Monday, August 27, 2012

Stephen King: Thinner (as Richard Bachman) (1984)

"You were starting to sound a little
like a Stephen King novel for awhile there ..."

In 1982, Stephen King finished a manuscript entitled Gypsy Pie, about Bill Halleck, an overweight lawyer who uses his connections in law enforcement and the courts to evade punishment for hitting and killing an old gypsy woman with his car. The gypsy family's patriarch puts a curse on Halleck, causing him to lose a couple of pounds every day.

Perhaps because of its bleak ending, King decided to publish the novel (retitled Thinner) under his pseudonym Richard Bachman. Each of the four previous Bachman novels – Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man – had been written very early in King's career. Thinner was different; it was a new manuscript. It was also the first Bachman book published in hard cover and the first to receive any real promotion. It was also the beginning of the end of Bachman's writing career.


On Halleck's way out of the courthouse, after the charge of vehicular manslaughter has been dismissed, he is approached by Taduz Lemke, the ancient gypsy. Lemke touches Halleck's cheek, and whispers one word: "Thinner". Halleck gives little thought to this encounter.

When Halleck begins losing weight, both he and his wife, Heidi, are thrilled. But as it continues – and Halleck loses 30 pounds in only three weeks – they get concerned. Fearing cancer or some other serious malady, Halleck goes to his doctor. All tests are normal; nothing is wrong.

Halleck notices that even after binging on fattening food to counteract whatever is going on, he keeps losing weight at the same steady pace. He "realize[s] miserably that something has changed in his life, and not for the better".

By the time he's down to 188, having lost nearly 70 pounds, Halleck begins secretly blaming his wife for his condition. It is not until a reader is one-quarter through the book that he learns that Halleck had plenty of time to avoid hitting Susanna Lemke (who, admittedly, walked into the road without looking for approaching cars). At that moment, Heidi was giving her husband a handjob while he was driving and, as he neared orgasm, his attention was not fully on the road.
[A]ll of this could be traced directly back to Heidi. It had been her fault, all of it. He had not asked her to do what she had done ... Yes, it had been her fault, but the old Gypsy hadn't known that, and so Halleck had received the curse and Halleck had not lost a grand total of sixty-one pounds, and there she sat ... The old Gypsy hadn't touched her.
Halleck has a flash of "crude and unalloyed hate" towards his wife. He feels an initial shame, but in the days and weeks that follow, that rough hate returns more and more often, despite his attempts to stop it.

Halleck comes to accept what both his wife and his doctor - the voice of rational thought - believe is impossible. Halleck "suddenly, simply believed ... everything. The Gypsy had cursed him, yes, but it wasn't cancer; cancer would have been too kind and too quick. It was something else, and the unfolding had only begun."

Halleck's weigh continues to drop: 188, 176, 167, 155, 137, 130 ... and he is now so thin that he is drawing looks in the street and strangers are avoiding him. He contacts the police chief and the judge in his case and finds that they, too, have been cursed. The judge's skin is slowly morphing into reptile-like scales and the police chief has an extremely gruesome outbreak of full-body acne. Both men eventually commit suicide.

As Halleck wastes away, he realizes that he has to find the gypsies and make amends, if possible. He wants to tell Lemke there was no evil intent in his actions. He wants to apologize. Before he leaves, Halleck writes a letter to his wife:
It's easy to blame, easy to want revenge. But when you look at things closely, you start to see that every event is locked onto every other event; that sometimes things happen just because they happen. None of us like to think that is so, because then we can never strike out at someone to ease the pain; we have to find another way, and none of the other ways are so simple, so satisfying.
Halleck tracks the gypsies up the east coast, through New Hampshire and into Maine. When talking to the family accomplishes nothing, Halleck contacts Richie Ginelli, a mobster for whom Halleck's law firm has done some work. Ginelli is glad to help out a friend, and he begins several nights of terror against the gypsies in an attempt to get Lemke to lift the curse.


As with many of King's books, the idea came from personal experience:
I used to weigh 236 pounds, and I smoked heavily. I went to see a doctor. He said: "Listen man, your triglycerides are really high. In case you haven't noticed it, you've entered heart attack country." That line is in the book. He told me that I should quit smoking and lose some weight. I got pissed and spent a very angry weekend off by myself. I thought about it, thought about how shitty they were to make me do all these terrible things to save my life. I went and lost the weight, and pretty much quit smoking. Once the weight actually started to come off, I began to realize that I was attached to it somehow, that I didn't really want to lose it. I began to think about what would happen if somebody started to lose weight and couldn't stop. It was a pretty serious situation, at first. Then I remembered all the things I did when I weighed a lot. I had a paranoid conviction that the scales weighed heavy, no matter what. I would refuse to weigh myself, except in the morning, and then after I had taken off all my clothes. I remember being so pissed off in the doctor's office, because he wouldn't let me take off my clothes and take a shit before I got up on the goddam scales. It was so existential that the humor crept in after awhile.

In Thinner, King considers blame and its consequences. How should the blame for Susanna Lemke's death be apportioned? And what is the proper punishment?

No one accepts any responsibility for what has happened. Halleck blames his wife. Heidi refuses to blame herself. Taduz Lemke refuses to acknowledge that his daughter was careless in walking into traffic. The judge's wife blames Halleck for his condition: "Why did you have to hit her, you bastard? Why did you have to bring it on all of us?"

The entire group of gypsies are also being blamed, in a general sense, for being who they are. They are outsiders everywhere they go. When Heidi sees them in the town common before a summer concert, she says bluntly: "Keep your distance. They're all crooks." The gypsies are harassed by the local police for "trespassing" on the common. But don't common areas in a town exist to be enjoyed by everyone? Or can the police selectively choose who is allowed to use public land? In Thinner, communalism collides with human nature, and its myriad prejudices: isolationism, racism, and xenophobia.
The Gypsies had been rousted because they had no permit to perform on the common. But of course they would have understood that the message was somewhat broader than that. If you wanted Gypsy folk out, there were plenty of ordinances. Vagrancy. Public nuisance. Spitting on the sidewalk. You name it.
Later that night, Halleck's teenaged daughter, Linda, asks why the police were bothering the gypsies. "I thought the common was public property ... That's what we learned in school."

Anthony Chase, in "The Mass Culture of Property" (Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review, 2007), writes that Halleck responds "to a series of shrewd questions from his daughter in good lawyerly fashion – trying to give moderately truthful if highly selective answers".

Halleck knows from his own experience with his mother that children never forgive their parents for certain lies, but he cannot help himself in this case. "It had taken having a child to teach him just how tiring honesty could be." Halleck counts his lies in his mind as he tells them, and he also thinks of various legal precedents that would support the gypsies. Chase finds it "peculiarly satisfying to find a popular storyteller like Stephen King unleashing the hard legal history in a thriller that, in a real sense, turns on questions about access to civil justice".

Chase, on Thinner's discussion of "the politics of property rights":
The juxtaposition of these two property notions – that private ownership should remain unrestrained in the name of individualism and liberty versus the conviction that society will always retain a legitimate claim upon private property, an enduring and legitimate capacity to publicly regulate private wealth and power – may not come any sharper in popular culture than it does in Stephen King's morality tale, Thinner.
Access to justice and class consciousness are two other themes. Halleck avoids punishment for his negligence because of his connections, while the gypsies are denied any justice for the avoidable death of a family member. Late in the book, Taduz Lemke tells Halleck:
You run my daught' over in the road, white man. ... Hey, I known who done what. I taken care of it. Mostly we turn and we drive out of town. Mostly, yeah, we do dat. But sometimes we get our justice. ... Justice ain't bringing the dead back, white man. Justice is justice.

Thinner was the book that eventually exposed King as the man behind Richard Bachman. I'll detail that in a future post. King has said that if his cover had not been blown, Misery would likely have been the next Richard Bachman book.

Next: Skeleton Crew.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Stephen King: The Talisman (with Peter Straub) (1984)

Adventure. Danger. A quest of some noble purpose.
Dreams of fear and glory.

(The Talisman)

In The Talisman, 12-year-old Jack Sawyer must travel across the United States on foot - from Arcadia Beach, on the Atlantic coast of New Hampshire, to western California - to find and bring back a talisman that will help save his dying mother.

Stephen King and Peter Straub have created a classic quest story, with plenty of fantasy thrown in. With the help of Speedy Parker, a black musician and maintenance worker at an amusement park near the hotel, Jack sets out on his adventure armed with an old road atlas and some baubles that will aid him in his search.

Speedy also helps Jack understand the "Territories", which is another dimension or reality that somewhat parallels our world. The Territories - "an agrarian monarchy, using magic instead of science ... they've gone on like that for centuries" - is populated by Twinners, who are doubles or doppelgangers of people in the "real world". Not everyone has a Twinner and most people are not aware of them. Twinners share many of the same qualities as their counterparts, but they are not the same person. One character describes them as two sides of the same coin.

The Twinner of Jack's mother, Lily Sawyer (aka the "Queen of the B Movies"), is Laura DeLoessean, the Queen of the Territories. Where Lily is suffering from cancer, Queen Laura has a strange sleeping sickness. The counterpart of Morgan Sloat, the former business partner of Jack's father, who is pressuring Lily to sell her portion of the business, is Morgan of Orris. While the Morgans are not alike physically, both are depicted as ruthlessly greedy and cruel. (Places and events can also have Twinners. For example, a palace coup and brief civil war in the Territories years ago had a ripple effect that erupted into World War II. As one character says, "I think we're affected all the time by things that go on in the Territories.")

It turns out that when Jack was six or seven years old, he used to occasionally "flip" over into the Territories; back then, he simply called it the Daydreams. (If the allusions to Mark Twain are not obvious enough, King and Straub title the first section of the novel "Jack Lights Out".)

Jack is reluctant to embark on his long journey, but his concern for his mother's health pushes him forward.
Fear and loneliness combined in the sharpest, most disheartening wave of unhappiness he had ever known. ... [A]ll safety and reason seemed to have departed from the world. ... [But by] the end of his first days on the road, he seemed to himself to have grown from childhood right through adolescence into adulthood - into competence.
As Jack heads west, he hitches rides from strangers, works odd jobs for a few dollars, and often sleeps outside or in cheap motels. In one interview, King said he wanted to show the underside (a subsociety) of Ronald Reagan's America, "the ebb and flow of an underclass, the dregs of society, the roadies who are put upon by other people, the unhomed and homeless drifting just below everyone's sight."

Anthony Magistrale, writing about Jack's ordeals working at Smokey Updike's Oatley Tap bar and in the fields for the sadistic preacher Sunlight Gardener:
[These chapters] epitomize Jack's experiences on the road. The boy finds himself in a bondage (he keeps referring to the metaphor of the pitcher-plant) that neatly parallels Huck's servitude at the hands of the Duke and King. Huck and Jack are trapped by virtue of their innocence and vulnerability, manipulated by men without scruples who are interested only in obtaining power and lining their pockets.
During his journey in the Territories, Jack befriends a boy-wolf creature named Wolf who ends up flipping back with Jack into what Jack starts referring to as the "American Territories". Wolf is unnerved the bustle of modern society, and repulsed by the horrid smell of engines and pollution. At one point, the American Territories are described as the "smell of too many people running too many motors". As Wolf suffers panic attacks, Jack learns the often difficult responsibility of caring for others.

In discussing The Talisman, Douglas Winter (author of Stephen King: The Art of Darkness) refers to Leslie Fielder's controversial 1948 essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!", which explores the undercurrent of homosexuality in Huckleberry Finn and other classic American novels. Winter believes that King and Straub consciously invoke this sentiment as Jack openly expresses his love for both Wolf and Richard, often holding their hands to comfort them, offering intimacy and encouragement. And that affection is reciprocated. While never sexual, it evidences deep concern and a tight fraternal bond.

The Talisman is blunt statement against, and a warning against further, environmental degradation. The differences between the Territories, where the air is clean and fresh, and the smells of plants and food are alarmingly crisp and wonderful, and Jack's real world, are made obvious.

The book does seem to be about the death of the land, the terrible poisoning of the land.
The Territories represent that most American of mythical landscapes, and in its fading beauty, we experience a recovered sense of what America, in its rush to wealth and technology, has lost ...
The Talisman, even more explicitly than Huckleberry Finn, is a discourse on the destruction of the pastoral ideal and its technological aftermath. In America's cities and suburbs, Jack and Wolf cannot dream of honesty and wholeness; only in the Territories is some measure of psychic unity still available. ... Inherent in this perception is a sense of tragic inevitability that somehow is never fully counterbalanced by Jack's personal survival or the Talisman's magical properties. It is, however, this aspect of The Talisman that effectively links the novel to Huckleberry Finn, Walden, Moby-Dick, the stories of Hemingway and Faulkner, and the poems of Robert Frost: all are unflinching, characteristically American examinations of the implacable advance of history.
Later in the book, Jack, now joined on his journey with his childhood friend Richard Sloat (Morgan's son), ends up travelling by slow train through an area called the Blasted Lands, which parallel the vast tracts of American west used by the United States military for decades to test nuclear weapons. There is an acidic taste of rusty metal and rotten fruit in the air, a "stink of missed connections, of blasted hopes and evil desires ... [N]othing seemed to have escaped withering, crippling damage".

Winter notes the transportation link to Twain's steamboat.
[F]or the boys, the railroad, like Twain's steamboat, is the symbol of an older, lost America, supplanted by even greater machines; but in the Territories, it is a symbol of the new order of a secular, technological culture. ... [Sloat] has imported the black magic of modern technology - not simply the train, but automatic weapons and explosives; ... he has infected the land and its people with the diseased world view of sterile rationality. ... Sloat and the cancerous engines of "progress" are superseding the old wisdoms, the intimacies between humanity and its environment.
Beneath the surface of Twain's adventure story is a subtext concerning America's transition to a new age of industrial capitalism; the novel initiates Twain's skepticism about industrial civilization and his faith in the kind of world that humans create. ... The Talisman, even more explicitly than Huck Finn, is a discourse on the destruction of the pastoral ideal and its technological aftermath. In America's cities and suburbs, Jack and Wolf cannot dream of honesty and wholeness; only in the Territories is some measure of psychic unity still available.
Jack's journey - his "coming of age in a time when the assembly-line mentality of the rational world seems to hold sway over instinct and imagination" (Winter) - also reenacts the westward American expansion.


In a flashback we learn that Morgan Sloat and Jack's father, Phil Sawyer, were also able to flip into the Territories. Sloat wants to import modern technology and weapons into the Territories, where he believes he can take over when Queen Laura dies. (Sloat's plan is a nod towards Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.) In a flashback, Sloat remarks to Sawyer: "Can you imagine how much fucking clout we'd swing if we gave them electricity? If we got modern weapons to the rights guys over there? Do you have any idea? I think it'd be awesome. Awesome."

The American capitalist has been setting the time for society since the start of this country, and in exporting the doctrine of oppressed labor to the Territories, Morgan Sloat represents the most contemporary illustration of capitalist imperialism.

In light of this pessimistic portrait, it is not surprising that both Huckleberry Finn and The Talisman should also highlight the unholy alliance between religion and money. In Huckleberry Finn, the word of God [through Sunlight Gardener] is used to justify even slavery, the most inhuman of acts, while in The Talisman a warped religious vision rationalizes the psychosexual exploitation of children in Sunlight Gardener's home. ...

The climatic scene of Huckleberry Finn occurs when Huck elects to forsake the moral posturing of his society and "go to hell" rather than return Jim to the institution of slavery ... Just as Huck selects human compassion over social and religious dogma, Jacks risks his life and his quest by refusing to abandon wither Wolf or Richard. The journeys down the Mississippi and across America parallel one another insofar as they are really about the moral educations of Huck and Jack. ... [B]efore the Talisman can work its healing magic, Jack must possess a set of moral principles that makes him worthy of its powers.

Towards the end of the novel, the talisman is described as "the nexus of all possible worlds", giving rise to comparisons to King's Dark Tower series. (There are clear references to some of King's other books. At one point, the evil Osmond is referred to as "the great and terrible" (Pet Sematary); a building complex is known as the Rainbird Towers (Firestarter). No doubt there are others, and references to Straub's books, as well.


The idea of a collaboration between King and Straub began in 1977. Each man had been an admirer of the other's work. King dubbed Straub "the best writer of supernatural tales that I know" while Straub saw King as his "ideal reader" and said that meeting him was like "suddenly discovering a long-lost family member - of finding a brother, really".

In 1981, the two men discussed collaborating on a novel. The idea for the story came from an old project of King's, but it was Straub that injected "enough vitality to make it roll," King says. "So in that sense, it's probably more his book than mine". The Talisman is an amalgam of both men's writing styles - King's "more robust and colloquial style [and] Straub's more reserved delivery" - and, as such, is more mannered and deliberate and lacks the incessant momentum of King's novels.

There was no problem working together - our styles seemed to melt together. The book has its own sound; it doesn't sound like me and it doesn't sound like Steve. And that's nice - that's what we wanted. I don't think it's possible, really, for anybody to tell who wrote what. There were times when I deliberately imitated Steve's style and there were times when he deliberately, playfully, imitated mine.
When I worked on my half of the copy editing, I went through large chunks of the manuscript unsure myself who had written what ... In fact, there were several times when I was reading through the thing that I thought I really did a good job, and it turned out it was Peter. And the only way I could tell was the typing style. He will double space after periods and between dashes, and I don't do that.
More comments on the writing of the book can be found here.


The novel ends with an epigram from Tom Sawyer:
So endth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. ... Most of the characters who perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worthwhile to take up the story again and see what ... they turned out to be; therefore, it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.
It would be nearly 20 years before King and Straub would revisit Jack Sawyer (Black House, 2001).

Next: Thinner (as Richard Bachman).

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stuff To Read

Michiko Kakutani reviews D.T. Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story.

Newsweek published an excerpt from the bio.

From The New Yorker: Maria Bustillos on Lester Bangs.

From this past April: Stephen King: "Tax Me, for F@%&'s Sake!"

Friday, August 17, 2012

Stephen King: Pet Sematary (1983)

"It's probably wrong to believe there can be any limit to the horror which the human mind can experience. On the contrary, it seems that some exponential effect begins to obtain as deeper and deeper darkness falls - as little as one may like to admit it, human experience tends, in a good many ways, to support the idea that when the nightmare grows black enough, horror spawns horror, one coincidental evil begets another, often more deliberate evils, until finally blackness seems to cover everything. And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity."
Stephen King, Pet Sematary

Those 112 words are a fine summation of Pet Sematary, hyped as a book that, for a time, Stephen King was too frightened to finish writing. However, that claim is not quite true. In 1980, King mentioned he had written a novel dealing with burial customs, but "I have no plans to publish it ... It's too horrible. It's worse than The Shining or any of the other things. It's terrifying."

Sometime later he was asked, "Did you ever write anything too horrible to be published?" and he thought of this unpublished manuscript.
Tabby [his wife, Tabitha] had finished reading it in tears, and I thought it was a nasty book - I still think that it is a nasty book. ... Maybe I don't have the guts for that end of the business of horror fiction - for the final truths.
During a contractual dispute with Doubleday over monies that were owed to him, King agreed to publish Pet Sematary as the final book under his contract before signing with another publisher. He rewrote his 1979 manuscript, and allowed Doubleday to use the "too horrible" quote in its promotional material. The dust jacket states:
Can Stephen King scare even himself? Has [he] conceived a story so horrifying that he was for a time unwilling to finish writing it? Yes. This is it.
Part of King's reluctance to publish Pet Sematary was how personal it is. Back in the early 1980s - the peak of his fame - King said several times that his biggest fear by far was the death of one of his children. Specifics from the novel match details from King's own life. Like Louis Creed, King accepted a job at a university in Maine and moved his family into a big white house that bordered Route 15, a busy truck route. His daughter's cat died and the family buried it in a local "Pets Sematary". (Like Creed, King debated whether to tell his daughter the truth or simply imply that maybe the cat had wandered off.) And one day, King's young son was headed straight towards the road's traffic when King grabbed the back of his coat and pulled him down to safety. In the novel, Louis Creed is not so lucky. Their young son, two-year-old Gage, is hit and dragged by a 18-wheeler.

Because of the closeness of the subject matter, Douglas Winter calls Pet Sematary "one of the most vivid, powerful, and disturbing tales" King has ever written.


Dr. Louis Creed and his family - wife Rachel and children Ellie and Gage - have moved from Chicago to the small, rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Creed is starting a job in the health clinic of a local university. After moving in, Louis befriends Jud Crandall and his wife Norma, an older couple who live across the road. Louis is immediately drawn to Jud, and often spending his evenings drinking beers with the older man.

Crandall takes the family back into the woods behind their house to a clearing that the local kids maintain as a pet cemetery. Seeing the cemetery brings the idea of mortality home to Ellie for the first time, and she is upset that her cat, Winston Churchill (or Church, for short), will die one day. While Rachel and the children are visiting her parents in Chicago, Church is hit by a passing vehicle and killed. Jud suggests burying the cat immediately, not in the regular cemetery, but in another, more mysterious burying ground a few miles back into the woods. Two days later, Church reappears in the house.

The resuscitating powers of the burial grounds - once inhabited by the Micmac Indians before the ground went "sour" - is a local secret. When Gage dies, Louis is so overcome with grief - insisting that fathers burying sons is not part of the natural order - that he decides to disinter his son's corpse and bring him to the special burial grounds.

Pet Sematary focuses on the question of moral responsibility for interfering with the natural order. As a doctor, Louis knows that "except perhaps for childbirth, [death is] the most natural thing in the world". Our differences mean nothing to the grave; none of us will escape death. The idea that you or anyone in your family could die at any time is an uncomfortable truth, but it's one "you learned to accept, or you ended up in a small room writing letters home with Crayolas". But when Gage is killed, Louis does not accept this bitter truth. Rather, he convinces himself that he can manipulate the powers residing in the burial grounds to his advantage and the good of his family.

Louis remains rational in other parts of his life, but he believes he can keep his family safe from the outside world. He recalls moving into the Ludlow house, having the boxes of their possessions act as "a small enough bulwark between his family and the coldness of all the outer world where their names and their family customs were not known". Louis thinks back to the death of Victor Pascow - a jogger who was killed on Louis's first day on the job - as the beginning of this loss of security. Pascow's death seemed "to have removed some sort of crash barrier between these ordinary people and an extraordinary run of bad luck". It is only when Louis awakes the morning after burying Gage and sees little muddy footprints in his kitchen that he feels like "a sucker in some game in which he was only now realizing he did not understand in the least".


The local secret of the burial ground is just one of many secrets in the novel. Louis does not confide in his wife at all. He keeps Church's death and resurrection a secret, and he has never told Rachel that her father offered to pay for his entire medical education if he broke off his engagement to her. Rachel is consumed with guilt over the death of her young sister, who had spinal meningitis and was kept hidden in a back room; it's a story she has never fully told her husband. Louis's plans for Gage's body is kept a secret from everyone, even Jud, who has chosen to keep some history of the burial grounds hidden from Louis.

Early in the book, Louis says there is so such thing as a true union between two people, that even in a successful marriage, it is impossible to know the secret mind of another person.
He more than half suspected that one of the things which had kept their marriage together ... was their respect for the mystery - the half-grasped but never spoken idea that ... there was no such thing as marriage, so such thing as union, that each soul stood alone and ultimately defied rationality. That was the mystery. And no matter how well you thought you knew your partner, you occasionally ran into blank walls or fell into pits. ... And then you trod lightly, if you valued your marriage and your peace of mind; you tried to remember that anger at such a discovery was the province of fools who really believed it was possible for one mind to know another.

Anthony Magistrale sees similarities between Pet Sematary and the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom King cited in Danse Macabre as an influence. Magistrale writes that Louis Creed has much in common with Hawthorne's darkest characters, as he is an impassioned but misguided man who fails "to recognize the inviolable distinction separating human idealism from the limitations of reality".
As is so often the case in Hawthorne's canon, the awareness of sin forces King's characters to proceed in one of two possible directions. The first is toward moral regeneration, a spirit of renewed commitment to other human beings that is born from an acceptance of the devil's thesis as postulated in "Young Goodman Brown," that "Evil is the nature of mankind", and that the failure to acknowledge either the existence of evil or its nexus to mankind results in spiritual death. On the other hand, the discovery of sin can frequently be overwhelming; it does not always lead to a higher state of moral consciousness. In Hawthorne and King, the encounter with evil is often portrayed as an experience that leads to isolation and self-destruction. Characters in their fictions commit their worst transgressions in refusing to recognize the evil in themselves, and in failing to exert a greater measure of self-discipline.

Pet Sematary "presents an irreconcilable opposition between wilderness and civilisation". During the initial walk to the pet cemetery, Jud Crandall tells the Creeds: "This way, nothing but woods for fifty miles or more. ... I know it sounds funny to say your nice little house there on the main road, with its phone and electric lights and cable TV and all, is on the edge of a wilderness, but it is. All I'm saying is that you don't want to get messing around in these woods ... God knows where you might end up ..."

Kevin Corstorphine discusses the idea of place ("the politics of territory") in Pet Sematary in this essay. He quotes Thomas L. Dumm, who wrote that "etymologies suggest that fear once meant the experience of being between places of protection", in transit, unsettled. Thinking about Louis's need to keep his family safe, Corstorphone asks: "If [home] does not give us the order we look for, then what place does?"

When Jud takes the Creeds up a hill, they can see the Penobscot River and trees, roads, fields, the town's church spire, and other buildings. Rachel asks Louis is a low, awed voice: "Honey, do we own this?"
And before Louis could answer, Jud said: "It's part of the property, oh yes."

Which wasn't, Louis thought, quite the same thing.
The journey into the wilderness in Hawthorne's fiction is always fraught with danger. Within the New England pines of Hawthorne's symbolic landscapes we find the powerful rhythms of primordial and uncontrollable forces. Hawthorne's Puritan ancestors fully comprehended that within the uncut trees surrounding their early enclaves lurked elements that were seldom benevolently disposed toward human welfare.
Heinrich Zimmer expounds on this point:
The forest has always been a place of initiation for there the demonic presences, the ancestral spirits, and the forces of nature reveal themselves. The forest if the antithesis of house and heart ... It holds the dark forbidden things - secrets, terrors, which threaten the protected life of the ordered world of common day.
The events which transpire in the woods behind the Pet Sematary are reminiscent of the narrative pattern which occurs in Hawthorne's fiction. An individual loses his innocence in the encounter with tragic circumstances and is faced with the struggle to redefine himself morally. In portraying the negative results of this struggle, both writers suggest that there are certain mysteries man must simply learn to accept, certain secrets he has no business attempting to discover, and certain ethical barriers that he only transcends at the expense of his soul. Hawthorne's tales and King's novel achieve their power in demonstrating that one's humanity is dreadfully easy to lose, and what we abandon ourselves to possess, we necessarily become.
Rebecca Janicker:
Pet Sematary makes much of the unknown, potentially malevolent, nature of the wilderness in which this young family suddenly finds itself: rural space is continually, and sharply, contrasted with urban and civilised space. Along with this comes notions of bad space; allusions both to ancient evil and the taint of human sin lingering in the landscape abound, suggesting that there exist fundamentally evil places in New England into which it would be better for people not to venture. ...

[T]he wilderness essentially mirrors the human potential for falling into moral darkness; the Creed family's move from civilisation to a precarious existence on the edge of a wilderness mirrors their fall from security to a horrific void.

Pet Sematary also includes allusions to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Louis tries convincing himself that the resurrected Church is not acting like "Frankencat". When Gage returns from the dead, his face is described as "swollen, as if he had been terribly hurt and then put back together again by crude, uncaring hands". Victor Pascow's first name may be a nod to Victor Frankenstein. (Louis also uses the term "wild work" when referring to digging up Gage's body, a phrase used in Bram Stoker's Dracula.)

Jesse W. Nash calls Pet Sematary "post-modern gothic", a transformation or mutation of the traditional Gothic tale, since it combines King's "own life experiences and fantasies, popular culture, and his reading of archaic burial lore". Nash, in a negative critique of the novel, states that while King may have wanted to write directly about the death of a child, his manuscript detours away.
King's novel does not deal with death. It deals with a fear that replaces the fear of death, and that fear is the fear of the return of the dead. Such a replacement is a defense mechanism no doubt, and that is probably why King's novel is so popular and why the ideas that form the basis for that novel are so persistent in folk and popular culture. Death may well be an issue the American family and society will not face, but then neither will Stephen King.
Magistrale appears to disagree:
[A]s Pet Sematary makes clear, the horror story - at its most penetrating, important moments, those of the immaculate clarity of insight which we call art - is not about make-believe at all. It is a literature whose essence is our single certainty - that, in Hamlet's words, "all that live must die".
King, from Danse Macabre:
We fall from womb to tomb, from one blackness toward another, remembering little of the one and knowing nothing of the other ... except through faith. That we retain our sanity in the face of these simply yet blinding mysteries is nearly divine.
Next: The Talisman (with Peter Straub).

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Stephen King: Cycle Of The Werewolf (1983)

These are uncomfortable times in the small town of Tarker's Mills, Maine.

A killer has been stalking the town, coming out of hiding each time the moon is full. It starts during a January blizzard as railroad worker Arnie Westrum is mauled to death under a snow-choked sky.

In March, before a nameless drifter is killed, several townspeople hear howls and groans - "lonely and savage" - that sound almost like human words. Rumours arise that it is actually some sort of wolf-man doing the killing. The murders continue for six months.

The town council, fearing another attack by the Full Moon Killer, cancels the annual Fourth of July fireworks show. Ten-year-old Marty Coslaw (who uses a wheelchair) is devastated. However, his Uncle Al - the only member of his family that treats him like a regular boy - slips Marty some fireworks of his own and tells him to have his own personal celebration. That night, after everyone has gone to asleep, Marty wheels out into the front yard and sets off a few twizzers.

Suddenly, the werewolf - seven feet tall, with eyes glaring like green lamps - appears out of the bushes. Marty quickly lights a bunch of small firecrackers and throws it at the beast. The injured werewolf flees into the night and Marty's parents, believing the boy has been traumatized by the incident, send him off to stay with relatives in Vermont.

In the meantime, Constable Neary holds court at the barber shop, explaining his theory that the killer is probably someone with a split personality, "what I'd call fucking schizos". No one pays too much attention to the telling detail Marty supplied, that the firecrackers had most likely put out the werewolf's left eye.

When Marty returns home in the fall - as groups of men head out on hunting expeditions, looking for the beast (though most use it as an easy excuse to go off in the woods and get drunk) - Marty believes that whoever the werewolf is during the daytime, that person will likely be wearing an eyepatch. While trick-or-treating on Halloween, Marty finds encounters someone wearing a left-eye patch, and sees "some vital similarity in this man's human face to the snarling face of the animal". Back home, Marty has to think hard about what to do with this "scary, almost unbelievable knowledge".


The Cycle of the Werewolf is a short book (128 pages), with illustrations by Berni Wrightson. The original idea for the collaboration was a calendar - but King ended up writing much more than little vignettes, so the project turned into a short book with twelve chapters.

As he did in Christine, King explores the idea of the split personality, of a battle of good and evil raging inside of one individual. This person is a pillar of the community and a religious man, and he ends up rationalizing his murderous behaviour: "I do good here, and if I sometimes do evil, why, men have done evil before me; evil also serves the will of God, or so the book of Job teaches us; if I have been cursed by Outside, then God will bring me down in His time."

The town of Tarker's Mills, much like Jerusalem's Lot, has a seamy side hidden beneath its pastoral exterior: spousal abuse (a man who finds his wife's pain "more amusing than anything"), alcoholism, infidelity. "[T]he town can be a dark place. ... The town keeps its secrets." And, again, it is a child that appears most rational amid the bumbling adults, Marty's patronizing father, and the bumpkin constable.

The Cycle of the Werewolf is an enjoyable little tale, nothing overly suspenseful or truly horrifying, and the ending was satisfying, if a bit pat. (It was made into the movie Silver Bullet in 1985.)

Next: Pet Sematary.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Stephen King: Christine (1983)

Arnold Richard Cunningham, a pimply-faced 17-year-old high school senior, buys a battered 1958 Plymouth Fury for a few hundred bucks from an elderly crank named Roland LeBay. Arnie's best friend, Dennis Guilder, tries to dissuade him, but Arnie, acting "like a man possessed", is frantic to own the 20-year-old damaged hulk, which LeBay calls Christine.

Later on, Arnie tells Dennis:
I saw that car – and I felt such an attraction to it ... I can't explain it very well even to myself. But I saw I could make her better. ... I don't think she's any ordinary car. I don't know why I think that ... but I do.
Arnie's parents are furious at their son's impulsive purchase and forbid him to park it at the house. He rents storage and repair space at a local garage and begins spending all of his free time working on the car, fixing things haphazardly, trying to get it street legal. Meanwhile, his friendship with Dennis is strained, and the two friends drift apart. (Dennis narrates two of the three sections of the book; the middle section is told in the third person.)

As Christine is restored to her former glory, Arnie experiences similar positive changes. His skin clears up, he gains self-confidence, and he begins dating a beautiful classmate, Leigh Cabot. But the transformation soon turns negative: Arnie begins exhibiting personality traits that no one even knew existed. He often looks haggard, he starts limping and suffering back pain, and he begins talking like LeBay (who dies shortly after selling the car), inheriting his anger and fury, referring to various authority figures as "shitters". As Arnie becomes more and more stubborn and possessive over Christine, he alienates himself from everyone around him.

Christine is not an ordinary car. The radio plays only music and news bulletins from the 50s. There is also a thick, rotten smell that everyone but Arnie notices, a lingering whiff of decomposition or "gone over eggs". It is the stench of death. Years before, LeBay's young daughter Rita choked to death on a piece of food in the back seat. Six months later, his distraught wife Veronica committed suicide, dying by carbon monoxide.

Dennis has nightmares about the car, and he realizes that he's afraid to walk in front of it, as though it might "accidentally" pop into gear and run him over. Leigh is similarly wary, and she tells Arnie that when they make out in the car, it feels as though she is being watched, with the green lights of the dashboard resembling cat's eyes, "blazing with hate". Arnie acts less honestly passionate and more lecherous while in the car. Leigh eventually believes the car is alive, and sees her as a rival for Arnie's affection. After she nearly chokes to death (mirroring Rita's death), Leigh realizes that Arnie was slow to help her (as LeBay was hesitant to save his daughter) because "Christine didn't want her to have any help. This was Christine's way of getting rid of her."

When a bunch of hoodlums vandalize Christine – a fight with Arnie led to their expulsion from school and they have promised revenge – Arnie vows to destroy the shitters. He begins repairing Christine again, but this time the repairs are complete in a matter of days. Even Arnie is somewhat mystified, experiencing blackouts where "he couldn't remember what he had done to Christine and what he hadn't". Arnie soon realizes that Christine has the ability to regenerate, to fix itself; as its odometer runs backwards - which Arnie initially dismisses as a wiring glitch - it gains power and strength.

Christine begins driving around town in the middle of the night by itself - sometimes with the corpse of LeBay at the wheel - idling outside Leigh's house, and tracking down the vandals and eliminating them one by one. King describes the car in human terms: the grille is "a grinning mouth"; the car sits, "seeming to brood ... engine growling softly". Arnie is questioned by the police several times about these peculiar hit-and-runs, but he has air-tight alibis - and there is never any damage to Christine's pristine red-and-white exterior.

After being questioned, Arnie is sick to his stomach. He understands what is happening, but cannot imagine getting rid of the car. He considers junking it tantamount to committing suicide. But as Christine's death count rises, he battles against LeBay's possession. When he realizes that Christine will likely not stop killing until everyone close to him is dead, he begs Dennis for help: "Sometimes I feel like I'm not even here any more." Dennis and Leigh devise a plan to completely destroy Christine - and save Arnie, if possible.


In Christine, King draws upon two classics of the gothic horror genre - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - and the theme of the free will, an individual's choice to do good rather than evil. King uses Stevenson's transformation of personalty and the evil within, while Arnie's restoration of Christine and its deadly results mimic Frankenstein's creation of his monster.

Douglas Winter (Stephen King: The Art of Darkness) states that those older books depict the fears of an "age of imperial decline". King writes about similar cultural fears in the latter half of the 20th century, a time of immense technological advancement. In many respects, people are living their lives according to a pace set by machines, often machines that we are unable to wholly comprehend.

King also uses the metaphor of the machine to describe the uncertainty of adolescence and the search for identity:
That's something else about being a teenager. There are all these engines, and somehow you end up with the ignition keys to some of them and you start them up but you don't know what they fuck they are or what they're supposed to do. There are clues, but that's all. ... [T]hey say, Start it up, see what it will do, and sometimes what it does is pill you along into a life that's really good and fulfilling, and sometimes what it does is pull you right down the highway to hell and leave you all mangled and bleeding by the roadside.
King often presents technology in a negative light, as antagonistic to human welfare and values. People seldom benefit from scientific progress in his books – and any progress that is made often becomes uncontrollable. In King's words: "Our technology has outraced our morality." Thus, individuals abdicate responsibility for their actions and creations – and that (in King's fiction) often leads to supernatural manifestations or allows evil to thrive.

University of Vermont professor Tony Magistrale: "[A]s man becomes more reliant on his technological creations, he comes to resemble them in his insensitivity and moral impatience." In Christine, Arnie becomes dehumanized through his unseverable attachment to his car.

Despite the brisk momentum of the second half of Christine, King takes at least one-third of the book building his premise and laying down the back story. The hardcover is 526 pages; it could easily have been whittled down to 326.

Next: Cycle of the Werewolf.