Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Surreal Influence of Fate

I came across this excellent piece today on the Web site of Irish writer John Connolly (The Book of Lost Things). In it, Connolly talks about meeting Stephen King during his tour through London a few weeks ago. The piece reminded me of the dilemma I faced, picking out just one of his books for signing (a restriction for those people queuing up to meet him). I ultimately settled on one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read by King, Pet Sematary. So I was amused to hear that Connolly had quizzed King about that particular book, providing insight into the macabre and taboo-breaking work:
Pet Sematary, his 1983 novel about a Maine cemetery with the power to resurrect dead pets, is probably the most difficult of his novels for a parent to read, as Louis Creed, its protagonist, finds himself tempted to place the body of his little son, Gage, in the earth of the cemetery following a gruesome road accident, yet even this was derived from King’s own experience.

“There was a real pet cemetery near our house,” he says. “It’s gone now because the tourists took it. Basically, piece by piece, souvenir hunters took it, but everything in
Pet Sematary up to a certain point actually happened, and was true. There was a whole pet cemetery with all of these crosses and markers, and we thought it was just the cutest, quaintest thing until our cat, Smucky, got run over and wound up in the cemetery. The house was beside a busy highway which was used by a lot of heavy trucks, and there was an old geezer who lived nearby who told us, ‘You better be careful on that there road, because that there road uses up a lot of animals and you don’t want it to use up one of your children.’

“Then in the spring of that year, 1979, our son Owen, who was 18 months old, ran for the road while we were flying kites one day, and I heard one of those trucks coming, and I tackled him like a football player. I brought him down so, unlike Gage Creed in the book, he lived. But I thought to myself--and again, this is the impulse a lot of times with these things--I’m going to write the worst thing I can think of, and that way it won’t happen. So I sat down and wrote
Pet Sematary and as bad as I imagined it was going to be, the book turned out worse. And I thought, I’m never going to publish this and nobody is going to want to read this, but they did. It just goes to show: you should never underestimate the taste of the reading public.
To read the complete piece, click here.

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One other thing Connolly’s story made me think about: the linkages and coincidences in our world. Connolly himself described those linkages in The Killing Kind (one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2002) as making our reality a honeycombed place. To his way of thinking, the world underfoot is fragile and danger lurks at all times, waiting to do us harm.

I’ve known John Connolly for many years, and enjoyed his books, including his most recent private eye Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel, as well as his short fiction. And I spent a wonderful afternoon with him in Dublin, Ireland, during the winter of 2002, during which we talked about crime fiction and life. We had lunch and then talked for the rest of the afternoon, with my tape recorder running. The results of that conversation were eventually published in January.

Readers familiar with Connolly’s gothic- and supernatural-tinged Parker series will know that much of their action is based in Maine (Stephen King’s home state). I asked him if he’d ever considered relocating to Maine:
I did consider that, but the odd thing about writing and researching the U.S. for my books is that the more I go over, the less I actually want to live there, especially under the current regime. I still like America, and perhaps would like to have a base to spend long periods of time, and that would be in Maine, I guess. Relocating permanently? No, I don’t think I would. I enjoy being an outsider looking in. I like living in Europe. It’s not perfect, but show me a place that is.
Our whole talk ran for more than three hours, so the results had to be edited down for publication. And my final question to Connolly never made the cut.
Q: Talking about gothic novels. To what would you attribute the current problems facing the horror genre?

A: Apart from Stephen King, I don’t really read much contemporary horror. Most of the guys I have read, like
M.R. James, have been dead for a long time. I think that one of the difficulties with the horror genre was that it shot itself in the foot. A great many bad writers started writing it, while British horror fiction had this obsession with sexual horror, and some were rather nasty, gruesome books. Clive Barker is a very talented bloke, but some of his stories are just vile, and although I really liked some of James Herbert’s work, there was a nasty streak in his work, too. You don’t get that level of unpleasantness in M.R. James. Another reason that has put people off horror was that the quality of the writing was so poor. You can call Stephen King many things, but no one can criticise the quality of his writing. He is probably the only truly popular horror writer that the genre has produced [in the last 20 years] that is read widely outside the genre.

I always remember an episode of that American cartoon series,
Family Guy. It's this very dark Simpsons-style series. The lead character … is this big fat bloke with glasses, and in this episode he runs over this guy in the street while driving. The guy gets up, dusting himself down, and the family guy asks, ‘Who are you?’ And the guy tells him, ‘I'm a writer.’ The family guy screams, ‘Oh no, I’ve hit Stephen King!’ and the guy says, ‘No, I’m Dean Koontz.’ And so the family guys just shrugs his shoulders and drives away, leaving poor old Dean by the roadside. …
Which brings me back again to the subject of linkages. For shortly after I returned home, I received a call from author Mark Billingham, asking me how John was. He had heard that Connolly was in a road accident! This was news to me. So I called John, only to learn that, to my horror, a few days after we’d recorded the January interview, a white van had run into him while he was cycling around Dublin. Connolly sustained a broken arm and some other light injuries. In light of the roadway accident that could well have killed King in 1999, I couldn’t help but think of how fate plays surreal games on us.

Then again, maybe I’ve just read too much Philip K. Dick.

1 comment:

Graham Powell said...

I read an interview with King somewhere in which he said that he took the manuscript for PET SEMATARY and pitched it in a drawer. Years later he wanted out of a contract but still owed a book, so he pulled out SEMATARY, dusted it off, and there you go.