I read one-hundred and thirty-eight books in 2019. Is that a lot?
Regardless, I have gone through the list, sifted through the best, and winnowed it down so that I may present the ten best books I read in 2019. From the outset I should say that I am an autodidactic weirdo with a pretty wide ken. I will read anything from a 1993 Honda Civic owner’s manual to a letter from an anonymous blackmailer informing me that, if I do not transfer ten-thousand dollars to their account by morning, they will tell the world about my leather diaper fetish. Whether I am ever lucky enough to own a 1993 Honda Civic or am willing to pay the blackmailer is another story. But reading is its own reward, even if it’s of no practical use.
And now, without further Apu (H/T Moe Sizlack):
10. Faces from the Front: Harold Gillies, the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup and the Origins of Modern Plastic Surgery by Andrew Bamji
Back when I was in the Army I was at Fort Benning for a time and I remember coming out of a PX shoppette where a man who’d had his face pretty much blown off crossed my path. I was shocked and fascinated, but I suppressed both emotions because it’s just not polite to show them. I remember seeing this guy interact with the clerk, an older black woman who called him “baby” and just bantered with him, without betraying an iota of the discomfort I could barely hide. I knew that woman was stronger than me, and that I was a coward.
Anyway, this book brought all those feelings back to the surface, with its glossy black and white photos of faces destroyed in strange and novel ways by modern instruments of terror. It’s not all dour or terrifying, though, as the resolve, bravery, and ingenuity of the doctors involved (and the subjects enduring the trauma) show themselves to be made of strong stuff. We all sort of consciously chide the child who turns to his mother on the bus, tugs the cloth of her shirt, and demands (a little too loudly) “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man’s face?” but there’s that part of us, half-curious, half-mortified, that still exists despite society’s admonitions (first delivered by our mother on that bus). This book is an outlet for such complicated feelings that injuries arouse in us.
9. Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner-City Funeral Home by Sheri Booker
I always try to read more about subjects where my knowledge is lacking. I don’t know much about women, and I don’t know much about funeral homes, so a book about a woman who works in a funeral home is a no-brainer. Ms. Booker observes a kind of game in the way her book’s chapters unfold, a dance between her and death in which she very reticently approaches the unknown lying beneath the oaken hood of that casket. But she does lift the hood, and having finally seen the dead and touched them, fear gives way to fascination. The book skillfully balances the memoirist’s development as a woman navigating personal trials against her honing of her skills in the ecosystem of an inner-city funeral home. The book is breezy on the one hand, and yet has an elegiac, sort of monastic tone, as the multi-generational saga of the parlour takes place just a stone’s throw from the most violent ghetto in America. It was fascinating beginning to end.
8. Where Nightmares Come From: The Art of the Short Story by Multiple Authors.
I really don’t trust “How-To” books that traffic in absolutes. The best books on the craft of writing, I’ve found, are more in the vein of Here’s what worked for me, or Here is what, after much struggle, I’ve discovered. “Where Nightmares come from” is much more in this spirit, a wide-ranging and open-minded forum where various horror writers share their methods and habits as authors along with their philosophies of life. The biographical details and practical advice are integrated seamlessly, in such a way that the details of the lives of the writers (and filmmakers) and their approaches to the craft sort of meld into each other. The book provides plenty of utility, but it’s more about the food for thought, and is ultimately a wellspring of inspiration.
7. The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante
People who love Fante generally hate this book. The bursting-with-life Italian-American Mencken-approved man of letters who inspired Bukowski is at his embryonic stage in “Road,” showing himself mostly as an insecure dilettante who distracts himself from his shortcomings by slipping into a delusional world of fantasy, whose blood-and-semen-soaked interiority makes Yukio Mishima seem healthy. It’s ugly stuff, and, as someone else said, has “first novel” written all over it. And yet, it’s this sort of unflinching manner, especially how merciless Fante is with himself, that made this one so memorable the first time I read it, and which made it worth a reread. I may have to read it again at some point.
6. Black on White: Black Writers on what it means to be White by Multiple Authors.
Did you ever walk into a room and accidentally hear someone talking about you, then step back slightly, hoping you were unobserved? Maybe you stood there with bated breath, heart pounding, wanting to eavesdrop but knowing it was wrong. You knew also perhaps that maybe you didn’t want to hear what this person was going to say about you but still couldn’t quite pull yourself away from the door’s jamb.
Brace for the worst because that’s “Black on White,” basically. Nothing but black writers over the course of a couple hundred years talking about the weird and wooly ways of white folks, those genetic recessive, pale-skinned, stringy haired devils. There are some beautiful essays in here, as well as more prosaic but still vital observations, i.e. on Madonna, like this chestnut: “The bitch can’t sing.”
5. The Stickup Kids: Race, Drugs, Violence, and the American Dream by Randol Contreras
Too much of the film, literature and music about the drug trade (especially the films and the music) portray only the ultra-macho, sort of inner-city version of a Nietzschean superman who doesn’t bow to white America’s laws or recognize anything worth emulating in bourgeois black mores. In this empty pop culture deluge you forget how powerless the average drug dealer is, how most criminals (excepting the born sadists and sociopaths) are sad people whose dreams died a long time ago. Unlike the suburban white kids (and West European white kids) who’ve created a sort of fetish of the ‘hood, the people actually suffering there would give almost anything to be free of it all.
This is a tragic, beautiful book written by a guy who lived it firsthand. He got away to college, bettered himself, and then returned to his old stomping grounds where he used the skills and knowledge he acquired in school to examine the world he came from through a different lens. That he is older and wiser, alas, doesn’t mean he’s not helpless to save any of his friends. This one got to me.
4. The Listener by Robert McCammon
“The Listener” came to me as a recommendation from a friend of mine, a fellow-writer who claimed this was sort of like what Stephen King would write if he had the gift of economy (though I should add I have nothing against longwindedness(sic)). “The Listener” is a pitch-perfect period tale about flimflam men and psychics and double-crossing dames that’s so accurate and lived-in I felt like I’d time-travelled (we’re talking Jack Finney levels of detail, or Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America). It isn’t so much a period piece about a decade as it is a pinpoint-precise picture of a single year in the past.
3. Black Wings has my Angel by Chaze Elliot
This is the most foreboding, haunting noir book I’ve read since William Lindsay Gresham’s “Nightmare Alley.” It’s a book that in essence says, “Life is without hope and you are doomed,” and yet manages to create an undercurrent of sensuousness and lust as an aftereffect, leaving a taste in the mouth like Baudelaire’s poetry. It’s an evil, beautiful thing. Also, it’s perfectly crafted and incredibly well-written, which means that it elicits a kind of giddy joy in the reader notwithstanding the unrelenting darkness of its characters and shadowy themes. For me it’s neck and neck with Howard Browne’s “The Taste of Ashes,” and Charles Willeford’s “The Burnt Orange Heresy” for best offering in the genre ever.
2. The North Water by Ian McGuire
This book came recommended to me by the same guy who pulled my coat about “The Listener.” And, like with “The Listener,” my friend did not steer me wrong. This one deals with a tramp whaling vessel commanded by a shady captain who, along with his crew, is viewed from the perspective of a wastrel doctor who has an opium problem and a headful of bad memories from a previous war. Contra “The Listener,” this one doesn’t feel like time-traveling so much as something created in the here and now by a great writer from a previous era who somehow walks among us in the 21st century and is oblivious to the dictates and (low) expectations of the current age. It is, to paraphrase an astute critic on “The Assassination of Jesse James,” a portrait of our world glimpsed in a distant mirror. You read of these savage men and their doings on these remote ice floes and you feel as if it is both ancient history and somehow as immediate and urgent as the squawk from a police dispatch radio reporting a crime happening only a few houses down. I found myself shaking my head as I read this thing, muttering, “Holy shit, this guy’s as good as Jack London or Stephen Crane.” Seriously, this is a spellbinding wonder of a book. And I have no yen for the sea or most of the tales that take place on the open waters.
1.The Art of the Short Story 1st Edition by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn
The short story has never been my métier. I’ve read them, sure, and written them, but I’ve always bridled at what I thought of as the constraints of the form, like a dog baying at the end of his leash. Great short story writers know that there are no constraints, or make you forget about the difference in focus and depth between a short story and, say, a novel. This book is a reminder of what the short story can do, how it equals and in many ways bests the novel (as per Borges).
I didn’t like all of the stories in here, but the people who put this thing together really took their time and did it right, and provided a strong enough mix of the modern, the postmodern, and the best offerings of the naturalistic and 19th century titans to really create the kind of book that demands a place in every collection. The mini-biographies of the writers, the essays by the authors commenting on their own work…this thing is not so much encyclopedic as biblical in its depth. Get it in the hands of smart young kids and it will ensure they understand the importance of reading, writing, education, literature, and what humanity is capable of when it works to its fullest potential and tries its damndest to create something lasting in an impermanent world. I opened this book with a reluctant sigh, as if in anticipation of taking medicine. I closed it with a feeling of supreme pleasure. I hope Nikolai Gogol and Tolstoy are with their Christ and I hope Alice Walker is pissing off someone on twitter right now.
Okay, that’s ten. Goodnight.
I speak two languages, German and English, which I suppose is not bad for an Anglo-American. I am learning Spanish now, which, if I succeed, will make me a trilingual. Someone once told me American trilinguals are a rare species. The old gag by comedian Eddie Izzard is that the Dutch speak five languages while being stoned out of their gourds on hashish, which should shame a sober Ami (as the Germans call us).
Bilingualism is hard enough on this poor noggin, but now that I’ve added (some) Spanish to the memory bank, I can feel my brain reaching not for a binary bin of index cards separated into two files, but cycling through a system of options. I’ll translate something from English to German in my brain, and then to Spanish, and then reverse the process, and invariably at some point, like a novice juggler, it will all come tumbling down and I’ll say “Shit” (or “Scheiße,” which is German for “shit.”).
I remember when I was stationed in Germany in the Army, and my friend’s Dominican girlfriend asked me, “Hablas Español?”
“Ja,” I said, which made her laugh. She’d asked me if I spoke Spanish and I’d answered “Yes,” except in German.
Why is it so hard for Americans to learn other languages? We know the standard reason, which is not without merit. Here it is in Hebrew:
אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט
Or, in English:
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
The English conquered the seas, and thereby most of the world, and then this order of things was reshuffled after a couple of World Wars in a way that gave another English-speaking nation unrivaled global power (America this time). Throw in a massive technological upheaval on a scale with the Industrial Revolution that took place in California (also located in the United States) and English wins by default. I’ve heard, but don’t know that when a Japanese pilot is speaking with the tower at a Korean airport, both parties speak English. I’ve also heard that English is practical and spare compared to other languages, less concerned with granular differences in various concepts (we don’t have twenty-five words for snow) and our words are ungendered except in a literal sense.
If someone has no choice but to do something, they will get better at it than someone who has the option of either doing something or not doing it. And learning anything but English is, in a lot of international commerce, an option.
To cite one example of this principle, many years ago trained soldiers could load and discharge a musket at a rate that is very hard to replicate under real-time conditions today, even by small arms experts. And this is because even if you’ve never handled a machinegun, your senses somehow know that your life does not and will not depend on loading and firing a musket quickly to stop an advance of gray-backs or butternut Johnny Rebs on the charge, and so your mind is not compelled to learn.
Someone whose land has been colonized by fat white people, whose daily income depends on being able to steer business his or her way and ingratiate customers (say, for a cabdriver or a prostitute), will pick up the language pretty fast. The (usually-white) American, used to being deferred to, catered to and given a patronizing deference, probably doesn’t even suspect that when the cabbie gets on the horn with his dispatcher or the prostitute shouts something to another prostitute across the hall that they may be talking about the fat American in the fanny pack and Hawaiian shirt, and that what they’re saying might not be a compliment.
And the American is not much troubled by this. The thinking is, Let them hate so long as they fear, expressed also by William Burroughs in his book Queer about living the expat life in Mexico thusly: “I don’t mind people hating me. It’s what they’re in a position to do about it.”
Or expressed even more simply: Talk all the shit about me you want. I can’t understand you.
And yet the willful ignorance (or at least resistance) does not always flow from some collective font of geopolitical power. A stubborn refusal to learn the language of the conqueror, or at least the powerful foe, can also manifest itself among peoples who haven’t conquered the seas and the skies.
Roberto Duran, for instance, one of my favorite boxers of all-time, made it a point not to learn or speak English, except for a few words, which he delivered to the wife of “Sugar” Ray Leonard before their first fight. Duran, known as “Manos de Piedras” (Hands of Stone, or Stone Hands, depending on how you translate genitive constructs), once described as looking like a cross between Che Guevara and Charles Manson, fixed Madame Leonard with his black eyes and reportedly said, “Tell your husband I kill him.”
One of the happiest days in Duran’s life according to multiple accounts was when the Torrijos–Carter Treaties went through and the Panama Canal was once again in the hands of the people of the Isthmus and no longer a possession of the imperial Yankee swine.
Senator Manny Pacquiao, another great boxer and probably the most famous and beloved Filipino in his nation’s history, has spent many years in America, training and fighting, and working alongside master coach Freddie Roach, and yet he still struggles to string a sentence together in English. A tweet from Manny’s account a million years ago addresses the topic: “Tyong lhat pinoy ang slita ntin ay tgalog we should use our language we’re nt american, jpan,chna,atbp. They’re using there own language…We should proud in our language that’s the real pinoy yan ang tama thank you God Bless everyone.”
I don’t have a twitter account so someone else will have to go back and either authenticate or disprove the origin of the tweet, if they care that much.
But for our purposes, the relevant question emerges: Is there an inverse correlation between one’s pride or chauvinism in their own culture & language and their resistance to learning another language?
Returning to William Burroughs, can his assertion that there is a force within each of us not working to our advantage be applied to the learning of languages? Might we fear the entrance into our minds of another language, as if it were a form of conquest or some sort of diluting of the psychic stock or purity of the mind that comes with being a monoglot? No one wants to admit to being bigoted, or even acknowledge unconscious biases, but putting aside moral evaluations, is anything lost or altered when we become bi- or trilingual?
We’ve all been marinated in a culture that tells us knowledge is power and education is key (and I’m starting to think a lot of this has been done just to justify the out-of-control student loan ecosystem, which has turned education into one big hustle-cum-bubble), but I think at some level we fear what education may strip away from us, what vital élan will be dissolved or diluted when poisoned by total acceptance of the Other. We attempt to assimilate the Other, and the Other devours us, or at least that’s the fear.
You encounter this quandary a lot in black thought from W.E.B DuBois to James Baldwin all the way forward in time to a pale manqué of such men, like a Ta-Nehisi Coates. This charge of “acting white” was for the most part an “in-house” running conversation between various black intellectuals until comedian Bill Cosby started grumbling and set off a firestorm that brought even the first black president into the conflagration (with perennial candidate and seatbelt advocate Ralph Nader accusing Obama at one point of “talking white”).
Sticking with the subject of race and power vis-à-vis language, even if you hated someone, and actually especially if you hated them, you could do much worse than to learn their language. The asymmetry that comes from being forced to learn the mores, customs, and habits of those who are more powerful than you (people, to whom, you, incidentally, are invisible) is what has made asymmetrical, Fabian-like victories possible since the time of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus himself.
How many American GIs in Indochina, some probably high-ranking, blathered about sensitive information while receiving a shave from a barber who, while invisible to them, happened to have a pair of functioning ears and also moonlighted as a Vietcong irregular by night? Similar-themed narratives from servants feigning docility and ignorance while secretly observing the foibles, hypocrisy, and degeneracy of their masters are staples of slave stories.
Note, that I am not honing my German or learning Spanish on a daily basis in order to conquer swaths of Western Europe or Latin America as a guerilla fighter under the guise of a domestic servant or barber. I’m doing it because I find it intellectually stimulating, fun, and challenging. Plus with all the resources available to us today, one really doesn’t have an excuse not to at least learn another language. One could easily become bilingual via YouTube alone, devoting probably half as much time to the effort as most people spend on searching for porn or keeping up with baseball box scores.
That said, if I were in public and perceived as an American (ugly, quiet, or otherwise), and were a conversation to start up within earshot in a language which the speakers assumed I didn’t understand, yeah I might play dumb, keep my mouth closed and my ears open and maybe get a chance to hear something I might not have otherwise heard. Maybe even something I wish I hadn’t heard.
On the surface of things it would appear that author Franz Kafka and filmmaker George A. Romero don’t have much in common with each other, especially in terms of their respective conceptions of horror. Horror, in Kafka’s work, is a sort of existential dread, the terror dawning that God either doesn’t exist or is indifferent. One of Kafka’s friends, an admirer of his work, once asked him if he thought there was hope. “There is hope,” Kafka said, droll smile barely curling the corner of his lips. “But not for us.”
The idea that God is indifferent is disheartening, but not quite as terrifying as the Lovecraftian idea that there is a God, or multiple gods, and that they hate and despise us, and are waiting for some foolish mortal to stumble on them, say the right incantation or dislodge the correct lock so that they can break free and get this eldritch party started, settle the score with us fragile, blood-filled and morally hamstrung meat bags.
But let’s turn to George A. Romero, the man who gave us the Zombie film genre as we know it (and was neither remunerated correctly for his contributions nor many times credited, period). His horror is visceral and in the tradition of the Grand Guignol theater. There is suspense in his works, dread, but the true horror comes when nothing is implied and everything is shown in all of its gory glory, wet organs punctured, the reanimated dead fighting over uncoiling spools of long intestine jiggling like suet as they yank the slickened offal in both directions. It is, as Stephen King pointed out in his book Danse Macabre, especially terrifying because we feel like laughing even as the terror courses through us.
What both George A. Romero and Franz Kafka have in common is the belief that much of horror’s power stems from a refusal by the sadistic or indifferent force (or the plain hungry force in Romero’s case) to proffer the victim with a sufficient “Why” for what they are doing, or a “why” to explain this thing that is happening, or not happening in the case of Kafka. In The Trial a man is charged with some crime that isn’t divulged to him, and in The Castle he attempts to approach a castle which forever remains out of reach for him.
If something terrible happens to us, we obviously experience it as unpleasant and frightening. But we generally understand that the serial killer or rapist is looking to gratify some sort of sick urge. The kidnapper is many times looking just for ransom money. Sure it’s gross and grisly when an heir’s grandson gets his ear severed from the side of the head because Daddy Warbucks thinks the kid staged his own kidnapping to feed his drug habit, but it makes a kind of sense, and sense tempers the worst horrors.
This may explain the obsession with “origin stories” for bad guys (although these days such stories seem be the coin of the realm in superhero fare more often than in the slasher flicks I remember from my childhood in the eighties).
Jason Vorhees might be implacable and silent, as he gazes at you with black hollow eyes from within his blood-splattered hockey mask. Michael Meyers, appearing in his modified William Shatner mask with even darker eye hollows (and a butcher knife) seems to have a limitless capacity for evil and even less feeling than Jason, who at least occasionally looks puzzled and cocks his head to the side like a confused dog. But we know where these guys came from and how they got to be the monsters that they are. You just have to go back far enough in the series to get answers to such questions, but you get a “Why”? that stays the hand of ultimate horror.
But who turned Gregor Samsa into a bug, and why?
As for Romero’s lack of a clarifying “Why,” one can attempt to answer the question by simply saying that the zombies are eating people because they are hungry, and since they’re no longer human what they’re doing isn’t even what the anthropologists would call gustatory cannibalism (as opposed to the ritual type). But that doesn’t answer the main questions, which how did they become reanimated and why?
The first of the Dead movies seems to hew closer to the Cold Water atomic horror template (especially aesthetically, what with the eerie public domain horror music and the grainy black and white camerawork), or I think it’s implied or maybe stated in the movie that a comet or asteroid came to Earth with a payload in one of its craters that spread some sort of virus that reanimated the dead. But these kind of explanations in the Dead films always felt sort of pro forma and just there, insufficient explanation and all the better for it. There is no “why”.
Dawn of the Dead continues the saga, with the mystery abiding behind the source of the curse or the disease, or whatever the hell it is that animates the dead and causes them to feast on the living. There’s that great scene where the four main humans holed up in the Monroeville Mall have cleared the place of zombies, and are enjoying the fruits of their conquest of the temple to commerce. Fran (the only woman among their number) shivers in a massive fur coat she’s pilfered from a woman’s department store and mulls over the question that earlier, when the only concern was survival, never really got asked. “What are they?” (Close enough to “Why?” to suit our purposes for the night’s blog entry). “They’re us, that’s all,” Peter, one of the two National Guardsmen among their number, says. He then tosses out a chestnut from his grandfather, a practitioner of Macumba, a syncretic religion that spread from Sub-Saharan Africa to Brazil by way of the transatlantic trade in humans. “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
This most memorable line is not really an attempt to answer the “Why,” since a good explanation (regardless of whether or not it satisfies any scientific or rational criteria) at least gives the confused and forlorn some hope. That the corpses of people who don’t even have functioning digestive systems are trying to eat you because (maybe) there’s no more room in Hell does not help one cope. And it leads quickly to an ugly infinite regress, in which the answer to one “Why” not only leads to another, but only makes things worse and increases the sense of terror in the face of the unknowable.
Franz Kafka said he (and by proxy his writing) was a dead end. Considering the amount of mileage so many have gotten from him, it might be more accurate via extended metaphor to say that he’s created a cul-de-sac around which the mind swirls again and again, searching for the hidden “Why”, until the traveling in circles begins to feel less like a stimulating exercise and more like circling the drain, a downward spiral toward Hell (presumably well-stocked with both man-bugs and flesh-eating zombies). I guess what I’m saying is the attempt to answer the question “Why is this happening?” and not getting an answer is at the heart of such disparate but abiding and timeless works of horror as The Metamorphosis and Dawn of the Dead, to say nothing of the greatest horror of all, human history.
Here’s as close as Kafka came to addressing the “why” …
Franz was walking with his friend one day, who, sensing there was some sort of metaphor to be gleaned from The Metamorphosis, prodded Kafka about the story’s meaning and offered his own suppositions as to what it meant, the metaphor behind The Metamorphosis.
Franz, the usually mild-mannered insurance claims handler, became unusually animated, interrupted his friend, and said that “the Dream reveals the reality, which conception lags behind.” That, he continued, was “the horror life.”
You are given the faculty to ask why, and the need to have that question answered and resolved, even in the face of a great threat. Asking someone or something a question while they are trying to kill you is not a good strategy, but the lack of an answer given for their reasons compounds the horror of whatever is to come next, which is usually your death.
I don’t want to get into theodicy (it’s late enough already), so let’s just say that both “horror” as a state of existential terror and “horror” as a genre seem to suggest it’s more plausible that either God doesn’t exist or that he or it doesn’t like us very much. I hope that’s not true. And considering I haven’t been turned into a bug (yet) or eaten by a zombie (yet), I’ll stick with Pascal’s Wager for the time being.
I was going to say that unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few decades, you know the general arc of author Stephen King’s career, along with his critical reception, and how both have altered. But the truth is that King is famous enough that even if you’ve been living under a rock, providing you have keen hearing and wi-fi rays can penetrate rock (and maybe they can’t, I don’t know) chances are good you know who Stephen King is, what he does, and how others feel about him.
I’m too young to remember when the guy first burst onto the scene (I was born in the early 80s), but my age also means that I was pretty much in the eye of the storm, King-wise, when for good and for ill, the guy made his deepest penetration of pop culture. One could even be illiterate and know who King was, thanks to both the magic of the glass teat and the silver screen. In one of my earlier books I wrote about an encounter between two boys in first grade who talk about Stephen King, concluding that he is an evil old man who lives in a castle, and when a movie is sufficiently scary, say about a malevolent clown who pulls kids into the sewer, or about vampire children who scrape at your bedroom window during the night with their claws, said work was screened for King, and, if he thought it sufficiently horrifying, King nodded his head and said, “It looks scary enough, put my name on it.” Or words to that effect.
For the literate-but-pleasure-reading-public, Stephen King was no master stylist, but was without peer as a storyteller. He was someone who knew how to hook you and keep you on the line, for several hundred pages, and the ubiquity of his paperbacks at newsstands in airport terminals no doubt eased the travels of insomniacs taking transcontinental flights in the 1980s, who were worried about junk bond barons raiding their pensions or Libyans with shoulder-mounted cannons trying to beat the high score set by whoever shot down Pan-Am Flight 103.
For the middle to highbrow, Stephen King was initially perceived as a hack, someone who had taken a lifetime of pulp detritus like E.C. comics and crumpled typewriter pages discarded in Rod Serling’s wastebasket and somehow managed to get a platoon of ghostwriting monkeys to shape this grist into a number of very-well selling mass market paperbacks.
The problem with calling King a hack, though, is that a hack is someone who doesn’t do it from the heart, someone who churns it out as if they were on the clock and does it just to get paid. Stephen King is prolific as hell, but if he were doing it solely for the money he would have stopped a long time ago.
Eventually the gatekeepers (I imagine them sitting around a wood-paneled Manhattan boardroom, a group of horse-faced Boston Brahmans in black turtlenecks, tan sports blazers, and oxblood loafers) had to concede that Fine, King wasn’t a hack, and he wasn’t even trash, but his writing trashy. Thus provided one was to treat the indulgence of reading his work as a guilty pleasure, like a tabloid hidden inside the folds of a paper of record during the daily commute, then even the Good People could read King all in good fun.
This attitude may or may not still be prevalent among the Good People. I remember encountering it a couple times as an undergrad, with one especially insufferable professor (insufferable for other reasons) sniffing haughtily and snorting before saying, “Stephen King is …okay.”
This kind of stalemated “Okay,” drawn like an unwanted concession by a wrestling opponent who’d been pinned but was too proud to tap out, eventually morphed into respect, or at least a more grudging acknowledgment of King’s staying power and maybe even his (gasp) literary merits (relatively speaking, of course, old chap). This was due to the simple fact, already touched upon, that the guy kept writing through the initial critical indifference, the later drubbing, and finally the acceptance.
It didn’t hurt that Stephen King, when in nonfiction mode, demonstrated more than an autodidact’s knowledge of not only horror fiction, but of great literature and the mechanics of writing. Danse Macabre is one of the few texts analyzing pop culture that might cause an undergrad (and even a professor) to work up a light topcoat of sweat if they were to grapple with all of the theories and history elucidated in the book, which takes the reader on a tour from Continental Romanticism all the way to schlock b-pictures dealing with the horrors of the atomic age. Touching very briefly now on On Writing, let’s just say there’s a good chance that the book is likely to supplant Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as the go-to text for people who want to learn how to be writers. Sure, if said wannabe writer is in a reputable MFA program, they’ll hide the book on the dorm room bookshelf, sans cover, but they’ll still learn more from that twenty dollar hardback than they will going fifty-thousand dollars in debt to have some tweed-jacketed Updike lookalike make them parse The Yellow Wallpaper or The Story of an Hour closer than a monkey examining its offspring’s head for lice.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything by King, but during my formative years as a young man and a young writer I read quite a bit of him. I was already well-enough alienated from society in a literal sense at that point already to not worry about what was or wasn’t salonfähig as the Germans say, so I didn’t care whose imprimatur King did or didn’t have. I read ‘Salem’s Lot with the same set of eyes I used to read Remembrance of Things Past (unless some sinister eye-merchant, like the one in ETA Hoffman’s Der Sandmann, swapped out my peepers in my sleep one night while I was dozing).
What I may or may not have noticed about King, though, besides the obvious, is that he was (and probably remains) a writer of unparalleled stamina.
This is something King himself addressed at some point in his writing, I think in relation to his novel Carrie. He talked about how short the novel was in its initial typewritten draft, and that he had to pad the thing out with these interleaved committee meetings on telekinesis (sort of like a Kefauver Inquiry, but into paranormal phenomena rather than mafia meddling with boxing).
King pointed out, with an uncharacteristic scoff in his voice (apparently he can look down his nose just as much as some éminence grise tending goal at The Paris Review), that one can sense when writers who are attempting their first novels struggle to cross the finish line, to write something of fifty or sixty thousand words. King himself said that when he went back and read something from his Carrie period, he recognized his voice, his style, and mannerisms, but the work read as if he had been suffering from a very bad head cold or had been under the grip of the flu while composing it.
Since Carrie, though, I don’t think King has struggled over the finish line even once. Or if he has, he hasn’t betrayed that to the reader.
For just as writing is a form of telepathy between writer and reader (as King points out in On Writing), some things can be communicated by the less-than-expert telepath against his or her will during transmission. They can betray, reveal, broadcast their weaknesses much as a poker player or boxer can. They can also bluff.
Many times reading novels by writers of varying ability (some of them very good), I have sensed them fatiguing, sagging psychically. It seems that when King hits this potential wall of fatigue which every creative person encounters, no matter how inspired or well-trained their muse, he steps up his work-rate, to borrow a phrase from boxing (and we’ll stick with boxing and ditch poker, since I know something about the former and nil about the latter). He not only refuses to buckle to the inclination to slow down, but seems to find himself spurred on to new heights by it. Just as some animals and some fighters are more dangerous when they’re wounded, King seems to find his deepest well of inspiration at the point where most other people pack it in for the day.
He is not just prolific in terms of cranking out books, one after another, but is a marvel of perpetual motion even within the pages of a single book, or story. Whatever planted this seed that’s borne an inexhaustible forest of fruits over the decades, (admittedly of varying quality, even according to his hardcore fans)- whether it was poverty, abandonment by his father who’d made his own halfhearted attempts at being a writer, or if it was just inspiration he was born with- King has been punching away at his unconquerable foe now for more than four decades. Addiction, alcohol, criticism, aging, and speeding vehicles have not slowed him down. The blandishments of fame and success have not robbed him of his vital essence, the succubus has not sapped his “precious bodily fluid,” to borrow a phrase from Base Commander Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove.
He’s the literary equivalent of Henry “Hammering Hank” Armstrong (sometimes also billed as “Homicide Hank”), dubbed the “perpetual motion machine,” a boxer who reportedly walked to and from work a cumulative twenty miles each day…to drive spikes while on the clock. And then spent his nights in smoky Masonic temples, Moose lodges, and VFW halls battling it out for fifteen rounds with no air-conditioning under hot lights in front of sometimes-hostile crowds.
Stephen King is a rich and famous writer who does not need a panegyric composed by me deep down here in the trenches of a little-frequented blog, anymore than Muhammad Ali needed the praise of a kid in some grimy PAL gym getting his hands wrapped as he prepped to get paid a couple hundred bucks to have his brains beaten in before a room half-filled with folding chairs.
But if you think he hasn’t earned than $400 million, you’re buggin worse than Phife Dog.