Christine: Horror on wheels

Christine's logo plate suggests speeding car
The hood ornament is a human skull

The eponymous character of Stephen King’s 1983 bestseller, Christine, is a 1958 Plymouth who will be responsible for 10 murders before the novel ends.

In 1978 in a town outside Pittsburgh, Arnie Cunningham—a smart kid with pimples and a passion for auto mechanics which his college professor parents reluctantly tolerate—sees a car he is determined to have.

The car, in his best friend’s opinion, is a pile of junk, and the guy selling her, Roland LeBay, is no better.

From the day he makes his down payment, Arnie’s obsession with Christine alienates him from his family and his only real friend, Dennis, the story’s narrator.

Dennis begins to notice odd things. He suspects Arnie is in some kind of trouble, what kind he doesn’t know.

King’s characters are ordinary people who for the most part do predictably ordinary things, which makes the dark forces that seep out of his pages seem especially sinister.

King has a special knack for depicting ’60s and ’70s teens: Their slang, snacks, school life, teachers all are spot on.

If you don’t care for King’s sinister side, you could read the novel as an inquiry into the century-old question: What is it with guys and their cars anyway?

Stephen King sits atop a car like Christine in photo of back dust jacket of Christine.

Christine by Stephen King
Viking Press. ©1983. 526 p.
1983 bestseller #5. My grade: B

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Pet Sematary explores attitudes toward death

Snarling cat below a dark picture of man holding a body in a cemetery.
Above and behind the cat face, a man holds a human body

Although Stephen King is associated with supernatural horror stories, in my opinion King’s really frightening stories are those in which the action centers around people’s all-too-human characteristics.

Pet Sematary is one of those stories.

The story opens with the arrival of Louis Creed and his family in the small community of Ludlow, Maine.

Creed, a medical doctor, has been hired to run the University of Maine student health program. Wife Rachel will have her hands full at home: Gage is still in diapers, Ellie will begin kindergarten in a few weeks, and Ellie’s cat, Church (short for Winston Churchill) has yowled nonstop the entire three-day car trip from Chicago.

The Creeds get a warm welcome from their elderly neighbors across Route 15, Jed and Norma Crandall.

Jed takes the family on a hike up a path on their property. It leads to pet burial ground created years before by local kids—they named it “Pet Sematary”—and still maintained by them.

Rachel’s reaction is bizarre: She doesn’t want her children to even hear the word death.

In the rest of the novel, King explores attitudes toward death.

And horrible things happen because of human weakness.

That’s what’s most frightening.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King
Doubleday. [Book Club ed.] ©1983. 374 p.
1983 bestseller #3. My grade: B+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Different Seasons: 4 novellas

If you think Stephen King is a one-track writer, the four novellas in Different Seasons will change your mind. Each of them deserves a review of its own.

To package the four novellas in a single cover, the stories are linked by what might be thought of as chapter headers that play off the names of the seasons.

A circle divided into quarters, each quarter containing an icon for one of the seasons
Mysterious, almost romantic images

“Hope Springs Eternal” is the chapter heading for Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a story about a man unjustly imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit and his eventual escape.

Many readers will recognize it from the 1994 film version, Shawshank Redemption.

“Summer of Corruption” is the header for Apt Pupil, a horrific tale about a 13-year-old who becomes fascinated by World War II concentration camps. One day Todd sees a old man who resembles an SS officer who ran one of the camps and pays him a visit.

Cover art on black background is a circle split into quarters containing icons for the seasons.“Fall from Innocence” is the header for The Body, a story in which four young boys go to see the body of a boy their own age who’d been reported missing in the Maine woods.

“A Winter’s Tale” is the header for The Breathing Method, a story told by a doctor about an unwed woman determined to have her baby.

Different Seasons by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1982. 527 p.
1982 bestseller #7. My grade: B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Third Deadly Sin: A twist on”Son of Sam” killer

The Third Deadly Sin is part police procedural, part psychological novel dredging up memories of the “Son of Sam” killings in New York City in the summer of 1976.

Knife blade drips blood into a white rose.
Knife and rose: symbols of purity and murder

Two men have already been murdered when Abner Boone has a chat with retired cop Edward X. Delaney at the suggestion of the acting Deputy Commissioner.

Boone says someone has killed two men at midtown hotels in a month, slitting their throats and mutilating their genitals, before disappearing without a trace.

Delaney agrees to act as an unofficial sounding board for investigators.

Delaney’s wife is active in the feminist movement. Their discussions about women’s roles makes him wonder if the killer could possibly be a woman. His wife unequivocally says that’s impossible.

Statistics show almost no random killers are female.

Delaney still wonders, especially when a third killing shows the time period between murders corresponds to a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Novelist Lawrence Sanders divides his attention between the mousy, back office clerical worker with a sharp Swiss Army Knife and Delaney.

Sanders sets each discussion of the investigation one murder behind what readers know has happened.  That may show how slow police work is, but it’s confusing to readers.

Despite that flaw, The Third Deadly Sin is fascinating reading.

The Third Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders
G. P. Putnam. © 1981.  444 p.
1981 bestseller #8. My grade B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Goodbye, Janette. Sorry to have read you.

name Harold Robbins in large red type, title smaller, both superimposed on woman’s faceHarold Robbins’ 1981 bestseller Goodbye, Janette is a new low for a writer I thought couldn’t get any worse.

The book opens as the Allies are about to take over occupied France. A French collaborator named Maurice and a German general are preparing to escape separately.

They have put Jewish companies they operated during the war in the name of the beautiful Polish woman the General rescued from the concentration camps.

By convincing his uncle that he worked undercover for the Allies, Maurice will assure he inherits the title Marquis be Beauville. Then he’ll marry Tanya, giving her and her daughter, Janette, French citizenship. The General will join his family in South America.

When life returns to normal, all parties will profit.

That might have become a good novel.

Robbins turns it into a visual encyclopedia of sexual perversions.

After literally taking a whipping from Maurice, Tanya outsmarts him. They remain married, live more or less under the same roof.

Tanya isn’t aware that Maurice has started molesting Janette until she becomes pregnant after a week of being raped and beaten by Maurice and his male lover.

All that happens in the first third of the novel.

It goes downhill from there.

Don’t even say hello to Goodbye, Janette.

Goodbye, Janette by Harold Robbins
Simon and Schuster. ©1981. 382 p.
1981 bestseller #7. My grade: D-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Cujo: A shaggy dog story gone bad

The front dust jacket of Stephen King’s Cujo puts the story in one image: It’s about a vicious dog.

Cujo cover features a snarling, slobbering rabid dog
Where’s Atticus Finch when you need him?

At nearly 200-pounds, Cujo, a Saint Bernard, is a gentle giant.

Out chasing a rabbit, Cujo is bitten by a rabid bat. The rabies virus turns Cujo into a killer.

King pads his page count with some subplots , all of which are resolved by the dog’s death.

King has one subplot about four-year-old boy who sees monsters in his closet. Tad’s terror is so real that his father starts imagining he see things in the closet, too.

That’s scary.

Tad’s mother, afraid of losing her youth in backwoods Maine, has had a brief fling with a transient poet/cabinet maker. When she breaks it off, he sends her husband a letter about her infidelity, then trashes her home.

The poet/cabinet maker is scary.

Cujo’s owner, 10-year-old Brett Chamber, and his mother are away visiting her sister. Charity Camber is debating whether to divorce her husband. Joe Chamber is as nasty a redneck as ever beat a wife.

Joe Chamber is scary.

On the whole, I found the men in the novel far more frightening than the dog.

Maybe you just had to be there.

Cujo by Stephen King
Viking Press. 1981. 319 p.
1981 bestseller #3. My grade: C+

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Firestarter is a nonstarter

.Firestarter cover: gold type on basic black.
This copy of Firestarter had no dust jacket.

On the opening page of Stephen King’s Firestarter,  Andy McGee and his daughter, Charlie, 7, are rushing up Third Avenue in New York City at 5:30 p.m.

A green car is following them.

Andy grabs a cab, tells the driver he’ll give him $500 to take them to Albany airport. Andy gives him a dollar, which the cabby accepts as a $500 bill, and they’re off.

The pair have escaped for the time being.

Unlike King’s 1979 bestseller The Dead Zone, which develops from a single premise that readers must take on faith, Firestarter requires readers to accept a whole series of assertions each of which requires a significant suspension of disbelief.

 Girl's haunting eyes seen behind a flame of fire.
Dust jacket that was missing from my copy of Firestarter

Readers learn, for example, that Andy and his wife developed psychic powers after participating in a government-funded test of a hallucinogenic drug while they were college students.

From infancy, Charlie displayed pyrokinetic* power.

The government is now after Charlie.

The feds apparently want to use her instead of nuclear weapons.

Charlie, apart from her psychic powers, acts more like of 21 than a child of 7.

All those elements strain credulity.

But mainly I can’t believe a New York cabbie mistaking a $1 bill for a $500 bill under any amount of psychic push.

Firestarter by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1980. 428 p.
1980 bestseller #5. My grade: B-

*Stephen King coined the word pyrokenetic.

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Fan Club: Another name for rape

Depending on your gender, Irving Wallace’s The Fan Club is either about the ultimate high or the worst degradation.

The Fan Club acts out its fantasies.

An interview fabricated by Sharon Field’s PR agent reveals Hollywood’s “Love Goddess” longs for an ordinary man to love her.

Adam Malone, a part-time grocery clerk and wannabe writer, enlists three other  equally ordinary, and equally gullible men to kidnap Sharon believing if she meets them, she’ll willingly have sex with them.

The four agree if Sharon won’t willingly participate, they’ll release her.

Once they have Sharon in an isolated mountain cabin, Adam’s quixotism is trampled by his three accomplices’ sex drive.

The men tie her down and rape her.

One beats her.

Using her dramatic skills and retentive memory, Sharon fights back.

A less skillful writer than Wallace would have reduced the kidnappers to stereotypes. Wallace makes each of them distinct individuals whose behavior is as plausible as it is despicable.

He also makes clear that when sex is used to sell entertainment, the entertainment industry must accept some blame if people believe the stories they’re told.

Wallace blows his superb plotting with what may possibly be the most implausible ending on any 20th century novel.

The Fan Club by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster [1974] 511 p.
1974 bestseller #10. My grade: B.

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Exorcist leaves scares for the silver screen

The Exorcist is every parent’s nightmare: Losing a child to a horrible, un-diagnosed disorder that changes the child into a murderous monster while it kills her.

A blurry face on front cover of The Exorcist.
Nothing is clear in The Exorcist, not even the victim herself.

A divorced actress, Chris MacNeil, distracted by work, notices odd sounds in her apartment before she notices odd behavior in her 11-year-old daughter.

When Chris finally consults a doctor, he can find nothing to account for Regan’s sudden personality change.

Chris turns to a Jesuit priest who is also a psychiatrist. Father Karras knows the church is skeptical of reports of possession and unlikely to authorize an exorcism without very good reasons.

Dust jacket notes say William P. Blatty read every work in English on the subject of exorcism before writing The Exorcist. That’s how the novel reads: like research notes propped up by cardboard figures.

The novel is gruesome but not terrifying. To create terror, readers must see the victims as people like themselves, but Blatty’s characters lack personalities.

Subplots about a creepy butler with a drug-addicted daughter and a Columbo-styled homicide detective pad the novel without adding to the main story.

Like Love Story, The Exorcist needs to be acted out, and like that novel’s author, Blatty was a screenwriter before this, his first novel.

The Exorcist by William P. Blatty
Harper & Row, ©1971. 340 p.
1971 bestseller #2. My grade: C

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Rosemary’s Baby: Infantile horror novel

Everybody over 40 knows what Rosemary’s Baby is about, just as they know Moby Dick is about a guy hunting a white whale.

creepy Victorian house on*Rosemary's Baby* book jacket

The difference between Ira Levin’s novel and Herman Melville’s is that there’s more to Moby Dick what everybody knows.


Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Random House, 1967, 245 p. 1967 bestseller # 7. My grade: C.

The story is about Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse, a young couple who move into a New York City apartment house noted for its Victorian architecture, its history of unsavory residents, and its unusually high rate of suicides.

Guy goes to work—he’s an actor who works mainly in commercials —and Rosemary putters at decorating, always with an eye to how the rooms can be rearranged to accommodate a baby.

After the inexplicable suicide of young woman who lived with the older couple next door, Rosemary and Guy get sucked into friendship with them.

Strange things start to happen.

Ira Levin, a master of the art of plotting, keeps the story moving briskly.

Levin doesn’t attempt to flesh out any of the characters beyond their initial descriptions. Nobody in the book learns anything or changes in any way.

The characters are dummies in an all-dummy cast which, in horror novels, may be the proper authorial pose.

Sympathy is wasted on dummies.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni