THE CELLAR IS THE SAFEST PLACE! THE ZOMBIE
George A. Romero is one of my favorite directors of all-time. His most fruitful period was undoubtedly the time between the creation of the first and second entries in his Dead series, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. That’s not a large timespan, but one cannot overemphasize the man’s influence on the genre specifically, and on our culture as a whole, within that relatively short time. He struck a primal chord with his films, like Steven Spielberg did with Jaws, but what Romero did was not just primal, but political, and personal (to bowdlerize the old quote about the personal being political). A human being getting bitten by a shark is actually a kind of rare occurrence, and the misconceptions (or perhaps misapprehensions) that Jaws fostered were something that the book’s author Peter Benchley later lamented. Also, it’s nothing personal. A shark’s a different species altogether.
But getting bitten by a human, getting devoured by a person (even a former person that’s arguably no longer technically human), that’s not only primal but it’s a major violation of all kinds of taboos.
The real heart of Romero’s Dead movies, though, and their genius, is that the focus is as much on what the humans do to each other in crisis as what the zombies do to the humans. For large portions of both Dawn of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead, the undead exist mostly offscreen, either stymied by barricades or trapped behind big-rig trucks that have been parked to deny them egress to the mall where the warm-blooded are dwelling. And these parts of the zombie movies without the zombies are the most compelling in some ways (though it is fun to watch the humans get disemboweled, eviscerated, and devoured by the vacant-eyed shufflers moving around in their pancake makeup).
Romero once confessed that he actually viewed the zombies as the good guys, or at least the unwashed masses who would inevitably overrun the tiny minority of still warm-blooded humans (the third film in the series, Day of the Dead, actually gives a rough estimate of the ratio of zombies to humans, and it’s obviously comparable to what today we would refer to as the 1% vs. the 99%).
I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, or veer into some Film Studies analysis that drains the movies of their charm and magic just to show off my useless degree, because the truth is that the only reason we still think about these movies and talk about them is because they work in all the ways we don’t need to think about or talk about, manipulating our fears and heightening tension (and going for the Grand Guignol gross-out when necessary).
But to at least pay the imago of my professor some lip service, it’s worth noting that the first Dead film does a good job of distilling the conservative and liberal mindsets down to their Manichean essentials. In brief, in Night of the Living Dead, at one point an older couple and a younger couple find themselves trapped in the house which the zombies are attempting to besiege. The older man, Harry Cooper, has a classic door-to-door salesman vibe to him, the balding pate, the sort of cynical hard-ass look of someone who resents everything in his life yet insists his offspring mimic his path, because it’s “respectable.” The younger kid looks a bit like he’s on the verge of being a hippy, just clean-cut enough to still fit in with the Johnny Unitas crewcut set griping about desegregation, but he “needs a haircut!” (to quote the old heckler’s chestnut) and is perhaps eyeing those people and that town he grew up in a little askance now, and with a longing to get away. The kid’s name is Tom, and his girlfriend’s name is Judy (Romero’s films have some interesting things to say about feminism, too, and women in general, but that’s collateral to the point I wanted to explore here).
Tom finds himself gravitating to the leadership of Ben, another survivor who made his way to the house with Barbara, a mostly catatonic blonde who earlier saw her brother murdered by one of the undead when he was going to lay a wreath for their dead mother in a cemetery.
Ben’s a lithe black man who exudes the kind of precarious pride that someone like heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson represented (or perhaps Sidney Poitier is a better analogy). His behavior, his very existence, makes denying his humanity prima facie absurd, and there is something about his quiet dignity that pisses off racists more than the kind of blaxploitation über-pride of a sex machine Mandingo, who, despite his defiance, is sort of a parody of himself and thus seen as less threatening (though obviously in the most literal sense, a Sonny Liston can not only kick your ass, but kick it much easier than a Floyd Patterson).
Ole Harry, oozing his Willy Loman flop sweat, insists that “the cellar is the safest place!” repeatedly. And since he has a daughter already down there (who was earlier “bitten by one of those things”) it would make sense to hunker down underground and wait for the zombies to pass upstairs through the house, where, presumably they might eventually meet their end at the hands of roving hillbilly militias or to some deployed National Guard units.
Tom, however, forms an alliance (to use a phrase for the reality TV generation) with Ben, and the twosome remain adamant against the old man, who eventually tyrannizes his wife into acquiescing to his demands to go downstairs (sort of), while the youngsters decide to continue to wage the good fight aboveground.
Spoiler alert: Things don’t go well for Harry.
I mean, sure, everyone dies, but the old folks who clung to their calcifying and cloistered world of the past, down below, face an especially ignominious end. Dad, already gut-shot by Ben in an early dispute, slinks down to the basement and collapses by his ailing daughter’s side. She shows her gratitude by feasting on his corpse.
Mom meets her own similarly gruesome end, getting stabbed to death with a trowel by her infected, now-reanimated daughter. Throw in whatever kind of Freudian stuff you want about patricidal and matricidal fantasies, and then leaven that with a smattering of rehashed observations about how this is supposed to symbolize the Woodstock generation rising up against their parents to establish a new order.
But there’s something else, though, something interesting and worth noting, which I had meant to get to earlier:
I usually eschew writing too much topical stuff, even when just thinking out loud, like in this blog, but isn’t it curious that, amid the C_vid-19/W_han Virus outbreak, the trend appears to be that the conservatives and liberals (again, generally) have staked out territory in the overall argument which is the exact opposite of that instantiated in Romero’s grainy old masterpiece of a horror movie?
Donald J. Trump wanted to lift the lockdown that has America (and much of the globe) at a standstill. The fear from this camp is that the potential economic depression which might result from “flattening the curve” in terms of halting the virus will eventually interfere not only with the Dow Jones and your 401K, but other little issues like getting insulin to diabetics or food on your table. “Herd immunity” is also a term that has been bandied about quite a bit in some circles in counterpoint to curve flattening.
The other camp, however, mostly (but not solely) composed of people who despise Trump and would consider themselves generally liberal on a L-R axis, think that hunkering in place, the continued closing of schools, and the eschewing economic concerns as ancillary is the way to go. They’re not literally in their basements, but “Flatten the curve!” has become their mantra, a fugue-like refrain, and the initial idea that restrictions might be lifted by April 3rd (today, incidentally) was greeted by these people the same way Harry might have responded if Ben or Tom suggested that perhaps if everyone took one bite on the arm from a zombie they might build up an immunity to zombification.
It’s easy to understand why the poles became inverted on this one. The redneck-bumpkins in Flyover Country who thought borders were good last week don’t live in dense urban centers where the horror stories about running out of space to keep bodies has sobered quite a few of the good cosmopolitan people to the reality they’re facing, and despite all their earlier tough talk about trade wars, the gun-and-bible-clinging hillbillies have discovered they do in fact want to keep getting some of their cheap crap from China. Conversely, those pussy-assed liberals in blue cities who were talking about the wonders of diversity last week, especially emphasizing the wonders of the cuisine, might suddenly be wondering if eating bats is a good idea, or if borders (or at least the idea of limiting trade with China) is all bad.
Yes, we are finally seeing the world through the eyes of our enemy, forced to concede (whether left or right) that there is some merit in staying on the first floor, using fire pokers and whatever other improvised brickbat is handy to beat back the clawing fingers of the zombies peeking through the boards over the windows; or conversely, that maybe sometimes the right thing to do is to hide in the cellar, stay there, and let the foul wind pass you by. And all it took was the impending potential for the total collapse of civilization for us to make these meager concessions. I’m proud of us.
Look, this could be a temporary blip and we might see a reset by summer. I’m not advising anyone to strip naked and walk through the middle of the street reading loudly from the Book of Revelations. I’m not saying I have the answer, or which group is right, because I don’t know. I am neither a virologist nor an economist.
But there is at least one thing I can say with some measure of certainty: Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are damn good movies. It’s hard even in the genre of fantasy to build a world people want to inhabit and return to again and again, and the genre of fantasy is one primarily purpose-built for world-building.
Horror is usually much more elemental, and in some ways elementary, focusing on chases and chills, and yet here we are talking about a movie made more than half a century ago for less than the catering budget of most movies being made today.
There’s some comfort, and perhaps even inspiration, to be taken from that, regardless of what happens with this virus and what happens with us soon. We’re pretty resourceful when we want to be, or need to be.
Or at least we used to be. I haven’t seen a movie as good as Night of the Living Dead in a long time. And I’ve yet to see anything as inventive or brilliant as Dawn since I first laid eyes on the thing when I was twelve years old.
When I was a kid, my older sister was obsessed with the TV show Twin Peaks. I was a little too young for it, though I remember being swept up into its emotional whirlwind world whenever I tried to watch it (without understanding exactly what was going on). I was scared when I was supposed to feel fear (that menacing Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack playing as a heavy wind tossed a red stoplight hung on a wire over some train tracks back and forth and the dark pines shook in the night). I was amused when I was supposed to be (Mr. Badalamenti playing up and down the xylophone as some waitress ran down the specials for some odd customer bellied up to the Formica).
I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point I saw the movie Fire Walk with Me.
Just typing that I got slight chills.
I must have been a couple years older when I saw it, since if I’d seen it when the TV show came out, I would have been traumatized (similar to the way I was debilitated with fear when my childhood friends, who knew I was afraid of clowns, thought it would be funny to show me Stephen King’s It).
I remember not just being terrified as I watched Fire Walk with Me, but feeling sickened and dirtied, as if I’d just been pulled into something evil and somehow made complicit. But it felt necessary to see it, even as the fear in the pit of my stomach increased and the disgust washed over me.
That’s actually a good way to describe the experience of watching that movie: necessary. It was necessary as a young man just entering puberty to see that movie, in order to understand that no matter what minor tortures sexual deprivation imposed on a young man (mostly humorous), sex (and boys, and later men) traumatized a lot of girls and women in sometimes permanent and horrible ways.
All drives have the capacity, if not controlled, for metastasizing into something truly evil. Fire Walk with Me was the first and maybe the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me feel what it was like to be a female, and even back then I knew it to be some kind of extended tone poem created to honor victims of sexual abuse. The movie forced me to experience how it feels to be a female in a world where men give their appetites primacy over female life. Considering that David Lynch was accused of being a misogynist around this time (I think an actress or two from the show refused to be in the film for that very reason), what he accomplished (or at least induced in me as a young viewer) seems incongruous with the charge.
I remember the movie pissed a lot of people off, especially at Cannes where it was supposedly booed and jeered by the audience. I know the critic Roger Ebert hated it. At one point in his career, Rog admitted (I think it was when reviewing Lost Highway) that something in him resisted David Lynch, that his critical faculties were somehow clouded by a personal distaste for something about the man’s aesthetic or his whole Weltanschauung that made it hard to review his movies.
The movie also pissed off a young Quentin Tarantino, the maverick director whose pop culture mashup films have pretty much rewired our collective synapses as cinemagoers, in a perhaps lower-brow but no less total manner than the celluloid worlds created by Kubrick or Scorsese.
Tarantino said words to the effect that, despite loving Lynch’s earlier films, he was done with the man for the foreseeable future, because he’d crawled so far up his own ass with Fire that it wasn’t worth wasting time on the man or his work.
But I still think Fire Walk with Me is incredible. Perhaps my opinion of the movie would change were I to watch it today, but that’s not happening because I never, ever want to see it again. I’m only even bringing it up now because as an object lesson it’s related to the subject I wanted to broach tonight, which is that perhaps there are worse things for an artist to do than crawl up their own ass.
To return to Kubrick, there’s a scene in a documentary about him in which the director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) points out that during Clockwork Orange, in the scene at the record shop, a copy of the soundtrack for 2001 is clearly visible behind the droog Alex hitting on the girls (I think they’re underage in the Burgess novel, but it’s not specified or even implied in the film).
The gag of course is that Kubrick was both the director of Clockwork Orange and 2001, which meant, according to Cox, that this was a man who had become the primary influence on his own work.
Reflexive, sure. Solipsistic? Why not. But is this a creative dead-end? “Navel-gazing” is usually an insult, but I suppose it all depends on the quality of lint that one collects in their belly button. Before I hyper-extend the metaphor, I’ll just circle back around to the central question, which is: Is self-indulgence in itself a bad thing for an artist? Put another way: When one is in dialogue with oneself, is it always really a monologue, creative onanism mistaken for intercourse?
I was about to say that I don’t have an answer, except that I think I do. I think some artists who close off the outer world and work in a house of mirrors make as much or more of the reflections they see refracted in their fun-houses than anyone who’s out there in the real world reporting back from the front-lines or the knife-edge of reality.
Hell, look at Hölderlin. The German romantic poet had a nervous breakdown, hypochondrias, as I believe schizophrenia was then known, and responded by sequestering himself in a tower provided to him by a carpenter who had mercy on him and functioned as a lifelong patron. Herr Hölderlin would continue living and composing in his stone eyrie for the next thirty-five years or so, until his death. There’s some dispute among scholars and fans when he did his best work, but there’s no disputing he created some incredible stuff up there, stopping only occasionally to entertain guests and fans of his work who’d traveled from far-flung lands to visit the hermetic poet. And that was pre-internet and probably with only a couple of windows out of which he could gaze, when not composing his famed quatrains.
But then again, maybe I’m just seeking an excuse to close my mind and stay home as often as possible.
I’m not a social person. It’s not that I don’t like people, but I’ve had more than enough of them. All the same, I do sometimes miss hanging out with my cousin and her husband. We’d go to the movies, or out to dinner, or just hang out at their house. I’d bring my terrier over and let their dogs romp around with mine while we played Scrabble. Normal stuff like that.
These people are Christians, but in a gentle way, not heavy-handed at all about it. I can’t remember how we got onto the specific subject, but I do remember one night my cousin’s husband (who I’ll call Bill) told me his mother’s last words, which she uttered on her deathbed in the hospital. “She just sat up, after sitting there for twenty minutes or so with her eyes closed. Then she opened her eyes, shouted, ‘You tricked me!’ and fell back down onto the pillow and died.”
How’s that for an exit? It ranks up there with Goethe’s Mehr licht! (“More light!”) and possibly bests the apocryphal chestnuts from Oscar Wilde’s last day on Earth (one of which I remember was “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”)
“You tricked me.”
Naturally I asked my cousin Bill what she meant by that. And of course Bill had no answer. He wanted to know, too. And there is the chance that his mother didn’t even know what she meant, either. People aren’t exactly lucid in their final moments all the time, which is why wills get contested on that “sound of mind” clause more than occasionally. There’s even a book dedicated to parsing the subtext of one crazy man’s last words recorded by a police stenographer in the hopes that this rumrunner’s hospital bed ramblings might yield some interesting clues as to the inner workings of the Mob (they didn’t).
Regardless of whether or not Bill’s mom meant anything with her last words, they stick in my craw. I can’t stop thinking about them. And at my lowest moments I think that the words are tied to the betrayal of her own religiosity, which she bequeathed to her son. In this explanation of “You tricked me!” the mother, having dedicated her life to right-living and expecting an eternal reward, sees only a massive vacuum of black Lovecraftian antimatter or whatever void we all face as we slough off our mortal coils.
I know nothing about Bill’s mother (aside from her last words), but in this explanation, I see her as a woman who was perhaps a little hedonistic at heart, like perhaps most people. She wished to indulge in a fling with some sailor while her husband was at sea, but she knew the Commandments forbade it, and so she abstained. In the front of her mind she told herself she’d done the right thing. But maybe elsewhere there was a kernel of regret, budding in her brain, telling her to go ahead and do it, and after the fact that little budding seed kept nagging at her, and she kept fighting it down, tamping it with the recital of the mantra that was her moral code. “I can’t do this to my husband. I can’t betray God’s laws like this.”
But then, as she died, she saw this fellow who had every intention of tupping the hell out of her when she was young. And here he was on the other side, still young and strapping, waiting and winged in the eternal void, but unwilling to lift or embrace her, because she had shunned the pleasures of the flesh with him back when she’d been a mortal. She’d thought her decision the right one, the moral one at the time, but only realized now that it had been a mere act of cowardice masquerading as righteousness.
Sometimes I wonder if the point of life is to maximize pleasure and not only over some long term, but merely in the moment. Part of this refrain in my brain (and, to be frank, in my soul) is probably just a byproduct of the cynicism in which we all marinate. Postmodern America is a very ugly place, with a very short attention span and a collective Id that, rather than being checked or even examined, is fanned and enflamed and encouraged in its every indulgent impulse. It wouldn’t take a prude to look around here (at least at the intersubjective world of pop culture) and see that something is horribly out of tilt.
But there is still a part of me that thinks that these mundane and material pleasures are all that is to be had, and since it’s all going to collapse soon (perhaps due to the icecaps melting, or some bespoke superbug manufactured in the makeshift lab that is some man’s garage), I might as well get mine, too, damnit, while the getting is good.
And since I’m not very attractive or rich, pleasure for me would naturally mean gorging on food.
I’ve lost sixty pounds over the course of the last year (probably more), and would like to keep losing weight. And yes, it feels good to walk around without carrying around that shifting burden of rubbery flesh that clung to me like a polyester suit to a sweaty preacher, but there are still times when I think of giving up and stuffing my face. And in those moments, even though the dissipation, the wallowing in fatitude (sic) is just a figment of my imagination, I still feel a kind of ecstasy that borders on the sinful just thinking about it.
I want to eat an entire pepperoni pizza with the lights off and the blinds drawn, using only my mouth, with my hands tied behind my back like the fat kid in the pie-eating contest in Stand By Me.
I want to use a spoon that practically has the dimensions of a soup ladle to dislodge chunks of chocolate chip from their frozen moorings in mounds of mint ice cream, gripping the pint with my other hand all slippery with condensation.
I want to eat twelve chicken wings, tilt the Styrofoam carryout box in which they came so that all the remaining hot sauce juices pour into the far corner of the container, and then I want to drink that mixture of chicken skin fat, marrow, and spicy broth like Bacchus quaffing the blood of his cult from a grapevine.
Yes, I’m a pig, but I’m a pig who’s denying himself a rut in the mud for reasons I can’t quite fathom. The “why?” question lays heavily upon my chest, growing ironically ever heavier as I myself continue to torture myself losing weight.
To what end am I losing weight? I have no spouse or kids for whom I need to extend my lifespan, or to whom my presence means anything. I have a dog, but considering that she probably only has five years left (at most), I could cast myself into an abyss of marathon takeout Chinese sessions while popping Percocet in a La-Z Boy on full recline from now until the last of her little canine heart palpitations and she would still beat me to the boneyard.
So why not just give in? For fear of having my porcine behind prodded with the Devil’s pitchfork if I were to succumb to the Schweinerei of gluttony I fantasized about a handful of paragraphs ago?
I guess I’m saying, I don’t want to die and realize that I deprived myself of some pleasure for reasons I’ll forget or that will be rendered inconsequential when I pass over to the other side. Yes, the pleasures which I’m denying myself are small, and they are pleasures with consequences, punishment that are more prosaic than pitchforks, waiting for me should I indulge in the transitory and chimerical joys of pigging out.
Before I burn in Hell, there’s the matter of heartburn with which I need to contend.
But regardless of burning in heart or burning in Hell, I would still have that moment, that second of glorious sinful bliss of backsliding that might be worth a millennium of teetotaler’s smug satisfaction. Charles Baudelaire spoke of that instant of ecstasy in exchange for an eternity of fire (though he was probably aiming his ken much higher, to some god’s ichor or at least some good opium, and not a cheeseburger).
The thing is, though, should I feel deceived in my final moments as an ex-fat man, at least I will not be shouting to the void, “You tricked me!”
My deception will have been self-imposed. So if I die (or rather when I die, since it’s a given that I’m going to die), give me a mirror to scream at, a reflection of myself which I can insult. And have someone there (police stenographer or layperson) to record my last words.
Maybe they’ll be funny.
Maybe they’ll be sad, or at least otherwise memorable.
And maybe they’ll be “More!” though unlike Goethe I’m probably apt to be asking for more Snickers or Coke. Screw the “Licht.” A fat man feels better in the dark.
The term intersubjectivity has a bunch of different definitions, based on what discipline you’re applying it to, but for the purposes of this ill-trafficked blog, we’ll stick with a basic one: intersubjectivity is what occurs when two people agree on some third perception based on overlap in their own subjective assessments of what they are seeing and feeling.
Say Bill and Gerald look up in the sky at a cloud scudding past. Bill claims he sees a rabbit shape, while Gerald says he sees an elephant. We have stalemate, until a tiebreaker is brought in (let’s say, Sally). If Sally decides that the cloud looks like a rabbit, well then Bill and Sally have some intersubjective common ground there.
Read enough books on a subject and you’ll notice that people who’ve undergone the same experience have overlap in their stories and also have some points in which they differ (and perhaps even contradict each other). Based on your own obsessions/fascinations, you can probably cite examples from your reading.
For me, I’ve noticed this overlap (and these gulfs) seem to be most acute when reading about the experiences of war and of serving time in prison. “This,” one man insists, “is the way it was.” To which another replies, “Yes, but…” Or “Sort of, except.” Or even in some cases, “Actually, no.”
To give just one example (from the war files) years ago I remember reading in “Goodbye to All that” a passage in which Robert Graves talks about the Tommies in the trenches deliberately firing their Vickers (a crew-served machinegun) in order to use the thing’s water-cooled mechanism to boil their tea.
I remember reading George Coppard’s “With a Machinegun to Cambrai”some time later, in which Coppard said that this practice would have been quite unsavory, perhaps even impossible, since the water used in the machinegun would mix with lubricant and other particles while boiling, and that the resulting cookoff would not be suitable for drinking.
Probably Coppard, since he was a grunt while Graves was more of an Oxford don (though he was loved by his rank and file Tommies, as I remember).
Some of these disagreements can be a bit more contentious.
Take Gus Hasford, and his book “The Short-Timers”.
You know “The Short-Timers” even if you don’t think you do, since Stanley Kubrick adapted the book (and combined it with Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”) to create “Full Metal Jacket”.
When Herr recalled reading “The Short-Timers” for the first time, he couldn’t be effusive enough in his praise. He talked about knowing, within a couple of pages, that Hasford had revealed some dark, primal secret about the war in Vietnam, and he said that after only consuming a few chapters of the book he’d felt as if he’d read a whole novel.
Oliver Stone, however, who later went on to make the film “Platoon,” claimed that he thought “The Short-Timers” was fraudulent, one step removed from the sort of Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure stories that used to show up in men’s magazines like Argosy. Stone was a Vietnam vet as well, and I consider his film “Platoon” far superior to “Full Metal Jacket”.
Kubrick’s obviously a superior director to Stone, but you can smell Stone’s Vietnam, the damp olive drab and khaki, the sweat of the canvas helmet covers.
Leaving that aside, though, what’s to explain an account by one man (Hasford) who was a veteran that strikes another vet (Stone) as preposterous? To complicate things even more, how come Herr, who was in Vietnam, found Hasford’s account to be of an unimpeachable veracity?
Sure, Herr went to the Nam as a journalist and not as an infantryman (or as an enlisted correspondent, a la Hasford or his onscreen doppelganger, Joker), but he made the point himself that the line between observer and participant was razor-thin and crossed many times. Herr is considered, along with contemporary Hunter S. Thompson, a seminal figure in the New Journalism school and had a weapon in his hand, in-country.
I think that despite the absence of intersubjectivity between Stone on the one hand and Herr and Hasford on the other that no one is lying and that no one’s account of the war is superior to the other’s (in terms of concrete details, not aesthetics).
Gus Hasford was a marine, and Herr was embedded with them. And while Oliver Stone’s experience in the bush was obviously no picnic, the marines were on a whole other planet of insanity in Vietnam (especially when artillery started erupting at Khe Sanh).
Khe Sanh is one of those insane setpiece engagements the experience of which drove mad even the most hardened combat vets; like with the Battles in Betio/Tarawa in World War II, men who had experience of previous wars discovered that new depths of horror could always be unearthed to make the nightmares that came before seem tame by comparison.
I could go on (and actually meant to get to some examples from the world of prison literature), but you get the point.
The main thing to remember is that it is not necessary to have experienced something to write credibly about it, because even those who’ve undergone an experience many times can’t write authoritatively about it.
Not only that, their memories are many times faulty and betray them, whether due to the nature of time, trauma or due to some self-serving motive.
In defense of the authors who get the particulars of their stories wrong, it’s hard to be objective when people are trying to kill you in a jungle in Southeast Asia or rape you in some stone castle like San Quentin, and solipsism is a much easier state to achieve when you’ve been trapped in a foxhole for days on end without sleep or have been cast Jack Henry Abbott-style into some room of reinforced concrete without windows or light.
The writer William Styron once remarked that the heart knew all terra and that none was totally incognita, except, he added, for the experience of American prisons. To write convincingly about that milieu, he claimed, to write with authority, one must have been there.
But I’m not sure Styron and I agree on this point.
Take my cousin, for instance, who’s spent a large part of his adult life in prison. He managed to pass time in the federal pen by reading everything he could get his hands on and he especially enjoyed ticking off the boxes on his Stephen King checklist.
When I asked him what his favorite King works were, he answered that it was a tossup between The Green Mile and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
And I don’t think that King’s ever been to jail except for maybe research purposes or perhaps a long time ago for a DUI or something.
So write whatever the hell you want, and if someone who’s been there tells you it’s not realistic, screw them, because their “There” is not the same as the there that’s there for anyone else, whether or not you yourself have ever really been there.
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.