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Four Kings is a Winning Hand

I’ve written many times about my practice of listening to audiobooks when in the studio, and especially books by one of my favorite authors Stephen King. As I’ve said before, King’s combination of great storytelling, rich and engaging characters and dialog, plentiful humor and supernatural/strange subject matter makes for the best kind of audiobooks.

I’ve been perplexed for years about the lack of certain King audiobooks on either CD or download. Back in the days before iPods and even easily portable CD players I used to check out cassette versions of King’s books and listen to them when working. That was a serious pain in the behind, as most tapes only ran 45 minutes or so per side and even with an auto-reverse tape deck (remember those, kids?) I’d be getting up every 1.5 hours to change the tape. Some books I listened to had a dozen or more bloody cassettes. Right now I have every CD I ever owned plus a hundred downloaded audiobooks on my iPod which could hold 2 times more than that and which I could listen to for about 7,000 hours without having to get up. Not even I can work for 7,000 hours straight… I’d have to go to the bathroom by hour 1,800 or so. But I digress…

I just couldn’t understand what the holdup was in transferring these older audiobooks to digital format and selling them on Audible.com. They were already recorded and done, after all. What was the problem? Maybe it was a copyright issue with the narrators, needing to negotiate permission to reissue the performances in a different format. Seeing as how King read at least two of those older ones himself that seems unlikely, but who knows? Anyway, last month several of these older gems finally showed up on Audible, along with King’s latest “Duma Key“, and I have gotten a chance to listen to them recently. Here’s some quick reviews of four “new” Stephen King audiobooks:

Duma Key- King’s latest novel is also his latest audiobook. The story is about a rich building contractor from Minnesota (King did his research, the Minnesota towns and lakes mentioned really do exist and he describes the area pretty accurately) who has a near fatal accident and rediscovers a forgotten love of drawing and art. He moves to the Florida Keys to recover both physically and mentally from the accident and his imploded marriage, and supernatural hijinks ensue. This book reminds me a little of “Bag of Bones“, as it unfolds as a mystery amid the spooky happenings and isn’t just a ghost story.

King continues to demonstrate a recent fascination for visual artists. It used to be a lot of his characters were writers, but lately many have been artists in the visual sense… painters, illustrators, sketch artists. The final book of the “Dark Tower” series featured an artist who could draw things into reality. “The Cell“‘s main character was a comic book artist. The principal character in “The Mist” was a commercial illustrator. Once again in “Duma Key” a talented artist is the main focus. And of course King’s “Dark Tower” books are getting the comic book treatment from Marvel right now. There’s no point here… just an observation.

I’m not going to review the book itself (nor the others) in much detail here. I did like it quite a bit, easily the best one he’s done since he wrapped up “The Dark Tower” in my opinion. Not the best audiobook, though. It’s well read by John Slattery, but the story itself is a bit too long and too much of a slow burning exercise in soul searching and not quick paced enough in the plot department to make for constant riveting listening. Still a recommended listen, though.

Needful Things- This 1991 book is subtitled “The Last Castle Rock Story”, and after the ending I guess King wasn’t kidding (although he has since gone back on that idea and set several books in and around Castle Rock, including the Recent “Lisey’s Story”). It’s set in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock, which is smaller than the fictional King town of Derry but not as small as the fictional King town of Jerusalem’s Lot. “The Dead Zone“, “Cujo” and other earlier King stories were set there, and continuing characters appear in “Needful Things“. The story revolves around a charismatic and mysterious man who comes to this small town and opens a shop called “Needful Things“, where his wares end up costing much more than money. It’s a new spin on an old tale, and is in fact a kind of tangent story line to “Salem’s Lot“. No vampires here, but the subplot in that book about the opening of an antique store and the vulnerability of a small town to an ancient evil is reexamined here. It’s classic King, with deep and engaging hometown characters, plenty of humor, an overblown ending and a world class bitch of a woman as one of the principal characters. King can write nasty women like no other can… he either had mommy issues or had one hell of a witch for a next door neighbor growing up.

The book itself is read by King, about which I have mixed feelings. On one hand I am a firm believer that the author brings an understanding of the material to the table that a performance artist cannot possibly match, but at the same time a professional voice talent is a professional for a reason… and ordinarily an author is not for a reason. In King’s case he does a valiant job on the few of his books he has read, but his nasal voice just never quite loses its distractive quality. If I was an author I would never read my own work for the same reason… I have a terrible narrative voice. King’s performance isn’t bad it just isn’t good (however his handling of the humor aspects of the story are particularly well done) but it’s still worth a listen. The story is under rated among King’s more well known works.

Insomnia- I had forgotten how much I liked this book until I listened to this fantastic reading by Eli Wallach. It’s the story of an elderly man who begins to lose more and more sleep each night after his wife’s death, until he begins to see “auras” and other dimensional things and creatures that are invisible to most people. He eventually discovers he has been chosen to try and prevent the interference of an evil monarch from another dimensions who is trying to upset the balance between Order and Chaos via a catastrophic event. It’s a long but engaging tale and as usual full of wonderful characters and dialog. “Dark Tower” fans will find it is one of those stories that ties directly into that saga… in fact it might be one of the only that actually mentions Roland by name briefly and one of the characters eventually plays a major role in the last Dark Tower book. The story is very good, moving along both well paced and well thought out. Again there is an element of mystery in it that gets you over some of the longer stretches of inaction.

Wallach’s performance is terrific. He is laugh out loud funny in parts and deeply moving in others. His voice as the impish Atropsos is hilarious. He moves you along smoothly and invests the material with a lot of deep feeling. Here is a case where the reader brings something more to the table than a lesser talent could, and the audiobook is the better for it.

Dolores Claiborne- This is one of those books I listened to on audio cassette oh so many years ago. It’s the story of a New England island widow who confesses to murdering her husband years earlier while denying she murdered the old woman she had been taking care of just a few days earlier. This is one of those few King books with almost no supernatural elements in it save some visions Dolores has of a young girl that seem misplaced anyway. The entire story is told in the first person via a taped interview done by Dolores to the local law officer and a court recorder. It’s a solid story that wraps small town island life, domestic abuse and the odd dynamic of two old ladies who take care of one another in different ways all together.

The story is good but not one of King’s most memorable, but here we again find how the performance of the narrator can make it into something special. The book is read by Frances Sternhagen, (best known as Cliff Claven’s mom in “Cheers“) who could easily play the character on the stage or screen. She is the perfect New England old lady, and infuses the story with real New England no-nonsense old lady attitude. The funny parts are the funnier for it, and the serious parts likewise seem that much more sobering. There is something inherently hilarious about such a prim and proper, grandma-next-door type actress swearing up a storm with the colorful languange King favors. In my opinion I think the brief interludes where Dolores asks for water or whiskey or whatever and we hear the clink of the glass and chug a lug of the liquid is a little distracting and certainly unnecessary. Sternhagen reads what amounts to a one person play with unflinching skill and we do not need the extra sound effects to support the illusion she is sitting in a room with other people giving a statement.

It was an enjoyable week in the studio revisiting these stories, some good and some great. I’d recommend them all.

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