A lot of people who talk about Stephen King tend to qualify their statements with a “well, it’s not real literature or anything, but at least it’s entertaining.” There is something very self-conscious about this. It’s like saying, “I’m not a pig-faced consumer of mass media like them other folk, or anything, but they were fresh out of French existentialism at the library, so…”
Pleasure, as we all know, is sinful – and reading for pleasure is practically a 9th circle of hell type of offense, considering the fact that every time you crack open a Stephen King book, a Fairy of Aesthetic Analysis drops dead somewhere. Hardy har har.
Actually, I firmly believe that King, of all people, will be remembered as a great writer, perhaps in the same way that Alexander Dumas (who makes a humorous linguistic cameo in the film version of “The Shawshank Redemption,” of course) is remembered, perhaps in a different way altogether. But remembered, folks, nonetheless.
For all the sneering or, worse, plain cold-shouldering (yes, I just made up that verb) that King’s work elicits, his work continues to have deep reverberations throughout our culture.
By that I don’t just mean the dreaded chimera of “popular culture,” the monster that lies in wait among the dust bunnies and dog-eared volumes on modernism under the beds of the fundamentalist followers of High Art.
Like it or not, King is an Important Writer. He needs no champions in the academia, and he sells books by the bus-load… no, by the Boeing 787-load, which automatically makes him suspect if you happen to have a discerning taste in literature.
Then again, I’ve always thought that if you have a problem with reading a books that Other People (otherwise known as Hell, at least according to Sartre) read, this may not necessarily be the author’s problem. I don’t extend this thinking to everyone (Dean Koontz certainly comes to mind, for example), but I definitely do it with King (my God, why does this last phrase suddenly make me fee so dirty and disgusting? When will I learn to think like an innocent again?).
I’ll tell you why I like this guy , and, to spare you the suspense: it’s not just because Harold Bloom (who can always be counted on to dump a bucket of bile on any number of popular writers, sometimes rightfully so, sometimes in a rather cranky and bizarre manner that does him no justice) loathes him.
Call me the Girl Who Loved Stephen King, baby.
First of all, as you may or may not have gleaned from the title of this post, my favourite Stephen King book is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I have not been as prolific a reader as King been a writer – out of his many, many books I have read…hmmm… about eight. This is hardly a representative sample, and I hope I will be forgiven for my ignorance. I do plan to read more King when my life is more settled (reading him when it is unsettled is bad for the nerves, I have discovered).
I’ve always asked myself why I keep coming back to King. The short answer would be: he has heart. Most of his writing revolves around terrorizing the reader, but what distinguishes him from the funhouse set, you know, all gobby fake blood and dull plastic fangs, is his tenderness.
There is something about Stephen King (a gross-out comedy just waiting to be made?): his connection to his own characters, perhaps. As a reader, I’ve always had the sense that they are very real to him, an important distinction to make in the particular brand of make-believe that King produces. A common accusation leveled against King is the notion that his writing is purely formulaic, and the light-bulb continuously going off over his head is, in fact, a neon dollar-sign. But if Patricia MacFarland, the very Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, is a formula – she’s a weird rubber-stamp, a bit too fondly crafted. Reading King is like pulling up a chair to an intimate gathering, where gnarled and twisted fairy tales are told to your modern, denim-wearing, baseball-watching audience.
I agree with people who believe that King’s female characters often leave much to be desired, which is another reason why I’m such a big fan of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon – the kid Trisha is marvelously portrayed. She, not the dark forest around her (Trisha gets lost on a hike), is the heart of the story. It’s amazing to see King inhabit the mind of a nine-year old (but big for her age, 😉 ) girl, the sort of girl who gets a thrill from saying the dreaded f-word for the first time, who hums pop music and fantasizes about a handsome baseball player. The narrator is omnipresent – by turns kind, by turns cruel.
When, days into her ordeal, Trisha unwittingly heads farther away from civilization in an attempt to keep herself dry, she makes:
“a bad decision, the worst she’d made since leaving the path in the first place. Had she crossed the marsh and climbed the ridge, she would have found herself looking down at Devlin Pond, on the outskirts of Greenmount, New Hampshire. Devlin was small, but there were cottages on its south end, and a camp-road leading out to New Hampshire Route 52…
…Instead of finding the pond, she turned toward the Canadian border and began walking deeper into the woods. Some four hundred miles ahead was Montreal.
Between it and her, not much.
This is Red Riding Hood, in a much worse situation. There is a good hunter out there somewhere (he drinks a bit too much, and hunts in the off-season), but will he show up in time? And what about the creature hounding Trisha steps? Is it a figment of her feverish imagination, a bear, or something a million times worse?
King’ ambiguity on the nature of the evil stalking Trisha makes for fun speculation, the sort of process wherein one inevitably finds out a whole lot about oneself. Are the dark forces around Trisha the result of the madness of solitude? Do they illustrate the process through which we, as human beings in general and children in particular, interpret the malevolent side of nature? Is this the Wendigo, making a comeback appearance following the gruesome 80’s classic, Pet Sematary? And what are we to make of the antithesis to the horror?
The specter of baseball player Tom Gordon and his God (Gordon has a habit of pointing upwards at the close of a successful game) is the good force in the book, yet I can’t stop wondering about Trisha’s daydream of his “prophet,” a hooded man who reminds her of a dorky science teacher, and who claims that Tom Gordon’s God does not interfere in human affairs, though he is a sports fan. Just what kind of sport is meant here? I originally asked this question very innocently, initially unaware of the various undertones the idea of God-as-sports-fan ultimately carries. It would furthermore be easy to establish a quick connection between the omnipresent narrator and Tom Gordon’s God in this book, and yet it is also true that this particular God (the book is populated by at least two others: the Subaudible, a divinity which has been brought up by Trisha’s father, and strikes Trisha as weak and distant and unappealing, and the God of the Lost, whose terrifying nature is tied to slaughtered animals, claw-marks on trees, and other ominous signs) is in other ways an inscrutable presence. King obviously believes in the powers of both Good and Evil (a cardinal sin, according to some, but no matter), but the way in which Good manifests itself in this book sets up an entire debate on the nature of free will and God’s will.
For supposedly pre-packaged trash, TGWLTM is a deep and ponderous sort of work. It can, and should, be re-read. You don’t need to re-read it to derive pleasure from it, but it’s good to remember that this sort of book operates on two levels: the plot and the atmospheric hoodoo surrounding the plot, AND the questions the writer appears to be asking himself and the reader.
There are a lot of other reasons as to why I love this book. I love it because the story is archetypal, and yet it also resonates on a deeply personal, individualistic level. I love it because its language is especially vibrant during the scary parts. I love it because of how believable and fantastic it is.
And I encourage you to read it, and to read Stephen King in general. He is wonderful to curl up with (there I go feeling dirty and wrong again) at any time, but he is especially wonderful when it’s dark outside, and the wind assaults your home, and the trees sigh, and the light flickers.