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!

BOOK REVIEW: The Shining

Falling asleep whilst reading and waking up to these eyes facing you… I’m not okay.

I started The Shining by Stephen King only three days ago. I’ve been eager to read it for a long time and stumbled across this battered edition in the free bookstore perched on Darley Street in Bradford. Some of the pages are completely in tatters and there are water stains on others, implying that this book has been held by many hands and has seen many places. I enjoy the faded print and the fact that there’s not even a bar-code, it’s like I’m holding history every time I sit down to read.

I watched The Shining as a kid and it was powerful, enough so that at this age of twenty-five, even the sight of Jack Nicholson’s grin makes my skin crawl. I remember odd chunks of the film but honestly don’t know how much of the plot I absorbed. I was more captivated by the striking visuals, including that iconic shot of tidal blood descending upon a corridor, as two young girls hold hands in the centre of the floor and stare down the camera.

I’m more than halfway through the book. I’ve been as resistant as possible, prolonging the experience by putting the book down instead of reading on into the early hours of the morning. I imagine that if I had impulsively followed my whims, I’d have finished the damned thing in one sitting. However, I’ve had moments of genuine terror whilst reading some disturbing scenes and I’ve realised that my capacity to visualise can sometimes be a burden, as opposed to gift. For instance, last night I had to snap The Shining shut and read a few (completely unrelated) short stories from a Margaret Atwood collection, simply to drown out the images of bloated dead women and silver-eyed ghosts of the past.

Another reason I’ve exercised self-restraint is mental health preservation, as I’ve noticed that I can feel the claustrophobic grip of The Overlook Hotel through the pages. I can only praise this uncomfortable feeling as it’s clearly a product of incredible writing. The fact that King can make you feel the isolation, anxiety and insanity, as though you’re physically stuck with the Torrance family in the middle of a snow fortress, is a testament to his craftsmanship as the King of Horror.

Pulling myself away is proving to be a difficult task because King has thoroughly lured me in and I’ve found myself attached to recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, his neurotic wife Wendy and the kid with the shine, Danny. Mystical powers of premonition and telepathy are powerful in young Danny but remain misunderstood by all parties, including himself. Danny is the window to the family’s secrets and he allows readers to peer into the darkest corners of his parents’ minds, which is pretty astounding considering he’s only five years old and can’t even read yet…

Jack holds onto feelings of inadequacy, Wendy holds onto the fear that her family unit may self-implode imminently, and Danny suppresses his otherworldly precognition abilities, fearing institutionalisation and the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. This would be dramatic enough, as the basis for a stage-play, but of course it only gets worse when King drops these fragile characters into the nightmarish setting of The Overlook Hotel.

Jack acquires a job as the Winter caretaker for the prestigious hotel and accepts the humble role, despite the fact he’s vastly overqualified, out of sheer desperation. A series of unfortunate circumstances have led to a fractured family unit and this new job is perceived as an opportunity to make amends. The Overlook Hotel will see no guests for many months as the winter snows essentially cut the hotel off from all civilisation. It ought to be a chance at a fresh start for the family but winds up, in true King fashion, being a seriously warped and twisted fight for survival.

I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting the emotional intensity that I’ve found thus far. I’m impressed by the dimensions of the strong characters as within other novels I’ve read by King, there’s the tendency to focus upon an extensive cast of characters. The Shining does introduce some supporting characters initially, yet as the snow thickens and time passes, we are left with the minimalistic trio of just the Torrance family. As they feel the implications of isolation from the outside world, readers are also subjected to that uneasy feeling of the world closing in. The text, at times, is erratic and reflects the jumbled thoughts (both spoken and unspoken) that are exchanged between the key protagonists. King jumps from one mental landscape to the other, sharing the streams of consciousness that lay beneath the surface. Readers are privy to the private thoughts, the locked-away musings that the family are too afraid to reveal to one another.

It’s thrilling. It’s captivating. It’s outright scary. The ghosts and ghouls lurking in the corridors are one thing, described in all their visual glory. Yet, above all, King’s depiction of alcoholism is utterly frightening and it’s hard not to feel the itch of Jack Torrance’s compulsion to turn back to the bottle. Alcohol is the catalyst to his ingrained temper and all it takes is a minor trigger for the fireworks to explode. He’s unstable and prone to fits of violence, making him the ultimate source of fear for his wife and son. As things get weirder in the hotel, Jack’s deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy begin to turn into a more sinister aggression, which he often directs towards his wife. There’s the constant question of: ‘Will he? Won’t he?’ as Jack is on the verge of breaking his sober stint from the very outset, thinking often of drinking, though he knows the consequences are dangerous. The Overlook shows us the gory and supernatural yet also makes us question whether we ought to be more afraid of the demons knocking around in our own heads. Reality and hallucination blur together, making it impossible to distinguish between lucidity and sleep. Are any of these horrors even real? Or have they been conjured up by the imagination of a stagnating and self-destructive author?

I am very much looking forward to finding out, if only I can brave finishing this novel during daylight hours today…