Sunday, October 22, 2023

Stephen King's Fairy Tale (2022).

We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  This is one of those natural facts that life is willing to teach us as time goes on.  Stephen King, for instance, seems to be at the peak of his game whenever he's conjuring up tales of things that go bump in the night.  It's the method and mode in which he first made a name for himself, and the passage of time seems to have proven just how tried and true this remains as the Horror genre continues to be his best creative outlet.  This isn't the same as saying that the author hasn't tried to break out of his own mold and try other things.  Nor is it true to say that King has found no success outside of the strict confines of the Gothic genre.  One of his best known works, for instance, is a simple novella known as "The Body".  Despite its title, there's little to nothing of any of the writer's usual trademarks to be found within those pages.  Rather than a work of Horror, readers are treated to nothing less than a straightforward, small town drama detailing the coming of age of a pair of friend in the flagship town of Castle Rock, in Maine.  These days, the story is most often seen as atypical of King, and yet it has gone on to be one of his most popular works to date.  This was solidified by the later success of the novella's adaptation, as Rob Reiner's Stand By Me.

Nor is that the only time that King was able to successfully step out of his comfort zone.  Hearts in Atlantis, for instance, is an experimental, interconnected anthology novel tackling pretty much the same themes and ideas as Stand By Me, except this time the canvas has been widened to include a cast of multiple characters spanning an entire generational shift.  Much like with the earlier Reiner story, Hearts is one of those novels that will forever deserve more credit than it is ever libel to get for its efforts.  With that novel, King achieved a kind of unremarked tour-de-force, and it remains one of the best examples of the author not just writing outside of his generic comfort zone.  It's also one of the best go-to examples that you can point as a book-length demonstration of King's creative expression as a true, literary artist.  It's the kind of book that will always telegraph that here we're dealing with a type of craftsmen who deserves a place on the shelf alongside Henry James, William Faulkner, and John Updike.  The fact that it remains overlooked testifies to the way readers prefer to confine even their favorite artists into neat little pigeon holes, even when they prove they can be more than this.

While stories like Hearts in Atlantis seem destined to remain as unheralded masterpieces displaying the full range of the writer's talent outside the fields of Terror, there is still one other genre that Stephen King has tried his hand at during various points in the life of his career.  This time, however, the results have, for the most part, been of a pretty mixed variety.  King's career serves as a kind of testimony of one man's artistic talent.  And what it tells us is three things.  That he's a natural at the Gothic tale.  He's also underrated as a genuine artist in the non-supernatural slice-of-life story.  He might also be prone to one specific weakness.  Whenever King decides to turn his attention to one of his typical plot ideas, involving ordinary people caught up in extraordinary, horrific events, the writer's narrative voice can often approach a level of quality that might best be described as Tolkienesque.  This is just something King has proven himself capable of in a natural and unforced way.  The few times when this skill has failed him.  When that valuable narrative voice has faltered, is (in the most ironic sense possible) those handful of times when he's ever tried to deliberately write in the vein of the creator of Middle Earth.

In other words, give King a Horror story, or a straightforward drama to write, and odds are even that the final result will be pretty darn great to decent enough, at worst.  If he tries to take on the realm of straightforward Fantasy?  Not so much.  For whatever reason, that's the one genre that King never seems to have been able to crack.  This hasn't been for a lack of trying, either.  He's made at least three, maybe even as much as four attempts at writing a story in this particular field, depending on how you choose to look at it.  Those efforts of his that fit this criteria include The Talisman (a 1984 collaboration made with his friend and professional colleague, Peter Straub), The Eyes of the Dragon (one of the author's most straight-forward attempts at a creating a true Tolkien or Brothers Grimm styled fantastic world), and then there's The Dark Tower.  I'm not real sure if a book like The Stand fits into this criteria or not.  That one is most often described as a post-apocalyptic Horror novel, and it's a description I'm willing to let stand, even if it does contain a shared villain whose arc encompasses most of the other efforts mentioned above.  The point is each of these books mark all the times King has attempted to break into the proper Fantasy genre, and all of them are best seen as a series of trials as errors.

It seems as if trying to write in the Fantasy mode is the one undertaking that is good for just one, ironic thing.  It never fails to reveal the limits of King's strengths as a writer.  All the genre of Once Upon a Time can do is to mark out the dividing line where the writer's otherwise considerable talents first begin to ebb, and at last peter out in what amounts to several fits of wasted effort.  Apologies for how harsh that must sound.  Yet I'll swear it's the truth.  None of the novels described above, not even the Dark Tower series can be described in the last resort as good books.  Instead, all they are is displays of creative desire on the part of an artist who doesn't have the necessary skill set to conquer this particular imaginary terrain.  It's got to be one of the worst dilemmas for someone who is a clear cut fan of epic quests into other worlds.  It's like a situation once described with bitter eloquence by author Peter S. Beagle as being "A Bad Poet with Dreams".  In King's case, a more accurate description is that he's great poet with impressive vision, and somehow none of his talent allows him to make headway in that one particular creative field that remains just forever out of reach.  It remains one of the few, notable, continuous failures in an otherwise stellar career.  The irony goes back to what I said at the beginning.

For whatever reason, King is the kind of author whose literary talents seems to run in just two, inter-locking directions, the realistic American Pastoral, or else the Gothic Romantic.  He has it in him to deal with the building blocks of Fantasy.  However, they only work so long as he's writing a Horror story, and not the other way around.  It just seems to be the natural outline and creative expression of the artist's Imagination.  King can write like Tolkien so long as he never tries to be him.  Don't know if that makes any sense, yet I'll swear it's the truth.  That's why it was kind of puzzling to learn that one of his latest releases was going to bear the simple title of Fairy Tale.  I know was excited when the book was first announced.  A basic summary of the plot sounded intriguing.  It suggested to me that we might have the opportunity to get the best of both worlds; a Horror story written by Stephen King situated part of the way in a realm straight out of the Grimm Brothers.  What was there not to like?

The funny thing is how, even as I played the waiting game like everyone else, it never occurred to me for some reason (at least not much) to recall that King's track record with this kind of story just never amounted to all that much.  Whenever he gets in his mind to tackle that sort of material, he always winds up straining his skills on account of the well running dry.  His imagination just won't stretch that far into such environs, and the result (even with The Stand and the Tower mythos) amount to examples of what King himself often refers to as him "trying too hard", and each result is an example of literary overkill.  I must have been running on the adrenaline of pure expectation that whole time, though.  Because if any of these reservations ever did occur in my mind, they were so muted that I'm not even sure I heard them.  So instead, the big day arrived, and I was lucky enough to be gifted a copy from my own Dad.  I picked up Stephen King's Fairy Tale, and began to read.  Here, then, are the results.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Pennywise: The Story of It (2021).

This is what happened.  According to Bev Vincent,"While (Stephen King, sic) was working on The Stand, he had another experience that was the seed for another long novel many years later.  In Boulder, the family vehicle was an AMC Matador, "an admirable car right up until the day when its transmission just fell out onto Pearl Street."  Two days after the car was towed to a dealership on the east end of the city, King received word that it was ready to be be picked up.  Rather than call a cab, King decided he needed the exercise and walked the three miles to the dealership, eventually ending up on a narrow unlit road at twilight.  He recalls the moment vividly: "I was aware of how alone I was.  About a quarter of a mile along this road was a wooden bridge, humped and oddly quaint, spanning a stream.  I walked across it.  I was wearing cowboy boots with rundown heels, and I was very aware of the sound they made on the boards; they sounded like a hollow clock.  I suppose I should have thought of Randall Flagg, since I was all wrapped up in his life just then, but instead I thought of the story of Billy Goats Gruff, the troll who says, "Who's that trip-trapping on my bridge?' and the whole story just bounced into my mind on  Pogo-stick.  Not the characters, but the split time-frame, the accelerated (narrative plot line) that would end up with a complete breakdown, which might result in a feeling of 'no time', all the monsters that were one monster...(and) the troll under the bridge, of course (80)".

Early on, near the start of this documentary, King is shown elaborating on this brief moment of fairy tale inspiration.  According to the author, after having the image of the Troll from the Brother's Grimm, story flash into his mind: "I thought, "Wouldn't it be a scream if something just reached up now and grabbed me; and pulled me down there, and that was the last anyone heard of old, Stephen King".  To me, it sounds a lot like the rough sketch for a scene that was actually filmed half a century later on as part of a film called Troll Hunter.  The filmmakers there utilize the old folktale idea for the purposes of mere parodic satire, however.  That work (while fine in its own right), nevertheless is unable to display the same level of creative inspiration comparable to the idea that King had that night way back in 1979.  The whole creative idea may have been kicked off by recalling the Troll Under the Bridge, in an old wives' tale.  However, this was just the initial spark point.  The initial flare sent up from the workshop of the artist's Imagination.  Another way to state the whole truth of that ancient situation is to claim that even the Bridge Troll proved to be just another masque for the true entity at the heart of the story.

In fact, it's very much as King comments on that initial moment of artistic inspiration in the documentary.  "The incident stayed in my mind.  And over a period of five years I would come back to that, and come back to that.  And little by little, I began to evolve a story.  Until now it's developed into a novel".  Vincent continues: "The book that developed from these notions is It, which King thought of at the time as his magnum opus and the end of a phase - the last book he intended to write about supernatural monsters and kids in jeopardy.  "The book is the summation of everything I have done and learned in my whole life to this point," he said.  Every monster that ever lived is in this book.  This is the final exam (ibid)".  It was first released onto bookshelves everywhere on Sept. 15th, 1986.  I would have been about one or two years old at the time.  So I would and yet wouldn't have been around to enjoy the initial impact that book created.  Like a lot of 80s kids who arrived too late on the scene to enjoy the ride, I instead wound up having to play a makeshift game of catch-up with that novel.

From what I can now tell, it didn't take long for the book to cement itself as part of a very specific item
of pop-cultural history.  It wasn't just that this story of monsters and children was a best-selling success story.  It was also in the way it quickly seemed to go on to help frame the nature of 80s entertainment in general.  Part of the reason a lot of us 80s kids look back on the decade of our formative years with such fondness is not just because of nostalgia.  It is just possible to make a legitimate case for the level of artistic quality that was churned out during the years when Michael Jackson was the reigning King of Pop.  A lot of it comes down to one crucial factor.  The 1980s seems to have been the last great rebirth of literary Romanticism since the days of Coleridge, Dickens, and Mark Twain.  It was kind of the natural enough result of the birth of the Counterculture, and then that same culture taking the reigns of artistic production for one brief moment of time.  This is the best explanation I've been find for why there was such a growing number of films, books, and even TV series formatted towards the fantastic genres.  Science Fiction, Horror, and Fantasy all seem to be the go-to genres for a Renaissance.

Hence, you've got your Star Wars, of course, along with films like Back to the Future, and Bill and Ted.  In addition, though, you also find this fundamentally Romantic strain working its way into the corridors of the straightforward dramas and comedies of that era.  Nowhere is this more on display than in the films of John Hughes, who pretty much single-handedly helped codify the notion of what an ideal life in the 1980s was or could be with films like Pretty in Pink, or The Breakfast Club.  This was the collective zeitgeist that King first stepped into, then was taken up by as he first began his career in the 1970s.  By 1986, he'd graduated from the role of a journeyman novelist to pretty much being among the Big Names who helped to create our notion of what an 80s childhood was like, at least in terms of the entertainment we all consumed back then.  Much like Steven Spielberg did first with movies like E.T., and then afterwards with Poltergeist, and The Goonies, King became, or has become one of the authors you turn to in order to get a sense of what life was like back then.  Let's put it another way.  If Spielberg if the poet of suburban dreams, then King was the teller of American nightmares during that decade.

Both King and Spielberg have since gone on to become kind of like the standard bearers for both the light and dark contrasts of that time period, and all the terror and wonder that could sometimes go with it.  Looked at from this perspective, it really does seem as if the publication of It might have been one of the keystone texts that helped set the tone for what the 80s would become first as a lived experience, and later a part of history.  I also think the timing might have been ideal in another way.  Just the year before, Rob Reiner had sent his film Stand By Me (an adaptation of yet another King novella) out into theaters.  And it was already on the way toward becoming another key 80s text, in a matter of speaking.  It was one of those films, in other words, that was fast becoming an entree in the Pantheon, for lack of a better word.  So when King released a novel that contains many of the same themes and ideas in a more fantastic mode of expression, it was very much like all the stars aligning at more or less the right time.

The growing juggernaut of King's success during this period did not go unnoticed in Hollywood, either.  By now, King was also becoming something of a mainstay on both the big and small screens.  So once the studios got a good look at what It was reaping in terms of sales figures, it all became the standard story of how "money talks", and everyone saw dollar signs in the potential of turning the author's monumental novel of fear and childhood into some kind of a film adaptation.  The result and fallout of these creative efforts is the story being told in the documentary Pennywise: The Story of It.  Both the book and the miniseries are among my favorite works, so now is a good time to look back on it all.