Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

9781473676404A brilliant addition to Stephen King’s impressive body of work, The Outsider is meticulously plotted and impossibly compulsive.

Don’t pick up  The Outsider unless you have some time on your hands. Its first 200 pages are so high-octane and frenetic, you’ll be hard-pressed to put it down until you’ve unravelled the novel’s mystery and discerned who lives and who dies. Here more than ever before, King keeps his foot hard on the throttle from beginning to end.

When an eleven-year-old boy is found brutally murdered in a town park, eyewitnesses identify the culprit as Little League coach Terry Maitland. DNA evidence and fingerprints verify their accounts: as unlikely as it might initially seem to the lead investigator, Detective Ralph Anderson, there is no doubt that this well-loved family man committed this unforgivable atrocity. Enraged by what he considers a personal betrayal, Anderson makes a spectacle of Maitland’s arrest. It’s only afterwards he learns about Maitland’s watertight alibi. Impossible, because their evidence is irrefutable, too. Which means — what? A double? An evil twin? A clone?

Eventually The Outsider tapers into comfortable King territory; most of the answers the author provides aren’t especially innovative or shocking, but the journey to that endpoint  is intoxicating. You know, of the stay-up-all-night-and-forget-everything-else-in-your-life  variety. This is a book peopled by rich characters faced with unimaginable scenarios: they carry their scars — physical and moral — around with them. It is a story of real life, despite its blatant impossibilities; of human frailties, and violence and its effect. The Outsider is never better than when it explores its characters’ feelings of grief and loss.

Anybody who blew through the Bill Hodges trilogy — who’ll whoop with delight when a character from that series makes an appearance here — will devour this genre-blending freight train of a novel. The pace is frantic, the writing snappy, the characters unforgettable. Strap yourself in and prepare for one hell of a ride.

ISBN: 9781473676404
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publication date: January 2016
Dimensions: 234mm X 153mm
Availability date: June 2018

Review: Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

large_9781473672093Stephen King and Richard Chizmar revisit one of King’s most popular locales in Gwendy’s Button Box, a quietly haunting novella that satisfies on every single level but one: readers will wish it was longer.

We open in 1974 when 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson is offered a magic box by a man named Richard Farris, whom she meets at the top of one of the cliffside Suicide Stairs in Castle Rock, Maine. There are eight buttons on the box, and a lever that dispenses silver dollars and chocolate treats that Farris claims will help Gwendy lose the weight that has resulted in her nickname “Goodyear.” Despite some reservations — Gwendy’s been told by her parents not to talk to strangers, let alone accept gifts from them! — she takes the box from this mysterious man, then watches him disappear.

Sure enough, Gwendy begins to lose weight. But that’s not all that happens. It seems her luck, in totality, has changed for the better; indeed, she’s happier than she’s ever been. Until the day she presses one of the buttons, when everything changes, not just in that moment, but forevermore, when the temptation to use the box again ratchets up to an impossible degree.

Gwendy’s Button Box follows the titular character through high school and beyond, capturing the joy of childhood and adolescent friendships and first love. But it’s all cast under the dark shadow of the box and its power. The novella is a potent, engrossing blend of the traditional coming-of-age tale mixed with King’s trademark terrors. It’s riveting from beginning to end. King and Chizmar make quite the team. Let’s hope they meet again. Maybe with a higher page-count next time!

  • ISBN : 9781473672093
  • Publisher : Hodder & Stoughton General Division
  • Imprint : Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
  • Publication date : June 2017
  • Bind : Hardback
  • Pages : 176

Review: End of Watch by Stephen King

EOWThe opening pages of Mr Mercedes found retired detective Bill Hodges contemplating suicide, driven to this low point by the sadistic ‘Mercedes Killer,’ Brady Hartfield. It makes sense then that End of Watch – the final novel in the King’s trilogy – revives this theme, and augments it to the nth degree.

Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers flirted with the supernatural elements that have become King’s trademark – but End of Watch goes all in. Hartfield might be confined to a wheelchair, but through a variety of circumstances, he has developed psychic powers, which enable him to fulfil – or attempt to fulfil, at the very least – his destiny as the self-described ‘Suicide Prince.’ It’s up to Hodges, his Finders Keepers partner, Holly, and their pal Jerome, to stop Hartfield once and for all.

End of Watch is just as engrossing and relentless as its predecessors, though it lacks that sprinkle of magic that made Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers true standouts. Brady’s plot doesn’t lack imagination – his progression from invalid to body-hopper is fantastic, and the manner in which he plagues teenage minds and leads them to ending their own lives is truly haunting – but the overall set-up, leading to the climactic confrontation between Hodges and Hartfield feels undercooked, and plays out predictably. This whole series has keen King play homage to, as well as deconstruct and revitalise, the conventions of the hard-boiled crime novel – its grand finale deserved something a little more spectacular, if not in scope, then at least in execution.

That aside, King’s Mercedes trilogy has been a blast, a true reading highlight from the past few years. End of Watch brings satisfactory closure, and while I’m saddened we won’t read more about Hodges and his crew, as always I’m excited for where King takes us next.

ISBN: 9781473634015
Format: Paperback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division
Publish Date: 7-Jun-2016
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Stephen King Finders Keepers - coverStephen King’s Finders Keepers tells the story of two young men – Morris Bellamy in 1978 and Peter Saubers in 2009 – who discover, and become obsessed with, the work of esteemed novelist and Salinger-like icon, John Rothstein.

Disgusted by the ending of the final Jimmy Gold novel, and determined to see his creator pay (or find evidence that he planned to make amends in future works), Bellamy plots and executes his revenge; a late-night assault on Rothstein’s remote homestead, which sees the author killed, and a trove of notebooks and thousands of dollars stolen. But before Bellamy can authenticate his loot, he finds himself in prison for a different crime, and sentenced to life in prison. His final act before he’s locked away is to bury his treasure in a secluded recreational park not far from his family home. However many years pass, unless he is physically unable to do so, Morris Bellamy will return for the notebooks. Cut to 2009, and Peter Saubers happens across the money and notebooks; and while the money provides much-needed assistance for his financially-strapped family, it’s the notebooks that make the biggest impact. For a time, Peter’s discovery seems every bit an impossible blessing. Until Morris Bellamy walks into his life, hell-bent on recovering what he feels is rightfully his…

Finders Keepers is the second novel in the Bill Hodges series, and there are plenty of overt links between the two books; Peter’s father was injured during the Mercedes killings that were the focus of Mr. Mercedes, and Hodges is still dealing with the repercussions of that novel’s climax. But this continuity feels shoe-horned in places. Hodges doesn’t make an appearance until well over a hundred pages into Finders Keepers, and his involvement in the novel’s central conflict is a tad contrived. It’s an odd choice by one of fiction’s grandmasters, because Saubers and Bellamy are strong enough characters to carry the novel alone, and indeed they both do for the most part. Hodges isn’t an essential cog in this wheel. His appearance doesn’t diminish the novel’s potency – in fact, there’s some nice build-up to a third Hodges novel – but this story’s spotlight should be cast on Saubers and Bellamy. They are the key players, and they are the characters who resonate.

That perplexing narrative choice aside, Finders Keepers is Stephen King in fine form.  Filled with the author’s signature blend of ingenious plot, complex characters, and smooth prose that’s able to keep readers riveted through the final pages, he remains an unrivalled storyteller. As readers, we should rejoice that King is nothing like the reclusive Rothstein. What would the literary landscape look like without his output?

4 Stars Excellent

ISBN: 9781473698987
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hodder & Stoughton
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publish Date: 02-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Revival by Stephen King

Revival SKWhen Reverend Jacobs enters Jamie Morton’s life, he is merely a boy, playing in the dirt with toy soldiers: an innocent soul, his path undecided, until the reverend steps into view, casting a long, dark shadow over the boy; one that will last a lifetime. There’s an immediate affection between the two, and despite Jacobs’ fascination (bordering on infatuation) with electricity, which he uses to awe members of his youthful congregation, and demonstrate the unparalleled power of God, the reverend is a breath of fresh air in the small New England town. He, his wife, and their small child, are immediately welcomed. Vivacity is exactly what the parishioners of the town need.

Then there’s an accident.

It is brutal, sudden, and unforgiving. And it breaks Jacobs’ spirit. It eviscerates his faith. Soon afterwards, he leaves the town with nothing but a deep-rooted maniacal obsession with electricity. Jamie doesn’t expect to see the reverend again: his own life takes unexpected turns of its own in the form of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a bleak path with an inevitable outcome, and Jamie is cruising towards it without struggle. At this stage he can’t put up much of a fight. But who re-enters Jamie’s life, just when it seems he’s reached the abyss? Jacobs, of course; whose experiments with electricity have become increasingly brazen. He’s building towards something – the question is, what? And why is Jamie’s fate entwined with Jacobs’? More importantly, how does he escape its clutches?

Revival is less terrifying than the benchmarks of Stephen King’s prolific career, but will be remembered as one of his most haunting works. It is a slow-burn, compelling psychological horror novel, infused with a tension that ratchets up to the nth degree towards its final pages. In this instance, ‘revival’ encompasses both religious awakenings and bringing the dead back to life. King plays with how religious faith can be manipulated for nefarious purposes, and the intrinsic unrequited nature of it, then explores the Frankenstein-esque notion of restoration through electricity with equal vigour. Essentially, after occasional lapses in recent years (Hello, Under the Done) with his novel’s climaxes, King nails the ending. Its final sentence is truly chilling.

Review: The Dead Zone by Stephen King

The Dead ZoneTHE DEAD ZONE tells the story of Johnny Smith rebuilding his life after four years in a coma. A lot of things changed in that time. Johnny’s mother became obsessed with the idea that God has a plan for Johnny, which put a huge strain on her marriage and affected her health. Johnny’s girlfriend moved on. And as if that wasn’t enough, his coma has unearthed a supernatural talent; when touching a person, Johnny can see their future, though not all the details – there is a ‘dead zone’ in his mind that restricts his ability to see everything clearly. Even so, this partial ‘gift’ coupled with four lost years is enough to change the trajectory of Johnny’s life forever.

Most of the novel deals with Johnny’s struggle for normalcy. He does his best to ignore his ability – but when all it takes is a gentle touch, it’s impossible. THE DEAD ZONE reads at a gentle pace, allowing King to flaunt his wonderful prose, with a real focus on character. He notches up the tension and develops a sense of inevitability with periodic shifts in perspective to Gregory Stillson, a devil-incarnate Presidential candidate, a psychopathic killer targeting young women, and a lightning rod salesman. All of these characters and their actions eventually coalesce in the THE DEAD ZONE’s most dramatic moments – with the Stillson confrontation serving as the grand finale.

Most of THE DEAD ZONE’s narrative feels organic despite the predestined conclusions seasoned readers will anticipate as new characters and elements are introduced. But it falters in its final act. The Johnny / Stillson confrontation feels manufactured and slightly tarnishes what has come before it – but not enough to ruin the overall experience. Not quite vintage King, but awfully close.

Review – Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

MercedesYou can label Stephen King’s novels with a variety of acclaim, but pulse-pounding, white-knuckle-thrill-ride has never quite seemed appropriate for his extensive body of work. The Stand, what I consider his finest novel to date, is more enthralling than exhilarating; while The Shining is more nerve-wracking (and genuinely terrifying) than adrenaline-charged. No matter the scope of King’s plots, no matter what genre his respective novels are pigeonholed in, they’re always page-turners, and always demonstrate a level of finesse that other authors can only dream of replicating. This isn’t breaking news: King is a masterful storyteller, one of the greatest to have lived, and with MR MERCEDES he has crafted my favorite crime novel of 2014, and one that deserves to labelled as a modern classic.

Crime fiction is bursting with tropes. They’re unavoidable, but they’re malleable, and the best authors mould them and make them their playthings, and use them to their narrative’s benefit. Take the protagonist of MR MERCEDES, for example: Bill Hodges, a retired ex-cop who is circling the drain. Mandatory retirement and the loss of his badge has stripped his life of purpose; he chose the job over his family, and as such, his days are now spent watching daytime television and reminiscing on the unsolved cases he left behind. The one that haunts him most involves the Mercedes Killer, who drove into a crowd at an unemployment expo, killing eight and injuring more. Through sheer luck and circumstances rather than meticulous planning, the killer vanished. The police had no viable leads, no witnesses able to identify a suspect; they were at a dead end. And then Hodges was retired, and the case lost its relevancy with the media, and then with the department.

The Mercedes Killer is a young man named Brady Hartfield, who we’re introduced to inside the first fifty pages of the novel. He intends on breaking Hodges, the man who tried to hunt him and failed miserably, and lead the old detective to suicide. He crafts a carefully worded letter to Hodges, expecting it to send him over the edge, make him place the barrel of his revolver in his mouth and squeeze the trigger. Instead, Hodges is reinvigorated by the reappearance of the Mercedes Killer, and he begins a private investigation. Infuriated, the Mercedes Killer plans another act of random terror – and so begins a cat-and-mouse chase, hero versus villain, with twists and turns along the way.

MR MERCEDES moves quickly. It’s a thriller, eloquently narrated with King’s trademark prose. There are no supernatural elements on show here; there is no dark force of nature at work. MR MERCEDES is an examination of two sides of the fence, hero and villain, and their respective motivations. Sick and twisted as Hartfield’s are, Hodges’s mentality is similarly questionable (though not to the same degree): he should hand over his information to the proper authorities, who would have a better handle on the situation, but he is blinded by the zest he feels now that he’s ingrained in another investigation. His choices have consequences, and people die because of them.

Despite clocking in at over 400 pages, not a page, paragraph or sentence is wasted in MR MERCEDES. It’s a fast read despite its enormity, and one I’m destined to return to in the years that follow; the highest praise I can bestow upon a novel. Now, bring on November, and King’s fourth novel in the space of two years: REVIVAL.