Saturday, May 4, 2024

Stephen Kings Harrison State Park 68 (1968).

Let's get one thing clear, I am not an expert on modern poetry.  In fact, aside from one very recent instance, I can't for the life of me recall how many times I might have used snippets of the art form even for the sake of simple quotation.  I'm not even sure just what kind of reputation poetry enjoys at the moment, if I'm being honest.  The best understanding I've got on the situation is that the poem, while not disappeared, is very much a mode of writing that is sort of in a state of retreat, or eclipse.  It seems to have been subsumed once back into the particular type of art out which it originally emerged from, music.  That's where poetry got its start, after all.  Before there was the poem, there was the song.  Singing appears to have been one of mankind's oldest forms of artistic creation, something that goes all the way back to the time when we used to huddle in caves for shelter, and we all lived in the forest, because no one could live anywhere else.  What this turn of fortunes says about the popular reception of poems appears to mean that we no longer see the art of verse in quite the same way that our ancestors in the Renaissance or Victorian eras might have.  We're no longer part of a universe in which the rhyme couplet or the blank verse is considered to have any kind of intrinsic value of its own.  Prose has overtaken the practice of poetry.

If I had to take a guess for why that should be, then I'd have to chalk it up to an evolution in human artistic taste, pure and simple.  The poem proper seems to belong to a time when the prose story as we now have it wasn't even a glimmer of possibility in the mind of any of the major writers prior to the 18th century.  If you go back and look at the historical record of mankind's written works, you'll soon find that there was a time when the major form of literary expression wasn't the prose line, but rather that of verse.  Even every single line of dialogue that Shakespeare ever wrote has more in common with poetry than it does the kind of stylistic practices we expect from modern stage plays.  This is all because it really does appear to have taken us that long to perfect the idea of the prose mode of expression.  This in itself points to a whole history of how human beings conception of the art of storytelling tells its own tale of mental evolution.  One of those fundamental concepts that are so obvious its no wonder it takes so long for any of us to notice it.  It's a topic well worth digging into some other time, perhaps.

Right now, the main point is that this evolution in our understanding of how stories can be told means that with the advent of prose, the artistic expression of prosody soon found itself relegated to a kind authorial second-class citizen status.  As time went on, and some of the best names in the business came along and helped to develop the idea of the good prose line, the art of versification began to take a backseat to all the windows onto new vistas that were opening up for artists and audiences around the world.  This constant strand of development and craftsmanship applied to the non-lyrical mode of storytelling has lead us, with the passage of time to the current situation we now find ourselves.  The practice of novelistic literary writing seems to have reached its apex.  We're now perhaps as close to artistic perfection as the prose line is ever going to be able to achieve.  What few of us seem to have realized until just now is how this accomplishment in stylistic excellence has come at the cost of poetry itself.  It's as if there's been an unconscious law of exchange involved here.  Something that was always going on, yet we were too preoccupied to see it.  The better we were at using prose, the less of a need we had for the use of poetry.  It's gotten to the point where the very verse form that was once considered the height of literary sophistication is now regarded as something like an extra accessory implement.

Poetry has managed, through no fault of its own, to achieve the status of a mere literary tool, in other words.  It is no longer regarded as something of value on its own terms.  Instead, it's seen more as an accessory to other artforms like the novel, or even more to the point, the song of music.  When looked at from this perspective, the story of the poem has this strange, almost perfect cyclical quality.  It's practically a novel epic in its own right.  The story of a genre with lean and musical roots that is able to claim one bright and shining moment for itself, before slowly sinking once more back into the primordial cauldron of music from which it emerged.  The history and fortunes of poetry are pretty remarkable when you think about it.  What's even crazier is the idea that someone like Stephen King would even have anything to do it with.  Here's another instance where the curse of pop culture expectations comes into play.  So far as any of us know, Stephen King is just that guy who writes a lot of Horror stuff down in books.  He's never really been much of anything else so far as the mass audience expectations have been concerned.  So what on Earth is there to be said about the writer in connection with the lost art of verse?  Well, here's where Bev Vincent comes into the picture.

In an essay with the suggestive title of The Dead Zone (not the novel of the same name) Vincent makes a number interesting observations on the relation that King has to the writing of poetry.  "In a 2011 interview with the Atlantic, Stephen King shared his thoughts about poetry. “[Poetry] takes ordinary life,” he said, “it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that’s what you get.” He singled out Philip Larkin and James Dickey as poets who express life’s sometimes inexpressible beauty and mysteriousness and concluded, “poets … do speak God’s language—it’s better, it’s finer, it’s language on a higher plane than ordinary people speak in their daily lives (web)".  From there, Vincent goes on to make a very obvious admission on the subject.

"King might seem an unlikely arbiter of poetic language. His best-selling novels, short stories, and film adaptations—mostly but not exclusively in the horror genre—have earned him sobriquets ranging from “America’s Storyteller” to the “populist poet of American doom.” But King is also a committed poet, albeit not a prolific one. He’s published barely more than a dozen poems over the past five decades, most in small literary journals, although hundreds more exist on scraps of paper or in half-used notebooks, and several others appear in his novels as the work of his characters (ibid)".  The idea of King as someone with a commitment to poetry is an interesting idea.  The open question for me has to do with just how valid it is?  There's one poem of King's in particular that I recall reading not too far back, and for whatever reason (whether good or bad) it has always remained stuck in my head.

The title was Harrison State Park 68, if I recall.  It took a while to track down a useable copy of the poem online.  However, I now have the whole thing in my possession.  Having a chance to go over it once more has been an interesting sort of experience, and I'd like to share the results of it with you now.  In going over the 68 poem, I'm going to have to make considerable use of Vincent's essay.  In many ways, what follows is going to be something of a dialogue with the critic's views about the relation of King to poetry, as well as whatever merits the author deserves as a poet.  With this in mind, I think it's best if we let the original poem itself do the talking as a good way to start things off.

The Poem.

The following work was first published in the 1968 issue of Ubris, a publication of the University of Maine, in Orono.

"All mental disorders are simply detective strategies for handling difficult life situations” – Thomas Szasz.

And I feel like homemade shit” – Ed Sanders.

“- Can you do it?

She asked shrewdly

From the grass where her nylon legs

in gartered splendor

made motions.

- Can you do it?



What do I say?

What are the cools?

Jimmy Dean?

Robert Mitchum?

Soupy Sales?

Modern Screen Romances is a tent on the grass

Over a dozen condoms

in a quiet box

and the lady used to say

(before she passed away)

- If you can't be an athlete,

be an athletic supporter.

“The moon is set.

A cloud scum has covered the


A man with a gun has passed

this way


we do not need your poets.

Progressed beyond them to



Cousin Brucie

the Doors

and do I dare

mention Sonny and Cher?


“I remember Mickey Rooney

as Pretty Boy Floyd

and he was the shortest Pretty Boy Floyd

on record

coughing his enthusiastic

guts out in the last



“We have not spilt the blood.

They have spilt the blood.

A little girl lies dead

On the hopscotch grid

No matter

“- Can you do it?

She asked shrewdly

With her Playtex living bra

cuddling breasts

softer than a handful of wet Fig Newtons.

Old enough to bleed

Old enough to slaughter

The old farmer said

And grinned at the white

Haystack sky

With sweaty teeth



your grandchildren will be



“I remember a skeleton

 In Death Valley

 A cow in the sun-bleached throes of antiseptic death

 and someone said:

 - Someday there will be skeletons

 on the median strip of the Hollywood Freeway

 staring up at exhaust-sooty pigeons

 amidst the flapping ruins of

 Botany 500

 call me Ishmael.

 I am a semen.


“- Can you do it?

 She asked shrewdly

 When the worms begin

 their midnight creep

 and the dew has sunk white to

 milk the grass...

 And the bitter tears

 Have no ducts

 The eyes have fleshed in.

 Only the nose knows that

 A loser is always the same.

“There is a sharp report.

 It slices the night cleanly

 And thumps home with a tin can spannnng!

 Against the Speed Limit sign down the road.



 The clean clear sound of a bolt levered back...




"Aileen, if poachers poached peaches, would the

 poachers peel the peaches to eat with poached eggs

 poached before peaches?"


“oh don’t


 please touch me

 but don’t


 and I reach for your hand

 but touch only the radiating live pencils

 of your bones:

 -- Can you do it”?

A Breakdown of the Poem's Content.

When it comes to Stephen King's relation to the Art of Poetry, I suppose it's more than fair enough for a little back story to be in order.  At least that way we've got some sort of explanation and context to work with for the appearance of poems like the one just recited above.  Here's where Vincent's article comes in handy.  According to him, "As an undergraduate at the University of Maine in the late 1960s, King took classes in contemporary British and American literature taught by Carroll Terrell, a renowned Ezra Pound scholar. King also enrolled in a special seminar called Contemporary Poetry in the fall of 1968. Limited to just 12 students, the workshop was taught by Burton Hatlen, cofounder of the National Poetry Foundation (no relation to the Poetry Foundation), and Jim Bishop, who has taught poetry in schools, prisons, and mental health centers. The group met frequently, sometimes in Bishop’s living room.

"King later recalled the workshop as like “being on a long drunk,” an exciting period that produced nothing notable from him. “But, on the other hand, I wasn’t typical,” he writes. “For a lot of people, good did come of it.” He identifies the semester as one of his rare “dry periods” from writing fiction, which he attributes to spending too much time analyzing the work he produced. He worried about how his classmates would dissect his writing—a process foreign to King’s approach. “I’m the kind of writer that doesn’t know jack shit about anything,” he says in a 2016 interview. “I’m totally intuitive about this. I don’t plot ahead, I don’t outline.”

"Still, he wrote 40 or 50 poems for the seminar, few of which still exist. His first published poem, “Harrison State Park ’68,” appeared in the fall 1968 edition of Ubris, the University of Maine literary journal. As a child, King lived for a while in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so presumably the poem’s title refers to Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis.  The poem pairs an epigraph attributed to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Thomas Szasz (“All mental disorders are simply defective strategies for handling difficult life situations”) with the lyric “And I feel like homemade shit” from a song by Ed Sanders of the Fugs. King goes on to mention a number of celebrities—Jimmy Dean, Robert Mitchum, Sonny and Cher—and brand names—Sony, Westinghouse, Playtex—which has since become a hallmark of his style.  In Danse Macabre, King quotes poet Louis Zukofsky, who reportedly said that “the look of words on the page—indents, punctuation, the place on the line where paragraphs end—has its own story to tell.” In “Harrison State Park ’68,” King dramatizes this idea across the poem’s 100 free verse lines (ibid)".  Here we come to an examination of the poem proper, and things get a bit interesting.

As far as Vincent is concerned, "As a hodgepodge of images and lame jokes (“if you can’t be an athlete, / be an athletic supporter”), the poem is cryptic, although the imagery anticipates death and perhaps a nuclear holocaust (“Someday there will be skeletons / on the median strip of the Hollywood Freeway”). At the end, the narrator reaches for his lover’s hand but touches “only the radiating live pencils / of your bones.”  As Collings writes, “The more formal distancing and verbal texture of poetry often comes between King as poet and his audience,” and “Harrison State Park ’68” is a prime example. Unlike King’s more mature works, which are colloquial, linear, and cinematic, the poem is more a literary object than a story (ibid)".  Vincent's idea of the poem as a mere hodgepodge of imagery is interesting inasmuch as my own reaction to the poem has left me with the sense that perhaps there's more going on here than the reader might be able to tell at just a first glance.  For starters, the more I go over this work, the clearer its general outlines start to become, and I begin to catch glimpses of what I'm going to call a narrative embryo of sorts; a kind of incomplete narrative which still manages to have the faint glimmers of a legitimate beginning, middle, and closing resolution.  Here's the story as I can figure it out.

On the simplest level, what the poem presents us with in its opening and main action is that of a tryst between a pair of would-be lovers.  The poem's main cast consists of the nameless narrator and the girl he has taken to a secluded spot for what is implied to be his first time making out.  The woman appears to be a hell of a lot more experienced than he is in these matters.  Hence the poem's opening question, "Can you do it"?  In other words, do you know anything about making love to a girl?  Do you know what a woman wants?  Do you have any idea of how to give her the satisfaction she's looking for?  Can you do any of these things, and do them well?  Do you love?  It's here that the opening line of the poem matches well with one of the epigraphs.  In particular, the response to the woman's question seems anticipated in the line King quotes from the countercultural poet Ed Sanders, "I feel like homemade shit".  In other words, this guy doesn't sound like he'll be capable of giving his date what she wants, even if he wanted to.

From here, the words of the poem reveal to us that we are seeing things from the perhaps unreliable point of view of the man, maybe a college student, taking the girl out for a tryst.  The remainder of the work is therefore a catalogue of thoughts running through the narrator's mind as he confronts his situation.  At first, things seem to be running the normal gamut of ideas you'd expect to find in the kind of situation that wouldn't be out of place in a work like Fast Times at Ridgemont High.  We see the narrator trying to find out the right response to her question, wondering what are "all the right moves" to make in this scenario?  He even goes through a mental list of cinematic idols in the hopes that his memory of them can tell him what to do.  Here is the point where the poem shows its age, not in terms of offensive content, so much as in the fact that most readers today are libel not to have heard of celebrities like Robert Mitchum or Soupy Sales.  Whatever the case, the meaning of the narrator's list should be clear enough.  He's looking to come off as the kind of old fashioned tough guy that he thinks will be enough to impress his date.  And good fucking luck with that, Casa-never, I say.

The narration then begins to wax somewhat philosophical as the main character begins to mull over how the art of courtship has changed with the passage of years.  In an earlier age, he might have resorted to poetry to try and win the lady's hand.  However, he decides that such a time has come and gone.  There's no more need for poets in an age that has given us Cousin Brucie, Sonny and Cher, or Jim Morrison and the Doors.  So far, so pathetic, and its doesn't look as if the narrator's luck is going to change on that score.  Right before this bit of musing, however, the poem begins to sound its first off-note.  There's a flicker of movement that the narrator catches out of the corner of his eye.  It's when attention is broken off from the main action that the story begins to enter some very familiar sounding territory to long time readers of Stephen King.  "A man with a gun has passed this way".  There's something ominous in the way the intrusion of this glaring image is presented in what was heretofore a normal enough setting.  It also doesn't hurt that even in a work of poetry, King is able to give that line of verse an appropriate sense of build-up in just the single space of the two couplets that come before it.

"The moon has set.  A cloud scum covers the stars".  To me, those lines read almost like the setup for an almost stereotypical werewolf story.  You're half expecting the opening scene from Michael Jackson's Thriller video to play out.  In a way, I suppose its possible to claim that what we're looking at here is the prototypical Gothic setup that both King and Jackson wound up drawing inspiration from in differing yet related ways.  Whatever the case may be on that score, what can't be denied is that the double hits of both the description of a dark night with a full moon, plus the sight of a man with a gun prowling around the vicinity takes the situation in a different yet very familiar territory for King.  Another way to describe these opening lines is that it all reads like a poetic riff or variation on the urban legend of the Hook.  You know, the story of the midnight prowler of Lover's Lanes, who goes about killing his victims by gutting them with his hook hand.  In some ways, comparing this story with the urban legend and the contents of Jackson's music video might be more apt in the long run.

Before we get to answering these questions, however, there's still more of the poem left to be explored.  Not long after the sighting of the prowling gunman, the narrator's inner monologue takes a sharp turn into dark musings.  "We haven't spilt the blood.  They have spilt the blood.  A little girl lies dead on a hopscotch grid.  No matter".  With these four simple lines of verse we are now in familiar King territory, and their appearance in the narrator's mind begins to raise all sorts of alarming questions for the reader.  Why does the image of a murder pop into the main character's head all of a sudden?  Why does it sound like something he's witnessed first-hand?  The most troubling question the poem makes us ask in these moments is, what does the narrator mean by we haven't spilt the blood.  They have spilt the blood?  Who are this we and they he's talking about?  The lines make the whole thing sound as if the protagonist and some others we don't know about are viewed as being responsible for the slaughter of a young child.  At the same time, the narration insists that the main character has nothing to do with the crime.  Instead, the responsibility is aimed at an unnamed and unknown they, whoever that is supposed to be.  It has taken King just four lines, and already we are in the country of the unreliable narrator.

Now the poet has us appropriately on edge.  The sudden intrusion of violent imagery associated with death and murder is compounded and coupled with the narrator's curt dismissal that it doesn't matter.  However in the next verse, the lead speaker's thoughts continue on in this vein, recalling the words spoken to him by an old farmer imparting some arcane yet dangerous sounding information about how someone (presumably children in general) can become old enough to slaughter when they're old enough to bleed.  The thought process of the poem has taken on an certifiably unhinged level of conception.  We're now peering through a window in a mind with a tenuous connection to sanity.  What started out sounding normal enough now reveals itself to be an outlook shaped by unhealthy interests and toxic relationships.  Indeed, the mention of the deranged words of the old farmer puts one in mind of the kind of toxic relationship that the author would later go on to write about in novella's such as Apt Pupil.  Where a teenage boy come under the corrupting influence of a former World War II criminal.  It could very well be that these lines detailing a dangerous relation between a crazy old farmer and the speaker of the poem amounts to nothing less than this same idea in a kind of artistic embryo state.  The first stirring of a concept that the writer will go on to explore at greater length during his career.

From here, the poem takes on an almost apocalyptic tone, as the narrator imagines the idea of the entire Earth being covered with fallout radiation as the implied result of a nuclear exchange.  We are treated to either the main character's fears, fantasies, or even a sick mixture of both as he envision future generations being born as radioactive monsters, and the Hollywood Freeway lined with bleached out bones.  In these moments, King's Imagination seems to be leading him into the very same territory that he would explore in greater depth with books like The Stand, or The Dark Tower series.  It's almost too easy to imagine seeing our old friend Randall Flagg bopping along down that same freeway, whistling a jaunty tune, as he makes his way toward the city of dreams and angels.  Once again, however, all of these notions seem to exist in no more than in an embryonic state.  The writer can be seen here riffling through the storehouse of his creative faculties, and these are the images that keep getting tossed up at him.  It almost makes you wonder what it must be like have all that being conjured up in your mind.  Can't say I envy King all too much in moments like these.  At the same time, it makes for a good read.

The words of the second main character in the poem bring the narrator back to the present moment, with the repetition of her original question, the one that opened the poem.  "Can you do it"?  What happens next is more or less implied to be the speaker's attempts to "do it" with the girl, and yet it all goes wrong, perhaps in a very deadly way.  The closing verses seem to indicate the following.  When main character turns his attention back to his date, it seems like things are back to normal.  Then he begins to fantasize her as either a dead or living corpse.  This is followed by the loud report from a gun, as the rifleman can now be heard taking potshots at road sings somewhere not too far in the distance.  The finial lines seem to be spoken for the most part by the girl, and it's worth pointing out how the tone of her words seem to switch automatically from one of cool confidence, and mature seduction to that of alarm and begging as the narrator reaches out for her.  It's impossible to shake the idea that as the poem draws to a close, the woman realizes that she is not the narrator's date, but rather his latest victim.   

Conclusion: An Early Peak into the Writer's Storehouse.

Vincent maintains that a work like this is best seen as a kind of experiment, rather than an actual poem.  However, I hope I've gone far enough in proving that not only do the verses cohere into a kind of poetry, they also function to tell what does emerge as a coherent enough narrative through-line (or at least as rational as any story can be when it's told through the eyes of madness).  What we've got here is the story of a troubled mind out on a date, and it looks as if individual's personal problems are catching up with him.  It amounts to nothing less than an example of the artist stretching his creative faculties for the first time, and being able to discover a series of images.  What's fascinating to watch as you read the poem is the way it's possible to see all of those mental pictures falling into place just as the narrative requires them, and then how they all slowly coalesce together to creative this impressionistic strand, which nonetheless is able to contain a beginning, middle, and end.  I don't think it's too much of a mistake to call it an early tour de force on King's part, even if it's a minor one compared to the artist's later achievements.  Here we're seeing him find out the raw materials that power his Imagination.

I'll have to confess I came away more impressed by his performance here than when I first went in.  I've got this clear memory of coming away unimpressed with with my initial read-through of the work.  It's one of those cases where somehow nothing clicks until you give it a second go.  I think what helped me get a better handle on the material the second time around is the understanding that I was reading a series of rough drafts for a lot of ideas that King would go on to explore at greater length in his prose work.  It helps if you can break down the elements of the poem into parts, and then try and recall where else you've seen each idea before.  The most obvious example here is that picture of a radiated, post-apocalyptic landscape that King would later go on to make his own.  The Stand is one of those novels that seems to have achieved its own zeitgeist status by this point.  Even those who've never read it seem to have this odd ability to be familiar with its contents even if they qualify as non-readers.  It's one of the author's most familiar calling cards along with the likes of The Shining.  The elements of the poem that jump out at me the most, however, are the main setup of a young narrator who begins to show signs of being ever so slightly insane during the course trying to make-out with his date.

I don't know why it took me so long to figure this out, however, when I read the poem a second time, I realized that what I was reading sounded a hell of a lot like the entire contents of a short story that appeared in the author's Night Shift collection.  It was called "Strawberry Spring", and it details a series of murders happening around a fictionalized version of the University of Main campus.  There's this unseen psycho who goes around killing a bunch of pretty young co-eds and leaving their remains lying around the college grounds for unwitting students and faculty to discover for themselves.  Pretty soon, the villain of the piece is able to earn himself a nickname, Spring Heeled Jack.  All of this is related through the eyes of a former college student recalling his past, and how he found himself getting swept up in the hysteria generated by the murders.  All of these events took place during the titular "Spring" which gives the story it's name.  The moment that links the Night Shift work up with the older poem comes at the story's end, where the murders start up again after twenty years, and the narrator begins to admit he's experiencing blank spots in his memory, where he can't remember where he was or what he did.  The tale concludes with the narrator worrying that there might be something nasty leftover and waiting for him in the trunk of his car.  It almost sound as if the poem was turned into a prose work.

It's the simplest way I can put it, and I don't know how that must sound.  However, I'm willing to defend the idea.  There's a certain amount of creative logic to the notion of King revisiting one of his old, embryonic ideas, and then translating it into a full-fledged story.  I'd argue that what we've got with a poem like "Harrison State Park 68" is perhaps best described as a rough draft for the story that would later become "Strawberry Spring".  The interesting part about it is that while describing the poem as more of a rough draft is kind of the more correct technical description, it has to be said that the finished work is of such a quality that it could almost function as deleted scene of the short story.  Something that could have functioned as an interlude segment within the later text.  If this is the case, then while the "Park" piece might give us an interesting glimpse into the killer's psyche, it's also understandable why it ultimately never wound up as part of the later completed prose work.  It runs the risk of either confusing the audience by switching from prose to poetry out of the blue, and also runs the risk of spoiling the ending, and taking the final bitter and alarming sting out of the O'Henry Twist.

Perhaps it therefore makes better sense to view "Harrison State Park 68" as something of an unofficial prequel to "Strawberry Spring".  We're given an early glimpse of the narrator of that later story in a more poetic, impressionistic mode, when the troubled mind is at the height of its psychosis, thus accounting for the work's broken and fragmented nature.  Whereas the later account is told in a more lucid seeming state of mind.  Beyond all these speculation lies the ever-important question of just what was up with the poem as King wrote it?  What does it mean, in other words?  In term's of the work's intrinsic meaning and how this determines the poem's value, then for me I'd have to say it all comes from the artist discovering a number of what would soon become his primary themes, the creative notions that King would return to time and again in his career.  The reason why he would keep returning to these particular wells is pretty obvious once you realize that they are all the tap springs that continue to fire his Imagination even to this day.  As far as the author's publication history is concerned, what makes a poem like "Harrison State Park" so important is that it marks that important moment when the author begins to realize where his inspiration comes from, and is able to capture most of that material down on the printed page for the first time.  Not just that, he's also able to get his efforts published.

In this initial exploration of his inner landscape, the theme that all of the writer's other ideas wind up coalescing around seems to a very familiar trope of the Horror genre.  What King has given us here in one of his first professional pieces is nothing less than a riff on the classic urban legend of the Hook.  It just makes sense for me to view this as the underlying structure of the poem, because all of its setup and execution plays out as nothing less than a surprisingly competent variation on the tale.  The main difference is that King has taken the key notion of the legend, and flipped it somewhat on it's head.  A better way to phrase it, however, is to say that the author has turned it inside out.  The typical setup of the story of the Hook involves a Lover's Lane couple who hear on their car radio that a maniac with a hook for a hand has escaped from the local asylum.  When the girl starts to here strange noises first nearby in the woods, and then seemingly right outside their car, she begs her boyfriend to take her home.  He obliges, yet when he gets the girl to her house, and goes to let her out of the car, he's shocked to find a disembodied hook hanging from the car door.  King's poem features no such crude "device".  Instead, all that's happened is that the Boy and the Hook characters have both been melded into one.

Rather, let's say that the speaker of King's poem has no discernable physical deformities because the hook that he carries around with him is inside his own troubled mind.  King's verse narrative is therefore very much in line not just with urban legends such as the Hook, but also with tales that might be considered that folk story's earlier literary predecessors.  The main character could also be regarded as a modern day riff on the deranged narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart".  Indeed, the crucial situation that King's Hook figure suffers from was already expressed with brilliant, Gothic eloquence long ago in the most famous adaptation of Mr. Eddie's short story.  "True, I'm nervous.  Very, very, dreadfully nervous.  But why would you say that I am mad"?  As the commentary of "Tale" says it best, the greatest mistake of the storyteller was in believing that he was sane.  By allowing the Hook to be his main protagonist, King seems to be exploring an idea that he would go on to state with greater clarity in the pages of his non-fiction study, Danse Macabre.  There's an entire chapter in that later book called Tales of the Hook, and it is, in a way, something of an indirect excavation of the urban legend.

The way King does this is that he talks about the meaning of the Hook by discussing all of the themes and ideas that go together to make it a complete piece of national folklore.  This includes questions of the dramatic effects the good Horror story is supposed to achieve, what we talk about when we discuss the idea of monsters and monstrosity, and how all of this tied into the Youth Culture of King's era, which was coincidentally, the seed bed where the legend of the Hook first took root and then went on to become what in retrospect is best described as an icon of Horror fiction.  Yet the sad part is ol' Mr. Hook never seems to have gotten the same level of respect such as those given to either Freddy or Jason.  This is all the more ironic to me when you consider that not only is the urban legend a lot more effective then either Friday the 13 or A Nightmare on Elm Street, but also the fact that each of them is no more than the Hook character dressed up in different masques.  In my opinion, the only slasher films that measure up to the quality of the legend boils down to just two classics, Psycho and Halloween, yet that's a debate for another day.  The real point is how even in a non-fiction setting King is able to take the materials and tropes of the modern Gothic tale and then proceed to turn them on their heads.

The way he does this in Danse Macabre is by subtly highlighting a constant hazard inherent in the genre.  One of the immutable tropes of the Tale of Terror can be boiled down to the neat and succinct phrase of "Watch out for the Monster".  This is a variant of the phrase King gives us in the study.  There, he prints it as "Watch Though for the Mutant".  He even goes so far as to give us a third variation on the idea when he quotes from the final line of the Howard Hawkes film The Thing from Another World: "Keep Watching the Skies"!  What King does next, however, is to introduce a very clever bit of irony into such an admonition, by pointing out how this same warning can easily become a double-edged sword.  It's amazing how quick even the most well-meant idea can be taken and twisted into its most dangerous polar opposite with stunning ease.  For King, this irony is best demonstrated by how often calls to "Watch for the monster" have been used to justify the most heinous crimes of racism and tyranny.  In fact, I'd argue John Carpenter sort of helps complete King's notion here by taking that aforementioned clarion call and asking what happens when you can no longer tell whether you or those closest to you might happen to be "one of those...Things"!  That, for me, is always the moment when any clear grasp of what we hope is reality begins to slip through our fingers like fine grains of sand.

It's the idea of the Boy Who Cried Wolf taken to its ultimate, paranoic extreme.  It's this same idea that King seems to be working with in "Harrison State Park".  In the midst of his ramblings, the poem's nameless protagonist wanders into musings about the end of the world in some kind of cataclysmic apocalypse.  Taking into account the year in which the poem was published, it's easy to see that these musings are a reflection of the Cold War fears of nuclear war that were rampant during the author's college years (and which seem to be making there way back into the mainstream as of this writing).  

The troubling part is that it serves as little more than fuel for the narrator's own deranged personal fire.  He's willing to use the threat of human extinction as an excuse to carry out his murderous desires.  This addition of an apocalyptic element somehow manages to give the poem an interesting mythic resonance.  It's a familiar keynote to be found in the rest of King's fiction.  This is something that can be found even outside of The Stand and The Dark Tower, in works such as It, Salem's Lot, or Firestarter.  The idea of taking the Hook of urban legend and finding some way of being able to give this character a mythic, epic resonance is just one of those abilities that I think only King or a handful of others have ever been able to pull off with anything approaching such levels of genuine artistic finesse.

The almost perfect punchline to all of this is the impression it leaves me with of the finished product.  I'm not going to lie, I came in here expecting I would have to tear this work apart.  That this whole thing was just going to be me pointing out all of the poem's flaws, and having to give responses to each of Vincent's praises.  Instead, to my own surprise, here I find myself willing to give both men a bit more credit than I anticipated.  The best excuse I've got for why that should be is because of something King mentioned about the way writing works in any possible book.  He said something to the effect that a good work of fiction is something that pays back in dividends.  The trick is the reader always had to be willing to put in the extra effort required to get the full entertainment value out of it.  The idea that the audience is just as much an active participant in the creation of a story does sound strange in an age where the automatic assumption is that reading and watching are all just so much  spectator sports.  The funny thing is I guess my own experience proves just how true King's words are, because the second time I came back this poem, it was like reading another piece of work entirely.  This time the language made sense, and better still, so did the images it painted, and the message they conveyed.

With this in mind, I'm afraid I'm forced to conclude that I've had to revise my thinking on this work.  To give you an approximate idea of where I stand on King's poem, I'll have to compare it with the thoughts of two other critics.  I've already mentioned Bev Vincent's take on King's skills as a poet.  In addition to his essay, Prof. Michael R. Collings was one of the first academics to take the work of the author seriously.  On the merits of "Harrison State Park", Collings is of the opinion that "As a poem, it is not particularly strong.  It relies on verbal cliches (and, sic) puns...that sometimes form only tangential connections with the rest of the poem, and elliptical images so compressed as to be virtually unapproachable (Scaring Us to Death, 109)".  Vincent, by comparison, is willing to grant King's efforts a greater bit of credit, though perhaps just so much.  His notes on the finished product for instance, run as follows.  "The poem pairs an epigraph attributed to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Thomas Szasz (“All mental disorders are simply defective strategies for handling difficult life situations”) with the lyric “And I feel like homemade shit” from a song by Ed Sanders of the Fugs. King goes on to mention a number of celebrities—Jimmy Dean, Robert Mitchum, Sonny and Cher—and brand names—Sony, Westinghouse, Playtex—which has since become a hallmark of his style (ibid)".  

Beyond this point, however, Vincent seems content to give Collings' dismissal a greater deal of credit than it perhaps deserves.  Far from being just a "hodgepodge", the finished product can be demonstrated to tell a full and complete narrative in verse form.  What we've got here is what I'll call a snapshot story.  It's a Tale of the Hook in King's parlance.  At the same time, it is also an embryo of sorts.  The poem itself manages to contain a number of elements or notional ideas that the writer would later go on to explore later in greater detail.  Here we find them all packed together in one space.  You'd expect such a cramming together of the author's major thematic points to be cumbersome and crowding.  It could even be the case that this is how Collings and Vincent view the way the verse packs in so many concepts together at once.  For my own part, however, the poem never comes off feeling crowed or constricted.  With all due respect, I think part of the reason why this might be is because I was able to latch onto the greater narrative thread running through the verse, and the moment of Gothic crisis it was all pointing toward.  I'd argue this insight is further substantiated by the fact that the poem is also a rough draft for the later "Strawberry Spring" story from Night Shift.  It helps my case to point out that the Slasher on Campus tale was also written about the same time as the "Harrison" piece.  It therefore becomes easy to see how the ideas of the poem stayed with King, and followed him into prose.

I'd argue that even if you want to go ahead and claim that "Strawberry Spring" is the better work, it's still no valid critical reasoning to slight this bit of verse as the lesser of two works.  It may be the poetical egg out of which the short story hatched, yet it's crucial that the hatchling is nothing without the embryo.  And the good thing about this forgotten work is that it can stand as its own thing, regardless of what came after.  What King has accomplished here is the refashioning of a classic urban legend in metrical form.  The only thing more surprising than stumbling across a riff version of The Hook is to notice the skill that the writer utilizes in telling us this familiar tale.  One of the epigraphs chosen for the poem notes how mental disorders are strategies for handlings life situations.  It's perhaps the most telling line of the whole piece, as the narrative of the verse deals with a troubled young man who resorts to violence against women in order to avoid dealing with the dark issues that he's grappling with.  The use of the Szasz quotation then serves a double purpose.  As well as hinting at the true nature of the story, it is the poem's way of signaling that there is meant to be an element of tragedy about the whole affair.  We're not meant to feel sympathy for the Hook, but rather the kind of Classical pity one used to reserve for the likes of Shakespeare's version of Richard III.  It's a crucial yet overlooked truth inside the lie.  

All of these reasons are enough for me to give "Harrison State Park 68" a genuine recommendation.  It is worth picking up for the way it can afford readers an idea of the writer's mind at work during an early phase of his career.  We can see the elements of King's greater secondary worlds coming into focus with this poem.  Everything is still in its infant stage, though there is nothing infantile about it.  One or two editing choices aside, we're treated to the first glimpse of a larger landscape that will soon begin to open out and expand as the writer continues to turn his attention to it.  In that sense, this work stands as a fitting promise of things to come, and it's worthwhile just to see Stephen King's world taking shape.      

No comments:

Post a Comment