The next book in my reading journal is “Stephen King: The Art of Darkness”, by Douglas E. Winter.  Winter’s book is a critical look at King’s work up to the mid-80’s mixed with biographical information.

Chapter 1 - Introduction: Do the Dead Sing?

The first chapter and introduction to the work poses the question, “Do the Dead Sing?”.  With that question, Winter brings us into the world of King by a broad overview of some of King’s works, and an analysis of how they fit into and have molded modern American Horror.  Winter discusses some of the common elements found in King’s fiction, using “The Reach” as an entry point:

  • Many of King’s characters journey from East to West, both physically and metaphorically.  Winter says this is a reflection of “the recurrent American nightmare… the search for a utopia of meaning while glancing backward in idyllic reverie to lost innocence.”
  • Winter also says that King’s characters are “all trapped between fear of the past’s deadly embrace and fear of future progress…”
  • King makes a conscientious use of horror tradition, and it is this use of tradition that “…lends credibility to the otherwise unbelievable.  The supernatural need not creep across the floorboards of each and every horror story…”
  • King puts forward a theme of “rational supernaturalism” – “…a dark truth we all suspect: that rationality and order are facades, mere illusions of control imposed upon a reality of chaos.”

Winter also brings us the questions of what is horror fiction and why we read it.

  • Horror fiction is, at a minimum, a means of escape.
  • Further, it is “a counterfeiting of reality whose inducement to imagination gives the reader access to truths beyond the scope of reason.”
  • Quoting King himself, “Literature asks ‘What next?’ while popular fiction [horror] asks ‘What if?’
  • The escape, and what we seek in it, makes us value what he have even more. (A paraphrasing of critic Jack Sullivan)
  • Quoting Charles Fisher, “Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.”
  • “The confinement of the action to the printed page or motion picture screen renders the irrationality safe, lending our fears the appearance of being controllable.”
  • “Every horror novel, like every nightmare, has a happy ending, just so long as we can wake up…”
  • “…horror fiction has a cognitive value, helping us to understand ourselves and our existential situation.”
  • Historically, horror started from a realist perspective, that it should follow a “consequential pattern: that some semblance of reason, however vague, should underlie seemingly irrational or supernatural events.”
  • “As the modern horror story emerged in the late 1800s, however, neither a rational nor a supernatural explanation of events needed ultimately to be endorsed.”
  • King’s work “suggests that explanation, whether supernatural or rational, may simply not be the business of horror fiction – that the very fact that the question “Do the dead sing?” is unanswerable draws us inexorably to his night journeys.”
  • Horror is a “…subversive art, which seeks the true face of reality by striking through the pasteboard masks of appearance.”
  • In the context of our society, there is no “earlier way of life” to sentimentalize.  King’s fiction substitutes youth for that earlier way of life, drawing on a time when it seemed more important to understand what a person is, when uncertainty in “our own sense of self renders the process of knowing and communicating with others difficult and intense.”, and the fact that the maturation process causes us to leave this world behind through, as King puts it, “…the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties”.
  • Winter wraps up by saying, “The truth is that it was fun…”

What’s this all mean to me?  There’s a lot here in just a few 10 pages.  For me, I get from all this that horror fiction is a form of escapism, which could be said of all fiction.  But horror fiction concerns itself squarely with the fears of the human condition, giving us a safe mechanism to work through those fears, to understand those fears, and to vicariously conquer them if just for a short time.  In our modern context, too, I think there’s this important concept of a real lacking of a ‘golden age’ for us to build our foundation on.  There is not previous time when things were better.  I’m a cold war kid, and I would have no desire to return to such a tense time in our history or to have my own children subjected to it.  But there’s a certain innate innocence to youth, and that while the events of our youth are as unique to each of us as our hair color or our eyes, or things that set us into nervous little ticks, the fact that we were all young once and did have a certain innocence is the best substitute for that idea of a golden age.

I’m also really intrigued by Winter’s identification of the journey King’s characters take, from east to west.  I’m a fan of ancient mythology, spending  probably too much time in studying up on the Egyptian, Mayan, and Sumerian myths.  West is a magical place, a land of the dead, an end to the journey in our human experience.  It is a scary place, where we hope to find answers, but don’t always expect them.  To move from east to west is representative of the journey we all must make.

Finally, I can also embrace this concept of “rational supernaturalism”, that there’s not always rationality under it all.  If we are to believe in the concepts of balance, the Yin and Yang, we must accept the idea that there’s as much chaos in events as there is order.  The world is an illusion, events are an illusion, what we perceive in our human experience is an illusion of control over the world around us.  That’s enough to permit any monster in and scare the shit out of all of us.

Chapter 2 - Notes Toward a Biography: Living with the Boogeyman

I got a lot less from this chapter than I did from the first.  It’s a 10 page biography, clearly not enough to encompass the life of the master, but there are some significant points to King’s life that would seem to help give insight into his works.

  • Quoting King, “In truth, the urge to make up unreality seems inborn, innate, something that was sunk into the creative part of my mind like a great big meteor full of metallic alloys…”
  • King’s mother was a religious woman, relatively fundamentalist.
  • King himself believes in God, and that we live inside a mystery.
  • His mother read to him and his brother a lot.
  • He discovered his grandmother, dead in her bedroom, at the age of 10 or 11.
  • He wrote, and still writes, incessantly.
  • He was an introspective teenager.
  • He feels that participating in creative writing courses in college was the worst thing for him, stifling his output.
  • Getting out of the writing workshops freed him up to stop worrying about what felt right and just do what felt right.
  • Stories may have beginnings, middles, and ends, but King believes that everything we do has a history.
  • King was given serious support by faculty at the right time in his life.  He stopped listening to those people who told him that what he’s doing isn’t important.
  • One of his faculty, Burton Hatlan, states, “[The interaction with certain faculty] suggested to him that there was not an absolute, unbridgeable gulf between the academic culture and popular culture…”
  • Both King and his wife took jobs outside their desired profession to make things work - he was a laborer in an industrial laundry, she worked as a waitress.
  • King, the master of horror himself, was not without doubt.  Early on, he began drinking heavily, and in his own words: “I began to have long talks with myself at night about whether or not I was chasing a fool’s dream.”
  • The paperback sale of Carrie was what freed him up to work full-time.  But he accomplished this without being able to write full-time, with all the normal stresses and tensions of everyday life.

What I get from this is that King’s history is not about writing.  He has his own set of family issues, his own emotional baggage, he had some early experiences with death.  He believes he’s predisposed to storytelling.  He had doubts in himself.  He had to balance family, work, and his passion for writing.  I believe all of these, except maybe the early experiences with death, are common to writers.  Part of what set King apart is his perseverance.  He had to make money to live, so he did - but he didn’t stop writing.  He doubted himself, but he worked through it - he didn’t stop writing.  There were those who supported his efforts, but they weren’t the ones who decided for him - he never stopped writing.

I also take away from this a new meaning to “write what you know”.  I think it might be more appropriate to rephrase this, based on the brief history of King, into “write what you believe”.  If you as the writer don’t believe - in yourself, in the story you tell, in the characters you create, and the horrors you bring to life - how or why would a reader ever believe it?  I go back to what King said about his creative writing courses: “[I]t was a constipating experience; it was the worst thing I could have done to myself.  And it really muffled everything for a while.  Once I got out of the writers’ workshops and I could stop worrying about what felt right and just dowhat felt right, everything was fine.”

Never stop writing.  Do what feels right.

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