I, and some of my friends, love to read a mystery. What’s not to like? The fiction, one many credit to Edgar Allan Poe, offers a delicious mix of death, suspense, and uncertainty. And all that comes down to the writer. The Mystery Writer. It is the creator of all that conundrum and mayhem that may well hold the clue for those of us who have a real fondness toward this genre. I could cite the incredible imagination these authors possess for delivering on this variety of fiction, but others have said it already, and better. Although, the thought did lead me off on a tangent. Specifically, to recall the TV programs, books, or movies where those writers themselves became subjects woven into such puzzle works. This was the short (and nowhere near definitive) list I came up with:
- Murder, She Wrote (mystery writer solving crimes)
- Castle (mystery writer helps NYPD solve crimes)
- Murder by Death (mystery writers being setup to solve a murder while at dinner)
- Deathtrap (mystery writer pulls off murder… only to be caught by another writer)
- Sleuth (mystery writer plots to kill wife’s lover)
- The Langoliers
Wait a minute… what’s that last one? I know. Isn’t that a Stephen King story? The horror writer?!? What is he, or it, doing in a post talking about mystery writers (and why am I talking to myself?)?
Simply, it is because this novella, the lead tale from the author’s Four Past Midnight book published back in 1990, remains to this day one of my favorites because I can nestle it, however strangely, in this category. Naturally, I group this one along with King’s other famed novellas like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body from 1982’s Different Seasons, and a choice pick of author Joseph Maddrey and myself, The Mist, purely on the strength of its long short story. Today, King is recognized as one of the best storytellers we have in print. But, like author Steven Hart expressed in his recent splendid tribute to the late Ray Bradbury, I’ve felt for a long-time that SK, too,
“… worked best in short forms. The magic was most effective in concentrated doses.”
Whether it is straight horror fiction, redemptive drama or nostalgic tales, his skill in writing the prose has remained exceptional. In the past, his scary stuff unfortunately put off many, which caused them to dismiss his work and ignore many in his ever-growing bibliography. A number of which have nothing to do with that particular realm of dark fiction. The novella The Langoliers, and not necessarily the TV miniseries/movie, was one of those (along with the others I’ve mentioned) that I always encourage people uncomfortable with horror to seek out and read. If they at anytime enjoyed a Twilight Zone episode (I mean, like ever), I was more than confidant they’d have found themselves on the same familiar, fantastic ground that flight #29 covered in this short novel.
In fact, it is one of the key characters in the story, Bob Jenkins, a mystery author, caught up within it all that is so consequential to the final outcome. His presence in the tale is the conduit through which those around him, along with the reader, will filter the unconventional yarn through. You can see Stephen King’s familiarity with the tropes of the mystery/detective form, even as he twisted it so fantastically, in his narrative. What you end up with is both a recognizable homage to this type of literature, and as a point of departure. It’s Jenkins, using the well-worn plot devices of the genre, that figures out what is actually going on with a cross-country red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston that goes terribly, and almost, inexplicably wrong. Yes, Stephen King wrote a mystery. Just one a little more incredible and freakish than most. But, a mystery, nonetheless.
Years later, when I eventually came upon the audiobook, I couldn’t wait to dive right in. I mean, if my experience with the stellar work of the late-Frank Muller, who headlined so successfully the Recorded Books/Penguin Audio productions for Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, was any indication, why not? At least, this wasn’t the unfortunately abridged and dramatized (in 3-D sound, mind you) production of The Mist. Sad to say, by the time of this audiobook, the sorely missed Mr. Muller was no longer available. Plus, I now suspect the final axiom from The Pink Chair: Changing Horses Mid-Stream article of last year, written by the good Queen of the Audiobook, Blackstone Audio’s Tanya Perez, came into play with the production of those in the Four Past Midnight audio stable.
The set of four novellas were each parceled out by the audiobook publisher to a handful of actors and personalities instead of veteran narrators (“not that there’s anything wrong with that“). Maine humorist and author, Tim Sample, read The Sun Dog. Actor Ken Howard got The Library Policeman, and the great James Woods performed Secret Window, Secret Garden. But easily the strongest Stephen King creation in that foursome, The Langoliers, road on the vocal talent of the well-known and respected actor William Dafoe. Surely, what could possibly go wrong? Regrettably, plenty.
Without question, Dafoe remains an accomplished and skillful actor. One, certainly, unafraid to take on difficult and challenging work (The Last Temptation of Christ, Antichrist to list a couple — and not because ‘christ’ is in the name, either). In this case though, King’s story and characters required something Mr. Dafoe couldn’t deliver on for the most part: appealing vocalizations. A couple he nailed, Brian Engle, the off-duty airline pilot, and the psychotic Craig Toomey. Nevertheless, the rest of the cast were either wholly inconsistent or came off as caricatured, whiney, or just plain irritating, at least to this listener. And don’t get me started on his takes with the female characters. This is one of those rare instances where I’d tell prospective book listeners to read the source novella, instead.
I hate to write that about any audiobook, let alone one that recounts one of my most-liked pieces of imaginative fiction. But there it is. Movie or TV actors performing book narration duties may sound like a good idea, initially (and it may sell more audiobooks), but I’ve found it a mixed bag (I exclude instances where celebs read their autobiographies, though). It’s too bad this was a match-up made on the other side of that time rip. Note: if another audiobook publisher would take one more shot at this, who would I like to see as the narrator, you may be asking? Conversely, it would another actor. The same guy who delivered Craig Toomey so forcefully in Tom Holland’s ’95 TV adaptation, Bronson Pinchot. Given his career, and present-day voice work in the audiobook field, he certainly has the skills for pulling off this novella’s demands. Oh, and while we’re at it, I sincerely hope someone in their right mind produces a straight and unabridged telling for The Mist. That one is sorely overdue.