Friday, December 28, 2012

Stephen King: Needful Things (1991)

"What the hell gets into people - some kind of poison?"

A new shop is opening on the town square in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine. There are various antiques and oddities in the window, under a green canvas awning that reads: "Needful Things".

Its proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a handsome middle-aged man from outside New England, with a natural affinity for quickly putting people at ease; he also has an uncanny ability of providing each townsperson with something they secretly covet. He sells the items at bargain prices, but also requests that each purchaser play a prank on someone else in town. The pranks - which range from muddying the sheets on someone's laundry line to slashing car tires to killing a dog - are designed to inflame various pre-existing grudges, petty feuds and disagreements.

Needful Things follows the classic theme of "a stranger comes to town". Gaunt (like Kurt Barlow in 'Salem's Lot) is an supernatural being, whose goal is sowing distrust, division, and paranoia in Castle Rock, and then harvesting the souls of the people who end up killed or dead by their own hand.

The novel is subtitled "The Last Castle Rock Story". King has decided to leave behind the fictional town he has used for several novels and shorter stories: The Dead Zone, Cujo, "The Body", The Dark Half, "The Sun Dog". Castle Rock Sheriff Alan Pangborn, who played a large role in The Dark Half, is the main protagonist in this novel, attempting to save his town from Gaunt's evil machinations. (Needful Things is also the first novel King completed since becoming drug-free.)

***

John Sears (Stephen King's Gothic) writes that Needful Things
offers King's most extended and forceful allegory of consumerism as the misdirection and corruption of desire. The novel is a kind of Faustian parable firmly locked in the extensive and detailed domestic realism familiar from novels like 'Salem's Lot. ... [Needful Things is] an overt analysis of desire in capitalism, its combination of deceptive satisfaction and unquestioned ideological faith.
Sharon A. Russell (Stephen King: A Critical Companion):
[King] is concerned that our quest for personal gratification can destroy society. King is interested in both individual actions and the organization of the community. ... King shows how these [societal] codes break down. We quickly believe the worst of each other and act rather than talk. ... Civilization is just a thin coating over our more violent impulses. ... When the social structures of Castle Rock begin to fall apart, King shows how ineffective the traditional supports of a community can be. All the organizations we trust to maintain society become involved in the destruction.
King's anti-consumerism message is present, but it's weakly presented. The same point is made with numerous townspeople; it gets repetitious and King's done it better in earlier books. This is well-travelled territory for King, with themes that resonate throughout his fiction: the darker pathologies of small town life, religious mania, addiction and obsession, class and gender inequality, domestic abuse. As Russell notes, the underpinnings of society offer no help during the crisis. Law enforcement, city government, and religious leaders are all as complicit as the individual citizens in the town's escalating hostility.

The writing of Needful Things rarely rises to the level of classic King. There are exceptions, however, where King really shines, e.g., when relating the backstories of Pangborn and Polly Chalmers. The novel's ending is especially unsatisfying because it is highly reminiscent of the revised ending of The Stand (which King re-worked around the same time). Randall Flagg's escape before The Stand's nuclear conflagration and his re-emerge elsewhere to once again plot destruction is identical to Gaunt's escape from The Rock in this novel. Needful Things ends as it began, with Gaunt opening a new store (Answered Prayers) in another American small town.

Like Flagg, Gaunt is shown to have had a long history:
He had begun business many years ago - as a wandering peddler on the blind face of a distant land, a peddler who carried his wares on his back, a peddler who usually came at the fall of darkness and was always gone the next morning, leaving bloodshed, horror, and unhappiness behind him. Years later, in Europe, as the Plague raged and the deadcarts rolled, he had gone from town to town and country to country in a wagon drawn by a slat-thin white horse with terrible burning eyes and a tongue as black as a killer's heart he had sold his wares from the back of the wagon ... and was gone before his customers, who paid with small, ragged coins or even in barter, could discovery what they had really bought.
Gaunt knows exactly what each person wants - and he can supply it. (In the end, we see that the items he has sold were little more than junk, but they had been idealized in the eyes of the buyer.) Gaunt is a consummate con-man, who splits off each person from the rest of the town - all of his deals are done one-on-one - and then makes his covert arrangements. He poisons everyone in town, sowing division and dissension, anger, and jealousy, ruining relationships and conducting the town's people through "dark and bitterly satisfying fantasies of revenge".

As in 'Salem's Lot, secrets abound: there are gambling addictions, alcoholism, incidents of domestic abuse. When she was young, a pregnant Polly Chalmers left Castle Rock; she returned without her child, but no one knows what happened. And while everyone knows that Sheriff Pangborn lost his wife and younger son in a car crash, he finds it impossible to speak to anyone about his grief. The townpeople cannot share their new purchases with anyone because they fear jealous thieves, or they are afraid of breaking the item if they use it. Many of them lock their items away, finding that "gloating in private provides its own particular pleasure".

Gaunt's statements - "Everything is for sale", "Free trade is what made this country great", "Selfish people are happy people" and encouraging feelings of "pride of possession" - reinforce the greed, materialism, and self-satisfaction of the 1980s, making the book a possible allegory of the Reagan/Bush administrations. (One character speaks disparagingly about the 1991 Iraq Invasion. This is almost certainly King talking. The sentiment seems out of place, since that brief slaughter was conducted to near-unanimous cheering in the US.)

King notes: "In America, you could have anything you wanted. Just as long as you could pay for it." Gaunt exploits people's greed and their willingness to pay what at first seems like a small price to fulfill their desires. While everyone acts out of free will, each small payment turns out to have large consequences.

Next: The Dark Tower III: The Wastelands.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Stephen King: Four Past Midnight (1990)

Four Past Midnight is Stephen King's second collection of novellas, and it is a much weaker collection than the quartet of tales published in 1981's Different Seasons.

The stories in this volume are far less engaging. Only one of them really works as a novella; the other three might have been stronger as short stories.

Introduction

King frames his introduction around a televised baseball game from late July 1989 between the Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox. Milwaukee's Robin Yount struck out against pitcher Roger Clemens in his first plate appearance, but then smacked a two-run double off Boston's left field wall his second time up. Yount made his debut in 1974, the same year King published his first novel, and King points out that despite their advancing ages - the announcers joke about how ancient Yount is (he was 33 at the time - both the player and writer still have what it takes.

The sentiment is nice, but the Clemens/Yount scenario never happened. Clemens pitched against the Brewers twice in 1989: June 27 in Milwaukee and September 30 in Boston. I looked at a game in late July 1988, and while Yount struck out against Clemens in his first at-bat, he ended the day 0-for-4. In fact, Yount drove in zero runs against Clemens in Boston in the four seasons from 1986-89.

The Langoliers

On a cross-country red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Boston, ten passengers wake up to find that everyone else on the once-crowded plane has disappeared (including the pilots and flight crew). One of the survivors is Brian Engle, a pilot for the airline, who was travelling to Boston for the funeral of his ex-wife. He lands the plane in Bangor, Maine, where the passengers try to make sense of the empty, dead-quiet surroundings. It turns out the plane travelled through a wrinkle in time and travelled back into the very recent past, where the empty world has been abandoned by the present. The passengers have to re-fuel the plane and retrace their flight pattern, going east to west, and hope to find that split in the space-time and return to the present day. The science fiction idea is not a bad one, and this tale feels a bit like a old Twilight Zone episode.

King is at his best, of course, when detailing the interactions between the passengers. This is another of King's novel(la)s in which he places a group of people in a confined space and sees how they interact (e.g., The Mist, Under The Dome).

Secret Window, Secret Garden

Continuing the theme of fiction's power of both Misery and The Dark Half, King asks: "What happens to the wide-eyed observer [i.e., a writer] when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?"

One autumn day, Mort Rainey answers the door of his upstate New York cottage and is confronted by John Shooter, a writer from Mississippi who claims Mort has plagiarized his work. "You stole my story ... and something has to be done." Shooter's story is nearly identical to one of Mort's, but Mort believes he can prove that his story was published before Shooter says he wrote his. However, that proof turns out to be far more elusive than expected. Meanwhile, Shooter begins terrorizing Mort, killing his cat and then (quite possibly) burning down the house Mort shared with his wife, from whom he has recently divorced. Mort makes a number of small decisions that end up leaving him no choice but to deal with Shooter by himself, without the help of the police, and as Shooter's reign of terror continues, Mort finds himself possibly framed for murder - and questioning his own sanity. King expertly charts Mort's psychological disintegration, keeping the reader slightly off balance as well.

The Library Policeman

Sam Peebles borrows two books from the local library in preparation for a public speaking appearance. Librarian Ardelia Lortz reminds him to return the books on time or face the wrath of the Library Policeman. Of course, Sam misplaces the books! He also learns that Ardelia actually died many years ago. The evil being masquerading as Ardelia is a shape-shifting being that feeds on the fear of children, much like the creature in It. This novella is really about overcoming adolescent fears and becoming a complete and whole adult. Sam must confront the repressed memory of sexual abuse outside the library when he was a young boy. Sam's story was compelling, but the story's framework was a little too silly to work as horror.

The Sun Dog

Kevin Delevan receives a Polaroid Sun 660 camera for his 15th birthday. However, no matter what Kevin tries to take a picture of, the photo that comes out is of a mangy black dog in front of a white picket fence. With the help of Pop Merrill, the owner of the junk/antique Emporium Glamorum, Kevin realizes that in each successive picture, the dog is turning and advancing angrily towards the camera. Kevin wants to destroy the camera, but Pop hopes to sell it. The camera begins to exert control over Pop, forcing him to continue taking pictures and bring the snarling beast closer and closer to breaking through the two-dimensional world of the photos and into the real world. This story is far too long, with several digressions that have nothing to do with the main plot.

Next: Needful Things.

Happy Holidays From The National Rifle Association

Harper's Weekly Review:
At an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a man carrying three semiautomatic guns fatally shot six women and 20 first-graders. ...

The shooting was the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the sixteenth mass shooting in the United States this year, and the thirty-first school shooting since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. ...

The same week, police in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, arrested a high school student who was planning to kill his classmates with guns and explosives; police in Cedar Lake, Indiana, seized 47 guns from a man who had threatened to attack a nearby elementary school; police in Birmingham, Alabama, shot a gunman after he wounded three people at a hospital; a man in Portland, Oregon, shot and killed two people at a mall, then fatally shot himself; two police officers in Topeka, Kansas, were fatally shot outside a grocery store; and a federal appeals court struck down the country's only statewide concealed-weapons ban.

The National Rifle Association disabled its Facebook page, and 31 Republican senators with pro–gun rights voting records declined invitations to discuss gun control on Meet the Press.
Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker:
The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns — we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them — is more important than children's lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that's a moral choice, clearly made.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Greenwald: "Don't Cheer While Your Country Constantly Kills - And Then Expect To Be Liked"

Glenn Greenwald, on the outrage over Korean rapper Psy's lyrics:
Whatever else one wants to say, the US is a country that, for more than a decade, has loudly and continuously declared itself to be a "nation at war". It's not "at war" in any one county, but in many countries around the globe.

In the last four years alone, it has used drones to end people's lives in six predominantly Muslim country (probably more). Under its Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, it has repeatedly wiped out entire families (including just this week), slaughtered dozens of children at a time, targeted and killed people rescuing and grieving its victims, and either deliberately or recklessly dropped bombs on teenagers (including its own citizens), then justified it with the most foul and morally deranged rationale.

It embraces and props up the world's most repressive tyrants. It isolates itself from the world and embraces blatant double standards in order to enable the worst behavior of its client states. It continues to maintain a global network of prisons where people are kept indefinitely in cages with no charges. It exempts itself and its leaders from the international institutions of justice while demanding that the leaders of other, less powerful states be punished there. And it is currently in the process of suffocating a nation of 75 million people with an increasingly sadistic sanctions regime, while proudly boasting about it and threatening more.

It spent years imprisoning even Muslim journalists with no charges. And then there's that little fact about how, less than a decade ago, it created a worldwide torture regime and then launched an aggressive war that destroyed a nation of 26 million people, one that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. ...

If you want your country to rule the world as an aggressive and militaristic empire, then accept the inevitable consequence of that: that there will be huge numbers of people in the world who resent and even hate your country for that behavior. Don't cheer while your country constantly kills, invades, occupies, and dominates the internal affairs of countless other nations - and then expect to be liked.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

"The New America" (It Looks A Lot Like The Old One)

Chris Hedges, Truthdig:
Hurricane Sandy, if you are poor, is the Katrina of the North. It has exposed the nation's fragile, dilapidated and shoddy infrastructure, one that crumbles under minimal stress. It has highlighted the inability of utility companies, as well as state and federal agencies, to cope with the looming environmental disasters that because of the climate crisis will soon come in wave after wave. But, most important, it illustrates the depraved mentality of an oligarchic and corporate elite that, as conditions worsen, retreats into self-contained gated communities, guts basic services and abandons the wider population. ...

This is the new America. It is an America where economic and environmental catastrophes converge to trigger systems breakdown and collapse. It is an America divided between corporate predators and their prey. It is an America that, as things unravel, increasingly sacrifices its own.
Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Today EFF posted several thousand pages of new drone license records and a new map that tracks the location of drone flights across the United States. ...

The records show that the Air Force has been testing out a bunch of different drone types, from the smaller, hand-launched Raven, Puma and Wasp drones designed by Aerovironment in Southern California, to the much larger Predator and Reaper drones responsible for civilian and foreign military deaths abroad. The Marine Corps is also testing drones, though it chose to redact so much of the text from its records that we still don't know much about its programs. ...
Left I, U.S.: "Don't emulate us, Syria!":
The U.S. government is now vociferously warning Syria not to use chemical weapons. The U.S. government! That would be the same country that firebombed 67 Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying 50-90% of each of the cities. Were they dropping matches from the air? No, they were dropping Napalm bombs, a chemical weapon.

That would also be the country that in addition to continuing to use Napalm in its war against the people of Vietnam, carpetbombed that country with Agent Orange, another chemical weapon that killed or maimed an estimated 400,000 Vietnamese and caused an estimated 500,000 birth defects.

That would also be the country that covered Iraq with depleted Uranium, still another chemical weapon that has caused huge numbers of cancers and birth defects in that country.

And finally, that country, the one who is warning Syria about the dire consequences of using chemical weapons (and claiming they are preparing to do so, while maintaining that their "evidence" cannot be revealed), is the same country that said and did nothing when its ally Israel used white phosphorous bombs against Gaza in 2009.
George Washington has posted: Update On Potential War Against Syria

John Pilger highlights some of the stories reported by Project Censored in its book Censored 2013: Dispatches from the Media Revolution:
The bombing of civilian targets in Libya in 2011 was often deliberate and included the main water supply facility that provided water to 70 per cent of the population. In Afghanistan, the murder of 16 unarmed civilians, including children, attributed to one rogue US soldier, was actually committed by "multiple" soldiers, and covered up. In Syria, the US, Britain and France are funding and arming the icon of terrorism, al-Qaida. In Latin America, one US bank has laundered $378bn. in drug money.
The US says children are legitimate targets in the never-ending war against Afghanistan. Army Lt. Col. Marion "Ced" Carrington, 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment: "In addition to looking for military-age males, [we are] looking for children with potential hostile intent."

Chris Floyd, Empire Burlesque:
On [November 29], Bradley Manning, one of the foremost prisoners of conscience in the world today, testified in open court - the first time his voice has been heard since he was arrested, confined and subjected to psychological torture by the U.S. government.

An event of some newsworthiness, you might think. Manning has admitted leaking documents that detailed American war crimes in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has been held incommunicado for more than 900 days by the Obama administration. Reports of his treatment at the hands of his captors have sparked outrage, protests and concern around the world. He was now going to speak openly in a pre-trial hearing on a motion to dismiss his case because of that treatment. Surely such a moment of high courtroom drama would draw heavy media coverage, if only for its sensationalistic aspects.

But if you relied on the nation's pre-eminent journal of news reportage, the New York Times, you could have easily missed notice of the event altogether, much less learned any details of what transpired in the courtroom. The Times sent no reporter to the hearing, but contented itself with a brief bit of wire copy from AP, tucked away on Page 3, to note the occasion. ...

For the actual details of Manning's hearing - which actually began a few days before his appearance - you have to turn to foreign papers, such as the Guardian, whose coverage of Manning's situation has been copious. The Guardian provided two long stories (here and here), totalling 68 paragraphs, on Manning's testimony, both written by one the paper's leading reporters, Ed Pilkington, who was actually present in the courtroom. This was preceded by three long stories (here, here and here), also by Pilkington reporting on the scene, about previous testimony in the hearing, from the brig's commander and from the Marine psychiatrist overseeing Manning's condition.
I'm sad to hear that Floyd is taking a break from blogging. His righteous anger will be missed.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Stephen King: The Stand: The Complete And Uncut Edition (1990)

I've read both versions of The Stand in the past year - the original 1978 paperback in April (as part of this project) and the Complete and Uncut Edition at the beginning of 2012. I'm not going to read it a third time.

King added approximately 150,000 words to the new edition; the difference from the 1978 paperback and the 1990 paperback is 324 pages.

The biggest change is the year in which the novel is set. In the 1978 edition, the story begins in June 1985; in this expanded edition, it has been moved ahead to June 1990. I was unable to find an official reason for moving the date of the plague ahead five years.

With that change, King went through the original edition, making edits to single words and short phrases (updating various brand names, prices of items, etc.), adding more character background and development, inserting some of the material that was cut from the 1978 edition, and writing new material for this new edition.

Ann Carter, reviewing the complete edition for the Sun Sentinel in 1990:
Scenes also have been expanded, putting in dialogue, action, description and recollection that don't add much to the story, but do a great job of slowing it down. ... Some of the details not only detour the story, but take away one privilege: imagination. ... [T]he most positive thing that can be said for the 1990 The Stand is what it reveals about King`s talent as an editor: He was able to cut 400 pages from his original manuscript, and I never missed them.
Here is what I wrote about the expanded version this past February:
Many sections went on and on, and I felt King could have told us more than enough in five pages rather than 12. But when I slowed down and read each sentence carefully, it did not seem indulgent or redundant or excessive. King was simply taking his time, relishing the details of his apocalyptic tale. If you concentrated, he wasn't boring. I simply wanted the story to move along at a much quicker pace.
Trivia: In the uncut version, Frannie Goldsmith is reading Rimfire Christmas, a western novel written by Bobbi Anderson (the main character in The Tommyknockers).

Next: Four Past Midnight.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stephen King: The Dark Half (1989)

Author's Note: I am indebted to the late
Richard Bachman for his help and inspiration.
This novel could not have been written without him.
S.K.

Who does a writer become when he sits down to write?

That is the central question of The Dark Half, Stephen King's third consecutive novel – after Misery and The Tommyknockers – to feature a writer as its main character.

King experienced a series of crises in the mid-to-late 1980s and, because he often uses writing as a form of self-analysis, they appeared in his fiction. Judging from Misery's plot, King had severe reservations about his fame and was concerned about the psychic cost of celebrity. His drug and alcohol addictions were raging out of control (this was also the third book in a row to feature an addict or former addict), and he was forced to admit he was the author of five novels attributed to "Richard Bachman".

The Dark Half was written as a response to the sudden death of Bachman's literary career – or perhaps as a way for King to flesh out his myriad feelings about the Bachman phenomenon in general.
For a while I started to think, "Suppose Bachman wasn't dead?" And immediately the idea jumped to mind: What if a guy had a pen name that didn't want to stay dead and isn't that an interesting idea and how would that work out? It just stayed like that for a while and didn't get written. Then the thought that finally drove me to start writing was the idea: Suppose Bachman collaborated on a book with me? And so originally, The Dark Half was submitted as a collaboration by Stephen King and Richard Bachman. But Viking didn't like the idea. They thought it was confusing and that people would think it was a collaboration like The Talisman.
***

Thad Beaumont's first novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. After an unsuccessful follow-up, Thad experienced a severe case of writer's block. He was able to write again only (at his wife Liz's suggestion) by doing so under another name. Using the pseudonym George Stark*, Thad published four best-selling crime novels. After more than a decade, Thad feels trapped in his literary double life and wants to return to serious fiction. And when someone tries to blackmail him by exposing him as Stark, Thad is thrilled, and announces the secret himself to People magazine, which publishes a photo of a fake grave site, complete with a tombstone marking the dates of Stark's existence.

*: Donald E. Westlake's pen name "Richard Stark" was the source for both "Richard Bachman" and "George Stark".

As the darker side of Thad's persona, Stark is vivid enough that Liz speaks of him as a real person, as an unevictable intruder in their home.
George Stark wasn't a very nice guy. ... [H]e was in fact a horrible guy. He made me more nervous with each of the four books he wrote, and when Thad finally decided to kill him, I went upstairs to our bedroom and cried with relief. ... He was an ugly, dangerous man when he was ... living with us.

[W]hen he was writing as George Stark – and in particular, when he was writing about [professional hit man] Alexis Machine – Thad wasn't the same. When he – opened the door is maybe the best way to put it – when he did that and invited Stark in, he'd become distant. Not cold, not even cool, but distant. He was less interested in going out, in seeing people. ... There was no big personality change ... but he wasn't the same.
Thad:
I don't know how he came to be. ... I don't have the slightest idea when he became a ... a separate person. He seemed real to me when I was writing as him, but only in the way all the stories I write seem real to me when I'm writing them. Which is to say, I take them seriously but I don't believe in them ... except I do ...
After the mock funeral, the doppelganger refuses to stay buried. Somehow Stark escapes "the womblike dungeon of Beaumont's imagination" and emerges in the real world "like some weird cancer in human form". He begins hunting down and killing everyone associated with the article that put him in his grave, including the journalist, photographer, and Thad's agent. Stark is determined to live again, either by Thad writing another Stark novel (which he has vowed never to do) or some (further) collaboration between the two. In the end, Thad will be forced to confront "his dark half", the uncontrollable and malevolent side of himself.

Despite King's top-notch storytelling skills, I could not accept The Dark Half's premise: that Thad's pseudonym has somehow come to life as a separate human being. I realize that may seem somewhat odd considering the plots of some of King's other books – vampires in rural Maine, haunted cars that drive themselves, a spaceship buried in the woods – but despite his lengthy explanations of how Stark came to be (it involves an unformed twin being absorbed in utero), he simply couldn't win me over. (Maybe if Stark was a spirit or evil force rather than an actual person ...)

***

John Sears (Stephen King's Gothic) describes The Dark Half as "a fable of writerly creativity gone monstrously wrong, a version of the allegory of the author enslaved by a popular readership". Thad Beaumont, like Misery's Paul Sheldon, has become successful by giving his readers what they want, and putting aside the kind of fiction he would rather concentrate on.

Just as Thad's novels are quite different from the grisly books he wrote as Stark, the themes of the Bachman novels are the polar opposite of King's fiction. Where King emphasizes redemption and the power of love, Bachman's landscapes are unrelentingly bleak, degraded, full of despair, and devoid of hope. Anthony Magistrale says the early Bachman books (Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, The Running Man)
served as a kind of laboratory for the young King. ... Bachman supplied King with a necessary alter ego ... a voice to help release some of King's own literary demons. Bachman permitted King to indulge his darkest fantasies and speculations. ... [The Bachman work] "is best interpreted as representing a pessimistic side of King's psyche.
In addition, Michael J. Meyer notes that "despite Thad's alleged aversion to the type of writing Stark produces [and Stark's murderous impulses], his attraction to Stark is depicted as similar to alcohol or drug addiction".

Amy Joyce Palko: Charting Habitus: Stephen King, the Author-Protagonist and the Field of Literary Production (2009):
Thad is brought face to face with his pseudonym-made-flesh and is forced to recognize that he cannot ever truly break free from his role as a writer of popular novels and return unscathed to his role as writer of serious literary fiction. ... Within this one man, there is an inner conflict pertaining to the dominance of either serious or popular fiction which is ultimately irresolvable.
King uses obvious elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and Edgar Allan Poe's short story "William Wilson" (which Thad mentions at one point), and name-drops dozens more writers and books throughout the novel, including Elmore Leonard, Ernest Hemingway, Brideshead Revisited, Franz Kafka, Hamlet, Sidney Sheldon, Little Black Sambo, and Saul Bellow, while also including numerous literary pen names, such as Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Tucker Coe, and Edgar Box.

In creating George Stark, all Thad Beaumont wanted to do was keep writing:
He had not set out to write a series of novels which would make a great deal of money, and he had certainly not set out to create a monster. He had only been trying to feel a way around the block that had dropped into his path. He had only wanted to find a way to write another good story, because doing that made him happy.
Likewise, Stephen King did not set out to become world's most famous author, and he certainly did not plan on creating the fame and celebrity that he has "enjoyed" for decades. Like Beaumont, King somehow created a monster. (A minor character, speaking about Thad, says, "I pity famous people ... [they] must live defensive, disorganized, fearful lives ...") All King has wanted to do was have the space and freedom to write another good story. Writing, he has said many times, has kept him sane.

Next: The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Stephen King: The Tommyknockers (1987)

I was not looking forward to reading The Tommyknockers. Not after reading things online warning that it was one of King's worst books, a self-indulgent mess, written in the depths of his addictions, a hefty tome of 558 pages sorely in need of an editor. Indeed, in one ranking of King's novels, it was slotted #61 out of 62.

Well, The Tommyknockers wasn't that bad. It will not crack my Top 10 when I'm done with this project (or my Top 20, probably), but two-thirds of it was pretty enjoyable. The ending was unsatisfying, with the wholesale destruction reminding me too much of Firestarter.

One summer day, while walking in the Maine woods with her elderly beagle, Roberta "Bobbi" Anderson (a writer of western-themed novels) trips over a hunk of metal sticking a few inches out of the ground. She pulls at it, but it doesn't budge - and so she starts digging around it. She finds that it is actually a much larger piece of metal.

The novel's other main character - Jim Gardener, an alcoholic poet and long-time friend of Bobbi's - returns to Haven, Maine, and joins Bobbi in her excavation. (Gard is also against nuclear power* and when he gets drunk, he has a tendency to voice his opinions rather forcefully. One of Gard's meltdowns (so to speak!) at a post-reading party is a captivating set piece, as he argues relentlessly, until the host suffers a heart attack and an industry spokesman's wife is reduces to hysterics).

* The meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania happened less than three years before King started work on the manuscript and the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine occurred late in the writing process.

Bobbi experiences something akin to a "physical craving" to continue digging in the woods. Much later in the book, she says she really had no choice:
I never asked to stumble over the goddamn thing. Free will was not a factor here ... Do you think people can choose to put away any knowledge once they've seen the edge of it? ... When ordinary people see something sticking out of the ground, they got to dig on it. They got to dig on it because it might be treasure.
It is slowly revealed that the object is not treasure, but an ancient flying saucer that has been buried for thousands of years. As more of the saucer is exposed to the air, it releases toxins that affect Bobbi - and will soon affect everyone in Haven. Bobbi experiences a surge in brain activity - it's described as unlimited energy - and begins building various implausible machines, including a typewriter that runs telepathically ("a direct tap into the subconscious, more like dreaming than writing"). She is also losing weight, her hair and teeth are falling out, and she is experiencing excessive menstrual bleeding, but she remains focused on digging.

Because of a metal plate in Gard's skull, the result of a skiing accident when he was a teenager, he is mostly immune to the ship's power, though he does suffer from frequent nosebleeds. As an "outsider", the town views him with suspicion. Eventually, the hatchway of the ship is uncovered and Bobbi and Gard explore inside. The creatures in the ship appear to be dead, but they are actually only hibernating, waiting for someone to come along and "re-animate" the ship. This is foreshadowed much earlier in the novel when Gard imagines some "twenty-fifth-century archaeologist" uncovering the "spent fuel rods that were stacking up in big hot piles". King believes that the legacy of both nuclear energy and the alien ship are beyond human manageability.

Anthony Magistrale wrote that the novel "becomes a thinly disguised parable of nuclear energy and the willingness of modern communities to risk human safety and the sanctity of the land for the corporate promise of clean and cheap energy".

Douglas Winter calls The Tommyknockers
a satirical invention of the pragmatic side of science fiction, which seemingly worships the technological solution over human emotion. The novel is focused upon people who play with things that they do not understand: it is intended to serve as a direct allegory for what we, as a nation, are doing with our collective lives.
The Tommyknockers is also a novel about addiction: humanity's craving for technological advances and King's own dependency on drugs and alcohol.

On Writing:
In the spring and summer of 1986, I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.

Tommyknockers is a forties-style science fiction tale in which the writer-heroine discovers an alien spacecraft buried in the ground. The crew is still on board, not dead but only hibernating. These alien creatures got into your head and just started ... well, tommyknocking around in there. What you got was energy and a kind of superficial intelligence. What you gave up in exchange was your soul. It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with.

Not long after that my wife, finally convinced that I wasn't going to pull out of this ugly downward spiral on my own, stepped in. ... She organized an intervention group formed of family and friends, and I was treated to a kind of This Is Your Life in hell. ... Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at a rehab or I could get the hell out of the house. She said that she and the kids loved me, and for that very reason none of them wanted to witness my suicide.

I bargained, because that's what addicts do. I was charming, because that's what addicts are. In the end I got two weeks to think about it. In retrospect, this seems to summarize all the insanity of that time. ...

[W]hat finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke. Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie's pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up.
Most critics were not kind when The Tommyknockers was published. Christopher Lehman-Haupt (New York Times) admitted to being a King addict and said it was "hard to resist the sheer energy of the storytelling", but reported the novel was plagued by "repetition, implausibility, an illogically switching point of view, [and] manipulative narrative leaps ... We already knew he could grip us with good horror stories and so-so horror stories. Now he has shown that he can grip us with a lousy horror story as well."

Publishers Weekly:
The Tommyknockers is consumed by the rambling prose of its author. Taking a whole town as his canvas, King uses too-broad strokes, adding cartoonlike characters and unlikely catastrophes like so many logs on a fire; ultimately, he loses all semblance of style, carefully structured plot or resonant meaning, the hallmarks of his best writing. It is clear from this latest work that king has "become" a writing machine ...
The middle section of the book - 217 pages entitled "Tales Of Haven" - tell us about the town of Haven and introduces many of the town's residents. You could call it self-indulgent, but it is also testament to King's talent at creating characters and telling their stories. King gives us pages and pages about the history of Haven, just as he did with the town of Derry in It. There is one essential difference, though. The background of Derry was critically important to the plot of It, while Haven's history is not very important to The Tommyknockers' narrative. It's not a total digression - the saucer plot is brought forward a bit - but it could easily have been cut by 50%-75%.

King, 1983:
I think that if there was any change suggested to me that I didn't want, all I would need to say would be, "No, I won't do that." And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They'd just finally say, "Well, okay then, don't do it that way." When means, in effect, that if I'm willing to be really intransigent, there'll be no editing at all. ... It's a terrible position to me in. I think I just have to resolve to take editing, even if I think the changes are wrong. To do otherwise is to become a monster and claim that I'm doing it right, and I don't need any criticism, editorial help, or guidance. And I can't do that.
King, 1990:
At this point, nobody can make me change anything. ... That's why it becomes more and more important that I listen carefully to what people say, and if what they say seems to make sense, I have to make those changes even when I don't want to, because it's too easy to hang yourself. You get all this freedom - it can lead to self-indulgence. I've been down that road, probably most notably with The Tommyknockers. But with a book like Misery, where I did listen, the results were good.
But is such writing at such length always self-indulgent? I recently read something Nick Hornby wrote in The Believer back in 2004, and it resonated with me:
Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. ...

Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! If you want to talk about books in terms of back-breaking labor, then maybe we should think about how hard it is to write a lot - long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy. I'm sorry if that seems obvious, but it can't always be true that writing a couple of hundred pages is harder than writing a thousand.) At one point near the beginning of the book, David runs away, and ends up having to sell the clothes he's wearing for food and drink. It would be enough, maybe, to describe the physical hardship that ensued; but Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like "Oh, my lungs and liver" and "Goroo!" a lot.

As King Lear said - possibly when invited in to Iowa as a visiting speaker - "Reason not the need." There is no need: Dickens is having fun, and he extends the scene way beyond its function. Rereading it now, it seems almost to have been conceived as a retort to spareness, because the scary guy insists on paying David for his jacket in halfpenny installments over the course of an afternoon, and thus ends up sticking around for two whole pages. Could he have been cut? Absolutely he could have been cut. But there comes a point in the writing process when a novelist - any novelist, even a great one - has to accept that what he is doing is keeping one end of a book away from the other, filling up pages, in the hope that these pages will move, provoke, and entertain a reader.
I love that phrase: "keeping one end of a book away from the other"! That's what King is doing in many of his doorstops. Could each of It or The Stand or The Tommyknockers been told in half as many pages? Probably. But King loves to write, and he wants to tell his stories his way, offering character background and lengthy digressions that may not be all that important to the plot, but are still entertaining. (P.S. Having a character have some silly verbal tic like "Oh, my lungs and liver!" is exactly the kind of thing King does quite often.)

King also makes references to many of his own books in The Tommyknockers, including The Dead Zone, It, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Stand, The Talisman, and Cycle of the Werewolf. Also, one character notes that Bobbi's books are well-crafted westerns, "not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lives up Bangor wrote".

Next: The Dark Half.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Stephen King: Misery (1987)

Paul Sheldon says he writes two kinds of novels: "good ones and best-sellers".

The moneymakers are a series of 19th-century historical romances featuring heroine Misery Chastain. However, Sheldon believes he is not taken seriously as a writer because of this genre fiction, and, trapped by fame and the demands of his fans, he feels shackled to a character he has grown to despise.

In a show of creative independence, Sheldon has killed off Chastain in what he believes will be his last romance novel, and is celebrating a completed first draft of a literary work, Fast Cars. As is his habit, Sheldon completes the manuscript at a Colorado resort, and heads out for a celebratory drive. Drunk on champagne and caught in a fierce snowstorm, he slides off the road and flips his car near the rural town of Sidewinder. Sheldon awakes two weeks later, in a bed in the farmhouse of a former nurse named Annie Wilkes.

Annie found Paul's overturned car (King uses first names throughout most of the book), but she did not call the police or take Paul to a hospital. Once she discovered his identity, she brought him back to her home, taped crude splints to his broken legs, hooked him up to an IV, and fed him a lot of painkillers. Shortly after regaining consciousness, Paul realizes that he is in serious pain, and serious trouble. Wilkes may be a nurse, but she is also a sociopath. (He later learns that she is also a serial killer.)

Annie asks to read the Fast Cars manuscript she found in the car. Bored by the subject matter and offended by the numerous "effwords", she forces Paul to destroy it, withholding his much-needed pain medication until he lights it - the only copy - on fire. She then buys him a used typewriter and some paper and tells him he is going to write another Misery Chastain novel - one especially for her.

"You owe me your life, Paul. I hope you'll remember that."

***

Natalie Schroeder calls Misery
a psychological horror story without the supernatural - a frightening tale of the reality of everyday life, of repressed fears, of pain, frustration, loneliness, insecurity, insanity, dependence, and disintegration.
Misery is King's most self-referential work, clearing laying out his attitudes on writing, the constant struggle for creative autonomy, and how to deal with (or distance yourself from) the legions of overly zealous fans when you have become, as King once described himself, "a brand name".

Misery has been described as a "particularly personal book", a "thinly veiled self-examination of [King's] fans, his writing, and his genre work" that "embodies a writer's fears about himself as a writer and about the continuation of his creativity", while also "offer[ing] a very negative view of the connection King has forged with his audience". (It has also been called "a novel about the destructive, potentially castrating nature of women".)

Kathleen Margaret Lant calls Misery
probably King's most thorough and complex exploration of the powers of his own mind, of the powers of the artists, of the pressures of the audience, and of the workings of creativity. King had clearly reached a crisis in his relationship with his audience ... [H]e published a vituperative and belittling piece on his devoted audience - "'Ever et Raw Meat?' And Other Weird Questions" - during the same year that Misery appeared ... In this novel, King expresses his most intense feelings of anger at the demands his readers make by creating Annie Wilkes, a demented fan ... [and] the embodiment of King's worst fantasies about fans out of control or readers run amok.
Amazingly, the dust jacket copy calls Misery "a love letter" from King to his millions of fans. In reality, it is about as far away from a love letter as possible; it's more like a gigantic Fuck You.

Edward F. Casebeer agrees, stating that in Misery, "the reader is the writer's enemy".
King personifies his tyrannical audience in the archetypal figure of Annie, who literally limits the aspiring literary artist, Paul Sheldon, to genre fiction by drugs, bondage, and torture. Despite such a negative response to whether readers are the motivation for writing, King gives the issue a serious and detailed treatment ... [H]is exploration of the psychological processes of writers and their relationship with those of readers is a fascinating and original effort.
And by making Paul dependent upon Annie's steady supply of painkillers, King also writes about his own serious drug addictions, and how they impact his daily life and his writing.

From On Writing:
By 1985 I had added drug addiction to my alcohol problems, yet I continued to function, as a good many substance abusers do, on a marginally competent level. I was terrified not to; by then I had no idea of how to live any other life. ... I couldn't ask for help. That's not the way you did things in my family. In my family what you did was ... keep yourself to yourself. Yet the part of me that writes the stories, the deep part that knew I was an alcoholic as early as 1975, when I wrote The Shining, wouldn't accept that. Silence isn't what that part is about. It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters. In late 1985 and early 1986 I wrote Misery (the title aptly described my state of mind), in which a writer is held prisoner and tortured by a psychotic nurse.
Tom Shone, Intelligent Life, Summer 2009: "One of the things that made The Shining such a great novel about falling off the wagon was that King didn't know that was what it was about — it was written from inside the belly of an obsession."

In On Writing, King said he "had written The Shining without even realizing that I was writing about myself". Earlier, when referring to the book, he wrote, "That's the one which just happens to be about an alcoholic writer and ex-schoolteacher."

As Paul regains his health and strength, he realizes he is addicted to Norvil, the painkiller Annie has been giving him. He plans to not swallow half of his daily pills, in an effort to wean himself off the drug, but says he won't start until the next day. "We never clean up our act today." It is his pain and addiction that finally forces him to capitulate and burn his Fast Cars manuscript, when he decides that the benefits of real pills win out over the lives of fictional people. And so he burned his book, "which he had created and then uncreated".

King, Playboy (1983):
Writing is necessary for my sanity. As a writer, I can externalize my fears and insecurities and night terrors on paper, which is what people pay shrinks a small fortune to do. In my case, they pay me for psychoanalyzing myself in print. And in the process, I'm able to "write myself sane," as that fine poet Anne Sexton put it.
In a 1982 interview, King said:
I don't feel tired in the sense of writing. I feel tired in the sense of having to be a writer. The commitments to things other than writing just keep growing ... and it's a while before you see it as something less than benign. ... But there is a real sense here of having to be careful that you're not eaten alive, because I sense more and more ... that celebrity is a little bit like being a turkey that's being fattened up in the pen for something you'd rather not contemplate.
In another interview, he voices similar sentiments:
The occupational hazard of the successful writer in America is that once you begin to be successful, then you have to avoid being gobbled up. America has developed this sort of cannibalistic cult of celebrity, where first you set the guy up, and then you eat him.
***

King does not paint a pretty picture of the writer's obsessive fan. Annie Wilkes is unattractive and overweight, with bad breath - a "borderline psychotic [with a] puffed and infected ego ... positive that [she] was starring in a great drama". She is also apparently manic-depressive, at times "untethered from the landmarks of life". (Annie's level of obsessiveness and mental illness does not come out of nowhere, however.)

Annie often has tender feelings towards Paul, but it's a "terrible bogus maternity", a facade that can quickly collapse into "a narrow watchfulness", a deep blackness.
The image of Annie Wilkes as an African idol out of She or King Solomon's Mines was both ludicrous and queerly apt. She was a big woman who, other than the large but unwelcoming swell of her bosom under the gray cardigan sweater she always wore, seemed to have no feminine curves at all - there was no defined roundness of hip or buttock or even calf ... Her body was big but not generous. There was a feeling about her of clots and roadblocks ...

Most of all she gave him a disturbing sense of solidity, as if she might not have any blood vessels or even internal organs; as if she might be only solid Annie Wilkes from side to side and top to bottom. ... Like an idol, she gave only one thing: a feeling of unease deepening steadily toward terror.
***

Paul recalls that when his more literary books had been published, his office was flooded with mail from bewildered and angry fans, readers who loved Misery Chastain and seemed "antagonistic to the very idea of change". The lovers of the Misery books hated his more serious work and the mainstream press scoffed at the romance novels.
So what was the truth? The truth, should you insist, was that the increasing dismissal of his work in the critical press as that of a "popular writer" (which was, as he understood it, one step - a small one - above that of a "hack") had hurt him quite badly. It didn't jibe with his self-image as a Serious Writer who was only churning out these shitty romances in order to subsidize his (flourish of trumpets, please!) REAL WORK!
At one point, Paul thinks that being a writer of popular fiction is "not something to apologize for, goddammit!"
[T]here are lots of guys out there who write a better prose line than I do and who have a better understanding of what people are really like and what humanity is supposed to mean. But if you want me to take you away, to scare you or involve you or make you cry or grin, yea, I can. I can bring it to you and keep bringing it until you holler uncle. I am able. I CAN.
[This gets into an interesting and thorny area of how we define various kinds of books and how we want to see ourselves as readers. On the opposite side of the room are those "guilty pleasures" (sometimes called "beach reading"), books we enjoy but feel embarrassed about admitting that we like. Why? Because it typecasts us as someone who we would like to believe we are not. We don't want other people to think of us as someone who likes those kinds of books (or who likes that song or that movie). It's something I hope to write about at some point in this project.]

***

Annie rejects Paul's first attempt at writing Misery's Return, saying that it's "a cheat".

As Dominick Grace writes:
Annie insists, for instance, that fiction requires a sort of provisional reality. Though she has already noted that the fiction writer is God to his creations and therefore presumably capable to doing literally whatever he wants, she nevertheless expects fiction to conform to reality in at least acceptably plausible ways. In a key passage in the book, she rejects Paul's first attempt at the new novel out of hand because he has simply ignored the ending of the previous book and resurrected Misery without explanation or logic. ... Furthermore, [Paul] recognizes that she has caught him trying to use a simple narrative trick to resolve his problem, and she's having none of it. Misery was dead and buried at the end of the previous novel, and that's where he has to start: Annie "would not allow him to kill Misery ... but neither would she allow him to cheat Misery back to life"). ... Consequently, the process of how an author goes about finding his way out of an apparently impossible narrative predicament becomes a major element in the next movement of the novel. The irony is that the novelist is also in an apparently inescapable predicament himself, and his hope for escaping his own death depends on him finding a way to resurrect Misery.

He does so, of course, but, tellingly, the germ of the idea of how he does so comes from Annie, not his own subconscious (which is imaged repeatedly in the novel as "the guys in the sweatshops," whose work is sending up flares, which represent ideas). ... She thereby becomes a sort of collaborator with Paul ...
Misery:
He had thought she was putting on an editor's hat - maybe even trying on a collaborator's chapeau, preparing to tell him what to write and how to write it. But that was not so. ... She saw the story's creative course as something outside of her hands, in spite of her obvious control of him. But some things simply could not be done. Creativity or the lack of it had no bearing on these things; to do them was as foolish as issuing a proclamation revoking the law of gravity or trying to play table-tennis with a brick. ... Constant Reader did not mean Constant Sap. ...

He understood how she could like what he had written and still know it was not right - know it and say it not with an editor's sometimes untrustworthy literary sophistication but with Constant Reader's flat and uncontradictable certainty. He understood, and was amazed to find he was ashamed of himself. She was right. He had written a cheat.
King's use of the phrase "Constant Reader" in this novel is very interesting. It first appears in the book a few pages earlier:
Annie Wilkes was the perfect audience, a woman who loved stories without having the slightest interest in the mechanics of making them. She was the embodiment of that Victorian archetype, Constant Reader. She did not want to hear about his concordance and indicies because to her Misery and the characters surrounding her were perfectly real.
I am shocked that King uses it to describe Annie because he had used it in the past - and, in fact, still uses it to this day - to refer to his loyal fans. It is a term used by the fans themselves. And King has sometimes referred to himself as Constant Writer.

***

At times during the novel, roles are reversed and Annie is the "author/creator" and Paul is positioned as a "reader". When she tells Paul about how she rescued him, she says: "I decided I would make you live." Listening to her, Paul feels "as if he was a character in a story or a play, a character whose history is not recounted as history but created as fiction". Annie's words connect to what she tells Paul after learning that Misery dies during childbirth in Misery's Child.
God takes us when He thinks it's time and a writer is God to the people in a story, he made them up just like God made US up and no one can get hold of God to make him explain, all right, okay, but as far as Misery goes ... I'll tell you that God just happens to have a couple of broken legs and God just happens to be in MY house eating MY food ... and ...
The act of writing is compared to giving birth - Paul recalls starting Fast Cars, walking around his apartment, "big with book ... and here were the labor pains".

In addition to rejecting Paul's first effort at Misery's Return, acting as an editor, Annie also suggests a possible plot device that Paul ends up using. And Annie is the author of Paul's days, allowing him to do only what she wants him to do, treating him like a character in the play of her life.

Although he spends his days writing, Paul also learns how to "read [Annie's] moods, her cycles", to make sure he does not upset her and have her withhold his painkillers (or inflict worse punishment on him). When Annie leaves the house for an extended period of time, Paul picks the bedroom door's lock and pushes himself around the house in a wheelchair. He finds and reads Annie's "Memory Lane" scrapbook, a series of news reports she has clipped and saved detailing the various murders she has committed through the years. Paul can't stop reading it. "In a weird way it was just too good to put down. It was like a novel so disgusting you just have to finish it." (Annie has achieved what Paul calls the "gotta" moment - the intoxicating hold a writer can have on a reader, bringing the reader to that point where he has gotta keep reading to find out what happens.)

***

King mentions John Fowles's debut novel The Collector twice in the novel, once when Paul wonders if Annie has the book on her shelf. (He decides not to ask her.) Another, more obvious, inspiration for King's story is One Thousand and One Nights, which includes the story of Scheherazade, who prolongs her life by leaving off the story she is telling to a murderous King at a suspenseful point each evening, to be continued the following night.

Paul is writing Misery's Return to please Annie and prevent her from torturing him (and also to keep himself from going insane), but he knows that once he finishes the novel, she will kill him. At some point in the process, Paul's writing becomes less about keeping Annie happy than as a way to escape thoughts of captivity and looming death. Paul becomes Scheherazade to himself. He relishes his spartan work schedule (however much it has been imposed upon him), his ability to disappear through "the hole in the page" every day, escape and lose himself in the creative act.

***

And, as a final note, I can report that for first time in the King Project, I was truly disturbed and repulsed by something in one of his books, squirming and not really wanting to look at the words, but driven to keep reading. If you've read Misery, you undoubtedly know what I am talking about. (It's the "hobbling" scene.)

Next: The Tommyknockers.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Choice Is Theirs

The American electoral system is broken beyond repair. There is little, if any, difference between the two major candidates, voter suppression is at an all-time high, and there exists the very real possibility that your vote will not be counted at all.

Since moving to Canada in 2005, I have not cast an absentee ballot in any U.S. election. Even if I was still living in New York, I would have stopped voting, as participating in the system is a tacit agreement that things are working properly. Although some progressives, such as Chris Hedges, continue to vote, I see no benefit in willingly taking part in a theatrical farce.

Chris Floyd, Empire Burlesque, October 24, 2012:
The Washington Post has just laid out, in horrifying, soul-slaughtering detail, the Obama Administration's ongoing effort to expand, entrench and "codify" the practice of murder and terrorism by the United States government. The avowed, deliberate intent of these sinister machinations is to embed the use of death squads and drone terror attacks into the policy apparatus of future administrations, so that the killing of human beings outside all pretense of legal process will go on, year after year after year, even when the Nobel Peace Laureate has left office. ...

Like last year's NY Times piece that first detailed the murder racket being run directly out of the White House, the new Washington Post story is replete with quotes from "senior Administration officials" who have obviously been authorized to speak. Once again, this is a story that Obama and his team WANT to tell. They want you to know about the murder program and their strenuous exertions to make it permanent; they are proud of this, they think it makes them look good. They want it to be part of their legacy, something they can pass on to future generations: arbitrary, lawless, systematic murder.

Perhaps this fact should be borne in mind by all those anguished progressives out there who keep telling themselves that Obama will "be different, that he will "turn to the left," if we can only get him a second term. No; the legacy of arbitrary, lawless, systematic murder is the legacy he wants. It is the legacy he has been building, with remarkable energy and meticulous attention to detail, day after day, week after week, for the past four years. This is what he cares about. And it is this -- not jobs, not peace, not the environment, not equal rights for women and ethnic and sexual minorities, not the poor, not the middle class, not education, not infrastructure, not science, not diplomacy -- that he will apply himself to in a second term. (Along with his only other political passion: forging a "grand bargain" with Big Money to gut the remaining shreds of the New Deal.)
Arthur Silber, Once Upon A Time..., October 20, 2012:
There is no evil beyond the claimed "right" to murder by arbitrary edict, to murder anyone, anywhere, anytime. If you support this particular evil -- and if you vote for Obama, you support it -- then you will support anything. ...

The claim of a "right" to murder anyone for any reason is the greatest expression of evil we can imagine. Both Obama and Romney claim the President has such a right. Obama has actualized his belief on many occasions. Any individual who claims such a right cannot, by definition, represent a "lesser evil" of any kind. He claims as his own the greatest evil possible.
Paul Craig Roberts, October 13, 2012:
There is no reason to vote for the reelection of a president who codified into law the Bush regime's destruction of the US Constitution, who went one step further and asserted the power to murder US citizens without due process of law, and who has done nothing to stop the exploitation of the American people by the one percent.

As Gerald Celente says in the Autumn Issue of the Trends Journal, when confronted with the choice between two evils, you don’t vote for the lesser evil. You boycott the election and do not vote. "Lesser or greater, evil is evil."

If Americans had any sense, no one would vote in the November election. Whoever wins the November election, it will be a defeat for the American people. ...

How will a Romney or Obama win be summed up? The answer will be in terms of which candidate is best for Israel's interest; which is best for Wall Street's interest, which is best for agribusiness; which is most likely to attack Iran; which is most likely to subject economic and war protesters to indefinite detention as domestic extremists.

The only people who will benefit from the election of either Romney or Obama are those associated with the private oligarchies that rule America.
Chris Floyd, Empire Burlesque, September 25, 2012:
Again -- and we've said here over and over, for months, even years: when you vote for one of the factions in the imperial power bloc -- Democrat or Republican -- this is what you are supporting. You are empowering, enabling and associating yourself with an extremist regime that visits bin Laden-like terror on innocent people, day after day, night after night: killing them, traumatizing them, deranging their lives, destroying their families, their hopes and dreams. This is what you are voting for, you stalwart Tea Party patriots. This is what you are voting for, you earnest humanitarian progressives. This and nothing else but this: terror, murder, fear and ruin, in a never-ending, self-perpetuating, all-devouring cycle.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stephen King: The Dark Tower II: The Drawing Of The Three (1987)

The Drawing of the Three, the second book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, begins roughly seven hours after the end of The Gunslinger, as Roland awakes from a confused dream on the beach of the Western Sea after his meeting with the Man in Black.

He is quickly set upon by several mutant lobsters ("lobstrosities") and loses two fingers on his right hand and a big toe. As he makes his way along the deserted and seemingly endless beach, growing weaker from infection, Roland will encounter three separate doors. Each door is a portal into "our" world - specifically, New York City at three different times - and it is through these doors that Roland will draw the people who will become his ka-tet*, his companions on his journey to the Dark Tower.

* According to the Dark Tower Glossary, Ka "signifies life force, consciousness, duty, and destiny" and tet is "a group of people with the same interests and goals".

Passing through the first door (on which is inscribed "The Prisoner") puts Roland in the mind of Eddie Dean, a heroin addict, who is at that moment (in 1987) on a flight into New York City, attempting to smuggle two pounds of cocaine for a drug lord named Enrico Balazar. At first, Eddie is more than a little freaked out to hear this other commanding voice in his head, but by the time the flight lands, he has adjusted, and Roland (who has tipped Eddie off that the flight crew is suspicious) has formulated a plan to get him safely through customs. Later, their bond is cemented when they survive an intense shootout with Balazar's goons. Eddie is also able to get some medicine for Roland's infection.

The second door ("The Lady of Shadows") brings Roland to 1964 and into the mind of Odetta Holmes/Detta Walker, a wealthy, disabled black woman involved in the civil rights movement. Odetta became schizophrenic after being struck on the head by a falling brick when she was five years old; Detta is her other personality, though each personality is not aware of the existence of the other.

That falling brick was not an accident. It was dropped on her by a sociopath named Jack Mort, who Roland encounters when he ventures through the third door ("The Pusher") and emerges in 1977. Mort is also responsible for pushing the adult Odetta onto the subway tracks where a train cut off her legs above the knees*. (Continuing the coincidences and connections, Mort also pushed Jake to his death in The Gunslinger, which causes Jake to be at the waystation at which Roland found him. (In this book, however, Roland prevents Mort from pushing Jake in front of the car; apparently, King will deal with this contradiction in the next volume.))

* Later in the book, King commits a big goof and has the A train come into the Christopher Street subway station. Christopher Street is used by the 1 train.

In the process of killing Jack Mort, Roland is also able to fuse the two personalities of Odetta into one woman*, who becomes Susannah Dean. (Susannah is Odetta's middle name. Eddie had fallen in love with Odetta while walking on the beach between the second and third doors, and although there is no marriage or other ceremony in the book, she has taken his name.)

* This process is hard to explain succinctly and seems, like some plot twists in the book, more than little contrived.

From The Complete Stephen King Universe:
[A]lthough they cross many miles of ground, that in itself does not feel like progress. The progress in this tale is almost entirely internal. ... [T]he only real progress is in the preparation to reach the Tower. The team is molded, the bonds are formed, almost as though these were necessary rituals.
Once King determined he would return to the Gunslinger, and had a clearer idea of where he wanted to take his story, he needed to lay the foundation for the later volumes - establishing the backstory and identity of the main characters. That is what The Drawing of the Three does - and it gets a bit dull in places.

King's Afterword (written in December 1986) states that the Dark Tower series will contain six or seven books. He gives the titles for the next two: The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass, which arrived in 1991 and 1997, respectively. King admits that he is both surprised and grateful at the reception the first volume received.
This work seems to be my own Tower, you know; these people haunt me, Roland most of all. Do I really know what that Tower is, and what awaits Roland there ...? Yes ... and no. All I know is that the tale has called to me again and again over a period of seventeen years.
Next: Misery.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Top 10 Favourite Books of King and Wallace

Top 10 Favourite Books

Stephen King

1. The Golden Argosy, edited by Van H. Cartmell and Charles Grayson
2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
3. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
4. McTeague, by Frank Norris
5. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
6. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
7. 1984, by George Orwell
8. The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott
9. Light in August, by William Faulkner
10. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

David Foster Wallace

1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
2. The Stand, by Stephen King
3. Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris
4. The Thin Red Line, by James Jones
5. Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
6. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
7. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
8. Fuzz, by Ed McBain
9. Alligator, by Shelley Katz
10. The Sum of all Fears, by Tom Clancy

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stephen King: The Eyes Of The Dragon (1987)

Stephen King wrote this fantasy tale (originally called The Napkins) for his daughter, Naomi Rachel King, who was then about 12 or 13, after she complained that she did not like reading his horror stories. One of the book's characters is an extremely brave and resourceful farm girl named Naomi Reechul.

The Eyes of the Dragon was originally published as a limited edition by King's own Philtrum Press in 1984. (King once explained that he published certain books - like Cycle of the Werewolf or The Gunslinger - in limited editions because he did not think they would be well-received by most of his fans.)

Although it was seen as a departure for King, The Eyes of the Dragon is not that dissimilar from several of his earlier novels. The levels of horror and gore have been turned way down, but there is plenty of magic and supernatural elements - and good prevails in the end because a group of people work selflessly to defeat an obstinate evil.

The story is set in the Kingdom of Delain, and concerns the fortunes of Peter and Thomas, the two sons of King Roland. Peter, the eldest, is a handsome and strong-willed young man who has inherited his mother's good looks and his father's love of the common folk. Everyone agrees that one day he will make a magnificent king. Thomas, who is not so smart or athletic or good-looking, muddles along in the shadow of Peter's glow, and is barely acknowledged by his father.

The third major character in the story is an evil magician named Flagg, who is also King Roland's closest advisor. Unbeknownst to the royal family, Flagg seeks to sow rebellion and chaos in the kingdom. He conspires to poison the King and have Peter framed for the crime. Peter's hasty trial and imprisonment in the Needle (a 300-foot tower in the center of town) leaves the unprepared Thomas as King, and Thomas ends up begging Flagg to remain in the palace as his advisor.

On Thomas's first night as King, he has a nightmare in which his father appears and rages: "He's killed me . . . how could you see your brother imprisoned for it?" Thomas did indeed witness Flagg giving Roland the fatal glass of wine, but discovers that he likes being King and if Peter is released, he'll have to step down. So he puts these thoughts out of his mind. But Thomas will soon learn that "guilt and secrets never rest easy".

Although Thomas sits on the throne, Flagg is now King in every way except name, and he institutes several draconian measures, including higher taxes, to foment disgust and thoughts of revolt amid the people of Delain. Flagg - who is hundreds of years old and has visited Delain in various guises over the centuries - is sometimes referred to as "the dark man". (Yes, he is the same evil Flagg from The Stand.)

Kings slips in a few references to some of his other novels. He uses the term "wild work", a phrase from Dracula that appears in Pet Sematary, refers to Flagg as "a monster . . . some horrible It", and sends various characters crawling through sewer pipes (It, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Running Man). Peter's idea for escape from the Needle and his extraordinary patience in carrying it out reminded me strongly of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank. Also, before the book's original publication, King told Douglas Winter that The Eyes of the Dragon is set in the Territories, the parallel world of The Talisman. "[Flagg] likes to go back and forth from our world to theirs – and to others as well." (I did not notice any obvious references to the Territories, though.)

King's narrative style is that of a classic fairy tale. The book begins, "Once, in the kingdom of Delain . . . " and has the tone of a parent reading a story to a child. Which is apt, considering its genesis. Some samples:
[S]pying, sad to say, has its own attraction. When you can see people doing something and they don't see you, even the most trivial actions seem important. After awhile, Thomas began to feel a little ashamed of what he was doing, and that was not really surprising. Spying on a person is a kind of stealing, after all - it's stealing a look at what people do when they think they are alone. But that is also one of its chief fascinations . . .

Invisibility was out of his reach, but by . . . reciting a number of spells, it was possible [for Flagg] to become dim. When one was dim and a servant approached along a passageway, one simply drew aside and stood still and let the servant pass. In most cases, the servant's eyes would drop to his own feet or suddenly find something interesting to look at on the ceiling. If one passed through a room, conversation would falter, and people would look momentarily distressed . . . Torches and wall scones grew smoky. Candles sometimes blew out. It was necessary to actually hide when one was dim only if one saw someone whom one knew well - for, whether one was dim or not, these people almost always saw. Dimness was useful, but it was not invisibility. . . .

Did they live happily after ever? They did not. No one ever does, in spite of what the stories may say. They had their good days, as you do, and they had their bad days, and you know about those. They had their victories, as you do, and they had their defeats, and you know about those, too. There were times when they felt ashamed of themselves, knowing they had not done their best, and there were times when they knew they had stood where their God had meant them to stand. All I'm trying to say is that they lived as well as they could, each and every one of them; some lived longer than others, but all lived well, and bravely, and I love them all, and am not ashamed of my love.
Next: The Dark Tower II: The Drawing Of The Three.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Stephen King: It (1986)

"Can an entire city be haunted?"

In early 1985, a serial murderer is on the loose in Derry, Maine. Several children have been found dead, some mutilated, with limbs missing. Michael Hanlon, the head of the Derry library and the town's unofficial historian, believes the murders are connected to the return of something that has infected Derry throughout its history.
"I think what was here before is still here – the thing that was here in 1957 and 1958; the thing that was here in 1929 and 1930 when the Black Spot was burned down by the Maine Legion of Decency; the thing that was here in 1904 and 1905 and early 1906 – at least until the Kitchener Ironworks exploded; the thing that was here in 1876 and 1877, the thing that has shown up every twenty-seven years or so. Sometimes it comes a little sooner, sometimes a little later . . . but it always comes. . . .

"I think of us standing in the water, handed clasped, making that promise to come back if it ever started again – standing there almost like Druids in a ring . . ."
It is the story of a group of 11-year-olds – a self-described Losers Club – who in 1958 fought an alien, murdering presence in their hometown. However, they did not succeed in destroying this shape-shifting presence, which they called It. Twenty-seven years later, It's "feeding cycle" has begun again and, fulfilling that promise they made as kids, the friends reunite in Derry and attempt to kill It for good.

As he did in 'Salem's Lot, King reveals the "dark and ruined heart" of a small 1950s New England town. In the case of Derry, evil and apathy – a kind of moral amnesia – has infected the entire community. Derry's murder rate is six times higher than any other town of comparable size (30,000) in New England. Dozens of children – mostly teenagers – go missing each year. Child abuse seems common, if not rampant. Raw sewage is dumped into the Kenduskeag River, and racist and homophobic graffiti is scrawled along the rocky sides of the canal that flows through town. In response to the spate of murders, town officials institute a curfew, but do little else; the investigations into the murders appear half-hearted. One long-time resident tells Hanlon: "Hurtful things do right well in the soil of this town".

Things have never been right in Derry, and we eventually learn why. The town was settled on the exact landing spot of It (from deep space, apparently) tens of thousands of years ago. The dark events and long trail of death associated with the town go back to its founding, when the original community of about 340 English settlers simply disappeared in the late summer of 1741. Four interludes in the book are presented as Hanlon's notes/diary entries for a history of Derry, subtitled "A Look Through Hell's Back Door". (King's original title for the novel was Derry.)

***

King saw this gargantuan novel (1138 pages) as the culmination of the first phase of his writing career, and his magnum opus (at least until the Dark Tower series got rolling). He said that after It, he would not write any more books with children as the main characters. This was his final word on the subject.
[It is] a summation of everything I have learned and done in my whole life to this point. And it's like a monster rally – everything is in this book, every monster you could think of. . . .

It was like a final exam covering this subject. It was a very difficult imaginative feat; not thinking up monsters, because they are easy enough to produce, but . . . reenter[ing] the world of childhood. It had to be a very gradual process to open the time and mindset of my own childhood. The more I worked at it, the more this frame of reference became accessible. . . .

I have always been fascinated with my own childhood. I was fascinated as an adult with the period when my own children were growing up. And I'm interested in the mythic power that childhood holds over our imagination and, in particular, the point at which the adult is able to link up with his or her own childhood past and the powers therein.
King called the novel "a final summing up of everything I've tried to say in the last twelve years on the two central subjects of my fiction: monsters and children".

King began work on It in 1981, shortly after finishing Danse Macabre, his history of the horror genre, and his research for that book, and its bits of autobiography, served him well over the four years he worked on this novel. As he noted, It is a compendium of horror, alluding to numerous books, film, fairy tales, folklore, and to many of King's own novels and stories (for example, The Shining's Dick Halloran makes an cameo as a young Army cook in a 1930 flashback).

The Losers Club – Bill Denbrough, Ben Hanscom, Richie Tozier, Beverly Marsh, Eddie Kaspbrak, Stan Uris, and Mike Hanlon – are exact contemporaries of King. They – like their author – were 11 years old during the summer of 1958.

King mentioned some of the autobiographical material shortly after the book's publication:
Derry 1958 is Stratford, Connecticut, where I was eleven. That's where The Barrens were, and Eddie Kasbrak (when we moved back to Maine his last words to me were, "I guess that's all, bastard-ball!"), and Mr. Nell, who used to buy my brother and me apple pie a la mode at the Stratford Diner. There was a dam in the Barrens; my brother showed us how to build it, and yeah, the cops showed up, Mr. Nell among them.
King uses all of this in It. The Losers spend their summer vacation, and build their underground clubhouse (and join together for an epic rock fight against Henry Bowers and his fellow bullies), in a overgrown, wooded area in Derry called the Barrens. One afternoon, a few of the boys construct a dam, which floods the area and brings a cop named Mr. Nell to investigate. And one of the Losers is named Eddie Kaspbrak. (In addition, King based the murder of Adrian Mellon on the actual death of Charlie Howard, a gay man who was beaten and thrown into the Kenduskeag Stream by three teenagers around the time of Bangor's sesquicentennial celebration in 1984.)

King says he wrote It
in two parallel lines: the story of what they did as kids and the story of what they're doing as grownups. . . . I'm interested in the notion of finishing off one's childhood as one completes making a wheel. The idea is to go back and confront your childhood, in a sense relive it if you can, so that you can be whole.
Michael Collings, who has written extensively about King's fiction, says that when the old friends reunite in Derry, they realize they must re-capture the essence and innocence of childhood, "their willingness to believe implicitly in what they know experientially about Pennywise the Clown [It's most common disguise] . . . to return to that state of belief, bolstered this time by adult strength and perseverance."

King makes the connection between child-like faith and the destruction of It implicit. Back in 1958, It realized that the children had
discovered an alarming secret that even It had not been aware of: that belief has a second edge. If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one – probably a child – who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it. But a stake is only stupid wood; the mind is the mallet that drives it home.
It has waited until the children have grown up before luring them back with the next round of killings. Destroying It as adults is a daunting task; as one of the Losers says, "our perspectives have narrowed; our faith in the magic . . . has worn off". It assumes that the adults, now nearly 40 years of age, will have lost all contact with the feelings of childhood, and will be unable to generate the force necessary to destroy It.
And now, now that we no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Hansel and Gretel, or the troll under the bridge, It is ready for us. Come on back, It says. . . . Come on back, and we'll see if you remember the simplest thing of all: how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.
***

King again explores how kids can incorporate the supernatural into their worldview easier than adults. In this case, that mental malleability makes them better equipped to acknowledge and battle It:
[Ben] remembered that the day after he had seen the mummy on the iced-up Canal, his life had gone on as usual. He had known that whatever it had been had come very close to getting him, but his life had gone on . . . He had simply incorporated the thing he had seen on the Canal into his life, and if he had almost been killed by it . . . well, kids were always almost getting killed. . . . [I]t occurred to him that kids were better at almost dying, and they were better at incorporating the inexplicable into their lives. They believed implicitly in the invisible world. . . . But when you grew up, all that changed. You no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window . . .
But how does this view co-exist with another theme of King's: of kids being obsessed by/with their fears, of being afraid to fall asleep or even drape their hand over the side of the bed for fear of what might be lurking under the bed? These seem like two very different theories. On the one hand, the inexplicable is readily accepted (Ben nearly dies, but he quickly forgets the danger). But on the other hand, kids cannot let go of their fears and they obsess on them (At the very start of the novel, George Denbrough is afraid to go down into the cellar, fearing that just before he turns on the light, "some horrible clawed paw would settle lightly over his wrist . . . and then jerk him down into the darkness that smelled of dirt and wet and dim rotted vegetables").

***

Collings writes that, in It, King continues his exploration of
the child forced to confront the adult world without any support or understanding. Beginning with Rage [begun when King was in high school], King has continually pitted the innocent world of the child against the harsh, cynical, hypocritical world of adults . . . usually to the detriment of the child.
After Bill Denbrough's six-year-old brother George is killed in late 1957 – the murder seems to kick off It's latest "feeding cycle" – Bill is ignored by his grieving parents. (His situation recalls that of Gordie LaChance in The Body.) Bill understands that he must manage his own grief and "find a decent way to go on", and because his parents are unable to help him, he must do it himself (or with the help of his friends). Bill admits being terrified by the sight of his father crying, which opened up a "frightening possibility . . . maybe sometimes things just didn't go wrong and then stop; maybe sometimes they just kept going wronger and wronger until everything was totally fucked up".

Likewise, when the reality of George Denbrough's death hits Richie Tozier, he realizes that anyone could die at any time.
[A]ll the idiot truth of death crashed home to Richie for the first time. It was as if a large iron safe had fallen into his brain and buried itself there. I could die! his mind screamed at him suddenly in tones of betrayed horror. Anybody could! . . . Shit! Fucking anybody!
It is full of riffs on childhood, like this:
[Ben] understood instinctively, as most kids did, that they lived below the sight-lines, and hence the thought-lines, of most adults. When a grownup was ditty-bopping down the street, thinking his grownup thoughts about work and appointments and buying cars and whatever else grownups thought about, he never noticed kids playing hopscotch or guns or kick-the-can or ring-a-levio or hide-and-go-seek. Bullies like Henry could get away with hurting other kids quite a lot if they were careful to stay below that sightline. At the very most, a passing adult was apt to say something like, "Why don't you quit that?" and then just continue ditty-bopping along without waiting to see if the bully stopped or not. So the bully would wait until the grownup had turned the corner . . . and then go back to business as usual. It was like adults thought that real life only started when a person was five feet tall.
Collings says that as both the 1958 and 1985 battles with It are described, the novel
approaches the mythic, a sense that increases as the adult/children themselves draw closer to their final meeting with It. In describing that meeting, King almost ignores physical violence and force to allow the battle to take on a psychological, emotional, and spiritual nature.
Despite It being an kind of encyclopedia of childhood and horror, the novel has an intimacy and warmth that none of King's previous novels possess. It is a remarkable achievement and is worthy of additional literary analysis.

Next: The Eyes Of The Dragon.