Tuesday, September 27, 2016

End Of Watch

I have just finished reading Stephen King’s End of Watch, the final book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, and I highly recommend it. If you enjoy well-written thrillers with quirky characters, you’ll enjoy this, even more so if you like those characters to be full of flaws and a long way from action movie stars. The trilogy follows retired detective K. William “Bill” Hodges, who gains new friends and a new lease on life when he takes on trying to solve his last unresolved case. That turns into a new business, new discoveries, and, ultimately, confronting some difficult questions. I’m not much for writing reviews - to be honest, I’m not much for reading reviews - but it’s a great ride that is quite worthy of King, though almost nothing like most of what people expect from him.

The reason I mention this here is because suicide plays a very large role in the stories. As is not uncommon for stories that feature a retired detective, Hodges is suicidal at the beginning of the tale, and a villain who tries to promote suicide is the trilogy’s primary antagonist. I don’t want to go too deep into spoiler territory, but it’s handled well, especially through the use of those flawed characters I mentioned, and it’s handled with hope. To put a nice, neat bow on it, King comes back to the subject at the end of his Author’s Note, reminding the reader to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if there is any need, and to not give up hope because, as he closes, “things can get better, and if you give them a chance, they usually do.”

Those who know me know that I am an avid Stephen King fan. I’ve read everything he has written, much of it multiple times. I’ve come to a conclusion over the years that I’m not even certain King, himself, is consciously aware of. While he is, of course, famous as the Master of Horror, Stephen King has written successfully in nearly every major genre there is. If you actually take a closer look at his body of work, you’ll find that he is almost more of a dramatist than a horror writer, and most of his work is compelling (and, as a result, successful) because of his fascination with and pretty solid understanding of human nature and the whole human condition. Almost every generation for the past thirty of forty years has had at least one groundbreaking drama or coming of age movie that was based on a Stephen King story. It’s true that he works fantastically well with the weird and the macabre, but there is another thread that runs through almost everything he has written (especially in the latter half of his career) that doesn’t get nearly as much attention: Hope.

I remember after the movie adaptation of King’s The Mist came out (easily one of the Top Five King adaptations), there was an interview where he praised the movie and talked a bit about writing the story. One of the things he commented on was the change to the ending. (This is years later, so I’m not worried about spoiling things here. Fair warning. Skip ahead if you don’t want to be spoiled.) The movie version ends with one of the most horrifying “How could you?” moments of movie history. The characters who have survived to this point, believing that all hope is lost, have just completed a round of murder-suicide to keep from being eaten by the monsters. The one character left, out of bullets, is bracing himself for the worst as thunderous noises rumble his way through the mist, only those noises turn out to be the army, and the day is saved. If the survivors had only held out for just a few more minutes … It’s gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, and terrible, and it made for quite a tragic ending. The original book ending was far more ambiguous. The narrating character searches the radio signals for signs of life, hears a single word through the static, and makes plans to go see if life has a chance. We don’t know what happens next. It could be as tragic as the movie ending, but it could also be a new beginning. Hope. In the interview, King said that he wished he had the guts to write the ending the way the movie had gone. Personally, I suspect he did consider it. The signs, the same waypoint markers are there throughout the story, but I don’t think King is wired that way, as much as he (and even many of his fans) think he is sometimes. Stephen King believes in hope. Most of the time, even his most horrific stories end with a lone survivor looking to some point in the future and believing there is a chance. That’s what it’s all about, that chance. One of King’s most controversial endings, that of his magnum opus The Dark Tower series, makes perfect sense when viewed from this perspective. It’s an ending of hope. It’s an ending that says, “Yes, we are going ‘round the wheel again, but this time you remembered, this time could be different.”

King’s idea of hope is never the Pollyanna sort, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. Bad things happen, and they’re going to happen, but good things happen too. It’s worth going on, because things can get better. The monsters are real, and often they are inside your own head, but so is hope, and hope is stronger, if you just let it be. Trust in The Light. It won’t always win, but it can. It’s a real hope, grounded in a very real world, despite the monsters. “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” (From the introduction to The Shining.)

Sometimes they win. That’s true, and it would be foolish in the extreme to ignore that, to pretend it wasn’t a factor, but Stephen King has spent a career demonstrating that we can win too. It doesn’t have to be easy to be possible, and it doesn’t have to be a guaranteed victory to be worth trying. Sometimes they win, but sometimes we win. Keep trying because it can get better. The story isn’t over until it’s over and, even then, sometimes the end is still not the end. Hope can be found in the most unlikely places, if we only look.

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