I started reading Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis tonight. I know some people might scoff at that--King isn't exactly considered the Western Canon--but I've always enjoyed his books and tonight, I was reminded of why.
In Hearts in Atlantis, there's this passage:
"There are also books full of great writing that don't have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don't be like the book-snobs who won't do that. Read sometimes for the words--the language. Don't be like the play-it-safers that won't do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.
Stephen King might not write literary masterpieces, but he writes very good stories. He certainly has his hallmarks (some might say "crutches")--childhood characters growing up, New England, the 1950's and 60's, a kind of magic realism (someone out there is giving this blog a scathing look. How DARE I use that term for Stephen King!)--but I've never read a story by him that didn't suck me in, even Gerald's Game, which still makes me want to throw up when I think about the description of Jessie's wrists scraping against the handcuffs.
That is the power of King's writing. Do you know how long it's been since I read Gerald's Game? At least 10 years. Maybe more. But it sticks with me. Because what King is very very good at is tapping into a sense of...creepiness. Of something not quite right in the world. His use of the supernatural is a means of hyperbolically making this obvious, but it's also never totally questionable in the realms of his stories because, by the time it's revealed, the sense that something is wrong seems to obvious already. And it seems obvious because that something wrong is very familiar to the reader. The idea that something bad is such an obvious part of life.
I would also argue that this is why King uses child protagonists so often. Because it is in childhood that many of us hone this kind of acute distrust of the world, in ways that are fantastical to an outsider, but totally real to us. And these are the fears that tend to stick, despite all reasoning to the contrary. It's why I still like to shut my door most of the way before I go to bed (but not all of the way, because of Marla, but also because something about that also seems as inherently unsafe as leaving the invitation of an open door. It's why I sleep with the undersides of my wrists covered up--because I have had this fear for as long as I can remember (even now, a bigger part of my mind than I want to admit worries that writing it here will give someone the idea to make it come true) that someone will come in my room at night, slit my wrists and make it look like a suicide. It's why I'll always sleep on a bed or couch with my face as far away from the door as I can be--because it feels like they/it/? are less likely to see me...and me, less likely to see them. Rational? Of course not. But that kind of lurking wariness and deeply seated fear of what is possible and evil is, I think, something each of us carries in our own way. And King is able to tap into it, use it to set the mood of his stories and carry the plot.
It's not just books like IT (which freaks me out more as an adult [I first read IT when I was 11], precisely because I think about this stuff so much), and Needful Things, and Insomnia (the first King book I read in its entirety, a favorite and one that also comes to mind any time I see "lavender" used to describe a gay man) that are able to evoke these thoughts and emotions. I like to remind people that King also wrote Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Body (later turned into Stand By Me, which does a pretty good job of holding onto the darkness of the story), and Apt Pupil, which is, frankly, horrifying. All of them are. Horrifying is really the best word, I think. King's stories give me the sense of impending doom, but that doom is never something so large scale as the world ending. It's just a fundamental change in life, something that will irrevocably crack the foundations of your being. You know the bad is coming in his books, that the bad will be very very bad, but that it can't be stopped and you'll have to keep reading to see if the character survives. And, sometimes they don't. Sometimes, 11 year old kids commit suicide in Stephen King novels.
Anyhow. I promise I'm not drunk or stoned out of my mind and if it wasn't so late and my mind wasn't whirling, I would have written a concise 2 paragraph entry on this, instead of everything above. But if you read it and you haven't read King (or don't like him), I hope maybe you'll give him a second chance. And that, a word of caution, you won't choose to do so late on a night when it's cold out and you're slightly sad. Because, otherwise, you might wind up keyed up, thinking about the darkness of life and freezing up at the thumps outside your window. But, it's a good story.