Stephen King's Flawed?

This post is going to sound like heresy to some people, so let me just acknowledge right now that I’m writing about my idol, here.  I have yet to find a storyteller that is as commanding on the page as Stephen King.  I love his work so much that I limit how much of it I will read, fearing it will influence my work too much.  So what inspired these thoughts about the fallibility of the undisputed greatest contemporary horror novelist of our time?  I recently reread a classic that’s near and dear to our hearts – ‘Salem’s Lot.

Salem’s Lot

For the few of us who are unfamiliar, ‘Salem’s Lot is the story of vampires invading a small town in rural Maine.  I won’t get into a long contrived description of the plot – that’s what Goodreads is for – but it’s important to know that since its publication in 1976, this book has scared the shit out of millions of people around the world.  From a purely emotional perspective, it might be one of the most effective horror novels ever written.  I can remember my brother reading it in high school and mentioning that he actually looked under his bed before turning out the lights to sleep.  This is powerful stuff, folks, the likes of which we don’t often see today.  Perhaps we’re too “battle-hardened” as King himself remarked in an interview on NPR recently.  Audiences today get force fed gore in such large quantities (though rarely with any creativity) that we might be simply too hard to scare.  I decided to pick up this old favorite for that very reason.  I wanted to reread a masterful novel of suspense to see if it still scared me.  It did.  When I finally put it down I realized, with tremendous relief, that the battle-hardened theory blows up in the face of good storytelling.  I realized something else as well – even an amazing work like ‘Salem’s Lot has its flaws.

The Pacing

The first one hundred pages or so introduce us to most of the main characters, and we watch the town respond with curiosity, even dread, at its newest residents who move into the infamous Marsten House.  Two little boys disappear, and the action begins.  The first third of the book starts the same way as most of King’s novels: slow build which gradually boils to a huge clash between good and evil.  But in ‘Salem’s Lot something happens between Acts Two and Three that we don’t usually see.  The story accelerates in a hurried pace, not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case it spawns a few zits.

Characters Who Believe ‘Just a Little Too Easily’

This is a tough one for any writer to who is trying to introduce a monster from ancient folklore to a land where people drive Citroens and play badminton in the backyard.  I don’t care what physical evidence you have, if you saw a vampire and told a buddy about it he would think you’re friggin nuts until he himself saw the vampire.  In the scene where Matt Burke and Mike Ryerson cross paths at the bar, a very frail and sickly looking Mike starts describing scary dreams that seemed real.  Burke sees the puncture wounds below his jaw and instantly knows it must be a vampire.  This seemed a little too easy for me, even for a modern day sage like Matt Burke.  He calls Ben Mears, the protagonist, and convinces him of what’s happening after spending some time walking hand-in-hand through the “how do we know I’m not crazy” dialectic, so I’ll buy that one.  But then enter Jimmy Cody, a physician and brother-in-arms who jumps on the vampire bandwagon faster than you can raise a crucifix.  I’ve thought about this, and I realize the story probably would’ve sucked if we had to assemble a team of vampire-killers and watch each and every one of them go through the same stages of shock, disbelief, and eventual acceptance.  After all, the evidence was mounting around them.  People were dropping dead right and left of some unknown illness and most of the ones who were still kicking stayed indoors with the shades drawn during the day.  Despite all this, I feel like the protagonists could’ve shown a little more of a fight on their way to belief.  A real person would have.

The Plight of Father Callahan

This character makes an encore appearance many years later in the Dark Tower series and I wonder if it’s because King wanted to settle up with him.  Callahan comes to us comparatively late in the story, but the gravity around him has a strong pull.  Callahan is an alcoholic priest who’s grappling with his faith and a mounting depression.  He feels the elemental mission of the church has been diluted by the modern world and needs something to hold onto (other than the bottle).  Sure enough, he finds his fight and what happens is interesting, but this character is not treated with the weight he deserves.  Callahan seems like a more important piece than he is given space for in the novel.  I felt like we should’ve been pulled into his world a little deeper than a single chapter halfway through the book, before he plunges headfirst into a fight with the Prince of Darkness.

Still a Masterpiece

‘Salem’s Lot is a beacon of horror fiction I will spend the rest of my life swimming toward with whatever meager talent I have struggling beside me.  If I could write anything that’s even half as effective at scaring the pants off people I’ll feel pretty damned tickled about it.  What I appreciated about reading the book again, after my own writing chops have matured a bit, is recognizing the wrinkles and knowing it’s still an awesome tale.  Stephen King is a genius, but he’s still a writer just like me, and maybe you too.  Writers have the same challenges every day – seeing the story clearly and organizing words into sentences that put that vision accurately into the reader’s head.  If I see that King can stub his toe and still cross the finish line with honors, it gives me the strength to run harder. 

I’d love to hear what you think.  Do you totally disagree?  Have you found similar issues in this story or others?  Were you inspired or let down?  Let me have it.  


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Creepy Soundtracks You Haven't Listened To

Ranking scary movie soundtracks is like announcing your favorite Partridge Family member.  It’s a subject that’s not worthy of much debate, and, let’s be honest, most people don’t care much.  But those of us who dig what’s happening in the orchestra pit as Michael Myers stands up behind the sofa, waiting too long to plunge a knife into Jamie Lee Curtis – we know this is what can make or break a movie.  Would Halloween have made such a powerful impression on audiences if it weren’t for Carpenter’s repetitive minor-key piano theme?  I sincerely doubt it. 

I’ve seen a few posts by others who have tried to nail down the top ten and the usual suspects are always there – Jaws, Psycho, Halloween, The Exorcist, and, surprisingly, Eraserhead, which delights me to no end – so I’m going to tip my hat and give those a pass.  Instead, I’ve compiled a list of lesser known creepy soundtracks, many of which don’t belong to actual horror movies.  I hate not being able to post links to these beauties on You Tube, but alas, my copywright infringement warchest is empty. So if you love music and love horror movies, look these puppies up and listen for yourself!

1.       Creepshow.  John Harrison, 1982.  Rereleased 2003

I’m a little biased with this one.  I could watch Creepshow every day and never tire of seeing Ted Danson buried up to his neck in sand, watching bug eyed as the tide skips past his chin.  Romero’s classic adaption of four Stephen King comic-book style shorts is a fun and campy romp through the macabre, with great support from John Harrison’s brilliant soundtrack.  “Welcome to Creepshow” is one of my all-time favorite musical themes in film, and it just gets better from there.  The synth-backed “Something to Tide You Over” and ominous piano scales  of “They’re Creeping Up On You” are absolutely wonderful.  Note:  On my CD, the tune “They’re Creeping Up On You” is actually the theme that went with “The Crate” segment of the movie, but who cares?  It’s good stuff!

2.       The Fountain. Clint Mansell, 2006

I haven’t actually seen this movie.  Honestly, I’m afraid to because I don’t want to dispel the images it conjures in my own imagination when I listen.  I stumbled across it on Pandora one day and downloaded the soundtrack on the spot.  If there is a more deliciously haunting soundtrack to be found in a contemporary film I have yet to hear it.  Clint Mansell – who also composed for other great Aronofsky films like Requiem for a Dream – collaborates with a string quartet named the Kronos Quartet, and post-rock band Mogwai.  The combination is a soundscape that will blow your freakin socks off.

3.       The Passion of the Christ. John Debney, 2004

Yes, I’m being serious – stop laughing.  I went to see the film when it came out in 2004, and, when it was over, I left convinced of two things:  Jesus is one tough hombre, and the soundtrack is a must have.  John Debney earned every nickel on this one.  The tracks on the score have skin-like pores and each of them sweats an ancient gothic texture that will transport you to right to ancient Jerusalem.  It’s a powerful, creepy, and beautiful piece of music.  Too bad there wasn’t a sequel, right?      

4.       The DaVinci Code. Hans Zimmer, 2006

We all had to suffer through the hype of Dan Brown’s breakout novel, and whether you liked it or not, the book seeded a pretty awesome soundtrack for the movie.  This one belongs to Hans Zimmer, whose hand has scrawled some of the most inspired cinema music of the last twenty years, and The DaVinci Code does not disappoint.  The score is driven by swelling orchestral themes and a massive chorus that builds tension to the end, evoking the perfect atmosphere of suspense and religious intrigue.  “Salvete Virgines,” one of the most memorable tracks, is a great example of the depths Zimmer can take you.  Listen to it sometime in the dark and see what it does to you.  I dare you.    

5.       The Insider, 1999

Michael Mann had a winning combination when he embarked on this project in the late nineties.  The Insider cleaned up at the Oscars, winning Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Writing, and so on, but when you throw in a soundtrack that’s led by the talents of Pieter Bourke and Lisa Gerrard?  That’s fighting dirty, Mr. Mann.  The soundtrack to The Insider is alternately suspenseful, haunting, paranoid, and mellow.  Gerrard, best known for her work with Brendan Perry in Dead Can Dance, has collaborated with Bourke several times throughout her career, and the results are equally stunning.  But there’s something about The Insider that remains special.  Maybe it’s the brilliant storyline and superb characters we get from Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.  Either way, The Insider soundtrack is a heart-pounding masterpiece that will leave you needing a cigarette.  Maybe. 

There you go – five soundtracks you probably haven’t listened to (at least outside of viewing the movie), but I cannot conclude this post without a last word on Lisa Gerrard.  She is one the most versatile artists in world music today, and her talents have enhanced some of the greatest contemporary movies we all know and love.  Gladiator, Black Hawk Down,The Insider, Whale Rider, and The Mist are just a few gems.  Her music is totally unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and it defies labeling.  She’s multilingual and flits between Celtic, Mediterranean, Medieval, and Eastern themes on all her albums.  If I could offer two recommendations they would be Dead Can Dance albums – “The Serpent’s Egg” and “Aion.”  “The Serpent’s Egg” features some of their most memorable work, including the song “Host of Seraphim,” featured in the movie “The Mist.”  You really can’t go wrong with any DCD or Lisa Gerrard album. 

So go forth and listen, my friend.  Listen, and set your imagination on fire.  You might be surprised at what comes out of you.