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Onyx reviews: Blood and Smoke by Stephen King

Blood and Smoke is a collection of three short stories by Stephen King, unique in that it is available only on audio, either as a 3-tape cassette package or on 4 audio CDs. The audiobook runs three-and-a-half hours, with all stories being read by King.

The design of the packaging is the first clue as to what these three stories have in common: the red and white box flips open at the top like a package of cigarettes. The main character in each story has quit smoking, either recently or at some time in the distant past. Each man is confronted with his smoking past as the events of the story play out.

The opening story, "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," is the only one of the three tales that has been previously published, appearing in the 1995 anthology Dark Love. As the story opens, Steve Davis is preparing to meet with his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her lawyer. The luncheon was arranged by the lawyer to begin the process of dividing up their substantial assets. Shortly after his wife left him by surprise, Steve gave up smoking. Battling the nicotine withdrawal symptoms has helped distract his attention from the pain of being separated. He still has illusions that he might be able to reconcile with his estranged wife. The events of the eponymous lunch, however, prove to him that his marriage is irreparably broken. The maitre d' of this trendy restaurant, who has problems of his own, won't soon be forgotten, either.

The center piece of the collection, both literally and figuratively, is "1408," the story of a writer's night in a haunted hotel room. Mike Enslin has written numerous books recounting his explorations of supposedly true paranormal events. He has used his considerable leverage to force the proprietors of the historic Dolphin Hotel in New York City to allow him to investigate room 1408, which has remained unoccupied since the early 1970's. The room has a history of a dozen suicides dating back to the turn of the century, and over thirty 'natural' deaths, including someone who drowned in a bowl of cereal. The digits of 1408 add up to thirteen, and the room is actually on the 13th floor because the numbering system, like in many hotels, jumps from 12 to 14. Enslin, a former smoker who now always wears a cigarette behind his ear like a merit badge, is the eternal skeptic, but room 1408 puts his disbelief to the ultimate test.

The setting changes to an unnamed South American city for "In The Deathroom." A newsman named Fletcher has been cooperating with insurgents in this banana republic and the military has finally caught up with him. The deathroom is in the basement of the Ministry of Information. A nasty little room filled with nasty little gadgets designed to elicit the truth, or what passes for the truth. Fletcher, who hasn't smoked in years, sees a way in which his final request for a cigarette can help him out of his desperate circumstances.

It seems natural to hear King's voice telling these stories. He is not as skilled a vocal interpreter as many of the actors who are usually recruited to read the audio versions of books, but he knows these tales like no one else. He knows what's coming, the significance of each passage, and he has fun doing some of the more distinctive voices. Especially effective is the first person "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe," where listeners will feel like they have a private audience with the author.

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