Book Review: FULL DARK, NO STARS

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Book Review FULL DARK, NO STARSStephen King
Scribner
2010

Stephen King excels at telling stories. That’s pretty much the basic gist of it, I guess. He’s been telling stories in many different formats over several decades, which means he’s capable of telling tales that manage to break the bounds of the genre that most have pigeonholed him in. Which, I guess, is my lame way to start off this review for his third collection of novellas to have been published, Full Dark, No Stars.

The four stories collected here lean more to the hard-boild crime chiller type of stories that, had this been a different time, probably would have been published under King’s former pen name Richard Bachman. But, before I get too far, let’s take a look at the individual stories contained herein, shall we?

“1922”
…a Nebraska farmer writes a confession/suicide note detailing the bad year he had in 1922. It’s a murder chiller that plays out like a classic story from the old EC Comics thrillers of old.

“Big Driver”
…this was a hard one for me to get through, mainly due to the subject matter of a woman who is raped and gets her revenge on the culprits. The whole violence against women thing makes me sick to my stomach; regardless, this was a good hard-boiled revenge thriller with…well, I wouldn’t say a “happy ending”. Would that even be possible ever again?

“Fair Extension”
…the shortest story in this collection, it would be a stretch to call this a novella, given that it’s just a skosh over thirty pages. And for whatever reason, I pictured Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame) playing the part as the Devil in this story. Anyway, kind of a darker Twilight Zone type of story, where a guy who’s had nothing but bad luck happens upon someone who can give him a new lease on life, for a certain price.

“A Good Marriage”
…a wife’s long-time and idealistic (if not a bit hum-drum) marriage existence gets shaken to the core when she accidentally finds out her husband might be a notorious serial killer. Pretty tense, and the ending is straight out of a Columbo mystery.

Overall, the collection within Full Dark, No Stars aren’t so much supernatural horror, so much as hard boiled thrillers from the same vein as the EC Comic and the Alfred Hitchcock pulp magazines. Obviously, there’s going to be a touch of the supernatural style, mostly with “A Fair Extension”; most of the horror, though, is derived from regular everyday people finding themselves in a very non-regular and dark situation, where there’s no hope of coming out unscathed. Like I mentioned earlier you might say these are Richard Bachman stories that King just decided to put his regular name on.

I really should note that two stories from here have already been made into movies: “Big Driver”, which was made into a Lifetime movie, and “A Good Marriage”. And there’s been news of “1922” being made into one as well. I haven’t watched any of the two movie adaptations, and probably won’t any time soon. As far as reading the book goes, yeah, no regrets doing so. It’s a Stephen King book for certain. What more can I say?

Book Review: The DARK TOWER

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book-review_-dark-tower-viiStephen King
Grant
2004

“Death, but not for you, gunslinger. Never for you. You darkle. You tinct. May I be brutally frank? You go on.”

The seventh and final installment of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower saga is perhaps the most anticipated book in the author’s long career. King began this epic tale about the last gunslinger in the world more than 20 years ago; now he draws its suspenseful story to a close, snapping together the last pieces of his action puzzle and drawing Roland Deschain ever closer to his ultimate goal.

The final book (in theory) of the long-going Dark Tower series, and this one’s a doozy. Strap in, this is gonna be a bumpy ride.

So, picking up where the last book left off, Jake and Callahan sieges The Dixie Pig, which turns out to be a vampire lounge that specializes in roast human flesh and features doors leading to their worlds. Because nightmare fuel really brings out the subtle nuanced taste of the brisket. Callahan ultimately sacrifices himself to save Jake from the inevitable vampire attack. Meanwhile, in the world of Fedic, Mia (having been separated from Susannah) gives birth to a bouncing baby boy…that can turn into a spider, which it does and immediately feasts on his mother. Susannah manages to escape Fedic back into the Dixie Pig and meets up with Jake and Oy, Roland and Eddie recruit a guy named John Cullum in Maine, then they all make their way back to Fedic. Walter/Randall Flagg is killed by the rapidly maturing baby/spider (going by the name of Mordred), while Roland and the gang get involved with freeing a bunch of psychics that are being used to weaken and break the beams that support the Tower. Eddie is wounded and dies, then Roland, Jake and Oy jump back to our world Maine 1999 and save Stephen King from getting hit by a minivan, only to have Jake killed by said van in his place. Roland and Oy meet back up with Susannah in Fedic, get chanced by a monster, and continue on to The Dark Tower. They meet up with another vampire, a psychic one, that makes them laugh a bit too much, they free his captive that had once appeared in King’s 1994 novel Insomnia, who can make his drawings come to life, and so Susannah has him draw a door out of this world, because she knows that Roland needs to finish his quest without her. Then Mordred (suffering from a serious case of the trots) attacks, killing Oy (quite the body count we’re racking up, Sir Roland), but then gets killed by Roland. The remaining two finally arrive at the Dark Tower, only to find it already occupied by the Crimson King. No worries, though, because Roland’s remaining companion manages to just literally erase the Crimson King’s existence, allowing Roland to enter the Dark Tower finally. Then we get a glimpse of how Susannah turned out, and if you keep reading, you end up right at the beginning of the upcoming Dark Tower movie. The End.

I’m not kidding about that last part. It seems that the long-planned and finally coming out the year of this writing is officially a sequel to the book series, as a small bit of a reveal that I’m not going to spoil shows why it’s a sequel and not a straight adaptation of the books.

As far as The Dark Tower goes, this was epic. Both by the size of the book and the scope of the adventure itself. It’s quite a bit darker, as of course people close to Roland don’t get out unscathed. I understand that the majority of those I’ve talked with consider the final confrontation between Roland and the Crimson King to be a cop-out let down, but I actually get it; it’s in keeping with King’s voiced opinion that the big bad evil always seems bigger and scarier from far off, but when you finally confront it face to face, the “unstoppable evil” always turns out to be more bark than bite. That’s not to say that the Crimson King was a wuss; his evil influence has a far-reaching and devastating effect, felt in the books Black House and Insomnia (where a couple of characters first hail from), and is quite possibly the embodiment of Satan himself. Regardless, it was a rather out-of-the-box way that he was defeated. Also, the true ending to the tale…I found it satisfying. Then again, I am something of a geek when it comes to…endings like that. Also, giving the were-spider monstrosity explosive diarrhea was hilariously awesome.

Overall, though it clocks in at nearly 850 pages in length, being the longest book in the series, I was completely engrossed in the story from beginning to end. I think the all-encompassing tale of the Dark Tower is far from being over; however, this is a good ending to a larger arc in the tale.

Book Review: SONG OF SUSANNAH

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book-review_-dark-tower-viStephen King
Grant
2004

King looked back at Roland. “As The Man With No Name–a fantasy version of Clint Eastwood–you were okay. A lot of fun to partner up with.”

To give birth to her “chap,” demon-mother Mia has usurped the body of Susannah Dean and used the power of Black Thirteen to transport to New York City in the summer of 1999. The city is strange to Susannah…and terrifying to the “daughter of none,” who shares her body and mind. Saving the Tower depends not only on rescuing Susannah but also on securing the vacant lot Calvin Tower owns before he loses it to the Sombra Corporation. Enlisting the aid of Manni senders, the remaining katet climbs to the Doorway Cave…and discovers that magic has its own mind. It falls to the boy, the billy-bumbler, and the fallen priest to find Susannah-Mia, who, in a struggle to cope with each other and with an alien environment “go todash” to Castle Discordia on the border of End-World. In that forsaken place, Mia reveals her origins, her purpose, and her fierce desire to mother whatever creature the two of them have carried to term. Eddie and Roland, meanwhile, tumble into western Maine in the summer of 1977, a world that should be idyllic but isn’t. For one thing, it is real, and the bullets are flying.

Here we are, the penultimate edition in the overall Dark Tower series, and…things get wonky. I mean, things have gotten wonky in past books, yes; this is, after all, a fantasy epic, in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings, by way of Sergio Leone. But, where the previous novel had only a little bit of the ol’ time-and-dimensional hopping shenanigans, Song of Susannah goes entirely Masters Of The Universe: The Movie. You know, the live action He-Man movie that didn’t have the budget to set things in Eternia, so He-Man and the gang wind up in New York for most of the time? Yeah, this is the Dark Tower novel that’s set in our dimension, at different points in history. Specifically, 1977 and 1999. But, I’m getting ahead of myself, here.

So, after Susan got all possessed by her unborn demon child and escaped into the dimensional doorway into New York of 1999, closing said door and throwing away the proverbial key, Roland and the remaining Ka-tet members–Eddie, Jake, Oy, and including Father Callahan–manage to open up another magic door and go in…only, Jake, Oy and Father Callahan wind up in 1999 New York, where Susannah/Mia have shown up at, while Roland and Eddie are sent to 1977 Maine. Roland and Eddie manage to fend off enemies sent by the Crimson King and get the deed to the land that has the rose in New York, and then get all super-meta when they pay a visit to Stephen King. Mind you, it’s 1977 Stephen King, and is considered the conduit for which the story of the Dark Tower saga transmits itself. That, and the Gunslinger and Eddie’s presence in Maine causes reality in the town to go all wonky and “thin”, as it’s mentioned. And thus Roland encourages this “wordslinger” to continue with the writing of the Dark Tower saga. Meanwhile, in 1999 New York, Susannah/Mia are taken to a restaurant called the Dixie Pig and is preparing to give birth to that unholy spawn, attended to by the Crimson King’s men, as Jake, Oy and Father Callahan show up and prepare to storm the restaurant to rescue Susannah. Then we end things by discovering via journal entries that Stephen King the character died in 1999. Wacky.

Considering the shadows of our world showing up in Ronald’s world, and the fact that The Drawing of the Three spent a goodly chunk of time in (for lack of a better term) our real reality (albeit something of a slightly altered history version), the characters jumping to different points in time in our reality wasn’t something suddenly utilized to shake things up. Also, authors appearing in their own novels isn’t anything new, either. And in a way, Stephen King writing himself into this story actually fits in the narrative; the fact that he was rather self-depreciating when he did it, making him come off as a bit of an arsehole that got on Ronald’s nerves a nice way of downplaying what could have been a cheep ego boost.

Overall, while the twists and turns do tend to give you a bit of motion sickness, Song of Susannah nevertheless was rather engaging and entertaining.

Book Review: WOLVES OF THE CALLA

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book-review_-dark-tower-vStephen King
Grant
2003

It was the possibility of darkness that made the day seem so bright.

Roland Deschain and his ka-tet are bearing southeast through the forests of Mid-World on their quest for the Dark Tower. Their path takes them to the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But beyond the tranquil farm town, the ground rises to the hulking darkness of Thunderclap, the source of a terrible affliction that is stealing the town’s soul. The wolves of Thunderclap and their unspeakable depredation are coming. To resist them is to risk all, but these are odds the gunslingers are used to. Their guns, however, will not be enough….

After Wizard & Glass was published in 1997, there was a stretch where it seemed a possibility that we may never see (or read) of Roland finally arriving at his long-traveled destination of The Dark Tower. Or, if you wanted to be optimistic, there would be a conclusion to the epic, but it might not be Stephen King that would pen the last few stories. This was something that King himself actually mused about back in the 1980s, around the time when The Drawing of the Three was published. It makes sense, really, as The Dark Tower series was never really his main focus as a writer. But still, continuing a story is a thing us geeks tend to get antsy about.

Also, there was the little issue with King almost getting killed after being hit by a minivan while on one of his daily walks in 1999. It took him a while to recover, and during his readjusting period said he was going to retire from writing all together in 2002. Fortunately, whether he found a way to work through the discomfort, or if he just discovered that retirement sucks, he continued to write, and managed to get the fifth volume of The Dark Tower series out, Wolves of the Calla.

After leaving Topeka from the previous story, Roland and the gang find themselves enlisted in protecting a small farming village called Calla Bryn Sturgis from the Wolves of Thunderclap (again, great band name, there). Seems these Wolves come around every generation to take one child from each pair of twins from the village, and after a few months of being away, the child returns mentally handicapped and destined to grow really big and die young. Meanwhile, one of the citizens of Calla is one Father Callahan, who used originally used to be from a little town in Maine called ‘Salem’s Lot. You may have heard of it; bit of a vampire infestation and all. Turns out, things got all sorts of wacky for Father Callahan after he left ‘Salem’s Lot, and after dying in that reality wound up here in Roland’s world at the Way Station shortly after Roland met up with Jake there in The Gunslinger (gads, we’re starting to need a flow chart, aren’t we?), yadda yadda yadda, there’s a black scrying orb in a cave that can allow traveling via dream doorways. Or something like that. Eddie uses said object to travel back to New York circa 1977 to ensure a rose in an empty lot that is the manifestation of the Dark Tower in this dimension is not destroyed. Meanwhile, in the Calla, the Wolves show up, who turn out to be robots that look more like Doctor Doom that wield Star Wars-style light sabers and throw grenades designed to look like the snitches from the Harry Potter books. I am so not making that up. A battle ensues, the Wolves are defeated, and then Susanna gets possessed by the baby she got impregnated with by a demon back in The Waste Lands, and runs off back to New York Prime and closes the door behind her. The End.

Clearly, Wolves of the Calla is the Seven Samurai edition of the story arc. Or, if you will, The Magnificent Seven. Wherein our ragtag group of vagrant cowboys are called upon to help defend a village from a dark force that preys upon it because evil. Throw in some time-and-dimension hopping shenanigans, a crossover from another Stephen King book, some other blatant cribbing from other modern pop culture touchstones and a callback to one of the previous novels in the series, and boy howdy was this a wonderful and glorious mess. I don’t mean that in a bad way, either; the story had so many twists and turns, not to mention so many wacky surprises that it was just all kinds of fun to read. I mean, who wouldn’t want to make light sabers part of your fantasy play when you were a kid?

Overall, after sloshing through Wizard & Glass, I’m glad I kept going with Wolves of the Calla, as I was rewarded with a much more imaginative and kinetic continuation of the overall arc, as well as some geek moments that left me with a bit of a grin at times.

Book Review: WIZARD AND GLASS

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book-review_-dark-tower-ivStephen King
Grant
1997

“Not all is silent in the halls of the dead and the rooms of ruin. Even now some of the stuff the Old Ones left behind still works. And that’s really the horror of it, wouldn’t you say? Yes. The exact horror of it.”

Roland and his band of followers have narrowly escaped one world and slipped into the next. There Roland tells them a tale of long-ago love and adventure involving a beautiful and quixotic woman named Susan Delgado. And there they will be drawn into an ancient mystery of spellbinding magic and supreme menace!

The fourth book in the Dark Tower series pretty much picks up right where the previous novel left off, with Roland and the gang stuck inside a psychotic monorail speeding off West, destination: DEATH BY SMASHY-SMASHY! To kill the time (no pun intended), Blaine (because that’s the name of said Monorail) engages everyone in a game of riddles. This goes on for a few hours, when Eddie decides to go full-on Spock from the episode “I, Mudd” and manages to short-circuit Blaine by telling childish jokes. They get off at Topeka, Kansas, but it’s the one from the 1980s after having been depopulated due to the superbug from the book The Stand (the original 1980 version, not the 1990 recut edition…just, try not to think too hard about that). They camp out next to a tear in reality (because…reasons, I guess), where Roland regales his ka-tet with a lengthy tale of when he first became a Gunslinger and came across another tear in reality, which came in handy when an entire army he was fighting fell into it. I’d go into detail, but let’s just say that things escalated when Roland fell in love with a betrothed maiden (as it does), and came across a pink scrying orb that showed him a rather bleak future. Pretty heavy stuff for a 14-year-old. The next morning in Kansas, Roland and the Ka-Tet (which sounds like a band name), come across Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, and run into The Man in Black from the first novel, aka Marten Broadcloak from Roland’s story, aka Randall Flagg from The Stand/Tears of the Dragon/pretty much every baddie across the King-o-verse.

I’ll just come out and say it: Wizard & Glass is pretty much a filler episode in the overall Dark Tower series. There was a good six year gap between the previous novel and this one, and one gets the sense that King was not really all that enthusiastic about continuing on with the Dark Tower saga. But, that’s just speculation on my part.

As it stands, Wizard & Glass doesn’t really advance the story arc forward, and is mostly made up of a flashback story from Roland’s youth, something that was adapted into the Gunslinger Born comic miniseries. I did geek a bit from the cross-pollination with King’s other books, specifically The Stand and the revelation that the series’ main antagonist has been seen before in previous stories under different guises. Regardless, while not being a bad one, Wizard & Glass stands as my least favorite book in the Dark Tower series.

Book Review: The WASTE LANDS

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book-review_-dark-tower-iiiStephen King
Grant
1991

“What we’ve got here is a lunatic genius ghost-in-the-computer monorail that likes riddles and goes faster than the speed of sound. Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Roland, The Last Gunslinger, moves ever closer to The Dark Tower of his dreams and nightmares as he crosses a desert of damnation in a macabre world that is a twisted image of our own. With him are those he has drawn to this world: street-smart Eddie Dean and courageous wheelchair-bound Susannah. Ahead of him are mind-rending revelations about who and what is driving him. Against him is arrayed a swelling legion of foes both more and less than human….

This is the book where I didn’t read it when it was initially released. Well, I began reading it, yes, back in 1992 when I received a trade paperback edition as a gift; however, around that same time I began sliding into the point in my history where I stopped reading fiction in general because of…reasons. One day I shall go into these “reasons” in depth, but for now, that’s just going to have to do. Needless to say, I got to about the part when Roland and the Ka-Tet (which is a great band name idea, by the way) encounter a giant cyborg bear. I’d say SPOILERS, but chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve read the book as well and know what I’m talking about. That’s the point when I closed the book and said, “I’m good,” and put the book away, to be lost with the other books that I had turned my back on in that time period. The 1990s was a wacky time for me.

It wasn’t until 2010, when I decided to read all of the Dark Tower books in succession when I read The Waste Lands in its entirety. Being a bit older, and a bit…well, I wouldn’t go so far as saying “wiser”, but for want of a better word and all, I found myself enjoying this third entry in the Dark Tower series far more than back when I first attempted to do so.

Here in The Waste Lands, after running into said giant cyborg bear (which turns out to be one of the Guardians of the Six Beams that are tied into the Tower), they get a bead on the path to the Dark Tower, and head out into Mid-World. There, it’s found out that, due to Roland’s actions in The Drawing of the Three, he’s created a paradox in reality, wherein certain events in The Gunslinger have been retconned out of reality, but Roland remembers both that reality and this reality. Eddie is inspired to carve out a key that would open up a door between Roland’s world and the New York in our reality, and let Jake through, joining the quest. Along the way, they encounter a Billy-Bumbler who also joins the gang, and then Jake gets kidnapped by a bunch of post apocalyptic city dwellers lead by a guy named the Tick-Tock Man. Then they all climb aboard a high-speed bullet train with sentient AI and an acute case of psychosis who wants nothing more than to exchange riddles and jokes while deciding whether or not to kill them. Also, they’re headed towards Kansas. The end.

The Waste Lands was, for all intents and purposes, a continuation of The Drawing of the Three, wherein more is revealed about Roland’s world, and the final members of his Ka-Tet completes the group: Jake and Oy, the billy-bumbler that is described as a kind of racoon/dog hybrid with a high level of intelligence. The adventures in this installment are a bit darker, especially when they arrive in the run-down city and Jake is almost immediately kidnapped by the locals. Then there’s the psycho train they climb into at the end, which will lead into the next book and leaves things in quite a cliffhanger.

Overall, the story in The Waste Land was necessary to the narrative, but seemed to cram a lot into a small area to accommodate the story. There were points where it was in danger of going completely off the rails, no pun intended. Regardless, a rather interesting continuation of the overall tale.

Book Review: The DRAWING OF THE THREE

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book-review_-dark-tower-iiStephen King
Grant
1987

Roland could not understand why anyone would want cocaine or any other illegal drug, for that matter, in a world where such a powerful one as sugar was so plentiful and cheap.

While pursuing his quest for the Dark Tower through a world that is a nightmarishly distorted mirror image of our own, Roland is drawn through a mysterious door that brings him into contemporary America. Here he links forces with the defiant young Eddie Dean, and with the beautiful, brilliant, and brave Odetta Holmes, in a savage struggle against underworld evil and otherworldly enemies.

After reading the first novel in the Dark Tower series and finding myself underwhelmed with the original experience (bit different when I re-read it in my 30s, as you may recall if you read that review), I then decided to press on and read the second entry in the Dark Tower saga, The Drawing of the Three. It had just hit in the mass market edition through the Signet label, which just happened to coincide with my finishing up The Gunslinger. Pure coincidence, I’m sure.

I remember reading this in the Spring of 1990, at the age of 16, and being completely immersed in the continuing story in a way that truly sucked me in and lost track of reality. It was obvious that this was a better tale than that of the first book, and although The Drawing of the Three was twice the size of The Gunslinger, I ripped through that far faster.

The story picks up where The Gunslinger left off: Roland wakes up on a beach, where he’s immediately attacked by a mutant lobster. He loses a couple of digits on his right hand, which gets infected, causing him to lose strength as he’s walking along the beach. He then comes across a series of doors along the beach, like he suddenly found himself in the middle of a Pink Floyd album cover shoot. Because these are magical doors, when Roland passes through one of them, he finds himself inside the head of someone else, seeing through their eyes. The first two people turn out to be the ones he was destined to recruit to join in his quest to find the Dark Tower: young heroin addict Eddie Dean, and a feisty young lady named Odetta Holmes who seems to have more than just Roland riding along in her head, let’s just say. The third door leads to the head of a sociopath that just happened to be the guy who not only caused the physical and psychological trauma for Ms. Holmes, but also was the cause of death for one Jake Chambers in New York, which lead to his appearance in the first novel. Some quantum-reality jumping wackiness ensues, resulting in Odetta’s split personalities to merge into Susannah Dean and Eddie to kick his heroin addiction, and Roland finding himself in the company of new companions to accompany him on his on going quest.

As I mentioned, I originally read The Drawing of the Three in just a handful of days (keeping in mind that I was 16 and still had to find time to read in between homework and the other things that were competing for my attention at that tender age), and the story stuck with me long after I finished reading it. Even back then, I was heavily fascinated by surreal concepts like doorways that lead to alternate dimensions in time and space (among other things), and since the narrative of this story involved a Being John Malkovich setup (long before that movie became a thing, I should also point out), this story just blew my teenage mind right out of every orifice in my head. Re-reading it now, the story still holds up very well, and continues to blow my mind with the fantasy elements, as well as exploring the nature of psychological brokenness. Not to mention getting a bit of a tie-in with discovering the origin of how young Jake ended up in Roland’s world, and how that tied into the drawing of what would become Roland’s companions as they continue the quest for the Dark Tower.

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