Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
(Available as an ebook)
Before I let you know what I thought of Stephen King’s latest work, the short story/novelette Mile 81, I feel it’s only fair to talk a bit about Stephen King, and what you’re letting yourself in for should you wish to proceed and read my review.
I’ve been a die hard Stephen King fan since I discovered Skeleton Crew back when I was around 12 years old (I’m now 35). My first King novel was Pet Sematary, and from there on, I was hooked. When anyone asks who my favourite author is, I can say without a second thought that it is King – sure there are others whose work I love: Stephenson, Marshall (Smith), Gaiman, etc. – but for me, none of them will ever come close. Some might call me a rabid fan, but I like to think of myself as, simply, a fan, and a collector. Like most people in this by-no-means-exclusive club, I was devastated (and not totally for altruistic reasons) in mid-1999 when the news of King’s accident was announced, and again in early-2002 when an out-of-context quote made it look like he would be retiring before the end of that year. Now, almost 10 years later, King is still producing some of the finest fiction on offer, and for me, and many like me, the announcement of a new King work is an event in itself, and a reason to celebrate. With that in mind…
Often described as America’s best-loved bogeyman, Stephen King is, above all else, a chronicler of modern day America and the pop culture that pervades everything both inside and outside that country. I remember reading (perhaps in the foreword) that the majority of the work that went into producing the Complete and Uncut edition of The Stand was updating all of the cultural references from the original late-70s timeframe to the new early-90s one. His latest piece of work, labelled variously as short story, novella and novelette is the creepy and wonderful Mile 81, released as an ebook in the US and UK.
The Mile 81 of the title is a disused rest stop on Maine’s I-95. The building, which once housed the usual assortment of eateries and shops that one finds in American rest stops, now plays host to local teenagers looking for somewhere to drink, smoke and date in relative peace and quiet. When Pete Simmons, ten years old and with something to prove to his older brother, finds the older kids’ way in, the rest stop is as it has been for the past year: orange barrels block access from the interstate and the place is deserted, weeds already starting to push their way through the road surface. As Pete sleeps off a couple of nips from a found bottle of vodka, though, everything changes: a station wagon, make and model indiscernible under a layer of mud, crashes through the barriers, rolls to a stop on the ramp and sits, driver’s door ajar, waiting.
King has dealt with creepy cars before in the past, most famously in his 1983 novel, Christine, but also in the more recent From a Buick 8. For Mile 81, he ups the creepy quotient a couple of notches and we find ourselves watching in disbelief as the car eats the handful of good Samaritans who decide to stop and see if they can help the owners of the ever-growing fleet of cars building up on the disused off-ramp. Ridiculous as the premise might sound, in the hands of King, and his matter-of-fact storytelling, it’s no less believable than, say, that red and white ‘58 Plymouth Fury, or a Saint Bernard that suddenly goes rabid. As ever, King’s grasp of how ordinary people think and speak is impeccable, as in this example of the last thoughts of one of the car’s victims as it is snacking on his arm:
He could see glistening fingerbones from which the flesh had been sucked, and he had a brief, nightmarish image of chewing on one of the Colonel’s chicken wings. Get it all before you put that down, his mother used to say, the meat’s sweetest closest to the bone.
Of course, no King novel would be complete without the ubiquitous references to the world around us. Expect references to everything from Boardwalk Empire and American Vampire to Justin Bieber (ten-year-old Pete is the eldest of the three main characters). There’s even a sneaky little self-reference or two for the eagle-eyed Constant Reader.
Mile 81 would fit perfectly between the covers of Skeleton Crew, King’s first – and probably best (let’s face it, The Mist is worth the price of admission alone) – short story collection, or it’s follow-up, Night Shift. It’s a short, sharp gruesome tale from a man who is as comfortable with the short form as he is with the long (and the extra-long). It’s more in the tradition of those old all-out horror stories he used to write (The Mist, The Bogeyman, The Mangler), than the quietly disturbing ones he has been producing in recent years. There’s something about the story, how it’s told, the pace and style, that let’s you know, from the start, that King loved every minute that he was writing it. It’s an infectious feeling and I challenge anyone to read the first chapter and not have to finish it in a single sitting. This is classic King and should appeal to fans both old and new. It’s at once scary, funny and extremely insightful. And it’s just enough to tide us over until November 8th, until we can get our hands on 11/22/63.
|GUN: A NOVELLA
Ray Banks (www.thesaturdayboy.com)
Here’s this week’s shameful secret: while I’ve been aware of Ray Banks for a number of years (a signed copy of his The Big Blind has been sitting on my shelves for close to five years), he’s not an author I’m at all familiar with. Gun, a short, sharp tale with a sting is my first exposure to his work.
It is the story of Richie, a young man on parole after serving eighteen months at a young offenders’ institution who, in an effort to get some money quickly and easily, breaks a promise to his pregnant girlfriend, and approaches Goose – the man for whom he has just served time – looking for a job. The job is a simple one: go and see a man named Florida Al and purchase a gun. But when Richie is mugged by a group of young thugs when he steps out of Florida Al’s house, his day takes a turn for the worse, and the job becomes a lot more complicated than it should have been.
Gun is old-school noir fiction at its best. From the opening pages, we’re made aware of the futility of Richie’s situation: he has just spent time in prison when naming the man for whom he was working would most likely have gained him his freedom. On returning to the same man now looking for work, he discovers that Goose has no recollection of who he is. This is a vicious circle that is unlikely to end well for the teen. And he is well aware that this is the case. But collecting a gun, while risky, is an easy job, and might just set him up with enough money to find a decent job with which he can support his family.
A detailed description of the storyline would sound outlandish and comical, moving as it does from one encounter to the next; it is anything but. It remains plausible throughout and while there is a vein of dark humour running throughout, it’s a dark and violent piece of fiction showing a day in the life of a teenage hoodlum in modern-day Newcastle. We’re introduced to a cast of realistic characters, none of whom – Richie included – have any redeeming features, and taken through a series of encounters that grow increasingly violent until the final bitter twist. You may discover at that point that you’ve been holding your breath for some time.
In Gun, Banks asks very little of the reader. Half an hour will see you through the story, and there are no mysteries to solve or convoluted plot points to decipher along the way. So for the payoff to be this satisfying, this worthwhile, is a nice surprise. It makes this novella an absolute must-read for lovers of noir in particular and – to be honest – good crime in general.