Stephen King – 11.22.63 – A Review


I don’t often write reviews of books I read but Stephen King is different, for reasons which I have doubtless already set down elsewhere.  You see I started young with Stephen King and I have never-ever stopped.  I read Salem’s Lot in ’76 when I was 13 and, with the exception of some of the ‘Dark Tower’ series, I’ve since read everything he’s ever written.

So, like many other people in the world, I perhaps feel that I have a stake in Stephen King (no pun intended, not really) and that I know his work pretty well.  For this reason, I like to write at least a note about his new books after I read them.

One of the difficulties that Stephen King has, in his real world, is with people who think they own a piece of his soul because they’ve read all his books.  I’m not one of those.  

The reason I think I can write about his books with some insight is different for me.  It’s simple, it’s this:  I don’t like them all.  I like reading them, I like his style and I love his story-weaving skill but all of the books have not set me alight, not by any means.

And this one, this new one ’11.22.63’ well, it had me a bit excited.  The premise, you see, it seemed to portend that Stephen was veering off into unknown territory, that a historical/political perspective would be incorporated into the novel which would break new ground in his writing and garner him a larger chunk of the respect and love he undoubtedly deserves.

I requested the book for Christmas, got it and launched in.

I will do what I always do now – I will tell you what I thought of it but, perhaps annoyingly, I won’t tell you the story of the book.  Lots of reviewers seem to take up two-thirds of their piece doing that and I don’t see the point.

Here, though, in one sentence, is the gist of the story.

A man finds a time portal and travels back to exact change on history, primarily to stop the assassination of JFK on ’11.22.63’.

I loved reading this book.

Stephen King always does this for me.  He writes in such a lovely way and he weaves his story in such a lovely way that I am invariably drawn-in and involved and entertained and encouraged to read on.  He is, in my opinion, a magical writer.  He gives himself colossal problems in his stories and then he solves them without flinching away from them.  

So, again, I loved reading this book.  It provided me with a highly-enjoyable reading experience through every single page and, as a reader who has seen some dry times this past year, I am enormously grateful for that. Thank you, Mr. King, for making my reading of this book such an enjoyable thing that I oftentimes longed to get back to it.  That's the best gift I can ever receive.

There’s a ‘But’, though, isn’t there?

Well, yes there is.

This thing I expected – this historical/political veer-off into new unexplored territory… it didn’t happen.  This is a Stephen King book, with all the Wonderful and Brilliant things which that statement implies.  What it is not , however, is markedly different from his other books, in fact it is markedly the same.  That, for me, was a wee bit disappointing.

There are two key aspects to this sameness.  The first is the scenarios in the book and the second is the characters.  With so many books now to his credit, I find that King has both scenarios and characters that he returns to regularly in order to tell his stories.  His characters give me the clearest way to illustrate the point.  He will, so very often, use these characters; 

The Brave Everyman with the Tragic Past.

The Lovely Girl Who You Cannot Help But Fall in Love with Along With The Brave Everyman.

The Grizzled World-Wise Old Guy With The Rough Exterior and the Heart of Gold.

We see them in so many of his books.

And scenarios?  At various times through the book, I felt I was revisiting other King novels.  This, of course, is overtly done with the novel ‘IT’ because the town and some the characters actually reappear in what was, for me, a rather unsuccessful device.  But I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about the ghosts of earlier stories which haunts these pages.  The ghosts of ‘Christine’, ‘The Dead Zone’, ‘The Mist’ and others. 

For all the promise of this new high-concept premise, Stephen has not broken his mould in any meaningful way. Rather, he has made this new mould from salvaged bits of all the old moulds.  This works and makes a good archetypal ‘Stephen King’ book but, alas, nothing more.

This sounds churlish to me as I read it back.  I enjoyed the book, what more should I want?  The man has been grossly injured, suffers with eyesight, has written a Gazillion books… why should I have even wished for some radical new departure at this late stage of his wonderful career?

I don’t know.  I just did.

Anyway…

The book is masterfully done.  The writer could hardly have given himself a tougher narrative challenge – one man, alone, in the past for years-on-end – and he not only makes it work, he makes it work well.

But there’s a certain tone that was prevalent in ‘Christine’  and also in ‘IT’, lurking behind all the comic-book horror shenanigans.  It’s a tone that implies that there was a time, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, which was simply Perfect.  Even though it was not, for this reason and this reason and this, it still just was.  Perfect. It’s a gloss that King either can’t or won’t scratch too hard.  Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, I don’t know.  The entire mid-section of the novel is permeated with this ‘Everything Was Perfect’ sheen.  No matter how horrible the action gets, it all still somehow remains… Perfect.

Hmmm.

Anyway.  I loved reading this book much more than I loved the book.

Sorry, but that's the best that I can do.

Novel Jokes

Two of the jokes I enjoy telling the most have been discovered by me in the pages of novels.  I want to tell them to you.

I love telling jokes.  I think I’m pretty good at it too.  Everyone knows that Timing is important but I reckon Pacing plays a big part too.  For me, one of the best aspects of hearing a ‘new’ joke is the fun to be had in working out how I will eventually retell it.

Unfortunately, for all the usual reasons, my social activities are not what they used to be so it is a rare thing, these days, if I find myself in a situation where I can actually tell a joke to anybody. 

Social media is great for one-liners and repartee and such but it doesn’t lend itself to full-blown jokes, not really.

At their best, jokes are a verbal art form, like storytelling.  One can read a joke that is written down and enjoy it but it is the bringing it off the page, the ‘relating’ of it, that makes it breathe.

Funny then, that the jokes I find in novels might appeal to me as they do.  Well, no, not really.  The secret is in the re-telling.  When I read them in a book, I can re-tell them without evoking the nuance of the previous teller.  Because the joke is flat and on the page, it becomes somehow more ‘mine’ when I raise it up and tell it.

It’s perhaps a bit pointless, after all that, to write down two jokes I’ve read in novels.  I wanted to revive them a bit so that you can perhaps enjoy telling them to someone.  I haven’t seen the inside of either of these books in over fifteen years so my telling might be completely different to, or exactly the same as, the original.  It might be interesting to check sometime.  Not today, though, not today.  I also don’t think I’m breaching copyright in telling them, it’s what jokes are for, but if I am and you want to let me know, I will take them down again.  Ta.

The first is from ‘Marathon Man’ by William Goldman.  It’s a great book, Goldman writes great books as well as screenplays.  His ‘Color of Light’ still resonates with me, twenty years later.

So.

This guy is offered a part in a Broadway play.  One night only.  He’s never acted but often said how he’d like to give it a try.  His friend puts him on to it.  “The guy in the play is sick, you only have to say one line; ‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar,’ and then you’re done, straight on/straight off again.

One line?  He could do that, sure.  All day he learns the line, over and over, ‘‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar.’ ‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar.’  He heads for the theatre nice and early.  But the taxi gets stuck in traffic and he arrives late, terribly late.  They quickly dress him on a soldier’s uniform and they push him out onto the stage, “Remember your line, they say ‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar,’”

The guy suddenly finds himself in front of an audience of hundreds of people – expectant faces all looking up at him, “Remember the line, remember the li-“

Suddenly an enormous bang goes off on the stage right behind him.  The guy jumps, turns, and shouts, “What the Fuck was That?”

(That’s number one.)

Number two is from the novel 'Gorky Park' by Martin Cruz Smith.  This one has even more bad language in it.  I’ll asterisk the rude words to save my Google neck.

Two Russian friends meet in a Moscow Bar.
“See that guy over there?” One says, “That’s Yuri, the most travelled man in the district.  Do you want to meet him?” 
Sure.  They go over and sit down, ‘have a few drinks.
“Yuri, tell the guy about Paris.”
Yuri says, “Paris?  The Eiffel Tower?  … fu*k your mother.”
“Tell him about New York.”
“New York?  The Stature of Liberty?  … fu*k your mother.”
“And London, tell him about London.”
“London?  Buckingham Palace? …fu*k your mother.”
The guy sits back and gazes at Yuri in undiluted admiration.
“Ah Yuri,” he says, “the things you’ve seen.”

(And that’s two).

The reason I’m thinking about jokes is because I saw this programme ‘Old Jews Telling jokes’ on the telly recently.  I fell head-over-heels in love with one of the jokes concerning stagecoaches and Indians.  I’ve worked out how I would tell it and I can’t wait to try.

Stop me if you haven’t heard it.

How Sherlock Did It - “It’s a Trick, It’s Just a Magic Trick”

****** Major ‘Sherlock’ Spoilers ahead, so tread carefully… ******

I greatly enjoyed the final episode of series 2 of ‘Sherlock last Sunday night.  I also enjoy that the writers gleefully left us with a little conundrum.  How did Sherlock apparently jump to his death and not die, despite Watson witnessing the entire event?

Lots of you have theorised and, with an hour to waste, I thought I would theorise myself, with the help of a YouTube extract which shows the jump sequence.

Since I first wrote this, they've taken that YouTube extract down so I've adjusted things a bit here. Find your own clip and have a look at it, if you want to.

What I’d like to do is tell you how I think it’s done. Then, finally, as a writer, I want to suggest one finesse that might not turn up in episode 1 of series 3 but I think I would use it, if I could.

Here we go.

Sherlock does jump off the roof but the main clue to how he does it comes when he says “it’s a trick, it’s just a magic trick” cos, guys, that’s exactly what it is.

One of the keys to a magic trick is to have the audience positioned exactly where you need them so that the illusion works.  It’s all about the positioning here.  Sherlock positions Watson with great care, “Turn around," he says, "and walk back where you came from”  Watson obliges and is told to ‘Stop There’ because now he is in position.

Only now does Sherlock tell Watson that he is, indeed,  up on the roof.

Here’s the thing…

There is now a low level building between Sherlock and Watson. Watson can see Sherlock but, critically, he cannot see the ground beneath him.  We see Watson’s point of view on this.  He starts to walk forward again but Sherlock tells him to, “stay exactly where you are.”

With the positioning arranged, the rest is easy-peasy.

There is a truck in the street beneath Sherlock.  We see it quite clearly just after the jump as Watson comes around the corner of the lower building, just before the bike hits him.  It was great that the filmmakers left us this shot, so we could work it out.  We see the truck drive off shortly after.

The crunch of something hitting the street with nobody else in view, may prove to be the most disingenuous shot in the sequence.  The speed at which Watson runs forward and glimpses the body in the street suggests that Sherlock stays in the truck and drives away.  The body in the street is then somebody else, not Moriarity, I think.  He is placed there by the team of medical people/actors which have been pre-arranged to place the body once Watson is in position and cannot see.

Disorientated by the bike crash, Watson runs in, pushes through, checks the body’s pulse and sees that it is dead.  We don’t really see Sherlock’s face clearly here.  The assistants remove the corpse on a stretcher and viola, the deed is done.

That’s my theory. It may not be right but I think it works well.

Now.

I would add one other finesse, if it were me writing it.  Perhaps they have.  Doesn’t Watson seem more ‘slurry’ than he would be, even with the bicycle crash and the grief and the shock?  I would have it that he was administered with a good dose of the same drug that was used in the previous Baskerville episode.  The one that heightened suggestibility.  Perhaps is was administered by the cyclist or perhaps much earlier.  That, above all else, may be why Sherlock needed, out of character, to ask for some help this time around.

Nerdy, I know, but I had fun doing this. 


Test Driving The DreemFlix

I know I’m late to the party.  I always am.  It’s a money-thing, I’m always a good year-or-two behind everybody else when it comes to the latest games console or smart phone.  So everything I say here will probably have been said already somewhere else. 

Still, I like to have my say.

I rented my DreemFlix console from the Blu-ray shop.  ‘Try before you buy’ and all that.  It was fine.  There was a natural worry about the contacts, who had used them before me and what, exactly, had they been doing with them but it was no fear that a single Dettol Wipe (sponsored mention) could not quickly allay.

I didn’t feel ready for the full ‘new title’ experience, given what I’ve read so I settled for a fairly straightforward port of that old classic ‘Casablanca’.  It’s not even a firm favourite of mine – don’t get me wrong, I like it well enough – I just didn’t want to ruin a real-fave if it all didn’t quite work out for me.

The technology is simple. The box, which is approximately PSX sized, connects to the PC via HDMI and there’s a tiny WiFi matchbox-sized gizmo that sits on the bedside table.  The sensors are just little round pads you fix to your temples – you don’t need the groin ones for ‘Casablanca’.

So you wire yourself up and climb into bed then do whatever you do, read a book, watch TV and then you sleep.  The sensors know when you’ve reached a comfortable and stable REM and then it kicks in with the movie.  ‘Simples’, like that Meerkat (sponsored mention) always says.

The manufacturers are keen to point out that the use of DreemFlix does not provide a good night’s sleep.  It’s like a night-out at a party rather than a restful snooze.  Although you’re in REM most of the time, you are being stimulated in all kinds of ways.  It certainly isn’t restful.

So, enough with the technology that we all know, Kenneth, what did you make of Casablanca on DreemFlix?  Will you remember the experience ‘As Time Goes By’?  (Sorry).

In truth, I was quite disappointed.

It reminded me of the various spates of 3D movies that have occurred down through the decades.  They purported to add something to the experience but in fact they were a gimmick which somehow ultimately lessened the experience.  Don’t get me wrong, Casablanca on DreemFlix is fun, it’s diverting, it’s actually a bit amazing too… for a while... but the gimmick aspect quickly wore off for me.  The boundaries of the experience are tightly set.  Doors don’t lead anywhere and extras don’t do very much at all.  You quickly feel like you are in a small room and that there is nothing beyond.

To be fair, ‘Casablanca’ is ‘Casablanca’ and the designers of this dreamcast only had limited raw material to work with.  You can move around Rick’s Café and watch the action from various angles.  You can study characters up close while the main action is occurring elsewhere.  It’s cool.  But you can tell where doubles and computer-trickery have been used to give a back-of-head shot.  It’s well-done but not well-enough-done to be wholly convincing. 

Key scenes have been polished so that they really shine.  When Dooley plays ‘As Time Goes By’, for instance, you can sit beside him on his stool, you can put your finger in the spilled booze on the top of his piano.  You can even plink the upper keys of the piano, it doesn’t put him off his stride though, he just keeps on playing.  Perhaps that’s the main problem.  You’re there, you’re apparently interacting, but nothing you do really impacts on what happens.  It’s a film and it runs through and just because you’re standing beside Peter Lorre or sitting with Claude Rains, it doesn’t make all that much difference.  It’s like a tour of an art gallery to see the back of all the paintings – a different aspect, sure, but not all that edifying.

Many of you will say I did not give the technology a fair spin.  ‘Casablanca’ is ancient, you need to try it on a new custom-designed movie, that’s where it shines.  Or even something a bit more recent like ‘Inception’ (which is supposed to be very good).  ‘Casablanca’ isn’t fair, it’s like test driving a sports car by balancing it on your bicycle and cycling it down the road.  That's fair criticism.  I will do a new one, I will, and report back.

The very best bit of ‘Casablanca’ came right at the end.  Bogart and Bergman were doing their thing at the airport runway.  I got a bit distracted and looked around.  It was foggy so I couldn’t see terribly far but, again, I was fascinated by the boundaries of the world so I set off across the tarmac.  Perhaps because there was so little detail to fill in, the tiny details here were fantastic.  The fog was wet and cold on my face and there was a hint of salt in the air.  There was a tinge of fuel and tyre-rubber and the puddles seemed to seep into a hole in my shoe which exists in real life.  That was neat.

I came upon hangers and aeroplanes and out-buildings and they were all fully-explorable, or so it seemed to me.  At one point, I heard a plane take off overhead and I wondered if it was Ingrid on her way at last.  I wandered on through the cold buildings.  Nobody was in them and nothing in particular happened but they were really there, in grainy black and white, and I happily shuffled through them until the alarm finally woke me, bleary-eyed, in the first light of morning.

My Hair’s Fallen Foul of the Weather.


(For Simon N Ricketts in the snow)

My hair’s fallen foul of the weather.
It’s tattered and sad and morose
What was recently godlike and shining
Now hangs limply over my nose.


My hair’s fallen foul of the weather.
My cow’s lick is gone I’m afraid
Now it’s just cowed and it’s licked
I should have applied more pomade


My hair’s fallen foul of the weather
My barber was shocked and appalled
He’s forced me to call back tomorrow
But it’s still better than being bald.


© Ken Armstrong 2012

The Free Squirt

I should have left it ‘til the cinema
To tell you how I cared
But enthusiasm beat me
‘Grabbed the Tube to see you there.

I searched for you at Lancôme
at Gucci and Dior
and found you in Armani
Where I broadcast my Amour.

Debenhams is not the place
to find out that you’re through,
to see your passion withered
and get thrown back at you.

Your coldness froze me to my core,
your words were at best curt
still, the perfume girl did give me a really nice free squirt.

    *    *    *    *

There always is a bright side
When thunder clouds appear
The bus driver said I smelled real nice
‘Only took a teenage fare.

It’s best I found your darker side
Before we settled down
Just a shame I had to do it.
Saturday afternoon in town.

I’m meeting with the perfume gal
this evening for tea.
I hope she likes the aftershave
she squirted first at me.

She seems to like me well enough.
To her I’m more than dirt
and maybe there will even be another nice free squirt.




© Ken Armstrong 2012

Strange Traits Indeed

It’s hard, when you’re writing characters, to figure out what they will be like exactly.

Some of it is easy because the requirements of the story give us what we need to make the story work.  ‘If the guy is an Olympic Athlete he has to be fit’, that sort of thing, unless it’s a comedy… hmmm.

So, yeah, as somebody who believes that everything serves the story, I rarely have a problem deciding the basics of what my characters are like because the story has already told me that.

It’s those other little things.  The Traits, the ‘Foibles, the ‘Colouring-in’.

And we need a bit of colouring-in for our characters, I reckon.  Some things to ease them up off the page and allow them to throw a few shadows out in the real world.  Otherwise they’re in danger of being a little clichéd and a little bit flat too.

The trouble is, Traits and Foibles and such can easily be clichéd themselves.  He has a limp.  She cannot pronounce her ‘R’s.  It is green with an aerial on its head.  That sort of thing.

Where, then, does one find a good Foible these days?

Perhaps we should look in the mirror.

This week, I set myself a little task.  I challenged myself to look hard at myself and try to identify a couple of my own personal traits which might be odd enough to rise above the cliché and the commonplace.

It turns out it wasn’t easy.

I guess we’re so accustomed to ourselves, so comfy in our own skin, that we maybe find it hard to step aside and identify those moments when we do distinctive things.  It can help if you have kids because they can inherit some of your own traits and you can see them more easily in them than in you.  My eldest son, for instance, tends to hold his chin when thinking hard about something.  I never know I did that until I saw him do it.

Anyway, I found two.  Two traits that I have.  Maybe I’ll use them in a character sometime, who knows?

Trait Number One:  ‘Whistle While You're Irked’.
I do this.  I didn’t know I did it until I put myself on alert to look for stuff.  There is a thought process behind it.  I think, “I’m annoyed.  I don’t want anyone to know I’m annoyed so I’d better do something which shows I am not annoyed – I know, I’ll whistle.”  The tune isn’t important although a jolly irish reel, jig or hornpipe seems to be the norm.  The lesson here is, if you see me walking towards you and I’m whistling, better turn and run in the other direction.

Trait Number Two:  ‘If I Say It , It Will Come’

This is not so much something I do rather it’s an odd aspect of how my brain works.  This is true and it baffles me quite a bit.  I think it qualifies as a trait.  If there’s something in my head, some piece of information that I cannot access although I know for sure it’s in there, I can spend hours and even sometimes days trying to convince my brain to give up this information.  I can focus on it as hard as I like, I can ignore it as hard as I like, it won’t matter.  But the minute I ask somebody else for that information, out loud, it will spring magically into my head.  A simple example; “What is the name of that pub in Westport?’  (Think, think think, no joy).  Three days later, I ask my friend and, before I’ve finished framing the question, I know the name.  Thinking back, this is always happening to me but I’ve only pinpointed it when I went on a trait-quest.  I think I can learn from identifying this foible.  From now on, if stuck on recalling something, I’m going to ask someone else sooner – even if there’s no chance that they will know the answer.  I’ll report back to you on how I get on.

So, this exercise… has it been useful?  Will I now find it incredibly easy to come up with quirky and individualistic traits for my upcoming characters?

Well… hardly.

But at least I got a blog post out of it.