Wednesday, August 22, 2012
King Stephen, Part I
A couple of days ago I read a new Stephen King story in the September Harper's Magazine--a little King-ian mix of the quotidian and the grotesque. "Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" tells a story familiar to me (at least for a while): a grown child now coping with a parent's Alzheimer's.
My wife's mother went through the entire course of Alzheimer's in the 1980s and 1990s--moving from not remembering where her car keys were to not knowing what food is, what eating is. Who her loving daughter was. (In 1996 Joyce published a wonderful book about these years--In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer's Journey; here's a link to it: Joyce's book.). So as I was reading King, I was remembering our own experiences with Joyce's mom. And I have to say: King had things pretty much right.
It's a story about a man whose father is now living in an Alzheimer's facility; the son routinely takes his father out to eat--an experience that seems novel to the father, week after week, even though they go to the same place every time. I'll not say more about the story--other than that it soon veers into the very familiar sanguinary realm ruled by King.
I avoided Stephen King books for a good long while. Until 1990, to be precise. And by 1990, he'd already written quite a few, among them some of his classics--Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Misery, a couple of the Dark Tower volumes, four titles under the name "Richard Bachmann" (The Running Man and Thinner among them), three story collections, a work of nonfiction (Danse Macabre), and five screenplays.
And that, folks, was twenty-two years ago. Since then the titles have continued to fly from his most fecund imagination straight to the best-seller list.
In 1990 I had of course heard of King. Who hadn't? His books were everywhere in the stores (remember bookstores?); his newest invariably zoomed to the top of the best-seller lists. He was featured now and then in the weekly magazines (remember them?).
But I hadn't read him for a couple of reasons--for one, I wasn't much of a horror fan; for another, I've always resisted reading the "latest" thing, figuring that if I haven't read it before 100 million other people, then it's not worth reading. As I've written before, I did not read any of the Harry Potter novels until all seven had appeared. I didn't read The Da Vinci Code until everyone else on the planet had finished it.
But I was in early on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books, so I had no psychological issues reading them. I helped discover Stieg Larsson, you see! (Not really ... but you understand?)
So I held off on King. And held off some more.
But in the summer of 1990 I headed, alone, out to Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, where I was going to participate in a six-week Jack London seminar, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I'd recently gotten interested in London since The Call of the Wild was in our new literature books. (Little did I know where this was going to lead!)
It didn't take long.
As I lay in my little bed in my little room at Sonoma State that summer, I found myself more frightened than I'd been since childhood. But I couldn't stop reading. I charged through The Dark Half, a story about a writer who meets his alter ego.
And I left a lamp on the rest of the night while I "slept."
TOMORROW: MORE ABOUT KING; HOW I USED HIM IN MY CLASSES ...