Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Victor LaValle has a knack for colliding the mundane and the horrific in works that marry fantasy with social realism. In his last novel, The Devil in Silver, the uncanny horrors of an asylum are shown to be the product of late-capitalist decline. His latest offering, a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, continues this journey into darkness with a “love letter-slash-rebuke” to H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of a particular brand of dark fantasy, and an author who is enjoying a kind of revival that remembers his work while reviling his racism.
The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook.” While absent Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, “The Horror at Red Hook” features vague glimpses of supernatural horrors, “half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” But these supernatural horrors are clearly symbols for Lovecraft’s more mundane terrors: the increasingly diverse inhabitants of New York. Red Hook’s real horror, for Lovecraft, “is a babel of sound and filth,” a population that is “a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.” This supernatural horror as allegory for virulent racism is what has increasingly tarnished Lovecraft’s legacy, and what makes LaValle’s rebuke so sharp.
Unlike Lovecraft’s story, The Ballad of Black Tom is resistant, like all of LaValle’s work, to allegory. Black Tom, both the hero and the villain of this novella, delivers LaValle’s rebuke to Malone, the police officer who is the protagonist of “The Horror at Red Hook,” and who shares the center of LaValle’s revision with Black Tom himself. Tommy Tester, as Black Tom is known at the beginning of the book, is seduced by the supernatural in part out of a desire for revenge. A small-time, self-described hustler, Tommy lands on the wrong side of a pair of detectives, who turn out to represent a much more terrifying evil than any ancient god, killing Tommy’s father in his bed and justifying the killing by claiming to have seen a gun. This murder, sanctioned by the same ugliness that motivated Lovecraft’s work, quite explicitly drives Tommy to Lovecraft’s supernatural realm, “Outside,” a terrifying world invisible to those without knowledge of the occult. At the end, Tommy, now Black Tom, tells Malone, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”
I spoke with LaValle about his lexicon of horror and how it shapes his thinking about narrative and language (during a reading at McNally Jackson promoting his novel Big Machine, he screened 12 minutes of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Representing monsters is one of LaValle’s strengths, from the Devils of the Marsh in Big Machine to the buffalo-headed demon that torments New Hyde hospital in The Devil in Silver. Not surprisingly, LaValle’s monster references come from an exhaustive knowledge of horror. “A few summers ago I reread the first six or seven Stephen King novels,” he told me. “In Salem’s Lot, there’s a moment when the main character finally, finally, finally sees the vampire, the count. And he does this amazing thing. He’s brought you — with all the tension — up to the house, this abandoned house, and then the guy breaks into the house, and he’s going up the stairs, and then there’s the moment when it appears — and I’ve noticed he does this all the time — he then picks a thing that is disgusting or horrifying, or weird, but is completely normal, realist…So he might say, the Count came out and it felt like when a cat licks you on the back of your hand with its tongue. It burns at your skin and sort of cuts. And the point is not that he’s seven feet tall and has fangs, it’s that you probably know what this feeling of the cat tongue is, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. And it’s visceral.”
That visceral horror of suggestion is quite different from Lovecraft, who tends toward the overblown: “In the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” This couldn’t be more of a departure from Tommy Tester’s Harlem cool: “This is how you hustle the arcane.” I ask about this contrast, and about Lovecraft’s appeal. I began reading him in my early teens, as did LaValle, yet if I tried to include prose like Lovecraft’s in my courses for first- and second-year college students, I’m sure they would rebel. LaValle theorizes that Lovecraft’s tone — “someone who comes in and says, like, ‘THE WORLD IS SO BIG!!!!’” — is “not cool” for people at the skeptical ages of 19 or 20: “I had friends who would laugh at me at 14 or whatever because I loved Lovecraft, and then they turn around and love The Smiths. And it’s the same thing!”
LaValle’s horror lexicon allows The Ballad of Black Tom to pay homage to its source, while also transcending Lovecraft’s own paranoia, in which throngs of immigrants overrun the good, “Aryan,” in his word, inhabitants of New York, using supernatural horrors as allegory for overwhelming racist paranoia. I ask whether LaValle thinks that good horror is possible without Lovecraftian allegory, without a pathological fear: “I can’t think of any good horror, any horror that has lasted with me that isn’t based on some kind of ugly terror.” But LaValle expects more of existential terror: “One of the reasons that ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ is not one of his best is because he doesn’t do quite enough of the magic.” Pathological fear should be universal, LaValle thinks. “His really good stories, are also about a lot of fear, but the fear might be about the fear of the scientific revolution going on at the time. Even if he loved it and he was himself an atheist, it still rattled him to find out, or have proof of the insignificance of humanity in the larger realm of things. But by embodying it in Cthulhu or in the Old Ones and all this stuff, he finds a way to not just have a guy sit around saying, like, ‘isn’t it crazy! We’re insignificant!’”
The racism underlying “Red Hook” is too parochial to resonate; LaValle’s paraphrase is apt: “I’m being rattled in my cage by my fear of non-whites, and my fear of human insignificance. Here’s a giant octopus head.” LaValle’s assertion of ownership doesn’t supersede Lovecraft, but rather situates him, forcing him out into the violent, messy world he was so afraid of, showing him what’s really frightening.
LaValle’s current work-in-progress is about the particular, modern terrors of the Internet, dealing with fears at once more benign and ubiquitous than the monsters of The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom. The new book is about parents posting pictures of their children on Facebook, something he does regularly. “It’s about the technology but really even more particularly it’s about what are the ways that we volunteer to lose control or we choose to open a door to monsters. You know, a vampire can’t enter your home unless you invite it in, that kind of thing.” True to form, however, LaValle is quick to see through any moralizing about whether or not parents invite and thus deserve these monsters. Such moralism, LaValle observes, “is a way of policing each other,” and, in particular, a way of policing women. In the new book, “the father is more often than not applauded or rewarded for exactly the things that the mother is punished for.”
Finally, I ask whether we will see more work in this LaValle-Lovecraft universe. LaValle has said elsewhere that, although he intended Tommy Tester to die at the end of The Ballad of Black Tom, his editor suggested he leave things in a more ambiguous place. LaValle’s response is profoundly revealing in its reckoning with Lovecraft — not only the world he created, but the world in which he lived. While he expresses enthusiasm for supernatural ghost stories, the real monsters, the ones to which LaValle lays the strongest claim, are not imaginary: “There would be a certain pleasure in expanding that universe and continuing the story, continuing a story. And certainly there’s tons of ghosts. But there’s also human violence. So much violence. So many people getting shot up. Cut. Drowned. Die of drink. Die of cocaine. All this great stuff. What if you could take all of that in, Lovecraft too, and just say, ‘all of this is mine.’”
I am not the first to say this, but let me say this nonetheless: Thank God for the NYRB series of reissued books. This year, I was blown away by the gnomic brilliance of Speedboat by Renata Adler, which reminded me of Nathanael West, whom I then re-read and re-loved all over again, which got me into a Stanley Elkin kind of mood, so hello to The Dick Gibson Show and its sneaky joy with that particular brand of American language, and speaking of language, the opening of The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner was like a fever dream of delight, so after that I had to dip back into Pafko at the Wall by Don DeLillo, the standard bearer of sustained openings, after which I wisely — and in some cases unwisely — read the first book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and I fear for its minute infections, unlike Stoner by John Williams, downed a month later, which is such a quiet yet profound thrill in its distillation of a nothing special life that it seems inimitable and totally beyond me, like William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, which I should read again, maybe next year — oh, and P.S. I watched my 11-year-old son take in ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, pure delight, and my 10-year-old daughter puts in her vote for Wonder by R.J. Palacio.
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1.Back in 1975, Stephen King began ‘Salem’s Lot, his second novel, with an epigraph from George Seferis: “Old friend, what are you looking for?/ After those many years abroad you come/ With images you tended/ Under foreign skies/ Far away from your own land.” This summer, I settled down to read Joyland, something like the fiftieth novel Stephen King has published since he began his career forty years ago. I joke to no one in particular that Stephen King has an occult novel-writing machine, or a crack team of monkeys with keyboards, or a computer formula that writes his books for him, and Joyland does occasionally convey that quality of phoning it in; it just feels so easy for this guy. But it’s still a Stephen King book, which means it has a kicking story and a sentimental old heart. And since I seem destined, this summer, not to pick up a book or watch a movie or engage with any kind of artistic project without having some kind of maudlin experience or generally going through something, reading this nostalgic whodunit set in the lost world of the summer carnival launched me on my own nostalgic expedition. In Stephen King’s funhouse mirror, I saw all the other Stephen King books I have read since my childhood, under foreign skies, far away from my own land.
2.I am an only child and I grew up in a Foreign Service family, which means that my family picked up and moved every two to five years. Being a quasi-international child had a variety of effects, some transitory, some enduring. Foreign Service children, in my experience, inhabit a strange half-life of cosmopolitanism. Foreign words roll off their tongues, foreign foods succor them, and they are at home with thin toilet paper and thinner ketchup. But in the Foreign Service, your orientation is always in the direction of America, Washington D.C. or the Northern Virginia suburbs your magnetic pole. The very mission of the Foreign Service demands this, of course, and the logistics follow. Vacation is called “home leave”; in addition to all their assorted relatives, most people have some property back home, a building that they fret over and find tenants for and supply with new coats of paint on their short weeks stateside.
The orientation is spiritual as well as practical; overseas, I wore out VHS tapes my grandparents sent me, so that a select handful of episodes of 3-2-1 Contact, Reading Rainbow, and Sesame Street are seared into such a precious, way-back corner of my brain that should I dare to Google for a vignette of skating muppets singing “Feliz Navidad,” I would probably have a stroke.
When I was a little girl in Athens (the first of our postings during which I was a sentient being for any prolonged period), this orientation west to the white dome, combined with the distance therefrom and the relative scarcity of things—products mostly—that are unfailingly associated with America, meant that for me the United States became imbued with an unspeakable glamour. It goes without saying (but I will say) that I never lacked for amenities—the life I am describing was a gift from my parents and divine Providence. That said, amenities-wise, the United States was the navel of the universe.
I had some early object lessons in globalization, imperialism, and the profound power of marketing. When the first McDonald’s opened in Syntagma square, there were lines around the block, and I rejoiced at the limp pickles on my hamburger. When Wendy’s set up shop in a grand old peach-colored building nearby—formerly housing the American Office of Defense Cooperation, now housing a mall—it was a goddamned revelation (it’s not there anymore, evidently; the franchise pulled out of Greece in 2009). But there were still things I wanted. I remember hoarding dollar bills for the purpose of buying a book on home leave. To my knowledge it is still the case that it is hard and expensive to get all the books in English you want overseas.
My enthusiasm wasn’t only on the material plane. One set of grandparents lived in the north-easternmost part of California in a very small town that feels pretty much like the edge of the world. I found this place so enchanting that I informed my grandparents of my plan to honeymoon there on the eventual occasion of my marriage. Sometimes I think I chose to roost in San Francisco largely due to the memory of that exotic scented air, snuffled up as we exited the airport to visit my other grandparents, who lived near the Bay.
Back in Washington after eight years of overseas living, I went to public school and listened to 99.1 WHFS and DC 101 and surreptitiously watched Roseanne and generally got to the business of acclimating. By the time my parents moved back overseas and I started high school in the U.S., the mild foreignness I had tried to slough off began to seem like an asset, and I embarked on the period I now think of as Working It. This involved a deft combination of encouraging any perception of foreign grandeur associated with my person, protesting too much about my normalcy, and scoring laughs off the Otherness of my new home (I’m sorry, Armenia, for the things I said).
Even after I embraced the foreign, however, sometimes the glamour of America reflected back at me in curious ways. At a store in Yerevan I bought Pink Floyd CDs and a Led Zeppelin album called Live Over America that I haven’t seen since. The first cigarettes I ever bought, before I wanted to smoke a cigarette but respected their currency, came from an open-air market and had red and blue packages and names like “American Dream.” Back in Athens before college with the new Euro cheaper than the dollar, I hit the summer sales for garments from Kookai and the heavenly Zara, and one day scored some New Balance sneakers of an unorthodox style. (In boarding school, where an entire female bourse operates around the borrowing of clothes, it’s good to have some stuff that no one else has.) I took the bus to a gleaming new cineplex in an Athenian suburb to watch American movies that, as the years passed, drew temporally ever-closer to their American release dates, the celebrity name transliterations on the marquis ever more sophisticated.
There is, obviously, nothing intrinsically interesting about an American with a passport and two pairs of genuine or otherwise New Balance kicks manufactured for a non-U.S. market. The world is full of meandering paths and displaced nationalities and people with much more exciting stories than my own. But your childhood is your childhood; as I get older, and the tables of circumstance turn, as I lose whatever light patina of foreignness I had or manufactured and there’s a Zara in every American mall and a McDonald’s in every city in the world, as I bemoan the garbage food and the garbage construction and the garbage policies of my country and yearn now for a seaside taverna and the glamour of Abroad, there are some early things that stick with me. I never see a 7-Eleven Big Bite and don’t instinctively desire to eat it. I know that Heinz ketchup is unmistakable and precious and that a “cheeseburger” anywhere else is to an American cheeseburger what the grotesquerie of pressed dust we find in America is to a gyro. I don’t use and barely deserve the driver’s license I have, but I deeply admire a hot car. A new paperback purchased with crisp American dollars? That’s bliss. A Stephen King book? That’s Shangri-La.
I’ve done the math, and somehow throughout this modestly peripatetic life, in the hotel lobbies and the airports and the back seat of the car and during idle moments at my series of illuminating summer jobs—visa office photographer, gas station attendant, commissary stockist, slide scanner—I managed to read more books by Stephen King than by any other writer. I remember vividly the row of Stephen King books on the shelf of the basement library in the American Embassy Athens, a fortified Bauhaus dream downtown. Reading Joyland this summer, and then plowing through a handful of others for the second or third or fourth time, I was struck by how much of my conception of America comes from those thick books—what they said to me during that quasi-rootless time, and what they say to me now that both the vague internationalism and the natural solipsism of my childhood have mostly dissipated. For better or worse, I cut my patriotic teeth on the oeuvre of Stephen King.
3.I am hardly the first person to identify Stephen King as holding some claim to the title of America’s chief scribe. Nearly twenty years ago, Jonathan P. Davis wrote Stephen King’s America, an extended academic love poem to Stephen King as an author who “understood the human condition on all levels…who stood on the sacred ground of America…whose feelings about his country resonated throughout his fiction…” As with any attempt to distill the most somethingest traits of a given nation, the attributes typically end up being about things that are actually universal—among Davis’s areas of inquiry are “Technology,” “Childhood and Rites of Passage,” and “Survival in a Despairing World.” But I responded, as someone who has alternately fetishized and scorned my country of origin throughout my life, to Davis’s instinct to celebrate King as the great American writer of the late twentieth century.
The success of a novelist has to do with the extent to which his work allows the reader to lose herself in the story, but the novels that really resonate are the ones that also invite the reader to apply them to her particular circumstances. In my case, Stephen King books appealed to my lingering sense, even in high school, of America’s fundamental glamour, that feeling impelled both by the act of circumnavigating the globe broadly in the service of America’s aims, and the foreignness imparted by its distance. And they achieved several things besides scaring and entertaining the hell out of me. At some level, Stephen King novels issued a necessary corrective to my wanton teenage materialism and overweening belief in American goodness. They did their own kind of national myth-making.
In America and Americans, John Steinbeck’s dated, elegiac snapshot of American life in 1966, a book that in some ways encapsulates in non-fiction the portrait of America we find in Stephen King’s corpus, Steinbeck writes: “One of the characteristics most puzzling to a foreign observer is the strong and imperishable dream the American carries. On inspection, it is found that the dream has little to do with reality in American life. Consider the dream of and the hunger for home. The very word can reduce nearly all of my compatriots to tears.”
In The Stand, Larry Underwood looks around at the Maine coast, cleansed of people:
On either side of them the essence of honky-tonk beach resort had now enclosed them: gas stations, fried clam stands, Dairy Treets, motels painted in feverish pastel colors, mini-golf. Larry was drawn two painful ways by these things. Part of him clamored at their sad and blatant ugliness and at the ugliness of the minds that had turned this section of a magnificent, savage coastline into one long highway amusement park for families in station wagons. But there was a more subtle, deeper part of him that whispered of the people who had filled these places and this road during other summers. Ladies in sunhats and shorts too tight for their large behinds. College boys in red-and-black-striped rugby shirts. Girls in beach shifts and thong sandals. Small screaming children with ice cream spread over their faces. They were American people and there was a kind of dirty, compelling romance about them whenever they were in groups—never mind if the group was in an Aspen ski lodge or performing their prosaic-arcane rites of summer along US 1 in Maine.
In my adult grumpiness and the cold light of day, there are plenty of groups of Americans that I can take in without any pervading sense of their compelling romance, dirty or otherwise. But you can bet your ass I was receptive to this notion in my tender youth. Stephen King himself writes such a dirty, compelling romance that even now he breathes new life into that faded old vision of my homeland.
I would wager that most people who have heard of Stephen King know that he is from Maine; he grew up in Maine, he is a product of its schools, and little Maine towns, real or fictional, are where many of his worlds are built. (And Stephen King novels are all about world-building—although the publishers initially forced him to cut The Stand down to a reasonable size, the magisterial Complete and Uncut edition is one of his best books because it makes so much room for so many people, so many vignettes and backstories.) And even though Derry, à la It or Insomnia, or ‘Salem’s Lot from the novel of the same name, are characterized as being host to some enduring, elemental evil, this has an odd way of privileging place. These places are special.
Imagine knowing a place so well that you can write all of its inhabitants and landscape and make it feel so much like home, even home with something terrible lurking underneath. I think Stephen King books manage to appeal both to people who have experienced the tyranny and joy of the small town, as well as people who have known rootlessness in its many forms (not, of course, that the two are mutually exclusive). People in Stephen King novels are forever coming back to their hometowns after years away; no matter how long they are gone, they still know their physical and emotional topography.
The recurring characters and places, Mike Hanlon the librarian or the Secondhand Rose, Secondhand Clothes store, or even the Crimson King, contribute to that feeling that the world is just one big American town with all the same points of reference, where people read Misery Chastain novels and remember, or willfully forget, the fire at the Black Spot. (Even apart from the fast food chains springing up like toadstools across the globe, the nature of the Foreign Service, with its far-flung points of insularity, recalls a similar feeling. This will sound like Working It, but I once walked past a man on the street in Yangon whose wedding I had attended in Yerevan a decade before.)
I love the Real Talk that comes out of the characters residing in these towns, things like “[he] looked and acted like the kind of man who would ride his help and bullyrag them around but lick up to his superiors like an egg-suck dog.” They remind me of things that my beloved grandpa said or was said to have said, how he might describe someone as looking like “forty miles of bad road.”
Stephen King’s novels transmit deeper things than hometown nostalgia. As Johathan P. Davis points out in his book, much of King’s work is concerned with the American devotion, in theory at any rate, to individual liberty. When King isn’t being gross, with his bone splinters and clots of blood and patented semantic move of creating an appalling noun just by adding the word “meat” to the back of another one—e.g., “boymeat” or “greymeat”—he spends a lot of time on the freedoms of the individual. Glenn Bateman, the retired sociology professor of The Stand, spends most of the novel talking about the formation of society and the tension between freedom and social cohesion. When, at the end of that novel, spunky Fran and Stu, a laconic badass from East Texas, make the choice to leave the crowding and rules of the Boulder Free Zone for the rugged, dangerous liberty of the Maine coast, this is posited as a sensible choice, one that only a couple of badasses would make.
In Insomnia, when the yuppie, city-living children of Lois Chasse try to pry her out of her hometown and install her in a retirement community with “a Red Diet Plan, a Blue Diet Plan, a Green Diet Plan, and a Yellow Diet Plan,” her beau Ralph “thought of eating three scientifically balanced meals a day for the rest of his life—no more sausage pizzas from Gambino’s, no more Coffee Pot sandwiches, no more chiliburgers from Mexico Mike’s—and found the prospect almost unbearably grim” (sometimes, freedom has a little bit to do with a Big Bite). Ralph prefers to die like his friend Jimmy V., without having to “show anyone either his driver’s license or his Blue Cross Major Medical card.” And then there are the abused women Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder, who declare their independence through a vale of blood.
Ostensibly, every person spends his or her days in the exercise of whatever freedoms are afforded them, but America is famously a place where this individual liberty is (ostensibly) enshrined in founding documents meant to govern a collective whole—it’s a nation of people living out their manifest destiny. Nobody understands, and in a sense reifies, this paradox like Stephen King. King disdains in his books the smug and unshakeable belief in personal rightness (he really has it in for yuppies), but he allows for a specialness that in many cases is literally divine—Dick Hallorann or Danny Torrance in The Shining, or Tom Cullen in The Stand, or any number of other characters endowed with exceptional ability, typically a clarity of vision, by some higher power. This is the kind of thing that really appeals to a child, especially an only child. I think it also resonates for good and ill with someone in a Foreign Service environment, which embodies a kind of exceptionalism, with its security doors and special badges and Fourth of July parties and commissaries filled with imported goods.
Stephen King believes in the individual; while his work battles what Steinbeck called “the screwball organizations which teach hatred and revenge to the ignorant and fearful people, using race or religion as the enemy,” he devotes a lot of pages to what Steinbeck likewise calls “the pleasant, benign, and interesting screwballs…poets in flowing robes, inventors of new religions…” without whom we would be “a duller nation.” King recognizes all of these screwballs as the real nobility of America. Often, they are teachers: in Insomnia, a character opines, “I think this country is full of geniuses, guys and gals so bright they make your average card-carrying MENSA member look like Fucko the Clown. And I think most of them are teachers, living and working in small-town obscurity because that’s the way they like it.”
That’s American Dream talk, but I think a lot of Americans have a person like this somewhere up in their family tree. Isn’t King himself the best testament? For all the pompous literary types he tears down in his work (like the Creative Writing Honors Seminar instructor in It, who calls the writer Bill Denbrough’s horror stories “PULP” and “CRAP”), King sprinkles good teachers all over his work, along with other varieties of “benign screwballs” who, we suspect with folksy assurance, would do a sight better job of running the country than the people we pay to do the job.
The best patriots are always the most fiercely critical of their countries, and the critical difference between Stephen King and the big-gun schlock that he often shares space with in airport newsstands, is that Stephen King’s writing is a sustained exercise in pointing out the crappy and the horrifying things we all subscribe to by living out our American, and human, existence. Steinbeck wrote that in America, “Fortunes are spent getting cats out of trees and dogs out of sewer pipes; but a girl screaming for help in the street draws only slammed doors, closed windows, and silence.” Stephen King uses his stortytelling talents to counter this silence, to show us the worst things about the folks next door and, by extension, ourselves. King has hard words for the government, which does things like wipe out civilization with a series of evil fuckups, but many of his monsters and things that go bump in the night are actually the residents of ordinary little towns, which shelter wifebeaters and molesters and racists and complacent assholes. These characters aren’t always bad because they’re evil; sometimes they are weak and stupid, uncharitable, feeling sorry for themselves over a slight from a woman or a group. Sometimes they’re just the beneficiaries of a hard row without the gumption and can-do to hoe it.
When a man is locked up briefly for assaulting his wife in Insomnia, a citizen asks “‘How can assault be a misdemeanor?…I’m sorry, but I never did understand that part.’ ‘It’s a misdemeanor when you only do it to your wife,’ McGovern said, hoisting his satiric eyebrow. ‘It’s the American way, Lo.'” Stephen King talks about other things that comprise the American way. The evil presence living under Derry enriches itself on the pre-existing condition, so to speak, of its citizens. When the fire at the Black Spot—a nightclub built by the black soldiers on the nearby military base—burns scores of people alive, it was the sheet-clad town fathers, not the alien spider, who set the blaze.
On race (and gender), Stephen King has taken and acknowledged some very valid criticism. In his rush to write the whole America, he is basically one hundred percent responsible for the modern incarnation of the Magical Negro, for example in the character of The Stand’s Mother Abagail, a rustic lady Moses who communes with the Lord and walks uphill and back both ways to fix a good supper for her guests. King himself, in a Playboy interview quoted in Davis’s book, called Mother Abagail and The Shining’s Dick Hallorann “cardboard caricatures of superblack heroes, viewed through rose-tinted glasses of white liberal guilt…” This is actually another part of my strange inheritance from Stephen King’s work. Sometimes the hardest lesson about racism is that it’s not always the guy in the sheet. Some discussions about race (beyond the easy ones like laughing at pictures of latter-day Klan members) and some articles about the number of black characters in Girls make me anxious and clammy.
In spite of these faults, there are worse primers on American life than a Stephen King novel, worse pieces of propaganda to absorb. Steinbeck said of the so-called American way of life, “No one can define it or point to any one person or group who lives it, but it is very real nevertheless…These dreams describe our vague yearnings toward what we wish were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.” I don’t feel that way all of the time, but during a summer spent getting reacquainted with Stephen King, between the nostalgia and blood clots and things that go bump in the night, for a moment or two I entertained the possibility.
Image Credit: Pexels/John-Mark Smith.