(Four Past Midnight, “The Library Policeman”)
It’s just my observation, but when I see Four Past Midnight come up in Stephen King groups or subreddits or whatever, it’s not very well liked. Usually, people will say that there are one or two stories they can’t stand, and that the others are OK. And the funny thing is that the “can’t stand” stories are all different. There’s no universal panning going on of one story — just that each person has one (or more) of the hours past midnight that they truly cannot stand. I rather like the book, myself, but that seems to me to be basically on the strength of only half the stories. Let’s get into it.
The Langoliers — I feel like “The Langoliers” averages out to a fine story. Which means that I really like parts of it, I really dislike parts of it, and the rest is just… fine. And if you add up all that love, hate, and ok, fine, it averages out to… fine. I don’t think it deserves either a lot of hate or a lot of love.
Captain Brian Engle sort of reminds of Captain Rayford Steele, hero of the Left Behind series. If you haven’t read that, it’s a rather bad and aBiblical evangelical series that’s an account of how the rapture and period of tribulation will go down, based on what the authors think the book of Revelation says. They are not good books. I guess the connection in my mind comes from each respective fictional captain starting their stories in more or less the same place — on a plane where a large number of passengers have just disappeared. Rayford is also in a rocky marriage owing to his and his wife’s differences on the subject of religion, while Brian is divorced owing to his and his wife’s differences on the subject of children, which is not the same thing, but feels sort of similar, especially since both pilots lose those wives early in the story — Captain Engle loses his in a fire before he boards the plane, while Rayford’s wife is taken in the rapture. Both Rayford and Brian also spend a lot of the time in their series being in charge of things, being seen by the other characters as a leader even in situations where they aren’t precisely in charge, and are sort of idealized despite not really being all that great. That is, I think, where the similarities end. For one thing, Left Behind is bad, and while I don’t exactly think “The Langoliers” is King’s best work or anything, it’s obviously written by someone with talent. For another, “The Langoliers” has nothing at all to do with religion, as far as I can tell — where religion is mentioned at all, it’s mostly one character’s Jewish religion. I don’t think a rapture is even considered when our Langoliers characters wake up and find that their plane has become nearly empty, which would actually be a little odd if there were more characters — you’d think someone would be a Christian rapture believer — but since our cast of characters is pretty small, I think it’s OK that no one thinks to go there. For the record, Four Past Midnight was published at least 5 years before the first Left Behind book, so Captain Engle definitely came first. I have an idea that the authors of Left Behind wouldn’t admit to reading Stephen King books anyway, and I’m not accusing anyone of copying, but I sort of wonder if one of them did read this story and remember it, at least subconsciously. Because the plane captains were just similar enough to trip that connection for me. But it could just be a coincidence.
Anyway, I dislike some of the Albert/Bethany interactions for being kind of creepily written. My note where Albert is described as having a “lapful of warm girl” is “Ew. Really? That’s gross.” And there’s more like that. In this story, King has taken his bad habit of creating magical black characters and his bad habit of creating magical disabled characters and combined them both with his somewhat more successful habit of creating magical child characters, resulting in Dinah, a little black blind girl who “sees” through the eyes of others and has spookily correct intuitions. A lot of things having to do with her are kind of yuck, though it’s hard not to like her. Then she gets killed off, which I guess was supposed to have a great effect on the others, but I think we could have actually been OK without it.
Other parts are pretty good. I like Craig Toomey as a misguided villain character who get some redemption in death. And I don’t have a particular problem with the Langoliers themselves — the idea of the past just being a dead place, as opposed to something you can actually interact with and change, makes sense to me, so the idea of Langoliers as organisms of some sort who come along and clean up the dead stuff by eating it makes sense to me. I somewhat wonder if the time rip the plane goes through has any relation to the thinnies that exist and that characters go through in other worlds.
Secret Window, Secret Garden — OK, this is my “I can’t stand it” story. It took me forever to read. It’s really made up of a lot of the same stuff as The Dark Half, which I liked a lot, so it took me awhile to figure out why this one was so hard. Again, there’s some good stuff in there — Mort’s musings about writing feeling like stealing rings true for me, for example. At least one of the reasons I don’t like Mort is also one of the problems I have with Captain Brian in the last story — both men seem to hate their ex-wives, and also seem to have hated them while those wives were still current and not exes.
Interestingly, I feel like the story of how Mort caught his wife cheating bears a very strong similarity to how Andy Dufresne (of “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption” caught his wife cheating. Making me wonder why King was so preoccupied with a husband with a gun in his hand catching a wife and her lover in a motel room.
Maybe I’m also bothered by the recurring theme that a man who sleeps with another man’s wife is a thief (she’s not property) that a woman who “steals your love” is a thief (that’s not a thing — cheating is bad, but millions of people move on and find new loves, if you lose your capacity to love that’s on you) and so on. I don’t condone cheating on a spouse, but I also don’t think that Mort is really as damaged and put-upon as he seems to think he is here. And he deals with it by killing people, so I don’t think I’m actually wrong here.
I also notice that both John Shooter from Secret Window, Secret Garden and Craig Toomey from The Langoliers like to say “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to”. Despite more or less being antagonists, these two characters really couldn’t be more different, so this little connection is interesting.
The Library Policeman — If there is one story that comes up as the “I can’t stand this” story more often than the others, it might be this one (by a slim margin). Or maybe I notice it more because I do like this one. I was prepared to like it less on re-read than I have in the past, but that didn’t happen. I assume people don’t like it because of the graphic sexual assault on the main character’s child self — which is hard to read — but the character’s reactions to that, the repressed memory of it, and the subconscious effect that both the occurrence and lack of any dealing with the occurrence strike me as right. I don’t mean they’re necessarily exactly how someone would be affected, but I think it’s a good representation.
Funnily, I like the story while not being a big fan of the two major characters, Sam and Naomi/Sarah. I don’t have any particular dislike for them either, just a sense that if they existed and I knew them, I would not choose to be friends with these people. I wouldn’t choose to hang out with them. I actually feel like that might indicate a strength of character writing — he didn’t give these characters a bunch of qualities designed to elicit strong emotion, I don’t love them or hate them, I just look at them and think, wow, hanging out with these two would be boring and uncomfortable. I feel like that about a lot of real-life people too.
I do think it’s interesting that Sam skates right up to the edge of calling himself an atheist, though. I would guess that he’d just call himself not religious, but he says things like “if there really is a God” in ways that indicate that he doesn’t actually think there is, points out that crosses are just nailed together pieces of wood and metal, and compares them to a rolled up ball of licorice — they’re the same if you believe in them, basically, which I found hilarious. And true. I think horror and spirituality are very mixed up with each other, and organized religion is a super common element, too. Which is logical — I think for most people, monsters and ghosts and what have you prove a world beyond our understanding, and would make them turn to religion or spiritual practices for a more comforting world beyond our understanding. But I like the idea of a non-religious guy being confronted with the supernatural, and instead of turning to any religion, he just decides “eh, I’ll just believe in this rolled up ball of licorice for now. It’s just as good.” And he’s right!
I like the story, though. And Ardelia/whatever she really is, I think is a good monster. I believe I’ve seen a theory that she’s an It, similar to Pennywise, maybe related, and that rings true to me too. And as with It — although to a lesser extent — it’s really the flaws, vices, and incuriousity of adults that allow her to prey on children as easily as she does. I do think parts of it are a little silly. Ardelia’s anger at the deputy, for example, just kind of illustrates that it might be a bit contrived for something this powerful to go through all of the trouble of concealing things the way she does, rather than just taking what she wants? Could they really stop her? But it’s a good story, so I’m fine with them doing it. There were just a few parts that jolted me out of it a little.
The Sun Dog — This is another one that I’ve always liked and still do. And in this case, I like the characters as well. I like all the Delevans, and Pop Merrill is a lot of fun, as is returning to the whole Castle Rock setting. Sure, the concept of a Polaroid camera that takes pictures of some other world is a bit silly — but so is the concept of a doll that comes to life and kills people. Until it becomes scary, it’s silly. There are other examples of this in horror, plenty of them, but Chucky is a particularly good one and I think there’s a good reason that King specifically called it out in this story.
Besides, weird things happen in Castle Rock. At this point, we should just expect that.
Speaking of callouts, Kevin dreams of Oatley at one point, which is definitely a callout to The Talisman. I don’t know how the world of The Talisman is connected to Castle Rock, but I can’t say that I’m too surprised that it is.
Also, I love the description the Polaroid sound as “a squidgy little whine”. It fits so perfectly. Do people use Polaroids anymore? The device might actually date this story a bit, but having grown up in a time when a Polaroid camera would be a big deal kind of present to a teenage kid, it feels very of my time, even if it’s not of the current time.
Anyway, I just like the story. I don’t think there’s a ton here that’s too deep, other than it being part of the whole loose Castle Rock series. But I think it’s fun and scary. Kind of like Chucky.
I also want to say that one of the reasons I have love for this book — even the stories I’m less fond of — is because it’s one of the ones where a note from King precedes each story. I love those notes. I like anything where King — as an author, not through his characters — talks directly to the reader. For me, it elevates the book. Your mileage may vary, of course.
There is a television miniseries adaptation of The Langoliers, which I believe I might have seen part of and given up on, but it’s possible that I just have heard so many bad reviews of it that I’ve invented a memory of seeing parts of it before giving up on it. I don’t think it’s worth the watch.
There’s a movie adaptation of Secret Window, Secret Garden, just called Secret Window, that stars Johnny Depp. It has mixed reviews, and I would guess may depend on what you think about Depp himself nearly as much as what you think about how the adaptation was executed. I haven’t seen it. It’s one of those ones I’ll probably get around to sometime, but I don’t feel any burning desire to see it either.
All in all, I think this book was a fun one. It’s not my favorite, but I could pick it up and flip to any story — even Secret Window, Secret Garden — and amuse and entertain myself for a few hours. That seems good enough to me.