At the beginning of this calendar year, I was near campus on my usual daily 4-mile constitutional, earbuds in ears, my mind a million miles away. “Hi Brad, what are you listening to?” a rather famous visiting scholar asked me, seemingly from out of nowhere. Hoping to move to another topic very quickly, I responded dismissively, “Just an audiobook. Trash fiction. Just for fun.” But, the dreaded question popped out. “Oh, what?” Me, rather sheepishly, “Stephen King’s The Stand.” He smiled. “Nothing to be embarrassed about, Brad. He’s quite a good writer.”
Well, after months of delving into Stephen King, I have to agree. He is a great writer, especially if one gages him by his best writing, his best character development, and his immensity of story ideas. His vast, driving, complicated plots are just stunning.
There are things about him I abhor–his racism (in his attempt to be anti-racist, he makes his bigoted characters into monsters stating things I doubt if any normal person has ever imagined, let alone said); his long drawn-out descriptions of blood and gore (attributed, he says, to his early exposure to 1950’s horror comics); and his foul language.
Frankly, I’ve never met anyone as disgusting in racial beliefs or language as some of King’s ordinary characters that populate significant chunks of his stories. I’m guessing, however, this mostly reflects his coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, and my coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. I would guess that I would have been in far greater trouble with my mom had I used the “n” word for blacks than if I’d dropped an “f” bomb. As it turns out, I never thought much of either word–in writing or in speech. And, I must admit, every time King falls back on either of these devices, I can’t help but think that in certain respects, he possesses a dreadful poverty of imagination. But, only in these respects. These faults aren’t enough to ruin my appreciation of him, but they always make me cringe.
First Encounter with King
This is, admittedly, my second time encountering King. Between about 1981 and 1991 or so, I read much of what he wrote, and I appreciated him, even finding his books more than a bit addictive. I was then astounded by his sheer output, and I used to assume he had a team of writers creating under his name, much as the Hardy Boy books appeared under the name of a single person. I have no idea if this is true or not, and I suspect it’s not even close to the truth now. But, thirty plus years ago, I simply couldn’t fathom any other way to account for his publishing record. Books seemed to appear from him about every seven or eight months. In my first love affair with him, I read Night Shift, The Dead Zone, Different Seasons, The Stand (yes, the one I read again this year), It, Firestarter, Christine, Cujo, Four Past Midnight, Skeleton Crew, Misery, and Needful Things. Of course, I admired the man as a best-selling author, too, and I very much wanted to be a “paperback writer.”
In his many works, King’s Maine became almost as real to me as did my own beloved Kansas and certainly as tangible as Middle-earth and Bradbury’s Mars. Even to this day, though I’ve traveled to Maine several times, King’s Maine is more real than the actual place, at least in my mind. Maine will always have an aura of mystery for me–the great lasting wilderness of New England, the place that houses horrors untold, that place that gives strength to family goodness, and my wonderful college friend, Liz. Maine.
Of course, in my pre-college years, I also read nearly every single thing I came across, and I have from the moment I first started reading. Tolkien and Bradbury were always my favorites, but I read just about everything I could find. Perhaps most importantly, I was blessed with a very well-read mother who encouraged me with all kinds of reading and never censored me. Some of my best memories are of her coming into my second-floor room. “Brad, you’re old enough to read this now. You should.” I don’t think I ever turned her suggestions down. Those were magical moments for me, and moments I’m sure I will carry into eternity. In fact, I would guess that my mom and I will talk books for quite some time in the next world.
In our 32,000-person Kansas town (it’s much bigger now), we also had, at one point, three different bookstores and an excellent city library. I still remember with great fondness the bookstore owners as well as the librarians. After all, as with my mom and brothers, these folks opened up dimensions of reality well beyond anything I would experience in my childhood. I also had outstanding junior high and high school librarians, all of whom encouraged much exploration in reading and reading and reading.
A Second Encounter
For several years now, as probably most readers of The Imaginative Conservative know (“that’s enough already, Birzer!”), I’ve been working on an intellectual biography of Russell Kirk. It’s been a rather massive project, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing it.
At times, though, it’s been rather difficult. I’ve been reading Kirk’s works for well over two decades, and I feel comfortable, for the most part, with him as a writer and thinker. I’ve always found both engaging. But, there have been some aspects of the man that have proven very difficult for me. I believe firmly that a biographer must attempt to see the world through the eyes of the subject. Of course, this can never be done fully, or the biographer would lose his personality. Hence, every biography is really a personality understood through a personality.
The two hardest parts to write–mostly because I’ve had to immerse myself so fully in the literature that was initially quite foreign to me–have been about 1) the rather significant influence Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson had on the younger Kirk; and 2) his horror fiction.
As to the second point, when I say things such as “Kirk wrote horror stories” to folks who knew Kirk and loved him, they almost immediately respond, “You mean ‘ghost stories.’ Kirk wrote ‘ghost stories.’” Generally, I just smile. But, in my mind, I’m thinking, call them what you want, but I’m rather certain Kirk wrote “horror stories.” And, horror stories they are. Scary, terrifying, mystifying, Kirkian, otherworldly. No, these are horror stories, not simply flights of the fancy. Sometimes so horrifying that I feel twinges of depression and worry about my state of nighttime slumber. Read “The Surly Sullen Bell” and tell me again these aren’t horror stories.
To prepare myself for this section of the book, I decided to read as much horror fiction as I could handle. Stephen King’s fiction seemed most appropriate. The two men actually have much in common, and a few literary critics have gone so far as to suggest that a King could never have arisen, at least initially, had there not been a Kirk. Kirk, one writer argues persuasively, created a whole genre with his first successful novel, Old House of Fear. Perhaps most tellingly, the stories of Kirk and King appeared between the covers of numerous collections of ghostly tales, and, not surprisingly, the two men had the same literary agent, Kirby McCauley.
The two men share other important things in common. In particular, each distrusts power (though, King’s extends to most organized religion, while Kirk’s seems more limited to bureaucrats and demonically-possessed families), secrets, urban renewal, and modernization.
During my first encounter with King, I was rather certain that he must be some kind of libertarian, traditionalist conservative. In my second encounter, I discovered what most King fans probably already know. He’s a pro-Obama Democrat. This time, I decided to re-read much of what I’d read before: The Stand, Firestarter, Needful Things, It, and one newer book, Under the Dome. This time, at age 45-46, I have found much to like in King. In particular, King can still evoke a sense of wonder, and his plots continue to be ingenious. I have also found something I suspect I understood when much younger but probably couldn’t name: King understands, wonderfully, the genius of children and the joys of childhood. He also, correctly, understands the terrors of childhood. I’m not sure I’ve encountered another writer who can get into the soul of a child as can King. In particular, I think the childhood version of Ben Hanscom from It is one of the greatest characters I’ve ever met in a book.
My reservations about his employment of racist and foul language and his overly long wallowings in rapes and torturings have only increased. As a young man, I gave him a pass, feeling that writers should be given a pass as a form of artistic freedom. Now, such things just seem repulsive to me, and I can’t really understand why King would use them. However, there are a few things from King’s writing that I’ve found either hilarious or thought provoking.
In Under the Dome, the story of a small Maine town trapped in a bubble, King writes in a Steinbeck like narrative: “America’s two great specialties are demagogues and rock and roll, and we’ve all heard plenty of both in our time.”
And, another favorite moment, a long passage in which a character responds to his professor’s attempt to impose politics on literature. When the would-be author merely wants to write a good story, his professor punishes him with a nasty grade.
The story comes back from the instructor with an F slashed into the title page. Two words are scrawled beneath, in capital letters. PULP, screams one. CRAP, screams the other. Bill takes the fifteen-page sheaf of manuscript over to the woodstove and opens the door. He is within a bare inch of tossing it in when the absurdity of what he is doing strikes him. He sits down in his rocking chair, looks at a Grateful Dead poster, and starts to laugh. Pulp? Fine! Let it be pulp! The woods were full of it!”
Stephen King’s is a spirit that’s hard to resist.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.