Am halfway through CELL (usually I would include the author’s name with the title, but in this case, really, why bother?) and thoroughly enjoying it. My father, who knows I have a lifelong affection for King, sent me a review of CELL he knew I would never see otherwise (it was in a Canadian newspaper). The reviewer is an award-winning literary writer you’ve never heard of, and I couldn’t help feeling he was treating the novel with kid gloves, because it was a King novel, and thus if he didn’t assume the proper tone of moral and artistic superiority he would lose his obscure award-winning literary cred. Perhaps I’m just being cranky — made jaded by countless online discussions with (often bitter) aspiring writer types who were, I felt, reacting to King’s success and unabashed genre status instead of to his actual writing. But whatever.
What struck me in the aforementioned CELL review was this part:
King has a unique gift: He appears to have access to a psychic arena that is normally accessible only through sleep. Into this arena he enters and departs apparently at will. There are moments, particularly in such early novels as Misery and The Shining, where he seems to write from inside the experience of horror, which is very different from writing about the experience of horror.
Never mind the fact that MISERY is actually not an ‘early’ Stephen King novel, at least not by my calculations. I came to the end of a section of CELL last night, where the main characters have their first encounter with The Raggedy Man and tragic telepathic things immediately ensue, and I was so bothered and creeped out by it, so disturbed by the power of what King had written, that I had to watch something stupid on TV for about an hour or so in order to go to sleep without fearing bad dreams. Because that seems to be exactly what he does — accesses that ‘psychic arena’ — his images thrillingly strange and yet so familiar because on some submerged level we’ve all spent time in that arena, we know it intimately. I’m not sure what it means, exactly, to write from ‘inside’ horror, and yet that’s the perfect way of describing King. I’m not expressing myself well here. And I don’t want to imply that King’s only talent is for creeping readers out; at his best, he’s one of the most gifted storytellers around. I suppose what I’m saying is — the first time anything in a novel* ever genuinely frightened me, I was twelve and reading THE SHINING (it actually wasn’t that woman-in-the-bathtub scene that everyone tends to talk about, but the scene where Danny was being silently chased through the snow by the hedge animals who would only move when he wasn’t looking), and the last time anything in a novel genuinely frightened me was last night when I was thirty three and reading CELL. I think because King has been around for such a long time and has become such an Establishment, such an Institution of sorts, you start to take him for granted, like a blue-chip stock, or a reliable long-term spouse — and then he takes the rug from under you.
At any rate, I feel like I’ve fallen in love with the sheer thrill of storytelling all over again, not just CELL but George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy novels and even recent seasons of 24 (seen on DVD) and the HBO series ROME (waiting for the DVD). Look, I was a good little English major who got good grades at a good university; I want language and character and theme and all of that — I want a rich and layered reading experience. But I also want that — thrill — that sense of a stranger walking through my dreams — I want to be startled and uprooted and disturbed.
So that’s what I want to read = that’s what I want to write = that’s how I want my novel-in-progress to be.
As always, so easy to say.
*The first time anything onscreen ever frightened me? DR WHO, which my little sister and I would watch with our parents. The Daleks! Man, the Daleks freaked me out.