The Death Of Inspiration: Stephen King

Much though I like Stephen King’s earlier works (well, much but not all), he has a maddening habit of making his protagonists writers, and then imbuing that with some especial moral significance. This trait has grown more pronounced as time has gone by, to the point where you wonder why he doesn’t notice what a cliché it has become. In The Shining, Jack Torrance being a writer has some thematic/symbolic significance (in the way that The Overlook Hotel captures and then consumes his imagination); while Paul Sheldon in Misery demonstrates the endurance and comfort of fiction. (King’s original plan was that Sheldon’s skin would end up the cover for a single-edition of his next book, heh-heh-heh). But most of the time, the adoration of the writer figure is a tiresome, simple, self-projection. (See here for a schematic of fictional writers and books in King’s fiction). “Whoo, Steve,” we’re evidently supposed to cheer. “You’re a writer – isn’t that amazing!?”

Bollocks, of course. Such a strategy is adolescent and transparently self-serving. No doubt King is sometimes staggered by the success of his own life and career – who would ever think they would be the world’s biggest selling author? But as with many who achieve staggering popularity, the slings and arrows of critics seem to take particular sting, and King seems to want to imbue his craft with moral significance, as though writing is not just a job, but a quest. (Note King’s fondness for The Lord Of The Rings and his take on it, the Dark Tower series). Now, I don’t doubt there is great virtue in creating: but no more than there is in pregnancy, teaching, making a new dish or writing a song. To think otherwise reminds me of Larkin’s poem “A Study Of Reading Habits”, and the adolescent hero-identification:

When getting my nose in a book
Cured most things short of school,
It was worth ruining my eyes
To know I could still keep cool,
And deal out the old right hook
To dirty dogs twice my size.

Larkin then goes on to show how we then tend to identify with the anti-hero, then in adulthood realise that we are really the minor, unimpressive characters:

Later, with inch-thick specs,
Evil was just my lark:
Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

Don’t read much now: the dude
Who lets the girl down before
The hero arrives, the chap
Who’s yellow and keeps the store
Seem far too familiar. Get stewed:
Books are a load of crap.

“Yellow” meaning cowardly, of course. But for King, this realisation, this typically Larkinesque undeception, seems never to have happened. The worst of this (of the books I’ve read: it takes a particularly devoted fan to have read all King’s books) is in Bag Of Bones, where (of course) writer Mike Noonan is (of course) successful, owning (of course) several houses and (of course) having the intelligence, bravery and empathy worthy of any author-as-protagonist. There’s nothing wrong with the bildungsroman, of course; it’s a worthy literary genre. But the best examples are where the author/protagonist is fully aware of their weaknesses and is able to dramatise these: for example, Joyce’s A Portrait Of The Artist and Edmund White’s A Beautiful Room Is Empty (though it has a happy ending, it’s rather more bracing and piercing than the preceding A Boy’s Own Story).

King’s later books seem to me to lack vision. I don’t mean his ability to visualise the events: he has a great gift for this, so that it’s no wonder so many of his books have been turned into films (well, apart from their regular successes). I mean in his ability to imagine a wide range of humanity. I particularly like early stories like “Grey Matter” and “Night Shift” because of their low, mean, settings, and their nasty, low, mean, characters. The prose is tight and economical, the characterisation deft, and the horror fierce and noxious. In larger works, King had a problem in conjuring endings to fit the size of the canvas: the conclusion of novels like The Shining and The Stand suffer from a cheesy melodrama. But in these books you can forgive that, because the characters are so memorable, the setting well evoked, the story gripping, the tension rich. However, in Bag Of Bones and Cell and Lisey’s Story and The Regulators and Desperation.… man, I just don’t care about these rich successful writers, and their prosperous American backgrounds, and their pleasant lives. I really don’t give two flying fucks about Mike Noonan’s literary career, so it’s hard to care about his reaction to the death of his wife. I only care about Bill Denbrough (the writer in IT) because I like the boy he was. As a man, Bill is a bit of a tedious prick. (Ritchie in the other hand is always glorious to read about, man and boy).

King’s self-eulogizing takes off in IT, discussing Bill Denbrough’s time in a writing class. How’s this for a wanky, self-indulgent piece of self-mythologization?

Bill Denbrough, meanwhile, has written one locked-room mystery tale, three science-fiction stories, and several horror tales which owe a great deal to Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson – in later years he will say those stories resembled a mid-1800s funeral hack equipped with a supercharger and painted Day-Glo red.

One of the sf tales earns him a B.

This is better,’ the instructor writes on the title page. ‘In the alien counterstrike we see the vicious circle in which violence begets violence. I particularly liked the “needle-nosed” spacecraft as a symbol of socio0-sexual incursion. While this remains a slightly confused undertone throughout, it is interesting.’

All the others do no better than a C.

Finally he stands up in class one day, after a discussion of a sallow young woman’s vignette about a cow’s examination of a discarded engine block in a deserted field (this may or may not be after a nuclear war) has gone on for seventy minutes or so… When Bill stands up, the class looks at him. He is tall, and has a certain presence.

Speaking carefully… he says, “I don’t understand this at all. I don’t understand any of this. Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics… culture… history… aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well? I mean… ‘ He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realized dimly that they see this as some sort of attack. Maybe it even is…. ‘I mean… can’t you guys just let a story be a story?’

So brave Bill goes and writes the kind of thing he likes:

Bill leaves… but returns the next week, determined to stick with it. In the time between he has written a story called ‘The Dark’, a tale about a small boy who discovers a monster in the cellar of his house. The little boy faces it, battles it, finally kills it. He feels a kind holy exaltation as he goes about the business of writing this story; he even feels that he is not so much telling the story as he is allowing the story to flow through him. At one point he puts his pen down and takes his hot and aching hand out into ten-defree December cold whewre it nearly smokes from the temperature change. He walks around, green cut-off boots squeaking in the snow like tiny shutter-hinges which need oil, and his head seems to bulge with the story; it is a little scary the way it seems to need to get out. He feels that if it cannot escape by way of his racing hand that it will pop his eyes out in its urgency to escape and be concrete. ‘Going to knock the shit out of it,’ he confides to the blowing winter dark, and laughs a little – a shaky laugh. He is aware that is has finally discovered how to do just that – after years of trying he has finally found the starter button on the vast dead bulldozer taking up so much space inside his head. It is revving, revving. It is nothing pretty, this big machine. It was not made for taking pretty girls to proms. It is not a status symbol. It means business. It can knock things down. If he isn’t careful, it will knock him down.

Oh dear. This kind of thing is almost like the author glorification which Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace so brilliantly mocked:

From then on, the role of the writer gets increasingly venerated in King’s fiction, and the range of King’s fiction thins, in character particularly, but also in setting, as King gets smug about his own life and fails to expand his experience (and therefore vision), and keeps to the same nice, upper middle-class American setting. This disconnection from real life is death to a writer. While IT is to me the greatest book in King’s canon, it also heralds his demise as a creative author.

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One thought on “The Death Of Inspiration: Stephen King

  1. King’s novels never won me over, and I’ve only read a few of them, but I’ve quite liked some of his short stories.

    I recently spent quite a bit of time truffling around on the Internet to compile an anthology of short stories to use in my new teaching job. I wanted to include a few of King’s that had left a lasting impression on me. I had forgotten that they were ALL from Night Shift. I have read later stuff of his, but nothing that impressed me nearly so much. And the stories I’d picked from this were psychological rather than supernatural horror (Quitters, Inc. and The Ledge)… and the one that wasn’t a horror story at all, The Last Rung On The Ladder.

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