Tag Archives: Stephen King

A Problem with Stephen King

It is all summed up in the handy chart below (source linked to the image). You see, at some point he started referring to his own works a little, and fans thought it was great, all sorts of stuff was happening in the same ‘world’ but ultimately I think it is a sign of staleness. This and yet another ‘Dark Tower’ novel really shows only one thing: none of these are really new ideas, they are tumors on one or two original ideas that were very cool indeed. The very first Dark Tower novel ‘The Gunslinger’ is really quite good, the whole series is far too long. The story is like a radical regenerative from Orson Scott Card’s Treason. It has a lovely arm or face, but it also has 4 legs and three other arms and an extra head growing off its spine… You can chart below to pick stories, anyone you don’t find on this chart like The Green Mile (or only has one outbound connection like The Eyes of the Dragon or Lisey’s Story is perhaps its own story. (Links obviously.. should be obvious… go to Amazon since those three books are actually worth reading. Insomnia doesn’t get a link because it is terrible and I could only manage a few pages before my insomnia was cured forever…)
Stephenh-King-Universe-FLowchart-900px

One final note: the fact that most SK works take place in Maine and even similar places in Maine is not, in itself, any problem. He knows Maine well, and so he writes about the people convincingly….

Ghost Story

So the other night I watched The Woman in Black and that started me thinking about ghost stories in general. For instance, I cannot figure out why people in ghost stories always run behind doors and lock them, they aren’t keeping out zombies. Ghosts can obviously appear behind you anywhere, they are haunting a location, that location is their playground, so beating a traditional ghost is simple… LEAVE! However, I am not actually hear to snark on the genre, it is too convention filled to mock. I like conventions in stories, like the grand sagas and ballads all had plot conventions. No, I found some parts of the film interesting from an altogether different viewpoint.

The Woman in Black is set in the late 1800’s and it set me thinking about this era, the Lunatic laws, the loss of faith in Europe, Matthew Arnold, and then back to the ghost story. The ghost in question was the mother of a little boy who was proclaimed a lunatic and had her son taken away. (See G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils)The film makes fairly clear that before her son was taken she was mostly normal, if a little obsessive. But as she is further and further removed from their son, she goes crazier and crazier until her son is lost in the marsh and his adoptive parents (her sister and brother-in-law) escape the car but desert the boy to the quicksand. So she hangs herself and becomes the ghost of the story, who is a ghost of horrible vengeance, who drives the children of the neighboring town to kill themselves.
Enter the hero, with his Victorian sentimentality. Once convinced his own son is in danger, he dredges up the body of the boy, and lays it in the tomb with his mothers body… which has no effect on the ghost at all. And thus we see the people of an industrial age, having lost their faith, and willing to believe in anything. The hero talks in vague terms about his dead wife waiting for him, and others toss about half-believed platitudes about souls going up to heaven, but no body believes anything, and everybody is grasping for something to believe.

Enter Matthew Arnold and Dover Beach.

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast, the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

So what interested me most about The Woman in Black was the final score. Ghost: at least 12, Sentimentality: 0. So I thought of another, this time American ghost story rather than a Victorian one. Bag Of Bones by Stephen King. (If you read it, it is pretty good just be ready to skip some pages when King gets horrible describing in minute detail the origin of the ghost.) In this case, the ghost takes a few children from each generation, all with names starting with ‘K’ as revenge for her child. However our hero is an impractical enough person to realize that a ghost seeking more and more vengeance cannot be satisfied. (A sentimental mistake of the Victorian lawyer who was the hero of The Woman in Black.) Our hero in this case, once he realizes that there is indeed a ghost, and a particular, very sweet little girl is the target (name starts with ‘K’ and descended from original villain from a century ago.) he comes up with a practical American plan, find the body of the ghost woman and pour lye on the bones… which works for the story. Ghost: Several every generation, Practical hero: 1. A much better score, for a different culture.
However, I leave you with a great very short ghost story. This one is quite good. (The ghost doesn’t do any killing… so there isn’t much scoring I can do…)
Andrew Klavan’s The Advent Reunion. Here is video one of about 6. Do listen, it is well done.

The Harloth-tìrath: and Other Rules of Fantasy

In view of the upcoming third annual novel contest at ACM, I figured I would start a ‘rules for genres’ theme. These things are those things that I find distract the reader and are hallmarks of poor writing. I don’t know how many potential applicants might read this blog, and this post and upcoming posts. However, I will remind those reading that I am a judge for this competition and a mentor for several finalists each year. (Finalists in the competition have a few months to work with an assigned judge to rework their manuscript. Us mentors do not read for grammar, but try to help the author eschew distractions, tighten the story, and make it even more interesting.) And of course, many authors in the library fantasy section are blatant violators of these rules…

Without more introduction, I will plunge right into this post’s topic: Rules for Fantasy. Of course the rules are ‘more like guidelines’ but the higher the number of broken rules and the more egregiously they are flaunted the more likely the book (that you are reading or writing) is not worth the time.  Fiction in general has rules like: Don’t treat your reader like an idiot, they can remember things from page to page. Follow the rules you make. Characters must be true to the personality you gave them, if they change there must be a reason. (Having characters acting or talking out of character is a terrible jolt for the reader.) etc.

Here are three rules for good fantasy: (For instance: The Eyes of the Dragon)

1. No Elves (Or dwarves, or shadow/fire demons …)

In general, as soon as elves appear, the story becomes transparent. Inserting mythical beasts, alternate races of sentient beings, this all has either the campy feel of fan-fiction or the plagiaristic feel of… plagiarism. In general, stories with elves use them to distract from the gaping inanity of the plot or boring meagerness of the characters.

This rule applies even to those stories that do not explicitly have elves. If there is a set of people, or a race of people, who have elvish characteristics, it has almost the same effect. For example, Orson Scott Card (who has some really good works) has a series about Alvin Maker which start with the book Seventh Son. The first book or two are good, but then, all of a sudden, it turns out that the Indian tribes are actually very, very, elf like (in tune with nature, special woodland related powers, odd and profound wisdom… everything except pointy ears.) At that exact moment, the books begin to spiral down and down into ever more vapid displays of cliché.  (And I usually like O.S.C.)

So, in summary, Tolkien used elves because he was brilliant. Everyone else who does so, seems to do it because they lack an imagination of their own. Until such a time when I read a novel (other than Tolkein) with both elves and originality, I will believe this the immutable first rule of fantasy.

2. No invented languages

Unless the author is a philologist, brilliant, and Tolkien, invented languages are just nuisance and pretentions. Tolkien actually invented languages with strict and realistic grammar based off of the ancient languages he was master of like old Norse, old Welsh etc. etc. When reading any other book that has an invented language, it is distracting and unconvincing. It is very like the author thought, ‘well gee… what should I call this? I know… I will call it the klåkkakûla. (K’s are for dwarvish… it’s a convention of bad fantasy.) The same thing in elvish is harloth-tìrath, and in the ancient language of Man: ombundium, and in orcish: zkartzik…. English? you ask. In English it means ‘boring’.

3. Last rule for now. You cannot give straight off, modern sensibilities to characters in a fantasy world. This rule is even more important for historical fiction, and dystopian fiction. However, in fantasy, it would be generally jarring to meet a sexually liberated communist feminist in a world of swords and patriarchy. Basically, your setting has to feel self-consistent, and if you put your characters into a historical-like setting, the people need to be believable too. This does not mean that the women in your story have to be non-entities, or in the metaphorical kitchen. (Witness Eowyn, and back further, Britomart, and even further to Antigone.) Just let your characters speak in a ‘real’ fashion, without the idioms and platitudes of modern speech.

Now, of course these rules can be broken. And if anyone reading this wants to submit a story that breaks one or two of these rules or whatever, of course that is fine. Just remember that you cannot break these rules in lieu of plot, interesting characters, originality, and conflict.  For those who do submit a novel, semifinalists get good solid feedback, and finalists get rigorous feedback, and winners… well they win.

Update: A negative example just occurred to me. The horribly plagiarist and predictable Eregon books are violators of every rule here, and then some. If you want to know what garbage looks like when transmuted into fiction, they are a prime example.

Book List

I generally eschew genre labels, since they mislead and prejudice the reader’s mind. So here is a list of good books to read in the best order I can think of… as they come to mind.

Lisey’s Story, Stephen King
War in Heaven, Charles Williams
All Hallows Eve, Charles Williams
The Sands of Mars, Arthur C. Clarke
Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
Youth, Isaac Asimov
Phantasties, George MacDonald
Lilith, George MacDonald
Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis
Desperation, Stephen King
The Worthing Saga, Orson Scott Card
Salem’s Lot, Steven King
A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor
A Sense of Reality, Grahame Greene
In Freedom’s Cause, G. A. Henty
Roverandum, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Smith of Wootton Major, J. R. R. Tolkien
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, Robert Lewis Stevenson
Kidnapped, R. L. Stevenson
The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott
The Ballad of the White Horse, G. K. Chesterton
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton
The Flying Inn, G. K. Chesterton
Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis
The Red Rover, James Fenimore Cooper
The Pilot, James Fenimore Cooper
The Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper
The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck
If I Forget Thee, O Earth, Arthur C. Clarke
The Green Mile, Stephen King

Of course, this list is not exhaustive at all, I just felt the need for some list making…

Stephen King

Obviously, Stephen King could have many blogs dedicated to nothing more than discussing and reviewing his books, their ideas and so forth. I am also quite sure that a good number of his works will appear here in the future. However, I have found that many people  (especially Christian women) immediately dismiss King as an author obsessed with horror and horrible things and therefore not worth reading. I have two different replies to this belief but for now, I will mention only one. (The other is its own point entirely.)

There certainly are many examples of vile and disgusting books by King, and many more that have so much objectionable content they seem to overflow with it. I attribute this to King having a split author’s personality. You could say that it depends on which King writes the book. Examples of books with nothing good in them, and with nothing true (in the ultimate sense) other than that man is evil, that they are not worth reading. Such titles include Cujo, Gerald’s Game, and Under the Dome. Unless the reader wishes to be revolted by the depths of human depravity and expects nothing more, these books can be safely left at the library. A slightly different case might be Pet Semetary a book so creepy it holds the award for being the only book to ever keep me up an entire night. Certainly the book had little in the way of redeeming characteristics, but it was well written, engrossing, and it showed the result of people trying to fight true evil on their own.

In stark contrast to these books, there are many books that are truly good. (I have not done a census, but I think these outnumber the other category.) In fact, there are books that King has written that really touch deep into the human soul. In his Dark Tower series King puts himself in it in the last book. (Probably to be discussed in its own review.) In it, King writes that his character has to keep writing the stories that the ‘Beam’ sings to him. For those who have not yet read the Dark Tower series, I certainly recommend it, but the beam is what hold all the various worlds together, King’s muse. And there are so very many times when reading King’s works that the reader can hear the song the muse has sung to him. This is an incredible talent and an absolutely amazing experience for a reader: something I would not miss at all. Books that sing the song of mankind, of its greatness, of its tragedy, of its ability and futility are rare, and King has several. Among those I found to be clearest are: The Eyes of the Dragon, The Green Mile, Lisey’s Story, The Dark Tower series (all 7!), Desperation The Shining, and others.

Of course there are some books between these two sides, and that leads me to my recommendation on how to read Stephen King. Pick up a book, any book, and read the first chapter, by then you should be able to tell which of King’s personalities wrote the book. If you don’t like it, throw it to the floor, if you think it is worth a shot, persist, and listen for the song of the beam!

If you have never read King before, I recommend starting with either The Eyes of the Dragon or The Green Mile. The former is very similar in style to C.S. Lewis, and the latter is deep and moving. Neither show King’s inclination for gratuitous horror or ‘literary elephantiasis’ as I think he put it himself.