Thursday, February 07, 2008

The true meaning of smuckday

Inside Jacket for Stephen King's Lisey's Story, by Mark Stutzman

I used to read Stephen King a lot. A LOT. Like, that's what happened to my sophomore year of college a lot. When I wasn't pining for the scruffy little building-climbing astronomy guy who used to live in our dorm, I was sitting half-out the window of the third-floor lounge, smoking and reading Stephen King.

Those were some good scary books. Stephen King can find the menace in a dead cat, in a lawn mower, and his use of such banal items taps an existential dread you didn't even know you had, in books like the 'S' books: The Shining, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand... and the 'C' books: Carrie, Cujo, Christine. Those books primed me for Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Jeff Lindsay, Mark Billingham... and they ruined me for John Saul, Brian Lumley and Robert McCammon. I love serial killers and lunatics, and even monsters, if you can convince me. But I don't like crappy writing.

I quit Stephen King, though, after It. Killer clown in a storm drain? Turns into the giant spider from The Return of the King and is vanquished by adults regressing to their child selves and singing "Red, red robin"? Sorry, man, that's just stupid. I read an interview with the author a few years later, in which he confessed that he thought It wasn't much of a book. "Should've called it 'Shit'," he said, and I thought, "NOW you tell me."

Since then, I went through a arty comic book phase, a LONG non-fiction phase, a couple of sci-fi phases, and now I'm back to reading the occasional horror book.

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain was like tar - gooey black tar that you'd be tempted to eat, if that makes any sense. Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay fully deserves that guy from "6 Feet Under". Not many actors can pull off creepy/funny/brilliant, which is what those books are. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill was interesting and well-paced and scary.

This new Stephen King novel, Lisey's Story, less a horror novel per se than a celebration of idiom, was kind of a disappointment. I had heard that it was a real high point for him, that King himself felt very good about it, and so, when a friend had an extra copy, I took it.

And here you go: there's a ghost, a ghost that is not only benign, but positively cheery, jollying the plot along even when (especially when) there seems to be no reason for it to go anywhere. There's a lunatic, a not-too-bright redneck lunatic who shows up late and leaves early, sent off with pitiful ease by a couple of middle-aged women. There are monsters, monsters whose motives and origins are unfathomable and unexplored. There's also a magic power, an easy-to-use plot device that gets the good guys out of trouble just about every time.

As a "Stephen King novel", I just wouldn't call Lisey's Story 'good'. It feels like the author is employing his familiar elements as shorthand devices, using them to shape a plot that will string together a batch of rather nice dialogues (and less-successful monologues) featuring different combinations of about five members of two families. Some of the pieces are scary, but the supernatural elements seem to be there just for atmospherics, and if there's one place you expect ghosts and ghouls to be treated with respect, it's a Stephen King novel.

What I might call Lisey's Story, and why I think Stephen King considers it some of his best work, is 'mature'. He has always been really good at depicting family relationships - for me, the fact that you believe the dialogue between Jack and Wendy Torrance without even thinking about it is a big part of what sets The Shining above, say, anything by Dean Koontz.

But Lisey's Story is all family relationships. Lisey is the widow of Scott, a celebrated best-selling writer of fantastic fiction. Scott had a monster father and a saintly older brother, except when he had a saintly father and a monster older brother. Lisey has four sisters, one of whom dabbles in mental illness. The way they all talk to each other is written fantastically well, especially the crazy older sister. She's so sensible and matter-of-fact sometimes that you feel her sisters' annoyance when she dips over into crazyland. I swear I know her. However, if I wanted to read about families, I'd read Ann Tyler. If you're going to write all these duets, you might as well string them together in a grief narrative, or a coming-of-age story... not an ostensible horror story.

And what about this novel's relentless blizzard of idiom? No piece of action, commonplace or remarkable, can transpire without King trotting out a colorful little phrase, either collected from regional America, borrowed from another writer, or newly invented for the occasion. Usually we get at least two. Lisey's sister Darla goes to the bathroom, and instead of allowing the poor woman to "have a pee" and be done with it, we have to revisit her activities: she was "whizzing a little lemonade" and "blotting the old bush."

Both families: Lisey's, with all those sisters, and Scott's, with all that craziness, have pet phrases, euphemisms, acronyms, made-up words, nicknames, malapropisms, and we have to hear them all, in all their variations and combined forms, and often we have to learn their etymology. The swearing alone is enough to make you gag. I love swearing, everyone knows, but Scott says "smuck" instead of "fuck," and it drove me up a wall.

I kept being reminded of The Talisman, with its alternate world and second set of colloquialisms. "God pounds his nails" is a phrase I will never completely erase from my brain, though thankfully I've never heard myself say it aloud.

The moment that provokes the most thought is after Scott's father has killed the saintly-older-brother-turned-cannibalistic-monster of a son, whom he has kept chained up in the basement for three weeks in the hope that he can be returned to sanity. After his death, the boy is seen to be a starved, skinny child, imprisoned and eventually killed by his mentally ill father. It brings to mind, as it is supposed to, people like the woman in DC who killed her 4 daughters because they were possessed by the devil. Just for a second you have to wonder what she saw when she looked at them.

Stephen King excels at crafting chilling little moments of doubt like this one. I'd really like to see him write a whole book that way. Dolores Claiborne was quite like that. Misery. Those were terrific books, very short on the supernatural. Maybe our man should be done with the unexplained altogether.

In the meantime, I will be on the lookout for more from Joe Hill, and I will be grateful to the King family. It is damn considerate of them to put forward a new great horror writer to keep me up at night, now that the old great horror writer seems to want to move on to different things.

May I also add that I would like to dive into Mark Stutzman's jacket illustration (above). I'm thinking of papering the kitchen with it.