Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Stephen King Cast (and Cooper O'Connor)

There are a lot of books about Stephen King's work; I don't have an exact list, but at one point in time there were more books by far about King than by King.  That's an impressive fact, but it's worth asking how many of those books measure up.  How many of them are truly worthwhile in terms of what they add to the study of King's work?
Your mileage may vary, but my list of worthy King scholars would include Douglas E. Winter, Kevin Quigley, Bev Vincent, Rocky Wood, Tony Magistrale, and George Beahm, to name a few.
Here's a new name to add to that list: Cooper O'Connor.  If you've never heard of him, don't worry; you probably will.  O'Connor -- under the moniker "Constant Reader" -- is the host of the podcast Stephen King Cast (or, as it's known on Facebook, Stephen Kingcast).  Constant Reader began the podcast in August of 2014 with a simple goal: a chronological exploration of the books of Stephen King.  In early 2016, he completed that monumental task.
And what I'll say about that is this: I'm barely finding time to reread one King book a year.  This guy not only reread them all in about a year and a half, he produced well over a hundred podcasts analyzing them.  That's an achievement, and would be even if the resultant episodes sucked.
They don't suck.  They are very, very good; not merely as analysis of King's work, but also as aural entertainment.  I'm humbled by what O'Connor achieved, and by my reckoning, he has leaped into the upper echelons of King scholars.  He's also a published fiction writer in his own regard.  We're going to talk about that in more detail toward the end of this post, but first, let's talk about the podcast.

The series -- we call podcasts "series," right? -- began in the only logical place for it to begin: with a consideration of King's first published novel, Carrie.  From there, it's a book-by-book runthrough, with offshoot episodes devoted to most of the major film adaptations.  A few of the novels receive multi-episode treatment, and Constant Reader does a good job making the most of the time he spends.  There are occasional episodes that are not, strictly-speaking, King-centric: a few episodes cover selected works by Joe Hill, and a recent set of episodes delved into the King-inspired Netflix series Stranger Things.  Also on the docket: non-adaptation movies like Creepshow and Storm of the Century; focused-conversation episodes about specific aspects of King's writing (such as the role of Randall Flagg in the larger context of the Kingian multiverse); a few top-ten episodes; and so forth.  One notable episode considers Alan Pangborn's status as a potential gunslinger.  Constant Reader even takes a trip to "Derry" in another episode.
Numerous things about the podcast deserve special mention.  First, let's talk about the use of music on the show.  Constant Reader -- henceforth referred to as "C.R." -- has a wry sense of humor in terms of the songs he picks as intro and outro music.  For example, the first podcast (on Carrie) begins with "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," the Burt Bacharach song.  When I listened to that episode, I had a few seconds in which I was a bit confused as to why I was hearing B.J. Thomas; the reason why dawned on me, and I laughed.  I literally LOLed, yessir.  It wouldn't be the final time that would happen as a result of the music, and I'll keep the other selections to myself so that you can discover them on your own.
Second, C.R. has a good voice.  This, obviously, is an important factor in a podcast host.  He sounds a bit like Joe Hill, to be honest; it took a long while for me to figure that out, but I finally did.  Apart from that, he's also a good speaker.  You will note that those are two very different things.  Ideally, you want a podcaster to have a good voice and know how to use it.  C.R. does.
Third, if you like dogs, you're going to hear a fair amount of snoring-pug action.  Occasionally, one of them will wake up and get into some sort of shit, and C.R. will have to set their snurfling asses straight before proceeding.  I guess one might theoretically be annoyed by this, but I always find the canine interjections to be satisfying.  What's life without pets?  And life with pets involves occasional moments in which they are being adorable idiots, doing things they ought not to be doing.  Or, sometimes, snoring in your lap while you try to talk about Stephen King.
I suppose I might have a complaint or two.  For example, the episodes devoted to the short-story collections are frustratingly incomplete, covering only a handful of the stories contained in the respective books.  I say "frustratingly," but can you blame C.R.?  King has written a lot of short stories, and the vast majority of them merit their own episodes; the ones that don't could be given episode-length takedowns, for that matter, so you're looking at a lot of episodes if you went that direction.  The guy pulled off a Herculean feat in getting through all the books, so it would be churlish of me to grumble about a few omitted stories.  And anyways, that leaves material for him to potentially come back to now that the main objective of the podcast has been satisfied.
Complaint the second: when I say "all" the books are covered, I'm skating over the fact that C.R. actually skips a handful of them.  To be specific, Danse Macabre, Faithful, On Writing, The Plant, Blaze, and The Colorado Kid.  C.R. mentions them all on occasion; it's not like he's forgotten about them.  He's got his reasons for skipping them, and while I hope he'll circle back to some or all of them eventually, I don't hold the omissions against him.  
I also don't hold against him the fact that I sometimes disagree with him.  What two King fans are ever going to see eye to eye on everything?  How boring would it be if they did?  C.R. is a much bigger fan of some books than I am, and vice versa.  But he never talks down to anyone who feels differently than he does, and he typically makes persuasive points that cause me to consider my own opinions in a different light.
The flip side of that coin for me is this: he champions a few works that need a bit more championing within King-fandom circles; you might, for example, think of Under the Dome differently after hearing what C.R. has to say about it.
All things considered, this is a treasure-trove for King fans who listen to podcasts.  I've got every episode archived for future re-exploration, and a check of the cumulative runtime reveals a staggering total: a whopping 133 hours' worth of entertainment and analysis so far, with more presumably on the way.  For comparison's sake, if you combine the audiobooks for Under the Dome, It, and the unedited version of The Stand (King's three longest novels), you get a runtime of about 132 hours.

Consider that.
It would be an impressive achievement even if the Stephen King Cast sucked; even then, you'd have to take your hat off to it.  The fact that it doesn't suck, and is frequently inspired (and maybe even a little bit inspiring) means that taken as a whole -- albeit a still-evolving one -- the Stephen King Cast is handily one of the best works about King's fiction ever made.  I'd still hold up Winter's Stephen King: The Art of Darkness as #1, but Stephen King Cast -- note that I have honored it with italics -- is in the conversation for #2.
Perfect?  No, of course not.  But endlessly compelling?

For sure.

As I mentioned earlier, Constant Reader -- under the name Cooper O'Connor -- has also turned into a published fiction writer.  Curious to see how he fared in that arena, and also eager to pay him back a wee bit for the tremendous gift that is his podcast, I tracked down his extant stories.

Let's have a look!

O'Connor's story "Room 207" appears in Dark Moon Digest #22.  It's the story of a man on a road trip; he stops for the night in a roadside motel (think the Bates Motel from Psycho) and is assigned room #205.

Rest assured that you will find out why the story isn't titled "Room 205."

"Room 207" reads like the work of a man who has been heavily influenced by Stephen King.  No surprise there.  O'Connor, however, has seemingly been influenced by King in the right ways: he isn't concerned with aping King's style so much as he's interested in aping King's intent.  O'Connor has observed that King frequently draws power from finding a situation that is familiar to his readers, and then inserting the shockingly unfamiliar into that situation.

It's one thing to recognize that, but it's another thing altogether to implement it.  O'Connor implements it pretty well here, and while he's not exactly breaking new ground with "Room 207," he's breaking familiar ground in a way that I've never quite seen before.  Much of the story's effectiveness comes via the adjoining-room door that separates 205 from 207.  Maybe somebody else has used one of those interior doors as a dread-inducing device before, but if so, I haven't encountered it.  And yet, how many of us have stayed in a room and looked at that set of doors, wondering what might be going on in the room on the other side of them; who might be staying there?

One thing is certain: Cooper O'Connor has wondered.

O'Connor's story "This World Will Eat You All the Way Up" appears in the online series 9Tales Told in the Dark; in #9, to be specific.  You can get a copy for your Kindle right here; there is not, so far as I am aware, a print edition.

If I'm being honest, I have to admit that "This World Will Eat You All the Way Up" is a problematic story.  The setup: two college-age men are on a lengthy road trip, and one of them (Boo) is the kind of guy who misses his girlfriend and checks his phone fairly frequently to see if he's missed any messages from her.  The other guy (Archie) is a world-class prick who constantly needles his alleged friend about his unwillingness to engage in the pussy-hounding that he seemingly thinks ought to accompany a road trip of this nature.

I won't say more than that in way of plot.

I have two major problems with the story.  First, I don't buy the relationship between the two men.  We get no sense of why the two are friends, or why they are on this road trip.  If I were Boo, I would have never even considered going on a road trip with somebody as grating as Archie.  Since the name Stephen King is actually invoked within the story, I think I'm on solid ground in saying that "This World Will Eat You All the Way Up" could be said to evoke two classic King road-trip stories: "Children of the Corn" and "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band."  In both of those, the bickering couples have reasons for being stuck together: they are married to each other.  O'Connor fails to give Boo and Archie any similar reason for being on this trip; these two don't even seem like friends, they seem like two people being tortured.  The result is that, for me, the story feels engineered; the relationship feels unrealistic.  You feel the hand of the author, and not in the good way.

My second problem is that there are too many typos.  This is a problem that, to a much lesser degree, also plagued "Room 207."
Now, look . . . let's have no misunderstandings between us.  I am keenly aware that typos are as common as anuses.  I'm sure you'd find dozens of them within my blogs.  There might be a few lurking within this very one.  (Look . . . there's one now!, my mind thinks, Romero suddenly on it.)  This isn't a professional publication, though, so I throw up the flag of the great country I Got No Time For Revision and semi-proudly wave it.  Somebody starts paying me to do this, I'll revise; them typos'll get the fuck outta Dodge and right quick.
Maybe it makes me a hypocrite or a pedant, but typos can and frequently do take me out of reading a story, especially in the case of a professional publication.  It makes me feel as if the editor was asleep instead of editing, and it makes me feel as if the author didn't quite care enough about his or her own work to properly proofread it prior to sending it out.  I am aware that this is unfair; the author may, for all I know, have done a scrupulous job of proofreading prior to submission, only to have that lazy editor -- or the lazy editor's shiftless underlings -- fuck it up entirely during the publication process.

I get that.

But the fact remains that these are the things my mind thinks.  For example, I thought it while reading Owen King's excellent Double Feature, which was riddled with typos.  Did it stop me from enjoying that novel?  No.

It DID lessen the enjoyment to some degree, though.  I won't lie about that.

Anyways, those two major problems aside, I did end up enjoying "This World Will Eat You All the Way Up," mainly because it came to a satisfying conclusion.  There is a lot of fake-seeming bickering to be endured in getting to that conclusion . . . but it satisfied me nonetheless.

"Hopscotch," available in the anthology Wax & Wane: A Gathering of Witch Tales, is about a thirteen-year-old girl whose phone gets broken one day when she collides with another girl on a sidewalk.

It's a brief story, and one with (again) too many typos, but it's enjoyable.  It would have made for a pretty good episode of Tales from the Darkside or Amazing Stories, which is a solid recommendation.  I don't have a lot more to say about it than that; it creeped me out in exactly the places I think it was intended to, so that's a good thing to say about a story.


The August 2016 issue of Trysts of Fate contains what I feel is O'Connor's best story so far: "Forget Me Not," the story of a woman who wakes up one night to find her long-time boyfriend crying inexplicably.  What happens next?  My lips are sealed.

You'll see it coming from a mile away, though, so I'm not sure why I'm bothering.  And for the record, that's no diss: it's just fine that the ending is fairly obvious, because O'Connor isn't trying to lay a Shyamalan-esque plot twist on you.  He knows you'll see it coming, and is instead counting on the power of the situation to carry the story.

In my opinion, it does.  This despite the typos, misspelled words, and evident lack of understanding of when to use commas.  (Hint: the Oxford comma is your friend.  Do not trust those who advise you to avoid it.  Forget it not.)
Yeah, all that is there; and yeah, I feel obliged to continue to point it out.  In this case, it didn't matter, because the writing of the story otherwise worked for me, and the emotion of the situation was sufficient to cause me to put such complaints almost all the way to the side.

I've been watching The Twilight Zone for (mostly) the first time recently: one episode per week, as God intended it.  "Forget Me Not" doesn't have a plot twist -- Shyamalan-esque, Serling-esque or otherwise -- but it did put me in mind of The Twilight Zone.  I could practically hear old Rod wrapping things up with something like "In this average suburban home, someone has learned what happens when you fall asleep only to wake up in . . . the Twilight Zone."

Rod could have found something better to say than that, but you get my drift.

We turn from The Twilight Zone to something that would have been better suited to Night Gallery:

Appearing in the slim anthology Skeptics Must Die, "The Portrait" is about two would-be television-star ghost-hunters who break into a house where a famously haunted -- or is that "haunted" -- painting hangs.  Will they walk out again once morning arrives?

My lips are once again sealed.

I wasn't impressed by this one, sad to say.  The characters are drawn relatively well -- the cameraman, Wilcox, actually reminds me quite forcefully of a friend of a friend -- and there are a few decent moments once the shoe drops; but the story never coalesces for me.  The outcome seems preordained, and not in the good I'm-dreading-what-comes-next-but-have-to-find-out way that a good horror story needs; in the yawn-I've-read-this-before way.

So for me, this one is a swing and a miss.

In case you were wondering if there are typos, there definitely are.  Many of them come in the form of busted paragraph breaks.  A few others come in the form of misspelled words.  Am I a dick for pointing this out?  Maybe.  But somebody needed to, and it needed to happen before these stories saw publication.  It's a minimum expectation, frankly; I'd implore O'Connor to spend a bit more time with his proofreading hat on in the future.  It will only be to his benefit; I think he's got potential, but he's tripping over his feet a bit because he's forgotten to tie his shoelaces.

Based on the quality of his podcast, I know he's got better work in him.  The insights are too significant, his voice too assured, for him not to.

I, for one, am going to keep reading in the hopes of being there when he puts it all together.  I can feel it coming, and I want to be around for it.

Even if it never does, though, I'm happy to have read these stories.  I was afraid I might feel like they were less than genuine in some way, that my familiarity with the author's voice via his podcast might lessen the experience.  It didn't.  If anything, it enhanced it, because at times I really could mentally hear his voice.  The fiction seemed to be coming from a different room in the same house; both the podcasts and the fiction seem to me like the same person's work, but in no way does the one seem to be a version of the other with a wig and a dress on.

These comparisons make sense in my mind, you know.

Anyways, the point is this: O'Connor has published five stories in 2016 (with at least one other on the way), which is a very solid run for any author.  Of the five I've read, I'd say that I legitimately enjoyed three, moderately enjoyed one, and disliked the other.  I call that four-for-five, and four-for-five is well above average.

That, in my opinion, is somebody worth keeping an eye on.

And an ear, of course.


  1. I'll have to check this out, especially the "Under the Dome" episode. Which I already love as a novel, but I'm curious for his take on it.

    Pointing out repeated typos and grammatical mistakes is by no means a dickish move. It's not enough to have a cool idea or know how to arrange it dramatically - it is if you're working in another medium, but for writing? It matters. And like you say, it's hard to know where to lay the blame, so it's not a dealbreaker so long as other things are compelling enough, but: blame should be laid. (Not lain!)

    1. I feel like professional writing is -- or, if it isn't still, OUGHT to be -- a safe space for those of us who believe that little things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. matter. It's a losing battle, and I know that; but they'll take my Oxford comma when they pry it from my cold, dead, and annoyed fingers.

  2. So, when should we expect you to appear as a 'special guest star' on said podcast?

  3. Two posts in 10 days! I'm down with that. It's good to know about O'Connor; sometimes I feel like I'm getting to be enough of a King fan to really dig into more analysis done by other nerds (which I suppose I've already done by frequenting this blog). I find podcasts to be troublesome, though; I have no doubt there are many I would love, but there is already more content among movies, TV shows, and books in my various queues than I'll ever get to, so adding one more means of communication sounds like a disaster for my already ADD-addled brain.

    I think you're well within the boundaries of propriety to mention the typos and grammatical mistakes. If I were O'Connor, I'd be pretty pleased at all the positives, which is probably 90 percent of your feedback. If he has any aspirations of getting bigger and better, it's very solid, free advice.

    Here's hoping for another entry sometime in the next 10 days or so.

    1. I should have something ready at You Only Blog Twice within the next ten days, but it's doubtful there'll be anything else here before then. Possible, but unlikely.

      I hear what you're saying about not being able to find time for podcasts. I wouldn't either if I didn't squeeze them in during times when I'm folding laundry, doing dishes, or whatever. I have a bit of time at work, too. Without that, there'd be few podcasts for me. I'd probably still make time for this particular one, though.

  4. Lovely write up Bryant! Cooper does do great analysis. It's always interesting as to me as a baby boomer Constant Reader to hear the thoughts of subsequent generations to Mr. King's work.

    PS - you're always welcome to come on our podcast!

    1. You make a great point about hearing the thoughts of generations other than your own. I'm Generation X, so I'm beginning to experience that sense of King fandom slowly migrating from a thing of my generation and the one or two which preceded it to more of a Generation Y and even Millennial thing.

      I'm not sure exactly where O'Connor falls in that spectrum, but he's clearly leading the New Wave of King fans into whatever the future is going to be. Pretty cool.

      By the way, I haven't yet listened to the most recent episode of The Stephen King Podcast, so I haven't gotten to hear how Constant Reader did in his appearance there. Fine, I'm sure. The only reason I haven't listened is that I still -- unbelievably -- haven't read either "End of Watch" or "Cookie Jar," so I am holding any podcasts related to those at arm's length until whenever that finally happens.

      As for the invitation, I'd love to do that sometime! Maybe when you guys review the "Dark Tower" movie in the spring? There should be plenty to talk about with that, for sure.

    2. PS - our next podcast will be a biggie if it all comes to fruition this weekend. Keep an eye on the EW twitter stream today. Something Dark Tower is supposed to drop today.

    3. And here's the announcement!

      Makes total sense. Hile! To the Birth of a new franchise.

    4. Yes indeed, that's really good news. I'm not sure how they're going to find a young actor who can persuasively be a budding Idris Elba, but if they can crack that, then this could be something special. I'm already pumped thinking about seeing things like Hax the cook, David the hawk, Roland's rude awakening by Stephen, and so forth. Not to MENTION "Wizard and Glass" itself!

      It's even possible that some of the skin-man stuff from "The Wind Through the Keyhole" could make its way into the series, possibly as part of a second season if it proves to be ongoing.

      King needs to get on the ball and write that Jericho Hill novel so that that could be in the mix, too!

  5. Can't thank you enough for turning me onto this podcast. My favorite work analyzing Stephen King since, well...this very blog. And possibly my favorite podcast ever. It was great to hear him give you a shout out too in one of his episodes after this blog post came out. Can't say enough about the work you both do.

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed the podcast! I think most King fans would.

  6. Since I put this post online, O'Connor has had another story come out: it's called "Spouse Swap" and can be found in the anthology "Ink Stains Vol. 2," which you can find here:

    For my money, "Spouse Swap" is O'Connor's best story to date. It's confident, it's involving, and it's timely.

    I don't want to tell you much about the story, so I'll settle for saying this: it's about a reality television series, and the title will give you a hint of what variety.

    O'Connor still needs an editor to help him out with some of the typos and mild grammatical gaffes, but in the case of this story, I didn't much care that they were there. That's how I know this is a step forward for him: I was involved enough in the story that when the typos popped up, I rolled right past them without giving them much actual thought.