Monday, March 28, 2022

Shifting Realities: Four Past Midnight by Stephen King

In my long-term quest to read all of Stephen King's books (a quest that feels about as attainable as Roland's Tower), I finally arrived at this classic. Four Past Midnight isn't up there with The Stand or Different Seasons, but it's solid middle-tier King, which is still good stuff. These are technically novellas, but I think The Langoliers and The Library Policeman might really be short novels for King (what would be average length novels for other writers).

I'm not the first person to think that there's a unifying theme of shifting realities, internal and external. Interestingly enough, the first and last stories focus more on the external, the middle two on the internal. But there's the rub, I suppose: how do you know what's internal and external? Where do you draw the line? Is there a line? Once again King delves into some pretty serious epistemology and metaphysics. But it's also his usual engrossing stuff.

My basic reactions: I really liked The Langoliers and The Sun Dog, I liked most of The Library Policeman, and Secret Window, Secret Garden was okay.

I was apparently the only nerdy kid in the 90's who didn't see The Langoliers TV miniseries. But I have an excuse: I looked it up and I was probably busy graduating from high school around the time it aired. I did watch it 20+ years later, after I read the novella, and ... it's not great, not even for a 90's TV miniseries (Mick Garris's The Stand has a special place in my heart in that regard). But the novella is actually some great sci-fi King. The idea of the Langoliers as beings that eat up the past is kind of cool even if it doesn't really make much science fictional sense, but then again my #1 favorite King sci-fi tale, "The Jaunt," isn't necessarily "hard SF" either. But that's not the point. The Langoliers tells a great story revolving around solving exigent mysteries (even if it may be an unintentional riff on a couple Twilight Zone episodes) with some really great characters (Toomy is great, and Bronson Pinchot's portrayal of him is the one good thing about the miniseries).

Secret Window, Secret Garden is basically a less interesting version of The Dark Half, only it deals with some guilt and fears about an author's plagiarism, which in turn represents his deeper insecurities. It also doesn't necessarily involve anything supernatural. It's not that I didn't like this one, but it's not my favorite. After I figured out what was going on, it kept, well, going on. And on. This made the shortest story in the book feel like the longest. But your mileage may vary depending on what sort of alternate persona you concoct from fragments of your experience. Apparently they made this into a Johnny Depp movie some years back; maybe it's because of Depp or maybe because I finally just watched the movie of The Dark Half recently, but I don't know if I'll bother with the adaptation of this one.

As a fan of libraries, I was really, really digging The Library Policeman ... until a particularly graphic scene of violence toward a child skeeved me out and kind of put me off the whole thing. Up until that point, I was wondering why this one had never been made into a movie, but well, then it became obvious. Yeah, yeah, it's Stephen King, where life isn't always puppy dogs and rainbows, but this was a bit much even for Uncle Stevie (worse than that bizarre, infamous scene in IT in my opinion). But on the other hand, maybe that's where he had to go to tell this story of an adult reviving past trauma via a particularly gnarly librarian and investigation into the disturbing past of a small town (in Iowa this time, rather than King's usual Maine). And it's far more horrific that this sort of thing actually happens to children outside the pages of books. All that aside, I love the idea of a library policeman and the underlying mystery of this small town and what's happening to Sam, the main character. The one scene though... 

The Sun Dog is a prequel to Needful Things, and thus takes place in one of the main stops in the tour of Stephen King's fictional Maine: Castle Rock. A Polaroid camera takes seemingly the same picture of a dog no matter where you point and shoot. Is it a "portal-oid" to another world? It's another somewhat science fictional premise from Uncle Stevie, not to mention you get to spend some quality time with shady businessman Pop Merrill at his store Emporium Galorium all before a certain Leland Gaunt shows up to even further exploit the secret unseemly desires of the not-so-good folk of Castle Rock.

So all-in-all, these are maybe not destined to be among my favorite King stories, but they're well worth reading for any fan of Stephen King.

See also my Goodreads review.

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