Read Me! Volume Seven: Reviews of Not Necessarily New Books Recently Read

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinteresttumblrmail

by Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney. After years of comforting tiny tots he turned to scaring their parents with horror and science fiction short stories and the first two books of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. His new column READ THIS! premiered in Nightmare in Spring 2017.

~~~

I bought Under the Dome when it came out in 2009, a hefty hardcover tome that weighed in at over a thousand pages. I added it to a growing stack of books to be read and for the last eight years it’s glared at me for ignoring it. “King made you,” it mutters. “Reading him inspired you to write horror. Why don’t you read him anymore?”

The last I’d read was a collection of short stories I bought after I returned to New York in 2001, Everything’s Eventual. It was an entertaining anthology that made me wonder why I hadn’t read his work in so long and why he didn’t write more short stories. It renewed my respect, but not enough that I began reading him regularly again.

My first exposure to his work had been Carrie, a brief but explosive novel that excited me by exposing the horrors of high school that blighted my own life then. Salem’s Lot scared the living hell out of me — I remember my sister throwing my door open after midnight while I was reading it in my room, and she almost gave me a heart attack. Then The Shining  —  my father issues at the time made me identify with young Danny, his nightmare dad expressed my worst fears when I was his age. Jack smashing his own face to a bloody pulp with a roque mallet to prove to his son that daddy’s gone was my most terrifying moment in horror for years to come. King was the Ray Bradbury of horror to me then, able to summon up crisp real moments in poetic prose that transcended reality and opened the door to more.

I kept reading King through Pet Sematary, which was when his work started to violate my own rules for horror, which is that it had to take you through the dark back into the light, not leave you desperate and lost. Later, it sounded to me as if that had been written at the beginning of the drug period King talks about frankly now, when caffeine and nicotine weren’t enough to fuel his words. Whatever the cause, I walked away and explored elsewhere.

In 2002 Stephen King announced that he was retiring from writing, released another eleven novels, then announced retirement again in 2013. Since then there’s been another eight. The river remains undammed and there are key King novels in the last decade I feel I should go back and read, like Doctor Sleep, the sequel to one of my favorites, The Shining.

Perhaps it was the long break I took from his work, maybe the time since it came out had changed me, but Under the Dome seemed to be mining overly familiar territory. Of course it’s masterful writing; King couldn’t write a false line if he tried. Nonetheless, the pervasive stink of small town corruption, rising madness, telepathic alien communication, precognitive foreshadowing of disasters to come, and other devices King created in earlier work that have become genre conventions rang a little too familiar at times, down to the explosive climax.

So many fiery endings! Stephen King does love to blow things up, from Carrie, to The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Stand… the man likes a big-bang, town-burning finish and there’s another climactic conflagration here, hinted at for hundreds of pages in also familiar flashes of visions from people exposed to the forces that power the dome. It’s no great surprise when it comes, nor is the cause. Meth labs blow up and a warehouse-sized drug factory storing all the propane tanks in town and a brick of what seems to be C4, trigger held by an addicted chemist with delusions that he’s God’s messenger, well, come on. Tick, tick, tick… But as they say, it’s not about the destination, it’s the journey, and King takes us on a merry tour with many sights to see.

The scale of the fire’s bigger than ever, his timeframe is compressed to a mere week, the cause of the crisis explained clearly, even if a little randomly… I can’t fault King for writing a story that’s half “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” from Twilight Zone and half Star Trek’s “The Squire of Gothos,” any more than I could deride Steven Spielberg for having used TZ’s “Little Girl Lost” as the inciting incident for Poltergeist. They both took inspired premises elsewhere, and there are no new stories, only fresh interpretations.

Though it all wraps up neatly by the end, I found myself wanting fewer homey conversations and side trips into the memories of minor characters destined to die, usually soon after introduction, though I know we must know them to care. I lacked patience with the willful rise of the book’s main villain and the inevitable brutalities of his bully boy deputies, who reminded me too much of the bad guys of “Sometimes They Come Back” and Henry Bowers and his buddies in It.

Overall, the experience was like running into an ex you broke up with for no particular reason, chatting over drinks and ending up in bed. When all is said and done, it’s every bit as good as it was, but you get the same moves you expected, and there’s no great urge to get back together: if it happens again, it happens.

Despite my minor misgivings, Under the Dome is an enjoyable beach/weekend read, even if we know pretty much who each character is and where they are going on introduction  —  the war-haunted vet on his way out of town who never makes it, the salty newspaper editor determined to speak her mind no matter the cost, the sly used car salesman turned drug kingpin who secretly controls the town, and his psychopathic son… No one really surprised me, everyone turned out to be exactly who and what they seemed to be when I met them, they just became honed by adversity, steeled in their resolve to be who they are for better or worse.

But… Some people love big stage magic shows, disappearing ladies and transformative effects. I’ve always preferred close-up magic, when someone sits right in front of you doing the impossible so smoothly that you can’t help but believe what you know to be untrue. King’s strength is his ability to lie convincingly, which is what we all try to do. I loved watching the tools of his trade in play, as he slid from inside the past tense thoughts of his characters to a folksy Our Town omniscient narrator in present tense for a handful of intense action scenes to make them more immediate, and the way he can represent the worst humanity has to offer while making us believe we’re still worth saving.

On another note, a friend told me he got to meet Stephen King at a reading and asked him an innocuous question when he really wanted to ask him about his use of the Magical Negro trope in his work, particularly in The Shining and The Stand. As the only black face in the room he felt odd about asking it, and I understand why. If this had been a more mixed crowd and other people of color had asked other questions, he could have added his and it would have been just one of many, not “the question about race” from the one black guy in the room. The context added far more baggage to the question than he wanted it to have. It was a writer’s query, not an accusation, but in that situation it could have been perceived as such.

If King has been held under that particular lens less frequently than most it may be just because he’s damn good, and damn good writers seldom pander. They do all characters well, even people of color. Mostly. Nnedi Okorafor’s essay “Stephen King’s Super-Duper Magical Negroes,” still online in the October 25, 2004 issue of Strange Horizons, is an excellent and enlightening examination of the subject and well worth reading.

The dialog about misguided use of characters of color in genre work grows as more writers of color speak our truths in books, comics, TV, and movies, rather than repeating old tropes. That road is not always smooth. I’ve read complaints over the last few years about Marvel’s black Captain America, female Thor, Puerto Rican Spider Man, Muslim Ms. Marvel… In the last year I’ve caught up with them all.

My biggest fear was that they’d be stereotypical and done for all the wrong reasons, but they’re not. Each of the series I mentioned is what I view as Marvel’s best, the comics that don’t just deliver on big splash page battle scenes, but depict realistic internal lives for their heroes and villains. Peter Parker was always held up by mainstream media as the prototype of the angst-filled adolescent heroes of Marvel, but they’re all as conflicted as we are, even pretty boys like Scott, powerful women like Jean, and old guys like Logan.

As a black reader I’ve enjoyed how plausibly each of the new characters of color came to be, how they made their transitions, and how their world reacts as they struggle to get their bearings. Sam Wilson’s Falcon earned his right to bear Captain America’s shield not in the two issues it took to set it up, but over a decade, if not decades, of character development across hundreds of comics. The greatest strength of comic books, and it’s one that unlimited access to the Marvel library makes clear, is the same as that of long-running soap operas or Doctor Who  —  the ability to present characters for so long that they’re imbued with all the history, detail, and shading of real life. After catching up on literally decades of these comics in the last few years I think I understand better why some people get so damned mad when Marvel changes “their comics” and characters they literally grew up with, and feel they own.

I read a recently released issue where Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, saves a crowd of people on the street with other Avengers. When he lands he’s met with boos and shouts that he’s “not the real Captain America!” That’s discussed in depth by all the characters; it’s a real issue for Sam and has been across the storyline, and it’s clearly because he’s black.

Then, on the letters page a reader was furious about having a black Captain America and went on a rant very much like that of the crowd in the story. I thought the creative team’s ability to actually incorporate that vitriol into the comic should have made the reader feel heard, but I guess he didn’t get the irony until it came out. Maybe not even then; maybe it was just there because I needed it that day.

So, that is my last thought in this column.

I hope you enjoyed it. Keep an eye out for the child of “READ ME!” Having cleared my to-be-read shelf with this column, I will be recommending new horror fiction in “READ THIS!” I have enjoyed publishing here, and thank Warren, Nisi, Robert, Jay, and all the good folks at Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and you for your kind attention.

Pleasant dreams!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *