The Book Club

King’s Personal Tragedy

Dear Marjorie,

Your account of your dad and King adds a whole new unplumbed dimension to this correspondence, with implications of such depth and profundity that I will have to save them for next time. Do you think it was your father’s innocent suggestion for Misery that started King on this whole shit-kick? The counter to that would have to be the great story that’s wafted down over the years about Maxwell Perkins, the famous–and famously proper–editor of the golden days of publishing. Once, according to the story, a fellow editor was highly alarmed to see, in Perkins’ office, a piece of paper with a bunch of bad words–shit, goddamn, etc.–on it. He was shocked. Had Perkins developed some sort of private written Tourette’s? Very gently, he asked what had prompted his friend to take this strange step. “Oh, those were just the words I was going to ask Mr. Hemingway to remove from his manuscript,” Perkins said.

I think you may well be right, that King wrote in this grand-scale, fuck-off manner as a way to vent all the emotions and fear and rage and pain pouring out of him after his very bad car accident. As he has said, writing at that time was his salvation, and he was probably grateful beyond belief at his ability to spew the words out, after he was so nearly silenced.

There was a funny thing about that, though. Jonesy, as you mention, is the guy whose car accident and subsequent shaky recovery stand-in for King’s own, a good character through which King can describe what happened to him. But in a book where people are exploding from the inside out, where their bodies are creeping with stigmatizing and crippling fungus, where a soldier’s commanding officer blows the soldier’s foot off with a gun for the most trivial of reasons, where a bunch of civilians are either gunned down or fried on electric fences, a little car accident does not seem like such a big deal. After all, Jonesy survives (even though his body takes a beating and is unfortunately hijacked by a huge fungal being for a bit)–and he gets to save the world.

But that goes back to the point you made earlier about enjoying King’s books of smaller-scale horror better than the big, apocalyptic ones. King does personal tragedy very well, as in Misery, where the plight of one person takes on epic proportions to the increasingly horrified–and admiring–reader. Here, he seems to have trivialized his own suffering, in a way, by throwing in these cartoonlike, Terminator-ish scenes of casual violence and casual death. I wish he’d stuck to the parts that were really interesting to me–the relationship between the four friends and Duddits, the ESP, and Jonesy’s efforts to go on after the car accident. Throwing all the stuff in about Kurtz and the little commando force in the woods seemed like too much, as if King was selling out to Hollywood (which is ridiculous, of course: King does exactly what he wants). But I felt the same impatience reading this as I do when I see a funny and stylish adventure movie with good characters and an interesting plot–and then a lot of gratuitous killing.

But King is King, and he’ll go on and do something surprising next time. A couple of years ago, I interviewed the comic writer Dave Barry, who is a friend of King’s and a fellow member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, the rock group that a bunch of writers put together in the early 90s. He was hilarious on the subject of King, describing how whenever the band went to play anywhere, dozens of King zealots would come out of nowhere, their arms in front of them like zombies, intoning, “Stephen, Stephen.” King is so popular and so phenomenally successful, Barry said, that if he wanted to secede from the United States and declare himself a separate state, his publishers would let him.

This has been great, and I’m more than happy to trade roles for you in our next dialogue. I’ll be the Grinch, and you can be Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm, that is, not the other one).

All best,