As I've stated before several times in the course of my blogging (apologies to those to whom I may sound like a semi-broken record), I'm slowly re-reading my way through all of King's books. Some of them are books I'm very familiar with, but others are books I've only ever read a time or two.
One of those is Four Past Midnight, which I read once or maybe twice in 1990, and then again via audiobook toward the end of that decade. And thanks to the movie versions of the first two stories in the book (The Langoliers and Secret Window, Secret Garden) I remembered half of the book relatively well. The remaining two stories, however, were near-complete blanks to me. I remembered one element of The Library Policeman; I remembered almost nothing of The Sun Dog.
As such, Four Past Midnight was one of the books I was most looking forward to revisiting. After all, re-reading a book you barely remember is a bit like reading a book you've never read before, so in a way, re-reading about half of this book was like reading a new book by King.
Not really, of course . . . but as far as rationalizations go, that one isn't too shabby.
In any case, the only important question is this one: did I enjoy the return visit? And the answer is "yes."
It's a qualified "yes," however. Let's get into the specifics of why that is.
Four Past Midnight begins with a six-page essay titled "Straight Up Midnight: An Introductory Note." I tend to assume that a great many readers skip right past introductions to the meat of the story, and while I understand the impulse, I also put on my squinty-eyed disapproval face at the thought of readers skipping King's introductions. So much of his personality shines through in those occasional pieces that they are, for me, nearly as essential a part of the text as the fiction itself.
In addition to "Straight Up Midnight," King supplies mini-introductions for each of the four stories. Adding them up yields roughly ten additional pages of text, so between the five pieces, you've got the equivalent of a short-story-length essay. In other words, King obviously had quite a lot to say directly to his readers as regards this particular book. Skipping that would seem to me like a serious mistake, and in this case, King's introduction serves to amplify the overall theme of Four Past Midnight: the passage of time, and the degree to which it can threaten, horrify, and, yes, gratify us all. King's tone is wistful in some ways, but he also sounds a bit as if he feels he's dodged a bullet of some sort; he sounds almost surprised to still be around, doing what he's doing (and what he had, at that point in his career -- 1990 -- been doing for sixteen years already).
King also expresses his ongoing love for the act of writing stories. "I still love the strangeness of it," he says, "and those gorgeous moments when the pictures come clear and the events begin to make a pattern. There is always a tail to the tale. The best is quick and I sometimes miss my grip, but when I do get it, I hang on tight . . . and it feels fine."
The four tales included in Four Past Midnight all remind me to some degree of stories that could have been written for (or inspired by) The Twilight Zone. That being the case, King in his introduction(s) ends up seeming like a Rod Serling sort of figure. He is less arch and stagey than Serling, though; and I mean that in no way as a criticism of Serling, who was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the entire history of genre television. No, I mean it instead as a compliment to King, who in these words is reaching out to us; he's got us gathered around a campfire, and is telling us a series of stories.
That ability to be personable through his words is, I am convinced, one of the major reasons why his fans are so loyal and fervent. This is not a new observation; others have made it before, and long before I made it here. But I think it's worth re-emphasizing every so often.
|Four Past Midnight author photo|
In addition to his analogy of a story as a beast the writer must subdue (starting with catching it by the tail), King also compares the act of writing to playing a game of baseball. His view seems to be that telling stories is a winnable (or loseable) task: that one either catches the beast or does not, or wins the game or loses it. It's an interesting idea, and it served on this re-read to make me even more aware than I would normally be that the words I was reading -- the story I was being told -- had been written by someone; they did not magically appear on the page, and did not spring fully-formed into existence. They were, and are, the result of a process. That is hardly a revelation, but it is somewhat unusual for me to actively focus on it while reading.
I may as well tell you now that I found my appreciation of the individual stories waxing and waning back and forth as the re-read progressed. Overall, I definitely enjoyed it; but I also found myself pushing back at times against what I perceived as the artificiality of certain elements. (This was not helped at all by the fact that once I'd finished the re-read, I launched into a revisiting of the audiobooks. More on that later.) I didn't quite disappear up my own ass in contemplating these elements, but that may yet happen as I begin to write about them; we'll see.
In any case, let's get cracking, and we'll begin with a look at The Langoliers.
|interior illustration by Lars Hokanson|
Before we proceed any farther, let me make a terminological argument: The Langoliers is a novel. A short novel, yes; but a novel nonetheless. I'd say the same of The Library Policeman. The other two stories included in this book are short enough that they could be called novellas; but they are also long enough that they could, theoretically, be published as their own volumes. Plenty of shorter works have been published as novels.
However, since these four tales saw their initial publication under one cover, they have always been referred to as novellas. The Langoliers is longer than both Carrie and The Colorado Kid, though, so you do the math on that for yourself.
Does the distinction matter? Nah, not really. It's just something I like to bring up from time to time.
One way or the other, The Langoliers is a fun story. My memory was fuzzy on the subject of some of Four Past Midnight, but even today I can remember diving into The Langoliers for the first time and being flat-out electrified by the idea of waking up on an airplane in mid-flight to discover that most of the other passengers had disappeared. The fantastical mystery of that scenario is arguably one of the best King has ever come up with.
I enjoyed re-reading the
novella novel, but I have to admit that this is a case in which the resolution lets the concept down. Which is not to say that it's bad; it isn't. King keeps the scenario interesting enough that it more or less continues to work all the way through. No, it's the replay value that I question. I'm just not sure any of what is going on here stands up to much scrutiny; from the Langoliers themselves to the characters King creates to people the airplane, everything feels as if it is covered in a sheen of unreality, convenience, and illogic. It feels forced; King has a hold of the beast's tail, but he only grasped it once the beast had already been shot with a few tranquilizers.
A lot of people will disagree with me on that score. Fine by me; I do like the story, so I've got no beef with someone else loving it. I just see a lot of the chess pieces as they're being moved around, and their movements seem a bit too orchestrated, a bit too convenient.
I'll give you an example, and I won't have to go any farther than the titular creatures to do it. The Langoliers themselves are revealed to be celestial janitors of a sort; they consume the frozen moments of time that comprise what we think of as "the past," and this consumption presumably readies the way for the eventual appearance of the next moment of time. That's a neat idea; it's wacky as hell, but it's neat, and I can see why it has captured so many imaginations over the years. (Including mine: I couldn't help but imagine that the present is created by the act of the Langoliers defecating their meal of the past, laying it into place once the past had been entirely consumed. Gross, but cool.)
For me, though, it begins to break down as soon as you bring Craig Toomey into the mix. Because the Langoliers referenced above are not actually the same thing as the Langoliers Craig's father warned him about, are they? Craig's father told him tales of little creatures with fast legs and sharp teeth that would, essentially, go around eating slackers; they were instruments of judgment and punishment, not of cosmos-level janitorial services. Both versions can be seen as representing a punishment for the misuse of time, but apart from that, they don't seem terribly similar.
It also strikes me as highly coincidental that they share even that much similarity. And let's face it: it's only because King wished to be able to link what was happening in the present-tense of the story with what had happened in Craig's past. And if that were the story's only highly-coincidental element, I could probably accept it better. It isn't; we've also got the (entirely necessary) coincidence of there being a qualified pilot onboard who can fly the plane; the coincidental presence of a telepathic girl who can communicate with Craig; and the coincidental presence of a mystery writer whose presence allows King to explore theories about What Is Happening.
I'm being too liberal in my use of the word "coincidental." It's less a matter of coincidence than of convenience. Either way, what it amounts to is the same: I see the gears that are moving the story. Worse, I hear them; they are squeaky, and keep reminding me of their presence.
Now, to be clear, I am not saying that I feel like a story always needs to be operating in secret silence. Nor does a story need to be perfect in order for it to work on me. Far from it. I'm a great believer in the idea of "cumulative effect," i.e., I feel like a story's whole is vastly more important than the sum of its parts. A story -- or movie, or whatever -- can have numerous badly-flawed elements, but if the whole ends up working on me emotionally, then I will be more than willing (and able) to forgive those flaws. Want a good semi-recent example? Look no farther than the first film in the Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey. There are things in that movie which do not work at all; but I found myself enchanted by the majority of it, and the problematic elements did not capsize the boat.
They don't capsize the boat in The Langoliers, either, but they do keep it from getting anywhere. For me, at least. As captivating as the concepts are, I simply loathe Craig Toomey. It must be difficult to write a character who is intentionally annoying; after all, you run the risk of, uh, annoying your readers. And I am very annoyed by Craig. The fact that I am meant to be annoyed by him doesn't really make that any better. If I had to wait in traffic five hours on the way home, and found out the traffic had been purposely designed to annoy me and everyone else stuck in it, would that make me appreciate the experience more? Unlikely.
I also found myself surprisingly annoyed by Bob Jenkins, the mystery writer. He is a vehicle through which King can explore theories about the big mysteries of the story, and he also permits for information dumps of one sort or another. Some of this is fine; I especially enjoyed his theory about how the scenario could, theoretically, have been created by The Shop as a means of experimenting on them all. (In fact, I think I'd rather read that version of The Langoliers...)
However, Bob also has a tendency to want to hold information close to his vest; he teases that he knows something, but that he wants to let the situation play out before saying more about it. That got old after a while. Dude; seriously; just spill your fucking beans, please.
I would also single out Nick Hopewell as being a rather unsuccessful King creation; he is there to create a sort of doomed romance, with Laurel, the teacher who had flying to Boston to have a fling with a pen-pal. This creates a weird out-of-balance feeling to the narrative, too; the story begins with the pilot, Brian, seeming like the main character. Brian has just found out his ex-wife has died in a fire, and I sensed early on that one of the major thematic points of concern for the novel was going to involve Brian healing his wounds by finding a new romantic interest.
Other than a stewardess who fails to survive the initial passage through the time-rift, Laurel would seem to be the logical choice to fill that role; instead, she almost immediately becomes linked romantically with Nick. Brian's status as the main character simply dissipates, and while it eventually comes back to some extent, none of his story is paid off to any meaningful degree. Structurally, the novel is a failure, at least as regards Brian.
Still, you are apt to not notice a lot of this on a first read; or if you are content to merely let a story wash over you. And even if you do notice it, you may not care. One man's creaky is another man's delightful, after all; so those of you who love this novel, don't think I begrudge you that love. I certainly do not.
I'll assuredly have more to say about The Langoliers in a few days when I write a separate post on the subject of the movie.
Secret Window, Secret Garden is my favorite of the four stories contained in Four Past Midnight. In his introduction to the story, King mentions that it is a companion piece to both The Dark Half and Misery, both of which are illustrative of the power of fiction. The extent to which SWSG manages to NOT be merely a ripoff or a retread of those novels is kind of dazzling.
If The Langoliers is Four Past Midnight's most patently Twilight Zone-ish story in terms of its setup, SWSG is the most Serlingesque in terms of its resolution. It should go without saying that I am about to spoil that revelation (one which differs significantly from that of the David Koepp movie adaptation, by the way), so be prepared.
The setup for SWSG is simple: a writer is approached by a stranger who accuses him of having stolen a story and published it, with minimal revision, under his own name. He leaves a copy of the supposed original, and begins an increasingly violent campaign against the supposed thief. The writer knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that he wrote the story himself, so there is no doubt in his mind that his accuser is lying. Because if he wasn't, then that'd mean . . . why, that'd mean that the writer was downright crazy, wouldn't it? And of course, that's exactly what ends up being the case; the accuser is in fact revealed to be an alternate personality created by the writer, who has been doing all of this to himself, Tyler Durden style. (But, it is important to note, a good solid six years prior to the release of the novel Fight Club.)
As twist endings go, it's an effective and compelling one. But King has a twist to the twist: we find out that the writer (Mort Rainey) has created the accuser (John Shooter) not merely out of his own badly damaged psyche, but as the result of what appears to be a haunting and/or possession by the spirit of a former classmate, from whom Rainey actually DID steal a story once upon a time. The twist-to-a-twist is a rarely-employed move in storytelling, and there's a good reason for that: it's tricky as hell. Or at least it seems like it must be; I've never tried to write one, so really, who am I to say it's tricky?
Seems right, though. Either way, I'd argue that King succeeds here, admirably. He is able to do that because he doesn't push things too far; he has killed Mort off, so he cannot explore the ideas through his primary character. He's left with Mort's ex-wife, Amy, instead; and since she knows so little of the story, what we get through her are hints and suggestions. Those are, by definition, mysterious; so the resolution is, by necessity, cloaked in mystery and secrecy. It's potent stuff.
What I find to be so memorable about Secret Window, Secret Garden beyond the story itself is the idea that it is presenting an aphorism in fictional form: the one about how if you really were crazy, you probably wouldn't even know it. I've always been chilled by that thought, and for that reason, SWSG works on me. If you have a hard time accepting the proposition that a man could become SO crazy that he invents a secondary personality and begins having delusions wherein the two personalities actually interact (sometimes even physically) . . . then the story probably will be a failure for you. It's all dependent upon your degree of buy-in. Mine is significant, so the story works for me almost perfectly.
As with The Langoliers, I will likely have more to say on the subject of Secret Window, Secret Garden during the course of discussing the movie. And in this case, there will be a BBC radio adaptation to discuss, as well; I've never actually listened to it, but the out-of-print cassettes came (all the way from England) in the mail earlier this week, so I'll finally have my opportunity. Soon...
I cannot claim to be a big fan of The Library Policeman. Or a fan at all, really. This one kind of didn't work for me; it seems to be that there is a reason why it didn't stick in my memory.
However, I found that the novel bears some intriguing thematic similarities to King's most recent opus, Doctor Sleep, and I wanted to discuss those briefly.
First of all, the subject of Alcoholics Anonymous is of crucial importance to both; in Doctor Sleep, the main character (Dan Torrance) is an AA member trying to keep himself off the sauce; in The Library Policeman, the main character makes friends -- allies -- with two AA members, one of whom is a broken-down old man, the other of whom is a still-vibrant young woman. The difference between the approaches the two novels take is night and day; nearly 25 years lies between the two, of course, and King's attitudes toward alcoholism and addiction seem to have changed significantly during those years.
Both novels are also about confronting and conquering one's fears, and of the two, Doctor Sleep seems to take the subject more seriously. The Library Policeman contains silliness like jamming wadded-up candy into a monster's proboscis; this is less conquering fear than it is avoiding fear by rewriting the notion of what fear actually is. It's a cheat, at times. (At others, it is anything but.)
Another similarity: the presence of a central monster who takes on the form of an attractive female, and who uses sexuality to work her way through the world. Ardelia and Rose have significant dissimilarities -- Rose actually WAS a woman at one point, whereas Ardelia's femaleness is merely a glammer -- but they also share a lot of traits. They are not of the same species of monster, but you get the sense that the two of them might have a lot to talk about.
These similarities do not mean that Doctor Sleep is merely a retread of The Library Policeman, of course; far from it. But it does indicate that King held on to some of the ideas presented here, and used them agsain years later in a fuller, more satisfying fashion.
Moving on a bit, I would say that I have two serious problems with The Library Policeman.
One . . . well, there's no other way to say it than to just say it, so I guess I'll say it. The scene in which the kid gets butt-raped just doesn't sit well with me. It's a little too specific; a little too grimy. It isn't salacious, and I don't think for one second that King is getting off on it, nor that he intends his readers to get off on it. Instead, I think it was probably a case of him trying to shock and horrify. Well, it worked. But whereas I will give a pass to the preteen sewer-bound sex-orgy in It, I can't do the same here. The scene in It is icky, but I can at least say to myself that everyone in it was a willing participant; that it speaks in some way to the idea of children becoming adults; and that It is at heart a fundamentally serious novel, one whose reach does not exceed its grasp. Not even in that scene (though it's close).
The scene in The Library Policeman, on the other hand, is just gross. Too many descriptions of the "huge hot bar of steel" going in and out of the kid's butt. Too much "wetness all over his bottom." Too much lisping on the part of the perpetrator. It's all just nasty, and in poor taste, and if The Library Policeman worked otherwise as well as It does, then maybe I could accept it. It doesn't, though, so I can't.
My second major problem is that I do not understand the specifics of how and why Ardelia became focused on Sam. Where did she come from? Where had she been? Isn't it awfully coincidental that Sam's past had a major incident involving a supposed "Library Policeman" when Ardelia had once threatened children with her own similar entities? The two things are not connected, so yes, I'd say it's a whopper of a coincidence. More to the point, I'd say King has grabbed hold of another tail under less-than-impressive circumstances.
Again, though, it isn't a bad story. It's basically well-written, it moves with considerable urgency, and it has occasional passages that work like a charm. The two flaws I mention above work against it, though, at least for my money.
I should mention, though, that I got a kick out of the one alkie who is always asking for Slim Jims. "That's chow," he says; "that's chow; that's chow-dee-dow."
Boy, do I hate to think how many Slim Jims I've eaten over the decades. Not so much in recent years (nowadays, I mostly find them greasy and gross); but when I was a boy, I plowed through those suckers like there was no tomorrow.
That's chow-dee-dow, indeed.
We now come to The Sun Dog, the story of these four about which I remembered the least. I didn't remember much about The Library Policeman, either, but I at least remembered that some kid got butt-raped; all I could've told you about The Sun Dog is that it had something to do with a dog.
And again, I think it's a case of my mind not holding onto the knowledge because the knowledge really isn't all that impressive. Of the four tales in Four Past Midnight, The Sun Dog is my least favorite. It isn't -- I'm repeating myself here, but out of necessity -- a bad story, per se; it just doesn't amount to a whole hell of a lot. The concept is cool: a Polaroid camera takes photos of some other dimension, one wherein a monstrous dog is slowly turning and working its horrific way toward your dimension, so as to punish you for taking its picture.
The story goes like this: Kevin Delavan receives the supernaturally-malfunctional Polaroid for his birthday; he takes it to a shop to be fixed; is duped out of the camera by the crusty old loanshark who runs the place and who then tries to sell the camera for his own gain. He is unable to do so, and begins unconsciously taking more photos, bringing the dog closer to his own reality; the kid figures out he's been duped; and with his father's help, captures the emerging dog inside another camera.
It's a fairly straightforward plot, and the novel (novella?) feels like it's overlong; the story could have fit into half the length. I don't often have that complaint about King's work, but I have it here, mainly because so much of what happens fails to engage me. Kevin himself is a complete dud; he's boring, and I don't much care about him. I don't get the sense that King cared about him, either; Pop Merrill is the character King seems to have cared about.
He's a pretty good character, too. The familiar relation to Ace Merrill of The Body is mildly throwaway; it doesn't add a whole heck of a lot, and one could make the argument that it cheapens The Body ever so slightly. Mainly, though, Pop is okay.
Except for the fact that King gives him a very annoying tendency to use the phrase "what I mean to say is..." over and over and over. King pulls out verbal tics like that once in a while, and I tend to assume that he uses them because that's just how the character sounded to him, in his own head. Well . . . if so, one might have hoped for an editor to speak up at some point say, "Gosh, Steven, could we maybe lose this element? What I mean to say is, it kind of sucks."
Bryan McMillan at Dog Star Omnibus made an argument in favor of Pop's verbal tic, and while I agree with him that Pop's dying words sort of pay off the tic, I find that it still annoys me more than anything else. This may be merely because I am unable to shake the notion that Mick Garris might someday make a movie out of The Sun Dog and cast Matt Frewer as Pop. When and if that happens, we might experience a so-far unknown scenario: a movie based on King's work that I refuse to ever watch.
And that's nearly all I have to say about Four Past Midnight. I probably could say a lot more about it, if I was willing to do what I normally do when revisiting the novels (i.e., go back and do a round of vigorous note-taking, which I then compile into a series of loosely-themed posts).
But for whatever reason, I'm feeling lackadaisical on the subject. What I mean to say is, I just don't want to. I'm not interested enough; of the four stories, the only one that genuinely engages me is Secret Window, Secret Garden, and I'll have plenty of opportunity to discuss it at great length in the posts I write about the two adaptations.
Part of me wonders if this is due to the fact that I listened to the audiobooks before writing this post. All four of the audiobooks are problematic to one degree or another. I know some people love the medium, and at times, so do I. But boy, when one doesn't work for me, it really doesn't work for me.
A lot of this comes down to character voices.
Let's briefly discuss these audiobooks one at a time, mainly so I can complain about some of those character voices.
The worst offender of the four narrators we're about to discuss is, I'd argue, Willem Dafoe. He more or less destroys The Langoliers. He's good at the straight-ahead narration, and some of his voices are okay. Others are disastrously awful. For one thing, he reads Bethany in a so-nasally-you-have-to-hear-it-to-believe-it voice that makes me think he literally was holding his nose while reading her dialogue.
Almost as bad, and maybe even a bit worse, is what Dafoe does to Bob. Bob sounds like a cartoon character; I can't come up with which one exactly, although The Great Gazoo is close enough that it'll work for now. Dafoe seems to have decided first that Bob was gay and then that he was a walking stereotype, and then decided to camp it up even farther from there. It's bad, bad, bad.
I've had people argue with me that listening to an audiobook is no different than reading a book for yourself. I couldn't disagree more, and if I ever need to cite proof, I'd point to what Dafoe does to these characters; his reading of their dialogue unequivocally changes the way you interpret the characters.
I'd also point out the audiobook I own runs for six cassettes in length; for comparison, that's the same number of tapes that Dolores Claiborne has, and two more than The Gunslinger. So I'm standing by my assertion that The Langoliers is a novel.
James Woods' reading of Secret Window, Secret Garden has a less-severe inverse of the problem Dafoe's Langoliers has: Woods does just fine with the dialogue and the character voices, but is less good at the narration. He reads the non-dialogue bits flatly, and while it's not bad work, it doesn't quite do the novel justice.
You might recall that Woods once starred in Cat's Eye, by the way. I could have seen him starring in a movie version of SWSG, as well, at one point.
He does a credible job with Shooter's "Southern" accent, which is to say, it sounds appropriately cheesy. More on that when we discuss the adaptations.
Ken Howard mostly does just fine with The Library Policeman, but again, I hate some of the choices he makes when doing character voices. Nothing could help him with the lisping Policeman himself, but did his voices for the alkies have to be so bad? Dave sounds like Eeyore, and that's not a good thing; Dave's compatriots sound even worse. Especially the one who loves Slim Jims.
All in all, I came away from revisiting these audiobooks with the feeling that I probably shouldn't have listened to them so soon after reading the novels. In all cases except one, I was left with an experience that was not even as enjoyable as the re-read itself had been, and my opinions as expressed in this post were almost certainly colored by the audiobooks. Unduly, I'd say.
So this will, I think, be the final time that I listen to the audiobook in tandem with a re-read. I recall saying much the same about the audio version of Peter Straub's Shadowland; maybe this time, my resolve will stick.