Chances of being Killed in a Jihad Attack

The Cato Institute has presented helpful data estimating the annual chance of being killed by jihadists in Belgium, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, as compared to in the United States. Though I think these analysts are a bit blasé about Islamic terrorism being a “manageable threat”, I agree that it’s important to keep perspective. Even in the highest-risk country (the UK), according to this analysis, your annual chances of being killed by a jihadist are woefully slim.

Over a year ago I explained the opposite problem, how the media downplays the jihad threat by misusing statistics and making pseudo-comparisons to other forms of terrorism to create a false impression that there is some ideological movement and threat equivalent to that of Islamic jihad. In fact there is no global “right-wing extremist,” “white male Christian”, or such equivalent threat in the same numbers or backed by a mainstream ideology. The reason why there are so many jihad terrorists is because their activities are required by Islamic law which derives in turn from very plausible readings of the Qur’an, Sira, and Hadith. And yet for all the routinely active jihadists, we should take some consolation from the following statistics from Cato, and not fall into fear-mongering.

 

Table 1: Fatalities and Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack, 1975–June 20th, 2017

Fatalities

Annual Chance of Dying

United Kingdom

2,632

1 in 964,531

Belgium

64

1 in 6,936,545

France

506

1 in 4,984,301

Sweden

20

1 in 19,001,835

Germany

148

1 in 23,234,378

United States

3568

1 in 3,241,363

 

Table 2: Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack by Period

Annual Chance of Dying in a Terrorist Attack

1975–2000

2001–2017

United States

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 1,602,021

France

1 in 6,059,061

1 in 4,006,878

Belgium

1 in 9,611,873

1 in 4,373,511

United Kingdom

1 in 590,389

1 in 8,796,562

Sweden

1 in 22,145,655

1 in 15,858,016

United States (exc. 9/11)

1 in 19,767,153

1 in 19,772,468

Germany

1 in 17,338,091

1 in 47,429,484

The Handmaid’s Tale: An “Islamic” Republic of Gilead?

The New York Times has an interesting write-up on The Handmaid’s Tale. This TV series is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel from the ’80s, about a dystopian America in which Christian fundies have taken over and turned the land into a repressive living hell. The funny thing is, this new America — called the Republic of Gilead — evokes Islamic customs more than Christian ones, even by the lights of hardcore fundamentalism. Atwood’s rule for herself when writing the novel was that everything for Gilead had to be based on a real-world antecedent. She draws on many influences, and I’ll go through some of the examples mentioned in the article, then cover additional ones which surprisingly the article ignores.

Color-Coordinated Clothing

In the Republic of Gilead men wear black, women wear colors, and the colors reflect the women’s caste: red for handmaids (fertile women who bear children for the elite), green for Marthas (the house servants of the elite), blue for wives (the spouses of elite Commanders), and brown for aunts (the high-ranking women responsible for indoctrinating the handmaids, overseeing births, and presiding over “mob justice” executions). As Atwood is quoted in the article, organizing people according to what they’re wearing dates back to the Code of Hammurabi. Often we think of the Third Reich’s yellow stars for Jews and pink triangles for gays. But aside from the color, the head-to-toe garb calls to mind the Islamic chador (which Atwood wore on a trip to Afghanistan in 1978), which is probably why the handmaid dress code struck me as Islamic more than anything else.

Some might compare the garb to the habit of a Catholic nun, but that’s a weaker analogy. Like priests, nuns take on a religious vocation and assume their dress code voluntarily. In Gilead, the handmaids are a class of women through no choice of their own, imposed on them by their fertility. They are like everyday Muslim women who are forced to wear the veil, chador, hijab, etc.

Mob Justice

Because the handmaids are so repressed, they need occasional release, which they get when they are allowed to torture and execute criminals. In the premiere episode they beat to death a rapist (read: a “low-life” rapist of elite wives, not a state-sanctioned rapist of handmaidens like themselves). The handmaidens basically stand in a circle and violently abuse the offender until he is dead. As Atwood says, the precedent goes back to the Dionysian revels of ancient Greece, in which the Maenads (female followers of the god Dionysus) tore apart sacrificial victims for their deity.

Mob justice obviously doesn’t need religion to drive it, and there are many examples throughout history that set the example. However, there is another scene of handmaid execution that comes in the season finale, and which requires the particular punishment of stoning. Stoning is not a Christian punishment but an Islamic one, and has been common in Islam throughout all its history. (See below, “Death by Stoning”.)

Declaring Women Barren

In the Republic of Gilead, it is blasphemy to suggest that a man could be sterile. The fertility problem is on women alone, and this idea derives from all three Abrahamic faiths. In the Judeo-Christian Bible and Qur’an, the male never comes under judgment for sterility. Barrenness falls on the woman’s shoulders and is a curse from God. That’s what people thought for centuries, and why Henry VIII kept changing wives, unable to credit that he might have been the problem, and not them.

Why Ofglen Does What She Does

When things look bad for Ofglen, she resorts to a final desperate act of resistance against the state of Gilead, taking out a few guards with a stolen vehicle — a stupid thing to do, but which Atwood compares to Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire. It’s a weak analogy, because Ofglen wasn’t religiously inspired. While Buddhism frowns on suicide for the most part, in some cases it can be seen as a deed of self-sacrifice, as when the 109 Tibetan Buddhists burned themselves as a sacrifice for the Tibetan people. These self-immolaters were acting similarly to the Buddha, who in one of his incarnations offered his body as food for a hungry tigress.

There is room for selfless suicide in Buddhism, just as there is an imperative for suicide bombing in Islam, and those religious differences matter since what nominally calls them forth is exactly the same: China has oppressed the Tibetans as horribly as Israel and western powers have done in the Muslim world — yet there are no Tibetan suicide bombers. Religions aren’t the same, despite what we’re often told. Buddhist suicide is purely self-sacrificial; Islamic suicide is also homicidal, and the more people killed, the greater the glory in paradise; Christian suicide is sinful in the extreme. What Ofglen does in The Handmaid’s Tale is simply a (non-religious) human response to a tyranny that cannot be defeated; a protest that will perhaps be remembered and inspire others down the line.

And what about these…?

Female Circumcision

The New York Times article fails to mention one of the most arresting scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale: Ofglen’s gentital mutilation in episode 3. There are misunderstandings about female genital mutilation (FGM) that need clearing. We are often told that FGM isn’t an Islamic problem but an African problem. While it’s true that some African countries do this, most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)  The problem goes well beyond Africa in any case. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a “human right”. Muslim clerics have defended it around the globe. It’s a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from Africa. It’s common in Iraq and in the Maldives. 40 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it. It is actually very accurate — if not politically correct — to say that FGM is an Islamic problem.

Even where Christian groups practice FGM (in Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya), it is not prescribed religiously. There is no Christian analogue to either the Muslim hadith in which Muhammad approves FGM “if the cutting is not too severe”, or to the Umdat al-Salik (Reliance of the Traveler), cited above, which is the authoritative source on Islamic law. Put simply, FGM has never been a Christian requirement. So this part of The Handmaid’s Tale evokes Islam — and mainstream Islam at that — more than fundamentalist Christianity.

The Ceremony

Even more curious is that the New York Times ignores the central plot device: the Ceremony, which we get a graphic view of in episode 4. The ritual is based on the account in Genesis 30:1-5 where Rachel is unable to have children and so she gives Jacob her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate for him to have sex with. This story becomes the basis for the class of handmaids in Gilead, which are needed because of the declining birth rate among humanity caused by toxic environment. Fertile women are taken to become sex slaves of Gilead’s political elite, and their sole purpose to produce babies for the elite women, being shuffled from one home after another to bear children.

Now, the handmaid text of Genesis 30 has never in Christian history been interpreted as religiously prescriptive, but in The Handmaid’s Tale the Christian authorities of Gilead have run wild with it, making the basis for their Ceremony. It proceeds once a month, whereby the Commander stands in front of his bed while banging his handmaid as she lies in the lap of his wife. This is supposed to make the act an intimate affair for all three parties involved. I admit this is an ingenious idea for a dystopian setting, but in reality preposterous as a fundamentalist Christian belief that could ever become the rule of law. First of all, just because something happens in the bible doesn’t mean that it’s prescriptive. Most of the Israelite holy wars, for example, were understood to be acceptable for the Israelites alone, not later Jews and Christians — God, in other words, approved slaughtering the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Jesubites, but none after, and his commands never amounted to “marching orders” for believers. Unlike Allah in the Qur’an, Yahweh never commands his subjects to fight unbelievers as a general rule or to subjugate infidel nations. (He does command, prescriptively, that the promised land be kept pure and free from idolatry, which serves as the basis for modern Zionism.) Most warfare in the Bible is descriptive, while in the Qur’an it’s prescriptive.

Likewise, the text of Genesis 30:1-5 isn’t prescriptive, and it’s no wonder Jews and Christians have not felt compelled to do as Jacob and Rachel did. The closest thing to the handmaid ceremony in today’s world is garden-variety sex slavery and/or concubinage, which is prescribed in the Qur’an and Islamic law (Qur’an 4:3, 4:24, 33:50; 23:1-6; Umdat al-Salik O9.13). So when people say that the Ceremony of Gilead comes across as more Islamic than Judeo-Christian — even though it’s based on a text from the Bible rather than the Qur’an — they actually have a good point.

Death by Stoning

In the finale (episode 10) the handmaid Janine is found guilty of trying to harm the baby she gave birth to, and so is sentenced to death at the hands of her fellow handmaids (per “mob violence” above). In the Republic of Gilead, the punishment for trying to harm a child is death by stoning. Stoning has never been a Christian practice, though it derives from the Old Testament and was used in ancient Judaism. On the other hand, it has been a consistent Islamic practice throughout history, prescribed by the Qur’an and many hadiths.

Stoning continues to be the law in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates — especially for men and women caught in adultery, and for women who refuse to wear the veil. All versions of sharia law, in fact, require stoning for those who commit adultery, and for women don’t wear veils. There are Muslim countries that don’t implement these particular sharia punishments, but those countries are not operating according to a supposed “moderate” form of sharia; such does not exist. So this scene in the finale evokes Islam without question.

Conclusion: An “Islamic” Republic?

While it’s evident that Margaret Atwood drew on all sorts of antecedents, religious and secular, I was getting heavy Islamic vibes from the Republic of Gilead. I haven’t read the novel, and so I don’t know the source material, but I wonder if either Atwood and/or the series writers were trying to imply that religions carry an equal potential for harm — in this case that a nation under Christian fundamentalist rule can turn out just as bad as, say, a place like Saudi Arabia. Critics are also saying that The Handmaid’s Tale is a “timely warning about the Trump administration”. That too is nonsense. For all of the threats Trump presents — and he indeed presents many — he has not, and will not, come anywhere close to endorsing the notion of a government so crushing (like that of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic nations) that it is able to mandate repressive class divisions, state-sanctioned rape, and the obliteration of individual identity. I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale as a dystopian fantasy, but as a speculative outcome of Christian America at its worst, it’s impossible to take seriously.

The Best Scenes in Stranger Things (Prepare for Halloween)

Season 2 of Stranger Things is officially wrapped up and many of the cast have been promising it will be even better and darker than the first. This seems too good to be true, so I’m keeping my expectations modest, but one thing can be said: Halloween/my birthday can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of what I consider the best scenes of the first season. (Click on the images for the youtube clips.) I have to say I’m still in awe of Millie Bobby Brown’s performance as Eleven. All the actors are top notch, and especially the kids, but Brown conveys more with her silences than most professional actors do by speaking. The writers scored big time by giving her a limited vocabulary, and I’m a bit worried how that aspect of her character might change in season 2.

Will’s corpse

1. Will’s corpse. Episode 3. When it’s dragged from the quarry no one has any reason to think it’s a fake body, and at this point even I wasn’t sure what was going on. For all I knew Will was dead and it was just his spirit contacting Joyce through the Christmas lights. Mike’s fury at Eleven (“What is wrong with you??”) is one of his best moments. The “Heroes” song playing over this scene is a genius piece of scoring, and the way it meshes with Joyce and Jonathan from the “Run” scene (see #10 below) adds up to what I consider the strongest and most emotional scene of the series: Mike sobs in his mother’s arms and Joyce sobs in her son’s, each helpless against the night that has brought pain and rage to them both.

“Good-bye, Mike”

2. “Good-bye, Mike.” Episode 8. No sooner does Mike declare his romantic intentions to El (see #20 below) than his plans are cruelly smashed. Using every last filament of her power, El begins to disintegrate the Demogorgon and shut the gate for good. Knowing this is enough to consume her too, she turns back and says good-bye to Mike, which of course destroys him. It is a hugely rewarding departure for the amazing character of El, obviously a tear-jerker, and you can easily make a case for it being the #1 scene, though I favor the episode 3 ending above.

Will’s rescue

3. Will’s rescue. Episode 8. The other side of the finale climax occurs in the Upside Down, where an Alien-hosted Will is barely alive. Even after many viewings I still find the resuscitation scene incredibly powerful, as Hopper replays the death of his daughter, and Joyce is about to lose her mind if her son doesn’t start breathing. It’s the moment the series has been building to, and even if it’s not clear how Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down (while Barbara and well-armed professionals from the Hawkins institute were instantly slain), his rescue pays off without feeling like a cheat.

D&D campaign

4. D&D campaign. Episode 1. The first scene of the premiere sums up my nerdy childhood and why D&D was so fun in the early ’80s. I fell in love with these kids right away: Mike the group leader (and of course the dungeon master), Lucas the skeptic, Dustin ruled by his appetites, and Will the sensitive kid whose character gets thrashed by the Demogorgon. As does Will himself, and it’s a brilliant way of introducing the Upside-Down creature, by anticipating it through the kids’ imagination of the demon-lord.

Wallpaper Will

5. Wallpaper Will. Episode 4. Everyone talks about the “Run” scene (see #10 below) but I consider this one better. It’s far more distressing and actually gave me a nightmare. Joyce rips down her wallpaper and sees Will in a flesh-encased portion of the wall, crying desperately for help. Through the whole series Winoda Ryder holds her role as the hysterical mom, but in this scene she is especially convincing. Imagine if you caught a glimpse of your child being terrorized in a hellish domain while being powerless to do anything about it. It’s one freaky scene.

Mike jumps

6. Mike jumps. Episode 6. Of course he’s saved mid-fall, but it pays off El as she deserves at this point in the story, as the boys finally accept her as one of them. The scene also contains the pivotal flashback in which El accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down and unleashes the Demogorgon, which has fueled her guilt-trips and caused her to believe — as she says in tears to Mike — that she’s the real monster. Flipping the van (see #11) is arguably El’s grandest feat, but the cliff rescue of Mike is her most important and dramatic.

“She tried to get naked!”

7. “She tried to get naked!” Episode 2. Classic 12-year-old reactions to the intrusion of a girl. When El tries to disrobe, Mike handles himself with the decorum fitting his leadership role (“That’s the bathroom — privacy, get it?”), while the reactions of Lucas and Dustin are hilarious (“She tried to get naked!”, indignantly mimics her taking off her shirt). After the D&D campaign (see #4), this is the best character moment of the series, and can be watched on replay. Poor El doesn’t even want the bathroom door closed, she’s so terrified of closed spaces, and Mike’s halfway measure is precious.

Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve against the Demogorgon

8. Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve against the Demogorgon. Episode 8. This scene could have failed in so many ways, and I was expecting it to. Steve turns up at just the wrong moment, and so of course he would be the convenient throw-away. The Demogorgon would kill this asshole, leaving Nancy and Jonathan to survive, and of course Jonathan would replace Steve as Nancy’s boyfriend. Instead we end up cheering Steve for the first time as he proceeds to unload a can of whup-ass on the Demogorgon, switching from villain to protagonist in a completely believable way. The showdown is a ballbuster and the Christmas strobe-lights make it twice as intense.

The Vale of Shadows explained

9. The Vale of Shadows (the Upside Down) explained. Episode 5. Any D&D moment in this series is a treat, and I love the homage to The Expert Rulebook from the ’80s, which yes I still have, and for that matter even an earlier edition. The subsequent scene at Will’s funeral is a particular favorite of mine, where Mr. Clarke — by far the best adult character in Stranger Things — explains the logistics of traveling to a hypothetical shadow realm. It’s morbidly ironic, as the kids discuss the issue at the funeral of their friend they know is alive.

“Run”

10. “Run.” Episode 3. This is a fan favorite and I expected to rate it higher, especially since the ouija board idea hits close to home (I had an unpleasant experience with one in my college years). But as I said, the Wallpaper-Will scene (#5) is superior. The idea here is that Will communicates from the Upside Down via electricity, whether by inaudible phone calls that roast the handsets, or in this case lamps and lights that flicker frantically. In the Wallpaper-Will scene, by contrast, it’s more than communication going in, since El is channeling a window to the Upside Down, so that Joyce can see and hear her son directly. But “Run” is still a great and scary scene.

Road chase

11. Road chase. Episode 7. This prologue sequence to episode 7 reminds me of the scene of Arwen being chased on horseback by the Nazgul in Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that intense. The Hawkins goons tear up the road in vans, which the kids evade by cutting through neighbors’ lawns over narrow paths. When they’re finally cornered, El flips the van barreling towards them. As if that weren’t sweet enough, it ends on reconciliation, as Lucas repents of distrusting Eleven so much and shakes with Mike.

Jonathan wastes Steve

12. Jonathan wastes Steve. Episode 6. I was expecting Jonathan to get the shit kicked out of him, and this is one of many instances in which the Jonathan-Nancy-Steve triangle subverted my expectations (see #8 for another example). The Asshole vs. the Nice Guy is cliche, but Stranger Things gives that formula the finger. Jonathan may be nice and sensitive, but he has a psychotic side, being a stalker and all, and the way he lets loose here is pretty alarming. Steve may be an asshole, but he’s a believable one with a redeemable side, and it made sense that Nancy stayed with him in the end; the bond she shared with Jonathan was a different kind.

Barbara’s death

13. Barbara’s death. Episode 3. If the series has one liability, it’s that none of the main characters die. Benny Hammond was a nice guy but so minor that we hardly noticed when he got shot. Barbara was a minor character too, and yet her death really upset people, probably because she’s a genuinely decent person and the best friend of Nancy who we are so invested in. I’m not sure what the writers intended, but Barbara’s fate turned out to be the much needed tragedy to make us feel the threat of the Upside Down. Her death runs parallel to Nancy and Steve fucking in bed — a brilliant juxtaposition.

El flips the gaming board (no video clip)

14. El flips the gaming board. Episode 2. The Upside Down is telegraphed in this early scene without naming it, as El tries to convey the fact that Will is trapped alone somewhere dark. She says he is “hiding”, but not from the “bad men” she is avoiding, rather from a nightmare creature which she represents on the bottom side of the gaming board by the D&D figurine of the Demogorgon. It’s a creepy foreshadowing of the Upside Down, and makes clear that Will is in serious shit. (Unfortunately I can’t find a youtube clip of this scene.)

Castle Byers

15. Castle Byers. Episode 7. When we finally see where Will is hiding in the Upside Down, we’ve come a long way with El since she flipped the gaming board. The shadow version of Will’s tree fort is one of the most atmospheric set pieces in Stranger Things and a literal living nightmare. It’s not the most reliable hiding place either, as the Demogorgon finds him at the end of the episode — and whisks him away to be cocooned and impregnated Alien-style.

Will’s slug

16. Will’s slug. Episode 8. The beauty to this scene is that it teases the next season but can just as easily be taken as a dark ending to a single season that leaves Will’s fate to our imaginations. And it’s entirely appropriate, because the show has asked a lot of us to believe that Will could have survived so long in the Upside Down, while Barbara and militant goons from the Hawkins institute were killed right away. This is the payoff: Will was transformed in his prolonged captivity, and is now part of the Upside Down, as he seems to live in both dimensions simultaneously.

Dress up

17. Dress up. Episode 4. I think El is prettier without the wig and dress, and I’m pretty sure Mike does too. But they do catalyze his feelings for her. It’s an homage to E.T. (Gertie dressing up the alien), but as with many of the homages in this series they are given weight in their seriousness. The E.T. scene is pure comedy, and while there’s some levity here as well, the boys are dazzled by her transformation, especially Mike who calls her “pretty” before catching himself and following the compliment with “good”. We know what he means.

Nancy in the Upside Down

18. Nancy in the Upside Down. Episode 6. Nancy has the best story arc of the series, because she begins annoying and ends solid, and her journey between these points is completely organic and believable. Her best moment is against the Demogorgon in the finale (see #8 above), but this is a great scene too. She and Jonathan are stalking the beast late at night, and when it snatches a bloody deer from under their noses everything goes to hell. Nancy wanders into the Upside Down and gets lost there and it’s pretty unnerving as she hides behind trees from the Demogorgon running wild.

The cat

19. The cat. Episode 3. Aside from her calamitous opening of the gate (see #6), this flashback is El’s most intense. She tries to make a cat’s head explode, ultimately refuses to go through with it and is dragged off to solitary confinement for her misbehavior. It’s a genuinely upsetting scene that puts the Hawkins institute into perspective for the first time. It’s nice to see El thrash her abusers, and “Papa’s” reaction says it all, as he marvels in awe over her powers no matter what it does to people. (In the youtube clip, the scene starts at 3:21.)

Mike and El kiss

20. Mike and El kiss. Episode 8. How can I possibly omit this one? Mike promises that his parents will adopt El and take care of her, and that he will be her boyfriend and take her to the school dance. Then he gives her a proper smooch. It’s simple and sweet — though a rather cruel set up, as only minutes later El will be sacrificing herself and leaving poor Mike devastated and bereaved.

“If You Call Yourself a Jew”

I love the way RBL reviews come so after the fact. Philip Esler has reviewed Rafael Rodriguez’s work on Romans, which was published back in 2014. It’s a good excuse to revisit the book, which follows the Stowers school that Romans is addressed primarily to Gentiles, rather than (as I believe) a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. Why then does Romans sound so Jewish-oriented unlike the rest of Paul’s letters? Rodriguez’s solution is to view the interlocutor (conversation partner) of Rom 2:17 as a gentile proselyte to Judaism — in other words, as Rodriguez claims, someone of Gentile ethnicity but of Jewish religiosity, and who teaches Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes like himself.

As Esler points out in his review, this allows Rodriguez to have his cake and eat it, for the person addressed in Rom 2:17 is both a Gentile and a Jew: “Paul still imagines a gentile in vv. 17 ff., only now this gentile has taken on the yoke of Torah — an individual of gentile origin who wants to call himself a Jew”. But how is this person a transgressor of the Torah, even to the point that his circumcision breaks the law? Rodriguez’s answer is that the circumcision wasn’t performed on the eighth day as required by Lev. 12:3. Esler asks for “some evidence for the idea that a law requiring adult Israelites to circumcise their sons on the eighth day could be, or ever was, invoked as a bar, or indeed have any relevance, to adult non-Israelites wishing to join Israel and willing to be circumcised to do so.” Indeed, I can’t imagine that being an obstacle at all. Not only were there probably Jewish sons circumcised on days other than the eighth, Abraham himself (Paul’s hero) wasn’t understood to be in the Old Testament or intertestamental literature.

Esler also warns about false distinctions between “ethnic” and “religious” Jews, saying that “becoming a Jew/Judean through circumcision and adoption of Jewish/Judean customs meant adoption of Jewish/Judean ethnic identity, not the adoption of a separable and separate Jewish religious identity, which was nonexistent in the first century.” Then there are the Jewish addresses of Rom 16, which Rodriguez (following Stowers) sees as third-party greetings rather than greetings to the actual recipients of the letter — which I agree with Esler asks a bit much.

I admire Rodríguez’s argument as much as I see problems with it. As someone who has spent years on Romans, I’m continually intrigued by various solutions to the audience puzzle. For Rodríguez, Rom 1:18–1:31 addresses the depraved immoral pagan, 2:1–16 the elitist moralizing pagan, and 2:17–29 the gentile proselyte to Judaism. That last allows him creativity at the point of Rom 7:9 which says, “I once lived apart from the law.”

The more plausible outline, as I see it, is to look at the overarching argument of Rom 1:18-3:20, where Paul takes down Gentiles and Jews, but in different ways, so as to put them on the same playing field while underscoring differences so as to reduce competition between the two ethnic factions. One of the key points of Esler’s 2003 book is that in Romans Paul avoids saying, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28). He’s more enlightened than he was in I Corinthians and Galatians, and learning from his failures now understands that there should indeed be “Jew and Greek in Christ”, at least to a significant degree, so that differences can be respected rather than erased. On that understanding, the outline of Rom 1:18-3:20 would look like this:

Both groups are judged (1:18-3:20)

1. Gentiles are judged apart from the law (1:18-2:5)

2. Gentiles are subject to a “natural” law written on their pagan hearts, as much as Jews are to the Torah (2:6-16)

1′. Jews are judged by the law (2:17-2:29)

2′. Jews under the law are dominated by the power of sin as much as Gentiles under ungodliness, though in a completely different way: the law accentuates sin when transgression occurs (3:1-20)

The equal attention paid to both Gentile and Jewish factions in Rome is then repeated in Rom 6:1-7:25, this time from the standpoint of baptism and death.

Both groups die (6:1-7:25)

— Both die to the power of sin (6:1-15)

1. Gentiles die to sin and become slaves of God (6:16-23)

2. Jews die to the law and become slaves of the spirit (7:1-25)

Again, both groups are seen to be on the same footing but in different ways. And “dying to the law” in Rom 7 is run parallel to the Eden story in Genesis. Rodriguez’s view that Rom 7:9 — “I once lived apart from the law” — refers to a Gentile proselyte is too superficial for Paul’s overarching purpose.

For reasons that escape me, many persist in denying the focus of the Genesis story. Esler himself is guilty of this, but to me it’s rather clear that Adam looms over the section of Rom 5-8, and comes to particular focus in the parallels of Rom 7:7-13, where “alive” and newly created, he is placed in Eden (Gen. 2:7-9) and “commanded” by God not to eat of the tree of life (Gen. 2:16-17), whereafter the serpent “seizes opportunity” to further its own ends (Gen. 3:1-5) and Eve complains that she was “deceived” (Gen. 3:13). God then kills humanity, punishing it with mortality (Gen. 3:19,22-23). As much as I’ve tried in the past, I can’t escape the conclusion that Paul has deliberately assumed the role of Adam in order to “prove” that life under the Torah replicates Adam/Eve’s failure under the commandment in Eden. His argument is an exegetical one, in effect urging that the traps and snares of the Torah trace back to the horror of the fall, which in turn fulfills his ambitious desire to prove that Jews are no better under the law (7:1-25), than Gentiles are under ungodliness (6:16-23), each requiring the dramatic rescue operation of 8:1-17.

At the very least, Esler’s review is good cause to revisit Rodriguez’s stimulating explanation as to why Paul’s interlocutor “calls himself a Jew”. I have to admit it’s one of the better efforts from the Stowers camp.

13 Reasons Why

As a rule I avoid teen dramas but couldn’t resist the lure of 13 Reasons Why. I expected a lame story that was poorly acted, but that would perhaps examine high-school bullying and suicide in ways that lived up to the hand-wringing hype. I got the opposite. 13 Reasons Why is an astonishingly well-acted TV series with cracking mystery and intrigue, and boasts many effective stylistic choices. Unfortunately its message is the wrong one. And yet the premise for that message works dramatically well, which makes the series rather interesting to assess.

For those who know nothing about it — and keep in mind I’m describing the TV series, not the book which I haven’t read — the story is narrated by a girl from the grave, who has killed herself for “13 reasons” (read: 13 assholes) which she has recorded on old-fashioned audiotapes so there’s no chance of her indictments going viral. She blames 13 people for her decision to kill herself, or perhaps only 12, since one of the kids (Clay, the main character, in the above pic) is very nice and sensitive; Hannah admits he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes, yet she also implies that his failure to be more assertive in pursuing her romantically was a severe push to her suicide. Her other reasons for killing herself run the gamut: she was bullied, slut-shamed, stalked, lashed out at unjustly, assaulted, and then finally raped. The tapes function as a psychotic chain letter calling out everyone who did these things to her. The tapes are then passed from one asshole to the next, so that each has to look in the mirror and confront the beast within. Which means that each kid gets to hear Hannah’s judgments on the other twelve, and as a result these jerks come to share an unspeakable secret. Hannah has taken careful measures to be sure that her tormentors will indeed listen to and pass on these tapes in sequence as she instructs them to do, and not destroy them or throw them away.

As I said, the acting performances are great, and the two leads Katherine Langord (Hannah) and Dylan Minnette (Clay) deserve special praise. Every time they’re on screen together they channel the right chemistry, unable to admit their feelings but plainly drawn to each other. Every step in their relationship feels like a weird success story that doesn’t go anywhere, which only tightens the tragedy in the present. Flashbacks can be an annoying device, but 13 Reasons Why uses them brilliantly, and they occur frequently and without warning. As Clay listens to the tapes, the past peels away like an onion, revealing more and more ugly secrets. The show takes bold risks for a teen drama — the kind we need to see more of in the genre. But as I also said, there are problems, which I will address in turn.

Problem #1: The “power of kindness”

The gravest flaw is the lead premise: that if kids stop bullying and start being more kind to their peers, suicides will drop. The fact is that the vast majority of teen suicides are the result of mental illness, not external problems like bullying, which may contribute to suicide but are very rarely the root cause. An analogy would be mass shootings, for which gun control is often seen as the remedy. We do need tighter gun laws for many reasons, but mass shootings isn’t one of them. (Mass killers almost invariably use firearms that wouldn’t be restricted by an assault-weapons ban; mass killers plan months ahead and find illegal ways of obtaining what they want, just as drug buyers do; improved background checks are useless since most mass murderers don’t have criminal records or any history of psychiatric hospitalization. Etc, etc.)

Bullying is like easy gun access, a serious problem, and to its credit 13 Reasons Why portrays bullying in realistic ways that I hope will prompt more discussion and paths to remediation. But however effective we become at abuse management, it will hardly make a dent in suicide. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and bipolar disorders are what need heavy attention, but in 13 Reasons Why mental illness is not presented as the reason — or even a reason — for Hannah’s desperate decision. Her classmates get all the blame, to the extent that one of them is even driven to say that, “We all killed Hannah Baker”. While it’s good to see bullies and jerks own up to their actions, it’s the wrong message to send that they all (and in more or less equal measure) caused Hannah’s death.

Even the protagonist Clay berates himself, in his case for doing the right thing! As they are kissing and about to have sex, Hannah suddenly has flashbacks to her bullies, and tells him to stop, which he does. Everyone knows that’s the right thing. Then she tells him hysterically to leave the room, which he also does after repeatedly asking if she’s okay. She has to repeat her dismissal multiple times because he’s so worried about her, and yet his implied “crime” is that he finally obeyed her instead of defying her and staying in the room to insist on consoling her and explaining that he loves her. On the tape Hannah says this is what she really wanted him to do. That’s a grossly irresponsible message. It’s hard enough to educate people that “no means no”, and here we have the double standard that “no means no” when it comes to sex, but the opposite when it comes to what follows.

The show condemns Clay repeatedly for not being proactive enough, and he accepts full blame: “I cost a girl her life,” he says, “because I was afraid to love her.” That’s a realistic reaction owing to survivor guilt, but Clay is wrong to blame himself. The guidance counselor Mr. Porter is condemned similarly, when he refuses to chase after Hannah when she flees his office in frustration. The show writers operate out of a surprisingly judgmental framework made worse by their mistaken assumptions about kindness.

In sum, by focusing on everything the 13 kids did (or supposedly didn’t do enough, in the case of Clay and Mr. Porter), to the exclusion of any mention of mental illness on the part of Hannah, 13 Reasons Why vastly overrates the power of kindness. Hannah’s suicide is presented solely as the result of external causes. Even rape is rarely, in and of itself, the cause of suicide. (Rape can cause post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder, which are mental illnesses, and in those cases 13% of rape victims will indeed attempt suicide.) Being kind is obviously a good message, but in a drama about suicide it becomes misplaced.

Problem #2: Glorified Hannah, demonized peers

If kindness is the (supposed) antidote to suicide, then suicide can be seen as an act of righteousness to wreak vengeance on one’s bullies. This is what critics of 13 Reasons Why complain about: that the novel and TV series glorify teen suicide, and that the example of Hannah may even inspire copycats. First of all, any real-world copycat of Hannah is about as likely as a serial-killer inspired by a film like Seven, or a cop killer inspired by Breaking Bad to dissolve the corpse in a bath of acid. Yes those sort of things happen but only extremely rarely. No matter how graphic and sensational, literature and film seldom gives people homicidal or suicidal ideas they feel compelled to enact on. (The exception would be philosophical or religious scripture, as for example the Qur’an which inspires daily routine mass-murder activity, and even then we don’t condone the banning of holy writ.) Censorship is never the answer, and shame on the school administrators and librarians who have advocated removing 13 Reasons Why from circulation.

There is some truth to the claim that the TV show glorifies Hannah. Her suicide, after all, is portrayed as a form of empowerment, as she exacts retribution from the grave against those who were nasty to her. It’s unrealistic but works as a dramatic narrative, because as the tapes proceed Hannah becomes as much a “villain” as a tragic protagonist. The narrative is so consumed by her over-heaping guilt trips on these kids that it loses sight of her as a person and her mental problems (again: the show doesn’t indicate that she has any). Most of the 13 kids aren’t so bad. They’re jerks in varying degrees and misguided in the ways of teenagers. Four of them even commit crimes: Tyler stalks Hannah and photographs her through her bedroom window at night; Marcus assaults her publicly, just to show off for his friends; Sheri drives her home from a party, accidentally knocks over a stop-sign, and then ditches her by the side of the road without reporting the accident to the police as Hannah urges, thus later causing the death of a classmate at that intersection; Bryce rapes her, after already raping another another girl days before, in his home swimming pool. Everyone agrees that Bryce should fall off a cliff, and I might be inclined to push Marcus over with him, but Tyler and Sheri are sympathetic characters even if their crimes are inexcusable.

Justin is particularly well-used. In the early episodes I couldn’t stand him, but we later learn that he comes from a hideous home life, where his mother is a drug addict and his stepfather is physically abusive. Justin “allowed” Bryce to circulate the photo of Hannah’s legs, and then to rape Jessica at a party, without trying to stop him in either case, and he genuinely beats himself up for the latter. He feels guilty to the point that he will do anything for Jessica to atone for his inadequacy — even offering to kill Bryce for her. This doesn’t make him decent, but I did feel for him as he deteriorates into an emotional wreck. Then there is Alex, a sensitive guy, but whose father is a macho police cop who encourages Alex to be aggressive to prove his manliness. Alex is the one who most regrets mistreating Hannah, to the point, in a ridiculous shocker, that he ends up taking his own life at the end of the show. My understanding is that Alex doesn’t commit suicide in the novel, and indeed this was a very poor adaptation on the part of the script writers; I didn’t buy Alex’s suicide at all. But aside from that, his character is handled well; there’s nothing especially reprehensible about him. He just acts childish in a way that Hannah takes to heart.

In my opinion, only three of the 13 are truly heartless: Bryce, Courtney, and Marcus (in descending order of assholery). Bryce is a remorseless rapist, Courtney a vile backstabber, and Marcus a despicable save-ass. Ryan is soulless too though harder to gauge. (For my grades of the 13 in terms of the damage they cause to Hannah vs. how bad they are as people, see the appendix at the bottom of the post).

What I’m saying is that the glorified hyper-vindictive Hannah, while problematic in a real-world way, has the advantage of not letting us off the hook. We lose sympathy for this tragic heroine when her bullies emerge as fallible and in some cases likeable enough kids who make naturally stupid mistakes. And that’s very realistic. It may not be the message the show writers intended, but it comes through against the grain of their “We all killed Hannah Baker” nonsense. Hannah turns out to be a great character, if you look at it the right way.

Problem #3: The character of Tony

Clay speaks for many viewers, and certainly for myself, when he scorns Tony as an “unhelpful Yoda” who does little more than appear out of nowhere, look down on Clay with patronizing condescension, and offer nothing by way of wisdom other than tell Clay he must listen to the tapes to learn everything for himself. I understand he’s the guardian of Hannah’s plan so that everything goes according to her wishes, but he should have been kept off-screen more instead of repeatedly turning up just at the right moments in this melodramatically contrived way. There were times, frankly, when Tony almost ruined the show for me.

The upshot is that I really liked 13 Reasons Why and may even read the book to see how the source material differs. It’s a well-crafted drama with moral missteps, but those errors have been forcing the right questions on a massive scale. From that point of view I could judge it a complete success.

 

Appendix: The Rogues Gallery

In rating Hannah’s tormentors, I assign “damage” and “asshole” grades, each on a scale of 0-10. Sometimes both grades are high, but some of the kids are relatively decent (low asshole grades) even if they did something which really hurt Hannah (high damage grades). The damage points are interesting to consider, bearing in mind that despite Hannah’s accusations, none of these offenses usually cause suicide in the real-world, or at least without the presence of mental illness.

Episode 1: Justin Foley (Tape 1, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 6

He sneaks a photo of Hannah’s spread legs while they’re in a park, and then allows Bryce to send it viral around the school, thus starting the chain of rumors and slut-shaming. Justin however is more weak and ineffectual than a really bad person. He’s guilty mostly of what he allows Bryce to do (as also in episode 9). In later episodes he becomes a much more sympathetic character as we learn about his abusive home life.

Episode 2: Jessica Davis (Tape 1, Side B)

Damage grade: 4
Asshole grade: 3

She wrongly blames Hannah for her boyfriend breakup, smacks Hannah hard across the face, and ends their friendship. The result is that Hannah retreats into loneliness and never makes any friends after Jessica. But Jessica isn’t malicious, she’s just bitchy and insecure. Losing friends — even unfairly — is a part of life unfortunately. Though getting belted in the face when you don’t deserve it is rather uncalled for.

Episode 3: Alex Standall (Tape 2, Side A)

Damage grade: 3
Asshole grade: 1

He makes a list of “bests and worsts” in the school, and includes Hannah as having the best ass, thus aiding in the ruin of her friendship with Jessica, while also lending credence to the rumors started by Justin. Alex is actually a decent kid (especially considering the macho dad who raises him), and he very quickly becomes sorry for his childish behavior and the impact it has on Hannah. His “bests and worsts” list doesn’t single out Hannah for special shame, and in my view his act is comparatively mild as pranks go.

Episode 4: Tyler Down (Tape 2, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 4

No one likes a stalker, and Tyler (like Hannah) takes abuse from the entire school for his ongoing photography efforts. He stalks Hannah and takes pictures of her at night through her bedroom window — which is a crime and scars Hannah since she can’t feel safe in her own home. On the other hand, as a person, Tyler is motivated by sincere affection for Hannah, and I see him more as a pathetic loser than a genuinely dangerous creep. Thus my low asshole grade compared to the serious damage he causes.

Episode 5: Courtney Crimsen (Tape 3, Side A)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

After Bryce I consider her the worst of the 13. At first she fills the friendship void left by Jessica, in addition to being a fun lesbo-lover on the side. But when Tyler takes photos of their sexual activities in Hannah’s bed and then sends them viral around the school, Courtney not only shuts Hannah out but throws her under the bus in the worst way just to keep her lesbian orientation secret. She passes off her affair as someone else having sex with Hannah (since Tyler’s photo is unclear), slut-shaming Hannah with a vengeance. It would be one thing if Courtney’s fear of homophobia were more understandable. But she has two gay fathers, it’s the 21st century, and the student body doesn’t seem disproportionately bigoted. She gets even worse in later episodes, denying Hannah’s claim that Bryce is a rapist in order to shield herself when she is subpoenaed for a deposition. Courtney is a true asshole, and one who repeatedly shocked me in watching this series.

Episode 6: Marcus Cole (Tape 3, Side B)

Damage grade: 8
Asshole grade: 9

He’s a close rival to Courtney, and I score his points the same. He’s a positive role model for the school with a respectable image, but behind that facade he’s vile. He tries to finger Hannah while sitting with her at a diner, and more to show off for his friends who are watching nearby than to gratify himself. This is the first time Hannah is sexually assaulted and it does considerable damage to her self-image. Also like Courtney, by the end of the series Marcus is hell-bent on saving his ass and reputation at all costs, even if it means siding with a rapist like Bryce. I would rank Courtney slightly worse than him by the margin of her treachery — she became Hannah’s friend for a short time before shafting her mercilessly, while Marcus was never Hannah’s friend to begin with — but it’s admittedly a close call.

Episode 7: Zach Dempsey (Tape 4, Side A)

Damage grade: 7
Asshole grade: 4

He may be part of the Justin-Marcus-Bryce circle, but I actually think Zach is a pretty decent guy. He does something cruel to Hannah and it wounds her, but I see him as going against his nature on this point. He sabotages her (stealing and destroying the comfort notes left for her in the Brown Paper Bag Program), not out of malice but because he’s unable to cope with rejection. Because he’s rich and popular and good looking, he’s probably used to getting his way all the time, so when he extends a kind hand to Hannah (and to his credit he is genuinely upset by Marcus’ outrageous’ assault on her), he can’t get over it like he should when she spurns his intentions.

Episode 8: Ryan Shaver (Tape 4, Side B)

Damage grade: 2
Asshole grade: 8

I see Ryan as the inverse of someone like Tyler. What he does is less bad than who he is. He’s on the tapes for publishing one of Hannah’s personal poems in the school’s literary magazine. He published it as an anonymous piece, but some students guessed Hannah wrote it, which embarrassed her. Frankly I don’t see this as a terrible injustice against Hannah (especially since it’s anonymous), though it’s true he should not have published it without her permission. More insufferable is Ryan’s arrogance. His superiority complex makes him thoroughly immune to complaints about the way he offends and bothers people. That’s basically the definition of an asshole.

Episode 9: Justin Foley (Tape 5, Side A)

Damage grade: 5
Asshole grade: 6

Episode 9 is unique, not only for taking a second swing at one of Hannah’s tormentors, but this time for something that doesn’t even effect Hannah directly. Jessica is the victim here, not Hannah, who is a hidden observer. Hannah is effected in terms of the guilt she suffers for staying quiet and hidden as Jessica is raped before her eyes, which in my view makes her worthy of as much blame as Justin.

So again, as on his first tape entry (episode 1), Justin is indicted by Hannah primarily for what he allows Bryce to do, which in this case is criminal. He lets Bryce enter the bedroom where Jessica is lying drunk-unconscious, and of course Bryce rapes her. Hannah is hiding (she has just thrown Clay out of the room after almost fucking him) and so witnesses the rape. As stated before, Justin is weak but not nasty, and while that doesn’t excuse his unwillingness to oppose Bryce, he later beats himself up for Jessica’s trauma. I give Justin a damage score of 5, in reflection of how his ineffectual behavior against Bryce’s rape of Jessica impacts Hannah. (It would be a 10 if it was Bryce’s damage score as it impacts Jessica, and perhaps a 7 or 8 if it were Bryce’s score as it impacts Hannah.) But Hannah is a colossal hypocrite for coming down hard on Justin when she is guilty of the same thing. If she wasn’t willing to club Bryce over the head with something, she should have at least yelled and gone for help.

Episode 10: Sheri Holland (Tape 5, Side B)

Damage grade: 9
Asshole grade: 2

She’s the inverse of Ryan: a good person on the inside whose single lapse in judgment results in disaster, namely the death of a classmate. She drives Hannah home at night from a night party and crashes into a stop sign, but instead of calling the police as Hannah urges, she panics and ditches Hannah by the side of the road. That night someone is killed driving through the intersection. Sheri is so appalled by her error that she eventually goes out of her way to do things for the grieving parents of the classmate.

Episode 11: Clay Jensen (Tape 6, Side A)

Damage grade: 10 (*)
Asshole grade: 0

There’s not an asshole-bone in Clay’s body, and Hannah acknowledges that he doesn’t deserve to be on the tapes. But he’s on them anyway because Hannah wishes that he had ignored her demand that he leave the bedroom after she freaked out during their foreplay. For this he blames himself (“I killed Hannah because I was too scared to love her”), and this is clearly the show writers’ message which crops up elsewhere. It’s an irresponsible message. No means no, and Clay was correct to do exactly as Hannah told him — stopping the sex and leaving the room.

As Hannah tells it, I would have to conclude that the damage Clay did to her by not staying in the room and pursuing his romantic intentions earns him a score of 10. It clearly tore her to pieces. But since he did what can only be construed as the right thing, he doesn’t really deserve any damage points. If guys are expected to do the opposite of what a girl tells them in one case, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t act the same way when it comes to sex.

Episode 12: Bryce Walker (Tape 6, Side B)

Damage grade: 10
Asshole grade: 10

No commentary required. Bryce is an unrepentant rapist who belongs in jail.

Episode 13: Mr. Porter (Tape 7, Side A)

Damage grade: 5 (*)
Asshole grade: 1

The guidance counselor is like Clay. His moral compass is perfectly fine, and he tries to convince Hannah that life is worth living. His fault, as Hannah sees it, is that he failed to chase after her and beg her to come back when she flees his office in frustration. Which is uncharitable of Hannah in the extreme. Counselors and therapists shouldn’t be expected to chase after patients like this, any more than guys like Clay should be expected to flout a girl’s command to get lost and leave her alone. I do give him one asshole point for suggesting that she could “just move on” if she isn’t willing to name her rapist. Even if that’s pragmatically what some rape victims choose to do (not file criminal charges), one should never use the phrase “just move on” with a rape victim. I give him a damage grade of 5 right down the middle; on the one hand, his counseling failure is portrayed by Hannah as the last straw and a big one, but in essence she had already made her decision after Bryce; Mr. Porter was a last-ditch effort.

Retrospective: The 20 Albums of Rush (1974-2012)

The Rush band members are over 60 years old now, with 20 albums to their name. It seems like yesterday they were in their twenties balling out “The Spirit of Radio” for the first time. Time doesn’t stand still, as they insist; it zings by. So here’s my homage to their five periods of music, at four albums a piece. Every album has a theme to which the songs point in some way, which I’ve listed. Following that I have bravely attempted to rank the albums, which will probably draw plenty of fire and counter-opinions.

Hard-Progressive (’74-’76)

The fledgling years. When I’m in a Zeppelinesque mood, I go to the first album, and when I want Rush at its best ever, I go to the last.

Rush (’74). Getting a rush from rock n’ roll: “Let’s be Led Zeppelin.”
Fly By Night (’75). The spirit of the moment.
Caress of Steel (’75). Swords, guillotines, midway rides.
2112 (’76). Freedom, liberty, and independence; anti-collectivism.

Progressive-Classic (’77-’81)

As the previous era tamed hard rock with prog, in this period the progressive style becomes disciplined and more accessible, culminating in the famous Moving Pictures.

A Farewell to Kings (’77). The doom of monarchies.
Hemispheres (’78). Subconscious drives; the duality of the mind (reason/emotion).
Permanent Waves (’80). The relationship between nature and technology; being true, and outlasting fads and fashions.
Moving Pictures (’81). Musical portraits (each song a mini-movie); the effect of the spotlight.

Synth (’82-’87)

The era loved or despised. I’m with the former. Rush evolved by taking cues from the more talented bands of the ’80s — Peter Gabriel, U2, The Police, Talking Heads. Hard-sounding guitar gave way to tight, stylish keyboard performances and a darker tone to the music. On whole I consider this era as strong as the previous two.

Signals (’82). New generations vs. the old; the success and failure of communication.
Grace Under Pressure (’83). Surviving the horrors of the world and learning from them; the human response to external stress.
Power Windows (’85). The power of money, government, emotion, dreams, mysticism.
Hold Your Fire (’87). Time and events; turning dreams and goals into reality; controlling instincts (“fire” = “instinct”; thus “hold your fire”).

Pop-Alternative (’89-’96)

The difficult era to define, when Rush tried returning to its roots while also breaking new ground. Foes of the synth period rejoiced to hear more guitar and less keyboards. The era was marred by the widely hated Roll the Bones (the absolute worst of the 20 albums), then saved by the raging comeback, Counterparts.

Presto (’89). Appearances vs. reality; illusions; and the ways we pretend to be magical (problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand”).
Roll the Bones (’91). Fate, chance, taking risks. (Ironically fitting: the album itself was a risk — there’s not a single decent song on it.)
Counterparts (’93). Opposites and pairs; the “nuts and bolts” of human life; the mysteries of relationships.
Test for Echo (’96). The importance of communication and the need for feedback.

Progressive-Metal (’02-’12)

The Renaissance period, which has been rather bad, though the last album single-handedly redeems it.

Vapor Trails (’02). Vivid memories; loss, finality, and finding the determination to carry on in an uncaring world.
Feedback (’04). (Cover album.)
Snakes and Arrows (’07). The good and bad sides of religious faith.
Clockwork Angels (’12). Free will vs. determinism.

How They Rank

1. 2112. 1976. 5 stars. It should have failed, with no hit single and half the album a sprawling narrative of science fiction. But against every odd 2112 gave Rush sudden fame. It marked the clear point at which their hard Zeppelin and cerebral progressive styles — which had clashed rather badly on Fly by Night and Caress of Steel — came together just right. The 20-minute title track “2112” is about a guy living in a controlled future with no art, music, or creativity; he finds a strange device (a guitar) in a cave behind a waterfall, and after learning how to play it he takes it to the music-hating priests who are the overlords; the priests destroy the guitar, telling him that music was the evil that almost destroyed humanity; he then kills himself in martyrdom. The side helpings are frankly almost as good, especially “A Passage to Bangkok”, dealing with marijuana tourism, and “Lessons”, the only Rush song composed entirely by Alex Lifeson. 2112 is Rush’s best album and my third favorite prog album, after Selling England by the Pound (Genesis) and Wish You Were Here (Floyd).

Best Tracks: 2112, Passage to Bangkok, Lessons, Twilight Zone — in other words, virtually the entire album.

2. Moving Pictures. 1981. 5 stars. Most critics give it pride of place, though I buck convention in favor of the operatic 2112. But seriously, who hasn’t heard every song on Moving Pictures? It’s one great track after another. “Tom Sawyer” remains the band’s signature song, “Limelight” laments the oppression of fame, “Witch Hunt” examines mob violence, and “The Camera Eye” swirls with atmospheric odes to New York and London. If you haven’t heard Moving Pictures at all, you probably live at the North Pole. It’s the record that fired up rock fans, whether or not they ever liked Rush before, and is timeless in the purest sense. The album cover still makes me wonder. Is it a sly statement against socialism? One pair of movers is taking away religion, the other two pairs are bringing in a state-controlled economy (dogs playing poker) and Satanic practices (a naked man’s submission to a pentagram), whilst a horrified woman looking on is being “comforted” by a Russian official.

Best Tracks: Limelight, Witch Hunt, The Camera Eye, Vital Signs.

3. Signals. 1982. 5 stars. I can only imagine if Rush had decided to evolve in the direction of heavy metal that was becoming popular in the early ’80s. We might have had Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels thirty years early. Instead they went in the direction of my favorite ’80s bands — Peter Gabriel, U2, Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, etc. — focusing more on the music’s texture than its power. Lifeson’s guitar action receded into the background as Peart and Lee’s synth electronics, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers took over big time. These changes would last through four albums, the band’s synth period of ’82-’87, and would be regarded as a betrayal by the purists. The first of the four, Signals, is a true masterpiece. Appropriately, the album’s theme is new generations vs. the old. The lead track “Subdivisions” is still my favorite Rush song, about adolescent isolation in the suburbs; it’s quintessentially minimalist. “The Analog Kid” has one of the best choruses ever; “The Weapon” and “Chemistry” are genius; even the pop filler “New World Man” is pretty damn good.

Best Tracks: Subdivisions, The Weapon, The Analog Kid, Losing It.

4. Hold Your Fire. 1987. 4 ½ stars...because this one will certainly draw fire, for being in my top five. Fans hate it with a passion. It’s the last of the four synth albums, and takes the keyboard approach to its extreme conclusion, resulting in the band’s biggest departure from their ’70s roots. With all due apologies to the purists, I love Hold Your Fire and never get tired of it. Unlike its predecessor Power Windows, it has aged wonderfully. There’s not a single bad song on it. It may not be the masterpiece Signals is, but even more than Signals it shows the band perfecting a style completely outside the “Rush orbit”. People who despise the synth era are basically just saying they don’t like synth, and that’s not a valid objection. Any musical genre can be good, and Hold Your Fire hits a home run with its shivering ethereal texture. I think most people who profess hatred for “Time Stand Still” are actually liars. “Mission” is simply pristine; “Prime Mover” the hidden gem. It’s called the Red Album by hard-core haters. I call it that too, but to reclaim it positively.

Best Tracks: Lock and Key, Time Stand Still, Mission, Prime Mover.

5. Clockwork Angels. 2012. 4 ½ stars. The Other Red Album, as I call it, could not be more opposite from the one above, but it’s just as good. Hold Your Fire gave the finger to Rush purists; Clockwork Angels appeals to them by returning to the conceptual story-arcs of the ’70s. One is ethereal grace, the other a combo of prog and heavy metal. The story-arc concerns a young man who journeys from his farm village to a big city ruled by a despot, and along the way he witnesses the worst acts of cruelty and treachery, yet clings to his optimism. The theme is free will vs. determinism, a subject about which the band has always had strong feelings and come down on the side of will. I strongly disagree (I believe free will is an illusion), but that doesn’t diminish the power of this album’s narrative and thundering melodies. The album closes on “The Garden”, the band’s best slow song ever. Clockwork Angels is a completely unexpected comeback album (I’m still addicted to it), easily the best thing Rush has done since Hold Your Fire, and if it ends up being their swan song it’s a perfect exit.

Best Tracks: The Anarchist, Halo Effect, Seven Cities of Gold, The Garden.

6. A Farewell to Kings. 1977. 4 stars. Its predecessor 2112 merged progressive rock with the hard Zeppelin-style, and the result was perfection. Now in Farewell to Kings, the band aimed for a purer progressive voice (Hemispheres in the following year would purify it completely, IMO too much for its own good). Peart expanded drum sounds with keyboard percussion and tubular bells; Lifeson lessened the rage of his guitar; and Lee discovered keyboards and synthesizer pedals. And they recorded the album in England, were progressive rock was thriving under softer and more idyllic sensibilities. The result is a strong album, but also one that shows signs of “finding its way” again. “Cygnus X-1” has never been a huge favorite of mine, probably because the outer-space story had been done so much better on 2112, and the intro is rather long and ponderous. But “Xanadu” is sublime, and “Closer to the Heart” is justifiably famous; it would become the band’s most cherished concert piece rivaling even “Tom Sawyer”.

Best Tracks: Xanadu, Closer to the Heart.

7. Permanent Waves. 1980. 4 stars. It might seem a heresy to rank the album containing “The Spirit of Radio” outside my top three and give it anything less than a 5-star rating, but alas. The problem with Permanent Waves is that it just doesn’t measure up to the incredible track that kicks it off. It’s a very good album, to be sure, but it’s no Moving Pictures. Even “Free Will” isn’t as great as its reputation might lead you to believe. The album is destined to be defined by “The Spirit Of Radio”, and to an extent it should. It’s one of the best rock songs of all time (my second favorite Rush song after “Subdivisions”), and fitting that it was the first song of the first album released in a new decade (January 1, 1980). But many Rush fans treat the entire album like the equivalent of Peter Gabriel’s So… and it ain’t so. The three-part “Natural Science”, however, is a noble track, and it’s not as if any of the songs are lemons. Weighing all of this lands Permanent Waves near the top of my 4-star tier.

Best Tracks: The Spirit of Radio, Natural Science.

8. Grace Under Pressure. 1984. 4 stars. Back in the ’80s I was underwhelmed by this album. It struck me as by-the-numbers, and it didn’t help that “The Body Electric” was overplayed on Rock 101 FM; it’s not one of the better tracks. But Grace Under Pressure has aged rather well for me (just as Power Windows has depreciated in value; see #13). Thematically it’s Rush’s bleakest album, about dystopian futures, and how humanity responds to external stress and survives the horrors of the world. It came out in the middle of Reagan and Thatcher era, when unemployment and inflation were revving up and the cold war was in full swing. People didn’t want to hear unpleasant songs when reality was so damn gloomy, and so the album wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. “Red Sector A” is a particularly grim track about a captive in a Holocaust concentration camp; “Distant Early Warning” deals with threats like nuclear war and acid rain; and “The Enemy Within” is a frenetic paced song dealing with how fear works inside us.

Best Tracks: Red Sector A, Distant Early Warning.

9. Counterparts. 1993. 4 stars. After the putrefying excrement that is Roll the Bones came this comeback album, and easily Rush’s best effort of the ’90s. The band was capitalizing on the alternative and grunge that was all the rage, but giving it even more bite. They hadn’t sounded this hard-hitting since the days of “Tom Sawyer”, and the first three songs (“Animate”, “Stick it Out”, and “Cut to the Chase”) are the most obvious examples and seem front-loaded to announce a blistering return to form. Counterparts also has plenty of the cutting-edge social commentary for which the band is renowned. “Nobody’s Hero” remains my favorite track, with the assertive guitar and lyrics which inspired the law-review article “Nobody’s Hero: On Equal Protection, Homosexuality, and National Security”. “Alien Shore” is another more subdued piece that interrogates race and gender differences. Some tracks are more lackluster, but on whole this is a terrific album.

Best Tracks: Nobody’s Hero, Animate.

10. Hemispheres. 1978. 4 stars. Rush snobs will object to it placing this low, but for all its brilliance Hemispheres is a bit too cerebral. This is what happens when prog is pushed to extremes. The band members got so buried under their concepts here that the music lost its punch; even the best tracks are somewhat atonal. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “Cygnus X-1 Book II”, which continues the black hole story begun in Farewell to Kings but not as impressively. That said, the second half of Hemispheres is quite good: “Circumstances,” “The Trees”, and “La Villa Strangiato”, that last being the band’s best instrumental. “The Trees” is a libertarian piece which the band members have been somewhat embarrassed by when right-wingers (like Rand Paul) express their love for it. Maples clamor for equal rights with majestic oaks and thus doom the entire forest for their efforts — meaning we aren’t all equal in every way, and any attempt to artificially create universal equality is doomed to failure. A reasonable message and simple truth, that unfortunately is open to misuse.

Best Tracks: The Trees, Circumstances.

11. Presto. 1989. 3 ½ stars. This was Rush’s transition out of synth and back into “real” rock, but it’s a strange beast. A lot of the tracks alternate between sounding really good and, well, empty. I can’t get closure on Presto and had serious difficulty ranking it. I settled on the 11th slot with a 3 ½ rating, but some days I feel it deserves even higher, other days much lower. The album’s theme seems to have a real-world effect on the listener. The theme is “magic” — appearances vs. reality, illusions, the ways we pretend to be magical, or how problems don’t vanish with the “wave of a wand” — and it’s as if the illusion of the album’s greatness owes to magical enchantments sung into it by the band members. Tracks like “Presto”, “The Pass”, and “Hand Over Fist” sound awesome and inspiring, or strangely vacuous, depending on the fullness of the moon, so go figure. Rush worked some weird magic here all right.

Best Tracks: Show Don’t Tell, War Paint.

12. Rush. 1974. 3 ½ stars. When Geddy Lee was asked to rank the band’s albums, he placed this one pretty high — above Fly by Night and Caress of Steel, to the disagreement of many fans. I agree with Lee. For all its fledgling deficiencies, Rush is a fine debut album. It’s certainly better than Caress of Steel (which I consider a dud) and I think it beats Fly by Night too, even if it’s less polished. It’s basically Rush pretending to be Led Zeppelin, and by the gods they do it well. Everyone likes “Working Man”, but for my money, the lead track “Finding My Way” is so damn good that it’s one of my favorite Rush songs. I suspect fans aren’t inclined to give this album a fair shake because Neal Peart hadn’t joined the band yet, and that’s unfortunate. If Hemispheres is Rush’s most overrated effort, this one is probably their most underappreciated.

Best Tracks: Finding My Way, Working Man.

13. Power Windows. 1985. 3 ½ stars. Of the four synth albums, this one hasn’t aged so well. Back in the day I would have put it all the way up at #5 as a close tie with Hold Your Fire. I still consider “The Big Money” one of the best songs in the Rush canon, but strangely, most of the other songs on Power Windows sound like the same song recycled slightly differently. When I try humming the tune of “Middletown Dreams”, I find that I’m singing “Grand Designs”; etc. Also, there is a cheesy upbeat feel that tends to undermine the heavy social commentary. In this sense the album inverts the bleak and dystopian elements of Grace Under Pressure (which for me has grown better over time; see #8). Power Windows entertains utopian hopes, with redundant melodies that put me in mind of the electronica optimism of (wait for it) Owl City. I know that’s a brutally unfair analogy, and I’m not seriously suggesting this album is as bad as anything by Owl City. I still enjoy listening to it. But it’s not the piece of excellence I once thought.

Best Tracks: The Big Money, Manhattan Project.

14. Test for Echo. 1996. 3 stars. I’ve seen lists which rank this album at rock bottom, which is rather surprising. It’s true that a lot of the songs are stale and unimpressive; in fact there are only three good ones to speak of. The problem is that of those three, one is really good, and the opening (title) track is so good that it’s one of my favorite in the Rush canon. “Test for Echo” has one of the most infectious guitar melodies I’ve ever heard — eerie, unnerving, subtle, and hard-hitting all at once. The bum rap this album gets is all the more surprising when you consider that it offers exactly what fans had been demanding since the synth period: a return to the heavy guitar and drum sounds of Moving Pictures. That’s exactly what Test for Echo is; it’s even more heavy than Counterparts in this regard. That said, it has to be conceded that most of the songs are simply not good, regardless of the classic feel.

Best Tracks: Test for Echo, Resist.

15. Fly by Night. 1975. 3 stars. Like Test for Echo, the band’s sophomore album has three really good tracks, and the rest are crap. Part of the problem is that Rush was trying to do too many things and grow too fast, and they come off pretentious and amateur for their efforts. They slaughter Tolkien in the utterly boring “Rivendell”, and tracks like “Best I Can” and “Beneath, Between & Behind” are just as lame. On the other hand, the lead track “Anthem” is an excellent emulation of “Finding My Way” — a blistering hard-rock opening that certainly grabs attention. The nine-minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is also very good and foreshadows the band’s future greatness. Then there is the title track “Fly by Night”, which is decent. Everything else, unfortunately, is forgettable if not painful to the ear.

Best Tracks: Anthem, By-Tor and the Snowdog.

16. Feedback. 2004. 2 ½ stars. I’m generally not a fan of cover albums. Rarely can an artist or band impressively reanimate songs on new terms — Annie Lennox’s Medusa, Peter Gabriel’s Scratch My Back, and The Killer’s interpretation of U2’s “Ultraviolet” are notable examples — but more often I find that cover creativity torpedoes the essence of what makes the original so good. In the case of Feedback, it’s the other problem: the songs are mere copycats of the originals, without virtually any spin at all, in which case what the hell is the goddamn point? It’s not that Rush’s performances are bad, rather that they come across as a wasted exercise. Die-hard Rush fans may enjoy hearing the band pay dues to their heroes, but the homages do very little for me.

17. Snakes & Arrows. 2007. 2 stars. When I first heard the lead track “Far Cry”, I was excited; Rush hadn’t had a decent album since ’96 (and even Test for Echo was far from excellent), and the back-to-basics approach announced in the reviews gave me incredibly high hopes for Snakes & Arrows. On top of that I thrilled to the album’s theme of religion, and the good and bad sides of faith. It was about time the band took on this subject. Snakes & Arrows, however, is a far cry from anything impressive after “Far Cry”. The rest of the album is a showcase for mundane melodies in which nothing stands out at all. “Working Them Angels” is a slight cut above the rest, but that’s it. This is without question the most disappointing Rush album in terms of the expectations I had for it. It may be an improvement over the misfire of Vapor Trails, but that’s not saying much.

18. Caress of Steel. 1975. 2 stars. Somewhat like Snakes & Arrows, it boasts a decent lead, “Bastille Day”, and then goes downhill. The two epics, “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain Of Lamneth”, are pure mediocrity, and that’s pretty much the entire album. It’s the album that nearly killed Rush, and who could have predicted the masterpiece that would follow next year. Yet I must acknowledge the irony: without the leg-work done on this album, the miracle of 2112 might not have been possible. And it does have its defenders, though I take them with a pound of salt; I think they’re trying to like something more than it deserves. Caress of Steel is underdeveloped and overextended — an understandable bump in the band’s early career that allowed them to learn from these errors and push forward to perfection.

19. Vapor Trails. 2002. 1 star. The original mix was panned for having a distorted and muddy sound, for which the 2013 remastered version is supposedly the remedy, but frankly Vapor Trails is so bad on its own merits that any attempt to salvage it by a remix amounts to little more than trying to polish a turd. And I feel small for saying that, because it was Neil Peart’s catharsis following the back-to-back deaths of his daughter (killed in a highway accident on her way back to university in ’97), and then his wife (from cancer in ’98). Peart had announced his retirement after that, but later got his second wind, and thanks to Vapor Trails we got the post-millennial renaissance of Rush that would yield Clockwork Angels (see #5). Dismal failures can pave the way to unexpected success, and that’s what this album did.

20. Roll the Bones. 1991. 1 star. If I could make music as artfully shitty as Roll the Bones, I’d be perversely proud. Unlike Vapor Trails which is just a stinking mess, the music here seems deliberately crafted to mock and infuriate. (Of course, some purists would describe Hold Your Fire in the same way, but synth haters are a benighted breed to themselves.) Those who make excuses for this album remind me of the apologists for U2’s Zooropa, another ’90s stinker from a great band that for whatever reason turned to appease the teenybopper crowd. The title track is the lead offender, and when Lee sings, “Why are we here? Because we’re here, roll the bones…” that refrain stands as the most embarrassing self-indictment I know of from any band. The theme of the album is chance and taking risks, and indeed the album itself was a risk that completely failed: there’s not a single decent song on it.

The Best of Stephen King

In my coming of age years I read Stephen King religiously. Then two things happened: he began to change, and so did I. His change was for the worse, as I saw it; I was acquiring a taste for authors with more subdued writing styles. A lot of the King classics didn’t age well for me, and the new (post-Misery) stuff seemed twice as bad. But I kept reading him anyway. King was a part of me, for all his garrulous excesses, and I still respected his imagination. The upcoming It film prompted me to revisit his work and see what has aged well.

As I worked on this list, it struck me that Stephen King is at his best when he’s least like Stephen King — when he’s doing something different, or going outside his comfort zone. I’m sure many King fans will disagree with that, and with my rankings, not least my omissions of what are widely considered his finest works. I have always found The Stand (1978) to be way over-hyped. Many critics thought Duma Key (2008) was a return to form, but I wasn’t terribly impressed. I did enjoy the time-traveling blockbuster 11/22/63 (2011) but was underwhelmed by the final act. Here are what I consider to be the jewels of the Stephen King canon.

[See also: Peter Straub Ranked.]

wizard and glass1. Wizard and Glass, 1997. 5 stars. The ’90s were the sewer of King’s career, but this one exception shines like a thousand suns. It’s the story of Roland’s first and only love affair, and the tragedy that made him so hard and unforgiving. King said he was scared to write it: “I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated.” He finally locked himself in motel rooms and tried as a 48-year old to capture what romantic love looks and feels like to those of age 17. I’m 48 myself now, and I still say with confidence that King nailed Roland and Susan on all the right notes. Wizard and Glass an incredibly well told story about the young gunslinger’s exile in a province teeming with rebellion and measurable characters. Rhea the witch-hag is one of King’s best creations of all time, but then so is Aunt Cordelia with her sanctimonious “thee’s” and “thou’s” — and for that matter everyone else in the Barony of Mejis. King shows us a dystopian world where everything is rushing to oblivion. It’s the best thing he ever wrote, and I wish the other Dark Tower books offered this quality of storytelling. The first one does (see #4 below); the second and third are okay; the fifth through seventh are garbage. Let the record state clearly that for all the problems of the series, it has its moments, and Wizard and Glass achieves a tragic greatness seldom reached by the most aspiring writers.

PetSematary2. Pet Sematary, 1983. 5 stars. King thought it was too scary to publish, and he eventually released it only to fulfill a contract obligation when he couldn’t finish another book on time. Think about that: a novel “too scary to publish”. Imagine if The Exorcist film had been shelved at the advice of those on the production team who thought it was too unspeakably obscene? And this gets to the root of my problem with King. When he finally nails it, he doubts himself. Pet Sematary is the perfect horror novel. The writing is incredibly disciplined, with no narrative fat or self-indulgent digressions; the story is told with surprisingly un-Kinglike economy. And it has room for profound reflections that either didn’t impress me or went over my head as a teenager. Now approaching 50, I’m rather shaken by Pet Sematary‘s themes of death and grief. Resurrection is a precious idea in our western heritage, and King gives it a truly terrifying twist. Pet animals come back to life when buried in this cemetery, but as sluggish and stupid versions of their former selves. Human corpses return as grotesque blasphemies who know and broadcast everyone’s most vulgar secrets. The novel’s point (which King didn’t like) is that “dead is better” than what lies beyond, but we’re powerless against our grief; it consumes us to the extent that we’ll do anything to get loved ones back no matter what’s lost in translation, and what takes its place. The death of Louis’ two-year old son and his unspeakable resurrection is one of the most terrifying things I’ve read, and King did right by his nihilistic conclusion.

3. ‘Salem’s Lot, 1975. 5 stars. After forty years ‘Salem’s Lot is still one of the best American novels. Every vampire tale after Dracula stands in its shadow. And unlike my other top five choices, this novel is “pure” Stephen King — the purist Stephen King book that was and ever shall be — written in his particular colloquial voice that has the power to engage and annoy. But it was his first novel (he started writing it before even Carrie), when he had himself under control, and so the style isn’t weighed down by the later self-indulgences. As I read ‘Salem’s Lot for the sixth or seventh time, I found myself marveling over its craft. Of all the undead — ghosts, zombies, mummies, etc. — the vampire is the best but hardest to do justice by. The aristocratic model is cliche, the pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight) is silly, and the tragic Hamlet figures out of Anne Rice get old very fast. King showed how to take the creature seriously: keep it off-stage until at least halfway through; peripherally sight its lair, and let atmosphere do the work; make the creature mean — sadistic and vindictive. When Barlow finally appears, he drips menace in all the right shades of subtlety and blunt aggression. There are scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot that haven’t lost their capacity to terrorize, the number one for me being Matt Burke climbing the stairs at night, “the hardest thing he had done in his life”, holding on to his crucifix, looking down at the guest room slightly ajar, suspecting, knowing, the awfulness that has invaded his home.

the-gunslingers4. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, 1982. 5 stars. Before it turned into a “Stephen King” franchise, Roland’s story was the most professional thing King ever wrote, and in my opinion deserves being classified as literature of enduring value. It was originally published in five parts in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, starting in the ’70s. King refused to release it as a novel, because he thought the story had limited appeal and wouldn’t please his mainstream readers. And here we go again, as with Pet Sematary. When King strikes gold by crafting the perfect novel against his own voice, he gets cold feet. Not only that, he later (in 2003) published an alternative version of the novel to align it with the later franchise — in other words, King-e-fying the voice, and, outrageously, changing things for the worse. George Lucas sanitized Han Solo by making Greedo fire first; King pulled his own Lucas by sanitizing Roland in the village of Tull. In the original, Roland cold-heartedly guns down his lover when she is seized by someone to be used as a human shield; she begs him not to kill her but he does so anyway before killing her captor (and then virtually everyone else in the town). In the revised version she has been driven mad and begs Roland to put her out of her misery. I’m flabbergasted when people like Lucas and King emasculate their own perfection. That’s a way of saying stick with the original Gunslinger. It’s a haunting quest across wastelands and scorched civilizations to make the world right again, a brilliantly meshed genre of post-apocalyptic, western, and fantasy. Then read Wizard and Glass (see #1) for Roland’s tragic backstory. You can ignore the rest of the series.

5. Mr. Mercedes & Finders Keepers, 2014-2015. 4 ½ stars. I didn’t think King had it in him to write mysteries, but the first two Bill Hodges novels proved me wrong. They’re his most disciplined works to date (even more than The Gunslinger, I think), and King admitted how difficult they were to write: “I just can’t fathom how people like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Peter Robinson and Ruth Rendell are able to do this in book after book.” It’s just too bad King was unable to keep this up to the end of his trilogy: he ruined the third book, End of Watch, by resurrecting the Mercedes killer and falling back into his supernatural comfort zone. Had he stayed in genre, the trilogy could have ended up a masterpiece. Throughout Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers (they’re equally good), King keeps his plot tense and reverses expectations to extremely good effect. Each novel opens in 2009, with the recession at its worst; a job fair is about to be held at a sports stadium, where hordes of the unemployed line up in a queue; dawn breaks, and a Mercedes car barrels out of the fog into the crowd, killing eight people and wounding fifteen. Each novel then follows the plot of different characters who were present at the slaughter, with retired detective Bill Hodges and his friends getting tangled in both. Some of the best scenes involve the Mercedes Killer and Hodges chatting in a private online forum, engaged in a deadly game of verbal chess, and the killer getting so incensed at Hodges’ taunts that it takes him five minutes to type a single-sentence reply because his hands are shaking so badly. I couldn’t put either of these books down, and it’s a long time since I’ve been able to say that about Stephen King.

talisman6. The Talisman, 1984. 4 ½ stars. The critics blasted this, and even after thirty years I can’t make sense of it. King teamed up with my favorite author to write a splendid epic about a 12-year old boy on a dark quest to save his mother and, in the process, the cosmos. I first read it in my high school years while visiting Grinnell College in Iowa, and so Jack Sawyer’s westward trek starting in New Hampshire (my home state) resonated in spades. I expected any moment to flip into a Territories-version of the midwest, and the Grinnell campus to sideslip out of reality like Thayer School or transform into a hellish pit mine run by Sunlight Gardener. I even spotted my Twinner in a classroom. In the ’80s it was hard to find dark fantasy (George Martin being a decade away) and for me this was the next best thing after The Wounded Land. Donaldson gave us the Sunbane, and King & Straub came up with horrors just as vile (see here for the Covenant parallels). There are admittedly some quaint fantasy tropes that stand out today, but the occasional laziness is forgivable in an otherwise grand epic. The sequel is Black House (2001), which doesn’t make this cut though I’d probably put it at #11. Objectively it’s better than It but I couldn’t bring myself to omit that one. (The writing on display in Black House is even better than that in The Talisman; the plot is an ultimate let-down for involving the problematic world of King’s Dark Tower series, when these books should be about the Territories only.) Don’t listen to the critics; The Talisman is excellent and for the most part has aged really well.

misery7. Misery, 1987. 4 ½ stars. The last novel of the “classic King” era is one of his best, and involves only two characters in a single setting. It’s possibly the best bottle drama I’ve read in a work of fiction, and it’s too bad that when King tried this sort of thing again in Gerald’s Game, the result was nothing but pages of waste. Misery is top-notch suspense all the way through, about a psychotic woman who has rescued a wounded man who happens to be her favorite author, and then forces him to write the sequel novel he never intended. Along the way, she alternates between smothering him with fan-affection and cutting off pieces of him when he displeases her. The novel examines dependency — the way writers depend on fans, as they depend on him, and also drug dependency, as Paul is fed pain killers by his psycho-fan. It’s also a fascinating (and rather transparent) look at the way an author’s mind works when trying to overcome writer’s block and undo his literary mistakes without cheating the reader. Authors are at their best when they write from experience, and in Misery King exploits everything his fame, drug addictions, and writing challenges have done to him. It’s a special novel that was universally praised by the critics, and as I said it marked the end of period of King’s towering greatness, following his longest and most ambitious book It (1986), then followed by one of his longest (and by far his shittiest) book ever The Tommyknockers (1988). I’d be immensely proud if I could ever do so much in short space like Misery.

8. The Shining, 1977. 4 ½ stars. Let me dispel all doubts as to where I stand in relation to Kubrick’s film. Kubrick’s is the masterpiece, and King is a fool for his life-long career of blasting it. His corrective version for TV proved that even more: it was faithful to his book, yes, but horrible because of it. This is what novel purists and authors like King don’t get. The worst screen adaptations are often the “faithful” ones — the ones that avoid creative interpretation. Literal adaptations hang on every element of the text, with the result that it fails to become a film in its own right and forces the unforceable into a new medium. Only in rare cases is a novel tailor-made for a film (The Exorcist, The Road, for examples). The Shining cries for all sorts of changes, and yet King just spat it back like a stage play. Audiences deserve better, and Kubrick delivered a piece of artistry beyond criticism. King couldn’t see that because he could only see what was lost in his own precious vision. That’s what happens, Mr. King, in a good adaptation: some things are lost, and better things take their place. Jack Torrance’s psychological dysfunction and inner turmoils work well on the page where you can inside someone’s head; a film demands something different. Kubrick did what any great filmmaker aspires to, and if not for The Exorcist his adaptation would stand as the greatest horror film of all time. All of that said, the novel is obviously excellent. But if I had to choose between losing the novel or Kubrick’s film in a trip to the moon, I’d lose the novel. Kubrick outdid King, and I think the knowledge of this is what really, privately, sticks in Stephen King’s craw.

The+Dead+Zone+[front+cover]9. The Dead Zone, 1979. 4 stars. King thought this was his best novel until he wrote Lisey’s Story (2006), and this is how he described it long ago: “The best I’ve done so far is The Dead Zone because it’s a real novel. It’s very complex. There’s an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels.” I see what he was getting at. In college I recommended The Dead Zone to a friend who wasn’t a horror fan but wanted to read a Stephen King novel to see what all the hype was about this author. This novel came to mind without hesitation. It was King’s first number one bestseller on both hardcover and paperback lists, and it took an exceptional risk of making the protagonist an assassin like Lee Harvey Oswald. Granted the political target is more like Donald Trump than JFK, a killer is still a killer. On top of that, Johnny Smith is a failure. For all his diligent planning, he botches his assassination attempt and dies for it, to be remembered as a crackpot who couldn’t even succeed when he had the upper hand. I will say that The Dead Zone resonates in spades under a Trump presidency and is worth reading (or rereading) for that reason alone. And I repeat my earlier advice to anyone today who has never read Stephen King but wants a taste of what makes him so good without the more terrifying brutalities of Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, and The Shining. Make The Dead Zone your point of entry.

10. It, 1986. 4 stars. It may be the quintessential Stephen King novel, but that speaks against it as much as for. The excesses of King’s writing style are at their most unrestrained here; he shouts at the reader, and digresses from digressions; he’s all over the map. And the formula of sleepy towns torn apart by supernatural forces, with points of view diluted across multiple characters hasn’t aged well for me. (‘Salem’s Lot still works, but that’s the exception.) The loser kids are too good to be true: they speak in ways that sound contrived, and even some of the dialogue given to adult characters isn’t convincing. But I can’t possibly leave this book off my list. It was a milestone for me for its examination of childhood fears and innocent beliefs which make anything possible. The story is set simultaneously in 1958 and 1985, and I have to admit the way King segues from one period to another, often mid-sentence, is an effective narrative device. The novel contains King’s most controversial scene of the six boys gang-banging Beverly (they’re all 11 years old). Not only is it an extremely well-written scene, it’s the heart of the book, and I’m enraged that the upcoming film by Andrés Muschietti won’t have it. After battling It in the sewers, Beverly invites her friends to bang her in a quasi-mystical ritual, and that orgy represents many important things, not least the kids’ first stage on the road to losing the power of their childhood and becoming learned but lesser adults.