Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Gwendy’s Button Box (a novella by Stephen King collaborating with Richard Chizmar) – Not King’s Worst (That Would Be Rage)

I had a book date scheduled for this evening, but I got stood up. A book date is where I go to a restaurant with a book, preferably a cozy one like the-pub-down-the-block or my-beloved-tandoori-place. Since Gwendy went by in a premature flash that I finished during my meager lunch of soup (so I would have an appetite for a restaurant later), I wound up having a burger with my old pal The Forever War by Joe Haldeman instead (we had a great time).  

I am now determined to read more by Richard Chizmar, because I’m not blaming the fail on him. From all appearances he did his level best to pull King out of an ending that was speeding towards “very lame ending even for Stephen King” territory. I jest, I kid, I worship the man’s characterizations but his endings are kinda …                                            

Gwendy is a story about a gorgeous Mary Sue (the fact that she is one is part of the plot). Early on, she meets a weird guy that gives her custody of a box full of buttons she could press to destroy the world, if she felt like it, plus a couple buttons that dispense diet candy, and money. She proceeds to have a swell Mary Sue existence until The Ill-Contrived Day, during which many dramatic things happen.  And then there’s an ending which isn’t King’s worst – thanks, Mr. Chizmar. No doubt it’ll be a movie soon, starring a gorgeous teenage actress playing the Mary Sue.

There was one part that twanged a couple of nerves.  The Stand came out in September 1978. Yours truly was fifteen years old in 1978 and a King fan ever since I bought the first edition paperback of Carrie from Walgreen’s when I was eleven or twelve and hauled it around in my purse re-reading it for months because there was something about the prose that just sang.  Also, because I was convinced that was exactly what high school was going to be like.

I wasn’t yet in the habit of pre-ordering King stories and slurping them down moments after release, so I was reading The Stand a couple months after publication, on November 18, 1978, when the Peoples’ Temple mass suicide in Guyana happened. I was ping ponging between the horror of King’s apocalypse and the one playing on the TV news.

In Gwendy, the Jonestown event occurs after Gwendy does something magical, and she feels deep guilt as she wonders whether the two events were related. It made me wonder if King feels guilty about unleashing all that fictitious negativity into the world a scant couple months before the Reverend Jim Jones went nuts.

The Stand was a damn good book.  (Yeah, I didn’t really care for the ending, but getting there was epic.) (M-O-O-N, that spells epic.)  So was the one before it, The Shining.  The one before The Shining was a real stinker, and I recently re-read it.  It’s probably the worst novel under my roof.  Gwendy has only a mere fraction of the badness that is Rage.

Rage is so bad, in fact, that King has unpublished it, with the excuse that he doesn’t want to inspire any copycat crimes.  It’s out of print and exists only in collections like mine. I distinctly remember purchasing it from the Tower Records on El Camino Real in Mountain View and subsequently catching the flu and holing up with The Bachman Books (four novels including Rage), a bottle of Nyquil and a box of jelly donuts.

Recently there was a blackout in San Francisco and my entire office had a California snow day and I was searching for some print to read while waiting for the screens to come back to life and I grabbed Rage.  I got halfway through before giving up in disgust. If this had been the first King story I had ever read, I never would have read a second one ... maybe.  It was readable enough, as long as you feel like inhabiting the point of view of a creep.

Rage is the story of a school shooter. First he torches his locker, then he goes to his homeroom and shoots the teacher, then he hangs out with his classmates playing truth or dare until they venerate him as a wise and sagely hero, leading them from mundane conformity on a path of true adventure (and shooting more people) (until finally SWAT sorts him out).

Our teenage killer has gross, creepy sexuality oozing from his pores. Every female character is objectified. He refers to his violence as “getting it on." He's basically the villain in Gwendy. Or maybe he's Harold Emory Lauder from The Stand. He's also at least two of the bullies in It. Except at the time, King was fiddling around with making characters like that serve as protagonist. To his sociopathic classmates that don’t object to the presence of a dead teacher lying beside them, the teenage killer is a hero who forces them to wake up from their sheeply stupor. 

Why am I even mentioning Rage?  Because publishing badness like Rage today would be a career-ending move. People would automatically assume King was a thought criminal with deeply wrong values who should be silenced. This was King’s fourth or fifth novel and plainly it was written during his substance abuse period. He has gone on to write novels of exquisite feminist sensitivities, such as Rose Madder. Even Gwendy leans firmly on the side of women and against creepy losers like the dude in Rage who terrify and objectify them. Rage, however, identifies firmly with a violent shitlord protagonist, turning him into a Puckish counterculture hero striking a blow against the man. 

I presumably read Rage for the first time while delirious with fever. I didn’t remember anything about it, unlike two other Bachman books in the collection: The Running Man and The Long Walk, which I loved, and still recall. I first encountered it before Columbine, and the rest. Back in an innocent world where we thought school shootings were so unthinkable that a novel addressing the subject treats it as surreal comedy (see also Heathers).  We know better now, and so does King.

And even at his rock bottom worst, Mister King can still write the kind of words that keep you turning pages and longing for more.  I’m very jealous.

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