BOOK REVIEW: Desperation by Stephen King

And so, the obsession with Stephen King continues. It’s been more than a year of this now. I’ve managed to make my way through quite a few of King’s most acclaimed bibliography, based on recommendations from friends and family, but there’s a comfort in knowing that there’s plenty more out there and I won’t be running out of material by him anytime soon (I saw on his Twitter recently that there’s another book due to be published shortly. I have no idea where he gets his perpetual fuel to write from, or how he does it with such consistent brilliance, but I’m sure glad this is the case).

Upon completion of a King book, I’ll move onto a non-King related title because there’s so many titles on my bookshelf and bedside table just gathering dust and waiting for their time to shine. Yet somehow, despite my initiative to delve into a diversified pool of other authors and leave King behind, I still find myself drawn back to a title by him in between every other book. I always tell myself that I’ll “take a break” from books by King for a couple of weeks/months, on account of the fact that his books are immersive, profound (therefore requiring a sort of “recovery period”) and girthy. Basically, you’re investing your time in characters and worlds that will draw a lot from you, if you sit down with a page-turner by him, and you will be lost from the world for a considerable while.

My most recent read was a book called Desperation, a novel about a desolate town of the same name off the quiet Highway 50 and a mysterious, domineering force that draws a bunch of strangers together for the ultimate showdown between good and evil in a place more populated by tumbleweeds and dirt than living townspeople. The group is comprised of a young family, a couple dealing with the trauma of a recent miscarriage, an old alcoholic Desperation resident and washed-up, self-professed “national treasure”, Mr Jonny Marinville. There’s elements of mythology and the supernatural, in a similar style to that of Pennywise’s lore in IT, and a very epic setting for a standoff between all that is holy versus unholy in a similar style to The Stand. In terms of psychological terror, I’ve got to say, it’s up there in my top 5 for most awful antagonists in the King universe thus far. Desperation‘s (first) antagonist Collie Entragian, who stands tall at over six feet and wide like a wall, is a real nasty piece of work and rivals some of King’s cruelest characters in books like The Shining, IT and Insomnia. He seems utterly ordinary from the outset, his mannerisms and speech as common as any layman, but frequently spits out odd phrases in the language of the dead and glitches, like a machine, stumbling on his sentiments. There’s the feeling that something isn’t quite right with this guy, but also the issue of his role as a law enforcement figure, and a charming one at that. Plus there’s his strange command over an assortment of venomous and aggressive animals symbolic of death such as coyotes, rattlesnakes, buzzards, scorpions, and fiddleback spiders who are almost always bowing before him and forever in the readers’ peripherals.

I can honestly say, without a doubt, that King is one of the most consistently talented writers I have ever read. He has this uncanny ability to make even the most minor characters in his novels so rich that you find yourself wondering where they’ve gotten to or how they’re doing as you progress through a story, and his imagination is, quite frankly, unparalleled. He has the capability to introduce audiences to creatures and forces that are so frightening because they’re beyond comprehension, but he also explores the most frightening thing of all: the human condition. So many of his characters are riddled by addiction or trauma, and they’re all the more striking because they’re utterly relatable and flawed. This is the greatest horror of all!

King’s bibliography is vast and may seem impenetrable to prospective readers, but I would urge you to start with some of his smaller texts, if you’re threatened by the big books. Maybe something like Carrie? The length of his stories honestly have no bearing on the the quality of the content

As for me, I’m taking a 1-book interlude again. I’m currently reading Speak your Truth by Fearne Cotton (real pace-changer) but, as always, I’m eager to get back to the dark stuff. What’s interesting is that Desperation is said to run in parallel to another novel by King called The Regulators, penned under his pseudonym “Richard Bachman”. Of course my intention is to snap that up as soon as humanly possible, but in the meanwhile, the next on my list is Under the Dome, another solidly gargantuan read which will no doubt lead to countless hand cramps and dench forearms from holding it up to read at night. If you, dear reader, have any King recommendations or general pointers towards other authors who may be of a similar style, please do let me know!

SERIES REVIEW: Kingdom

Can we all take a minute to talk about the massively underappreciated American drama Kingdom? As of yet, I haven’t found a single person to share it with, which is an absolute travesty because it’s awesome.

The show arrived on Netflix for Brits during the early stages of the pandemic last year. Since I’m set on watching my way through the entire online catalogue of every film/TV series I can get my hands on while distancing and working from home, I’ve broadened my repertoire and literally resorted to watching any old crap. I’m ashamed to say that’s exactly what I thought this show would be: on the face of it, it looked like a corny series about some fighting club and Nick Jonas’ placement as a figure in the main cast didn’t inspire much confidence either (lest we forget the Disney channel days).

But you can only scroll past the same recommended thumbnails a number of times before you give in, so, I gave it a go.

Off the bat, I just want to provide a disclaimer: this is no Cobra Kai rodeo with glossed-to-perfection choreography, relentless one-liners and high-school pettiness. In contrast, Kingdom is a maelstrom of drugs, hookers and a lot of emotional arcs involving broken families and addiction. It’s a gritty, sweaty and ugly portrayal of MMA: long hours training, the implications of the profession on a fighter’s personal life, the trials of “making weight” and disciplined preparation for bouts with big guys that pack serious punches.

At the heart of the show are the Kulinas, a tight-knit family of fighters whose lives gravitate around the fighting ring like the moon does the earth. Their hub is the fictional gym Navy Street on Venice Beach, owned by Alvey the alpha, an ex-professional in the MMA world who now sits atop his perch as an established trainer for up-and-coming talent. Doting father and positive guru to faithful gym-goers, Alvey is the born-again ex-addict in recovery who speaks plainly of his past struggles and openly attends regular therapy sessions, as well as self-medicates with prescription drugs, to keep his mental health in check. His sons also have the fighting bug, but lead completely different lifestyles. There’s puritan Nate, the youngster who keeps his head down, says little and just gets on with what needs to be done. Then there’s Jay (Jonathan Tucker), Alvey’s eldest son, at times gentle and nurturing, he’s a party-going wild-card whose unpredictable antics give him an air of infamy in the industry.

They’re a loving collective, but also low-key salty due to Alvey’s past deplorable behaviour and its impact upon the family unit, most notably, their troubled mother who ended up walking out years prior. These underlying tensions are only further tested when the boat is rocked by the return of ex-prize fighter Ryan Wheeler, recently released from jail following a drugged up assault on his father. He comes back to Navy Street to find his ex-girlfriend is now Alvey’s fiancee and that an old dog can’t learn new tricks: his options for employment are limited with his rap sheet and he has a lot of work to do if he is to be taken seriously in the fighting world again.

Of course there’s a mixed set of emotions following Wheeler’s return and this is primarily the focus of season one, as the cast tease out the tangles of their frayed relationships. There’s high-octane fights in the ring and low-blows outside of it, but it’s a thoroughly entertaining spectacle and a easy-watch at that.

In my opinion, the show goes from strength to strength as the seasons progress (there’s only three, major outrage?!), impressively delivering a sweet balance between the brutality of big fights and mature, sometimes quite moving, scenes between a loyal bunch who are all struggling with their own personal battles.

My personal favourite find from this show is Tucker, who is an absolute scene-stealer as Jay. He’s a deadly weapon in the ring but also perhaps the most broken of them all, often bursting into impassioned speeches or hysterical tears when overwhelmed. But to be honest, the performances across the board are strong. Frank Grillo serves up a hungry portrayal of Alvey and has some brilliant moments that clearly evidence his capabilities as an actor, which is a nice revelation considering that his roles are generally typecast as minimally-speaking baddies in box office hits. Also, even Nick Jonas outdoes himself as both a serious actor and believable opponent in the ring (who’d have thought it).

Please, for the love of all that is holy in this world, give this show a watch. Particularly if, like me, your go-to movies since childhood have been the likes of the Rocky films, the Matrix trilogy, the Terminator and then the teen-angst phase of classics like Never Back Down. I could really do with somebody to rave about it with! And lets be real, we all know you’re just sat at home rewatching your comfort shows, anyway…