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GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

Gwendys Button Box - King Chizmar GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX

Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Richard Chizmar (richardchizmar.com)

Cemetery Dance Publications (cemeterydance.com)

$25.00

Gwendy Peterson is just twelve years old when she meets Richard Farris at the top of the Suicide Stairs which lead from Castle Rock to the playground on Castle View. Richard Farris gives Gwendy a box and tells her that she is now its custodian – Farris has been watching her for a while, as he does with many others, and has decided that the responsibility must be hers, for as long as he wishes to leave it in her possession. The box has two levers and eight buttons, six of which correspond to the planet’s continents. The red button is for whatever the box’s owner wishes, and the black one is for everything, “The whole shebang”, as Farris tells Gwendy. Then he disappears, leaving her with the box, and only a tiny inkling of what the buttons might do. It remains largely hidden as Gwendy grows, though it will ultimately bring tragedy; how much, only Gwendy can decide.

“Take care of the box. I advise you not to let anyone find it, not just your parents, because people are curious. When they see a lever, they want to pull it. And when they see a button, they want to push it.”

Gwendy’s Button Box, a collaboration between Stephen King and long-time friend, publisher of the wonderful Cemetery Dance magazine and author, Richard Chizmar, presents a short and bittersweet glimpse into the teenage and early adult years of Gwendy Peterson, and the burden that has been placed on her by this mysterious man with his strange black hat that turns up in the most unexpected places. The novella gives King and Constant Reader a chance to revisit one of his most enduring creations, the Western Maine town of Castle Rock, but this is not a visit to the modern-day town; this is the Castle Rock of Sheriff George Bannerman and the Castle Rock Strangler; the Castle Rock which is home to a rabid St Bernard; the Castle Rock before Leland Gaunt came along with his must-have knickknacks and his thirst for destruction. Gwendy’s story runs in parallel to King’s earliest novels and while, surprisingly, there are few references to the events going on in the wider town, it still feels like something of a homecoming.

Constant Reader will also recognise Richard Farris as one of the many pseudonyms of King’s Dark Man, Randall Flagg. Here his role seems somewhat more benevolent than we might expect, even though he is placing an artefact of unimaginable power and, essentially, the fate of humankind, into the care of a twelve-year-old girl in a small backwater town. We can only imagine that this is some kind of game for the man who represents the ultimate evil in King’s universe, a way to place temptation in the path of a weak-willed race, and see how long they can refrain from satisfying their curiosity.

For much of the story, the box lies hidden in various places, Gwendy having taken Farris’ advice, full of threatening potential. Gwendy’s Button Box is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, following Gwendy from pre-teen to young adult, placing her in positions where the box might have an impact, and watching as she decides whether to use it or not. The authors sum up the question at the heart of the novella in an early scene:

“What if you had a button, a special magic button, and if you pushed it, you could kill somebody, or maybe just make them disappear, or blow up any place you were thinking of? What person would you make disappear or what place would you blow up?”

It’s an age-old question, one that has been examined in fiction many times before, going as far back as W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and beyond, given the Stephen King treatment and placed in the familiar surroundings of a universe where Constant Reader will always feel at home. The collaboration is seamless, Richard Chizmar holding his own alongside one of the genre’s greatest writers, and exposing his name to the much wider readership that his writing deserves.

Here’s something you don’t hear about a Stephen King book too often: it’s too short! There’s material aplenty here to turn novella to novel, but that may just be me being greedy. It’s long enough to keep us going until Sleeping Beauties, making this the year of King collaborations, a small, perfect gem of a story that will make you stop and think, force you to consider the question of what you would do if you had that special magic button. It’s beautifully packaged, as you might expect from the perfectionists at Chizmar’s Cemetery Dance Publications, and illustrated throughout by the excellent Keith Minnion.

Gwendy’s Button Box is likely to be one of King’s lesser-known stories, given its small-press origins, but it is definitely worth hunting down a copy. “Classic” King, it’s filled with the insight and humour that we’ve come to expect, as well as the distinctive narrative voice that lures the reader into the story. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Richard Chizmar, an excellent author in his own right, who deserves to be much more widely-read than he currently is. Thought-provoking and chill-inducing, this is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and the perfect excuse to go back to the start, and revisit the small town of Castle Rock.

RETRIBUTION ROAD by Antonin Varenne

image001 RETRIBUTION ROAD

Antonin Varenne

Translated by Sam Taylor (samtaylorwriter.wixsite.com/sam-taylor-writer)

MacLehose Press (www.maclehosepress.com)

£18.99

Sergeant Arthur Bowman is a fifteen-year veteran of the East India Company’s private army when he and his team are taken prisoner in Burma in 1852. Six months of torture leave him mentally and physically scarred when he is released along with nine of the men who were captured with him, and he returns to London. Working as a policeman, he finds a body in the sewers, a body whose mutilation is uncannily like his own, with the word “SURVIVE” daubed in blood beside it. Only ten men could have perpetrated this horrific crime, and Bowman is determined to find out which one before the crime is pinned on him. From Burma, through Nineteenth Century England and the burgeoning New World, we follow Arthur Bowman is his search for a killer, and for a reason to live.

Antonin Varenne’s new novel is a wild departure from his earlier, noirish offerings, but anyone who has read those earlier works will immediately recognise the author’s skilful hand in this Patrick O’Brian meets Arthur Conan Doyle meets Larry McMurtry epic of one man’s search for retribution and redemption in both the beautiful narrative style and the intense, gritty world that Arthur Bowman inhabits.

Bowman himself is a hard character to like, a man who speaks little and seems to hold those around him in contempt for much of the time. When he is tasked with picking a group for a special mission that he will then lead, he finds himself facing capture or death, and shows – in no uncertain terms – what he is prepared to do in order to survive. Varenne places us, very early in the story, in the middle of a pitched river battle in which we get to see the true Arthur Bowman, a man for whom we have had very little empathy up to this point, but whose actions and interactions endear him to us as violence rages around him.

His time in England, just another damaged war veteran, builds upon this stoic character to show us how far he will go to obtain justice. One of the men he chose that day in Burma is now a murderer, and Bowman feels no small measure of blame for it and so, pulling himself together, getting his life into some sort of order, he sets out to find which one and make him pay, going so far as to follow the series of murders first to America’s East Coast and then out west to where many are attempting to make their name and their fortune in fabled lands riddled with gold.

As Bowman’s story progresses, our opinion of him changes as we watch him come out of his shell, a man of integrity and a sense of duty who carries on despite the pain it might cause him. Bowman is obviously damaged, both in terms of the physical scarring that covers his body, and of the less-visible emotional scars, but is not so damaged as to still understand that what he suffered has no place outside the jungle camp that was his home for six months. What’s interesting here is Varenne’s decision not to focus on the violence, not to describe what Bowman went through, nor for that matter, what the killer’s corpses look like. It is somehow more harrowing knowing that something happened, even if we only catch brief glimpses of the details in a throwaway line here – about Bowman’s facial scarring – or there – about memories of other men being taken from their cages.

Retribution Road feels like three distinct novels in one: the historical epic covering the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852; the detective novel set in the grimy streets of Victorian London and England; and a story of rebirth as Bowman reaches the vast plains of the wild West. It’s beautifully written, Varenne’s distinctive style shining through Sam Taylor’s wonderful translation, and impeccably researched. While Bowman stands firm at the centre of the story, he comes into contact with many other people who leap from the page, regardless of how briefly they appear therein, or of how much impact they have on Bowman’s journey, on his transformation from automaton-like soldier to human being, lover, father, friend.

A stunning, epic tale from an author who is not afraid to step outside his comfort zone, Retribution Road is an entirely engrossing read that, despite its heft, will still leave the reader wishing for more. It’s a dark story with a surprisingly warm heart, the tale of a man who we should never come to like yet who, against all odds, settles himself comfortably into the reader’s consciousness, staying with us long after the story has finished. With Retribution Road Antonin Varenne proves that he is an author who deserves to be on your “must-read” list, and offers his work to a much wider audience than his earlier novels might. If I could only recommend one book this year, this would probably be it.

RELICS by Tim Lebbon

Relics RELICS

Tim  Lebbon (www.timlebbon.net)

Titan Books (titanbooks.com)

£7.99

Angela Gough’s life is happy and normal until the day her boyfriend, Vince, leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Mysterious notes through the door, which may be in his handwriting tell her to stay away, not to look for him, but Angela isn’t about to let him disappear out of her life without so much as an explanation. As she digs, she finds that her boyfriend is not the man she thought he was. He works for one of London’s biggest crime bosses and seems to have a secret life outside the one he shares with Angela. As she finds herself digging into the dangerous black market for ancient relics, pieces of creatures that should never have existed outside the pages of myth and legend, she soon discovers that there is more to London than the domain of humankind.

Relics is the start of a new urban fantasy series from genre legend Tim Lebbon. It’s a familiar plot – partners keeping secrets from each other, until one discovers that the other works for a criminal overlord, or is a Russian sleeper agent, or whatever the twist happens to be. In this instance it’s the gangster, but Lebbon twists slightly further, adding a dash of the supernatural to what might otherwise be described as gritty Britcrime. All of the ingredients are here: the man with a deep secret; the mob boss that he works for, and the rival mob boss who wants his special skills. It all sounds like your run of the mill London noir, until you factor in what exactly Vince does for Fat Frederick Meloy: he’s a relic hunter, a man with a special talent for finding old, rare artefacts, things which should not exist, and for which rich people will pay a fortune in order to add it to their collection.

At the centre of the story is Angela, a Bostonian living and studying in London. She shares a compact flat with her boyfriend Vince, and life is good, at least until Vince disappears and her world begins to fall apart. What makes Angela’s persistence and temerity believable is the fact that her study is focused on gangs and gang warfare. It also gives Lebbon the chance to give us some background on the darker figures – Meloy and Mary Rock – in a natural fashion, without the need for pages of backstory and exposition. While Angela is the central character, the story is told from the points of view of several other characters as well – Vince himself takes centre stage for much of the book; and Lilou, a nymph whose life Vince saved, gives us some insight into the state of mind of London’s lesser-known inhabitants, a group of so-called mythical creatures who call themselves collectively, the Kin.

Surprisingly, one of the book’s most engaging characters is gangster Fat Frederick Meloy, a man whose nickname no longer fits the bill. When we first encounter Meloy in the narrative, he comes across as a stereotypical London gangster. Lebbon, however, builds him into a larger-than-life character who, for many of the scenes where he is present, steals the show. A collector of the ancient relics himself, we see many sides of this complex man, despite the reputation that has grown up around him: at once the childlike glee whilst in the presence of his collection and the barely-contained violence that simmers beneath the surface. Meloy’s opposite number, Mary Rock, is a much more sinister character and we soon discover that she is not content to deal in ancient relics; she has discovered that the Kin still exist, and has developed a thirst – and a client-base – for something a little more fresh, something harvested from the fresh corpse of an angel, or a nymph, or a satyr.

Despite the supernatural elements, Relics does still feel like something of a contemporary crime novel. The London of Relics is, for the most part, the London of our own world, though Lebbon does explore a lesser-known face of the city, presenting a side of it that might fit well with the location of Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Mieville’s King Rat. Yes, there are creatures here that shouldn’t exist, but the story feels grounded in the real world through the evocation of London, and the realistic, empathetic characters that populate it.

Tim Lebbon is the quintessential genre author (which genre? All of them!) and Relics is the latest in a long line of unmissable books. Darkly thrilling, with more than a dash of black humour, it’s a novel that could easily be devoured in a single sitting, and is probably best enjoyed in this way. An excellent start to a promising new series, this is Lebbon at the top of his game.

SNATCH by Gregory McDonald

Snatch - Gregory McDonald SNATCH

Gregory McDonald (www.gregorymcdonald.com)

Hard Case Crime (www.hardcasecrime.com)

£7.99

Two eight-year-old boys from very different backgrounds. Two sets of less-than-competent kidnappers. In the hands of Gregory McDonald, almost anything could happen.

Like many people of my generation, my first exposure to the work of Gregory McDonald was the wonderful 1985 film Fletch, in which Chevy Chase took on the role of one of McDonald’s most famous creations. The film, as they tend to do, led me to the books, and I discovered in McDonald one of crime fiction’s finest stylists. The latest addition to Hard Case Crime’s excellent line-up reproduces two of McDonald’s standalone short novels in their usual OTT livery.

Snatched, the first of the two novels, is arguably the best of the pair, and showcases McDonald doing what he does best: using his ear for dialogue to bring his characters to life. Teddy Rinaldi is ambassador to the United Nations for a small country in the Persian Gulf. While preparing to present a new resolution to the UN, Teddy’s 8-year-old son Toby disappears: he gets on a plane in New York, and fails to get off it again in San Francisco. Toby is to be used as leverage to ensure Rinaldi’s new resolution does not pass. There is one small problem: the men behind the kidnapping have no idea where the child is, or who has him.

What makes Snatched special is the humour that underpins much of the action, and the relationship between Toby and his clueless captor, a man paid to do a job who has subsequently lost contact with his employer. This is a battle of wits that develops into something akin to a partnership, the reader never sure which of the pair is in charge. Like the best of McDonald’s Fletch novels, Snatched is presented with a minimum of narrative and a maximum of dialogue, each character unique in the way that they speak, the tics that they have, the language they use. The scenes shared by Toby and kidnapper Spike ensure that we feel more empathy for the tough-talking criminal than we do for Toby’s parents (and I’m speaking as a parent), or for the odious Colonel Turnbull, the so-called good guy of the piece.

The second novel, Safekeeping, takes a different tack, and introduces us to Robby Burnes, the son of a minor English nobleman killed in the Second World War. Shipped off to New York, Robby finds himself in the lackadaisical care of journalist Thadeus Lowry and subsequently kidnapped by a woman who recognises him from the paper and thinks there might be money to be made in ransoming him back to Lowry. This second novel takes itself much less seriously than the first, and while McDonald’s gift with dialogue helps to carry it, it is a much more narrative-driven piece, written in a flowery, over-the-top language that makes the whole thing feel like little more than a farce. It’s an interesting find for McDonald completists (this its first publication since 1985), but beside Snatched it presents as little more than filler, a similarly-themed piece to fill out the page-count.

Don’t let that put you off: the tale of Toby Rinaldi’s kidnapping is worth the price of admission alone, a fine showcase for Gregory McDonald’s talents and a fine addition to the ever-excellent Hard Case Crime line. Snatch, as the collection is named, is an excellent jumping-on point for anyone yet to experience the creative genius of Gregory McDonald. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that it has been a while since we last visited with Fletch.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne

Boy-in-Striped-Pyjamas-Cover THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS

John Boyne (johnboyne.com)

Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (www.oliverjeffers.com)

Doubleday (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)

£14.99

Bruno is nine years old when his father’s job forces the family to pack up their beautiful Berlin home and move to the desolate Polish countryside. This is Out-With, a cold and unpleasant place where neither Bruno nor his sister want to stay, both missing their friends and the hustle and bustle of central Berlin. There is a window in Bruno’s bedroom, and it overlooks the tall barbed-wire fence that stretches for miles in either direction at the end of their garden. From the window, Bruno can see that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are living on the other side of the barbed wire fence, all of them dressed in the same striped pyjamas and cloth caps. It strikes Bruno as unfair, so many people over on the other side of the fence while he is on this side, alone but for his sister (a Hopeless Case), until the day he decides to go for a walk, and makes a friend in Shmuel, a boy from the other side.

John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas was an instant classic when it was first published in 2006. Ten years on, and it is still as powerful and touching as it ever was. In it, we meet Bruno, and watch events unfold through his young, naïve eyes. Bruno is the son of the Commandant of the Auschwitz (Out-With) concentration camp, and finds himself uprooted from his happy life in Berlin (where he spends his days with his three best friends for life) and transplanted to a “horrible” new home in the middle of nowhere.

While it is obvious to the reader, with the benefit of 70 years of hindsight, what is going on, Bruno’s innocence, and the immediacy of what he finds himself in the middle of, give us a fresh perspective on a well-known story. Terrible things are happening here, but Bruno’s young and idealistic mind refuses to let him consider this, seeing the barbed-wire fence not as an enclosure, but simply as a wall preventing him from making friends with the hundreds of children who obviously live on the other side of it. And in the way of all small boys, Bruno cannot comprehend a scenario in which his father is evil, even if he is more than a little distant. To the reader, of course, his father’s attitude – not to mention his acceptance of the position – show his true colours.

‘No, not them,’ said Bruno. ‘The people I see from my window. In the huts, in the distance. They’re all dressed the same.’

‘Ah, those people,’ said Father, nodding his head and smiling slightly. ‘Those people…well, they’re not people at all, Bruno.’

When Bruno meets Shmuel, a young boy on the other side of the fence, his opinion of Out-With begins to change, but not as we might expect. Shmuel shares Bruno’s birthday, and is the son of a Polish watchmaker. Nothing but circumstance – the vagaries of their parents’ religions – separates the fates of these two boys, putting one outside the fence – well-fed and cared for – and the other inside – starving, overworked and, though neither of the boys can possibly understanding, facing almost-certain death. Bruno begins to enjoy his time here, and his long talks with Shmuel, seeming to wilfully ignore the horror of Shmuel’s circumstances – rebuffing tales of horror inside the camp with tales of his own misfortune, like the fact that they have left a five-storey house in the middle of Berlin to live in a three-storey house in a far-away place.

While Bruno and Shmuel form the heart of the story, Boyne populates the narrative with all manner of interesting characters, many of whom seem strange to the young boy who acts as our guide. From aloof Father and unhappy Mother, to Kurt, the young soldier with an evil temper, a questionable background and a soft spot for Bruno’s sister and mother, and Pavel, the vegetable-cutter and waiter who claims to have been a doctor in a former life, all of these characters are instantly recognisable stereotypes who nevertheless pop off the page, fully-formed and full of life. Even the (aptly-misheard) Fury and his beautiful blonde companion seem like interesting people in the eyes of Bruno.

For the book’s tenth anniversary, Doubleday have produced a beautifully-packaged “Deluxe Illustrated Edition”, with art by the wonderful Oliver Jeffers. As a fan of Jeffers’ work (one of the many joyful discoveries I have made in fatherhood), he seemed like a strange choice to illustrate such a dark and ultimately horrific novel. But having re-read the book and admired Jeffers’ artwork, I’m now convinced that he was the right – perhaps the only – choice. His simplistic drawings, filled with childlike beauty, match the childlike narrative perfectly, though often showing us proceedings from a more adult, and sometimes very shocking, perspective.

From its light-hearted opening line to its inevitable and horrific end, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a gripping and essential take on one of humanity’s darkest moments. Boyne pulls no punches, despite the child’s-eye view that he uses to tell much of the story, and the reader comes away from the experience a changed – and extremely damp-eyed – person. While it is ostensibly a book aimed at children (I can’t wait until my own child is old enough to read it with me), this is a book that deserves to be read by everyone, an important story that – especially in these dark times where many seem to be forgetting the lessons of the past – is perfectly-pitched to give our children an early glimpse of the horrors inflicted on the world by Nazi Germany. A tough read (especially when you know what’s coming), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains one of the best books I’ve ever read, and this tenth anniversary edition marks both John Boyne and Oliver Jeffers as national treasures, men in whose hands the education and edification of our children are safe. If you haven’t read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I would urge you to do so. If you have, don’t you think it’s about time for a revisit?

IT by Stephen King

IT - Stephen King IT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

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

£10.99

(he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts)

In May 1985 six people receive a phone call from a friend they have long forgotten reminding them of an oath they swore when they were just eleven years old. The phone call kick-starts the process of remembering the evil they fought in the small town of Derry, Maine, in the summer of 1958. For one, the sudden memories are too much, but for the rest of the Losers Club, the call must be answered – the evil has returned, and they swore, a long time ago, that they would return to Derry to face It again if It ever came back. Now, with the evil being that lives beneath Derry trying to thwart them at every turn, they must remember the events of August 1958, and try to reconnect with the magic that helped them survive that first encounter.

One of King’s bigger tomes, It is also one of the most controversial, dividing the ranks of even Constant Reader into those who love and those who loathe. In the opening scene, King presents us with one of the most enduring images from the book (and, indeed, the small-screen adaptation), as we follow Georgie Denbrough’s paper boat down flooded Witcham Street.

There was a clown in the stormdrain. The clown held a bunch of balloons, all colors, like gorgeous ripe fruit in one hand.

And so, instilling coulrophobia in an entire generation of readers with that single, wonderful image, King launches us into a horror that won’t end for twenty-eight years.

In 1958, we meet the members of the Losers Club as they are brought together by something much bigger than themselves. There are seven, a magic number in anybody’s book, and they take the misnamed Barrens for their own once school lets out for summer. The leader of this small band of misfits is Bill Denbrough, Stuttering Bill, the older brother of the young boy whose death started this current cycle of violence. Constantly on the lookout for Henry Bowers and his band of bullies, the group find themselves facing a much greater danger in the shape of the clown Pennywise, which seems to be the favourite face of the thing that lives beneath the streets of Derry.

In 1985, Mike Hanlon has stayed behind, acting as watchdog, and gathering what information he can on the town’s storied history. When Adrian Mellon meets his gruesome end at the hands of a man – according to witnesses – wearing a clown suit, it’s time to remind the others of their promise, and we meet these same characters in their adult form. They are now only six – the reawakening of memories about that fateful summer of 1958 proves too much for one of the gang – and they have forgotten most of their early lives in Derry – the friends that they are now meeting once again for the first time in over twenty-five years; the town of Derry itself; and, most strikingly, the events that led to their banishment of It.

King intertwines these two strands in a way that allows the reader to “remember” the events of the past at the same time as the members of the reconvened Losers Club. As events tend towards their climax, King evokes in us a sense of “doubling”, as children and adults approach the lair of It in lockstep, the narrative jumping back and forth in time without breaking the flow of action, little more than subtle clues to remind the reader that this is 1958 and that is 1985.

Running parallel to both these strands are a series of Interludes, sections taken from Mike Hanlon’s personal history of Derry, Maine, where we see the pattern begin to emerge, the twenty-seven- or -eight-year silence followed by eighteen months of violence before the cycle starts again. It is through these histories that we get a sense of the town itself, and the people who live there, and we begin to understand the nature of It – not Its origins, which we will learn later through Its own eyes, but how it has attained a king of symbiosis with the town and its inhabitants, so that strange goings-on (Henry Bowers attempting to carve his name in the stomach of Ben Hanscom, for example, or Beverly Marsh’s frantic flight along Lower Main Street, her crazed father in pursuit) go largely unremarked or completely ignored.

I have read It several times before, but this is my first visit as a man in middle age (and if that’s not a phrase to send you screaming to Juniper Hill, then nothing is), a man much closer in age to the 1985 protagonists than to their 1958 counterparts, and this elevated position provides the reader with a much different outlook on the proceedings. We can identify with the problems these people have in their lives; we can even, to a certain extent, identify with the total blank where their memory of their childhood in Derry should be. King’s examination of “magic”, of “faith”, of all the things that we lose as we grow older, and that provided these children with unimaginable power during their first encounter with It, starts to make much more sense, and we find ourselves more deeply invested in the fates of these characters. It’s a whole different experience to the coming-of-age tale that I remember It being on previous reads.

King has always been accused of being overly-verbose and a quick glance at It (the latest UK paperback edition clocks in at a hefty 1,376 pages) might give the prospective reader the idea that these accusations might be right. Trust me: you could not be farther from the truth. Every word in every scene combines to create a world that the reader can inhabit as easily as the characters on the page and a sense of terror that weighs on the reader from that very first glimpse of Pennywise in the drain.

I, Georgie, am Mr Bob Gray, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Examinations of bullying, abuse, racism and the cruelty of children to those who are different (the fat one, the one who stutters, the one with asthma) give the story and the town a deep sense of realism and allows each reader to identify with something personal to themselves. It is, by no stretch of the imagination, perfect. There are a couple of missteps as the story progresses (and, no, I’m not one of those people who feel that that pivotal moment in the tunnels under Derry is one of them), the most glaring the short-lived return of Henry Bowers to the town of his childhood after escaping from the Juniper Hill asylum. Like the proverbial deus ex machina, he appears, wreaks havoc, and vanishes in the blink of an eye when he might actually have been a more useful plot device later in the narrative. But let’s not be picky.

It is thirty years old this year, putting us now as far from 1985 as that fabled year was from 1958. This latest re-read proves to me that it’s a novel that continues to stand the test of time: there is little in the 1985 timeline to date the story, so it holds up well. The 1958 timeline is a different matter entirely, but the process of growing up, making friends and having fun in the seemingly endless days of summer is something that never changes, so the pop culture references make little difference. Our own childhoods are as strange to us as Stuttering Bill’s was to him, and that’s all that matters when it comes to the story.

As we, Constant Reader, have come to expect, the story is littered with self-references and sly winks designed to check that we’re paying attention. Take Henry’s magical ride as prime example.

…it was the car he recognised first – it was the one his father always swore he would own someday, a 1958 Plymouth Fury. It was red and white and Henry knew that the engine rumbling under the hood was V-8 327.

It is one of King’s early masterpieces, taking over four years to complete. Suffused with horror, it’s something of a slow-burner that will hold you until the final page, and will play on your mind for a long time afterwards. A haunted house tale on an epic scale, it’s a prime example of King at the height of his early powers, and a book that will ensure you never look at Ronald McDonald in quite the same way ever again.

pennywise

‘SALEM’S LOT by Stephen King

'SALEM'S LOT - Stephen King ‘SALEM’S LOT

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)

£9.99

This review/essay originally appeared as part of the King For A Year project, and appears here in its original form, by permission.

…the Lot’s knowledge of the country’s torment was academic. Time went on a different schedule there. Nothing too nasty could happen in such a nice little town. Not there.

Like many people of my generation – I was born about two months after the events of ‘Salem’s Lot – my first exposure to Stephen King’s vampire story was through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 mini-series adaptation, a series that still, almost forty years later, gives me the willies when I happen upon it while channel-surfing. I first read the book in my early teens, and have read it maybe half a dozen times since, and I am happy to report that it is still as fresh – and as bone-chillingly frightening – as it was that first time.

Late summer 1975: Benjaman Mears, a successful author recently widowed in a terrible accident, has returned to the Southern Maine town where he grew up to write a new novel. ‘Salem’s Lot, a town of some 1300 souls, hasn’t changed much in the almost thirty years of his absence, but that won’t be the case for long. Ben meets Susan in the town’s park – she is reading his book – and love blossoms quickly. But the disappearance of a young boy – Ralphie Glick – and the sudden death of his older brother, Danny, plunge the town into a unique kind of hell, and as the body count grows, Ben and Susan find themselves aligned with a small group of like-minded people – high-school teacher Matt Burke, Doctor Jimmy Cody, Father Donald Callaghan and young Mark Petrie – who are convinced that the town has fallen victim to a vampire, one of the new residents of the storied Marsten House which looms over the town from its high perch.

Like many of King’s earlier novels, ‘Salem’s Lot seems to have entered the global consciousness as a kind of byword for vampire infestation. Even those of us who haven’t read the book have probably seen David Soul’s turn as Ben Mears and James Mason’s masterful Straker, and have some idea of the direction the story takes. The book is a slow-moving, atmospheric behemoth, very different from King’s previous – first – novel, the slimline and spare Carrie.

The story unfolds over the course of September and early October 1975, beginning with the arrival of Ben and the mysterious new residents of the old Marsten House. Told from multiple viewpoints, this is King doing what he has always done best: the dynamics of small-town America, the relationships and petty intrigues that define every small town not just in America, but across the developed world. The town has a long and sometimes unsavoury history, and King spends time building the bigger picture – the great fire of 1951; the tragedy that surrounded Hubie Marsten and his family – the deviation from the main storyline to touch on this history, and to do a “flyover” of the town, are devices designed to put the reader in the centre of the action, in ‘Salem’s Lot itself.

When the horror begins, it comes as a shock, and the early targets of Messrs Barlow and Straker are designed to hit the reader hardest: Irwin Purinton’s dog hung from the town cemetery’s gates; the disappearance of young Ralphie Glick closely followed by the death of his older brother Danny. King’s strength here is in the power of suggestion: very little of the horror happens within the pages of the novel, and is often left to the imagination of the reader; subtle noises from the next room, or the slow pan of the metaphorical camera away from the action at the critical moment are used to astounding effect, forcing the reader to create the scene in their own head, and come to their own conclusions.

There are scenes that stick with the reader (and, to be honest, many of them play over in my own head as the corresponding scenes from the television series): the delivery of the large crate (presumably containing Barlow in his coffin) to the Marsten House by Hank Peters and Royal Snow, a beautifully-constructed piece of suspense that sums up much of the book in its cold-sweat inducing narrative, and the closing exchange between the two protagonists.

“What was down there?” Royal asked. “What did you see?”

“Nothin’,” Hank Peters said, and the word came out in sections divided by his clicking teeth. “I didn’t see nothin’ and I never want to see it again.”

The other image is that of young Danny Glick knocking on Mark Petrie’s bedroom window, a scene made all the more frightening by the seeming innocence of the source of evil. Given the choice between Barlow and Danny Glick, this reader would run screaming to the ancient creature that started it all.

King uses the story to examine the question of faith, and the symbols that we use to show our religious affiliations. Without straying from the accepted lore – sunlight, crucifix, garlic, holy water – the author uses Matt Burke and Jimmy Cody to provide logical explanations for these weapons against the vampire and, famously, Donald Callaghan to examine the difference between the religious symbol and the power that it possesses. What makes ‘Salem’s Lot special, makes it one of the defining works of modern vampire fiction, is its grounding in reality, the characters’ understanding that what is happening is ridiculous, unreal, something that should not happen to normal people in the normal world.

“…If you’re locked up, that will serve his purpose well. And if you haven’t considered it, you might do well to consider it now: There is every possibility that some of us or all of us may live and triumph only to stand trial for murder.”

It’s easy to say now that ‘Salem’s Lot is a classic of the genre, one of perhaps three books that epitomise the modern vampire novel (to my mind George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream and Robert McCammon’s They Thirst come a close second and third), but take a moment to consider: ‘Salem’s Lot is the sophomore effort of a young writer who was, as yet, unproven beyond that slim first novel. Already there are signs of the writer King will become, many of the recurring themes in his work beginning in this blood-curdling masterpiece. And if it didn’t exist in the shadow of the great Dark Tower when it was first published in 1975, King made sure to bring it into the fold by re-introducing Donald Callaghan into his world over 25 years after the book’s publication.

In large part, I feel I’m preaching to the choir, but there are many who will have absorbed the basic points of ‘Salem’s Lot through some strange form of osmosis, and “know” it in much the same way that they “know” Dracula or Frankenstein without ever having read the original work. There is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than that creepy kid at the bedroom window, or the shuffling noises coming from the back of the truck; there is more to ‘Salem’s Lot than an ancient vampire and the havoc he wreaks on a small New England town. This is one of the finest works in King’s forty-year career, a book to be savoured again and again, safe in the knowledge that you will take something new away on each reading. And, in case you’re wondering: nothing sparkles here; this is horror fiction as it should be: dark, atmospheric and, best of all, frightening.

THE SEARCHER by Chris Morgan Jones

The Searcher THE SEARCHER

Chris Morgan Jones (www.chrismorganjones.com)

Mantle (www.panmacmillan.com)

£16.99

Isaac Hammer’s world seems to be falling down around him. The offices of his intelligence agency, Ikertu, have been raided by the police, and Ike himself has been arrested. The charge? Obtaining information by illegal means: hacking and phone tapping. But this isn’t Ike’s style, and until the police stormed his offices, he believed it wasn’t the style of ex-employee Ben Webster, whose case the police are investigating. The problem now is that Webster has disappeared while travelling to Georgia for the funeral of a journalist friend. Ike must find him, not only because he is the only person who can save Ike’s skin, and his business, but because Webster’s wife has asked Ike for help. And so Isaac Hammer, the great detective, finds himself in the middle of a country on the verge of civil war, with no idea who is friend, and who is foe.

In his first two novels, An Agent of Deceit and The Jackal’s Share, Chris Morgan Jones introduced us to Ben Webster, a modern-day spy with a knack for getting himself in trouble. For his latest novel, The Searcher, Jones shifts the focus from Webster – who has disappeared even before the novel has begun – to Webster’s boss, Isaac ‘Ike’ Hammer. The novel opens with a series of alternating chapters which interleave Hammer’s dealings with the British police and his ultimate arrest with his arrival in Georgia a number of days later, intent on finding Ben Webster and dragging him back to London if necessary.

It becomes clear very early on that the relationship between Webster and Hammer, which has always been a friendly one, even if Hammer has never really approved of some of Webster’s activities, has been dissolved. Webster has left Ikertu, leaving Hammer hurt and confused in the process, and has set out on his own. When he drops out of sight in Georgia, the obvious assumption is that he has taken a job that has taken him to one of the country’s less-populous areas. It’s understandable, then, that Hammer should bear some anger towards him for forcing him to come and fetch him back to London. It doesn’t take long once he’s in the country for Hammer to realise that Webster’s disappearance might not have been voluntary and, with his driver Koba for company, he picks up his friend’s trail and follows him into the wilderness that marks the border between Georgia and Russia.

In shifting the focus from Webster to Hammer, Jones has also shifted the narrative tone of his writing. No more are we reading the new Le Carré or Deighton, though elements of this earlier tone do still crop up in the story, but rather the new Chandler or, similarity in the lead characters’ names notwithstanding, Spillane. It’s an interesting trick: while these two characters started life in the same place, they’re both very different, and the approach to writing them as central characters shows this difference to best effect: when Webster is in the forefront, we know we can expect an old-fashioned spy story; when Hammer leads, think of the P.I. novels that were prevalent in the middle of the Twentieth Century, and you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect.

Hammer is an unlikely hero, a small dapper man of fifty, though his mind is like a steel trap. He thinks of himself as “the great detective”, and from what we can see as The Searcher progresses, there’s no hyperbole. While the on-going investigation back in London plays on Hammer’s mind throughout the story, it has little bearing on the central plot: the missing Webster, a dead journalist, a terrorist bombing. Jones takes us from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where daily protests quickly become riots, and where the American Hammer is made to feel less than welcome, to the mountainous and sparsely populated northern region of the country where he finds that, despite the pressures, life moves at a much slower pace.

Unfortunately for Hammer, Jones borrows another trick from the Marlowe novels, which sees his detective beaten almost to a pulp on several occasions. Like Chandler before him, the author seems to take great delight in inflicting pain on the detective, but it’s a tactic that not only serves to show the man’s strength of character, but also to increase the reader’s empathy with him so that we become fully invested in his adventure, and in the life-threatening danger that awaits him at every turn.

Jones’ characterisations are wonderful, and serve to bring the world around Hammer alive, from the loud and opinionated Koba, to the shady government agent Vekua; from the threatening presence of Otar Iosava, to the inexplicably vindictive Detective Inspector Sander. They give context to Hammer himself, his motives and thought processes and show him to be a man of sound moral judgement: perhaps the only thing that separates him from his literary forebears, for whom the word “shady” is often a gross understatement.

With The Searcher Jones shows incredible versatility, looking at his series books through the eyes of a different character, and through the medium of a different, if not entirely unrelated, genre. It will come as no surprise to anyone that has read his earlier books that he succeeds admirably. Well-written, excellent plotting and pace combine to take the unlikeliest of heroes and make him a character that we can believe in and root for. In many ways, Ike Hammer is a more interesting character than Ben Webster, and this reader has high hopes that we’ll see him take the lead again in future. The Searcher should definitely be on your “must read” list, even if you haven’t read Chris Morgan Jones before: it’s an excellent starting place, and opens this talented young author’s work to a whole new world of readers.

END OF WATCH by Stephen King

END OF WATCH - Stephen King END OF WATCH

Stephen King (stephenking.com)

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

£20.00

It has been almost seven years since the City Center Massacre, that fateful April morning when Brady Hartfield drove a grey Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting to attend a job fair in the heartland of recession-struck America. When a worrying trend develops for survivors of that terrible tragedy to commit suicide, Pete Huntley – a police detective on the verge of retirement, and saddled with a partner harbouring grand ambitions – calls his old partner, Bill Hodges, and asks him to take a look. Hodges has long been convinced that he wasn’t finished with Brady Hartfield and is immediately convinced that Mr Mercedes is behind this latest series of deaths. The only problem is that Brady Hartsfield has been residing in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic for six years, unresponsive and unlikely to recover.

It is a little under two years since the publication of Stephen King’s first Bill Hodges novel, Mr Mercedes, but this third visit to the retired detective and his friends feels like we are returning to visit an old and well-loved friend, perhaps for the final time. Bill, now approaching seventy and suffering from aches and pains that his younger self might have shrugged off – when the book opens, we meet Bill in the waiting room of his doctor’s surgery – is still running investigation firm Finders Keepers along with Holly Gibney, whom he met as a direct result of the events of that long-ago April morning. While his regular visits to Brady Hartfield’s hospital room stopped over six months before, his conviction that the man has been in some way faking is still as strong as ever, so that when his old partner calls his first thought is that Brady has somehow been responsible for the deaths of these people, people who survived his first attempt to kill them outside the City Center Job Fair.

King laid much of the groundwork for this final instalment in the trilogy’s middle chapter, Finders Keepers, when he introduced the reader to the possibility of Brady having telekinetic powers. This is developed further as End of Watch proceeds, and we learn that the ability to move objects with his mind might be the least of the abilities that Brady has gained since his encounter with Hodges’ “Happy Slapper”, in a move that takes us out of the realms of straight crime and back into the world of the unknown that we, as Stephen King readers, have come to know so well over the years. The presence of the Zappit, an out-dated gaming tablet with a decidedly hypnotic demo screen, in the possession of each of the suicides is the final connection that convinces Hodges that he is right in his suspicions, and leaves him with the question of how to prove such an outlandish theory.

End of Watch brings the story of Bill Hodges and Brady Hartfield full circle, pitting them against each other once again in an old-fashioned battle of good against evil. The intervening years have been less than kind to both men, so that the outcome is uncertain even as the novel approaches its final climactic scenes. It continues the theme of obsession that has run through the entire series, as each man seems out to get the other at the exclusion of all else. What sets them apart, what makes one good and one evil, seems to come down to how they interact with other people: Bill loves his two friends, Holly and Jerome, and is loved dearly by them in return; Brady, meanwhile, uses the people around him to get what he needs and discards them like ragdolls when he is finished. As always, the strength of King’s novels lies in his unparalleled ability to create characters with whom we can identify, and who become living, breathing entities as the story progresses; End of Watch, and the entire Bill Hodges Trilogy, is no exception.

King places strong emphasis on suicide throughout the novel, and even highlights its presence in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. Suicide has played a part in Brady Hartfield’s adventures before: his original plan was to convince Hodges to end his own life shortly after the detective retired. End of Watch takes a look at his strange ability to be able to read people and to get under their skin, to prod them gently in the direction of their own demise by their own hand. Given his current vegetative state, it’s an interesting solution to the problem of how Brady can take his revenge and continue his killing spree. In a world where suicide rates are high as a result of bullying and its more modern cousin, cyber bullying, it is at once instantly believable and frightening in the very real sense of the word.

With End of Watch King also examines old age, and the betrayal it brings with it. We never knew Bill Hodges as a young man, though the many ways in which his body have begun letting him down as he approaches seventy drive home for us the fact that he is well advanced in years and that, despite fighting on the side of good for at least as long as we’ve known him, he is facing an inevitability that will come to us all should we live that long. There is a feeling that King is writing from a position of experience, and the reader can’t help but wonder if it’s a means for the author to examine – and to begin to come to terms with – his own mortality.

Perhaps the strongest book of the trilogy, End of Watch is a welcome return to the unnamed city that is the home of Bill Hodges and the assortment of characters with whom he consorts. As with all of King’s work, the characters are key, though the reader can’t help but be impressed by the groundwork the author has already laid in earlier volumes to support the grand finale that he presents here. Despite his age, King shows that he is still as relevant, still as in-touch with the world we live in, as younger generations of writers, and proves, once again, that when it comes to transporting the reader into his fictional worlds, he remains without equal.

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