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Stephen King Taught Me To Think

The books of Stephen King have influenced pulled at me over many years and many visits to the stack of books by the toilet.

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From the tender ages of twelve to eighteen, I swam through enough Stephen King to significantly alter the shape of my mind. There was little common ground between myself and the rest of my family growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but the bulk of it existed in the teetering stacks of Stephen King books that stood stationed next to our first-floor toilet. My big brothers were bad kids, and I was the arty little weirdo in their wake, content to keep my head down until it was time to get out, though quietly convinced that they were as cool-as-cool-could-be even while enduring their abuse (and snatching their discarded books). King united us as more than the drowning children of a shattering divorce; we were all Constant Readers. The words he wrote made me feel part of something in ways that extended beyond the borders of our crumbling suburban walls.

Among my kin, books were a crucible, a bridge to cross into young adulthood before getting down with rock music, drugs, and other illicit behaviors. First came the elves, then came the horror. King was filed just below the less murky rivers of Tolkien’s mines and mythril, both authors left around and therefore tacitly handed down by our father, who mostly worked, but sometimes still read. Everything he finished got stationed next to the can for us to swallow and digest amongst ourselves.

I first tested the dark waters of King on my own, a bit too young for the fast and dirty turbulence of an early short story collection called Night Shift, which left me with a well-stirred mix of sleeplessness and excitement. I back-paddled to some lighter fair with Eyes of the Dragon, its Arthurian overtones feeling less like an alien shore after spending so much time in Middle Earth. I could sense a deeper truth in Mr. King’s voice, something dark and forbidden and real down his well of words. I dove into my first thousand-page-plus verifiable King tome: IT. I was twelve.

IT was a revelation. “What can be done when you’re eleven can often never be done again,” King writes. Here was a book not only starring a bunch of kids, but a bunch of weird kids who swore and were all messed up, not unlike a certain brood of young people I shared a lavatory with — and King treated them with respect. Sure the horror was there, but at its core, between inhaler puffs and an evil shape-shifting clown/blood-sink, there was a look at kids as real people. These kids were scared and screwed up, and they had to face the consequences of what had happened to them when they became scared and screwed up adults. The effect was like someone had thrown back the filthy curtain on the sitcom of adulthood. The strange nightmare that is life and living it is everyone’s. I thirsted for more.

I crawled through the sewers of IT and dove into the sprawl of The Stand, and my elder brothers nodded in approval as I walked towards the apocalypse — and further away from them. The Stand is a story that just doesn’t let you go, an epic on another scale, as if someone took Middle Earth and churned it into Middle America (while murdering nearly everyone there). Every character and turn of the sprawling story held me, the detail and scope unlike anything I’d ever imagined; I couldn’t turn its pages fast enough. I can still see the rag-tag bunch of heroes roll up to the big bad Flagg in Vegas, I can still hear Geddy Lee on my stereo wailing prophecies by their side. Like a dusty forgotten snow-globe, King had taken the old story of good versus evil, shaken it up, and thrown it out the window — but it landed intact, renewed, and in the form of a big beautiful book unlike anything I’d ever swallowed. I made it through the End of Days and felt cleansed, as if still more of human nature was laid bare before my impressionable eyes and mind. “Who gets to be best-liked in any community? Who is the most trusted? Why, the man who does the dirty job, of course, and does it with a smile. The man who does the job you couldn’t bring yourself to do,” King writes. Good would always fight evil, but everyone in the fight is filthy too. I’d crossed another bridge, jumped off, and emerged covered in grit and ready to walk down my own long road.

So I sprinted. I took in all that I could with varying swaths of consistency and quality, from evil zombie cats of Pet Cemetery to the bizarre bazaar of Needful Things. I drank up everything I could get my hands on between 1990 and 1996, always guided by King’s unwavering compass, which always sought truth between the freakish dark cracks and crevices beneath us.

Then I found Roland, ‘The Gunslinger.’ Stephen King’s self-proclaimed Magnum Opus, it sets forth as another tale of good versus evil, and distant echoes of Middle Earth reside here too. The Gunslinger chases a man in black towards a Dark Tower in a muddy reflection our own world. Another strange kid comes into the mix, a kid who is written to be real and honest and true, a kid from our world who stands in the face of danger and falls, and the Gunslinger pulls him along kicking, just like King pulled me, some tenderness beneath all that brutality (but certainly no mind paid to the fact that neither of us was old enough to drive). Then the whole thing goes beautifully bonkers with some mystical doors on a beach in The Drawing of the Three. As King delved deeper into the Dark Tower mythology, I plunged with him and came gasping to the surface to glimpse all of his stories turning on one point, one Tower. The scope of his ambition extended beyond genre and plot and into the wave of the power of story itself to transform and transcend. He showed me that there were so many other worlds than this one, and that they all mattered. I wanted to go shape my own.

And then he stopped. So I stopped, too. The Wastelands, the third of his tremendous Dark Tower series would be his last in the tale of Roland for six years. When you’re eighteen or so, that’s quite a few years. By the time I read it, The Wastelands already had a few years on it, and it looked like there was no end to Roland’s journey in sight (and that strange tale ends on a real train-ride of a cliff-hanger, let me tell you). All of which coincided with my exit from my childhood home, hometown, and life. By the time I went to college in the Big City, I’d managed to convince myself that I floated above the pulp and foolishness of certain childhood stories and pastimes. A lot less energy was spent listening to Rush, playing video games, and reading Stephen King. “Go, then. There are other worlds than these,” said Jake, the child-friend of The Gunslinger. I would come back around to King’s world, just like I would come back to Rush and video games. I just needed to swim around on my own for a bit.

Years rolled by, and my Very Adult Perspective washed away as the days and nights churned forward. I became an artist, and loved every minute of it, but somehow so much of my work was wordy and covered with the echoes of stories. Each little piece of art I forged began to whisper weird words in my ear. My mind had been shaped for something more than just pictures and their sprawling implications. And then Stephen King got hit by a car.

He was okay enough, or as okay as you can be when you get whacked by a giant hunk of metal, but by all accounts, it woke him up a bit. Not that he hadn’t been writing in the meantime, but he knew he needed to finish Roland’s tale, and while he was at it, he’d finish up another little book about the craft itself, On Writing.

I found him again shortly thereafter, and he splashed me awake, too. On Writing was its own revelation. “Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe,” he writes. All my young life of reading King, one of my favorite parts of his books were his warm introductions — his wandering set-ups for where he was at and where he was headed while he made this particular book or that particular set of stories. While I relished each strange tale, I also treasured these unadorned and easy-going asides. Here was a book all in Uncle Stevie’s unvarnished voice, all about the craft that he’d mastered. In it, he told me a lot, but more than anything else, he told me what I already knew — that I had to do one thing in order to tell the stories I wanted to. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” Steve says. I had to actually write, dammit.

So I do.

My siblings and I have all grown up now, and thankfully survived our own long crucibles, bridges, and countless pulp novels more or less intact. While our worlds and journeys are quite different, we still connect over stories, and most of all, the stories of Stephen King. I was late to the pool party coming back around to King’s magic words, but now it’s a joy to return, like seeing an old friend who you thought you’d sailed away from. He was there in the water all along.

So I do what Steve said. I put words on the page, one at a time (and I mind the adverbs, by the by). Stephen King molded my mind when I was young enough not to realize it, and then he convinced me to give it a try myself, and no amount of words I put down will ever be thanks enough.

It turns out that throughout all of it, I learned, at least a bit. King’s twisted claws sculpted my mind to believe that any idea I could have, if I could see it, if I could dig it up and dust it off properly, I could bring it to the surface. And now I write my own weird tales, I put word after word to page after page to set sail into my own stories. One of these days I might even make one that’s worthy of a spot next to someone else’s toilet.

Marty has a new book, Retro Games! Forty of the world's mightiest old school games from the NES through The Playstation. Marty is an artist, writer, teacher, and maker living in Brooklyn, NY, best known for making sock puppets and taking their pictures. He's written four other books, made lots of art, and made even more sandwiches. He loves writing about video games and pop culture almost as much as he loves digesting them. Yum!

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Carston

    September 10, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    I’ve never connected with an article on books and writing more than I have with this one, bravo sir.

    • Marty Allen

      September 10, 2017 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks so much, Carston!

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Girl Power? The ‘Black Christmas’ Remake is About as Subtle as a Sledgehammer to the Face

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Black Christmas 2019 Review

1974’s Black Christmas is not one that is regularly referenced on Best Horror Movie lists, as it’s a standard foray into the sub-genre of slasher movies. Having already been remade in 2006 to a terrible response, it’s the kind of film ready to be re-visited — a not-so-classic in need of a boost. Directed by Sophia Takal, it’s unfortunate that 2019’s version does nothing to make the premise something worth watching, and instead falls very short of its mark.

During the Christmas break at Hawthorne College, sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) prepare to host an “orphan dinner” for those left at the college over the holidays, only to be harassed and eventually attacked by a group of masked, hooded men.

Black Christmas 2019

In order to make the premise more relevant for today’s crowd, writers Takal and April Wolfe update the nuts-and-bolts slasher with a feminist twist, including on-trend topics of toxic masculinity, rape culture, and female empowerment. Whilst its heart is in the right place, its execution is sloppy and comes across as condescending. Conversations about missing DivaCups and dildos are just as commonplace as those on white supremacy and the patriarchy, making it an often embarrassing watch and feeling like a cynical cash-grab.

The characters we’re supposed to be rooting for are likeable enough, but so paper-thin; a small breeze could knock them over. With one-trait personalities (PTSD-ridden, activist, loved-up, and comic relief), the film fails to create a truly well-developed female character, or one of any gender; men fall into one of two categories: chauvinist or sensitive love-interest, both to the extreme.

Black Christmas 2019 REview

Horror is a difficult genre to make work, but the fundamentals are to scare. Unfortunately, Black Christmas also lacks in the basic necessity of frightening its audience. Most supposed chilling moments come in the safe-bet form of a jump-scare, a lazy device that considers making a film-goer bolt in their seat as a result of a loud noise a win in their efforts to unsettle — and that’s if they work. Quiet for long stretches of time before the inevitable jump, the scares here will only work if this is the first horror film you’ve ever seen.

There is something to be commended in the fact that director and co-writers have attempted to differentiate from the original by adding a supernatural element to the proceedings, but by the third act, this ploy is so absurd as to be laughable (protagonists receiving text messages from a supposed ghost should never be a thing), and does nothing to enhance the story.

Black Christmas 2019 Review

It’s a shame for lead Poots, who has shown in the likes of Green Room that she is a talented actor, and worth more than the sum of this movie’s parts. Doing her best with what she’s given, Poots is a light in an otherwise dim proceeding, along with Shannon as sorority sister Kris, and the two have decent chemistry when on screen together. None of the rest of the cast stands out — most likely due to their lack of character — but the performances for a horror film of this ilk are par for the course, passable.

With good intentions, Black Christmas is a frustrating watch, with its overt dialogue and occasionally patronizing tone. It’s disappointing that a film with feminism at its core, directed by and co-written by women, misses its target by such a large distance.

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‘Richard Jewell’ is Both For and Against Character Assassination

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Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell (Warner Bros.)

With Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood does two things at once: tell a compelling story of something that was all over the news about 25 years ago, and seek to make an incendiary political point meant to play to very specific modern-day resentments. Let’s just say the former objective is much more defensible than the latter. 

The film tells the story of a security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) in the Atlanta area who was working in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics when a bomb went off in the park. Jewell was first treated as a hero who rescued people during the bombing, but was later considered a suspect in the bombing by the FBI and named as such in the media. But Jewell, it turned out, was innocent, with domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph confessing to the crime years later. 

As depicted in Eastwood’s film, Richard Jewell bears more than a passing resemblance to Shawn Eckhardt, the character Hauser played two years ago in I, Tonya — a real-life creature of a sensational mid-’90s true crime case who hadn’t done much with his life, but has aspirations of something greater. In Jewell’s case, it’s thwarted dreams of becoming a cop, which haven’t kept him from worshiping and idealizing law enforcement. He’s also depicted as a man so simple-minded that he keeps doing things that made him look super-guilty, even though he isn’t.

Richard Jewell reporters

Richard Jewell takes us into how exactly the man came to be accused. The FBI, in the person of agent Jon Hamm, applied its vaunted profiling tactics — the ones you’ve seen lionized on such shows as Criminal Minds and Mindhunter — to the case, and came up with the wrong guy. 

Filmmaking-wise, what we have here is similar to most other late-period Eastwood films, and the pacing and storytelling aren’t the problem. The sequence right before the bombing, in particular, is especially harrowing and suspenseful.

While in the works for many years (Jonah Hill was at one point set to star as Jewell, and remains a producer), Richard Jewell itself was produced and completed uncommonly quickly, with production beginning in June, just six months before its release. Nevertheless, it creates a reasonable approximation of 1996 — The Macarena included! — and while seemingly the majority of studio movies these days are shot in Georgia, this one at least is actually set there.

The problem, however, is another decision the film makes. We see Hamm’s FBI agent leaking the existence of the investigation to media, specifically reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), after what’s essentially a seduction on her part. This is the film’s biggest misstep, which is in fact an act of pure character assassination against Scruggs, a real-life journalist (deceased) who is accused of horrible ethical breaches that she almost certainly never committed, including offering to sleep with sources in exchange for information. Beyond that, the character is played by Wilde as something resembling a cartoon witch. There are a lot of unique characters who exist in newsrooms, but this character isn’t one of them.

And despite what you may have read, the Richard Jewell makes the FBI look even worse than the media. It also shows Jewell, who spent his whole life wanting to be a cop, defending and making excuses for these unscrupulous agents who are falsely accusing him. The script also doesn’t really get the dynamic that takes place between media and the police/FBI quite right; in 95 percent of high-profile crime stories, the only major source is law enforcement, and media outlets just go with whatever the cops tell them. 

What the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did was report — accurately, at the time — that the FBI was looking at Jewell as a suspect. Yes, they should have done more due diligence, but they also didn’t make things up. Had Scruggs behaved the way she did in the film in real life, that would be worthy of condemnation. But she didn’t. 

Furthermore, yes, what happened to Richard Jewell was pretty terrible. But on the other hand, he was never arrested, he never did a day in jail or prison, and was cleared after about three months. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but…other wrongfully accused people have gone away for years and decades. Multiple movies this year, including Brian Banks and Just Mercy, have told the stories of such cases. 

Hauser is very good, and getting to be expert at this sort of role, although the performance ends with him delivering a long, articulate speech in which Jewell turns into essentially a different person.  Sam Rockwell, on something of a roll with Jojo Rabbit and Fosse/Verdon, is just fine as his lawyer. There’s also a performance by Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s mother, that’s been getting inexplicable praise — it’s more a regional affectation than a great performance. 

While Eastwood — the Obama invisible chair speech notwithstanding — is far from a down-the-line right-winger, the timing of this particular release is somewhat cynical. It’s clearly pitched right now in a way to exploit discontent with media misconduct and “fake news,” while also directly in line with that weird cultural tic in which cops are seen as beyond reproach, while the FBI is evil. 

Richard Jewell isn’t bad as a character study, but its agenda is a whole other story. 

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‘Apollo 11’ Leads the Best Documentaries of 2019

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Best Documentaries of 2019

2019 was a generally strong year for documentaries, with many of the best ones sharing one or more of several elements: a focus on music, a resonance with the current moment, and the word “Apollo” in the title.

The Year’s Best Documentaries

Best Documentaries 2019

1. Apollo 11. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, this documentary made masterful use of archival footage — much of it on 70mm film long not available to the public — to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission on its 50th anniversary. It’s one of those films that’s nerve-wracking, even as everyone watching knows exactly how it all happened. The film opened in theaters, then showed on CNN, and then returned to theaters this month. 

Best Documentaries 2019

2. The Kingmaker. The Queen of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield takes another look at the ridiculously wealthy, this time catching up with Imelda Marcos, the 90-year-old former first lady of The Philippines. For its first half hour, the film hints that it’s going to be a soft-focused look at a newsmaker of the past, before it takes a sudden turn into showing its subject as a monster who looted her own people of billions and was almost certainly complicit in horrific war crimes. The film played in theaters this fall and will debut on Showtime in early 2020. 

Best Documentaries 2019

3. Love, Antosha. The life of the beloved late actor Anton Yelchin, which ended in a freak accident in 2017, is celebrated with home movie footage, clips of his movies, and interviews with a star-studded array of his co-stars. It’s a sweet remembrance of a talent gone far too soon — while also telling the story, through both letters and interviews, of his relationship with the loving Russian immigrant parents he left behind. Now streaming from on-demand providers. 

Best Documentaries 2019

4. City of Joel. Director Jesse Sweet’s film is an astonishing work of anthropological filmmaking, as he looks at the tension and land disputes between a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who arrived in an upstate New York town, and their secular neighbors. The film, which played the Jewish film festival circuit and is now available on demand, is uncommonly evenhanded, letting both sides of the dispute have their say. 

Best Documentaries 2019

5. David Crosby: Remember My Name. There were many very strong music documentaries this year, but this film, directed by A.J. Eaton and produced and narrated by Cameron Crowe, was the best of them all. Crosby, knowing he’s in poor health and unlikely to live many more years, is uncommonly candid about his regrets, especially his many feuds with his famous musical collaborators. Now available on demand, it’s also the best film Crowe has been associated with in almost two decades.

Best Documentaries 2019

6. Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Mads Brügger’s documentary starts off by looking at the mysterious 1961 plane crash death of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, and then goes off in all sorts of crazy directions, including a supposed plot by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s to infect people with AIDS. Not everything asserted here is true (most likely), but it’s all wildly intriguing. Now available on demand. 

Best Documentaries 2019

7. The Apollo. The year’s “other” Apollo documentary takes a look back at the history of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, a mecca of African-American culture for nearly a century. The film looks at how the theater has waxed and waned in importance over the years, while using a staged reading of Ta’Nehesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a framing device. This one played at festivals and then debuted on HBO; it’s currently available on HBO’s streaming platform. 

Best Documentaries 2019

8. Horror Noire. Director Xavier Burgin’s documentary takes a look at the history of black horror films, using 2017’s Get Out as an inflection point to look back on decades of African-American representation — as well as ugly tropes — in the horror genre. The film had some big-screen showings before streaming on Shudder. 

Best Documentaries 2019
Tell Me Who I Am CR: Netflix

9. Tell Me Who I Am. Director Ed Perkins’ documentary about a pair of twins, and the family secrets one must tell the other, is very creepy and unsettling, but still essential. It debuted on Netflix, where it’s a perfect fit, and is still streaming there now. 

Best documentaries 2019

10. Diego Maradona. This look at the 1980s soccer star, directed by Amy filmmaker Asif Kapadia, makes masterful use of archival footage to depict the rise of this one-of-a-kind athlete. The doc, which played on HBO this fall and is still streaming there now, is a must for the many Americans who have gotten into soccer for the first time in the last decade, and are unfamiliar with the stars and stories of the past. 

****

Honorable mention: Black Mother, The Human Factor, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, Carmine Street Guitars, Mike Wallace is Here, Varda by Agnes, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Screwball, American Factory, Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce,

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