IN THE PRESENCE OF THE KING
In addition to pontificating on the humor and literary merits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I constantly find myself defending the works of Stephen King.
This is mind-boggling to me, as--in addition to the immense popularity of his books and the pervasiveness of his images and stories in contemporary culture--the genius is plainly there. You’ve probably seen them, and lost sleep over them, even if you didn’t know you were in the presence of the King. (The Shining and Dreamcatcher, alone, were responsible for many nights of insomnia. And don't get me started on Insomnia.)
Shawshank Redemption. Stand By Me. The Shining. Misery. Carrie. They are all icons of horror and suspense, and deal with both supernatural demons and inner demons. They are studies of character and relationship; villains are sometimes spectral, other times desperately human.
In TV's serialization tension is defrayed and the fear factor lessened, but the King continues to rule: from the well-reviewed but doomed Kingdom Hospital to TV movies of Salem’s Lot, Storm of the Century, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Riding the Bullet, TV has brought King to the basic cable subscribers. Where would TNT and USA be without Stephen King?
The fictional town of Castle Rock became a place on the literary landscape with its own history: its criminals go to Shawshank, its citizens remember their forebears and the unusual incidents that happened in that town “back in the day.” King routinely introduces characters, fleshes them out as if they’re going to be the problem-solvers in their book’s respective scenarios, only to kill them off within the chapter. Each character, no matter how minor, is fully developed—full character descriptions, inner thoughts, dreams for the future, etc, even if that character has no future to speak of. In Desperation, King used the same character names, as in the Regulators. Plus, he's in a band with Dave Barry. That’s genius. But not every writer can mold to this method.
Ayelet, the self-proclaimed Bad Mother (who, despite her name, comes off as eminently and refreshingly human and not in any way a dangerous maternal figure) writes about having met the King of Horror Literature through her husband Michael Chabon, author of the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the new novel The Final Solution. But more amazing than an author meeting an author is a meeting like the one she describes on her blog:
It turns out that all over the country in response to Columbine kids are being prosecuted ... yes PROSECUTED ... for writing fiction. Now, I understand the fear. I understand the horror of the shoot out. What I don't get is the response. My response to Columbine is to wonder what is wrong with a culture that so ostracizes and alienates a child that he ends up so crazy. What is wrong with the mentality of a high school where kids are made to feel so bitterly freakish and outlawed? Instead, we fixate on the kid writing the fiction. Instead of worrying about what's going on in his head, instead of feeling his pain and wondering at its source, we arrest him. Instead of stopping the bullying, we target the bullied.
Michael had a brilliant response to this. He decided to teach a class at 826 Valencia in horror and dark fantasy writing...for teenagers. He told Stephen King about it, and this incredibly famous man, this man with a million things to do, a million commitments, a million demands on his time, said, "Dude, you teach that class, and I'll be there."On the last day of class, he was there. As a surprise guest. You should have seen the kids' faces. They were out of their minds. When he told them that he was an amateur, just like them, they scribbled in their notebooks. When he asked them what they wrote, what their techniques were, you could see their self-confidence expand before your eyes. It was amazing.
Stephen King is giving back, inspiring the next generation of writers, and providing encouragement to the students who need it most. Ayelet said it first, but I’ll second the motion. King’s not just the king. He’s also a mensch.