A collection of King's short stories and poetry
Over the years, I've come to admire Stephen King more and more, both for his prolific output and the amazing quality of his work. I've especially enjoyed his longer novels, such as '11.22.63', marvelling at how he maintains tension and interest for 700+ pages. I wasn't sure, therefore, what I'd think of King's short stories, although I suspect I could read his grocery list and find it enthralling!
I needn't have worried - I loved 'Full Dark, No Stars', a great collection and one that inspired me to try 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams', published in November 2015. It's a collection of eighteen short stories and two poems. (Poetry isn't my thing - I started both poems and gave up, so perhaps I overstated my case when it comes to King's grocery list!) It's worth noting that not all the stories are new; some, such as 'Blockade Billy', have been published before, which may disappoint diehard fans expecting a completely fresh experience. They were all new to me, however, so no complaints here!
I love how King prefaces each story with an introduction, often revealing where he got his inspiration. As an author myself, it's fascinating to explore another wordsmith's process for transferring an idea from brain to page. 'Mile 81', for example, is a reworking of a story King wrote nearly forty years ago, resulting from his dislike of a particularly lonely stretch of road in Maine, familiar from his university days. For 'Batman and Robin Have an Altercation', he drew on a memory of a near-miss accident at a Sarasota intersection. The best introduction, however, is the one to the book itself. Here's a snippet from what King has to say: 'Here, sit down beside me. And do come a little closer, I don't bite. Except.... we've known each other for a very long time, and I suspect you know that's not entirely true.'
An impressive collection of wonderful quality
So what can the reader expect from 'The Bazaar of Bad Dreams'? Some of the stories, like 'Mile 81' and 'Bad Little Kid', are quintessentially Stephen King - a demonic flesh-eating car reminiscent of his novel 'Christine' in the first, an evil child in the second. Others, like 'The Little Green God of Agony', are more personal; in King's own words, a search for closure. The story resulted from the horrific traffic accident he suffered in 1999 that resulted in years of physiotherapy and learning to walk again.
In keeping with the personal theme, his preface to 'Afterlife', an examination of what might come after death, King admits to an increasing interest in the subject as he grows older. The story reflects his preoccupation but delivered with a humorous touch. What awaits Bill Andrews after his demise is not a date with St Peter but with a man in high-waisted trousers, who's none too pleased to see him...
My favourite is, I think, 'Ur', although it's a tough choice! 'Ur' deals with, of all things, a supernatural Kindle, which proves that a good author can weave a tale out of just about anything. Talking of which, the preface to 'Mr Yummy' intrigued me. I can't imagine telling Stephen King he wouldn't have anything new to say about AIDS! A friend of his did just that, with King, of course, proving him wrong with his wonderful story of a elderly gay man approaching his death in a care home.
What else gets the King touch? Marriage, in 'Premium Harmony', 'Under the Weather' and 'Morality'; human stupidity in 'Drunken Fireworks'; and a post-apocalyptic world in 'Summer Thunder', a moving tale of a man and his dog that incorporates King's love of motorcycles. 'Blockade Billy' is centred around baseball, but with a dark twist. I loved 'The Dune', a tale of supernatural writing and a study of a deeply unpleasant man. Stephen says the story has one of his favourite endings and I agree; it's a cracker!
An amazing talent, honed to a razor's edge
In short, there's something here for every King fan, whether old or new. This is an impressive collection of wonderful quality from a writer whose talent, after over forty years, has been honed to a razor's edge.
Warning! Contains spoilers regarding the plot of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.
My fourth novel, 'The Second Captive', deals with the fascinating psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome. (More about what Stockholm syndrome entails later on.) Originally, I decided to blog about this as part of my 'Five' series, in which I examine five examples of anything fictional. No problem, I thought; I'll find the requisite number of novels about Stockholm syndrome and blog about them, and how they resemble or contrast with my own novel.
Except it wasn't that easy. Mainstream fiction about Stockholm syndrome seems thin on the ground. Oh, I came up with lots of books professing to examine Stockholm syndrome. On closer examination, though, they all centred on BDSM themes, leaning towards the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' type of fiction. That's definitely NOT what 'The Second Captive' is about! So much for my original idea! Then I remembered one of my favourite novels, a book that made a huge impact on me when I first read it. A novel of such stature that I don't need four others for this blog post. One with a strong theme of Stockholm syndrome. That novel is 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by George Orwell.
What is Stockholm syndrome?
Before we examine 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' in more detail, let me explain what Stockholm syndrome is. For most of us, the concept is a weird one. How can someone profess to love the person who has captured them, held them against their will, even threatened them with death? The term originated after a bank robbery in Sweden in 1973, during which two robbers entered the Kreditbanken bank in Stockholm. A hostage situation ensued. For six days, the robbers held four people at gunpoint, locked in a bank vault, explosives strapped to their bodies, nooses around their necks. Bizarrely, upon their release, the hostages defended their captors; one set up a fund to cover their legal fees. Two of the women even became engaged to them. Thus the term "Stockholm syndrome" was coined.
Other notable victims of Stockholm syndrome include Patty Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army but ended up joining their cause, and Natascha Kampusch, who wept when her abductor, Wolfgang Priklopil, committed suicide. So how does this strange psychological condition arise? Experts say at least three traits must be present: 1. A severely skewed power relationship between the individuals concerned. The captor decides what the hostage/prisoner can and cannot do. 2. The captor threatens the hostage/prisoner with physical harm or even death. 3. The hostage/prisoner holds a strong instinct for self-preservation. However, he believes he cannot escape and that survival is dependent upon the captor. Isolation from external points of contact enhances this viewpoint. Most of us have never been in such a desperate situation as the Kreditbanken hostages. If we endeavour to imagine what they endured, Stockholm syndrome seems less weird. If the only way to survive is to ally oneself with one's captor, is it not understandable that such feelings might deepen into something akin to love?
Losing my fictional innocence...
Let's turn now to 'Nineteen Eighty-Four.' I first read George Orwell's chilling novel in my teens, and since then I have been drawn back repeatedly to the book chosen by Time magazine as one of the best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Orwell's story of life under a harsh totalitarian regime made a huge impression on me, partly because personal freedom is something I value greatly, but also because the novel's ending stripped away my fictional innocence. I remember approaching the second half wondering how Orwell was going to arrange the happy finale I was certain was coming. The one in which the Party is overthrown, democracy is restored, and Winston and Julia are free to carry on their relationship. As the number of words left for me to read grew ever fewer, I became increasingly perplexed. How, I asked myself, can all this be resolved when the book is running out of pages? Then I read the last chapter, a stunning conclusion to an outstanding novel, one which shattered every one of my naïve notions.
A chilling dystopian nightmare of a world
'Nineteen Eighty-Four' is a perfect example of a dystopian novel. Set in a world where individualism is persecuted and labelled as 'thoughtcrime', it paints a bleak portrait of life under a harsh political system known as Ingsoc. The novel is based in the United Kingdom, now renamed 'Airstrip One', part of the superstate Oceania. Orwell describes a world of perpetual war, with Oceania always fighting one of the other two superstates, called Eurasia and Eastasia. Life is tough for the inhabitants of Airstrip One. The news is manipulated, citizens exist under constant surveillance, living conditions are squalid and there are shortages of basic necessities. Unless you're a member of the Inner Party, that is, the top 2% of the population who make up the ruling elite. For them, life is comfortable, prosperous, privileged. The rest of the country is split between the middle-class Outer Party members and the working-class 'proles', whom the Party largely ignores. At the very top of the system is Big Brother, around whom an immense personality cult has sprung up, even though it's unclear as to whether he actually exists.
No happy ending for this novel...
In this dystopian nightmare lives Winston Smith, an ageing Outer Party member, who works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting recent history to reflect the current Party stance. Outwardly, Winston toes the Party line, but inwardly he hates the system and Big Brother, striving to make contact with The Brotherhood, a shadowy organisation dedicated to overthrowing the Party.
Along the way he embarks on a passionate affair with a woman called Julia. They meet clandestinely in a squalid rented room, before being discovered and arrested. Winston undergoes a brutal ordeal of torture and interrogation, during which he encounters the chilling O'Brien, a member of the Inner Party and an interrogator at the Ministry of Love. O'Brien leads Winston's mind through the three stages of rehabilitation necessary for a good Party member: learning, understanding and acceptance. Then Winston is released, a free man. He slides into alcoholism, but also displays the symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. Alone, downing gin at the Chestnut Tree Cafe, he's pleased he's achieved a victory over himself, ending his previous "stubborn, self-willed exile" from the love of Big Brother, a love he now returns.
An unequal balance of power
Let's look at how the relationship between Winston and O'Brien evinces the three key components of Stockholm syndrome. Firstly, the presence of a severely skewed power relationship. Tick number one. Winston Smith is a prisoner in the Ministry of Love, completely at O'Brien's mercy. Secondly, the threat of physical harm or death. O'Brien tortures Winston, including exposing him to his deepest, darkest fear - rats - in the dreaded Room 101. As for death, Winston's work at the Ministry of Truth has made him aware that Party opponents are routinely killed and written out of existence. Another tick here, then. Thirdly, Winston holds a strong instinct for self-preservation, evident in his love for Julia and his desire for a fairer world. Final tick.
Despite the fact he's his torturer, O'Brien positions himself as both a father figure and a friend to Winston. Even in the interrogation scenes, an intimacy flourishes between the two men, with O'Brien showing an uncanny ability to know what Winston is thinking. Even as he inflicts pain on his victim, he professes to be doing it for Winston's own good, to save and purify him. The ground has been prepared, therefore, ready for the seeds of Stockholm syndrome to germinate. And that's exactly what happens. By the end of the novel, Winston's capitulation is complete. Evidenced by the incredible closing paragraph, as Winston stares at a poster of Big Brother: "He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. " Powerful stuff!
Stockholm syndrome and my fourth novel
So how do I demonstrate Stockholm syndrome in 'The Second Captive'? Again, let's look at the three key components (without giving plot spoilers!)
1. There exists an unequal power relationship between my protagonist, the emotionally immature Beth Sutton, and Dominic Perdue, the man who abducts her and holds her captive by locking her in the basement of his house.
2. He mistreats her, demanding absolute compliance with his wishes. Whilst he's not a torturer like O'Brien, he does lead Beth to believe he's a killer. She fears her life may be in danger if she doesn't fall in with his wishes.
3. Beth is young, with a strong sense of self-preservation, demonstrated by her desperation to be reunited with her mother. Isolated as she is, though, the effects of Stockholm syndrome gradually creep up on her…
Here's a taster:
Beth Sutton is eighteen years old when Dominic Perdue abducts her. Held prisoner in a basement, she’s dependent upon him for food, clothes, her very existence. As the months pass, her hatred towards him changes to compassion. Beth never allows herself to forget, however, that her captor has killed another woman. She has evidence to prove it, as well as Dominic’s own admission of murder.
Then Beth escapes…
And discovers Dominic Perdue is not a man who lets go easily. Meanwhile, despite being reunited with her family, she spirals into self-destructive behaviour. Release from her prison isn’t enough, it seems. Can Beth also break free from the clutches of Stockholm syndrome?
A study of emotional dependency, 'The Second Captive' examines how the mind makes dark choices under duress.
Available from Amazon - click or tap the picture or this link: The Second Captive.
(Guest post by Samuel Marquis)
Readers should support authors of any stripe for only one reason: great writing
Years ago, when I was a literary neophyte and secretly harbored delusions of grandeur about the publishing industry, mega-author James Patterson gave me a blistering review for my Colorado-based earthquake thriller 'Blind Thrust'. The simple truth is I deserved it (he also gave me a glowing quote for my book 'The Coalition', but that’s another story). I fully deserved his ridicule for the first incarnation of 'Blind Thrust'—fully deserved to be flogged like an 18th century seaman in the Royal Navy—because my novel was, though I didn’t know it at the time, not up to industry standards in terms of the opening and overall plotting. It was not a bad novel; it just wasn’t sufficiently enticing to persuade someone to shell out $20 at Barnes and Noble or Tattered Cover. In other words, I didn’t give the creator of the Alec Cross Series and the biggest-selling author since the Precambrian Era sufficient justification to promote me or my writing because the book I was peddling was flawed, even though it was reasonably well written and seemed to me and my circle of reviewers at the time to be promising. In short, I had done the unspeakable thing that no storyteller—whether you are indie, traditional legacy, or a cave-painting Cro-Magnon at Lascaux—should ever do, and that is put out a story that isn’t quite ready for prime time. To my infinite chagrin, I had not earned the right for James Patterson to lend me his support for this particular novel.
So what did I do? I went back and rewrote the book. Literally salvaged the submerged wreckage and rewrote the whole bloody thing. Then I had it professionally edited. Then I rewrote it again and edited it some more until I had revised it at least a dozen times. The editorial process landed me an agent, who proceeded to give me more editorial input, but at this point they were only minor tweaks because the book was highly polished. And now, recently, I received a completely different response to this reconstituted prose that had once been considered slush pile fodder. And from a highly credible critic I might add, someone who knows a thing or two about the written word, as he has perused hundreds of thousands of pages of non-fiction and fiction alike in his lengthy career in politics and as a Homo sapien sapien: “Blind Thrust kept me up until 1 a.m. two nights in a row. I could not put it down. An intriguing mystery that intertwined geology, fracking, and places in Colorado that I know well. Great fun.” —Roy R. Romer, 39th Governor of Colorado
73 eager fans on four continents...
The quote, I might also add, was unsolicited. So, by a simple twist of fate, the three-term governor of the Centennial State and one-time chairman/co-chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, Leadership Council, and National Committee, as well as the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign, got hold of an Advance Reading Copy of 'Blind Thrust', proceeded to read it cover to cover, and decided to give me a rave review (Okay, full disclosure, he snagged a copy of the ARC from his son, my friend Tim, that had been laying there on a table in Vail, but please note that the honorable Gov. Romer doesn’t know me from Donald Trump). What’s important about the episode is that a book that was once justifiably pilloried in its earliest incarnation had miraculously become so enthralling that a highly discriminating reader who presumably likes to go to bed early could not put it down and was forced to stay up late two nights in a row to finish the book. That same discriminating reader then proceeded to send me an unsolicited book blurb declaring before the entire world (or at least the 73 people from four continents, including my 94-year old Aunt Margaret, who will actually read my book): “I could not put it down.” The quote has made its way onto the front and back covers of Blind Thrust, which has now been released for the enjoyment of my 73 eager fans.
There is only one reason that any of this happened: the novel went from subpar, or just not good enough for publication, to something closer to superb, or at least good enough that it was deemed 'unputdownable' by an unbiased reviewer whose opinion actually matters.
Authors should hold readers hostage with their writing
So why should readers support indie and traditional legacy authors? For only one reason: good solid writing. Craftsmanship. Actual hard work, sacrifice, and talent coming together into an amalgam of significance.
Having gone through this experience, I realize now what the ultimate goal of a thriller writer should be: Make people stay up late at night against their will and not want to put the book down. Hold them hostage with your writing. Because they will only go against their will if the suspense is so gripping, the plot and characters so riveting and unpredictable that the story literally casts a temporary spell over them. Because the book you’ve penned—even if it’s not 'Moby Dick' or 'David Copperfield'—is quite good in its own unique way. And that is the only reason why readers should support authors, be they indie or traditional legacy authors or those fur-clad, cave-dwelling raconteurs at Lascaux. Because a work is actually really damned good.
Unfortunately, it is hard to make something hard to put down and make every page, indeed every line or paragraph, fume with tension. I know I have failed miserably in the past and I will no doubt fail again in the future. But ultimately quality and constant tension should always be the goal in a suspense novel. Nothing else should matter. We all have to write better and put forward the best material we can. Material that has been thoroughly vetted and edited and re-edited until we are bleary-eyed and brain-dead and so utterly preoccupied with making the thing good that our friends and significant others are convinced that we’ve taken a lover on the side. Ultimately, readers don’t care if you received your Creative Writing degree from Oxford or Yale, are a mega-best-seller, or are close friends with J.K Rowling or Lee Child. They just want a great story. Over and over again, every time out.
Readers will always support great writing. And they will stay up late at night to read it. But only if we writers put in the hard work and truly do our jobs. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.
More about Samuel Marquis
Samuel Marquis works by day as Vice-President – hydrogeology for an environmental consulting firm in Boulder, CO, and by night as writer of historical and modern suspense novels. He is the author of 'The Devil's Brigade, 'Blind Thrust' and many other novels, has published over 25 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals/books, and has served as an expert witness on multimillion dollar environmental cases.
He can be reached on his website at www.samuelmarquisbooks.com or by email at email@example.com.
Fiction writing as a catharsis?
Do novelists use their fiction as a catharsis for their personal issues? Since I began my writing journey, I’ve realised that many people believe they do. ‘I’m keen to read your books,’ someone once told me. ‘I’ll find out more about what makes you tick.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that was the essence of her words.
‘No, you won’t,’ was my inner response. Her comment got me thinking, however, so I mentioned the conversation to a fellow novelist. ‘A friend of mine believes fiction writers explore their issues via their writing,’ I told her. ‘I think that’s a huge overgeneralisation. I don’t.’ The reply was immediate, its tone dismissive. ‘Of course you do. Don’t all writers?’ I was flabbergasted.
It’s a view I strongly contest. Its proponent is, I believe, falsely extrapolating from her own circumstances. For her, writing is indeed a catharsis; she uses her work as a vehicle to explore her childhood issues. She’s not alone. Stephen King has said that he writes about what scares him as a way to exorcise his own demons, using fiction as an alternative to therapy. Fair enough, but for me, it seems a flawed assumption to say that all writers are the same.
We're not all tortured souls in need of therapy
The notion that authors use their novels as a catharsis for exploring their psyche seems a common one, though. Perhaps it comes back to our tendency to embrace one-size-fits-all stereotypes as a convenient, but lazy, way of interpreting the world. Once an image gets into the popular imagination, it sticks. Fiction writers? Aren't they all tortured souls who fuel their literary outpourings during the small hours via copious amounts of alcohol, in between lamenting the perils of writer’s block? Take Ernest Hemingway, right? Case closed.
The truth is, novelists are a diverse bunch. Sure, some will seek to explore personal issues via their fiction. Others won’t. There’s no cookie-cutter profile that fits all. I can best give my own position by saying that I’m a private person; the notion of exploring my psyche publicly via my novels fills me with horror. Writing is not, I repeat, not a catharsis for me. None of the terrible issues I inflict upon my long-suffering characters have ever happened in my life. I’ve never been kidnapped, violently raped, endured a psychotic sibling or absent parents. Phew, plenty of things there for which to be grateful!
My motivation for writing fiction is simple. I love being a novelist. OK, so my books fall into the psychological suspense category. That in itself says nothing about me. Yes, I’m fascinated by the workings of the human mind, but there aren’t many topics in which I’m not interested. Maybe some people will say 'Methinks the lady doth protest too much', but if that's you, then so be it. I can't change how you think, and besides, I'd rather be writing. My seventh novel beckons...
Novelist Iain Rob Wright's take on the subject
Other fiction writers agree with me. The British horror/thriller novelist Iain Rob Wright said on his blog: ‘Just because someone has read one of my books, does not mean they know a single thing about me. I write characters with views of their own. If one of my protagonists collects stamps, that does not mean that I do. The truth is that I would never make my own views entirely obvious through my work, because then I am not creating fiction, I am writing propaganda.’
My point exactly! So to readers of my books, of Iain’s books, to fiction readers in general, I’d say this. Read our novels because you enjoy them, not to discover more about us. Don’t think you can judge an author by his/her books. You can’t presume to know a novelist's motivation for writing, unless they’ve publicly stated it.
What do you think? Let me know!
I’d be interested to hear from other fiction writers. Is your work cathartic for you? If so, to what extent? Readers, do you make assumptions about an author based on what they write? Leave a comment and let me know!