Catching Up with King: The Dark Tower, Vol. II

The_Drawing_of_the_ThreeLike 99% of authors, Stephen King is at his best when he’s writing about what he knows. And like 99% of wealthy white male authors, Stephen King thinks he knows way more than he actually does.

Right before I finished reading The Drawing of the Three, the ambitious and problematic second volume of King’s seven-part fantasy epic The Dark Tower, the author took to Twitter to weigh in on a subject he should know a thing or two about. The publisher Hachette had decided, after many of its employees walked out in protest, to cancel its plans to publish a new memoir by Woody Allen. You know, that certifiable creep who married his girlfriend’s daughter and was credibly accused of pedophilia? Pretty hard to put your foot in your mouth on this one, right Stevie-boy?

By sharing his “unease,” King is inadvertently also sharing that he doesn’t know (or care) what message it sends when our society gives rich and famous predators like Allen a platform. All he knows (or cares) 492bc19c230e7702d564f9920c9af2b491d1b7d4.jpgabout is what effect this publishing decision could have on writers like himself. It’s an ignorant, privileged perspective. It’s really hard to read.

And while there’s a lot to like about The Drawing of the Three – a ruined coastal landscape littered with demonic lobster beasts; a quiet, tainted hero with wells of misery drilled into his soul; portals into the human mind that Being John Malkovich would pass off as original a dozen years later – it’s a book with weaknesses that are hard to reckon with, much like the author’s Twitter feed.

While the overarching story is just as broad as its predecessor, following Roland the Gunslinger on his quest to find three spectral doorways, The Drawing of the Three is far more committed to character development, and is more of a page-turner as a result. Roland’s fate is wrapped up in who he meets when he steps through these doors, and King breaks the book up into sections that are laser-focused on the newcomers.

41RzzIi7EWL._SL300_.jpgThe first is Eddie Dean, a character King could write well in his sleep – a heroin addict from a dysfunctional family. From the moment Roland steps through the door and into Eddie’s mind, The Drawing of the Three becomes an oddly gripping, metaphysical buddy action movie, complete with a climactic shootout at a drug lord’s lair. This is King writing what he knows and boiling it down into Grade A pulp fantasy.

But then comes door number two. We’ve dealt with King’s approach to writing characters of color before in this column; the black people that appeared around the fringes of The Stand were either barbarians, drug addicts or magical exotic creatures. But the character that Roland meets/inhabits when he steps through that second portal makes Jar-Jar Binks seem sensitively rendered. Odetta Holmes is a wealthy black woman in 1960s New York City, a civil rights activist who lost her legs when a psychopath pushed her onto the subway tracks. King writes her as a soft-spoken, thoughtful figure, with deep reserves of strength just visible beneath the surface. Someone who has had unthinkable violence done to them and uses it as fuel. Someone who fits the 9780451163523-usdescription of a gunslinger to a tee. If only King could’ve stopped there.

But no. In a downright meta display of how unqualified the author is to write about the black experience, King gives Odetta a dissociative condition that Eddie incorrectly calls “schizophrenia.” Detta, the character’s alternate personality, is purposely written to be the most vile, violent, racist caricature possible. Other characters in the story comment on this, saying things like “She talked like a cartoon black woman, like Butterfly McQueen gone Looney Tunes,” to remind us that this is a literary device and we can hope and pray that it all will make clear, non-racist sense in the end. It doesn’t help. A warning that the following passage, which depicts an encounter between Detta and the EMT who saved her life after the subway attack, is quite upsetting. Let me be clear that the treatment here is all King – the italics, the caps, the spelling:

“YOU AIN’T NUTHIN BUT A BUNCHA HONKY SONSA BITCHES!” she screamed. Her face was monstrous, her eyes full of hell’s own light. It wasn’t even the face of a human being. “GOAN KILL EVERY MAHFAHIN HONKY I SEE! GOAN GELD EM FUST! GOAN CUT OFF THEIR BALLS AND SPIT EM IN THEY FACES!”

71eohvmV5ELImagine being truly engrossed by a book that depicts a  fantastical world colliding unexpectedly with our own. And then imagine having to contend with this dialogue, and these descriptions, for hundreds of pages. It’s like watching Stephen King tweet passionately about why Elizabeth Warren should be president, and then having to deal with his defense of Woody Allen out of nowhere. It’s literary whiplash.

The Drawing of the Three ends with a fairly legitimate explanation of why Detta existed at all – she is the projection of a childhood trauma, triggered by a white man’s horrific deed. King is very good at writing about trauma, how it traps and intimidates and haunts us as we grow older. It’s a subject he knows well. Why couldn’t he have just stuck with that? Why couldn’t he have just given Odetta some moments of righteous anger, of understandable rage? Why in god’s name did he write Detta like that? I can’t imagine a satisfying explanation, no matter how hard I try.

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 Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

12. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three

13. 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