Stephen King and the Truly Terrifying

I have a birthday coming up soon. And I’m at an age – dangerously close to 40 – where the achievements of others have become unnerving. I’m not the type to be jealous per se, and I value the process of creation for its own sake. But it does erode the sense of one’s own importance to see what others – more focused, more blessed, or just luckier – have accomplished with the same time given me.

Both more focused and more blessed, certainly, was Stephen King, who wrote the epic ‘Salem’s Lot when he was only 24. I’ve never been particularly enthralled by King, whose fiction is written with tight plots and merely utilitarian style. But I’ve finally started reading Danse Macabre, his treatise on horror – written, of course, when he was younger than I am now. It is, to someone questioning their own accomplishments, more terrifying than any of his horror novels.

The book is not remotely academic. King mixes memoir and sociology and criticism freely and elegantly. Worse, he shows here that he’s capable of amazing literary subtlety. Take this passage, which I reread something like four times, in which he links the Creature from the Black Lagoon to a childhood experience with the mystical, through an oblique reimagining of what it really means to “buy” an imagined story.

I knew, watching, that the Creature had become my Creature; I had bought it. Even to a seven-year-old, it was not a terribly convincing Creature, [but] I knew that, later on that night, he would visit me in the black lagoon of my dreams, looking much more realistic. He might be waiting in the closet when we got home, he might be standing slumped in the blackness of the bathroom at the end of the hall, stinking of algae and swamp rot, all ready for a post-midnight snack of small boy. Seven isn’t old, but it’s old enough to know that you get what you pay for. You own it, you bought it, it’s yours. It is old enough to feel the dowser suddenly come alive, grow heavy, and roll over in your hands, pointing at hidden water.

It’s not quite James Joyce. But King is certainly, if you don’t know already, more than a mere scribbler of potboilers.

This post first appeared in the Blown Horizonz newsletter, which this week also touches on Twin Peaks and Luc Besson. Sign up to the right, or here, to receive future updates.