Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Re-Reading Project: Strangers

November 7-December 2 1. Laguna Beach, California Dominick Corvaisis went to sleep under a light wool blanket and a crisp white sheet, sprawled alone in his bed, but he woke elsewhere–in the darkness at the back of the large foyer closet, behind concealing coats and jackets. He was curled in the fetal position. His hands were squeezed into tight fists. The muscles in his neck and arms ached from the tension of a bad though unremembered dream. He could not recall leaving the comfort of his mattress during the night, but he was not surprised to find that he had traveled in the dark hours. It had happened on two other occasions, and recently.

Dean Koontz is, hands down, one of the most influential writers on me as a person and a writer. Which was kind of an awkward thing to take into graduate school, my devoted passion for genre books and authors, particular an author who some have disparagingly referred to as a knock-off Stephen King. He seems most often compared to Stephen King because they’re both prolific authors, writing popular horror around the same time, often mining the same themes and tropes (in fact, Strangers and The Stand have always seemed to deal with many of the same elements and themes). This long-running comparison between them, at least by the fans of each writer, may be the reason that I never finished a Stephen King book till I read Carrie for a college course in 2001 (I read On Writing the next year and they remain the only books of his I’ve read). Anyway, Stephen King has the better track record when it comes to films and t.v. versions of his work and I think that actually has a lot to do with how they’re both perceived in the public consciousness.

I last read Strangers around 1997-1998, so I’ll say I was 16. While it was the last time I read it, I must’ve read it at least once before that and I’ve always remembered it as my favorite of Koontz’, after Lightning. Since I’d re-read Lightning more recently (2009), I decided to re-read Strangers for this project. Also, Strangers helped me identify a theme of Koontz’ that I started to see in most of his books: the coming together of strangers to form a family unit. While it is most obvious in this book, you can find variations of it in pretty much all of his work.

His first hardback bestseller, Strangers was published in 1986. It features 12 primary characters (according to Wikipedia, I’d say at least 4 of them are secondary characters), most of whom have 3rd person chapters from their perspective. The first half of the book focuses on these characters as their lives are falling apart because of a variety of disorders and maladies they can’t explain. It’s not till the second half of the book that almost all of the characters come together and start to figure out the puzzle of what happened to them collectively.

The book was a bit dated when I was reading it in 1997-1998, but nothing like it is now. Similar to what I discovered when I re-read Lightning in 2009, I found that Strangers reads like a period story now, very much a product of its time. The story would be very different if it was set now, but I enjoyed that aspect of the story. It was a bit of a time capsule, a reminder of the way things used to be, and how drastically technology has changed the way we connect to other people since the 80s.

IMG_2908 I re-read my original paperback edition, putting some serious creases in the spine on this go-round because it took me about two weeks to read it. Yes, I have to confess, I was disappointed to find upon re-reading that I was bored for most of the first half of the book. I didn’t particularly care about the two main characters among the twelve (Dom and Ginger), who just seemed too good and uncomplicated, despite their troubles. Koontz takes about 300 pages to ratchet up the tension and I think probably 150 or 200 would’ve been more than fine, even with as many characters as he had. But once the characters started coming together, I reinvested in the story. My memories of what happened were sometimes very distinct and clear and others times very imprecise. But I remembered very early the gist of “what happened” to the characters and it was satisfying to see that I remembered correctly. However, after the long build-up about what had happened to these characters, the resolution was way too quick, almost an afterthought.

I read and collected copies of all of Koontz’ books, up till about 1997 and Sole Survivor and then I didn’t read another Koontz book through most of college, according to my reading records. I re-read Oddkins in 2004 and then read The Taking the same year, and was blown away. I started listening to the Odd Thomas series on long road trips and really enjoyed Innocence last year. I think he was a prolific, but inconsistent, writer when I was a kid and first fell for his books. But now that I’m adult and comparing the early books I loved with his more recent titles, I think it’s safe to say that he’s become a better writer over the years. His characters can still tend to be a bit too black and white, “good” or “bad,” but he will always know how to tell an interesting story, build lots of tension and entertain the reader.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

Re-Reading in the World

Re-reading has understandably become a big deal to me this year. It comes up at cocktail parties and in every day conversations. Actively re-reading a certain subset of books that have been important to me has changed how I think of books I’m reading now for the first time. And also helping me decide which books I really want to read. I think it’s helping me be a bit more selective.

So here are some spots where it has come up in articles I’ve read recently.

In a March article, Hephzibah Anderson writes about re-reading as the ultimate guilty pleasure while reviewing two books about re-reading particular titles: My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead and How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis. Here’s one line that particularly struck me, as I’ve moved into the second half of my Re-Reading Project”

 “…though the words on the page stay the same, our readings of them change.”

Truly. It’s been a really fascinating thing to contemplate, how my readings of these books compare to my memories of them.

And this entire paragraph resonated deeply with me:

For children, it’s a comfort. As we become accustomed to a world in which change is the only real constant, the familiarity of the book at bedtime is something to cling to. Adults aren’t immune to those feelings, either. To quote the septuagenarian writer Larry McMurtry: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change.”

In the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, Tina Jordan has a rather sad essay about re-reading one of her favorite books, The Mists of Avalon, in light of the allegations that Marion Zimmer Bradley committed sexual abuse, from the author’s daughter. As Jordan  mentions, the author died in 1999 and can’t defend herself, but there seems to be a lot of evidence that something unsavory happened. Jordan re-read The Mists of Avalon, intentionally trying to discover if she could divorce this new information about the author from the experience of reading the book. It turned out she couldn’t.

“Reading Bradley’s work through this new filter made me queasy — and I won’t be doing it again.”

I’ve been wanting to re-read Bradley’s The Firebrand, which was a book I really loved in my teens. I even considered it for this project, but I read it one year too late for my “under 16” stipulation. Who knows if I will ever re-read it now, or if I will be able to “forget” about the allegations about the author and enjoy the story? Who knows what the adult me would’ve thought of it without the knowledge of these allegations?

As a writer myself, this is a tough question. Who I am as a person, what I think and what I do, are all utterly a part of who I am as an artist. But I think it would be possible to not like me as a person and still appreciate my writing. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate since I’m both a novelist and now, a memorist.

Well, as I was searching for a link to Jones’ essay (it’s not live yet, probably next week), I found a happier re-reading essay from her, about re-reading the Harry Potter series over the summer of 2011, which is something I’ve tried to do every year. Enjoy.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under books, musing, pop culture, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: The Stand

 “Sally.”
A mutter.
“Wake up now, Sally.”
A louder mutter: lemme lone.
He shook her harder.
“Wake up. You got to wake up!”
Charlie’s voice calling her. But for how long?
Sally swam up out of her sleep.
First she glances at the clock on the night table and saw it was quarter past two in the morning. Charlie shouldn’t even be here; he should be on shift. Then she got her first good look at him and something leaped up inside her, some deadly intuition.
Her husband was deathly pale. His eyes stared and bulged from their sockets. The car keys were in one hand. He was still using the other to shake her, although her eyes were open. It was as if he hadn’t been able to register the fact that she was awake.
“Charlie, what is it? What’s wrong?”

My dad introduced me to the horror and thriller genres. He was always braver than I, but we would watch The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and Tales from The Dark Side. We also loved when Stephen King’s books were made into mini-series. I hadn’t yet read any of his books  at that time, but I LOVED being scared out of my wits by It and The Tommy-Knockers on t.v. We never missed the chance to watch The Running Man if it came on TNT or even Silver Bullet with Gary Busey in his pre-scary-mugshot days.

In spring of 1994, The Stand premiered as the newest sweeps week miniseries. I absolutely ADORED the miniseries (I had a crush on Gary Sinise), and my dad and I agreed that we should probably read the novel now. He picked up a copy so that I would have something to read on my Library Club field trip to Washington, DC.

Great jumping cats! What a doorstop of a book!

But as the buses pulled out of the parking lot of Mansura Middle School, I propped myself up with a pillow and put my Walkman headphones on (Jurassic Park film soundtrack blaring). I followed the Campions–Charlie and Sally and baby LaVon–out of Nevada, running from the superflu that accidentally managed to escape its test tube and kill every single person on the base. But the Campions–they were infected, too.

When I read the book 20 years ago, I found myself more interested in the first “act” of the book–the spreading of the illness, meeting characters like Stu from Texas, Frannie from Maine, and Larry “Baby Can You Dig Your Man” Underwood from NYC. I cannot leave out the two characters who represent absolute “Good” and “Evil”: Mother Abagail and Randal Flagg. (King often likes to have absolutes in his stories, almost like the old westerns with the White-hat-hero and the Black-hat-villain).

My 14 year-old-self was almost bored by the time the “good” survivors had established the Free Zone of Boulder and the “evil” survivors had moved in Vegas to do the bidding of Randall Flagg. Though many people didn’t, I loved the Deus Ex Machina ending, perhaps because I remember my childhood being filled with stories like that–Death Stars exploding and DeLoreans making it up to 88 mph and four nerdy guys crossing the streams and killing the giant-marshmallow-deamon.

In 2009, a comic book version of the tale landed on shelves and as this was around the time that I had taken an interest in comics, I picked these up, too. While I found them enjoyable, I think they take something away from what I like most about reading a Stephen King novel–using the power of my own imagination to imagine the horrors that he describes.

Now, 20 years after hefting open the giant tome on a charter bus ride to DC, I purchased the Kindle version for my re-read. I enjoy the feel of turning pages, but my decade-long job in a coffee shop has done a number on my wrists. I chose this time to let the weight of the story itself supersede the weight of the ACTUAL book.

I’ve probably read about 15 Stephen King books and short stories since The Stand, but the narrative-style in this novel still grabs me. Chapter 8, in particular is quite astounding. The way King describes the ever-so-easy spread of Captain Tripps (the name of the super-flu), in the course of a 6-page chapter is absolutely one of the neatest things that I have ever read.

There are so many movies, novels, comics, and video games these days that focus on post-apocalyptic dystopias. The zombie and pandemic genres have really taken off in the past decade or so and it’s an interesting reflection on what we as audience members crave to ingest. A friend of mine once said that a good zombie story isn’t about the zombies at all, but rather how the humans react, respond, and survive.

During this reading, I found myself still interested in the same characters as before, but some that I initially ignored now spoke to me more clearly. For example, Glen Bateman, a community college sociology teacher and amateur philosopher sums my friend’s zombie-story-philosophy idea rather well and always says interesting thing.

As I’ve grown older I find myself drawn more to nostalgia, and while 20 years ago I was more interested in Fran’s journal full of her crush on Stu, I now love that she also ended each entry with a list of “things to remember,” like bands that were popular and ads that were predominant and slang terms that kids would use to describe things that were cool. I suppose now, with the digital archiving of Twitter,  as long as the servers hold, we will have access to our own “things to remember.” But what if the archives don’t hold? Fran’s journal seems that more important.

Speaking of Twitter, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how different things are now than when The Stand was published. While things weren’t exactly stone-age in 1978 (Star Wars and Ataris, man!), social media, smart phones and the Internet were quite a few years away. Most homes now don’t even have landlines and we use wireless Internet, and our televisions are tuned into satellites.

What happens if all of that were to just go away?

Other forms of media have addressed this possibility.  One of my OTHER favorite novels these days is World War Z by Max Brooks, and I think it makes a fine companion read to The Stand. I think that King addresses the issue just as coherently though, and years before our “softening through social media” (as a character like Ralph might suggest).

King has said that The Lord of the Rings books inspired his writing of The Stand, and even goes so far as to quote from the books when Larry and Rita, his first companion traveler, leave New York City.

“The way leads ever on…”

I see this more now. There are characters that are somewhere in the gray areas and some that start off not-so-great who end up being pretty swell–Larry Underwood for example. However, Good vs. Evil and an epic battle between the two can still be considered the underlying theme.

20 years since I picked up this book. So much has happened. The Twin Towers. Saddam and Bin Laden are dead, but we still have Drones. No world peace, yet, it would seem.

20 years of my own life passed. High School and College. My dad passing away. Marriage.

20 years of technological achievement in filmmaking to create new stories or make old ones come to life anew–The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter. LOST (the latter FREQUENTLY drew from The Stand by the way).

E-books. Heck, between digital publishing and Project Gutenberg, more people have access to THOUSANDS of published works with a few clicks or typed search-parameters.

20 years and perspective and experience.

I think more now on Bateman and Ralph, and what lessons we learn from them. I think of Stu and Frannie still, but not in a giggly-romance sort of way. I think of them as the helpmates they became to each other.

I was initially going to write about Harold Lauder and how his ledger of those who wronged him reminded me so much of that man in California who killed all of those people, but I will just touch on it by saying that we should all recognize rising above that. No one owes us anything, but we owe to ourselves to be the best individuals that we can be.

These are the things that I have taken away from this reading of The Stand.

My original copy was a paperback and it has long since been demolished by re-reading and lending. I am glad that I have an e-copy in my Kindle Library, right along with The Shining and It. On my bookshelf however, I have a wonderful hardcover reprinting, with added notes and forwards and the additional text that was added after the 1978 first-printing. It sits next to The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park.

Noel’s Things to Remember:
— The internet was once REALLY slow, and if someone picked up the phone you were going to have fightin-words.
— There were things called “memes” and things called “.gifs” and places called Reddit and 4chan and Tumblr where we filled our time when we should be writing blogs about novels we once read.
–Good narrative is important, and a good story along WITH it makes for a tale that can be revisited.
–Happiness is there or it is not, but Security, and Trust, and Contentment, even during adversity–those are what we NEED.

Amen. May I be here to take The Trip(p) again, in another 20 years, with even MORE perspective.

Noel's photo

***

Noel Smith needs to read, write, and go out more. She enjoys Pop Culture, Disney Theme Park and Company History, and watching Criterion movies with her husband. She’s slightly clumsy, so she chose to improve her posture with the hardback of The Stand while she re-read it using an e-reader. She thanks Em for this chance to write again, and misses their days watching Curling matches and quality films such as Breakin’. The rest is for Jim.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Friends, movies, pop culture, t.v., The Re-Reading Project