Monday, November 7, 2016

A Suggested Reading Order for the Extended "Dark Tower" Series (Revised 2016 Edition)

I've been threatening promising to produce a revised version of this list for quite some time now, and here it is, at long last.  We're a bit less than nine months away from The Dark Tower debuting on movie screens worldwide, and despite that lengthy wait, in some ways the Tower is closer than ever.  What was at one point in time seen almost as a sidebar among King's work is increasingly thought of as his magnum opus.

With that in mind, I assume there is still a need for somebody out there to help newcomers to the series sift through all the noise to figure out what books they should and shouldn't read if they want to read the series.  I'm happy to provide that list for anyone who might find it useful.

I wrote the first version of this post way back in April of 2012, and I think it more or less got the job done.  However, in a bifurcated-thinking manner that Roland himself might recognize, I began to feel over time that my list was both too short and too long.  If that seems odd, then let me rephrase: what I was actually feeling was that there needed to be two (or more) different lists, each of which catered to readers with different levels of interest.

It seemed like a good idea, and I've decided to run with it.  So let's get started by looking at what books I deem to be truly essential to the series.  You could begin by simply reading the novels that comprise the actual series, but I don't think that gives you everything you actually need, so I've included a few other titles that cannot be ignored without severely limiting your understanding of the overall universe.

Oh, by the way: there will be no spoilers in this first list; there might be some very mild ones in the later lists, but nothing that should cross your eyes too much.  The comments will be a free zone for spoilers, though, so tread carefully there.


The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger (revised edition) 

Newcomers to the series may not be aware of this, but there are three versions of The Gunslinger.

Version #1: the five stories that appeared from 1978-1981 in issues of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (sometimes referred to as F&SF).  These were: 
  • "The Gunslinger" (1978)
  • "The Way Station" (1980)
  • "The Oracle and the Mountains" (1981)
  • "The Slow Mutants" (1981)
  • "The Gunslinger and the Dark Man" (1981)
The only way that I know of to read these versions of the stories is to track down the individual issues of the magazines.  They tend to be fairly expensive in secondhand markets, although if you are diligent and get lucky, you can sometimes stumble across one at an affordable price.  I got incredibly lucky a while back and found a complete set for about a hundred bucks.  (And eventually, I plan to sit down with the magazines plus the 1982 and 2003 versions and compile a comprehensive list of the differences among the various editions.)
Version #2: the 1982 novel The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, which collected slightly revised versions of the five F&SF stories in a limited-edition hardback.  A trade edition came out several years later, when King finally got tired of fans pestering him for a more widely-obtainable edition.

Version #3: the revised edition pictured above, which came out in 2003.  It is substantively the same novel as the 1982 edition, but does make major additions and revisions that help to bring the novel in line with the rest of the series.

So, the question: what version should newcomers to the series read?

Sunday, November 6, 2016

You Shouldn't Like Things Because People Tell You You're Supposed To: A Consideration of "Stranger Things"

Unless you've been living under a rock that shielded you from American pop culture for most of this year, you're aware of the fact that a television series called Stranger Things made a big impact this summer.  Produced by and streaming exclusively on Netflix, it's the latest smash hit for the company, which has done much to reshape the way we think about television over the past several years.

American pop culture as a whole has been massively redefined during those years, and while Netflix has been an important component of that redefinition, let's have no misunderstandings: that process goes back years, and Netflix has been a beneficiary of it moreso than an instigator of it.
I'm not here to deliver a history lesson on all of this.  Even if I were, I'd be incapable of doing so, because my understanding of it is far too imprecise; I've been aware of it, but only dimly, and not to a keen enough degree to do anything more than pretend at being knowledgeable.  I can tell you that it's been around for the entirety of this millennium; I can say further that I suspect its roots extend back significantly further than that; I can speculate that what we are seeing is the technology-aided fruition of ideas that go back at least two or three decades.
I've seen this trend most clearly in the artistic realm.  (By this, I refer to "the arts" in a general sense: not merely painting or illustration or the visual arts, but also music and, to a lesser degree, fiction and cinema and television and video games, etc.)  The way I've always thought of it is as "mashup culture," and until writing this post I was unaware that I'm by no means alone in labeling it thus.  It's entirely possible that I stumbled across the term at some point and simply forgot that I'd seen it, but I'm not sure that's the case; I do want to leave some room permitting it to be the case, but I don't know that it is.  
Mashups as we know them seem to have begun with music, via people who edited together two different songs in an interesting way.  The first time I became aware of this was listening to an episode of the Rick Emerson Show half a decade or so ago.  The following song began playing:

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

No, I Don't Have A Turntable; Why Do You Ask?

Not gonna be much to this post: I just thought I'd toss up some hastily-taken photos of my Halloween present to myself, which came in the mail today.

If you're wondering why a grown man would spend over $35 on an LP he is unable to play due to not having a turntable of any kind, said grown man would respond thus:
  • If you're looking to me as an example of a "grown man," you are casting your line into a dry pond.
  • Fucking LOOK at it!  I literally bought it for the pictures.  Same reason I bought the Creepshow LP from the same label a while back.
  • You, too, can have one by visiting Waxwork Records.  Look at me, teacher!
  • I mean, I already had the soundtrack on CD, so it's not like I can't listen to it.  (In some universe, this makes sense as an argument for buying it, not against buying it, which now I realize must sound like a solid "con" to neutral observers.)
  • The art is by noted illustrator Francesco Francavilla.  Gorgeous.
What more reason would I need?

What more reason do you need?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Worst To Best: Stephen King Movies (and TV), 2016 Edition

It's overdue, and will need to be updated yet again a year from now (and probably the next year, and the one after that, and so forth), but here it is at last: an updated ranking of King-based movies and tv shows.
I've changed the way I'm ranking the television series this time around.  Previously, I ranked each season of each series separately.  That's a fair way of doing things, especially for a series like The Dead Zone, which varies wildly in quality from season to season.  However, it's not easy to figure out at all in the case of, say, Haven: it's a show that ranges from awful to mediocre to decent to good, sometimes within the span of a single season.  How do you rank such a thing?  I made a stab at it last time, but it never satisfied me.  So we'll try it this way and see how that works.
One exception: in the case of the anthology series Nightmares & Dreamscapes, I thought it made sense to rank the episodes separately.  They are completely distinct from one another, so that was no challenge.
Finally, I've left off the few Dollar Baby films that I included last time.  They're simply not playing on the same field as everything else.
I'll probably reuse a lot of the text from previous posts in this series.  I'm lazy that way.  Plus, I like some of that stuff; why pitch out the baby with the bathwater?  I've made significant revisions in some places, and have left other sections alone entirely.
I followed tradition by NOT consulting my old rankings prior to creating these new ones; I let my current way of thinking dictate the rankings.

Honorable Mention #1 -- Stranger Things (2016)

I know at least one reader of this blog -- and maybe two -- who will be put into a state of grumpiness by this series being included on my list.

I feel your pain, guys, and under many circumstances I would probably share it.

Let's make no mistakes about this: Stranger Things is not adapted from anything by Stephen King.  However, you can make a claim that a few other things on this list could be described the same way.  Should the fact that those are considered to be King adaptations in a legal sense be the only factor that sets them apart from those that are not?

I honestly don't know the answer to that question.  With that in mind, let me announce now that at some point within the next howeverlong, I'm going to write a post reviewing all eight episodes of Stranger Things in an attempt to answer that question.  Because here is a list of things that I know:

  • Whether it does or doesn't have any legal ability to do so, Stranger Things does pull some significant and specific inspiration from (among other things) the works of Stephen King.  I can't ignore that.
  • Thanks to the massive popularity of the series, Stephen King's name got mentioned in the media press a LOT this summer; just as much -- and maybe more -- as if he actually had been involved with it.  I can't ignore that.
  • I loved Stranger Things.  It got overhyped for some people (including the two to whom I alluded a moment ago), but others took it to heart in a way that doesn't happen all that often.  Among those, one of my closest friends, who has actually requested that I write a post like that one is going to end up being.  I certainly can't ignore that!
  • The world is changing.  Mashup culture is here in full force, and shows no signs of going away.  If things continue down that road, then we could well get to a place where an unofficial inspired-by-the-works-of piece of storytelling like this one becomes considered by many to be just as genuine an adaptation as an actual remake of, say, Firestarter would be.  Part of me would LOVE to ignore that; but I can't.

So like I said, I'm going to, in the not-too-distant future, do some blogging and see if I can figure out where I truly stand on the issue.  For now, though, I think I'm honor-bound to at least give Stranger Things an official Honorable Mention.  Would I ever consider actually ranking it on a list like this one?

For now, that's a definite "no."

Things don't necessarily stay as they have been, however.  Time will tell.

Honorable Mention #2 -- Horns (2013)

Well, fuck it, why not?

Horns is not based on anything created by Stephen King, but it's based on a novel by Joe Hill, who, by virtue of being Stephen King's son, was himself partially created by Stephen King.  So there's that.  It'd be a flimsy rationale to use in putting Horns on this list as a ranked entrant, but I can make it work for an Honorable Mention status.

The movie had a tortured history in some ways; after a festival screening in 2013, it languished unreleased and unseen until October of the following year, when it was unceremoniously dumped onto iTunes and a few similar services.  I've got nothing against VOD, iTunes, etc.  However, I feel as if every movie needs to be sold differently based on its merits, and on the perceived potential size of the fanbase.  And to me, it feels like Horns was capable of more than what it got.  Horror had been on a hot-streak circa October of 2014, especially when it came to anything involving demons.  As an extra added bonus, the novel -- and, indeed, the movie -- works fairly well as a tragic romance, a quasi-fantasy, a satire, and a murder mystery.  In other words, there's isn't merely one potential audience for this film, there are several.
Add to that the fact that the movie stars Daniel Radcliffe, who is arguably one of the best-known movie stars in the entire world.  Granted, that's mostly on the basis of the Harry Potter movies; but his presence helped turn The Woman in Black into a hit, and it could have done the same for Horns.

So really, this ought to have been an easy-to-market film that had a gross of $50 million domestic at a bare minimum.  Find the exact right release date, and maybe you could get $75 mil.  Then, later, you can get all the money from ancillary markets like VOD, Blu-ray, etc.  That didn't happen, and that strikes me as a shame.
Such considerations are important, and they're of interest to me on any number of levels.  But really, now that the movie is out, they are irrelevant.

The question now becomes: is the movie good?

The answer: it's okay.  Overall, it's a film in search of a cohesive tone.  At times it is funny, at times romantic, tragic, weird, gross, whimsical, etc.  Hill's novel is like this as well, but Hill, via his strong prose and perspective, is able to make all of these things feel as if they co-exist naturally.  Director Alexandre Aja seemingly only has one mode in him at a time, however, so many of the individual scenes fail to coalesce into what you'd call a unified whole.

Despite this, I think the movie works fairly well.  Daniel Radcliffe is great.  He occasionally feels as if he's forcing things a bit in order to get past the fact that he's having to speak in an American accent.  However, he does so capably, and he does very well with the extreme range of emotions his character undergoes.  This is the first time I've seen him in anything outside of the Harry Potter films, and he's gotten so much better as an actor since then that he may as well not even be the same person anymore.  He's the real deal, folks.

The rest of the cast is good, too, ranging from Juno Temple as Merrin (Ig's dead girlfriend -- say, there's some Gone Girl overlap here, too, isn't there?) to Max Minghella as Lee; Joe Anderson as Terry; Kelli Garner as Glenna; James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan, who are Ig's parents and each of whom has a dynamite scene with Radcliffe; Heather Graham as a (pardon the pun) self-serving waitress; and David Morse, who is excellent as Merrin's father.  Morse has appeared in several Stephen King movies, so it's especially welcome to see him now appearing in a Joe Hill movie.

Of which I hope there will be more to come.

By the way, in case you're wondering where I'd rank this if indeed I did rank it on this list?

Somewhere around #29 or #30, I'd say.  So all in all, not too shabby.

Dishonorable Mention -- You Can't Kill Stephen King (2014)

I'm not entirely sure how this garbage exists.  If I were Stephen King, I'd have my lawyers all over it.  Maybe it's classified as satire, and is therefore protected; or maybe King has given it permission to exist due to the fact that it was filmed in Maine.

All I know is that it's awful.  It's got a trio of hot women in it, none of whom get naked.  Now, look, before you accuse me of being a Trump sexist pig, let me say that I don't have any sort of expectation that attractive women get naked in movies, even horror movies, even low-budget horror movies, even low-budget exploitation-horror movies.  However, if you're going to sexualize them to the degree they are sexualized here, you may as well go ahead and get 'em naked.  You're patently expecting every straight man and gay woman in the audience to feel like wanking while watching it, so why not go ahead and be honest about it and provide the goods?  My way is more honest, and everyone knows it.  Failing that, just don't sexualize your actresses; don't try to have it both ways.

The Stephen King homages in this movie are fairly negligible, presumably because everyone was unclear whether King actually WAS going to sue or not; they seemingly didn't want to do anything that might also encourage various Hollywood studios to sue.  As a result, the entire project is half-baked at best; at when I say "at-best," please know that the movie spends the vast majority of its runtime running at significantly below an "at-best" level.  Mostly, it's an at-worst state of affairs, and that involves ill-conceived racial humor, ill-conceived war-in-Iraq references, ill-conceived implications that Stephen King nerds are perverts, and so forth.  I would point your attention to the DVD cover art, and point out to you that not only is there no real "hot girl-on-girl action" to speak of apart from one relatively chaste kiss, there are also no creepy twins except for in one brief moment.  And there's definitely no sense of humor, unless it's a lame one.

This is a genuinely awful movie.  No Stephen King fan should see it unless they are gluttons for punishment.  And yet, it's actually a better movie than the next one we'll be looking at.  Without further ado, I give you:
#96 -- Creepshow III (2007)
We begin our list proper with a piece of SKINO (Stephen King In Name Only) dung, the odious Creepshow III, which has literally nothing to do with Stephen King, George Romero, or either of the actual Creepshow movies.  This was produced by a pair of untalented opportunists who bought the rights to sequelize Creepshow in what one assumes must have been the Hollywood equivalent of a fire sale.
Nothing in this movie works.  Once upon a time, I amused myself greatly by writing a review of it; if you want to know more, here you go.  But trust when I tell you that you don't need to know a damn thing else: this movie is shit.  Turds turn their nose up at it.