The Gray Lensman

I’ve spoken before about how ideas pass through the writer’s particular creative lens and thus come out differently even if they set out to duplicate.  This is also true as the writer’s lens changes over time. 

A writer in his younger years may be more hopeful and therefore write more uplifting stories about admirable characters whereas a writer in midlife might really be feeling the pressure of being a father and husband and provider and so might write stories full of chaos and compromise. 

Or a writer might be in the grip of a horrific coke and alcohol addiction which causes him to sow discord and disharmony in his works. 

After finishing Salem’s Lot and still waiting for Dr. Sleep to come out, I thought I’d revisit one of my favorite, if obviously flawed, King novels: It.  I last read this story when it came out in (I think) 1985 and I still remember the growing feeling that I was reading a masterpiece as I plowed through its Bible-like density.  Only to discover one of the most disappointing endings to an otherwise great book in history.

But I went ahead and bought the Audible version, thinking that, since I knew that about the book, I could reread it just to enjoy the awesome first 90% of it.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the bleakness of that first 90%.

By King’s own admission – in On Writing among other places, the man is not an enigma by any means – he spent much of the 1980s holed up with a serious substance abuse problem.  He claims it was so bad he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that thing readers do where they try to impress things from a work of fiction onto the real life of the author.  But, yes I am.  I am actually about to do that because the difference between the lives of the character’s in Salem’s Lot and It is mind boggling. 

It actually sounds like a story told by a debilitated drug addict.  No one is happy.  Everyone is in a destructive relationship.  Women are literally taking a beating.  Parents are awful.  Wives are clinging, cloying, nagging monstrosities that make Pennywise look like an afterthought.  And underneath it all is this lingering evil that sucks everyone back in no matter how hard they try to get out.  Maybe most telling of all: the characters all feel compelled by an outside force to return to that evil.

Pennywise the murderous clown monster is terrifying and creepy but I almost didn’t make it that far.  I was ready to quit reading during the section told in the voice of Bev’s abusive husband.  It was more horrific than any sharp-toothed clown living in the sewer.  Mostly because there aren’t really any murderous clowns living in sewers but all over the world there are millions of women living in that kind of relationship from hell.

The idea that drug addiction might have had some impact on this story is also bolstered by the weird ending.  As Wild Bill Burroughs knew all too well, that stuff really helps you think outside the box.  The problem is if you’re a mega-powerful international best seller when you think outside the box, there isn’t anyone there to bring you back to earth when you get a little too far outside.

Right, Miley?

Also, if you look at the books he wrote in the back half of the 1980s, you kind of get a feel for his frame of mind.  For me, it started with Thinner – that was just a hateful book – and ends with The Dark Half – a book that on the surface appears to be about healing the internal divisions.  Whatever was driving his heel during that period, I remember being physically relieved when Insomnia came out.  It wasn’t as great as many of his books, but it was a return to hopefulness from the bleak landscape he and Richard Bachman had been inhabiting.  It became fun to read him again.

Anyway, I feel awful for what I’ve done here.  Mostly because I hate it when people do it to me.

“Wow the parents in that story are really awful.  You must be writing about your terrible childhood.”

Actually, I had a happy childhood which is why when I’m looking around for something bad to write about, I think: Hey, I had a happy childhood.  You know what would be really terrible?  A bad one.  And then I write about that.

On the other hand, writers exist so that we have something other than our commutes to talk about.  Right?


Growing Up

One thing about waiting until later in life to pursue a career in writing is that you have the perspective of having been a parent.  This helps when your characters start to act like obstreperous children. 

The second book in the series came to a grinding halt recently when my protagonist started acting like a real dick.  Even as it was coming out through my fingers onto the keyboard, I was asking myself, “What the hell is he up to?”  And yet, I could not steer him away from this activity because it was all valid behavior.  I had set up an uncomfortable situation that needed to be dealt with and he was dealing with it.  Not well, mind you, but he was dealing with it.

When your kids are misbehaving, you attempt to correct them with talking and timeouts.  But you also have to listen to them so they can, eventually, tell you what’s driving them to act out.  I woke up at four in the morning the other night and decided to just lay there in bed for four hours and listen to this character. 

It took a while but I eventually heard what he had to say and that opened the dam that had been holding me back.  Part of writer’s block is hesitation to commit because you think you’re just going to end up deleting it all and doing it over.  Finding my way into his head allowed me to see far enough down the stretch that I could commit again.

Normally, I feel bad after a night of insomnia but not this time.  I leapt out of bed to get to the keyboard when the sun broke through my window.

The Best Laid…

Just a quick note so that I can keep track myself: I am woefully behind on the project.  I set myself a goal to put up the first three novels in November.  As of this writing, the first book is done and is out to readers.  All that remains is a polish draft (hopefully).  The second book is 1/3 done.  The third book will not be started until January most likely.  So I’m… let’s just say… behind a bit.

It turns out that I am really not given to hammering out first drafts in a hurry.  That’s mostly because I’m not completely in control of the process.  The characters have more control than I do.  The first novel went fairly quickly, though it did take twice as long as I had planned, because the characters were all really well behaved.  But the second novel is not like that.  One character in particular has done something that changes the dynamic of the story completely which means that I’m no longer simply rewriting the old version of this book, I’m putting in 50% new material.  What’s worse is that the changes in this book render the third book a complete rewrite from the idea up.  So that one’s going to take a good long while.

Hey, but at least it’s fun.

Back to the Lot

I just started rereading Salem’s Lot the other day.  Most people who came to King’s work back in the 1970s have The Shining as their favorite, but my heart belongs to the Lot.  Why?  Because it starts off slow.  It seems to me that modern horror novels start with a disembowelment and splash blood on every page thereafter, but King’s early works start slow and build to a bone crushing end.  And with Salem’s lot, it’s even more so.  It’s like it starts out as Peyton Place and then gradually moves toward the familiar King country.

It’s also one of those rare books that is even better on subsequent readings.  Mostly because you know what’s going to happen so you can sit back and watch as the author carefully lays in a large and complex story, brick by brick.  When, after nearly a hundred pages of introduction to the characters and the town they live in, the murdered dog is discovered hung on the pikes of the cemetery gate like some sort of profane sacrifice, I get the feeling of being at the top of a roller coaster.

“Here we go,” I think.

The novel, like most of King’s work, is a master of construction.  It runs like a Swiss watch and, once it gets going, you have the feeling that the ending is inevitable.  Another book comparable in size and scope to the Lot is the 90% magnificent It.  If anything, it’s bigger but just as well put together, like a tennis ball being hit from the past into the future then returned to the past again, but its ending is a major disappointment that leaves a bad taste in your mouth after a heavy investment in a very thick book.  The Lot, on the other hand, has one of the most gratifying endings of any horror story ever.

I often wonder if his editor required him to add the prologue where the man and the boy are introduced as survivors in Mexico struggling with PTSD from some mysterious incident in order to clue readers in to the fact that this was a horror novel and not what they used to call a woman’s novel. 

In any event, that’s what I’m doing these days.  Whenever I find myself having trouble getting motivated to write, I read a very good book by someone whose work is so superior to mine it makes me want to raise my game.  This time of year, trapped inside to escape a level of heat and humidity which is, frankly, ridiculous, I start to suffer from a sort of psychic low energy.  The creative urge dissipates but my commitments remain in force, so I pick up a book I know will inspire me to kick it up a notch.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the bucolic town of Salem’s Lot has some new visitors.  They’re European, I think.  How exotic!