Mel Carriere is a Colorado writer/procrastinator, dragging his feet through the snow as he puts off for "Later" what he should write today.
Playing The Literary Lottery
Finding a good book to read for lunch can be a crap shoot. A spin of the roulette wheel. A tumbling basket full of numbered ping pong balls. A deck of tarot cards dealt by an angry monkey.
Sometimes a devout reader, painfully aware that lunchtime leaves a big bubble in the belly if there are no written words to wash it down with, has to take books where he can get them. The word connoisseur is forced on a desperate quest for alphabetical eatables without knowing if a name brand, or some generic substitute is going to turn up. The process is akin to going to the Rolaids aisle of the drugstore and finding only bottles of Tabasco Sauce. The reading gremlins have sprung from your lunchbox to rearrange the books on the shelves, hiding all the good ones behind the Kaopectate, knowing darn well you've got literary heartburn and trying to keep it that way.
In this frenzied frame of mind I stumbled into a Wal Mart along my mail route one June 2nd, bookless and friendless. It was one of those days I rolled out of bed in the morning and left my brain snoring on my pillow. With my empty head dead weight on my shoulders, I forgot the essentials that get me through the work day, leaving behind the book that was to replace The Left Hand of Darkness, which I had finished two days prior. And so I staggered starving and stupid into the book section, loath to deprive myself of the USDA-recommended word intake two days in a row.
There, I found the pickings as slim as a Vegas buffet table after the drunken members of the Over-Eaters Anonymous Convention have rolled through. Nevertheless, I said to myself, I'm not going away empty-handed. This is going to be a Lunchtime Lit experiment. I'm going to grab whatever semi-palatable, empty calories are available in the Wal Mart book aisle, come what may, hell or high water, then read and review it. I'm not leaving 'til I'm heaving.
The process isn't as easy as it sounds. Have you ever been in the Wal Mart book aisle? Half the books there are cookie-cutter serial-killer thrillers, half the books are cookie-cutter bodice rippers, the other half are a mutant hybrid of the two. Somewhere in the basement of a giant New York publishing house lies a computer that spits out 90,000 word thrillers based on a programmed algorithm, then stamps names on them like James Patterson, Lee Child, Michael Connelly. James Patterson alone publishes about five books a month. How is that possible if he's a real person, not a machine?
Sorry to sound snobbish, but I like to pretend my literary tastes are a little more sophisticated than that. There was no way I was going to stay awake on my lunch break head-bobbing my way through a predictable plot where:
1) Random Serial Killer X goes on a brutal homicide spree that the best detectives on the force cannot solve.
2) Random, down on his luck detective Y, once the star of the homicide squad but now a drunken has-been, takes the case because the force is scraping bottom.
3) Against everybody's expectations, most notably his own, drunken has-been detective Y discovers the identity of the murderer. But after serial killer X pleads insanity and walks, detective Y looks the other way while the vengeful father of one of the victims guns down the sprung assassin in a dark alleyway. After that, drunken has-been cop Y ditches what's left of his bottle in that same alley, then checks into a rehab clinic, seeking sobriety so he can redeem himself saving humanity from other loathsome serial killers. His head must remain unmuddled because a nearly-identical murderer will emerge next week, when that printing press in the basement cranks into life again.
Imagine my delight when I spotted Later, by Stephen King, in the midst of this insipid assortment on the Wal Mart bookshelves. King is an author I know for sure is not a machine, because I've seen his picture all over the Internet, and he looks like a real person. Only perfect people are faked by massive media conglomerates, nobody would bother to counterfeit an old guy in coke-bottle glasses, looking more intelligent than beautiful. So I grabbed the book like Gandhi lunging for a plate of cookies at the end of a hunger strike, but paused again when I saw the imprint in its left-hand corner. It read Hard Case Crime.
Oh wonderful, I said to myself, another one who sold out. Stephen King has been dabbling in the over-saturated murder genre himself lately, as if he hasn't made enough money. Seems like he wants to milk that fat cow too, to get his greedy hands yanking the tired teat before it goes dry, like that's ever going to happen. One day working security on the airport airfield I got bored breathing airplane exhaust and tried reading King's Mr. Mercedes, another predictable homicide thriller about a washed-up cop, chasing down a killer that has evaded all attempts at detection. I stopped about a third of the way through because I got a better buzz breathing the jet fumes.
I looked at Later, looked at the shelf, looked at the book again, and realized there was no other choice. Oh well, I guess this will be the literary lottery, I declared as I walked out of the store, paperback in hand, about ten bucks poorer. Let's scratch it off and see if we've got a winning ticket.
Lunchtime Lit Rules
According to Mel's faithful and lovely wife, your Lunchtime Lit reviewer is an avowed procrastinator who sees no reason not to put off for later what he doesn't want to do today. This is true for everything in life except his Lunchtime Lit books, which are read devotedly every work day on his half-hour lunch break, never taken home for later, late-night reads.
Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **
|Book||Pages||Word Count||Date Started||Date Finished||Lunchtimes Consumed|
Every Man Dies Alone
The Three Body Problem
The City We Became
The Left Hand of Darkness
*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit.
**Thirty-one other titles, with a total estimated word count of 6,879,084 and 1,088 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
Notes on The Plot - Sixth Sense Redux?
Jamie Conklin sees dead people. Sound familiar? Damn - has it really been 20 years, 1999 to wit, since M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense became a summer sensation? The film might be a score of years in the can, but it still leaves its mark on folks, including famous authors who have made millions dreaming up ideas for other writers to plagiarize.
I'm not accusing Mr. King of plagiarism. I guess we could say that little Danny Torrance in The Shining was seeing dead people all the way back in 1977, when M. Night was barely out of diapers. All the same, Jamie Conklin's other-wordly talents seem stupidly familiar to those of Cole Sear of The Sixth Sense. He sees dead people nobody else can, but he sees them how they actually died. If their face was smashed when a taxi flung them to the curb, that is how they appear as they gravitate toward the pearly gates. If they blew their own brains out with a pistol, his nauseated psychic eye is exposed to the little hole in their skull where the bullet went in, and the massive crater where it went out. Although Jamie is not spooked by most of the lingering dead he is able to converse with, their unsightly, death-mangled presence sometimes causes him to lose his cookies on the floor mat of his mother's car. This is significantly more stomach-turning to read about on your lunch break than the ghouls themselves.
Although Jamie's supernatural ability certainly seems like Cole's in The Sixth Sense, with a twist of rotten lemon stirred in, Stephen King gets away with it because:
A): He is Stephen King, a man who has sold 350 million books. He forgot more about seeing dead people than Mr. Shyamalan will ever be able to squeeze into the celluloid of the 11 movies made since his 1999 blockbuster, in a vain attempt to repeat its success.
B): King adds a new spin on he subject. Later sets down a bitchin' new rule for seeing dead people - the dead must tell the truth. In this aspect of the rehashed tale, Jamie's talent goes from being just a sort of a spooky hobby, into a practical skill that is exploited by cops and criminals, or cops turned criminals. Literary agents also profit from it, when their with clients die unexpectedly, and they really need to squeeze one last book out of the head of the dead, in order to get out of the red.
C): Jamie jokes about copying The Sixth Sense, which I suppose serves as a plagiarism waiver.
Not only does Stephen King apologetically, mind you, steal from Mr. Shyamalan, he also steals from himself. Well, I guess we could say he brings back the dead from his own Stephen King Universe by burying them in his Pet Sematary, whence they are resurrected for profit and fun. The concept of the deadlights in Later will be familiar to fans of The Dark Tower series, and It. Also recycled into Later, chewed up and spit out from the pages of It for easy digestion, is the Ritual of Chud. The u in Chud is supposed to have two dots hovering above it like dark, menacing storm clouds, but I don't know how to add that morbid touch on my Chromebook. Anyhow, for those of you who haven't read It, or Later, and probably never will after finishing this sentence, The Ritual of Chud basically involves bringing down the devil by tongue-kissing him. Sounds silly, I know, but it's really a lot more sophisticated than my weak powers can describe. Really.
There's a Family Guy episode where Stephen King explains to his eye-rolling literary agent how his 307th book is going to be about a haunted desk lamp. The parody is a tad exaggerated, but it demonstrates the trend King's writing has taken during the course of his career. The thing is, Stephen King could pull off a story about a diabolical desk lamp. He would hook you with the first sentence and reel you in all the way back to the boat - tired, dizzy, but still flopping.
Notes on the Storytelling - Into The Maelstrom of Mediocrity
Petty pilferage of plot devices notwithstanding, Later demonstrates that half a century after he flamed onto the horror scene with Carrie, Stephen King is still one hell of a storyteller. The most highly-honed talent the King of horror still possesses is capturing the attention of his readers, right out of the gate. The first five pages of Later get your adrenaline flowing on the sound of the starting gun, and although you slog toward the finish line as an also-ran, you still make it. Stephen King understands that many of his readers like to kick the tires before committing to buy, by sampling a couple of pages. Making sure these first couple of pages are ass-kickers is why his net worth is half a billion.
The problem with Later is not how it jumps off the block, but that it slowly loses traction. For me, the reason the thoroughbred gets bogged down around the first turn is the main character himself, Jamie Conklin. I just don't like the kid. I don't trust him, I wouldn't want to hang around with him, I don't even believe he's a real kid. And it's not his freaky talent that gets under my skin, where you think he's talking to empty staircase or a sidewalk but he claims he's talking to dead people. That wouldn't bother me, I would just consider it eccentric. The reason I don't like him is because I find him boring. He's a way too goody two-shoes Momma's boy, doting on his Mother far too much than is normal for an adolescent. If I was his writer-god, I would have painted some polka dots on his perfect complexion. I would have him smoking weed behind the tool shed at 1 AM, or slashing the tires of the teacher who flunked him on a test. Just because you're the protagonist doesn't mean you have to be perfect. But Jamie is an all-American, mother knows best kid, playing sports, bringing home cute turkey pictures for Mommy on Thanksgiving. Like that turkey, he seems cut out of cardboard.
Furthermore, Jamie is anachronistic, which makes me drop my suspension of disbelief. The tale is supposed to take place within our last decade and a half or so, but it comes off like 1972. I've lived with a couple adolescent sons over the course of that last decade and a half, and they don't talk like Jamie does. Later leaves me the impression that Mr. King has not been exposed to any young people for awhile. For instance, today's youth don't use expressions like "dig" anymore, as in, I really dig that dude. I think that term went out with the flower children sometime in the late 60s, you dig?
Resurrecting words from the dead hippie language, then sticking them into the mouths of modern teens surprises me about Stephen King, because he has written some really excellent stories about young people going off and having groovy adventures. I'm surprised Jamie doesn't say groovy, too. It was one such story in which the child characters all had authentic, likable, individual, historically-accurate personalities. The Body, from which the movie Stand By Me was adapted, was another. I could really dig the kids in that tale too, they were groovy. But in Later, Stephen King has lost touch with youth, and so strayed from his forte.
Although I would like to, I have never stepped into the shoes of a mega-successful writer. Perhaps I am sucking on the sour grapes of jealously here, but I have read a lot of books, and I think I understand what makes a story work. I also think I can identify the downward spiral toward mediocrity that some of the great ones, like Stephen King himself, are sometimes sucked into. Here are three possible reasons for their reduction toward the run of the mill.
1.) Their brains become Swiss Cheese. This happened to Mervyn Peake of Gormenghast fame, but I am certain it is not the diagnosis with Sir Stephen. His mind can still turn on a dime. As a matter of fact, his brain might be more calculating than ever - the dude has 500 million dollars. Critics, myself included, go cry over your own pathetic bank statements.
2.) They run out of good ideas. Again, I don't think this is happening to our beloved horror master. Later is a good idea, it just fails to completely execute. It throws a long bomb to the opponent's 15 yard line on the first play from scrimmage, then settles for a field goal. But I still read it from beginning to end, and I might have even if my Lunchtime Lit review obligation did not compel me to.
3.) They get lazy, knowing that everything they write is going to sell a million-plus books, regardless. See Family Guy video above. Stevie, you're just not trying anymore.
Release the Kraken, Already
Stephen King is a magnificent writer, one of my personal favorites since reading Salem's Lot at age 14. Whenever I need some tasty brain candy to chew on while whiling away the hours in the DMV line or the doctor's waiting room, I turn to him. I turn to him because his particular brand of taffy is not insipid, dull, and monotonous like the stuff others spin, it has secret ingredients that change a little with every package you open. It's like one of Willy Wonka's everlasting gobstoppers - a candy that changes colors and flavors every time, never getting any smaller, always staying a sucker that I am suckered into buying.
In the past, Stephen King has given hints that he is capable of great art, works of fiction that might cement his place in the pantheon of American men and women of letters. Hearts in Atlantis and Lisey's Story, for example, all have moments of superb writing. A number of his short stories could be included in high school anthologies of American Literature, where they would stand proudly alongside Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner.
So my question is, if you've already got 500 million large sitting in your private fault, why not try to write something that swims against the tide? Unveil the sea monster simmering in the back of the brain that longs to be let loose, but has been held there in chains by agents or publishers who think it's too ugly to sell.
To quote the ever-quotable Forrest, Forrest Gump - There's only so much money a man really needs, the rest is just for showing off. So come on, Steven, you're not going to be pushing the broke and homeless shopping cart anytime soon, let's see what you've got. Serious readers wanna know. Release the Kraken, already. We've eaten enough of your yummy oatmeal, we love the way you sprinkle that brown sugar on top, but we've got our permanent teeth now, and we're starving for solid food. We want to stroll down the Wal Mart book aisle at lunchtime and find some words of yours we can treasure, a book we pick up delicately and read with velvet gloves on, instead of letting the juices from our sandwich drip down on it, not caring if the pages get stained because we'll never open the thing again.
Yeah, Stephen King's Later is slightly yummy and easily digestible, but after this I'll be saying later to it too, as I drop it straight into the Goodwill donation basket.
Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 09, 2021:
Thank you John. I think we agree on liking about half his books, we just disagree on the specific books. Green mile was not my favorite book, but I loved the movie. I did like Gerald's Game, and all the Bachman books, and It is one of my favorites.
Maybe Later is for you, if you can find it at a cut rate.
Anyhow, despite some quibbling over specifics, I really appreciate your visit.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 09, 2021:
Good to read another Lunchtime Lit review, Mel. Stephen King is an author whose works I am familiar with, and to be honest, I have probably enjoyed half of the books I have read authored by him. I find that I don't always get what I expect and that the ones I think will satisfy me end up disappointing, and vice versa. I would say 'The Green Mile' is my favourite. 'Geralds Game' etc gets a thumbs down.
Where you say he knows how to capture his audience immediately is where I feel a lot of his books actually fail to capture my interest. I think I read half the first chapter of 'It' and could not get engaged for instance.
I actually prefer some of his earlier works writing as Richard Bachman such as The Running Man, The Long Walk, Thinner etc.
I agree with your assessment of the Detective/Crime genre by Paterson, Connelly, Lee Childs etc. I may or may not pick up and read 'Later' if I find it in a second-hand book store or garage sale, but at least now I know what to expect. Thanks Mel.
Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 08, 2021:
Thank you Meg. Well, you skip Stephen King, but you read my review of him, and that's especially gratifying for me. He's written some great ones and he's written some real stinkers. This one is a leaner, probably landing somewhere closer to stinker.
I appreciate you dropping in.
DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on August 08, 2021:
I have never been a fan of Stephen King, though my daughter in law has, I think, read every one of his books and knows when each new one is coming out. Safe to say, I will not be starting with this one.
Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 08, 2021:
Thank you Pamela. I believe you can safely pass on this one and won't be worse for the wear. Spot-on is pretty high praise, and while one critic's bomb is another critic's masterpiece, I'll take the complement.
I appreciate you dropping in.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 08, 2021:
This is an interesting, and very entertaining review, Mel. I know King has some excellent books, but I have only read a couple of them. I will pass on this one too, as your reviews are spot on. Thanks for another good Lunchtime Lit review.
Mel Carriere (author) from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 08, 2021:
Thank you Bill. I think King's best work is behind him, although his latest, Billy Summers, a novel later than Later, has been getting good ink. I'll read it at some point, but I don't think I'll let myself be suckered into paying full price again. I'll wait for a used copy to show up at a garage sale.
I really appreciate you dropping in.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 08, 2021:
Loved the review! I, too, love King, so it's nice to read a review who doesn't set King on a pedestal without realistic expectations from him. I don't think I'll be spending my money on this latest effort from him. He's going to have to dig deeper and pass the Lunchtime Lit test before I do.