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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Stephen King

Review: The Bill Hodges Trilogy by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes (2015)*

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.
In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.
Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with two new, unusual allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Finders Keepers (2016)

“Wake up, genius.”
So announces deranged fan Morris Bellamy to iconic author John Rothstein, who once created the famous character Jimmy Gold and hasn’t released anything since. Morris is livid, not just because his favorite writer has stopped publishing, but because Jimmy Gold ended up as a sellout.
Morris kills his idol and empties his safe of cash, but the real haul is a collection of notebooks containing John Rothstein’s unpublished work…including at least one more Jimmy Gold novel. Morris hides everything away before being locked up for another horrific crime.
But upon Morris’s release thirty-five years later, he’s about to discover that teenager Pete Saubers has already found the stolen treasure—and no one but former police detective Bill Hodges, along with his trusted associates Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson, stands in the way of his vengeance….

End of Watch (2017)

For nearly six years, in Room 217 of the Lakes Region Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, Brady Hartsfield has been in a persistent vegetative state. A complete recovery seems unlikely for the insane perpetrator of the “Mercedes Massacre,” in which eight people were killed and many more maimed for life.
But behind the vacant stare, Brady is very much awake and aware, having been pumped full of experimental drugs…scheming, biding his time as he trains himself to take full advantage of the deadly new powers that allow him to wreak unimaginable havoc without ever leaving his hospital room.
Brady Hartsfield is about to embark on a new reign of terror against thousands of innocents, hell-bent on taking revenge against anyone who crossed his path—with retired police detective Bill Hodges at the very top of that long list….

The first Stephen King novel I read was Carrie. I was ten years old and it captured me in a way that not much else had, at least not until Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t get to him until I was twelve and on a visit to my grandparents’ house. I’ve been reading King ever since, the most recent novel being Revival.  There are my favorites (readers of my blog know of my love for IT, but others are The Dark Tower series, The Shining‘Salem’s Lot, and The Stand, to name a few) and there are those that are not my favorites (the early Bachman books, Gerald’s GameDuma Key, and a few more).  There will be a time when my least favorite of King novels will end up being on my favorites list (this happened when I read Christine), but that’s another post.

I’d heard a lot about the Bill Hodges trilogy, especially when the TV series aired.  But it wasn’t until I saw warnings about connections to King’s latest novel, The Outsider, that I decided I should read the trilogy.  It took a couple of weeks to work my way through Mr. Mercedes, but it’s the first act of a three-act play – that’s always the toughest part.  Characters are introduced, their stories are established and clues are dropped about how things will pan out later on in Act Three.

By the end, however, I was hooked.

I had had the foresight to pick up a copy of Finders Keepers shortly before finishing the first book.  This one was finished on the morning of Friday, July 13th.  Within hours, I had a copy of End of Watch in my hands.  At around eight o’clock on the morning of July 14th, less than 24 hours after I’d bought it, I had finished it.

So – here are my thoughts, such as they are.

Bill Hodges, a retired police detective, is joined by Holly Gibney and Jerome Robinson as he tries to track down first the Mercedes Killer; then tackles a case involving two unpublished novels; and wraps it up with a series of deaths that aren’t quite what they appear to be.  The twists, the turns and the uncertainty play out as I cringe with each act of violence, worry over a particular character’s choices that may not be the best ones or weeping at the final words of the story as a whole.

From start to finish, I was on a literary joyride.  I had no desire to go about my daily life – work, hang out with my horses, talk to friends, for example.  All I wanted was to curl up and live inside these tomes, taking part in what Stephen King himself describes as a portable magic.  When I pick up a Stephen King novel, I don’t merely read them – I breathe them, live them, inhabit them as I follow each character down their unique path.  I can almost taste the air they breathe, feel the dirt that digs itself into their clothes or under their nails.

There have been times when I would come out of reading a book, having tuned out the world around me so completely that I felt like I was surfacing from the deep blue sea.

This trilogy was no different.

 

Rating: Five out Five stars.

*All book descriptions are from the covers.

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Review: IT: Chapter One (2017)

Before I even set foot into the movie theater, I felt surrounded by references to Stephen King’s IT.  When I walked into my favorite Irish pub, Smoky Robinson’s “The Way You Do the Thing You Do” was playing over the sound system, which is used during some of the Losers Club scenes in the 1990 TV adaptation (most notably, the dam building scene).  On the walls are the names of the counties in Ireland – Derry, Maine is named after County Derry, as King notes in the book. Having re-read IT twice in the last couple of months (and on another re-read currently), it felt like a good sign.

From my local Irish pub.

Interestingly, the two adaptations intersect at the same place – in the TV mini-series, 1990 shows the Losers Club as adults; 1989 is the starting point for the Losers as kids.  I remember seeing the TV mini-series when it aired.  Watching the current film, I remembered 1989 and where I was and what I was doing while the Losers were battling bullies, abuse, indifferent adults and Pennywise.  I picked up IT for the first time when I was 17, about two to three years before that intersection.  I read the book in three days. It was my life – except, you know, without the killer clown living in the sewers under the city (although, where I live, I would not be surprised).

Comparing and contrasting the two adaptations is a fruitless exercise, although many of the new film’s shots echoed the original.  Adaptations and re-makes are tricky, especially when the film-makers want to honor the sources that came before.  This was particularly noticeable at the beginning, when Bill and Georgie are building the paper boat.  When Bill sends Georgie to the basement for the paraffin, the shot of Georgie standing at the top of the basement stairs and his very palpable fear of the dark echoes the 1990 version.  Even the Denbrough house resembles its TV counterpart.

First one inside the theater – I had my pick of seats!

Seeing the 2017 movie was like falling into the book – all 1192 pages of IT.  Having read the book so many times, I could probably find my way around Derry without a map.  I recognized Up-Mile Hill as Mike cycled his way to make a delivery to the butcher shop.  The statue of Paul Bunyan watches over the park, just as he did in the book. The rotting house on Neibolt Street, where Eddie encounters the leper, has sunflowers in the front yard.  The Kenduskeag River that flows through town and into the Barrens, where Ben runs to while trying to escape Henry Bowers and his gang.

Derry, Maine is, as the book description says, as familiar to me as my own hometown.

The 1986 novel.

Many of the events that occur in the book happen in the movie and while, in some cases, the context remains the same, how it occurs is different.  The Apocalyptic Rock Fight, for example, is how Mike Hanlon meets and becomes a part of the Losers Club.  In the novel and the TV mini-series, Mike is running away from the Bowers gang when he stumbles upon the six kids who would become his best friends in the quarry.  In this adaptation, the Losers come upon Mike being beaten up by Henry and his gang.  Beverly strikes the first blow with a well-aimed rock that eventually drives the bullies away.  This scene is, in fact, the only time we see Beverly’s skill and keen eye – the sling-shot and silver slugs were removed from this adaptation, for what purpose, I am not quite sure.

As closely as the 2017 film adheres to the novel (or, at least, the kids’ story), it deviates in many ways from the source material.  Most of the deviation is with the characters – Ben (as the New Kid on the Block) is the historian of the group, not Mike, and his first encounter with It is not as a mummified clown, but a child victim of the ironworks explosion of 1908.  Bill is the one who uses a weapon against Pennywise in their final showdown, not Beverly. Instead of being chased by Henry Bowers and fellow bullies, Eddie breaks his arm falling through the ceiling of the Neibolt Street house.

The 1990 adaptation.

Adaptations and re-makes are tricky – fans of both the original source and the original adaptation are likely to hold a microscopic lens to the new interpretation.  Changes, re-shuffling of scenes and assigning one character’s skills/interests to another often occur to make a more cohesive narrative in a linear medium like film.  Even The Black Stallion (1979) bears little resemblance to the novel it’s based on, but it still tells the same story.

There are many references to the novel IT (1986) in this film.  Some went by so quickly, that I know I didn’t catch all of them.  More than once, I found myself anticipating and reciting bits of dialogue among the kids that came from the novel.  And it wasn’t until the end that I realized that the camera angles were at the same height as the Losers, making the entire experience told from their points of view.

Did I enjoy this film?  You bet I did.  Were there some quibbles?  Of course – I felt that the characters of Beverly and Mike were not utilized as well as they could have been, but it wasn’t my directorial vision on-screen.  However, I have many questions that hopefully will be answered in the follow up, featuring the Losers as adults.

I’ll be seeing IT again, perhaps this weekend, perhaps next week.  As I said, it was like falling into the novel that I didn’t just read, but lived.

And it’s a journey that I don’t mind repeating, to a childhood I do remember and the friends I shared it with.

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.

So, I’m re-reading Stephen King’s IT……

……..which is one of my favorite novels by King, ranking right up there with The Stand‘Salem’s Lot, and the Dark Tower series. At one time, I had nine copies of this particular title. I know, that’s quite a bit. But two copies are in Spanish, one’s a British publication and the rest were various American printings, including the one with the cover of the TV movie, featuring the fabulous Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown.

I weeded them down – I kept the Spanish copies, the British copy, the American hardcover and one of the paperbacks, which I refer to as my expendable copy. Expendable, because it is so well-read and battered that some of it is being held together by tape. This one I am not afraid to read while in the tub or on a trip – it’s already worn out, so what’s the worst that could happen to it now?

In any case, I hadn’t read IT in a long while before picking it up a few days ago. It was like slipping on a comfortable sweater or pair of shoes – worn, familiar, loved. I know every word of this massive tome. In fact, I’ve read it so many times, that I will skip my least favorite parts in order to devour my favorite ones. Because I know IT so well, I don’t miss much. Sometimes I focus and read every single word that King put down in this tome.

Derry, Maine is a small town like any other with its secrets, its routines, its people. I grew up in a small town not so different from Derry, although located some three thousand miles away to the west. My childhood friends are now my grown-up friends and they resemble, to some degree, the Losers Club of 1958. Although we did not face off with any killer clown from outer space, we had our share of adventures. That sense of familiarity creeps up on you, much like the thin wisps of fog that creeps inland from the sea.

The attention to detail that King puts into this novel pays off in ways that still hold up, no matter how many times you read it. I read IT for the first time when I was 17 and I haven’t stopped, nearly thirty years later. In spite of the many times I’ve read IT, I am always caught by surprise by a phrase or event. On some level, I’m even willing some things to change, even though I know it will always turn out the way it had before.

And I never fail to cry at the last line written before closing the book.

Clockwise from top: American HC edition, British HC edition, travel copy, Spanish edition.
Clockwise from top: My copies of ‘IT’: American HC edition, British HC edition, expendable copy, Spanish edition.

Recommended:
IT by Stephen King
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
On Writing by Stephen King
Danse Macabre by Stephen King

So, Stephen King has said, on many occasions……

……….“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
What does he mean by this? Read the top 100 lists, read pulp, read history, memoirs, fiction, science and more. Read what you love, what you’re indifferent to, what you dislike. Ask friends for their favorite books and read them.
What you gain from all of that reading is what works, what doesn’t, style, voice and structure. Try writing in the same style of your favorite author or break it down into specific acts (for example, Act One – Inciting Event; Act Two – Discovery; Act Three – Betrayal; Act Four – Revelation; Act Five – Resolution). Another way is to take a notebook and, while reading, keep track of what the author does to make seemingly unrelated events tie together by the last few pages.
Although King is clearly talking about writing, the idea behind his quote can be applied to any other creative endeavor. A creative artist doesn’t study just one master or medium in their chosen field – he or she studies as many as possible to learn and discover their own styles. It’s mixing and matching particular elements to find what works for you, then using it to push yourself further.
Whether you’re writing or singing or playing the guitar or acting, the more you learn about your creative passion, you’ll find that your own experiences with it has become richer. You’ll be better able to express yourself in whatever creative endeavor you pursue. It may be that you’ve discovered a passion for more than one creative art and that they feed off of and influence each other in delightful ways.
It worked out that way for me – in addition to writing, I spent many years performing onstage in local theater. It helped a great deal in developing stronger characters, understanding what motivated them, and finding the story’s beats (important moments). This may occur with you – if you enjoy poetry and music, for example, you may unconsciously find yourself writing poems in time with a specific musical beat.
There are infinite combinations to mix and match with. To discover them is to read, to play with your creative passion and be open to new opportunities as they present themselves to you. The worst that can happen is that it didn’t work out the way you’d hoped it would.
Say, “Yes,” to your creative self. Amazing things will happen. Trust yourself.

 

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Editor’s note – this blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal.

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