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Not just the year of Stephen King: 10 excellent, underappreciated books from 1983

Illustration for article titled Not just the year of Stephen King: 10 excellent, underappreciated books from 1983
Illustration for article titled Not just the year of Stephen King: 10 excellent, underappreciated books from 1983

Although 1983 falls squarely during the reign of the king of horror—Stephen King released three books and had three of his works adapted into films—it was a great year in letters for several other writers. While some books have enjoyed an enduring legacy since their release (The Name Of The Rose, The Anatomy Lesson, The Mists Of Avalon), others have faded without receiving their due. Here are 10 such titles.

Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit
Considering the Cold War was still as frosty as ever in 1983, it would seem that a story about an orphaned girl-turned-international chess grandmaster would have plucked reading Americans’ jingoistic heartstrings and been a real literary sensation. Yet Walter Tevis’ coming-of-age novel chronicling Beth Harmon’s rise from a shy, bullied 8-year-old in a Kentucky orphanage to an international chess champion beating the Russians—despite some detours into drug and alcohol addiction—just hasn’t held on in the public’s consciousness the way his other novels (The Hustler, The Color Of Money, The Man Who Fell To Earth) have. Perhaps that’s because The Queen’s Gambit didn’t get the movie adaptation it so richly deserves. But it’s as thrilling and suspenseful as any sports narrative with a redemptive story arc, and Tevis masterfully supplies the requisite context, so familiarity with chess strategies is not necessary to follow the plot. The author sidestepped several opportunities to go maudlin and make this a triumph-over-tragedy tale—Beth is as flawed as any of the supporting characters. He also bucked convention by avoiding giving his protagonist a substantial love interest, shined a light on the sexism in competitive chess, and hardly struck a sour note in the whole novel, excepting the depiction of Beth’s childhood bully/best friend, Jolene. Interest in the novel increased a bit in 2007 when it was announced that Heath Ledger would make his feature-length directorial debut on an indie adaptation of the novel starring Ellen Page in the Beth role, a production that was canceled following Ledger’s death. [AB]


Alan Dean Foster, Spellsinger
By 1983, Piers Anthony was well into his popular fantasy series Xanth—that year saw the publication of the sixth and seventh installments—which imagined a parallel world full of magic, humor, and wondrous creatures. Veteran science-fiction author Alan Dean Foster jumped on that trend in ’83 with Spellsinger, the debut novel of a fantasy series of the same name. Like Xanth, Spellsinger hasn’t withstood the decades to become a classic of the genre; if remembered at all, it’s done so with fuzzy nostalgia and a twinge of guilty pleasure-ism. But there’s a gonzo, anything-goes dynamism to Foster’s introduction of Jon-Tom, a budding guitarist and college kid who finds himself in a strange world where he can spin spells through his music. It’s a featherweight story, and it’s full of clichés of the era (regarding both rock musicians and genre tropes), but Spellsinger also represents the breezy, rollicking fantasy that helped make the ’80s such a fun decade for speculative fiction. The series would sputter out in 1994 with its eight installment, Chorus Skating, whose punny, Anthony-esque title showed just how thin the premise had become in the face of the genre’s growing sophistication and self-subversion. [JH]

Raymond Carver, Cathedral
For Raymond Carver’s adult life, he was a beastly alcoholic with a troubled personal history (to put it lightly). By the mid-’80s, his first marriage was officially over—though he’d been living with Tess Gallagher for a few years—and his literary reputation had been established in no small part due to Gordon Lish’s slash-and-burn editing that made the fiercely minimalist What We Talk About When We Talk About Love a lauded success. The prevailing narrative at the time presumed when Carver cleaned up and met Gallagher, his writing changed, but more of the stylistic shift involves the reversing power dynamic between Carver and Lish. Carver got his way with the follow-up, 1983’s Cathedral, a collection heavy on personal reflection and lengthy asides atypical of the carved-out earlier stories. Nowhere is this clearer than “Where I’m Calling From”—a story that later gave its title to Carver’s final omnibus of collected works—which depicts a man who bonds with a fellow alcoholic at a rehab clinic. The Library Of America edition of Carver’s work opens the debate for whether the original writing or Lish’s ruthless editing created the early foundational stories of Carver’s career. But Cathedral represents the point when Carver had internalized enough of Lish’s editorial tendencies, mellowed considerably after getting clean, and held his focus on a bleak, working-class existence for some of his best-remembered stories. [KM]

The Witches by Roald Dahl
Although The Witches enjoyed surges in popularity since its publication date—most notably in 1990, thanks to Nicolas Roeg’s film adaptation, after which it became a frequently banned book for the better part of the next decade—it has not enjoyed the same renown as Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory or even James And The Giant Peach. Dahl, whose talent for comic hyperbole matches his talent for spirited storytelling, paints a ghastly yet entertaining picture of large-nostriled, blue-spittled witches who are intent of ridding England of children. They dress in pretty clothes and sometimes wear masks to cover their putrid, maggot-eaten faces. But as always, Dahl conspires with kids against the adults, and even the Grand High Witch is no match for the unnamed narrator, who must save the children of England from being turned into mice. [LMB]

James Wilcox, Modern Baptists
James Wilcox’s comic novel Modern Baptists, about a 41-year-old bachelor struggling to kick-start his life in the fictional Louisiana town of Tula Springs—a debut by an unknown 34-year-old writer—earned some of the best reviews of the year. Little more than a decade later, Harold Bloom included it in his highly selective version of The Western Canon. The book has stayed in print, and every few years another distinguished writer or list-maker cites it as a favorite among novels that ought to be better known. But although Wilcox has continued to turn out novels about the denizens of, and refugees from, Tula Spring, none of them have done quite as well critically, and none of them have done especially well commercially. Meanwhile, in 1994, Wilcox was the subject of an attention-getting New Yorker profile, which concentrated on just how hard it is for a serious novelist to make ends meet. [PDN]


Rudy Rucker, The Sex Sphere
Sci-fi writer and pioneering cyberpunk Rudy Rucker published the novel The Sex Sphere the same year as his essay “A Transrealist Manifesto.” In the essay, Rucker gamely tries to explain what the hell he’s trying to do in this “novel about higher dimensions, and about sexual love,” and other works he classifies as examples of  “Transrealism.” The Sex Sphere is a thrilling story of how mathematicians valiantly beat back an invasion by an alien named Babs and her crew of parasitic, sexually deranging genitalia creatures. Definitely a wild ride, though only God and Rucker know how deep a grounding in physics a reader would need to get everything out of it that the author put in. And make no mistake: Despite the title, anyone actually turned on by this book should probably see somebody. [PDN]

William Messner-Loebs, Journey: The Adventures Of Wolverine MacAlistaire
An anomaly among ’80s indie comics, William Messner-Loebs’ Journey, which first appeared in March 1983, is a richly imagined adventure comic set in Michigan in the early 1800s. The action centers on a lonely trapper named Joshua “Wolverine” MacAlistaire, who is making his way to the Fort Miami settlement on the banks of the St. Joseph River. Messner-Loebs’ Eisner-influenced artwork is a perfect match for the material, lending itself to scenes of flowing action and humorous caricature, though it couldn’t have been less fashionable for a dramatic comics story in 1983—not that there’s anything fashionable about this comic, which only saw print thanks to the largesse of Dave Sim (who put out the first 14 issues through the Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint) as well as Gary Groth and Kim Thompson (whose Fantagraphics picked it up after Sim tightened his belt). [PDN]


J.M. Coetzee, Life & Times Of Michael K
While it won the Man Booker Prize in 1983 (the first of J.M. Coetzee’s two), Life & Times Of Michael K has been superseded in the South African author’s canon by works like Waiting For The Barbarians and Disgrace. While those latter books might better express certain political aspects of life under apartheid, Michael K is in many ways Coetzee’s most damning work, showing how pervasive, and rote, the horrors of the National Party’s oppressive rule had become. The book isn’t exactly lost to the sands of time, but its complexity and enigmatic protagonist make it less accessible, and less talked about, than the two works that bookend it: Barbarians and Foe. It’s a shame, because those three novels form one of the greatest streaks in English literature. [NC]

Piers Anthony, On A Pale Horse
Piers Anthony’s reputation has suffered in recent years, largely because of his Xanth series. But much of Anthony’s earlier work is still gripping and thoughtful, and nowhere more so than in On A Pale Horse. The first book in Anthony’s Incarnations Of Immortality series, which examines mortals performing the offices of abstract concepts like Nature and War, On A Pale Horse focuses on Death as embodied by a hardheaded, compassionate loser named Zane. The plot is an exciting (if a little boilerplate) romp pitting Zane against the Devil himself, but the action serves mostly to introduce Zane to the rest of the Incarnations and engage in some excellent world-building (including a particularly memorable visit to Hell) for the rest of the series. As a bonus, Anthony engages effectively (if not perfectly) with the moral questions a human responsible for all of the world’s death would naturally and rightly ask. [ET]


Beverly Cleary, Dear Mr. Henshaw
Though Dear Mr. Henshaw won the Newberry Medal in 1984 and is a staple of elementary-school classrooms, for the grown-up set it’s been a victim of young-adult literature’s tendency to be ignored because of its intended audience. Beverly Cleary’s look at an awkward child dealing with sixth grade and his parents’ divorce is still a solid, touching read for big kids, however. The uncomfortable childhood and confused inner life of protagonist Leigh Botts—expressed first through letters to his favorite writer, Mr. Henshaw, and then in diary entries—are well rendered in the voice of a shy, thoughtful child. Leigh’s problems, and his solutions to those problems (especially the infamous lunchbox alarm) are specific enough to avoid some of the clichés of young-adult books while maintaining an important air of empathy. [ET]

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