Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Love Letter to Stephen King (complete with jabs at the literary elite)

I made a small mention last week about what is considered anathema to those who wish to be good and true English Majors or intellectuals. Namely, that those who would portend to be one and be a part of all the good societies which come with the territory cannot, cannot mind you, like something as mainstream and immature as video games. The activity is far beneath the intellectual might of the avant-garde liberal arts milieu. But that’s not the only activity blatantly disregarded by the culture police and the Society of Pretentious Douchebags. Oh no.

Now, odds are you’re familiar with these paragons of analytical might. There’s a certain—feel to them, as it were. Oh, they might dress differently than one another. Live differently. Have different careers and hopes and methodologies. They might be at the local bar, the hole in the wall where anything that’s not a microbrew is verboten, wearing black and puffing away at cigarettes far too expensive for their quality. They might be in coffee shops, banging away at netbooks, sucking down drinks with Italian names that have nothing in common with the actual drinks in Italy, and airily wafting on about the brilliance of their derivative, hackneyed short story. They might be in the offices of great universities, their wooden bookshelves crammed in every conceivable inch by obscure novels that nobody’s read, and books of criticism on the novels nobody’s read, and books of criticism about the criticism of the novels that nobody’s reach. They might wear tweed jackets with suede elbow patches and bemoan the tastes of the populace while trumping up the undeniable brilliance of Dead White Men. (1)

Yes, my friends. I am talking of the Literary Elite. That shadowy, sinister, and tacit organization that has been the bane of the mainstream for, quite literally, centuries. You don’t have to become a member of the Literary Elite. There’s no indoctrination course, monthly dues, newsletter or yearly picnic. You simply, if you let yourself, become one at some point. No one can pinpoint exactly where. But the Literary Elite instinctually know each other. The flock together. And they will put to the (intellectual) death and supposed English Major, Art Major, or hipster indie music fan who dares violate their implicit bylaws. It’s why I can’t use my real name on these posts: they’re always out there, and they can practically sense when they are being betrayed by one that is ostensibly their own. I say this so you can truly grasp the risk I take by even thinking this next statement, much less writing it out for all the world to see:

Stephen King is my favorite author.

Yikes, right?

If I hesitate and cogitate, I usually come up with someone a bit more widely respected in the realms of criticism and academia. Well, I really appreciate Hemingway and his minimalism. Or, I love Virginia Woolf’s use of stream-of-consciousness and her subtle symbolism for patriarchy and its disadvantages. And while both those things are true, the fact remains: when I am asked the question, but gut my heart speaks towards the King.

So I write this sloppy juvenile love sonnet by saying that it is meant to inform a lot of posts to come. King has been a major force in my life after all, certainly the first mature reader I read, and he remains the author I have read most voraciously. As such, his name in inevitably going to come up in this blog. A lot. So I thought it prudent to go ahead and outline right now why I think of him the way I do, and so when I begin reviewing every single one of his works, or his name pops up a half a dozen times in every single post on literature or writing that I do, you will, at the very least, know why.


It's weird when your popularity transcends the meager bounds of this good Earth and flirts with legendary status. And it’s weird for this simple reason: when everyone knows you, less people pay attention to you. You become a fixture, like the sky or a building or that oak tree you walked by every morning and never noticed. That’s basically what King has become. He is an icon, and as an icon, his presence is so pervasive in the subconscious of the mind that, counterintuitively, his books are not as popular as they used to be.
Oh, they still sell in the millions. And there are other reasons why King’s sales have fallen from their 80’s/early 90’s peek: devolution of style, trying to appease a different type of crowd, etcetera. But I really believe a large part of it can be attributed to simply the fact that King has broken the boundary between eager anticipation and cultural iconography. You know how Mark Twain said a classic is a book that everyone praises and nobody reads? Yeah, that’s basically the status of King these days. Everyone knows who he is, and that ubiquity has made him just part of the everyday lexicon of American life. Which is quite an achievement, don’t get me wrong, something few people can ever aspire to, but there’s not that same kind of—drive, I guess, to his popularity. No one can “discover” King anymore, and be blown away by his freshness and his unique attributes. Everyone knows him. Everyone knows his unique attributes. His horror stories and his possibly insane mind have become such mundanities that it’s easy to forget that King basically brought horror to the mainstream and legitimized it, the way Star Wars did with science fiction in 1977.20th century writers.

Because if there’s one thing with which you can describe Stephen King, it’s that he is definitely hard to define. A man who routinely tops the bestseller lists, but also has the talent and the ability to be considered a good, if not great writer and whose works are worthy of academic review and study. A man who transcends the very genre he’s writing in while he’s writing in it. A man who understands horror in such a completely human way that it hits at something deep inside the human psyche. You see, King has a knack for psychology. He understands fear. And his contributions to the psychology of fear in his works alone should gain him access to the ranks of all-time great writers. King takes the deep, emotional, character driven studies of a Hemingway or Faulkner or even an Updike, and transplants them to H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares.

What makes this so fascinating is that in many of his stories, with often Lovecraftian elements, the scariest portions are not the haunted hotel or the psychopathic clown or the unbreakable dome that has fallen over the city, but the people themselves.

Personally, I think that’s how King really broke the bonds of the horror genre’s relativity small fan base, and turned into the phenomenon that he became. Whereas other great writers like Lovecraft or Matheson or Bradbury dealt with the fantastic in a very grounded way, King deals with the grounded in a very fantastic way.

Just look at his average main characters: they’re often alcoholics, often disenfranchised, or bitter, or lonely. They talk dirty and smoke Pall Malls, and by the time the novel starts the world has usually defeated them. They are written in stakes that allow no compromise: every facet of their existence is often exposed and explored. King’s characters are undeniably real and undeniably human, and that, in essence, is what draws those who wouldn’t normally have tried horror into King’s vision.

To illustrate this, let’s look at King’s first novel, and the one that really jump started his fame and career: Carrie. Now, Carrie was an average-at-best seller in the market upon its initial release. It did pretty well, got King some recognition, at the very least ensured his second novel would be published...quite possibly, it could have been the beginning of a career that many writers attain, of middling success that is just enough to live off of without a secondary career, but never beyond the bounds of a few thousand dedicated fans.

But then something happened that changed King’s life forever.

A movie was made.


A wunderkind movie made by a wunderkind director, that just happened to become one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Suddenly his name is everywhere, and the paperback of his book is selling like hotcakes. He was blasted into the realm of fame, and more importantly? He kept it.

How did he keep it? It’s a point worth examining. Other writers have had movies made of their books before, had that one time where their novel topped the million-mark, then settled into the aforementioned middling success that comes from the leftovers of said feelings. But King? King just got bigger. And bigger, and bigger. And I think all of that can be traced back to King’s treatment of his main characters.

Because what is Carrie, after all, but a revenge fantasy? And what’s more chilling, a deconstruction of a revenge fantasy. What makes Carrie work, and what set it apart from other novels of its genre was its primary focus, a seventeen year old girl living a seventeen year old life; it felt real, visceral even, and its more-or-less accurate rendition of the trials of high school, in my opinion, was what really brought people in. To put it more bluntly, the movie and book did as well as they did not because of the scene girl with telekinetic prowess kills everyone, but the scene where she has her first period and the other kids tease her mercilessly for it. I'm not saying that the elements of the book aren't exaggerated to a point, for the sake of drama or tension, but at its emotional core there is something that resonates with readers that makes its genre much more palatable to a mainstream, wider audience. We may not be able to relate to telekinesis. But high school drama, bullying, outright viciousness by peers and classmates? That weird neighbor who never talks to you except to remind you you're going to burn in hell? Those are all very real, emotional themes to the novel that the audience can latch on to; this allows them to more readily accept the fantastic elements that might have driven that same audience away at an earlier juncture.

So now that I have completely solved the reasons behind Carrie's success, let's move onto King's second published novel, Salem's Lot. Don't worry, this isn't going to be an analysis of every one of his works--that's pretty well impossible in thirty posts, much less one--but it marks a turning point in his fledgling career, signaling that his popularity was not going to wane. Oftentimes writers have something of a sophomore slump, where the second novel that comes out isn't as good as the first, or as financially successful. And just as often, they never entirely recover from it. You only have to look at The Time Traveler's Wife author Audrey Nifenegger for a recent example. Building an audience is tricky, and to maintain and even grow that audience at the rate that King accomplished is nothing short of amazing. The second novel not only has to be good, it has to absolutely blow people away. I think it could be argued that Salem's Lot was what really solidified King's popularity and demonstrated his staying power.

 Again, the driving force behind Salem's Lot is not the vampires themselves--though they are, to a one, quintessentially creepy. But what really sells the book and grabs the audience is its eerily truthful rendering of the inner workings of small town America. By 1975, when the novel was published, the idealistic community set up that had been part of the American cultural psyche since the end of WWII was in its last dying spasms. The trauma of Vietnam and the approaching city boom times of the 1980's had made the old-fashioned vision of happy American middle classes living in harmony not only hopelessly outdated, but entirely exposed as a facade of wholesomeness that had never truly existed.

I doubt King meant Salem’s Lot to be taken this way—the best authors rarely, with few exceptions, ever really do—but Salem’s Lot really works well as an honest-take of the state of the American zeitgeist immediately after Watergate and Vietnam and just before the Reagan years. America was undergoing a cultural shift, and Salem’s Lot is a nuanced reflection of that. It says something about its culture and its time. The vampires in it represent nothing less than a fundamental invasion of the small-town ideal and the inevitable destruction of it.

It really spoke to people. It came out in the right place at the right time and benefited from it, simultaneously mirroring American cultural attitudes, and functioning as a deconstruction of the whole idea of the cute, placid, homey communities that the country believed, and still does to some extent, that it relied on. The citizens of Salem’s Lot are turned into vampires and their entire social construct destroyed, and that’s a tragedy, sure, but what sets Salem Lot apart is that the quaint, homey small town that it’s set in is populated with selfish greedy, and entirely non-quaint citizens. People cheat on their wives, gossip interminably, outright spy on their neighbors, beat up visitors on the street, stick shotgun’s in the mouths of youths…

King devotes entire sections of the novel to describing the town and its inhabitants. Like many of his other works--The Shining probably being the most famous—the location of the main characters is as much a fully-realized being than the characters themselves; and in these sections, King systematically goes about destroying small-town innocence and the public social masks that we wear in society to obscure our less savory aspects that manifest behind closed doors. It hit a lot of people in the gut. There’s a reason King is very popular in places other authors haven’t been able to touch. King’s writing is down to Earth, his characters are real, normal, everyday schlubs (except when they are writers, of course, but that’s another post --E), and his subjects are real to people and accessible to them and, in their hardest of hearts, maybe even a bit truthful.

So to boil it down, King is a writer after my own heart. He has a child-like glee for what he does, while understanding its importance. He holds nothing back, gives exactly zero damns what the public thinks about him, realizes that story is the most important aspect of a novel and that great writing is there to serve it, has remained humble and normal in the face of tremendous fame, has a house with an iron gate whose posts are topped with carved bats, and has an almost uncanny understanding of blue-collar America and how its individuals think, behave, and often, find courage. It makes no matter what that sad parody of what once was Harold Bloom thinks of King: the fact is, his place in the pantheon of American storytellers is inexorably set. Instead of bemoaning it, like my ilk is wont to do, we should celebrate it. Examine it. Critique it.

Because despite my unabashed love for him, King is far from perfect (and who isn't?). He is also magnificent. He is a truly fascinating writer, a nexus of all sorts of literary issues. Genre, tone, mainstream popularity, academic debate--even how quality can decrease and why. All of these King has in some small way been a part of. He is situated at a convergence, a rare combination of pulp populism and high art, and because of that, he is a lens through which we can examine the entire expanse of literature, publishing, writing, editing, critique and why all of it, in the end, matters.

Until next time,

Mr. E


(1) This is the Internet, so of course I have to mention I'm exaggerating here...kind of. This attitude does exist, though, whether in part—I'm guilty of it, as, I'm sure, are the four people in Uzbekistan who actually read this thing—or in whole. And Harold Bloom is the Supreme Potentate.