My Review of Stephen King’s The Outsider

On a whim, last week, I bought Stephen King’s The Outsider while I flew from California to Iowa. Now I’ll say up front that I have some ambivalence about Stephen King. He has trouble writing women who don’t fit the 1970s tropes. (Even his most bad-assed heroines still pull their fingers and bite their lips, and say things like “Ooough!” and “Hold it right there, mister.”) On top of that, I have trouble with some of King’s gratuitous vulgarity. (Such as the sex scene in IT, and the pistol scene in the first book of The Dark Tower, and the nearly inevitable animal violence that crops up every which way.) But considering all of that, I think King can build a locale like nobody’s business. I admit that he can create a genuine sense of dread. And finally, the more I see how his books connect, the more I respect him for his staggering sense of scope. For me, Stephen King is usually a better storyteller than he is a writer. But the world needs storytellers—so props to him.

So The Outsider surprised me. (Minor spoilers here.) The story is about a boy’s horrific rape and murder. The story goes into all the spooky directions that King calls home. But before it gets there, it spends nearly half the book empathizing—that’s the word—with every character in the story. You have the detectives and the DA who make a public arrest that becomes more and more doubtful. You have the arrested man, and his family, and the media’s court of public opinion. You have the victim’s family. In short, you have this whole gamut of folks whom King puts, individually, into the palm of his hand, so that you can see them as the terrified, conflicted, and basically decent people that they turn out to be. This means that the first half of The Outsiders is a character study of community tragedy. It’s deep, and it’s humane, and in that sense it is more literary than King usually is. It speaks, in fact, for justice.

If you aren’t paying attention—or don’t want to let it register—you might miss an instance at the very beginning of the book, when two black kids see the police, and run. They’ve got no reason to do so, other than the fact that they fear the cops. The police have nothing to do with these kids—because, in fact, they’re on their way to arrest their prime suspect. The moment is just a vignette; the kids never show up in the narrative again. But here they serve as a prologue for a book that is, at least in part, about cops making a bad arrest and trying to decide how far they’ll go to condemn an increasingly-innocent-looking guy, just to avoid bad press. And in this sense, of course, the kids do show up– again and again, throughout every convolution of this case.

Is The Outsider a good book? Well, it’s good in a pulpy sort of way. But unlike a lot of King, you get more from this narrative than you pay for. The Outsider offers two stories that center on humanity and monstrosity, each. And because of King’s careful focus on humanity, the first story will haunt you at least as long as the one about the eventual bogeyman.

HP Lovecraft’s Deepest Fear

Having just studied a bit about the eugenics movement, I’ve been thinking of HP Lovecraft and his xenophobia. Much of his horror writing centers on the Other, of course—be that something from another dimension, or the deep, or even the otherness in the self. One of the most chilling details I know about Lovecraft is that after spending his life obsessed about tentacled horrors, the man died at age 46, of that terrible invader, cancer. But a still more disturbing aspect of his stories is his fear of the other races within humanity—the swamp tribes, and the jungle cults, and all the other ululating “primitives.” And if that isn’t enough, check out Lovecraft’s poetry, which involves these lines from 1912: ” A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure/Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N-gger.”

I won’t say any more on the subject. I don’t want to. And if you know Lovecraft at all, you’re aware that there’s plenty more terrible where that stuff came from. My overall feeling of Lovecraft is that he is the antithesis of the Transcendentalist—someone who looks at the wilderness, and finds not an oversoul but an underspite, where humanity is not sublime but actually destined to be subsumed into the great awful (without the e). Lovecraft was part of the post-Transcendentalist movement that feared what nature held, where scientists (such as Henry Goddard) looked for bestial traits in the so-called lower races. In this way, Lovecraft both inherited and propelled the racist attitudes of his time. But with that anxiety, his fiction does an interesting thing. An anthropologist stumbles upon a tribe of brown people, and he discovers them in ritual conversation with a relic. He becomes imprisoned in their fecund swamps, and he finds them in contact with an Old One—the true reality—a god.

In other words, if much of Lovecraft focuses on the blissful ignorance that (white) humans enjoy while they build their civilizations on the surface of the deep, the ones who know (at least more of) the truth are Lovecraft’s social “degenerates.” More often than not, it’s the white man who doesn’t have a clue*.

Does this excuse Lovecraft? Not in the least. In fact, it makes him worse. Because this revelation pokes at the very anxiety that makes Lovecraft’s writing so dangerous. In other words, Lovecraft’s most persistent assertions show that 1) all along, the elite white man has been wrong, and that 2) the other man—the so-called degenerate man—has more power than Whitey can even imagine.

To the white supremacists, civilization belongs to them. They are the outpost against savagery. You can hear it even now in the Trumpers’ rhetoric about outsiders destroying our City on a Hill. They fear their temporality, their sudden overthrow, a return to a time when dominance does not belong to them. They fear when power rests in the hands of the people they ignored, at best—if not outright colonized and oppressed. Lovecraft’s greatest material still circulates in slightly-different verbiage on FOX News, where, these days, Cthulhu has something in common with Allah. And as the white conservative clutches her heirloom pearls and her blood diamonds, she fears for her culture, yes. But deep down, she also fears that everything she believes is wrong.

*But, you say, “The Dunwich Horror” is all about white New Englanders.  And that’s true, until you look at the cultists’ “fishy” physiognomy of bulging eyes and prominent lips. That, and although Lovecraft was concerned about preserving whiteness in general, he was especially interested in aristocratic whiteness. Hence his stories about pure families  cross-breeding themselves into squalor. It’s typical of bigotry how Lovecraft’s desire to protect whiteness narrows to his desire to protect certain kinds of whiteness.

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin showed that a writer could write seriously, and with serious literary heft, about other worlds. And as what happens when you take such worlds seriously, she showed us our own. Among other things, she spoke for women, and she spoke for hope, and she spoke about how hopeful women didn’t have to give a crap about things that didn’t matter. She found the numinous without ever naming it. She just showed it in the beauty, and the imagination, and the variety that resides in character, predicament, and place. Perhaps not least, she knew how to write about love. I will miss her. I’d like to have met her. And in the world of my doorstop of a book, I think I’ll make her a saint somewhere—never encountered, or even described, but revered: Ursula the Dreamer.

(Originally posted January 23, 2017)

Net Neutrality

So the predatory rich have worked for years now to control information. You can see this everywhere from cable news networks, to for-profit universities, to robocall and social media campaigns that spread misinformation. By stifling net neutrality and allowing companies to regulate both internet speed and content, they are, again, tying information to the highest bidder. This is like taking the backdoor to kill freedom of speech. Under the net-killers’ scheme, anyone could say whatever they wanted, but the only ones to hear it would be those who paid for a ticket to the right hall.

In my novel about an oppressive church, students have to stand around their seated master while he teaches. This is to keep the information insular, because the church has realized that information is power. My novel’s world crumbles to war, on account of propaganda, so-called heresy, and revelation. The church names enemies; the church names crimes and penalties; and anyone who tries to assert information to the contrary is added to the church’s list. My protagonists are scholars, back-alley teachers, and information thieves. I’ve taken my inspiration from the Reformation, the reigns of Ivan the Terrible, and the Soviet gulag. But if the Trump administration continues on its path, then I–and other artists, and journalists, and profs–will also speak both from and to this country, while for the first time in maybe ever, it begins to post guards at the doors to the largest library the world has ever seen.

(Originally posted November 22, 2017)

Love Hurts

This scathing review of a beautiful book makes me love Moby Dick even more.

“This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed … The result is, at all events, a most provoking book, — neither so utterly extravagant as to be entirely comfortable, nor so instructively complete as to take place among documents on the subject of the Great Fish, his capabilities, his home and his capture. Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us with indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise…

We have little more to say in reprobation or in recommendation of this absurd book … Mr. Melville has to thank himself only if his horrors and his heroics are flung aside by the general reader, as so much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature — since he seems not so much unable to learn as disdainful of learning the craft of an artist.”

(Originally posted September 8, 2017)

Tack vs. Taste

I have a beef with horror writers. I’m frequently reading them, because although I’m not a horror writer myself, I think you have to be a master at timing and imagination to pull a horror story off. In fact, when I do read horror stories, I’m usually disappointed. This isn’t because I’m so tough to scare, really, but because I find that many horror writers (or film makers) take the low road into disturbia. I dropped a book and a movie last week, because in the opening scenes, both protagonists have a pet dog. The book was The Tommyknockers (because I was in the mood for some junk food) and the movie was The Babdook (which is supposed to be really good). Bad things happen to both dogs. In horror stories, dogs never have it good. And they aren’t the only victims. In early April I sat through It Follows. It turns out that despite the hype, this is not a frightening film–in part because the girl-running/crying/screaming-in-underwear thing is so obtrusive. Yes, one can make a brilliant argument that this film is about surviving sexual assault, but the guy who wrote it denies that something so deep was one his mind. (Sex and death, he said. They just go together.) Right. That, and you’ll score a cheap shudder if you make our contemplation of both into a kind of voyeurism. 

More examples: The Hills Have Eyes (remake) is something I’ve never seen, because the writer decided to include an infant in his journey through irradiated hell. I will never touch more of the The Dark Tower, on account of the protagonist’s hateful scene involving a woman and a gun. China Mieville’s The Census Taker is so full of eloquent ugly that I can’t get through it. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, is wonderful, except for that little dalliance with (again) a dog. And from my reading desk, I can bring myself only to glance at Blood Meridian, which I must read, but fear. 

Dearies, I am not a literary prude. My library includes everything from a 13th-century grimoire on how to summon demons to a photo essay on the the obscenity of lynching. I have an actual Evil section of my collection. But if I ever have the chance to teach young writers for just a moment, I will start by telling them that although fiction is beautiful because anything goes, everything must go for a reason. Any insignificant detail is a waste; that’s God’s own truth. But a random, shocking detail is flat-out tawdry. At best it’s a fun house, and at worst it’s a kind of hostility toward one’s own subject matter. Norman Mailer wrote The Castle in the Forest—which is a novel about Satan and young Hitler—and it has such vulgarity to spare that I lost interest even in that story. That novel has a demon for a narrator. And Mailer might say that such a voice lets vulgarity come naturally. But that is the very heart of my point: You can’t degrade the world without being at least somewhat life-hating, self-serving and essentially demonic. If you involve the torture of animals, or children, or any other kind of innocent, you best earn that detail, both before and after. Otherwise, you’re just asking for attention—which means, essentially, that you’re selling out. And beyond that, you’re breaking the one rule that may be the cornerstone of all good writing. You have got to respect everything—every thing—that you put on the page.

(Originally posted May 11, 2017)