One of my closest friends, a big-time Stephen King reader is both a writer and a painter. When we talk she’d sometimes tell me about the hours she spent trying to get a single stroke right only to end the rant with, “but a writer’s job is tougher any day.” Why, I’d ask her.
“Because,” she’d say, “with writing you’re trying to create a 3-dimensional experience in a one-dimensional space. That’s probably why so many people suck at writing!” (Not sure if she’s quoting somebody here.)
So this post isn’t about Carrie or Cujo or Salem’s Lot or The Shining even. It isn’t about King’s greatest inventions – Satan turning into Randall Flagg or Danny’s ‘shining’ that enables him to experience premonitions. This post is neither about Carrie’s telekinetic powers that she uses to destroy the town of Chamberlain in Maine nor about good and evil fighting for the possession of survivors’ souls after a biological holocaust. This isn’t about petrifying, paranormal forces that take over people or property or about seemingly good people turning to evil or becoming evil in a terrifying world where science fiction meets horror. Instead, this is about how the King creates those worlds.
My friend urged me to read ‘On Writing: A Memoir of The Craft’ and the line that almost always comes to me when I begin to try to write anything at all is this:
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination but must finish in the reader’s.”King reminds us that writers must create a sensory and movie-like experience for the reader. Using only language the writer must show that it’s a chirp, not a tweet, it is shock not fear, it is memory not a dream, it’s an awkward silence between people, not temporarily mute characters suspended in a vacuum and that everything is happening somewhere, at some point in time, in a setting so real that you’ve seen it before in your head even before you’ve seen it in the movies. So how did the King establish himself as the master of the horror genre? While it may be right to say that it all began with Carrie, it might make sense to go back in time and ‘visit’ King as a teenager. By his own admission, he did not grow up reading ‘Spiderman’ or ‘The Hulk’ but ‘Tales of The Crypt’ and ‘The Vaultkeeper’. A natural inclination towards a particular genre takes you to a point but combine that with incredible talent, and you have a King. Even after reading a short story like ‘Children of The Corn’ (about a couple stuck in a small, deserted town after running over the corpse of a young boy) you’ll want to sleep with the lights on. It’s his phenomenal ability to create great scenes, the small scary scene, the big scary scene, all of which that adds up to the whole novel.
From all around the children were coming. Some of them were laughing gaily. They held knives, hatchets, pipes, rocks, hammers. One girl, maybe eight, with beautiful long blonde hair, held a jack handle.
All aspiring writers are asked to read, read and read to better their craft. ‘On Writing’ is a great place to start. The book is divided into five sections and contains stellar writing advice interspersed with autobiographical accounts of Stephen King’s life before he got published; how the manuscript he abandoned in a dustbin was rescued by his wife only to turn into Carrie (!), how he dealt with alcohol abuse, the death of his mother who succumbed to uterine cancer, the relationship with his wife and other personal anecdotes that shape his creative practice and what comes out of it all – great, great stories – it’s all in there. Above all, he argues that the story is more important than anything else.
Yet there’s the question that people hush-hush about: is he literary “enough”? To be honest, I don’t understand this question entirely. Do they mean that it’s one thing to make it to bestselling genre-fiction book lists but what about transcending it all and making it to the evergreen, classic, literary 100-Greatest-Books-You-Must-Definitely-Read-Before-You-Die list? Or do they mean that he doesn’t merely celebrate language and human life, human spirit and behaviour that literary fiction often tends to do? I am not sure.
But strangely I do know the answer to a question that I don’t entirely understand and it is this: he doesn’t care. Neither should you for the King is a man who has written 54 novels (including 7 under his pen name Richard Bachman), that have in all sold more than 350 million copies worldwide, books that have been made into tele-series and blockbuster movies, stories that have been read and reread, novels that have won him numerous awards and praise and if you’re still in doubt ask yourself this: when was the last time you created another world?