Books: Essay

Stephen King: A Different Kind of Literary Genius

Zac O’Yeah is the author of the MrMajestic series of detective novels set in Bengaluru
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A passage to the kingdom

Outsider | Stephen King | Hachette | 477 pages | Rs 699

IN THE OUTSIDER (Hachette; 477 pages; Rs 699), a teenage boy has been brutally assaulted by a cannibalistic killer. Even the police find the crime scene revolting, but luckily there’s plenty of evidence (fingerprints, blood, DNA) and multiple witnesses saw the perpetrator flee.

No big mystery regarding who he is. They all know the small Oklahoma town’s arguably nicest teacher and sports coach Terry Maitland, who has trained everybody’s kids at the baseball field for years, but the question is: Why would a paedophile leave such damningly watertight evidence behind in the public park, and, instead of quitting town, pretend as if nothing happened?

Detective Anderson cannot get his head around that, but arrests the coach during a kiddie match before an audience. And he is in for a surprise. Maitland was at an educational conference in another town, along with a carload of colleagues who vouch for his alibi. And he left fingerprints there, too.

These bizarre premises, which might have resulted in tastelessly perverted pap in the hammy fists of a lesser inkslinger, are used by Stephen King to bring out the situation’s psychological impact on Maitland and Anderson—dramatis opponents, and none of them explicitly hero or villain. He shows us what terrifying situations do to humans, and how the machinery of blind justice grinds away at a wrongfully accused’s existence, leading to the lynch mob behaviour rife in social media’s kangaroo courts. Anderson thinks to himself, poignantly, as the big picture clarifies, ‘There was no forest, only trees. At its worst, there were no trees, either. Just bark.’

Has anybody ever put it better? We have a suspect who has no clue what the cops are harping about, since he hasn’t and cannot have committed the crime, juxtaposed with the detective who has all the evidence to warrant a death sentence, yet is troubled by nagging minutia that hint at Maitland’s innocence.

King develops this conflict into a profound exploration of grief’s darkness, driven by his trademark fantastic storytelling, spiced with elements of the macabre and morbid. Leaving aside small glitches—like a car rented by a conscientious character that vanishes inexplicably from the narrative because the author seems to forget about something the character certainly wouldn’t—this is one impeccably plotted plot. It goes slack only when King starts discoursing, which isn’t his problem alone. Many of us novelists have an innate urge to make points at the cost of breaking the fourth wall, and King’s issue here is why popular fiction is not treated seriously in educational curricula.

So, the teacher conference featured as Maitland’s alibi has Harlan Coben—a real-life pulp writer—as keynote speaker who interacts with the suspect, cementing his defence, but also allowing King to add his own musings about ‘teaching popular adult fiction in grades seven through twelve’ which has ‘been a hot-button issue for years’. This is obviously a pet peeve of King’s: that the bestsellers he and Coben create are disregarded when it comes to teaching literature to students.

I don’t mind King stepping out of line to hold forth on the artistic value of pulp. Several of his books are indeed on par with the American classics and it’s not farfetched to compare, say, Moby Dick with a good King yarn such as It. Even Bollywood has celebrated his story-telling expertise by adapting the 1986 novel as a 52-episode serial, Woh, in 1998, setting the US saga in the Maharashtrian hill station Panchgani. His novels may perhaps not be high art, but works of dramatic genius they are. With a sharp ear for colloquialisms, he writes the sort of juicy American prose which no non-American writer could ever try to emulate, except ironically as pastiche.

I always find it a joy to open a new King novel, certain I’m going to experience something unbelievable. Besides, he’s one of those admirable authors whose consistent output gets better with age, written with an assured hand and rarely faltering pitch. Impressively enough, he has published at least a book a year since his smash hit debut Carrie (1974), resulting in some 60 novels to date, a couple of hundred short stories, many essays, screenplays and one feature movie directed by him, Maximum Overdrive (1986).

Although religious lore cap sales in terms of numbers of copies printed over the decades, King is certainly an equally beloved author, his readership having crossed over a billion, as per my estimate (not counting cinema tickets and TV eyeballs), which is an achievement that literary critics should not take lightly.

However, it doesn’t look like his number will ever be up for the Nobel. Of course, due to the me-too-sleaze bomb that exploded in the Swedish academy’s hallowed offices last year, the award for 2018 and probably next year’s too stand cancelled. But in my view, King would certainly be a worthy candidate if the prize is ever given out again, especially considering that pop minstrel Bob Dylan received it just the other year. Though far from being the only atypical Nobel literature laureate (comedy-writer Dario Fo and politician Winston Churchill also come to mind), Dylan’s award came under fire on account of him having no substantial body of published books save for anthologies of song lyrics, a largely plagiarised autobiography, and a 1960s experimental logorrhea, Tarantula. Interestingly, King was one of the notables who stood up for Dylan (whom he’d never met), and his comments, widely quoted in the newspapers, pointed a finger at ‘literary writers who have turned their noses up’ and describing it as ‘a plain old case of sour grapes’.

Online, one finds plenty of discussions on which popular cultural icons, other than Dylan, deserve the Nobel and, unsurprisingly, King’s name pops up—along with reasons why he won’t get it. Literary snobbery being what it is, genres such as horror will never fit the bill, feel these adjudicators, one of whom sums it up neatly: ‘I’m not saying that King doesn’t deserve a [Nobel] prize, but in the current scenario, he’s unlikely to get one.’ Another web forum maintains: ‘When it comes to the idealism that has to be present for the original stated goal of Nobel consideration, King has it in spades. His universe is full of monsters both human and supernatural, of killers, spousal abusers, rapists and thieves, and yet his is not a nihilistic or inherently evil universe.’

Stephen King would certainly be a worthy candidate if the Nobel Prize is ever given out again. His latest releases trump everything before

King himself has gone on record, in 1991, saying: “I’d like to win the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize, I’d like to have someone write a New York Times Book Review piece that says, ‘Hey, wait a minute guys, we made a mistake—this guy is one of the great writers of the 20th century.’ But it’s not going to happen… [because] the people who think about ‘literature’ stop thinking about you and assume that any writer who is popular across a wide spectrum has nothing to say.”

But it’s not as if King’s talent goes unacknowledged. Apart from scores of American and international mystery and horror prizes, King won the prestigious O Henry Award for Best American Short Story in 1996, which suggests his literary excellence. King has also bagged the American Library Association Award more than once, been on New York Public Library’s ‘Books of the Century’ selection, got the LA Times Book Prize in 2011, not to mention that in 2015 the US president (Obama, not Trump who has unfriended King on Twitter) handed him America’s National Medal of Arts.

F URTHERMORE, IN 2003 he won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and it was speculated that the National Book Awards’ committee purposely selected a writer of genre fiction to prove that the awards must move with their times. Of course, the announcement was greeted with a dismay similar to that following Dylan’s Nobel. Literary professor Harold Bloom didn’t mince words when he told New York Times: ‘That they could believe that there is any literary value there [in King’s oeuvre] or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.’ King’s own low-key response to this was, ‘Bloom never pissed me off because there are critics out there, and he’s one of them, who take their ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess.’

Except for authorities like Bloom and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which, although giving King a lengthy write-up, puts his writings down as ‘undisciplined and inelegant’, a good many do consider him a fine litterateur. King holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maine, whose library is proud owner of the King manuscript collection, and it is clear from his style that he doesn’t only read pulp; scholars have found traces of Thomas Hardy, TS Eliot and Shakespeare in his text, although I personally spot more of Richard Matheson and HP Lovecraft, maybe Dracula and Lord of the Flies, plus a hint of heavy metal, AC/DC, or something rawer. Critics have also drawn attention to the feministic themes of many of his novels, including the twice-filmed Carrie, about an anguished teenage girl who develops psychic powers and takes on her bullies.

King himself was, apparently, an unpopular, chubby kid who fell victim to bullies, later channelising his angst into an interest in the macabre. Which is perhaps why the vulnerability of children runs as a central theme through his books. King’s father’s disappearance is also classic stuff. A troublesome and troubled man, he stepped out one day in 1949 when King was two years old, to get a pack of fags, never to return. Even though he passed away only in 1980, King never saw him again. The to-be writer was brought up in relative if not abject poverty by a religious mother, which might help explain his doggedness at the writing desk, as well as the spiritual imagery in his fiction.

A long period of writing pulp shorts for magazines, making money from occasional newspaper writing and years of rejection slips from publishing houses preceded the success of Carrie. But hitting the bookshops, King was trending from day one, his stories frequently turning into acclaimed cinematic masterpieces by directors such as Brian de Palma and Stanley Kubrick or used as readymade material by cult directors like George A Romero and David Cronenberg. Assailed by doubts about whether he’d just been lucky or was genuinely talented, he created a pseudonym (like JK Rowling recently took on the Robert Galbraith persona to get a fresh start after Harry Potter) and debuted again in the late 1970s—as Richard Bachman, who wrote reasonably popular novels until a librarian cracked the secret. Once it was revealed that he and Bachman were the same, King announced there was a ‘cancer of the pseudonym’ and ended that side career, though we, of course, don’t know if he employs other pseudonyms today.

King’s writing started to show a marked improvement after he gave up cocaine in the late 1980s, following a decade’s worth of heavy usage. Critics noted that his books became less bulky and bombastic, and more realistic, if that’s a word that can be used for King, signifying literary maturity in the horror genre and newfound self-respect for its grandmaster. When interviewed by Rolling Stone about his choice of genre, King, in passing, broadly confirmed that notion. “That’s where I was drawn. I love DH Lawrence. And James Dickey’s poetry, Émile Zola, Steinbeck… Fitzgerald, not so much. Hemingway, not at all. Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific. But if I set out to write that way, what would’ve come out would’ve been hollow and lifeless because it wasn’t me. And I have to say this: To a degree, I have elevated the horror genre.”

As a novelist interested in novels about novels, I’d rank among his finest The Shining (1977), which deals with writer’s block gone haywire; Misery (1987), in which a fan holds her favourite pulp writer hostage, an allegory, if you will, of King’s own cocaine addiction (though his more recent tome Revival describes his drug experiences more explicitly); and Finders Keepers (2015), which explores the eccentric world of rare book collectors and has a thought-provoking take on another favourite of mine, JD Salinger. One can discern an exciting post-cocaine trajectory in which horror becomes an increasingly minor factor in the novels: the scares are components of the engine, not the whole engine.

I’d say that his latest releases trump everything I’ve read by him before and cement my suspicion that he’ll be considered an important American belletrist by future critics. Revival (2014), for instance, written when King hit his mid-sixties, wonderfully traces the changes in the protagonist’s life and in the people around him as they age. At one point, the first-person narrator informs us that ageing is a bit like boiling a frog: ‘You put it in cold water, then start turning up the heat. If you do it gradually, the frog is too stupid to jump out.’ Beyond the gore, Revival centres on the common human wish to cheat death.

I imagine that King must be writing away like a mad genius, because Finders Keepers, published just the following year, turned out to be a mind-rattling tale of a reclusive novelist (loosely based on JD Salinger) who hasn’t put out anything in decades. Robbers break into his farmhouse looking for an unpublished masterpiece and one of them is a true-blue psycho fan: Morris Bellamy, a 20-something loosely based on Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye. By assaulting an author he feels is a ‘sellout’, Bellamy picks up from where Caulfield signed off—a decade older, but as disgruntled and disturbed as ever. In an iconoclastic move, Bellamy shoots the author in the head, sending his brains splattered across the wall, and here King begins his exploration into the problematic nature of an iconic fictional character’s —such as Caulfield’s—hold on literature: ‘[Morris] had expected some blood, and a hole between the eyes, but not this gaudy expectoration of gristle and bone. It was a failure of imagination, he supposed, the reason why he could read the giants of modern American literature—read them and appreciate them—but never be one.’

Whether Bellamy is also King’s alter ego or not, that line says a lot. Though, of course, not all that there is to say about the King.