Stephen King has occasionally raised a rueful protest against being typed as a horror writer – even with the consolation of being the best-selling horror writer in the history of the world. But, as he disarmingly reminds us, there is worse literary company than Lovecraft, Leiber, Bloch, Matheson and Jackson. ‘I could, for example, be an “important” writer like Joseph Heller and publish a novel every seven years or so, or a “brilliant” writer like John Gardner and write obscure books for bright academics who eat macrobiotic foods and drive old Saabs with faded but still legible GENE McCARTHY FOR PRESIDENT stickers on the rear bumpers.’ Instead of which he is the ‘King of Horror’ who had his face on Time, 6 October 1986 (the only author in that year to receive the honour), who sold over 1.2m American hardback copies of It (1986-87’s best-selling novel, and a personal best for King) and who now rates $3m advances. He cries, in other words, all the way to the bank. Or, as he puts it, ‘I don’t give a shit what they call me, so long as I can sleep at night.’
King must like writing. No one who didn’t could do such vast amounts of it. Regularly he disgorges up to two books a year. And King is not one for the slim volume. Three pounds or more is the normal hardback weight of his novels and two of them (The Talisman and It) exceed a thousand pages in paperback. If nothing else, King has liberated horror from the confinement of the short story and the Jamesian miniature.
Given his head, King would certainly swamp the market with far more brand-marked fiction than it could bear, even from him. Between 1978 and 1984 he circumvented the King-quota limit by bringing out five surplus horror tales under the pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’. Unfortunately the Bachman books’ disguise was eventually penetrated. But, more significantly, their appeal was drastically altered when their true authorship was publicised. As King observed, Thinner sold 28,000 by Richard Bachman and 280,000 by Steve King – ‘figure that out.’ It is really not hard to figure out. As the coarse Brendan Behan complained at the end of his life, the public loved him so much that if he hung up his bollocks with his name on them they would be bought.
One of King’s most endearing features is his energetic amateurism. He has turned his hand to directing movies (Maximum Overdrive), at which he’s so-so, and to acting in adaptations of his stories (Creepshow), at which he has no future whatsoever. And, of course, subsidiary rights of his main works have been sold for film, television and talking-tape adaptation. King owns a radio station which broadcasts nothing but the hard Seventies rock which he loves (and which he usually weaves somehow into his fiction). Even the bright academics in their shabby Saabs are beginning to take notice of him. The other day a student applied to me for transfer credit for a class taken elsewhere in the fiction of Stephen King and duly showed as evidence appropriately stuffy essay assignments and reading lists. What with the wholesale decanonisation currently taking place in the United States, King might well find himself on the Stanford Humanities core-curriculum.
Nevertheless, for all his zest in being his successful self, one guesses that he feels fenced in. More particularly, he evidently has mixed feelings about his loyal public, with their insatiable demand for more of the same. He has, for all his energy and versatility, become a franchised product and he doesn’t like it. This grudge was made the subject of his second best-seller of 1987, Misery. Like all of King’s fiction, the donnée of Misery is borrowed (he is – where ideas for his novels are concerned – one of the lightest-fingered authors living). In this case, the borrowings are from Robert Aldrich’s Whatever happened to Baby Jane? and John Fowles’s The Collector. A best-selling author, Paul Sheldon, crashes in a desolate area of the Rockies. It is winter, his car is buried in the snow, and his broken body is rescued by an eccentric recluse. She turns out to be a homicidal and crazy nurse, Annie Wilkes, who before retiring under something of a professional cloud killed 20 of her patients. But she is a devoted – not to say fanatical – fan of Sheldon’s bodice-ripper heroine, Misery Chastain. Unluckily, Sheldon has just killed off Misery, so as to free himself from historical romance and write ‘serious’ novels. Annie installs Sheldon in a wheelchair, hooks him on codeine, and keeps him locked up in a bedroom in her lonely farmhouse. Discovering that he has with him the manuscript of a new novel, she forces him to barbecue the only copy when she discovers it to be a ‘literary’ effort, a realistic study of slum adolescent life. Before the snows melt and his car is discovered, when she will kill him, she obliges Sheldon to write for her personal delectation ‘Misery’s Return’, bringing the dead heroine back to pulp life. The deal is simple: no story, no drug and a lot of pain. When the hero tries to escape, nurse Wilkes chops off his left foot with an axe and cauterises the wound with a propane torch. A lesser offence results in a thumb being sliced off with an electric meat knife. Kings handles such scenes with infectious glee:
Paul screamed as fire splashed over the raw and bleeding stump. Smoke drifted up. It smelled sweet. He and his wife had honeymooned on Maui. There had been a luau. This smell reminded him of the smell of pig when they brought it out of the pit where it had cooked all day. The pig had been on a stick, sagging black, falling apart.
Under Annie’s sharp regime, Sheldon actually contrives to produce in ‘Misery’s Return’ what he recognises as the best instalment of the saga. Nurse, it would seem, knows best.
In the inevitably gory climax Sheldon turns the tables. By a ruse, he manages simultaneously to incinerate his number one fan and the romance she has forced him to write. He finishes her off by choking her with the ashes of the novel. Rescued and patched together (what’s left of him), Sheldon, a wiser and sadder author, writes up the experience as Misery.
Misery is one of King’s stronger efforts, if only by virtue of its being tighter and better-knit than most of his narratives. It, for instance, tells simultaneously the story of five different characters at two different historical periods: the result has all the narrative elegance of overcooked spaghetti. Read allegorically, Misery’s writing-treadmill-with-torture expresses King’s jaundiced view of the genre author-reader relationship, and its mutual imprisonments. The fan is a monster who first makes you famous and then traps you in the fame like a wasp in a jam-jar, and does nasty things – like not buying your books – if you act out of character. There are many real-life confirmations of King’s thesis that in popular fiction you create a success at your peril. Conan Doyle thought himself free of Sherlock Holmes (‘he keeps me from better things’) when he killed the sleuth at the Reichenbach Falls on 4 May 1891. But reader demand obliged him to resurrect Holmes in 1893, and again in 1903 and 1921. It wasn’t that the author wanted to do it, just that the dollars offered by his American publisher were more than he could refuse. Rider Haggard killed his most popular hero in Allan Quatermain (1887) and was then obliged, by popular request, to bring him back for 14 later episodes. Presumably, when Bram Stoker decapitated Dracula at the end of his 1897 novel, he fondly expected that to be the end of it. But the dead ghoul became the undead in Dracula’s Guest and in other hands has had innumerable revivals. Fans wouldn’t let James Bond decently retire the service with the death of his creator Ian Fleming, but kept him going for an increasingly dreary series of adventures by John Gardner. For the fan, once is never enough.
King’s The Tommyknockers has many familiar aspects to it, not least that it’s over 550 pages long and seems destined to sell a million copies. It has a failed writer hero (like The Shining) and is set among the malignant smalltown Maine community which has featured in most of the author’s novels since Carrie, his first success. In Salem’s Lot the good townspeople of Maine degenerate into vampires. In It, they are communally infected with an age-old entity who inhabits the sewer system and is the embodiment of all cosmic evil. ‘It’ finally turns out to be a gigantic insect like the giant sewer ants in Them, leading one to suspect that King once saw the 1960s Punch cartoon of the cinema billboard: ‘It, Son of Them!’ He likes his little jokes.
Here, along the lines of Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a film King admires and has written on at length in Danse Macabre), the Maine townspeople are insidiously possessed by aliens landed in a flying saucer. The force field of this vessel, once uncovered, hollows out the inhabitants of Haven (neighbouring town to It’s Derry), who ‘become’ something inexpressibly alien, collective and evil, while still retaining their familiar human appearance. In interviews, King has testified that his childhood in Durham, Maine was less than happy. His novels would seem to constitute a long-meditated act of revenge on his native place and must be wreaking havoc on the State’s tourist industry.
The flying saucer is something new in King’s fiction, as is the inverted Close Encounters of the Third Kind plot: a terminal note indicates that he began writing this novel in 1982, when Spielberg’s film was making news and breaking box-office records. Science Fiction is not, on the evidence of The Tommyknoekers, something King should persist with. Nevertheless, some of the gimmicks are effective – notably the way in which the mentally-upgraded inhabitants of Haven convert familiar appliances into futurist weaponry. There is, for instance, a fairly hilarious episode in which a murderous coke machine chases the hero around, projecting can missiles and trying to crush him as in some demented football tackle. But most of the SF apparatus of The Tommyknockers is as stale as the flying saucer. As usual, King spices his romance with some carefully-accented social themes – here Chernobyl and mankind’s moral immaturity in the face of new technology. The alien Tommyknockers, which is what humans are becoming, are genius inventors and wholly amoral. But, at the end of it all (and the end is, of course, gory), The Tommyknockers is the feeblest novel of King’s I’ve read since Firestarter.
Best-selling authors can sometimes, if only for the sake of their professional conscience, resist the tyranny of the faithful reader. If he had any sense, for instance, Elmore Leonard would continue pumping out more instalments of the life and adventures of his resourceful Ernest Stickley Jr, 89037 (i.e. Stick) or his burned-out IRS agent, LaBrava. Instead, Leonard has used his recent, and long delayed, fame to bring to market what the market clearly doesn’t want and has done its best to keep out of print, namely Touch. The unusually fraught background to this latest novel is outlined by Leonard in a preface. He wrote the work in 1977 and had it promptly rejected by a dozen hardcover publishers. They were universally polite about the prose, in one case calling it ‘the best writing you have done to date’. But they wanted nothing to do with the subject-matter. Finally, the work was reluctantly accepted as an act of good will by Leonard’s regular publisher, for issue as a humble paperback original. They went on to set Touch up in galleys, but made no apparent effort to publish the thing. Meanwhile, on the strength of works like Glitz (1986), Leonard’s reputation as a crime writer grew and grew. After three years, Leonard bought back the rights to his unwanted novel. And now, in 1988, his star is high enough for anything with the Leonard name on it to sell, even the literary orphan Touch. So here it is.
Wisely, the British publisher has covered the back cover with praise for Bandits, Leonard’s topical and thoroughly in-character thriller about Miami, leprosy and the Nicaraguan Contras. Touch is very different, despite being set in Detroit’s downtown (a favourite Leonard locale) and having some gunplay in its last pages. At its simplest, Touch is a novel about healing – more particularly, miracle-working. It’s also a novel evidently, not to say aggressively, written by a man who has the faith and wants to proselytise. In short, Touch has an embarrassing resemblance to the religious tract. In interviews, Leonard has occasionally alluded to drinking problems and breakdowns which plagued his life and career in the Seventies. Touch would seem to have grown out of that episode and the well trod AA recovery route via the ‘higher power’ which the fellowship requires you to trust in.
Touch’s story is simple enough. A young priest, Juvenal, leaves the Franciscan order and takes up work in the Sacred Heart Rehabilitation Center, a half-way house for recovering drunks. In the course of his samaritan work, he finds himself able to perform healing miracles. Furthermore, he bleeds from the marks of the stigmata. He is, it seems, the 322nd in the line of known stigmatics, the last of whom, Padre Pio of Southern Italy, died in September 1968. Juvenal makes the blind see, the lame walk and cures terminal leukaemia. As a saint in the making, he is stalked by the Gray Army of the Holy Ghost, who want to use him in their campaign to restore, by armed violence if necessary, the traditional Catholic mass. He is also stalked by the entertainment industry, who see remunerative possibilities in the television world for the miracle-worker. A resourceful woman publicity agent (with whom Juvenal eventually falls in love) fakes her way into the Center and tracks the hero to his bedroom with the aim of securing an exclusive contract. She gets more than she bargains for.
He stood in white undershorts by a dresser, his chest and legs bare. He stood on a white towel, his feet bare.
Lynn said, ‘Oh, my God –’
She saw his mild expression, his eyes. She saw his hands raised at his sides, palms up, as if holding small pools of blood.
She saw the crucifix on the wall.
She saw the blood on his hands. She saw the blood oozing out of his left side, staining the waistband of his shorts. She saw the blood on his bare feet, red gouge marks on his insteps, the blood trickling to the towel.
She saw the crucifix again, the agonised figure of Christ on the Cross.
She saw Juvenal standing in his bedroom, bleeding from the same five wounds.
One can understand why all those hardback publishers turned tail and ran. There is no dissolve into irony, fantasy, Science Fiction or rational explanation. The novel quite straightforwardly dumps a medieval saint onto the streets of Detroit. Oh my god, the reader echoes: Elmore Leonard believes in miracles and he wants to tell us about them. It’s Conan Doyle and the fairies all over again.
Touch climaxes with Juvenal’s appearance on a talkshow, Hartline – a rather nastier version of Ted Koppel’s no-holds-barred Nightline. Before an audience of millions, he heals the crippled body of a man who earlier tried to assassinate him. The miracle is real enough, but the sensation-jaded American public disbelieve the plain evidence of their eyes, assuming that the whole thing is a Uri Geller-style hoax. The saint is without honour in his country. (Any Sunday, incidentally, one can see patently spurious miracle healing on the religious channels of American TV.) Hartline ends up with a poor fourth place in the Nielsens, behind an NFL pre-season match and a re-run of Starsky and Hutch.
The faithful reader of Leonard will do better to turn to Charles Willeford’s Sideswipe, a work which one can plausibly call the best novel Leonard never wrote. He obviously thinks so too, and has graciously permitted the English publisher to use his self-deprecating praise in their advertisements: ‘No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford.’ Like Leonard’s Swag, Sideswipe is a story of that most banal of modern American crimes, the supermarket stick-up. It flirts with another threadbare cliché (‘the gang that couldn’t shoot straight’) in the inept band of villains who make up the dramatis personae. In the forefront is Stanley Sinkiewicz, a 71-year-old retiree from Ford’s Baton Rouge assembly plant who is living out his last years in Riviera Beach, Florida. Stanley is the last of a breed, the man who used to handpaint the decorative stripes on the sides of Ford limousines. Under pressure from Japanese competition, he has been automated out of a job. And the cars have lost their last humanising touch ‘because a ruled line is a “dead” line, and a perfect ruled line lacked the insouciant raciness a hand-drawn line gives to a finished automobile.’ As with automobiles, so with modern America, we understand.
A bizarre series of accidents deposits the dumb but upright Stanley in jail for child molesting. In the cells, he meets a disarmingly friendly sociopath, Troy Loudon, who instructs him on how to manipulate the psychiatrists who will soon examine him. In return, the duly released Stanley dispatches a note which will discourage Troy’s accuser (‘If you don’t drop the charges, I’ll kill your baby and your wife and then you’). It works, Troy stays some time with Stanley (now deserted by his unsympathetically prudish wife) and continues to mesmerise the old man with romantic claptrap about the old, ‘live’ America that used to be before automated straight lines took over.
Stanley follows Troy to Miami Beach, where the misfit gang musters. There is geriatric Stanley, sociopathic Troy, a bajan non-objective painter (whom Stanley helpfully instructs in the art of painting an unruled straight line), and a go-go dancer with a delicious body whose face has earlier been beaten into pulp by an enraged protector: ‘Her nose was crushed almost flat and the left nostril was partly missing, as if cut away with a razor blade. Both of her sunken cheeks contained rough and jagged scars, and some of those holes looked large enough to contain marbles.’ The delusion fostered by Troy is that the takings of the hold-up will allow the artist to study in New York and enable Dale to get plastic surgery in Haiti, while pursuing her go-go dancing career wearing the mask supposedly routine in Port-au-Prince bars. Stanley goes along out of misplaced paternal motives, to look after Troy.
The trick in Sideswipe is to keep the preliminary comedy bubbling until a genuinely horrific and blood-curdling last chapter which fairly clubs the still chuckling reader. It’s very well done. At the same time, and with the same consummate sleight, Willeford contrives to connect the hold-up fiasco with the apparently irrelevant story of a burned-out detective-turned-janitor which he’s kept going on the sidelines of the main business. For British admirers of the Elmore Leonard school of laconic American crime writing, the newly arrived (but like Leonard surprisingly long-in-the-tooth) Willeford is a real find.
If the bungled supermarket hold-up is the representative American crime of the day, kidnap and ransom is the Italian equivalent and forms the main business of Michael Dibdin’s Ratking. The title, incidentally, alludes to an unwilling syndicate of rodents, whose tangled tails oblige them to act as a unit: I suspect the image is not zoologically sound. The novel’s detective hero, Aurelio Zen, is a Venetian seconded from Rome to solve the kidnapping of a rich industrialist in Perugia, and there is a lot of quite complex play with Italian provincial prejudices. Zen is further handicapped by having botched the Aldo Moro kidnapping, and has a career which is going nowhere.
Dibdin is British, but taught for some years at the University of Perugia. He used his inwardness with Italy cleverly in his earlier thriller, A Rich Full Death, set in Robert and Elizabeth Browning’s 1850s Florence. Ratking should set him up for as many Italian jobs as he has imagination for.