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Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stephen King and My Father

I waffled back and forth for several weeks before deciding to do this post. After all, who wants to hear some guy on the internet blathering about his father?

I changed my mind after a conversation I had with Dad this weekend about Misery vs. It. I've been fascinated for a while about my father's weird blind spot when it comes to stuff he likes to think of as "popular". It almost seems like anything he perceives as "popular" will not last. In a hundred years, it will be forgotten. A few months back I made a reference to a TV show set in the far future that mentions the Beatles. My father, who loves the Beatles, scoffed at the idea that the Beatles would be remembered that far in the future. I told him that by that time the Beatles would likely be thought of as the Mozarts of their era. He scoffed at that too, and I reminded him of how many "serious musicians" at the time scoffed at Mozart. That didn't phase him. If something is "popular", that means "well-liked by a lot of people right now, but utterly ephemeral, and soon to be forgotten". There is no difference, in his estimation, between AC/DC and Justin Bieber, as far as how history will remember them, which is to say, it won't. No difference between Star Wars and Twilight. No difference between Stephen King and a thousand other popular fiction writers of today.

Suffice it to say that I do not agree with him. As far as I'm concerned, if something is fifty years old is considered by most to be a classic today, then it still will be in a hundred years. Just as the music world of the late 1700's believed Mozart's music was a flash in the pan, only fleetingly popular, today's "serious literati" that tut-tut any idea that Stephen King could be considered classic literature are failing to see just how long this "flash in the pan" has kept flashing. And my father is among them, despite the weird irony that my father is absolutely certain that JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is an undisputed classic that will be remembered for time out of mind. The same literati sneering at King are still sneering at Tolkien today, and Dad can't seem to understand the dichotomy he exists in. He argues that Tolkien is timeless, as Mozart was, while stuff that was just "popular" when he was old enough to remember it is just a reflection of the time it was born in. As if Mozart was not a reflection of changing musical styles (like the Beatles) and Tolkien wasn't a reflection of changing sensibilities toward fantasy.

My father cannot understand how something can be popular and timeless at the same time. He was already an adult by the time Stephen King became a household name, so as far as he's concerned, in maybe another twenty or thirty years, after King has passed on and the "fad" is over, he'll be forgotten. But it's more than just that he doesn't think much of King because he considers him "popular". He also doesn't think there's much to take seriously about Stephen King's writing at all. In that, he's far from alone, and it's primarily that idea that made me want to write this post.

NOT my father
You just about couldn't find two people more diametrically opposed than Stephen King and my father. They both love books, they were both alive when Eisenhower was president, and that's about it. Stephen King is a left-wing aging hippy who battled addiction for a great chunk of his adult life and has a uniquely dark, yet hopeful, outlook on the world. My father is a right-wing Baptist minister. I have spoken about that before, but I'm always a bit hesitant to talk about it because the term "Baptist minister" brings up an image in the heads of a lot of people that couldn't be further from the truth. Mostly. I've met ministers like the ones people like to imagine, but I can safely say my father is not one of them. He's laughed at dirty jokes before, and even told them, depending on who's listening. He's not stridently religious, looking at his faith more as a lifestyle and relationship than as a set of practices. And he doesn't have a problem, strictly speaking, with horror. He has read other writers who go dark and scary, and he's read a few of my horror short stories and he likes them. He's a big reader of Dean Koontz, and when I said that what I've read of Koontz shows him to be a low-rent Stephen King, my father laughed and said "as far as I'm concerned, Stephen King is a low-rent Dean Koontz." I honestly don't think anyone in the world, except maybe Dean Koontz (maybe) would agree with him.

The craziest part of that is that my father has never read a Stephen King novel. All he knows about Stephen King he got from either reading about or hearing about him from some other source. He said he tried to read one once, but it was "just plain nasty" and he gave up after only a few pages. He doesn't remember what novel it was, but he said that it had kids going off together to "talk about gross things like doo-doo, and stuff". Now, I haven't read everything King has ever written (yet!) but I have read most of what would have been released by the time my father first tried reading him, and I'm 90% sure that he's describing the opening scene of It.

If you don't recall, the book opens with Bill and Georgie Denbrough, the entire scene given to us from Georgie's point of view. It's raining, and Bill is sick in bed, but Georgie wants to go outside and play, so Bill has made Georgie a toy boat. The scene is very sweet and touching, and makes me go a little teary-eyed sweaty--I said SWEATY, because real men don't get teary-eyed--because I can really feel the love these two brothers have for each other. Now, because they're little boys, they do start ribbing each other, and start with mock insults, starting with "You're an a-hole", "yeah, well, you're a big brown a-hole", and finally Bill calling Georgie a "big, brown shitty a-hole", which causes Georgie, already giggling, to break down in laughter. This scene of boys being boys translated itself in my father's mind as "boys going off to talk about gross things like doo-doo". That was his take-away from this really sweet scene.

As far as I'm concerned, that's proof right there of confirmation bias on my father's part. He expected to find gross, awful stuff in King's stories, and because he was looking for it, he found it. Well before any of the horror started.

That's the tip of the iceberg. Whenever I have conversations with my father about Stephen King, I can hear a sort of dismissiveness enter his voice. I see him getting ready to roll his eyes at whatever stupid thing he thinks King does. It never occurs to him that he's trying to talk about a writer he's never read.

At this point I should take you back to the olden days when your friendly blogger was a wee lad, anywhere from age five to age 13 (I know that's not all that far back, but I just hit Four Dimes, so I'm feeling my age, here), and I really thought my dad knew, well, not everything, but enough to speak intelligently on any subject. I thought. Then he crossed into my territory.

I was once a big reader of Marvel comics. Today I think I like film and TV adaptations of them better, but at the time I lived and breathed them. Then my father one day my father heard me use the word "mutant" in reference to a Marvel character. He asked me what I meant by calling him a "mutant", and I responded that he was born with the X-gene in his blood and therefore was, as 13-year-old me described it "born with his powers."

"Hmm, no," said my father. I don't think so, Joshua." I didn't understand what he meant. I hadn't asked a question, so he didn't think so about what? "Well," he said. "Think about guys like Spider-Man, who was mutated after he was born." My father didn't know what "mutants" in Marvel Comics were, and he was deigning to try and "educate" me about the one thing I could confidently say I knew far more about than he did. Of course, my father read comics when he was a kid, but he didn't keep reading them into adulthood, and yet still thought he knew more about them than a kid who spent his entire day reading them and/or discussing them with friends. Suddenly I realized that my father often spoke with authority but didn't necessarily always know what he was talking about.

Later in life, I began to notice other evidence of this. He would repeat long-debunked ideas about such diverse subjects as medicine, law, physics, you name it. I don't mean to say that my father is an unintelligent man, or that he's a master bullshitter. He isn't. He's got one of the keenest political minds I've ever seen, and he's a skilled mechanic, knows a lot about guns, aerotech, architecture and a host of other things that I know very little about. It's just that he likes to talk with the same authoritative tone and assurance that he knows his business whether he truly knows something or does not. I also don't think he realizes he's repeating falsehoods or bad assumptions. Many times he'll predict something will happen based solely on his own intuition, but that intuition is often based more on what he thinks is happening verse what actually is. Again, this is not always the case, or even often. Just more times than I ever realized as a kid. Enough that when I hear something first from him, I check other sources.

And he does this about Stephen King. A lot. He constantly talks about all the various and sundry ways that King is a writer of silly fiction that has no literary value or edification. All of King's stuff is overly violent, overly profane and it revels in all things filthy. Other provably false notions I've had to disabuse him of are that King is a militant atheist who unfailingly holds up any Christians portrayed in his works as either evil or stupid. I can kinda understand where he's coming from on that one; King really isn't much on organized religion, but he absolutely believes in God and frequently depicts his heroes as being guided by God. In fact, he's so pro-God that I've heard from some CR's that they're not crazy about The Stand because of how "religious" it can come off. Heh heh...they should read Desperation some time.

But the conversation that decided me on whether or not to post this was when I mentioned to him that I'd watched Misery that weekend, and my father replied, "Oh, yeah, I've seen that. It was good." I knew he'd seen it, as it turns out, because many years ago I saw him watching it when it came on TV. I remember him sitting there engrossed in the film, which I didn't stay to watch with him at the time, and later on him telling me about this cool thriller he'd just watched. I told him it was based on a Stephen King book, and suddenly his opinion changed. He suddenly "realized" that there was "something off" about it.

But there was nothing of that this past weekend. He remembered watching it, and remembered liking it. "But that's because the horror in that one is real," he said. "It's an actual threat, not just some stupid clown who can pull you into a sewer."

He reduced a 1000-page book with a dense and layered plot down to "some stupid clown who can pull you into a sewer".

I immediately began to defend It, talking about the themes and symbolism in it, the fact that it's not about a clown at all but about real human beings, and I started to expand on the metaphysical nature of "It", but what I should have said was "you shouldn't make value judgments on books you haven't read" and left it at that. It wouldn't have made any difference; Dad's never going to read It, but it might have shown him that he was behaving just like me when I was younger and didn't want to read stuff he loved.

Lately, I've noticed that Dad isn't against King in general. He loves The Shawshank Redemption and when he learned I'd read "the book" it was based on (actually a novella), he asked me how much of the book was like the movie. I think he was ready for me to tell him that the movie changed a great deal and added more meaning and significance. All I know is that he seemed shocked when I told him that the only real changes were Morgan Freeman playing a character who was white in the books and some characters being amalgamated into each other, like how there were actually three wardens and the prisoner who kept the bird wasn't Brooks, and that Brooks himself was a fairly minor character. It kinda made him think, for the moment, anyway, that King might write stuff of value after all.

But let's talk about Dad's dismissal of It as the story of "some stupid clown who can pull you into a sewer". It is actually representative of a lot of Dad's issues with not just the genre King writes in but also the way King writes. Dad is just fine with violence, blood and guts and gore (as long as the writer doesn't seem to be "reveling" in it) but in the end, he wants it all brought back down to earth, so to speak. If it takes place in "our" world, he wants the story wrapped up with a made-to-order explanation for what happened. He'll accept gods or demons. He'll accept insanity. He'll accept a ghost. He'll accept the idea that perhaps in a story magic can be real, but what he won't accept is something nebulous. He wants to know what exactly "It" is, and why it chose Derry to haunt, and why it manifests primarily as a clown, and why, why, why. The explanation that It is an entity from beyond time and space that we will never fully understand is not satisfactory to him.

Why is Christine evil? Why does the Micmac burying ground re-animate corpses? Where do the monsters in The Mist come from? Who and what is Randall Flagg, and who made him? For what purpose? These are the kinds of questions my father demands answers to. He doesn't want the "explanation" to be that there are things man was not meant to know. He doesn't want "loose ends" or anything left up to the imagination. If a satisfactory explanation was not given, in his words "what was the point?"

Take a look at some of the stuff I've written, he says, shamelessly self-promoting. Dad's read a lot of it, and where there's at least an implied explanation, he praises it to the high heavens. But other stuff, he asks me "so...what was it?" or "what did that mean?" because I left the ending purposefully ambiguous. What's terrifying to me might not be to someone else, and sometimes I don't think my father understand that the purpose of horror is to, well, scare. Or at least to make the reader uneasy, which is usually my goal with my short horror stories.

Let's look at one of King's short stories, Sometimes They Come Back. In that story, three punk teens who murdered the protagonist's brother return from the dead to torment him as an adult. Why? How? Never explained. And it shouldn't be, because that's not the point. In the end, the hero learns some dark arts to banish them back to Hell, but is afraid that he's opened a door for something even worse to come through. Again, just what it is, or how he can close that door, are not the point.

Another, Word Processor of the Gods, has a man realizing a home-made word processor his nephew made can cause whatever he types into it to come true. How does this work? Why does it work? Is any of that really something you want to spend time worrying about when the whole point of the story is "what is he going to do with this godlike power and what consequences will result?" Dad doesn't care; he's already stopped reading wondering how the word processor can even work.

When Dad learned that there was no real explanation for what It was in It, his immediate question was "Then is there any reason for anyone to take this sort of thing seriously?" Forget that classic literature like The Monkey's Paw and The Raven also offers no real explanations for anything happening within them. Why does the monkey's paw grant wishes? Who created it? What even is the Raven? Dad can accept that because both stories/poems (let's face it; The Raven is just as much a story as it is a poem) are accepted as classic literature, so he accepts them as well, much as he accepts Mozart as one of the great composers, even though he's a modern-day Salieri (at least, as modern remembrance likes to cast him), immediately consigning King's works to the ash-heap of history sight unseen merely because he refuses to believe that they're anything more than, as Bill Denbrough's college professor might term them, "pulp crap".

I believe the day will come when some of King's writings will be studied in schools. In fact, though I can't find any direct proof with a 20-second Google search, I think it probably already is. While I got handed Faulkner's A Rose for Emily or O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find or Oates's Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been, some student right now, or maybe in twenty years, could find himself being assigned to read The Reach or The Last Rung on the Ladder or The Woman in the Room or even Suffer the Little Children, Uncle Otto's Truck, Word Processor of the Gods or Nona. While I was assigned Lord of the Flies to read, perhaps one day a student could be assigned The Long Walk, Roadwork, Needful Things or even Hearts in Atlantis.

Needless to say, my father scoffs at this concept. The idea that they'd study the writings of a guy who wrote about an evil clown or haunted car strikes him as hilarious. It's not as if they presently study a guy who wrote a play bloodier than a thousand Stephen King movies, or a play that literally just ends with a person realizing the resolution to their problem will take over a year to solve, and announces "that's too long for a play", and thus ending it, or a play featuring a man named "Bottom" being turned into an "ass".

And this is the problem with modern liberati, or anyone who automatically thinks of "horror writers" (which I've argued King really isn't; he's a writer who writes in multiple genres) as automatically being somehow "less" than authors of "serious" literature. Very often, said "serious literature" of the age is all but forgotten (remember, not only was Salieri the "serious composer" versus Mozart's "popular music" but Christopher Marlow was considered  a playwright that Shakespeare would be lucky to even aspire to be, whereas today we remember all four of them but hold Mozart and Shakespeare to be "the greats"). In a hundred years, is anyone still going to be reading Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Hillary Mantell, Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, John Kennedy Toole? Maybe. Will they still be reading Stephen King? Undoubtedly. (I sincerely doubt anyone will still be reading Dean Koontz.) But try convincing today's "art snobs", all of whom have one thing in common; they've never read Stephen King, or if they have, they've read it with the most jaundiced eye. Either that or they picked stuff at random and judged his entire output on that. I read an article where a guy had a friend that kept poo-pooing King as silly nonsense, and was challenged to actually read something King wrote. He picked Christine, probably knowing that a book about a haunted car probably wasn't about to impress him. He could have picked The Shining or The Stand or Pet Sematary or Different Seasons or any number of others that are very representative of King's ouvre but absolutely modern classics. But he picked the one he could most easily mock.

I doubt my dad will ever rise to the "actually freaking read one of King's books" challenge, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because he really does feel like none of them would be worth his time, or perhaps because he might even be afraid to be proven wrong. It would be like him; my father really doesn't like being proven wrong, and will often insist that he's right even when faced with reality. For many years, he insisted that Jeremy Irons was gay. I don't mean he insisted that Jeremy Irons was in the closet. He thought that Irons was an out-n-proud homosexual, as fabulous in his personal life as Ian McKellen. Until I showed him that Irons has, in fact, been married to two different women, one of whom has been married to him for as long as I've been alive. Dad insisted they had to be his beards, or something, but I wouldn't let him get away with that, as he had started off insisting that Irons was an openly gay man.

Still, one day I hope he actually reads something of King's, if only so we can talk about it afterward. Maybe some of you can recommend the novel you think will turn his opinion right around?


  1. "Hearts In Atlantis," maybe? "On Writing" might be even better.

    1. The only problem with HIA is its connection to The Dark Tower. Otherwise it's a pretty detailed exploration of the 60's.