At the Feet of the Master of Horror

About five years ago, I received Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” as a gift. At the time, writing was just a hobby – something I toyed with between video games, but never took seriously. I read the first couple of chapters, couldn’t engage, and shelved it. I was never much of a King fan and, at the time, it seemed to reinforce my indifference.

Several years later, King was given a National Book Award for lifetime achievement. The Christian Science Monitor wrote http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1119/p01s03-ussc.html about the ensuing debate.

The lifetime achievement award has gone to the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Eudora Welty, and the announcement that King was next in line drew roars of protest and fears of an imploding Western canon from literary critic Harold Bloom and a host of others who deride King's work as "penny dreadfuls" - and dismiss the horror genre as pure pulp. For literary lions and fervent fans, such tirades probe the line between highbrow and lowbrow - and raise some eyebrows, too.

King has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare - and derided by Mr. Bloom as "an immensely inadequate writer." Like Charles Dickens, King's published his work in serial form to great commercial success. Critics quibble over which parallel is best: J.K. Rowling, John Milton, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

But those comparisons, cautions Alan Cheuse, book commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered," go only so far: "The material is not central to the culture in the way that Dickens's material was. Dickens was writing about the very serious core of British society - life in the big city, distinctions of life among the various social classes - and King's material is really much more peripheral. He's telling ghost stories, basically."
Until then, I’d given little thought to Stephen King’s place in American literature, and the thought I had given it definitely placed him on the periphery. Though his commercial success is indisputable, for some reason I’d always viewed King as, to borrow Mr. Bloom’s phrase, "an immensely inadequate writer," leading legions of rabid, uncritical fans zombie-like from one bloody, cliché-laden incarnation to the next. Of course, I’d never actually read anything by him. Like most, my opinions were based on celluloid interpretations. Still, if Carrie, Cujo and Dreamcatcher (possibly the worst movie ever made) were any indication, me and Mr. Bloom could remain intolerably highbrow.

So Stephen King got his award, and “On Writing,” remained on my bookshelf, drifting ever closer to the Book Exchange.

Until three things happened.

One, I began to take writing seriously. My wife and kids still don’t know what to make of it; me waking up at 4 AM, tapping away at the keyboard, mumbling to myself, dreaming up new worlds and tweaking old ones, damning editors and then praying for their blessing, before I rush off to work. However, between then and now, for some reason, I realized I was made to write. And I’ve worked hard at learning the craft.

Second, I read a short story by Mr. King. Because I’ve narrowed my writing to the SpecFic / Horror/ Supernatural Thriller genre, I figured I’d read what’s current. So I purchased a copy of the Seventeenth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Datlow, Link and Grant. Most of the short stories are literary, not the place one would find “an immensely inadequate writer.” But, lo and behold, there was Stephen King. His story, “Harvey’s Dream,” wasn’t my favorite in the anthology. Nor was it in my top ten. Yet, I’m almost reluctant to admit it, it deserved to be there.

Third, I took up “On Writing” again, wiped four years of dust off it, and came full circle. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the second half, “What Writing Is.” I haven’t studied literary theory or English composition, and I’m not very familiar with the classics or the academicians that debate them, but I can’t imagine gaining more insight or inspiration than I did reading Stephen King. Go figger.

King’s knowledge of literature is impressive, and his love for the craft is obvious. He’s not the hack I had in mind. His section on the making of a story is fascinating: “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to . . . get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” His love for books is obvious: “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.” But maybe most, I was inspired by his desire to grow as a writer. Ellen Datlow, in her preface to King’s short story, “Harvey’s Dream,” writes, “King, who is probably the most popular fiction writer alive today, continues to experiment and take chances in his fiction.” Gee, I thought when you publish over forty books, you don’t need to take chances . . . you just keep churning out bestsellers. Why experiment? The answer – sorry Mr. Bloom – is because he’s a writer.

I’m learning oodles about writing: pacing, plot, dialogue, etc. But, maybe the most surprising so far, is what I’ve learned from the Master of Horror. Maybe it’s just my stage of life or lack of sophistication, but I’m sure I’ll be returning to him again for consultation.


Gina Holmes said...

Hah, who'd a thunk it? I'm a big Stephen King fan myself. I grew up reading him and though I haven't picked up anything he wrote in awhile I will again. You know what's great about his writing in my opinion? He's honest. He doesn't sugar coat the truth as he sees it and that's a main thing I think we all look for in a book.

I know his stories aren't biblical but I see him struggle with God in a way I can appreciate. He's searching. High brow, low brow: well, give me the low brow anytime. You walk around with your nose in the air and you're bound to drown when the rain comes.

TL Hines said...

Stephen King was the man who first made me aware there are people who actually WRITE books for a living, when I read "The Shining" at the age of 12. (Until then, I'd simply assumed, I guess, that they were produced in a big factory like cans of corn.)

Should I have been reading "The Shining" at age 12? Probably not. But that's a different story.

Kelly Klepfer said...

I saw Christine and heard about Carrie and thought I'd never read Mr. King.

But the other day, after reading Mike's comments on our critique group loop, I decided that I'd maybe look for On Writing someday.

Lo and behold, I had an emotional meltdown that required me to leave my home for a few hours of solitary peace. I headed to the local bookstore/coffee shop combo. Found On Writing and a couple other writing books on my list and plunked down money that wasn't in my budget. Over a double chocolate frappichino, double chocolate brownie dinner, I read the first few chaps of On Writing.

I felt better-good enough to go home and face the fam anyway. So was it the book or the chocolate caffeine tsunami? I'll never know. But I'd recommend the therapy.