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A few years ago, when I was suffering from a bout of insomnia, I got the idea that playing spoken word tapes whilst I was trying to sleep might help me to drift off. I soon owned a couple of "Red Dwarf" tapes, one read by Chris Barrie, and one by Craig Charles, both actors and, in the case of Chris Barrie, a skilled mimic. So when I happened upon "Blood and Smoke", promising three of his own stories read by Stephen King, who I have long been a huge fan of, I snapped it up immediately.
For nearly a year, I listened to these stories, discovering that they do help me get to sleep. Especially after listening to King's fairly boring voice for a little while. The packaging offers a warning - "Listening after dark may cause fear, trembling and, ultimately, insanity." This was not to prove true in my case. Listening after dark merely caused mild irritation as I kept missing the ends of the stories. Eventually I gave up, and played them in the car whilst driving to and from work.
Stephen King is undoubtedly a great writer. However, in recent years, he has developed a tendency to go on a bit too much, and his short stories have been better than the majority of his novels. However, the stories in "Blood and Smoke" are by no means his best work. It almost feels as if someone, probably in Marketing somewhere, has looked at one of his stories, "Lunch at the Gotham Café", the only previously published story here, and thought "Hmm, let's have Steve write another couple of stories involving smoking, and then we can sell them as an audio tape." The end result is a grouping of stories which promise blood and smoke, and deliver very little of either. The smoking, certainly, feels like an afterthought.
The other major problem with this collection is the person reading them. Stephen King may be a great storyteller, but he's not a great teller of stories. His accent seems somewhere between the Maine drawl he writes about so often, with most of his novels being set in that state, and the almost nasal New York accent and, whilst he does not quite speak in a monotone, there is not a great variation of tone, and sometimes the only thing that distinguishes between two different characters having a conversation is a slight difference in tone, maybe a softening or hardening of his voice.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that one of his characters, Rose McClendon in 1995's "Rose Madder", gets a job reading audio books after a chance meeting. If I may quote for a moment, the person who conducts her impromptu audition says to her "Your voice is absolutely wonderful…low but not drony, melodious and very clear, with no definable accent…" and "…dialogue is much harder than narration…the acid test, one might say. But I heard two different people. I actually heard them!"
Stephen King clearly knows the theory of reading aloud, but not the practice. It would perhaps have been advisable if, when he'd realised how he sounded, he had passed the job along to someone else. His voice, as opposed to how Rose's must have sounded, does tend to drone a little, and does have a fairly strong accent to it. And, whilst you can distinguish between two characters, you do sometimes need to concentrate to do so.
It is a shame, as these three stories are fairly good, all told, although two of them are far from Stephen King's best, and his reading of them does take something away from them. The packaging promises "nail-biting suspense" which never really materialises and all of the stories seem to tail off, even though the pace within them is fairly high, at least in part.
The first of these is "1408", a ghost story without a ghost. Mike Endslin is a writer of factual ghost stories, having written three books with titles starting with "Ten nights in ten…", written by spending a night in ten separate, supposedly haunted, locations. Having covered castles, graveyards and houses, he's now onto hotel rooms. Which brings him to Room 1408 of the Dolphin Hotel, New York. It is a room which has seen thirteen people commit suicide in it over the years, and which Mike believes is haunted. However, as the hotel manager tells him, there are no ghosts in the room, but an evil presence, which means harm on everyone who enters the room, and will hurt Mike if he tries to stay in there. His efforts at persuasion have no effect, and Mike enters the room for what turns out to be the most eventful hour (or so) of his life.
This is a wonderful story, the first half fairly slow, as the hotel manager tries to persuade Mike not to go into the room, the second much quicker, once Mike is in the room, although it does tail off towards the end. There is very little smoke involved, and that is mostly caused by fire, and not by cigarettes, and no real blood. It is also let down more than a little by the reader of the story, and by the discordant clarinet which comes in, a little too loudly just before the end of the reading. The compilation is worth buying for this story alone.
The second story, "In the Deathroom", is a story of Fletcher, a newspaper reporter in a Latin American country, who has been arrested and is being interrogated for the information he may have concerning an impending revolution. They use an interesting instrument of torture to try to make him talk, whilst Fletcher tries to give away as little as possible, whilst not getting caught telling the lie which may kill him, a difficult job for a reporter.
This is not one of his better stories, although it does get a little gory, which is never a bad thing and shouldn't be listened to at mealtimes. Stephen King's attempts at accents are not terribly successful, although his New York-type accent is fairly good. The ending is relatively poor, but nice enough, although "nice" is not really a word you would normally associate with Stephen King. The smoking reference is strongest in this story, and does become quite important towards the end. Again, this may be better with another reader, and would probably work better if it were written down, and you could take a bit more time over it.
The final story, "Lunch at the Gotham Café" is the only previously published story in this collection. It was in an anthology called "Dark Love", published in 1995 and edited by Nancy Collins, Edward Kramer and Martin Greenberg and, at £6.99, is well worth a look. It is interesting that this story was commissioned originally for it's links with love, rather than smoking, and fits in better with the theme of that collection, rather than this one. This story also indicates the lie on the packaging of this collection, promising as it does "three unabridged short stories", as the printed version of this story is longer. The missing parts are not essential to the story, but do add some nice touches, and there are a few changes to what is left to help it fit onto the tape, not necessarily for the better.
This is the story of Steve Davis (that always makes me laugh!) who has recently been left by his wife. He suddenly quits smoking shortly afterwards, and there are continual reminders of and references to this throughout the story. Eventually, the husband and wife, and her lawyer meet in a restaurant called the "Gotham Café" for lunch, to discuss the break up, but do so on the day that the head waiter goes mad, and starts trying to kill people. As with "1408", the story has a slower first half, but a faster paced second half, and tails off towards the end. It's a pretty good story, although not quite as powerful as "1408".
Stephen King's attempts at a French accent are better than his attempts at a Spanish one, but there are three male characters at the start of the story, and distinguishing between them would be very difficult if this were read as, say, a script, rather than as a story. There is very little variation in King's voice between the three. This is a much better story to read than to listen to, although it is a good story to have if you do not own a copy of that anthology.
I would not consider myself disappointed with this collection, even after paying £14.99 for it in WHSmith's a couple of years ago, as it's useful to have for Stephen King fans, especially for "1408", although it is currently listed at an RRP of £17.50 on Amazon (available for £15.75), and I would baulk at that, knowing what I do now. Additionally, there are far more talented readers, and it is this which lets the collection down. This has also put me off buying the audio version of "Hearts in Atlantis" as my favourite story from that book is read by Stephen King and not John Hurt, who read a couple of the others.
I would say that this is a good tape to have for a long journey, as suggested by my friend Nikki, or for sitting around on a lazy afternoon when you're busy doing something else, but need a little background sound to avoid you getting too bored. However, if you have time to concentrate, these stories are available in written for in King's latest short story collection, "Everything's Eventual" published last year.
This audio collection is a must for any die hard Stephen King fan, but you would have to be a mad fan who buys everything he publishes. Like myself, for instance. If, however, you are a fan of audio books or spoken word tapes in general, or not a mad Stephen King fan, I would advise you to steer clear of "Blood and Smoke", and go create your own!