Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Miss Sidley Was Her Name, And Teaching Was Her Game: A Look At Stephen King's "Suffer the Little Children"

My outside cat hasn't come up this morning, so I must admit I am a little worried. The weather feels amazing today, though, and we live in the woods with plenty of places for cats to burrow down in and sleep. He's done this numerous times before, but I can't help but worry just a bit every time. I suppose this puts me in the right frame of mind to write about "Suffer the Little Children," though, which is good -- it's definitely one of Stephen King's darker short stories to date. It was written back in the '70s, when King was a young author. He was drinking a lot, which probably helped give his novels and short stories that certain edge. It's pretty unexplainable, but if you've read King's older work you know what I'm talking about.

Stephen King in the 1970s.

"Suffer the Little Children" is, if I'm not wrong, the shortest story in the collection. It's quick and painful, like a knife to the throat -- a quality present in the best of King's work. It's about Miss Sidley, a stern, older school-teacher being driven insane by her students so she takes them one by one down to the sound-proofed mimeograph room and shoots them with a small hand-gun she's concealed in her purse. She's discovered by a fellow teacher who happens to come into the room, and is soon sent away to Juniper Hill (connection to IT! connection to IT!!!), a mental institution in Augusta. Soon after, she slits her throat. Of the story, King says this in the book's notes:

"This story is from the same period as most of the stories in Night Shift, and was originally published in Cavalier, as were most of the stories in that 1978 collection. It was left out because my editor, Bill Thompson, felt the book was getting "unwieldy" -- this is the way editors sometimes tell writers that they have to cut a little before the price of the book soars out of sight. I voted to cut a story called  "Gray Matter" from Night Shift. Bill voted to cut "Suffer the Little Children." I deferred to his judgement, and read the story over carefully before deciding to include it here. I like it quite a lot -- it feels a little bit like the Bradbury of the late forties and early fifties to me, the fiendish Bradbury who reveled in killer babies, renegade undertakers, and tales only a Crypt-Keeper could love. Put another way, "Suffer the Little Children" is a ghastly sick-joke with no redeeming social merit whatever. I like that in a story."

King said all that needs to be said on the subject, so I'll go now. I know this has been a short entry, but "Suffer" is a really short story and doesn't really warrant a deep analysis. I loved it, but that's no surprise. I'm sure I won't be able to say that a little later on when discussing a few of the stories in this book, but so far Nightmares & Dreamscapes is 3 for 3.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

We Killed All the Plants, But At Least We Saved the Greenhouse: A Look At Stephen King's "The End of the Whole Mess"

I must say I was really looking forward to re-reading "The End of the Whole Mess," the second story in Nightmares & Dreamscapes.  It most certainly did not disappoint. This bittersweet tale of two highly intelligent brothers (one is really smart while one is a certifiable genius) and their ambitions of wiping away evil from our world is a sad one, and honestly . . . I'm not even sure where to begin in telling you guys about it.

Our narrator, Howie, is the older brother -- he's very smart, but his younger brother Bobby is the genius and the focus of our story. Howie was a freelance writer before things went wrong, and "The End of the Whole Mess" is his first-person account of growing up with Bobby, and how Bobby got the idea to make people nicer -- the end the world's pain. We are told within the first couple of pages that Howie has killed his younger brother -- at Bobby's request -- by shooting him up with his own discovery a few hours prior. We get the impression all hope is lost and something terrible has happened, even though we don't really even know what's going on yet. Soon after, our narrator tells us after he "turned on the radio, dialed through four bands, found one crazy guy, and shut it off," he shot himself up. While he's waiting for the eventual symptoms to come, he decides to write the story down for whoever -- or whatever -- happens to find it. 

Quick note: while I usually don't care for first-person narratives where the person telling the tale is waiting to die, in hiding, etc., King pulls it off quite well, so I can dig this one. I'm not sure why I don't tend to like those kinds of stories, though -- such is life.

After we're introduced to our narrator and he tells us of his "dead-line" he goes back to his childhood and gives us a few stories about what it was like growing up with a younger brother who graduated high school at age ten and graduated college at age sixteen. The two have a normal childhood and act like brothers do -- they don't always get along, but they have each other's back. Things are simply hyped up a bit with Bobby's experiments and inventions and his bouncing from chemistry to physics to archaeology to anthropology. 

"Guys like my brother Bobby come along once every two or three generations, I think -- guys like Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, maybe Edison. They all seem to have one thing in common: they are like huge compasses which swing aimlessly for a long time, searching for some true north and then homing in on it with fearful force. Before that happens such guys are apt to get up to some weird shit, and Bobby was no exception."

The story moves quickly through the boys' teenage years. They soon leave their loving parents and branch out on their own -- Bobby begins working on "The Calmative" and isn't heard from for three years; Howie becomes a published author and does pretty well. After three years, in the then-futuristic year 2006 (this story was written in the mid-80s, mind you), Bobby shows up at Howie's door with a bee-hive and a wasps' nest in glass boxes. After a long while of studying the water in La Plata, Texas (according to research done by the genius, it is the most non-violent town in the state -- in America, for that matter), Bobby has distilled a chemical that can -- perhaps -- eradicate the world's violent tendencies once and for all. It's an ambitious plan, but Bobby -- with the help of his older brother -- pulls it off by dumping his invention into a volcano that is expected to blow. It works perfectly -- the chemical works its way into the world's water, and slowly . . . mankind as a whole steps down. There are no more wars, no more barroom fights. For a short while, Earth is a peaceful place, a Garden of Eden . . . until people begin acting "silly" and start dropping like flies. In a way, this story is like The Stand on another level of the Tower. 

Our narrator begins experiencing the symptoms of the Calmative -- dry throat, forgetfulness, silliness -- and we're left with the nearly-incomprehensible (by this time the affects have taken away Howie's ability to form coherent sentences or even think logically) sentiment that he doesn't blame Bobby for what happened -- how was anyone to know what would happen when they released the Calmative? He tells Bobby he forgives and loves him, and signs the story "for the whole world." It's a pretty brutal ending, and it's a bit chilling, too -- I can't help but imagine this guy sitting in an arm-chair in a darkened room, the only light coming for a single lamp, and the corpse of his brother lying nearby. Perhaps Howie is the last living thing on Earth because of this experiment meant for good that went horribly, horribly wrong. Depressing, isn't it? 

Stephen King really offers up some excellent social commentary here. The world is growing increasingly violent every year . . . and what are we going to do about it? Eventually let ourselves as a species be ended prematurely? It's a hard question to ask because there might not be anything we can do. Maybe mankind will improve eventually, but it's a long shot. Along with earlier short stories "The Jaunt" and "I Am the Doorway," King shows with "The End of the Whole Mess" he can write convincing, note-worthy science fiction just as well as he can write horror . . . or any genre, for that matter. 

I'll probably read the next story in the collection tonight and write my entry on it tomorrow. Said story is, of course, "Suffer the Little Children." It's not a lengthy one, so I doubt my post will be long unless I find I have a lot to say about it. See you then!


Monday, August 11, 2014

His Hair Went Silver While Mine Just Went: A Look At Stephen King's "Dolan's Cadillac"

Finally -- here we are at the first entry in my Nightmares & Dreamscapes series. Settle into your favorite chair and read along, and try not to laugh too hard at my occasional inability to talk about this story.

This one is pretty friggin' great.

The story in question is Stephen King's "Dolan's Cadillac," the opener of his 1993 short story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes -- N&D for short. I remembered liking this story a good deal, but I was never totally enamored with it. It was one of the rare short stories where I felt King got a little long in the tooth and a bit caught up in technical details. Now I realize the story is the perfect length. You see, we the readers need the details (which didn't take up as much story as my mind had exaggerated -- that's what happens when you haven't read something in a while, I suppose). The lengths to which our main character, simply called Robinson, go to to get his revenge are staggering but are very necessary to the plot. We need to feel what it's like when Robinson digs that hole.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. What, exactly, is "Dolan's Cadillac" even about?

In short, Dolan, local wealthy mobster-type, has Robinson's wife Elizabeth murdered because she "told" on something he did to the FBI. This area of the story is left to our imaginations, but that's okay -- we "get" it. After seven years of watching and waiting and plotting, third grade school-teacher Robinson finally starts taking the steps to extract his revenge.

In a less-capable author's hands, a short story about a scorned widower wanting revenge for his wife's death might not be anything great, but Stephen King isn't just any ole author, is he?

Robinson begins working out. On summer break, he gets hired on with a highway construction crew. In Las Vegas. In the desert. These passages are almost painful to read about (says he who avoids the sun whenever possible), but that's their job. For example: 

"The big struggle was not to faint, to hold onto consciousness no matter what. All through June I held on, and the first week of July, and then Blocker sat down next to me one lunch hour while I was eating a sandwich with one shaking hand. I shook sometimes until ten at night. It was the heat. It was either shake or faint, and when I thought of Dolan I somehow managed to keep shaking."

In this passage we are neatly shown the wretchedness of the job, Robinson's dedication to getting stronger, and his utter hatred of Dolan. I'd like you to take a moment and put yourself in our narrator's shoes. Has anyone ever done you so wrong that you would stop at nothing to get back at them? Even if it meant shoveling hot tar under the desert sun? One of my favorite topics in modern fiction is revenge, and I'm not sure why. Regardless, I love it and King covers the topic well, especially here and in Needful Things (a book I'll definitely be writing about soon enough). If you can put yourself in this guy's shoes . . . then you'll see the magic, the clincher of the story. What if . . . 

So the summer ends and Robinson goes back to teaching. He's a buff guy now, and his fellow teachers don't laugh at him like they used to. Two more years pass -- two more years of working out, road-work, plotting, and stalking Dolan. Finally, the plan for revenge comes together. 

Las Vegas desert

Dolan has a place in Las Vegas and a place in L.A., and spends a lot of time on the road between the two riding in his Cadillac. Robinson knows this.  After finding out the upcoming year's schedule for road re-pavements that will result in highway detours, our narrator stealthily waits for: a.) time off b.) a long weekend c.) travel for Dolan, and d.) a national holiday. The stars align for the fourth of July weekend -- Dolan will be stayed at his Las Vegas place for the holiday. Robinson begins consulting his mathematician friend for instructions on how to dig a grave big enough for a Cadillac in the highway, and the voice in his head of his  dead beloved for strength and guidance. 

After days and weeks and months of planning and more planning (our main character's patience and attention to detail is perhaps the most frightening aspect of the story), Robinson gets the tools he need to dig the grave to fit a Cadillac with Dolan and his guards inside. It isn't easy -- Robinson spends two long, hot days digging this thing and one is reminded of the boys' exhaustion in The Long Walk -- but he finishes it just in the nick of time. The trap is set; now we wait. 

From the film Dolan's Cadillac

Like a lamb to the slaughter, Dolan's driver doesn't see the trap until it's too late and the car is in the hole with only four inches or so sticking out above ground. The doors can't be opened more than a foot. Robinson moves the road-work signs he's moved around to his advantage back to their rightful spots so people don't think this particular stretch of highway is drive-able, and also so he and Dolan can finally -- after all this time -- be alone. 

"I . . . felt a jittery moment of what I can only term sympathetic claustrophobia. Push the window-buttons -- nothing. Try the doors, even though you can see they're going to clunk to a full stop long before you could squeeze through. 
Then I stopped trying to imagine, because he was the one who had bought this wasn't he? Yes. He had bought his own ticket and paid a full fare. 
'Who's there?'
'Me,' I said, 'but I'm not the help you're looking for, Dolan.' 
I kicked another fan of grit and pebbles across the gray Cadillac's roof."

If I'm being 100% honest, despite this scene being terribly horrific, I can't help but feel a lot of satisfaction for Robinson -- he got Dolan back, and how! The dude had men strap dynamite to this guy's wife's car and had her blown to pieces, and now he's getting his. This is terrifying stuff, but what a ride! 

"'Get me out!' he shrieked. 'Please! I can't stand it! Get me out!'
'You ready for that counter-proposal?' I asked. 
'Yes! Yes! Christ! Yes! Yes! Yes!'
'Scream. That's the counter-proposal. That's what I want. If you scream loud enough, I'll let you out.'
He screamed piercingly. 
'That was good!' I said, and I meant it. 'But it was nowhere near good enough.'


' . . . if you make a sound come out of your mouth which is as loud, let us say, as eight sticks of dynamite taped to the ignition switch of a 1968 Chevrolet, then I will let you out, and you may count on it.' 

Needless to say, Dolan never does scream quite loud enough. He tries, oh yes, he tries, but it isn't good enough. Eventually, Robinson begins covering up the Cadillac's grave while trying to ignore the mad laughter and gun-shots from below. He goes home, soaks in the tub for hours, and eventually has to have surgery on his back due to the strenuous bind he put it in while digging the deep, long hole. But it was worth it, and this guy knows it -- oh yeah, he knows it. After a while, life goes back to normal, and all is well. Dang it if King didn't give this one a happy ending! 

(Some snatches of quotes from the story I really liked, but didn't really fit in with the rest of the post):

  • "Schoolteachers and high-priced hoodlums do not have the same freedom of movement; it's just an economic fact of life."
  • "'She was in pieces,' I croaked. 'I loved her and she was in pieces.' As a cheer it was never going to replace 'Go, Bears!' or 'Hook em, horns!' but it got me moving." 
  • "But it was not really her voice that persuaded me to go on. What really turned the trick was an image of Dolan lying asleep in his penthouse while I stood here in this hole beside a stinking, rumbling bucket-loader, covered with dirt, my hands in flaps and ruins. Dolan sleeping in silk pajama bottoms with one of his blondes beside him, wearing only the top. Downstairs, in the glassed-in executive section of the parking garage, the Cadillac, already loaded with luggage, would be gassed and ready to go. 'All right, then,' I said. I climbed slowly back into the bucket-loader's seat and revved the engine." 
  • "And Elizabeth? Like Dolan, she has fallen silent. I find that is a relief."   

This re-read definitely changed my opinion of this story from "yeah, it's pretty good, but it drags a bit" to "this is one of King's best short stories." I'm not sure if it would be in my top ten, but that's more of a testament to how great King's stories are in general. It's a definite winner, though. 

Coming up (sometime . . .): "The End Of the Whole Mess"



A Look At Peter Straub's JULIA [1975]

Alright, folks. It's gonna be a quick one today -- I want to finish "Dolan's Cadillac" before this evening (yes, I know it's only a short story, thus it shouldn't be taking me this long to read -- I've been busy, okay?) and hopefully write about it tonight, too. Will I do it? Who knows. But I'm shooting for a "definitely maybe."

Like I said in another entry, I haven't been reading King's work as much as I used to. That's not a dig at my favorite author or anything; I've just been branching out, which isn't ever a bad thing. I've been reading some Koontz and Dekker, King's sons' and wife's books, and even some by a guy named Peter Straub. That name might be familiar to King fans -- Peter and Stephen collaborated on The Talisman and Black House. I was never really interested in Straub's writing until I read The Talisman and was blown away by the stuff that felt rather un-King-like. It was different . . . but good. I was intrigued. I began working my way through his books, starting with 1979's Ghost Story (phenomenal book -- one I can't say enough good things about), and then I made my way backward with 1977's If You Could See Me Now and 1975's Julia. The latter is the farthest I've gotten in reading Straub's stuff, and it's the one I'm here today to talk about. It's a rather slight novel, but it's good.

This is my new favorite book cover of all-time. Yep. 

Julia is divided up into four parts: "The Haunting: Julia", "The Search:  Heather", "The Closing: Olivia", and "November," which acts as an epilogue. In The Haunting, we are introduced to Julia Lofting, a woman who is on the run from her abusive husband, Magnus, and buys a large house for herself to escape from the memories of her late daughter, Kate. Soon after, we are introduced to the tight band of characters: Magnus, Julia's "big man" of a husband who is searching for her; Mark, devilishly handsome step-brother of Magnus; and Lily, distrusting older sister of Magnus and to whom Julia's husband feels closest. The story revolves around these three and Julia, as well as the malevolent spirit that haunts Julia's new home. After a séance is held at her house and a creepy death or two, Julia realizes her house is haunted, and the spirits aren't happy -- especially with her terrible decorating ideas. (Just kidding. Julia just keeps the former owners' furniture, so she's not to blame for the terrible decorating ideas.) 

The lady who led the séance tells Julia she saw a man and girl, so naturally, Julia concludes it's Magnus and her dead daughter, nine-year-old Kate. Adding to the creep factor is the fact that said lady is found dead the next day. In "The Search: Heather", we, along with Julia, discover the girl who was "seen" is not Kate, but Olivia, daughter of famous party girl, Heather Ridge, who used to live in Julia's home years and years previous. Olivia, coincidentally enough, was killed the same way Kate was -- by stabbing. The plot thickens. 

I must say I really enjoyed how Julia researched Heather and her daughter: by looking through old newspapers, which reminded me of Jack Torrance's meticulous research of the Overlook Hotel in King's The Shining. I know the two books aren't related whatsoever, but I still thought it was cool. I'm weird that way. 

So . . . why is Olivia haunting Julia? Why is she writing on mirrors in soap and breaking furniture and laughing in dark hallways? (Yeah, this novel can get pretty creepy.) Or is Julia being haunted at all? She was in a mental istitution for a time after her daughter's death, and her tottering sanity is hinted at more than once. Or maybe it's Magnus trying to drive her insane, make her come crawling back to him. I'm rather hesitant to give anything away because it . . . well, it's a major plot point. So I'm going to keep my mouth shut. If you're curious about this book at all, check it out. It can be found for pretty cheap online.

All in all, I thought this novel was a good way to spend my time. I feel like it could have been longer (I wish Mark's character could have been fleshed out more, for one thing), and some of the pacing felt a little off to me. However, one must keep in mind that this was only Peter Straub's third novel -- second published -- and it was his first foray into the supernatural/horror world. Considering that, this is a pretty good book. There were plenty of scares to be had, the characters of Julia, Lily, and Magnus were all written really well, and the story was believable. It's cold, distant, and unmistakably British -- and I liked it. While Straub definitely improved with his next book, don't hesitate to buy this one. You'll never look at dolls the same way again. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sorry Is the Kool-Aid Of Human Emotions: A Look At Stephen King's CARRIE [1974]

It's pretty common knowledge by now that Carrie, Stephen King's first-published novel, is not the novel he wrote first -- that honor goes to The Long Walk (or maybe Getting It On). In fact, King wrote five novels and numerous short stories before he even began the now-famous story of Carrie White and her telekinetic revenge on her classmates at the senior prom -- so the guy definitely had some experience at the craft. Still, this was only his sixth novel, and King was still young, so the book definitely doesn't feel as "polished" as, say, Doctor Sleep or Duma Key. It's raw, crass, vulgar, blunt, and full of a young author's angst, but that's not bad. Not bad at all.

 First Edition Hardcover

I had already read Carrie two or three times before my last re-read, but it's such a short (and rich) story that I didn't mind spending a rainy Sunday with it. I meant to read it back in April in celebration of its fortieth birthday, but prom and graduation and vacations and work came up, so I didn't get around to it until a couple of weeks ago. Boy, am I glad I finally did read it. While I always pick up on new things with re-reads of any given King story, stuff really jumped out at me from this one. I had always perceived the sad tale of Carrie White as a tragedy, but not really horrific. Brian de Palma's outstanding movie adaptation? THAT is horror. But the novel? Eh. I never really thought of King as a "horror writer" until his second book, 'Salem's Lot, but I can definitely say my fourth re-read made me realize how horrific this book really is. 

"Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not on the subconscious level where savage things grow. On the surface, all the girls were shocked, thrilled, ashamed, or simply glad that the White bitch had taken it in the mouth again. Some of them might have also claimed surprise, but of course their claim was untrue. Carrie had been going to school with some of them since first grade, and this had been building since that time, building slowly and immutably, in accordance with all the laws that govern human nature, building with all the steadiness of a chain reaction approaching critical mass. What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic."

King neatly sets up in the first page of the book what has come to be known as "the period scene" -- i.e., Carrie White getting her first period in the locker room shower after gym class, not knowing what's happening to her due to her growing up with a hyper-religious mother (more on that later), and the other girls throwing tampons at her and chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!" I'm not a female, nor have I ever been one, but I can imagine this wouldn't be fun for any girl. It's this event that sets the rest of this short novel in motion -- the girls who did this are punished with detention, and Chris Hargensen, one of our main antagonists, is bent on revenge. Sue Snell feels bad about participating in the tampon-throwing and convinces her boyfriend, popular jock Tommy Ross, to invite Carrie to the upcoming senior prom as a way of getting the unpopular girl to become "a part of things." Carrie's mother, Margaret White (a religious nut in every sense of the word -- she locks Carrie in her prayer closet for hours on end with no food or water, physically harms her daughter and herself, tries to kill Carrie in the end because she is convinced her daughter is a witch, etc) loses it when the school calls and tells her about the period incident, thus pushing Carrie farther away and into herself. As for Ms. White, our main character? With her period comes the full maturation of her telekinetic powers, which is something she's always had, but she can now control it; use it as a weapon whenever she pleases. 

 Vintage paperback cover
The plot of this story is one of King's simplest -- socially awkward girl gets her first period later than normal in the most humiliating setting. Other girls tease her and get detention. Most are okay with it, but one girl isn't. She, her idiot greaser boyfriend, and his friends plot revenge and succeed on the night of the senior prom. Socially awkward girl, now in full control of her telekinetic powers, rains destruction down on the school and surrounding town, killing innumerable people -- some purposely, some accidentally. Those who are left eventually leave, and Chamberlain, ME., where this all takes place, eventually becomes a ghost-town haunted by the tragedy of prom night. 

Pretty simple, right? 

What makes this novel sing is the believable characters and the utter emotion that drips from every page. Margaret is scary because I've met folks like her - crazies who can't get out of the Old Testament. Sue's regret feels real, and while her making Tommy ask Carrie to the prom is a little questionable, it works. But our title character works the best, of course -- my heart ached for Carrie White. She's just an outcast who would do anything to fit in, and when she finally thinks she has . . . another prank is pulled on her. While Carrie brings the destruction, she is anything but the villain here. The ones who constantly picked on her and teased her are the villains -- they did more damage than Carrie ever could. 

"This is the girl they keep calling a monster. I want you to keep that firmly in mind. The girl who could be satisfied with a hamburger and a dime root beer after her only school dance so her momma wouldn't be worried . . ."
- Carrie

 Another thing that makes this the success it is is King's use of various sources and perspectives to tell the story, e.g. traditional narrative, Sue Snell's autobiography, various newspaper articles, police reports, scientific studies. This technique helps build the tension and delay the gratification of the climax until the last possible moment, which is something that probably wouldn't work as well in something like The Stand or The Tommyknockers but works splendidly here. Of course, King probably got the idea from Stoker's Dracula, but he makes it his own. 

Carrie author photo

Overall, I really think this story is a gem. Sure, it's sort of obvious that King was relatively new to the game at the time, but that's only because his prose isn't quite as polished as it would become, and a few of the characters are a little wonky. It's a heck of a ride though, and it's one that makes me really burn (pun intended) through the pages to get to the end, even though I've read it multiple times now. It's a classic story that is really applicable to any time period because of its simple premise: bullying and the problems that can arise from it. No, telekinesis is not real (or is it?!? Ooooh!), but school shootings are. Fist-fights are real. Slander on social media is real. Gossip is real. These are problems that plague us here in 2014 more than it ever has before, and are we, as individuals, helping or hurting? Are we the problem or solution? In some ways, Carrie is a little outdated, but it still feels genuine and real, like the best of SK's work. It made me look in the mirror, so to speak, several times during my re-read, and for that I say it's a darn good novel. 

  “People don't get better, they just get smarter. When you get smarter you don't stop pulling the wings off flies, you just think of better reasons for doing it.” 
- Carrie 


"Carly's Instagram Addiction"

"Carly's Instagram Addiction" 

Carly was a tiny girl from a suburban neighborhood near Los Angeles. She was single and rarely had to buy her own dinner or drinks at the bars she frequented; she was able to get by on her good looks. Her thick blonde hair, tanned skin, and toned body made her a hit with the male (and, occasionally, female) population, even if she was a bit of a California cliché. 
One might think she was a typically brainless California girl, but the opposite was in fact true - she was studying for her Ph.D. in Child Psychology at UCLA and was in fact near the top of her class. Her circle of friends was of healthy size, but it wasn't as large as it could be due to Carly preferring to associate herself with people she could relate with on a personal level. 
Also, most people found her Instagram addiction annoying. 

She posted pictures, on average, seven times a day. Sometimes she was busy with school-work or her part-time job at Panera Bread and only got to upload a picture or two, but she always found time to post SOMETHING. If the weather was particular fine that day, she would post a picture of the sky or maybe a selfie with the sun shining behind her. She found she preferred X-Pro II for nature pics and earlybird for selfies. Sometimes she would go crazy and use a Brannan or Walden, but that was rare. She'd hate to throw off her followers. 

If she had a lot of homework, her Instagram followers would see the cover of a textbook or her homework papers strewn about to convey the message that she had so much to do that she couldn't help but throw her stuff EVERYWHERE even though everyone knew she had placed each and every sheet of paper deliberately, methodically. 
That's just the way things worked. Everyone did it. 

If work was going particular badly, she might post a selfie in her Panera hat doing a thumbs-down and a sad face. If work was going well, it'd be a thumbs up. Occasionally, she'd post a picture of a particularly delicious-looking piece of bread or maybe a customer that particular stuck out (she had even snuck a picture of one guy that had been at her register and made him her #ManCandyMonday). She couldn't do it when her boss was around - she might get in trouble for cell phone use. The rules were a bit of a drag. Some of her co-workers had noticed her constantly taking pictures and updating Instagram and had joked around with her, saying things like "I don't get why you have to post pictures online all the time! Nothing's that interesting!" and "I don't think you could go a day without using Insta." 
No, she didn't think she could. 

Her followers wavered somewhat, and it bothered her. She noticed she didn't get as many likes on pictures of books as she did on, say, pictures from her trips to the ocean (posted sparingly, of course). Cats got more likes on Fridays than Sundays. Dogs got more likes on Mondays than Thursdays. Selfies tended to earn her enough likes if she could get in the right light and pick the perfect filter; quotes screenshot from Tumblr did well enough if hash-tagged. She didn't actually use Tumblr, she just got those pictures from Google Images. 
Coffee was a bit of a wild-horse: it could yield varying amounts of likes. Some (including Carly) thought it was old hat; only those BEGGING for likes and comments posted coffee, and she was above that. However, cups of coffee from Starbucks earned more likes than any other coffeeshop, but that was common knowledge. If taken well enough, coffee pics could provide, on average, 2-4 new followers, but was it really worth it? Those followers would be expecting the same pics that everyone else posted and Carly was too good at the art of Insta for that. She had too much style. 

She hoped to reach a thousand followers, because more followers = more likes. It's simple mathematics. For every twenty followers, she could count on a like, maybe two. Not a whole lot, but it works out okay. A picture posted by Carly that ended up getting less than 20 likes was promptly deleted. Her follower count was sometimes 981, sometimes it was 989. One time it was 976 and she almost died! The only time she had been this embarrassed was when she had accidentally confused #TransformationTuesday and #ThrowbackThursday. 
She laid down on her bed in her dorm and didn't come out until her roommate made her. She knew she had been ridiculous, but she couldn't help it. 

A few times, friends had even tried talking to her about her addiction, but it did no good - Instagram took up too much of Carly's life, as it did her friends'. They could tell her the dangers of addiction all they wanted, but it would be hypocritical - they obsessed over filters and follower count just like their friend did. 

These pitiful little interventions of sorts were usually followed by a group selfie, which was okay. Group selfies of pretty girls get a lot of likes - it's a fact of life.


"The Only Regret Is Not Having Enough Time" 

I meant to hang up a picture on my wall today, but I didn't get around to it. 
I bought the picture at a used bookstore that sells more than books - it sells music, movies, video games, everything.
I got the picture at a good price because it has a small scratch in it. It's holographic, so those things matter. It's so small that most people won't even notice it when it's on my wall. The scratch, that is. 
I wish I could have gotten around to hanging it, but stuff came up. I woke up and took a shower, and then I made myself breakfast. I live alone now because I just moved out of my folks' home, and I like to enjoy the silence. 
My parents are overbearing. 
I bet my mom would hang up the photo if I asked, but I won't. 

My breakfast was followed by a service at a church I don't even like anymore, but I go out of guilt. I was raised in a religious home and what if God really DOES record when we don't show up to his house? What then? 

I got home and ripped off my tie and settled into my favorite chair with a thick sandwich and Netflix. I watched the entire last season of The Office because that's been my thing lately. Nellie finally won me over with "Couples Discount" - she bothered me during season 8, but season 9 was really her thing, I guess. 

I also read a bit, but not as much as I'd like. I went back to the television after a bit, which disappoints me. Watching too much television can rot my brain - what, haven't you ever read Dear Mr. Henshaw

I made dinner and finished eating. It was okay, but it wasn't great. I might go out tomorrow on my lunch break - I haven't done that in a while, and there's a new Chinese buffet that just opened two blocks from my office. Sounds like a plan! 

I looked at the picture, sat down, and wrote this instead. Phooey on me. I've really been digging for short story ideas and this is the best I can come up with?

I'm ashamed.

Reader, whoever you are, I might have given you a bad impression of myself, but I'm lazy mostly only on Sundays. Who knows? I might hang that picture tomorrow, but I honestly kinda doubt it. I guess I better go give my mom a call. 

"A Fatherly Hand"

Jacobs was chopping wood on the edge of the forest like in the old days, the days that were almost forty years gone. 

He was at his own place, on his own land. He had done more than his old man had, the pain. His father - the man of bruised backs and black eyes and fractured arms and mood swings and shoves down the stair-case and lies lies LIES and constant put-downs - his FATHER . . . The mean bastard was probably rolling around in his grave at all Jacobs had accomplished. 

Jacobs heard a soft voice latent with anger from just within the trees, and immediately knew who his visitor was. He had been expecting this ever since his father's death - the death that couldn't be pinned on Jacobs in any way. 

The voice got louder, multiplied. The crunching of leaves. The whisper of foot-steps on the forest floor. 

Jacobs raised his chopping axe and laughed. Somewhere nearby, a bird took flight.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Nightmares & Dreamscapes: The Beginning

I'm a really inconsistent blogger.

Seriously -- I'd love to blog more, but there are several reasons as to why that doesn't happen: a.) Work 2.) Class b.) Lack of motivation q.) Preferring writing fiction to blog-posts 5.) Feeling like I can't put into words what I would like to say anyway, and 3.) I'm not good at explaining my feelings, at least about books -- I prefer the joy of experiencing a good story to taking notes and trying to write a decent blog entry on my analysis of said story.

I've decided that's pretty darn dumb -- the last reason, that is. I think if I relax and let the words flow, all will be okay. I'm off work until Wednesday the 20th, so hopefully I'll be able to get some decent blogging in. So let's get this show on the road! 

I've been thinking about Stephen King -- even more than usual. I haven't really been reading his work as much lately aside from Mr. Mercedes and a re-read of Carrie. That's not me saying I'm tired of reading him (I'm not) -- I've just been branching out a bit. I've finally given his pal Peter Straub a chance and I NEED to cover one of his books here soon -- he's phenomenal! Still, I've been thinking about Stephen King a lot lately, namely his short stories. I've been meaning to re-read all of the collections, but I haven't actually done it yet. His short story collections, like almost everything else he's written over the years, are extraordinary. However, the short form requires getting a little used to. King's characters are so brilliantly drawn that when a story ends after only 30 or 40 pages, one can get a little disappointed, but, alas, a short story is just that -- short. Anyway, the topic of a book discussion club came up on the Stephen King boards I'm a member of, and the first book we'll be discussing is King's 1993 collection of stories, Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

 American hardcover edition

I'm not yet sure if we will be discussing a story a day or what, but tonight's discussion is King's introduction to the book and the first story, "Dolan's Cadillac." I'm pretty excited about the book club because, if I'm being honest, this is the only SK story collection I haven't read cover to cover. I've read maybe 2/3 of the stories, the introduction, and bits of a couple of the other stories. I've been meaning to read this collection in full for ages, but I've always had other books that demanded my attention too, so this one has always been on the back-burner. I suppose now's a good a time as any to finally read the entire thing, right? 

I have decided that with each story, I'll contribute to the SK board as well as post my more in-depth thoughts here. I think I'll have a lot to say about some of the stories, and maybe not so much to say about others.  Some stories might not even get a blog entry from me, because, if I remember correctly, there are a couple of clunkers in this collection. My opinion of those might change with a re-read and heck, maybe writing about those will be fun, too! After I've written about all the stories that I'm going to cover, I might write up a ranking of the stories, or an "in conclusion..." sort of thing. Who knows. Let's play it by ear, shall we? 

Nightmares & Dreamscapes author photo

I'm going to write about what I remember of the stories I've actually read. This part is mostly for me because these feelings are probably going to change after the upcoming read, but it'll be fun to look back and see how I felt before vs. how I felt after. 

From what I remember, "Dolan's Cadillac" is a good opener (but it's no "The Mist") -- it's very creepy albeit a bit over-long. Still, King writes revenge stories well. 
"The End of the Whole Mess" was really neat and way better than I expected it to be. The ending is rather sad, the relationship between the brothers is realistic, and the sci-fi aspect of the story is fascinating.
"Suffer the Little Children" is a story from early in King's career. It's quite possibly my favorite in the collection simply because it's so ballsy, paranoid, and horrifying -- just like the best of King's works. "Popsy" didn't really have any impact on me, but it was a decent way to pass the time, I suppose. 
I don't really remember much of "Chattery Teeth" except some guy (probably the protagonist?)  getting in a car-wreck. Wait, is he a truck-driver, or am I thinking of another story altogether? "Dedication" is, from what I remember, one of the best in the collection -- dedicated, hard-working mother and a writer. Two of the things King is best at writing! This is one is also delightfully disgusting, so I must admit I'm really looking forward to re-reading this story. 
"The Moving Finger" is a story that seems to get a bad wrap but I really enjoyed it. It's really paranoid (can't ya tell I love that in SK's writing?), but sadly I don't really remember too much about this one either except a guy peeing in his kitchen sink. 
"You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" is like "Children of the Corn" on a lot of pot. This one was fun to read, but that's probably because I'm a nut for classic rock. 
"The House on Maple Street" is one I simply don't have much to say about (yet) -- it's just a good story. I remember it being really solid, but that's all., I thought I had read more than that! Looks like I'll be experiencing a bunch of "new" King stories, which is A-okay with me. I'm off to finish Peter Straub's Julia and then re-read "Dolan's Cadillac." See you guys soon!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Pigeons and the Plunder"

Note: while this is a blog about Stephen King, I'll also post non-related stuff from time to time, if only to keep things from getting too monotonous. This is a short story I wrote today. There was a small outbreak of spiders in my bedroom last night, and this story was born soon after. I hope you enjoy! 

"Pigeons and the Plunder"  

After the toys were placed in the cabinets and the baby spiders were finally eradicated from the boy's wall, the darkness swelled around a lone lamp and his father told him everything was going to be okay.
"There are no more spiders, Bradley-boy," the man told his frightened seven-year-old. "Not ever again." 
The boy had gotten up to use the bathroom, and saw a slight movement on the wall by his bed. He flipped the lamp on and immediately shrieked at the sight before him - a trail of small insects were crawling in neat formation from the upper corner of the small door to the crawl-space that led, eventually, down to below the house. Bradley had always hated sharing a room with that door - he sometimes wondered, in the clutches of night when sleep was nowhere to be found, if a monster lived down there. Down below the house. 

His mommy had left daddy with nothing more than a few hundred dollars, the Pinto, and their son. 

"But you're all I need," his father had said a few times following the divorce, and the sentiment was usually followed by a tousling of the young boy's fine blond hair. "We don't need a fancy house or new car to be happy." 
In short, this old house was all they could afford. Usually it was okay, and Bradley had even found a few neat old crooks and crannies to explore, but the small door leading to the crawl-space gave him the creeps. Yes sir. 

After daddy had sprayed some smelly gunk around the door that smelled pretty P.U. to Bradley, he inspected the wall closely to make sure all the bugs were killed, gave his son a hug, and told him there was nothing else to be scared of. 
"What if more come out?" he asked, his blue eyes large with fear and anxiety. He didn't believe in things that didn't exist; at seven he was already a precarious boy with an incredible depth of mental perception. He knew it was silly and a waste of time to fear things like Big Foot and Dracula and things in the closet, but he'd prefer never finding out if he was wrong about their existence or not. As well, it wasn't so much what was BEHIND the small door in his bedroom that scared him so badly; it was the thought of the door itself. 

"I think I got 'em all, but if you see anything else, you can come get me. You'll be safe, big guy."
The father tucked his son back into bed, reached over, and turned off the lamp. 
"Goodnight, son."
"Goodnight, dad." 
Daddy moved toward the bedroom door in the darkness. Out of the corner of his eye, Bradley saw a quick flash of red dart from in front of his closet door to his father. It looked like eyes - wild, nearly feral eyes. Clean air left the small bedroom and was replaced with a stench, like cow flop in August and animal fur. An angry, beastly roar like none Bradley had ever heard or dreamed of mixed with his daddy's cries of pain and shock. The young boy was paralyzed in bed. He couldn't move. He could only watch. 
Then: silence.

Bradley was taken in by his daddy's younger sister Kathy, a fat woman who became a church freak in despair of her big brother's death. The coroner reported the cause of death was a heart attack, and the boy never said a word about it otherwise. No one ever believes a kid, anyway. 
Kathy had two boys, and they were both unbearable. They were a little older than Bradley and used every opportunity to beat up on the younger boy, rip his homework, call him names. They once stuck gum in his hair and the fine blond his father had once lovingly tousled was now gone. The shaved head made Bradley look older, but that didn't matter to Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dum - they still harassed him to no end. At least his aunt and uncle had a big house, so the boy could hide away from his cousins occasionally and work on his studies or his stories. He loved writing, but never seemed to find the time to write. 
And in the years that went by, he almost never thought of the animal 
(a monkey it was a monkey i think) 
that had been in his room. Or the spiders, for that matter. 

His aunt loved her God and forced her whole family to participate in the loving, too. Despite her boys' (and sometimes husband's) arguments against church, they were always one of the first in the church-house and one of the last to leave. Right side, third pew from the front. It was like clock-work. 
During worship one morning, Bradley had to pee. He tugged on his aunt's dress-sleeve, whispered in her ear his problem, and she grudgingly let him out of the pew to go to the bathroom. The boy, now ten, shambled awkwardly to the door that gave on the foyer, and to the left the mens'. Already unzipping his fly, he threw the door open and almost slipped in something. For a moment, he thought it was urine, but even a passing glance proved it to be red - almost maroon, but not quite yet. There was a man lying in front of the urinal. His eyes were glazed over, staring at nothing, but the rest of his face was gone, as well as his throat and left arm. 
The monkey was in the stall. He could hear what sounded like chewing. 

Bradley immediately stumbled out, trying to be silent but failing miserably. He hasn't thought of the animal - this THING - in a while, almost a day. But here it was, in the living flesh. From within the bathroom, the boy heard the squeak of the stall door and he found the strength to run. He ran out the front doors into the parking lot, and threw himself beneath the first car he saw. He wanted to stay hidden because he knew the monkey was after him. He had to be! 
From inside the church, among the sound of the organ and the choir proclaiming how they'll fly away o glory, the panting, sweaty boy who's church suit was now ruined from crawling around under this car but didn't care that much heard popping noises . . . a whoosh of flame . . . and the sudden explosion of the church falling in on itself. He closed his eyes, counted to three, and opened them again, praying that had just been in his imagination. 
It wasn't. 
He knew it was dangerous to crawl out from under the car because of possible flying shrapnel or his aunt discovering what had happened to his suit, but he had to know. He had to SEE. 
The church, or what remained of it, was aflame. 
From in the distance, the warbling of a fire-truck siren. One of the neighbors must have called and reported the tragedy. 
Color and sound swam away from Bradley in a rush. He was out before he hit the pavement. 

The actor president gave way to the guy from Texas, and he gave way to the saxophone player from Arkansas. Bradley, the small boy who once witnessed his father's death and the deaths of his aunt, uncle, cousins, and an entire congregation, drifted. He would live with a family member, things wouldn't work out (Bradley's sullen attitude usually had a lot to do with that), and he'd eventually be carted off to someone else. He became withdrawn and made merely average grades in school. He graduated high school with nearly straight C's on his last report card. He had his fair share of girlfriends - his fine blond hair that had once again grown in, his blue eyes, and muscular, toned body made him a hit with the ladies. Unfortunately, he was a bit repulsed by the thought of sex and usually broke things off when things got too heated. He was too introverted and world-wary to let people in, especially girls. 

He started school at the local community college using his father's insurance money, and even sometimes still wrote stories, but only when he was really drunk. He had had dreams once of becoming a famous author or maybe an English teacher, but his job at K-Mart was getting him by just fine. 

He rented a run-down apartment in the lower end of town, the town that he had never wanted to stay in but couldn't seem to leave. The apartment brought back memories of the old house, his small bedroom, his father, the spiders, the
way his father still took the time to tuck him in even after the divorce and he felt like he would always be alone. No worries, dad. Looks like the monkey took care of ya. He got your back. Good thing he didn't rip it off.

Speaking of the monkey, he hadn't seen that joker in quite a while. It had been years! He might have seen him in the shadows behind a street-lamp one night when Bradley had to thumb it home because the transmission in his bucket of bolts had gone to auto heaven. But he had blinked a few times, and the beast was gone. He hadn't been there at all. Bradley was a little disappointed, tell the truth and shame the devil. That monkey was perhaps his only friend in the world - the only link he had to his childhood - and it was high time he came back. Bradley wanted to chat with him. He wanted to talk about the old days - the days before the crappy apartment in this run-down town and the dead-end job. 

These thoughts weren't completely alien. Usually when they snuck in, Bradley drowned them out with booze. Sometimes he even found happiness at the bottom of the bottle, but happiness is fleeting. The drifter soon dropped out of college, became a regular face in the honky tonks on the dark street corners, and a made a friend. Her name was Mandy. She hooked Bradley up with cocaine, and soon he became hooked on the stuff. He hoped one day his mind would finally skitter over the edge and his heart would take a flying leap out of his chest. He had a monkey on his back 
(ha-ha I know all about monkeys that's a riot) 
 It would be worlds better than this eternal loneliness and almost thinking he could see the monkey on buses and in crowds. 

Bradley eventually made it out if his home-town and somehow drifted up to New York City. He sometimes thought about tracking down his mother, but figured it'd be better to let sleeping dogs lie. He found friends in the pigeons - they talked to him, and most importantly, they listened. They never scrutinized or treated him like a bum, even if he sorta knew he was one. 

Over the next few weeks and months, tales of people getting murdered began to circulate. It was happening nearby, sometimes in the park where Bradley spent most of his nights. Days, too, for that matter. Cops began hanging around more, and if he could still afford dope, Bradley would certainly have bugged out. Sadly, the having no money method of rehabilitation had turned him into a bitter, paranoid, and yet, sober man. His face was cracked with age, he was balding, and a permanent cloud of stench always hung around him. He was a long call away from the guy who had attracted so many girls in the late 80s and early 90s. 

Women were strangled, raped, and killed. Men were robbed and mauled. They were found stuffed in ditches, buried in landfills. One elderly woman's severed head was found by her neighbor in his garbage can outside. The body count rose into the hundreds in only a few short months. The NYCPD was frantic, trying to grab the case by the tail. Who could do such a thing? It surely wasn't just one person - it must be a group of people, but all with specific instructions - each murder had similar enough characteristics that they couldn't NOT be related. The investigation went on, energized but seemingly more hopeless with each slaughtered body that was recovered.

The new millennium was rung in and the Twin Towers fell. Bradley watched from a couple of miles away. He hadn't felt such a rush since his drug years, and was therefore held rapt by the flying shrapnel and people visibly jumping from the burning buildings. He could almost smell cooking flesh in the air, and it made him crave barbeque. It was at that moment Bradley felt a light tapping on his shoulder. He turned and stared into the hideous, ageless monkey. What once would have been unbridled fear was now calm tranquility. It felt like a homecoming. 
He smiled. 
"Hey, old friend. Been up to your old tricks again?" 

The now-middle-aged man blinked once, only because the morning sun was in his eyes. He opened them and saw the monkey wasn't there, had never been there after all. 
But Bradley sure was.