Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Outsider (2018)

If I had to recommend a good place to start reading Stephen King, which book would it be?  That's a question with no single answer.  Different people will always find their own way into King's works.  Most of the time this means finding the novel or short story that works best for this or that particular person.  With any luck, the experience of browsing through one of these texts will be enough to turn the average person into a reader.  There are a lot worse things you can do than get hooked on books by reading a King novel.

I can point to a lot of good starting places.  Perhaps the best gateway text has proven to be the author's 80s anthology series, Skeleton Key.  It's easy to see why this simple collection is often cited as an ideal reading primer.  Most of the stories in it can be taken in at one reading, which is a value if the daily schedule is busy.  Another plus is that all of them appear to be simple enough in terms of subject matter.  In addition to all this, a response I keep hearing from readers, one that seems to span the passage and arrival of generations, is that for a series of unconnected short-stories, the whole thing almost reads like a novel.   

Skeleton Key seems to be one of those books that can sometimes grow on the reader.  The first time you read it, what grabs your attention are the situations to be found in each individual story, and all the gory special effects that come with it.  Those who choose to have a second and, maybe, with any luck, third read-through will perhaps find themselves focusing more on the character dynamics, and slowly become aware of King's skill at drawing you into his narratives.  For those who find themselves turned into dedicated readers by the experience, a fifth and sixth study of Key might just make them aware that King is an actual author, one with legitimate, and above all, literary themes embedded in his writings.

In some ways, I guess the best praise I can find for King is that his work itself is often a discovery process of literature, if that makes any sense.  Perhaps it makes sense to view his books like one of those paintings that look simplistic at first glance, only to catch you off guard when you start to notice little minute details that add to its overall complexity.  What makes Skeleton Key such a likely beginner's candidate in this sense is that as a collection of short-stories, it is able to combine a surprising amount of artistic depth and sophistication into an easily digestible package.

This is even more of a bonus when you stop to realize that while vast majority of people can read, knowing how to read well is often just as much an art as being able to spin a good yarn.  Just like books themselves, being able to read them well is a multi-layered activity.  What makes any story valuable is what lies beyond its surface appearances.  That's an idea that sounds obvious on the face of it, and an immediate assumption is that anyone can do it.  It's true, anyone can read if they truly want to.  The  trouble is you can't expect a young mind to read any given text with an automatic, sophisticated point of view.  The goal of being a good reader is to see just how many levels (or lack thereof) is contained within the pages.  In that sense, being able to read well is less a natural ability like breathing and seeing, and more like a hidden, invisible skill that you have to work at for quite a while in order to do it well.  Skeleton Key helps in that training by offering itself up as a stepping stone to greater heights and conquests.

Nevertheless, I'd like to offer an alternative place to start making this author's acquaintance.  While Skeleton Key is often cited as the best place to begin an acquaintance with King's writing, the fact remains that this is just one staring place out of many.  Real life experience points to readers getting hooked by works like Cycle of the Werewolf, The Stand, or even out of the ways novels like The Dark Half.  I myself, for better or worse (and I still can't say it's all that bad) got hooked on King by listening to Jeffrey Demunn narrate the author's 2001 book, Dreamcatcher.  That's an argument of defense for another time.  The point goes back to what I said earlier.  Everybody finds their own way into this author's work.

I think a novel like The Outsider deserves its place as a beginner's candidate for a number of reasons.  The most obvious point in its favor is that it is a neat examination of the theme of the doppelganger in literary Gothic fiction.  King uses this trope in his novel to hold a mirror up to the Dionysian/Apollonian conflict in American society.  The other point I can think of is that the novel is something of a neat distillation of a lot of the prototypical settings, characters, and situations that sort of typify the nature of a Stephen King book.  In the sense, I think what makes The Outsider a good primer for King neophytes is that it helps ground the new reader into a clear idea of the main subject matter of King's secondary world.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub (2000).

This is less of a review and more of a first introduction.  Maybe it's best to think of it as a sort of user's guide, or the barest sketch of a cartographer's map.  What I'm really here for today is to get readers to shake hands with a guy who's worth knowing.  Even if he is kind of strange.   It's with this idea and setup in mind that Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree is a useful glimpse into the literary world of one of the Gothic genre's most interesting practitioners.  Sheehan is also a big help in that his book might bring a greater awareness to a talent who could be in danger of falling off the map.  His name is Peter Straub, and he still (as of this date) writes Horror fiction for a living.

It is just possible that the name sounds familiar, yet the face or work it's associated with is somewhat vague, or hard to recall.  Maybe some readers will have heard something about this particular writer, but have forgotten his work with the passage of time.  Or else his name was mentioned and no one ever bothered to find out just who he was, or what made him in any way special.  Despite this, I'd argue that Straub's work is capable of a defense on its own merits.  Before we jump to conclusions, however, it helps to get a sense of the historical setting which in Straub first made his name.  If this sounds like a digression, I'd argue it's not on the basis that context is everything.  Gaining a proper literate understanding of Straub and his work means placing him in the proper setting from which he first emerged on the publishing scene.  To do this, it is perhaps best to start out with a decent summary of Straub's artistic milieu, and in particular the other writer who sort of defines it.

This is where Bev Vincent's Stephen King Illustrated Companion comes in handy.  Vincent is able to provide a neat capsule snapshot of Straub's context.  The irony is he does this by talking about the work of someone else.  "In part", Vincent writes, "it was all a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  Readers who had experienced the terrors of Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist were primed for more, and (Stephen King) delivered.  By the time his third novel, The Shining hit the best-seller lists, King was already being called "the master of modern horror".  Seemingly overnight, he had become a "brand name" author.  However, few of the other writers he identified as his peers in other genres at the time are still household names...(6)".  It is here that the subject of this article comes in.  

It is debatable whether the Horror genre has ever been in any way respectable.  However, Straub, like King, was a beneficiary of a time when the genre was at it's most commercially viable.  To that extent, publishing houses everywhere seemed willing to lap up the next kid who showed up on their doorsteps with a Shilling Shocker manuscript in hand.  This setup seems to have been made possible by a previous explosion of talent during the preceding decades.  The 50s and 60s can be thought of as the time when Horror fiction began to come of age.  The genre had undergone some growing pains in the form of a series stylistic leaps and bounds dating all the way back to the Victorian Era.  Writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne brought the genre to mainstream awareness, while H.P. Lovecraft and the Weird Circle helped begin it's modern identity.  The process of bringing Horror to it's full maturity seems to have been the work of artists like Ray Bradbury and a group of writers known as the California Sorcerers.

They were the first to find ways of taking the horrors into settings like a modern suburban home,or of re-introducing the haunts of old folklore into the middle of a busy 20th century street, and turning all of it loose to mess up our cozy conceptions of order and stability.  King and Straub were effectively the inheritors of this tradition of the Modern Gothic, and it is safe to say that the latter was no slouch when it came to living up to his inheritance.

As Sheehan explains on the very first page of his study: "Peter Straub first came to prominence with the 1979 publication of Ghost Story, a gaudy, expansive novel of supernatural terror that was deeply rooted in the classic tradition of the American Gothic tale.  Ghost Story was an immediate popular  success that quickly established itself as one of the seminal works of late twentieth century horror fiction.  Like the very best examples of its kind - Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and Stephen King's The Shining spring immediately to mind - it offered  conclusive evidence that art and entertainment, literature and "popular fiction" need not be regarded as mutually exclusive categories.

"Despite his apparent status as an "overnight success", Straub had been a working writer for more than a decade before Ghost Story put him on the map, having published two slender volumes of poetry (Open Air and Ishmael), a modest, rather tentative mainstream novel (Marriages), and a pair of striking, increasingly ambitious horror novels (Julia and If You Could See Me Now).  With Julia, Straub achieved a modest degree of financial success and began the process of discovering his own true voice.  At the same time, he demonstrated an instinctive affinity for the requirements of the Gothic form, a form that proved particularly suited to his own sensibility and narrative gifts.  With If You Could See Me Now, his grasp of those requirements deepened.  With Ghost Story, he achieved a new level of mastery, and made the form his own (11)".

I have written elsewhere that it is possible to notice how certain creative projects during the 70s and 80s tended to coalesce around the work of several differing authors into something resembling an informal artistic group similar to Bradbury and the Southern California writers.  I'd argue that Straub counts as one of that number.  By saying he is an inheritor, he is also part of a much larger literary tradition.  That would make his work uniquely placed and crafted in such as way as to help further set the definitions of Modern Gothic literature.  As such, this article counts as part of an ongoing series that examines the work of writers like Straub, and how they have shaped our understanding of the stories we enjoy.  It also helps grant a certain perspective on the nature of our favorite books and films over the past century and a half, when it's possible to see them as part of a greater, albeit informal, artistic movement.

Since this article is meant to be a user's guide, it's focus will be more on filling in a general outline of the author, as well as the thematic nature of his works.  Because of this, an emphasis will have to be placed on where he stands in the historical continuum of the Horror genre.  Straub's case is interesting in that he is one of the most self-aware writers operating in the confines of this particular category of narrative.  The best place to start is to discover how his life led to the work.