Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Lisey's Story: to read or not to read?

I’ve read numerous reviews of Lisey’s Story, including this one, appearing in today’s NYTBR.


I was introduced to King after seeing Carrie on television. I was nine. At the time John Travolta was the guy from Welcome Back, Kotter, Amy Irving an unknown teenager, and Sissy Spacek some freckled kid. Piper Laurie, a neighbor’s relative, was reputed to be as insane in person as she was in the film.

I still have my childhood copy of Carrie, a 1975 Signet paperback costing $2.25. My name is neatly penned on the inside cover. I would say the script is childish, but written in the days before I had carpal tunnel, it is neater than my current signature.

After Carrie I read The Stand, another paperback that I’ve managed to hang on to. This Signet paperback set me back $2.95. The book is fragile, the cover stuck to the spine with drying tape, the pages yellowed. I have a distinct memory of reading this book during the winter of 1977. I was sick with what I now realize was likely mononucleosis: I lay ill with fever all that freezing winter. I read the Stand, which is 817 pages of 9 point print, in three days. I was enthralled, and for years afterward it was my favorite Stephen King book.

I read new Kings as soon as I could grab them from the local library. Barring that, I waiting impatiently for paperback releases. Hardcovers were unthinkable in those days.

I bought paperbacks with babysitting money: The Dead Zone, expensive at $3.50 and horribly depressing to boot, ‘Salem’s Lot, which I loved (4.95!), and The Shining, which scared me so I had to leave my bedroom, where I sat reading alone, and sit in the family room, terrified but unable to put the book down. My copy contains photo stills from the film: a young Shelly Duvall, Jack Nicholson with hair.

My first paperback copy of Night Shift had a fancy cover, a drawing of a bandaged hand with cutouts: you turned this page to second illustration of eyes looking at you through said cuts. But I forgot the book atop my seventh grade locker. It was stolen, and though I quickly bought a new copy, it was a later printing, lacking the fancy overlay.

In eighth grade I had a history teacher who was also a King fan. He lent me the Kirby McCauley anthology (Oh, to be lent a book by a favorite teacher!) Dark Forces, containing King’s novella “The Mist,” a story so insidious it is still with me. King’s refusal to give this one a happy ending, or any real closure, is what does the job of scaring the reader.

Because of King I went through a horror novel period lasting from about sixth through tenth grade. I recall those years by grade, by whatever book I was trying to vanish into as my classmates squealed around me. Most of it was trash—sitting on the middle school steps reading The Amityville Horror comes to mind—but the books did their job. They removed me from the untenable situation known as adolescence.

As I grew older, my tastes matured. Fifteen saw the discovery of Hemingway, then Fitzgerald and even an attempt at Stein’s The Making of Americans. I remember sitting in the entryway of the building where I held my first co-op job, reading Carlos Baker’s Hemingway biography. I was sixteen, freezing, and thought that damned SEMTA Connector Bus would never arrive.

I still read all the King books. At that point I liked them all.

My ardor began cooling during college. I thought It and Tommyknockers were a mess, Misery more gore than horror, Gerald’s Game weak. By 1990 or so my reading became erratic. The last fictional King book I read with any real enthusiasm was Bag of Bones, a book I read quickly—too quickly, for I recall little of it. But it exemplifies King’s great talent: plot construction. At his best, he sucks the reader in immediately. Characters are divided: the good guys vs. the bad guys, each with just enough depth to push the story forward. His novels are primarily plot-directed: what happens when a child can light fires telekinetically? what happens when a town succumbs to vampires? When a flu wipes out the country?

There are exceptions: The Gunslinger is about Roland and his companions Eddie and Susannah. Though I loved the first book and eagerly awaited The Drawing of the Three, I had a harder time getting through this second book. By Wolves of the Calla I’d lost interest—the books were too sloppy, too wordy, a predictable cycle of violence, trudging, reflection, more violence.

When King suffered the catastrophic car accident in 1999, I was upset in that odd way one feels for public figures. I fervently hoped he’d pull through and was relieved when he did. But I didn’t go back to his books, save for On Writing, excellent both as autobiography and writing instruction.

I don’t know what catapulted King into “respectability.” Perhaps the accident got people’s attention, or his prolific bestsellers, or his refusal to go away. As Jim Windolf notes in his review, some of King’s younger readers grew up to become writers themselves (i.e. the Tin House people), and are partly responsible for his entry into the land of Literature.

So does King belong in the literary pantheon?

A few months ago I pulled The Stand from the shelf. I wanted something engaging, engrossing, yet moderately light. Remembering how much I’d loved the book eighteen years earlier, I figured was in for the unique pleasure that comes from re-reading a beloved childhood novel with adult appreciation.

I was bitterly disappointed. The Stand’s plot has only gained in relevance. You could even call the book scarily prophetic. But the writing was clumsy enough to stop me cold in several places. Somewhere between the sick ten-year-old and the weary thirty-nine year old I cultivated an expensive taste in sentences. I put the book back on the shelf and moved on.

Last night I paged through ‘Salem’s Lot and found it as I remembered. The writing is tighter than The Stand’s. The gore factor that characterizes the later work is absent. The first vampire victim, a child, is depicted in Barlow’s arms with a simple “It became unspeakable.”

So does King belong?

Do we need to bang our heads against the wall over questions like this?

I am always the first to hurl nastiness at the writers I find dreadful—Judith Krantz, Mitch Albom, the Chicken Soup people. But they’re easy targets. Nobody is lining up Wallace Stegner beside Danielle Steel on the proverbial Great Books Shelf. But I’d bet you the Stegner folks have at least one King paperback floating around someplace.

Is King a Great Writer? No. But few are. He’s good, and that’s enough. Too much time is spent nitpicking the great from the good, and to what end? Those of us who are neither (I sure as hell don’t have a bookshelf of works to my name. Do you?) would better spend our time reading and writing about what we’ve read, if for no other reason than to get the word out about the good stuff.

So....Lisey’s Story.

Should a remaindered copy appear, I’ll pick it up. Otherwise, I’ll wait for the paperback. But I will read it, and see if the writer who lured a sick child out of herself so long ago still has the magic stuff.

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