Chapter 3 - Carrie

In chapter 3, Winter begins his critical analysis of King’s work with Carrie.

Here’s what I took from this chapter:

  • Winter considers Carrie to be King’s most eccentric work.  In part, it seems, due to the epistolary structure.
  • Right from the start, King’s trademarks of “unassuming prose and truthful characterizations” are present.
  • In King’s own words, he’ll go for terror, horror, and even the gross-out.  Per Winter, Carrie “evokes the visceral, bringing the reader down to the guy level at which King operates best.”
  • Winter quotes Peter Straub on the book: “…what was really striking about it was that it moved like the mind itself.  It was an unprecedentedly direct style…”
  • The book deals with the loneliness of one girl.
  • It is a fairy tale, a warped Cinderella story.
  • “The Cinderella imagery is made explicit when [Carrie] loses her slippers fleeing the ball.”
  • Carrie’s final act of destruction “is not revenge – nor is it evil.”
  • Popular entertainment stereotypes children, but horror fiction often strives for the inversion of innocence, “rendering children into agents of darkness for no other reason than exploitation.”  Winter cites The Exorcist and The Omen.
  • In Carrie, the “evil lies not in Carrie White but in her tormentors – and, more important, in the traps of society and religious mania in which her tormentors are confined.”
  • Carrie White is, in Winter’s words, “the first of many King protagonists who reflect his naturalist stance – she starts nothing of her own free will.”
  • Carrie is a story about the coming of age, showing the romantic side of King and his belief in the innate goodness of children.
  • The coming of age in Carrie is a journey - east to west.
  • Carrie also provides social commentary through a pervasive feminist element.  “The blood imagery of Carrie has sexual significance, not as an extension of erotic power…but of feminine power.”
  • In contrast to the traditional fairy tale, where the heroine succeeds at her trials and wins the kingdom, Carrie is pushed to the edge, left no alternative but violence, and were it not for her “gift”, she would likely have failed.
  • In King’s words: “The fundamental unfairness of naturalistic storytelling is that it doesn’t really admit for much optimism…”
  • The final horror in the book is not Carrie’s.  It is Susan Snell, “who must live in the memory of blackness and its death song.”  Susan Snell survives but to what kind of life?

What I took from Winter’s analysis is King’s first published novel already sets a pattern of naturalistic storytelling, of twisted fairy tales, and that the idea of journey is fundamental to King’s work.  King’s plain style and the naturalism are a powerful combination.

Chapter 4 - ‘Salem’s lot

‘Salem’s Lot is King’s best selling Vampire story.  But, as Winter shows us, it is not “just another vampire story.”  Winter tells us that the idea for the story came from a discussion King had with his wife and his long-time friend Chris Chelsey on “what might happen if Dracula returned in motern times… to rural America.”  (Emphasis mine)  King dismissed the idea at first, but “his companions noted that almost anything could occur unnoticed in the small towns of Maine.”  So King’s book is modeled on the Stoker’s Dracula, but Winter points out that the difference in titles indicates the difference in focus.  Where Stoker’s story focuses on the Count, King’s focuses on the small town.

  • For the majority of ‘Salem’s Lot, Mr. Barlow, the king vampire, is kept out of site.  It is a lesson King took from Dracula, the idea of building the fear around a character “by keeping him offstage.”
  • Winter also points out that the vampire is not just a literal thing, but it also representative of “the seductiveness of evil and the dehumanizing pall of moderns society.”  King uses the small town to amplify the vampire metaphor, showing the difference in views of the towns outsiders (Ben Mears) and the insiders.
  • ‘Salem’s Lot differs from prior tradition in that the city is often the focal point of fear.  “This sentimental antithesis between country and city serves as the underlying premise of ‘Salem’s Lot.
  • “King’s style seduces the reader through suggestion and understatement.”
  • ‘Salem’s Lot is also a story about a “great house”, and evil house
    • the Marsten House.  It is a place with an evil history, and evil calls to evil, drawing the vampire to take up residence there.
  • King draws heavily on traditional vampire myth in the story.  Rather than try to reinvent the myth itself, he uses it in subtle ways to bring out the characters.  Winter notes how Ben Mears is able to repel vampires with a cross made of tongue depressors while Father Callahan is unable to repel Barlow even with a blessed cross.
  • King downplays the traditional sexual elements of the vampire myth, noting that at the time Dracula was written the great Victorian secret was sex.  When King wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, in the 1970’s, King considers that the secret of the time was paranoia.  So King himself considers that the story is in ways closer to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers that it is to Dracula.
  • The journey of Ben Mears is one from experience to innocence, that while he misses the past, he learns he cannot go home again.
  • The “plague of vampires…is less an invasion than a sudden confirmation of what we have silently suspected all along: that we are taking over ourselves, individuals succumbing to the whole.”
  • Winter calls this the root of paranoia - “a fear and mistrust not simply of those around us, but of our very own identities.

I think the most important thing I take from this as a writer is that reusing tradition and myth in a story does not require a reinvention of the myth.  King stuck to tradition here, the vampires were vampires as everyone knows and loves them.  The context in which they are applied is what makes this story unique.

The other piece I’m taking from this is the power of understatement.  Barlow is kept off-stage for most of the book, and King’s writing style itself is cited as one of “suggestion and understatement.”  Sometimes, what’s not said is more powerful than what is.

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.

There are two aspects of this piece I find as valuable models for a writer.  The first is the idea of death by inches.  In my experience with horror, death come as a relatively swift blow - maybe there’s some torture, definitely some pain, but it is usually played out by a lot of tension and a quick end.  Peter Lang has been under severe torture for months by the time we enter the story, and it shows through Matheson’s use of action, dialog, and description:

The sight made Jennings gasp.  If ever a face could be described as tortured, it was Lang’s.  Darkly bearded, bloodless, stark-eyed, it was the face of a man enduring inexplicable torment.

And:

Peter snorted.  “Who the hell knows?” he said.  “Maybe it’s delirium tremens.  God knows I’ve drunk enough today to –“  The tangle of his dark hair rustled on the pillow as he looked towards the window.  “Hell, it’s night,” he said.  He turned back quickly. “Time?” he asked.

“After ten,” said Jennings.  “What about–?”

“Thursday, isn’t it?” asked Lang.

Jennings stared at him.

“No, I see it isn’t”

The other valuable model I found in this is Matheson’s portrayal of this primitive ritual in the middle of an American Play-boy’s apartment.  It’s a stark contrast of cultures, with a bit of anti-racism mixed in.  But the real value to me as a writer is how Matheson plays through the ritual without having it come off a cheesy.  Dr. Howell (Lucine) presents herself and executes the ritual, as bizarre as it is for the context, with sincere concern for Lang’s well-being.  And to have the character behave with sincerity makes the piece feel genuine.

Dialog like this is a challenge.  Matheson’s main character, David Millman, is ultimately having a conversation with himself.  He’s the crazy guy who hears voices in his head.  I’ve written a couple of pieces that have this happen in them, but I haven’t been able to pull them off so well (in my humble opinion).  Why is it that this story works but my own efforts haven’t?

I think it’s because when I’ve done it, my crazy main character sounds… crazy.  I think one reason this piece is pulled off so well is that, through Millman’s internal dialog, the reader is presented with several plausible alternatives to him actually being crazy.  The internal dialog is presented as a having a series of explanations that all have the appearance of an external dialog - some through technology, one as communication with the dead.  All are direct dialogs - person to person.  So this internal dialog never gets old, as a fresh perspective is presented with each new plausible explanation.

The other thing I found valuable from this story is how the title positions it.  “Person to Person” is a model for dialog - Millman’s have a direct conversation with another person.  But, the ending brings out the double meaning.  Millman suffers a psychotic break (or some such - I’m no psychologist), and what’s really happening is he is transition from being one person to another.

What I found most useful in this story is the sense of perspective, and how the POV character needn’t necessarily be the main character.  The story is told from Morton Silkline’s perspective - the Director of a little cut-rate funeral home.  While the story is his, I would argue that he doesn’t really experience any change and isn’t really the main character.  It’s the vampire Ludwig Asper who is looking for a change, and ultimately receives it in the form of the funeral he never had.

There’s a good sense of humor in this story as well, a gather of undead to give one of their own a proper burial.  I think Matheson does well at portraying each of these individuals - a witch, a mad scientist, Ygor - with their own personalities beyond the stock characters they’re derived from.  The brief interactions we see during the funeral get the reader beyond the standard images.