Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In King’s Creative Crosshairs

One author who really needs no introduction is Stephen King. Though often referred to as a “horror writer,” his storytelling has actually taken on many forms and been rooted in a variety of genres, including science fiction (The Langoliers), mystery (Full Dark, No Stars), crime fiction (“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”), and dark romance (Lisey’s Story). King’s fiction regularly appears on cinema screens as well as on television and in audio recordings. He also composes non-fiction books, such as Danse Macabre and On Writing, that reflect his enthusiasm for the writing and reading life, and pens the “Pop of King” column for Entertainment Weekly. The author is even generous with book blurbs, helping his fellow scribes along. I would say that a Stephen King endorsement on one’s novel is as effective as one from Oprah Winfrey or Richard and Judy.

King’s latest book--11/22/63, due out from Scribner in early November--is sure to enhance his reputation for experimentation. It’s so intriguing, so big in terms of ideas as well as physical size, that I have allocated special time to gorge upon it. I sit and I stare at the cover of 11/22/63 in the same way that obese lawyer Billy Halleck stared at the infamous cherry pie in Thinner (which King wrote in the 1980s as “Richard Bachman”), thinking it would release him from a gypsy curse. Although King’s book is wrapped in great secrecy, the author describes it this way:
“I’d like to tell a time-travel story where this guy finds a diner that connects to 1958 ... you always go back to the same day. So one day he goes back and just stays. Leaves his 2007 life behind. His goal? To get up to November 22, 1963, and stop Lee Harvey Oswald. He does, and he’s convinced he’s just FIXED THE WORLD. But when he goes back to ’07, the world’s a nuclear slag-heap. Not good to fool with Father Time. So then he has to go back again and stop himself ... only he’s taken on a fatal dose of radiation, so it’s a race against time.”
While I wait (more or less) patiently for November and 11/22/63 to arrive, I was delighted to find an excerpt from that novel packaged with King’s recently released e-book, Mile 81. This nasty little tale for electronic readers is a throwback to some of King’s earlier works, such as “The Raft” or “The Mist,” and acts like a coda to his 1983 haunted-car thriller, Christine. Mile 81 is as menacing as it is unrelenting, with its view of a strange object from another dimension that traps anybody with whom it comes in contact. As often with King, we can see the influences here of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch etched into this yarn. Only this time, the cause of fear is not something related to the unspeakable deity Cthulhu, but rather a station wagon covered in unearthly mud. This is how Mile 81’s publisher describes the story:
At Mile 81 on the Maine Turnpike is a boarded-up rest stop, a place where high school kids drink and get into the kind of trouble high school kids have always gotten into. It’s the place where Pete Simmons goes when his older brother, who’s supposed to be looking out for him, heads off to the gravel pit to play “paratroopers over the side.”

Pete, armed only with the magnifying glass he got for his tenth birthday, finds a discarded bottle of vodka in the boarded-up burger shack and drinks enough to pass out.

Not much later, a mud-covered station wagon (which is strange because there hadn’t been any rain in New England for over a week) veers into the Mile 81 rest area, ignoring the sign that says “closed, no services.” The driver’s door opens but nobody gets out.

Doug Clayton, an insurance man from Bangor, is driving his Prius to a conference in Portland. On the backseat are his briefcase and suitcase and in the passenger bucket is a King James Bible, what Doug calls “the ultimate insurance manual,” but it isn’t going to save Doug when he decides to be the Good Samaritan and help the guy in the broken-down wagon. He pulls up behind it, puts on his four-ways, and then notices that the wagon has no plates.

Ten minutes later, Julianne Vernon, pulling a horse trailer, spots the Prius and the wagon, and pulls over. Julianne finds Doug Clayton’s cracked cell phone near the wagon door--and gets too close herself. By the time Pete Simmons wakes up from his vodka nap, there are a half a dozen cars at the Mile 81 rest stop. Two kids--Rachel and Blake Lussier--and one horse named Deedee are the only living [things] left. Unless you maybe count the wagon.
I’m a fervent lover of paper books, and I would hate to see those replaced by less-permanent electronic works. But I couldn’t resist the £1.99 UK price ($2.99 in the States) to read Mile 81 on my iPhone. The extract from 11/22/63 was merely a bonus.

Stephen King’s most recent fiction has done an exceptional job of warping my mind. He’s found a second wind in composing such fiction as Duma Key, a post-car-accident reflection, and Full Dark, No Stars, his truly disturbing collection of novellas. Particular mention should be made of “1922,” the opening tale in Full Dark. It is a story so frightening that at one point in my reading, late at night, I suddenly jumped off the sofa in alarm. Rarely has a piece of fiction done that for me--in fact, I can’t recall it ever happening before. The stories in Full Dark, most of which are of the mystery sort, with minimal supernatural elements (aside from 1922), are so terrifying and unrelenting that King actually penned an apology of sorts to his readers.

The beauty of Stephen King’s work is that it perfectly and powerfully melds his imagination with that of the reader, addressing our worst fears even before we recognize them as such. This was certainly true of his 2009 e-book novella, Ur, an excursion into the intersection of alternative realities. King’s most recent work and his interest in alternative realities are arguably precursors to the ideas contained in 11/22/63. So is his curiosity about the effects of advancing technology on publishing. For a better sense of that last interest, read what he said in Entertainment Weekly about the genesis of Ur:
In 2008, not too long after writing a column about the Kindle reading device for EW, my agent, Ralph Vicinanza, suggested I write something for Amazon. They were going to introduce a new version of the Kindle, he said, and asked if I might like to write an original story to be published exclusively in that format. I said I’d consider it, and did just that on several of my daily three-mile walks when I do my best thinking.

I decided I would like to write a story for the Kindle, but only if I could do one about the Kindle. Gadgets fascinate me, particularly if I can think of a way they might get weird. I had previously written about homicidal cars, sinister computers, and brain-destroying mobile phones; at the time the Amazon request came in, I’d been playing with an idea about a guy who starts getting e-mails from the dead. The story I wrote, “Ur,” was about an e-reader that can access books and newspapers from alternate worlds. I realized I might get trashed in some of the literary blogs, where I would be accused of shilling for Jeff Bezos & Co., but that didn’t bother me much; in my career, I have been trashed by experts, and I’m still standing.
It’s very easy to knock success, but once in a while it is worth celebrating what a single person, writing alone in a field of dark dreams, can produce and how their fiction can change the way we see the “real world.” For many of us, there is only one King when it comes to fiction.


le0pard13 said...

Fine post about depth and greatness of author Stephen King, Ali. You pulled out some fine examples in your post. The sci-fi, Twilight Zone angle of THE LANGOLIERS is very much there. But, I really got a kick out of the fact he used the tenets of the mystery genre (through the mystery writer onboard the ill-fated jet to puzzle it all out) in that novella. King, in fact, remains the only author who ever gave me a nightmare as a direct result of reading one of his books (SALEM'S LOT). As well, I had to actually stop reading THE STAND because I caught the flu right before starting the book (I did return to it once that virus had finished with me).

I'm going to have check our Mile 81 and 11/22/63. Excellent post, my friend. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

11/22/63 looks interesting, although I have to say that the idea is hardly new. The British SF/Comedy show RED DWARF did an episode called TIKKA TO RIDE, in which the crew accidentally prevent JFK's murder. The new time-line leads to the nuclear situation getting worse, and they have to go back in time and prevent their interference.