Stephen King’s The Outsider

I always feel frustrated when people tell me they don’t like the kind of books Stephen King writes, because invariably they don’t know what “kind of books” he actually does write.

He has written horror, yes, but throughout his productive 35-year career he’s also written fantasy, speculative fiction, crime  fiction and thrillers. Some works, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and the Dark Tower series, are closer to literature, albeit with usually some hint of the supernatural (he can’t stop being fun altogether). As a writer he defies easy classification and smug dismissal.

Recent examples: Sleeping Beauties, with his son Owen King was nominally apocalyptic fantasy, but the epic was set firmly in hyperreal small-town America, like the earlier Under the Dome (which the TV series utterly failed to do justice to).

By contrast, Mr Mercedes marked a confident move into crime fiction, bringing the King characterisation and suspense into a straightforward, if horror-tinged, murder mystery (the Hulu TV series for this did a lot better). Finders Keepers loosely carried on this genre, storyline and characters, as does The Outsider; at least at first.

The official blurb:

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

I won’t say how this novel begins to depart from the pattern set by Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers. That way spoilers lie. Suffice to say it is set some years afterwards and, while borrowing a character or two, is a standalone story. Another glossy, fat, happily page-turning read that requires you only to surrender disbelief and enjoy.

And enjoy I did. If you read and liked the first two, I would definitely recommend it, but I do warn that like Finders Keepers, it doesn’t quite live up to Mr Mercedes. So if you’re new to Stephen King’s crime fiction, do start with that one instead.

 

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Hereditary

Went to Girls School Cinema in East Perth to see Hereditary on Sunday night. I had missed it at the mainstream movies but I’d heard it should be seen on the big screen if possible.

It’s the story of a family – Annie (Toni Collette), Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). The death of Annie’s mother begins a series of grisly and disturbing events that leads her to the heart of a generations-old mystery.

I’d psyched myself up, because I had seen the trailer, which made it look like a combination of every fucked-up horror movie you’re ever seen, times 10. Amusingly, if you haven’t heard, at Event Cinemas they mistakenly played it during the previews for Peter Rabbit, totally freaking out a bunch of children and their mums (probably mainly the mums).

And I’d heard from my friend Sigrid, who is intimately acquainted with horror cinema, that it was one of the most disturbing movies she’d ever seen either. So, grimly prepared, I only let out one terrified mewling noise during the entire thing, which I was rather proud of.

The Ministry of course let out muffled snorts of laughter throughout, which we know was only his male pride deciding to view awful things as funny in order to protect himself emotionally. Right?

Because probably what was worst about this movie was its raw depiction of loss and grief and the terrible dynamics that can fester within families. It’s the combination of that with the intense horror scenes that made it so unusually confronting a movie.

All the performances were excellent, particularly Alex Wolff as the guilty, fearful and confused teenager Peter, but Collette was the obvious standout. She should win an Oscar for that performance. Her pain was awful to behold. It just remains to be seen whether an Oscar could go to a performance in a genre film.

It should! This is a smart genre film, with a dense plot. I’ve decided the use of the miniatures Collette’s character is crafting is just to keep you guessing and kind of freaked out by them (alternative theories welcome in the comments). But there were other elements of the storyline that didn’t seem to make sense, or that we thought were maybe just included for gratuitous horror purposes. We had to Google them before going, “ooooohhhhhh” and concluding that yes, it all made sense. It makes a nice change when a movie makes you work for it just a little.

This is required viewing for horror fans and Collette devotees. I fit both categories and so I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen for the full effect. It was an excellent film. But if you’re not in either category, maybe give yourself a break and pick something funny instead.

 

 

 

 

 

Down the rabbit hole with: Jane Austen

One of my favourite things about the world of books and movies is the way they lead you around by the nose, back and forth between them.

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An author, genre or entire series can form a rabbit hole, some I emerge from in a matter of weeks, others forming a whole warren that can take years to traverse, interconnecting with other related authors, genres and series. I fell into a warren of Stephen King books and adaptations about five years ago I’m yet to clamber out of, blinking. It doesn’t help that he is master of the cross-reference, meaning new works constantly lead you to back catalogue. Nice sales tactic, King!  

My most recent rabbit hole, literary biographies, saw me off crashing down side route after side route, and I have emerged from one as convert to the cult of known as Janeites.

Three literary biographies survived 2016’s Minimalist Challenge and 2015s Curing of a Bibliomaniac. My experience over the past year writing my own first novel has led me to poke with increasingly greedy interest into the lives of the authors I most admire.

So I devoured A. N. Wilson on the life of C. S. Lewis, Peter Ackroyd on Charles Dickens and my beloved Carol Shields on Jane Austen with gluttonous pleasure, wondering how did they write even one book, which bitter experience now informs me is a gruesome, impossible task?

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Deserves its own post. A standout biography.

All these were outstanding and made me determined to fill in the blanks of my reading and to re-read favourites. Starting with the blanks, I’m two-thirds through Oliver Twist and have now read Lewis’ sci-fi novel trilogy. Yes, he wrote space books! (They are a bit heavy. Strictly for extreme Lewis or sci-fi nerds).

Knowing the depth of the rabbit hole Lewis’ non-fiction list represents, and ditto for re-reading the entire Dickens canon, I tackled Austen first, since she was the only  one I’d never read at all. 

Another profoundly affecting book.

Another profoundly affecting book.

The story of her life – and untimely death – moved me and captured my imagination. Lewis and Dickens, while they certainly struggled, at least were born men. All the world wanted from Jane Austen was for her to get married and procreate, but with the encouragement of a lovely Dad she forged her own path, sometimes a lonely and difficult one, and in doing so gave the world gifts it still treasures.

And all to be struck down in her prime. This author who had suddenly hit national fame with just a few works of brilliant insight was struck with sudden illness and wasted quickly to a death at about 40 years old, without so much as a diagnosis. They now think it was perhaps breast cancer, the Shields biography explained.  

It’s hard for a modern soul to comprehend how such a woman, famous, beloved and blessed with a rare genius just flowering, not to mention committed to succeeding despite some serious odds, could simply be permitted to expire without any fanfare or medicine or even a knowledge of why she was dying. And yet this is what happened to Jane Austen, who was denied life and whose further works were hence denied to humanity. 

Struck by these ideas and by the social constraints that inspired Austen as much as they confined her, I picked up a giant omnibus and worked my way delightedly through Sense and Sensibility, then Pride and Prejudice. I found their intelligence and wit, their painstaking evocation of a world complete in and of itself, as utterly worthy of inclusion on any required reading list of English literature – and a damn sight more enjoyable than many other books on said list.

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A very large book.

I stopped here, however, having failed to get through the omnibus in six weeks, but now dying to see it all recreated on screen. I had a stab at Mansfield Park, on Netflix, which utterly failed to hold my interest, then turned to the BBC Pride and Prejudice.

This is in itself required viewing, as Bridget Jones’ dedication to Mr Darcy in a wet white shirt shows, and hits the jackpot. Glorious escapism and a near faultless adaptation, with excellent scripting, casting and story transmission. It even preserved the essential humour. The Ministry, who I was by episode three confident enough to drag into it, turned to me and said, “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” “Yes!” I replied, joyfully.

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My cheat sheet to get the Ministery up to speed on the plot of Pride and Prejudice.

Next we debated Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I don’t want to go there. It might ruin my pleasure in the BBC series. It got 5.8 on IMDB, encouraging for a zombie movie, but all things considered it’s low priority. After all, there is The Walking Dead to provide zombies as required when the interminable mid-season break ends. 

Next I’ll probably read Emma, then re-watch the film for 90s nostalgia purposes. I’ve discovered the Ministry hasn’t seen it; terribly remiss, since his only reason is an irrational fear of Gwyneth Paltrow. He hasn’t seen Sliding Doors, either, so we’ve clearly got some remedial work to do these holidays.

Then maybe I’ll hunt out a good screen adaptation of Oliver Twist.

See what I mean?  The rabbit hole is a delightful place to be. It’s amazing I ever come up for air.



 

 

Get under it: Stephen King’s 900-page Under the Dome in five days

Stephen King - Under the Dome

Yerp. It’s big.

The only way you can finish a 900-page book in this amount of time is with the divine aid of the Holy Trinity.

  1. holidays from work
  2. spouse stays at work (so as not to distract you)
  3. book must be freaking awesome

This happy set of circumstances allowed me to arise from the couch On the Fifth Day cramped and red-eyed, but with a glad heart.

The book is about a giant clear dome that slams down, without warning, one fine day over the entirety of a small town in Maine, King’s home town. It tracks the town’s various inhabitants, who are largely under the thumb of a local politician, and observes how they deal with the sudden imprisonment. Poorly, it turns out – spectacularly poorly. And let’s not forget this is America, so they all have guns.

Chaos unfolds, with an outnumbered band of sane citizens trying to protect themselves and their families as they hope for rescue. But as a baffled US Government runs out of options, they must look inside their own hearts and minds  for the answer.

Stephen King has said he had the idea for this book as a young writer but it was essentially too complex, too big, too difficult to write. So he kept it in the back of his mind until he was the kind of writer who could afford to get a researcher to figure out all the scientific ins and outs of what would happen if a giant dome cut off a town from the outside world.

The result is rigorous, fascinating sci-fi with delicious flourishes of the kind of horror only Stephen King can provide (remember the closing scene of Pet Sematary, anyone? Or the opening scene of IT?)

The cast of characters is truly enormous and no amount of commissioned research can help King there – it’s his skill as a novelist, honed over many years, that lets him unfold these simultaneous storylines with dexterity and relentless tension.

This is the most exciting book I’ve read in ages; essentially, after I got out of the Dome, I wanted back in.

That’s why I watched the TV series. Well, two episodes of it. In fact, I was so into this story I began watching the TV adaptation before I had even finished the print version.

It may be that I am being overly judgmental because I was fresh from the book. After all, King and Steven Spielberg are both involved in the production. It should be good. But I stopped after Episode Two. It just doesn’t get the job done. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you.

Just get under the real thing! If you’ve never read King before I there’s no time like the present. Don’t be put off if you don’t like genre fiction (in which case you’re an idiot anyway). The best genre fiction transcends genre, and this gargantuan tale of power, corruption and compassion is a gift from a master storyteller at the top of his game.

 

Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula isn’t…

Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992)

I found it somewhat perplexing that Dracula’s character was fleshed out (ha!) at the expense of every other character. It made the movie completely unrelatable.

Worth your time, that is, though it definitely would have been cinematically mindblowing when released in 1992 (or so the Ministry assures me).

It shamelessly invents an entirely new storyline of how Mina Harker (Winona Ryder) is actually somehow a new incarnation, or doppelganger, of Dracula’s (Gary Oldman’s) long-lost wife from five centuries beforehand. Upon seeing each other again in eighteenth-century London they are transfixed by one another again, with Mina living a double life – one as the prim wife of solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) while secretly totally in love with Dracula and having sexy little meetings with him in which his teeth hover tantalisingly close to her creamy throat.

In the book, Mina is bitten against her will and horrified by the marks left upon her, and bound by a new ferocity to help her husband and his friends destroy the vampire and restore her to her original health and purity.

It’s not that Ryder isn’t good at acting sex-crazed and heaving her bosom and quivering with mouth agape. She is admirable at all these things.

But in order to tell this extra storyline, transforming Mina as it admittedly creates new depth in Dracula, the movie ignores precisely the things I believed made the novel compelling.

Like the excellently drawn characters, including a Renley drawn with detail and pathos, who work together to assemble clues, solve the mystery of Dracula’s evil intents and hatch a desperate plan to thwart him and free Mina.

Including a Dr Van Helsing, sweet and funny, willing to sacrifice all for the friends he is devoted to and views as his children. Despite being played by Anthony Hopkins, a skilled actor, he becomes in this version a leering old nutjob.

Francis Ford Coppola, Dracula, 1992

Suggested drinking game is to drink whenever you see gratuitous boob.

Or Lucy and Mina, originally female characters that managed to be well-rounded and strong and exhibit meaningful friendship and relationships despite the sexism inherent within their context. While they did act as ‘bait’ as a plot device, they also influenced events around them in other, more meaningful ways, and Mina’s personal attributes and skills drove the narrative. Lucy had fine emotional sensitivity, loss of which made her ridiculous character in this film even harder to stomach.

All this nuance was swept away as they ran about with breasts flopping (or alternately lay about with breasts thrust upward through filmy nightdresses). They seduced all without any sign of personal preference, lost in helpless lechery, completely without personal agency. Look, I’m all for a bit of sex appeal, but not at the expense of intelligence.

Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992)

Poor old Keanu never gets a chance. To act, that is.

The plot mostly survives, skeletally, though I believe much of the tension of the final chase is removed as characterisation of Mina and Van Helsing now cannot do its work properly in ratcheting up suspense in the closing passages (replaced by a weird add-on in which Mina tries to seduce this fatherly old gent, which just would never happen in the original story). The love story between Mina and Jonathan, originally a fine and noble thing, is rendered wooden and completely unconvincing and for once it’s not Keanu’s fault.

Watch this movie for its 1990s visual tricks and special effects, so over-the-top in today’s context that they become a bit hilarious. Watch particularly for the obsession with florid cutaways and fade-outs that make much of eye imagery and other round things… I’m surprised there weren’t more nipples appearing in eyeballs, given the boob obsession. As a vampire movie and a popcorn flick and a product of its time and a portrait of Dracula, all excellent. But if you care about your education in the true classics of horror you owe it to yourself to read the book.

I vote someone should do a remake – twenty years on we’re just about due for something edgy, dark and restrained.

 

 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula – yes, the book – is worth your time

I actually wasn’t expecting to like this all that much. I just thought well, I like horror, and if it’s hung around this long surely it’s good.

I felt like I should have read it already and I also felt a vague curiosity to see what bits I know of the tale are the ‘original bits’ by Bram Stoker and what has been bolted on in various incarnations.

I can’t even remember seeing a proper retelling of anything purporting to be based upon the book. My strongest memory of any Dracula incarnation is the Leslie Nielsen

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

spoof, with a shudderingly gross Renley eating his flies and Dracula bumbling about a young lady’s bedroom, intoning “nowwwww I am innnnnn de closet”. The Ministry and I also recently watched John Malkovich’s Shadow of the Vampire about the making of Nosferatu, which I had high hopes for but regret to say we both found a crashing bore, uncultured swine that we are.

This book too I found deathly boring for about the first five pages (being of my generation I never have much patience for even the most rudimentary opening descriptive passages) then quite unsuspectingly I fell into it as if into a dark well. I was hopelessly captivated. I finished it in less than a week, quick by the standards of these days when, alas, more things than reading make demands upon me. I recognised more parts than I thought I would – not just the aforementioned Renley with his flies, but also a ship crash, and the poor woman whose bedroom Leslie Nielsen bumbles about in and the bad end she meets – but at the same time there was a huge amount that was completely new to me – all the coolest stuff basically. Even the story of Renley is a rich and mysterious story on its own, and full of pathos.

I’ll tell you why this book was so cool, though – it’s mostly in epistolary (letters) format, alternating letters and journal entries between and of main characters Jonathan Harker and fiancé Mina, her best friend Lucy and her betrothed Arthur Holmwood, Holmwood’s friends Selway and Morris, and finally the doctor and vampire expert Van Helsing, a character so truly lovely he makes the book’s most horrid scenes less grim and more beautiful. There are also newspaper articles on the various creepy events around town as Dracula infiltrates London.

Suffice to say that to represent the tale as just heaving bosoms and fly-eating is reductionist. And it’s this first-person changing perspective, as this edition’s foreword writer Elizabeth Kostova (author of Dracula-inspired The Historian) that really makes it so shivery. You have to watch the writers all put the frightening facts together at their own pace, and there’s plenty of head-clutching while you wait for them to all get together and figure things out before it is too late. By the end, the suspense is positively unbearable. It actually kept me up until past 9pm two nights in a row (I know!) It’s gothic, sexy, scary and graphic. Female readers must grit teeth through the horrifying sexism reflecting the time most accurately, but despite this all the characters are well-drawn. Their tale, and their worry over a friend whose soul hangs in the balance, brought me to the verge of tears several times.

I know when I have had a great read when I immediately seek out all associated movies. I haven’t the heart to go back to Leslie Nielsen now the full blood-and-guts version is ringing in my ears, so to speak, but I have had the Ministry dig out the Winona Ryder/Keanu Reeves version, and though I can barely even say those names in concert without smirking, IMDB has given it a good rating – so we’ll see. Gin martinis and Dracula for dinner tonight then, though perhaps red wine would be more appropriate.

 

Annabelle (2014)

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The conversation that the Ministry and I had on the in-flight chat system after we watched Annabelle.

This is directed by John R. Leonetti, the cinematographer of Insidious, The Conjuring and The Mask, which with all due respect to Jim Carrey are not great movies.

The movie’s set in the 60s, which almost accounts for its horrid depiction of gender roles. A nice young couple live in a lovely big house even though the husband (Ward Horton) is a student and the wife (Annabelle Wallis) does not work and just wanders about in awesome period dresses cradling her pregnant belly.

Until she gives birth that is, and the belly instantly tightens back into a washboard stomach.

 

The trouble starts when her equally vapid husband brings her the gift of a vintage doll so unspeakably demonic in appearance that no one in their right mind would give it to a pregnant woman, or a child for that matter.

After the doll is mixed up in a violent incident at their home, they try to get rid of it but obviously the doll proves stubbornly resistant to binning.

They do the horror movie thing in which the wife is going crazy and the husband tries valiantly to pretend he doesn’t think his wife is going crazy.

Happily, the wife runs into a spiritual black woman who believes in the occult and accepts her story without question. The woman says it’s because she’s too old for anything to surprise her, even though she only looks about 40. The local priest proves equally credulous and steps in to help.

This movie is thematically incoherent and overly formulaic, even for B-grade horror, replete with fluttering curtains, randomly slamming doors and appliances that turn themselves on and off.

The leads, while blameless, are given virtually nothing to work with; their dialogue and reactions to events are painfully predictable and wrapped around a simpering theme of maternal love (paternal love irrelevant).

Disappointingly for a scary doll movie, because everyone loves a scary doll movie, to say there were any decent scary bits in this would be stretching the truth.

I recommend you choose something else to watch on the plane but not Saving Mr Banks unless you want to weep endlessly and pointlessly. 4/10