December 15, 2017

King On Writing & Childhood

On this day in 1947 Stephen King was born. As told in On Writing, his 2000 "memoir of the craft," King's childhood was formative of the man and his themes, "a kind of curriculum vitae." He denies any shape or through-line to his recollections, but this seems disingenuous: growing up may be "a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees" but the trees cited are mostly "the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you."

Certainly Durham, Maine was not "Fern Hill." King's first memory is of playing the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy and dropping the cinder block on his toes. His second, aged four, is of Eula-Beulah, one of an endless stream of babysitters hired by his mother -- his father disappeared when King was two, having gone for the proverbial package of cigarettes. Eula-Beulah was very large, and prone to gas: "Sometimes when she was so afflicted, she would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on my face, and let loose. 'Pow!' she'd cry in high glee." She was fired when she fed him seven fried eggs for breakfast and locked him in the closet for the day, where he "yarked" and slept until mom came home from work. Other memories, related here or in Danse Macabre (1981), are similar, or similarly placed-subterranean forces, fright-night drive-ins, sick-bed seclusions, creaking-attic discoveries.

This last concerns the unremembered father, known only through remnants in the attic-a box of sci-fi and horror paperbacks, aborted attempts to write same, scrapbooks from his merchant marine travels, one reel of film. King and his brother pooled their money, secretly rented a projector . . .
    . . . and there he is, Donald King of Peru, Indiana, standing against the rail. He raises his hand; smiles; unknowingly waves to sons who were then not even conceived. We rewound it, watched it, rewound it, watched it again. And again. Hi, Dad: wonder where you are now.
Whatever the causes-the smells and spooks of childhood, the father's paperbacks, the "approximately six tons of comic books," a "perfect reaction" to The Creature From the Black Lagoon -- King began writing weird tales early and often. At age thirteen he had his first rejection slip; at twenty, his first sale. At twenty-five -- he has two kids now, his wife, Tabitha, having gone into labor with one of them while her husband was watching The Corpse Grinders at the drive-in, the word that he was needed at home announced over his car speaker -- he had a $400,000 sale for the paperback rights of Carrie. King gives specific and lasting credit to Tabitha for all this. She saved the manuscript of Carrie when King threw it in the garbage, and she saved him from his slide into alcohol and drug addiction-a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night, Cujo written without him remembering it-by staging a public "intervention."

Most of On Writing is about writing. Judging by Harold Bloom's introduction to the Stephen King volume in his Modern Critical Views series, this is ludicrous. About the best Bloom can say is that Anne Rice, "whose fictions are profoundly unhealthy, and whose style is even more tedious than King's," is worse. Lumping him with television, movies and computers, Bloom says that "King will be remembered as a sociological phenomenon, an image of the death of the Literate Reader."

Having avoided his own horror-story death, King says that he now has "bad eyes, a gimp leg, and no hangover," and that he intends to keep "doing what I know how to do, and as well as I know how to do it." And that not the danse macabre but the dancing with Tabitha is most important: "Our marriage has outlasted all of the world's leaders except for Castro, and if we keep talking, arguing, making love, and dancing to the Ramones-gabba-gabba-hey-it'll probably keep working."

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