Years ago, at a beach hotel in Thailand, I found a tattered but complete copy of Stephen King's The Stand, all 1,500 or so pages of it. I hadn't read much Stephen King because my career has taken me toward literary rather than genre fiction, but I had admired his short stories and been impressed by an article he published in The New Yorker about jogging along a country road and getting hit by a careless driver. From reviews, I knew that The Stand was about a viral bio-weapon that kills most of the people on the planet. I also knew—from having read Dostoevsky on other beaches—that you could get through 1,500 pages in two or three days if you had someone bringing you the occasional sandwich and beer and you weren't afraid of sunburn or bedsores.
I've also been interested in apocalyptic literature since Sunday school. My more recent researches into our current end-of-days have convinced me that the world is likely to end not with a nuclear bang or Gideon's Trumpet but with the release of existing stocks of weaponized smallpox.
I opened The Stand. At first I was amazed at King's ability to set scenes and bring characters into this world. He's one of the best technicians I've ever read. And if wealth could be measured in words, he'd be the richest human on the planet.
Then two things happened: 1) The Stand's deepening process, which occurs naturally when you let characters move from one scene into the one they choose next, stopped cold. 2) A Satan figure was introduced as the bad guy, and the novel became a cosmic struggle between supernatural good and evil.
I wasn't happy when Satan showed up. I figured bio-weapons loose in the world were enough evil for 1,500 pages without bringing the supernatural into it. I also sensed that King's characters were being treated as marionettes in an already plotted puppet show.
I quit reading at 500 pages. Technical skill will take you only so far with a reader who sees a Danish porn magazine on the next beach chair, even if he doesn't understand Danish.
Evil is one of those topics that interests me a bunch, but I lost interest in King's depiction of evil as rotting flesh and bones and gibbering insanity and dark tunnels full of dead people who clutch at your ankles as you run toward daylight.
Conventional depictions of horror can be a distraction from evil rather than evil itself. A splatter movie doesn't depict anything near as bad as the emptiness of being stuck in a cubicle for your working life, with a mortgage, unappreciative kids, a car that needs repair and a boss who is monitoring the keystrokes on your computer.
In the end, evil lies more in carelessness or indifference toward others' lives than in people or things crossing over from the Dark Side. True horror lies in the mundane, as Hanna Arendt pointed out in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
I know that it's unfair to judge a writer by his early work. I know that all of my books together will never sell as many copies as The Stand. I know I will never have the stamina to write a 1,500-page book.
For better or worse, I like following my characters down the shadowed stairways that lead to messy psychological truths. If you tiptoe along even a gentle psychological downslope when you write, you'll find an ending—however untidy—long before the 500-page mark.
I've seen reviews of Stephen King's later work that predict in 500 years he'll be the equivalent of our Shakespeare, and that scholars will mine his books for insight into the human psyche in the 20th and 21st centuries. Nobody's said that about my work. I doubt anybody ever will.
But I disagree with the critics, and not just for craven personal reasons. People 500 years hence, if they still exist and if they can still read and write, will look at the humans of our era and know that true horror doesn't require the supernatural. All it takes are human beings shut away from their own best impulses, full of fear and willing to magnify their own sufferings to the point where they cannot see or understand the suffering of others. Writers need to magnify their own best impulses and downplay their own suffering to better grasp what's real.
Ironically, many of my writing students—and even some of my writing teachers—have been drawn to writing because of a core of narcissistic self-pity. I once offended a room of Hemingway scholars by pointing out that the Hemingway Hero, by refusing to whine about his misfortunes, is still producing a loud, cicada-like whine about his misfortunes. He has a wound he will not allow to heal, because if it healed he would have to get on with life. I concluded that with his final act, Hemingway rendered himself into a Hemingway Hero. It was a statement that did not go over well.
It's the season for beach books, which famously ignore psychological depth. But it's also a season where evil remains very much alive in the world, and where better to understand it than on warm, tree-shadowed sand, under a blue sky, with margaritas in the thermos and the peaks of the Sawtooths rearing up at the far end of Redfish Lake. I'll start by re-reading The Possessed.
Adapted from John Rember's blog MFA in a Box, mfainabox.com.