Catching Up With King: Bag of Bones

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 took a flier on a lesser-known King novel that just happened to be $2.99 at the used bookstore – Bag of Bones.

What scares Stephen King? Based on what we’ve read so far in this series, we can make some guesses (e.g. cycles of abuse, bathrooms). But after reading his 1998 novel Bag of Bones, and looking into how his career was doing at that time, I think I may have uncovered the big kahuna: Tom Clancy.

In 1997, Penguin Books merged with fellow publishing giant Putnam, bringing King and Clancy under the same roof. At this point in his career, King couldn’t compete with Clancy’s mega-selling espionage thrillers. And he knew it. Here’s what he said to the New York Times in ’98: “I would like to sell. I wanted to have one more book that was big, that felt like I was running the tables in terms of sales. I wanted to knock Tom Clancy out of the No. 1 spot. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, I’m king of the world, even if it’s only for two weeks, whatever. I wanted those things.”

So it’s no coincidence that Bag of Bones is the story of a best-selling author in crisis. At first, it strikes a mournful, self-reflective tone that had me thinking King might actually pull this off. That this massively famous middle-aged man could use his fragile ego as the fuel for something meaningful.

His protagonist, Michael Noonan, has gotten rich writing cookie-cutter thrillers. But it bugs him that they only ever make the lower reaches of the best-seller lists. “If Tom Clancy were to go on hiatus for five years and then bring Jack Ryan back, he’d come back strong, no argument,” his agent warns. “If you go on hiatus for five years, maybe you don’t come back at all.”

When his wife, Johanna, dies suddenly, Noonan goes into a tailspin. He wanders through his Maine farmhouse, insulating himself from others, unable to write.

King is rarely better than when he’s writing about grief, and this is no exception. Like when Noonan finds an old W. Somerset Maugham paperback under the bed, with a playing card used as a bookmark: “It occurred to me that Jo was never going to turn the page and hear Strickland call the pathetic Stroeve a funny little man,” King writes. “I understood it wasn’t a mistake that would be rectified, or a dream from which I would awaken. Johanna was dead.”

If only this entire book had the tone of this quiet, heartbreaking realization. Alas, the lion’s share of Bag of Bones has little to do with it. It’s a panicked, overstuffed, perverted mess. When Noonan moves to his and Jo’s old lake house for a change of scenery, he is immediately swept up in a custody case involving a single mom and a monstrous octogenarian software magnate. Also, the lake house is haunted by ghosts that fight over the refrigerator magnets. Also, there’s a horrible secret that has something to do with an African-American blues singer named Sara Tidwell, whose family and entourage disappeared from this lake town around the turn of the 20th century.

Every single one of these plot points are like cotton balls in our ears, muffling the sounds of real human emotion that the author had so empathetically laid bare. Worse, the custody drama transforms into a romance that would make Woody Allen proud. Noonan comes to the rescue of 21-year-old Mattie Devore and her daughter Kyra, accidentally brushing against her boob the first time they meet, then not-so-accidentally fantasizing about her with uncomfortable intensity, then paying her legal fees for the battle with her cartoonish villain of a father-in-law. Johanna? She’s just one of several ghosts in the lake house, relegated to the background.

Ickiness aside, King is out of control here. Like the ghosts duking it out in the lake house, King’s tangled plot lines strangle any potential points that Bag of Bones could have made. What promised to be a story about harrowing grief and what constitutes fulfillment for a once-idealistic generation, becomes a literal bloody mess. King has to resort to a gruesome deus ex machina to prevent the Mattie/Michael relationship from going “too far.” And the Sara Tidwell secret is truly horrifying, and fairly offensive in how quickly it’s tossed in – like an extra tablespoon of lemon juice in an already sour cocktail.

Bag of Bones does have vestiges of what makes King’s best work resonate so strongly – especially the toxic grief that propels my favorite of his books, Pet Sematary. But for the first time in this column, I’ve seen just how thoroughly he can go off the rails. All evidence points to King going through some kind of crisis while writing Bag of Bones. At the very least, his obsession with sales was screwing with his artistic chemistry, as well as his public image. When his contract was up in 1997, King made the unusual move of going to the press, saying that he wanted a new publisher who would pay him the outrageous sum of $18 million a book. Nobody bit. That, after all, was Clancy money.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Carrie

3. The Shining

4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

5. 11/22/63

6. The Gunslinger

7. Bag of Bones

Catching Up With King: “Carrie”

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 made sure to cover up my dirty pillows before cracking open King’s stunning, heartbreaking debut novel – Carrie.

“Jesus watches from the wall / But his face is cold as stone
And if he loves me / As she tells me
Why do I feel so all alone?”
― Stephen King, Carrie

I’ve always taken pride in buying tampons for my wife. It’s incontrovertible proof that not only does this woman live with me, but that she actually likes me for real. If she’s comfortable with my involvement in one of her most intimate routines, I must be doing something right.

Society tells me I’m not supposed to feel this way. A woman’s menstrual cycle is supposedly TMI. God forbid she brings it up at dinner. Why are men so afraid of women that we’ve done all we can to stigmatize such a natural biological truth? Is it jealousy of the ability to create life? A frantic attempt to hold onto the overwhelming privilege we’ve enjoyed for millennia? Whatever the reason, it’s an established fact: Men fear the flow.

In 1974, a year after Roe v. Wade, Stephen King leveraged these patriarchal fears to create a horror classic. Carrie is the story of a long-suffering high school girl who gets her period, learns that she’s powerful, and takes horrible revenge. Dudes who were scared shitless of Gloria Steinem were definitely going to have to change their underwear after reading this.

We meet Carrie White on one of the worst days of her life. She gets her period for the first time, in the high school locker room, in front of her merciless bullies. Not only that, but thanks to her deranged, fire-and-brimstone-spewing “momma,” Carrie had never heard of menstruation. So while her classmates behave like wolves at a slaughter, yelling “plug it up” and pelting her with tampons, Carrie is also afraid she might be dying. Her gym teacher, Miss Desjardin, isn’t much help. “She certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard,” King writes. “A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.” Later, Carrie’s mother blames her, beats her and forces her into a closet, to atone for her feminine “weakness.”

But there’s a moment in this day, occasioned by those spontaneous gym class horrors, that allows Carrie something she rarely gets. A moment of calm. The principal sends her home early, hours before her mother’s laundry shift is over. “Alone,” she marvels. It’s the only moment in this story that she gets completely to herself, where the imaginary laws of high school (fat girls are bad) and Christianity (all girls are bad) aren’t bearing down on her. And as it turns out, it’s one of the last days that Carrie, and her hometown of Chamberlain, Maine, will know peace.

As King’s first published novel, Carrie gives us a look at how the author approached his craft pre-fame. He’s never been more laser-focused on plot. Perhaps he hadn’t developed enough confidence in his ability to flesh out a world, or maybe he thought straying from the action would hurt his manuscript’s chances. Because these 290 pages are absolutely filler-free. Characters get minimal backstories. We learn nothing at all about the town. It’s just the walls closing steadily, relentlessly in on Carrie White. There’s nothing we can do about it, except mourn her inevitable fate, and marvel at her power.

“What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic,” King writes, matter-of-factly, on page 4. It’s important that we’re armed with this knowledge that Carrie can move things with her mind. From the beginning, we know that everybody is underestimating her – they’re literally playing with fire. It’s a source of hope that she could rise above these bullies at school and home. And it’s a metaphor for the power inside every marginalized person, whose outrage is the potential fuel for change.

When guilt-ridden classmate Sue Snell decides to atone for Plug-It-Up-Gate by having her archetypal boyfriend Tommy Ross ask Carrie to the prom, Carrie ignores her instincts and says yes. The walls continue to close.

Meanwhile, Chris Hargensen, alpha bully and spoiled attorney’s daughter, and her legit psycho boyfriend Billy Nolan, have a heartless and disgusting plan to break Carrie White once and for all – a stage adaptation of her locker room shame that involves buckets of pig’s blood. King accentuates the true criminal depravity going on here, how it’s much, much worse than anything that could be labeled a “prank,” by taking us along on the trip where Billy and a few buddies break into a farm in the dark of night and slit the throats of two pigs. The inevitability of the story structure makes it clear that this plan will work.

Nothing I’ve read from King so far has been as heartbreaking as Carrie’s prom night. She waits nervously for Tommy to pick her up, immune to her mother’s rants about dirty pillows and roadhouses. Tommy doesn’t just show, he treats her with genuine respect, telling her she’s beautiful and meaning it.

As the night goes on, hope awakens. She has a legitimate rapport with her date; she gets compliments on the dress she made herself; she cracks a few jokes that land. “She felt something very old and rusty loosen inside her,” King describes. “A warmth came with it. Relief. Ease.”

Of course, that feeling was going to be short-lived. Not only does the pig’s blood plot go off without a hitch, dousing the newly crowned Carrie and killing Tommy with a bucket to the skull, but the crowd laughs at the gory display. She runs, and somebody trips her. She keeps running until she reaches a field, losing her shoes along the way like Bram Stoker’s Cinderella. And in this moment, with her only options to return to the cackling devils at school or go home to a mother who is waiting patiently with a butcher knife, she wishes for death.

And then remembers her power.

King describes the destruction of Chamberlain with the same efficiency as the rest of his debut novel, and the effect is chilling. Mocked and denigrated for her life-giving body, Carrie uses it to create death instead, raining fire on her abusers like the Book of Revelations made flesh. Bodies do stunted, electrified dances. Charred corpses smell like pork.

If only this town had empathized with somebody who had it hard at home. If only they hadn’t been so cruel about something so natural. Maybe then they wouldn’t have blood coming out of their wherever.

Up next, we tackle a book I’d never heard of before buying it used for $2.99 – 1998’s small-town soap opera Bag of Bones.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Carrie

3. The Shining

4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

5. 11/22/63

6. The Gunslinger

Catching Up With King: “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, 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 read my first collection of King short stories – 1993’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes.

“‘It was like Jeopardy,‘ he said. ‘In fact, it was like Final Jeopardy. The category is ‘The Inexplicable.’ The Final Jeopardy answer is ‘Because they can.’ Do you know what the Final Jeopardy question is, Officer?”
-Stephen King, “The Moving Finger”

Nightmares&Dreamscapes

I work in a building with a small bathroom to employee ratio. After a year or so of stilted urinal conversations and close-quarters crapping, I discovered a hallway I hadn’t been down before. It led to the perfect men’s room – one stall only, off the beaten path, subtly effective air freshener. When the stall is free, life is good. But when it’s occupied, and I see the shoes of the guy who beat me to the punch, it feels like defeat.

Few writers could spin something memorable out of this mundane bit of oversharing. But with “Sneakers,” Stephen King essentially does just that. It’s one of my favorite short stories in his mammoth 1993 collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, in which an up-and-coming record producer keeps seeing the same pair of sneakers, in the same stall, on every bathroom break. The more it happens, the creepier things get – and that’s before the flies show up.

Before I continue expressing my newfound love for bite-sized King, this disclaimer: I have yet to tackle any of the author’s longest books (including The Stand and It, both more than 1,100 pages), so I can’t give the most informed opinion on the King short story vs. King novel argument. But I think I can definitively say this – his short stories are more fun.

The first four entries in Nightmares & Dreamscapes make for an exhilarating ride. I flew through them in one fevered sitting, marveling at the intensity and versatility on display. Over the course of just 135 pages, we get a gripping, “Tell-Tale Heart”-indebted mob revenge story; a harrowing cautionary tale to scientists who think they can solve the world’s problems; a creepy-kid horror piece best avoided by rookie teachers; and a brilliantly pulpy vampire story that involves a tabloid writer, small-town airports, and buckets of you-know-what. It’s a perfectly paced assault of sledgehammer-blunt ideas, hurtling relentlessly to their endings. King relishes the chance to spin these yarns. You can see the glint in his eye as he dangles us over the precipice, hinting at what’s to come and ensuring you will most definitely not stop reading until you know as much as he does. Take this passage from the third story, “Suffer the Little Children”:

“Miss Sidley frowned after them, reflecting that children had been different in her day. Not more polite – children have never had time for that – and not exactly more respectful of their elders; it was a kind of hypocrisy that had never been there before. A smiling quietness around adults that had never been there before. A kind of quiet contempt that was upsetting and unnerving. As if they were …”

This moment is one of several that made me think if King had been born a few decades earlier, he would’ve fit right in with Serling, Matheson and Beaumont in the Twilight Zone writer’s room. But that would be discounting the majority of his work, which attempts to give its characters and themes as much physical and historical context as possible. The half-hour episode grind would’ve driven him mad. In this book’s charming, conversational introduction, King addresses this issue head on, admitting that “everything wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be approximately four thousand pages long.” He sounds weary of the subject, of having to respond once again to.critics who regard “generosity with suspicion.” Every time he writes a great short story, he’s proving a point that he disagrees with. Props to him for just doing it anyway.

If Nightmares & Dreamscapes kept its initial momentum going throughout, it would really be something special. And it comes close, thanks to a finger that comes out of a drain, a fiercely loyal pair of chattering teeth, and a group of smokers who uncover a conspiracy that involves hideous bat-people. But it’s just too odds-and-endsy to truly hold together, capsizing at the end under the weight of several writer’s exercises – a Sherlock Holmes story runs into a Raymond Chandler homage, which gives way to an essay about his son’s Little League baseball team (the book’s only true WTF moment).

Still, I had the best time reading it. And I think that’s exactly the kind of review that King would hope for.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. The Shining

3. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

4. 11/22/63

5. The Gunslinger

 

My Top 10 Iron Maiden Book Reports

7861a018-bb73-4caf-94f2-3bf8c05f6df2-2060x1236

Iron Maiden, that frothing steed of decibels and poetry, released its 16th studio album today – The Book of Souls. The fact that Maiden is still going, with every member of its classic lineup (+ third guitarist Janick Gers), releasing epic-length double albums? It’s almost enough to make me believe in something more. By which I mean, of course, Satan.

One of the things that continues to keep Maiden in my Discman in 2015 is their unpretentious approach to songwriting. Bassist/lead songwriter Steve Harris has written about demons and prophecies and the Arthurian legend, but he does it like he’s writing a love song – with clear, exuberant, universal language. A lot of his songs are inspired by literature, and the best ones are beautiful, simple echoes of the work in question. The book title is almost always the song title. It’s the opposite of pomposity.

So, to celebrate The Book of Souls, here are my 10 favorite Iron Maiden book reports:

10. “Out of the Silent Planet” (from Brave New World, 2000)

Out of the Silent Plant is the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ 1940s “Space Trilogy.” I read it in my 20s, and all I remember is there was a planet of seal people, and that I was bored. Not so for the Maiden song of the same name – singer Bruce Dickinson, back in the fold after a solo career that went nowhere, paints haunting visions of a ravaged earth. It’s the best song on the album that kicked off the band’s unlikely 21st century resurgence.

 

9. “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (from Somewhere In Time, 1986)

“You reach the final stretch / Ideals are just a trace / You feel like throwing the race / It’s all so futile.” I haven’t read the Alan Sillitoe short story that inspired Harris to write these words. If it’s as simple and elegant, I’ll be impressed.

 

8. “The Man Who Would Be King” (from The Final Frontier, 2010)

Lifting the title of a famous Rudyard Kipling novella (I’ve only seen the movie), Maiden tells a story of a wandering man, tortured by guilt. A gripping exploration of once-moral person corrupted by power.

 

7. “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (from A Matter of Life and Death, 2006)

The older this band gets, the more sensitively they explore themes of death and devastation. The subject of nuclear winter has shown up in a few late-period Maiden songs, most prominently this stunner, inspired by Robert Jungk’s non-fiction account of The Manhattan Project: Brighter Than A Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. 

 

6. “Stranger in a Strange Land” (from Somewhere In Time, 1986)

Another great song inspired by a sci-fi classic I struggled to finish. Guitarist Adrian Smith’s lyric is far from a plot summary, thankfully. Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel was The Jungle Book with Martians, tedious religious allegory and free-love communes; Smith writes about an Arctic explorer, a far more digestible metaphor for the dangers of the hubris of religious belief.

 

5. “Isle of Avalon” (from The Final Frontier, 2010)

Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is generally considered to be the definitive telling of the Arthurian legend. Problem is, it’s also a long and bland and long and unnecessarily arduous and LONG telling. Give me Bernard Cornwell’s “Warlord Trilogy,” or The Once and Future King, or this gorgeous, ethereal song from Steve Harris – written from the vantage point of the undying land where King Arthur is going to surely return from any day now.

 

4. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Killers, 1981)

This classic from the band’s rawer, hard-rock days is a cross between the legendary Edgar Allen Poe detective story and The Fugitive, its wrongfully accused narrator given believable grit by original Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno.

 

3. “The Evil That Men Do” (from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 1988)

The second single from the band’s last straight-up masterpiece, “The Evil That Men Do” takes a line from Julius Caesar and spins it into a poetic exploration of goodness twisted by violence.

 

2. “Phantom of the Opera” (from Iron Maiden, 1980)

The very first Iron Maiden epic remains one of its very best, party because of Steve Harris’s magnificent economy of words. Gone are the nuances and motivations of Victor Hugo’s famous character. He’s the devil, full stop.

 

1. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (from Powerslave, 1984)

The quintessential Iron Maiden song – a 13-minute opus based on poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s English class staple. It’s all here: the chugging triplets, spine-tingling dual guitar solos, operatic vocals about dark magic and human regret. After a spoken word sequence complete with the ominous creak of a wooden ship, the galloping guitar riff returns. Whatever albatross may be around your neck at that moment, it falls away.

 

 

Catching Up With King: 11/22/63

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine in 2013, 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 decided to tackle one of his more recent successes, the turd-of-an-idea-on-paper Kennedy Assassination/time travel epic 11/22/63.

“The crazy people of the world – the Johnny Claytons, the Lee Harvey Oswalds – shouldn’t get to win. If God won’t make it better after they do have their shitty little victories, then ordinary people have to. They have to try, at least.” –Jake Epping

220px-11-22-63

On my way to work this past winter, I hit a patch of black ice on a winding road. My car veered into oncoming traffic for a split second before I could reverse the skid and slam harmlessly into a snowbank. (Thank you, trio of no-nonsense Mainer-Samaritans who immediately pulled over to help.) Normally I would just take a deep breath and feel grateful. But I had just started reading 11/22/63, Stephen King’s 2011 door-stopper about the Kennedy assassination and the danger/pointlessness of asking “what if?” So I started thinking about what larger forces could be in play – did time itself want me to be late for work?

As the first late-period King novel that I’ve read for this series, I’m relieved to report that, at least here, he is not interested in trying new things. Nobody else could have written 11/22/63, a horror yarn with an intricately woven time-travel narrative that is also an epic love story and a work of research-intensive historical fiction. It strains in parts, especially toward the end when King engages in some clunky universe-splaining, including a post-apocalyptic alternate future where the scariest thing are the clichés. But so much of it is so completely engrossing that it qualifies as a towering accomplishment all the same. King doesn’t just make one of the most heavily trodden moments in our country’s history feel vibrant, and relevant, and new – he spends most of his time elsewhere, and never makes you feel like skipping ahead.

The King stand-in hero this time around is Jake Epping, a floundering high school English teacher who comes off like a sad-sack Sam Spade – while recently divorced and not particularly happy with his lot in life, Epping talks almost exclusively in sharply honed, sarcastic quips, as if he hired a team of writers to zest up his daily banter. I’m not sure if King intended this in order to make his protagonist less likable, but that’s the effect it has, and it’s to the benefit of the story. Which really kicks into gear when Jake stops by his favorite greasy spoon to discover that its owner Al looks decades older than he did the day before. Turns out that Al has been living in the past, thanks to a time portal to 1958 that he discovered in the back corner of his stock room. He shows it to Jake, shares his plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination (now foiled by the cancer that forced the trip back to the present), and asks him to take over.

As far as sci-fi concepts go, this is some weak tea. The portal is a phantom staircase that you have to feel around for with your feet. It’s a rip in the space-time continuum that’s just hanging out, yet no one had discovered it before. Yet King is smart enough to know this. He wrings real suspense and horror out of Al’s “sudden” advanced sickness, and cares way more about the moral quandary at hand – if you had the chance to go back and prevent an atrocity, are you obligated to do so? All the time travel stuff is functional. The creativity is in the tension.

Of course, Jake eventually agrees to take the baton, spurred on by the desire to make things right for his school janitor, Harry Dunning – a victim of unspeakable childhood horror. And once he steps into 1958, the book rarely lets up. King takes his sweet time getting to that titular date, giving Jake a believable amount of time to adjust to a mid-20th century way of life. (He does a bit too much Boomer navel-gazing, opining about the great cars and all-natural foods and folksy store clerks blah blah blah. But we know the ’50s are his jam, so we’ll let it slide.)

The story of Jake trying to prevent the Dunning family tragedy could be a gripping short story on its own. It’s set in Derry, Maine, the fictional town from It. And like that book, it uses a black void underneath the town as a metaphor for the sicknesses and depravities that fuel abuse. Jake does what he sets out to do, but it’s nowhere near as easy – and as bloodless – as he hoped.

From there, the scene shifts to Texas, where Jake settles down as a teacher in the small town of Jolie, loving it to the point where he thinks about Kennedy rarely. When he meets the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill, he starts to think about ditching the plan for good. Despite a terrible meet-cute that would make Kate Hudson roll her eyes – she’s just so clumsy that she falls … right into his arms! – King handles Jake and Sadie’s courtship with patience and tenderness. Their love is quiet, and sweet, and witty. It’s built to transcend adversities both physical and cosmic. The former comes in the form of Sadie’s psychotic ex-husband, whose presence looms as much as the president’s as the calendar flips over to ’63. The latter dovetails into the time travel narrative in a way that puts King firmly in the corner of believing in soul mates – a corner I’ve resided in for the last 15 years, making me susceptible as hell to loving all of this. Which I do.

I won’t go any deeper into the plot than this (there is a lot more of it). The Kennedy sequence is as riveting as you’d hope it would be. The closer we get to the Book Repository, the more brilliantly King casts Father Time as an omnipotent demon. But whether Jake’s in Derry or Jolie or Dallas, King is always making his point loud and clear – whether you’re nostalgic for it or haunted by it, it’s dangerous to live in the past. If you can convince yourself that there was a time where men didn’t terrorize their families, you’re probably unfit for life in the real world. (We tend to remember the cherry-red Chevys and Moxie sodas from the 1950s, and forget about the sickening hate.) And if you’re thinking hypothetically about the past, and wondering what you could have done differently to improve it? In King’s opinion, that is the most treacherous road.

By the end, it’s a lesson that Jake can’t heed. Because even when we don’t have a magic time-staircase at our disposal, leaving the past in the past is easier said than done.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary

Catching Up With King #2: The Shining

Catching Up With King #3: The Gunslinger

Catching Up With King: The Gunslinger

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine this summer, 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 decided to “cowboy up” – which is a thing you can do, apparently – and take on Book One of the Dark Tower series – The Gunslinger.

“Everything in the universe denies nothing; to suggest an ending is the one absurdity.”
–The Man in Black

The_Gunslinger2

If one wanted to take a swipe at Stephen King, the length of his novels seems to be the obvious place to start. None of the books I’ve tackled here so far have been especially bloated, but his loyal readers are certainly no stranger to shelf-punishing hardcovers. Of course, this invites accusations of King having a problem with endings, or a puffed up idea of his own literary significance, or a celebrity that handcuffs his editors. But I’m pretty sure this line of criticism is a lazy one, because I just read The Gunslinger – the first entry in King’s seven-part-and-counting Dark Tower series, and the opposite of a 1,000 page door-stopper – and it left me wanting so much more.

When this book came out in 1982, it must have thrown King junkies for a bit of a loop. Written in simple, muscular language, The Gunslinger is a starkly different genre exercise then the supernatural/domestic clash fiction that made the author famous. King borrows from an eclectic array of fantasy tropes to build his world – including spaghetti westerns, 1950s post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Arthurian legend and the multiverse theory – boiling them down to the most basic of quest stories, where the obviously good guy (The Gunslinger) follows the obviously bad guy (The Man in Black), across a desert hellscape, getting closer and closer until he finally catches up with him. Plus, there’s a kid. It’s not a bad idea on paper – King writes the weirdo Sergio Leone script of his dreams, adding his own shadows to the good and the bad, but focusing most of all on the ugly, resulting in a Cormac McCarthy-meets-J.R.R. Tolkien mindfuck of a masterpiece. That’s what I wish this book was.

What it actually is, is way too slight. So few characters having even fewer conversations, with the emptiness of the landscape getting more play than anything else. I get that when your main character is the strong, silent, Eastwood type, your story isn’t going to be dialogue driven. But there isn’t much plot here to speak of either – Good Guy follows Bad Guy from Point A (desert) to Point B (mountains). Good Guy picks up Mysterious Boy. Good Guy bonds with Mysterious Boy. Good Guy makes Difficult Choice in regards to Mysterious Boy while following Bad Guy from Point B (mountains) to Point C (fire pit on other side of mountains). The End.

Now, I’m fully aware that context is playing a role here. I read The Gunslinger immediately after finishing The Shining, a gluttonous feast of character development that puts us inside the head of a gifted child, who becomes a portal into the heads of everybody else – while also carefully laying out the dark and complicated pasts of both a haunted hotel and the family trapped inside of it. I also read The Gunslinger with the knowledge that it’s the first book in a beloved fantasy saga – something I usually have a weakness for. So you could say I went in expecting The Fellowship of the Ring, and I got a few chapters of a shorter, picture-book version of The Hobbit.

While there are elements of the story that intrigue me and will compel me to read on – most especially the beautifully regaled flashbacks that make up The Gunslinger’s pre-apocalyptic, pseudo-Arthurian origin story – King’s world just isn’t in the same galaxy as a Middle Earth. Or even a Westeros, for all its obsessive-compulsive flaws. Maybe in future installments, King will abandon the cowboy novelist pose and just write his ass off while losing himself down all kinds of bizarre rabbit holes, fleshing out the scraps of promising meat from this skeletal beginning. Maybe there will be hundreds of pages of stuff that makes the story much longer than it probably needs to be. I can only hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary
Catching Up With King #2: The Shining

Catching Up With King: The Shining

When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine last month, 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 let the Overlook Hotel tell me what to do – unsurprisingly, it chose The Shining.

“Has it ever occurred to you what would happen to my future, if I were to fail to live up to my responsibilities? Has it ever occurred to you? Has it?”
–Jack Torrance

200px-ShiningnovelEven though I’m merely two volumes into this little project of mine, I feel like I have a pretty solid grasp on what makes Stephen King’s best work tick. He doesn’t restrict his creepy crawlies to the supernatural realm, and that’s why his stories have struck such a resounding chord with a wide swath of humanity. Just like Pet Sematary, which twisted the intensity of parental love into something thoroughly unwholesome, The Shining takes a universally understood emotion and holds us hostage with it.

The feeling in question here involves the nature of free will, and the frightening implications of its absence. The Shining is as much a classic ghost story as a study of family dynamics, pitting the Torrances – father Jack, mother Wendy, and son Danny – in a battle against not only the hostile spirits of a haunted hotel, but also the rather shoddy track record of its own DNA. After losing his teaching job at a Connecticut prep school because of a violent incident with a student – a job that was already on shaky ground thanks to his alcoholism – Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook, a ritzy, destination hotel high up in the Rocky Mountains. The Torrances will be the only residents in the huge old structure for the entire season, during most of which they will be completely snowed in. It’s a setup that hasn’t always gone well – the previous caretaker murdered his family, for instance – but whatever. Jack sees it as the perfect way to get back on track, with his writing career and his family (in that order).

King’s metaphors can be a little on the nose, like the outdated furnace that can’t handle as much pressure as it used to, but the snowed-in hotel works sturdily as a symbol of what stands in Danny’s way. Despite all of Jack’s dreams and aspirations, he ended up a spitting image of his asshole father. Wendy isn’t on speaking terms with her cold, judgmental mother, and one of Jack’s go-to insults is to say she’s acting just like her. Like the Overlook, Danny’s home life is stacking the cards against him, and the obstacles are just getting scarier and more intimidating. Which brings us to the core question of the novel will all of us, whether we like it or not, become exactly like our parents?

The Shining would be one hell of a suffocating read if its answer was “Yes.” Thankfully, King’s opinion on the matter is more hopeful, coming in the form of the titular psychic gift that Danny possesses – the ability to read people’s thoughts, and to go deep enough within one’s self to see visions of the future (courtesy of a figure Danny calls “Tony”). When Danny meets Dick Hallorann, the Outlook chef, he has his first encounter with somebody else who “shines,” and it’s no coincidence that he’s by far the friendliest and most heroic character we meet, other than Danny himself. People who are able to step outside of themselves are more likely to have a greater understanding of others, King posits. And this understanding gives them the perspective necessary to make a deeper connection with their true self – their “Tony,” if you will – no matter what horrors might stand in the way.

The book ends with a conversation between Danny and Dick about how to overcome, and its poignancy goes down all the easier after such a long, dark, claustrophobic struggle. For me, this is what makes King’s novel a more meaningful achievement than Stanley Kubrick’s film (which still trumps the book as sheer entertainment). Where the latter has no regard for the Hallorann character and is satisfied with a purely physical escape for Danny, the former ends with the two telepathic heroes sitting by a Maine lake in the summertime, placing itself firmly on the side of healing, and freedom, and hope.

Catching Up With King #1: Pet Sematary