Posts Tagged 'Stephen King'

Over the top in Under the Dome

Late in the novel Under the Dome, Stephen King’s new thousand-pager, a character muses about the roads not taken: “Before these last few days, Carolyn would have said she had no interest in having children, that what she wanted was a career as a teacher and a writer. Maybe a novelist, although it seemed to her that writing novels was pretty risky; what if you spent all that time, wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked?”

Well, if you’re Stephen King, the one-man deforestation juggernaut with something like 47 novels to your credit, it probably doesn’t much matter at all. Which isn’t to say Under the Dome sucks, per se, but if King’s place in pop literature wasn’t already cemented, this one might do little to help.

Storytelling can be described as putting characters in a crucible and turning up the heat. It’s a strategy that King explores literally in Under the Dome, where the small town of Chester’s Mill in the American northeast finds itself closed off from the rest of the world when a mostly impenetrable dome descends on it. (Air and water can still permeate, but barely.) The folks in Chester’s Mill do as characters usually do in Stephen King novels: if they’re decent, they band together and survive; if not, their more primitive natures run amok and things get nasty.

If they’re really bad, they become the uppercase ‘V’ Villain, like Big Jim Rennie, a car dealer, town selectman and clandestine crystal meth magnate who manipulates the dome to his advantage. King’s strength as a writer, however, is more in his finely turned minor characters and not the over-the-top baddies. As rotten as he is, Rennie is less interesting and not as well drawn as, for example, a throwaway character like Samantha Bushey, a slacker, teenaged mum and drug user who endures some of the novel’s most disturbing violence. Bushey’s victimization comes not at the hands of the alien forces controlling the dome (do they even have hands?), but a posse of thugs deputized into Rennie’s police force. (“Yes, Pogo, we has seen the true horror and it is us!”)

King deftly keeps the pages turning, but I can’t help but think back with nostalgia and a twinge of sadness to the more suspenseful reading experiences he provided in his early books. I can still remember white-knuckling my way through The Shining on my breaks on some forgotten nightshift. That novel remains for me one of the most memorable and amazing reading experiences ever; who knew books could do that?

I can’t claim to have followed the King oeuvre with much consistency over the years but Under the Dome for me represents a coarsening of his craft. There is more hamfisted thuggery and brute violence than goose pimply creepiness here. Too often the simple gross-out, which King has never been too proud to deploy, stands in for genuine tension and fright. For example, these characters are all really, really scared, or just generally, er, losing it:

The crotch of her gardening jeans darkened as her urine let go.

She was having a goddam seizure. “Stop it!” he shouted. Then, as she voided herself: “Stop it! Stop doing that, you bitch!”

Janelle, eyes open but showing only whites, wasn’t convulsing—thank God for that—but she was trembling all over. She had pushed the covers down with her feet, probably at onset, and in the double flashlight beams he could see a damp patch on her pajama bottoms.

There was a dark spot spreading on his shorts.

She saw the wetness spreading around the crotch of her jeans and thought, Yep—I’ll have to change again, all right. If I live through this, that is.

But then he observed that the kid’s pajama pants were soaked. Junior had pissed himself.

He remembered connecting with one Abdul’s bony, shit-speckled ass, and the red mark his combat boot had left there.

His father had combed his hair, but as he lay dying he had, like his late wife, pissed his pants.

His specialties in these latter days included eating Jell-O pudding without getting it up his nose and occasionally making it to the toilet before releasing half a dozen blood-streaked pebbles into the commode.

And of course…

She was scared shitless.

So it goes. The novel eventually dribbles to a less-than-satisfying resolution and [SPOILER ALERT] Chester’s Mill is once again free — but of course not until there’s a huge spike in the body count.

Stephen King has single-handedly reinvented the horror genre and established a place (albeit often contested) in American letters. Even when he’s average he’s way above a lot of what passes for popular literature. If he reveals encroaching infirmities in Under the Dome, I, for one, am willing to hang in there anyway – given his lifetime achievement, I figure I owe him at least that much.

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Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art

Céline Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

85184.jpgDon’t you just love a good rant? The above comes courtesy of Sam Anderson writing in the December 17 New York Magazine. His book review is headlined: “Taster’s Choice: Is disdain for Céline Dion innate or learned? And what’s wrong with liking her music anyway?” The book under consideration is by Carl Wilson, a writer/editor for The Globe & Mail, and called, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

I bring it up here because nothing grows quite so robustly in the garden of cultural criticism as debate about low and high, and what the significance is – for individuals and entire civilizations – when one group of people likes something that another group doesn’t.

Defenders of taste and decency will of course argue that a Giuseppe Verdi belongs in Milan’s La Scala, and a Céline Dion in, well, a Las Vegas hotel. The same sort of classifications come up in book discussions all the time. Stephen King is not a serious writer. John Irving is hopelessly middlebrow. Heaven forbid anyone should dip their toes into the cesspools of genre fiction.

In a piece that appears in The Times online, Brian Appleyard considers the stigmatizing effect of being branded a science fiction writer, while tenaciously defending the genre.

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

Labels stick; having one slink along in front of your name (science fiction writer Salman Rushdie) could carry surprising and unwanted meaning. “Literary fiction,” I suppose, is meant to signify something of weight that displays a certain technical and artistic mastery. Trouble is, as Appleyard points out, it often doesn’t. At the same time, writers of so-called genre fiction — like a Stephen King or a PD James — can demonstrate a high level of artistic assurance in handling the serious theme.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I wouldn’t know. I spend all my time reading Proust and Schopenhauer.

Yeah, right.

It’s a bit sad, really. Not quite, “My-Heart-Will-Go-On” sad, but sad nonetheless. Maybe what we really need is a little tolerance. I too “would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda” than listen to Céline, as one critic puts it in the Anderson piece, but the fact is millions of others would say she’s brought music into their lives.

Is that so bad?