Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Gunslinger


The Gunslinger / Stephen King
New York : Signet, 2003
xxviii, 300 p.
Originally published: 1982
The Dark Tower, v. 1

This heroic fantasy is set in a world of ominous landscape and macabre menace that is a dark mirror of our own. A spellbinding tale of good versus evil, it features one of Stephen King's most powerful creations -- the gunslinger, a haunting figure who embodies the qualitites of the lone hero through the ages, from ancient myth to frontier Western legend.

This has been a pretty Stephen King-heavy blog, and I'm afraid that's not going to end anytime soon, which is strange considering how average I've found some of the things I've read. Icon status goes a long way for me.

The Gunslinger fits in the high-average category, but when I say that you have to imagine a HUGE asterisk next to it leading to a footnote that reads "I realize it is rather unfair to judge this book at all since it is only volume one of what is essentially one long novel." I could wait and evaluate The Dark Tower as a whole, but honestly, if you're going to publish an epic story over numerous decades, each potion needs to stand up to criticism. That's how I rationalize it.

So as a book, The Gunslinger is high-average, but as the first part of a giant series it is full of promise. Being basically an introduction, it is high on mystery and low on explanation and revelation. This is to be expected, but I wouldn't hate a more concrete idea on what exactly is going on.

The setting is ambiguous, which starts the reader on an unbalanced footing. It was a good move. King throws you into the world with a character who knows a lot, tells you very little, and expects you to catch up. It's interesting at first, but the constant stumbling gets frustrating, and I found myself wanting one or two key concepts spelled out so I could summarize the book beyond "there's this guy chasing this other guy and this kid comes." What is appealing about this is the feeling of drifting in a world where there is so much possibility. Almost anything can happen because we have no idea what can't.

I'm willing to bet it also invites rereads of the series once a person has the whole of it under his belt. In fact, if I were to reread this book right now after just finishing it, it might work very well.

The backstory of the main character is presented in extended flashback sequences, which were some of the best parts of the book, partially because the parameters of the world were more firmly-established. It's not always clear when King skips about in time, which added to my general bewilderment, but eventually you'll pick up on the rhythm of it.

At the beginning King exhibits an unpleasant and gratuitous obsession with sexuality. Most of it was needless references to balls and stuff, and it felt like the book was written by a 14-year-old. It goes away early on, though, so just bear with it.

But basically The Gunslinger does in a whole book what most fantasy books do in the first 4 chapters. It gets you started, throws a lot of ideas at you, and says "We'll work this out eventually; just put it all in your head." And it does this well. To justify it as a standalone novel, King has a basic plot arc including a dramatic turn, but it was too early in the overall story to carry much weight. If you're willing to take the time to read a multi-book epic (i.e. you've ever touched anything by Robert Jordan), then... well... good for you. I'm not recommending anything yet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Shining

The ShiningThe Shining / Stephen King
New York : Pocket Books, 2001
xviii, 683 p.
Originally published: 1977

The Overlook Hotel is more than just a home-away-from-home for the Torrance family. For Jack, Wendy, and their young son, Danny, it is a place where past horrors come to life. And where those gifted with the shining do battle with the darkest evils..

Just finished this one a few minutes ago on the train, and it was pretty engrossing, though after reading it I can unequivocally say that it's definitely not 1977 anymore.

The problem with setting the standard in a genre is that your ideas become tropes. Then the tropes become clich├ęs. Suddenly your book doesn't fare the same in a contemporary reading.

When you approach The Shining, you have to keep two things in mind:

  1. You already know what's going to happen. Even though the movie is drastically different from the book, the basic elements are all there: hotel, hinterlands, "Here's Johnny!"
  2. Even if you don't know what's going to happen, you will a third of the way through the book. This is because of what I said before. This story has been told 1,000 times since.

That said, The Shining is pretty much not that great anymore. Now I've only read Stephen King's older works so far, but from what I know, though he's a good storyteller, he wasn't a great writer in his early years. There are awkward moments in this novel where the writing does something so ridiculous it takes away from the tension. One example that stands out is when Wendy (the mom) was creeping down (or possibly up) the stairs terrified. I don't remember why; who cares? Anyway, King was counting steps: "ten steps, a dozen, a baker's dozen..." ...really? A baker's dozen? You portray the chillingly slow passage of time and suspense with a cutesy phrase like that?

That's symptomatic of the main problem I had with this novel. Oh, this is the **SPOLER ALERT** paragraph. I never liked the Kubrick movie, so I was excited when I read that in this book King was trying to move on from the naked evil of his previous novels to a sort of psychological horror that comes from more fleshed-out characters, particularly Jack. But then Jack's problems were all "father issues" this and "alcoholic" that, and it wasn't a particularly stirring portrayal of alcoholism at that. So King had moved from one form of unsophistication to another. And this was all made moot at the end when it's not even Jack's complex past that pushes him over the edge. They may have set him up for it, but it was the evil hotel's fault.

The Overlook Hotel as a character suffers from a similar contradiction. Years of history and memories have accumulated in this place, and like with Jack, the reader is never sure whether the place's evil history has built up into this manifestation or whether the manifestation was there all along and caused the evil history. This would have been a great question to play with, but at the end it's basically clear that the hotel was evil all along and collecting people through insanity and murder. So much for complexity.

I criticize because I care, though. Were this book not so universally (and if I may say uncritically) praised, I wouldn't have to much to say. This is by no means a bad book. But some amateurish moves, poorly-chosen imagery, and thirty-five years of horror media make it not that great either. To its credit, it did prove to me how miserable that movie adaptation was.

Anyway, I've probably pissed enough people off. Until next time!

Oh, P.S. I'd like to request that none of you ever bring up those asinine hedge animals ever again.



Cockroach / Marion Copeland
London : Reaktion Books, 2003
200 p.
Animal Series

Cockroaches are horrible. I'm pretty sure I've got legitimate katsaridaphobia, your word of the day, which means "fear of cockroaches." It's probably common, but a few weeks ago I saw a giant one in my otherwise pristine bathroom, and I stood there paralyzed for almost 20 minutes sweating before I was able to back up and get my spray. The spray is awesome because it has an incredible range, so I hit it from all the way across the room and the thing went NUTSO and started COMING AT ME, so I ran backwards and kept the spray drowning it, and it was twitching and going nuts but still running until finally it gave in and died. Ugh, it still freaks me out just thinking about it!

Anyway, I had this book Cockroach on my shelf because it's part of this neat animal series. It's basically a survey of the cockroach in the human experience, starting with science and taking a look at psychology, human relations, art, and literature and how perceptions of the cockroach have shaped and been shaped by different cultures over the years.

It's interesting, if not entirely coherent. Copeland doesn't seem to be leading to any particular thesis, instead just riffing for 200 pages on mankind's most loved and loathed insect. It's good.

The author lingers on the literary more than anything else, so I wasn't surprised when I looked her up and saw that her background is in literature. This isn't a criticism, though I did approach the book hoping for more on cockroach iconography.

Although the book was good, I do have one criticism: IT DIDN'T WORK! I thought it would help me see the beauty and life in these infesting abominations, but I had another one in my house yesterday and I was still terrified and killed by dumping poison on it. Sorry, dudes. Just stay out of my house.

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