Category Archives: Books

RPG boss monster analysis: the Balrog of Moria

For as long as I can remember, I’ve done the same thing every time I’ve acquired a published adventure for Dungeons & Dragons or any other roleplaying game: I flip to the very end to see what the adventure’s Final Boss is.

So you can imagine my joy when I first got my grubby teenage hands on the ultimate fantasy megadungeon and feverishly flipped to the end of the book to read up on the most famous dungeon boss of all. I’m talking about the Mines of Moria, and the famous Balrog that lurks in its depths.

That’s right: in 1984, Iron Crown Enterprises published Moria: The Dwarven City, a 72-page sourcebook detailing Moria for the Middle-Earth Role Playing game (MERP) and its sister game Rolemaster. And sure enough, there at the end are stats for the Balrog.

So could your plucky band of adventurers actually take out Durin’s Bane? Let’s find out!

Reducing Durin’s Bane to a bunch of numbers

Here’s the Balrog’s game statistics and powers:

stats for the Balrog

Egads, that’s a lot of gibberish. What does all that information mean?

Well, for starters, the Balrog is level 66. (Confusingly, the game rules handle it as level 36 for certain attack purposes, hence the number 36 in there.) The Balrog is much higher level than your characters are or ever will be. The longest-running MERP campaign I ran, way back in high school, stretched on for a couple years and when it ended, the PCs were in the level 15-20 range. I think it’s safe to say that unless you’re playing with the world’s most generous dungeon master, you’re never going to get a MERP character leveled up to match the Balrog’s power level.

A 1977 illustration of the Balrog by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt.

The rest of those numbers all boil down to this: the Balrog is extremely powerful in combat and very hard to kill. It’s got a huge amount of hit points and high defenses; combat skills so high that it’s virtually guaranteed to land a one-shot killing blow against anything it swings a weapon at; and the ability to mentally control enemies and/or freeze them with fear. It also has limited flight (the game designers have taken a stand in one of the internet’s oldest debates.)

Does it have weaknesses? Well… the Balrog is a bit of a one-trick pony; it’s an insane combat monster but has few powers that aren’t related to fire or killing. It knows lots of fire-related magic (fireballs and the like); but the other spells at its disposal have less utility in combat, and seem to be geared toward negating obvious player tricks (like an invisible character sneaking up on it…) or keeping track of its domain. When it comes to magic, an extremely powerful wizard (like Gandalf) would have some advantages… as long as they could keep away from the Balrog’s sword and whip.

The Balrog does have one single relatively low statistic. That’s right—just as you suspected, the Balrog lacks empathy. (Bad joke aside, Rolemaster’s “empathy” stat governs a character’s affinity for divine and healing magic. No surprise that’s not the Balrog’s strong suit.)

Most significantly, because it’s a being of fire, its strength and powers are significantly muted if the Balrog is completely submerged in water. A waterlogged Balrog will probably still pulverize you, but it won’t be able to set you on fire while doing so.

Is this faithful to Tolkien’s depiction of the Balrog?

As adaptations go, it’s not bad! From scattered references in various Tolkien texts, we know that Balrogs are pretty much just really tough, mean fiery guys (who can maybe fly). There’s not much depth to them beyond that, either here in the game or in Tolkien’s novel. As statted up here, the Balrog is certainly physically powerful and on fire, and its ability to terrify victims is in keeping with what we see in The Fellowship of the Ring. (It also fits the Tolkien theme of evil as the imposition of one’s will on somebody else.)

If anything, the designers may have even gone a little overboard with the Balrog’s physical power. But it’s hard to get an accurate read on exactly how deadly Tolkien bad guys are in a fight, because so many of them are “plot device” monsters (more on that below).

Is it killable?

The quick answer is “no.” In a straight-up fight with a party of typical player characters, it’s hard to see how the Balrog could lose. Any enemies that got within combat range without being dominated or frozen in fear would quickly get incinerated and/or annihilated.

But of course, the longer answer is… “maybe.” Every experienced dungeon master has watched in horror as players managed to take down a powerful monster by surrounding it and hammering it with spells and attacks; no dungeon master should assume that a lone enemy, even one this powerful, is invincible. The Moria sourcebook anticipates this by noting that the Balrog is accompanied by a host of trolls, demons, and orcs—all of them much less powerful than the Balrog, but easily able to bog down a team of adventurers while the Balrog picks them off.

But in the end, a group of high-level characters, while not a direct match for the Balrog, command significant powers and abilities; it’s very hard to predict the kind of advantages they could create for themselves by working in concert. You can bet they’ll be coming up with ridiculous schemes to drop the Balrog into a lake, or collapse a few hundred tons of cave ceiling down onto it, or something else. An indirect, story-driven approach that avoids physically battling the Balrog is the only way I could possibly imagine a band of adventurers taking down Durin’s Bane.

If it’s not killable, what’s it doing in the game?

Mostly I think this is just a fun exercise to “stat up” one of fantasy literature’s most famous boss monsters. Certainly, I enjoyed poring over these numbers as a teenage gamer, imagining what a Balrog showdown would look like. Be honest: you’d be disappointed if you picked up a roleplaying module about Moria and it didn’t have stats for the Balrog.

But how would you actually use the Balrog in a regular game? MERP is mostly interested in defining the Balrog by its tactical combat abilities, which are far beyond the typical adventuring party’s. But although the module doesn’t discuss it, the Balrog is really a “plot device” monster, like most evil overlords in fiction. Most of the evil bosses in Middle Earth seem nearly invincible in combat but can be defeated by a hero who works out their unique weaknesses and exploits them for narrative effect. Think of Smaug (weakness: that one missing scale), Shelob (weakness: Elvish magic, hobbit tenacity), Sauron (weakness: the Ring), the Witch-king of Angmar (weakness: women), etc. It could be very satisfying to watch the players work hard to uncover the Balrog’s one weakness and use it to banish or destroy the demon without getting into a big physical fight. Finding that weakness would be an epic quest in itself, which sounds perfect for a roleplaying game.

If you’re itching to see the Balrog’s +240 whip attack in action, though, there are a few possibilities. One could see the appeal of an extremely high-level “Balrog hunting” game, in which players control canonical movers and shakers like Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel in a high-powered raid on Moria. Those characters are statted up in other MERP sourcebooks, and as a team would be a match for the Balrog.

And lastly, bold lower-level characters traveling through Moria might have a close brush with the Balrog without actually engaging it in combat. A group of extremely clever and lucky characters might try stealing treasure from its lair and making a mad dash for the exit before it notices or catches them, much as Bilbo Baggins did with Smaug.

But mostly, it’s just fun to stat up the Balrog.

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Encountering Cthulhu in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum

I recently decided to re-read Umberto Eco’s strange, dense novel Foucault’s Pendulum. I was pleased to discover that it not only holds up over the decades since I first read it way back in high school, but that I found much more in it to appreciate now that I’ve had a few dozen additional years of, well, “life and stuff” to color my perspective.

Much of the book consists of a very convoluted tour of occult beliefs and conspiracy theories—at times it’s just a firehose of information from Eco’s very widely-read mind. It’s hard to imagine any bizarre historical belief, no matter how obscure, slipping by without at least a brief mention in Pendulum.

And so as I read, I found myself waiting hopefully for a mention of… Cthulhu. While most of us read Lovecraft for the cool slimy monsters, bits of the Cthulhu mythos (or at least, its infamous tomes) have been co-opted by real-world belief systems. Mostly (I presume) in a winkingly self-aware postmodern kind of way. That’s exactly the sort of oddball thing that should crop up alongside all the other crazy beliefs Eco explores. And anyway, it’s hard for me to imagine that Lovecraft wasn’t represented in the pulpy pop culture that Eco appreciated.

Friend, I was not disappointed. In the final pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, a shout-out:

Iä, indeed!

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Stephen King Short Story Project, #41: “Mile 81”

The story: “Mile 81,” collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. First published in 2011. (Incomplete) Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A bizarre, mostly-immobile alien creature, crudely camouflaged as a run-down vehicle, appears at an abandoned highway rest stop, where it waits for Good Samaritans to approach and then eats them. After a sequence of hapless people are killed, a trio of kids drives the creature off by burning it with a magnifying glass.

Photo © Bangor Daily News.

Photo © Bangor Daily News.

My thoughts: I’m tempted to say that “Mile 81” is a quintessential Stephen King story. It’s not one of King’s best stories, but it pulls in so many of his favorite themes that it reads pleasantly like a grab-bag of Stephen King tropes. In an introduction to the story, King describes it as one of his favorites, and I think I can see why.

So let’s walk through the major Stephen King themes that make appearances in “Mile 81.” First up is boyhood nostalgia. The closest person to a main protagonist in this story is a 10-year-old boy named Pete, who has one foot in the innocence of childhood and the other in the scary, exciting world of Growing Up. The entire first third of the story simply follows Pete as he makes his way to and then explores the abandoned Mile 81 rest stop. It is Pete who will ultimately use his Kid Ingenuity to figure out how to drive off the monster lurking at the rest stop.

Many horror and fantasy stories are coming-of-age tales, and a good number of the genre’s great writers specifically use preteen boyhood as the framework for their horror: several that spring immediately to mind include Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Peter Straub’s Shadowland, and King’s own It. I won’t delve into the (fascinating!) intricacies of this sub-genre now, but a common feature in such stories is that the “magical worldview” of childhood lets kids triumph over supernatural evil, while grown-ups (who set aside their belief in the magical and supernatural upon Coming of Age) are often helpless against it. That’s certainly the case in “Mile 81;” Pete (and two other small children who join him for the story’s conclusion) accept at face value that they’re dealing with an evil man-eating alien monster and act decisively; every single adult who appears in the story falls victim to it because they simply don’t/can’t recognize or believe what they’re dealing with.

The next recognizable Stephen King staple here is the random and unexplained manifestation of evil, in a form that is uncomfortably both terrifying (a shapeshifting horror!) and ridiculous (…that looks like an old car and eats people!). Many of King’s best stories exhibit a worldview in which Bad Stuff happens to Good People for no discernable reason or grand purpose. King also likes exploit the awkwardness we feel when confronted by an Evil Thing that is both legitimately scary and slightly goofy at the same time. Shape-changing alien blobs and killer cars fall squarely into that tortured category.

Lastly, King loves his characters. Read a few King stories and you’ll quickly see how much he enjoys sketching out the backstories of everyone who crosses into his tales—even minor throwaway characters who exist in the story only to be killed off horribly. Several such characters appear here (all of the doomed adults), and King lavishes several pages of non-essential but highly entertaining background for each of them, giving us a feel for the life choices and quirks of personality that make them the kind of people who will pull into an abandoned rest stop to investigate a creepy-looking car. There’s a Bible-thumping lay preacher (King James Version only, of course!) who wants more than anything to emulate the Good Samaritan; there’s the lesbian horse trainer who can’t not stop to help somebody in need; there’s the vacationing family of four that any parent will quickly relate to. (The parents are killed, but the plucky children survive, although they’ll probably be in therapy for the rest of their lives.)

These are all great themes—story elements that King obviously loves and that he rarely fails to put to good use. “Mile 81” falters in just a few areas, notably its odd pacing: Pete is the main character for the first third, then disappears entirely to be replaced by a series of short sketches of doomed grown-ups, after which he abruptly reappears in the final pages to defeat the monster. The depiction of young children in action is mostly good. Pete is a believable ten-year-old, although the slang terminology he uses feels rooted in King’s own childhood rather than the modern era in which this story takes place. There’s a very likeable six-year-old who is a little too worldly-wise for her years (I say this as the father of a precocious daughter), and her little brother who goes through fairly plausible four-year-old mood swings between mourning his eaten-by-a-monster parents and wanting to retrieve his Transformers toys from the car. The tone of the story’s finale, however, is strangely upbeat and light-hearted given that two of the three survivors just watched their parents get devoured by an alien.

But all in all, this works well. It’s a good choice with which to open a short story collection, both for its general quality and because it’s a very recognizably Stephen King story. Recommended.

Next up: Let’s stick with The Bazaar of Bad Dreams for a bit here, and tackle the next story in the collection: “Premium Harmony.”Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #40: “Night Surf”

The story: “Night Surf,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1969 (but revised heavily for its inclusion in Night Shift a decade later). Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A small band of teenagers has survived an apocalyptic plague that has wiped out most of the rest of the world’s population. But they’ve succumbed to a hopeless nihilism, and are starting a descent into barbarism. As the story ends, one of them falls ill, and the others realize that they may not be immune to the plague after all.

Not quite like this. But I can't miss a chance to post the greatest video game cover art ever.

Not quite like this. But I can’t miss a chance to post the greatest video game cover art ever.

My thoughts: “Night Surf” is a quiet, sad post-apocalyptic story told from the perspective of the Bad Guys.

In most grand post-apocalyptic stories, the plucky heroes of the tale eventually encounter a band of barbaric marauders roaming the wastes looking for victims. These marauders are usually more than a little crazy, often bloodthirsty or even cannibalistic, and are led by the most clever or brutal of their number. Or they’ve formed a sick, murderous religious cult that they believe protects them from extinction. They’re a dark mirror of the heroes: heroes cling to their humanity in the face of apocalypse, but these lost souls have surrendered their humanity and live cruel, almost beastlike lives.

“Night Surf” paints us a picture of the sort of people who, having somehow survived the apocalypse, are on the verge of embracing madness and nihilism. Despite their survival, they’ve lost all hope for their future, and lack the moral strength to rebuild… or do much of anything besides wait around for death. As the story begins, they have just crossed a line into barbarism: they’ve murdered a dying plague victim as a sort-of-joking sacrifice to any dark gods out there that might spare them from the plague. They don’t really believe it, but what can it hurt, right?

Bernie, the main protagonist, remembers just enough of his conscience to understand that what they’ve done isn’t funny or appropriate; it’s horrible. But he went along with it anyway. He’s a bitter, unlikable person, cruel to his girlfriend (a fellow survivor) and constantly pulled into memories of the times before the plague, when everything was OK and they weren’t bad people.

Little actually happens, plot-wise, in “Night Surf;” it’s mostly a simple portrait of despair. As the story ends, it’s looking like everyone is going to get what’s coming to them: one of the group of survivors comes down with plague symptoms, and the rest of them begin to process the fact that their perceived immunity might be just one more cruel cosmic joke.

It’s a sad and understated story, which feels strange to say given that it features a killer plague and a band of murderous survivors. King effectively balances the hopelessness of the survivors’ lives with memories of more innocent times, with the result that you feel pity for these lost characters, rather than anger or hate.

“Night Surf” has an obvious connection to King’s post-apocalyptic novel The Stand, and is presumably set in the same universe as (or in an early version of) that novel. In The Stand, a superplague wipes out most of the world population, and a ragtag band of survivors bands together to rebuild society. The lost souls of “Night Surf,” if they survive the plague, would almost certainly wind up in the camp of The Stand‘s villain, who gathers weak-willed and evil-inclined survivors into his cruel community.

This is a good story that cuts deeper than I expected. And it’s got me eyeing my copy of The Stand, which is surely due for another re-read one of these years….

Next up: By happy coincidence, King has just released a new short story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I don’t think I can resist, so let’s go ahead and look next at the first story in that collection, “Mile 81.” I’ll be tackling this at a slower pace than before… which gives you some time to run out and buy a copy!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Living and dying, we feed the fire

51DM4S1XS0L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Whelp, the the aforementioned hiatus has continued. The “busy and distracting” elements I vaguely referred to in my last post actually turned out to be a medical condition the details of which I will spare you; but which has made it difficult to do much of anything in the evenings. Most of the time, when I get sick, a part of me is excited about the prospect of being forced to stay in bed and reading. However, I’ve at last met my match in a medical condition which keeps me from being able to read for any significant length of time.

That said, I figure I made it about halfway through my latest Stephen King short story project and I’m eager to continue, albeit at a reduced pace. By a strange coincidence, this week sees the release of a new Stephen King short story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I plan to pick up. If I can get some regular posts up about the stories therein, I would very much enjoy that.

Any other King fans out there who plan to pick this up? I don’t usually pick up King novels when they’re new (I have a big backlog of older King novels to read first), but I can’t resist a new short story collection.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #39: “Battleground”

The story: “Battleground,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1972. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: After murdering his latest target—a toy company executive—a hitman receives a package in the mail… from the victim’s mother. It’s full of little G.I. Joe toy soldiers, who come to life and wage an extended battle against the hitman in his high-rise apartment.

26629-sp-e1364423887880My thoughts: Short, simple, and fun, “Battleground” isn’t the sort of story that invites deep reflection or discussion. There’s just something wonderfully appealing about the thought of a troop of little green plastic soldiers running around performing cute little military maneuvers. But let me point out a few things.

First, by an odd coincidence this is the second story featuring a hitman protagonist that I’ve read this month. I don’t think King does this especially often (King superfans, please correct me); but a hitman does have a few benefits as a protagonist in a horror story. For one, they’re usually armed and dangerous, so you can drop them into tight situations and expect that they’ll put up a good fight. For another, they’re by definition bad people—so while we might cheer them on as they face off against supernatural threats, we don’t mind when they inevitably die in the end. They deserve it.

Secondly, this story, short as it is, accomplishes something that many horror films and stories do not: it skips the usual extended sequence where the protagonist, confronted with evidence of the supernatural, spends a long time questioning his sanity and trying to explain away the situation rationally. When the reader/audience knows for certain that the supernatural element of the story is real, it’s tedious to wait for the protagonist(s) to finally catch up. In “Battlefront,” we get to jump right into the action because Renshaw, the hitman, always puts the practicalities of survival first: it might make no logical sense that he’s being attacked by toy soldiers, but he’ll ask the troubling questions after he’s taken care of the threat.

Unfortunately for Renshaw, he’s not going to survive this engagement. He puts up a good fight, taking down toy helicopters and dodging rocket attacks as he makes a fighting retreat into his apartment’s bathroom. After a humorous nod to World War 2 general Anthony McAuliffe’s famous “NUTS” letter, Renshaw comes up with a desperate plan to sneak around the outside of the high-rise and surprise-attack the toy soldiers with a homemade Molotov cocktail. Unfortunate for Renshaw, he underestimates the firepower at his enemy’s disposal; he is blasted to pieces when the soldiers detonate a toy nuke.

Although “living dolls” and other animated toys have a history of being utterly terrifying when deployed in horror stories and film, the animated soldiers here are not scary; I was cheering them on throughout and hoping they’d manage to take down Renshaw. It’s a funny story, and like “The Reaper’s Image” early this month, makes for a nice bit of filler to read in between more intense King short stories.

Next up: “Night Surf,” in Night Shift.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project Interlude #2: “The Langoliers”

The story: The Langoliers, collected in Four Past Midnight. First published in 1990. Wikipedia entry here.

twilight-zone-odyssey-of-flight-33Spoiler-filled synopsis: A handful of passengers on a red-eye flight across America wake up to find that the rest of the passengers—and the plane’s crew—have vanished into thin air. They manage to land the plane (one of the group is a pilot), only to find that the world is gray and dead—they have gone back in time, but it turns out the past is an empty shadow of the present. And strange creatures called the langoliers, who “tidy up” history by literally devouring the past, are headed their way.

My thoughts: The Langoliers was the story that launched my decades-long Stephen King obsession.

I was in late high school (so 1992 or thereabouts) when my mom came home from the library with a copy of Four Past Midnight. I had never read anything by Stephen King before, and in fact viewed him with faint suspicion and distaste. To this day I’m not sure what led my mom to pick up that book for me from the library, but I’m glad she did.

I read two of the four novellas in Four Past Midnight before the book had to be returned to the library: The Langoliers and The Sun Dog. I don’t recall which one I read first, but I know that while The Sun Dog left little impression on me, The Langoliers absolutely blew my mind. I’d never read anything quite like it in all my years of voracious reading. I went on to read The Stand, followed by It, and by then my addiction was real.

All this to say that I’ve both looked forward to, and dreaded, returning at last to The Langoliers, which I never revisited after my initial reading. Like most of the King stories I read in the early days of my King addiction, it sits atop a very high pedestal; and I’ve often wondered if it really was that good, or if that’s just the nostalgia talking. (Some of the King novels I’ve re-read, such as The Stand, have lived up to their reputation and my own memories. Others, like It, proved disappointing on a re-read.)

So how is The Langoliers? It’s not as mind-bogglingly good as I remember, but it’s not bad, either. The setup is excellent: a motley crew of airline passengers trapped on a plane, all dropped into the deep end of a seemingly impossible mystery. They’re up against two threats: an external threat in the form of the “langoliers,” reality-devouring monsters who “clean up” the past; and an internal threat in the form of one of their own number, who is deeply, homicidally crazy.

When this novella was first published in 1990, I suspect that the piece of pop culture it called most immediately to mind was one of two Twilight Zone episodes: “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” in which a commercial airliner travels into the past, or possibly “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”—two classic uses of air travel as a horror-suspense setting. But a modern reading of The Langoliers evokes instead evangelical Rapture fiction, notably the execreble Left Behind series… which also features a handful of passengers discovering that everybody else on the plane has vanished, leaving behind a scattering of clothes, false teeth, purses, and other uncomfortably intimate items. But The Langoliers predates Left Behind, if not the dispensationalist obsession with the Second Coming; and as the passengers discuss the meaning of what’s happened, nobody ever mentions the Rapture as a possibility.

What follows is 200 pages of competent suspense (not horror, really) storytelling. The surviving crew contains the usual assortment of stock characters ranging from the mundane (The Coming of Age Kid, The Writer) to the somewhat ridiculous (the British Secret Agent), and each of the characters gets their chance to shine at some point in the narrative. Most of the action takes places on the ground, once the group manages to land their plane; alone in a completely empty and lifeless airport, they use clues in the environment to deduce (with implausible accuracy) the nature of their predicament, and figure out a way to get the plane airborne again and back through the time-warp that brought them here. It’s at this point that the crazy guy (a well-written example of the Insane Psycho, a staple Stephen King character) strikes, and also that the heroes get their first glimpse of the rapidly-approaching, all-consuming langoliers. A redshirt character dies, a few Noble Sacrifices take place, the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, and the heroes finally escape back into the present time.

The Langoliers is competent, but strangely for its relatively short length, actually comes close to dragging at points. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I get the feeling when reading King novels from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s that somewhere during this period, King’s editors stopped doing much to reign in King’s verbose tendencies. In The Langoliers, as in It and other novels from this era, King belabors routine sequences, lets slips some cringeworthy dialogue (“Now I find myself involved in a mystery a good deal more extravagant than any I would ever have dared to write,” says the writer character at one point) and gets a bit too maudlin when handling emotional scenes. It’s not unenjoyable, but it’s Stephen King at his “safest.” The only glimmers of good ol’ Stephen King viciousness are found in the excellent sequences told from the viewpoint of the doomed, unsettlingly sympathetic psycho character.

This is good stuff. But it also feels like Stephen King on cruise control; The Langoliers is caught awkwardly between the cutthroat intensity of King’s early novels and the more mature reflection of his later work.

A closing note: The Langoliers is generally referred to as a novella, although at 230 pages I’m not sure why we don’t just consider it a regular-length novel. My guess is that by the late 1980s, King’s legendary writing pace had produced a backlog of novels awaiting release, so his publisher packed the four shortest manuscripts into an anthology and called it Four Past Midnight.

Next up: “Battleground,” in Night Shift.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #38: “One for the Road”

The story: “One for the Road,” collected in Night Shift. First published in 1977. Wikipedia entry here. Note that this post contains spoilers not only for “One for the Road,” but for the novel ‘Salem’s Lot.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: An aging resident of small-town Maine relates a haunting story from his past involving the dead and cursed town of ‘Salem’s Lot. Years ago, a traveller passing through the area with his family runs off the road in a blizzard near ‘Salem’s Lot (the same town featured King’s early short story “Jerusalem’s Lot”); he seeks help at a tavern a few miles away. The narrator and another local accompany the desperate man to recover his wife and daughter from the stranded car—but when they arrive, both have become vampires. The husband is killed (er, vampirized), and the two locals flee for their lives.

dracula1700My thoughts: Another vampire story! “One for the Road” is best read as an epilogue to the (excellent) vampire novel ‘Salem’s Lot; without that context, it loses much of its impact. Whether or not you read it in connection with that novel, however, this is a short, simple story that belongs to the “Want to hear about something spooky that happened to me?” around-the-campfire genre. It all builds to the vampire encounter in the final pages—a conclusion that is telegraphed from the story’s opening pages but is nonetheless creepy and tense when it unfolds.

Cantankerous yet good-hearted rural residents of Maine (my wife, who went to college in Maine, tells me these are called “Mainiacs,” but I refuse to believe that) are a regular feature in Stephen King stories, and it’s obvious he has both a personal familiarity with and a fondness for these characters. When a traveler arrives at a small-town tavern looking for help recovering his wife and daughter from their stranded car, the protagonist and his fellow locals seem reluctant to get involved, which initially strikes us as callous. But as the story unfolds, we learn that there’s a good reason for their attitude: ‘Salem’s Lot, the town where the traveler’s car went off the road, is a “bad place.” Nobody actually likes to say words like “vampire” out loud, but everybody knows that you steer clear of the Lot if you know what’s best for you. In the end, the locals risk their lives to help the traveler, but to no avail: unable to convince him that the vampire stories are true, they can only watch as he falls victim to his now-vampire wife and daughter.

If you’ve read ‘Salem’s Lot (and you should—it’s a clever, multilayered novel, and one of King’s best), this story is a nice epilogue, although it doesn’t actually give you much new information. In the novel, the town of ‘Salem’s Lot acquires a new resident: a Stoker-esque European vampire who proceeds over the course of the novel to turn the entire town into vampire slaves. Although the heroes of ‘Salem’s Lot finally manage to destroy the master vampire, they are forced to flee in the face of an entire town of feral, masterless vampires. The novel ends with the only two survivors returning to ‘Salem’s Lot to burn it down. “One for the Road” mentions a massive fire that occurred in the recent past, but clearly indicates that its effect was only temporary, as the ruined town is still haunted by the undead.

King’s vampires are intriguingly traditional, especially when you consider that at the time that ‘Salem’s Lot and “One for the Road” were published, Anne Rice was radically redefining the vampire genre by casting the undead as tragically hip aesthetes. King’s vampire mythology, by contrast, is straight out of Bram Stoker: a cultured, highly intelligent, and demonically evil master vampire (served by a still-living “Renfield”) whose victims become monstrous undead who are weaker and subservient, but also possessed of an animal cunning. I’ve nothing against Anne Rice’s take, but after several decades of sympathetic vampires, it’s nice to face off against a flock of inhuman, bloodthirsty, and horrifyingly clever fiends.

One last observation: this story’s closing shocker is that the traveler’s seven-year-old daughter is a now a vampire too; we’re meant to mourn this repulsive corruption of innocence. This is a powerful theme (even Anne Rice, with her sympathetic take on the genre, wrings a lot of unease out of the idea of a child vampire). Unfortunately, a decade or two of horror and J-horror films involving creepy children has muted some of the shock value here.

Next up: “The Langoliers,” in Four Past Midnight. “The Langoliers” is technically a novella, not a short story, but I’ve been reading it over the last few days.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #37: “Umney’s Last Case”

The story: “Umney’s Last Case,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1993. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A hard-bitten Chandler-esque gumshoe is plagued by the sense that something is “off” as he goes through a typical day on the job. In time, he learns that he is a character in a series of hard-boiled detective novels—and that the author plans to destroy his protagonist and take his place in this fantasy version of 1930s southern California.

thegreathumphreybogart1My thoughts: As I’ve noted before, Stephen King has an unabashed love of hard-boiled detective fiction. “Umney’s Last Case” is both a pastiche of Raymond Chandler and a playful bit of meta-commentary on the art of writing.

Let’s look at the pastiche element first. My knowledge of the hardboiled genre is limited, but I know enough to recognize that King here incorporates every cliché (of both setting and language) that the genre has to offer. Clyde Umney is a smart-mouthed, sharp-eyed P.I. who conceals beneath his gruff exterior a good heart. His is a comfortable world, both for him and for the reader: it’s full of familiar stereotyped characters (femme fatales, helpful street urchins, leggy secretaries, sinister mob bosses) who act and talk the way we expect, all in a slightly fuzzy, nostalgic version of Los Angeles.

But the story begins a shift into Stephen King territory when Umney’s life begins to fall apart: people he relies on leave (often expressing a strange contempt for Umney as they do so), his favorite diner closes, and his landlord is re-painting his dingy office building with bright, cheerful colors. It is not long before a “client” arrives to break the news: Umney is a fictional character, the protagonist of a popular detective series written in the 1990s. The “client” is the author, who (driven by personal grief) is seeking to escape into his own fantasies. Through some unexplained mechanism or act of willpower, he switches places with Umney, settling into Umney’s place and booting Umney into the real world. As the story closes, Umney is starting to get a grip on life in the modern world, which he hates. And he’s learning to write detective fiction, with payback on his mind.

As King is wont to do, he mixes lighthearted and serious elements, to mostly good effect. While clearly enjoying the detective genre, he has fun poking its conventions—for example, pointing out the blurry timeline (the genre is set in an eternal late-1930s). But when the story gets weird, it also takes a turn for the serious and even unsettling; we learn about horrible tragedy in the author’s life (death of his wife and child, debilitating illness) that has driven him to take refuge in his own fantasy world. There are numerous references to AIDS (the author’s child died after an infected blood transfusion) that highlight the contrast between the allegedly gritty but actually… cozy world of detective fiction, and the ugly, unfair, disease-ridden world of the present.

Beneath the genre emulation, King is asking some interesting questions about the art of writing. What is the relationship between an author and the characters he creates? Is there a sense that they take on a life of their own independent of the author’s plans? These questions have a certain over-earnest “Creative Writing 101” feel to them (and form the basis of his 1989 novel The Dark Half, which also features a writer of pulp fiction whose creations acquire a life of their own), but at the same time it’s fun to see them given literal expression in a story. King writes about writers a lot (eye-rollingly often, really), but between the fun pastiche, the Twilight Zone twist, and the musings about the nature of fiction writing, he makes this story work.

Next up: “One for the Road,” in Night Shift (yes, my wife located my lost copy of Night Shift).Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Stephen King Short Story Project, #36: “The Night Flier”

The story: “The Night Flier,” collected in Nightmares and Dreamscapes. First published in 1988. Wikipedia entry here.

Spoiler-filled synopsis: A cynical tabloid reporter stumbles upon what looks like an actual legitimate story: a serial killer who flies a private plane from one rural airport to another, leaving exsanguinated victims behind. The reporter finally tracks down and confronts the killer—who turns out to be a vampire.

draculaMy thoughts: Stephen King writes good vampire stories. I sometimes think it’s a shame he doesn’t write more of them.

That said, he’s written more about vampires than he has about most other specific types of supernatural menace (enough that there’s a Wikipedia page about vampires in King’s work). To my knowledge, the following King tales feature vampires:

  • ‘Salem’s Lot (novel)
  • “One for the Road” (short story)
  • “Popsy” (short story)
  • “The Night Flier” (short story)
  • numerous vampires appear throughout the Dark Tower novels and stories

Despite that impressive (and generally well-reviewed) listing, I don’t think anybody considers Stephen King a “vampire writer” in the way that, say, Anne Rice is. King writes so many books that touch on so many different horror tropes that he’s never been especially associated with any one specific subgenre of horror.

But I sometimes wonder if, when his excellent early novel ‘Salem’s Lot hit it big, King thought about going all-in on vampires. His only previous novel, Carrie, did not lend itself especially well to becoming a franchise. But vampires… vampire stories seem to lend themselves to sequels. It’s not too hard to imagine the murky ending of ‘Salem’s Lot being spun into follow-up novels, the way that Anne Rice turned her 1976 Interview with a Vampire into a decades-long series.

In fact King talked for many years about writing a sequel to ‘Salem’s Lot… but for whatever reason, he never did. From what I hear, he claims to have wrapped up the loose ends from that novel in the course of his Dark Tower books. I think that, with a few exceptions, he’s just not a “sequel” guy.

While it’s fun to imagine an alternate history in which King fleshed out a vampire mythos across dozens of vampire novels, I’m glad King has never tied himself to a specific type of horror. To be sure, many of his stories bear strong thematic similarities to each other, but when you pick up a Stephen King novel you can be reasonably certain that you’ll be reading something new. King is sometimes dismissed as a pulp novelist who cranks out overly verbose potboilers, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for keeping things different.

Ahem. Back to “The Night Flier.” In short: it’s very strong. Richard Dees, a deeply cynical tabloid reporter (and a minor character in King’s novel The Dead Zone, strangely enough), manages to correlate the arrival of a specific small Cessna airplane with a sequence of bizarre murders around obscure rural airports. Guessing that law enforcement and/or the mainstream press will make this connection any minute now, he boards a plane himself to confront the killer at his next port of call (not because he cares about the murders, but because he knows it’ll make a great story). The confrontation goes poorly, although the vampire spares Dees’ life (after exposing his camera film, of course).

The vampire elements are interesting enough; as he often does, King puts an ageless and immortal enemy into mundane modern contexts (the vampire is a genteel, caped, Bram Stoker-esque lord of the night who takes to the sky in a Cessna Skymaster rather than bat wings). But the heart of this story is the character of Richard Dees, the jaded reporter. The 30 pages of this story are mostly a character study of a man with almost no soul: Dees is a master of manipulating other people’s emotions (through lurid tabloid reporting and photography), but himself is unable to experience those emotions. As we read, we are initially repulsed by Dees’ callous and contemptuous attitude toward his readers (and most of humanity), but as the story proceeds, that revulsion fades into sympathy. Dees is lost; if he had a soul once, it’s been buried deep throughout the long years of his tabloid career. His encounter with the vampire (and the sight of its slaughtered victims) threatens his sanity, but might also present a sliver of hope: might this experience be so disruptively shocking that he’ll feel something again?

We don’t know, and I’m probably reading a bit much into the story. But Dees is a good character. I don’t know if Dees’ demeanor is meant to suggest a specific type of psychological disorder (at points, his lack of empathy makes him seem sociopathic). Regardless, Dees is one of the better characters I’ve encountered in my short story project thus far.

Next up: “Umney’s Last Case,” in Nightmares and Dreamscapes.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather