Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Short story Reviews: UR by Stephen King, In the Tall Grass by Stephen King and Joe Hill, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

A few months ago I read Stephen King and Joe Hill's short story In the Tall Grass and had no idea how to review it. Short stories are always hard to review, because there isn't a lot to discuss without giving away some of the critical elements, but they usually (or the ones I read anyway) come in an anthology so you can bluff your way through by writing a couple of lines or paragraphs about each story and make up a full review that way. This was a singular story, something I found when I was searching the Stephen King tag on Amazon, and I just couldn't review it in any way that seemed worth it. Lucky for me RIP VIII came along and gave me the perfect platform to write about it and a couple of other short stories I'd been considering reading. So here you go, reviews to In the Tall Grass, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and UR.

Advertisement:  "I use Grammarly to correct grammar because 'ain't nobody got time for that*' 

In the Tall Grass

Written by: Joe Hill and Stephen King

Published: 2012

Synopsis: In the Tall Grass begins with a sister and brother who pull off to the side of the road after hearing a young boy crying for help from beyond the tall grass. Within minutes they are disoriented, in deeper than seems possible, and they’ve lost one another. The boy’s cries are more and more desperate.

My thoughts: About a year ago I read a comic based on a Joe Hill and Stephen King novella titled Throttle. I really enjoyed seeing their different styles clash and meld, so when I came across this short story I snapped it up immediately.

I really love Stephen King's short stories. I think it's because they tend to be really experimental, either he's playing around with ideas that will later become full time novels or they're something so completely different to what I'm used to from him. At the time of reading this short story, the only Joe Hill I'd read was his comic series Locke and Key (which is a MUST read) and I had loved how much Joe seemed to pay homage to his father while never seeming like he was simply riding that wave of nepotism and fame (his obvious talent also helps immensely).

This story is very short and very quick. Brother and sister duo Becky and Cal DeMuth are driving through Kansas when they hear someone calling for help. They park on the side of a road near a church and look into the field of tall, tall grass and hear a child and his terrified mother calling out. Once they make their way in though, they get lost and no matter how hard they try, they can't get their bearings back.

The premise is all King. It's a quiet story, one that teeters on that thin line between panic and supernatural. Is the grass actually working against them, hiding a killer who is coming to get them? Or are they just overtaken by their own fears of getting lost and it seems like everything is working against them? Joe Hill, I would guess, brings the darker and more gruesome elements. It's not that King often shies away from these sorts of details, but it was, for want of a better phrase, more in your face than he typically writes. The blend of the quiet with the aggressive, the subtle with the dark makes for something of a schizophrenic narrative. It never felt like two people passing the keyboard from one to another as they wrote the story, but if you're as familiar with King as I am, the influence of his son is instantly recognisable. And I loved it.


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Written by: Washington Irving

Published: 1820

Synopsis: Sleepy Hollow is a strange little place...some say bewitched. Some talk of its haunted valleys and streams, the ghostly woman in white, eerie midnight shrieks and howls, but most of all they talk of the Headless Horseman. A huge, shadowy soldier who rides headless through the night, terrifying unlucky travellers.

Schoolteacher Ichabod Crane is fascinated by these stories....Until late one night, walking home through Wiley's swamp, he finds that maybe they're not just stories.

My thoughts: I decided to pick up this novella when I watched the first episode of the new TV series Sleepy Hollow. As I watched it I was like "wait, wait, wait, the headless horseman was one of the four horses of the apocalypse?" and "Ichabod's wife was a witch, I didn't think he even had a wife" and I realised that while I know a bit about the Washington Irving story, I didn't know enough (and what I do know maybe came from the Johnny Depp film). I really enjoyed this read, although I'm a little embarrassed to say it took me awhile to get back into the rhythm of pre-20th century writing. There are so many adjectives and lengthy descriptions about absolutely everything, that tree over there, the school hall, the shape of Ichabod's face and when it's been as long between classic texts as it has been for me it's hard not to just be like "why Washington WHY". But once I fell back into the style, I enjoyed the hell out of it, even though it was nothing like I thought it would be.

Ichabod Crane is not the delightfully weird fellow I expected him to be. He's actually kind of despicable, not a bad guy per say, but he's hardly the person you root for in a love triangle. His "love" is basically motivated by Katrina Van Tassel's father's wealth and standing in Sleepy Hollow, which is made beautifully aware in a scene where Ichabod imagines all the farm animals as tasty meals that Katrina would cook him. The entire story seems to have been written by Washington with his tongue pressed firmly in his cheek, so while quotes like;
"Spare the rod and spoil the child - Ichabod Crane's scholars certainly were not spoiled"
"Balt Van Tassel was an easy indulgent soul; he loved his daughter better even than his pipe"
Are a little "oh right, 1820 was really different," they're also kind of hilarious.

But It's the descriptions that Washington Irving writes about Mr Crane, or the town of Sleepy Hollow and the town's penchant for supernatural goings-on that really makes this story worth reading. They do border on the laborious from time to time, but the people are so wonderfully drawn and the setting so gorgeously painted that it's easy to motivate yourself to keep going past the bits that drag. I mean, tell me this isn't a wonderful description of Ichabod;
"...for he was a huge feeder, and though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda" 
See, it's great. So come for the ghost story about a headless horseman and a stuck up school teacher and stay for the gorgeous descriptions. And then recommend other Washington Irving stories to me, because I want more.



Written by: Stephen King

Published: 2009

Synopsis: Following a nasty break-up, lovelorn college English instructor Wesley Smith can't seem to get his ex-girlfriend's parting shot out of his head: "Why can't you just read off the computer like the rest of us?" Egged on by her question and piqued by a student's suggestion, Wesley places an order for's Kindle eReader. The [pink?] device that arrives in a box stamped with the smile logo -via one-day delivery that he hadn't requested - unlocks a literary world that even the most avid of book lovers could never imagine. But once the door is open, there are those things that one hopes we'll never read or live through.

My Thoughts: This was a spontaneous purchase on my phone's kindle app when I was waiting for the bus and had nothing else to read. It was, if wikipedia is correct, a short story King wrote exclusively for sale for Kindle, and that really shows. It hovers somewhere between being a long ad for Kindle and a cute little way of tying an exclusive deal into the narrative. When lines like "Wesley went to the Kindle shop and bought X" comes up a gazillion times I started to wonder if Amazon had written into the contract a minimum of references that needed to be in the story, and considering the whole story hinges on the Kindle, it grew a little tiring. If you've read Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore it sort of felt like the Google references which almost overshadowed the story by the end. But all that aside, it was still an enjoyable little short story.

Basically, the kindle that Wesley buys to spite his sports coach ex-girlfriend -they broke up after a fight where he called her illiterate (oof) and she said he was out of touch with the world - turns out not to be a real kindle. It has the regular buy and read functions, but it's also pink and has some experimental functions. These functions allow him to search the multiverse for books that his favourite authors may have written elsewhere, and with a student and co-worker, Wesley spends a long night exploring the works of Hemingway, Shakespeare etc that don't exist in his particular world. While the three men have an uncomfortable feeling that they're peeking through a doorway they shouldn't, it mostly just seems like a harmless - albeit addictive - activity. However, things shift suddenly when Wesley explores other UR functions, one of which allows him to read news headlines from the future. It's here that Wesley finds out that Ellen, his ex, and her busload of college girls are going to die when a drunk driver runs them off the road. Wesley's faced with the decision, does he act on this knowledge and try and save his ex (who he still loves) and break the paradox laws, or does he respect those laws and let his girlfriend and a group of students die?

The story isn't particularly tense or scary, but it is fun and there are a couple of neat references to other King books (primarily Dark Tower references, because duh). There's a few interesting looks at the physical vs digital debate that take place during one of Wesley's class, and it's refreshing to have the students be like "who cares if it has binding, books are about ideas and emotions" rather than the typical garbage about us Millennials** only liking digital whatevers. So if you're a fan of King or looking for a fun short story about books that don't exist (but we wish did) then this could be for you. Also, if you're one of the The Corrections readalongers, Wesley is like a breath of fresh air compared to Chip's pretentious teaching style, so have at.

*I may have had this meme stuck in my head when writing this post.

**When did Millennials become a thing btw? What happened with being Gen Y?


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