I’ve been keen on Stephen King ever since I picked up and read a collection of horror stories years ago: a thick hardback with the title Four Past Midnight to reflect the darkest stretches of the night hours.
From then on, I knew that this master storyteller was sure to deliver.
And in these nearly twenty years that I’ve been reading him, he has. In spades.
He is one of those authors whose latest novel is a must buy. One that I might have to lock in my car at night so that I can get some sleep before the next day.
“Fairy Tale”, another hit
Straight up front, I’ll mark his latest bestseller as one to hide away from binge-reading. Dawn would find the unwary reader with mind racing, the pulse chilled, the horrors and the dangers still fresh, even as the everyday habit turned from fantastic adventures to the morning commute.
Maybe save it for the weekend, eh?
The book is a step up from your average airport thriller. A classy production with illustrated chapter headings, a consistent theme, even — at least for the first edition — a quote on the spine, gold against blue.
It’s gorgeous, an instant classic.
The Hero journeys again
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by noting that the plot is The Hero’s Journey, the term coined by Joseph Campbell to reflect a consistent way of telling the heroic adventure, a journey from the everyday through dire peril, aided by friends and chance meetings in a strange new world, a transformation through conflict and adventure, and a return to normality at the end, albeit seeing the world through eyes forever altered.
It is the structure of a thousand tales. Star Wars, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Rings…
Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was 10, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself — and his dad. Then, when Charlie is 17, he meets a dog named Radar and his aging master, Howard Bowditch, a recluse in a big house at the top of a big hill, with a locked shed in the backyard. Sometimes strange sounds emerge from it. — Amazon blurb
Bowditch and his dog set Charlie’s feet on the path to adventure. He does things a schoolboy shouldn’t have to do before he sets out but things just get more and more unusual as he explores the mystery. There is gold and great wealth — and great peril — in between schoolday routine to begin with but very soon he is set on a road through a grim land and things just keep on getting worse with every step.
That’s just the first half. The second is a series of contests, each one more perilous than the last, and the faint-hearted reader may wish to turn aside.
Stephen King is a sure hand, however. I was literally shaking with terror at some points. It was an act of faith to keep reading, putting my trust in the master to see the tale through.
There is a kind of happy ending. Not quite angels and trumpets and showers of gold. More nailing the door shut against the dangers. Still, we return home, more or less in one piece, and all the many threads are squared away.
The land of Faerie
Charlie enters a strange world indeed. And yet one oddly familiar. As hinted by the title, there are echoes of older stories; the sort of fairy tales that were told to terrify children before Disney ripped the guts out of them — the stories, I mean — and coloured them with popular music.
Keep your eyes open and you’ll find settings and characters from a darker heritage.
There is magic at work, after a fashion, but also science and reason to guide the hero. We follow Charlie on a narrow path between danger and disaster, where monsters and their spawn tread to catch the unwary.
Wise guides and helpful companions appear — and disappear — and strange towns and palaces must be explored to find the goal.
And ever-present in the back of Charlie’s mind, even as he battles demons, is the knowledge that with every hour and day that passes, his everyday life at home (should he ever return) is becoming more and more difficult.
He can never be the same. And that’s a problem for a teenager with his whole life ahead of him.
Enough hints and half-spoilers
I found every page a challenge. The writing is good, in King’s slightly mid-20th Century American manner, nothing difficult there. It is the unfolding plot that makes every chapter a step up in tempo and danger.
Whatever you do, lock all the doors and windows before cracking open this book at night. A rattle of wind and your hair might turn white. The sound of possums on the roof will have you reaching for a rolling pin or a heavy vase. Your cat better not jump suddenly onto the bed, not if she knows what’s good for her.
This is a great yarn. I fully expect Hollywood to be writing scripts and signing actors. It may not be King’s crowning glory but it is certainly a jewel in that crown.
Charlie, our schoolboy chosen by fate, does find himself running his hands through buckets of gold, and taking on a royal title. As reader, we ride along in his battered schoolbag, sharing the adventure, sharing the rewards and the dangers.
It’s a grand adventure. But not for the faint-hearted..
The book, at 608 pages, is no lightweight in any respect. I recommend an audiobook version, a long car trip, or a week of commutes.
But highly recommended in any case.
Bonus: Stephen King reads a chapter.