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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (ani abscessus)

He’s the King of the Castle Rock (Get Down You Darker Rascal)

You like it Darker (the title is a paraphrase of and an homage to Leonard Cohen’s last studio album) is a new collection of stories from Stephen King. Well, mostly new anyway. Several stories were specially written for this collection, but others are older stories from various different points in King’s career. None of them, however, have been collected before so as far as I was concerned, they were indeed all brand new. I enjoyed every single one of them – there definitely isn’t a bad story in the bunch – but some are better than others and three of them are, I think, quite important for one reason or another…

Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream  is the longest story in the collection. Once upon a time I suppose it would have been thought of as a novel, but these days (particularly given Stephen King’s reputation for verbosity) it’s probably best thought of as a novella. The eponymous Danny Couglin dreams of a dead body buried in a shallow grave at an old, long abandoned service station. Various clues in the dream point him to where the service station might be located. Back in real life he follows these clues, finds the actual service station, and discovers the body of a murdered girl. Having verified the veracity of his dream, he makes an anonymous call to the police to report his discovery. But he didn’t think things through properly, and it doesn’t take the police long to track him down. Once they find him, they naturally assume that he must be the murderer. They have no evidence for this assumption, apart from the implication of guilt involved in his attempt to report the crime anonymously. Unfortunately for them, no trace of the dead girl can be found in Danny’s vehicle, there is no DNA evidence (or indeed any evidence at all) to connect him with the girl. Nevertheless, the obsessively neurotic detective in charge of the case continues to weave ever more elaborate justifications for his suspicions about Danny, and relentlessly pursues and interrogates him.

And then Danny’s name is reported in the local newspapers as a person of interest in the murder investigation. The pressures on Danny increase as the locals also now assume that Danny must be guilty of the crime – after all, why would the police be pursuing him if he wasn’t guilty? Mob rule and vigilante justice become the order of the day and between them they make Danny’s life unbearable.

Things do resolve themselves and the story does eventually have a (relatively) happy ending. But the road that Danny is forced to take in order to get there is a harsh one and he does not escape unscathed – his complete (and eventually provable) innocence is no protection from both obsessive policemen and the court of (unthinking) public opinion.

Interestingly, America is one of the very few countries in the world where this story could actually take place. In most of the rest of the world (and certainly in the so-called first world) publishing the name(s) of suspects being investigated by the police is completely illegal and can lead to very harsh penalties indeed. This is to protect these people (and their families) from the vigilante pressures that are the major theme of this story. Even when suspects are brought to trial, their names are seldom published until the trial is over and they have been found guilty. And sometimes, even after a guilty verdict is pronounced, their names continue to be suppressed, again generally to protect members of their family. If they are found not guilty at their trial, their names are never published at all of course.

Evidence within the text suggests that Stephen King is very well aware of this state of affairs – the legality of publishing Danny’s name is scathingly condemned time and again as the story progresses. Because of it, the moral justice of innocent until proven guilty is continually flouted by both the police and the public, and the injustice of guilty until proven innocent (and sometimes guilty despite being proven innocent) is highlighted by a violent and almost lethal attack on Danny that leaves him severely injured.

The moral ambiguity of the society within which he lives is a theme that has permeated almost everything that Stephen King has written and he is often scathingly critical of that society. He has always been a moral crusader right from his his very first novel (the very scary Carrie with its theme of the non-acceptability of a social pariah who, as a result, is bullied unmercifully) and Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream is just his latest exploration of that idea.

Rattlesnakes is another very interesting story, not least because it is a direct sequel to King’s early (and still quite popular) novel Cujo.

It has been more than forty years since Vic Trenton’s son Tad died in an overheated, broken down car. Cujo, a rabid St Bernard dog, prowled obsessively around the car, preventing Tad and his mother Donna from escaping and seeking help. Eventually Donna, desperate to rescue her son, forces herself to leave the car and attack Cujo. She is armed only with a baseball bat, and her case seems hopeless. Cujo outweighs her, he is stronger than her and his rabid insanity will compel him to tear her apart. But against all the odds, she succeeds in fighting him off. However she is too late to save her son…

Now, forty years later, his wife and son both long dead, Vic Trenton is living in a friend’s house on one of the Florida Keys. His only neighbour is an eccentric old lady who pushes a pram which has a squeaky wheel. Once, about forty years ago, she pushed her toddler twins in that pram. But they both died a horrible and agonising death, bitten by dozens of rattlesnakes as they headed off to the beach to dig for treasure. The death of the twins precipitated a huge rattlesnake hunt on the Key. The locals herded every snake they could find down to the beach where they sprayed the snakes with kerosene and set them on fire. Almost certainly some escaped into the sea and swam away, and perhaps some were never found when the snakes were herded up and killed – no extermination attempt is ever completely successful, some always get away. But nevertheless these days snakes, particularly rattlesnakes, are seldom seen on the Key any more.

And now that old lady pushes her pram and pretends that her twin sons are still in it. Sometimes she knows they aren’t really there, but mostly she doesn’t. She bakes oatmeal and raisin cookies for Vic. They are the best he has ever eaten. A small friendship develops between the two old people who both lost their children so tragically.

Then one day Vic discovers her dead body lying in the road. He covers her up to protect her from the circling buzzards and calls the police and an ambulance. But there is nothing to be done. She is dead and gone. That night, the pram with the squeaky wheel turns up at his house…

Rather to his surprise, Vic finds that his neighbour has left all of her (considerable) estate to him. Perhaps their common tragedy stirred something in her. Vic does not want this unexpected legacy, but it seems he has little choice. He’s rather more concerned with the pram which, no matter what he does, seems to want to stick to him like glue. And the voices of the twins who aren’t in it start to loom larger and larger with their demands on his time.

The local police chief is suspicious of Vic – the lady’s legacy could be a motive for murder. But the autopsy confirms that she died of a heart attack and so there isn’t much the police chief can do about it, though even by the end of the story he is still convinced that Vic has somehow got away with murder.

This, of course, is exactly the same idea that drove Danny Coughlin’s Bad Dream, but while it was a major aspect of the first story, it only has a very minor role to play in Rattlesnakes. Nevertheless the fact the same idea turns up in two separate stories strongly suggests that the topic was very much on Stephen King’s mind when he was writing them (both are new stories written specifically for this collection at roughly the same time).

The twins continue to loom larger and larger in Vic’s life and they demand more and more from him. He does eventually manage to escape their evil influence, but in order to do it he needs a lot of help from his long dead son Tad. And this, of course, completely changes his relationship with Tad and finally gives him the closure that perhaps he was lacking before.

This story is a perfect example of what Stephen King does best – writing really frightening horror / supernatural tales that will haunt your dreams and make you reluctant to go to sleep in the first place. And as an added bonus this one will really scare the willies out of the ophidiophobes among you. What more could you possibly want?

King is not a mono-obsessive. Even though the theme of social (in)justice looms large in his stories, he does have other interests. One of these is the question of exactly what makes a writer write? What is writing? Where do stories come from? How do writers put them down on paper? As he admits in an afterword to this collection, even though he has written countless novels and stories and even though he has written extensively about the craft of writing, the way that writing actually works remains a complete mystery to him. Consequently he continues to poke at the mechanism in his stories, looking for answers to the central problem that dominates his life and work. Two Talented Bastids is yet another attempt to try and explain how it all works.

On one level the story is simply a re-telling of the folk tale about Robert Johnson, the mega-talented blues musician who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for mastery of his music. King has simply transformed the playing of music into the writing of stories and the devil into… well, there are devils and then there are devils. Choose your own preferred manifestation…

But that hoary old deal with the devil story is just a framework to make the plot of this piece hang together coherently with a well defined beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s largely irrelevant to the main theme – it’s only there for the sake of structure.

The story is narrated by the son of a world famous writer. His father has just died. He himself has little or no writing skill, though he certainly appreciates the talent that his father had. He tells the story of his father’s life, as best he knew it, though he remains an outsider looking in until after his father’s death. That is when he discovers a manuscript in his father’s house, a manuscript that tells of the oddly Robert Johnson-like life that the writer himself had lived, unbeknown to his family. The contrast between the viewpoints of both father and son (and their constant attempts to define the undefinable) is what gives the narrative its strength. Why can some words describe a scene that makes the story just wither away whereas a slightly different choice of words can make that very same scene sing, dance and turn cartwheels through hoops of fire? The writer’s first novel is a perfect example of the phenomenon. He tried to write it so many times, but he never could find the words to make it catch fire. Until one day…

You Like it Darker is the quintessential Stephen King collection; thoughtful, often terrifying stories that never fail to entertain and which often make you think very carefully about the way that the world works.

Hard Knocks is the third volume of Nathan Lowell’s trilogy about a spaceship being used as a training / educational establishment. At least, I think it is. Certainly it starts out that way, continuing to explore issues that were raised in the second volume. A rather recalcitrant student is effectively disciplined and the ship settles down to do some serious training. But then something unexpected happens and the story takes off in a completely new direction as the crew begin to realise that their ship has been constructed from obsolete and badly put together components that are not really suited the tasks that they are being asked to perform. These sub-standard parts and their sub-standard assembly are concealed with coats of (metaphorical) paint to give the appearance of proper functionality, but it’s only skin deep. Should anything fail under the strain when the ship is in deep space it would be a terrible tragedy.

This being a Nathan Lowell novel, there is much discussion about the morality of the manufacturers who turn out shoddy products which are not fit for purpose just for the sake of increasing the profits of the parent corporation. Again, this being a Nathan Lowell novel, the discussion is absolutely fascinating and the conclusions are inarguable.

I can’t help thinking that Hard Knocks is a very prescient novel. The problems that occupy the minds of Ishmael Wang and his crew are uncomfortably close to those currently occupying the minds of the crews of modern day Boeing aeroplanes and in both cases the machinations behind the sub-standard construction appear to be driven by the greed (and, often, by the sheer technical incompetence) of the parent company. In both cases, the result is that lives are on the line. There are some very real issues here. As a result, I think Hard Knocks is probably one of Nathan Lowell’s more important novels.

It seems likely that Hard Knocks, rather than being the culmination of his education trilogy is actually the start of another series that will concern itself with these problems of corporate short-sightedness and the consequences of the pursuit of profit at the expense of safety. I await these yet to be written stories with great eagerness.

The Aubrey / Maturin novels written by Patrick O’Brian are the definitive last word in eighteenth and nineteenth naval fiction. In a very real sense, they are so good that the genre has effectively reached the end of its life. Anyone attempting to write new stories in the genre will inevitably find themselves compared to Patrick O’Brian and will, equally inevitably, be found wanting. Nevertheless, people still try to compete with the master. One such person is Sean Thomas Russell who has written four novels about the exploits of one Charles Hayden, a lieutenant in His Majesty’s navy.

The first two novels are very good indeed and can certainly hold up their heads with pride in the company of Patrick O’Brian’s oeuvre in terms of both historical and social accuracy. Russell also shares O’Brian’s wry sense of humour and there are several very amusing set pieces in the novels. However the quality does fall off in the last two books, which probably explains why there are only four novels in the series with, it seems, little possibility of any more to come.

Under Enemy Colours introduces us to Charles Hayden. He is a man with an English father and a French mother and as a result he is completely bilingual, a skill that stands him in very good stead in the ongoing war with France. Despite his French family and a certain vague sympathy with the aims of the revolution he is staunchly and patriotically British. Unfortunately his French background and his lack of influential connections in the Admiralty have both impeded his career and it seems unlikely that he will ever rise above the rank of lieutenant. However his skills have not gone completely unnoticed and a somewhat shadowy figure in the Admiralty has arranged for his appointment as First Lieutenant on the frigate Themis which is under the command of one Captain Josiah Hart. Hayden has a secret agenda attached to his appointment – he is required to report in detail on Captain Hart’s conduct. Hart’s record suggests that he is an incompetent and cowardly captain. Unfortunately he has friends in high places and removing him from his command is seen as a difficult if not impossible task. Hence Hayden’s secret mission to compile evidence that can be brought to bear against Captain Hart. Once the incontrovertible facts are known hopefully they can be used to out manoeuvre the machinations of the powerful political friends who are currently making him untouchable.

Hayden finds the crew of the Themis close to mutiny – not only is Hart a coward, he is also a martinet, a fierce disciplinarian for whom the crew have no respect whatsoever. Nevertheless Hayden does manage to win some of the crew over to his side and even succeeds in taking a French prize, despite Captain Hart’s best efforts to thwart him. The (inevitable) mutiny eventually takes place and the subsequent court martial finally succeeds in ousting Captain Hart from his command. However his power and influence continue to put stumbling blocks in the way of Hayden’s career.

The second novel, A Battle Won, sees Hayden promoted to Master and Commander and back in Themis as her captain (though not as a Post Captain – that still seems to be an unattainable goal). He fits well into the ship. He has earned the respect of the remnants of the old crew (those at least who were not directly involved in the mutiny – the mutineers themselves have all been hanged) and the new crew members who now make up the numbers quickly come to respect him as well. In this story Hayden finds himself aiding the army and a bunch of Corsican revolutionaries who want to free Corsica from French control. The strategy and tactics of the fighting on Corsica are brilliantly brought to life and Hayden himself emerges as quite a hero. There is also an absolutely hilarious description of a game of golf in which we learn just how that very odd golf club known as a niblick actually got its name… If anything, this book is even better than its predecessor.

The third novel, A Ship of War finds Hayden attempting a rendezvous with a spy off the Le Havre coast. The spy has vital intelligence reports which absolutely must be delivered to the British authorities post haste. But French warships and foul weather combine to thwart the delivery and the novel becomes a race against time as Hayden battles every naval cliché you can think of except mutiny, because, of course, that was dealt with in the first novel…

There’s a noticeable decrease in the quality of the story in this book. The events seem more than a little arbitrary (it’s very much writing by numbers) and Hayden’s struggles merely serve to increase the page count rather than having any real effect on the progress of the plot. I found myself losing patience with it, a feeling I never experienced with the first two novels. I did manage to make it to the end, but it was hard work...

The fourth novel, Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead, finds Hayden in the Caribbean. His orders are to interfere with the French shipping sailing to and from their colonies. Again, the plot (such as it is) is made up of arbitrary events and far too many completely predictable Hollywood-like situations of unnecessarily forced and artificial drama. I’m afraid I gave up. I simply could not finish this book. It was far too dull, far too contrived.

I highly recommend the first two novels in the series. They really are very good indeed. But I equally highly recommend that you stop there. Don’t ruin your palate with the last two. They leave a nasty taste behind.

I’ve long been a fan of the tragi-comedic police procedural novels of J. D. Kirk. Not only are they hilariously funny they are also deeply unsettling because of the nature of the terrible crimes that Kirk’s Inspector Logan investigates..But that’s the nature of tragedy and comedy isn’t it? Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the symbol of the theatre has been a combination of the masks of tragedy and comedy because they are always thought of as being opposite sides of exactly the same coin, thus making them a true representation of the nature of both drama and of real life. Each is just an aspect of the other, you can’t separate them. So I suppose that’s why Kirk’s novels have been so brilliantly successful.

But even Homer nods. I’ve just finished reading Where the Pieces Lie, the nineteenth Inspector Logan novel and I must confess that I found it more than a little disappointing.

A young man serving a court-imposed sentence of community service stumbles upon a bin bag filled with human remains, feet mostly....

The investigation leads DCI Jack Logan to a remote cottage where he finds a freezer containing a full set of human fingers and thumbs though oddly each digit has been taken from the hands of a different person. Or rather, from ten different people...

The comedy is still there. The characters we’ve come to know and love go through their usual routines and they are just as funny as they always have been. But the crime that Logan and his team are investigating turns out to be so implausibly complex and convoluted that I simply could not give it any credence whatsoever. In the previous novels, the murders have been the kind of things you hear about every day on the news. In other words they tend towards the believable – real people commit the crimes, and they are people who have understandable motives, albeit perhaps more than a little twisted on occasion. But in Logan’s latest outing none of this applies. The explanation for the crimes, when it finally comes, turns out to be completely dumb and the only reason that the "evil genius" behind all the deaths gets away with the overly complicated plan is because the victims are total idiots who don’t react like real people at all.

And finally, the novel has a huge cliff-hanger ending which is very annoying because it will be at least a year before I get to find out what happens next (and why it has even happened at all). I don’t approve of that.

Stephen King You Like it Darker Scribner
Nathan Lowell Hard Knocks Durandus
Sean Thomas Russell Under Enemy Colours Putnam
Sean Thomas Russell A Battle Won Putnam
Sean Thomas Russell A Ship of War Putnam
Sean Thomas Russell Until the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead Putnam
J. D. Kirk Where the Pieces Lie Zertex
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