The King of Fiction

EDUwYotU4AAtzCQAs a published author of horror fiction, it stands to reason that I would have influences. Truth be told, I have several in many different genres. And, as an avid reader, I have favorite authors. Due to numerous reasons and events, I feel compelled to write about one of them – Stephen King. Widely considered a “horror” writer, King is so much more than that. What I don’t think gets acknowledged enough is the creation, and the care and feeding of the King multiverse.

I believe that the first cinematic universe was created by Universal films in 1925 and it extended into the 1950s. From the Phantom of the Opera to the Creature fromthe Black Lagoon, Universal created a world of monsters – human and otherwise – with far-reaching influence. Universal used literature for some of its stories, most notably Dracula and Frankenstein, And, invariably, some of their movies were novelized.

51842368_2157286350984378_569776730923859968_nThe second such “multiverse” began soon after in the comic book world. DC Comics, and eventually Marvel, published interconnected tales and crossovers for decades. I am by no means an expert when it comes to comic books. I will not pretend to be able to explain. Marvel’s recent cinematic universe (MCU) caused DC to try to emulate it, and Universal even got into the fray with their failed Dark Universe and a reboot of their classic monster movies. What DC and Universal couldn’t replicate was the organic, viral nature of the MCU. The MCU started with Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr., and spawned a total of 22 interconnected films filled with origin stories, crossovers and epic battles to save the Earth and mankind. Whether or not Marvel intended to create this multiverse in the manner in which it did, I have no idea. But what I do know is, planned or not, the MCU worked because of its organic nature. It never really appeared forced with the exception of a few of the films. Audiences were introduced to numerous characters and heroes, for better or worse, folks wouldn’t have sought out for themselves.

36916323_1844562398923443_4002267950542225408_nIn the early 1970s, a fiction writer from Maine began what I think is the most interconnected, intricate multiverse ever created in entertainment. These connections are not merely asides or passing references because many of the stories take place in the same geographic region. The world that Stephen King has created is truly remarkable and it all started with a bullied high school student with telekinetic abilities. Movie adaptations, comic books and TV mini-series round out the King multiverse. The man has said that he doesn’t plot his novels, but there has to be some level of planning that goes into the interconnectedness of everything he does. Whether it’s characters, locations, villains or just references – it sure looks like everything he has ever produced is tied together.

There are a couple of great diagrams and flowcharts you can find online that illustrate my point. I found them when I read the first story in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. There was discussion about what the stories of the Dark Tower were tied to. Further investigation brought me to the larger charts.

King, now is his 70s, has written more than 60 novels, more than 20 novellas, and dozens of short stories. His books have sold more than 350,000,000 copies. From a sales standpoint, he is one of the most successful writers of all-time, up there with William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, Dean Koontz, Jackie Collins and Nora Roberts.

IMG_0364Not everyone likes King’s writing and the film and TV adaptations are hit and miss. He has branched out into different genres and I think his writing is just as strong regardless of the subject matter. Again, there are those who view him as strictly as a “horror” writer. My only complaint is that sometimes, believe it or not, King doesn’t go far enough.

I wrote something when I finished IT. In that post I mentioned that I haven’t read all of King’s works. I listed the books that I have read. I am pleased to say I have made more progress in that endeavor. Consciously or unconsciously I have decided to at least read everyone of his novels. However, he keeps publishing short story collections and I think his short stories are fantastic.

I was first introduced to King as a kid with the movie adaptations of Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Dead Zone. Creepshow was sandwiched in there. But I didn’t read anything of his until much later. Now I am trying to go back and read his early stuff. The funny thing is as I am trying to go back and read novels for movies I’ve seen, it’s difficult because I have too many preconceptions. I do enjoy seeing the differences between the words on the page and the scenes on the screen. I prefer to read the book first and then watch the film. I think the first thing of his that I read was the Night Shift collection of short stories.

I thought I would take a moment to update the list of King’s works that I’ve read so far knowing I still have a ways to go. You might be surprised to know that The Dark Half is my favorite.

35654820_1808645752515108_6635525069873348608_oIn no particular order:

‘Salem’s Lot
Night Shift
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
Pet Sematary
IT
The Dark Half
Needful Things
Gerald’s Game
Bag of Bones
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Dreamcatcher
Full Dark, No Stars
Doctor Sleep
Joyland
Mr. Mercedes
Revival
Sleeping Beauties
The Outsider

IMG_0379I own the next three or four in the Dark Tower series, Carrie, Finders Keepers (sequel to Mr. Mercedes), The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Black House (but I’ll have to read The Talisman first), Four Past Midnight and maybe a few others.

I’ve seen quite a few of King’s movie and TV adaptations, several without reading the book that spawned them. The quality is all over the board – even from first film to sequel. Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, IT: Chapter One, The Outsider, the first Pet Sematary, 1408 and Creepshow are among the best. IT: Chapter Two, The Dark Tower, the new Pet Sematary and Maximum Overdrive are among the worst. Christine, Sleepwalkers, and Doctor Sleep are okay and worth a watch. There are plenty more. IT with Tim Curry as Pennywise and Salem’s Lot with David Soul are worth a re-visit.

You might be surprised to know that King isn’t my favorite author. That honor, if you can call it that, belongs to Dean Koontz. Unfortunately most of the movie adaptations of Koontz’s work have not been good. However, actor Corey Haim is probably the one person who has appeared in one of King’s and one of Koontz’s – Silver Bullet and Watchers respectively.

King has dabbled in fantasy, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demonic clowns, rabid dogs, possessed cars, global pandemics, and all kinds of other baddies. What always seems to come through in his writings and films is that the human monster is the worst of all.

Stephen King isn’t for everyone, but I wanted to share why I enjoy his works and it does seem like the multiverse he has created – purposely or organically – is far beyond what any other writer or movie studio has concocted. Interested in his work but you really haven’t given him a try? There are many entry points to King’s multiverse.

I’ll try to consume what he has created, in no particular order. However, because of King, I have no desire to live in or even visit Maine because that’s where all the scary things are. He has been a tremendous influence on my reading and viewing choices, and certainly on my writing.

Season Finale of the Get the Knaak Podcast

Listen in as my good friend and old Navy buddy Chris Ingalls of www.popmatters.com joins me for some conversation about anything and everything. Thanks for listening this year everyone. Hopefully you have enjoyed the conversation and interviews. The podcast will be back in January. In the meantime, here is an hour and eight minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

 

My Obsession with “IT”

EDUwYotU4AAtzCQIt takes quite a bit for me to obsess over a movie or a TV show. When it comes to TV, if I don’t finish a series, sometimes the show jumps the shark or loses me somehow. Sometimes, the show is cancelled prematurely. When it comes to Stephen King’s IT, I have been obsessed for the last two years. The last time a book or movie captivated me like this was the last time I watched Sergio Leone’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America all the way through, the almost four-hour version. The film affected me. I had to read and research everything I could about it. That’s where my head has been since IT: Chapter One came out in 2017.

This is another one where we all think we know the story. A group of kids, the self-titled Losers Club, band together to fight a demonic clown. They make a blood oath to reunite and fight the evil again if they failed the first time and IT returns. IT comes back to terrorize Derry, Maine, every 27 years, it casts a pall on the residents of this accursed town, and finds its food tastier when the food is scared. The Losers Club reunites and fights IT again. All the while, Henry Bowers and his gang lurk around every corner. IT’s favorite form is Pennywise The Dancing Clown, because, hey, who’s afraid of a clown? Right? We all are now, thanks Stephen.

I call myself a Stephen King fan but to be honest, I haven’t read as much of King’s work as I thought I had. Sure, I have seen numerous movie and TV adaptations for stories I have never read – Pet Sematary, Carrie, Creepshow, The Dark Tower, The Storm of the Century, Golden Years, Castle Rock, The Stand, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Tommyknockers, The Longoliers, The Mist, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Children of the Corn, Silver Bullet, Misery, Dolores Claiborne, 1408, The Running Man … I am sure I am missing something.

As for novels or books, I have read ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, The Dark Half, Needful Things, Gerald’s Game, Bag of Bones, Dreamcatcher, Joyland, Revival, The Outsider, and On Writing. I have also read the short story collections Night Shift and Full Dark No Stars. In all, just 13 books. I made it my mission to read IT, all 1,153 pages of IT, before IT: Chapter Two hit theaters. I accomplished that goal. I put everything else I was reading on hold until I finished it. It took about a month. I read a bit of IT every night except for maybe two or three nights. So, make that 13.

Most of us remember the made for TV mini-series from 1990 starring Tim Reid, John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Annette O’Toole, Dennis Christopher, Richard Masur, Harry Anderson, et al. Ageless wonder Seth Green stars as Richie Tozier as a child. Emily Perkins plays young Beverly Marsh. She goes on to star in the cult favorite werewolf film Ginger Snaps as Ginger’s sister, Brigitte.

I watched the mini-series again when IT: Chapter One was on the horizon, and then again when IT: Chapter Two was nearing its recent release. It’s better than you remember, Tim Curry is, well, pretty darn good as Pennywise The Dancing Clown. He plays it pretty straight as a circus clown until the moments when he has to feed. Then he is downright monstrous. It is pretty faithful to the book. It transitions seamlessly between 1958 and 1988. You have to get past Harry Anderson’s shtick as he was riding high on Night Court, and the fact that Tim Reid once played a disc jockey named Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati.

The mini-series gets vilified for two reasons: 1. it was made for TV so it had to go light on the gore; 2. the special effects in the boss battle scene with IT at the end were comical at best. It gets a bad rap on the whole, it is worth a watch.

IT: Chapter One was pitch perfect. The young actors cast to play the Losers Club were on the money, including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard. Sophia Lillis is great as young Beverly Marsh. The timeline is shifted a bit. It is set in 1989, so the adults’ story that comes later can take place in our time. The decision was made to split the story into two parts – the kids’ part and the adults’ tale. Bill Skarsgard is wonderful as Pennywise. There is so much to like about this film. Director Andy Muschietti nailed the aesthetic, the 1980s nostalgia, the Easter eggs and homages to the book, especially for the things they left out of the narrative but found a way to incorporate. Bowers’ descent into madness, aided by IT of course, illustrated the bully’s pathology although it didn’t dive into the origins of his nature enough. His father was an asshole in the movie and that had to suffice.

IT: Chapter Two was a disappointment in my eyes. I had high hopes for the casting. James McAvoy as Bill, Bill Hader as Richie, Jessica Chastain as Bev, Old Spice pitch man and former football player Isaiah Mustafa as Mike, James Ransone as Eddie. McAvoy is miscast, as is Jay Ryan as the adult Ben Hanscom. Chastain misses the mark on her portrayal of Bev, who was tough and determined as a kid, but bursts into tears at the drop of a hat as an adult. Skarsgard is underused as Pennywise as he is replaced by bad CGI creature effects in many scenes. Mike is portrayed as a raving lunatic who lured his friends back to Derry on false pretenses, despite their blood oath. Hader is pretty good as Richie and Ransone is a pleasant surprise as Eddie. Teach Grant is completely wasted as the adult Henry Bowers. The attraction between Bill and Bev isn’t handled well, and Bev ending up with Ben makes no sense the way it’s filmed.

My mind was filling in the blanks while I watched this three-hour slough through the sewers and streets of Derry because I had read the book and it was fresh in my mind. I could go point for point on how the book differed from the movies and the mini-series, but there are plenty of YouTube videos that’ll do that for you. Trust me, I’ve watched them.

I think the following when it comes to the film makers on this one. They missed the point. Don’t get me wrong, I am as big a fan of creature features as the next person. But, the folks who made Chapter Two distilled all of what IT is into one monster – Pennywise. Pennywise is a great villain to be sure. In the book, however, IT is a shapeshifter and is rarely Pennywise. They also spent way too much time flashing back to the Losers Club as kids and not enough developing the adults’ stories. This is such a rich and layered story, to distill it down to a monster movie is downright sad. A big swing and a miss here.

I also thought they should have stuck to the source material a bit more in Chapter Two. I thought too many key elements were changed. I did like Stephen King’s cameo, however.

What they really missed was the whole point of the book. Trauma. Especially childhood trauma. Every single member of the Losers Club went through some sort of childhood trauma which is symbolized, in most cases, by an encounter with IT.

As adults, they repressed those memories, which was symbolized by their memory loss when they all left Derry (except Mike, who stayed behind). Beverly married an abusive man after growing up abused by her father, Eddie was brow beaten and turned into a hypochondriac by his mother and married practically the same woman, Bill lost his stutter but forgot how his brother had died and tries to work it all out by writing horror novels, Richie covers it all up with humor as a popular disc jockey (comedian in the movie and late night talk show host in the mini-series), Stan just can’t handle any of it so he chooses to end his life rather than face IT again, Ben obsesses over work and fitness after losing weight after being tormented as the fat kid and never publicly professing his love for Bev. And Mike, poor Mike, was left behind to pick up the pieces and prepare for the next round with the damn clown.

These elements are not present in the movie the way they should be. They’re there all right. You see them, you just don’t feel them or understand them.

The beauty of Stephen King’s story is that IT represents whatever it is that traumatized you as a kid. It really doesn’t matter what “IT” is. And the bottom line is, what “IT” is for you, “IT” has to be dealt with. And what better way to handle it than with the people who love you the most. The people who know everything about you and love you anyway.

That’s why I didn’t care for Chapter Two getting distilled down into a monster movie. Read the book, watch the mini-series, watch the two new films. Judge for yourself. The book is tremendous. It was exhausting, but I enjoyed it immensely.

So, now I am on a Stephen King kick. I immediately set to reading Doctor Sleep, so make that 15 King novels I have read. He’s only written 60+. Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, and a film adaptation is due out soon. I then started Mr. Mercedes.

There is a chart or a graph or something on the Internet that shows how all of King’s works are interconnected. He’s so much more than a horror writer. I think many people don’t realize that. He has created a multidimensional multimedia universe that the Marvel Cinematic Universe could only … marvel at.

Read it, watch it, enjoy it. Somewhere in the Stephen King universe, you’ll find something you like. Just don’t ask me to go to Maine.

You’ll float too.