In honor of my finishing a short story, I think I’ll have another blog post about books and writing. I promise I’ll get back to my list of best bad guys, talking about the Demon Cat, eventually doing my definitive post on ALIENS, and so many other interesting subjects, but for now I want to mention a couple of books I’ve read lately.
First—Stephen King’s MR. MERCEDES.
I think you all know how I feel about Mr. King. I quote the guy, I mention him in every other blog post, some of you have seen the tattoo on my ass…
Wait. Never mind. I don’t actually have a Stephen King tattoo on my ass. I don’t have any tattoos at all. But if I DID, it might actually be a tat of Cujo drooling,
or of Danny Torrance,
Or of Pennywise, or of Christine, or of Barlow. So many images that man has to his credit—Andy Dufresne (as played by Tim Robbins), Dolores Claiborne or Annie Wilkes (played by the inimitable Kathy Bates), the kids from STAND BY ME, Tom Hanks in THE GREEN MILE, even Bronson Pinchot in the television production of THE LANGOLIERS
But it’s not just about the movies and minseries made from King’s work. In the early days, when he was a newly-minted superstar, there were a LOT of bad adaptations of his work. Anyone who’s sat through CHILDREN OF THE CORN or THE LAWNMOWER MAN knows what I’m talking about. In these more enlightened times they’re hiring directors who will actually film the stories, so there aren’t the abortions there used to be (THE MANGLER, anyone? How about George C. Scott playing a Native American in FIRESTARTER?). If you see ‘based on a novel by Stephen King’ on your local marquee, you’re probably going to get something at the very LEAST competent (see John Cusack’s 1408, or Johnny Depp’s SECRET WINDOW, neither of them classic films, but both of them watchable). And occasionally you WILL get a masterpiece of horror: Frank Darabont’s THE MIST, I’d stack up against any horror movie made in the last fifty years. It’s that good. And that scary.
So, MR. MERCEDES.
It ain’t horror. There’s horror IN it, of course, because Stephen King can’t help but put scary stuff into everything he does. “The Body” (the novella which became STAND BY ME on the silver screen) is a kind of ‘Boy’s Life’ article about friendship and courage and loyalty, but it’s also about projectile vomiting and flies crawling on a dead boy’s eyes. King’s take on THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO involves butt rape and crawling through miles of shit. It’s the way the man’s wired, and the world is better for it. And MR. MERCEDES, ostensibly a hardboiled detective novel, also contains a couple of scenes that made me want to barf. Our antagonist, the Mr. Mercedes of the title, is not just a mass killer, but also a more PERSONAL killer. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but his first murder is terrifyingly affecting, and it made me put the book down for a while. I’m used to horrible shit from King, but he’s gotten better at making that horrible shit personal.
There are other moments that will piss you off. Not because the events described couldn’t happen, not because they’re badly-written, not because King has let you down in any way, but because you want to grab the author by his lapels and shake him. “Goddamn it, Steve”, you’ll want to say. “WHY?”
Because that’s how life works, I imagine him saying. Because sometimes people die, and occasionally the deaths are horrible. In FEAST OF FEAR, a series of interviews with King collected by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, the writer is asked a question about falling in love with his own characters. In characteristic fashion, King says “I was real sad when the little boy died in CUJO, in the book. I was asked if I could revive him for the re-draft; at the publishing company they didn’t want him to die. And I said no, that it would be a lie to say that he was alive.”
Say what you want about Stephen King. Call him a hack, or a master of post-literate prose. But never, ever say that he doesn’t care about his craft.
My favorite recent King book is 11/22/63, a time-travel novel about the Kennedy assassination that takes Jack Finney’s TIME AND AGAIN through a series of completely entertaining changes to finally get to its (possibly depressing) conclusion. But even at King’s worst (and King’s worst would be THE TOMMYKNOCKERS and DREAMCATCHER), he’s still pretty goddamn good. A few years ago, when I heard that he was writing a book for Hard Case Crime (it would turn out to be THE COLORADO KID, which, in spite of all its strong points, WASN’T hardboiled crime), I was excited. I love Sam Spade, I love Spenser, and Lucas Davenport, and Lew Archer, and Harry Bosch, and all the other hardboiled dicks that American writers are so good at portraying, and I was eager to see what King would do with the genre. He’d experimented with fantasy (in THE EYES OF THE DRAGON and the DARK TOWER books), with science fiction (in the books I’ve previously slammed, but also in a couple of decent short stories, namely “I Am the Doorway” and, more impressively, the novella “The Running Man”), with Westerns and romances and anything else that caught his fancy. Whatever he wanted to write, he wrote. And I knew he loved hardboiled crime.
So. MR. MERCEDES is kind of a hardboiled crime novel. It’s much more hardboiled than THE COLORADO KID, though it’s nowhere near THE MALTESE FALCON or THE BIG SLEEP or even FUZZ (one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which ARE hardboiled, but when you put Burt Reynolds in the movie version, you lose a bit of credibility. Especially when you put him in a nun’s habit, or have a superimposed picture of him from his famous COSMO shoot
but Raquel Welch, brandishing her sidearm? Yeah, I can live with that…)
MR. MERCEDES is a good book. If an unknown author had written it and had it published, and had reviewers come across it without the King albatross to deal with, I suspect it would have garnered generally positive articles. It’s no masterpiece. When you’re talking about mad killer books, and retired-cops-coming-out-of-retirement-to-catch-the-scumbag books, and books with frank sex scenes (whatever else King is, he’s frank, whether it’s about fucking or farting or eating leftovers or clipping off hangnails. The man is capable of poetry, but he’s also our great observer of the ordinary and mundane), MR. MERCEDES isn’t going to challenge for the top spot. But…damn. It’s a good book.
And it’s the first in a planned trilogy. I’m a bad person for a variety of reasons, most of which I’m not going to share with my blog readers, but one I AM willing to share is that, when Stephen King got hit by a drunk driver and almost died, my first instinctive reaction was to be PISSED that he wasn’t going to be able to finish his DARK TOWER series. That is a HORRIBLE human reaction, and I’m not proud of it. But I am what I am.
That said, if King decided to forgo writing the next two books in the MERCEDES series, I wouldn’t be despondent. The first one is good, and ends satisfyingly, and though I’d love to see the next two, I don’t NEED to see the next two. He can write whatever he wants, and I’ll buy it in hardback and read and enjoy it.
This isn’t the full-throated endorsement of MR. MERCEDES that I’d expected to write. But it IS an endorsement; if you’ve ever liked King’s work, you’ll like this one. If you dislike his writing, please stay away. And I’ll let you know the next time he hits a home run rather than a legged-out double.