The Outsider, by Stephen King / ****

36124936In some ways, Stephen King’s The Outsider is the logical follow-up and continuation of what he began doing as a writer with Mr. Mercedes. With that book and the rest of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King started writing crime novels – well, crime novels a la King, which aren’t quite the same thing. But what it showed was that King was just as capable of playing in other genres, and in many ways, all the things he does so well – great characterization, superb pacing, excellent tension-building – were things that were also needed for a great thriller.

Now, as the Bill Hodges books continued, King started to bring more of his supernatural and horror elements into the books, with mixed results. The Outsider continues that trend, but by virtue of having been designed as a crime/horror hybrid from the get-go, the resulting novel feels smoother and more cohesive than, say, End of Watch, which felt a bit bumpy.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that The Outsider starts so incredibly well, alternating between the very public arrest of a beloved small town figure with the unquestionable evidence that ties him to the brutal murder of a child. And in that early going, King manages a notable feat, keeping the audience constantly uncertain as to whether what we’re reading is an innocent man being framed or a nightmarish killer’s facade of innocence. By sliding constantly between the police and the accused, doling out information carefully and methodically, King is near the top of his game, giving us one of his most enthralling first halves in a long, long time, all culminating in a setpiece that plays to all of his strengths.

It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the second half of The Outsider doesn’t measure up to the first. That’s not to say that it ever becomes bad, mind you; the introduction of an old friend of Constant Readers gives the book a nice second wind, and there’s something satisfying about how King applies his mystery-writing strategies to a supernatural event (even if that old friend gets used in some deus ex machina ways). But the answers we get are disappointingly bland, especially given King’s unique take on so many horror tropes, and while there are aspects of the finale that are interesting – more the implications and hints conveyed during that sequence than any true revelations – it doesn’t soar in the way that the best King climaxes can.

Mind you, I still absolutely devoured The Outsider, and couldn’t put it down. No, it may not be among the top tier of King novels, but neither is it anywhere near the bottom – for whatever blandness and iffiness along the way, it’s more consistent and focused than End of Watch, and more gripping and propulsive than Sleeping Beauties. And if nothing else, there’s nothing like King for books that are so easily and constantly readable, and allow me to lose myself so deeply in their pages.


Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King / ****

34466922One of the fun things about reading books that are co-authored is the chance to see how well (or not) author’s sensibilities blend together. Look, for instance, at how Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett each brought their unique sensibilities to Good Omens, creating something that felt truly like a fusion of their voices. And it’s not as though Stephen King is a stranger to co-authoring; even setting aside his short works with his other son, Joe Hill, there’s the double punch of The Talisman and Black House, wherein King marries his voice to that of another horror legend, Peter Straub.

Now, I haven’t read any of Owen King’s solo work, so I don’t know how well Sleeping Beauties represents a true fusion of their voices. But there’s undeniably a lot of Stephen King here, most notably in the rich pacing, which is something that I think Stephen King does better than almost any author I can think of. Like almost no other author, King has a way of starting sprawling and calmly, and slowly tightening the noose until the climax is all but inevitable and stopping reading is a fool’s errand. And that’s definitely the case with Sleeping Beauties, which starts simply enough – one day, women around the world are simply not waking up, but instead, seem to have become wrapped in silken facial cocoons as they sleep; what’s more, you do not want to remove the silk, trust me – but builds and builds to catastrophic levels, with a double-barrelled climax that takes place on two different planes of existence and absolutely flies, for dozens of pages.

More than that, Sleeping Beauties is rich with interesting themes, using its gender-affecting story to explore gender dynamics and relations between the sexes. Even the locations are rich with subtext, from a women’s prison full of no shortage of victimized women to small town politics, from female police officers to attractive reporters being judged by their surface, the Kings manage to take on the issues seriously and thoughtfully, rendering the women characters every bit as sympathetically as the men, even considering the fact that they’re two white dudes. (One can’t help but wonder if the book would change at all with a female co-writer – say, King’s wife?) And as the Kings interweave their massive cast of characters, their story manages to be about male rage and female empowerment, about the clash between “traditional” values and more modern ones, all while telling a gripping apocalyptic tale about a world in which all that’s left are a bunch of dudes – and anyone who’s read Lord of the Flies knows how this could go, pretty easily.

For all of that, there’s something off about Sleeping Beauties, some indescribable X-factor that kept me from being as gripped with the book as I wish I was. There’s a lot I liked here, but it also drug more than most King books I know, and you can’t help but wonder if Owen King’s voice simply isn’t as propulsive as his father’s, or as gripping. It doesn’t help that Sleeping Beauties‘s cast is so sprawling (opening with a list of characters that goes on multiple pages and feels a bit overwhelming), and ultimately, feels like a few threads could have been trimmed. (I’m thinking especially here of a late-book thread about two drug-dealing brothers who escape from prison thanks to the lack of focus on the penal system in the wake of this disease.) It’s a book I still enjoyed, and whose richness I appreciated, but I never really come to love it the way I hoped I would.


Gwendy’s Button Box, by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar / ****

34430839From what I’ve been able to gather, Gwendy’s Button Box started life as a Stephen King short story, before the horror maestro ended up getting stuck with the plotting. He reached out to fellow author Richard Chizmar, who worked on the story and sent it back to King, who in turn, did some work and sent it back. After a few swings back and forth, what emerged was Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella set in King’s infamous town of Castle Rock. And while Gwendy’s Button Box still has the feel of a very long short story more than a novella (the plotting here is pretty linear and streamlined), there’s still plenty of enjoyment here for King fans to be had.

The story is simple enough: a young woman on the verge of puberty is out for a morning run (she’s desperate to shed some pounds and take care of some cruel nicknames she’s gotten recently), when she’s stopped by a man in black who wants to “palaver”. (Constant Readers, no doubt, have guessed this man’s initials by now; would it shock you if I said they were “R.F.”?) The man offers her a box covered in buttons, as well as a couple of switches, and explains that the box can take care of her – it will help her with that weight loss, yes, but with so much more…and all it needs in return is a caretaker. Because were those buttons to be pressed – the buttons that seem to line up with each major continent, as well as an ominous black one at the end…well, things would go bad. So why not give it to a responsible, careful caretaker, one who could prevent such things?

This is classic King – there’s a bit of Needful Things here, sure, but also a bit of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” on display as well. But where to take the story that feels fresh? It’s to that end, presumably, that King brought in Chizmar, and together, the pair creates a coming-of-age story that finds our young heroine thriving, succeeding…but always, constantly worrying about that box, and fearing what it might unleash. Yes, Gwendy is losing weight; her grades are great, her life is wonderful…but there’s always that fear, that unease about the button, and that constant sense of pressure as to when she might be called in.

If that sounds like meaty, heavy fare…well, it’s not, really. The biggest issue with Gwendy’s Button Box is that it always feels like a short story stretched to novella, not a short novel. We watch as Gwendy grows up, as she grapples with the responsibility of the box, as things build to a couple of critical moments…but it all ends up feeling like the sort of material King would use for act one of a story, not a story in of itself. And by the time the story ends on a cryptic, uncertain note, there’s a definite sense of “wait, is that all there is?” There’s little closure, little explanation – just a strange, uncertain end for a strange, uncertain story – which is something that works much better in a short story than a novella, where we need a bit more of a climax.

Still, you could do far worse than Gwendy’s Button Box for an afternoon’s entertainment. As always with King, it’s well-written; the patter and rhythms are exceptional, and his gift for choosing the critical moments of adolescence and bringing them to life is, as always, a joy. Even better is the way he constantly gives just enough information about the box to keep us wondering, but never enough to make it all clear. It’s an engaging little tale; just don’t be surprised if it feels slighter than you’d hope, as though it’s not quite capable of sustaining all the pages in its brief time.


The Wind Through the Keyhole, by Stephen King / ****

windthroughthekeyhole_usI remember being both pleased and uncertain, simultaneously, when Stephen King announced that he had another Dark Tower book coming. Pleased, because these were characters and a universe I loved, and any excuse to return to it was a good one; uncertain, because the Dark Tower series ended, quite conclusively, and I wasn’t sure that we needed another entry, much less one that we would be throwing into the middle of the already completed series. The result, I feared, would either be overly clever (the bane of most prequels), or fairly arbitrary, an unnecessary entry that added little.

To be sure, The Wind Through the Keyhole hews much closer to the latter than the former; it adds almost nothing to the overarching story of the series, instead giving us the equivalent of a bottle episode of nesting stories. As Roland and the ka-tet seek shelter from an intense storm that besets them (not long after the end of Wizard and Glass), Roland tells them a story of his younger years, in which he and another young gunslinger were called in to investigate a series of brutal killings in a small town. And then, in the middle of that story, we find ourselves diving into a long fairy tale of Roland’s world, one that’s told within Roland’s story – in other words, a story within a story within a story.

That’s an appropriate choice for a series that has always been about the power of stories, and indeed, in many ways, The Wind Through the Keyhole is the most forceful expression of that theme, as stories are used for comfort, for knowledge, for distraction, for teaching, and for so many other purposes – entertainment not the least among them. More than that, though, King uses the stories of Keyhole for much the same purpose as J.K. Rowling used the stories of Beedle the Bard – to explore the mythology and folklore of a complex world that we’ve only ever gotten to scratch the surface of.

Much of that comes through in the titular folktale, a long tale about a young boy who goes on a quest to save his mother and deal with his abusive stepfather. Like so much of the Dark Tower series, the result is a fascinating mashup of influences, with elements of Arthurian legends, Western wisdom, Grimm folk tales, and more, all tossed together in a hodgepodge that shouldn’t work, but somehow does anyway – a testament to King’s ability not only to craft a story, but to focus on the emotional arcs that make the story work. And this folktale plays to his strength – it’s a story of coming-of-age, of innocence lost, and of heroic quests – all things that are well within his wheelhouse.

As for the Roland section of the tale, it’s an enjoyable one, if slight; it can’t help but to suffer when compared with the larger scope, ambition, and emotional heft of the similar “Roland’s young Gunslinger Days” story of Wizard and Glass. And yet, it’s still a solid, enjoyable story, one that works both on our desire to see more of this world before it “moved on,” as well as giving us a bit of unexpected emotional to Roland’s relationship with his mother. Is it essential reading? Far from it…but that doesn’t mean it’s unenjoyable or uninteresting. And that’s the book in a nutshell, really; while it’s hard to argue that this is another Dark Tower book that we really “needed,” the pleasures here are undeniable, and the richness of King’s imagination on full display.


The Dark Tower, by Stephen King / *****

This is the seventh full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and GlassWolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”).

In past entries, I’ve done my best to set series spoilers until the end of the review, in their own section. But it’s going to be hard to talk about the final book in an epic series without spoiling some aspects of the books that led up to this. There aren’t any direct spoilers from the other books, but I may end up alluding to or mentioning aspects in them simply as I discuss. So read ahead at your own peril; I’ll have my standard section of book spoilers at the end (in a section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam”), but the other books in the series (save The Wind in the Keyhole) are fair game.

michael20whelan_the20dark20tower20vii_color_coverIt is hard to think of a major series that ends as bleakly, or with as bitter and elegiac of a tone, as The Dark Tower. In a genre so often defined by epic showdowns, haunting sacrificial losses, or heroic final moments, The Dark Tower, in keeping with so much of the series, defies expectations, giving us brutal, pointless deaths, pyrrhic victories, and a sense of loss and weariness so palpable that it’s hard not to find yourself shaken by the experience of reading. None of which should be surprising; after all, this is a book that opens with a quote from Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” (though, if I were a betting man, I would lay no small amount of money that it’s Johnny Cash’s version of the song that inspired the epitaph; that song’s weariness and pain resonates so deeply in this novel, especially in the final chapters). But even with the way that readers have become accustomed to “shocking,” painful deaths in final entries in epic series, there’s little denying the awful, crushing weight of The Dark Tower‘s deaths – a weight that ends up just feeling awful, ugly, and painful, and very far from heroic.

And yet, that all feels somehow right for The Dark Tower, a series that has long defied any sort of norms, restrictions, or rules, to say nothing of easy classification. Much as King would later do with Mr. Mercedes, where he wrote a thriller that was undeniably more of a King book than a standard thriller, The Dark Tower series is a fantasy series written by a man who wants to do his own thing, and to hell with expectations or rules. Yes, there’s no denying that we had expectations for this book – that the Beams would be saved, and that Roland would at last see the Tower which had been his obsession for so long – and King handily resolves both of those stories for us. But more than that, The Dark Tower (the novel here, not the series) also serves as a meditation on endings, on legacies, and on the dangerous cost of obsession.

That, in of itself, isn’t necessarily something wholly new for a final book in a series; what makes The Dark Tower so painful and heartfelt is the way that King turns that look inwards to himself. There’s little denying that this book would be different had King not almost died after being hit by a car, but few of us might have expected that King would write the accident into his own series, letting the books become a window into fears of his own mortality and legacy had he left these books undone. It’s the voice of an author who fears that they haven’t accomplished everything they’ve wanted to, and a man scolding himself for not living up to his potential – and that gives The Dark Tower a rawness that’s hard to look away from. (That King makes his characters hate him so is a fascinating choice, and one that you could write books unpacking.)

But as The Dark Tower draws into its second half, King’s subtext becomes text. The book’s climax is, for all intents and purposes, halfway through the novel. And though the cost is undeniably high, there’s a sense that Roland and his ka-tet have won…and yet, they, like us, feel like the job isn’t complete without seeing the Tower itself. But is there a need to do so? Is there a point in this need for glory and for obsession…or is the journey, and those we meet along the way, the important aspect? That’s a complex idea, and becomes woven into the book’s second half, as Roland pushes through stubbornly and dangerously towards a goal that may not need to be met. And even in this spoiler space, I don’t want to give away the book’s final, vicious turn, which gives us a sense of where King falls on this question…but not without leaving one chance for hope deep down, and a chance for redemption.

Like the rest of the series, The Dark Tower isn’t without its flaws. It’s overstuffed at times, and suffers from the weight of all of King’s foreshadowing and hints along the way (the way it handles the question of Insomnia is particularly…well, “cheaty”, even if it’s acknowledged in the book). But really, I don’t come away from the book thinking about the plot. I think of that heartbreaking, painful tone that echoes throughout. Yes, the final battles are woefully anticlimactic…but that’s because they don’t matter, and the villains are not the true threats. The quest was to save the Tower, and those who fight against the forces of good, in King’s universe, are necessarily weaker and more fallible than the pure-hearted. But it’s the heartbreaking futility of those battles that sticks with me – not the carnage or the awfulness, but the pointlessness of it all, the sense that all of this violence and loss is so often for naught other than glory or selfishness or sheer stubborn pride. And that’s a fascinating, difficult tone to end a series with…but one that haunts. It haunts with the deaths which seem so arbitrary and needless (and brutal emotionally more than physically). It haunts with the loneliness our characters are left in, and the doubts they have about their goals. And it haunts in an author who’s been forced to re-examine his life and wonder if he lived it right.

For me, it’s the emotional impact that makes The Dark Tower such a worthy conclusion for this series. Yes, I love the refusal to give easy answers or placate us with incredible victories; this is a book about loss, grief, obsession, and reflecting on our lives. But the fact that King pulls off this powerful, haunting tone throughout, all while still concluding his story, is no small accomplishment, and gives us one of his best books he’s ever written, in my opinion.


All Things Serve the Beam (MAJOR book spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Dark Tower, by Stephen King / *****”

Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****

This is the sixth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, and Wolves of the Calla (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”

Also, this time I’m going to have a special book-only spoiler section called “The Clearing at the End of the Path,” because there’s one aspect of this book that I wanted to discuss at length, but didn’t want to spoil for people who hadn’t yet read the book. (If you’ve read it, you probably know what it is.)


As I approached Song of Susannah in this re-read, I’m not going to lie; I was a bit anxious. Over the years, Song of Susannah has been held up as the nadir of the series – a mess, the point at which the meta commentary became too much, the book where King’s ambition stretched too far. And in some ways, I’ll grant some of those points. There’s no denying that Song of Susannah sometimes feels like too many books in one, nor that it feels…well, weird. And that’s saying something, given how strange this series is already, and how disjointed the books are almost by design. But more than most, Song of Susannah swings for the fences, going between the surreal to the action-packed, from the nightmarish to the esoteric, often without even a hint of a change coming. And that doesn’t even get into the main thrust of the narrative, which somehow has to explain a truly baffling pregnancy that…well, I can’t even begin to explain this one to you, because King doesn’t quite either, despite the number of pages he devotes to trying to hash it all out.

And yet. (Come on. You knew an “and yet” was coming.)

And yet, by god, broken down to its individual pieces, Song of Susannah WORKS. There’s no denying that King’s ambition cranks up dozens of notches here (and I’ll have lots to say about the major one – and the most controversial one – in a book spoiler section below, before I get to series spoilers), but it’s easy to forget how much King has a way of making even the most bizarre and dysfunctional concepts somehow work when you’re lost in his worlds. On paper, most of Song of Susannah shouldn’t work, but as we immerse ourselves into the heart and soul of these characters, and King brings his worlds to vivid, intense life, it’s hard to remember your complaints while you’re carried along.

More than that, Song of Susannah has some truly great scenes waiting for you, most notably a climactic section that may rank as one of the most disturbing, horrific things King’s ever written – no small feat, that. But it makes sense, because King’s horror usually has at least one foot in the real world, one foot keeping things grounded. But in the world of the Dark Tower, all bets are off – there’s no reality to keep it tethered. And what results is genuinely horrifying and disturbing, with some of the darkest, grimmest images I can remember King writing – an ending (setting aside the coda, which I’ll address in those book spoilers) that leaves you dying for more in a great way. More than that, even with the weird, sometimes disjointed approach that finds us sometimes leaping from scene to scene, King retains that command of momentum and pacing that makes him one of the best writers around – and that goes double here, as King barrels us toward the ending of this series.

But maybe what I really love most about Song of Susannah is the way that it makes King’s ambition for this series plain, crystallizing something that’s been a theme for some time. Song of Susannah, in other words, is the book where it becomes most clear that in many ways, this is King’s most ambitious and career-defining work, in his own mind, and that the book is as much as about him as an author as it is these characters. It’s something that’s been a part of the series since the beginning (if you remember, it’s one reason why I advocate for the original cut of The Gunslinger, because it makes King’s evolution as a writer part of the text of the series), and even more so over the past few, as the ideas of story and storytelling has become more and more intrinsic to the plot of the series as a whole. The idea of stories – why we tell them, how they inspire or define us, how they motivate us – is only more and more relevant as the Tower series progresses, and Song of Susannah starts turning that from subtext to text, as characters grapple with their roles in stories that they had no idea they were a part of.

Does Song of Susannah spend alternately too long on some explanations (Mia/Susannah, I’m looking at you) and not enough on others (how Susannah knows the importance of a street preacher, for instance)? Undoubtedly. Does it suffer from “middle book” syndrome a bit, bridging between the setup of Wolves of the Calla and the payoff of The Dark Tower without sometimes knowing how to define itself? Most definitely. And is there a bit of me that resents spending so much time in this penultimate book of a great series on one of its weirdest, most nonsensical plot threads, to say nothing of the fact that most of it is devoted to maybe my least favorite member of the ka-tet? (Again, I’ll get into why in the spoiler section below.) Yup.

But for all of that, so many of the individual pieces of Song of Susannah work so well that I can overlook that. Any book that features that horrific sequence in the Dixie Pig, the fantastic shoot-out, that eerie scene where they meet a sort of god, and our first glimpses at what lays in the blasted lands near the Tower…when your book has all of that and more, I’m okay with the weaknesses, especially because all of them work so well thematically, and they’re so well told. And more than anything, when a book leaves me this ready to jump into the final volume, even after I’ve already read it…well, it’s doing its job, isn’t it?


The Clearing at the End of the Path (book spoilers follow – no series spoilers) Continue reading “Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****”

Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King / *****

This is the fifth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, and Wizard and Glass (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”


And finally, after decades of writing and an near-fatal car accident, Stephen King brought us into the home stretch. I still remember the excitement when Wolves of the Calla was released – not just the excitement of a new Dark Tower book (though that was no small part of it), but the realization that the end was in sight – that within the next year, we would have the final novel in the series in our hands, and that King was focused on the Tower in a way he had never really been before. More than that, all of the various threads and hints that King had been tossing out – from Insomnia to Black House, from Everything’s Eventual to Hearts in Atlantis, King had been building to this in almost every book he’d written as of late, and I was eager and ready to see what came next.

What came next was an absolute crackerjack adventure story, one with a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, and yet one that was undeniably a King tale, and even more specific, a Tower tale. More than that, it’s the most focused Tower novel since The Gunslinger – the first since the original to have a single, clear, focused throughline. Yes, there are diversions and sidetracks, and there’s setup for the two books to come, but by and large, Wolves of the Calla is simple: a village needs help, and Roland and his ka-tet will aid them. The details are more complicated, of course, with mysterious hooded raiders, children who are kidnapped and returned as shells of themselves, and a mysterious cave that might be the key to saving a singularly important rose, but really, this is a tale as old as Kurosawa…or King Arthur.

But still, this is a King tale, and he’s at the top of his form here, immersing us into this community and its population, investing us in their fears and worries, and ratcheting up the tension and the pacing slowly but inexorably until you’re rocketing through pages to get to the fight that we’ve been simultaneously dreading and awaiting for hundreds of pages. Does King manage to do this while still giving us rich character depth and development, moving the quest ever forward to the Tower, and creating a rich world? Of course he does.

And, as usual, it’s the details that stick out so much – the rich patois of the local villagers, the odd behavior of Andy the “useful” robot, the strange unease around the number nineteen…all of it works, giving the book detail and depth that makes it even richer than it would have been otherwise. Even the sidebars are rich here, with one characters’ long backstory being every bit the equal of the rest of the book, as he narrates a story of supernatural vengeance, shadowy roads, and low men in yellow coats. (Indeed, some parts of that story may be the best parts of the book.)

It wouldn’t be right to call Wolves of the Calla the calm before the storm – there’s plenty of storm here – but there’s a sense that, by book’s end, we are plunging into the endgame more quickly than we realized. But in Wolves, King gives us a sense of what this quartet – quintet, if you count their furry friend Oy – was capable of. Just as Wizard and Glass let us see Roland in his youth but at full capacity, Wolves gives us a glimpse of what a world with gunslingers could be – a world of violence, yes, but one of justice and honor, even in the face of horror. It’s a welcome entry in the series, and one of my favorites to date.


All Things Serve the Beam (series spoilers follow) Continue reading “Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King / *****”