Sure today is technically the last day in September, but it’s October in my heart which means The Throwback Machine is proud to kick off its annual month-long look at all things scary and spooky. And perhaps it’s high time to acknowledge that there’s more to October than scary movies. There was a time when if you wanted something scary to keep you up at night you turned to Stephen King, which is why I bring to you, from the April 20, 1985, Journal Gazette, this Carl Lebovitz movie review of the lesser-known Stephen King film “Cat’s Eye,” playing at the Cinema Three that week. If you don’t remember “Cat’s Eye,” you got three King tales for the price of one, the best one being “The Ledge,” where Robert Hayes makes a bet that he can circumnavigate his way around an entire skyscraper using only a narrow window ledge.
Yes I just said we were going to be talking about books, but it’s impossible to talk about Stephen King and your misspent time in the ‘80s and ‘90s without talking about the countless TV and film adaptations that were spawned from all his books.
King shares a lot in common with a musician who’s been around a long time, a comparison I’m sure he’d enjoy, in that he has such an expansive bibliography that’s full of so many idiosyncratic twists and turns that a deep dive through his canon would reveal enough hidden treasurers, bizarre missteps and occasional cocaine-fueled doorstops that no two people’s “Greatest Hits of King” would be alike. I remember my grandmother, a constant devourer of books herself and certainly not someone averse to reading something violent, once telling me she liked more down-to-earth King books like “Misery” or “Dolores Claiborne” and didn’t care for the ones about (her phrase) “giant worms.”
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly where my entry point into the world of Stephen King actually was. I would have been a tad bit young to have read any of his books in the early ‘80s, but I know we had a lot of them lying around the house, and I have a lot of memories about roaming the aisles at Broadway Video or Stars and Stripes and seeing his name emblazoned across some pretty creepy-looking VHS tapes, my favorite being “The Dead Zone”.
But if I absolutely had to guess it probably was John Carpenter’s 1983 film adaptation of the novel “Christine”. You remember? Bullied kid buys car, car falls in love with him, car kills anyone who tries to break them apart? WRSP-TV out of Champaign only had the rights to three scary movies to play every Halloween, and if it wasn’t “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” or it wasn’t “Burnt Offerings”, it was “Christine” and I loved it.
While I read a few of King’s paperbacks here and there through the late '80s, they were always the “weird” books of his that you don’t hear much about: “Danse Macabre,” which pulled off the amazing feat of making it feel like King himself was sitting on your couch talking about the movies he liked; the “Bachman Books” anthology which featured “The Long Walk,” about participants in a marathon where you’re shot to death if you stop walking; and the “Night Shift” collection, which featured perhaps my own favorite obscure King tale, “Battleground”, where a man fights a war in his apartment against a set of green plastic army men come to life with a twist ending perfect in its silly obviousness.
By the ‘90s, teens like me tuned into many of the countless King miniseries that littered the TV landscape. Sure we remember all four glorious nights of “The Stand”, right? “The Tommyknockers”? Now tell me that you were one of the three people who actually sat through “Golden Years” or “Kingdom Hospital”? What about “Storm of the Century”? Anyone out there remember that guy from Wings and Tom Skerritt in “Desperation”?
Right around the time after King was struck by a van while taking a walk on a country road, his books started to get kind of…um…screwy. Not necessarily “bad,” just kind of…well…anyone who remembers those days of “Dreamcatcher,” the dull “Bag of Bones” or (ugh) “Hearts in Atlantis” knows what I mean. Although I was one of the few who was obsessed with the slim read-it-in-one-day novella “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” about a baseball-loving young girl who takes a wrong step and ends up lost in the woods with only her Sony Walkman to connect her to the world beyond.
After some talk about retirement, King’s still at it. The 2007 film adaption of his short story “The Mist” is probably one of the best silly-terrifying horror movies of the last decade with a coal-black twist ending; “Cell”, about cellphones turning people into murderous psychopaths disappointed a lot of people but had an obtuse weirdness about it that’s always haunted me; and “From a Buick 8” featured yet another killer car, except this one perversely never moves one inch.
It may be an apocryphal tale, but I remember King once saying the scariest thing he could ever think of was sliding down a wooden staircase railing that suddenly, inexplicably, turned into a razor blade. Yikes. Keep in mind, it’s the “idea” that such a thing “could” happen that’s scary, which says it all. King’s strength has always been in capturing how just about any common thing in your life could be a source of nightmares in the right circumstances.
Which is why my all-time favorite lasting image from any King book was a moment late in “Tom Gordon” where the protagonist, after having been lost for days in the woods, finds a lone weathered fence post in the middle of a clearing, where she uses simple logic to guess the correct way home. It’s not a scary moment, but I’ve never been able to shake this weird, almost visceral fear I got from the part where she carefully runs her fingers over every contour of the dry, cracked wood, finding only a rusted loop where a fenceline used to be, and thinking, “she’s going to get a splinter.” And it’s a thought I continue to have every time I see some lone post out in the middle distance of a field while driving on I-57. Not bad for a guy who grandma said writes about “worms.”
And for you Dean Koontz fans out there…sorry, I got nothing for you.