep appreciation of the craft involved in its creation, in much the way one can marvel at the skill of a pitcher who tosses a perfect game.

There are some stories that have come close to perfection–these are the no-hitters of the short fiction world. This list is obviously longer, but here are three that immediately come to mind as close to perfect:

As I was writing this, it occurred to me that there is probably such as thing as a perfect essay as well. But I’ll save my list of perfect essays for another time.

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Thoughts on Billy Summers by Stephen King

Note: I never know what is a spoiler and what isn’t. I think it varies by person. With that said, it is possible there are spoilers in what I have written below, but I don’t think I give anything significant away. Still, that is my own judgement so if you haven’t yet read the novel, be warned, here may be spoilers.

Before I ever read a Stephen King novel, I was convinced he was overrated. This was back in my teens and twenties, when I thought I knew everything, and most of my reading was limited to science fiction novels. The first King novel I read was Salem’s Lot and I wasn’t sure how I liked it that first time. Looking back, I see it wasn’t because of any flaw in King as a writer, but in me as a reader. It has since become one of my favorite King novels.

Since then, Stephen King has become one of my favorite fiction writers, precisely because he does the unexpected with his stories while the momentum of publicity still carries him as a horror writer. I look forward to each new release, and I was fortunate enough to be on vacation when King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, came out.

On its surface, this latest novel is a thriller of the Jack Reacher genre: a loner assassin-for-hire takes one last job before calling it quits. But that’s the thing about King. There are layers and layers to his stories, or as Jake Chambers might describe them, “there are other worlds than these.” The “surface” story is for those readers who want to put in the work to see what is underneath. For me, as a reader, putting in the work is what reading is all about. If I don’t want to have to do any work, I’ll watch a TV show.

What, then, are these other worlds?

Billy Summer’s story is told in third person, and at the beginning, Billy seems very simple, almost slow. He is clearly regarded as a world class shot, and he has a reputation that precedes him. He comes across as a slightly more intelligent Charlie Gordon at the opening of Flowers for Algernon. But this is a ruse. Billy is much smarter than he appears (there are layers and layers to Billy, other worlds beyond these). Billy chooses to show only his “dumb self” to his clients. Billy is well aware of this.

Billy’s cover story for his current job is as a writer who has to buckle down because he’s been partying too much. His “agent” finds him a quiet place to live somewhere bordering the South in the U.S., a small town called Midwood. There, Billy waits for his prey, and in the meantime, pretends to live the life of a writer, one in which is writes his own story as cover. He even recognizes his relationship to Charlie Gordon:

Can he really write a fictionalized dump self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is another example.

I’ve read that King dislikes the term “meta-fiction” but that is what much of his fiction is, and at least part of what makes it great. He did it as early as Carrie, where the story itself is made up, in part of newspaper articles, diary entries, etc. It became almost a signature of some of his best work, Misery being one example. How many of King’s great characters are writers? How often do references to King’s own work show up in other King books? He took this to an extreme in the Dark Tower series, where Salem’s Lot, the novel, plays a pivotal role, and where Stephen King himself shows up as a character.

In Billy Summers, it is the novel that Billy writes that becomes the work-within-the-work. That novel serves to provide us with Billy’s background, and how he became an assassin. King is aware that the “one last job” story is almost cliche, and he tackles it head on when Billy considers the job:

Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes badly. Billy isn’t a robber and doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, bu this last job thing nags at him just the same.

And what does King do? The unexpected. The job itself goes off without a hitch. Pretty early in the overall story, too. Indeed, I was surprised when Billy carried out the job successfully as early as he did, and wondered what would possibly carry the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Then, after the job is done and things are beginning to settle down, Billy meets Alice Maxwell, and the novel really takes off.

King fans will not be disappointed by some of the references in the novel. The small town in which Billy first stays, Midwood, seems remarkably close to Mid-world. Perhaps it is one of those “thin” places that King often writes about. Later, a pivotal scene takes place on a dirt road in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, a town that fans of The Stand and a few other King stories will recognize. Sidewinder also makes an appearance in the novel.

Billy Summers embodies what I like about most Stephen King stories: it is a fun read, and if all you’re looking for is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, it delivers. But it also delivers so much more, if you are willing to work for it.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, Scribner, August 3, 2021

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9 Things to Like About LATER by Stephen King

Stephen King’s new book, Later came out on Tuesday, and by the time I closed my eyes Tuesday evening I had finished it. It was a great book and I figured I’d list some spoiler-free things I liked about the book in case any one else was thinking of giving it a try.

My Hard Case Crime trade paper editions of Later and Joyland by Stephen King
My Hard Case Crime trade paper editions of Later and Joyland by Stephen King
  1. It was as short novel. Well, short for Stephen King. It weighed in at 248 pages. That’s on par with the other Hard Case Crime novels King has published, like Joyland and The Colorado Kid. I think it is actually shorter than The Langoliers or The Mist.
  2. The main character’s name is Jamie. How could I not like a book with a main character that is my namesake. In fact, this isn’t the first SK book I’ve read with a lead named Jamie. His novel Revival also features a lead named Jamie.
  3. The premise of the book is a kid who can see dead people–and King acknowledges the Bruce Willis character in The Sixth Sense early on. King explores avenues (dark corridors?) that went unexplored by the film.
  4. The story is told as a story being written by the main character, similar to 11/22/63.
  5. Readers who enjoyed It might like this one.
  6. I liked Jamie’s voice in the novel. When I can manage to write a story, it is the voice that it always the most important thing for me to find to get started.
  7. A house in the book is called the Marsden house. People who’ve read ‘Salem’s Lot might enjoy that coincidence. Or is it a coincidence?
  8. The book really was a page-turner for me, one that I couldn’t put down. Joyland is an understated mystery and that’s one of the things I liked about it. This one is a blood-pumping horror story.
  9. In many ways, the story, and Jamie, reminded me of Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside and its protagonist, David Selig.

When I started this list, I thought about making it 19 things to like about Later, but l decided to keep my whimsy in check. This really was a great read, and while it was short, and over quickly, I’m glad at least that Stephen King has another novel coming out later this year, Billy Summers. I only have 150 more days to wait for it.

Winter Moon

It has been cold here the last several days, and we are expecting snow Sunday and Monday. I’ve spent much of the day really getting to know Obsidian, and I’ll have more to say about it next week.

In the meantime, here is a picture of the winter moon early yesterday morning when I went out for a newspaper. (You can see it there in between all of the power lines.) I’m sure there is an optical sciences explanation as to why the moon never appears as large in photos as it does where you are standing out there looking at it. Although I prefer to think the moon is shy.

And speaking of MOON (B-O-O-K spells MOON!), I read yesterday that Stephen King is coming out with a second new book this year. The first one, Later, is being published by Hard Case Crime books (the same publishers who put out The Colorado Kid and Joyland. It’s due to be released on March 2.

The newest one to be announced is a book called Billy Summers by Scribner. This one is due out August 3.

I’m looking forward to both.

Latest Addition to My Stephen King Doubleday Years Collection

My 4-volumes of Cemetery Dance's "Stephen King: The Doubleday Day Years" collection.

For several years, Cemetery Dance has been putting out a special edition of Stephen King’s book during his “Doubleday” years. This week, I received my copy of the 4th entry in that series, Night Shift. These are beautifully done editions, with limited runs (I think there are only 3,000 copies of each) and often with new art commissioned, and even new material like deleted scenes added an appendix to the book. Night Shift is no different, with some additional stories appearing at the end.

Each volume in the series is a book-lover’s book. It is a work of art. It is a delight to hold in your hand. Even the pages are thick and textured. The books come in custom slipcases, and every now and then, I’ll sit with one on my lap, flipping through just because it is a beautiful thing to see and feel.

Four books in the series have been produced thus far:

  • Carrie
  • The Shining
  • ‘Salem’s Lot
  • Night Shift

The most recent entry is King’s first collection of short stories.

Two more volumes are planning, and indeed, I have already pre-ordered both, as they sell out very quickly. (I checked my records: I pre-ordered Night Shift back in 2016!) The remaining volumes are:

  • The Stand
  • Pet Sematary

Cemetery Dance takes its time in producing these volumes, but the time is well-worth the wait. They are not producing mass-market editions, but beautiful, carefully crafted pieces of art. After eagerly opening the package with Night Shift, I immediately began wondering what the next volume would look like… and when it would arrive.

Thoughts on the Dark Tower Series by Stephen King

Yesterday, I finished reading The Wind Through the Keyhole, and in doing so, completed all of the books of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. With the series complete, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the books. I’ll give some general thoughts above the cut. Below the cut there will be spoilers so be aware of that. If you are reading this post via RSS, you might not see the cut, so I’ll include another warning below.

I started reading the books back on June 6, 2013. I read them in the order they were published, with The Wind in the Keyhole coming last, although falling between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla in the timeline. I had a hard time getting started. I had started The Gunslinger two or three times over the last few years, but finally managed to get through it in June. Although the book establishes the premise of the series, I thought it was the weakest of all the books. That said, the value of each book increases with each subsequent book because, as more of the story is revealed, new meaning is added to the earlier books.

Okay, here comes the cut and the spoilers. You have been warned.

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Finished Reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series*

Last night, shortly before midnight, I finished reading book 7 of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Dark Tower. My mind was kind of blown away by the ending. I can see why Stephen King considered this his magnum opus, and while I enjoyed it, I don’t think it was his best work. I still think It is my favorite King novel, and there are probably half a dozen others he’s written that I like better than the Dark Tower books. But I did enjoy the books, and I was even surprised how much I grew to like the characters. My favorite book by far in the series was Wizard and Glass.

I’ll have a lot more to say about the series after I have allowed a little time to pass for the full implications of the last book to sink in. In the meantime, I just wanted to mention that I had done it! I have finally read the Dark Tower series.

*This does not include The Wind Through the Keyhole, which I have not yet read, but which, I understand is also somewhat independent of the main series.

Some Thoughts on Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland Cover

I read Stephen King’s new novel Joyland earlier this week and I really enjoyed it. I don’t want to rehash the plot here or give anything away but I do have a few comments that others considering reading the book might find helpful.

The book is a murder mystery and the story is a good one. Of course it is a good one. This is Stephen King we’re talking about.

What surprised me most about the story is the tone. King captures the same muted, underwritten tone and style that I loved so much in Hearts in Atlantis and From a Buick 8. It is a quietly-written story that still manages to chill, thrill and keep you on the edge of your seat. At least, it did these things for me. I enjoyed every minute of the read.

My Favorite Book: It by Stephen King

If someone asked me today what my absolute favorite book, regardless of category, author or any other discriminator, I would say without hesitation that my favorite book is It by Stephen King. On my morning walk, I finished reading it for the third time. I remember really liking it the first time I read it, loving it even more the second time. I didn’t think it was possible to read a book for a third time and enjoy it even more, but that is the case.

This time around, I listened to the audio book. The book was read (performed?) by Steven Weber and he was absolutely fantastic. His performance certainly went some way toward pushing It to the very top of my favorites list, but more than anything else, it was the overall feel of the book. I have grown to love the Losers in a way that I have grown to love very few characters in books that I have read. Reading the book, I’d find myself thinking, I wish I could hang out with these guys, both when they were kids and when they’d all grown up.

It seems to me that part of the success of the book–and part of what makes it work so well for me–is that it is a close examination of the magic of childhood, without the look back through rose-colored glasses. The story is not tinged by nostalgia, the way a Ray Bradbury story might be. And yet there is a kind of nostalgia in it that is transferred to the reader, no matter what era you grew up in. Another reason I love it is that it is a hero book in horror book clothing. The Losers, each of them, are superheroes in their own right. They overcome things that would stop a grownup in their tracks. It is not the wish fulfillment superhero of the comic books. The Losers don’t fly and bullets don’t bounce off their chest. But they are superheroes.

The completely epic rock fight scene perhaps captures this best of all. In reading that scene the third time around, I decided that, for me anyway, it is the single best fight scene I’ve come across in any book I’ve ever read. And I’ve read quite a few. There is something so utterly believable about that scene. I’ve been there as a kid, tossing rocks and clumps of dirt (we called them “dirt bombs”) back and forth with friends and enemies alike.

I found myself reacting to the story in a much more personal and interactive way than in any previous reading. This was certainly aided by Steven Weber’s performance. At the point in which Bev Marsh and Ben Hanscomb are hiding in the clubhouse and trying desperately to stay quiet, I found myself raising a finger to my lips and whispering “Shhh” as I took my afternoon walk. Later, as Bill fought with It and shouted out his mantra, “He thrusts his fists against the post and still insists he sees the ghost!” tears welled up in my eyes in the same sort of fierce pride and rush I get when I see a clip of Superman rescuing someone from danger.

I also like that It winds itself deeply into King’s other work. The more I read of his other stuff, the more connections I see to It.

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I’m Looking Forward to This (Doctor Sleep Cover Revealed)

Doctor Sleep

Stephen King’s official website revealed the cover to the forthcoming Doctor Sleep, King’s sequel to The Shining which comes out this fall, some 35+years since the original novel came out. I’m really looking forward to this one. Fortunately, he has another book, Joyland, coming out in June to ease the gap between now and September. Funny how I’m looking forward to the fall, despite the fact that spring is just around the corner.


Scary Stories And Gerald’s Game

I‘ve written in the past how most stories and books typically classified as “scary” don’t really scare me. I can count on one hand the number of stories I’ve read that have sent shivers down my spine. There’s Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (and that elevator scene in particular). There’s Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” which was just chilling. Parts of Connie Willis’ Passage were also rather scary on my overall “scary” meter.

For the last week or so, I’ve been listening to the audio book of Gerald’s Game by Stephen King. Why I chose this particular book is quite simple. I’ve been slowly going through and trying to read all of Stephen King’s works. This comes and goes in waves. But I recently listened to the audio book version of Misery. I really liked the book (not scary, but I still liked it) and I especially loved Lindsay Crouse’s reading. So when it came to select my next book, I found the only other Stephen King book that was narrated by Lindsay Crouse–and that was Gerald’s Game.

I must admit that until my 10am walk today, the story moved slowly and I really began to wonder if an entire book could be written about a woman handcuffed to a bed who had accidentally killed her husband during a romantic interlude. Sure, the inner voices were interesting, but the only thing that kept me going is–I like Stephen King’s style of writing. He can make the smallest details interesting. So I persisted, listening to half an hour here and there, while working out or while going on my daily 10am walk.

I’m not going to spoil anything here, but halfway through my walk this morning, the book took a turn, and what happened has to count among the most frightening things I’ve ever read. Period. The fact that I was walking along a busy street, in broad daylight, and still got chills says just how scary I found it. I can only imagine how I might have reacted if I was reading this home in bed, with the lights out, and the sky dark, and the house quiet. I must admit that I suspect the audio added to the drama. When you read, you can some times sneak your eyes a few lines ahead and get a hint of what’s coming. No so with an audio book. And what came was so unexpected and so frightening, that I ultimately ended up laughing. Laughing because–good on you, Stephen King,you write something that really frightened me and the experience was marvelous!

For those who’ve read Gerald’s Game and are wondering what I’m talking about: I’m talking about what happens when Jesse awakens from her dark dreams in the midst of her first night sleeping in the cabin, handcuffed to the bed. That should be enough to tell you what I’m talking about.

Revisiting Derry: Rereading IT by Stephen King

I first read Stephen King's It back in October 2009. It took me by surprise back then because I thought it was a horror story about a clown who goes around and kills people. And while there is a clown that goes around and kill people, I learned that the story was about the clown or the killing so much as it was about the kids who grew up in the shadow of the killings and the adults they eventually grew into. I really liked the book on that first read. I thought it one of the better Stephen King books I'd read and on Amazon and Goodreads, I think I gave it a 4-star rating.

Last month, I re-read It. I picked up the 25th Anniversary edition but out by Cemetary Dance Press (shown above) and slowly made by way back through the book. It was a fascinating experience. I kept better notes this time, and while I had a vague sense of what was coming, I discovered I didn't remember nearly as much of the story as I supposed I had. When I finished reading the book; when I finally set it aside, I came to surprising realization: It was a better book than I originally thought. It deserved 5-stars–a rating I reserve for only the finest books–and it cemented itself in my mind as the best Stephen King story I've read.

What changed? I think I read the book more closely the second time. From the beginning, the book is filled with references that, while subtle, have significant relevance later. In the very beginning, for instance, when George is heading down into the basement, he notices the bottle of Turtle Wax:

For some reason, this can struck him and he spent nearly thirty seconds look at the turtle on the lid with a kind of hypnotic wonder.

Those who have read the book will understand this early reference.

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