Tag Archives: guest essay

Racing the King by Wrath James White

When I first learned Stephen King wrote several novels under a pseudonym, I was upset. Allow me to explain.

Beginning with the very first book I ever read, I developed the habit (or perhaps compulsion is a better word) of picking a subject matter and reading every book written on that subject in the three local libraries I had access to—Lovett Memorial Library, Northwest Regional Library, and the little library at Lingelbach Elementary School. The first subject I latched onto, like many six-year-old boys, was dinosaurs.

My grandmother, Luvader Logan, bought me my very first dinosaur book. I was instantly obsessed. Over the course of that year, I read every book in all three libraries on prehistoric beasts. Then came modern animals, both wild and domesticated, then paranormal phenomena, aliens, and then the Tolkien trilogy. Then I read Firestarter.

Firestarter was the book that began my love affair with the writings of Stephen King. I was eleven or twelve when I first read it back in 1982. I’ve read it seven or eight times since. What fascinated me, captivated me, about that book was it required far less suspension of disbelief than reading about hobbits and trolls. I believed Firestarter. I believed in pyrokinesis and mental domination. I wasn’t suspending my disbelief. Stephen King had actually convinced me these things were possible, at least for the duration of the novel, and that completely awed me. So, my new quest was to read everything Stephen King had ever written.

The problem, however, was that I had a late start, and the good Mr. King was still writing. This was the early eighties, when he was throwing down six thousand words a day and cranking out two to three books a year. But I was on a mission.

I imagined we were in a competition, that he was in on this crazy game with me. I read Cujo and Salem’s Lot. He wrote Christine and Pet Sematary. I read Carrie, The Stand, The Dead Zone, and Cycle of the Werewolf. He wrote The Talisman. I read Christine and Pet Sematary. He wrote It, Misery, and The Tommyknockers. It was a race I was determined to win. I would not be denied.

In one year, I read Night Shift, The Talisman, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Different Seasons, Eyes of The Dragon, and Skeleton Crew. I even convinced my high school English teacher to allow me to read It instead of Julius Caesar because it was “more relevant to my development as a writer in today’s market.”

I was catching him. No one, not even the wildly prolific Mr. Stephen King, could write faster than I could read. And, somewhere between 1987 and 1988, right before graduating from the Philadelphia High School of the Creative and Performing Arts, I caught up. I had read every Stephen King novel written up to that point (with the exception of The Dark Tower), or so I thought. That’s when my then best friend and fellow Creative Writing major told me about “The Bachman Books.”

“The what?”

“The Bachman Books? Come on, you know. Stephen King wrote a bunch of books under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. They talked about it in Writer’s Digest a couple years ago.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”

What fuckery was this? I had been tricked, fooled, bamboozled! Mr. King hadn’t played fair. I’d read everything he had written to that point, even the new stuff, while keeping up with my school work and all my other reading and writing assignments. Even as his books grew longer and longer, I’d still managed to read them all. But he had been slipping books past me the entire time. I was pissed. Unreasonably so. But I wasn’t ready to give up. So, I read Rage, Roadwork, The Long Walk, Thinner, and finally, The Running Man.

The Bachman novels were noticeably different. They were bleaker. The heroes weren’t terribly heroic. Ben Richards, for example, was kind of racist, sexist, and homophobic. The n-word fell from his lips too effortlessly, as did “faggot” and other unflattering terms. Yet, I knew guys like him. Uncivilized, crude, anti-authoritarian, yet intelligent and possessed of a bravery born of hopelessness and desperation. And we were all a little racist, sexist, and homophobic back then. They were less enlightened times. I look back on some of the ideas and opinions I held in the 80s and cringe. Ben Richards wasn’t a great guy, but I could relate to him. He was from the streets, just like me.

I grew up in a part of Philadelphia that guys who looked like Stephen King couldn’t walk safely through at night. Yet, I was betting on my ability to tell a scary story to get me out. My odds weren’t terribly better than Ben Richards’s odds of avoiding the hunters for 30 days.

The cops in my neighborhood were as brutal and corrupt as those chasing Ben Richards. You could bribe a Philly cop out of a traffic ticket with five bucks back in the 80s, and everyone knew you got the best weed from cops. They would take it from white college kids, let them off with a warning, and sell it back to us. You wanted an untraceable firearm? Buy it from a cop. That’s what Philly was like in the 80s. Those of us who knew how to navigate all that corruption and criminality did okay. Others? Not so much.

The folks who lived in the more affluent neighborhoods like Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill were as oblivious and indifferent to how the rest of us lived as Amelia Williams was to the lives of the contestants on The Running Man, plucked from the slums to die for the amusement of the well-to-do while maintaining the facade that they had a fair chance.

Just like the wonderful folks who reply “All Lives Matter” as a way to silence those proclaiming the equal value of Black American lives, Amelia and her ilk fervently believed the contestants they saw slaughtered on the “Free-Vee” were hardened criminals, anarchists, and murderers rather than poor people trying to scrape out a living any way they could, reduced to bartering their lives for the lives of their families. They believed the underclass were all animals who would have come for their posh insulated lives, destroyed their entire way of life, raped their women, and murdered their kids had they not been stopped. Their deaths were justified by how and where they lived.

The poor are dangerous. This wasn’t just an idea manufactured by Mr. King to give his novel more drama. This is how the upper class always looked upon us on the bottom. We were dangerous, subhuman, savages, impossible to empathize with, unworthy of sympathy. If we only worked harder, we wouldn’t be in the situations we were in. In their eyes, our poverty was proof of our laziness and poor character. The same dehumanization that allowed the upper-class citizens of King’s dystopian future to watch poor people murdered for sport is what has allowed that same class of people to watch people of color in this country murdered by police while justifying and excusing it.

“He shouldn’t have run.”

“He shouldn’t have resisted.”

“She shouldn’t have talked back.”

“She should have followed the officer’s instructions quicker.”

“He must have been doing something wrong, or he wouldn’t have been stopped.”

Over the years, King’s vision of 2028 has come to me again and again in sudden bursts of déjà vu as reality shows like Cops, America’s Most Wanted, and even The Ultimate Fighting Championships hit the airwaves. When I was twenty-four, awaiting the birth of my first child while working as a bouncer at a nightclub, I watched the very first UFC and began training to enter it. I fought in No-Holds-Barred tournaments all over The Bay Area for a few hundred dollars to buy food and clothing for my wife and son.

When the economy imploded in 2009 and I lost my ninety-thousand-dollar-a-year job as a construction manager, I considered coming out of retirement, at forty years of age, and taking a few fights just to put food on the table. I was older, slower, with joints that ached with arthritis and injury from all the abuse I had put my body through in the ring and the cage, but I was ready to risk my life to feed my family. I knew exactly how Ben Richards must have felt.

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. I sold a few manuscripts instead. But who knows what may have happened if no one purchased my novels. If the country was ruled by an omnipotent TV network, and the only way to take care of my family was to enter contests like “Treadmill to Bucks,” “Swim The Crocodiles,” “Run For Your Guns,” or “The Running Man.” See, the wonderful thing about Stephen King’s writing, just as I’d discovered almost forty years prior when I was an eleven-year-old kid reading Firestarter for the first time, was that it didn’t require much suspension of disbelief to imagine myself making the choices Ben Richards made. I was convinced I would do it. Given the choice between letting my family starve or running from an entire country eager to kill me, for a slim chance at a better life for my loved ones, I would have gone out the same way Ben Richards did, grinning and giving the establishment the finger.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if I ever caught up, if I ever managed to read everything Stephen King has ever written, I didn’t. But the game isn’t over.

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.

WRATH JAMES WHITE is a former World Class Heavyweight Kickboxer, a professional Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts trainer, distance runner, performance artist, and former street brawler, who is now known for creating some of the most disturbing works of fiction in print.

Wrath is the author of such extreme horror classics as THE RESURRECTIONIST (now a major motion picture titled “Come Back To Me”) SUCCULENT PREY, and its sequel PREY DRIVE, HORRIBLE GODS, YACCUB’S CURSE, 400 DAYS OF OPPRESSION, SACRIFICE, VORACIOUS, TO THE DEATH, THE REAPER, SKINZZ, EVERYONE DIES FAMOUS IN A SMALL TOWN, THE BOOK OF A THOUSAND SINS, HIS PAIN, POPULATION ZERO and many others. He is the co-author of TERATOLOGIST co-written with the king of extreme horror, Edward Lee, SOMETHING TERRIBLE co-written with his son Sultan Z. White, ORGY OF SOULS co-written with Maurice Broaddus, HERO and THE KILLINGS both co-written with J.F. Gonzalez, POISONING EROS co-written with Monica J. O’Rourke, among others.

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.


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

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

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

Made It Out Alive: My Own Love Affair With Christine by James Newman

“Come on, big guy.  Let’s go for a ride.  Let’s cruise . . . . ”

christineI’d be preaching to the choir if I said one of the most enduring traits of Stephen King’s fiction is the realism of his characters, and how we can all relate to them.  Sure, most of us have never been trapped inside a broken-down Pinto while a rabid St. Bernard tries to get in and swallow us whole.  We’ve never tried to assassinate a politician because a precognitive vision showed us his true nature.  It’s probably safe to say that very few of us have crossed paths with a lonely widow who carries not only a dangerous obsession with a fictional character but also an ax and a blowtorch that she’s been itching to use for some time.

It’s the real world problems of King’s characters that ring true.  It’s their crumbling marriages and their struggles to pay the bills on time.  Their desires, their dreams and aspirations.  We’ve met people like them.  We are them. » Read more

Cujo Revisited by Kealan Patrick Burke

CujoUnlike most rabid King fans and purists, I came to Cujo rather late. I was barely into double-digit age when I first snuck my mother’s copy of Pet Sematary into my room and read it under the covers (a book that is largely responsible/to blame for the path my life and career took in later years), and after devouring it over the course of a few nights, I promptly took my library card and, using the excuse that I was getting the books for my mother, read almost everything King had released to that point.

Except Cujo.

To this day I can’t explain why I skipped that one title in King’s oeuvre. His name on the cover alone was enough to draw me in. But perhaps it was the cover itself that put me off. Back in those days, the European covers—British, specifically—of King’s paperbacks tended to run from gruesomely effective to just plain silly. And if memory serves, the cover of Cujo was just an illustration of a drooling muzzle, which resembled a cross section of a corned beef sandwich. Or perhaps it was the movie adaptation, which despite winning performances by the actors (including the dog) and some effective moments, doesn’t hold a candle to the book. Usually if I see a movie before I’ve read the book, I don’t bother with the latter. The reverse, however, does not hold true. » Read more

Revisiting Danse Macabre by Hank Wagner

Danse MacabreFirst, let me say that I agree with the estimable Mr. Chizmar that Danse Macabre is truly one of Stephen King’s most underrated books. Of all of King’s canon, it’s the one book I have read, and reread, with the most pleasure over the ensuing decades. I always take something new away from it, whether it be a renewed interest in an old favorite story, a new book to pursue and add to my hoard, or just a simple human insight.

Danse Macabre came to me at an opportune time; given the vantage point I now have, it feels almost inevitable that I would stumble across it. I had just come off the most difficult summer of my young life, having been hospitalized in April of 1981 with what was later diagnosed as compartment syndrome, in my right calf. I had internal bleeding, and my calf was filling up like a balloon with deoxygenated blood, threatening to suffocate my muscles. After emergency surgery, I spent nearly three weeks in the hospital, recovering. I emerged battered, but still able to walk.   I spent the summer rehabbing and reading, ravenously devouring whatever I could score from my local library. I remember, among other books, reading Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, and Dad, by William Wharton. Mostly “literature,” not the genre stuff that I enjoyed so much as a kid. » 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

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

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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