Thursday, June 07, 2018

Over a Scrap of Paper: King's Ka-Tet and the Fate of the World

Stephen King’s The Outsider ranks with the finest work of the 70-year-old author’s career. It's a sleek synthesis of all that's come before. It's also a book that uniquely tackles the contradictions of America in crisis mode, America 2018.

I say this as a kid who fell in love with the idea of writing after reading a paperback (“by the author of Carrie”) the summer of 76, when I was 12. I had seen Carrie and wasn’t much interested in it (the paperback, no, not the movie--that would come along a year or so later and change everything), but King grabbed me with this one. If I remember right, the Salem’s Lot I picked up at the bus stop in McPherson, Kansas, had no title on the cover. It was a solid black book featuring an embossed child’s face, one slightly red drop of blood at the corner of her mouth.

It was so sinister. The information about the author and Carrie was on the back and inside. As important as anything was the soft texture of the paper the story was printed on. It felt a little too good  just flipping the pages. I bought that book because it felt like I shouldn’t. When I finished it, I realized I’d read the best book I’d ever read (give or take Treasure Island and The Secret Garden). In some ways, like a first kiss, I’ve been pursuing it ever since.

The Outsider is a sequel from the other end of an author’s literary landscape—a landscape that started with familiar gothic archetypes transplanted to 1970’s Maine (and Colorado, and nationwide) and then, by the 1990s, evolved into an extended (three or four novel) contemplation of the terrors that face women in this “post-feminist” society, and ultimately, a wonderful decade of writing that is less gothic horror than magic realism. Recently, King finished a mystery series that culminates in a reconciliation of detective fiction science and the question of the unexplained. Actually, this book is a sequel to that series, too.

The Outsider collapses the bulk of King’s career into a single, sleek narrative. This story—seemingly inspired by Poe’s “William Wilson” but in some argument with it—focuses on a crime with two possible solutions, equally plausible. There is absolutely definitive evidence that a baseball coach has done something unimaginably horrific to a child, and there is absolutely definitive opposing evidence.

What do the characters do? First, they make terrible mistakes, mistakes that deepen the wrong in sickening and unforgettable ways. But key characters here don't give up, and they do what the heroes of King’s Dark Tower series do, which has been the tendency of every novel since Salem’s Lot. They form a "ka-tet." This is a community of souls united to pursue a collective goal. At the heart of all great horror, they are the community that forms around accepting the necessary reality in front of them, no matter how implausible. They often have to let go of the framework that has defined their lives and accept something new built on faith in each other. They're the ones who figure out a way to fight.

This issue has a special weight during the current political climate, when the concept of reality or objectivity gets erased for the sake of power. King has to ask himself, as the readers do, what is the point of celebrating the irrational in a world that seems to have lost its mind?  

And that’s just it.  While we’re trapped with our irrationality as a species, horror’s job is to accept what's in our path and find a way forward with our best selves intact.

So, in this novel, King takes a Salem’s Lot-level bogeyman and turns him into a modern day challenge to our faith in one another, invoking aspects of almost everything King has ever done, from The Dark Tower series to the gorgeous minor-epic Desperation. Desperation was a Southwestern hell-mouth story, and that’s significant to compare to King’s Oklahoman and Texan landscape here. For what it’s worth (and I love Desperation) the contrast between these two is like the difference in the best of the summer blockbusters and a straightforward little tale that left you shaking on the way out of the theater. 

With a grace that has exploded over the past two decades, King makes sure every word of The Outsider carries lethal weight while sounding like these are simply the only words that will do. The crimes are horrific but simple, the victims list is not a slasher movie affair. It is intimate but also contextual and atmospheric—the expanding portrait of the cost of despair around-the-edges of the central drama. The central drama being a question of how to define reality in a world where nothing makes sense anymore.

Context is huge here. This is King’s second stand-alone horror novel in a row with a significant Oklahoma setting. (Please set aside Owen King and father’s extraordinary—and equally important—Sleeping Beauties for me to make this point.) The description of Tulsa and Bell’s Amusement Park, a world of my childhood, is spot on in King's last straight-horror novel, Revival. I don’t recognize, so easily, the Flint City and Cap City of this book, but, that said, the people feel like the people I’ve known all my life, and the terror of the book’s bottom-feeder of the heartland echoes the appeal King has always had in the landscape where I grew up. It works the oppressiveness of open spaces and the heart of the American gothic. If you live in a world where nothing seems to ever happen and no one seems to take notice, there's a special intimacy to malevolence that can consume the widest horizons..

This terror over a wrongfully accepted mental construct of reality binds these characters together. It’s them (the ka-tet of the Dark Tower) against the world, against Heartland American decency, values King treats with more respect than we’d ever expect to see out of Hollywood. The book forces its characters (and its readers) to hold in mind absolutely contradictory truths. The only solution comes from grappling with that reality (right down to the smallest scrap of paper) and looking for—against society and everything they think is common sense—deeper truths and bigger realities than they may ever understand.

That’s the heart of horror as a heroic genre. It asks you to accept a new reality, and, almost always, it asks you to work with a diverse community who offer different pieces of the puzzle. The Van Helsings of these worlds need all the help they can get, and they’re likely to get the chair (or the gallows or a lethal injection) for their efforts. But they risk everything for the group, and the group risks everything for them. In this case, the hero every other core character eventually looks up to is a character the world might see as socially inept. This perceived ineptitude is exactly the quality that allows her to awaken the imaginations of the community she needs.

And that’s why we write, and that’s why we read. We’re looking for each other in one way we know can fire the vision and focus of each member of the group. The Outsider himself is the threat to the community. He exploits our assumptions and ratchets up our senses of isolation and confusion. He’s effective because he's not a national alien; he’s an enemy from within. He lives in those dark caverns where we lack any sense of hope or justice. In this book and so much of the best horror, those who salvage hope for the rest of us have faced the unimaginable. They have been written off in some way and are all outsiders in the working world. But  the quest of the horror novel is to find each other. Sometimes we best connect in our fear, but our humanity makes choices even there. This ka-tet (like the ones in real life calling us even as we read such a book) knows its only chance at salvation demands devotion to the community we all so desperately need. And this is why we write. And this is why we read.