Stephen King

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

If you’ve dismissed Stephen King as ‘just a horror writer’ but you like a good thriller or a tense detective novel, swallow your preconceptions and give Mr Mercedes a go. There’s less gore than in many a contemporary crime novel, and not the slightest hint of the supernatural. I’ve been a Stephen King fan for nearly twenty-five years (though I do think he’s had a few sub-standard offerings over the years, everyone has off-days after all) and I think this is up there with his best.

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective, lonely and bored without the job that made up his entire adult life. Mr Mercedes is the one that got away, the last big case of Bill’s career. We as readers know his identity from the start (from the synopsis on the back cover, in fact) and we have to sit back and bite our nails as Bill Hodges is (unofficially) back on the case, hunting the guy down as he prepares to strike again. He’s not a policeman any more, he doesn’t even have a private detective licence, all he can do is use his brains and all those years of experience, and sail as close to the wind as he needs to.

As this was Stephen King, the characters felt like real people, the book itself was easy to read, and the cranking of tension was spot on. The only bit I didn’t buy was a particular character having an AC/DC ringtone (same one as OneMonkey’s, in fact) – he just didn’t strike me as a metaller and it’s never explained. I think we can agree that’s a minor point though.

What struck me as particularly interesting (especially as, like I said, I’ve been reading Stephen King novels for close to a quarter of a century) was the amazing cultural disconnect I felt while I read this novel. All the other books I read last year that were wholly or partly set in America (of which there weren’t many, actually – an interesting fact in itself) were set in a historical or alternative past – I can’t think when I last read contemporary American fiction. Mainly it was the little things, characters reaching for their ‘cell’ rather than their ‘mobile’, or some TV channel or brand of beer I assume is real (because I did recognise some others) but haven’t heard of. In what version of reality is chicken, gravy, biscuits and coleslaw an acceptable meal, let alone one you would buy as the default offering in a fast food restaurant? I’m fairly sure that ‘biscuits’ in this context doesn’t mean what it means in the UK, but I honestly can’t think of any plausible definition of biscuits that would make this make sense. Why on earth is getting someone cremated (not buried) a big deal, why would you mock up a coffin to look like metal (when they’re usually wood, hence the term ‘wooden overcoat’) and is it usual for families to put corpses on display at a funeral home, where they then hold the service (rather than at a church or crematorium)? Fascinating, but oddly more foreign-feeling than all the Scandinavian crime novels I read last year.

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To adapt a mockingbird

Apparently, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was published 50 years ago this year; the BBC showed a documentary this week connected with it, which I saw part of. The presenter mentioned that he’d never watched the classic film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as he was too fond of the book. Conversely I’ve never read the book (nor have I seen the film) but I saw a spell-binding stage version starring under-rated Bradford-born actor Duncan Preston as Atticus, and I wouldn’t want to read the book now in case it tainted my memories of the play.

As with many things, I’m quite inconsistent when it comes to sampling different versions of literary works. I mentioned recently seeking out novels of TV and radio detectives I’ve enjoyed, and if I’m not doing much else I’ll usually have a listen to a radio version of the Maigret or Poirot stories I read as an adolescent. Whereas with the novels of the TV or radio detectives I’m looking for something new to widen my knowledge of them, when I listen to Maigret, Poirot or Sherlock Holmes I’m looking for something familiar and comfortable, something I can happily miss a few minutes of to go make a cup of tea.

I used to make a point of not watching adaptations of Stephen King stories I’d already read (to this day I think the only exception is The Green Mile which wasn’t one of my favourite Stephen King books anyway; I watched the film about 10 years after I’d read the novel) because those stories were so important to me I didn’t want anything spoiling them. The other way round was somehow fine: I saw Stand By Me and Maximum Overdrive before I read their written roots, and I realised that at least with the short stories the divergence between the visual and the written was great enough to allow me to separate them in my mind.

A few years ago (actually 11, I just checked) there was a high-profile film adaptation of at least part of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. Given that this is one of my absolute favourite books of all time (I say it’s a book, singular, but the edition I’ve got is 3 thick books and my dad’s edition is 12 slimmer volumes) I was curious as to how it was handled, but I knew I could never watch it as the novel itself means too much to me and no-one else’s vision could ever do it justice. Which is where more inconsistency comes in: Lord of the Rings, another of my all-time favourites (sometimes for the sake of my back I wish I carried thinner books around with me), and yet I was eager to see Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, and came away from the first film with the unsettling feeling that he’d somehow seen inside my head. I didn’t feel the same about the remaining two films but I still enjoyed them because of the way the first one made me feel, and I’m looking forward to The Hobbit.

I’m not sure what the conclusion is from all this, if indeed there is one. Maybe it’s just that I’m a contrary soul, or that I’m missing out on interpretations that would make me enjoy my favourite books all the more (the BBC presenter finally watched the Gregory Peck film and thought Peck’s delivery brought to life part of the courtroom scene that he’d always found rather flat in the book). Maybe I should stick to only one format or the other, to maximise my time for discovering new wonders.

Teenage fanclub

Iron Maiden are apparently releasing a new album, and despite having been disappointed by the last two, I know I’ll end up buying it. I do this in the same way as I continue to read each new book by Robert Rankin or Terry Pratchett (and to a lesser and slower extent Stephen King, though I think I’ve missed a couple of his out now). I can’t decide whether it stems from some kind of loyalty, or perhaps even gratitude, to those that sustained me through my teenage years (Iron Maiden and Terry Pratchett having been constants in my life for at least 18 years now, Stephen King for 16 and Robert Rankin for 12), or a hope that each of them (though wavering a little now, at least in my opinion) will hit the mark again and delight me as they once did. It could be nostalgia for lost youth. Or just that I’m always frightened I’m missing something (as my mum’s so fond of pointing out), and I don’t want the album or novel that I don’t buy to be the best they’ve done in years.

Fear as a guide to life

I let fear rule my life too often. Not just the self-preserving fear that stops me crossing the road when a bus is distantly visible down the street and may speed towards me at any time, but the fear that stops me writing. I sit frozen in front of the keyboard sometimes, not knowing where to start (or continue) a piece of writing. It’s as though the delete and backspace keys hadn’t been invented, and I get it into my head that not only will the next words I write be fixed forever, but I’ll have to show them to people. My hand hovers, I daren’t commit to a single letter: I know I’ll write something stupid or weak that will make everyone laugh. I’ve never stopped to ask myself why anyone would read it until I’m ready to pass it around, I just waste time and energy fretting over getting that perfect (or at least non-embarrassing) paragraph.

I have a fear of success too (don’t laugh, it might happen). I don’t mean a fear of being stalked by tabloid journalists because I’m a famous novelist (does that happen to writers, unless they’re known for something else already?), I mean what if some editor asks me to write a story, review, article or novel because they liked the last one I gave them. What if I then find I’ve run out of ideas (not likely, I’ve got enough in my notebook to last 2 lifetimes, it’s just a question of making something of them) or my standard’s slipped (surely OneMonkey will point this out and then pester me into writing better, he’s done it before) or I can’t complete it on time (though deadlines usually help me focus my efforts). So I’ve been procrastinating over Wasted Years, afraid that I might actually have to submit it (to an agent, like my brave friend D whose enjoyable novel for adolescents is about to go down that road?) if I finish redrafting, and I’ve been putting off contacting a magazine about book reviews in case they agree.

This week I’ve been reading On Writing by Stephen King (more of which later, I’m sure) and for no good reason (it’s not as if it’s the first place I’ve read it) I’ve decided to take on board the advice of sitting down and writing for myself, not worrying about what anyone else will think or how good it is, just getting some words on the page. Having been so tentative about the Big Finish Doctor Who story thus far (what if I write dialogue that’s more 5th doctor than 8th?) I more than doubled my wordcount in an hour tonight. Much of it will be cut, other bits will be kept but reworded, but that’s OK because no-one but me has seen what it said in the first place (and because there’s no manuscript, they never will).