October 27, 2013

The Stephen King Question


My mom has always been an avid reader, and in the mid-seventies she joined the Book of the Month Club. The deal there, as you probably know, is that if you donít specifically and adamantly refuse their monthly top selection in writing beforehand, theyíll send it to you. In my momís case, this usually worked out okayóthe club selections tended to be mainstream, popular novels by well-known authors. Sometimes, though, things got a little iffy, like when they sent her Stephen Kingís big breakthrough novel, Carrie.

††††††††††† Mom never went in much for the horror, especially when there was violence, cursing, teen sex, pigís blood and what-all that you have involved, so she read a little bit, got a sense of what was going on, and then closed the book and put it on the shelf. Donít know why she never returned it, but she didnít.

††††††††††† Being a reader myself already at eight, I saw a new book on the shelf and pulled it down. Didnít know anything about it, but it looked kind of creepy so I started reading. My parents never outright forbade me from reading anything I wanted, with two exceptions, Helter Skelter and Jaws, which were naturally the two books I wanted to read more than anything. In the case of Carrie, while my mom didnít take the book away, she did make it pretty clear she thought I was too young for something like that. She was right, in a way, but it had nothing to do with the content. I was fine with the content. Hell, Iíd already read worse. What my underdeveloped brain had a hard time grasping was the style. The story was told through a selection of newspaper clippings, letters, diary entries, and other assorted materials, and I had a hell of a time at that age putting things together. I could tell there was something creepy going on there, though.

††††††††††† As the seventies limped along and King released more novels, I started picking those up, and found the going much easier. Given that I didnít seem too scarred from the Carrie encounter, my parents let me be about it. I read Salemís Lot, The Shining, and the short story collection Night Shift. Canít tell you how many times I read and re-read Night Shift. I enjoyed them all quite a bit.

††††††††††† Then I hit high school, where I was considered one of the smart kids. The smart kids, see, didnít read Stephen King. They read classics or science fiction, and if they absolutely had to read horror (gutter genre that it was), they read Poe or Lovecraft. King wrote stupid books for dummies and fat suburban housewives whoíd been duped. I bought into the new King-hating attitude whole hog, though I did secretly read The Dead Zone. I never mentioned that to anyone.

††††††††††† Funny thing is, although I publicly shunned his books, I did go to see every Stephen King movie that hit the theaters, from the great (The Shining, Carrie, The Dead Zone) to the not-exactly-great-but-still-fun (Creepshow, Silver Bullet) to the laughably bad (Children of the Corn, Catís Eye). Nobody bothered me about it either. They knew how I was with my horror films.

††††††††††† By the time I reached college my disdain for Kingís writing had become so completely ingrained that it grew militant. I was buried deep in philosophy, cultural criticism, and High Lit. King was not merely a middlebrow populist hackóthose were a dime a dozenóhe was an actual threat, the singular figure who had signaled the Death of American Literature. Critics around the world agreed with me it seemed. It was an easy thing to believe. You went in a bookstore, all you saw were Stephen King books. Glance at the bestseller lists and there he was again, with four titles in the top ten. Hell, you went to a movie theater at any random time and five times out of six there was yet another dreadful quickie movie based on his work. He was inescapable and far richer than any author had a right to be. He was very easy to hate, especially when he went on talk shows to badmouth Stanley Kubrick. He was even easier to loathe when he returned to one of his early novels to restore several hundred pages cut by an editor before republishing the book and making another million. Among academics and the literati, the general feeling seemed to be that people were simply going to stop reading anything that wasnít written by that fucking Stephen King. I was with them all the way: King was Satan incarnate, here to herald the apocalypse. And he was a miserable writer on top of it. Of course I hadnít read anything since The Dead Zone, but that was beside the point.

††††††††††† Then I lost my sight, which forced me to turn to audiobooks to do my reading. Problem was at the time it was very difficult to find audio versions of any books that I actually liked or any authors I admired. What I could find, however, were Stephen King books. In the late nineties King WAS the commercial audiobook market, which was little surprise. So with a very reluctant, defeated sigh, I started listening to them. And you know what? They were pretty damn good. Half of them, anyway. The other half were crap, but it still wasnít a bad percentage given the number of titles out there. Sure, a lot of the same character types kept popping up in novel after novel, and some of the homespun dialogue could get painful at times. No, it wasnít High Lit, but he can tell a story, turn a phrase, and craft a memorable scene. I came to understand once again why it was I liked him when I was younger. Plus I was old enough and ornery enough to judge things for my own damn self without caring one whit what anyone else (especially academics) had to say about it.

††††††††††† I noted as I listened that he was also regularly experimenting. He wasnít a writer who simply worked a well-established formula into the ravine. He toyed with different perspectives, styles, and even formats (serial books, e-books, audio). Yes, there was some inevitable easy populism in the stories that always made me wince a bit, but there was plenty good here too.

††††††††††† By that time, having become fairly deeply embroiled in the writing community myself (meaning only that I knew a lot of other writers, nearly all of whom without exception still spat epithets whenever his name was mentioned) I began to understand their resentment a bit more clearly. It was akin to the resentment B-film buffs feel for Quentin Tarantinoónamely, heíd achieved something they only wish they had for themselves. The High Lit types sneer at King in cultural and literary terms, but when you get right down to it, theyíre just mad that heís a success and they arenít. They pride themselves on only being read by a handful of people who understand them, but offer them the chance to sell millions of copies worldwide and theyíll chew off their own leg to grab it. People are so damn easy to read sometimes. Especially the snoots.

††††††††††† Well, then the snoots themselves started coming around. My friend Don Kennison was working in publishing at the time, and watched it happen from the inside. Hereís how he describes it:

††††††††††† ďI witnessed the lit world's so-called acceptance of King, slowly and stupidly but surely, into their precious club of yech! literateurs. Because I was familiar with his stuff from early on . . . I smelled a lot of bullshit in my ignorant but pretentious (deadly combo as you well know) colleagues in the industry. THEN the New York Times chimes in, in its bogus book review and culture section too, reviewers and columnists patting themselves on the back for their open-mindedness re this bestselling author, not quite believing it, I thought, but allowing themselves some lowbrow slum time Ďcause MAN look at all the money this guy is making! Then the next stage, I noted, was the second-tier of reviewers and middle-brow lit snobs who actually started to believe their own freaking BS, now that was disgusting to me, and they all chimed in now agreeing with one another how yeah pretty good this guy is, isnít he, holy cow. It sickened me, an early reader of his, and I dropped off his map stuck stinking between the know-nothing mass of readers who read one book a year and he's it and even so routinely make the lamest of pronouncements and the overeducated citified ignoramuses who have an ugly ax to grind in his regard but never ever cop to it. Squares on both sides, as Burroughs used to say. Meanwhile King and his work got bigger and, yup, even better too, esp. after the accident, and now it's pretty plain to see, but you'd never get the dummies nor the frosty fruits to admit how stupid they've been all down the line. It's just the most ironical sequence of bookish events ever unrecorded! And here's where I respect King the most (the hell with his readers), he plugs along, he works extremely hard, and every once in a while, fairly regular too, he rings that big damn bell.Ē

††††††††††† King himself, meanwhile, argues the critics came around to him simply by default. The old guard who despised him died off one by one, and the youngsters who took their place were people who grew up reading his books. So there you go.

††††††††††† Another little thing that helped turn me back to the King camp was recognizing, despite all the populist hoo-hah, that his writing contains a real subversive streak. I donít just mean the subversion thatís inherent in the horror genre, but something much more specific. Take his big early novel The Stand, for instance. The story involves an epic and traditional Good vs. Evil struggle on an Earth thatís been devastated by a plague. The handful of survivors divide themselves into two separate camps. The Good people, see, they set themselves up on a farm in Nebraska or Wyoming or some such place (I forget). Theyíre all modest and kind and pleasant and helpful and smile a lot and I just wanted to hack them all to death with a sickle. And where do the Evil types go? Vegas! A motley collection of snarling bikers and hookers and thieves and crazies firing shotguns and getting drunk and blasting heavy metal music. And Satan himself is like Elvis in denim. Where would you rather be, on a farm in fucking Wyoming with a bunch of pleasant buzz kills, or drunk in Vegas with a shotgun? Of course at the end of the novel the namby-pambies win, but the point was made.

††††††††††† King certainly has his shortcomings as a writer and has written his share of crappy books, but thatís true of every writer (myself excluded). More often than not, though, he tells a good story well, and isnít that what weíre really after when we open a book (or whatever it is you do with a Kindle)? Plus heís got macular degeneration, an eye disease related to my own, and Iíve always had a thing for the blindo writers. Some of them anyway.

* * *

The above was written several months back. Then just recently on the eve of the release of Kingís sequel to The Shining, I heard an interview with him on the BBC. He spent most of his time once again ragging on Stanley Kubrick and his film version of the original, going so far as to mock Kubrickís voice, which he called ďprissy.Ē It was so cheap and embittered and ugly. No, no author is ever satisfied with any film version of his books, but most donít get a chance to go on the BBC to whine about it. And Stanley Kubrick, for godsakes, let alone something considered one of the greatest horror films ever made? Funny you donít hear King complaining about The Mangler or The Langoliers, or the 300 other shitty films made from his dumb stories. God, what an asshole.


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