Friday, June 29, 2012

Stephen King: Cujo (1981)

I love Cujo. It does what I want books to do.
It feels like a brick thrown through somebody's window ... 
It feels anarchic, like a punk rock record.
Stephen King

Douglas Winter, in his book Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, asks: After six novels and "a pattern of increasingly monolithic evil", coupled with various sociopolitical fears, what could be worse? With Cujo, King answers: Reality.

The main plot of Cujo is well-known, even to people who have never read the book: a mother and her young son are trapped in their car during the heat of summer and terrorized for several days by a rabid, 200-pound St. Bernard. Indeed, the dog's name has become part of popular culture, in much the same way as Lolita and Catch-22.

But there are other themes that King explores in Cujo, and that is what I want to write about. Loneliness, the failure of humans to truly understand each other, fate and random chance and, for the first time, the death of a young child (which King unpacks at length in Pet Sematary).

Cujo is framed as a fairy tale. It begins:
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a monster came to the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.
It opens on the fears of four-year-old Tad Trenton, who is terrified that there is a monster lurking in his closet. At the very end of the story, the narrator says that "so far as I know" (one of only two instances of "I" in the book) the bones of the rabbit that Cujo chased into a small bat cave remain there.

Cujo also can be read as a sequel of sorts to The Dead Zone - not a sequel as far as plot, but of place: King's fictional town of Castle Rock. The serial killings committed by police officer Frank Dodd are mentioned in the book's first few sentences and, much later on, Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman makes an appearance.

Cujo is an intensely written novel; it moves with seemingly instinctive pace, sustaining a relentless, and often disagreeable, tension. It is a harrowing reading experience, uncompromising in its terror and suspense, yet imbued with humor, warmth, and a deep sense of the human condition, of which fear is after all, only an element. As in his earlier novels, King evokes the horror of Cujo not by a concatentation [sic] of circumstances but by the exposition and understanding of characters.
Some readers were furious with King for having young Tad Trenton die while trapped in his parents' overheated Pinto, but while King himself was not fully comfortable with the book's pessimism, it was what the story demanded:
You can't continue to write this kind of thing over and over again and finish up by saying, "Oh, yes, and the kid was all right. God took care of him again, folks. Go to bed. Go to sleep. Don't worry." Because they die. Kids get run over ... People pick them up and take them away forever. Crib death. Leukemia. It isn't a large percentage - most of them do fine. But it has to be put into the equation; the possibility that there is no God and nothing works for the best.
As with most of King's novels, the real horror is not vampires or haunted hotels or fire-starting young girls. The true horror is the unpredictability of everyday life, and the actions of our fellow humans. In that respect, King's work differs from the brand of horror fiction that serves as an escape from reality, with surreal, exotic, futuristic places and plots. King's horror is grounded in our world (his much-criticized use of brand names being good evidence of that), in situations that all of us have either been in or can easily imagine being in.

In the novella "The Mist", published in 1980 and collected in 1985's Skeleton Crew, King writes:
When the machines fail . . . when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching into the night can seem pretty cheerful compares to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.
A strong undercurrent in Cujo is the fear of aging, of growing up and growing old. (King was 30 years old when he began writing the novel.)

Victor Trenton tells his younger advertising partner, Roger Breakstone, of the vast difference in perspective between the ages of 31 and 42. (Vic is also terrified of what will become of his career and family if he loses the Sharp Cereal account. The dissolution of the American dream is another common King theme.)

Holly Camber looks at her sister, Charity, and sees that her beauty has prematurely faded. And Charity, trapped in a stifling, abusive marriage she knows she will not leave, wants to broaden her 10-year-old son's view of the world before his father's damaging influence becomes too strong.

Steve Kemp - perhaps the greatest evil presence in this story - lives an aimless existence, driving a van with desert murals on the sides, acting like he is still in college, and running from all responsibility.

And Donna Trenton has moved with her husband and son from New York City to rural Maine, but she hates it. Vic, ignorant of her feelings as he pursues his career, actually assumes Donna is glad to be away from the dangers of the big city. The move has been great for Vic - he has never felt so alive - but he has paid little attention to the concerns of his wife.

Donna is terrified of drifting into the mundane life of a housewife, and that fear leads her to have a brief affair with Kemp. After she ends the relationship, Kemp retaliates, spilling the beans in an anonymous letter to Vic. Donna tries to explain to Vic why she did it:
I got so I was spending enough time in front of the mirror to see how my face was changing, how no one was ever going to mistake me for a teenager again or ask to see my driver's license when I ordered a drink in a bar. I started to be afraid because I grew up after all. . . .

It's more [than growing and feeling old]. It's knowing you can't wait any longer to be a grownup, or wait any longer to make your peace with what you have. It's knowing that your choices are being narrowed almost daily. For a woman - no, for me - that's a brutal thing to have to face.
Later, trapped in her car and considering various means of possible escape from Cujo, Donna thinks: "In matters of life and death, the right time only comes around once - once and then it's gone."

The big dog is thus a personification, a cumulation, of our everyday fears - horrors woven from the dark strands of the American social fabric: decaying marriage, economic woes, malfunctioning automobiles, and junk food. Cujo affirms the irony of Stephen King's popular success: we are obsessed with fear, running sacred of our daily lives, where we can no longer trust the food we eat, our machines, our neighbor's dog, or even ourselves. . . . We are trapped by a reality as loathsome and ambiguous as the good dog gone bad - trapped between an uncertain future and an unreachable past, unable to tell guilt from innocence or true identity from false, unable to believe or to be comfortable in our unbelief.

King again reminds us of the minimal amount of control we have over the course of our lives.

Donna, trapped in the car and wondering if anyone will come along to rescue her (she is the fairy tale's damsel in distress) and Tad, muses about the series of coincedences - "utterly random but mimicking a kind of sentient fate" - that has brought her to this point.

When sisters Holly and Charity talk over the past, they have an unspoken agreement to leave out the bad parts (perhaps because "Holly would recognize that she might have escaped a similar marriage or similar life, by the thinnest of margins. . . . The two of them had discovered it was all right to open the closets . . . as long as you didn't poke too far back in them. Because things might still be lurking there, ready to bite.")

Holly won life's lottery, and married well - with a purse full of credit cards and a house filled with shiny appliances to show for it, while Charity is ruled by a petty tyrant. She is so beaten down she is barely aware of an alternative - until she and her son, Brett, visit Holly.


The ultimate What If? in Cujo is Tad's death. Back in the late '70s, King said that his biggest fear was walking into one of his children's rooms and finding his daughter or one of his sons dead.

When Donna realizes that Tad is no longer alive, she thinks: "It was impossible. No God, no fate, could be so monstrously cruel. . . . Her son was not dead; she had not gone through this hell for her son to be dead, and it simply would not be. It would not be."

Vic wonders: "Why? Why had something like this been allowed to happen? How could so many events have conspired together?"

Back at the beginning of the book, when Tad was afraid of the monster in his closet, his father had written a poem intended for Tad to recite to keep the monsters away. Vic sees the crumbled sheet of Monster Words in the back seat of the car.
The paper was a sentimental lie . . . It was all a lie. Ther world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary.

In this story, that element of fate is not limited to humans. Cujo was a big playful dog who wanted nothing more than to please his boy and maybe chase a rabbit or two, though he knew he was too old to be chasing rabbits. It is heartbreaking when King takes us into the dog's mind as the rabies takes over, pushing out his good habits and thoughts and allowing confusion, pain, and anger to become all there is. And despite the horrific violence Cujo metes out, King evokes empathy for the dog right up to the end.
It would perhaps not be amiss to point out that he had always wanted to be a good dog. . . . He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor.

In On Writing, King bluntly addresses his alcoholism and drug abuse: when it started, how it evolved, and how he was forced to confront his addictions. He admits that he has little memory of writing Cujo.
There's one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all. I don't say that with pride or shame, only with a vague sense of sorrow and loss. I like that book. I wish I could remember enjoying the good parts as I put them down on the page.
Next: The Running Man (as Richard Bachman).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Stephen King: Danse Macabre (1981)

Danse Macabre is a look at the history of the horror phenomenon in books, comics, movies, radio, and TV over a thirty-year period (1950-80; the book was published in 1981). King also discusses the genre's influence on American popular culture and its enormous influence on his own writing.

King goes back to the 19th century for the bedrock texts of the genre - Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Frankenstein - and traces their development, evolution, and long-lasting influence. He discusses the important works of H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Bloch, and Henry S. Whitehead. He talks about several books at length, including Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers (1955), Peter Straub's Ghost Story (1979), and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962).

It is fascinating reading, especially for someone fairly ignorant of the genre like myself. And while some of the book could be labelled as academic, King maintains the informative, conversational tone for which he is well-known.

Some snips from the book:

This book is intended to be an informal overview of where the horror genre has been over the last thirty years, and not an autobiography of yours truly. The autobiography of a father, writer, and ex-high school teacher would make dull reading indeed. I am a writer by trade, which means that the most interesting things that have happened to me have happened in my dreams.

But because I am a horror novelist and also a child of my times, and because I believe that horror does not horrify unless the reader or viewer has been personally touched, you will find the autobiographical element constantly creeping in. Horror in real life is an emotion that one grapples with — as I grappled with the realization that the Russians had beaten us into space — all alone. It is a combat waged in the secret recesses of the heart.

I believe that we are all ultimately alone and that any deep and lasting human contact is nothing more nor less than a necessary illusion—but at least the feelings which we think of as "positive" and "constructive" are a reaching out, an effort to make contact and establish some sort of communication. Feelings of love and kindness, the ability to care and empathize, are all we know of the light. They are efforts to link and integrate; they are the emotions which brings us together, if not in fact then at least in a comforting illusion that makes the burden of mortality a little easier to bear.

Horror, terror, fear, panic: these are the emotions which drive wedges between us, split us off from the crowd, and make us alone. It is paradoxical that feelings and emotions we associate with the "mob instinct" should do this, but crowds are lonely places to be, we're told, a fellowship with no love in it. The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are melodies of disestablishment and disintegration ... but another paradox is that the ritual outletting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again. . . .

The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools -- to dismantle themselves. The term catharsis is as old as Greek drama, and it has been used rather too glibly by some practitioners in my field to justify what they do, but it still has its limited uses here. The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing ... and it may well be that the mass-media dream of horror can sometimes becomes a nationwide analysts' couch.
Horror movies and horror novels have always been popular, but every ten or twenty years they seem to enjoy a cycle of increased popularity and visibility. These periods almost always seem to coincide with periods of fairly serious economic and/or political strain, and the books and films seem to reflect those free-floating anxieties (for want of a better term) which accompany such serious but not mortal dislocations. They have done less well in periods when the American people have been faced with outright examples of horror in their own lives.
Let's talk monsters.

Exactly what is a monster?

Begin by assuming that the tale of horror, no matter how primitive, is allegorical by its very nature; that it is symbolic.

Assume that it is talking to us, like a patient on a psychoanalyst's couch, about one thing while it means another. I am not saying that horror is consciously allegorical or symbolic; that is to suggest an artfulness that few writers of horror fiction or directors of horror films aspire to. . . .

Horror appeals to us because it says, in a symbolic way, things we would be afraid to say right out straight, with the bark still on; it offers us a chance to exercise (that's right; not exorcise but exercise) emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand. The horror film is an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy—to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give in to our most craven fears. Perhaps more than anything else, the horror story or horror movie says it's okay to join the mob, to become the total tribal being, to destroy the outsider. . . .

When we turn to the creepy movie or the crawly book, we are not wearing our "Everything works out for the best" hats. We're waiting to be told what we so often suspect — that everything is turning to shit.
[K]ids are the perfect audience for horror. The paradox is this: children, who are physically quite weak, lift the weight of unbelief with ease. . . .

The irony of all this is that children are better able to deal with fantasy and terror on its own terms than their elders are. . . .

A certain amount of fantasy and horror in a child's life seems to me a perfectly okay, useful sort of thing. Because of the size of their imaginative capacity, children are able to handle it, and because of their unique position in life, they are able to put such feelings to work. They understand their position very well, too. Even in such a relatively ordered society as our own, they understand that their survival is a matter almost totally out of their hands.

Children are "dependents" up until the age of eight or so in every sense of the word; dependent on mother and father (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) not only for food, clothing, and shelter, but dependent on them not to crash the car into a bridge abutment, to meet the school bus on time, to walk them home from Cub Scouts or Brownies, to buy medicines with childproof caps, dependent on them to make sure they don't electrocute themselves while screwing around with the toaster ... Running directly counter to this necessary dependence is the survival directive built into all of us. The child realizes his or her essential lack of control, and I suspect it is this very realization which makes the child uneasy. It is the same sort of free-floating anxiety that many air travelers feel. They are not afraid because they believe air travel to be unsafe; they are afraid because they have surrendered control, and if something goes wrong all they can do is sit there clutching air-sick bags or the inflight magazine. To surrender control runs counter to the survival directive. Conversely, while a thinking, informed person may understand intellectually that travel by car is much more dangerous than flying, he or she is still apt to feel much more comfortable behind the wheel, because she/he has control . . . or at least an illusion of it.
[N]o one is exactly sure of what they mean on any given subject until they have written their thoughts down; I similarly believe that we have very little understanding of what we have thought until we have submitted those thoughts to others who are at least as intelligent as ourselves.
Next: Cujo.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Stephen King: Roadwork (as Richard Bachman) (1981)

"What he did later he did with no conscious thought of the future or consequences."

Roadwork is a bleak, dark tale of a man grieving over his dead son, abdicating his responsibilities, and impotently fighting back against impersonal forces far beyond his control. It is thick with despair and depression, and a brittle, black humour. It was published in paperback in March 1981 as Richard Bachman's third novel.

Like King's other works of the period, there is also paranoia regarding the government, a loss of faith in civilization, and the casual dehumanization of the individual set against a society that is (allegedly) progressing.

Bart Dawes, 40 years old, cannot accept the finality of the news that his city is building a highway extension, the path of which will go through both his place of employment and the home he shares with his wife, Mary. Their son, Charlie, died of a brain tumour three years ago.

Unbeknownst to Mary, Bart has refused to find another home and, as the man in middle management charged with finding a new facility for the Blue Ribbon Laundry, he has sabotaged that relocation project, too. He quits before he can be fired. When she finds out about his now-former job, Mary moves out and considers filing for divorce. Bart begins drinking, spending his nights driving aimlessly, and plotting his revenge on the city. Very early in the book, it becomes obvious that there is only one way this story can end, but it's a testament to King's superb narrative skills - and his ability to burrow deep inside Dawes's mind - that the book remains suspenseful.

"I lost my wife and my job because either the world has gone crazy or I have."

Dawes's course of action seems pre-determined. Even Dawes realizes this, saying he gets the feeling "from time to time that I'm a character in some bad writer's book and he's already decided how things are going to turn out and why".

Losing his house would mean losing the memories he has of his son. This was the house in which Charlie was raised, in which he took his first steps. Allowing the city to tear it down would be tantamount to experiencing his son's death all over again. Mary seems to have made peace with the fact of Charlie's death, but Bart has not. The wound is still raw. One blogger noted that Dawes is "a man with nothing but memories of things he no longer has".

"There was no good place to make your stand in the world."

Bart feels his entire life is being ripped from its moorings. His workplace will be destroyed, his house will fall under the wrecking ball, and his neighbours have been scattered to other parts of the city. He refuses to accept it, though he has little idea of the "why" behind his actions. His only recourse is to go out on his own terms, not those of the city.

King, from the first Bachman Books introduction:
[Roadwork] was written [in 1974] between 'Salem's Lot and The Shining, and was an effort to write a "straight" novel. (I was also young enough in those days to worry about that casual cocktail party question, "Yes, but when are you going to do something serious?") I think it was also an effort to make some sense of my mother's painful death the year before - a lingering cancer had taken her off inch by painful inch. Following this death I was left both grieving and shaken by the apparent senselessness of it all. I suspect Roadwork is probably the worst of the lot simply because it tries so hard to be good and to find some answers to the conundrum of human pain.
In the second introduction, however, published 11 years later, King called Roadwork his favourite of the four Bachman books. (King's mother's death also led to the short story "The Woman In the Room" (Night Shift).)

"You can't always understand something just because you did it."


There are supposedly references in the Bachman novels that give clues as to who the actual author is. I found these in Roadwork:
Dawes works at Blue Ribbon Laundry and refers to a laundry pressing machine as "the mangler". Carrie White's mother (Carrie) works at Blue Ribbon Laundry. King's short story "The Mangler" (Night Shift) stars an evil laundry pressing machine at the Blue Ribbon Laundry.

There is a reference to multiplex movie theaters: Cinema II, Cinema III ... Cinema MCMXLVII. King was born in 1947.

Bart and Mary Dawes had a son named Charlie. King's most recent novel (at that time) Firestarter features a girl named Charlie.

As a young boy, Dawes was distraught at killing a blue jay with his new gun. As young boy, Andy McGee (Firestarter) was distraught at killing a squirrel with his new gun.
Next: Danse Macabre.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Stephen King: Firestarter (1980)

As Stephen King was writing the first draft of Firestarter, he feared that he was repeating himself, reworking ideas and even scenes that he had used in Carrie.
I had this depressing feeling that I was a thirty-year-old man who had already lapsed into self-imitation. And once that begins, self-parody cannot be far away. The only way that I could return to Firestarter was upon rereading what I had written, and realizing that, not only was it less like Carrie than I thought – it was also better than Carrie. And I realized that it should be possible for a writer to revisit themes if it betters his work. I thought that critics might claim that Steve King had started to eat himself; but I recognized that they would do no such thing if I were a "serious" novelist – they would say . . . King is attempting to amplify themes that are intrinsic to his work. And, with that in mind, I made my peace with Firestarter.
Firestarter (published September 1980) does amplify themes that are intrinsic to King's work: issues of morality and free will and choice. It is not a horror novel, per se, but more in the mold of the supernatural, and slightly science fictionish, genre of The Stand and The Dead Zone. (I suppose it could also be placed in the espionage genre.) And like those two previous books, Firestarter revisits the theme of unchecked government power and government's excessive intrusion into our personal lives.

Charlene "Charlie" McGee is the seven-year-old daughter of Andy McGee and Victoria Tomlinson. Andy and Vicky met in college in the late 60s when they both volunteered for a scientific experiment of a supposedly low-grade hallucinogen. Unbeknownst to the test subjects, the experiment was being run by the government's Department of Scientific Intelligence (a CIA-type organization know as "The Shop") and the drug – Lot Six – was a serious hallucinogen. All of the participants in the experiment developed psychic abilities of some kind because of exposure to the drug. Most of the volunteers either went insane or killed themselves; only three of the 12 subjects are still alive a dozen years after the experiment.

While Vicky has slight telekinesis powers and Andy has the ability to influence people by suggestion, "pushing" them mentally with his mind, Charlie is born with powers far beyond that of either of her parents. Chief among them is her ability to start fires simply by thinking about them. As a young girl, the ability is in a raw state, and she cannot cannot control it very well. It is believed that the ability to harness and specifically direct the fires will come as she gets older. The Shop knows she has some powers, but not the full extent of what they are. They want to kidnap her and study her – and possibly use her as a military weapon.

The novel begins with Andy and Charlie on the run from two agents in New York City. Andy convinces a cab driver into taking them from Manhattan to Albany (by pushing him into believing a dollar bill is really $500). Hitchhiking in upstate New York, they are picked up by Irv Manders, a farmer who invites them to his house.

When government agents track the McGees to the farm and try to apprehend Andy, Charlie unleashes an inferno that not only kills some of agents, but destroys their cars and sets the Manders' house on fire. However, Irv Manders is far more furious at the police state behaviour of the agents.
If I had to do it over again, I'd do it just the same way. Gosh-damn people coming on my land with guns. Gosh-damn bastards and fucking bunch of government whoremasters . . . Those men came with no warrants or blueback paper of any kind and tried to take them off our land. People I'd invited in like it's done in a civilized country with decent laws. . . . What do you want me to do, Norma? Sit here and turn them over to the secret police if they get their peckers up enough to come back? Be a good German?
Andy and Charlie use one of Irv's trucks to head to Andy's grandfather's cabin on the Vermont/New Hampshire border, where they spent the winter. Unbeknowst to them, the Shop has been watching them the entire time and when spring arrives, they move in and capture both of them. (Manders refers to Charlie affectionately as "button", hinting at the phrase "finger on the button" re nuclear bombs.)

For all of the Shop's illegal and criminal activities, it is agent and assassin John Rainbird who is the book's ultimate evil. Standing nearly seven feet tall, Rainbird – a half-Cherokee Native American – was disfigured by a land mine in the Vietnam war. His left eye is gone and his face is "a horrorshow of scar tissue and runnelled flesh". He is ferociously bright, and speaks four languages in a voice that is low and musical.

Charlie has refused to cooperate with the Shop, so Rainbird poses as a low-level cleaning person, coming in to tidy her "apartment" every day, trying to get her to open up. A fortuitous summer storm knocks out the power in the building, leaving Rainbird and Charlie in total darkness for several hours. He fabricates a story about his past and his wounds, and about his extreme terror at being in the total dark*. Feeling a tremendous amount of compassion, Charlie tells him her story, including her fear that she will be tricked into using her powers for the Shop.

* Attentive readers will note King making fun of a "tried-and-true" adventure story cliche like calling the pitch black "the living dark", and then using the phrase himself a mere 26 pages later!

As the weeks go on, their friendship grows, and Charlie begins to think of Rainbird as a surrogate father. "Instead of more questions and cross-examination and mistrust, there had been only acceptance and calm sympathy". As for Rainbird, he tells her, "I guess I love you a little. You're like the daughter I never had."

There is a subtle sexual undercurrent between Rainbird and Charlie, who is now eight years old. When Rainbird tells his superiors that he wants to know Charlie intimately, he is quick to add that he does not mean in that way. And while he makes no sexual overtures, King repeatedly describes Rainbird's feelings of affection: "might be falling love", "he loved her more than ever", "She was his now" and "With a lover's eye ..."

Rainbird's true obsession is with death (including his own). He always stares into his victims' eyes at the precise moment of death, hoping to see some evidence of "the actual exhalation of the soul". In Rainbird's experience, the "eyes seem to lose their fear and fill instead with a great puzzlement – not wonder, not dawning comprehension, or realization or awe, just puzzlement". He wonders "what it would be like to kill a child" and looks forward to finding out when the Shop finally decides Charlie is expendable.

The power outage is the moment that sends the book careening to its climax. It is the event that leads to Charlie's trust of Rainbird and, more importantly, it leads to Andy's re-emergence from his drugged fog of lethargy. During the storm, truly terrified at being alone in the darkness, Andy seems to "push" himself to get past his dependence on the drugs he has been fed. Thinking clearly for the first time in weeks – "at home in his own head" – he begins to formulate an escape plan.

There are a number of superb set pieces late in the book, including (a) when Andy meets with Cap Hollister, the head of the Shop, and pushes him to reveal the complete truth about the Shop's plans for himself and Charlie, (b) when Charlie reads her father's secret note telling her not to trust Rainbird, and (c) the lead-in to the book's climactic fiery inferno.

Having survived the massive conflagration that destroys the Shop compound, Charlie must then decide where to go and what to do with what she knows, how to fulfill her father's dying words: "Don't let them cover it up. Don't let them say . . . just a fire." While the ending is anti-climactic, it is optimistic, unlike the endings of both The Stand and The Dead Zone.


Firestarter raises disturbing questions about the extent to which the government has, in the name of national security, used its own citizens as unwitting human guinea pigs. The opening paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry on Human Experimentation in the United States:
There have been numerous experiments performed on human test subjects in the United States that have been considered unethical, and were often performed illegally, without the knowledge, consent, or informed consent of the test subjects.

The experiments include: the deliberate infection of people with deadly or debilitating diseases, exposure of people to biological and chemical weapons, human radiation experiments, injection of people with toxic and radioactive chemicals, surgical experiments, interrogation/torture experiments, tests involving mind-altering substances, and a wide variety of others. Many of these tests were performed on children, the sick, and mentally disabled individuals, often under the guise of "medical treatment". In many of the studies, a large portion of the subjects were poor, racial minorities or prisoners.

Funding for many of the experiments was provided by United States government, especially the Central Intelligence Agency, United States military and federal or military corporations. The human research programs were usually highly secretive, and in many cases information about them was not released until many years after the studies had been performed.
Information about these tests (such as MK ULTRA) has been released over the last four decades, beginning with the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (more commonly known as the Church Committee) in 1975 – only a few years before King began work on the novel.

King, from the afterward to the paperback edition of Firestarter:
There's a lot of evidence that both the American and Soviet governments take the subject [extrasensory perception and psychic phenomena] a damn sight more seriously than they let on in public and are conducting top-priority studies to understand and isolate a whole range of esoteric phenomena, from levitation and Kirlian photography – a film process that reveals the human aura – to telepathy and teleportation and psychokinesis.

Sadly, and maybe ominously, neither side is pursuing the subject out of some objective search for scientific truth. What they're really interested in is its espionage and military potential, as in scrambling the brains of missile-silo operators or influencing the decisions of national leaders in a crisis. It's a shame, because what you're talking about here is unlocking the secrets of the human mind and exploring the inner frontier. That's the last thing that should be left in the hands of the CIA or the KGB. . . .

On this whole subject of wild talents, it was fascinating to discover when researching Firestarter that there is a well-documented if totally baffling phenomenon called pyrokinesis, or spontaneous human combustion, in which a man or woman burns to a crisp in a fire that generates almost inconceivable temperatures – a fire that seems to come from inside the victim. There have been medically documented cases from all over the world in which a corpse has been found burned beyond recognition while the chair or the bed on which it was found wasn't even charred. Sometimes, the victims are actually reduced to ash, and I know from researching burial customs for a forthcoming book that the heat required to do that is tremendous. You can't even manage it in a crematorium . . .

I remember a case reported in the press in the mid-sixties in which a kid was just lying on a beach when suddenly he burst into flames. His father dragged him into the water and dunked him, but he continued to burn underwater, as if he'd been hit by a white-phosphorus bomb. The kid died, and the father had to go into the hospital with third-degree burns on his arms.

There's a lot of mystery in the world, a lot of dark, shadowy corners we haven't explored yet. We shouldn't be too smug about dismissing out of hand everything we can't understand. The dark can have teeth, man!
Douglas E. Winter, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness:
Many of Stephen King's early novels feature principal characters who are societal aberrations, typically because of their psychic abilities. King's genius as a prose stylists is his portrayal of these characters in strikingly real, human terms. His works repeatedly dramatize the compelling human consequences of the possession of strange talents, by developing a sympathetic reader identification with the protagonist and then producing an intense conflict on both physical and emotional levels that culminates in a confrontation with the person who has evoked their talents. In both The Dead Zone and Firestarter, this confrontation plays a climatic role, but it is secondary to a moral choice that precedes it – a choice that offers an interesting reflection on the nature of good and evil in King's fiction. . . .

[M]en and women are moral beings capable of right or wrong, good or evil, and the existence of that choice is both the source and the solution of the night journey. Yet King also embraces the notion of an inherent predisposition for good or for evil, most obviously depicted in The Stand . . .
I have always felt a real dichotomy between the way that I know I am supposed to act, and the way that I really feel. It's shameful of me even to admit that, because you are not supposed to say that . . . I have always had tremendous feelings of aggression that it seemed necessary to cover up, to hide. And my writing was a clear channel for that – I think that is why there is so much destruction in my early books, because it was a way of ridding myself of a lot of that energy . . . In Firestarter, there is justified destruction – I have never been interested in destruction simply for the sake of destruction – but there is also a great, outward-turning catharsis.
King has often said that fairy tales are the scariest horror stories – and if you have read some of the classic tales in their original form, King's work often pales by comparison – and he alludes to The Beauty and the Beast with Rainbird's and Charlie's relationship.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro notes that like many demi-gods of mythology, Charlie is tested and escapes danger and trouble through the use of her inborn abilities.
As is often the case, the single biggest threat that this wonder-child faces comes from the king, or in Charlie's case, the government, the modern equivalent. The minister of the king, or the men of the Shop who attempt to use and subvert Charlie, have their parallels in fairy tales and myths, in the sinister figures of plotting viziers and zealous lieutenants, in treacherous dukes and malignant guardians. That one of them is basically well-intentioned but misled is a device often found in Greek myths . . . Charlie, in remaining true to her father, also remains true to herself, for in myths and fairy tales the denial of family and heritage is one of the most reprehensible and damning of actions. . . . [T]he wonder-child must never deny his or her humanity, for that leads to destruction and the utmost rejection. . . .

Firestarter, in the grand tradition of heroic fairy tales, starts with an ordeal and persecution, and ends with implied revenge of a sort that every demi-god from Brunhilde to Samson to Loon Brother understands: justice will triumph or the world will end.
Firestarter has the hallmarks of a transitional work; King's revisiting of concepts and themes explored in Carrie, The Stand, and The Dead Zone suggests a typing up of loose ends. Perhaps most striking is . . . the clear optimism of [Firestarter's] conclusion. . . . In the wake of these novels, King would produce more insular, less explicitly sociopolitical books – Cujo, Christine, and Pet Sematary – structured primarily around the family unit.
Firestarter was great fun to read. I'd put it up with The Long Walk and Salem's Lot in terms of my own enjoyment of what I have read so far. One of King's most admirable qualities as a writer is treating children as full-fledged humans and in Charlie McGee he created one of the deepest, most intriguing characters of his early fiction.

King's next publication of serious length was "The Mist", a novella he wrote in the summer of 1976. It was published in Dark Forces, a 1980 horror anthology. A slightly-edited version of the novella was included in Skeleton Crew (a 1985 collection of short stories), so I will read it then.

Next: Roadwork (as Richard Bachman).

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Stephen King: The Dead Zone (1979)

It's a real novel. It's very complex. There's an actual story. Most of my fictions are simply situations that are allowed to develop themselves. That one has a nice layered texture, a thematic structure that underlies it, and it works on most levels. I never ask a book to do any more than that.
Stephen King

After the grand scope and apocalyptic fury of The Stand, Stephen King offers a more muted novel of an Everyman (with the suitably bland name of John Smith) tormented by a gift of precognition that intensifies after a near-fatal accident and emergence from a coma.

The Dead Zone continues some of The Stand's philosophical themes and ideas about government and politics; it also explores issues of fate, destiny, choice (and non-choice), asking how much control do we truly have in shaping our own lives.

The novel spans the entire decade of the Seventies. In late October 1970, while taking a cab home from a date with girlfriend and fellow Cleaves Mills High School teacher Sarah Bracknell, Johnny Smith is seriously injured in a head-on collision and is in a coma. Johnny is not expected to survive, but he eventually wakes up – in May 1975. During the intervening years, Sarah has married and Johnny's mother, Vera, has slipped into a mania of religious fundamentalism, convinced God has a plan for her only son. And America has undergone seismic changes politically.

The head injury from the accident has deepened Johnny's precognition. As a child, he would sometimes know what song was coming up next on the radio. Now, by simply being in physical contact with someone or holding one of their possessions, such as a photograph, Johnny can sometimes recall events from their past and future. Johnny feels cursed with this ability – in the aftermath of something he predicted coming to pass, people look at him with a mixture of fear and dread – and he detests the celebrity it brings him after he helps solve a murder case.

The Dead Zone's other main character is Greg Stillson, a young, travelling salesman who we first see kicking a dog to death on an Iowa farm. The sadistic Stillson believes he's destined for great things, and years later, he decides to go into politics. Thanks to intimidation and outright violence behind the scenes, Stillson – "as crazy as a rat in a drainpipe" – rises through the New Hampshire political landscape, and is now running for the House of Representatives.

His highly choreographed America Now rallies are presented as farcical political theater, but, sadly, they bear more than a few touches of reality thirty years later. Stillson wears a yellow hard hat, yells populist slogans, and throws hot dogs into the crowd. The rallies draw people of all ages.

Roger Chatsworth: "He's a clown, so what? Maybe people need a little comic relief from time to time. ... They want to thumb their noses at a political establishment that doesn't seem to solve anything."

Johnny: "So the answer is to elect a loony?"
King portrays our political process as, in the words of Douglas E. Winter (author of Stephen King: The Art Of Darkness), "conspiratorial totalitarianism", where candidates for high office are decided not by the exercise of free choice, but "by factors as diverse as video images . . . media access and dirty tricks, untimely remarks . . . In such a system [the individual] becomes an observer, and choice seems a meaningless myth".

While everyone (including his opponents) writes Stillson off as comic relief, Johnny feels – even before the two men shake hands at a rally in New Hampshire – that he is potentially very dangerous. Johnny becomes obsessed with Stillson, filling notebooks with Stillson's history, news clippings, and his own observations. He begins to have a recurring nightmare – a replay of their handshake and the scenes of "utter desolation" that raced through his mind.

The sudden blackness. The feeling of being in a tunnel filled with the glare of the onrushing headlight, a headlight bolted to some black engine of doom. The old man with the humble, frightened eyes administering an unthinkable oath of office. ... The only clear image in these dream-replays came near the end: the screams of the dying, the smell of the dead. And a single tiger padding through miles of twisted metal, fused glass, and scorched earth.
Johnny becomes convinced that Stillson must be stopped – even if it means assassinating him – and he feels pulled towards this decision, unable to stop himself, drawn by fate.

If this talent was a gift from God, then God was a dangerous lunatic who ought to be stopped. If God wanted Greg Stillson dead, why hadn't he sent him down the birth canal with the umbilical cord wrapped around his throat? Or strangled him on a piece of meat? Or electrocuted him while he was changing the radio station? Drowned him in the ole swimming hole? Why did God have to have Johnny Smith to do his dirty work? It wasn't his responsibility to save the world. That was for the psychos and only psychos would presume to try it.
Winter, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness:
The Dead Zone is a novel about the 1970s, and the isolation and alienation experienced by Smith find ready equation to that of people maturing in the early 1970s. Smith is besieged with an elusive sense of loss, an ennui beyond the simple explanation of his five missing years. he has lost more than just time; he has lost his youth, and with it, his idealism. That the women he loved has married another man and that his mother has died are but elements of that loss. . . .

In both Carrie and The Dead Zone, King provides apt commentary on American myth-making. Both Carrie White and Johnny Smith are subjected to the post hoc rationalizations of a disbelieving civilization, whose single-minded obsession with a "suitable explanation" of events obscures reality in favour of a palatable myth.
Burton Hatlen, a professor at University of Maine at Orono, from an interview in Jonathan P. Davis's Stephen King's America:
I told him once that I thought The Dead Zone was an autobiographical novel, and he looked at me with considerable anger – he didn't like that statement. I still think it's true in that it seems to me that this sense of this person who's kind of cursed with this power parallels his situation. . . . [I]n The Dead Zone, the writer is this person who has this gift that he can't really control, and that makes him a figure that other people are just obsessed about. That's the story of his life, isn't it? That's why I think it's autobiographical, and you could go from that to Misery and The Dark Half.
More from Hatlen:
When he published The Stand, he said to me, "This is my last effort to really make it as a serious writer. If the critics will take this one seriously, then that's the kind of writer I'll be." This is all paraphrased, not exact, but I said to him, "If they don't take it seriously, what kind of writer will you be?" He said, "I'll be a trash writer." The critics didn't take it seriously . . . there weren't any reviews in The New York Times Book Review or things like this. It sold well, but it was not treated as a contribution to American literature when it was first published. He was very disappointed by that. What came out of that disappointment was Firestarter and The Dead Zone. He said to me at the time, "If I were Graham Greene, I'd call these entertainments." He was really kind of thinking of himself at the time as a writer who might write serious novels and also kind of trashy, best-seller types to make money.
Hatlen's comment makes a little more sense if The Dead Zone is considered the pivotal book, assuming that King's comments were serious. King himself says that The Dead Zone was "the first real novel" he ever wrote. And at that point, it was his most mature work, by far. Beyond the political theme, The Dead Zone is also a bittersweet, wistful tale of a couple (Johnny and Sarah) who were clearly meant to be together before fate intervened.

It seems as though our lives are governed by these little "chance" events. If most people look back at the way they met their wives, for example, it all seems random. You know, you could have spent five minutes to get your shoes shined or walked in another direction on a particular day and you'd be married to somebody different . … The book tries to convey the idea that maybe chance isn't entirely chance. If you look closely at some of the images, symbols and events in the book … it appears to be coincidence. But if you draw back and take a longer view, maybe there's a pattern to it all.
I like the idea that Johnny's ambivalence about his second sight is a metaphor for King trying to work out his feelings about his success. In interviews, King has admitted to having many questions about his fame – Why did it happen? Would it suddenly disappear? How will it affect his writing? His uneasiness about his celebrity was one reason why he published some of his early novels under the Richard Bachman name. In some ways, those books were an experiment, to see if his success (or something close to it) could be replicated.

Next: Firestarter.