Posts Tagged ‘Mickey Spillane’

Mistake for Murder – Hammer Time

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

Hardcover:
E-Book: Amazon Google Play Nook Kobo iTunes
Digital Audiobook:

Turns out I make mistakes now and then. Who’d have thunk it.

A reader tells me I mangled an entry in the bibliographic essay at the conclusion of Do No Harm, for example. I will try to correct it in the ebook, when things settle down, but for now it’s all I’ll think about when I look at that book. A small continuity error in Killing Quarry is all I see when I look at the cover of that one (the e-book has been corrected).

For those caring enough to read this weekly update, I made another mistake, although it was not exactly my (or anybody’s) fault. Turns out the new Mike Hammer, Masquerade for Murder, was published on March 17, the original announced date, and not April 7, having supposedly been postponed to that date. The audio is available, too, read by the great Stefan Rudnicki.

Now, here’s the surprise Spillane ending: the novel’s release really has been postponed till April 7…in the UK. Which sort of lessens my error, because after all the publisher is Titan, which is a British publishing house.

The bottom line is you lucky Americans can rush out and buy it now…well, you can order it online, anyway. Corona virus is doing nobody any favors – not even Smith Corona Virus. I may or may not do a book giveaway to help promote the book – I need to discuss the logistics of that with Barb.

Let me take this opportunity to discuss the new Hammer book a bit. The title of Masquerade for Murder is in line with the Stacy Keach TV movies of the ‘80s, all of which had “Murder” in their titles. This is fitting because the synopsis Mickey wrote, from which I developed the novel, was likely written for the Keach series, as was the case with Murder, My Love (the previous Hammer novel).

These two novels have in common something uncommon in Mike Hammer novels – the detective has a client in both of them. In Mickey’s famous novels, starting with I, the Jury, Hammer almost always is on a personal crusade, a vengeance hunt usually (a girl hunt in, well, The Girl Hunters). But with a TV series, Hammer couldn’t play vigilante every episode – the Darren McGavin version only has a handful of revenge plots, for example – so it’s natural Mickey might have developed these synopses with TV in mind.

The only TV synopses he wrote that became a novel written solely by him was The Killing Man, and it had Hammer personally motivated. Mickey did not submit that synopsis, by the way, considering the story “too good for TV.” (He apparently developed a synopsis for the terrible Keach-less Hammer TV movie, Come Die With Me, but only his ending was utilized.)

If Mickey was writing these synopses with television in mind, what am I doing developing novels out of them, in the case of Masquerade for Murder and the previous Murder, My Love?

Let me discuss what my procedure has been in creating novels where my famous co-author is deceased.

As I’ve reported numerous times, Mickey’s wife Jane and my wife Barb and I went on a treasure hunt – following Mickey’s directive shortly before his passing – for unfinished material in his three offices at his South Carolina home.

Our discoveries included half a dozen Mike Hammer manuscripts that represented works well in progress. These were usually 100 pages or a little more (double-spaced) and often had character and plot notes, and in a few cases endings.

Mickey had been racing to finish what he intended to be the last Mike Hammer novel, chronologically, The Goliath Bone, all but a few chapters of which were unfinished, and a roughed-out ending was there, too. But because of the terrible ticking clock he was working under, Mickey’s nearly complete draft was much shorter than usual and required fleshing out. Also, the novel had no murder mystery aspect. I provided the latter (his ending is the basis of the second to the last chapter).

A non-Hammer novel, Dead Street, existed in a nearly complete draft, a little rougher than usual but with almost everything there. Dead Street had been written in a stop-and-start fashion, however, and had some inconsistencies due to being written over a longer span of time than usual. I smoothed things out, and wrote the last several (missing) chapters.

The other five Hammers-in-progress – The Big Bang; Kiss Her Goodbye; Lady, Go Die!; Complex 90; King of the Weeds – all had individual issues for me to deal with. The Big Bang consisted of about a third of the novel in finished form, and Mickey had told me the ending; but no plot and character notes turned up. Kiss Her Goodbye existed in two substantial manuscripts that went in two different directions (different mysteries developing); a lot of plot and character notes existed. I combined the two manuscripts – removing the redundant material – and used both mysteries, weaving them together.

Lady, Go Die! was an early manuscript, an unfinished follow-up to I, the Jury which had a good chunk of manuscript – about sixty pages – but was missing the first chapter. I had set this manuscript aside until I’d completed the first three Hammers, so that I felt comfortable enough to write the first chapter of one without Spillane input – I’d been intimidated, because nobody wrote better first chapters than Mickey Spillane. And I had a Spillane first chapter for another Hammer that seemed to be a 1970s reworking of the much-earlier story, and this I was able to use about half-way through the novel, to put more Spillane content in.

Complex 90 ran around 100 pages, very polished, but also had an issue: in the opening chapter, Hammer reports his harrowing adventures in Russia to some government spooks. I decided to turn that exposition into a flashback taking Hammer to Russia and experiencing all of his exploits first-hand. So that novel is unusual because it’s mostly the middle third that represents Mickey’s work.

King of the Weeds was the most challenging, and I had held it off for last, since my initial goal was to get these six substantial Hammer novels completed (and to complete Dead Street). Mickey conceived King of the Weeds as the final Hammer (changing his mind after the Twin Towers attack, which sparked Goliath Bone). At some point he misplaced the manuscript and – this is typically Mickey – just started over.

So I had two manuscripts to combine, including two very different opening chapters (the ending he had shared with me in a late-night gab session). The other difficult aspect was that Mickey was doing a direct sequel to Black Alley, a book that at that time was out of print. I almost threw out the Black Alley sequel material, but ultimately couldn’t bring myself not to follow Mickey’s wishes. Ironically, King of the Weeds became one of the strongest of the novels.

There was more material in Mickey’s files. I had done Dead Street for Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime, and now completed for HCC the sequel to The Delta Factor, another 100-page Spillane novel-in-progress that gave the world a second Morgan the Raider yarn.

Titan was anxious for me to continue Hammer. I had about forty or fifty pages of the novel Mickey began after Kiss Me, Deadly – a false start for The Girl Hunters with gangsters not Russian spies as the bad guys. It included Hammer traveling to Miami for an unusual change of scene and I felt had great potential. That became Kill Me, Darling.

A strong opening chapter by Mickey, plus some plot notes and his terrific ending became Murder Never Knocks. Two detailed opening chapters by Mickey became The Will to Kill. And – with Mickey’s 100th birthday in mind – I had held back about sixty pages of Mickey’s first, pre-I, the Jury (unfinished) Mike Hammer novel, Killing Town.

Mickey’s last completed novel, The Last Stand, a non-Mike Hammer, was wonderful but somewhat atypical, and rather short. So I revised an unpublished, very typical early novella, “A Bullet for Satisfaction,” and it became a sort of preamble to Mickey’s final novel, published by Hard Case Crime. Interestingly, The Last Stand is a modern-day western, and another Spillane project of mine has been to develop a novel and then series of books from an unproduced screenplay he wrote for his buddy John Wayne – the script that became The Legend of Caleb York.

And there’s been a collection of eight Hammer short stories (A Long Time Dead) developed from shorter fragments. I have also sold a handful of non-Hammer short stories, which may someday be collected.

Which brings us up to the latest Hammer novels, last year’s Murder, My Love and Masquerade for Murder. Murder, My Love is the only Hammer novel so far with no Spillane prose stirred in – strictly Mickey’s basic plot. The new book, Masquerade for Murder, came from a rather detailed synopsis, and the opening description of NYC is mostly Mickey’s, with a mini-sequence between Pat Chambers and Mike (about Hammer’s propensity for low-tech armament) that is Mickey’s as well. I feel good about how smoothly this material stirred in.

Where to now?

I have proposed three more Hammer novels, all from Spillane material. One combines two non-Hammer (but Hammer-ish) fragments, including a very different take on Dead Street; another will utilize a Hammer story Mickey developed for radio and again for TV, unproduced; and finally another synopsis apparently for a Keach-era Hammer episode.

I know some of you know all of this, but I thought it might be a good idea to get this recorded and in one place. Also, maybe it will inspire you to get hold of Masquerade for Murder, which I think is a damn good entry in this series.

I can’t express what it means to me to look over at the shelf and see Mickey’s Hammer novels residing next to the ones I’ve completed for him…and for me, the teenager in Iowa who wanted more, more, more Mike Hammer.

* * *

Speaking of short stories, Barb and I – writing as Barbara Allan, of course – have sold a short story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – “What’s Wrong with Harley Quinn?” It’s not an Antiques story, but rather harks back to the kind of nasty little tale my beautiful and talented wife concocted when she was specializing in short stories.

It’s a very big deal to get published in EQMM, and we are thrilled.

* * *

With Masquerade for Murder the subject of today’s update, I am pleased to share with you this terrific review of that very novel.

The word is out about Nolan’s somewhat imminent return in Skim Deep. Read about it here.

Also, my friends at Paperback Warrior have a podcast, always interesting, which this week includes some commentary on the Nolan series.

Here’s a wonderful Ron Fortier review of the Brash Books edition of Black Hats.

Guess who’s an Irish comic book character? Michael O’Sullivan, that’s who! Check it out here.

Both yrs truly and Barbara Allan get good play on this discussion of Quad Cities area authors. Hey, what about Matthew V. Clemens?

M.A.C.

Do No Harm, Even if the Girl Can’t Help It

Tuesday, March 10th, 2020

As I write this, on March 9, 2020, it’s Mickey Spillane’s 102nd birthday – a reminder of how lucky I was to encounter his books at an impressionable age, and eventually have an unlikely friendship and collaborative association with this key figure not only in mystery/crime fiction, but popular culture, worldwide.

As you read this, if you’re one of those who catch up with these updates as they first emerge, it’s March 10, 2020, the publication date of two of my novels (by two different publishers): Do No Harm, the new Nathan Heller thriller, and Girl Can’t Help It, the second Krista Larson mystery.

If you are one of the regular readers here, you may recall that the new Mike Hammer, Masquerade for Murder – written by me from a Spillane synopsis – was to be published a week later. That pub date has, I’m not sorry to announce, been moved to April 7, which at least puts a purchase of that third new Collins novel on a separate paycheck for loyal readers.

Do No Harm is a novel based on a real-life mystery that has fascinated me since 1961 when I read The Sheppard Murder Case by Paul Holmes – I would have been 13. And of course the television series The Fugitive, which began in 1963, only fueled that interest. And I did love that series – David Janssen’s charismatic, melancholy performance was something new in a TV hero, with a tragic depth unusual for the day. I watched every episode, and later – during my community college years – Barb and I would watch a syndicated episode over lunch at my parents’ house.

Like a lot of TV actors, Janssen had a shrewd if limited bag of tricks. My late actor friend Michael Cornelison told me that actor Robert Lansing (star of 87th Precinct and 12 O’Clock High) had advised him – should one of several TV pilots Mike starred in get picked up – to develop a characterization that would stay consistent and require few strokes, and allow the guest actors to carry the water. I gathered the same thing from Raymond Burr, when I worked on a project with him in Denver during the Perry Mason TV-movie days – he spoke of having to sleep in his dressing room at night because of the demands of being in so many scenes of his series.

I recently watched a Blu-ray of Superdome, a TV movie starring Janssen and a strong cast of its era. The actor was just two years away from his premature death at 48, and looked much older. Reportedly a hard drinker, Janssen – in a rather wretchedly written TV movie – brought along the same tics and tricks, and yet despite the rote feel of it still conveyed a humanity and sadness little seen in TV leads of his era. Sam Sheppard died at 47.

I waited a long time before bringing my detective Nate Heller to this case, even though it had been on my true-crime short list since the ‘80s. The murder of Sam Sheppard’s wife was not an easy fit for Heller. I have always attempted to bring Nate into a case in a natural fashion – that is, to fill in for a real-life participant (a cop, reporter, insurance investigator, actual P.I.) or combination thereof, as in Blood and Thunder where in Part One Heller is a Huey Long bodyguard and in Part Two he returns to Louisiana a year later on an insurance investigation into Long’s assassination.

Figuring out how to put Heller at the crime scene in Marilyn Sheppard’s murder seemed necessary to me, dramatically, as was determining how to narratively span a case that included Sheppard’s conviction, long struggle for justice from behind bars, and ultimate re-trial. Many other wrinkles made the case a tough one for my approach, including a particularly involved number of alternate theories for what really happened. I like to develop my own theories – or I should say Heller does.

Ironically, it was the project I was working on prior to starting Do No Harm – which I had contracted to write but was still struggling with what my approach would be – that finally gave me a window onto the case. In working with A. Brad Schwartz on the non-fiction book Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher, I discovered that Eliot Ness had essentially lived next door to Sam Sheppard. Nobody had noticed this before, probably because Ness lived there in the ‘30s and Sheppard in the ‘50s. But nonetheless the coincidence struck me as irresistible – two of the most famous figures in not just Cleveland crime but American jurisprudence lived next-door.

Additionally, a latterday victim indicating the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run might have struck again in 1954 was the perfect reason for Ness to (a) call Heller back to Cleveland for consultation, and (b) to check out the crime scene of a brutal murder in Ness’s old neighborhood.

The other solution to involving Heller was Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner’s interest and involvement in the Sam Sheppard case. I had already established that Heller knew Gardner (in Carnal Hours) and had done some investigating for Gardner’s Court of Last Resort. That brought Heller into the effort to find out the truth about Sam Sheppard’s guilt or innocence in 1957, when Gardner’s activity in the case came to a head. Further, newspaper columnist/TV personality Dorothy Kilgallen – basis of Flo Kilgore, a recurring character in the Heller saga – was also a key figure in the Sheppard case.

Everything was coming together. Part Two would jump to 1966 and a role for Heller working for Sheppard’s new lawyer, F. Lee Bailey.

The novel was a challenging one, because of the jumps in time – while Book One is 1957 and Book Two is 1966, there are flashbacks within each. From a creative standpoint, however, I found that interesting and even fun, because the difference in decades – in Heller’s life and in America itself – provided a contrast I could play with.

And I have come up with a theory of my own, although oddly some reviewers (positive ones, by the way) have somehow thought I was leaving the story unresolved. I think that may possibly be because I have changed more names than usual, not wanting to cause trouble for the real people and their families who various alternative theories touch upon. I had already developed this theory when new evidence came to light, in an updated version of one my source books, that seemed to confirm my take on the case. My longtime research associate, George Hagenauer, has long said I have an almost psychic ability to suss out the truth of these crimes, and sometimes I almost agree with him.

The story behind Girl Can’t Help It is even more directly personal. Regular visitors here know of my rock ‘n’ roll connection, and that my bands The Daybreakers and Crusin’ are both in the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. That’s an honor that some snicker at but which I take with a genuine measure of pride. I began playing with a short-lived group in 1965 with the Daybreakers forming in ‘66 while I was still in high school. Singing lead and playing “combo organ” have been a big part of my life for a long time.

We had our brush with fame when “Psychedelic Siren” was issued by Dial, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, a single produced by Joe Tex’s producer, Buddy Killen. We had a regional hit and in subsequent years, unlikely as it might seem, that track became a part of numerous national vinyl and CD collections of ‘60s garage band rock. In more recent years the song has been covered by bands all over the place – not all of them in the USA. Several versions can found on You Tube.

Both the Daybreakers and Crusin’ opened for such acts as the the Buckinghams, the Turtles, the Strawberry Alarm Clock, the Grass Roots, Del Shannon, and Peter Noone, among quite a few others. In early 1968 we did a brief Midwestern tour opening for the Rascals and Gary Puckett & the Union Gap when “Psychedelic Siren” was charting at Davenport’s KSTT.

So I was on the fringes of success in that field. Also, in the ‘80s, when I briefly dropped out of playing music to focus on a particularly heavy writing load, Crusin’ became the Ones, a New Wave-oriented version of the band that mixed originals with classic rock and became a big act on the Midwestern college circuit, particularly popular in Iowa City, where their LP got lots of airplay. When we re-grouped for reunions, the band would appear as the Ones some places, and as Crusin’ others. Later versions reverted exclusively to the Crusin’ name.

What does that have to do with Girl Can’t Help It? Well, the novel begins with a New Wave act from Dubuque, Iowa, who had some national success “back in the day,” years later (when the novel opens) getting into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In a much more direct way than ever before, I am dealing with rock as a major aspect of a mystery novel. I also dig into the darker side of being in bands in those days, although I want to be clear the group in the novel is not meant to be either the Daybreakers or Crusin’ or any of its members. But as part of that world, I saw things, not all of which were pleasant, even if I didn’t experience them. And I certainly saw – and experienced – the conflicts between members in such bands.

I will be interested to see how readers react to the second Krista and Keith Larson novel. I know a few readers – let’s call them a vocal minority – don’t like finding me dealing with lead characters who are not overtly larger-than-life in the manner of Quarry, Nate Heller, Ms. Tree, Mike Hammer, or even Vivian Borne. I set out in the Krista and Keith books to do people who are more real, and to do a father-and-daughter relationship that wasn’t built on snarky sarcasm (even though I think you all know that I can do sarcasm). The larger-than-life aspect comes by way of the crimes and the killer.

I admit to being surprised that any reader would have trouble with this approach. I only know that I like this new book a lot, rather relishing the rock aspect, and intend to write at least one more Krista Larson novel.

Girl Can’t Help It has inspired a particularly good review (as well as one of Girl Most Likely) at Atomic Junkshop, including something of an overview of my work in general, a very interesting take on it. I’m gratified to see someone whose favorite series is Quarry finding Krista Larson equally compelling.

As for Do No Harm, Publisher’s Weekly has chosen it one of its books of the week (running their rave, starred review a second time).

The Tor/Forge blog honors Do No Harm with a look at the Sheppard court case and other courtroom biggies of the ‘50s.

The Stiletto Gumshoe celebrates Mickey Spillane’s 102nd birthday here.

And the great western writer James Reasoner has very nice things to say about the forthcoming Caleb York, Hot Lead, Cold Justice.

M.A.C.

Why You Are More Important…

Tuesday, January 28th, 2020

…than the trade publication reviewers.

Okay, here we go into the weeds. For the record, there are four trade publications in the publishing industry – Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal. These are our version of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

I have nothing bad to say about any individual reviewers who write for those publications. Often I get good reviews, occasionally great ones, now and then bad ones. Recently Girl Can’t Help It got a very good review from Booklist; shortly thereafter, Publisher’s Weekly hated it (apparently the same reviewer who felt the same about Girl Most Likely). And that’s one of my two big complaints about the reviews in the trades – PW and Kirkus publish unsigned reviews. I prefer knowing who hates me, thanks (also who loves me). Booklist and Library Journal have signed reviews.

I also consider the reviewers for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Scene and The Strand to be in a class of their own – these publications clearly love and support the mystery. So do Crimespree and Deadly Pleasures and a few others (don’t mean to leave anybody out). Some web-based review/news columns are also great boons to the genre, including my favorite, The Rap Sheet.

My other complaint about the trade publication reviews is that most contain judgment with no supporting evidence. If you stink, you just stink – no excerpts or examples to prove a point. Same goes if you smell just fine.

But okay. The format is fairly short for all the reviews in these publications, so maybe I’m asking too much that a reviewer support an argument. You can’t expect a limerick to be an epic poem.

Where it gets unfair has to do with the book industry’s publishers and editors. They love it when you get good reviews. They hate it when you get bad ones, and often write or even call authors supportively. Some publishing houses hold bad trade reviews against the authors, though. You may think that’s fair, but stick around….

I have received rave reviews from all four trades on a book, and then had that series almost immediately cancelled. The reviews and a dime wouldn’t buy you a cup of coffee. But I have also not received a new contract, at least in part, because the trades reviewed a book of mine unfavorably.

The technical term for this is damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

So where do you come in?

If you come by here often, you know that now and then I do book giveaways to encourage reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other web sites, and at blogs, where many reviews appear. I do this because I believe those are the reviews that really count – that sell books (and sometimes discourage sales, but that comes with the territory).

This March I will have three books from three different publishers come out almost simultaneously – Do No Harm (Nate Heller), Girl Can’t Help It (Krista and Keith Larson) and Masquerade for Murder (Mike Hammer). This was not planned – it’s sheer accident, and not what I wish were happening.

This feeds into the notion that I write too many books – an editor (who should know better) recently said to me, “Are you still writing six books a year?” I have never written six books in one year. All I’m trying to do here is (a) tell my stories, and (b) make a living (okay, avoid real work, but that’s understood). But this kind of thing feeds into careless reviewers essentially panning me for being prolific and not taking each book on its own terms.

It puts you on the spot, too.

As a reader of my work, how can you be expected to shell out all that dough for three books of mine in the same month? Some of you selfish people seem to want to eat. And three books out at the same time encourages the trades to only review one of them, or none, or praise one and trash the other.

You, ultimately, are more important than the trades where reviewers are concerned. Amazon is the world’s biggest bookstore and reviewing there definitely sells books. Blogs are part of the social media world and that tells real people about books. The love for books and authors that comes through in many such blogs is a gratifying thing to see.

My hunch is that the trades are read by booksellers and libraries, both institutions that already know what their audience buys. If Stephen King gets a bad review, do you think bookstores won’t stock it? Or libraries won’t handle it? That applies to authors who aren’t bestseller types, too. I constantly hear from readers who know and support my work through their local libraries. A stealth good influence for an author like me is the bookstore employee who is a fan and makes sure my stuff is stocked.

You are the valuable reviewers. You read and enjoy books, and don’t get paid to review books you’d rather just throw out the window (like the reviewer who suffered through Girl Can’t Help It).

I’m writing this to encourage reviews for my books, sure, but I want to emphasize that if you are a reader who loves to read – who follows favorite authors – you owe it to yourself to review those authors and their latest books at Amazon and elsewhere. It keeps the books from those authors flowing from them to you.

I recently sent out copies of Girl Can’t Help It and Antiques Fire Sale to readers who requested them when I ran out of advance copies of Killing Quarry. I hope to have more of both titles and Do No Harm soon to do another big book giveaway.

Antiques Fire Sale by Barbara Allan will be out May 1.

Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher by M.A.C. and A. Brad Schwartz on Aug. 4.

* * *

This coverage of the Blu-ray release of Mommy and Mommy 2 appears on the web site of the major horror magazine, Rue Morgue. It’s a rare interview with me that focuses on my filmmaking. Hope you’ll give it a look.

My editor and friend Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime gives a terrific interview specifically on Killing Quarry and the Quarry series at HCC. Thank you, Charles!

Check out this great review of Killing Quarry at Paperback Warrior.

A very nice review of the Mike Hammer graphic novel The Night I Died appears here.

Here’s an earnest appeal for DC to reprint my continuity for the Batman newspaper strip as drawn by the late, great Marshall Rogers.

A smart and nicely favorable review of Killing Quarry can be read here.

You’ll have to scroll down for it, but here’s a fun review of the Mommy/Mommy 2 Blu-ray.

Same thing here – scroll all the way down for another favorable Mommy Blu-Ray review, although the word “terrible” is involved.

M.A.C.

Shine On, Shine On

Tuesday, December 31st, 2019

I was thrilled to see the great Crime Fiction Lover site has named Killing Quarry one of the best five books of 2019 – it comes in number four (just above someone named Elroy).

And the Borg site has named Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother the Best Comic Reprint Anthology of the year.

The same site calls Murder, My Love as the Best Retro Read of the year.

* * *

In preparation for the 4K Blu-ray release of Doctor Sleep, I decided to watch the 1997 TV mini-series, Stephen King’s The Shining. I did this over a two-day period (it’s three 90-minute episodes). I hadn’t looked at the new 4K disc of The Shining yet, and hadn’t seen the film since its original release, although back then I’d gone several times. So I revisited it after taking in the mini-series.

King famously dislikes (and that’s a mild way of putting it) the Stanley Kubrick film, and used his superstardom as a writer to script and executive produce the mini-series. The history of that mini-series rivals the Overlook Hotel in weirdness. Initially it was well-received – highly rated, getting ten out of ten from TV Guide, winning Emmy awards, and generally considered a big success. But over the years its reputation has fallen and it’s even been rated the worst Stephen King adaptation and termed a “crapfest.” Meanwhile, the Kubrick film has only grown in stature.

Twenty-some years on, the mini-series – directed by frequent King screen adapter Mick Garris – strikes me as a decent job with strong performances from its leads, Steven Weber, Rebecca DeMornay and Courtland Mead. Weber has the unenviable job of taking on what had in ‘97 already become a signature Jack Nicholson performance – sort of like starring in a remake of White Heat in the Cagney role – and he is generally very good, suggesting his character’s gradual breakdown and underlying love for his family that King felt (rightly) had been largely lost from the chilly Kubrick version. DeMornay, cast specifically to be worlds apart from Shelly Duval’s abused wife and mother, is excellent, probably the best thing in the film, exuding strength and of course sex appeal. A lot of people seem to despise cute kid Mead, but he does well, delivering lines credibly that many actors of any age would stumble over.

The first two episodes are quite good, but the final one finds King’s dialogue writing (not always a strong suit in his screenplays) making the tasks of all the actors much more difficult, and the harrowing climax of the Kubrick film haunts the mini-series like another nasty ghost in the Overlook, filmed for TV in the real hotel that had inspired King. The limitations of budget and ‘90s CGI make some of the effects – particularly the poor idea of reverting from Kubrick’s hedge maze back to topiary, with shrubbery beasts coming to life (cue Count Floyd) – a big problem.

Returning to the theatrical Shining, I encountered a film whose surface story – including dialogue, although little or none of the clumsy stuff – right out of King. What differs was the motivation of the Jack Torrance character, who (and King hated this) is clearly at the outset a disturbed human who is a parent at least mildly disgusted by his wife and kid. He’s a rather classic abusive father and husband. Duval is often characterized as whiny and weak, even by fans of the film, but really she never whines and eventually grows a spine in defense of herself and her child. She seems right – just the sort of victim of a wife a prick like Nicholson’s Torrance would choose. Torrance is an alcoholic who, enraged, hurt his son and has been on the wagon for five months, and resents his family for that.

The problem with Kubrick’s version, for me, has always been the puzzling response to it, and not just by King. That response has been characterized by numerous interpretations of what the film means (including a feature-length documentary, Room 237), and what Kubrick is up to. Yet it’s one of the most straightforward horror films imaginable – it’s a deal-with-the-devil yarn, obviously so. Alcoholic Torrance, in a big empty ballroom, seated at the bar, says out loud that he would sell his soul for a drink. A ghostly bartender in a red vest with lapels suggestive of devil horns pops up and pours him a drink. From then on, Jack is both drunk and drinking on the house – “Your money is no good here, Mr. Torrance.”

There is even a suggestion that the contract was signed much earlier, when Torrance agrees to become caretaker of the Outlook, after a conversation with the manager – a guy in red pants. Later Torrance has a conversation with the ghost of the prior caretaker – now a waiter in the Overlook – in a strikingly Kubrick-ian restroom that is wildly, predominantly red.

Red. Get it?

And at the end we see Jack (Nicholson/Torrance) in a photo at a New Year’s Eve party taken in 1921, where he has obviously joined the lost souls in the Hell (or perhaps Purgatory) of the Overlook. Oops – I guess I was supposed to say, “Spoiler Alert.” (In case you missed it, Damn Yankees is also a deal-with-the-devil movie.)

Nicholson’s performance is over the top throughout, but waaaay over once he’s taken that devilish drink. He becomes, at that point, the monster in a monster movie. He is right out of a Nightmare on Elm Street-style horror flick, complete with Freddy Krueger-ish quips – though in fairness, Nightmare came out four years later, so the inspiration probably flowed from the Overlook to Elm Street. In any case, Torrance, chasing his family around the haunted house of a hotel, is right in tune with the slasher craze just then perking.

And I’m fine with that. It seems a valid take on the material, and it demonstrates that movies taken from successful novels don’t have to mirror their subject matter, even thematically, to be good. Would Kiss Me Deadly have been a better movie if it had been rigorously faithful to Mickey Spillane? Absolutely not. I love The Girl Hunters, Mickey’s controlled film of a book of his, in which he himself played Mike Hammer. But no one seriously, credibly, considers The Girl Hunters a better film than Kiss Me Deadly – even though Kiss Me Deadly set out to make a monkey out of Mike Hammer.

Do I wish the film of Road to Perdition had used more of my dialogue, and in particular my ending? You bet. But it’s a great film and I am thrilled and grateful for its existence. Had Stanley Kubrick made a movie out of one of my books and peopled it with sock puppets, I would’ve felt honored.

But Kubrick, who had his faults (much of King’s criticism of the theatrical film is understandable and even correct), is relatively faithful to the source material, even surprisingly so. It’s his take on Torrance that differs. It’s no accident that the most memorable things about the film are not in King – the spooky twins, the tike on a trike going down corridors in pioneering Steadi-cam shots, the elevator cascading blood, the hedge maze, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and even “Here’s Johnny” (which post-Johnny Carson is not working as well as it used to, but…).

Nicholson may have been set loose by Kubrick, who was not an actor-oriented director. Kubrick liked to cast really strong actors – Peter Sellers, Malcolm McDowell, James Mason – and let them go for it. And his best films often benefit from that. Nobody thinks the acting of the leads in 2001 and Barry Lyndon is worthy of high praise.

But Nicholson wasn’t always a ham – his work as Jake Gittes in Chinatown alone is incredibly nuanced. As uncomfortable as it might have made Stephen King, Nicholson in The Shining is right in there with Freddie Krueger, Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees, though none of them were ever at the center of a film so accomplished. And assuming Kubrick left Nicholson to his own manic devices, the director surely did so knowingly.

Circling back to Doctor Sleep, which I’ve discussed here before, what director/writer Mike Flanagan pulls off is something damn near magical: a film that works well as a sequel to both Kubrick and King (who has reportedly warmed to the theatrical film in the context of this one).

But remember – if you are really, really thirsty, and a ghostly bartender in a red jacket with horn lapels shows up, right after you say you’d sell your soul for a drink? Take a pass.

Drinking on New Year’s is for amateurs, anyway.

* * *

This was our first Christmas with our son Nate, his wife Abby and our two grandkids, Sam and Lucy, here in Muscatine, living just up the street. We had a wonderful time and Barb cooked a fine Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner on Christmas Eve that she swears will be her swan song as a holiday chef. We’ll see.

We had the week before gone to visit Barb’s mother (and sister Cindy) in Bowling Brook, Illinois. While in that part of the world, we dined at one of our favorite restaurants, White Fence Farm, who really deck out their already wonderfully eccentric venue for Christmas.

No New Year’s Eve gig this year for Crusin’. First of all, we rarely play during the winter, and second, what had once been a regular gig for musicians is now much less of a one. I will not be sorry to be home with Barbie having champagne while we watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

Next year will be a big one – half a dozen books are coming out, and I’ll get into that next time. I am today writing the introductory essay to The Complete Dick Tracy Volume 28 – one volume left to go, meaning I will have written about the entire Gould run. No word yet whether IDW will continue on with Gould/Fletcher/Collins (and after that Locher/Collins).

I will be starting the new Nolan (!) novel in a few days. First I have to put finishing touches on the Eliot Ness/Butcher non-fiction tome by A. Brad Schwartz and myself. We delivered it a while back but the editor had notes and suggestions. The announced title, The Untouchable and the Butcher, with various subtitles but probably Eliot Ness, the Torso Killer and American Justice, is suddenly in question. We are still lobbying for that, but are also considering (with the same subtitle) Knight in the Dark City and Shadow of the Butcher.

Opinions?

See you next year.

M.A.C.