It’s no secret I am a big Stephen King fan. I could never quite figure out why he was so often panned by critics. Sure, his stories were sensational and based on horror and paranormal subjects… but he brought his characters to life in such a way that the books often left me saddened that these were not real people that were going to continue to lead their lives (those that lived, anyway) once the back of the dust jacket showed me it’s inevitable ugly face. His dialog never seemed contrived and I could count on several places in each book that would surprise me with laugh out loud humor, as well as moments of genuine emotion (and not just horror). King’s books were always about the people, their relationships, interactions and how their lives intertwined… with liberal does of vampires, space aliens and demonic cars of course. As such I was delighted to see a new novel out by Steve (can I call you Steve?), even if under his not-so-secret pen name of Richard Bachman. I bought the book in an airport on my way to somewhere. I was half way through it when I happened to get in a two hour line for an iPhone, and after securing my place in line I ran to the bookstore and bought another copy (mine was at home on the bedstand where all good books belong) to finish while in line. Even in the midst of the noisiest mall in North America you can lose yourself in a Stephen King story.
In his foreword, King uses a term I hadn’t heard before. He called Blaze a “trunk novel”. The term describes a novel written and put away in a trunk (or similar) for a period of time, then taken out, dusted off and printed. Blaze is a 34 year old trunk novel, written by King in 1973 under his Bachman name (he claims Bachman died in 1985 of “cancer of the pseudonym”). For reasons I don’t quite understand King wrote under two names early in his career. One would expect that he did so to separate his “serious” work from the stuff he did to make a buck. However I find it hard to tell the difference between the Bachman stories and the King stories, other than King’s own tended to be more overt in their supernatural premises and the Bachman stories less so, although the macabre touches that made King famous were still there, just under the surface.
Blaze is the story of a hard case loser named Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. “Blaze” as he was known to his friends (the few he had) has lived the hard life since his dad threw him down the stairs for eating cereal in the living room, then picked him up and tossed him down a few more times just for good measure. Robbed of what was shaping up to be a strong intellect by the resulting brain damage and put in an orphanage, Blaze’s life story unfolds in a series of flashbacks while he tries to pull off the kidnapping of the infant heir to a shipping magnate’s fortune… helped along by the ghost of his dead friend George. Blaze, by the way, is 6 foot 8 inches tall, weighs 270 lbs and has a giant dent in his forehead courtesy of his old man. He has “conversations” with George as he tries to figure out how to kidnap the kid, deal with him and get the ransom. The homage to Of Mice and Men is obvious and readily pointed out in the foreword.
Blaze is part crime novel, part paranormal story (small part, really) but mostly meant as a tragedy. Fate is not kind to Blaze, who endures much as a young kid growing up in an abusive orphanage where his few chances at escaping to a good life are thwarted by bad luck or his own, thinking-challenged condition. We are meant to feel great empathy for Blaze, who is shown to be good at heart and kind, but who circumstance has made into a career criminal.
Or are we?
The biggest downfall of this novel is it’s ambiguity. King… uh… sorry, Bachman… never gives us a concrete understanding of what is going on here, or who Blaze really is. On the surface he seems to be a basically gentle giant who doesn’t like to hurt people and has a good heart down deep. Yet we never really understand if George is a genuine ghost, or just Blaze’s buried intellect (one that was twisted by those years of abuse as most would be) voicing it’s clever criminal thoughts. At one point George almost gets Blaze to suffocate the baby… are we to believe that George is really an outside influence, or is Blaze capable of that heinous act all on his own? In fact, it’s never perfectly clear if there ever WAS a George. The flashbacks indicate there were… Blaze has memories of capers and cons that require two people to pull off, but there are other indications that George has always been a figment of Blaze’s imagination. When Blaze despairs that George’s voice in in his head now, George replies: “I wasn’t never nowhere else”. There are other incidents where the ghostlike voice of George speaks to him with cunning criminal ideas as well, even before he is “dead”. During a solo prison stretch for Blaze when George is on the outside, a George in-his-head advises him to pull schemes like holding on to his weekly prison cigarette rations (Blaze doesn’t smoke, and hadn’t been taking the offered smokes each Friday) and selling them to inmates on Thursday when they are dying for a cigarette. The real truth of George’s reality is never fully given or inferred, with conflicting story points. There isn’t even enough given to let us form our own opinion. As a result, there is little connection with Blaze for the reader… certainly not enough for us to feel real empathy for his life of tragedy.
Then there is the absurdity of his situation, which is laid on a little too thickly. His string of bad luck, from his brain damage through his relentless drawing of abusive authority figures to his few positive moments being destroyed or turned aside by someone’s untimely death… even to his string of “good luck” during the kidnapping events that prevent a quick capture and ultimately just prove to be more bad luck in making his eventual fate more inescapable, all seem ridiculously impossible. In the end, I just didn’t feel much at all for Blaze, just kind of a mild… oh well.
Amid all this is still an engaging story, with a clock ticking kind of chase by federal agents that I wish would have been turned up a notch or two. These elements were a small part of the story, which focused mainly on telling Blaze’s tale of woe. It would have added to the suspense to heighten the feeling of Blaze being hunted. Still “Bachman” does a nice job of switching back and forth from present to past and presenting us with the events that have made Blaze the man he is, such as we understand him. Some of the touches that would later become familiar King staples are glimpsed now and again. The humor, the casual use of sex and vulgarity, the sometimes brilliant exchanges of dialog… these are seen in Blaze even if in unpolished form.
In fact it’s fun to see some elements of later King books “tried out” so to speak in this early work. Things like phrases and concepts he would later incorporate into other works appear here. For example, in a flashback it’s recounted how the first headmistress of Blaze’s orphanage dies of a stroke Blaze thinks people are saying she “had a stork”, then gets it straight. King would use this exact same phonetic mistake in a flashback in “Dreamcatcher”. He uses the phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” as well, which he’d later use in the short story “The Road Virus Heads North”. There are also names like “Randy”, “Hubert” and others that would appear in books like “‘Salem’s Lot”. I find that fascinating… do authors often have a little file of things like this they find interesting and look to use them in stories, like a pile of special bricks used among the common ones when building a wall? Interesting idea.
A bonus at the end is a short story called “Memory” about a man who is seriously injured in an auto accident, and loses his marriage while recovering both physically and mentally from the ordeal. This is part of (or has inspired) a longer tale to be published in 2008 called “Duma Key”. The short story is riveting, and I look forward to that book.
Despite Bachman missing the mark that his alter ego King would hit so well with respect to creating characters that connect to the reader in strong and personal ways, Blaze is still well worth a read. In fact I have an extra copy laying around I’ll sell cheap!
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