Why I can’t read any new Stephen King

This isn’t an easy thing for me to write: I will never read a new Stephen King novel again.

I grew up on King. When I was a teenager I devoured his books: Carrie, Firestarter, Thinner, The Talisman, Eyes of the Dragon, Pet Sematary, It. He was (and still is) a fantastic storyteller. He creates characters who feel real and alive, and in his horror, he captures real fears we all have and relays them to us in ways that keeps us awake well past dark.

I stopped reading him for several years — no real reason, except that there are so many other books out there. Then about five years ago I picked up The Dark Tower. Wow. It floored me. The Dark Tower was King at his best — wild, madcap, bursting with imagination, and populated with characters who seemed as real as you or me. Roland Deschain, the gunslinger and hero of the seven book Dark Tower series, is one of my all-time favorite characters. The seven books of the Dark Tower series weren’t perfect. There was way too much fat. And partway through the series he introduces a character named Stephen King, a writer of horror movies. This was his only major misstep in the whole series; it nearly broke the illusion for me. But I was able to overlook this. Even the ending, controversial to some, was brilliant to me.

Then I made the mistake of reading Under the Dome, his book about a town that’s mysteriously trapped beneath an impenetrable dome, and I realized a few things:

–I’m tired of reading about small-town Maine. The characters in Under the Dome were way too similar to those in his earlier books.

–King’s world is black and white. I like gray.

–King’s writing is devoid of all hope.

That last part is crucial. First, let me be clear: King’s talent and skill are undeniable, and his work ethic is something we should all emulate. But when I write, I must come from a place of hope. Even in the darkest stories I write, there exists a thread of hope, no matter how thin. In Under the Dome, there really was none. The basic message was this: the world sucks, people suck, and ultimately we’re all powerless. I trudged through the 1000 plus pages, hoping for at least a stellar ending, but the ending I got was one of the worst I’ve ever read. It wasn’t even good enough for a bad Twilight Zone episode. It was arbitrary and it made me regret wasting my time.

And now I just finished his latest, Revival. Where do I begin?

First, the good. King is a master of a unique premise, or, at least a premise that would have seemed obvious, but for some reason wasn’t. For this book, he infuses horror into the well-worn cliche of the faith healer. You would think it’s been done to death, but I can’t think of another case. And he works in clever homages to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the cold horror of HP Lovecraft.

But first you have to sift through the boring life of one Jamie Morton, who is well meaning enough, but nothing more than a way for King to relay the glories of his small town baby boomer generation. I grew up in the shadow of the baby boomer generation. Never again do I want to hear about how cool or special their lives and culture were. Thank God for that skill known as skimming pages.

Jamie aside, King gives us Pastor Charles Jacobs. In Jacobs we have someone who is much more compelling — a man of God who loses all faith when his wife and son die in a horrific accident. King deftly describes the accident, sparing none of the gore. And he paints a brilliant picture of a man shattered.

Unfortunately it’s told through the bland eyes of Jamie, whose motivations are never quite clear or understandable. There’s an attraction between him and Jacobs, something that keeps them coming back to each other over the years, but it’s never explained. We’re just expected to go along until the bleak, bitter end.

And what an end it was. The world of Revival is one of utter horror, with no hope of escape. In the end, Jacobs and Jamie glimpse the afterlife, and its a hellish afterlife awaiting every man, woman and child. I’m not a psychologist, but I’m guessing Stephen King hates religion. I’d bet he doesn’t even believe in God. Fair enough. A belief in God is by no means a prerequisite for a good and happy life. But what King gives us is an inversion of God and religion. Not only is there no purpose to life, but we are insignificant, and will suffer cruelly no matter what we do.

Revival, similar to Under the Dome, is a book about being utterly powerless. It is a book that contains not a single shred of hope. In fact, hope is systematically killed off until nothing but despair remains.

Revival left me feeling pretty low. Yes, I know it’s JUST A BOOK. But one of the reasons we read books, watch TV, go to the movies, listen to music, etc, is to feel transformed. We’re looking for something to feed our souls, to make us feel alive, to affirm the beauty and goodness of life. King’s Dark Tower series did this for me. But these last two books — Under the Dome and now Revival — did the opposite. All they did was bring me lower.

Stephen King is a wildly talented and successful writer. I can’t speak for his state of mind (I wouldn’t presume to do so) but I hope he’s not living in a place of darkness. I’ve loved being a part of his literary word, but it’s time for me to let him go.

Fiction and fear

What are you most afraid of? Spiders? Dogs? Death? Loneliness?

Chances are, whatever your fear is, it’s been dramatized. Horror stories are about laying bare our fears. Think of some of the most notable horror stories and at their root you can find a fear.

jaws_dts_hires–Bram Stoker’s Dracula is about the fear of sex and sexuality, a direct reflection of the repressed Victorian era

–Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise have both been interpreted as a fear of becoming a parent

Jaws is not only about a fear of sharks, but it touches on a primal fear of our vulnerability to deadly creatures that lurk in the deep

One thing that always frightened me is mental illness, especially the kind that leads to delusions. I know this type of mental illness has a physiological underpinning, but it still disturbs me on a core level. I incorporated my own fear into my new novella, House of Flies.

House of Flies

The plot: 19-year-old Alec Pearson, recently orphaned, lives in a huge house and has all the money he could need. Then he starts seeing flies. These aren’t ordinary flies; they carry with them dark visions. He tries to fight the flies but he fears he’s losing his mind. Finally he takes a drastic step to rid himself of the madness around him.

I used a common horror trope—insects, specifically flies—as a way to dramatize Alec’s plight. Insects creep most people out, so it’s a built in special effect. The whole point of the story, though, was to discover how suppressing emotions—grief in this instance—can push you to the brink of madness.

Writers are lucky. We have a vehicle to explore our fears, examine them, and work through them in a way that not only benefits us, but hopefully entertain others. If you have the chance, check out House of Flies.

Fictional faces brought to “life”

One artist is translating writers’ descriptions of their fictional characters. The results are jarring.

For me, half the fun in reading a book is imagining it in my mind’s eye. Sometimes I get a clear image of the characters; other times the image is hazy as the action takes control. Either way, I’m engaged in creating this world in my own imagination with the blueprint that the writer provided.

Brian Joseph Davis has taken some of the best known — beloved and infamous — literary characters and created sketches of them using law-enforcement composite sketch software. He’s compiled the sketches, and the original descriptions, on his website The Composites.

Take Mr. Wednesday, one of the major characters in Neil Gaiman’s classic novel American Gods.

As described by Gaiman:

Shadow looked at the man in the seat next to him…He grinned a huge grin with no warmth in it at all…His hair was a reddish gray; his beard, little more than stubble, was grayish red. A craggy, square face with pale gray eyes…The man’s craggy smile did not change…There was something strange about his eyes, Shadow thought. One of them was a darker gray than the other…humorless grin…Wednesday’s glass eye… He was almost Shadow’s height, and Shadow was a big man.”

And as visualized by Davis?

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That’s not how I pictured Mr. Wednesday in my head. To me he was older, craggier, beefier.

There’s more on Davis’ website. Here’s Marla Singer, from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, as Palahniuk describes her:

My power animal is Marla…Black hair and pillowy French lips. Faker. Italian dark leather sofa lips…Marla stares up at me. Her eyes are brown. Her earlobes pucker around earring holes, no earrings…She actually felt alive. Her skin was clearing up…Marla never has any fat of her own, and her mom figures that familial collagen would be better than Marla ever having to use the cheap cow kind…Short matte black hair, big eyes the way they are in Japanese animation, skim milk thin, buttermilk sallow in her dress with a wallpaper pattern of dark roses…Her black hair whipping my face…The color of Marla’s brown eyes is like an animal that’s been heated in a furnace and dropped into cold water. They call that vulcanized or galvanized or tempered.

And here’s Davis’ image.

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My favorite of Davis’ images is the one that captures a different view of a classic character. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes the monster as:

Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing… but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

And here he is:

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With all the Hollywood depictions of the Monster as monstrous, it’s easy to forget that he was not created to be hideous.

As a reader and a writer, I’m not a fan of over-description. In my book The Last Conquistador, I tried to be sparse but concise in my descriptions of the characters. For instance, the protagonist Randy describes his wayward girlfriend Lise as “solid and shapely, like the kid sister of a truck stop waitress.” I wanted to seed a broad image in the reader’s mind.

In Always Mine, Danny, the young hero, meets the stepfather of Tina, the mysterious girl next door that he has a crush on. How do I describe Bob? Using just a few key images:

“He shook Danny’s hand rough and hard. He was meaty with a walrus mustache, and he glared as if Danny harbored bad intentions for his daughter.”

While I prefer the less is more approach, after browsing through Davis’ website and comparing the writers’ words with the sketches produced, I have a greater appreciation for those writers who are meticulous in crafting their characters. It’s fascinating to see how writers shape the worlds we create in our minds.