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Carrie At 40

THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King

BOBD THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

When people think of Stephen King, they most often think of the massive tomes that helped to make his name: The Stand, It, Needful Things. What we often forget is that King is as comfortable writing short fiction as he is writing in the longer form, and that he has produced over 120 pieces of short fiction in his forty-year career, enough to fill six collections (this, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, is the sixth) and four collections of slightly longer pieces. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams collects twenty pieces, written since the publication of Just After Sunset in 2008, into an accessible and wonderfully-annotated single volume that marks the end, as do the earlier collections, of another period of the author’s writing career.

I’ve made some things for you; you see them laid out before you in the moonlight. But before you look at the little handcrafted treasures I have for sale, come a little closer. I don’t bite. Except…I suspect you know that’s not entirely true.

I have been considering the worth of the short story collection in this day and age where everything is so readily available on the Internet. My ponderings began when I read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings earlier this year and discovered that I had, in fact, already read most of the pieces it contained. As a King collector, I like to keep my ear to the ground, and tend to pounce on new short stories when they’re released (yes, I am still using the “I only buy Playboy for the stories” excuse). So, when The Bazaar of Bad Dreams was announced, my first thought was: it’ll be a lovely addition to my collection, but I’ll probably have read the vast majority of it before; a thinking process that was verified when the table of contents was released further down the line.

But…

Having read it (or re-read, as the case seems to have been), I can now see the merit in collecting these works together. Many of them have been revised for re-publication, while others are brand new and, in one case, the story is available for the first time in King’s native English as part of the collection. In the main, it’s an excellent excuse to revisit some of the excellent stories that King has produced over the course of the past decade or so. The stories themselves cover a wide range of topics and genres, from the all-out horrific opener, “Mile 81” to the touching and blackly funny “Premium Harmony” which sees a young man lose his wife and his dog in one fell swoop; from the hilarious one-upmanship that drives “Drunken Fireworks” to the post-apocalyptic vision of the book’s closing story, “Summer Thunder”.

It’s difficult to pick favourites from these twenty stories; each one contains a little window onto the world and shows us, as only King can, the people who inhabit it and the stresses that, but for the grace of whichever god you believe in, might be our own. Some are more memorable than others, of course, but I suspect this might be as individual as each reader’s taste in music, or television, or… For me, the standouts are those stories that leave us with plenty to think about, which ask the question “what if?”, and invite us to extrapolate on the answer.

The Little Green God of Agony” is one such story and gives pain a physical form that can travel from one body to another. As someone who has suffered chronic pain for over twenty years, it’s a story that speaks directly to me, and I understand Newsome’s need to try every possible treatment, regardless of how off-the-wall it may seem and also, to some extent, his nurse’s accusations that much of his suffering is down to his own laziness and unwillingness to break the cycle of pain. The Little Green God is an image that appeals to me, and that haunts me in the dead of night when the pain chases sleep away.

The Dune” presents us with a simple enough premise: a dune on which writing appears from time to time, and the man who has discovered that each time a name appears on the dune, that person will die quite soon afterwards. It’s old-fashioned horror, but it’s the beautiful sting in the tail that makes this one stick with the reader. “Drunken Fireworks”, on the other hand, is as far from horror as it’s possible to get. In King’s fictional Castle Rock, two families – one local, one from out of town – have a rapidly-escalating fireworks competition every Fourth of July. The outcome is inevitable, but it’s the characters that drive this story, especially Alden McCausland, the man whose story this is: it’s the kind of character study in which King excels, the pitch-perfect Maine voice, and the examination of small-town life and how outsiders fit – or more often fail to fit – into the ideals that we hold so dear.

Ur”, originally written as a marketing gimmick for the then-new Amazon Kindle, has been given something of a facelift, but manages to maintain its solid core: on the surface, it’s a parable on the dangers of technology, but it’s once again the human element that causes most of the trouble. This is one of those “what if?” stories that will play over and over, especially when you go looking in the settings menu of your e-reader. For fans of baseball, King has included “Blockade Billy”, a wonderful novella that was originally published as a lovely little hardback in 2010. This is King the prestidigitator in his element, a story that manages to hide its true nature until the very last paragraph.

In many ways, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is the perfect companion piece to King’s instructional 2000 book, On Writing. Each of the stories here contain a short introduction explaining the story’s origins and what King was trying to achieve when writing them. It’s a brief but educational look into the workings of King’s mind, and his approach to writing fiction. It also serves to date-stamp, in a way, each story, allowing the reader to follow the progression of a writer who, by his own admission, is still perfecting his craft.

King has come a long way since the publication of his first book of short stories, 1978’s Night Shift. Clearly the work of the same brilliant mind, it’s clear that the stories that make up The Bazaar of Bad Dreams come with extra baggage, the weight of experience that can only come from living life. There’s much less focus on the “horror” elements (take a look at the table of contents for Night Shift and you’ll see what I mean), and much more on the “human” elements; many of these stories are unsettling or downright frightening, but more because of how close to the bone they strike than because of how much they can gross us out (with the exception, maybe, of “Mile 81”) or their reliance on the easy scare: the ghost, or the giant rat, or the vampire. They are the work of a much more mature writer, a writer at a vastly different stage of life than the twenty-something who wrote “Graveyard Shift” or “Children of the Corn” and the book’s publication clears the decks for a new stage of King’s writing, something we’ll be able to measure in another decade or so when collection number seven comes our way.

There are a couple of stories that are noticeable by their absence from the book’s table of contents. The fact that I’ve noticed is one of the downsides of that desire to keep up-to-date that I spoke about earlier. The most obvious (although there are probably more that I have missed) are “In the Tall Grass” and “A Face in the Crowd”, both of which were produced alongside a co-writer, son Joe Hill in the first instance, Faithful co-writer Stewart O’Nan in the second. Their omission seems odd, but fills this reader with hope: is King aiming to become the literary Tony Bennett and give us a Duets-style book of collaborations somewhere down the line?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams contains an excellent selection of King’s more recent short works. Perfect fodder for the long, dark winter nights ahead, it will give the reader plenty of food for thought, and the occasional sleepless night. Showcasing the breadth of King’s writing ability in a single volume, something that’s not always possible in a single novel, this is the work of a writer who is comfortable in his own ability, and in the worlds that he creates, but who is constantly in search of the next addition to his writer’s toolbox, the next tool that will make his writing better or, at the very least, broaden his horizons. Occasionally touching, often laugh-out-loud funny and frequently spine-tinglingly chilling, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and an excellent jumping-on point for anyone who has yet to experience either his work in general, or his short stories in particular.

FINDERS KEEPERS by Stephen King

FINDERS KEEPERS - Stephen King FINDERS KEEPERS

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

“Shit don’t mean shit.”

In 1978 reclusive American literary great John Rothstein is murdered in the remote New Hampshire farm where he has spent the past 16 years. His safe is emptied, not only of the cash that he keeps there, but also of 150 or so notebooks which are believed to contain at least one new novel and countless short stories and story fragments. Morris Bellamy, the man who has just shot John Rothstein, considers himself the author’s biggest fan, whose only friend during his formative years was Rothstein’s greatest creation, Jimmy Gold. When Bellamy’s friend Andy Halliday refuses to help him sell on the notebooks – once Morris has read them, of course – Bellamy buries books and money in a trunk and promptly finds himself serving life in prison for a drink-fuelled rape that he has no memory of committing.

Thirty years later, Pete Saubers finds Bellamy’s trunk and recognises the value not only of the countless envelopes of money, but also of the notebooks that have remained hidden for so long. Tom Saubers, Pete’s father, is a victim of the recession and, to add insult to injury, is one of the people in line for the City Center Job Fair on that fateful morning when Brady Hartfield ploughs through it in a stolen Mercedes. When Pete approaches Andrew Halliday to try to sell Rothstein’s notebooks, he has no idea that it will coincide with Morris Bellamy’s parole. And Morris has waited thirty-five years to find out what happened to Jimmy Gold after Rothstein’s last published novel.

The first third of Stephen King’s latest novel, the follow-up to last year’s hugely successful Mr Mercedes, alternates between Morris Bellamy in 1978, and Pete Saubers as the first decade of the Twenty-first Century draws to a close, and the second sees a whole new life for his financially-strapped family. As well as giving us an in-depth insight into Morris Bellamy’s obsession, a different type of madness than drove Brady Hartfield, but no less dangerous in the long run, this section allows us to revisit the terrible Mercedes killings, and view the aftermath from the point of view of one of the survivors, and his young family. As always, King’s insight into the mind of Joe Q Public is second-to-none and we feel the pain and stress that threatens to tear the Saubers family apart, and understand the relief they feel when anonymous envelopes of money begin to appear in the mailbox.

Finders Keepers also, of course, sees the return of Kermit William “Bill” Hodges, retired City Police Detective who now runs the eponymous investigation company. He is approached by Pete’s little sister, who believes that the anonymous money has come from her brother, and that he may have done something bad to obtain it in the first place. Finding ourselves in the company of Bill once again – not to mention his unlikely sidekicks Holly and Jerome – is like finding ourselves in the company of an entertaining old friend. Hodges has changed much in the four years since the events of Mr Mercedes, not all for the good, but his mind is as sharp as ever and he is still a believable protagonist in the hands of King.

This second outing for Hodges et al takes a slightly different approach than the first. Instead of the straight crime novel we might have expected, King has injected Finders Keepers with a number of elements that bode ill for our heroes in the third book of the trilogy, and which are of a decidedly otherwordly origin. There are links here to King’s other works that are more overt than Mr Mercedes’ links to the likes of Christine and It: the number on the door of Brady Hartfield’s hospital room, for example, or the strange occurrences reported by the hospital staff, and the unforgettable clack! that will send a shiver down every Constant Reader’s spine. Hodges’ world is maybe not as close to ours as we imagined after reading Mr Mercedes, but is perhaps on a different level of the Dark Tower altogether.

There is a more obvious connection to one of King’s early greats: Morris Bellamy’s obsession with John Rothstein pales in comparison with that of Annie Wilkes for Paul Sheldon, but there are certainly parallels. Both have become so emotionally attached to their respective authors’ creations – Jimmy Gold for Bellamy; Misery Chastain for Wilkes – that any deviation from their idealised view of that character sends them into a murderous rage. Unlike Wilkes, Bellamy shoots Jimmy Gold’s creator in the head and hopes that the character’s salvation lies within the pages of the many notebooks that Rothstein has filled during his sixteen-year reclusion. The fact that Bellamy will have to wait over thirty years before he will get a chance to see what is in those notebooks is the ultimate irony. King is no stranger to obsessive fans, and he channels this knowledge into making Bellamy’s madness not only believable, but extremely frightening. And the appearance of the word “do-bee” will give anyone who has read Misery a severe dose of the willies.

A tale of obsession and family loyalty, Finders Keepers follows a similar formula to Mr Mercedes: a slow start (aside from the first chapter) during which we get to meet the main characters, leading to a fast-paced and intense climax during which nothing is guaranteed and both obsession – Bellamy’s need to see what is in the notebooks a driving force which blots out everything else – and family loyalty are put to the test. This is classic King: a character-driven story that worms its way deep into the reader’s life through the author’s grasp of how people work. Hodges and friends play a less central role than they did in their previous outing – the main story here concerns the parallels between Morris Bellamy and Pete Saubers – but King is laying groundwork for the trilogy’s closing chapter, preparing for an epic battle between good and evil that is likely to rival The Stand.

Finders Keepers is yet another unmissable addition to the King canon, a work that focuses on story and character rather than genre. An in-depth examination of the nature of obsession, something that King has looked at many times before, most notably in Misery, this is a beautifully-written novel that makes us empathise with Morris Bellamy while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from him at all costs: “that’s not me!” we tell ourselves, but we’re left with the disturbing question of what we would do ourselves were we in Morris Bellamy’s shoes. This is Stephen King at his best, a writer with no equal producing work that continues to surprise, delight and horrify in equal measure.

REVIVAL by Stephen King

REVIVAL - Stephen King REVIVAL

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons, even death may die.

Aficionados of the horror genre will instantly recognise this couplet as the work of H.P. Lovecraft, an excerpt from his fictional Book of the Dead, the Necronomicon. Referenced in Stephen King’s latest work, it forms one of the story’s central themes and provides a clue that Revival, the second King novel to appear in this, his fortieth year as a published author, is a return to the genre in which he made his name during the late seventies and most of the eighties. There is a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour to this story, though with a twist that is very much King’s own.

At the age of six, Jamie Morton, the youngest member of a large family living in small-town Maine, meets Charlie Jacobs, the town’s new minister and a man with a strange obsession with electricity. Following a tragic accident, Jacobs denounces God from the pulpit and disappears from Jamie’s life. But their paths are destined to cross again, and over the course of the next fifty years or so, they meet several times, each time Jacobs running a different scam, more obsessed by what he calls “the secret electricity”, and slightly more unhinged than the time before. Jamie has problems of his own and by the time he is in his early fifties he finds that he is in great debt to his old minister, and agrees to help him in one final experiment, the culmination of almost fifty years of research and experimentation.

For most of this hugely engrossing novel, King concentrates on the human aspect of the story. We watch as Jamie Morton grows from childhood to early adulthood and beyond to late middle age. What we know of Charlie Jacobs we learn through those time periods when the two men’s paths cross. While the scam is always different – Portraits in Lightning; the healing ministry – the subject of electricity remains a constant, and it quickly becomes clear that Jacobs has something planned, something related to the tragic accident that deprived him of his family when Jamie was still counting his age in single figures.

There are themes here that we have come to expect from Stephen King stories over the years: the question of faith plays an important part, here examined with a small twist that plays faith in the unknown (God) against faith in science (electricity) yet never manages to definitively separate the two; there is personal tragedy; examinations of the dynamics of family, and how they change over the years as the glue that holds them together first stretches, then, often, breaks altogether; the battle against addiction. Most importantly, as the Lovecraft quote that forms Revival’s core might suggest, is the question of death and what awaits us on the other side.

King never portrays Jacobs as a villain, yet the reader comes away with the distinct impression that if there is a villain in this piece, Jacobs would be it. There are parallels here with Rupert Angier from Christopher Priest’s excellent The Prestige (the obsession with electricity, and the attempts to turn it to one’s own will), and with King’s own Leland Gaunt; in this instance, rather than providing things, Jacobs provides cures, but the ultimate price that the buyer pays is no less substantial, and no less dangerous. As Mr Gaunt himself might advise: caveat emptor. There are also echoes of Pet Sematary: Jamie receives visits from the dead that feel very similar to the visits Louis Creed receives from Victor Pascow in that earlier novel. Through misdirection and clever plotting, King leads us to believe that we understand what Jacobs is trying to achieve, pulling the rug out from under us at the last minute and presenting us with something even more horrifying than we might have guessed.

There are, as always, links to King’s other works scattered throughout his latest novel. The most obvious is with last year’s Joyland, a place where Charlie Jacobs has set out his stall at some point during his career as a showman and charlatan. Once again, King immerses the reader in the world of “carny”, tying the two novels inextricably together, despite their widely different subject matters.

In the closing act, the tone of the novel changes completely, as King leaves his examination of the human aspect behind and presents us with a brief, but extremely disturbing, glimpse of balls-to-the-wall horror in a perfectly-judged tribute to the greats of the genre, people like Lovecraft and Machen, Ashton Smith and Derleth, the giants upon whose shoulders King has built his own career. You thought Pennywise was frightening? Or Kurt Barlow? Or the concept of Dreamcatcher’s “shit-weasels”? They all pale in comparison to the vision King presents in the closing pages of Revival, a vision that will make us re-examine all of the questions King has asked us to answer during the reading of this novel: that of faith, of family, of death. Abrupt and shocking, it shows that, even after forty years at the coalface, King still has the power to frighten and unnerve the reader, in ways that will stay with us long after we’ve finished the book and moved on to something else. Despite the Lovecraftian connotations, King presents a vision that is entirely of his own devising, and which asks us to reconsider any beliefs that we hold about who we are, where we come from and to where we are ultimately heading.

Revival is the perfect example of the long, slow build to a barely-glimpsed horror that is no less frightening for its brevity. Intensely personal, the book invites the reader to consider their own beliefs in order to understand the beliefs of the novel’s central characters, Jamie and Charlie. One of the finest novels King has produced in his long career, it is a welcome return to the pure horror that made his name, while still retaining the deep insight into the human condition that has defined much of his later work. Stephen King continues at the top of his game, one of our finest living writers. Revival is likely to become a firm favourite for many Constant Readers, an excellent example of the breadth of King’s abilities as a storyteller.

#CarrieAt40: The Stephen King Vote–Update

A brief update on the current state of play with the Big #CarrieAt40 Stephen King Vote.

I have updated the novels section to allow readers to vote for Revival, which is almost upon us and which looks set to become an instant classic. I’m also setting a firm end date of 31 December 2014 for closing the vote. The current top threes in each section are listed below. Don’t agree? Then be sure to VOTE! Make sure your voice is heard.

Novels

Third: ‘Salem’s Lot

Second: The Stand

First: It

Short Stories

Third: The Raft (Skeleton Crew)

Second: Graveyard Shift (Night Shift)

First: Children of the Corn (Night Shift)

Novellas

Third: The Body (Different Seasons)

Second: The Mist (Skeleton Crew)

First: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Different Seasons)

Non-Fiction

Third: Secret Windows

Second: Danse Macabre

First: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

There are two months left to get your vote in and have your say, so don’t miss out. Ready to go?

 

Vote Here!

#CarrieAt40: The Stephen King Chart

Just when you thought all the #CarrieAt40 madness was over, it’s time to reveal the next phase. To celebrate Stephen King’s 40 years as a published author, we’ve created a survey to try and determine – according to his fans – which are his most important, enduring, or just plain entertaining works.

The survey is split into four sections, for Novels, Short Stories, Novellas and Non-Fiction, and you can choose as many or as few titles in each category as you like. I’ll reveal the top entries in each category later this year.

Thanks to everyone who has responded to the survey so far, and for all of the feedback. I have finally found what I believe to be the easiest way to present the information to make life easier for you, the voter. The latest incarnation of the survey can be found at

THE BIG #CARRIEAT40 STEPHEN KING VOTE

Please, if you haven’t done so already, cast your vote, and spread the word.

Many thanks!

MR MERCEDES by Stephen King

MR MERCEDES - Stephen King MR MERCEDES

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£20.00

On a foggy April morning, in an anonymous, recession-hit Midwestern city, Brady Hartfield ploughs a stolen Mercedes Benz into a group of people queued for a job fair, killing nine and injuring many more. Six months later, Detective William Hodges retires from the City Police Force, the Mercedes killing one of the unsolved cases he hands over to his partner. Living alone and spending his retirement watching television begins to take its toll and Bill Hodges starts to contemplate suicide. When he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer – or Mr Mercedes, as Bill comes to call him – he finds a new reason to go on. Deciding to keep the letter secret from his old partner for now, Bill Hodges goes back to the one loose thread that never made any sense: the owner of the stolen car, and the means by which Mr Mercedes managed to gain access. As Hodges’ investigation progresses, so the madness that drives Brady Hartfield grows, his original plan to help the retired policeman on his way to suicide replaced by something bolder and more public, something that would make his trick with the Mercedes look positively innocent in comparison.

Stephen King’s latest novel is being marketed as a departure for the Master of Horror, though for Constant Reader, the distinction is less clear. All of the elements that make a Stephen King novel are here: strong story, strong characters and that inimitable voice that guides us through the book. Mr Mercedes is, as advertised, a straight crime novel (perhaps a better fit for the Hard Case Crime line than last year’s supernatural-tinted Joyland) but at its core, it’s a return to one of King’s favourite topics: good versus evil. The recent revelation by King that it is the first of a proposed trilogy – with the second book due to drop next year – is just the icing on the cake.

While there are elements of mystery for the reader (just how did Brady get access to the Mercedes, for example), we are aware from the outset of who the perpetrator of the crime is, how he has so much information on Bill Hodges and, to a certain extent at least, what his plans for the immediate future are. Mr Mercedes is not so much a whodunit as an examination of these two men, both at different ends of the spectrum. On the one side we have Brady Hartfield, a cold-blooded murderer who lives with his alcoholic mother and spends his life trying to put a civilised face on the monster that lives just beneath the surface. Brady is one of King’s more insane creations, and the glimpse we get inside his head shows the type of horror at which King has always been adept: the horror in the everyday; the real-life insanity that leads to, to borrow the old cliché, man’s inhumanity to man. Like Under the Dome‘s Jim Rennie, Brady Hartfield is a character that gets under the reader’s skin, and whose demise – hopefully a brutal and slow one – we hope for almost from the moment we meet him.

Retired Detective K (for Kermit) William Hodges is the opposite side of the coin. Like King himself (and there has been a definite trend in this direction of late), Bill is a man in his later years who, without the job to keep him going, and the empty space left by his ex-wife and grown-up daughter, finds himself in something of a rut. Brady, a man with incredibly accurate insight into the human condition, sees this as a weakness, not counting on Bill’s obsession with the case that he left unsolved, or on the old man’s relationship with Jerome Robinson, the local kid who does his lawn and helps when Bill has trouble with technology. Given a new lease of life by the letter from Mr Mercedes, Bill – with the help of Jerome and the sister of Olivia Trelawney, whose grey Mercedes was used to kill nine people over a year previously – decides that he is the city’s best shot at catching this elusive and obviously unbalanced individual.

As you would expect from a Stephen King novel, there’s something down-to-earth and unpretentious about Mr Mercedes. Maybe it’s that familiar voice that has guided us through countless other tales, or the pop culture and topical references scattered liberally throughout the book. Starting slow and taking time to introduce us to the characters, King throws a couple of curve balls – some in our favour, others not – before ramping up the pace in the final quarter or so of the book. The constant switching of action between the two main protagonists keeps the reader on their toes and ensures that for the last hundred pages or so, it is nigh on impossible to set Mr Mercedes down.

While there are plenty of familiar tricks here, despite the shift in genre from what we’re used to from King, there are also some potentially interesting deviations from the usual formula. Unlike the majority of King’s novels, the action here takes place not in the author’s native Maine, but in an unnamed (which is unusual in itself) city in the American Midwest (most likely Ohio, based on the clues dropped throughout). The self-references, too, are handled in a slightly different way, with both Christine and It getting a mention early in the story, but as the well-known pieces of fiction that they are, rather than the usual in-world ties that we’ve come to expect.

‘Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?’

Hodges shook his head. Later – only weeks before his retirement – he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the fact of Pennywise, the clown in the movie.

And in one throw-away line towards the end of the novel, King creates another link between his own worlds and those of son Joe Hill in a reference to the character at the centre of Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box.

All of the ingredients that long-time fans of King’s work have come to expect are here, with the exception of the supernatural (which is not as unusual as non-readers might believe). The strength, as always, lies in King’s power to build characters with whom we can empathise (and, more importantly, who we can hate with a passion that exceeds all common sense). While the whole book is a result of the author’s talent in this area, King gives a short, powerful masterclass in the novel’s opening chapter, introducing us to characters whose entire history we will know within the space of ten or twelve pages, before wiping them out before our very eyes with the simple press of the accelerator of a grey Mercedes Benz SL500.

As always, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to reviewing Stephen King’s books. Mr Mercedes is an exceptional addition to an already incredible canon, and what better way to start in on the second forty years (well, we can hope!)? With his trademark voice, and all the charm and wit that it brings,  Stephen King has produced a character-centric thriller that should appeal to all readers of that genre, without alienating his long-time fan-base, once again proving that he is without match, regardless of the subject matter.

#CarrieAt40: Start at the Beginning by ROB CHILVER

aww ROB CHILVER

On the web: www.adventureswithwords.com

On Twitter: @robchilver

As a bookseller, I often see young teenagers hovering around the horror section shelves. On some occasions they stride confidently towards them, certain of what book to pick while at other moments, they waver halfway, around the ‘K’, a wide expanse of books to choose from, unsure which to select. With Stephen King, his many, many books have becomes household names – The Stand, IT, Pet Semetery, Salems Lot, but with a career so vast and varied, where in his back catalogue do you start?

For me, you always start at the beginning. You always start with Carrie.

I first heard about Carrie while at school; its reputation spreading from class to class almost telepathically (but fortunately not telekinetically). It was a book that had to be read for what horrors lay within its pages. Already before reading it, it came with built-in scares and as I approached the desk at my local library, clutching the highly in-demand paperback and sliding it over, would the librarian let it out to me? Would its reputation prevent me from reading it? Would I even like what I found inside? Fortunately the date stamp hit the card and I had two weeks to enter Carrie White’s world before the next reader requested it. What a time I had…

Thinking back now, Carrie spoke to us all at my secondary school. My fellow young readers had seen enough American television to get around the differences between ours and the Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School and could see the similarities between ourselves and Carrie. School is a time when as a teenager you are often struggling to find yourself, wanting nothing more than to fit in and Carrie White is an outcast from the beginning. But what was also scary about Carrie was that even at home, when you are supposed to be safe, her home life was unnerving and unsettling. Our parents are supposed to love and protect us but in Margaret White, she becomes a terrifying figure of authority that should be guiding and protecting us in our formative years. Nothing feels safe as Carrie’s story unfolds.

King also dazzles us with his varied storytelling technique, one that I had not seen before. Told with a mixture of newspaper clippings, letters, magazine articles and excerpts from other books, the narrative technique adds another sense of realism, cementing us firmly in Carrie’s world and Chamberlain in Maine. Suddenly telekinesis and pig’s blood becomes all the more real.

For such a slim book, Carrie packs in a lot of scares within its pages and even today still resonates with its readers. If you are looking where to start with Stephen King, start with Carrie as it is one hell of a beginning.

Rob Chilver works as a senior bookseller at a university branch of Waterstones. While this is great for getting an inside track on new releases, it goes without saying that his views are all his own and not those of his employer. He’s also the web wizard and editor of the Adventures With Words weekly podcast. He’s a big fan of James Bond and thrillers as well as American literature, which he studied at UEA and the University of Kent.

#CarrieAt40: Forever Young and Bloody by ANDREW PYPER

demonoligst ANDREW PYPER

On the web: www.andrewpyper.com

On Twitter: @andrewpyper

Turning forty, that at once arbitrary but inarguable line between youth and mid-life, invites all manner of introspection, almost all of it unwelcome. I know, I had my turn at it a couple years ago. And no matter how strenuously and logically you tell yourself (and others, your fellow timebound mortals, the company that misery loves) that it’s a meaningless designation, that there’s nothing you can do about the ever-accelerating carousel of birthdays so you might as well ignore them, you nevertheless find yourself at some vulnerable moment, staring into the abyss (or the mirror) wondering How the hell did that happen?

How the hell did Carrie become middle-aged? The same way I did. And it only makes sense, seeing as I grew up with her.

The protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel wasn’t in my same year (thankfully so, as I wouldn’t have survived the prom) but she was only a few years ahead of me, cool and forbidden and dangerous. I read the novel that told her story too young, which made the impression it left on me all the deeper. And then, approaching manhood, came Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand. I was growing up. And Stephen King was becoming the most influential fiction writer of his generation as well as mine, the dazzled punks swimming after the brilliant light of his comet tail.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow novelist of a similar age to mine. We surprised ourselves by asking a question you’d think novelists would have had securely answered at the outset, but most have left unanswered – or carefully avoided – the whole way along. What do we wish our books to do? Be written about in serious ways in serious places? Change lives? Sell a ton?

After giving it another round of drinks worth of thought, I landed on something that felt accurate and true to me: I hope my novels create their own world, their own mythology. Redefine the shape of the Western imagination in some necessarily small but undeniable way, so that we can never think of, say, the fear we have of being pulled under the water as we swim alone in a lake, or the suspicion that demons are real and walk among us, in the same way we did before. To create stories that create us.

To do, in other words, what Stephen King has done.

Carrie is forty and the fact that we know this, celebrate it, universally deem it an occasion of note, isn’t just because it’s a famous book, but because it’s part of us whether we’ve read it or not. The rage of adolescent isolation expressed as repressed mental violence that, finally, explodes into fire: this pre-existed Carrie, but now it is Carrie.

As we get older, it’s generally harder to absorb new tweaks and revisions to our formative mythologies. The early novels of Stephen King won’t have the same meaning for a young reader today as they did for me – the world is different, and the imaginative tools we use to see it are different too. But the very idea of “world” is a construction, and fiction has always had a hand in assembling its parts. And now, down there in the dark basement, a brick in the foundation, is Carrie.

We age. But she is forever young.

Andrew Pyper is the author of six novels, most recently The Demonologist, which is a #1 bestseller in his native Canada and a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel. His previous novels include Lost Girls and The Guardians. The Demonologist is currently in development for feature film with director/producer Robert Zemeckis and Universal Pictures.

#CarrieAt40: Ghosts of Smoke & Fire by KEALAN PATRICK BURKE

Kin New KEALAN PATRICK BURKE

On the web: www.kealanpatrickburke.com

On Twitter: @KealanBurke

When I was eight years old, I snuck into my mother’s bedroom while she was shopping, and swiped her copy of Stephen King’s Pet Semetery from her nightstand. This simple act of thievery opened the doors of horror, writing, and imagination to me in a way that no other book (mostly abridged classics, Hardy Boys, and Alfred Hitchock’s Three Investigators series) ever had. I read the book by flashlight late at night every night for the next week, and by the time I was finished, finally knew without a shadow of a doubt, what I wanted to be when I grew up. When my mother discovered—as all mothers will when the transgressions of their children are so poorly concealed—that I had read the book, rather than chastise or punish me, she suggested a system wherein she would read the books first and vet them before letting me read them. This progressed to her sharing her adult library card with me, but, being a single mother juggling two jobs, the vetting idea became a chore to uphold. I was reading a book, sometimes two a week, and she couldn’t keep up. So eventually she just let me read whatever I wanted to.

omnibusThe next book I acquired was a three-volume Stephen King collection, one of those NEL omnibus editions so popular back in the day. It contained Carrie, The Shining, and Salem’s Lot. I read Carrie first, and found of them all (The Shining would be my favorite), this was the one that struck a chord with me. No, I was not an awkward, ungainly pariah with nascent supernatural powers, nor was I bullied at school. Instead, I was a nobody, one of those ghosts the other children neither picked on nor invited into their cliques by virtue of my nonexistence. I was the wallpaper, the shadow without a presence to cast it. I was simply there, and had I not been, the absence would not have been noted by anyone but the teacher at roll-call. Instead—and maybe this went some way toward explaining my intangibility—I had a head full of fantasies and a wild imagination full of conflicts and characters, motives and monsters. I was the loner and for a while I would go home after school and find myself following poor Carrie’s treacherous journey through her own gauntlet of adolescence, and I felt for her, feared for her, wanted her to have a happy ending. But of course, this is King, and in King’s world, as in life, more often than not there are no happy endings. Instead, Carrie allows her powers to consume her. She becomes wrath, and while I had no desire to wipe out my school (would they even have noticed?) or my fellow students, I understood why Carrie did. Did I believe it right, or fair? I couldn’t say. For me, it didn’t come down to right or wrong. It was more a matter of inevitability, a metaphor for the larger idea of nobodies becoming something, even if that something is monstrous. Regardless of who or what you were as a child or a teen, Carrie White is us. She is puberty, that hostile confusing place where there are more questions than answers, where ugliness wars with beauty, where identity is a shadow in the fog, a time of harsh lessons and terrible truths, a Boschian landscape not all of us survive. Most pull through and become the characters in their own exciting, tragic, terrifying, and wonderful novels. Others…

Others tear the world down around themselves rather than climb that ladder up to an unknowable fate.

For those of us who were in the chrysalis upon our first discovery of King’s novel, we have, unlike Carrie White, endured, escaped intact, but not without a critical and necessary education. Life is hard, childhood is harder, and there isn’t a one among us who doesn’t know the feel of the flames.

Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of five novels, including Kin, and Nemesis, and over two-hundred short stories and novellas. His short story “Peekers” is currently in development as a motion picture at Lionsgate Entertainment.

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