Mr. Mercedes: A Review

I can't imagine that it took Stephen King long to write Mr. Mercedes. Still a gifted and prolific writer, King produces two or three book-length projects each year, in addition to his myriad short stories, columns, and essays. Within that bunch there is usually a true gem or three, but this one is, alas, merely average.

King trots out the old chestnut of the retired cop and his daily face-off with the prospect of eating his old man's service revolver. There's a psycho whose sexist and racist tendencies just seem tired and distracting here. Yes, we understand that he doesn't like women (even his mother, who repulses him even as she relieves him of certain tensions...ick) and anyone that is different than him. By the way, he's a generically handsome young white man who is good with technology and, for some reason, hates the world.

It's like King ordered Brady Hartsfield straight out of the literary characterization catalog (probably filed under 'P' for Patterson). This is a major failing in the book, as King could have offered a glimpse into the nature of evil by going against the grain here and creating a character outside of the homogeneous tradition of sociopathic behavior. But with nothing new to offer, this just reads like another dime-store serial-killer paperback. 

Hodges is similarly one-dimensional. Overweight. Obsessed. Unorthodox. Tough. He's a rhino whose subtle move is to hit perps with a sock filled with ball bearings. Sheesh...

The strangest element of the story is the plot point concerning Olivia's suicide. I'm sorry, but I just don't buy that a person whose Mercedes sedan was stolen to execute such a nefarious task would feel such enormous guilt that she would actually commit suicide.

Tragic and horrifying that someone might take a car for that purpose? Oh, certainly. I wouldn't keep the damned car, as she did--that's for sure. 

But she was the victim of a crime as well. Whatever folks do with her car (and the explanation of leaving the car unlocked and having that leaked to the papers--well, it just strains credulity) after they steal it is on them. She didn't drive that car into the crowd and, as it turns out, she never left the car unlocked in the first place. Just absurd... 

Mr. Mercedes is not without its charms, of course. Much of it is written in the present tense, a device King has proven exceedingly adept at executing. That's no small trick. And I really like Holly's character development, and Janelle's positive spirit. The pathos created in the opening passage, while folks assemble for a job fair in the early hours of the morning, is vintage Stephen King. Too bad the sincerity and heart captured in those opening pages wasn't sustainable throughout the remainder of the novel.

About every fifth King effort is average. This is that fifth book (put it out there with Lisey's Story and From a Buick 8 and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), and that's okay. 

King is still hitting homers at a rate that makes him a first-ballot HOFer...


On Professional Writing and Publishing...

I've written about this subject in the past, so my thoughts are on the record. I think Jane Friedman has some intelligent and practical advice in this fine post. Well worth the read if you are thinking of working in the publishing field. There is, most certainly, a living to be made there. The catch is, these aren't the same jobs that existed even five years ago. Developing a portfolio, establishing a platform, and honing a wide variety of communication skills is paramount in this rapidly shifting industry...


The Babadook (2014)

I watched Jennifer Kent's mind-blowing The Babadook (2014) last night. What a stunning narrative achievement. I awoke today with an unsettled feeling in the pit of my stomach and an intense urge to hold my daughter and assure her that her world is safe. 

This is a creature feature, to be sure, but it's also an intense examination of the nature of grief and loss, and the tenuous connections of family. Essie Davis delivers the performance of the year. Alternating between vulnerability and sheer, raw anger and purple hatred, I'm stunned by how versatile and talented this actor is. She plays exhausted more convincingly than I've seen in any film since Bale delivered the previous gold standard in The Machinist, and her ability to emote in the third act just pulled chill after chill out of me.

Those shrieks...my goodness!

This one certainly builds a sustained tension. It's a throwback to films like Rosemary's Baby, with its extended, dreamlike television montages and careful build toward the big revelations. Without spoiling the film, I'll just say that the monster's appearance itself is conservative and, while scary, Mister Babadook is not nearly as harrowing as the family dynamics playing out between mother and son.

The film works against categorization, and the hints are as meticulously placed as in any horror film since The Sixth Sense. Sure, it satisfies Chris Booker's "overcoming the monster" plot pattern, but it's also a keen examination of Jung's shadow archetype. In that sense, it really plumbs the depths of the monsters inside all of us--of those repressed (suppressed) urges and instincts that gather in the trenches of the human psyche.

One of Kent's finest accomplishments here is the juxtaposition of power between mother and son. There is a moment, right around the thirty-minute mark, when we see Sam's characterization shift.

"He always speaks plainly," their neighbor, Grace Roach says twice. And indeed, despite his portrayal as a child out of control, it's Sam that keenly notices the changes in their barren, joyless home life. 

"I love you, Mom," he says in one telling scene.

"Me too," she replies, which might say more about what she's doing with that basement than any other aspect of the film.

Noah Wiseman was superb in his portrayal of Sam. The scene in the back of the station wagon will make your heart leap up into your throat. Seeing your child in that state...sheesh! 

Both of my sisters suffered from frequent seizures in our childhood. I've never forgotten that sense of utter and total loss of control.

This is a film I will probably watch again this evening, hopefully with my wife. I can't recommend it enough, both as the scariest film that I've seen since The Exorcist III, and as the best film of 2014. 


Monday Matinee: "Seasons of Belief"

Now that we've turned the corner into December, I feel in the clear on sharing this little beauty. The holidays aren't complete without a screening or two of "Seasons of Belief," a wicked little holiday yarn penned by Michael Bishop and depicted well on the underrated Tales from the Darkside

We still don't speak The Grither's name six times around here. Why tempt fate, because who really wants to be Grithered on Christmas Eve?

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...