Sunday, March 7, 2021

This Is A Horror Story: A Review of "Later"

I intended initially to just lump this review of Later in with the rest of the books in my first "Books I Read In 2021" post, and indeed that's how I wrote it.  But it occurred to me tonight that that post might be in the oven for a while before it's finished baking.  So why not go ahead and get these thoughts on into the world?  Why wait until later?
Why indeed.

Lots to talk about with this one.  Here's your spoiler warning: I'll be talking about some things you don't want to know unless you learn them from the novel itself.  You've been warned!
Before we get into the spoilers, let's wrestle with an issue that has been somewhat controversial; not for the first time, either.  I refer to the issue of whether this novel makes sense as a Hard Case Crime Publication.
I'll confess to knowing little about their overall line of books.  I've read King's three, plus one Max Allan Collins that I enjoyed; and have read a handful of McMolo reviews at Dog Star Omnibus.  That's scarcely an amateur's knowledge, though, so I will have to yield any definitive opinion as to whether Later makes sense as a Hard Case Crime release to somebody with a bit more expertise.
My perception?  Yeah, more or less; it did.  It takes a while for it to get to the crime-centric aspects, but they do eventually arise, and they are suitably pulpy, albeit with a modern twist.  
If anything, Later makes more sense for Hard Case Crime than either of King's previous titles for them The Colorado Kid or Joyland do, so we're getting there, I guess.  The Colorado Kid (love it though I do) is more about journalism than about crime, or even mystery; Joyland definitively has a murder mystery in it, but does it have any detectives or any of the elements one thinks of when one thinks of hardboiled crime fiction?  Not sure I'd argue that it does.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

How Many Books Has Stephen King Written?

It isn't as easy a question to answer as one might think. 
I have pondered this question before, but recently found myself with it on my mind again thanks to something I saw.  It was, in fact, a list of King books inside another King book: a new trade paperback edition of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.  Let's have a look:

A few things jump out at me from that list.  I'll go ahead and tell you now: the cumulative effect of them is that this list is bullshit.  I mean, yes, it's true that they are all also by Stephen King; in a technical sense, that is the only claim this list has made.  Still, it's bullshit, and here are a few reasons why:
  • It forgot Joyland.  Nope, you can't do that.  You are bullshit.
  • Creepshow is listed -- does this mean the movie or the comic?  If the former, then where are Sleepwalkers, Cat's Eye, etc.?  If the latter, where is American Vampire?
  • Why are both Different Seasons and The Body listed?  See also: Skeleton Crew and The Mist; Four Past Midnight and The Langoliers; and Full Dark, No Stars and 1922.  You might think that this is because all of those novellas have been released as standalone books in recent years, but there have been several others also released, such as Apt Pupil and The Sun Dog, which have been excluded.  So there's no evident rationale here whatsoever.
  • I contest the idea that It should be spelled IT, but so be it (pun intended).  Either way, it's listed out of order here.
  • Yo, where Storm of the Century at?  That was published as a book!
  • Stephen King Goes to the Movies, though?  Really?
  • Faithful is not listed? That makes me feel bad for Stewart O'Nan.
  • No Gwendy's Button Box?  That makes me feel bad for Richard Chizmar.
  • No Flight Or Fright?  That makes me feel bad for Bev Vincent.
This is sloppy work as far as list-making goes.  
It got me to thinking anew about a topic that has come to mind before a few times: how many books has Stephen King written?  If you were being interviewed in front of the Senate -- or, better yet, in front of some body where you actually had to tell the truth about things -- then what would your answer be?  How would you go about deciding how to answer the question?
Here's the thing: there's no definitive answer to this.  With some authors, maybe there is.  With others -- and we've already got ample evidence that Stephen King is one of those -- it's literally impossible because at a certain point, the definition of "book" becomes an issue.  You can go one of two ways, and either involves your own opinion of what the word "book" means in the context of a conversation like this one: (A) you can be restrictive or (B) you can be inclusive.  Either way, you're immediately going to have to make decisions regarding what you are going to use for criteria, and even then you may find yourself struggling to be consistent once you've made those decisions.
It's a dilemma.  So perhaps the answer is this: you shouldn't even try.
Hell with that.
To begin, I think we can construct a relatively definitive list of titles that have to be counted no matter what.  A minimum-contents list, if you will.  That, I think, would look like this:

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

"Later," Sooner

 Here's a super-duper brief post about Later, King's most recent novel.
What am I going to say about the novel?
I ain't gonna say shit!  (Even if I wind up with a mouthful, to paraphrase a thing King has said any number of times over the years.)  Not nary a thing am I gonna say, up to and including whether I liked it.
Why would I do such a thing?  Well, it's simple: I figured we'd talk about it in the comments.
So for those of you who have read it and want to talk about it, yonder below do the comments lie.  All others, delve into them only with caution.
Now, there will be an actual review, at some point.  I'm going to talk about it in a "Books I Read In 2021" post I'm working on.  May be a while, though, so I thought I'd at least put up a little something here to give us a place to talk about it if anyone is interested.
Oh, I should mention: I was lucky enough for Amazon to deliver my copies (yes, I bought two) a day before the release date.  So I rolled home from work Monday night, sat down in my armchair, flipped my circuit breaker to "sloth," and read 150 pages.  Then I polished it off on release day, and bam-a-lam, here we are.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

All Lines of Force Have Begun to Converge Here: "Insomnia Revisited," Part 3

We have arrived now at the third and final post in my series revisiting Insomnia.  I feel like I've dropped the ball in my analysis of this novel, and I've been trying to figure out how that happened.  I'm not exactly the world's most skilled literary analyst in the first place, but that's okay; I make no pretensions toward being such, and am generally out only to capture my own feelings toward whatever I'm analyzing/critiquing.  Even so, I just didn't get there with this series.  I'm hoping I can redeem it somewhat in this third and final post, but -- not gonna lie -- I'm not optimistic.
So what happened here?  Is it a deficiency in the material I'm looking at?  Absolutely not; I don't think this is one of King's better novels, but it's certainly a good one, and I think it's ambitious enough that even if one feels differently then one is likely to have a great deal to discuss.
In that case, it's down to me.  I think maybe I tried to be too broad in my approach(es), but simultaneously managed to be overly restricted.  Ultimately, I think I just didn't find the right way into the material.  I might have been better-served by doing something more like a diary-of-reading-progress wherein I gave my thoughts on a chapter-by-chapter basis.  Live and learn, I guess.
Be all that as it may, here we are, so let's get into it.  I'm going to sprinkle some images of various editions throughout, beginning with this cool Croatian one:

I'd love to have a copy of that, so if anyone knows where I get one for an affordable price, do let me know.
Alrighty, where do we want to begin?  How about with the novel's setting: Derry, Maine, which is perhaps best known as the locale for the 1986 novel It.  It wasn't that novel in which the fictional town made its debut, however; that happened, if my research has not failed me, in 1982's The Running Man.  Followup appearances/mentions came in "The Body" (1982), Pet Sematary (1983), "Uncle Otto's Truck" (1983), and "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut" (1984).  All of these were published after King had begun writing It, however, in September of 1981, so it's possible he'd already created it for that novel, and snuck it into those other works as a sort of preview of coming attractions.
Does it matter?  Not really.  After It, Derry was referred to in The Tommyknockers (1987), Misery (1987), "The Night Flier" (1988), "Secret Window, Secret Garden" (1990), Needful Things (1991), and Gerald's Game (1992).  It was those mentions which really drove the town into the soul of Constant Readers, I think.  Combined with the massive amount of exploration it received in It, each of those mentions carried a weight like very few of King's fictional towns before it; perhaps 'Salem's Lot was an equal, and probably Castle Rock surpassed it, but those are almost certainly the three heaviest hitters in the King canon among the fictional towns.
With that in mind, it definitely carried a huge amount of weight when King set a second novel in Derry.  It's one thing for there to be an offhand reference or even a brief stopover, but Insomnia is rooted to Derry from beginning to end.  There would have been no way to keep Constant Readers from thinking about It, and that's okay, because King has not only acknowledged the connection, he has steered into it in a way which not only deepens Insomnia, but arguably deepens It as well.
Indeed, I believe that what King really had his eye on with this novel was a massive expansion of the mythos which underpinned most of his body of work at large.  I doubt it was his primary goal; it likely just developed that way as he wrote, but the end result is unquestionably one of the linchpins of his connected universe.
He gets started on the first page of the prologue, with a reference to Ralph doing research in the Derry Public Library.  And just in case readers might be inclined to think that it's a Derry which somehow exists apart from the events of It, he disabuses us of that notion two pages later by inserting references to the Barrens, Neibolt Street, and the Kissing Bridge into the text.  
Insomnia is 26 years old, but I can remember a bit about my reaction to these connections: I didn't freak out over them, I just accepted them for what they were.  After all, King had done similar things a number of times by then: with nearly the entirety of Needful Things, for example, but also in the Gerald's Game / Dolores Claiborne relationship, Flagg's appearance at the end of The Waste Lands (and in The Eyes of the Dragon, for that matter), Dick Hallorann showing up in It, etc.  This was just a thing that King did from time to time; not EVERY time, necessarily, but frequently enough that one simply accepted it, assuming one was aware of it.  
Modern readers are probably more likely to assume right off the bat that the It / Insomnia connection is going to be more pervasive than it is.  In fact, given how conditioned modern readers are -- largely due to movies and television shows, but probably also due in many cases to a preponderance of fan-fiction -- to assume that by mentioning Derry and setting a second story there, Pennywise is bound to show up.  I can't say with 100% certainty that that my mind in 1994 was free of that expectation, but I've got no memory of it.
There are places where I think many modern readers would be likely to flat-out assume King was toying with them in that regard.  "All lines of force have begun to converge here," Ed tells Ralph on page 87, referring to Derry.  He's in the middle of a rather impressive rant, and Ralph thinks he's gone completely around the bend.  "I know how difficult that is to believe, but it's true," Ed continues.  A bit later, he says, "This isn't about abortion, don't get that idea!  Not anymore.  They're taking the unborn from all kinds of mothers, not just the junkies and the whores—eight days, eight weeks, eight months, it's all the same to the Centurions.  The harvest goes on day and night.  The slaughter.  I've seen the corpses of infants on roofs, Ralph . . . under hedges . . . they're in the sewers . . . floating in the sewers and in the Kenduskeag down in the Barrens. . ."
"Ralph," Ed confides in a whisper shortly after this, "sometimes the world is full of colors.  I've seen them since he came and told me.  But now all the colors are turning black."
Let's break this down a bit.  I don't think it's possible to be a reader of It who is reading Insomnia and have a muted reaction to that mention of the sewers and the Barrens (not to mention floating), especially since slaughtered children has been invoked.  Even if it's on a merely subconscious level, I just don't see how your mind won't summon forth old Bob Grey here, especially once Ed invokes the idea that these colors he has mentioned (which Ralph is still some forty pages away from encountering) began with some specific person visiting him.  We know Pennywise visited Henry Bowers; is it possible he's visiting Ed Deepneau as well?
We will learn different later, but it's understandable if somebody gets to the exchange I just quoted and begins wondering if perhaps the Losers didn't do as thorough a job in those sewers as they thought they'd done.
I'd be curious to know what King's intent in this scene is.  He's not a dunce, so he knows what he's doing; he knows he can't just set a story in Derry and then drop in references to dead kids floating in the sewers.  That's going to provoke a response, as is tying these ravings to the notion of the raver having gotten the information from a "he."  "Who's he?!?" is the only appropriate reaction.  "Is he who I think he is, Steve?!?"
If King isn't after setting up an expectation of Pennywise popping 'round the corner with a balloon in his hand, what IS he up to?
I think it's probably no more complicated than King surprising us into placing some credence in Ed's words.  We've been taking him as a lunatic, just as Ralph has been, but all of a sudden he seems as if he's talking about the Derry we already know about, the one a guy like Ralph Roberts would know nothing of, and believe less.  I suspect King is probably confident in his readers' (certainly those of the Constant ones) ability to remember that even if Pennywise was still hanging around, it's much too early for him to be out in the world again.  1985 + 27 years, that's, oh, roughly 2012 before Derry would be likely to ravages by Pennywise again.  I don't think he thinks readers will really assume that Pennywise is back, but I do think he knows that those references to the sewers will catch readers' attentions.
And I think also that while he might be toying with the notion of evoking the villain of It, he won't mind it if he produces the subconscious effect of readers taking whoever "he" is to be, if not literally Pennywise, then some other character who is perhaps of equal menace.  In other words, this little bit has the effect of suggesting that the character whom we will eventually know to be Atropos is just as dangerous and awful as Pennywise.  Now, personally, I don't feel that the text really bears that out; Pennywise whips Atropos's ass real quick, if you ask me.  Nevertheless, I think that's the function this little bit serves; and it does so rather nicely.
There are a number of other instances in which Derry-centric things are mentioned:

Thursday, February 18, 2021

What I Watched During the Pandemic, Part 21

Well, here we are.  As I write this introduction, it's early on the morning of February 3rd.  My parents both have COVID-19.  They seem to be doing reasonably well; Mom's had it for almost a week now, and Dad's had it for only three days, so there's still plenty of time for shit to go all the way south.  Will it?  Probably not.  That's what the statistics say.  
But that's the shadow under which this particular blog post begins.
First up within that shadow:
The Expanse, season 5 (2020-2021)

I don't think I've ever mentioned The Expanse 'round these parts, and that's probably because this blog tends (in non-pandemic times) to focus on horror and horror-adjacent stuff.  Y'know, because of the alleged Stephen King focus.  But my interests range far and wide, a fact which you likely know by now, and they certainly run far enough to potentially include just about any space-based science fiction.  The Expanse is certainly that, and if it had not laid claim to being in the very upper echelons of that subgenre before its most recent season, it has certainly laid claim to being in it now.
I won't say much about the new season, because I assume the vast majority of you haven't seen the four that came before it.  It'd be a shame to say much about where the series is at this point in time, because that would involve telling you more than you need to know about how it got there.
So instead, here's a very brief summary for the show's overall concept.  It takes place in in 24th century, so yes, it's one of those kind of sci-fi shows.  Except no, not really.  This is a future that is extrapolated from our own without much fantasy; maybe a wee bit here and there, but generally speaking, you're not going to find transporters or food replicators or aliens with funny foreheads.  This show makes no judgment upon those types of shows, it simply says that that's not what our future is apt to be like, because those things are mostly fantasy.
What's our future apt to be like?  Well, we've colonized the moon, and we've colonized Mars, and we've colonized (and begun to mine) the asteroid belt.  Mars has long since declared independence from Earth, and is there political strife on account of that?  Yes indeed, and it's of the long-standing variety by the time this show picks up.  So is the relationship of the Belters (as the residents of the asteroids, long divorced from the cradle of humanity or even its next-door neighbor) with the "inners," as they call Earthers and Martians.  They are dependent upon supplies from Earth, and Earth is dependent upon their labors; but that co-dependence makes the relationship more fraught, not less, and when the complication of an independent Mars is added into the mix, well, that's a setup that is ripe for strife.
Spoiler alert: the fifth season is the most strife-filled of all.  By far.
The show's first three seasons aired on Syfy, and were watched by a cumulative total of approximately 1,860 people.  Nobody watches Syfy; people barely watched it back when Battlestar Galactica was its flagship series, and all but 1,860 of those people had fled from the barn by the time The Expanse began.  It was therefore a bit miraculous that the show managed to get even two seasons, much less three.  But three it got, and then they said alright, we can't afford to lose this much money on a show watched by 1,860 people, and pulled the plug.
Luckily, Amazon stepped in and said, hey, we'll make three more seasons, if that's cool, and it certainly was.  Apparently Jeff Bezos more or less commanded that it be thus on account of his being a fan of the series (and the novels upon which it is based, which I'll have to read one of these days).  I knew I liked that guy for a reason.  I think he might literally be a James Bond villain, and I kind of don't mind if he is if this is the sort of thing he's doing with his chump change.
Anyways, even before Amazon took the reins, this was one of the best-looking sci-fi shows ever made.  Its special effects are an evolution of the type of effects which were introduced into sci-fi television first by Firefly and then by the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica.  The effects are ambitious, based in realism, and almost always effective.  The cinematography is gorgeous, the music by Clinton Shorter is often immersive and exciting, the plots are twisty and turny but rarely overwrought, and the cast is superb.  Thomas freaking Jane was a member of that cast for the first, uh, several seasons; he, uh, well he isn't by this new season, but he directed an episode, so he's still around in that sense.  Shohreh Aghdashloo, whom some of you might remember from a great season of 24 back in the day, plays an Earth politician who curses a lot, and she's wonderful provided you can stomach her voice, which sounds like you'd imagine flaming crushed boulders to sound; I love it.  
The bulk of the cast consists of the crew of the Rocinante, a Martian gunship that is salvaged and rightfully claimed by a bunch of misfits who get where they are by various misadventures, none of which I'll spoil here.  Their leader is James Holden, played by Steven Strait; both Holden and Strait are arguably a bit colorless, and if you don't necessarily fall in love with the show, it's possible that'll be one of the reasons why.  But he's really just a device that helps enable everything else, so while he's not even vaguely my favorite on the series, he's also never done anything to distance me from it.
And that's about all I think I'll say.  If you like sci-fi shows, I think you are honorbound to give this one a shot, and I recommend that it be sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

"The Stand," Episode 9: The Circle Closes

Well, here we are.  The final episode of the CBS All Access miniseries remake of The Stand has aired.  I'm kind of glad it's over.  Scratch that; I'm glad it's over, no "kinda" to it.  It's been largely unenjoyable for me, and while there are certainly people who seem to have enjoyed it, I think it's largely been seen as a disappointment among King fans.  So I don't think I'm exactly on the end of a thin limb in saying that I'm glad to see this one wrap up.
However, there's a bit of a surprise in this final week: an episode I genuinely liked!  It's too little, and it's too late, and in some ways it actually makes the overall miniseries seem even more frustrating than it already did, so the news is not all good by any means.  Even so, I think it adds some intriguing new things to the lore of this story, and there's a single reason for that:
It was written by the man himself, Stephen King.  And specifically, it was written to satisfy an itch he's apparently had for quite some time.  "I was able to bring things back around," he told Entertainment Weekly in an interview last October.  "I've had an idea for that final episode that I always kind of regretted not writing it in the book—the book's long enough as it is."   I dunno, Steve; I'd read however many more hundred pages of that you felt like adding in, to be honest.
In an interview with the New York Times in December, he added: "I always knew there was one more thing I had to say in that book, one more scene I wanted to write, and I finally did.  And I'm happy with it."
Benjamin Cavell, the showrunner for the miniseries, has stated (here, for one source, and here for another) that what motivated King's decision to add this new material to the ending was a desire on his part to give Frannie Goldsmith, one of the novel's main characters, her own "stand."  She didn't go on the journey that culminated in the titular stand for several of the other characters, and Cavell has said that King wanted to give her some sort of equivalent "stand" of her own.  When I mentioned this in the comments for my review of the first episode, it kicked off a goodish amount of eyerolling, but I myself have been intrigued by the idea ever since I heard it.
I first heard about it at some point prior to the existence of this new miniseries, by the way.  I remember King saying that he wanted to write a story about Fran and Stu having a misadventure that involved a well while they were traveling from Boulder to Maine.  I've been utterly unable to find any citeable evidence of King saying this, so I will have to ask you to take me at my word.  I think it was maybe in one of the talks he gave someplace which ended up on YouTube, but when he said it and where he was when he did so is a complete mystery to me.  
Maybe I'll figure it out one of these days.  My assumption at the time was that he intended to write the story in prose form, and for all I know he did exactly that only to hold off on publishing it because he then decided to use it as the basis for the screenplay for this episode.  That's pure pie-in-the-sky speculation on my part, though; as far as I know, there's no evidence of a prose version existing.
Nope, all we've got to go on is this episode of television.  So how about let's do this: an extensive summary illustrated with screencaps.  That way, you folks will have an idea of exactly what King put together in:
"The Circle Closes"
(The Stand episode 9)
airdate:  February 11, 2021
written by:  Stephen King
directed by:  Josh Boone
We begin with a recap of the previous episode, in which shit went down in New Vegas.  Emphasis on "shit"; I did not care on that episode.  Be that as it may, it ended with Frannie going into labor, and we begin with her in this episode, delivering a voiceover.  "I wish I could tell you every story has a happy ending," she says.  "Truth is, most stories don't end at all, not really.  Feels like every day we're making progress, but the question is, where are we headed?  And how much farther do we have to go before we get there?
"How long before we go from rebuilding back to just living again?  And how long after that before this place goes back to being just like before?  Sometimes it feels like Captain Trips was like flipping a breaker switch: everything's new ... a chance to do it all different.  But every day I wonder...

"...will we?  Will we do anything different this time?  Can we, even?  Are we capable?  
"Which brings me to you.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Done Bun Can't Be Undone: "Insomnia" Revisited, Part 2

Welcome back for another deep-dive into Stephen King's 1994 epic Insomnia.  Would you like to see a pair of Signet mass-market paperback editions before we proceed?  Sure you would!


Friday, February 5, 2021

"The Stand," Episode 8: The Stand

Before we begin, a disclaimer which I hope is always implied on any review I write, but which I feel the need to say explicitly every so often: this is just, like, my opinion, man.  You may have a different one, and if you do, that's great.  I'd never want anyone to feel as if anything I write, here or anywhere else, is designed to browbeat people into agreeing with me.  I'm not saying that I'd be incapable of writing a thing with that sort of intent, but if I did, I'd preface if by saying something along the lines of, "If you don't agree with me about this, you are a terrible person who is wrong and who needs to learn to be right."  It's not inconceivable that I might write such a thing at some point, but when and if I do, it'd be unlikely to happen in connection with a television review, or a book review, movie review, music, etc.
But I do worry sometimes that the tone I take makes people think that that's the stance I'm assuming when I write reviews.  I especially feel that way when I write a negative review, and though I sometimes enjoy going into snark-filled mode for these things, mostly I do not; and even when I do, I worry that it's offputting.
You might by now have ascertained the fact that this review is going to be especially negative.  If so, you have arrived at the correct conclusion.  And if you enjoyed this episode more than I did, I just want to be clear up front: I think that's great!  I love Jason X, so let's face it, my taste is not necessarily a thing of which to be proud.  So know that I am not judging you if you dug this episode, or if you dig this miniseries overall.  I'd love to have your perspective in the comments, sincerely.  We only tolerate nice comments around here anyways; this has never been, and will never be, a combative blog in the comments.  So please do chime in and tell me that you loved this one, and if you feel like expounding, tell me why.
Now, strap in why I attempt to explain why I goddamn fucking HATED this piece-a-shit 48 minutes of television.
"The Stand"
(The Stand episode 8)
airdate:  February 4, 2021
written by:  Benjamin Cavell & Taylor Elmore
directed by:  Vincenzo Natali

This was the episode where I realized that I was not only off the train, but that I'd already rolled down the embankment and had landed in the weeds and was hearing the clackety-clack of the train as it rolled along.  This episode was actually the train exploding while the bombs that the bad guys planted on it finally detonated.  Whew!  I barely made it, y'all!
In retrospect, the train was doomed from the beginning.  And by "train" I mean CBS All Access's miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's The Stand, which was, I now realize, doomed from the outset.  Granted, there's one episode left to go, and it was written by Stephen King himself, so maaaayyyyybe he's got some kind of rabbit in some kind of hat and is going to blow our minds next week.  It would, I think, have to be a rabbit of the sort that M. Night Shyamalan pulled out for The Sixth Sense; I'm talking about a once-in-a-generation, era-defining rabbit.  And bless his heart, King is the screenwriter who brought us Rose Red and the season-two opener of Under the Dome and Sleepwalkers and Maximum Overdrive, so I'm guessing it's just not going to happen.
More than that, I'm assuming it.  I'd love to be wrong, but guys, c'mon: you know I'm not.  And after this week's episode, I know I'm not.  In retrospect, I've known it all along.  Much though I enjoyed certain aspects of the first four episodes, I've known from the first scene of the first episode that this sucker was a failure.  As soon as we went to New Vegas in episode five, I was like, urgh, hmm, something don't quite feel right in my tummy no more, but even then the episodes continued to have enough virtues sprinkled in amongst the failings that I was still enjoying myself to some degree.
That ceased with episode eight, and now, I'm finding it almost impossible to summon up any genuine appreciation for the miniseries whatsoever.  (One exception: Owen Teague's performance as Harold was impeccable from beginning to end.  He does not appear in this episode, and the miniseries feels his absence keenly.)  Nope, this was the episode where the miniseries collapsed under the cumulative weight of the numerous poor decisions made by the producers and writers (and I blame them in that order) in the early episodes.  They did a masterful job, if the job they were given was to remove from King's story its scope, grandeur, and resonance.  Sure, if that the goal, they did a fucking bang-up job.
Let's recap.
Mistake #1: the minuscule number of episodes.  The decision to try to cram this story into a one-season miniseries was a disaster.  This should have been, at minimum, a three-season series of thirty episodes.  How about some comparisons?  AT&T commissioned a ten-episode season based on the novel Mr. Mercedes, which is scarcely a quarter of the length of The Stand.  HBO commissioned a ten-episode season based on The Outsider, which is about half its length.  Even more damning, there's an upcoming miniseries on Epix called Chapelwaite, which is an adaptation of the short story "Jerusalem's Lot."  (I'm looking forward to that; it might suck, but I love the story, and it stars Adrien Brody and Emily Hampshire, which is promising.)  Guess how many episodes it is going to be?  You guessed it: ten.  The Stand is, if I've done the math correctly, something like 31 times as long as "Jerusalem's Lot."  That's the kind of number that leaves no doubt: somebody fucked up when they decided The Stand was going to be a mere nine episodes.
Let's be charitable: the 1994 miniseries on ABC was only the equivalent of six hour-long episodes, so in theory nine is an improvement.  But 1994 was such a different era in television that we may as well be talking about two different mediums, artistically.  It is not an apples-and-apples comparison; it's not even an apples-and-oranges comparison.  Even so, the 1994 version did so much more with so much less that everyone affiliated with the 2020 version should be ashamed of themselves for the results they got.  Well, except for Owen Teague, and maybe a handful of the other cast members.  Everyone else, you're suspect.  At best.
Especially you yahoos who thought it would be a good idea to begin the story in media res.  What were you thinking?  I mean that sincerely: what did you think the upside to this was?  I've so far only been able to glean from interviews that you guys felt it was incumbent upon you to do things differently than the 1994 version did, and I simply do not understand how you'd arrive at that decision as being sensible.  Did you not understand what it is that bonds people to King's novel?  You can't have; if you did, you purposefully shied away from it, and that's just crazy.  You should not be allowed to make multi-million-dollar decisions if that's your decision-making acumen.  No shame in that; lots of folks shouldn't be allowed to gamble with that much money, it don't make ya a bad person or nothin'.  A bad television producer?  Yes.  It definitely makes you that.
What people love about King's novel is the journey it takes them on.  It's an epic that they live with for an extended period of time, and if it gets into them the way it got into me, then it's in them permanently.  That novel was not my first of King's, but it's the one than made me a King fan, and it gave me such a high that I've maintained it for over thirty years since.  It's not even one of my favorites, necessarily; but I love it unreservedly, and don't let the fact that I've occasionally expressed actual reservations about aspects of it (i.e., the hand of God, more on which in a bit) fool you -- I adore this novel.  The bond King created between me and his large cast of characters is one rarely equaled, at least for me as a reader.  And it's as effective as it is because he takes readers on a journey with these folks, and in many cases provides a character arc that would be capable of sustaining an entire novel in its own right.  This one novel carries the emotional weight of something like seven or eight normal-sized novels.  It's not just a star, it's a supernova.
What works about the 1994 miniseries is that screenwriter Stephen King -- who, yes, occasionally does very good work in that medium as well as, uh, less good work -- knew that the correct approach was to distill the novel's events down to their essence, and fit as many of them into a four-night commercial-television structure as he could without losing the essence of the characters.  So even though the runtime is so short that it literally cannot even approach doing the novel justice, it somehow manages to present the illusion of doing it justice, because it replicates the journey, and it captures enough of the character bonds to provide an equivalent of the journey's impact.  It's a pretty damn masterful example of adaptation, to be honest; I'm not sure I've ever appreciated it properly on these grounds, and maybe that's something I can thank this new adaptation for.  It's about the only thing, sadly.  
Okay, so we've established (again) that this miniseries shit the bed by being too short and by implementing an ill-advised non-chronological structure.  Bad enough on either count, and they got both.  AND THEN, they also made some terrible decisions in terms of how to adapt specific aspects of the story.  I'm not sure what I think the worst is, but I'm leaning toward thinking it's the decision to almost entirely neuter the Christian underpinnings of the story.  As a result, Mother Abagail became an almost complete non-entity; and yet, much of the eighth episode involves Randall Flagg railing publicly against her, as if his ravings made sense.  They do not, because these writers did not allow it to.  
And the problem is actually worse than that, because they failed Randall Flagg just as completely as they failed Abagail Freemantle.  Who is this "person"?  What does he want?  Where did he come from?  If you don't know the novel, you likely have no clue.  You may not even know enough to ask some of those questions.  He is simply a non-entity, and he spends several minutes in this episode railing against another non-entity in limp fashion.  It's like if you turned on your television expecting to see the college football national championship game, and instead found that the UAB vs. UNLV game was being aired.  What they're doing is technically football, yes, but this is not what you tuned in for.
This has been a long preamble, and if I allowed it to be, the actual review of the episode would be even longer.  I'm bumming myself out, though, so let's see if we can speed things up a bit.
Alright, so if the Christian subtext -- which I'd argue is actually text -- has been mostly removed, that means the hand of God is out, right?  Yep, sure does.  So what did these masters of their craft come up with to replace it?  
Well, what happens is this: Flagg loses control of the crowd he's addressing (more on which momentarily), and then suddenly a dark cloud surrounds the hotel from the outside.  

Monday, February 1, 2021

What I Watched During the Pandemic, Part 20

I hope you all got what you wanted for Christmas.  Failing that, I hope you didn't get lumps of coal.
As we roll our way toward 2021, here's a survey of what I watched during the waning days of that least wonderful year, 2020.  (And indeed during the first month of the new year, as it turned out.)
We begin in surprising, but joyful, fashion with:
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart? (2020)

I sometimes find myself having conversations with people about music, and when the subject comes up, I inevitably end up outing myself in terms of being one of those guys who stopped listening to new artists a decade or so ago.  Probably more like fifteen years; I think Arcade Fire was probably the last one I took onboard before that train permanently left the station.  This mystifies some folks, and I guess I understand why.  And look, it's not like I'm out there insisting that all new music is crap.  Clearly that's not the case.
My contention is this: when it is still possible to discover at age forty-fucking-six that there are bands like the Bee Gees who deserve my attention, then really, what use do I have for whatever the flavor of the moment is?  Because one thing this documentary made clear is that they've had a much more noteworthy career than I'd ever before considered.  And, apparently, I kind of love them during all phases of it.
I've been hearing many of their most notable hits for damn near my entire life, of course.  Let's have no misunderstandings between us: it's not like I'm saying I just discovered "You Should Be Dancing" or whatever.  I just didn't realize that they had this deep a bench, or that it went back to a pre-disco era during which they were kind of seen as being in the vein of The Beatles.  Nor would I have suspected that they pulled that off rather credibly.  But you know what?  They did, and while it was probably easy at the time to write them off as simply being imitators, I think hindsight shows that it was in fact because they had their own type of musical genius at work, both as composers and performers.
This documentary doesn't lean on that horn; it lets one fill in that particular blank for oneself, if one is inclined to do so.  There's nothing artistically challenging about director Frank Marshall's approach; he simply lets the medium do what it does best, by stitching together interviews with vintage footage, which in this case covers the better part of the last half a century.
It's the music which does most of the talking, of course, and there's some great stuff here.  It's another reminder -- as first covered this year in my thoughts on The Last Days of Disco -- that I love this type of music.  I haven't always, but I can't remember there ever being a time when I didn't think "Staying Alive" kicked ass.  That song practically defines an era, and it comes from the movie Saturday Night Fever, which I really need to get around to actually seeing one of these days.  It stars King-movie alumnus John Travolta, by the way, who arguably got there on the back of Carrie as much as anything else.
You know what other song from that movie rules?  "More Than a Woman."  Both are are smoothly delicious as pop music gets, if you ask me.  
This documentary makes a strong argument that the Bee Gees got to the point of being able to do that because they were, quite simply, great artists, with all the complications that frequently accompany such a gift.  At bare minimum, there's a decade and a half worth of material of theirs that apparently deserves my full attention.  So what use do I got for the present of pop when the past -- the very past that forms my own -- remains such a relatively undiscovered country?
Not much.  If I somehow live long enough to see great documentaries on, say, Taylor Swift or whoever fifty years from now, maybe I'll regret that.  But that's the thing, isn't it?  There's more past to be explored every single day.  And less future to use in doing so.  Guys like me gotta be choosy.
Guys and gals like YOU, too.

Friday, January 29, 2021

"The Stand," Episode 7: The Walk

This week on The Stand we go on
"The Walk"
(The Stand episode 7) 
airdate:  January 28, 2021
written by:  Owen King
directed by:  Vincenzo Natali
Yep, this episode was written solo -- to the extent that means anything in television, with its writers' rooms and producer/network interference -- by young master Owen King himself.  Perhaps that's part of what accounts for the fact that this is one of the better episodes to date; it's largely faithful to the source material, and it's also fairly well focused.
Did I like the episode?
Nope.  Sure didn't.  Come with me and let's discuss why.
  • Holy gee does Trashcan Man suck.  I was on the fence about that last week; this week I have clumb down from offa that fence and am running around hollering, "Trashcan Man bloooooows" at the top of my lungs.  I didn't think anything could make me nostalgic for Matt Frewer's 1994 performance, but once again I have been proven wrong.  I don't need to ever see Ezra Miller in anything again.  
  • I don't know who on the writing staff got a hard-on (or the lady equivalent [or the non-binary equivalent, if that's a fucking thing]) for calling Abagail Freemantle "Mother A," but boy howdy.  It's used twice just in the fucking episode recap.  I am choosing not to blame Owen King; I love his books and I love his wife's books and I love his dad's books and I love his mother's books and I love his brother's books, so I hope it wasn't Owen King.  Whoever it was can get bent, though.
  • Check out this screencap: