Blood and Smoke by Stephen King
By Jeffrey Kieviet
It’s 6 o’clock… Do You Know Where Your Monsters Are?
I’ve become a big fan of audio books. I still call them “books-on-tape,” although I don’t think I’ve actually listened to one of those since The Hobbit on a family road trip to Colorado. I had an Audible account for a minute, but I always chose the longest book I was interested in to get the most bang for my buck. However, I couldn’t keep up with the one free audio book each month (Atlas Shrugged was 65 hours, but that’s for another review). Now I’ve found the library. A place where you can just read books for free! And, like, you can borrow the books for a couple weeks and bring them back for no money, over and over again until you’ve read everything that John Grisham has ever written. I haven’t read any, but I hear they’re good. I think I saw a movie based on one of his books, something about a pelican lawyer? Or was that Redwall? Oh, they have movies too! You can borrow movies from the library, like Blockbuster or Redbox but for FREE. Don’t get me wrong, the Library is also a truly evil corporation focused on money-making and bent on world domination. They charge you $0.25 per item per day if you’re late. And considering you can check out, like, 30 items at once, forget them in the trunk of your car and not remember them until you need the room to store a body, it can get pricey if you’re forgetful. Which I am.
Which brings me to my point, the CD case for Blood and Smoke is supposed to look like a cigarette box. This would have made sense when it was a book-on-tape, tapes are the appropriate size and shape, but the crumpled mass of plastic casing and cardboard insert I checked out from the library gave me just enough information to know it was a book written and read by Stephen King. If you’ve never heard his speaking voice, it sounds just like he looks.
Personally, I’m a fan of audio books that play out like radio dramas: all the character voices, when they laugh or grunt the narrator emotes, when something is sad you can hear the tears dripping on the microphone and short circuiting. Well, maybe not that intense but if the narrator is going to read a book like it’s a grocery list I may as well read it myself. So it is not always the best idea for the author to actually read their work. But Stephen King does a pretty decent job.
Lunch at the Gotham Café (1997) or “The Waiter This City Deserves”
He may not be an actor but he’s been around long enough to have presented a thing or two. These 3 stories were originally designed to be an audio book. Lunch was the only one which was published in text before the release of Blood and Smoke. Now these are short stories, only an hour or two (what that translates into in page numbers I have no idea), so I feel no guilt ruining the somewhat predictable endings. Horror stories are formulaic, what makes Stephen King a (if not “the”) master of horror is how he tells the tale. The details, the characters, the ambiance.
A man gets a “Dear John” letter from his wife, and ends up at a meeting with her and her divorce lawyer at the titular Gotham Café. The woman is a truly awful person, no redeeming qualities as far as the ear can hear, but the narrator loves her, and wants her back. I looked into it a little and couldn’t find any history of divorce in Stephen King’s records (or wikipedia page), but I’m sure he’s been involved in at least one unpleasant break-up where he just wanted to punch someone in the face. So he has the waiter go crazy and stab the divorce lawyer in the face. Then it’s a series of harrowing slashes and dashes as the waiter turns his bloody knife on the narrator and his wife (soon-to-be “ex”), his suit coming undone, screaming about an unseen dog and shrieking “eeee” the whole time. I’m not sure how it would have been spelled in the book, but Stephen King just makes the letter E sound for extended periods of annoyance. Also to be noted, Stephen King’s French accent (and the Latino accents in In the Deathroom) as the psychopathic maître d’ is worth the price of admission. Free.
I imagine 2 things: either Stephen wanted revenge against a woman who broke his heart and played out fantasy fulfillment with this tale, or there was a woman he was still hung-up on, someone he just couldn’t get over. So he made her a raging witch-with-a-B, saved her life, then slapped the ungrateful words right out of her mouth. Either way, I’m sure it’s one of Tabitha King’s favorites.
1408 (1999) or “13 Is an Unlucky Number”
1408 is the meat of this collection. Spanning 2 discs (the others barely fill 1 each), half of the story is just the set up: the writer listening to hotel management describe the history of the haunted room and imploring our unlucky narrator to stay out!
All of the vignettes in this assortment deal with blood and smoke. Blood, because what would a Stephen King horror story be without it? Smoke, because all of the protagonists are ex-smokers craving a cigarette (hence the packaging for the book-on-tape). Mike Enslin, our humble narrator, keeps his doomsday-cigarette tucked behind his ear, replacing a new one daily, just in case he wants a smoke before the end of the world. They make much better use of this gimmick in the film (highly recommended, John Cusack & Samuel L. Jackson as Enslin and Management, respectively), but for myself, as someone who craves a cigarette from time to time, King gestates a desire in prose into a longing in reality. Basically, these stories all make me want to smoke a cigarette.
Another reoccurring theme in these fables is time. Well, the hands on a clock to be more adept. Both in Gotham Café & 1408, two arbitrary items resemble a clock at 6 o’clock; its hands pointing directly up & down (the waiter’s bowtie and a light switch or something). And then in In the Deathroom some of the dials spin wildly like a clock without command. I imagine Stephen King, sitting at his writing desk, keeping distractions at a minimum to crank out volume after volume of macabre text, with only a desk clock, or maybe even a great grandfather clock against the wall, clicking off the seconds as he clicks off the words on his key board. He finishes a chapter, leans back in his chair and sighs, faintly wishing for the long forgotten taste of tar and nicotine on his breath. And then an idea strikes him!
In the Deathroom (2000) or “Literary Badass”
You know all those movies where the guy is sitting in a poorly lit interrogation room, being questioned by the ominous bad guys about why he’s here, what he knows, where is the bomb? Now, unless the guy is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis (or Chris Hemsworth for our younger viewers), the guy is either getting shot in the head or thrown back in his cell to rot (until Dumbledore dies and he escapes in his casket. Count of Monte Cristo anyone?). But what if a normal guy could break out? Could someone of Stephen King’s stature, an author more reliant on the power of his mind than his body, manage to distract the guards long enough to get a weapon? Could a simple man endure torture and sack-up against his tormentor? Like Gotham Café, this seems almost fantasy fulfillment. Whenever I read a book and the guy is reduced to a sniveling weasel, wetting himself as a snot bubble bursts from his nostrils and he blubbers “I’ll tell you what you want to know, just please, don’t hurt me!” I want to reach through the text Pagemaster/Last Action Hero style, and prove that I could do better. Hopes to hoping I’ll never have to because I can’t stand a paper cut and I’ll tell you anything you want to know if I have a couple beers in me. But when it’s fiction, when you or Stephen King is in control, maybe the guy can get away. Or maybe it’s just a story about an interrogation room and the unnamed man at the end, buying his pack of cigarettes, is just some random, unrelated individual.