Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Worst to Best: Novellas by Stephen King

"Novella" is a word that may have a gajillion different definitions, most of them very similar to one another.  I say "a gajillion," but more likely it's a mere few thousand.  Only people who get obsessed over classifications would even bother worrying about it.
I say this upfront so as to defuse a bit of the potential controversy that might result from what titles I have and have not included on this list.  It's a fairly simple process: I'm including novella-length works that did not get individually ranked on my recent Worst To Best list focusing on King's books.  So in other words, the individual components of Four Past Midnight are all included, whereas a few tales which were published as standalone books -- The Colorado Kid and Gwendy's Button Box come to mind -- are not included, despite being shorter than, say, "The Langoliers."
I've argued in the past that "The Langoliers" really ought to be considered a short novel rather than a novella, but if sanity is to prevail, then such issues must be set aside fairly quickly.
And so shall they be.  
Anyways, it's entirely possible some of you will think my classifications are bogus.  I've eliminated from consideration anything I consider to be a short story.  Some of these are stories you occasionally see listed as novellas, such as "Ur" and "N."  Conversely, some of the briefer things I've included are occasionally referred to as short stories, such as "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and "The Little Sisters of Eluria."  Bottom line is: judgment calls on my part, going with my gut.  If you disagree, use them comments and tell me all about it.
So let's move on to the rankings, beginning with the cellar-dwellar:
#15 -- "The Sun Dog" (1990, from Four Past Midnight)
The fact that THIS is what I'd argue is the worst King novella indicates pretty good news for the rest of the list, because the fact is, I don't think this is too bad. Its greatest sin is that the kid who is ostensibly its hero is boring as unseasoned oatmeal.  Compared to most other hero-kid King characters, he's a nonentity.
King has more success with the concept: a Polaroid camera that seemingly takes photos of a dog from another world, a dog which seems to be aware of the person taking the photo and is moving ever closer, snarling and preparing to leap from one reality into the next.
I'd argue that King does a solid job with that concept, and also with the crusty old shop owner into whose hands the camera falls.  Pop Merrill -- uncle of Ace -- is a well-drawn character, and King might have been better-served to eliminate the kid and focus on Pop altogether.
So what we've got here is a case of the concept and the execution not quite measuring up.  It's not bad, but we can, and will, do better.
Not immediately, though...

Monday, May 29, 2017

As Close As the Next Page: A Hypothetical Collection of Stephen King's Nonfiction

Everyone knows that Stephen King is a prolific writer of fiction, but there's a good chance the average King fan has no idea that he has also written a great deal of nonfiction.  His published nonfiction output goes all the way back to his college days; he's been an essayist, a columnist, an opinionator, and a critic as long as he's been a fiction writer.  It's true that his fictional output is vastly larger, in terms of word-count (or so I assume); but that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of nonfiction with King's name on it.
Boy, is there!
In fact, way back in 2008 -- nearly ten years ago, mind you -- authors Rocky Wood and Justin Brooks needed 606 pages (in the form of Stephen King: The Nonfiction) to list and briefly summarize all the pieces they knew about.  That book is an epic in its own right, and one well worth reading if you are into that sort of thing.  I am, and consequently it is one of the most essential books about King that I own.
It makes for a terrific reference guide, and also for an acceptable substitute for reading the essays/articles/reviews/etc. themselves, many of which are damn near impossible to locate.
I've long held the opinion that fans would benefit from there being a weighty collection of King's nonfiction, and here, I've assembled a hypothetical table of contents for a hypothetical book of that precise nature.  
We'll call that hypothetical collection As Close As the Next Page, which seems like an invitingly mysterious title.  (I got it from a line in King's foreword to his fiction collection Night Shift.)  What might the cover look like?  Something folksy and pleasant, perhaps.  Maybe a photo a bit like this:
King's waiting for us in some small cafe or diner someplace, waiting so he can invite us to sit down and have a conversation with him, just like two reg'lar folks.
That's the tone of much of his nonfiction, so if not that precise photo, then maybe something like it.
Anyways, you get the idea.  Let's use it as a placeholder, howsabout?
With that in mind, what sort of book would As Close As the Next Page be?  We've certainly got a mountain of nonfiction to choose from, but the first step is to accept that it will be necessary to abandon ANY hopes of being comprehensive.  I'm mostly going to restrict myself to listing pieces that I have actually read, so if I've omitted something you feel needs to be here, let me know in the comments.  Maybe you'll have a copy you can send to me for consideration (hint-hint, ahem...)!

One thing that won't be appearing here: the various articles that comprise King's Garbage Truck, the column he wrote for his school newspaper while in college.  Similarly, I'm not considering his The Pop of King columns (written for Entertainment Weekly); many of them are good, and a few are great, but I'm leaving them out.   Most book and/or movie reviews, also out.  There are probably enough of these that they can be their own volume someday (in the hypothetical sense, if no other).

Et cetera.  We'll maybe discuss my selection criteria more as we proceed.  I enjoy a chronological approach, so we'll proceed in that manner, beginning with:

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 Ridley 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.