Four Past Midnight: novellas

burning gap at 12:04 on clock face marks 4 past midnight
It’s horrors time.

Four Past Midnight is a set of four Stephen King novellas in a single wrapper, each with a different way of scaring readers.

The first novella, “The Langoliers,” takes a science fiction approach. In it, 11 passengers on a flight from L.A. to Boston wake to find they’ve slipped into a people-less world where they are the likely next victims of some unseen menace eating its way across America.

In the “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” a novelist is menaced by someone who claims the novelist stole his story.

“The Library Policeman” turns a child’s fear of what will happen if library books aren’t returned on time into a tale of a real monster who sexually abuses children while maintaining the guise of something other-worldly.

“The Sun Dog” is a tale of technology: A Polaroid camera takes photographs of objects that aren’t visible to the naked eye.

King is at his best in the stories that open with situations that make adult readers uncomfortable. “Secret Window” revolves around a perennial problem for fiction writers: Is their work really original? The “Library” story opens with a man who is picked at the last minute to give a speech to Rotary and has to ask the librarian for help.

Four Past Midnight by Stephen King
Viking, ©1990. 763 p.
1990 bestseller #2; my grade: C+

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

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

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 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

 

Hound of the Baskervilles Sniffs Out Wide Audience

When Sir Charles is found dead outside Baskerville Hall, his doctor notices dog tracks near the body. Locals recall the legend of the huge hound who kills Baskervilles who venture onto the moors at night.

Sherlock Holmes discovers the new lord, Sir Henry, is being watched. Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Devonshire with orders to report regularly and not to let Sir Henry wander out alone.

When Sir Henry falls for the sister of a local naturalist, Holmes finds Sir Henry prefers her company to his, which makes being a body-guard difficult.

Of all the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about Sherlock Holmes, only The Hound of the Baskervilles is achieved bestseller status in its day. Oddly enough, it’s a story in which Holmes is mostly off stage.

What is on stage is the atmosphere. The moors are inhospitable, sucking to their deaths any unwary traveler who misses his footing in the fog. Baskerville Hall is a gloomy place of creaky floors and lugubrious ancestral portraits. And with an escaped convict on the loose, even Watson is spooked when he hears the howl of a hound at night.

Just as in 1902, The Hound‘s mix of mystery, romance, and the supernatural will appeal to a diverse audience today.

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Arthur Conan Doyle
1902 Bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg ebook #2852
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni