“On Writing” by Stephen King (2000)

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“I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liars’ Club.”

There are some essential books that should be on the shelf of every writer. Strunk and White’s inimitable The Elements of Style is one of them, and I also make a big noise for Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Robert McKee’s Story. Another that people swear by, and I can’t believe I’ve only just got round to, is Stephen King’s On Writing. At last I’ve joined the ranks of the sensible and can see why they hold it in such high esteem.

Part-memoir and part-writing guide, this book is something quite unique. In the first half of the book, King tells us about his childhood and his path to publication. It’s not comprehensive by any means, as he himself admits, but it picks up on all the major points of his life, from childhood illness, his brother’s teenage newspaper, his first foray into seeking publication, his alcoholism and drug dependency, his marriage, how he got the idea for some of books including Carrie and Misery, and his mother’s death.

He then launches in to a discussion all the tools writers should have at their disposal – vocabulary, grammar, style – and then he gives us his advice. He admits, rightly, that while he might not be the greatest writer in the world, he’s published enough to know a thing or two about it. He is certainly an authority, and you don’t sell as many as him without knowing a thing or two. He explains how to use adverbs, why there’s nothing wrong with “said”, how the main way to be a better writer is to be a better reader, how to show not tell, create three-dimensional characters and realistic dialogue, and even covers how to get agents and publishers interested in your work. Every bit of advice is sensible and I agree with almost all of it – no two writers will have exactly the same opinions. But you have to trust a man who has produced so many great novels. Along the way, King also introduces us to some of his favourite writers and how they have perfected the things he’s talking about, bringing us into the worlds of Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee and J. K. Rowling.

The final part of the book, which in some ways would be worth the price of purchase alone, details the time in 1999 when King was hit by an out-of-control van and was nearly killed. I knew this about his history, but the story of his injuries and recovery are absolutely mind-boggling. Quite frankly it’s a wonder that he can walk, and it’s a testament to what geniuses doctors are. While obviously not necessarily directly relevant to how one writes a good book, it’s none the less a study in itself of how to tell a story to get the best reaction, whether he meant it to be or not.

If you are a writer, or have any intentions of being one, then this is a vital read.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Elevation” by Stephen King (2019)

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“Scott Carey knocked on the door of the Ellis condo unit, and Bob Ellis (everyone n Highland Acres still called him Doctor Bob, although he was five years retired) let him in.”

I have a love/hate relationship with Stephen King but, then again, I think everyone does. Sure, there is no denying his talent, but when you churn out as many books as he does, they can’t all be winners. Having been bitten in the past, but also having enjoyed others, I took a chance on his new book, Elevation, partly because the synopsis intrigued me, and partly because, well, it was short. If it turned out to be a dud, it wouldn’t take long. (I’ve become so cynical…)

Scott Carey knows that in Castle Rock gossip travels really fast, so he seeks out advice from just one person, his friend Dr Bob Ellis, about the peculiar symptoms he’s been displaying. He has started losing weight, one or two pounds a day, but there’s absolutely no physical difference to his pot-bellied figure. Even stranger, anything he’s holding while on the scales doesn’t seem to have any weight at all. Scott refuses to talk to anyone else about it, because he doesn’t want to become a science experiment or a freak show.

Elsewhere, a lesbian couple have recently moved to town and opened a new restaurant. While some of the neighbours might seem friendly and make use of Deirdre and Missy’s new place, others don’t seem so progressive. Scott’s only concern is that their dogs keep fouling on his lawn. With the town’s annual Thanksgiving race coming up, Deirdre is determined to win it so that the town has to pay attention to her.

Short and sweet, the book is fortunately not a dud. It’s just long enough to capture your attention and, aside from Scott’s mysterious weight loss, it’s all very real and not much actually happens. Scott is a pleasant enough person with some tragedy in his past that is only ever obliquely mentioned and he seems to want to get on with people rather than endure any conflict. Deirdre is an interesting one. She is one of those people who will leap to a defensive position whenever it seems anyone doesn’t like her and blame it on the fact that she’s a married lesbian, rather than because she’s just an abrasive person. No one denies that it’s harder to be a minority in many places in the world, but she certainly seems willing to use it as an excuse rather than adjust her own personality. Indeed, there is some hostility to her and Missy because of their sexuality, and the small town is perhaps not as picturesque to outsiders as it seems to those who live there.

The addition of an element of magical realism is fun and while this isn’t a horror, there is certainly a tension surrounding the text, with the inevitable question being, “What happens to Scott when he stops weighing anything?” The resolution is bittersweet, but fascinating, and ties things up nicely.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“Misery” by Stephen King (1987)


“umber whunnnn”

While hardly the most uplifting novel on my shelf, I found myself drawn to Stephen King. Maybe the title reflected my mood this last week or so, and it certainly hasn’t helped change that. And yet I’m actually not really complaining, because I think even if I’d been the happiest man on the planet, Misery would’ve brought me down a peg or six. When he’s bad, he’s really bad, but when he’s good, there’s no arguing with the fact that King is one of the planet’s finest writers.

Paul Sheldon has been pulled from the wreckage of his car on a lonely, snow-covered mountain road by Annie Wilkes, a woman who lives in an isolated cabin and claims to be his number one fan. She is particularly fond of his Misery series, and the fifth instalment is released while Paul is under her care. However, when she discovers that Paul ended the book by killing Misery off, she’s not happy. In fact, she’s livid.

Paul, however, is reliant on her care, as his legs are broken and it’s clear she hasn’t told anyone else that he’s there. Annie comes up with a plan – Paul must save Misery from the grave and write Annie her very own novel. If he doesn’t, well, Annie will punish him. Soon, Paul learns the truth about Annie’s past, and he realises that he’s in a lot more danger than he first thought. He’s now writing to save his life…

The novel’s real genius comes from the fact that it manages to remain captivating despite having, for the most part, just two characters and a single room as the setting. While not an out-and-out horror, it’s horrifying enough and serves as one of the most interesting thrillers I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve seen the film and think you know what’s going to happen, it’s worth reading because from what I’ve picked up, there are some huge differences. Annie is a stunningly vile creation who appears to have no redeeming features whatsoever, and yet King still ensures you feel some kind of pity for her, or maybe that’s just me being a bit more sociopathic than is normal. Paul’s characterisation flips between him being quite weak and easily cowed, but also determined, and yet it still somehow works. His goal is self-preservation, and he goes about it however he can.

The novel is also in many ways a discussion on the art of writing. Someone wiser than me described it as the book King wrote to stop other people becoming writers, and you can see why. If I was famous to the degree of Paul, I’d definitely be looking over my shoulder for my “number one fans”. There is talk within of the use of deus ex machinas in storytelling, with it all being explained in interesting detail. It’s notable that King has said the book was based around his experiences with drug addiction, with Annie representing his addiction and Paul being himself, struggling with withdrawal and dependence. Many aspects of the novel can be seen as allegorical, such as Annie removed or destroying parts of Paul’s body being a metaphor for writers having to edit their work and cut away bits that they liked.

As I said, maybe this isn’t the right book to read when you’re already not feeling your perkiest, but it’s nonetheless a really good read. Claustrophobic and scary, despite the insanity of the action it somehow remains far too real and none of it actually feels too far fetched, which perhaps makes the whole concept even worse. A fascinating look at mental illness, addiction, and, perhaps oddly, the power that literature has over people. Possibly, despite everything else, I believe that Misery is a love letter to books and writers, although one written in blood on the back of an overdue utility bill.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King (1982)

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Get a move on!

Get a move on!

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I’ve only read Stephen King once before and I rather enjoyed it. His huge tome Under The Dome has been sat on my shelf for years, but I’ve yet to work up the courage or upper body strength to read it. Instead, I thought I’d turn to his supposed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, picking up the first installment, The Gunslinger, that had just been updated with new text and information to make it work better with the later books in the series. Not really knowing what to expect, I took the plunge.

In this novel – actually five shorter stories taped together – we meet Roland, the gunslinger, who is travelling across a vast, seemingly endless, featureless desert. With only a worn out mule and his guns for company, the gunslinger is on the trail of the man in black, although why we are not immediately told.

The gunslinger meets a few people in the desert, living nomadic lives, and tells stories of how he got to be where he is. He talks of the last town he left, Tull, where he killed every person in the town after they went mad and believed him to be a demon. He then meets Jake, a small boy who is all alone, and the gunslinger takes him along on his journey, although his motives may not be as kind as they first seem. Time passes strangely in the desert and while they’ve no idea how long they’ve been travelling for, the gap between the gunslinger and the man in black grows ever smaller, and it starts to look like maybe he even wants to be caught…

Frankly, I didn’t get it. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but I didn’t get it. Long-winded to a fault, with characters that never particularly shone for me, I found the book uninteresting and somewhat dull. For a book that is meant to be the best thing one has written, it’s a disappointment. Perhaps part of that is because I expected it to be scary – that’s what Stephen King is meant to be about, after all, but aside from it being a little creepy in places, it really doesn’t frighten. I also never understood particularly where or when it’s meant to be set. Jake seems to remember modern day New York, but the gunslinger has very little concept of machines. There’s a suggestion that it’s all taking place thousands of years after our time, or perhaps in an alternate timeline. They know the song “Hey Jude”, and there’s a scene that proves it’s Earth that we’re residing on, but it all seems disjointed. I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be, but I was too busy trying to get all that straight in my head to focus on the plot some of the time.

The man in black, when we finally meet him, is something of a let down. Supposedly the embodiment of evil, I wasn’t too fussed by him, although perhaps that’s just because by the end I was simply reading it to finish it. The gunslinger in turn is somewhat distant and none too exciting as a main character. He has a single-minded determination and while he’s shown to be able to show emotions, it feels a little forced and heavy-handed in its demonstration.

I think all in all my feeling is one of frustration. I had built it up in my head and King failed to deliver. I should really have known that I wasn’t going to be fully into this. After all, this is his attempt at doing what Tolkien did by building a huge, sprawling epic with its own history and culture, and I could never get into The Lord of the Rings either. I’m not saying King is a bad writer – the man is a huge success and I’ve liked other things he’s done – but this time I really have to just hold my hands up and say that I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

The gunslinger may one day reach the Dark Tower, but I doubt I will be alongside him when he does.