Saturday, February 18, 2012

Frightened By Fiction

Can I be frightened by a book?

Whether it is age, my experience as a writer, or simply the way my brain works, I don't think I can. When I'm reading fiction, some part of my brain is always dissecting the sentences and thinking about how the author put everything together. I get analytical, looking at the book as a created object, rather than as a world to disappear into. I often feel like I'm reading the book over the writer's shoulder, while he or she is banging it out on the typewriter/keyboard. (Movies are another matter entirely.)

I have wanted to read a few of Stephen King's books for awhile. I read On Writing last November and I recently found some of his books in the communal eating area at work, and gave them a nice home! Since the start of the year, I have read both It and The Stand. Both novels qualify as the type of doorstops I like spend time with and they are generally regarded as two of his finest books.

A blogger named Dan began a project of reading every King book in chronological order – he hit a wall after about a year – and re 'Salem's Lot, he wrote: "Much is made of the necessity for suspension of belief among the main characters (i.e., if you refuse to even entertain the possibility of vampires, you've already lost), and this lesson is not lost on the reader: we must accept that these things are real if we are to truly feel a chill down our spines when a branch scrapes the window in the dead of night."

While I enjoyed (generally speaking) both It and The Stand, I was not anxious or scared or afraid to read on, as many people say they are with King's books. (Perhaps these books do not lend themselves to those emotions?) King is eminently readable, a masterful storyteller, and I was drawn back to the books night after night. I am not completely against the supernatural; there is a wraith interacting with various characters in Infinite Jest, after all. I suppose it's a matter of degree. But that might be enough of a nail in the coffin for a lot of King's work.

Parts of It were wonderfully written, the camaraderie of the characters at age 11-12 was fantastic. But the climatic showdown with the murderous evil that haunts Derry was too much. It ended up being mere words on the page.

I had better luck with The Stand. Originally published in 1978, King came out with a "complete, uncut" version of the novel in 1990. It was (more or less) what he first submitted to his publisher. With roughly 400-500 manuscript pages added back in, my paperback totals 1,141 pages. 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.

I read a handful of King's books as a teenager in the early '80s and I want to go back to some of that early stuff and give it another shot. I also want - in the wake of On Writing - to read the books in which he explores the idea of creativity, or writing itself – Misery, The Dark Half, and Duma Key, among others. And I'm curious about the shorter novels he published under the name Richard Bachman in the late '70s.


laura k said...

Interesting! I am more affected emotionally by reading than movies. I don't know about fear - I never read scary books - but certain disturbing scenes I've read have stayed with me for years, seemingly forever. (Cormac McCarthy comes to mind.)

With good writing, the words bring the image into my head in a much deeper way than a visual image would - a movie would be superficial by comparison.

I also do that analytical, meta-reading thing, too, but only if the writing is mediocre. If the writing is good enough, I disappear into it.

M@ said...

I read The Stand quite a while ago, and while the concept of the disease is scary (and more and more relevant nowadays) I agree that I wasn't actually scared by the book. And I don't know whether I've been scared by a book either.

I wouldn't call myself a fan of King and I've only read a few of his books, very few of them his horror books. King is kind of an interesting case. There's no question he has the skill, as an author, to compel you to read and keep reading his books. But when he leaves the horror ideas behind he becomes a very, very interesting author.

The Bachman books are excellent, as far as I'm concerned, particularly the Long Walk.

allan said...

The way King described the disease spreading from person to person was remarkable. Almost off-handed, which only increased the horrific aspect of it. It's probably the main thing I'll remember from the book.

Matt: Which non-horror books are you thinking of?