Saturday, June 05, 2010

Don't Fear the Reaper

In early 1977, probably about the time of my 15th birthday, my brother Steve took me to see Brian DePalma's Carrie. It was an X certificate (shows you how long ago that was) and I was as nervous as a baby bunny being eyed up by a hungry wolf. My big brother was taking me to the cinema and to see a film I really shouldn't be able to see for at least 3 more years.

I was more nervous about showing my brother up than I was about this horror movie that seemed to be generating a hell of a buzz. The film started and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. This was supposed to be a horror movie? Why then was the screen - all 30 foot of it - full of naked young women with their bits all on show? I was 15, I wriggled uncomfortably in my chair.

The film, on the whole, was pretty good and, of course, the reason why there was this buzz was because of something that happens late on in the film - if you haven't seen it and don't know what happens, it's worth checking it out. I guarantee you'll jump out of your skin.

Anyhow, this was my first exposure to Stephen King. I wasn't even aware that he'd written the book this film was adapted from.

Fast forward 4 years. It's 1980 and I'm, unknown to me, drawing to a close my relationship with Northampton for a couple of years. I was living in a bungalow with the same brother who took me to see Carrie and his then girlfriend and now wife. I got pneumonia - the reasons for which would fill an entire chapter of a long book, but that isn't why I'm here today. I ended up being looked after by my mum at their place down in Hertfordshire. I convalesced for 6 weeks, but because I had been ill for a big chunk of it, it seemed considerably longer. By week 4, I was still poorly, but bored out of my skull. I took a trip in the nearby town of Radlett with my dad and popped into a bookshop. I figured I might as well do some reading as I had little else to do. This was 1980, there wasn't an Internet or video games and there was only 3 channels and a video cost a week's wages. I know this because Steve bought Carrie when he was in London in 1978; it cost him £60.

I was browsing the book section and saw a selection of Stephen King books, one of which was Carrie. Knowing this story, I opted not to buy it and instead picked up copies of Salem's Lot, The Shining and The Stand - his latest best seller, the cover screamed at me. Incredibly, I still had enough money left from my tenner to buy another book, so I picked up a book called Ghost Story by Peter Straub.

Now, for the sake of brevity, I read Salem's Lot first, was totally drawn into it until the point in the book where I realised that it was about vampires. This fact tried desperately to ruin my enjoyment of the story, but failed. I then read The Shining and was underwhelmed beyond belief. The critics suggested this was King's creepiest book. I disliked it immensely. Deciding to take a break from King, I read the Straub book next and it blew me into next week. I was sat there wondering why Stephen King was being heralded as the saviour of horror stories, when this Straub guy was streets better?

But, this isn't about that either. The sad fact is Straub wrote one other great book (in my humble opinion) and that was Floating Dragon. This is about the last of the quartet of books...

I went back to Northampton and I neglected to take the books with me. I returned to work, the summer came and things started to get a bit flaky. It looked like I couldn't renew the lease on my bungalow, which I now lived in with some friends. I returned to my folks' and started to look for work down there.

The first thing I did was read the other Stephen King book I'd bought earlier in the year - The Stand. And this book is what all the previous preamble was about...

I read The Stand three times between 1980 and 1990, when only the original version was available and that weighed in at about 700 odd pages. When, in 1989, King announced a limited edition extended version with illustrations by my favourite artist Bernie Wrightson, I was ecstatic.

My copy arrived in the autumn of 1990 and I hurriedly devoured it, now at nearly 1200 pages, it added weight and depth to some of the characters I'd fallen in love with over the previous 10 years.

King freely admits that The Stand isn't even one of his favourite books, but realises that for many of his devoted readers, it is the one thing that sets him above every other genre writer. The Stand really is an epic.

One wonders whether The Stand really didn't mean that much to King; after all, it appeared to be a far flung future version of The Stand's world that had Roland the Gunslinger and pals descend on their own dark journey. In fact, the more you dug into the Dark Tower series, the more it looked and felt like a follow up to The Stand. And this made the Stand even better and made The Dark Tower something to really look forward to.

However, King nearly died and as a result discovered ego and the Dark Tower was retroactively rewritten to erase any of The Stand's connection - therefore making The Dark Tower the biggest piece of shit ever written and substituting a great idea with metaphysical bollocks that had me wanting to claw my eyes out by the time I finished reading it.

But that is a digression that one day I will fully explore, but not now. The Stand, I realised, picking it up last Wednesday, hasn't been read in this house for nearly 20 years. That frightened me, how could I read the same book three times and the extended version once in a little over 10 years and then never return to it?

I think a lot of it has to do with peoples perceptions of 'new and improved'. A film I totally love to bits it Close Encounters of the Third Kind; when Spielberg released the extended, re-edited version, I was a bit ner about it. Yeah, it was my film and it had new bits, but it was, you know, a bit ner...

That, I think, might be the main reason I haven't even considered reading The Stand again; but 20 years is a long time and I finally decided that I should treat myself again. Unlike King's revised The Gunslinger, which made me want to send runny shit in a box to the author, this extended version does a very good job of fleshing out characters who were already pretty well rounded and because of the way the story unfolds, it is important that you discover everything important about the characters that are going to inhabit your imagination for a while.

I'm not even a third of the way through it again and I'm loving it. I figured I wouldn't be so eager to read it, knowing what happens and all; but it has this ability to draw you into this frightening world, because it is the most plausible way for mankind to die off; but then it throws in lots of mystic bullshit about good and evil, but in such a convincing way that even when it gets slightly supernatural, it fits with the over all feeling of the book.

It still amazes me that a book written in the 1970s, updated for the early 90s and being read in 2010 can be so accurate in its apocalyptic vision - maybe we haven't changed that much in the last 40 years?

I hear that there will be a Dark Tower series of films; that there might be a sequel to it and I think about the crap version of The Stand they made for television and wonder what would be made of King's epic had it been given the Lord of the Rings treatment. It might not be visually spectacular, but it was the TV show Lost 35 years before that appeared.

If you don't know what the book is about it's simple - the end of the world and the final battle between those who perceive themselves as good against those that are evil. It is the kind of thing you could take on holiday with you and it will help wile the hours away while sitting on the beach or staring at the rain. It's a great introduction to King, but be warned, very little else he's done can even hold a candle to this.

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