Friday, January 06, 2012

Just After Sunset

In the introduction to Just After Sunset, Stephen King confesses that he had forgotten how to write short stories. “There are lots of things in life that are like writing a bike,” he says, “but writing short stories isn’t one of them. You can forget how.” The way he got back on the bike was by editing the 2006 edition of Best American Short Stories. He remembered how to write his own short stories by reading hundreds of other people’s short stories. Then he sat down and wrote “Willa."

“Willa” is a story about a dead couple that don’t know they’re dead. The wife gets wise and starts hanging out in a bar – because it’s more exciting than hanging out at the defunct train station where she and her husband met their untimely demise. The story reminded me of a lot of ghost stories I’ve heard before, including some by Stephen King. I thought of Bobby Mackey’s haunted nightclub in Kentucky (the real-life inspiration for an episode of A Haunting that I produced) and of the haunted dance hall in Carnival of Souls and of a ghost town in one of King’s earlier short stories that features “a hell of a band.” What really struck me about the story, however, was the way it depicts time. When the dead couple realizes that they’re dead, they begin to see the world around them in a different way. The train tracks at the depot are suddenly overgrown with weeds and the signs are covered with graffiti. Time has passed, but somehow they haven’t recognized it until then. Time, the story suggest, exists only in the mind. It’s all a matter of perception.

The same idea informs “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates,” another story in King's collection. This one is about a widow who receives a phone call from her dead husband. He calls two days after his death, but talks as if he’s only been dead for a matter of minutes. When she points this out, he says, “Mrs. Corey said time was different here.” He explains that he’s in a kind of limbo. It looks like Grand Central Station, but bigger and somehow less real (like a movie set, he explains). And, he adds, there are a million ways out. Gateways to other worlds… but which one to choose? He’s “living” in a dream, where anything is possible.

King says that two of the stories in the Just After Sunset collection essentially wrote themselves. He dreamed them, woke up and wrote them down – striving, no doubt, to capture the “feeling” of the story told to him by his subconscious. (I use this inarticulate phrase, because that’s how David Lynch describes it… and if it’s good enough for David Lynch, it's good enough for me.) It’s also what I’ve done with several of my own short stories that I’m most proud of – the ones that capture the “feeling” of the dream I'm trying to remember, the reality that exists in my head. “The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” reminds me of a story that I wrote when I was a teenager. It was called “Gate 13” and it focused on a dead man who didn’t know he was dead, and so sat waiting at a bus station for the unknown to arrive. He didn’t know where he was going, or even why he was going. He knew only one thing: “It is time.”

Accomplished writers, I think, are writers who dream as they write. They let their subconscious do most of the work. They write convincing stories because, when they are writing, they genuinely believe in the world they’re writing about. It’s as real as the chair they’re sitting in. More real than that, actually… because, when we wake up from powerful dreams, the dreams seem more real than what we’re waking up to. To define fiction writing as active "day-dreaming" is an easy and boring cliché (no more articulate than talking about the “feeling” of a story), but it’s true: Writers are people who can dream while they’re awake.

The other dream story in King’s collection is called “Harvey’s Dream.” It’s entirely about a feeling of dread – a feeling that two worlds are about to overlap, and not for the better. There’s something of that same feeling in the short story “N.” which is King's ode to Arthur Machen – but this one doesn’t work as well for me, because it feels too literary and not dreamlike. (Then again, for my money, that's true of many of Machen's stories… and, while we’re at it, many of Lovecraft's stories too.) Two years ago, on New Years Day, I wrote a story that was a lot like “Harvey’s Dream.” It revolved around a writer who goes shopping with his wife and daughter instead of staying home to write. At the mall, his mind wanders and he sees a girl who looks exactly like his daughter – except that she has brown hair instead of blond. At that moment, he realizes that his daughter is missing. Instead of panicking, he approaches the lookalike and asks if she can help him find his daughter. The lookalike says, “Most people don’t talk to me. They don’t think I’m real.” The writer responds, “I know you’re real, because I write about things like you.”

It’s a ghost story, I suppose… but the way I wrote it, the story is more about the writer’s perception of reality than about the objective reality of ghosts. The writer is (to use a phrase adopted by a good friend of mine who knows all about waking dreams) “time-walking.” He allows the two worlds to overlap. That’s the secret.

1 comment:

  1. I'm behind on my Stephen King, especially his short stories (where I really think he shines). Great post, Joe.