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  • Jeff Somers 2:00 pm on 2019/06/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , , small town terror, stephen king, ,   

    The Outsider: Two Styles of Stephen King in One Book 


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    Stephen King is well into his fourth decade of being so successful—not to mention preternaturally skilled—that he can write pretty much whatever book he wants to and pull it off. For artists, this is known as the “Imperial Phase“—the period of a career during which their powers are at their creative peak.

    You can nitpick over when King entered his own Imperial Phase (I’d put it sometime around the release of The Stand), but matter how you measure it, his seemingly never-ending Imperial Phase is one of the most impressive in literary history. Where some writers would coast along, happy to write the same book again and again, King has used his freedom from commercial concerns to push his boundaries, try different genres, and tell different kinds of stories. While some of these experiments have succeeded more than others, they have made it impossible to classify King in terms of genre—while his name is still synonymous with a certain brand of American Gothic horror, that’s hardly all he can do, and do well.

    King’s more recent work has explore and largely succeed in other genres, especially crime fiction and police procedurals like the Bill Hodges trilogy, which began with Mr. Mercedes, but horror is still in his bones. Perhaps that’s why his most recent novel, 2018’s The Outsider, was so satisfying: it offers a perfect blend of his early horror style and his more recent procedural work.

    King plays a trick on readers who gotten used to the rhythms of his recent procedurals: The Outsider begins with the solving of a crime, seeming of a piece with his recent books. Detective Ralph Anderson of Flint City, Oklahoma, arrives at a Little League game fixing to arrest the beloved coach, Terry Maitland, for the sickening abuse and murder of a child. Anderson makes the arrest in public, and instructs the officers to cuff Maitland’s hands in front of him against protocol, because he’s angry—he liked Terry Maitland, and more importantly, the town trusted him with their children. But despite Maitland’s protests of innocence, the evidence against him is iron-clad.

    King dives into the investigation and work that goes into the building the case against Maitland, and its a pleasure to watch a writer of his skill make what could be an off-brand Law and Order riff into an engrossing look at the nuts and bolts of police work. It’s strong material, and if King had decided to stay in the realm of the crime genre exclusively, The Outsider would still be a great book. But it’s no spoiler to say that he doesn’t; he pulls the rug out from under his detective when Maitland reveals a perfect alibi—he’s been captured on video at a faraway location during the time of the murder. This maddening problem drives the bulk of the narrative—what’s a cop to do if the suspect’s alibi is as airtight as the evidence against him?

    If the first section of the book is in line with the top-notch King crime writing King has been dabbling in for the last half-decade or so, the rest harkens back to the grand horror of his blood-drenched 1980s heyday. As Anderson teams up with investigator Holly Gibney (on loan from the Bill Hodges novels) and begins to dig deeper into Maitland’s crime, the true nature of the evil they’re dealing with begins to take terrifying shape. The results are something akin to a mature take on It, another story about an evil that preys on children and masquerades as something else entirely. The difference this time around—in keeping with the procedural roots of the story—is that the heroes that must take a stand against it are adults, not children.

    Another callback to 1980s King? The book is off-the-charts terrifying. King has always had a knack for creating monsters that feel primal and eternal: always lurking in the shadows right over your shoulder, barely glimpsed and never understood until it’s too late. The malevolent evil at work here is no exception.

    If there’s a thread running through all of King’s books, it’s the straightforward realism he favors as he builds his worlds and characters, and which makes it all the more disturbing when things begin to go supernaturally sideways. He blends pop-culture, brand names, and current politics with ageless class concerns, brewing up tactile fictional universes that feel real enough to touch, even if they are infested with monsters and dark magical forces. It’s a trick he polishes to a high shine in The Outsider. For some writers, incorporating of-the-minute movements like Black Lives Matter or contemporary presidential politics into a story about the small-town concerns of regular people would feel like the author hopping onto his soapbox. For King, it feels like the bones and sinew of the story, as much now as it did when all of his books seemed to be set in middle-class towns in Maine.

    If the buzz over the September release of The Institute is any indication, King’s Imperial Phase shows no signs of ending. Certainly with The Outsider, it seems to have allowed him to coin a new genre. Call it Procedural Horror.

    The Outsider is now available in paperback.

    The post <i>The Outsider</i>: Two Styles of Stephen King in One Book appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2019/06/03 Permalink
    Tags: a good marriage, big driver, , , , , , joyland, , other genres than these, , stephen king, , , ,   

    Why Stephen King Is an Unlikely Crime Fiction Grandmaster 


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    It’s understandable if you still think ‛horror’ when you hear the name ‛Stephen King.’ He single-handedly established horror as a bestselling genre in the 1970s and 1980s, and his best-known works are all classified as such. To this day his efforts outside the label are regarded as outliers, experiments, or mid-career crises, which is incredibly unfair. Not only are some of King’s best works not horror in any way, he’s also established himself in other genres—most notably crime fiction. In fact, a surprisingly large swath of King’s work is crime fiction, full stop, no qualifier—and it’s some of his best work. Here’s a quick tour of some of the most notable crime novels, proving we should start including King in every ‛best crime fiction’ convo.

    Procedurals

    The Outsider
    King’s latest novel, now in paperback, is a work of full-on horror: it offers monsters, body trauma, and a fight between the forces of good and evil. But it’s also a police procedural—in fact, the first half of the book is almost entirely a mystery focused on a small-town detective’s attempts to solve a seemingly impossible crime. Naturally, the reasons it’s impossible turns out to be connected to an ancient and ravenous evil, but that doesn’t mean the investigative portions are any less effective or intriguing. Think of it as a Black Mirror-verse version of a crime ripped from an episode of Law and Order.

    The Bill Hodges Trilogy
    This trilogy of novels (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) pulls off an interesting trick. The first is almost completely free of supernatural or horror elements, operating as a procedural-cum-thriller that follows the efforts of a retired detective, Bill Hodges, to identify and stop a serial killer who is sending him taunting letters. The second book continues this trend, telling another haunting but straightforward detective story. It isn’t until the third book that King allows elements of supernatural horror to leak in around the edges. As a whole, the trilogy illustrates that human horrors can be just as terrifying as demonic clowns—and that King really knows how to write a crime thriller.

    Hard Boiled Noir

    Joyland
    This overt foray into noir was published by the Hard Case Crime imprint, so there’s no doubt it was conceived and executed as a crime novel despite containing some old-school King horror touches like a ghost and a child with “The Sight.” But those elements are mere subplots, with the main action being a decades-old case of serial murders at the titular amusement park that ends in a violent confrontation. There’s a genuine mystery at the core of this novel, and it’s solved without any supernatural help.

    The Colorado Kid
    King’s other Hard Case Crime novel doesn’t have any horror or occult elements—nor does it offer a resolution to the mystery it unfolds—a bold move, but one that might ultimately frustrate some readers. Still, the story, narrated by veteran newspaper reporters and recounting the mysterious death of a Colorado native, is riveting, a mystery filled with twists and clues. There’s something to the idea that some mysteries simply never can be solved, only be passed from one generation to the next, ultimately becoming something akin to folklore.

    Prison Stories

    Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
    One of King’s most famous and celebrated stories, this novella plays it straight too, landing squarely in the tradition of the prison novel, a subset of crime fiction with a rich tradition in both literature and the pulps. The story delves deeply into the routines, traditions, and haunting guilt of the incarcerated as Red, a man who has been in prison most of his life, tells the story of Andy Dufresne. Andy is wrongly convicted of double murder and spends decades plotting his escape from Shawshank Prison. For Andy, “escape” is a meaningful word in more ways than one. This is a soaring, ultimately hopeful story—but in the tradition of the best crime novels, it’s also filled with violence, punishment, and corruption.

    The Green Mile
    King’s other prison story has a strong supernatural element, of course, but it’s also firmly in the “prison story” channel. Set in a 1930s death row cell block, it focuses on the relationships between the guards and their prisoners, and in particular a huge and strangely gifted convicted murderer named John Coffey. Although the novel (which was first published as a series of novellas) favors a lot of magical realist techniques, it’s prison-novel and horror bona fides are strong enough that it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel.

    Straight-Up Crime Fiction

    Blaze
    King has written a number of novels that tell crime stories without the adornment or complication of supernatural elements—although many contain seriously horrifying scenes, and usually work with ingredients familiar to any fan of King’s writing. Blaze is about a kidnapping perpetrated by a mentally-challenged con artist who imagines he’s still being advised by his deceased former partner and only friend. It’s a sad, tragic road narrative with a Jim Thompson flavor—and was actually one of the first novels King ever wrote; it sat in the trunk for decades before he revised and published it under his Richard Bachman pseudonym.

    Roadwork
    This novel is kind of a cross between the Michael Douglas white-man’s-rage film Falling Down and a traditional crime novel. A man watches his life slowly circle the drain until the callous decisions of his local government break him. He gets a gun and goes on what can only be described as a rampage, wiring his house with explosives and killing several police officers who arrive at the standoff he’s engineered. It all leads to a literally explosive ending and a haunting revelation that puts a grim twist on the violence unleashed. It’s a book that isn’t out of place if considered alongside old-school crime novels of the 1950s and 1960s.

    A Good Marriage
    King once again leaves out the supernatural without losing any of the horror in this novella that springs from a deceptively simple premise: a woman discovers that her husband and the father of her children is secretly a serial killer. While this revelation leads to all the terror you might expect, King is very smart about playing with your expectations: Darcy Anderson initially struggles with what she uncovers, then resorts to violence to deal with it. King ends on a refreshing note of order—of a belief in a universe that ultimately makes sense—but at the core, this is a crime novel about a serial killer, only told from the other side of the mirror.

    Big Driver
    King’s version of a revenge-driven crime story is surprisingly straightforward: a woman is sexually assaulted, plots her revenge, and extracts it in a bloody, if slightly less-than-competent, fashion. The revenge tale is a classic subset of crime fiction, as is the idea of a mystery writer having the mental skill set to commit—or solve—crimes. King blends both ideas into a taut story in which his heroine, Tess, never becomes a robotic killing machine, and struggles with her actions until the final pages. It’s a neat, satisfying tale in which a crime is both the problem and the solution.

    What are your favorite non-horror Stephen King stories?

    The post Why Stephen King Is an Unlikely Crime Fiction Grandmaster appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 7:00 pm on 2019/05/21 Permalink
    Tags: , , , firestarter, , , pet semetery, stephen king, suffer the little children, , , the institute, , , the waste lands   

    12 Unforgettable Young Protagonists in Stephen King Books 


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    Any list of the scariest horror stories likely includes at least a few on your list featuring young protagonists. Children and teenagers are well-represented in horror for a few reasons: They represent powerlessness, as most kids lack the freedoms adults enjoy, making them especially vulnerable to supernatural terror, and not especially well-equipped to deal with it. Kids themselves can be a little spooky to adults who have lost their connection to that imagination-fueled, morally simple time in their lives. And kids generally embody innocence, making them ideal prey for the monsters under their beds. For teenagers, on the other hand, the parallels between the loss of that childlike innocence and exposure to the often troubling realities of adulthood make for potent fuel for storytelling.

    No one knows all of this better than Stephen King, the master of modern horror. If you compile a list of his best-loved novels, a large proportion of them will feature kids as primary protagonists. Below, find 12 young King lead characters for whom “suffer the little children” isn’t just an old saying.

    Luke Ellis in The Institute
    Luke is a special kid, with special abilities. One night his parents are brutally murdered during an apparent home invasion that turns out to be something more. Luke is kidnapped by the killers and forced into the titular Institute, where Luke and other children are overseen by a sinister staff led by Mrs. Sigsby, who hopes to extract their powers, which range from telekinesis to telepathy. Luke soon discovers that eventually all the kids in the Institute graduate to the “Back Half,” from which point they are never seen again. In announcing this novel earlier this year, King specifically invoked past favorites like Firestarter and It (prompting me to imagine what would have happened if pyromancer Charlie had the benefit of a Loser’s Club of her own, one full of similarly superpowered kids). Dark powers forcing a vulnerable, orphaned child with powers beyond understanding to grow up too soon? This one covers all the “young horror protagonist” bases.

    Carrie White in Carrie
    Carrie’s not just a kid—she’s actually very obviously a sheltered one, her development stunted by her mother’s fanaticism and cruelty. King’s debut novel can be seen as a metaphor for adolescence and the loss of innocence, as Carrie’s abilities are directly connected to her physical maturation and sexual awakening. King has said he intended to write a feminist story, and that still scans, despite some dated elements. Certainly Carrie’s rage after seeing her life turn into a series of one humiliation after another will resonate with girls raised in an era of cyber bullying and social media, as she is shamed and deprecated for her power at every turn. In some ways, Carrie is the ultimate young King protagonist, stepping cautiously into the adult world and being revolted and disappointed by what she finds. She is a tragic hero—but a hero nonetheless.

    Danny Torrance in The Shining
    Danny Torrance is a victim of child abuse, and the lingering trauma from his father’s violent acts infect the whole story. Danny also suffers because of his “shine,” the mental powers he exhibits, which expose him to a darkness no young kid should have to face. No sooner has the Torrance family’s snowbound isolation in the remote, otherwise empty Overlook Hotel begun than does Jack Torrance’s mental breakdown and recruitment by supernatural forces into murderous rampage begin. And all of it is really just illustrating the subtext of Danny’s life, which is marked by post-traumatic stress disorder (he copes with the help of an invisible friend Tony who lives in his mouth) and sheer terror, made text. It’s remarkable how much of a kid Danny remains despite his suffering, including the way he clings to the idea that his father still loves him. That’s part of the psychological richness of the book, as is the masterful way King brings Danny’s terrifying experiences to visceral life.

    Gage Creed in Pet Sematary
    Gage is just three years old when he’s hit by a truck and killed. A sweet, loving little boy, his death is a powerful moment in the novel, despite coming so early in the story. The sweetness King establishes in him before that point magnifies the horror when Gage is brought back by the animating force of the Sematary but it no longer Gage at all. Interpretations of the character usually focus on imagining the horror of your own child returning from the dead not-quite-right, but there’s so much going on psychologically in this novel—from the fear of your children changing into people you don’t recognize, to the way we can be blind to problems when it comes to our loved ones (even when they’ve turned into murderous, undead demons). King’s weaponization of hope and love is almost cruel, and makes this one of his most terrifying books.

    The Losers Club in It
    King returns to childhood over and over again, exploring is the idea that all kids are tormented or damaged in some way large or small. (In his novel’s, the torments are usually… not small.) It’s inevitable: life isn’t safe, and the moment we can start making our own decisions, we’re in danger (of course, the real horror comes in the realization that we are always in danger). That understanding informs all of King’s work, but never more effectively than as embodied by the Loser’s Club. All the kids in this gangly gathering of like-aged friends is struggling with a different sort of damage, but together, they find the strength to not only survive their own traumas but to resist an immense evil terrorizing their home town (which, not coincidentally, preys on children, using their innocent imaginations as a weapon against them).

    Jack Sawyer in The Talisman
    Jack, the hero of King’s foray into portal fantasy, co-written with fellow ’80s horror master Peter Straub, faces truly nightmarish circumstances in his quest to save his dying mother, but remains a stalwart hero throughout, battling epic forces of evil as her travels through the otherworldly alternate world known as the Territories. Jack is introduced as an independent, intelligent, and cynical 12 year-old, older that his years thanks to his mother’s illness. But his fierce dedication to her, and his lack of hesitation when it comes to risking his life to track down the mystical Talisman that might cure her, demonstrate the best aspects of childhood—loyalty, innocence,  a stubborn persistence of hope, and an unflagging ability to adapt (even to the realization that you’ve traveled to a parallel universe).

    Jake Chambers in The Waste Lands
    It’s not a spoiler to say Jake Chambers dies more than once before the end of Stephen King’s epic, seven-volume Dark Tower series. The first time he’s pushed in front of a car in New York City and wakes up in another world—that of Roland Deschain, Mid-World’s last gunslinger. In short order, Roland chooses his obsession with the Man in Black over saving Jake’s life, and is haunted by the decision. Later, a bit of time travel magic gives him a chance to undo Jake’s first death, but the decision has disastrous consequences for them both. In the third novel of the series, The Waste Lands, Jake becomes a second lead of sorts, spending the first portion of the book trying to make sense of his fractured memories and find his way back to Roland’s world. As he grows and matures across the remainder of Roland’s quest for the Dark Tower, Jake becomes one of King’s most well-rounded young creations—sensitive and smart, funny and faithful, and very good in a fight.

    Ray Garraty in The Long Walk
    King was just a kid himself—only 18—when he wrote this novel (though it wasn’t published until years later, under his onetime pseudonym Richard Bachman), so it’s not hard to imagine 16 year-old Ray as a stand-in for King himself, placed within a story that tests him to his very limits. Every year in its dystopian alternate America, 100 teenage boys are selected via lottery to simply start walking, and continue doing so until only one of them is left alive. Considering the time in which it was first written, it seems a clear allegory for thefates of all those boys who went off to die in the Vietnam War—the draft making it a real world example of a death lottery for the young. Ray is a very normal kid, but King skillfully positions him as a bit of an outsider—he’s not athletic, and his passions include dancing and cooking. Ray’s motivations for winning are prosaic and universal: the prize is basically anything he wants (including not dying, I suppose), but his true goals are left open to interpretation.

    Arnie Cunningham in Christine
    King skillfully builds this surprisingly down-to-earth killer car story around a villainous protagonist. Arnie Cunningham is 17 and a stereotypical nerd when the story begins.He has just one true friend and nothing but a life of bullying and misery to look forward to every day. When he acquires a 1958 Plymouth Fury from a creepy old man, he begins to be possessed by a malevolent spirit that unleashes his inner demons, leading to vehicular mayhem. King transposes the sort of adolescent play-acting kids go through when they’re trying to figure out how to adult, transforming it into full-blown horror. Arnie slowly evolves into a cartoonish caricature of what a teenager thinks being a grown man is supposed to look like, all surly cynicism and superficial cool. The story likely hits home for any parent who goes to bed one night with a sensitive, caring kid in the other room and wakes up the next morning to a monosyllabic, sex-obsessed monster. King also injects a careful optimism into the book as, amid terrible events, Arnie actively struggles to remember who he really is.

    Marty Coslaw in The Cycle of the Werewolf
    Marty is ten years old and a paraplegic—a double-down on the perceived vulnerability of a child. Marty is attacked by a werewolf and manages to survive, only to find that no one—not one adult—believes him. It’s left to him to investigate, identify, and oppose the creature. The idea that children are receptive to concepts that adults are closed off to is a pretty classic trope, and King twists it by making them party to insights more horrifying than magical:  Marty isn’t living in a world of pure imagination that gives him special perspective and powers, he’s struggling to survive against a predator. In the end, it is brains and determination that win the day, not physical prowess—showing kids can sometimes be the strongest among us.

    Trisha McFarland in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
    While the horror bonafides of this short, strange novel can be argued, King leaves the door cracked open just enough to allow you to believe all the supernaturally tinged weirdness Trisha McFarland experiences after she becomes lost in the woods really happens, and can’t be chalked up to a hallucination brought on by exposure, hunger, and dehydration. King plays with very straightforward young protagonist tropes—as she searches for a way home, Trisha is both completely vulnerable and extremely resourceful, forced to deal with her own fears (both literal and metaphorical) without any help from parents, friends, or even society (but a little help from a vision of her hero, a baseball player for the Boston Red Sox). Childhood can be dark and full of terrors, and King makes the struggle to get through it visceral by placing Trisha all alone in the middle of nature. The fact that her inner strength—coupled with the emotional scars inflicted upon her by a tumultuous home life—is what enables her to survive her ordeal is a celebration of the resiliency of children.

    Charlie McGee in Firestarter
    Mentioned above, the telekinetic Charlie is in many ways a typical eight-year-old girl, although we never get to see her living a normal life. Her mental abilities, which manifest mainly as the ability to non-spoiler alert, start fires, are as awesome as they are deadly, but she actually only uses them purposefully to hurt someone once in the story, and only then when her father’s life is threatened. Otherwise, she’s a pretty cheerful and friendly kid whose abilities only slip out of her control unintentionally, causing damage. Just like any other kid that age, Charlie struggles with emotional control and proper social behavior—only her tantrums result in things near her being burned to a cinder. An interesting element in narrative is the fact that she inherits her powers from her parents, who gained their own abilities through a drug experiment, a bit of mad science that underscores a primal fear experienced by many parents: not only are they incapable of protecting them from the evil in the world, they may have also doomed their offspring to suffer their same mistakes.

    Who’s your favorite young protagonist in a horror novel?

    The post 12 Unforgettable Young Protagonists in Stephen King Books appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Sam Reader 5:00 pm on 2019/05/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , new territory, , stephen king, , the eyes of the dragon,   

    The Talisman Is the Perfect YA Gateway to the Worlds of Stephen King 


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    It feels weird to recommend The Talismana book definitely written for adults—as the perfect choice to introduce younger readers to Stephen King. From a distance, the book King actually wrote for young readers—the epic fantasy The Eyes of the Dragon—would certainly seem more appropriate.

    Though The Talisman indeed stars a young protagonist—a preteen boy named Jack Sawyer—its horror is not restrained by his age, which is hardly surprising, considering the novel was penned by King in collaboration with Peter Straub at a time when both were at the height of their influences as defining voices in the 1980s horror fiction boom. (Also worth noting: what we think of today as the “young adult book” didn’t really exist.) Throughout the novel, characters curse like angry dockworkers, children suffer horrific violence, and Jack guards himself against sexual assault (a fact that may merit a content warning of sorts: in political terms, at least when it comes to queer representation, it’s very much a book of its time).

    But if the brutality of the subject matter is proof enough that the book is not aimed at young adults, the authentic ways the authors tackle mature themes from a younger perspective; the care and consideration they pay Jack’s developing sense of personal identity as he emerges from the shadow of his parents; and its mix of horror themes and a straightforward quest-fantasy structure make it a natural first step into the realms of adult fantasy, not to mention an entry point to the wider universe of Stephen King’s fiction.

    The novel finds Jack alone and rambling around a sleepy New England seaside town where his ailing mother has gone to convalesce. Left to his own devices, Jack wanders into an abandoned amusement park, where is given an important quest by the park’s old caretaker. To heal his terminally mother, he must travel across the United States and through an otherworld known as the Territories—a place soaked in odd magic and immense danger, a dark mirror of our own—to locate a magical artifact known as the Talisman, an object of unimaginable power that is key to saving both Jack’s mother and the whole of the Territories.

    Dogging Jack at every step of his journey—in both our world and the Territories—are a dastardly assortment of villains, from a sadistic, orange-eyed cowboy boogeyman, to the staff of a horrifyingly Dickensian boys’ work home, to Jack’s sinister Uncle Morgan. Worse still, the barriers between the worlds are blurring and breaking down. If Jack fails, it could mean the end not just for his mother or himself, but for two entire worlds.

    Countless children’s stories begin by sending a child off on a quest through multiple worlds to save a loved one, and The Talisman benefits from the solidity of the structure; it never really seems unlikely that Jack will fail in his mission, which lends the novel a comforting air of familiarity, despite the horrors he experiences along the way. But kids generally don’t care about tropes being reinforced or subverted—what makes it a particularly great book for younger readers is the way it approaches a fantastical plot in a highly believable way, while foregrounding the emotional journey of its still maturing young protagonist. Many of the dangers Jack faces are grounded in real-world darkness that will feel terrifyingly plausible to the YA crowd, whether it’s the looming death of a family, the disillusion of a close friendship due to stress and distance, or even the struggle to cope with the realization that your parents are not the benevolent titans of your youth, but simply flawed and fallible humans.

    Assuming they were talking to mature readers, King and Straub engage with these themes without talking down to their audience, and they certainly don’t pull their punches when it comes to the darkness and violence of Jack’s journey. There is hope and light in the story, introduced via magical and fantastical means, but it never strays too far from the truth—the terrors of growing up may be a bit more literal for Jack, but the roiling emotions he struggles with will be familiar enough to anyone who has ever felt angry, and alone, and eleven years old.

    That truth and the relatively straightforward plot offer a strong foundation for the book to build its flights of weird fantasy, and “weird” is definitely not an understatement. Though it was released well before King had started tying together his massive Dark Tower saga, it is very much of a piece with the other novels set within that multiverse. It is a relatively self-contained work of dark epic fantasy (never mind the sequel), but retains all the signature touches that define King at his most fantastical—numerous nods to gothic horror, a cast of gun-toting knight errants, echoes of the tense horror of The Shining, and a massive battle soundtracked to classic rock. Its closing chapters are downright triumphant, and a lot less ominous or cynical than almost anything else either of its authors has written, which certainly makes them more palatable for the mature young tween crowd.

    If The Talisman is a bit dated in some respects—it’s very much the product of two white guys in the ’80s with a limited frame of reference with, and attitudes toward, the LGBTQ community—its unflinching look at growing up, paired with its breakneck pacing, engaging epic fantasy worldbuilding, and injections of strangeness that could only come from the combined talents of King and Straub are timeless. Almost every kid goes through a Stephen King phase (many on them never leave it), and they should start here.

    The post <i>The Talisman</i> Is the Perfect YA Gateway to the Worlds of Stephen King appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
  • Jeff Somers 6:00 pm on 2018/10/08 Permalink
    Tags: alice isn't dead, ghostest with the mostest, , , stephen king   

    21 Books That Offer a Crash-Course in Horror 


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    Horror is an institution; scaring ourselves has become an accepted form of entertainment, so refined that the sub-genres have sub-genres. If you’ve never been much of a horror fan but want to get into the spirit of the season by taking a deep dive into the genre, you can either randomly select a few titles and roll the bones, or you could concentrate on the 20 books listed here, which, taken together, will walk you through a crash course of the literary horror world—note, this isn’t comprehensive or even close to complete, but will give you an idea of how the genre’s evolved.

    A Little History

    Some folks will argue horror existed as far back as Homer and other ancient writers, and even pops up in the bible. This argument seems to rest entirely on the fact that witches and scary things exist in those works, but that’s not really horror; there’s a necessary facet of emotional terror that the work has to at least intend to inspire that is lacking. Thus, we begin with the earliest works that are arguably recognizable as horror as we understand it today.

    The Castle of Oranto, by Horace Walpole, 1764
    Modern readers might not find this to be particularly scary, as the supernatural elements are underplayed compared to modern tastes. But every aspect of Gothic horror stems directly from this book, from the curse on the noble family to the twisted plot filled with unsavory implications to the secret passages and creepy evidence of ghosts throughout. It more or less established the seeds of the horror genre all by itself.

    The Monk, by Matthew Lewis, 1797
    Filled with lust, violence, ghosts, and truly terrifying supernatural happenings, The Monk is another Gothic story that brought much of the terror found in earlier examples to the forefront. Although ultimately a morality tale in which the wicked are punished, part of the horror is that the sins they’re punished for are sins most people are guilty of at one time or another, and there is no hint of any kind of salvation.

    Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, 1818
    Perhaps the most famous horror novel of all time, Shelley’s work of genius is one of the first to eschew supernatural elements entirely for science fiction tropes. It’s also become so iconic within and without the horror world that even people who haven’t read the book think they know the plot. The novel draws its energy from the fundamentals of human nature itself—the quest for knowledge, the dawning terror of realizing you’ve set something in motion you can’t control, and the horror of being rejected entirely by society. That last bit is important, because although Frankenstein’s monster is, you know, a monster, it’s not really the villain of the story.

    The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by
    As it’s wont to do, America took the developing tropes of horror fiction and ran with them,  transforming the genre into the visceral form we’re used to today. This process took a very long time, but it began in the early 19th century with works like this one—familiar to everyone, yet genuinely terrifying, if you think about it. While your enjoyment of the story is richer if you know a bit about the time period, the central image of the Headless Horseman is still 100 Percent Do Not Want in the modern age, and the structure set out some of the basic outlines that horror still follows today.

    The Fall o f the House of Usher, et al,, by Edgar Allen Poe, 1839
    Just about everything Poe wrote, from detective fiction to love poems, was terrifying, and many of his stories remain iconic works of horror, from the insane point-of-view work in The Tell-Tale Heart to the slow-burn horror of The Cask of Amontillado. The Fall of the House of Usher is representative of the smothering doom Poe infused into his work, built on a concept that seems modern even today—that of the house or structure that’s not merely haunted but can actually hurt you. Poe was one of the first horror writers to plant the idea that inanimate objects might want to hurt us.

    Pre-Modern

    Horror began to evolve into a distinct genre of fiction, with its own tropes and conventions, in the late 19th century, but by modern standards, the level of output was pretty thin. Still, some of the most famous works of horror ever were published in this period—foundational texts that served to define what, exactly, a horror story was supposed to be.

    The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
    Another tale so familiar that it’s almost a given, meaning it’s easy to forget just how disturbing the story really is—or how primal. The idea of being able to give in to your worst impulses without anyone knowing is intriguing in many circumstances, and the danger of losing control of your inner demons is at the heart of many horror stories—but none as iconic as this one. Stevenson’s tale of science gone wrong began to move horror away from formless evils and external forces and towards the intimate and the personal.

    The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, 1890
    It doesn’t get much more intimate and personal than this, a story in which a man offloads his sins onto a supernatural portrait, allowing him to remain young and handsome while his portrait becomes increasingly gruesome, reflecting his true self. Wilde’s brilliant twist, which finds Gray’s attempts to reverse the desecration of the painting, resulting in even worse consequences—because his motives were selfish, poisoning his attempt at reform—ensured this one would remain influential long after its publication.

    Dracula, by Bram Stoker, 1897
    Another iconic story centered on human frailty—the irresistible lure of decadent pleasures. Stoker was once described as simultaneously “a prude and a pornographer,” seeking to explore the dangerous lust of woman in the Victorian Age while still seeing them punished for it. His story of a monster and the men who come together to oppose its desires ushered in a new age of horror, although it wasn’t really appreciated until it became a smash hit as a Broadway play—and until Stoker’s estate sued the filmmakers responsible for Nosferatu, a pretty blatant example of infringement.

    The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
    James’ methodical story of psychological horror was one of the earliest to tease the reader with unreliable narrators, leaving it up to you to decide whether there really were any ghosts at all. That this foreknowledge doesn’t change the impact of the story is a tribute to James’ skill. Its influence can be seen today in just about any book that involves a creepy old house and a serious air psychological tension that seems to continue to tighten even after the story’s over.

    20th Century

    Often pinned to the horrors of modern war, especially World War I, and the rise of pulp fiction, horror really came into its own as a distinct genre of fiction in the early 20th century, and went through several waves and reinventions over the course of subsequent decades.

    The Purple Cloud, by M.P. Shiel, 1901
    This apocalyptic story about a man who goes on an expedition to the North Pole and witnesses the destruction of mankind by a mysterious, poisonous purple cloud, holds nothing back, diving pretty deep into the weird—especially for a book published in 1901. It’s influence on future horror writers outstrips its actual entertainment value—things get a little hard to take in the later pages—but if you want to see where H.P. Lovecraft got his inspiration, you have to read Shiel.

    The Jules de Grandin Stories, by Seabury Quinn, 1925
    The rise of pulp magazines in the 20th century meant there was a sudden demand for stories in the speculative genres—lots of them, in a steady supply. Characters like Jules de Grandin, a sort of Sherlock Holmes-meets-Scooby Doo character who investigated crimes involving ghosts, monsters, and magic—most of which turned out to center on regular, if depraved, people—served to make horror tropes familiar and acceptable to a mass audience. While these stories are great fun, they’re not particularly scary to the modern reader—but they served to create a hunger for the more intense material coming down the pike.

    At the Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft, 1936
    Lovecraft’s real life and racist beliefs aside, he occupies a fascinating place in horror, in that his ideas are widely enjoyed by people who have likely never read his work. Lovecraft’s actual writing is hit-or-miss, often veering into outright muddled—but when he focused, as he did in his famous novel At the Mountains of Madness, he was terrifying. By establishing the Cthulu Mythos, Lovecraft created a mythic foundation for horror that still being mined today.

    Psycho, by Robert Bloch, 1959
    It might seem hard to believe, but Psycho was transformative to the horror genre, in that there are zero supernatural elements in it. The horror is drawn entirely from one man’s break from reality—the character was even based on real-life serial killers. This is the book that boiled horror down to its essential motives—to scare and disturb—and made people realize that you didn’t need creaky old mansions or fictional monsters to scare the yips out of yourself.

    Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, 1967
    As the 20th century moved on, horror became more realistic and increasingly based in modern times, finding terror in society itself. Levin intended this story to be a critique of religion and belief systems in general, but its true horror lies in the fact that Rosemary is victimized by her neighbors and even, to an extent, her husband—society itself has lied to her, gaslighted her, and assaulted her. If you can’t trust your neighbors,who can you trust?

    Hell House, by Richard Matheson, 1971
    Matheson wrote some of the most influential books in the horror genre, including his more famous I Am Legend. Hell House marked a synthesis between the supernatural horror of tradition and the more modern psychological horror. The titular house is a powerful, inexplicable force, but its power is wielded by using people’s secrets and weaknesses against them, establishing a theme that continues to be used today.

    Carrie, by Stephen King, 1974
    Stephen King is often credited with the creation of horror as a marketing category unto itself, and he certainly single-handed led a surge of interest in horror fiction—and remains the most famous horror writer of all time. While many of the writers that preceded him were excellent, King also brought a sheen of literary quality to the genre, using the tricks and tropes of non-genre writing to craft deeply-imagined characters with individual motivations that lay outside the horrifying events. From the jump, King’s stories blended old-school supernatural elements, sci-fi concepts, and characters with weaknesses, and add a layer of complexity and artistry that elevated the entire genre.

    The Face That Must Die, by Ramsey Campbell, 1979
    Campbell’s lauded work is both heavily influenced by Lovecraft and essentially weirder. That weirdness has been taken to new levels by subsequent horror writers, eventually spurring the bizarro movement—horror that goes way off the deep end. In Campbell’s work, that weirdness is still subtle and controlled; this book, told through the eyes of a disturbed man, offers a view of reality that gets under your skin and frightens you on a nearly subliminal basis.

    Exquisite Corpse, by Poppy Z. Brite, 1997
    As the 20th century ticked by, horror grew increasingly nihilistic, suffering in some ways from a problem science fiction also faced: reality was catching up. It’s hard to be scared of something in a book when the nightly news has regular reports of atrocities, so horror made its way to the edge, offering gruesome characters and eccentric premises—like Brite’s story of two serial killers who meet cute and decide to team up for what can only be described as an orgy of kink and killing.

    Right Now

    Horror as a marketing category went through some lean times as the 20th century closed; while it thrived on movie screens, in print, it all but disappeared, as many publishers failed or closed up their imprints and what books were published were absorbed into other genres. But horror didn’t die, it simply evolved; today it thrives in print with a literary facade and on the internet in the form of creepypastas and memes that have moved into more formal stories.

    Penpal, by Dathan Auerbach, 2012
    If you’ve never heard the term “creepypasta,” you will soon enough; it’s slowly becoming a legit source for horror stories—the Slender Man film and SyFy’s Channel Zero are just two examples of creepypasta-inspired fare. Creepypastas are essentially horror memes—short stories and images that intend to unsettle and terrify, often linked together by disparate communities to form deep back stories. Auerbach’s Penpal began life as one such creepypasta, and it evolved into a novel that has the neutral, deadened tone of the best examples of the format.

    The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, by Laird Barron, 2013
    Barron may represent the future of horror; he combines a literary flare with long, complex sentences, and lush descriptive passages with a fusion of genres; his most successful stories mashups of noir, crime, horror, and fantasy. Because why can’t everything be terrifying? Consider the first season of HBO’s True Detective: a crime thriller that was flat-out a horror story for a few episodes before resolving into a crime story again. Who’s to say what’s horror and what’s not?

    Alice Isn’t Dead, by Joseph Fink, 2018
    Alice isn’t dead is based on a successful podcast also written by Fink (one of the co-creators of Welcome to Night Vale). The podcast, about a truck driver’s lonely roadtrip across the US in search of her missing wife, is making its case as the format of the future in general, though it works remarkably well as a standalone novel. Aside from being an example of how cutting-edge horror is being made these days, it’s also a scary piece of work, infusing old-school story elements (unstoppable monsters) with a modern sensibility and sense of cultural malaise.

    What horror books do you regard as foundational?

    The post 21 Books That Offer a Crash-Course in Horror appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

     
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