Thursday, October 31, 2013

Stephen King's Best Books: #1 -- The Stand

#1     The Stand

Halloween is finally here, and today we conclude our countdown by crowning Stephen King's best book --The Stand.

The Stand [1978] is the ultimate apocalyptic / dystopian / end of the world fantasy novel, with elements of pseudo-biblical supernatural horror mixed in.  When an industrial accident at a secret military research facility exposes the staff to a deadly biological weapon, a panicked soldier flees the base with his family, foiling the military's attempt to quarantine the situation and unwittingly spreading the super virus across the US.  Within days, the pandemic escalates globally, wiping out 99.4% of the world population within weeks.

The first half of the book outlines the story of a myriad of characters who are fortunate enough [or perhaps, unfortunate enough] to be immune to the superflu, and their efforts to survive the devastating collapse of society as we know it. As the story progresses, two clearly delineated factions emerge: one group of characters is mystically drawn to "Mother Abigail," a 108 year old woman who is the embodiment of good.  The other is drawn to "The Walking Dude," a sinister anti-christ figure who sets up a base of operations in Las Vegas, and later sends his minions out to acquire abandoned military weapons of mass destruction he plans to use to kill off what remains of humanity.

The second half of the book details the struggle between these two factions, culminating in a epic showdown between the forces of good and evil.

Loosely based upon the biblical Book of Revelation, The Stand is considered by many to be King's quintessential literary opus.  The sheer number of characters and their circumstantially interweaving plots is masterfully written, and gives the novel a robust, multi-layered story.  King nearly abandoned the manuscript midway through the project due to an extreme case of writer's block about how to wrap the story up--a dilemma that he overcame by interjecting a scenario that escalated the conflict between the two opposing factions and set both groups on an unavoidable collision course.  When telling this story, King sardonically observed that he only had to kill off half the core cast in order to get the story back on track.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the complex motivations [and supernatural powers] of The Walking Dude, a devil amongst men who is intent upon bringing about the end of the world by finishing what the superflu started.  But the biblical elements of the book take a back seat to the strong characters and the dire circumstances they face throughout the book as they struggle to survive and rebuild in the aftermath of the veritable apocalypse.

The Stand's length, number of characters, and intricate plot complexities were unsuitable for the big screen, but like many other of his lengthier works, King adapted the manuscript into a four-part / eight hour television mini-series that aired in 1994.  King had to tone down certain elements of the story to make it more appropriate for the television conventions of the day.

However, in January 2011, it was announced that Warner Brothers and CBS Films will be developing a feature length film adaptation of The Stand, to be told as a trilogy.

The Stand

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Thank you to all readers for following my top 10 [actually, top 11] countdown of Stephen King's best books.  I'd love to hear any feedback / reactions about my selections, and I welcome suggestions for books that didn't make the cut that you think should have been included.  Feel free to contact me with your reactions via the "Contact Ryan" tab above.

And last--but certainly not least--Happy Halloween!!!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stephen King's Best Books: #2 -- Pet Sematary

#2     Pet Sematary

The #2 spot in the countdown is occupied by Pet Sematary [1983], which in my opinion qualifies as Stephen King’s darkest, scariest book.  Here’s the gist of the novel:

When Dr. Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine, their new neighbor, an elderly man named Jud Crandall, warns Louis to keep his children away from the highway that runs past their house, which trucks from a nearby chemical plant frequently pass at dangerously high speeds.  After his daughter’s cat, Church, is stuck on the road, Jud reveals a terrible community secret:  hidden in the woods beyond Louis’s property is an ancient burial ground that was once used by the Micmac Native American tribe to bring the dead back to life.  

Jud leads Louis deep into the woods to the burial ground, where they bury the cat.  But when Church returns home, it is clear that something is wrong:  the cat is more violent and aggressive than before, and stinks of the grave.

Things take an even more tragic turn when Louis’s two-year old son, who’d recently learned to walk, wanders into the road and is similarly killed by a speeding truck.  Overcome with grief, Louis becomes intrigued by the prospect of digging up Gage’s body and taking it to the ancient burial ground to return his son to life.  Guessing Louis’s plan, Jud tries to dissuade him by sharing an incident from World War II, where a local resident had used the burial ground to resurrect his son, Timmy Baterman, who’d been killed in combat.  But what returned from the burial ground wasn’t Timmy Baterman—it was a demon possessing Timmy’s body that terrorized the town for several days until the regretful father killed them both by burning the house down with them inside.

Undeterred by Jud’s warning, Louis carries out his plan… with deadly consequences for those around him.

That’s all I can reveal without giving too much away.  Creepy and surreal, Pet Sematary delivers an unprecedented supernatural wallop.  Particularly memorable are the terrifying portrayal of the thing wearing Gage’s skin when he returns from the grave and Louis’s descent into desperate lunacy as the situation unfolds.  I’m not suggesting that Pet Sematary is Stephen King’s best work from a literary standpoint, but it is undoubtedly his scariest.

But being King’s scariest novel wasn’t enough to push this book to the top of this list. 

Which book will occupy the #1 position?  

Check back tomorrow on Halloween to find out!

Pet Sematary  [book]

The book was poorly adapted into an entirely forgettable movie in 1989, noteworthy only for the scenes toward the end of the film where Gage comes back from the dead.  If your lasting impression of this work was formulated by the movie, then I'd suggest giving the book a try instead.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stephen King's Best Books: #3 -- 11/22/63

#3     11/22/63

As the countdown closes in on Halloween, today’s installment gives us Stephen King’s #3 best book, 11/22/63.  Originally published in 2011, I’d avoided reading this book because I didn’t think I’d resonate with the subject matter, and might not have read it at all if I hadn’t been faced with limited reading options on a recent long flight.  I was certainly unprepared for how captivating this book was—I literally had difficulty putting it down.

It is difficult to summarize such a complex 849 page book in a few sentences, but here goes:  Jake Epping is a divorced, disillusioned high school teacher going through the motions in Lisbon Falls, Maine.  His life is turned upside down when his friend, Al, reveals that he’s discovered a portal in the pantry of his diner that leads to the past.  Doubting Al’s story at first, Jake travels through the portal and spends an hour in 1958.  When he uses it to return to 2011, Al explains the basics of how the portal functions:

  • Every journey through the portal transports you to September 9, 1958, at precisely 11:58 a.m
  • No matter how long you stay in the past--hours, days, weeks, or years--only two minutes elapse in 2011
  • Past events can be changed; however, subsequent use of the portal "resets" the timeline and nullifies all changes made on the previous excursion

Al's ambition had been to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy, believing that doing so would prevent the Vietnam War and subsequent negative historical events like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  To complete this mission, Al endeavored to live in the past from 1958 until 1963, but only made it to 1962 before developing terminal lung cancer.  His dying wish is for Jake to carry out the mission on his behalf, and he provides Jake with a supply of 1958 cash he’s accumulated as well as documents to enable him to create the identify of “George Amberson” to help him fit in.

Thus begins Jake’s five year foray into the past.  The main challenge to his mission is that the "obdurate" past doesn’t want to be changed, and throws up obstacles to prevent history from being altered.   Even worse:  this resistance is proportional to the magnitude of the historical change.

At first Jake has difficulty acclimating to the cultural differences of 1958, but he quickly comes to enjoy living in the past.  He eventually settles in Jodie, Texas—a town a few hours south of Dallas—to await the events of 1963, and quickly settles into small town life.  Fitting well into the community in the guise of “George Amberson,” Jake is hired to teach English at the local high school and becomes romantically involved with the school's new librarian, the lovely Sadie Dunhill, who came to Jodie to escape from her mentally disturbed husband. 

Jake quickly falls in love with Sadie, but is torn between his duty to prevent the Kennedy assassination and his desire to abandon the mission and spend the rest of his life with her.  But with the “obdurate” past working against him—sometimes with deadly consequences—to prevent him from changing history, Jake’s actions [and indeed, his very presence in the past] threaten to place her in harm’s way.

The result is a roller coaster of adventure and danger leading up to the Kennedy assassination attempt.  And as Jake comes to discover, changing things in the past--no matter how small--creates unintended butterfly effects that can have disastrous impacts upon the future.

Another King book that can’t be classified as horror, 11/22/63 is instead a compelling sci fi / historical fiction read that delivers masterfully crafted detail about the activities of Lee Harvey Oswald leading up to the assassination attempt.  But what will keep readers flipping the pages is the love story at the heart of the book between Jake and Sadie, and the disastrous consequences that stem from Jake’s obsession with changing the past. 

The main issue with this book [as is the case with many lengthier King works] is that it contains some fat that could be trimmed to streamline the story [at this stage of his popularity, editors aren’t condensing his manuscripts with the same level of scrutiny as they might other authors].  But despite a few areas where the story bogs down, I’d highly recommend 11/22/63 to anyone looking for an engaging read with exceptional characters and an intricate plot.

In April 2013, it was reported that Warner Bros. Television and J. J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions were in negotiations for the rights to adapt the novel as a TV series or miniseries.