Saturday, January 26, 2013

Weathering the Starkblast--Why I Love Stephen King, #19

                My enthusiasm over Stephen King’s new book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, added one more file to the very tall stack of books I’ll most likely never write…but if I lived on an island…. 

                It’s this wonderful tale within a tale within a tale, on one level about storytelling and why we need it. There are reasons within reasons here, but in all practical terms, the stories are used to keep spirits up while a terrible ice twister of a storm, called a starkblast, rages outside. The Wind Through the Keyhole is also this much welcome dip back into the warm colloquialisms of Mid-World, a post-apocalyptic universe parallel to that universe in which all of the rest of his fiction takes place, that one that looks almost just like our own.  When I finished the Dark Tower series, the first time (if I’m lucky, I’ll visit again), more than anything, I knew I was going to miss that voice, that palaver of gunslingers, billy-bumblers, the Beams that tenuously hold everything together, and that ornery old myth of the Man Jesus.

That Mid-World slang always reminds me of a complaint King shared with Amy Tan in his book On Writing—they commiserated over the fact that interviewers never asked them about the love of language that drove them to write. Proof of that love of language is all over the Dark Tower books, just as unquestionable as it is in the work of one of the writers who inspired him, J.R.R. Tolkien. 

But that’s just one of many things people don’t talk about when they cover Stephen King. Some people write concordances to Stephen King’s work and others write about how his childhood shaped his writing, but what I haven’t seen (with one notable exception in an essay by Sarah Langan) is someone tackle his significance in the context of the past 40 years of popular culture, much less the relatively brief life of modern literature. From my perspective, he’s a singular character, not only constantly redefining the boundaries of my favorite genre of storytelling but also keeping the very potential of literature alive for a great cross section of the public not reached by most literature. He does all of this while maintaining a balancing act I learned from my greatest writing mentor—he reaches for the widest possible audience without ever talking beneath the smartest reader.

King seems to me a uniquely important torchbearer for the pop culture explosion in the 1960s. Whatever political naivete some may see in him, both his lack of privilege growing up and the ongoing perspective of a horror writer keeps him focused on the contradiction to any ideal. He entertains few of the self-serving Great White Man/Lone Ranger illusions that plague the vision of his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, or  constantly hang like an albatross over another contemporary, Bruce Springsteen.   

Since the relationship between vampire hunters Ben and Mark in Salem's Lot first echoed and affirmed my own double-vision living with my newly single father, I’ve been aware of the centrality of relationships in King’s work. In a society filled with individualistic delusion, King’s characters triumph (when they triumph) through their need for one another. Though the Dark Tower’s Roland Deschain, the gunslinger, is doomed to be alone, his greatest successes only come with the help of his band of travelers, his ka-tet.  I have always thought The Stand was not so much his greatest book as his greatest over-reach, but I loved the sense of community he cobbles together. It’s a community that probably comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (i.e., it’s of the genre, which shows how genre writing has been an asset to his approach), but in King’s world, it’s a community foreshadowed by the family that comes together with Dick Holloran in The Shining and is echoed time and again, among the kids in It, the bands of fighters in those A and B-side books, Desperation and The Regulators, and all of those other rag-tag bands in Derry and Castle Rock who inevitably face off their greatest fears together.  Not coincidentally, those groups tend to include a writer and a cast of characters not unlike the great cross-section of America he knows reads the books. I don’t see that as contrivance or solipsism. I see that as evidence of a supremely self-aware artist (an author who wrote one of the best books of non-fiction about his genre at the height of his early career) who writes as an act of faith— if not in the supernatural, in his need for others (give or take Misery's Annie Wilkes).

All of my former students can testify that I talk about Stephen King more often than any other writer. The most obvious reason for that is that he’s just about the only author I can mention whom they’ll know at least a little something about. But a secondary reason goes hand in hand with that one—I know that most of them will not perceive him as a “legitimate” writer, and most who like him will only acknowledge him as a guilty pleasure. If there’s one lesson Stephen King taught me (hand in hand with rock and roll and hip hop and every form of music that feeds them and every form of music fed by them), it’s that the legitimacy of my passions should never be in question. What matters is how I use those passions to weather the starkblast--both for me and my community, both (whether we own it or not) all the richer for this man’s work.