The Reading Life: Thinking about Stephen King


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This is part of the occasional series ‘The Reading Life’ by book critic David L. Ulin.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I spent half an hour or so discussing Stephen King with my colleague David Lazarus on Patt Morrison’s KPCC-FM radio show. The news peg, such as it was, involved the decision by the New York Times to include King’s new novel, ‘11/22/63,’ on its list of the 10 best books of 2011. But the bigger question had to do with King’s merit as a writer, which, almost 40 years after he began to publish, remains a source of conversation, if no longer quite debate.


For the record, I didn’t think much of ‘11/22/63’; I found it meandering and unfocused -- not to mention far too long. And yet, I also believe that, like many a genre writer, King has gotten a bad rap for much of his career, written off because he appeals to a popular audience, when in fact his work exposes, with real acuity, a lot about who we are.

Think about it: Beyond the mechanics, of plot, of horror, what King offers are domestic interactions, slices of family and civic life. He uncovers our anxieties, our worries, our obsessions -- the inner darkness we all know. That’s why, for me, some of his most moving works are the most naturalistic: ‘The Body,’ ‘Misery’ or the recent novella ‘A Good Marriage,’ which anchors his 2010 collection ‘Full Dark, No Stars.’ There, King traces a particularly human bleakness, the bleakness of an empty soul.

This is the key to his writing, that when he’s on, no one is better at prying open the ordinary reality of evil, the way our nightmares emerge from our daily experience, from our fears and our frustrations, our envy and our rage. It’s true even when he’s writing about the supernatural; as he observed when I profiled him for The Times in 1998, ‘Every monster, every horrific situation, every supernatural situation can be taken in a metaphoric way, if you have an interest in normal human life. Or even abnormal human life.’

Such a comment suggests both King’s empathy and his engagement, as well as his ambition to push beyond the conventions of form. His 1996 novel ‘Desperation’ (one of my favorites) is nothing less than a lament for the pitiless nature of God -- ‘Do you know how cruel your God can be? ... How fantastically cruel?’ one character asks another in the closing pages. “Sometimes he makes us live” -- while 1977’s ‘The Shining’ (his first great novel, I would argue) was initially imagined as ‘a Shakespearean tragedy, a kind of inside-out ‘King Lear,’ where Lear is this young guy who has a son instead of daughters,’ with a first draft broken down into acts and scenes. Lazarus and I discussed the genesis of ‘The Shining,’ as evidence of King’s intentionality -- or, perhaps more accurately, his range. And in the days since, I’ve continued to think about this, even pulling my old paperback copy of the novel off the bookshelves, with the idea of re-reading it through that Shakespearean lens.

But I haven’t, and I’m not going to, because here’s the other thing about ‘The Shining’: It’s just too scary for me to read again. And that’s the thing about King too, right there in a nutshell, that tension between the brains and the blood. ‘What kind of story is it?’ he has asked of his own work. ‘And what kind of writer are you?’ These are some of the questions that come up in reading him, although, in the end, they just compel me all the more.

What makes writing literature, after all, but the extent to which it expresses our complicated humanity? And what is the essence of humanity if not conflict, the ongoing struggle between the sublime and the base? That’s what King keeps trying to examine, and it’s both why we read him and why we sometimes have to turn away.


In part, it’s the Grand Guignol aspect of ‘The Shining’ that I don’t want to revisit, all that blood and terror. But even more, it’s the novel’s tale of dissolution, the notion of watching a soul get laid to waste. This is not a failure of the book, but a mark of its success, and the essence of how King, at his best, affects us: by revealing the deepest -- and yes, the darkest -- aspects of ourselves.

-- David L. Ulin


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