Monday, May 21, 2012

In the Court of the Crimson King

Well, it's finally happened. I knew it would if I kept at it for long enough: kept reading Stephen King books, that is (you can find a full list of my accumulations here).

It's one of those guilty pleasures - the kind where you keep on telling yourself that you can take it or leave it alone. Until it turns out you can't, that is.

I first started reading him, on the advice of a friend ("He's my favourite pulp author! You've got to give him a try") in the mid-eighties, when I was living in a hall of residence in Scotland. There was no chance of watching television of an evening - my usual way of unwinding - as all the channels were set permanently to snooker tournaments (this is the UK we're talking), so I had to find something else to do. That something turned out to be reading endless Stephen King paperbacks.

Or not that endless, really. This was, after all, twenty-five years ago, and the Master has never really stopped producing since, despite occasional threats of "retirement." To be honest, I don't think he'd know what to do with himself.

When I got back to New Zealand in the 90s, I discovered that my habit had gone up a notch. From now on it wasn't enough to buy the books second-hand when I came across them accidentally: from about Four Past Midnight (1990) on, I had to buy each new one the moment it came out.

So when I bought The Wind through the Keyhole at the local stationers on Friday, there was no reason for me to suspect anything out of the ordinary. Until I got it home and started reading, that is.

[King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)]

I guess at this point that it's necessary to point out something about Big Steve's books which mightn't be apparent to outsiders, or those who've only read the occasional one of them: They're all linked.

It used to be that backwoodsy Maine regionalism was the common factor in most of his tales: a great many of them were set in or around the mythical towns of Castle Rock or Derry, Maine, and the occasional character would turn up in another book from time to time.

Around about Insomnia (1994), his other world, the alternate universe known as Mid-World, associated principally with his long-running fantasy series The Dark Tower (1982-2004), began to leak into the "real-world" novels. Specifically, that Dark Lord of chaos and disorder known as the "Crimson King" (rather analogous to H. P. Lovecraft's "crawling chaos Azathoth") ...

Then, in 1999, he had that terrible car accident, where a van ploughed into him while he was out jogging, and he was forced to lie still in traction for more than a year, with multiple fractures of virtually everything that could be fractured. He wrote about the experience in his non-fictional memoir / how-to manual On Writing (2000). Then he wrote about it again, in slightly fictionalised form, in the last volume of The Dark Tower. Then he wrote about it again, in even more fictionalised form, in his adaptation of Lars von Trier's mad Danish mini-series Kingdom Hospital (2004). By now I think it could be said to have become an obsession.

What, then, was my horror to discover that - not only was the nightmarish "Dark Tower" series not at an end (though the one he's just published is, strictly speaking, neither a prequel nor a sequel: it falls somewhere between volumes 4 and 5 of the set: 4.5, as he calls it), but I had myself somehow taken up residence within it.

What does he mean, I hear you ask? Has he gone as potty as his favourite author? No. What I mean is that in the third story of this frame-story encrusted narrative (a little like Potocki's Manuscript Found at Saragossa), there's a character called "Big Ross." Fine and dandy - Ross is a common enough surname. But then, on p.128, it specifies:
Once upon a bye, Nell Robertson, Jack Ross, and Bern Kells had been children together.
After that, the references come thick and fast. I don't want to ruin the story for you, but suffice it to say that Big Jack Ross is murdered by his best friend Kells, who then marries his widow Nell. When Big Ross's son Tim finds his body lying in a stream in the woods:
The chill of the water has preserved him, and he appears to be unmarked, because the man who murdered him struck from behind. [p.175]
The rest of the river is infested with bugs, which "are voracious flesh-eaters, but according to the old wives, they'll not eat the flesh of a virtuous man" - which is, I suppose, some comfort, though not very much.

So there you go. He's caught me at last - as a character, a dead character in fact (albeit a "virtuous" one) in his latest novel. But how did he get wind of my existence at all? How did he come up with this plan for snaring me in the inexorable toils of "Ka", in the Court of the Crimson King?

One theory that occurred to me was that he might have chanced upon the review I wrote of one of the earlier volumes of the Dark Tower saga -- volume 4, in fact, the one which immediately precedes this latest, out-of-strict-sequence addition to the series. It appeared in out short-lived cultural journal the pander in 1998. Here it is:

[Stephen King: Wizard and Glass (1997)]

Stephen King. Wizard and Glass. The Dark Tower, 4. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997. 672 pp. $34.95.

The psychomachia of Stephen King continues. By now, his “constant readers” (that is how he addresses us) have become accustomed to author’s asides intended to keep us up to date with the never-ceasing agony of creation. The latest volume in the “Dark Tower” series has been unusually long in gestation, and since the one before it – The Waste Lands – ended on a cliffhanger, this has been frustrating for fans accustomed to a regular fix. What excuses does he have to offer, then?
I knew that Wizard and Glass meant doubling back to Roland’s young days, and to his first love affair, and I was scared to death of that story. Suspense is relatively easy, at least for me; love is hard. Consequently I dallied, I temporized, I procrastinated, and the book remained unwritten.
It’s just like the old song, really: “I dillied, I dallied; I dallied, I dillied” – and so what, really? Where does all this get us? Well, it gets us to a day in western Nebraska where a still small voice spoke to the self-styled “shlockmeister” as he travelled across the deserted miles of cornfields. “I will help you,” it said; and over time he came to realise that this was the voice of his young self, facing him across a whore’s bed in a land of his own imagination!

I’m being a bit sarky at the master’s expense, I suppose, but I must confess that I see a certain danger in so relentless a self-dramatisation. As he whispers confidences to us, his wide-eyed audience, mentioning in passing that he’s “written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland’s story is my Jupiter,” he sets himself an increasingly difficult standard to live up to.

This kind of literary hubris is nothing new, of course. In the preface to The Rescue (1920), Conrad recounts all the vicissitudes which kept him from the book for twenty years. He laid it aside in 1898, and took it up again in 1918. In between these two dates, he wrote everything worth reading that’s associated with his name. “Sentiment, pure sentiment … prompted me in the last instance to face the pains and hazards of that return.”
As I moved slowly towards the abandoned body of the tale it loomed up big amongst the glittering shallows of the coast, lonely but not forbidding. … One after another I made out the familiar faces watching my approach with faint smiles of amused recognition. They had known well enough that I was bound to come back to them … and every moment I felt more strongly that They Who had Waited bore no grudge to the man who, however widely may have wandered at times, had played truant only once in his life.
Conrad writes more elegantly than Big Steve, of course, but this is frighteningly close to the latter’s description of the moment when “I found myself confronting myself across a whore’s bed [he particularly likes that phrase, it seems; it comes up twice in a two page Afterword] – the unemployed schoolboy with the long black hair and beard on one side, the successful popular novelist … on the other.”

Why “frighteningly” close? Because The Rescue is a dreadful book: dull, and overwritten, and interminably dragged out, and because it sets the tone for other elaborately unreadable pieces of late Conrad such as The Rover and The Arrow of Gold. This kind of musing on the past, on the mysteries of craft which can connect a scene begun in 1970 and not completed until 1996, sounds valedictory, not constructive. For almost the first time we begin to doubt the master’s fecundity.

So does the problem stem from writing prefaces to your works at all? No, I don’t think so. Anyone who has graduated to a collected edition will presumably be leant on to provide prefaces. Henry James did it, Graham Greene did it, Thomas Hardy did it. But most of them took up an attitude of commenting on past achievement without ruling out the possibility of further heights. Ending an aside to the reader with the words: “I have started to believe I might actually live to complete this cycle of stories. (Knock on wood.)” scarcely inspires one with confidence in Stephen King’s present state of mind. And commenting of your own book, “I don’t know if it’s good or bad – I lost all sense of perspective around page six hundred – but it’s here” sounds unnecessarily grovelly also. It deliberately (and, to my mind, disingenuously) plays into the hands of hostile critics. We all love to kick a man when he’s down, but if he squeals enough while we’re doing it, at least we might feel a bit ashamed of ourselves – that’s the reasoning, I think.

So, after all that, what’s the book actually like?

Well, better than The Rescue, certainly. That book begins quite well and then gets terribly dull. Wizard and Glass kicks off with about a hundred pages of the dullest writing that Stephen King has ever perpetrated. I may be alone in having quite enjoyed the previous volume of the series, which ended with our hapless heroes caught in the clutches of an evil monorail train, but the way in which they extricate themselves from this dilemma really makes “with a single bound, Jack was free!” look like a masterpiece of the storyteller’s art.

Imagine reading a Big Steve book where you start checking to see how many pages you still have to endure, rather than how many are left to enjoy!

Thankfully, once we get into the swing of the central narrative, the old master begins to exert his spell (sorry, all those old reviewers’ clichés seem to erupt in me at once: “ a rattling good yarn,” “suitable for readers from six to sixty,” “I read till two tall candles were stumps” [I always used to wonder what they’d been doing with the candles]). I don’t myself find the strange mélange of King Arthur, Gary Cooper and post-apocalyptic America which characterises Roland’s world anything but incongruous, but it doesn’t matter very much, really. King has generally been better with people than with places, and the people here are interesting enough to keep us turning the pages (I’m doing it again: “ a real page-turner.”)

The “young love” aspect is fine, I think. I don’t see what all the fuss was about. If Big Steve thinks that that’s the worst thing about the book, he’s got another think coming. The real problem is that everything good is in the central flashback narrative. Most of the weaknesses come from the fact that he (and we) have really lost interest in Eddie, and Susannah, and Jake, and especially Oy the billy-bumbler as they make their interminable way towards the increasingly unimaginable Dark Tower.

Hitherto, I’ve yielded to none in my admiration of Stephen King, but I rather resent the fact that he has taken up this tone of Who’s not with me, is against me. The book has been made to resemble a loyalty test. Click your heels three times and say “There’s no King like Stephen,” and you might be rewarded with more volumes in the series. Tough love – that’s what he needs now, I think. I want more Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, not more stuff like this, hovering on the very brink of being declared, once and for all, a load of old tosh.

[Pander 3 (1998) 20-21].

Yee-owch! I don't know what possessed me to bother the Dark Master with such glib fatuities, such grad-school inanity. All I can say in my defence is that it was roughly the fifth book review I'd ever written in my life, and I didn't yet know that you don't have to offend someone every time.

It isn't so much what I said, I suspect, as the patronizing tone of the whole thing. Who am I, after all, to condescend to the likes of Stephen King? I virtually am that "constant reader" he so often addresses in his prefaces and afterwords. Not this time, though - this latest "Dark Tower" tome is largely free of all such appurtenances.

Anyway, point taken - revenge has been wreaked. Just as Stephen King's car accident set off such huge reverberations in Mid-World, so (apparently) did my cheeky review of Wizard and Glass - hence my avatar's being found miraculously preserved in a stream, with an axe-blow to the back of the head. I guess it's a bit late to say sorry, but I do take some comfort in the very last page of The Wind Through the Keyhole:

The two most beautiful words in any language are ... I forgive. [p.335]
Thank you, Master, for your kind forebearance. I shall not offend again.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know you were a King Crimson man ... do you have a favourite album? Much to Hamish Dewe's disdain I told him mine is 'Islands' which I still stand by, even if some of the tracks are a little pretty ... it's not quite as 'hippy' at least as their first album ... which nevertheless is on constant playback here.


Dr Jack Ross said...

Alas, I have to admit to my shame that "In the Court of the Crimson King" is the only King Crimson I'm really familiar with ...

And even then it was only the Stephen King connection that made me check it out.

So you think "Islands" is the one to listen to next?

Anonymous said...

I would go for Islands, but, In the Wake of Poseidon, and Starless and Bible Black are both great too. I'll lend you some next time we catch up if you like. Nice to see someone mentioning Walter de la Mare - the notes at the back of the Come Hither anthology are I think the most fascinating I've read in any book. Auden called it something like 'that best of all anthologies for children'. And I'd have to agree. I'm pretty sure that anecdote about de la Mare seeing Spring personified - walking in a procession up a small-town main street one morning when he opened his curtains, is in there somewhere too. But it might take some finding.


Richard said...

That'll learn ya Jack!

I think all I've read re King is part of an interview he gave. He mentions that incident where a fan got into his house! My son has read couple of his books. I want to the the original film of The Shining but haven't seen it anywhere.