The Book Club

Night of the Curse of the Bride of Stephen King

Dear Michael,

While I was in synagogue atoning for my sins you launched an offensive. Didn’t the Arabs do that against the Israelis in the early 70s?

Let’s unpack the last lines of your missive.

“I do think that all talk of the organic in writing has some romantic mythology of the artist in its train, some inspired or not inspired individual lurking in the basement.”

A big statement. In arguing otherwise, I suppose I’ve been (unwisely?) taking my cues from Stephen King himself, who likes to invoke some supernatural agency in discussions of his own output. And maybe his work, even at its most derivative, is instinctive, in the sense that his unconscious teems with images out of H.P. Lovecraft and William Castle and lots of other people.

“Whereas I believe the great dreads are shared dreads, not the result of a personal communication, however authentic, from Our Author.”

I’m not sure I see the two as mutually exclusive. Most good authors don’t say, “Hmmm, people are afraid of things that go bump in the night, therefore I’m going to write about things that go bump in the night.” They say, “I’m afraid of things going bump in the night and I suspect that other people are, too. So I’ll tap into universal anxieties by plumbing my own.” My favorite modern vampire movie, George Romero’s Martin, transcends the genre without in any way betraying it. The protagonist is a teenager who doesn’t know how to relate to women (at least, when they’re awake), and so drugs his female prey and drinks their blood and perishes at the hands of a fundamentalist vampire-hunter. In some ways, it’s the character’s relationship to the vampire genre that drives the plot. Watching the film, one is forced to rethink the psychosexual underpinnings of the genre–and to pronounce them still vital.

The real problem of Bag of Bones
*** SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this paragraph if you plan to read the book ***
(Hmmm. Now that they’re all gone, I can write anything I want. Can you imagine those suckers dropping 28 bucks on this thing? Really, Michael, you ought to rent Maximum Overdrive if you want some nasty snickers. Oh, remind me some time to tell you how 15 years ago I accidentally mixed up your great America in the Movies book with one by David Thomson–and paid the price. By the way, are you related to Charles Wood, the playwright? Well, I suppose I should get back to King.)… is that the second part of the book abandons the themes of the first half. The writer’s block was largely irrelevant. The death of the wife was a plot device. The real subject is that haunted-house standby: the way that the bloody past manifests itself in the living present. The sins of the father, etc. When King has his protagonist relive the rape and murder of Sara and the killing of her son, it’s harrowing stuff, but I kept it at arm’s length because I resented the hackneyed way that it was being put to use. Another damn ghost getting revenge on the descendants of the people who killed him/her, foiled by the protagonist digging up the old bones. Like, I know that tune, June.

Having in the past week whizzed through two very good mysteries by Laurence Block and Dennis Lehane, I don’t want to sound snobbish about formula writing. It can be comfortable. It can even have touches of originality. An author can live inside a pre-existing structure, add a new wing, repaint and even gut some rooms, and make it feel contemporary.

Finally, on this, the penultimate day of our book club, I’m wondering why you haven’t brought out the big guns. For those who haven’t read your staggeringly brilliant (apart from one essay) new book, Children of Silence (Columbia University Press), could you give our readers a taste of your argument? Why do you respond to Stephen King with such (qualified) enthusiasm?