- The Stand
“Are you afraid?” Glen asked him. He looked at all eight of them. “Are you so afraid of him you don’t dare speak his name? Very well, I’ll say it for you. His name is Randall Flagg, also known as the dark man, also known as the tall man, also known as the Walkin Dude. Don’t some of you call him that?” His voice had climbed to the high, clear octaves of fury. Some of the men looked uneasily at each other and Burlson fell back a step. “Call him Beelzebub, because that’s his name, too. Call him Nyarlahotep and Ahaz and Astaroth. Call him R’yelah and Seti and Anubis. His name is legion and he’s an apostate of hell and you men kiss his ass.” His voice dropped to a conversational pitch again; he smiled disarmingly. “Just thought we ought to have that out front.”
The Stand is an epic, sweeping novel about a post-apocalyptic world. It has a huge cast of remarkable characters, and their journey through a world decimated by a virus is slow-burning and harrowing.
The survivors of the virus eventually gather into two groups. One clinging to their very own construct of what civilisation should be. The other… well… doing the exact same.
The novel leads to an ultimate confrontation between the two. But it is in its depiction of disintegrating values and morals, and in its characters’ attempts at clinging to some and justifying others, that the horror truly lies.
No, they were not real. TV monsters and movie monsters and comic-book monsters were not real. Not until you went to bed and couldn’t sleep; not until the last four pieces of candy, wrapped in tissues and kept under your pillow against the evils of the night, were gobbled up; not until the bed itself turned into a lake of rancid dreams and the wind screamed outside and you were afraid to look at the window because there might be a face there, an ancient grinning face that had not rotted but simply dried like an old leaf, its eyes sunken diamonds pushed deep into dark sockets; not until you saw one ripped and claw like hand holding out a bunch of balloons: See the sights, have a balloon, feed the elephants, ride the Chute-the-Chutes! Ben, oh, Ben, how you’ll float-
What scares us most as kids stays with us.
They come up in different shapes as adults but they always surface in our darkest hours. The layers of apathy and scepticism are never deep enough to bury the fears we have as children.
“It” is about these fears.
The children are fantastically written, innocent and oddly world-weary at the same time in a strange mix of William Golding and Saint-Exupéry. How they rally together and stand up to their fears is what drives the book, and what they choose to carry with them into adulthood is both heart-wrenching and heart-warming.
The book has one of my favourite horror scenes of all time. A grown up Beverly Marsh goes back to the house she grew up in and meets its new occupant, the elderly Mrs Kersh. This scene is one I always use to deconstruct horror done right, and budding flash horror writers stand to learn from it.
“You can’t be serious,” Mary said, but her voice was tiny and shocked. The voice of someone who knew better. Her eyes were filling up with tears again. “Surely you can’t be.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” the big cop said in his robot’s voice. “If you do not choose to remain silent, anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. I’m going to kill you. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?”
Desperation is nowhere as well-known as other Stephen King novels, and it’s a crying shame because it drips with raw, unrelenting, visceral, coarse bright red horror from the moment that, a few pages in, a couple is pulled over by an enormous town cop on a highway in the middle of nowhere.
It’s an underdog story at its core, with a group of people held captive testing their strength and faith against a very literal evil. It’s old school horror, gory and grisly. And it is a must read for horror fans.
On a side note, it was released at the same time as The Regulators, a companion novel written by Stephen King under his pen name. Alternate versions of the same characters appear in both books. It is an interesting experiment that is worth a read, especially as The Regulators is a good novel in its own right.
- The Shining
The whole place was empty.
But it wasn’t really empty. Because here in the Overlook things just went on and on. Here in the Overlook all times were one. There was an endless night in August of 1945, with laughter and drinks and a chosen shining few going up and coming down in the elevator, drinking champagne and popping party favors in each other’s faces. It was a not-yet-light morning in June some twenty years later and the organization hitters endlessly pumped shotgun shells into the torn and bleeding bodies of three men who went through their agony endlessly. In a room on the second floor a woman lolled in her tub and waited for visitors.
A horror masterpiece.
Forget the film, which numbed down some of the elements of the novel with its emphasis on a fragmented psyche.
In the book, The Overlook is undeniably and hideously haunted. Like Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, it is a conduit for anger, bad feelings and distress.
And these let the bad things in.
The snippets of the history of the sprawling hotel and of its former residents are disturbingly chilling, as are the encounters that 5 year old Danny Torrance has with the evil that resides within. You will never look at a fire hose quite the same way after reading The Shining.
The book is a study of horror that Stephen King wrote when he himself was battling his demons. These still manage to spill into every page of the book.
And, they are terrifying.
- Salem’s Lot
“There was a ruined church along the way, an old Methodist meeting house, which reared its shambles at the far end of a frost-heaved and hummocked lawn, and when you walked past the view of its glaring, senseless windows your footsteps became very loud in your ears and whatever you had been whistling died on your lips and you thought about how it must be inside – the overturned pews, the rotting hymnals, the crumbling altar where only mice now kept the sabbath, and you wondered what might be in there besides mice – what madmen, what monsters”
The town of Jerusalem’s Lot is the precursor to Derry and Castle Rock. All three microcosms of small town America where, behind every closed door and beneath the drudgery of every civilised facade, something utterly corrosive lies.
Salem’s Lot is about human lies and weaknesses. And the bloodsuckers that feed on them.
The vampires in Salem’s Lot are far removed from what we have been smothered with over the last few years. They are not lost in perpetual existential crises and are not prone to intense brooding.
They are a plague. They are sepulchral monsters who prey on the living. They are horrifying.
Salem’s Lot is the last great vampire novel to be written. And it is horror at its best.