The Book Club

Bag of Old Rubbish

Dear Michael,

That I “loathe Stephen King” looks startlingly absolute in the hard light of my computer screen, so let me waffle a bit. As a movie critic and horror buff, I have endured so much hackish drivel with the name Stephen King attached that proclaiming my contempt for his cult has become reflexive. Is it fair to blame King for the films that his work has inspired? Well, in a few cases he did write the actual screenplays. Have you seen that godawful thing Sleepwalkers with Alice Krige as an incestuous vampire who tries to eat Madchen Amick? Or King’s chaotic directorial debut–and swan song–Maximum Overdrive (a k a Night of the Living Appliances)? Working from King material, the amateurish but frequently inspired George Romero proved that he could grind out Hollywood shockers as slick and empty as Creepshow and The Dark Half; and, in The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg muzzled his more probing sensibilities to craft what amounted to an elegant episode of The Twilight Zone. And those are the better pictures!

I know, movies are not the issue here. But dipping into King’s early novels, I felt that I was eerily in the presence of a runaway word processor. Yes, he’s peerless at locating those cracks in our so-called normalcy through which the supernatural can squeeze; and his agents–the pubescent telekinetic of Carrie, the pressure-cooked patriarch of The Shining, even the rabid St. Bernard in Cujo–generate marvelously resonant metaphors, being manifestations of what Camille Paglia calls “chthonian nature.” The problem is what King does with those metaphors–developments that will be familiar to anyone who has read much horror fiction or seen the same movies that King has. It’s not that the ghosts and ghoulies and vampires come, it’s that when they arrive they’re so damn familiar, and that the heart of darkness beats as predictably and monotonously as the bass drum in a Sousa march.

I gave up on King in the last decade (life is too short) but tried to approach Bag of Bones with an open mind. And, for a few hundred pages, I was stunned by how dandy I thought it was. My God, I heard myself say, the prose is polished: King must be writing second, even third drafts! The similes aren’t all derived from other books and movies and TV shows! (Some are, but not all.) There is, as you suggest, a tactile sense of place and a cunningly detailed depiction of an inbred community. The contrapuntal exclamations are no longer so embarrassingly chummy! Better than that, I thought: He’s getting under my skin, he’s generating an authentic dread.

Let me define dread. It doesn’t mean being scared of anything in particular–it means being scared of nothing and for no clear reason. Part of it is the strangeness of the narrator’s wife’s death, collapsing in the street from an aneurysm, and the postmortem discovery of a fetus just beginning to grow inside her. Did the pregnancy kill her or did something else generate that stroke? Whose baby was it? Did the wife have another, secret life that died with her? The narrator wanders groggily, Job-like, through what’s left of his former life, fixing on portentous details: the pet phrases that continue to echo in his ear, the dusty open novel under the bed with the next page that will never be read. His equilibrium has been jarred, and everything is suddenly strange and malevolent, the world so much more oppressive without that spousal shield.

And, suddenly, this novelist who clearly worked as King works–planting himself before his word-processor every day and tapping into his unconscious (the cellar, the swamp, whatever), letting the stories pour out with as little left-brain intervention as possible–finds that nothing is coming, and that his attempts to write are met with wracking nausea.

Think how personal this must be for King–a man who often professes to have no idea where his stories come from. (Unfortunately, the roots of King’s collective unconscious can often be found in ‘50s horror pictures.) There’s real poignancy in his portrait of a writer whose well has unaccountably dried up, and in his paranoid ruminations about the other bestselling writers who will now eclipse him. (Interesting that the character isn’t a wildly popular multizillionaire like King but merely a somewhat popular millionaire. To have projected himself into the mind of a stark failure might have been too much of a stretch for him in this story, but employing a protagonist of infinite riches and international celebrity would have rendered the character’s escalating panic absurd.) I loved the trips to the bank vault to his dwindling pile of manuscripts stored away like acorns–and the reception to each old “new” book, which publishers and critics hail as an advance, a new direction.

Bag of Bones goes down the toilet, though, for many reasons–not the least of which is the fact that, as you say, it’s several novels in one. I wondered if King would be able to stay vague enough to sustain that level of dread, or if, mindful of his genre and his readership, he’d literalize the demons, locate a source of the evil (the suburb was built over an Indian graveyard, etc.), and spell everything out. You can chart the dissolution of the book’s power by those refrigerator magnets that you like so much. When the words they spell are fragmentary and their patterns suggestive, the novel is skin-crawlingly good. But when the messages grow longer than an average e-mail and the ghosties start materializing and the bad ghosties wrestle with the good ghosties, it’s like something out of a grade Z William Castle flick.

In your otherwise terrific essay on Stephen King in your book Children of Silence, you write: “When we say writers have transcended their genre, we often mean they have abandoned or betrayed it.” I disagree. A work that slavishly adheres to the conventions of genre will likely be dead on arrival–and will, in addition, do much to weaken the genre that gave birth to it. An artist needs to discover what attracted him or her to that genre in the first place and then work to make its conventions seem organic once more. This might involve discarding–or even betraying–old conventions, which I liken to cutting away select branches of a tree to keep it healthy. The sad thing about Bag of Bones is that King demonstrates that he the talent to do just that, but seems unable to break free of those big, dead branches.