Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Reading Stephen King, Chapter 3: Reunited in the '90s

Posted By on Wed, Feb 13, 2008 at 3:08 PM

click to enlarge greenmile.jpg

(The first "chapters" are here and here.)

For the first half of the 1990s I studiously avoided Stephen King’s typically prodigious output. I didn’t touch the likes of Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne or Needful Things and instead focused more on “high” literature (particularly English Booker prize-winners for some reason). I did make an exception in 1994 and read his pandimensional airplane novella “The Langoliers.” I got a kick out of the book, but in relationship terms, I suppose it was equivalent to drunk-dialing your ex at a moment of weakness.

In 1996, a glowing Entertainment Weekly review of The Green Mile coaxed me back into the fold. I’m a sucker for a fun gimmick, so I eagerly bought and read the series when King published it as six monthly (more or less) serialized chapters. The book’s botched electrocution may be one of the most horrific scenes he’d ever written, but The Green Mile also offered some intriguing implications about the death penalty and American race relations.

It was The Dark Tower, however, that drew me back in and then some.

A comparably King-obsessed school friend had loaned me The Dark Tower 1: The Gunslinger in college, but the author’s attempts at a “higher” diction put me off. A decade later, another friend assured me that the subsequent books, The Drawing of the Three and The Waste Lands, were really good, and they got me hooked with a vengeance. The Dark Tower series (which King later claimed to have worked on, sporadically, from 1970 to 2004) blurs the boundaries of genre fiction like few other works have ever done, drawing archetypes from horror stories, science fiction, Tolkein-style fantasy and Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns. They seemed like books that King wrote with his “left hand,” as it were -- idiosyncratic and dedicated to their own dreamy logic (and released by small publishers) while his right hand produced the reliable mainstream best sellers.

So not only did I read three The Dark Tower books that had been published up until 1996, I had also had to read all his books that mention the Dark Tower mythos -- which was a lot of them: Insomnia, Hearts in Atlantis and many more. I even bought the two-pack of Desperation and The Regulators (published under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) because it contained a sample of the new Dark Tower series. By the end of the decade I was practically caught up with his work. My house went online in 1996, and I’m sure that fed the Dark Tower monomania. To paraphrase The Godfather Part III, "Just when I thought I was out ... he keeps pulling me in!"

The late 1990s coincided with King discovering a certain amount of literary cachet. His superb short story “The Man in the Black Suit” won the prestigious O. Henry Award in 1995, and his 1998 novel Bag of Bones, with its Gothic overtones, earned some grudging admiration from mainstream book critics. Bag of Bones didn’t do it for me, however -- I’m as surprised as anyone. The story never really interested me, and perhaps I was so accustomed to his fast-paced narratives that its subtleties were lost on me. Do I have to read it again?

It’s ironic that when Stephen King had earned attention and honed his craft to reach critical respect, I became entranced by the weirdest, least-mainstream books in his body of work. Does that make me a bad fan? Perhaps my favorite King character is The Dark Tower’s “Blaine the Mono” who happens to be a monorail controlled by a completely insane, homicidal, riddle-obsessed computer system who taunts the heroes. Blaine plays like a combination of HAL 9000, Gollum and the Joker, and proves crucial in the six-year cliffhanger between The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass, one of the great cliffhangers in pop culture.

Stephen King suffered a near-fatal car accident in 1999, and I think everyone was relieved when he recovered and resumed writing again. Our relationship wasn’t completely secure, however. Just as I’d quit on him in the 1990s, King threatened to quit on me -- and by “me,” I mean all of his readers -- in the next decade.

To be continued tomorrow.

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