Catching Up with King: Doctor Sleep

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 decided to find out whatever happened to that kid who talked to his fingers, and picked up the 2013 Shining sequel Doctor Sleep.

81r4acWAaCLIn 2013, shooting wrapped on the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, a project that took 12 years to make, because it was filming its child star, Ellar Coltrane, in real time. As we watched the main character grow from a 6-year-old to a college freshman, we were watching Coltrane grow, too. It turned out to be little more than a gimmick – Boyhood is a fairly forgettable domestic drama. If only it had a fraction of the narrative thrust of another 2013 experiment in fictional growth, Stephen King’s absolutely gripping literary sequel Doctor Sleep.

When we last saw Danny Torrance, it was at the end of King’s 1977 classic The Shining. Danny was six years old, and reeling in an auspicious salmon on a Maine lake, with his mother Wendy and telepathic mentor Dick looking on. It’s one of King’s best endings, a realistic infusion of hope after a long, grim reckoning with violent spectres of inherited trauma. It made us feel like Danny just might have a shot at a happy life, guided by the empathy that comes with his ability to see into the minds of others. Before we even start turning the pages of Doctor Sleep, we’re already rooting for its main character.

King’s novel picks things up 36 years later, without missing a beat. Danny is now Dan, and although he’s learned a few tricks on how to deal with the real-life monsters that followed him from the accursed Overlook Hotel, he’s not handling his psychological trauma quite as well. He’s become a melancholy alcoholic with a violent streak, just like his father. Yet even though he steals booze money from a poor single mother’s purse, Dan remains a better person than the arm-breaking, axe-wielding Jack Torrance. Redemption is still possible. Maybe even happiness. In King’s able hands, this reintroduction feels completely organic. It’s as if Danny had always been alive in the author’s mind, aging in real time.

As he so expertly gets us up to speed on Danny’s life, King includes an old conversation with Dick Hallorann that sets the stage for the events to come:

“Did it ever strike you funny, how I showed up when you needed me?” He looked down at Danny and smiled. “No. It didn’t. Why would it? You was just a child, but you’re a little older now. A lot older in some ways. Listen to me, Danny. The world has a way of keeping things in balance. I believe that. There’s a saying: When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. I was your teacher.”

71vhtEw1AkLDoctor Sleep is the story of Danny the student becoming Dan  the teacher. After hitting rock bottom, he somehow finds his way back above the waterline, in a small New Hampshire town. His first boss becomes his long-time AA sponsor. (This book is loaded with AA references, but King sprinkles enough healthy skepticism around to avoid getting preachy.) His job as a custodian at the local hospice center helps him discover his calling – Dan uses his shining to help the dying cross over, providing them with the kind of definitive serenity that no priest could ever gin up. And, most critically, Dan finds himself one town over from a 12-year-old girl named Abra, who shines more powerfully than perhaps anyone in history.

King pulls out some of his oldest tricks when filling in Abra’s history, creating a kind of alternate universe where Carrie White grew up in a loving and supportive household. When Abra predicts 9/11 as an infant; or plays Beatles songs on the piano, from her crib, with her mind; or makes all the silverware stick to the kitchen ceiling, her parents have to admit that their child has telepathic powers. They want to pretend it’s a phase, and Abra lets them think that. Until an evil none of them ever imagined sets its sights on her destruction.

The big bads in Doctor Sleep are not vindictive ghosts, or psychotic parents. They’re a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot, who spend their lives riding the interstate in tricked-out Winnebagos, posing as your average American retirees, out to make the most of their golden years. The True Knot subsists on “steam,” a vapor that has to literally be tortured out of the bodies of human beings who can shine. At first, these villains felt a little too convenient, and more than a little goofy – their leader is “Rose the Hat,” a sneering, top-hatted succubus who routinely lies to the group about how much steam she has in stock. But once they sniff out Abra, and start dropping like flies thanks to a nasty case of the measles, the True Knot becomes a terrifying metaphor for humans who can’t die peacefully. Like a convoy of hillbilly Elizabeth Bathorys, their desire to destroy the young, just so they can squeak out a couple more years, reflects the darkest side of human nature.

vJinkxbMiMQ3t2v8sJsmoTFzDan feels Abra shining pretty much from the moment he moves to New Hampshire. She “writes” him notes on his apartment wall, and they slowly get to know each other, exclusively via the shining. Dan thinks of her as family. And when she’s endangered, he and the few others who know of her abilities come up with a few elaborate ruses to destroy the Knot, without using her as bait. This sequence of the book is just impossible to put down, a gripping, fantastical showdown between the living and the dying, the givers and the takers, the listeners and the din. And through it all, we’re seeing that 6-year-old kid – who watched his father lose his mind, who was so close to the edge of destruction for most of his life – face his own demons, along with Abra’s.

All these years later, Stephen King still believes that you don’t have to become your parents. All it takes is some willpower, and the kind of family that you can choose. Then, chances are when it’s time to go, you’ll do it peacefully, your mind opening up as your body powers down.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Doctor Sleep

6. The Talisman

7. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

8. 11/22/63

9. On Writing

10. The Stand

11. The Gunslinger

12. Bag of Bones

 

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

 

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

 

Catching Up with Stephen King: Misery

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 ignored all the other cockadoodie books on my shelf and got hopelessly addicted to Misery.

misery7Drugs get too much credit for great works of art. Sgt. Pepper’s is widely considered to be The Beatles’ “LSD album,” despite the fact they quit touring right before they recorded it, allowing them to focus 100% on studio innovations. Salvador Dali’s surrealist visions led people to assume that drugs must be the cause, but all signs point to him being clean: “I don’t do drugs,” he claimed. “I am drugs.” It’s not as romantic, or inclusive, of a narrative, but imaginative art doesn’t come from substances. It comes from people who are really, really imaginative.

Which leads us to our old friend Stephen King. It’s now pretty much common knowledge  that at his popular peak, from the late ’70s to the late ’80s, the author was churning out novel after novel under the influence of cocaine. In his memoir/manual On Writing, he admits to barely remembering writing 1981’s rabid dog thriller Cujo. From 1982-1987, he published twelve novels. The easy takeaway would be to say that coke adversely affected his art, goosing his already healthy ego to make it impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. But coke didn’t prevent Pet Sematary from being a patiently plotted masterpiece of parental paranoia. And sobriety didn’t prevent him from thinking that a bloated misfire like Bag of Bones was worth putting his name on in the ’90s.

I’m laying out all of this context because the book we’re talking about today is very much about drug addiction. It was written at the tail end of King’s strung-out decade, and features all sorts of compelling meta parallels between bingeable content and bingeable substances. Aptly titled Misery, it’s a battle royale between an artist and his addictions – and an achievement in dramatic tension that left me trembling, even though Rob Reiner’s movie adaptation spoiled the ending for me 29 years ago. Cocaine is undoubtedly an influence on this story’s monster. But it’s the author who’s dealing.

Misery begins inside the head of its protagonist, as a scene takes shape amidst the haze of his thoughts – a tide receding to reveal old, rotting pylons. He’s thinking in metaphors because he’s a famous drugstore novelist named Paul Sheldon. He’s thinking about pylons because there’s something very wrong with his legs. He’s in a mental fog because he’s been drugged. “He wished he was dead, but through the pain-soaked haze that filled his mind like a summer storm-cloud, he did not know he wished it,” King explains on page one.

stephen_king_misery_coverSo, before we know anything else about Sheldon, we know he’s an addict in a bind. And, as King was sure to know first hand, this ebb and flow of pain and bliss would make it excruciatingly difficult for his character to think critically. It would take forever for him to fully understand how he had leapt from the frying pan into the hellfire. Every time the drugs start to wear off, it’s a race between Paul’s wits and his nerve endings. He’s an addled bomb squad captain, running out of time.

The bomb Paul needs to defuse is Annie Wilkes – the author’s “number one fan” – who just happened to stumble across the wreck of his car after he lost control while leadfooting it to California. After dragging his unconscious form to her remote Colorado farmhouse, Annie locked Paul in her guest room, and began administering doses of Novril, a powerful opiate that not just anyone would have lying around.

The genius of the tide-like narrative flow is that we, along with Paul, get to slowly realize what a terrifying psychopath Annie Wilkes truly is. One of King’s great villains, Annie is part church lady, part Spanish Inquisitor, refusing to swear while she wields instruments of torture. She says things like “cockadoodie,” collects Hummel-like figurines, gossips about her neighbors, and loves Sheldon’s schlocky Victorian romance novels with a passion. But when she breaks, her eyes get glassy and she engages in acts of self-harm that were harder for me to read than the book’s goriest moments. Annie is a way more interesting and nuanced character than selfish old Paul. If she wasn’t an “angel of death”-style serial killer, I’d absolutely root for her.

10614The more Paul gets his wits together, the more intense Misery becomes. Despite his shattered legs and debilitating addiction, he figures out how to pick the lock on his bedroom door while Annie is running errands. We’re right there with him as he wheels through the house, weighing the odds of escape. The more we rack our brains, the more we realize that the only way out is to discover if the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. The book then reaches a new level of poignancy as King lets his meta flag fly. Paul decides to bring his beloved main character, Misery Chastain, back to life in a brand new novel. Because as long as he’s writing, Annie can’t kill him. She needs to find out what happens. She, too, is addicted. Here she is, talking about how much she loved cliffhanger-heavy film serials when she was a kid:

“‘What I really looked forward to was the next installment of the chapter-play. I’d find myself thinking about it at odd moments all week long. If a class was boring, or if I had to babysit Mrs. Kremnitz’s four brats downstairs. I used to hate those little brats.’ Annie lapsed into a moody silence, staring into the corner. She had become unplugged.'”

As King details the warring emotions of Paul Sheldon, who begins to care as much about his corny, mildly racist new Misery novel as Annie does, we get an unfiltered view of the author at his most vulnerable. In 1987, Stephen King was one of the most famous writers on earth, with the giant ego necessary to achieve such a feat. But he was not taken seriously by the literary establishment. And taken too seriously by his fanatical following, a prospect that’s as frightening as it is flattering. He reacted to all of it by doing the only thing he knew. Writing, to find out what happens next.

The closer Paul gets to finishing Misery’s Return, the more antsy (and stabby) Annie gets, to the point where she starts kindly asking for spoilers. He eventually has to admit something he had denied forever – writing hacky melodramas is his calling. And he needed the help of Annie Wilkes to reach this moment of clarity. In her basement, alone with his thoughts, Paul and Stephen blur into one:

“Had he hated Misery? Had he really? … misery-9781501156748_hrPerhaps all he had hated was the fact that her face on the dust jackets had overshadowed his in his author photographs, not allowing the critics to see that they were dealing with a young Mailer or Cheever here – they were dealing with a heavyweight here.”

By the time we get to the final, heart-stopping showdown between Paul and Annie, involving molasses-slow police and a heavy, broken typewriter, Misery has become so much more than a top-notch bottle-episode thriller. King uncovers the potential horror undergirding any symbiotic relationship – writer and reader, patient and caretaker, farmer and livestock. And he does it without overwhelming the basics of the plot. That raw, trapped feeling is ever-present, making us feel like the other Misery in this story – Annie’s pig, squealing into the darkness, entirely, horrifyingly dependent.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Misery

3. Carrie

4. The Shining

5. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

6. 11/22/63

7. The Stand

8. The Gunslinger

9. Bag of Bones

 

Catching Up with King: The Stand

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 started lifting weights for the first time in my life – I was about to pick up the 1,200-page “Complete & Uncut” edition of The Stand.

In the introduction to the extended edition of his 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King had this to say about his writing process:

“When asked, ‘How do you write?’ I invariably answer, ‘One word at a time,’ and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man.”

King had a right to get a little hyperbolic here. The Stand is a behemoth, in size and scope. It’s a contagion horror story, American sociological study, roads-go-ever-on Tolkien adventure, and elemental Biblical showdown. It’s 1,200 pages long. And it is beloved by readers. When the BBC did their “Big Read” project back in 2003, asking viewers to vote for their favorite novel of all time, The Stand came in at #53, between Of Mice and Men and Anna Karenina. 

At its heart, The Stand is a simple story. Disaster strikes a top-secret government lab, that was developing an extremely deadly biological weapon. One infected soldier escapes the premises, and he represents the difference between the status quo and the apocalypse. King details the gruesome efficiency of the resultant super flu (a.k.a. Captain Trips) with the thorough commitment of a beat reporter. We get transmissions from Kansas, California, Maine, Iowa. We learn how a doctor’s waiting room gets infected and follow patients out into the world, leaving diseased bridge clubs and YMCA pools in their wake.

More than 99% of America dies. And the remaining 800 pages or so are left for the immune survivors, left scattered across our tired, polluted country. Like Stu Redman, a standard-issue soft-spoken Eastwood hero from East Texas. And Fran Goldsmith, a Maine college student prone to fits of giggling who is impregnated by an indifferent boyfriend right before the plague hits. And Larry Underwood, a journeyman musician and all-around selfish idiot who’s just landed his first hit single.

The balance of the novel accounts how these characters coalesce around one of two supernatural figures in this new Paradise Lost reality. The first one we meet is a demon in denim called Randall Flagg, who assembles a legion of the demented and technologically adept in the on-the-nose location of Las Vegas, Nevada. The second is a 108-year-old woman named Abigail Freemantle who  can channel the power of God. She summons her flock to Boulder, Colorado. And in case you ever wondered for a second about Abigail’s skin color, King is there to remind you, over and over again, that’s she’s black.

Here’s where King’s Great Wall of China starts to crumble. He’s given us every brick in his head, including the cracked ones, the soft ones, the ones that didn’t spend enough time in the kiln.

If the treatment of “Mother Abigail” isn’t discomfiting enough, we then follow the Colorado commune as it evolves to become “The Free Zone” – a society of chosen people. If any other non-white people are a part of this community, they’re not mentioned. Is this a choice of the author not to mention the race of his characters, with one exception? Unfortunately not. Here’s a list of things that King has black people do in The Stand:

  1. Perform televised executions of white people while wearing loincloths
  2. OD on heroin in Detroit
  3. Dress like a pirate, answer to “Rat Man” and be described as “the only guy in Las Vegas too creepy to sleep with”
  4. Emerge from a jungle holding spears

I’m not here to say that Stephen King is racist. But these moments in this book absolutely are. According to 2017 U.S. Census data, 94.8% of Mainers identify as white. It’s probably safe to say that growing up in 1950s Bangor, King wasn’t exposed to much diversity. Non-white people were people outside of normal life. Not inferior, but other. So he ends up using the heinous backhanded compliment that is the “Magical Negro” trope, over and over again in his career. Perhaps I’m being too generous in this reading. But living in Maine for the last five years, and seeing firsthand how blindingly white it is, I can see how it would make somebody terrible at writing about people of color.

This rank insensitivity is also a by-product of the surface-level treatment that a majority of The Stand’s characters suffer from. King pulls his camera back to the point where he’s an omniscient narrator, using Stu and Fran and Larry and Nick like pawns on a wasted American chessboard. We’re up so high, we can’t get close enough to them, to truly feel their grief. We’re in the hands of an Old Testament god.

This book is historically popular for a reason. King masterfully plays off our fears of infection, making Captain Trips so nauseatingly scary, you’d welcome an axe murderer in its place without blinking. The section where the Free Zone is created is absolutely unputdownable, a microcosm of what makes humanity unique, and uniquely self-destructive. The story arc of the bullied Harold Lauder is a fantastic exploration of how toxic masculinity can turn boys into monsters.

But no way is this King’s best. It’s just his most. You’re going to get more death, more disease, more pitch-black humor, and more corny boomer nostalgia (fricking Jim Morrison shows up at one point, people). As an ambitious journey into what’s admirable and problematic about the human race, The Stand is worth the long sit. As long as you’re willing to accept everything admirable and problematic about its author.

THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS

1. Pet Sematary

2. Carrie

3. The Shining

4. Nightmares & Dreamscapes

5. 11/22/63

6. The Stand

7. The Gunslinger

8. Bag of Bones

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