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A Collective Audio Critique
Stephen King has always been a man in search of innovation. As early as 1978, he wanted to break into the world of limited editions, in that case with the original edition of The Stand. Later on, he revitalized the idea of the serial novel with his amazing The Green Mile. Lter that same year, published mirror books under both his name and the name of his pseudonym (Desperation and The Regulators.) Now, he further breaks publishing convention by releasing a new story collection ... available only on audio.
The collection is titled Blood & Smoke, referring to the fact that each of these horror tales are related in some way to the act of smoking. The fact that smoking relates only tangenially to these stories is beside the point; it makes for a great connective device. Even the packaging is in on the joke: the box the tapes (or CDs) come in is shaped like that of a cigarette box, complete with a warning label on the side reading Warning: Listening after dark may cause fear, trembling, and acute paranoia. It's humor value at its most basic, but it's still pretty fun.
King reads each of these tales himself, great news for anyone who has experienced the King audio experience before. After the fairly mediocre reading of his first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger, King somehow became an exponentially better reader. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three, The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands, Needful Things, Rose Madder (with Blair Brown), Desperation and Bag of Bones is an impressive track record. King more than lives up to his past efforts with this new recording.
As for the stories themselves:
Lunch at the Gotham Cafe
(Story review originally printed on my Six Stories page.)
A surreal, insane little story, "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe" is an excercise in lunacy. It starts off sadly, yet normally. A man named Steve Davis comes home to find his wife gone and a Dear John note on the table. He goes through a stage of depression, and abruptly decides to quit smoking. Her lawyer contacts him and sets up a lunch date -- one, which it turns out, his lawyer won't be able to attend. Waiting to go into the Gotham Cafe, he buys an umbrella he doesn't need. Then, he enters.
That's when the fun begins.
The maitre d' appears disheveled, his tie askew and a strange dried-blood stain on his shirt. After he brings Davis to his table to meet Diane and her lawyer Humboldt, he goes insane. Shouting at the top of his lungs ("YOU CAN'T BRING THAT DOG IN HERE! EEEEEEEE!"), he proceeds to hack up Humboldt. Lunacy ensues.
In the face of such behavior after the preceeding insanity, Steve begins to wonder how the maire d' went insane. He imagines a dog across from Guy's apartment, barking to no end. Afterward, he wonders how easy it might be for him to go crazy.
This is how the story ends, Steve tumbling helplessly into associative insanity. It's a strange little peice of fiction, well written and well characterized. Still, the ending leaves one feeling empty, and Diane's bizarre behavior seems a little unreal. Other than these minor flaws, this is a good story.
The number refers to a room located in a prestigious New York hotel, the Dolphin. The sequence of numbers looks innocuous enough, until you add them together and discover they equal thirteen. Your unease may grow once you realize that while room 1408 is located on the 14th floor of the Dolphin, it's really the thirteenth floor. Hotels worldwide eliminate all mention of a thirteenth floor due to superstition ... a superstition Mike Enslin should perhaps believe more in.
Enslin is a writer of "true ghost stories" books, always touching on the thrill of the supernatural tabloid America craves, but never believing in the paranormal himself. He comes to the Dolphin doing research for a new book, this one on the subject of haunted hotels. The hotel manager, Mr. Olan, takes Mike aside, trying to persuade him to stay out of 1408. Mike scoffs at first, but as Olan delves deeper into the odd, horrific history of the room, Mike listens closer. For room 1408 is no ordinary haunted room, if any such rooms could e called ordinary. Even if you escape its clutches, it never exactly leaves you.
I won't go into what happens to Mike once he enters room 1408. To do that would be to spoil the surprise. Let me say this, though -- several scenes (such as the phone call scene) work extremely well on audio. I'm not sure that that scene (and a few others) could translate from the page as effectively. Kudos to King for choosing this story for his audio book. This was definitely the right medium for it.
"1408" is a terrific addition to his growing work of uncollected short fiction. As with Bag of Bones, King takes the timeworn idea of hauntings and turns it on its head. Unlike that novel, however, King has little time to waste with explanations and musings. What the listener gets instead is one horrific little story, scary almost from the beginning.
Final note: a device used on the audio is extremely effective, something that couldn't have been done in story format. Near the end, during a particularly tense section, a saxophone screeches out a short note, followed by an extended coda. It's that short not, though, that'll have you jumping out of your skin. Listen for it: it works real good.
In the Deathroom
A man named Fletcher is sitting in what he knows to be a torture room in the basement of a South American Ministry of Information. He has secrets his captors want ... but he refuses to give them up. The man interrogating Fletcher, a genial, smiling person named Ramon, continues to offer Fletcher a cigarette. Fletcher knows that it will be his last unless he can somehow find a way to escape. Spurred on by the mind-numbing jolts of pain the torture device emits, Fletcher desperately hatches a plan that will either free him ... or kill him.
"In the Deathroom" is an odd type of story for King. He doesn't set his work outside Maine much, let alone the country (as in "Crouch End"). At a crucial point in this tale, the action switches to New York City, where the other two Blood & Smoke stories take place. In additon, Fletcher is very reminiscent of Steve Davis of "Cafe'" and Mike Enslin of "1408," all three of them desperate men whose lives are suddenly turned inexplicably upside down, and who must rely on their own strengths to free themselves.
"Deathroom" oddly recalls some of King's longer work: Cujo, Gerald's Game, Misery, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon: all stories that build up to a certain tension level ... and somehow stay there. Will Our Guy (or Girl) escape, or will s/he die? The interesting thing about "Deathroom" is we are never sure of the outcome, or the consequences either option leaves one with.
As the last of these tales, "Deathroom" serves as a fitting coda. It's not necesarily the best of these stories (that honor goes to the remarkable "1408"), but it's eerily effective. When you read reviews of King that say "King never lets up," it's stories like this they're talking about.