On the docket for today: the Stephen King storytelling universe expands by way of a Castle Rock book written not by King himself, but by a duly-licensed compatriot.
Way back in 2012, I fretted about the possibility of something like this. Thus spake 2012 Bryant:
Once -- and let me be clear: I hope this doesn't happen for another thirty years, but it WILL happen eventually -- Stephen King reaches the clearing at the end of the path, there is almost certainly going to be interest in continuing his legacy in some way. Some smart-aleck is going to want to write more Dark Tower novels, or a sequel to The Stand, or another Jack Sawyer adventure. Under certain circumstances, I'd be okay with that: if it was Joe Hill or Owen King, for example, or Peter Straub, or even Scott Snyder. Someone who had an actual connection to King. I'd still be dubious, but I'd at least be interested to see what they did with the material. And even if the writer is unconnected to King, but still a genuine talent, I'd try my best to give it a fair shot.
But what if it's just some Joe Blow type, some mook with good intentions but an insufficient talent level? Would I be okay with it then? Probably not.
The thing is, I don't know exactly why any of this should bother me. If the worst-case scenario happens, and Stephen King were to die five years from now and somehow Stephenie Meyer were to get ahold of the rights to The Dark Tower and then rewrite the whole series, it would undoubtedly suck ... but so what? It would infuriate me, but should it? After all, nobody would be forcing me to read it, and it's not like my copies of the real books would disappear.
I had to think about all of this for a while before I finally figured it out: it makes me mad because I know that WHATEVER it ended up being, I'd still read it! It's not that I wouldn't want to: I would want to not want to, but I'd still, despite my own potential distaste for it, read it. I've got DVD copies of Creepshow III and The Mangler Reborn to prove it, sadly.
It seemed like a thing that was bound to happen, and while Gwendy's Magic Feather isn't fully that, it's close enough that I kind of feel the winds beginning already to blow in the direction about which I was pre-grousing in 2012. Hulu's Castle Rock series is a major step in that direction already (and not one which pleases me), but at least that's film. Prose is something else entirely.
There are, arguably, two extant novels that already fit the bill somewhat: The Diary of Ellen Rimbauer and The Journals of Eleanor Druse. Those companions books to (respectively) Rose Red and Kingdom Hospital were (ghost-)written by Riddley Pearson and Richard Dooling, but Pearson's book was marketed in a way that made people think it might have been penned by King. It wasn't, but it sold well enough that clearly plenty of folks were either fooled or willing to take the plunge based merely on the association. And both, frankly, are good books in their own right; so really, what's the problem?
As it relates to Gwendy's Magic Feather, I suppose I'd conclude that there mostly isn't one. After all, I think a strong argument could be made that in its final form, Gwendy's Button Box is slightly more a Chizmar book than a King book. I didn't feel that way in my initial review of it in 2017, but King's foreword to the sequel seems to hint in that direction. Even if it isn't, Chizmar's involvement should not be minimized; many King fans (and I've been guilty of this in my time) see his name and then let their eyes go blurry to anyone else's involvement, but that's a disservice to his co-author. That being the case, why shouldn't Chizmar write a second Gwendy Peterson story if he's inclined to do so (and if King approves)? No reason for him not to, so I'm kind of having a not-quite-appropriate conversation here; it's a shoe worth keeping an eye on, but it doesn't really fit Gwendy's Magic Feather.
Mark my words, though: we may yet have to contend -- be it decades from now or mere years -- with sanctioned sequels to books that were entirely King's. Will someone give us the story of what Charlie McGee has been up to all these years? Will Pennywise return to haunt Derry yet again? Will we find out what's transpired in the world of The Stand? Will fucking Cujo have puppies with Christine or some bullshit like that? Don't rule it out. I'll say again what I said in 2012: in the right hands, maybe there's some merit to a few of those ideas. I can't, and don't, rule it out.
But I worry. I worry a lot. And frankly, by being given the honor of working with Castle Rock as a setting in the Gwendy's books, Richard Chizmar is now somebody a King fan like me has to keep an eye on. If an expansion of King's literary universe of the sort I hypothesized about in the above paragraph were to begin taking shape in the near future, Chizmar would surely be a prime candidate for joining that work crew.
To me, that makes it valid to view Gwendy's Magic Feather at least partially through a lens that I would not otherwise use: namely, I feel invited to look at the book not as a Richard Chizmar book, but as a would-be Stephen King book.
So, how is Gwendy's Magic Feather? (Spoilers lie ahead; I didn't feel like withholding them this time, so you've been warned.)
It's mediocre. More on that in a bit. But first, let's talk about how short it is. At 333 pages, it clocks in at a much more fulsome length than Button Box. However, a good portion of the book consists of blank pages. The way the book is laid out, chapters only begin on the right-hand side. So if a chapter ends on, say, page 265, 266 will be a blank page and 267 is where the next chapter will start. The book contains an astonishing 72 chapters; you can do the math on that yourself, but suffice it to say that most chapters are only two to three pages in length. Some are a mere page, and most -- all? -- of those are a single paragraph, so those pages are really quarter pages.
Does this matter? Man, a book's length doesn't matter to me much a bit, no. However, brief chapters begin to irk me pretty badly after a while; they result in a constant start-and-stop rhythm that produces a feel of shallowness, as though very little of consequence is being said. An argument could be made that this approach actually heightens sudden and unexpected action when such moments occur; but for me, the primary result is that it feels as if the author couldn't be bothered to sit at the keyboard for more than half an hour at a time, so didn't. That's almost certainly a false perception on my part, and I know that; but it IS my perception, just the same, and so when I realized that the entire book was going to read in the way, I kind of lost a lot of my interest. Which, to be truthful, was only moderate to begin with.
Anyways, because I'm a weirdo, I decided to make a tally of how much dead space there is in this book. Yes, I actually counted. There are (once the foreword begins on page 7) a whopping forty-five blank pages strewn throughout the book. Those are just the blanks; if you add up the cumulative dead space that appears at the beginnings of each chapter (pretty close to half a page for each) and at the ends, you might arrive at something around an additional 65.5 pages of blank white space. That's the total I came up with, and I was being relatively conservative in my estimates. In other words, we're talking something approaching a third of the book. A third, y'all.
Don't misunderstand me; I'm not trying to advance any sort of conspiracy theory or whatever. The price for the book is $25, same as Gwendy's Button Box (which didn't quite hit 175 pages [and which had similarly short chapters]). I'm not accusing anyone of inflating the book's length, either for monetary gain or for any other reason. I'm just pointing out facts. Speaking of which, I will point out that of the 146 pages that Elevation numbers, I counted three of them as being blank; so there's a comparison for you.
And again, I'm not accusing anyone of anything. I am, however, suggesting that the steady accumulation of blank white space, which I seemingly encountered on every second or third page-turn, helped to reinforce my essential feeling about the novel: that it is shallow and unmemorable. King's own work has rarely struck me in that way. It does happen (the aforementioned Elevation, for one example, the Bill Hodges trilogy for another, and much -- though not all -- of The Institute for another), though, and when it does it makes me return to an analogy King has used to describe his own creative process. He's likened it to excavation: he thinks of story ideas as fossils which must be uncovered, painstakingly and with little to no advance knowledge of what shape the fossil might take, including its size. What readers perceive as depth in King's work, I think, is evidence of his thoroughness in his excavations.
Using the same analogy, something like End of Watch or even The Institute feels like a fossil that was only partially removed from the Earth, and was probably not removed in its entirety; there was perhaps more there to get, but King didn't quite manage to get it. Gwendy's Magic Feather, then, feels like a case of finding one rib and maybe a tooth or two and calling it quits. And if those hundredish pages of blank white space pad the book out to a third more than its actual length, well, I'm not point-blank saying that that is an attempt to make the book seem more substantial than it is; but I am point-blank saying that it compounds (if only for me) the problem of a book which seems awfully insubstantial.
Part of the problem is that Gwendy herself is as bland a heroine as any I know of. I actually found her blandness to be somewhat charming in Gwendy's Button Box; she is, generally-speaking, just a good person all around. That's why Richard Farris gives her the box in the first place; he reckons it'll be safe with her. Spoiler alert: the only thing that happens in the sequel is that R.F. needs to hide the box out again for a while, so he gives it to Gwendy, who puts it to no particularly poor use once again. Not that I want her to. It's just ... is this really a compelling story? A woman is given a powerful box which can do major things, and she uses it to save her mother from cancer, a deed which doesn't seem to cause any problems. In fact, the box also helps her turn into Johnny Smith for a while so that Gwendy can help solve some murders. Because this is Castle Rock, so of course.
In the end, R.F. shows up again, spouts some cryptic stuff, tells Gwendy she's been a good girl again, and fucks off. He's the same as he was in the first book: nothing whatever like Randall Flagg, which makes the decision to hint that he IS Randall Flagg very strange indeed. My official assumption is that the "Richard Farris" thing was wholly Richard Chizmar's idea; I cannot otherwise account for how unlike Flagg this R.F. seems.
The novel begins in Washington, D.C., in December 1999. We find out that Gwendy became a bestselling author who then became a documentary filmmaker (and Oscar-winner) who then became an activist and politician who THEN got elected to the House of Representatives. She's young, beautiful, progressive, and so virtuous that she may as well be a Disney princess. In other words, she's a liberal man's jerkoff material. I take no issue with this; others will roll their eyes so hard that they appear to be in a slot machine. There's not much in the way of politics in the book, just a mild thing here or there designed to tell one what Gwendy's aims are; I think the main reason Chizmar went that route with her is to make the case that Gwendy could, if she so chose, wreak political havoc by using the button box -- but since she is virtuous, she chooses not to. Did she have to be a politician for this to be the case? Nope. Sure didn't. But hey, fine by me. (Weird decision to make it Castle Rock canon that Bill Clinton was defeated and kept from a second term, though. Somebody named Hamlin -- not Harry -- was elected in his place. I'm thinking this must contradict something in King's own work somewhere; surely Clinton's second term is mentioned in one of Steve's books or stories, right?)
Chizmar gets some mild juice out of setting part of the action -- such as it is -- around the impending Y2K thing. No, it does not actually happen in this book. A big part of the climax (such as IT is) occurs on New Year's Eve, but no, Y2K does not actually rear its head. Which, given the Clinton-to-Hamlin change, struck me as a strange and false note; why signal that we're in an alternative universe and then imply that a major (non-)event is on the way but then NOT pull the trigger on providing further alternatives to real events? If there was a fossil to be dug up there, it's still in the ground.
I'm being more negative than I intended, but I suppose that's my genuine reaction making itself known. I zipped through the book in a couple of sittings -- not quite four hours all in all, I think (I didn't time myself or nothin') -- and found myself moderately involved in it at times. The sheer amount of blank space/pages got on my nerves, as did the brevity of the chapters, but otherwise it was a painless read. Do I feel, based on this, that Chizmar would be a good candidate to literarily cosplay as Stephen King in the future?
Absolutely not. And if he does, I hope he'll bring a better set of digging tools with him than he did this time.
It occurs to me belatedly that I didn't touch much upon the titular feather. The fact that I forgot it should tell you how important it is to the story. Hint: not very. It's a "magic" feather that we learn about Gwendy having bought from an older kid years ago in exchange for a sack of quarters. Allegedly, she always believed thereafter that it was a magic feather, just because the kid said it was. The idea, I think, is that Gwendy's belief stems from her purity, and that her goodness -- made important by way of her continued ability to spurn the less-savory uses of the button box -- in turn stems from that belief. So the book, then, is ostensibly a celebration of Gwendy's belief (i.e., her faith), which is what powers her goodness.
My knee-jerk reaction is to be snarky about this, but I'll take some inspiration from Gwendy herself and tamp that down. Thing is, though, I just don't think Chizmar does much with Gwendy's goodness. She's kind of a saint. Okay. So what? We need more saints in the real world, so I guess if maybe Gwendy inspires somebody to not be a dick (if only during a single paragraph) in a blog post, then she could theoretically inspire something more. Couldn't a more compelling story have accompanied it, though? Is what I'm saying.
Maybe I'm just missing something. If so, you are cordially invited to point it out to me in the comments.