Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales
I began writing the first draft of this review in longhand on a plane, which is somehow appropriate—I'd just about finished Stephen King's latest book, a collection of stories that real King fans have doubtless already read, albeit in slightly different versions, from various sources both mainstream (The New Yorker), arcane (minor sci-fi and horror magazines), and everywhere in between.
It was this "in-between" that drew me to review this book, which consists as well of King's online-only story "Riding the Bullet" and his audio-only "L.T.'s Theory of Pets," in which the most popular and commercially successful author of the past quarter-century branched out into different media for his literary expression, a decision he examines in a thoughtful and quite poignant Introduction, which is up there with the best passages of his On Writing (Scribner, 2000) as a lucid and unapologetic analysis of the act of writing (and, in this case, the act of publishing) which is actually quite engaging—at least it is for me, for I come to King reading as a writer, rather than for the sheer entertainment value I imagine most people read his work for. And while this collection, like most collections of previously published stories is a bit uneven as a qualitative whole, I've come to the rather unexpected conclusion (for me, at least) that a writer does have a good deal to learn from the man, even (and perhaps even especially) when his writing shows its seams and he's not at his best.
—I was not the only one on that US AIR Boeing 737 who cracked open a copy of this book on the flight, either—it or one of his 10,000 other books. Hell, take any flight in the world and see what folks are reading that's not USA Today or People and if it's not Grisham or Koontz or Mary Higgins Clark or somebody, somebody is at least giving eye-service to a paperback King novel.
Well, like his protagonist in the title story says, "Everything's Eventual" (or, at least, in this respect). Just like my reviewing a book by Stephen King, in part because much of this collection originally appeared as Internet-only or audio-only, at just about the same time my own work has been appearing as such. Which is also why this review for Oyster Boy Review is to appear Internet-only.
Now his work's out in print, which is fine—King's also revived the Dickens/Trollope/19th-Century in-print "serial" with The Green Mile, and with the stalled internet-only novel The Plant, which, one suspects, is like the serialized novels of The Dark Tower in that he actually writes them as he goes—I'd bet more than my eye teeth the entire six installments of The Green Mile were in the can before the first one came out, but with the other two, gotta give it to him, he's set up a challenge for himself and is going about it honestly.
I've never considered myself a Stephen King fan, though while in middle school, especially in the summers, I went on a binge where I read everything the man had published through Pet Semetary and made a point of never watching the movies. I rather liked most of the books, too, and to this day (though I've yet to re-read any of them) I still remember clever lines and situational twists from the novels, especially The Stand (the one most King fans hold up as his "masterpiece"), The Shining (which is actually pretty good) and The Dead Zone (which was my favorite).
Then a few years ago I picked up Bag of Bones to read as a breather from teaching a class called "The Great American Novel" and writing my dissertation on the most arcane points I could summon from the work of William Blake, and y'know what? It was by no means a great novel, but I liked it, and it made me realize why I'd always rather "liked" King at his best—he writes at several levels at once, and you get from it what you bring to it, and in the midst of a novel with allusions to obscure blues songs, Rebecca, and Thomas Hardy, to name just a few, I remembered how many of the allusions, references and epigraphs in the earlier books had sent me off to the library, turning me on to English Romantic Poetry, Victorian novels, and lots of other things I might not otherwise have been turned on to at that time in my life; and in the context of the work as "popular" fiction, moreover, the allusions had actually worked.
Since at least The Shining, King's implicit focus in his best work isn't per se "horror" at all—ultimately, King's great overriding theme is the creative process itself, which in his case (and mine) is that of writing stories. This is evident in many of the pieces in Everything's Eventual, just as it is in so many of the novels where the protagonist is a writer: Misery, The Dark Half, Bag of Bones, and many lesser works. And Misery (1987) leads one to the dictionary to find out who the hell was "Scheherazade" (the female narrator of Arabian Nights), just as The Dark Half repeatedly alludes (often humorously) to Faulkner. He's quite a reader himself, is King, and, when he's up for it, quite a writer as well.
In the present collection, that's only part of the time. Stories like "Autopsy Room Four" (which opens the collection) and the online "Riding the Bullet" are predictable, rehashed King, rehashed anybody, and others, such as "Lunch at the Gotham Café" (to name just one) are just plain silly. But. Yes, there is always a But.
But the title story is less like "King" than it is like Cheever's "Chimera" (especially evident in the fine "L.T.'s Theory of Pets"), and it's a terrific story not because of the story, even, but the way in which it's written—sort of Catcher in the Rye meets The Dead Zone. There are strong echoes of "literary" fiction in the best of King's stories, Raymond Carver, perhaps. But, to my mind, the closest similarities in his better work remind one of Truman Capote circa The Grass Harp collection: Think "The Headless Hawk" when reading "The Road Virus Heads North," for example, and never forget Capote's brilliant story "Miriam." And I doubt many people consider Capote a "horror" writer. Is he better than King? Yes. Yet is he always, he or Cheever or Carver or Bradbury or anybody else? No. Out of the fourteen stories in Everything's Eventual, about five of them are brilliant. And he wrote 'em at 50-something, by the time most of the rest of these people had just petered right out. Fitzgerald was prolific as a storywriter too, and lots of it is simply "popular" crap. Yet he's hands-down a Major American Writer.
And unlike most of the other people who perennially habituate the top-10 Best Seller lists, King is, too. It doesn't mean it's all Great Work. But some of it's within shouting distance, and some of it is there. Maybe deep down, I wish it wasn't! I admit it!
But I also admit I have a great time reading this stuff when it's on, and it's on a hell of a lot more often than it is for people who just sit around waiting for a Muse who doesn't exist, or else not writing at all, turning up their educated noses at a dude who is doing it. He's doing it, Constant Reader, and for that, if nothing else, if you aspire to be a Writer, you can and probably do do worse than groove to a little King on the next flight out of town. Hey. Like the man says, Everything's Eventual.