Saturday, May 27, 2017

Worst to Best: Stephen King Books (2017 edition)

The last time I updated this ranking of King's books was 2013, which in these times of hardship seems implausibly distant.  Uncle Steve has released seven new books in the intervening years (depending on what you count), and with each successive addition, I've felt like I needed to revisit this post.
And so I am, finally.
A word of warning: this list is horseshit.  You know that, right...?  All lists like this are horseshit.  And yet, it's also entirely correct, except in the places where I've undoubtedly forgotten how good some books are simply because it's been too long since I read them.  That, and in the places where I'm seeing one title or another through rose-colored glasses.  In those spots, I'm probably 100% wrong, but otherwise...?  100% right.
And yet: horseshit.
What I mean by that is this: don't take this sort of stuff too seriously.  I promise you that I don't, not even when it comes to my own rankings.  There's a good chance that this time next year, I'd put the titles in very different order.  My feelings about these books change over time; if I've re-read one recently, the odds are good that I've moved it up in my estimation; if I loved it when I read it the first time but have not returned to it, odds are good that my estimation of it will wither a bit the farther I get from it.  Listening to a podcast or reading a blog post about one book or another might have a similar effect: influencing me in some regard so as to move my opinion up or down a bit.  A new movie -- or even an old one revisited -- might affect my opinions.
In other words, I'm malleable, at least to some extent.  If I had total recall and could remember every word of these books, I might be able to accurately give you a ranking of my own opinions about them; I don't, and therefore can't, so what we're settling for is this list, which is actually just a chronicle of where my thinking about the books (in relation one to another) stands in -- in this case -- late May 2017.
Is that enough caveat-laden prevarication for you?  Probably so.  Amazingly, I have more, beginning with a short list of books I opted not to include, along with my justifications for omission:

  • The Best American Short Stories 2007 (King served only as editor; and if I'd actually read the book, I might include it just for shits and/or giggles, but I haven't)
  • Blockade Billy (since the two stories included in this book were later folded into one of King's collections, I figured I'd heave this version overboard, if only to avoid figuring out where to rank it)
  • Blood and Smoke (the stories contained in this audiobook exclusive were later collected in other books, and anyways, an audiobook isn't a book, as we all know -- if I ever rank the audiobooks, though, count on it being there, probably ranked pretty high)
  • Charlie the Choo-Choo (it's just an excerpt from The Waste Lands, so I consider this to be more of an adaptation than anything else)
  • The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer (you sometimes see this Rose Red spinoff listed as a King book, but it was actually written by Riddley Pearson)
  • The Journals of Elenaor Druse (a Kingdom Hospital spinoff that was actually written by Richard Dooling)
  • Mid-Life Confidential and Hard Listening (King was only a contributor to these two anthologies about the Rock Bottom Remainders)
  • Six Stories (all of the stories contained in this limited edition were collected later on in other books, so I didn't see the value in muddying the waters by including this, their original appearance)

If you've got strong feelings about any of those, I apologize in your general direction.  Be sure to tell me in the comments why you feel they ought to have been included; I'll take that feedback into consideration when I update this list again in 2021 or so.  (By the way, when I do that, I'm considering doing a simultaneous companion list that ranks not only all of King's books, but all the books by other members of the King family.  Good idea, bad idea, or somewhere in between?)

NOW we can begin in earnest, and we'll start with a couple of Honorable Mentions:

#HM -- Bare Bones (1988) and Feast of Fear (1989)

These two books -- the former from 1989, the latter from 1993, both edited by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller -- are compilations of interviews King had given to various magazines and newspapers and such.  As such, neither can properly be considered to have been written by Stephen King.  So do they count as Stephen King books?

They do when you're reading them, I think, which is probably the only thing that matters.  In that spirit, I ranked both of these books on previous incarnations of this list.  Doing so never sat well with me; it's too difficult to assess them in comparison to each other, not to mention the question of how you assess them in relation to works of fiction.

If you were to do such a thing, I think you'd be obliged to make sheer readability and entertainment value your guiding principle.  For my money, both of these books score quite well in such a contest.  King's voice comes through clear as a bell, and if you are a fan of his and not merely a fan of his books and stories, then you owe it to yourself to track down copies of both of these.

By the way, there is also a third book (not from Underwood/Miller) in this vein: Fangoria: Masters of the Dark -- Stephen King and Clive Barker.  It came out in 1997 and contains interviews with those two authors that had previously appeared in Fangoria issues through the years.  It's good, too, so I guess I'm now giving it a sort of honorable-mention Honorable Mention.

#80 -- Stephen King Goes to the Movies (2009)

King's body of work is quite large, and across the forty-plus years he's been funneling the contents of his brain into the world via books, there aren't very many occasions on which you could have accused him of making a cash-grab.  What need have you of cash-grabs when you're one of the bestselling authors in the world?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Brief Review of "Gwendy's Button Box"

And when I say "brief," I mean brief.

Gwendy's Button Box hit shelves yesterday, and thanks to the magic that is Amazon Prime, I received my copies (one hardback and one audiobook) mid-afternoon.
I waited until the end of the night to sit down with it, though, and that turned out to be okay, because I read it in one sitting.  I say "one sitting," but technically, there were several sittings in there.  The breaks were laundry-related, and I'm classifying them as pauses in the entire process, not in the actual reading.  So I'm claiming it was "one sitting," and by damn, we're all gonna have to be okay with that.
Anyways, I enjoyed the book.
I don't actually want to say anything more than that.  I went into it almost dead cold in terms of plot knowledge, which is how I like it.  I have no intention of spoiling anything about it -- which is not to say that there's any kind of a Serling-esque plot twist to be spoiled (there isn't [unless there is and this is just a ruse to throw you off the scent (it isn't)]) -- even by hinting at specifics.
Which prompts a question: what am I going to say here?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Celebration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I have three teenaged boys.  We've gone to all those Marvel superhero films.  I love the Marvel superhero films.  I think the level of quality is astonishing.  When I was a kid, there was only one Raiders of the Lost Ark.  That was a one-of-a-kind experience, and my kids get to have Raiders of the Lost Ark twice a year, because that's how often the Marvel films come out, and it's always at that level, which is so great.
--Joe Hill, Cemetery Dance #74/75, 2016

I encountered that quote from Joe Hill recently while reading an interview conducted by Bev Vincent.  My knee-jerk reaction was, "Hey, Joe, calm down: there's still only one Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Which in a literal sense is entirely true, but let's not kid ourselves: as great as that movie is -- and it is GREAT -- it is not an island unto itself.  There are other movies which offer a similar level of action/adventure at a roughly equal level of entertainment value.  
I leave it to you to determine what goes on the list and what doesn't, but if we were stepping back to just a few years prior to Raiders and strolling right up to the present day, my list would include things like the Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a handful of James Bond films, at least one other Indiana Jones film (Temple of Doom), the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and so forth.
I say this not to devalue Raiders of the Lost Ark or take pedantic umbrage with Hill's assertion, but to make a point: great popcorn movies are always worth celebrating.  And I think we sometimes forget to do so.  Hill's thoughts on the Marvel movies caught my eye, and while my knee-jerk reaction was to puff up and think about how nothing equals Raiders, the reaction that followed a split-second behind that one was, "Damn, he's right, and I'm glad somebody with his reputation is saying that!"
This tied in with a recent series of posts at my favorite blog on the subject of the "Favorite Films of My Lifetime" craze that's been sweeping the Internet.  Those posts (which cover exactly the same years I myself have been alive) can be read here: Part 1 (1974-1979), Part 2 (1980-1989), Part Three (1990-1999), and Part 4 (2000-2016).  I left some comments listing my own favorites: three per year, in my case.  When I got to the new millennium, I found that I'd named something like seven of the Marvel movies for my top-three-of-that-year picks, which sort of surprised me.  But it shouldn't, because Marvel is making movies that fall squarely within the reasons why I love movies to begin with.  I remembered this when I read Hill's comments and thought, yep, he's onto something here.
I had no intention of blogging about the Marvel movies here, since there's no King connection. Then, I saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which, with some of these thoughts fresh in mind, struck me as being pure magic.  I was buzzing about it, and about the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, for hours afterward, and the bottom line is that I just feel like writing a few words about it.
You might be surprised that I'd devote time to this topic when I arguably could have instead written about the recently-released trailer for The Dark Tower, but I'm not necessarily a current-events type of guy.  I did see the trailer, of course -- numerous times -- and will say that I think it looks great.

And the guy playing Roland is a co-star of a few of the movies on this list, isn't he?  So there's THAT for a connection.
Anyways, back to Marvel: it's easy to find people online carping about various aspects of the films; none of them diminishes the sum total of what Marvel has achieved.  It's also easy to find people online praising them for it, and I doubt I'll say anything that somebody else hasn't already said more eloquently.
That's not what this is about, though.  This is about me giving a little bit of thanks for the fact that Marvel has been giving me a terrific jolt of entertainment on a regular basis for nearly ten years now.  To some extent, I've been taking that for granted, and would like to balance those scales a bit.
So follow along with me, and let's take a stroll through those first nine years, one gem at a time.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Catching Up with the Kings, Part 4: Joe Hill in comics

A while back, Joe Hill was hired by the CW to develop a reboot of the '80s television anthology Tales from the Darkside.  Hill sketched out a plan for three seasons' -- !!! -- worth of story, and completed three full screenplays (two half-hour episodes which served as the pilot, and an hour-long episode).  The pilot was filmed, and was evidently well-received by all who saw it, but the CW opted not to go to series, and that was the end of that.
Sort of.
Later, somebody at IDW Publishing (Hill's normal comics publisher) had the idea of repurposing the screenplays as a comic-book limited series.  And so they did over the course of four issues during the spring and summer of 2016.  We'll get to those in a bit, but first, this:

After the miniseries ended its single-issue run, IDW published a hardback -- pictured above -- that contains Hill's original screenplays, plus illustrations by C.P. Wilson III (who drew Hill's Wraith miniseries a few years ago).

Since the project began as a television project, and also since the scriptbook came out prior to the collected graphic-novel edition of the comics, we'll cover the screenplays themselves first.  So let's get to covering!

An introduction by Hill (titled "Getting In Touch with My Darkside") relates the project's history, which includes the confession that some of what he ended up establishing as the would-be mythology for the series was triggered by an episode based on one of his dad's stories, "Word Processor of the Gods."  This new series does not seem to have been intended as a follow-up or spinoff of that story in any direct way, but took its notion of a reality-modifying processor and springboarded from there.  My guess based on the evidence at hand is that somebody in Hill's iteration of the series developed a processor similar to the one in King's story/episode, and did so thanks to the inspiration of having seen the episode of the original Tales from the Darkside series.  I'd speculate further that what that person did was develop a microchip that, when implanted in a human brain, unlocked reality-altering potential.  
But since the series never went that far, we'll likely never know for sure.

Now, let's look at each of the three scripts, beginning with:

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Catching Up with the Kings, Part 3: Joe Hill in prose

In blogging about my efforts to get current with the King family of writers, I hadn't intended to segregate the King brothers; it just happened that way as a result of when their respective books and stories were released.  But so it goes, and we now turn our attention toward big brother Joe Hill, and his novel The Fireman.

The Fireman is Joe Hill's fourth novel.  If you said it was his best, I'd not argue with you, and if you said it was his worst, I'd not argue with you.  My favorite is Heart Shaped Box, but not by a wide margin, and I'd need more time with all of them before I undertook a really-for-real ranking of them.

This most recent one is demonstrably the lengthiest, clocking in at nearly 750 pages.  Too long?  It's debatable.  I'd have kept right on reading it, though, probably for about another few hundred pages.  It may be that that is the only review that really matters.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Catching Up with the Kings, Part 2: Owen (and Kelly Braffet)

Lord knows why I felt moved to evoke The Dukes of Hazzard in titling this post, but such is the content of my brain.
Part 1 of Catching Up With The Kings was about me reading the Stephen King books I'd foolishly put off for the past year or so.  Parts 2 and 3, then, will focus on the achievement of a similar task as it regards the rest of the King family of writers, several of whom have, during that time, released works that I had blithely opted (temporarily) not to read.
In deciding what order to read the various books and stories in, I opted for a chronological-by-publication approach.  I'm not -- so far as I know -- clinically obsessive/compulsive, but I do find that I enjoy a chronological approach to things.  If nothing else, it allows me to easily make decisions like this one from time to time.  Coincidentally, all of the Owen King material was first out of the gate, and an anthology featuring his wife Kelly Braffet came soon thereafter, so I've elected to cover all of that in a single post.
We begin with:

Often, when I blog about anthologies, I briefly give an opinion of each story or essay.  I'm not going to do that with Never Can Say Goodbye; I suspect most of my readers will be uninterested.  And I don't know that there's a pressing need for me to hang on to my opinions (which is always a primary factor in my decision-making process as a blogger) on most of these essays.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy Never Can Say Goodbye.  I thought it was moderately enjoyable on the whole, though I will confess to being relieved to have finished it.  In the end, it's inferior to the Jackson 5 song from which it -- probably inadvertently -- draws its title.  Is this an unfair thing for me to say?  Probably, but when and if I read "moderately enjoyable" books titled I Want You Back or The Love You Save, I'll say the same.  You give a book a title it will share with The Jackson 5 at your own peril.
Turns out, the book is a sequel!  Specifically, it's a sequel to Sari Botton's anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.  I did not know this, which is fine, since I only bought it for the Owen King essay.  Goodbye to All That has no essay by King, so it will not be covered here (although I might eventually buy a copy due to the fact that it's got a piece by Emma Straub in it).

King's essay is titled "Hot Time in the Old Town," and, at a mere four pages, it's rather brief.  It's always a bummer to buy a book like this for a specific author's work only to find something so brief.  But don't let the brevity fool you: this is a very good essay.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Catching Up with the Kings, Part 1: Stephen

If you follow this blog, then maybe you know that I've been putting off reading End of Watch (King's as-of-this-writing most recent novel).  The reasons for that are complicated and weird and not really of interest to anyone other than myself.  Despite that, I blabbed about them at length here.
They are not worth rehashing, so I won't rehash them, but it is worth mentioning again that the delay between the release of End of Watch and my sitting down to read it is by far the lengthiest on my personal record for a new King novel (assuming we are not counting King novels released prior to 1990 or so, when I became a Constant Reader).  That's been eating at me.  It's a thing that can no longer be tolerated, and so even though I have not achieved the weight-loss goals I informally set for myself as a prerequisite for reading End of Watch, I've decided to sit down with the novel and get current with King.
Thing is, I'd also fallen behind on a few other King books, such as the edited-by-King Six Scary Stories and the partially-by-King Hearts In Suspension.  Plus, there are also a few new short stories of his I haven't read, not to mention books and stories by the sons-of-King writers Joe Hill and Owen King.
Rather than dick around and try to write reviews of each of these things, I've decided to just run through all of it and leave some brief impressions of each here.  Not sure if that's the optimal way to do things, but it's what makes sense to me at this particular time.  I'll avoid spoilers in all cases; this is going to be fairly brief.
My first thought was to do it in chronological order by release date, but nah, damn that.  There's a novel by Stephen King in the world that I have not read yet.  There's no way to begin anywhere but there.
I was entertained by both Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, but I'd be a liar if I said that either one ranked highly on my list of favorite King novels.  Maybe that created a bit of trepidation to get into the third one...?  I don't really think it did, but let's not rule it all the way out.

In any case, having finished it I would conclude that this is easily one of my least favorite King novels.  It's not awful; I enjoyed reading it, at least for the first two-thirds or so, while King's writing still felt engaged.  I'm not a huge fan of Bill Hodges, but he's okay; same goes for Holly Gibney.  The reason for that, I think, is that King himself loves both characters, and that love comes through onto the pages and -- for me -- is somewhat infectious.  But only somewhat, and it can only get King so far.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

About This "Castle Rock" Series...

Alternate titles for this blog post included "Can We All Just Chill the Fuck Out?" and "Settle the Fuck Down," but I correctly thought those might too condescending.  So I settled for something bland and inoffensive.  Good job, me!
I’m not one to judge a book by its cover.  However, I have no problem judging the cover by its art (ahem), nor do I balk at judging the message the cover seems to be trying to convey.  After all, whereas it might be true that a cover cannot ruin the book it is covering, it’s at least as true to say that a cover can on occasion do that book no favors.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Castle Rock, the super-secret anthology series for Hulu that is being developed by Bad Robot and Warner Bros.  
I had not planned to talk about it here, but my “Stephen King” Google Alert is pinging about once an hour with news of this series, and the sense I get from folks who care about such things is that a general sense of large-scale excitement is afoot.

Friday, February 3, 2017

An Interview with Jason Mayoh

Recently, I wrote a review of "Pinfall," the comic-book adaptation of the never-filmed Stephen King / George Romero story that was intended to be a segment of Creepshow 2.  I enjoyed the comic quite a bit, and reached out to artist Jason Mayoh to see if he'd be interested in answering a few questions about the comic.

Bryant:  This is probably a dumb question, but are you a fan of the Creepshow movies?

Jason:  In my opinion, two of the greatest horror anthologies ever made.

Bryant:  Tell me a bit about your history with those films.

Jason:  As a kid I remember staying at my older cousin's house and we rented both of them and watched them over the weekend.  I just loved the comic-book vibe to them.
Bryant:  How did your involvement with the Creepshow 2 Blu-ray from Arrow Video come about?
Jason:  Kind of a long story, but here goes...
I met George Romero as a fan at a convention [in 2005] when Land of the Dead came out.  At the time I had illustrated and created a five-page zombie pop-up book and showed it to him.
Pop Up Book of the Dead
He loved it and I was immediately put in touch with his manager, who informed me George wanted to write the story for it.  We went back and forth with different publishing houses, ultimately to no avail, as no publisher wanted to take a chance on what they perceived at the time to be a niche market.  At the time I was told pop-up books are a huge investment.  (Ironically I also showed Greg Nicotero back in the day, and now there is a Walking Dead pop-up book; go figure.)
Anyway, I was truly inspired by George's enthusiasm and continued to attend conventions he was a guest at.  I have the ultimate respect for George's career for the fact that during the majority of his career he operated on his own terms, for better or for worse, outside of the Hollywood system.  Perhaps because of that, George has had numerous undeveloped projects, including a film adaptation of The Stand by Stephen King.  Since the pop-up book I had always wanted to illustrate one of his unfulfilled stories.  Once I learned that there was an unfilmed segment from Creepshow 2 called "Pinfall," I couldn't resist!