Catching Up with King: The Talisman

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I locked myself in a toolshed and waited for a werewolf to bring me a copy of The Talisman.

Screen Shot 2019-07-04 at 10.56.29 AMStephen King is not synonymous with fantasy quest narratives – the kind of stories that rely on meticulous world-building, magical elements, and traditional constructions of good and evil. But it’s not for a lack of trying. Although its scope included every random thought in the author’s brain, the spine of The Stand was a fellowship of survivors trekking across a wasted American landscape. His Dark Tower series melded the rules of Hollywood westerns into the formula. The Eyes of the Dragon went full Arthurian legend. And The Talisman was the most overt homage to Professor Tolkien, pitting an undersized hero and his loyal friends against forces of darkness powerful enough to threaten multiple universes at once.

King co-wrote the tale – fleshed out from a rough idea he had in college – with his friend and fellow horror scribe Peter Straub (best known for his 1979 novel Ghost Story, about a group of old men haunted by a past misdeed). In an interview, Straub described the writing process as “each of us firing off hundred-page, hundred-and-fifty-page segments at intervals of a month or so.” To the credit of these authors, this seemingly ill-advised relay race approach does not come off stilted at all. The Talisman has its faults, but it’s told in a seamless voice, one that gleefully attempts to make the fantastical feel tangible.

It’s the story of Jack Sawyer, a 12-year-old boy whose ailing mother brings him to an off-season New Hampshire resort town for reasons neither of them truly understand. While wandering the empty carnival grounds he meets Speedy, a black janitor/blues singer  who introduces Jack to “The Territories,” an alternate universe that’s like a Medieval Times version of America, where every person has a mirror entity called a “twinner.” (I’d bet a tidy sum that the introduction of Speedy was written by King, whose incessant treatment of black people as exotic, magical beings is the aspect of his fiction that has aged the worst.) 2a0998dee205d607c699b07d8ef02e23

Jack recognizes The Territories as a place he used to daydream about, and feels the tug of destiny. And thus his quest is laid out for him – in order to cure his mother, he must walk to the west coast of The Territories and find “The Talisman,” an object that only he can claim. There are several mysteries to be unraveled during his journey – why does Jack have a connection to this place? How did his father die? Why is his mother on the run from his father’s old business partner, the deliciously named Morgan Sloat? What the hell is The Talisman?

King and Straub deliver the answers to most of these questions in a steady IV drip, as Jack makes his way, on foot, across America/The Territories. This first half of Jack’s quest is horror-fantasy at its best – a triptych of subplots that finds Jack trailed by monsters and trapped by a sadistic bar owner, a charismatic cult leader, and a cadre of zombified prep-school students. The more comfortable he becomes with flipping, the more intense the story becomes, as the authors can now drop Jack from a frying pan into an interdimensional fire.

One of my favorite sequences of any King book is Jack’s friendship with Wolf, a lycanthropic shepherd from The Territories. After flipping to America together, Jack and his gentle-giant werewolf buddy end up arrested and shipped to the Sunlight Home for Boys, a nightmarish prison disguised as a Christian reformatory school. It’s all too much for Wolf, who hates tight spaces almost as much as the chemical smell of this tainted world. They need to find a way out before the full moon hits. As a critique of evangelical Christians, a tension-ratcheting set piece, and a showcase for the power of friendship, it succeeds wildly. Unfortunately, it’s the toughest spot that Jack finds himself in for the rest of the book.

images.jpgThe closer Jack gets to his goal, the more rushed and sloppy the narrative becomes. After picking up his best friend Richard (Morgan’s traumatized son) on his way west, Jack flips with him, and then steals Sloat’s battery-powered train to ride through the “Blasted Lands.” In an unforgivable bout of laziness, the authors fill the back of Sloat’s train with assault weapons, minimizing the threat while expecting us to believe that two 12-year-olds would know how to use them. (Picture Frodo and Sam finding a pair of bazookas on the road to Mordor.)

It just gets more anti-climactic from there, as that IV drip becomes a flood, and Jack’s final battle with Sloat doesn’t feel remotely as dangerous as the Sunlight Home. But this is a nearly 1,000-page King epic, and I’ve yet to see one of those end with a bang. And to judge it too much by its destination would be missing the point.

Because King and Straub have written a fantasy about the power of fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that the word they choose to describe jumping between worlds also applies to the pages of a book. The Talisman is a grand argument against the common critique of the genre – that it’s escapist, irrelevant, a way to avoid thinking about the problems of the real world. 9781451697216

This goal is laid bare for all to see when the authors describe Richard Sloat’s reading habits, framing his reliance on non-fiction as a symptom of a trauma victim’s fear of losing control:

“It explained Richard’s iron, no-compromise insistence on reality, the whole reality, and nothing but the reality. It explained his rejection of any sort of fantasy, even science fiction … It became a challenge to Jack to find a story – any story – which would please Richard.”

In King and Straub’s opinion, it’s the inability to be transported that’s the problem. Escape isn’t to be avoided, it’s to be sought. Because while we’re living amongst these characters, and rushing alongside them into battle, we learn things about ourselves that no textbook can teach. Would we trust Wolf to remain loyal in werewolf form? Would we have the strength and empathy to spare Gollum? Are we fans of the journey or do we skip ahead to the destination?

As a lover of the journey, and one of the millions whose life has been shaped by J.R.R. Tolkien, you can count me as a fan of this overlong ode to magic, myth, and the kind of love that inspires elves to sing.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. The Talisman

6. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

7. 11/22/63

8. On Writing

9. The Stand

10. The Gunslinger

11. Bag of Bones

 

June’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from June 2019, a time when I would usually chase those delicious clicks and list my Songs of the Summer. But nobody ever clicked. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s fine! It’s fine. I don’t need you anyhow. JUST WATCH ME NOT CARE.

1. Prince – “Sex Shooter”

This never-before-heard demo of Purple Rain-era Prince, laying down a song he would give to Apollonia 6 to perform in his movie, is as excellent as you’d hope – a pop-funk workout so erotically charged, even the puns are sexy.

2. Sleater-Kinney – “Hurry On Home”

“Disconnect me from my bones,” pleads Carrie Brownstein on this lustful synth-rock scorcher, foregoing the “you up?” routine in favor of complete emotional transparency.

3. Goldlink (ft. Haile) – “Yard”

This chameleonic DC rapper made this list last month by applying his sinuous flow to an Afropop groove. Here, he does it with dancehall, eradicating bad vibes like a sonic exorcist.

4. Kim Petras – “Clarity”

Shimmering, flex-laden 2019 pop meets Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door.”

5. Nicki Minaj – “Megatron”

The legend returns with her best single in five years, an island-inflected banger that plays to all her strengths, leaving the scents of rum and Mercedes leather in the air.

6. Hatchie – “Her Own Heart”

An Alternative Nation dream-pop ballad that sounds like The Cranberries getting The Bends.

7. Freddie Gibbs & Madlib (feat. Anderson .Paak) – “Giannis” 

I’m still reeling from seeing Anderson .Paak perform back in May. And his gliding croon and formidable bars are perfectly suited to this twinkling groove from Madlib. But that doesn’t stop the Indiana rapper Freddie Gibbs from outshining them both.

8. Lucy Dacus – “Forever Half Mast”

“Yes you’re evil but you’re not that bad,” goes the chorus to Lucy Dacus’s July 4th-inspired single. Over rich Americana strumming, Dacus nails the guilt of being from the richest, most damaging nation on earth, and loving it all the same.

9. Zara Larsson – “All the Time”

At first, Zara Larsson’s latest single feels like a swing at the Song of the Summer crown.  “Summertime and I’m caught in the feeling,” she sings over the roboticized, irresistible mantra, “From the breaking of the day to the middle of night.” But this isn’t about partying at all.

10. Bill Callahan – “What Comes After Certainty”

Magic is for rom-coms. The real shit, the chills-up-your-spine shit, is knowing, without a doubt, that you have found your person.

Chump Scares: Horror Movies to Avoid

There are a few movie genres that I will obsessively support, despite their poor batting averages. #1 on the list is horror – I watch at least one terrible haunted house/slasher/zombie/demonic doll picture per week, as part of a perpetual quest for that transcendently good scare. So why not put that wasted time to good use? Why not warn you, loyal reader, to not go down into that dark, musty basement … and watch The Prodigy?

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Chump Scare #1: Ma (2019)

A promising premise – a middle-aged black woman (Octavia Spencer, too good for this shit) opens up her basement so a bunch of privileged white teens can get their drink on – is ruined by the warped priorities of its filmmakers. Writer/director Tate Taylor rushes through every disturbing revelation about “Ma,” despite the fact that a) her motivation is the engine of the whole story; b) every other character here is Saltine-bland; and c) the struggles of a woman of color do not exactly lend themselves to the 30 Rock smash-cut treatment. Taylor spends significantly more time outlining the mother-daughter dynamic between Boring Teen #1 (Diana Silvers, sleepwalking) and her single mom (hey, it’s Juliette Lewis!). It would be offensive if it wasn’t so bafflingly stupid. This is where I mention that Taylor directed The Help, and admit it’s my fault for expecting more.

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Chump Scare #2: The Prodigy (2019)

Where to start with The Prodigy? How about the description from the Netflix DVD slipcase: “In her much-anticipated foray into the horror-thriller genre, Taylor Schilling stars…” Like you, I’ve been on pins and needles for years, waiting for the perfectly okay actor Taylor Schilling to leave prison dramedy behind and FINALLY make a goddamn horror movie. And, dear reader, our thoughts and prayers have paid off. Schilling stars in The Prodigy – a done-to-death possessed-kid story full of borrowed ideas from classics like The Omen and The Babadook, and crappier forebears like Audrey Rose. The more her son starts to act like the Hungarian serial killer who has taken up residence in his body (He asks for paprika at dinner! Spooooooky!), the more Schilling … doesn’t change. Maybe I missed a scene that showed her character popping opioids, but she is inexplicably chill for what felt like an interminable 92 minutes. I’d rather listen to Prodigy than see this one again.

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Chump Scare #3: Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

As someone who grew up watching the charmingly cheap, straight-to-VHS Puppet Master movies, as marathoned on TNT’s MonstervisionI was initially excited at the prospect of a self-aware reboot. Something that retained the campy flair of the originals and added some winking, fan-service humor. But even though it has the dependably hilarious Thomas Lennon in its lead role, The Littlest Reich doesn’t offer much in the way of either. Lennon’s mopey comic book store employee is there as a stand-in for the aging nerds of the film’s target audience, so he gets a half-baked, sure-to-be-murdered love interest and whisks her off to a Comic-Con-style event for collectors of dolls designed by a Nazi puppeteer. These Nazi demon puppets then start killing minorities, because they’re Nazis. This feels wrong for obvious reasons. But even more so in the context of this universe. The puppeteer from the original films, André Toulon, was an enemy of the Third Reich who infused his puppets with the souls of friends who died in the struggle. Which made it feel pretty good to root for those bloodthirsty marionettes back in the day. I have no clue what made these filmmakers think we’d want to cheer on some Nazis this time instead. There are most definitely not good puppets on both sides.

May’s Bestest Songs

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Here are my favorite tracks from May 2019, the month we all celebrated the 10th anniversary of the movie Angels & Demons. We savored Ron Howard’s direction of Tom Hanks’s wig in The Da Vinci Code. But Howsie & Hanksie took us even higher in ’09. Angels & Demons, available now in 4K Blu-Ray.

1. Denzel Curry – “Ricky”

Conflicting parental advice has never slapped like this.

2. Carly Rae Jepsen – “Everything He Needs”

Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me,” as sung by Shelley Duvall in Popeye, is sacred ground, one of the greatest songs ever written about how love can translate into self-worth. So there’s only one way to explain how Carly Rae Jepsen has been able to interpolate “He Needs Me” into a breezy, sex-positive, lite-disco jaunt, without jettisoning its emotional weight – she is a pop music magician.

3. Jamila Woods – “Giovanni”

Jamila Woods kicks off her Nikki Giovanni tribute song with an appropriately bad-ass couplet – “You might want to hold my comb / When you find out what I’m made of.” Her voice floats just behind the beat, smirking with its collar popped.

4. Megan Thee Stallion – “Realer”

Right now, nobody on earth is rapping with more authority than Houston emcee Megan Thee Stallion. On “Realer,” she wields syllables like free weights, knocking us out at the end of every couplet, while only getting stronger for the next one.

5. Flying Lotus – “Say Something”

Nestled in the back half of electro-visionary Flying Lotus’s sprawling new LP lies this weird-ass piano instrumental, which could soundtrack a quirky British crime procedural. I would watch the shit out of that show.

6. Bill Callahan – “Morning Is My Godmother”

Bill Callahan, one of our finest living songwriters, has a new album out in June – his first in six years. His voice still sounds like whiskey aged in a hickory barrel, and he’s still writing about nature like Thoreau with better weed.

7. Tyler, the Creator – “Earfquake”

Ever since he rode a tired shock-rap provocateur act to fame in 2009, I’ve actively avoided Tyler, the Creator’s music. I’ve clearly missed one hell of an evolution. He’s moved on, both sonically and self-consciously, sounding vulnerable, and inspired, and free.

8. Vampire Weekend – “Sympathy”

Like many a classic double LP, Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride is designed to reveal its riches over time. One of these growers has been the mid-album spazz-out “Sympathy,” which pairs a four-on-the-floor groove with acoustic flourishes, megaphone-feedback-drenched breakdowns, and references to Diego Garcia and “arrogant mosquitoes.”

9. Idle Hands – “Nightfall”

If you like your Satan worshipping with a spoonful of sugar, don’t sleep on these Portland, OR, occult rockers. “Nightfall” has hooks to rival The Cure and Blue Oyster Cult, along with an irresistible dark energy all its own. So grab your sacrificial daggers – and dance!

10. Ider – “Wu Baby”

Religious imagery will always be a compelling way to talk about romantic obsession. So when this London duo sings “I prayed all of my love to you / Can you feel it?” over a moody electro-pop synthscape, it feels like more than a crush. This is faith, in all its intoxicating, terrifying vulnerability.

11. Goldlink (feat. Maleek Berry & Bibi Bourelly) – “Zulu Screams”

Over an unrelenting, percussive Afropop beat, Goldlink doesn’t drop rhymes. He pours them, his preternatural flow a tributary to oceans of hooks, rhythms, and overwhelmingly good vibes.

12. Lana Del Rey – “Doin’ Time”

For the first time in a long time, it feels good to be a Sublime fan. Lana Del Rey’s cover of Bradley Nowell’s dreamy, Gershwin-meets-Snoop toxic relationship fable is a summer playlist no-brainer.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (15-11)

OMG, we’re uncomfortably close to the end of this crazy countdown! Here are five albums that I adored in my underachieving, ironic-tee-shirt-wearing youth, and are only getting better with age. (You can check out the whole list here.)

51Cy7Aj+XdL15. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

On a trip to Hawaii a few years back, my wife got bit by what we thought was a spider. The bite kept getting worse, so we called poison control. I was scared shitless that I was going to lose my person, while surrounded by the most vibrantly alive environment I’d ever seen. The Flaming Lips must’ve known this feeling. Because their masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, is full of songs that are acutely aware of life’s impermanence. Yet they’re surrounded by optimistic, awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements that do justice to the laziest Pet Sounds reference. And oh yeah, there’s literally a song called “The Spiderbite Song,” which does not require a personal encounter with potentially deadly insects to appreciate. Producer Dave Fridmann goes borderline Disney with the arrangement, slathering it with trilling harps and tinkling pianos. Yet it’s a delivery system for a raw-as-hell truth – love and devastation are a switch, and it can be flipped by the tiniest twist of fate. “If it destroyed you / It would destroy me,” admits Wayne Coyne on the chorus, balancing the scales without dispelling the magic. My wife’s bite turned out to be from a non-poisonous scorpion, further proof that she’s a total bad-ass. But I’ll always feel a little bit shaken by the memory. Hearing Coyne’s voice, trembling with relief as it floats high above these flourishing soundscapes, it’s impossible to not be moved. Because at any moment, it could’ve fallen.

https___images.genius.com_658097527d975ba15bcaca96999f5f5e.500x500x114. Beck – Mutations (1998)

These days it’s common knowledge that Beck Hansen is a singer/songwriter capable of incredible pathos. But the first time I heard Mutations, I had no idea. The crate-digging hipster earthquake of Odelay was still ringing in my ears. So I was floored by this collection of languid folk and country sway-alongs, its rich, organic warmth somehow unscathed by an aggressively bleak lyric sheet (“We ride disowned / Corroded to the bone”). Nigel Godrich, fresh off producing OK Computer, buoys Beck’s tender crooning with reassuring swaths of synths, sitars, and harpsichords. Friendly, almost amateurish harmonica solos add to the humanity. And while there are no donkey samples or rapped non-sequiturs, Beck’s quirks are all over this album, giving it a ramshackle, lived-in feel. “Canceled Check” ends with the band having a collective stroke, randomly bashing on things. The hidden track “Diamond Bollocks” leaps between seething Stooges riffage and gentle birdsong. And his lyrical flights are as strikingly weird as ever: “A desolate wind / Turns shit to gold / And blows my soul crazy.” To encounter all of this unexpectedly was like having a profound conversation with somebody you thought you knew. Realizing there’s way more to them than you thought. And looking forward to hearing from them again.

buhloone mindstate13. De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

Grunge bands got tons of credit for rejecting the spoils of stardom in the 1990s. But none of them explored this conflict on tape quite like De La Soul, who made entire concept albums about what it meant to be a rap star. They called their second LP De La Soul Is Dead, shattering the cuddly, neo-hippie image that made them famous. A few years later, they dropped Buhloone Mindstate, its title borne from a stated desire to “blow up, but not go pop.” It sounds like what it is – a rap group at the peak of its powers, trying its hardest to not make hits. So we get thickets of ’70s soul and ’80s rap samples, live horns, and clips from the movie The Five Heartbeats (all of which appear on the monumental “Patti Dooke”). Maceo Parker gets five minutes to just solo. Same for the Japanese rap trio Scha Dara Parr, who get a stripped down drumbeat to freak out over. And then there’s Posdnous, De La’s de facto leader, who makes sure we’ve got our seatbelt on during all these thrilling left turns. He overstuffs his verses with introspective journeys and biting social commentary, stating his case clearly and prolifically. “I am Posdnous / I be the new generation of slaves / Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes,” he shares on “I Am I Be,” doing justice to the authenticity of that title. It’s lovely how much De La Soul cared about this stuff. They stayed true to themselves in the spotlight, exposed who was really benefitting from their hard work, and channeled it all into groundbreaking, revivifying music. It’s been 26 years, and it’s still blowing up.

https___images.genius.com_f08464da62a15725b3ea3a6a0a4c2da4.1000x1000x112. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

Countless Westerns end with their male leads going out in a blaze of glory, because they valued their own concept of justice  over anything else. On her third album, PJ Harvey had had enough of that shit. To Bring You My Love is written from the perspective of the women in these stories, those unconsidered widows and jilted lovers whose existential pain is usually seen as acceptable collateral damage. “I love him longer / As each damn day goes / The man is gone / And heaven only knows,” she sings on the album’s final song, establishing the permanence of grief before the music fades. Her narrators plead with everyone from Jesus to a deadbeat dad named Billy. They travel “over dry earth and floods.” And on the mesmerizing murder ballad “Down By the Water,” they drown their own child and blame it on the fish. Harvey, making her first album as a solo artist, comes into her own as a producer, creating atmospheres worthy of these raw, gothic tales. Almost every riff is a simple pentatonic phrase, a shard of the blues poking through the skin of the session. And it’s all in full mourning dress, thanks to slow tempos, low, burbling organs, and heavy swaths of distortion – imagine Violator-era Depeche Mode doing an album of John Lee Hooker covers. “See it coming / At my head / I’m not running / I’m not scared,” she sings, both as a character with a death wish and a songwriter in complete control of her gifts. Our concept of bravery doesn’t always have to be a cowboy perishing in a rain of bullets. It can be an artist doing exactly what she wants.

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream11. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)

In the summer of ’96, when Smashing Pumpkins was the biggest band on earth, I saw them deliver an unforgettable set of high-decibel melodrama. During the second encore, the band unleashed “Silverfuck,” the incendiary 8-minute shredfest from Siamese Dream. At the end, instead of smashing his guitar, Billy Corgan sat down on the stage and methodically took it apart, unfazed by the screeching feedback of this little experiment. It’s the perfect metaphor for what made Siamese Dream the greatest LP to ever be labeled “grunge.” Corgan was a neurotic guitar geek, and he used the Siamese Dream sessions to indulge in his obsession, foregoing sleep and the respect of his bandmates to ensure every blast of distortion met with his vision. In the process, he invented his own wall of sound – a steady thrum of multi-tracked guitars that flood our eardrums like bagpipes from heaven. (The only instrument he didn’t personally touch were the drums, probably because Jimmy Chamberlin was one of the best rock drummers on earth in ’93.) Unlike the ragged emotional outpourings coming out of Seattle, this was unapologetically fussy rock music, best experienced on pricey headphones with your eyes closed. Despite the darkness of Corgan’s lyrics – even the hits are cries for help – the majesty of his sonic vision lifts all boats. When he sings, “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” he means the opposite. But the way those guitars ring as they deliver the hook? It makes the line true for me. Like any raging perfectionist, Corgan’s insistence on taking things apart and putting them back together again would come back to bite him. But not before he proved that perfection was within his reach.

April’s Bestest Songs

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These songs came out in April 2019. I feel like I should compare them to fresh tulips, or dewy mornings, or baby rabbits frolicking in dewy tulip patches. And I guess I just did! Check out these 10 amazing tracks from the dew-tastic month that was.


1. Otoboke Beaver – “datsu . hikage no onna”

This Kyoto punk quartet has tapped into a reservoir of adrenaline potent enough to reanimate a long-dead heart.

2. Rico Nasty – “Hatin”

Rico made a Neptunes beat her own last year. Now it’s Jay-Z’s turn.

3. Annika Norlin – “Showering in Public”

A staggeringly beautiful folk song about locker room anxiety.

4. Kevin Abstract – “Joy Ride”

The visionary behind the electrifying hip-hop collective Brockhampton adds some humidity to his forecast, in the form of 1998 Outkast horn charts.

5. PUP – “Kids”

Ideally, getting older comes with some level of certainty. And when that certainty is about love, well that’s something to shout about.

6. Weyes Blood – “Everyday”

The Beatles made it sound easy, but “I need love” can be a pretty terrifying thing to say out loud. Weyes Blood makes this admission, over and over again, wisely bringing a soothing, 1970s soft rock orchestra along for the ride.

7. Pivot Gang – “Colbert”

This long-distance love song nails the reason why I bought a Dodge Neon in 2000. “I don’t wanna waste time / I don’t wanna FaceTime / I wanna be where you are.”

8. The Mountain Goats – “Clemency for the Wizard King”

That Council of Elrond moment, where Frodo Baggins realizes this impossible burden is his to bear, despite his size, lack of training and non-violent nature? This song makes me cry like that scene does.

9. Your Old Droog – “Babushka”

Musty clarinets, meet crusty NYC shit talk.

10. Beyoncé (feat. Jay-Z) – “Deja Vu (Live)”

It begins with what might be the greatest bass line in 21st century pop. Which then seamlessly shifts into the groove from Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” fleshed out with reverence and vivacity by that incredible Homecoming marching band. Then Jay-Z plays the hype man to our Most Valuable Pop Star, in full control of her astonishing voice, singing about the hallucinatory power of love. It’s gonna be a long time before I hear a live album without wishing it was this one.

Catching Up with Stephen King: On Writing

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I got in touch with that small, pathetic part of myself that believes he could write a novel, and cracked open On Writing.

61xk7zg4GqLPerhaps more than any other artist, writers want us to know that they’re suffering ever so much. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” whined George Orwell. “I think all writing is a disease,” bemoaned William Carlos Williams. “All you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed,” bitched Ernest Hemingway. Has anybody in human history ever been more full of shit? These guys got to work from home, keep their own hours, explore their every creative whim, and make good money in the process. Karma dictates that they be punched in the stomach by a factory worker.

Now, with the melodramatic, self-mythologizing tone of those writers fresh in our minds, let’s bask in this quote from Stephen King’s 2000 autobiography/manual On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft:

“This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.”

For 280 pages, King talks about his job just like this – with refreshing candor, and the genuine desire to help us understand that while the work isn’t easy, it’s also incredibly fulfilling. He uses blue collar metaphors, like his grandfather’s toolbox, to underline the fact that writing is a trade, not a magic trick. And while he does admit to having a “muse,” he still manages to successfully Bob Vila-fy the situation:

“He’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words.”

By talking about “the craft” in terms that anybody can understand, and outlining rules that anybody can follow, King embraces a concept that drives writers nuts – the written word as the populist art form. Good Ol’ Joe Six-Pack can’t just pick up sculpting, or illustration, or playing the harp. But he can start stringing words together, even if all he has is a Bic and some junk mail. I think that’s partly why those big-time writers liked to bemoan the horrors of their plight – they were trying to scare away the competition.

King devotes the majority of On Writing to the nuts and bolts stuff, from the importance of grammar and style (his hatred of adverbs is a highlight); to the non-negotiable fact that reading is as important as writing itself; to the nuances of crafting believable dialogue. For somebody interested in taking a crack at their first novel, it’s a must. To everybody else, not so much. But these sections do give some valuable insight into King’s process – he rarely knows the ending before he starts writing, for example – and his no-frills enthusiasm for the subject is infectious.

stephen-king-on-writing.jpgStill, to this reader – who realized a long time ago that his fiction was irreparably bad –  the autobiographical bookends are the main reason to read On Writing. King begins the book with charming snapshots of his childhood, hopping around the country being raised by his mother. As he gets older, he starts writing in his little attic room, amassing rejection letters like Tennessee Williams. And as we get whisked through the rest of the 20th century, from his big break with Carrie to the summer day in 1999 when he got hit by a van while taking his daily walk, there’s one constant – his wife and fellow author, Tabitha.

King writes about his partner of 29 years (at the time) not with “thanks for putting up with me” Oscar speech condescension, but with respect for her as a colleague and “first reader.” Even here, in the realm of romance, lives the craft – he knew he loved her when he heard her poetry.

“Cables seemed to run through the poem, tightening the lines until they almost hummed. I found the combination of crafty diction and delirious imagery exciting and illuminating. Her poem also made me feel that I wasn’t alone in my belief that good writing can be simultaneously intoxicating and idea-driven.”

On Writing ends with the story of how King began to write it. He’d planned it out a few days before his accident. And began it in the midst of a long and painful recovery. All thanks to Tabitha, who rigged a desk for him that accommodated his wheelchair – one writer helping out another.  It’s the perfect capper to a book that calls bullshit on the “writer’s plight.” From writing came love and inspiration and an escape from pain.

Sorry Ernest. Your secret’s out.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

6. 11/22/63

7. On Writing

8. The Stand

9. The Gunslinger

10. Bag of Bones