Friday, May 6, 2011

They See Us: "Nightmares in the Sky"

Published in October 1988, Nightmares in the Sky is a Stephen King book that many Stephen King fans may not be aware of.  It's a book of photographs of gargoyles, as taken by someone going under the amusing pseudonym f-stop Fitzgerald; its primary function was as a book of photography.  However, to gussy the thing up a bit -- and to give sales a jolt during the first year since 1976 when King had not published a book (the last such year, so far) -- the publisher enticed King into providing an essay to accompany the photos.  The essay runs about thirty-five pages, though a great deal of the page space is taken up by photos; the book itself clocks in at about 125 pages.

The book is out of print, and I get the feeling that it's almost entirely forgotten by anyone other than King fans, and then only the more obsessive ones.  Possibly, it is also remembered by fans of f-stop himself, about whom I know nothing; he may have tons of fans, or none whatsoever, and I'd never know the difference.  Maybe it's also a big deal to photography or sculpture enthusiasts; I don't know, and I'm not too worried about it one way or another.

What I'll worry about is this: is it any good?

The answer to that question is: well, it's not bad, but it's no blue-ribbon winner, either.

Let's talk about the photos first.  I'll admit right up front, just as King does in his essay, that I know very little about either photography or sculpture.  However, whereas King seems to have been quite taken by the photos, and by the sculptures he describes in the essay (which are not necessarily represented in the book itself), they leave me cold.  They're not bad by any means, they just don't move me in any way.  Will they move you?  Well, only you can answer that question, pal.  It's entirely possible that they will move you.  But me?  Not so much.  As such, the book is mostly useless to me apart from the essay.

The essay is very readable and personable, as King's nonfiction almost always tends to be, but it's not necessarily a high point in his essay-writing career.  He seems on occasion to be straining a bit for effect.  To be fair, though, that effect, when it comes through, is pretty great, such as this bit, wherein King is recounting the pitch Marc Glimcher (whoever that is) made to have him write the book.  Glimcher theatrically took him to a window in New York City and pointed to a gargoyle on a neighboring building.
Then he said something I'll never forget, something which not only convinced me to write this essay, good or bad as it may be, but made it impossible not to write it.  "Because they are almost always above human sightlines, and because people in the city rarely look up, they don't see ... them," he said, gesturing to the horror across the street, the horror so strikingly at odds with the anonymous building from which it sprang, like a tumor sprouting from the mild brow of some harmless middle-class executive.  "But they ... well, you'll notice that they're almost always looking down."  He paused, then smiled again.  The smile was different this time: thoughtful, and, I think, the tiniest bit uncomfortable.
"We don't see them," he said, "but they see us."  (p. 9)
That's pretty good stuff.  I also enjoyed the section in which King tells of watching Gargoyles, the '70s made-for-television shlockfest, with his son Joe.  This reads a bit like a deleted scene from Danse Macabre, and also has the added benefit of being autobiographical writing, which is almost always illuminating from King.  Even better: Joe King, as you probably know, has since grown up to be Joe Hill, a lauded writer in his own right.  It's fun and wistful to consider the author of Horns hitting the counter, rather than the cereal bowl, with the milk about two times in five.

The essay is certainly good, readable stuff, and if you're a devoted enough fan of Stephen King that it bothers you that there is a medium-sized essay of his out there that you don't have in your collection, then I'd say this is definitely something you ought to track down.  But if you aren't quite as obsessive in your collecting, and you asked me whether I thought the book is a must-have...?  I'd have to answer that it is not.  Worth having, but not a must-have.

For the rest of you, however, it's out of print, but still very much obtainable.  I'd guess that any online store that sells used books would be able to get you a copy pretty easily, and I know for a fact that has numerous copies that can be had for less than $4.  Pick yourself up one if you're of a mind.

My next post is going to be one of two things: it's either going to be the first of a two-part review of the just-completed Marvel Comics Dark Tower arc "The Little Sisters of Eluria" or it's going to be a review of King's latest short story, "Herman Wouk Is Still Alive."  I haven't decided yet which I'm going to tackle first; you are forgiven if you don't respond to that dilemma with the same interest shown to the Wind Through the Keyhole vs. Dr. Sleep furor.

Either way, those are my next two projects for the blog.  Which one will win?  Time well tell.


  1. Interesting fact (sorta): in reading George Beahm's "The Stephen King Companion," I ran across a mention on "Nightmares in the Sky" which claims that it had a print run of 250,000 copies and sold 100,000. Beahm describes those sales figures as "astonshing," although I can't help but notice how the publisher seems to have expected to sell roughly -- hold on a sec, lemme do the math here -- 150,000 more of them than ended up getting sold.

    I mention in my post that 1988 was a year that saw no books (other than "Nightmares in the Sky") published by King, but Beahm's book tells me that this was not entirely true. Apparently, that was the year in which "The Gunslinger" first appeared in a trade edition, so King fans would not necessarily have viewed '88 as a bookless year in terms of S.K.

  2. Good stuff! I actually got this book last night and was going to do a blog of my own about it momentarily and discovered this in a google search. Whereupon I also discovered: a) oh! I just replied to you on the SK forum five minutes ago. (awaiting moderation) b) hey, you're doing a King-reviews-and-tidbits blog, too, as am I (though yours is much more professional-and-comprehensive-looking) and c) Well, no need for me to write too, too much of my own when there's this great review right here. I will link to this, if you don't mind.

    Happy to have come across this blog. Lots of reading coming my way, it looks like. Kudos!

    1. Yep, I just checked your blog out (I got to it via your Blogger profile). I'm going to have fun reading through all of that over the next few weeks!

      And goodness, don't let the fact that I've got a review out there discourage you from writing your own. The way I see it, reviewing -- and certainly reviewing via blogging -- is as much about expressing one's own viewpoints and worldview as anything else. Therefore, every review is its own thing.

      Plus, "Nightmares in the Sky" doesn't get talked about all that much, so it could use the attention.

      Anyways, thanks again for reading. I love it that people are still finding my stuff!

    2. You got it. My pleasure, actually - this is all I've been reading/ living for the past few months, so discovering this is like a treasure trove.