There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

50 years of Stephen King: Everything's Eventual (2001)

The claret everywhere


Everything's Eventual (2001) is an uneven collection, but the excellence of most of the stories means this book recalls the strengths of Night Shift, not the aesthetic fire-sale agglomeration of Nightmares and Dreamscapes.



Autopsy Room Four (1997)

Minor King doing minor Bierce in the lugubrious I'm-not-dead subgenre.



The Man in the Black Suit (1994)

Simply superb. I've read it twice in two weeks.  In 2002 when I first read it, I thought the tale suffered from vulgarities that ruined its verisimilitude. Now I take it to be flawless.



All That You Love Will Be Carried Away (2001)

An oddly satisfying little tale about a travelling salesman who keeps a notebook of mens' room graffiti and is afraid it may complicate the aftermath of his anticipated suicide.



The Death of Jack Hamilton (2001)

The last hours of a member of the Dillinger gang.


"....Time to get you out of that coat and see how bad it is, partner," Johnnie said.


It took us five minutes. By the time he was down to his undershirt, all three of us were soaked with sweat. Four or five times I had to put my hands over Jack's mouth to muffle him. I got blood all over my cuffs.


There was no more than a rose on the lining of his overcoat, but his white shirt had gone half red and his undershirt was soaked right through. Sticking up on the left side, just below his shoulder blade, was a lump with a hole in the middle of it, like a little volcano....



In the Deathroom (1999) 

....The woman saw the news of her death in his eyes and began to talk faster, pressing her butt and back and palms harder and harder against the metal door as she talked. It was as if she believed she could somehow melt herself through the door and come out whole on the other side if she just pushed hard enough. She had papers, she said, papers in his name, and she would give him these papers. She also had money, a great deal of money, also gold; there was a Swiss bank account which he could access by computer from her home. It occurred to Fletcher that in the end there might only be one way to tell the thugs from the patriots: when they saw their own death rising in your eyes like water, patriots made speeches. The thugs, on the other hand, gave you the number of their Swiss bank account and offered to put you on-line.


"Shut up," Fletcher said.



Everything's Eventual (1997)

A very fine story, brilliantly organized and executed. Class society turns to tragedy any human attempt to have our cake and eat it, too.




L.T.'s Theory of Pets (1997)

A modest tale about the woe that is in marriage. A slice-of-life, a modest anecdote, carefully balanced.



...."I don't like him. That's all. I don't, and I never have."


"Yeah," I said. I guess that's clear."


"And I didn't like the way he looked at Holly."


Which meant, as I found out eventually, that she hadn't liked the way Holly looked at him. When she wasn't looking down at her plate, that is.


"I'd prefer you didn't ask him back to dinner," she said.


I kept quiet. It was late. I was tired. It had been a hard day, a harder evening, and I was tired. The last thing I wanted was to have an argument with my wife when I was tired and she was worried. That's the sort of argument where one of you ends up spending the night on the couch. And the only way to stop an argument like that is to be quiet. In a marriage, words are like rain. And the land of a marriage is filled with dry washes and arroyos that can become raging rivers in almost the wink of an eye. The therapists believe in talk, but most of them are either divorced or queer. It's silence that is a marriage's best friend.


Silence.


After a while, my best friend rolled over on her side, away from me and into the place where she goes when she finally gives up the day. I lay awake a little while longer, thinking of a dusty little car, perhaps once white, parked nose-down in the ditch beside a ranch road out in the Nevada desert not too far from Caliente. The driver's side door standing open, the rearview mirror torn off its post and lying on the floor, the front seat sodden with blood and tracked over by the animals that had come in to investigate, perhaps to sample.


There was a man - they assumed he was a man, it almost always is - who had butchered five women out in that part of the world, five in three years, mostly during the time L.T. had been living with Lulubelle. Four of the women were transients. He would get them to stop somehow, then pull them out of their cars, rape them, dismember them with an axe, leave them a rise or two away for the buzzards and crows and weasels. The fifth one was an elderly rancher's wife. The police call this killer the Axe Man. As I write this, the Axe Man has not been captured. Nor has he killed again; if Cynthia Lulubelle Simms DeWitt was the Axe Man's sixth victim, she was also his last, at least so far. There is still some question, however, as to whether or not she was his sixth victim. If not in most minds' that question exists in the part of L.T.'s mind which is still allowed to hope.


The blood on the seat wasn't human blood, you see; it didn't take the Nevada State Forensics Unit five hours to determine that. The ranch hand who found Lulubelle's Subaru saw a cloud of circling birds half a mile away, and when he reached them, he found not a dismembered woman but a dismembered dog. Little was left but bones and teeth; the predators and scavengers had had their day, and there's not much meat on a Jack Russell terrier to begin with. The Axe Man most definitely got Frank; Lulubelle's fate is probable, but far from certain....



The Road Virus Heads North (1997)

#wrong_turn

#appointment_in_samarra


....Had it changed? If it had, if the blond kid's arm had moved enough so he, Kinnell, could read a tattoo which had been partly hidden before, then he could write a column for one of Sally's magazines. Hell, a four-part series. If, on the other hand, it wasn't changing, then . . . what? He was suffering a hallucination? Having a breakdown? That was crap. His life was pretty much in order, and he felt good. Had, anyway, until his fascination with the picture had begun to waver into something else, something darker.


"Ah, fuck, you just saw it wrong the first time," he said out loud as he got out of the car. Well, maybe. Maybe. It wouldn't be the first time his head had screwed with his perceptions. That was also a part of what he did. Sometimes his imagination got a little . . . well . . .


"Feisty," Kinnell said, and opened the trunk. He took the picture out of the trunk and looked at it, and it was during the space of the ten seconds when he looked at it without remembering to breathe that he became authentically afraid of the thing, afraid the way you were afraid of a sudden dry rattle in the bushes, afraid the way you were when you saw an insect that would probably sting if you provoked it.


The blond driver was grinning insanely at him now—yes, at him, Kinnell was sure of it—with those filed cannibal-teeth exposed all the way to the gumlines. His eyes simultaneously glared and laughed. And the Tobin Bridge was gone. So was the Boston skyline. So was the sunset. It was almost dark in the painting now, the car and its wild rider illuminated by a single streetlamp that ran a buttery glow across the road and the car's chrome. It looked to Kinnell as if the car (he was pretty sure it was a Grand Am) was on the edge of a small town on Route 1, and he was pretty sure he knew what town it was—he had driven through it himself only a few hours ago.


"Rosewood," he muttered. "That's Rosewood. I'm pretty sure."


The Road Virus was heading north, all right, coming up Route 1 just as he had. The blond's left arm was still cocked out the window, but it had rotated enough back toward its original position so that Kinnell could no longer see the tattoo. But he knew it was there, didn't he? Yes, you bet.


The blond kid looked like a Metallica fan who had escaped from a mental asylum for the criminally insane.


"Jesus," Kinnell whispered, and the word seemed to come from someplace else, not from him. The strength suddenly ran out of his body, ran out like water from a bucket with a hole in the bottom, and he sat down heavily on the curb separating the parking lot from the dog-walking zone. He suddenly understood that this was the truth he'd missed in all his fiction, this was how people really reacted when they came face-to-face with something which made no rational sense. You felt as if you were bleeding to death, only inside your head.


"No wonder the guy who painted it killed himself," he croaked, still staring at the picture, at the ferocious grin, at the eyes that were both shrewd and stupid.


There was a note pinned to his shirt, Mrs. Diment had said. "I can't stand what's happening to me." Isn't that awful, Mr. Kinnell?


Yes, it was awful, all right.


Really awful.


He got up, gripping the picture by its top, and strode across the dog-walking area. He kept his eyes trained strictly in front of him, looking for canine land mines. He did not look down at the picture. His legs felt trembly and untrustworthy, but they seemed to support him all right. Just ahead, close to the belt of trees at the rear of the service area, was a pretty young thing in white shorts and a red halter. She was walking a cocker spaniel. She began to smile at Kinnell, then saw something in his face that straightened her lips out in a hurry. She headed left, and fast. The cocker didn't want to go that fast, so she dragged it, coughing, in her wake.


The scrubby pines behind the service area sloped down to a boggy acre that stank of plant and animal decomposition. The carpet of pine-needles was a road-litter fallout zone: burger wrappers, paper soft-drink cups, TCBY napkins, beer cans, empty wine-cooler bottles, cigarette butts. He saw a used condom lying like a dead snail next to a torn pair of panties with the word TUESDAY stitched on them in cursive girly-girl script.


Now that he was here, he chanced another look down at the picture. He steeled himself for further changes—even for the possibility that the painting would be in motion, like a movie in a frame—but there was none. There didn't have to be, Kinnell realized; the blond kid's face was enough. That stone-crazy grin. Those pointed teeth. The face said, Hey, old man, guess what? I'm done fucking with civilization. I'm a representative of the real generation X, the next millennium is right here behind the wheel of this fine, high-steppin' mo-sheen.


Aunt Trudy's initial reaction to the painting had been to advise Kinnell that he should throw it into the Saco River. Auntie had been right. The Saco was now almost twenty miles behind him, but . . .


"This'll do," he said. "I think this'll do just fine."


He raised the picture over his head like a guy holding up some kind of sports trophy for the postgame photographers and then heaved it down the slope. It flipped over twice, the frame catching winks of hazy late-day sun, then struck a tree. The glass facing shattered. The picture fell to the ground and then slid down the dry, needle-carpeted slope, as if down a chute. It landed in the bog, one corner of the frame protruding from a thick stand of reeds. Otherwise, there was nothing visible but the strew of broken glass, and Kinnell thought that went very well with the rest of the litter.


He turned and went back to his car, already picking up his mental trowel. He would wall this incident off in its own special niche, he thought . . . and it occurred to him that that was probably what most people did when they ran into stuff like this. Liars and wannabees (or maybe in this case they were wannasees) wrote up their fantasies for publications like Survivors and called them truth; those who blundered into authentic occult phenomena kept their mouths shut and used those trowels. Because when cracks like this appeared in your life, you had to do something about them; if you didn't, they were apt to widen and sooner or later everything would fall in.


Kinnell glanced up and saw the pretty young thing watching him apprehensively from what she probably hoped was a safe distance. When she saw him looking at her, she turned around and started toward the restaurant building, once more dragging her cocker spaniel behind her and trying to keep as much sway out of her hips as possible.


You think I'm crazy, don't you, pretty girl? Kinnell thought. He saw he had left his trunk lid up. It gaped like a mouth. He slammed it shut. But I'm not crazy. Absolutely not. I just made a little mistake, that's all. Stopped at a yard sale I should have passed up. Anyone could have done it. You could have done it. And that picture—


"What picture?" Rich Kinnell asked the hot summer evening, and tried on a smile. "I don't see any picture."


He slid behind the wheel of his Audi and started the engine. He looked at the fuel gauge and saw it had dropped under a half. He was going to need gas before he got home, but he thought he'd fill the tank a little farther up the line. Right now all he wanted to do was to put a belt of miles—as thick a one as possible—between him and the discarded painting.




Lunch at the Gotham Café (1995)

King on marriage woes is a can't-miss. He does superbly exactly those situations in which husbands and wives feel the earth shifting under their feet, sense and logic and all proportion fleeing away from them down a black tunnel to doom. Very tightly observed, and then the narration gets t-boned when all hell breaks loose.


....For me the worst times were late at night. I think (but I'm not sure; all my thought processes from around the time Diane left are very blurry in my mind) I had an idea that I would sleep better if I quit, but I didn't. I lay awake some mornings until three, hands laced together under my pillow, looking up at the ceiling, listening to sirens and to the rumble of trucks headed downtown.


At those times I would think about the twenty-four-hour Korean market almost directly across the street from my building. I would think about the white fluorescent light inside, so bright it was almost like a Kubler-Ross near-death experience, and how it spilled out onto the sidewalk between the displays which, in another hour, two young Korean men in white paper hats would begin to fill with fruit. I would think about the older man behind the counter, also Korean, also in a paper hat, and the formidable racks of cigarettes behind him, as big as the stone tablets Charlton Heston had brought down from Mount Sinai in The Ten Commandments. I would think about getting up, dressing, going over there, getting a pack of cigarettes (or maybe nine or ten of them), and sitting by the window, smoking one Marlboro after another as the sky lightened to the east and the sun came up. I never did, but on many early mornings I went to sleep counting cigarette brands instead of sheep: Winston… Winston 100s… Virginia Slims… Doral… Merit… Merit 100s… Camels… Camel Filters… Camel Lights....




That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French (1998)

Another married couple who face the eternal recurring of a final wrong turn.



1408 (1999)

Bestselling investigator of haunted sites plans to spend the night in a hotel room of sinister repute. He lasts about seventy minutes. #learnsbetter



Riding the Bullet (2000)

....Around seven o'clock we breasted a hill in West Gates and my chauffeur cried, "Lookit, son! The moon! Ain't she a corker?"


She was indeed a corker—a huge orange ball hoisting itself over the horizon. I thought there was nevertheless something terrible about it. It looked both pregnant and infected. Looking at the rising moon, a sudden and awful thought came to me: what if I got to the hospital and my Ma didn't recognize me? What if her memory was gone, completely shot, and she didn't know aye, yes, no, nor maybe? What if the doctor told me she'd need someone to take care of her for the rest of her life? That someone would have to be me, of course; there was no one else. Goodbye college. What about that, friends and neighbors?


...."I'm a kind of messenger," Staub said. "Fuckin FedEx from beyond the grave, you like that? Guys like me actually come out pretty often—whenever the circumstances are just right. You know what I think? I think that whoever runs things—God or whatever—must like to be entertained. He always wants to see if you'll keep what you already got or if he can talk you into goin for what's behind the curtain. Things have to be just right, though. Tonight they were. You out all by yourself . . . mother sick . . . needin a ride . . ."



Luckey Quarter (1995)

One of my favorite King stories. What it's like to face the everyday carnage of life as a member of the multinational US working class. 





Jay

28 March 2020





Friday, March 27, 2020

Wasp (1957) by Eric Frank Russell


A droll, fast, behind-enemy-lines story of sabotage and derring-do. It has some of the same flavor as Wheatley's early Gregory Sallust novels, but without the snobbery.




"....Finally, let's consider this auto smash. We know the cause; the survivor was able to tell us before he died. He said the driver lost control at speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and started buzzing around his face."


"It nearly happened to me once."


Ignoring that, Wolf went on, "The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being its size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid, and in this case it didn't even use it. Nevertheless it killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap."


"I see the point," agreed Mowry, "but where do I come in?"


"Right here," said Wolf. "We want you to become a wasp."


https://archive.org/details/RusselEricFrankWasp





Wednesday, March 25, 2020

50 years of Stephen King: Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

"This had not happened because they were evil people; it had not happened because the old gods were punishing them; it had happened because they had gotten lost in the woods, that was all, and getting lost in the woods was a thing that could happen to anybody."


-"You Know They Got a Helluva Band"





In autumn of 1994 I gave Nightmares & Dreamscapes short shrift. As a collection it is a mixed bag, the weakest of the author's publishing career. He seems to have included everything but the kitchen sink. I'll concentrate on the unread tales, or ones I do not recall reading in 1994.


"Dolan's Cadillac," "Night Flyer," and "Popsy" are three of my least favorite Stephen King stories, seconded only by "Sneakers," "Umney's Last Case," and "The Moving Finger."  


("The Fifth Quarter," conversely, is Richard Starkean sublimity.)




The End of the Whole Mess (1986)


The "whole mess" referred to in the title is the everyday grinding carnage of our late capitalist social life. Narrator Howard Fornoy gives us a sketch of his genius younger brother Bobby, who figured out how to stop people from contributing to the mess. 


Like "The Jaunt," a personal favorite of mine, "The End of the Whole Mess" gives us a widescreen epic in condensed form. Writing against time and rapid mental decline, Howard tells up how Bobby distilled a drug called Calmative, which he and his brother arranged to spread over the world. To calm the mess-makers. 


King in this story does what he does best: gives us the poetic grandeur of belatedness, of sublime regret and mourning once unintended consequences have revealed all their disabolic magnificence.


...."The world," Bobby said, and then stopped. His throat worked. I saw he was struggling with tears. "The world needs heroic measures, man. I don't know about long-term effects, and there's no time to study them, because there's no long-term prospect. Maybe we can cure the whole mess. Or maybe-"


He shrugged, tried to smile, and looked at me with shining eyes from which two single tears slowly tracked.


"Or maybe we're giving heroin to a patient with terminal cancer. Either way, it'll stop what's happening now. It'll end the world's pain." He spread out his hands, palms up, so I could see the stings on them. "Help me, Bow-Wow. Please help me."


So I helped him.


And we fucked up....



It Grows on You (1982)


Some acutely delineated old-timers chew over the matter of the Newall house in Castle Rock, ME. (It may be one of those beacons, like the Marsten House.) It seems, like the Winchester mystery house, to never be completely finished. Its owner, Joe Newall, is a local mill magnate.


....By 1920 Joe Newall was a rich man. His three Gates Falls mills were going like a house afire, stuffed with the profits of a world war and comfortable with the orders of the newly arisen or (arising) middle class. He began to build a new wing on his house. Most folks in the village pronounced it unnecessary—after all, there were just the two of them up there—and almost all opined it added nothing but ugly to a house most of them already considered ugly beyond almost all measure. This new wing towered one story above the main house and looked blindly down the ridge, which had in those days been covered with straggling pines.


The news that just the two of them were soon to become just the three of them trickled in from Gates Falls, the source most likely being Doris Gingercroft, who was Dr. Robertson's nurse in those days. So the added wing was in the nature of a celebration, it seemed. After six years of wedded bliss and four years of living in the Bend, during which she had been seen only at a distance as she crossed her dooryard, or occasionally picking flowers—crocuses, wild roses, Queen Anne's lace, ladyslipper, paintbrush—in the field beyond the buildings, after all that time, Cora Leonard Newall had Kindled.


She never shopped at Brownie's. Cora did her marketing at the Kitty Korner Store over in Gates Center every Thursday afternoon.


In January of 1921, Cora gave birth to a monster with no arms and, it was said, a tiny clutch of perfect fingers sticking out of one eyesocket. It died less than six hours after mindless contractions had pushed its red and senseless face into the light. Joe Newall added a cupola to the wing seventeen months later, in the late spring of 1922 (in western Maine there is no early spring; only late spring and winter before it). He continued to buy out of town and would have nothing to do with Bill 'Brownie' McKissick's store. He also never crossed the threshold of the Bend Methodist Church. The deformed infant which had slid from his wife's womb was buried in the Newall plot in Gates rather than in Homeland. The inscription on the tiny headstone read:


SARAH TAMSON TABITHA FRANCINE NEWALL 

JANUARY 14, 1921 

GOD GRANT SHE LIE STILL.



Chattery Teeth (1992)


A father just wants to get home alive to wife and son. A droll wind-up deus ex machina lends a... hand.



Dedication (1988)


"Dedication" is an unusual story and very satisfying. King has a real curiosity about women and the everyday predicaments they confront. Like Dreiser, it is demanding. It is also very strong, and something to be proud of having the guts and arrogance to write. 



Home Delivery (1989)


Book of the Dead, edited by Skipp and Spector in 1989 was (to be kind) an aesthetic abortion. None of the tales took place in the Romeroverse, as the editors claimed. (This was before the homogenizing effects of The Walking Dead.) The splatterpunks thought this anthology was a (sorry) no-brainer. 


"Home Delivery" has the feel of something saved in a bottom desk drawer for a rainy day. A down-east rural story, which King typically excels at, here seems oddly flat and rote.



Rainy Season (1989)


The kind of story people who never read King think he writes all the time.  Like "Children of the Corn" and "You Know They Got a Helluva Band," it is a husband-and-wife-take-wrong-turn tale. It is also a Cursed Town and a Smalltown Secret story, which King does very well here.


....Elise lurched to her feet and ran in a large circle, miraculously avoiding a tumble over the boxes, which had been stacked and stored down here. She struck one of the cellar's support posts, rebounded, then turned and banged the back pf her head twice, briskly, against it. There was a thick gushing sound, a squirt of black fluid, and then the toad fell out of her hair, tumbling down the back of her tee-shirt, leaving dribbles of ichor.


She screamed, and the lunacy in that sound chilled John's blood. He half-ran, half-stumbled down the cellar stairs and enfolded her in his arms. She fought him at first and then surrendered. Her screams gradually dissolved into steady weeping....



You Know They Got a Hell of a Band (1992)


....it was as if the intensity of her horror had turned her into a human magnifying glass, and she understood that if they got out of here, no memories of this Peculiar Little Town would remain; the memories would be just ashes blowing in the wind. That was the way these things worked, of course. A person could not retain such hellish images, such hellish experiences, and remain rational, so the mind turned into a blast-furnace, crisping each one as soon as it was created.


That must be why most people can still afford the luxury of disbelieving in ghosts and haunted houses, she thought. Because when the mind is turned toward the terrifying and the irrational, like someone who is turned and made to look upon the face of Medusa, it forgets. It has to forget....



My Pretty Pony (1988)


Dreiser ("Dusk of a summer evening") territory. Acute and well-observed coming-of-age wisdom transferred from grandfather to grandson, along with a pocket watch. (Mercifully, no literal ponies).



Crouch End (1980)


King gives himself a tough row to hoe: his central characters are UK cops dealing with an American tourist's crisis. Recalls but does not equal the grandeur of a London tale like Arthur Machen's "N." 


....It's like a nightmare you want to forget .as soon as you wake up, but it won't fade away like most dreams do; it just stays and stays and stays.'


....'Well, this fellow Lovecraft was always writing about Dimensions,' Vetter said, producing his box of railway matches. 'Dimensions close to ours. Full of these immortal monsters that would drive a man mad at one look. Frightful rubbish, of course. Except, whenever one of these people straggles in, I wonder if all of it was rubbish. I think to myself then – when it's quiet and late at night, like now – that our whole world, everything we think of as nice and normal and sane, might be like a big leather ball filled with air. Only in some places, the leather's scuffed almost down to nothing. Places where the barriers are thinner. Do you get me?'


....And when she looked at them, it was a child's look — simple, exhausted, appealing . . . and at bay, somehow. It was as if whatever had happened had somehow shocked her young....


....He seemed unaware. He walked out on the other side — she saw him for just one moment silhouetted, tall and lanky, against the bloody, furious colors of the sunset, and then he was gone.


....The stars were out, but they were not her stars, the ones she had wished on as a girl or courted under as a young woman, these were crazed stars in lunatic constellations, and her hands went to her ears and her hands did not shut out the sounds and finally she screamed at them: 'Where's my husband? Where's Lonnie? What have you done to him?'


....And in Crouch End, which is really a quiet suburb of London, strange things still happen from time to time, and people have been known to lose their way. Some of them lose it forever.



The House on Maple Street (1993)


A well-observed fantasy about a house that corrects the crisis facing the poorly blended family living within its walls. 



The Doctor's Case (1987)


Sherlock Holmes pastiches are a minefield, and no writer who wants to try one escapes unscathed. King gives us a modest puzzle that really is a puzzle and not a Moffatt-Gattis mindscrew. The style is clear and direct, and not crushed by trying to sound Victorian. King's Sherlock is clearly tuned to Jeremy Brett's TV performance, and there is not a little of the actor's panache here. And thankfully, King resists the temptation to give Holmes and Watson a ghost to bust.


"....He was caught by shadows on a day when there were none because he was afraid he would be caught by none on a day when his father's barometer said they would almost certainly be everywhere else in the room."




Jay

25 March 2020




Sunday, March 22, 2020

50 years of Stephen King: Six Stories (Philtrum Press, 1997)

"People are surely God's most bizarre creatures."


The tales in 1997's Six Stories have since been collected in mass market books. The Philtrum edition is now a pricey item on Abe Books and EBay. The stories are of consistent quality, cooly conceived and  well-executed. Each story knows what it wants to achieve, and does so.



The Man in the Black Suit (1994)


A perfectly balanced and modulated story: extreme emotion recalled in tranquility. This is the third time I have read it in the last few years, and the missteps I previously thought King made no longer register as errors of taste. The coming-of-age tropes are not over-blown, and the prose is kept plain and close to the vest. Readers of Washington Irving's great story "The Money Diggers" will find a trace resonance here.



....and I couldn't take my eyes off the man standing on top of the bank and looking down at me-the man who had apparently walked out of thirty miles of trackless western Maine woods in fine black suit and narrow shoes of gleaming leather. I could see the watch chain looped across his vest glittering in the summer sunshine. There was not so much as a single pine needle on him. And he was smiling at me.


"Why, it's a fisherboy!" he cried in a mellow, pleasing voice. "Imagine that! Are we well met, fisherboy?"



Lunch at the Gotham Café (1995)


King on marriage woes is a can't-miss. He does superbly exactly those situations in which husbands and wives feel the earth shifting under their feet, sense and logic and all proportion fleeing away from them down a black tunnel to doom. Very tightly observed, and then the narration gets t-boned when all hell breaks loose.


....For me the worst times were late at night. I think (but I'm not sure; all my thought processes from around the time Diane left are very blurry in my mind) I had an idea that I would sleep better if I quit, but I didn't. I lay awake some mornings until three, hands laced together under my pillow, looking up at the ceiling, listening to sirens and to the rumble of trucks headed downtown.


At those times I would think about the twenty-four-hour Korean market almost directly across the street from my building. I would think about the white fluorescent light inside, so bright it was almost like a Kubler-Ross near-death experience, and how it spilled out onto the sidewalk between the displays which, in another hour, two young Korean men in white paper hats would begin to fill with fruit. I would think about the older man behind the counter, also Korean, also in a paper hat, and the formidable racks of cigarettes behind him, as big as the stone tablets Charlton


Heston had brought down from Mount Sinai in The Ten Commandments. I would think about getting up, dressing, going over there, getting a pack of cigarettes (or maybe nine or ten of them), and sitting by the window, smoking one Marlboro after another as the sky lightened to the east and the sun came up. I never did, but on many early mornings I went to sleep counting cigarette brands instead of sheep: Winston… Winston 100s… Virginia Slims… Doral… Merit… Merit 100s… Camels… Camel Filters… Camel Lights....



L.T.'s Theory of Pets (1997)


A modest tale about the woe that is in marriage. A slice-of-life, a modest anecdote, carefully balanced.


...."I don't like him. That's all. I don't, and I never have."


"Yeah," I said. I guess that's clear."


"And I didn't like the way he looked at Holly."


Which meant, as I found out eventually, that she hadn't liked the way Holly looked at him. When she wasn't looking down at her plate, that is.


"I'd prefer you didn't ask him back to dinner," she said.


I kept quiet. It was late. I was tired. It had been a hard day, a harder evening, and I was tired. The last thing I wanted was to have an argument with my wife when I was tired and she was worried. That's the sort of argument where one of you ends up spending the night on the couch. And the only way to stop an argument like that is to be quiet. In a marriage, words are like rain. And the land of a marriage is filled with dry washes and arroyos that can become raging rivers in almost the wink of an eye. The therapists believe in talk, but most of them are either divorced or queer. It's silence that is a marriage's best friend.


Silence.


After a while, my best friend rolled over on her side, away from me and into the place where she goes when she finally gives up the day. I lay awake a little while longer, thinking of a dusty little car, perhaps once white, parked nose-down in the ditch beside a ranch road out in the Nevada desert not too far from Caliente. The driver's side door standing open, the rearview mirror torn off its post and lying on the floor, the front seat sodden with blood and tracked over by the animals that had come in to investigate, perhaps to sample.


There was a man - they assumed he was a man, it almost always is - who had butchered five women out in that part of the world, five in three years, mostly during the time L.T. had been living with Lulubelle. Four of the women were transients. He would get them to stop somehow, then pull them out of their cars, rape them, dismember them with an axe, leave them a rise or two away for the buzzards and crows and weasels. The fifth one was an elderly rancher's wife. The police call this killer the Axe Man. As I write this, the Axe Man has not been captured. Nor has he killed again; if Cynthia Lulubelle Simms DeWitt was the Axe Man's sixth victim, she was also his last, at least so far. There is still some question, however, as to whether or not she was his sixth victim. If not in most minds' that question exists in the part of L.T.'s mind which is still allowed to hope.


The blood on the seat wasn't human blood, you see; it didn't take the Nevada State Forensics Unit five hours to determine that. The ranch hand who found Lulubelle's Subaru saw a cloud of circling birds half a mile away, and when he reached them, he found not a dismembered woman but a dismembered dog. Little was left but bones and teeth; the predators and scavengers had had their day, and there's not much meat on a Jack Russell terrier to begin with. The Axe Man most definitely got Frank; Lulubelle's fate is probable, but far from certain....



Autopsy Room Four (1997)


A black-humored bit of nonsense, the kind of finger-exercise a tyro might delight in.  King clearly enjoys this lugubrious conte cruel with a happy though semi-flaccid climax. Recalls Michael Shea's superior, masterful tale "The Autopsy."


....I am lifted. My head lolls back and for a moment I see Pete upside down, donning his own Plexi eyeshield as he stands by a steel counter, inventorying a horrifying array of tools. Chief among them are the oversized scissors. I get just a glimpse of them, of blades glittering like merciless satin. Then I am laid flat again and my shirt is gone. I'm now naked to the waist. It's cold in the room.


Look at my chest! I scream at her. You must see it rise and fall, no matter how shallow my respiration is! You're a goddam expert, for Christ's sake"


Instead, she looks across the room, raising her voice to be heard above the music. ("I like it, like it, yes I do," the Stones sing, and I think I will hear that nasal idiot chorus in the halls of hell through all eternity.) "What's your pick? Boxers or Jockeys?"


With a mixture of horror and rage, I realize what they're talking about.


"Boxers"' he calls back. "Of course! Just take a look at the guy!"


Asshole! I want to scream. You probably think everyone over forty wears boxer shorts! You probably think when you get to be forty, you'll-


She unsnaps my Bermudas and pulls down the zipper. Under other circumstances, having a woman as pretty as this (a little severe, yes, but still pretty) do that would make me extremely happy. Today, however-


"You lose, Petie-boy," she says. "Jockeys. Dollar in the kitty."



Lucky Quarter (1995)


"Even good luck was just bad luck with its hair combed."





Jay

22 March 2020




Saturday, March 21, 2020

50 Years of Stephen King: The Long Walk by Stephen King (1979)


Walk or die

King's novel The Long Walk was published in 1979. According to the Wiki:

While not the first of King's novels to be published, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote, having begun it in 1966–67 during his freshman year at the University of Maine some eight years before his first published novel 
 was released in 1974.

It's not Road Work or Salem's Lot or The Stand, but its mixture of adolescent fatalism and easy dystopianism is very slick and smooth. The entrants, all male teenagers, spend the walk kidding themselves, daydreaming, and offering apposite literary references. 

There's more than a little "Big Two-Hearted River" to this tale of various appointments in Samarra that cannot be evaded.

         "You ever see the end of a Long Walk?" 
     "No, you?" 
     "Hell, no. I just thought, you being close to it and all-" 
     "My father hated them. He took me to one as a what-do-you-call-it, object lesson. But that was the only time." 
     "I saw." 
     Garraty jumped at the sound of that voice. It was Stebbins. He had pulled almost even with them, his head still bent forward, his blond hair flapping around his ears like a sickly halo. 
     "What was it like?" McVries asked. His voice was younger somehow. 
     "You don't want to know," Stebbins said. 
     "I asked, didn't I?" 
     Stebbins made no reply. Garraty's curiosity about him was stronger than ever. Stebbins hadn't folded up. He showed no signs of folding up. He went on without complaint and hadn't been warned since the starting line. 
     "Yeah, what's it like?" he heard himself asking. 
     "I saw the end four years ago," Stebbins said. "I was thirteen. It ended about sixteen miles over the New Hampshire border. They had the National Guam out and sixteen Federal Squads to augment the State Police. They had to. The people were packed sixty deep on both sides of the road for fifty miles. Over twenty people were trampled to death before it was all over. It happened because people were trying to move with the Walkers, trying to see the end of it. I had a front-row seat. My dad got it for me. " 
     "What does your dad do?" Garraty asked.        
            "He's in the Squads. And he had it figured just right. I didn't even have to move. The Walk ended practically in front of me." 
     "What happened?" Olson asked softly. 
     "I could hear them coming before I could see them. We all could. It was one big soundwave, getting closer and closer. And it was still an hour before they got close enough to see. They weren't looking at the crowd, either of the two that were left. It was like they didn't even know the crowd was there. What they were looking at was the mad. They were hobbling along, both of them. Like they had been crucified and then taken down and made to walk with the nails still through their feet." 
     They were all listening to Stebbins now. A horrified silence had fallen like a rubber sheet. 
     "The crowd was yelling at them, almost as if they could still hear. Some were yelling one guy's name, and some were yelling the other guy's, but the only thing that really came through was this Go . . . Go . . . Go chant. I was getting shoved around like a beanbag. The guy next to me either pissed himself or jacked off in his pants, you couldn't tell which. 
     "They walked right past me. One of them was a big blond with his shirt open. One of his shoe soles had come unglued or unstitched or whatever, and it was flapping. The other guy wasn't even wearing his shoes anymore. He was in his stocking feet. His socks ended at his ankles. The rest of them . . . why, he'd just walked them away, hadn't he? His feet were purple. You could see the broken blood vessels in his feet. I don't think he really felt it anymore. Maybe they were able to do something with his feet later, I don't know. Maybe they were." 
     "Stop. For God's sake, stop it." It was McVries. He sounded dazed and sick. 
    
     "You wanted to know," Stebbins said, almost genially. "Didn't you say that?" 
     No answer. The halftrack whined and clattered and spurted along the shoulder, and somewhere farther up someone drew a warning. 
     "It was the big blond that lost. I saw it all. They were just a little past me. He threw both of his arms up, like he was Superman. But instead of flying he just fell flat on his face and they gave him his ticket after thirty seconds because he was walking with three. They were both walking with three. 
    
     "Then the crowd started to cheer. They cheered and they cheered and then they could see that the kid that won was trying to say something. So they shut up. 
     He had fallen on his knees, you know, like he was going to pray, only he was just crying. And then he crawled over to the other boy and put his face in that big blond kid's shirt. Then he started to say whatever it was he had to say, but we couldn't hear it. He was talking into the dead kid's shirt. He was telling the dead kid. 
    
     Then the soldiers rushed out and told him he had won the Prize, and asked him how he wanted to start." 
     "What did he say?" Garraty asked. It seemed to him that with the question he had laid his whole life on the line. 
     "He didn't say anything to them, not then," Stebbins said. "He was talking to the dead kid. He was telling the dead kid something, but we couldn't hear it. " 
     "What happened then?" Pear-son asked. 
     "I don't remember," Stebbins said remotely. 
    
     No one said anything. Garraty felt a panicked, trapped sensation, as if someone had stuffed him into an underground pipe that was too small to get out of. 
     Up ahead a third warning was given out and a boy made a croaking, despairing sound, like a dying crow. Please God, don't let them shoot anyone now, Garraty thought. I'll go crazy if I hear the guns now. Please God, please God. 
    
     A few minutes later the guns rammed their steel-death sound into the night. 
     This time it was a short boy in a flapping red and white football jersey. For a moment Garraty thought Percy's mom would not have to wonder or worry anymore, but it wasn't Percy-it was a boy named Quincy or Quentin or something like that. 
     Garraty didn't go crazy. He turned around to say angry words at Stebbins-to ask him, perhaps, how it felt to inflict a boy's last minutes with such a horror-but Stebbins had dropped back to his usual position and Garraty was alone again. 
     They walked on, the ninety of them. 
    



March to Babi Yar

This sketch, by Ben Steele, a Bataan Death March survivor from Montana, depicts the circumstances that prisoners of war faced during the 65-mile march in spring 1942. The sketch is part of Jan Thompson’s upcoming documentary on the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese and the Bataan Death March.


The remarkable thing about The Long Walk is its economical gravitas and hard-boiled control, somewhere between young Hemingway and the black stormclouds of James M. Cain or Jim Thompson. 

The Long Walk follows one hundred teenage males as they compete in a government-sanctioned endurance walk. It begins at 9a.m. on May 1at the US-Canadian border. Once the walkers begin, they cannot stop. If they do, and use up their three verbal warnings, a member of a squad of riflemen following the contestants executes them on the spot. There are no breaks or time-outs.

As the number of long-walkers dwindles, a lifetime's worth of emotion, agony, friendship, humor and hysteria are exhausted in three short days. The walkers, other than King's point-of-view character Ray Garraty, begin as cut-outs and are developed through lean and careful expenditure of dialogue. The stream-of-consciousness style King used to good effect in his early novels is kept to a minimum until chapters where characters begin to face their final extremity.

The Long Walk explains little of the nightmare USA it portrays. The long walk's history and justification are anyone's guess. 

Only after the remaining walkers are south of Augusta do we read:

They had all pretty much agreed that there was little emotional stretch or recoil left in them. But apparently, Garraty thought tiredly as they walked into the roaring darkness along U.S. 202 with Augusta a mile behind them, it was not so. Like a badly treated guitar that has been knocked about by an unfeeling musician, the strings were not broken but only out of tune, discordant, chaotic.
      Augusta hadn’t been like Oldtown. Oldtown had been a phony hick New York. Augusta was some new city, a once-a-year city of crazy revelers, a party-down city full of a million boogying drunks and cuckoo birds and out-and-out maniacs.
     They had heard Augusta and seen Augusta long before they had reached Augusta. The image of waves beating on a distant shore recurred to Garraty again and again. They heard the crowd five miles out. The lights filled the sky with a bubble-like pastel glow that was frightening and apocalyptic, reminding Garraty of pictures he had seen in the history books of the German air-blitz of the American East Coast during the last days of World War II....

By this time crowds have started to gather along the long walk's route, many cheering Garraty and his comrades, others more delighted to see executions of stragglers and drop-outs.

At the head of each chapter, King gives us an excerpt from the chatty banter of contemporary TV games shows. Some quotes extol following the rules, others praise sporting carnage. 

King passes over without acknowledgement some of the 20th century's real long walks, from the bloodlands of Ukraine and Byelorussia to Bataan. Anyone watching TV and movies in the 1960s and 1970s would have been familiar with those horrors; for kids like King (and later myself) learning about war atrocities was part of the spice of pop culture. 

Jay
16 March 2020