Blockade Billy by Stephen King (2010): We get the titular novella and another novella, “Morality”, which recently appeared in Esquire, all in a nice little hardcover package meant to suggest the children’s sports novels of King’s youth. Given that this just came out, I’d hazard a guess that Scribner’s is aiming at the Father’s Day crowd with this baseball-centric package.

King’s chameleon voice hums along quite nicely in the title novella, a first-person narrative of a forgotten rookie baseball player of the 1950’s. “Blockade” Billy was a rookie phenom of a catcher for the (fictional) New Jersey Titans in the 1950’s, and the then-third-base coach of the Titans tells the story of Billy’s magical month in the majors to, unh, Stephen King, who’s really been showing up a lot in his own fiction lately.

The coach thinks and speaks a lot in archaic cliches — this is entirely appropriate and, sometimes, appropriately annoying. But one gets a nice feel for baseball back in the 1950’s, especially the whims and vagaries of how the farm system worked back then. I enjoyed “Blockade Billy” a lot, though the thriller aspects of it could just as easily have been cut: the ‘twist’ is really the weakest thing about an otherwise enjoyable piece.

The novella “Morality” operates in its own sub-genre of What Would You Do For Money? It’s minor King, though in many ways it’s superior to A Simple Plan, a novel and movie it resembles in its concerns, though not its plot or characters. Recommended.

Darker by Simon Clark (1996): This enjoyable, early-career Clark horror/thriller almost seems like it was written on a dare. Why? Because the basic premise — and the engine that drives the plot — involves a family being chased across the English countryside by what amounts to a giant, malevolent, invisible ball. The ball can crush anything. A mysterious stranger who goes along with the family may know how to stop the ball — or he, too, may be malevolent. In the meantime, there’s that ball, inexorably catching up with the family again and again and doing a whole lot of crushing. And you know, it works, it really works — and would make an equally rivetting movie in the right hands. Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball! Highly recommended.

The Rising by Brian Keene (2004): The sub-sub-genre of talking zombies is well-represented by Keene’s post-zombie-apocalyptic novel in which a father desperate to save his son has to travel several hundred miles through hordes of annoying, talking, gun-wielding zombies. Oh, and all wildlife above the level of insects also becomes zombiefied immediately after dying.

The zombies in this case have a quasi-scientific/supernatural explanation — basically, they’re demons who escaped from hell after a military supercollider experiment went horribly awry and ripped a hole in the side of the universe. And it’s pretty much a rule of thumb that no experiment that ever ripped a hole in the universe ever ripped that hole through to someplace good, like the magical land of snuggle-elves or what-have-you. It’s pretty much always monsters and demons. Keene’s one of a handful of contemporary horror writers who can lay on the sex and violence (and sexual violence) without making things cheap or sordid. In a weird way, his novel is much like The Road, only the apocalypse makes a lot more sense (relatively speaking). Highly recommended.

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