REVIEW – Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

“He understood that the ghost existed first and foremost within his own head. That maybe ghosts always haunted minds, not places.”

I read NOS4A2 a few years ago and loved it. I’ve since accumulated a few Joe Hill books and they’ve just sat, neglected, on my shelves. I FINALLY picked up Heart-Shaped Box and I regret not reading it sooner! You can tell that this is a debut novel, but that doesn’t make it any less impactful or terrifying or memorable.

Judas and Georgia are great characters – for a book that focuses so much on just two people (with some supporting characters sprinkled throughout) they really anchor the story. You’re rooting for them. They’re flawed, and they can be frustrating, but they feel very real. At its heart, this is a FANTASTIC revenge story.

“Is it cold there? I bet it’s cold. It’s going to get a lot colder before he’s through.”

I don’t scare easily (at least, when i’m reading!) but this has some CREEPY scenes in it. Ghosts appearing at random times in your house will always be terrifying and Hill nails it with Craddock. He’s super creepy (even his NAME is creepy. Craddock. Why…WHY?) and I really shouldn’t have been reading this right before bed, in a dark room, with just my book light for illumination.

The end of this book really pushed it into 3.5/4-star territory for me. I’d highly recommend this for horror fans. I certainly won’t wait years until I pick up another Joe Hill novel.

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – Cujo by Stephen King

“Everything in Cujo’s life should have been right, but somehow it wasn’t. He just didn’t feel good at all.”

Let’s get this out of the way: Cujo would have been way better if it had been a short story. The book is short-ish (at least by King’s standards) but it’s just overstuffed with storylines that you cease to care about once the real action kicks in. However, there’s definitely a reason why this is one of King’s most well-known books. But Cujo (the dog) might be one of the saddest characters in modern literature. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to get snippets of Cujo’s thoughts as he slowly descends into madness and rabies takes control of his brain.

Is it horror? You betcha. King hints at a supernatural element at some points, but that’s an unnecessary part of the story. A gigantic dog (a good boy) tragically gets bit by an infected bat. He slowly loses his mind. In the meantime, a mother and her VERY young son get caught up in the terror and it’s…something. If anything, this book is incredibly claustrophobic and hopeless. Now, i’ve seen the movie (a long time ago, when I was probably way too young) so I knew how the story went. But the reading experience is jarring. The bad parts are…terrible. But the good parts? Incredible.

If you’re an animal lover, this book will rip your heart out (especially one paragraph at the very end…oof). For the record: Cujo was a GOOD BOY. But rabies is a bitch.

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – Bag of Bones by Stephen King

“In little towns things are kind of connected under the surface and the past dies slower.”

Stephen King sure does know how to write about grief. Although I consider Bag of Bones to be “just okay” in comparison to his other works, the early chapters about Mike dealing with the sudden and unexpected loss of his wife are incredibly well done.

I did enjoy the mystery element of this book and some of the characters are incredibly likeable (Kyra and Mattie especially). Honestly, the characters are the best part of this book. The plot meanders a bit and I feel like King was trying to do a little too much (we have two characters dealing with the loss of their respective spouses, a custody battle, overall animosity within a small town, plus ghosts…) and oh boy is it slow-moving.

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – The Stand by Stephen King

“When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time,” and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”*

You know what else you can probably see from space? The Stand. Coming in at a whopping 1,153 pages, this is one hulking brick of a book. But it’s SO good. And there are very few things I would remove. Pretty much everything here is purposeful and builds on the story. *So maybe this quote isn’t from the actual book. But it’s from the preface and I loved it so much I went back and read it a few times.

The Stand is split into three books. The general consensus is that Book I is by far the best, and I would have to agree. The most chilling and horrifying parts of the story are packed into the first third(ish).

“He felt his fear twisting and turning inside him beneath his poker face. Sometimes it was big and panicky, trampling everything: the elephant. Sometimes it was small and gnawing, ripping with sharp teeth: the rat. It was always with him.”

The most powerful parts in this book (at least for me) were the chapters in Book I that gave snippets of what was happening across the country during the Captain Trips outbreak. Some of King’s shortest writing is some of his best (stop laughing. Yes, I know this book is more than 1,000 pages. Yes, I know how this probably sounds). He’s able to pack a lot of horror into just a few words. King’s ability to observe and describe some of the most mundane aspects of life and turn them into nightmare fuel will always amaze me. Now, Books II and III definitely fall more on the fantasy/epic side rather than the horror side. There are some scary bits throughout, but if you can handle the horror in Book I, you can for sure make it through the rest of the book.

There are a LOT of characters in this book. Some of them get what they deserve (good or bad). Some don’t (…good or bad). You’ll likely love some and loathe others, but each one is memorable on their own. We meet most of them in Book I and get pretty fleshed out stories from each throughout Books II and III.

Unsurprisingly, Randall Flagg gets some of the best character descriptions i’ve read in King’s writing. Flagg is almost vampiric in his description. He moves at night, he rests during the day. He’s “a tall man of no age” with “no soul but a sense of humor.” I won’t spoil anything beyond that, but Flagg is…interesting. And Constant Readers will know he’s featured in some of King’s other works.

“Love didn’t grow very well in a place where there was only fear, just as plants didn’t grow very well in a place where it was always dark.”

Maybe reading arguably the most well-known book about a global pandemic during an actual global pandemic wasn’t a good idea. But there are a lot of things here that someone pre-2020 could not have appreciated. For better or worse, my experiences this year made The Stand seem that much more real and that much more relatable. I understand there’s been a surge in sales for this title, and that makes total sense. We strive to understand what scares us. And honestly, we’ve been home for six months now, snuggled up safe and sound with our Internet and electricity fully operational. Reading The Stand might make you realize that you really don’t have it so bad, after all.

And lastly, KOJAK IS A GOOD BOY.

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – Desperation by Stephen King

“In these silences something may rise.”

PHEW. Desperation starts off absolutely horrible and never lets go. You will not get a break from the horror in this book. It’s uncomfortable and gross. You can feel the heat of the desert climate. You can see the rundown, abandoned (well…) town of Desperation, Nevada. You can see and smell and feel the horrors that unfold throughout the course of this book.

“I survived Highway 50, the loneliest highway in America!”

I’ve never been so anxious to get through a book – I wanted to find out what happened, and I wanted to finish reading it, but I was so relieved to put this one down. Needless to say, I won’t be revisiting Desperation anytime soon.

This is not a book for the casual King fan – this is King at his weirdest and most disturbingly uncomfortable. This does not have warm and fuzzy moments or enduring life lessons. This book aims to teach you one thing: you have zero control and God is relentless in His cruelty.

I won’t say that I enjoyed this book, but I have a hell of a lot of respect for it. This was a solid three-star read for me until one point towards the end that pushed it firmly into four-star territory. TAK!

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – The Dead Zone by Stephen King

“Some things are better not seen, and some things are better lost than found.”

My journey into The Dead Zone was…interesting. My copy of the book is a well-loved paperback that likely dates back to the late 80s (purchased at a library book sale). So I felt that my reading experience was relatively authentic – complete with an incredibly campy synopsis on the back (i’m not sure how many times they can say THE DEAD ZONE in all caps, but the effect was pretty fun).

“What a talent God has given you, Johnny.”

The story is good – Johnny Smith (could his name BE any more basic?) experiences some odd psychic/premonition-style flashes after 1. a head injury when he was six and 2. another, more severe, head injury in his early 20s, which lands him in a coma for four and a half years. Poor Johnny has had a rough go at it and, honestly, things don’t really get much better for him. His entire story is tragic.

And Greg Stillson – hoo boy. The worst villain that could have been? We know he’s a bad guy right from the jump (like the most despicable of baddies) but beyond that…I feel like we don’t get much meat from good old Greg. When we catch up with him in “the present” (feels weird to refer to 1970-something like that) he’s a wacky politician who spouts off crazy, asinine ideas. He has a fanatical follower base. Sound somewhat familiar, and maybe a little too real right now. Either way, Stillson ended up being a lot of bark and not too much bite for me, personally. Although, maybe that’s the entire point of the book…

The shining star here is Johnny’s father. Herb is a DELIGHT. He’s a great parent, he loves his son and he deals with some pretty awful personal stuff. I want to protect him at all costs.

The Dead Zone reads exactly like it should – you can tell it’s one of King’s earliest novels. You can tell it’s set in the 70s. I might have enjoyed this more if I had read it earlier (as in, before some of King’s other books). It’s not my favorite, but it certainly has its place in King’s body of work, and I would still recommend it.

“We all do what we can, and it has to be good enough…and if it isn’t good enough, it has to do.”

Content warning: there is a brief instance of animal cruelty at the beginning of the book.

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – The Green Mile by Stephen King

“I couldn’t help it. I tried to take it back, but it was too late.”

I don’t think anyone can make you care for prisoners on death row quite like Stephen King. (He also seems to have a thing for the wrongfully accused, which is just another level of heartwrenching.)

It’s bold to say this, given King’s EXTENSIVE body of work, but The Green Mile contains some of his most memorable characters – John Coffey (just rip my heart out, okay?), Percy Wetmore (if anyone deserves a sit down with Old Sparky, it’s this guy), Delacroix (I can’t even begin to talk about this one).

I knew the general plot of this book before reading, given the popularity of the movie adaptation (which, as of this writing, I have yet to see). I knew that I was going to have my heart stomped on. I knew that this would stick with me forever.

The Green Mile is just so well done – it’s beautifully written and it hits every emotion. It’s sad, it’s funny, it’s suspenseful. At times, it’s hopeful. Other times? It’s hopeless. A masterpiece through and through. I know a lot of readers avoid King because he’s the master of horror. But some of his best books aren’t in the horror genre at all (11/22/63 comes to mind). The Green Mile is HORRIFYING, but it isn’t horror.

“Time takes it all, time bears it away, and in the end there is only darkness. Sometimes we find others in that darkness, and sometimes we lose them there again.”

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – Duma Key by Stephen King

“There were some strange things kicking around Duma Key, and I had reason to believe they weren’t all nice things…”

Okay, phew. Duma Key features a slow (slow…SLOW) buildup reminiscent of a rollercoaster. Except the hill is the majority of the book, and the descent is the last third, at 100 miles an hour. The story is good. It’s unique-ish (although, another King book features a painting with “special” properties…) and it still feels very much like a King book although it’s set in Florida. Maybe he figured enough bad stuff has happened in Maine by his hand.

“We checked into hell on different shifts, you and me.”

Edgar, our main character, feels very authentic. His issues with memory and speech following a horrific accident are easily woven throughout the story – they never feel forced. You can’t help but feel bad for him, and I found myself wondering what Edgar was like before his accident. He uses drawing and painting as a way to heal from his injuries and we quickly learn that those pieces of art possess…something. Or, maybe, they’re possessed BY something.

The supporting characters here are memorable – Wireman, of course, stands out due to his tragic backstory and frequent words of wisdom. We don’t get enough of Elizabeth – of the REAL Elizabeth – but our glimpses into her childhood contain some of the most chilling parts of the book. And Jack! Probably the least developed of our “main” characters, but still a delight.

“I told myself there was time. Of course, that’s what we always tell ourselves, isn’t it? We can’t imagine time running out, and God punishes us for what we can’t imagine.”

This book contains some incredible tragedies – both things that have happened in the past, and things that happen in the current timeline. There’s a strong theme of parental love here, too, and the way different people deal with unimaginable grief. It’s underlying, but I think that will be something I remember most about this story.

My final feelings about the story are a bit conflicted – overall it’s not the plot that resonates with me, but the writing. There are some incredible one-liners in this book, and for that, I think it’s worth the read.

“…the only way to go on is to go on. To say I can do this even when you know you can’t.”

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – The Institute by Stephen King

“Great events turn on small hinges.”

Ah, The Institute. Where kidnapped kids go to…well, you’ll have to read it and find out. One day, Luke Ellis is just a normal-ish (heavy on the “-ish”) 12-year-old kid and the next, his parents are dead and he’s been taken. At The Institute, he meets a group of kids in “Front Half” and learns about the dreaded, secretive “Back Half.”

As you can expect, the adults in this are despicable and cruel. The kids? You’ll want to hug them (especially Avery. Oh, sweet Avery) and help them escape the horrific fate that awaits them in Back Half.

“And what piece was he? It would be nice to believe himself a knight, but more likely, he was just another pawn.”

There’s another story interwoven here, and I wanted more details that I ended up not getting. However, everything ties together nicely. This book goes exactly where you think it’s headed – there aren’t many surprises or twists here, and that’s okay. When I learned to stop expecting things from the book, and instead decided just to enjoy it, I found my reading experience to be much more positive.

“It came to him, with the force of a revelation, that you had to have been imprisoned to fully understand what freedom was.”

You’ll cheer when bad things happen to the bad guys. You’ll be angry when bad things happen to the good guys. And you might wonder, as one of our characters does towards the end, what if they’re right? (Again, read it…you’ll find out.)

This might be a good King book for non-King readers. It has some disturbing parts (one in particular will haunt me for awhile – OUCH. and also EW), but overall it’s just an interesting story about a top-secret operation that kidnaps kids for…reasons.

I did notice some bits that reminded me of other King books (I mean, Luke and his friends at The Institute are kind of a modern-day Loser’s Club). And you only have to make it to page 10 to find the ever-present blue chambray shirt.

CONSTANT READER REVIEW – Rose Madder by Stephen King

“It’s best to be ruthless with the past. It ain’t the blows we’re dealt that matter, but the ones we survive.”

Let’s get this out of the way – this book is…odd. Bad? No. Up to King’s high standards? Also no. However, there are some great things about this book and some chilling things about this book.

The suspense in this book is palpable. When Rose initially escapes from Norman, my heart was pounding. This impending sense of terror lessened as the story progressed, which is likely why this isn’t a favorite among Constant Readers. If King could have sustained that feeling of doom, this could easily be one of his scariest books.

“Come over here – I want to talk to you up close.”

Norman might be one of the most terrifying villains in King’s writing (well, until a certain point…then he just becomes a bit too exaggerated and a bit too…crazy). Norman is scary because he’s REAL. At least for the first half-ish of the book, he’s just an angry, abusive, power-hungry, psychotic cop with a huge ego and an even bigger temper. He’s an absolute wild card – you never know what’s going to set Norman off, or how far his anger will carry him. The parts inside Norman’s head are horrific.

“The world could be good. She supposed she had known that as a child, but she had forgotten.”

The ladies! Oh, the ladies of Daughters & Sisters. They take a backseat to the larger story, but they are fun and amazing and badass. They are resilient despite their own hardships, and the way they rally around Rose (and each other) is heartwarming. And Gert! Oh, Gert. What an absolute delight!

“Some things call to us, that’s all. It’s as if the people who made them were speaking inside our heads.”

Now…the painting. Of course, the painting is kinda-sorta a huge part of the story, but the scenes involving the painting (especially the initial one) are a little drawn out and a little repetitive. Actually, the book, in general, is a bit repetitive and could have easily been 200 pages shorter (or even a short story).

“And sometimes men had to learn what it was to be afraid of a woman, didn’t they?”

I think overall the idea here is good. It suffers from “too much-itis” – the story is a bit too much. Norman as a villain is a bit too much. Either way, i’m glad I read it and I would still recommend that any King fan give this one a go. It wasn’t an unenjoyable reading experience, it just doesn’t match up to some of his other works.