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The Best Horror of the Year Volume Five
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Blaze: A Novel

Blaze - Ron McLarty, Richard Bachman, Stephen King This was a bit of a return to the old classic King, sans monsters and gore. It's a novel King wrote 30-odd years ago, then rediscovered and polished up and released as the last of his Bachman books. Ironically, I found it to be one of the better stories of his I've read recently, but I always have had a bit of a preference for his older stories - his newer stuff often just doesn't quite strike the right chord with me.

King has always been good with stories that pull up the carpets on small town America and look at what's crawling around between the planks of the floorboards. Blaze is about a huge galoot of a man, Clayton Blaisdell, Jr., who's as slow-witted as he is strong-bodied. Basically a genial soul who doesn't want to hurt anyone and whose only sin was being born into a crapsack world where he never got a break, the book alternates between Blaze's childhood, growing up in an (of course) abusive orphanage and his adulthood, where he has become the sort of small-time criminal everyone predicted he'd become. His partner of many years, George, who was the brains of their two-man outfit, has died, leaving Blaze to fend for himself. Blaze is trying to pull off George's last scheme, a kidnapping and ransom plot. Unfortunately, without George's brains to think through the plotting, Blaze's plan can't possibly end well.

The climax is fairly predictable - we know from the beginning that this poor sap never had a chance, so there isn't much suspense about how it's all going to turn out. But King, in his marvelous way when he's focusing on characterization and writing relatively economically, sketches out the life and personality of Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. for us, until we see him as a human being, a good guy in a bad place who made bad choices through little fault of his own, but mostly was just kicked around by a harsh, unfeeling world. And then we see the things he does, things which would make any reasonable person looking at his history but without the reader's knowledge of everything that happened alongside it, the context that framed the events and his actions, believe that he is just a two-bit thug and little more than a monster. To the rest of the world, that's all he is, but by the end you, the reader, just want to give this guy a hug.

Stephen King can be very sentimental when he wants to be, though he never goes for schmaltz. Blaze is about as close to a tearjerker as I've ever read from him. It's not all sparkling prose and the plot is perhaps a bit too predictable - even after King's very belated editing, this is obviously an earlier work. But it demonstrates that King has always been able to write fine suspense novels and fine human dramas, and his writing deserves to be taken seriously.