James Smythe’s Rereading Stephen King Series Is Brilliant

I stumbled across James Smythe’s blog series for The Guardian while having my lunchtime Internet break at work, and I was immediately taken by the concept. Like me and so many others, Smythe has been a Stephen King fan since childhood, rereading his novels over and over again so much that he is intimately familiar with King’s work and recognizes the bigger patterns in it overall.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

James Smythe, writer of the Rereading Stephen King series at The Guardian.

King was the author who ushered Smythe into grown-up reading, and the same thing happened to me. My mom was checking in with me when I was eleven years old to make sure that I knew what menstruation was. I let her know that school had pretty much covered this. “Good,” she said. “I just don’t want anything to happen to you like Carrie.” I asked her what Carrie was, and as she told me, my eyeballs got wider and wider, especially when she got to the part about pigs’ blood and prom. I had to read that book! I went to the library to check it out, but Carrie wasn’t there. I settled instead for Salem’s Lot, which kept me awake all night at a Girl Scout sleepover, and I never went back to the juvenile section again. Not when there were so many horrors to be had in the K aisle.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister's well-worn Stephen King books.

One of the bookshelves holding me and my sister’s well-worn Stephen King books.

Smythe has grown up to be a writer himself, and he has set himself the task of rereading all of King’s work, aiming to post a blog entry on each work about every two weeks. He estimates this will take him about two years. This is an incredibly ambitious project considering some of the gigantic tomes that King has put out—It (1104 pages), The Stand (original version—823 pages; uncut—1200 pages), Under the Dome (1088 pages), 11/22/63 (880 pages), to name a few. Just rereading one of these books in a week or two’s time is almost a full-time job, and that doesn’t include the writing, research, or critique time that Smythe puts in. Each one of his King entries (he’s at Week Seventeen so far) draws many comments from readers, and Smythe gets down in it with them, arguing the finer points, coming up with Top Ten Favorite King Books and Least Favorite Five King Books as readers ask for such lists. And though he is a King fan, he realizes there are some real clunkers in King’s oeuvre and does not hold back in his reviews. He also mentions his first feelings about reading the book as a child or teen and how he views the work differently now as he rereads, and he is not afraid to change his mind about what he now considers King’s best. Sometimes, the entries get clogged with literary references, especially the short story collections where there are so many tales to cover and quite a few of them feed into King’s novels. How can you not cover them? Also, Smythe is a huge Dark Tower/Randall Flagg fan, which I never quite got into, and he points out appearances all the time. I’d probably like these parts of the blog better if I was in on the joke, and I might give the Dark Tower series another whirl so I can decide how I feel about this omnipresent character. So far Smythe has reviewed most of King’s good work, but I can’t wait to read his critiques of the really bad works, like The Tommyknockers, Dreamcatcher, and Black House (which I couldn’t even finish after reading one hundred pages of the narrator flitting around from scene to scene, “setting” the story). I only wish that it was easier to read these entries one after another. However, this is the book blogs section of The Guardian, so I have to page through or click on links in the sidebar and then go somewhere else to find readers’ comments, which is a big part of the fun with this series. Already, though, I’m envisioning this project as a book, and I hope Smythe does, too, and puts this out in a more user-friendly format. This far in, I can see Smythe having a nice pile of summary, criticism, and memoir that will be book length by the time he’s done. I’m happy to take this trip since King has been such an important influence in my personal and literary evolution. He’s been the backbeat for most of my life, and reading the blog posts and other readers’ comments, I can see that I’m not the only one. Smythe gives me ideas, too, for my own literary odyssey. I believe my lady, Joyce Carol Oates, has written even more than Stephen King. What if I read and reread all of her works in the order they were published? I think I would need more than two years, though, to complete this task, and a Medici-like benefactor to support me during all of this reading and writing.

Another shelf holding our King books--the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Another shelf holding our King books–the pages are falling out of our favorite ones.

Week One: Carrie

Week Two: Salem’s Lot

Week Three: The Shining

Week Four: Rage

Week Five: Night Shift

Week Six: The Stand

Week Seven: The Long Walk

Week Eight: The Dead Zone

Week Nine: Firestarter

Week Ten: Roadwork

Week Eleven: Cujo

Week Twelve: The Running Man

Week Thirteen: The Gunslinger

Week Fourteen: Different Seasons

Week Fifteen: Christine

Week Sixteen: Pet Sematary

Week Seventeen: Cycle of the Werewolf

Week Eighteen: The Talisman

Week Nineteen: Thinner

Week Twenty: Skeleton Crew

Week Twenty-One: It

Week Twenty-Two: The Eyes of the Dragon

Week Twenty-Three: The Drawing of the Three

Week Twenty-Four: Misery

Week Twenty-Five: The Tommyknockers

Week Twenty-Six: The Dark Half

Week Twenty-Seven: Four Past Midnight

Week Twenty-Eight: The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Week Twenty-Nine: Needful Things

Week Thirty: Gerald’s Game

Week Thirty-One: Dolores Claiborne

Week Thirty-Two: Insomnia

Week Thirty-Three: Rose Madder

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30 Years Later and Cujo Still Scares Me

I was afraid to rewatch Cujo because when I saw this movie as a kid it terrified me and holds a special place in my mind, filed under “scary.” Some of the things I was enamored with at that age don’t stand the test of time, but I’m happy to report that Cujo still scares as a movie.

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I first saw this at my next-door neighbor’s house when my family was living in Landstuhl, Germany. Our house had a color TV tuned to the military station with about twelve hours of news programming on per day; the only commercials were for recruitment—about “Be all you can be.” Certain neighbors, though, had VCRs and connections in the United States who would tape movies from the premium cable channels. That’s what I used to think was rich, walking into somebody’s living room—which was the same exact size and in the same location in every base housing apartment—and seeing a dark wood shelving unit loaded with VCR tapes and the boxy apparatus that would take them. Some people had both tape brands and equipment—Betamax and VHS. That was really rich.

Cujo takes some mundane elements and combines them brilliantly, and most of that is because of its excellent source material, Stephen King’s novel of the same name. What if the friendliest dog in the world (and one of the biggest) got bit by a rabid bat and developed rabies? What if the owner went away, but somebody came by and was trapped by the dog? What would happen? A tense little horror movie, that’s what.

 

In Cujo, there’s an American family of three—a mom (Dee Wallace), dad (Daniel Hugh Kelly), and son (Danny Pintauro as a wee boy)—and on the surface everything looks okay. But the mother is having an affair with the handyman—out of boredom it appears—threatening to destroy the family. When her husband needs quick work done on his car and goes out to see a man who’s good with engines, they run into another family. This is a country family of a different class, where everybody has a job to do, even the dog Cujo.

The mom’s affair is discovered, or rather suspected, and she chooses not to lie about it. The way this is played out is very quiet but well done—more like what an affair really does in a family, I think. There’s incredible tension between the husband and wife that the kid picks up on, and when the wife’s car is acting up before her husband has to take an emergency business trip, he’s not inclined toward helping her out any. This keeps the plot humming along, and when the mom takes her broken-down Pinto to the farm where the rabid dog lives and gets trapped with her son, the audience isn’t surprised that she’s left alone there. Her husband doesn’t freak out because he can’t get a hold of her; no red flags are sent up. After all, he’s just discovered she’s having an affair and isn’t sure what he’s going to do about it.

The music soundtrack is a bit bizarre, ranging from something that sounds like what played during the Little House on the Prairie opening credits—this is used when Cujo does his running and leaping about as a normal dog—and then when Cujo turns rabid and dangerous, the music changes to something like what the band Tangerine Dream specialized in, a particular kind of eighties soundtrack for genre movies.

I could tell during the dog-fighting scenes that some sort of a stand-in was being used, either a huge puppet or somebody dressed in a dog suit, spliced in with shots of a dog that was probably going for bologna held up behind a door. That didn’t distract me; rather it reassured me that no harm came to any dogs during the making of the movie. Standards were more lax back then, and after hearing about how the children’s classic Milo and Otis went through countless numbers of orange kitties and pug dogs to film all the stunts, I’m suspicious of animal movies.

As the mother, Dee Wallace does a great job playing the mama bear, doing everything in her power to protect her son from the monster and sometimes even snarling at him in frustration because of their situation and her fraying nerves. She is the hero in this movie, and she’s a very human hero with lots of flaws. A Pinto station wagon is a very small space to set most of a movie, but Cujo does exceedingly well with this plot device. You can feel the claustrophobia and fear, and the first time Cujo makes himself known to the mother and son—well, it still makes me jump almost thirty years later, reminding me that a car can be freedom, but sometimes it can be a trap, too.