Book Report: Four Past Midnight by Stephen King (1990)

Book coverYou might have noticed, gentle reader, a dearth of book reports here at MfBJN over the last couple of weeks (what? Poems was almost a month ago?). A number of factors play into this. I have a new client on the West coast, a startup whose participants have day jobs, so meetings sometimes occur in the evenings during reading time. Also, I have been working on longer works (no, not just longer comic books). I still have Pamela on the chairside table, and I read a letter in it from time-to-time. A recent interest in writing again led me to pick up a collection called On Writing Horror. And since I was reading about writing horror, I decided to venture to my Stephen King shelf, choosing this volume which includes four shorter novels/novellas instead of one 1000+ page extravaganza. Still, the book took me several weeks to finish, and at several points I looked at the shelf of remaining King works, mostly his later, 1000+ page opii, and thought there’s no way I’m going to read all of those in my lifetime. Sadly, gentle reader, I am getting to an advancing age where I realize that I will not read all of the books I now own. Will that keep me from buying more, whether at ABC Books or the library book sale coming up in two weeks? Shut your mouth!

This book contains for, erm, stories, but most of the stories are novel length. Or would have been before the inflation of the 1980s made it so bestsellers had to be 600 pages to be worth the suddenly expensive cover price.

As I was reading, I came up with a term to describe King’s work: Pulp gothic. Or maybe Gothic pulp. Perhaps this is not an original term, but I really think it captures King’s style, especially as it developed in the middle 1980s and onward. The tone and style are modern and conversational and move along fairly well; however, the scope of the works runs really long as I mentioned. So gothic and not unlike some works of classical literature. Except that when I have finished Wuthering Heights or David Copperfield, I feel like I’ve accomplished something and am a bit proud of it. When I finish a Stephen King book, I don’t get that sense of accomplishment. I get a sense of relief that it (not the book, and not the book of that title, but the reading of the book) is over. And, sometimes, disappointment at how it ends.

The book contains these works:

  • The Langoliers
  • Secret Window, Secret Garden
  • The Library Policeman
  • The Sun Dog

I will go into some detail about each below the fold.

The Langoliers

A redeye flight from LA to Boston takes off; some of the passengers, including a dead-heading pilot for the airplane, sleep. When they awaken, they discover that the other passengers have disappeared from the flight, leaving behind their fillings and metal belt buckles. They get to Boston and discover that the world is experiencing extreme entropy–energy sources are deadening and the pop is going flat. One of the passengers goes psycho because he really, really wants to make it to Boston to shore up his corporate position after some risky investments he made without the company’s knowledge go south. And from the east, something strange and deadly is coming.

A homage, not a rip off
You know, I started to read it and thought it was just King’s take on Millennium, and right about the time I thought King might be ripping it off (page 58), he name-checks the other author:

Jenkins uttered a long, uneasy sigh. “I’m the wrong person to ask, I’m afraid. It’s too bad Larry Niven or John Varley isn’t on board.”

So it’s an homage. And in 2021, I’m one of the few who would know what he’s talking about.

I remember.

“You want to remember he had a gun at the girl’s head, matey. If he’d pulled the trigger at point-blank range, he might have well done for her. Remember the actor who killed himself with a blank round a few years ago?”

The book was published in 1990, so he’s talking about John-Erik Hexum (whom I mentioned earlier this year). Brandon Lee would not die from a blank until 1993.

At any rate, the Langoliers chonks in at over 200 pages. You know, novel length. The title comes from a made-up term that the psycho’s father, who made him the type-A psycho he becomes, called laggards.

Secret Window, Secret Garden

An author recently divorced is holed up, depressed, in his vacation home when he’s confronted by a man from the south who claims that the author stole his short story. The author determines that the two did write a story that is almost word-for-word copy of his. The man from the south threatens violence on the author unless he can prove the author wrote the story before he did, so the author tries to track down a copy of the magazine in which it appeared in the short time frame given to him before the violence occurs. But things stop him, like arson on the home he used to share with his wife–where she still lives, actually, and so on.

Turns out it was the author having a psychological breakdown. Or, as the wife and others receive a letter after the author’s death from the stranger, was it?

This book is shorter–only 150 or so pages with introduction–but, meh.

In the intro, King mentions all the things he’s published and how his works fit together, with some of the same characters appearing in different stories and books, but thirty years later, reading his books out of order with great gaps in the reading, I’m not seeing it. So even though I have tracked down some magazines with King’s early work in them, I’m not steeped in the Kingoverse.

The Library Policeman

At just under 200 pages, this is the second longest book in the book. In it, an Iowa insurance agent is pressed to give a speech to a local club on short notice. At the suggestion of the town’s freelance stenographer/typist, he goes to the library to borrow some books with inspirational poetry and speech jokes in them. When he gets there, he steps into a forbidding building with a stern older woman librarian who loans him the books but warns him of dire consequences should he fail to return them on time. He forgets and then discovers that he had left them on the pile of recycling to take out, so a local wino has picked them up and taken them to the recycling center. And he discovers the librarian he met was not the current librarian, but a dangerous woman whose name is not mentioned decades since her disappearance. And, 150 pages later, that she’s a monster of some sort that feeds on the fears of children and, having been vanquished by her lover at the time (the aforementioned wino), she’s looking for a rebirth into this world with the help of the insurance man, who is dealing with repressed memories of a childhood rape at the hands of someone who says he’s the library policeman. And, weird climactic scene!

Who hasn’t been there?

Instead of going bowling that night as he had planned, Sam Peebles shut himself in his study at home with a yellow legal pad, three sharpened pencils, a package of Kent cigarettes, and a six-pack of Jolt.

I have had two Jolt colas in short succession; I am pretty sure that a six-pack would have stopped my heart. And in Milwaukee, back in the day, you could not buy Jolt in six packs, only one by one at the gas station. I am glad that I was young before energy drinks.

I go three for five

The evil librarian speaks, and Stephen King again Asimovs himself into his own universe:

“I myself have never seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. I have never heard an Ozzy Osbourne record and have no desire to do so, nor read a novel by Robert McCammon, Stephen King, or V.C. Andrews.”

I saw probably three in the Nightmare on Elm Street series; I listened to Ozzy’s No More Tears within the last couple of weeks, and clearly I have read some Stephen King. I have book reports for the following:

Other King books that I have read before starting this blog (was there ever such a time?) include:

  • The Stand
  • The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
  • The Eyes of the Dragon
  • The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three
  • The Dark Half
  • Gerald’s Game (which I apparently read in 2006, but I don’t seem to have a book report for it. It looks like my original Blogspot blog is missing the week of April 3, 2006, where the book report would have fallen; as I still have the original HTML file for the post, I’ve retconned it into my current blog here, but I’m too lazy to move it up to the preceding unordered list.

If we count the two or three Freddy movies and the litany of King books I’ve read, I’m over 100%.

Wrong team probably

In the summer of 1988, Sam had dated Naomi twice. On the second date, he made a pass. It was as well behaved as a pass can be and still remain a pass, but a pass it was. It was as well behaved as a pass can be and still remain a pass, but a pass it was. Much good it had done him; Naomi, it turned out, was a good enough pass deflector to play in the Denver Broncos defensive backfield.

One wonders if King ever thought about it, but Iowa is a long way from Colorado; historically, the favorite teams in Iowa have beem the Vikings or the Chiefs. Which is weird to me, because Iowa is a place with nice people, good, decent people, and good people like the Green Bay Packers.

I get it, but only recently have I learned

The worst thing was this: Next time he might actually see the man in the trenchcoat. Or Ardelia. Or Gorgo, the High Emperor of Pellucidar.

I only know of Pellucidar because I read Tanar of Pellucidar last November.

But one thing I clearly like from the Stephen King books are the allusions to what a well-read boy from his generation and sometimes mine would know. I have to wonder how effective that is today, but I guess the people who read today still get them. Too bad the authors have gone away from this to political asides that alienate instead of draw the author and reader closer through shared reading experiences.

In 2021, you’d get sanctioned for it

Ardelia’s face wasn’t human anymore. It had run like warm taffy and made itself into this funnel shape that flattened her nose and pulled her eyesockets all long and Chinese to the sides and made her look like some kind of insect…a fly, maybe, or a bee.

A recently former Green Bay Packers player got into trouble recently for referring to the epicanthic fold of the eye.

You can’t get away with this any more

There was a book in the basket, The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, and he had read it, every word, and he was not bound for Gramma’s house but for the Briggs Avenue Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, and he had to hurry because his book was already four days overdue.

There’s no Briggs Avenue in St. Louis, much less a Briggs Avenue Branch of the St. Louis (city, presumably) library.

You can’t get away with that now because people are less forgiving, and because you can just look that up on the Internet, although the current danger is getting sucked into a rabbit hole of learning when you should be writing.

Again, someone is not familiar with the region

“Here!” he shouted. “Here, I’ve got something for you, bitch! I brought it all the way from East St. Louis!”

East St. Louis is in Illinois, not Missouri, across a fairly wide river, and it’s a rough city. One could think that the author knew that and was saying the character was bringing something from a rough area, but one, meaning I, cannot suspend disbelief given that the author has made other small errors like this.

The Sun Dog

A boy gets a Polaroid instant camera for his birthday, and he’s excited to try it out, but when he does, it produces pictures of a dog walking along a fence in time lapse. And as the time passes and photographs are taken, he sees that the dog is not a dog at all, but some sort of monster that is turning to leap at the person taking the photographs. He sought the help of the local tinker, antique store dealer, and loan shark who switches the camera before allowing the boy to smash a duplicate of the camera, but instead of wealth, the tinker finds his own doom.

Self-reference again

King likes to talk about himself in his books. A lot.

If any of them truly believed in the invisible world it was Megan, who couldn’t get enough of walking corpses, living dolls, and cars that came to life and ran down people they didn’t like.

The car, of course, would be the aforementioned Christine although he could mean the 1977 film The Car.

Self-reference again, again

Pop suddenly found himself remembering Joe Camber’s Saint Bernard, Cujo–that one who killed Joe and that old tosspot Gary Pervier and Big George Bannerman.

Of course, this story is part of the Castle Rock Stephen Kingverse, so I guess some mention of other stories is forgiveable. But spoilers are not helpful if you’re reading them thirty years later out of order.

At any rate, it was a couple weeks’ worth of reading at my current pace, and it is what it is. King is verbose, includes a lot of people whom he then kills, and includes foreshadowing and whatnot that cheats because it indicates some people will survive who do not, in fact, survive.

So I’m relieved to be finished, and I’m not proud of it like when I read something classic. Maybe if I had more time to read or read as much as I sometimes do, it wouldn’t seem so much of a burden, but, c’mon, man, it’s still 700+ pages.

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5 thoughts on “Book Report: Four Past Midnight by Stephen King (1990)

  1. Though King is known for his doorstoppers he’s always written better short fiction, especially when an editor makes him keep it actually short. I thought “The Langoliers” was the best of this quartet and am open to the idea it was the only one worth the time. His first novella combo, “Different Seasons,” explained the problem the particular length caused in modern publishing — and did so using terminology and stereotyped accents that would be banned today. It’s where we first find “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” which later became the well-known movie. The most recent group, “Full Dark, No Stars,” has the serviceable “1922” and three others that would never have seen the light of day without the words “by Stephen King” on them.

  2. Three of the four pieces of Different Seasons have been made into major motion pictures. “The Body” became Stand By Me and “Apt Pupil” became Apt Pupil. Although Wikipedia says the fourth is in the works.

    I have Different Seasons, but I grabbed Four Past Midnight first. I also have Everything’s Eventual which is thirteen stories, which should keep the stories to some sort of limit, ainna? But it might be some time until I get into the next one.

    I thought that The Langoliers was kind of stock for King. Strange circumstance setup, psycho in the mix, an ending that makes you go, “What?”

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