Monday, October 14, 2013

30 Days of Halloween - Day 13: Surprised by Stephen King

Today, let's talk about Stephen King.  Lifelong horror fan that I am, I actually only started reading him about three years ago.  I avoided his work because I thought it would be fairly underwhelming 'airport fiction', and that it might be a little too sick and twisted for me.  What drew me in, in spite of these prejudices, was reading his forwards.  I browsed these in bookshops and they swept me up, answered an echo in my own soul as a writer and husband and father.  He tells his own life story incredibly well (his longest specimen being the enthralling first half of his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft).  I also realised there was no way I could proceed in my forays into horror without at least sampling the oeuvre of its best-selling practitioner.

So I read his novella 'The Sun Dog' in Four Past Midnight (1990).  I was immediately converted.  It's a very minor work but it introduced me to most of King's strengths (and weaknesses) in one easy go.  I began to devour.  I've managed to read around ten of his books so far, ranging from his initial 1970s debut through his middle period to some of his latest stuff in the past decade.

Here's what ropes me in:  first and foremost, he is a good writer.  He's not a 'great' writer, like Faulkner or Joyce or someone like that.  He's not 'literary', he's 'popular'.  And that's just fine with me.  He's got the shortcomings that come with pop writing, but it just doesn't really matter.  What matters is that he is a ferocious teller of stories.  He has the knack of making you want to turn the page.  His style is often long-winded, sure, but it's like listening to an old storyteller rocking on a porch, the kind of thing you put up with when the tale is so compelling, so juicy.  (Indeed, 'gossipy' is a term I often think of when I read him.)

Furthermore, his imagination is truly wonderful.  As was recently noted, this is 'one of the central ideas in King's fiction:  that the universe is more mysterious, freaky, and bad-ass than we know' (The New Yorker). In Stephen King's world, you are going to run into just about every kind of 'paranormal activity' and otherworldly being that can be conceived of - and nothing's safe.  Inanimate objects as well as animals, people, and spirits may all turn against you in sinister fashion.  Then again, they may aid you too.  That's another one of his surprises.  A lot of horror writers pride themselves on their nihilistic realism ala Lovecraft.  Existence is brutal and dark and we all die and there is no remainder. 'Nuff said.  So they seem to aver.  But King demurs.  He'll take you through every inch of darkness any other horror writer will, but (like Bradbury before him) he'll also show you all the warm and powerful wonders of love and loyalty and grace and hope in the face of all that mean and growling diabolism.

And that's the final surprise:  spirituality and God and faith are central in his works, sometimes explicitly and sometimes more quietly.  His characters often pray (a fact of life modern fiction suspiciously fails to reflect).  There are outright Christian characters who fight for good in a believable, admirable way (i.e. 'religious' characters aren't just a trope for hypocrisy and weakness and evil like they are in many horror writers - though King doesn't shy from portraying that kind either).  God actually speaks to people in King's books - 'in the heart' or by visions, and He answers prayers too.  It seems like some well kept secret that I had never even heard of this theological/spiritual aspect!  It needs to be critically explored and engaged.  I hope to do some of that in the future.  Books like The Stand (1978/1990) and Desperation (1996) are places to look for these explicitly Christian themes.  There's a ton of harsh profanity in King and plenty of sexually explicit language too, and, of course, gruesome violence.  This is rated R stuff.  And yet there's God and Christ right in the thick of it.  Fascinating.

I for one have become a Constant Reader...