‘Blockade Billy’ by Stephen King

I have been a “constant reader” of Stephen King’s fiction since the original publication of “Salem’s Lot” in paperback. This was in 1976. The cover had a young girl’s face etched on it in black with a drop of red blood falling from her left incisor. I remember placing a rack of the paperbacks at the entrance of the bookstore where I worked. I figured the catchy cover would attract the attention of new walk-ins and maybe we’d sell a few copies.

It was a couple of weeks before I actually read the novel myself. A friend and fellow reader came into the store and asked me in an excited voice if I’d read the new book by Stephen King and I told him no. He basically ordered me to get the novel, telling me it was the scariest thing he’d ever read in his life. That statement caused me to raise an eyebrow of interest. Since I was off on Sunday and Monday, I bought a copy of the book on Saturday night and took it home with me after I’d closed up shop.

I started reading “Salem’s Lot” that evening and completed it by noon Sunday. I couldn’t put the novel down and had stayed up the entire night to finish it by the next day. Needless to say, the book was pure magic. It was the most frightening novel I’d ever read up until that time, surpassing “Hell House” by Richard Matheson, “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty and “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin. For fans of horror fiction and movies, this novel was pure gold and King was now our god of fiction.

I immediately went back and read “Carrie” and then purchased the hardcover edition of “The Shining” when it came out the next year. For me, and others like me, King could do no wrong, and we ate up his books like junk food, eager for more once the last page of each novel was reached.

That was 34 years ago and little has changed. I’m now several months shy of being 60, and I still get excited whenever a new King book comes out. Though I’m still an avid read of fiction in several different genres, there are few authors I’ve stuck with over the long haul. I think it’s fair to say that King (I like to refer to him as the Maestro) is still my favorite author after so many years of being one of his millions of fans.

Though I haven’t loved every single novel King has written (no author can please everyone with each of his books over a 40-year period), I believe he’s scored somewhere in the 98 percent range with me. That’s still an A+ in my way of thinking. I mean this is the author who wrote “The Shining,” “The Stand,” “The Dead Zone,” “Cujo,” “Misery,” “Rita Hayward” and the “Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “Delores Claiborne,” “Hearts of Atlantis,” “The Mist,” “Bag of Bones,” and his newest 1,100 page book, “The Dome.” Though many readers might argue with me, I think King is perhaps the greatest storyteller of the 20th century and that no one will ever be able to surpass his accomplishments as a writer.

Now, what about “Blockade Billy”?

First of all, it isn’t a novel, but rather a 113-page novella. It’s actually a small, thin book with a dynamite cover on it by Glen Orbik and interior artwork by Alex McVey. Until a couple of months ago, I didn’t even know it existed. Then, I saw an advertisement for it on the Stephen King website. I immediately checked it out and discovered the novella was coming out near the end of April and was being published in a limited first edition of 10,000 copies by Cemetery Dance Publications.

At that time, which was around the first of April, no other editions or printings were planned for “Blockade Billy.” That quickly changed once word of mouth began to spread. In just a week, a second printing of 10,000 copies was necessary to meet the ever-growing demand from fans and libraries. Then, the demand for the novella became so overwhelming that King finally decided to let his main publisher, Scribner, go ahead with a printing of 500,000 copies of the book, which is due out today at a much lesser price, plus an additional short story is included with the novella. Audio books were also arranged. In many ways, this really was publishing history in the making.

I suppose the main question, however, is whether or not “Blockade Billy” is really worth all the hoopla that has surrounded it for the past month. Here’s my take on the little book that surprised everybody and took on a life all of its own.

The story of “Blockade Billy” is told as a narrative by ex-coach George “Granny” Grantham to King and deals with the New Jersey Titan’s last season as a baseball team in 1957. Though erased from the annals of baseball history, the Titan’s final season was spectacular in nature and gave avid baseballs fans a true reason to see the game in person and to cheer their hearts out for one player in particular—William “Blockade Billy” Blakely.

The Titan’s two catchers are out for the season because of a DUI-caused death and physical injuries resulting from a collision with a huge running player trying to make it in to home plate. The team’s manager sends out word to their midwest scouts to find them a temporary catcher until someone more permanent can be located. On the first day of the season William Blakely shows up in his pickup with Iowa license tags. And, though a bit slow to big-city life, coach Granny Grantham immediately senses the rookie’s strong confidence, which is proven that very night during the first game. Billy Blakely plays baseball like a big-league catcher. He’s not afraid of the ball or the large players on the other team, sliding into home plate with their shoe spikes held high to hurt anyone standing in their way. Even better, he can hit the ball right out of the park. Billy is exactly the kind of magic needed by the team to pull itself together and to win some serious ballgames.
   
Everything starts to click once Billy enters the arena, especially when he becomes friends with the Titan’s somewhat selfish and arrogant pitcher, Danny Dusen. It isn’t long before the fans fall in love with Billy and begin to chant slogans and hold up signs, proclaiming his ability to stop any of the opposing players from stealing home plate. It also isn’t long before he’s nicknamed Blockade Billy by the cheering crowds. Something, however, isn’t quite right. Coach Grantham knows it and so do some of the players, but they can’t put their finger on the darn thing. Billy just seems a little off. He constantly talks to himself in the third person and parrots what is said to him by the other players. Still, Blockade Billy is one hell of a fabulous ballplayer, and no one on the team wants to upset the apple cart. That is until the day everything comes to a screeching halt and the truth of who Blockade Billy really is becomes known.

I haven’t had an interest in baseball since I was 10 or 11 and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were trying to break Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Still, King’s magic drew me into the story on the first page. Within 20 pages, I was starting to get goose bumps. Few writers can do this today and King, after 40 years, still has that unbelievable sense of creativity. He doesn’t just use words to build a story, he also brings them to life so the reader can visualize the narrative. Though I didn’t understand a lot of the baseball terms being used in “Blockade Billy,” that little fact certainly didn’t stop me from being caught up in this whirlwind of a tale. In many ways I was there in the stadiums watching the games and rooting my head off for Billy to stop the next player from stealing home.

This story is definitely filled with pure, unadulterated magic. That’s the only way to put it. Magic! I wish I could say the ending is as uplifting as “Rita Hayward” and the “Shawshank Redemption,” but it isn’t. There’s a darkness that comes out as the story comes to a close, and this darkness is like a black hole. It sucks the breath right out of you, leaving you numb and shocked. Of course, that’s what the Maestro is famous for doing, so may the reader be warned.

Lastly, “Blockade Billy” isn’t a novel, or even a long novella. It’s a relatively short story that can be read in an hour. That doesn’t take away from its impact, but rather enhances it. The narrative completes itself as you pray for it to continue and for Billy to save the day. This is powerful stuff, and nobody does it better than Stephen King.

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