(First Published in Parlour Papers, July/Aug 1994)
The University of Maine at Orono was a great place to be in the late 70’s. The turbulent activism of the 60’s had quieted down and the campus had yet to experience the horrors of the 80’s Yuppie greed and the 90’s politically correct agendas.
It was announced in my junior year that Stephen King would be returning to his alma mater to teach for a year as a writer-in-residence. He had had a few hits out and was well-known, but had yet to explode into the megastardom of later years.
It was easy to get into his literature course in horror/science fiction, but I needed his permission for the writing seminar. Off I went to his on-campus office to plead my case (and ask him to sign a few books).
Stephen King is not one of those celebrities who are told “I thought you would be taller” when people meet him for the first time. His height and his eyes are what keep him from going unnoticed. He doesn’t need capes, or fangs, or skeletons to illustrate what he does. He just looks at you (or the camera) and focuses those intense, slightly out-of-kilter eyes through thick glasses, and you get a little nervous. When he smiles, you shiver and go check the children to make sure they’re safe. He knows what effect he has and likes to ham it up a little when he’s in the mood. Nervous as I was, he soon put me at my ease and graciously consented to my requests.
The literature course was an excellent study of fiction that shaped the genre, and King provided a well-versed and enthusiastic instructor. As good as the literature course was, however, I was even happier having my writing critiqued by a writer whose work I enjoyed. King told us right from the start that we were going to write a lot, and we churned out an immense amount of work within a fairly brief time. All of this King read and commented on, and returned in short order, while keeping up with his other classes and writing his own works. This should give you some idea of why he has been so astonishingly prolific over the years.
I had never drilled so hard in writing, before or since. To produce enough work, I had to constantly think of new ideas, create new characters, and plot story after story. King was helpful without being condescending or handholding. He is not a subscriber (as are some writers) to the belief that constantly tearing apart someone’s work makes better writers. Rather, he told you in plain language when writing wasn’t working and why it wasn’t working. When you turned out something good, he was delighted and encouraged you to do more of the same. We made plenty of mistakes, but we learned a great deal. Not unsurprisingly, I wrote horror stories almost exclusively.
Why does someone choose to write horror? Because he or she has a way of looking at the world with a fascination for things macabre. A comedian looks at life and draws humor from situations; an artist may constantly seek the relationship of figures and color. The answer to the inane question ‘Where do you get your ideas?” is “All around.” A horror writer looks at a nasty machine in a laundry and imagines what it could do to human flesh. Then the idea comes of how the machine becomes alive, seeking victims to mangle. The frightening part is how easy it is to look at the world this way. Gahan Wilson turned life into funny macabre cartoons. Stephen King puts nightmares into stories.
The popularity of horror today illustrates just how many others share this same way of looking at the world. After scraping out a meager living at teaching and other odd jobs, King finally got a book published, and then another, and so on. He got very lucky and makes a good living writing whatever he wants, but he didn’t get there overnight. He hammered out dozens of stories while polishing his craft and sold them cheaply to whoever would publish them. In those days the usual buyers of horror fiction were “men’s” magazines.
Writing as he does, King makes the task look easy. Sure—just a matter of sitting down at the old Underwood (or computer terminal or Big Chief writing tablet) day after day, week after week, until the months and years roll by, spinning yarns that people want to read. Lots of people can do it, but the successful ones are those who give up that huge part of their lives to pound away at the keyboard. King has said it’s like weightlifting: if you do it properly and long enough, you’ll develop muscles. After say, 10,000 pages or so, you should be able to write something fairly decent. If not, maybe you should give up writing in favor of some other hobby, or something more rewarding.
“So what’s he like?” This is a common question from people when they hear I took classes from him. He’s very laid-back, self-deprecating, witty, and plain-spoken. He dresses comfortably and casually, with no eye to fashion, much like most of the people in Maine. He likes watching the Red Sox and popping a brewski (at least in those days) now and then. He loves the crusty old downhome sayings that abound in Maine and elsewhere, and uses them in his writings. He likes movies, especially the bad old stuff of the 1950’s, with monsters and aliens threatening our American way of life (and of course, the local teen beach party). He reads a lot—as good writers do—and can discuss horror and many other subjects with a depth and breadth of knowledge that is astounding. He has been married to the same woman for years, and has raised children. So what is it about him that attracts people’s attention?
The first is fame. When a person reaches celebrity status, people want to know what it is that makes them special, sets them apart. But more importantly is his subject matter. He revels in the stuff many people don’t want to think about. He’s the one telling the scary tale by the campfire, the one who turns over the rock and peers beneath, the one who pokes the dead animal with a stick. He is an explorer into the dark and terrifying chthonic world. He makes you face the shadowy fears of our unconscious.
The first thing I read by King was Salem’s Lot, recommended by a librarian, and to my mind, one of his best works. The vampire story was great (admittedly owing much to Dracula and Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but better for me was the dead-on rendering of small-town life in Maine. Having had that background, I felt a real connection to the setting. King created ordinary characters, made us care about them, and put them into extraordinary situations. King’s first book, Carrie, was more than a teen revenge fantasy, it was a scathing indictment of the brutality and pettiness of high school hierarchies. After that, the books came so fast it was hard to keep up with them.
Even high school kids, who read little, read Stephen King. He suffers the sin of being popular, and of having a “non-serious” genre. But his success and output continue to amaze everyone, including himself. Not bad for a writer who admits his work is the literary equivalent of junk food. He does, however, pay homage to the masters, and has now become the standard by which others are gauged.
There are many imitators riding his coattails. Most of them dispense with character, and plot, and originality, and spend their time describing various dismemberments of human forms. I once received an unsolicited tape in the mail from some of these “Grand Guignol” writers reading their works and requesting I purchase some of the same. The only horror I discovered was that someone thought this hack garbage was worth money. With cardboard characters, bad plots, developments you could see coming like a slow-moving train, and dialogue that alternated between filth and the level of a not-too-bright 12-year-old, it was repulsive. I threw it away in disgust, wondering if these people actually thought they could make a living writing this way. Is it too much to ask for a modicum of effort and imagination? Lazy writers looking for a quick buck shouldn’t get your money. Demand and seek out quality work.
The way Stephen King writes, you think that the movies made from his horror books would be blockbusters. The scenes he presents should look great on film, but many turn out to be simply embarrassing. The most awful ones have characters attempting and failing a Maine accent. They end up sounding like deranged Englishmen with a speech impediment. Most of the directors with a King horror vehicle don’t seem to know what to do with it. After watching maniacs with weapons chop up teens by the score, maybe it’s time for something different.
Stephen King’s writing has brought him fame, which has proven at times an annoyance, or worse. He used to be amused at the fan mail he received, strange as it was. Many people wanted to know where Salem’s Lot was, and insisted that it exists. Guess they wanted to sign up for the Undead Foreign Legion. King bought a house pretty far up in Maine, whimsically decorated with bat-wing gates. Hordes of fans would troop around, hoping for a glimpse (“I actually saw him MOWING HIS LAWN!”) King has found out that real loonies can get into your house and need to have the authorities take them away.
If you’re a celebrity like King, you can never relax in public. Autograph hounds will shove books in your face whether you’re trying to have a meal, watch a ball game, or even go to the bathroom. Heaven help you if you don’t smile and be charming, because the offended one will go whine to the tabloids about what a nasty person you really are. And the press is always waiting for a quick hatchet job, justified or not.
King does actually manage to be nice to people most of the time. I ran into him several years after college, and he remembered me from class. He was so well- known that he could not teach again, as he did for that one glorious year. I think back on that time, remembering the lessons, and working for the day when a book of mine is published. King has demonstrated just how far someone can go with a lot of hard work and some luck. He has also proven that success doesn’t have to spoil you, and you don’t have to step on people on the way up. In his example are lessons for us all.
Harlan Ellison may not be as much of a
household name as best-selling writers, but he has won more writing awards
than any other American writer. Among those in the know, he is a legend,
not only for his works, but his antics in life...
"Mr. Ellison, I'd like to thank you for your writing. Your work gives me pleasure and understanding about the world, and I wanted you to know I appreciate it."
I walked away thinking I'd got off without a scar. But he stands, points at me, and shouts, "There!"
The entire crowd in the huge hall stops
and looks at us, me frozen in fear. He's still pointing. He speaks very
loudly, so the assembled multitudes can hear,
So I survived, and got a supreme compliment. Now when Frank Sinatra met Harlan, it didn't go so well. But that's a story for another time...
So no sooner did I post this feature on Harlan, but the Sundance TV channel airs the documentary on him, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. Wow. Powerful film encompassing his work and life. Say what you want about him, but the man has written classic works in the last 50 years. Take away everything else, and you still have the power of his words, detailing the pain and glory of being human.
James Joyce is known to us mostly through a few short stories, the short Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and two of the most incomprehensible novels in English, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake. His works are dense but rewarding, his wordplay unique, and his knowledge breathtaking in scope. To read his master works, you have to know history, music, a number of languages, Irish politics, Catholicism, mythology, and that's just to get started.
Bloomsday is June 16th for a celebration of his works, particularly Ulysses, with the main character of Leopold Bloom.
One of the great writers is John D. MacDonald, and many writers today owe a debt you can see in their works. John D. Was a consummate craftsman at his trade, writing over 500 stories and 78 novels, 21 of them in the unbeatable Travis McGee series. MacDonald was writing about the destruction of Florida at the hands of developers, years before most were paying attention. His characters and books stay in the mind for their clarity and terrific writing. Check out the homage site: http://jdmhomepage.org/jdmhomepage.org/index.html
He was Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and numerous movies were made from his works. His books continue to sell, as they should, years after his death. The things he wrote about are still relevant, and feel like they're current. An amazing feat of writing.
Every time I read another book by the great Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, I'm blown away by the complex plot, the authorial voice, the language, the depth of feeling, the sheer intensity. Her books are not a light summer read, no fast-food snack. They are lovingly layered and interwoven and rich. I've only seen one of her books turned into a film, The Handmaid's Tale, and that was enough to get me started on her books. Since then, every time I've found a new novel by her, I have a new love.
This is literature for people that enjoy reading, but who still like a great plot. Currently I'm going through a collection of short stories by a well-known author, and they hold no interest for me. The writing is good, but the characters have little to recommend them, and I could not care less about their troubles.
In contrast, you never know what will happen next in a Margaret Atwood novel, but you're certainly turning the pages to find out! There are so many juicy writing nuggets that reveal a mastery of her craft, I just shake my head in awe. There are many revelations about human nature, and said so very well.
Some writers cross the line between genre fiction and elegant, classic prose. James Lee Burke takes the modern mystery novel and makes it literature. His brilliant series of books starring the character Dave Robichaux are among the most beautifully written mystery novels ever. His world is violent and corrupt, but also has a timeless and heartbreaking beauty. Introduce yourself to his works and find out what life on the bayou is all about. It ain't all jambalaya and zydeco, there's also murder and mayhem.
He's one of the world icons of literature, whose work is enduring and powerful. One of the earliest short stories I remember is an excerpt from Dandelion Wine, about a teenage boy getting new sneakers at the start of Summer. The description of the feeling, of the endless possibilities, of the dreams of freedom and yearning was amazing, and made me see things in a whole new light.
Of course there are the classics, and quite an array of them. The story "A Sound of Thunder," where one time-travelling misstep has major consequences, and which sets the bar for time travel stories. Fahrenheit 451, a chilling comment on one potential (and ever-more likely) future. Something Wicked This Way Comes, the ultimate Halloween classic. The Martian Chronicles and what hapens when we venture there, for he assumed it was inevitable, as it should have been. Now it looks like we'll stay on this planet until we're gone. Sad, somehow, when we could have had the stars.
Ray Bradbury was always a dreamer of what could be, good and bad. His stories are pure magic, tales that delight, instruct, and entertain. If you haven't read him for awhile, seek out some of his work.
Pulitzer Prize- winner Wallace Stegner is a legend, a writer par excellence, who lived in the American west at the closing of the frontier, and who saw the modern age come to a land that was still quite wild and hostile. His writing shows his self-erudtion, his caring, and his humanity with every work. He began an unparalleled writing program at Stanford University, which has produced a number of noted writers.
The first work of his I read was Angle of Repose, which some might say is his masterwork. Chris Bernard, another excellent writer I know, thinks Crossing to Safety is beyond compare, especially the opening sequence. Then you can dip into the other works, of which there are many, and most are wonderful. Don't forget the non-fiction Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, telling of John Wesley Powell, the man who truly explored the west, going places hitherto known only to a few Native Americans.
We just lost one of the good writers, as Robert B Parker has passed on. The world is diminished with him gone. He created one of the most enduring and terrific figures of mystery fiction, Spenser. He created others, with his Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone series, as well as the "Appaloosa" novels, but Spenser still is the outstanding work.
Years ago, when I read the first one, I was hooked. With the proper nods to the Old School of hard-boiled, Parker revived a genre and made himself the new master. His Spenser novels were perfect, polished little jewels, tight and controlled. The only trouble was, he made it look too damn easy. Many imitated him, but fell short of his complete domination of what the tough guy PI stood for.
I met him once, at a book signing. I asked him how a new writer could manage to get read and published. He said, "Write the best book you possibly can, and send it in." Well, I've been doing that, but it takes so darn long in the publishing biz.
He and his work will be missed. But his characters will live on. only to a few Native Americans.
Howard Zinn has passed away. Zinn was a political activist, a humanitarian, a speaker, writer, and great, much-needed man in this country (or any other).
He wrote "A People's History of the United States," which should be required reading in all schools. It tells the story most "history" books leave out, of those who strove for freedom and workers rights and fair dealings. If you have not yet read it, consider yourself uneducated until you do. Yes, it is simply far and away a tremendous book that gives us the story we so seldom hear.
Catch the documentary film "You Can't Be Neutral On a Moving Train," which tells about his life and work.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Zinn several years back, as part of an interview for Liberty News TV. He was gracious, articulate, kind, and eloquent, as he spoke for about half an hour on a subject: without notes, teleprompter, or word-fumbling. Having read about his life and work, I was in awe, but he always came across as a man of the people. The real people. Those who toil for a living, and those who fight for better conditions for people who aren't rich or powerful.
There are some people in the world, that when you meet them, you want to be a better person. Howard Zinn was one such. He fought the good fight without anger, or rancor, or bitterness, just a gentle, determined insistence that individual human beings matter.
Our world is truly poorer for his loss, but his life is one to make us think the human race might be worthy of survival.
Dorothy Parker was a wit, a sharp-tongued reviewer, and a writer. She dazzled with her quick mind, turning out pointed little verses, quips, and stories, and was a founding member and more than held her own at the famed Algonquin Club Round Table, a collection of literary persons who met to slice away at everything with their razor-like wisecracks and epigrams. It has since become legendary.
She first conquered the New York literary scene with poems, theatre reviews, plays, and stories, and later ventured to Hollywood to work in the movies. Despite being a successful literary light, her life was full of sadness and heartbreak. Her collections of short pieces are full of gems, as she was able to translate her personal pain into sparkling, bitterly black humor. She sugar-coated nothing, and her work has real teeth, and remains poignant, even today. A collection of her stories, The Portable Dorothy Parker, has remained continuously in print, an almost unheard-of feat. And who else could make contemplation of methods of suicide funny?
Besides being wickedly funny and fearless, she also did something for which I will always love her. She reviewed Harlan Ellison's collection of short stories, Gentleman Junkie, and gave him a big and early career boost by recognizing his enormous talent and giving him a very favorable review.
Yeah, love him or not, you have to give the man his due for changing the writing landscape. Almost single-handedly, he altered how people think of male writers- from a previous view of effeminate, dreamy-eyed pen scratchers, to hairy-chested, drunken, pugnacious, macho men (see Norman Mailer, a Hemingway wannabe). That attitude comes out in The Sun Also Rises (which I didn't like, so I didn't read him for awhile after that). But I gave him another chance, and read his better stuff, and it's so good, it can make you weep.
But put the image aside, and give a close read to his great works. Damn, the man knew his stuff, and was able to create some of the finest works of fiction in the modern age. He has classic novels (For Whom the Bell Tolls) as well as some of the best short stories ever (The Killers).
There are entire college courses on Hemingway's works, as well there should be, so we won't try to give you any kind of depth here. Find out for yourself. But here's a taste:
"If a writer of prose knows enough
of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader,
if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things
as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement
of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer
who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places
in his writing."
Raymond Chandler was one of the giants who defined the novel mystery genre, giving it shape and function and a touch of class. It's hard to believe the classic book The Big Sleep was his first novel. Between that and The Long Goodbye, there are few finer examples of the mystery novel as a pair by one person.
For definitions, read The Simple Art of Murder, a combination of essays and short stories. It's a look not only at literature, but life itself.
He may not have been the most prolific mystery writer, but he was one of the best, a cornerstone that many others have built on. And man, could he ever turn a phrase. Pick up one of his books some rainy night, and begin to read, and you'll swear you see Philip Marlowe from the corner of your eye.
John Irving first came to my attention with The World According to Garp. Then I went back and read his other works, and I almost stopped. Three previous books about wrestling, bears, sex, and Vienna. But he hit it right with Garp, and with that out of his system, went on to other things (although again with the damn bear in The Hotel New Hampshire).
My daughter is now reading The Cider House Rules for school, and likes it (although she didn't care for A Prayer For Owen Meany). My wife asked me if I approve, and I heartily said yes. It's important for young people to see the difference between what's right for people and what hypocrisy is represented by some laws. And it's a great book.
So I've read everything of his in print, and like about every other one. But I keep reading, because he's a damn fine writer at his best, and still worth it when he's not. Although he has a great heart and feels deeply for humanity, he has some need to physically mutilate his characters in his books, which gets overdone to death. But that's the pain of life, and death, and he makes it a bit surreal, but always human. He always makes you feel. He's serious, and popular, and still works hard to tell a great story.
Looks like he's got a memoir I'll have to read: My Movie Business, about making his books into film.
One of the earliest stories I can remember is "The Lottery." It bowled me over, and still has an impact even today. It changed the way I think about writing, and the world. After it ran in the New Yorker, it had "the largest volume of mail ever received by the magazine- most of it hateful. It is possibly the most well-known short story of the 20th Century."
That was my introduction to the work of Shirley Jackson. In time, I found others. She had another iconic story, also imitated ad infinitum, "One Ordinary Day With Peanuts." And her books are classics as well. The Haunting of Hill House is her best-known novel, "regarded by many, including Stephen King, as one of the important horror novels of the 20th Century."
She had a short life, but what a memorable legacy. Explore her works and find out what makes her so special.
How do you make history interesting? By letting Will and Ariel Durant write about it. They understood that the past is not just a list of names and dates, but lessons for us all.
Will Durant's first book, The Story of Philosophy (1926), "is credited as the work that launched Simon & Schuster as a major publishing force and that introduced more people to the subject of philosophy than any other book before or since."
In their masterwork, The Story of Civilization, the Durants spent about 50 years, eleven volumes, and thousands of pages to detail the knowledge of the Western world. It is a breathtaking work in its scope and breadth of knowledge-- and all of this in the days before the Internet! Not only that, it is a joy to read-- entertaining, fun, and instructional. It should be taught as a course (or several) in colleges. Might make more people understand and appreciate thjeir past and how we all got here.
(I'd long wanted this collection, but saw price tags of several hundred dollars for it, well worth it, but well beyond my means. Then one day at a library sale, I found the complete collection for only $25. This was one of the best bargains of my life, and one of my dearest treasures.)
To show you a little bit of their deep understanding of humankind, here's an excerpt from the Will Durant website:
"It is a mistake to think that the past is dead. Nothing that has ever happened is quite without influence at this moment. The present is merely the past rolled up and concentrated in this second of time. You, too, are your past; often your face is your autobiography; you are what you are because of what you have been; because of your heredity stretching back into forgotten generations; because of every element of environment that has affected you, every man or woman that has met you, every book that you have read, every experience that you have had; all these are accumulated in your memory, your body, your character, your soul. So with a city, a country, and a race; it is its past, and cannot be understood without it."
© 2009-2011 Dale T. Phillips