Thursday, October 21, 2010

Skeleton Crew Review: Proof of Stephen King's Excellence

I've made my Stephen King love clear in the past, and declared that he is incredibly talented writer. I believe some of the criticism he has received from the literary scholar types has more to do with the fact he is a best-selling novelist (I am not sure if he's ever had a novel that hasn't been on some type best sellers lists) who is a legitimate celebrity and had numerous of his works adapted into films. I actually think the man's fame has probably been a large reason for his unpopularity among critics and scholars. I think it is partly because these types have a narrow view of what exactly literature is, and it does not allow for mainstream works (because they seem to forget that Charles Dickens was actually pretty popular in his time). It seems that there must be this elitist view that good literature can only be accessed by the few and anything consumed by the masses is useless pablum. Stephen King is definitely the epitome of mainstream. If you mention his name today, I am sure almost everyone at least knows who he is, even if they never read a word written by him or seen a movie adapted from his works. In the 80s, King was probably the rock star of the literary fiction world. He was in numerous ads, and made cameos in movies, and would have thousands of people show up for a book signing. That isn't to say he isn't still really popular today, but I do think his popularity peak was in the 80s.

It is this popularity that I believe causes his unfair reputation from the literature snobs (because really that is a better way to describe them). His critics like to peg him as a horror writer (well, actually some of his fans do too), but I really think that is short changing the talents and diversity of King. The man has never considered himself to be a writer of one genre, and much like me, doesn't really feel a good story can ever be properly fit into a single genre. It is true that much of his works focus on darker material, but many of his stories will contain elements, themes, plots or settings that would never be considered a part of the horror genre. Stephen King is a very well read and intelligent man, and is always reading novels and books from countless authors or genres. King has numerous influences and inspirations, which is extremely evident in his writing. His creativity and imagination is incomparable, when you factor in that he has written over 40 novels and 200 short stories (and this is only counting stuff that has been published or is currently available). Stephen King deserves respect even if he isn't your style of writer.

Skeleton Crew
was published in 1985, which would be right around the time King was at his popularity peak (which again is relative, because he is still immensely popular today). The book is actually a collection of short stories with the original publishing dates spanning from 1968 to 1985. It is a pretty good representation of how King grew and changed as a writer, since it shows stuff way before he was known by anyone and to where he was an established household name. What it really showed to me, was how talented and diverse King really was as a writer. The book contains numerous types of stories that use various writing styles and elements. The stories range from the scary to the thought provoking to the heart breaking to the funny to the sweet. Sometimes, he even pulls all those things off in one short story. The quality does vary throughout the book, but I can honestly say I enjoyed each one at some level. It definitely solidified for me what an amazing writer Stephen King is.

I'll now leave a few quick thoughts and critiques on each story contained in his book, because I really think that is the only way to fairly review a short story collection.

Introduction: No, this isn't a short story, and no, I don't normally make it a habit to review the introductions to novels or books. I really think this introduction is an example of how strong a writer Stephen King can be, because this simple six page introduction is riveting. He talks in such a formal and relaxed manner that you feel like you're just hanging out at a kitchen table drinking some beers and chatting it up with a buddy (except your buddy can't hear you because he's a book without ears). I think, this style of writing is actually quite hard to master, and really demonstrates the talents of King (because this is also a style that I attempt in my own writing).

The other part that makes the introduction so interesting is because it isn't merely King introducing his stories but he actually gives a quick explanation for why he writes in the first place. He admits that getting paid is a good thing (especially since at this point it is his career), and he also likes entertaining others or getting acknowledgment; these aren't the main reason he constantly writes on a daily basis. He writes because he won't get any peace or sleep if he doesn't. He talks about how an idea pops in his head, and it will constantly torment and hound him until his fully forms that idea into a story (be it novel or short story). Personally for me, I can totally relate to what he was talking about. For a writer (or other creative folks), you tend to have inspirations or thoughts, and they will stick with you until you finally release them, which is what you do when you write or paint or sculpt or direct or hop scotch. I've had those days where Emily will ask me what I'm thinking because I seem so distant, and it often involves a story idea that has latched on to my brain and will refuse to release me from its grip until I give it a fully formed body in the shape of a story. I definitely agreed with King, but also felt his explanation of it was very fascinating.

The Mist: This was adapted as a big budget motion picture a few years ago, and the film seemed to be fairly well received. I feel this novella (it is 130 pages long) does a much better job of showing how a life threatening situation can cause human beings to act in ways that they would normally never imagine. The story follows David Drayton who along with his son are trapped in a grocery store with several other people after a mysterious mist (which appears after a particularly violent storm) covers the town. The mist in itself can be a little spooky, but the most horrifying fact is that there is otherworldly monsters hidden in the mist, and they seem to have an appetite for human flesh. The interesting part of this story is that the focus really isn't on the monsters outside, but rather the monsters that form within the store. Mrs. Carmody, a crazy religious end times fanatic, is able to play with the fears and emotions of several people trapped in the store, and forms a dangerous cult within the store. This is happening while David tries to come up with ways to get home, so that he can find out if his wife is alive. The novella also explores the emotions and fear that are taking place among several of the stores patrons (as some step up to the occasion, while others completely freak out, and others just choose to live in denial).

The story is a very interesting critique of society, and how people respond to the traumatic events that always take place around us. In some ways, we are all trapped in on this world (much like the characters were trapped in that store), and there is horrific things happening around us (much like the monsters in the novella). The issue is about how we respond to our circumstance, and how the situations change us as humans. Some cope by relying on group think, while others decide to live in denial about the tragedy around them, and others find a inner strength that they didn't know was possible.

Even if you don't want to see the novella as a critique on how society or community functions, at a micro level it is good exploration on how the individual responds to a terrifying circumstance. The characters in the novel don't know if they will survive the night. They also don't know where the creatures came from. Some start talking about some mysterious project being tested by the army, and start wondering if the storm caused the mist and its monsters to be unleashed by disturbing the project. Mrs. Carmody focuses on this being a sign of the end times and the obvious wrath being unleashed by God towards all those who disobeyed him. Each character responds in a different way, and it is fascinating look at how the threat of death causes people to react. It gets to the point when you start wondering if it is more dangerous to remain hidden in the store with the growing paranoia and delusions than taking a risk with the unearthly monstrosities outside.

Another interesting part of this story is something King talks about in his notes sections at the end of the book. There is a scene in the novella that King says he never really liked and made him feel uncomfortable. I found this interesting, because the reader's first inclination would be to ask then why didn't he just cut that part out or avoid writing it in the first place. I think, it shows how the process of writing can be so organic. The story is hidden inside you the writer, and as you write, you are just uncovering it. You may have an idea of the overall plot, but the more you write, you start revealing things that you never planned or that end up shocking you as the writer. I am assuming this is what lead to King writing a scene that he doesn't like in this novella, but also can't find the strength to remove it. Personally, I think it is an important scene because it shows a glaring flaw in the protagonist, but also shows how the traumatic events around him have messed with his mind and caused him to follow instincts and passions he'd normally avoid.

At first glance, a reader might label this a horror story, but I think, it is so much more than that. The novella actually focuses very little on the monsters and gore, and puts a much greater focus on human emotions and response. Like many of King's stories (and will become clear in this collection), the important thing is how the humans respond to the supernatural events that are unfolding around them. It is a social commentary on how we relate and interact with each other when under extreme stress and panic. I do think the story is scary and will be enjoyed by horror fans, but I feel it can also be read at a much deeper level. It especially is a story that is more interested in the inner emotions and mechanics of the person rather than other world creatures. It was an extremely engaging read, and a great way to kick off the book.

Here There Be Tygers: I believe the title is in reference to the phrase "here be dragons" which cartographers put on maps to depict unexplored regions in the middle ages. This short story was written by King when he was in high school (but published in 1968), and is about a third grader who discovers a tiger in the boys bathroom and tries to find other means to relieve himself. I am not sure how much of it was revised for the 1968 publication, but I was impressed by how well written it was for a high school student (and shows the value in constantly writing and reading at a young age). The story seems to be a bit of a elementary school kids revenge fantasy against the nasty teacher, and doesn't involve a very deep plot. I did enjoy it as a humourous and far-fetched little tale.

The Monkey: This contains a rather classic B horror movie like plot about a mysterious wind up, cymbal holding monkey doll that signals death every time it clangs its cymbals together. The main character is plagued by this doll throughout his life, which not only causes the death of many loved ones (or at least this is believed to be the cause by the protagonist), but it also is seemingly impossible to get rid of (which he attempts throughout his life). Again, a key part of the story's appeal is how this supernatural element affects the emotions and stability of the protagonist. The tale is more about the man's fight with sanity and attempt to keep his family together than about the hideous monkey doll. By the end of the story, it does become clear there is clearly a supernatural element, but much of the story is driven by the protagonist's growing paranoia and disconnect from reality. The story keeps up a great pace, and does a fantastic job of building to the major climax. It’s a great story that uses the supernatural as a way to explore friction within the family and the insecurity that plagues almost everyone.

Cain Rose Up: I am pretty sure if Stephen King was in University and unknown today and wrote this story, that several people would be shipping him off to a mental health facility. Even though the subject matter of a school shooting is very taboo and uncomfortable, this is actually a well written story. It is does not glorify the actions of the main character, but rather gives you a glimpse into his disturbed mind. The most interesting part of the story is the juxtaposition between the normal dorm life and the growing dark thoughts of the main character. It is extremely dark and disturbing, but also a well written piece.

Mrs. Todd's Shortcut: A major theme in many of Stephen King's stories (in this collection) is the exploration of the line between reality and delusion. Many times you question if some of the events that are being revealed our created within the mind of the characters, or if it is legitimate acts of the supernatural. This is a story about a woman who is obsessed with finding the shortest possible route to a destination, and how she stumbles upon some rather unnatural short cuts. The reader is left wondering what is reality and how much is delusions formed in the different characters’ minds to make up for either neglect or loss. The reader is then brought on a journey of fantasy, friendship and love. This tale is a great of example of King being able to use the supernatural without any real elements of horror. This story is more of an atypical romance then one designed to scare.

The Jaunt:
This story has Isaac Asimov influences written all over it. This is mainly a story within a story, because a father is trying to settle his kids’ first time 'jaunting' to Mars by telling the history of the Jaunt and why it was invented. This story obviously was written during the massive OPEC oil embargo that caused a mass oil crisis in North America, and takes the stance that oil basically became a rarity from that point on thus American needed a new form of fuel. This leads to the creation of a device called the jaunt which essentially is used to teleport people to Mars, where they drill for water which is the new sacred resource. This is story set in the future is a decent example of King's diversity because he is rarely known as a science fiction writer. This story is a bit more plot driven than some of his more character focused pieces, but it still does some decent exploration into human behaviour. The science in this story is pretty far-fetched, but it is more of a back drop used to explore corruption, insanity and greed. The story of the creation and misuse of the jaunt machine is a very imaginative one, and it builds towards an interesting twist ending.

The Wedding Gig:
King tries his hand at yet another different setting and genre. The story is set in 1927 and in the city of Chicago, which should give you good idea of what type of story it is (pssst. . . it’s about gangsters and crime). A really fascinating part of this story is that King obviously wasn't even born in 1927, but he does a fantastic job of getting down the language and slang of the time. When reading it, you really do think your reading a pulp fiction story of that era, and this really displays King's talent and knowledge. The story is essentially a revenge tale on the surface, but I think there is a much deeper truth. I think the biggest theme of the story is discrimination, and how certain people are treated unfairly for something they can't control. In some ways, the story offers a cathartic experience, because a character does try to take some control after being unfairly treated. It is a much deeper story than some may initially think, but it also just offers up enjoyable action for those who don't want to read between the lines.

Paranoid: A Chant:
A unique poem that chronicles the growing level of paranoia (and possible schizophrenia) building in the narrator. I like how not only the content suggests these things, but also in the style and structure of the poem.

The Raft: You are trapped on a floating raft, and a flesh eating oil like blob in the water is circling you. That is the premise of the raft, well, except it isn't you but four unfortunate University students. Students who are regretting they ran out to an abandoned for the fall beach in order to swim to a raft, because nobody now knows where they are. A classic talent of King is his ability to write able every day minutia and human activity while intertwining completely fantastic supernatural horror. The first bit of the story is just about four kids hanging out in their apartment, and how the one character is slowly becoming jealous of how his girlfriend is flirting with his roommate. Then all of sudden, the reader finds himself in a story of complete horror, but even then, the focus remains on the thoughts of the characters (and shows that things like jealousy still remain during times of horror). It is graphic and scary, but it is again a story that has more than that. My only criticism is that I find the female characters were depicted as a little too weak and fragile, and felt the men were written in a far more complex manner. I find King has done a good job of writing strong female characters, but felt that wasn't the case here. I still really enjoyed this story, and it is one of my favourites in the book.

Word Processor of the Gods: This title alone dates the story a bit. Today, if you hear the term 'word processor' then you think about MS Word or Word Perfect. Back in the early 80s, there were machines (essentially computers) that were specifically designed for writing -- so, like a high end typewriter. Even though that technology is absent today, I do think this is a very interesting story that many can relate to. It is basically about being stuck in a life you regret, and wish you could have done things differently or fix tragedies outside of your control; then, you're afforded the ability to do just that. What would you do if you could make almost anything in your life possible, but you have a limited amount of time to do it? Stephen King is often criticized for having open endings that leave a few issues hanging, but in the case of this story, I think that is a huge strength because that type of mystery leaves a great impact. The reader is left to decide if the ending is happy or inevitable tragic based off the decisions the protagonist makes.

The Man Who Could Not Shake Hands: This is a story within a story, and essentially, it is exactly about what the title says. This is another ambiguous tale where the reader is left wondering if the events are actually supernatural or a coincidences that feed the characters delusions and paranoia. It is also a story about guilt, and how it can follow and consume a man until there is almost nothing left of him. This is another very deeply layered story, and proof that King is just as talented as some of history's most heralded writers. The supernatural elements are quite imaginative, but again, the bigger focus is on the human emotions and how the characters deal with unexplained tragedies.

Beachworld: This is another science fiction story, but more like one you'd find as the B reel in a double feature in the 1950s. This is one of those stories that clearly has supernatural or alien elements, but the main focus is on the inner struggle a man has to maintain his sanity. The tale is about two astronauts stranded on a strange planet completely comprised of sand, and while one astronaut tries to find ways to be rescued, the other continually gets entranced by the roaming dunes of sand. The main character tried to save his friends, while also not falling into the same trap. It is a fun story, and one that showcases King's talents at description. The final moments of this story are quite disturbing, and left an image in my head for a few days (but it is not a graphic disturbing, but something much more cerebral).

The Reaper's Image: A collector wants to buy a rare mirror for its artistic value, but it has been hidden in a museum due to the belief it is haunted (guess by who). This is an interesting story about skepticism and how some skeptics tend to look down upon those who believe in the supernatural. The more interesting past is how a skeptic may stick to their lack of belief despite evidence proving otherwise (always finding ways to rationalize things). It is another story that would probably be discussed in classrooms for the themes it explores; if it wasn't for the fact King has the unfair label of a pulp or junk writer.

Nona:
An extremely dark tale, and undoubtedly the most ambiguous of King's stories in this collection. I don't want to mention too much because it will spoil the story. I think, it is safe to say it is a story of insanity. It also makes you question the honesty of the narrator, but not necessarily because he is liar but rather because his view and world is distorted. Depending the stance you take, it is either a tale of the supernatural or a tale of one person's drift into madness. A story that will leave you disturbed, but it is also incredibly engaging (but nowhere near the land of the cheery or happy).

For Owen: Another poem, this time written to his youngest son. It is a humourous little tale that describes people in the terms of fruit. It is sort of an example of King entering into the imagination of a young child who is coping with changes in his life.

Survivor Type: This is definitely a macabre tale, but something very different than the typical supernatural horror people associate with King. This is another story that deals with a descent into madness and insanity. It is also a story about pride. loss and stubbornness. It is about a doctor that got caught in very corrupt dealings, and made a very desperate move in order to keep his lifestyle. Dues to some unforeseen circumstances, he is now committing desperate actions in order to preserve his very life. The tale is a tragedy that is told in the form of a diary. It is an intriguing story because the main character is not overtly likeable, but as the story progresses, you can't help start feeling sympathy and despair for him. It is also a story where a man fights with his inner demons, and also starts failing due to his own over confidence in his self. It is a very dark story that almost reminded me of an amalgamation of Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway story.

Uncle's Otto's Truck:
This is another story that the theme may depend on how you decide to read the tale. If you decide to read it as a supernatural story, then you'll see it as a story of denial and how society turns their back on those who act differently; If you decide the supernatural elements are lies told by one character, then it is a story of how guilt tears away at a character and actually slowly drags them into incurable insanity. Or you could read it a third way, where it is about one man's dark and cruel acts that haunt him for years, but eventually lead to his comeuppance. Any way you read it, it is a dark tale that is scary and disturbing, and once again, shows the strengths of King as a writer when it comes to conveying human emotions.

Morning Deliveries (Milkman #1): It is a story about a typical small town morning, and just the natural events that occur. But you see, the thing about small towns is there are usually some very dark secrets. This story has more than one very dark secret. I love the juxtaposition of the beautiful descriptions of nature against the very evil acts committed in the tale.

Big Wheels: A Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman #2): It is essentially a continuation of events going on in the previous story, but now it is the evening of what I assumed was the same day. The story follows two guys cutting loose after work, and again focuses on the dark secrets that are being held by every single one of the characters. The more you learn about the characters, then the more disturbing and unlikable they become. The important point is that we are all capable of being just as dark and unlikable. There is one character in the story that seems like your only normal and relatable person, but then he goes on to commit one of the most horrific and unimaginable acts possible. I think, this displays how there is a fine line between insanity and sanity for all of us. This is why family and love and hope are such important things to cling to. I really loved this story a lot, even if it is full of despicable characters and activities (but I really don't think it glorifies or justifies anything that happens, but rather exposes the ugliness and the reality of it).

Gramma: This is an homage of the classic tales of HP Lovecraft. I haven't read a lot of Lovecraft, but I know King has. He has written a few tales which follow the Lovecraftian mythos. He even adopted Lovecraft's creation of fictional New England towns (with King creating the infamous Maine towns of Castle Rock, 'Salem's Lot, Derry, and a few others). There has been a clear influence from Lovecraft, and then some outright borrowing from the Lovecraft universe. This is a story about dark religion (an actual type practiced in Lovecraft tales) and how it entirely consumed a person. It is a tale of the dark arts, and how a family tries to conceal a very evil past. King does a great job of building suspense and forming a rather terrifying story. The most impressive part is the story builds tension and remains thrilling despite that little actually happens for most of it.

The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet:
Is insanity worse than death? Can you recover from insanity? Or are you already dead, but the rest of the body doesn't know it? Or are you even insane, but instead, just more enlightened than those around you? If that is the case, is that any better than being insane when no one else can relate to you and or see what you can (even if it is real)? This is a marvelous story about one writer's decent into insanity, but again, King keeps it ambiguous at times. Maybe he isn't insane. And maybe others do see what he does, but won’t admit it. This was definitely another of my favourite stories in this collection and I highly recommend others to track it down. It is very unique and it is dark, and very quirky; this is the type of story that will display the talents and imagination of Stephen King.

The Reach:
This is actually a very sweet and warm story about the last days of the oldest woman on an island. It is about her reflection on her past and all the loved ones who have since passed away. She starts thinking about the island she had never left, and looking toward the mainland that she never desired to go to. The space between her island and the mainland is called the Reach, but as you read the story, you'll see it has some deeper meaning as well. Stephen King has stated that he hopes this is one of the stories he is most remembered for. It is far different than anything else in this collection.

If you think Stephen King is a hack, then I challenge you read this book. The collection is so varied and full of so much life. The characters have many personalities and the settings are extremely varied. This is proof the man has a far ranging imagination and is capable of telling many types of tales. If you read this, and still think he is a hack, then I question your bias. I am not saying you have to like it, and if you don't, then it is no indictment against you. In my case, there are many talented writers that I never really found interest in, but I'll still admit they are talented. I think. Stephen King deserves that recognition. He is talented, but might not be for everyone. But for the people that do like Stephen King, Skeleton Crew is an absolute masterpiece.

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