Thursday, July 24, 2014

BEYOND FEAR and a review of MR. MERCEDES

I have a new book out, called BEYOND FEAR, which devotes quite a few pages to the worldview of Stephen King.  Here’s the problem: In a way, the book is already outdated.  It charts the evolution of King’s personal beliefs from the publication of his earliest short stories (at the age of 13!) to the publication of DOCTOR SLEEP in 2013.  But, as King’s Constant Readers know, DOCTOR SLEEP has already been succeeded by a new novel (MR. MERCEDES) and the promise of another one in the fall of 2014 (REVIVAL). 

When I sat down to read MR. MERCEDES, I had read one advance review of the book.  The reviewer said, intriguingly, that if he hadn’t looked at the cover he wouldn’t have known this novel was written by Stephen King.  Now that I have read MR. MERCEDES for myself, I beg to differ.  I assume that the reviewer was surprised that there are no supernatural elements in MR. MERCEDES. Perhaps he was surprised that it is more of a detective-thriller than a horror novel, and that it is set in Middle America rather than New England.  Or maybe it was the blatant setup for a sequel that threw him off.  (Until recent years, King has avoided sequels to his own work.)

But King started consciously veering away from supernatural horror a long time ago, beginning in earnest with MISERY.  When he finished NEEDFUL THINGS around 1990, he said that it would be his last supernatural horror novel.  He was wrong, obviously, and some of his strongest work in recent years has been in the supernatural horror mode.  But King has also continued to write the type of naturalistic, “literary” fiction that once defined his alter ego Richard Bachman. 

At first, I thought MR. MERCEDES was going to be more of a Bachman book.  The prologue, set in the economic lowlands of the Great Recession, sounds a note of spirit-crushing despair that is common in the early Bachman novels, as well as the works of two of King’s literary idols: John Steinbeck and James M. Cain.  The big-hearted hero William Hodges, however, is pure Stephen King—almost a stock character in the years since BAG OF BONES.  Ditto the hero’s two quirky sidekicks, who reminded me of Roland’s fellow gunslingers in THE DARK TOWER. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because MR. MERCEDES is, like THE DARK TOWER, a kind of good vs. evil story – which is something that King does very well. 

As with THE STAND, the author divides his time between the hero and the villain – in this case, Bill Hodges vs. Brady Hartsfield.  Hodges is a detective, a consummate professional dedicated to protecting and serving.  His most powerful weapon, however, is not a gun.  It’s his intuition.  At one point in the story, the author’s affinity with his main character is revealed by a passage where the detective reaches a dead end in his investigation.  This would never happen in most works of detective fiction, because most writers in the genre carefully outline their plots in advance… but King has never believed in outlines.  He believes in intuition and inspiration. 

So Hodges responds to his immediate crisis by going to bed—because, King writes, “that’s how you open the door so the right idea can come in.  The right idea always arrives as a result of the right connection, and there is a connection waiting to be made.  He feels it.”  King trusts the story to reveal itself, and in this instance he is rewarded.  (King’s Constant Readers will be pleased that MR. MERCEDES is a much more satisfying story than, say, INSOMNIA or BLACK HOUSE…. which leads me to believe that the author simply had to finish THE DARK TOWER series before he could effectively return to naturalistic writing.)

The other half of the story profiles the mind of a sociopath.  Brady’s thoughts reveal the inscrutable black hole that opens itself whenever any person surrenders himself or herself to the (perhaps supernatural) forces of intuition, inspiration, imagination.  King’s most powerful rumination on this particular idea may be in LISEY’S STORY, but for those readers find it easier to believe in (and be scared by) real-world horror, MR. MERCEDES is a nerve-rattling variation on the theme.  King thoroughly humanizes his antagonist, but without making him too sympathetic. Brady is easy to understand, but not to forgive.  He may not be as instantly memorable as Randall Flagg or Pennywise the Clown, but he seems just as real as Charles Starkweather or the 9/11 hijackers, and is therefore plenty scary. 

Brady's philosophy of life is simple and terrifying: “The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters.  Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar.  That’s all history is: Scar tissue.”  King’s best fiction has repeatedly contemplated this possibility.  Maybe that’s all life is: Scar tissue.  The author’s work, as a whole, suggests that our world is full of creators and destroyers, all doing what they have to do in order to feel alive in the face of death.  These two forces are engaged, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, in a grand battle for the future of human civilization.  Who will win – the creators or the destroyers?   

As King’s promise of a MR. MERCEDES sequel suggests, there is no definitive answer.  The end of every story is the beginning of another story, and the battle wages on.  As long as King keeps fighting this fight, honestly and insightfully, I'll keep reading.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Strange Idea of Entertainment

Here's a sneak peek at my latest book - now available from BearManor!

I met filmmaker Tom McLoughlin in the spring of 2008. I was searching for interview subjects for a documentary on the history of American horror films, and my friend John Muir recommended Tom. “He knows a lot about classic monster movies,” John said. I knew that McLoughlin had directed a respectable Gothic horror film called One Dark Night and the best sequel in the Friday the 13th series, but I didn’t really think of him as a “horror director.” Even so, I decided to call.
            I talked to Tom one dark night while he was editing Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal. It turned out to be the first of many long conversations. Horror movies, he explained, had helped him to get through his formative years, growing up across the street from MGM studios. When he was about ten years old, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown. Around the same time, Tom became fascinated with Vincent Price—particularly the maniacal characters he portrayed in Roger Corman’s film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe. On weekdays, he would skip out on classes at St. Timothy’s Grade School and take a city bus to Santa Monica for the noontime movies, where he reveled in the artificial madness of Roderick Usher, Nicolas Medina, and the evil Prince Prospero. Around the same time, he discovered the classic Universal monsters on television. After watching Dracula, he rode his bike to Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City and sat beside Bela Lugosi’s grave, remembering the dead man’s immortal words: “To die . . . to be truly dead . . . that must be glorious.”
One week after that first conversation, Tom and I sat down in my Studio City apartment and recorded an interview for Nightmares in Red, White and Blue. We talked for more than two hours, until the tape ran out. Afterwards, I wanted to keep going . . . not just to hear Tom’s thoughts on horror movies, but to hear more about his life, which sounded fantastic enough to be its own movie. In the days that followed, I realized that Tom McLoughlin is living proof that Hollywood myths can profoundly shape a person’s life, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
Before he was a filmmaker, McLoughlin was a singer in a rock ’n’ roll band that played regularly on the Sunset Strip in the late ’60s, opening for classic rock bands like The Doors, The Animals, and Chicago Transit Authority. When the music died, he went to Paris and studied mime with the legendary Marcel Marceau. When he returned to Los Angeles, he tried his luck at acting, and slowly worked toward his ultimate goal of becoming a director. Along the way, he crossed paths with countless legends: Woody Allen, Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, John Frankenheimer, and Frank Capra, who became a personal mentor. All of this happened before he made his first film.
McLoughlin’s life and career are nothing if not eclectic, but his stories—fiction and nonfiction alike—are bound together by an unyielding sense of adventure and whimsy. In Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives!, a cemetery caretaker discovers an open grave and an empty coffin. Believing it to be the work of teenage pranksters, he grumbles something about “damn kids”—then promptly breaks the fourth wall, turns to the moviegoing audience and quips, “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” It’s an amusing self-incrimination.
This book is the outcome of the ten lengthy interviews conducted in the fall of 2008, through which I tried to glean as much as I could about the filmmaker’s creative process. I have always believed that true creativity is based on a subtle dialogue between everyday life and art, and McLoughlin’s answers consistently reinforced this idea. His movies have drawn heavily on his early childhood influences, from Charlie Chaplin to Famous Monsters of Filmland. Likewise, his adult relationships with friends and family have played a major role in his fiction. In 1990, while McLoughlin was directing Stephen King’s Sometimes They Come Back—a film about letting go of the past and facing the future—his father died and his daughter was born. This was a turning point in his career as well as in his personal life.
Over the course of the following decade, he took his wife Nancy and two young children with him on every shoot. Nancy often appeared in supporting roles, while Shane and Hannah made frequent cameos and helped with production. Each film was a family affair, and the director’s real-world experiences as a father and husband continually found their way onscreen, in a succession of films about family dynamics.
In 1993, McLoughlin directed two back-to-back films about mental instability. He describes A Murder of Innocence, based on the true story of spree killer Laurie Dann, as a reflection of the “dark side” of his mother’s illness. The Yarn Princess, a story about single mother with mental deficiencies, is a rumination on the qualities that made his mother such a wonderful caregiver. Similarly, The Lies Boys Tell (1994) provided McLoughlin with an opportunity to eulogize his father.
The filmmaker turned his focus toward young children at a time when he was re-experiencing childhood from an adult perspective. He was interested in exploring both the dark side of those formative years, starting with Journey and The Turn of the Screw (both 1995) and culminating with The Unsaid (2001), as well as the light side, in Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997) and the surprisingly ethereal Murder in Greenwich (2002). As his own children got older and entered high school, so did the characters in his films. In 2004, McLoughlin kicked off a series of Lifetime movies about teenagers struggling to find their places in the world: She’s Too Young (2004), Odd Girl Out (2005), Cyber Seduction: His Secret Life (2005), Not Like Everyone Else (2006), and Fab Five: The Texas Cheerleader Scandal (2008).
On the verge of his fourth decade as a filmmaker, McLoughlin is trending toward more socially-conscious films. D.C. Sniper: 23 Days of Fear (2003) and Not Like Everyone Else are harrowing reflections of post-9/11 America. The Staircase Murders (2007) and The Wronged Man (2009) are unsettling depictions of contemporary crime and punishment. As always, the filmmaker’s focus remains on the characters because, as his mentor Frank Capra taught him, movies are a people-to-people medium.
The director’s first responsibility is to empathize with his characters (even the most reprehensible ones) and to understand their thoughts and motivations. That’s how McLoughlin has established personal connections with nearly all of the stories he’s told, and that is why he’s a filmmaker worth studying. The best filmmakers comprehend our everyday hopes and our fears, our trials and our triumphs, and show them to us through the magic of the movies. That has been—and continues to be—the story of Tom McLoughlin’s life. 

 If you still need convincing, The Modest Proposal e-journal previewed a chapter of the book (dealing with Tom's experiences making the Stephen King adaptation Sometimes They Come Back).  You can read the preview HERE.  

Or you can order the book!  It is available direct from the publisher, or via Amazon (including Kindle) or Barnes & Noble