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The Talisman

For anyone new to my reviews, I’m a huge Stephen King. I own all his books in hardback and am currently working my way through his catalog. This year, I’ve read Joyland, If It Bleeds, The Shining, Doctor Sleep, Night Shift, Cycle of the Werewolf, and Blockade Billy. I still have a few on the list to read in the next few months, as well.

From Goodreads:

On a brisk autumn day, a twelve-year-old boy stands on the shores of the gray Atlantic, near a silent amusement park and a fading ocean resort called the Alhambra. The past has driven Jack Sawyer here: his father is gone, his mother is dying, and the world no longer makes sense. But for Jack everything is about to change. For he has been chosen to make a journey back across America–and into another realm.

One of the most influential and heralded works of fantasy ever written, The Talisman is an extraordinary novel of loyalty, awakening, terror, and mystery. Jack Sawyer, on a desperate quest to save his mother’s life, must search for a prize across an epic landscape of innocents and monsters, of incredible dangers and even more incredible truths. The prize is essential, but the journey means even more. Let the quest begin. . . .

The Talisman is one of the few books King co-wrote, this one with the amazing Peter Straub, who also writes horror books. (Ghost Story is a great one of his). The main character, Jack, is excellent. Even though he’s only twelve, he’s brave and hard-working and smart. That said, the secondary characters annoyed me to no end. They were such a distraction to the main story. The villain wasn’t really all that scary. There were other minor villains that were much worse, and Jack finds himself in some difficult situations that seem to last forever while reading.

I always wonder if I love SK’s books because they are legitimately good or because he wrote them. Can I be objective or do I just think all his books are amazing. Well, we have an answer. This one was just okay for me. I didn’t LOVE it like I have most of his other books. I know there are plenty in the past that I read and just found mediocre, but as of late, most everything has been excellent. And even though I enjoyed this one, I didn’t give it five stars because it seemed to drag for me in a lot of ways.

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Night Shift

The cover of this book haunted my childhood. My dad had this paperback on his bookshelf. And when I was just an early reader, I would love to look at the covers of his books. I don’t remember any of them, except this. I hated it because it was so creepy. As vivid as the cover is, I had entirely forgotten which book it was until I actually started reading this one. And when I read the short story about a man with eyeballs on his hand, the memory came rushing back. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to know that this cover no longer haunts me. I can look at it with no ill effects.

I love individual short stories, but short story collections just aren’t my thing. I much prefer a novel. But I’ve been working my way through all SK’s books and picked this one up. It’s his first collection, published in 1978, and reading it was a blast to the past. These stories are very similar to his early novels in writing style. You also get a glimpse into the SK multi-verse.

“Night Surf” is tangentially related to The Stand. “Jerusalem’s Lot” and “One for the Road” revisit ‘Salem’s Lot. The famous “Children of the Corn” is introduced here, as is “The Lawnmower Man” (which is 99% different than the movie). Every one of these stories was excellent, which is rare for me to acknowledge. Usually there’s a hit or a miss in there somewhere, but I enjoyed them all. If you’re looking to get into SK but aren’t ready to tackle a novel yet, I highly recommend this collection.

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Joyland

I’ve been working my way through Stephen King’s back catalog. At this point, I’ve read 43 of his 50 novels, counting this one. I’m trying to read at least 4 more this year, as well. I’m way behind on his short story collections, though. Maybe next year that will be my goal. This short book was one that I’ve never heard much buzz about. His long books, ones turned into movies, and his old classics are ones that frequently are read and reviewed. But this one is highly underrated. I absolutely loved it.

Set in the summer of 1973 at a small amusement park named Joyland, Devin is spending his summer break from college trying to earn a few bucks. He’s a hard worker, great with kids, and is enjoying his time near the beach. A fortune teller warns him of some events in his future, but of course, he dismisses her, because, well, fortune telling. There’s also park legend about a woman who haunts the ride where she was murdered. The murder is true, but the haunting, well, chalk that up to the fortune telling. Devin just doesn’t believe. So, given this is Stephen King, you can probably guess that Devin’s skepticism is unfounded. Craziness ensues.

The ending of this book was perfect. Obviously, I won’t say why, but I really loved it. This book definitely needs more love. I can’t believe more people don’t read this one. It’s also a great entry point into his works. It’s short, not too graphic, and you get sucked in quickly. Cannot recommend this one enough.

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If It Bleeds

My love of Stephen King books is well-documented. Oddly enough, I only read his novels. I’m not one for short stories. However, I’m trying to get through his entire collection, so I’ll read them all at some point. This one is a collection of four novellas, which strike me a bit better than short stories. I like a good development in the plot. And one of them is almost 200 pages, so it might as well be a novel; some books I read are near that anyway.

The four stories aren’t really all that gross or horrifying. Nothing that will keep you up at night. They are definitely mysterious and a bit creepy, but they are tame considering their author. My favorite was If It Bleeds because we get to revisit a character that I especially love. It was the longest story, also. But overall, these are great stories for anyone who enjoys a good, creepy read. And I recommend them as a good way to enter the world of Stephen King.

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Doctor Sleep

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I first read The Shining 20 odd years ago. One of King’s earliest, this book is one of his most well-known, partly because of its ability to scare but also because of Kubrik’s movie version. The book was published 40 years ago, creating a new generation of fans. Thanks so an episode of Friends, The Shining is also known as the book that’s so scary that Joey has to put it in the freezer, spawning a horror book podcast called “Books in the Freezer.” After hearing Doctor Sleep was going to be a movie, I knew I had to reread The Shining because it had been so long. And although SK does a good job of letting you know what happens in The Shining through the plot of Doctor Sleep, it is still helpful to have read The Shining first.

The past few years have been good for SK, but he still has some letdowns. Under the Dome and Revival were both great, but the endings were awful. The Mr. Mercedes trilogy is really great, but the last book gets pretty far-fetched. The Outsider and The Institute were mostly good, but Doctor Sleep tops them all. I devoured this book in just a few days. I absolutely loved it. Not just because I loved seeing Danny again, but the entire plot was well-constructed, and the ending was superb.

We find Danny struggling, to put it mildly. Following in his father’s footsteps, Dan is an alcoholic and has hit rock bottom. Thankfully, this part of the story doesn’t last long because it’s really heartbreaking. Of course, Dan drinks to stop the shining, but he’s a really great person underneath it all. Once he gets clean, he “meets” a young girl named Abra who has the same shining but is much more powerful than Dan ever was. Abra is very aware of a group of vampires who prey on children with the shining. These vampires don’t drink blood but rather feast on the essence of the children. Once their leader, Rose the Hat, becomes aware of Abra, the chase begins. Dan and Abra must stop these vampires before they harm any more children.

This story is so tightly woven that no event is unnecessary. I feel like a lot of SK’s books could use a good edit, but this one is only 650 pages, so maybe this one did get a red pen taken to it. Doctor Sleep has absolutely entered my top 10 of SK’s books. I loved this one a lot.

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The Shining

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This book is the first Stephen King book I read, over 20 years ago. I sure did start out with a bang! Since I have yet to read Doctor Sleep, I wanted to revisit The Shining to refresh my memory of the Torrance family. This book is one where you can’t compare it to the movie at all. They are vastly different. It’s pretty well-known that King isn’t a fan of The Shining movie, calling it “a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.” Directed by Stanley Kubrick, the movie just never really captures the terror presented in the book.

We first meet the Torrance family, Jack, Wendy, and five-year-old Danny, after Jack has stopped drinking and is applying for a job as the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. High up in the mountains, the Overlook closes from Sept-May. Jack’s drinking troubles have ceased, but the memory of him breaking Danny’s arm lingers. Wendy loves her husband but is wary. And Danny is a great kid but an unusual one. Danny can see things before they happen. Once they get to the Overlook, Danny meets the head chef, Dick, who can also see things before they happen. This skill, Dick says, is called “the shine.” Dick knows the hotel isn’t harmless and is nervous for the family. He tells Danny to call him, mentally, if he needs him.

Slowly, the hotel begins to take possession of the family. Jack is the easiest to turn because he’s mentally troubled with his alcoholism. Even though the place is dry, the instability he has previously suffered makes him an ideal candidate for going crazy. The hotel also tries to get Danny into its grips by showing him horrifying things that have happened there. Wendy is the strongest, but she is at the mercy of her husband and son.

The ending of this book is nothing like in the movie, and giant chunks of the plot were altered, which was unnecessary. The book really is great as is, no adjustments needed. Aside from the end, the book is only graphic in a few spots but is really more of a psychological horror than anything else. I’ve read dozens of his books, and this one really does stand out as one of his best.

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The Dead Zone

Every year, I make a point to read old SK books that I have never read before. This year, I read Rage and Firestarter, as well as his newest, The Institute. Once the 2020 PopSugar Challenge comes out, I will see which of his books fit into more categories. It’s been a lot of fun going back and reading the old stuff. And although, I read The Shining decades ago, I think I’m going to reread and then read Doctor Sleep after, which is one I haven’t read.

The Dead Zone follows a young man, Johnny Smith, through an accident. He is in a coma for four years and wakes up with psychic powers. He touches someone and gets flashes of information about their past, but he can also see the future. For example, he sees that someone’s house is on fire and alerts her to call the fire department, which saves her life.

Johnny struggles with his “fame.” He’s a humble, kind man who just wants to be a teacher and fall in love. However, he also feels an obligation to do the right thing. He catches a murderer, tries to tell people about terrible events (most don’t believe him, because, well, he’s a psychic, which is hooey), but he knows his most important job is to stop a dangerous man.

This book was one of the slower ones. I fully expected to love this one and to think Firestarter was going to be a bit dull, but it was the opposite. Although I didn’t review Firestarter, I loved it and was really surprised at how well he captured the psyche of a young girl. But, of course, his books are great. I’m sure there are some that aren’t as great as others, but I have yet to find one that I didn’t enjoy.

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Rage

This book is one of the most controversial I’ve ever read. So much that it’s out of print and really difficult to find. There is a sneaky way to obtain a copy, which is what I did, but a first edition goes for thousands on eBay. Ages ago, the publishing world didn’t want to publish more than one book a year by a certain author. Stephen King was, and to this day still is, one of the most prolific authors out there, publishing about once every six months. When he first started, though, he was successful, but not enough for the publishers to take a chance on letting him release books twice a year. So, he figured out a way to cheat the system.  He published books under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman. He only wrote a handful before publishers realized what he was doing, saw he was successful no matter what name he published under, and decided to just let him write as much as he wanted. One of the books he published under this pseudonym was Rage, which King has since pulled from being published based on some very disturbing facts.

Rage is a first-person account of a teenager who commits a school shooting.  King decided to let this book go out of print after it was found in the possession of some kids who did actual school shootings, well before Columbine, before the take off of the Internet, where content is unfiltered and as bad, if not worse than you could imagine.  I’ve read a few disturbing stories about school shootings, namely We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I haven’t read one that was a first-person account, which made this book extremely difficult, and I can see why King has let it go out of print. You can still obtain it in a book called The Bachman Books, which is difficult to find, but not impossible. I got one at Half-Price Books.

I don’t really feel the need to discuss the plot of this book. A kid with a gun shoots some people. It’s horrifying, disturbing, and difficult to read. I don’t support censorship, but I do support an author having ownership over his/her own work. King did the right thing by pulling this book, and I’m proud of him for sticking with the decision after 20+ years.

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Heart-Shaped Box

I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve had one spooky incident, though, but it’s not enough to convince me. The aunt of a friend of mine had recently passed away, and he was given her cd collection. I was flipping through them when the stereo turned on by itself. He was convinced his aunt was saying hello, but I just chalked it up to electronics doing weird stuff.  There are people who believe, which is totally fine, but I’m just not one of them, so ghost stories don’t really scare me much. I’m much more terrified by religious demon possession terror, even though I don’t believe in that either, than ghosts. But I do enjoy a good, creepy story.

Heart-Shaped Box is Joe Hill’s first novel, published over 10 years ago. And although, he publishes under the name Joe Hill, his name is really Joseph Hillstrom King. Yes, son of the famous Stephen King. He chose to publish this way in an efforrt to make his way into publishing without being associated with his father. His identity has since been revealed, and I don’t think anyone cares much who his father is, simply because Joe Hill’s work is truly outstanding. I’ve read Horns and The Fireman and NOS4A2 (before I started reviewing books) and really liked them all. However, Heart-Shaped Box might be my favorite. NOS4A2 was the most disturbing, by far, but Heart-Shaped Box has a sufficiently creepy story and interesting characters.

Judas Coyne is a washed-up mid-50s rocker. He has tons of money, no career, and likes his girls young. Not that young, but a good 30 years younger than him. He treats them well until he gets bored, then sends them on their way. One of them ends up killing herself after being kicked to the curb, and her family isn’t happy. This girl’s stepfather recently passed away and is now haunting Jude and his current girlfriend. Haunting is putting it mildly. He is able to inflict harm upon them and guarantees they will both die. Jude and his girl spend the rest of the book trying to escape and destroy this ghost.

If you are a fan of horror novels, or even of Stephen King, you absolutely must read Joe Hill’s work. His works are definitely reminiscent of his father’s, but there’s no coat-tail riding here. Hill has carved his own path in the genre, and I look forward to reading more of his books.

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Needful Things

*originally posted 2010 on another site

I’d say I’m a pretty solid Stephen King fan. I’ve read a good chunk of his books, and find The Stand his best by far. Only a few in there that were quite wretched (From a Buick 8, anyone??). But when I went to my well-organized library, I was simply looking for a good story. And Needful Things seemed like a pretty good one at 700 pages long. Granted, it took me a couple months to get through, but I did enjoy it quite a bit.

The poor town of Castle Rock has been the setting of many King stories, and this was an excellent finale for the town. A new store, Needful Things, opens up downtown. It doesn’t seem to have much in stock, but it does seem to have the one thing that your heart desires. For example, young Brian Rusk wants a Sandy Koufax card more than anything in the world. Needful Things happens to have it. And what do you know, the card is even autographed! Mr. Gaunt, the owner of Needful Things, asks for a nominal price, and the card becomes Brian’s. Just one more thing. Brian must play a prank on another person in town. Someone he doesn’t know and probably has never met. Brian is asked to throw mud on a lady’s sheets. Innocent enough, but that’s where it all begins. Mr. Gaunt somehow knows how to pit enemies against each other. When the mud lady sees her ruined sheets, she automatically assumes it was done by her mortal enemy. And of course the enemy has a prank played on her, and she assumes it was done by the mud lady. Craziness ensues.

The characters literally go insane with jealousy, revenge, envy, wrath, and a few of the other deadly sins. Seems like Mr. Gaunt isn’t just a regular guy.

The resolution is quite explosive in a variety of ways, and the reader isn’t disappointed with the insane amount of horrifying acts in this book. It’s a pretty solid effort by King. Good story, good violence, good creativity.