Posts Tagged ‘Needful Things’

Over the past couple of months, people in the horror-themed Facebook groups I belong to have been raving about this particular book. I looked it up and it sounded up my alley, so when I had an Audible credit, I downloaded the audio book. But before I started it, I found out the book was written by the same guy who wrote the novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, as well as wrote/directed its movie adaptation. Really? Isn’t that a sweet, YA rom-com? How do you jump from that to horror? (looks up what that book is really about.) Oh. That’s pretty dark. Yeah, I can see how the dude transitioned to horror.

Imaginary Friend follows Kate Reese and her son Christopher as they leave Kate’s abusive boyfriend and move to a small town in Pennsylvania. However, soon after they move there, Christopher disappears in the woods near his school. He reappears a week later, unable to remember what happened to him, except being led out of the woods and back to civilization by someone called “The Nice Man.” While Kate is happy to have her son back, and things start to improve after he returns, Christopher has changed. He’s smarter now, unable to sleep, and suffers from headaches a lot. And he’s in contact with the Nice Man, an invisible being who instructs him to build a treehouse in the woods he disappeared in, and to do it before Christmas. If he doesn’t, something bad will happen. To the town, to his mother, and to him.

This one was hard to put down. I normally only listen to audio books while at work, but the story was so intriguing and out there that I listened to it while checking email and cooking dinner. Imaginary Friend feels a lot like Stephen King novels like It or Needful Things, these huge stories based around weird concepts that are both scary and hard to put down. I mean, you got a kid who goes missing in the woods, and then when he comes back, has to build a treehouse to save the world from the Apocalypse. And that’s just what I feel I can tell you without spoiling too much.

I also have to give Chbosky credit: I had a hard time predicting what was going to happen as we got further into the story. Every little piece of the puzzle had the potential to surprise me, and quite a few did. During the “darkest hour” of the book, when things are at their most pessimistic, you felt the misery and the tension as the situation deteriorated. And that climax! Woo-boy, that was epic. Like, the final battle of an Avengers movie epic.

Not only that, but the characters are very well-developed. Also like some of King’s books, especially earlier ones, just about every character is well-developed. I felt like I’d known some of these characters my whole life, from Kate and Christopher Reese to the two or three old ladies suddenly regaining their faculties after years of dementia.

I do have one major gripe about the book: as the story goes further on, the novel takes on an…evangelistic air. It’s not like the Left Behind books, where it’s trying to get people to become born-again, but the story leans more in that direction than in the direction of The Stand or Supernatural. I don’t think the goal is to convert me: rather, I think Chbosky is using his Catholic upbringing to give the story a particular authenticity and philosophy other non-evangelistic Ultimate-Good-versus-Ultimate-Evil stories don’t have. There are some interesting ideas on the nature of guilt, our relationship to God, and how to find different kinds of salvation presented in the story.

Still, there were times when I was like, “Dude, scale it back a bit. I’m starting to get how people feel when I start ranking villains in horror, and they’re not horror fans.” That’s happened before, and it’s gotten awkward.

On the whole though, Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky is an engrossing horror novel that’s weird in the best of ways and full of terror and twists. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give it a 4.4. Pick it up and see for yourself. You’ll never look at treehouses and deer the same way again, but you’ll have a hell of a ride thanks to it.

Last year’s premiere of Castle Rock on streaming service Hulu garnered lots of attention and love from critics and from viewers, both longtime Constant Readers and folks unfamiliar with King’s work. When word of a second season reached fans’ ears, we got excited. Which Stephen King stories would they draw on? Would the showrunners make every season different, like early American Horror Story? Would the different stories be connected by more than just a common location, like later American Horror Story? Or would it be a continuing story with the same actors and characters, like every other TV series out there?

We sat down and watched ten episodes over the course of eight weeks. And while I can’t vouch for the rest of the fandom, I can say this season far surpassed season one.

Season 2 follows Annie Wilkes–yes, that Annie Wilkes–as she and her teen daughter Joy find themselves stranded in Castle Rock after a horrific car accident. They’ve come at an interesting time, as Castle Rock and Jerusalem’s Lot–yes, that Jerusalem’s Lot–are about to celebrate the latter’s four-hundredth anniversary, and the Lot’s growing Somali population are facing discrimination and threats of violence from the likes of Ace Merrill, nephew of pawnbroker and loan shark Reginald “Pop” Merrill. Annie just wants to have her car repaired and leave town before her past comes for her and Joy. But when someone finds out about who she used to be, events are set in motion that will bring not just Annie, but the whole town to the edge of sanity.

While Season 1 was more influenced by newer, weirder Stephen King, Season 2 was definitely more old-school King: visceral, terrifying, and at times very explosive. Drawing on elements from mainly Misery and Salem’s Lot, the storytelling is mixed with terrifying scares and fun twists (episode 7, am I right?). And even the things you see coming from a mile away (and there are a few) are told in such a way that you don’t mind seeing them coming. And you gotta love all the homages to and Easter eggs referencing King’s works, including a heartfelt tribute to The Body (aka Stand by Me) in episode 3.

Probably the best episode was episode 5, “The Laughing Place,” which gives Annie a new backstory. Honestly, I was a little unsure at first, but as the episode goes on, it just hits you with the weight of the story and the emotion behind it as Annie becomes the person she meets. Sure, Annie is changed from a metaphor for toxic fandom to a painful example of what untreated mental illness can do to a person, but here it works.

“The Laughing Place;” best episode this season.

The actors were also great. Lizzy Caplan’s Annie Wilkes is a wonderful forerunner to the character we meet in Misery, a woman trying to do right by her daughter even as she wrestles with demons that not even medication can fully contain. Tim Robbins (aka Andy Dufresne of The Shawshank Redemption) gives the character of Pop Merrill, in the books a greedy and scheming man, a human side with guilt and a history he’s trying to make amends for. Yusra Warsama is excellent as Dr. Nadia Omar, Pop’s adoptive daughter dealing with her world basically imploding due to what’s going on around her. And Barkhad Abdi and Elsie Fisher as Nadia’s brother Abdi Omar and Annie’s daughter Joy, respectively, give great performances as people trying to deal with their upbringing and at the same time move away from it towards something positive.

If there’s one thing I’m going to ntipick, it’s that I wanted to see more of John “Ace” Merrill. It’s not easy to explain this without spoiling anything, but basically we only get to see one side of the character for a single episode, and then it’s a different side for the next nine. And I kind of wanted to see more of that first side (though the second side is an excellent villain). Did that make sense? I hope it does.

Overall though, Castle Rock season 2 is a scary and tense thrill ride drawing from some of the best of King’s earlier works and then some. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving the season a 4.8. Sit down and buckle up, you’re going places you never imagined going before.

And while no season 3 has been announced, I feel it’s only a matter of time before we get word on that, so let’s start speculating. Which characters will come back? What stories will be drawn on?* And can I please get a commission to write an episode for the show? Only time will tell.

*I’m hoping The Library Policeman, Needful Things and maybe Apt Pupil.

What did you think of Season 2? What do you hope to see in Season 3?

If it’s not obvious by now, I’m a big Stephen King fan (cue everyone who knows me saying in a torrent of sarcasm, “Gee, really? We had no effing idea!”). So when I heard some time last year that Hulu, JJ Abrams and His Royal Scariness Himself were collaborating to create a TV series set in his famous fictional town Castle Rock, you know I was interested. Fast forward to July 25th, and the first three episodes of Castle Rock premiered on Hulu. I didn’t write a review for them (I think that I was busy with a hundred other things that week), but I thought that the series had a strong start, and I was looking forward to seeing where the story went.

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve just finished Season One. How did it hold up?

First, the story. Taking place in the Stephen King multiverse, particularly in one of his frequent settings, Castle Rock, Maine, Castle Rock‘s first season follows Henry Deaver (Andre Holland), a lawyer who returns to his childhood town after receiving a call from nearby Shawshank Penitentiary after a prisoner (Bill Skarsgaard of IT fame) was found in its deepest depths, in a cage, with no name or other identity, only asking for him. Deaver, who left town after disappearing and then being found, only to be accused of murdering his adoptive father, tries to help this mysterious young man. But as he delves into this man’s case, as well as his own disappearance, he finds some strange connections between the two. And as violence starts building in the town, the race to figure out both mysteries takes on a whole new importance.

Okay first off, the cast is the best thing about this show! Every character utterly inhabits their character and make them feel like real people, some of whom you can imagine hanging out with (others, stay the hell away from). I especially liked Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand, a realtor with psychic powers and a history with Henry Deaver, and Sissy Spacek (yes, the original Carrie came back for another Stephen King story) as Ruth Deaver, Henry Deaver’s dementia-addled but still feisty and witty adoptive mother. And Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn (maybe the only character who actually comes from a King story in this show) is a very sympathetic character, though he does come off at first as almost unlikable. Still, Holland as Deaver is the one who carries the story. We see things mainly through his eyes, and see how he struggles with all the baggage he carries as he tries to sift through all the confusion between events past and present.

I also liked the plot and how the story was told. It’s clearly geared towards people who are familiar with King’s works but still makes it accessible to those who haven’t seen the series. The writers also took the approach of a slow burn, taking their time to set up these characters and draw us in with the mystery while every now and then pumping things up to keep it interesting. And the writers weren’t afraid to take risks: two episodes are told entirely from the POV of a single character, and one of these episodes, through the eyes of Sissy Spacek’s character, is probably the best episode of the season.

Love Sissy Spacek in this show.

And finally, this does feel like a Stephen King story made for a television format. It’s not based on any particular story he’s written, but incorporates all of his stories, especially the ones set in Castle Rock, to give us a drama and a place that’s both familiar and new. Plus, you’ve got all the tropes you love (or in some cases, hate) from King: psychics, small towns full of secrets, religious fanatics gone crazy, sheriffs (or in this case, retired sheriffs), and of course, a whole bunch of weirdness that makes you go, “Say what? That works, but still, what the hell?”

Was there anything I didn’t like about Castle Rock? Well, a few things: one is that there’s a little too much weird. King’s been known to include a lot of odd concepts and sci-fi ideas into his work to varying degrees, and Castle Rock has a lot of that. The problem with that is, too much weird can lead to a lot of exposition and slow sequences where not much happens. Consequently, it also bites into moments where we could be totally terrified. And in my opinion, there weren’t enough of those moments, which is sad. Stephen King or Stephen-King inspired, his work is truly at its best when it features a shape-shifting clown hungry for children, or a Nazi war criminal burning cats alive in his oven,* things that make it hard for us to sleep. And that was lacking here.

On top of that, I didn’t like the season finale as much as I thought I would. It had its moments and explained a lot, but the climax could’ve been more epic, and I have mixed feelings on the final scene, both in what it featured and how it was told.

Still, all in all, it’s a great start to a series, and I’m looking forward to whatever they cook up for the upcoming season two (maybe something involving my man Leland Gaunt?). On a scale of 1 to 5, I’ll give Castle Rock a 4.3. Take a visit to the Rock, and hope that while you’re there, you come out with all your fingers attached.

That’s all for tonight, my Followers of Fear. Expect a review tomorrow for the season premiere of American Horror Story: Apocalypse (I’d review it tonight, but it ends after I should be in bed!). Until then, pleasant nightmares.

*I’m reading Apt Pupil right now, and that part had me frozen in my seat!

Halfway there! And woo-boy, is it going well. I haven’t missed a single day, somehow. Let’s hope I can keep up the pace!

So once again, I’m doing the Ten Day Book Challenge, which started on Facebook and should’ve stayed on Facebook, but why should I do what everyone else is doing? I never have, unless other horror authors are suddenly collecting dolls and going to the ballet while also supporting the Ohio State Buckeyes and practicing Judaism to the best of their ability, and I probably never will. So thank my cousin Matthew for getting me started on this, and let’s get onto the rules:

  • Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
  • Explain the rules.
  • Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
  • Explain why (because I don’t see the point of just posting a picture of a book cover without an explanation. That goes for Facebook as well as blogs).
  • Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.

I wasn’t sure whether to do the other Stephen King novel or something else today, but in the end, I decided to get the second novel out of the way and save a particular novel for Day Six. For Day Five, I’m going with another example of quintessential Stephen King: Needful Things.

This is a novel that is both terrifying and hilarious, campy yet deep, and full of all the weirdness that we love about King. It’s also one of those thousand-page whoppers he churns out every couple of years, and I absolutely love it! The story takes place in Castle Rock, the same little town that’s the setting for King’s new show on Hulu, Castle Rock. A man named Leland Gaunt opens up a shop called Needful Things and starts selling the most amazing products to his customers…in exchange for a favor. And each favor exposes a darker side of the town, a domino in a Rube Goldberg machine, all leading to one inevitable conclusion.

I’ve had the chance to reread this book several times since I first read it about three years ago. To be more precise, I listen to the audio book, which is narrated by His Royal Scariness Stephen King himself. And it gets me every time. On the one hand, you have all the scares that you’d expect from King: a villain that appears human but soon reveals himself to be so much more, a spider-creature that Gaunt uses to great effect in the novel, people who are just assholes on a bad day but under Gaunt’s influences become psychopaths and murderers, full of rage and jealousy. On the other hand, you have weird ad hilarious moments like two overweight housewives both believing they’re having very intense romantic/sexual affairs with Elvis Presley, a woman who gets off on having feuds and fights, and a town sheriff whose love of magic tricks proves important to saving the day! And somehow, it all works wonderfully! I hope someday I can write as well as that, because let me tell you, it might come in handy for some of my weirder ideas.

Sadly, this novel has not gotten the same amount of love as some of King’s other works. Hell, the only adaptation is one terrible movie that came out a little over two months after I was born. I think it’s due for a graphic novel or a TV adaptation (which is why I hope it somehow features more prominently in Castle Rock season 2)., but then again, Hollywood doesn’t listen to me that much. They certainly haven’t heard my pleas for an adaptation of The Library Policeman as of yet.

Still, if you’re in the mood for an unusual horror novel with weird and hilarious moments peppered here and there, you can’t go wrong with Needful Things.

And now to tag someone. I hereby nominate my good friend Kat Impossible from the blog Life and Other Disasters. I know you’re busy starting a new job in Berlin, Kat, but I hope you’re able to find the time to do this. Especially since you tend to enjoy book related tags and challenges.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Until next time, pleasant nightmares!

Go to any slasher movie. I guarantee someone will do something stupid. And I also guarantee there’s a reason behind why they did it.

So yesterday I was doing some edits on Rose* and one of the points in the beta reader notes stood out to me. In that particular point, my friend/colleague/beta reader Joleene Naylor pointed out that it was taking the titular character Rose a lot longer to figure something out about the scene that Joleene had figured out much earlier. My immediate first thought was, “Well, it’s horror. Everyone’s a bit slower in horror.” And that thought really stuck with me. Yeah, the characters in horror aren’t always the brightest bulbs in the closet, are they? People in slasher films take too long to realize there’s a killer hunting them around a lake notorious for murders and disappearances, the family stays in their haunted house and might even pretend things are normal even if it’s obvious there’s demonic possession at work, dumb teenagers run upstairs when they should run out the door. They either realize something well after the audience has realized something, or they make really dumb decisions. And it’s such a well-known trope, it gets parodied quite a bit in our media, like in this Geico commercial.

This got me thinking: is this intentional on the part of horror writers? If so, why?

Well, I thought about this throughout the day (couldn’t write this before because I had to go to bed and then to work), and I think that what’s happening is intentional. However, I don’t think the intention is to make the characters stupid idiots.

First, let’s consider something: we’re the audience, and the characters are characters. In our daily lives we’re not keyed up, checking to see if horror-movie circumstances everywhere we go (and if we are, we’re usually recommended to see a doctor about that). It’s only when we sit down for a horror story that we start looking for signs of horror, because that’s what our brains are trained to do. Similarly, unless they’re enjoying a horror story or think they’re in one, characters won’t typically see all the signs of something evil around them unless that evil chooses to make itself known.

There’s also the fact that authors have to tell a story, and often the stories they tell have to be of a certain length. For example, I classify a novel as sixty-thousand words or more, so I have to figure out how to keep a novel going for that long. One of the ways to do that is to make the characters figure things out much slower than the audience, either by only giving them clues slowly or later in the story, or by actually making it so they can’t connect the dots until it’s convenient for the story. And considering that part of the appeal of horror, the thrill of the mystery and the unknown as well as our reactions to it once exposed, this is a sound strategy.

Okay, so making characters slow on the uptake is part imitating people in the real world, part storytelling tool. But what about stupid decisions?

Well, that’s actually pretty easy to answer: they’re under stress. When a character is being chased by a killer or trying to get away from a ghost, they’re under unimaginable pressures. So unless they’ve been trained to think under pressure, like in the Army, they’re not going to make a rational decision. They’re going to make split-second decisions that they hope will ensure their survival, and because it’s a horror story, they’ll likely make the wrong decision. Unless the author says otherwise, of course.

And even if they’re not in a stressful, life-or-death situation, the need for survival can cause us to do very stupid things sometimes, as well as our characters. Polly Chalmers, one of the protagonists of Stephen King’s Needful Things, keeps a charm around her neck, despite suspecting that there’s something alive in it and it’s twisting her personality somehow, because the thing is easing the debilitating pain of her arthritis. In other words, fulfilling a need to help her live.

Sometimes a character acts a certain way either because they’re imitating real people, or the author needs them to be that way.

So it’s not that characters in horror stories are dumb or slow. They’re victims of imitating people in the real world as well as the author’s discretion in storytelling. And we the audience, free of those issues, are able to pick up on things they can’t or won’t for a little while longer.

Of course, we will continue to call characters stupid and wonder how they could not do the smart thing. That just comes with the territory. But perhaps the next time we sit down for a scary movie, we’ll also consider what the characters are going through, as well as what the storytellers behind them decided was best for the characters and their story.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. Hope this gave you plenty to think about. I had fun just thinking of it. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

*Speaking of which, the editing on Rose is going very well. Yesterday I got through four chapters, bringing me halfway through the fourth draft. At the rate I’m going, I could be done before the end of the month. And after that, hopefully it’s a short wait till I find a publisher. God-willing, anyway.