I'm halfway through Stephen King's latest doorstop, 11/22/63, and it's looking like it's going to be a good one. At the halfway point it's surprising in that the horror has been minimal (an early attack, a murder) and the local color has been maximal. But we know it's headed towards a serious theme--what would have been the consequence if JFK hadn't been killed in Dallas? And it's charming that King uses that question to paint a picture of the entirely different universe of America in the early 1960s. The New York Times, of all places, named it one of their best books of the year.
Like most fiction readers of a certain age, I feel like I've come of age with King. My sister, two years older, pitched to me when I was fourteen that I should read two unexpected books: Salem's Lot and To Kill a Mockingbird. The second sounded like boring assigned reading. The first sounded like horror, which I couldn't see the appeal of. She persisted and I read them both and loved them both. I remember gasping out loud at a scene in Salem's Lot (a friend of our boy hero, become a vampire, clawing at the hero's window and pleading to be let in) and I didn't know that was possible with words on a page.
So I read all of his early writing. Then I started following Jesus and I wondered if this was a wise course of action. Just last week someone used a relative's love of Stephen King as an indicator of their distance from God. Years ago, as I described a scene from one of King's books to Grace, she said, "That man knows entirely too much about demons." And we now know from King's memoir (embedded in a really good instructional book) On Writing that he had a lengthy stretch of years as a serious addict, separating himself from his loved ones and making him wonder if he was trustworthy (as I recall, he says he has no memory of writing Cujo). And so he wrote really disturbing books that worked this theme out (The Dark Half, the novella "Secret Window, Secret Garden," to name two--The Shining is an early indicator of this theme to come). And then, perhaps inevitably for someone who wrote so prolifically, he hit a long stretch where nothing seemed to work. (Subject to debate to be sure, but after Misery, we got this stretch of books: The Tommyknockers, The Dark Half, Needful Things, Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Insomnia and Rose Madder. And then, as if from heaven, the streak came to a resounding end with The Green Mile, which remains one of my happiest memories of reading fiction.)
But I come to praise King, not to bury him. He's an avowed agnostic, but nonetheless, I may never have read any author who so compellingly revisits the theme of a very ordinary hero who finds him or herself in a grand, cosmic narrative--perhaps the best sort of story there is for those of us who believe in a grand, cosmic narrative. He famously didn't like Kubrick's acclaimed adaptation of The Shining for just this reason. He says he got a call from Kubrick at 2 a.m. in which Kubrick--no greeting whatsoever--said only, "Do you believe in God?" King, groggily, at the time said that he supposed he did. Kubrick replied, "Well I don't," and hung up. And Kubrick made a movie in which the evil was psychologized.
I didn't especially like his Dark Tower series--it was too slapdash and uneven for my taste. But I love his creation of the Territories, this alternate universe that occasionally dips into our own. When he includes only hints of the Territories in his books--most notably for me The Talisman and "Low Men in Yellow Coats," the first novella in his wonderful linked-novella book Hearts in Atlantis--he hits a kind of metaphorical sweet spot describing the life of those of us who believe we are in fact living a story in which another world touches this one in key and unexpected ways.
When I read that gasp-worthy scene in Salem's Lot, I didn't know that I was going to be invited into such rich worlds of meaning as "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" or "The Body" or It (one utterly-inexplicable and distasteful scene aside, there's a book that shoots for the cosmic in jaw-dropping fashion) or the other books I've mentioned. I'm grateful, in 11/22/63, that he hasn't lost his ambition.
What have been your reflections on King? Is he just that demon-guy? Or...?
P.S.: On a completely unrelated note, there's a brilliant post to be written on Tim Tebow from a Blue Ocean perspective, but I have no idea what that post is. But take that as a challenge. Write that post! I'm dying to find out how I should be thinking about the Tebow phenomenon.