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Callwood at the Cooler #29

Stephen King at the 2016 National Book Festival
The King of Horror…

I love Stephen King. I’ve loved his work since the early years of my teens, when I was way too young to be reading some of the horrors that he served up, and I love him now. I’ve heard the many criticisms leveled at his work—that he ran out of ideas years ago, that he offers a howdy-doody view of old time Americana splashed with blood, that his style is cheap and hackish—and I don’t care. I don’t even disagree with all of the slights, I just don’t care.

I thought that everything he put out was frankly brilliant, right up until 1987’s The Tommyknockers. That was the first book of his that I found a trial to get through, comparatively speaking. But he had set the bar so high: The novel immediately preceding was Misery. Before that, the second Dark Tower book. And The Eyes of the Dragon. And It.

After The Tommyknockers, the greats were a bit more intermittent. We still got Gerald’s Game, and The Green Mile—there have been amazing moments, but they haven’t arrived quite as consistently as that golden period between 1974 and ’87.

But again, I still love the guy and I still read a new King book (Sleeping Beauties). Because, even at his worst, at this point his work is like listening to an anecdote told by an old friend. I didn’t much like 2009’s Under the Dome, for example. As has been noted elsewhere, the book really did have the same plot as The Simpsons Movie, but I know King’s voice so well that, even when he’s describing weird and gloriously awful horrors, it’s comforting. I can’t remember the last time I loved one of his books, but I just love reading his voice. That’s the way it is.

King on film…

The situation with the movies and TV miniseries’ based on King’s work is far more complicated. When I was that young teen and my taste wasn’t refined beyond “WOAH—that’s sooooo cool,” I loved everything that was released. That means the bad ones too, like Silver Bullet, Maximum Overdrive, Cujo, and Firestarter. Even now, I can watch those movies and smile. Firestarter starred the great George C. Scott as a hitman trying in vain to earn the trust of and then kill a young Drew Barrymore, who was capable of making fire shoot out of everywhere. The movie was clunky but not without its charm.

Maximum Overdrive was based on a short story called “Trucks,” and King directed it himself. Some sort of comet had passed over Earth and made all mechanical objects, such as cars and ATM machines, come to life. Emilio Estevez finds himself stuck at a truck stop diner, surrounded by menacing trucks. They force him to pump gas and generally annoy him and his buddies. Then the comet goes away and all goes back to normal. It’s a stretch to make it last for an entire movie, and the film has been appropriately bashed ever since. Thing is though, it’s so much fun. The AC/DC soundtrack is amazing, and there are plenty of laughs to be had.

There are so many bad King movies, but they are still generally entertaining. There are also great movies that other people tend to dislike, such as Christine. This tale of a demonic car that essentially causes its owner to fall in love with it to the point of obsession is beautifully filmed and stars the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as the guy who sneakily sells the car to the anti-hero.

Of course, there are classics. Nobody has any place knocking the original Carrie, or The Shining (although King doesn’t like it because he felt Kubrick strayed from the source material too much), or the Salem’s Lot miniseries (which terrorized millions with the scene of the child vampire knocking on the bedroom window), or Stand By Me, or The Green Mile, or The Shawshank Redemption, or Misery.

What is IT?

All of which brings us to It. King’s greatest ever novel, his masterpiece, was filmed for a miniseries in 1990, famously starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown, one manifestation of the demonic entity of the title. Contrary to popular opinion, it was not a good retelling. Curry was of course amazing. He always is. But the rest of the cast was spotty at best (John Boy Walton? Really?) and the overall sense of dread that encapsulates the book just isn’t there. In fact, it’s all kinda goofy.

By all accounts, the new movie has put all of that right. While the main cast are all kids, there’s no pulling away from the vital gushing blood, and Bill Skarsgård is immense as Pennywise. This is a book that many thought would be impossible to successfully film (much like The Lord of the Rings), but it appears to have been done properly…and a sequel is on the way.

Stephen King turned 70 this week. He’s getting up there in age, and there will come a point when he is forced to slow down, and when that point comes he will likely have a good think about what he has achieved. He has every right to be proud. Not everything he did was a home run, but his batting average was better than most.

That said, it’s already time to talk about a Dark Tower reboot…

“Callwood at the Cooler” is a bi-weekly column which will see me waxing lyrical about events in the news, pop culture and the etc. Sometimes it’ll be light, other times not-so when the rant/monolog demands. The subject matter will vary dramatically so expect anything and keep coming back.

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