Roadwork Revisited by J.D. Barker

Okay Mr. King, Id like you to count backward for me, down from one hundred. Relax. Focus on the sound of my voice. Nothing can hurt you here. This is a safe place. Tell me about the Richard Bachman fellow. Is he here right now? In the room with us?

I purposely havent read the essays by the other authors in this book. I wanted to approach this with a clean slate, no preconceived notions, no roadmap. Most likely, that means Im doing it all wrong. If I am, I apologize for that. Ive never been good at following directions. After (God, has it really been) forty-plus years of reading King and Bachman, I get the distinct feeling that King tends to follow most directions in life while Bachman is more likely to scoff when someone tells him what to do, take their suggestions under advisement, then do whatever the hell he wanted to do before that someone rudely interrupted him.

We all have that inner voice, the devil camped out on our shoulder whispering in our ear. The difference here is King made a conscious decision to grant his life, set him free. He handed him a Black Beauty pencil and pad, pointed at an armchair across the room, and said, You do your thing, and Ill be over here doing mine. Curious to see what you come up with.

The weekend psychologist in me has often wondered how exactly that worked, but it did. And the odd thing is, there are distinct differences between the two. Voice, cadence, sentence structurethe stories themselves. Bachman will say things King wouldnt dare. Those differences grew over the years. In many ways, this is a testament to Kings ability to tell a story, to create a character. Bachman started as an idea on the page and eventually became someone else living in the house. I can see the two of them fighting over the remote, because they wouldnt want to watch the same thing. Tabitha is probably the real hero of the story. She somehow managed to keep them both in line.

As an author, I get it. The moment you write a book, everyone wants to tag you with a label and stuff you into the appropriate genre box. Heaven forbid you write fast and gum up the publishers production line with too many titles. Using a pseudonym granted King the ability to skirt both those problems. Hes also used John Swithen and Beryl Evans. Although the two of them were more like passing acquaintances, while Bachman was akin to that old friend who popped up every few years, crashed on the couch for a bit, then vanished again after leaving a note on the coffee table with a few bucks to cover groceries.

Just as the members of a successful band sometimes do side projects, Bachman, I imagine, was also a much-needed outlet. Kings books were successful right out of the gate. Bachmans got relegated to the back of the rack, and that kind of anonymity offers a lot of freedom.

Ive had Roadwork up on the shelf for some time. Ive got a first edition paperback with Bachman on the cover, no mention of King. I do remember knowing King wrote it when I bought it, so I imagine I picked it up sometime around 1985, most likely at the long defunct used bookstore in Englewood, Florida. I would have been fourteen at the time, having just moved to the sunshine state from Illinois. I finished reading it on 2/10/1986, again on 10/19/2009, and most recently on 3/20/2020. I know this, because anytime I read a book, I sign and date it in the back—a habit I started back when I was ten after finding a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at a garage sale with signatures and dates on the last page going back almost a hundred years. When I first saw that, it made me realize how books live a quiet life of their own—read, borrowed, sold, given—most will outlive us. The book youre reading right now is only visiting. Where will it go when youre done? Up on a shelf? Off into the world? Or will it vanish with the flick of a power switch? I guess thats up to you, but if its a physical copy and someone picks it up a century from now, wouldnt it be cool if they saw your signature and date?

Roadwork is about a man named Barton George Dawes, who learns a highway extension is about to be built in his backyard, literally. His house will be demolished. His neighbors’ homes. Even the laundromat where he works is on the chopping block. Someone elses idea of progress is set to dismantle his life. Bart doesnt take the news well. Hes compensated financially for the house but doesnt buy a replacement. Hes tasked with finding a new location for the laundromat but lets the deal fall apart. When his wife learns about the numerous balls hes dropped, she leaves him. Bart is not in a good place, and led by his anger, begins exploring ways to put an end to the construction project, with very little consideration of what that means for him.

The story struck home with me for a silly reason. Several years before, back in Illinois, my friends and I considered a real-life plot similar to the one in the book. My parents had bought a forest and built our family home in the middle when I was still in diapers. That forest was our childhood playground for the years that followed—riding ATVs, playing capture the flag, hide and seek—everything we did took place in those woods. Around the time I was thirteen, my friends and I learned that someone bought the sod farm next door to our forest and planned to build a shopping mall there. That night at dinner, my parents told my sister and me the same company made them an offer on the forest, and they planned to accept. Our world came apart. For the weeks that followed, every kid in the neighborhood had a singular thought—how do we stop this from happening? There were talks of dynamite, sabotage. We even considered telling people the forest was built on an old Indian graveyard, land that had to be preserved. That was probably our best idea. None of it played out, though. Kids dont have access to dynamite. Sabotage is scary. And when children tell stories of old, haunted burial grounds, adults shrug it off and refer back to these crazy things called town recordsthat held no mention of such a thing.

The sod farm sold.

My parents’ land sold.

Our house sold, and we made the move to Florida.

They broke ground on the shopping mall about the same time I found Roadwork in that old bookstore and read the jacket copy. So the first time I met Barton George Dawes, I think I related to him in a roundabout way. I understood his frustration and anger. My shopping mall was his road, and my teenage brain wanted to see him succeed. This was a time when Stallone and Schwarzenegger ruled the box office and the A-Team dominated television. Problems were solved with explosions and gunshots. Shouldnt Bart be allowed his revenge? Damn right, he should.

W.W.R.D.

What would Rambo do?

Ah, the eighties.

Ive always liked the way books take on different meanings if you read them at different times in your life. Thats all I really remember from that early read. Barts drive, the action stuff. I remember him being horribly pissed off, trying to do something about it, and failing miserably.

I wouldnt pluck it down off the bookshelf again until I was thirty-eight and fast approaching my first midlife crisis (yes, you can have more than one). I was trapped in a job I hated (I really wanted to be a writer), a marriage slowly moving toward the finish line (she didnt understand why I wanted to write when I had a real job), and my father had recently passed away with cancer.

Ive always read a lot, and a handful of books had made my shortlist of repeat-worthy:

All the classics—Dickens, Golding, Orwell, Brontë, Stoker, Twain, Austen, Vonnegut, Bradbury

Anything by Thomas Harris.

Anything by Stephen King.

Lifes too short to read a bad book, but theres certainly enough time to go back and revisit the good ones a couple times. For every three or four new books I read, Ill go back and pull one of the above down and give it another look. In October 2009, Roadwork was back on deck, and I nearly missed it. Its a small paperback and was tucked in with the Bs rather than the several shelves of King books Id accumulated at that point. Id completely forgotten about it. Its not one of his bestsellers. Im not sure it was even a mediocre seller. I barely remembered the story, and I think thats what compelled me to give it another go.

About twenty pages in, I remember thinking, This is King, but it isnt. His innate ability to develop a character in only a handful of sentences was there. The inner thoughts and structure that completely hooked me in Gerald’s Game were there, too. But this didnt feel like a King book. There was no supernatural element. He used the phrase a long second,the bastard cousin of a long moment,something hes complained about on Twitter when found in other books. There was horror, but this particular horror had a strange sense of realness to it. One I found unnerving. Unlike most King books, this story could happen. Easily. I personally find that far more frightening than some of the other night-bumpers hes created over the years. Bart was a monster. Bart could be living right across the street. Bart might be ahead of you in line at the supermarket. Behind you at the gas pump. This world is filled with Barts—weve seen them in the headlines on the regular.

When my younger self read this book the first time, it was the action that grabbed me. This time, twenty-some years later, it was that human element. Bart was in a bad place. He went dark, and then he only got worse. His high school yearbook said he was the class clown, but life had thrown one horrible event at him after another, and this rapid fire of suffering changed him, beat him down. You can feel the pain in his thoughts, his every action. Again, I related to Bart, not because of what he wanted to do but because of what he had been through.

I later learned King lost his mother to cancer around the same time he wrote this book, and while my younger self wouldnt have noticed the influence of something like that in an authors work, there was no denying it here. Bart bled for him. When I closed the cover on that second read, I thought about the loss of my father a lot. I missed him. On that second read, I found myself wondering about Olivia, too. The young girl who spends a night with Bart before thumbing her way to Nevada in search of something better. I didnt remember her from my first read, but by this time in my life, I had known my share of Olivias. Id seen girls just like her get on a bus all bright-eyed, only to return years later with the sheen gone. I cant help but wonder if she ever came back and learned just what Bart did.

Fast-forward to 2020. I received an e-mail from Brian Freeman of Cemetery Dance, asking if Id like to read Roadwork and contribute an essay to Stephen King Revisited. For the third time in my life, I reached for that tattered paperback and settled into a comfortable chair. Much had changed in my own life since my last read—I met and married the most incredible woman. I write full time now. And we have a little girl. Again, I had changed. While the book itself was comfortingly familiar, one particular scene jumped out at me, one I didnt recall from my first two visits with Barton George Dawes. He goes up into the attic of his soon-to-be demolished home and opens a box of his sons clothing, sifts through the contents. His son, Charlie, had died of a brain tumor.

I nearly closed the book at that point and put it away.

I could hear my own little girl laughing with her mother in the other room, and just the thought of losing a child was too much. It wasnt something I wanted in my head. Not ever.

My younger (non-parent) self had glossed right over this scene, not once but twice.

That is the magic of a good book.

While the words dont change, the meaning, their impact, might. Its one of the main reasons I revisit the good ones.

Roadwork is dark. Its unforgiving.

Its one of the good ones.

If your reading of King has been limited to the big hitters, pick this one up and give it a shot. Youll find hints of the author hed later become, but more importantly, youll see where he came from. This is Springsteen before the Nebraska album, and every note hits home.


The complete list of the books to be read can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.


J.D. Barker is an international bestselling American author whose work has been broadly described as suspense thrillers, often incorporating elements of horror, crime, mystery, science fiction, and the supernatural. Find him on the web at jdbarker.com

Richard Chizmar’s Latest Project: GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX co-written with Stephen King

As most of you probably know by now, Richard Chizmar hasn’t had a lot of time to write his essay for The Talisman (although he promises it is on the way!) because he’s been busy writing and then promoting his new novella, Gwendy’s Button Box, which he co-wrote with Stephen King!

If this is news to you, a great way to catch-up is to read this story in Entertainment Weekly: Stephen King made a frightening proposal with Gwendy’s Button Box: Write a story with him.

More Updates For Stephen King Revisited Coming Soon!

Hey Folks!

Richard has been busy juggling many different projects this year, including the publication of his huge new short story collection A Long December, but he is reading The Talisman right now and will be working on that essay soon, and Stephen King Revisited will be busier than ever in 2017 with more great essays and memories.

Richard’s official website has launched at RichardChizmar.com and you can subscribe to his mailing list on the site’s contact page.

Remember, you can also follow Richard on Twitter for his personal updates and other posts of interest to readers and collectors and Stephen King fans!

Thank you, as always, for your continuing support!

» Read more

The Eyes of the Dragon Revisited by Joseph Maddrey

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen KingWhen I was eleven years old, my parents bought me a hardback copy of The Eyes of the Dragon for Christmas. I set the book aside initially, because I had no particular interest in medieval fantasy. Dungeons and dragons just weren’t my thing. But after a few days, I got curious and started reading—and I was instantly captivated.

What really got me was the author’s voice. Stephen King conveyed a sense of awe about his fictional world, constantly dropping hints that there were countless stories within his story. It was as if the world of his imagination was comprised of fictional fractals. Even more importantly, he expressed a contagious curiosity about his characters. I felt like he knew them all as real, flesh-and-blood people and cared about every move and every decision they made. As a result I cared about them too, and I quickly realized that this myth was not really about dungeons and dragons, but about human relationships—particularly the relationships between two fathers and two sons.

King Roland, the biological father of Peter and Thomas, is essentially a good man—but weak. Prince Peter is a good man like his father, but strong like his mother. Prince Thomas is weak like his father, and thus susceptible to the manipulation of a surrogate father-figure named Flagg, who is strong but evil. King assures us, however, that Thomas is NOT evil like Flagg…. And it was this assurance that resonated with me as an eleven-year-old boy. » Read more

Revisiting The Eyes of the Dragon by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

Well, this should be an easy one.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen KingWhen I began this journey many months ago, I admitted that there were two Stephen King books I had never read before. I purposely kept both titles a secret, promising to only let the cat outta the bag once I had reached each of the two books on my Stephen King Revisited list.

Roadwork was the first of the pair, and despite its overwhelmingly dark nature and (at times) rough prose, I greatly enjoyed that initial reading and regretted not doing so earlier.

And so now, ladies and gents, we come to the final Stephen King book I’ve somehow managed to never crack open: The Eyes of the Dragon.

My reasoning these past nearly thirty years was simple (and clearly misguided; but more on that later): Eyes of the Dragon, huh? It sounds a little too fantasy-oriented for my tastes. Castles. Dragons. Kings and Queens. Heck, there are probably a dozen characters with names I can’t even pronounce. And elves, I bet you anything there are elves running around a dark forest. And fairies living up in the treetops. And…

…and no thanks. I’ll pass for now and get around to it one day. When I have nothing else tempting to read.

But I never did.
» Read more

The Two Princes by Bev Vincent

By the age of thirteen, King’s daughter, Naomi, was an avid reader but hadn’t read any of his books[1], even though her younger brother, Joe, had already read two. Her mother pushed her to read some horror with the idea that it would be another way for her to know her father. However, she made it clear to him that she had “very little interest in my vampires, Ghoulies and slushy crawling things.” So, as he wrote in a letter for Viking Press[2], “I decided that if the mountain would not go to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain.”

The Eyes of the DragonHe asked her what she did like and she told him she liked dragons. He told Jo Fletcher, “I knew that she liked fantasy, she had read some of the Conan comic books and Piers Anthony and stuff like that and in the end I really got into it.” [3]

He started working on the story, originally called The Napkins, in their house in western Maine. He wrote on a yellow legal pad in front of a woodstove while a screaming northeaster blew snow across the frozen lake outside. King had recently been working on The Talisman with Peter Straub, so the fantasy land of the Territories was fresh in his mind. He wrote The Eyes of the Dragon at the same time as he was writing Misery, working on one in the morning and the other at night, completing the first draft in 1983.

Naomi, he admits, took hold of the manuscript with a marked lack of enthusiasm, but he was rewarded. The story kidnapped her and the only thing wrong with it, she told him later, was that she didn’t want it to end. » Read more

A Stony Heart by Stewart O’Nan

Of all Stephen King’s early novels, Pet Sematary is the simplest and direst. A sustained riff on W.W. Jacobs’ classic “The Monkey’s Paw,” it cleaves to its twisted source. From the very beginning the reader knows the story: someone is going to die, and someone who can’t bear to let that loved one go will make a desperate bargain to raise him from the dead.  What happens then—the awful complications—is what the reader wants to see.

Pet SemataryThe opening is TV-movie stuff. Dr. Louis Creed and his young family move to Maine for his new job as medical director at a university infirmary and buy a house in the country by a busy two-lane highway. “You just want to watch em around the road, Missus Creed,” wise old neighbor Jud Crandall warns. “Lots of big trucks on that road.”

Was there ever a balder promise? And by 1983, King’s constant readers didn’t have to wonder if he’d balk at killing a child. Just two years before, the author who’d spared Mark Petrie in ‘Salem’s Lot and Danny Torrance in The Shining had already crossed that line in Cujo.

Set-up, build-up, payoff. Basic storytelling. In this case, we think we know the set-up and build-up. The author can throw variations at us, and delay, which he does, introducing a dying student who warns Louis to steer clear of the Pet Sematary, later using the family cat, Church, as a test case for its powers, but ultimately a child must die. Early on it feels as if King is running a subtle shell game, making us guess which one it will be, with both Gage, the adorable toddler, and Ellie, the needy kindergartener, slipping away unnoticed from their distracted parents.  When the accident inevitably happens, it’s a shock, mainly because of how it’s presented. » Read more

Revisiting Pet Sematary by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

I can’t remember when I first read Pet Sematary or where I was when I first read it (unusual for me). All I really remember is the story, and my intense reaction to it.

Pet SemataryI was a freshman in college when Pet Sematary was published in November 1983. My best guess is that I read it within a year of publication. I do recall devouring a hardcover edition that I believe my sister, Mary, gave to me as a gift (she blessed me with several of King’s books during those early years).

So…I was young. That much I know. Brand shiny new to the perils of adulthood. Wide-eyed, unmarried, and childless.

And still Pet Sematary destroyed me.

‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie and The Shining had thrilled me and scared me – but Pet Sematary was different. Once things went bad (and this happened quickly by King standards; only about a third of the way into the book), they not only stayed bad, they kept getting worse. Much worse. The rest of the book was a dark spiral and there were no reprieves to be found anywhere. The story was grim and unrelenting and profoundly unpleasant…yet I couldn’t stop reading.

King spends the first third of Pet Sematary introducing and establishing a fairly small (for him) cast of characters and a wonderful sense of place. Ludlow, Maine is the kind of small, picturesque New England town so many of us wish we had grown up in, and the Creeds and the Crandalls are the kind of folks we wish we had grown up across the street from: kind, big-hearted, interesting, companionable folks with a real sense of friendship and loyalty. » Read more

A Man’s Heart Is Stonier by Bev Vincent

In 1978, Stephen King was invited to be writer in residence at the English department of his alma mater, the University of Maine at Orono. He moved his family into a rented house on a major highway in Orrington. The heavy traffic included transports heading to and from a nearby chemical plant. A new neighbor warned the Kings to keep their pets and children away from this road, which had “used up a lot of animals.”[1] In support of this claim, the Kings discovered a burial ground not far from the house, with “Pets Sematary” written on a sign in a childish hand. Among its residents: dogs, cats, birds, and a goat.

Pet SemataryShortly after they moved in, daughter Naomi’s cat, Smucky, was found dead on the side of the road when they returned from a trip to town. King’s first impulse was to tell her that the cat had wandered away. Tabitha, however, believed this was an opportunity to teach a life lesson. They broke the news to their daughter and conducted a feline funeral, committing Smucky’s mortal remains to the pet cemetery. A few nights later, King discovered Naomi in the garage, jumping up and down on sheets of bubble wrap, indignant over the loss of her pet. “Let God have His own cat. I want my cat. I want my cat,” she was repeating.[2]

The road almost “used up” the Kings’ youngest son, too. Owen was about eighteen months old when he wandered dangerously close to the highway. To this day, King isn’t sure whether he knocked Owen down before he reached the highway as a tanker approached or if the boy tripped over his own feet. Owen had been born with an unusually large head, and the Kings had already agonized over the possibility of losing him to hydrocephalus. This near miss was an unwelcome reminder of the fragility of their children. » Read more

Revisiting Cycle of the Werewolf by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

Cycle of the Werewolf was yet another Carol’s Used Bookstore find for me. I had somehow completely missed the spring 1985 release, so when I stumbled upon a used copy of the Signet trade paperback on the crowded shelves at Carol’s it was a total surprise to me – and what a wonderful surprise it turned out to be!

cycle of the werewolfI had recently wrapped up my sophomore year in college and was heading to the beach the next day to decompress. I’d just been named to the All-America team for lacrosse and was looking forward to a much-needed week of rest and celebration. I stopped at Carol’s the evening before my departure for some beach reading, and there was Cycle of the Werewolf, crammed high on a dusty shelf, just waiting for me.

Clocking in at a mere 127 pages, Cycle was a slender volume, especially compared to my earlier Stephen King reads. That was my first impression, and I remember feeling mild disappointment because it was so short. But then I opened the glossy, black cover and flipped a couple pages, and that feeling went away pretty darn fast.

There was artwork inside – both color and black-and-white illustrations – and so much of it! In fact, I couldn’t turn more than a page or two without being confronted with yet another magnificent, visual feast. Full-page paintings, two-page spreads, even spot art! I flipped back to the cover and saw that the illustrator was a guy named Bernie Wrightson. I made a mental note to remember his name (not realizing at the time that I already knew his amazing work from many previous comic book excursions).

And then there was the story…boy, what a fun, old-fashioned story. I couldn’t even remember the last werewolf novel I had read, much less one presented in such a unique manner. » Read more

1 2 3 8