King by another name – and it’s scary too
Blaze. By Richard Bachman, Hodder and Staughton, €17.60.
Review published in The Sunday Business Post, Sunday, June 10, 2007 – Reviewed By Alex Meehan
Love him or hate him, there’s no doubt that Stephen King is among the most important writers to emerge in the last 50 years. His books include some of the best loved stories of modern times such as Carrie, The Shawshank Redemption, Misery, Stand by Me and The Dark Half.
The latest book to come from his word processor is not his most recently written. Blaze is the last of the novels King wrote between 1966 and 1973 under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.
At the time, it was widely believed that an author could only expect to sell one book a year, so King came up with an alter-ego to get around the restriction and Bachman was the result.
Written in 1973, Blaze was completed just before his smash hit Carrie, and then binned without being shown to publishers. Thirty-four years later, it has been pulled from the back of a filing cabinet, lightly rewritten and dusted off for a 2007 release.
King writes about the darker underbelly of life, about fractured and broken characters living seedy lives in stark contrast to ordinary decent folks. He is best known as a horror writer, but really he’s a character writer beyond compare. He can use a single sentence to suggest a fully formed character in a way that lesser thriller writers can only aspire to.
Blaze is one such book with one such character. Clayton Blaisdell Junior is the criminal antihero, a mentally handicapped giant of a man who struggles to make sense of the world.
The story jumps between two distinct narratives. In the backstory, the young Blaze is beaten by his violent alcoholic father and thrown repeatedly down the stairs, resulting in brain damage and a fist-sized dent in his forehead.
He is taken into care and struggles to find his way in the world until a chance encounter introduces him to George, a small-time hustler who becomes Blaze’s best friend and the brains behind a prolific partnership in short cons and petty crime.
Blaze depends heavily on George to keep the capers coming and the law at bay. George is tiring of his hand-to-mouth existence, though, and wants the pair to move from short cons – confidence tricks and department store scams – to a long con – a big league crime that will pay big bucks.
In the main narrative though, we discover that George is dead, following a knife fight, yet confusingly, he continues to play a role in Blaze’s life – he talks to him, goads him and encourages him to follow through their one last caper. This time, Blaze is to kidnap the infant son of a wealthy local businessman and demand a US$1 million ransom.
Is George really dead? Is he a ghost haunting Blaze from beyond the grave? Is Blaze imagining his voice? It is a Stephen King novel, so it’s hard to say and that’s half the fun. Blaze is classic King – a gripping story well told. In most crime novels, the tension is created as a clever criminal eludes capture and a clever detective pursues him.
Here though, the tension is built not from wondering how Blaze will be caught, but wondering how much longer somebody this stupid can evade capture?
Blaze is a sad case – his is truly a hard luck story, but it is very hard to feel sympathy for him. His humanity shines through when he starts to fall for the kidnapped baby Joe, but not for long and it’s not hard to predict where this car crash of a story is going to end up.
King killed off Richard Bachman in 1985,when too many people knew his real identity. He put out a press release announcing the death of the author from ‘‘cancer of the pseudonym’’, but when you’re a writer as prolific and successful as this one, then even 30-year-old literary cast-offs beat the pants off other writers’ best work.