The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

back of figure with baseball cap and backpack in dark, wooded area
There’s a red B on Trisha’s cap.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is Trisha McFarland, 9, the daughter of divorced parents and sister to a 13-year-old brother who epitomizes everything that’s obnoxious about teenagers.

One Saturday, Trisha’s mother takes both children on hike along the Appalachian Trail. Near a fork in the trail, Trisha stops to pee while her mother and brother go ahead, arguing.

Afterward, instead of returning to the trail, Trisha cuts across the woods to join them. She has no watch, so she can’t tell how long she has walked before she realizes she’s lost.

Trisha’s parents never taught her that when you’re lost, you should behave like a good dog: Stay. Trisha keeps moving, making choices that lessen her chances of being found. She is followed by what might be a monster, or her vivid imagination.

Days, she carries on imaginary conversations with Tom Gordon to keep up her morale. Nights, she listens to the Boston Red Sox games on her Walkman until sleep comes.

Aside from the fact that Stephen King makes Trisha sound 19 instead of 9, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a satisfying 20th century version of a fairy tale: A dark, harrowing experience that, despite its happy outcome, will induce nightmares.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
By Stephen King
Scribner. ©1999. 224 p.
1999 bestseller #8; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Hearts in Atlantis

ost cat poster and peace sign on utility pole figure in the plot
Bad guys post “lost” messages.

Hearts in Atlantis is probably the best Stephen King bestseller people will never read. Its five interconnected stories probe 1960s history as experienced in small towns by baby boomer Americans who remember the draft.

“Low Men in Yellow Coats” is about Bobby Garfield, age 11 in 1960, being raised by his widowed mother in Harwich, Connecticut. A man who moves into the third-floor apartment introduces Bobby to The Lord of the Flies. His summer experiences teach him that evil isn’t confined to novels.

Next, the title story is about college kids—Bobby isn’t among them—who get hooked on playing the card game Hearts for a nickel-a-point, oblivious to the Vietnam War and how academic failure could kill them. The main character in this story straightens out only after watching—and laughing at—a disabled student who risked expulsion and possibly death from exposure to hang an antiwar message decorated with peace signs on a campus building.

A final three stories explore the post-war experiences of Bobby and other boys from Harwich.

Millennials and Generation Z readers, if they know what books are, won’t read Hearts in Atlantis: There’s no supernatural here. All the terrifying elements are expressions of human nature.

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
Scribner. ©1999. 523 p.
1999 bestseller #6; my grade: A

©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

Nightmares & Dreamscapes

scarecrow in middle of road at nightNightmares & Dreamscapes includes short stories that range from merely quirky to seriously spooky, a nonfiction piece about baseball, a teleplay, and notes about pieces’ origins, all by that master of the macabre, Stephen King.

My favorites of King’s works are his stories in which the horror comes out of people rather than out of the drains or the ether. Leading the lineup of those is “Dolan’s Cadillac,”  a story about an elementary teacher who gets revenge on a gangster for killing his wife through an elaborate ruse that lures the villain to drive his Cadillac into hole sized just large enough for the car to fit in without allowing the passengers to escape.

Readers with a taste for the occult should read “The Night Flier,” in which a writer for a sleazy rag investigates a series of deaths in small East Coast towns with small airports. The journalistic elements in the tale were enough to keep my attention.

“The Doctor’s Case.” a Sherlockian spoof in which Watson solves the mystery, and  “Umney’s Last Case,” a take-off on Raymond Chandler novels, are simply fun.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes has something readers of every taste to like as well as some things to dislike.

Enjoy what pleases you.

Nightmares & Dreamscapes
by Stephen King
Viking. ©1993. 816 p.
1993 bestseller #5; my grade: B+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King

 Handcuffs hanging on a bedpost
Those are handcuffs on the bedpost.

Lawyer Gerald Burlingame enjoys bondage games with his wife. As Gerald’s Game opens, the fun as worn off: Jessie is handcuffed to a bed headboard in their rural Maine summer home.

Her situation triggers dark, childhood memories. She kicks out, knocking the breath out of Gerald and triggering a coronary. Gerald is dead within minutes.

Jessie is trapped.

She can’t call for help: There’s no one to hear. She can’t reach the phone. She can’t reach the handcuff keys.

All she can do is listen to the outside door bang and relive the horrors of July 20, 1963, the day she watched the solar eclipse with her father.

Jessie is finally freed, but her misery doesn’t end there. She still has repressed childhood psychological problems as well as some memories of her 28 hours of captivity that she has to deal with. She addresses her residual problems by writing about them in a letter to a friend mentioned in the bondage chapters.

What Stephen King delivers in Gerald’s Game is a terrifying tale: It’s much easier to dismiss as fiction a supernatural evil thing than to ignore the evil within people.

Fortunately, Jessie’s letter shows not all people are rotten and some are quite decent.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking. ©1992. 332 p.
1992 bestseller #3; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Dolores Claiborne, the novel

Woman peers down into well as the sun goes into full eclipse above her
It’s a solar eclipse.

Dolores Claiborne is a Stephen King novel for people who think they don’t like Stephen King novels. Its horrors all have human origins and no good deed goes unpunished.

On page one, Dolores Claiborne has already been advised of her rights. Dolores is thought to have killed her wealthy employer, Vera Donovan, for whom Dolores had worked since her teens.

The rest of the novel is a transcript of what Dolores tells to  the police chief and his deputy at Little Tall Island, Maine, and their stenographer.

Dolores freely admits that she killed her husband 29 years earlier during a solar eclipse. Although most people suspected her, no one could prove she did it.

Dolores says she didn’t kill Vera, although sometimes she would have liked to. Vera was a bossy, nasty, bitchy woman. After Dolores’s husband’s death, even her children didn’t want to live at home.

Dolores put up with Vera because there were few jobs available and she was used to Vera’s habits.  Over the years, the women battled their own demons and each other, finally seeming to reach an armed truce.

When Vera died, she left her estate, valued at $30 million, to Dolores, which is why Dolores is being questioned.

Dolores says, “Most of what bein human’s about is makin choices and payin the bills when they come due.”

Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King
Bill Russell, illustrator
Viking, ©1992. 305 p.
1992 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni