101 Weird Writers #43 — Stephen King

The Only Lights are Headlights

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Stephen_King,_Comicon

Stephen King (1947–) is one of the most prolific, best-selling, and influential living authors of American horror fiction. Born in Portland, Maine, King’s father left the family when he was just two years old, and he was raised by his mother alongside his adopted older brother. Inspired significantly by H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Richard Matheson, King knew from a young age that he wanted to write horror fiction. After earning a B.A. in English from the University of Maine in 1970, he began selling short stories to men’s magazines and his debut novel, Carrie, was acquired by Doubleday in 1973. He married author Tabitha (Spruce) King during this period, and they have since raised three children: Naomi, Joe, and Owen, the latter two of which have become successful authors in their own right. King subsequently published several novels that have become classics of supernatural horror, such as Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Shining (1977).

Since these beginnings, he has published 55 novels, 6 works of nonfiction, and approximately 200 short stories, many of which have been adapted for film or television. He has won all major awards associated with horror and dark fantasy, in addition to numerous others that include the National Medal of Arts and the O. Henry Award for “The Man in the Black Suit” (1994), reprinted in The Weird. King has also frequently shown an interest in experimentation with publishing media and form, releasing The Green Mile in serial installments and Riding the Bullet digitally before it was common. He has long resided in his birth-state of Maine, a setting that has become famously associated with him due to its frequent appearances in his work. His most recent book is End of Watch, the concluding entry in a trilogy of crime novels.

— Christopher Burke, editor of 101 Weird Writers

***

When I was twelve years old, I was afraid—desperately, morbidly afraid—of horror flicks. My best friend in grade seven was a girl named Steph Melnychuk. We played softball together back in Sarnia—a small town in Ontario maybe double the size of Bangor where Stephen King grew up—and her throw was something to be reckoned with. I was the only one willing to catch for her (badly at that) and I still remember the hot sting when the ball went blazing into my clumsy glove. She was taller than me by about five inches, smart, effortlessly cool. She liked to throw slumber parties at which we’d dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and one night on a dare we locked ourselves in the basement bathroom to paint our faces with glow-in-the-dark nail polish. But it was her idea, her deep-seated love of the macabre.

She was the horror fan, not me.

In the early 1990s, Steph invited me over to watch a made-for-TV flick called “Sometimes They Come Back” in which a reluctant high school teacher returns to his hometown only to be harassed by the ghosts of the school kids that killed his brother. I was nervous from the get-go, and true to form the thing—schlocky as it was—stayed with me. In a recent conversation, the writer Sam J. Miller suggested that every horror writer has a personal monster, something that scares the bejesus out of them. For me, that monster is—and always has been—the ghost. Ghosts are like a warning about mortality, and at twelve years old I was only just beginning to grapple with those fears. No one in my family had died. I had never been to a funeral. The idea of dying fascinated me: it was repellent, awful, but it wasn’t unnatural. Precisely the opposite.

That was my first experience with Stephen King.

In Danse Macabre, King lays out his theories surrounding the purposes and practices of writing horror:

Terror—what Hunter Thompson calls ‘fear and loathing’—often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking. If that sense of unmaking is sudden and seems personal—if it hits you around the heart—then it lodges in the memory as a complete set.

What I experienced as a twelve-year old was a profound sense of the possibility of unmaking, the possibility that a bunch of kids a little bit older than me could do hideous things—that kids my age were vulnerable; they could be murdered, they could drown, they could be struck by trains that seemed to come out of nowhere.

When I was in my final year of high school, a tanker truck smashed into the side of my dad’s car on an icy stretch of road within sight of the chemical plant where he worked. My mom was in South Africa at the time, clearing up the effects of my grandmother who had recently passed on, and my older brother Justin was living just outside of Toronto, a good three hours’ drive away. So it was my younger sister and I who were driven to the hospital—I don’t remember by whom—while my dad was in critical care. My dad had always had a definite vitality about him. He used to regale us with stories of his childhood growing up in Rhodesia where he set scorpions and matabele ants to fight; later, he barely missed an opportunity to be on the South African fencing team. He had, he told us, a pet chimpanzee. But when we saw him it was like meeting a stranger. He was badly bruised, black wires everywhere, and I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying, only enough to know he didn’t recognise me, not in that moment.

That moment brought about a sudden understanding that someone I loved could come undone. Could be unmade.

The power of ghosts is the power of memory, or at least that’s what I’ve always thought. Memory is what gives us a sense of continuity, a sense of self. And ghosts are the most vital form of memory, just as haunting is really just a different kind of remembering.

My dad survived. The bruises healed. And although he was always frailer after that, prone to losing both his balance and his mental equilibrium as many who suffer traumatic head injuries were, I didn’t lose him. But his memory suffered. Some part of that continuity—who he had been, who he was after—had shifted.

My second moment of unmaking occurred more recently. Six months ago I took up a permanent position at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge as Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing. It meant leaving Canada for good. But I had felt it was worth it. The job was a good one, a dream job in fact, and there were people I loved whom I didn’t want to leave. I was prepared to make England my home.

But after my first semester had passed, a semester which had mostly masked for me the bitter campaign of misinformation and demagoguery that was raging in the background, the United Kingdom voted by a narrow margin to break away from the European Union. For those of my generation it had seemed an unthinkable outcome. Like so many others, I had gone to bed early that night, unwilling to watch another hour of political mayhem, feeling relatively secure that reason would prevail… and the pre-voting polls had backed me up.

18803640In H is for Hawk, the nature writer Helen MacDonald speaks about the origins of the word bereavement in the Old English bereafian, which means “to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.” She writes that the death of her father felt like that:

Imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them. All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone.

This image stuck with me on the day that Brexit was announced. It felt as if everyone I knew and loved had been damaged by what had happened—had been punched in the stomach—and yet I felt totally alone. I remember my partner telling me to come out for drinks in the city—to commiserate in company—but I didn’t want to because I was crying and I wasn’t sure if I could pull myself together enough to be presentable. And when I walked outside a week of grey skies and rain had perversely cleared to sunshine, so there were tourists walking along the canal; everything seemed strangely normal, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that the world had changed irrevocably overnight. I felt untethered, unprepared for what was to come next.

The world has become a scary place. On July 14, less than two weeks before I write this, a 19-tonne cargo truck was driven into the crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. 84 people were killed. I don’t like reading the news much right now.

King writes about a similar feeling after JFK’s assassination, how those three days of grief which followed “is perhaps the closest any people in history has ever come to a total period of mass consciousness and mass empathy and—in retrospect—mass memory…Love cannot achieve that sort of across-the-board hammerstrike of emotion, apparently.”

But horror can. And that’s the point, really.

As I write this, I’m sitting on a bus headed from Portland to Bangor for a research project about the publication of Carrie (1974), Stephen King’s first novel. My own first novel was sold to Random House Canada this year, but that isn’t what the project is about, only an excuse, really, to understand the origin of a writer whom I have come to respect and deeply admire.

The Hunt for Red October, streaked with static and all its buried Cold War anxieties, is playing on the overhead monitors, and outside everything is pure black. If the sun were shining, then perhaps I would recognise the landscape. Many do; there are fans who say that when they first enter Maine it has an instant recognisability, as if they’re coming to a place they have always known. For me, it’s a bit different. What hits me first are the smells, the thick scent of pine. My family used to vacation in nearby Kennebunk when I was a child.

They say that you’re more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.

I lied earlier, about my first encounter with Stephen King. Or rather, I misremembered.

I have a vague recollection: perched in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon, someone was pointing into the distance, saying, “That’s where Stephen King lives.” My dad was driving. I felt completely safe. Untouchable. We had been fishing. I had got nothing but two-inch long feeders, but my brother kept telling me about how he had been going after a big one, a pike with crazy teeth set in a jagged old grin. I was seven or eight years old, I think. My brother was always telling me ghost stories, telling me whoppers. But I didn’t believe them much. When you’re that age it’s still possible to feel completely safe.

Much of this is prelude, so forgive me. On to the matter at hand.

“The Man in the Black Suit” is typical in many respects of King’s oeuvre. It’s a good story, a solid story—so good, in fact, that it won the O. Henry prize in 1996. The narrative has a nostalgic quality to it; it is retrospective, a single memory that is offered up without explanation or even the hope of belief:

I am now a very old man and this is something which happened to me when I was very young—only nine years old. It was 1914, the summer after my brother Dan died in the west field and three years before America got into World War I…. What I might have done yesterday, who I might have seen here in my room at the nursing home, what I might have said to them or they to me . . . those things are gone, but the face of the man in the black suit grows ever clearer, ever closer, and I remember every word he said.

It is a tale, however, that is about transitions, about how life can slip away from you and how the grave is always waiting. King’s writing has an undeniable charm to it. His stories drift along almost lazily, glinting with a touch of malice, maybe, but soothing too. His stories are like fish hooks, and once they catch you, struggle as you might, he’ll reel you in all the same.

Danse Macabre“Is horror art?” King asks in Danse Macabre. “The work of horror can be nothing else; it achieves the level of art simply because it is looking for something beyond art, something that predates art.”

This particular story has always struck me as one of those which looks outward, beyond, before. As a narrative about an encounter with the Devil, it has a certain timeliness to it; yet King’s Devil, despite his fancy suit, isn’t urbane. He isn’t a charmer. He’s pure madness all the way through, and the tale he tells the narrator is perhaps one of the scariest of all: “’Sad news, fisherboy,’ he said. ‘I’ve come with sad news….Your mother is dead.’”

What follows is a harrowing account in which the Devil taunts the narrator with a story about a fatal bee sting. The same allergy, the same weakness in the blood which had killed his brother Dan, was also shared by his mother, the Devil says, and that very day, only a few minutes ago, a bee flew through the window and caught her by surprise:

‘You need to hear this, Gary; you need to hear this, my little fisherboy. It was your mother who passed that fatal weakness on to your brother Dan; you got some of it, but you also got a protection from your father that poor Dan somehow missed….So, although I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, it’s almost a case of poetic justice, isn’t it? After all, she killed your brother Dan as surely as if she had put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.’

The narrator resists, of course, but the tale is terrible precisely because it has the ring of truth. We’ve all inherited from our parents a terrible mortality. And at the same time the tale hooks deeply into the narrator’s secret fear, the fear we all share about our loved ones: that while we were sleeping, while we weren’t paying attention, something terrible might have happened…

In June, 1999, Stephen King was walking eight feet to the side of the road in North Lovell when a van hit and seriously injured him. He sustained an assortment of broken bones, a punctured lung, and a head injury. When I began reading The Dead Zone for the first time earlier this month, I was struck by the description of Johnny Smith in his coma. I had thought it was one of those filched autobiographical bits that often show up in King’s work (“Write what you know,” he says, and boy, does he!). But, of course, The Dead Zone was one of King’s early novels, published in 1979, twenty years before the accident. And my point is not the supernatural but the hypernatural; after all, it’s easy to imagine your own death when you’re a horror writer. We do that kind of thing all the time.

The story is interesting in that it comes with very little moralizing. This is not a Devil eager to trick a man in order to steal his soul. The Devil here is malice, pure and simple; he is hunger; he is a grinning set of jaws that will devour you whole simply because you are there. It is old school religion, that, a religion of black and white in which the Devil comes, not because of a sin committed for which he might legitimately be feared, but simply because the Devil is and that is exactly what he does: he comes, and he comes, and he keeps on coming.

“The Man in the Black Suit” is a story about fishing; this is appropriate because fishing has such Biblical overtones, certainly, but also because it’s a sport born half out of hunger and half out of playfulness. The narrator hooks himself a big one, a nineteen-inch brook trout. Quite the accomplishment for such a young boy. It is that fish alone that saves him, for it is enough to distract the Devil, who eats the thing whole with jaws that open up like a snake’s.

In a recent interview following the publication of Revival, a Lovecraftian novel about a minister who loses his faith, King said he believed “in evil”, but he has for all his life “gone back and forth about whether or not there’s an outside evil, whether or not there’s a force in the world that really wants to destroy us, from the inside out, individually and collectively.” The Devil of “The Man in the Black Suit” is an outside force, but it isn’t purely religious, to my mind, nor is he the accrual of bad forces, of crimes and transgressions, manifested in novels such as ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) or It (1986).

The Devil here is a kind of sudden badness that comes out of the blue.

Like a bee sting when you’re allergic.

Like a truck coming out of nowhere in the darkness.

And there is a part of me that is thinking about this story as I sit on the bus, thinking about what it means to write about memory and to write about the fear of death. Outside, the world around me has fallen into darkness. I can’t see my way clearly. Sometimes it seems as if the only lights are headlights.

Perhaps the end of the story isn’t where we should be focusing. Because “The Man in the Black Suit” ends as all horror stories end: with a tremor, with that sinking feeling of “what comes next and do I really want to see?” But another way to look at the story is this: it’s a fishing story, and all fishing stories are about lies, aren’t they? Big whoppers. Tales that grow bigger in the telling.

And the Devil lied.

The narrator survived two World Wars, the atomic terror of the 60s, and God alone knows what personal tragedies that have come his way. He was born in 1905, and he has lived out his ninety years, suffering losses, yes, but living all the same. Maybe this fear has always been clawing at him, the image of that terrible grin—relentless as oncoming headlights—and the hungry words, “Biiig fiiish!” chasing all the truths of the moral world into ruin.

Except it is just a fear, a fear we all have.

Our man is still kicking, even after everything.

He may not be strong enough to run much more. He may not have fine large brook trout.

He may be old, and his creel may be empty.

But the Devil lies. And our man is still alive.

____

Bibliography

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006. Electronic.

King, Stephen. The Dead Zone. New York: New York: Doubleday & Company, 1979. Print.

King, Stephen. It. New York: Viking Press, 1986. Print.

King, Stephen. “The Man in the Black Suit.” In The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories. Ed. Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer. New York: Corvus, 2011. Electronic.

King, Stephen. Revival. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014. Print.

King, Stephen. ‘Salem’s Lot. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1975. Print.

MacDonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. London: Vintage, 2015. Electronic.

Sometimes They Come Back. Dir. Tom McLoughlin. 1991. Based on a short story by Stephen King: “Sometimes They Come Back.” Cavalier. March, 1974. Reprinted in Night Shift. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1978.