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Monday, July 26, 2010

Plug it up

Last week I took the first step in a long journey - my quest to read the entire works of Stephen King in order.*
Folks are pretty divided on the subject of Stephen King - lots of folks think he's trashy and low-brow, and those, in my experience, are folks who haven't read him. Lots of folks who have read him think he's just generally not a great writer, and I can respect that. But to those of us who know him and enjoy reading him he's... special. I know, that's a terrible non-committal word, one King himself would likely chide me for using. What I mean by special, though, is that there are some of us who love him, who hang on his every word, some whose lives have been so deeply affected by King's work that it's hard to imagine there are people out there who honestly don't get this, who aren't into it. Yet on the other hand, there's not a King fan out there who can't say that some of his books aren't.. Fan Fiction awful; and that even some of his best novels have scenes that should never have seen the light of day. That's due largely, of course, to the fact that he's roughly the most prolific author on the planet, some stuff is going to flop. And some stuff is going to make it past the editors based on the fact that he's Stephen freaking King.
There's lots I can write on Stephen King in general, and lots I may already have written and forgotten. Since I've just finished Carrie, though, I'll write about Carrie.
I think I have mentioned before that when King wrote Carrie, he was working in a laundry. The facility in which he worked washed bed linens from the hospital, and he spent many of his days elbow-deep in bloody sheets. So it makes sense that the climactic scene in the book involves great buckets of pigs' blood raining down at a high school dance. 
I have, incidentally, ended up elbow-deep in blood-soaked sheets myself... there was a particularly bloody suicide attempt at the group home where I used to work, and my memories of that night are as vivid as my memories of the morning of 9/11 or the moment I learned my grandmother had died. I wrote about it at the time, but it certainly didn't take the form of a bestselling novel. It sounded a poem written by some high school emo kid.
So the book didn't scare me much at all... that's another funny thing about King. The Stand and Pet Semitary literally had me sleeping with the lights on for weeks (months, in the case of The Stand). 'Salem's Lot and It barely phased me. I'm not sure if that's the sort of thing that varies based on the reader. Any other King fans want to weigh in on this?
One of the things that stood out most to me, though, was King's use of the spoiler. One of the things that I absolutely love about King is that he'll tip his hand, show you every card he's got, yet this does nothing at all to spoil the tension or ease suspense. He'll end a chapter with something like "Little did he know he'd be dead before dawn." Three chapters later, at three minutes to dawn, you find yourself dreading to keep reading, hoping perhaps that King had forgotten his plans to kill the character, or that in this case "dead" was a metaphor or something; it turns fear into a sort of dread, I suppose. Adds hopelessness. 
What surprised me most about Carrie is the degree to which he employed that device even in his very first novels. I always thought of this as a feat carried about by the skilled hand of a seasoned writer - a trick of nuance and guile honed over many years. Yet Carrie is peppered with clippings from fictitious newspapers and such describing exactly what happens in the novel's final scenes - describing who dies and doesn't die and who gets caught, gets away, and yet you're still holding your breath the whole time. I suppose it's not all that new a trick. Epic poets had to contend with this, and early dramatists. Anyone who has ever done a historical adaptation has done this, and everyone who has ever retold a fairy tale. Yet I don't know of anyone who has, for me, done so with quite the cunning King does. 
It's also odd that King found his voice so early on. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, his first novel, is absolutely fantastic, but not at all like any of his later work. You'd have a hard time believing it was the same author. Toni Morrison's first, The Bluest Eye, is gorgeous and heart-breaking - a work that illustrates and elucidates a corner of existence that you somehow never looked at... yet Beloved does all that and more in a manor so much more effectively, so much more easily. You read The Bluest Eye, but you experience Beloved.
Ew. That sounds so affected. Sorry ya'll. Next stop, The Shining

* Some exclusions apply. I do not, for instance, intend to track down short stories that aren't in anthologies or out of print things, and I reserve the right to skip any book that might make me need therapy down the road. For instance, I see no need to dredge up my lifelong fear of corpses just to read Gerald's Game, since I've heard that the entire book takes place in a room where a woman is handcuffed to a bed alongside a corpse. No good can come of that.


mercurialsunshine said...

For me, IT and Pet Sematary were the ones that freaked me out the most. I read both at way too early an age. I blame Pet Sematary on the fact that 1. I lived next to a dog kennel and would hear barking all night after I had read 2. we buried our animals in the backyard and we had a LOT and 3. we knew Native Americans had lived near our land, as they had left marker trees pointing to the lake in the park right behind our house. To me at that age, and Indian was an Indian and therefore clearly there were Wendigos outside.

I'm very curious about your new project. Charles has always felt that King had a point at which his writing just all turned to crap. I have no basis to judge since I've only ever read his older works. You'll have to let me know if there really is some delineating mark or not ;)

Cap'n Ergo "XL+1" Jinglebollocks said...

I want it on record that I scrolled all th' way to the bottom to read th' footnote in context instead of not reading it @ all or reading it absolutely last. I'm a supporter of the footnote and applaud your use!!

Here's a vague thought for the short comment section: I remember being in early college and making my way through "It" and I remember bitching about it to someone and how long it was (even though I read every page). The person listened, and said, "well, didn't you get the feeling of nostalgia out of that story?" and in that minute WHAM! like a blow to the guts I realized he was right: what MADE that book was the sort of variations on there-and-back-again; the formation of some sort of karass (how DO you spell that Vonnegut word anyway?) that came back nigh on 2 decades later to finish th' job.

Also, I think King shares something with Greek Tragedy: everyone already KNOWS how the story will turn out even before they donned their togas and headed off to the theatre; they went (and we read King) because we want to delight in the way the author treats the story. Part of what King can do (most of the time, anyway) is what you've already outlined above.

Meanwhile, what's next on your bedside reading table??

Anonymous said...

It scared me to the point of sleeping under the covers with the lights on. Not to mention thinking that under my bed could be a sewer with a clown killer inside. I was about 11-12 when I first started reading through the Stephen King books. Oddly, I was in love with Misery and read it over and over. Not sure what that says about me, but I think that was the first 'adult' book I really loved.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

Megi, I've actually found quite a few of King's later books enjoyable. Hearts in Atlantis, especially. And I know how Charles feels about King's On Writing, but it's still part of my holy trinity.