From the opening sentences of 'Blockade Billy' you know you are in for a treat. The story is narrated by an elderly baseball player telling a curious Mr. King the story of William Blakely, a brilliant but mysterious player, who has been erased from baseball's history. The tone of reflection and regret is similar to King's "The Colorado Kid", one of his quiet masterpieces.
I don't know anything about baseball, so I had to let much description of the games wash over me. However, I still was gripped by the story and characters and King's love of the sport really shines through (as it does in his enjoyable piece on the Baseball World Series in McSweeney's 33).
The other story in the volume, 'Morality', is also an enjoyably grim read.
As is probably obvious from this review I am a King devotee, and thus will uncomplainingly buy anything he publishes. However I'm not sure whether non-fans would be as keen on a book that contains just two short stories. However fans, for their money, will receive two great stories, a much-needed King fix, and a beautifully presented, if slim, hardback.
Baseball fans or no, the best of the two short stories in this slim volume (a rarity with Stephen King) is without question "Morality". A young married couple is given the moral choice of going through with a nefarious deed for $200k by an elderly Priest. It smacks of Richard Matheson's story "Button, Button" (recently filmed as "The Box"), and is one of King's best stories in a while. It shows how a deed can change a person and how a secret can tear apart a marriage - moreover his characterisation of the Priest Winston is pitch-perfect as a tempter of sin.
"Blockade Billy" isn't bad but it isn't good either. It tells the story of a maverick unknown baseball player from the 50s who had a good season but had a dark secret that changed everything and ensured his name was kept out of the record books. The ending felt a bit incongruous and silly and Billy himself a bit of a cipher rather than someone you could see in your mind's eye.
At any rate it's a quick, one sitting read and an enjoyable read if only for "Morality" than the title piece. King fans will love it, short story lovers will find it so-so.
on 21 February 2015
Over the years, Stephen King’s short stories have often been released as single limited edition books. These have rarely appeared in the UK, or at least I’ve never managed to get my hands on one. This time around, however, “Blockade Billy” has been combined with another short story “Morality” and had a release in the UK as a lovely little book. Lovely in terms of the size and design, at least, not necessarily in terms of content.
Some of King’s best writing has been about baseball. I thoroughly enjoyed “Faithful”, his fan’s eye view of a baseball season following the Boston Red Sox which he wrote with Stewart O’Nan. For me, the best writing he’s ever done, in terms of the quality of the writing, was a piece called “Head Down” from his “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” collection, where he followed his son’s Little League baseball team. Knowing this, a story about baseball from the mind of Stephen King was always likely to appeal to me.
The opening story is the fictional tale of William “Blockade Billy” Blakely, who briefly played for the New Jersey Titans back in 1957. At first sight, it’s almost a traditional “small town boy makes good” story, like many a sports novel or film frequently turn into. But this has come from Stephen King, which means you can never be sure exactly what to expect and that when something unexpected does occur, it’s likely to have a dark turn to it.
As is typical with King’s baseball based writing, this is surprisingly well written. King has created a wonderful narrator in George “Granny” Grantham and the story is told as if it’s coming out of his reminiscences. King writes clearly enough that you can almost picture some of the scenes he draws and Grantham’s (as well as King’s) love of the game of baseball shines through the words. Whilst reading I could almost picture not just Granny, but many of the scenes he was picturing, although it does help that I know and understand a little about baseball and so could achieve that.
The one thing that didn’t sit well with the story was that King wrote himself in as the person Granny is speaking to. Admittedly, it’s not as blatant here as late in his “Dark Tower” series of books, but it is a personal peeve of mine when authors do this and the couple of times Granny refers to “Mr. King” do take you out of the story a little, which is a shame as it’s otherwise and engrossing tale.
The quality of “Blockade Billy” which is, in my opinion, one of King’s finest short stories ever, makes the other in this collection feel like even more of a disappointment. Described on the book cover as a “chilling bonus story”, I found “Morality” to be neither. It wasn’t chilling and it certainly couldn’t be described as a bonus by any stretch of the imagination.
There is a slight hint of the film “Indecent Proposal” in the story, in as much as a woman is offered a large amount of money which her and her husband would really benefit from to carry out a certain action. Unlike the film, however, there is no sexual motive involved – the man making the offer is a retired preacher who wishes someone to commit a sin on his behalf. The story follows the people involved and how they relate to such a flagrant breach of basic human morals.
It’s a decent idea for a story, but it’s simply too short to do the subject justice. It feels that the story only touches around the edges of the subject and rushes through things a little too quickly. Admittedly, short stories are by nature short, but this is far too large an idea, psychologically speaking, to be contained in this format, which left me feeling unsatisfied with what there was. There was also the lack of anything chilling, as the book cover hinted at, which doubled the disappointment.
Ultimately, what we have here is one of Stephen King’s greatest short stories followed by a highly disappointing one. Even the enjoyment of “Blockade Billy” may vary widely depending on your personal interest in baseball. This makes the book as a whole a little hit and miss and unless you’re a Stephen King completist like I am, it’s not worth it, as these stories are more than likely to appear in King’s next short story collection and there’s not a lot here worth rushing to read now as opposed to waiting.
This review may also appear, in whole or in part, under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
on 26 July 2010
There's been at least a book a year bearing Stephen King's name for as long as I can remember, and I don't complain. I don't always manage to read them, but I buy them all, and I'm glad they're there - filed away in my library (alphabetically and by order of publication). Waiting. They're like security blankets, I suppose. For all the unevenness of King's work, for all the inevitable repetition, there's always something in each of his books that reminds me why I hold reading so dear. When the book doldrums come upon me, after the bitter pill of one too many epic high fantasies or some such, there's Stephen King to come back to. For good or ill, he writes like no other in this day and age. His conversational prose, lived-in characters and even - loathe though I am to admit it - his typically deflating climaxes are such distinctive traits you'd have no trouble identifying this author's work in the literary equivalent of a blind taste test. For some, its uniqueness has proven tiresome over the years. For others - for me - it's become positively reassuring.
Blockade Billy has all you'd expect from a new Stephen King, distilled from the intimidating quantities barely contained in last year's Under the Dome to more approachable proportions. It's pint-sized at only a hundred undersized pages, large in font and margins. What we have here is two short stories you might rather generously refer to as novelettes collected together in a nicely finished storybook-style edition. The titular narrative leads the pack. Purporting to be a tale told to the author ("Mr King") by an old baseball pro, George 'Granny' Grantham of the New Jersey Titans narrates the curious history of Blockade Billy, a small-town nobody who came to play for the Titans after the team lost both their catchers in the space of 48 hours. Billy is an odd sort, no doubt about it, with conversational skills akin to an iceberg's and a plaster perpetually on his finger, but he plays well enough that his teammates tolerate his quirks, and he's a huge hit with the fans. In short order, Blockade Billy becomes a local sensation - but there's a reason history has forgotten him, and by gum it's a bloody one.
What to say about "Blockade Billy"? As a layman when it comes to baseball, I found it to be pretty much impenetrable, wall to wall with enthusiastic commentary on classic matches and maneuvers which meant precisely nothing to me. I mean, it sure sounds authentic, but what do I know? It's difficult to criticise a tale so far outwith your usual stomping grounds, yet I think it would be safe to say readers without some working knowledge of the great American sport can expect to be left tepid by "Blockade Billy". Really, it's all a bit - and I hope you'll forgive me for this - inside baseball.
That said, there are enough of King's characteristic touches to make the experience of the uninitiated less of an ordeal than it might otherwise be: a central character whose way of echoing questions as if they were answers makes Blockade Billy as instantaneously memorable as some of the author's very finest; an affable, grass-is-greener narrative tone of voice; a neat and unpretentious framing device ties the whole thing up. Things heat up, too, as "Blockade Billy" approaches its climax, and the baseball talk is shelved in favour of actual storytelling.
"Blockade Billy" has its moments, then. "Morality," however - the second and final tale featured in this modest volume - is a roundly more satisfying endeavour in every sense. Unflinchingly direct and deeply disturbing, "Morality" is a riff on that old chestnut: the indecent proposal. Substitute teacher Chad and Nora, a nurse, are a perfectly happy couple. They struggle for money a bit, but between them, they get by. When Nora's private patient Winnie offers his nurse enough money for her to retire on in exchange for a certain... favour, and it's not what you think - Winnie isn't after a deathbed quickie - everything is thrown into chaos.
"Morality" just won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novelette, and it's no wonder. It's a story about the slippery slope of commonplace abuse that gets under your skin with such ease it could only have come from the pen of an old pro. Chad and Nora have an everyday chemistry together, and the nurse's relationship with Winnie, whose offer sets the cogs of narrative a-whirring, comes off too. The couple's descent into uncertainty and worse is a dark voyeuristic fable that alone justifies the cost of admission. Readers without some grounding in baseball fandom will find in "Blockade Billy" a mildly entertaining curiosity, not without its strengths but altogether too specific. "Morality," meanwhile, will keep us all up nights.
on 4 June 2013
This was a quick read. 130ish pages for 2 stories and I devoured it in less than an hour and a half.
The first story, 'Blockade Billy' was pretty good, told in the voice of an old-time Baseball coach who is recounting the story of a Baseball player whose existance in a Major League Baseball team was wiped from the sport's history books. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about Baseball, I still enjoyed the story and it had a nice little twist that I wasn't expecting. I also liked the inclusion of the inside King joke of Billy's shirt being number 19.
The second story, 'Morality' is interesting. It questions the nature of Sin and how our deeds impact on our lives and relationships. I really liked it. It had a distinctly King feel to it.
on 13 August 2012
Not a lot of people have heard of this one, and it doesn't pop up on the "also by the author" lists in the front pages of his books. That alone makes it worth reading. Just to say to people who claim to be King fans that you've read Blockade Billy and watch them pretend to have heard of it.
Its a short story, a bit science fiction and a bit of a rip-off of an episode of the X-Files but who's to say that they didn't read this book first.
on 21 July 2014
Firstly, I'm not a baseball fan. Far from it, in fact I think it's one of the most boring sports there is. Luckily you don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy this story. It's a very quick read, I did the lot in less than two hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it still has that little kiss of horror in there to keep king fans sweet.
Well worth the read!
on 4 November 2013
I only brought this book because it was by my favourite author, but was delighted to find a short story and bonus story that don't disappoint this constant reader. A little different to other stories, as this one includes Stephen King himself (nice touch), being told the tale of Blockade Billy. The bonus story 'Morality' is a thought provoker of a tale.
on 10 December 2010
Stephen King is known for his books ranging beyond five to nine hundred pages. So it feels strange to read a small book with only two short stories by Stephen King, not even novella size. The two short stories have in common plain brutality in our society, brutality dictated by circumstances, which is to say by institutions or other people, with negative and half-negative-half-positive outcomes respectively. The first one is about baseball, a baseball player who is brilliantly good and pathetic in his lot but the story is a blunt bleak case of social hatred, social segregation for those who do not have parents to protect them and depend on social services and foster-"parents" for their survival, and there cannot be any real pay-back or vengeance, since it is always a tooth for a tooth and then for a tooth back in return for the first retaliation, but this time from society in the shape of blue uniforms and death sentences. And the self inflicted death sentence within the precinct of a detention institution is not that easy to achieve and can be imagined slowly stretching its hand over the heart of that social victim turned murderer. The second is even worse since it is a violence commandeered by a religious man who wants to know the taste of sin before dying but only by buying the sin from a non-sinner. It ruins his life. It ruins the life of the people who accept to do that and yet it is the real sinner, the one who commit the commandeered sin, who gets the better side of the buttered slice of bread, showing clearly that sin pays and sinning is good. This dimension of socially oriented violence is not new in Stephen King but it is amazing to see the purely realistic style he uses in which there is no nightmare, no supernatural or surreal element. A good read indeed.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID
on 21 June 2010
Following in the footsteps of "The girl who loved Tom Gordon" (a little... well it revolves around Kings most beloved sport: Baseball) "Blockade Billy" is essentially a boys own sports story with an adult edge of mystery. If you're put off by the whole "baseball" aspect, don't be, the story is about people and the baseball is kept fairly simple so even if you don't understand every single sports term used you'll get the idea of what's happening without any trouble.
"Morality" in some ways is more mainstream King and in some ways also not the mainstream King, but the back street King, the King who fans who've read everything will recognise and wonder why other people don't see it and think 'look, there, it proves it, he isn't just a good horror writer, he's a good writer full stop'. And, in a very innocent way, it also manages to have a bit of a sickening shock value too whilst completely avoiding the ever lingering cheap "gross out" used so often in horror.
It's a beautiful little duo presented in a really aesthetically pleasing binding, in a former life I used to be a librarian and really appreciate well printed and put together books and this book is wonderfully implemented. Take it as a little treat.