Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Bookcase Of Fear #6: Stephen King's The Stand

The Stand
By Stephen King

Well, I’m back.

At 1138 pages, The Stand is comfortably the longest book I’ve ever read, nudging aside the second-longest, also by Stephen King.  I emerged from it earlier today, parched and bleary-eyed.  What was the last book I read before this?  What's the date?  What year?

“The Stand” is the aftermath of a man-made plague, and it might as well be broken up into three volumes, ala The Lord Of The Rings.  For 300-odd pages it concerns the plague, not-so-affectionately known as “Captain Trips”.  The horrifying superflu spreads from one panicking security guard to pretty well everyone in America.  (The rest of the world soon joins in, thanks to some slithery men in black not wanting the USA to take the blame.  This sequence barely covers a page – perhaps it was a late addition? – and in any case, we never really leave America.)

King has said it was “fun” tearing down society, and given the pace of the rest of the novel it certainly falls apart fast.  Plenty of satirical nightmares are brought to life as the army struggles (pointlessly) to cover it up.  The death toll is virtually everybody; you won’t forget any of it in a hurry.  The horrifying imagination of this section could be a whole novel.  (Though in all honesty, at 300-ish pages, it is.)

The next section is about the survivors.  Some of them die just the same, only later (Captain Trips getting his second wind); some are killed in various grim mishaps; the rest gather their wits and start going… somewhere.  They have nothing to guide them except dreams, either concerning an old (very old) lady in the East, or a spooky “dark man” in the West.  This section is full of dreamy eeriness, as characters pass through deserted places, avoid simple perils and sidestep the dead.  Reading this, it occurred to me how many post-apocalyptic stories I’ve come across, almost all involving zombies.  It’s refreshing to read one where the dead stay dead, and our heroes’ problems stay closer (relatively speaking) to reality.

King deals, in detail, with the simple matters of staying alive and getting places.  I suspect much of the story came about from wondering how people would cope in a worst case scenario.  It’s a satisfying What If in that way, and I enjoyed the grim reality of Captain Trips, plus the harsh reality of surviving it, more than the book's final third.  More on that in a minute.

Being scattered over the country, it takes a while for our heroes to meet.  As with King’s also-elephantine It, you’ve got plenty of time to get attached to them.  Most of them are compelling: there are heroes that grow and conquer considerable flaws, but also villains who agonise over their choices.  (By the end, very few of either are left standing.)  The cast grows exponentially when both groups set up their own towns, and there are some very long chapters devoted to characters I just didn't care for.  Some of these guys are overgrown archetypes; most of the women are (typically?) defined by their sex, either sex-obsessed or sexually victimised or mothers.  Mother Abigail, the Godly figurehead, seems much more symbol than person, even after we hear her generous life story.  And despite seemingly endless effort to big up the villain, Randall Flagg – an ethereal, supernaturally-gifted spawn of Satan – he never struck me as remotely interesting.

King obviously finds him fascinating: he crops up in later works, particularly The Dark Tower series.  Flagg seemed to me like a mess of all-powerful ideas and weird, kooky details.  He’s boringly persuasive and omnipotent, until the plot (and presumably, God) requires him not to be.  Which leads to a wider point: much like Homer, if it’s all ultimately up to the gods, with characters getting psychic visions as to where it’s all going, they all seem a bit impotent.  Since, in fiction, it’s always up to the gods – i.e. the writer – it seems like cheating to have that in the actual plot.  (That said, King is a big fan of foreshadowing.  For me, Carrie was ruined by spending its entire length telling me how it ended.)  Anyway, I often wondered what Flagg could accomplish that would, all told, be genuinely worse than an apocalyptic superflu.

It all comes down to good vs. evil (personified as bluntly as possible by Abigail and Flagg), and it is eventually quite satisfying.  However, with its Godly messages, religious quests and explosive finale, it seems like a million miles from the realistic, satisfying What If that germinated the story.  While the story certainly evolves as it goes along, I wonder if it lost something.

My copy is the extended 1990 edition, with 400 pages put back in, and it takes a hell of a long time to get anywhere.  (Also my edition – a battered TV-movie tie-in – is replete with typos.  The best one is “minges”.)  The good moments are couched in sheer, gratuitous length, and unlike It – a not-really-relevant comparison, I know – I didn’t feel very much closure at the end.  Our heroes' fate is happy (at least those who made it), but it's totally open to future miseries.  Because hey, it's a cautionary tale: cue an outrageous moral finger-wagging right at the close.  I wish that bit hadn't made the cut.  If your point hasn’t sunk in by page 1130-something, can very much be achieved with an epilogue?

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Bookcase Of Fear #5

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft
By Stephen King

The latest dent in my mountainous Stephen King collection, On Writing is carved into two books: an autobiography and, as the title suggests, a guide to writing.  Both are brief.  (The former, maddeningly so.  I wanted more.)

How-to-write books are a tricky business, since there's no magic formula and no two writers are identical.  The best King can offer is an insight into how it works for him, and it's a frank, helpful account of his writerly foibles.  (Another similar book is Russell T Davies's The Writer's Tale.  Mixing how-he-did-it with why-he-bothers, it's as far from an instruction manual as you can get, and it's a great read.)  I found the autobiography in this more arresting and certainly more fun: his childhood escapades with brother Dave are hilarious, the account of his mother's passing is beautiful, and his infamous collision with a car is included, making for a serendipitously dramatic end.  As for the writing advice, it's simple and true, if not surprising.  He urges you to read lots, write lots, murder your darlings.  The lack of any secret ingredient is sort of his point the trick is to just get on with it.  I agree with most of what he says, although I think he's a little harsh about "writing courses".  He thinks of them entirely as retreats, and not university courses, the latter of which I've experienced.  They can work well.

Stephen King isn't to everyone's taste.  I consider myself a fan and even I find him haphazardly hit and miss, but I found it a rich, helpful book.  It's fun hearing how a few of his stories came together, and you get some good advice.  Bargain.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate
By Stewart Lee

I know next to nothing about Stewart Lee, whose face I routinely confuse with that of another TV personality, whose name I can't remember.  But I was vaguely aware of Richard Herring (his '90s comedy partner), so I thought I'd give this a try.

I've read a couple of disappointing books by comedians, such as Dara O Brian's Tickling The English and Jack Dee's (unsurprisingly?) muted autobiography, and this is among the better ones.  It's a not-entirely-misanthropic look at being a comedian, including three of Lee's shows as transcripts.  Each of Lee's shows, and really his whole comedic outlook, is skewed away from mainstream acceptance; a lot of his jokes are deliberately, often morally complex.  "Complex" is a good word for the book as a whole, large amounts of which is recounted in footnotes, which can go on for pages at a time.  This makes it a bit too complicated for a light read, although on the plus side, it ensures that you're not skimming any of it.  You've got to take it all in, just to find your place.

Lee is surprisingly upbeat about his life (considering how misanthropic he is about everything else), and what it means to do comedy for a living.  He also deals with the unfortunate reception to Jerry Springer: The Opera, which he co-wrote, and how that ultimately helped him.  Despite a rather self-defeating need to be on the outskirts of popularity, he's simply very funny.  The mix of transcripts, footnotes and autobiography is an arresting one.  The overall book might be interesting more often than funny, but I'm glad I read it.

How Not To Grow Up
By Richard Herring

I read this hoping for a less "heavy" counterpart to Stewart Lee's book.  (The books are unrelated; the "How To" titles are sheer coincidence.)  It was, if anything, heavier going.

Richard Herring is about to turn 40, so he wants to examine what it means to be childish, vs. what it means to be mature.  It's not a terrible idea for a book, but it's also not a very original one.  And this book doesn't make the most of it.

Herring, who I've thoroughly enjoyed seeing live and very briefly met (he's very nice), boils the problem down to the kind of obvious "You're only as young as you feel" platitudes you might find on a fridge magnet.  (And increasingly, on Facebook.)  The majority of his book takes the form of a mid-life crisis, wherein he's both keen to meet the right person, and desperate to have a threesome at some point in his life.  There's a blunt "What it means to grow up" subtext in there, but it's not very interesting if you're not similarly obsessed with this one particular sex act.  On and on he goes about his sex life, lamenting that it's the wrong kind of sex he's having, usually with eager fans or gorgeous married women.  Cue the sound of tiny violins, and friends endlessly rolling their eyes at him, not that he seems to notice.

He does eventually clean up his act, finally meets The One (his partner, not Keanu Reeves in The Matrix), and is very grateful and lyrical about all that.  The trouble is, his "transformation" is mostly a standard set of New Year's Resolutions, and his girlfriend arrives right after a seemingly endless succession of women he's also excessively, uncomfortably keen on.  I'd reached Richard Herring Relationship Saturation Point by the time his amore turned up.  I also felt awkwardly like it was none of my business.

It's not a massively hilarious or insightful book.  It seemed to take several years to get through, and I think I like Richard Herring less for knowing all this stuff about him.  It's not one to revisit.  Or possibly, if you can help it, visit. 

Evil Machines
By Terry Jones

I like a lot of things about Terry Jones.  I like some of his Monty Python sketches (although I haven’t sat through the Complete Box Set yet), I love the movie Labyrinth (which Jones wrote), and I have a fondness for the 1996 Wind In The Willows film, with Jones as Toad.  Less successful in my eyes is Jones, the novelist.  His Starship Titanic (based on an idea by Douglas Adams) made for a rather horrible book, full of unlikeable and flat characters.  Evil Machines, though not horrible and not technically a novel, is not brilliant either.

There is a somewhat winning impishness to these short stories about technology that won’t behave, but it never spills into the anarchic laugh-out-loudness suggested in the blurb.  Multiple mentions of Monty Python, Roald Dahl and “edginess” give a false impression.  These are primarily children’s stories, which is fine, but they’re simple, somewhat clumsy, and very repetitive, mostly concerning objects that perform their tasks too excessively.  The prose is friendly and silly, but rarely witty.  Pythonesque social comment does peek through at times, but it's mostly couched in unimaginative and obvious storytelling.  This generally lacks the imagination of Python (being so limited in theme) and the teeth of Dahl.  It’s all too fluffy.  You can forget about “edge”.

Then, around halfway, the structure changes.  The short stories are suddenly linked into an overarching plot, allowing a novel to creep up on you unexpectedly.  I like this idea very much; however, the protagonist (a work-obsessed businessman) is two-dimensional, as is his family (a grown-up son and daughter he’s never had time for – where have I heard that before?), and the novel plot, concerning a robot that wants machines to rule the world, has scarcely any more ideas going for it than the short stories that precede it.  (One in particular features an evil vacuum cleaner, also a megalomaniac.)  Things lapse too comfortably, and all too often into cliché, especially re the dialogue.  These characters do not have interesting conversations; the situations they're stuck in are all drawn from the same boringly dry well.

I like the idea of machines that won’t behave, and I like the concept of a short story collection that turns the tables halfway.  Sadly, there is a gulf between the ideas in this book and their execution.