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Posts Tagged ‘stephen king’

I love origin stories. It doesn’t matter in what form. Comic book heroes, scientists, the construction of the Panama Canal, the first shot fired during any war on any continent. There’s something about how a person or event first became inspired or first began that captivates me. I’ve never turned this inward and thought of how I decided to eventually spend my free time telling myself stories at a typewriter or computer.

The reasons are simple on the surface. Mostly because it was painful and confusing to consider. Of course I, like any writer or anyone who creates or strives for anything, can pinpoint the moment. I can pinpoint the actual minute, the very second to be exact. But it’s not one of those stories you talk about over dinner. So I’ve tucked it away for years.

I dislike utilizing the personal narrative form, though I greatly enjoy reading others who do it well. I don’t trust it, and the practice seems self-indulgent, but I’m setting that aside to tell you about the evening I was forced to throw my books away twenty-three years ago.

Between 1985 and 1987 I read a set of books I still hold collectively as my favorite books of all time. The set was called Childhoods of Famous Americans Series. Juvenile biographies of various people throughout history – Luther Burbank, Crispus Attucks, Knute Rockne, Eli Whitney, and so on. More than one hundred books. When I finished these I felt empty, as if a good friend had just told me he needed to be going, that he had to work tomorrow and it was getting late.

My father, a lifelong reader, thinker and eccentric, suggested I read “grownup” books once I had finished my beloved Famous Americans. He said Stephen King might be a good start and gave me a copy of Christine. Like many others, I became an avid fan. Over the next year I saved my dollar-a-day candy store allowance and bought what was available of King’s work, one book about every two weeks or so. Dad provided me with a bookshelf and my library was underway.

Reading, as it will, led to writing. My stories then were horror stories. Killer plants, haunted airplanes, and one story about a boy killed by a snowman. The story ends after a evening-long search for the missing boy turns up nothing and the next morning the snowman he had been building in the yard has melted revealing the boy who had been trapped inside and froze to death.

Go ahead and laugh. Of course I understand.

But my father did not laugh.

Unlike my prior stories, he gave no feedback or encouragement. He simply ordered me to take my books from the shelf and throw them away, specifically in a nearby creek that ran lively along the edge of the house. I pleaded. I cried. I finally begged. And when I saw it was going to do no good, I made one last request. I asked that he allow me to give the books to my cousin instead of throwing them away. The request was denied and he watched while I carefully placed the books into a garbage bag and followed me as I went to the creek bank.

It was dark and cold. I remember those moments at the creek dipping my hand again and again into the garbage bag with my basic senses. Dark, cold, numb, silent. I had moved a grown man to such emotion he felt it necessary to have me throw away my books. Me, a kid, having this power over a grown man, my father. And how? With words. Writing words on paper.

He had created a monster and a warlord and a rebel and a writer, and he had forged it from anger brought on by fear. I felt untouchable.

As you can imagine, the episode made me more determined. I wrote and wrote and continued to read. If my father had left me alone I may have well moved on to some other interest. I thanked him years later for forcing me to destroy my books. He thought I was being spiteful and mean. He misunderstood. I was and still am truly grateful.

Words on paper. Magic, real magic. My formative years, my origin story, my place of birth was along that creek bank in Pike County, Kentucky, watching a swollen paperback copy of Skeleton Crew dip under the water, drowning at my hands. In many ways I’m still there now, full of anger and determination. In many ways we’re all there.

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I’ve recently been reading the Dalkey Archive’s edition of Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Evil. It has been several years since I read any poetry, but I am enjoying this book, its discussions and ideas and references–particularly those references to works of literary fiction.

Svendsen’s thesis, basically stated, is that the concept of evil continues to have merit in our own time, that it is a persistent problem, and it is our duty as living beings to understand, acknowledge, and combat ‘evil.’ The first part of the book functions as an overview of the different philosophies regarding evil and goodness in the universe and how those philosophies have evolved over time. The next section largely discusses the Holocaust and the impact Holocaust studies have had on the concept of evil, in particular the so-called Banality of Evil and the idea of Stupid Evil.

Svendsen mentions, in the early course of the book, such diverse writers as Milton (whose Satan, Svendenson reminds us, became a hero for Romantics like William Blake as a sort of ‘freedom fighter’), Poe, Keats, Camus, Melville (whose villian Claggart hated Billy Budd simply for Billy’s sublime goodness), Dostoevsky, Thomas Harris, and Bret Easton Ellis.

It seems to me much of the fictional evil discussed in this book, at least those novels of the mid to late 20th century, are of the sort Poe first innovated, the lone maniac, the psychotic, the serial killer. Of these characters most likely Hannibal Lector is the most fascinating and the most important, although I would be hard pressed to call the works of Thomas Harris “literary.”

Another author who deals almost entirely with concepts of evil, Stephen King, goes entirely unnoticed by Svendsen (probably to his credit). King, in his way, (along with other horror novelists, perhaps) seems to continue the tradition of Milton, who could imagine the embodiment of some absolute evil. An embodied evil along the lines of Satan. Although I have not read The Stand or It in 18, 19 years, I still recall those books as vast and ambitious in their themes–more so than most literary fiction since the early part of the 20th century, perhaps.

Indeed, when I think of “evil” in the literary novel I tend to first think of the vast novels of Hugo, Dostoevsky, Melville, and Balzac before I think of Poe’s maniacs or even Hawthorne and his cute symbolism. Stephen King clearly is far from the class of a Dostoevsky, but he may deserve some nod of credit for approaching the idea of evil from something other than the psychological portrait of some lone maniac. Or, he may not. It may be that King’s ideas and themes are slight and outdated and worth only the pleasure they give the Sunday afternoon reader.

It seems to me the only other author of mid-late 20th century novels who approached the idea of Evil with such gusto and ambition was Norman Mailer (although it also seems that William S. Burroughs did it the best).

Perhaps this has something to do with Mailer’s pursuit of writing a book as fine as Moby Dick (a noble, futile pursuit, if you ask me) since, to my mind, Moby Dick deals with the theme of evil in many of its manifestations–the vengeful and fanatical, the ambitious and self-serving, the blind and the stupid and the faithful and the obedient, and those who are willing to question, but lack the courage to go any further. To me it is these evils we see on display each night on the news or on the internet and it is these evils we read about in our Holocaust literature and in our Civil War literature. And it is partly for this that I find Melville’s novel not simply the greatest evocation of evil and ambition this side of Shakespeare and Aeschylus, but the finest novel.

Now, these ideas are clearly not yet focused on my part, but Svendsen’s book has me thinking and wondering:

Has he left out any great authors on the topic of evil? I have not read any novels about the Holocaust, for instance–should these be included along side Primo Levi and the works of philosophers?

Who are the finest contemporary literary writers on the theme of evil? Brian Evenson, for one, comes to mind immediately.

What are the greatest (or your favorite) works concerning the idea of evil?

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