Friday, October 19, 2012

Stephen King and Me - A Test Chapter of Sorts

A year or two ago, I thought it might be fun to work up a book proposal wherein I spent a year reading all of Stephen King, from Carrie up to whatever it was he had put out in the last year.


For better or worse, I’ve been reading King since I was about 12 years old, which means I’m coming up on 25 years of consuming his prose, and I thought it might be entertaining to compare and contrast my memory of his work with how it holds up today.


The problem, of course, is that I almost certainly need to be a much more famous author before I can sell a book like this.  Of course, with my Blood Calling series slowly making headway into the world, maybe that time is coming.


So consider this a bit of a test chapter.


The point of the book, ultimately, would be to discuss not only King’s massive body of work, but how it influenced me, and more to the point, how my views of him have changed from when I was 12 until now, as I re-read his stories.


I’ve already reread some of his books, and, well… you’ll see.


Danse Macabre


I’ve told the story of how I came to read King before, but here’s a summary.


When I was little, I had no interest in scary books.  Because they were scary.  And I didn’t handle scary well, in books, or in movies.


I couldn’t tolerate things like the face-melting sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark, so when friends of mine would tell me what happened in the latest tale of Jason or Freddy, I was all the more convinced that scary movies weren’t for me.


And that extended to books.


Then one day, desperate for something to read, I borrowed a copy of a scary short story collection from a friend in study hall.  And I got into it.


And of course I knew, because my mom told me, that Stephen King wrote scary books.  So I figured I’d start reading some of his stuff.


Really, this is a bit like taking a toke of pot, and deciding to move right on to meth.


For a while, it was easy to find King I hadn’t read.  The man was prolific, and even in the late eighties the guy took up the better part of an entire bookshelf all on his own.  So I could walk in and get something I hadn’t read before with relative ease.


Which means I was pretty much scraping the bottom of the barrel by the time I had to go to an entirely different section of the library (nonfiction!) to find Danse Macabre.


Now, the thing of it is, I had found a few King books I hadn’t liked much by then.  Tommyknockers was the second worst of the lot, a complete struggle from beginning to end.  And I had read the first forty pages of The Talisman three or four times before I was able to get through the entire book.  Which I still didn’t enjoy very much.


But Danse Macabre was a whole other kettle of fish.


The books starts with a long introduction that’s designed to explain why King decided to tackle the subject at hand, which was, at the time, the most recent 30 years of horror.  We’re talking roughly 1950 to 1980, here, and I was reading the book somewhere around 1990, putting the book a solid ten years out of date.


Even more of a problem for me was the fact that the book ends when I was about three years old, so pretty much all of his references were lost on me.  Flipping through the pages, I found a discussion of The Twilight Zone, which to my brain was a flop movie and a “new” TV series (the show was re-launched in 1985).


I made it a little way into the book, and promptly gave up.  He was trying to examine horror stories as literature, and it was doing nothing for me.  He was also tackling books like Dracula, which I hadn’t read and didn’t have much interest in picking up.


I couldn’t tell you how far I got into it.  Maybe forty pages, maybe fifty. Regardless, it went back to the library, and I was sure I was never going to pick it up again.  I consoled myself by noting that I had still read all of King’s fiction, so this nonfiction book didn’t count.


A year or two passed. 


I was at a Boy Scout meeting when I decided it was time to pick the book up again.  Not because it was recommended to me, or because I had gotten older and wiser, but because we were playing baseball.  One of the kids (his name was Chris, that I remember) said it reminded him of a comic book, where all the bases were made of body parts, and the baselines were intestines.


I was nauseated, but intrigued.  “Where did you read that?”


“I heard about it in Danse Macabre.”


So now I was curious.  I hit up the library, got the book, and started over again from page one. 


Once again, it was a massive slog, with a lot of talk about literature and literary devices and about what is scary and why.  I still didn’t care, but I knew that the bit about the baseball diamond was in there, and wanted to get to it.


And I did.  And it wasn’t much more of a description than what Chris had given me. But by then I had gotten through a decent chunk of the book, and I pressed on.


To a child who mostly grew up the eighties, the book was confusing at best.  I knew who Ray Bradbury was, but the rest of the authors were a complete blank to me.  I had never heard of any of the horror movies King had brought up.   And again, Twilight Zone excepted, the TV shows he spoke of were a complete mystery to me.


I finished the book with a shrug.  At least I could say I had gotten through it.


Time passed.


Danse Macabre continued to age, as did I.  And like all research, it slowly went from slightly out of date to very out of date, to something of a curiosity, to… something else.


Science fiction tends to age poorly, because technology always seems to get ahead of whatever curve creative types can come up with.  The data pads on Star Trek seemed impossibly from the future right up until someone develops the iPad.  (Come to think of it, I think the phaser is the only part of Star Trek technology that no one has created yet.  But give it time…)


But for better or worse, King planted a flag and said, “Here’s where we are in horror.”


By the time I went back to Danse Macabre, I was twenty years older, and the contents of the book were no longer a mystery to me.  I had read Dracula, and Harlan Ellison, and Richard Matheson.  I still hadn’t gotten around to seeing The Amityville Horror, but I was aware of it, along with all its sequels and the recent remake.


Heck, I’d even seen The Horror of Party Beach taunted on Mystery Science Theater 3000.


A few of the names and titles remained a blank, but overall, I found it to be an impressive overview of horror, pop culture, and literature in general.


Granted, much of King’s conjecture about how horror works, various kinds of monsters, and whatever else, I could still take or leave.  That’s almost certainly more my issue than his, as I haven’t studied the tenants of literature enough to agree or disagree with him.


Mostly, I was impressed with the depth to which he went to hunt down information on all the old movies and shows and books.  Today, of course, you can pick up a copy of every episode of Dark Shadows on DVD.  But in the late 1970s, as King was writing this, there was no DVD.  Even videotapes were rare and difficult to come by, and if you wanted to find a book, you had to search through old bookstores, not hop on the internet and find what you’re looking for thirty seconds later.


Ultimately what struck me is that thirty years down the road, King’s book did a surprisingly good job of laying out the pop culture that was worth remembering, and would be remembered.


I’m a little sad that he probably has neither the time nor the interest in doing a second survey, ending where the last book began, and running up to the present day.  I suspect that in thirty years it’ll be a heckuva read…




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