Stephen King

Shine On

When civilization was rebuilding following an interking-007national plague, the epicenter of humanity was Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, Colo. At least that’s how it happened in Stephen King‘s The Stand, an epic tale of apocalypse, atonement and the will to persevere.

So it was fitting that, in the aftermath of the floods that devastated Colorado’s Front Range, particularly Boulder, a crowd of more than 1,200 gathered in Chautauqua on Sept. 26.

But this time it wasn’t to hear from Stu Redman or Mother Abigail. It was to hear from the man himself.

“This is where the first Boulder Free Zone meeting was held, right here in this auditorium,” King said early in his talk before a sell-out crowd.

King, his wife Tabitha and two of their children briefly lived in the city in the mid-’70s, following the publication of King’s second book, ‘Salem’s Lot. He authored two of his most famous novels in the shadow of the Flatirons, The Stand and The Shining.

So it’s only fitting that he returned to Boulder to celebrate the release of Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining.

“I wanted to see if my old King Soopers was still there,” King joked, referring to the grocery store in his former South Boulder neighborhood.

It’s still there, as is the Stanley Hotel an hour up the road in Estes Park.

First published in 1977, The Shining was King’s first hardback bestseller. And while most folks are familiar with the Stanley Kubrick interpretation, the film featured a few exterior shots of Boulder and nothing of the Stanley Hotel on which it was based. (The Stanley is now home to ghost tours, Halloween galas and the Stanley Film Festival—and I highly recommend the pilgrimage.)

King recalled fondly his mountain writing studio and the inspiration he felt there.

“It was the greatest writing time of my life,” he said, though he doesn’t recall the specifics of creating the actual books. “I only remember that I was happy. I was engaged. I think most imaginative writing is like that.”

King’s innate talent and creativity was likely aided by a progressive, anything-goes attitude of a college town in the foothills undergoing the growth spurt that transformed it into one of the country’s top-rated cities—an epicenter of technology, education and craft-brewed beer.

“I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker one day, on Broadway, and I got rear-ended,” King said of one of his more interesting Boulder memories. “The hitchhiker ran off, and I got cited.”

A second vehicular mishap provided the inspiration for another King classic. His car broke down in Boulder Canyon, and he was walking into town for assistance. While crossing a bridge, he noticed the clack of his cowboy boots on the wooden planks. He wondered: What might be underneath this bridge listening to his footfalls?

Perhaps a clown—and thus the seed of Pennywise, the supernatural killer in It, was planted.

But the book he was really here to talk about was Doctor Sleep, which hit shelves on Sept. 25.

“People kept asking me whatever happened to Danny Torrence,” he said. “I decided, finally, that I would try to write a sequel.”

He was fascinated, he said, with the cyclical nature of family dysfunction, how children of abusive or alcoholic parents tend to repeat that behavior as adults. So it’s fitting that Danny’s adult life is, well, complicated.

Now in his 40s, Danny is a hospice worker in New Hampshire, where, along with the help of an intuitive cat, he helps suffering patients come to rest. But though the novel begins in New England, it inevitably takes to the road.

And that road could only lead to one place.

“Eventually, he has to go back to Colorado and to Boulder,” King said.

He read excerpts from Danny’s return to the city, which involved a particularly nasty hangover and an over-the-top gross-out gag that will have his most hardened readers choking up.

It is a sequel decades in the making, and a return to one of King’s greatest triumphs. This is a treat for long-time fans, and new ones. During the Q&A, a question came from a fan who started reading King in their youth, and now their kids are reading the books.

“I think it’s nice when people pass the book down from generation to generation,” King said.

But his literary legacy includes more than his books and films. It also includes his offspring. His youngest son, Owen, is the author of Double Feature, and his oldest son is best-selling author Joe Hill. Joe and his dad have collaborated on two novellas and often share ideas when writing their books. For example, they were simultaneously working on Doctor Sleep and Hill’s NOS4A2, and each included a scene in which their characters cross paths.

“In a strange way, it’s almost like writing with another part of myself,” King said of his collaborations with Joe.

Doctor Sleep will certainly bolster the already absurdly rich King oeuvre. It will take readers back to some cherished places, both physical and psychic: Boulder, the Overlook Hotel and one of the finest and most terrifying works of psychological horror ever penned.

And together, we will once again croak our favorite and most-haunted mirrored phrase: RedRum.

Stephen King, Joyland

JoylandJoyland by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first three-fourths of
are amazing, some of King’s best recent work. The ending, however, is a bit too easy and familiar. King’s previous offering through Hard Case Crime, The Colorado Kid, subverted convention and was far more challenging to the reader.

Infused with heart and the nostalgic thrills of boardwalk carnivals, Joyland is worth the ticket price. The novel begins as a rail-rattling thrill ride, but, in the end, eases too gently into the station.

View all my reviews

June Recommendations

In another day we’ll be heading off to London, and around this time Transgress will publish its annual summer book preview/review. In the coming days, we’ll be dishing out smaller portions of the issue, beginning with today’s blurbs about some books you may have missed this past month.

Joyland, Stephen King

I plan on devouring this little beauty on the first leg of the transatlantic flight. As joylandyou know, we at Ensuing Chapters and Transgress Magazine are all about funhouses and noir. So, a Stephen King paperback original about a funhouse for the imprint Hard Case Crime?

Bring it.

King’s previous offering through Hard Case was The Colorado Kid, a wonderfully creepy tale about an unsolved murder in a small Maine town. Some of you may also know it as the SyFy program, Haven.

I’ve got my ticket, and I’m already chilled thinking of the horrors that await in Joyland.

Creation: How Science is Reinventing Life Itself, Adam Rutherford

I recommend Adam Rutherford’s Creation for any fan of science writingcreation. However, my endorsement comes with a disclaimer: The electronic review copy I downloaded was corrupted and difficult to navigate. The result is that I didn’t read this book front to back, as I normally do. However, I was able to access about half of it, and what I read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Of particular interest to Transgress readers are the graphic details of surface cuts when explaining how the skin recovers from a wound. The squeamish reader might want to tag this book as horror for this reason alone.

Though I doubt there are any squeamish readers this blog.

Stylistically, Creation blends wit and storytelling with fair doses of hard science. Fans of Sam Kean, Mary Roach and Malcolm Gladwell will find much to love in its pages.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman

Not since Joseph Campbell has an author had both a profound understanding oceanof mythology and the ability to present it to a general audience with such passion. I see Gaiman and Campbell as two sides of an intergenerational coin: the academic who deconstructs myths and the author who creates them.

His new novel, his first for adults since 2005’s Anansi Boys, concerns a young boy returning home–and reconsidering odd events from summers past.


The Hole, William Meikle

And what summer would be complete without a subterranean adventure? This twisted treat comes from one of my favorite publishers, DarkFuse, and concerns a chasm (literally, not figuratively) snaking through a rural town. What comes next promises to be delightfully morbid. I’ve got this on my to-read list and can’t wait to descend into its depths. A review will come later this summer.

Come back tomorrow for a review of The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki, illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Unsettling Chapters: King Apocalypse

In “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is how the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.”

It’s obvious that Eliot never read any Stephen King!

King has destroyed the world many times over, and by many different means (plague, cars, cell phones, even exploding meth labs), and each time it is most certainly with a bang. My personal favorites are The Stand and The Mist, but there’s something for everyone on his buffet of world-ending visions.

Any longtime reader of King’s knows that his strength is character development. His end-of-days narratives are so strong not because of the impending doom but for how his characters respond to it.

For example, The Stand is horrific when Captain Trips decimates the globe, but heroic when its survivors stand up to Randall Flagg. The Mist enthralls with the interpersonal conflicts that emerge within the grocery store. I’m not afraid of fog-shrouded aliens, but I’m terrified of religious extremism in closed quarters.

Another favorite trick of King’s is what I call the extrapolated horror. “Trucks,” the short story that inspired the film Maximum Overdrive, focuses first on the ordeal of the survivors holed up in the diner. In many ways, the story is quite silly (a semi-trailer apocalypse!), but where it haunts the reader is its ending: The moment when you realize that all the horror that has come before is merely the opening act for something far, far worse.

This is a small sampling of King’s apocalyptic works:

The Stand

The Mist

Under the Dome (sort of)

“Night Surf” (prelude to The Stand)

King has also penned his fair share of dystopian literature:

“The Long Walk”

“The Running Man”

“The Children of the Corn”

With more than 100 novels, stories and screenplays to his name, King’s bookshelf is long. Pull one or two down from the shelves this Halloween. Believe me, the end of days never sounded so good.

Unsettling Chapters: Night Shift

Of course, no list of Halloween reads would be complete without an entry from the master of horror, Stephen King. In recent years, he has produced more fantastic literature than true horror. He has also plumbed a deeper emotional depth in recent works, such as Lisey’s Story and Duma Key.

As great as these novels are, for pure chills, there’s no beating King’s early work. To get maximum bang for your October buck, revisit King’s first short-story collection, 1978’s Night Shift.

This is King at his most ruthless, featuring some of his darkest material, such as one of his forgotten treasures, “One for the Road.” Set amid the backdrop of a blizzard, a wife and daughter are stranded in a snow bank. With connections to Jerusalem’s Lot, they learn that the elements are the least of their fears.

“I Am the Doorway” is the creepy account of a retired astronaut who learned he was not alone in deep space — and he brought back a souvenir that just might drive him mad.

Some of King’s best-known works are in this collection as well: “Children of the Corn,” “Trucks” (which became the film “Maximum Overdrive”) and “The Lawnmower Man.”

My favorite fright is “Sometimes They Come Back,” an epic homage to childhood trauma and a reminder that, no matter how many years may pass, our demons are never far behind.

Of course, this is only King’s first entry in Unsettling Chapters. We will certainly see more of the master in future installments.

Parts of this post are adapted from an earlier article of mine, “Thirteen horrifying reads for Halloween,” which appeared in the Boulder Camera in 2008.

Unsettling Chapters: Fears Unnamed

Setting can be a literary minefield. When used correctly, it can create affecting works of art (think The Shining, The House of the Seven Gables or J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island). But sometimes a writer can become so fixated on setting that they produce a literary still life that is beautiful to look at, but what about the characters? If two people are having a conversation on a bridge, do we really need a three-page description of the bridge?

Probably not, but when setting works to complement the narrative, it strengthens the reader’s bond to a location. My favorite book is Stephen King’s The Stand, mostly because of the first-rate character development: Larry’s sadness, Stu and Franny’s determination, the loneliness of Harold and Nadine. But I can still see those bodies crucified to telephone poles along the Nevada highway. When I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I walked along Pearl and Arapahoe Streets, imagining them the way King did in the novel. During a recent trip to New York, I took a drive through the Lincoln Tunnel and could think only of Larry’s gut-wrenching subterranean escape from a New York ravaged by Captain Trips.

Speaking of stellar post-apocalyptic settings, another master is British writer Tim Lebbon.

Lebbon is a highly decorated author of horror, fantasy and sci-fi. He’ll soon be releasing a new novel in the U.K., Coldbrook, and a collection of short fiction, Nothing as it Seems, but for this Halloween, we’re recalling his 2004 collection, Fears Unnamed.

The four novellas that make up this collection all rely heavily on setting, be it a dystopian landscape covered by a strange, unceasing snow; the interior of a plane crashing into the frigid ocean; or the homey English countryside under attack from some bizarre threat.

The story that stands out the most for me in this collection is “Remnants,” in which the narrator, Peter, is summoned by an old friend to join him in some unidentified, far-off desert. The friend, Scott, is an archeologist and has discovered what he believes to be a city of the dead. The story is more fantasy than horror, and in truth is as much an adventure tale in the vein of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Once there, the city becomes a central character:

“Spread across the floor of the depression in the land, seemingly growing from the ground, lay the remains of several large and dozens of smaller buildings. Sand and grit was skirted around bases and against walls, drifted up and through openings that may have been windows, may have been wounds.”

Setting takes on a greater role as we descend into the city’s streets. On the one hand, it’s a psychological riddle, a lost city occupied by ghosts, and is symbolic of Scott, who has gone mad in part due to the death of his son. On the other hand, the city is a physical place, and to navigate its throughways Peter must learn its history and overcome his fear of the spirits residing there.

The city becomes magical yet suspenseful, and through Peter’s efforts it becomes a place of memory and memorial. The buried dead are not forgotten here. This is a place inhabited by all the interred things, and the pain of it is too much for Peter to bear.

He has found the place where all the hurt is buried, and ultimately Peter’s antagonist is not his old friend, but the city itself. “I plunged into the tunnel without a backward glance. If I turned I may have seen something impossible to ignore, a sight so mind-befuddling that it would petrify me, leaving me there to turn slowly to stone or a pillar of salt.”

Lebbon’s achievement is that he not only takes us to this otherworldly place, but makes it somehow familiar.

And for those who’ve had enough of the summer heat, dig into “White,” a fictional freeze-out that delivers chills in more ways than one.