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November 12, 2006

Scare Tactician

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By Stephen King.

513 pp. Scribner. $28.

Stephen King has written about zombies, vampires and the end of the world. He has imagined a killer car, a killer dog, a killer clown and killer cellphones. But when he really wants to put a scare into you, he brings on his most fearsome monster of all, that quivering mass of ego and insecurity known as ... the writer.

Kingís writers have a tendency to serve as conduits to the supernatural world, which usually results in sprees of violence. All that heady dreaming at the desk, the author seems to suggest, leaves the flesh open to corruption. Think of Jack Torrance, the short-tempered playwright of ìThe Shiningî (1977). One moment he finds himself working, confusedly, on a five-act play, and the next moment heís chasing his wife and young son with a mallet at the behest of vengeful shades. Or take Thaddeus Beaumont, the mild-mannered novelist of ìThe Dark Halfî (1989), who finds material success only when he adopts

a nom de plume. Thaddeus revels in the freedom to write ìany damn thing I pleased without The New York Times Book Review looking over my shoulder,î but then his alter ego springs to life and goes on a killing rampage.

In a 1993 essay, King wrote: ìThe question which haunts and nags and wonít completely let go is this one: Who am I when I write?î The same question lies at the heart of his new novel. Scott Landon, the fragile, prize-winning novelist at the bookís core, answers it like this: ìI am crazy. I have delusions and visions. ... I write them down and people pay me to read them.î In ìLiseyís Story,î King once again finds terror in the creative act, but for the first time he sees beauty there, too.

Our heroine is Scottís 50-year-old widow, Lisey Debusher Landon. At first she comes across as dutiful and drab, and it seems almost as if King prepared to write this book by mainlining a batch of Anne Tyler. But soon enough thereís a werewolf-like character chained in a basement, a patricide and a stalker who speaks (like previous King villains) with a Southern twang. In due course Lisey finds she must take up arms against the stalkers of this world and face a blood-hungry beast in the world beyond.

Lisey and Scott become truly close to each other when he cuts his left hand, purposely and severely, and shows her the blood. He does this one night early in their relationship to atone for having kept her waiting. ìItís a bool, Lisey!î Thatís what he tells her. ìAnd not just any bool, itís a blood-bool!î She thinks heís crazy, but the ìblood-boolî eventually leads her to Booíya Moon, a fantastic realm to which Scott escaped as a boy when his cruel father sliced him in his attempts to release ìthe bad gunky.î

Lisey has three sisters, one of whom is kooky, and at times ìLiseyís Storyî feels like ìThe Ya-Ya Sisterhood Goes to Hell.î If Kingís 1982 novella ìThe Bodyî was his song of praise to boyhood and vomit, then ìLiseyís Storyî is his ode to sisterhood and blood.

At another level itís about one writerís anxiety. Who am I when I write?

When King was a boy, his classmates paid to read the scary stories he wrote. Then came his first brush with a critic ó Miss Hisler, the school principal. King describes the scene in ìOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craftî (2000): ì ëWhat I donít understand, Stevie,í she said, ëis why youíd write junk like this in the first place.í î Instead of strengthening his resolve, Miss Hislerís words cut him deep: ìI was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since ó too many, I think ó being ashamed about what I write.î

As a young man, he sold short stories not to The New Yorker or Esquire but to Cavalier, Dude and Swank. Living in a double-wide trailer with his wife and two small children, King pumped out novels no one wanted in his hours away from a high-school teaching job and summertime stints at an industrial laundry. Then came ìCarrieî (1974), which he sold to Doubleday for $2,500. When Signet paid $400,000 for the paperback rights, he became Stephen King, the brand name ó but that didnít mean he could set foot in the House of Literature. His stuff appealed to people more familiar with Aerosmith than ìArrowsmith,î and the literary gatekeepers didnít approve.

In public pronouncements King was sometimes unrepentant: ìI recognize terror as the finest emotion,î he wrote in his study of the horror field, ìDanse Macabreî (1981), ìand so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify, and if I find I cannot horrify, Iíll go for the gross-out. Iím not proud.î But in a later essay he complained of ìbeing dismissed by the more intellectual critics as a hack (the intellectualís definition of a hack seems to be ëan artist whose work is appreciated by too many peopleí).î

The act of writing itself, for King, turned into something shameful and disgusting. He wrote, heart racing, with cotton shoved into his nostrils to sop up the cocaine-induced bleeding. His desk became the slum of his household: ìFor six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a shipís captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere,î he wrote. In the early í90s, after having apparently kicked his addictions, he started to add the influential few to his millions of admirers. He made his way into small-circulation prestige rags like Antaeus and Tin House. He won a 1996 O. Henry Award for a story he had published in The New Yorker. In 2003, the National Book Foundation gave him its medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, which offended the critic Harold Bloom, who said: ìHe is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.î

Beneath Bloomís notice, however, a cultural shift had taken place. Everything was up for reassessment. Music critics re-examined the supposed schlock of the í70s (Abba, Led Zeppelin, Donna Summer) and found some value there. Martin Amis wrote a love song to the crime writer Elmore Leonard. The Modern Library and the Library of America issued handsome hardcover editions of Raymond Chandler. Quentin Tarantino delivered cheap thrills guised as le cinÈma. Paul McCartney composed classical pieces while the opera singer Andrea Bocelli had multiplatinum sales. The French dug up the coffin containing the remains of Alexandre Dumas, that best-selling scoundrel, and carried it to the Pantheon. Cormac McCarthy, one of the few living novelists to have met with Bloomís approval, left behind the tangled style of ìBlood Meridianî and ìSuttreeî to update the Western with his Border Trilogy; he has since ventured deeper into genre territory with the one-two punch of ìNo Country for Old Menî and ìThe Road.î Another of Bloomís pets, Philip Roth, borrowed a conceit from science fiction in using an alternate reality as the jumping-off point for ìThe Plot Against America.î And the Red Sox won the World Series.

Writers who had grown up on King, like Michael Chabon, got the címere finger from the literary establishment. As editor of two anthologies put out under Dave Eggersís McSweeneyís concern, Chabon selected stories by King to run alongside those by writers whose work is filed under ìliteraryî (Rick Moody, Charles DíAmbrosio, et al.). The collectionsí titles, ìMcSweeneyís Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Storiesî and ìMcSweeneyís Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales,î suggested a nostalgia not for the modernist Little Review, which published Joyce and Pound and claimed to make ìno compromise with the public taste,î but for relics of American trash culture like Weird Tales, Argosy and Amazing Stories.

At the National Book Foundation ceremony, the bard of Bangor made sure his audience knew he stood outside the tribe: ìThe only person who understands how much this award means to me is my wife, Tabitha,î he said in his acceptance speech. ìShe also understands why I was in those early days so often bitterly angry at writers who were considered ëliterary.í I knew I didnít have quite enough talent or polish to be one of them, so there was an element of jealousy, but I was also infuriated by how these writers always seemed to have the inside track in my view at that time. Even a note in the acknowledgments page of a novel thanking this or that foundation for its generous assistance was enough to set me off.î

This year, King was granted the privilege of a Paris Review interview. On the ticklish subject of his literary worth, he said, ìIím shy talking about this, because Iím afraid people will laugh and say, Look at that barbarian trying to pretend he belongs in the palace.î

Paul Sheldon, the writer-hero of Kingís ìMiseryî (1987), also has anxieties about his reputation. Paul has written literary novels, but he suspects heís better suited to churning out popular bodice-rippers centered on his plucky, Victorian-era heroine, Misery Chastain:

ìThe truth, should you insist, was that the increasing dismissal of his work in the critical press as that of a ëpopular writerí ... had hurt him quite badly. It didnít jibe with his self-image as a Serious Writer who was only churning out these ... romances in order to subsidize his (flourish of trumpets, please!) REAL WORK! Had he hated Misery? Had he really? ... Perhaps all he had hated was the fact that her face on the dust jackets had overshadowed his in his author photographs, not allowing the critics to see that they were dealing with a young Mailer or Cheever here. ... As a result, hadnít his ëserious fictioní become steadily more self-conscious, a sort of scream? Look at me! Look how good this is! Hey, guys!î

King has yet to write a bodice-ripper, but any novelist who trots out demons and dragons is asking for trouble with critics. One writer who got away with it while winning applause from here to Stockholm was Isaac Bashevis Singer. He wrote about devils, imps and dybbuks partly to suggest the influence of unseen forces over everyday events and partly because he loved a good yarn. ìI am not a slice-of-life writer,î Singer said in his Paris Review interview.

Not every tale about a dybbuk or zombie pulls its weight, however. The ones that do are those that match up with psychological truths. When Jack Torrance of ìThe Shiningî agrees to do the bidding of the revenants inhabiting the Overlook Hotel, readers go along for the ride because the homicidal shadesí commands match up neatly with the unconscious desires of a short-tempered family man who has a bad case of cabin fever. The oldest tales in the Western canon function in the same way. ìHansel and Gretel,î for instance, is an unforgettable story because it fleshes out our childhood fears of abandonment and our suspicions of what horrors await us in the wider world. Thatís why we believe in the cannibal witch and her edible cottage. Thatís why we unhesitatingly surrender ourselves to the taleís unreality, the Grimmsí willing dupes.

King has said he wrote ìThe Shiningî out of his worry that he would harm his own children. Thatís a taboo fear dealt with by every parent not up for sainthood, and the bookís supernatural characters give weight to it. Another of Kingís supernatural novels to have a writer for its hero, ìBag of Bones,î is not so convincing, because its ghosts arise from a fear sociopolitical rather than primal in origin. ìBag of Bonesî posits that the winners of capitalismís lottery, like the novelís protagonist, a middlebrow best-selling writer named Mike Noonan, donít give a thought to the past crimes (in this case, racially motivated lynchings and rapes) that have paved the way for their bourgeois comforts, like Mikeís lakeside summer home. ìBag of Bonesî was maybe the first horror novel of liberal guilt. Itís admirable in its theme but it never comes alive in Brothers Grimm fashion.

ìLiseyís Storyî succeeds where ìBag of Bones,î its fraternal twin, failed. Both books are supernatural love stories focused on mourning and marriage. But Lisey and Scott make much better novel subjects than their ìBag of Bonesî counterparts. They are loopy and dramatic. Unlike the couple in the earlier book, who are chewed up by creaky plot machinery, Lisey and Scott are the story. They fit F. Scott Fitzgeraldís dictum, ìAction is character.î

In the afterword to ìLiseyís Story,î King, post-coitally chatty after more than 500 pages, challenges reviewers to check his first draft against the final version to see how rigorously it was edited (by Scribnerís Nan Graham). ìI had first-year French essays that came back cleaner,î he writes. Despite her red pen, the novel has its lulls, its repetitions, its gratuitous explanations. A few unfortunate lines remain, for example, ìAmanda sounded just as bright as a new-minted penny.î (Cut to Bloom, spitting out his morning coffee.) But give him a break: King is a volcano. Let his new admirers play Flaubert to his Hugo.

ìLiseyís Storyî has an abundance of solid descriptions (ìHis mouth tastes like the inside of a piggybankî) and indelible images (a boy burying a corpse with a toy shovel). Throughout, King is as cagey as a veteran pitcher, employing a careerís worth of tricks to good effect. He ends chapters midsentence, slips in and out of italics, breaks into verse, deftly changes tenses and switches perspectives and narrators the better to carve out his big story. The scenes of Liseyís courtship and marriage are realistic and strange, and the sections set in the Booíya Moon netherworld, a place scented with bougainvillea and frangipani, are persuasive and enchanting.

Booíya Moon is ìthis world turned inside-out like a pocket,î and itís as real as J. M. Barrieís Never-Never Land, L. Frank Baumís Oz or the Grimmsí forest. Like those places, Booíya Moon arises from childhood longings for the things not provided by oneís parents or guardians, and itís as forbidding as it is wonderful. You come away from ìLiseyís Storyî convinced of the existence of Kingís fantastic realm and of something else rarer still in fiction, a long, happy marriage.

Jim Windolf is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.