Many of you will have heard the name of Stephen King at one time or another. What many will know of him: is that he writes horror fiction, and that many of his books have been adapted into films, most notably the classic The Shining, brought to life by Jack Nicholson’s legendary performance.
What some of you will not know is that he’s also a literary genius.
It’s not lightly I use this term. I’ve read fairly widely – I’m something of a polymath – and I remember things better than an elephant when it comes to poetry, music, film and literature. Ask me what T-shirt I wore yesterday and I’ll pause, but ask me what happens in Book 3 of Paradise Lost, or at the end of Cloud Atlas, and I can do that. When it comes to art, I retain all the jigsaw pieces.
A lot of my friends get irritated because I dismiss most of modern ‘Literary Fiction’ (an arbitrary genre term, as it is time and people, not the marketing strategists who decide what can be called literature and what can’t). However, that is not to say that I don’t like all modern writing. In fact, I like some modern writing more than I can really express.
King’s Cujo has to be one of the most astounding short novels I have read in a long time. It was so astounding that I read it in two days, and I’m normally a slow and pensive reader. King is infamous for writing epics: 1000-page monoliths with thousands of characters and hundreds of threads which he expertly weaves together. Cujo is different. It harks back to his earlier novels like Misery and Carrie (his debut), with a small cast of very well drawn characters and one rabid dog that might just be more than it seems.
The novel cracks on at a frightening pace. There are no chapters, not really any divisions of any kind apart from switches in character perspectives, and at the heart of it all, is the image of the ‘thing in the closet’. In fact, one might argue whether the thing in the closet, that age old human fear which King perfectly encapsulates, was not the root and origin of the whole novel, and that every subsequent image stems from that.
As children we all fear that something is going to come out of the closet, and in many ways this is as Freudian as it gets. The cupboard is a hidden space where we keep our things. It looks pretty in the day and has all your neatly ordered clothes – aspects of yourself. But at night, it leads somewhere else, to dark places and dark things, and even adults can sometimes feel the fear of the closet at night if they wake with a start and there are shadows about.
King not only harbours this age old fear, but he also subverts what is normally a positive image and converts it into utmost terror. The household pet, in Britain and America, is seen as a staple of contentment, happiness, children playing. King takes the household pet and makes it a monster, a monster that is explicable and yet also linked to something inexplicable. And it is the inexplicable that we fear. One has to wonder what men like Dawkins are running from with their quest to rationalise the universe.
In terms of literary technique, I’d say that synaesthesia and motif plays a key part in his success. Synaesthesia is the ability to understand once sense in the context of another. For example, one of my favourite uses is “the rancid sound of the accordion burst” – a line from the Jacque Brell song Amsterdam. “Rancid” is used to describe a taste, not a sound, but we all know what rancid music might sound like, don’t we? We all understand synaesthesia, it’s one of the things that defines us as human and not animal, but being able to create synaesthesia that works, is a mark of genius. King uses this technique masterfully when describes the apparition of the dark wolf in Tad’s closet as having a ‘rotting voice’. I’ve heard of rotting flesh, rotting breath, rotting eyes – but I’ve never heard of a rotting voice before. And what’s more, is I know exactly what one would sound like… *shivers*.
Similarly, metaphor seems to come into his writing effortlessly. There is a scene with Tad’s father, Vic, where he breaks down into tears. The narrative shifts to describe the last time he cried, when he was sixteen, and that ‘It had been more like bleeding than crying’. That phrase does a colossal amount of work in a short space. To imagine tears that are so painful they are more like bleeding rends the heart of the reader, and it’s also somewhere we’ve all been before.
King’s style is not as sparse as a lot of modern slipstream writers. Or rather the sparseness is broken up by his longer and more syntactically complex sentences. His use of image is similarly elevated – and he often uses certain specific images and language to associate with certain characters and demonstrates shifts in their attitudes or thoughts with the imagery, rather than with blunt explanations, an example of ‘showing’ and not ‘telling which gives even more credence to his craft.
As you can probably tell, King is a hero of mine: something of an idol, but when I first heard of him, I dismissed him as a cheap horror writer (without having ever read any of his books). But when you consider he has an entire shelf of his own in Waterstones, and that reportedly he is close to outselling Shakespeare, one starts to wonder if there is something in him that needs to be paid attention to. Many of the world’s greatest authors were popular. It is a modern myth that unreadable “literary” fiction is the only true literature: books like James Joyce’s Ulysseys which is only of interest to academics who enjoy nosebleeds. Yet, Dickens, Tolkien, Austen, Shakespeare, were all popular in their day. Sure, there are writers that were once popular, like Samuel Richardson who wrote Pamela, who now no one really cares about. I’m sure Meyer’s Twilight will be in the same category.
But there are also writers who are popular for a reason.
And King, to my mind, is most assuredly one of them.
So, if you’re interested in literature and have never read one of his books before, why not check him out? I don’t have to give you a link because he is everywhere.
Cheers for now!