Thursday, December 24, 2009

Living in Stephen King's World: 34 Years Under the Dome

I go back a long way with Stephen King.

I feel like I was there in the beta testing days, as I was with Open Salon. It started pretty much by accident. I was in book store on Union Square in Manhattan in the early Spring of 1975, just out of college, prowling for something fun to read and eagerly judging the books by their covers. One paperback in particular caught my eye: a close-up drawing of a girl’s face, with oval holes cut into the cover where the eyes should be, The holes showed flames, and when you turned this first layer of the cover, you saw a full page aerial-view drawing of a town on fire.


The book was called Carrie. It was Stephen King’s first novel.

I opened it up and read the faux newspaper stories and was totally hooked. At the time I had no idea who the writer was or if he’d ever write another book. But I kept my eyes open. And the books kept coming. Boy did they keep coming: Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand, all compulsively readable with a vivid philosophy, perhaps I should say a fully worked-out theology reverberating through their kamikaze plots and horrific set pieces. Good and Evil were going at it in these books and in the best of them the battle lines were drawn through the heart of each character, and not between them.

Jack Torrance, in The Shining was struggling for his soul against the hive of evil his son’s telepathic powers awakened in an old hotel; that an actual hive of virtually un-killable wasps figured prominently in the books early scenes struck me as a natural and effortless literary flourish worthy of at least grudging respect. But respect was precisely what Stephen King could never get in those days. Critics jeered at him and in all honesty, he jeered at himself, calling his books literary Big Macs. He spent way too much feuding with the mandarins of literature, calling them dull and pretentious, which many of them were. In his novella The Breathing Method the story-teller’s club motto says, “It is the tale not he who tells it”. That was King’s guiding principle, but even then he was subverting it, creating a style unique enough to be wittily mocked in a parody called “Id”, in The New Yorker. The target of that pastiche, It remains a nuanced masterpiece as much concerned with nature of growing up as it is with the monsters that haunt children and adults alike. None of that mattered: regardless of his best efforts, King remained a literary laughingstock, an easy short hand for mass market mediocrity.

I remember a spirited argument with someone, back in the 80s. They called King’s novel predictable. I invited them to read The Dead Zone and predict the ending. It was kind of a trick question since the climax of that novel both defeats and gratifies your expectations in spectacular fashion. The situation seems like a classic narrative box canyon, one of those narrative moments where the world is reduced to a pair of equally uninspiring choices.

During a routine campaign rally, creepy Sarah Palin type Congressional hopeful Gregg Stillson made the mistake of pressing the flesh with Johnny Smith, King’s clairvoyant hero. The touch gave Johnny a vision of Stillson becoming President and starting a nuclear war. Johnny has decided to nip this apocalypse in the bud by shooting Stillson, as he might have strangled Hitler in his crib.

So Johnny is perched in a high church balcony with a rifle between his legs, waiting for Stillson;’s big speech to begin. Will he go through with it, or chicken out? If he does go through with it, will he succeed or fail? Those seem to be the only options on the table, along with some incidental matters like, will Johnny be killed or captured or escape?

But King understands the complexity of his characters, and the bizarre random twists life can take, too well to settle for such boilerplate.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven’t read the book.

Johnny takes his shot, and misses, and Stillson grabs a baby from the arms of a local woman campaign worker, sharing the stage with him. He uses the baby as a human shield and the moment is captured by a free-lance photographer covering the event. Johnny falls from the balcony, mortally wounded, but lives long enough to grab Stillson’s ankle and see the appalling picture on the cover of Newsweek. Stillson survives the attack, but his realm self is revealed and his political career is over.

Maybe you have to spend a lot of time plotting stories and coming up against trite conclusions and predictable forks in the narrative road to really appreciate the elegance and bravura of this climax. I’m happy to say my friend finally acknowledged King’s skill.

The critics remained aloof.

Time went on. I got my hands on a manuscript copy of Pet Sematary at a time when King’s wife had apparently forbidden him to publish it. When it finally came out, it made a bright spot in a disturbing career downturn. Some of the rap on King was right, and I had to admit it: he wrote too many books, using too many drugs, and he did it way too fast. By the time he noticed that The Tommyknockers was senseless crap, he’d already written five hundred pages in a cocain-fuelled fugue state. Why not just finish it? He had momentum, but so does a tractor trailer careening down the Monarch Pass with a ruptured brake line.

I rode out the bad times and read the bad books, and things improved again. Amid talk of his imminent retirement, novels like Misery, Delores Claiborne, and Bag of Bones seemed to make a case for King as a literary novelist all over again. And then a strange, disturbing, unhealthy thing happened.

King got discovered.

Not by the shaggy teen-agers and pot smoking college students and middle ged housewives who had loved him for years. No, King got discoivered by Literaryt high society.

He had stories printed in the New Yorker (real stories, not parodies of his books)

He got respectful reviews.

He even won the National Book Award.

He wrote a craft book about writing.

He had arrived.

There was just one problem: the new books kind of sucked. They had lost both early pulp vigor of Firestarter and the focused writerly craft of The Green Mile.These new books – written over a long period, from Dreamcatcher to From a Buick 6, from Rose Madder to Lisey’s Story were bad in a much more depressing way than something like Christine or The Tommyknockers had been. These books were actually boring. And the worse they got, the more the high falutin literary snobs praised them. Suddenly he could do no wrong, at least with that crowd.

For the rest of us, the only spark left of the writer we loved was The Dark Tower. This projected series of seven books, begun when King was in college, seemed to live at the heart of his oeuvre, animating and connecting books as diverse as Desperation, Insomnia and The Talisman. The iconic tale of the Gunslinger and the Dark Man, moving fluidly between the ruined twilight wasteland of his world and the ordinary daylight of our own (The flower that can save his world is growing in a vacant lot in ours; he has to travel between worlds to rob a drugstore for antibiotics when his monster-inflicted wounds infect) jumped off the page. But we had to wait. Each book took longer than the one before. Only four of the seven were finished and it seemed like the rest would be stillborn.

Then King had his accident.

It was as shocking to me as if a relative had been hit by that van. In or out, up or down, the man had been a major figure in my life for decades – we had even corresponded from time to time (I sent a condolence letter when Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining came out). But I must admit, my first thought that day was, “If he survives this, he’s going to finish the Dark Tower.”

Well, it turned out that this Constant Reader(as he calls us die-hards) knew the old man pretty well. As soon as King could sit up comfortably to write again he started churning out the pages at the old pace – an 2,400 of them in 18 months. And these books had the old vigor, the old craziness, the old headlong story-drunk gusto. Probably the New Yorker snobs didn’t like them.

That was fine with me.

Still, in the mainstream of his work, things were still feeling lackluster. The books were selling well but something was missing. Cell? Duma Key? Meh: familiar tropes (magical paintings, technology spawning end of the world), tired prose. Maybe he was actually winding down to that retirement, at last. How many more stories could he tell? He certainly didn’t owe us anything.

With a shrug at mortality, and the inevitable waning of even the most exuberant gifts, I wrote my old pal off. I toasted the old times: that night reading Pet Sematary in a creaky old house when the power went out -- my girlfriend and I shrieked like children. Fighting with wife, years later when I bought It in hardcover when we were broke, and reading in secret, late at night. Waiting like a Victorian hooked on Little Dorritt for the monthly installments of The Green Mile to arrive. Good times.

But it was time to walk away.

And then I started hearing about a giant new novel, one he had started and abandoned back in the good old days, and the rumors made it sound wonderful.

It was called Under The Dome.

It came out, and I bought it. I just finished reading it this afternoon.

This book is everything I hoped it would be –reiterating King’s favorite themes of enclosure and redemption, good versus evil, order versus anarchy, with all seven of the deadly sins and quite a few of the mildly toxic ones on full display.

A mysterious force field seals a small town away from the rest of the world and in one week the tidy little community of Chester’s Mill is reduced to virulent anarchy and then annihilated by the greed and arrogance (and automatic weapons and meth labs and propane cannisters) of its inhabitants. There are brilliant set pieces – the visitor’s day catastrophe, the supermarket riot, the burning of the newspaper office. There are murders and jailbreaks, lost envelopes of incriminating evidence, dogs who hear the voices of dead people, dead people who torment the living as the self-made holocaust descends. There are brawls and conspiracies, mean Selectmen and smart kids. There’s a real live hero and a actual heroine and they manage to both fall in love and save their small encapsulated part of the world. You learn how if feels to smoke methapmphetamine, breathe out of tires and commune with aliens. You tumble through the rush of events and walk out of the book with the same lung-filling sense of stunned exuberance that the surviving characters feel as they finally rejoin the world.

The book revisits many King achetypes, but deepens them. Big Jim Rennie is no single-minded ‘evildoer; like Gregg Stillson, or Randall Flagg. He actually believes he’s doing the right thing, working for the town, taking over when no one else has the brains or the nerve to do so, Colonel Dale Barbara (Iraq veteran and small town short order chef) brings to mind a long line of other tough minded, quick thinking King heroes, from the British Secret Service agent Nick Hopewell in The Langoliers to Stuart Redman in The Stand. But he;s his oown man, tormented by his own failures and mistakes; and it is that very ambivalence that winds up being central to his survival.

So King didn’t retire and I didn’t walk away and I’m very happy for both of us. This book is a spectacular return to form, an authentic gut wrenching page-turning, corpse moldering, firestorm igniting, corruption revealing, serial killer rampaging nobility celebrating masterpiece, and it brings me back full circle, even with it’s dust-jacket, unnerving for its complete lack of text: two blank flaps that continue the ominous cover illustration, nothing more.

It made me think of that day in a quarter of the way back into a different century, when a striking cover seduced me into buying a Stephen King novel for the very first time. I have another memory to add to my scrap book, now: sitting on my couch as a blizzard roared around the house outside yesterday, with my pug in my lap, quietly turning pages, in a calm pool of lamp-light, my phone turned off, with no one to bother me nothing in the world to do but read.

The good old days may be gone, but on that long snowbound afternoon, thirty-four years after I bought that cool paperback edition of Carrie in Union Square, they were back again, better than ever.

No comments: