A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-
THE DIARY OF ELLEN RIMBAUER
Hodder & Stoughton hb, 253pp, £12.99
Subtitled ‘My Life At Rose Red’, this book is a merchandising spin-off from Rose Red, an American TV series scripted by Stephen King. The publishers are anxious for you to know about the King connection, plastering one of those annoying little info-stickers on the front cover. Ostensibly the diary of Seattle socialite Ellen Rimbauer, kept between 1907 and 1928, and discovered by Joyce Reardon Ph.D. in 1998, this is anonymously written and copyright 2001 Hyperion. Nobody claims it was actually penned by King, but the assumption is there to be made. Having read the book, I doubt it (love him or loathe him, it’s unlikely King would have made such a pig’s ear out of telling a story). Not having seen Rose Red I can’t say exactly how the Diary ties in, whether it’s a loose transcript of the series or a prequel laying down the back story.
Seattle oil magnate John Rimbauer, a Citizen Kane figure, builds the huge mansion Rose Red to show society what an important person he is, and marries the young and innocent Ellen. For their honeymoon the couple embark on a round the world trip, and in the course of this the battle lines are drawn in their relationship. Ellen discovers that the man to whom she’s given her heart has no intention of moderating the behaviour of his bachelor days and can be cruel when challenged. Her own significance to him is little more than that of brood mare, hand-picked to provide the sons Rimbauer craves. No sooner have they returned and set up house in the vast mansion on the hill than strange events start to occur. Rose Red is not like other houses; people disappear within the mansion’s walls, though their plaintive voices can still be heard. As her marriage to John deteriorates Ellen becomes obsessed with Rose Red. She has the idea that the house is a living entity and as long as it keeps growing she can live happily there, along with her children and the maid she’s come to love. But with time all of these things are stripped from her by Rose Red, until finally Ellen herself vanishes within its walls.
Speaking of the TV series, King has admitted to wanting to write a classic haunted house story, and the central concept of a house that builds itself and on whose continued growth the welfare of its inhabitants depends is both original and striking, but too many of the individual effects will be familiar from other haunted house scenarios, most obviously The Haunting of Hill House and Poltergeist.
The writing falls between two stools. There is simply too much detail for it to convince as a genuine diary, but on the other hand there is not enough narrative drive for it to work as pure fiction. And the editing choices attributed to Reardon are curious; she gives us men being killed, but removes Ellen’s account of lovemaking with her maid as too indelicate, though interested parties are referred to wwwsomethingorother for further details (apparently in Ms Reardon’s world web-users are less easily shocked than book readers).
Ellen’s character isn’t really convincing either. She goes from bright young thing and wannabe pillar of society, to occasional devil worshipper, frequenter of mediums and lesbian lover of her coloured maid, with no real motivation for these radical changes in such a conventional person.
What we have here is not so much a story as an author randomly piling up effects. It’s kitchen sink school of writing, with the urge to get in as much incident as you can in the hope readers won’t notice it’s mainly quantity and little quality. As a tease for the TV series it’s okay, but I doubt if you need to have read Diary to appreciate Rose Red, and at the end of the day the book simply doesn’t live up to its attractive packaging (an attempt has been made to create the look of a diary, with line drawings and photographs).
(NB: The official Stephen King website recently revealed the Diary author as Ridley Pearson.)