king

The Only Three Books to Seriously Mess Me Up

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Author’s Note: I came across this guest blog while answering a friend’s question about Stephen King books on Facebook, and realized I’d never brought it over here for safekeeping. So, you get it now. It originally appeared on the Undead Rat’s website, preceded the previous day by a review of WILD, the book I was touring (virtually) for in March 2011.

Let’s face it; when you write the scary stuff like I do and review horror books on a regular basis, it’s easy to… take the chills for granted, so to speak, or to become jaded. Kinda like how you can eat your dinner while watching the evening news because you see the same murders and genocide night after night.

Now, there have been quite a few novels that made me cringe; I made the mistake of reading Brian Keene’s Urban Gothic and J.F. Gonzalez’ Survivor while eating meals, for instance. Grossing me out isn’t the same as really sticking with me, though, and while I don’t want to take anything away from the authors I enjoy reading every week, I read horror for entertainment and only three books come to mind as having actually horrified me.

I first encountered Pet Sematary by Stephen King while in high school, though the novel was released the year after I was born. I’d been reading horror for a couple of years by this point, was a freshman at a local Catholic high school and routinely broke the religion teacher (a priest)’s balls by ignoring his lessons in favor of Stephen King but still maintaining an ‘A’ average. Even at that age I didn’t lay awake for hours after reading a horror novel or get creeped out by reading about the various bad guys.

However, I almost didn’t finish Pet Sematary, the story of a family’s dealings with an ancient Native American burial ground. I put it down about 2/3 of the way in and couldn’t pick it back up for two months, as I recall. Imagine how gratified I was when I discovered that King almost didn’t publish the book and considers it the most horrifying of his works.

Last year I had the pleasure of personally telling Jack Ketchum how affected I was by his novel The Girl Next Door. In return, he shared with me how affected he was by the real-life story that inspired the book, of a girl in 1965 Indianapolis tortured to death by a family friend and her children. My autographed mass-market paperback of the book is probably my favorite signed book of all because of the impact the story had on me, but I have to admit it’s the book I’m least likely to ever read in public again.

The first time I read the book I didn’t know what to expect; I’d heard good (bad?) things about it, but I read horror daily, you know? There were certain points in the story that I reached while sitting in a large group of people, praying that no one would look over my shoulder and see what a sick freak I was, while at the same time unable to put the damn thing down.

Finally, Succulent Prey by Wrath James White really did me in, to such an extent that I still found myself thinking about it weeks later. It starts out intriguingly enough, with an unorthodox theory about the propagation of serial killers, but quickly degenerates into a horrifying string of brutal cannibal episodes interwoven with the protagonist’s quest to discover whether serial killers create other serial killers.

Wrath’s a good writer, but so are a lot of the other authors I read for fun, too. There’s something about cannibals that really screws with me, though; I guess everyone has their thing, right? For some people, it’s clowns. Succulent Prey not only has the gore-factor going for it, but the emotional impact of the story, especially the end, was the icing on the cake.

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Knowing When to Hold ‘Em

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No, this isn’t a Kenny Rogers homage (I got that out of my system early in my career—and you can read it here, if that’s your sort of thing). I’ve been thinking of the relationship writers have with ideas, and the differing schools of thought. I read one author’s answer to how he kept track of ideas—I forget if it was King, or maybe Konrath—which was basically Write them down so you don’t lose them. But the ones I had to write down in order to remember usually ended up not being very good. The best stories grabbed ahold of me until I wrote them.

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but you get the idea. I can see the value in writing down ideas for later. I have a plain-text document with snippets of ideas going back 6-7 years. I have half-finished stories as old as that. I’ve gone back and reworked years-old partials into complete stories that were completely different from the original intent. I’ve also probably forgotten more ideas than I have recorded. Were most of them crap? Perhaps. Some of the recorded ones are crap. I also have a couple of ideas I’ve neither written nor recorded, but which have stuck in my head for years. I’ll write them one day. I know it.

My wife and I discuss my work sometimes. There are things she’d like to see me do, because she thinks the result will garner more attention and money for my art. I don’t think she’s wrong. A talk she and I had last month yielded what could possibly be a breakout mainstream novel for me. I’m stoked as Hell to get to work on it. Right now, though, it only exists as the merest of outlines in my head. That’s OK. I know I won’t forget it. And according to the guy I paraphrased earlier, that means it might be Real Frickin’ Good. And every so often, the missus asks me why I don’t write one of these Right Frickin’ Nao.

I’m not in a rush to write it, though. Doesn’t that sound strange as all get-out? I have a theory of my own that I’m following. I don’t think I’ve seen it championed elsewhere, though I’m not arrogant enough to believe I’ve actually Stumbled Across Something No One’s Ever Thought of Before. I’m going to hold off on writing that novel, and a couple of others I have in mind, until I’m even better at my craft than I am now.

Don’t get me wrong. I haven’t been trying to sell you anything that I didn’t feel was solid, entertaining work. If you can buy it, I think it’s worth your time. But I am still growing as an author. When I started writing for publication, 1500 words was my norm and 20K seemed like an epic. As I’ve grown, my stories have naturally grown in length—novellas come naturally to me now. I’m getting to the point where I can comfortably crank out a novel. I have a finished novella right now that both of my pre-readers say needs to be a novel, so I’m laying it aside and going back to it after I finish some contracted work.

Stephen King wrote several novels before selling Carrie—sold them eventually, under the name Richard Bachman, but they got a bunch of rejections when he first tried to move them. I’m sure he revised them prior to re-pitching, taking advantage of the experience he gained writing The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc. Joe Konrath wrote ten (give or take a couple) novels before he landed a contract for the Jack Daniels novels. My buddy John Everson just released his sixth novel, which has been in the works for something like a decade.

I don’t think I’ll end up scrapping five novels before writing a salable one. I’m too tenacious and willing to hack and revise for that to happen. I do seem to have a good instinct for when to bail on a sinking ship and just toss a piece into the Recycle Bin. But a few of these ideas, like the one my wife put in my head—I don’t want to still have my training wheels on when I knock them out, you know? So I’ll be holding on to them. Maybe for a year or two. Maybe longer.

If it’s any consolation, I’m itching to write them a thousand times more than you are to read them.

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My First King (or, Big Steve Goes to Catechism)

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Like any serious horror author of my generation, I cite King as an influence and as a source of unlimited hours of enjoyable reading. While he’s written a small but quantifiable percentage of books that I didn’t really care for (Cell and Tommyknockers come immediately to mind) there are authors in the field just as prolific whose statistics are the mirror image of King’s, in my opinion (that is, only a small but quantifiable percentage of works enjoyed).

I picked up my first Stephen King book when I was thirteen—that is, they were in the house before, on my stepfather’s bookshelf (he who introduced me to Rush, and the fantasy books I wrote about in last week’s column—and who will be the subject of next week’s column, I’ve just decided), but I wasn’t allowed to read them due to the subject material. Once my cherry was popped, I began to read every Stephen King book I could get my hands from, in school and public libraries, mostly, but also through the very generous gift of several first-edition hardcovers by my Uncle Chuck, which I’m sorry to say were lost to me before I was old enough to buy my own cigarettes.

By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I’d read every single King book published at that time, and I’ve kept up with each new release thereafter, with the possible exception of one or two (the only unread one I can think of, however, is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). I did the bulk of this reading in my Catholic school Religion class period, which greatly aggravated the Jesuit priest who taught the class. He couldn’t fail me, however—I aced every test and answered every question when called upon, having been trained as an altar boy years previously. Instead, he’d chuck the occasional eraser at me, and try to trip me up with questions, but that was about it.

Side Note: I attended that Catholic High School, Bishop Kearney in Rochester, NY, for exactly one year. I was invited not to return, mostly because when I wasn’t reading Stephen King, I was reading witchcraft spellbooks. Had I taken the entrance exam a month earlier, my scores would have qualified me for a four-year scholarship. Such is life.

The book that started it all, I’m sure you’re wondering by now, was The Talisman, written with Peter Straub and published in 1984, two years after my birth. I cannot think of a better introduction for a young adolescent to the work of Stephen King than this book—since I’ve only read a couple of Straub’s books (and need to fix that!), I can’t in good faith say the same about his.

A general synopsis is as follows: a twelve-year old boy is sent on a quest to retrieve a magic talisman that can cure his mother of cancer. In the process, he discovers a fantasy world that he can travel to, uncovers his uncle and deceased father’s involvement in that world, makes friends with a teenage werewolf, faces a variety of threats in both our world and the Territories that would make most grown folk shit bricks, teams up with his childhood best friend, saves his mother and avenges his father’s murder.

What kid could pass that up? At least, in a world before video games and reality television were the norm. What a spectacular lesson in world-building and plotting. I’d call it a perfect book, honestly. Any misgivings I have stem from the sequel, Black House’s, retroactive connection of the Territories to King’s Dark Tower mythos. I’m almost tempted to start reading it again now!

Feel free to reminisce about your first or favorite King book in the comments, or suggest something from Straub’s body of work that’s as magical as The Talisman.

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Recommended Books of 2011

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Here are my top books of 2011, with a couple of bonus mentions at the end. It’s a shorter list than my usual Top Five, but that’s because much of my reading this year was published prior to 2011, and the list only covers books published this year. If you’d care to read previous years’ lists, you may do so here. The books aren’t listed in any particular ranking, except for the Squee.

SQUEE OF THE YEAR: Livia Llewellyn’s ENGINES OF DESIRE. A provocative, arousing and diverse collection of speculative fiction. Hell, I even loved the cover. I’ll definitely be re-reading this one, and I almost never have time to re-read these days. This is Livia’s debut book, and I can’t wait to read more from her. You can read my full review here, and buy the book here.

THE REST OF THE BEST:

1. Weston Ochse’s MULTIPLEX FANDANGO. Even if Weston wasn’t a career Soldier who started his writing career while in the Army (sound familiar?) and one Hell of a guy, this book would be on my list. But he is, so instead of just telling you to buy one copy, I’ll recommend you grab two. It’d be worth picking up a copy for a friend, anyhow, especially if you or your friend haven’t read Weston before. MULTIPLEX serves well as an introduction to a talented and extremely hard-working author at the top of his game and as a damn-near epic, and career-spanning, collection of his short fiction. You can read my full review here and buy the book here.

2. Kelli Owen’s WAITING OUT WINTER. This is a limited-edition chapbook, so copies might be hard to come by, but this is a fun read you should snap up if you get the chance, and a story I’d expect to see in a collection of Kelli’s short fiction. It’s an apocalyptic story without zombies, as impossible as that may sound these days, and more importantly, it’s a human story, with a fun and ironic twist at the end. You can read my full review here, and if you have a Nook, you can pick up a digital copy.

3. Stephen King’s 11/22/63. King, even at the top of his game, has a habit of being a bit long-winded. His last novel, UNDER THE DOME, was a thousand-page brick and also, in my opinion, disappointing as Hell. I really wanted to like this epic-length story of a guy going back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination–and I did. Alot. As much as an unnecessarily padded book can aggravate me, nothing satisfies me like a long book done well, that I can lose myself in for a big chunk of time. This book did that, admirably well. King didn’t beat the mechanics of time travel to death, which I greatly appreciate, and Jake’s relationship with Sadie is at least as poignant, and somewhat reminiscent of, BAG OF BONES, another favorite King of mine. The bonus visit to Derry during the first quarter of the book is the cherry on top.

HONORABLE MENTION: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES by Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz and Dan Duncan. This isn’t a one-book sort of deal, where I can just throw up one pile of stapled-together pictures and words and call it good; it’s an ongoing comic series, hence the special mention. I’ve been a Turtles fan since forever, grew up watching the cartoon and have read the bulk of the original Mirage and later Archie comics turtles series’. I was stoked beyond words when I heard IDW was going to be doing the Turtles; even moreso when I learned that original creator, Kevin Eastman, was going to be on board. I’ve read the first three issues and I’m loving it. The first trade, which I’d imagine will collect the first four-issue arc, will be on sale in February, but I’m sure you can track down the individual issues at your local comic shop. Any concerns about the comic being cartoony, or for kids, or that the writers will just be rehashing what’s already been done..? Lay them aside. Already, we’ve had an entirely different Turtles origin and not a Shredder in sight, though even I’d be disappointed if we didn’t see the ol’ Shred-head eventually.

 

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