Monday, October 31, 2016
NINJA STUFF: An Open Letter to Stephen King
Dear Mr. King,
Thank you for sharing your gift with the world. We've never met, but your work has forever changed me for the better and had a profound impact on the course of my life.
Describing you as my favorite author doesn't quite cover it. Mentor would be a better term, though perhaps disrespectful to the writers who've worked with me in person. Imaginary friend feels too trite (and unfavorable to me), so I think I'll settle for describing you as my Heroic Writer Mental Construct, the voice of the other who whispers to our protagonist, usually in italics, the way Pennywise whispers to Henry Bowers in It while simultaneously being the moon (I slept with my curtains shut for months!). Like so many of your characters, I hear voices, and strongest among them is yours.
Young boys need heroes (so do grown men), and writers specialize in creating imaginary people. I've often imagined you sitting behind me as I write so that when I got stuck in a story and didn't know what Miriam Walters should do next, I could turn to you and hear you say, "What did Wendy Torrance do in this situation?" When the Heroic Writer Mental Construct did it and did it right, how did he do it? What would Stephen King do (WWSKD)?
For this reason, my extremely long serial horror novel containing copious swearing, incremental repetition of creepy phrases, mental voices whispering in italics, a writer as a protagonist, and themes of dark Christianity, The Book of David, feels like my final exam in a course I've been enrolled in since I was in the sixth grade and read my first Stephen King novel. Have I used what you taught me to create Stephen King fan fiction that's somewhere in the neighborhood of emulating your style without straight up copying it? Does The Book of David (the next-to final Chapter releases today!!!) come even close to delivering the combination of strong character/strong situation tension and philosophical humor I always loved about your stories, that unique reading experience I've never been able to get anywhere else?
Probably not. But if a writer isn't going to give his all and aim to be the best, why's he bothering?
This is the curse of knowing there exists in this world a writer like Stephen King: though I'm devoting so much of my life to writing, I will never write anything as incredible as The Dark Tower. The greatness of The Stand is beyond my reach. I have to wonder why I've bothered writing not one, but two zombie stories in a world where Home Delivery already exists. Sorry vampire writers of the world, we have Salem's Lot, so we don't need any more vampire stories, thank you, and for sure don't even attempt a scary clown. The competition is closed, we have our best horror story in every category and they all happen to have been written by the same dude.
Trying to out write Stephen King is like trying to win a fight against Superman. I tell myself, "It's all good and well that you like to write scary stories, little buddy, but you can't beat that guy. No one can. It isn't possible. So don't waste time feeling bad that you're not smarter than Einstein. Learn from him as much as it's possible to understand with your less-gifted brain and do the best you can to be scary in your own never-going-to-be-quite-as-good way."
For years I've been referring to readers of this blog as Esteemed Reader, which is absolutely my version of Constant Reader. "Constant" is an assumption it's fair to make when you're a writer of your talent, Mr. King, but if you're little ole Robert Kent, you're just happy somebody showed up, so "Esteemed" it is:)
I've read every one of your stories and novels, Mr. King, most of them twice, with the exception of The Tommyknockers, which I can never quite bring myself to finish no matter how many times I try. But hey, if you need to write the occasional The Tommyknockers to also write The Mist or The Body, then I'll take that trade all day everyday.
The purpose of the previous paragraph is not just to be a dick, but also to illustrate that I'm not entirely in the bag for you all the time, every time; just mostly:) As much as I love your writing, it's not a blind love. I am paying close attention and learning with every word. As prolific as you've been, not all of it can be perfect, but oh my dear God in Heaven, when you got hold of a good story, no one has ever done what you could do and I don't know that anyone ever will.
When I met the future Mrs. Ninja, I wasn't sure about a small town white boy coupling with a black girl from the city. But when we discussed our mutual love of The Dark Tower, I knew it was meant to be. And did we make nerd jokes about our being Eddie Dean and Detta Walker (Mrs. Ninja likes Susannah, but loves Detta) while calling our cat Oy? No comment. But Mrs. Ninja did write her graduate thesis on a contextual analysis of the multiple published versions of The Gunslinger, which is why I know and find it hilarious that over the years you changed Roland's line "how's it hanging" to "how are they hanging" (much better, I guess?) to "Long days and pleasant nights."
We're excited about the movie and think Idris Elba will make an amazing Roland, even if he's a little young (I wanted Michael Keaton). I don't suppose the movie Roland and Detta will have the same wonderfully suspenseful racial tension as it exists in the book (if they cast a white actress, my wife may drive to Hollywood to slap someone), which makes me sad.
But real talk: it doesn't matter as there isn't a movie studio in the world with the courage to put Detta Walker out there in all her glory (for the uninitiated, she's the psychotic projection of an otherwise mild mannered black woman intentionally embodying racist stereotypes) as too few artists are as oh-my-God-are-you-watching-this-guy nuts as you. I cherish your recording of The Drawing of the Three audiobook (hard to find, but so worth it) in which you with your white skin do your version of a Detta Walker voice, and to hell with all the angry letters I'm sure you were already getting for dropping N-bombs in Carrie and The Shining and It and wherever else you needed them because you're fearless in a way every author should yearn to be and you never let social convention get in the way of telling The Truth.
Mr. King, when you get hold of a good tale, it's like hearing notes composed by Mozart. Your story reads like no other story could. When I read and reread and reread and listen to you and William Hurt read Hearts in Atlantis, it works every time (the only book I've read more is It, but only just barely). Hearts in Atlantis is perfect, it's always perfect, because that's how great literature reads when it's done right, and I cry at Bobby Garfield's tale every time because you've earned those tears through your craftsmanship and Bobby's story is more real to me than so many life events I've witnessed firsthand.
To displace a single paragraph of Hearts in Atlantis would mean diminishment. To know so perfect a novel can exist, can be brought forth from that ethereal realm where fiction exists before its written is like having discovered proof of God. A great novel is a religious experience and the shelves in my office where I keep your books form a sacred temple.
When I was a teenager, I was assured by multiple adults that:
1. Your writing was cheap trash.
2. It was rotting my brain.
3. I was probably going to Hell for reading it.
You could not have asked for a better combination to make me a loyal Constant Reader:) I'll never forget the way the adults who taught my Sunday School classes looked at me when I brought Pet Semmetary on a week-long missions trip, and those disapproving looks from the people so often telling me what to think and how to act were part of what made your books such a pleasure to read, like getting an earring or a tattoo. Pet Semmetary scared me then, but I reread it last year, and now that I'm a father, I found it almost too scary to finish.
It was the first book for adults I ever read. The experience expanded my mind and is one of the clear markers in retrospect of my transition from childhood. I wanted to read It because a couple of the more popular boys were reading it, and they almost never read anything. A teacher yelled at them because that book was "not appropriate for school," which blew my mind, because all they ever want you to do at school is read books. Even then, teachers were convinced that literature was dead, but I saw that kids would read if you let them get their hands on something interesting to them. And to the great annoyance of the other teachers, the cute Language Arts teacher I yearned to marry some day was also reading It.
I had read sections of certain adult books prior to It--"the good scenes," as it were, recommended to me by kids in the know--but I had never sat down to read an adult book. And what an adult book! At 1,138 pages, the hardback called me a chump for even daring to glance at it. Getting through the whole thing was its own right of passage, or ritual of chud, so that I could say that yes, I, Robert Kent, am capable of reading a book it strained my wrists just to hold. Today's kids with their e-readers don't know how good they got it:)
But reading It never felt like work, partly because it had all manner of good stuff inside from copious amounts of "forbidden language," to frank depictions of sex, to violence worse than anything I'd ever seen on cable. That book has everything my mother didn't and still doesn't want me to read, like all the Grand Theft Auto games put in the written form:) If that had been all the book contained, I likely would've moved on upon growing up and wouldn't be writing this letter, but it must be acknowledged that the naughtiness of your books is surely part of what's made them so popular. I wasn't the only kid reading for the "good scenes."
But my relationships with so many of your books are not tawdry flings. If I live another decade, I'm for sure going to reread Memoirs of a Geisha, The Cider House Rules, Watership Down, Jurassic Park (and will curse the stupidity of the characters engaging in the raptor nest climax for the 20th time), The Exorcist, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; the list goes on at considerable length, but some books must be cherished and loving them is a commitment. Half your books are on that list and if I live another two decades, I'll probably reread the other half. I just reread It again last month, so I'm good for a couple years, and I'm currently listening to Frank Muller's incredible recording of Wizard and Glass, and I've got a candy craving to reread Needful Things again soon.
So when reviewers have compared my writing to yours, I've both flushed with delighted pride as that's the finest compliment I could hope for, and taken issue as a Stephen King fan. Sir, I have read Stephen King, and Mr. Pizza Delivery is no Stephen King. Still, I have devoted more hours of my life to reading your work than any other author's, so there's no question in my mind that your influence has shaped my prose on levels I'm not even aware of. And not just when I'm writing horror. When I write Middle Grade books, I'll spy the occasional sentence I know to be a Stephen King sentence, because it's the right sort of sentence the Heroic Writer Mental Construct would write. And it's no coincidence that there's a chapter in Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees titled "The Long Walk."
I have a degree in literature and you can't get one of those without consuming a fair amount of books and listening to a fair number of blowhards with entrenched views spouting the virtues of James Joyce (do you want a story, or do you want an obnoxious puzzle for insiders that calls itself a novel?) and crying out against the evils of modern fiction. I took a lot of guff for comparing classics to your work (several professors gave me embarrassed looks as though I had publicly defecated). I didn't know much, but I knew people pretended to have read The Scarlet Letter and actually read Misery.
It made me angry that these professors with good jobs, relatively speaking, wouldn't acknowledge that there was a difference between poorly written genre fiction and your stuff. I resented their beliefs that they were smarter than you and your readers, and that the books they liked were somehow better than the books enjoyed by "common people" with less cushy jobs. I have never stopped being offended that so many of them admitted to me, proudly, that they had never read your work. Imagine it: professors of literature neglecting to read the world's bestselling novelist and arguably the most popular writer on Earth at the time they were living.
I learned that snobs can still teach you a lot about great works provided their authors are long dead:) One day their descendants will be teaching your works and railing against future upstart crows. I am grateful, however, as they convinced me that if I was going to be a writer, I wanted to be the sort people would want to read even if no one was making them.
This letter is long, and so I'll say what I came here to say and be done with it: Stephen King, I love you, man. Your work has meant more to me than I could ever express if I wrote a hundred letters. You deserve every penny you've made and all the praise you've garnered and much more than we Constant Readers are able to give you who have given us so much.
Thank you, Stephen King, for making my life brighter and for showing me what fiction writing should be when it's done right.
Your Eternal Fan and Constant Reader,