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Apple Store Soho Presents Meet The Creators: Stephen King, John Mellencamp And T Bone Burnett

December 10, 2013

Stephen King: An Unexpected Pleasure

If I tell you who I’ve been reading lately, you’ll hoot: Stephen King. I hadn’t read him in about 30 years, since The Shining scared the pants off me one hot August afternoon at the beach. But I read an interview with him, and I was both so impressed with his thoughtfulness and intelligence and so warmed by his clearly genuine decency that I thought, well, I should give him a read. So I read the new one, Dr. Sleep, which is a sequel to The Shining. And not terribly good (or, as it happens, terribly scary), though there is a moment at the very end that I just love to pieces. But it made me go back and reread The Shining, which IS scary as hell, and is also, not for nothing, a heck of a good book. I really, really enjoyed reading it. As in, it was one of those books where you look forward to going to bed, because that’s when you get to dig back into the story. At bottom, if you strip away all the horror-stuff, it’s about an alcoholic who is trying to quit drinking, and it was so clearly informed by King’s own struggles with alcoholism. There is an underlying authenticity that gives real emotional heft to a tale that I, a true snob, had been all too happy to write off as nothing but cheap thrills. I was astonished at how good it was.

One of the things that, oddly, I like most about The Shining is the extent to which King doesn’t explain. What I mean is, you have this malevolent hotel, this…is it the building? the land? the spirit of the original owners? – this structure that is somehow not just a Buffy-style gate to Hell but in itself an active demon, ravenous for the destruction of particular residents, beyond eager for them to join the crew of Undead who patrol the corridors, dancing with desperate, joyless compulsion to the same jazz band that has been jiving since something like 1923. The hotel is both volitional – it wants, it WANTS – and, increasingly, physically empowered: The more it manages to meld its evil ethos with the booze-weakened psyche of Jack Torrance, the more it is able to suck on his life-force to bring itself to life. So that by the end of the book, the haunted elevator is running on its own. Doors slam shut (or are sprung open), lamps go out…it has aquired a degree of physical life, by somehow grafting, like a leech, onto Torrance’s.

But the thing is, the mechanism by which this works is never remotely explained. Little Danny never even says “What’s Daddy doing that allows the elevator to work all of a sudden,” only to have Mom respond “I don’t know, honey.” It’s just never brought up. And even more interestingly, I think, the question of why the hotel is so ravenously evil (or, ya know, evilly ravenous) is never either raised or answered. It just IS. As with Coleridge’s famous description of Iago, it is imbued with “motiveless malignancy.” (Or is it “malignity”? I’ve seen both – if anyone has the real true answer, please let us know!)

I guess I find that so interesting in part because it seems to me to be evidence of a powerful writer’s discipline: I once had a professor who said that, as a writer, you need to know everything about your characters…and then you need to pare away every single factoid that the readers don’t need to know. King may well have come up with explanations in his own head as to why the evil, how the evil, etc. But the story works just fine without’em, the readers don’t need to know ’em, so out they go.

I think there’s more to it, that there’s something beyond an admiration of technique that leads me to respond so well to this absence of explanation, but I’m not sure what it is.

Are there things I’m not loving about his work? Sure. He very definitely bought, wholesale, into the Magical Negro trope, and as I plow through The Stand (not a patch on The Shining) I’m getting a little fed up with his wise old wrinkle-faced darkies, strummin’ an pickin’ an eatin’ biscuits. Though not nearly as fed up as I bet the darkies are. And like all successful writers, when allowed to write as long as he wants, he goes in for God’s own excess. But all in all, I’m having heaps of fun. I know, I know, Stephen King! It’s like confessing a fondness for MacDonald’s. Well guess what: I love their hash browns. And we now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. Next week, I promise, I’ll get all gooey about someone really highbrow.



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