Showing posts with label Stephen King. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen King. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gingerbread Girl

Stephen King’s novella “The Gingerbread Girl” first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Esquire Magazine. It was later compiled into King’s 2008 short story collection, Just After Sunset. The publisher also sells the story separately as a two-hour audiobook.

Our heroine is Emily, and she’s in a pretty bad emotional state due to the recent crib death of her infant daughter. The trauma of her child’s demise triggers the end of her marriage, and the only thing keeping her sane is running.

To regroup and rebuild her life, Emily embarks on a three-week solitude retreat at her father’s “conch shack” on the beach in Florida not too far from Naples. The shack and the beach are pretty isolated, so it’s the perfect place to go for long runs while mourning her kid and contemplating her next moves. She also has time to read vintage paperbacks by Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain and John D. Macdonald.

On one of her jogging jaunts, Emily is overcome with a bout of nosiness and spots a dead girl in the open trunk of a car parked at a house down the beach. Before she can decide what to do, Emily is conked on the head and awakens tied to a chair in the maniac’s kitchen. The villain is the kind of loathsome creep you often encounter in King’s stories, and Emily’s dilemma is not unlike the “escape or die” problems tackled in Misery, Cujo and Gerald’s Game.

The plot is familiar territory for King, and that’s good news for the reader because he’s the absolute best at this kind of tense suspense. In that respect, “The Gingerbread Girl” delivers exactly the kind of scary, bloody, frightening thrills you’ve come to expect from the author. If this one slipped by you, do yourself a favor, circle back, and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Fairy Tale

Another Stephen King 600 pager has arrived, 20 years and 27 books after he suggested his retirement to the Los Angeles Times in 2002. It's aptly titled Fairy Tale, because it is one. But, like the most wicked Game of Thrones episode, King morphs Grimm's into a psychotic, rambunctious, and sinister story involving electrified zombies, dead mermaids, homicidal giants, and brutal “to the death” sporting events. It's The Running Man meets Snow White as only the King of Horror can deliver.

Fairy Tale is mostly presented as three parts – the introduction to the main character up until he leaves this world (yep, that happens), the monomyth journey through the other world, and then prison. In typical King fashion, this probably could have been condensed into 300 pages, but it takes the author three pages just to make a cup of coffee. Apparently, it just needs elaboration.

The book is presented in the first-person by an older version of Charlie Reade (sounding like Charlie McGee of Firestarter) describing the harrowing events that transformed his life when he was 17. He swears no one will believe his story, including you, the Constant Reader. This story begins with Charlie explaining how his mother was killed on a wobbly bridge by an errant motorist. Charlie and his father sail into years of mourning, capsizing with his father's descent into the seas of alcoholism and regret. These early pages chronicle alcoholism well, complete with the AA stance and the narrow road to sobriety. It's the feel-good uplift. 

Charlie's life changes when he hears Howard Bowditch's dog barking. Bowditch is the stereotypical spooky old guy that lives in the crumbling Psycho house in the neighborhood. Charlie comes to the aid of Radar, a fun German Shepherd that leads him to rescue his owner Bowditch from the a long fall from a ladder – if rescuing means calling the rescue squad and promising to keep Radar. Soon, Charlie finds himself at the aid of Bowditch. The lonely old man has no one else and Charlie needs to mature from star athlete and childhood prankster to a civilized caring youngster. The two strike up a bond and Charlie agrees to be Bowditch's care guide, prescription deliverer, carpenter, landscaper, dog feeder, friend, and gold hauler. Gold?!?

It turns out that Bowditch has a big 'ole secret he keeps hidden in the wood shed. If you want to know the secret and not necessarily spoil the fun, continue to read the next THREE paragraphs. If you want to skip to how I felt about the book, feel free to skip these THREE paragraphs. 

Bowditch has something like $100,000 in gold nuggets he keeps in a safe. He asks Charlie to visit a local jeweler associate who will buy some gold nuggets so that Bowditch can pay off his hospital bill and also pay Charlie for his services. Where is this old recluse gaining this kind of loot? After a few chapters, Bowditch explains to Charlie that there is a secret world inside of his woodshed. Due to some rather dire circumstances, Charlie steps into the shed and descends into another world.

Charlie soon learns that the other world, seemingly hundreds of feet under Bowditch's property, is a cursed fairy tale land. Yeah, there's mermaids, kings, princesses, giants, talking horses, and lots of gold, but there is also a visible doom and gloom that has enveloped the entire kingdom. People are no longer whole, like Charlie, but instead are missing things like mouths or ears. They have seemingly lost these things due to a corrupt hierarchy that have awakened an evil thing in a Hellish well. Keep in mind that King wrote Fairy Tale during the pandemic in 2020. Considering his white-hot hatred for Republicans (he's from Maine for God's sake!), it's easy to see his inspirations for the novel – cursed land, an ill civilization, a corrupt monarchy, fighting the establishment, contending with the maaaaaaaan. You get the idea.

But, the land is important to Charlie because it possesses a sundial that can be used to reverse aging, a side-story that involves Radar's old age and debilitating physical condition. Charlie loves the dog so much that he is willing to battle through unknown terrors to turn the clock back on Radar's dog years. I'd do the same for my beloved canines Lily, Rose, and Carly. Maybe my hedgehog too. Regardless, this journey to the sundial involves a lot of adventure that eventually places Charlie in prison and forced to fight to the death in gladiator-styled sporting events. Wild and wacky stuff. 

So, does this Happily Ever After thing really work for Stephen King and his loyal fan base? Yeah, probably. It has similarities to so many of his other books and the formula he uses of parallel worlds. He used the idea for Lisey's Story, Rose Madder, The Talisman, and obviously the massive series of Dark Tower fantasy novels. Plus, there are countless short stories by the author that involve some sort of unlikely hero flirting with the idea of another world within our own. The question everyone asks is if Fairy Tale has any Dark Tower references. Yes, but nothing overly striking. I've only read the first three Dark Tower novels, but nothing detracts from Fairy Tale if you aren't familiar with Roland's epic journey. 

I appreciated King's references to plenty of Paperback Warrior material, specifically Dan Marlowe's The Name of the Game is Death, Cornell Woolrich's The Bride Wore Black and The Black Angel, as well as mentions of Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft. King loves his vintage fiction as much as we do. In fact, it's hard to ignore the comparisons to other “underground world” literary works by the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter, and Jules Verne. Fairy Tale fits right in, but cleverly shifts the heroism to a less muscular man instead of the typical barrel-chested jungle crawler. 

Overall, I enjoyed Fairy Tale but won't ever read it again. It was too long, contained a ton of characters, and the story was formulaic and predictable. King is no longer at his artistic apex, but can still write his ass off and pull off crime-fiction, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy with the best of them. Fairy Tale was probably written more for himself than his Constant Reader. During 2020's unrest, a year that will forever alter human history, writing this novel was probably a means of catharsis for the author. It's King's Fairy Tale. For us, it's just a story about a boy and his dog. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Institute

Master storyteller Stephen King has honed in on a horror sub-genre – kids with psychic abilities on the run from a shadowy organization. He first utilized the concept with 1981's Firestarter, featuring telepath Charlene McGee on the run from a government agency called The Shop. His novel Doctor Sleep features an organization called True Knot hunting down kids and adults with “the shining.” King serves this platter with his 2019 novel The Institute. It was published by Scribner and exists in multiple formats. Based on King's prior works, I would imagine a streaming show, graphic novel series, or the movie is already in the works.

My paperback version weighs in at 650 pages, so there's a lot to unpack. The novel's first 50 pages is like the first act of a 1950s crime-noir (or John Ball's Tallon series) as readers are introduced to the former Florida police officer Tim Jamieson. Tim is paid to relinquish his seat on a commercial airliner to make room for a government employee. After deciding to pocket the refund and extra money, Tim hitchhikes up I-95 from Florida to New York. But, he ends up in the cozy town of Du Pray, South Carolina and immediately falls in love with its Mayberry-like charm. He takes a night security post with the small, local police department and slowly becomes ingrained into Du Pray's lovable population. He then disappears from the narrative for the next 400 pages.

Protagonist Luke Ellis is introduced as a likable 12-year old genius that possesses telekinetic abilities. In the middle of the night, masked individuals break into Luke's Minneapolis home and kill his parents. The intruders drug Luke and he awakens in The Institute, a secret facility in a rural stretch of Maine forest. He quickly meets other kidnapped children, who form a sort of “loser's club” to overcome their scary predicament. The children earn tokens for being good, which they can use to purchase extra goodies like alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. The staff is led by Mrs. Sigsby, who oversees experiments on the children to heighten their telekinetic powers.

The book's first half focuses on Luke and his friends stay in a section called the “Front Half”, a safer portion of the facility where the staff is mostly nice and the experiments aren't excessively painful. Luke is asked to stare at lights and dots while subjected to daily doses of injections. The torment of Front Half is that these kids don't know what became of their prior lives. Luke wonders what happened to his parents and what his role is with the institute. Sigsby motivates the kids by advising them they will wake up in their own homes with their memories erased of everything that transpired there. As time goes on, Luke's friends are individually chosen, against their will, to relocate to Back Half. It's here that he learns that the kids are subjected to horrific torture and most don't survive the ordeal. To avoid being taken to Back Half, Luke must escape the institute.

Needless to say, there's a lot more to the novel than simply imprisonment and escape. Luke befriends a staff member and she has her own backstory. The novel tiptoes to the grand reveal, which is the purpose and use of the institute. There's the inevitable meeting between Tim and Luke, and at that point King transforms the novel from horror to action-thriller. All of these elements build to a giant crescendo, but like King's historic flaw, the ending leaves a lot to be desired.

My biggest issue with King's modern work is that he injects plenty of commentary on the political landscape (of course he jabs Donald Trump) and has a lot to say about debt. There's a centerpiece about credit cards and revolving bills that plague our society. Why King feels as if he knows anything about the average American is beyond me. He is worth a half-billion, earns $20-million per year and has had the right to call himself a millionaire for 40+ years. It's this sort of thing that dampens The Institute.

For example, King says that Tim is paid just $100 per week to work for the police force. He also has Tim pay an Uber driver with physical cash that the airline provided to him as a refund. The real world doesn't work this way. It's as if King is so far removed from everyday life that his stories lose some plausibility. The Institute really didn't need the uneducated social commentary and the obvious disconnect removed me from some aspects of the story.

Nevertheless, I mostly liked The Institute and found Tim and Luke's story enthralling. King hasn't lost any of his storytelling abilities, but he has started to blur the lines between his abstract horror creations and all-out action-thrillers. If you can appreciate the modern day version of Stephen King, you'll love The Institute.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 80

On Episode 80 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we review the new Stephen King book LATER from Hard Case Crime. Also: Two series titles called Decoy? Plus: Bill S. Ballinger, Paul Whelton, Gary Dean, John Sanford and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or or download directly HERE

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 80: Stephen King's Later" on Spreaker.

Thursday, February 18, 2021


Since 2004, Hard Case Crime has been the nation’s most successful publisher of new and reprint crime fiction. In 2005, the upstart paperback house struck literary gold with the publication rights to Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid. It happened again in 2013 with Joyland, and now again in 2021 with his new book Later.

Our narrator is a 22 year-old young man named Jamie Conklin telling the reader the story of things that happened when he was a kid. Jamie is the only son of a single, literary agent mother in Manhattan. Jamie also sees dead people - pretty much just like the kid in The Sixth Sense. He warns the reader in his intro, “I think this is a horror story.” It’s the truth, but the story takes awhile to heat up before things get truly scary.

Jamie explains that dead people always tell the truth when they talk to him. Sometimes they say something funny and blunt like telling the boy that his school art project sucks. Other times it’s a useful tip like where the old lady hid her jewels before she passed away. His access to the dead is limited to the few days after passing before the deceased fade away into the great beyond. Jamie is candid with his mom about his ability, and she warns him to never tell anybody that he sees dead people.

Later jumps around quite a bit while focusing on Jamie’s upbringing and a variety of incidences where his ability to see and illicit information from dead people proves useful. Mom’s best friend is an NYPD detective named Liz. She’s the stacked brunette on the book’s cover. Over time, Liz comes to believe and accept Jamie’s sixth-sense and figures out some uses for it in the realm of her police work. As such, Jamie gets pressed into service by Liz using his unusual ability.

King writes Later in a breezy first-person style with super-short chapters that are easy to follow despite the often non-linear timeline. It takes forever for an actual plot to develop, but you don’t really mind because Jamie is a likable kid who makes the reader invested in his well-being. As advertised, the paperback eventually becomes a horror story with some honest-to-goodness creepy and unsettling set-pieces reminding the reader that Stephen King still has chops.

Beyond that, there’s not much to tell that won’t spoil the fun for you. Later is a quick and fulfilling read - arguably the strongest and most on-brand of his Hard Case Crime offerings. King excels at this kind of of coming-of-age horror story with vivid characters and chilling situations with a good hero confronting supernatural evil. King has a large back catalogue of epic works, so Later is unlikely to be your favorite among them. However, I can’t imagine any of his fans walking away dissatisfied from this superb little novel. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Colorado Kid

Hard Case Crime began publishing original novels and reprints in September 2004. After releasing titles by literary kings including Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Day Keene, Donald Westlake and Erle Stanley Gardner, the publisher's first year was remarkable. After just one year of publishing, Hard Case Crime struck gold by landing the publication rights to an original novel by horror megaseller Stephen King. The Colorado Kid was published in October 2005.

Like most of King's novels and short-stories, The Colorado Kid is set in a coastal Maine town, this one called Moose-Look. The author's narrative is fairly simple, three characters simply sit in a diner and talk about a mystery that has haunted the idyllic community for 25-years. The “Colorado Kid” is the nickname for a dead body that was found on the coast by two teens. The mysterious circumstances around his death is that the man seemingly appeared from parts unknown. No identity, no agenda, no murder. He simply died while eating.

While the narrative is rudimentary, King's signature storytelling makes it a compelling, pleasurable reading experience. In his conversational style, King makes you love these three characters with their witty charm and small-town mannerisms. Like any good crime-noir, there has to be an average character placed in extreme or unusual circumstances. That's the path the author takes only this character is dead. Learning how he arrived in this condition is a bit like the old locked-room puzzles. In fact, Stephen King's infatuation with Hard Case Crime comes from his love of crime-fiction, old mysteries and hardboiled novels. King name drops Rex Stout, Agatha Christie and even Murder She Wrote and dedicates the book to Dan J. Marlowe, an author King claims to be the “hardest of the hardboiled”.

The Colorado Kid is a quick, easy read but doesn't offer a traditional ending. Not to ruin it for you, but nothing is solved. It's the essence of the mystery, minus the mask being pulled from the killer's face. The novel would go on to loosely inspire the SyFy channel's television show Haven. Eight years later, Stephen King and Hard Case Crime collaborated again with Joyland, a superior novel that actually has an ending (although arguably not a very good one). At the time of this review, the publisher just announced a third King publication, an original novel called Later that is scheduled for March 2021.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 7, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 60

On Episode 60 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss the legacy of the Hard Case Crime paperback imprint with loads of reviews of the good, the bad, and the missteps from the popular publisher. Also, Tom preps for a Dallas book-hunting trip with advice from Eric, and a crazy story from 1987 you won’t believe. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly

Listen to "Episode 60: Hard Case Crime" on Spreaker.