TV REVIEW: Castle Rock Season 1

written by David Steffen

Castle Rock is a horror/fantasy drama series based in one of the common fictional locations and with some of the fictional characters of Stephen King’s novels. Season 1 aired in 2018, and a second season is upcoming later this month. You may recognize the town if you’ve read the books: Cujo, Needful Things, or others.

Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn), warden of Shawshank prison in Castle Rock, Maine, commits suicide in an unsual and graphic fashion the day of his retirement. Soon after, a dark secret kept by Lacy is revealed–he has been keeping a young man (Bill Skarsgård) in a steel cage in an alcove of the prison that no one else knew about. The young man won’t give his name, and won’t say anything but “Henry Deaver”.

So they call Henry Deaver (André Holland), who grew up in Castle Rock and is now working in Texas as a lawyer for death row innmates. He has been a sort of local celebrity since he was a kid, when he disappeared with his father when the temperature was below zero. His father (Adam Rothenberg) was found shortly after that, injured in a fall from a cliff onto a frozen lake, but Henry wasn’t found until eleven days later, with no explanation for his whereabouts. Most of the townspeople decided Henry had attempted to kill his father; part of the reason he left the town was to get away from the accusatory glares of the locals.

Henry travels all the way to Castle Rock only to find that the new warden denies the existence of the man who asked for him. The situations just gets weirder and weirder as new details of the case come to light, and in usual Stephen King fashion, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not.

BOOK REVIEW: End of Watch by Stephen King

written by David Steffen

End of Watch is a speculative mystery book by Stephen King, the third in a series of mystery books about retired detective Bill “Kermit” Hodges.  The first book in the series is Mr. Mercedes, the second book is Finders Keepers.  The nature of the series means that I can’t really describe the contents of this book without major spoilers for the other books, especially Mr. Mercedes.  So, if you don’t want those spoiled, stop right here.

In Mr. Mercedes a dozen people were killed lining up early in the morning for a local job fair by a stolen car plowing through the line, and police are baffled.  But when the killer tries to goad depressed retired detective Bill Hodges into committing suicide, Hodges finds a new reason to live as he sets out to catching him.  With the help of his neighbor Jerome Robinson and newly-made friend Holly Hodges, they catch the killer–Brady Hartsfield just before he sets off a suicide bomb in the middle of a pop concert filled with teenage girls.  Holly clocks him over the head with a sock full of ball bearings and puts Hartsfield in a coma.

In End of Watch, Brady is waking, and there’s something different about him.  The nurses complain that things move around his room when no one is touching them.

Meanwhile, Hodges’s old police partner Pete brings him and Holly (who run detective agency Finders Keepers) to the scene of an apparent suicide.  There’s something fishy about the suicide doesn’t seem right to Pete.

As you might guess, suicide is a prevalent and recurring element of this book, so if that’s a topic you have trouble reading about, you should just skip this book entirely.

It’s hard to talk too much more about it, because a lot of the book is discovering all the details about it.  It’s a solid character story and the sections following the villain are straight-up horrific.

This is a solid finish to the story started in Mr. Mercedes (after a not-bad but extremely tangential second book), the book as a whole is a decent Stephen King books.  The ending I found a little bit weak but the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

BOOK REVIEW: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

written by David Steffen

34466922Sleeping Beauties is a drama/fantasy/action novel written by Stephen King and Owen King published in September 2017 by Scribner.

A mysterious condition hits the whole planet in an instant–if a woman falls asleep, threads of what appear to be fungus quickly envelop her, forming a sort of cocoon.  She continues to live inside the cocoon if left undisturbed.  If the cocoon is broken, she will wake up and react violently like a rabid animal.  Meanwhile, in the Appalachian town of Dooling, a mysterious stranger who calls herself Eve who is arrested after violently killing a man with apparently superhuman strength.  There’s no end in sight for the condition that affects only women–the women who are still awake try desperately to stay that way, some of the men left behind are ready to take desperate measures of one kind or another, and all hell is going to break loose.  People find out that Eve can sleep without going into a cocoon, and they become violently desperate to find out why.  Clint Norcross, the prison psychologist, husband of the sheriff, has a violent past from his juvenile days that he keeps to himself, even from his wife, and he takes it upon himself to protect as many women as he can, including Evie.

I like the premise of the book.  It was enough for me to decide to read the book, and I was interested enough in it to want to stick through it to the end.  But it took effort to stick with it.  The biggest reason was that the book had, in my opinion, major pacing issues. And also a too-large cast without, in my opinion, any particular reason to root for anyone.  Ensemble casts are one of Stephen King’s major skills, many of his best books have ensemble casts: It, Needful Things, The Stand.  But those books were very good at getting me emotionally invested in most or all of the characters, understanding their strengths and weaknesses so that by the end I’m rooting for the outcome.  I did not get that from Sleeping Beauties.  Since the inciting incident isn’t introduced in that first 100 pages, the main purpose of that space must be to invest me in the characters, but I felt like it focused almost entirely on the negative in each person’s personality–this person treats this other person badly in various respects but never makes them feel well-rounded.

The Eve plotline and the cocoons plotline, while they are connected, felt like they were really two separate stories, the stories of a supernatural killer and the story of this condition the women have.  Part of the reason I kept reading is that I wanted to find out more about that connection but I felt like what I got was just vague handwaving.

The themes of the book, about the relationship between men and women and how they treat each other and how they behave, could’ve been great.  But I felt that they relied more on caricatures than on reality, and never managed to be as profound as they seemed to be meant to be.

I feel like this book could’ve been really really good with the existing story, if it were 150-200 pages, just cut out that first 100-page segment and got that characterization in alongside the inciting action and things happening, and it could’ve been an incredible book.  As it is, I was interested enough in the end to read the end, but afterward I didn’t think the payoff of reading was worth the time it took to read.

More on the pacing issues, that might be too spoilerish:
The “inciting” action of local women being overtaken by the cocoons didn’t happen until past page 100.  Usually for the purpose of reviews I try to only discuss what happens within the first 100 pages or so but, there wouldn’t be much of a review if I couldn’t even mention the cocoons. The next 100 pages are spent seeing the same thing happen over and over again as women succumb to the cocoons one after another, which has to be told anew for each point of view since each person is not familiar with it.  And then most of the book is a long slow climb to the final confrontation.

Book Review: Joyland by Stephen King

written by David Steffen

Joyland is a mystery novel written by Stephen King and published in 2013 by Hard Case Crime.

Devin Jones is a college student living in New Hampshire who takes a summer job in 1973 at Joyland, a local amusement park as a jack of all trades, but especially for “wearing the fur” which is the expression for wearing the park’s dog mascot costume.  Besides the usual things one would expect from a college summer job–getting job experience, making friends, making money, Devin hears about an unsolved murder that happened inside the haunted house ride where a young girl’s throat was cut.  Tales of the murder catch the attention of Devin and his friends and they speculate about who did it and how they got away from the scant evidence available.  Devin also meets a wheelchair-bound young boy who is not long for this world and who might know more than he should.

I’m not a big reader of mystery books, so I’m probably not the best judge of whether any specific mystery book is a good one or not, but I enjoyed this reasonably well.  The patchy details of the murder are mentioned early on and were enough to catch my interest.  The carnie lingo and customs were interesting and were at least partially based on actual carnie lingo and customs (though not entirely, he freely admits in the author’s notes)).  It caught my interest earlier than many Stephen King books have of late so that was a plus.

When I think back about the whole book I feel like quite a bit of it was kind of meandering and longer than it needed to be, but I only really picked that apart in retrospect so it must’ve kept my attention well enough while I was reading it.

There is… probably… a supernatural element but it’s very slight if so, which does make it unusual on my reading list.

All in all, I enjoyed the read well enough.  I wouldn’t say there’s anything epic or groundbreaking here, but it succeeded at what it was doing.

Hugo Novelette Review: “Obits” by Stephen King

written by David Steffen

“Obits” is one of the Hugo Finalists for the novelette category this year.   It was published in Stephen King’s short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

Mike Anderson takes a job at the online celebrity gossip mag Neon Circus writing joke obituaries of recently-deceased celebrities.  His article becomes one of the most popular in the magazine.  After he is turned down for a raise in frustration he writes an obituary about his boss to blow off steam and his boss dies unexpectedly that same day.  Does his writing have the power to kill?

Overall this story is Stephen King in his best short story form–real world situation but with one bizarre idea thrown in, and explore the consequences.  As is typical for Stephen King his characters feel like real people, enough so that it’s easy to imagine it all actually happening.  As his colleague at Neon Circus starts to encourage him to explore his ability further I could really feel the downward spiral of feeling out that horrific talent.  I was enjoying it quite thoroughly until the ending which was more of an ellipsis than a period or exclamation point.  I don’t know if it makes it better or worse when the narrator of the story points out its lack of ending–I guess hanging a lantern on the lack of resolution is better than nothing?  But I would’ve rather seen a more satisfying ending on the end of it, whether it took a lighter turn or a darker turn.



Interview: Jonathan Maberry

interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Ghost-Road-Blues-by-Jonathan-Maberry-300-dpi1-621x1024EDITJONATHAN MABERRY is one of the most versatile and prolific writers in the speculative fiction.  His specialty is horror, but he also writes fantasy and science fiction, as well as mystery, thriller, western, and humor.  He has 5 wins and many nominations for the Bram Stoker Award, wins/nominations for other genres and encyclopedic nonfiction, and recognition from writer and librarian associations.  His first novel was in competition with one of Stephen King’s novels for the Bram Stoker Award.  Several of his projects are in development with Hollywood.  He has worked with Marvel and other major comic book companies.  He has consulted/hosted for Disney, ABC, and The History Channel.  He has written several series, most notably the Joe Ledger international thriller sci fi series and the Rot & Ruin young adult horror series.  His has edited several anthologies, most notably an X-Files series.  He has participated in a multitude of writer conferences and workshops, most notably Write Your Novel in Nine Months, Act Like a Writer, and Revise & Sell.  He writes/speaks as an expert on the cannonal background and cultural phenomenon of the horror genre.  He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, Horror Writers Association, International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers Association, International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, and Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators .  He is a contributing editor of the ITW’s The Big Chill newsletter.  He is a cofounder of The Liars Club writer network.  His novelization of the Wolfman film  –  starring Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Emily Blunt, and Benicio del Toro  –  reached #35 on the New York Times bestseller list.  Not surprisingly, Publishers Weekly featured him on the cover.

Jonathan Maberry’s full bio.  Jonathan Maberry on Amazon.  Jonathan Maberry on Good Reads.  Jonathan Maberry’s website.  Liars Club writer advice page.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  I’m fortunate to have several of my projects in development for film and television. My Joe Ledger thrillers are being developed by Lone Tree Entertainment and Vintage Picture Company as a possible series of movies, likely beginning with Extinction Machine, the 5th in the series. And my vampire apocalypse series, V-Wars, is headed to TV, with a brilliant script by former Dexter head writer, Tim Schlattmann. Several other properties, including Rot & Ruin, The Pine Deep Trilogy, and others, are being discussed.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Like most writers I’ve coasted the edges of the Hollywood experience for years. There are some frustrations, of course, but that’s part of the game. For example, back on 2007 I co-created a show for ABC-Disney called On the Slab, which was a horror-sci fi-fantasy news program. Disney paid us to develop it and write a series bible and sample script; and then there was a change of management in the department that purchased it. Suddenly the project was orphaned and therefore dead in the water. Another time producer Michael DeLuca (Blade, Magnolia) optioned the first Joe Ledger novel, Patient Zero, on behalf of Sony, who in turn took it to ABC, who hired Emmy Award-winning TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost) to write a pilot. Then after we’d gone a long way toward seeing it launch they decided instead to focus on the reboot of Charlie’s Angels, which flubbed badly. That’s Hollywood. I don’t take this stuff personally, though. And I never lost my optimism.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  It’s important to focus on presenting a positive brand and to turn out quality products. Being a prima donna doesn’t help you get in through the door. Being someone people can and want to work with is a big plus. Patience is also very, very important.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  For most Hollywood projects the author has little input. I have a lot of friends who have had books optioned and developed, like Charlaine Harris (True Blood), Isaac Marion (Warm Bodies), Mike Mignola (Hellboy), and others. And although they dig what’s been done with their work –at least for the most part—they are often observing from a distance. That said, I own half of the V-Wars property, sharing ownership with IDW Publishing, so I will probably have a little more input there. And I’ve become friends with the producers who optioned Joe Ledger, and as a result they’ve invited me to participate in creative discussions.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  My dream casting for my characters changes on a daily basis.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  With Marvel my creative involvement varies. On projects like Marvel Zombies Return, the world was already created and I was asked to join a writing team along with Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Fred Van Lente (Cowboys and Aliens) and David Wellington (Monster Island). We each had one issue to write and could pitch our own story, but that story had to fit into the overall five-issue arc.

With Black Panther, I was asked by Marvel’s editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, to come in and take over the book from Reggie Hudlin (producer of Django Unchained) who was leaving. I had to finish a few of Reggie’s storylines and then tie them into my own story arc, which I further developed into the DoomWar limited series.

Everything else I did for Marvel was entirely based on original pitches, including Captain America: Hail Hydra, Klaws of the Panther, Punisher: Naked Kills, and my series, Marvel Universe vs The Punisher, vs Wolverine and vs The Avengers.

I moved on from Marvel because I wanted to write horror comics and focus entirely on my original characters.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Dark Horse and IDW are blowing up. If Marvel and DC are the top tier, then Dark Horse, IDW, and Image are the next level. They also deal with a lot of licensed products. Dark Horse has Aliens and others. IDW has Transformers, X-Files, GI Joe and many more. And, of course, Image has The Walking Dead.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  I had a lot of fun working with Dark Horse, but I only really pitched that one idea to them.

My relationship with IDW is much bigger and covers several product and formats. I did the Rot & Ruin: Warrior Smart graphic novel, which was a one-off; but my deepest involvement is with V-Wars and The X-Files. The V-Wars project began as a series of shared-world prose anthologies. I’d write a large framing story and then invite other writers in to do individual stories. The third volume, V-Wars: Night Terrors, just debuted. I also did a run of comics which have been collected into graphic novels as V-Wars: Crimson Queen and V-Wars: All of Us Monsters. The V-Wars TV series is in development and on Feb 15 we launch a board game, V-Wars: A Game of Blood and Betrayal, with insane rules written by legendary award-winning game designer Rob Daviau.

I did Bad Blood for Dark Horse, with brilliant art by Tyler Crook, and two books so far for IDW –both of which are based on my novels, Rot & Ruin and V-Wars. However these are not straight adaptations of my novels but instead new stories set in those worlds.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  I’m editing a series of X-Files anthologies. The first, The X-Files: Trust No One sold out its initial print run in record time. The second, The X-Files: The Truth is Out There, debuts February 16, and The X-Files: Conspiracy Theories is in development. The idea was cooked up by Ted Adams, CEO of IDW Publishing, and he asked me to come aboard as editor. Initially it was planned as a single anthology, but I talked him –and FOX, who holds the license—to let me do at least three. This was something we started working on before Chris Carter announced that he was doing a new series of the show.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Joe is actually based on several real-life Special Ops guys I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. They are a remarkable breed, and they need to be capable of extraordinary things in order to do what they do. They aren’t like other people. They have high intelligence, good language skills, amazing coordination, and they are deeply trained in a variety of skills. There’s nothing Joe Ledger does that these elite special operators can’t –or don’t—do.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  If Joe has a weakness, it’s the same thing as his strength: he is not motivated by politics but is instead a humanist. That means he gets hurt a lot, but it also means that he is damned hard to stop when he is doing what he feels is right.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  The team dynamic is what makes the Ledger series work. Although Joe Ledger is often alone for large sections of each book, his team always matters in getting the job done. That team includes the administrative genius of Mr. Church and Aunt Sallie, the tech skills of Bug and Dr. Hu, and the men and women of Joe’s field teams, notably Top and Bunny –his right and left hands. Without them, Joe would have died a long time ago; and with them he is a far more interesting character to write and, I’m told, to read.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  I have no plans to stop the Ledger series anytime soon. In fact I just sat down today to begin writing the 9th Ledger book, Dogs of War, and we have two cool projects coming up that support the series. The first is The Joe Ledger Companion, which is a nonfiction book that takes readers behind the scenes of Ledger and his world. It’s being written by Mari Adkins and Preston Halcomb, and I’ll be contributing to it as well. And then there’s Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, an anthology of all-original short stories about Ledger being written by wonderful A-list writers including Scott Sigler, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Steve Alten, Weston Ochse, Mira Grant, Jon McGoran, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Joe McKinney, Jeremy Robinson, Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon, Dana Fredsti, James A. Moore, James Ray Tuck, Larry Correia and others. That will be out in 2017.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  People will always love monsters, but zombies and vampires have a very special appeal to writers and readers. Zombies are a blank canvas; they represent a massive shared catastrophe which impacts the lives of every character in equal measures. The characters have their lives, their hopes and dreams, their protections and resources, all stripped away and must struggle for survival while at the same time trying to discover who they truly are. One introduced, the zombies become immediately less important that their effect on the lives of the human characters, and therefore the true focus on these stories is about people in crisis. That is an endlessly renewable creative canvas.

Vampires, on the other hand, represent a variety of other metaphorical problems: rape, abuse in all its forms, jealousy, fears of sickness, dreams of immortality, forbidden love, and so on. The vampire stories were once straight horror but now they’ve either become romances or they are a kind of super hero tale, much like the myths and legends of gods and demigods. Again, there are a lot of stories you can tell with that model.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Horror is a genre of fiction that has dozens and dozens of variations, including Gothic, body horror, suspense, psychological horror, ghost stories, religious horror, existential horror, monster stories, zombies, vampires, folkloric horror, extreme horror, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, science fiction horror, and so on.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Groups like the Horror Writers Association has awarded its coveted Bram Stoker Award to books as diverse as Thomas Harris’ crime thriller Silence of the Lambs to Stephen King’s subtle Lisey’s Story to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, to Joe McKinney’s brutal zombie thriller Flesh Eaters.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Most of what I write tends to be hug on the scaffolding of the thriller, which is a model applicable to virtually any genre. I love the race against time to prevent something dreadful from happening. But I’ve also written in a variety of sub-genres in both long and short fiction and often go cross-genre.

Among the categories in which I’ve written we have vampires/American Gothic (Ghost Road Blues and its sequels), ghost stories (the short story “Property Condemned”), paranormal mystery (“Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Greenbrier Ghost”), psychological horror (“Doctor Nine”), serial killer (“Saint John”), horror movie adaptations (The Wolfman), zombie apocalypse (Dead of Night andFall of Night), urban fantasy (“Mystic”), paranormal mystery (“Like Part of the Family”), dark fantasy (“We All Make Sacrifices”), weird western (“Son of the Devil”), historical ghost story (“Red Tears”), epic fantasy (“The Damned One Hundred”), Lovecraftian horror (“Dream a Little Dream of Me”), science fiction horror (Patient Zero andAssassin’s Code), weird science thriller (The Dragon Factory, Code Zero), post-apocalyptic existential horror (“The Wind Through the Fence”), Alt-History Steampunk horror (Ghostwalkers: A Deadlands Novel), post-apocalyptic zombie horror for teens (Rot &Ruin), folkloric horror (“Cooked”), historical horror comedy (“Pegleg and Paddy Save the World”), and so on.

Do I have a favorite? No, not really. I’m most in love with whatever genre or sub-genre I’m writing at the moment.



JONATHAN MABERRY: I’ve been fortunate to win five Bram Stoker Awards. I won Best First Novel for Ghost Road Blues, then shared a win for nonfiction with David Kramer for a book on the paranormal we wrote called The Cryptopedia; after that I won two back-to-back Stokers for Young Adult novels for books two and three of the Rot & Ruin series (Dust & Decay and Flesh & Bone); and more recently picked up on for Graphic Novel for Bad Blood.  As for how many times I’ve been nominated…I’m not really sure. Maybe ten or twelve times.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  Every year there is such amazing horror writing being published, and often by close friends. It’s odd –but also fun—to be nominated alongside people you like and whose work you respect. That way, no matter who wins…it’s a party.

My first time out, however, I was up against Stephen King. Ghost Road Blues had been nominated for both Best First Novel and Novel of the Year. I won the Best First but King took Novel of the Year for his wonderful book, Lisey’s Story. If you have to lose…there is zero shame in losing to Stephen King.



JONATHAN MABERRY: I was trained as a journalist and that doesn’t encourage one to be a slowpoke. Some of my professors were very aggressive and had us cranking out a couple of thousand words in the space of a few hours. After college I was a magazine feature writer part time, but even though I was working day jobs (variously –bodyguard, bouncer, jujutsu instructor, college teacher, graphic artist), I wrote over twelve hundred articles and at least three thousand reviews and columns. And I wrote more than a dozen textbooks and nonfiction books on subjects ranging from a history of competitive sparring to the folklore of supernatural predators.

When I switched to fiction a little over ten years ago I brought that same work ethic with me. I like the fast lane. Not everyone does. I have friends who prefer to write a book every couple of years. That’s not for me. I put it in high gear and keep my foot on the gas. And I write my best stuff under tight deadlines.

The last two years I’ve written four to six books per year, plus comics and a slew of short stories. I just signed an agreement last week to add a fourth book to this year’s slate, and there’s a possibility I’ll do a fifth.

Nowadays writing is my full time job. I write, on average, eight hours a day, and usually log about four thousand words. Between novels, comics, short stories and novellas I write about a million and a quarter words for publication per year.

That wasn’t how fast I started, of course. My first novel took years to write and revise. I got faster as I studied my own process and worked to improve my habits and deepen my understanding of the writing craft. It’s fun, though. And writing so many projects means that I’m always exploring new creative areas. I write for adults and teens, and I write in a variety of genre including thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, horror, Steampunk, alt-history, weird science, action, westerns, mysteries and more. I am never bored.



JONATHAN MABERRY:  I always advise new writers to attend writers conferences. The classes are useful and the networking is golden. The only writing book I ever recommend, however, is Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass. It’s brilliant and incredibly useful, either for helping you feel your way through the plot or revising a draft.



JONATHAN MABERRY: There are several important things to know about becoming successful as a writer. Things I wish I’d known earlier in my career.

First –be very good at what you do. Having a natural gift for storytelling is great, but you need to learn the elements of craft. That includes figurative and descriptive language, pace, voice, tense, plot and structure, good dialogue, and many other skills. Good writers are always learning, always improving.

Second –learn the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘publishing’. Writing is an art, it’s a conversation between the writer and the reader. Publishing is a business whose sole concern is to sell copies of art. Publishing looks for those books that are likely to sell well. There is absolutely no obligation for anyone in publishing to buy and publish a book totally on the basis of it being well written. It has to be something they can sell. A smart writer learns how to take their best writing and find the best way to present it to the publishing world, and then to support it via social media once it’s out.

Third –you are more important than what you write. A writer is a ‘brand’. That brand will, ideally, generate many works –books, short stories, etc. Each work should be written with as much passion, skill, love, and intelligence as possible, but when it’s done, the writer moves on to the next project. And the next.

Fourth –finish everything you start. Most writers fail because they don’t finish things.  Be different.

Fifth –don’t try to be perfect. First drafts, in particular, are often terrible. Clunky, badly-written, awkward, filled with plot holes and wooden dialogue. Who cares? All a first draft needs to have in order to be perfect is completeness. It is revision that makes it better, and makes it good enough to sell. So, don’t beat up on yourself if your early drafts are bad. Everyone’s early drafts are bad. Everyone.



Carl Slaughter is a man of the world. For the last decade, he has traveled the globe as an ESL teacher in 17 countries on 3 continents, collecting souvenir paintings from China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and Egypt, as well as dresses from Egypt, and masks from Kenya, along the way. He spends a ridiculous amount of time and an alarming amount of money in bookstores. He has a large ESL book review website, an exhaustive FAQ about teaching English in China, and a collection of 75 English language newspapers from 15 countries.



Review: Under the Dome (TV)

written by David Steffen

Over the summer, CBS aired the first season of a TV series based on Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome (which I reviewed right here in 2010). To sum up, I thought the book overall was very good, as King’s strongest point is interactions between a large cast of characters, especially in the claustrophobic social environment of a small town.

Fair warning, I’m not going to make an effort to avoid spoilers here, because I can’t think of how to discuss the shows failings without verging into spoiler territory. To be fair, not a lot happened in the season that I would consider important enough to worry about a spoiler warning, but be aware of this. Quick summary version: Read the book instead and expect a decent read but a crappy ending.

First off, if you have read the book, the show will probably drive you completely nuts because they are not the same story. The extent of what they have in common: A mysterious and more-or-less impenetrable barrier inexplicably cuts the town of Chester’s Mill off from the rest of the world. Dale Barbara is a veteran. Julia Shumway is a reporter. Big Jim Rennie is the major political force, and is an asshole but likes to pretend he’s not one. That is the extent of the similarities. The characteristics of the dome are different. The nature of many of the characters are very different. Some characters who die immediately in the book are major characters in the show. The events are very different. The dome (apparently) does not even have remotely the same cause, though the season ended before revealing a great deal, but enough to make it clear that the ending in the book is not going to happen.

My opinion of the show might be somewhat tainted by the fact that I thought it was a miniseries, one which was preplanned, taped entirely in advance, and would run for a finite period and then stop. I thought that right up until the season finale when the story just ends. It’s not even a cliffhanger, but as if the writers said “oh crap I ran out of space, what do I do, what do I do, oh crap I’m going to get fired, oh crap. Oh I know! inexplicable ending–boom! Done!” This frustrated me to no end because the pace was so slow and the writing so bad that the only reason I’d watched the whole season (usually while doing Grinder maintenance or cross-stitching because the slowness was just ridiculous) was because I wanted to find out how they ended it in the TV series. It was a huge waste of time to watch the whole season. When the rest of it comes out I’m just going to get the Cliff’s Notes version of it.

The quality of the writing on the show is it’s biggest downfall. Some of the dialog is just so awkward it would be funny if it weren’t also a frustrating waste of time. I give credit to the actors who actually managed to pull off the lines as best they could pull off. Really, most of the casting was reasonably good, with the high point being Dean Norris as Big Jim Rennie–he pulls off the nasty small-town politician vibe with incredible effect.

The worst cases of the bad writing were all cases where someone confronts Big Jim Rennie about his behavior, suspicions of drug-dealing and murder, etc… He generally sticks to the explanation that he’s doing bad things for the good of the town, and this works shockingly often, even with the sheriff herself even after he has basically admitted to committing murder. The sheriff, played by Natalie Martinez, is about the only casting choice I think was questionable. Everything about her stance, expression, and voice lacks self-confidence, which is problematic for a policewoman, but more so for a sheriff. Granted, this is a relatively small town and she only becomes sheriff due to events in the show, but still I found her character very hard to take seriously, even more so when she bows to Big Jim Rennie’s more transparent bullshit. It just seemed like the writers wrote themselves into a highly tense corner that plausibly could only end with someone ending up dead, but then wrote themselves out of it by making a character implausibly gullible just long enough to move to the next scene.

I got the sense in many of the episodes that each one was written with a brief description of what came before and no idea what will come after, in isolation, by different writers, because it feels much too episodic either for a miniseries or for a series based around a major mysterious event. Often a new character is introduced, sometimes halfway through the season, and then is treated as if they’ve been a longstanding important character, sometimes dying shortly thereafter as if we’d been given enough time to care at all what has happened to them. There’s even an episode, a single episode, that centers around a fight club that gets started in the town to gamble with provisions–it is not mentioned before that episode and it is abolished by the end of the episode and it’s never mentioned again. What the hell? I mean, I’m a Chuck Palahniuk fan as much as the next guy, but that just came out of nowhere. The end result is that most episodes seem to kind of meander in their own direction, a direction which then changes completely for the next episode, having only the narrow main thread to follow from episode to episode.

And that main thread is weird, and completely unrelated to the book, all having to do with the origins of the dome which have a much more mystical, mythical, fantasy feel here with prophecies and inexplicable omens and messages from the dead than in the book where they were straight up science fiction. I don’t know if I dislike that element so much because it has nothing to do with the book, or just because I find the elements hokey in their own right. I don’t know. I kind of wanted to find out where they were going with these elements but only enough to watch to the end of what I thought was a miniseries. I wonder if other people who’d read the book were sticking around for the same reason–maybe the second season will tank and we’ll find out the answer without having to wait years. Then again, I get the impression that literally no one knows how it’s going to end, it’ll just be another Stephen King “pull it out of my ass” resolutions–like the book itself, but it’ll have to be different.

One of the greatest tragedies in the transition from book to show is the villainization of the character Dale “Barbie” Barbara. In the book he’s an ex-military vagrant taking short-order cook jobs and the like, who is just trying to leave town after he hurt someone in self-defense, but the dome blocks him before he can leave. In the show he’s ex-military, but he’s taken a job as a violent enforcer for a local gambling kingpin, and spends his days beating the tar out of gambling addicts who can’t pay up. In this case he’s actually killed one of these poor saps, who turns out to be the husband of Julia Shumway who he soon strikes up a romantic relationship with. And while he does some good things in the story, I never felt like he regretted anything bad he did, nor redeemed himself for it. In the TV show he’s little different than Big Jim Rennie, both of them are immoral assholes who get high on being seen as a hero but have no compunctions about killing whoever becomes inconvenient to further their goals. The late-season reveal that Mr. Shumway had been suicidal and provoked Barbie so that insurance wouldn’t balk at a suicide, seemed more of a cheap afterthought by the writers to redeem the character. I didn’t buy it–Mr. Shumway’s motivations are irrelevant to Barbie’s, so it doesn’t redeem anything. The core of the book was my empathy for Barbie, so when that’s taken away it’s very hard to care about anyone.

So, overall, the show has been a waste of time, though I’ll still look up a summary of how it ends. As I said in the intro: Read the book instead and expect a decent read but a crappy ending.

Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

by David Steffen

Stephen King is not known for his brevity. Many of his books are above the 500-page mark, with a few surpassing 1000. This can be good or bad. I never minded the longer books until I started writing, but now it’s hard to look at a 1000-page book and wish it had been trimmed down. Not that I only like short books, but I like a story that is exactly as long as it needs to be. Every part has some purpose, whether it moves the plot forward, illuminates character background, or a variety of other purposes.

Some of his books, like Duma Key are just far too long, and start much too slowly. In that book, there’s not much in the way of plot until about 3/4 of the way through at which point everything suddenly happens all at once. His recent novel Cell is not long by King standards, only a few hundred pages, but it seems long because the characters are not his usual well-rounded sort. They’re little more than placeholders, one-dimensional and uninteresting.

But when he finds a story and a cast of characters that merits the length, he can really make that cast come to life. This was the reason I really loved It and The Stand despite their gargantuan length. And now I can add Under the Dome to that list.


The premise is absurdly simple to explain–it’s the cast that makes it interesting. An invisible, impenetrable, and apparently indestructible barrier inexplicably appears along the boundary of a small town in Maine. Yes, in Maine. If I had a nickel for every inexplicable and paranormal event that occurs in Maine in Stephen King’s stories, I’d never have to work again. I do wish that he’d try some other settings once in a while. Write what you know, I suppose, but I think Mr. King could afford some traveling to make his settings more diverse. Anyway, so that’s basically it. No one knows where the dome came from, not even the government. Because the barrier is invisible, most of the boundaries are found first on the highway when cars smash into it. It also extends down into the ground, severing telephone and power lines. This inconvenience is alleviated somewhat because many of the rural Maine folk have generators, but it causes problems here and there, and they’re limited to the amount of propane they have on hand to run the gennies.

Now, populate this little town with a diverse cast from a pack of skateboarding teens to reporters to doctors to government officials, and we throw in our hero who is naturally an outsider. Dale Barbara, known to most as Barbie, is just headed out of town after a recent bar fight with some of the town’s less savory youth. Barbie is ex-military, hitchhiking around the countryside, and had stopped here for a while, but he’s decided it’s time to move on. The barrier pops into existence just before he’s able to leave town. Early on in the story he tries to mind his own business, but Big Jim Rennie, the power-hungry politician who runs the town, has a grudge against Barbie (it was Jim Rennie Jr. who Barbie bested in the bar fight). There are all kinds of conflicts going on in this town, many of them centering around Big Jim, a man you can truly love to hate. Among other things, the accidental death of the police chief leaves the police force in the palm of Big Jim’s hand. Without a chance of outside intervention, Big Jim is a dangerous man. He’s enough of a nasty character to be a threatening enemy without crossing the line into cartoon villain.

My Views

Overall, I very much liked the book, and I’d recommend it if you’re interested for a long haul. There were a few things that bothered me, though.

One thing that bothered me about the book is that no one, in general, seems that interested in figuring out why the barrier is there or how to get past it. There are a few dedicated individuals trying to deal with this, but for the most part people are just living their everyday lives under there altered in the minimum way to deal with their newfound seclusion.

Another thing that really bugged me seems to just be a problem with his technical research. It could’ve been fixed without substantially changing the plot, so it just annoys me that King didn’t realize it. A thirty second Google search could’ve found more accurate information. More on this in the Spoiler section, just in case you want to try to find the technical flub on your own.

There are occasional sections in the book, thankfully VERY occasional, where instead of telling the story in 3rd person close point of view, Stephen King writes a section as himself. I found this very irritating. He seems to think this writer’s voice is charming, but really it was grating. Ideally, I never think of the writer at all when I’m reading a story. I want to sink into the world and not surface again until I’m done reading. And speaking from the author’s voice ruins that. Example from the book, a section starts with “We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester’s Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an an instant has passed since …” I can like the occasional omniscient narrator, but mentioning the “magic of narration” is a worthless gimmick that he only gets away with because he’s Stephen King, He Who Shall Not Be Edited.

Though I’d recommend the book overall, there are definitely slow patches. At least 150 pages could be cut from the middle without harming the story. But it starts with a bang, and ends with a bang, so if you can power through that mid-book slump, I think you’ll enjoy it. And, though the ending section has lots going on, the actual manner in which it resolves wasn’t all that satisfying.


Okay, so there are a couple spoiler-based things I’d like to complain about in this book.

1. The technical flub I referenced earlier. When the barrier pops into place, it’s not just above ground, but slices down below at least 50 feet (as far as they try to dig). This means that it severs any kind of utility lines laid within the ground. Electricity and phone services are cut off, which makes sense, but they still have internet access. Mr. King justifies this simply by calling it WiFi. Now, I realize there are forms of internet access that pass data via satellite, but those are very rare and very expensive. And are not called WiFi. Likewise, you can run a cell phone WiFi hotspot, but neither of these seem to be what King was referring to. Maybe he doesn’t have WiFi at home, but your standard WiFi is only wireless in the sense that your computer is untethered. The computer is sending signals to your wireless router, which then sends signals through your wall through your cable jack or phone line–both of which would’ve been severed. The plot never hinged upon having the internet available, so it would’ve been easy to just remove it.

2. The ending was rather weak. Like I said earlier, almost nobody is really interested in trying to figure out what put the dome in place or how to take it down. A long way into the story someone does find the generator, a little bit of alien technology sitting on the tallest hill in town. Touching it connects you telepathically with alien lifeforms who have apparently put the barrier in place just as a form of entertainment. The device is immovable, and putting a lead shield over it just melts the lead shield. When they realize that neither of these things work, they just give up and don’t try anything else until the very end of the book. Me, I’d be blasting it with dynamite, pouring acid on it, placing a lead shield at a distance without touching it to the device, etc… At the end, everything takes a turn for the worse, fires run rampant, and the fresh air is very limited. Almost everyone dies. (I’m happy to say that one dog actually survives! King seems to have a vendetta against dogs, they never survive in one piece, except for this one). As a desparate last ditch effort, a few of the characters go back to the device and they beg for their lives to the aliens. And the aliens lift the barrier and then the book is pretty much over. Seriously? No one thought of that before? Why wait until almost everyone is dead? It seemed to me that he just got to the end of what he’d planned and said “oh shit, how do I get them out of this now?” and wrote it on the fly.

Review–Cell by Stephen King

My verdict: Don’t bother. Flat characters, ridiculous plot points, terrible resolution.

Cell is one of King’s weakest books to date. The flaws of this book are different than his usual, so I’ll give him a credit for trying something different. Usually he spends the first three-fourths of a book giving character background before getting to the main plot of the book. This one was very short for him, at only 350 pages, and the action starts right away on page 2, but the characters in Cell are surprisingly lacking in defining features. Each of them is one-dimensional and none of them felt like real people to me.

In the first section, the crap really hits the fan. One moment, the world is going on as it always does, and the protagonist is complaining about inconsiderate people with cell phones, ignoring cashiers as they buy things and talk and their phones, and whatnot. The next moment everyone who’s talking on a cell phone… changes, basically going all zombie, attacking anything in sight with their teeth. And, of course, those people who didn’t happen to be on their cell phones tend to reach for cell phone and they’re changed as well. It’s an interesting idea to create a new source of zombies besides the usual curse or virus, but his message is just too transparent. In the author bio, he even points out that he doesn’t have a cell phone. As I was reading I was often distracted imagining the origin of the story–King in a department store waiting in the checkout line behind someone chatting away on their cell phone, and King thinks “You know what? I wish that person would turn into a flesh-eating zombie! Hey, that’s an idea for a book!”

I believe that a writer should be transparent while I’m reading his story. If I think about him, then he has failed. One thing that breaks this is overwrought prose like “Malden was just one more fucked-up town in the Unicel States of America, and now that country was out of service, off the hook, so sorry, please try your call again later.” That in the middle of an otherwise ordinary paragraph. That’s not the protagonist speaking, that’s the author trying to be clever.

And, seriously, I’ve really got to wonder what King has against dogs. I’ve read most of his books, and I do not believe I’ve read a single one that had a dog in it which was not killed or seriously injured. I mean, I realize that dogs, being man’s best friend, are an easy way to pull the emotional strings, but seriously! In this book, a dog dies right on page 2, and another one’s ear gets torn off by a zombie person another page later. A bit much for me already.

I stuck with it, though, hoping it would get better. About halfway through it finally strayed from just standard zombie-ism. I’ll save more details for after the spoiler warning below. But, even after that point, there were still no multi-dimensional characters. The only explanations given for the sudden change in people (now nicknamed the Pulse) is speculation by the characters which is presented as though it’s the truth even though it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. The “resolution” of the main thread is terribly done, tacked on as though he just got bored and just ran a random plot-resolution-generator to decide how to end it. Not only that, but the plot conflict, as presented in the story, would not have been resolved by this AT ALL! More on that later.

That’s about all I can say without giving major details away, so:


Okay, so back to my complaints about the implausibility of what caused the Pulse. Along the way they meet a 12-year old prep school student named Jordan, who makes some guesses about what created the “phone-crazies” based on what he knows about computers. Theories are all well and good, but later in the book they keep expanding on these theories as though they’re the truth. He theorizes that the phones wiped the minds like an EMP wipes could wipe a hard drive. Someone even points out that brains don’t work like hard drives, which gets the response that hard drive work like brains because they’re designed after brains. Brains are not like hard drives. Yes, they store things, but that is where the similarity ends. Yet they keep on going on about how the Pulse has wiped their brains and their brains are trying to rebooting, even receiving “new programming” from the Pulse every night. Which I found really odd because no one actually seemed to be intentionally creating the Pulse. If there IS such a thing as an audible signal that can scramble your brain within the range of what a phone speaker can broadcast (and I don’t think there is) then it’s not going to happen by accident, and even if it did, there would be no “new programming” for it to impart. As the story goes on, the “phone-crazies” develop telepathy, telekinesis, and create a hive-mind all based on this “programming”. Then they start speculating that there is a “computer worm” that has infected the signal and is making the “phone-crazies” degrade, which makes no sense on so many levels, since they have no idea what the signal’s intent is, who sent it, and that it’s even vulnerable to a computer virus. The whole plot hinges on it, and it just doesn’t make any sense, nor does he really make any attempt to try to explain it.

Back to the flat characters, there are four main characters for about the first half of the book. Then one of them dies, which seemed like it was really supposed to tug on my heartstrings, but I just didn’t give a crap. Near the end, 3 new characters are introduced, then leave a page later. They come back a couple chapters later, and one of them sets in motion the plot resolution just before committing suicide to keep the “phone-crazies” from reading it in his mind. The other two have no effect on the plot, and a handful of lines between them.

What is this resolution, you ask? A bus full of explosives. I’m not kidding. Yes, they take out this worldwide newborn race of telepathic psychopathic altered humans with a single bus packed with explosives. They take out a single group of them, which may number about 8000, which is certainly a large number, but when you consider how widespread cell phone usage is across the world right now, it doesn’t accomplish a thing. But good for New England and it’s momentary respite from the zombie hordes.

But that’s not quite the end. Through the whole book Clay, the main protagonist, is looking for his son. And he finds him, but his mind has been partially wiped by a phone so that he is little more than an animal. He’s not violent, but he can’t talk, and about all he does is crap and eat. Back to the “programming” theory with the “worm”, they have theorized that the phone signal has changed, somehow, and therefore guess that it has a different “worm”. He guesses that maybe if he makes his son make a phone call again then he can infect him with the other signal and the other “worm” and then the two “worms” might balance each other out and allow the boy’s mind to “reboot” and become normal again. Even if he does become normal again, even if the hard drive theory is sound, he’s not going to have any of his memories! He’s going to be like an infant! And that’s assuming that another phone call doesn’t just make the damage worse! To me that’s like finding out that your friend has memory loss from brain damage caused by a heavy blow to the head, and to solve it you give him ANOTHER heavy blow to the head. It won’t help but it most likely will hurt. And hurt alot. And in the end we don’t even get to find out if his ridiculous plan works, because the book ends as he hands the phone to his boy.

The Shining (book) by Stephen King

the_shiningTo bring the topic back to reading/writing after a couple days of gaming posts, I just put down The Shining. I realize this book is decades old, but I’m just working my way along my bookshelf, overflowing with many books both new and old that I haven’t gotten to yet.

This was my first time reading this book. It’s the story about Jack, an author who takes a job as a winter caretaker at a hotel in Colorado called The Overlook. he brings his wife Wendy and his 5 year old son Danny there to live with him during this time. They know they’ll be isolated over the winter, but what they don’t know is that the hotel seems to have a life of its own. Especially to son Danny, who has “the shining” which is a pretty word for some degree of psychic powers. Danny is especially sensitive to the dark manifestations of the building. Over the course of the winter, the hotel turns them against each other and they’re faced with ever-more terrifying ghosts of the building.

This story is one of those rare cases where I liked the movie better than the book. Not the original Jack Nicholson movie, but the miniseries starring Steven Weber in the 90s. I’ve yet to see a Nicholson movie I liked (to be fair, I haven’t seen some of his more famous ones like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

For one thing, the head-hopping really drives me nuts. Just when I’m getting close into one character’s head, the viewpoint jumps into another character’s head, then another and another. It keeps me from feeling really close to any of them (perhaps that was the intent so I don’t have to feel too close to Jack the psycho).

SPOILERS ahead for anyone, though I’m sure most people have seen some version of this already.

I couldn’t even finish the book. I had 180 pages left and I realized that reading it had become a chore, so I just put it down. From what I remember of the Weber series, I thought Jack was portrayed as being a pretty sympathetic character at the beginning of the movie. So his gradual descent into psychosis is a major change, and is quite frightening. But in the book, it’s made very clear very early on that Jack is going to snap sooner or later. Two years ago before the book started he broke Danny’s arm in drunken anger. He’s since quit drinking, but he has a history of manic violence even when sober. The reason he was looking for the caretaking job is that he lost his job as a professor because he was he assaulted a student, beating him bloody in the parking lot of the school.

Since the student incident, he has a tight reign on his temper. He’s still an angry person, but he balls all the anger up inside. Like a tightly wound spring, it’s only a matter of time before something snaps. He would’ve snapped eventually, regardless of circumstances. The Overlook may have accelerated the process, but even without that, he would have totally snapped in a year or two anyway. Especially since he has a knack for self-sabotage–any time things are looking hopeful in his life he ruins the chance in a completely avoidable way (the assault on the student being just one of these).

Maybe 1/3 of the book is spent in his head, which was a mistake–I can’t relate to his character in the slightest between the self-sabotage, the anger issues, the abuse, and the developing psychosis.

Then there’s Wendy, who is quite frankly, TSTL (too stupid to live). She knows about Jack’s history, and his mental instability even when he was sober. Her first mistake was staying with him for so long. If it had only been her own life at stake, I might forgive that–love can make a person do stupid things. But her son’s life is at stake here. But the much larger mistake is for her to agree to live with them at the hotel for that whole winter. She’s aware it will be stressful–she worries about “cabin fever” several times, but she knows Jack well enough that she should be able to predict his snapping a long time ahead of time and she should have run like hell. But either she’s just unbelievably dense or is just a tool of the author and nothing more.

Another 1/3 of the book spent with her, who gets herself and Danny into this mess, I can’t relate to her at all.

The remaining 1/3 is spent with Danny, who I can relate to and who I really liked. He can read minds to some extent, so he gets glimpses of his parents’ thoughts and intentions. He’s the first to see manifestations of the hotel, because of the shining, and his viewpoint is at once terrifying and reminiscent of any kid’s childhood fears of the monsters under the bed. If the whole story were told from his point of view, I might have stuck with it the whole way, but since he’s only 5, he doesn’t understand the full complexities of his parents’ marriage, so it probably wouldn’t have worked.

I wouldn’t mind renting the Weber mini-series and watching it again to see if I still like it. I haven’t seen it since I started writing and my criteria for what I like are totally different now.