Archive for Stephen King

Richard Stark: The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit (aka Donald Westlake)

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , on September 20, 2008 by davehurwitz

I am a continual source of aggravation to my booksellers, the good people at Mysterious Galaxy.  Even at a store specializing in genre fiction, I often confound the staff by requesting books from obscure authors, strange imprints, and dubious small presses.  Most of the time, these are books that only I would be likely to pay good money for.  Once in a while, however, I come across something that other people will want, and a few extra copies get ordered along with my own.

A case in point are the University of Chicago Press reprints of the first three novels by Richard Stark:  The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit.  Stark is the pseudonym and evil alter ego of Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Donald Westlake.  While Westlake writes noir and heist novels with a comic flavor, there’s nothing funny about Stark and his infamous creation, Parker.  This dangerous man is an “operator,” a professional thief, and his crimes, successful and otherwise, form Stark’s subject.  The Hunter is the basis for the classic John Boorman film Point Blank, as well as the less impressive Mel Gibson vehicle Payback.

My enjoyment of Stark’s work is hard to quantify.  For one thing, Parker is thoroughly amoral.  He follows a code of conduct:  Don’t burn your partners.  Don’t kill cops or civilians.  But the purpose of this code is to minimize trouble, and Parker follows it out of professionalism.  Parker deals harshly with betrayal, but is never the first to break the rules.  Apart from this, he is almost without personality.  He goes home to his companion, Claire, but I cannot imagine them relaxing on the sofa together.  Stylistically, Stark adheres to Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing stripped-down prose from which the author disappears.  Combine this with Parker’s lack of affect, and there is something positively Zen about a Stark novel.

So what’s the appeal, then?  In a review of the more recent Flashfire, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “The awful fascination in these Parker tales comes from knowing the protagonist will always do whatever is necessary to protect himself and to achieve his goals.  The tension comes from never knowing what might happen next.”  This isn’t exactly it, at least not for me.  Once you’ve read a couple of Parker novels, they become, frankly, fairly predicable.  So why do I still read them?

Part of it is pure pleasure in a heist story that takes itself seriously.  It’s impossible to go out to a caper movie these days without seeing George Clooney and Brad Pitt pulling off ludicrously elaborate scores and mugging for the camera.  Stark’s no frills narratives make an impressive contrast.  But the biggest part, the part the Wall Street Journal won’t admit to, is that every man secretly identifies with Parker.  Deep down, we all want to be the badass, the man who always gets what he wants, the man who doesn’t give a damn for the rules of society.  That’s who Parker is.  His blankness is a space the reader can inhabit, a safe and temporary sociopathy.

Stark has always had a cult following.  There is fierce competition on auction sites for his out of print titles.  I recently paid more than twenty dollars for a beaten-in mass-market copy of The Blackbird.  That’s why the U. of Chicago’s reprints are such good news.  According to Westlake’s official site, they plan to bring out three a year until the whole run is back in print.

In his most recent column for Entertainment weekly, horror god Stephen King names Stark as one of the best practitioners of “manfiction,” a term coined by King’s literary and biologic offspring Joe Hill.  Perhaps this, along with the attractive new reprints, will help win both Stark and Parker the larger audience they deserve.

Dave Hurwitz

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Fear Changes Everything: The Mist and the Hospital Elevator

Posted in Cinema with tags , , , on April 17, 2008 by davehurwitz

When I saw Frank Darabont’s The Mist in the theater, I came home in pieces. I had to hug my kids, hard. I didn’t want to let them out of my sight. I felt as if I’d been mugged, ambushed. Horror movies are supposed to be fun, right? I’d gone out expecting something amusingly schlocky, maybe on par with Dreamcatcher. What I got was the cinematic equivalent of a kick in the stomach, a heavy dose of real horror.

Perhaps I should have known better. Darabont has directed two previous King adaptations, The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. There are several criticisms I could level at both of these movies, the worst of which is that both are rather smarmy in places, but I would never claim that either was poorly made.

For those of you who haven’t seen The Mist, the premise is fairly simple. A mysterious mist surrounds a small town grocery store, trapping a number of people inside. Worse yet, there are strange creatures in the mist intent on eating anyone who sets foot outdoors. It quickly becomes clear that the monsters are not the only problem, or even the most serious one. Over a period of forty-eight hours, the prisoners of the mist descend into irrationality and madness, lead by the local religious crazy, played with an awful gusto by Marcia Gay Harden. This is done so skillfully and in such elegant increments that when the prisoners turn to human sacrifice, it feels both unexpected and inevitable. Even when a small number of people who have retained their minds escape from the store, they are not immune to the powerful effects of fear. I don’t want to give anything away here, but the ending Darabont conceived for his film is even more shocking than King’s original.

When I stumbled home from the theater that day, it was not the thought of carnivorous critters that haunted me. Could my neighbors, my coworkers, my friends really be this way? Could I myself, if pushed to the edge of hysteria, really do such things? I knew the truth, though I would have denied it if I could. As stock clerk Ollie Weeks (Toby Jones) says in the movie, “As a species, we are fundamentally insane.”

I can hear, or at least imagine, a few of your muttering out there. “Come on, Dave. Two days from orderly checkout lines to human sacrifice? That would never happen. People aren’t like that.” For those of you who doubt, allow me to present a real life illustration from my childhood.

In a hospital, which I shall not name, there was an elevator. Unlike the other elevators in this frequently renovated building, this one dated to the original construction. And unlike the newer elevators, it was conveniently located to the office of my Peditrician. This elevator was painfully slow but serviceable. My mother and I never had reason to distrust it.

In the course of a visit to the doctor, my mother and I got onto the elevator as usual. Riding the elevator with us was a nurse. Working at this particular hospital, this nurse must have seen, on a daily basis, sick and even dying children, young victims of accidents and abuse, infants born too young to survive. Presumably, she must have dealt with these horrors with some measure of composure. The doors closed, and the elevator began to grind its way slowly upward. Somewhere between floors, the elevator began to shake. The floor, in fact the whole car, vibrated violently up and down to the accompaniment of a loud banging noise. The nurse, this detached caretaker of wounded children, fell to her knees and began to pray.

I’m not talking about a silent prayer for strength, either. Nor was this a swift prayer before leaping into action. The nurse wept. She moaned. She called upon Jesus to save us. Jesus dwelled in the elevator’s ceiling, evidently, if the direction of her gaze was any indication. She prayed loudly and thoroughly for rescue. She did nothing else.

In contrast, my mother immediately told me to sit on the floor with my back against a wall, then helped me to do so without falling over. She scanned the elevator’s controls and pushed the big red emergency stop button. The elevator stopped shaking, stopped moving entirely. The nurse continued to pray. With some difficulty, my mother pried open the inner elevator doors. We were exactly between floors. She pressed the call button.

A cheerful voice somewhere in the hospital assured us that the elevator had been doing this off and on all week, that it was nothing serious, that we could either switch the elevator back on and proceed safely but bumpily to the nearest floor or wait for a rescue party from security, whichever we liked. My mother looked at me, seated more or less calmly on the floor. “We don’t want to miss your appointment,” she said. I nodded. I was young, and my mom knew everything. She switched the emergency stop off and pressed the button for the next floor. The elevator began to bang and bump slowly upwards again. The wailing to Jesus continued.

When the elevator finally arrived, several uncomfortable minutes later, it took quite a while for the doors to open. When they did, we saw that we were at least a foot below the level of the floor. A security guard and an orderly gave us a hand out. The nurse was the first to leave the car. She scrambled out on unsteady legs, wiping at her ruined mascara with the back of one hand. She had fallen silent as the elevator doors slid open, and said nothing more to any of us. My mother and I took the stairs the rest of the way up. We were not late for my appointment. The whole experience had lasted no more than fifteen minutes.

I watched The Mist again recently on DVD. The film was no less wrenching the second time around, though I did notice more details. The film has some thematic similarities to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which I am teaching this semester, and I thought about showing certain scenes to my students. I brought this up in class today. No one seemed enthusiastic. Several students said that the movie was “bad.” None of them would elaborate, though I asked number of questions. The Mist was just “bad.” No further explanation necessary, or perhaps even possible. It didn’t matter. I understood.

David Hurwitz