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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.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King

DOCTOR SLEEP - Stephen King DOCTOR SLEEP

Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)

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

£19.99

‘Because that was then and this is now. Because the past is gone, even though it defines the present.’

Thirty-six years after the events described in The Shining, Dan Torrance – once Danny to most, and doc to those that mattered – is living in Frazier, New Hampshire, working in a hospice where he uses his gift – his shining – to help people in that final step across the border between life and death. Nicknamed Doctor Sleep by those who are aware of his work, Dan is a regular face at half a dozen local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Twenty miles away, in the town of Anniston, Abra Stone lives with her parents. Her shining is the strongest Danny has ever encountered, and while the two have never met, they are aware of each other.

The True Knot travel across America in their RVs, never stopping in one place for long, though they have a number of home bases spread across the country. The Knot survive by taking the essence of children who can shine. Pain and suffering clarifies the essence and makes it stronger, so none of the people who die at the hands of the Knot die well. When the group sets their sights on Abra, they underestimate the power of this young girl, and the people she has around her.

In the first sequel to one of his books, Stephen King revisits one of his best-loved novels to answer one of the questions most often asked not only by his fan-base, but by his own mind: ‘What is Danny Torrance doing now?’ Doctor Sleep picks up where The Shining left off, and we fast forward through the next twenty-five or so years of Danny’s life, stopping for a look at some of the milestones: the night Mrs Massey, the old woman from the Overlook’s Room 217, appeared in the bathroom of their latest home; the night Danny awoke to discover he had spent his paycheque on drugs. Danny, it would seem, has followed in the footsteps of those great Torrance men who went before, his father and grandfather, to become a short-tempered alcoholic who has trouble holding down a job or leaving a bar without a fight. The narrative slows as Danny – now, in his early thirties, known as Dan – arrives in Frazier, and finds the help he needs to get straight.

From here, the events of Dan’s life run in parallel with those of Abra Stone who, like Dan, is born with a caul, and whose powerful shine gives her immense precognitive powers. The two ultimately meet, introduced by an unusual party, someone Constant Reader has met before, and Dan finds himself walking no longer in the footsteps of Jack Torrance, but in those of the other important male presence in his life, the Overlook’s chef, Dick Hallorann (‘When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.’). Like his father, though, Dan retains a constant thirst, but it seems that the support group he has built up around himself – not only his various AA meetings, but also the friends he has made in Frazier – help in this regard. Which begs the question of how different Jack Torrance might have been had he discovered AA before taking the job at the Overlook.

Dan’s alcoholism is not the only evidence of history repeating itself in the novel. A theme begins to emerge early in the story, and King uses light touches throughout to ensure that we don’t forget: Abra’s Pooh Bear nightlight, which mirrors the one used by Danny all those years ago (which may say more about the endurance of AA Milne’s stuffed bear than anything else), and Abra’s regression to early childhood towards the end of the novel, as she hugs her battered stuffed rabbit, echoing Danny’s own regression to thumb-sucking as things begin to lose control late in The Shining. King also uses more literal imagery – the wheel that Abra uses to shift her consciousness into someone else’s body – and in doing so echoes one of the central tenets of the Dark Tower series:

Life was like a wheel, its only job was to turn, and it always came back to where it had started.

Substitute ‘ka’ for ‘life’, and the quotation is almost exactly word for word. There are other subtle references to Roland’s world, finally connecting the world of The Shining to the wider canon: Dan’s claim that ‘[t]here are other worlds than these’ a distorted echo of Jake’s final words to Roland in the first book of the series. There are, of course, references to some of King’s other works, and even one surprising reference to one Charlie Manx, perhaps as repayment for son Joe Hill’s references in this year’s NOS4R2.

As we’ve come to expect from the novels of Stephen King, Doctor Sleep is populated by a cast of colourful and real characters. Long-time Constant Readers will revel in this chance to meet up with an old friend as he reaches his forties, and to meet the new people in his life: young, vibrant Abra; fellow alcoholic John Dalton; Azreel the psychic cat. In the once-human members of the True Knot, and particularly in their leader, Rose the Hat, the author presents the very epitome of evil while giving them a three-dimensional feel that will have most readers looking with some suspicion upon the elderly owners of recreational vehicles for many years to come. It’s testament to his skill that we can come away from a book feeling so strongly about fictional creations, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who felt a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye during the novel’s final showdown.

Doctor Sleep is written in a strange style, halfway between King today, and King of the late seventies. It’s an interesting combination and, happily, it works very well. It gives King the ability to re-use, quite naturally, some of the tricks and tics that made The Shining work so well:

It made him think of how her ponytail had pendulumed back and forth when she

(Dan where’s the Crow WHERE’S THE CROW ???)

ran at Abra’s father.

It should come as no real surprise for Constant Reader that the final act of the novel sees Dan return to Colorado, and the site where the Overlook Hotel once stood. That wheel in motion once more. There’s a nice idea here that evil places attract evil things. The list of towns where the Knot are at home bear this out, with at least one other instantly-recognisable place from King’s back catalogue. As well as providing motivation for that final cross-country trip it goes some way towards explaining and tying together much of King’s work: why do so many bad things happen in Castle Rock, for example? Or Derry, for that matter? Don’t worry, though: there is no sense here that King is winding down, trying to tie up loose ends. Doctor Sleep shows a writer who has matured much in the thirty-six years since the novel’s predecessor was published, but who still maintains the power to entertain the reader, to scare them half to death if need be, to make them cry or make them laugh through the manipulation of words on the page. I’ve said it before, but each time I read one of his novels, it hammers the point home once again: no-one does it quite like Stephen King.

Late last week I found myself wondering how to sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written. This week, I discover that my job was easy when compared to the question how do you follow one of the greatest horror novels ever written?  With books like this, especially when the original is such a well-known and well-loved piece of work, there is always the potential for disaster. Far from that, Doctor Sleep is the perfect follow-up to the story that began with Jack Torrance’s interview for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is the perfect complement to The Shining, expanding the legend that King created back in 1977, and adding a host of new ideas to the mix. In answering the question of what Danny Torrance is up to now, King has finally completed the wider story of the Torrance family that The Shining, to a certain degree, left hanging, and has gone some way towards laying to rest the restive ghost of Jack Torrance through the actions of his son (for if the son bears the sins of the father, surely any reparations made should be paid backwards). Do you need to read (or re-read, for that matter) The Shining before you start in on Doctor Sleep? Technically, no. King has crafted a novel that stands well in its own right, giving brief glimpses into the events at the Overlook when required. But, as with all these things, going into Doctor Sleep with the story of Jack’s descent into madness fresh in your mind adds an extra level of enjoyment to the story. In either case, Doctor Sleep is a must-read and should prove, in particular, a comfortable re-start point for fans who may not have been keeping up with the author’s recent output. One of my books of the year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

NOS-4R211-669x1024 NOS4R2

Joe Hill (joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£18.99

Released: 30th May 2013

The Brat was nine years old the first time she rode over the covered bridge that crossed the distance between Lost and Found.

Nine-year-old Victoria “Vic” McQueen’s new bicycle brings with it an uncanny new ability: when she rides it across the condemned structure that is the Shorter Way bridge it always takes her somewhere different. Her destination is driven by her desire to find something lost. Looking for an explanation, she finds herself in Here, Iowa where she first hears about Charlie Manx. Manx shares Vic’s ability to travel; his vehicle a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with a vanity plate that reads NOS4R2, his ultimate destination Christmasland, a wondrous place where it is Christmas all year round, and where only children can go. Twenty-five years later, a Vic McQueen who has lived a hard life as the result of her gift finds herself searching for Charlie Manx once more. This time the stakes are much higher, because this time Vic’s own son is a passenger in that 1938 Wraith.

Joe Hill’s third novel is undoubtedly his most ambitious to date. Much broader in scale that both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, the novel follows Vic McQueen from childhood through her early teenage years and reconnects with her in the present day, a woman scarred by the experiences of her childhood, most of which have been glossed over in the retelling to the point where she has convinced herself that the stories are reality and the magic bike and the bridge that leads to anywhere merely a figment of her imagination. Despite her strange gift, and her father’s unflattering pet name – The Brat – it is easy for the reader to identify with Vic: as we follow her growth from childhood to adulthood, Hill ensures that every twist and turn of her life is not only believable, but also inevitable, so that we can’t help but root for her, and hope that, for Vic at least, there is a happy ending.

On the other side of the coin is Charlie Manx, a vile conscienceless creature whose sole purpose in life is to feed the insatiable hunger of Christmasland by bringing abducted children to live within its otherworldly boundaries. Manx is a vision straight from the nightmares of parents everywhere and Hill takes him to the bounds of caricature without actually overstepping the mark. What we, the reader, feels goes beyond dislike for the man; Manx instils in us a deep-seated sense of fear, and sends a chill down the spine of even the most hardened of horror readers.

“Your boy, Josiah,” Charlie Manx said to her, his voice grating and harsh. “There’s a place for him in Christmasland, with the other children. I could give him a new life. I could give him a nice smile. I could give him nice new teeth.”

Hearing him say her son’s name was worse than having Manx’s hand on her wrist or blood on her feet[…]. Hearing this man, convicted murderer and child molester, speak of her son made her dizzy, genuinely dizzy, as if she were in a glass elevator, rushing quickly into the sky, the world dropping away beneath her.

The title of the book is drawn from the vanity plate on Manx’s Rolls-Royce (interestingly, the original American title of NOS4A2 makes more sense to me, but that’s probably down to the idiosyncrasies of the Northern Irish accent) and, when pronounced correctly, provides the perfect description for this insane man.

Around these two central characters we find a whole host of players in supporting roles: Vic’s parents whose separation seems inevitable to everyone but nine-year-old Vic; Lou, the young man she will eventually marry; the creepy and decidedly underused Gasmask Man; and Maggie, the stammering librarian of Here, Iowa who has found a unique use for Scrabble tiles. There are plenty more, but these are shining examples, ordinary people in extraordinary situations who never feel less than three-dimensional.

It seems churlish to review Joe Hill’s novel and compare it to the works of his father, but Stephen King tends to form the benchmark against which many people (myself included) compare new horror fiction. NOS4R2 is the first of Hill’s novels where the similarity shines through. Much of the novel feels like early King; I was most often put in mind of Christine, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. The novel also contains numerous references to King’s various worlds and works, most noticeably in the form of a mention or two of Mid-World. His decision to embrace the work of King so obviously seems surprising, given his initial route to publication.

Which is not to say that Joe Hill is a tired old re-tread (or the second coming, depending on your point of view) of Stephen King. As he has already demonstrated is his previous works, and continues to do so with NOS4R2, he is a fresh and exciting voice in a sometimes weary and unoriginal genre. Little stylistic tics (one chapter runs into the next by including the next chapter’s title – often a place name – in the final sentence of the current one), wonderfully-wrought characters, and a knack for the descriptive (“Vic smelled the vast vault filled with books before she saw it, because her eyes required time to adjust to the cavernous dark. She breathed deeply of the scent of decaying fiction, disintegrating history, and forgotten verse, and observed for the first time that a room full of books smelled like dessert: a sweet snack made of figs, vanilla, glue, and cleverness.”) combine to produce a novel that is as beautifully-written as it is terrifying.

Joe Hill has been on this reader’s must-read list since discovering his short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. His third novel, NOS4R2, is a genuinely frightening experience; Hill knows which buttons to press to get the reaction he wants, and takes great delight in their pressing. It is, for me, his best novel yet, the perfect combination of magical coming-of-age story and balls-to-the-wall horror-fest. You won’t look at Rolls-Royce in quite the same way again, and Charlie Manx is likely to haunt your dreams – especially if you have children of your own – for a very long time. Do yourself a favour and don’t miss it.

THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King

wind-through-the-keyhole-stephen-king THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE

Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
[See here for information on The Dark Tower]

Hodder (hodder.co.uk)

£19.99

Released: 24th April

I have mentioned before my love for the work of Stephen King, so it’s difficult to describe how excited I was to find his latest novel – a Dark Tower novel, no less – on my desk a month before the official publication date (many thanks to the wonderful folks at Hodder for the opportunity). As I read, I convinced myself that a straightforward review of the book might not be enough this time around. As a result, I’ve written a three-and-a-half thousand word essay that includes a review of the book in the context of the larger series, and also the work of King over which the Tower casts its influence. It’s something of an experiment for Reader Dad, and I appreciate it’s not what everyone wants to see. For that reason, I’ve made life slightly easier, and you can skip directly to the actual review by scrolling down to the section headed The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel. If you feel inclined to read the essay, I’d love to know what you think (Do you agree or disagree with what I’m saying? Does the experiment work, or should I stick to the type of review I’ve been producing for the past year or so?), so do please comment below. Thanks, as always, for visiting.

The Dark Tower

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

I probably hadn’t quite reached my early teens when I read this line – the opening line to Stephen King’s seven volume Dark Tower series – for the first time. What followed was a strange tale that was part fantasy, part science fiction, part western, and somehow much more than the sum of its parts. I quickly devoured the first two books in the series – The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three – and promptly got stuck halfway through the third. It took me two more attempts (and two more re-reads of the first two books) before I finally made it through to the end of book three – The Waste Lands – wondering what had held me up for so long. Since then I, like the many others who have read and enjoyed The Dark Tower novels since early in the author’s career, have had two long waits – first for book four (Wizard and Glass), and then for the final three instalments of the series (Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower), which appeared in rapid succession (a wait that was made marginally more bearable by the publication partway through of the short story “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). Finally having a copy of that seventh volume in my hands brought a strange sense of relief that King had managed to finish what he started, something that was cast into doubt on that fateful day in June 1999 (it’s a worry that nags persistently at every fan of George R. R. Martin, and so many others, that the author isn’t getting any younger, and these massive works remain uncompleted).

The Dark Tower is probably one of Stephen King’s most divisive works, and there are many Constant Readers who have yet to read it for one reason or another. At the beginning, it was seen as a massive deviation from King’s standard horror fare (if anything he has produced over the course of 35 years could be called “standard”), but as the series progressed, and King’s back catalogue grew, it became very clear that this was not a separate work, but the backbone to almost everything King has ever written, and the influence of the Tower shows up in the unlikeliest of places, as if leaked through a thinny from that next-door world into this one.

Based loosely on Robert Browning’s epic poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”, The Dark Tower tells the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger from the land of Gilead, and his quest across Mid-World to reach the Dark Tower. Along the way, Roland draws three people from our world – or close approximations thereof – at different points in time: drug-mule and heroin addict Eddie Dean; wheelchair-bound Civil Rights campaigner Odetta Holmes, who is sometimes the foul-mouthed and vicious Detta Walker and who ultimately becomes Susannah Dean; and the boy Jake Chambers, whom the gunslinger has already met, and lost, at an early point in the story. Rounded out by the billy-bumbler Oy, the ka-tet follow the Path of the Beam through a world that has, as Roland puts it, moved on. As the story progresses, we learn snippets of Roland’s backstory (the bulk of Wizard and Glass tells the story of a much younger Roland and his friends, a love lost and a treachery avenged), and discover some of the driving force behind his quest.

The Dark Tower forms the nexus of all possible worlds. As the series progresses we learn that these worlds exist on different levels of the Tower and for the most part are completely separate, but there are doorways (such as the ones used by Roland to draw his ka-tet) and thin places (thinnies) where the worlds merge together. Mid-World is part fantasy land, and part future post-apocalyptic version of our own world (clues like slightly off-key renditions of “Hey, Jude” point to deeper links than are immediately obvious). Technology exists, but it, like everything else in this world, is tired, and few know how to use or maintain it. It plays a large part in the group’s quest, often in an adversarial or outwardly threatening role (most memorably, Shardik, the great bear that guards the end of the Beam along which Roland will travel to the Tower; or Blaine the Mono, the insane monorail aboard whom the group flee the city of Lud). Behind the technology, the ever-more sinister North Central Positronics, which plays a pivotal role in the series’ climax.

It took Stephen King 30 years, give or take, to write The Dark Tower opus. Towards the end he makes an appearance in a complicated self-referential storyline that makes perfect sense when looked at within the overall context of the Dark Tower series, and King’s wider canon. There was always a danger that after all that time, and all those words, that the ending may not live up to expectation (it’s not a view I share, but it has been said on many occasions that King tells a great story, but lacks considerably in writing endings), but in hindsight, there was only one way that such a story could possibly end and King pulls it off with a skill and mastery that is, quite frankly, second to none.

There a number of themes, both literal and figurative, running through the series. Roland is driven by a strange sense of honour and duty that often places him in a difficult position; more often than not, duty to the Tower wins out over duty to anyone or anything else and as a result Roland comes across as a cold and calculating character, something that Eddie points out in colourful ways on more than one occasion. He may seem a strange choice for the hero of the piece, but it’s difficult, as the story progresses, not to like him, despite his faults. The concept of ka underlines all, a concept similar to destiny (or probably, more closely, predestination) that drives Roland on his quest, and binds this group of disparate souls together as a sort of family. “Ka,” King tells us on many occasions, “is like a wheel” and this is probably the underpinning ethos of the whole Dark Tower opus. With the final three books, King introduces the number nineteen (see the name of the ka-tet, for example), which takes on significance as the story proceeds towards its climax. It is a number that crops up in King’s fiction quite frequently.

In the Shadow of The Dark Tower

As the story of the Dark Tower progressed, and as King grew as a writer, Constant Reader started to find references to this larger work throughout King’s novels and, more importantly, references to King’s other novels within The Dark Tower series. It was probably with the publication of King’s 1994 novel, Insomnia, that he cemented the idea that the Tower forms the nexus of his own work, that all of his novels take place in worlds on various levels of the Tower. It is also in Insomnia that King introduces the villain of the overall piece, in the form of the Crimson King.

There are references to the Tower throughout King’s later work, often oblique and easily missed, but sometimes more obvious. Some of his novels are more closely linked: the fairy-tale-like The Eyes of the Dragon is set in some remote corner of Mid-World, and contains at its centre the same dark man that wanders through much of his other fiction; and the opening story of his collection Hearts in Atlantis deals heavily with the Tower, seen through the eyes of the people forced into a kind of slavery, their goal the downfall of the Tower. Some clever retro-fitting brings many of his earlier novels into the fold: the ka-tet arrive in a version of Topeka ravaged by Captain Trips, proving that The Stand takes place on a nearby level of the Tower (although this novel has much closer ties, as we’ll discuss momentarily); Father Callahan, who we met first in 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, turns up late in the series, and the group encounter him as they enter Calla Bryn Sturgis. The Tower also, surprisingly, has a heavy influence on King’s second collaboration with Peter Straub, Black House. Surprising because it is a collaborative effort, but the two series – The Dark Tower on the one hand, The Talisman/Black House duology on the other – do have similar themes and concepts driving them, which makes the crossover much more logical.

There is a single figure that moves through King’s work like a restless ghost, pure evil distilled in the form of man, although it’s immediately obvious, to the reader at least, that this is no mere man. We first meet him in The Stand in the form of Randall Flagg, and he turns up again and again throughout King’s works, often – but not always – bearing the initials R.F. We find him in many places throughout The Dark Tower: he is the fabled man in black who fled across the desert (who has been known as Walter, and as Marten Broadcloak), and appears in the city of Lud in the guise of one Richard Fannin. Flagg (the name by which he is most commonly known) is one of the most instantly-recognisable figures in King’s fiction, regardless of which disguise he wears, and without doubt, one of the most sinister characters in fiction.

The Dark Tower is, perhaps, King’s most personal work, so it was interesting to see him relinquish some creative control to his research assistant Robin Furth (author of the encyclopaedic The Dark Tower: A Concordance) for a series of comics from Marvel chronicling the earlier years of Roland, picking up where the story Roland tells for the majority of Wizard and Glass left off, and detailing the fall of Gilead and the beginning of the gunslinger’s quest. It is also interesting to note that Ron Howard is planning a series of film and television adaptations of the novels which will reportedly cast Javier Bardem in the role that was custom-built for a much younger Clint Eastwood.

About 35 years after the first publication of the first part of The Gunslinger in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (and over 40 years since he first put pen to paper on the project), the Dark Tower still casts a shadow over much of King’s work. As recently as the massive 11/22/63, King is making reference, in some shape or form, to Mid-World, and the other worlds that branch from the Tower. Likewise, many Constant Readers (and I’m happy to be counted among their number) have lived in this same shadow, waiting for long periods for the next instalment, breathing a sigh of relief when that final volume was finished, and watching hopefully for any small reference in each and every one of King’s novels and short story collections.

Imagine, then, my surprise, not to mention outright glee (and that of many other people, presumably), at the announcement of a new novel set in Roland’s world. Seven years after King brought his gunslinger to the end of his quest, he returns to Mid-World.

The Wind through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel

There are a number of gaps in time during the course of The Dark Tower, presumably because a lot of walking and not a lot else went on. One such gap is between the fourth (Wizard and Glass) and fifth (Wolves of the Calla) volumes, as the ka-tet leave the Green Palace that wasn’t Oz and head for Calla Bryn Sturgis, and End-World beyond. The Wind through the Keyhole goes some way towards plugging this gap, picking up immediately after the events of Wizard and Glass and joining Roland and his companions as they follow the Path of the Beam towards the river Whye. Oy, the billy-bumbler, is acting strangely, stopping suddenly and raising his snout towards the north, and it takes the ferryman who carries them across the river to jog the gunslinger’s memory, and alert him to the approaching starkblast – a storm of such ferocity and freezing temperature that it can cause trees to implode, and birds to fall, frozen solid, from the sky.

Hurrying to shelter, and beating the storm by a heartbeat, the group settles down with enough firewood to see them through a couple of days and, finding themselves unable to sleep, they turn to Roland for another story. The gunslinger starts to tell them of a time shortly after his return to Gilead from Mejis when he and one of his original ka-tet, Jamie deCurry, were sent to the town of Debaria to capture a skin-man that was terrorising the town, and which had already claimed upwards of twenty lives. When they arrive, they find fresh slaughter, but this time there’s a survivor – a young boy no older than Jake – and Roland, already showing some of the coldness for which he will be well-known in later years, decides to use the boy to flush out the culprit. As they wait for the arrival of a group of suspects, with a wild wind blowing through the town, Roland tells the boy a fairytale, the story of young Tim Stoutheart and his encounter with a trickster in a dark cloak.

The Wind through the Keyhole is a tale within a tale within a tale. The titular story is a fairy-tale told to Roland as a child by his mother. Set in a remote corner of Mid-World, it is a coming-of-age story centred around Tim, a young boy willing to do anything to save his mother’s sight. Set on a quest by a man Constant Reader will know all-too-well — up to his old tricks, manipulating people for his own amusement — Tim finds himself out of his depth and in the path of an oncoming starkblast. This tale is sandwiched between the two parts of the story about Roland and his hunt for the skin-man (or were-creature) and the whole is book-ended by the story we know and love so well, the journey of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy along the Path of the Beam, moving ever closer to the Dark Tower.

King slips into Mid-World very comfortably, despite the fact that it has been almost seven years since his last visit. The feel of the world is unchanged, and the language has a handful of idiosyncrasies that weren’t there before, but in all, nothing has changed here and the return is as comfortable and natural for the reader as it apparently was for the author. This book, described on the cover as A Dark Tower Novel, was more accurately described by King in the original announcement as “Dark Tower 4.5”. What’s obvious is that this book will have no impact on the outcome of the series as a whole, and will contain very little in the way of character development (except in revealing more about the still-mysterious past of the gunslinger). As a result, it’s unsurprising that King spends very little of the book with the ka-tet (less than 50 pages all told) and launches as quickly as possible into Roland’s tale, which he then uses as a springboard for the main event.

As a result, the book deals very little with the key characters of the series (with one obvious exception), and is perhaps closer to The Eyes of the Dragon in that respect than even Wizard and Glass, which would be its closest counterpart from the original seven volumes. In his Foreword, King assures us that this book can be picked up and read even without the in-depth understanding of the surroundings and characters that comes with reading the original series and, to a certain extent that is true, but those readers will have a much different experience (most likely with much more head-scratching and -shaking) than people who followed Roland for the duration of his quest. The exception I mentioned above is, of course, the man in black, best known as Randall Flagg who sets Tim on his course because it amuses him to do so.

Ka is like a wheel. As we read, and as the elder Roland recounts the tale, this fact comes crashing home, and the parallels between Roland’s story and Tim’s are unmistakable. It also speaks to Roland’s stubbornness that, despite this realisation, he is as determined as ever to complete his quest and reach the Tower — he has a score to settle, regardless of who set him on the path, or what that person’s motives were.

Through all three stories, there is a constant wind — starkblasts ravage outer and inner, while a simoom blows alkali dust through the town of Debaria in the middle tale. The wheel is a metaphor that Roland used frequently when speaking of ka, but he also spoke of the mysterious force as a wind, before which nothing can stand. Blowing across the years, the wind carries revelations that shed greater light on Roland, and add a richer experience for the long-time reader.

As with all the Dark Tower novels, The Wind through the Keyhole contains a number of illustrations. Noted artists such as Michael Whelan, Bernie Wrightson and Dave McKean have illustrated past volumes, each stamping their own style on Roland, his world, the Tower. This time famed comics artist Jae Lee (who also provides the art for the Marvel Comics Dark Tower comic book series) takes his turn. As well as chapter and section headers, Lee has provided five beautiful full-page black-and-white pieces that help to set the tone. What’s missing, unfortunately, are the colour plates that he also produced for the novel, and which seem to be exclusively included in the limited edition of this volume from US publisher Donald M. Grant. It’s a shame, since past volumes from Hodder have included all of the artwork.

The Wind through the Keyhole is a welcome return to a well-loved world, and a set of well-loved characters. It doesn’t advance the plot and adds minimal character development to the overall arc, but it’s a welcome addition to the set nonetheless. King is a master storyteller, and this is as good a showcase as any for his talents, as he interweaves three seemingly unrelated narratives into a single, consistent whole that stands with some of his best writing. It’s a beautifully-written novel that is clearly close to the author’s heart and is sure to be well-received by long-standing Dark Tower fans. Will it win any new recruits? It’s certainly not a bad jumping-on place, in that it provides a taste of the world without the commitment to the complete seven-book series, but I suspect it will deter as many people from seeking out those books as it will drive towards them. It is the nature of a beast like this that in order for the standalone novel to work, it must still meet the needs of the multitude of existing fans, and elements of the Dark Tower series — the language, the history — are just too alien to hold the attention of the average reader.

For the aficionado, though, The Wind through the Keyhole has everything that we’ve come to expect from the series. Here are our friends in the middle of their journey and while the starkblast poses no threat (we know they all live through it), King still manages to notch up the suspense in the telling. Here is the broken-down world that these people inhabit, the world that is almost, but not quite, like some future version of our own. And here, most importantly, is our old adversary, the man in black, the Walkin’ Dude, Randall Flagg, doing what he loves and what, if we’re totally honest with ourselves, what we love to see him do. The subhead of this book fills me with a sense of expectant glee: not Dark Tower 4.5, as was originally mooted, but A Dark Tower Novel. This is one Constant Reader that lives in the hope that Roland and his ka-tet still have more to say, especially if what they have to say is as worthwhile as what’s within the covers of The Wind through the Keyhole. There is no better master of his craft than Stephen King, and I’m finding it difficult to believe that I’ll see a better book than this before year’s end.

If you’ve read the series, I urge you to pick this up (though suspect I’m preaching to the choir on that one). If you haven’t, this one is definitely worth a go (and at just over 300 pages doesn’t require much commitment), but I would urge you to find a copy of The Gunslinger and see where you end up.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

11-22-63 - Stephen King 11.22.63

Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)

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

£19.99

It’s a daunting thing, sitting down to write a review of a full-length Stephen King novel, for someone who hangs on every word the man has ever written. The problem is that remaining objective – reviewing the work at a remove, as it were – is next to impossible. Regular reader(s) of the blog will know that that isn’t the type of blog I run and will, I hope, forgive me a little hyperbole here and there as I work through the monster that is King’s latest novel, 11.22.63.

The title of King’s latest novel is a reference to one of those dates that lives in the global consciousness as a day that defined the world in which we live. It may take a person a moment or two to parse the significance (especially since it appears in the US format of month, day, year), but it will come to them eventually. It is, of course, the date of the assassination of John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA. King’s premise is simple, a question that most people have pondered at some point: if you could go back and change it (save Kennedy, assassinate Hitler, etc.), would you?

Jake Epping is an English teacher in a small Maine town. When the owner of the local diner – a man Jake knows only from eating regularly in his establishment – calls him and invites him to the diner, he reluctantly goes. Al has aged overnight, a process exacerbated by the cancer that is killing him, cancer that he did not have the previous evening, when Jake last saw him. Al spins a tale – a hole in time in the pantry of his diner that will take Jake back to September 1958, a visit that, no matter how long Jake spends there, will only take 2 minutes of 2011 time – and asks Jake for his help: go back to 1958 under an assumed identity, get a job, kill time for five years, and be in Dallas in 1963 to stay the hand that slew Jack Kennedy.

11.22.63 is pure King, from that familiar Down East accent, to the cast of characters that will become your friends during the course of the novel’s 700 pages, to that slightly off-kilter world that always leaves this Constant Reader slightly uneasy. No-one can tell a story like King can. In effect, this is a novel of three parts. The first section deals with Derry in late 1958. It took me a while to realise – even the tell-tale “There was something wrong with that town, and I think I knew it from the first” bypassed me initially – what King was up to here, and why Al’s “rabbit-hole” came out in September 1958, rather than sometime closer to the date of Kennedy’s assassination. It was the name Norbert Keene that did it for me, the owner and manager of Derry’s drugstore; this is a city in the aftermath of the events of King’s earlier novel, It, and King uses this to his advantage, infecting a key character with the evil in which the city is drenched, and giving Jake a reason to be there for Hallowe’en 1958. King introduces some of the key players from It into the events of this novel, cementing the history of that fictional town in place. Jake’s description of the city is spot on:

On that grey street, with the smell of industrial smokes in the air and the afternoon bleeding away to evening, downtown Derry looked only marginally more charming than a dead hooker in a church pew.”

When Jake finishes his work in Derry, he moves ultimately to the small town of Jodie, Texas where he becomes a part of the community and falls in love with one of his colleagues, the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill. It is here that Jake first decides that he might not want to return to 2011. It is, in his own words, when he “stopped living in the past and started living.” This love affair, of course, is fraught with peril for the man from the future, and King proves once more that no other writer puts their characters through the mill with quite as much élan as he does.

The final section of the book deals with the run up to November 1963, and follows Jake as he watches Lee Harvey Oswald, attempting to close what he calls the “window of uncertainty” on whether Oswald was a lone shooter. As we move toward the event itself, King has a decision to make as to whether this was the case, or whether one of the many conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death provides a better version of the truth, and it is interesting to see which road he chooses. Here, King is firmly in James Ellroy territory, and it shows in the tone of the narrative, even though 11.22.63 contains a more complete form of prose, a language that is unmistakably King. This section of the novel is littered with real people, and King does his best to make them his own, a sometimes difficult proposition with people as infamous as these.

King has been very clever with his method of time travel, building some important rules into the process: the rabbit-hole always takes the traveller to the same time on the same date, so there can be no jumping back and forward through time when things get hairy. Time passes as normal in 1958 but, regardless of the duration, the traveller will only be gone from 2011 for two minutes. The most important, perhaps, is that each visit affects a reset, and any changes made during a previous visit will be lost. These three key rules play important – and sometimes devastating – roles throughout the novel.

To make matters more difficult for Jake, the past becomes almost a sentient being. It is, Jake tells us, obdurate, and it also harmonises with itself. What this means is that, as Jake starts to move through the Land of Ago, we start to see connections between otherwise unrelated characters or events – characters that share the same, or very similar names, or faces, or personalities. We also come to see quite early on that the real city of Dallas and the fictional Derry are almost one and the same, with the same underlying malice defining them both. The obduracy is something that Al warns Jake of before his first trip, but it is Jake who discovers that the bigger the change, the more difficult it is to make. The past, we come to see, does not want to be changed, and this fact leaves us worried – if not outright frightened – of what Jake will face when he tries to change one of the world’s most defining moments.

As with most of his novels, it seems that King finds it impossible not to drop self-references in to see who is paying attention, or to give Constant Reader a little thrill that they are getting more for their money than a King virgin (he has been doing it as far back as the early Castle Rock novels, seeding references to The Dead Zone into Cujo, for example). As always, it seems King is having immense fun with these “Easter eggs”. How about the late ‘50s red and white Plymouth Fury in the parking lot of the mill, the first car Jake sees when he steps back in time? The whole first section which seems, at first, to be a twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to one of King’s most divisive novels? There’s even a sly reference to The Dark Tower, when Jake sets eyes on a car called a Takuro Spirit, echoing Eddie’s observation in that alternate, Captain Trips-raddled version of Topeka, Kansas. And a tip of the hat to Ellroy’s own masterpiece in the form of a rogue FBI agent by the name of Dwight Holly.

As you would expect from a man known for his love of pop culture (he had a regular column in the American magazine, Entertainment Weekly, called “The Pop of King” which he used to talk about books, films, music, entertainment in general), the attention to detail he applies to late-‘50s/early-‘60s America is second-to-none. Everyone smokes, and it’s the first obvious sign that Jake is in a world of a long time ago: the smell of tobacco smoke is ever-present, and there are very few characters who don’t smoke during their interactions with him or, at the very least, have a pack of cigarettes close to hand. King is careful to avoid anachronisms, but the world he has created is made more real by what we see around us – the products for sale in the shops, the cars on the roads, the very pollution being pumped into the air. It’s obvious that 11.22.63 required a massive research effort, not just in getting the details of Oswald’s movements right, but also in reconstructing the pop culture of the era. King takes it in his stride and the result is a world that feels as real in 1958 as it does in 2011.

King, a native of Maine, has an obvious love for the place and one of the things he does well is ensure that the reader is there, breathing the air, eating the lobsters (or, in this case, the Fatburgers). He knows the people and their foibles, and he wants the reader to know them, too. The most important outward aspect of this is the accent, and as always, he takes some time to ensure that what you’re hearing in your head is the same as what’s coming out of the characters’ mouths:

‘Key’s inside the front door.’ Doe-ah.

And the ever-present

Ayuh!

Reading a King novel is often like sitting on a park bench with an old-timer, listening as he spins his tales and spreads his gossip, and 11.22.63 is no exception. It’s a powerful novel, King’s considered answer to the question “if you could change it, would you?” What it boils down to, though, is that the events leading up to that fateful day play second fiddle to the more important personal relationship between Jake Epping, known in the Land of Ago as George Amberson, and Sadie Dunhill. But King is a man who enjoys unsettling his readers – it’s something he does very well, so why not? – so you can expect the course of this love to run not exactly true, as it comes up against the force of the obdurate past.

11.22.63 is the latest in a long line of masterpieces from a writer who, at the age of 63, is still at the top of his game, and still producing mammoth works at the rate of about one every year. It is a beautifully-imagined and wonderfully written story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It’s easy to dismiss King as a “horror writer”, but horror is only a small fraction of what he has produced in a career spanning almost 40 years; it’s easy to forget that the man responsible for one of the masterpieces of modern vampire fiction – ‘Salem’s Lot – or the mother of all post-apocalyptic fiction – The Stand – is also the brains behind Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It’s also easy to forget, reading as much as I do, just how brilliant a writer he is when I’m not reading him. 11.22.63 is a solid reminder of the fact that no-one tells a story like Stephen King does. A perfect read, more than deserving of its place on my Top 10 of 2011.

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