The First Energy Crisis by Bev Vincent

We have to go back in time again to discuss the genesis of King’s tenth published novel, his third under the Richard Bachman pen name. In 1973, he finished the first draft of ‘Salem’s Lot (known as Second Coming at the time). Carrie was slated for publication the following spring. However, his mother, Ruth, died in December of that year after a long and painful illness. She knew her son would be published, but never got to see it happen.

Roadwork by Richard BachmanHer death left King grieving and shaken by the apparent senselessness of how cancer had tormented her. In an effort to work through his thoughts and feelings about this loss, he started writing Roadwork. The book has a number of autobiographical aspects. The protagonist, Barton George Dawes, has recently lost a family member to cancer. Like King, who memorialized the experience in his short story “The Mangler,” Dawes worked at an industrial laundry. In fact, the company has the same name in both stories: The Blue Ribbon Laundry, and the ironing machine in Roadwork is nicknamed “the mangler.” Anyone who suspected that Bachman was really King would have their smoking gun from these details alone[1].

Roadwork was also an effort to write a straight novel, i.e. one that would not be classified as horror or science fiction. In the essay “Why I was Bachman,” King says he was young enough at the time to worry about the “casual cocktail-party question” about when he was going to write something “serious.” » Read more

Where There’s Smoke: Firestarter Rekindled by Ian Rogers

FirestarterI remember when I read Firestarter for the first time. I was in high school, in the early ‘90s, and had started thinking that I’d maybe like to be a writer myself one day.

There are two reasons why Firestarter stuck in my head long after I finished reading it. For one, it’s an excellent story about the burden of psychic powers on ordinary people and the government machine that wants to use them for their own nefarious purposes. The other reason it stuck with me is because it was my first real lesson in the marketing side of the publishing business.

By the time Firestarter was published in 1980, Stephen King was already well on his way to becoming established as the King of Horror. Part of this was because he was indeed a powerhouse of a writer, but part of it was also due to the fact he was becoming a brand. My understanding of this came quite naturally, mainly by the simple fact that several of his books, published up to that time, didn’t really strike me as horror novels.

Of course it could be said that horror, like any other genre label, is in the eye of the beholder, but I think it’s fair to say it would take more than a bit of a stretch to describe books like The Dead Zone and Carrie as horror novels. Scary things happen, sure, but I feel, at least in those two cases, that the books belong more in the thriller genre, or even science fiction. Same goes for Firestarter. » Read more

Revisiting Firestarter by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

FirestarterI first read FIRESTARTER the summer after I graduated from high school. I still have my old paperback edition sitting on the bookshelf. Here is what I remember:

* I read the novel over a two day period, sitting alone on the 4th Street beach in Ocean City, Maryland. I took occasional breaks to swim and eat and probably nodded off a couple times — the warmth of the sun and the sound of the surf have that effect on me — but other than that, the book never left my hands.

* At some point on the second day, I remember looking off to the side and noticing an older woman reading a shiny hardcover edition of THE DEAD ZONE. She was glistening with sunscreen and a trio of hyper little kids were running circles around her, hooting and throwing sand at each other. I remember thinking she was crazy to read a hardcover on the beach. During the many beach summers to come, I saw dozens of other readers with Stephen King books in their hands, and it always made me smile. Still does.

* As I got deeper into FIRESTARTER, I grew to love Charlie McGee like a little sister. I was maybe ten years older than her, and it was her character I most closely identified with. I wanted to hide and protect her. I wanted to save her. I wanted to make her smile. Of course, I was powerless to do anything of the sort; all I could do was keep flipping the pages. » Read more

A Pleasure To Burn by Bev Vincent

FirestarterFirestarter arose from research Stephen King had been doing into psychic phenomena, specifically, pyrokinesis[1]. He read about spontaneous human combustion and other bizarre incidents. In one case that he has mentioned on several occasions, a boy started to burn while the family was at the beach. His father dunked him in the water, but he kept on burning and died from his injuries, with his father sustaining serious burns on his arms. King has admitted to a fascination with fire, referring back to one of his favorite characters, Trashcan Man from The Stand, who loves to start fires, the bigger the better. King wanted to explore what might happen to a person who had the ability to start fires with his or her mind and could control it.

Then he thought about people taking part in psychology experiments who unwittingly received drugs like LSD. He envisioned such a drug turning people telepathic and causing a genetic mutation that allowed the test subjects to pass this talent on like “the Wyeth people hand down artistic talent.” » Read more

The Dead Zone: Aging Gracefully by Chet Williamson

the-dead-zone-smallI was delighted when I was asked to write a guest essay on Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, since I think it’s King’s best written and most well constructed novel (with the possible exception of The Green Mile). That was the feeling I had when I first read it on its release in 1979, and, on re-reading it for the first time since then, I was pleased to find that it’s aged remarkably well.

In his writings about writing, King has always prided himself on working without an outline, the literary equivalent of working without a net (or, as I tend to put it, leaping off a cliff and hoping that a hang-glider will come floating by). I can believe that many of King’s other works were written that way, with frequent deus ex machina and slapdash final conflagrations, but I can’t conceive that The Dead Zone was, since the construction is too perfect, the set-ups too well planned. Despite the often graphic violence, The Dead Zone is precise and practically genteel next to some of King’s other novels.

I’d forgotten how episodic the book was. It’s very much in three parts: Johnny’s coma and discovery of his wild talents; finding the Castle Rock killer; and the Greg Stillson plot. All three are deftly interwoven throughout, which only enhances the graceful construction.

Thanks to King’s referential use of pop culture and current events, The Dead Zone today reads like a period piece, very much of its time. That was why I liked it when I first read it, and why I like it still. Johnny Smith, the protagonist, was about my age, and his external life was similar to mine: from a modest but loving home, graduating from a state school, teaching high school, falling in love. We grew up through the same political crises, listened to the same music, shared the same views. I am glad my life didn’t parallel his in the more dramatic ways. » Read more

Revisiting The Dead Zone by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

the-dead-zone-smallUnlike THE LONG WALK, I don’t have any specific memories of where I was in my life when I first read THE DEAD ZONE.

No idea how old I was, where I was living, whether I was in high school or college or freshly graduated, whether I was single, engaged, married.

When it comes to the exact timeline, my mind is a blank…which is unusual for me. Especially when it relates to a book I enjoyed so much and one for which I have so many specific memories.

So, without further rambling, here are some of those crystal clear remembrances from that mysterious “Dead Zone” of my life:

* Johnny — and his love for Sarah — form the backbone of THE DEAD ZONE, and what happens to that love absolutely shattered my heart. I might not remember where I was in my life when I first met these two, but I do remember how difficult it was for me to accept their fate, much less read certain sections of the book because they hurt too much.

I’m talking about when Johnny finds out how much time has passed while he was in a coma and that Sarah is now married and has children; when Sarah comes to visit Johnny at his father’s house and they make love (this one hurt the most); and Johnny’s poignant letter to Sarah at the end of the book.

I held out hope for a happy ending for these two long after it became painfully obvious that it wasn’t meant to be. I just couldn’t let go of that hope. A lot like real life, huh?

* I adored Johnny’s dad, Herb Smith. Much like Stu Redman from THE STAND, he reminded me quite a bit of my own father. Stoic. Dignified. Responsible. A man with a wonderful, loving heart facing great obstacles. » Read more

Follow Richard Chizmar On Twitter And You Could Win A Signed Stephen King Book!

Hey Folks!

Richard is finishing his essay about The Dead Zone right now, and it will be posted here tomorrow, but in the meantime, we have an important message to pass along from him:

“Sign up to follow me on Twitter at @RichardChizmar because once I reach 3,000 followers, I will randomly pick one lucky winner and send them a signed Stephen King book!”

So if you’re on Twitter, make sure you follow him today!

» Read more

The Wheel of Fortune by Bev Vincent

The Dead ZoneThe end of the 1970s saw a change in direction for Stephen King. He switched publishers and, for the first time, had a literary agent. He met Kirby McCauley at a publishing party in 1976, but didn’t sign up with him right away. When he and Doubleday reached an impasse on a contract for his next few books, despite internal support from Bill Thompson, he consulted McCauley, who suggested offering the books to NAL, his paperback publisher. NAL met his demands and sold the hardcover rights to Viking. The deal was big news, reported in Publishers Weekly[1].

His first book at Viking was a change of pace, too. King considers The Dead Zone to be science fiction, unlike the fantasy/horror of his previous books. The Stand was meant to be a “summing up” of what he’d done to date, and it was time to move on to something different. » Read more

Revisiting The Long Walk by Richard Chizmar

THAT WAS THEN…

The Long WalkWhen I was a teenager, I spent several summer vacations working a government job at nearby Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Edgewood Arsenal. My duties ranged from laying asphalt to landscaping to pulling up old railroad tracks to shredding government documents.

The summer of paper shredding (as it would come to be known) was a memorable one for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I was assigned to work under a great guy. His name was Lonnie. If I ever knew his last name, it’s long forgotten now.

Lonnie was a hard worker and a good boss. At first, he was quiet and kept mostly to himself. But the more we got to know each other, the more we discovered we had a lot in common, despite our age difference.

Lonnie was a Vietnam veteran and I was (at the time) obsessed with military history, especially the Vietnam conflict. I had read dozens of books on the subject and watched every documentary I could lay my hands on. As Lonnie learned to trust me and respect my curiosity, he shared dozens of stories about his time in Vietnam that I still remember today.

Lonnie also loved fishing, as did I, and in the years following that summer, I would often share my catches with Lonnie and his family.

Finally, Lonnie was a reader. We would often read paperbacks during our lunch breaks. He tended to like science fiction and non-fiction, while my tastes ran more to the dark stuff. » Read more

Returning to The Long Walk by Ed Gorman

The Long Walk by Richard BachmanI couldn’t wait to read the Bachman books. By that time I was rereading the early Stephen King bestsellers simply because I needed a fix. I am of the age when realistic fiction was the standard form of the masters. In my top ten of novels is In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. And the first trilogy I ever read was Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. Proletarian fiction if you will.

I’ve always maintained that Stephen King is the last of the working class novelists. I realize that the socio-economic background of his characters range up and down the scale. But I think his soul is with the folks he grew up with. He can break your heart with his take on the lives of average people.

And it is average people, teenage boys, King gives us in this spot on science fiction short novel about a militaristic government and a thrill-hungry populace drugged on spectacles of agony and violence.

So what we have here is a hundred teenage boys enduring a brutally competitive walk that ends only when all but the last one is eliminated. And by “eliminated” I generally mean has died from either sheer exhaustion or for violating the rules. An example of said rules: if you don’t keep moving at four miles per hour or better—and you are warned about this three times—you get shot by the soldiers tracking you on the sidelines. » Read more

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