Friday, November 21, 2014

Stephen King Revisited #2: 'SALEM'S LOT

This is the part of a series of short essays written by a fellow traveler of Richard Chizmar, who in October 2014 resolved to read and blog about every single Stephen King book...  

August 16, 2006

Re-reading Salem’s Lot for the first time since I was a teenager… I’m struck by similarities to IT, which I also re-read recently.  In both novels, a writer returns to his hometown (Jerusalem’s Lot as Durham / Derry as Bangor) to face ghosts from his childhood.  Today, I visited Durham and Shiloh Chapel and tried to imagine what it must have been like for King to visit those places as a teenager, how he must have seen "Sticksville" and the house on haunted hill… how did they first become part of his own personal mythology, which later became part of my own coming-of-age? 

I stood on the stage in King’s high school gym – which smelled just like my own high school gym – and thought about the husky, carbuncular outcast with coke-bottle glasses who left Durham after his high school graduation and, once his mother died, never looked back… except in fiction.  It’s hard to go back.  The place is still there, but the perspective that colored the place is long gone… This “passing” is true not of the place, but of the person.  The place is, more or less, the same.  The person has changed.               

There is no mention of Stephen King at the school – no memorial library or honorary writing contest.  The halls that he walked, also walked by the real-life inspiration for Carrie White, belong to today’s students.  The gym where Carrie’s prom was held (in King’s imagination) is just like my high school gym… and my high school gym isn’t mine anymore.  The building is the same, but my perspective has changed.  My perspective of it is entirely memory – not of a specific day, but of a time period that I spent there.  The perspectives of students at the school today do not relate in any way to my nostalgia, though I can imagine that they do.  I can imagine that they see that place the same way I did… and that, in ten years, they’ll see it the same way I do now.  

I was a latecomer to Stephen King’s work, so I actually read IT before I read ‘Salem’s Lot. As a result, this one has always seemed to me like a test run for the author’s greatest monster story. What I love about both novels is the sense of place… They make me curious and nostalgic for towns I’ve never been to…. towns that don’t even exist! That’s the power of Stephen King’s writing. He has a remarkable gift for creating a universe that feels absolutely real.  Exploring Maine with his work in mind, it’s not hard to believe that one of the back roads could actually lead to the places he has written about. In one way or another, I *know* that the author has been there and back. I’m grateful to have his travelogues.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stephen King Revisited #1: CARRIE

This is the first in a projected series of essays written by a fellow traveler of Richard Chizmar, who in October 2014 resolved to read and blog about every single Stephen King book...

I must confess I wasn’t really excited about re-reading Carrie. I read it for the first time in middle school.  In the car, actually, on a family vacation.  It was a fast read, spellbinding at times, but I preferred the movie.  (I can’t remember if I saw the movie before or after I read the book.)  I still prefer the movie.  From what I've read, even Stephen King prefers the movie.

King noted in Danse Macabre that Brian DePalma’s film presents high school as a matriarchy -- something he wishes he had done in the novel.  The novel presents Tommy Ross as “a socially conscious young man,” and Billy Nolan as a sadistic son of a bitch.  Tommy does what he wants, not just what Sue tells him to do.  At first, Chris Hargesen has Billy “tied around her finger,” but that changes after he gets the pigs blood. 

The biggest difference between the book and the movie is the final act.  In the movie, Carrie just wreaks havoc on the high school prom.  In the book, she destroys the entire town of Chamberlain.  During the bloodbath, several of the townfolk seem to have some kind of psychic connection with her.  They know what she’s doing, and in some cases why.  I believe this is the section that King is thinking of when he compares Carrie to the 1957 sci-fi movie THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS.  (I wrote a bit more about that connection in Beyond Fear...)

When it’s all over, the town is effectively dead.  King writes: “The over-all impression is one of a town that is waiting to die.  It is not enough, these days, to say that Chamberlain will never be the same.  It may be closer to the truth to say that Chamberlain will simply never be again.”  Of course, this would not be the only time that King created and destroyed a fictional Maine town.  Personally, I've always wanted to know more about his fictional places.  How much of them did he imagine, and how much is based on actual places?

King writes that Chamberlain is adjacent to Durham, near Lewiston and Weaver.  As far as I can tell, Weaver is a fictional place too, but the proximity to Durham (the author's hometown) and Lewiston would put Chamberlain more or less in the vicinity of Lisbon Falls, where King went to high school, and where he knew a couple of awkward teenage girls who later inspired the character of Carrie White.  Is Lisbon Falls the "real" Chamberlain?  That's a simple-minded conclusion... but it didn't keep me from visiting Lisbon Falls a few years ago and taking some photos of the high school gym where Carrie's prom night *might* have happened, in an alternate universe.

A few other easily-overlooked details piqued my interest this time around -- mostly connections to King’s other work.  Carrie’s mother works at the Blue Ribbon Laundry (from "The Mangler").  The owner of the local Amoco is the son of the late Teddy Duchamp (from “The Body”).  When he first sees the devastation that he has caused at the prom, Billy Loomis says to Christine Hargensen: “We got it on, Charlie. We really got it on.” -- an oblique allusion to King’s novel Rage.  The author explains it by saying that Billy “called her Charlie whenever he was pleased with her,” but the reference seems clear to me: Billy is talking to Charlie Decker.

Today, I see Carrie mainly as a point of entry into the vast Stephen King universe.  Enter and roam.

Wes Craven, Stephen King... and me

Cover art by Tom and Sian Mandrake
Earlier this year, I published my sixth nonfiction book, Beyond Fear -- a study of Stephen King, Wes Craven and George Romero's "Living Dead" films.   It's a very personal book for me, because it gets at the root of why I love the horror genre.  Even more than that, it's a book about why I love stories.  For me, everything is a story, and I think we are defined as human beings by the stories we believe.  I don't mean to suggest that I believe in supernatural monsters, but I do subscribe to the philosophies that Romero, Craven and King express in their fiction: romanticism, humanism, open-mindedness, and the importance of facing our fears.  These three storytellers have influenced me deeply, and in my mind their stories are not about escapist fantasy, but about inescapable truths. 

I suppose that's why, even after writing my book, I'm still not done with them.  This month, I have written two new essays about Wes Craven, and I'm planning to take part in a communal tribute to Stephen King.  (I've also got a lot more to say about George Romero -- maybe next month?)

Wes Craven (a.k.a. "Abe Snake") in THE FIREWORKS WOMAN
The first essay is an in-depth look at Craven's little-known 1975 porn movie THE FIREWORKS WOMAN.  This is a film that the director has been understandably reluctant to talk about over the years.  He doesn't want to be known as a pornographer, because that label has very different connotations today than it did in the mid-1970s.  Porn movies today are about one thing.  THE FIREWORKS WOMAN is about many things, not the least of which is Craven's fascinating and complicated perspective on organized religion and mysticism.  I think it's a real shame that no one has paid serious attention to the film as part of the director's ouevre -- and I hope to turn the tide a bit with an article that's been published in the latest issue (#33) of Fangoria's GoreZone magazine.  You can order a printed copy of the issue HERE, or a digital version HERE.  

Wes Craven and Kristy Swanson on the set of DEADLY FRIEND
The second essay is a deconstruction of the convoluted creative process that produced DEADLY FRIEND, Craven's followup to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.  This is another movie that the filmmaker doesn't talk about much, because it was made during a particularly troubled time in his life, and because the final film is a chaotic hodgepodge of many people's ideas.  Even so, DEADLY FRIEND has its fans.  Some people respond to the over-the-top murder set pieces, others to the almost-buried hints of a poignant love story, but everyone seems to wonder: What the hell were the filmmakers thinking?  In the new issue (#3) of the digital magazine Deadly, I have tried to answer that question, drawing on exclusive interviews with Diana Henstell, the author of the novel that DEADLY FRIEND was based on, and screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, who allowed me access to multiple drafts of the screenplay, several of which included notes from the director and producers of the film.  If you have any interest in DEADLY FRIEND, I promise that this is the most comprehensive study of the film that has ever been published.  You can subscribe to Deadly magazine HERE.  (And I'm told that the magazine will soon be available on Nook and Kindle, so that people can purchase single issues.)

Another writing project that I'm excited about this month is Richard Chizmar's "Stephen King Revisited".  Chizmar, the founder and publisher/editor of Cemetery Dance Publications, has already proven his enthusiasm for all things King by publishing numerous limited editions of the author's work.  Now he's setting out to examine and explain his affinity for King's work by revisiting all of King's books (the latest, Revival, is #63) in order of publication.  I did the same thing when I was writing Beyond Fear, although I attempted to follow the order of composition rather than the order of publication.  As a result, I have literally hundreds of pages of informal notes about remembered impressions of reading each work for the first time, as well as my impressions of rediscovery.  I didn't get as personal in Beyond Fear as I could have, because I was trying to maintain a linear narrative, so I'm thinking I might record some of my more tangential musings here on my blog, as I follow the progress of Richard's journey.  And I won't be the only one.  Chizmar has promised contextual essays for each book by Bev Vincent, and guest essays by others.  This should be a thrill for any true Stephen King fan.  So...

Buy a ticket.  Take the ride.

me and Christine