Hannibal by Thomas Harris

detail from ancient carving: dragon swallowing a man
The dragon has a mouthful.

Thomas Harris’s Hannibal is a Stephen King-like thriller without any supernatural effects.

The story opens with FBI agent Clarice Starling being suspended for an attempted drug arrest that resulted in five deaths, including that of a woman holding a baby, all captured by a TV crew tipped off by insiders.

While she’s suspended, Starling gets a letter from murderer Dr. Hannibal Leeter, who she interviewed in a hospital for the criminally insane before his escape seven years earlier. He’s never been found.

Starling begins looking for Hannibal, whose gruesome killings are at odd with his expensive tastes in food, wines, and the fine arts.

Unknown to her, Hannibal’s sixth victim, the only one who survived, is also looking for him. Mason Verger, head of a meatpacking empire, wants to see Hannibal suffer—literally—for turning him into an invalid. His body-builder sister has her own agenda that will require her brother’s presence for only a few minutes.

While Sterling’s investigation is being sabotaged by political considerations and male egos, Hannibal is pleasantly employed as a museum curator in Italy, under the name Dr. Fell.

Just when readers wonder how all these multiple threads will ever be resolved, Harris pulls out a surprising yet perfectly prepared final chapter.

Hannibal by Thomas Harris
Delacorte. ©1999. 486 p.
1999 bestseller #2; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Paradise by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s Paradise is set in 1976 in, Ruby, Oklahoma, “a backward noplace ruled by men whose power to control was out of control and who had the nerve to say who could live and who not and where.”

Refused admission to other all-black communities because of their darker skins and threatened by white supremacists after WWII, a couple dozen families established Ruby 17 miles from the nearest building in which Catholic nuns ran a school for Indian children. Ruby’s settlers called it “the Convent.”

As Paradise opens, the school is closed and the sisters of working age reassigned elsewhere, but the Convent’s central-nowhere location on an East-West highway continues to make it a stopping place for young women running from something. The way they dress, their language, their music, their attitudes shock most of Ruby’s residents.

Before long rumors start to circulate that those strange women are doing evil things at the Convent.

Stephen King would have that into a terrifying tale with an unambiguous message. Instead of a story that readers can understand on one reading, Morrison tangled it into literary fiction suited to discussion by post-menopausal women in monthly book clubs.

Black dust jacket calls attention to author, not the story

Paradise by Toni Morrison
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1998. 318 p.
1998 bestseller #9; my grade: B

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Bag of Bones

In front of idyllic lake house, a woman screams
The house is Sara Laughs.

Bag of Bones is a Stephen King thriller in which, as in many of his other novels, layers supernatural horror over human horrors.

The story is narrated by Mike Noonan, a novelist who hasn’t put pixels on his word processor since his wife died four years before.

That would have been enough material for an Edith Wharton novel.

Mike goes to their summer home, Sara Laughs, on Dark Score Lake in Castle Rock, Maine, after a series of vivid nightmares convince him he has to come to grips with his loss.

He finds the village is under the thumb of ruthless millionaire who has returned to his roots. Max Devore’s aim is to wrest custody of his three-year-old granddaughter from her mother. Mike falls instantly in love with both Kyra and her sexy mother.

That would have been enough for a John Grisham novel.

Mike also picks up some bad vibes about local history from the jazz age that nobody will talk about.

That would have been enough for a Toni Morrison novel.

King takes what is at least three novels’ worth of material and adds supernatural elements to them.  It’s overkill. People and history are sufficiently horrific. Readers don’t need ghosts, too.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King
Scribner. ©1998. 529 p.
1998 bestseller #3; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Regulators by Richard Bachman

house-sized cowboy with drawn gun peers over roof of suburban homeThe Regulators, which Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, is an unnecessary companion to King’s novel Desperation, which he also published in 1996.

The Regulators opens on a hot day in July, 1996. A teenager is delivering the Shopper on Poplar Street in Wentworth, Ohio, when a red van rolls into town. Within minutes, paperboy Cary Ripton and a German Shepherd are dead at the hands of a shooter inside the van.

An autistic child, brainwashed by what he sees on TV, becomes central to the mayhem that’s about to unfold as residents of Poplar Street react to the senseless shootings.

Before the day is out, some residents of Poplar Street get killed.

Some find they have strengths they never knew they possessed.

All see and hear things that should change their lives forever if any of the characters were a believable person.

Bachman/King juggles bits pieces of fantasy and naturally occurring elements of human nature, keeping enough balls in the air to distract readers from paying attention to any one of them, and the insertion of news clippings, letters, and diary entries make The Regulators feel like notes for a novel rather than a finished work.

Read Desperation instead.

The Regulators by Richard Bachman [Stephen King]
Penguin Books. ©1996. 475 p.
1996 bestseller #5. My grade: D

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Desperation by Stephen King

 child’s doll lies among rattlesnakes, coyotes, and vultures on the street of a desert town
Desperation, NV, is a spooky place.

In his 1996 bestseller Desperation, Stephen King delivers terror wrapped in religion.

The novel is about a handful of people who get stranded in Desperation, NV, a small, mining town totally off the grid in the middle of the desert.

The stranded travelers are the Jacksons, driving the husband’s sister’s car home to New York City; the Carver’s with their two children in an RV heading to Lake Tahoe; a has-been writer riding cross-country on a Harley looking for material for a new book; and the writer’s keeper, following in a truck with skinny, female hitchhiker.

All of the travelers get stopped by Collie Entragian, a supersized cop whose behavior is first odd, then threatening. Most of the residents of Desperation are already dead, murdered by Entragian.

Desperation’s plot mixes grisly details about the destruction caused by the mining industry and people’s natural stupidity with almost equally horrifying supernatural elements.

The only person who knows what how to respond to all the bad stuff is 11-year-old David Carver. He believes in praying to God and doing whatever God tells him. The adults look to David for direction.

King gets religion right: Having faith isn’t the same thing as having all the answers.

Desperation by Stephen King
Viking. ©1996. 690 p.
1996 bestseller #3; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Rose Madder by Stephen King

An old oil painting wrapped in ripped brown paper.
A romance starts with an oil painting

Stephen King begins Rose Madder at the end of a marriage.

One day Rosie Daniels can’t take any more. She takes her husband’s debit card, painfully walks to the bus station, and rides away from the husband who repeatedly had put her in the hospital.

Her husband, Norman, is a cop. He’s really good at finding people.

Rosie gets off the bus in a city in the next time zone. She has no family, no friends, no job skills.

She has to find a way to survive until she can build a new life for herself.

Rosie finds friends, work, and a decent guy at supersonic speed.

That story alone would be enough for most novelists to tackle. As he did in his 1994 novel Gerald’s Game, King makes his heroine’s situation worse by bringing in a supernatural element. In Rose Madder, that element is a painting of another world into which Rosie is literally drawn.

Had King confined his tale to the real world, the story would have been terrifying.  The addition of the supernatural dilutes the story’s impact with fake gore and glosses over the long-term physical and psychological effects of abuse.

Rose Madder does no favors to readers or abused women.

Rose Madder by Stephen King
Viking. ©1995. 420 p.
1995 bestseller #7; my grade: B-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Insomnia by Stephen King

Close-up black-and-white drawing of Ralph Roberts' face
                      Ralph Roberts, insomniac as drawn by David Johnson

As he so often does, in Insomnia Stephen King takes some everyday experience and turns it into something extra-ordinary.

As the story opens, retiree Ralph Roberts hasn’t been sleeping well since his wife died. He walks around Derry, ME, talking with other old-timers and trying to get tired enough to sleep.

On one of those walks, he’s shocked to see Ed Deepneau almost come to blows with another driver over a minor collision that Ed caused. Ralph knows Ed as “one of the kindest, most civil young men” he’d ever met. Ralph and his late wife had been fond of Ed’s wife, Helen, and their baby, Natalie as well. In his waking hours—of which he has more every week—Ralph tries to puzzle out what’s wrong with Ed.

When Ralph sees Helen in the convenience story parking lot, beaten, bloodied, staggering, holding her screaming infant, and muttering, “Why didn’t he stop this time?” Ralph calls the Derry police.

creature that looks like a little bald doctor carrying big scissors
Those scissors look sinister.

The next 625 pages relate the horrific consequences of that call.

The supernatural elements of King’s story are less frightening than the human horrors. And issues King raises about human behavior and human responsibility still demand attention, regardless of whether you like King’s novel.

Insomnia by Stephen King
David Johnson, illustrator
Viking. ©1994. 787 p.
1994 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Lasher by Anne Rice

female figure floats in sheer netting
Is it witch or woman?

Fans of Anne Rice will be delighted with Lasher, a convoluted tale about the spirit who wants to be flesh. The novel features characters from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and her Mayfair Witches series.

In Lasher, a couple who each have an extra set of chromosomes mate, producing a non-human creature. The spirit Lasher enters the embryo which develops physically at super-human speed, leaving its mother hovering on the brink of death. Lasher’s goal is to breed a race of giants who will by their sheer numbers drive mortals from the earth.

From the time of Henry VIII, an organization called the Talamasca has investigated supernatural phenomena. It knows almost as much about Lasher and he knows of himself.

The Mayfair family, whose queen Rowan Mayfair is mother to the Lasher creature, want it destroyed for their own survival. The Talamasca want it preserved for their own study.

Those who haven’t read earlier novels in those sets may be baffled by the first 300 or so pages of Lasher. Rice tells the tale from multiple viewpoints coming from multiple locations over centuries. Some of the names are quite similar, adding to the confusion.

Rice’s story is all story. When you close the book, there’s nothing left.

Lasher by Anne Rice
Part of the Mayfair Witches series
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1993. 578 p.
1993 bestseller #10; my grade: C

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Tale of the Body Thief

Photo of sculpture “The Rape of the Sabines”
Lovely art, ugly tale.

The Tale of the Body Thief is told by Vampire Lestat, the self-described “James Bond of vampires,” formerly “a smash…as a rock singer.”

Lestat has the blues. The world has deteriorated since he became a vampire: Bloodsucking isn’t what it used to be.

So, when Lestat is approached by a handsome male figure, he wishes he were human again. The animating force inside that body is Raglan James, a telepathically skilled con artist who stole it.

James offers to trade bodies with Lestat for $10 million. Both of Lestat’s friends tell him not to risk it, but he ignores them.

Lestat slips inside the young male body and James goes off inside Lestat’s vampire body.

Lestat finds being human isn’t at all what he expected. He also finds that a deal that sounds too good to be true probably is.

The novel ends predictably, gruesomely.

Anne Rice is a fine writer. She not only has a vivid imagination, but the discipline to confine her imagination within the constrictions set by her characterizations. Her philosophical and theological musings are stimulating. I’d love to see what Rice could do if she applied her talent subjects worthy of her talent.

Vampires just aren’t important enough.

The Tale of the Body Thief by Anne Rice
Book 4 of The Vampire Chronicles
Alfred A. Knopf. ©1992. 430 p.
1992 bestseller #7; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Needful Things (novel)

Needful Tings is open at dusk in Castle Rock business districtStephen King’s 1991 bestseller Needful Things is set in Castle Rock, Maine as were his earlier bestsellers like Cujo, The Dead Zone, and The Tommyknockers. Some of the characters from those novels reappear here.

Castle Rock residents are surprised to see a new store called Needful Things preparing to open. Owner Leland Gaunt is a stranger to town. His business practices are odd. He opens his store before he has enough merchandise to fill his cases, and sidesteps questions about his background.

Gaunt has an instinct for knowing exactly what each customer most desires, and—most peculiar of all—Gaunt typically lets customers set their own price. All Gaunt asks in addition is that each buyer play a harmless trick of his devising on someone in town.

Even Gaunt’s most enthusiastic customers sense something sinister about him.

Once they secure their treasure, each buyer becomes paranoid, totally obsessed with the idea that someone else is plotting to steal their treasure away. Customers take steps to protect their things.

Needful Things is usually categorized as horror, but the book overall reads like a parable about human nature. Perhaps that explains why the book is still worth reading while the film version, which concentrated on horror, fizzled.

Needful Things by Stephen King
Bill Russell, Illus.
Viking. ©1991. 690 p.
1991 bestseller #3; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni